Sea of Souls by N. C. Scrimgeour
Series: Sea of Souls Saga
Genre: Dark Fantasy/Folklore Fantasy
Intended Age Group: Adult
Published: August 4, 2023
Publisher: Alcruix Press (Self Published)
Dark be the water, and darker still the creatures that lurk within…
Free-spirited Isla Blackwood has never accepted the shackles of her family’s nobility. Instead, she sails the open waters, searching for belonging on the waves.
But when tragedy calls Isla home, she realises she can no longer escape the duty she’s been running from. Selkie raiders have been terrorising the island’s coasts, and when they strike at Blackwood Estate, Isla is forced to flee with her hot-headed brother and brooding swordmaster.
To avenge her family and reclaim her home, Isla will have to set aside old grudges and join forces with an exiled selkie searching for a lost pelt. The heirloom might be the key to stopping the bloody conflict—but only if they can steal it from the island’s most notorious selkie hunter, the Grand Admiral himself.
Caught between a promise to the brother she once left behind and an unlikely friendship with the selkie who should have been her enemy, Isla soon realises the open seas aren’t the only treacherous waters she’ll need to navigate.
As enemies close in on all sides, she must decide once and for all where her loyalties lie if she wants to save what’s left of her family—and find the belonging she’s been searching for.
Universal Link: https://mybook.to/SeaOfSouls
Author Bio & Information
N. C. Scrimgeour is a science fiction and fantasy author whose books focus on character-driven stories in vibrant worlds, from folklore fantasy to space opera.
After completing her Masters in English Literature, she went on to work in journalism and marketing and communications while pursuing her passion in writing.
When she’s not writing, she enjoys playing story-driven RPGs, watching and reading all things science fiction and fantasy, and getting outdoors with the dog for a good walk!
Dark be the water, and darker still the creatures that lurk within.
No matter how many times the old seadog pushed away from port, he never forgot the truth of those words. Ask any sailor worth their salt and they’d say the same: the open water with all its swells and storms wasn’t half as dangerous as what was beneath it. He’d learned to live with the fear, but it never went away. It remained a cold whisper at the back of his skull, reminding him what dwelt out there.
Tonight, the late-summer sea lay flat and still, and the stars glinted bright and clear. The seadog knew better than to trust favourable weather and a sturdy hull to keep him safe. He knew how quickly the fickle wind could turn. But for now the crossing was smooth, and he allowed himself to dream of home.
By the time he realised his mistake, it was already too late.
It was a sailor’s superstition, and an old one at that, but it stuck with him. He should have known better than to think of home before Silveckan’s shoreline was in sight. It was too much like tempting fate, daring the terrors in the depths to stop him reaching port.
Dark be the water, and darker still the creatures that lurk within. He knew those creatures well. They left nothing in their wake but a ship’s carcass and the bloated bodies of those lucky enough not to be dragged to the depths.
Aye, the old seadog should have known better than to believe nothing more than waves would come knocking at the hull.
The first sign was the change in the wind. It was too quick, too deliberate. It sent a troubling chill through his bones, cold enough to make his remaining teeth chatter. The flag thumped in protest at the top of the mast, billowing in on itself before unfurling in the opposite direction. In the moment it took him to regret his fleeting thoughts of home, everything changed.
His eyes were weary, but he could still make out the shift on the horizon. A curtain of rain crawled towards the ship, blocking out the stars. As he watched, it grew, stretching across the hazy line between sky and sea.
The roar of thousands of droplets thundered across the water, bouncing off the waves until all at once they hit the deck. The seadog’s ears rang with the pattering as the crew screamed orders back and forth, their cries devoured by the howling of the wind.
Running would not save them. His folly had made certain of that.
He peered into the water. The waves leapt angrily, throwing themselves into the hull as if the ship had somehow scorned them. The water was black under the pall of storm clouds, the tips of the waves frothing like the jaws of a rabid animal. They had no port to make berth in, no weapons to defend against what was coming. Not even a sentinel could save them now, even if they’d been so lucky to have one aboard.
Beneath him, the hull creaked and groaned. It had begun.
The seadog stood on the deck, the biting wind reddening his face and freezing the coarse grey whiskers on his cheeks. He looked out at the water on which he’d spent so much of his life. The water he’d known could claim him any time it wanted. It might have been a comfort to him, like being reunited with an old friend, were it not for what lurked underneath.
The ship had already begun to surrender to the storm’s fury. The crunch of timber filled his ears as the deck splintered and pools of dark water seeped in around his ankles. Long, lithe shadows shot past beneath the waves, circling the drifting carcass of the ship.
The water was at his waist. It wouldn’t be long now.
If there were screams amongst the wind, he couldn’t hear them. Nobody could hear them, not here, so far from the haven of dry land.
The shadows slunk closer. Their prize was within reach. The seadog looked around, the icy water lapping at his chin, and saw the last of his crew disappearing one by one beneath the waves.
The creatures would show no mercy. It was not in a selkie’s nature to show mercy.
At long last, a strong pair of jaws sank around his ankle, crunching through flesh and bone. The old seadog drew a final breath and filled his head with thoughts of the shoreline he’d recklessly yearned for, the shoreline he’d never see again.
The surface vanished. Salty water filled his lungs. He thrashed, then fell silent, and the black depths swallowed him whole.
Seven years ago, the sea called to Isla Blackwood, and she answered.
It shamed her to admit it, but leaving Silveckan’s shores was the easiest decision she’d ever made. She’d gulped down the breeze, filling her lungs with salty air, relishing the sharpness of it. She’d tasted the spray on her lips and swallowed it along with the promise of the horizon. The promise of something out of reach, waiting for her to claim it.
On any other day, the memory might have made her smile. The way she’d cast off adolescence like a set of old furs she no longer needed. The way she’d swept up the gangway onto the deck as if whisked there by the bitter, burlin’ wind that came in from the east that morning. The way she’d looked out over the waves to the edge of the world and thought to herself, Aye, this is where I’m meant to be.
But Isla couldn’t smile. Not today. She held a crumpled letter in her fist, its words burning like a brand against her palm. The ink had long since smudged; her compulsive opening and scrunching of the parchment had left it a tattered, wretched thing. Each time she peeled back the folds, she hoped the letters might have changed, as if by some impossible magic they’d rewritten themselves into sentences free from the pain they held. Each time, Isla was left disappointed. Even with the ink bleeding and blotched, she knew the words contained within. She’d committed them to memory, every hopeless scribble.
The sickness has taken root again, her mother had written. I’m afraid this time it is entrenched too deep for the doctors to dig out. My only wish, dear Isla, is for you to return. I won’t ask you to remain forever; that is an anchor I will never burden you with again. All I want is to see you one last time before this affliction takes me. There is something I must tell you, something I should have told you long ago, and it requires words a quill cannot do justice to. Come home, my child. Allow me to give you the gift I have kept from you for too long, before it is too late for us both.
The letter had been waiting for her the last time the Ondasta docked. Isla didn’t know how long the dispatch lad had been carrying it, waiting for the winds to bring them back to port so he might pass it on for a handful of copper coins. All she knew was by the time it reached her hands, it was already too late.
“You look troubled, my friend.” Lucrezia joined her on the quarterdeck, a pewter tankard in her hand. “Is it the weather? I never knew the air could get so cold while staying so damp. Here, take this. It will warm you up, if nothing else.”
Isla brought the tankard to her lips, bracing herself for the stale tang of whatever ale Lucrezia had dug up. She took a sip, surprised to find the liquid oaked and pleasantly smooth, a far cry from the swill the bosun usually brought her. “Is this wine? Cap’n will have your head if you pinched this from the stores, Luc.”
“Not just any wine.” A gleam of mischief brightened Lucrezia’s eyes. “A vintage from Breçhon, no less. Oh, wipe that horror off your face, will you? It was the captain’s idea. Call it a parting gift.”
The gesture was a kind one, not to mention expensive. Isla should have been able to muster some semblance of gratitude for it. But Lucrezia’s casual uttering of parting gift sent a pang of resentment through her, as sharp and swift as a blade between the ribs. For the first time in seven years, the tides were carrying her towards Silveckan. Towards home, whatever that meant now. All because of the ink-stained piece of parchment enclosed in her fist. A summoning Isla would never—could never—have ignored.
A summoning she was already too late for.
Lucrezia must have noticed the look cross her face, for her expression quickly sobered. “We’re making good time. As long as the winds stay with us, I’m sure we’ll—”
“No,” Isla said. “We won’t.”
The night was clear, with no mists or clouds to obscure the constellations mapping the skies above. But the stars were not the only lights in the darkness. Isla had spotted something in the distance—a faint glow above the choppy waters, sending shattered reflections dancing across the waves. An orb of light hovered there, flickering and ethereal, bobbing like the sea beneath it.
Lucrezia followed her gaze, her brows knitting together. “What is that?”
“A spirit,” Isla replied, her voice scratching. “There are many names for it, but in common Silvish, it’s known as a will-o’-the-wisp.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Depends who you ask. Some say it lures unsuspecting travellers to untimely deaths, that it pulls captains off their course and dashes their ships against the rocks. Others say they’re an omen. The light from a soul extinguished in the mortal world.”
“You don’t think…” Lucrezia paled. “Isla, you can’t believe this has anything to do with your mother.”
Isla took another long sip of wine, relishing the warmth spreading through her chest and the light haze clouding her head. The will-o’-the-wisp drifted in the breeze, its ghostly light so faint Isla thought it might disappear the next time she blinked. Perhaps she could fool herself into believing it was a trick of the light, an unnatural reflection of the moon bouncing off the waves. Perhaps she would sail into Caolaig in the morning and find her mother as she remembered her from all those years ago—rosy-cheeked and high-spirited, whirling from room to room as if carried by a wild wind.
Still, the will-o’-the-wisp lingered, its pale light fading and brightening like the rhythm of a harbour torch. She couldn’t deny what it was, or the message it brought her. Silveckan was an old land filled with old magic. If this was how her island saw fit to welcome her home, she would be foolish to ignore it.
Isla glanced at Lucrezia. The bosun’s eyes were full of pity. Isla didn’t need pity. She needed the winds to unfurl and whisk them back to a time before the dispatch lad pressed that wretched parchment into her hand. She needed the Ondasta to skip over the waves and arrive in port yesterday. She needed the impossible.
“My mother is dead,” Isla said, and dumped the rest of her tankard into the churning waters below.
The next morning, Isla woke to the sound of rain. It pattered off the deck above her cabin, rousing her from sleep with the steady rhythm. By the time she pulled on her boots and climbed the ladder leading up from the crew quarters, the deck had become slick and slippery underfoot. She worked her way towards the bow, steadying herself with a hand on the gunwale. If this was to be her last day on the Ondasta, she wouldn’t tarnish it with a careless fall.
A drizzly veil hung from the clouds, obscuring Silveckan’s coast in the distance. If the will-o’-the-wisp hadn’t been enough of a sign she was home, the weather had made certain of it. Damp and dreich, with a chill in the air that seeped through her skin. A cold reminder of what she was coming back to.
“So this is Silveckan.” Lucrezia appeared beside her with a look of bemusement. “I certainly see why you’ve never been tempted to return before now.”
“You should see it in the winter.”
“I’d rather not.” Lucrezia shuddered. “The sooner we’re back in the Adrenian Sea, the better. There’s something in the air here that makes me wonder if I’ll ever feel warm again.”
Isla didn’t say anything. She’d already felt the change as the island loomed ever nearer. The golden colouring that Vesnia’s sun had kissed her with had long since faded during the crossing; her skin had turned bone-pale once more, so leached of colour she could see the blue-green webbing of her veins underneath. The wind had bitten her lips dry, leaving them sore and starting to crack. She hadn’t even stepped ashore and already Silveckan was laying claim to her, leaving its mark across her skin.
“We should head to the aft deck,” Lucrezia said. “Captain says your village port is too small for the Ondasta to dock in, so she’s sending us over in the tender.”
“You’re coming too?”
Lucrezia shrugged, a small smile spreading across her lips. “Someone has to take the tender back, don’t they? I suppose you’ll have to bear my company a little longer.”
A bittersweet swell of emotion rose in Isla’s chest as she said her farewells to the captain and crew. The Ondasta had been her home these last few years. The ship had taken her to ports across the breadth of the Adrenian coast, to places she’d never imagined. She’d slept in the wooden belly of its hull, climbed its proud rigging, examined navigational charts under the moonlight on deck. It had promised her more than the still, unchanging stone of her family’s coastal estate ever could. It had carried her towards the piece of herself that had always been missing, lingering just out of reach. The piece of herself that, after seven years at sea, she’d still been unable to find.
Now, it carried her back to Silveckan. As much as she loved the Ondasta, Isla couldn’t help but resent it a little for that.
The tender skimmed easily across the waves towards Caolaig’s main jetty. The rain thinned into a light drizzle, misting Isla’s face and clinging to the loose strands of her braid. She could see the cliffs now; they rose from the water in pillars of grey, speckled by scores of seabirds nesting in their crooks and crevices. Snow-white gannets and bright-beaked puffins cawed and chattered across the breeze, heralding them to shore. Below them, the waves dashed against the surrounding sea stacks in a gentle roar, the sound sending a shiver skittering down Isla’s spine.
That was when she saw it. The selkie.
Isla instinctively signed a ward of protection. An old habit, one steeped more in superstition than any practical use. She was no sentinel. The tides-gifted magic didn’t run through her blood, no matter how many years she’d spent wishing it did. She couldn’t cast an enchantment to stop the creature in its tracks or summon the waves to take them to safety. If the selkie attacked the tender, only a blade or a well-placed shot would stop it.
But the beast didn’t move. It lay on a rock, its dappled grey-and-black fur damp from the spray, its flippers splayed out beneath the curve of its belly. It stared at her with beady eyes, its long whiskers flicking as it bared the pink of its mouth in a wide yawn.
Isla released a breath and allowed her shoulders to loosen. It was a common harbour seal, nothing more. The animal basked on the rock in plain sight, too brazen to be one of the skinchangers. Selkies hunted in packs, lurking in the cloak of mists or the chaos of a storm. On land, they shed their pelts and struck from the darkness, never revealing themselves until it was too late. They were too cautious—too cunning—to risk themselves in the open like the creatures they masqueraded as.
Still, Isla couldn’t help the touch of dread wrapping its fingers around her heart. She was no stranger to monsters. The Ondasta was the pride of the Vesnian Tidesguard, protecting the Adrenian coastline from the dangers of the deep—storm harpies, sea serpents, a nasty infestation of sirens one summer. But nothing chilled her skin like the things that lurked in the waters of home. It was easy to forget the prickle of fear out in the warmth of the Adrenian Sea. Now, she no longer had that luxury.
“Approaching our mooring,” Lucrezia called, picking up a thick length of rope and positioning herself at the edge of the tender. She slung a loop towards the dock, coiling it around the iron cleat and pulling them in close. As soon as the hull brushed against the jetty, Lucrezia hopped out, grunting as she worked the rope back and forth to secure a well-formed knot.
Isla followed, accepting her hand as the bosun helped her onto the slippery wooden surface of the jetty. “I’ll miss you, Luc.”
“Of course you will.” Lucrezia snorted and pushed her hair from her eyes. “You’ve never worked with a better bosun, nor are you likely to.”
“Ever the braggart.”
“Ever honest is what I say.” Lucrezia flashed a wide grin. “For what it’s worth, I’ll miss you too. You’ve been a good navigator, but an even better friend. Replacing one of those things is considerably easier to do than the other. Speaking of which…” She jumped into the tender, rummaging for a small lockbox stowed under the bench. “I have something for you. Seemed only right you had one of your own after all we’ve been through.”
Isla took the wooden box in her hands and snapped open the clasps on the side. The lid slid back with a push of her thumbs. Inside, nestled in a simple white cloth, was the most beautiful pistol Isla had ever seen. The curved stock was a deep mahogany set with mother-of-pearl plating, and the silver metal of the barrel was etched with an intricate, swirling pattern, glinting in the dull light.
Isla brushed her fingers over it. “Luc, I can’t accept this. This is the pistol the cap’n gave you when she made you bosun.”
“And now I’m giving it to you.” Lucrezia folded her arms. “I’d feel better knowing you had it. If you don’t have your crew to protect you anymore, this will do the job instead. Or do you want all those lessons to go to waste?”
Isla lifted the pistol from the box. It smelled faintly of black powder, and the stock felt warm despite the dampness in the air, as if Lucrezia’s grip still lingered around it. The curve fit Isla’s hand like it was meant to be there as she brushed her thumb over the smooth polished wood.
“Thank you,” she said, fixing Lucrezia with a solemn gaze. “For everything.”
Lucrezia pulled her into a fierce hug and pressed a kiss against her cheek. “Use it well, though I pray you’ll never need to.” She let go of Isla’s arms, her smile painfully wide across her face. “Goodbye, my friend. What is it you say in Silvish? If tides be kind, we’ll see each other again.”
“If tides be kind,” Isla echoed. She stowed the pistol and lockbox in her pack and watched from the jetty as the tender slipped away. The rain picked up again, pockmarking the waves with ripples. She could barely make out the Ondasta’s dark silhouette through the downpour. She wouldn’t see it weigh anchor and fill its sails. She wouldn’t see the retreating stern as it diminished in the distance.
Though if the wrench of pain in her chest was anything to go by, perhaps that was for the best.
After a while, Isla tore her eyes from the end of the jetty and walked towards the harbourfront. Caolaig hadn’t changed much in the years she’d been gone. The small fishing village bustled with activity, awash with sounds so painfully familiar that Isla almost forgot how long she’d gone without hearing them. The scraping of wooden langoustine creels being piled up and emptied, water dripping from the rope netting. The frantic Silvish spoken back and forth between the fishers and the market merchants, the language soft and rhotic compared to the Vesnian dialects Isla had grown accustomed to. The mewling cries from the seabirds circling overhead, waiting to swoop down on any scraps that had carelessly fallen.
Nobody recognised her as she traipsed through the centre of the village, her pack heavy on her shoulder. Not that Isla was particularly disappointed—or surprised. She’d been a lassie of only eighteen when she’d left, and life on the open water had changed her as much as the passing years. The scorching sun left her with smattered freckles across her forehead and the bridge of her nose, lingering as her skin paled. Her cheeks were thinner than they used to be, her limbs lean and wiry after seven years of hard work and modest ship rations. If her less-than-refined appearance made it easier to avoid questions from well-meaning locals, all the better.
Isla lifted her gaze to the steep green-and-grey face of the surrounding crags. The rough-cut steps carved into the cliffside led to a winding coastal path that would take her to the summit. To Blackwood Estate.
She began the climb. The trail wound up the cliffs, the grass soon giving way to rocks and stones, as if the green skin were peeling back to reveal ancient bones beneath. The memory of the wisp seemed distant now, like a dream fading with the light of dawn. Maybe it hadn’t been an omen after all. Maybe it was by unhappy chance that a ghost-light had found itself blown out to sea. It didn’t mean her mother was dead. It didn’t mean…
“Isla? Is that you?”
She looked up at the voice. The man in front of her could have been a stranger. Long gone were the scrawny shoulders and awkward posture of the fifteen-year-old brother she’d left behind. Lachlan Blackwood had sprouted tall and grown into the chiselled edge of his jawline, the sharp ridge of his nose. When he saw her, his tawny eyes brightened, and Isla caught a glimpse of the boy she’d chased and scrapped with and tormented with forbidden bedtime stories of howling cù-sìth and shadowy brollachan.
Then grief twisted his expression, and it was all she needed to know.
“I came as soon as I saw the sails,” Lachlan said, his voice tight. “I’ve never seen a ship that size this far north. I expected you’d make berth in Arburgh and charter a fishing boat to bring you home.”
“The cap’n is a kind sort. I’ve worked hard for her over these last few years, and she granted me a favour.” Isla broke off, her throat thickening. “When I received the letter, she… I mean, I tried to…”
Lachlan dropped his head, his eyes glittering, and Isla’s heart shattered.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I was too late.”
Lachlan hesitated, then stepped forward, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her into the shelter of his chest. It was a gesture neither of them knew how to lean into, one missing years of practice, and Isla couldn’t help but hate herself a little for it. Everything about her brother was new and unfamiliar. The short, pushed-back crop of golden hair, no longer sleek and braided. The faded white scar down the side of his chin. Her memories of him scattered with the next gust of wind, and all she was left with was a man she’d missed the chance to know.
“Are you staying?” Lachlan pulled back, fixing her with a pointed look she remembered all too well.
It was the worst thing he could have asked. A thousand excuses and explanations dried up on Isla’s tongue, leaving her with no words to offer. She didn’t know the answer. All she had was a scrunched piece of parchment that had called her back when nothing else could.
The worst part wasn’t that she only had herself to blame; it was that she’d do it all over again. Nothing could have stopped her getting on that ship seven years ago. It was only now she was back that she realised how much of a betrayal that might have been to the brother she’d left behind.
Lachlan looked away. The corner of his mouth pulled into a strained smile, and he placed a gentle kiss on the top of her forehead. “Forget I asked. It doesn’t matter. I’m just glad you’re home, Isla.”
“Me too,” she managed, the lie burning her throat on the way out.
After all, if this was home, why had it always felt so wrong to be here?