The hermit crab scuttled along the rail of the rowboat. The creature was oblivious that the boat itself was on the move, making its way silently across the calm water and through the fog. The crab edged forward, focusing on its own pointless journey, seemingly unaware of the ten men in the boat; four of whom were carefully and expertly using the oars to force the vessel through the uncharacteristically calm sea.
The nearest of the crew placed his dagger flush with the top of the boat’s side and the crab moved on to it. The man lifted the blade toward his face and flipped it over; the crab danced to the upright side of the blade.
“You’re doomed, little one, you just don’t know it… until it’s too late,” said the dagger-wielder in a low growl, and then flipped the creature into his scarred mouth, and bit down with a crunch.
“By Manann’s gills, shut it, Fischner, you know sound carries on water!” hissed one of the rowers, an older man with a grey-plaited beard. The other eight crew murmured in agreement.
“Admiral Houghhoff put me in charge, not you, Ghenz,” spat back Fischner. “You’ve had plenty of opportunities to lead, but you didn’t step up, so make way, and don’t challenge my authority again… old coot.”
“Aye, could ’ave led a raid, it’s true. But some of us are happier holding a cutlass and taking their share o’ the plunder, rather than a share o’ the glory, Fischner. There’s a reason I’ve lived longer than you all. So, take my advice, and shut that mangled mouth!”
Fischner was about to retort, when the nearest crewman nudged him in the side and pointed. Out of the fog, a ship came into a view, its sleek silhouette gave way to a hull covered in barnacles and in a state of disrepair. It looked Bretonnian in aspect, but with an old-fashioned hull, compared to the ships of Leoncoeur’s current fleet.
All was quiet as the rowboat approached, no look-outs on deck sounded an alarm as the boat thudded against the hull of the larger ship. As silently as they could the small group swung their rappel lines, throwing them up to latch on the balustrade of the main deck. The raiders shimmied up the ropes as easily as they did the rigging of their own ship. Fischner was the first over the rail, quickly followed by his crew-mates vaulting into an aggressive stance with cutlasses in hand.
They were met with silence. The only thing on deck other than themselves were wisps of mist.
“Spread out,” ordered Fischner. “Find where the crew are lurking, and what cargo’s on board. This might be our easiest haul yet. I’ll get first mate for this!”
“Something ain’t right,” said Ghenz, “smell the salt, I don’t like it.”
“You’re always sour, looking for ill-omens when it’s clear they’ve just abandoned ship. Stop moaning and find me their treasure.”
The raiders fanned out across the deck, with blades raised. Fischner took three toward the bow, while Ghenz went aft with three more of his crew-mates. The remaining two began searching the centre of the ship around the main mast.
“Sea-baked fool, he’ll end up merwyrm bait…” chuntered Ghenz as they approached the sterncastle. They stopped and looked at the structure that raised off the main deck to fill out the back of the ship. It was gaudy, even for a Bretonnian design. Ghenz noted how the poop was fashioned more like a theatrical stage than that of a working deck. It was an observation that bothered the old sea dog, but he couldn’t work out why. He urged his crew-mates onwards to the door of the main cabin.
Ghenz reached for the door handle and was surprised to find it slimy and covered in seaweed. The cabin wall and even the deck they stood on was damp, perhaps not a surprise for a lost ship at sea, but still, the ocean was as calm as a garden pond, you needed tall waves to reach this far in-deck. Slowly, Ghenz opened the door and entered, his three crewmates held back.
“Cravens,” he called behind. The inside was lavish but sodden. Ghenz saw a great parlour dominated by a grandiose dresser on which a mirror, cracked and stained, rested. Tiny droplets rested on the mirror’s surface. Beside the dresser was a perch on which crouched a rhesus monkey, its sharp-fanged teeth bared. Ghenz gave a start on seeing the vicious-looking mangy-furred primate, and raised his sword, but the creature didn’t attack. It remained statue-still. Stuffed – thank the Seafather, he thought. Dismissing his relief, Ghenz looked around, desperate to find something of value to justify leaving. It was then he glanced upon the wall and saw the name plate of the ship. He read it, and the blood within his veins turned to ice. He was one of the few of Houghhoff’s crew that could read, but now he wished he had remained ignorant.
“The Lamprey,” he whispered in terror, as he looked upon the sign again. Underneath the legend was a scrawl in red ink, it was faded but Ghenz could make it out:
For my adoring audience.
He left the cabin at a pace, barging into his crew-mates as if fired from a pistol. Ignoring them, he carried on at a panicked and clumsy gait, back toward the point they had boarded, where the rappels were still attached to the rail. Fischner and the rest of the boarding party waited there, looking smug as Ghenz approached.
“We have to get off this ship!” stated the veteran, pushing past the others to make for a rope. Fischner’s sword blocked the way.
“What’s got you rattled, old man?”
Ghenz brought up his own sword.
“Get out of my way!”
“Why? What’s the rush?” said Fischner as he lowered his cutlass and strutted around the deck. The raiders parted, listening intently. “There’s no one here. The ship is ours! A prize to take back to Houghhoff… Better yet… our ship, and I’m her skipper now. We ain’t going anywhere!”
“You don’t understand,” implored Ghenz, “we’re on The Lamprey!”
Fischner laughed. The others stifled their own chuckles, all apart from the four that had gone astern.
“Is that meant to scare us? Who gives a Sartosan beggar what the damned ship is called. It’s mine now and I’ll name her what I like.”
“Damned?!” said Ghenz looking from one crewman to the next. This ship’s damned alright. It’s The Lamprey!”
“Enlighten us, Ghenz. Why are you pissing yourself so much?” said Fischner. The others – those that had been in other parts of the ship – chuckled; none of them would have even cracked a smile at anything Fischner had said at the start of the day.
“This ship isn’t yours, Fischner, there’s only one mistress of The Lamprey.” He looked around and saw mostly blank faces, although there was a flicker of recognition in one other. “You lot haven’t roved on The Sea of Serpents, have you? Apart from me an’ Jonny Gunleg ‘ere, you’re all Sartosan-raised,” said Ghenz.
“The Lamprey hasn’t been seen in the east since she first left, if you knew of her infamy you’d be back in that rowboat before me.”
“Stop talking riddles, Ghenz or I’ll run you through,” said Fischner, raising his sword again.
“Fine! But listen well, I shan’t explain twice, it may already be too late… There was a singer –”
“Terrifying,” said Fischner. Ghenz spoke over the laughs.
“Legend has it that long ago a Bretonnian King sent his favourite court singer – a fierce lady of considerable size an’ temper – across the Great Ocean to perform for the ‘igh Elves. A treaty of great import was reliant on her pleasing the Phoenix King, for the Elves believe good art – an’ music in particular – as valuable as gems and gold.”
“That’s Elves for you!” interrupted Half-blind Barry. Ghenz shot him a fierce look that immediately silenced the heckler and continued…
“The significance of this voyage wasn’t lost on the performer – engorging her vainglory even worse than Jonny’s gammy leg!” A few of the raiders gave a chuckle, despite their surroundings. “She subjugated the galleon’s meek captain, ordering the crew to attend her needs and ‘aving those who dared incur her wrath mercilessly flogged.”
“What a weakling that captain was, I’d have put the wench in her place!” said Fischner. Ghenz forged on:
“Aye, he was feeble but then such was her dominance that weeks into the voyage, none dared gainsay her demands. Yet, while the beaten crew indulged her whims she could not control the elements. A vicious storm coalesced before the ship, blocking their route. If The Lamprey’s captain was weak before his passenger, he was still a capable seaman. He finally found ’is backbone and insisted they bypass the tempest, they would be late to Ulthuan but would surely live. He told the self-important passenger of his decision at the bow of the ship where she had come to witness the storm for herself. On hearing his orders, she grabbed the captain by the throat. Her bulk and rage giving her great strength, she cast him off the ship and into the sea, bellowing to the crew in defiance of the roiling squall. The madam was The Lamprey’s mistress now and ordered the ship forward; she would not miss her performance!”
“I thought you were in a rush?”
“If a tale’s worth tellin’, you tell it well. That’s the pirate way, not that you’d know, Fischner… The storm churned and raged. The crew ran about trying, and failin’, to keep the galleon on an even keel. The ship’s new captain stood on the prow and challenged the storm. If she could sing louder than the gale; her notes performed above the wind’s howls, then she demanded safe passage. Such was ’er mania she tried to bargain with the sea and wind!
“The singer sang, her voice beautiful and loud, but the sea smashed against the hull and the wind blew louder still. The madam’s notes turned to screams of fury. Shrill and hoarse, her precious vocal cords ruined, the ship sank, and all onboard drowned.
“As her lungs filled with seawater, she cursed the elements and the gods – such was her rage at not being able to perform. The singer vowed to return; that death was no impediment and an audience would hear her sing!”
“A good story,” conceded Fischner. “Up there with your best tales. But that’s all it is. She’s been dead centuries, if she even existed at all.” From behind Fischner came a few thuds, sounding like wet bags of sand hitting the deck.
“I ain’t finished,” said Ghenz, “they say that as she drowned, she finally made her pact. Stromfels came to her, promised immortality and taught her the ways of sea magic in exchange for becoming his emissary, the Siren of the Storm.”
“You’re full of it! You’re not the only one that’s sailed the Great Ocean, Ghenz.” More thuds landed on deck and a few of the party turned away from Fischner’s grandstanding, peering into the thickening fog. Half-blind Barry though he saw shapes around the mast that were moving slowly toward them, but, then, he couldn’t be sure, he was half-blind after all. “I have a few years under my belt, and I’ve never heard of her, what’s the wench’s name?”
“Madame Cylostra Direfin!” sang a voice. It was a feminine delivery that sounded both beautiful and horrific at the same time. Fischner and those by him recoiled, Ghenz put hands to his ears and found them to be trickling blood. More thuds, closer now, and then a man landed between them. He had fallen a great height but landed as if he made the faintest of jumps. The arrival turned to Fischner, his face cold and dead, half-rotted away and home to sea-urchins that writhed hungrily.
“Now then, matey,” it said to Fischner who was backing away in abject horror, “here’s a tip, next time you search a ship, be wise to look up on occasion,” the dead man slowly rose his head upwards, Fischner’s eyes followed and he made a gulping, panicked sound. Ghenz had been struck dumb for a second, but he too followed Fischner’s gaze. The fog above had suddenly cleared and in the rigging, he saw swarms of dead sailors, clinging to the ropes and looking down on them. Their eyes burned with blue witch-lights and some could be seen laughing; others had taken a predatory stance.
“I like him the best!” boomed the singer’s voice, and then she was there appearing through a sphere of frozen water that quickly lost its shape, splashing onto the deck. A large ethereal presence hovered before the raiders. Even in death she looked gluttonous and imposing, carrying a staff topped with a small mirror in one hand and a flabellum with a razor’s edge in the other. Cylostra pointed at Ghenz. “You’ve heard of me! I adore my fans,” she said, waving her own fan in front of her face. “You shall spend the years regaling me.”
“Madame… I serve on another crew,” said a quivering Ghenz. She waved away the objection.
“You’ll attend me for eternity. You all will!” She turned to the dead man who had landed amidst the living, then pointed at Fischner, “have that one’s soul fed to Cymbals. My pet is hungry.”
“Aye, mistress!” The urchin-faced man batted away Fischner’s sword with ease and dragged him aft. Fischner’s protests became more desperate the closer he got to the cabin. That was the last Ghenz ever saw of him.
“Have the rest drowned. Make sure they pledge their allegiance as the saltwater fills their lungs.”
“No! NO! PLEASE!” screamed Ghenz and the others, even as the zombie sailors jumped down to surround them.
“Now, there’s no need for tantrums. You were doomed the moment you boarded MY ship. You just didn’t know it… until it was too late.” Cylostra’s attention already seemed to shift, as she languidly floated toward her parlour-come-cabin. “Come, you lazy fools, get this ship moving – the show must go on!”