Fear stowed aboard his ship, like an enemy waiting to strike. Lord Askal prowled the deck, noting the signs. His men scuttled away, avoiding his sharp-eyed stare, yet he saw their furtive glances and the way they fingered handmade charms to ward against evil. Fear stalked his crew till they saw ill omens in every creak of the deck, in every luff of the sail, in every screaming seagull. Offerings to Naff dangled from the prow, bits of jewelry and gold, claimed now and then by a gray wave’s angry slap, but his crew’s alms to the sea god were for naught. The gnawing unease festered and grew, arguments erupting over the smallest insult. Already he’d lost three men to knife fights and two to careless missteps, including one swept away by a rogue wave. Fear at sea was something a MerChanter lord rarely experienced, yet he recognized the signs, like a dry rot eating his ship’s soul. Lord Askal strode to the helm, cursing his orders, knowing the only remedy was speed.
“Come two points to starboard. Keep the lines taut and the sails full, I’ll not waste a breath of wind till we reach the south.”
“Aye, captain.” The helmsman adjusted the tiller and the Dark Fin surged forward like a hungry shark.
Braced upon the deck, Lord Askal took pride in his ship’s brisk response. Square sails snapped overhead while a hundred-and-seventy oars plowed the foam-flecked sea. The mighty trireme cruised south, slicing through a dark ocean with all the dread of her namesake. A hull painted black as pitch, her proud sails blood-red, her bronze ram fashioned like a shark’s toothy snout, she cut a fearsome figure. A coastal raider, the Dark Fin was built to be fast and lethal, the pride of the MerChanter fleet, yet for all her speed, his ship could not outrun the fear ripening in the captain’s cabin.
It crept aboard with their passengers. By order of the Miral himself, they’d docked at the Dark Citadel, taking on a young fair-haired lord and twenty of his retainers. The lord was accorded a rare honor, given sole occupancy of the captain’s cabin, while the retainers berthed among the crew. Setting sail under stormy skies, they carved a path through wintery seas, running for a port in the distant south.
At first, the stowaway went unnoticed, the fear masquerading as miasma. The young lord remained in his cabin, and his retainers kept to themselves, but all too soon the rumors began. It started with small things, a keg of wine gone sour, a side of beef spoiled, an albatross following in the ship’s wake. And then the nightmares started. Evil dreams plagued his crew. Some swore they heard claws raking the ship’s hull while others dreamt of a cavern weeping bloody teardrops. Exhausted and edgy, his crew turned sullen, looking for something to blame. Whispers circulated about a strange red light in the captain’s cabin, an otherworldly glow, like crimson hellfire summoned by a sorcerer. Some said the hellfire would burn a hole clean through the hull, condemning the Dark Fin to a watery grave. Determined to quell the doubt, the lord ordered a double guard placed on his cabin, and he himself kept watch on more than one night. Rumors of the strange red light proved true, but there were no demons in the night, no claw marks on the deck, and no holes in his ship. Lord Askal kept a tight rein on his men, ordering quick discipline for any infractions, but superstition and dread were not so easily quelled. His ship sailed south with fear growing in its hold.
He moved to the railing, staring down at the wind-tossed sea. Still too dark, a good sailor judged his ship’s reckoning by the sea’s color. Waves the color of gray-green slate lapped against the hull, proving the Dark Fin was still in the grip of colder climes. Dark and forbidding, the ocean stretched to every horizon. They needed more speed.
A rogue wave slapped the hull, sending a salty spray across the railing. Kissed by the sea, Lord Askal licked his lips and laughed, relishing the briny taste. Born on a ship, forever at home in stormy weather or glassy calm, he reveled in the slap of wave and wind, the sway of the deck beneath his boots, the beat of canvas overhead, but for once he wished for land, for a reason to put his passengers ashore. Fear mired with superstition proved hard to kill. He gripped the hilt of his cutlass, preferring a clean fight to the filthy murk of dark magic.
“Lord Captain.” It was his second, Tormund, a swarthy man with plundered gold lining his teeth and an eight-armed octopus tattooed around his right eye. “Can I have a word?”
Tormund joined him at the railing. “It ain’t right.”
Lord Askal waited. Tormund was a good man but he always crabbed sideways around an argument.
“We’re sea wolves, meant to be raiding the southern shores not hauling passengers to distant ports.” He shook his shaggy head, gold beads clattering amongst his braids. “It ain’t right, and the men know it.”
“We sail under the Miral’s orders.” Tormund growled like a kicked dog, but the captain pressed the point. “The Miral himself ordered safe conduct for the passenger and his men. Not a man among us will gainsay the Miral.” He held his second’s gaze, but what he didn’t tell him, was that the Miral’s orders said the young lord was to be obeyed. Obeyed! Since when did a MerChanter Sea Lord obey a landlocked lord! The mere thought made his blood run cold as seawater. Grinding his teeth, he swallowed his anger. “Keep the sails full and the rowers at quick-time. The sooner we reach the south, the sooner we’ll see the backside of our passengers, and then we’ll sharpen our tridents and ransack the southern cities. Tell the crew their share of plunder will be doubled.”
“Aye, captain, that’ll give the lads something to crow about.” Tormund tugged on his beard, “But the young lord is asking fer ya.”
“For me?” He gave his second a sideways glance. “What for?”
“Damned if I know.” He flashed a crooked grin gleaming of stolen gold. “But he’s got landsickness. Your cabin reeks of it.”
A faint hope flickered within the lord. “Perhaps he’s had enough of the sea.” He sent a quick prayer to Naff, offering half a year’s worth of plunder if the sea god would take the strange lord off his hands. “Mind the sails and I’ll see what this land-lord wants.”
Lord Askal took his time, sauntering across the aftdeck and down the stairs. He paused to check the trim of the sails and watched the top tier rowers for a dozen drum beats before turning to knock on the cabin door.
The door creaked open and a stunted man with a barrel chest dressed all in black peered out. A voice from behind said, “Let him pass, Dolf.”
The servant bowed, opening the door wide, and the captain entered his own cabin for the first time in a fortnight. His nose rankled at the sour smell. Portholes gaped open but the nasty stench of landsickness prevailed. He glanced around his cabin, noting the changes. Chests were stacked along one wall, probably filled with flippant finery. His bunk was disheveled and his chart table littered with thick, musty tomes. The fair-haired lord sat in the only chair, swathed in a thick black robe, his blond hair straggled, his face ghost-pale. Lord Askal hid a smile; the sea had a way of exacting its own vengeance. He offered the Mordant the barest of nods. The young land-lord carried a fearsome title, but his face was too young for the dread deeds ascribed to his name. Clearly he’d inherited the title from another. “The sea does not agree with you?”
The Mordant met his stare. “The sea was never my domain.”
Such an odd answer, yet everything about this young land-lord struck the captain as odd. “You asked to see me?”
“I have a request.”
The Mordant smiled, but his blue eyes remained cold as polar ice. “More of an order.” The black-clad servant moved to stand behind his master. Small in stature yet he conveyed a feral threat, a baldric of nine throwing knives strung across his muscled chest.
Lord Askal kept his hand resting on his cutlass. “I’m listening.”
“I have a need for certain ingredients.”
“A sea bird, whole and uninjured. And two of your men.”
“Two of my men?”
“Yes, my plans have changed. An old enemy grows bold.” For half a heartbeat, rage flashed across the Mordant’s face, but then it was gone, hidden beneath glacial ice. “I have need of a courier. A sea bird and two of your men will suffice.”
Lord Askal narrowed his gaze, outrage boiling in his voice. “I’ve orders to carry you south, nothing more.”
The Mordant flashed a snake’s smile. “You’ve orders to obey.”
The words struck like a slap, yet Lord Askal remained statue-still. “Why use my men when you have plenty of your own?”
“I need their souls.”
So the rumors prove true. Lord Askal retreated a step. “Dark magic!” He made the words a curse.
A sudden chill gripped the cabin, like standing in the teeth of a winter storm. “You brought fear aboard my ship.”
“Superstition is a sign of weakness. It does not change my needs.” The Mordant smiled like a shark certain of a meal.
Sweat broke across the lord’s brow. Granting the Mordant’s request was unthinkable, yet the Miral charged him to obey. Caught between a rock and a wave, Lord Askal stalled, seeking another tack. “But I thought you needed to reach the south with all speed?”
“If my crew mutinies you’ll never see land.”
“Then you best keep them in hand.”
“Then you best leave my men alone.”
The servant reached for a dagger but the Mordant raised a pale hand. “No.”
A cold stalemate settled across the cabin.
“Your ship is built for raiding.”
Lord Askal nodded.
“It matters not where the men come from, only that they are whole and hearty.” The Mordant grinned, his eyes like chips of ice. “You have till sunset tomorrow to supply my needs.” His words reeked of dismissal.
Anger warred with abhorrence. The captain locked stares with the Mordant, fighting the urge to run his sword through the landsick lord and offer his body to Naff, but the law of the Miral stayed his hand. Gripping the hilt of his cutlass, he slowly backed toward the door, not daring to turn his back. Reaching the door, he fled his cabin for the clear light of day, shivering in the pale sunshine. He strode to the railing, gulping deep breaths of crisp, clean sea air, needing to clear his head and his heart. Setting his face in a stern mask, he climbed to the aftdeck. “I need the sea charts.”
Men leaped to obey, unrolling the chart on the helmsman’s table.
Tormund joined him, a thousand questions in his stare.
Lord Askal studied the chart, noting their position. His finger traced a line to the nearest island. “Helmsman, come ten points to the larboard side and double the beat, we sail for the Orcnoth Islands.”
Orders rang out and his men sprang to life. Canvas snapped overhead and timbers creaked as the ship heaved to port. The drumbeat in the hold quickened. Oars bit deep in the swirling sea and the Dark Fin leaped forward like a shark scenting blood.
Beside him, Tormund growled, “Why? There’s not but sheep and herders on those rocks.”
“Exactly.” The lord gave him a sharp look, dispelling further questions. “And summon the net men to the aftdeck. I want the albatross captured whole and unharmed.”
“Aye, you heard me, whole and unharmed.” His anger brewed to a storm. “Now snap to, or you’ll find yourself chained to an oar!”
Tormund’s face paled, his eyes growing wide, but he did not argue. “Aye, sir!”
Men scuttled across the aftdeck, anxious to obey. Lord Askal paced the Dark Fin, barking orders to trim sails and tighten sheets, pressing for speed. Prowling the deck, he studied every detail of wind and wave, sail and oar, using every scrap of seaman’s lore to hasten his ship. Under his touch, the Dark Fin responded like an eager lover, slicing through the slate-gray sea, but he worried it was not enough. Even with a favorable wind, they’d be lucky to reach the small isles before sunset tomorrow.
All through the afternoon and into the night, he stood watch, coaxing every drop of speed from his ship. A pale moon rose and set and still they sailed. The Dark Fin cut the sea like a knife, cleaving a sparkle of luminescence in her wake. The captain breathed deep the salty scent, the ocean thrumming in his veins. This was what he was meant to do, to pilot a mighty ship and plunder the coast, not dabble in dark magic, yet he could not gainsay the Miral, so he sailed on, desperate to save his crew.
The sun rose red and bloody.
Bleary-eyed, the night crew sought their bunks while the day crew claimed their duties. Tormund came to relieve him but he waved him away. “Not yet.”
The wind shifted, adding extra speed to his sails, as if the sea god heard his pleas. Dark oars flashed and dipped, cleaving the water with an urgent rhythm. A pair of dolphins rode the bow, an escort from Naff, but it did not dispel the tension riding his shoulders. He paced the deck, anxious for the first glimpse of land. The sun reached the noon zenith and still they sailed. Sweat beaded his brow.
“Land ho!” The bow lookout sang the sighting.
Lord Askal gripped the railings in relief. “We did it.” Pride rushed through him, certain there was not a faster ship in all the oceans. He turned to the helmsman. “Make for the nearest rock.”
The Dark Fin raced towards the island. Like hungry teeth the outer Orcnoths rose from a wave-tossed ocean, white foam breaking on a jagged shore. Sharp craggy rocks and tenacious green grass, the remote islands were good for nothing but sheepherders and fisher folk.
Tormund joined him on the aftdeck, his gaze full of questions. “Why the Orcnoths when there’s not a speck of plunder among them?”
Lord Askal motioned his second close. “Lead the raiding party. Take what you will from the island, but bring me two men, whole and unharmed and return to the ship before sunset.”
His temper rose to a boil. “Obey!” His voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “And perhaps this dark curse will be lifted from our ship.” Turning from his second, he snapped an order at the helmsman. “Take us in.”
With an impatient sweep of his dark blue cape, Lord Askal left the aftdeck, pounding down the stairs to his second’s cabin. Little more than a closet, yet it had the luxury of a single hammock. Aboard ship, privacy was the coin of privilege. He flung open the only porthole to admit a breath of fresh sea air and climbed into the hammock, trying to still his racing thoughts. The hammock’s sway helped, like being rocked in the sea’s bosom. He must have dozed, waking to a sharp knock on the door.
“It’s done.” Tormund stood in the doorway, backlit by the red glow of sunset.
Instantly awake, he climbed from the hammock. “You got two islanders?”
“Just as you ordered.”
“Good. Take us back out to sea.”
He followed Tormund to the aftdeck. His crew looked lively, turning the great trireme back out to the fathomless sea. The deck shuddered beneath his boots and canvas billowed overhead and then the Dark Fin leaped forward keen for the open ocean. The sun hung above the horizon, a great red orb nearly set, spilling crimson and gold onto the briny deep.
A whimpering sound came from the rear. Two captives, shackled and chained, huddled by the railing, stinking of fear. Sheepherders by the look of them, a father and son, nut-brown and filthy but they seemed whole and unharmed.
On the other side of the deck, an albatross sat trussed in nets. The great sea bird stared at him with an accusing eye. He regretted the need for the bird. The lore of the sea named it unlucky for any sailor to harm an albatross, but he’d pay any price to keep his men safe and his ship whole.
A shadow swept across the deck.
He turned to find the Mordant watching him. The pale lord was wrapped in thick dark robes, his right hand clutching an iron staff, his knife-bedecked servant hovering like a shadow at his back. “Well done.”
The praise sounded slimy in his ears.
The Mordant stared toward the setting sun. “I require the use of your rear deck at dark fall.”
“I steer my ship from the aftdeck.”
The Mordant did not seem to hear. “Once the last of the light leaves the sky, order your men below, confined to quarters until morning. I’ll brook no interference this night.”
“I’ll not leave my ship to founder.”
“Don’t you trust your sea god?”
“The sea god expects a captain to look after his ship.”
The Mordant nodded, a sly smile playing across his face. “Then you alone may remain,” his eyes darkened, like looking into two bottomless wells, “but if you interfere, you will die, and if you watch, you will be forever changed.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“So be it.” The Mordant turned, disappearing down the stairs, his servant following like a stunted shadow.
Lord Askal shivered as if coming out of a trance. Around the aftdeck, crewmen stood frozen, staring with wide eyes. “Back to work!” The men scuttled like crabs looking for a hole.
Sails beat overhead, filling with wind. The Dark Fin cruised on a southerly heading, pulling away from the small island till it was just a speck on the rear horizon. Gulls followed in their wake, singing a mournful dirge. The setting sun lingered on the horizon, as if the day was reluctant to surrender to night, but the darkness was inevitable. All too soon, the first stars appeared, sending a shiver down his spine.
Tormund approached, a scowl on his swarthy face. He leaned close, his voice a whisper. “Let me stick a knife in this land-lord’s back and be done with it. We’ll feed him to the sea and none will be the wiser.”
Lord Askal shook his head. “Would that we could, but the Miral has bound our hands. Best play along and hasten the journey to its end.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Nor do I, but we sail the sea despite the storm.”
“Aye, that we do.”
“Then I’m trusting you to keep the men below deck while I see to the ship.”
“As you command, but keep your cutlass close.”
Lord Askal nodded. “Aye, I will.” He strode to the heart of the aftdeck and roared a string of commands. “Strike the sails and ship the oars! All oarsmen to stand down. All crew confined below deck till morning light.”
Crewmen scurried to obey. In short order the sails were furled, the sheets secured, the oars shipped, and the men disappeared below deck. The pulse of his ship slowed, the drumbeat in the hold silenced. A strange stillness settled over the great trireme, like the calm before a terrible storm. Without sails, their speed bled away. The Dark Fin slowed to a drift, rocked to a slow lull by the waves’ caress. The lord captain stood alone on the aftdeck, his hands on the tiller, as if he sailed a ghost ship on a midnight sea.
Footsteps on the stairs.
The Mordant appeared, a strange red light glowing from the tip of his staff.
Dark magic, Lord Askal sketched the sign of the sea god, sending a fervent prayer to Naff.
The Mordant loomed close, his face pale in the red light. “Know this, no matter what you see, no matter what you hear, your ship will not be harmed.”
Lord Askal nodded.
“Do nothing, say nothing, if you wish to live.”
The servant appeared carrying a large stoppered flask. The Mordant took the flask, throwing the stopper into the sea. Moving to the center of the aftdeck, he stood with his head bowed, muttering a sibilant chant.
Lord Askal stood gripping the helm, every sense alert. The Mordant’s gibberish washed across him, slapping at him like a drowning wave, but he understood nothing. Meaningless words dripping with evil, the Mordant summoned the Dark. The night grew thick and heavy, wrapping around his ship with ill-intent. Even the stars disappeared, shrouded by Darkness. Lord Askal shivered, resisting the urge to flee.
The Dark Fin swayed, floundering like a ghost ship lost at sea. Time seemed to drag…and then the chant stopped. Lord Askal dared to look.
The Mordant raised the flask to the heavens and then poured a libation onto the deck, but this was no mere flagon of ale. The liquid glowed red, like molten lava, and where it struck the deck, it hissed, raising the stink of burnt wood.
“No!” Lord Askal reached for his cutlass, but the small man pounced, holding a knife pressed to his jugular. “Interfere and you die.” Lord Askal froze, a trickle of blood at his throat. His hand released his cutlass and the knife disappeared. Like a malevolent shadow, the Mordant’s servant retreated; melting into the darkness, but the captain could feel his stare. Keeping his hands on the helm, Lord Askal’s gaze slid back to the Mordant. What he saw made his blood run cold.
A red pentacle glowed on the Dark Fin’s deck, the mark of the Dark Lord.
The Mordant lifted his hands, as if invoking the gods. And then he began to dance, circling the pentacle, pounding a strange rhythm into the deck. Round and around, he danced a frenzy. Like a priest of the netherworld, the Mordant screamed a chant, a strange hissing sound, like no language the captain had ever heard. Leaping and shouting, he raised his staff to the heavens.
Overhead, the clouds began to boil. A funnel cloud appeared, churning above his ship, a promise of death on the high seas.
“Sion tarmath!” The Mordant hurled a command skyward, stabbing his staff toward the swirling cloud.
A bolt of red lightning crashed down, striking the staff.
The power of the strike hurled Lord Askal to the deck. Cringing backwards, he shielded his face. All around him, the air hissed and crackled, the sulphurous stink of brimstone choking his throat, as if the gates of hell were thrown wide open. Fearing for his ship, he dared to look.
The Mordant stood in the center of the pentacle and he glowed. A nimbus of red light surrounded him, as if he’d swallowed the lightning bolt. “Bring them!” The voice that roared out of the Mordant held the power of a god.
Lord Askal clutched the tiller, his heart thundering. This was no mere man he’d brought aboard his ship; this was a demon, a devil incarnate.
The dark-clad servant moved to the prisoners. Shredding their clothes with flicks of his dagger, he cut their bonds. Naked and cowering, the sheepherders clung to the deck, fingernails scraping against wood, begging for mercy. “Spare us!” The stink of urine filled the air, but the Mordant’s servant was relentless. Dragging the naked men towards the pentacle, he hurled them across the glowing lines.
Red light flared as the prisoners crossed the glowing boundary. Something gripped the two men, like a hand claiming a sacrifice, holding them upright within the glowing pentacle. The two sheepherders writhed in pain, their backs arching, their mouths stretched wide in horror. Lifted a hand span above the deck, their bare feet flailed the air. Screams erupted from the two men, as if their very souls caught fire. The Mordant waved his hand and the screaming stopped. Released, the prisoners crumpled to the deck as if their bones were turned to water. Pale as worms, they stared up at the Mordant, making strange mewing sounds.
The albatross was next. The great seabird squawked and fought till it was thrust inside the pentacle and then it flopped to the deck like a sack of feathers, its great wings all askew.
The Mordant stood in the pentacle’s heart, glowing like a fiery fiend. Pointing his staff at each of the victims, he bound them with lines of red light, and then he began to chant, a strange discordant song. Twisted and wrong, the ancient words roared out of him like vomiting darkness.
Lord Askal closed his eyes. Clinging to the tiller, he bit his lip. Focusing on the pain, on the taste of blood, he tried to distract his mind, but he could not stop his ears.
An unearthly howl rose from the prisoners, like nothing he’d ever heard. Human voices clawed the night, ripping at his soul, but Lord Askal refused to look. His skin prickled and the hairs rose on the back of his neck. Shrieks and howls beat against him, the torment of the damned, yet he kept his eyes closed. Drenched in sweat, he clung to the tiller, like a man afraid of being sucked into a whirlpool. Lightning flashed across the deck and heat seared his face, but he never once opened his eyes, keeping his teeth clamped tight against a scream.
And then it was over.
A heart-pounding silence claimed his ship, like slamming the door to hell.
He dared to look, and what he saw would forever haunt his mind. The Mordant no longer glowed, his magic spent, but the albatross was changed. Lord Askal shook his head, bile rising like a flood to his mouth. Unable to look away, he watched as the albatross bowed to the Mordant. No longer just a bird, it was a living horror, a ghoul-bird with the eyes and mouth of a man!
The Mordant bent over his creation, whispering words in a strange tongue and then he raised his staff to the heavens. “Fly! And let my will be done!”
The ghoul-bird raised its human face, great white wings beating against the deck, and then it rose into the sky, flying toward the east.
The Mordant slumped to the deck, but his servant caught him. Without a word, he carried his master down the steps.
Lord Askal watched them leave. Unable to move, he knelt on the aftdeck, clinging to the tiller, clinging to his sanity. His stomach convulsed, and his dinner roared out of him, but he could not purge his mind. Exhausted, he lay sprawled on the deck.
Tormund found him there the next morning, but the captain was not alone. Two things, naked and pale, lay crumpled within the charred outline of the pentacle. One had no mouth and the other no eyes, pale flesh sprouting where the openings should have been. They lay on the deck, soiled in their own filth, like worms without any will. Whatever spark made them men was missing, drained and sucked out, leaving mere husks of flesh.
Tormund helped his captain stand. “What in the Nine Hells are those…things?”
“Sheepherders turned sacrifice.” His voice sounded hoarse in his ears. “Kill them and dump them overboard before the crew lays eyes on them.” He gripped the railing, fighting to suppress a shudder. A second wave of bile rose to his mouth as he stared at the pentacle branded on his deck. “And get the shipwright up here. I want that cursed symbol erased from the deck.”
Tormund was quick to obey. His dirk slashed the throats of the two worm-men, rolling their bodies over the side, horrors consigned to the sea. Dark fins churned the water, following his ship; Naff’s hounds come to claim the corrupted flesh.
The crew emerged from the lower decks and his ship slowly came to life, but everything had changed. His men stared at the pentacle branded into the aftdeck, horror etching their faces. Muttering charms against evil, they whispered of demons haunting the night. Fear had finally claimed his ship, yet his men obeyed.
Reeking of sweat and brimstone, Lord Askal clung to the tiller. “Speed, we need speed.” Over and over, he repeated the words like a chant. “Give me speed!” A fresh wind blew out of the north, filling the sails. The oars ran out, answering the beat of the drum. The Dark Fin leaped forward but the captain took no joy in his ship. He haunted the aftdeck, worrying every detail, desperate to reach a port in the distant south. Speed might save his crew, might save his ship, but nothing could save his soul.