Cydric awoke in darkness, confused; for a moment he believed he was in his bedroom at the castle, until he remembered it had been months since he had slept in a real bed. He lay still, waiting for his strength to return; his body ached as if from prolonged exertion, and his clothes felt cold and damp.
Fragmentary images of water flashed through his mind, with memories which, no matter how hard he concentrated, remained tantalizingly out of reach. After several minutes he gave up the effort; he slowed his breathing and listened intently. Gradually he became aware of the sounds of creaking wood, lapping water, and a faint flapping sound. He felt rough wood beneath his fingertips, and soon perceived that whatever he was lying on was slowly rocking.
A ship, Cydric thought. I’m on a ship.
The realization allowed him to retrieve one of the memories that floated beyond his grasp. He had been on a ship — the Vanguard Voyager — and there had been a storm in the middle of the night. He had been on deck when the captain ordered him to go below. A wave crashed into the ship, and the captain was thrown hard against the starboard rail. He went to aid her, but another wave smashed into the vessel, and he felt himself being swept over the side into the churning sea …
Feeling somewhat stronger, Cydric levered himself into a sitting position. Aside from the ache, he felt relatively whole. His tunic and breeches had begun to dry, but wetness still remained in his boots. How long had he been lying here? And where was here? Was he back on the Vanguard Voyager?
He realized that the darkness seemed to be lifting; he was out on deck near an opening in the bulwark. Huge tattered sails flapped from the ship’s three giant masts, and the rigging seemed burned and torn in several places. There was also the very faint smell of smoke in the air, but he was unsure whether it was from tobacco or wood.
The thought of tobacco brought on a powerful urge to smoke. He felt for his leather pouch and was relieved to find it still attached to his belt. To his disappointment, the tobacco was thoroughly wet. He sighed; it didn’t matter anyway, since he was missing his pipe. He checked for his dagger and was satisfied to find it still at his side.
Warily, the young man rose to his feet. He appeared to be the only one on deck. This was a bigger ship than the Voyager, but its crew was far less considerate. Why else would they have left him to dry out on deck like a wet washcloth? He had no memory of being rescued in the first place …
He recalled flailing about in the water to keep himself afloat. The Voyager was nearly invisible in the darkness and rain, and he had felt himself being swept away from the vessel. He had shouted until his throat was raw, but no one seemed to hear and soon he had completely lost sight of the ship. He continued struggling in the water, but it wasn’t long before he felt himself slowly sinking, dropping down through the dark sea and into unconsciousness …
“Hello?” he called out. “Ahoy! Anybody on board?” Silence. It was now considerably lighter than it had been when he first awoke. He thought it might be nearing dawn, but the light seemed to have a strange greenish cast to it. Upon realizing this, a warm thin sweat of anxiety broke over him. Without quite knowing why, he rushed to the bow of the ship, where a large catapult was mounted. He peered over the rail at the figurehead; it was a large black dragon, its massive wooden head thrown back and its mouth open in a silent roar. Cydric stood transfixed, gripping the wooden rail. There was something in his gap-riddled memory about the dragon, but he couldn’t quite grasp it.
A cold chill suddenly ran through him, and he felt a presence nearby. He tensed, wanting desperately to look behind him yet lacking the nerve to do so. Finally, he forced himself to turn around.
For a moment he saw nothing. Then a shadowy form coalesced out of the air in front of him. It was a young man of about Cydric’s age and general build, dressed in clothes that were at least fifty years out of style.
Suddenly afraid, Cydric pressed himself back against the rail and tensed for a leap over the side. The strange youth raised a hand and looked at Cydric with fearful eyes. “Go,” he said in a thin, almost inaudible voice. Cydric remained frozen where he stood, unable to take his eyes off the ghost, for that was surely what it was, as surely as this was a ship of ghosts.
The spectral youth cast a glance over his shoulder, and his eyes filled with alarm. “Go, please!” it said, almost imploringly. He looked behind once again, and abruptly vanished.
Cydric stared at the spot where the youth had been, unwilling to relax even the slightest bit. This is a drowning-dream, he told himself. It must be!
A few moments later, Cydric felt another wave of coldness, but this time it was accompanied by a feeling of overwhelming fatigue. He felt a strong desire to yawn, and his sight dimmed as if his eyes were closing. An instant later the feelings vanished like a candle flame being blown out, and he saw –
The ship was no longer deserted and no longer a derelict. Rough-looking sailors, all in old-fashioned seaman’s garb, crawled among the intact rigging and tended to the full, billowing sails. Other crewmen scurried about to orders barked by a large thickly-bearded man who surveyed the scene from the aft deck.
Unsure what to do, Cydric stood where he was in the hope that he would go unnoticed. That hope proved in vain, for the bearded man soon began storming his way toward him. Cydric decided that this was the moment to go overboard.
He turned around and prepared to launch himself over the rail, but a strong hand gripped his shoulder and slammed him down. Cydric struck the deck and sprawled onto his back. The bearded man glared down at him and said, “So, Tullis! Wanting to bail on us, eh? You gutless worm!” He reached down and hauled Cydric up until their noses were almost touching. “The captain’ll be right pleased to see you.”
Cydric closed his nostrils against the man’s foul breath. “I — I’m not Tullis,” he said with as much composure as he could muster. “I’m not — I was in a storm, and –”
The bearded man laughed. “Did you break your head when you fell?” He called over his shoulder to a pair of nearby sailors. “Take Tully Boy here down to the captain. He was wanting to jump the gunnels!”
“No, I –” Cydric wrenched himself from the man’s grasp and backed away. “I don’t belong on this ship. I don’t know –”
The bearded man lunged forward with surprising speed and struck Cydric savagely on the side of the head. The young man felt an explosion of pain in his mind and went limp, collapsing to the deck.
Dim thoughts drifted through Cydric’s mind as he teetered on the edge of oblivion. A flash of green — green lightning? A name — Sarkos ? A black ship with the figurehead of a dragon …
Slowly he returned to consciousness. He was on the floor of a silent room that smelled of must and decay. When his eyes adjusted, Cydric could see the silhouette of a man outlined by a single lantern that was mounted on the wall. The man was seated behind a small table, and his face was hidden by flickering shadows.
The man said nothing as Cydric slowly rose to his feet. For several long moments neither spoke; finally, the silence was broken as the man said in a cold, deliberate voice, “So, Tullis. You’ve … returned.”
“My — my name isn’t Tullis,” Cydric said, aware of how loud his voice seemed to sound. Cydric strained to see the man’s face through the gloom of the cabin. A realization struck him; continuing to stare at the man’s face, Cydric said, “Forgive me, *Sarkos*, but I’m not a member of your crew.”
The man seemed to stiffen at the mention of the name. In the same cold voice he said, “You’ll address me as Captain.”
Cydric held his breath and said nothing.
“ANSWER ME!” Sarkos suddenly cried, slamming his fist on the table. Cydric jerked back, deeply startled. A moment later he found his voice and replied, “Yes — Captain.” He decided it was prudent not to antagonize the man.
Sarkos rose and turned the lantern up slightly, increasing the light just enough for Cydric to make out the Captain’s lean, slender frame, his dark hair and short beard, and the deep-set, hollow eyes embedded in a long, tired face. Sarkos sat down again and regarded Cydric with the expression of a man who has just discovered a worm in his piece of bread.
“I don’t know why you’ve … come back, but nothing has changed,” Sarkos said tonelessly. “I am the captain; on this ship my word is law. I have the right to punish those who break my laws.” A humorless grin tugged at his mouth. “You think you are above my justice?” He paused. “Do you?” he repeated slowly, his eyes narrowing.
“No, Captain,” Cydric replied quickly, a tingle of fear racing up his spine. Sarkos was a dangerous man, there was no question of that.
“And was it worth it, do you think?” Sarkos was not looking at Cydric , but somewhat past him. “I had every right. I still have the right. Do you think it was worth it?” Without waiting for an answer, Sarkos placed an intricately-carved wooden box on the table.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Look at it. See if it wasn’t worth the cost.”
Cydric stared hesitantly at the box, mentally sorting out what Sarkos was saying. Apparently, someone named Tullis had violated one of the captain’s rules, and it had something to do with the contents of the box.
“LOOK AT IT!” Sarkos roared. He pounded the table, causing the box to jump.
Cydric approached, paused, then lifted the lid of the box. What he saw inside made him gasp. Resting on a bed of red velvet was a huge oval-shaped emerald, about the size of a clenched fist. Forgetting himself, Cydric reached out to touch the emerald, but Sarkos slammed the lid shut.
“Now get away,” he said with a low snarl. Cydric put his arms to his sides and backed off. He suddenly remembered his dagger, but decided that trying to fight his way out of the situation would do no good.
For a moment Sarkos said nothing, then cracked Cydric across the face with the back of his hand. Cydric staggered from the blow. Sarkos gripped the front of Cydric’a ‘s tunic and yanked him close. In a sullen whisper he said, “And to think that me, of all people, trusted you.”
The captain’s eyes now seemed full of a dark, concentrated fury. Fear clenched Cydric’a gut, and he knew that Sarkos intended to kill him.
But before either of them could make another move, the door burst open and a dark-skinned crewman stuck his head into the room. “Captain! The Duke’s ships — they’re attacking!”
Sarkos’s anger suddenly seemed to drain away. He released Cydric and sagged back against the table. “Gods damn,” he muttered listlessly. A moment later he looked up, his face a mask of resignation. “Prepare for battle,” he said. “And–” he glanced at Cydric –”lock him in the hold.”
The dark-skinned man nodded and entered the room. He drew the cutlass that he wore at his side and used it to motion for Cydric to walk ahead of him.
A short time later, Cydric watched as the door to the damp ship’s hold slammed shut, leaving him alone. Thin beams of light filtering down through cracks in the cargo hatch above provided barely enough illumination for him to see dusty crates, barrels, and coils of rope strewn about. He waited a few moments, then tried to force the door open with his dagger. It firmly resisted, so he went over and sat down on a crate to consider his situation. If this was a dream, he thought, it was certainly the most realistic one he had ever experienced.
A scuffling sound interrupted his thoughts. He leaped up and spun around, dagger in hand. Staring into the shadows for a breathless moment, he detected no one. Then a small furry shape skittered across the top of a barrel. Cydric relaxed — it was only a rat.
Sheathing the dagger and sitting down again, he mused about what the dark-skinned crewman had said to Sarkos . Duke’s ships attacking? “Which Duke?” he wondered aloud.
“A Duke of Pyridain,” came a reply. Cydric drew his dagger again and looked around for the speaker. From the gloom at the other end of the hold a figure gradually emerged. It was the youth who had appeared before and urged him to leave the ship.
“Who are you?” Cydric demanded, rising to his feet and taking a defensive stance.
“My name,” the youth said wearily, “is Tullis.”
At the sound of the name, Cydric lowered his blade. “So *you’re* Tullis,” he said. The youth nodded sadly. “Why does everyone on this ship think that I’m you?”
“I tried to warn you. You should have escaped when you had the chance.”
“What ship is this?” Cydric demanded.
Tullis sighed. “You are on the Rampant Dragon. Her captain is Jaren Sarkos , whom I believe you’ve already met.”
The name of the ship stirred something in Cydric’s memory. His brow furrowed as the image of the black dragon figurehead, illuminated by green flames, came to him. The Rampant Dragon. He had heard the name mentioned somewhere before. The Rampant Dragon …
Suddenly, it all returned to him.
He had been on lookout in the Vanguard Voyager’s crow’s nest, high atop the main mast, when he first glimpsed the strange green lightning. At first he dismissed it as a random imagining produced by his cold and tired mind. But a little while later he saw another flash, clearly this time, on the darkening horizon. Curious now, he remained alert and carefully watched the sky and sea around him, hoping to catch another glimpse of the unnatural lightning.
His watch ended without another sighting. In his report to the officer of the watch he mentioned only that he had seen lightning, omitting any mention of it having been green. But as he made his way below, he caught sight of a third stroke of green lightning, far out over the water.
In the Voyager’s galley he encountered Captain Brynna Thorne, enjoying her customary early-evening bowl of dried figs. With her was a white-haired seaman by the name of Avron, who was the oldest member of the crew and known to have a vast knowledge of ocean lore. Cydric was hesitant to ask Avron about the green lightning with the Captain present, not wanting her to think that he was prone to irrational imaginings; but his desire to know if he had in fact seen some kind of natural occurrence won out, and he told the old sailor about what he had seen.
Avron frowned and pursed his lips when Cydric mentioned that he had seen the green lightning three times. “Not a good sign,” the old seaman muttered ominously. He then told the young man that there was an old belief that anyone who saw green lightning three times in one day was fated to join the crew of a wandering ghost ship called the Rampant Dragon, a pirate vessel cursed to sail the seas forever.
Captain Thorne shook her head skeptically. “Old seadog talk, nothing more,” she said with a tone of dismissal. “My father told me the same stories when I was his cabin girl. And I’ve also heard it said that one can see a flash of green at sunset, if the sky is right.”
“Believe — or disbelieve — what you will, Captain,” Avron replied. “The sea holds many mysteries.”
Cydric asked the old sailor to continue, but he refused to say anything more about it. Cydric came away believing that the story was indeed an old sea tale …
… until the storm the following night that washed him up on the ghost ship. Cydric stared at Tullis, whose form seemed somehow indistinct. “This ship is cursed,” Cydric said, and repeated to Tullis what he had just recalled.
“That is the story,” Tullis affirmed with a solemn nod.
“But why was the ship cursed?”
Tullis gave another sigh and related the story of how, many years ago, Captain Sarkos — a cold-hearted pirate who regularly raided the southern coast of Baranur — disguised himself as a nobleman and tricked the only daughter of a powerful duke of Pyridain into giving him the Eye of Cirrangill , a huge perfectly-cut emerald the size of a man’s fist. It was one of the family’s treasures, and the duke was furious at the Eye’s loss. He sent out his three fastest ships in search of the Rampant Dragon, and after three days they caught up with the pirate on the open sea.
The Dragon was larger than the duke’s ships but surprisingly fast for a vessel her size. She was able to keep just ahead of the pursuing ships, until one of them managed to get close enough for several ballista-launched flaming spears to set fire to her sails and bring her to a stop. The three ships maintained a flaming-spear attack, while the crew of the pirate vessel returned fire with catapult-launched stones and burning coals.
The battle soon turned in favor of the duke’s fleet. Sarkos , seeing the heavy damage to his ship and fearing capture, came to a drastic decision: he called upon Cirrangill , god of the seas, and offered up the namesake jewel in return for help. The sea god manifested himself as an immense waterspout and agreed to aid Sarkos . The duke’s fleet was caught up in the vast watery vortex and sent to the bottom, but the Rampant Dragon remained unharmed.
Cirrangill then demanded the emerald, but Sarkos knew the mythical history of the jewel: it had originally been a gift to a poor fisherman from the sea god himself, as a reward for the man’s honesty. Over the years the emerald changed hands many times, but it had always been a gift — never once had it been bought or sold. Sarkos knew that unless he willingly gave it up, the sea god could not reclaim the jewel. Knowing this, the pirate captain greedily refused to part with it.
And so, angered by the pirate’s ingratitude, Cirrangill laid a curse upon the ship and crew; they would be doomed to roam the seas for all time and relive the battle with the duke’s fleet, which now ended with the Rampant Dragon’s destruction.
“… and that is what is happening now,” Tullis concluded, casting a glance up at the roof of the hold.
“But why aren’t you with them?” Cydric asked. “Aren’t you affected by the curse?”
A grim look came over the youth’s face, as if he was recalling a painful event. “This is a ship of ghosts, but I … I am a different ghost.” He paused, as if to compose himself. Then he continued.
“During the chase, the Captain was always on deck and rarely came back to his cabin. I had heard about the jewel and knew where he kept it. One day, I couldn’t resist — I took the box out of its hiding place and looked at the jewel. I don’t know for how long I stared at it, but the next thing I knew, the Captain was in the room, shouting at me — hitting me. He took me down here, to the hold and … ” Tullis stopped and gazed into the shadows.
Cydric read his look and knew what had happened next. In a whisper he said, “Sarkos killed you.”
Tullis nodded, unable to speak.
“So you’re a true ghost.”
Again Tullis nodded. “Yes — and doubly cursed for it. Everyone else has only the faintest notion that they’ve been repeating the same events, but I seem to be only one who truly remembers.”
“But why *does* Sarkos and the crew think that I’m you?”
“You are not the first man to be taken aboard this ship. Each one before you was mistaken for one of our men who’d been killed in some way or another in the past. And the only way any of them left this ship was by bailing overboard.”
Cydric now understood Sarkos’s behavior toward him. The pirate captain no doubt believed that Tullis had come back, and had tried to justify his actions to relieve his guilt. But knowing that was little comfort — what he needed was a way off this ship of doom.
Stepping over to stand directly in front of Tullis, Cydric drew a breath and asked, “Will you help me escape?”
The ghostly youth nodded his agreement. “But I first have to ask you this: will you help me to end this curse upon our ship, so that we may finally know rest?”
Cydric paused before replying. “Will you still help me if I don’t?”
“Yes. I said that I would.”
Stepping back a pace, Cydric frowned slightly as he considered Tullis’s request. It would be easy to simply leave him and the others on board the ship to their fate. He was certain that Sarkos deserved his, but what of the rest of the crew? And what of Tullis — was his transgression so great that he deserved to spend forever in this waking nightmare?
Cydric gave a mental shake of his head. Who was he to judge any of them? But if people like himself were unwillingly drawn into the punishment reserved for the Dragon’s crew, didn’t he have a responsibility to try and ensure that it happened to no one else?
A long moment passed. Finally, Cydric spoke. “Then I’ll help you.”
Tullis showed Cydric the location of a rusted axe, lost behind a row of crates. Cydric used it to hack away at the door after being assured by Tullis that no one was nearby. After escaping the hold, Cydric followed Tullis to the Captain’s cabin. The spectral youth directed Cydric to a loose plank underneath Sarkos’ bunk that was the hiding place for the box containing the Eye of Cirrangill . Cydric removed the emerald and turned it over in his hand. He cast a dubious glance at Tullis and said, “Are you sure this is the only way to end the curse?”
“Yes. And at the right moment you must do what I told you, otherwise the curse will continue.”
A short time after leaving Sarkos’s cabin, Cydric emerged from an aft hatch onto the deck of the Rampant Dragon. The air was thick with smoke and the shouts of the crew. Huddling near the steps leading up to the aft deck, Cydric looked to port and saw three ships in a loose line a short distance away. The starboard-side hull of the middle ship was ablaze, but the other two were undamaged. Suddenly, a great spear of fire leaped from the foredeck of the lead ship. It soared in a graceful arc toward the Rampant Dragon and buried itself in the portside hull just above the waterline, sending a shudder through the vessel.
Cydric staggered and fell to the deck, coughing. A moment later, a gust of wind cleared the smoke from the deck, allowing him to observe crewmen with buckets racing toward the port side to dump water on the flaming spear. Looking up, he saw other crewmen in the rigging struggling to put out fires in the mainsails.
Two more flaming spears flew from the attacking ships. One fell short of the Dragon, but the other grazed the mizzen sail and set it afire. Cydric leaped up and scrambled out of the way as crewmen rushed astern to combat the flames. He made his way forward and crouched against the starboard rail, not far from the steps to the foredeck. He watched as Captain Sarkos bellowed to the men manning the catapult to winch the arm back to firing position. When it was ready, one man dumped a bucketful of large dark rocks into the bowl and another man set them ablaze with the torch he held. They stood back, and a moment later Sarkos gave the order to fire. The catapult arm slammed upright and flung the rocks toward the lead ship. Most of them missed, but a few landed on the deck where a crewman quickly extinguished them.
Tullis materialized beside Cydric , who looked up at him and said, “It’s not going well for Sarkos , is it?”
Shaking his head, Tullis replied, “It will become worse. The Duke’s ships will start to draw closer; two will continue the attack, while the third will attempt to ram.”
Cydric felt a twinge of fear. “And then?”
“The attempt will succeed. This ship will sink, and all hands will go down.”
“But you’ll all be brought back to go through this all over again.”
“Yes, unless you are able to put an end to it. Be ready.”
The battle soon began to unfold as Tullis described. All three ships ceased firing, then pointed their bows toward the Rampant Dragon. Sarkos screamed for the crew to finish repairs to the sails and ordered the catapult attacks to continue.
As the Duke’s ships approached, the first and last ship in line altered course slightly so that they would pass directly fore and aft of the Dragon; the middle ship seemed to hang back, but was on a course for the pirate vessel’s midsection. Sarkos directed the catapult crew to concentrate fire on the first ship, but a well-placed flaming spear smashed into the catapult frame and set fire to one of the men.
Cydric stood up to see if Captain Sarkos had been hit. A few moments later he quickly crouched down again as an arrow sped past his face. The flanking ships had closed to within arrow range and their archers were raining death down on the Dragon’s deck. Cydric covered his head as crewmen all around him sharply cried out in pain. A few screams seemed to rise in volume and then abruptly end with a muffled “thump”.
After what seemed like years, Cydric heard Tullis whisper that the ships had passed. He lowered his arms, stood up, and was struck with horror to see arrow-pierced bodies littering the deck of the Rampant Dragon. Turning to face port, Cydric saw the middle ship rapidly bearing down on the pirate vessel.
Tullis appeared, his face stricken with anguish. “Now, Cydric !” he shouted urgently. “The jewel! Do it now!”
Pulling the emerald from his tobacco pouch and holding it aloft, Cydric faced starboard and said in a loud voice, “Great Cirrangill! God of the Seas! I offer to you your sacred Eye in return for the release of the souls on board this ship!”
There was no immediate response. Cydric quickly repeated the offer, and was about to do so a third time when Tullis cried out a warning. Shooting a glance over his shoulder, Cydric saw Sarkos staggering toward him. The captain’s clothing was blackened, his face was bloodied, and an arrow protruded from his upper back.
The young man from the Voyager took a step forward just as Sarkos gave a yell and leaped. He slammed into Cydric , and the two of them collapsed to the deck. Cydric lost his grip on the jewel and saw it skitter away; Sarkos pushed off of him and dived after the emerald. Retrieving it, the pirate captain lurched to his feet. Just then, Tullis materialized and confronted Sarkos .
“You murdered me!” the ghostly youth cried. “You killed me with your own hands!”
Sarkos recoiled in shock. “No,” he whispered hoarsely. “You betrayed me. I had a right to kill. I had every right!” He gave a scream of rage and flung the emerald at Tullis.
At that moment, the Rampant Dragon shook violently as the duke’s ship impacted the pirate vessel’s side. Tullis vanished as the green jewel passed through him.
As the ramming ship pushed its way into the Dragon’s hull, a shimmering translucent mass formed in the air over the water to the starboard side. It assumed the vague shape of a bearded human face. Cydric watched as the emerald flew in a leisurely arc toward the shimmering mass. The jewel tumbled end over end until it appeared to cover the left eye of the translucent shimmering. A green light exploded outward from the emerald, filling the sky. The light blinded Cydric , and he lost all consciousness.
There was the sensation of falling a long way, stopping abruptly, then slowly rising. A pale green curtain wavered in the distance, and the feeling of rising quickened the closer the green curtain approached. Suddenly the curtain was pierced –
– and Cydric found himself breaking the surface of the water and being hoisted into the air. Hands grabbed him and gently set him down.
Cydric opened his eyes and saw a group of people huddled over him. Among them were Avron and Captain Thorne. I’m back on the Voyager, he thought. He blinked his eyes several times and tried to speak, but instead gagged and vomited the seawater that filled his throat.
A little while later, Brynna and Avron visited Cydric as he recovered in the crew quarters. Brynna told him that not long after he went overboard, the storm had abated and they found him floating only a short distance from the ship. He then told them, somewhat hesitantly, of his experiences on the ghostly pirate vessel.
“Actually, I’m sure it *was* just a drowning-dream,” Cydric admitted after he finished.
“In true fact, though,” said Avron, “there really was a duke of Pyridain who ordered a certain pirate hunted down and captured. But all the ships were lost in a storm, so it is said.”
“And there’s the explanation,” Brynna said with satisfaction. “A simple story blown into a mysterious sea legend. That’s how most of them start.”
Avron opened his mouth as if to argue, but closed it and merely nodded.
Brynna patted Cydric’s shoulder and said, “You should be better tomorrow. Is there anything you need right now?”
Cydric thought a moment. “No, but I do have one request.”
“I’d like to go back to galley duty, if I may.”
High up in the crow’s nest, a crewman gazed out over the dark water. His watch was almost over, and he thought about leaving his post a little bit early. But just as he made up his mind to do so, his attention was drawn by a tiny dot of green light at the limit of his vision, seeming to be just under the surface. He brought the spyglass to his eye, but was only able to catch a brief glimpse of the green light dimming and going out, as if it had sunk into the depths of the cold, mysterious sea.