So there we are, in the venerable Rat King Tavern, on La Isla de los Diablos Perdidos (Lost Devils Island to you English-speakers), somewhere deep in the Emerald Sea, and it’s me and One-Handed Carlos and the Professor and Barney that acts as the bartender, and we’re swapping true tales of the strangest things to ever cross our paths back when we were still sailing instead of warming barstools and seeing to visiting crews. It’s a fine game of one-upmanship with bragging rights and drinks for the winner, good-natured ridicule for the losers. One-Handed Carlos has just tossed off a sinker of a story involving the Flying Dutchman (and who hasn’t seen that fine fellow by now?) and the Professor’s in the middle of a story involving the Dead Pirate Edwards.
“Dead Pirate Edwards?” interrupts Carlos. “Don’t you mean the Dread Pirate Edwards?” It’s a logical question, since a lot of inexperienced captains call themselves the Dread So-and-So, to the point where it’s like having the last name Smith, or Johnson. Mind you, most of them are about as terrifying as newborn kittens.
“Oh no,” is the reply. “I mean Dead, for dead he is, and dead he was. He commands the fiercest crew of zombies to ever sail the Seven Seas, and how they got that way, stories do differ, though I favor the one involving a scorned voodoo lover. Every night when the moon shines, their ship of the damned emerges from a mysterious fogbank to prey upon the unwary, in search of brains to feed their infernal hungers. And a dozen, no, two dozen times, they’ve been reported sunk, the Grinning Skull seen slipping beneath the waves, and yet a full moon later, there it is again, no worse for wear. And their voices hiss out across the sea on a calm night. ‘Sssooo hungry…’ they moan, and wise crews turn tail and set sail for warmer climates indeed…”
We don’t let him go on in this vein, because the Professor, a self-taught expert in whatever subject catches his fancy from day to day, never knows when to stop, and his story’s not much better than Carlos’. Believe me, once you’ve spent a while in the Rat King Tavern, it takes a certain kind of story to stand out. I, however, have something special. I thump my mug upon the tabletop, and proclaim, “Keep your Dutchmen and your zombies, your Mariners and white whales. For I once saw the Sainted Pirate Nicholas, and in no person no less.”
Now that gets a chorus of snorts and rude comments, seeing as how the Sainted Pirate Nicholas is the tallest of tales, the must dubious of rum-soaked myths, the biggest load of parrot droppings. It’s a monumentally bold claim indeed to invoke him. I’ve set the bar high indeed, and now I must deliver. A new round is poured, and I begin…
It was roughly a dozen years ago, back before Burnbeard Harry gave up the open seas to take on governorship of our fair island under the tender auspices of the Silent Lords, back when you could make a damned fine living if you were part of a good crew. I was serving as a general sailor and part-time carpenter aboard the Golden Cyclops, a two-masted Sidhe schooner captained by Charles Bloodworthy, who had well-earned his name by that point, infamous for leaving few survivors in his terrible wake. We’d had a splendid summer ranging up and down the Emerald Sea, preying upon the troll jewel merchants out of Avalon, the gnomish spice traders of the Zurich desert, and of course the regular passenger vessels between Faerie and Earth. Oh yes, ‘twas a fine summer indeed. We were nearing the end of our season, looking forward to wintering right here on this island, or possibly heading for sunnier shores. There wasn’t a man among us that wouldn’t be rich when we made landfall, and broke by the time the northern ice cracked several months later. I myself had earned a healthy share after we captured an elven frigate full of silk and gold and delicate sugar candies, a cargo that never made it to fine Xanadu.
We were feeling fat and happy and full of ourselves. Even Captain Bloodworthy was in a good mood, ordering an extra ration of spiced rum to keep the merriment going. That should have been our first indication that things couldn’t last, for he had a legendary temper, and flogged a man most every Tuesday whether anyone deserved it or not, and only our continued successes kept us from mutiny. But I digress. I remember the day well, for the sun hung hot and heavy over the horizon, and I was up on the poop deck performing minor repairs upon a railing damaged in the previous engagement. I’ll admit we’d pretty much been lulled into a sense of security, for weren’t we the fiercest, toughest band of rogues to sail the seas that season? Oh yes, and pride goes before the fall. For at our moment of greatest content, a shape loomed against the sun, a deadly sloop casting a dour silhouette onto our good humor. Jack Keeneye, up in the crow’s nest, was the first to give the call, “Ship ahoy!” and we scrambled to ready stations as we awaited more information. Stay and fight, or turn and flee? That was the only question, for back then, there were only predators and prey out there, where no greater authority could see you. If indeed we could take them, be they fellow pirates or a late-season trader, we would. If the odds didn’t favor us … well, we hadn’t gotten this far by being stupid now, had we? But even as we considered our options, Jack’s next words came high with terror. The panic in his voice chilled us all, for he was a steady type with ice water in his veins, the sort to stare Death in the face and laugh. “Gods save us, it’s the North Pole!”
The North Pole. Such an innocuous name for such a legendarily feared ship. Just like now, everyone knew someone who claimed they knew someone who’d seen it. A bold red ship of unknown origins, it always struck from your blind spot, on your tail before you knew it. Captained by the Sainted Pirate Nicholas, an immense, white-bearded figure who judged everyone by some perverse scale of worthiness and punished the wicked mercilessly. Crewed by demons, or pygmies, or cannibals, or zombie monkeys–on that note the stories differed, but they were always described as an implacable, unstoppable swarm. The ship’s name was emblazoned on the sides in bold, bright glittering paint, reflecting the sun so you could see it from miles away. It flew the skull and crossbones, but this skull wore a distinctive white hat, much like an ominous jester’s crown with a single tail. You saw that flag, you knew who was coming. And from all those stories, one thing was absolutely certain:
No ship had ever won a battle against the North Pole. The Shrieking Banshee had vanished, leaving behind one half-mad cabin boy on a lifeboat to tell a gibbering tale of monsters and vengeance. Queen Bridget’s Wrath escaped, but only after throwing overboard everything that would slow their passage, including half the crew. And as for Amelia’s Ghost…well, when they found that ship drifting without a single soul on her, the discoverers burned her on the spot, not even daring to salvage so much as a single coin. Not after they read the last entry in the logbook, which was penned in a hurry, and broke off in a splotch of red.
Bloodworthy was not about to let his ship join the doomed ranks of those I’ve listed above. He immediately cried for us to heave to and flee, but the crew was a step ahead, already leaping into motion, choosing flight over fight. We prodded the Golden Cyclops to life with an urgency born of absolute terror. Though we caught the wind through sheer dumb luck, though we tossed overboard the heaviest of our cargoes and supplies—my heart breaks at the treasures we discarded, and though we did our damnedest, it was all in vain. We maintained the chase by an hour or two, but the North Pole was swifter; whether by ship’s design or dark magic or the will of a perverse god, I couldn’t say.
We knew the end was upon us when the first of the cannonballs soared past, so close that it chipped splinters from the railing I’d so recently repaired. The second fell low and short into the ocean, but the third smashed into the deck not far from me, only chance and my own quick reflexes saving me from grievous injury. Solid glass, the cannonballs were, frosted like window panes in winter, and where they hit, ice briefly appeared before melting away. Another flew into the fore mast, where glass and wood shattered, creating a deadly storm of sharp-edged shrapnel; I heard screams from those who hadn’t moved swiftly enough. I was thankful we hadn’t gotten the full murderous broadside, but they wanted our ship and our loot, not our lives.
By now, we were close enough to the North Pole to hear the bellowed cry of its master. “Surrender your ship, you rascals! Yo ho ho!” We were still a good distance away, but it was as if Nicholas himself was standing by my shoulder, shouting in my ear.
“Never!” declared Bloodworthy, and he commanded us to turn and fight, to give those bloody bastards everything we had. But I knew, as he knew, as every one of us knew, that if it came to a battle, we were already lost. We’d sacrificed all of our advantages in our attempt to outrun our foes. But we were pirates, damn it! Merciless, relentless predators of the Emerald Sea. We’d taken dwarven warships, werewolven frigates, even an ogrish dreadnaught, albeit one crippled by a storm. Not to mention the dozens of mundane vessels from Earth and Arcadia which had fallen to our strength and wiles.
You know–there we were, convinced of our imminent deaths, fully believing in the fearsome reputation of our pursuer, and when it all came down to the wire, we still hoped we might prevail in a straight fight. Such was our pride, such was our confidence, and let me tell you, it didn’t do a damned bit of good. Because in the twinkling of an eye, or so it seemed, while we were still turning to starboard to give the North Pole some whatfor of our own eight- and twelve-pounders, that accursed ship drew right up against us, so close I could have spit and hit their rigging. With bloodcurdling screams, its crew tossed over lines; as fast as we cut them away, they threw more, securing the two ships together. We never even got off a single shot from the cannons before a horde of tiny men, barefoot and agile as can be, all clad in an unsettling selection of red and green motley, swarmed over the sides of the Golden Cyclops and began to lay waste to us.
Lest you think we were slow, or lazy, or just plain incompetent, I assure you, there wasn’t a man among us unblooded in battle, or ignorant in the ways of naval warfare. No, I tell you without a shadow of a doubt that the North Pole was quicker than a thought, more maneuverable, able to slice through the waters with mind-boggling speed. Had we tried fighting from the start, perhaps we’d have stood a chance, but once we set to running, our fate was sealed. I understand that now. To this day, part of me is secretly glad it turned out as it did, for here I am alive to tell the story. But of the others, of Captain Bloodworthy, and the Golden Cyclops, and the rest of the crew? Listen closely, and take a drink, for such a tale is not for sober men.
The Sainted Pirate Nicholas’ men were among us in a flash, carrying not pistols and cutlasses and knives, but clubs and ropes and nets. They leapt between us, dove under us, entangled our legs and sent us crashing to the ground. They clobbered and dazed us, dropping from the rigging without warning to ride us to the ground. Now, we all had experience at fighting men, and man-shaped creatures, and things larger than men. Most of us could even handle ourselves against the shorter races, but nothing in all our years had prepared us for fighting these… all I can think to call them is elves. But not the graceful, tall, terrifyingly beautiful Sidhe that so often sailed these seas, from whom Bloodworthy had stolen the Golden Cyclops in the first place. These were tiny, depraved, misshapen things, as akin to the Fae as monkeys are to us. Distant relatives, perhaps, or sorcery-twisted mockeries, nimble and quick and as good with their feet as with their hands. What realm could have spawned such creatures, I’ll never know, but we were wholly unready for their mischievous onslaught. Their outfits were festooned with Hell’s own bells, which jingled maddeningly as they tore among us, beating us senseless until everyone from Captain Bloodworthy himself down to the youngest cabin boy was tangled in the nets and helpless. Our cuts and bruises were legion, for the elves hadn’t been gentle in the least in subduing us, and we’d done quite a number on our own fellows in the confusion. I was gratified to see more than a few of our opponents sporting wounds as well; we hadn’t been completely outclassed. And as we lay there at their mercy, the captain of the North Pole stepped aboard.
The Sainted Pirate Nicholas. How can I explain him? No one knows where he came from, or why he does what he does. There are so few survivors, and so many conflicting tales, it’s impossible to pick out the truth. Even his name invokes questions, such as where or how he’d earned it, whether it’s true or ironic, a title or a description. Some folks claim he was a bishop of some sort back on Earth, or perhaps a nobleman, who’d lost his fortune or family to pirates, and so he set sail on a quest for vengeance. Some say he’s a seasonal spirit, who summers in the Emerald Sea before going home during the winter to take care of his other duties. And more than a few folks swear he’s actually the Devil stepping out of Hell to take an active hand in affairs. He only preys on pirates, that much we know, stalking them the way we would a fine merchant vessel. And there he was, as real as you or me.
He was a large man, barrel-chested and taller than any of us by a head, with a magnificent, bushy white beard. He was dressed in the finest of clothes, a blood-red outfit with black sash and white trim, and heavy black boots, all topped off with a magnificent red tricorn hat with a white feather. On most men, it might have looked downright silly, but he carried himself with such a presence, imposing and controlling, that to laugh was unthinkable. A gaudy red-beaked parrot flapped along behind him, coming to perch on one shoulder, staring at us with baleful eyes. And the Sainted Pirate Nicholas, in all his glory, looked upon us, and chuckled with dark humor. “Stand them up, boys,” he commanded, and his men obeyed, untangling us several at a time. They made sure we were properly bound at ankles and wrists, and gagged, and they leaned us up against the railings and walls to await our fates. Blacktooth Thomas next to me wet himself under that man’s gaze, and I couldn’t blame him in the least.
Captain Bloodworthy remained defiant to the last, spitting out curses that would have singed your nose hairs, until they finally gagged him as well. I breathed a sigh of relief. We were already at the mercy of a man not known for it. Why anger him further? At least now, a perversely curious part of me thought, we’d find out just what had happened to all the others before us.
“Yo ho ho ho,” laughed Nicholas, his booming chuckle an almost physical assault upon our senses. “My dear lads of the Golden Cyclops, I know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. I have a list, you see, and I’ve checked it more than twice. And I’m afraid that of all the fine crews I’ve visited this season, you lot may actually be the naughtiest.” His heavy black boots thudded against the deck as he walked along the line his men had made of us, looking into each of our faces with knowing blue eyes, as deep and implacable as the sea itself. “Oh yes. Murder, pillage, thievery, rape. I don’t think you lot have overlooked a single crime in your collective exploits. For shame, lads. For shame.”
“String ‘em from the yardarm!” squawked the red-beaked parrot that rode his shoulder. “Rawwwk! Naughty!”
“Hush yourself, Rudolph,” he told the parrot fondly. “Now then. Whatever shall we make of you scoundrels?” He paused in front of Billy the Tall, considering him soberly. “I know what you did with that barmaid,” he said with disapproval. “And her with a child to feed. And I know how you cheat at cards, and how you haven’t told a solid truth since you were six.” He shook his head, and I felt for Billy then, even though I’d always suspected he was a cheat and a liar, for all that he tried to act like everyone’s friend. “Naughty!” And thus Nicholas moved on down the line, reciting a litany of sins ripped from the bleakest portions of our souls. Jack Keeneye fainted when Nicholas exposed the fact that he liked to bugger young boys in the dead of night.
What were my sins? A petty lot compared to most. I became a pirate for the treasure and the adventure, and I was willing to live dangerously to get what I wanted. I’d never killed anyone who wasn’t trying to kill me first, and I’d always tried to treat women with courtesy and respect. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because while I might have been a veritable babe in the woods compared to some of my erstwhile comrades, we were all lily-white innocents compared to our leader. Nicholas spent a long, long time staring into the mad eyes of Captain Bloodworthy, and when at last he spoke, it was in a low tone that hinted at perverse impression.
“You, sir, are an overachiever in this misbegotten band of miscreant mariners,” he declared. “My God, is there anything you haven’t done or tried to do? Why, that one night in Xanadu alone… You are a reprehensible, shameless, God-forsaken, disgusting scoundrel of the highest order!” His voice rose with each word, delivering the last word in an ear-ringing bellow that rattled the decks and our heads. “You, sir, are NAUGHTY!” And it was like a judgment from on high, smacking us all in its wake. “Coal for you!” he informed Bloodworthy severely.
I will never forget how the Sainted Pirate Nicholas ripped off Bloodworthy’s gag, nor how he produced handfuls of black rocks from a pocket, forcing our captain to gorge himself on lumps of coal. The black dust flew everywhere as Bloodworthy choked on his final meal. It was on his hands, his face, his clothes. Tears of pain and outrage left gruesome streaks on his cheeks in their wake. And once Nicholas felt Bloodworthy had eaten his fill, on went the gag again, forcing the man’s cheeks to bulge, coal still trapped in his mouth. It was almost a mercy after that when they threw him overboard, still bound at the wrists and ankles. Our captain never had a chance, not against the wrath of the Sainted Pirate Nicholas; as we watched him sink forever into the abyss of the Emerald Sea, we feared for our own fates.
“There’s for your captain, the worst of a bad lot,” declared Nicholas. “As for the rest of you sorry villains, let me tell you what happens next. If you’re naughty, you can choose a quick death, and be at the mercy of whatever power you believe in, or you can let me choose the nature of your punishment. I promise you, whatever I choose shan’t be easy or fun, and it could last weeks, months, even years, but it’ll still beat Bloodworthy’s sorry end.”
I shuddered to think of the way in which he’d dispatched the captain, and thought for a moment that maybe a quick death might not be so bad after all. At least there you knew where you stood. A few of the others likely had the same thought. Jack Keeneye, for one, wouldn’t be too popular if he survived and word got out about his proclivities. (What goes on between grown men on a ship is between them and the rats, and that’s the last I’ll say on that, but boys? Even pirates need some standards.) And so Nicholas gave us that moment of painful consideration, before starting at one end of the line with the quartermaster, Karl “Leech” Litch, who stood in command with the demise of the captain. Karl choose punishment, and Nicholas nodded, whispering to him before moving on. Apparently, we weren’t to know of each other’s sentences until we’d selected our own.
Now, the vast majority did choose punishment, but there were a few who decided they’d take their chances with their makers. True to his word, Nicholas made it quick, his men cutting their throats and shoving them over the side rapidly with frightening efficiency and an utter lack of malice to their swift movements. Jack Keeneye went that way, as did Billy the Tall, Hookhand Peter, and Rizzo the ship‘s cook. I wondered what made them fear the thought of punishment so, but I for one preferred to live, so when my turn came around, I boldly informed Nicholas I’d take whatever he had lined up for me.
He clapped me on the shoulder, and met my eyes for a moment, as if once again reading my soul. “As piratical scum go, you’re vaguely tolerable. I may have a use for you.” His tone was almost warm, though I could hear the iron beneath it. I’d accept what he had to offer, and like it, or else. He moved on, gathering the rest of the decisions. Wonder of wonders, one person amongst the entire crew was actually deemed “nice” by the fearsome Nicholas, and that was little Gideon, a ship’s boy we’d permanently borrowed from an English frigate some months back.
“You’re too good a lad to be in this profession,” said Nicholas with a mixture of sorrow and concern. “You’ve kept a clean soul, and for that I reward you.” He handed Gideon, who was all kinds of baffled and relieved, a small sack of coins, and a sealed envelope. “I’ll give you safe passage to London, and that letter of introduction there will get you into one of their finest schools. You’ll have a chance to grow up and lead a virtuous life.” He chuckled. “Of course, if you squander my gift, and turn out naughty after all, I’ll know and come back for you…”
Gideon turned pale and nodded vigorously, affirming that he’d do his very best. I was glad, as he was a good kid who would have died horribly through his own soft-heartedness had he stayed with us. Some folks just don’t have the stomach for this profession. But then it was time to find out what Nicholas planned to do with the rest of us. We all held our breath as he turned to look at the crew of the Golden Cyclops. “Men, you serve a new master now, and you’ll do so until you’ve atoned for your multitude of sins!” he announced. Without further ado, he threw out his hands, showering us with a cloud of sparkling dust. All around me, those men who hadn’t chosen death twisted in agony, their bodies compacting and reshaping, bones snapping and skin growing taut. It was grotesque, impossible, hideous; it took me a long minute of watching the others transform before I realized I alone wasn’t changing.
Before I could catch my astonished breath, it was over, and my former shipmates had joined the ranks of Nicholas’ men, a whole new host of tiny elf-creatures wriggling free of their now too-large bonds. As I wondered what would become of me now that I’d seen this dark truth, Nicholas stepped over.
“You’ve led a decent enough life. For you,” he said, “I have something different. You won’t join my crew like the rest. Instead…” He laughed, the merry sound shivering me to the soul, and continued. “I ban you from ever setting sail again. You’re landlocked now, my boy, and you’ll spend the rest of your life warning people about me. Tell them exactly what happens to the wicked, like your former captain. Tell them of the horrible fate that befalls the naughty… and do tell them of what happens to the pure of heart. I choose you to spread the message to your fellows, that they might know what it means to meet the Sainted Pirate Nicholas.”
I nodded, too awestruck and fear-ridden to do anything more, and he took a step back. “If you break this deal, I’ll know,” he said, voice full of dark promise. “And I’ll find you wherever you go. Next time, I won’t be so merciful.” He threw his head back, and once more bellowed out a resounding, “Yo, ho ho ho!” He snapped his fingers, and in the twinkling of an eye, I found myself sprawled on the shores of this very island, where I’ve been ever since. And you know the rest, how I make my living as a carpenter by day, and make the rounds of the taverns at night, and maybe I don’t tell this story nearly as often as I should, for it’s a rotten fish to try and swallow, but I swear on my mother’s grave, it’s all true.
But I tell you, my friends… sometimes, when I listen to the sea crashing, and I smell the salt air, I dream of the joy of the open seas, and I yearn for a life aboard ship once more. Maybe not as a pirate, but as a merchant, or maybe even just to travel. And if the Sainted Pirate Nicholas should come for me as he promised … well, how bad can it be to sail with him for a spell?
But enough of that. I think I’ve earned another drink, and that’ll be my last for the night. Say Barney, isn’t it your turn to tell a story?