The following stories were part of a “story a day” project that Steve worked on. They are among the first stories ever to be written about the Blue Kingdoms world.
The stories are: “The Black Cliff Pirates,” “The Tower Princes,s” and “The Captive.” Each is followed by a brief section of author’s notes, which were written for the as-yet-unpublished collection. They were posted to the original Blue Kingdoms web page in 2007.
THE BLACK CLIFF PIRATES
— A Blue Kingdoms story —
The Black Cliff Pirates sailed out of the sunrise, taking the overburdened merchantman vessel by surprise. The carrack sat low in the water; she moved slowly, far more suited to hugging the shorelines between ports than crossing open waters.
Indeed, port-hopping was what the fat, slow ship–The Bullaine–usually did. It was only this last leg of the journey that required a short skip across the straits separating the Coraltooth Archipelago from the Southern Fringe islands. The Bullaine’s captain was always nervous about this part of the trip, and the Black Cliff Pirates were the reason why.
The pirates had a fearsome reputation–even in an area known for brigands and freebooters. Worst among them was the brigandine Scarlet Skull and her captain Red Jack Sirus.
When the Bullaine’s lookout spotted the Skull, the carrack’s captain immediately heaved to. They were too far from shore to make port, and too slow to run. The captain hoped that by giving up he might spare the lives of his crew, even if the pirates took his cargo and ship.
It proved a vain hope.
The Skull’s pirates took the loot, burned the ship, and did what they pleased with the crew. What pleased them were all manners of torture and gruesome pastimes. In the end, the Skull’s wake ran red, severed heads decorated the tops of her masts, and entrails hung from the rigging.
The pirate captain merely laughed at the horror. He reveled in the fear of his victims and bathed in their blood.
The last thing the Bullaine’s captain saw was the grinning countenance of Red Jack Sirus — the bandage-swathed, rotting face of a ship captain who had been dead for a very, very long time.
This is the first of my Blue Kingdoms stories for the A Season of Fear: 101 Nights of Fright short story collection. The Blue Kingdoms setting is a fantasy world that Jean Rabe and I created during the spring and summer of 2002. A publisher we both worked for had sponsored a “Create a World” contest that year.
Neither Jean nor I had won that contest (We should have!), but while comparing notes at GenCon that summer, she and I discovered that we’d both submitted a pirate-based world. Our world ideas were so eerily alike, that if we hadn’t been old friends and co-workers, we might have suspected each other of stealing.
After having a good laugh about it, Jean and I decided to team up and began working on a combined bible for the world, with the idea that we’d pull together an anthology book and run some games or something. The book didn’t happen at the time–publishers being keen on neither anthologies nor pirates–but Jean and I both kept working on it.
As I cast around for ideas to keep my writing streak going, setting a story in the Blue Kingdoms seemed a good idea. And an undead pirate captain seemed a cool place to start.
It’s worth noting that this story was written in December 2002, before I’d even heard of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and well before the movie was released.
The story is a bit of a narrative gloss, following the style of Strangely Enough. Looking back on it now, I’m not thrilled with that style choice–though using it is probably one reason I kept the streak going as long as I did. Certainly, the same idea could be rewritten to achieve greater emotional impact.
Probably the inspiration for the story came from Alan Moore’s gruesome pirate tales in the classic Watchmen comic. The name “Red Jack” is inspired by Jack the Ripper, and Sirus (pronounced “Cyrus” but spelled more like the Dog Star) seemed the perfect name to cap the first two. The three words just go well together. I have no memory of where the ship name Bullaine came from, though I probably wanted something big, slow, and a bit dainty.
Flash forward nearly five years. Jean Rabe and I are finally pulling together our pirate anthology — Pirates of the Blue Kingdom — to be published in late spring by Popcorn Press (and now published by Walkabout Publishing). But despite the fabulously successful Depp movies released since we first came up with this idea, we still couldn’t get one of the big publishing houses to go for the idea.
Sometimes you just have to row to the beat of your own drummer.
— Stephen D. Sullivan
THE TOWER PRINCESS
— A Blue Kingdoms story —
The tower could only be seen in the light of the full moon. It stood on the rocky tor above the city of Darkharbor on the island of Thorntide. Legend said that the tower had been destroyed long ago, during the Second Wizard War–but people still saw it.
The land around the tower stood fallow, abandoned to the ghosts who once dwelt there. The locals avoided the place and advised visitors to their town to do the same. Many residents stolidly refused to even acknowledge the keep’s existence.
This puzzled Seamus, as the tower seemed quite obvious to him. It was, in fact, the reason he’d come to Darkharbor. Legends of the tower ran rampant throughout the Blue Kingdoms. The stories that most interested Seamus told of the fabulous treasure inside the mysterious keep.
Tales of a forgotten princess trapped in the ancient bastion weren’t of so much interest to him. Seamus was a freelance treasure finder by profession (“burglar” some called it), and far more intrigued by coin than the prospect of romance, marriage, or . . . other things.
As he approached the lonely hill, Seamus wondered why no one had plundered the tower previously. Or perhaps they had, which was why few people thought the place worth mentioning. Seamus frowned at the prospect.
Another feeling came over him as he crossed the blasted earth in front of the stone keep–a surge of electric anticipation, mingled with a vague uneasiness. The burglar scolded himself; such feelings were for amateurs. He approached the rotting wooden door. The handle felt cold, but it wasn’t not locked. Seamus frowned again; unplundered ruins were seldom so easily accessible.
The tower entryway debouched into a narrow room, with a winding stone stairway leading upward. Seamus checked briefly for hidden passageways, then–finding none–mounted the steps. The stairway was bleak and narrow. Mold and mildew plastered the stone walls, and the air felt damp and warm–despite the brisk Fall weather outside.
Seamus paused a moment and removed a glowstone from his pocket. The light in the stairway–light Seamus suddenly realized he didn’t know the source of–had grown too dim to continue safely. What he saw in the glowstone’s light didn’t comfort him. The walls had become altogether covered with lichens, fuzzy mold, and gently oozing slime. The stairway appeared more a fungal cavern than a winding corridor in a stone tower. The smell of the air had become appalling–a mix of ammonia and rotting vegetables.
Just as the burglar wondered if he could stand to go any further, the stairway opened up into a wide, circular room. The stench of decay vanished as he entered the chamber.
Seamus smiled. The kind of treasures he’d always dreamed of surrounded him. Rich tapestries hung on the walls. Lovingly crafted furniture–chairs, tables, desks, armoires–filled the room. An exquisite four-poster canopy bed rested against the far wall. He’d never get that out of the room of course, but, perhaps its silk curtains and bed setting. . . .
Hang on . . . Something lay on the bed–something large that shimmered like emeralds in the moonlight. And gold! Spun gold! No, wait . . . It was a body — the fabulously adorned body of a woman: the fabled princess!
Seamus dashed across the room to inspect this prize of prizes. With so much finery, she must certainly be wearing priceless jewelry as well! He held his breath as he approached the gold-and-emerald-clad body. His heart fluttered in his throat.
Astoundingly, he did not find just a pile of old bones–nor even a rotting corpse (as he had half-expected from the smell outside). Rather, the princess lay uncorrupted on her bier–as though she were merely sleeping, and not long dead. She was clad in a shimmering dress of green, gem-like scales. Golden jewelry twined like tiny snakes around her arms and at her throat. Hair as bright as spun gold fell over her pale, bare shoulders. Seamus let out a long, low sigh in appreciation of the princess’ undiminished beauty.
As he did, the woman on the silken sheets stirred and drew a breath. Her eyelids fluttered open, revealing emerald-green orbs set in ivory eyes. Slowly, gracefully, she sat up.
Seamus took a step back. His knees almost gave out. She was real! She was alive!
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, her voice like honey on a summer’s day.
The burglar tried to reply, but his voice caught in his throat. The only sound he made was a faint, hoarse, hissing.
The princess smiled and rose from the bed. She walked toward him, arms extended in welcome, her head slightly titled to one side. Her golden hair fell in streams over her alabaster shoulders. Seamus gazed into her sparkling emerald eyes.
Her ruby-red lips parted, and a slender, forked tongue darted out.
Seamus blinked and she was upon him, sinking her long fangs into his neck, injecting the venom that would make him her thrall.
As the world spun around him, Seamus found he didn’t care about treasure any longer. All he cared about was her.
The image of a lonely tower surrounded by mist stands out in my memory. I’m not sure if the story started with that image, or with the princess herself. In any case, I’d wanted to write another story set in the Blue Kingdoms–the fantasy world Jean Rabe and I created–for some time, and a story about a mysterious tower seemed a good opportunity.
Like many of the stories in this volume, this tale is written in a pseudo-Lovecraftian fashion. The style is a bit awkward, and it lends an aura of distance that I’m not sure is entirely appropriate to the spooky subject matter; it robs the story of some of its immediacy and impact.
For this volume, I’ve kept the tale largely as originally written. After all, this book is supposed to be about the work I did during those feverish nights of writing, not about how well I could rewrite that work later.
— Stephen D. Sullivan
— A Blue Kingdoms story —
The young woman writhed against the sharp rocks, her arms and legs bound in chains. Her mouth had been gagged–not with fine silk, as would have suited her station, but with rough sailcloth torn from the tattered rigging of the Scarlet Skull. Red Jack Sirus laughed at her muffled screams.
The undead pirate adjusted the girl’s bonds, making sure they would cut into her pale flesh ever so slightly. Then he stepped aboard his decaying skiff, and his crew rowed him back to the skull.
Tiny rivulets of blood formed on the woman’s skin and dripped into the surging water at her feet. She screamed, knowing that the blood would quickly attract sharks. Predators were common in this part of the sea–even more common in the wake of the Scarlet Skull. The sharks loved Red Jack for the trail of carnage in his ship’s wash.
The woman gazed desperately at the retreating skiff; Red Jack merely laughed–a terrible thing to behold. The bandages covering the pirate’s rotting face quivered as though alive, and the tatters of his dead skin shook like writhing worms. The woman, Laralee, screamed again, but the gag smothered most of it.
The water lapped at her ankles now; the tide was rising quickly.
The pirates reached their ship and stood at the rail, watching and waiting, gloating over Laralee’s terrible fate. A mist rose on the open waters beyond the red-sided brigandine. The fog crept around the ship, embracing its rotting timbers. Soon, the pirates and their awful captain began to vanish in the mist–a small mercy that Laralee hadn’t expected. She could still hear them, though, chuckling and jeering at her dreadful plight.
She rubbed her chains against the rocks, but it was no use. Though badly rusted, the links were still far stronger than the glasslike obsidian that formed the cliffs on this tiny isle. Laralee sobbed, without meaning to, and blinked back tears. That she would die here she didn’t doubt. That wasn’t the worst of it, though.
Laralee looked around, hoping beyond hope that she would not see anything. A gray shark fin cut through the fog thirty yards away. That wasn’t what made her heart sink, though. Much closer, a small trail of bubbles broke the surface of the dark, greenish brine. Laralee struggled more, and screamed as loudly as she could. With the gag, though, it was no use.
The bubbles grew closer and larger. A shape loomed up out of the rising surf–the shape of a man.
Tindalin smiled at her, his blue eyes flashing even in the fog-shrouded semi-darkness. He winked and put a finger to his lips, signaling that she should keep silent.
“Nnn!” Laralee said, her eyes pleading.
“Don’t worry,” Tindalin whispered. “I’ll have you free in a moment.” He looked magnificent, even sopping wet. His long blond hair clung to his neck and shoulders. His muscles rippled beneath his sleeveless chainmail shirt. His enchanted spiked mace, Morning Glory, hung from his bejeweled belt. Leather sandals, tied up to his calves, adorned his feet.
He moved quickly across the sharp rocks separating them, making no more noise than a fish skimming the water’s surface.
“Nnn!” Laralee repeated, but Tindalin did not understand.
He reached her and with iron-thewed muscles sundered the chains that bound her. He pulled the rough gag from her mouth and pressed his lips to hers. “Don’t worry,” he whispered as they parted.
“I-it’s a trap!” she sobbed.
The fog surrounding the Scarlet Skull parted and the ship’s terrible captain gestured toward the rocks where Tindalin and Laralee stood.
A fireball streaked from the gun-port of the ship toward the doomed couple. The magic shattered the tiny promontory, leaving nothing but shards of black glass and greasy smoke behind.
Beneath his blood-drenched bandages, Red Jack Sirus smiled.
Third time’s the charm when visiting the Blue Kingdoms in A Season of Fear: 101 Nights of Fright. This is my favorite of the trio when it comes to narrative style and pacing. Groping around after finding the idea for “The Tower Princess,” this lovely little tale popped into my head.
Probably it was inspired by the legends of Perseus and Andromeda–that’s Clash of the Titans for you Harryhausen fans. The maiden chained to the rock is an old sod in both mythology and pirate stories. The twist here, of course, is that it’s all a plot by Red Jack to kill the hero. Hope you didn’t see that coming.
Jack had been on my mind since his debut earlier in the writing streak. I wanted to give him something else dastardly to do. So, there you go.
Whether this was really the end of star-crossed lovers Tindalin and Laralee remains to be seen.
Unfortunately, this is the last of the Blue Kingdoms stories that I wrote during the project.
Don’t despair, though. If you want more, there’s always Pirates of the Blue Kingdoms and my upcoming fantasy masterpiece, A Reliable Dragon, to look forward to. Chances are, there’ll be more Blue Kingdoms stories in the future as well. (I’ve even bought a handful of domain names in preparation.)
— Stephen D. Sullivan, 2007