I awoke that morning to the sound of the awaking men, my fellow crew mates. They were reading for the day yet to come and the breakfast which was hot and waiting on the table in the center of our quarters. Though the living quarters were considered semi-private, each sailor had their own bunk, small shelf, window, and a curtain which separated the bunk from the common area of the quarters. Despite the semi-privacy of your bunk there were still two score men to a cabin. I heard the familiar sound of my close friend below me as I opened the outer curtain to my bunk.
"Mornin' to ya laddy. Eatin's are a ready if ya like." Raven sat half dressed, and groggy, on his lower bunk.
"Yea, I think I shall have some Raven."
Not a terribly unusual name for a pirate, yet not one he chose for himself. As per recruiting standard, he was drunk at the time of acquisition and had been for some time before. When he had finally overcome the battle with the lingering alcoholic effects he could not remember his true origin or name. As a stout and brave sailor, he quickly took a fondness for scouting in the crows nest. He had a sharp eye and quick wit, thus we chose to name him appropriately.
After eating I set about my normal duties aboard the ship. Since I was only a lad of fifteen, my duties as prescribed by the captain were as follows; to watch and understand the orders given. To understand the tactics and reasoning of that command. And lastly, to observe the crew and their behavior, especially on their reactions to those orders.
* * *
Later that day we had met with a tax galley. My captain, a man of tall stature, strong and sturdy build, stood aloft the deck, his sword drawn, shouting his commands above the volleying cannon fire. The sent of spent gunpowder filled the air and showed it's eerie form in spirit with the wind. The air was filled with smoke-grey souls emanating from the cannons as they fired and reaped the French sailors lives.
The captain yelled above the screams of the cannons, "Prepare for another broadside maties. That booty 'll be ours yet!"
The French ship smoked from the charred and burning wood where our previous broadside had hit her, leaving her half broken. The captain knew, as well as any pirate that even the strongest of ships could not survive a strong and well aimed volley of more than one good broadside, yet he had an odd sort of strategy which I had just begun to understand.
"Ready" the sword was raised and gleamed for a brief instant in the high mid day sun. Like lightning it came crashing down, "Fire!"
The wicks were set fire and they themselves sounded as if they unleashed a wicked laugh as they knew what was to come. With a great explosion came the deafening explosion of wood as the main mast of the once great French galley splintered into thousands of screaming arrows, flying in every direction. The sail and mast came crashing down. The majority of the mast fell straight down and caused the French ship to tilt and spill quite a bit of her crew. The greater part of her crew fell instantly, cut millions of times by tiny wooden needles. The more fortunate were thrown from her bows by the rocking of the great explosion, suffering a less lingering death. All life aboard seemed to end as quickly and silently as one could blow a dandelion in the wind.
"Run her up along side helmsman."
"Aye, aye, cap'n". A quick spin of the wheel followed the order, for the helmsman knew the captains strategy well.
"Her booty is ours for sure now" Said the captain.
With the ropes tied and the planks lowered, we leapt upon the galley as cats upon sleeping mice. All that remained of her once scurrying and adept crew was a writing mass of human suffering. What few sailors lay moaning were swiftly helped by my captains crew by a quick surgery to their chest.
"Go below 'an clean out what dogs remain a hidin'."
"Aye, aye cap'n." A score or so of hearty men ran down below to the depths awaiting them, swords drawn and ready.
I walked among the somewhat still writhing sailors horrified at the sight of the battered and broken crew. I was indeed still quite young and had not seen death of this nature, little of death had I seen at all. Below, the meeting of swords could be heard echoing in the decks below, but what drew my attention as quickly as a bolt of lightning on a clear day, was the broken body of the captain. His shirt remained unexplainably white where his ruffled kerchief was placed, despite the numerous powder burns and splinters upon the rest of his still bleeding and broken frame. There I noticed, gleaming from the high sun, a bright silver cross. With a hasty look to my right and left I decided to take it as mine. I reached for it with a hand which shook as much as if I were with a woman for the first time again. I had almost reached my mark when I was grabbed sternly around my wrist by the dying captain. The face of death itself lifted slowly to stare me face to face. The eyes were a blazing red, that freshly cut wound kind of red, the pupils around them an unnatural white, and black circles lay below them, as dark as night itself. I felt something horribly unnatural in his stare, something worse than death. My head swam in fear and my legs led me, for I knew not where to run.
When I awoke from my panic I found myself in the hallway to the officers quarters. I made my way to a cabin who's personal light still flickered softly next to a still open log book. The bed lay unkept as if the owner had just risen. The book lay open on the desk as if it were never closed, as if it might cause one to forget to write the experiences of that day. I heard the sound of approaching footfalls, the heavy booted feet of my crew mates. Wondering what secret money, jewelry, or treasure maps the book might hold within, I quickly grabbed it up and swiftly made it disappear under my shirt, before my inevitable discovery.
The voice of Raven called to me, as he peeked around the corner, "Were unlodin' th' booty now. She's to be sunk after, as usual. Will ya be joinin' us?"
"In a moment Raven," I said, only turning by head half around so the prize which lay hidden beneath my shirt faced away from discovery. He nodded, showed me a quick smile, and disappeared again. I checked if the book was secure for the journey back to my cabin and made my way.
* * *
That night I lay in my bunk, restless starring out at the stars. There was an odd uneasiness I felt within myself, this I attributed to my hunger. Apples, recently acquired from the tax galleys hold, sounded as if they could do the trick.
Once below in the dark of the hall, I lit the lantern which hung on a hook near the entrance to the ever dark hold at the bottom of the ship. Within the hold I would find my prize. Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs I heard an awful scratching noise, a sound not unlike claws digging within the ancient wood of the ship. I paused. "Hello?" I called. I heard, nor saw, any response among the numerous barrels and crates of the ships store. I waited a few moments then proceeded with caution to collect the object of my affection.
I found the proper barrel and decided from the looks of the fifteen or so apples remaining that the one closest to the bottom would be best.
With my right hand I held the lantern above the deck, outside of the barrels opening, and with my free hand I sought the object of my hunger. I reached in and as my hand closed over the apple I felt an incredible cold pass through me, as if I were injected with ice water. The icy waters creeped out to my hand and up my arm to pass through my body. I withdrew my arm and grabbed at my now blood drenched wrist in horror as it revealed to me a bite, not unlike that of a rat, exceedingly close to my vein. In the falling light I saw it, the thing which bit me. Indeed a rat, a rat not unusual in size, shape or color, but in feel. It's eyes pierced me as if he ran me through by just looking at me. The light fell ever so slowly, as if time had slowed. I was held paralyzed all the while by the twisted rats stare. I watched the darkness slowly consume the predator and felt my blood squirming its way through my fingers. When the light no longer shown on the rat its eyes glowed an unnatural red.
With the shatter of the falling lantern the darkness and pain came. I quickly stomped out the small fire, but the pain lingered on. Fearing a second attack from the beast and wholly disturbed by the affair I fled back to my bunk. I swiftly wrapped the wound, the pain and bleeding eventually slowed to a dull throbbing, and I fell into a disturbing and strange sleep.
* * *
I awoke later with an unendurable hunger, the kind which feels more like a dagger in your gut than an actual hunger. A demon hand grabbing at my gut, as if it had chosen me to feed upon.
"Well, mornin' to ya," Raven called from the table. "Just in time fer lunch, have some?" Raven gestured to the bowl in the center of the table.
"Yes please," I responded weakly. A readied plate made it's way my direction. As I hopped from my bunk I hit the floor rather unsteadily. I sat at the table and proceeded to eat the stew. The food tasted not dry, or sour, as it usually did, but not unlike mud and felt as if it had the makings of clay for consistency. I spat it out as quickly as it had passed my lips.
"Are ya fellin' well lad? You look a little pale."
The uneasiness in my stomach and the dizziness in my head reinforced my answer, "Nay. I do not."
"Better ya get back t' bed then laddy." A soft pat landed on my shoulder, "I'll fetch the doctor."
* * *
I awoke later, my bunk curtain drawn closed, as well as the windows curtain. In a fevered half-awake state I overheard voices.
"I don't quite know what it is. It's not like any sickness I know. I redressed a wound he had on his wrist, but despite the discolored scabbing, there is no explanation for his condition. I just don't know what to tell ya cap'n."
I gave in what little energy I was spending and the fever graciously took over and sent me to an oddly peaceful sleep.
* * *
I awoke later still and peeked out my window. I found it to be well into the night. I felt much better now than I had ever felt before. Much more so than even my healthiest of days. I unwrapped my wrist to find something wholly unreal. The bite was gone, not scabbed over, not bruised, but gone entirely, as if it never was there.
I decided to believe it was just a dream, a dream of fetching the apple and of the strange rat. How else could it be explained?
I was wide awake now and felt fine. I decided to seek adventure, so I opened my window shade and grabbed the book I had acquired from the tax galley. What I understood from the cover was that it was not the captains log at all, but the ships surgeons log. As I proceeded to read it, to my surprise there was no hidden gold, no jewelry, not even a map, in fact there was only one thing I did recognize. A single repeated word scattered here and there through the book. A word which when read, summoned death himself. I read it and felt his chill claws grabbing at my back. I felt the burning stare of the rat in the barrel. I felt the icy chill of my wounded wrist. The word I recognized was "Vampire."
In reading this one word I knew what must be done. I made my way up to the deck, and cast the book adrift in a sealed chest, hurling it as far from the ship as I could. I then made my way slowly downstairs to restart the fire I had once put out.
Copyright Eric Stryker 1988, 1997, 2001