On a faraway, faraway island
Lies a treasure of infinite worth.
But guarding it closely forever
Looms a being as old as the earth.

Its body’s as big as a boulder,
And armored with shimmering scales.
Even the mountain tops tremble when
It thrashes it’s seven great tails.

Its eyes tell a story of terror,
They gleam with an angry red flame
As it timelessly watches its riches.
And the Dragon of Death is it’s name.

Its teeth are far sharper than daggers.
It can tear hardest metal to shreds.
It has seven mouths filled with these weapons,
For it’s neck swells to seven great heads.

Each head is as fierce as the other,
Each head breathes a fiery breath.
And any it touches must perish,
Set ablaze by the Dragon of Death.

All who have foolishly stumbled
On the Dragon of Death’s golden cache
Remain evermore on that island,
Nothing left of their bodies but ash.

Jack Prelutsky

The Dümplom sailed towards the Forbidden Island, trailed by the Thresher, Thunderer, and Sea Lash. After two days of sailing along this route, the Sea Lash hailed them and pulled alongside. The captain, Deathshead Ellie, came aboard to voice her concerns.

“You know we’re sailing strait into an Imperial blockade, right?” she said. “The whole South-Pacific Armada lies this way. They’ve even got a bloody Carrier!”

“Carrier?” Caddis asked.

“What’s it carrying?” Thaduk added.

“Dragons! It’s the bloody-friggan HMS Potentate hauling a detachment of the bloody Aerial Corps! Four-hundred feet long, five decks, five-hundred guns, and a pod of dragons…and that’s just one ship!”

The officers of the Dümplom seemed confused, and Leo, their great font of knowledge and information on all manner of random topics, was nowhere to be found — belowdecks with some ladyfriend or another presumably. Caddis messaged Rummy and Thaduk to conference without letting Ellie know how little they knew. None of them, for instance, actually knew why the Forbidden Island was forbidden, though it was clear that is what the blockade was enforcing. Thaduk recalled a bit, from his father’s days as a soldier, about the Aerial Corps. He informed them that the Empire, like most major world powers, employed dragons as air-support for both ground and naval forces, typically with a formation of multiple dragons, each with teams of riflemen and bombers aboard.

Caddis had heard enough it seemed. “Right, on to Moonplum then…” he said, not wanting to risk one flying-ship and three small junks against an entire Imperial fleet and who-knows-how-many dragons. Zarina layed in a new heading, north-west by west, away from the island and on towards their home.

Around mid-day the following day, Rummy spotted several dark specks in the air south of them. They took turns passing the spyglass back and forth to observe the dragons, seven of them, flying in formation, including two white-scaled heavyweights, each nearly as large as one of the Junks. The dragons remained in sight for close to an hour, flying on a course parallel with theirs before veering back to the south and out of sight.

Two weeks passed with nothing to see save for the occasional breaching whale, and some late-spring storms. The small fleet stayed close together, living off the Dümplom’s stores, as the others had not been provisioned for a long voyage. Finally, Ekene came to Rummy, bearing news that, with feeding all four crews, they were down to about 10 days of rations, and still about four-thousand miles from Moonplum.

Rummy ordered half-rations for everyone. Caddis asked the shark-people swimming in their wake to fish for themselves, rather than continue throwing pigs overboard for them. Thaduk suggested that perhaps they could get the sharks to scout for larger game — another giant turtle or whale that they could use the replenish their stores.

The next day, the shark-folk reported a pod of orcas to the south. Some aggressive grumbling from Rummy about not wanting to fight multiple giant creatures with “Killer” in their name quickly nixed that idea. Two more days passed before they had their next siting — a massive, adult, bull blue-whale.

Caddis ordered harpoons loaded on all ballistae and all four ships spread out around the creature. The next time it breached, a flurry of harpoons were shot at it. Only two of the ten shots connected — one each from the Dümplom and the Sea Lash. Of course, no one on the crews were actually experienced whalers. The whale jerked away from the impacts, rising half out of the water and twisting, reeling both ships closer and landing with a massive wave that threatened to swamp the boats. As the whale tried to submerge, the cables pulled the Dümplom, causing it to lean far to starboard. Rummy shouted to the gunnery squads, and a full broadside was unleashed into the water, shredding through the colossal animal.

It wasn’t the cleanest kill in the world, but they were hungry. They sailed on, slowly, with Dümplom and Sea Lash dragging the carcass as the inexperienced butchers spent five days hacking up the whale and loading the ships with meat and blubber and the shark-men feasted from below. Finally, the whale, largely reduced to bare skeleton on the topside, rode lower and lower in the water, producing too much drag on the ships.

Before cutting the carcass free, Thaduk suggested that they should collect the whale’s penis and testes, as these were supposed to be aphrodisiacs. Since it seemed like it would make the demonic unicorn happy, everyone obliged. Sandara cast water breathing on several of the crew and Captain Caddis lead them down to collect the ten-foot-long phallus and each of the one-hundred-fifty pound testes.

While whale meat might not be a favorite choice, it was significantly better than living on half-rations for the rest of the voyage. Back on board, whale-penis in towe, Captain Caddis called all the ships to a celebration of their success. The ships were lashed together with boarding planks, allowing easy congress back and forth between them, cases of plum wine were brought out, and Caddis cooked an amazing stew from the whale’s genitals.

The party went on well into the night, and it soon became clear that Thaduk’s assessment of the penis’ aphrodisiac qualities were correct. The party soon devolved into a raging cross-ship orgy. Everyone, even those few crewmen who had refrained from eating the stew, was soon involved, consumed by an overwhelming, near-mystical need to couple with the nearest available partner. By morning most of the crew were passed out from their exertions, with only a few still fucking away until they too passed out.

It was…quite the bonding experience, topped off by a wave of transcendental bliss from Thaduk. Once everyone slept off their orgiastic exhaustion and hangovers, morale aboard all four ships was at an all-time high, with miraculously few awkward moments or recriminations.

A full week had passed since bagging the whale before they were fully underway at speed again. They continued on towards Moonplum, driven by magically consistent wind from the small fleets many spellcasters. Five days later they came upon another prize, a fat, Portuguese merchant caravel named the Jóia Maldito. The ship was roughly eighty-feet long, lateen-rigged, and armed defensively, with four cannons and a reinforced hull, clearly hoping to fend off lesser pirates with a show of strength, but no real threat to a force of their strength.

Caddis ordered the three junks to hang back. The Dümplom sailed forward, raising a flag of parley, hoping to make an easy catch of it with minimal violence. Flag of parley or no, the Jóia Maldito ran at the sight of the heavily armed, dark-sailed, bone-festooned warship. It was a fast ship, but the Dümplom could fly. It was no contest.

The Dümplom took to the air. Seeing the flying ship, sparkling with faerie-dust, flying the jolly rodger, and fronted by the skull of a gigantic bull, the crew of the Jóia Maldito abandoned ship. They cut their long-boats loose and dove overboard to a man, hoping to save their lives by leaving the prize behind. Soon, however, the water was red and frothing as the shark-people following the pirate fleet made a feast of the terrified sailors.

Caddis, Thaduk, and Rummy leaped down to the now empty caravel and were greeted by the sound of bleating. The hold was packed, wall to wall, with sheep. The captain’s cabin had a few valuables, but nothing overly impressive. The Dümplom put down and they called over one of the convicts they’d taken from Puerto Soledad, a self-proclaimed master forger named Anton Cardoso, to translate the ships logs. The logs informed them that the Jóia Maldito (which Cardoso translated as ‘the Damned Jewel’) was bound for the colony of Tauranga on northern New Zealand, there to trade sheep for spars and other goods to be sold at the port of Jakarta in the Dutch East Indies.

After some lengthy discussion, the officers of the Dümplom decided to take the Dümplom and the Jewel south to Tauranga to unload the sheep. They sent the Thresher, Thunderer, and Sea Lash on to Rickety’s Squibs, under Adriana’s command, and said they would meet up there after they had liquidated the otherwise useless, bleating cargo.

Again, in an effort to do things the easy way, they transferred all of their Portuguese-speaking crew to the Jewel, with Tilly as captain, with the intent of masquerading as merchants and simply selling off the sheep. They turned the ships south, with the Jewel in the lead and Dümplom trailing just within sight behind her. Six days later they arrived at the so-called ‘Bay of Plenty’.

While they had been hoping for a proper city or town, where they might pick up more sailors and supplies, Tauranga was a colony roughly the same size as Moonplum — maybe five-hundred souls. The village was perched on the shore, with docks for several fishing vessels, but no proper harbor able to support a ship. The area around the village was clear-cut forest, and the village itself was a cluster of Spanish-style houses around a central green in which sheep and horses were grazing, as well as fields of flax and potatoes, and several pig-sties.

Seeing the Jewel approach, the people of Tauranga all came out. Fishing boats were scrambled and the Jewel soon found itself surrounded by excited villagers asking for news from home and eagerly helping unload the hundreds of sheep. The crew they’d picked up in Puerto Soledad, while poor sailors and fighters, all turned out to be excellent liars. By nightfall the sheep were unloaded and the crew ashore, the people happily chatting with them. Fire pits were dug, sheep spitted and roasted, and a party was thrown to welcome the visiting ‘merchants’.

This all felt disturbingly familiar to Caddis, Rummy, and Thaduk.

As the party went on well into the night, Thaduk slipped off, returned to his unicorn form, and proceeded to mount all of the mares in the village. Caddis and Rummy, meanwhile, snuck over to where a great pile of wooden spars were stacked. After a brief discussion, they decided that they were more interested in obtaining food and recruits than joining in the never-ending Fed-ex quest that is merchantdom.

A few flasks of alchemists’ fire turned the pile of spars that was supposed to be their payment for the sheep into a bonfire…

To be continued…