https://www.artstation.com/artwork/D36PA

Black Ships Before Dawn

The full-body armor is simple as diamond. No horns or decorative swirls distract from its function. It exists to protect, not to entertain.

Colgrevance wipes gore out of a groove in his greaves. A bandmate splattered zombie on him the day before, and it’s taken the paladin all night to clean the cursed ichor from his gear.

He yawns, mouth staying open as his head bobs. “Wish I had a proper squire.”

A guardswoman pops her head into the tavern’s common room. “Sir, there’s three black ships sailing in to dock.”

“How long until dawn?” Colgrevance slips a heavy shield onto his left arm and picks up a longsword with his right. “How close are the ships?”

Shouts echo outside.

“Minutes maybe.” She fingers her spear. “And the ships are here.”

The paladin sighs and follows her out of the warm tavern, leaving his fine armor and sleeping bandmates behind.

The ships are all of a kind, three masts each and high decks fit for crossing any ocean. Lantern light in the hands of a few guards reveals hull and sails painted black as coal. No flags fly, no letters decorate, and their crews work in the dark.

“They could be anyone from anywhere.” The guardswoman gathers up a lit lantern and points her spear at the closest ship. “But I think they’re here with zombie labor.”

Shadows move about the ship’s deck and across its masts, too limber and aware to be zombies.

Colgrevance taps her chainmail-covered shoulder with the flat of his blade. “Go wake my bandmates, Echo.”

“Sir?”

“Tell them, ‘Be ready to repel invaders.’ ”

She hurries inside, and he strides to where several other guardsmen point spears at a fat man balancing on a plank connecting dock to ship.

“Ho there, friend.” The fat man hops onto steady ground. “I’m Pimping Jim, here to sell, buy, and entertain.” He lifts a patch off his left eye and blinks at the lantern held in a guard’s hand. “Is this place still run by the Tenter brothers? I don’t recognize the heraldic arms on your surcoats.”

Colgrevance steps in front of his guardsmen, sword loose in his hand. “Cherry Tenter fell in the water and got dragged down by a giant octopus. We killed his brother outside Luted Inn because he blamed us for Cherry’s clumsy footing.”

Pimping Jim taps the dock with a cane. “Ho ho, that’s a shame.” He rubs a fleshy chin. “Your symbol is a stringed instrument, a lute?”

Colgrevance salutes with his blade. “We are Lords Under The Eye, Lute.”

The fat man gestures and a line of women in ragged dresses come down the plank to the dock. “Like I said, I’m here to buy, sell, and entertain.”

One woman stands apart. Her hair isn’t put up like the others, and her dress is more skin tight than frilly.

Jim holds out his hand, and she takes it. “Introduce yourself, dear.”

She curtsies, lantern light failing to color to her skin. “I’m the bottom of the well. I welcome all the wishes you’re too shy to tell.”

She grins wide as a snake. Her pale lips curl away from pointed teeth stained a rusty brown, and the guards shrink back.

“Hold steady, men.” Colgrevance rolls his sword-arm’s shoulder. “She’s just a ghoul.”

The fat man scoffs, smacking the dock with his cane. “ ‘Just?’ That’s like calling a fine elvish vintage, ‘only a drink.’ ”

“I am Gurgala Manyways.” The woman snaps her teeth. “I serve the filthiest desires.”

Narrowing his eyes, Colgrevance slaps the flat of his blade against his shield. “Lute, to arms!”

Coming from behind, his bandmates join him, rubbing sleep from their eyes.

Beorn, the man that splashed gore on him yesterday, hefts a warhammer. “What’s going on, Boss?”

Colgrevance rubs his padded linens with the edge of his shield. “I’m fantasizing about a clean victory.” He sighs. “But valor doesn’t wait for armor to be donned. Not before dawn.”

Jim grips Gurgala’s shoulders and pulls her to the other women. “I see you gentlemen have sticks of propriety stuck up your rears!” He shoos the ladies back onto the ship. “I can understand that.” Spinning his cane, he snorts. “Don’t respect it, though.”

The sky lightens from night to a dark blue’s hint of dawn. Men wearing nothing but ragged cloth around their waists gather at the railings of all three ships, several dozen of them.

“We’ll allow you to leave, now.” Colgrevance lowers his sword. “Don’t come back.”

“Ho ho, no can do until I’ve unloaded my cargo.” Jim adjusts his overcoat.

“What—”

“Two hundred and fifty zombies, regular, and five undead ogres, strong as cranes.”

Colgrevance coughs. “Is that all?”

“Enough to sweep this city of dung, clean the sewers, and do any backbreaking upkeep.” Jim pulls a scroll out of his pocket. “I have a contract, signed, stamped, and bribes… well, they were with the Tenters.” He pulls out a coin purse. “I suppose you new lot will want fresh payment.”

“I must confer.” Colgrevance grits his teeth and retreats out of earshot, gathering the half-dozen members of his band around. “Can you guys keep him talking for a few minutes?”

“Sure, Boss.” Beorn pets his hammer and frowns. “What will you be doing?”

“Getting my armor on.” He smiles. “And thinking about fire.”

https://www.artstation.com/artwork/D36PA
By Sabbas Apterus, used with permission.
LUTE’s Titantale band members:

 

Colgrevance, Paladin of Valor—Leads from the front

Beorn, Ranger of Thorn—Colgrevance’s right hand

Jacob, martial artist—tumbling scout with mystic fists

Messoack, magician—loyal explorer of madness

Solaris, sea witch—whimsical lover of the grotesque

Other flash fiction with this band:

Crashing a Vampire Ball at Lowtide Mansion: Part 1
Crashing a Vampire Ball at Lowtide Mansion: Part 2
Crashing a Vampire Ball at Lowtide Mansion: Part 3
Crashing a Vampire Ball at Lowtide Mansion: Part 4
Crashing a Vampire Ball at Lowtide Mansion: Part 5

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