In Wander Ships: Folk-stories of the Sea, with Notes upon their Origin (1917), Wilbur Basset relates a tale that I cannot help adapting for my sea-borne menagerie. Not a ghost ship, this one: This is a ship of devlish nightmares in the shape of a Chinese dragon.
The tale begins with some tiger hunters searching for a ship to carry their unexpected prey:
“Back toward the hills,” he said, “where the sun has not yet come, but a few li from Foochow, we set a trap for the great tiger. This morning we heard noises, and coming to the cage found in it a hideous serpent that goes upon his belly and upon short legs. His eyes are dead. and upon his head are horns. At first we were afraid, but the cage is mighty for strength and he cannot escape.”
The hunters appear to have found their man- a junk captain sailing for the South, and Formosa:
“We will see your serpent,” [the captain] said, “and if the cage is strong and your money rings true, he goes south with me.” The captain slipped out of his padded jacket and into a stout coat and went quietly over the side into the boat. Pulling ashore, they dragged the heavy boat upon the beach and made their way to the lonely valley where the cage was. They looked in very frightened upon the prisoner and he seemed small and not so terrible in the sunlight and they forgot their fears and laughed at him.
Pitiable fools, really: Dragons are proud, and- as they discover at sea- do not take mockery lightly.
[A] hoarse and raucous sound, half scream, half roar, once more blared forth, and they saw in the fierce light the broken bars of the cage and the horrid body of the serpent, emerging from his prison. The eyes were as festering pools in some foul desert, lusterless and dead, and above the slimy neck the head seemed raised in the half light to the level of the menacing cloud that was sweeping by and that mingled its vapors with the noxious breath of the monster. During that moment of awful visions, when death from wave monster and storm glared at them as in the light of day, the crew seemed to cling to life only by virtue of that tenacity which marks the sailor of every race. The gulf of darkness that succeeded swallowed up their fears with the great wave, the vision of the monster and the storm cloud, and as the little craft sturdily surmounted the crest of the following wave, so rose their confidence and fortitude, self assertive and buoyant, and they took heart and prepared to defend themselves.
… With fear drawn faces they drew back, then rushed it with uplifted blades. But their blows never fell. Out of the fetid nostrils of the beast issued a cloud of breath that broke upon them with the suddenness of tropic night, encircled them in the roaring of a thousand tempests and drifted lazily on to leeward over their stricken forms. … So quickly had moment passed that but for the broken bodies on there seemed no hold for memory to reconstruct it. No man approached the dead comrades. No man was to take up the fallen sword of the dragon slayer; none dared approach within reach of that death dealing breath.
The junk is abandoned to the dragon in a storm, but rather than sink, it is piloted by the beast:
No man knows the fate of the unhappy junk ,whether she still carries her foul passenger and cruises restlessly up and down the stormy yellow seas, or whether her ribs are bleaching long since upon some lonely strand. Some say she cruises still and is waiting for a captain.
Basset’s notes interpret the tale as a plague metaphor and, as he moves into a broader discussion of the folklore of plague ships, report this snippet from Assemani’s Bibliotheca Orientalis:
Perhaps the oldest European legend of phantom ships is of brazen barks seen off infected ports during the great plague in Roman times. These were veritable devil ships, whose crews were black and headless demons.
Now we’re talking. Below are LL-style statistics and a description of Bastard Serpents, an unusual subtype of dragon known to pilot ships at sea with a crew of corpses.
The Bastard Serpent is a debased dragon. The parentage of this subtype is unclear and likely variable, though they certainly lay some claim to the red dragon’s bloodline. Unlike most of their nobler kindred, the bastard serpent is wingless and cannot fly- a humiliation spawning a pridefulness and disdain unusual even for a dragon. It is a capable swimmer, and at adulthood its serpentine form can encircle smaller ships. These serpents’ scales are brackish and ruddy, and covered in a thin, muculent film. They uniformly possess a fearsome crest of horns. They are typically (80%) found in the command of a felucca, skiff, or junk manned by a charred and headless crew. The falling pitch of this dragon’s horrid breath reduces many victims’ heads to ashes, but those left intact festoon the ship now manned by their former bodies. From this Serpent Barque, the Bastard seeks out victim ships to plunder.
No. Enc.: 1 (+ crew)
Movement: 90’ (30’), swim 180’ (60’)
Armor Class: 1
Hit Dice: 8 (5-11)
Attacks: 3 (2 claws, 1 bite) or 2 (1 head butt, 1 bite) or 1 (breath)
Damage: 1d6+1/1d6+1/3d8 or 4d4/3d8
Hoard Class: XV
Habitat: Ocean, Coastal caves
Probability Asleep: 30%
Probability Speech: 100% (3 1st level spells; 3 2nd level)
Breath weapon: Cloud of burning pitch
Breath Range, Shape, Type: 30’ gob; Burning Pitch
Special abilities: Spells; Animate Dead on victims of its breath weapon once daily as Serpent’s Crew
No. Enc.: 5-10
The remaining flesh of these headless undead is burnt and ashen, and emits a charnel reek. Treat as zombies controlled by their dragon master; the sight and smell of Serpent’s Crewmen requires a save vs paralysis or flee in fear.