Mermaid hunting is not an amateur pastime.

It is not for red-nosed drunkards looking for trophy wives from the sea to brag about, nor for naive twelve-year-old boys hoping to live out romantic fantasies of stumbling upon naked water nymphs in moonlit caves. It is an activity that requires skill and discernment and endurance and grit and many of the greater virile qualities associated with robust young men in their twenties, occasionally thirties.

The old sailors in the taverns boast that mermaid hunting is for only the most fearsome of sea warriors - the men among men. Their wives dismiss it as a chauvinistic glorification of testosterone-driven pursuits.

Either side of the argument is viable, but one fact is undisputed: mermaid hunting is not for the weak of heart.

Most hunts, if not fruitless, end in disaster; for (as any sensible person will tell you) mermaids are slippery creatures. If shipwreck or stormy weather do not claim your life, than the mermaids most certainly will. The males of the species are considered ugly, bloodthirsty brutes; their female companions, though more pleasing to the eye, are equally savage. One story goes that a well-meaning youth who courted a mermaid, only to subsequently snub her for a land lass, was bodily dragged into the sea and tied fast to a rock until he drowned. The body (or what was left of it) was found a few days later, washed in with the high tide; the face had been clawed till it was nearly unrecognizable.

Countless other tales warn of the treachery of the sea-women. Young men are cautioned never to roam the shores alone on the night of a full moon, for mermaids are most prone to appear on nights such as these and make easy prey of susceptible souls. Ships that come in at night are always advised to sail into port with the clanging of pots and torches fully lit - loud noises to dispel the hypnotic songs of the merfolk that have lured many a vessel astray and into the deadly embrace of rocky cliffs.

However, if one forgets (or forgoes) this sound advice and is unlucky (or foolish) enough to come face-to-face with one of these creatures, there is a cardinal rule that one must heed: never, ever look directly into the eyes of a mermaid. For the eyes are where her power lies, and once you have locked gazes with the wicked creature, you are as good as a dead man. For the locking of gazes is the locking away of one's soul: you are forever bound to this cruel mistress, and you will return to her side without fail - against better judgement, regardless of your own will. It is an irrevocable binding and one cannot escape except through death.

So, you may rightly be wondering, what would possess a man to pursue monsters such as these?

Stupidity is one. Some men are stupid enough to seek out these maidens to quell the fiery passion of their souls (loins).

Necessity is another. No small number of lives have been lost to the wiles of the merpeople, and on certain occasions in the history of the sea-towns, a brave warrior would arise to rid the seas of these unholy beings - to make the shores a safe place for men to roam and ships to return to.

But most common is a third reason - a dark seed that has slumbered deep within human nature since the very beginning of time, even before the first man ever laid eyes on the first mermaid.

Greed.

Greed, you may ask? But what is there to gain from losing one's soul?

The strange thing about man is that the soul begins to look like very little when laid out beside a glittering trophy; it begins to look very small and worthless indeed.

And the rewards of a successful hunt are manifold. Aside from the praise and adulation that one will no doubt receive upon returning home victorious (and enough women to hanker after you to populate a small village), there are various privileges. Experienced mermaid hunters are given free access to ports all across the land - and if you are well-known enough, welcomed at every town with great ceremony and endless hospitality. Being a mermaid hunter is a bit like having the power of a popular politician, without the headache of paperwork.

Of course, the material profits cannot be overlooked either. Though the mermaid is inarguably a beautiful creature, her beauty is ultimately quite useless, and worth nothing more than a moment of appreciation (especially since the skin begins to gray and slough off only a few hours after the creature has been slain). The mermaids do, however, possess one remarkable feature. Even after being killed, their scaled tails remain bright and lustrous, maintaining their sheen even centuries later. Each scale is like a diamond, iridescent and changing colors with the light; the scales are highly sought after by noblewomen to decorate their throats, wrists, and ankles. A single scale can be sold for 50 silver pieces; a whole tail easily fetching 100,000 or more. There is also the prevailing belief that drinking a concoction of powdered mermaid's scales daily will lengthen your life by years and endow you with an otherworldly glow. This belief is advocated by the current mayor of Hespera, a sprightly old man of one hundred and two.

There is one other aspect of mermaid hunting that has drawn - and continues to draw - countless young men to their ships (and many, unfortunately, to their deaths). The rare occasions where men have succeeded in reclaiming their land from the mermaids has revealed a delightful fact about their enemies: that is, wherever mermaids settle, one is sure to find something wonderful. The last time a school of mermaids was successfully exterminated, the seabed of their home was found to be literally studded with diamonds. Another conquest revealed a mountain of silver; still another, piles of sapphire, rubies, and other precious stones. How these riches had accumulated remains a mystery even to those with the most intimate knowledge of mermaids, but even the most uneducated boy in the humblest village can tell you:

Where there are mermaids, there is treasure.


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