Under the wind filled sails of The Water Naga, Sandy Foundling held up a silvery medallion and admired it under the setting sun. The piece was fat and circular with strange blue and black whorls that glittered invitingly under the dying light. First Mate Ryrun leaned over the mesmerized halfling and snicker. “She’s pretty,” he said conversationally, startling the newly minted Commodore.
“It’s amazing,” Sandy replied, spinning the amulet in the light, “They mine it near the deep sea vents. The sea races consider it holy. They call it Deep Platinum. Do you think we should sell it?”
The elf gave a noncommittal shrug. They had gotten the amulet off of a group of sahaugin who cleverly tried to bait The Water Naga with an invitingly scuttled trawler. It was a brief but brutal fight when the sea devils tried to ambush the boarding party, with Ryrun brilliantly killing two of the attackers. The lead sahaugin screamed savagely at Idoki and she responded by killing it with a gout of magic fire. Ozzi was able to sloppily repair the breech in the trawler’s hull to keep the boat afloat long enough for them to get her back to Illizimotti for sale. Sandy found this medallion around the leader’s seared neck. In Ryrun’s option, it was just another pretty bauble. One that should be sold at Port Peril and the coins added to stores, saved up until they had enough to buy their way into Free Captaincy. Sandy sighed and agreed with his elven friend and first mate. The title of Free Captain was more valuable than any piece of jewelry, no matter how attractive the said piece was.
They already had violently taken three more ships in their short time as pirates. A fine lugger, a Rahadumi schooner and a Chelish cutter. All taken in suitably dramatic fashion, of course, befitting Sandy’s ideals for how to conduct piracy. Blood lust was all fine, in his experience, as long as it’s done with a certain amount of panache and against a deserving enemy. The cutter, now renamed The Moral High Ground, a joke that Idoki found particularly amusing, was once a Chelish Pirate Hunter named The Famished Mane. They came across her as she was sinking the pirate vessel Vosfang. It was a particularly difficult fight. Her captain was a hell knight clad in full plated armour with a wickedly sharp war scythe. He swept Ryrun from the deck during the pitch battle, then turned his attention to Ozzi, but the two of them had spent so much time slicing and sparring that Ryrun was able to climb back aboard. Between the elf and the boy, they killed the knight and now his ship sailed behind The Water Naga as the first member of Commodore Foundling recently started fleet.
The newly made Captain Idoki was standing on the aft deck, watching Sailing Master Aspar as he tried to explain the finer points of sailing to the wizard. She saw Sandy and waved cheerfully at him, ignoring Aspar, much to the bootlicker’s annoyance. She had a keen mind but was tactless to the extreme and she irritated crew members to no end. Luckily, she had both Ozzi as her First Mate and Renza as her Ship’s Carpenter to act as both her officers and her enforcers. Renza, however, was wholly unqualified for her job, having never put hammer to nail in her life. This meant that Ozzi had to use his magic to keep the ship in repair, along with the multitude of other duties the boy seemed to have heaped upon himself. He was the only person on board able to cook so he took the job of Ship’s Cook. And he was the only healer so he was the Ship’s Cleric. Between the cooking, the cleaning and the inspecting, he barely had time to eat or sleep. It was an arrangement the cleric found extremely annoying, however when he tried to complain, Sandara Quinn, The Water Naga’s boatswain, would sigh prettily and tell him how much she admired his ability to handle such a work load, quelling the impressionable young man into acceptance. Although Sandy had subtly pushed for the two of them into their relationship, even he found the cloying nature of their blossoming romance questionable at times.
A voice from the crow’s nest called out. A ship spotted. Eagerly, Stuffing the amulet into his jacket, Sandy swept up his looking glass and peered out. Against the setting sun he could make the outline of a ship sailing away and into the emerging twilight. Sandy frowned and ordered the sailing master to follow and wondered what a whaler was doing this close to land?
“I’m sure I saw her,” Sandy insisted to Idoki as they sat in his cabin to eat their meal together later that night, “But she disappeared when we gave chase.”
Idoki frowned and nodded blankly before taking a forkful of pan fried tuna on a bed of fresh greens. “That is strange,” she stated around the mouthful, agreeing with her Commodore without really understanding what he was talking about. She accepted that Sandy knew more about sailing than she did, yet a ship that disappeared when chased seemed a fairly reasonable to her. She was, after all, from a place where ships could just purposely vanish without a trace. However, he seemed to feel that it was unusual, even for the Shackles and its abundance of complex and colourful local stories about various ships, so she made an effort to seem like she was empathizing with him. Ryrun had told that she should work on her lack of empathy.
“It could be nothing,” he continued eagerly as he stabbed his fork into the tender tuna, “But she was sailing against the wind. It might of been a ghost ship. Like The Inscrutable Destiny. Or The Mark of Yunnarius. Or The Deathknell.”
“Who?” Ryrun, fresh from pouring himself a new mug of beer from stores, interrupted as he entered the tiny cabin.
Sandy drew himself up dramatically and, in a deep booming voice, intoned, “Whalebone Pilk.”
Balancing his plate on his knees, Ryrun sat and cocked a sceptical eyebrow at Ozzi, who had slipped in behind him. The young cleric perched himself on a keg of beer the captain kept in his cabin for emergencies. Thankful for the chance to rest, he said nothing and took a bite out of one of the hot biscuits he had slipped out of The Water Naga’s galley. Renza rushed past them all and plopped herself cheerfully on the centre of the floor like a child, eagerly waiting for story time, her heaping plate overflowing with a generous portion of food that The Water Naga’s cook, Kroop, had given her. He always found a little extra for Renza. Idoki smiled blankly and patiently waited. They could hear other crew members rustle outside of the cabin, eating their food and trying to hear what story the halfling was going to tell.
“Whalebone Pilk,” Sandy roared again and shook the mugs on his small desk, “The captain of the whaler Belle Dame. Cursed to sail the seas after dragging his crew on a doomed voyage. Foolishly chasing a rogue pod of whales until his stores grew thin, he pushed his crew instead of turning back, contemptuously driving them to mutiny in his mad desire to hunt his elusive prey. He cleverly turned the tables on his betrayers and had the ringleader savagely whipped to strips, their body rendered down in the tryworks and their skull nailed to the mast as a warning to the rest. Yet, when he ordered chase once more, the whales turned on him and sunk the Belle Dame. But Pilk did not go gentle to The Line. Some force took exception to his act of brutality and cursed him to sail the seas until he has taken the skulls of one thousand men. Fifty for each of his crew damned to unlife by his cruelty. He prowls the Shackles now, his crew taking sailors and beheading them before rendering their bodies down in the tryworks for fuel for their grim ghostly voyage. She’s been sunk before, they say, yet she always returns. It is told that on foggy nights, if you listen carefully, you can hear Whalebone Pilk ringing his ship’s bell, looking for the next head for his grisly wage.”
“Oh, good,” Ozzi replied dryly with an eye roll and a yawn, “This gent sounds a treat. How do people know this story? Did someone stop and ask him? Now that would be a conversation.”
“Interesting,” Idoki said, her attention focused on the puzzle before her, “Is he a corporeal undead? Or some sort of spectre? If the crew is the one taking the heads, as you indicated, that would imply that they are, at least, solid enough to manipulate physical objects. I wonder what kind of undead they are?”
“Whalers aren’t good for boarding other ships,” Ryrun said offhandedly as he waved his mug lazily, “Too low in the water. Lots of storage though. And good places for throwing harpoons. You said fifty for each man, so a crew of twenty? Nineteen with the one who got his skull nailed to the mast. And a ghost? Unpleasant but not an impossible fight. Well, not for me, at any rate. Probably kill the rest of you.”
Someone gently rapped on the door. “Begging you pardon, Commodore,” the pale face of Boatswain Quinn peeked through as she gingerly opened the door, “The crow’s nest reports a village. Sounds like one you might want to see.”
The Commodore cocked an eyebrow.
“A long dock,” she continued with a wicked smile that made Ozzi melt a little inside, “And a large guarded pen.”
The officers of The Water Naga grinned at each other. This meant only one thing: Slavers. And a pen with guards meant they might have some poor souls that needed rescuing. If there was one thing that Sandy hated, as he scooped up his plate and stormed out onto the deck to issue orders and prepare his raiders, it was slavery.
The battle for the village was short and deliciously sweet. The two ships swept in on the high tide and roughly descended on the unprepared slaver outpost with lightning speed. The slavers, in response, unleashed trained attack dogs on poor Ryrun, who got pulled off of his feet and badly mauled before Renza darted in and killed them. Both Idoki and Ozzi got to experiment with new spells that they had just learned. Ozzi summoned up a short drooling rubber faced demon from the Abyss to help with the fight and Idoki cast something that increased everyone’s speed and reflexes. The slavers fought to a man, choosing death over the questionable mercy that the pirates promised. Ozzi, the only member of the Officers who spoke the strange clicking tongue of the Mwalgi Expanse, spoke to the captured villagers, telling them that they were free but, if they wanted to, they could join the crew and explore the exciting world of piracy.
“I am Ximbala,” a proud looking, strong jawed woman with a crude tattoo of a mysterious beast on her shoulders told them through Ozzi, “These are my uncle and his son. Men on ships took our family. We would get revenge.”
Sandy, a gentle smile on his lips, told them that they would have their revenge and more beyond. So Idoki’s crew grew by three and the two ships sailed off with their newly acquired loot plundered from the outpost. “A good day,” Sandy said to Ryrun as the two of them counted the take at the elf’s tiny desk in the store room.
“I’d say,” Ryrun replied as he tallied the profits from the day’s raid, “They had some good quality weaponry. Worth a pretty coin in port.” The elf opened a draw in the desk and pulled out an ornate flask filled with expensive rum. He poured two mugs and the two of them toasted The Goddess of Love and Demon Lord of Money.
Boots on decks thumped overhead and an alarm was called. Sandy quickly stuck his head out to and asked a passing crew what was happening.
“An evil fog’s rolled in,” Slippery Syl replied as she worriedly fingered one of her many knives, “Can’t see anything. No even The High Ground.”
As Sandy ran to the deck, he could hear the shouts of the crew as they tried to contact The Moral High Ground. Yet it was to no avail. Suddenly everyone fell silent. A lone bell rang from within the fog. Then again. Steadily, the rhythmic ringing grew louder and a rotting ship broke into view, carrying the hollow eyes of damned sailors who stared hungrily at the crew of The Water Naga. As the whaler crossed past their bow, all could see its name scratched in old blood on it’s bow: The Deathknell. Her dead captain stood unhappily by the ship’s huge bell, ringing it with a ruined fist. High up the mast, a single white grinning skull stared sightlessly into the deep fog. Then it was gone, the ringing of the bell fading as the fog receded, then disappearing entirely.
“Whalebone Pilk,” Sandy breathed to his shocked crew.
“It was her, no doubt,” Sandy cursed in his tiny cabin as he paced nervously around Ryrun, who was casually sharpening his curved blade with languished easy, “She’s marked us. That means tonight she’ll come for us.”
“I want to see it!” Renza cried like a petulant child. The Moral High Ground had gotten lost in the fog but saw nothing and they heard no bell. Certainly no ghostly bell tolling for souls. It was like something out of a fairy tale, she thought, so it was something she was eager to play with. The third night, Sandy had told them. The first night, The Deathknell is always seen in the distance. The second night, she’s seen in a fog bank. On the third night, she attacks, the haunted bell tolling for sailors to damn.
“I wonder what it’s attracted to,” Idoki said conversationally as she watched the halfling pace, “If we switched crews would it still attack The Water Naga? Or is after you personally? This is so interesting.”
“I don’t know,” Sandy replied peevishly. “Would you please stop that? It’s very distracting,” He snapped and glared worriedly at his first mate.
Ryrun stopped his sharpening. “What’s the plan?” He asked as he leaned forward, placing his elegant sword gently to one side.
Four sets of eyes watched Sandy as he frowned and ponder the question. “We make for land before night fall. And we put everyone ashore. Let’s see what triggers this ghost,” he finally said.
As the night fell, all was silent. The crews of both ships waited at the ready in the quiet little empty bay they had anchored in. Torches lit the little camp and everyone was on edge. All eyes watched the two ships as they creaked lazily in the cove.
As the night wore on, Commodore Sandy paced and cursed. He looked back at his crew and saw the boredom in Renza’s eyes as she played with the dying embers of a pit fire. But the ghostly ship had yet to make an appearance. Selissa, the mascot water naga, reported back that she couldn’t see anything on or under the water.
“Maybe it only attacks those on the water?” Idoki said, trying to be helpful.
“Oh, screw this,” Sandy said finally, “Ozzi, ready the long boat. Let’s get back on board. Us only. Weapons ready.”
No one knew where The Deathknell came from. It just appeared, spreading her sudden cloak of fog over the ship with alarming speed. Sandy had barely had time to put his feet on the deck before it rammed The Water Naga. The impact nearly knocked him from his feet. Before he could assess everyone, a rabble of shambling dead sailors, armed with harpoons, slowly clambered over the side of the ship to attack.
The dead were bloated and fat from the salt water. Their skin was stretched so thin that they were seemed liked they were covered with blue steaks that travelled like ink in their veins. They all wore sopping wet dripping rotting clothes. They tried to speak but only gurgled and moaned as water dribbled down their chins, their milky eyes pleading as they shuddered forth, struggling to throw their harpoons. A bell rang solemnly from whaler. They could only barely make out a form by the mast, a lone silhouette with a harpoon, striking a large bell.
The crew struggled to their feet as the harpoons rained down on them. As one scratched across Sandy’s arm and gouging a chunk out of The Water Naga’s deck, he ordered everyone to push the intruders back. Ryrun and Ozzi rushed forward while Renza and Idoki cast their magics. Sandy felt as if time was against them, as if the whole world had slowed suddenly before Idoki threw up a sigil that flashed and everything became clear and easy. Her speed spell. Renza tossed up her multiple copy spell, something that proved to be useless against the dead, who cut through her whalebone corset and into her skin with a thick chopping knife. Ryrun skipped around his slow opponents and, with a laugh and a snort, cut one’s stomach open. It stood and stared stupidly as its guts poured onto the deck with a ghastly splash. Clad in the stolen hellknight armour and holding his symbol of Besmara in his one good hand, Ozzi called out to his Goddess and the dead look to him with their sad eyes, yearning for freedom. But he was unable to give it to them. Saddened, one swung its arm in a wide arc but only broke its fist on his helmet. It put a terrible ringing into his ears from the loud clang.
“The Bell!” Sandy shouts as he snaps his whip around the ankle of a dead sailor that shuffled towards Renza, easily slipping it off of its feet, “That’s the source of his power!”. Idoki heard and obeyed, throwing a ball of fire towards the lonely form of Whalebone Pilk. The fog was burned away by the heat as the ball exploded with a massive flash and, for a moment, they could see the hateful wiry undead who wearily leaned on his harpoon, as if ringing the bell was a chore. But then he was engulfed in the fire. He roared in rage as the fog swept back, covering him in its grey embrace but they could see the wreaked bodies of the other crew, struggling to climb out of the hatches. Through the fog they could hear the dead captain order a full assault on them.
Ryrun cut two more dead men down. They died with pitiful gurgles. Renza stabbed her rapier into the prone dead woman, pinning it to the deck. She screamed a sigil into the blade, which sang down the steel and blew a hot hole into the dead woman’s chest. It shuttered and was still. Four of the dead reached for Ozzi, who found himself back against The Water Naga’s railing, The Deathknell grinding against the hull beneath him. With a shrug, he called out an “Aye, aye,” to Sandy and sent out another wave of the Goddess’ might. Three of the dead crumpled wordless to the deck, released by the power of Her touch. The last one held on longer than the others, an evil spark in his soul throwing off her call to rest. Ozzi saw the wicked gutting knife in its hand and ignored it. On the second “Aye”, he slipped over the railing and dropped to the deck of The Deathknell. He landed with a sadly comical crash.
Idoki cursed the cleric under her breath. She twisted the sigil she was crafting at the last moment, turning it into a gout of flame. If she used the ball, it probably would of killed the idiot and that would make Sandy upset. The flames erupted and burned towards the mast, splashing over the Pilk’s bell with deadly accuracy. She saw the dead whaler jerk his hand away in surprise at the fire, then punch his ruined fist into the bell once more, singeing the rotting bandage he had forever wrapped around his destroyed hand, ruined after years of slamming it against the heavy metal bell. His penitence for his rage.
Sandy rushed to the railing to see if Ozzi was still alive. He signalled to Ryrun and ordered him to get down there to save the fool as the cleric waved weakly with his one good hand. Ryrun nodded and slipped over as well, landing far more gracefully, slaying one of the dead sailors as he landed with a grand sweep of his curved blade. Idoki spelt out another gout of flame to bath the bell in licking magical fire. Pilk sneered with his rotten lips and punched the bell again, smoke sizzling off of his hand as he struck the red hot metal. Renza also jumped over the side of the ship but was quickly swept up by the dead sailors and pinned beneath a crush of undead when she landed on the deck.
Ozzi staggered to his feet and, putting his head down, pushed his way passed the dead crew. They punched, stabbed and slashed at him as he plodded through. Bloodied, he shoved them out of his way and surged up to the dreaded Whalebone Pilk. The dead captain contemptuously eyed the boy as he hefted his harpoon. The bell he rang was glowing red, the heat caused it to ping and smoke poured from the wooden cross beam that held it to the mast. Ozzi, through the blood and sweat, sketched a sigil and, with his good hand, brushed his symbol against Pilk’s chest. The spell he landed, he hoped, would turn the spectral pirate solid enough for Ryrun and Renza to cut with their weapons. The smug self satisfied smirk then turned to confusion. “You said he was a ghost,” he shouted in raising panic as Pilk, a hateful glimmer in his dead eyes, viciously pierced Ozzi’s leg with his harpoon. Ozzi screamed and tried to stumble back, but the harpoon was tied off to the mast, trapping him at the end of a line like a fish on a hook. “I though he was a ghost!” He cried as the rest of Pilk’s crew surrounded him and began to pummel him.
A shadow fell over Sandy before he had the chance to do anything to help. The remaining boarder, still shuffling, grabbed his shoulder and violently spun him. It tried to plunge its gutting knife into his stomach but the halfling torn himself away and threw his whip around the knee of his attacker. With a mighty pull he tried to take the dead man’s feet from out from under him. However, the dead man was heavier than he realized and Sandy found himself sprawling on his face right before his attacker. Below, Ryrun and Renza spun and slashed their way across the deck. “Oi,” the elf taunted as he danced his way through the waterlogged crew and drew himself before Whalebone Pilk, “Is that all you’ve got?” With a roguish wink, Ryrun struck the bell with his sword, gouging a line into its heated metal. Pilk, his eye’s narrowed with hate, punched his ruined fist into Ryrun’s chest and, to everyone’s surprise, pulled something out from within. The elf gasped and clutched his neck as Pilk drew on his undead nature and stole the breath straight from his lungs. Spots blinked before Ryrun’s eyes as he struggled to get air. “Not like this,” he voicelessly gasped.
Idoki assessed the situation. Ozzi called his goddess once more and staggered the shambling dead that surrounded him but he was unlikely to survive the next few seconds. Sandy was being mauled by a dead man and was probably going to be unable to help. Renza was fighting her way to Ryrun but probably be unable to kill Pilk before Ryrun or Ozzi died. And Ryrun was struggling to breathe. She watched with interest as the elf swung his sword at the bell, an overhead blow and a second quick back slash, both striking with the malice of someone about to die. She couldn’t drop a fireball onto Pilk or his bell without killing everyone. Or maybe she could. She eyed the mast and calculated its likely height and the circumference of the ball. Satisfied, she threw her ball at the mid point of the mast.
The explosion was satisfactory. The mast ignited briefly as the bell, its crossbeam and most of Pilk’s torso was engulfed in the blast. The crossbeam, charred from the heat, dropped the heavy bell onto the deck with a solid bong, The bell, heated to near melting, cracked as it hit the deck. It rolled and stopped against the leg of one of the dead sailors, where it smoked against the dead flesh. The sailors all stopped and stared briefly at the wreaked bell before gracelessly dying as one. The one kneeling over Sandy, its knife pressed into his back, sagged and died, pinning him under its weight. Ozzi stood stunned as everyone dropped around him. He and Renza met each other surprised looks. Her mouth formed a perfect O and her face seemed to say “This is something you don’t see every day”. Ozzi could only eloquently shrug. The Deathknell gave a squeal as its hull burst from age as the magic that kept it afloat faded. With a gasp, Renza jumped back to The Water Naga. As she scrabbled up the side, she looked back and saw that Ozzi as he tried to grab Ryrun’s unconscious body to carry him back. But the cleric still had Pilk’s harpoon sticking out of his leg and it was still tied to the mast.
“Fuck me,” Ozzi shouted as the ship slipped suddenly beneath the calm dark waters.