For Whom the Bell Tolls
For the next several hours and through the twilight hours, the entire crew of the Lesser Evil worked to repair the damage upon both vessels during the fight. Much of the damage was superficial, but the work was necessary even at the end of a long and wearying day, a day that saw loss. When at last both ships were deemed to be in passable shape to begin sailing the next day, Gorbo called a halt to labor and allotted a double bounty of rum, which none of the crew denied.
Bruno had prepared an especially hearty meal, culling his supply of livestock and presenting a stew thick with chicken and root vegetables, and fresh bread and butter to soak up the juices. With the food providing strength for the body, and the rum providing salve for the soul, the crew recalled the several crewmembers they had lost during the battle. But such is the life of the pirate. Feast when ye can, for the time of one’s death is unknown, but certainly much nearer to hand than one may suspect.
And so it was that the remaining pirates from the hobgoblin ship were offered a decision. Feeling no loyalty to Captain Svard, who was a harsh taskmaster, they all agreed to provide service to the Lesser Evil and help sail the prize to port. Several also readily agreed to permanently join with the Lesser Evil, as the labors of the evening were fair and the provender provided the best any had had while at sea. The offer of a fair lot and good provender, combined with the likelihood of success, was more than most pirates could expect, and they were easy converts to the Lesser Evil.
But still there was uneasiness. While the crew labored on repairing the damage to the vessels, Fens had labored away at his own tasks, securing the many fallen dead below into his hold.
Providing care for the dead after combat was never a joyful task. The harsh reality at life aboard a pirate ship could never quite overcome the burden placed when crew with which you had served and broken bread find sudden and violent death. But at least the bodies of those fallen comrades could usually expect a quick and suitable burial at sea. Under Fens’ direction, though, the bodies were not to be discarded so.
Instead, they were lain below on wooden slabs, Fens carefully moving from body to body examining the remains and cautioning the crew to handle the dead with care. Many of the bodies were severely mauled, especially those whom the zombies had slain during the fight. Fens would have much work in the coming days to make these ready for their next service.
The pirates from the Devil’s Pallor were repulsed by Fens’ particular ministrations. They had just fought a legion of Fens’ zombies, and their nerves were still unsettled at the ferocity and the unquestioned loyalty displayed by just such creations.
But they also noted that the Lesser Evil crew, those still in the ranks of the living, seemed somewhat accustomed and accepting of the allegiance. It was clear that several of these crew members showed particular devotion to Fens, obediently laboring under his direction with zeal. But others of the Lesser Evil maintained their separation, resigned to accepting Fens’ peculiar methods as a forgone necessity while serving the Lesser Evil. It would take longer acquaintance for the new pirate crew before they would be fully comfortable with working and battling alongside the dead.
After the last crew had gone below to catch a few hours of rest before dawn, a few lonely, tired sentries paced the decks of the Lesser Evil and the Devil’s Pallor. Though perhaps tempted to shirk their duty and catch a quick nap, the sentries all understand the potential dangers that lie at sea so soon after such a bloody affair.
“Ye keep a sharp lookout” Rosie admonishes the watchers. “There be danger tonight, I feel it in me bones.”
Crimson tinged waters beckon to all sorts of creatures both malignant and benign. And though for a while after Fens’ zombie gave themselves back to the sea, thereby creating a zone of forbiddance about the ships, the glamor had faded as the bodies had settled to rest upon the sea’s floor. But the bodies and severed parts of many of the slain crew still litter the waters. And it was those that act as a beacon for dread, and Rosie had sailed the seas for years long enough to understand the danger now posed.
“Ere’one else can slumber in their hankin hammocks” Rosie continues to storm. “But any of ye watchers will be chum for the sharks if ye don’t stay alert tonight.”
Shaken by Rosie’s words, for they all have seen Rosie in action and know how she can work herself into a froth, the crew maintain their attentive watch. Ensuring no shirking occurs on her watch, she pounds back and forth about the decks of both vessels, headless of the muffled cries of protests from below to keep quiet. Rosie’s veins still burn with vigor from the recent combat where she had slain three of the Pallor crew herself. For each victory she had granted herself a double measure of rum. The alcohol does not have a quieting effect, though, and instead she pulses quicker, with even less tolerance for others than usual. The watch know well Rosie’s moods, and maneuver to stay clear of her and her stomping boots, but they maintain their vigilance.
With the promise of a new day nearing, and with the darkness of night still full, a fog begins to arise from the sea. Soon, the fog envelops both ships and the seas about. The moonless sky provides even less light than usual, cutting visibility further. As all lights were extinguished upon both vessels once all repairs were completed, the night’s blackness is deep.
With only the hammering of Rosie’s boots ringing out in the night, another distant sound makes itself known to the watch. A heavy, deep bell clangs out a slow, mournful toll. At first faint, the watch are unsure if they actually hear anything. But as the clanging grows louder, it soon becomes clear that not only is the sound more than an active imagination, but that the source of the clanging draws closer. The fog is dense, though, obscuring sight to just a few dozen yards.
Reacting to the approaching sound, Rosie rushes to the railing, positioning herself to raise the alarm if necessary. Straining her eyes, one of her fellow watchers, Tarback, a half-elf whose particular breeding has produced a slim profile which betrays little of a womanly figure, is able to discern little but the thick, soupy fog.
Suddenly, an image of a vessel shows itself, causing Tarback to raise her hand pointing out its quick passage. Rosie’s eyes rivet to the point, just catching a glimpse of the ship as the bell from the ship tolls out one last time. A three-masted vessel of nearly the size as the Lesser Evil, she glides smoothly through the water though her sails are in tatters. A quick glimpse of a pair of glowing eyes positioned near the foredeck reach through the fog before the ship vanishes silently back into the fog.
“It’s gone” Tarback trembles. “It’s gone. Gone into the mists.”
“A ghost ship she were” growls a suddenly pissed off Rosie, snatching her cutlass from her side. “Flogging frog flappers. Let them come back. They’ll not mess with me.”
Continuing to look out into the fog, minutes pass, no further sounds are heard, and no further appearance of the ghostly ship are revealed.
“Back to your wonking watch, Tarback” Rosie commands after a while, giving a nudge to the shaking half-elf. Rosie turns back to the fog, peering into nothingness. “But just let them come back. Be the last time those flackers flap the waves.” Slamming her cutlass away, Rosie starts her stomping across the deck once more. But this time, no groans of protest come from the crew, who either now lay exhausted in sleep, or feign such as the ghostly tolling bell sounds no more.
“The legend of the ghost ship is infamous across the Shackles. And the word has spread like wildfire amongst the crew. That ship is out there. And now that it’s seen us, it will pursue us relentlessly, awaiting an opportunity to attack. While it is only a legend…”
“Ain’t no limey legend when she was within pissing distance of the Lesser Evil” Rosie spits, still maintaining a fine froth from the past weeks activities. Rosie had given report to the officers of the appearance of the mysterious vessel, and they had hurriedly sailed at top speed to reach Bloodcove. The sail went without incident, and now the Devil’s Pallor and her loot has been entered for sale. But the celebration of the success has been put off while the officers gather once again at the Witchlight Inn to discuss the danger the ghost ship poses. While Caldor has heard of just such a vessel, some of the others are more skeptical.
“As I was saying” an interrupted Caldor continues with a glance towards Rosie, though with a hint of humility for fear of enraging her further “the legend tells of a ghost ship crewed by undead which prey upon the waters of the Shackles. The description Rosie provides, confirmed by Tarback, gives credence to the tale. The tolling of a lonesome bell announces its presence, a call to its past when it served as a whaling vessel. That bell would toll when the prey was spotted. And now, it tolls when its next victim is sighted.”
“Well, that’s something for us to worry about another day” Bruno interjects. “We didn’t see this ghost ship on the way here, and now that we’re at Bloodcove, I intend to get smashed and not worry about it.”
“Stupid drunken chicken poker!” An enraged Rosie glares a last time at Bruno and the rest of the officer’s. “Drink yer rum and wet your finger. But that ship will be waiting for us when next we sail. I feel it in me bones.” Draining her own mug in a dash, Rosie storms out through the Witchlight’s doors. She’s not done drinking this day at all, but she intends to find less foolish company with which to get drunk.
The Lesser Evil stays docked at Bloodcove for several days, waiting both for the final disposition of its loot and to celebrate their victories. Once again, Vance of the Consortium acts as intermediary to find a buyer for their prize. Expressing surprise at the rich success the Lesser Evil has found, Vance has gained a bit of admiration for how quickly they gained revenge upon Svard. The Consortium and the Lesser Evil have turned quite a nice profit from the recent sailings, and Vance is beginning to become a bit of a proponent for the pirate crew. The story of the Lesser Evil spreads further, increasing their infamy, and lends itself to an easier time of recruiting new crew.
The demands placed upon sailors at sea are harsh even under the best of conditions. Long sailings under treacherous conditions, faced with threats of nature, man, and beast, tests the strength of the crew of any vessel. These conditions are common upon any vessel, but for pirate ships, they are presented with a few unique problems. Many pirates tend to come from the fringes of society, often lawless, and have an almost universal requirement for the acquisition of loot upon which they utilize to live a vicarious life. Once a pirate has a bag of gold, it is common for her to enter into a tavern and not exit until that gold is fully exhausted, and sometimes quite after that time, taking her few last drinks from the tavernkeep who is unawares that the purse contains but lint and no gold.
So often the pirate who is seeking to join a vessel makes that decision in haste and need, for it is the only way to acquire subsistence in the harsh world in which they live.
But sometimes a pirate crew begins to gain a loyalty to a vessel on which they serve. If treated properly, with regular food, few beatings, and success in combat which leads to a full purse, pirates gain a bit of pride in their ship’s accomplishments and will go to sea willingly even when their fair time has been served. It is becoming such upon the Lesser Evil. Already having acquired several prizes, and having been awarded with a nice amount of loot, the vessel is gaining a reputation that promises to grow through the Shackles. Being a part of this success is another point which helps keep and draw crew to the Lesser Evil. Serving upon the Lesser Evil offers a true promise of a better lot in life, and with the successes it has had makes attracting new crew a much easier task.
The ship departs Bloodcove with about a dozen new crew on board, replenishing the ranks of those who had recently fallen, and the one or two pirates who decided to stay in Bloodcove for a bit longer to inflict self-punishment upon their livers and souls. The newly recruited crew assimilates quickly to their tasks onboard under the guidance of Sendara with a gentle hand, and Rogald with a firm demeanor.
Gorbo has set course for a return to Rickedy Squibs. With a fair amount of gold, the officers of the Lesser Evil have decided to spend a portion of the loot to better equip the vessel. New and better sails and perhaps another ballista or two will make the Lesser Evil much more agile and formidable in combat.
The first day at sea brought stormy weather. A steady rain throughout the day made life miserable among the crew, who just hours ago had been nestled comfortably among the pleasures that Bloodcove offered. At least the wind was constrained throughout the day, and the waves as mild as could be expected. So the crew soldiered on with their tasks, the vessel making good progress. By the end of the day, the visibility became poor as mists rose from the sea in response to the continual light rain. And with the mist, a tolling of a bell began to sound in the distance. All aboard the Lesser Evil shivered at the lonesome sound of the tolling. For a few minutes, it sound of the bell approaches. It is apparent to all onboard that this time, the ghost ship will not pass in the night. No commands are necessary from Gorbo – all hands turn out on deck with weapons, and the ballistas are prepared.
Minutes more pass, and the ringing continues to get louder. With a bright flare, a red glow dashes its way through the fog, illuminating the night in an eerie red mist. The ghost ship is revealed.
Just as Rosie had described it, the ship was three-masted, its sails in tatters even as it plowed effortlessly through the water. Two great flames cast the red light from its fore and aft, and figures can be seen moving about the ship. And at its rear, a dark figure stands, banging upon a great copper bell that glows with a fire.
“Hard to port” Gorbo calls out to Brother Jamie, who steers the ship onto a collision course with the ghost vessel. Not willing to lie idle in the defense, Gorbo has decided to press the attack and board the ghost ship, with the hope that the sudden tactic will gain an advantage for the Lesser Evil.
Ballista bolts begin to fly, and several dark figures on the ghost ship are impaled and thrown overboard.
With a great clash, the Lesser Evil slams into the ghost ship, and Rogald, with Gorbo and Tilly, immediately leap across the short distance and engage the dark figures.
Moving with an alacrity that betrays their undead nature, the dark figures have been raised to an undeath greater than the zombies that Fens has been calling to service. Their quickness catches the boarding party by surprise, and they begin to surge towards the heavily outnumber party, inflicting wounds with the jagged and rusted weapons they wield.
Understanding the deadly straits they have found themselves in, Caldor knows that something must be done to delay the crushing onslaught of undead. Recalling that the great whale skull which serves as the figurehead on the Lesser Evil contains several magical abilities, Caldor rushes over and speaks the words to unleash one of the magical enchantments upon the undead crew of the ghost ship. With a tearing sound, a shimmering barrier forms itself into a great globe nearly half the size of the ship and springs itself upon the ghost vessel. With a single spell, most of the undead creatures now find themselves captured within the barrier and unable to get to the crew of the Lesser Evil.
“Hurry” an emphatic Caldor calls from the fore “it won’t hold them long.”
The greater threat thus contained, the Lesser Evil in turn surges forward and begins to hack their way through the few undead creatures who remain outside the entrapping sphere. But the ones who are free still present danger, and it was upon Rogald, always in the forefront of battle, upon which the blows begin to land heaviest.
Brother Jamie and Fens now join in the assault. Brother Jamie lends aid to Rogald, while Fens selects individual undead to push them back with his necromantic castings.
Seeing that his minions have been trapped and are being pushed back, the great figure who had been ringing the call to battle upon the bell at the rear of the ship charges forward, enraged that such a powerful magic has been used against his ship to such great effect. But that would be the undead master’s undoing.
Rogald and the undead master trade blows, but it is Gorbo who positions himself on the flank of the opponent who unleashes a barrage of deadly strikes. Quickly weakened, the undead master tries to lash out one last time to at least fell Rogald. But his strikes fall astray.
His energy weakened by the damage which had already been inflicted on him, a final series of blows from Rogald and Gorbo, as well as a magical strike from Caldor which delivers a series of energy-enabled hammer blows, fells the undead master.
With their master now destroyed, the rest of the undead crew fall into confusion. Fens steps in and begins to command them to disperse. With the unholy bound now gone between master and servant, the undead denizens flee from Fens and the rest of the crew of the Lesser Evil, and drop into the sea for their final rest.
But Brother Jamie is not focused now on the undead leaping into the water. Rather, he sees the bell upon the undead master had been tolling begin to glow an eerie green. It was as if the evil energy that had thus been released by the death of the undead master and his minions is now flowing towards and into the bell.
Alarmed at the possibilities and acting on his hunch, Brother Jamie oozes towards the bell while calling out “Hurry – the bell must be destroyed, lest the undead master return.”
Seeing the bell glow with an unholy aura, Rogald and Tilly begin to rush the bell as well. But Rogald is the first to arrive, and using the last of his strength, swings his lucerne hammer into the bell. With a crash, the bell bursts asunder, and the green glow blinks out in a wisp. The magic that sustained the ghost crew and ship is dispersed, and with it the vessel begins to sink into the seas.
Realizing their danger, the pirates turn back and run, returning to the Lesser Evil. As the last of leap back across the short distance to their ship, Gorbo calls for the lines to be cut, but sees that Sendara is already at the task with her cutlass slashing and directing a the rest of the crew to do the same. And just in time, for within seconds, the deck of the ghost ships sinks below the waterline, and soon, the entire vessel disappears without a trace. The ghost ship which had long tormented the Shackles has been destroyed forever, adding yet another tale to the growing journal of achievements of the Lesser Evil.