It Started in Saltmarsh: Chapter Twelve
By Kirt Wackford
A Dungeons & Dragons campaign adaptation edited by Thomas Kelly and Greyhawkstories
Avast! Spoilers Ahead!
22 Goodmonth, 570
In his haste to alert the party, Tom sailed the excise cutter into the sea cave with the mast down, but he did not take the time to remove it from the ship. Willa took charge and ordered the party to remove it for the operation. She saw Thokk and Barnabus loaded and launched before she placed the rest of the party in their positions within the jollyboat.
Thokk strained against the oars and pulled his craft out into the black, rolling sea. His half-blood eyes allowed him to see through the darkness well enough to avoid the rocks around the cave mouth. Barnabas had to endure several terrifying minutes of blackness and crashing waves, tossed about the cutter and drenched with spray while Thokk heaved and fretted. Once they pulled out beyond the surf zone and into the open sea the waves calmed and Thokk concentrated on rowing silently with a steady pace. Every so often the half orc looked over his shoulder, trying to detect the dark ship against the dark sky so that he had somewhere to make for more precise than “away from land.”
Willa checked everything twice in the jollyboat before shoving off. She was in no hurry; she wanted Thokk to have as long a lead as possible. Her kept her hauberk of chain neatly folded under her aft seat. She directed the beam of her lantern through the fog and across the rocks as she called orders. Tyrius and Babshapka took the oars at the outset, though she would spell them out if needed.
Back in the alchemist’s house, Tom made his way to the bedroom window overlooking the ocean with his lantern lit but hooded. He scanned the dark waters, trying to find the ship he had seen at sea. After several minutes of straining his eyes, he still could not discern a shape on the water, but at length he did see a flash of light. It was a long flash, followed by three short flashes. He quickly reviewed the parchment given him by the party and reasoned that it was the first line of the code, but how was he to respond? They had not told him! The same signal—a long flash followed by three short ones—repeated twice more with a pause between each sequence. Tom shrugged and took the safest bet, repeating the sequence he had seen by uncovering one wall of the lantern and holding it toward the sea. He waited anxiously for a response. He cared little for the strangers, but he was acutely aware that his sister, his only living family, was on board the jollyboat with them, even now rowing out to meet a ship full of cutthroats.
“Thokk!” hissed Barnabus, seeing flashes of light over the shoulder of the barbarian. He directed his companion to turn their cutter the direction of the light, estimating that they were half the distance out to it, perhaps even closer. In the jollyboat behind, Willa saw the signal as well. She whispered to Babshapka, “Pull harder,” so as to turn them to the portside.
On board the Sea Ghost, Captain Sigurd “Snake Eyes,” Punketah the Mage and two crewmen stared up at the decrepit mansion. “Ol’ Sanballet’s gone barmy,” muttered Punketah. “That ain’t ther response signal, no how. That be our own signal back again.”
“Ye be nay wrong,” replied Sigurd. “Too much brandy, or watchin’ t’em coloured lights too long? Wait a fair bit an’ hail ‘im agin,” he ordered.
Ten minutes later, Sigurd had the crewman on the lantern flash another signal at the house. The smugglers waited impatiently for the reply, watching from the rail of the Ghost. When it finally came, they saw the same signal as before: a long flash followed by three short ones. “T’at be wrong, alright,” said a crewman, shaking his head.
“Might be…” said Punketah, drawing his words out, “that Sanballet’s got summit ter say to us and is coming out hisself—and one o’ those land lummoxes he uses fer muscle don’t know ther signal from his arse.”
“‘Tmight be,” said Sigurd, unconvinced. “Or ‘tmight be Sanballet got hisself pinched, an’ yon light’s made by no friend o’ ours.”
“Kingsmen?” spat Punketah. “Nahh, it be past ther bedtime. Kingsmen don’t sail o’ ther night.”
Nevertheless, Sigurd called up to the man in the crow’s nest, “Luke! Eye’s up! All directions, laddie!”
Sigurd waited a few minutes more, just to give whomever was in the house the chance to right the signal, but it did not come. “We be cuttin’ bait,” he decided, and then shouted to the man at the fore, “Weigh anchor, lad!”
The man aloft called down, “Cap’n, jolly t’ starboard!”
“Belay t’at!” shouted Sigurd to the man at the capstan. He had the crewman with the lantern shine it low across the water. The light only dimly illuminated the approaching jollyboat. The craft held fully six figures, though their identities could not be discerned through the misty darkness. “Bjorn, make ready t’ receive ‘em,” Sigurd called out to his mate on the lower deck.
“Do ye want our jolly launched?” Bjorn called back.
“Nay jes’ yet.”
“Mayhap ye be right,” Sigurd murmured to Punketah, “a full boat could mean Sanballet’s comin’ out fer a parlay—or ‘tmight be me in ther right, an’ t’ese nay be friends. When t’ey gets close enou’ t’ see, be ye castin’ yer web t’ keep ‘em in ther boat, t’en sleep, t’en we be guttin’ any left standin’.”
“Aye, Cap’n,” agreed Punketah darkly, and his hand opened a belt pouch and drew forth a pinch of cobweb.
With all eyes except the lookout on the approaching jollyboat, Thokk and Barnabus slipped the cutter in front of the prow of the still-anchored Sea Ghost. Thokk’s oar strokes yielded no more noise than the sea lapping gently against the hull of the great ship, and they passed unseen to the seaward port side of the Ghost. Barnabus took out a grapnel, its hooks muffled by sackcloth, and tossed it neatly up to catch on the rail above.
Bloody Bjorn and a crewman stood by at the starboard rail, the crewman with a rope ladder in hand. On the stern deck, the man with the lantern kept it shining on the approaching jollyboat. Several of the figures aboard could be seen to lean in and whisper to one another.
When the prow of the jollyboat was some twenty yards from the hull of the Ghost, the mist parted enough to reveal the strangers. The stout frame of a dwarf was the first giveaway, but none of those below looked familiar to anyone on deck. Bjorn drew his broadsword, and the man next to him dropped the ladder to the deck. “Now!” bellowed Sigurd, and Punketah began the words of an incantation.
Those in the boat proved quicker. Babshapka dropped his oar, stood and turned, pulling forth a bow, already strung, from beneath his dark cloak. In one smooth motion, he nocked and loosed an arrow. A single shot struck Bjorn square in the chest. The arrow shaft erupted into a tangle of vines that wrapped around the mate and forced him down to the deck. A firebolt lept from Aurora’s hands and scorched Bjorn’s companion.
Willa lunged across the seats to take up Babshapka’s oar. Together with Tyrius, she steered the jollyboat and then pulled in the oar as they ground to a stop against the hull of the Sea Ghost, the two ships broadside to one another.
Larry had been mumbling under his breath for several seconds, perhaps even before Punketah had begun his spellcraft. Abruptly, a thick fog bank rose from the water and covered the whole jollyboat and the main deck besides, obscuring all. A second later Punketah completed his web, but in the fog he could see no targets for the spell. The web splashed harmlessly into the water. Its fringes adhered the jolly to the larger ship, but the sticky strands did not catch his intended victims. Punketah uttered a foul oath. Sigurd yelled for the anchor to be raised and drew his own sword.
Under the shroud of Larry’s fog cloud, those in the jollyboat threw up grapnels and ascended to the main deck of the Ghost, even as Barnabus and Thokk climbed aboard on the other side. “Sleep! Damn you Punketah!” cursed Sigurd.
The mage pulled forth a pinch of sand, but he objected, “Cain’t bespell that what me eyes cain’t see!” Though he stood beside the man, he could scarcely make out Sigurd’s shape in the darkness and fog, much less the boarding party from the jolly.
The wounded crewman at the main deck rail slashed at a shape coming up out of the fog, but a blow from an unseen opponent struck him down as those in the jollyboat clambered aboard. The aft crewman’s lantern beam danced through the encompassing fog but revealed nothing. From the main deck came a terrifying battle cry that froze the blood of the smugglers. An orcish voice raged, “Thokk bathe ship in blood!”
Blown astern by the east wind, the fog advanced across the main deck, and the boarders used it for cover as they moved aft. Barnabus ascended the port ladder to the poop deck ahead of the fog but immediately darted into the shadows. With a clatter of heavy booted feet, Thokk, Tyrius, and Willa ascended the starboard ladder and engaged the smugglers in melee. Shefak ran across the fog-covered deck but ignored the ladder. Rather, she used her staff to vault over the railing to the poop deck, rolling as she landed.
Before the first blow was struck, Punketah completed his sleep spell, centering it on the attackers surging up the ladder but carelessly forgetting about his own shipmates in the same area. Shefak was the first to collapse, but then the crewman at the tiller and the one holding the lantern also went down. The lantern clattered to the deck but continued to cast a dim light through the fog. Barnabus was creeping up behind the man on the tiller just before the spell struck. As a wave of drowsiness swept through him, his eyes closed, and he succumbed to the magical sleep before he could deliver his blow. Aurora and Babshapka, still below on the main deck but approaching the ladder, felt the wave of drowsiness pass through them, but their fey heritage asserted itself against the lull of the spell.
With his companions asleep or still below, Thokk singlehandedly confronted both Sigurd and Punketah on the poop deck. None of the other smugglers were conscious. Willa and Tyrius scrambled up behind the half orc. “Drop your sword and surrender your ship,” Tyrius demanded as he maneuvered himself into the fight.
Sigurd roared defiance and slashed at Thokk. His sword moved faster than Tyrius’ eyes could follow. The half orc suffered three devastating cuts. Thokk fell to his knees and his blood slicked the deck. He was still struggling to rise when Sigurd ran him through with a fourth and final stab. The massive half-orc collapsed with a groan.
Babshapka ascended the ladder to the poop deck next and just behind him came Aurora. The ranger sprinted into the melee while the enchantress spun about to try to make sense of the chaos around her. The fog muffled the sound of the battle. She could not be sure, but it seemed as if Thokk had already fallen. Looking for the others, she nearly tripped over Shefak’s sleeping form. At first she thought the Bakluni woman had been slain, but upon inspection, she discovered the monk slept peacefully. Aurora slapped her twice and commanded, “Wake up or we’re all dead!”
Leaving Shefak to rouse herself, she hurried over to where Barnabas dozed comfortably beside the sleeping tillerman, his intended victim. Aurora shook the halfling and slapped him to consciousness. Just then an arrow from the man in the crow’s nest stuck her hard, lodging its head between her ribs. She cried out in the surprise and pain and tore the shaft from the wound. Recovering herself quickly, she replied to the insult by hurling a firebolt at the man above.
Baranabas sat up, rubbing his eyes lazily, then suddenly he remembered where he was. He leapt to his feet and looked around. He quickly assessed the situation and took note of the sleeping smugglers at his feet. With Tyrius busy trading blows with Sigurd and unlikely to notice anything else, Barnabus took the opportunity to kill, not capture, the sleeping crewmen.
Unable to offer another spell and equally unable to escape, Punketah fell quickly beneath the blows of the boarders, but Sigurd fought on with considerable skill. Both Tyrius and Willa tasted the metal of his blade before Babshapka moved to a flanking position. Then the concerted effort of their attacks forced the smuggler down to the deck. The sounds and cries of battle which had been strangely muffled in the fog fell completely silent. The fog curled away from the main deck revealing a single dead smuggler by the rail. The formerly entangled mate was gone, as was the man who had been at the capstan. The anchor was still down.
“Is he dead?” Willa asked of Babshapka who knelt over the bleeding half-orc.
The elf shook his head.
“Let me help!” Larenthal pushed aside the ranger. He and Tyrius employed their healing spells to revive the half blood and close his wounds. Tyrius breathed a prayer of gratitude for the miracle. Thokk snarled and bared his teeth in a grin.
“Feels better, doesn’t it?” Larry said, patting his friend gently.
Punketah and Sigurd were also still alive. Both were unconscious and badly wounded. Tyrius bound their wounds along with their hands and feet.
“Quickly!” Willa urged. “We hain’t done yet, and thar be more ta come!”
Thokk rose to his feet and hefted his axe and his shield. The party pulled together and began to cross the deck. As if on cue, a cabin door was flung open and three lizardfolk charged out at them. Unfazed by his recent brush with death, Thokk threw himself forward to meet them, blocking their javelins with his large hide shield. A small flying creature launched out with the lizard men and swooped over their shoulders. It sunk its tail barb into the half-orc as combat was joined again. Seeing the beast, Aurora observed, “Isn’t that a dragonne…” but that was as far as she got before Thokk sliced it in half with his axe.
The lizardmen quickly realized they were outmatched, but before they could withdraw, the fighters in the party were on them. They slew the lizardfolk and dumped their reeking carcasses overboard. Again the deck was clear and calm restored.
“Pelor shines his goodly light upon us!” Tyrius exclaimed.
“We are good, aren’t we!” Aurora added with a note of pride, even as she clutched at the painful arrow wound in her ribs.
Willa ignored their self-congratulatory remarks. She busied herself retrieving her chainmail hauberk from the jollyboat and donned it. “If ye ’ad taken ther time ta dress yerself afore, ye wouldnae ‘ave them bleedin’ wounds, now would ye?” she scolded herself as she observed the bloodstains soaking through her clothes.
“Are we ready for this?” Tyrius asked, looking around at his companions. Everyone gave their assent. The party charged in through the door the lizard men had come out. A blur of chaos erupted. The subsequent battle below decks was desperate and hard-fought on both sides. It involved fighting on rope ladders, climbing on and over brandy casks and even attempts to roll them down upon others. Daggers were thrown in the dark, and the party’s spellcasters exhausted all their remaining spells. In the end, every member of the party suffered serious wounds. Five common smugglers were dead, three surrendered, and all of the ship’s officers (the Captain, the Mate, the Bosun, and Punketah) had been knocked unconscious, captured alive, and bound to the mast in the hold.
Despite their wounds, the party was eager to search the ship for a pirate’s treasure. Besides the items recovered from officers themselves (jewelry, armor and weapons, and possibly magical gear) and the obviously valuable cargo of silk and brandy that filled the holds, the party’s search uncovered a cache of odd coins in the cabin of the lizardfolk, strange papers and four potion vials in the captain’s cabin, a spellbook and a wand in Punketah’s cabin, a secret room filled with weapons, and a secret prison cell with a manacled sea elf (who was soon after released).
As Babshapka and Larenthal dressed wounds and applied bandages to the injured, Aurora mused over the plot. “The smuggler’s role in supplying Sanballet and Master Murphey with brandy and silk is obvious,” she said. “But there’s clearly something more afoot here.”
“I’ve learned a thing or two from the prisoners,” Tyrius agreed, “And then there’s the contents of this letter from the captain’s cabin.”
“Don’t ferget ‘bout ther lizardfolk,” Willa added. “We need t’ gather all ther clues t’gether w’ ther facts.”
“Well there’s the weapons the ship is carrying, far more than the smugglers themselves could have used,” Barnabas said. “I’d wager my share they were smuggling arms. Maybe that’s the real racket.”
“That might explain the hundred coins the lizardmen had,” Aurora said thoughtfully. “Perhaps they were dealing in arms, as you say, and supplying weapons to lizardfolk.”
“Seems like as enough, though I like ther soun’ nae one bit,” Willa concurred. “If I be readin’ this map aright, ther lair be at the mouth o’ ther Dun River, not but a few hours west o’ Saltmarsh by sail.”
“We should further interrogate the prisoners and ascertain from where these arms are coming and for what purpose the lizardfolk are purchasing them,” Tyrius declared.
Their efforts to learn information from the prisoners availed little. The three crewman claimed not to know, and Sigurd had already told the others, “I’ll nae be sayin’ naught, an’ ye’ll do ther same, if ye hae any wits aboot ye.” The crewmen did admit that the silks and brandy were loaded in the port of Jetsam in the nation of the Sea Princes, but they all claimed that none of them had ever seen the arms come aboard.
The party decided to interrogate each of the four leaders separately. Aurora clumsily tried to get Tyrius to watch the remaining prisoners so that he would not be present during the questioning, but he quickly saw through that and ordered Thokk to guard those remaining. “We don’t torture prisoners,” he said sternly. Willa, Tyrius, and Aurora spent some time alone with each of the prisoners in a below-decks cabin before returning them to the group bound to the mast. The common smugglers had their hands and feet bound, but they sat on the deck not tied to anything for the moment.
Captain Sigurd “Snake Eyes” remained calm, collected, and quiet during his interrogation. He told them his name, inquired after theirs, and agreed that he was captain of the Sea Ghost. Other than that, he steadfastly refused to provide them with any information.
The first mate “Bloody Bjorn” struggled a bit and cursed them as they took him away from the others, but he quickly settled down once they were alone with him. Bjorn wasted no time before asking for a deal. Once he learned (from Tyrius) that his freedom was non-negotiable, and that regardless of what he told them they would be compelled to turn him over to the Saltmarsh Town Council, he fell thoughtfully quiet. Eventually he told them that Sigurd had a contact in Jetsam for the weapons. When asked for the arms dealer’s name, he said, “Mayhaps I could recognize th’ man and point him out in a crowd, but I do nae know his name or where be his business. Silk and brandy we brought aboard as legal goods ‘n cargo in Jetsam, w’ a bill o’sale, but the weapons—they be another thing altogether. They be handled only by th’ officers ‘n with th’ port officials ‘n th’ crew none the wiser.”
“We know about the lizardfolk. How long have you been running arms to them?” Tyius pressed.
“Since th’ sprin’, but I dunno why,” Bjorn admitted. He also explained that they captured the sea elf sneaking on board their ship while docked in Jetsam, but that no one had been able to speak with him. Sigurd was considering selling him to slavers. In return for this information, Bjorn asked them not to say anything to his shipmates about what he had revealed, and he asked Tyrius to tell the Town Council that he had been cooperative. Tyrius agreed to both conditions.
The bosun “Foul” Frithoff was sullen when they pulled him from the mast, but once they had him alone in the cabin he let fly with a string of invectives the likes of which even Willa had never heard. He cursed them and their families, past and future, and went into lurid detail about what he would be doing to each of them once he was free. His interrogation was effectively over after a minute, but they kept him in the cabin as long as the others so as to sow doubt among his colleagues. When they finally dragged him out, his voice was hoarse and their ears were red.
Lastly they separated Punketah. Tyrius began, “The Saltmarsh town council has ordered us to turn over the officers, but the council has empowered us to make our own decisions about the common crew.”
Punketah replied, “I be nae officer nor underlin’ t’ one. I be a professional fer hire. I report only t’ ther cap’n’ but nobody reports to me.”
“You may be a hired professional casting spells for pay, but that will not save you if you go to trial. You are party to a very serious crime, personally involved in smuggling and providing assistance to the king’s enemies,” Tyrius warned.
“And the local law takes a dim view of magic users,” Aurora added.
“I ne’er put my hand to any such crime,” Punketah emphatically protested. “I be merely hired, no differn’ than a sellsword, ta’ defen’ the ship.”
“In that case,” Aurora reasoned aloud, “We should be free to deal with you as we see fit.” Tyrius raised no objection, so she continued with that tactic. “What are you willing to trade for your skin, Punketah?”
Punketah claimed to know even less about the weapons deal than Bjorn did. He did not know where they were from or how they get on board. He did confirm that the weapons were ultimately sold to the lizardfolk, and that they had a large lair at the mouth of the Dun. He also agreed that the brandy and silks were purchased legally in Jetsam, and that the sea elf was captured in that port. Negotiating for his life and his freedom, he offered his magic items in return.
“That’s generous of you Punketah,” Aurora said with exaggerated sarcasm. “The council has already granted us the right of pillage. Your spellbook, your wand, and the ring from your finger are already forfeit and in my possession. Unless you have some magical items we have not found, you still have nothing to bargain with.”
Punketah replied, “Ye ‘ave me wand, but can ye wield it? Do ye know the secret word that makes it work? Do ye know the dw’omer of me ring? I’ll tell ye if ye swear on the gods that ye will release me.”
While they considered that, Punketah sweetened the deal with further information. “Them lizards be prep’rin’ themselves ta’ sack yer village a’right,” he said. “Them salters all be in danger. But if ye grant me ta keep me spellbook and toys, I’ll join ye to defend the town or attack the lair or whate’er ye say, just so long as I go free with what’s mine once the lizardfolk be dead.”
“It’s a worthy offer,” Aurora admitted. “We will discuss it and consider the possibilities, but we must do so amongst ourselves.”
With all four captives back at the mast, the party left Larry and Thokk to guard the prisoners. The rest went above decks to talk. They took the surrendered crew with them, releasing their leg restraints but leaving their hands bound. Out of earshot of the prisoners, Willa, Aurora, and Tyrius conveyed to Barnabus, Babshapka, and Shefak what Punketah and the officers said. Together they sorted through the various statements the smugglers had made, trying to discern common elements and truths.
“Wha’ trouble me mos’,” Willa sighed thoughtfully, “be ther Sea Princes havin’ some hand in ther pot.”
Barnabas nodded his assent, but the expressions on the faces of the others betrayed their lack of comprehension. Barnabas explained, “The Sea Princes are ancient rivals of Keoland, and the two nations have fought many naval wars in the past. If the Princes are indeed involved in arming lizardfolk to assault Saltmarsh, it could be part of a larger plan to invade all of Salinmoor!”
Used with permission. Adapted for Greyhawkstories.com from the original article posted to Canonfire!
Don’t miss chapter thirteen: The Ghost at Saltmarsh.