The adventure begins! If you have not already, check out the introduction to “To Sail the Southern Seas” for more information on how exactly I develop this story. I want to thank the group for their part in creating this story. I hope you enjoy this first installment of our tale.
The sun shone high over the Southern Seas, near its midday apex. The rays of light caught the waves of the sea, but that was of little consequence to those who might have noticed on this particular stretch of the seas. With the wind at their backs, two ships raced across that sparkling surface, sails unfurled and their full crews engaged in the flurry that such speeds required. The first ship was smaller, lighter, but built for transport alongside defensive capabilities and speed. While well rounded, The Soul of Erryeth, as this ship was called, was no match for the predatory vessel that pursued it. Or so it might seem.
The crew of the pursuing ship, the Astrologers Albatross, were well aware of their ships superiority. While both vessels had been crafted by Gyleaon Desert Trading Company, the Astrologers Albatross was of a higher order. Built to chased down and eliminate threats to Company shipping routes, the pursing ship was performing the task it was made for, from its armoured prow to its twin masts. The crew of the Astrologers Albatross, including the heroes of this tale, stood ready, knowing that with the chase, now an hour in, would soon be over. The Soul of Erryeth had been making towards an unknown island which now loomed in the distance, and it would not be long, the experienced sailors knew, before she would have to slow herself, or risk striking a reef or other obstacle in the shallow waters.
An excitement and fear gripped the men and women of Captain Nerova’s ship. With the battle so close to being joined, they knew their weeklong hunt was about to end. While it had only been a week since they set out, they all knew the stories of the crew of The Soul of Erryeth. Over a period of twenty one months they had become legends in the Southern Seas. Now Obran, a Halfling and a Vosi, stood on deck, his shadowy elven compatriot from Tamherang behind him as always. The Vosi was tasked with bringing this ship and particularly its captain to justice, and he had made sure every soul aboard the vessel he had chosen for this mission knew exactly what they faced.
The wanted posters had been hung by the Vosi in the mess hall with hours of his coming aboard. The first and largest was of the captain of the The Soul of Erryeth, Jalastar of Erryeth, a fit brown haired human. The image on the poster showed a captain, his hair tied back, his face proud, with fierce blue eyes, an angular jaw marked by slight stubble, and the collar of a green Company captain’s coat caught in the frame. Jalastar became a famed name when he led the Erryeth rebellion, though it had also earned him the price on his head. See my post entitled The Setting for the full story. The man was known for his skill with his twin whips and cutlasses, and for the best of his crew which he had gathered about himself. Their wanted posters were nailed alongside his in the mess.
There was Kaudi Vraa, the tengu witch, said to draw her power from the Southern seas themselves. While known for both her neutral and wise personality, Kaudi’s more pervasive reputation was of her cruel yet cunning wrath. It was said she preferred to curse a man to killing him, so that he might suffer all his life.
Then there was the half-orc barbarian known as Barhauk the Hullbane. Unlike most savage warriors, especially those who sailed, the Hullbane wore enchanted plate armour, and carried an enchanted axe. With these items and their magic, his trademark attack was said to be to leap into the waves themselves to strike at a ship’s hull. Claims were made that he earned his moniker for sinking whole flotillas during the Erryeth conflict.
Jalastar also has in his service the gnome cleric Trig. Over a hundred years old, Trig had a reputation for aiding the oppressed with her powers, given to her by the good Desna, goddess of dreams, stars, and travel. Hearing of the struggle of Erryeth against Tamherang, Trig voyaged to join Jalastar, and has been at his side since. A mysterious figure, she is spoken of in both awe and terror. In this manner she is much like the final member of Jalastar’s inner circle.
Azohn the Assassin is an elf, believed to be of Tamherang. Rumours would suggest that the agile elf learned his skills in stealth and target elimination in Tamherang. Agents of the Duma are highly trained and capable individuals, and are said to be even more vicious in their efforts to uphold the Duma than the Vosi are in Gyleaon. Many think Azohn came to Erryeth during the rebellion to serve the Duma of Tamherang. However, if assassinating Jalastar was his mission, something changed. He soon became known as one of Jalastar’s most deadly allies, a key player in the rebellion’s most successful guerilla actions and know on his crew.
Now, the crew of the Astrologers Albatross were watching the ship that carried these famed and feared individuals slowed and turned. “They cannot run further, so they turn to fight us,” Obran Vosi cried out from where the Halfling stood on the forecastle. “Ram them now, full speed! We will fish them from the water afterwards.”
From the rear of the quarter deck Captain Nerova bellowed his response across the ship, “I’ll not risk my ship and crew on such a drastic measure. We’ll try something less ruinous first. Load the ballistae, bring us alongside them.”
With a glare, the Vosi snapped out an additional command, “We want them alive. See that chain trails are affixed to those bolts!”
Below decks, the complement of ballistae that comprised the ships armaments, alongside the fore and rear trebuchets were loaded. Thoughout the ship the crew braced themselves for combat, alongside the heroes of this tale. Takk, gnome machinesmith, helped to load the ballistae, preparing to affect any necessary repairs. On deck, the sorcerer Cultist readied his array of spells on the waist deck, while the flintlock wielding wizard Karth did the same on the forecastle. In the rigging, the changeling rogue Morgaine crouched on a line, ready to swing aboard the enemy vessel. The rest of the crew followed their lead.
However, the crew of the Astrologers Albatross knew that the battle was already joined. Beneath the waves, the merfolk Natava and her trusted companion Archie, an immense sea turtle known as an Archelon, had already set to work on disabling The Soul of Erryeth. While Natava worked to loosen the rudder chain from the wooden rudder, Archie pulled on the chain in his jaws. Just after the first broadsides were fired above, she watched that rudder chain snap free from the rudder, and Jalastar’s ship was without steering.
On the decks, the ships had come alongside each other, and barrages of ballista shots were exchanged. Takk raced about below decks. When a ballista jammed, he was there. Moments later he was back helping a crew reload their weapon, even as their foes’ bolts collided with the ship, one destroying a ballista not far from Takk, slaughtering the siege weapon’s crew. Several chain lines now drew the ships together, even as their crews fired arrows, bolts, and spells in between them.
Kaudi Vraa stood in the middeck of the Soul, fending of spells from both Karth and Cultist, as well as the bolts from Morgaine’s hand crossbow. Despite these attacks, she received minor injuries and managed to maintain the focus she required to cast her own spells. The witch’s first incantation struck the foremast, and the great wooden pole’s inward side exploded into a storm of splinters. Karth was closest to the blast, and the wooden shrapnel threw him to the deck, his shoulder, leg, and side pierced by stake-like splinters. Several crew members were similarly injured. A nearby unconscious dwarf was showered in saw dust and splinters from where he lay among some barrels of ale. This is Darvec Saltbeard. His player was absent, but wanted his character included. Above in the rigging, the lines shifted as the mast did, and Morgaine was forced to act quickly to swing with great agility and stay aloft. Her years in the rigging served her well. Surviving her ordeal, she gazed over the deck of the enemy ship, catching sight of Jalastar himself, joining his steersman in the struggle to steer the now rudderless vessel. Yet, she chose to keep her aim focused on the witch, Kaudi Vraa.
However, she now fired upon the witch alone. Karth, now bleeding heavily, struggled to find cover rather than attacking. Cultist had similarly found greater concerns than the combat. His attention was caught with a cry from the poopdeck. Captain Nerova was bellowing for aid, and as Cultist raced to the rear of the ship he soon saw why. The steersman lay limp on the deck with blood pooling around his head, and Nerova alone was wrestling with the wheel while trying to issue orders. He lacked the concentration to manage both tasks, and Jalastar’s crew were taking advantage of the confusion. Cultist raced to the wheel and relieved Nerova, his general training on the wheel coming back to him immediately. With the wheel manned, it seemed the battle was going well again for the crew of the Astrologers Albatross.
Yet, beneath the waves, the battle progressed differently. Natava and Archie had seen the problem almost moments after they disabled the foe’s rudder. A massive metal clad figure was swimming with the speed of a merfolk along the hull of the Astrologers Albatross. It was headed for the ship’s rudder, a might battle axe in hand. She also spotted from where this beast had come, a brutal three foot long rent in the hull of the ship near the sails’ locker. She immediately identified this metal clad monster as the Hullbane, and wisely decided to avoid a confrontation and attempted to stem the breach in the hull. The result was predictable. Within moments Cultist cursed as the wheel spun in his hand, marking the Hullbane’s successful attack on the rudder of the Astrologers Albatross.
At the same moment, the foremast, damaged by Kaudi, finally snapped apart. However, the rigging prevented it from falling far, and soon the fall halted, causing the mast to sheer off from the base and send its splintered end sliding across the forecastle and onto the waist deck. Several crew members unable to escape the great pole met grisly deaths as it impacted them, while above Morgaine was again forced to prove her acrobatic abilities to avoid falling to her death.
Amidst this destruction Kaudi Vraa’s chanting reached another climax, and her arcane arts summoned a great swell of water between the two ships, flinging them apart. The chain lines that held the two vessels together strained for a moment and then ripped free of The Soul of Erryeth, leaving several rips and holes in her hull above the waterline. Now the opposing ships were cast to the currents, both unable to steer and with significant damages to see to. With luck, the currents continued what Kaudi’s swell had begun, and the ships found themselves floating towards different sides of the island that during the battle had been completely forgotten. It was a struggle for the crew to keep their ship afloat. Natava and some of the crew fought to stem the water flow into the hull through the breach in the sails’ locker hull, while Takk and Morgaine oversaw efforts to deal with the now fallen foremast. The ship’s doctor, a portly and bald yet skilled old sailor’s physician, attended to Karth and the other wounded. Within half an hour though, they managed to beach the ship on a beach within a few hundred feet of the jungle. The questions of what would now be done needed to be addressed.
By the end of this first battle, the players behind Karth and Cultist were less than pleased with their character’s performance. Karth has done little save being nearly killed and despite Cultist’s heroics at the wheel, he had not seen a single spell prove very effective. The dice were not with them. The joke became that the two were having a “shit off,” with both players competing to see who had the worst character. Neither was thrilled when competition between them saw as many miserable rolls as it eventually did.
I should also note here that unlike most D&D or Pathfinder groups, we do not have players track their own health. Instead I do it secretly. They give me their health totals, and I subtract from it as they take damage and add to it should they receive healing. When they take damage, I describe the injuries, rather than giving them a amount of damage. This adds to the realism, as a player cannot determine their odds of surviving another blow by just doing the math. When Karth suffered from the mast exploding, he was told of his injuries as was seen earlier. Wisely, he decided to like low after that, rather than working out he had lost 15 of his total 21 health and could risk another attack. We like the system, and if you want a little more realism in your games, I suggest you give it a try.
The Captain summoned the crew to assemble on deck, and he outlined the situation. The forward mast was split, leading to tangled and snapped lines. The rudder shaft was cut through. The sails’ locker had suffered hull damage which needs repairs, and the sails were soaked or damaged. There was food, but that would only last two weeks, and fresh water would run out sooner. They had to be sure enough food and water to reach the nearest port which lay three days away under full sail before they dared leave the island. He placed the repair of the ship and finding supplies on top priority, and Takk is quick to support him.
However, Obran barely allowed the Captain to finish before he cut in. He argued that The Soul of Erryeth was just as damaged when they escaped, and that they were likely in a similar position elsewhere on the isle. He demanded a force be sent out to find and arrest Jalastar and his companions, warning the crew that if action were not taken, the criminals would surely attack them. His argument gained some support, however the heroes and the majority of the crew sided with the Captain. Survival seemed a more pressing issue, and Takk also pointed out that a working ship would be more helpful in arresting their foes than much else. Yet, Nerova was unwilling to cross the Vosi completely, and allowed the Halfling to take his elven peer from Tamherang and thirty sailors.
The Vosi requested any information they had on the isle, and after an hour long search the navigator found the rough hand drawn map seen below and some notes on the island. It appeared that the Company had once sent settlers to the island, however they had abandoned the settlement when the trade route that had been planned though the area was not financed and they found they lacked the resources to deal with the local wildlife and tree clearing necessary to establish a proper colony. However, the ruins of that decade old settlement remained, and the Vosi immediately set out for there with his search party, saying he would send runners back, and would follow the rivers after searching the village.
Meanwhile, in discussion with the Captain and navigator, the heroes learned that the cove on the island south western side may once have been a smugglers’ hideaway. The heroes proposed to explore the cove seeking helpful resources, and with the Captain’s blessing they set out right away, though it was already late afternoon and the trip would take at least two and a half hours on foot. Takk decided to ride his swimming construct Rusty, as it was easily larger than himself. Natava also opted to travel by sea, preferring her natural environment to the strain of operating her wheelchair on a sandy beach. Morgaine, whom the Captain had given command of the mission, Cultist, and Karth, who was now largely healed, kept to the beach.
I like to allow players choice in deciding their actions, not just in a single situation, but in exploration as well. In a situation like this, I had rough plans for almost anywhere they decided to go on the island, and hooks for a few places like the village and the cove. As you will see, some of these are picked up on, while other are not. I will try to point out missed options as they are come up to give you an idea of how this worked. The most important thing, I believe, is to make sure the players feel their characters are free to act realistically. The ends the moment you say, explore the cove, if you go anywhere else, I have no plan.
The journey was uneventful. As the sun faded they heard strange calls coming from the jungle, bird-like screeches that were deep, as if a greater beast than a mere bird was the source of them. Beyond that they saw little, until they came to the cove itself. A small inlet, the cove was walled by sheer cliffs and has a small rough beach of sand and gravel. Half submerged on the western side of the cove was a two masted ship which the heroes suspected was a remnant of the smugglers who had once used the bay. They decided to investigate, with Natava and Takk, diving down to explore the submerged sections while Morgaine searched the rest. Karth and Cultist kept watch. They quickly found evidence to support their guesses, finding skeletons of the former crew both above and below the waves. Morgaine found a cabin which contained a log book of the ship, with the last entry of its illicit activities being over six years ago. Below, Natava and Takk discovered that the hold held four crates of decent weight. Takk was also luck enough to spot a body with a key around its neck, which he promptly acquired. It took them some time but using a small hovercraft Takk had invented, they managed to get the goods ashore. Upon opening the crates and some sampling of the bottles within, Karth’s school experience paid off and he identified the golden liquid to be elven absinthe. Clearly his time being educated was well spent. The group decided to keep the valuable cargo.
They then decided the nearby cave deserved an inspection. They found it to be a simple shelter for the smugglers who had once frequented the cove. Past the door they found a makeshift office, barracks, and storeroom. For the most part, they found the place long abandoned with little of use. The only useful discoveries were made in the office. Morgaine and Takk discovered a chart of the currents surrounding the island and a warning to the smugglers that a family of owlbears had taken the southern half of the isle. It suggested the jungle be avoided at night if one was wise. This gave the party some concern. Takk was eager to return to the ship, believing it was best to get back to aid in the repairs. However, Cultist was torn between remaining safe in the cave, though it might be in owlbear territory and getting as far from the owlbears as physically possible. In the end, fear won out over, well, fear, and they set out again. By the early hours of the morning, they arrived back at the ship, now four cases of elven absinthe richer.
Here the party surprised me. Rather than making every effort to get all the money they could for the absinthe, Takk led the group in a very lawful and loyal move. They opted to give the absinthe to the Captain as the Company would like for a 20% finder’s fee to be split between them. It was a simple decision, but putting story before treasure like that is rare to see in players.
The party slept for eight hours, and then set about planning their next moves. Previously they had decided to stick together, but now they felt splitting up might be best. Captain Nerova informed them that a runner from Obran Vosi’s search party had yet to arrive, and he was concerned. They should have reached the village the previous evening. Morgaine offered to go investigate, and Cultist and Karth were quick to join her. However, Takk believed the repair efforts on the ship could benefit from his expertise. He proposed a few more efficient methods of replacing the foremast, repairing the hull, and replacing the rudder, which he predicted would shave a day hand a half over the four to five day repairs. With a crew of over a hundred sailors it was possible, but only if he personally oversaw the effort. Meanwhile Natava decided she could be of more use in the water. They remained unaware of much of the isle, and where The Soul of Erryeth lay. She decided to swim around the island, believing though it would take her about two and a half days, if she found the enemy ship or other valuable information, it would be well worth it. So, while Takk remained behind, the others set off on their respective missions.
It took Morgaine, Cultist and Karth nearly three hours to reach the abandoned settlement. The place was eerily quiet, though they found ample evidence that the Vosi and his thirty sailors had camped there the previous night. Tracks, fire pits, and refuse were all evident. Yet, on an impulse, Morgaine entered several of the former homes to investigate further. She almost missed it in one dark former home, but a glint of light of the pool of liquid caught her eye. Blood, only a small amount of it, with no other drops to be seen nearby, was all she saw. However, Morgaine proved herself to have quite a talent for finding what was hidden, and she crept upstairs. It took her a few minutes before she found the body. It was stuffed in amidst the straw of a mattress which had been cut open. A blanket had disguised the tear. The body was of one of the sailors, a man Morgaine had known for two years since he joined the crew, though not well. His throat was slit cleanly. She quickly exited the building, and armed with this information, the three heroes decided to return to the ship before proceeding further.
At this point I asked the three players, Morgaine, Karth, and Cultist for their order of marching. They immediately got nervous. Funny how this game works, where as much as I might set a scene to inspire suspense, I can do it far better by asking a question that often proceeds combat. A GM can get the same reaction asking for a perception check, which is why I often ask players to make pointless checks. In this case however, they were right to guess whether going first or last in line was more dangerous. I described the following to the players much as I have below, and I think it added to the drama nicely.
Only an hour out of the village, with two hours of walking before them, one would see that Cultist had decided to take the lead, while Morgaine brought up the rear. Karth got the middle spot by virtue of his having the lowest maximum health, and the fact that he was still recovering from the injuries the explosion of the mast had dealt to him. None of them perceived the danger, not until it pounced upon them.
Cultist strode alone the beach, when suddenly a growl filled his ears. There was a strange choked grunt, the thud of an impact, and an explosion of sand behind him. Blood, warm and wet, spattered across the back of his neck. Cultist did not even turn to see what had happened. These clues were enough. The sorcerer of Dagon bolted, running as fast as he could down the beach. He knew what had happened. Owlbears! For Morgaine, who walked behind Karth, there was more to witness. The same sounds came to her, the growl, grunt, and thump of flesh on sand. However, she saw the blur of fur and blade-like incisors. She watched as the creature struck Karth, how its mass drove him to the ground several feet away, towards the water. She gazed over the twelve foot long and five foot tall great cat that now mauled Karth’s limp form. The great cat’s upper incisors, downward thrusting bone sabers, would have marked it to an expert as a smilodon, a dire tiger. Morgaine did not know much of nature however. She did know a bit about survival though.
After a moment’s hesitation, Morgaine decided she preferred the surf to the jungle, and sprinted past the beast for the safety of the waves. Her blurred form caught the great cat’s attention, and it sprung after her with a roar. She crashed into the water, splashing with each step before diving in. When she surfaced a ways out, she faced the saber-toothed monster as it stood up to its haunches in the salt water, growling as it seemed to evaluate if she was worth the effort. It seemed she was not, for the beast spun about and launched itself from the waves. At first it seemed to be prepared to return to the easy mean Karth’s prone form, which remained still. The sight of Cultist changed that though, and the fantastic feline sped off after the lone runner it had seen not far away. Often when this story is told, there are those who suspect the beast never meant to slay Cultist. They say it merely meant to run him off so it could enjoy Karth in peace. Cultist maintains he outran the owlbear (he still maintains that is the beast that they faced, despite Morgaine’s report to the contrary). Either way, after only a dozen seconds the smilodon gave up the chase and turned to pad back to easier prey.
Or so it thought. While Karth remained unconscious, Morgaine was thinking quickly. First she called out for Natava, hoping the water might carry her plea for aid to the merfolk woman if she was near. She received no response. As the mighty feline returned to the wizard’s body, she steadied herself, drew her hand crossbow, and fired. The bolt struck true, and the beast hissed in annoyance and paused. Another bolt forced it to retreat a few steps. Morgaine had now swam in to gain a footing whilr she fired, and each time the immense cat approached Karth’s fallen form, she warded it away with another bolt. This standoff lasted almost fifteen tense minutes. Finally, the dire tiger growled in fury, and loped of into the jungle.
See the excitement the unexpected can cause. Karth, in the middle, thought he was the one safe person. However, I want to point out that logic should always be kept in mind for a GM. If attacking Karth had no logical reason for it to occur in the story, and was just done to cause the unexpected to happen, your players WILL question the plot hole. In this case I noted that Karth was the weakest physically and was still healing from his recent injuries. He smelt of blood.
Morgaine waited some time before she left the safety of the water, but she knew Karth might have little time. As she examined him she found the beast’s mauling had left him with several deep cuts and tears in his flesh. There was blood on his lips and one arm was strangely twisted beneath him. The changling knew little of first aid, but she had seen enough injuries to know to bind a wound. Tearing up Karth’s clothing, she managed to wrap his injuries and stem the bleeding, but it was clear he would need proper healing soon. All alone (Cultist was about two miles away not turning back) Morgaine needed to find a way to bring the wizard back to the ship fast. Risking leaving the injured wizard alone, she began to jog back to the village. It took her a little over half an hour to reach the ruins, and another ten to find the old fishing boat tied up by the villiage’s dock. By the time she rowed back to Karth, she knew she had little time. She dragged Karth to the boat, giving his wounds a unintended salt water bath in the process, and with him in the craft she rowed with all her might.
Cultist had just arrived at the ship and was gathering a crowd of crewmates when Morgaine and a groggy Karth arrived. It was now evening, and as the moon rose Morgaine told the tale to the Captain and all those who could hear of the attack and her rescue. Despite Cultists insertions, the crew agreed that a dire tiger was the more likely culprit. Morgaine was lauded for her quick thinking, while Karth was taken away to spend his second night of the last three under the ship’s physicians care. Later, Morgaine would also report her findings in the village to the Captain. He grew grim with this report. “Sounds like the work of Azohn the Assassin,” was all he would say, offering only that he needed time to plan their next move. Takk it seemed, had the only good news, as the ship required only a single day of work now. Soon they could sail again.
Natava, by this hour, was halfway around the island. On its eastern side there lay a bay. There, before Natava’s eyes, lay the beached vessel she sought. The Soul of Erryeth was also undergoing repairs it seemed. A professional curiosity took hold of the merfolk druid, and nodding to Archie they swam in close to the ship. Beneath the waves they approached and found the rudder they had disabled only days ago to be in fine working order. “This,” she thought “will take more than I thought,” with a furrowed brow. Motioning to Archie, she had the great sea turtle clap its jaws down on the chain while she set about helping her companion saw through the metal. Their work took over an hour, but with their experience Natava soon held a foot of the rudder chain in her hand. Swinging it over her shoulder, the druid grinned. The length of chain would serve as a little trophy for her. As they swam out of the bay the two were forced to halt and hide as a small boat passed overhead, but they remained undetected. After that minor scare, Natava and Archie had just the open sea before them while they continued their circuit around the isle.
Keep an eye on Natava as this story continues. She is proof that you can play a pacifist character in these games and only end up having a more thrilling time.
Those two would spend the next day continuing that journey. Back at the Astrologers Albatross the day was spent by most continuing the repairs to the vessel. Takk’s efficient planning and engineering knowledge had done exactly as he predicted. The crew was hard at work, and the other heroes joined in the effort. Cultist joined the crew doing the heavy lifting. Morgaine spent the day high above the deck, restringing the rigging. Karth was the only hero unable to help, spending the day resting in the sick bay after his morning dose of a healing potion. By day’s end the rudder was fully repaired, and the hull had been resealed and reinforced. The spare sails had been dried and repacked. The new foremast had be chopped down, prepared and was now set on the ship. Only a few more hours were needed to finish resetting the rigging and sail upon the mast, work that required proper light for most. So, when the sun fell, most of the crew retired to their bunks. Takk, Cultist, and Karth, were among those who took their rest. Only Morgaine remained awake with the night watch. Her keen eyes saw as well in night as day, so she decided to continue her work in the rigging well into the night.
She alone had a good view when the first cries went up. While the bellowed roar, screams, and panicked yells roused most of the crew, Morgaine looked down on the attacking force. She watched the hulking plate armoured figure slice his battle axe through a watchman. The Hullbane, though he stood several feet taller than any half-orc she had seen. She saw the black feathers and patchwork clothing of Kaudi Vraa sway as she chanted. She saw the small gnome cleric Trig, clad in simple brown garb, her arms raised in prayer. They enemy had found them.
That ends our first session. I hope you enjoyed the beginning of our story and will come back for the next installment. Our heroes journey only gets only more interesting from here. If you like this, please let me know below. Let the dice keep rolling.