Concerns about the Deathknell were set aside the next morning when they came across a fishing trawler floating low in the water, heavily heeled over on its port side and taking on water. The sails flapped loosely and nets hung over the side, uselessly tangled. Reiko frowned at it as the Crisis drew slowly nearer. “Captain, would you like us to check it out?”
Chopper scrubbed at his chin thoughtfully. “Aye, maybe we can lend a hand.”
Reiko changed their course and shouted a few brief orders to the riggers, bringing the Crisis around more or less smoothly. The trawler’s hull was breached on the port side just above the waterline; the waves were slowly swamping her. The davits at the stern that would normally hold a dinghy were empty and there were no signs of battle or real indications as to what might have caused the breach.
Leaning out, Chopper made out the shape of the dinghy at least ten feet underwater, slowly sinking from sight. “Dinghies don’t usually do that,” he commented. “I’ll check it out.” He promptly dove overboard and began swimming. Reiko sighed as he dove toward the sunken dinghy, tapping her fingers impatiently on the wheel while she waited for him to resurface. And waited.
“Oh, honestly,” she grumbled. “Best wake everyone, this might get serious,” she told Lysaro, and dove in after Chopper just as he resurfaced and gulped air.
“Oh, hey, Reiko,” he greeted her. “What are you doing in the water?”
“Welcome back up, Captain,” she said, sighing again. “Just felt like going for a dip.”
“Someone really wanted that thing sunk,” he explained. “Can’t imagine why.” Reiko grabbed at the Crisis’s ladder and hauled herself up.
“We can talk about it back on the ship, Captain.” Chopper made no move to join her.
“I’m going to board the trawler,” he called and began swimming toward the other ship. Feruzi appeared at the rail above and looked down at them, pointing at the distressed trawler accusingly.
“Did he do that?” she demanded, glaring at Chopper.
“NOPE!” he called back, continuing to swim.
“He’s trying to get himself killed again,” Feruzi grumbled. Reiko jumped down and swam after while Feruzi rummaged around on the deck for a grapple. “There could be some valuables about…” she muttered. Ezikial came forward to help her with the rope and they hitched their way across to join Chopper and Reiko on the listing, unstable deck.
“I assume you have already noticed the problem with this trawler?” Reiko asked.
“It is lacking in the trawl department?” Feruzi offered disingenuously. Chopper tapped his nose and pointed at her in acknowledgement of the feeble sarcasm.
“Still,” he said, “there may be survivors or something we could salvage. I want to know anything we can learn about our competition nearabouts.” He flipped open a hatch and dropped down the steep narrow stairs.
“If you insist,” Reiko said. “But I should mention that this mess has been cleaned up, even if they did a poor job of it.”
“Really?” Chopper said, looking around just in time to notice four sahuagin emerge from the darkness. One of them charged him and received his boarding axe directly in the center of its skull. Reiko’s katana whipped out and cut down another; the remaining two snarled and attempted to disembowel her, resulting in a brief, brutal melee and a total of four dead sahuagin while Reiko and Chopper sustained only minor bites and scratches. Chopper surveyed the carnage, then abruptly reached down and snatched something.
“Ooh, shiny,” he commented, holding up a necklace made of a polished golden coral and a silvery metal with odd blue-black whorls, almost like the patterns in damascene steel, but of a different color and texture. There was little else remaining on the ship – a larger raiding party had stripped it bare, leaving only these four behind as an ambush. Chopper fingered the necklace and shrugged. “Ah well, let’s get off this tub ’fore it finishes sinking.”
“What ye got thar, Cap’n?” Fishguts asked when they returned to the Crisis. Chopper frowned at the necklace.
“Took it off a dead sahuagin ’fore Reiko could get her grubby hands on it. Have you ever seen the like?”"
“Nay, only heard tales. Thass deep platinum, Cap’n. All but unknown t’ folk who live above th’ waves.”
“Not sure what you mean.”
“It’s mined from th’ deepest ocean trenches, tainted by them poisoned deep sea vents – the black smokers. Only abbaleths, krakens, and weirder critters kin pull that up. I hear it has magical an’ religious import t’ the sahuagin…”
“Well, if they want it back, they can come take it,” Chopper said. “Assuming the Deathknell doesn’t get us first.”
* * *
As the day waned a great wrack of cloud spun off the Eye and swept across the sea, bringing high winds and a purple-black sky, forcing them to light the hurricane lamps even before nightfall. The strained clanking of a rusty bell could be heard coming over the water. Ezikial passed out weapons to the crew while Fishguts peered over the side.
“D’ye ken the tale o’ Whalebone Pilk, Cap’n?” he asked.
“Bits and pieces,” Chopper told him. “Educate me, Mister Kroop.”
“They say he took the whaler Belle Dame to sea from Magnimar. Sich was his success tha’ they called ‘im Whalebone fer leavin’ naught else behind, an’ they called ‘is ship th’ Bell, fer the way he rang it with such furor ever’ time ‘e seen a whale’s spout.”
“I appreciate it when there’s a theme.”
“Pilk chased a pod o’ bowheads off th’ shoulder o’Hermea, headin’ south. Beat ‘is knuckles bloody ringin’ that bell, chased ‘em out t’ sea an’ away from th’ world, ‘til th’ crew mutinied. Ol’ Pilk had th’ ringleader tied t’ th’ mast an’ ordered th’ mate t’ lash ‘im s’long’s the Cap’n kept ringin’ th’ bell. The mate’s arm gave out afore Pilk’s did. Once the mutineer was dead, Pilk had ‘im skinned an’ rendered inna try-pot, an’ nailed ‘is skull t’ th’ mainmast as a warnin’. Weren’t long after when a huge bull bowhead rammed th’ ship an breached ‘er hull. Pilk cursed th’ whales and cursed ‘is men and kept right on ringin’ that bell all the way down ter the sea bottom, two thousand miles from land. They say ‘e kin ne’er rest ‘til e’s taken th’ skulls o’ a thousand victims.”
“How long has this phantom been plying these waters? According to the tales, I mean,” Chopper asked.
“She set sail in 4631. Ev’ry once in a while someone survives a brush wit th’ Deathknell… Even beat em off once or twice, but she always comes back.”
“That long and he hasn’t claimed his thousand? Sounds a bit of a layabout if you ask me.”
Kroop looked somewhat alarmed at this cavalier statement, and made a warding gesture. “If they take us, they’ll take us down t’ th’ processin’ hold, strip th’ flesh from our bones, eat us, an’ cut off our ‘eads so our souls be damned wit th’ ship.” He shivered a bit, then brightened. “I seen ye fight some hairy stuff, Cap’n. I figger if anyone got a chance o’ gettin’ us outta this, it’s ye an yer friends.”
“It’s no worse than some of the jungle tribes,” Feruzi commented. Chopper turned to address the crew.
“You might, I don’t know, get ready to be boarded by a cursed demonic ghost ship. Seems imminent whether we want it or no,” he said cheerfully as the bulk of a derelict whaler emerged from the gloom. “Let’s make ’er chase us, lads!” Chopper yelled, drawing his cutlass and swinging it overhead with, if possible, even greater enthusiasm.
“On it, Captain,” Reiko said from the wheel. The clanking sound emanating from the ghost ship seemed to reach out toward them.
“Mister Hands, if you have the opportunity to take out that bell…” Chopper called down to where Ezikial was working the ballista.
Despite Reiko’s best efforts the Deathknell rapidly drew abreast them, the deck of the ghost ship crowded with rotting, bloated corpses that surged forward to the rail, eager to attack. At the wheel, furiously ringing the bell, stood a skeletal monstrosity that could only be Whalebone Pilk himself. “STAND BY TO REPEL BOARDERS!” Chopper bellowed.
Ezikial finished his adjustments and fired. The ballista bolt shot true and struck the iron bell, nearly tearing it from its mount. Whalebone fell to one knee, hissing, and grabbed a harpoon, launching it at Ezikial, who did not duck in time. Hands spat out blood and laughed, pulling his pistols. Whalebone gestured and a ghostly hand formed, reaching out as if to touch, but even this Ezikial shrugged off.
Chopper hacked at the undead sailors charging him, staggering one that already had some of Feruzi’s arrows decorating it. The undead, while horrific, were not particularly efficient. Reiko judged the others could handle this assault and took up a grapple to make an assault of her own. She crossed to the Deathknell, followed by Ezikial who seemed little hampered, perhaps even a little invigorated. Pilk raked at Reiko with his claws, marking her, but she yelled and brought her katana around in a fierce overhand chop, splitting breastbone and ribs. Pilk wheezed in laughter. Behind Reiko, Ezikial discharged his pistols into a crowd of undead crewmen, catching one in the head, another in the chest, shots that would have killed living men but merely hindered the zombies.
Chopper and Feruzi finished off the last of the undead aboard the Crisis, then looked around for more, spotting Reiko in her furious duel with Pilk. She took off the top of the skeletal captain’s head and his hat with it, while Ezikial struggled to keep the zombies at bay. Anticipating Chopper’s reaction, Feruzi almost managed to keep up as he sprinted across to the Deathknell and hacked furiously at the zombies.
“Reiko!” Chopper yelled. “Get me that bell!”
“Forgive my insolence…Captain…but leave this…to me…and you…get the bell!” She called back, fencing with Pilk. She feinted, ducked a claw, and cut the skeleton’s legs out from under him. The undead captain fell to pieces. The zombie crew immediately became inert, allowing Chopper to climb up and hack the bell free of its support – it was strangely cold and seemed to suck at his hands. The Deathknell began to creak and groan beneath their feet.
“I’m thinking, abandon ship!” Chopper called.
“But, the loot…” Rosie complained, coming up behind them.
“Fair enough, collect what you can before this wreck sinks.”
“We should have Sandara take a look at that,” Feruzi said, grimacing at the bell. They hauled their plunder back to the Crisis – including the ship’s wheel per Chopper’s orders – as the Deathknell began sinking in earnest. Sandara cast a spell and examined Chopper’s prize.
“This needs to be destroyed,” she said, then grinned. “But if we do, Pilk and ’is ship will be destroyed with it!”
“Oh, where’s the fun in that?” Chopper complained.
“I think it would be best, Captain,” Reiko said quellingly.
“Dammit. I hate it when you’re right. Soooo much. Fetch me a hammer!” With some effort and the use of the ship’s forge, they rendered the bell utterly unrecognizable. A muffled boom came from the sinking wreck as it broke into pieces and disappeared beneath the water. Chopper shook his head. “I can’t believe no one has ever done this before. No one breathes a word about how easy that was, am I clear?”