If Tidewater Keep was so crowded with all these new guests, McCleagh grumbled to himself, why couldn’t he find any of them? It was early morning, a time when most pirates were snoring in their bunks, but from the looks of things nearly all of them had risen early, belted on their weapons, and wandered off. At least their Captain was still in Lady Smythee’s rooms, a fact that did little to brighten McCleagh’s mood. He suppressed bitter thoughts with the efficiency of long practice. Lady Smythee looked favorably on the arrangement, and that was all that should concern him. Well, perhaps not all.
“I’m concerned about the safety of the castle’s inhabitants while they’re about their duties,” he told Chopper when the man finally emerged in search of some breakfast.
“Seems you should be, aye. Are ye thinkin’ there’s a nest o’ the fish men hereabouts?”
“I’m not sure. They could be coming to attack from miles away.” McCleagh sighed. He hated to ask, but there was no doubt the pirates were competent. “Could you . . . keep an eye on the people?”
Chopper nodded without hesitation. “Course we can. Can send the Devil’s Pallor out to patrol, as well.”
“Not at all, Sergeant. Your people are my people now. I aim to protect my people.” With that in mind, Chopper grabbed some hard bread and cheese to munch on and set off to locate his people. Feruzi was the easiest to locate, perched on a rock where she could shoot at sea birds and occasionally, by accident, at Rotgut the parrot, who seemed to be making a game of interfering with her aim. She locked her gaze on a puffin, arrow leading it as it dove toward the water, and then there was a startlingly loud boom. The bird exploded into a cloud of feathers and Ezikial, hunched behind a rock further down the shore, blew the smoke away from his pistol with a satisfied expression.
“I do not think we can eat it, now,” Feruzi commented.
“Might be, it’s time to taunt some bleedin’ fishheads,” Chopper told her.
“You know where the sahuagin are?”
“No, but they’ll be back. Up to us to keep watch.”
“Fair enough. Not much worth hunting on this island, anyway.”
Nightfall found Feruzi and Ezikial keeping watch among the ballistae on the keep roof. It was an excellent vantage to see the mob of sahuagin that burst from the cove and charged the door, open to admit the goatherd and other groundsmen. Ezikial fired his pistol at them, striking one and causing it to stumble. The weapon’s report was echoed a moment later by Reiko’s enraged shriek as she barreled into the sahuagin, following them over the stunned civilians and through the doors.
Feruzi cursed. It would take far too long to navigate the purposefully narrow stairs and ladders to reach the ground floor, so she simply jumped off the roof, bounding down the stone face for a distance and then collapsing into a heap on the gravelly beach to absorb the force of the fall. Even so, she felt her bones creak from the impact and knew she’d done herself some damage.
“Are you all right over there?” Reiko asked.
“Fine,” Feruzi insisted.
Ezikial eyed the ground, but he was in no way prepared to mimic Feruzi’s stunt. He grabbed a rope and slung it over the side, burning his hands on the way down. The Tidewater guards held the sahuagin at the ground floor ladder while the three pirates assaulted them from behind. Finding themselves surrounded, they turned, jabbing with ferocious tridents. One caught Reiko in the gut as she charged but she ignored the serious wound and cut it and one of its fellows to pieces. Feruzi’s arrows struck the one Ezikial shot earlier, finishing it off, while Ezikial waded in with his shortsword.
Chopper appeared at the top of the ladder, nothing on his person but his boots, axe, and the deep platinum necklace he now wore everywhere. One of the sahuagin shrieked in rage at the sight before it, too, was cut down, ending the melee.
“So,” Chopper asked casually, “Everything is under control down here?” The surviving Tidewater guard coughed and averted his eyes.
“Captain,” Reiko said in a voice that could only be described as strangled, “put on some pants.”
Reiko’s eyes narrowed. “Really?” she demanded.
“Weren’t you supposed to be, uh, elsewhere, Captain?” Ezikial asked, mesmerized.
“You fired a shot. It was distracting. Be quieter,” Chopper told him.
“I find that unlikely, Captain. If you were doing it right you wouldn’t have heard a thing.”
“What in blazes is going on down there?!” McCleagh called from the floor above. He climbed down and surveyed the carnage. “Besmara wept!”
“No, I don’t think she did,” Feruzi told him.
“Not usually, no, but that’s twice in as many days . . . now . . .” McCleagh’s voice trailed off as he noticed Chopper’s state of undress.
“Uh, hey, Sergeant. Quite warm here at Tidewater this time of year? A-heh.”
McCleagh’s face reddened perceptibly and he quickly looked away, spotting the fallen guard. “Oh, Conor.”
“We’ll find ‘em. And we’ll make an end of ’em,” Chopper said sincerely. Feruzi pushed him toward the stairs.
“Be sincere with pants.”
In the morning, they held a small ceremony to rename the Devil’s Pallor as Strife and sent it out with a portion of the crew to patrol around Tidewater Rock. The day passed without event, but toward evening it began to rain. And Rain. AND RAIN. For several days, raising an impenetrable fog. On the third night, Ezikial was on watch aboard the Crisis when a pair of longboats slipped into the harbor, rowing at full speed toward the doors of the keep.
“Rosie! Sound the alarm, All hands!” he growled.
Ezikial swiveled the forward ballista and launched a bolt, striking one of the longboats and sweeping two buccaneers overboard. A loud crunching sound echoed over the water, indicating some damage to the longboat’s hull as well. “BESMARA!” Reiko stepped out on the shore, arms crossed, waiting for them to approach. Alerted by the Rosie’s furious bell-ringing, Feruzi stumbled onto the deck and peered sleepily overboard.
“Whas goin’ on?” she asked. Ezikial pointed out the longboats. “Hang on, imma shoot it.” She drew her bow, still half asleep, and managed to impale one of the attackers anyway.
“Ready the long boat. Step to it!” Ezikial shouted.
“WE’RE UNDER ATTACK!!!” Reiko bellowed from the shore. Feruzi continued to shoot even as the boats began to pull out of range, while Ezikial readied the ballista and fired again. Then they both jumped down into the lowered boat just as the longboats came in range of the shore. A cloaked figure in the second boat stood up and fired a lightning bolt at the doors, rocking them violently and splintering the wood. Feruzi gasped in horror and redirected her arrows. The figure screamed, revealing it was a woman, but she seemed more surprised than hurt. She hurled another lightning bolt at the doors, blasting them apart and revealing Chopper just inside.
“What the fook?!” he demanded. “Who blew down my FOOKIN’ DOOR?!” He then lowered his head and charged the ocean, running easily across the surface of the water to hack at the shocked attackers.
“I want cannon,” Ezikial growled as his pistol shot went wide. Reiko hacked at the buccaneeers who reached the shore, but they swarmed around her and through the doors. The cloaked woman cast another spell and vanished from sight. Feruzi cursed and switched targets.
The fighting was brutal; Reiko and Chopper were instantly surrounded and hard-pressed. With help from Ezikial and Feruzi, they managed to retreat to the doors, where they were able to dispatch the attackers remaining outside, then they climbed to the guardroom to assist the three guards fending off a small horde of buccaneers. By the time the attackers were cut down, only one of the guards remained standing. Then a clap of thunder came from somewhere above them, and a woman screamed. Chopper bellowed and charged up the stairs. The third floor was empty, but they heard commotion on the fourth, arriving to a horror. Five people lay dead—burned to a crisp—in the dining hall: three guards and Sergeant McCleagh. Lady Smythee lay behind an upturned sideboard. The caster sood in the middle of the room, grinning ferociously. She was nearly naked, her skin covered in tattoos, and her teeth were hideously filed to sharp points.
Ezikial shot her in the chest. She swore in Aquan and hurled a lightning bolt at him; he dove for the floor and managed to avoid being crisped himself. Chopper charged her, grabbing her around the waist and throwing both of them out of the smashed window. They crashed into the hardscrabble nearly fifty feet below, Chopper landing on top, but the sorceress refused to die, clawing at Chopper’s chest in an effort to get at the necklace. Feruzi’s arrow entered her throat just above Chopper’s shoulder and severed her spine.