"I'm going to skip ahead here," Åland announced, flipping through his notes. "You've been at sea a couple months, you've had some encounters and chances to earn XP, but we don't need to play through all the minutiae. I'm just going to roll some random encounters for you and give you a final tally. You'll probably level up again by the end of it, so start thinking about all the usual stuff. You can put skill points into anything related to sailing or the ocean, except Swim. Sweetie, you'll have plenty of time to study your spellbook, so go ahead and add up to five extra Level 1 or 2 spells to your list."
"Wow, really?" said Sweden. "Why so generous?"
"I'll tell you why," said Denmark. "It's 'cause he's planning to put us through the wringer. That's it, isn't it?"
"Why don't you wait and find out?" said Åland, rolling dice and jotting down notes. "Okay, so by this point in the adventure..."
Sea voyages aren't usually this eventful, but just as adventurers seek out adventure, the reverse is also apparently true.
By the time the Golden Horizon reached the warm seas, there had been two bad storms, a baby sea serpent, three pirate attacks, a tricky reef navigation, a hostile tribe of locathah, and a mysterious magical fog that caused insanity. The party had been instrumental in preventing disaster every time—if Captain Pisna had been at all dubious about their value at the start of the voyage, he was no longer. (But neither was he stupid, which was why he was waiting to apportion the treasure captured from the pirates until they made landfall.)
And some incidents had been more personal. At one point, Faldinn ran afoul of a member of the ship's crew, who got drunk while off-shift and decided to prove his mightiness by picking a fight with the toughest person on board. The ensuing brawl drew every available hand, and even a few who should have been concentrating on sailing, to spectate and lay wagers on the outcome. Faldinn won, of course, spraining both the other man's wrists in the process, but as everyone knew it was the sailor's fault, he was locked up in the brig and Faldinn received only a perfunctory warning against intra-crew violence.
On another occasion, Kendram's singing drew the attention of a mermaid, who developed an instant crush on him and followed the ship for hours. It would have been a match made in pseudo-medieval heaven—a mermaid girlfriend being the ultimate fantasy for almost any man who goes to sea—but there was a snag. When Kendram finally leaned over the railing and waggled his eyebrows at her, she squealed in delight and leaped entirely out of the water to turn a flip...revealing a torso far too shapeless to belong to a mature female of any humanoid species. She was more merchild than mermaid, and Kendram was a lot of things but he was no pedophile. The challenge lay in turning her down without breaking her innocent heart, which would have been both bad luck for the ship and a dick move overall. He did it by improvising a sweet song about first love between two young folks, including rather heavy-handed implications about the number of times he, personally, had been around that particular block, and fortunately she took the hint.
Not all the challenges faced by an adventurer are resolved by killing something.
Wendes was a squishy wizard, therefore his shipboard duties were usually light, and more along the lines of "We could use a little spell right now" than "Here, hold the rudder steady for about an hour till we're out of this cross-current." He had almost nothing but time, the better part of which he divided between studying his spellbooks, and getting plenty of sleep every night so the study would stick. The upshot was that he slept late most mornings, despite being an early riser by nature. The unfamiliar environment and schedule were affecting his normal circadian rhythm.
But one morning, he spontaneously awoke with only the gray light of false dawn coming through the cabin porthole. There was a subtle change in the air, operating in the edges of his perception, even outside his magical senses. He slipped on his boots and made his way up to the deck, where the crew on night shift were working in near-silence. Yes, something definitely felt different. He spotted Yarwon standing at the bow railing and approached.
"We're entering the warm seas," Yarwon said without even turning around. "Cinadel's up in the crow's nest with that bone hand, finding our direction. It wasn't working down here. We figured the number of living people were interfering with the necromantic energy."
"Where's the captain?"
"Still asleep. We'll wake him once we're sure of our heading."
Wendes fretted. "Do you think he'll keep his word to us?"
"He'd damn well better after the help we've given him."
There was a piercing whistle from aloft. They looked up to see Cinadel waving and gesturing extravagantly. "I guess we'll find out soon," said Wendes.
Pisna didn't mind being awakened for news like this, but he did seem to balk at the idea that they should head for Susari's island right away.
"I do have cargo to deliver, you know," he said. "Can't your quest wait until the return trip?"
"First of all, no," said Kendram. "Second of all, without our help on this voyage, you would have lost not just time, but perhaps your cargo, crewmembers, maybe even the whole damn ship. And third of all...no! It can't wait! What part of 'lich threatening the world' slipped your mind?"
It wasn't exactly a smooth speech, but everything sounds more reasonable coming out of a bard's mouth, even when no magic is involved. Pisna made a resigned sigh.
"You'd be surprised how many adventurers exaggerate the importance of their quests. Very well. Have your elf relay your heading to the helmsman. But don't dawdle when you get there."
"He's not 'our' elf," said Yarwon. "He's an elf who's in our party. We don't own him. What the hell?"
The crew had not been told, specifically, where they were actually going. They knew it was an out-of-the-way island where their adventuring passengers had business, but not that powerful necromancy was involved. Still, information like that is hard to keep a lid on. It was blatantly obvious that their heading came from the skeletal hand the elf was carrying around, and once one or two sailors overheard the word "lich," within minutes the entire crew was muttering about the undead. Pisna assured them they would not be required to go ashore with the party, but tension remained high. The sailors grew irritable with each other and with the party members. Remembering the incident with Faldinn, they avoided any physical scuffles, but some took to making signs against the Evil Eye whenever Cinadel passed them on deck. The minor act of heroism that had endeared him to the crew at the start of the voyage was apparently forgotten.
It was a great relief to all several days later when the lookout sighted Susari's Island as a tiny nub on the horizon. Yarwon summoned an air elemental to give them a little extra speed, and by all calculations they expected to arrive before sundown.
That idea came to a crashing halt a few hours later, when the lookout made a second sighting: another ship, heading toward them at great speed. Pisna whipped out his spyglass, squinted at the vessel, and swore softly.
"What is it? Who is that?" asked Yarwon.
"Liamosa..." Pisna replied, and swore again. Louder this time.
"An enemy of yours?"
"Ask your bard," Pisna spat before whirling around and barking orders to the crew.
Yarwon didn't bother to correct him regarding the possessive pronoun this time. He made his way below and found Kendram in his sleeping corner, playing snatches of a tune on his lute. Yarwon thought he recognized phrases from the song he had sung for the young mermaid.
"Sorry to interrupt," he said, "but have you heard of someone called Liamosa?"
Kendram stopped playing instantly and sat up straight. "The infamous undefeated pirate?"
Now it was Yarwon's turn to swear. "Well...he's here!"
"What's the plan?"
"I don't know. I think Pisna plans to fight."
"Time to...bard things up, then. Either way, time to bard things up."
"'Bard things up?' Only a spoony bard would say something that corny."
They climbed back up just in time to see a fireball, courtesy of Wendes, streak overheard toward the rapidly approaching pirate ship. It struck the mainsail full-force...but rather than instantly igniting the cloth and putting immediate brakes to the ship's headlong charge, it splashed against the sail and dissipated with no effect.
Wendes was crestfallen. He'd never had a spell simply fail so completely before. Adding insult to injury, the captain began berating him: "Idiot wizard! You people always think you can solve any problem by throwing magic at it! I told you, his ship is protected!"
"Protection against magic isn't binary!" Wendes protested. "I had to see if my spells could overcome it!"
A passing sailor gave him a shove, sending him sprawling on the deck. "Shut up! This is your fault to begin with! Your evil black magic brought us bad luck!"
Liamosa's ship was slowing. The notorious pirate captain himself perched on a boom, holding a megaphone made from the horn of some mighty beast. He was a handsome fellow, very dark in coloration and dressed as flamboyantly as only a successful pirate can dress.
"Prepare to be boarded!" he instructed the crew of the Golden Horizon. "Cooperate with my crew and I will be merciful! Every attempt will be made to spare your lives!" There was a pregnant pause while he lowered the megaphone and grinned. "Otherwise, how could I sell you on the slave market?" Little explosions of laughter came from his ship.
"I hate it when they think they're funny," Yarwon muttered.
"Helmsman! Hard to starboard!" shouted Pisna. "Buy us some time!"
"Aye, Captain!" The helmsman spun the tiller, and the Golden Horizon listed sharply away from the pirate vessel.
"You, bard!" Pisna continued. "Get my men in top fighting form or so help me I'll break that lute over your head! Druid! Summon wind and water, or whatever you do, to slow them down! Where's the barbarian?"
"I'll find him," Wendes muttered, hurrying off.
The pirates were bustling about their deck, lining up small...catapults? "Oh, this can't be good..." said Yarwon. Do they seriously cart heavy boulders around on board their ship?"
"No. It's Liamosa's signature move," Pisna remarked grimly. "He and his best fighters hurl themselves onto the ships they attack. His own ship stays at a safe distance and a few crewmembers stay behind to handle it during the battle." A sudden gust whipped the sails and the sky darkened as clouds moved in. "Well done. That was fast."
"I didn't do anything yet," said Yarwon, looking around, puzzled.
Lightning discharged within the clouds; a few small branches leapt down and crackled over the masts, harmlessly but alarmingly. The thunderclap was equally sudden.
"You must have done something!" Pisna shouted, shielding his ears from the noise. "Even at sea, storms never arise this quickly!"
He skipped back as Cinadel suddenly landed in front of him, springing down from the rigging. "This is no natural storm," he said. "It's magic. It must be one of the living storms that guard Susari's island."
Shocked, the captain leveled an accusing finger. "You are bad luck! I should have you thrown overboard to appease the weather!"
The ship was beginning to pitch in the fierce wind. Wendes came running up, stumbling over the rocking deck. Faldinn was with him, looking profoundly unsettled.
"I have good news and bad news," Wendes said. "The good news is that Liamosa's calling off the attack! Look, they're leaving!" He pointed to the other ship, whose crew had ceased bustling about their catapults and was bustling about the rest of the ship instead, trimming the sails and turning them in order to ride out of the storm.
"Is the bad news about the storm?" Pisna snapped. "Because I know! I suppose it's just as well...I don't think I could take any more bad news at this point."
"We'll manage somehow," said Yarwon. "Just let us know what to do."
"You want to know what to do? I'll tell you! Get below and stay out of the crew's way! Let the real sailors deal with this! You've done quite enough already with your necromancy and quests!"
"Where's Kendram?" said Yarwon.
"Never you mind! Him I might be able to use! The rest of you get—argh!"
He broke off into a yell as lightning struck the mainmast. The lookout was hurled from the crow's nest into the heaving ocean. The fall alone would probably have killed him...had he not already been dead from electrocution. About five meters' worth of the mast was split right down the middle by the bolt, the edges smoldering. Horrorstruck crew members scrambled to douse the burning patches before the mainsail brushed against them and caught fire. And now timbers deep within the ship were groaning under the strain of the waves.
"Captain!" shouted a sailor from below. "We're taking on water fast!"
"Get three on the pumps!" Pisna responded. "We can still ride this out! What are you four still doing up here?"
"It's not exactly easy to get around at the moment!" said Wendes. "And should we really be down there if it's leaking?"
There was a shriek from below. "Captain, the pump just broke!" Thunder grumbled, sounding not unlike demonic laughter. The clouds overhead were as dark as tar and roiled in a way that suggested the constant opening and closing of a multitude of hungry maws. Rain came down so hard that it was more like hail, just warm enough to burst into liquid form on impact.
"Captain..." said Wendes as gently as he could while still being audible over the chaos, "...we need to abandon ship. I'm sorry. We'll make it up to you somehow."
Pisna turned a glare of pure hatred on the wizard, but only for a brief moment. He backed down, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Most of us will," he said. "The captain goes down with the ship."
The adventurers shared a collective gasp, shading to various noises of bewilderment and indignation as Pisna snatched Wendes's hat right off his head and replaced it with his own hat. "Congratulations on your promotion, Captain!" he spat. Before any of them could react, he yanked out that odd forked feather and pulled it apart like a wishbone. There was a shimmer of magical energy. "Bosun! Get the crew to the lifeboats! Our passengers have graciously offered to look after the ship for us!"
Suddenly, a mighty force was yanking Wendes across the deck toward the helm, forcing him to run or be dragged. Against his will, he reached out and took hold of the wheel. Ethereal chains formed out of mid-air, binding him to it. He couldn't let go. He shook his head sharply, trying to dislodge the hat, but it seemed fixed to his head just as firmly.
The others caught up quickly, but were at a loss for what they could do. None of them knew remove curse. And now the ship was sinking in earnest—breaking up, in fact, its planks ripping free of their nails and rigging flying to shreds under the force of the wind.
"Cinadel!" said Yarwon. "Cast that flying spell of yours and get yourself and Kendram out of here! Go for the island; it should be close enough! Faldinn, you'll have to swim for it—can you handle it?"
Faldinn gazed grimly upon the tossing waves for a moment, and then nodded and promptly dove over the railing just before a descending chunk of mast smashed into it. Cinadel and Kendram were already gone; fly didn't take long to cast and they weren't about to wait around.
Wendes made a despairing noise, wrenching vainly at the spell constructs holding him in place. "Pisna, you bastard!" he shrieked to the violent heavens. "I'll see you in one of the Nine Hells!"
"I'll think of something!" said Yarwon as the deck itself began to buckle. "It doesn't end here, Wendes! I swear to you!"
With a noise like a hundred trees falling in concert, the ship bid a final farewell to structural integrity. Wendes and Yarwon were swept down into the churning brine along with tons of splintered debris.
"This seems like as good a place to stop as any," Åland said with a grin of pure mischief, snapping his Dungeon Master's Guide closed. The group groaned loudly.
"It was just getting good!" Denmark protested. Sweden raised his eyebrow at that, but he knew what was meant.
Norway carefully slid a face-down index card over to Åland, who skimmed it and replied with a nod and a wink. The exchange was easily noticed by the other players, but they still respected the sanctity of the private player-DM communiqué.
"So we'll pick up next week with the aftermath of the wreck," Åland continued. "Be safe on the way home, everyone. Go on ahead, Finland; I'm spending the night here. I think Sweden needs a little reassurance."
Finland rolled his eyes, but far be it from him to protest a night free of his cousin—as much as the two of them tried (which admittedly wasn't very much), they couldn't help but get on each other's nerves.
Once they were alone, Sweden and Åland sat back down at the gaming table, mostly because it was right there. "What did you think?" said Åland. "Have I rattled you too badly?"
"Of course not, sweetie. It's all good," said Sweden. "I know you don't control the fall of the dice." He picked up the pewter miniature of a generic wizard that he was using to represent Wendes and twiddled it in his fingers. "And...you know...I trust you not to kill off my character at this point in the campaign."
Åland leaned back in his chair. "Well, that all depends..." he said cryptically.
Sweden stopped twiddling and glanced nervously at his boyfriend. "Uh. On what, sweetie?"
"Like you said, I don't control the fall of the dice." His faint smile may or may not have indicated that he was kidding.
"I thought you said you were going to reassure me!"
Åland opened one of the few remaining beers and took a long pull. "I lied. Come on, babe, you said you didn't want special treatment just because you were the DM's boyfriend."
"Well, maybe I lied."
"You know, I'm going to take this conversation as an indication that I'm doing my job right. A good DM should have players genuinely fearing for their characters' lives from time to time. Come on, let's get to bed. It's pretty late."
They rose and headed toward Sweden's bedroom, arm in arm.
"So," Sweden said as they ascended the stairs. "Are you going to kill off Wendes?"
"You can't wait a week?" said Åland.
To Be Continued...