2: AGAINST THE WIND

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To reach a port we must sail, sometimes with the wind, and sometimes against it. But we must not drift or lie at anchor.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes

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ACT ONE: STOWAWAY

18 Hammer, 1491

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“I don’t understand,” stammered Nemian Roblach. “I’m – so confused.” He looked around, squinting his eyes as if seeing through them properly for the first time. The walls, floor, and ceiling of the room seemed to be constructed entirely of a brass-colored material. Statues and idols too many to count leered from all directions glowing with a delicate red glow. He realized at that point he was sitting at an impossibly long table. He looked left and then right, seeing that the table could easily seat two thousand with room to spare.

“It is fine,” purred a young woman’s voice. “You are still recovering from your experience on the Lucille.”

Nemian shook his head, blinking twice, and then squinting again to focus on the person sitting across from him. She was beautiful but not beautiful in the classical way, no flowing golden curls or ivory skin; no piercing eyes of green. She was shorter than average and certainly larger than a catwalk model, but in her ordinariness she was stunning. Something radiated from within that rendered her irresistible to both genders. Men desired her and women courted her friendship. Nemian could tell all of that even in his present state of stupor.

He tried to move his mouth to form words. He couldn’t seem to get them out. Instead, he let out a series of grunts that sounded quite pathetic. He paused, trying to steel himself. Was he poisoned? Drunk? What could be causing his usually keen perceptions to betray him in this situation?

“Arriving in the Underworld can be difficult for some mortals.”

Underworld? Nemian’s eyes shot wide open. He remembered! It was early Hammer. The wind was cold. He had paid to have thugs from House Basadoni smuggle him on to the ship called the Lucille. He had been discovered and …

“Yes,” she said aloud as if reading his thoughts. “You died.”

He blinked and forced his eyes to adjust again. Pain shot through his forehead as he gazed at the woman sitting across from him again. She looked different than he remembered. Maybe a play of the light. Or the pain in his head.

She had a sculpted figure which was twine-thin. Her waist was tapered and she had a burnished complexion. A pair of arched eyebrows looked down on sweeping eyelashes. Her delicate ears framed a button nose. A set of dazzling, angel-white teeth gleamed as she blew gently on her carmine-red fingernails. It was a pleasure to see her flowing, moon shadow-black hair. Her enticing, constellation-blue eyes gazed at him over her puffy, heart shaped lips.

“Tell me,” she said with a sugary voice. “Tell me everything.”

And he did. He told her everything. His memories flood back to him and he rambled on in intricate details on the events that had led up to his recent death. He explained that he was a member of a small street gang called the Lotus Flowers operating out of Calimport. He joined the gang because they offered him a large sum of money. He had once been a member in good standing with House Basadoni and he had information that their organization could find useful. After all, he wasn’t a smuggler anymore. He was retired. Living a life as a simple taxidermist. That’s how he met Lavinia.

Lavinia Vanderboren’s family had been brutally murdered by the Lotus Flowers. He felt guilty about it. He came to care for her, although she saw him as nothing more than a friend. But he wanted more. He decided to stow away on the Lucille to confront Negan and demand the ship back. With the ship and its extraordinary powers, he could help Lavinia reclaim her fortune hidden away on that accursed island. He could become her hero. He could make her fall in love with him.

He stowed away in the hold for the first day with his partner, a shapeshifter assassin in the employ of the Lotus Flowers. After the first day, he set out to explore the ship. He knew the interior well as Lucille was once his. But he had lost her in a wager to Negan. He explored, using the secret paths to spy on the crew. He took stock of their numbers. All was well until he grew careless and was spotted.

Nemian Roblach talked to the woman for what seemed like hours. She was a good listener. She would nod, and affirm his statements. She smiled politely and displayed her interest in all of his rambling.

“And that’s everything,” he said finally with a sigh. “I tried to use my sorcery to escape, fly above and hover there to return to the ship. But alas, they didn’t give up. They literally shot me out of the sky and I fell to the ship. Before I hit the deck, that damned Minotaur gored me through the chest with his horn and paraded me around like a trophy.”

“Very good,” she said with a soft smile. “Thank you, Nemian Roblach.”

He smiled widely, suddenly realizing that he didn’t have the faintest idea of who this stunning beauty might be. He flashed his most cunning look, and asked her for her name.

He realized that her appearance had changed once again, and this time he was sure that it was her true form. Her skin was stark white, and her eyes a piercing green. She wore all black, and on her head was a twin horned crown that resembled the horns of a dragon. She was an elegant, sinister beauty. Now as he scrutinized her he sensed a feeling of menace.

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“Oh, I had no intentions of introducing myself until the end.” She stood then, slowly smoothing out her dress. “I had no real interest in anything you had to offer me other than information about that ship. Now that I have the details I need, you can return to your fate in the Underworld.”

Nemian remembered that he was dead. He gulped. “The Underworld? So, I am still dead? And you are the Raven Queen, I suppose, my Lady?” He stood, and formally executed a half-bow common with nobles.

And then she laughed. It was a sadistic, gut-wrenching laugh.

“Oh no, my dear,” she said with a glimmering in her eyes. “I am not the Raven Queen.”

He stammered again, fear gripping him, his blood freezing in his veins. Reality sunk in then, a sudden and brutal insight to his true fate. Even before she said it, he knew. Oh gods, he knew. That sudden glimpse, like all dread glimpses of truth, flashed out from an accidental piecing together of separated things – in this case, the actuality that this woman before him was not a woman at all.

“I am Zariel, Archduchess of Avernus, and you stand in the Bronze Citadel.” She smiled again, unfurled her bat-like wings that spread maddeningly wide from her back.

“I’m – I’m -” he sputtered, falling to one knee. Warm tears ran down his cheek.

“You’re in Hell, Nemian Roblach.”

Her laughter was overwhelming as he fell to the floor. It was the last thing he heard before the darkness took him one last time.

ACT TWO: MIRROR, MIRROR

19 Hammer, 1491

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Ragnir had done a masterful job at navigating the ship through the Shining Sea avoiding the typical trade routes used by the ships coming to Calimport. He took the ship along the northern coast of Chult, entering the Trackless Sea, otherwise known as the Eastern Ocean because it is due East of Faerûn.

The Lucille was averaging about 24 knots for the first two days, using the powerful winds to thrust them along. With the assistance of the air elementals summoned by the birdfolk, the Lucille cut through the waters at amazing speeds. Guided by the navigators, overseen by Ragnir, the ship made deadlines far ahead of the schedule registered at the docks at Calim port. Ragnir had learned long ago to overestimate the journey time of the Lucille in ledgers as not to make the dockmaster curious as to how the ship can make its runs so quickly. Ragnir had logged that the journey would take 30 days, however he was determined to cut that time in half!

Ragnir knew the Lucille’s crew well, recalling most of them by name. Most of them had treated him well while he was young serving as a powder monkey. However, a few of them hd been rude or crude. Luckily, most of those fools had met a fitting end at the wrong point of his katars. He had invoked Article 8 many times, ending the conflict not just with first blood but with the offender’s death. After ending the challenge in such a way each time, suddenly Ragnir started to be treated with respect by the rest of the Dogs.

He looked around the deck, allowing his mind to wander a bit. Although he could not focus on navigation every moment of the day, he did make it a habit to constantly think through the ledgers of the ship’s crew. It allowed him to stay sharp about crew members, as well as, helping him to help “N” with the log books.

The Sixty-Six Sea Dogs were pirates who once served with Negan when he was still a privateer in Kara-Tur. After Negan retired, he returned to Faerûn and took up pirating to make a living. Most of Negan’s former crew signed on, agreeing to follow the Captain. There were ten men that had served Negan for over ten years on the Lucille : Smee, Negan’s right hand man; Cecco, a brutal man who carves designs into the skin of his victims; Noodler, the ship’s musician and bard; Morgan, a giant man who leads the boarding parties; Mason, a buccaneer from Luskan;  Scourie a skinny man from VolothampJeffery Dance, revenue officer; John McDonalds, the ship’s cook; Jake Arrow, rumkeeper and resident drunk; Abraham Gray, carpenter; and Avery, priest and medical officer. Along with them were  22 other pirates, each handpicked by one of the ten to serve on the ship. Lastly there was the gun crew, 32 hard men led by the odd toothless fellow named Pew. Ragnir rounded out the pirates, making the 66th Sea Dog.

The Sea Dogs do not have a uniform, however they all wear black bandanas (tied around their heads or their right arm) marked with a black patch featuring a white “66.”

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Neegan’s drive is his will for independence. While he is not above petty theft, smuggling or even killing to maintain his free lifestyle, he is generally honest in his dealings with others, fiercely loyal to his crew and closely follows a personal moral code. This makes his crew fiercely loyal to him, assuming they can get past his crude exterior.

Ragnir focused on the task at hand again, checking his tools. He checked his bearings once, twice, and a third time. He was obsessive about his duties and would take regular bearings on passing landmarks with a “bearing compass,” which was a simple, portable, wood-box compass fitted with two thin brass vanes.

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Afterwards, he would call out his findings to one of his assistants who would enter into the log book the time, the name of the landmark, and the compass bearing. Later in the evening, when he was away from steerage, Ragnir would then apply magnetic variation to derive the  bearing of the landmark with respect to true North, the reference used on all navigational charts.

Sometime in the night, Pew shouted that he saw something out in the water. After some investigation, it was determined that there was a cockboat or cockleboat, usually the largest rowboat on a ship’s deck used to ferry supplies and passengers from ship to shore. Something was odd, though, because it contained two men who were hunched in odd positions, and one of them seemed to be signaling with a mirror. The ship bore the marks of the Waterdeep Mercantile Guild. 

The Deck crew was summoned to the deck, and the decision was made to use the Lucille’s own cockboat to take a closer look. Ragnir decided to accompany “N” and “V” on the rowboat, casting out carefully.

Meanwhile, Machiavelli directed Pew to get a few men on the guns, taking two other men to aid him with manning the catapult.

“Bring me Alchemist Fire,” ordered Machiavelli. “I’ll need it.”

Alchemist Fire was an incendiary weapon developed and used by the Eastern Kara-Tur Empire. It is typically used it in naval battles to great effect, as it could continue burning while floating on water. It provided a technological advantage and was responsible for many key military victories in the East. It is made from the pine and the certain such evergreen trees inflammable resin is collected. This is rubbed with sulfur and put into clay pots. When the pot breaks and is exposed to air, it lights and bursts into a fiery whirlwind.

The rest of the Deck crew assembled at the rails, watching the scene as it played out. From time to time, Hapax would call out a word of advice, citing what a Minotaur would likely do in a situation like this one. As usual, his suggestions didn’t seem to help.

Machiavelli called for a warning shot from Pew. The shot was true, landing a few meters behind the mysterious boat. Neither man shifted, flinched, or moved. Even when Matrim put an arrow into one of the men’s legs, they did not move. Several of the Sea Dogs made signs of their gods, mumbling about sea devils and mermaids. A few called out that the men were undead, zombies of the sea, sailors risen to seek revenge.

Finally, the Lucille’s cockboat was close enough that Ragnir, “N”, and “V” were able to see that the men were sitting on barrels, propped up but obviously dead. In fact, they seemed to be cadavers, corpses that have been hollowed out for burial. Sometimes smugglers used them to move product, stuffing the bodies with goods. One of the dead man was rigged with a string, causing his hand to move around like a puppet as the boat drifted on the waves.

Just then, Machiavelli decided it was time for action. He ordered the catapult to be loaded, and then tugged the level to fire. He knew the artillery was calibrated for a distance of 300 feet minimal, but he was firing short at about 60 feet. However, Machiavelli would sooner eat his shirt than admit that he might be wrong about something. The greek fire arched out from the Lucille, a fiery ball of death that descends in the twilight of the morning … landing perfectly in the cockboat … the Lucille’s cockboat.

“V” and “N” screamed as the greek fire consumed them. Ragnir, somewhat resistant to fire due to his heritage as a Dragonborn, suffered somewhat less but still shouted in terror.

“V” summoned his magic, seeking a way to smother the flames. “N” screamed for his companions to save him, leaping into the water in a futile attempt to extinguish the flames. Ragnir tried dropping to the floor of the boat, rolling around to put himself out, sadly just smearing more of the fiery pitch over his body. As the cockboat slowly sank, it seemed that nothing could be done to save the burning men.

“Put arrows in them,” said Murphy flatly. “Put ’em out of their misery.”

Luckily, after several moments of stark terror, Solomon appeared on deck, shouting for the crew to use sand and blankets to extinguish the flames. The situation lasted only about thirty seconds, but it seemed a lifetime of horror for the three victims.

As Avery and a few of the other Sea Dogs carried the three wounded men to the infirmary for treatment, the crew targeted the other boat. When arrows struck the barrels, the trap was sprung. The trapped cockboat exploded, blasted into bits.

Solomon glared at Hapax. “Three men down. You’re firing artillery needlessly.” He scowled. “Boatswain, get your men under control.” The Captain sneered for a moment, and then stalked back towards his cabin.

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ACT THREE: THE ZHANG HE

20 Hammer, 1491

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Avery jerked awake in his bunk at the sound of the Lucille’s cannons being fired. He put his boots on the floor, and struggled to his feet. He was still in his clothes from early this morning. His shirt, pants, and boots were streaked in the dried blood of his companions.  Three of his patients had been burned badly by Alchemist Fire. With the grace of Umberlee, they had been healed. He whispered another prayer to her as he grabbed his bags and scooped up a cutlass, heading out of his quarters.

Umberlee, Queen of the Depths, is a sea goddess in the Faerûnian pantheon, considered to be Evil and often called “The Sea Bitch” by those who do not worship her. She is most often worshipped by those sailing the seas.

Avery heard a great rush of feet across deck as he climbed the staircases and emerged. He could hear people shouting fore and aft, orders being shouted by officers. He rushed across the deck, stepping behind a mizen-mast to watch what was happening from relative safety. After taking in the organized chaos of the scene, he dodged through the bodies to find his way up to the forecastle.

Obviously an order of “All Hands” was given because most of the crew  were already congregated on deck. The artillery as armed, and the Gun Crews were growling and hooting like animals. Pew was issuing orders, directed by both Machavelli and Matrim.

Away to the West, Avery saw a large sailing vessel approaching, only about 80 feet ahead of the bow of the Lucille. It had white sails with red crosses, symbols of the Waterdeep Mercantile Guild. Hapax was shouting for Morgan and his men to ready planks for boarding. The Sea Dogs and the Deck crew were snarling like hungry wolves, preparing for battle. Avery whispered more prayers, seeking the mercy of his goddess.

“Raise the colors,” shouted Solomon. “No quarter, ladies and gentlemen!”

Within moments, there was a tense silence that spread across both ships. The Lucille had been brought to alongside the other ship, and Avery could hear the hauls creak and screech as they met. Both crews stared across the space between them, both knowing what was to come in only seconds.

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Avery’s gut sank for a moment. He looked along the deck of the opposing ship, seeing that it was manned entirely by children in ill-fitting coats and oversized hats. It seemed that the entire crew of that other ship was playing dress up with their father’s vessel. Children. No, wait, they weren’t children! Avery opened his mouth to shout but Mason beat him to it.

“Xvarts!” shouted Mason. “A ship of Farrucking Xvarts!” Xvarts were hated creatures. Also known as Svarts, Xivorts, Mites, and even Blue Goblins, the little creatures are bald, blue-skinned humanoids with orange eyes and oversized heads. They are about 3 feet tall and usually wear loose clothing stolen from victims.

Solomon ordered the attack. “I’ll see you in Hell!” he shouted as he rushed along with the others to the Xvart ship. The priest watched as the battle started. It was a flurry of motion, men shouted and screaming. Dying men calling out for loved ones. Other men laughed and shouted curses as they cut their enemies down. Blood smeared the deck. The cannons fired, roaring time and time again, filling the air with smoke .All the while, Avery prayed. He finally stepped forward to the railing, and grabbed rope. He soared across to the Xvart ship, landing hard. He crouched, calling on his goddess to heal his companions and harm his enemies. When needed, he hacked and slashed with his cutlass, putting an end to another Blue Goblin.

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A shout went up as Solomon strode to the forecastle of the Xvart ship. The defenders had lost the will to fight, and those that remained alive threw down arms and surrendered. No quarter was given to the ugly little monsters, and they were all cut down to the last. The only one who remained was the Xvart captain, dressed in dirty red rags, peg-legged, hook-handed, and accompanied by a scruffy parrot that was larger than himself. In common, he stated that his name was “Ranzak.” Solomon chuckled at this. Loosely translated from Goblin to Common, “Ranzak” meant “Big Scary Pirate.”

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“This filthy tub has to be carrying something with all these Xvart scum aboard,” called out Smee. “Dogs, go below, and kill whatever remains in hiding. Then report back with your findings! These scum always hoard treasure.”

“They also muck up the place,” complained Scourie. “What did they do, smear the entire ship with their shit?”

“Smells like it,” snorted Cecco. “Filthy creatures Xvarts.”

While the Sea Dogs went below, Solomon and Smee interrogated Ranzak. Surprisingly, Solomon spoke fluent Goblin and was able to jibber jabber with the Xvart  captain. Smee held the man at gunpoint, pointing two flintlock pistols at the creature’s back.

After about twenty minutes, Solomon grunted in satisfaction and walked away. He waved casually back to Smee, and two shots rang out. Avery knew without looking that Smee had executed the Xvart named Ranzak.

Avery sighed, and sheathed his cutlass. He knew that there would be wounded in need of healing. Hopefully not too many of his shipmates had been killed. He walked towards Smee, preparing to ask for orders.

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