The Wormwood crept close and closer to her quarry, which now retaliated with a hail of crossbow and ballista bolts aimed at crew and rigging. The name of the large and wallowing Rahadoumi merchantman was now visible on the transom: the Man's Promise, she was called, no doubt meant to be optimistic but now somewhat ominous. There could be no mistaking what Barnabus Harrigan promised for this ship and its crew.
The missile fire became somewhat erratic as a heavy fog condensed out of the air, magically summoned by Peppery Longfarthing as an aid for the coming battle. The assault team stood waiting at the Wormwood's rail. Reiko didn't even flinch as a crossbow bolt narrowly missed her, she was preoccupied watching the two ships collide. It was a purposeful collision, not a shattering crash, bumping the merchantman into alignment with the Wormwood's starboard side while leaving both ships relatively undamaged. Four grapples flew from the assault team and were made fast.
Reiko and Chopper easily crossed the gap above the seething, shark-filled water. Captain Harrigan had seen to that, ordering Reiko and Fishguts to slaughter the ship's stock of pigs and dump the blood and bacon overboard to draw the monsters of the deep. Anyone so unlucky as to fall overboard would be ripped apart if they tried to swim. Feruzi followed them more slowly, but one on the other side she drew her bow without hesitation and fired into the fog, hitting someone who screamed. Reiko moved that direction in the quick, balanced shuffle of an experienced warrior. Her sword snapped out, removing a man's head in a single motion.
Chopper grimaced and readied his axe, but his natural inclination made him shy away from fighting except in self-defense. A sailor was quick to take advantage, and Chopper received a slight wound in fending the man off. They could hear the sounds of general battle everywhere, now, but see none of it, only the clinging gray fog.
Two sailors charged Feruzi and now Ezikial at the rail. Feruzi dodged to the side while Ezikial brought one up short with a nasty stab to the abdomen. Grabbing the hilt of his heavy knife or short sword in both hands, he twisted sideways, slitting the man's belly wide open and leaving him bleeding and dying on the deck. Feruzi's foot shot out, nailing her attacker in the throat with an ugly crackling sort of noise. Chopper and Reiko dispatched the remaining two guards on the sterncastle with equal speed, and they had time to pause and look around.
The magical fog was already lifting. Harrigan, Plugg, and Scourge raced across the deck to the captain's cabin, a group of sailors and officers from the Man's Promise fighting them the entire way. One crouched near the stairs, eyeing Harrigan's unprotected back as the Captain laid about him. He tensed to leap, then an arrow caught him in the shoulder and nearly whirled him around. A second arrow penetrated his skull and finished the job. Harrigan glanced up to where Feruzi stood guard on the sterncastle, gave her a second's nod, and went through the door into the cabin with Plugg and Scourge, leaving behind a single confused sailor to be quickly dispatched by Reiko. The ship shuddered suddenly at the sound of a massive explosion below decks, either powder or alchemist's fire accidentally set off.
The assault team waited, guarding the sterncastle and the boats, but they didn't have to wait long. Three Rahadoumi sailors emerged from the battle, headed toward the starboard boat. Ezikial shot one with his freshly repaired pistol; the man promptly collapsed, dropped his sword and surrendered. Reiko cut another down with her usual efficiency. The third seemed inclined to give Chopper some trouble, but seeing his companion nearly cut in half by Reiko's terrible sword, he also yielded and was dragged back toward the center of the ship by a grinning, bloody Cog.
No one else seemed to have much interest in the aft half of the ship--all the fighting was far forward. Harrigan emerged from a hatch gripping what appeared to be a human heart in his hands. Chopper looked around, bored and fretful, then suddenly crouched down near the ship's wheel.
"We're supposed to guard the wheel, right?" he asked.
"The wheel and the boats," Reiko confirmed, mystified.
"Great!" With a loud clank, the wheel suddenly came loose from its mechanism. Chopper caught it and heaved it upright. "Now we can guard it closer to the action." He began to roll it bumpily down the stairs while Reiko shook her head. Almost immediately below them, a Rahadoumi officer and two guards came out of the captain's cabin, driving directly for the starboard boat.
Ezikial shot the officer, grazing the woman's shoulder, but she hardly slowed. He stumbled backwards in shock as the boarding pike in the officer's hands suddenly extended to twenty feet in length, nearly skewering him. The guards flanked Reiko and a sword crunched through her armor. She hissed through her teeth, struggling to fend off her attackers. An arrow appeared in one man's chest and he slumped; the other flinched back and looked for the archer. It proved a fatal mistake, as Reiko's sword cleaved through his thigh. She pulled back, crouching against the stairs as the officer shot past, looking like she was going to dive over the rail and take her chances with the sharks.
Chopper heaved the heavy wooden wheel over his head with both hands and launched it ponderously into the air. It arced beautifully overhead and came crashing down onto the Rahadoumi officer, knocking her clear off her feet. "Wheel, nice to meetcha!" Chopper bellowed. Ezikial burst into maniacal laughter at the sight and ran forward; the officer flailed at him with her pike but he managed to dodge it and finish her off with his blade.
"I am fine, Ms. Feruzi. Please make sure that everyone else is, as well," Reiko said suddenly. Chopper ceased his laughter and went to check on the Tian woman while Ezikial began searching the bodies. Reiko was bleeding profusely but the wound had not penetrated her lung, so Chopper bandaged her up while Feruzi helped Ezikial in his work. The sullen look was gone from Ezikial's face; he seemed positively gleeful as he claimed some new swords and tested the blade of the obviously enchanted pike.
"Are you always this bloodthirsty?" Feruzi demanded. Ezikial grinned at her. "It is not proper to take pleasure in killing."
"I'm not any sort of 'proper', Feruzi-luv."
"You have your good qualities," she insisted. He looked a bit startled.
"Perhaps." A cheer sounded from the aft--apparently the pirates were victorious. Feruzi took advantage of the distraction to slip into the captain's cabin. It was a luxurious room by ship standards, with four gilt-framed glass windows letting in light and a finely crafted table and chairs. The sea chests and bookshelves lining the walls were rifled and empty, but she picked up a few scattered gold. A trapdoor led to the ship's galley, similarly despoiled, but she located a bottle of fine aged brandy and a sealed vial of alchemist's fire someone had apparently dropped. Abandoning her search, she returned to the deck and handed Ezikial the brandy.
"You may like this."
He took an exploratory swallow and grinned yet again. "I b'lieve I will, Feruzi-luv, I b'lieve I will."
The Man's Promise was made fast and the Wormwood's officers began to tally up and distribute the loot, including quite a bit of excellent provender. Things rapidly degenerated into a rowdy, drunken celebration, with Harrigan overseeing it all and even cheering them on. A few of the pirates were missing--Tilly Brackett and Rattline were nowhere to be found. Chopper poured himself a mug of rum and toasted the little halfling. Sandara grabbed Ezikial, taken by the party spirit.
"Booty, Mister Hands! We got our hands on BOOTY! I reckon Harrigan will divvy now instead of waitin' for port, people are too edgy."
"And some very good booty it is," he said. "Can I get you to check a couple of things for me?"
"Sure, sure, what can I do for ye?"
"One of the officers struck at me with this pike from twenty feet away, but I don't know how it works."
"Lemme see." Sandara muttered a blessing over the pike and examined the result. "It's enchanted, surely." She rubbed her hand over some writing on the haft. "This is what makes it extend."
"What about this bracelet?" Ezikial asked, handing her a length of fine pearls.
"Oh, I've seen work like that take seventy-five or eighty in gold back in Hell Harbor," she said. She almost pocketed the pearls, but he managed to reclaim them by offering her the brandy.
"You're a prince among pirates, Mr. Hands," she said, taking a swig."
"I try, Sandara-luv, I try." He waved at Chopper and passed the brandy over. "Have one on Hands!"
"What are we drinking to?" Chopper asked.
"Everything!" Sandara shouted. "Conchobar told me ye took the bleedin' wheel off the Man's Promise!"
"I did, a bit, yeah," he said. "Might've thrown it at one of the officers, too, I forget."
"He nailed her right in the head!" Ezikial piped in. Sandara shrieked and laughed until she had difficulty breathing and had to sit down.
Feruzi did not join in the festivities, instead bringing out her half-finished bow and tools to resume work. Reiko lounged nearby, scanning the crowd. She saw Maheem, apparently released from the sweatbox, and met his eyes challengingly. The big man sauntered over, sneering at the two women and clearly forecasting some kind of fight. Reiko fingered her sword openly. Feruzi looked up from her work.
"Feruzi bears you no particular ill-will," the Mwangi woman said. "If it please the officers that your actions be dismissed, Feruzi will hold the peace. However." Her expression suddenly darkened. "You attacked a man to whom Feruzi owes life-debt. This, Feruzi cannot overlook. If you wish for blood, fight Feruzi at any time or place and she will face you gladly. Touch Chopper again, and she will make you eat your own eyeballs." Reiko gawked at her for a second before returning her attention to Maheem, who was looking more than a little ill.
"Or, you can just go back to the sweatbox," she said, smiling maliciously.
"Your time will come," he grated, the threat weakened as his voice suddenly cracked and went high.
"No doubt," Feruzi replied. "The question is, will you live to see it?"
"I could just remind some folks about our delayed keel-hauling. They seem in the mood for entertainments of such kind, tonight," Reiko added.
"I do not fear you."
"Oh, I very much doubt that," Reiko said.
Feruzi made a dismissive wave. "You may go."
"I go because it is my pleasure to go," he sneered, but it seemed his pleasure was also to go rather quickly.
Caulky Tarroon then approached them, passing out small bags of gold--their shares of the booty. She passed Feruzi an amulet and a short sword as well. "Compliments of the Captain." Feruzi blinked, shocked.
"Apparently, he values his skin quite highly," Reiko commented. Feruzi put on the amulet, but she eyed the short sword a bit distastefully. Then she got up and crossed to where Ezikial, Chopper, and Sandara were standing. Chopper was belting out some godawful chanty while Sandara sang along.
"I think this is more your style than mine," Feruzi said, offering Ezikial the sword. Once again he looked startled.
"I have more than enough blades today, Feruzi-luv. Keep it to attend your own safety."
"I have little use for such a blade."
Ezikial fingered the boarding-pike thoughtfully. "Well . . . I'd not accept it as a gift, but what about as a trade? The long-spear is not so much to my own taste."
"Very well, then." They exchanged weapons, and Feruzi squeezed Ezikial's shoulder in passing.
"Aye?" he asked softly. She gave him a short half-bow and left.
The partying lasted all night and the entire following day, but finally wound itself down. The ship's bell rang at dawn, and when the crew was assembled Harrigan had a long line of captured officers and sailors paraded out of the brig. He addressed the captives, offering them a place on the Wormwood for any who would throw their lot in with pirates. Some of the sailors accepted, tentatively; Master Scourge cut their bonds and they took their places in the assembled crew.
"All right, you scurvy tars!" Harrigan bellowed, turning to address them. "You've done a right good job by me, we got a second ship now, and she's quite a prize from the looks of her! But I still have only the one crew! The Wormwood will sail on to our planned destination with our new shipmates here, while Mr. Plugg picks a skeleton crew to sail the Man's Promise to Port Peril and sell her as salvage!" He grinned toothily. "As for these fine fellows, some of them will be worth a hefty ransom from their families back in Azir. As for the rest, if the life of a pirate's not for them, the can spend the rest of their lives at sea!" He seized one of the Rahadoumi sailors, a woman, and hurled her bodily overboard to laughter and cheers from the nastier of the crew. The poorer of the Rahadoumi, who could expect no ransom, erupted into pleas and were soon sworn in.
Plugg and Scourge took the remaining officers below and Harrigan left for his cabin, leaving the new and old crews eyeing each other. Feruzi suddenly stepped forward to address them. "Now you have the measure of Captain Harrigan. Feruzi would state that his officers are no better--even worse, perhaps. However, if you are willing to perform your tasks, Feruzi will extend her hand in friendship to you. You need only ask the other crew what value you might place upon that." She might have added something else, but Chopper suddenly jumped over the ship's rail and landed in the water with a splash. Ezikial looked over the side and spotted the big man swimming strongly toward the sinking Rahadoumi woman. In a surprisingly short time, Chopper retrieved her, and with Ezikial's help and a handy rope, hauled her back aboard the ship.
"She's not breathing," Chopper muttered, and commenced artificial respiration.
"Would you PLEASE stop looking for novel ways to kill yourself?" Feruzi asked with some asperity. He glanced up at her between breaths.
"No." The woman stirred and vomited seawater. "Therrre we go," Chopper said, pleased, and turned her onto her stomach so she could finish clearing her lungs. "Care to reconsider joining the crew?" The woman managed a weak nod between heaves. "Smart," he said. "Smarter'n me, even."
"That is NOT HARD," Feruzi snapped. Chopper looked up to see Sandara, Rosie, and most of their friends among the crew standing nearby as well, and mentally cursed himself. Rosie nudged Sandara unhelpfully.
"Plenty of fish in the sea, miss."
"MISTER CHOPPER," a harsh, dry voice rang out. It could only be Mr. Plugg.
"Secure your duff and report for duty on the Man's Promise. Miss Feruzi, Mister Hands, Reiko-san, you have ten minutes to join him."
"Aye, sir," Ezikial managed.
Plugg pointed at the Rahadoumi woman. "That one is your responsibility, now." He turned to survey the rest of the crew. "Mister Kroop. I am pleased to inform you that the Rahadoumi crew contains a cook who is skilled, sober, and much easier on the eye. She will take over your duties here. Report to the Promise." He then named Rosie, Sandara, and his relative favorites among the crew to join them, as well as two of the Rahadoumi converts. Last to join was Owlbear, unchained from his place on the mid deck and dragged across.
The four made their farewells. Grok, nearly in tears, passed Ezikial a bottle of expensive whiskey. "Bin savin' this," she said. "You take care o' yer friends and yerself, y'hear me?"
"Thank you very much," he said, touched.
"What's your name, anyway?" Chopper asked the woman he'd rescued while he packed up.
"Leila al-Zahra," she said. "Thank you. I think."
"Heh, well, you're alive to be uncertain. Call it a win."
With the new crew aboard, the Man's Promise was cast loose from the Wormwood. Acting Captain Plugg gathered the crew together.
"The rules on this new ship are the same," Plugg told them shortly, "but I will have far more discipline here than on the Wormwood. Crimes will be punished with the cat, not the whip. You keep your same jobs, but you will have to work harder as you are fewer. There will be no entertainments or rum rations--if I see you above decks after dusk, you get six lashes." He then pointed to Sandara and Rosie. "You two will bunk with the officers, all the rest below in the crew quarters. Owlbear." The giant looked up from his new post at the mast. "If anyone tries to enter the officer's quarters, kill them. Dismissed."