Leaving Tidewater Rock, they sailed east toward Bloodcove, following Lady Smythee's advice on how they might locate slavers bound for Cheliax. Chopper, in an ebullient mood no one could damp, took to singing a truly dreadful song of his own composition entitled "Gonna Put the Beatdown on some Slavers". It had a surprisingly salubrious effect on the crew--they were all very excited to find work whenever he appeared in their vicinity.
In the waning hours of their second day at see, a ship suddenly came into view, crossing ahead of the setting sun. The light made any details impossible to see, but the general lines suggested a whaler riding low in the water. As the last of the light faded, the ship also disappeared from view. Chopper frowned, rubbing the as-yet short growth of beard on his chin. "That ship was moving directly against the wind," he commented.
"No doubt there are many strange sights in these waters," Feruzi said.
"Night-time assault?" he suggested. "Save the whales!" Reiko steered them in that direction, directing the crew at the touchy process of tacking into the wind. The Crisis could manage a course about twenty points off the wind, but sailing directly into it ought to be impossible without magic. Or possibly harpooning a furious white whale. Who could say. Ezikial set Rosie and Marteen to setting up the ballista on the deck with help from the burly Dar and Insawa, taking great pride in showing off the results of his hard work to the rest of the crew. Ezikial in particular seemed eager to test out his new toy. They found no further trace of the whaler, though. Chopper shook his head, disappointed.
"Keep your eyes peeled. I don't want to be caught with our pantaloons down."
"I think I would agree with you on that one," Reiko told him. Sandara grinned.
"Not like this, anyway."
On the next morning, early, they spotted another ship in the distance, headed more or less in their direction. "Let's check it out," Chopper said, yawning and chewing on breakfast, which was steadily improving in quality under Tolitha's motherly influence. Even Fishguts was beginning to look, if not sharp, then at least a more genteel sort of disreputable. A quick examination via spyglass revealed a schooner flying the Chelish colors. She predictably altered course soon after they spotted her.
"Well now," Chopper said, grinning dangerously. "That's just rude. Pursuit!" The Crisis seemed to lean forward eagerly as Reiko set the wheel and the sails caught the wind, her keel carving gash into the waves and launching a great burst of sea-spray to either side of the bow. The distance narrowed rapidly despite apparent frenzy aboard the Chelish ship, which was not armed for serious engagement. Sloppy of them, really, but since the treaty between Sargava and the Pirate Council, they'd had little to fear--had being the operative term. Chopper could make out a woman at the ship's wheel and about thirty sailors on deck. No ship-to-ship weapons, only a few crossbows and miscellaneous hand weapons on display. Still, there was an enormous box of some type amidships, near the mast, hidden beneath a canvas tarp that stirred occasionally, and not entirely with the wind.
Ezikial gave an order and Rosie hauled on a lever, causing the ballista to heave violently and expel a whirling length of chain that swept the decks of the Chelish ship like a scythe, mowing down rigging and canvas and seriously impeding their forward motion. The range shrank accordingly.
"Don't kill anyone if you don't have to," Chopper ordered his crew as they assembled on the deck with grapples, boarding pikes, and other miscellaneous tools of the pirate's trade. "The more people left to spread the tale, the better."
"Agreed!" Reiko called. The crew looked a bit nervous at this pronouncement.
"If they hurt our crew, Feruzi will shoot them in the face," the sergeant added.
"Oh, well, that falls under the category of 'have to'," Chopper agreed, producing noticeable relief, watching three sailors rush to free the tarp from the box. Or the cage. They threw open the grate, and a snarling mass of claws, fur, and quills exploded out, taking wing directly at the Crisis. "Oo," Chopper said. "Capture that beast for me! I want it!" Reiko sighed as Chopper drew his cutlass and strode to the rail. "C'mon, beastie!" he yelled.
The manticore seemed eager to oblige. Frantically, Feruzi let fly with an arrow that sank deep into one of the massive flight muscles--not a mortal wound by far, but a painful and startling one. The manticore seemed to rear in midair and dipped like a swallow, turning its dive into a tight, wary circle. "Dammit,
you're spoiling my fun!" Chopper exclaimed. Then the manticore's tail whipped, loosing a
hail of barbed quills more fearsome than arrows. Ezikial ducked behind his ballista, cursing
while he continued to reload. Feruzi
wasn't fast enough, and a spike impaled itself in her calf. "Dammit, Ruse, you're spoiling my fun!" Chopper
exclaimed. He sheathed his sword, still
grumbling. "Someone hand me a
crossbow or something!" One of the
Chelish marines, taking aim, donated him a crossbow bolt, producing only a mild
flesh wound, but dampening his enthusiasm just a touch. Completing its circle and seeing Feruzi
occupied with the spike in her leg, the manticore dove to the deck, mouth open
and prepared to finish the job. Chopper
intercepted it with a two-handed grip on the cutlass's hilt. The blow jarred his arms in their sockets,
but the manticore reeled, dazed, and collapsed into a wheezing heap.
"Ha ha! Captured!" Chopper enthused. "Anyone who tries to kill it will be walking the fookin' plank!"
"Feruzi is NOT feeding that thing," she said with distatste.
"An' I ain't scoopin' its shit," Rosie added, dodging a bolt from another of the crossbowmen aboard the Chelish ship. Feruzi gave up on the spike and let loose some arrows in return. From the yelling, the men were not encouraged at their work, but not dead, either.
Reiko finished her maneuvers and the Crisis pulled abreast the Chelish ship, finally in a position where the crew could use their grapples. Ezikial hauled on the pivot lever to swing his ballista around, then let fly. The wheel post on the Chelish ship seemed to burst, knocking the Captain over with the wheel on top of her. Cursing, she wriggled out from under it as her ship lurched sideways and the crew of the Crisis poured onto her deck, Chopper leading the charge.
"Surrender?" he offered, giving his cutlass a bit of a twirl to indicate the alternative. The Chelish captain glanced around rapidly and seemed to be counting. Then she threw her crossbow down in disgust and ordered her crew to surrender, something they seemed only too eager to do.
Chopper sheathed his weapons and offered her a hand. "Capital! Let's talk terms. Not to worry, this is likely to be the least unpleasant bit of pirating you will ever experience." He directed the crew of the Crisis to search the Chelish vessel.
"We have slavers here, Captain," Ezikial grated after a brief inventory.
"Correction, Mister Hands. We have new crewmembers to woo. And what would be your name, Madame?" Chopper asked the Chelish captain.
"Norva Wintarius," she growled.
"A pleasure, Norva. But I see you've been very naughty indeed. I'm afraid we'll have to relieve you of your cargo. I will also be wanting custody of yon beastie. I suspect, however, that I will need some care tips to get it to behave itself."
"The manticore is our slave, but if you want to hire it, you might be able to come to an understanding. He likes to eat ferrets."
"Wait, it speaks?" Wintarius gaped at him. "That is AWESOME!" Chopper bellowed. He waved furiously at the crew. "Lads, fetch me that cage!" He turned back to Wintarius, donning his ash-tinted spectacles. "I shall tell everyone that when the Crisis came, you handled yourselves with dignity. Please spread the word of our derring-to. A pleasure, Madame."
"I assure you, 'Captain', that word of your deeds will reach Chelish ears."
All of Chopper's features seemed to suddenly sharpen, a disconcerting expression on one normally so good-natured. "I look forward to it."
Reiko and Leila directed the crew to raise sail. Sundry housekeeping chores followed, with Ezikial taking on the task of tallying and storing their various plunder--goods, not riches, for the most part, but enough to pay the crew and keep the Crisis in provender and materiel for a month or so. Feruzi saw to it that the (former) slaves were loosed from their chains, given food and drink, and given a section of the hold to bed down in. It would be far from palatial or even comfortable, but it was a huge improvement over their former condition nonetheless. Most were Mwangi bought at Bloodcove, with a smattering of others. A few seemed willing, if not eager, to volunteer as crew aboard the Crisis. The others accepted Feruzi's offer to work their passage to a safe port.
Chopper claimed the wheel of the Chelish ship and chipped the vessel's name into the wood, The Dowager Queen, and hung it over the side like a mixture of banner and trophy. "It has to be really embarrassing to be successfully pirated without losing a single man," He commented. "Now, where are we going to find ferrets? Show me a port!" He concluded, looking at his assembled officers, who had completed their chores for the time being.
"Welp," said Fishguts, who had appointed himself a sort of counselor in the absence of anyone more experienced, "I wouldna go takin yer booty back ta Bloodcove. Summon might be right upset."
"I would definitely like to head to Quent, but only when we have time to spend several days there," Reiko said.
"What is at Quent that you wish to see?" Feruzi asked, curious.
"I would like to catch up with Captain Bloodmourn. However, she may not be in port right now. She is a leader on the Pirate Council, and I worked aboard her ship for a while when I first came to sea. She will be a good associate for our rise into the council."
"Oh," Leila said, looking somewhat crestfallen. "Interesting."
"So, Quent, then?" Chopper asked. Fishguts scowled.
"Mebbe better t'wait till we got a bit more reputat'n in these waters, Cap'n," the fat man mused. "No offense ter Miss Reiko, but if yer goes beggin' after favers before ye've rightly begun . . ."
"Understandable. Where, then? Rickety's?"
"We have likely gained all we can there for the time being," Feruzi said. Ezikial stepped into the chartroom and came back out with one of their few precious maps.
"What about Senghor?" he said, pointing at a city at the edge of the jungle, situated at a mouth of a river to the south and east of Bloodcove.
"What do we know about Senghor?" Chopper asked. "Are they, ah, pirate-friendly?"
"Friendly enough," Reiko said. "And they have no love for slavers, either. One of the very few truly independent cities, and determined to stay that way."
"Senghor it is! Set the course!"
They ran before a freshening wind for the rest of the day, but as the sun began to sink below the horizon it slacked off. By midnight, they were shrouded in chill fog, unusual at this latitude. Feruzi handed the watch over to Reiko and hurried below. Reiko walked the deck, her breath producing a fog of its own in the frigid air, and thought she could hear the dull clank of a ship's bell somewhere in the gloom. A ship loomed into sight off the stern, its hull stained black and warped with age and rot. Only the name seemed pristine, scrawled in pale greenish letters that almost seemed to glow. Deathknell. "That . . . can't be good," Reiko muttered to herself as the ship vanished into the mist. The Deathknell was notorious throughout the Shackles, a ghost ship crewed and captained by the ravenous and unrelenting dead. According to legend, she stalked her prey for two nights before dragging them down to a watery hell on the third. She would have to tell the other officers . . . quietly.
Reiko's plans were delayed in the morning, however, as the manticore woke up in its cage, snarly and eager to spread its bad mood around. The crew all scrambled away from it, taking cover as best they could. Reiko sighed and approached, ready to dodge any quills. "Good morning," she said. "Do you have a name?" It hissed at her like an enormous, prickly cat.
"He's awake? Or she? Never mind that," Chopper gabbled, rushing up. "You talk?" He tossed large chunk of ham into the cage. The manticore sniffed it and growled.
"Morgus hate! Stink!"
"Morgus?" Reiko asked. "That's a nice name."
"No one hates ham, Morgie," Chopper insisted. The manticore sniffed it again.
"Poiiiison. Dead-meat." Several nudges failing to inspire the ham to activity, the manticore sighed. "Better than no-meat." He gnawed at it a bit, then popped the entire ham into his mouth and chomped it down.
"There ya go!" Chopper said. "Welcome aboard. I'm hoping we can come to some mutually beneficial arrangement. I can't believe Captain Norva just let us take you. You're gorgeous!"
"Ss. For slave, one-master same as other-master."
"Slave? No, no, no, I don't want you as a slave, Morgul."
"Captain, maybe if you would say his name correctly, it would help?" Reiko offered. Then, under her breath, "Sheesh."
Morgus pawed at the iron and wood surrounding him. "If no-slave, then no-cage," he insisted.
"I just want you to hear me out," Chopper explained. "If you don't like what I have to say, I'll open the cage and you can fly to freedom, wherever you like." Morgus tilted his head.
"My offer is this: you join the crew, use your abilities to scout for us and help us in battle. I don't know if you have any interest in treasure, but with your share of the plunder you can buy as many ferrets as you can eat."
"Or, if there is something other than ferrets you would prefer . . ." Reiko added. A low rumble sounded deep in the manticore's throat.
"Never bargain before. Never offers, only orders."
"I'm not your typical Captain, mate."
"Want free," Morgus said. "Want free." Chopper sighed.
"So be it." He opened the cage's release and stood back.
The manticore, exhibiting surprising self-control, watched him clear off, then padded slowly onto the deck and stretched itself. "Will not forget," he offered.
"It's been an interesting talk," Chopper told him. "Fare you well."
"Will not forget," Morgus said. Then he leapt into the air and made for the horizon.
"One fewer slave, anyway," Chopper muttered. He turned to Ezikial. "Mister Hands, feel free to dismantle the cage and repurpose the metal."
"Aye, sir. MARTEEN! ROSIE!"
"Captain, if I could have a word?" Reiko said diffidently. Chopper blinked.
"It might be best for Sandara and the other officers to hear this," she added.
"Yo!" he bellowed. "All officers, quick meeting!" They gathered in the chartroom. Chopper looked at Reiko expectantly. She controlled a desire to fidget.
"This morning, before dawn, I saw something, in the fog. A ship."
"Oh, aye?" Chopper said. "Our next quarry?"
"Not this one," Reiko told him. "It was the Deathknell."
Sandara gasped, but Chopper grinned. "Wow, to be the crew that exorcised the Deathknell? Now, that would be a tale!"
"Probably a tale that involved our horrible deaths," Feruzi said.
"Ghosts usually hang 'round fer a reason," Sandara said, looking pale. "I suppose if we could figger out what it was, we might be able ter get rid of em."
"We'd have to seek not to defeat the crew, but appease them," Chopper mused.
"Like you appeased the manticore?" Feruzi said dryly.
"Morgus did not attack us," Reiko said. "Even if he left, I would call that a win in our book."
"Even if we can't rid the world of Deathknell, if we could somehow ally with it . . ." Chopper continued. Feruzi slapped him on the top of his head with her open palm.
"ARE YOU MAD?!?" she demanded. "Chopper, I love you as my brother, but you go too far."
"I reckon' Whalebone's idea o' allies is invitin' us t' join his crew," Sandara said, drawing her thumb across her neck. Reiko nodded at her and Chopper slumped.
"Not a one of you?" he said.
"No," Ezikial grated.
Chopper sighed, holding his palms up in defeat. "Fine, another time when it's only my life on the line. No sense of adventure, you people," he grumbled.
"We may not have a choice, exactly," Reiko said. "If she is stalking us, the Deathknell will come again." They all frowned in thought.
"Sandara, if you could . . . do your best to ward teh ship, I am sure we will all be eternally in your debt."
"I'll see what I kin do," Sandara said.