Another tale from the Exploration of Isenwald campaign!
The party discovered a smugglers’ ring a few miles outside of Arianport. After clearing out the “haunted” house overlooking the sea, which the smugglers used as a base, the PCs learned more of the smuggling operation. Their archenemies from the south, members of an elite company called the Black Hammers, had followed them to the northlands and had settled in Arianport, where they planned to undermine all of the PCs’ work. Indeed, the Black Hammers were behind this smuggling operation. Unaware of this, the PCs accepted the request of the town council to destroy the smugglers. Therefore, the PCs lay in wait in the haunted house, along with detachment of town guardsmen, waiting to spot the smuggler ship, the Seegeist. Simi and some town guardsmen plan to ambush the smugglers that come ashore to the cave beneath the haunted house in a rowboat. Meanwhile the other PCs plan to row out the smuggler ship and take it.
FROM THE DM:
This session posed an interesting challenge. The PCs would try to board a crowded enemy ship in the blackness of night and then seize it. Considering the freeboard of the ship (the height of the side above the waterline), it seemed almost impossible. The PC magic user really proved the difference in this encounter with his floating disk and levitation spells. Simultaneously, a smaller battle would ensue on shore (this battle is not recorded below). Also, this was the party’s first run in with the Black Hammers so I wanted to make an impression. Almost all of the smugglers were hired swords, not Black Hammers, so the PCs would cut through them, but the Hammers had to somehow prove to be difficult. The PCs were victorious, which led to the big reveal—the Black Hammers are in town! Yet, this encounter started a pattern of the Hammers being one step ahead or at least always able to hit back.
The inserts contain text blurbs that I read during the game. Also, we used critical hit and critical fumble tables, which explain some of the narrative, like Ogedai falling repeatedly. It was amusing!
CAST OF CHARACTERS:
Diego de Vargas: Fighter and party leader
Simi Longblade: Fighter, Diego’s right-hand man
Sir Tomo Daegun: Fighter, Diego’s noble friend
Gabriel Lucien: Thief, Diego’s spymaster
Darocles Soterion: Magic User, Diego’s salvage master
Ogedai: Ranger, Diego’s Illuk (think Mongol) ally
Young Gunther: Fighter NPC, Sir Tomo’s squire
Sergeant Gunther: Leader of 16 town guardsmen
From the blackness of the night, Lucien spied tiny blinking points of light. It was the smugglers’ signal, presumably coming from their ship. Yet the darkness was stunningly complete, and they could see nothing out at sea. Narrowing the shutter on the bull’s-eye lantern, Lucien and Darocles signaled back, using the smuggler’s code that they had discovered in the house, hoping that they had interpreted it correctly. The seconds passed with alarming slowness. Nothing.
Then… through the darkness and the snow came the return signal.
“We’re in business,” yelled Lucien. Opening the shutter on the lantern, they scrambled down the rotten and moldy staircase as fast as they could without falling or causing a structural collapse.
Once in the basement, they shouted the alarm, “We’re in business. To arms!” All 16 town guardsmen rose to their feet and loosened their swords in their sheaths. Sergeant Gunther barked an order, “Take your positions and prepare for ambush.”
Meanwhile, Darocles looked to the companions—Diego, Simi, Tomo, young Gunther, Ogedai, and Lucien—and asked, “Are you ready? Assaulting a ship is never easy. In this blackness, it will be even more difficult, for the dark hides all sorts of dangers. Moreover, the deck will be moving and terribly slippery, especially in this snow. Though this storm is not powerful yet, the wind gusts will make archery difficult, but that can work in our favor as well. Do NOT fall in the water. You will freeze to death in a matter of minutes, and in the blackness, it is doubtful that we will find you or even hear you once you go over the side. Remember, our job is to secure a footing for the guardsmen. We believe there may be about forty smugglers on board, but there could be more. Stay focused! Here we go.”
Ogedai took up a position in the bow of the longboat, next to Sergeant Gunther. He eyed the black icy water with malevolent distrust as eight guardsmen climbed aboard and took the oars. Ogedai positioned himself to the front left and instructed the oarsmen that their vessel must pass to the right of the incoming longboat so that he, an Illuk, was the first person they saw. He ordered all others to cover their heads and keep them down.
Meanwhile, Darocles clasped the small silver pendant around his neck, closed his eyes, and muttered softly to himself. Those standing nearby sensed the hairs on the backs of their necks standing up, as if static energy pulsed through the air. Then the air around Darocles seemed to shimmer, drawing a few surprised gasps and whispers from the guardsmen. As he continued his mutterings, barely visible circular shapes began to take form near him—first one, then a second, and then a third. You could see through these shimmering disks, but the images beyond seemed just a bit warped. One curious guardsman ventured a touch, and then drew his gloved hand back instinctively and looked up, peering incredulously at the companions’ faces as if looking for some explanation. Diego simply quipped, “He does this.”
When Darocles finally opened his eyes, he nodded to the companions, and they slowly grasped the disks and climbed atop them, causing a second wave of gasps and quizzical looks from the guardsmen. One finally blurted out, “Is he a priest?” Darocles himself answered the man, honestly but vaguely, “I’ve studied with priests.” When Diego, Simi, Tomo, and Lucien were safely atop the mysterious disks, Darocles barked an order to the guardsmen, and they began to row. The longboat left the lantern-lit sea cave and slipped out into the night’s darkness, cutting easily through the black water. The companions seemed to float behind the boat on thin air, grasping the edges of the translucent disks with white-knuckled grips, for the icy wind whipped and whistled in unpredictable gusts and blasts.
The minutes passed with unbearable slowness. Out at sea, all was black, save the distant glow of the eerie northern lights, muffled and diffused though they were behind a layer of cloud cover. A light snow continued to fall, collecting on the gear and softly touching the crewmen’s faces. The men were silent, and the constant ruffling of the wind past the ears seemed deafening in the relative silence. All was peaceful, save the rhythmic creak of the oarlocks and the sound of oars cutting the surface of the water.
Then Ogedai whispered to the guardsmen, and they stopped rowing for a moment. The longboat continued to skim through the water, as the Illuk trained his eyes and peered into the darkness. He could see nothing beyond about 20 feet. Seconds passed, and then he heard it. “A boat nears,” he whispered coarsely. Taking the cue, Darocles muttered to himself again, and the companions floating behind the longboat rose silently into the night sky, disappearing from view.
The two longboats cruised by each other, both crews pausing at the oars. As they did, Ogedai muttered an unenthusiastic greeting in a mixture of Illuk and High Kuldaran, raising his arm slightly in a tired salute. Something was muttered in return from the other boat, but in the next instant, the boats had passed each other. “So far, so good,” Ogedai mused to himself. “Now Simi has to do his job, and we have to do ours.”
As the longboat came within 50 feet of the ship, the companions floated away from the longboat. “I must be crazy,” Lucien thought. One slip and I’m done. That frozen water would be the death of me in minutes, and no one would be able to find me. Heavenly King, protect your servant!” Though he remained silent as he gripped the edge of his disk, Diego had similar musings, “There’s a fine line between courage and stupidity. I like to believe this is courage, but I wonder.”
As they grew nearer, they saw the large vessel. Locals called this type a Turm because of its high wooden castles, fore and aft. Naturally, the ship was completely dark. Its starboard side faced the shore, and over 20 men learned on the starboard rail, peering eagerly toward shore. The companions with Darocles approached the ship from the stern and descended slightly, floating down toward the sterncastle. They were completely unseen. As they came within a few feet of the ship, Ogedai yelled up to the ship, “Throw a line.”
A rope fluttered down and sloshed into the water beside the boat. Sergeant Gunther snatched it and hauled on it to bring the longboat adjacent to the ship. As it thudded against the hull, Ogedai snapped, “Now,” stood up, and fired his composite bow with remarkable speed. The first arrow struck a man in the shoulder, and the second caught the man next to him. As shouts of surprise and alarm erupted from aboard ship, four grappling hooks arced overhead toward the ship’s rail, streaming their ropes behind them. As soon as they landed with a thud on the wooden deck, four guardsmen in the longboat pulled with all their might, pulling the ropes taught and securing the longboat beside the ship. Immediately, a smuggler severed one line, and it fluttered down into the water. But the front guardsmen grabbed the four remaining ropes and began to scramble up against the ship’s slippery hull. Their task was daunting. They had to pull themselves, in armor and defenseless (as they needed both hands to climb), about 10 feet up the side of a slippery wooden hull and over a wooden rail that was heavily defended.
Diego and Lucien were the first to land on the sterncastle deck. Its few occupants had just turned in alarm toward the waist of the ship to see what the screaming was all about. Darocles again clasped his pendant and muttered to himself, and then pandemonium broke loose. The night’s snow and wind began to swirl around the ship for a few seconds, the whiteness of the snow making the effect hauntingly surreal. Then the swirling wind and snow erupted into a deafening maelstrom that seemed to consume the starboard rail of the ship. The companions with Darocles lost sight of most smugglers, of Ogedai, and of the guardsmen.
Then, a few smugglers on the sterncastle, whirling about in fear and confusion, caught sight of the companions. Rallying themselves, they drew their shortswords and moved to the attack. In seconds, Diego, Darocles, and Tomo were in combat. Lucien, two clay vials of lantern oil in hand, launched one and then the other into the midst of the smugglers. The first was caught by the icy maelstrom on deck and spit back out, the vial clattering uselessly against the port rail. The second hit the deck with more force and shattered, splashing a wide area with oil.
Below, on the longboat, Ogedai fired a specially made glowing arrow into the mast. The blackness of the night suddenly retreated, and the entire deck was bathed in a soft golden light, almost as if by a giant lantern hanging from the mast. The sail and the rigging cast dozens of deep shadows across the deck, but the oppressive blackness was gone. Only Ogedai cursed beneath his breath and turned away, for his eyes now stung as if he were blinded.
Blizzard-like conditions continued to engulf most of the deck, but the companions on the sterncastle pushed forward with all their might to gain control of the high ground. The smugglers, however, driven by some combination of fear, desperation, and adrenaline, fought savagely to throw the attackers back. Tomo’s full harness saved him more than one grievous wound. Next to him, young Gunther was not as fortunate. Though thrashing about with aggression, he was struck hard by a violent blow, knocked prone, and pummeled once down. Tomo came to his aid, driving his longsword through the smuggler’s ribs and out his back. As the man collapsed in shock, blood sprayed from the wound and began to pool on the icy deck. No sooner had he fallen than another smuggler leaped at Tomo. The Kuldaran knight threw his weight against the attacker, throwing him back on his heels, but their blades became hopelessly entangled, while others closed in for the kill. Darocles, on the port side, found himself rushed by a band of smugglers and just barely drew his sword in time to defend himself. Blades slashed at him from all sides, and bodies plowed into him. Cursing, he maneuvered himself onto the wooden companionway, ducked another blow, and then muttered a few strange words, causing the air to shimmer before him like a ghostly shield.
Before an onrush of smugglers, Lucien slipped back behind the front line, unfurled the enchanted leather whip of Andrei Korsky, and let it fly. The weighted metal tip struck home more than once, but the battle was in flux. A smuggler broke through the line and under the whip, making straight for Lucien with a bloody blade. In an instant, Lucien dropped the whip, grabbed for his side, and somehow directed a stream of foul-smelling mist into the man’s face. The man shuddered briefly, withdrew a few steps, and then began to scream. His eyes went wide, arms swatting the air wildly, and he threw himself backwards in a desperate attempt to withdraw.
After fighting to stabilize himself in the rocking longboat, Ogedai fired arrow after arrow at the men on the rail. The first struck a gruff-looking smuggler dead in the eye, and he instantly fell backwards. The next shaft buried itself in the chest of a tall gangly man, penetrating his mail shirt, and causing him to fall forward over the rail, plunging into the icy water below. As he fired, Ogedai shouted encouragement to the guardsmen, who had now reached the rail and were defenseless in a very precarious position. The smugglers hacked at them with swords, and cut another one of the ropes. One guardsmen had a sword thrust through his neck, and he fell like a lodestone into the sea. Another was stabbed five times during this suicidal assault, but his perseverance kept his foes’ attention, allowing two of his fellows to throw their legs over the rail. Seeing the smugglers surge and sensing that the guardsmen were about to be hurled into the sea, Ogedai delivered another stream of arrows with expert precision, dropping one smuggler at the rail and causing another to stagger back. This was enough for two guardsmen to get both feet on deck. One astutely located a rolled-up rope ladder at his feet and flipped it over the rail, paving the way for a second assault.
The guardsmen were making progress against enormous odds, but the situation was still critical. Ogedai maneuvered for another shot, but he turned his ankle in the process, wincing in pain. Just then, a guardsmen was bull rushed right off the deck, plummeting into the sea right next to the longboat. Instinctively, the Illuk leaned over, plunged his arm into the icy water, and latched on to the guardsman’s forearm. He pulled him toward the boat until the guardsman began to pull himself up. Returning his attention to the ship, his fingers growing numb from the cold water, he fired yet another round of arrows.
Tomo and Diego were fighting with wild abandon on the sterncastle. Cuts and thrusts alike glanced off Tomo’s full harness, while the Kuldaran knight struck his enemies with savage blows. One fully severed a man’s leg at the knee. The smuggler howled in pain, fell to the deck, curled into a fetal position, and flopped around on the snow-covered deck, moaning in pain. Diego slid next to Tomo, and the two stood against all comers, unyielding, like a stone wall being battered by the waves. The bodies, slick with ice and blood-spattered snow, began to pile up on the shifting deck.
Darocles continued to hold the companionway, stemming the flow of reinforcements to the sterncastle. A few with half-pikes did manage to push their way past, however, and they soon assailed Tomo and Diego at range. Just then, a weighted net fell into the midst of the melee, but Diego and Tomo managed to cut their way out of the trap. A second net engulfed four men—smugglers and guardsmen alike—fighting near the starboard rail.
Just then, the golden light that had bathed the deck fell in a slow arc, away from the ship and into the sea. The bloody scene went black. Now, the terrible sounds of battle were doubly disturbing, and every shadowy figure seemed menacing.
“The deck of the ship is a whirl of confusion. Your feet shuffle constantly to find better footing. The deck is slippery and wet with newly fallen snow, and the roll of the sea causes you to pitch forward or backwards a bit, throwing you off balance. As if this weren’t enough, vision is now terrible. Your enemies appear as inky shadows and fast-moving outlines in the pervading gloom—a murkiness that could easily hide a shot aimed directly at your throat or head. Realizing your vulnerability, your senses are on high alert, and you keep moving. Unfortunately, your sense of hearing is little better than your vision. The most pervasive noise is the wind, whipping past your ears and sending chills down your neck. Rising just above the wind, blades crash together, while grunts, shouts and screams echo all about you.”
While the fighting continued on deck, a sudden flash of light, far in the distance, caught many by surprise. It came from the shore. Something was on fire… something large. A plume of bright orange flame seemed to engulf the house, rising nearly as high as the gabled roof. The bright orange glow momentarily entranced all who saw it, but then renewed screams wrenched everyone’s attention back to the bloody fighting at hand.
DM’s note: Rothbart (a Black Hammer leader), his remaining Illuks, and a few Snow Voyagers had the house under surveillance from afar. Seeing the PCs enter, they returned to the house with a wagon full of lantern oil. They stacked casks around the house, more than enough to overcome the dampness, and set it alight. On their way out, they stole the PCs’ horses.
Ogedai fired a second glowing arrow into the mast, a bit higher than last time. The golden glow returned, and the darkness retreated once again. The fighting continued fiercely in all quarters for some time, and then the maelstrom simply died away. White snow once again fluttered down peacefully, oblivious to the carnage. Without the gusting winds to drown them out, the screams, the clash of steel, and the snap of each crossbow string seemed noticeably louder. Then the light disappeared a second time, again arcing away from the ship and falling into the sea. Darocles muttered a curse to himself, “Someone has to be in the crow’s nest.”
“The chaos around you continues, as guardsmen and smugglers hack at each other savagely. In the ghastly struggle, bodies slam together. One slips and falls to the deck, though you can’t tell if it’s friend or foe. Nearby figures hack mercilessly at the downed figure.
“The ship shifts beneath you again, and you shuffle your feet to compensate. Just then, a shadowy figure rushes toward you and slams into a nearby guardsman, throwing him backwards. The guardsman grasps at empty air and then plummets into the sea.”
Believing that darkness favored the smugglers, Darocles kicked a smuggler in the chest and then backed up the companionway. In the next instant, a golden light sprang from his breastplate, burning as bright as a torch. The darkness retreated yet again, though at a different angle this time, and the smugglers drew back in hesitation. From somewhere on the deck, a coarse voice rose above the din, “Get at him you fools! Drive them into the sea!” A crossbow bolt immediately ricocheted off Darcoles’ sword, while another grazed his neck. A sword clashed with his own, and a half-pike struck him from the side. He had lit up the deck, but he was now a glaring target. A pack of smugglers, shortswords and half-pikes in hand, charged the salvage master, but they never made it. A deafening crack of thunder seemed to explode just above them, and the blast wave knocked many off their feet. Standing just a few feet away, Tomo cried out in pain, his head swimming and his ears ringing. Realizing what had happened, the Kuldaran knight bellowed above the chaos, “Lucien! Keep that cursed whip away from me!”
As Ogedai fired another shaft toward the rail, the longboat rocked precariously, and he twisted his other ankle badly, sending a shooting pain up his leg and into his back. He saw red as the pain washed over his entire body. “Tengri blast this wicked boat with thunderbolts… as soon as I get off it!” With the help of the only guardsman still in the longboat—the one he had pulled from the water just moments before and who now shuddered uncontrollably from the cold, he reached for the rope ladder. Just then, from the darkness above, a small wooden cask crashed down into the longboat, spattering oil and causing it to rock violently. Overhead, Ogedai spotted a smuggler holding a firebrand. Sensing his danger, he let go of the ladder and fired three times in rapid succession, striking the man’s arm, chest, and neck. The target spun about from the force of the arrows and collapsed at the rail, but the firebrand toppled overboard and landed square in the longboat. “Now or never,” the Illuk thought, slinging his bow over his shoulder. He and the shivering guardsmen grabbed desperately for the rope ladder and began to climb, while flames began to fill the small craft.
On the sterncastle, a smuggler thrust a half-pike into Sergeant Gunther’s gut, piercing his mail and dropping him to his knees. Diego lunged forward to save the sergeant from the deathblow, hacking the half-pike in two and driving his longsword into the smuggler’s ribs. As Tomo crushed his final foe, Diego whirled his head about to survey the scene. Darocles, Lucien, and Tomo were clear, but battle still raged along the starboard rail. Where were all the guardsmen? They must have had a terrible time getting over the side.
Just then, Diego spied something exceedingly strange, even in the frenzied environment of battle. One smuggler, standing in the corner of the sterncastle about 20 feet away—a man that Diego had fought earlier, but who had withdrawn—wrapped a dark cloak about himself, grabbed his own ear, and stepped over the rail, plummeting into the dark water below. Diego moved to the rail and peered over. The longboat was engulfed in flames, and debris floated alongside the ship, but there was no sign of the man. Darocles’ shouts from the far side of the ship finally seized Diego’s attention, and he rushed to rejoin his companions.
Ogedai pulled himself over the rail and clattered to the deck in pain. He nocked an arrow and tried to stand, but the shifting deck and a shooting pain in the ankles dropped him anew. Blades still clashed against blades all about him. A writhing pile of armored bodies, kicking and punching at each other, lay tangled in a weighted net nearby, while smugglers with half-pikes skewered the hapless guardsmen inside the net. Ogedai rose to fire, but fell down again, cursing aloud. With a surge of effort, despite shooting pains, Ogedai threw himself backwards against the rail and the bulkhead, steadying himself and firing. His arrow pierced the arm of a smuggler, who dropped his half pike. Though few seemed to have made it, the guardsmen finally gained control of the rail, as the companions finally descended from the sterncastle, spattered in blood.
With the deck secure, the companions rallied by the rail and surveyed the scene. Two guardsmen were on deck and ready to fight, though badly wounded; another two lay critically wounded, writhing in pain; one lay dead; and three were missing, most likely drowned. Sergeant Gunther was on his feet, but bleeding badly from a stomach wound. Young Gunther, Tomo’s squire, could barely stand and had blood sheeting down his face. Ogedai was unscathed, but limping badly. Diego and Tomo were covered in a variety of cuts and bruises. Only Darocles and Lucien seemed fairly well off. Catching his breath, Diego looked into the eyes of the men around him. “We’re battered and few in number, but we have momentum. Let’s flush them out before they rally. Hopefully Simi will get here soon… though that doesn’t look promising.” He pointed to the orange plume that still burned hot in the distance, presumably the abandoned house.
What followed was tedious fighting in cramped cabin after cramped cabin, in which small groups of three or four had barricaded themselves. Few if any of the smugglers showed any desire to surrender, though the battle had clearly turned against them. In each cabin, the fighting was desperate, and the contents of the cabin were often destroyed in the process. Tables were splintered, sea chests crushed, lanterns smashed, and hammocks ripped down. Lucien was nearly brained by a grappling hook, Darocles was stabbed in the thigh, Tomo was stabbed in the armpit, and Diego received a face full of salt, which burned his eyes. Ogedai, realizing that his archery skills were ineffective in such cramped quarters, stood guard over the prisoners and the wounded, nursing his two badly twisted ankles.
When all was said and done, the companions had taken six smugglers prisoner, though two of these had seemingly gone insane, having been sprayed in the face by Lucien with some poison or drug. The deck was covered in blood and corpses, but fortunately the cold air and the wind kept the smell to a minimum. The longboat in which they had come finally burned to its waterline, leaving the companions to wonder how they would get back to shore. Darocles mused aloud, “A Turm is one of the easiest ships to sail, having only one square-rigged mast and requiring only about six to nine competent sailors, at least for a vessel of this size.” He turned and looked first at the pile of battle dead sprawled across the deck, and then at the four shivering and wounded prisoners. “I guess we should have left more alive.” Diego shrugged, “Simi should be here shortly, I hope. Ogedai, continue to stand guard and see if any of the prisoners can tell us about the captain. Tomo, tend to our wounded as best you can. Darocles and Lucien, come with me. Let’s find the captain’s quarters. He has to have a log or manifests that will tell us more about these bastards.”