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When we were about a week out from Andros the captain called the crew to muster on the main deck. There – to my surprise – he announced that the Wind Runner was on a secret, highly sensitive mission to Oorkom, and we would be making our way to port Hafen immediately. I had never expected the captain to come out and say this, but it worked surprisingly well. The men all believed it – lots of them had been thinking along those lines from the start. From where we were, Port Hafen was no more than a few extra days of travel than our previous destination in Andros, and any members of the crew who’d signed on to get to Andros wouldn’t have to do much to find working passage for their last leg.

I was more surprised that the officers would tell the truth so close to our goal after maintaining the illusion for so long. We were a week out, surely the captain knew he wouldn’t have trouble from this crew if he just overrode them? Not that I was supporting that kind of action, I just felt a little peeved that I wasn’t in on the grand secret anymore – or at least, I had one less grand secret. I had faced a lot of trouble for finding the truth too early, and here the captain laid it out for the whole crew?

I kept trying to pick up on what Hali was saying about it, how she maintained her cover. Did she complain loudly about the change, try to find out which sailors shared those sentiments? Did she try to quash unrest early? Because she hadn’t changed her apparent habit of working where I wasn’t, I didn’t get to satisfy as much of my curiosity as I would have liked. Sailor Hali was back, and spy Hali was gone – or was that possible? She didn’t show any sudden behavioral changes. She didn’t show any extra interest in me. She was good at her job.

I tried to be just as inconspicuous, but people noticed my attention. Maybe they were looking for it, because someone had apparently seen my – ahem, let’s be kind and call it an interrogation – of her and assumed we were up to funny business. She boxed the ears of any who cat-whistled her, like sailor Hali would. I didn’t say anything on the subject, which was as good as admitting to it without feeling quite as bad about it.

Virgam did pull me aside when he caught wind of the rumors and warned me off using my new position to take liberties. Stars above, that was embarrassing.

Our lookout on the mizzenmast reported seeing cliffs on the horizon, which matched our expected position on our new heading. They faded back out of sight within the day, as the cliffs were part of the hundred-mile long Falai promontory that separated the waters of Andros from Oorkom. We were close.

I was starting to think of what I’d do when I got to Hafen. Turn around and go back to sea, naturally, but where? I wanted to avoid the war theater that was shaping up, even if Antarus had a plan to try and stop it early. Once war got going, merchant goods would be repurposed by either side, and ship hands conscripted if they’d been having losses. I’d gone this long in my life without being shanghaied, I’d like to keep my record thank you very much. The XP of war was like nothing else, skyrocketing a few champions, but I’d listened early on in my life to old salts with missing limbs explain how those few climbed the bloody ladder.

Redmund was asking me all about my plans, where I’d go and where I’d been before. Naturally he was hoping that I would stay on, the boy looked at me with no small amount of hero worship in his eyes. The lad was the nephew of a captain, but he’d been the nephew of a captain his whole life. I was the intrepid, voyaging seaman who came into his life suddenly, filled his head with knowledge and stories, and would sail off into the sunset again. I didn’t try to humble myself much. A little hero worship was good at his age, right? It gave him something to aspire to. The fact that I enjoyed it a bit was secondary.

I’d told him dozens of stories from just as many harbors and countries and he gobbled them all up. When I tried telling him my plans, how I’d sail east and north to avoid the war, listing off the names of ports and countries, he got a puzzled look on his face. After a bit he ran off without a word. He returned carrying a rolled nautical chart.

“Show me!”

“Where’d you get that?”

“From the ships’ charts.”

I was alarmed when I pressed “Did you ask one of the officers?”

“Of course!” he replied. “The captain said to take it, but that he knew every tear on it and I’d better not put any more in!”

This chart was going back pristine, all right. Our lives were often dependent upon accurate charts.

I unrolled the chart over the convex side of one of our two stocked life-rafts. Then I showed him Antarus, just off center on the map. It was an island, but just as large as most countries. A spur on the southwest side of Antarus reached out towards the contested peninsula, a strip of land 150 miles long with broken isles on one side and a serrated series of inlets on the other. It was a major reason for the conflict between Nilfheim and Oorkom. Between Nilfheim and Antarus, as well, since it was a demarcation line between the Passive and Median Oceans. Antarus had historically dominated the sea around them, which happened to include both major passes from the Passive to the Median Ocean as well as both “halves” of the Median Ocean – which was almost split by the non-naval orc country of Bandarn.

The Passive Ocean was about five times the size of the Median Ocean and was where Bluewater ships could sail for weeks in a straight line without sight of land. It was also the most easygoing of the oceans, for while she could indeed throw up a fierce storm or hurricane, she was like the big, slow brawler at a tavern: you could see the wind-up coming a long ways off and as long as you didn’t let the blow land you’d be fine.

The Median Ocean was much colder than the Passive Ocean. You could be swimming in the Passive, but cross the demarcation line by a day into the Median and most months out of the year her water would make you clench your teeth so hard you’d get lockjaw. The Median was also the only sea-route to the Atlas Ocean – which was cold enough to make the Median look like a spa. The waters of the Atlas were always cold. It didn’t matter how long you could hold your breath – you had about a minute before the cold’s debuffs killed you.

That area was largely the provision of dwarves and humans. Dwarves because their stone halls abutted the coast and the fish they traded to the mountain clans was considered a delicacy. Humans because they were willing to go nearly anywhere, and they enjoyed the remnants of a collapsed human empire that had once dominated or occupied 70% of the territory around the Passive Ocean, leading to their monopoly on each sea (and the sea’s retribution that broke that empire.)

Lastly, at the top of the map, were the frozen wastes off the Atlas. They only thawed every few years and were otherwise a shifting mass of ice. I hadn’t gone there. There wasn’t much call to, and I imagined being locked in ice was almost as bad as being landlocked.

Naturally Redmund wanted to hear about the edge of the world and the outer ring. This chart didn’t show those. I wasn’t even familiar with the names of the waters in the outer ring. There was no sea route from the central oceans to the edge of the world. Our waters were encircled by landmass. The oblong ring of landmass was then encircled by more water until you reached the edge of the world and could look down and see stars below you – or so I’d heard.

Stories passed between the inner oceans and the outer ring easily enough, but the distance was too far for sailors to cross. Every sailor I’d heard who’d claimed to have seen the edge of the world had been proven a liar fishing for drinks. Educated people spoke of how different sailing was between the two, how not even humans built their ships the same way. It made me curious, but not curious enough to endure the journey.

You could nearly draw a straight line north-west from Andros, through the gap between Antarus and the contested peninsula into the Median, and then further into the Atlas. Alternatively, you could sail north from Andros and pass Antarus on its Eastern side, between it and its smaller twin Drua. Drua was the largest of the Broken Isles, a smattering of island nations and strings of islands forming conglomerates. The Broken Isles were the only option of moving from the Passive to the Median outside of Antarus’ influence. That had inadvertently made many islands quite wealthy, as the increase of trade ships avoiding the other passes created new routes.

This was where I planned to go. It wasn’t Bluewater sailing and there were more low-level pirates, but I expected it would become increasingly difficult to find ships that weren’t making a profit on one side of the war or both. I could deal with average pirates if the crew I sailed with was any good.

I wouldn’t be heading straight north, though. I’d be sailing back east from Hafen to Andros, make my way northeast following the edge of the Passive Ocean until I’d hit her northern border, then head west to the Broken Isles.

I could see Redmund didn’t know whether to think me incredibly clever for avoiding the war, or cowardly. If he followed in his uncles’ footsteps, he’d be playing the hero. I just hoped he remembered me when he was an admiral that not all the sailor bo’s out there thought that fame and XP were worth it.

I proceeded to explain navigation but found that the captain and Mr. Donaldson both had picked up on his education and there wasn’t anything more in that field that I could show him – not here on the deck anyway.

Before he ran to put the chart back, he asked me a question: “Domenic, don’t you think anything’s worth fighting for?”

I tried to explain that of course things were worth fighting for, I wasn’t a pacifist! But he didn’t seem to understand the nuance of fights between single men or crews and wars between nations.

That question bugged me that night. Of course I thought things were worth fighting for! What did he think my unarmed combat, small blades, archery, or even dirty fighting were for? But I never went to sea for glory. Why did he have to be disappointed by that? Blast it, why couldn’t he think my wandering wayfaring was as cool as naval battles?

Those were the questions on my mind when I finally drifted off.

 

When I woke, I instantly realized that it was not yet time for me to be up. Yet there were yells, thumps and cracks coming from the ship. I swung out of my rack and grabbed my boots the same time the bell began ringing crazily and a soldier burst in.

“We’re being attacked!” he yelled, banging on every surface or body within easy reach. “Out of your racks, now!”

I wasn’t the only one who’d awoken before the alarm. The few seconds head start I had disappeared as men ran out in just their pants, skipping their footwear or shirts. I was among the middle of the pack when we traversed the cargo deck. That saved my life.

A volley of bolts slipped through the hull and scattered crates before piercing my shipmates. The man on my left pitched into me and carried us both to the ground, along with a dozen others. I grabbed him and reflexively tried to drag him behind some crates as cover, but it was too late. The bolt had pierced his chest and knocked 80% of his HP’s off immediately, the rest had spiraled down to nothing before I’d dragged him two feet.

In shock I examined the bolt that had hit him instead of me.

Enchanted Bolt of Armor Piercing

Ignores 35% armor

Bypasses 50% armor with -70% damage reduction

These were nasty pieces of work. Artillery pieces hit hard enough as it was, they were heavy hitters by nature. These bolts ignored a large percentage of armor; then compounded the effect by bypassing even more! The trade off for the second effect was that the bolts didn’t cause as much HP damage, but with powerful artillery pieces doing the launching that didn’t really matter anyway.

The best protection a crew had was a ship’s hull. When fighting got serious crews could batten down the hatches and just exchange ineffectual bolts back and forth, the ships’ armor protection negating nearly all the damage. If one side had an onager or other heavier weapon, they could batter down the ships armor and strafe exposed sections with scorpion fire. That was still a slow and mutually destructive method. Enchanted munitions changed the game. A bolt that caused its target to burn meant their crew had to fight the fire. That exposed them. Care would have to be taken not to let the fire destroy the spoils – assuming you wanted the ship – but it was a no-win situation for the defenders.

But these armor piercing bolts … they were designed to pierce the hull and hit the crew where they thought they were safe. They had a severe damage reduction, but the 85% of armor penetration made up for that if you had enough of these. Most of the time bolts stuck into or bounced off the hull. These things left tiny little holes, barely scratching the ships’ overall armor rating, but killing everyone inside. It was insidiously ingenious.

Because I fell behind the others, I was spared the next volley. I was climbing the ladder when whoever was strafing us hit the gun deck. It was already a charnel house, with blood coating the deck. I watched as soldiers – many of them already pierced with bolts – were struck again, and few were left manning the ballistae. Their increased health pools might let them take a few hits, but they couldn’t whether the storm of arrows that had surprised us.

The sailors were dashing through and a scattered number of them fell as well. They couldn’t take multiple hits like the soldiers could. Even if it wasn’t instantly fatal, no one had time to care for them while the fight was brewing.

I ran to the closest ballista and examined it … it still had 200/300 durability and appeared to be in perfect working order. I worked the mechanism to cock it, then selected a bolt with a fire enchantment. Let’s give the other guys something to worry about, huh?

Even as I took aim, another soldier trying to load his ballista collapsed from bleeding. I almost rushed to him – maybe my first aid skill would be enough to act as a medic – but trying to save a man who’s already gone wasn’t the right choice. Not when I could bring the hurt to the enemy and slow their volleys even a little bit.

I found the enemy ship in the pseudo-darkness – someone had launched a light spell over our ship – and analyzed them even as I took aim.

The Raven

Ship class: Brigantine

Captain: Lawless Jack

Ship durability: 30,150/32,000.

I didn’t recognize Lawless Jack, but that ship durability made my heart sink. Most of the soldiers here were dead, and they hadn’t had time to take even 2,000 HP’s from the enemy ship.

“It’s not about the damage count,” I reassured myself. “It’s hitting them in the right spot!”

I fired at their mainsail, and it was with no small amount of satisfaction that I saw my bolt flame and arc beautifully toward it. It hit with a spray of fire across the sail … and went out. I cursed myself. Of course the soldiers had already tried that! And of course anyone who’d dare attack a ship like the Wind Runner would have prepared for their sails to be fire resistant at least! The other soldier left on deck fired as well, then yelled at me “hit the deck!”

I obliged, seeing just before I did a small swarm launch from the other ship. Moments later the bolts hit like hail, only most punched through the ship’s hull and some even passed out the other side. I remained unharmed.

“Use the split-shot!” Yelled the soldier as he leapt to his feet and began reloading. “Try to strafe their deck, they’re gearing up to board us!”

I followed his advice. He had 13 levels in artillery and loaded much faster than I, yet he took his time aiming. He might even be trying to target officers; I saw one of his shots split into four bolts: a pair of bolts each for a pair of duelists on the Raven. I wasn’t that good. It was difficult enough to get my split-shot bolt raking along the deck. If they hadn’t been approaching us, I might not have been so successful. As it was some of my bolts from each shot hit. They maimed, even if they didn’t kill. How was this for fighting a cause!

Me and the artillery soldier got off three more ‘volleys’ together. The second volley their gunners didn’t retaliate against us with armor piercing bolts, they targeted our main deck with split-shot. I heard the screams. The third time their gunners tried to get more creative with their aiming, guessing that there were only a few of us who were somehow taking cover. The soldier took a glancing hit that slipped past armor but barely took off a dozen HP. I kept getting lucky and wasn’t hit at all.

I had one last bolt loaded when I realized I had no shot – the hull of the Raven was the only thing I could see, and shooting it wasn’t going to do any good. “Get topside!” the soldier yelled. I left the ballista hoping that it would somehow go off on its own at an opportune time.

If I’d thought the artillery deck had been bad, I was wrong. The main deck was bad. Some spell had a brightly glowing ball of light hovering over our ship. Even as they prepared to board us, their mage sent a second one up. The last 15 of our soldiers on their feet prepared to repel boarders. They arranged bodies to be as inconvenient to the enemy as possible. Some of my crewmates had taken arms from the fallen and prepared to join them. Others were preparing the two rafts on the port side.

I thought that the rafts were futile since there wasn’t any hope of them outrunning the Raven but would rather see to it some people had a chance than heroically and foolishly meet pirates – who were no doubt my combat superiors in every respect – in pitched battle. I helped move the raft and crane it over the side. Without even thinking of getting in I moved to help the others do the same for the second one. Then we were boarded.

The Raven was not as tall as the Wind Runner, so they had to resort to other means of reaching our deck. They had plenty, and they tried them all at once. They threw grappling hooks up, which my crewmates readily cut. Their Tarish members tried jumping from the rigging – which would have done us in if the soldiers hadn’t armed themselves with crossbows and targeted these ones. Others tried jumping straight from their deck and clambering their way over our side. Between the three of these attacks a number of pirates reached our deck, then it was only moments before more were streaming up grappling lines behind them.

It was a mixed racial crew. That wasn’t uncommon, what was uncommon was it seemed to be an evenly divided racial mix. There were Humans, Tarish, and Chortin that I could see. The Tarish weren’t anything like mild-mannered Gerald, but warpaint-covered cutthroats. The Chortin were amphibious, scaled lizard-men.

They were all yelling war cries. They all had their stats on full display, like a psychological weapon that said ‘see? You’re nothing compared to us!’ And we weren’t. I didn’t see a single pirate with a level below the high twenties, and they ranged to the mid-thirties. They were all combat specialists. If our full contingent of soldiers had met their crew, they would have been at a disadvantage. They had neatly trimmed our guards’ numbers, though. Indeed, our whole crew!

They clashed with our men, and abilities were activated on both sides. More abilities were activated on their side, but the first to establish their hold on the ship invariably fell. By that time it didn’t matter, and many of my crewmates were dead and the soldiers had been pushed back.

I was finishing with the second raft as the pirates were using their foothold to push the soldiers back. It was amazing how small the ship became when there were people swinging weapons on it. I noticed there was some argument between Blake and the sailors who’d filled the first raft. Blake waved his sword at them, but they shook their heads. The captains’ door crashed open, and three guardsmen came out, flanking the captain and both ladies. A Chortin pirate yelled and charged them, knocking over his current opponent. The lead guardsman didn’t hesitate. He swung his sword in a heavy arc, but even as the Chortin deflected it the soldier met the charge with wide arms and dragged the Chortin to the ground. The pirate tried to break free and lunge at the ladies, but the guardsman held him down. So the fanged maw of the Chortin ravaged him.

Blake had given up on convincing the sailors in the other boat to extricate themselves and had instead come over to the second raft and yelled “this one is for them!”

I nodded and one brave soul who’d gotten in already stepped out. I helped both the ladies into the raft like I’d helped them both onto the ship – although under considerably greater pressure. I’d spent so many days hoping to catch a moment to chat with these ladies and they’d been ghosts sequestered away. Now I was holding their hands again and couldn’t ask what I’d wanted to.

“Ms. Jennifer,” I said as I helped her. “Too bad you won’t be able to answer my questions.” She glanced at me wide-eyed, but the whole situation was too much for her to do anything but be herded along. I nodded to the other woman as well as I took her hand and helped her. “Ma’am.”

“Bless you!” She said, squeezing my hand. “Bless you all!”

You have received: Royal Blessing!

This particular blessing increases main attributes by 5% and XP gains by 15%.

Duration: 12 hours

I was stunned. Jennifer Marston’s lady companion was royalty? What the …

I helped the others in the raft, though I thought less of the captain as he entered it. Whatever happened to the captain going down with the ship? I knew rationally that he was more important than the other sailors or soldiers left, but it was his mission and they were the ones who were going to die for it.

As we started to lower them, Mr. Donaldson came, bleeding and at 30% health. A sailor came and jumped in without asking anyone. I had no idea who else was in this raft or the other one already paddling away, but no more would fit. I yelled at the next rushing sailor to help me crank my windlass just to keep him from jumping in after the raft. Before he took a single step towards me a sword split his chest. The fact that the Tarish who’d killed him had trouble extricating it was the only reason I had time to meet the wide eyes of the sailor on the other windlass.

“Release!” I yelled, then hit the release on the windlass, letting it spin freely. The sailor did the same less than a second later and the raft fell the rest of the way to the sea.

As the Tarish extricated his weapon he had a choice: swing at the defenseless seaman on his left (me) or on his right. He picked the other man first and sent him reeling with two-thirds less HP to the ground and a heavy bleed.

I took a step back as he turned to me. My stealth skill couldn’t function – though I tried – and my hope was to dodge his blade and maybe somehow push him over the side. Before either of us moved, a blade flashed over my shoulder and pierced the pirate’s eye, scoring a critical hit. He’d been at about 85% health, but a hit like that did damage, no questions about it. He instantly dropped to 25% health but remained there, proving once again that even a blade piercing gray matter wasn’t enough to completely override attribute points in constitution. I took advantage of his misfortune and grasped the blade that was in his eye, shoving it in further and twisting like I was trying to make pancake batter. It didn’t take but a moment to rob him of the rest of his HP.

I turned to see none other than Hali! Only now I couldn’t think of her as ‘sailor Hali’ or ‘spy Hali’, she was now ‘bloody-good timing Hali’! She ran to the side and looked at the raft in the shadow of the ship below.

“Is the princess – eek!”

Even as she lifted her eyes to mine to ask me her question, I picked her up and threw her overboard.

Her face of shock would be forever printed in my memory as she hung in space, her mouth in a perfect O. My face was shocked too. Not because I threw her over the side – I 100% meant to do that – but because it registered in my head that she’d said ‘princess’ and it clicked!

Whatever was in the hold below wasn’t the most important thing on this voyage. The real mission had been to get the princess to Oorkom where she would wed the Oorkom heir, cementing their alliance! Jennifer was along as her lady. Hali was the spy who kept an eye on everything. Michaels and Donaldson were the most trusted naval officers who could pull something like this off, because if Nilfheim had gotten wind of what was happening surely they would have utilized their entire fleet to stop it.

“Domenic-” Hali managed to yell before she splashed. I hoped the raft would pick her up, which they should since she’d been such a big part of their plans. There was no chance of anyone living if they stayed on board. And that brought me a measure of satisfaction, the thought that I’d gotten to save her life. Putting someone in the water wouldn’t count towards my Lifesaving achievement, but that wasn’t the point. The achievements and buffs were never the point.

As I looked down, I felt the ocean calling me, like it had when I’d tried to recuse John from drowning. There was that being sharing my house again. It wasn’t just a presence this time, but a pull, like a vacuum. A vacuum not to the water itself, but something deeper, that presence down below that wanted me …

Congratulations! As the ranking member on board the Wind Runner, you are captain of the ship!

Notice: as you do not meet the prerequisites, certain functions of the ship’s interface are closed to you.

The prompt snapped me out of the call of the deep. The captain and first officer had left. The others had either done the same or fallen. For a moment, I felt elation. I was captain of a ship. I was the captain!

Then my elation fell just as hard. I was the captain. The good captain goes down with his ship.

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A note from captaink-19

For reference.  Thanks to Lorcogoth for the map!  This chapter is the most in-depth so far on geography.  The nations beyond the ones on the coasts of the oceans only play a limited role in this story, and aren't depicted.


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captaink-19

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