Chapter 26: Ghosts of All Kinds
"What do you intend to use the Staff for?" asked Suzanne.
"What? Oh, for magical research, of course," answered Zlistan.
"You're hiding something," said Suzanne. "What else are you going to use the Staff for?"
"Well does it matter? You came here for a trade, didn't you?" asked Zlistan, visibly distraught that Suzanne was able to figure out he was hiding something.
"I'm afraid it does matter," replied Suzanne. "You see, we made a promise that this Staff wouldn't fall into the hands of evil. We have to make sure your intentions with this staff will not cause harm."
Zlistan sighed. "Well, if you must know, I caused a bit of a ruckus in the Romaly monster arena. They decided I was kicked out for life. But really, that was over 20 years ago! I'm not as rambunctious as I used to be. So I want to use the Staff to get back into their monster arena. And then I'll use it for research. I wasn't lying when I said that."
"There's more than one monster arena out there," pointed out Alice. "Why not just frequent one of those?"
"They're not the same," protested Zlistan. "Have you ever been in the Romaly monster arena in a close match, one with near-equal odds for all combatants? The atmosphere in there is incredible."
"I have to side with Zlistan on this one," agreed Ron. "I've been in some of the other monster arenas and they don't measure up. On the other hand, the empire knows how to run a monster arena!"
"So that's why you want the Staff of Change so badly?" asked Suzanne incredulously. "You want to be able to go to the Romaly monster arena again?"
"I said that's not the only reason!" said Zlistan. "I really do want to conduct research with it. I just want to have a little fun before I get to work!"
After some more discussion the four eventually decided to go through with the trade. Although regaining admittance to a monster arena was not the most noble of intentions at the very least Zlistan would not be using the Staff for evil. The four made the trade for the sailor's thigh bone and left Greenlad.
Remembering what they had heard from the pirates about the bone's powers, the group returned to the Mad Hound and put the bone to work. The bone gave no visible glow, leading them to believe they were far away from their target. Since the pirates had last seen the ship in the Batay Sea, the Mad Hound teleported to Romaly in search of it.
The thigh bone was much more responsive in the Batay Sea. Upon arriving at Romaly the bone had a very visible glow to it and moved itself to point south. It moved so quickly that Thomas, who had been holding the bone, nearly dropped it. The Mad Hound began its search by going south as the bone pointed.
As the Mad Hound traveled south the bone's glow grew progressively brighter. That night, the bone could have served as a lantern should the crew have needed one. The next day, the Mad Hound came across another ship. The ship was almost on the shores of Isis. The Mad Hound drew close to the other ship and soon found that the other ship had suffered a great amount of damage.
The Mad Hound approached the damaged ship cautiously. The ship made no indication that it even realized the Mad Hound was near. It did not adjust its course nor display any flags. For its part, the Mad Hound took every measure necessary to ensure the other ship that they meant no harm. The other ship did nothing but continue its present course, due east. The Mad Hound pulled parallel to the other ship.
"That's definitely your phantom ship," said Captain Marbeley. "In all my years I've never seen a ship float with damage like that. How do you want to handle this?"
"If you can pull up alongside it, we'll board and investigate," answered Suzanne.
"Are you sure that's wise?" asked the captain. "That ship may be able to keep ghosts from drowning but how do you know it'll support the living?"
"Wow, are we hearing sensible words from the sea captain said to have lost his marbles?" asked Ron with a grin.
Captain Marbeley gave a good laugh at Ron's comment. "I just wouldn't want my favorite landlubbers to die needlessly. Taking risks at sea is my job, after all."
"We've had some experience with phantoms," said Suzanne. "And if worse comes to worse, we should be able to get ourselves out of there."
"Alright then. We'll make preparations for you to board," said the captain. "But be wary when you go below deck. See those holes at the bottom of the ship there? Monsters would be able to crawl right up through them."
"Thanks. We'll be careful," said Suzanne.
The four geared up and boarded the phantom ship. The deck was devoid of any sign of life or unlife. The group approached a cabin that was sitting in the middle of the deck. They opened the door and entered. Inside the cabin was a skeleton that appeared to be manning the ship's helm. The four prepared themselves for a fight but the skeleton made no indication to have noticed them, even though it was looking right at them.
The group slowly approached the skeleton. The skeleton continued to ignore the group, muttering and chuckling to itself while it did so.
"My ship is unsinkable!" declared the skeleton, chuckling as it did so. "No storm can faze me!"
"Sir, are you friend or foe?" asked Suzanne. The skeleton gave no response to Suzanne's question but continued to take mirth in the fortitude of its ship.
"This is weird," said Alice. "This isn't like Tedanki. He doesn't seem to realize we're here."
"And he keeps talking about some storm," said Ron, listening to the skeleton's mutterings.
"Those fool slaves," said the skeleton, continuing its rant. "Landlubbers, all of them. They don't know the sea. They don't know my ship. I'll sail right into any storm I want and if they don't like it, we'll see how they get along with the squishies."
"The way it's talking," said Ron. "I think it believes it's sailing into a storm right now."
"But it's been sunny all day. The waters are calm," pointed out Suzanne.
"Remember the people of Tedanki didn't realize they had died," said Thomas. "Perhaps this person is going through the moments that led to this ship's destruction. Sonny told us that Olivia thought Errol had died on the night of a terrible storm. Bodies and debris were found on shore."
"If that's the case then Errol's spirit should be here somewhere!" said Alice cheerfully.
"Even if that's the case, how do you propose we get his spirit to Olivia?" asked Thomas. "If he's even here, what's to say his spirit wouldn't just ignore us like this person here?"
"We'll worry about that if we find him," Suzanne cut in. "First we have to see if Errol's spirit is here."
The four left the cabin and proceeded to the stern of the ship. There were three cabins on this side of the ship. The group entered one of the cabins to find that it had an occupant. It was a small green humanoid with a pitchfork, wings, and a demon's tail.
The creature laughed when it saw the four. "More corpses for the phantom ship!" it cried.
Before the four could react the small demon exhaled a wave of icy breath. It clearly expected its attack to kill or incapacitate the group but it would be disappointed this time. Outnumbered four to one and stuck in a cabin with nowhere to fly to, the four quickly drew their weapons and slew the beast.
"That wasn't an aquatic monster," pointed out Ron. "I wonder what it was doing here."
"A ghost ship could be of service to the enemy," theorized Suzanne. "There may be monsters here trying to learn how to control this ship."
The group checked a second cabin and found that it contained a staircase going below deck. They decided to check the last cabin before descending. This cabin also had an occupant in it and the four were amazed to see this occupant was a living human. The occupant was a young man wearing heavy armor and carrying a sword and shield. The man was greatly alarmed when he saw the four enter and immediately moved to cut them down.
"Wait!" yelled Suzanne to the man. "We mean you no harm!"
The man looked shocked when he heard Suzanne speak to him and took a moment to inspect the group. So shocked was he that he actually put his sword and shield down to rub his eyes to make sure they were not deceiving him.
"You're… not ghosts?" asked the man.
"No, we're not," answered Suzanne. "My name is Suzanne and these are my comrades: Ron, Thomas, and Alice. What's your name?"
"I am Stryker," said the man. "Did you four get stuck on this ship looking for treasure too?"
"We're not looking for treasure," replied Suzanne. "And we're not stuck. We have a ship keeping course with this one waiting to pick us up."
"You do!" said Stryker in amazement. "What a relief! I've been stuck here for two days! It's been all I can do to stay alive!"
"How did you get here?" asked Suzanne.
"I come from northern Isis," answered Stryker. "I've been working with the men the empire sent to help us in the coming war with the Archfiend. One day, several of us saw this ship sailing not far from shore. It was sailing aimlessly, turning around for no reason and generally looking lost. At one point, it drew close to the shore. We could see the damage this thing had sustained and wondered if that had anything with the ship's strange navigation."
"After a while, rumors started to start up," continued Stryker. "Rumors that this was some sort of magic ship. Some of the sailors that saw it said that only magic could've kept this thing afloat with all the damage we could see. And if this is a magic ship, there's bound to be some treasure on it. So I snuck out of work and paddled over here. I entered the ship through a hole in the bottom. Then I ran afoul of the monsters. I barely made it up here. And this ship left my canoe behind."
"Why didn't the monsters follow you?" asked Suzanne.
Stryker shuddered as he answered, "They already had enough food. There are people below deck, un-living people. They don't seem to have any idea what's going on. They just go about their duty and don't react to anything. And plenty of them still have some meat on their bones. It's a free feast for the monsters."
"I don't buy it," said Thomas. "We had to do some work to find this ship. Another who found it once said they searched a long time to find it again and to no avail. We're to believe you just happened upon it and made it on board by chance?"
"It's the truth!" protested Stryker. "You have to believe me! You have to let me go on your ship!"
"Settle down," said Suzanne. Then she turned to Thomas. "We have little to lose by letting him on the Mad Hound. The crew can deal with him after that."
Thomas agreed and the four escorted Stryker back to the Mad Hound. Captain Marbeley confiscated the man's armor and weapon until they could confirm his story. Stryker did not seem to mind as he was thrilled just to be off the phantom ship. Meanwhile, Suzanne's group returned to the phantom ship. They returned to the cabin with the staircase and went below deck.
Almost as soon as they made it down the steps they were confronted by three merman-like monsters. The monsters' torso was made up of large yellow scales while their arms were covered with smaller green scales. Although clearly aquatic creatures they hovered above the floor, giving them good mobility even out of the water.
Alice quickly used her staff to engulf two of the monsters in a stream of fire. One of the creatures halted its advance and began chanting a spell. The large sparkle of a healing spell hit it a moment later, erasing the burns Alice had just inflicted. The other two monsters met Suzanne, Ron, and Thomas in melee.
One of the monsters managed to hit Ron on the side with its deceptively heavy fin. Other than that, the three dispatched the two monsters flawlessly. Ron quickly recovered from the strike and buried his blade into the creature's midsection. Suzanne and Thomas double-teamed the other monster. Suzanne blocked its fin with her shield which left it wide open for a blow from Thomas. Both creatures fell to the ground dead.
Meanwhile, Alice engaged in a magic fight with the only remaining merman-monster. She sent another stream of fire at the beast, giving it another copy of the burns she had given it before. The creature replied by sending a bolt of ice at Alice. However, putting its focus on Alice kept it from noticing the three melee fighters coming at it. It was skewered moments later.
After finishing the merman-monsters the four had a chance to view their surroundings. This area of the ship is where the rowers were kept. The ghostly rowers continued to do their work even in death. The rowers' bodies were in various states of decay. Some of the rowers' bodies were relatively intact, though they looked like zombies. Unfortunately, some of the rowers had clearly taken some great damage. For some, it was likely being hit by the ship's wreckage during the storm that had killed them. For others, they had clearly been munched upon by monsters, as Stryker had said.
Besides the bodies, the four came across several flames that were moving strangely. The flames seemed to be trying to row the boat like the ghostly bodies were. Upon drawing close to them, the group found that the flames spoke in the same way as the bodies were; they were reliving the moments just before their death. The four concluded that these flames were also ghosts, perhaps those ghosts whose bodies had been completely destroyed. It was when one of the flames started having a conversation with one of the bodies that the four heard something that caught their attention.
"What's going on out there? Rowing is even worse than usual today," said one of the bodied ghosts.
"I don't know. Rowing is always hard work," said one of the flame ghosts.
"Isn't that the truth? Rowing is work for criminals and murderers," answered the body. "I bumped a man off. That's why I feel so bad for Errol over there."
"What are you talking about?" asked the flame.
"That guy Errol over there," said the body, gesturing with his head towards another bodied ghost. "He's never done anything wrong. He doesn't deserve to be a slave on a pirate ship."
The four did not stay to hear the rest of the conversation. They went over to the ghost of Errol. Errol was rowing on the other side of the ship. As the group approached, two large green octopuses came in from a nearby hole in the bottom of the ship. The octopuses saw the free meal in front of them and decided to begin by going at Errol. When they saw four living humans who actually reacted to their presence they quickly adjusted to meet the threats head-on.
Alice once again put her staff to use, engulfing the octopus monsters in a stream of fire. The monsters then fell upon Suzanne and Ron, who had stepped up to keep the monsters away from Errol. The octopuses scored a multitude of hits on the two as there was nothing either of them could do to block or dodge eight tentacles each. Ron punished his foe by sinking his blade into one of the offending tentacles. Suzanne tried to sever one of the tentacles that hit her but a different tentacle swatted her sword away.
Thomas tried to aid Suzanne but was thrown off his feet when two of the creature's tentacles slammed him in the side. In addition to their numerous appendages, the octopuses were quite agile. Realizing they were dealing with some tough opposition, Alice decided some extra force was necessary. She forsook using the staff again in favor of chanting a spell. A large, powerful river of fire flew at the two octopuses. An additional jet of flame bounced along the river, giving additional burns to the creatures caught inside.
Alice's spell dealt serious damage to the two creatures and as his foe reeled back in pain, Ron went in for the kill. He severed two tentacles with a vicious overhead chop, beat back another with his shield, and sunk his blade into the octopus's face. Overcome with its terrible wounds, the monster died.
Suzanne shifted to the side to keep her enemy from pursuing Thomas and focused on the defensive. The octopus's wounds took some of the force from its strikes and Suzanne was able to block two of its tentacles with her shield and slice one of its other tentacles. This allowed Thomas to get to his feet, get past the remaining tentacles, and slice open the creature's torso. The monster was still up but severely weakened now. Another stream of fire from Alice, who had gone back to her staff, finished it off.
As Thomas began healing the rest of the team, the other three immediately turned their attention to Errol, not wanting to dawdle for fear of more monsters appearing. Errol was now lying on the ground shaking. He had not been knocked down during the fight; the monsters had not gotten close enough to Errol. His decayed face could not be read for emotion but his voice revealed the source of his distress.
"Olivia!" Errol called out. "The ship is sinking! We won't meet again for all eternity! I hope at least that somehow you find happiness."
A look around revealed that the other ghosts were acting in a similar manner. The unease and doubt that the four had seen throughout the phantom ship so far had now been replaced with panic. The ghosts were acting in open desperation. Some even jumped off the ship while others were like Errol: on the ground shaking in fear.
"Errol! There's no storm!" yelled Suzanne above the panic. "You and Olivia are already dead! You need to reunite with her spirit!"
But as with the other ghosts, Errol gave no indication that he was aware of Suzanne. Thomas, now done with the healing, walked up to Errol and began casting some spells on him. After some time, he explained what he was doing to the rest of the group.
"I was beginning to think something was strange with the ghosts here," began Thomas.
"Just now you were beginning to think something strange was going on here?" asked Ron.
"I meant besides the obvious," said Thomas with a scowl. "Anyway, I just ran a quick examination on Errol, or his image anyway. Errol's spirit is not in this body. If I'm right, none of these bodies or even the flames have spirits within them. They're all images created by whatever curse holds this ship in this plane."
"So these aren't actually ghosts?" asked Suzanne. "Then Errol isn't here at all?"
"That seems to be the case," confirmed Thomas.
"Great," grumbled Ron. "This has all been a waste then!"
"Let's not admit defeat yet," said Alice. "We should at least finish investigating the ship."
"Alice's right," agreed Suzanne. "Let's keep going."
There were two rooms towards the stern of the ship. The closest one was a storeroom; it was filled with barrels, jars, and chests. The four searched the storeroom for anything conspicuous. They found some gold and an herb for curing temporary paralysis. Alice was also sure the check the chests before opening them and found one of them was trapped.
The group proceeded to the other room. This room contained four beds and a chest in it. The four guessed that these were the crew's quarters though there were far fewer beds than the number of crewmembers. Alice checked the chest and then opened it to reveal a locket. Inside the locket was a picture of a young woman. An engraving on the locket read, "Olivia and Errol until the end of time."
"This must've belonged to Errol," said Alice. "Olivia must've given it to him sometime before he was taken."
Thomas looked fascinated with the locket. "May I see it?" he asked. Alice gave him the locket. Thomas began running his magical tests on the locket.
"What is it, man?" asked Ron.
"A hunch," answered Thomas. "Let me finish."
A minute later Thomas explained his hunch, "I was right. Errol's spirit is in this locket!"
"Are you sure?" asked Suzanne.
"Positive," answered Thomas. "I think I have a little understanding of what happened here. For whatever reason, the ship itself became possessed and did not simply sink when it was destroyed. This possession caused it to reenact the moments of its destruction. It did this by using the bodies of the crew to create the images we've seen and summoning those flame images for the crew whose bodies were destroyed or removed."
"That also explains the thigh bone," continued Thomas. "The possession has taken hold of the crew's bodies, but not their spirits, so that they can be used for the ship's images. The bodies will return to the ship by whatever means they can. But, like I said, the spirits were free. Most of the crew's spirits have likely left this plane. But, as we know, some spirits linger in this world as they have some strong attachment to the world still. Errol's spirit remained here the same way that Olivia's did. But Errol's spirit could not linger in his body because the ship is using his body for its images. So it went into the next best thing that symbolizes his love for Olivia: this locket."
"Wow, that's quite a story Tom!" said Alice. "If that's true, than this locket should be the key to giving Olivia's spirit some peace!"
"Wait a moment," said Ron. "Isn't this a bit of a long shot? Using some locket to try and break Olivia's curse?"
"For once, I believe this long shot will work," answered Thomas.
The four left the phantom ship and returned to the Mad Hound. The Mad Hound was once again teleported near Noaniels to make another try at the Shrine Jail. After four days they made it back to the river between the Narls and Naxly Seas. Once again, a sunny day suddenly became cloudy and a loud moaning sound filled the air. As before, the ship was being pushed out of the river and back to the Naxly.
"Tom!" yelled Suzanne above the noise. "What do we need to do with the locket?"
"I don't know," answered Thomas as he took the locket out. No sooner had he taken the locket out than it began to glow. It began to float in the air, tugging against Thomas' grip. Thomas let go of the locket and it flew higher into the air until it was far above the ship. The moaning came to a stop and the waters stopped pushing the ship backwards. Then the moaning voice began speaking.
"Oh Errol, my beloved! I've been waiting for you such a long time!" cried the voice.
Another voice, a man's voice, cried out in answer, "My dear Olivia. Never again shall we be parted!"
"Errol!" cried the female voice with great joy.
The clouds began to break up and the locket vanished out of thin air. Soon enough, the sky was clear as it had been before.
"Well that's wonderful," commented Alice. "After all this time those two can finally be together."
"And now we should be able to make it to the Shrine Jail," said Suzanne.
After hesitating for a moment, Captain Marbeley ordered the crew to get back to work and the Mad Hound once again attempted the river. This time, nothing was stopping them and they successfully crossed from the Naxly to the Narls Sea.
With the directions given to them by King Crayton, finding the Shrine Jail was easy. It was on a small island covered in forest. The Jail was a small building in the middle of the forest. It looked like a shack made out of concrete. The four entered the Shrine Jail.
Inside the concrete shack was a locked hatch leading downwards. The lock was augmented with powerful magic but was still no match for the Final Key. The four descended down the stairs that the hatch revealed.
At the bottom of the stairs was a ball of flame that looked and moved much like the flame-images from the phantom ship. Unlike the images, this flame actually moved towards and then greeted the group.
"This is the desolate Shrine Jail," said the flame. "You seem too well equipped for new prisoners. I take it you have been sent to check up on someone?"
The four were surprised to hear the flame address them. "You could say that," answered Suzanne after a moment. "But, if I may ask, who are you?"
"You weren't sent by the king?" asked the flame. "He should've told you who I am."
"He told us about the Shrine Jail, and we heard from another that we could find Simon here. But he never mentioned any spirits," answered Suzanne.
"Really?" asked the flame. "Has anything happened to the king recently?" The flame's voice seemed to have a note of hope in it.
"Well, there has been an imposter on the throne for the last six or seven years. Recently that imposter has been defeated and the true king is back on the throne," said Suzanne.
"Oh that's great!" said the flame. "That explains everything!"
"If I may ask, who are you?" asked Suzanne again.
"I'm the jailor. This jail has been absolutely horrible in the last few years," answered the flame. "Not that it was ever supposed to be a bright place, but I never thought I'd have to work here after I died!"
"You mean your spirit has been forced to work here?" asked Suzanne.
"Yes. Judging by what you're saying, I died a year or two after the imposter took power," said the jailor. "And he used necromancy to keep me here. Not to mention that I don't actually do anything here. Since I died, the prisoners aren't even kept alive. They lock them up here and let them die. I make sure to keep as far away from the cells as I can so I don't have to watch them."
"That's horrible!" said Alice.
"Another example of the imposter's sadism," growled Thomas.
"Now that he's dead, you should be able to leave," said Suzanne to the flame.
"I wish I could figure out how but something's keeping me here," said the jailor.
"There must be some way to break the necromancy," said Thomas. "We should look for a way."
"We have to find Simon's body too," said Suzanne. "It sounds like there's no chance he survived."
"Oh Simon?" asked the jailor. "You can find him in the last cell on the right. You can find his body in the cell across from where he is. The king saw fit to keep him on this plane as well."
The four followed the jailor's directions and found another flame inside a cell. They unlocked the door and entered.
"Who are you?" asked the flame.
"I am Suzanne. These are my comrades Ron, Thomas, and Alice," introduced Suzanne. "We are friends of your son Matthew and have also made the acquaintance of your friend Mathias."
"Really? How did you get here? How did you find out I was here?" asked Simon.
The four spent some time conversing with Simon's spirit and letting him know what had befallen Samanao. Simon was filled with joy to find out that the king who had imprisoned him was not the real King Crayton. His only lament was that he did not survive to reunite with his family.
After the chat, Simon told the four to search the cell with his body in it to find the Sword of Gaia. The Sword was even greater than Mathias had described. It had a golden cross-guard and pommel with a crimson grip and crimson hair coming from the pommel. The blade was incredibly sharp and gently curved. Alice examined the Sword.
"I've never held anything with such power in it!" Alice had exclaimed. "There is incredible elemental energy within this sword. This has to be it! The Sword of Gaia!"
The four thanked Simon for the Sword and made sure to go straight to Samanao. They related everything they had found to the king and made sure to tell Matthew of his father's fate. Matthew was saddened that his father had met such an end but was comforted by finally knowing what happened to him. King Crayton immediately dispatched some mages and clerics to go to the Shrine Jail and undo the dark magic that held the jailor's and Simon's spirits in the Jail.
Meanwhile, the four began preparing for the greatest challenge yet. Using the information Suzanne had gained from the man in Billville and all maps the group could find of the region, the four decided they needed to use the Sword of Gaia to get to the region. They needed the Sword to get past the rough waters that had been enchanted by the Archfiend to resist any attempt to cross. After that, they would have to travel through a large part of the Necrogond Valley.
In order to prepare for their journey, the group bought some new equipment. In the shops of Samanao the group found some powerful silver shields for sale. Each one of the four bought a silver shield. In Billville, the four found suits of armor made from dragon scales for sale. The suits of armor inherited the dragons' resistance to physical harm and magic. The armor proved too heavy for Thomas and Alice so only Suzanne and Ron received the suits of dragon armor.
The team spent an additional two weeks training and preparing for their upcoming excursion. Besides making sure to work on their swordplay and magic they made sure to go over any situation they could think of so that any one of them would know what to do in the worst of circumstances.
Finally, the group teleported the Mad Hound to Assaram so that they could begin their journey. The time had come for the four to enter into the Necrogond.