Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Feb 28, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 11: Dry Land

It took three days for the Man's Promise to limp its way to the Slithering Coast, but in the frantic scramble to do with eleven what a crew of more than twenty found hard going the minutes took on a strange dual quality.  Each moment seemed endless, yet once they passed the memory of them vanished in the next crisis and it was somehow shocking to realize that an entire hour or morning had suddenly flashed by.  When the land finally crept into view it seemed more like an illusion, even as they rounded the tall headland and sailed into the greenish-brown outflow of a sluggish jungle river, visibly withdrawn from wide banks of red mud that had become a landscape of cracks in the sun.  The dense jungle foliage surrounding the cluster of buildings and piers at the river's mouth was yellowed and wilted, and there was little visible activity anywhere ashore.

A lone red and yellow flag flickered at the top of a watchtower, followed by a similar sign from the roof of the massive shed that obviously housed the drydock.  Like ants with a disturbed nest, dozens of figures emerged from the buildings to gather on the pier.  A longboat was manned and launched and arrowed straight toward the Promise, where the crew put down their tasks and gathered at the rail, looking at their shiny new Captain for instructions.

Chopper frowned, then gestured to Reiko.  "This seems administrative in nature," he said, reassured when Reiko nodded firm agreement.

"Lower the cutter," she said.  "Mr. Hands, come with me.  Will you be joining us, Captain?"  Chopper nodded and in short order the three of them were coming abreast of the squibbers' longboat.  A short, stoop-backed old man, balancing easily, gestured a greeting as they approached, his leathery face splitting into a wide grin.

"Welcome, me hearties!" he bellowed in a surprisingly powerful voice.  "I be Rickety Hake, owner an' proprietor o' Rickety's Squibs!"

"Well met, Rickety," Chopper hailed back with a winning smile. "Or is it Mister Hake?  Either way, a pleasure."

"Ah, Rickety be fine, I don't stand much on ceremony 'ere!  She ne'er stood much on me!"  The man laughed hugely at his own joke, slapping his thigh until he had a coughing fit and had to bend over, wheezing.  Chopper laughed as well in open, unfeigned good humor, minus the wheezing, which obviously delighted Rickety.  "My guess is yer here t' have that there ship squibbed?"  Chopper frowned pensively.

"That would be a good guess, Mr. Hake," Reiko spoke up from beside him.

"Are we so transparent?"  Chopper asked.  "And the name's Chopper.  Captain Chopper, actually."

"Oh, nobody comes 'ere fer any other reason, e'en when we ain't got a drought.  If ye'll let me aboard, I kin have a look about, give ye an idea how long 'n how much."

"Permission granted, sir."

"Aye, yer a prince among pirates, Mister Cap'n Chopper.  C'mon boys, row me on o'er."

They ascended to the deck of the Promise to find Feruzi waiting for them with pencil and paper on top of a bit of board, looking like a some kind of fantastical combination of cannibal and clerk.  Rickety grinned hugely at her and then took in the ship.

"Wonner if I seen this one before.  If so, it's been a while.  Or my memory ain't what it were.  Or mebbe both, who knows.  If ye have any special modderfercations ye want done, jist let me know."  Feruzi showed him her paper, containing crude sketches of the deck layouts. 

"We wish to have a few partitions installed," she said, pointing them out.  He took her arm all friendly-like, nearly eliciting a violent protest before she realized what he wanted, and they left to tour the ship. Rickety's manner changed radically, now all professionalism as he examined the bulkheads, kicked the masts, and tugged on the ropes, all the while muttering nonsense under his breath like "be needin a right-hand futtock here" and "for'sl yard loose, very bad".  Finally he stumped over to Chopper, stratched his balding head, and announced, "She's in no great shape, ye ken, but I reckon we kin do this fer two thousand gold, in 'bout six days with good weather, which we sadly got plenty of at present."  A sharp glint appeared in his eye.  "Not t' be rude or nothin', but I'd like t' be sure ye kin pay fer our services afore we get started."

Feruzi stalked into the Captain's cabin and returned with a small case of jewelry and mixed coinage out of Plugg's stash of plunder, displaying it with some ceremony to Rickety Hake.  Unabashed, he produced a jeweler's loupe and seated it over his right eye, then spent some time examining the articles in detail.  Finally, he grunted, indicating satisfaction, removed the loupe with a sharp popping sound, and grabbed Chopper's hand, pumping it twice vigorously.  Deal done, he lapsed again into the persona of Jovial Old Man.  "Are ye new to life on the account?  Suren I'd recall seein such fine folks afore."

Chopper twitched.  "New, perhaps, but none to green for all that."  His smile was sharp.

"I am sure Captain Bloodmourn would be sad to hear you think of us as greenhorns," Reiko added.

"Oh, I meant no 'fense, ma'am. Jist curious is all."

"No offense taken, of course," Reiko replied smoothly, conjuring up a pleasant smile.  Rickety quickly changed the subject, although his eyebrows rose sharply as if to draw a line under the exchange.

"We'll kip ye all in our main house while th' work's done.  If ye wanna take yer boats ashore, we'll haul yer fine lady inter the dock an' get started."

"Thank you, Mr. Hake," Reiko said.  The crew gathered their valuables and packed aboard the cutter and longboat, which had more than enough room.  They landed at a pair of docks along side three small dinghies.  The sea breeze seemed unable to penetrate the green stink of the river, and the heat and insects were oppressive.  A few sun-darkened workers perched on casks and crates, splicing ropes and mending nets while they ostentatiously ignored the new arrivals.  The crew of the Promise made their way along the rude boardwalk to the shipworks to do some polite gawking as great cables were secured to the Promise and she was winched into dock by a team of eight straining oxen.

They then headed for the main house, a once-grand villa with broad wings extending from the ground floor and an octagonal dome topped by an ornate cupola, now sadly faded with time.  A board hanging slightly crooked over the veranda named it proudly, "Rickety's Squibs".  Smaller hovels and sheds assembled of driftwood and flotsam surrounded it on all sides and gradually merged into the jungle.

"How about we find a place to have a fine drink, Mr. Kroop?" Reiko suggested.

"I think I'm about ready fer one, aye!" the cook agreed wholeheartedly.

"Ask around, casual-like, and see if there are any sailors in need of work," Chopper addressed everyone before they broke up.  Reiko and Feruzi nodded, Reiko taking Fishgut's arm and making a beeline for the taproom, the house's most prominent feature by far.  Leila and Sandara followed them.  Chopper strolled away, lost in thought, leaving Feruzi and Ezikial standing on the veranda with the only two nominal non-officers, who seemed uncertain of what to do next.

Feruzi gave Rosie and Conchobar a wry look.  "Do whatever you like, but stay together for safety.  Use the buddy system."  Conchobar brightened at this, but Rosie made a face. 

"You heard the Master at Arms, dear," the gnome said cheerfully.

"If you find a more interesting buddy, you may swap," Feruzi said, trying not to chuckle.

"You can come with me if you like," Ezikial offered.

"Gods yes, Mr. Hands.  Er, no offense or nothin'," the halfling woman added quickly when Conchobar looked crestfallen.  He shrugged and ambled off.  Chopper waved to him as he passed.

"C'mon, Conchobar, I could use your keen eye to pick out a hat befitting my new station."

Conchobar brightened immediately, never oppressed for long in the typical gnomish fashion.  "It would be my pleasure, Captain."  They found the storehouse, a sort of combination outfitter and rummage stall.  Conchobar instantly fastened upon a glorious red Captain's coat, only slightly motheaten and absolutely festooned with gold braid, trim, and buttons.  "You would cut quite a dashing figure in this, Captain," he said, pulling it out of the pile and holding it up, which caused the gnome to nearly vanish beneath its impressive sweep and depth.

"This is precisely why I need you around.  You're my head Concho."

Feruzi wandered the docks, looking for anyone who seemed to have more time than work and stopping to pass the time with them.  Several turned out to be former sailors who expressed guarded interest in resuming their occupation.

Reiko prudently kept her alcohol consumption moderate and watched as her exotic Tian looks drew glances and low-voiced comments from the off-duty workers crowding the taproom.  She began chat in a lively manner about their recent exploits with Fishguts, who in his cheerful inebriation was better than the trained chorus in an Andoran play, salting her chatter with perfectly-timed exclamations of "Aye, that be the truth!" and "It's a rotten shame!"  In minutes, they had an intent audience, and Reiko contrived to notice them accidentally and draw them into the conversation.  Soon they were rapt and she allowed herself a satisfied inner smile as their reputation began to take shape.

In this pleasant way, two more days passed.  Early on the morning of the third, some of Rickety's off-duty workers invited them to join in a game of ninepins and share a small cask of beer cooling in the river.  "Absolutely!" Chopper said, joining them without hesitation.  Reiko also accepted the offer.

The cloudless sky was the color of iron, promising another scorcher.  The locals set up their game in the shade of the boathouse while others went to pull on the ropes leading to the underwater keg.  The rope suddenly jerked and one man was pulled violently into the water.  A woman yelled, the palms of her hands torn where she was holding on only moments before.  Reiko reacted instantly, dashing forward to grab the unspooling rope, burning her own hands, but managing to arrest whatever was dragging at it.  Chopper reached for his hip and cursed.  "Gods below, anyone got a knife?!"  A blade was pressed into his hand as he shed hat, coat, and boots, and he dove into the water.

The dock-worker was tangled in the rope, and a long, green, serpentine creature writhed frantically, slapping the man with its tail and stunning him.  Chopper saw Reiko enter the water beside him--she flung herself at the water-serpent and cut it with her wakizashi.  Chopper swam toward the dockworker and was surprised as the serpent's head came around, revealing a human face but, unfortunately, snake-life fangs that sank into his flesh.  A feeling of icy fire flooded his body, but he struggled to ignore it and cut the worker loose.  Reiko jabbed the serpent in the neck, distracting it long enough for the other workers on the dock to haul their compatriot to safety.  The serpent slapped Reiko aside with its powerful tail and landed another bite on Chopper.  The three of them flailed together through the water, churning up enormous quantities of mud while they fought to kill or die.  Work stopped as everyone ran toward the fight, stopping uncertainly on the shore.  Feruzi drew her bow, unsure who she might hit in the murk, and then everything went still.  Then Chopper and Reiko surfaced, gasping, bleeding, and shivering.

"Bah, they are fine," Feruzi said.  Reiko raised her fist, still clutching the rope, and hauled the beer triumphantly to shore, followed by the serpent creature. 

"Can I get some boots made out of that?" Chopper asked, accepting a blanket someone offered him.  Rickety shoved his way to the front of the crowd and shook his head over the mess.

"Poor Selissa.  Musta gotten forced downriver by this damned drought," he said.

"Selissa?" Feruzi asked.  Chopper looked a bit embarrassed.

"Er, was this an acquaintance of yours, then?"

"We got an understandin, but I s'pose their homes upriver is dryin out.  These lands belong to the Nagas.  Still, no harm, ye saved my man, an' that's what counts.  The least I kin do is knock 500 sails off the price of yer squibbin."

"That's awfully generous of you.  Do you have anything to treat burning blood?  Cos, my blood kinda burns right now."

Rickety chuckled.  "Not so much, no.  My druid's got no gift fer dealin wit poisons, sorry t'say."

"Rats," Chopper said.  "Guess I'm on bed rest."

The next morning lacked any further excitements aside from Chopper staying in his bunk, sick as a dog, but in the afternoon the docks erupted into shouting and all the workers outside began suddenly sprinting toward the buildings, some even risking serious injury as they leaped to the ground.  "Get inside!" someone yelled as he passed Ezikial, Reiko, and Feruzi where they were taking the air.  "Get inside now!"  A dark mass was rising from the jungle, like a flock of enormous birds, but as they drew closer it became apparent that they were not birds, they were wasps the size of horses, dozens of them. 

They got hurriedly to their feet, but several of the wasps were already closing.  Reiko's sword leapt out and intercepted two of the insects in midair.  Feruzi dodged a third and sent arrows after it.  Ezikial's pistols thundered and one of the wasps attacking Reiko exploded like a firework, showering her in gunk.  She dispatched the second almost as quickly and then they all ducked into the building, out of reach.  The wasps buzzed outside, stinging anyone they could reach and carrying them off once the paralytic poison took effect. 

One of the female workers fled toward the door, followed by a pair of wasps who were rapidly closing.  Ezikial jumped off the porch, stabbing one with his blade and drawing its attention.  Reiko, only an instant behind him, knocked it out of the air like a festive pinata.  The woman they were trying to help screamed and dodged as the other wasp attempted to sting her, then Feruzi's arrows caught it.  Reiko and Ezikial left the wasps twitching and dying to pull the woman to safety.  Moments later, the attack was over--the wasps fled with their booty.  Several workers lay on the ground outside, paralyzed or dead.

"Fuck," Ezikial commented.

"There's nothing more we could have done to save them, Mr. Hands," Reiko told him.

"ALARM!!" a faint voice cried in the distance.

"Oh, what now?" Ezikial demanded, beginning to furiously reload his pistols.  A galleon rounded the headland--a Chelish vessel.  In moments, two boats were lowered and rowed ashore with furious precision, where the sailors, or soldiers, disembarked.  They were not dressed as Chelish invaders, though.  Eight men and women formed a protective circle around a one-legged human man wearing a gorgeous indigo coat with shining braid and buttons.  They looked around, surveying the carnage, and rapidly spotted the only three people standing in the open.  One of the buccaneers, dressed in the armor of an Ushinawa warrior, was abruptly, deeply shocked.

"Reiko?!" Nakayama Tatsumi asked.

Feb 27, 2013

Peevishness Meter

I'm a very peevish person.  All the time.  It's really kind of weird.  And I get requests from people at times to explain what is making me so irritable.  The trouble is, it's never just one thing, so it's really hard to give any kind of coherent explanation for why I'm more peeved NOW about X minor thing than I was 3 months ago about Y big pain in the ass thing.  Then I realized something amusing: it works EXACTLY like a meter in a video game.

Let me explain.  I seem to have this kind of permanent ongoing Peevishness Level.  Some things add to it, like everyday annoyances, being tired, hungry, people being illogical/stupid/a pain in my ass according to me, doing the dishes for some reason (I always wind up shouting at people who aren't there when I'm doing the dishes, it is Weird), anything uncomfortable or stressful or confusing which involves other people being around me and talking to/at me in any way shape or form, stuff like that.  Some things subtract from it, such as anything I enjoy, getting sleep, people telling me something I did or thought up was ossum (but curiously, not people telling me that I AM ossum, which actually has the opposite effect), ranting, etc.

Every +Peeve incidence to the Peevishness Level has a chance to trigger a Peevishness Outburst varying in scale from Minor (sarcasm) to Not So Minor (profanity) to Medium (Mule-like stubbornness/hiding/crying fit) to  Major (I shall cast my eyes upon you no more, evildoer!) based on a combination of The Severity of the Offense, the Peevishness Level and another measure which I shall call Me Giving A Shit About This.  People about whom a shit is given go way, way down the Outburst scale.  Non-people about which a shit is given tend to go the opposite direction.

The Peevishness Outburst is always short-lived and not associated with a grudge, in fact, it generally acts to lower the overall Peevishness Level.  Even the Major outburst: I'm peevish, not generally vindictive, and the fact that I banish you from my presence doesn't mean I wish you harm--I'm always horrified when some Outburst actually hurts somebody by accident, that is, unless I think you're trying to score points by being an oversensitive twit, in which case, screw you.

The thing is that the Peevishness Level NEVER GOES DOWN ON ITS OWN.  Not ever.  Something has to actually take away some of this peeve for me to stop being irritated.  So I can actually be unusually peevish not because anything particularly bad has happened but because nothing GOOD has happened recently and the Peeve just keeps piling up until I'm Outbursting everywhere like some kind of automatic weapon.  Also attempts to intentionally Relieve the Peeve sometimes backfire.

Every now and then due to some combination of circumstances I get a Peevishness Reset and turn into a Happy Goofball for a while until something happens to raise the Peevishness Level again.

It's annoying as hell for me, but I bet it'd make an interesting video game feature.

Feb 17, 2013

Skull and Shackles Interlude: Digging

"Poor soul," Feruzi said for probably the third time as she arranged Owlbear's corpse on the beach and began looking for a good place to dig.  The words were inadequate, but what could be adequate to sum up the life of a man of ferocious strength who was yet too simple to defend himself?  This seemed as good a time as any to bury the man; the early morning heat was not yet stifling and almost everyone was still resting from their exertions.  They would no doubt help if she asked them, but this felt like something she should do herself.  After some deliberation she selected a shady spot near the base of a coconut palm.  The grave would need to be deep so the tree-dwelling crabs would not disturb his final rest.  Nothing to do but start digging.

"I must confess, I didn't know him.  Will you honor me, and him, by telling me about him?" a hesitant voice asked.  Feruzi looked up to see Leila standing nearby, looking anxious as she always did.

"Feruzi knew little herself--perhaps there was little to know.  He was a simple creature, a man with a boy's mind, innocent even of the cruelties he inflicted himself."  She looked down at the ground and scowled.  "It is the fate of many such to be ill-used by those of greater wit and less compassion."

Leila nodded.  "Whenever I think I have found the lowest depths of man's evil, I see there is further down to go.  Conchobar told me of your fight with him.  Did you feel . . . responsible for his life, after sparing him?"

Feruzi's scowl deepened.  "Responsible?  No, Feruzi was not his owner, not his master."

"I mean, like a life debt . . ."

"Feruzi owes life debt to Chopper only.  Perhaps Owlbear might consider himself bound to Feruzi, but there was no true understanding of bonds in the mind of such as him.  Feruzi would not have killed him in combat except to save her own life or the life of Chopper, but she cannot make up what the world owes him.  It is too much."

"I see.  Is this, then, why his death pains you so?"

"It pains Feruzi, yes.  If she cannot make right out of Owlbear's life, she can at least do right at his death.  Chopper may try to assume all the debts of the world, but it is not Feruzi's way.  Perhaps Leila finds that cold."

"No, not at all.  You live by your code and you make the most of the life you have.  This is the way of the Rahadoumi as well.  We know better than to expect a warm welcome in the afterworld.  Perhaps he will have better luck."

Feruzi smiled faintly.  "The measure of right is not how much someone else welcomes it.  Even gods, perhaps.  Feruzi has enough to do with the troubles of men.  Let the gods judge themselves and leave her well alone."

"We have more in common than I thought."

Feruzi simply shrugged.  "Feruzi should get to digging before the day gets much hotter."

"Oh.  Ah, shall I help?"

"That is for you to say."

Leila nodded, seemingly to herself.  "Then I shall.

"Good."  They worked in silence until the pit was finished, then Feruzi helped Leila over the edge and climbed out herself. 

Leila glanced at the shrouded corpse.  "My philosophy prevents me from touching him, so I cannot help you with the body."

Feruzi was taken aback.  "It will not make you ill.  A corpse is no lovely thing to handle, but they do not bite."

"I know, it is, well, I expect few outside of Rahadoum have heard of the Yazanite philosophy.  I may not touch a man unless he is my husband.  And I do not have a husband."  Leila smiled at that, faintly.

"What if Leila bears a male child, then?  Is she not to suckle her own babe?"

"Oh, a child, I may touch.  A man, I may not.  I doubt I will ever have children, though."  Her smile grew wider.

"Foolishness.  And corpse is no more a 'man' than a child is."

"Perhaps," Leila said, faltering slightly.  She drew breath to add more, but stopped when she saw Sandara approaching with pretty much everyone else in tow.  The Besmaran cleric approached Feruzi as if she had something to say, but faltered when she saw the body and stood silent.  Feruzi wiped her forehead and wondered how to handle this.

"Ah, Sandara, would you help me?" she said.

"I thought I'd be in time ter help wit the diggin," she said awkwardly.

"It was not that entertaining," Feruzi told her.

"I . . . aye.  Least I kin help put 'im in."

Feruzi gestured toward Owlbear's feet.  "When you are ready."  It was some effort for the two women to move the massive body, but they managed well enough.  Ship work would harden the most feeble of women, and they were far from that to begin with.  Feruzi made sure he was properly arranged then picked up her shovel and glanced at Sandara, who still was not talking.

"Do you have . . . ceremonies, of some kind?"

Sandara perked up.  "Aye, I have.  If you druther I dint, thass fine."

"Go on, better some ceremony than none, and Feruzi does not know them.  Always the grandmothers perform them."

"I'm hardly that, but here goes."  Sandara raised her ebony holy symbol and made a gesture of blessing.  "I know Owlbear were a pirate, but I dunno if e thought o hisself that way, but we all have th' sea in our blood.  Some of us hear it.  Some of us go mad denyin' it.  Some of us go mad on th' water, starin' too long at the horizon, but fer a few've us, the pirate's life makes the sea in our blood sing.  An' I'm sure that was true've our shipmate, here. Besmara, ward this grave from undeath, welcome this pirate home.  Besmara, we thank ye fer plunder an' profits, strong winds an' good tides.  An' if ye turn yer eye from us, if the sea's be hard and the rations tight, then we batten the hatches and await yer pleasure jist the same."  She knelt down, took a bottle from her pocket, and poured a bit of whiskey into the grave as a sacrament.

"Besmara sounds like a jealous god," Feruzi remarked.  "Well, such a god will hold even Owlbear's spirit as precious, then."

"Oh, aye, The Queen'll welcome i'm wit open arms, an' no mistake.  Fraid thass all there is.  Besmara ain't much on ritual."

"It was well done," Feruzi said, taking her shovel and transferring the dirt back into the hole.  "I do not think a simple man would wish a complicated sendoff.  It would only confuse him."

"Suren yer right.  S'too bad, though, e jist dint deserve this."  Sandara knelt down and began to help, scooping the dirt with her hands.

"At least it cannot happen again.  Not on this ship."

Sandara nodded.  "Th' more I thought 'bout it, th' more I agreed wi' what ye did t'Plugg.  Chopper told me 'bout the brand o' justice 'e had in mind, but I still think it was better'n Plugg deserved."

The shovel bit furiously into the earth as Feruzi released it and glared.  "It was not about what Plugg deserved."

Sandara jumped.  "I dint mean . . ."

Feruzi sighed and made a dismissing motion.  "Apologies, but Feruzi is not your god.  She cannot give men what they deserve.  Not Owlbear, and not Plugg.  She can only say that to let him go would be monstrous and to torment him in the name of retribution would be worse.  Death is quick, clean.  This is the right action.  If it is unpopular, unwanted, unsatisfying . . . that is all right.  Exhaust your ire upon Feruzi, she can take it.  But she will take the right action."

"That's what I said!  I jist dint see it at th' time, is all."

Feruzi grinned.  "That is why Feruzi acts quickly.  Let a wound fester and it can destroy the entire body."

"Yes," Leila said suddenly.

"It is all very well to discuss and agree, but sometimes this is a way for people to talk themselves into what they know is wrong.  Or for a snake like Plugg to work on their minds.  And Feruzi thinks her friends deserve better than that."  They stood for a time, then Sandara and Leila headed further up the beach, lost in their thoughts.  Feruzi sat and meditated, letting her mind empty and grow calm.  She became aware that someone was standing nearby, and opened her eyes to see Ezikial.

"You wish something?" she asked.

He cleared his throat harshly, as he always did before any sort of personal interaction.  "I would just like to say that I am sorry we were not able to save your friend."  Awkwardly, he extended Plugg's braid.  "This trophy is yours by right."

Feruzi froze in horror.  Hopefully, he wouldn't grasp the nature of her reaction, there was nothing to gain from censuring the poor man.  "Feruzi desires no trophies," she choked out, "but she thanks you for your words.  Owlbear is at peace, now."  Ezikial dropped the braid onto the grave instead, and Feruzi twitched.  Perhaps a small censure.  "That is disgusting, you know."  Ezikial shrugged and left, to be replaced almost immediately by Reiko and Chopper. 

Reiko spoke first.  "Ms. Feruzi, I'm sure you don't like me very much right now, and I do apologize for slapping you.  I am glad you saw fit to give Mr. Owlbear a proper funeral."

"Do not apologize for doing what you believe."

"Nevertheless, I am sorry.  My reaction stemmed from tiredness and strain rather than proper consideration."  Reiko gave an abrupt half-bow and stepped away, leaving Chopper, who looked quite a bit more uncomfortable than usual.  He wasn't smiling at all.

"Well, firstly, I just want to say that I'm not angry at you, Ruse . . ." he faltered a bit as Feruzi crossed her arms and glared.  "It wasn't what I wanted, and I sure didn't appreciate you just taking matters into your own hands."  He grinned nervously.  "I planned to leave Plugg to his fate on this island . . . minus his hands, for good measure, so he couldn't cause any more harm.  It's probably the same in the end, though.  It's just, if I'm going to be the Captain around here--and Ezikial and Reiko think that'd be best--you need to follow orders.  Otherwise there will be problems."

Feruzi held her glare for a few moments longer, just to make sure he really was finished.  Then she rolled her eyes.  "Have more care in the orders you give Feruzi, and there will not be problems.  Go here, go there, fight this, fight that, it is all proper.  Do not change your mind halfway."

"Fair enough.  Let's get back to the ship, there's plenty of work to be done."

Feruzi gave him a sly look.  "Aye, Captain."

Feb 14, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 10: Divers Alarums

Ezikial swept the torch through the air, leaving a trail across his vision but also revealing a cluster of tiny pink creatures, whether birds, bats, or insects he could not say.  Two of them squealed and fell, impaled on arrows, as the rest of the creatures took wing, revealing long, needle-sharp beaks or stingers.

Reiko scowled as she readied her blade.  "So, Ms. Feruzi, you said insects passed along the ghoul plague?  I think these qualify."  One of them came at her, buzzing most unpleasantly, and she sliced it neatly in half, the blade continuing in a smooth geometric arc to intersect with another stirge bothering Leila.  Ezikial skewered a third on his sword while Pluggsley the monkey clung to the back of his shirt and screeched.

With the stirge out of her face, Leila got a grip on her bow and sent an arrow into the darkness of the overhang.  Something squealed and fell to the ground.  Feruzi continued to fire, each shot movement deliberate yet still nearly too fast to see.  More stirges fell to the ground, until the final one launched itself directly at Feruzi's face.  Chopper's axe flicked out almost casually and swatted it.

"Gross," he commented.  "Also, what the hell?"  Feruzi frowned at the rocks above them, then hooked her bow over her neck and hopped up the ridge of stone.

"I can see an arm up there," Ezikial said.

"I do not recall any mentions of a halfling," Feruzi said.  She tossed down a few items--some battered but unbroken spectacles and a few short metal rods that Chopper recognized as sunrods.

"Bah, no grindylows then.  Maybe there's a cave lower on the cliffs.  Bloody high tide."  Chopper peered through the spectacles.  The lenses were darkly tinted, not much use in the middle of the night.  He pocketed them.

"It is entirely likely that their entrance is underwater at this time," Reiko said, sighing.

"Right, then, let's camp for now--gods know we need the rest," Chopper replied.  "We can try again on the morrow.  He frowned as Feruzi ignored him, not quite pointedly, striking a sunrod and continuing to search around.  "Unless . . . those sunrods give me an idea.  Anyone up for some night diving?"

Reiko grinned slightly.  "Of course."  Chopper skinned out of his chain shirt while Reiko stacked her armor on a dry part of the rocks.  Ezikial coaxed Pluggsley back into the cutter with more gifts of coconut and rum.  Feruzi stowed her bow and arrows, picking up the boarding pike instead.  The five of them descended into the murky water.  Feeling their way down the rocks, they located two passages deep underwater, one leading southwest, the other southeast.  They returned to the surface to breathe and Chopper gestured toward the southwestern passage.

Swimming directly down, they discovered a tunnel just over a hundred feet long, littered with gnawed bones sucked clean of all meat and marrow and covered with carvings.  They were then tied together with sinew or seaweed to create revolting sculptures that evoked the horrors of the deep as interpreted by alien minds.  The stone walls were deliberately studded with sharp rocks and shells, dangerous to any swimmer who was less than adept.  The insistent need to breathe sharpened as they edged along the tunnel, emerging in the open sea.  The water was clearer, enabling them to see the four grindylows guarding the tunnel.  The mollusc-goblins clutched their spears and yammered to each other, weirdly distorted by the water.  Reiko and Ezikial swam toward them, drawing their weapons, and they panicked, jetting violently in four different directions.  One shot past Leila and up the tunnel the party just came out.  Another butted Ezikial in the leg with its spear, while the third flailed at Reiko and the fourth went around in a confused circle then headed out to sea.

Ezikial stabbed out viciously as he made for the surface, filling the water with a foul mixture of blood and ink.  The grindy facing Reiko seemed to explode in dark, slow-
moving cloud.  Then they were all gasping on the surface, wiping seawater from their eyes and looking around.  Ezikial pulled out his flask and had a quick swallow.

"So, perhaps it was the other tunnel," Reiko said.  "They'll be ready for us, though."

"Let 'em, they don't seem so tough," Chopper replied.  They dove underwater again and returned to the cove.  The southeastern passage split not far down, they followed the left side and emerged in a cavern half-full of seawater.  The rock was carved like the ribs of some immense beast, studded with numerous grindylows waiting to attack.  One of them wore Sandara's hat.  Chopper's eyes narrowed and he laid into them with rare fury--with the others behind them, they lasted little longer than the first few.  Investigating the corpses, they retrieved most of Sandara's effects; a few scrolls, her rapier, her pipe, and her precious pouch of rum-soaked tobacco, now rather waterlogged.

"This ain't lookin' good," Chopper muttered as they swam on.  The passages were mostly full of water with the tide so high, but the caverns still held air sufficient for breathing.  The broad area ahead of them was filled with waving seaweed.  Reiko swam forward then made a star with her arms and legs, stopping them all. 

Feruzi tugged on Chopper's arm and indicated a metal grille in the ceiling, hidden above trailing seaweed and rubbish.  "A trap," she said.  "It will pin us under the water."
"I can try to disable it," Leila told them.  Chopper nodded and she made her way carefully forward, climbing up for a better view.  She fiddled for a few minutes with the hooks that held the contraption in place, then swam back to them.  "That should do it.  It won't fall now."

They moved on past the trap to the next chamber, full of swarming worm-like creatures that turned out to be small eels.  As they examined the exits, leading off in four directions, the school of eels parted, revealing a massive octopus the size of a horse with sharp hooks on the ends of its tentacles.  Ezikial punctured a tentacle as it grasped for them, then Reiko slashed it right in the face.  Instantly, they were splattered by a fountain of foul black liquid.  The octopus vanished down a tunnel while they choked and sputtered.  Reiko helped support Leila, who vomited.

"Gross," Chopper opined for the second time.  "You okay?"

"I will be, thank you," Leila said.

"What shall we do?" Reiko asked. 

Chopper pointed down one of the passages.  "It went that way, but I doubt we'll catch it."

"Go," Ezikial said.  "Don't wait."  As good as his word, he took off, leaving the others to follow.  Feruzi spotted a dull metal bracelet hanging from a skeleton as she passed, not knowing what else to do, she slipped it into a pocket and continued on.  They emerged into a large bowl-like cavern churning with bones, scraps of flesh, and the carcasses of alien deep-water fish.  Hundreds of humanoid bodies floated just above the floor of the cavern.  Two figures hung above, bound hand and foot and weighed down with heavy ingots of silver--Sandara and Conchobar.  They both looked much the worse for wear, Conchobar nearly a corpse already.

The tentacle beast huddled behind an immense, bloated grindylow with a gaping maw like a whale--too big even to fit up the passageway, it was trapped in this chamber.  Beside it, a female grindylow screamed and cut a pair of ropes, plunging the captives into the water.  The weight of the silver dragged them instantly below the surface.

Reiko and Chopper dove, swimming toward Sandara and Conchobar.  The whale charged explosively through the water, mouth open to tear at Ezikial, who only narrowly avoided the monstrosity.  He jabbed its obscene belly.  Leila and Feruzi moved to attack it as well.  Meanwhile, Chopper and Reiko had encountered some troubles.  Two waterlogged ghouls--lacedons--emerged from the weeds and attacked Reiko.  The devilfish came up from behind and grabbed Chopper, hooks raking, and took a large bite out of him for good measure.  The grindylow queen chanted some kind of spell and the seaweed turned into a mass of tangling fingers, further impeding them.   Reiko kicked free of the weeds and swept her sword through the water, bracing herself against a rock.  It swept through one lacedon and into the second, ending their attacks.

The whale-mouth turned on Feruzi, attempting to cram her entirely in its mouth, and nearly succeeded, leaving her with nasty wounds.  She struggled backward as Ezikial further wounded the beast, drawing its attention.  She saw the devilfish below her, on the verge of pulling Chopper in half, and hurled the boarding pike with all her might.  It entered the devilfish's body and emerged from the other side.  Slowly, its grip relaxed and Chopper was able to free himself.  Leila and Ezikial were able to finish off the weakening whale.  Shrieking in rage, the queen flew past them, evading their attacks, and vanished up the passageway.

"Right," Chopper said.  "Guess grindylows take prisoners after all."  They hauled Conchobar and Sandara to the surface. 

Sandara smiled wearily.  "Where ya been?"

"Took a while to find the place, sorry," Reiko said.

"You up for a bit of a swim?" Chopper asked.

"If it gets us out of here, then yes, I am in favor," Conchobar told him. 

"We still owe that bitch-queen something," Ezikial growled.

"Easy, Killer," Chopper told him.  "We got what we came for.  Let's call it a win and get out of here.

"And take a bath," Reiko said.

"Heh, sure, why not."

They salvaged what they could from the room, including most of Sandara and Cochobar's possessions.  Feruzi grabbed Chopper's arm and pointed at the water.

"Is this all your blood?" she demanded.

"Noooo?" he joked, looking pale.

"I got most 'f my spells, if I c'n jist find me damned holy symbol," Sandara said.  Wordlessly, Feruzi pulled the symbol out of a pocket and passed it over.  "Ah, Black Queen bless ye."

"It seemed like something you would want back," Feruzi said.

"I think we have everything," Reiko said.  "Let's get out of here before we worry about the rest."

They made their slow, laborious way back to the cutter.  Feruzi and Reiko managed the sails and oars while Sandara cast her magic, repairing everyone's wounds as best she could.  It was two more hours before they returned to the beach, but it didn't seem safe, so they trudged another hour back up the path to the stockade.  The pyre they'd made of the lodge had mostly burned down, but it and the wall provided some security while they sank into an exhausted sleep.

In the morning Feruzi scrounged some breakfast out of the jungle and Reiko cooked it up over a quickly-assembled fire.  No one seemed much inclined to talk.

"I suppose we had best return to the ship," Feruzi said finally.

"We could finish exploring the island," Ezikial said.

"Plugg's threat to leave was pretty hollow, considering he still hasn't got any fresh water," Chopper said.

"I agree," said Reiko.  "We are still too far from the Slithering Coast for them to leave without water."

"We should check the wreck of the Infernus," Ezikial grated.  "And then we need to talk about what we'll do when we return."  He scowled.  "Don' wanna sweat it out."

"Doubtless Plugg has already decided what to do and is just waiting to get closer to land," Feruzi said.

"Fight's pretty even when it comes to that," Chopper said.

"Aside from Plugg himself," Feruzi corrected him.

Chopper scratched his chin.  "Aye, he and his magic sword are likely to be formidable."  Reiko hummed slightly under her breath, and Chopper grinned at her.  "But hell's teeth, if you ladies keep stabbing giant octopoids through the brain that hard, maybe just get the first hit in and we'll call it a day."

Ezikial took a swig from his flask.  "I worry most about what he may have set up for us on our return."

"I really don't think he'll want us dead just yet," Reiko disagreed.  "I could be wrong, but Plugg doesn't seem the type to make things harder for himself."

Tomara: "I really don't think he'll want us dead and gone just yet. I could be wrong, yes, but Plugg doesn't seem the type to make things harder for himself."

"Walk and talk?"  Ezikial asked.  They packed up the camp and headed back to the cutter.  The wreck of the Infernus proved to contain, mostly, an irate giant eel that took a sizeable bite out of Feruzi before they could kill it.  Not much else was left--a few sealed bottles and utensils.  They took the cutter from there back to the stone headland where they could see the Promise through their brand-new rusty spyglass.  Mahoud was on watch, but no one else seemed to be on deck.

"If we're itching to get rid of Plugg and they really need water, do you think if we just stay here they'll come to look for water themselves?"

"That had occurred to me," Chopper said.

"Why do they have a lookout?" Conchobar asked, peering through the glass.  "I'd say they've already found land.

"Watching for passing ships?" Feruzi asked.

Chopper shrugged and put his hands in his pockets, then blinked and pulled out a silver ring.  "What the . . . oh, I remember.  Sandara, can you tell if this . . ."

"Yep," Sandara said.  She took the ring and looked it over a bit.  "Ring of Swimming, 'less I miss me guess.  Not that uncommon with sailors."  She started to unconsciously pocket it but Chopper took it back gently and passed it to Feruzi, who eyed him slightly askance.  "Yes, I'm totally calling your swimming ability into question."  She rolled her eyes and he grinned.  "The reefclaws!  Remember the reefclaws!"

"Keep it up and I'm taking all of your jewelry," she grumped, but accepted the ring and put it on.

"Anyway," he continued, "does anyone have any ideas?"

"Well . . ." Leila said after waiting a good long while for someone else to speak, "I have one suggestion."

"What's that?"

"We could sneak on board after dark and give him a nasty surprise," she said, avoiding looking directly at Chopper as she spoke.

"That's not a bad idea," Reiko said in support.

"Feruzi likes this idea."

With no other suggestions, they waited until the sun vanished below the horizon, then piled into the cutter and rowed as silently as they could manage back to the repaired Man's Promise.  Feruzi braced her feet against the sides of the cutter and took aim at the lone sentry in the crow's nest.  Arrows sprouted from the lookout's chest in rapid succession and the body fell from sight.  Ezikial grinned as they pulled up even with the ship, tying the cutter off so it couldn't float away and climbing the rungs to the deck.  No one was around, so they crept forward toward the officers' quarters and flung open the doors, revealing Master Scourge with the remaining flunkies around him.  Scourge had Rosie's arm twisted far up her back and a knife at her neck.

"Drop yer weapons," he growled, but they didn't seem the least inclined to stop, so he flung Rosie in front of their weapons and ducked behind his flunkies.  Ezikial planted a foot on a footlocker and another on a hammock post, clearing their heads and driving his short sword toward Scourge's face; the man dodged back barely in time.  Jaundiced Jape fell pierced by arrows while Reiko cleaved her sword through the air and felled Badger and Narwhal.  Aretta stepped up to block Chopper, but he lived up to his name and she went down, leaving only Scourge and the two Rahadoumi from the Promise's original crew.

Scourge cut Ezikial with his dagger, not a serious wound, but Ezikial could see something smeared on the blade.  He retaliated with a series of rapid, brutal strikes that left Scourge with several wounds and forced him back against the bulkhead, where an arrow finished him off.

Reiko drew her wakizashi and pointed each blade toward one of the Rahadoumi crewmen.  "Care to switch sides now?"  They looked from her to Scourge, then held up their hands in surrender.  "Sit here quietly and we'll be back to chat later," she told them as Chopper headed out the door.

"Now for Plugg," he said.  Ezikial delayed to cut off the end of Scourge's beard and pocket it.  Plugg was emerging from the captain's cabin as he spoke, making his way across the deck toward them. "Evenin', Captain," Chopper drawled.

"Good evening, Mr. Chopper."

Chopper raised his axes and sprinted across the deck.  He could see that Plugg already had blood on him from somewhere as he attacked.  Plugg parried the first axe easily, but the second nicked his arm, drawing blood.  Ezikial circled and fired his pistol, missing, while Reiko eased around to the other flank.  Plugg danced sideways in pain as arrows struck him, and he nearly fell to one knee before recovering.  Reiko leveled her sword at his chest. 

"Do you yield?" she asked.  "Drop your weapons!" 

Ezikial growled.  "Never!  His blood sings to me and I will have it!"  Chopper scowled while Ezikial reloaded, trying to get a better angle on Plugg.

"I'll offer mercy, if you'll take it," Chopper said.

"Mercy?" Plugg asked.  "Mercy?!  You would offer forgiveness to a man who has none?"

"Forgiveness, but not without discipline," Reiko said.

"Ah, of course, Reiko-san speaks my language."  Plugg grinned and spat out blood.  "Tell me, Mr. Hands, what punishment befits the crimes I have committed against you?"

"Not punishment, Plugg," Ezikial grated.  "Only death."

"I am sure Miss Feruzi would agree with you if she'd seen what I did to her idiot," Plugg sneered.

"Killing one such as he is mercy," Feruzi said.

"We're better than that!  We're better than him!" Chopper shouted.  "My offer stands, Plugg."

"Very well," Plugg said, dropping his cutlass to the deck.  "I accept your 'mercy'."

"Coward!" Ezikial bellowed and lunged forward. 

Chopper grabbed his arm and forced the pistol aside.  "Mister Hands!  STAND. DOWN." 

Ezikial brought up his sword to slice off the end of Plugg's hair. "That will do, you coward," he grated and relaxed in Chopper's grip.  Chopper looked over his shoulder and blinked as Feruzi casually raised her bow and shot Plugg several times in rapid succession.  "Feruzi . . ."

"Of course," Plugg groaned as he collapsed and bled out on the deck.  Feruzi gave a short, satisfied nod and put her bow away.  Reiko stormed up to her.

"That was uncalled-for!  You who speak of mercy and restraint!"  Reiko slapped the Mwangi woman hard across the face, snapping her head to the side.  Feruzi made no move to retaliate, so Reiko turned her back and strode off.  "You should take care of your friend in the captain's cabin."

"Indeed," Feruzi said, and walked across the deck to check on Owlbear.  Ezikial pulled out his flask, hands shaking, and fumbled for some time before he managed to get it open and take a drink.  Fishguts emerged from the hatch and looked around.

"What'd I miss?" he asked.

Feb 4, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 9: Cursed Isle

Feruzi jumped over the side of the cutter, enjoying the cool surf around her legs as she sloshed up the beach.  The remains of mud huts peeked out of the jungle, but there were no signs of current habitation.  Even so, after they tugged the cutter higher on the beach so it would not float away with the tide, Ezikial, Leila, and Chopper checked and readied all of their weapons.  Reiko had no real need to do this--her katana and wakizashi were always in ready condition--but she made some show of fingering them anyway.

Chopper pointed his chin toward a high knob of rock on the eastern end of the island.  "Which way?  Should we get up on that tor so we have a better vantage?"

"Feruzi would wish to locate a defensible position before anything else."  She examined the remains of the village, but there was nothing of any apparent use in the rubble and overgrowth.

"I agree that we should get a general lay of the land.  I think the tor, as Chopper suggested, would be a good start," Reiko said.

Feruzi nodded.  "These water barrels will encumber us severely in this terrain."

"Right," Chopper said.  "Let's leave 'em here until we find the water."  Ezikial scowled silently, but seemed to be more or less in agreement.

"Lead on," Feruzi said.

They made their way slowly through the swampy salt marsh, harried by mosquitoes and other pests.  The wildlife seemed abundant, but nothing larger or more threatening than frogs of the non-giant variety.  The water deepened toward the base of the tor, almost chest-high in places.

"Leeches, no doubt," Chopper groused with a long-suffering sigh.  "I hate this island." 

"I'm sure you're right," Reiko said.

Feruzi looked somewhat amused.  "You whine too much," she told Chopper.

"I whine exactly the right amount," he retorted.  Fortunately, when they reached the base of the rock, it was fairly easy to climb.  Feruzi sat down to rest a bit, enjoying the breeze while Chopper poked at the remains of an old signal fire, finding a number of torches and a few tindertwigs--signs that someone civilized had visited at some point in the recent past. They could see the Man's Promise in the distance, as well as a cleared section of fields to the south.  There was some sort of stockade high on the western ridge.

Reiko surveyed the jungle intently.  "There might be fresh water in those streams, closer than the fields.  Still, it will be to our benefit to check them out.":

"If we do not want to be killed by parasites we need to seek out a fast-running stream or a spring.  Lying water will be foul," Feruzi cautioned.

"Nothing for it but to search," Chopper said.

"Feruzi would like to make a suggestion."  She waited, but the others simply gazed at her wearily, so she shrugged and continued.  "If there is anything of value on this island, it is likely to be in that stockade, and there may be a well.  So she suggests we go there first."

"Most of the other points of interest seem to be on the way," Leila said.

"Let's take the cutter around to eastern beach, then.  Save us a long way lugging the barrels," Chopper decided.

Three hours later, they offloaded again onto the eastern beach.  Towering palm trees dotted the sand for a mile or so, each bearing a heavy load of coconuts.  Feruzi grinned and began shinnying up one of the nearer trees.  Reiko noticed a litter of broken coconut shells around the base, clearly torn apart by some sharp object.

"Something else likes coconuts," Chopper remarked, nearly presciently as a crab the size and dimensions of a dwarf nearly landed on Feruzi, furious at her invasion of its personal tree.  It took a nice chunk out of her forearm, then Ezikial shot it with careful precision.  Unfortunately, it didn't seem much impressed by the bullet and continued its assault.

"You couldn't knock it down here, Ms. Feruzi?" Reiko demanded, trying to find an angle on the beast.  Feruzi sniffed loudly at the suggestion.

"Feruzi hunts her prey in its natural surroundings," she insisted, punching the crab repeatedly in and about its face.  It made a high-pitched squeal like steam escaping, then finally fell from the tree when Chopper hit it square with a throwing axe.  Feruzi returned to the ground with a load of coconuts and a section of the palm head brimming with sweet sap.  Reiko built a small fire and they paused for an hour or so to dine on crab and coconut, the best and most relaxed meal they'd had in weeks.  Chopper poked at the wound on Feruzi's arm, cracking a few lame jokes while he stitched it closed.

"I suggest we split into two groups," Reiko said when they had finished.  "One should check out the stockade, the other head up the island toward the jungle."

Feruzi frowned.  "Is anyone else familiar with jungle terrain?" she asked.

"Not I," Leila said.  Ezikial shook his head.

"We should stick together," Chopper said.  "I can navigate it on a good day, but I'm exhausted.  Imma follow Ruse.  I suggest you do the same."

Feruzi set a grueling pace despite the heat, but the going wasn't all that bad.  A path of sorts wound up from the beach in the direction of the fields and stockade.  As they climbed above the jungle, they found someone had carved steps and a grade of sorts in the rock, hacking the vegetation back.  The afternoon was getting on by the time they reached the stockade, well-constructed from cut logs.  It surrounded a small lodge that was overhung by an ancient, massive tree covered in vines, its gnarled roots concealing a spring.

"Success!" Feruzi cheered.  The others looked around the stockade, finding a weathered spyglass fixed into one wall, forming an observation post. 

"Dibs," Chopper said.  Ezikial shrugged.  They left the spyglass where it was for now and continued their exploration.  Feruzi pushed open the door to the lodge and crept inside just as two smallish humanoids dropped from the tree above.

Chris: While Chopper walks around the tree, he hears a rustling in the vines above him, giving him just enough time to react before two small humanoids drop down to attack him.  They were tree-like in nature, with skin that resembled twisted bark and leaf-like hair, but their claws were of most immediate interest.  Ezikial took on one with his shortsword while Reiko's katana whooshed past and cleaved the other in half.  Chopper dispatched his remaining assailant and saw with relief that they'd acted quickly enough this time to avoid injury.

"I doubt those are the only two," Reiko commented.  Chopper nodded, somewhat distracted, as Feruzi poked her head back out of the lodge.

"Come take a look at this, Mngani," she said.  The lodge held a bed, writing desk, cooking gear, and several barrels of thoroughly ruined provisions.  A stool lay on the floor nearby as though someone kicked it, apparently the hooded corpse hanging from a chain in the middle of the room.  The stink, faded somewhat with age, was still far from pleasant, and the flies swarmed thickly.  "A suicide?" Feruzi asked.  She began searching the desk while Chopper glanced over the corpse.

"Most likely explanation, I suppose," he said.  The chain was attached to a wide leather collar around the man's neck.  "Chelish hangman's collar, that.  Efficient."  As he leaned nearer, the corpse suddenly reached out to grab at him.  Chopper startled backward, and it flailed at the air, only managing to turn itself in a slow circle.  "Not as dead as I'd hope," Chopper gritted.  Feruzi was reading something, a ship's manifest, apparently.  "Anything about undead in there?"

"Yes," she said grimly.  "Ghouls.  The Chelish devil-lovers brought them to the island, and the insects spread the ghoul disease to the whole crew.  The few who were not infected made some kind of paste to ward off the affliction, but they ran out."

"What's going on in there?" Reiko demanded from outside the door.

"STAY OUT!!" Feruzi yelled.  Reiko froze, startled.

"If you have it handled, then, Ms. Feruzi."

Chopper peeked through the door.  "Eh, slight case o' ghoul.  Needs somethin' cut off, per usual," he said.  "Lucky for it, the doctor is in.

"We may already be infected," Feruzi instructed him.  "Put that creature out of its misery, then we need to see what we can do to ward off the fever without exposing the others."

"As you say," Chopper grunted.  He hauled out an axe and decapitated the ghoul with a blow, avoiding the foul ooze that dripped from the wound.  Feruzi tossed the few useful remnants of gear out the door and they retreated to the clear air outside.

"We should get the barrels filled with the only fresh water we've found so far, from the spring," Reiko said.

"There is a ghoul fever loose on this island, carried by insects," Feruzi told her.  Reiko shrugged.

"I'm fine with not staying here all that long, but this water is still safe to drink.  It would be good to have a bath as well, while we have the chance."

"There are also ankhegs near the fields," Feruzi finished, and nodded at Reiko.  "Let us fetch the barrels."

"Don't go alone," Ezikial spat out.  In the end, they all trekked back toward the beach.  Feruzi tugged Chopper aside and waved the ship's manifest at him.

"This journal reveals the location of the grindylow lair." she said.

"Is that useful information?" he demanded.  She gave him a flat look that he'd learned meant frustration or disgust.

"Feruzi would not presume to comment, but it remains that the fate of our missing comrades might be ascertained precisely.  Whether that is 'important' or not is for you to decide."

"Don't those things live, you know, underwater?"

"One can swim," was the prim response.  "It is not impossible that they have a land base where they keep their meat for later."

Reiko, Ezikial, and Leila had stopped some distance behind while they argued, spotting a tiny shadow that seemed to be following them through the canopy.  After calling to it and nervously pulling out weapons, they resolved it to be a little monkey, no doubt in search of food.  It seemed more curious than afraid as it approached them.  Reiko was surprised as Ezikial suddenly grinned and pulled a piece of coconut from his pocket to hold it out.  He waited patiently while the small creature made its way to the ground and approached, snatching the coconut and shoving the entire piece in its mouth.  Ezikial offered it a second piece, which vanished in a similar fashion.  He then showed it a third piece and placed it in his shirt pocket, then stood up and turned away.  The monkey darted around and leapt onto his back, sprawling over his shoulder to snatch at the food.  Ezikial then offered the animal a drink from his flask.

"Getting it drunk already, Mr. Hands?" Reiko asked.  He shrugged as the monkey gulped at the horrible rum, then quite quickly became woozy and settled itself on his shoulder.  Reiko shook her head and continued to rejoin Feruzi and Chopper, who were still arguing.

"Look, maybe it's the lack of sleep that's makin' me extra thick, but . . . no?"

"If the grindylows took Ms. Quinn and Mr. Shortstone," Reiko said, walking up, "and there is a chance they are still alive, then we should take that chance."  Feruzi shot her a grateful look.  Chopper looked from one determined expression to the other helplessly.

"Uh . . ."  He blinked as Ezikial walked up.  "You have a new friend?"

"Pluggsly," Ezikial said with unusual cheerfulness.

"He is much more handsome than his namesake," Leila said, smiling.

"We. Can. Check." Feruzi hissed.

"Take a breath, Ms. Feruzi.  We'll go check," Reiko told her.

"Look, this ain't a story, Ruse.  Just cos we ain't seen a body don't mean they survived the storm.  False hope aint gonna do anyone any good."

"Feruzi has said enough."

Night was coming on by the time they made it back to the stockade with the barrels.  Leila drifted over to the spyglass and looked around the island while the others hauled water and cleaned themselves up.  "See anything interesting?" Reiko asked after a while.  Leila moved aside to let her try the spyglass.  Reiko gazed into the distance for a while, then turned back to the party, which had mostly collapsed at this point.

"Ms. Feruzi, please come here."  The Mwangi woman hauled herself upright with a groan.  "Take a look."  Feruzi did so, then stepped away from the glass and addressed Reiko formally but somewhat ironically.

"Madam, I require your assistance."  She pointed to Chopper.  "Hold him down while I slap the shit out of him."

"Indeed," Reiko said.  "Mr. Chopper, I think we need to have a word."

"I may not touch a man," Leila said.

"You don't have to help with that part," Reiko informed her.

"Murfle?" was Chopper's none-too-coherent comment.  He lurched across the stockade.  Peering through the glass revealed a cove on the western side of the island.  In the fading daylight, he could see grindylows cavorting in the water, one of them wearing a familiar black tricorne hat.  The other wore an equally familiar flat black hat with a splash of wet feathers stuck to the brim.

"It would be well dark by the time we got over there, but it behooves us not to wait," Reiko said grimly.

"Then we go now," Ezikial said.

"Huh, I guess they don't live underwater exclusively.  Let's go!"  Chopper seemed somewhat revived by the sight.  He retrieved the torches and tindertwigs they'd found on the tor.  They took the barrels with them to save a trip, and returned to the cutter.  Finding their way through the reef in the dark was no easy task, and by the time they reached the cove there were no grindylows in evidence.  They tied the boat down and climbed over the rocks, finding deep black gap filled with seawater.  As they maneuvered, they passed under a rocky overhang, and something moved above them.