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
for them to leave without
water." Slithering Coast
"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."
"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.