The jungle seemed to close in around them; landmarks vanished into a mass of vegetation and the faint rustle of the river was quickly drowned out by the drone of insects. Sandara tried swatting them away from her face, but it was futile. "This makes Bonewrack Isle look like a paradise," she complained. Feruzi shrugged and continued her examination of the underbrush.
"There do seem to be jaguars about," she said finally. "They climb trees. Better than we do. So watch above as well as to the sides. There are larger creatures about as well--solitary ones--but I do not recognize their markings. They are almost like midget elephants."
"Dinosaurs?" Reiko asked. Feruzi blinked.
"Oh, those great beats? I have seen them. My father had one as a pet for a time, but it looked nothing like these tracks."
"I've never seen one myself, so it's only a guess."
"Do they climb trees?" Feruzi asked.
"Not these," Chopper said, looking over the tracks. "Herbivores, by the look of it. Maybe horse-sized." Sandara sighed in relief.
"That doesn't sound so bad."
"Well, they still might trample us, but at least the meat would go to waste. Until the scavangers got to it, of course," Chopper concluded cheerfully. Sandara shot him a dark look.
Feruzi nodded. "Herbivore does not mean placid. Let us move on."
They chewed their way through the brush for nearly an hour before the weeds abruptly gave out at the foot of the immense stone ziggurat they saw from the river. Crude icons of jaguars were carved on every dark, ugly stone.
"Charming," Chopper remarked. "Well, no time like the present!" He stomped forward and looked around the clearing. Bushes rustled and he reached for his weapons. "Company!" A birdlike creature the size of a large dog burst from the brush, crossing the intervening distance in the blink of an eye and crashing into Ezikial with talons extended. The massive dewclaw on its left foot raked along his leg as he attempted to fend it off. "Capture it!" Chopper yelled, earning a dark look from Ezikial.
Three more little dinosaurs followed in rapid succession, two barreling into Feruzi and the third joining its compatriot in an attempt to chomp any and all available bits of Ezikial. Feruzi staggered back, covered in blood, and nearly fell.
"FOOKIN HELLS!" Sandara cried and slapped a healing spell onto Feruzi, slowing the rush of blood. Ezikial fired on their attackers, knocking one away, and Feruzi pinned it with an arrow, killing it. Chopper rapidly revised his strategy and waded in with his axes.
"What happened to 'capture it'?" Reiko asked, swinging her sword and neatly decapitating one of the beasts.
"There's two more!"
"Yeah, good luck with that," she drawled as a shadow passed overhead. They looked up to see another deinonychus with blood-red feathers, its forearms grown into vast bat wings. It shrieked a challenge in an unknown tongue, but the last part was unmistakable as it crashed into Chopper.
"Oh, aren't you adorable!" Chopper replied. "Look, men, he's trying to hug me!"
"Did you just call me 'men'?" Feruzi demanded. Koro-Koro grunted something and the battle was shrouded in darkness; they struggled to fend off the dinosaurs, who seemed to have tripled in number in the dark.
"It's a spell!" Sandara yelled, and cast something herself--the darkness abruptly lifted. Ezikial took aim and shot one of the dinosaurs in the brain pan, killing it. Another flurry of arrows impaled the fourth, leaving only Koro-Koro on the field. Reiko slashed one of its wings and it screeched in rage, shredding her forearms and thighs with its claws. Sandara fired off another healing spell, keeping Reiko in the fight. Between them, Chopper and Reiko managed to force the demonic dinosaur to the ground and kill it.
"Whew!" Chopper remarked, surveying the numerous and in many cases rather severe injuries his crew had acquired. "Some things just can't be housebroken."
"That might possibly be the smartest thing I've heard you say in months," Reiko told him.
"The smell may draw more predators," Feruzi said while Sandara went from person to person, staving off the worst of the damage. Feruzi nodded to the cleric. "Some quick thinking with the magic. Thank you."
"Hey, what're friends for?"
Chopper surveyed the clearing and discovered the remains of a long-dead dwarven warrior under a brush. Ezikial looked around eagerly. "There should be a gun around here somewhere." The jungle conditions had made most of the dwarf's belongings useless, but he did find an odd, battered pistol with six barrels joined in a single housing. One of the dwarf's teeth also yielded an impressive ruby, worth a fair bit on its own. Taking this as sufficient plunder, they loaded up the corpse of Koro-Koro and returned to the ship. They drifted lazily downriver while Ezikial bent to work over his gunpowder. Feruzi sprawled on the deck to soak in the sun and rest off the remainder of her injuries, but Reiko was not so easily deterred and returned to work. The sun was sinking behind the trees when Lysaro sounded the alert from the crow's nest. The rigging of a large ship was visible around the next bend in the river.
"That can't be good," Kroop muttered, squinting into the twilight.
"Well, it can't be Harrigan," Chopper said. Ezikial ordered the ballistae brought on deck and made ready. "Let's try to evade for now."
"She'll see us if we run," Kroop told him.
"It could be Chelish," Feruzi commented, joining them on the sterncastle. Chopper frowned.
"Want us to drop anchor so yer can scout 'er?" Rosie asked. Feruzi nodded.
"Sounds sensible. Ready the boat." With the anchors in place, the Crisis held position, swinging slightly in the current. Leila joined the officers in the boat and they rowed silently ashore and made their way overland to a position where they could spy on the other ship. Chopper peered at it through his spyglass, making out the name, Dominator, and the Chelish colors flying at the mast. The ship was huge, a three-decked man-o'-war with a high sterncastle and half a dozen covered weapon ports on the starboard side alone. Catapults sat at fore and stern.
"Feruzi was right," Leila said faintly. "Chelish."
"I think we will need a bigger boat," Feruzi muttered. "Some sort of ruse or distraction may be necessary."
"I'm open to suggestions," Chopper said dubiously, regarding the Chelish warship with no small degree of alarm.
"Well, we could always set them on fire." Chopper snorted and shook his head.
"Captain, ships like these have a rope-pulley steering system. If we can cut the ropes that control the rudder, we could get away."
"You mean, swim under the ship?" Feruzi asked.
"No," Leila said, shaking her head. "The rudder itself would be too difficult to reach. You'd need to sneak aboard and reach the mechanism inside the cabin."
"Now that is bold," Chopper said. "Anyone want to come with me?"
"Sounds pretty dangerous," Reiko told him.
Feruzi sighed. "I am willing to try."
"Let's prepare, then," Chopper said. They conferred, and Ezikial took Reiko back to the Crisis while Feruzi, Leila, and Chopper swam toward the Dominator. Ezikial sealed his powder horn with wax and handed it to Feruzi in case of need. She traded him her bow and arrows, knowing they would be of little use and would only get soaked.
"It won't do much damage, but it will make a lot of noise," he said.
They reached the Dominator's stern and caught hold. Far above them, the House Thrune coat of arms was emblazoned across the sterncastle. Below it were galleries of windows decorated with rows of ornate painted sculptured of various devils and infernal petitioners. The carvings weren't all that attractive, but they made for a fine ladder with assistance from Chopper's boarding axes. They reached the windows without mishap; inside, they could see the pulley ropes linking the wheel above to the rudder. Leila checked the window and found that it wasn't locked. She was about to swing it open when Chopper grabbed her arm.
"Hold," he breathed. A man in a commander's uniform stepped into view, flanked by two Chelish marines, apparently on inspection. He gave the windows a cursory glance as they filed into the room, then cursed and grabbed for his battleaxe. Feruzi hissed, realizing he'd spotted her. Leila slid the window open and Feruzi dove through, crossing the room in a single movement to slam the door closed, blocking the exit, but the maneuver left her open to a crushing axe blow that opened her arm to the bone. One of the marines pulled out a whistle and blew furiously. Chopper came through the window and stabbed the man in the back, sending him staggering and coughing. Leila fired her shortbow at the commander, nicking him, while Feruzi peppered him with her fists, forcing him back away from the door. He retaliated with his axe while the other marine stabbed Chopper in the side. Feruzi slumped against the door, gravely wounded but still blocking the path. Not knowing what else to do, she hurled Ezikial's powder horn and a vial of alchemist's fire into the pulleys. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen, then soft yellow flames began to lick at the ropes and powder horn. Moments later, it exploded. Feruzi fell to the floor, shielding her face from the flames, while the commander turned to defend himself from Chopper's assault. They could hear the alarm spreading through the ship outside. Chopper battled the commander, hooking one boarding axe under the man's arm and burying the other in his skull. Leila's arrows dropped the marines, and then there was nothing to do but trash the equipment and dive for the water. Arrows fell around them like rain, but the marines seemed distracted by something on the water to the port side, giving them enough time to swim for cover and vanish into the jungle.
A loud BOOM echoed across the water and they realized that Ezikial was causing the distraction, firing his weapons at the soldiers trying to lower the Dominator's boats. They ducked back into the water and joined him, rowing furiously for the Crisis, which was already moving toward them on the current. The crew scrambled to get the boat back aboard while Reiko steered wide of the Dominator. Rosie and Melissan fired the ballista, damaging the fore catapult badly enough that it could not fire. The Dominator's aft catapult snapped forward, launching a fire pot that landed just behind them, and then they were away.