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

Jan 30, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 8: Dangerous Reefs

Ezikial spent their second day aboard the Promise swabbing the deck, a chore he engaged in diligently even though it seemed a poor use of his skills.  He never objected to even the hardest work aboard a ship--all proper ship work seemed right to him, somehow, and did not grate on his nerves the way it did other people.  He was just settling into his pace when Reiko staggered by, burdened with a load of sea turtles.  Her grasp slipped as she turned to edge past and she wound up dumping the entire batch nearly at his feet.

"So sorry," she muttered, trying to chivvy the turtles back into a heap.

"Help her, fool," a voice grated, and Ezikial glanced up to receive an imperious gesture from Mr. Scourge.  Shrugging, he picked up several by their tails and helped Reiko ferry them to the galley.  He couldn't have been gone more than a minute or two, but by the time he returned to the deck it was smeared with two dozen filthy bootprints.  He blinked at the mess for a moment, slightly dazzled by the laughable childishness, then began cleaning the same patch of deck for the second time.

"Tsk, tsk," said Acting Captain Plugg, stopping to survey the mess on his rounds.  "How long have you been working on this spot, Mr. Hands?  You seem hardly to have begun.  Clearly, I have been too lenient with you.  This is what happens when I permit alcohol aboard."

Ezikial stared at the Acting Captain, baffled by this line of reasoning.  The two new Rahadoumi crewmembers drew closer, hovering.  Ezikial realized suddenly that he shot one of them during the boarding action.  The man's face was full of anticipation.

"Surrender your flask, Mr. Hands.  That is an order."  There didn't seem any point in resisting.  Moving woodenly, Ezikial pulled the flask from his pocket and held it out, wincing as Plugg seized it.  "Master Scourge!  Search his duff and bring me any liquor you find," Plugg added.  He then unscrewed the top of the flask and poured the whiskey into the ocean.

"Sir?" Ezikial interjected, dumbfounded.  Plugg smiled faintly as Scourge returned with a bottle of cheap wine and another of brandy.  Plugg disposed of them over the side, as well.

"Search him," Plugg added to the Rahadoumi sailors.  Ezikial's stomach knotted.

"Captain Plugg, sir, if I may speak so, keeping me from the consumption of spirits is quite likely to impair my ability to be of service to you and your ship.  I beg your indulgence on this issue so that I may perform to your expectations."

"Indulgence denied," Plugg said offhandedly.  Haroun and Maoud seized Ezikial's shoulders and made short work of searching him, coming up with a waterskin and a piece of parchment.  "Give it here," Plugg said.  The waterskin met the same fate as the other booze, then Plugg turned his attention to the parchment.  His faint smile broadened and he waved at Scourge.  "Ring the bell and bring everyone on deck," Plugg ordered.

"Everyone?" Scourge asked.


"Shit," Ezikial muttered under his breath.  It took some minutes for everyone to assemble, looking baffled and even hostile to be interrupted in their work.  Plugg waved the paper overhead theatrically.

"I have here a most startling confession out of Mr. Hands' pocket," he announced.  "I shall read it to you.  Dear Chopper . . . such a lovely salutation, so formal . . . Alas, the days on this ship keep us apart . . ."

"What the hell?" Chopper demanded, staring wide-eyed at Ezikial.  Behind him, Sandara was looking absolutely green, as though she would now welcome death.

"I know how I feel about you now, but I have no way to tell you!  I hope the day comes soon when I can speak to you in person, until then, hold this close as a token of my favor!  Such lovely sentiments from one crewmember to another,"  Plugg said, glancing from Ezikial to Chopper and back.  Most of the crew was grinning broadly.  "Oh, wait, there's a signature . . . Yours, Sandara Q.  Well, that's slightly less disturbing."  The thuggish crewmembers howled with derisive laughter.  "This is very precious, Ms. Quinn.  Shall I marry you now?  I have that right as Captain."

"You're a real son of a bitch, you know that?" Chopper hissed.  "A true rotter."

Plugg's smile tightened dangerously.  "I've heard that said, yes.  But it takes a son of a bitch to manage a gang of cutthroats like this."  He crumpled the parchment and dropped it to the deck.  "Everyone back to work."  Plugg began to turn away.

"Sadly, you are mistaken, Sir," Ezikial said abruptly, startling everyone.  "I, at least, would have worked with a will and willingly if you had even the slightest notion how to lead men."

Plugg waited a moment or two before replying.  "I fear I must have understood you incorrectly, Mr. Hands.  Would you care to . . . rephrase . . . your statement?"

Ezikial raised his voice, speaking clearly and precisely.  "You have failed to treat us with any semblance of respect and deserve none from us.  Instead, you drive us with your fear and insecurity as if they were enough to make you worthy of being captain.  If I survive your foolishness I will continue to work for the good of the ship, but never for you."

Plugg steepled his fingers and tapped his lips meditatively.  "I see.  Mr. Chopper!"

"Er, what?"

"Congratulations, I am promoting you to ship's carpenter and surgeon."


"Your first task is to build me a sweatbox . . . and you will do a good job, unless you want to spend a week in it."

Chopper's face darkened for the second time.  "I only do quality work," he spat.

Plugg ignored him, looking down his nose at Ezikial.  "When the box is completed, then your punishment will begin.  You look surprised?  Were you expecting me to fight you?"

"No, sir.  I don't expect you are that kind of man or pirate."

"Get back to work.  It appears you've missed a spot."

With nothing else to do after dinner, the friendly portion of the crew, minus Rosie and Sandara, gathered in the berths.  "Did anyone else notice that we changed course last night?" Leila asked.

"How could you tell?" Feruzi wondered.

"I used to be the navigator on this ship.  We were headed for Port Peril, but now we're going east."

"What is east of here, then?" Chopper growled.  "I'm not wildly familiar with the Shackles.  It could be any eastern island.  Maybe Bloodcove?"

"It is odd that Plugg would disobey Harrigan's orders.  If that is what he is doing," Feruzi said.

"It could also be the Slithering Coast we're headed for," Reiko offered.  "The only real dock I know there is Rickety's Squibs.  Based on what we know of Mr. Plugg, I'd say that now he has a ship under his command, he'll be headed to where he can either get a new one or have this one refitted to be unrecognizable.  That is why I think Rickety's Squibs is likely."

"What is there that he would want?" Ezikial asked.

"He did not fit in with his old crew.  I have no doubt he desires to get away from them.  What better opportunity than a port that specializes in refits?  All he has to do is get rid of us, keep those loyal to him, and pick up a new crew."

"If he can find one," Chopper said.

"I don't think it would be too difficult.  All he needs is to find the equivalent of mercenaries, or have Scourge press a few more."

"Mercenaries?  With what money."

"Hence the pressing comment, Mr. Chopper."

"I was in the captain's cabin this morning," Leila spoke up.  "There is quite a bit of money."

"You don't say," Chopper's attention was now riveted on her.

"I am sure he got a lot more than we did from the looting of this ship," Reiko said.

"In that case, I have a plan," Chopper announced.  Ezikial eyed him.  "Leila can nab the money for us, then we can toss it overboard on the sly and Plugg's ambitions come to nothing.  Oh, he'll rant and rave and search the ship, but he'll find nothing."

"I don't think that is the answer, Mr. Chopper," Reiko said.

"Then you're very short-sighted," he shot back.  "It's only money.

"I agree.  It is only money.  But throwing it overboard is not the answer in this case.

"Do we care about the ambition of the man?  If he makes for port, we can get off this tub," Feruzi added.

"If we make port," Chopper objected.

"Then we should endeavor to stay alive until we do."

Reiko shook her head.  "I suspect Plugg will try to drop us off on a deserted island."

"So pitch me an alternative," Chopper replied.

"Think like Plugg for a moment.  He would want to have as many people crewing this ship for as long as possible until we get at least to the Slithering Coast.  We have probably about a week until we reach the coast."  Ezikial stood up abruptly and left the room.  "Mr. Hands!" Reiko hissed.

"Need a drink," he muttered.  Chopper stood and followed him into the galley, which fortunately was just next door.

"We need to talk," Chopper told him flatly while Ezikial rummaged in the cupboards.  Fishguts leaned out the door.

"It's under me bunk," he said helpfully.  Ezikial waved at Fishguts and helped himself.

"So, you want to speak to me?"

"What the hells, Zeek?  With the letter?  And Sandara?  Why did you have that?"

"I would think, my friend, that the contents of the letter, however they did arrive to you, would have been clear."

"You're missing the godsdamned point.  Actually, I think you're ducking."

"It was less conspicuous to give it to me on the deck so I might give it to you after the working day was complete."

Reiko glared at them both from the doorway.  "This is why it doesn't do to get involved romantically on a ship.  You two need to hold it down.  You are directly under the captain's cabin."

"I am speaking in a quite moderate tone of voice," Ezikial protested.

"Do you want Plugg to come down here and interrupt our conversation?"

Chopper and Ezikial watched her silently for a moment until she gave up and left.  Chopper then threw his hands in the air.  "I'm such an idiot.  This is all my fault."

"Perhaps only an idiot as all men are with women?" Ezikial offered.  He was rapidly nearing the bottom of his mug.

"All men?" Chopper demanded, incredulous.  "Do all men leap into certain--" he stopped, making a face and shaking his head.

The next day was largely quiet.  Chopper finished the sweatbox late in the evening, when there was little point in putting Ezikial inside.  By morning, though, a nasty squall blew up, tossing the Promise from side to side.  All hands were needed to manage the rigging and pump water out of the bilges.  Ezikial took Feruzi aside and had her retrieve his stashed brandy from below.  She was clearly tempted to refuse, but did as he asked.  Ezikial breathed a sigh of relief and climbed into the rigging.  Chopper was eyeing Maheem speculatively as they worked.

"What do you think?" Chopper asked, barely audible over the noise of the storm.  Ezikial nodded.  Chopper caught Maheem's attention while Ezikial took a side route through the rigging.  Within moments, he was at Maheem's back, still unnoticed.  He leaned forward to hiss in the big Rahadoumi's ear.

"Goodbye.  Besmara awaits."  Ezikial shoved the man, hard, and Maheem toppled from the rigging, landing on the deck headfirst.  A wave washed the corpse overboard before anyone noticed it.  Ezikial grinned at Chopper and resumed work.

Near dawn dark shapes could be seen looming out of the sea--small islets and coral reefs.  The gale seemed to double in ferocity.  Creaking and grinding noises began to come from the hull.

"CUT THE SAILS LOOSE!"  Ezikial shouted, recognizing their position.  He began to slash at the canvas with his belt knife, bringing curses from the crew members struck as the sheets flapped loose.  Reiko dropped down to the deck to find some kind of officer, only to discover strange goblin-like creatures climbing the sides of the ship.  They yelled at her and attacked with wooden spears.  Reiko heard a loud boom as Ezikial fired his pistol at them, downing one.  She snapped her katana from its sheath and cleaved another down.  The others yelled and retreated, disappearing over the side as the Promise gave a great bucking heave.  A terrible grinding and screeching noise came from below as the ship ground to a halt on a reef just as the last of the sails came loose and flopped over the deck.

"Land ho," Chopper said wryly.

They were fortunate, at least, in that the gale seemed to be blowing itself out with the receding tide.  The Promise settled heavily onto the rocks while the crew gathered on the canting deck.  Plugg eyed them and frowned.

"Where are Ms. Quinn, Mr. Maheem, and Mr. Shortstone?" he demanded.  He eyed the half-a-monster Reiko had dragged up and deposited at his feet.

"It appears they were pulled off the ship during the attack," Feruzi said, displaying Sandara's holy symbol and pointing to the lingering traces of slime on the deck.

"Then they are lost," Plugg said.  "Grindylows devour whatever they catch."

"Was it your plan to run us aground, Mr. Plugg?  Have you never been on a ship before?" Reiko demanded.

"Stand down, Reiko-san.  The storm has blown us off course."

"I wouldn't argue that if we were actually headed where we were supposed to go."

"You are out of line.  We have, indeed, strayed from our course--Badger has turned out to be a pitiful navigator.  But that is not our concern now.  Mr. Chopper!  Kindly go below and assess the damage to this ship."  Chopper glared, then stomped off to begin his survey.  Plugg turned his attention back to Reiko.  "Anything further?"

"Nothing . . . for now."

"Then you are dismissed."

The main hold was staved in on the starboard side, smashing the ship's reservoir of fresh water among other things.  "That is very bad," Chopper muttered to himself.  The ship wasn't in immediate danger, but she needed repairs to make her seaworthy again.

"We must see if we can move her from the rocks," Feruzi said, also eyeing the breakage.

"Aye," Chopper said.  He climbed back onto the deck to report his findings.  Plugg nodded distantly.

"Very well, Mr. Chopper, take the ship's cutter and some assistants to the island, there, and search for fresh water and supplies.  The repairs will take a day and a half.  We sail at the next high tide after."

"Gonna have to bring my charge, too."

"Fine, fine.  Step to it, Mr. Chopper."  They launched the ship's cutter and sailed for the island, finding no landing on the western or northern sides, which were sheer cliffs and rocks.  As they rounded the eastern shoals, they found an odd decoration or totem suspended at the edge of the water, a small, twisted skeleton, twined in sinew and seaweed and covered in carvings.

Jan 23, 2013

Skull and Shackles Interlude: Girl Talk

Plugg was nothing if not predictable, Sandara thought to herself as she crept around the bowels of their new ship.  "Puts ever-body he don' like on the nastiest jobs, like it'll matter."  She passed the bilges hatch and stopped in surprise at some loud banging and scraping noises, not usual for even the worst bilges in operation.  The racket abruptly ceased, replaced by some incomprehensible yelling.  Sandara peeked down the ladder and found Feruzi armpit-deep in the pump workings.

"Man alive, I dunno that language, but I know a swear when I hears one," she said, hoping it came across companionably.  She liked the Mwangi woman but didn't have a solid feel for her reactions yet.

"No need for you to be down here, friend, I can handle it.  Though Feruzi would not be averse to a cup of water."

"That, I kin do.  Be right back."  The clanging (and swearing) resumed while Sandara filled a small bucket from the fresh water barrel and grabbed two tin cups.  Feruzi accepted a cup and swallowed deeply.

"Ahh, that is better.  This would not be nearly such a difficult job if they kept the equipment in order," she added with asperity.

"Better than the Wormwood, though, innit?  Not that it'd take much t'be any worse!"

"This is true, though there were more people to share the work on the Wormwood.  Still, it is far more peaceful here.  You are well?  Anticipating trouble with the, ah, sleeping arrangements?""

Sandara shuddered.  "Don't remind me.  I ain't lookin' forward to it."

"Chopper was a bit upset, as if you were a hostage.  At least Rosie is there as well.  She can watch your back."

"Aye, though it might be a big con-spic-yer-ous to set a watch."  Sandara swallowed some water herselff.  "Aye, thass the stuff."

"Better than rum," Feruzi said, putting her cup down and fiddling some more with the pump machinery.  Sandara stared into her cup silently for a while, trying to gather her thoughts.

"Feruzi, we're . . . we're friends now, aye?"

The Mwangi woman glanced up, a bit startled.  "Certainly, for my part."  Sandara found herself fidgeting and set her cup down noisily.

"I mean, yer always straight with people, even if it might hurt their feelins."

"I believe falsehood, even well-intended, does more harm in the long run."  Feruzi waited a moment, then asked encouragingly, "You have something you wish to know?"

"Aye.  Chopper." Sandara announced abruptly.  "I . . . what sort o'man is he?  Since you known him for longer, in all."

She'd expected an immediate and definite response, but Feruzi took some time to consider the matter.  "I am . . . not certain how to answer.  Men where I come from are so different from here that I am not sure how to judge.  If he were of my people, I would say he is a skilled warrior, but as yet too childish to take a wife."  Sandara giggled involuntarily.  "He seems like the sort of man who would dote on his wife and children.  The other warriors would laugh and his wife would be dreadfully spoiled, but he would be happy."

Sandara found herself reflecting, going over her impressions of Chopper.  It was an unusual feeling, but she felt she liked it.  "He does, at that," she agreed.

"If his wife were ambitious or grasping, though, she would likely grow to hate him."

"Is that how it is twixt men an' women with yer people?  More business than pleasure, as it were?"

"The pleasure is there, but it is a . . . byproduct, not the goal."

"Political, I guess.  I follow ye."

"The goal is the prosperity and continuation of the tribe, to live and to raise up children who follow the traditions and live properly.  I am not sure if that is politics."  Feruzi scowled.  "When politics has entered the lives of the people, it has always ended badly."

"I mean, politics is the sort of ambition yer hy-po-thet-ical wife has."

"Some, yes.  Feruzi's sister Ukele sought high status, and Feruzi was nearly killed as a result.  That is how Feruzi met Chopper and became indebted to him."

"Oh, aye?"  This was interesting, Sandara thought.  "Will ye tell me th' tale?"  she waved the mallet she was supposed to be using to kill rats.  "I suppose the rats on the Man's Promise are jist too wily fer me today."

Feruzi smiled slyly.  "Feruzi was sent to retrieve her sister Ukele, who ran away from her husband-to-be.  It was a long, troublesome search, but eventually Feruzi came to Eledar, where she lost the trail entirely.  You know that the Mwangi is troubled by slavers, yes?"

"I heard that, aye.  There was a market in Hell Harbor that was busy day 'n night."

"Feruzi encountered some of these creatures in Eledar, at the very end of their range.  They thought to capture Feruzi, and she killed one of their number.  Their fury with Feruzi was terrible, but the Sargava warriors stopped them from killing Feruzi--they said it was against their law.  So the slavers clamed Feruzi was an escaped slave."

"Typical," Sandara sniffed.  "Nobody has the sense to jist walk away."

"The Sargava chief, the, ah, governor?  She let them chain Feruzi and take her aboard a sailing vessel much like this one.  The Sargava navy, I believe.  Chopper was aboard as a lesser officer of some kind, an ensign?  So he was assigned to bring Feruzi food and water.  And talk.  Oh, so much talk."

"Heh, he does enjoy that.  But it ain't that he's so in love wi' his own voice, izzit?  He likes to, you know, TALK."

"Feruzi was afraid at first he was trying to seduce her, but it turned out he was just curious.  His father is Mwangi, did you know?

Sandara felt her lips forming a surprised O.  "No, I dinna know that."

Feruzi nodded.  "He despizes the slavery and corruption that has risen up where Sargavans and Mwangi meet--perhaps he feels almost that he embodies it in some way."

"That'd follow.  I ain't bin that far south, m'self, mind you."

"When the ship landed at Crown's End, the slavers would have killed Feruzi in the street, but Chopper intervened."

"Intervened how?" Sandara asked, fascinated.

"He declared loudly that slavery was an abomination and that Feruzi must be released at once.  So they fought.  In the end, the ship master made Chopper pay the slavers for Feruzi to settle the matter.  It was almost all of his pay."

"You mean they fought a DUEL?" Sandara asked.  It sounded terribly romantic.

"If four on one is a 'duel'.  It started with Chopper challenging their boss and escalated from there."

"Oh, the poor bastard . . ."

"He always does it," Feruzi said, rolling her eyes.  "He has no concern for his own safety, only doing what he thinks is right.  He said afterward that Feruzi was 'free', but he saved her life, how can she abandon him now?"

"Like at the Formidably Maid," Sandara said with dawning comprehension.  "And like with the Rahadoumi woman."

"Yes, always the same."

Sandara shook her head slightly.  "See, he's not like th' men I'm used ta either.  I mean, take th' other night.  I was sloppy drunk, I was willin', an' he dinna lay a finger on me.  Only decent men and sods do that.  Like I said, men I ain't used ta."

"Are you disappointed?"  Feruzi asked, startling her.

"Nah. Maybe. Confused, more'n anythin' else.  Him an' Ezikial both.  He was th' first t' come t' my defense at the Maid, an' now he hardly talks t' me . . ."

"Ezikial hardly talks to anyone," Feruzi said dryly.

"Aye, I kinda figgered that out, so I try not t' let it bother me.  I'm jist . . .used t' bein' liked, I guess."  As she said it, though, she realized she wasn't sure whether she cared for it or not. 

"Liked?" Feruzi asked.  "Or wanted?  Wanted the way a man wants a hat or a new sword?"

Sandara snapped her fingers.  "Aye, THAT'S what I'm useta.  Jist as well, really.  My heart ain't brought me naught but trouble, the crazy bitch.  Mebbe that's why I'm tryin' to look afore leapin."  She sighed.  "I feel like I feel somethin, here.  I'm jist useta puttin' out those fires."

"Are there not many types of fires?  Some give life on a freezing night.  Some flicker and fade.  Some burst and consume.  The difference lies in what you feed them and how you tend them, no?"

"Aye.  It makes sense when ya put it like that.  I jist know, up here," Sandara tapped her temple, "that Chopper rescued that woman cos it's who he is.  An' the way she's followin him around up there has everythin to do wi tryin not t' get punished fer failin.  But here," she continued, tapping her chest, "I AM SO JEALOUS."

Sandara was a little shocked when Feruzi made a scoffing sound.  "Jealous?" the Mwangin woman said.  "It seems unlikely."

"Oh, well, mebbe thass the wrong word, then?  I'm such a mess . . ." she could feel herself shrinking back, slightly, a little hurt by this dismissal.  Feruzi waved it away and smiled.

"You, my friend, are simply uncertain.  You do not know what you want, so everything is a threat.  You fear Leila may send you hurtling down the wrong path before you have fully chosen it."

Sandara turned this over in her head for a bit.  "Ye think so?"  It might be possible.

"Yes.  Either you will throw yourself at Chopper and maybe regret it, or perhaps you will let him slip away and regret that instead.  Feruzi cannot know Sandara's full heart, but she will say this thing:  not once has Feruzi regretted following Chopper."

"He seems t' need yer wisdom, an' know it better'n he says," Sandara offered.  "Else he'd be dead three times over."

"Someone to watch his back, at least.  Chopper has his own wisdom.  Not always to stay safe, but to go his own way."  Feruzi grinned suddenly, a white flash in the dim hold.  "Still, Feruzi is glad he is not Feruzi's husband.  THAT would be a mess."

"Sometimes ye bicker like a married couple, so I wondered . . ." Sandara said.

"Spirits forfend."

"Aye, an' the Black Queen be praised.  Are ye lookin' out for a husband, though?"

"Feruzi would like a husband some day, certainly."  Another wry look.  "Feruzi's father had difficulties, though.  He did not want her to lose in status, but the best warriors want a wife who will tend their hearth and children, not run off to hunt on her own."

"That surely don't seem like yer style.  So yer sister decided it wasn't her style, neither?"

"Ukele could never be satisfied with a simple warrior's hearth."  Feruzi's expression grew pained.  "Though perhaps it is not ALL her fault.  When you hear nothing but how beautiful you are, how perfect, how desirable day after day, do you not come to believe it?"

"I guess it weren't jist yer Da tellin' her that?"

"Everyone in the village, it seemed," Feruzi said bitterly.  "They adored her.  No one adored Feruzi."  She stopped and blinked, apparently surprised by her own admission.  Sandara felt a sudden flood of warmth for the other woman and reached out to pat her on the wiry, hard-muscled shoulder.  She seemed so utterly self-contained, self-controlled, that it was somewhat of a relief to hear her, well, gripe a bit.

"So ye dinna match yer people's idea of what's beautiful an' perfect.  So what?  It's a big, big sea.  Yer perfect t' somebody out there."

"Feruzi knows," she said, looking a bit sheepish.  "She should not have complained."

"Hey, I'm down here bitchin' too."

"It's a bit hard to imagine who might be perfect for Ezikial, though," Feruzi added.

"Someone who don't talk much an' loves drink, gunpowder, an' blood," Sandara replied instantly.

"You think so? Men don't always want a woman exactly like themselves."

Sandara felt as though her ears perked up, and peered at Feruzi through the gloom, trying to get a hint.  "I mean, a girl in port might be jist his thing, but mebbe it ain't," she ventured.

"Feruzi has seen those port women.  They are vile."  This came out rather harshly.

"Oh, aye, dinna remind me," Sandara said, making a face.

"Ezikial is better than that," Feruzi insisted.

"I was jist jokin . . . hang on . . . are ye defendin' him?  Are ye SWEET on 'im?"  Sandara grinned wildly.  Oh, this was rich.

"What?! No!  Well . . . no!  Not . . ." Feruzi sputtered to an irritated halt.  "He's just so SHORT," she said finally.

"Mmm-HMM.  It's okay, ye kin tell me!  I won't breathe a word!"

"It is . . . he seems like there could be . . . more . . . there.  More to him, I mean."  Feruzi seemed to recover and made another wry face.  "Also, my father would approve of his warrior spirit.  I do not know.  Perhaps it is all in Feruzi's mind."

"Mebbe.  An' mebbe it takes a woman's hand t' bring out th' man he KIN be."

Feruzi made yet another unexpected annoyed face, but she didn't seem really offended.  "Men can't be made men by women.  Although they might make themselves men FOR women."

"Er, thass more what I mean, aye.  Some jist need more help'n others, belike."

Feruzi shook her head.  "Enough, Feruzi must fix this slop somehow.  Be well, Sandara.  Feed your heart well."

"Aye, an' the same t' ye," Sandara said, getting up.  "I think I know what t' do, now."  

Jan 19, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 7: The Promise

The Wormwood crept close and closer to her quarry, which now retaliated with a hail of crossbow and ballista bolts aimed at crew and rigging.  The name of the large and wallowing Rahadoumi merchantman was now visible on the transom: the Man's Promise, she was called, no doubt meant to be optimistic but now somewhat ominous.  There could be no mistaking what Barnabus Harrigan promised for this ship and its crew.

The missile fire became somewhat erratic as a heavy fog condensed out of the air, magically summoned by Peppery Longfarthing as an aid for the coming battle.  The assault team stood waiting at the Wormwood's rail.  Reiko didn't even flinch as a crossbow bolt narrowly missed her, she was preoccupied watching the two ships collide.  It was a purposeful collision, not a shattering crash, bumping the merchantman into alignment with the Wormwood's starboard side while leaving both ships relatively undamaged.  Four grapples flew from the assault team and were made fast. 

Reiko and Chopper easily crossed the gap above the seething, shark-filled water.  Captain Harrigan had seen to that, ordering Reiko and Fishguts to slaughter the ship's stock of pigs and dump the blood and bacon overboard to draw the monsters of the deep.  Anyone so unlucky as to fall overboard would be ripped apart if they tried to swim.  Feruzi followed them more slowly, but one on the other side she drew her bow without hesitation and fired into the fog, hitting someone who screamed.  Reiko moved that direction in the quick, balanced shuffle of an experienced warrior.  Her sword snapped out, removing a man's head in a single motion. 

Chopper grimaced and readied his axe, but his natural inclination made him shy away from fighting except in self-defense.  A sailor was quick to take advantage, and Chopper received a slight wound in fending the man off.  They could hear the sounds of general battle everywhere, now, but see none of it, only the clinging gray fog.

Two sailors charged Feruzi and now Ezikial at the rail.  Feruzi dodged to the side while Ezikial brought one up short with a nasty stab to the abdomen.  Grabbing the hilt of his heavy knife or short sword in both hands, he twisted sideways, slitting the man's belly wide open and leaving him bleeding and dying on the deck.  Feruzi's foot shot out, nailing her attacker in the throat with an ugly crackling sort of noise.  Chopper and Reiko dispatched the remaining two guards on the sterncastle with equal speed, and they had time to pause and look around. 

The magical fog was already lifting.  Harrigan, Plugg, and Scourge raced across the deck to the captain's cabin, a group of sailors and officers from the Man's Promise fighting them the entire way.  One crouched near the stairs, eyeing Harrigan's unprotected back as the Captain laid about him.  He tensed to leap, then an arrow caught him in the shoulder and nearly whirled him around.  A second arrow penetrated his skull and finished the job.  Harrigan glanced up to where Feruzi stood guard on the sterncastle, gave her a second's nod, and went through the door into the cabin with Plugg and Scourge, leaving behind a single confused sailor to be quickly dispatched by Reiko.  The ship shuddered suddenly at the sound of a massive explosion below decks, either powder or alchemist's fire accidentally set off. 

The assault team waited, guarding the sterncastle and the boats, but they didn't have to wait long.  Three Rahadoumi sailors emerged from the battle, headed toward the starboard boat.  Ezikial shot one with his freshly repaired pistol; the man promptly collapsed, dropped his sword and surrendered.  Reiko cut another down with her usual efficiency.  The third seemed inclined to give Chopper some trouble, but seeing his companion nearly cut in half by Reiko's terrible sword, he also yielded and was dragged back toward the center of the ship by a grinning, bloody Cog. 

No one else seemed to have much interest in the aft half of the ship--all the fighting was far forward.  Harrigan emerged from a hatch gripping what appeared to be a human heart in his hands.  Chopper looked around, bored and fretful, then suddenly crouched down near the ship's wheel.

"We're supposed to guard the wheel, right?" he asked.

"The wheel and the boats," Reiko confirmed, mystified.

"Great!"  With a loud clank, the wheel suddenly came loose from its mechanism.  Chopper caught it and heaved it upright.  "Now we can guard it closer to the action."  He began to roll it bumpily down the stairs while Reiko shook her head.  Almost immediately below them, a Rahadoumi officer and two guards came out of the captain's cabin, driving directly for the starboard boat. 

Ezikial shot the officer, grazing the woman's shoulder, but she hardly slowed.  He stumbled backwards in shock as the boarding pike in the officer's hands suddenly extended to twenty feet in length, nearly skewering him.  The guards flanked Reiko and a sword crunched through her armor.  She hissed through her teeth, struggling to fend off her attackers.  An arrow appeared in one man's chest and he slumped; the other flinched back and looked for the archer.  It proved a fatal mistake, as Reiko's sword cleaved through his thigh.  She pulled back, crouching against the stairs as the officer shot past, looking like she was going to dive over the rail and take her chances with the sharks.

Chopper heaved the heavy wooden wheel over his head with both hands and launched it ponderously into the air.  It arced beautifully overhead and came crashing down onto the Rahadoumi officer, knocking her clear off her feet.  "Wheel, nice to meetcha!" Chopper bellowed.  Ezikial burst into maniacal laughter at the sight and ran forward; the officer flailed at him with her pike but he managed to dodge it and finish her off with his blade.

 "I am fine, Ms. Feruzi.  Please make sure that everyone else is, as well," Reiko said suddenly.  Chopper ceased his laughter and went to check on the Tian woman while Ezikial began searching the bodies.  Reiko was bleeding profusely but the wound had not penetrated her lung, so Chopper bandaged her up while Feruzi helped Ezikial in his work.  The sullen look was gone from Ezikial's face; he seemed positively gleeful as he claimed some new swords and tested the blade of the obviously enchanted pike.

"Are you always this bloodthirsty?" Feruzi demanded.  Ezikial grinned at her.  "It is not proper to take pleasure in killing."

"I'm not any sort of 'proper', Feruzi-luv."

"You have your good qualities," she insisted.  He looked a bit startled.

"Perhaps."  A cheer sounded from the aft--apparently the pirates were victorious.  Feruzi took advantage of the distraction to slip into the captain's cabin.  It was a luxurious room by ship standards, with four gilt-framed glass windows letting in light and a finely crafted table and chairs.  The sea chests and bookshelves lining the walls were rifled and empty, but she picked up a few scattered gold.  A trapdoor led to the ship's galley, similarly despoiled, but she located a bottle of fine aged brandy and a sealed vial of alchemist's fire someone had apparently dropped.  Abandoning her search, she returned to the deck and handed Ezikial the brandy.

"You may like this."

He took an exploratory swallow and grinned yet again.  "I b'lieve I will, Feruzi-luv, I b'lieve I will."

The Man's Promise was made fast and the Wormwood's officers began to tally up and distribute the loot, including quite a bit of excellent provender.  Things rapidly degenerated into a rowdy, drunken celebration, with Harrigan overseeing it all and even cheering them on.  A few of the pirates were missing--Tilly Brackett and Rattline were nowhere to be found.  Chopper poured himself a mug of rum and toasted the little halfling.  Sandara grabbed Ezikial, taken by the party spirit.

"Booty, Mister Hands!  We got our hands on BOOTY!  I reckon Harrigan will divvy now instead of waitin' for port, people are too edgy."

"And some very good booty it is," he said.  "Can I get you to check a couple of things for me?"

"Sure, sure, what can I do for ye?"

"One of the officers struck at me with this pike from twenty feet away, but I don't know how it works."

"Lemme see."  Sandara muttered a blessing over the pike and examined the result.  "It's enchanted, surely."  She rubbed her hand over some writing on the haft.  "This is what makes it extend."

"What about this bracelet?" Ezikial asked, handing her a length of fine pearls.

"Oh, I've seen work like that take seventy-five or eighty in gold back in Hell Harbor," she said.  She almost pocketed the pearls, but he managed to reclaim them by offering her the brandy.

"You're a prince among pirates, Mr. Hands," she said, taking a swig."

"I try, Sandara-luv, I try."  He waved at Chopper and passed the brandy over.  "Have one on Hands!"

"What are we drinking to?" Chopper asked.

"Everything!" Sandara shouted.  "Conchobar told me ye took the bleedin' wheel off the Man's Promise!"

"I did, a bit, yeah," he said.  "Might've thrown it at one of the officers, too, I forget." 

"He nailed her right in the head!" Ezikial piped in.  Sandara shrieked and laughed until she had difficulty breathing and had to sit down.

Feruzi did not join in the festivities, instead bringing out her half-finished bow and tools to resume work.  Reiko lounged nearby, scanning the crowd.  She saw Maheem, apparently released from the sweatbox, and met his eyes challengingly.  The big man sauntered over, sneering at the two women and clearly forecasting some kind of fight.  Reiko fingered her sword openly.  Feruzi looked up from her work.

"Feruzi bears you no particular ill-will," the Mwangi woman said.  "If it please the officers that your actions be dismissed, Feruzi will hold the peace.  However."  Her expression suddenly darkened.  "You attacked a man to whom Feruzi owes life-debt.  This, Feruzi cannot overlook.  If you wish for blood, fight Feruzi at any time or place and she will face you gladly.  Touch Chopper again, and she will make you eat your own eyeballs."  Reiko gawked at her for a second before returning her attention to Maheem, who was looking more than a little ill.

"Or, you can just go back to the sweatbox," she said, smiling maliciously.

"Your time will come," he grated, the threat weakened as his voice suddenly cracked and went high.

"No doubt," Feruzi replied.  "The question is, will you live to see it?"

"I could just remind some folks about our delayed keel-hauling.  They seem in the mood for entertainments of such kind, tonight," Reiko added.

"I do not fear you."

"Oh, I very much doubt that," Reiko said.

Feruzi made a dismissive wave.  "You may go." 

"I go because it is my pleasure to go," he sneered, but it seemed his pleasure was also to go rather quickly.

Caulky Tarroon then approached them, passing out small bags of gold--their shares of the booty.  She passed Feruzi an amulet and a short sword as well.  "Compliments of the Captain."  Feruzi blinked, shocked.

"Apparently, he values his skin quite highly," Reiko commented.  Feruzi put on the amulet, but she eyed the short sword a bit distastefully.  Then she got up and crossed to where Ezikial, Chopper, and Sandara were standing.  Chopper was belting out some godawful chanty while Sandara sang along.

"I think this is more your style than mine," Feruzi said, offering Ezikial the sword.  Once again he looked startled. 

"I have more than enough blades today, Feruzi-luv.  Keep it to attend your own safety."

"I have little use for such a blade."

Ezikial fingered the boarding-pike thoughtfully.  "Well . . . I'd not accept it as a gift, but what about as a trade?  The long-spear is not so much to my own taste."

"Very well, then."  They exchanged weapons, and Feruzi squeezed Ezikial's shoulder in passing.

"Aye?" he asked softly.  She gave him a short half-bow and left. 

The partying lasted all night and the entire following day, but finally wound itself down.  The ship's bell rang at dawn, and when the crew was assembled Harrigan had a long line of captured officers and sailors paraded out of the brig.  He addressed the captives, offering them a place on the Wormwood for any who would throw their lot in with pirates.  Some of the sailors accepted, tentatively; Master Scourge cut their bonds and they took their places in the assembled crew.

"All right, you scurvy tars!" Harrigan bellowed, turning to address them.  "You've done a right good job by me, we got a second ship now, and she's quite a prize from the looks of her!  But I still have only the one crew!  The Wormwood will sail on to our planned destination with our new shipmates here, while Mr. Plugg picks a skeleton crew to sail the Man's Promise to Port Peril and sell her as salvage!"  He grinned toothily.  "As for these fine fellows, some of them will be worth a hefty ransom from their families back in Azir.  As for the rest, if the life of a pirate's not for them, the can spend the rest of their lives at sea!"  He seized one of the Rahadoumi sailors, a woman, and hurled her bodily overboard to laughter and cheers from the nastier of the crew.  The poorer of the Rahadoumi, who could expect no ransom, erupted into pleas and were soon sworn in.

Plugg and Scourge took the remaining officers below and Harrigan left for his cabin, leaving the new and old crews eyeing each other.  Feruzi suddenly stepped forward to address them.  "Now you have the measure of  Captain Harrigan.  Feruzi would state that his officers are no better--even worse, perhaps.  However, if you are willing to perform your tasks, Feruzi will extend her hand in friendship to you.  You need only ask the other crew what value you might place upon that."  She might have added something else, but Chopper suddenly jumped over the ship's rail and landed in the water with a splash.  Ezikial looked over the side and spotted the big man swimming strongly toward the sinking Rahadoumi woman.  In a surprisingly short time, Chopper retrieved her, and with Ezikial's help and a handy rope, hauled her back aboard the ship.

"She's not breathing," Chopper muttered, and commenced artificial respiration.

"Would you PLEASE stop looking for novel ways to kill yourself?" Feruzi asked with some asperity.  He glanced up at her between breaths.

"No."  The woman stirred and vomited seawater.  "Therrre we go," Chopper said, pleased, and turned her onto her stomach so she could finish clearing her lungs.  "Care to reconsider joining the crew?"  The woman managed a weak nod between heaves.  "Smart," he said.  "Smarter'n me, even."

"That is NOT HARD," Feruzi snapped.  Chopper looked up to see Sandara, Rosie, and most of their friends among the crew standing nearby as well, and mentally cursed himself.  Rosie nudged Sandara unhelpfully.

"Plenty of fish in the sea, miss."

"MISTER CHOPPER," a harsh, dry voice rang out.  It could only be Mr. Plugg.

"Aye, sir?"

"Secure your duff and report for duty on the Man's Promise.  Miss Feruzi, Mister Hands, Reiko-san, you have ten minutes to join him."

"Aye, sir," Ezikial managed.

Plugg pointed at the Rahadoumi woman.  "That one is your responsibility, now."  He turned to survey the rest of the crew.  "Mister Kroop.  I am pleased to inform you that the Rahadoumi crew contains a cook who is skilled, sober, and much easier on the eye.  She will take over your duties here.  Report to the Promise."  He then named Rosie, Sandara, and his relative favorites among the crew to join them, as well as two of the Rahadoumi converts.  Last to join was Owlbear, unchained from his place on the mid deck and dragged across.

The four made their farewells.  Grok, nearly in tears, passed Ezikial a bottle of expensive whiskey.  "Bin savin' this," she said.  "You take care o' yer friends and yerself, y'hear me?"

"Thank you very much," he said, touched.

"What's your name, anyway?" Chopper asked the woman he'd rescued while he packed up.

"Leila al-Zahra," she said.  "Thank you.  I think."

"Heh, well, you're alive to be uncertain.  Call it a win."

With the new crew aboard, the Man's Promise was cast loose from the Wormwood.  Acting Captain Plugg gathered the crew together.

"The rules on this new ship are the same," Plugg told them shortly, "but I will have far more discipline here than on the Wormwood.  Crimes will be punished with the cat, not the whip.  You keep your same jobs, but you will have to work harder as you are fewer.  There will be no entertainments or rum rations--if I see you above decks after dusk, you get six lashes."  He then pointed to Sandara and Rosie.  "You two will bunk with the officers, all the rest below in the crew quarters.  Owlbear."  The giant looked up from his new post at the mast.  "If anyone tries to enter the officer's quarters, kill them.  Dismissed."

Jan 17, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 6: Boarding School

The crew gathered on the deck for their assignments as usual, and Chopper realized abruptly that he'd now been aboard the Wormwood for two weeks, long enough for the day's activities to seem like habit.  It was certainly a habit for most of the crew to stand slightly away from him, Feruzi, and Ezikial, and for Reiko to stand nearby but not exactly "with" them.  Even Feruzi's cluster of friendly companions, now including not just Rosie, but Samms Toppin, Jack Scrimshaw, and Giffer Tibbs stayed well away, not wanting to risk the obvious ire of Mr. Plugg or Mr. Scourge.

The wisdom of their approach became obvious as Plugg gathered the four of them in by eye and gave a very faint purse-lipped smile.  "I have special work for you today," he said.  "Boarding School."

"Cute," Chopper said, acknowledging the pun with the universal faint grimace.  Ezikial grimaced as well, not so faintly.

Plugg gestured to another of the officers who had approached.  "Ms. Krine will be in charge of your special training today."  The Master Gunner's skin was dark from long days in the sun, and her nose was misshapen from more than one break.  Her left leg was short at the knee, the difference made up by a fairly well-made wooden peg.

"In the event that we ever find a ship t'take," she snapped, "I want ye scurvy lubbers t'know how t'board 'er."  She flicked her fingers rapidly at Reiko and Chopper.  "You two, in t'longboat.  Rest at t'rail.  Hop it!"

"Great, Feruzi is left with the weird kid," she remarked, giving Ezikial a sly look.  Hands was so reticent she hadn't yet formed much of an impression of his personality, though he gave good account of himself otherwise.  He made yet another grimace which might have been amused.  Or constipated.  Feruzi decided to consider it amusement for now.  "Clearly we should conspire to show them up," she continued in a low voice.

"Not worth it," Ezikial grunted.

Feruzi snorted slightly at this rebuff.  "It would be marginally more entertaining than waiting here," she said.  It was taking some time for Reiko and Chopper to row to what Krine apparently thought was an appropriate distance and angle from the side of the ship, and the Gunner was urging them on with oaths foul and inventive, but not especially helpful.  Eventually, though, she seemed satisfied and they dropped the anchor.  Krine then brought forth a heavy coil of rope and grappling hooks.  Cog and Shivikah, a tall Mwangi woman who bore only a very passing resemblance to Feruzi, came to the rail with a barrel full of miscellaneous ship's trash--broken bottles, food too rotten to eat, bits of splintered wood.

"Right, lubbers," Krine told Chopper and Reiko, her voice carrying to the four at the rail.  "Grapple that ship, tie off yer ropes, and climb on up while that lot tries to knock you into the drink!"

"Sounds like fun," Reiko said dryly, eyeing Cog as he tossed a wormy apple from hand to hand.  She took hold of a rope and braced her feet up under the gunwhales, imitating Chopper, who seemed experienced at this sort of thing.  After a couple of experimental swings, she whirled the hook over her head and let fly, arcing it well over the rail of the Wormwood.  It landed on the deck with a solid-sounding thunk, and lodged quite firmly when she hauled on the rope.

"Good throw," Chopper told her, and released his own grapple, it also wedged somewhere and seemed firmly planted.

"Beginner's luck," Krine told them, and kicked Chopper lightly in the calf.  "Get going!"

"I really should have put my armor on for this," Reiko said, eyeing the projectiles aimed her direction.  She sighed and began climbing, hoping her weight on the line wouldn't tip the longboat over.  Fortunately, Krine leaned hard against the other side, and the boat itself seemed well-ballasted for this kind of maneuver.

"That seems backward," Chopper said, working his way onto the rope beside her.  "Armor'd slow you down.  Climb swiftly and we can toss them into the water when we get there."

"It may seem awkward," Reiko grunted, working her way upward, "but if we're attacking a ship, I'd have my armor on."  She grunted again as Shivikah nailed her in the side with a moldy cabbage, but Reiko managed to hang on, and with dogged determination she and Chopper reached the rail and clambered over.

"TRADE PLACES!!" Riaris Krine bellowed, hauling up the anchor so they could pull the longboat back in beside the ship.  Once Feruzi and Ezikial were aboard Krine loosed the grapples and ordered them to row out to the same distance as before.  Feruzi had never rowed facing backward before and had difficulty synching in with Ezikial--they went around in a circle a few times before Krine's red-faced screams straightened them out.

"I suppose I'll play by the rules and not cut the rope . . . like I would," Reiko said, watching this.  Chopper grinned.

"I have my own idea," he said.  When Feruzi and Ezikial managed to get the grapples solidly planted and tied off, he surreptitiously took hold of Feruzi's rope and waited for her to climb.  Reiko, Shivikah, and Cog all tossed garbage as before, but when Feruzi was nearly halfway up Chopper suddenly heaved hard on the rope, nearly dislodging the grapple and causing the entire arrangement to shake violently.  Feruzi yelled something about the hairy brother of a dog.  With one more heave, the grapple completely gave way, dumping her into the drink about halfway between the Wormwood and the boat.

"HA!" Chopper crowed, waving triumphantly at his furious friend, who paused in the water to make an obscene gesture.  "Fancy a swim, Ruse!  Pirate!!"  Reiko snickered, hiding her wide grin behind her hand, and they both looked over at Ezikial's remaining grapple.  Cog and Shivi were now laughing so hard they had stopped throwing, so Hands was nearly at the top.

"The next one should be easier, wouldn't you say, Chopper?" she asked humorously.  They both grabbed the rope and hauled.  Ezikial joined Feruzi in the water, cursing.

"What's that?" Chopper yelled as the pirates dissolved again into laughter.  "I couldn't hear you over the splash!"  Ezikial swam back toward the boat, but Feruzi seemed to have disappeared.

"Let 'im climb this time!" Riaris bellowed at them as Ezikial hurled the grapple back onto the deck.  The Gunner was obviously amused, though.

"Pirate!" Chopper insisted, but they resumed throwing trash.  A bottle hit Ezikial in the shoulder and he slipped off again. "Should trade your Hands for fins!" Chopper yelled.  Krine was having difficulty giving orders through tears of laughter.

"One more time, ya bloody great bastard!" she said.  Ezikial wasn't sure whether she meant Chopper or himself.  She suddenly blinked.

"You!  Feruzi!  Get back in the fuggin' boat! NOW!"  Feruzi had climbed up the side of the Wormwood and was just under Chopper's feet.  He looked down and grinned.

"Oh, hey, Ruse."  Ezikial took advantage of the distraction to haul himself rapidly up the rope.  Feruzi did not seem too amused; she reached up, grabbed Chopper's shirt, and heaved him over the ship's side into the water.  Work on the ship came to a halt as the entire pirate crew burst into fresh laughter.

"Feruzi does not need . . . ropes," she informed Chopper as they swam back to the ship. 

"Yeah, ropes are for babies!" he agreed.

"You're still a hairy brother of a dog, though."

"Da' loved that dog," he chuckled.  Ezikial managed to reach the deck amid the cheers of the crew, who pitched in to help raise and stow the longboat.

"That's the most fun I've had doin' that in years," Krine remarked.  Chopper gave her a lazy salute.  Reiko cuffed Cog on the shoulder in a companionable fashion, and he grinned, earlier hurts seemingly forgotten.  Then the merriment suddenly ebbed away.  Plugg and Scourge glared down at them from the poop deck, summoned by the commotion like demons from hell.

"Six bashes with the rope, Miss Feruzi, for failing to complete the exercise," Plugg ground out.  Feruzi eyed him but said nothing.  Chopper scowled, knowing how the Mwangi woman could be frighteningly unpredictable at times.  "Get back to work."

"So worth it," Feruzi commented under her breath.  When the Bloody Hour arrived, she was undismayed, and took the bruising strikes with barely a grunt of acknowledgement.  Scourge's usual relish quickly dissolved and he looked disgusted at the last strike and went to undo the ropes.

"A little higher, Feruzi's shoulder is sore!" the Mwangi woman said, very loudly and clearly.  A titter ran through the gathered crew, an odd sound combining amusement and alarm.  Scourge's face turned purple, and he hauled out his cat o' nine tails and gave Feruzi a nasty cut across the back.  She sucked air but did not otherwise react.

"Enough,"  Harrigan growled suddenly.  "Bloody Hour's over.  Let's eat."  Scourge nodded to the Captain and stormed off, leaving Chopper and Ezikial to let Feruzi loose. 

"It is your turn to chide Feruzi if you want," she told Chopper.

"Servants of comedy are made to suffer, Ruse," he said, patting her shoulder.  He examined the cuts on her back.  "Besides, I'm not great at lectures."

"Neither making them nor heeding them," Feruzi agreed.


Reiko clucked to Grok and Fishguts over Scourge's departure.  "Poor baby."  They both grinned and winked.  With the Bosun away, the crew seemed more relaxed and willing to talk.  Cog even proclaimed that Reiko was All Right as he accepted his dinner.

Chopper finished working on Feruzi's back and surveyed the group on deck, realizing that Sandara was nowhere to be seen.  Taking food from Reiko, he sought her out and found her below, already in her hammock.  "Ahoy there," she muttered, clearly a bit distressed.  "How'd it go today?"

"Er, well," he temporized.  "Feelin' all right?"

"Touch o' fever.  Nothin' a decent night's sleep shouldn't mend."

Chopper felt the redhead's forehead and cheeks gently.  "Aye, rest should do you well.  Need anything?"

"Nah, m'fine.  Thanks, though."  She hesitated as he started to withdraw. "Well, unless you know any songs I ain't heard?"

"Know?  Sure.  Can perform?  Less so."

She laughed a bit, then launched into a fit of coughing.  "And here I thought you was brave."

Chopper's eyebrows rose.  "Challenge Accepted," he said, seating himself on a barrel and clearing his throat.  He didn't get to demonstrate his skill or lack thereof, though, because Sandara was already asleep.  He watched her fondly for a while, then went off to seek his own hammock.

The next two days were unmemorable, perhaps intentionally so because Chopper could feel the tension in the crew.  Plugg and Scourge were unusually withdrawn, issuing no punishments and hardly speaking to anyone, although they watched everything, hanging over the edge of the poop deck like vultures awaiting a death.  Then Plugg began assigning Ezikial, Feruzi, and Chopper exclusively to jobs that would keep them far apart, the nastiest duties on the ship.  On the fifth day, their seventeenth aboard, Chopper found himself assigned to the bilges, usually a solitary chore.  However, when he arrived below, he discovered Fipps Chumlett, the nastiest bully among the crew, and Maheem, a massive Rahadoumi rigger with a permanent scowl, were already there.  They glanced at him and away, making a show of working.  All the hair on the back of Chopper's neck promptly stood on end, apparently wanting to escape while it could.  Chopper wished he could do the same, but he forced himself to enter the cramped hold and begin pumping.  Fipps and Maheem both were wearing daggers at their belts, he realized.  He felt his own new axe with one hand, waiting.

"Lookithat, Maheem; he's slackin'," Fipps suddenly drawled.  Chopper exhaled, slightly relieved--the bully was too stupid not to announce his attentions.

"So it's like that," Chopper said, turning to face them.

"Seems so," Maheem growled.  Both drew their knives.  Chopper kicked filthy bilgewater into their faces and shouted.

"PIRATE!!!  Come get some!"  He yanked the axe out of his shirt, but missed Fipps as the big man closed with surprising speed, the knife slicing along Chopper's arm.  Maheem circled around; Chopper dodged away, but felt the knife do some damage somewhere on his thigh.  He scooted for the ladder, but someone had shut the hatch and he couldn't open it and defend himself.  Maheem got in another cut while Chopper was distracted.  Losing blood rapidly now, Chopper dodged Fipps and managed to push the bully against the ladder.  Fipps stumbled and Chopper lived up to his name, burying the axe in the man's skull.  He twitched mightily and hurtled into the water, dead.

"You're next, sunshine," Chopper grated at Maheem, who seemed undeterred.  The massive Rahadoumi slapped Chopper's wavering axe hand aside and buried the knife in his guts.

"Oh . . . fuck," Chopper wheezed, collapsing.

Reiko looked up from scrubbing when Grok poked her head into the galley.  "Did you hear something below?" the quartermaster asked, looking baffled.  "Like someone callin' out, in the bilges?"  Reiko realized that Chopper was below, in the bilges, and cursed, dropping everything and sprinting for the hatch.

Suddenly there was a thunderous boom from below, and an enraged howl.  "NEVER TOUCH MY MATES, FOOL!"  Ezikial had heard the disturbance.  When he arrived at the bilges hatch, he discovered someone had blocked it with a heavy barrel--a very heavy barrel, that felt like it was full of lead bricks when he levered it aside, nearly rupturing himself.  Yanking his pistol from his belt, he'd aimed it right at Maheem's face and discharged it.  The effect was quite dramatic and served to interrupt the cutting of Chopper's throat, but no blood blossomed on the Rahadoumi's body or face.  Ezikial had missed.  Not just missed, he discovered as he scrabbled at the hammer, but the gun had actually misfired and was now smoking and useless.  He staggered backward up the ladder as Maheem grinned.  Then a sword came into view over his shoulder and Reiko screamed in his ear.

"MURDERER!!!" she assumed a conversational tone and continued.  "Put up your gun, Ezikial."  Then screaming again, "DROP YOUR KNIFE, YOU MURDERER!!!"  Ezikial hauled out his own short sword.

"Back away, or die," he added.  Maheem did not back away, and Ezikial caught him solidly in the shoulder, giving Reiko the opening she needed to land a numbing blow on the knife itself.  It flew from Maheem's hand and disappeared into the darkness of the bilges.  They could hear a sound like faint thunder, now, and quite a lot of shouting.  People were coming.  Reiko clubbed Maheem on top of his head, driving him down into the water besides Fipps's corpse.  She then fished the unconscious and bleeding Chopper out of the water with Ezikial's help just as Feruzi arrived, seemingly the entire crew behind her.

"What is happening?" the Mwangi woman demanded.  She spotted Chopper and her expression suddenly became terrible.  Reiko quickly sheathed her sword.  The crew looked shocked.  Sandara launched herself bodily through the press, waving her hands and yelling the words of a prayer, more a demand.  Spurred, everyone began yelling at once, and soon the lower deck was in chaos: Reiko, Ezikial, Sandara, and Feruzi trying to force their way up the ladder with Chopper in tow; Chopper woozily regaining consciousness after Sandara's healing spell; the officers trying to get into the bilges to see what was happening; and the crew generally interfering and making nuisances of themselves.  It was all too much for such tight quarters and eventually they all erupted onto the top deck, where Plugg forced himself to the fore.

"What in the HELLS is going on?!"  There was instant silence.

"Bilge party?" Chopper said, always ready with a quip even when woozy from stabbing.  Reiko nudged him.  "If anyone asks, Mr. Maheem murdered Mr. Chumlett, then turned on you," she whispered into his ear. Chopper blinked a few times, then nodded.

"Mister Hands!" Plugg snarled.  "Why did you discharge your weapon?"

"Aye, sir,"  Hands said, getting a peculiar look from Plugg.  "Because, sir, Maheem was going to kill Chopper."  Scourge approached and looked around, muttering as if he was counting.  Plugg waited for Hands to say more, but Ezikial seemed finished.

"Mr. Plugg," Reiko cut in, realizing Ezikial was out of his depth, "Our apologies, but Mr. Hands was attempting to startle Mr. Maheem into dropping his knife."

"Is that so, Mr. Chopper?"

"Aye, Maheem was tryin' ta gut me," Chopper muttered.

"I see.  Did he give a reason why?"  The three of them gaped at the question, it was so bizarre.  Chopper wasn't even sure how to formulate an answer.  It was obvious from Plugg's expression that he knew exactly what was going on.

"He just said I was slackin'," Chopper managed finally, sounding even lamer now than it had below.

"I don't see Chumlett, Mr. Plugg," Scourge said.  Plugg frowned.

"Not an easy man to miss, is he.  Where is Mr. Chumlett, Mr. Chopper?"

"You might look down in the bilges," Reiko suggested.  Plugg waved to Scourge, who vanished down the ladder.  After a few moments, he called up.

"He's down here, Mr. Plugg!  He's dead!  Murdered!"  Scourge climbed back on the deck.

"The only person conscious when Mr. Hands and I arrived was Mr. Maheem," Reiko said quickly.

"So?" Scourge demanded before Plugg could say anything.

"Well, Mr. Scourge, that would mean that Mr. Maheem is the one guilty of murder, here.  I believe that one of the ship rules was keelhauling for murder?"

"Mr. Maheem attacked Mr. Chopper AND Mr. Chumlett?" Plugg demanded, incredulous.
"I don't know what Maheem did once I was out, sir," Chopper offered.

"Maybe Mr. Maheem went a little crazy from the bilge air?" Reiko suggested.  "A rule is a rule.  Surely, Mr. Plugg, we can't let this go."

"Feruzi is willing to let it go," the Mwangi woman commented.

Plugg looked around him, taking a silent measure of the crew.  Maheem was still unconscious and in no position to help.  Chumlett was dead.  Almost all of those gathered around were wearing singularly blank expressions, and avoided his eyes.  He gritted his teeth. "Then let the rules be carried out," he spat.  "Master Scourge, put Mr. Maheem in the sweatbox.  We'll keelhaul him tomorrow."

The show over, the crew finally dispersed.  Feruzi tugged on Ezikial's sleeve as he passed.  "Thank you," she said, giving him a shy little smile, unusual for her.  She had to assume that his return grimace was a sort of grin.

The next few day, the mood aboard ship was extremely subdued--there was no roughhousing, no friendly chatter, people did their work in silence and avoided each other at dinner.  Clearly no one was looking forward to the keelhauling that evening, whatever their personal reasons.  It was somewhat of a relief when the call came from the lookout.

"Ship Ahoy!"  Harrigan ordered the Wormwood after her prey.  Gradually, hour after hour, she gained on the other ship, a merchantman by the looks of her, until by dawn less than half a mile separated them.  Riaris collared Chopper and the others during the preparations.

“The ship’s wheel is at aft deck, jus' below sterncastle. Yer to grapple over, kill the guards on sterncastle, take the wheel, and guard t'boats. Kill any what tries to get away, but don’ move from t'wheel 'til t'fighting’s done, or you’ll have ta answer ta me. Oh yeah, an' as we get close, it'll get foggy. Just stick to what I told ya, and don' mind anything else."  She looked at Chopper.  "Yer in charge o' the boardin' party.  Do me proud."

Jan 5, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 5: Through the Stomach

The bizarre lobster-eel creatures launched themselves through the water, claws extended.  Feruzi pushed herself off the stony reef to get away and promptly went under, while the other tangled itself in Sandara's long hair, fouling her with slime.  Chopper pulled an axe from his belt and awkwardly hacked at chitin, but the force of the blow was largely blunted by the seawater.  Ezikial had more luck stabbing the other with a dagger; a dark, inky-looking substance that might be blood began to leak into the water.  With surprising flexibility, the creature reversed itself and latched on, the oversized claws removing chunks of Ezikial's flesh.

Feruzi landed a hard jab on the other creature's softer portions, but it clutched her arm, biting and snapping.  Now that it was anchored, Chopper was able to open a wide split in its back, but it still didn't let go.  Feruzi ducked as Reiko's sword whistled past, narrowly missing her and the beast.  Ezikial managed to get his blade in between the claws and mandibles, wrecking the eyes and brain.  It should have died, but instead went into violent spasms, nearly taking out one of his eyes and scoring a deep cut along Sandara's arm as she tried to get clear.  A few moments later, Feruzi managed to get at something vital on the other and it, too went berzerk, leaving her with a few more injuries, fortunately none of them serious.  She waved Chopper away impatiently. when he attempted triage.

"Feruzi is fine."

"What were those things?" he demanded.

"Ugly," was her deadpan response.  Chopper rolled his eyes and went to check on Sandara, but the Besmaran cleric waved him away as well.

"Well, we should add them to our take, anyway," he said, thwarted in his attempts at chivalry.

"That should bring an interesting expression to Plugg's face," Feruzi said.

They finished filling the final crab pot just in case, keeping an eye out for sharks or anything else that might be attracted by the blood.  The full pots and lobster monsters were heavy, but working together they returned to the Wormwood without further incident.  Plugg's expression was, indeed, peculiar--he was pleased but trying not to show it, sending Caulky Tarroon to fetch the Captain.  Harrigan himself appeared, examined their catch, and then his scarred face split in a wide grin.

"Reefclaw!  This is e'en better than I thought."  He looked at Ezikial.  "You an' yours brought these in, aye?"

Ezikial blinked at being so addressed.  "Aye, sir."  Harrigan clapped him on the shoulder and handed him a small vial full of reddish liquid.

"Good work, mate.  Here, fer yer troubles.  Mr. Plugg!  Give these swabs the rest of the day off!"

Plugg hastily concealed an affronted glare.  "Captain?" he asked, but Harrigan was already headed back to his cabin.

Sandara sidled up to Ezikial.  "What did he give you?"

"Not sure.  I'll look at it below if you want."  Reiko went back to the galley, but the others returned to their bunks, trying as best they could to dry out.  Ezikial showed the vial to Sandara, who sniffed the liquid curiously, then grinned.

"This be a healing potion, about as good as any blessing I can call from the Pirate Queen.  Congratulations."

"That . . . that's quite impressive."

"Aye, but I'll bet the Captain's favor runs out long before Plugg's anger."

"Aye," Ezikial agreed, accepting the vial back and secreting it in a handy pocket.  Sandara lay down and was soon fast asleep, and was rather woozy when Chopper woke her to share the reefclaw Reiko brought down from the kitchen.  The flesh was astonishingly tasty and made a fine meal. 

The officers and most of the crew seemed in an unusually good mood.  Feruzi overheard Grok talking to Fishguts about Peppery Longfarthing, the ship's Sailing Master and resident sorcerer.  Grok had some ribald opinions about Longfarthing's exact relationship with the Captain, and was expressing them at some length.  Fishguts shook his head, disagreeing.  "Watcha want, Feruzi?" he asked, clearly looking for a diversion.

"Feruzi is somewhat curious, because Feruzi has a sister who is also a sorcerer."

"Oh, izzat right?  Mebbe I kin tell 'er to come talk t' ye when she's gotta minute."

"That would be much appreciated.  Feruzi's sister has gone missing, so she is, of course, anxious to learn more."

"Ye don't say.  Nothin' bad, I hope?"

Feruzi's expression shifted ambivalently.  "It could be, yes."  She wavered a bit more.  "Perhaps not bad for anyone on this ship, but Ukele is . . . not lacking in malice."

"Aye, I know th' type.  It's the not knowin' that'll eatcha up in side."

Feruzi made a sign with one hand, a Mwangi ward against unfriendly listeners.  "I know little of her arts, not even how to protect myself."

"Magic jist makes my poor head spin.  Or is it the rum?  Nah, it be the magic."

"Ukele has talents beyond magic for getting her way."

"Were ye lookin' for her, then?  Port Peril sure be a long way from home fer ye."

She grimaced.  "Feruzi was in Port Peril on account of Giacomo.  Although she should be looking for Ukele.  If it were not for this life-debt."


"Giacomo.  Chopper."  She shrugged.  "Feruzi lost the trail anyway, so there is little she can do."

"Ah. Oh."  Fishguts said, blinking a bit.  He shifted his ample stomach and continued expansively, "Well, I wouldn't lose heart, lass. The Fever Sea's vast an' deep, but it kin sometimes be a very small place."

"Knowing Ukele, far, far too small," Feruzi said, looking sour.  "The entire world might be too small."

Sandara sidled up to Chopper after they'd finished eating.  "Well hello, sailor."

He smiled.  "Ma'am."

"Get a lady a drink?  Or me, in the absence of any 'ladies'?"

"If you like, although I do recommend against it," he said, signaling Grok and her ever-ready bucket.  Sandara downed the strong grog without much noticing.

"I'd say you an' yours have more'n made up for lettin' me down at the Formidably Maid," she remarked in a teasing tone.

"Heh, well, I'm glad to hear that.  I'd half-intended to join a pirate crew anyway.  For . . . reasons . . ." he trailed off.

"Oh, yeah?  The usual reasons, or somethin' else?"

"Somethin' else, assuredly," he said quickly.

"Hey, mysterious.  That works for me," she said, poking him playfully in the side.

"Half-mad, you are."

"The better half."

"Seems so.  A little madness keeps life . . . interesting."  Sandara continued to press for more information, but it became less subtle as her mug emptied and Chopper easily diverted her into inconsequential chatter.

Reiko looked up to see Ezikial fidgeting nearby.  He spoke in Tian, awkwardly.  "Will you now tell your story?"

She replied in the Taldane usually spoken aboard the ship. "Mr. Hands, you may speak in the common tongue if it is easier for you.  My story begins about twenty years ago, if you truly desire to hear it."  He gave a vaguely affirmative grunt.  "If it is only my reason for being here that you are interested in, then perhaps that is what you should inquire about."  Reiko waited, but he didn't seem about to say more, so she continued.  "The short and the long, though, is that I am searching for my brother, whom I have not seen for nearly six years, when he first left the islands."

"Then why did you join this crew?" he asked, still in Tian.

"Mr. Hands, please, really, you must speak in Taldane. I would prefer it, actually.  It is generally not wise to speak uncommon languages aboard pirate vessels on which you have no authority."  She waited, but he didn't respond.  "As for the why and how, Mr. Hands, I joined this crew of my own accord after speaking with Mr. Scourge on the docks of Port PEril, who supposedly had information on my brother.  Keeping my effects was one of the few conditions I had before agreeing to join this crew."

Ezikial finally gave up and reverted to Taldane, although it didn't seem to help much.  "Has he given you any information, then?"

"Surely not.  If he were to give me information, he would have no reason to keep me on this ship any longer, and Mr. Scourge has no intention of keeping his promise to let me go when I want.  He does, in fact, have the information, though.  It is quite probable that the information he has is only second or third-hand, but it was a lead and I'd been in Port Peril far too long.  Much like the ocean that moves and swirls, Mr. Hands, I must also keep moving.  No one wants water that has been stagnant too long."

"Then you're not here because you really want to be here?"

"This is only one step on my journey, Mr. Hands."  She looked out over the water.  "Somewhere on this sea, my brother is living his life.  I just want to know that he is safe and has not lost his way or his mission."  She waited some more, but he appeared largely baffled by the exchange.  "Have I answered al your questions, or would you like to know more?  I really can tell you my story, but you may not get any sleep tonight."

"One last one . . . are you always 'standoffish' like this, or is it me?"

"I wouldn't particularly say that I'm standoffish.  I've not had any friends or others to specifically rely on since I left home three years ago.  I've had to depend only on myself.  I am actually quite congenial, but I don't generally go around spouting off my circumstances to complete strangers.  If someone asks, I'll share, because it is not a secret."

"Understandable."  Ezikial cleared his throat, finding this conversation extremely taxing.

"So, if by standoffish, you mean 'keep to yourself', then yes, it's me.  I try to keep my nose clean and get along with everyone.  People that don't like you won't give you the information you're looking for, especially if you are rude to them.  Mr. Hands, if I may be permitted the suggestion, perhaps you should get some more grog.  It might help clear that frog out of your throat."

Ezikial nodded and stepped away, not sure whether he'd gained anything or not.  He found a corner to drink his grog ration and watch Feruzi talking with Rosie, Jack, and another woman he thought was named Samms.  For someone so apparently unfriendly, the Mwangi woman managed to gather quite a crowd.

The next day started pleasantly enough, bright and sunny, but before midmorning the sun was no longer pleasant and by the time noon crept around it was downright excruciating.  Feruzi found herself assigned to the bilges, always disgusting but now plain hellish in the heat.  When she crept back out to receive her dinner, she discovered a woman in a red suit, wide-brimmed black hat, and carrying a long staff approaching.  Feruzi nodded politely.

"Mr. Kroop tells me that we have you and your friends to thank for last night's repast.  I salute you."

"It was luck, mostly, although the reefclaws did put up quite a fight," Feruzi replied.  "Feruzi wished to speak with you because Feruzi's sister is also a sorcerer, and wandering somewhere in this vicinity."

Longfarthing's eyebrow shot up.  "Really?  Do you know her bloodline, Miss . . ." her voice rose on a questioning note.  Feruzi looked briefly baffled, then remembered some of Chopper's quirks and pointed to herself.

"I am Feruzi.  Ukele is my sister the sorcerer.  She . . . I fear that I do not know what a 'bloodline' is."

"That's all right, it isn't so important.  What did you want to know?"

"Three things.  One, if Ms. Longfarthing has any knowledge of ways to track sorcerers.  Two, if she . . . you, that is, pardon me, if you know anything about protecting against malicious sorcery, and third, where Fer . . . I might search for someone who is after sorcerous power."  Longfarthing frowned, considering, and Feruzi added, "Wherever wealth and power is to be had, that is where Ukele will be.  Likely with a deathgrip upon it."

"A diviner might be able to track your missing sister.  My own magic is too . . . elemental for that application.  There are wards that can protect against magic.  I had an amulet that kept diviners from finding my location, once.  Lost it in a card game about three years ago."

"It is good to know such things exist," Feruzi offered.

"Depending on your sister's talents, there are many who might seek to recruit her.  Every Free Captain wants a spellcaster on her ship, even the ones that ARE spellcasters."

Feruzi nodded.  "Feruzi thanks you for this information.  One last thing . . . is there any possibility that Feruzi might learn these sorcerous arts?"

Longfarthing shrugged.  "Sorcery runs in the blood, so it is not learned so much as born.  But anything is possible."

Feruzi bowed.  "Your generosity is extreme.  Should you require, Feruzi stands ready to render assistance."

Longfarthing nodded.  "I shall remember that."  Feruzi sighed and relief and wiped the sweat from her forehead.  She walked over to where Chopper was talking to the ship's other halfling, named Rattline.  It sounded like Chopper was encouraging the tiny man to pursue Rosie, but Rattline was having none of it.

"Woman like that can do better'n a rat like me," he insisted.  "Not that I ain't thought about it, though."

"If you say so," Chopper replied.  "It just seemed, well, you're a storyteller, she's a musician.  Might be a chance there."  Ezikial tapped his shoulder abruptly.

"Hmm?"  Mr. Hands pointed pointed with his chin across the deck, to where Reiko was addressing the two deck officers.

"Mr. Plugg, Mr. Scourge, might I have a word with the two of you?"

"Oh, no," Chopper mouthed silently.

"Regarding?" Plugg asked coolly.

"Regarding something Mr. Scourge told me before I boarded this ship."

Plugg actually looked amused.  "Oh, really?"

"Yes.  I would prefer, however, to speak with just the two of you," Reiko said, glancing meaningfully at their usual crowd of hangers-on.  Plugg waved them away.

"Very well.  What is this about?"

Reiko looked Scourge up and down, seemingly in no hurry.  "Mr. Scourge, you really should relax a bit.  Would you like me to call Ms. Grok and have her bring some more rum for you?"  Scourge began to spit out something uncouth, but Plugg glared at him and he accepted the grog with poor grace.  Reiko smiled disarmingly.  "Mr. Plugg, prior to accepting my agreement to join the Wormwood's crew, Mr. Scourge described a certain person to me, as if he'd met the person himself.  I, of course, made the assumption that I would be able to find out more information when I joined the crew.  I do know, full well, that Mr. Scourge has no intention of keeping his end of this bargain.  The point is, even if he didn't have first-hand information, he got it from somewhere.  So I figured the best person to ask would be you, Mr. Plugg."

It took Plugg a few moments to decipher this, while he looked at Reiko somewhat askance.  "Which person is that, Reiko-san?"

"My brother, Nakayama Tatsumi.  I want to know how Mr. Scourge knows of my brother, even if it is only to give me the person who gave him the information."

Plugg turned to look at the Boatswain, who wiped his mouth irritably.

"Yeah, I seen him."