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May 30, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 19: The Honeymoon

If Tidewater Keep was so crowded with all these new guests, McCleagh grumbled to himself, why couldn't he find any of them?  It was early morning, a time when most pirates were snoring in their bunks, but from the looks of things nearly all of them had risen early, belted on their weapons, and wandered off.  At least their Captain was still in Lady Smythee's rooms, a fact that did little to brighten McCleagh's mood.  He suppressed bitter thoughts with the efficiency of long practice.  Lady Smythee looked favorably on the arrangement, and that was all that should concern him.  Well, perhaps not all.

"I'm concerned about the safety of the castle's inhabitants while they're about their duties," he told Chopper when the man finally emerged in search of some breakfast.

"Seems you should be, aye.  Are ye thinkin' there's a nest o' the fish men hereabouts?"
"I'm not sure. They could be coming to attack from miles away."  McCleagh sighed.  He hated to ask, but there was no doubt the pirates were competent.  "Could you . . . keep an eye on the people?"

Chopper nodded without hesitation.  "Course we can.  Can send the Devil's Pallor out to patrol, as well."

"Not at all, Sergeant. Your people are my people now. I aim to protect my people."  With that in mind, Chopper grabbed some hard bread and cheese to munch on and set off to locate his people.  Feruzi was the easiest to locate, perched on a rock where she could shoot at sea birds and occasionally, by accident, at Rotgut the parrot, who seemed to be making a game of interfering with her aim.  She locked her gaze on a puffin, arrow leading it as it dove toward the water, and then there was a startlingly loud boom.  The bird exploded into a cloud of feathers and Ezikial, hunched behind a rock further down the shore, blew the smoke away from his pistol with a satisfied expression.
"I do not think we can eat it, now," Feruzi commented.

"Might be, it's time to taunt some bleedin' fishheads," Chopper told her.

"You know where the sahuagin are?"

"No, but they'll be back.  Up to us to keep watch."

"Fair enough.  Not much worth hunting on this island, anyway."

Nightfall found Feruzi and Ezikial keeping watch among the ballistae on the keep roof.  It was an excellent vantage to see the mob of sahuagin that burst from the cove and charged the door, open to admit the goatherd and other groundsmen.  Ezikial fired his pistol at them, striking one and causing it to stumble.  The weapon's report was echoed a moment later by Reiko's enraged shriek as she barreled into the sahuagin, following them over the stunned civilians and through the doors.

Feruzi cursed.  It would take far too long to navigate the purposefully narrow stairs and ladders to reach the ground floor, so she simply jumped off the roof, bounding down the stone face for a distance and then collapsing into a heap on the gravelly beach to absorb the force of the fall.  Even so, she felt her bones creak from the impact and knew she'd done herself some damage.

"Are you all right over there?" Reiko asked.

"Fine," Feruzi insisted.

"Right, then."

Ezikial eyed the ground, but he was in no way prepared to mimic Feruzi's stunt.  He grabbed a rope and slung it over the side, burning his hands on the way down.  The Tidewater guards held the sahuagin at the ground floor ladder while the three pirates assaulted them from behind.  Finding themselves surrounded, they turned, jabbing with ferocious tridents.  One caught Reiko in the gut as she charged but she ignored the serious wound and cut it and one of its fellows to pieces.  Feruzi's arrows struck the one Ezikial shot earlier, finishing it off, while Ezikial waded in with his shortsword.

Chopper appeared at the top of the ladder, nothing on his person but his boots, axe, and the deep platinum necklace he now wore everywhere.  One of the sahuagin shrieked in rage at the sight before it, too, was cut down, ending the melee.

"So," Chopper asked casually, "Everything is under control down here?"  The surviving Tidewater guard coughed and averted his eyes.

"Captain," Reiko said in a voice that could only be described as strangled, "put on some pants."

"What?  Why?"

Reiko's eyes narrowed.  "Really?" she demanded.

"Weren't you supposed to be, uh, elsewhere, Captain?" Ezikial asked, mesmerized.

"You fired a shot.  It was distracting.  Be quieter," Chopper told him.

"I find that unlikely, Captain.  If you were doing it right you wouldn't have heard a thing."


"What in blazes is going on down there?!"  McCleagh called from the floor above.  He climbed down and surveyed the carnage.  "Besmara wept!"

"No, I don't think she did," Feruzi told him.

"Not usually, no, but that's twice in as many days . . . now . . ." McCleagh's voice trailed off as he noticed Chopper's state of undress.

"Uh, hey, Sergeant.  Quite warm here at Tidewater this time of year?  A-heh."

McCleagh's face reddened perceptibly and he quickly looked away, spotting the fallen guard.  "Oh, Conor."

"We'll find 'em. And we'll make an end of 'em," Chopper said sincerely.  Feruzi pushed him toward the stairs.

"Be sincere with pants."

In the morning, they held a small ceremony to rename the Devil's Pallor as Strife and sent it out with a portion of the crew to patrol around Tidewater Rock.  The day passed without event, but toward evening it began to rain.  And Rain.  AND RAIN.  For several days, raising an impenetrable fog.  On the third night, Ezikial was on watch aboard the Crisis when a pair of longboats slipped into the harbor, rowing at full speed toward the doors of the keep.

"Rosie! Sound the alarm, All hands!" he growled.
"Aye aye!"
Ezikial swiveled the forward ballista and launched a bolt, striking one of the longboats and sweeping two buccaneers overboard.  A loud crunching sound echoed over the water, indicating some damage to the longboat's hull as well.  "BESMARA!"  Reiko stepped out on the shore, arms crossed, waiting for them to approach.  Alerted by the Rosie's furious bell-ringing, Feruzi stumbled onto the deck and peered sleepily overboard.

"Whas goin' on?" she asked.  Ezikial pointed out the longboats.  "Hang on, imma shoot it."  She drew her bow, still half asleep, and managed to impale one of the attackers anyway.

"Ready the long boat. Step to it!" Ezikial shouted.

"WE'RE UNDER ATTACK!!!" Reiko bellowed from the shore.  Feruzi continued to shoot even as the boats began to pull out of range, while Ezikial readied the ballista and fired again.  Then they both jumped down into the lowered boat just as the longboats came in range of the shore.  A cloaked figure in the second boat stood up and fired a lightning bolt at the doors, rocking them violently and splintering the wood.  Feruzi gasped in horror and redirected her arrows.  The figure screamed, revealing it was a woman, but she seemed more surprised than hurt.  She hurled another lightning bolt at the doors, blasting them apart and revealing Chopper just inside.

"What the fook?!" he demanded.  "Who blew down my FOOKIN' DOOR?!"  He then lowered his head and charged the ocean, running easily across the surface of the water to hack at the shocked attackers.

"I want cannon," Ezikial growled as his pistol shot went wide.  Reiko hacked at the buccaneeers who reached the shore, but they swarmed around her and through the doors.  The cloaked woman cast another spell and vanished from sight.  Feruzi cursed and switched targets.

The fighting was brutal; Reiko and Chopper were instantly surrounded and hard-pressed.  With help from Ezikial and Feruzi, they managed to retreat to the doors, where they were able to dispatch the attackers remaining outside, then they climbed to the guardroom to assist the three guards fending off a small horde of buccaneers.  By the time the attackers were cut down, only one of the guards remained standing.  Then a clap of thunder came from somewhere above them, and a woman screamed.  Chopper bellowed and charged up the stairs.  The third floor was empty, but they heard commotion on the fourth, arriving to a horror.  Five people lay dead--burned to a crisp--in the dining hall: three guards and Sergeant McCleagh.  Lady Smythee lay behind an upturned sideboard.  The caster sood in the middle of the room, grinning ferociously.  She was nearly naked, her skin covered in tattoos, and her teeth were hideously filed to sharp points.

Ezikial shot her in the chest.  She swore in Aquan and hurled a lightning bolt at him; he dove for the floor and managed to avoid being crisped himself.  Chopper charged her, grabbing her around the waist and throwing both of them out of the smashed window.  They crashed into the hardscrabble nearly fifty feet below, Chopper landing on top, but the sorceress refused to die, clawing at Chopper's chest in an effort to get at the necklace.  Feruzi's arrow entered her throat just above Chopper's shoulder and severed her spine.

May 23, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 18: Opportunity and Knocks

"Ships ahoy!" called the lookout and the officers assembled onto the deck of the Crisis to see for themselves.  Two ships were visible near the horizon, quite close to each other. 

Ezikial's reaction was immediate:  "Bring up the ballistae!" 

Reiko frowned slightly while Chopper examined them through his spyglass.  "Captain?" she inquired.  One of the ships was clearly chasing the other, engaged in a full-out battle, but the colors were indistinguishable at this distance.

"Eh," Chopper shrugged, "take the winner?"

"Would it not be best to know why they are fighting, first?" Feruzi asked.  "Or even, who they are?"

Chopper glanced at her.  "Maybe, but . . . pirate."  He shrugged again.  "Feelin' lazy today.  Steady as she goes.  We'll get there soon enough."

"Right," Reiko said.  "Maybe you could go take a nap and we'll let you know when the good stuff starts?"

Chopper seemed to give this consideration.  "Nah."

"Right," Reiko drawled.  "You just leave everything to me."

"Duh.  I had to do all the work with the Dominator, so you layabouts should do something.  For once."  Reiko struggled to conceal a smirk as she turned away and began ascending the rigging.  Feruzi glared openly at Chopper.

"YOU did all the work?" she demanded.

"So you got some new scars.  You're welcome?"

"These are AMATEUR scars," she protested.

"Aye, aye, fair enough," he muttered, conceding the point.  As they neared, the lead ship heeled over hard and feathered until its sails luffed and it drifted to a stop.  The attacker, a Shackles drekar, ran in hard to guard its prize, rather like a dog with a meat bone.  Chopper chuckled.  "Aren't they cute.  Full ahead.  Mister Hands, test out your new toy."

"Sir?" Ezikial asked, glancing first at his new pistol and then at the still-distant ship.  An eloquent, incredulous eyebrow arose like a whale breaching.

"Shut up and let me quip.  Shoot them.  Hard."

"Shall we hoist the colors, Captain?" Reiko asked.

"I'll assume that is a rhetorical question, Ms. Mate."

"Of course, Captain."

The drekar loosed a catapult load in their direction as they continued to close.  The ship's name was now visible: Devil's Pallor.  It was absolutely swarming with pirates who looked none too pleased at the interruption.  Ezikial grinned as the catapult load tore through several sails; Chopper cursed at Cogsworth, who had the helm.

"T'ain't like steerin' a hummin'bird, Cap'n sir!"

"Not with that attitude, sailor!"

"Svard," Reiko said mysteriously.  "Cog, go get ready for boarding."  She took the helm.

"What's a Svard?" Chopper demanded suspiciously.

"A captain.  The captain of this ship is a Hobgoblin.  His name is Gortus Svard."

"What's a hobgoblin?!"

"It's a . . . hobgoblin.  You want I should draw you a picture?"

"A goblin with nailed boots," Feruzi muttered under her breath, trying to conceal a grin behind her hand.

"Feruzi is promoted to Ship's Loremaster!"  Chopper yelled.  "You can't define a word with the same damn word!"

"Sure I can."

"You'll clap eyes on him soon enough, Cap'n," Conchobar said mildly.

"BESMARA!" Ezikial bellowed.  The chain bolts swept the Pallor's forward deck, dispersing the pirates gathered there while the drekar returned fire and made a fair wreck of the Crisis's sails.  Feruzi spotted some better-dressed persons among the pirates and donated them some arrows while Chopper broke out his full cussin' vocabulary and the crew scrambled.  Reiko spun the wheel, but the Pallor was having none of it and swerved away effortlessly.  Ezikial fired his pepperbox despite the extreme range and managed to severely inconvenience one of the pirates.

Once again, the drekar came sharply about, but Reiko anticipated it this time and the Crisis surged into the Pallor's side.  A hail of grapples burst from the Crisis's decks and, as always, Chopper was among the first over.

"SVARD!!  Come face me, Chopper!  Captain Chopper!"  The hobgoblin promptly shot him with a crossbow, fortunately doing little damage, but Choppers advance became rather uneven.

"Poisoned bolts?  Aw, c'mon."  Ezikial burst past him and stabbed Svard right in his nice armored coat.  The hobgoblin dropped the crossbow and beat Ezikial back with a wicked-looking falcata.  "Oi, I'm the Captain, ye silly bitch!" Chopper complained and attacked as well.  Svard shot him a furious glare and delivered a blow that nearly took Chopper's leg off.  Chopper's eyes widened in pain and shock, then Reiko came up behind him and took Svard's head right off.  Ezikial gave a gleeful laugh and began mowing down the surviving crew with his sword. 

"Surrender, dogs, and live to see another sunrise!" Chopper called.  He blinked.  "Mr. Hands!  Let them surrender!"  Ezikial skidded to a halt.  "Good man.  Take our prisoners and commence looting.  Signal my wish to parlay with the . . ." he squinted at the other ship "Sea Chanty."  Ezikial pouted slightly but did as he was told.  The other ship, a Sargavan merchantman by the look of it, hadn't gotten very far, but they didn't appear to be slowing, either.

"Pursue?"  Ezikial asked.

"Duh.  Pirate.  Reiko, you're in command of the Devil's Pallor until we can come up with a better name.  Now, let's go get some bloody gratitude."  The Crisis caught up with the Sea Chanty without any real effort--the Sargavan's hastily raised a white flag.

"Ahoy and you're welcome!" Chopper boomed as they came within hailing distance.  "Permission to come aboard?"

"I am in no condition to deny you my hospitality," the Sargavan Captain, a tall, thin woman, said grimly.

"Appreciated," Chopper said, crossing over and bowing.  Behind him, Ezikial reloaded and cocked his pistol.  "Captain Chopper of the Crisis.  Glad we could lend a hand to you folks.  Nasty business.  Bloody pirates, amiright?"

"Ah . . . yes," the Chanty's captain said, obviously uneasy.  "If it please you, Captain Chopper, I suppose I should reward you for your aid?"

"Much obliged.  We'll be out of your hair once we make sure you're well enough to go on.  And what your cargo entails."

"Fruit and wool," the captain said promptly.

"A pleasure," Chopper said after the Chanty disgorged a portion of its cargo.  He took the captain's hand and bowed over it gallantly.

"I . . . would have to agree."

"Back to the ship!" Chopper ordered, and they disembarked, Chopper smiling and waving vigorously even while Sandara attempted to get at his wounded leg.  Even as the Sea Chanty pulled away, the wind began to pick up, bringing with it increasingly heavy rain.  The next day was violently stormy and the Crisis lived up to her name, sending them all scrambling to keep her afloat, until, CRACKOOOM a bolt of lightning blinded and deafened them.  The top half of the main mast toppled, swinging wildly as the rigging came violently unrigged.

"Besmara's tits!" Chopper swore.  "All RIGHT, I'll quit singing!  Message bloody received!"  Feruzi and Ezikial raced to hack the ropes loose and free the mast from the ship before it could damage the hull and sink them, while Reiko brought the Devil's Pallor as close as she dared, ready to render assistance.  Fortunately, they avoided total catastrophe, and while the seas were heavy, the remainder of the trip back to Tidewater Rock was uneventful.

"Even the gods hate you, apparently," Feruzi remarked to Chopper as they made the ships fast in the cove.  She flopped down, exhausted.

"From time to time," he agreed, then froze.  "Wait, what do you mean 'even'?"  Feruzi marshaled a look of faux innocence.  Chopper's eyes narrowed in mock severity, but he was too tired to maintain it for long and flopped down next to her.

"Whew," he said. "Still, a profitable voyage."

"Lady Smythee should be impressed."

"Should be.  Still, you know, women."

"Not as much as you might think.  Are you going to marry her?"

"Aye."  Feruzi waited, but no more seemed forthcoming.

"Aye?" she asked.

"That's what I said.  You going deaf?"

"No . . ." Feruzi took a breath to demand full disclosure, then stopped and patted Chopper on the shoulder companionably. "I am sure you know what you are doing."

"You ARE?!"


Lady Smythee and Sergeant McCleagh met them at the front door.  "Thank Besmara you're here," Agasta said without preamble.

"Oh?" Chopper asked.

"We were attacked."

"By sahuagin," McCleagh added.

"That has been going around lately," Feruzi intoned.

"We lost Zander and Mardus's leg is . . ." Agasta shook her head.  "You're a surgeon, aren't you?  Can you help him?" she appealed to Chopper.

"Yes, ma'am."  McCleagh led the way into the keep while Agasta returned to her rooms, taking them to the back workshop where Mardus Siggs, the teenage grandson of Lady Smythee's personal servants, lay on a worktable padded with blankets.  He was gray-skinned and drenched in sweat, clearly very ill.  Chopper broke out his supplies and began examining the wound.  With quiet professionalism, Chopper cleaned out the infection with a mixture of potent herbs and distilled rum, then set the bone while Sandara looked on, ready to assist with magic if mundane skill proved insufficient.  The pain brought Mardus back to consciousness, but he endured without complaint until Chopper finished.

"Good lad," Chopper remarked as Mardus settled back.

"That was fine work, Cap'n," Sandara beamed.

"Are they gone?  The fish men?" Mardus asked, his voice slurring.  McCleagh nodded.

"They attacked in the evening, while he was out with the goats.  We sent Zander out to call him in to dinner . . ."

"'E gave 'is life t' save me . . ."

"I'll honor 'im with a proper funeral, if'n ye like," Sandara offered

"He deserves honor," Chopper murmured.  "Rest up, son."

"How have you fared otherwise?" Feruzi asked while Chopper cleaned up.

"Well enough," the sergeant said.  "We've had some word of your exploits now and again.  Very impressive."

"HE would not let us be otherwise," Feruzi grumbled, pointing at Chopper with her chin.

"Lady Agasta should be pleased to entertain his suit.  If that suits him, of course.  And we had a delivery for you, Ms. Feruzi.  We have it upstairs."  She looked askance at McCleagh until she realized Chopper was looking over her shoulder with a nearly identical expression.

"All . . . right?"  She followed McCleagh with Chopper and Sandara tagging along.  McCleagh handed Feruzi a long wooden case that opened to reveal an ornate bow and a roll of parchment.  Her hand shaking slightly, Feruzi unrolled the note, read it, and boggled.

"What should I do?" she appealed to Chopper.  "This is . . . expensive."

"Marry him?" Chopper suggested.

"Um, no.  Should I accept it? Or send it back?"  Chopper gave her a look she usually reserved for him.  "Do you think it wise to take on the responsibility implied by such a gift?"  His eyes slowly closed and opened, his expression changing not a whit.

"You're not getting any younger, and on this crew the odds of you getting much older are reduced vastly reduced."
Feruzi fingered the bow cautiously.  "Well . . . if I intend to return it, I should place it in his hands myself.  And there's no harm in making use of it until then.  Right?"

"Right.  Now that's settled, I've got a wedding to attend."   

May 16, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 17: Tooth and Nail

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.

May 9, 2013

Skull and Shackles Interlude: The Eagle-Claw

"Good to have you back, Captain." 

Merrill Pegsworthy broke out of his reverie to acknowledge his First Mate with a cheerful grin.  "Good to be back, Mistress Loor."  The pause must have alerted her, though, because she eyed his expression closely, unconvinced.

"Somethin' happen?"

"Oh, no," he replied, gesturing toward the ship now receding into the distance.  "Tatsumi is well set up aboard the Kitsune--"

"The what, now?"

"Oh, some fancy of his, some kind of legendary fox creature, I understand.  But she is sound and on her way, as you can see for yourself."  This did not produce the desired response; if anything, Labella grew more uneasy.

"Are ye sure ye had no troubles?  We expected ye long afore this, truth be told."

Pegsworthy essayed a dismissive shrug.  "There were some troubles, but they were not ours.  Met some likely young folks with a newly-acquired ship; they helped Rickety fend off some sort of giant wasp attack.  So, of course we had to wait for him to clear up the mess and launch their ship.  Took a couple of days."

"New pirates, eh?  Well, they'll be in for some schoolin' if they think they can give us any trouble," she announced, somewhat to his chagrin.

"I doubt they'd want to, the first mate is Tatsumi's sister.  They seem like nice enough folks."

"Then the Shackles will swallow 'em whole and spit the bones."

"I wouldn't be so sure of that, either.  They acquired their ship from that devil's son, Plugg.  You remember him?  Harrigan's Mate."

Labella spat on the deck.  "Not like to forget, me.  So he's dead, then?  Good, though I wouldna have minded doin' the job meself."

"From the sound of things, you would have had to outrun an arrow to do it, that archer of theirs is a fiend.  Never seen anyone shoot so fast in my life, and she killed Plugg herself according to Tatsumi's sister, spitted him right though his black heart!"  He grinned, bemused, causing Mistress Loor no small distress as she looked askance on her Captain's peculiar new mood.  "Must have been quite the sight!  Say, Labella, do I still have that Azlanti bow somewhere?"

Labella felt her jaw loosen as her heart seemed to writhe in her chest.  "The Eagle-Claw, Captain?"

"That's the one."

Her jaw sagged again.  "The one ye said ye'd sell t'buy an ISLAND if ye ever decided t'retire, Captain?"

"Yes.  Wherever did I put it?"

"The bow that's worth more than the Bonaventure and everything else aboard her, COMBINED?!  THAT bow?!?!"

Something in her tone finally seemed to penetrate whatever cloud Pegsworthy's brain currently occupied.  He glanced at her, his eyes sparking dangerously.  "Is there some kind of point to this inquiry, Mistress?"

Labella forced herself into some semblance of composure.  No matter how easygoing he was, one did not scream at one's Captain.  Even if he'd clearly lost his mind.  Perhaps especially not then.  "N-no, Captain."

"Good.  So where did it end up?"

"It's still locked in yer safe, Captain."  She felt faint.  She was going to faint.

"Go fetch it out for me, will you?  And have Pinch find me some sort of gift case for it or similar."

"Besmara save me!" Labella squeaked.  The end had come.  The Captain was sending her on an errand that meant telling the notoriously ruthless quartermaster that Pegsworthy intended to give away the single most valuable object he'd ever had in his possession.  There was no help for it.  If she was going to have the hide ripped from her bones she'd rather it happen trying to talk some kind of sense into her beloved Captain.  "Captain, ye know I love ye like me own flesh and blood--"

"That's kind of you to say."  His voice was flat, hard.

"Aye, Captain.  And ye know I've ne'er disobeyed yer orders, not e'en when I thought ye were lettin' yer kind and noble heart rule o'er yer sense . . ."


"So, I'm beggin' ye, Captain, don't go givin' THAT bow to some . . . some . . . strumpet!"

Pegsworthy's breath hissed between his teeth.  "Mistress Loor, I cannot help but think that I must have misheard you just there."  Labella flinched and hid her face with her hands.

"Nay, Captain, an' it please ye, ye can have me flogged afore the mast, but by Besmara's tits and nipples there's such a thing as whores, Captain!"  She hunched, shaking, not daring to look at him.  There was a long, horrible silence.

"Oh, dear," Pegsworthy said finally.  Labella felt him gently put his hands on her shoulders and turn her to look at him.  "Calm yourself.  It's not like that."

"I'm sorry, Captain, I didn't mean . . ." 

He squeezed her shoulders.  "No, I'm the one who's sorry.  My mind was wandering and I didn't explain myself well enough.  I'm not looking to . . . um . . ."  to her surprise, he faltered and looked slightly embarrassed.

"Get yer buoy bobbed, Captain?" she offered, anxious not to let him get distracted again.  His face twisted, caught between horror and humor.  He blinked repeatedly then finally frowned, although it was clearly a struggle.

"Yes, all right . . . that . . . what you said, and thank you so very much indeed for putting that image in my head at this moment--"

"Sorry, Captain."

He massaged his forehead with his fingers and sighed.  "It is a bit . . . extravagant of me, yes--"

"A BIT?!"

"Watch it.  It is MY bow, Labella, I took it as my share, won it with my own hands and rather more of my own blood than I care to part with.  It's doing no one any good where it is.  I . . . I would much rather see it in the hands of someone I believe I can trust, who has the skill to use it for its intended purpose.  If I sell it, it'll just go to some rich merchant or, hah, 'nobleman' who'll put it in a case so he can gloat over it at his drunken parties, and that just wouldn't be right.  It'd be like"--he gave a self-conscious little chuckle--"like throwing away a man because there was an accident and he got himself a bit of a limp.  Anyway, I wasn't planning on retiring just yet."

Labella was sick with horror.  Like the rest of Pegsworthy's crew she took it as an article of faith that anyone who thought the Captain was less than capable for being minus one leg was an idiot, a poltroon, and the worst kind of blind damn fool.  For him to mention it himself, well, that was unthinkable.  "Captain, I . . ."

"No, it's all right, I understand.  I'm not angry.  Be a good girl and go take care of it for me, would you?  It's been a long day and I'd like to sit down."

"Aye, aye, Captain!"

Pegsworthy sighed again as he watched her scurry away.  She was right, of course, he was being foolish, and it didn't help that he'd spent several hours while he waited for the rendezvous in pleasant contemplation of exactly what Labella assumed he was contemplating.  Time to put aside unlikely daydreams and focus again on the main chance.  Or maybe not so unlikely, considering some of the things he'd heard about Mwangi tribals . . .

STOP that, Merrill Pegsworthy, you old fool.  Not old enough, apparently.  Not by a long shot.  Have you finally forgotten what honor is, that you'd break the only word you still have?  If you're a fool, ADMIT it, so at least you won't be a blind fool.  He'd made an oath to himself years ago, when he'd first stolen the Bonaventure and turned to piracy to support himself and his crew, that no matter what happened he would never, ever lie to himself about what it was he was doing.  He would never pretend he was not a killer and a thief, never claim he was a better man because there were some evils he still shied away from committing.  It might bring you the love and loyalty of your crew, but you don't buy your way into the Light by claiming that well, you weren't as bad as you could have been.  You are a pirate because you couldn't bear to spend the rest of your life saying you were a cripple, so before you go getting all stupid over some woman, Merrill Pegsworthy, remember that SHE is a pirate TOO.

He sat down at his desk and unbuckled the straps holding the wooden peg to the stump of his left leg.  It had hurt all day, a weird, phantom tingling that seemed to originate in the part of his flesh that was cut away.  Whenever his leg hurt like this he always dreamed that night of being whole, an Eagle Knight, a seacaptain in the service of Andoran, fighting for the sovereign People who trusted him with their liberty and lives . . .

Who threw your own life, the lives of better men than you, and all your works away like they were garbage, of no use to anyone . . .

It was why he still wore his Knight's coat even though it made most Shackles people uneasy.  Not to remind him of what he once was, oh no, to remind him of what he wasn't.  Without it, he feared he would forget and start throwing away the lives of the men and women who depended upon him.  He owed them better than that.

Still, sometimes you had to think first about what you owed yourself, he decided, and reached for a piece of parchment.  Dipping his quill in the bottle of ink, he began to write.


You have not vouchsafed to me the right to address you by name, nevertheless I hope you will not feel it an imposition if I beg you accept this token of my goodwill toward yourself, your Captain, and his newfound ship.  In truth, I feel somewhat in your debt for the magnitude of the service you have performed in ridding the world of several men who befouled her with every breath they took, so in that light I hope you will accept this bow, the Eagle-Claw, that it might aid you in the prosecution of many similar works in the future.

Was it getting dark already?  And here he'd written barely a paragraph. And his leg was cramping.

While much of the Eagle-Claw's history is obscure to me, I do know that it dates from ancient Azlant and may even have been crafted by those fabled peoples.

There, that was safe enough, surely?

The sockets upon the grip were made to contain ioun stones, although of course any such they once contained are long gone.  Still, you may be fortunate and come across replacements in your travels.

Come ON, Merrill, you can't send off barely half a page with a bow like this.

Perhaps you wonder how it came to be in my possession.

Doubtful.  Oh, well, press on, press on.

While I cannot make such claims with regards to many of my acquisitions, the Eagle-Claw came to my hands honorably enough.  Some years ago we took a man aboard who was adrift in a tiny boat far from any land.  He was sun-struck and nearly dead of thirst, but he claimed to be the last survivor of an Andoran merchant expedition to the island of the Sun Temple, having escaped bearing only this bow, the Eagle-Claw.  Being of Andoran extraction myself, I was intrigued, and though the man did die almost immediately despite all we could do to succor him, I determined to make sail for this legendary island and ascertain the course of events there.

We were never to make landfall upon the island itself.  Long before we came even to the suspicion of land in the distance, we were viciously set upon by none other than the Wormwood, flagship as you know of the vile Barnabus Harrigan, and two of her sister ships who were in the process of stripping a vessel so badly damaged that her name and provenance were impossible to determine.  The resulting battle was a terrible one, for Harrigan seemed determined that no one should survive to bear hence the tale of this plunder.  Had not one of my other ships arrived, I have little doubt that the Bonaventure, along with myself and all hands, would now rest at the bottom of the Arcadian Ocean.  Since that time, whenever I have encountered any of Harrigan's ships they have taken every opportunity to do ill to me and mine, though they are restrained from outright hostilities in many cases by the will of the Pirate Council.

Having witnessed your bravery and skill and heard of your sufferings at the hands of Harrigan and his ilk, I had no thought but that the gods must will for you and this bow to be together.

Pegsworthy hesitated for so long that the ink dried in the quill and he was forced to dig out his pocket knife, trim the quill, and clean it before cutting a new point.

So, I hasten to carry out that will and hope you will look favorably upon me in the future when we might have opportunity to spend time together ourselves.

Entirely at your service,

Merrill Tantrey

"Gods," he breathed, staring at his signature.  That name!  He hadn't used that name in years, a decade even!  Yet here it was, coming out of his pen as if it were completely natural and right.  Scrape it off, some part of him hissed in panic, but no, it would leave a mark and who aboard that ship of lubbers would know, anyway?  Still, he must not lie and misrepresent himself.  Inking his quill one last time, he added a final word.

Merrill Tantrey Pegsworthy

There, it was done.  He set the parchment aside to dry.  The rest he could leave to Labella, before he thought too much more about it and really did drive himself insane.

Skull and Shackles Session 16: Good News

As a city, Senghor was a bit on the small side, but large enough that the Crisis brought little overt notice; they paid the docking fee and the officials became scarce.

"We should set a watch on the ship and allow liberty in shifts," Feruzi commented as the four chief officers surveyed the broad stone pier.

"Yes.  Do that."  Chopper hopped onto the gangplank and strolled onto the dock. 

Feruzi gathered up the crew and had them draw lots for watches.  She shook her finger at them in somewhat exaggerated admonishment.  "Do not get so drunk that you cannot return on your own."  She then passed around some spending money.  Leila came up for the first group on liberty, but swapped lots with Wrast.  This city did not seem congenial for maintaining proper philosophical distance.

"Time to stretch the legs," Reiko said, following after Chopper.

"Indeed," Feruzi agreed, Ezikial joining them.

Chopper had already engaged one of the dockworkers in cheerful conversation.  "Hey, you should join us, we're awesome pirates," he enthused.  Feruzi suppressed a wince.

"Perhaps we should look for a tavern?" she suggested. 

Chopper didn't seem to notice. "We took down Whalebone Pilk!  Hey, somebody hold up the broke-ass melted bell!" he yelled back to the ship.  The crew exchanged baffled looks and Feruzi waved them back to their work. She grabbed the back of Chopper's coat and began hauling him bodily down the street.  "This is not dignified!" Chopper complained.

"And shouting about our deeds on the docks, is?"



Reiko shook her head.  "Good luck," she said to Feruzi.  "I will return at dusk."

Feruzi deposited Chopper beneath a sign proclaiming the Sea Witch. "Here.  One tavern."  From the sound of things, it was crowded inside and the patrons were in a party mood.

"Oooh," Chopper brightened, straightening his coat.  Feruzi shook her head and smiled slightly.

"Give 'em hell," she said, opening the door for him with some ceremony.

Chopper strode into the common room.  "Presenting Captain Chopper!" he exclaimed.  "Me!  A round for the house!  On Captain Chopper!  Me!  Yaaar!"

"CAPTAIN Chopper?" a man called from a far corner.  "Stone the bleedin' crows!  Outta my way, boys!"  Feruzi stepped quickly in front of Chopper, squinting to make out the return shouter.  A broad-shouldered man pressed his way through the crowd.  As he grew closer, they could make out the blue Varisian scarf knotted around his head, and his huge grin.  It was Crimson Cogward.  He launched himself at Chopper and they pounded each other's backs hard enough to cause internal injuries.  Then Cog noticed Feruzi and Ezikial and became, if possible, even more delighted.  "Guys!  It's them!"

"Cog!  How the hells are ya?!" Chopper bellowed.

"Better an' better, now that we found ye lot!"

"Is the Wormwood in harbor?" Feruzi asked. 

Cog spat on the floor.  "No, an' good riddance!"  He took Chopper's arm and brought the three of them to the corner table where they found Jack Scrimshaw, Barefoot Samms Toppin, and Cut-Throat Grok.

"Huzzah!" Chopper burst out, seeing them alive and well.  "Make that two rounds for the house!  On me!  Chopper!"

"So how did you manage to get off that foul tub?" Feruzi asked once they were all seated with the drinks of their choice.  The four of them all tried to tell the story at the same time.

"We were in Bloodcove when Cap'n Harrigan heard 'bout the Man's Promise arrivin' at Rickety's Squibs," Cog explained.

"He was not pleased," Grok added, draining her beer in one gulp.  Ezikial, sitting next to her, grinned and pulled out a bottle, tilting it in her view until she recognized it, then poured her a generous dollop.  She grinned appreciatively in return.

"He were more mad at Plugg than he were at you," Jack said.

"Yeah, but it weren't like they brought the ship or the salvage back to Harrigan!" said Grok.

"Plugg was going to keep it," Ezikial said, shrugging.

"And now we are keeping it," Feruzi said.  "Same difference."

Jack nodded.  "Either way, we'd had our fill an' more of the Cap'n an' his notion of how to run a ship, so six of us decided to sneak out on the cutter after dark . . ."

Chopper glanced around.  "Er . . ."

"We didn't all make it," Grok explained, frowning.


"And we didn't all all make it," Jack added, holding up his right hand, which had two fewer fingers than the last time they saw him.

"Oh, Jack," Feruzi sympathized, remembering his carving skills.  He gave an eloquent shrug and Feruzi raised her glass.  "Here's to them for trying."

"For Shivikah!  And for Giffer Tibbs!" Cog bellowed, drinking off the last of his mug.  "And for whatever poor bastards Harrigan pressed to take our places," he added, pounding the empty mug on the table.

"We were more fortunate," Feruzi said.  "We had only one casualty.  Poor Owlbear.  Plugg cut his throat while he was chained up.  He had no chance."

"Bastard," Cog said.  "You done for him, though, right?"

"Yes.  I did."

"Scourge too," Ezikial added.

Cog pounded the table again. "Best news I heard in weeks."

"So, I take it you'll be joining us, then?" Feruzi asked.  They grinned.

"If you'll have us, Captain Chopper, sir," Grok said.  She turned to Ezikial and, weirdly, batted her eyelashes.  "You know, I heard a story that might interest you."  Ezikial raised an eyebrow and she leaned in closer.  "I heard about a gunslinger in these parts.  I was hoping it was you, but turns out not.  Gerni Stoneback, I think his name was.  They told me he had this gun with a whole buncha barrels on it.  Anyway, he went upriver lookin' for Koro-Koro about ten years back, an' never returned."  At the word Koro-Koro, the tavern quieted, then conversations slowly resumed.

"I have heard that name," Feruzi said.  "It is a monstrous beast, spawned by demons, that prowls the Mbaiki ruins."

"Ohh?" Chopper said, suddenly intent.  Feruzi shrugged.

"That is all I know of it.  Quite the bag for any hunter who could bring it down, of course."

"Did I not just say 'Ohh?'?"

"Feruzi heard you, and Feruzi is certain you would make quite the lunch for Koro-Koro.  But that's not going to stop you, of course."

"Bah, if it eats me, I'll choke it with my dying thrust!"

"If you want to go look for this beast, Feruzi will go. It is long since she had the chance to go hunting."

"The river is just around the cape, off Desperation Bay," Samms said.  "You could sail right up to the ruins, more or less."

"It would be a good exercise for the crew," Feruzi allowed.

"Certain death.  Small chance of success.  What are we waiting for!?"

Feruzi took their former shipmates back to the Crisis.  Sandara was delighted to see them all again and took it upon herself to get them settled.  Feruzi spent the rest of the day keeping her eye on the crew and doing what she could to find situations for the departing ex-slaves.  When Chopper, Reiko, and Ezikial returned in the evening, they made some rough plans for leaving the next day, but by morning it was raining heavily.  Reiko glared at the clouds for some time, then opined that it was likely to get worse before it got better.  They spent the next few days waiting in port, buying supplies, enjoying the fleshpots, and otherwise relaxing while the storm blew itself out.  Feruzi returned on the last day with a new outfit of clothes in the Sargavan style--blouse, waistcoat, knee britches, stockings, buckled shoes, and a coat for bad weather.

"What the hells?" Chopper demanded, seeing her.  "Reiko, have you tamed this savage?"

"What?"  Feruzi asked, mystified.

"Really, Captain?" Reiko demanded.

"Yes, really."  Chopper was agog.

Reiko sighed.  "Ms. Feruzi just decided to change her style.  Like you changed yours recently."

"I think it's stylish," Conchobar opined.

"It fits and is comfortable.  Also, it has pockets.  See?"

"Yes, this is very good.  Especially for something you chose without my help," Conchobar said, winking.

"Oh, well, I didn't want to trouble you."

Chopper shrugged.  "If the Head Concho approves, I must abide by his deep wisdom.  Think you could get her in some lace next?"

"I have a handkerchief.  It has lace on it. See?"  Chopper mock-swooned, gesticulating wildly.  The crew, taking this for some sort of symbol, cast off.  Sailing upriver was a tricky proposition, made trickier by the crew's general inexperience.  Feruzi spent most of the time at the rail, staying out of Reiko's way while she tried to get rudder and sails organized enough to make progress.  Kroop joined her, watching the jungle pass by.

"So what is a Mbaiki anyway?" Feruzi asked him.  "People?  Religion?"

"They were animal worshippers," Kroop said.

"You mean, animal spirits?"

"They had a great ceremony ta have some greater power grant 'em the divinity of animal form.  Th' whole tribe got turned inta jaguars . . . but then they couldn't change back.  Those ruins ha' been abandoned fer centuries. The neighborin' tribes treat any jaguars they see wi' respect. I reckon we should do th' same."

"Could this power they treated with be the source of Koro-Koro?" Leila asked, listening in.

"I wouldna rule it out, the jungle's as hostile as any place on Golarion.  They say he an' his pack hunt around the ruin, so if ye mean t' bag 'im, thass where ye should look."

"An' I was told that mixin' his blood with gunpowder would make it even more dangerous than it already is," Grok added.

"That would explain all this interest," Feruzi said, sitting back.

By late afternoon the lookout finally spied the forbidding summit of a great stone ziggurat, just above the tree line on the south bank of the river.  The crew looked anxious, not happy to be so far away from civilization.  They made the boat ready.  Feruzi fingered her bow and grinned.  It would be good to hunt again.