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

Aug 31, 2013

Skull and Shackles Interlude: How do you solve a problem like Ukele?

"Where is my sister?" Feruzi asked as she watched the immense eagle bearing Pegsworthy land on the Kraken.  Without a word, Labella led her down to the Bonaventure's brig, where Ukele was sitting curled in misery on a rough wooden bench.  Feruzi stared mutely for several moments, then said, "Would you excuse us, please?"  Labella was gone before Feruzi finished speaking the third word.

"It's all my fault!" Ukele wailed and burst into tears.  Black fury seemed to rise in Feruzi's stomach and meet a sinking sense of heavy numbness.  "I want to go home!"

"Has your wake of destruction tired you?"  Feruzi grated.

"What wake?"

"The Nugavi King's son Ijmal.  Tomak.  Now Eggal Torkelsen.  Very nearly Captain Pegsworthy.  Who knows how many others.  All dead so you could avoid the oh-so-horrible fate of being wealthy, pampered, and married."

"I never wanted to get married.  Certainly not to Tomak.  He treated me like a . . . a valuable heifer!"

"Then why did you agree to marry him, stupid girl?!"

"What was I supposed to do with the entire village there waiting for me to agree?  Say, no, never mind, sorry for wasting everyone's time?  Mother would have disowned me and Father turned his face away!"

"Then why, why, WHY did you agree to that contest in the first place?!"

"I DIDN'T!!  Father told me that the time had come for me to choose a husband because the young men were becoming unmanageable and he thought there might be blood at any time if I didn't make up my mind!  I told him YOU didn't have a husband and he said YOU weren't a . . . a shameless flirt and a . . . disgrace to his name . . ."

"Father said that to YOU?"

"Why are you so surprised?  He could hardly stand me!  Not like the amazing, the spectacular, the majestic perfect princess Feruzi!  He let you do anything you wanted!  You never had to stay with the women or risk everyone sneering at you, you went out hunting and fishing and just running through the woods whenever you felt like it!  STOP LAUGHING AT ME!!"

Feruzi was doubled over, leaning helplessly on a workbench as tears streamed from her eyes.  "I'm not . . . laughing . . . at you," she gasped.  "You, you IDIOT."  Feruzi reached out, grabbed the front of Ukele's shirt, and pulled her up close to the bars.  "Yes . . . I went out hunting.  And they DID sneer at me--for a while, until everyone got used to it.  Then they ignored me."


"I went out with Father because he needed help and there was no one else to do it.  I didn't have a husband because no one wanted me.  A man wants a woman he can come home to, and what do I know about any of that?  I can't even cook!"

"Well, to be honest, neither can I."

"You?  The, what did you call it, 'majestic prefect princess' of domestic virtue?"

"I can't even boil water."

"You should have told Tomak that.  Maybe he'd still be alive."

"Maybe they'd ALL still be alive."  Ukele started to sniffle again.  "I'm sorry Zizi!  I'm so s-sorry . . . these people are so horrible!"

"If you'd stayed put Merrill would have kept the horrible ones well away from you."


"Merrill.  Captain Pegsworthy."

"The one with the wooden leg?  I don't like him.  He's mean.  And UGLY."

"He almost died saving your life, and now he's been arrested.  They might HANG him, Kele.  All because of you."

"Don't put that on me, I was just fine until he decided to start a fight with the men who were helping me get away."

"I thought you admitted it was your fault?"

"I meant the other one, what was his name, Tinkle-something."

"Torklesen.  And weren't those Harrigan's men?  I know Merrill said something about Harrigan's men."

"Um . . . I forget."

Feruzi slammed her fist against the metal lattice.  "UKELE.  Listen to me.  You have NO IDEA what would have happened to you if Barnabus Harrigan got his hands on you.  I once saw him cut a man's heart out.  His officers tortured people for fun.  And you walked right out and turned yourself over to his men."

"I didn't know they were his men."

"No, you didn't know.  Because you don't think.  You never think.  You just wave your tits under any man's nose and grin, but you don't realize that he thinks you've promised him something and you'd better be willing to deliver."

"Hey, if he thinks a little hip-waggle means he owns me, that's on him.  I'm not responsible.  If he gets uppity, I'll magic him but good."

"I . . . I cannot believe you.  I really just cannot believe you.  I was hoping you might have learned something from this, but I see I was wrong."

"Don't be like that!  I said I'd go home!"

"Yes, you will.  But I don't want to look at you any more."

"Come on, you're not going to just leave me down here!"

"We'll see."  Feruzi turned away. 

Chopper flagged down when she emerged onto the deck.  "I need to talk to you."


"What are you planning to do with that sister of yours?  'Cause I'll tell you right now, if it involves my ship, you'd better think again.  I am not letting anything like this happen aboard the Crisis.  You completely underestimated the amount of trouble she'd cause."

"Yes, I know."  Feruzi sighed.  "She's willing to go home now, I suppose, but that doesn't mean she won't cause more trouble."

"Tie her up and gag her, then.  Whatever it takes."

"I would . . . but I don't think it would improve matters any.  It might even make things worse.  I think Torkelsen's death shocked her pretty badly.  She really just wants to go home.  Oh, and apparently you're hairy and you stink."

"Heh.  All right, Ruse, have it your way."  Chopper's face hardened.  "But if anyone else gets hurt because of her, that's on you."

"It's already on me.  Every bit of it."

"You're godsdamned right."

Skull and Shackles Session 30: The Regatta

To meet with Tessa Fairwind, they had to make sail immediately for Cauldron Rock, starting point for this year's Free Captains' Regatta.  Tessa was delighted to receive Zarskia's information and take the spymaster off Chopper's hands.

"Are you entering the race?" Tessa asked.

"I was thinkin' about it."

"Do so.  Here, I'll even pay the entry fee for you.  You having a seat on the Pirate Council would be a great help to me.  Even if you find you don't agree with my decisions, at least you won't be that worm Harrigan."

"The Wormwood's racin', then?"

"Aye, and widely regarded as the favorite to win the thing.  I do NOT want Harrigan on the council.  For all I know, he's in league with Cheliax himself!"

Chopper grinned.  "Don't you worry.  I owe him a bad turn or six.  Taking the purse out from under his nose would be a pleasure."

The deck of the Kraken was already crowded with the captains and senior crew of the sixteen other Regatta entrants when the Crisis party arrived.  Many of the faces were familiar from Lucre Hold, but none of them had introduced themselves at that time so names could not be assigned to faces.  As they edged through the crowd, one tall, imposing figure interposed himself in their path--Captain Barnabas Harrigan.  "Well, I'll be damned," he said, grinning hugely.

"What, just now?" Feruzi shot back.  Chopper sounded a brief chuckle.

"I, for one, won't be damned," Reiko said, "but it's always a pleasure, Mr. Harrigan."

"Ain't, it, though."  His grin faded as he crossed his beefy arms and sneered down at her.  Reiko's face, as always, was set into an inscrutable faint smile that made her resemble a marble statue.

"However did you finally deal with your mutinous first mate?"

"Word is ye handled 'im for me.  Hope ye weren't expectin' a ree-ward past lettin' ye hang onter my ship."

"A paragon of generosity is Captain Harrigan," said Chopper.  "I won't let it be said otherwise."

Reiko's expression did not change.  "I am fairly certain that it is not your ship any more.  The moment you handed it to Mr. Plugg it was destined to be ours."

"Besmara wills what she will.  If yer honor 'er, see that ye pray we don't cross paths out on the open ocean."

"Oh, we won't," Reiko said.  "You'll be left in our spray."

Harrigan snarled.  "In the spray of yer blood, most like--"

"HARRIGAN," a deep, resonant voice boomed.

"Sounds like your mother calling," Feruzi said. 

An imposing man with deeply tanned skin sporting wild gray hair and an impressive matching beard stepped out of the captain's quarters.  Even without introduction, this was obviously the Master of the Gales, a fearsome druid pirate who had and needed no other designation.  Even the Pirate King Kerdak Bonefist spoke with care when he addressed the Master.  The ancient druid fixed his icy blue eyes on Harrigan for a moment, then swept his gaze across the assembled pirates.

"I remind you that the Free Captains' Regatta is a nautical race, NOT a battle or an opportunity to dredge up past quarrels.  The Truce is in force and will be enforced."

"Not our fault he doesn't know how to properly choose his crew," Reiko muttered.

"I will personally monitor the race and any ship attacking or unduly interfering with another racing vessel will be disqualified.  Or, if necessary, sunk."  The Master looked directly at Harrigan again.  "Nature is the danger you will face--and a more vast, implacable foe you will never find.  You would all be wise to remember this if you hope to complete, much less win, the Regatta."  The Master waved and a half-orc mate stepped forward, handing a simple map to each of the captains.  "This course will test even the most rugged crew, taking you along the fringes of the Eye of Abendego and even into the storm itself, ending at a small islet called Coaming Point.  Make your preparations, Free Captains, the race begins at dawn.  You are dismissed."

They climbed back into the boat and set off  toward the Crisis.  "We should set an extra watch tonight," Chopper said.  "The Master of the Gales didn't say anything about sabotage before the race."

"Ukele will be a distraction," Feruzi told him.

"Toss her overboard," Ezikial suggested bluntly.

"Trust me, I'd like to," Feruzi growled.

"Or . . . lock 'er in the brig?"  Chopper offered.

"I worry that she'll still somehow find some way to cause us grief."

"I could take care of her for you."  Another longboat drew up beside them and Captain Pegsworthy waved cheerfully, nodding up at the hull of the Crisis looming over them.  "Permission to come aboard, Captain Chopper?"  Ezikial glared, but Pegsworthy was used to that by now and ignored him.

"Sure!  What are you doing here?"

"I came to see you off, of course!  Just because we're not racing, that doesn't mean we're not eager to see the outcome.  Quite a turnout this year.  Crisis may not be the favorite, but she's certainly our favorite."

Chopper and Pegsworthy chatted amiably over mugs of hot grog for several hours, interrupted several times by other well-wishers.  Tessa Fairwind visited briefly, followed by Pierce Jerrell, who buttonholed Sandara and held a small blue sphere over her head.  When he let it go, it began orbiting her slowly.  Grinning, he kissed the back of her hand and left with Tessa, leaving the Besmaran blushing furiously.

"Ioun stone?" Feruzi asked curiously.  She'd never seen one before, but its behavior was unmistakable.

"Hm?  What?  Oh, aye.  Ioun stone.  Pier--Captain Jerrell's lettin' me borror it."

"Generous," Feruzi said.

"Aye, he is that."  Sandara smiled.

"More relaxed, Sister?" Ezikial asked.

"When the race is done, mebbe."

"It's good to see that we have our cheering section," Feruzi said.  "Let's try not to let them down."

Pegsworthy spent the night, cheerfully getting tipsy with Chopper and falling asleep in the chartroom in the middle of an enthusiastic but virtually incomprehensible card game that sucked in Rosie, Conchobar, Fishguts, and, oddly, Leila, who walked off with everyone's pocket change through the simple expedient of staying sober and palming cards only, oh, five or six times.  Ten at the outside.  Despite all that, he was up well before dawn, rousting Feruzi out of her quarters so they could transfer Ukele to the Bonaventure before the start of the race. 

Reiko was at the wheel when Feruzi returned--looking somewhat flustered--and they immediately set off for the starting line, a rough formation of ships drawn up between the Kraken and the Ocean's Revenge nearly half a mile away.  After more than an hour of shouting, cursing, and jockeying for position, the contenders were grouped up. 

"Hmm," Reiko said, scanning the competition.  Most of them didn't strike her as serious threats, but a few drew her discerning eye.  "Albatross, Barnacled Bitch, Bonny Witch, Chimera's Teeth, Darcy's Pillage, Kelizandri's Fever, Pharasma's Price, Promise's Bounty, Redcap, Sea's Largess, Skullduggery, Stormrunner, Sullied Strumpet, Wave Wraith . . . oh, and of course, the Wormwood."

"Admit it," Chopper said.  "You memorized that beforehand."

"No, Captain."

The pre-dawn calm was beginning to get choppy.  The Master of the Gales appeared above them on Cauldron Rock.  He raised his arms and lightning struck the beach below, signaling the start of the race.  The competitors lurched as sails were unfurled, anchors weighed, and oars engaged.  The wind shifted abruptly as the Master transformed into an albatross, violently stirring the mass of ships and turning what was already disorder into chaos.  Reiko spun the wheel violently and shouted at the riggers, narrowly avoiding the Redcap.  The Crisis began to pick up speed, passing just ahead of Pharasma's Price and then they were in the open ocean, making way before a freshening breeze punctuated by raindrops.

"Silted Shrouds ahead!" Leila called. 

Chopper perched in the rigging and made rude gestures at the other ships, nearly losing his grip once.  He laughed happily.  "Full speed ahead, Miss Nakayama!" he shouted.  Reiko raised an eyebrow but gave the order.

The Silted Shrouds were an extensive series of shallow sandbars formed by the continuous churn of the Eye of Abendego.  There were no up-to-date charts as new channels and sandbars continuously formed and washed away.  Only by reading the waves could one navigate the Shrouds without getting hung up or capsizing.  Chopper shouted instructions down to Reiko, most of which proved to be good.  They had only one near miss, the masts groaning hideously as Crisis's hull skidded off the top of a submerged bar.  Reiko swung the wheel and shouted for Cog to swing the foremast around--Crisis heeled over sideways and fell off the bar instead of miring.

"Really, Captain!" she yelled.

"The sandbars look like sharks!" he shouted back.  "Just shut up!"

"We're clear for now," Leila called.  "But the Raker Shoals are coming up.  They're on our charts, though, so I can plot a course.  There will be uncharted reefs."

"Shall we slow down, Captain?"

"Full speed ahead.  Don't hit the reefs.  Captain's Orders," Chopper said.

"You're such a comedian."

"True. Unrelated, but true."

"As long as he doesn't make quite a shipwreck," Feruzi grumbled, hauling in line and securing it.

"Shoal dead ahead!" Ezikial called.  "Hundred yards!"  Reiko spun the wheel, concentrating hard and watching the angle of the sun.  "We're past it, but there's another two points to starboard.  Ninety yards!"

With Ezikial leaning out of the Crow's Nest and screaming directions (a practice that seemed to delight him almost as much as shooting people in the face), they threaded the shoals without incident and emerged with a much improved standing in the race.  Reiko mopped sweat off her face, reflecting that they'd barely started--morning wasn't half advanced and the race would take all day.  She had Cog take the wheel during the brief lull and dunked her head in a bucket of water to cool off.

"What's next, Leila?" she asked.

"Gozreh's flow."  Leila smiled demurely.  "Sometimes called Gozreh's Piss by the irreverant.  It's a nasty current.  We'll hit it at the fringes of the Eye, meaning there will be strong wind as well." 

The Crisis bucked hard as she encountered the edges of the current, a visible dark green smear that nearly reached the horizon. Reiko set the wheel hard to port and the riggers went to work, trying to angle the sails so the vicious and erratic wind would keep them from being swept leagues off course.  This checked their forward speed enormously; instead of flying, she now crawled, every league a struggle.  Fishguts came on deck to pass water among the sweating riggers.  He patrolled the deck, muttering to himself.

"Problem, Mister Kroop?"  Chopper called out.

"Jist had ter come an' see it fer m'self!  Nice Shackles weather out here!  Rain's almost fallin straight down!"

"Can I shoot him?" Feruzi demanded.


"Just wing him a little?"

"Still no," Chopper said, grinning.

"The Iris's Splinters coming," Leila said.  "Race calls for us to sail between them."  The Splinters were two jagged shafts of weathered stone that rose out of the ocean, forming a gap that narrowed to 100 feet.  Sailing a ship between them was excruciatingly difficult--and thus extremely popular among the more hell-for-leather pirates, particularly when they were called to evade pursuit.

"There's the Sullied Strumpet," Reiko said, indicating a ship less than a league away that was about to make the run.  Indefatigably cheerful and a good sport by nature, Chopper began cheering them on.  They looked to have achieved an excellent line when an enormous craggy bulk erupted from the water and smashed into them, capsizing the sloop.  Everyone on deck shouted in alarm.

"I ne'er seen a dragon turtle before," Rosie remarked in awe.

"Dragon turtle me arse," Fishguts shouted.  "That's Hirgenzosk!"

"Gesuntheit?"  Feruzi said.

"What's a . . . whatever you said?" Chopper asked.

"E'z the giant dragon turtle what sunk th' Brine Banshee.  Din't you listen to Captain Pegsworthy?"

"I think I was distracted by losing my shirt.  Wait, what's going on there?  Men overboard!  Prepare to take on survivors!"  Chopper bellowed as wind and water forced them inexorably toward the Splinters and Hirgenzosk.  Some of the swimmers spotted his vigorous signaling and managed to grab lines before the turtle could snap them up or simply drown them in its wake.  The beast was MASSIVE, as big as any of the racing ships.  It disappeared beneath the water again and everyone rushed to the rails to see where it went.

"I wonder if it understands Draconic?" Feruzi wondered aloud.  "It is a DRAGON turtle, right?"  Muttering to herself, she cast a simple spell.  A tremendous beaked head exploded out of the water alongside the Crisis and glared at them.  Feruzi stared in horror.  She could swear it made an offended snorting noise before firing an enormous jet of super-hot steam at another nearby ship, the Barnacled Bitch, nearly clearing her decks.  The gunner aboard the Bitch fired a ballista that struck Hirgenzosk in the neck, and it turned away--back toward the Crisis.

"You saw, Mister Hands!" Chopper commanded.  "It doesn't like ballistas.  Make an impression!"

Ezikial scowled, then ordered Rosie and Insawa to change out the chain-bolt for a grenade bolt.  Hirgenzosk lowered its head, a great bow wave surging ahead of it as it powered toward the Crisis.

"Ezikial!"  Reiko shouted.  "Fire already!"  She lined up the bow with the Splinters and felt the wind suddenly pick up, pushing them ahead of the dragon turtle.  Ezikial fired the ballista.  It impacted on Hirgenzosk's shell and lodged deep.  The turtle didn't seem to notice.  And then it exploded.  Reiko fought the vicious current as they hurtled between the rocks.  Behind them, Hirgenzosk roared in hurt and fury, but it did not pursue.

"HOW much further?" Chopper demanded.  Leila glanced at the map.

"Er, I'd say about halfway, Captain.  We skirt the Eye next."

"Besmara.  Whose idea was this?!"

"Er, yours, I think?"

"Damn right!  Full speed ahead!"

"Here's a nother crazy idea off me bukkit list," Fishguts said as they sailed into the hurricane.

"Why do you keep a list in a bucket?" Chopper asked.  "Bloody nutter."

"Smart-arse Cap'n!  I ne're thought I'd--" Fishguts was cut off abruptly as a sheet of lightning struck the foremast.  The sail EXPLODED into flames, starting a four-way battle between the flames, the rain, the wind, and the cursing riggers.

Ezikial burst into laughter, attacking the fire as if it were an enemy.  "BESMARA!" he yelled.  In large part due to his singularly crazy antics, the fire was rapidly quenched.  They emerged from the worst of the Eye with only a few ships still ahead of them--and only a few visible behind.

Leila waded across the sloshing deck, and checked the map, which like everything else out in the open was now soaked.  "Sharkskin Reef and Pinnacle Atoll should be just ahead, Captain.  We can thread it, or go around.  But going around will take time."

"Thread it, of course!"

"The crew's pretty fagged, Captain," Conchobar said.

"Well . . . reef the fo'sl.  Take it careful-like."

"Aye, Captain."

At a slightly diminished speed, Reiko was able to thread the reef and make the awkward circle around the Pinnacle, bringing them back out of the Eye.  The other contenders were well behind or completely out of sight . . . except for the Wormwood.  The Kraken was visible to the west of them, waiting to observe the finish.

"Get that sail free!"  Chopper yelled.  The Crisis seemed to surge forward, running before the wind and outdistancing the Wormwood by a comfortable margin as they came up to Coaming Point.  Despite their exhaustion, the crew burst into hysterical screaming, cheering, and hugging--Chopper was hoisted overhead and paraded around the deck until enough people tried to "help" that they overbalanced and nearly tossed the Captain in the drink.  Most of the fleet was gathered south of the Point, out of the worst of the weather, including the Bonaventure.  When the Crisis came into view around the point, a signal flag was raised on the Bonaventure--a warning and a request for assistance.  Chopper scowled.  "Bring us alongside."

"The Master of the Gales'll be waitin', Cap'n," Fishguts said.

"Bring us alongside.  Merrill's family.  Our prize can wait."

"Cap'n Chopper!"  Labella screamed the moment they were within hailing distance.  "It's Cap'n Pegsworthy!  Come quick!"  She didn't have to yell twice.  Chopper practically levitated between the two ships the second a gangplank was raised.  "He was poisoned!" Labella told him in a more moderate tone.  Chopper swore viciously and shouted for his surgeon's kit.

"Captain," Pegsworthy rasped, raising his hand in a weak salute as Chopper waddled in dragging the kit, Feruzi close behind him.

"The hells happened, Merrill?" Chopper demanded, dropping his kit bag on Pegsworthy's desk and rolling up his sleeves. 

"Ukele."  Feruzi stiffened.  Chopper sent a brief glare in her direction.  Pegsworthy shook his head slightly while Chopper examined the wound in his arm.  It had turned a dark, malignant color and the flesh was red and swollen nearly to Pegsworthy's shoulder. "Not that. More, her fault.  Sort of.  She 'scaped.  Found summof Harrigan's men.  Fight.  Got 'r back, but . . ."

"Eh, it's not so bad," Chopper said.  Feruzi shot him a dark look, recognizing by the tone of his voice that he was lying through his teeth.  "Barely a scratch.  You'll be up and about in no time."  He turned to look at Feruzi and mouthed, "Out."  She nodded and mutely left the room, stepping aside to let Sandara in.

"Well?" Labella demanded.  Feruzi hesitated, then shook her head grimly.

"I won't lie to you: it's bad."

"I already knew that much."  She blinked back tears.  "Don't let yer Captain take 'is arm, too.  Think he'd rather be dead."

"Don't take Chopper's nickname too literally.  He's no butcher."

"That's good to know."

"WHOA!" Someone yelled from the foredeck.  An albatross swooped down and landed on the Bonaventure, scattering the crowd.  It shimmered and turned into the Master of the Gales, who spotted Feruzi and stalked toward her.

"Fetch your Captain, Miss."

"He's busy," Feruzi said staunchly.  The Master raised one hoary eyebrow.

"S'all right, Ruse, I'm here.  What's this about?"

"Well, first things first.  Your prize, sir."  The old druid handed over a heavy purse along with a packet of papers.  Chopper glanced over them briefly and handed them to Feruzi.  Next the Master took hold of Chopper's wrist and affixed a silver manacle, meant to symbolize Chopper's new position on the Council as well as his new responsibilities to the people of the Shackles.  Then the Master turned away from him and pushed open the door to Pegsworthy's cabin.  Mystified, Chopper and Feruzi crowded in behind him.

"Captain Pegsworthy?"


"I am placing you under arrest for violating the Truce of the Free Captains' Regatta."

Aug 29, 2013

Skull and Shackles Interlude: She Chose Poorly

"Thank you for doing this," Feruzi said.  "I think everyone would be more than a little distracted if she were on the Crisis during the race."  Ukele flopped into a chair in Pegsworthy's cabin and glared.

"My pleasure," Pegsworthy told Feruzi mildly.  "The Bonaventure can't enter the race, anyway.  A bit too much damage during some of her recent adventures."

"You mean, when you were helping us?"  Feruzi demanded.  Pegsworthy gave her a medium-strength glower.

"You're going to try and offer some sort of payment, aren't you."

"Well, we ARE responsible . . ."

"Hm, no.  I am responsible.  And I can manage my own repairs, thank you.  And I'll thank you even more not to go implying that it's charity or lust poisoning or some other nonsense.  I may be soft in the head about women but I've been managing a ship for nearly as long as you've been alive."  Possibly longer, he thought, and isn't that just the sort of boost your spirits need.

"I didn't mean to insult you," Feruzi said.

"Then maybe you shouldn't look down your nose at everyone," Ukele sniped.

"I don't!"

"Ladies, please," Pegsworthy interrupted.  "I'm not insulted.  I'm happy to help."  He grinned suddenly.  "That and I don't want you asking me to turn over part of the loot.  Apart from everything else, the venture was quite profitable."  He met Feruzi's eyes while she visibly weighed him up and finally settled on only slightly grudging approval.  It was exhausting how slow the process was--particularly given how little time he had to devote to it--but he was learning.  Maybe even coming to enjoy it.

"I should go," Feruzi said, making a slight motion toward the door.  Pegsworthy looked down at her hands pointedly and she awkwardly extended one of them.  Ukele made a disgusted noise and Feruzi fled like a startled deer.

"I don't know what you see in her.  If she was any more rigid, you could use her for a plank."  Ukele smirked.  "She's already shaped like one, anyway."

"I take it you've given me up for a lost cause, then?"

"You're as bad as she is.  Duty this, honor that.  I can see it in your face.  So I won't waste my time."
Pegsworthy shrugged.  "Well, I don't intend to make your incarceration unpleasant.  Feel free to move about the ship.  Just don't try to leave.  I gave my word to Feruzi and I intend to keep it."

"That's no concern of mine."

"Then you can wait in the brig for her return.  I understand it's more unpleasant than usual right now, the Bonaventure's hull being in less than perfect condition.  Your choice."

"And you'll just believe me if I promise to stay on the ship?"

"I'm a trusting fellow.  To a point."

"Oh, well fine then.  I promise."

"Mm-hmm."  Pegsworthy raised his voice slightly.  "Mr. Torkelsen!" the young handsome cleric appeared in the door almost instantly.

"Yes, Captain sir?"

"I'm busy.  Show the young lady around the ship for me, will you?  But don't let her out of your sight."

"You didn't say anything about a guard!" Ukele protested.

"Mr. Torkelsen isn't a guard.  He's a scamp."

"Why, thank you, Captain," Torkelsen drawled.

"A professional scamp, so I trust him.  Mostly.  Off you go--and have Pinch send up his report.  I need those numbers."

"Aye, aye, Captain."

"Enjoy yourselves," Pegsworthy said, turning back to his charts and books and putting his spectacles on.  As Torkelsen turned to leave, he looked up sharply.  "Not too much, mind you."

"Is there even anything to see other than bits of rope and metal?" Ukele asked, following the cleric out of the room.  Torkelsen grinned.

"Well, perhaps not as would interest a fine lady such as yerself," he said.  "We usually manage to amuse ourselves.  Are ye hungry a'tall?  I'm a might peckish meself.  Captain says I must have a hollow leg."

"I don't know.  Is the food any good?"

"Well, I think so, but the Captain says I'd eat an anchor if yer buttered it, so ye'll have ter judge fer yerself.  Course, he ain't particular, either. I heard Cookie tell about one time tha provisions got so low, 'e boiled up a coupla dozen rats an' barnacles an' the Captain sent down fer seconds.  Captain says that were back in tha bad ol' days, of course, just after they ran away from Andoran but afore they found a place in the Free Captains.   We're pretty flush now an' tha Captain mostly does what 'e likes, like chasin' after that girl 'o his.  Not my type, but there's no accounting for taste.  I like 'em more curvy--like yerself, fer instance."

Subtle, Ukele thought, but she smiled and let the endless stream of chatter wash over her.  It was almost restful, and she noticed that the other crew kept their distance, no doubt having reached their limit of 'Captain says' stories.  It wasn't true freedom, but at least she was out in the fresh air and away from Feruzi.  With an accommodating fool close at hand there just had to be some way to make both conditions permanent.

Sure enough, opportunity presented itself.  The weather--never good this close to the Eye--blew up and the vast majority of the Bonaventure crew scurried for cover.  Ukele kept her eyes on a small cutter that had spent most of the day making lazy circles around the Bonaventure, never too close, but never too far away, either.  Instead of pulling away from the anchored ship, it used the brief squall as cover to slink closer.  She caught a look at its crew--three enormous, half-naked men, looking more like savages then her relatives ever had.  Perfect.

"Don't yer want to get under cover?" Torkelsen asked.  He seemed immune to the weather, himself.

"I'm so tired of being cooped up," Ukele said.  "But a cloak would be nice."

"Course!  Follow me." 

"Do I have to?  I don't want to go climbing around the innards of some smelly ship."

"The Bonaventure's not smelly!"  Oops, tactical error.  Torkelsen was almost as fond of his 'other mistress' as the Captain.  Ukele let herself droop a bit.

"You're right, I was being mean.  I'm just enjoying the quiet here so much . . . could you please go fetch it for me?"

"Captain said not to let you out of my sight, miss."

Stubborn jackass!  He had more willpower than she suspected.  Maybe that was why Pegsworthy sicced this particular loyal dog on her.  "Well, I wouldn't want to get you in trouble with the Captain."

"Oh, it ain't like that, but a man just hates to disappoint 'im, y'know?  Let's go find you that cloak."  The bunkroom was crammed with pirates engaged in all manner of pirate activities.  Ukele saw the ruination of her plans, but Torkelsen turned the other way, into the hold, threading his way between the casks and crates and bundles.  "I know we got summat around here that'll do the trick."  A heavily waxed length of canvas came loose from a bundle of similar items and he draped it with a flourish over Ukele's shoulders.  She smiled up at him and released the spell she'd prepared while his back was turned.

"You're so nice to me, but I don't want to put you to any more trouble.  You should just stay here."

"Right.  I'll just wait here."

"Until I get back."

"Until you get back."

Moving quickly but with grace so that no one would notice anything unusual, Ukele slipped back to the deck.  Now where had that cutter got to . . . ah.  Ukele waved the waxed cloak until she was sure she'd gotten the attention of the three men in the cutter.  Then she climbed over the rail and jumped into the sea.

"You want something, girly?" the apparent leader asked after they'd fished her out of the water.  He was massive and hideous, but Ukele was willing to tolerate both conditions for now if that was what it took to get well away.  "Yer with the Bonaventure?"

"Oh, I was with them briefly but not, you know, WITH them.  And I'd do a lot to get away nice and quiet."

"Well, I think we can help yer there.  Harrigan'll want ter see yeh."

"I don't know any Harrigan, but if he wants to see me I suppose I can oblige."

"Oh, ye'll oblige him, all right."

* * *

"They would fetch a pretty penny, but I'm not so sure I want to dispose of those weapons so quickly, Markuss.  If a war shapes up we may need them ourselves.  That, and I'd hate to discover that I'd accepted coin for the privilege of arming our enemies."

"Coin can be as serviceable a weapon as arms, Captain.  As I should know."  Markuss pinched the bridge of his nose, resettling his smoked spectacles, a habitual gesture that had earned him his nickname years ago.  He did not look entirely human, being tall, cadaverous, beak-nosed and lantern-jawed with a grayish tinge to his skin and no hair to speak of, not even eyebrows or eyelashes.  Few people, even aboard the Bonaventure, knew that Pinch had devil ancestry by way of Cheliax.  It showed most dramatically in his teeth when he smiled, but he never did so it mostly passed unremarked.  Pegsworthy was probably the only man alive who both knew and used Pinch's name.

"Yes, but I'd rather not get a name for heaving bags of money at Chelish ships.  It'd only encourage them."

"As you say, Captain."

"CAPTAIN!"  The door burst open and a breathless, soaked Torkelsen staggered inside.  "Captain, I dunno what happened . . ."

"Eggal."  Pegsworthy's tone was deeply reproving.

"I dunno how she got away from me, Captain!  She ain't anywhere on the ship an' the boats weren't touched.  She must've jumped over the side an' swum for it.  In this weather!"

Pegsworthy sighed and put his books away.  "So be it.  Organize search parties, send everyone out in the boats--have a few men put ashore in case she did make it that far.  I can't thank you for delaying to search the boat, Eggal, where could she possibly hide that would make any difference?"

"Sorry, Captain."

"Don't be sorry, hop to it.  We've got to catch her before she talks her way onto another ship--at best we'll have to pay ransom to get her back then."

"Perhaps I might be of assistance, Captain," Pinch said.  Pegsworthy paused and blinked at the quartermaster.

"Uh . . . forgive me for being skeptical, Markuss, but in what way, exactly?"  Pinch was notorious for flatly refusing to engage in action of any sort--he wouldn't raise a weapon even to save his own skin.

"You might be aware that my vision is of, shall we say, a superior character."


"Well, at this moment I am able to make out three persons who have beached a cutter not far from here and are removing a fourth--small and possibly female--from it."

"Damnation, man, why didn't you say something!?"

"I believe I just did."

"Eggal, get Durgrin and have him bring that Dimension Door scroll up here.  Now."

* * *

"Captain, I only have the one scroll.  And it's not a guarantee that it will work--I haven't mastered this degree of magic.  And I can only take myself and two other people.  At best."

"Sorry, Durgrin, but this is an emergency.  How many men did you say there were, Pinch?  Three?"

"That is the number I saw, Captain.  I cannot say whether that is the number there are."

"Good enough.  Take me and Torkelsen, Durgrin.  I'd wager we can handle any three other men and put a good scare into a much larger number.  Pinch, you have Labella follow us up with the boats, I don't want to wind up stranded."

"Yes, Captain."

"Durgrin, cast it."

"Aye, aye, Captain."  The dwarf read the scroll and a faintly glowing distortion shimmered up around the three men.  Then, with a whumpfing noise, it collapsed in on itself, taking them with it.

* * *


Pegsworthy staggered and fell to his knees on the sand as the footing violently changed.  The rain soaked through his coat as he struggled to get to his feet and draw his sword at the same time.  "Unhand her," he said flatly, menacing the three men.  Torkelsen already had his morningstar ready, while Durgrin hovered behind them, ready to back them up with his magic.

"Damn it!" Ukele cried.  "Don't let them take me!"

"Well, lookee, boys, ain't this a pleasant surprise.  Tha Captain hisself, no less.  Don't need no girl, then  Now, you come along quiet-like, an' we won't have to kill nobody."  The spokesman grinned, displaying several badly-set gold teeth. 

"What do you want with me?" Pegsworthy demanded, baffled.  He'd thought this for a simple kidnapping--with even odds on who precisely was the kidnapped party.  How wrong was he?  And how much was this mistake going to cost?

"Not us.  Captain Harrigan.  He set us to keep an eye on yer, but this be even better."

"You'd break the truce, then?  Hardly wise."

"Us?  You be the one with the sword out.  We wuz just defendin' ourselfs."

"You're kidnapping my charge."

"She came out to us, Captain.  We're just goin' for a little stroll.  Harrigan'd love to meet 'er.  He likes pretty girls.  Course, they don't always like 'im much."

"Hand her over or there won't be enough left of you to make fish bait.  I'll not tell you again."

"Don't hand me over to him!" Ukele squealed.  One of the thugs casually slammed a meaty fist into her back, knocking her to the ground.

"Shut up, witch, this don't concern you no more."

"So what'll it be, Captain?" the spokesman said.  "We ain't gonna hand her over.  You got the stones to come an' take her?"

There didn't seem to be any sense in replying to that, so Pegsworthy leapt forward, driving low toward the spokesman's gut, but the man dodged easily and kicked Pegsworthy's feet out from underneath him.  Torkelsen began to cast a spell, but one of the other thugs stepped forward, grabbed him by the neck, and jabbed a sword up through his stomach ferociously that the cleric was lifted completely off his feet.

"Durgrin!" Pegsworthy ordered.  "Get the girl!"  He fended off the thugs, who were clearly trying to take him alive.  The dwarven sorcerer charged across the beach and threw a spell, concealing himself and Ukele in a pool of impenetrable darkness.  Ukele cursed and there were scuffling noises somewhere inside.

Pegsworthy laid open one man's brow and neatly sheared off another one's hand.  The wounds bled sluggish dark ooze instead of pumping red blood.  Whatever these men seemed, they weren't entirely human.  Something the weight and dimensions of a tree trunk struck him in the chest, throwing him to the ground and knocking the wind out of him.  A vicious kick to the side of his head followed, darkening his vision for a moment.

"Ye'll pay dearly for that, Captain," the man with the freshly-missing hand said, pulling out an ugly, blackened blade.  "Yer already short one leg.  How many of yer other limbs d'ye think I can take off afore ye die?"

"Harrigan'll want ter kill 'im hisself."

"Harrigan's busy racin'.  He'll be happy enough with a head in a basket."  The thug grabbed a handful of Pegsworthy's hair and hauled upward--Pegsworthy mustered enough focus to spit in his face and got another kick to the head for his trouble.  He felt some vague hope that the muzziness would dull the pain, but this proved not to be the case.

Durgrin froze when he heard the agonized scream that went on for a shockingly long time, replaced by the sound of a man being violently sick.  Ukele stopped squrming.  "What's happening!?" she cried in horror.

"It's the Captain," the dwarf said.  He dismissed the darkness and readied another spell.  Two of the thugs had Pegsworthy pinned to the ground while the other sawed at his arm with a nasty serrated knife.

"Yer want a fight, dwarf?"  Lightning erupted from Durgrin's fingertips, striking the two holding Pegsworthy.  They howled as the current made their limbs jerk in a hideous dance and steam burst from their clothes.  The other thug was on him before he could summon up another spell, picking the dwarf up and slamming him bodily into a rock.  "I'll gut yer nice an' slow.  So yer can watch."

"Stop!  Stop it!  What are you doing?!" Ukele shrieked.

"Quiet, bitch!"

"Don't you dare speak to me like that!  Stop it this instant!"

The thug rounded on her, slamming his knee into her belly as she tried to grab his arm.  She fell to the sand and vomited.  Durgrin took advantage of the distraction to draw his belt knife and bury it in the thug's sapling-thick forearm, but the man didn't so much as flinch and his grip on the dwarf's throat did not loosen.  Then a wave of magic swept over them both.

"Let him GO!" Ukele screamed.  Durgrin fell in a heap at the base of the boulder and gasped for air.  "Get OUT of here!"  The thug fought the compulsion for an instant, then turned and fled.

"No, no, no," Durgrin gasped, scrabbling along the beach toward the downed men.  "Don't be dead, please don't be dead . . ."

"What . . . what did they DO to him?" Ukele squeaked, creeping along behind him.  Durgrin wiped the rain from his face so he could see.  The wound in Pegsworthy's arm was still pumping blood, so he was still alive, but Torkelsen was clearly a lost cause.  Durgrin yanked the shirt off the corpse, held it in the rain for a bit to wash the sand off it, and made a rough tourniquet.

"Put your cloak on the ground," he ordered Ukele.  Mutely, she complied, and working together they rolled Pegsworthy onto it and dragged him into what cover was available.

"Is he . . . dead?" she asked, gesturing to Torkelsen.

"You don't see many live men with their guts strewn across half a beach, miss.  Stay here, keep the Captain warm.  I'm going to signal the ship.  We'll just have to hope Labella can get here before any more of Harrigan's finest do.  Why'd you enchant him, anyway?  He'll just run back to Harrigan and we'll be up to our necks in it!"

"I couldn't think of anything else to do!  I don't have any lightning bolts!"

"Well, we're still alive for now.  Let's try to keep it that way."  Durgrin climbed back down to the shore and called for dancing lights, sending them arcing skyward so they'd be sure to be seen.  He thought he could make out the dark shape of a longboat headed their direction, but in the rain and wind it was hard to tell.  He returned to find Pegsworthy awake and attempting to sit up, babbling incoherently at Ukele, who struggled to stop him.  "Lay down, Captain, lay down!  You'll hurt yourself!" the dwarf cried and joined in the attempt to restrain Pegsworthy.

"Can't . . . breathe . . . air . . ." he was indeed wheezing, and red bumps were coming up on his skin.

"Shit," Durgrin hissed.

"What?!" Ukele cried.

"He's been poisoned.  Here, help me, I've got to make him swallow this."  She tried, but her hands were trembling so much that she was worse than useless.  Durgrin finally ordered her sharply out of his way.  She curled into a tight little knot and began bawling.

"I hate you all!" she wailed.  "I want to go home!"

* * *

"Dammit, Durgrin!" Labella shouted the moment the longboat touched ground.  "What possessed you to bring him out here without me!"

"He told me to!" the dwarf cried.  "I couldn't bring more than three anyway!"

"Well, where is he?  And . . . Besmara is that Torkelsen?!  Goddess, these people are nothing but trouble!  I ain't seen as many corpses in a year as I seen since we took up with them!  Where's the Captain?"

"He's hurt bad, Labella.  I dunno if he'll make it."

"Shite, Durgrin, why didn't ye say so afore?!"  Labella rushed into the crude shelter, skidding to a halt on her knees.  "What, this?  I've seen him take worse'n this before many a time.  Idiot, worrying me for nothing!"

"It's not that.  Look at his color!"

"I cain't see his bloomin' color in the bloomin' dark, ye bloomin' fool.  'Elp me get 'im onto the ship.  What in 'ells we're gonna do for 'im without Tork I canna say.  Mebbe Pinch'll know somethin'."

Pegsworthy did not stir as they moved him onto the longboat.  The rowers worked feverishly, spurred on as their Captain's breathing became slowly more labored.

"Can ye do anythin' fer him, Pinch?"  Labella asked, Durgrin huddling at her side like a lost child.  Ukele seemed stunned and had to be led belowdecks by hand to change clothes and be put to bed.  Torkelsen's body, wrapped in canvas, was quietly removed from the longboat and taken away.

The quartermaster frowned deeply.  "I can get him out of those wet clothes and get some proper bandages on.  After that, we will see."  He made a neat, efficient job of it.  "I have seen this poison before, though I do not know its name.  It kills slowly, over many days, but death is nearly always assured in the end.  Even men of iron constitution have succumbed.  Did you administer the antitoxin?"

"Yes, sir," Durgrin said.

"Then we can hope that he will not die immediately.  Perhaps we may yet find a skilled healer who can purge the poison."

"We ain't hardly got friends here, you know that.  There be plenty who'd not grieve if the Captain kicked it," Labella said.

"We have some.  And they have proven resourceful."

"Resourceful he says!  More like a curse out o' hell!  Where's that scurvy wench, I'll give 'er a hidin' she'll not forget all 'er days!"

"The Captain would hardly thank you for it."

"Well, then 'e can tell me off when 'e gets better!"

"Don't, Labella," Durgrin said.  "She's not right in the head.  I don't think she's ever really seen someone get killed before.  And, like you said, the Captain doesn't have many friends here.  You want to risk turning off the only people who might help us?"

"Kin ye get some kind o' message to 'em while they're in the race?"  She asked.  Durgrin shook his head solemnly.

"I'm a sorcerer, not a wizard.  I'm sorry, but we'll just have to wait until they get back."

"And pray," she added.

Aug 27, 2013

Skull and Shackles Interlude: It Begins

As they approached the gangway to the Crisis, Pegsworthy realized that Feruzi was counting down under her breath.  He raised an eyebrow at her, but she shook her head minutely and continued to count.

"Hey, who's the pretty lady?" Cog shouted down from the wheelhouse.  The deck was instantly covered in pirates.

"Three . . . two . . . one . . .," Feruzi continued muttering.

Ukele burst into tears and collapsed in a heap on the deck, a sight to appall a stone statue, which Pegsworthy was not.  Fortunately, he was saved from having to make up his mind as a horde of Chopper's solicitous crew rushed forward to offer their assistance--Fishguts firmly in the lead.  A look of horror flashed across Ukele's face, quickly concealed.  Pegsworthy bit the inside of his cheek to control a smirk.  This was going to be entertaining.

"Ye poor thing!" Fishguts slobbered while Ukele sniffled to a stop and managed a 'brave' smile.  Conchobar appeared around the bulk of Fishgut's stomach like a small moonrise and offered her a handkerchief with a bow as florid as only a gnome could make it.  "Ye'll be wantin' a hot meal, I'll wager," Fishguts continued.

"Oh, yes please!" Ukele enthused.  "And, perhaps, if it's not too much trouble . . ."

"No trouble, no trouble!"

"Perhaps I could get a bath, and some clean clothes . . ."

"Of course!"

Feruzi made a disgusted noise as male crewmembers scurried off in all directions, leaving only Conchobar behind.  She stalked over to the door of the Female Officers' Quarters, slamming it behind her.  The gnome frowned up at Pegsworthy, looking for an explanation.

"It seems my lady is not as fond of her sister as one might expect," he said.

"So that's Ukele?  She seems nice.  Too tall, though." Conchobar grinned.  "Never really been into humans."  Pegsworthy just shrugged at this pronouncement.  Concho looked around for Chopper, but his Captain was busy sorting through a pile of loot.  "Do you know if she's staying?"

"From the sound of things, yes."  Fishguts reappeared, looking around in bafflement.  He spotted a pile of clothes and jewelry in the loot and made a beeline for it, snatching the entire pile from under Chopper's nose without so much as a by-your-leave-Captain. He then promptly disappeared below again.

"We . . . can't put her in with the rest of the crew," Conchobar mused.  "And I don't want to guess what might happen if we put her in with Feruzi . . .

"I think that would be unwise," Pegsworthy agreed.

"There ain't no room in there, anyway," Rosie said.  "Not with me and F'ruzi and Leila."

"Perhaps Reiko's room . . ."

"No," Reiko said flatly.

"You could share . . ."


"How's about the Male Officers' Quarters?" Rosie asked, grinning wickedly.  Conchobar looked horrified.  "It's just yer and Cog, an' ye can sleep below."

"But . . ."

"I bet Cog'd agree if ye axed him," Rosie continued heartlessly.

"But . . . but . . ."

"It's that 'r the bilges.  Or maybe ye could put 'er in wit Fishguts.  Or Zeek if she don't mind what 'e an Grok get up to o'nights . . . 'ey, mebbe she'll join in . . ."

"MERCIFUL GODS!" Conchobar squeaked, his voice rising several octaves.

"I kin just see it," Rosie went on, grinning savagely.  Conchobar looked faint.  Pegsworthy grinned at the little gnome's discomfiture.

"I don't mind moving that much!"

"Right, it's settled then.  I'll tell Cog," Rosie said and scampered off.

"Women," Conchobar muttered.

"I couldn't agree more," Pegsworthy said.  "Speaking of which . . ."

"Maybe you should wait.  She didn't seem to be in a very good mood."

"You could be right, but I suspect it will not improve if I just let her stew."

"Yes, Feruzi's a champion stewer."  Pegsworthy gave Conchobar a jaundiced look.  "Sorry, that sounded bad."

"That's all right, I know what you meant.  Ah well, once more into the breach and all that."

"Best of luck, sir."

"Thank you.  I will probably need it."  The door flew open between his first and second knocks and Pegsworthy stumbled, nearly losing his balance and hissing in pain as his shortened leg twisted awkwardly.  Feruzi blanched and grabbed his arm, steadying him.

"I'm sorry, Captain . . ."

Pegsworthy felt a flare of temper and abruptly decided to follow it.  "I don't suppose you have the good manners to invite me in?"  Feruzi blinked in shock and took several steps back--about all there was room for.  Pegsworthy closed the door behind him and leaned against it.  "And when are you going to learn to call me Merrill?" he demanded.  She stiffened. 

"Feruzi did not . . ."

"Oh, cut out that nonsense."  She was seriously glaring now.  That was good?  Maybe?

"When are YOU going to call me Feruzi?" she shot back.  Haha, it WAS good.  So the lady LIKES to bicker.  Well, he could bicker with the best of them.

"Chopper calls you 'Ruse'."

"Chopper's entitled.  And pigheaded."

"Well, I don't know that I'm that pigheaded . . ."

"The hells you don't."

"Don't interrupt me, wench, I happen to be the Captain around here."

"I thought you wanted me to call you Merrill."

"I do.  And I'd like to think I might also be . . . entitled."  She frowned slightly, so he eased off a bit.  "Eventually."

"It's possible," she conceded.  "Merrill."  He bowed put a hand over his heart and bowed--not a full bow, only a few inches.

"Good, that's settled."  Pegsworthy pushed himself upright, clasping his hands behind his back and leaning forward slightly.  He let forced any trace of teasing out of his voice and spoke with grave gentleness. "Are you all right, my lady?  I would not press, but time, as always, is fleeting."

"Perhaps you should direct that question at Ukele.  The cat only scratched me."  She rubbed her arm self-consciously.  Pegsworthy took a step forward and took hold of her elbow, frowning over the marks.  "It's nothing," she insisted.

"I'll be the judge of that.  In any case, you deliberately misunderstood me."  He kept his eyes on her arm, pulling out a clean cloth and a flask and from his belt pouch and dabbing carefully at the dried blood.  "I did not ask if you were hurt.  I asked if you were all right."

"Yes, of course--"

"Don't put me off," he growled.  Feruzi snatched her arm away, planting her shoulder in his chest and forcing him to step back.

"What do you want me to say? 'Oh, I'm so upset, here, let me cry on your shoulder and moan about how hard my life is'?  Would you LIKE that?  Go talk to my sister, then, she's an EXPERT at it."

"I don't claim to know the full history, here, but Ukele did not strike me as being as venomous as you seem to think.  Young and foolish, perhaps, but we all go through that.  Some of us not as handicapped by beauty, of course . . ."


"Yes.  I know it sounds absurd, but just try to imagine it for a moment . . ."

"Because I'd have to IMAGINE anyone wanting ME like that . . ."  Feruzi gasped as Pegsworthy hurtled into her, knocking her into the wall and pinning her there with his body pressed full-length against hers.

"I told you," he murmured, his lips brushing against her jaw, "to cut out that nonsense."  Feruzi just stared, unable to muster any kind of response.  Moving carefully, Pegsworthy slipped a hand around the back of her neck and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead.  It didn't seem like she had control of her body, so he eased her carefully into a sitting position and then let go, backing away.  Feruzi slowly pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, staring at the floor.  "Would you prefer me to leave?  Say the word.  Or just nod.  Something."  He hesitated a long moment and a pleading tone crept into his voice.  "Anything."  Feruzi scrubbed her hands over her face and drew a shuddering breath.  "Forgive me, I . . . I will go."

"Merrill, don't . . ."  Pegsworthy flinched as if the sound of her voice hurt him.  "You'll . . . visit me again?"

"I think," he said, talking to the door, "I have reached the limit of what I know how to say.  If you ever find something you wish to say to me, I will listen.  I want to listen.  But I am not sure I can face any more of this silence."  The words sounded final, but he made no move to leave.  Feruzi swallowed around the lump in her throat.

"It is better than screaming."

"Am I as horrible as all that?"

"No!  I don't want to scream at you!  But I'm not sure I can stop myself right now."

"If it would make you feel better . . ."

"No, Merrill, making you hate me would not make me feel better," she said dryly.

He grinned, turning around to look at her.  "Gallantry demands I deny the possibility.  But I do have a temper."


"Indeed, my lady.  And a great deal of foolish vanity to go with it.  Had you not noticed?"

"I think I've been a little . . . preoccupied."

"This situation is not likely to change, my lady."

Feruzi seemed about to say something, but she was interrupted by a bunch of loud scraping and banging noises coming from next door.  Mystified, she opened the door, startling Cogward, who was dragging a sea chest out of the room he shared with Conchobar.

"WHAT are you doing?" Feruzi demanded.

"Making room?"

Pegsworthy sighed.  "I should get back to my ship.  I'll leave you to it."

Aug 25, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 29: The Spymaster

"This is less an infiltration and more an assault at this point," Chopper remarked as they cleared their way up to the second floor.  Feruzi helpfully pointed out the arrow-studded corpse of the peculiar beast she'd discovered and subsequently killed.  Snake-headed tentacles grew out of the shoulders of an immense red-and-black cat.  Everyone took a look at it but no one could identify it--whatever it was, it was rare and probably not the cuddliest of pets.

Labella picked the lock on the southern door and opened the door with great care, avoiding some gooey substance smeared on the inside of the handle.  The room beyond was an extensive alchemy laboratory.  Chopper glanced inside and nodded to himself.  "Toss it," he said, and Ezikial promptly attempted to fit the entire lab into one sack, displaying impressive skill at multidimensional geometry.  Sadly, the equipment was not as current on the application of space-time vortices and resisted this treatment, causing Ezikial to negotiate with Labella for the acquisition of a vehicle equipped with more real-world storage capacity.  Barely resisting the urge to laugh, Labella left with Torkelsen and Pegsworthy's dwarven sorcerer Durgrin to secure transport.

With Sandara's help, Ezikial rummaged through the lab and found several small boxes containing poisons, completed alchemical items, and even some valuable magical concoctions.  Feruzi stepped into the next room and discovered a heap of broken furniture and a hole in the ceiling leading up to the third floor.  She repositioned a ladder and climbed up. 

"See anything, Ruse?" Chopper asked.  Feruzi shrugged.

"Not at the moment.  Perhaps they brought goods in this way?  I don't know why else they would make a hole in the floor."  She sighed.  "After that explosion, anyone left in the building knows we are here."

"Then we should not leave them an avenue of escape," Reiko said, pointing across the dark wreckage toward the stairs on the other side of the floor.  Feruzi nodded and they split into two groups, Ezikial and Sandara following Reiko up the stairs while Pegsworthy and Chopper climbed the ladder after Feruzi.  The ladder ascended into a bare room next door to, of all things, a tidy bathroom.  Reiko tried the first door at the top of the stairs and found it locked.  Gesturing Ezikial forward, she moved on down the hallway and heard a faint click followed by the clangor of an alarm bell.  A heavy blade shot out of the wall, taking a neat slice out of Reiko's back as she jumped away, nearly landing on Feruzi who was coming up the hall from the other direction.

"Ah, well done, you found the trap."

"Yes, I've found both of them, now," Reiko said, shaking her head in sudden wooziness.  She glanced at the blade and was unsurprised to see dark stains on the metal--some sort of poison, no doubt.  It was mostly dried out and Reiko felt little effect other than a faint tingling and numbness that she studiously ignored.

Ezikial blew the lock out of the door, flooding the hallway with the stench of fresh putrescence.  The room was heaped with mulch and mud and the corpse of an almost skeletal humanoid with claws, a long tail, and sharp teeth lay on the floor.  It appeared that someone removed most of its internal organs not long after it died, but Chopper noted to abscesses where it appeared something had burrowed out of the body.

"Cayden's rotting liver!" he announced as two dark shambling shapes detached themselves from the shadows.  They resembled filthy babies with enormous distended mouths--if babies were made out of leaves, vines, tree bark and pallid roots.  Feruzi and Ezikial both fired from pure reflex, sending chunks of the creatures flying, but one nevertheless managed to let out a hideous scream.  Feruzi clapped her hands over her ears and even Reiko winced.

"Excuse me just a moment," Pegsworthy muttered and stepped outside the room, breathing heavily while he struggled with violent nausea. 

"We should burn these creatures," Reiko said sharply.  Chopper helpfully struck a tindertwig and passed it to her.  She glared at him.

"Really, Chopper, be more useful."

"I'm surrounded by professional killers.  I've got time for some levity."

Shaking her head, Reiko drew her katana and hacked the mud babies to disgusting pulpy bits.

"Why do we always find this disgusting stuff?" Feruzi asked, retreating back to the door.

"That is a good question," Reiko said, grimacing at the ooze on her katana blade.  She reached over and wiped it off on Chopper's sleeve before replacing the sword in its sheath.

"You want pretty smells, become a florist," Chopper said. 

Pegsworthy shook his head.  "I have had some nasty adventures, but rarely THIS nasty."

"We seem to bring out the worst in everything," Reiko told him.

"There are two more doors down the hall," Feruzi said.  "Quit wasting time."  She attempted to boot one of the doors, causing it to rattle, but the door was unimpressed.  Someone inside the room squealed.

"Would you like some help?" Reiko asked.  Feruzi scowled.

"OPEN THE DOOR!" she bellowed while Chopper pulled out his axes.  The person or people inside said something but it was too muffled to make out.

"Should I get that?" Ezikial asked.

"Save the bullet, someone inside probably needs it more than the door does," Chopper said.  Ezikial gave him a tired look.

"I do have more, Captain."

"Save it, Mr. Hands," Reiko said.

"Do you hear that?!" Feruzi shouted.  "If you don't open the door a criminal madman will burst in and murder you!"

"Mmm!  Mmm mm mmph!"  Ezikial took aim.  Behind him, Sandara theatrically put her fingers in her ears.  Feruzi and Pegsworthy rapidly did the same.

"Put it away!" Reiko growled.  She slammed her shoulder against the door and it gave way with a splintering crash, revealing a young and extremely attractive Mwangi woman chained to the far wall, her mouth stopped with a gag.  Her eyes widened as Reiko burst into the room and her face lit up.  Then her eyes suddenly narrowed.

"Do you have ANY IDEA what I've been through looking for you?!" Feruzi demanded.  Reiko glanced over her shoulder, shrugged, and went across the hall to try the far door.

"You sure you wanna miss this?" Chopper asked softly.  Reiko shrugged.

"I'll wait.  We'll have to break this door down with your axe, I'm thinking.  It's barred on the inside."

Feruzi was still talking, glaring at the chained-up woman who was shaking her head vigorously and making furious noises behind the gag.  "I am taking you straight home!  Don't even think about arguing!"

"Mmm MMPH!"

"Tomak is dead because of you!"

"Mmn nnm MMPH!"

"D'ye ken whass goin' on here?" Sandara asked.  Ezikial shrugged.

"Not a clue," he said. 

Feruzi seemed to have run out of harangue for the moment and bent down to untie the gag, then paused.  "No magic or it goes right back."  The other woman glared, but held her tongue until her mouth was loose.

"I am NOT going back there!" she spat, wincing at the abrasions around her mouth.

"That's what YOU think," Feruzi retorted grimly.  She gestured toward the people hanging around the door.  "That's Chopper, Sandara, Ezikial and . . . Reiko went somewhere.  And Captain Pegsworthy.   Everyone, this is my sister Ukele."  Feruzi addressed her sister.  "Chopper saved my life so I've been traveling with him."

"Heh," Chopper said.  He held up a key he'd taken from a nail near the door.  "Think you'll want this."

"Allow me," Pegsworthy said, taking the key and using it to unlock Ukele's shackles.  She promptly flopped on the ground at his feet, giving him a pleading look.  He stooped and lifted her to her feet.

"Zarskia had me here for more days than I can count," Ukele said, leaning heavily on Pegsworthy's arm and looked up at him winningly. 

Feruzi turned away from both of them with a scornful noise.  "Don't turn your back on that one," she said, seemingly to the air, "or you're likely to find a dagger in it."

"Where is this 'Z'?" Chopper asked.  Ukele gestured faintly toward the door across the passage.

"She found Tomak's talents useful and held me here to insure his loyalty when he began to stray."

"Right," Reiko said.  "Axe please."  Chopper handed it to her and she promptly went to work on the door.  Strong as it was, she made short work of it, but the room on the other side appeared to be empty aside from elegant and expensive furniture.  Then a bomb sailed out of the air and exploded at Reiko's feet, showering her with glass and flaming liquid.  Another struck Chopper as they peered around the room, setting his clothing afire.  Sandara rushed forward and threw a spell into the room.  A tall, muscular Mwangi woman in silvery chainmail and elaborate attire appeared.  Pegsworthy shook his greatsword loose and charged her, forcing her back away from the door.  Chopper, still smoking, flanked her on the other side.

"Stand down and we will not kill you!" Reiko called.  "Maybe," she added under her breath.  Zarskia drew a pair of butterfly swords and fought back viciously.  "I know the sentence for espionage in the Shackles," she hissed.  Reiko reversed her katana, ducked under one of Pegsworthy's powerful swings, and cracked Zarskia on the back of the head, knocking her unconscious to the carpet.

"See, if you want them alive you have to do it yourself," Feruzi told her.

"Clearly."  Ezikial scowled at this turn of events.  "Oh, stop being dramatic, Mr. Hands," Reiko told him.  "I don't honestly care if she dies; she ordered the deaths of some of our friends.  But we may be able to get some information out of her before that."

"Hmm," Feruzi said.  She looked over at Chopper.  "If you don't mind, I need to get Ukele back home as soon as possible.  It would . . . ease my mind."

"You know she's just going to run away again," Reiko said.  "She clearly does not want to go home."

"What she wants doesn't signify.  You think I wanted to go chasing her across half a continent?"

"Then why did you?"  Reiko asked.

"Because . . ."

"Um, not ter interrupt," Sandara said, "but where IS Ukele?"

"Heh," Chopper grinned.

"Gods damn it," Feruzi swore and charged toward the stairs.

Reiko shook her head.  "She might not have run if you hadn't threatened her."  There was a sudden loud commotion below; Feruzi reached the hall in time to see Ukele barrel directly into Pegsworthy's returning crew.  Torkelsen leered and snatched Ukele off her feet with a practiced grab, she shouted arcane words but Durgrin made a pass with his hands and the spell, whatever it was, fizzled.

"You're going home if I have to tie you up and sit on you the entire way," Feruzi said.  "I can't imagine why you're so reluctant to go and be fussed over."

"You can't watch me forever!"  Ukele shrieked, squirming to get loose.

"Heh, she's a feisty one!"  Torkelsen announced.  "That's okay, honey, I like it rough!  Give us a kiss!"

"That's my sister," Feruzi growled.

"Uh . . . oh.  Sorry."  He slowly and carefully set Ukele on the ground.  For a moment it looked like he might whip out a handkerchief to give her a quick polish, but he just backed away, raising his hands.  Ukele eyed the exit, judging her odds, then subsided into a furious pout.

"WE NEED SOME ROPE!" Ezikial yelled down the stairs.  Sandara jumped.

"Oh, damn it, be right back," she muttered.  "Jist when it were gettin' good."

"Maybe you should go see what the rest of your crew is up to," Feruzi told Chopper, who was hovering some distance down the hall.  "I can handle this myself."

Chopper shot her a sympathetic look.  "As you wish."  Following Sandara, he discovered that Ezikial and Reiko had, for some reason, disassembled the fireplace in Zarskia's chambers, revealing a shaft that led who-knew-where.  "You all should really show more interest in your fellow crewmembers," he scolded.

"I was!" Sandara squeaked, offended.

"Not you, Sandi, them."

"I didn't seem that dangerous," Ezikial grated.  Reiko poked her head out of the fireplace.

"I keep my fellow crewmembers alive, that's what matters," she said.

"I hate you both.  So much."

"As long as you brought the rope."

The shaft led down to a dingy cellar stacked with ancient firewood beside a corroded iron gate secured by a padlock.  A small table held a scattering of papers, most encrypted or simply ambiguous, but with enough hints do expose a spy network that seemed to extend throughout the Shackles.  One satchel held instructions in plain language, dated three weeks ago.

"Silence is now key.  Our plans will go into full force once our agent finishes his preparations.  Destroy any remaining evidence and discreetly sell the business.  Report for your next assignment."

"Aha," Chopper said.