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

Oct 22, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 36: The Cleanup

Ezikial winced as Sandara's spell took effect, restoring his eyesight.  The first thing he saw was the Dreamstone sitting on the chartroom table with both Reiko and Feruzi glaring at it as though they could force it to render up its secrets through sheer willpower.  Leila, Rosie, and Conchobar sat perched around the edges of the room. Ezikial's hand went automatically to his flask.  A swallow of rum only dulled the headache brought on by the morning sunlight glinting through the windows.

"As nearly as I can determine," Feruzi said, finally, "smashing the stone would solve most of our problems."

"Would that get us th' Cap'n back?" Sandara asked.

"It should.  That's how the spell works . . . although it's generally supposed to be much more limited in scope."

"Dispel it?" Ezikial suggested, looking at Sandara, who shrugged.

"I'm less sure what the effect of that would be, if she even can manage it," Feruzi said.  "I wish I had more books."

"Might be nice ter 'ave that genie still 'ere," Sandara said softly.

"There was a genie?" Leila asked eagerly.

"Are you willing to risk the Captain's life by smashing the stone without knowing exactly what will happen?"  Reiko asked.

Feruzi held up her hands.  "Tell me what you require to be certain enough and I will try to provide it.  If you think I'm not knowledgeable enough, that is fine.  Who else would you like to consult?  We could ask Durgrin, or any other spellcaster you know.  Of course, it would take two days at minimum for them to receive the message and send a reply."

Reiko shrugged.  "Do what you think is best," she said, and left the room.

Ezikial rubbed his face.  "I know that this is out of character for me, but in this case I would prefer to wait and be sure rather than risk Chopper's very existence."

"Do you know anyone better than Durgrin to ask?" Feruzi said.  Ezikial looked at Sandara.

"Sister?  Do you have any words of wisdom on this dilemma?"

Sandara shook her head.  "It's magic beyond me means.  Th' Master o' th' Gales might know, but I reckon askin' fer help'd make us look bad."

Feruzi grimaced.  "We could ask Ukele . . ."

"An' Pierce is a sorcerer," Sandara added.

Feruzi's relief was almost palpable.  "Yes!  Or Pierce!"

"I could cast a sending.  That'd be faster than two days," Sandara suggested.  Feruzi extended her hands in a 'well, go on' gesture.  The cleric thought for a moment, counting words on her fingers, and then cast the spell.  A few moments later she made a peculiar face.  "'E says Feruzi's right.  Think I woke 'im up, but he still checked.  Must be love or somethin'."

Feruzi gestured from Ezikial to the stone.  "Do you want to do the honors?"

"Are you sure you wish me to do this?"

Feruzi nodded.  "The suspense is killing me."

Rosie spoke up for the first time.  "Does that mean I get t' yell 'fire in the hole'?" she asked.

"That it does, Rosie-luv, that it does," Ezikial said, drawing his pistol and taking aim.  Rosie's bellow shook the room and was probably audible on shore.  It almost succeeded in drowning out the pistol report that turned the Stone into powder.  Screaming, ghostly shapes filled the room, most dissipating almost instantly.  One seemed to hover, gaining solidity, and then Chopper faded into existence.

"--AAAAAAAUUUUUUUGhhhhhhhh!!!!" he screamed, then seemed to realize that nothing was happening and tapered off to a confused silence.

"Captain on the deck!" Conchobar announced happily, clicking his heels and saluting.  Feruzi's legs went all limp and she sat down rather abruptly.  Chopper's eyes darted from side to side as he adjusted to this new situation.  He accepted the flask Ezikial extended and took a cautious swallow.

"Besmara be praised!" Sandara called.

"She's a regular visitor on our ship," Ezikial said.

"What. The fuck.  Happened." Chopper demanded, enunciating with great care.

"You touched something you shouldn't have," Feruzi announced.  "Again."  She lurched to her feet and helped Chopper to his, dusted his clothes off, and hugged him around the chest.  He still looked too bewildered to protest.

"How . . . why are we back on Crisis?"

"Er . . . where did you expect us to go?" Feruzi asked.

"No, I mean . . . dammitall, woman," Chopper growled.  He paused and took a deep breath.  "What happened after I . . . well, it felt like I suddenly and violently ceased to exist."  He shuddered.

"You got . . . sort of . . . sucked into the stone, when you touched it.  So we grabbed it and came back here," Feruzi explained.

"Why didn't it suck you in, too?"

"I didn't touch it."

"You. Know. What. I. Mean."

"Reiko picked it up, but she seems to be all right.  I think she managed to resist the stone's influence," Feruzi explained, then added, under her breath, "possibly all the crabbiness made her immune."

"An' then Ezikial blew it t' bits," Sandara added.  "It was the only way t' get yer back."

"But you're back now so everything should be all right," Feruzi said with an unconvincing attempt at a smile.

"Well, now that we have no stone, what is your plan for taking care of the ghost?" Reiko asked from the doorway.

"I had this vague scenario in mind where we kill him for being an evil sonofabitch," Feruzi said dryly, "but I'm open to suggestions."

"Th' stone was what were keepin' it in the Material plane.  Now that it's gone, if'n we kill it, it'll die fer good.  I think," Sandara said.

"Eh, kilt one ghost already, what's another, I suppose," Chopper said.

"Shall we go, then?" Feruzi asked.  "We're running short on days to get this island cleaned up before the pirate lords arrive."

"Aye, fine," Chopper said.

"Are you sure you're all right?" Feruzi asked him.

"No," Chopper said, honestly.  Feruzi made a move as if to reach out again, then abandoned it with a helpless shrug when Chopper shot her a stern look.  He gave her a fractional nod, grateful for the intention, and they set off to join Ezikial, Reiko, and Sandara in the boat.

The vault where they had encountered Otongu before was unchanged, but there was no sign of the ghost.  Chopper looked around, edgy.  "Ye reckon he kens our intent?"  The last few words were spoken in a cloud of vapor as the air grew frigid.

"I would guess so, Captain," Ezikial said dryly. 

Sandara cried out.  "He's tryin' t' get inside me!" 

Chopper drew his axes, then cursed.  "Fook!  How do we fight somethin' we can't see?!"

Sandara screamed in an effort of desperate will, and the ghost of Bikendi Otongu manifested, hissing in rage and summoning arcane power.  Sandara shrieked again as the phantasmal horror assaulted her mind for the second time.  She reeled, struggling with images of horror.

Reiko struck the ghost with her enchanted katana, dispersing a fraction of its ethereal substance, followed by a volley of pistol bullets as Ezikial strove to force Otongu back away from Sandara.  The cleric called on Besmara for aid as Chopper advanced.  Otongu reached out, ghostly fingers singing with cold, and grasped at Ezikial, who gasped in agony.  Otongu grinned as his apparent wounds faded away, then vanished again.

"Show yourself, you coward!" Reiko shouted.  A wave of healing energy filled the room and the invisible ghost snarled.  Chopper hacked maliciously at the source of the sound and was rewarded by feeling some faint resistance; Otongu reappeared before him.

"DIE!" the ghost snarled, and Chopper felt his strength pulled from his body.  He struggled simply to stay on his feet as the ghost vanished again.

"Did you imagine a few pitiful mortals could defeat me?!" Otongu hissed, reappearing and reaching again for Chopper.  Reiko's sword and Feruzi's arrow caught him simultaneously, and he screamed, dispersing in a way that looked terribly final.

"Yes," Feruzi said.  She shivered.  "I really hate that guy.  But he did leave us some stuff," she added, gesturing to the crates stacked around the room.

Among the scattered possessions, Reiko discovered a journal written in cipher and put it away to translate later.  With Otongu dead, the Crisis crew was now firmly in possession of the fort.  A flurry of activity followed as Reiko dispatched messages calling for masons and carpenters to repair the badly-damaged structure and erect a dock.  Crisis disgorged materiel and crew.  Reiko took time off from overseeing the cleanup to work on Otongu's journal while Sandara went about restoring the teleportation circle in the tower basement.  A few cautious tests demonstrated that it could indeed be used for transportation to the ruins of Sumitha several miles away.

"Ye find anythin' in that there book?" Sandara asked Reiko, who nodded.

"It describes Otongu's plan to create the Dreamstone.  But there is something odd here."  Reiko showed her the book and Sandara frowned.

"There be magic about it."  The cleric cast a quick spell, and two of the pages split apart, revealing a map to an offshore location.  Sandara grinned.  "Jackpot."

They explored the remainder of the island while they waited for the workers to arrive, clearing away a few pests and discovering a shipwreck that contained some valuable goods.  The workers began to arrive and relieve the crew of their tasks, letting them range further afield.  Chopper discovered some footprints on the beach and the officers went to investigate, discovering a concealed grotto and, oddly, the sound of singing.

"Um, hello?" Feruzi called, mystified.  "Is someone there?"

"Hello!" a woman's voice called.  "Come on in, the water is perfect?"

"Perhaps you'll come to the shore to speak to us first?" Reiko asked.  A woman's head broke the surface of the water and she lazily swam toward them, long dark hair doing little to conceal her nudity.  Her eyes and ears came to sharp points, indicating Fey origin.  She lazily draped a shawl over the rocks and sat down, smiling.

"Welcome, friends, I am Sefina."

"Er . . ." Chopper said urbanely. 

Feruzi bit her lip, trying not to grin.  "Greetings."

"It is nice to meet you, Ms. Sefina," Reiko said.

"Oh the pleasure is mine!  This is my grotto.  Who are you?"

Reiko quickly made introductions.  "You have a lovely home.  We wouldn't want to intrude.  Do you have many visitors?"

A faint frown crossed Sefina's features.  "The cyclopes, sometimes.  I always hide until they go away."  She smiled.  "You are already more interesting than they ever were."

"I doubt they will be much of a bother any more," Reiko said.

"We will be setting up housekeeping somewhat nearby," Feruzi said.  "Perhaps we can become friends."

Sefina clapped her hands.  "Oh, I would love that!  I'd love that ever so much!  May I visit your house?"

"You are welcome to," Reiko said.  "I don't suppose I can ask what you are?  I have not encountered one of your kind before, so I am curious."

"Of course!  I am a nereid, a spirit of the water."

"Er . . ." Chopper remarked.  Reiko glanced at him.

"Well, you are lovely indeed.  So much so that you seem to have captured our Captain's tongue.  Would it be too much to ask that you wear something a bit less revealing when you are among our crew?  Most are honorable enough and will keep their hands to themselves, but there is no need to test their resolve."

"Oh!  I always forget how mortals can be," Sefina said, collecting her shawl and draping it over herself toga-style.  Of course, it wasn't a very large shawl, so the effect wasn't particularly modest, but at least Chopper recovered himself a bit.  He bowed and Sefina laughed, promising to visit later.  Then they all left.

The dock was coming together nicely on the following day when they set off toward the waterfall cliffs, where alarmed workers had reported seeing shadows and something flying around.  The rocks were sheer and vertical, slimed from the violent spray of the churning water.  Feruzi scowled up at what appeared to be a cave of sorts quite near the top of the rocks.

"I should probably climb up and see what that is," she said.  Chopper grinned.

"Stink!" a loud, deep voice bellowed before she could begin climbing.  "Hate stink!  Wait.  KNOW stink!  Who go there?"

"Er, Feruzi?" she said.

"Aieee, small sharp one!"

"We mean you no harm," Reiko called.  "Please show yourself."

"Is that . . .Morgu?" Feruzi asked, suddenly realizing why the voice sounded familiar.

"Morgus," Chopper corrected.

"Oops, yes, that."

The manticore's face appeared over the edge far above them.  "Morgus knows you."

"Hot damn!" Chopper enthused as the creature half-hopped, half-flew down the cliff and landed in front of them.  "I hoped we'd meet again someday."

"Morgus hoped too.  Morgus owes freedom to you."

"What are you doing here?"  Feruzi asked.

"Home here now.  One-eyed devils were here.  Morgus drove away."

"This is our home now, too," Feruzi said.  The manticore's chest puffed up as he considered this.

"This bit is your territory, aye?" Chopper said.

"Yes!  This belong Morgus.  But you welcome in my kingdom," the manticore added magnanimously, nodding his head.  Chopper sketched a bow.

"Much oblighed, yer Majesty."

"We'll have to let everyone know not to shoot at him," Feruzi mused.  "He might shoot back and they won't enjoy that much.  At all."

"I see all from up here," Morgus said, beaming at them.  "Will warn you of dangers."

"We'd appreciate that," Chopper said.

The manticore preened.  "Morgus good king."

After chatting some more with the manticore, they headed back to the fort, only to find the Bonaventure anchored in the cove.  Feruzi squeaked happily and charged down to the dock, where Pegsworthy scooped her up.  Freeing a hand, he waved at Chopper and the others.

"I have some news about our Chelish spy problem," he said.

Oct 21, 2013

Skull and Shackles: Excerpts from Merrill's Journal

15 Rova 4712
If some wag had told me, even five years ago, that I would find myself a married man at the age of thirty-mumble, well, I undoubtedly should have laughed in his face. If he should have continued his precognitions by intimating that I should discover said married state to be superior to every method of living previously attempted, why, I have little doubt but that I should have proclaimed the man mad on the spot and enjoined the local constabulary to lock him away before he injured himself. Yet, here I am, and this is, indeed, the condition I find myself in. Has it been only a week? Already my quarters feel empty with her gone. Dwelling on this seems likely to darken my spirits, so I will, perforce, turn my thoughts into more productive lines.
My first priority, of course, should be to rid myself of that damnable blood-payment Bonefist decreed. Hell Harbor has proved an excellent resource for the pursuit of this goal, for Markuss inspires a great deal of respect from the Chelish expatriates that infest Endymion’s city. We have shifted nearly all of our goods, but I am yet loath to part with the currency until Markuss can ensure that we will face no shortfall as a result. This crew has gone without pay before, but it is a contingency I would as soon avoid. Loyalty must swing both ways if it is to be true.
Markuss has likewise taken the matter of Zuneraali’s shopping list off my hands, although I cannot help but think we may be best served to wait a while and see if this peculiar arrangement runs its course. Durgrin insists that we should make every effort to avoid irritating the dragon, for whatever its personal involvements it will not forget for one moment any disposition it made of its hoard. I bow to his expertise, this being the first dragon I have encountered unless you include that miserable turtle that made such a valiant effort to stave in the side of my ship. Renvel more than earned his bonus for convincing it that we were too much trouble to eat. I hope our enforced dealings with this blue dragon will prove less alarming, but I cannot say that I hold out much hope seeing that Ukele is involved.
It is not in me to think kindly of my new sister-in-law, not even for Feruzi’s sake, but I cannot say that I wish her any particular ill even after all she has done. Another might blame her for Eggal’s death, but I have lived with death for so many years that I have lost even the habit of grief. Fortunately, I have Labella and Durgrin to make up any deficiency that might come out in front of the crew. I wonder if it will strike me years from now, like poor Jamie’s death. I used to think it was strength, not to be torn by loss, but the years have taught me to see it otherwise, as some lack, an emptiness of spirit that forbids me both to weep for my dead and to have peace from them. At least I can be comforted knowing that if I have consigned Eggal to some antechamber of Eternity he will be in good company there, though knowing his tendencies he would probably be happier if there were more women about the place. Take care of him, Jamie. Feckless though he was, he would have made a good Captain in his own right one day.
Labella has just informed me that her investigations regarding Endymion have turned up nothing, but she does have news of a smuggler named Fargo Vitterande, what a name, who is occasionally employed by Endymion. There is a rumor that the man was engaged as a Chelish spy upon occasion. Interesting news. She has enticed one of the man’s former crew to give us more information on their current dealings so we might plan to intercept them later when they again visit the area. Our business here being concluded, I would prefer to get underway as soon as possible.

 16 Rova 4712 AR
A great deal of oddness to record today. We left Hell Harbor on the morning tide before first light, making for the shorter route toward the Island of Empty Eyes that passes Deg’s Machine. I thought little enough of the circumstance at first, but a lone merchantman has been dogging our course for most of the day. All my efforts to either get a closer look at it or leave it behind proved vain, so I became sore puzzled. Deg’s Machine is considered by most too risky a course for ordinary trading vessels and there is little else here but some inhospitable rocks supporting great colonies of birds. No people as far as I know. I was beginning to have grave suspicions when the ship abruptly vanished. Not wanting to chance the Machine with who knows what possible foes lurking, I called for Labella to turn the ship so we could ascertain their purpose for once and for all.
It did not prove to be a terribly long search. The merchantman put in some distance from a rocky island that is large enough to support a small patch of jungle and dispatched four heavily-laden longboats to the shore, where they were met by a group of men that appear to be camped on the island, which does not seem large enough to have a ready source of fresh water, meaning they must have some other means of supply. Sure enough, when we sought out a secluded position to observe them from what do we discover but another ship, the Jester’s Grin, a corvette belonging to one Fargo Vitterande. This seems unlikely to be coincidental. Neither ship seems to have spotted us as yet, so tonight under cover of darkness I plan to have Renvel take some of his men ashore and see what they may discover to unravel this apparent conspiracy.

17 Rova 4712 AR
This has certainly all become terribly exciting. Renvel went ashore as planned but showed no signs of appearing by dawn. I employed Markuss to use his superior vision and as best he was able to make out there was a great deal of fuss ashore—I suspect they were spotted and captured. They began ferrying goods and men out to the merchantman and the Jester’s Grin began making preparations to leave, but the tide and current was presently against them so I made the decision that preventing the merchantman’s escape was more pressing, not knowing which ship might hold my crew or whether either one did. At first all went well—the nameless merchantman was surprised at our appearance and we closed almost all the distance before they could ready arms—when we came under heavy fire from a third vessel, a Chelish man-o-war concealed beyond the headland bearing the name Dominator. I know well of this ship, as to all appearances it was dispatched to pursue the bounty on Crisis and I have little doubt they will be inclined to pass up collecting the bounty on my own ship, not to mention my own head, if they can collect it.
I called for Labella to bring us alongside the merchantman, hoping the Dominator would prove reluctant to fire at their ally. This did indeed prove to be the case and in the brief respite that followed I gathered my men and led an assault on the merchantman, sweeping the decks and forcing the crew below, where we barricaded them in. We then took it upon ourselves to raise sail and, still made fast to the Bonaventure, we made for the open sea with the Dominator in pursuit.
The merchantman’s crew, in desperation or perhaps madness, set their own ship afire. An indescribable chaos resulted as I attempted to search the ship for my missing crew while Labella struggled to get the Bonaventure loose before she, too, burned and the Dominator circled like a shark awaiting the kill, all this to a chorus of roaring flames and men screaming as they were burned. Yet even as we battled this inferno, Markuss absconded with several heavy chests that the merchantman was carrying. Durgrin managed to save a few prisoners, as well, and from their hasty speech I gather that the fire was intended to destroy papers as well as the men who knew what they contained. I shudder at the ruthlessness. Renvel and the others were nowhere to be found, so I fear they are now aboard the Jester’s Grin, but pursuing that ship is now out of the question with the Dominator hard at our heels. I don’t dare head for the Island of Empty Eyes now, either, so I bid Labella make course for Deg’s Machine. We will dare that infernal device and see whether the Dominator’s infernal masters will protect them from another sort of hell.

 18 Rova 4712 AR
Twelve hours of cat-and-mouse with the Dominator and we are finally within reach of the Machine. The tide, of course, is at the worst possible degree for making this run, but by no means impossible even with the damage the Dominator has inflicted. I am not a praying man, usually, but I feel inspired now should any friendly god be watching at this moment. Few shipmasters understand the trick of the Machine, which is a vast submerged engine fashioned of mountain-sized stone blocks in some forgotten age. The blocks shift in a pattern that seems almost random, endlessly churning the waters for miles around. Many is the Captain who has lost his nerve at the sight of some vast stone bearing down on his ship, but the wave that rolls ahead of it is what keeps you safe. Turn aside from the threat, and another block moving invisibly below will suck you down into the depths. I place our lives in Labella’s hands.
Oddly enough, but now is when I receive a message from Feruzi, no doubt detailing her progress on the Island. I would read it, but with the state my nerves are in I cannot bring myself to do it. Instead, I find myself almost hypnotized by the movement of the Machine, wincing uncontrollably whenever a part of it heaves into view under the water. The Dominator hangs back, reluctant to commit, but if they do not follow soon we will be out of their reach either way.

I swear that Labella and Feruzi between them are conspiring to drive me to an early grave. The Dominator finally sets its sails to follow us, and what does Labella do? She runs us aground. A more hideous noise I never care to hear again, the poor ship screaming in agony as she is lifted twenty, thirty feet into the air and then dropped, like a careless child might drop a toy. Somehow, she still holds together, though her belly is rapidly filling with seawater and I am not sure the pumps can keep her afloat. Not even the sight of the Dominator suffering a similar fate moments later can cheer me. They have broken off pursuit, but if we make it out of here in one piece I swear that I am never attempting this run again. Labella thinks we can pull in at a place she knows not far from here to make emergency repairs. I don’t dare sleep until then, so what do I do? I open Feruzi’s note. Great merciful gods, woman, whatever possessed you to write to me and tell me about the lovely ghosts, revenants, and ancient curses you’ve discovered, but not tell me how it all turned out?! I can only struggle to maintain my composure by reminding myself that she must have been alive when she sent it, at least. If I am not gray and haggard by now it is no fault of these women.

Oct 17, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 35: Serenity Now

Bereft of their leader, the remaining cyclopes avoided contact, leaving the Crisis officers generally in command of Sumitha.  Sandara healed the worst of their injuries while they surveyed the ruins.

"So, I guess we go look at the 'wish woman' now?" Feruzi asked.

"Aye, I reckon," Chopper said.  They approached the outdoor monument in the center of the ruins, a raised dais surrounded by decorative archways and alabaster columns.  The triangular pool at the center shimmered and a vaguely female form--giant-sized--manifested.

"Welcome," she said.

"So, what's the what, now?" Chopper muttered.

"Greetings," the woman said.  "I am Vailea, the marid."

"More ghosts?" Feruzi asked.

"I am no ghost, but a creature of elemental water, trapped here in the waning days of Ghol-Gan by ancient cyclopean magics."

Feruzi crossed her arms over her chest.  "And I take it you want our help to get loose?"  She looked at Chopper pointedly.  "I don't suppose there's any use in pretending we're not going to help."

"I will not deny that I greatly desire this, but I can only be freed if someone uses one of my wishes to free me."

"Wishes?" Chopper asked.  "Elaborate."

"I may grant one wish a year.  This, and my power to travel the planes, are why the cyclopes trapped me here.  Why I suffered their abuse.  Of course, the only elders powerful enough to command my services died or fled this place centuries ago.  I have watched Ishtoreth and his tribe struggle with famine, fearful that they would completely die out and I would be trapped forever, truly alone, with no one to wish me free."

"My mother always said that magical wishes were generally more trouble than they were worth," Feruzi said.

"Your mother is wise, but it is the genie that will twist the words if she is so inclined."

Reiko pursed her lips.  "Perhaps we can come to a mutual agreement."

"Could do that," Chopper agreed.  "Lookin' ta exorcise a ghost down at the fort.  Anythin' you can tell us ta help with that?  Said summat about a dreamstone.  I think."

"Ah, yes, that which once was the lens of revelation.  The wizard corrupted it.  Ishtoreth, knowing no better, returned it to the Eye of Serenity.  That was a poor decision."

"What's in the Eye o' Serenity?" Chopper asked.  "Other than the lens-stone?"

"A guardian of some kind.  Ishtoreth called it a gholdako.  In addition, one must be blinded to enter the Eye."

Feruzi blinked.  "What, permanently?"

"Not necessarily.  The cyclopes commonly used irthaval essence to temporarily blind themselves.  If one blinded person approaches the barrier it will allow you all to enter, but simply closing your eyes or wearing a blindfold is not enough."

"Irritating cleverness, there," Chopper grumbled.

"The Lens was sacred to them.  IT still is, but the thing that it has become now hungers for living souls."

"The smashing option is looking better and better," Feruzi said.

"So what happens if we remove the Lens?" Reiko asked.

"Removing it should keep it from trying to harm you--if you can reach it.  Time is different in the Eye of Serenity.  Slower.  The ancient seers found it useful for their divinations."  The marid nodded at Sandara.  "Your divine power might keep the gem's magic at bay."

"Do you know where we can find some of this ithravel?" Feruzi asked.

"There must be some still in the ruins."

Feruzi nodded.  "Well, then it seems to be time to move on.  It will be dark soon and I don't fancy spending the night here until we have that stone dealt with."

"As you wish," Vailea said.  "I will be here if you have need of me."

Feruzi looked over at Chopper.  "Wish her loose and let's go."

He nodded.  "Ye got one handy?"

Vailea's blue eyes lit.  "Truly?  I am capable of granting a wish, effendi."

"It might be better to wait until we have the stone dealt with," Reiko objected.  "It's already been hundreds of years for her, what's a few more days?"

Chopper made a face.  "I wish you were free of the captivity lain on you by the cyclopes," he said instead of arguing. 

"Ah, freedom at last!" Vailea murmured.  "I shall find a way to repay your kindness, Captain.  You have claimed this island as your own, yes?"

"We're working on it," Feruzi said dryly.

"Then I will know where to find you."  Bowing deeply, the genie vanished.

Reiko sighed.  "A few more days of slavery when I could end it now?  Too long," Chopper told her.

"That, and there's always the temptation to put it off," Feruzi said, seemingly to herself.  "What's one more year?  One more decade?  Very easy to get into bad habits that way."

"That was not my intention, Ms. Feruzi.  And you should know that."

"Intentions are all well and good, but deeds are deeds."

Reiko's face when stony.  "I will see you all back on the ship."

"Aw, don' go 'way sore, Reiko, we still got work t' do . . . " Sandara called as the samurai walked off. 

Ezikial grunted.  "The 'wish woman' is freed, the cyclops king is dead, we know how to get to the dreamstone, and I'm running out of whiskey.  Can we go back to the ship now?" he asked in a bored tone.

"Nah, ye'll shoot some o' the crew in this state o' mind," Chopper said.  "Let's find some blindroot."

They went exploring down the side passages, many choked with rubble from rock falls.  One hall held a pair of runed circles and columns carved in the likeness of female cyclopes.  Recent giant tracks disturbed the dust coating the floor.  As the group approached, the statues began to move, reaching out toward them.  Ezikial, always ready, pulled a pistol and fired, sending stone chips flying.

"Bollocks," Chopper announced and whacked away at the other statue.  The stone was hard, but somewhat brittle, and his enchanted weapons cracked it handily.  The bullet-pocked statue swung a stony falchion at Ezikial, who dodged backward but not quite quickly enough, receiving a bloody cut that laid his forehead open.  Cursing, he fired again, bursting the statue's knee and sending it toppling to the ground, where it broke into several pieces.  Chopper ducked by reflex as Feruzi fired directly over his shoulder, magical arrows wrecking the remaining construct's torso, but its arms still swung, dealing Chopper a ferocious wound.  Sandara winced and skittered across the floor to land a healing spell on him while Ezikial reload as quickly as he could.  The statue creaked as it turned, aiming toward the fast-moving cleric, then its head exploded into rubble as Ezikial fired both of his pistols at once.  Reiko walked in to see that everything was under control.

"Welcome back," Chopper said, dabbing at his injuries and wincing.

"So was that the guardian or do we get an extra special surprise?" Feruzi asked.  She looked around and pointed at the rune circles on the floor.  "It's possible we could use these circles to teleport between here and the fortress when Sandara gets a chance to fix the one back there."

The next chamber was a great dome containing an interior structure that mimicked its shape, a thirty-foot egg with stone stairs climbing its side to a stone wall carved to resemble an immense eye.  Runes traced the stone, glowing faintly.  Two doors and another passage led out of the chamber.  Skirting the obviously magical structure in the center, Feruzi opened the first door and found nothing but a wall of silent darkness.  She blinked at it, slowly, and then closed the door again.

"Well, that just looks harmless," she remarked.  The other door opened into a storeroom filled with crates and a positive stench of musky incense.  Ezikial took one sniff and nodded.

"I believe that incense is what we need, Captain," he said.

"Perfect.  Grab some."

"It can be addictive and it makes you blind and opens the mind for an hour or so," Ezikial added.  Feruzi checked down the remaining hall, looking for anything dangerous, and discovered only a heavy door.  There was no apparent mechanism, but it was solidly locked.

"I can get that door," Ezikial said, coming up behind her.  Feruzi blinked again and scurried back up the hall, ducking around the corner and covering her ears.  Chopper grinned.

"Stand back, Reiko, 's gonna get loud."

Ezikial strategically set out a few grenades, then also ran for cover, his face stretched in an alarming expression.  An appalling blast shook the hall, followed by a shower of door bits and a rain of dust and small pebbles.  Ezikial pumped his fists, rangy arms projecting from their sleeve cuffs.  "WHOOOO!" he screamed.

The ancient vault revealed behind the now-reduced door was full of urns, chests, and strange relics of a bygone age.  Feruzi muttered a spell and surveyed the treasure, pulling out items that radiated magic and setting them aside.

Sandara frowned at the pile of booty.  "Uh, d'ye want me t' start identifyin' this stuff NOW, or later on?"

"Later," Chopper said.

"So do we attempt to assault the eye?" Feruzi asked.

Chopper scratched his chin. "Not rightly sure."

"If I follow what that genie were sayin, then channelin' kin keep th' gem from hurtin' us," Sandara said.  "But one of us needs t' be blind t' lower th' barrier."

"Shall I do this?" Ezikial volunteered.

"Blind the gunner?" Chopper asked.  "Seems cruel.  Nah, I'll take this herb.  Ye'll just have to see me out safely again, aye?"

Ezikial actually looked disappointed.  Or perhaps it was just his usual face.  "It would be like a three day bender for me."

"You can always keep some to try later," Feruzi said.

Chopper lit the incense and settled down to wait for the effects.  "This is a hell of a thing," he said after a minute or so.  "I can . . . well, see ain't the right word, exactly, but I know where the doors be an' I can pass through 'em now."  He stood and climbed the stairs toward the giant eye carving.  Sandara winced and made a gesture of warding.  Chopper walked up to the stone wall and kept going, passing right through.  The room seemed to vanish around them in a flash of light and a new, oval chamber appeared.  A single large crystal rested atop a silver pedestal.  Two large statues flanked it, and beside it a withered cyclops corpse wrapped in bandages lay on the floor.  The oppressive weight of evil and magic filled the chamber and the mummified cyclops rose to its feet.

Ezikial fired as Reiko drew her katana.  The monster hissed as Chopper skirted it, bent on getting the Eye.  Sandara followed him, muttering a prayer under her breath--the feel of evil lessened very slightly. The gholdako belched a cloud of noxious gas; Reiko held her breath and ducked, but Ezikial gasped at the stink.  "BESMARA!" he screamed, raising his hands toward his eyes.  The monster clawed at Reiko with filthy, diseased fingers and Ezikial fired blind, knocking it to the ground in a pile of disconnected bones and rags, but the respite was brief--a ray of golden light shot from the dreamstone and struck the gholdako.  Slowly, the mummy began to knit back together.  Reiko drew her wakizashi and attempted to further disrupt it, reeling as the light hit her and she felt her life drawn viciously away. 

Chopper scooped up the stone and stiffened in shock--his scream was cut off as he abruptly vanished.  The sound galvanized Ezikial, who staggered blindly toward the pillar.  "What just happened?!" he demanded.  "Captain?!"

"Not sure how long I kin keep this up!" Sandara cried, waving her holy symbol at the pulsing, glowing stone.

"Feruzi, get Ezikial out of here!" Reiko commanded.

"I'm moving!" Ezikial growled.  "What happened to Chopper, dammit?"

"We'll sort it out once we get away," Feruzi told him, trying to edge him toward the door, but Ezikial was having none of it.  Reiko ran toward the gem.  She winced as her hand touched it, but she managed to dump it off the edge of the pedestal.  Instantly the light winked out and the gholdako stopped moving.

"So, wha' happens now?" Sandara asked.  "Ezikial's . . . blind?  I can pray fer that in the morning.  What happened ter Chopper?"

"That's what I want to know," Ezikial growled.

"I believe that was some variant of a soul-trapping effect," Feruzi said.  "Smashing the gem should--I think--free Chopper."

"We should be certain of that before smashing anything," Reiko announced, panting.  "And will that help us with our other problem?  We should be sure of that as well."

"It will end the curse, but Otongu's spirit will likely be furious," Feruzi explained.

"I'm suren sommat this evil needs to stay outta his mitts," Sandara said.

"I quite agree," Reiko said.

Oct 11, 2013

Free-Market Traffic Enforcement

I just came up with a delightfully nasty way to enforce traffic regulations that wouldn't require any patrol cars, just some people to watch video footage: allow people to install a dash cam with an OnStar-like system that can send the footage to a central processing station.  If you record someone with your dash cam in a traffic violation (running a red light, cutting somebody off, failure to signal, etc.), they get a fine via the mail and you get half when they pay it.

I'm not in favor of "Big Brother" watching, but enabling people to watch each other is often quite beneficial.  And, this would be hilarious.  Heck, I caught someone today for:

a.) talking on cell phone while driving
b.) cutting me off
c.) changing lanes without signalling

All within 3 minutes. Anybody so recklessly incapable should be fined until they have to sell their car and walk.

Oct 8, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 34: Off to See the Ishtoreth

After spending the night on the Crisis, the executive officers left Leila in charge of the ship and took the ship's boat, passing the Chelish fortress and rowing upriver until they reached a placid lake.  They pulled the boat up on the eastern shore and discovered this area was not a trackless wilderness after all--someone had built a gigantic corral out of whole trees nearby.  It was an imposing, if crude, edifice, yet it clearly hadn't been imposing enough.  The beams lay broken and smashed on the ground and massive clawed footprints led away into--or, more accurately, over--the brush.

"What the fook made that?" Chopper asked.

"More dinosaurs, it looks like," Feruzi said, surveying the prints.

"Like Koro-koro?"

 "Probably a big herbivore," she told him, grinning.  "Isn't that a great word?  Herbivore."

"Ah, less bitey, then."

"It is most likely a triceratops," Reiko said.  She gestured toward the treeline, where some hulking shapes were not-particularly-well concealed, if you knew what you were looking for.  One of them raised its head and fixed a wary gaze on the Crisis crew.  Chopper looked down at the dolphin-engraved ring on his hand.

"Time ta see if this thing works, says I."  He took off, heading straight for the two immense beasts.

"And I am without a damn cannon . . ." Ezikial grumbled as everyone hurried after the Captain.  The larger beast, probably male, turned to face Chopper and lowered its head, snorting and stomping around aggressively.  The smaller dinosaur bellowed loudly.

"Adorable," Chopper remarked, and waved his ring at the male.  The dinosaur's disposition changed immediately, and it ceased its posturing, emitting a low, deep rumble.

"Blow me down," Sandara said, "is that thing purrin'?"

"'Course it is," Chopper said.  "I'm drippin' with animal magnetism."

Reiko sighed.  "I suppose that is . . . possible."

Chopper began petting the big dinosaur, or trying to, at least, its hide was thick and knobby.  The smaller dinosaur hunkered down until its stomach was almost scraping the ground, and inched forward as Chopper pulled some apples from his pockets and began sharing them with the larger one. 

"They ain't so bad when they ain't demon-blooded, I reckon?" Sandara pondered.

"They're like big cows," Feruzi said.  She winced as Chopper tried to convince the big one to let him up on its back, although the dinosaur proved amenable to this procedure.  Chopper whacked it on the shoulder and it set off, casually shrugging brush and small saplings out of its way.  Taking yet another apple out of his pocket, Chopper impaled it on a stick and used this crude lure to direct the beast.  Sandara shook her head.

"Well, there's somethin' ye don't see every day."

"As long as he doesn't want to take it aboard the ship," Ezikial grumbled.

They reached the base of the island's interior plateau without incident, although the dinosaurs were beginning to look restless and Chopper was running low on apples.  This close it was much more apparent just how high this highland was, easily five hundred feet in altitude.  Some thoughtful Cyclopes had built a stair of sorts, into the precipitous slope, a series of chest-high blocks that zigzagged across the stone revealed underneath the surface soil and vegetation.  The dinosaurs weren't built for such acrobatics, so Chopper tossed them the rest of his apples and bid them farewell.

The climb was exhausting but the view from the top was certainly spectacular.  An overgrown highway of quarried stone led away from the stair toward a cluster of stony hills--the location, according to Bikendi Otongu, of Sumitha.

"Have you thought about what you intend to say to these Cyclopes?" Feruzi asked while they sat panting in the grass.

"Ye got the Dreamstone, aye?  Give 'er here.  More 'r less."

"I have a suspicion that if you start out with demands we may have to exterminate them.  Not sure how well that appeals to you."

Chopper stroked his chin.  "Mayhap I should appeal to their cyclopanity."  Sandara laughed at this and rolled her eyes.

"It never hurts to try offering something they want, if we can think of anything," Feruzi said.

"What, like another eye?  I got no talent fer deception.  I mean ta give it to 'em straight.  We're lookin' ta break the curse.  I fthey ain't amenable, well, we've got a few fistfuls o' pain ta be servin' up, don't we?"

"You could always challenge their leader to a duel or something," Feruzi said, dubious.

Chopper snorted.  "Me?  Inna duel?  I ain't the Captain 'cos I'm the best fighter among us."

"He's unarmed in a battle of wits, too," Ezikial muttered.

"I heard that, Mister Hands.  So's yer face."

"That dinna make any sense," Sandara said.

"So's yer face always makes sense."

"Never mind him, Sandi, he's sober," Ezikial said.

The stone highway led eventually to a gap between the hills and a number of partially-ruined, hulking buildings surrounded by stone walls with a number of pillared entrances.  Chopper halted and waved to the trees on either side of them.  "Trap," he said, pointing out a net strung between two trees.  They skirted around it and surveyed the ruins.

"So what do we do now, knock?" Feruzi suggested.

"That ain't a half-bad idea," Chopper said.

"Well, if you're looking for a loud noise, that's Ezikial's department."  Ezikial shrugged, not wanting to fire his pistols wastefully, so Feruzi stuck her fingers in her mouth and gave a piercing whistle.  Two Cyclopes emerged from a central building, one headed rapidly up a side path while the other shouldered a crossbow the size of a ballista and fired.

"Oh, now that's just rude," Feruzi said, dodging the bolt.

"Stop this right now!" Reiko yelled.  "We only came to talk!"

"So talk," the cyclops grunted.  "Why you come to Sumitha?

"We want to speak to your leader," Reiko said.

"Ishtoreth no speak outsider."

"Well, then we have a problem, and because we have a problem, you have a problem. If you don't want your life snuffed out before you can even blink, you will let us speak to Ishtoreth-san."  Ezikial cocked his pistols with ominous double-clicks.

"No snuff Junlo!" one of the giants said.  The other glared.

"Fine, you take to Ishtoreth."

"You come," Junlo announced, and began trooping toward a set of massive double doors set into the hillside.  Chopper sheathed his weapons and followed, his crew trailing behind.  As they drew nearer the structures the faint pressure of a telepathic contact seized them.

"Help me . . . the Cyclopes have held me here since the waning days of Ghol-Gan . . . my name is Vailea . . . I am in the pool not far from you . . ."

"Oi, Junlo," Chopper called.  "What's with the tart in the pool?"

"Ishtoreth's wish woman.  He tell you."


The double doors led into a huge chamber only weakly illuminated by smoky oil lamps suspended overhead.  Very large sleeping pallets covered most of the floor space and two more sets of doors led both north and south.  Junlo led them to the north doors, to a room with columns carved in the shape of more cyclopes in decorative armor.  In the northeast corner a single heavy cyclops sat on a cushion made from an animal hide of unknown provenance next to a pile of bones and a number of dinosaur skulls.  The one-eyed giant heaved himself to his feet, using his greatclub as a prop for his bulk.

"You bring intruder to Hall of Champions!?" he roared.

"Oi, you sayin' I ain't a champion?" Chopper protested.

"Captain," Reiko admonished. 

Feruzi shook her head as Chopper ignored Reiko and kept talking.  "Need yer Dreamstone thingy."

"Captain!" Reiko growled.  "Mr. Ishtoreth, our fort, on the other side of our island, is infested with ghosts and shades.  We require a certain gemstone in order to rid ourselves of this infestation.  It has come to our attention that such a gemstone exists here in your fort."

"Lens of Revelation belongs to Ghol-Gan.  Belongs in Eye of Serenity.  Others take it before.  They die."

"We'll return it when we are done with it," Reiko said.  "On that you have my word as a samurai."  She cleared her throat and muttered under her breath, "Assuming we don't destroy it in the process."

"Better idea," Ishtoreth said.  "I kill you, I eat you, Lens stay here."

"'S an option, sure," Chopper said, grinning.  "Ye can try."

Ezikial needed no further invitation.  "BESMARA!" he bellowed, firing his pistols and punching bloody holes in the great cyclops's hide.  Ishtoreth did not appear dismayed, but he snarled in pain as Reiko leapt forward and hacked his muscular leg with her sword.  Junlo, watching this, scurried--as much as a giant could scurry--toward the southern doors, only to be intercepted by Chopper.  Confused, and distracted by the flurry of, to him, tiny axes, the smaller cyclops made a perfect target for Feruzi, who converted him to a pincushion.

Ishtoreth's greatclub caught Reiko in the stomach, picking her up bodily and launching her across the room.  The air seemed to vibrate as the giant continued his strike, landing another pulverizing blow.  Reiko scrabbled at the stone, feeling her ribcage and spine protest the movement.  Sandara moved to help her and Ishtoreth backhanded the Cleric, slamming her to the floor where she lay still.

"Dammit!" Chopper yelled as Ezikial peppered the giant with another round of bullets.  "Yer mother was a no-eyed trollop who gave skull jobs to the sailors!"  Ishtoreth roared at Chopper, who scooted back toward the doors.  The giant lowered his head, bringing his single horn into play.  Feruzi's arrows sank deep in his barrel-like torso.  Reiko hurtled to her feet as the giant passed, growling a samurai oath and snapping her blade across Ishtoreth's stomach, which fell open like an overloaded sack bursting, spraying Reiko with gore and ending the giant's life.  Reiko spit on him.

"That hurt, you bastard!"

Oct 4, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Looks pretty cool, but I wonder about Thrunduil saying "I will help you".  Of course, you don't see the context, but I'm hoping Jackson didn't alter the story to the point of having the wood elves become allies early on.  That would be annoying.

I really enjoyed the first movie a lot, so I'm looking forward to this one regardless.  I don't mind if Jackson *adds* elements--fleshes things out more, creates a more epic story.  Tolkien's book is really bare-bones and I have no problem if Jackson prefers to tell a more lush, involved tale.  In fact, I think introducing the Arkenstone as significant from the get-go is far superior to what Tolkein did in the book, which was to manufacture this MacGuffin out of thin air as a plot device.  If something is going to be important in your story, it needs to BE important.  It needs introduction.  Tolkein's book was about Bilbo's journey.  Jackson's movies are about the journey Bilbo went on.  

We'll see when it comes out.

Oct 2, 2013

Whedon Wednesday

So, I overdosed a bit on Joss Whedon yesterday so I can write about it today.  The first thing I did was watch the first episode of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." on Hulu, and then I rented and watched "Much Ado about Nothing".  Finally, I watched the 2nd episode of AoS on ABC.

Fun times.  I won't comment much about AoS apart from to say that I had fun and now I have a TV show that I am actually following.  I don't watch too much TV, and series shows tend to lose my attention sometime in the 2nd season as the writers run out of invention.  We'll see if this happens with AoS, but for now I'm eagerly awaiting the next episode.  I will say that I just adore Clark Gregg, though.  He's so adorable and has such a charming smile, particularly when he's shooting his own team with truth serum.  (Watch the dang show.  No more spoilers.)

That make a great segue into "Much Ado about Nothing" because Gregg plays Leonato in the movie.  Actually, the entire movie is almost a Joss Whedon Reunion, having cast members from Angel, Firefly, and the Avengers in there.  Alexis Denisof does a deliciously corny Benedick, although he sounds bizarre to me without the faux-English accent he had in Buffy and Angel.  Or maybe the English accent is his REAL accent and the North American one is the fake?  I dunno, he does both well enough that I can't tell, much like Hugh Laurie.  I also loved Nathan Fillion's little cameo as Dogberry.  All in all, if you like Shakespeare this is a fun modern adaptation that actually uses Shakespeare's language.  So a fun time all around. Watch it.


Yes, yes, silly vanity, but I tried combing my hair a different way today.  I like it:

As far as I can tell at this early date the witch hazel is working to keep the oil down without drying my hair.  And my scalp itch is GONE.  Win!

Oct 1, 2013

Witch Hazel?

I've been kind of off and on about this whole "soap or nope?" thing, because no matter what I tried I just couldn't seem to get my incredibly oily hair under control.  It was a shame, too, because stopping the hair product really helped my itchy scalp.  But my hair was a ball of grease.  What really did it for me was this trip to Chicago, though, because the poor dry skin on my arms got all, well, ashy from the soap.  It was horrible.  I felt like someone had taped cardboard all over me.  So I'm quitting soap again.

That was when I hit on the idea of using some kind of astringent to cut the oil in my hair every few days.  I was originally thinking of just getting a bottle of isopropyl alcohol, but when I went to the store I saw that right next to it on the shelf were these bottles of witch hazel which is supposed to, huh, be a natural astringent, cleanse without over-drying, and also soothe irritated skin.  Which I have.  So I decided to give it a shot, particularly since I just got my hair cut which always turns my hair into Oil Central and irritates seven kinds of heck out of all the skin on my hairline.  That, and I'm now covered in red, itchy bug bites from mowing the lawn.  I think there was some kind of mosquito convention today.

The witch hazel brand I got has this weird, dark, almost caramel odor, like Werther's Original Candy.  It's odd, but not unpleasant.  I can't tell yet whether it'll be enough on the hair, but my hair doesn't feel greasy.  And the bug bites have stopped itching.  I actually found one that I missed because it was the only one still itching.

Anyway, I found it interesting.  I've never encountered this product before, so I will give it a try.  Washing my hair with it is probably the weirdest usage ever, but if it works, it works.  Even if it makes me smell like Grandpa candy.

The Warrior's Apprentice

I love this novel by Lois McMaster Bujold, the first about her much-beloved protagonist Miles Vorkosigan.  I always look at it as an example of the type of plot I want to be able to write: exciting, with surprising turns and flights of genius.  Bujold has no problem throwing disasters at her protagonists, throwing them to the wolves time and again until even the reader starts to wonder how the heck they're going to get out of this one.  I want to write like that.  I think the main difficulty I face is the fact that I have a hard time creating a protagonist that I can have fun torturing, or, at least, attempt to torture.

Part of this may come down to personality; I'm depressive so I find anguish exhausting and draining rather than motivating.  I only have flights of genius when I'm happy, relaxed, and feeling good.  I am learning how to write characters who, like Bujold's, rise to the occasion in moments of heart-stopping terror.  Nevertheless I'm awed by how inventive she can be.  All of her books are the same way, too.

Even better is when a writer is so good that they can wring genius out of their beleaguered protagonists without making their antagonists look like dolts, a problem I see all too often.  If you're going to write a good story, you have to give the devil his due.  There's no cachet in triumphing over incompetence.

Hmm, I'm not really sure which category to put this in.  It's sort of a book review (book is good!), but sort of writing advice or commentary.  Oh, wait, they're not mutually exclusive.  Silly me.