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

Feb 20, 2014

Skull and Shackles Session 43: Captains Who Want Things

"So, just guessing from our previous behavior, we're not going to heed the warning and stop here, correct?" Feruzi asked.  Ezikial grinned. "Do we at least have some kind of rotting curse repellent?

"Verily, I have remembered to bring my own repellent that I would be overjoyed to share with you," Ezikial said, offering everyone his grenades.

"No thanks," Feruzi told him.  "I'd probably just set myself on fire.  So how do we get the door open? Oh.  Never mind."

The chained and spiked trapdoor made a lovely explosion, revealing a smooth-walled shaft and a room far below.  Ropes were brought out and they descended into a vaulted chamber with a lovely frieze of sea creatures intertwined with bones.  A large stone altar overlooked a pool of stagnant water with a rather obvious sword stuck in the middle of it.  A vast creature like an amalgam of bat, spider, and just plain ugly stirred as they slid down the ropes, flexing its tentacles in line with the overall Black Tower motif.  It exuded a foul miasma that seemed to sap strength and will.  So, they shot it.

Most of Feruzi's arrows went wide, but one impacted somewhere in the folds of flesh.  Ezikial had far better luck and the monstrosity howled and reared back on four leg-wings, lashing out at Reiko as she dropped down to menace it with her katana.  Swinging wildly, Chopper also dropped, nearly landing on top of the demon, which shook him off disdainfully and leapt into the air, clawing and snapping at Ezikial until he fell to the ground, bloody but still in the fight.  He jammed his pistol into the bloated, slimy mass of its body and pulled the trigger.  The boom was muffled but gore exploded from the demon's body and it fell.  Chopper took one whiff and immediately pulled a scented candle out of his copious pockets.  In the water, the sword beckoned.

"So is this a Chosen One type of deal?" Chopper asked.  "Cos I ain't certain we've the proper bona fides."

"No clue," Reiko said helpfully.  "Probably not, though."

"Well, let me shatter my soul against it, then you can pull it free and we can be on our way," Chopper told her.  Ezikial rolled his eyes and waded into the pool, grasping the hilt and giving it a good tug.  No budging was in evidence.  In the end, it took Reiko, Ezikial, and Chopper heaving mightily to de-wedge Aiger's Kiss from the floor.  The water drained away into the tiny hole left behind by the sword's removal.

Reiko shook her head.  "Perhaps we should leave now?"

Getting out was not a great deal more difficult than getting in, although removing the other valuables took some time.  They rested on the beach, Ezikial taking out Aiger's Kiss to get a better look at it.

"Sorrinash is going to be pissed," Feruzi remarked.  "So, who wants to leave a big sign on the beach for him?"

"I actually had Conchobar working on that before we left," Chopper told her.  They made their way down to where they'd left the boat, only to find a tall blond man leaning against it.  A second boat lay nearby, surrounded by surly armed pirates.

"Parley?" the man said, bowing with rather more flourish than was probably justified.

"Uh, granted," Chopper announced.

"Excellent.  Captain Valerande Aiger at your service.  Better known as . . . Barracuda."

"This is Captain Chopper," Feruzi said, pointing at that noteworthy.  "Better known as Captain Chopper."

"I . . . see.  I can only assume you've come from the Black Tower.  If you've recovered my mother's blade, I must demand you turn it over to me as my rightful inheritance.  Or face my wrath."

"You want a kiss, you can fight your own chaos beast for it," Chopper announced.

"It is quite unbecoming not to retrieve it yourself," Reiko added.  "Or did you just give up trying, because it was too hard?"

"If ye want to inherit it, ye might see if Reiko will adopt ye, but I ain't givin' good odds on that one," Chopper said, smirking.

Valerande laughed and his pirates relaxed.  "Perhaps we can negotiate for the blade, then.  The pride of recovering it would still be yours, of course."

"Eh, anything's possible," Chopper said.  "The Shackles be a strange place."

"I am willing to offer you the contents of my ship's hold.  The Wanton Wastrel's taken many fine prizes of late, and I feel that this will be our year.  I might even be willing to trade a magical item or two, depending."

"I have another thought," Reiko said.  "But I'd like to discuss it with my Captain first."

"But of course."

"Arr, plunder we have, and magical trinkets aplenty," Chopper began, then coughed violently.  "Scuse me.  Arr.  Arr.  Arr.  Sorry.  Watcha got, first mate?"

"I think we should offer to let Valerande wield the sword--provided he joins our fleet against the Chelish forces and uses the sword to our advantage in that fight," Reiko proposed.  Chopper nodded thoughtfully.  "I also think we should turn over the sword to him at the upcoming meeting of our forces."

"I like this plan.  Let's do it."

Barracuda was amenable to the terms.  The Wastrel and the Crisis both weighed anchor and left the environs of the Black Tower.  The Crisis sailed on to Ollo so they could sell their plunder and purchase supplies.  The ship was approached by a man who was present at the pirate council, but not a part of the deliberations.  He introduced himself as Chambros Egrossa, first mate of the Tyrannous.  Arronax Endymion's ship.

"I apologize for the interruption," Chambros said when Chopper appeared.  "My Captain would like to speak with you aboard his ship.

Chopper shrugged.  "I'm amenable."

"Excellent.  He gave me this purse, as a show of good faith," Chambros added, passing it over.

"Very gracious." 

Captain Endymion met them in the map room aboard the Tyrranous.  "Greetings to you, Pirate Lords."  Oddly, the hard-faced old Captain seemed worried and distracted.  "I thank you for agreeing to meet me.  I know you have many demands on your time, so I will come straight to the point.  You and your ally, Lady Fairwind, have been rooting around for Chelish conspirators."


"And you have doubtless heard that I am one of those conspirators as a result.  I assure you, though, that nothing could be further from the truth."

"I thought such accusations seemed a bit too . . . obvious," Chopper drawled.

"My hatred for Cheliax and her devil-besotted fools is deeper than the loathing of anyone in the Shackles.  I appreciate your trust. Yet you must understand, these rumors persist. In fact, they've been spreading of late in my own home port of Hell Harbor."

Reiko nodded.  "Well then, we should be in a hurry to uncover the truth behind these rumors.  The true conspirators and spies.  Wouldn't you agree?"

"I do, Ms Nakayama. I cannot directly move against the source of this latest campaign of falsehoods against me, but if you do -if you teach these slanderers a lesson--I'll reward you with a squadron of my finest warships.  Which, I am sure, you'll find most useful in the days ahead."

"Sold," Chopper announced.

"There is a small group of exiled Chelish performers who've purchased a seaside tavern that they use as a cover for their campaign against me.  Their performances are quite popular, and by the time I realized it was they who were slandering me, any overt move I make against them would only martyr them and 'prove' my guilt. Since it would look like I was attempting to crush those attempting to get the truth out."

"I think we can handle that," Reiko said.

"Excellent. Find proof of their work against me--or, at least, proof that they're Chelish agents. And, if you find no such proof, then no harm is done.  Hell Harbor has no shortage of entertainers."

Feb 13, 2014

Skull and Shackles Session 42: The Black Tower

When the officers returned to the Crisis, they found a silver raven with a message from Tessa Fairwind sitting on the port rail.  "About 25 years ago, Captain Tevenida Aiger, after which the sword is named, led a raid on the Isle of the Black Tower, it's mistress known as the Shrouded Queen.  Captain Aiger was defeated but not without defeating the Queen at the same time.  The Captains sword though, unfortunately, remained lost on the island, presumably in a black tower.  Many people went after the lost treasure, but all have disappeared.  Many people suspect that the Captain's son also went after the sword and thus disappeared as well.  Though some believe he may have just left the Shackles.  The recent rumors are on the air are probably due to the fact that it's the 25th anniversary of the incident." 

They briefly discussed what Fishguts knew of the history of the sword, then decided that retrieving it was important enough to pursue immediately.  Three days later, they set foot on the Island of the Black Tower.  The reason for its name was readily apparent--an impossible-looking tower of black stone sat at the small island's center.  It was barely thirty feet wide, but soared to an altitude of well over four hundred, giving it the approximate dimensions of a pin.

"No, that doesn't look ominous at all," Feruzi said.

"Well, we have experience with ominious," Reiko said.

There was no apparent way into the tower, but when Feruzi scaled the stone for a better look she discovered that the roof was partially caved in, forming a bowl-shaped, rubble-filled cavity.  It was no simple task to climb that height without magic, but once they were all up top they located a half-buried trap door among the rubble.  Reiko and Chopper took sides and with a mighty heave the door came loose of the floor, revealing a curving stairway and walls carved with seemingly-endless coils of tentacles.

"Anyone else hungry for calamari about now?" Chopper asked as they descended.  Occasional people, ships, or entire cities appeared amongst the coils, all savagely being crushed.

"Looks like Dagon," Sandara said.


"DAY-gon.  A demon lord, 'e be.  Prince o' the sea, sea monsters, an' deformity."

"Gross," was Chopper's comment.  "Wonder if any of his fans are still hereabouts."

"Shoot them enough and we'll be fine," Ezikial said.

"Aye, if it bleeds, we can kill it."

Patches of dull blue mold spotted the walls of the next chamber, partially obscuring a faded mural that depicted some sort of enormous amalgam of eel, fish, and cephalopod.  Opposite the entrance a pair of rusty iron posts held up a wide gold-plated disc formed in the shape of a bulbous, fleshy eye.  A wooden statue, now sadly decayed, faced the eye, clenching a fist-sized chunk of serpentine carved in the shape of a human heart.  A reinforced door stood to the side, held closed by iron spikes.  Someone had scrawled a crude warning over the door in charcoal.  "She lives."  A smeared charcoal handprint served as punctuation.

"Innerestin," Sandara said.  "The mark belongs t' a sect o holy assassins sworn ter Norgorber.  I think ol' Cap'n Aiger was one o' them."

"Now might be the time for explosions, Mister Hands," Chopper said.  Ezikial set his grenades and retreated, blasting the door to smithereens.  The Eye shot a blast of vile-smelling water at Chopper, drenching him in magic that drained his will. 

The group ducked through the door and down the stairs, finding another circular hall, this one housing a row of black iron candlesticks covered in the curdled remnants of foul-smelling tallow.  A shallow alcove at the far wall held a serpentine statue carved in the semblance of a human male being devoured by tiny flesh-boring eels.  The center of the statue's chest was an empty hole.

"Do you think the heart from the hall above would fit in that statue?" Ezikial asked.

"Ooh, let's find out," Chopper announced, darting back up the stairs.  The eye was now roving back and forth, ejecting more jets of enchanted filth.  Feruzi saw Chopper readying to sprint across the room and shoved him out of her way, jinking and dodging past the great eye to snatch up the serpentine heart.  She tossed it back to Chopper and the magical auras in the room faded.  Chopper placed the heart in the statue and it slid easily aside, providing access to another stairway.

Huge, rotting draperies hung from the next chamber's walls.  A pair of monstrosities hovered in the room, masses of tentacles tangled around fanged mouths.  Reiko hacked into one without hesitating, wounding it,  but digestive acid spilled out and her clothes and exposed skin began to bubble and smoke.

"The floor is unstable," Ezikial said, taking aim at the other beast.  Chopper lobbed a throwing axe that bounced off the rubbery mass; a volley of bullets were more successful at disrupting it.  The creatures began to writhe in a nauseating display, stirring up a cloud of noxious mold from the hangings and walls.  Reiko reeled back and the first monstrosity pressed the advantage, tearing at her.  Feruzi's arrows distracted it for long enough that Reiko recovered and finished it off.  The second, still dripping from Ezikial's attacks, didn't stand a chance.

Chopper examined the yellow mold cautiously.  "Sunlight'd do it in, but that's in short supply here," he concluded.  "Fire works, though."  They lit torches and burned a path through the growth to the stairs, discovering four emeralds in the eye sockets of a statue on the way.  The next room held two eerie ivory statues on either side of a closed door--more human males that were bound, gagged and blindfolded.  The statues were strangely moist, as if they were just pulled from the sea.

"This looks familiar," Feruzi said.

"Does it?"  Chopper asked.

"Aye, it looks like a good place for a grenade," Ezikial grunted.  Feruzi shook her head.

"These are the twins Maok and Seft, sons of Arot-Seb.  Arot-Seb drowned them alive and drank the seawater from their lungs to receive the guidance of Dagon for his conquest of the Crystal Isles of Zyracia.  My father likes to recite the epic sometimes."

"Er . . . charming," Chopper said.

"So, if I toss the grenade right in between them, in front of the door, what happens?" Ezikial insisted.

"Let's call that 'plan B'," Chopper told him.  Reiko studied the statues for a moment, then climbed up at one and began rotating its head.  It moved freely, but nothing seemed to happen whatever position she put them in, so she shrugged and approached the door.  A voice whispered in Abyssal and Reiko burst into a fit of coughing, although she did make it to the door.  It was unlocked and opened to reveal yet another downward stair.

A jumble of bones held together by a decrepit suit of black leather armor slumped against the wall at the bottom of the stairs.  The middle of the room was occupied by a massive circular trap door held shut by three lengths of heavy chain.  Beside the skeleton was a black handprint and a few lines of scribbled text:

"The Shrouded Queen yet lives below, bound by Blackfingers' forbiddance and Aiger's Kiss.  Seek not entrance for her rotting curse awaits ye.  Let the slumbering darkness lie!"

Feb 6, 2014

Skull and Shackles Session 41: In Council

"Order!" Kerdak Bonefist growled, slamming his mug on the long oaken table in the Pirate Council chamber.  "I call this meetin' ter order!  First order o' business, increased shares fer tha Island o' Empty Eyes crew.  Cap'n Fairwind, yer speakin' for, I believe."

"Yes.  It is my belief that our newest Council members have demonstrated their value and deserve a full share of the Sargavan tribute instead of remaining at a partial share," Tessa said.

"Well I disagree!" Bonefist replied.  "We all come ter this Council tha same way an' should start off tha same, too!"

Reiko smiled demurely.  "Respectfully, I must mention that there have never been four new Pirate Lords at the same time before.  Together, we do form a sizeable voting interest."

"Votes!" Bonefist called.  Arronax, Delemona, the Master, and Tessa all raised their hands immediately, followed by a few others, more slowly.  Chopper quickly tallied the votes before waving for his crew to abstain.  The measure passed.  Bonefist grumbled, then shrugged it off.

"Next order o' business, Cap'n Bloodmourn's proposal!"

"Yes, Lord.  My proposal is that we use the tithe this year for the erection of statues in all the major ports of the Shackles to honor the anniversary of our Hurricane King's prosperous reign!  This will only increase the infamy of this court."

The Master of the Gales stood.  "The tithe has always gone for port defense and the improvement of the Shackles fleet--both undertakings that make certain our infamy is backed by more than just threats."  The other Captains seemed to agree with him, but shot uncomfortable glances at Bonefist.

"Not sayin' as the Hurricane King's visage mightn't strike terror in the council's enemies, but in me own experience, fools outweigh them as what would bow ta their fears," Chopper said.  Even with the opposition of the newest group of Pirate Lords, the measure still passed, but only by one vote.

"I'm not really sure how anyone could want to spend all that money on such frivolity," Reiko said.

"That's Bonefist for you," Tessa told her.  "You see why I wanted help on the Council."

"Third order o' business!" Bonefist announced.  "Yer have tha floor, Cap'n Sorrinash."

"With all the stories of the Isle of the Black Tower and the sword Aiger's Kiss that is said to be lost in side, I want Ollo to be guranteed salvage rights over the island and its waters, as Ollo is the closest significant settlement."

Jolis Raffles the halfling spoke up in opposition.  "Salvage rights have always properly belonged to the ship making the salvage, not the closest settlement!"

Tessa leaned over so she could whisper to Reiko.  "He's still bitter because he made a similar request for a different island during the last council meeting, and was voted down."

"Those who brave the perils should reap tha rewards, no?" Chopper said.

"I agree with Captain Chopper.  If there are all these rumors going around, why haven't you taken it upon yourself to break the tower already?"  Reiko asked.  Sorrinash's growl was lost in the Hurricane King's booming laughter.  The motion was swiftly voted down.

"Motion denied," Bonefist declared with barely-hidden glee.  "Per Council Law, the Isle of the Black Tower stays finders-keepers, an' no tithe to be paid from any plunder taken therein.  Fourth order o' business, Cap'n Massey."

The big, quick-tempered, swaggering Captain took a cigar from his mouth as he stood.  "Scags Rotgram has been engagin' in unsanctioned piracy 'gainst Sargavan vessels," he spat.  "I call fer him an' his ship ter be declared outlaw an a bounty of 5000 gold sails placed on his head."

Bonefist growled.  "How much did Harrigan pay ye ter waste th' Council's time wit this?"

Tessa whispered, "Rotgram was Harrigan's first mate back in the day.  This is likely some sort of revenge ploy."

"If Scags be piratin' against me former countrymen, I'll be happy ta hunt 'im down free a charge to the council, and Harrigan can thank me fer the favor at an opportunity of his barnacle-encrusted choosing," Chopper scoffed.

"Motion denied," Bonefist decreed, not even bothering to call for a vote. "No bounty on Scags Rotgram.  Floor's yers, Tessie."

"Yes," she said, and went on to produce her lengthy research into the looming threat of a Chelish invasion and the possibility of a Chelish sympathizer and traitor being among the Pirate Lords.  Arronax Endymion rose to his feet to demand Council support for further investigations, which drew a lot of grumbling suspicion about whether Endymion might be the traitor, himself.

"We have seen far too much evidence that Cheliax is gearing up for some kind of major offensive," Feruzi said.

Reiko nodded.  "I am sure whoever is involved in this would love for us to think Endymion is part of it.  I agree with him on this matter and I would like to think that he would be most willing to assist us in finding the truth."

"I am done trying to sway the Shackles with words," Endymion grumbled.  "Only deeds will make you believe."

Bonefist called for a vote, and appeared surprised by the outcome.  "Motion carries.   Ye'll get yer fundin' an support, Tessie.  All right, show's over, I'm tired."  He heaved his bulk from the chair. 

"We Do have seven more well, yes, there he goes.  Bugger," the Master muttered as Bonefist lurched out of the room.