Posted by Jennifer
Feruzi jumped over the side of the cutter, enjoying the cool surf around her legs as she sloshed up the beach. The remains of mud huts peeked out of the jungle, but there were no signs of current habitation. Even so, after they tugged the cutter higher on the beach so it would not float away with the tide, Ezikial, Leila, and Chopper checked and readied all of their weapons. Reiko had no real need to do this—her katana and wakizashi were always in ready condition—but she made some show of fingering them anyway.
Chopper pointed his chin toward a high knob of rock on the eastern end of the island. “Which way? Should we get up on that tor so we have a better vantage?”
“Feruzi would wish to locate a defensible position before anything else.” She examined the remains of the village, but there was nothing of any apparent use in the rubble and overgrowth.
“I agree that we should get a general lay of the land. I think the tor, as Chopper suggested, would be a good start,” Reiko said.
Feruzi nodded. “These water barrels will encumber us severely in this terrain.”
“Right,” Chopper said. “Let’s leave ’em here until we find the water.” Ezikial scowled silently, but seemed to be more or less in agreement.
“Lead on,” Feruzi said.
They made their way slowly through the swampy salt marsh, harried by mosquitoes and other pests. The wildlife seemed abundant, but nothing larger or more threatening than frogs of the non-giant variety. The water deepened toward the base of the tor, almost chest-high in places.
“Leeches, no doubt,” Chopper groused with a long-suffering sigh. “I hate this island.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Reiko said.
Feruzi looked somewhat amused. “You whine too much,” she told Chopper.
“I whine exactly the right amount,” he retorted. Fortunately, when they reached the base of the rock, it was fairly easy to climb. Feruzi sat down to rest a bit, enjoying the breeze while Chopper poked at the remains of an old signal fire, finding a number of torches and a few tindertwigs—signs that someone civilized had visited at some point in the recent past. They could see the Man’s Promise in the distance, as well as a cleared section of fields to the south. There was some sort of stockade high on the western ridge.
Reiko surveyed the jungle intently. “There might be fresh water in those streams, closer than the fields. Still, it will be to our benefit to check them out.”:
“If we do not want to be killed by parasites we need to seek out a fast-running stream or a spring. Lying water will be foul,” Feruzi cautioned.
“Nothing for it but to search,” Chopper said.
“Feruzi would like to make a suggestion.” She waited, but the others simply gazed at her wearily, so she shrugged and continued. “If there is anything of value on this island, it is likely to be in that stockade, and there may be a well. So she suggests we go there first.”
“Most of the other points of interest seem to be on the way,” Leila said.
“Let’s take the cutter around to eastern beach, then. Save us a long way lugging the barrels,” Chopper decided.
Three hours later, they offloaded again onto the eastern beach. Towering palm trees dotted the sand for a mile or so, each bearing a heavy load of coconuts. Feruzi grinned and began shinnying up one of the nearer trees. Reiko noticed a litter of broken coconut shells around the base, clearly torn apart by some sharp object.
“Something else likes coconuts,” Chopper remarked, nearly presciently as a crab the size and dimensions of a dwarf nearly landed on Feruzi, furious at her invasion of its personal tree. It took a nice chunk out of her forearm, then Ezikial shot it with careful precision. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem much impressed by the bullet and continued its assault.
“You couldn’t knock it down here, Ms. Feruzi?” Reiko demanded, trying to find an angle on the beast. Feruzi sniffed loudly at the suggestion.
“Feruzi hunts her prey in its natural surroundings,” she insisted, punching the crab repeatedly in and about its face. It made a high-pitched squeal like steam escaping, then finally fell from the tree when Chopper hit it square with a throwing axe. Feruzi returned to the ground with a load of coconuts and a section of the palm head brimming with sweet sap. Reiko built a small fire and they paused for an hour or so to dine on crab and coconut, the best and most relaxed meal they’d had in weeks. Chopper poked at the wound on Feruzi’s arm, cracking a few lame jokes while he stitched it closed.
“I suggest we split into two groups,” Reiko said when they had finished. “One should check out the stockade, the other head up the island toward the jungle.”
Feruzi frowned. “Is anyone else familiar with jungle terrain?” she asked.
“Not I,” Leila said. Ezikial shook his head.
“We should stick together,” Chopper said. “I can navigate it on a good day, but I’m exhausted. Imma follow Ruse. I suggest you do the same.”
Feruzi set a grueling pace despite the heat, but the going wasn’t all that bad. A path of sorts wound up from the beach in the direction of the fields and stockade. As they climbed above the jungle, they found someone had carved steps and a grade of sorts in the rock, hacking the vegetation back. The afternoon was getting on by the time they reached the stockade, well-constructed from cut logs. It surrounded a small lodge that was overhung by an ancient, massive tree covered in vines, its gnarled roots concealing a spring.
“Success!” Feruzi cheered. The others looked around the stockade, finding a weathered spyglass fixed into one wall, forming an observation post.
“Dibs,” Chopper said. Ezikial shrugged. They left the spyglass where it was for now and continued their exploration. Feruzi pushed open the door to the lodge and crept inside just as two smallish humanoids dropped from the tree above.
While Chopper walked around the tree, he heard a rustling in the vines above him, giving him just enough time to react before two small humanoids drop down to attack him. They were tree-like in nature, with skin that resembled twisted bark and leaf-like hair, but their claws were of most immediate interest. Ezikial took on one with his shortsword while Reiko’s katana whooshed past and cleaved the other in half. Chopper dispatched his remaining assailant and saw with relief that they’d acted quickly enough this time to avoid injury.
“I doubt those are the only two,” Reiko commented. Chopper nodded, somewhat distracted, as Feruzi poked her head back out of the lodge.
“Come take a look at this, Mngani,” she said. The lodge held a bed, writing desk, cooking gear, and several barrels of thoroughly ruined provisions. A stool lay on the floor nearby as though someone kicked it, apparently the hooded corpse hanging from a chain in the middle of the room. The stink, faded somewhat with age, was still far from pleasant, and the flies swarmed thickly. “A suicide?” Feruzi asked. She began searching the desk while Chopper glanced over the corpse.
“Most likely explanation, I suppose,” he said. The chain was attached to a wide leather collar around the man’s neck. “Chelish hangman’s collar, that. Efficient.” As he leaned nearer, the corpse suddenly reached out to grab at him. Chopper startled backward, and it flailed at the air, only managing to turn itself in a slow circle. “Not as dead as I’d hope,” Chopper gritted. Feruzi was reading something, a ship’s manifest, apparently. “Anything about undead in there?”
“Yes,” she said grimly. “Ghouls. The Chelish devil-lovers brought them to the island, and the insects spread the ghoul disease to the whole crew. The few who were not infected made some kind of paste to ward off the affliction, but they ran out.”
“What’s going on in there?” Reiko demanded from outside the door.
“STAY OUT!!” Feruzi yelled. Reiko froze, startled.
“If you have it handled, then, Ms. Feruzi.”
Chopper peeked through the door. “Eh, slight case o’ ghoul. Needs somethin’ cut off, per usual,” he said. "Lucky for it, the doctor is in.
“We may already be infected,” Feruzi instructed him. “Put that creature out of its misery, then we need to see what we can do to ward off the fever without exposing the others.”
“As you say,” Chopper grunted. He hauled out an axe and decapitated the ghoul with a blow, avoiding the foul ooze that dripped from the wound. Feruzi tossed the few useful remnants of gear out the door and they retreated to the clear air outside.
“We should get the barrels filled with the only fresh water we’ve found so far, from the spring,” Reiko said.
“There is a ghoul fever loose on this island, carried by insects,” Feruzi told her. Reiko shrugged.
“I’m fine with not staying here all that long, but this water is still safe to drink. It would be good to have a bath as well, while we have the chance.”
“There are also ankhegs near the fields,” Feruzi finished, and nodded at Reiko. “Let us fetch the barrels.”
“Don’t go alone,” Ezikial spat out. In the end, they all trekked back toward the beach. Feruzi tugged Chopper aside and waved the ship’s manifest at him.
“This journal reveals the location of the grindylow lair.” she said.
“Is that useful information?” he demanded. She gave him a flat look that he’d learned meant frustration or disgust.
“Feruzi would not presume to comment, but it remains that the fate of our missing comrades might be ascertained precisely. Whether that is ‘important’ or not is for you to decide.”
“Don’t those things live, you know, underwater?”
“One can swim,” was the prim response. “It is not impossible that they have a land base where they keep their meat for later.”
Reiko, Ezikial, and Leila had stopped some distance behind while they argued, spotting a tiny shadow that seemed to be following them through the canopy. After calling to it and nervously pulling out weapons, they resolved it to be a little monkey, no doubt in search of food. It seemed more curious than afraid as it approached them. Reiko was surprised as Ezikial suddenly grinned and pulled a piece of coconut from his pocket to hold it out. He waited patiently while the small creature made its way to the ground and approached, snatching the coconut and shoving the entire piece in its mouth. Ezikial offered it a second piece, which vanished in a similar fashion. He then showed it a third piece and placed it in his shirt pocket, then stood up and turned away. The monkey darted around and leapt onto his back, sprawling over his shoulder to snatch at the food. Ezikial then offered the animal a drink from his flask.
“Getting it drunk already, Mr. Hands?” Reiko asked. He shrugged as the monkey gulped at the horrible rum, then quite quickly became woozy and settled itself on his shoulder. Reiko shook her head and continued to rejoin Feruzi and Chopper, who were still arguing.
“Look, maybe it’s the lack of sleep that’s makin’ me extra thick, but . . . no?”
“If the grindylows took Ms. Quinn and Mr. Shortstone,” Reiko said, walking up, “and there is a chance they are still alive, then we should take that chance.” Feruzi shot her a grateful look. Chopper looked from one determined expression to the other helplessly.
“Uh . . .” He blinked as Ezikial walked up. “You have a new friend?”
“Pluggsly,” Ezikial said with unusual cheerfulness.
“He is much more handsome than his namesake,” Leila said, smiling.
“We. Can. Check.” Feruzi hissed.
“Take a breath, Ms. Feruzi. We’ll go check,” Reiko told her.
“Look, this ain’t a story, Ruse. Just cos we ain’t seen a body don’t mean they survived the storm. False hope aint gonna do anyone any good.”
“Feruzi has said enough.”
Night was coming on by the time they made it back to the stockade with the barrels. Leila drifted over to the spyglass and looked around the island while the others hauled water and cleaned themselves up. “See anything interesting?” Reiko asked after a while. Leila moved aside to let her try the spyglass. Reiko gazed into the distance for a while, then turned back to the party, which had mostly collapsed at this point.
“Ms. Feruzi, please come here.” The Mwangi woman hauled herself upright with a groan. “Take a look.” Feruzi did so, then stepped away from the glass and addressed Reiko formally but somewhat ironically.
“Madam, I require your assistance.” She pointed to Chopper. “Hold him down while I slap the shit out of him.”
“Indeed,” Reiko said. “Mr. Chopper, I think we need to have a word.”
“I may not touch a man,” Leila said.
“You don’t have to help with that part,” Reiko informed her.
“Murfle?” was Chopper’s none-too-coherent comment. He lurched across the stockade. Peering through the glass revealed a cove on the western side of the island. In the fading daylight, he could see grindylows cavorting in the water, one of them wearing a familiar black tricorne hat. The other wore an equally familiar flat black hat with a splash of wet feathers stuck to the brim.
“It would be well dark by the time we got over there, but it behooves us not to wait,” Reiko said grimly.
“Then we go now,” Ezikial said.
“Huh, I guess they don’t live underwater exclusively. Let’s go!” Chopper seemed somewhat revived by the sight. He retrieved the torches and tindertwigs they’d found on the tor. They took the barrels with them to save a trip, and returned to the cutter. Finding their way through the reef in the dark was no easy task, and by the time they reached the cove there were no grindylows in evidence. They tied the boat down and climbed over the rocks, finding deep black gap filled with seawater. As they maneuvered, they passed under a rocky overhang, and something moved above them.