Skull and Shackles

Session 21: Vines and Skulls

Posted by Jennifer

Once again, the waters of the cove were still—oddly still, considering the north wind was beginning to pick up, heralding another child-storm broken off from the Eye of Abendego. Clouds streaked the sky.

“So… Okay, I feel bad about that now,” Chopper commented, casting a wary eye at the weather.

“I feel like that might have been more productive at sunrise, Captain,” Reiko admonished.

Chopper emitted some unintelligible mumbles that ended with, “So’s your face.”

“All due respect, Cap’n, that don’t make sense,” Cochobar told him.

“It always makes sen . . . Oh, nevermind. For what it’s worth, I’m thinking the guardian monster ain’t tied to the sunrise. Just seein’ the Relevant Bit so we know where to climb.”

“Possibly, but it’s pretty dark in the cove any time during the day and night, except sunrise to probably around late morning. Who knows what the cove will look like during the morning hours?” Reiko pressed.

“Who ever heard of a guardian monster that’s afraid of the dark?” Chopper demanded.

“Afraid of the light, you mean,” Feruzi corrected.

“No, I said it right.”

“Sadly, you meant it wrong.”

“I didn’t mean to suggest that it was afraid of the dark, only that it will be much, much, MUCH easier for us to see when the sunlight is shining directly in there,” Reiko continued, beginning to get aggravated.

“Fine. Whatever. I want lights all over the deck. And maybe some rum. A little dancing…” Chopper shook his head. “No. No. Just the lights.”

“We’ll keep the ballista loaded as well,” Ezikial told him.

“That’s probably the wisest thing I’ve heard all evening,” Reiko grumbled as they began laboriously moving the ship. The wind helped some, but in these close quarters it was as likely to drive them up on the rocks as blow them in the right direction. The Crisis drifted out over the dark bowl of the cove. Her crew gathered nervously at the gunwhales, surveying the water.

Ezikial looked up at the crow’s nest and yelled a warning as thick tentacle-like vines erupted from the canopy above, sweeping across the deck of the Crisis. Reiko ducked as one groped after her; another snagged Grok around the waist and yanked her skyward. Rosie all-but vanished in the coils of a third tentacle-vine, while a fourth got Chopper around the ankle and hauled him upwards, ass-over-teakettle.

“Oop!” he yelled. “Save the ladies! I got this!” The tentacles began to contract along their length and Chopper watched in horror as the skin around his ankle and thigh flushed dark red and began to feel horribly numb – a deep lassitude gripped his muscles.

BESMARA!” Ezikial grated, firing the ballista at the canopy above and producing a brief rain of slimy vegetation and a high-pitched squealing noise. “Dar, Insawa! Reload that!” Something that might be a beak gnashed within the canopy and the victims rose to a height of sixty feet.

“Feruzi, shoot that!” Reiko yelled, pointing to the beak and blobby plant mass above them. She yelled and charged the vine still flailing at her, severing it cleanly.

Feruzi shot her a horrified glance, seeing Chopper pulled inexorably upward, then scowled and aimed her bow at the central mass. Vile sweet-smelling fluid rained onto the deck as she fired three arrows in rapid succession. “Let go of my Chopper, vile beast!” she yelled. Another vine descended and grabbed Maoud. Chopper thrashed wildly as the creature’s beak emerged from the vegetation and snapped at him, tearing a bloody stripe across his chest and nearly crushing his ribs. A second ballista bolt ripped through the canopy nearby.

Reiko leaped for the ropes and began to climb rapidly, trying to get in range to cut Maoud down. Feruzi took careful aim and shot another barrage. The vines writhed in vegetable agony. Chopper slashed at the beak with his axe, yelling and bleeding.

“Cmon, ye blighter! Is that all ye got!”

“DON’T ENCOURAGE IT!” Feruzi shouted, horrified.

Copper’s axe caught in something deep in the creature’s body. Taking the haft with both hands, he braced his feet and pulled with all his might, tearing open a mass of green, pulsing tubes. The creature, whatever it was, shuddered violently all over, jerking its tentacle-vines almost hard enough to break its captives in half. Then, slowly, it began to tear free of the canopy and topple toward the water below more than a hundred feet below.

“Uh oh,” Chopper remarked, struggling to get free.

“Leila, catch Rosie!” Feruzi yelled. She grabbed the base of the rope Reiko was climbing and gave it a powerful shove, sending the samurai into Chopper’s path. Reiko clutched Chopper’s belt and they swung back out over the ship, thumping into the mainmast and sliding down into the rigging, bruised, winded and covered in blood but still alive. Ezikial grabbed a dangling vine and cracked it like a whip, swinging Grok in a fast, tightening spiral that ended with her safely on the deck, albeit rather more green of complexion than was her usual wont. Leila flipped off the sterncastle and caught the hurtling Rosie, absorbing their mutual momentum in a series of acrobatic turns before landing nimbly. Haroun, Dar, and Insawa raced to catch Maoud, but the ballista hindered them and the Rahadoumi sailor crashed to the deck. Sandara and Chopper reached him at almost the same moment, but he was already gone.

“Damn,” Chopper said softly. Unable to find anything else to express the sick feeling twisting his stomach, he repeated himself. “Damn.” Feruzi poked him worriedly.

“What’s this enormous hole!?” she demanded. He looked up at her, face tight with pain that wasn’t only physical.

“Failure.” Feruzi frowned and helped him to sit back, gently squeezing his shoulder and resting her cheek against his for a moment.

“What was his name?” Chopper whispered in her ear.

“Maoud.” He nodded and repeated it several times, committing it to memory while Sandara doctored his ribs. Subdued, they tidied up the body – Haroun weeping silently to himself – and cleared the vegetation from the deck. The Guardian of Mancatcher Cove slowly sank, to the distaste of the sharks.

“Sunrise, then?” Feruzi asked finally.

“Right,” Reiko told her. They settled in to wait for morning, tired but too shaken up to sleep. Deep in the night watch, Feruzi suddenly stirred.

“I heard something,” she told Reiko, rushing off toward the stern. “Get a lantern over here,” Feruzi ordered. She picked up her boarding pike, gripping it in the way that caused it to extend twenty feet, and flailed away at the side of the ship. “Something is down there messing with our rudder.” Chopper appeared at her side, a boarding axe in each of his hands, and straddled the gunwhale, apparently intending to climb down and investigate.

“Oh no you don’t!” Feruzi yelled at him. “Sharks, remember?”

“I’m not gonna get in the water,” he grunted.

“If you go down, you need to be on a rope so we can pull you back up,” Feruzi insisted. The head of a sahuagin emerged from the water about fifty feet away before disappearing again. Feruzi growled, but no more sahuagin appeared and the noise had stopped. They watched alertly for some time, but no further activity was forthcoming. Shortly before dawn, Chopper gathered the crew on the deck.

“Listen up, you lot. We’ve already lost Maoud, and I don’t aim to lose anymore! We got fishmen in the cove with sinister intent, and while the away party is . . . away, ye’ll need to be extra vigilant. Repel any would-be boarders with extreme prejudice. Is that clear, sailors?!”

“Aye aye, sir!”

“Right, then. Let’s find this toothy whatsit.”

As the first light of dawn peeked into the darkened cove from the east, the jungle cliffs came alive with patterns of shadow and light in a thousand fanciful, ever-shifting shapes. When the sun was fully up the cliffs would return to their normal appearance, but for a few moments they were almost magical with a display of shadow art. In the half light, a group of caves and crevices on the cliff face took on the appearance of a grinning skull. As the morning sun illuminated the shadow that resembled the skull’s mouth, a previously unseen glint of gold sparkled brightly in the sunlight, as if the skull had a gold tooth

“I kin scarce believe I’m seein’ such a thing,” Fishguts said in awe. Reiko grinned.

“And there Captain Chopper, is the Grave Lady’s prize tooth.”

“So what is the meaning of ‘wayward orb’?” Feruzi asked.

“Cap’n Wolfe lost one o’ his eyes,” Fisguts told her. “Th’ right one, if I recollect.”

The four officers climbed down into the ship’s boat with Sandara and began rowing for the ‘tooth’, finding a mass of gold set into a crevice between the stones where it would catch the dawn light. They pulled the boat up onto the beach and looked upward speculatively at the twin caves above them. Chopper swung a grapple speculatively. “So, did that mean HIS right or OUR right?”

“That one,” Reiko said, pointing. Feruzi began climbing the rock face with expert ease – apparently the months aboard ship had honed her skills considerably.

“Ruse, yer doin’ in the hard way, but you’re making it look easy,” Chopper commented.

“Don’t . . . distract . . . me . . .” she grated. The other three followed using the rope. In the cave entrance they found the rotten stub of a wooden boom, likely used for hoisting heavy loads. Chopper pulled the rope up after them and secured it. “No sense helping those sahuagin blighters if they’re inclined to follow us.”

The opening ascended into the cliff face, initially a tight fit between various vines and roots but it widened further in until they reached a point just below the island’s surface. Sunlight filtered down through a rent in the earth overhead, just enough to provide for the growth of a single gargantuan tree. Its massive buttressing roots blocked any hope of further progress. The many fissures and crevices in the bark vaguely resembled a wrinkled human visage surmounted by a craggy crown, the spreading roots a hoary growth of beard.

“The ‘old king’?” Feruzi asked.

“That’s my guess,” said Reiko. Feruzi found a humanoid skull among the roots, its hollow eye sockets directed toward the earthen floor. Chopper produced a shovel and they set to digging in turns. Ten feet down through the nasty, rocky soil they found a layer of wooden planks laid across what was, evidently, a pit.

“Bloody hells, it’s about time,” Chopper grunted. They were all filthy and sweaty. The wooden planks revealed a vast cavern in the rock, dropping twenty feet to still, dark water below. The remnants of a wooden platform and stair clung to the wall but the wood had long since rotted in the damp. Reiko cracked a sunrod while Sandara cast a spell that should render them able to breathe underwater if necessary. With care, they descended into the water and found a sloping, submerged tunnel leading southwest.

They followed it for some distance, then were abruptly attacked by sahuagin coming from both directions at once. Reiko cleaved two down before they had a chance to realize they were overmatched; a brief and brutal melee followed, with the few remaining sahuagin fleeing to the southwest. The five adventurers followed but lost them in the dark, finding instead a section of tunnel that rose above sea level, creating an air pocket. The floor was sand with a few items of furniture scattered about, including a table and chair, a bed with a sagging frame, and a crude fence of driftwood. The entire cavern was overgrown with vines bearing tiny violent flowers that filled the air with a cloying sweet fragrance.

“Inkskin smelled like this . . .” Chopper muttered. He sniffed again, then his eyes crossed and he folded in on himself, asleep. Some of the flowers began to extend fine tendrils and creep toward him. Reiko sliced at them, sheering them in half and replacing the fragrance with a vile stench. Holding their breath as best they could, Feruzi and Ezikial helped her rapidly dispose of the remaining carnivorous vines. Sandara crouched and examined the sleeping Chopper.

“He should wake up in a minute or so,” was the verdict. They set to rummaging through the few items while they waited, and Sandara proved to be correct; Chopper regained consciousness quickly and looked around.

“I think these are xtabay plants of unusual size. Didn’t know they existed,” he muttered. Feruzi turned up a wand in the bedclothes and a small coffer next to a large glass jar underneath the bed. The coffer held three potions, but the jar contained the preserved severed head of a vicious-looking Tian man with pock-scarred cheeks, a tattoo of a kraken on his forehead, and all his teeth broken out. A label, written in crude Minkaian, clung loosely to the side of the jar. Reiko read it and gasped.

“Whass it say?” Sandara asked, fascinated by the gruesome spectacle.

“It’s a name. The name of my father, as he was known on the seas.”

“Thass… thass yer Da?!”



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