Skull and Shackles

Session 47: Fleet on Fleet Action

It was difficult to say whether the decision to return to the Island of Empty Eyes to rally the defense was a wise one, but Harrigan’s fleet was spotted early on the 20th of Abadius by the keen eyes of Morgus the Manticore, who also gave them a general outline of Harrigan’s attack formation and the location of the much-hated Wormwood.

“Watcher think?” Chopper asked. “Try to pierce the heart?”

“It should be our responsibility to deal with Harrigan,” Feruzi said. “Their alliance will probably fall apart without him.”

“Aye,” Chopper said thoughtfully.

“I have no doubt our allies can handle most of this riffraff, anyway.”

“Right. LISTEN UP, YE SWABS!” Chopper bellowed, rather startling everyone, “We mean ta cut a bloody path ta Captain Harrigan! I need every sailor givin’ their utmost all! All hands on the bleedin’ deck! YAAAAAAAARRRRGH!”

The crew gave a hearty cheer.

LOAD THEM UP, ROSIE!” Ezikial ordered. “Make sure you use chain bolts for the ballistae and the barrels are ready for the catapult.”

“Er, Captain,” Sandara said as the cannons and ballistae were loaded, “Do we mean ter sink, or ter board?”:

“Board. Wouldn’t do ta caount a sunk ship as a confirmed kill,” Chopper told her, winking.

“More glory innit too, I wager,” she replied, winking back.

Reiko sighed. “Right, then.” She took her position behind the wheel as the first ships engaged. In the hazy distance one of Harrigan’s ships collided with a Hell Harbor warship in a shower of splinters. Within moments both ships were heavily embattled and on fire. The Salty Flagon, Pierce Jerrell’s ship, closed with another and seemed to sprout a forest of flashing blades. The Sated Satyr intercepted a warship before it could reach the Crisis. The Wormwood was visible now, deep in the center of the enemy fleet. Behind the Crisis there was a horrendous crash as the Satyr rammed the warship, effectively taking both ships out of the fight. Ezikial, watching the carnage with an avid expression, began to sing, Sandara joining him vigorously. Only one defender remained, and the Strife managed to force it off course, giving Crisis free room to ply her guns.

“Time to make ourselves truly offensive to Harrigan,” Feruzi said.

“That’s the spirit!” Chopper told her. “Now, Ezikial!”

The cannons thundered, fully restored after their removal from the Black Marlin; the ballistae and catapults fired with less drama but equal effectiveness, chain bolts and fire barrels reducing the Wormwood’s aft rigging to flaming splinters. One of her ballistae was also shattered.

RELOAD THAT!!” Ezikial bellowed. Reiko steered the Crisis into the void left by the shattered ballista as the boarding crews hurled grapnels onto the Wormwood, hauling the ships together. Planks were thrown across and a general surge of armed-pirates swept toward Harrigan’s flagship. “BESMARA!!!” Ezikial howled, a cry that was taken up by many.

Harrigan and his first mate Peppery Longfarthing were nowhere to be seen, but Riaris Krine and Patch Patchsalt seemed to be leading the action. Patchsalt seemed to run over the top of the crowd and viciously attacked Ezikial with a magical blade.

“Besmara’s come calling for you!” Ezikial spat at the little gnome.

“Norgorber’ll take ye first!” she shrieked in reply.

Reiko left the wheel and drew her sword, cleaving a path through the mass of enemy pirates with a placid, intent expression on her face. Body parts thumped to the deck before her. “Stand down or you taste my blade as well,” she told the pirates, and they recoiled from her.

The aft ballista fired, the bolt slamming into Ezikial and tearing a great hole through his side. Kipper, manning the ballista, shrieked with laughter. Chopper rushed forward, clearing a space around the wounded Ezikial, while Feruzi’s eye sought out Kipper. A flurry of arrows dropped him before he could take cover. Riaris Krine, bellowing every foul oath she knew, attacked Reiko with her magical boarding pike. Ezikial, somehow still on his feet, pulled out his pistols and began firing while Sandara attempted to heal his wounds. Patchsalt went down, leaving only Krine to rally the enemy pirates.

“Where’s Harrigan?” Chopper demanded.

“Like I’d tell ye ball-grabbin’ bastards!”

Shrugging, Chopper aimed his cutlass and a surge of magical water hurled Krine overboard, still swearing. “So, were IS the ruddy bastard?” Chopper demanded of the now-surrendering enemy.

“Wait, let me guess,” Feruzi grunted, “he had a headache so he stayed home in bed.”

“He ain’t here,” one of the lesser officers announced. “Doloruso’s in charge here.”

“Interesting,” Chopper said. “Let’s say hello.” He booted the door to the Captain’s quarters and bellowed, “Oy! Officer on deck!” He caught a fleeting glimpse of an unfamiliar Mwangi woman who hissed in surprise before she vanished from sight in a crackle of magical energy.

“Bloody witchcraft! Gods take the entire damned school o’ conjuration!”

“Er, may I be of service, Captain?” A timid voice asked. Chopper turned around to regard one of the surviving Wormwood officers.

“Mebbe you can.”

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Session 46: Caves Full of Ships

Alise pointed the Crisis officers to a gap in the rocks on the other side of the island that opened into a vast cathedral-like cavern packed with derelict ships. Despite the shifting of the tide, the greenish water stank of death. Only a few rays of sunlight penetrated the murk. Four of the ships were in an identifiable condition. The largest was the Devilish Duchess. Another, with sleek lines and cannon ports, was named the Black Marlin. The other two were the Pinkbelly and the Undaunted.

Ezikial looked ecstatic. Well, ecstatic for him. “Cannon,” he announced, leading the way over the wrecks toward the Marlin. Chopper glanced over the side to see the decayed bones of a dozen ships and ten times that many men. Dark shapes moved in the shadows and sprang to the attack, one charging straight into Reiko’s blade and nearly splitting itself in twain. Ezikial followed up with a hail of pistol shot, but the elder undead still came on, raking with their diseased claws at anyone to slow to give way. Bleeding, now, Chopper distracted a second and Feruzi shot it through the head, yet still it came on. This was beginning to look like something less than an easy fight. Reiko ducked under a claw and completed the twain-splitting of the first one. It dissolved into acid, splashing her and mixing with the blood already liberally streaming from her wounds.

Sandara channeled divine energy, healing some of the wounds and burning the undead, and slowly the battle turned. Chopper’s axe split the head of the second brykolakas while Ezikial and Feruzi shot the third sufficiently full of holes to reduce it to dripping acid. The last remaining monster showed no signs of fear, clawing away until Reiko decapitated it, getting one last dose of foul liquid in the bargain.

“It’s really rude of them to explode AFTER we kill them,” Feruzi complained, wiping ineffectually at the acid spots.

“Thass th’ undead,” Sandara said. “Inconsiderate numpties th’ lot ovem.”

The ships proved to have some valuable plunder intact, and on the Devilish Duchess they located a small hidden panel in a beam just above a moldering hammock, containing some coins, bottles, and a leather journal. A brief thumb through the volume revealed it as a detailed accounting of Scags Rotgram’s grievances against his former captain, Barnabas Harrigan. The latter portion was an elaborate plan to invade Harrigan’s fortress and assassinate him—complete with maps, charts, and heavy annotation of defenses.

“Money,” Chopper announced.

“Far be it from us to deny Rotgram’s final wishes,” Feruzi said.

Ezikial was not to be pulled away from the Black Marlin. “Even if we leave the rest we should take this one, Captain. Extended keel, narrow hull . . . she’ll be fast and maneuverable and tough.”

“You might want to wipe your chin there, Zeke,” Feruzi said dryly.

“I don’t mind, but do we have to take it today?” Chopper asked.

“Sooner is better, Captain.”

“Put some people on it. It’s what we do now. Delegate.”

A great deal of back-breaking work followed, but they managed to float the Marlin on the 2 a.m. tide and take her in tow behind Crisis. Leila spent the time examining Rotgram’s charts and identified the most likely location of Harrigan’s hideout.

“He’s here on Gannet Island, about thirty-six miles west of the Smoker. Rotgram also explains how to get past the sea serpent that guards the island.”

“Shoot it a lot?” Feruzi offered. “Just a wild guess, mind you.”

“Er, no,” Leila said. “Well, perhaps. But it says here that Harrigan has a pet witch who controls the beast. When ships come to the island they bang large gongs and drop a freshly butchered bull over the side as an offering. The serpent has been trained not to attack anyone who performs the ritual. There is also a sea cave under the island that serves as an escape route. Rotgram planned to approach the island underwater . . . though he doesn’t say how . . . and enter the cave at high tide to sneak into the fortress. Finally, he mentions that Harrigan’s quarters are on the third floor. Attacking from above could also be an option, but the entire complement of guards could come to his aid.”

“Only if he has more guards than I have arrows,” Feruzi smirked.

“It seems Rotgram was very serious about his plans,” Reiko said.

“So, it seems we have a decision to make,” Conchobhar said. “Do we attack Harrigan now or return to help defend our island from his attack?”

“More’n Harrigan are against us,” Chopper said. Knowledge and defense be my leanin’."

“Shall I plot a course for home, Captain?” Leila asked.

“Aye.”

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Session 45: Talking Heads

The meeting of the Anti-Cheliax Preparatory Force was brief and businesslike. Captain Aiger took possession of his mother’s former sword, swearing his allegiance to the small fleet at the same time. Maps were consulted and plans made, the various captains returning to their vessels to make preparations.

Fargo Vitterande approached the Crisis officers after the meeting with further news of the elusive Scags Rotgram. It was widely rumored that Harrigan’s former first mate and his ship, the Devilish Duchess, fell victim to the curse of Dagon’s Jaws, a pair of islands near Motaku Isle with a terrible reputation that turned out on further examination to be bunkum. Or, at least, was called so by one of Fargo’s contacts in Slipcove. The waters around and particularly between the islands were dangerous, to be sure, but not cursed or otherwise supernatural. So, of course, what else was there to do but set course for the islands and try to discover Rotgram’s whereabouts. If Harrigan wanted the man put down so badly, he must know something worthwhile.

Several days later, Chopper surveyed the islands while munching on a chicken leg. “Looks harmless enough,” he said.

“I would like to say that, but I know better by now,” Feruzi said. The larger island, named, creatively, “Big Jaw”, was covered in dense jungle. Little Jaw was rockier and drier and covered less with steaming plant life and more by cliffs that made the island difficult, if not quite impossible, to approach.

“How shall I approach, Captain?” Reiko queried after they finished their survey.

“Circle them once,” Chopper ordered. “Let’s see what we can see.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

As the Crisis passed to the west of Big Jaw, the lookout yelled, “Fire! A signal fire!” A plume of black smoke drifted lazily upwards from the western shore of the island—a high cliff face. They would have to land at a beach almost across the island if they wanted to investigate. Which, of course, they did.

The beach was not of a hospitable character, rough and chewed by waves, sloping upward toward rocky projections. Fragments of what seemed to be a ship’s longboat lay scattered along the shore and a half-dozen sodden corpses bobbed face-down in the waves. One plank had the barely-recognizable word “Duchess” painted on it.

“Looks like Scags maybe wasn’t so lucky after all,” Feruzi said.

“Well, the fire suggests survivors to me,” Chopper said. “Also these tracks.”

“They could also suggest ‘the undead’.”

Ezikial shrugged and nodded to the floating corpses, which were now climbing to their feet and staggering ashore, much to the surprise of absolutely no one. Sandara jumped and waved her holy symbol furiously, turning half the soggy lacedons to dust. The rest fell to pieces from a few well-placed arrows. Then a pair of tall, lanky creatures with rotting gray flesh and long black hair burst out of the sea, sweeping their claws at Sandara. Ezikial blasted away at one, but it proved quite resilient. Sandara scrambled away, directing healing energy at her clawed-up skin. Feruzi shot the second monstrosity in an effort to distract it from the retreating cleric, but it, too, stubbornly refused to drop. It knocked Sandara to the ground and turned on Reiko. A melee of axe and sword blows finally managed to stop the attacks and hastily-applied healing magic brought Sandara back to consciousness just as the monstrosities exploded into clouds of greenish gore and doused everyone with some sort of toxic mess.

Just another day on the Crisis.

The next stop on the Big Jaw tour was more salubrious in nature. A sizeable clearing surrounded by large boulders proved to contain a lovely, bubbling spring that filled several small pools decorated with mountain lilies and colorful dragonflies. The rocks were carved here and there with groups of three entwined spirals.

“Thas an ol’ symbol fer Pharasma, Lady o’ Graves,” Sandara said.

“Unsurprisingly, people have been here,” Chopper said. “Thirsty work bein’ stranded on a deserted island, I reckon.”

“As we damn near found out ourselves,” Sandara added.

“The water has healing properties,” Feruzi told them after testing it briefly. “It can also make weapons proof against the undead. For a short time, anyway.” They took advantage of this blessing and moved on, climbing toward the signal fire atop the cliff. A single thirty-foot-tall boulder was perched at the edge, sheltering a half-dozen crude huts and lean-tos.

HALLOOOOO!!” Feruzi shouted with great subtlety.

“We got ye surrounded!” a rough female voice called back. “Drop yer weapons and gear!” Several castaways emerged from the brush, brandishing crude weapons. Feruzi blinked. “I don’t think they know who we are.”

“May I shoot a couple until they figure it out?” Ezikial asked.

“Nah, where’s the challenge there?” said Chopper. He raised his voice slightly. “We be seekin’ Scags. Ye know him?”

“You’re too late; the Captain went down with the ship. Your boss will never get his revenge now and he won’t take us, either!”

Chopper snorted, laughing. “Yeah, it ain’t even remotely like that. Tis a damned shame, I wanted to recruit the man. Guess he was as much a lubber as the stories claimed.”

“You mind your tongue! Scag’s Rotgram was ten times the pirate Harrigan will ever be!”

Five slightly-different versions of “That isn’t saying very much!” followed. The Crisis officers laughed and shook their heads.

“Harrigan didn’t send you?” the woman asked.

“No,” Chopper said dryly. “Well, since Scags be dead and ye ain’t fans o’ Harrigan, do you want a ride?”

“You’d take us off this cursed rock?”

“Course. Anyone who ain’t a fan of Harrigan is an ally in my book.”

“Oh thank the gods!” The woman dropped her scimitar and threw her arms around Chopper. Feruzi snorted as Chopper shrugged and hugged her back.

“Aww, you made a friend.”

“I’m Alise. Alise Grogblud. I was Captain Rotgram’s first mate. Lay down your arms, everyone!”

“I’m Captain Chopper, King o’ Crisis. Besmara smile on ye lot.”

“King, eh?” Sandara said. “I didn’t vote for you.”

“So, how did you people end up here, exactly?” Feruzi asked.

“Captain Rotgram decided to shoot the Gullet to get away from the Wormwood. WE would have made it, too, if those brykolakas hadn’t boarded us. The Captain and the other officers held them off while we escaped to the island.”

“So why would Harrigan still be trying to get the Pirate Council to go after Rotgram?”

“Man can hold a grudge?” Chopper suggested.

“True enough,” Alise said.

“Or, you know, to bait us into coming here. Because that’s the kind of pirates we are,” Chopper continued.

“Rotgram had all kinds of dirt on Harrigan,” Alise said. “And, as his enemies, I expect that ownership of said dirt should fall to you.”

“You still have it?”

“No. But I know where it is, stored in a watertight chest in the ship. The brykolakas took it into their cave. We’ve never been able to get close, of course. There’s also some kind o’ big wooden heads up the island a ways. We never managed to get close because the guardian shouts at us.”

“This I gotta see,” Chopper said.

Sure enough, when they approached the heads, a booming voice rang out. “OUTLANDERS, STEP AWAY FROM THE DUSK WATCHERS OR BE JUDGED!” A creature of gleaming black metal and chiseled stone stepped into the open. It was, oddly enough, wearing a heavy hooded cloak.

“Oy, there, tinman!” Chopper greeted it.

HAIL, OUTLANDER. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.”

“Yeah, I heard ye. What’s with the heads?”

THE ANCIENT TRIBE PLACED THEM HERE LONG AGO AND CHARGED ME TO DEFEND THEM. I MUST CONTINUE TO GUARD THEM UNTIL THE ANCIENTS RELEASE ME.”

Sandara leaned sideways to get a look at the heads. “They give off divination magic. Them ancients mighta used ’em for navigation or somethin.”

“Are these like, Azlanti ancients?” Feruzi asked.

“I NO LONGER RECALL. I HAVE STOOD VIGIL HERE FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS.”

“Sounds dull,” Chopper remarked.

“IT IS . . . IT IS MY DUTY.”

“Well, we didn’t want to mess with the heads, per se. Just see ’em.”

VERY WELL, OUTLANDER, APPROACH THE DUSK WATCHERS. BUT IF YOU ATTEMPT TO HARM THEM, I WILL DESTROY YOU.”

Chopper strolled down the path to examine the wooden monuments. They were extremely monumental. “Hey, Kriss, how many threats t’ these statues have you faced in them thousands o’ years?”

NONE WHATSOEVER.”

“That sounds . . . really boring,” Feruzi said.

THIS IS MY FATE. THE ANCIENTS ARE NO LONGER HERE TO RELEASE ME.”

“They don’t have descendents somewhere?”

“I DO NOT KNOW.”

“Well, does it HAFTA be them what does it?” Sandara piped in.

“ER . . . NO.”

“Oh,” Feruzi said. “So what needs to be done to release you?”

THE SIX BROWS OF THE DUSK WATCHERS MUST BE ANOINTED WITH WATER TAKEN FROM THE SACRED SPRING.”

“I got some o’ that in this here waterskin,” Sandara said.

“Anoint away.” When the cleric finished the sixth statue, a faint tremor ran through the island. Moments later, the towering carved heads crumbled to ash and blew away.

“I THANK YOU. I PROMISE TO REWARD YOU AT SOME FURTHER DATE. FAREWELL.”

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Session 44: Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight

The Theater of Corruption in Hell Harbor was run by a trio of Chelish expatriates who performed abstract reworkings of ancient Chelish plays. The disturbing operatic comedies featured dark fiends as protagonists and mortal antagonists who embroiled themselves in sins and deviltry, suffering ironic losses, deformities, and often damnation. It was difficult to know whether the patrons enjoyed these themes or whether they simply loved the scandalous reputation of the establishment.

The Crisis officers spread out around the broad, single-story building, constructed on piles over the waters of Hell Harbor in search of side entrances. Feruzi had approached the doors when she was interrupted by a loud “Oi!” from around the corner.

“Don’t you ‘oi’ me!” she snapped. A heavily armored guard approached her.

“You need to move on, there. This buildin’s under the personal protection of Lord Endymion hisself!”

“And what, exactly, did you think I was about to do to said building?”

“Don’t matter, girlie. Get thee gone.”

“How do I even know you work for Endymion?”

“Do we even care?” Ezikial grunted from his position further up the street. He took a swig from his flask.

“Well, no,” Feruzi said, " but I don’t appreciate people trying to tell me what to do."

“It don’t matter if I work for Asmodeus hisself. This is yer last warnin. Leave.”

“Ooh, my last warning. Now I’m scared,” Feruzi said. “Whatever shall I . . .” she punched the guard in his ugly mug and was surprised to discover no real resistance. Chopper charged out of the shadows and whacked the so-called guard upside the head, or tried to, he passed right through the illusion, which vanished, accompanied by the sound of mocking, ethereal laughter.

“Bloody witchcraft!” Chopper growled. Feruzi clambered onto the roof of the building, not immediately finding any other enemies. There was a loud thumping noise as Reiko assaulted the door, battering it open in a matter of moments. Ezikial and Chopper, still on the pier, were hit by a wave of unholy energy. A devil, sporting a rather dangerous-looking beard, shimmered into view and attacked.

“Lord Endymion sends his regards, fools,” it cackled. “Now die!”

“Eh, probably not,” Chopper said, fending off the devil’s assaults. Feruzi shot it, dealing some damage while Reiko drew her sword to deal with a wild-eyed, bloodstained man who punched at her with his bare hands. Somewhere inside the building a powerful soprano began to belt out a Chelish opera. The bare-knuckle fighter proved to be a powerful adversary, pummeling Reiko without mercy. Someone from inside the building cast a spell on him which only served to make him more ferocious.

Ezikial raised his pistols and blew the devil away, removing one distraction as the sound of spellcasting came again from inside the building. Reiko dealt the berserker brawler a hideous blow, but he laughed and bellowed a challenge at her as the wound was largely healed by a powerful spell.

Blocked from assisting Reiko, the other three officers and Sandara hurried toward the main doors. Ezikial blasted the lock and they rushed into a dimly-lit hall with excellent acoustics that seemed to be amplifying whatever bardic magic was taking place. Sandara threw a spell into the far corner, removing the illusion that concealed one of the attackers. She looked like a skeleton wrapped in a woman’s translucent flesh. A tiefling and a Chelish diva were also gathered in the corner, overseeing the fight.

Reiko drew her short sword and engaged the berserker in a flurry of attacks, ending by slicing through his arms and impaling him in the neck with her wakizashi. Slowly, seeming not to believe he was dead, he fell to the floor. The Chelish diva cursed and quickly cast a spell, vanishing from sight.

“Dimension door,” Sandara said. “She’s outta here.” The remaining spellcasters similarly vanished. A search of the theater fortunately uncovered some evidence that they were, indeed, Chelish spies.

Overall, not the best result. Even so, Endymion was happy to contribute his ships to the gathering fleet preparing to face the Chelish offensive.

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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.”

“Indeed.”

“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.”

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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.

“Dragon?”

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!”

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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.

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Interlude: Love and War Part 4

Drenchport was, for once, not living up to its name. The occasional flare of sunlight peeping through the clouds even lent the place a festival air, like fireworks. Nonetheless, Feruzi was not entirely certain how she wound up agreeing to take Ukele out shopping. The original plan, as far as she could recall, was simply to roust her sister out of her cabin and make her get some exercise before she figuratively (and maybe even literally) exploded from boredom. Ukele was strangely resistant to the idea and only grudgingly agreed to go ashore with Feruzi as escort.

“What is with you today?” Feruzi asked as Ukele sulked her way past yet another market stall. “Are you sick?”

“I’m fine! What’s it to you, anyway?”

“You’re the one who dragged me along. I don’t see why I should have to put up with your mood as well.”

“Oh, well, don’t feel like you need to bother yourself on my account! I can take care of myself!”

Feruzi bit back a response, settling for an indifferent shrug. “Suit yourself. Just don’t wander too far, we’re leaving on the evening tide.”

“Mmph,” was the sour response. “I have half a mind to be late on purpose,” Ukele muttered as Feruzi walked away, leaving her to her own devices. “I hate that rotten tub, anyway.” Not that Drenchport appealed, either. The streets, if such they could be called, were ankle-deep muck. Ukele’s feet were already soaked and starting to blister. She spotted an open doorway to what looked like a tavern and stepped inside gratefully.

“Well, here’s a nice surprise,” a male voice called from inside. “Were you looking for me?” It was Drale. Ukele shrank back and collided with another patron who was trying to walk in behind her. The man didn’t seem displeased at this development in the slightest.

“Hey, Jenner, the quality o’ yer girls is improvin’, I’d say. Give us a kiss, sweetheart!”

“Get away from me!” Ukele shrieked.

“Oh, don’t be that way . . .”

“The lady said no, you cur,” Drale snarled, interposing himself. The rough eyed the Andoran Captain for a moment, then held up his hands in a soothing gesture.

“Didn’t mean nothin’ by it, yer honor. Just a mistake, is all.”

“See that you don’t make another.” Drale took Ukele’s arm and ushered her out of the common room, into the back of the tavern where the private rooms were standing empty. “Are you all right?” he asked, easing her into a chair and closing the door. “You shouldn’t go wandering around by yourself.”

“I’m . . . fine. I should go . . .”

“You just got here. Surely after that you could use a drink, at least. Wait here.” He was gone before she could protest. Ukele couldn’t guess what to think of his behavior. He seemed almost nice, when yesterday was so ugly.

“Here we go,” Drale said, returning with a bottle and two tumblers. He filled both glasses nearly to the rim and pressed one on Ukele. The potent liquor stung her nose before she even got it near her face. This wasn’t what you drank when you needed a shot of artificial courage. This was what you drank when you wanted to forget how to walk, stand, speak, and possibly even breathe. Drale was watching her intently. Ukele mimed taking a sip then burst into a completely feigned coughing fit.

“Good stuff, eh?” Drale said dryly. “Actually, I’m glad I got a moment to talk with you, see, I wanted to ask if you told anyone . . . about last night.”

Here came the panic again. “N-no . . .” that seemed like a safe bet. Maybe. Drale looked relieved.

“Good, good. Merrill can be a bit of a prig at times, no telling what he might think of me swiving his wife’s sister. Probably believes you’re some blushing virgin although we know that isn’t the case, don’t we . . .”

Ukele listened to this little speech, feeling her panic replaced drop by drop with fulminating rage. She grabbed the neck of the bottle and hurled the contents into Drale’s face, covering them both in liquor. “How DARE you speak to me like I’m some dockside whore!” She drew in a breath to continue and was shocked when Drale struck her a blow across the side of her face. That wasn’t supposed to happen. He was supposed to be horrified and apologetic. Her vision went briefly dark and her brain felt scrambled.

“No,” Drale gritted out. “Whores get paid. You’re just a bitch in heat.”

“I’ll tell my sister!”

“If you were going to, you would have already. I don’t know what I was thinking, you’ve probably had every man on that ship. Well I don’t like used goods, so, bye.” He poured the rest of the liquor over her and banged the door open. When Ukele managed to pick herself up, she found that Drale had left without paying for the expensive bottle. The tavernkeeper was ill-pleased by the contents of Ukele’s purse or by her tears and ejected her forcefully into the street.

“Don’t try turning your tricks in my establishment again! Stupid bitch!”

“I’M NOT A WHORE!!” she shrieked and fell down weeping in the mud of the street. Dimly, she heard running feet an several of the Bonaventure’s crew gathered around her.

“Quick, go find Feruzi,” an authoritative voice ordered. It was Scrimshaw Jack, the man they were in Drenchport to pick up.

“NO-O-O!” Ukele screamed, her voice coming in jerks like a two-year-old having an utterly incontinent tantrum. Someone tried to put a cloak around her shoulders and she slapped them away.

“Ye can’t jist stay here in the street making a spectacle of yerself,” Jack said.

“GO AWA-AY-AY!! I HA-A-ATE Y-YOU-U-U!”

“Besmara, did ye ever see somethin’ so pathetic.”

Ukele grabbed handfuls of mud and threw them at him, but Jack dodged aside, shaking his head. He put his foot on her rump and pushed her over—not hard, just enough to prevent any more attempts at retaliation. “Here’s yer sister. Maybe she kin do summat with ye.”

“Kele, Kele, what happened?” Feruzi asked, running up and squatting down. “What happened?” she demanded of Jack when Ukele proved incoherent. He shrugged.

“Sod me if I know. She just started screaming.”

“She smells like a distillery. Has she been drinking?”

“I’M NOT DRUNK!!”

“Hey, you lot, quit blocking the damn street!”

Feruzi shot to her feet and whirled around. “You. are. speaking. to. a. Pirate. Lord.”

“Er . . .”

“Did you have something you wanted to say to me?”

“Uh . . . no. Carry on.”

“I thought so.” Feruzi turned her back on the man and squatted next to Ukele again. “Let’s get you out of the street, at least. There’s a tavern right over here!”

“NO-O-O!!!” Ukele began to struggle madly.

Feruzi released a long-suffering sigh. “She’s hysterical.” She gestured at an item next to one of the nearby stalls and Jack caught her meaning and went to grab it.

“I’M NOT HYSTE—” the rest of the word was abruptly cut off as a bucket of rainwater hit Ukele full in the face, a substantial amount going straight into her open mouth. She choked and spluttered helplessly while Jack looked on, grinning.

“That seems to have done the trick,” he said.

“You’re not half bad at this,” Feruzi told him.

“I gots three spoiled little sisters at home, don’t I? ’S why I went to sea inna first place.”

“I hate you!” Ukele repeated in a somewhat more moderate tone.

“Hate him later and tell me what happened,” Feruzi ordered.

“Oh, Zizi, it was awful! He hit me!”

“Who?” Feruzi glanced up at Jack, who flapped his hands defensively.

“Weren’t me, Ma’am!”

“It was that . . . that Drale! Last night he . . .” Ukele also glanced at Jack, then yanked Feruzi’s shoulder over and whispered in her sister’s ear. At length. Feruzi covered her eyes with her hand.

“You brought this on yourself, you know.”

“I knew you’d say that! How can you take his side?! He raped me!”

“Hey, now . . .” Jack started. Feruzi waved him to silence.

“I am not taking his side,” she said. “It’s just, gods, Kele, when are you going to learn some sense?! No, don’t answer that. Come on, we need to go tell Merrill.”

“Do we have to?” Ukele whined as Feruzi dragged her to her feet.

“Do you want to share Drale’s company for the rest of the voyage?”

“No . . .”

“Then come on.”

They found Pegsworthy on the quarterdeck chatting amiably with Drale, Labella and several other crew in attendance. Feruzi stormed up the stairs, finger outthrust at Drale’s face like a prophet about to smite the unrighteous. The crew parted in front of her. “That man raped my sister!” she announced. Pegsworthy’s face went white and his eyes bugged out.

“Er . . . excuse me, dear?” he said faintly.

Drale threw up his hands in an appeal to the heavens. “Oh, please. Is that what she’s been telling you?! I did no such thing. She came on to me. She was practically panting for it!”

“That’s not true!” Ukele shrieked as Feruzi rounded on her. “He hit me!”

“Oh, I admit, I gave her a little slap after she threw a bottle of Diron in my face, but that stuff is expensive! She’s just trying to get even, now.”

“Zizi, you have to believe me!” Ukele pleaded with Feruzi’s stony expression.

“I believe her,” Pegsworthy said. Ukele nearly fainted.

“Gods, Merrill . . .” Drale began. Pegsworthy scowled at him.

“There might have been a day when I would have taken you at your word, Mr. Drale, but no longer. Ms. Loor!”

Labella stepped forward eagerly. “Yes, Cap’n?”

“Remove Mr. Drale from my ship.”

“With pleasure, Cap’n.”

Drale’s face twisted. “Fine, I’ll go. But you haven’t heard the last of me. Mark my words!”

“Yes, yes, go or I’ll have you thrown overboard.”

“Not without my men!”

“So? Fetch them, then. But be quick about it.”

The still somewhat ill and injured Andoran sailors were swiftly assembled on the deck and given a brief summary by Labella. They held a conference, then one of them approached the quarterdeck, hat in hand.

“Beggin’ yer pardon, Cap’n Pegsworthy, might we have a word?”

“Of course,” Pegsworthy said.

“We’re to be put ashore here, the lady said?”

“Yes. I’m afraid I cannot extend my hospitality to your Captain any longer.”

“I see. Well, if you’ve nothin’ against us, we’d like to stay aboard, sir. We’ll join yer crew if ye want.”

“You do understand this is a pirate vessel.”

“Pirate or privateer don’t make no difference to men like us, Cap’n sir, but I can see ye treats yer crew well. We’d be glad ter stay if ye’ll have us.”

“Then I accept your offer. Sorry, Mr. Drale, I guess you go ashore alone. I’ll have Pinch swear you men in, as I think Ms. Loor is occupied at the moment.” Labella seized Drale’s arm and frog-marched him to the gangplank. The Andorans flinched when Pinch appeared, but his calm, cultured speech eased their fears and shortly afterward Pegsworthy was alone on the quarterdeck with Feruzi and Ukele.

“Why didn’t you believe me, Zizi?” Ukele mourned. She really was a pathetic sight, her face swollen, her hair and clothes tangled and caked with mud and booze. Feruzi shook her head.

“Because I know how you act. And you lie all the time.”

“I don’t!”

“Not with words. With your face and hands and your whole body. Drale probably did think you wanted it.”

“How was I supposed to know what he thought?!”

“By using your brains, Kele! For once!”

“I knew you’d be like this! You think you’re so smart and so perfect and you’ve never made a mistake, no, not Feruzi! You’re such a bitch. This is all your fault!”

“MY fault?”

“If you weren’t such a bitch, I would have just screamed for help, but I KNEW you’d believe him! So it’s your fault!”

Pegsworthy saw Feruzi’s nostrils flare and the cords in her neck draw tight. Moving as quickly as he could, he insinuated himself between the sisters and tentatively put his hands on Feruzi’s shoulders. “Um, I love you, dear, why don’t you just . . . take a little break. We’re all a little emotional at the moment, saying things we don’t mean . . . I’ll have a little talk with her . . .”

Slowly, Feruzi exhaled.

“Um, I love you . . .”

She snorted. “You said that.”

“Well, it’s true.”

Feruzi patted his cheek. “Maybe you can talk some sense into her. I certainly can’t.”

“See you later?”

“Yes dear.” Shooting Ukele one final black look, Feruzi left.

Pegsworthy threw himself down on the nearest piece of equipment in abject relief. He had no idea why that just worked. Some sort of husbandly grovel instinct just took over. He pointed an unsteady finger in Ukele’s direction. “You owe me. Again.” Ukele sniffed.

“Gods,” Pegsworthy said, thinking back over the past few days. “Was I ever that much of an ass?”

“If you ask me, you still are,” Ukele said primly. He chuckled.

“Have a seat,” he said, gesturing to another trunk full of hardware.

“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll skip the lecture. I think I know it by heart.”

“That was not a request, young lady. I am the Captain on this ship and I WILL be obeyed.” Ukele sat, somewhat awkwardly. “That’s better. Look, I know you’re not stupid. How do you keep doing this to yourself?”

“Guess I’m just unlucky.”

“No. Losing your rum money at cards is unlucky. Losing your entire livelihood, that’s something else. your problem is that you keep thinking that you’re going to win. So you keep placing the wrong bets.”

“What, so I should just stay in my room and do as I’m told?”

“No, but you could try betting on the people who love you instead of random strangers.”

“No one loves me.”

“Horseshit. Do you think Feruzi would have stuck by you all this time if she didn’t love you?”

“Then why does she keep trying to smother me? That’s all people ever do.”

“They want you to be safe.”

“I don’t want to be treated like a child!”

“Then show them that you’re an adult. That you can stand up for yourself instead of going along with stupid things because you think somebody might scowl at you. Don’t just run and hide when you make a mistake or try to get some stranger to fix it for you. You’ve seen how that turns out.”

Ukele started to cry.

“Hey,” Pegsworthy said, as gently as he could manage, “You’ve done some dumb things, but it doesn’t have to be the last word on you. What matters is what you do going forward.”

“You’re so n-nice to me.”

He snorted. “You’re upset and you’ve had a long day. Go and get cleaned up. And apologize to your sister.”

“Do I have to?”

“No, but it’s the right thing to do. But by all means, ignore everything I just said. See what it gets you. Again.”

“Fine, I’ll go apologize.”

“Good girl.” Pegsworthy watched her go and sighed. He looked down at the tattered old greatcoat he wore, same as the one every Andoran Eagle Knight wore. Like Drale. In sudden decision he tore the coat off and hurled it overboard. Feeling much lighter for some reason, he set off to see to his ship.

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Interlude: Love and War Part 3

Ukele tiptoed across the hall to the galley, a pointless gesture because there was, at present, no one to see her and she was about as unobtrusive as an ogre in a gnome village in any case. She was hoping to get a peek at the handsome stranger, Drale, maybe find out if he was as hairy as Feruzi’s husband under all the silly cloth these people insisted on wearing. Didn’t they know it was hot? They sweated and turned read and even blistered up, you would think they would notice at some point. Truly, no foreigner had any sense.

There was no door to the galley, only a flap of rough cloth that Ukele twitched aside and there was Drale, bare to the waist in the linen knee-pants most sailors wore. He was a bit fuzzy, to be sure, but the deep golden tan on his face and arms did not extend to his chest and the skin was a distressing pasty white. Disappointing. Forgetting herself, Ukele clucked her tongue.

“Who’s there?” Drale demanded, reaching instantly for a weapon. “Vanenza?” That was the Bonaventure’s new chaplain, who provided healing and also such luxuries as purified bathwater.

“No, it is Ukele!” she announced, sweeping the cloth aside and stepping into the room. She smiled and posed—one leg forward, hand on opposite hip, chest outthrust—and was rewarded by the pleased, appraising look she knew so well.

“Well, hello again, my pretty. Did you come to keep me company?”

“You seem about the only interesting person in this dreadful tub.” Ukele hopped up on the table, swinging her legs girlishly while she chewed a fingernail. “I heard them call you Captain, do you have your own ship?”

Drale gave a rueful chuckle. “Not any more. A temporary setback I intend to rectify immediately.”

“Feruzi’s Captain has a bunch of ships. Maybe he’ll give you one.”

“What, Merrill?”

“No, the other one. Whatshisname, Chopper. We’re going to his island.”

“Sounds like a wealthy man.”

Ukele shrugged. “I suppose. He’s some kind of Pirate Lord, now. Feruzi too, but she doesn’t seem to think much of it.” Sniff. “People are always giving her things. You’d think she would appreciate them more.”

Drale rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Maybe there’s a way to salvage this mess after all. Do you think Feruzi would introduce me to this Captain of hers?”

Ukele made a face. “I don’t think she likes you very much. She’s always so uptight. Not a drop of fun in her veins at all.”

“Not like you, I can see,” Drale purred, making his face relax into his most charming smile. “I can see I’m being terribly rude . . . you didn’t come down here to talk about her, after all.”

“I certainly did not.”

Drale’s smile widened and his eyelids drooped into a dangerous, sleepy look. “So what did you come here for?”

Ukele shrugged, artfully artless. “Oh, I don’t know. I was bored. There’s nothing for me to do.”

“Oh? Well, perhaps I can help you with that.” Ukele squeaked as Drale swept an arm around her, jerking her against his body. He forced her head back and crushed her mouth with his own, slimy tongue wriggling ferociously. “There’s a nice girl,” he hissed, releasing her mouth to yank at her clothing. “You know how to show your appreciation, don’t you . . .”

Ukele’s mind was blank with panic. She was just teasing, amusing herself as always . . . did he really imagine he could just have her? HER?! She started to struggle, kicking, shoving at him with her arms. Drale grabbed her wrists and twisted them around behind her. She bit him.

“Ouch! So you like it rough, then?” Ukele’s face mashed against the table as he flipped her over. She felt the air on her backside and realized she was now fully exposed. Arcing her back, she inhaled brutally, preparing to scream the place down. Then, the thought came that if she did scream, Feruzi would come running and find her like this. Humiliation choked her and the breath fled in gasps of rage and pain as Drale rutted away on top of her, grunting like a pig.

“Nice little filly you are,” he muttered, giving her a final grope before he began throwing on his clothes. “Nothing like a good hard ride to take a man’s mind off his troubles.”

At least he spared her the necessity of thinking of something to say by sauntering off. Creeping like a mouse that fears a cat in every shadow, Ukele escaped to her room and locked the door, wishing she had furniture to pile in front of it.

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Interlude: Love and War Part 2

“I must say, you seem to be doing well for yourself, Merrill. Does piracy pay so well?” If the chair weren’t bolted to the deck, Carson Drale would no doubt have leaned back and dumped his boots on the table. He was that type of man, Feruzi decided. Now that his rage had run its course Drale’s natural personality seemed to be reasserting itself and Feruzi could not find it in herself to like the man. To be fair, she acknowledged that she hadn’t liked Merrill at first, either. Perhaps Drale’s swagger also was a front for a decent, loyal heart. Ukele had settled in one of the other chairs. Maybe Drale would have some such effect on Ukele as Merrill had on Feruzi. She could not decide whether the idea pleased her or not, but it did amuse her.

“It has its ups and downs,” Pegsworthy was saying. “Much like anything, I suppose. One good haul might set a man up for life, but a bit of bad luck might mean total ruin, with your former fellows eager to speed you on your way. I try to avoid either extreme.” He glanced at Feruzi thoughtfully, his expression unreadable.

“What’s that face supposed to mean?” Drale asked, chuckling.

“Oh, nothing. I still just can’t get over what an enormous coincidence this is, finding you out here. I don’t like to play the superstitious man, but . . .”

“It’s no coincidence, old man. I asked for this assignment, so, really it was only a matter of time before we encountered each other again.”

“What assignment?”

Drale smirked. “That’s between the Admiralty and myself, I’m afraid. It seems they do recognize talent when it’s shoved down their throats hard enough.”

Feruzi didn’t imagine anyone else would have noticed the faint contraction of pain in Pegsworthy’s face, but from the sudden intensity of Drale’s stare and the equally faint rise of his eyebrows he noticed and was enjoying it. Feruzi’s stomach clenched and she felt a powerful urge to see Drale off the Bonaventure at the first opportunity, land nearby or no. The sight of Ukele watching in rapt fascination was abruptly no longer a source of any amusement.

“Is the manner of your survival also a matter of national security?” Merrill asked. “I would think so, given how you’ve danced around the issue.”

“Not at all. It’s not a bad story, in fact—good gods, what is that?!” Drale launched himself halfway out of his chair as Pinch appeared bearing the breakfast tray.

“Ah,” Pegsworthy said, briefly at a loss. His good manners came to his rescue. “May I present Mr. Pinch, quartermaster of the Bonaventure.”

“It’s a bloody devil-spawn, is what it is!”

“Be nice, Carson,” Pegsworthy chided, in Feruzi’s opinion far too mildly.

“Your pardon, Captain,” Pinch said, setting the tray down with all the precision of a superior house servant. “I did not mean to offend your guest.” The quartermaster’s tone was polite but it only served to make his antipathy for Drale more plain.

“How dare you speak like that, misbegotten wretch . . .”

“Mr. Drale!” Pegsworthy’s voice cracked like a whip. Even Ukele flinched. “Mr. Pinch is a valued member of my crew. If you find yourself unable to be civil then I request you confine yourself to silence!” The two men locked gazes for a moment, then Drale shrugged, trying to make his offhand gesture a casual denial of the contest that had just taken place.

“Sorry, Merrill, the surprise, you know . . .”

Pegsworthy kept his silent gaze on Drale for some seconds longer, then released him pointedly. “Thank you, Markuss, that will be all.”

“Yes, Captain,” Pinch said, giving a respectful half-bow and withdrawing.

“Where in the world did you get that thing?” Carson grumbled when Pinch was out of earshot.

“Where do you think, Carson?” Pegsworthy shot back with some asperity.

“Well, you didn’t have to bring it with you when you left.”

“That is a matter between Mr. Pinch and myself. So, you were about to tell me how you survived being dragged underwater and abandoned?”

“Oh, yes.” Drale seemed to be having difficulty in reasserting his swagger. “There really isn’t that much to tell. I was rescued at the last moment by a, well, a woman.”

“An underwater woman?” Feruzi demanded, dubious. Carson glanced at her and straightened primly.

“Yes. I thought I was a dead man, tangled in the wreckage, my last breath trailing away, then I woke in some sort of underwater grotto with a beautiful maiden standing over me. She was some kind of sorceress,” Drale added, smirking faintly. “At first, she didn’t want to let me go, but I was so charming she was soon just putty in my hands. She had these flying eyeball creatures that she used to watch for passing ships in her cauldron. When she saw one close by she had her pet sea-troll carry me to the surface.”

“Eyeballs,” Feruzi said.

“Yes, I agree it sounds rather queer . . .”

“It’s not queer if you are a Sea Hag.”

Drale’s face turned an interesting shade of purple. “She was no hag!”

“They can disguise themselves with magic. A fact that plainly did not occur to you.”

Pegsworthy cleared his throat loudly before Drale could respond to that. “Dear, could I speak to you privately, please.”

Feruzi blinked. “Er, of course.” She followed him into their shared bedroom. Pegsworthy carefully shut the door on Carson and Ukele.

“Really a Sea Hag?” Pegsworthy said, finally.

“It sure sounded like it.”

“I see. Well . . . let’s just keep this between us, hmm?”

“If you say so.”

“I do, if only to keep the peace on my ship. Go have some breakfast, love. Just try to stick with . . . less inflammatory topics. If there are any.”

Feruzi scowled. “And what are you going to do?”

“Oh, I have some . . . things I wanted to do,” Pegsworthy said, waving his hands around airily. Feruzi didn’t seem to buy it, but she let him put her out of the cabin. Pegsworthy then buried his face in the pillows and laughed himself sick.

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