Skull and Shackles

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 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 48: Stealth Section

“So, if the bastard didn’t bother comin’, what’s he up to, eh?” Chopper demanded of the Wormwood officer, a Varisian man named Bintrim Whist.

“Doloruso said Harrigan was sure his fleet would crush you.”

“He was mistaken,” Feruzi said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“So, what does he have let at his disposal?” Reiko asked.

“Just what he’s got left at his fortress. He’s there now with no real way to escape and just the great serpent defending the harbor.”

“What, Fluffy?” Chopper asked.

“I don’t know its name, sir.”

“Are ye thick? I jus’ told you.”

“Yes, sir. Of course, sir. Sorry, sir. I just know about the gong and the bull.”

“Sure, sure,” Chopper muttered.

Eventually, the disorganized aftermath of the battle was sorted out, with the allied and captured ships anchored at the Island. Saburo was the only allied captain seriously injured—he went overboard and nearly drowned. Everyone else was banged up to some degree, but no one was seriously dead so a celebration seemed to be in order. In the morning, the Crisis officers reconvened to discuss matters.

“Now we can use the secret way to creep up on that coward Harrigan,” Chopper said straight off.

“Or we could just return in the Wormwood and make him think he succeeded,” Reiko offered.

“I like Reiko’s idea,” Feruzi said. “I want to vote for that one. Although his first mate may have teleported back there and reported failure already.”

Reiko shrugged. “I doubt it. Harrigan would likely kill her for deserting her post.”

“Mmph,” Feruzi grumbled. “Part of me keeps worrying that is some kind of elaborate plot, but then I remember that Harrigan isn’t that smart.”

“Indeed.”

“Fetch out that map again!” Chopper ordered. They all leaned over his shoulders (or snuck in under his arm, in Reiko’s case) to squint at the parchment.

“Torture pit?” Feruzi asked, pointing.

“An’ a shrine to WHO, ’zactly?” Sandara demanded.

“Dunno,” said Chopper. “Never heard Harrigan say any prayers.”

“It’s probably a shrine to himself,” Feruzi said. Sandara and Conchobhar laughed.

THAT I can see,” Chonchobhar snorted. “Like I was standing there right now.”

Reiko’s plan was finally adopted. Fishguts produced a really juicy bull and a large brass gong from who knew where and they set off aboard the Wormwood for Gannet Island. It wasn’t much of an island, to be sure, consisting mostly of a rocky outcrop surrounded by smaller shoals that made navigation rather difficult. Fortunately, again, they had a map. Rosie banged the gong with rather more vigor than was probably called for as Fishguts slaughtered the bull and, with some assistance, heaved the carcass overboard, sniffling a few times at the sad waste of prime steak. They anchored the Wormwood in the cove without incident. Feruzi cast a few spells, rendering the recognizable officers invisible, and Birtrim Whist had some of the Wormwood’s crew row them ashore.

An octogonal tower loomed above them. The drawbridge was down, spanning a dry gulch before the walls, but the doors were shut and looked as if they intended to stay that way. Whist waved at the tower. “Welp, we’re back.” A guard poked his head over the edge of the parapet.

“Where’s the rest of your crew?”

“Repairing the ship. We thought Harrigan would want to hear our report right away.”

There was a long pause as the guards conferred in hushed tones. They didn’t seem terribly convinced. Reiko leaned forward and whispered to Whist, making him jump. “Be more convincing from now on.”

“It’s not exactly my strong suit, now is it?”

The sound of the heavy wooden bar being levered out boomed from the doors and they creaked open. Two more guards edged out of the way, allowing the landing party into the fortress. The courtyard was choked with weeds and filth. To the southeast, a wooden platform sat on the ground in the corner of the surrounding wall. A winch and crane provided the mechanism to raise and lower the platform to the walkway twenty feet above. A very large, smelly humanoid leaning against the wall suddenly raised a pair of massive axes. “Smell intruders!” it bellowed. Feruzi shot it, dispelling the invisibility.

“Stop them from activating that winch!” she said. Ezikial dove forward and slashed the winch cable, grabbing the end of the rope and sailing through the air in true swashbuckler fashion. He landed neatly atop the walkway above and drew his pistols. A furious combat ensued. The scrag was laid low by Reiko’s trusty katana, but the double doors behind it flew open, revealing a replacement scrag and an additional bonus scrag that, fortunately or un, walked directly into another fusillade of arrows and was instantly rendered nonfunctional.

More guards charged Ezikial along the walkway, to Ezikial’s delight. He emptied his pistols into the first one while below, Chopper charged the remaining scrag, distracting it long enough for Reiko to sever some reasonably vital appendages. A fourth and final scrag put in its appearance, whacking Reiko in the back with its axe and causing some unpleasant effects to be realized. While Reiko was busy cussing, Feruzi stole her kill, finishing off the damaged scrag and wounding the other. Above them, gunfire and a rain of bodies continued as Ezikial went on amusing himself. Sandara rushed forward to heal Reiko while Chopper dispatched the fourth and final scrag. The fighters down below then realized that the courtyard had filled up with a number of Harrigan’s men while they were occupied.

Feruzi blinked at them. “Oh, are you still attacking us?” she asked. “I nearly forgot you were there. You may go.” Chopper snorted. He was about to utter a snappy rejoinder when a tengu appeared in the northern doorway, pointing a scimitar directly at Chopper.

“You!” the Tengu squawked. “You can run but you can’t hide!”

Chopper flapped his axe excitedly. “Oh wow! A talking birdman! JOIN MY CREW!”

Reiko and Feruzi tackled the mass of smugglers as Chopper went mano e mano with the tengu. After about two seconds the five remaining smugglers—clearly outnumbered by the two women—attempted to retreat back through the doors. They were joined by their own women who were dressed in the obligatory robes of some cult or another.

“Seriously, you should join us,” Chopper said as the sound of grenades exploding echoed across the courtyard. “The benefits are great!”

“My captain will reward me when I bring him your head!” squawked the Tengu. A seemingly endless stream of blows and banter followed until both of them were covered and blood and barely on their feet. Reiko dispatched the last cultist just as Chopper fell to one knee, too faint to continue. Feruzi shook her head and shot the Tengu straight through the heart.

The courtyard was theirs. Ezikial surveyed the carnage with a happy grin.

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Session 49: Ex-Harrigan

Finding themselves in command of the courtyard, the Crisis officers climbed up to the gallery and entered what appeared to be a warehouse, occupied by numerous crates, boxes, barrels, chests, and a multi-legged, multi-eyed beast waving sharp claws. Ezikial promptly shot it and it staggered, wavering. Chopper shrugged and buried his axe at a point roughly equidistant from its numerous eyes, eliminating the threat before Reiko and Feruzi could even raise their weapons.

“Well, I mean, I get the appeal of finishing things off so quickly,” Chopper said, retrieving his axe, “but where is the pageantry?”

Feruzi smirked. “It’s about time you boys handled something on your own,” she said. Reiko nodded.

“I couldn’t agree more. It’s nice to avoid the explosion of internal organs all over me for once.”

“The thunder of my guns and the spraying blood are enough for me,” Ezikial said, reloading his pistols.

The door on the western side of the warehouse was locked—Chopper kicked it and six spikes shot out, impaling his leg.

“Oof!” he announced as Sandara rushed forward with a healing spell. “Door kicked me back. Ruse, can you witch it open?”

“Er, no.”

“If only we ‘ad someone good at blowin’ up locks . . .” Sandara said unsubtly. Ezikial pulled out a grenade.

“Shall I?”

“Fire in th’ hole!” Sandara added helpfully.

The explosion rattled the warehouse and the door was reduced to expedient splinters. They rifled through the rest of that floor without finding anything too terribly interesting, then mounted the stairs. Or tried to: the doors above opened and four pale-skinned, dark-winged women wearing not many clothes but wielding more than enough weapons to make up for it charged them. Two of them fired flaming arrows at Ezikial, the other attacked Reiko with a flaming rope that coiled as of its own volition. The fourth erinyes cast a spell and a miasma of cold, greasy darkness rolled over them.

Chopper shouted and charged, wielding his axes. “Put on some clothes, ye harlot,” he growled as he fenced with the spellcaster. Ezikial shot that one and, without a pause, continued on to the next. Reiko shook her head.

“Why am I even here today?” she asked.

“Because it takes me a while to reload,” Ezikial grunted. Feruzi fired up the stairs, downing a third devil while Reiko attempted to disentangle herself from the rope.

HARRIGAN, COME OUT AND PLAY!” Ezikial roared. Sandara channeled divine energy, burning the remaining erinyes, and Ezikial finished her off. The east door, behind them, opened and the familiar, painful sound of a Chelish opera sung by a powerful, piercing soprano filled the room.

“Oh, not this again,” Feruzi said, wincing. The diva strode into the warehouse and cast a spell at Reiko, who didn’t seem particularly overcome.

“Yer flat,” Chopper announced as a bolt of lightning hit Feruzi in the chest and arced, singing everyone except Chopper. Ezikial cringed as phantasmal magic struck at him, but he shook it off. Harrigan suddenly appeared next to the Chelish diva, the skulls on his armor howling fearsomely. He struck at Feruzi, who didn’t quite dodge in time. Reiko drew her katana and cleaved the Diva while Chopper attacked Harrigan.

“Besmara calls for your blood,” Ezikial growled.

“Then come an’ take it, Mister Hands,” Harrigan growled back.

“I believe that I shall.” Ezikial’s bullets punched holes in Harrigan’s flesh. Doloruso, the spellcaster, appeared behind Harrigan and threw a spray of prismatic energy over Feruzi and Sandara, both of whom vanished in a blast of violet light.

“What the what?!” Chopper demanded. Reiko growled and shifted her grip, drawing her short sword with her off-hand. With a flurry of blows, she assailed the diva who fell dead at her feet. Chopper cheered happily but was cut off by Harrigan’s equally furious assault. Ezikial’s pistols thundered once more as Chopper forced Harrigan back, and with a hiss of rage that ended in a spray of blood, the former master of the Wormwood finally met his end.

“You can’t stop what’s coming!” he gasped as he expired.

Doloruso blinked. “I yield!” she announced. “No more, I beg of you!”

The translucent, ghostly face of Nightshade appeared. “Traitor,” she hissed, casting a spell at Doloruso, who recoiled.

“My allegiance was always a temporary convenience,” Doloruso said. Nightshade began to cast another spell, but Reiko leaped forward, severing both her arms at the wrist. With a shriek, Nightshade expired.

“I accept your surrender,” Chopper said. “So does Mister Hands.”

“Oh, thank the Black Queen.”

“And Feruzi isn’t here to gainsay me, either. So, where IS she, exactly?”

“Not to mention Sandara as well,” Reiko said, feeling her burns.

“They caught the violet ray of my prismatic spray, so they must have been sent to another plane of existence,” Doloruso said.

“That could be problematic,” Reiko mused.

“Your cleric can probably bring them back . . . assuming they ended up in the same place.”

“What did Harrigan mean by ’what’s coming’?” Chopper asked.

“Cheliax is planning an invasion. They told Harrigan they would make him the Governor once they’d taken over.”

Searching Harrigan’s effects revealed a great deal of information about this proposed invasion, as well as a secret entrance to Fort Hazard created by a previous Hurricane King. They also discovered Peppery Longfarthing and Habbly Quarne in the prison, victims of Harrigan’s wrath.

“Secure the prisoners and contact the crew,” Chopper announced. “We’re getting off this rock. Feruzi and Sandara will have to fend for themselves. They should be up for it.”

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Interlude: Best Spell Evarr

The universe flickered and Sandara abruptly fell into something sticky. Given the enthusiastic fighting styles of her compatriots this wasn’t too unusual an occurence but the sticky substance was usually not blue. Or, except in the case of really intense combats, three feet deep. Or floating in midair. Upside-down. If that was down. Sandara’s eyes crossed as she took in her surroundings and her stomach danced a jig as the perspective seemed to wobble and distort. The midair blob of cerulean goo lazily flopped over and dumped Sandara onto a small island covered in rusty red moss, which groaned and cursed.

“Feruzi? Izzat yer?”

“Ugh, what happened? Why am I covered in fuzz?”

“I don’t rightly know. Are ye hurt?”

“Yes.”

“Well, ‘ere, have some healin’ then.” The reddish moss abruptly turned black and fell off, revealing Feruzi in more or less her usual state. She heaved herself to her feet and looked around. Slowly, her eyes crossed.

“Where the HELL are we?!”

“Dinna know. T’ain’t anywheres in th’ Shackles, though. Leastwise, I hope not.”

“This . . . ugh, my head . . . this looks like Limbo. Did we get sent to another plane!? We have to get back!”

“True enough, but how do ye plan ter do that? Ye know any portals that might be convenient?”

“I doubt it. And it’s not like there are any landmarks in all this . . . schlock.”

“Well, if we wait ’til mornin I kin ask Besmara ter plane shift us outta here.”

“Morning? But the others are fighting Harrigan right now!”

“Yer got a better option?”

“Well . . . no.”

“Then I guess we’re waiting.” The mossy island was comfortable enough, so Sandara pulled out her pipe and settled in to wait. Feruzi, on the other hand, fidgeted nervously, causing the entire rock to jiggle uncomfortably. “Would ye stop that,” Sandara grumped after several minutes of this.

“Mmph.”

“Go fer a walk or summat. Not too far, mind ye. Don’t get yerself lost.”

“All right, all right.” Feruzi awkwardly climbed down from the small floating island into the branches of a tree that appeared to be growing upside-down . . . if that was down. Probably best not to get too wrapped up in such distinctions, really. In a way Limbo felt like being really, really drunk, just unfortunately without the part that prevented you from worrying about it. Sandara briefly considered getting drunk on the off chance that it would serve as a remedy, then rejected this idea as almost certain to make the nausea worse while simultaneously infuriating Feruzi, who was not in the best of temper at the moment.

As if summoned by this train of thought, Feruzi called up, “Can you see that?” her voice weirdly distorted.

“Whuzzat?”

“That,” Feruzi said, pointing somewhat unhelpfully, as Sandara could not see her. “Over there.” Still less helpful. “It’s like something big is headed this way.”

Sandara squinted, then tried putting a hand over one eye, then the other. Yes, it did seem that something big and kinda gray was headed in their direction. Fast. And loud. The air filled with the sound of crashing waves as a howling tempest descended. Sandara was thrown from the island; Feruzi made a grab and hauled her into the tree just in time. Salty breakers battered them and the black hull of an immense ship loomed out of the storm above. Sandara screamed and shut her eyes.

Then, it was quiet. The surf lapped at the tree innocently. Sandara risked a look and discovered the giant ship had come to a stop only inches away. Feruzi had her fingers in her ears and her face scrunched up in a rather comical echo of Sandara’s recent panic. Chuckling weakly, Sandara nudged her.

“Iss all right, we ain’t dead yet.”

“Man overboard!” someone shouted. Sandara attempted to see the rail she expected was up there somewhere but couldn’t spot anyone. Then a porthole opened just above them and a black-haired man with an impressive mustache appeared.

“Um, hello?” Feruzi ventured.

“Don’t I know you?”

“I can’t imagine how you coul—Royster? Is that Royster? Wha . . . how did you get here?!”

“What be a Royster?” Sandara asked.

“It’s . . . he’s Lady Smythee’s Master-at-arms, remember? But how did he get here?”

“Oh, the usual way,” Royster McCleagh said imperturbably. He seemed to be rather enjoying himself at their expenses. “I died. But how did YOU get here?”

“There was a bright light an’ then here we was,” Sandara said, chuckling. “Some spell or other. Where’d ye get this great ship, I wanter know.”

“What, you don’t recognize it? And you a Besmaran. For shame.”

Sandara gasped. “What?” Feruzi demanded.

“Issa S’wrth!” Sandara squeaked incomprehensibly.

“What?”

“It’s the Seawraith! Besmara’s own ship! Crewed by the piratin’ dead in tha’ afterlife!”

“You’re joking.”

“No, it really is,” Royster McCleagh said. “Come aboard.”

“Do we have to be dead?” Feruzi demanded.

“Usually, but it’s a pirate ship. There aren’t many rules about that sort of thing.”

A rope ladder was lowered and the two women climbed aboard, Sandara emitting periodic squeals like some sort of deranged chipmunk. “Fruzi!” someone called happily as they emerged into the hold and Feruzi was enveloped in a hug by a huge, burly man.

“Owlbear?!” Sandara squeaked while Feruzi struggled for air. “Ain’t this a coincidence!”

“It’s the bleedin’ afterlife,” McCleagh said. “If the gods didn’t arrange coincidences you’d never find anything.”

“Oh. Right.” Sandara shook her head. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a thrill ter be here, but we need ter get back. Our friends could be in trouble. They was fighting Harrigan last we saw.”

Royster smirked. “That scumbag? He showed up here half an hour ago.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Want to see what Besmara did with him?”

“Would I e’er!”

“Come on, I’ll show you around a bit.” Royster led the way and Sandara scampered after, laughing at a muffled, “Put me down!” from Feruzi.

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Session 50: Will The Real Pirate King Please Stand Up

Leila shuffled through Harrigan’s papers as they made way toward Port Peril, racing to warn the Pirate Council of the imminent Chelish invasion. “Has anyone noticed that this invasion plan seems to call for the Chelish armada to sail directly through the Eye of Abendego?”

“That’s crazy talk,” Feruzi said.

“Damn it,” Chopper complained. “I wanted to be the crazy one to suggest that.”

“Witchcraft?” Sandara offered. Chopper smirked.

“You, I like.”

They arrived in Port Peril in a cold, drizzling rain. The harbor was crammed with the flagships of pirate lords who, having received notification from the captured Wormwood, wanted to be on-hand for this meeting. Kerdak Bonefist called the meeting to order.

“There’s only one agenda item on this meetin’s schedule: this threat of a Chelish invasion. Cap’n Chopper ’as tha floor. Convince me.”

“Welp, we have a fat lotta paperwork that sez Harrigan was treasonous scum instead of, you know, the regular kind. Also, that the Chelish fleet thinks they can sail through the Eye this time. So, that’s different. It don’t mention how. Was hopin’ mebbe the Master of the Gales could shed some light,” Chopper declared.

The druid looked a little surprised at this request, but only for a moment. “A ‘blessing’ from their infernal masters would seem the most likely explanation.”

“Ah. So. Water devils. That’s a thing. Huh.” Chopper said. “Point is, if the Chelish fleet be on its way by unconventional means, we have far less time fer the usual smash ‘n’ grab that has been enjoyed in times past. I don’t fancy wakin’ up without me trousers and a randy fiend creepin’ up behind.” Sorrinash and a few of the rowdier pirate lords laughed until Bonefist glared them down.

“That’s odd, because you seemed to enjoy it pretty well that one time,” Feruzi said blandly into the restless silence.

Chopper shrugged. “I mean to keep a sharp eye on the . . . well the Eye, regardless o’ what me fellow Council members have a mind t’do. I reckon we can bloody ‘em some before they sink us, but will it be enough to stop ’em running roughshod over the rest of the Shackles? This don’t strike me as a half measure, ladies and gents.”

“Is there any possibility of counteracting their magic or whatever it is?” Feruzi asked. “The Eye would do most of the work for us in that case.”

“Calm yerselves,” Bonefist grunted. “There ain’t no devil magic at work here. Papers don’t make nothin’ true.”

Ezikial abruptly stood up. “Are you, then, so old and tired that you would rather close your eyes to what is happening so you can drool into your feather pillow in mindless comfort? Are you truly so daft, or are you a pirate lord of the Shackles?”

Bonefist growled. “Yer father was a brother-in-arms ter me, Besmara rest ‘is soul. That, an’ that alone, is the reason I don’t have ye flayed alive here an’ now. Erryone pay heed. No matter who forged these here papers hopin’ ter draw us inter an attack on an old enemy—even supposin this threat is real, I reminds ye that meetin’ the Chelaxians on th’ open sea only plays ter Cheliax strengths an’ concentration o’ force, ‘specially their teleportin’ diabolic allies. Free Captains do best in battle wi’ small strikes, or from defensive positions.”

Feruzi leaned over and whispered to Chopper, " Did he say ‘forged’?" Chopper nodded.

“If this threat is real and not some farcical invention by untested Lords and Ladies eager to cast a disparigin’ light upon their rival Harrigan—who they obviously feel deserves more humiliation than mere defeat can offer—let those devils try their hands against our ports after they have endured the wrath of Abendego isself!”

Chopper thumped the table after Bonefist finished his surly monologue. “By the powers, yer right. Surprise is a key strategy for men and women such as ourselves.”

Bonefist relaxed a little, eyeing Chopper carefully. “Aye.”

“So, I ask you, what could be more surprising to the Chelish fleet than to find—for the first time in recorded history—the entirety of the Shackles power in one place, ready to meet them just as they escape the storm. As you say, whatever their powers they’ll be worn down by Abendego and therein will lie our key advantage. If ye have no reason to take our word for it, look t’ yer own information sources. Ye’d be fools to take anything’ said at this Council at face value. And yer not fools.”

“Enough!” Bonefist bellowed. “Me mind’s made up. Lords o’ tha Council, make ready yer squadrons fer when they be needed, but mark me words, what emerges from th’ northern storm will be in no shape to take e’en a single atoll.” He glared down the table. “ANY captains who sail north on this fool’s errand might well find themselves branded traitors agin tha Shackles, ’specially if this be just a ruse ter distract our defenses.”

“Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see you proved right, of course,” Chopper said, bowing. “Me, I’m sailing north.”

“And those that value their lands and freedom should consider doing the same,” Reiko added.

“Not to mention those who value not letting us have ALL the plunder,” Feruzi continued.

Chopper stood, surveying the gathered Pirate Council, then turned and walked out.

“Erryone’s life is his ter throw away,” Bonefist growled. “This Council be dismissed.”

A few hours later, as they were transferring their equipment from the Wormwood to the Crisis, a number of pirate lords—some under their own initiative, others at Reiko’s invitation—convened. Lady Fairwind, Cerise Bloodmourne, Arronax Endymion and the Master of the Gales all accepted cups of grog and settled down to chat.

“I remain in your debt after you cleared my name,” Endymion began. “My personal squadron is yours to command. After your victory over Harrigan’s armada, I am comfortable deferring to your expertise.”

“I have long feared that Drenchport would be the first target of a Chelish invasion,” the Master rumbled. “Your timetable confirms my fear. As a result, I have left my ships at Drenchport. I will gladly offer you my personal aid, though.”

“Ooh, Druid spells!” Feruzi enthused. Chopper quirked an eyebrow at her, smirking. “Don’t even think of saying that word,” she added.

“Huh? Oh. Witchcraft. Right. Doesn’t apply. He and nature have an understanding.”

“My squadron is with you, too,” Tessa said. “And if, no, when we win I will certainly support you in any bid to make for rule of the Shackles.”

Chopper blinked.

“I think we may be able to get a few of the other Free Captains on board with that,” Reiko said as if this were the most natural notion in the world."

Cerise snickered. “Pity ye’ve no taste fer rule yerself, Tess.”

“Bonefist stays locked away in Fort Hazard for weeks at a time. I still have the love of the open sea in my heart.”

“Just because you have his job doesn’t mean you have to do it the way he does,” Feruzi said.

“True, true. But I still don’t want the job. Not as badly as some of you might,” Fairwind said, winking at Chopper.

“Well, that is not something that needs to be decided at this point in time,” Reiko said.

“But we are agreed that a change in leadership is needed,” Endymion said.

“For now, I think it prudent to make ready for an early morning departure. Thank you all for coming tonight,” she said, bowing to the other pirate Captains, who made their way off the Crisis and toward their own ships.

“Are you seriously considering making a bid for Pirate King?” Feruzi asked, eyeing Chopper.

“Yes. It’s perfect. I don’t think I ever told you this, but I came out to sea to do what I could to lessen the hold of the Shackles over Sargava.”

“Ah. I was rather looking forward to, you know, settling down.”

“And you should do what your heart tells you. This has been my dream for a long time. I just never expected an opportunity to fast track it to present itself so readily.”

“I’m just worried about someone stabbing you in the back if you don’t have anyone to look after you. There are just as many people who dislike you as adore you. And if this Chelish thing comes off there will be even more.”

“Well, there’s always Mister Hands. He would be murderously annoyed, I think, should I come to harm.”

“Mm. We’ll worry about that when it happens, I suppose.”

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Session 51: Didn't We Just Do This?

After some further gathering of forces, it was decided for the combined Shackles Fleet (Unofficial) to assemble near Hell Harbor. The numerous spellcasters distributed through the pirate fleet exercised their scrying magic, and the great invasion fleet of Cheliax did not disappoint.

“Shoot them harder than they shoot us!” Chopper crowed, waving vigorously at his crew. There were over forty enemy ships, including the easily-recognizable Dominator. “Oh, hey, those guys!” Chopper continued in undiminished good spirits.

“Don’t get hurt,” Feruzi told Pegsworthy severely as he prepared to disembark for his own vessel. “Well, unless it’s absolutely necessary. But even then, go for more of a flesh wound.”

“Of course, dear. Even those devil worshippers don’t deserve YOUR vengeance.”

“That’s right. Best to be merciful.”

“Looks like we have plenty of targets, at least,” Ezikial grunted. “Captain, may I sink them?”

“Well, I suppose,” Chopper said. “Just don’t expect a birthday present.”

“We should at least give them a chance to surrender,” Feruzi said. “Since our forces are so clearly superior.”

“It’s all about quality, not quantity. Still, I would not suggest holding your breath,” Reiko told her.

As the Crisis grew closer to the Chelish fleet, a squadron of flying devils suddenly appeared in the air. Reiko pulled out her new bow and began shooting. The arrows seemed to connect, but Reiko shook her head. “These are not real,” she announced.

“Good,” Chopper said, drawing his axes and scanning the sky. Five more devils appeared as they launched their attack. The apparent leader of the devils tossed a feather token to the deck, causing the Crisis to shudder and slow violently as the magical anchor weighed her down. “Fucking WITCHCRAFT!” Chopper complained violently. The four remaining devils charged Reiko and Ezikial, vomiting noxious clouds while swinging their polearms.

“Forget to use your mouthwash this morning?” Reiko asked. A positive hail of bullets, arrows, axe and katana blows followed until the Crisis officers were bleeding freely and the devils were all reduced to something akin to paste. With the assault temporarily in abeyance Sandara dispelled the anchor token and distributed some healing.

“As if devils weren’t bad enough, we get stinky devils,” Feruzi grumped, collecting her spent arrows.

“Are we taking on the Dominator, Captain?” Ezikial asked.

“Well, it’d be rude not to, don’tcha think? Personal service and all that.”

“I am in agreement,” Ezikial replied with an evil grin. “Make sure we’re all loaded, Rosie!” They began making way again, but in the scrum it looked as though the Bonaventure would close with the Dominator long before the Crisis was in any position to be of assistance. Chopper shook his fist in that direction.

“Save some for us!”

“Looks like their flagship over here,” Ezikial said. “Abrogail’s Fury.”

“Fine, fine, we’ll do that one.”

“Bring me to within 600 feet of their wheel and I’ll take it from them,” Ezikial said.

“That, I can do,” Reiko told him, resuming her place as pilot.

The Bonaventure abruptly changed course, forcing the Dominator into a slow turn that brought her weapons out of line, leaving the Chelish dreadnought vulnerable to a devastating volley from one of Endymion’s warships. Ezikial shrieked in glee as the Dominator was holed at the waterline and began sinking with impressive speed. The Crisis gained on Abrogail’s Fury, seeking an advantageous angle for attack. Four more devils appeared on the Crisis, serpentine fiends with frail-looking wings and muscular arms that terminated in masses of tentacles.

These devils moaned and an expanding coldness filled the air with a murky heaviness like drowning. The crew coughed and choked as Ezikial and Feruzi fired, killing one of the devils and wounding a second. Chopper and Reiko struggled against the magical fugue while the fiends attempted to summon reinforcements, but they were interrupted by yet more persistent axes, bullets, katanas, etc. and shortly the deck was devil-free once more, leaving them free to continue closing with the sleek, black-hulled man’o’war that was leading the Chelish fleet. Her sails were crimson and black and the flag of House Thrune flew from the masthead above a banner emblazoned with an argent dagger.

“So Admiral Thrune herself has come to take the Shackles. How nice of her,” Reiko said.

“An’ how’s that workin’ out fer ’er?” Rosie aske.

“I’ll let you know shortly,” Reiko told her.

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Session 52: This Also Seems Familiar

Grapeshot and chain bolts peppered the rigging of Abrogail’s Fury and Ezikial’s signature shot blasted the wheel to splinters. The Chelish flagship returned fire, severely denting the hull of Crisis and knocking the sails askew—Crisis slammed keel-first into the side of the Fury and seemed to skid, staving in the black ship’s hull. Both ships rolled on the swell, no longer making way. The Crisis officers jumped across to the Fury and were met by a force of Chelish marines. Admiral Thrune and her bodyguard stood on the quarterdeck, ready to back up the marines.

Chopper hacked at the enemy forces then reeled as a crossbow bolt slammed into his shoulder and seemed to explode with malevolent power. The Admiral sneered and handed her crossbow a crewman for reloading, accepting a second bow in exchange.

Ezikial ignored the swords of the marines and charged forward, screaming Besmara’s wrath. He fired both pistols at the bodyguard, a woman dressed in impressive spike-covered black armor. “You may be just my type, m’lady,” Ezikial gritted. “Let’s see how you bleed for me, shall we?” The bodyguard sniffed as her wounds partially healed themselves.

Chopper was in imminent danger of being surrounded by marines with boarding pikes. Feruzi fired her bow, downing one and wounding the other while Sandara skirted the pikes to land a healing spell on her teetering Captain. Reiko decapitated the wounded marine seemingly without noticing and, just like that, the way was open for them to charge the Admiral. The bodyguard readied to receive them while the Admiral cast a spell. Unholy fire burst on the deck, scorching them.

Ezikial continued firing at the bodyguard, who glowed again with healing power. She shoved him aside and hacked at Chopper with her bardiche. He winced in pain but endeavored to appear unimpressed, an endeavor that became more convincing as Sandara channeled energy and the wounds sealed over. Reiko snarled a challenge at Admiral Thrune but the bodyguard threw herself in the katana’s path, screaming as the blade bit through her armor. She collapsed on the deck, dead.

“And I thought we had something there,” Ezikial said sadly.

“Valeria! NO!” Admiral Thrune shrieked.

“You CAN surrender, you know,” Chopper told her.

“I will NEVER surrender! My soul is lost no matter what happens.”

A priestess of Norgorber suddenly became visible, flinging up a wall of blades in front of Chopper and Reiko. Feruzi and Ezikial fired their weapons, Ezikial wounding the Admiral, Feruzi skewering the priestess. Reiko wrenched herself free of the blades, her kimono slashed to ribbons, and finished Ezikial’s work, cleaving the admiral open from breastbone to pelvis. Chopper attacked the cleric, but nothing seemed to happen. Sandara quickly threw a dispelling field, revealing the illusion. Feruzi whipped around, grimacing, and spotted the cleric fleeing toward the other side of the ship.

“Hey, no running away, there!” she yelled and drew her bow. The cleric looked back and received an arrow in the eyesocket for her trouble. The remaining marines and crew shrank back, some even jumping overboard to an uncertain fate rather than surrender.

Reiko looked overboard as the Crisis crew herded the prisoners belowdecks. The battle seemed to be going well—many of the Chelish ships were breaking off the attack and fleeing into the storm. “Shall we raise our colors on this ship to announce its capture?” Reiko asked.

“Aye, make it so,” Chopper said. “Yer fookin’ welcome, Bonefist,” he grumbled under his breath.

With the Chelish armada broken, the Shackles fleet limped back to Hell Harbor and the predictable partying. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to pat Chopper on the back.

“Well, ye know, I have my moments,” he said modestly. “Question now is, what next?”

“There is really only one reasonable course of action,” Reiko said. “The King must be deposed.”

“Wait, he’s not supposed to be a useless figurehead?” Feruzi asked. “When did this happen?”

“He is clearly too arrogant for his position. It nearly cost us our freedom. As a Free Captain I take issue.”

“He weren’t so back in th’ day,” Fishguts said, “but thirty-eight years is a long time ter rule an’ recent events ha’ proved he ain’t the man he wuz.”

“Clearly.”

“He should have had some grandchildren,” Feruzi added. “It gives people something to do in their old age that is annoying but not harmful.”

Tessa nodded. “Then you call for a vote of no confidence?”

Chopper did a quick count of the assembled captains, gauging whether enough were present to make any actions official. “Fookin’ right,” he concluded. “Shall we show the old man the door? What say you?”

AYE!” shouted, apparently, every pirate in the Shackles.

“I think it is clear which of you we would prefer to nominate, but the decision is still yours.”

Reiko glanced at Chopper, who grinned. “Very well, I accept,” he said. Another cheer went up.

“Our acclaim won’t be enough, of course,” Tessa said. “The title’s wholly empty as long as Bonefist wears the Hurricane Crown and sits enthroned in Fort Hazard.”

“And he cannot be expected to relinquish either without a fight,” Endymion said.

“Well, it won’t be our first raid,” Reiko said.

“Plus there’s the back door,” Feruzi added.

“Back door?”

“Yes. Harrigan was planning to sneak in and assassinate Bonefist using a secret entrance put in by a former incumbent. The Chelish invaders were supposed to make Harrigan the new ruler of the Shackles—under their orders, of course,”

Endymion spat. “Treacherous bastard.”

“This is a surprise to anyone?”

The Master of the Gales nodded. “Then a stealthy assault on Port Peril is best. Overthrow Bonefist and send him either into exile or to a watery grave.”

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Interlude: Domination

The Thumbscrew screamed like a tortured man as it sank. Massive grapnels clutched at her hull and tore the ship to pieces. It was an operation Captain Pegsworthy had never seen before, but it was frightfully effective against the smaller vessels of the Shackles fleet. Beside him aboard the Bonaventure, Labella Loor was scanning the battle, trying to figure out which ship was spearheading the attack.

“It’s the Dominator,” she said, lowering the spyglass. “She’s going after the Kitsune next, Captain. You want I should signal the Crisis?”

“Chopper needs to deal with the Chelish flagship. We’ll handle this ourselves.”

“You don’t think we’re a little outmatched in this case?”

“And we’ve never been outmatched before?” Pegsworthy admonished.

“Aye, aye, Captain.” Labella shouted orders to the helm and riggers. Below them, at the rail, Renvel picked up a grappling hook as he and his assault crew readied themselves.

The method behind the Dominator’s attack became obvious as the Bonaventure drew nearer. The grapnels—massive metal spears with retracting arms and lengths of heavy cable attached to them—were fired from a ballista. The spear point would hit a ship below the waterline and penetrate the hull. The drag of the cable would cause the arms to extend, anchoring the spear in the hull. At the other end of the cable was a simple stone, probably in the neighborhood of a hundred pounds. The stones must have some magical preparation, though—when they were thrown overboard they sank at a truly alarming rate, one stone acting as a powerful anchor, two ripping massive holes in the ship or even tearing it to pieces like the unfortunate Thumbscrew. The cables were underwater and very difficult to reach. Kitsune was already heeled over as one grapnel dragged at her.

Bolts of the more ordinary variety peppered the Bonaventure as she came into range, tearing the rigging and doing some damage to the forecastle. Renvel’s men launched their hooks, a few finding purchase on the Dominator. Then the Bonaventure was suddenly awash with Chelish marines. Apparently, they weren’t interested in waiting to be boarded. Renvel’s men fell back from the surprise assault. In seconds, they were struggling to protect their own ship.

“You should have had the wit to stay away, Merrill!” someone bellowed. Pegsworthy glanced away from the two marines attacking him and almost got an axe to the face for his trouble. “Back off!” the interloper growled. “He’s mine!”

The marines obeyed and Pegsworthy found himself staring at a familiar face. “Carson? What—and I use the term advisedly—what in the HELLS are you doing here?!”

“A man has to eat, doesn’t he?” Carson said, waving a hand in an insouciant gesture. “Besides, House Thrune is taking over this place. Lots of opportunities for a man to get in on the ground floor, so to speak.”

“They’re devil-worshippers. Slavers.”

“Oh, they’re not so bad once you get to know them. Besides, you’re hardly one to talk.”

“I have NEVER run slaves.”

“Enough, old man. Fight or I’ll cut you down where you stand.”

Behind and above Carson, the massive windlass on the Dominator’s grapnel ballista had finished winding. The crew officer snapped the trigger-hook into place and disengaged the winding mechanism. “I don’t have time for you,” Pegsworthy said and ducked under Carson’s too-wild swing. Pegsworthy grabbed an unattended rope and swung over the narrow gap between the ships, landing awkwardly on the Dominator’s poop deck. The grapnel crew swore at him and drew their weapons, but they were too late to stop him from hurling himself at the swivel lock. It came loose just as the crew officer hauled on the trigger lever. The ballista heaved, almost taking Pegsworthy’s arm off, and the bolt crashed against the guide, firing uselessly almost straight up and splashing into the water less than thirty feet from the deck of the Dominator.

“Tatsume, you owe me,” Pegsworthy grunted, getting a grip on his greatsword adn turning to fend off the ballista crew. He was completely isolated. His own crew were still busy clearing the deck of the Bonaventure. By the sound of the shouting, more Chelish marines were on their way. If he ran, the ballista crew would skewer him. The only option was to dispatch these five and make a stand for it here, hoping his own crew would arrive before a lucky arrow or bullet took him down.

The Chelish crew officer had other ideas. “Surrender!” she demanded.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Pegsworthy said, somewhat absently as he weighed up the odds.

“You’re surrounded, fool. Surrender!”

“So you can sacrifice me to your patrons? No, thank you. I’m not THAT stupid.”

“Fine then. Kill him.”

The first crewman shifted, uncertain, and Pegsworthy darted forward, ripping a long gash in the man’s thigh with the tip of his greatsword. The second crewman attempted to stab Pegsworthy in the back and got a face full of pommel for his trouble. Spitting blood and broken teeth, he collapsed. People always thought that big swords were slow and clumsy. They didn’t realize the reach and leverage it gave. No need to make awkward, sweeping attacks like you were trying to chop down a tree. Two down, three more to go. He deflected a blade, ducked under a second, and grimaced as a sharp pain bit into his arm. A short bolt, almost a dart, had neatly penetrated the chainmail and sunk into the muscle. Almost immediately his arm began to go numb.

“Gods damn all Chelish poisoners!” he swore as the crew officer smirked and lowered her hand crossbow. “I am so”—he took of the third man’s head—“bloody sick of your wretched”—a quick exchange and he disarmed the fourth and laid the man’s gut open—“CHEATING!” Pegsworthy panted, struggling to ignore the alternating sensations of freezing and burning that were beginning to creep across his chest. “Even one-legged and alone I’m still worth four of you.”

“Too bad there’s five of us,” the crew officer sneered, raising her blade.

“He’s MINE!” Carson bellowed, charging up.

“Oh, hello again,” Pegsworthy said. “A bit slow, aren’t you?”

“Well look at you, barely able to stand. I’m going to enjoy this.”

“Better hurry, then,” Pegsworthy told him. His good leg buckled and he fell to one knee. The crew officer sheathed her sword and turned to her ballista. Carson grabbed a handful of Pegsworthy’s chainmail and hauled him down to the main deck.

“I think I’ll cut off your other leg. For balance. Then your hands.”

“I don’t think my wife will like that very much.”

“Maybe I’ll look her up when this is all over. I bet she and her sister would make great concubines. Maybe I’ll even leave you alive, so you can watch. How about that?”

“You know,” Pegsworthy gasped, “you really are a complete and utter scumbag. In a way, it’s kind of liberating.”

“Liberating?”

“Because now I don’t have to waste time wondering, what would Carson think? I always thought of you like some kind of martyr. It’s amazing how wrong you can be about someone.”

Carson bared his teeth. “I think I’ll cut off your balls, too . . .”

“Trouble, Captain?”

Carson jumped and glanced over his shoulder. Pegsworthy essayed a wave, but his arm just flopped uselessly.

“Hello, Markuss.

“Is this your rescue, Merrill? It’s not even armed. I really didn’t expect it to be THIS easy.”

“Captain?” Pinch persisted, still pressing toward them.

“Just go, Markuss. I know you don’t fight. It’s not worth you dying.”

“Who said anything about dying?” the quartermaster asked. He removed his smoked spectacles, revealing alien slit-pupiled eyes that seemed to glow. Carson swung and, almost idly, Pinch caught his wrist in one frail-looking, long-fingered hand. Carson’s eyes widened in shock as Pinch casually disarmed him, wrenching the sword from Carson’s grip.

“I’ll not suffer the likes of you to abuse my Captain,” Pinch said. Carson let go of Pegsworthy and drew a knife with his other hand. Pinch frowned, a terrible sight. “Did you not hear me?” The dagger struck Pinch’s side, bent, and broke. “They made me what I am . . . stronger than you. Don’t make me tell you again.” Seeming oblivious to Pinch’s words, Carson scrabbled for another weapon. Pinch sighed. “So be it.” A dark, purplish emanation seemed to leak from the tiefling’s skin. Carson screamed as the flesh seemed to shrink on his bones. In moments, all that remained was a brittle, desiccated skeleton. Pegsworthy winced.

“Are you all right, Captain?” Pinch asked, brushing himself off fastidiously.

“Ahh . . . yess, I think so. This drug or whatever seems to be passing off.”

“Good. Shall we see to the ship?”

Pegsworthy eyed the pile of grapnels and anchors. “I have a better idea.” With Pinch’s help, he bound two of the grapnels together and hauled them across the Dominator’s deck, which was now filled with struggling men. Ignoring the battle, Pegsworthy rolled one stone off the starboard rail while Pinch threw the other off the port side. The cable went taught, then the deck began to creak ominously, audible even over the noise of the fighting.

“Everyone off the ship!” Pegsworthy bellowed, waving at Renvel. By the time they were back aboard the Bonaventure, the Dominator was beginning to break apart.

“Well done, Captain,” Labella remarked.

“Yes, I rather thought so.”

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Session 53: BOOM

The Crisis surreptitiously—well, as surreptitiously as a ship could manage, anway—docked at Lucrehold an hour or so after sundown. Several warehouses stood on the island’s southwest corner, along with outbuildings filled with apparatus for making olive oil. Harrigan’s notes indicated that the secret entrance was hidden beneath a tun in one of the warehouses.

“I think it’s this one,” Feruzi said, turning the map around and squinting. “Or . . . maybe that one.”

A quick reconnoiter of the warehouse revealed two entrances: a wide set of double doors, probably for wagons, and a side door for pedestrian traffic. Both appeared to be locked, but neither were obviously guarded.

“So, any witchcraft about?” Chopper asked. Feruzi rolled her eyes but cast a spell to reveal magical auras. None were in evidence. “I’m inclined to kick down the big doors,” Chopper continued, “but I assume I’ll be vetoed, so let’s just go the other way.”

Leila unlocked the door. It was dark and quiet inside. Chopper peered into the room nearest the door, discovering numerous dusty scrolls and ledger books. “Witch room,” he whispered. “Or, you know, accounts payable. One o’ those.” The next door opened into a long room divided into stalls by low wooden walls, perfect for taking cover should any shooting be required. Large barrels and ceramic amphorae were stacked within the stalls, filling the air with the smell of oil, wine, and beer. Following Harrigan’s notes, they located their specific tun of rum in the easternmost stall.

Feruzi stared at it in horror. “We can just move it, right? We don’t have to drink it?”

“Er, we don’t HAVE to,” Chopper said uncertainly, looking at Ezikial.

“This much rum, even he might not survive,” Reiko said. “I know that’s not putting much faith in his drinking abilities, but still . . .”

“I could go get Rosie and Grok,” Leila said.

“Is it possible for a man to die of happiness?” Chopper asked. “Surely there’s some sort of hidden catch hereabouts. Or a handcart.” Searching around revealed nothing. Shrugging, Chopper hefted his axe and laid into the barrel, chopping a hole and letting the rum pour out. Sandara grabbed a mug, filled it, and passed it to Ezikial, then filled one for herself. With the barrel mostly empty, they were able to heave it aside, revealing a trap door that opened on a rusting iron ladder descending into a rough-hewn tunnel that ran north and east and terminated in a dank room. A stone statue depicting Besmara stood in an alcove. It was once painted in bright, gaudy colors, but most of the pigment had flaked off, revealing green stone. Blue-green flames danced along the statue’s sculpted hair.

Moving on, they discovered a number of vaults—some with niches in the walls that turned them into crypts. The floor had subsided, allowing a pool of dark water to form. Four barnacle-enrusted corpses with glowing red eyes rose out of the water as they approached. Mist seemed to rise from them, obscuring the room. Chopper cursed and a great deal of flailing about ensued, ending with the draugr sent to their final final rest and Chopper rather scratched up and disarranged. Sandara helpfully cast some healing spells to restore his equilibrium and remove the after affects of too much undead mauling.

The traditional post-combat wrap up revealed a secret door in one of the burial niches, leading into another long tunnel leading north and east. This one ended in a small, damp cave, this one laid out like a hall of sorts, with evenly spaced torches filling the place with disturbing shadows. A collection of jagged metal heaved itself upright, extending an arm that ended in an enormous cannon barrel.

“Hello, my lovely!” Ezikial announced, charging forward. The cannon boomed and Ezikial went flying through the air, landing flat on his back, covered in blood. “Chopper!” he said indistinctly. “I simply MUST have one!”

“What, am I going to deny you a pet?” Chopper demanded as Reiko charged past him to engage the golem. Her katana blade scraped along the creature’s chassis, leaving a surprisingly massive dent and knocking loose what might have been several vital parts. The cannon golem sputtered and clanked ominously as it switched targets, winding up for another blast.

Chopper threw an axe at the golem, drawing its attention. He grabbed his crotch suggestively. “Oy, fullmetal ugly! Suck my nuts and bolts!” Strangely, the golem seemed to find this insulting. It gave a metallic-sounding screech and headed toward Chopper while Sandara frantically tried to heal Ezikial. Another boom and Chopper was flat on the ground.

A hail of bullets hit the golem, causing its torso to drop free of its legs with a horrible grinding noise. The top half tried to pull itself along, then fell to the floor as the alchemical magic powering it faded.

“Well,” Reiko said as Sandara scrambled after Chopper, “If they didn’t know we were here before, they do now.”

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