Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Beyond the Shore: Session 28

Horses and cliffs don't mix...

AWFULLY beautiful art thou, O sea!
Viewed from the vantage of these giant rocks
That vast in air lift their primeval blocks,
Screening the sandy cove of lone Kilkee.
Cautious, with outstretched arm and bended knee,
I scan the dread abyss, till the depth mocks
My straining eyeballs, and the eternal shocks
Of billows rolling from infinity
Disturb my brain. Hark! the shrill sea-bird’s scream!
Cloud-like they sweep the long wave’s sapphire gleam,
Ere the poised osprey stoop in wrath from high.
Here man, alone, is naught; Nature supreme,
Where all is simply great that meets the eye,—
The precipice, the ocean, and the sky.

Sir Aubrey de Vere

At the top of the steep, rocky slope is a relatively wide level area. The palanquins are set down and tents and sleeping rolls laid out. Theresa came up to them, “The bearers will need to rest. It will take about a week to traverse the cliffs to the temple. The journey to the temple takes about six days by palanquin.”

Guoliang-feature.jpgIn the dim light of evening, they could see a winding path, heading to the south and west, snaking its way along the sides of the rocky cliffs, nearly a thousand feet above sea level, and facing a precipitous hundred-foot drop to the mountainside below. The path was relatively smooth and level, chiseled out of the rocky cliff-face by unknown hands hundreds of years earlier, in some places actually cutting through the side of the mountain. Time and erosion had taken their toll on the once-majestic byway, in places eroding it to less than ten feet in width.

Not wanting to wait for the palanquins, Caddis, Rummy, and Thaduk told the Doña that they would go on ahead on foot. She told them to just follow the road for 24 leagues, and they would come to a cleft in the mountains, leading down to the other side, where they would find the temple, in a forest by the side of a lake.

They struck out into the night, following the path. After about four miles, they came to an area with traces of recent settlement. A washed out section of the walkway had been repaired and reinforced with wooden supports. Uphill from the road the ground sloped gently upwards, to a trio of beehive-shaped huts of stacked, tucked into the grassy slope. To their left, the road ended with a precipitous drop of about eighty-feet, down to a steep rock-strewn mountainside.

Beehive_Stone_Hut.jpgCurious about the huts, Thaduk and Rummy scrambled up the slope to investigate. All three had empty doors facing down-slope. Rummy poked inside the first, looking around with the aid of his darkvision, but it was empty. A single hole was left in the top, for smoke judging from the smudges on the ceiling, and the floor was bare stone. The only indication that it had ever been inhabited was the faint smells of urine and creosote.

After a few minutes, Caddis made it up the slope and joined them in poking around the huts. He shifted his form to that of a bugbear in order to better trace the smells Rummy had detected. Under the other scents, he detected something different, a faint musty odor, like wet sandstone, though the rocks of the slope were nothing of the sort and it had not rained in days. Pondering, he remembered a tale from his study of the arcane, about wild gargoyles that enjoyed bathing in the sea. Scanning the surrounding rocks carefully he spotted them, a trio of gargoyles each lying flat against the roofs of their huts, almost invisible. He quietly pointed out their locations to Thaduk and Rummy, then, laying a hand on his friend’s shoulders, rendered the three of them invisible.

The sudden disappearance of the pirates brought the gargoyles to alert. One raised its head to look around, bringing it directly into line with Rummy’s dagger, which bit deep into its stony-skull, killing it instantly. Caddis clambered up the second hut and drained another gargoyle with his vampiric touch. Thaduk raged and reared up behind Caddis, pounding the gargoyle to dust with his hooves.

Of course, the weight of the demonic horse destroyed more than just the gargoyle. The entire hut collapsed under the pounding hooves. Caddis dove to one side, but Thaduk found himself being carried down the slope in an ever growing landslide of rubble from the crushed hut and gargoyle. He scrambled for purchase, but his hooves would not catch on the loose stone, and the rolling tumble of unicorn and rocks went cascading over cliff-side of the road, falling the full eighty feet and rolling and sliding another hundred before coming to a stop on the lower slope.

Rummy jumped after Thaduk, surfing a wave of gravel and scree and just barely stopping himself at the edge of the precipice. He looked down, pulling out a healing potion to throw to Thaduk, but realized he could not possibly throw far enough and started free-climbing down the cliff. Thaduk, for his part, stood shakily, resumed his orcish form, and stared climbing up to meet him.

The remaining gargoyle, seeing his friends destroyed so readily, sprang from the roof of the third hut and flew away at top speed, but was drawn back by Caddis’ fey allure. The gargoyle pulled a u-turn and flew back to Caddis, stopping to hover placidly right in front of him. It continued to hang there in the air, unresponsive while Caddis blasted away at with shatter spells until it exploded in to a pile of rubble.

Climbing down to meet Thaduk, Rummy slipped, plummeting fourty feet to catch himself, jarringly on a small ledge only ten feet above the bottom of the cliff. Thaduk, by this time had made it up the slope and managed to reach-climb up to take the potion from Rummy. Then the two of them climbed up to the top together, where Thaduk calmed down and promptly passed out.

Caddis worked a little psychosomatic healing to get Thaduk back on his feet, and the three of them limped back to where the sheeple were camped. They kicked Leo awake and made him heal Thaduk, then commandeered a tent and curled up to sleep out the rest of the night.

In the morning they convinced Theresa that it would be best to leave the palanquins behind. The sheeple shoved them up against the uphill side of the landing where they had come up the mountain and unloaded the trunks of provisions and camping supplies, forming a long baggage train. Caddis, Rummy, and the Doña took point, leading the long winding train of sheeple, while Thaduk brought up the rear.

Even with fifty-five people in tow, the road was easily navigable by daylight, with no further signs of gargoyles. In fact, the only wildlife they saw along the route were birds — terns, and pettrels, and shearwaters flying overhead or nesting on the cliffs below them. Several times throughout the morning, those in the back heard sounds of tumbling and clattering rocks, causing more than a little anxiety in Thaduk after his tumble of the night before, and causing him to trot up to the front with the others.

By midday Rummy and Caddis, unused to walking after so many months at sea, started to flag. Caddis shrank the two of them down so they would fit between Thaduk’s spines and they rode him for the remainder of the afternoon.

Late the afternoon, and roughly twenty-four miles from where they’d begun that morning, they entered a narrow, and winding section of the road. The path had sloped downward for many miles, and here the cliffs abutted the sea, the twisting and turning along the rock-face, facing a two-hundred foot drop strait into the water in many places.

It was in this narrow and treacherous place that they were next attacked. A quartet of gargoyles swooped down from above, pulling away from the upper cliffs among which they hid and dropping like the stones they were. They fell on the back of the line, shoving five of the sheeple off the cliff to die on the rocks below.

Thaduk shouted for the sheeple to get away from the edge. They readily complied, plastering themselves against the cliff-wall, while Theresa drew her sword and stepped up in line with Thaduk and Caddis. Rummy leaped at the nearest gargoyle, slashing it with his dagger. Then Caddis fixed his gaze on them, drawing them all to him with his faerie charms.

Once again the gargoyles crowded around Caddis, hovering impassively, and once again, Thaduk reared up over Caddis, silvery-hooves flashing. Caddis hit the deck as the big horse plowed into all, four gargoyles battering them and taking them all, demonic horse included, over the edge of the cliff to smash onto a narrow outcropping a hundred and fifty feet below. Groaning, Thaduk stood up, severely injured, but less so than his last nose-dive off the cliff and much less so than the large pile of rubble that had only recently been four gargoyles. The sheeple tossed ropes down to him and he was soon back at the top of the cliff being tended by Leo.

The path from there wound back upwards and away from the coast. Then, as dusk neared, the path ahead came to an abrupt end, long crumbled away into oblivion. Just beyond the end of the path, waist high and at arms-reach, a large log thrust out of the cliff-face, perpendicular to the wall of the mountain and cut-round with strange grooves. Far below them, they could see a small village of perhaps a dozen of the beehive-like stone huts.

Caddis, seeing the huts, looked up, scanning the sky for more gargoyles that might attack them. While he saw no gargoyles, he did see what looked like another road, roughly sixty feet above their heads and continuing on to the south. A second large log protruded from the cliff by this ledge, and from it dangled a wooden platform or pallet, suspended by vines. Smaller, rotting boards protruding from the mountainside between them indicated that the logs might long ago have supported some sort of stairs. Rummy suggested that, with all the rope the sheeple had brought, they might be able to use the logs to construct a rudimentary pulley system and lift using the pallet. If, of course, someone could get to the upper path to do so.

Thaduk volunteered, and, shifting back to his orcish form, carefully climbed the sheer cliff to the upper path. Of course, strong as he was, even simple mechanics were beyond his limited intellect, and he soon had the ropes hopelessly tangled. He managed to work a strand free and tossed it down and hauled up Caddis, who through his sailing experience managed to get them sorted out.

Rather than bothering with anything complicated, Caddis simply tied off the corners of the pallet and lowered over the upper log, handing the end of the rope to Thaduk. The big orc hauled the sheeple and their luggage up three or four at a time, with only a few harrowing instances of the platform tipping and threatening to pitch someone off into the abyss.

An hour later everyone was safely on the upper path and night had fallen. They marched a few hundred yards from the makeshift lift to where the path widened again and pitched camp. Fearing the possibility of gargoyles living in the village below, the pirates took turn keeping watch through the night, rather than trusting such duties to the sheeple.

During the first watch, things suddenly went dark, completely black, even to Rummy’s darkvision. Suspecting magic, Rummy quickly woke Caddis, who shifted to bugbear form and nosed about in the dark, sniffing for signs of intrusion. Blinded as he was, Caddis only narrowly avoided stepping off the cliff, his nose warning him at the last minute thanks to a warm updraft from below.

Only a few minutes after it started, the darkness faded and there, at the edge of the camp along the path in either direction were a dozen dead and rotting bird carcasses, staked upside down and wings outstretched to X-shaped frames — as if crucified. Although the birds appeared to have been dead for days, they were certainly not there before. Sufficiently spooked by this, Caddis sent Rummy off to sleep, vowing to remain up the rest of the night.

Sure enough, later that night it happened again, with the entire camp becoming shrouded in magical darkness. This time, Caddis detected a strange odor, like a pungent blending of wet fur and sulfur. Around the same time, Rummy and Thaduk were awakened by a chill and a sudden draft on their nethers. Just as Caddis was creeping around to investigate, the darkness abated, the strange scent disappearing with it, along with all of their tents. The latter having simply vanished into thin air right over the heads of the sleeping sheeple, nowhere to be seen.

Rummy and Thaduk returned to sleep and Caddis sat up, watching, until the break of day. In the early morning light, Caddis spotted a man, brown of skin and covered with intricate facial tattoos like the natives of these islands, standing on the edge of the cliff a hundred yards south of their camp. Without waking anyone, Caddis approached, walking slowly and waving to show his peacable intent. On seeing Caddis approaching, the man raised a knife, then quickly plunged it into his own chest, before pitching forward off the cliff to end as a bloody smear three hundred feet below.

To be continued…

Beyond the Shore: Session 27

What’s the best life for a man?
Never to have been born, sings the choros,
and the next best is to die young.
I saw the Sybil at Cumae
Hung in her cage over the public street—
What do you want, Sybil? I want to die.
You have got your wish.
But I meant life, not death.

I will have shepherds for my philosophers,
Tall dreary men lying on the hills all night
Watching the stars, let their dogs watch the sheep.
And I’ll have lunatics for my poets,
strolling from farm to farm, wild liars distorting
The country news into supernaturalism—
For all men to such minds are devils or gods—and that increases
Man’s dignity, man’s importance, necessary lies
Best told by fools.

I will have no lawyers nor constables
Each man guard his own goods:
There will be manslaughter,
But no more wars, no more mass-sacrifice.
Nor I’ll have no doctors,
Except old women gathering herbs on the mountain,
Let each have her sack of opium to ease the death-pains.
That would be a good world, free and out-doors.

But the vast hungry spirit of the time
Cries to his chosen that there is nothing good
Except discovery, experiment and experience and discovery:
To look truth in the eyes,
To strip truth naked,
let our dogs do our living for us
But man discover.

They never touch it: consider what an explosion
Would rock the bones of men into little white fragments and unsky
the world If any mind for a moment touch truth.

-- Robinson Jeffers

The crews of the Damned Jewel and the Doomplum were partying with the locals on the shores of Tauranga. Sheep were roasted and eaten, music was played, ale flowed freely. The large pile of spars that was meant to be their payment for the hundreds of sheep they had brought with them was burning. Seemingly oblivious to the importance of the large pile of wood, the revelers migrated their debauched dancing to encompass the new and conveniently large bonfire.

Dona-Teresa.jpgSeemingly decided that they had sufficiently foiled any plans to turn them into legitimate merchants, Rummy and Caddis slunk off into the dark to find a place to sleep, leaving the crew to their partying. As they rounded the corner of a house, they ran headlong into a ghost — or what seemed like such. A woman, clothed in white, with pale skin, white hair, and colourless eyes. The person, or apparition, immediately began crying and apologizing to them profusely in Portuguese.

Rummy, the only one of them able to speak Portuguese, managed to calm her down and learned that she, at least, was aware that the spars were burning. She continued to apologize that the colony had nothing to pay them for the sheep now. They went back and forth for a while, ranging from requests for coin to admiring her jewelry, all of which ended with the simple statement that even the entire wealth of the village simply was insufficient to compensate the Doomplum for the sheep they’d brought.

“How much are sheep worth in this colony?” was the general response.

Caddis, with Rummy translating, shifted the conversation to less concrete methods of payment, explaining that they were ‘traders of fortune’ and more interested in adventure and additional crewmen for their ships than monetary recompense. At the fairly obvious pirate discursives, the party stopped, instantly, and the eyes of every single villager turned as one to stare at the Doomplum officers. Their crew, mixed up in the party, simply looked confused by the sudden, synchronized glaring. From out of the crowd, a lone villager made a mad dash for the largest house in the village.

Leopold, meanwhile, had been winding his way through the festivities, trying to learn if there were any interesting sources of threats or potential wealth that the villagers were aware of on the island. He learned little other than a handful of rumors alluding to an ancient Maori temple, some twenty five to thirty leagues inland. As the brief standoff built to a head, Adriana and Leopold joined Caddis and Rummy.

Leo cast share language to enable them all to speak freely and Caddis quickly explained that they meant to harm to the colony, and really were only looking to trade. Finally the villagers stood down, returning to their partying just as suddenly as they’d stopped, as if nothing at all had happened. The Pale Lady invited them into the large house to discuss how they might settle the debt that the sheep delivery had caused them.

Right inside the door, they found the runaway villager standing stock-still and impassive, holding a polished silvery shield and sword reverently in outstretched arms. The Pale Lady introduced herself as Doña Teresa Pàmies de Cameros, the Lord (or Lady rather) of the colony. Curious, Caddis cast detect magic over the villager and the lady, finding no magic on them directly, but a large number of magical items — including the weapons held by the villager and most of the lady’s garments.

They pivoted the conversation regarding payment for the sheep to a trade of her magical trinkets. These, she insisted, would also be insufficient to cover the value of the sheep. Rummy then suggested a situation of vassalage. Tauranga would agree to serve as a safe port-of-call for the Doomplum and its fleet, a place where they could offload, store, and trade goods without either Imperial or Hapsburg officials being notified, and in exchange, the Doomplum would agree to provide the colony with a steady supply of sheep whenever they could acquire them.

“And your jewelry…and the weapons…” Caddis added.

They tried to sweeten the pot, offering unicorns (which had to be as good or better than sheep, right?) which Doña Teresa clearly had no interest in. They also grilled her on how the whole collective consciousness thing the village clearly had going on worked. To which she pleaded the fifth, acting like she had no idea what they were talking about (though she was a horrible liar).

Finally they agreed—her finery, safe harbor, and the village’s discretion in exchange for the sheep. Again, without a word, a villager came in bearing a tray with ink, quills, and parchment. Doña Teresa drew up a basic contract and bill of sale, detailing what had been agreed upon, and signed. She seemed very determined that the sale and official transfer of ownership of the sheep be finalized. Caddis hesitated signing himself, but finally did, signing only as ‘Henry’.

As soon as his mark was on the paper, there came screaming from outside. They looked, and, as was expected by this point, saw that every last one of the sheep they had unloaded had turned into what appeared to be humans, all wearing white tweed suits. There crew seemed thoroughly disturbed by the sudden change, particularly given the number of dead sheep they had unloaded from the overly stuffed hold of the ship, and the fact that everyone had been eating roast mutton made from those same sheep.

Again, they detected no magic. The party’s internal debate turned to whether they had polymorphed people into sheep for easier transport (or sheep into people), though they could find no real evidence for either, and whether their recent actions amounted to slave-trading or cannibalism or both. The Doña seemed genuinely confused that they were even debating the nature of these ‘Sheeple. "Aren’t all people like this?"

Business finally dealt with, Leo brought up the stories of the Maori temple. The Doña explained that her people avoided it. They had poked around when they’d first established the colony, but several of the colonists had been killed by crazed monkeys, so they’d avoided it since. Nothing ever really came from the temple to bother them, and they never bothered it.

As they talked, Doña Teresa stripped off her finery, handing over the weapons, her jewelry, her gown, and even her corset, leaving only her drawers and chemise. She explained the magic that each item held, and Caddis and Rummy both promptly switched out the ladies’ clothing they were already wearing for choice pieces of her garments.

Caddis and company insisted that, since they were on the island anyways, they’d like to explore the temple, in order to give their crew a little more downtime. The Doña offered guides from the village to show them how to reach the temple, and also implied that she herself was a bit bored. At this they tried to convince her to join the crew, sure that whatever strange hive-mind-like control she exercised on her people would be useful. She promptly declined, explaining that she didn’t know the first thing about sailing, and that the colony could not possibly function without her.

They retired, claiming that they would set out to explore the temple in the morning. As soon as they murmured to that effect, three villagers appeared in the doorway, offering their homes for the night. Caddis and company declined, retiring to the ship to sleep.

The next morning, they called the Doomplum in, allowing both crews to rest in the village while they went exploring, and calling Fishguts over to accompany them to the temple. On shore, the villagers, now doubled in number, were busy building. Three new houses had already been raised, and two more were in progress, being constructed with the perfectly synchronized precision of an Amish barn-raising, yet without a word said between them. In the distance more of the forest was being clear-cut and converted to lumber with similarly astounding coordination.

BRITISHOFFICERINPALANQUINWITHINDIAN.jpgDoña Teresa met them at the shore, with five palanquins, all looking freshly built, bore by teams of ten sheeple each. After a little coaxing, they all climbed in, with Rummy joining Teresa, uninvited, in hers, and the caravan set off. Fishguts trailed after them, downwind and about fifty feet behind to keep the sheeple from being overcome by his stench.

The palanquins moved slowly, much more slowly than if they’d simply walked, but were at least comfortable. They passed the area cultivated by the village and into the woods. As they went Rummy continued to grill Teresa on how she coordinated the sheeple.

“I just shout and they obey,” she explained.

“I haven’t heard you so much as raise your voice the entire time we’ve been here.”

“But I’m shouting right now.”

“Maybe I need my ears checked.”

She proceeded to paw through the hair on the top of his head. “You don’t have any? Where are your ears?” she gasped. He pointed to the things sticking out of the sides of his head. “No, those are for detecting sound. How do you hear?” Thus confused, the conversation continued to a variety of other topics on which they clearly had no shared vocabulary. She had never heard of a unicorn, even as folklore. She appeared completely blind to race or species among humanoids, having never heard of an orc, and not recognizing that he had green skin. “You look just like everyone else, only slightly darker in complexion.”

chocobo.JPGFinally their conversation was interrupted by the sound of things crashing through the underbrush. Three large birds, easily nine-feet tall and covered entirely with yellow-brown feathers leaped from the bushes and charged the rear-most palanquin, which Leo was riding in. The palanquin bucked as the bearers dodged at the last second, sending two of the birds rushing past harmlessly, but the third caught one of the front bearers, knocking him to the ground and sending Leo tumbling out of his ride.

Adriana rolled out of the next-nearest palanquin and charged the two birds that had rushed by, striking one a terrible blow. Leo stumbled to his feet behind her and unleashed a chord of shards at them. Caddis hit the one attacking Leo’s palanquin bearers with Ballkönigin, putting it to sleep. Rummy hopped out and called Fishguts forward, where he promptly engulfed the two facing Adriana and Leo, ending them.

Throughout it all, the Doña remained daintily reclined in her palanquin, seemingly unconcerned. Adriana sauntered over the decapitated the sleeping one with a single stroke, and then they were back on their way. Leaving one dead bearer in their wake.

The palanquins plodded along for hours. Near lunchtime, they passed into a defile, a broad stretch of forest nearly a mile wide where the trees had been cleared and the ground plowed up in a long, deep furrow. Here they heard more crashing through the trees, and felt some impact tremors. Doña Teresa explained that these were from the ‘great lizards’ that roamed the island, herbivores, and no threat unless they stepped on you. The pressed on, veering away from the crashing sounds.
Near nightfall they finally broke free of the forest, a little under five leagues from the village, where they now faced towering, rocking, snow-capped mountains. Doña Teresa told them that the way to the temple was to climb the nearest peak, then follow a path along the cliffs south and east towards the coast.

Caddis, climbing out of his palanquin, noticed some impressive-looking stone ruins not far off to the west. A small, abandoned village of beehive-like stone huts surrounded by tall, wooden idols of humanoid figures, and large stones carved with intricate swirling patterns. As he gaped, the palanquin parade kept marching, the sheeple heading strait up the mountain, easily picking their way over the steep slopes, while carefully adjusting the palanquins to keep them level.

Caddis rushed after them, clambering up the slope over the sharp rocks to pile back into his ride.

To be continued…

Beyond the Shore: Session 26

Dragons, Whales, and the Curse of Narrative Symmetry

On a faraway, faraway island
Lies a treasure of infinite worth.
But guarding it closely forever
Looms a being as old as the earth.

Its body’s as big as a boulder,
And armored with shimmering scales.
Even the mountain tops tremble when
It thrashes it’s seven great tails.

Its eyes tell a story of terror,
They gleam with an angry red flame
As it timelessly watches its riches.
And the Dragon of Death is it’s name.

Its teeth are far sharper than daggers.
It can tear hardest metal to shreds.
It has seven mouths filled with these weapons,
For it’s neck swells to seven great heads.

Each head is as fierce as the other,
Each head breathes a fiery breath.
And any it touches must perish,
Set ablaze by the Dragon of Death.

All who have foolishly stumbled
On the Dragon of Death’s golden cache
Remain evermore on that island,
Nothing left of their bodies but ash.

Jack Prelutsky

The Dümplom sailed towards the Forbidden Island, trailed by the Thresher, Thunderer, and Sea Lash. After two days of sailing along this route, the Sea Lash hailed them and pulled alongside. The captain, Deathshead Ellie, came aboard to voice her concerns.

“You know we’re sailing strait into an Imperial blockade, right?” she said. “The whole South-Pacific Armada lies this way. They’ve even got a bloody Carrier!”

“Carrier?” Caddis asked.

“What’s it carrying?” Thaduk added.

“Dragons! It’s the bloody-friggan HMS Potentate hauling a detachment of the bloody Aerial Corps! Four-hundred feet long, five decks, five-hundred guns, and a pod of dragons…and that’s just one ship!”

The officers of the Dümplom seemed confused, and Leo, their great font of knowledge and information on all manner of random topics, was nowhere to be found — belowdecks with some ladyfriend or another presumably. Caddis messaged Rummy and Thaduk to conference without letting Ellie know how little they knew. None of them, for instance, actually knew why the Forbidden Island was forbidden, though it was clear that is what the blockade was enforcing. Thaduk recalled a bit, from his father’s days as a soldier, about the Aerial Corps. He informed them that the Empire, like most major world powers, employed dragons as air-support for both ground and naval forces, typically with a formation of multiple dragons, each with teams of riflemen and bombers aboard.

Caddis had heard enough it seemed. “Right, on to Moonplum then…” he said, not wanting to risk one flying-ship and three small junks against an entire Imperial fleet and who-knows-how-many dragons. Zarina layed in a new heading, north-west by west, away from the island and on towards their home.

Around mid-day the following day, Rummy spotted several dark specks in the air south of them. They took turns passing the spyglass back and forth to observe the dragons, seven of them, flying in formation, including two white-scaled heavyweights, each nearly as large as one of the Junks. The dragons remained in sight for close to an hour, flying on a course parallel with theirs before veering back to the south and out of sight.

Two weeks passed with nothing to see save for the occasional breaching whale, and some late-spring storms. The small fleet stayed close together, living off the Dümplom’s stores, as the others had not been provisioned for a long voyage. Finally, Ekene came to Rummy, bearing news that, with feeding all four crews, they were down to about 10 days of rations, and still about four-thousand miles from Moonplum.

Rummy ordered half-rations for everyone. Caddis asked the shark-people swimming in their wake to fish for themselves, rather than continue throwing pigs overboard for them. Thaduk suggested that perhaps they could get the sharks to scout for larger game — another giant turtle or whale that they could use the replenish their stores.

The next day, the shark-folk reported a pod of orcas to the south. Some aggressive grumbling from Rummy about not wanting to fight multiple giant creatures with “Killer” in their name quickly nixed that idea. Two more days passed before they had their next siting — a massive, adult, bull blue-whale.

Caddis ordered harpoons loaded on all ballistae and all four ships spread out around the creature. The next time it breached, a flurry of harpoons were shot at it. Only two of the ten shots connected — one each from the Dümplom and the Sea Lash. Of course, no one on the crews were actually experienced whalers. The whale jerked away from the impacts, rising half out of the water and twisting, reeling both ships closer and landing with a massive wave that threatened to swamp the boats. As the whale tried to submerge, the cables pulled the Dümplom, causing it to lean far to starboard. Rummy shouted to the gunnery squads, and a full broadside was unleashed into the water, shredding through the colossal animal.

It wasn’t the cleanest kill in the world, but they were hungry. They sailed on, slowly, with Dümplom and Sea Lash dragging the carcass as the inexperienced butchers spent five days hacking up the whale and loading the ships with meat and blubber and the shark-men feasted from below. Finally, the whale, largely reduced to bare skeleton on the topside, rode lower and lower in the water, producing too much drag on the ships.

Before cutting the carcass free, Thaduk suggested that they should collect the whale’s penis and testes, as these were supposed to be aphrodisiacs. Since it seemed like it would make the demonic unicorn happy, everyone obliged. Sandara cast water breathing on several of the crew and Captain Caddis lead them down to collect the ten-foot-long phallus and each of the one-hundred-fifty pound testes.

While whale meat might not be a favorite choice, it was significantly better than living on half-rations for the rest of the voyage. Back on board, whale-penis in towe, Captain Caddis called all the ships to a celebration of their success. The ships were lashed together with boarding planks, allowing easy congress back and forth between them, cases of plum wine were brought out, and Caddis cooked an amazing stew from the whale’s genitals.

The party went on well into the night, and it soon became clear that Thaduk’s assessment of the penis’ aphrodisiac qualities were correct. The party soon devolved into a raging cross-ship orgy. Everyone, even those few crewmen who had refrained from eating the stew, was soon involved, consumed by an overwhelming, near-mystical need to couple with the nearest available partner. By morning most of the crew were passed out from their exertions, with only a few still fucking away until they too passed out.

It was…quite the bonding experience, topped off by a wave of transcendental bliss from Thaduk. Once everyone slept off their orgiastic exhaustion and hangovers, morale aboard all four ships was at an all-time high, with miraculously few awkward moments or recriminations.

A full week had passed since bagging the whale before they were fully underway at speed again. They continued on towards Moonplum, driven by magically consistent wind from the small fleets many spellcasters. Five days later they came upon another prize, a fat, Portuguese merchant caravel named the Jóia Maldito. The ship was roughly eighty-feet long, lateen-rigged, and armed defensively, with four cannons and a reinforced hull, clearly hoping to fend off lesser pirates with a show of strength, but no real threat to a force of their strength.

Caddis ordered the three junks to hang back. The Dümplom sailed forward, raising a flag of parley, hoping to make an easy catch of it with minimal violence. Flag of parley or no, the Jóia Maldito ran at the sight of the heavily armed, dark-sailed, bone-festooned warship. It was a fast ship, but the Dümplom could fly. It was no contest.

The Dümplom took to the air. Seeing the flying ship, sparkling with faerie-dust, flying the jolly rodger, and fronted by the skull of a gigantic bull, the crew of the Jóia Maldito abandoned ship. They cut their long-boats loose and dove overboard to a man, hoping to save their lives by leaving the prize behind. Soon, however, the water was red and frothing as the shark-people following the pirate fleet made a feast of the terrified sailors.

Caddis, Thaduk, and Rummy leaped down to the now empty caravel and were greeted by the sound of bleating. The hold was packed, wall to wall, with sheep. The captain’s cabin had a few valuables, but nothing overly impressive. The Dümplom put down and they called over one of the convicts they’d taken from Puerto Soledad, a self-proclaimed master forger named Anton Cardoso, to translate the ships logs. The logs informed them that the Jóia Maldito (which Cardoso translated as ‘the Damned Jewel’) was bound for the colony of Tauranga on northern New Zealand, there to trade sheep for spars and other goods to be sold at the port of Jakarta in the Dutch East Indies.

After some lengthy discussion, the officers of the Dümplom decided to take the Dümplom and the Jewel south to Tauranga to unload the sheep. They sent the Thresher, Thunderer, and Sea Lash on to Rickety’s Squibs, under Adriana’s command, and said they would meet up there after they had liquidated the otherwise useless, bleating cargo.

Again, in an effort to do things the easy way, they transferred all of their Portuguese-speaking crew to the Jewel, with Tilly as captain, with the intent of masquerading as merchants and simply selling off the sheep. They turned the ships south, with the Jewel in the lead and Dümplom trailing just within sight behind her. Six days later they arrived at the so-called ‘Bay of Plenty’.

While they had been hoping for a proper city or town, where they might pick up more sailors and supplies, Tauranga was a colony roughly the same size as Moonplum — maybe five-hundred souls. The village was perched on the shore, with docks for several fishing vessels, but no proper harbor able to support a ship. The area around the village was clear-cut forest, and the village itself was a cluster of Spanish-style houses around a central green in which sheep and horses were grazing, as well as fields of flax and potatoes, and several pig-sties.

Seeing the Jewel approach, the people of Tauranga all came out. Fishing boats were scrambled and the Jewel soon found itself surrounded by excited villagers asking for news from home and eagerly helping unload the hundreds of sheep. The crew they’d picked up in Puerto Soledad, while poor sailors and fighters, all turned out to be excellent liars. By nightfall the sheep were unloaded and the crew ashore, the people happily chatting with them. Fire pits were dug, sheep spitted and roasted, and a party was thrown to welcome the visiting ‘merchants’.

This all felt disturbingly familiar to Caddis, Rummy, and Thaduk.

As the party went on well into the night, Thaduk slipped off, returned to his unicorn form, and proceeded to mount all of the mares in the village. Caddis and Rummy, meanwhile, snuck over to where a great pile of wooden spars were stacked. After a brief discussion, they decided that they were more interested in obtaining food and recruits than joining in the never-ending Fed-ex quest that is merchantdom.

A few flasks of alchemists’ fire turned the pile of spars that was supposed to be their payment for the sheep into a bonfire…

To be continued…