Skulls and Shackles - PFO

The Maw Of Fire And Blood

After the old hag set before us the agenda, we spent the day trekking through jungle to the westward shoulders of the mountain. I had thought we might find La’Luka and Owlbear in the waterfall cave where we had last seen them, but there was no sign of them there… I think it likely they were spooked by our failure to return last night, and so they may be in hiding elsewhere. In any case, there was nothing we could do, and so we continued on to find the ruined shrine entrance.

I spotted it first, lurking ominously among trees and undergrowth.

The arch which made up the entrance was carved in cyclopean fashion from the living rock of the mountainside such that it was quite obfuscated from any view but a narrow arc in front of the edifice. We found it sealed to our entry, just as the pygmies had. Some manner of magical barrier, it gave off the sensation of a vast iron door, solid and impassive.

I managed to decipher the Celestial inscription which was tied to the spell via a minor magic of my own. It gave instructions for a complex ritual to summon a bound spirit — the means to undo the spell which sealed the entrance. Stehlen demonstrated remarkable faculty and soon began preparations. It is his area of expertise, after all, the conjuring and binding of spirits.

I did feel a mysterious connection with the blood ruby I had been carrying… The way it pulsed with energy when brought near the spot, it was like the beating of a meaty heart, crying out in thirst for blood to nourish it. We all gave of our blood to innervate the ritual. One does not want a powerful spirit to arrive without thorough placation, does one? And the ruby reacted to our mingling sanguine essence.

It was as if a dark soul still thrived therein, hungry, burning — seductive.

There must be a connection between that stone and the spiritual energies which haunt this place, it is too similar a feeling I sensed for it to be a coincidence! Exploring this mysterious quality may prove quite important for my survival in this place, not to mention that it may also provide deeper insight into the Ways of The Craft if I can unravel the secret.

The spirit which responded to the Calling was quite impressive, indeed. I felt, distinctly, that it could lay waste to nations were it not so bound by the power of the spells which called it. It towered over us, wreathed in inky, fiery miasma and cloaked by wings like a shroud of Doom. Before we could speak to it, it turned its back on us and seized the very pillars which bore the seal. Rippling thews and gouts of flame bore witness to the spirit’s strength as it seemed to physically tear the metaphysical barrier apart!

I cannot say what happened precisely for the spells which held the seal reacted with an explosive force so concussive we were blasted away in a heap!

When I returned to my senses, the terrible spirit had vanished and so had the barrier which sealed our path. The ruby stone we had fed with our blood was also gone…

The gaping maw of the mountain yawned, smoking, before us.

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First Day of My Last Days

Standing on top of the cliff looking down we see a sacrifice about to be made. They are chanting in Abyssal about needing a new champion for their last one failed. I figure that I could make one hell of a champion and Baphomet is just a two bit demon lord of minotaurs of all things. I am happy that I have an Illusion spell memorized that would make a convincing image and select the only worthy person on the island that can save these people and their odd ways. I have Nebril make me glow as I make the image of Baphomet appear. A fucking minotaur comes out of the girls chest. The commitment had been made, follow up must ensue. I am faced with the chieftain. His confusion is evident. I tell him that I am sent as the voice of Baphomet while the demon from the girls chest is to be his strength. The ruse seems to be working.

We go to their pitiful excuse for a village. Why they keep such a close eye on me when they bought my story is beyond me, the simpletons. I am asked why I was there, I tell them a partial truth about being visited in a dream by Baphomet and being told to make his people great. The demon is asked if what I say is true. He tells the chieftain that he isn’t privy to all of Baphomets secrets. I laugh inside, of course he isn’t, he is made to serve these people here instead of climbing the ranks in the Abyss. My victory will come swiftly and I shall be ruling soon enough if all goes well, keeping the chieftain as a puppet of course.All I must hope for is that my own peons stay out of the way until I establish myself. I go to bed.

I wake at dawn to prepare some spells. They had told me last night that there would be trials to prove that I was indeed sent by their “lord”. I am pissed. Somehow through the night the minions had gotten captured; AND KILLED SOME OF THE TRIBE WHILE THEY WERE AT IT! They demand a soul for a soul. Nebril, the fool, tries to speak to them in Infernal. Does he not know the inner working of the lower planes! He is a witch after all. I thought they all got their magic from a pact with a devil or demon. I shall have to study that more in depth later, for now I shall try and distance myself from him. They pick Sava for the exchange, a small price to pay for securing the trust of the tribe. The dagger was sharp, the flesh cut easily. Sava was dead before she even knew what was happening. Of all the “friends” I had gained since I was gang pressed, Sava was my favorite if only because she did as she was told and was quiet about it.As the life slipped before her eyes the choker around her neck flashed red, how peculiar. I wish I had studied it more. After the ritual was over the chief led myself and the others to a sinkhole and explained that it was a temple where they would worship their “deity” and that some people who called themselves heros had destroyed it. While I do not care for their patron I at least would have enough respect to wipe out the people instead of let them wallow in pity. He claimed my trial is to reopen their shrine. That sounds easy enough. Once back in the village we run into what used to be Sava, everyone is bemused. She looks like she had been turned into a Tiefling. Interesting. I wish to study how that was done later. Nebril continues to ask pointless questions about nothing. I need to teach him about the lower planes and the difference between relevant information and just wasting our time with culture. Good help is hard to find.

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Plummeting Into Terror

Our situation on the island has changed radically in the span of one night more, and so I write this in wondering anxiety at what Fate may have in store for us yet.

I pray that it is simple Fate, not something darker.

Once Stehlen had been taken, we three started back to the cave to rejoin with Owlbear and La’Luka. We did not make it far before the lantern light gave away our position to lurking tiefling pygmies which had the cleverness to keep watch for any who many have accompanied Stehlen’s arrival “from the Abyss”.

Rather than fight immediately, I persuaded Waku and Sava to wait for a more opportune moment. Which I hastened when we were carefully making our way along the narrow path down which crisscrosses the cliffs overlooking the cove beach. In the pitch black of night, we might have killed ourselves if we had not risked the lantern, so hindsight at least relieves me of the burden of that choice.

During my childhood, strange memories and nightmares would keep me awake. Of course, an insomniac child is quite a nightmare of its own, so Tabitha turned to the most natural remedy available to her: the Craft. I learned early and by example to give sleep to wakeful souls.

The halfling rearguard began to collapse quietly behind us, drawing the attention of their Tiefling kin. It gave us the advantage to strike. Waku’s hidden blade did have trouble finding its mark in the unreliable light, which awakened the halfling whose throat was not nearly as severed as it might have otherwise been. His scream alerted the leading demonspawn. The fighting was fierce and loud as we struggled in combat.

Several of them were sent over the edge to their doom by Sava’s wiry strength and a few more Hexes of Slumber. Waku was stabbed badly in the melee, but held them off long enough. I expended most of my spells in the span of a minute just to stay alive myself! I give thanks to the spirit of a Cheliaxan Gnome whose bone defended me effectively from several piercing strikes that might have killed me outright. Sava snatched a weapon and employed it to great effect and we eventually overcame.

The last halfling liked his chances on the jungle floor, more than seventy feet below, and Waku could not see well enough to shoot him under the cloak of night before he climbed away.

There was another band of the monstrous pygmies, alerted by the cursed wretch that escaped. They laid ambush on me while I was distracted investigating the odd magical equipment found on the corpses. We were exhausted and badly hurt, and they knew it. When it became obvious that we three could not possibly overcome another six of the fiends, I surrendered.

They had not killed us outright before, and they seemed much interested in subduing Sava when they might have simply hacked her to pieces against the cliff wall, so it was a logical estimation of their motives. They were irked enough give us each a blow to the head, knocking us unconscious for the journey back to their village.

I awoke this morning with, of course, a respectable headache and the familiar sensation of deja vu. There was Stehlen, at the right hand of the chieftan (his forked tongue finds agility under duress, after all), and a ritual circle was being prepared. I think I betrayed an embarrassing lack of education when I tried to use the Dark Tongue as it was taught to me to address the priestess. I get the feeling that I am ignorant of some nuance about the “culture” involved in the Lower Planes because the pygmies seemed disgusted and amused by something I said which I meant as a simple greeting. Stehlen’s expression suggested we would have been better off had I not.

The evil rites of savage tribes are certainly mesmerizing, in an artistic sense, but the horror of what was to come might be guessed and should not be described in too great detail. The pygmy hag leading their Circle selected Sava. I noticed her gaze lingering on the choker that the girl has always worn. There is something… I think I should investigate about that little trinket.

The twist is that the pygmies demanded Stehlen himself wield the ceremonial knife with obscene functionality. I cannot say quite why I did not speak out against it, to my shame, save only that I recognized the overarching goal of the ritual. It was related, in a way, to certain spells of soul transference and reincarnation. To be sure, with foul purpose, but I was not quite convinced of how much danger Sava might actually be in at that moment. Stehlen’s tongue slithers more than most, and his horns show he certainly has a Lower pedigree of his own, but I don’t think I believed him capable of the deed. In any case, Waku and myself were bound and helpless and surrounded by the entire tribe, including several massive specimens of beastly demonblood.

I did misjudge him.

They carried away Sava’s body to the shamans’ hut on the edge of the village, their heinous work mysterious and unfinished.

At this time, the chieftan and many escorts brought Waku, myself and Stehlen for a little tour. They showed us a large sinkhole where the chieftain told of their great temple which had been collapsed by interlopers. He implied strongly it was the shipwrecked Cheliaxan crew, without saying so.

When we returned to the village, Sava was sitting in the ritual circle in an almost vegetative state with only one mark on her… The mark which was not at all where Stehlen had stabbed her! There is now an ugly scar across her belly eerily like a grotesque cesarean while her breastbone is unscathed!

The chieftan told the old hag to give us further instruction on our task. The volcano has an entrance to a buried complex where one of their sacred altars lay. It was defiled by the same party responsible for collapsing their great temple. The volcano flows are thickened with molten precious gold, which they take as a gift directly from Baphomet who they worship as a god, and it was this molten gold diverted to desecrate the altar in some way that prevents the pygmies from approaching. I’m sure we will get a chance to investigate this matter in great detail as that is exactly the task which now lies before us. The pygmies seem to want to resurrect their temple, and they cannot do this while the magical warding bars their entry.

In the course of “conversation”, I managed to gain at least a little more information from the coy crone whose pride was too great to not enjoy a chance for a smug swagger. As I suspected, the girl sacrificed at the beach was the chieftan’s own daughter, which explains his reaction to Stehlen’s “tardy appearance”, and the ritual this morning was an attempt to reincarnate her soul in the vessel of Sava.

The witch gave away that the ritual did not work at all as expected, and she alluded some interference by a greater power with a vested interest in Sava personally… And this indicates to me that Sava’s soul still inhabits the body, despite some disturbing physical changes. I mean that her entire being seems somehow corrupted by the influence of sinister powers, not just the scar she bears.

And, speaking of scars, the pygmy witches have cursed Waku and myself to bear scars of our own. I recognize the Craft when I see it, and they mean these marks to serve as metaphysical links that they might work their Craft upon us. A threat and a reminder.

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When Nightmares Do Come

In the days after establishing our humble dwelling in the cave behind the waterfall, what was at first merely disconcerting grew to be truly horrifying.

Recalling events now as I write this, I can only barely place things in the order in which they occurred. I remember Stehlen wanted to explore the western side of the island, the side where the lake had grown in the towering shadow of the volcano, and the fierce crocodile which ambushed us. As an aside, let it be recorded that those of us who grew up in a swamp know better than to pry into a crocodile’s nest without knowing where the mother lies. Sava must have been eager to gather some eggs, and the bite she got for it was well earned.

While the creature dragged and thrashed her about, Stehlen’s quick thinking and fortuitous preparation of spells allowed us to destroy the monster once it was incapacitated. And by “we”, I mean that Stehlen had managed to procure from the Wormwood a dagger mightily enchanted as an effective weapon against beasts. The blade sank so greedily into the scales of the lizard, a veritable explosion of gore was all that might be seen.

The wretched creature apparently had managed to subdue another poor soul some time ago: we found a tome containing powerful spells and several precious gems as well as an enchanted sword and cloak in the nest! Perhaps the last legacy of a survivor of the Black Orchid? Stehlen, naturally, was quite pleased by the discovery, and his powers have profited by it. Indeed, so giddy became he by the addition of new spells to his own grimoire, that a curiously uncharacteristic burst of generosity overcame him as he gladly handed me the cloak whose enchantments seem oriented toward strange protections.

We also discovered, to our horror, while reconnoitering the beach where we had first made landfall that our longboat had vanished! We searched for hours with no sign of what might have taken it but for a mostly buried, evil-looking altar. It was graven with demonic runes, drunk with the blood of many living sacrifices. We had not the knowledge, between us, of what the glyphs might mean only that none of us recognized the markings as any sort of language.

The altar was directly at an odd marking on the map we had found in the cave days earlier, and there are two more of the same mark elsewhere on the island. I suspect the bonfires we glimpsed from a distance were placed at the mark directly east of the altar found on the hematite beach.

The affairs and manners of Wizards do not lend themselves to extroversion.

He obsessed himself in brooding study of the new tome for at least a week, scarce leaving the cave for any reason as he transcribed the formulae and diagrams. The ways of the Art are not unknown to me, and I recognize several of the spells, as obscured as they were by the trappings of the written word. None quite seemed his forte, dealing more with the alteration and obfuscation of creatures rather than their summoning and binding, but I am certain he is quite capable of manifesting their effects nonetheless.

I occupied myself more with diving near where I had discovered the hat pin of another Black Orchid crew member. Clearly Cheliaxan in design, it struck a chord in me. What poor soul must this simple, mundane object have belonged to? And what else may there yet be discovered, wrecked upon the reefs?

My curiosity was well-founded, too, for I also found a most marvelous treasure near the same spot! An uncut ruby gem the size of my fist lay glowering in the waters of the bay where the tides and currents must have carried it. The island is a trove of geological treasures dredged from the bowels of the world, and several green spinels, also, did I find there. Perhaps under that spot there is a surge of the hot blood of the earth, carrying untold riches in stones and jewels? With patience and diligence, I believe I might make good use of these natural spiritual focii to fashion devices of the Craft. The prospects enlivened me with possibilities.

Meanwhile, Stehlen began to find himself beset by brutish figures in the dark of dreaming night. He awoke many times with a strangled scream at his throat, reporting visions of a demonic entity that haunted us.

It was later in the week that I, too, began to experience the nightmares.

A towering beast of smoking horns, bulky muscle and eyes that burned with fierce, ruby light. We believe it to be the visage of Baphomet himself.

At first, the severity of the plague of nightmares was, while terrifying, sporadic. But we all soon began to fall prey to them with alarming frequency. The haunting interrupted rest, causing us great fatigue during the days when it is so crucial to our survival that we all be in peak performance. I set the others to gather salt from the sea by drying it on the hot sands, but it was a slow process and the maleficent phantoms of the night were incessant.

We did not suffer long before Waku noticed one evening the approach of drums from the eastern jungles.

In a panic, we barricaded ourselves in the cave, praying the vicious savages did not know of our current whereabouts. The tribe passed by the waterfall and headed to the beach. With growing dread, four of us followed in secret, taking the high path to the bluff overlooking where we had found the demonic altar. Owlbear and La’Luka remained in the cave, making preparations to be besieged since we had planned to make better haste than the savages on our return if we discovered they were to attack us there.

Sure enough, the tribe of mutant primitives had congregated there by torchlight. Their twisted shapes seemed to be wearing gruesome masks with bullish horns and shaggy manes, their wicked ritual was driven by the slow pulsing beat of drums.

They dragged a girl to the altar and made preparations all too obvious. The sight defies description of how the priest slaughtered her with a blow to the chest, and how a monstrous figure emerged therefrom as if in sickening parody of birth.

At that moment, Stehlen, half mad from sleep deprivation and desperate to put a stop to the pygmies’ plans, cast an illusion from the cliff where we hid in an ill-conceived scheme to portray himself as an emissary of the Abyss! I can only assume he meant to use his fiendish features to this effect and thereby gain some measure of influence over the tribe, but the efficacy of this ploy can only be euphemistically described as ineffective.

Though they did not slaughter him outright, the warriors which climbed the cliff were not nearly as overawed by his presence as he obviously expected. Sava, Waku and myself had the good sense to remain hidden, waiting for violence before revealing ourselves.

It has been only hours since they took him, and last we saw, he was under close and suspicious guard.

I may not be perfectly educated in the primitive religions of backwater pygmy tribes, but I am fairly sure that the messengers of gods are not commonly escorted at spearpoint while the chieftan scowls with furious disgust.

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Drums In The Jungle Night

To establish civilization with naught but sand and jungle wood is a tall order. None should say La’Luka is not up to the task, though. He has labored ceaselessly since our landing to create a smelting kiln and forge, and he is remarkably capable at working the native obsidian stone into effective weaponry. It took days to pile the stones together and stoke the fires hot enough to smelt the hematite sands of the beach. I admit to no small measure of amazement on my part at such feats. It is little more than rocks and fire, after all! Ingenuity and sheer persistence are the engines of industry.

While he set about with the ambition of recreating the world, Sava and myself were occupied with reaping the sea’s bounty. She for food and I for pearls, though with rather different scales of success. The little bay does not seem too rife with mollusk, as steep as the drop is into deeper waters. I do feel safer having her around.

The wreck of the Black Orchid looms large and foreboding in view.

Stehlen has been quite eager to explore the little island, leading Owlbear and Waku in all-day forays into the dense jungle. They followed the stream to a small waterfall, and of course there is a cave there where the waters have exerted their own industries against the rocks.

The exploring party also sighted, in the distance, small figures cavorting around a fire at the foot of the mountain, casting lurid shapes and shadows that flicker and draw the eye even from a distance.

La’Luka took a break from his forgework to explore the cave with Sava, Stehlen and myself while Waku and Owlbear minded the camp at the beach. There was quite a large anaconda lazily digesting what we morbidly discovered was a twisted pygmy wretch. The claws and horns betray a fiendish association beyond simple indigenous decorations. I dread to discover how a tribe of such peoples feeds itself, given the limited scale of the island. What good can come from the hells?

Further into the cave was a truly impressive specimen of spider, fully filling the alcove where it had set up an abode. It was troublesome, but Ebony’s talons found its brain with a vengeance. A disgusting pile remained of yet another pygmy fiend, cocooned and wrapped with a small obsidian weapon. Curiously, the weapon bears a minor enchantment upon it! Perhaps the tribe is more capable in the Ways of the Craft than I would like to discover? I still feel a horrid dread of meeting any of the wretched spawn alive.

We found rooms beyond which seemed to have been used for sleeping and cartography. There was a sextant made of brass and one, more rough, of wood. The survivors of the Black Orchid were generous enough to plot our general position on the badly decayed maps they left. The sextants alone are a marvelous fortune to have found, and certainly vindicated the danger of exploring the poisonous cave.

There was a room barricaded in front of the cave. It had the bony remains of what I think was a gnome and a human or half-elf, and they were more than a mere few years old. The vipers which had found their way into the chamber were weak and easily frightened away, but what drew my attention was the ventilation hole they used for their escape. It is not a naturally occurring crevice, and seemed to have been burrowed by something with claws that is very small. It leads outside, naturally, but — why? It could not be a mole’s burrow. Nor do I suspect the pygmy people are small enough to fit, despite their mutated physiology. It just does not seem to fit logically in any case.

Why create a hole for ventilation in the forward room instead of the rear? We found sconces for torches all throughout the cave, which indicates to me that there was no need for extra ventilation. Why would the barricade have been from the outside of the front room? The serpents we found within were certainly not old enough to have been the cause of death for the two poor souls we found there. And they had shelves in the room for the remains of the food which we found as well. How did they die?

If I were the sort to bet on the draw of a card, I would wager all I have that it has something to do with whatever made that hole…

And the drums we hear in the distant jungle.

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Through A Glass, Dimly

The glitter of celestia on the ocean’s waves makes for quite a serviceable focus of premonitory trance.

I recall, as through deep waters, past lives in which I was born a woman, though I do not remember ever being so solitary among a group of men. Sava, if she feels any tension, seems to bear it with the casual stoicism of an animal always wary. Stehlen’s favorite toy is probably sailing westward on the Wormwood, currently, and I am sure he must feel her lack. The horny devilkin must be descended of a particularly lascivious fiend, though gods only know how his lying tongue can remain serviceable with so many knots in it. Perhaps that is the entire secret. Waku, La’Luka and Owlbear seem far more concerned with the matters at hand rather than, shall we say, survival on generational time scales.

I don’t remember ever, in my many lives, being castaway on an island, so this is a unique experience. I wonder how my future selves will regard it. I cannot pretend that I am not still discomforted by the rudimentary resources we have available to us. Even growing up as a pariah of a small marsh village afforded a number of creature comforts which most people will never have the misfortune to do entirely without. Little do we realize, until at sea, surrounded by empty wastes of water, how much we each rely on the web of commerce, the “security” of social justice (if one is not entirely an outcast, of course, I imagine), the simple things like bread, cups, candles, wine and nails which civilization makes available.

Tabitha once told me that our little cottage, humble as it was, should be understood with content gratitude. “Our existence here,” she said, “is an illusion. What comfort we find in our surroundings bears no significance on the wider cosmos. Have a care, child, for each moment of grace, joy and contentment you feel is but a breath from death’s door. And yet, still not a step through the threshold.”

Death is but a breath away. Life is but a dream. Nightmare or sweetness, it is for us each to create within ourselves. Happiness cannot come from without, for the world is wasting of want.

I must admit, I have not her knack for finding peace “whatever may be”. Even when a storm caused a tree branch to crash through the roof, even during drought and when the villagers were furtively cruel — she bore it with a serene patience, though not without a stinging witticism when warranted in the latter case. Her focus was always on the ephemeral nature of mortal existence, knowing wisely that whatever pains the present brought would pass.

I remember once, while exploring the little cottage we shared, as small children do, discovering a simple mirror kept in a box under her bed. I had never seen a mirror before, at that age, for none in the village were so wealthy or so inclined to share such a treasure with the witch’s bastard.

When she discovered me staring into it with awe, she snatched it from my hands with a look of pain and smashed the thing to pieces then and there. “Turn your eyes inward to see yourself,” she cried over my tears, “Spend your life staring over your shoulder and you’ll never live!”

I only pieced together over the course of my youth what the significance of that mirror was to the old crone. A beauty, she was, in her youth. She loved a man of the village, but he loved another. Tabitha, vain as only a pretty young girl can be, was still the source of legends about her jealous feud with her homely rival. The stories I overheard are rife with exaggerations about how she employed the blackest of Arts against the good wife of her passion. Invariably, they concluded that her bitter frustration led to a long life of suffering for her while watching the happy couple spend their days in idyllic bliss. The common folk meant it as a lesson against the, ultimately futile, abuse of power and pride, as good myth should be.

When I asked Tabitha herself about the mirror, years later, her eyes never left the fire.

“The Craft grants a mortal heart many Arts, but not the wisdom for their use. ‘What might have been?’ is, at best, a fool’s question quite apart from ‘what may be?’ and regret is a poison more painful than hate or envy. The glass shows truth only dimly, reflected, flat, unreal. When I finally grew to accept what I could not change, I put the glass away and found contentment in what is.”

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The Vertigo of Standing On A Shore And Looking Out

One day is much like any other while at sea, so it is difficult to expect sudden and extreme change while pumping bilges during a perfectly ordinary work day. It has been more than a week since we escaped the Wormwood. From what the others have said took place, I hope I can assemble some semblance of accurate recollection, but you must bear in mind that I was not present for the event that instigated our little exile from Captain Harrigan’s demesne.

The others had been going about ordinary daily chores on top deck when Waku and Stehlen noticed Sava being accosted by two of Mr. Plugg’s men. From what I can gather, the halfling woman, who doesn’t even speak a word of Common and seems to be of quite an uncivilized background, did not take kindly to the threats and petty abuse while she swabbed the deck. A mop handle was broken over one of the men’s face and the jagged remaining end ended up in the shoulder of the other.

Waku and Stehlen felt obliged to intervene on Sava’s behalf, creating quite a spectacle for all on deck to take note of. La’Luka had been watching from the rigging where he was working, and I believe he attempted to lend aid as well, though I am not as clear on what happened exactly. I believe he might have drawn a weapon and fired it to either kill or very seriously injure one of Plugg’s men, considering Captain Harrigan’s reaction. My four friends were subdued and shackled in the bilges.

I imagine my expression must have been interesting, to see eight-odd crew stumping belowdecks with black eyes and blacker glares shooting back and forth. I realized of course that something violent must have happened, but I don’t think I could have known what would become of it.

The captain was in a rage, and called his officers together to discuss the punishment which Sandara Quinn alerted us was to be a keelhauling that evening for the “offending” members of the crew. Even pirates, it seems, have a keen understanding of the need for discipline and living crew while at sea.

Our allies among the crew put their heads together while we were still taking stock of the situation, such as it was with myself the only one not chained to a bulkhead (Mr. Plugg had remembered to anchor Owlbear in mid deck that day). While we were still managing to break free with the zealous use of a hammer, Barefoot Samms arrived to tell us of the plan they had concocted for us. Naturally we would rather not simply wait to see Sava and La’Luka keelhauled, so rebellion was the obvious choice to make for survival, even as ill-prepared as we were. Few of us fancied our chances at open mutiny without more time to prepare, and Sandara Quinn had arranged with Grok for a little “diversion” to cover our lowering of the longboat and the fouling of the main mast rigging. We snatched what we could with what little time we had, and emerged on top deck to a well-timed burlesque game which the women staged on our behalf. By the time we were in the water and shoving off, it was too late to stop us and the officers had rather fortunately bad aim, even Riaris Krine the ship’s gunner. Peppery Longfarthing, the sorcerous sailing-master, boiled some water in a hurry but couldn’t see us clearly enough to target through Stehlen’s darkening devilry.

The “mast” of our little boat was four of the oars lashed together and a “sail” rigged with it. It’s amazing what pressing need can accomplish, for we made good speed at first during our escape, allowing Owlbear and La’Luka only time for a few return shots. I’m sure Mr. Plugg wishes he had kept his bald head down.

If you have never tried to seriously navigate the open ocean in a longboat with a bedsheet for a sail and only two days’ water, just suffice to say that the fire is a good deal more dire a landing spot than the pan.

We made at first for the island we passed days ago, but then veered north because Stehlen was certain we were not far from land and it did not make sound tactical sense to escape to a barren atoll which the Wormwood still had fresh in memory. The pitiful excuse for a sail kept falling apart and we languished in dead waters for days while frantically trying to fill the sheet. We were exhausted and dying under the glare of the tropical sun on our dwindling rations of water. We spent a week limping north and the last three days were the worst. Just as we were certain of our doom, however, La’Luka’s trained hawk returned with a waterskin!

It had found land to our north! And that land had fresh water on it!

So it was that we dredged ourselves ashore to a beach of black sands in a cove formed by high cliffs on this island of forbidding paradise. While drifting to a landing, we passed the wreckage of what we would identify as a Cheliaxan slaving vessel called the Black Orchid. It was while Stehlen, Sava and I were exploring the wreck that Waku, La’Luka and Owlbear foraged and explored along the beach. They found the prints of a very large bird and an overwhelming sense of dread that sent them all scrambling back to the rally point on the beach near where a small stream empties into the sea.

The sounds of tropical life are a cacophony of arboreal calls, so when the jungle hushes — beware!

No one has seen the bird that made the prints, but it is certainly large, which begs the question of how a beast of such size can sustain itself in any reasonable population on a small island? Of course, we have no idea how large the island is. Our priorities had to be securing shelter and food. Stehlen and La’Luka are optimistic that they may be able to make enough repairs to the wreck of the Black Orchid that she should be seaworthy again… with perhaps a year or three of hard labor, given our resources with naught but an untamed jungle and the sea.

Our ancestors managed to craft a civilization with nothing more, so why not?

As the sun sets on our dark paradise, I look out over the lapping waves of the reef and marvel in wonder at the strange fortunes of life’s gasping, crawling, desperate reach for mere survival in a cruel and hostile cosmos.

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What Dreams May Come

My nature as a Samsaran is still a mystery I struggle to understand, young as I am by the standards of my “kind”.

Thinking on Flipps’ possibly deceased mother stirs in me a reverie of — what? Nostalgia? Anxiety? The sense of having lost a part of myself irretrievably. My own parents were not the most gentle, loving folk with respect to me. I was born in a mist-shrouded village of the mossy deltas of the Sodden Lands, east of the Eye of Abendego. I did not stay long, for my empty white eyes and “unnaturally colored” hair and skin marked me as different immediately. My parents were, frankly, ill suited for the task Fate dealt them, and they abandoned me on the doorstep of a witch who lived not too far from the village outskirts, figuring that she had some hand in my conception and so she should raise me. The crone was well withered even in my infancy. To the simple minds of ignorant folk, an “unnatural babe” simply seems to naturally require a supernatural fecundity — and who more responsible for such a feat than the local mystic, eh?

She did occupy something of a paradoxical position in the society. Simultaneously a “wise one” who could be petitioned for magical aid (notably, the Crafts of Healing of course, and I did learn such Crafts from her wizened hands) while also an object of weirding dread and loathing. I now know that this is not an unusual state of affairs for wonderworkers in any given locale of the world, but as a child, this status caused me no end of frustration at my alienation. Yes, my strange appearance, born to a faithful human couple, did magnify the attributes that were already ascribed to me simply by dint of being the reputed bastard of a witch.

I still consider myself amazingly fortunate that the old hag was aware of the Samsaran race, a people adrift on the currents of history, if you will forgive a lapse into melodrama for so trite a phrase. She somehow recognized what I am, though human herself, and was able to aid in my development while also teaching me some of her Craft. It was a cruel thing, to inflict a needy babe upon an ostracized old woman, though even in this, a strange sort of mercy might be found. The humans who birthed me, I was to discover, still suffered for my conception at the hands of their fellow townsfolk, for the ignorance of man knows no bounds. Yet even so, my fate was kinder than murder. I still to this day wonder if they had hoped the lonely old hag could provide for me something they realized they could not, and that by knocking on her door they believed themselves to be performing a profound act of charity.

Tabitha, as she was called, never once complained in my hearing for it. If I did not know her, it would seem suspicious, but she was a kindly wretch in no ambiguous way. Bitterly pragmatic, as is the habit of those who have seen much grief in a long, hard life, she bore me with rolled up smock sleeves and a stern will to leave the world with a satisfied smile on her wrinkled face.

And so she did.

I was barely of-age when she died. Perhaps she had been waiting all along to be sure her work was done, for such was her way. It has been more than fifty years now, and my body has scarcely aged. I am glad she did not linger in pain, and did not witness my seemingly endless youth while her arthritic fingers curled into useless claws and her back stooped into a shepherd’s crook.

I know only a little about the life cycle of my kin. I know I have lived before, for I still dream of past lives and sometimes seem to witness snatches of events long past in those quiet moments when a moth’s wings seem to still and candle flame freezes in mid-wobble. I know when it is not the future I see just as easily as I can discern the nature of any other memory whether distant or not.

Good Mistress Tabitha taught me of the natural cycles of the cosmos, of the seasons and stars, the sun and moon, the tides of life: she believed me to be an incarnation of the cosmic attribute she called “The Veiled One”. A spirit, an entity, a force of the secrets beyond mortal existence. That which exists only in dreams and vanishes when the wakening world threatens to impinge, the afterlife, the before-birth, the in-betweens of reality and the very nature of what it is to be secret and unknowable, she said. This is why I touch my other lives, so she believes, why I remember who I have been. She even hinted that I may, in fact, sometimes, brush against who I will yet be. It is implied, is it not? In a cycle, one part touches the “before” just as much as it touches the “after”.

I remember once listening to her teachings by the fire, young and with clovers in my shaggy hair, when she uttered the advice that, though I am still a creature in the present, I am not bounded by it as others are. I asked, in the manner of children hearing things they cannot understand, what did she mean by such a silly phrase?

And her rheumy eyes regarded me with an expression I still do not recognize and she said, “What dreams may come to you, I do not envy, child. Yours is a fate burdened and blessed most peculiar, and it is your purpose in this life to serve as witness to it.”

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The Helping Hands of Fate

Day 13

It has been a busy few days, catching up after the storm. Even Mr. Buttplugg seemed content to give the Cat a rest, though not to his credit, for the entire crew performed impeccably in their daily tasks.

Stehlen and I spotted a light on the horizon while keeping watch overnight. We were certain it was a ship, perhaps a mile or two away. By the time dawn arrived, however, as we approached, we could see that it was a shallow island, washed clean by the storm surge. The reef’s bounty tempted the Captain’s appetite, and he sent four of us (Stehlen, Owlbear, Sava and myself) swimming out and back to catch crab for dinner. The reefclaws were in a foul temper, but Owlbear enjoyed flexing his, admittedly enjoyable to view, muscles and stuffed them into the trap pots just as well. Crab, he enjoys eating even raw, though usually the much smaller variety, so it is good to see him in such high spirits after being chained belowdecks for so long.

I even had time to read the journal La’Luka brought to me… It was written by Flipps’ mother who had also been press-ganged! It would seem our rotund bully has a sentimental streak, and La’Luka aims to exploit that weakness to drive a wedge into Mr. Plugg’s group. A fight did break out when Stehlen, quietly directed by La’Luka, mentioned in passing that Narwhal, Aretta and Ratling had been cracking jokes about Flipps’ mother. I may have chimed in that I had heard a particularly vivid metaphor involving the capacity for traffic of a seaport comparing unfavorably with her loins. To be fair, they were responsible for Flipps’ berthing, so surely the analogy wasn’t too stretched.

Speaking of rotten, old, barnacle-infested sea whores, Aretta is notably grateful to La’Luka for her new haircut. It was probably rather uncomfortable the way Flipps was gripping her during the fight that broke out.

Remarkable, that. A soothsayer with prodigious powers of hindsight might recognize her blossoming affection for the Beastman as something of an ingenious devising.

Such wicked tight webs Fate does weave with a helping hand!

Young Scrimshaw and myself also managed to win a rather respectable sum of money from the scurvy swine, Narwhal and Kipper, using a deck of playing cards I had the good fortune to bring along with me… A pity he didn’t recognize a good opportunity for gratitude when it was dealt him.

By Stehlen’s report, Grok was much obliged to return good favor for the chilled tea he provided on such a hot tropical day. Maybe the glowing icon I discovered on the inside of the crab shells served for dinner also bear some weight in what passes for her mind.

In truth, there will be blood in the water, and soon. And I don’t need to read cards to know it.

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Signs and omens

Day 10

I didn’t have time to make any journal entries since the last. The storm kept us all up and working through the nights. We were exhausted to the brink of collapse by the time the storm abated.

Despite all our efforts, and by rights the ship is lucky to still float, Mr. Plugg was not satisfied and tied half the crew to the mast for lashings, citing poor performance of course. I confess, climbing the tangled rigging of a storm-tossed ship is rather less than a supernatural feat of skill. Though, perhaps of daring. Poor Waku did land with a horrid splat, though a little less awkwardly than I.

Asmos was washed overboard by a chance wave that caught him as the deck dropped suddenly. I was quick enough with the rope since I had been hauling it but I would not have been able to get him back aboard ship without LaLuka’s help.

Owlbear is much more active lately, since Mr. Plugg has been forgetting to chain him up below deck. Gods only know what sick pleasures he pursues instead, though I wager Caulky the cabingirl would just as well. I have scarce seen her at all during the voyage. If our esteemed Captain Harrigan minds sharing his sweets, he doesn’t let it show. Plugg is easy enough to look at. From a distance. The distance that a voice might carry. What a sharp contrast I find between our dear Mr. Plugg and Owlbear whose disheveled appearance and simple manner belie a heart of gold. Truly, adversity breeds mettle.

Stehlen, that sly devil, is certainly getting headway from a certain tartly sprite who is charmed enough to keep a hammock warm after a grueling day’s work. It’s too bad the crew quarters are open enough that we all must bear it as well…

Grok seems to have received an omen from the Spirits of the Deep, following my guidance and blessing of the ship. I instructed her to keep the omen around her neck, as it is a powerful symbol of good luck and a reminder that the spirits are watching always. It seems that she has been given a personal emblem. It is of a woman holding a sword and cup… What an amazing sequence of events, indeed. Now, who could have foretold the change wrought in her outlook in so short a span of time as a tenday?

It will be very interesting to see what develops of her growing connection to the spirit world. I have very little doubt there may yet be discovered further signs and omens in the days ahead, should she violate the spirits’ trust!

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