Campaign of the Month: September 2016

Age of Serpents

Timeline

A summary of historical records, plot-specific events, and episodes in order of their occurrence.
Reader discretion is advised, the chronology contains episode spoilers.

This campaign utilizes the canon historical timeline of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting, with two key differences:

First, obviously, the major events of Serpent’s Skull (which take place “in-canon” in 4710 AR) have yet to occur. Second, a century ago, around 4600 AR (the onset of the Age of Lost Omens and the death of the god Aroden), a war between the lashunta and formians on the neighboring planet Castrovel devastated that world—leaving much of its atmosphere poisonous to most air-breathing creatures. This event revealed a heretofore secretive, oppressive empire of outsider-controlled humans on a continent called Sarlona and resulted in an ongoing exodus of refugees of races from that world to Golarion.

Age of Serpents (? pre-history) — A cadre of serpentfolk lords oversee sanctums across what will become Smuggler’s Shiv. Each possesses a magic stone, like the Beast Stone, allowing them to command powerful eldritch forces. In addition to the sanctums, a sixth structure serves as a cathedral to the race’s god.
Age of Legend (? pre-history)Azlanti cultists of Zura escape Saventh-Yhi and occupy Smuggler’s Shiv, re-purposing the serpentfolk structures there for their own needs.

  • Oathday, Calistril 28th, Winter 4716 AR — The Jenivere departs Bloodcove, leaving its missing cabin boy, Brynan Devers, behind.
  • Moonday, Pharast 4th, Spring 4716 AR — On the final leg of its four-month journey along the western seaboard of Garund, the Jenivere departs Senghor for Eleder. (Campaign Begins)
  • Fireday, Pharast 8th — Several passengers aboard the galleon Jenivere (Dornas, Kishtari, Kor’lec, Monica Montana, Nemanji, Aerys Mavato, Gelik Aberwhinge, Jask Derindi, Sasha Nevah) survive their ship being run aground on the northern coast of Smuggler’s Shiv. First Mate Alton Devers manages to ferry the survivors to land via the galleon’s jollyboat, though he does not himself survive.
    • The Jenivere’s alleged saboteur, Ieana, and her accomplice, Captain Kovack, make landfall on the isle’s east coast and set up a crude camp.
    • Tyst, an undiscovered stowaway on the Jenivere, washes up on shore without any recollection of who he is or what he was doing aboard the ship. A lycanthrope with Red Mantis training, Tyst avoids detection by remaining in animal form.
    • morning, the Castaways awaken and assess their situation after defeating some eurypterids. Breakfast is Served
    • afternoon, evening, the more adventurous Castaways rescue Kai, Kor’lec’s animal companion and salvage food and building supplies from the wrecked Jenivere. The Wreck of the Jenivere
    • late night, the Castaways confirm Kai has been magically dominated by Ieana, who can potentially spy on them via the theropod’s senses. The Red Mountain Devil begins stalking the Castaways. Eyes in the Night
  • Starday, Pharast 9th — Dornas, Kish, Kor’lec, Monica, and Nemanji assign camp duties to the others, and strike into the Shiv interior.
    • Ieana and Kovack abandon their camp and head into the jungle, leaving a trail. Through Kai’s eyes, Ieana periodically checks on the status of the Castaways.
    • morning, early afternoon, the adventurers are accosted by a hunting party of monkey goblins. Monkey’s Bum
    • noon, the explorers ascend “Black Widow Bluff” and become involved in an old tribal feud between the Mongrukoo monkey goblins and the Klixarpillar mites, taking the goblins’ side after they are ambushed by the mites and their swarming spiders. Likki joins the party, hoping they’ll help him rescue members of his tribe that the mites took captive. Gob-Webs
    • afternoon, early evening, on route to the mites’ lair, the heroes take cover from the midday heat in a cave infested with giant crickets. The Cricket Pitch
    • evening, the Castaways defeat the Klixarpillar in their cavernous lair, rescue the goblin captives, and discover within the web-covered shrine the Mongrukoo hoped to procure for themselves. Fight With All Your Mites
    • later, unbeknownst to Kor’lec, the heirloom charm he carried reincarnated Pollock, the last of the Klixarpillar mites (slain by Likki). Now a grig, Pollock awakens in the dryad Aycenia’s grove. The powerful fey senses the presence of a good druid on the isle, and considers asking Kor’lec’s help to restore nature’s balance to Smuggler’s Shiv.
  • Sunday, Pharast 10th — The castaways return from Black Widow Bluff with Likki. Chief Basako of the Mongrukoo insists on a feast to honor the heroes and their friends. Legacy of Fiends
  • Moonday, Pharast 11th — The castaways return to Black Widow Bluff to finish exploring the mite lair. There, they defeat the Hive Queen and discover that the old “shrine” is really a 10,000 year old serpentfolk sanctuary! Monica uses the Beast Stone to break Ieana’s hold on Kai. House of the Hive Queen
  • Toilday, Pharast 12th — The Castaways are now clearly divided into an away team, who explore the island, and an equally important home team, who guard the camp site and treasure. The away team strikes south on the trail of Sasha, who has abandoned the camp in anger. Wing and a Prayer
  • Wealday, Pharast 13th — Dornas, Kish, and Monica follow Kor’lec south along the Shiv’s eastern strand. Nemanji catches up later. The Castaways capture the Brine Demon from undead pirates and find evidence of Jask’s innocence.
  • Oathday, Pharast 14th — The Castaways finish relocating base camp to the hulk of the Brine Demon. Home Wrecked
    • late evening, Kor’lec is contacted by the sick Spirit of the Island through Pollock, but the evil little fey places Likki’s life as a condition for leading the druid to her grove.
  • Fireday, Pharast 15th — The Castaways defeat a monster in a massive viper nettle patch and recover the fruits to ease Aerys’s recovery from alcoholism. Thorny Entanglements
    • late evening, Kor’lec, Nemanji, and Dornas while hunting near the Brine Demon encounter a bull dimetrodon, but the animal doesn’t seem interested in a fight. Kish, Monica, and the other castaways are assaulted by the ghost of the Brine Demon’s captain, but figure out his earthly fetter and lay him to rest. Shiver Me Timbers
  • Starday, Pharast 16th — The away team leave for an extended trip inland, trusting the other castaways to take care of themselves.
    • Unfortunately, Gelik decides to take matters into in his own hands and secretly sets out for the Nightvoice, bringing a willing Sasha and a charmed Aerys along for protection.
    • Pollock appears to give Likki 24 hours before their death duel. The Thrunefangs are later encountered, and ambushed after Kishtari telepathically discerns their evil intentions. They learn Ieana’s already infiltrated the cannibals and has provided to them descriptions of the Castaways.
    • late afternoon, the adventurers come across another shipwreck survivor, Pezock, and befriend him. The tengu has lived on the island for over a decade.
    • Meanwhile, Gelik, Sasha, and Aerys are attacked by ghouls; Sasha is bitten and contracts ghoul fever.
  • Sunday, Pharast 17th — The Castaways help Likki survive his duel, though the goblin spares Pollock’s life. He implores the vengeful grig to abandon their respective tribes’ blood feud. Path of Redemption
    • afternoon, the heroes reach the hill of Aycenia. The dryad offers succor and intelligence in exchange for their help removing “an alien blight” infecting the far northwestern isle, a.k.a. “the Island of Never Going There.” The Castaways go there.
    • Gelik’s party, meanwhile, encounter the blight firsthand as they reach the islet first. They are attacked by the fungoids who capture and maim Gelik and Aerys before bringing them to the Nightvoice. Sasha escapes, but crawls into a cave she cannot climb out of.
    • dusk, The Red Mountain Devil sends the heroes a message, dropping the head of the bull dimetrodon at their feet. Nemanji sends one in return, winging the flying chupacabra with an arrow from hundreds of feet away. Food of the Gods
  • Moonday, Pharast 18th — Hours before dawn, the captive Gelik and Aerys are force-fed the toxic mold by the fungous pygmies. Sasha, trapped and famished by ghoul fever, eats the mold as well.
    • dawn, Tyst reveals himself to the party and is invited to join their quest.
    • morning, the Castaways cross over to the Island of Never Going There and battle a large, well-prepared force of fiendish fungoids. Tyst metamorphoses into werebadger form and helps route the enemy. The group discover signs of a recent battle and the involvement of those they thought they left behind at base camp. The away team track down Sasha and from her learn the story. Grey Matter and Invasive Species
    • late morning, the party cross over to the Nightvoice, and defeat some fungoid guards abovedecks. However, they come under fire from an immense horde from the land. Nemanji and Tyst take the battle to the horde, so the others can rescue the hostages.
    • After defeating a small but elite force of fungoid guards, the Castaways find Gelik and Aerys. Gelik lets on that he’s a special agent of Absalom, though he admits later to Monica that he lied about that to protect himself. The heroes leave their wounded friends behind and delve into a cave beneath the Nightvoice to find the fungal infestation’s source. Toxic Reactions
    • noon, in the caverns beneath the surface of the gray island, the Castaways destroy the fiendish source of the Abyssal fungus.
    • afternoon, at Aycenia‘s grove, Pollock is discovered to have been psionically influenced by Ieana to steal Kor’lec’s reincarnation amulet. Failing his mission, the grig commits suicide. Aycenia sees to the recovery of Gelik, Sasha, and Aerys and provides a haven for the other Castaways. Kor’lec, Monica, Dornas, and Kishtari leave to retrieve Jask from the Brine Demon.
    • late evening, the Castaways reach Pezock’s crab, and stay the night.
    • night, Ieana, who has been dominating the Thrunefang cannibals through their chief Klorak the Red, commands that she be allowed to see Nylithati, a presumably undead religious icon that dwells in the sea caves below their encampment. The enchantress descends with Captain Kovack, but does not return with him. Soon afterward, Ieana surreptitiously departs, and upon regaining his will, Chief Klorak vows vengeance upon her.
  • Toilday, Pharast, 19th — Dornas, Kor’lec, Kishtari, and Monica discover that the Brine Demon has been attacked by the Thrunefangs and totally destroyed; and that Jask was taken captive. Destiny’s Hinges
    • late evening, after a number of hindrances across the breadth of Smuggler’s Shiv, the Castaways reach the Thrunefangs’ camp and endeavor to free Jask. After alerting the entirety of the tribe, the rescuers attempt to retreat but destroy most of their enemies in the process. The Thrunefang chief remains sequestered in his tower, undergoing narcotic “purification” with his brides. Game Trail and Cannibal Cataclysm
    • later evening, the Castaways attempt to capture the lighthouse, but find its defenders — Chief Klorak and his razor-crazy brides — very well entrenched. After the party slays one of his wives, Klorak negotiates with them, offering temporary use of the tower in exchange for Ieana’s corpse. The High Chief’s Aegis
  • Wealday, Pharast, 20th — In the caverns beneath the Thrunefang camp, the Castaways discover a confessionary note from Captain Kovack that exposes Ieana’s “purecaste” serpentfolk nature. Later, the party discover what Ieana was probably looking for — an ancient serpentfolk temple. Inside, they are forced to do away with a giant cadaverous snake and a pack of serpentfolk skeletons guarding a secret sanctum that contains the Typhonian Proposal. Boils and Ghouls and Shrine of the Serpent Lords
    • later, Nylithati and her lacedon children try to prevent the Castaways from leaving her domain. It does not go well for the aquatic ghouls. Dornas uses the undead matriarch’s head to insure Chief’s Klorak sticks to his part of their deal. The Castaways return to Aycenia’s grove. Ieana activates the Tide Stone, using the ritual described in the Typhonian Proposal. The rite pushes the ocean back from the bay adjacent to Red Mountain allowing the serpent-woman access to a subterranean structure. Unfinished Business
  • Oathday, Pharast, 21th — After a night of sex together, Kor’lec is informed that Aycenia will bear him two children and offers the druid a home on the island when his adventures are over. Kor’lec, Dornas, Monica, Kishtari, and Likki leave for Red Mountain — to confront Ieana once and for all.
    • afternoon, the Red Mountain Devil attacks the party on their ascent to the apex of Red Mountain. After wounding the creature, the party track it to its lair and destroy it. Kor’lec rejects the idea that the group should use the Tide Stone ritual and searches the bay in porpoise form to discover what Ieana was looking for. In Darkened Storm or Sunlight Glare
    • late afternoon, the Shiv Castaways work with their timely arriving friends to enact the Tide Stone rite, and manage to manipulate it to call upon Nethys rather than Ydersius. The ritual reveals the submerged doors to a serpentfolk lair converted by Azlanti cultists into a temple to Zura — the first structure to confirm the prehistoric civilization’s presence in Garund. Blood in the Water
    • evening, Tyst attacks the party in the temple scriptorium, but Kishtari manages to break Ieana’s hold over the werebadger’s mind. Together, the group hunt down and destroy the elusive serpentfolk in the nave of the structure’s chapel. Ieana’s research notes and the temple inscriptions illuminate what were her aims — to determine the location and means of access to Saventh-Yhi, a legendary Mwangi “lost city” dismissed by scholarship as imaginary.
    • late evening, the Castaways emerge from the Zura temple with Ieana’s head and her research notes. They destroy the last of the Thrunefangs at the Tide Stone, who attempted to hold the heroes’ friends hostage. Chief Klorak is spared, but remitted to the custody of the arriving Mongrukoo, now led by Cenkil. Rolling Snake Eyes
  • Fireday, Pharast, 22th to Wealday, Pharast, 27th — Montage of events:
    • Monica and Dornas repair the lighthouse reflector and aim the beacon light toward the southwest shipping lane. Aerys provides a signalling code to inform passing ships that there are stranded and seek rescue.
    • Pezock is discovered dead, ostensibly by accidental self-poisoning. However, the tengu’s missing magical sawtooth saber suggests fowl play.
    • The Red Gull, a passing smuggling and salvage vessel, investigates the long-inoperable light from the old Sargavan lighthouse.
    • The Castaways meet envoys from the Red Gull and negotiate their rescue. The Red Gull is on the way north from Eleder to Bloodcove.
    • Basako arrives at Aycenia’s grove just before the Castaways depart Smuggler’s Shiv aboard the Red Gull. Though he is no longer acting as chief, enough Mongrukoo respect his council that he negotiates a alliance with Aycenia for mutual protection. As part of the deal, Aycenia agrees to provide sanctuary to Likki’s wife, Vershnat, and recently born son, Nemanji II. Rolling Snake Eyes
  • Oathday, Pharast 28th — late evening, just before midnight and after nearly 30 hours at sea, a slumbering Cap’n Sigurd Snake-Eyes is murdered in his cabin by Kor’lec and his body dumped overboard. The crime is discovered by the ship’s lookout, Gortross, who raises the hue and cry. Buried at Sea
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Mutiny on the Red Gull

For thirty years, I’ve sailed the seas and seen good and bad, better and worse, fair weather and foul, provisions running out, knives going, and what not. Well, now I tell you, I never seen good come o’ goodness yet.

At the end of our last episode, the Castaways were in a quandary: surrounded by the scoundrelly smugglers of the Red Gull, with a chance of being sold to slavery or, if things went well, sold out to a known crime lord. As the party debated their options, Kor’lec snuck off and murdered Captain Snake-Eyes in his sleep!

To dispose of the body, the desperate druid was forced to drag the pudgy carcass of old Sigurd onto the caravel’s deck, where his crime was reported — loudly — by the ship’s lizardman lookout Gortross.

If anyone could have asked Kor’lec, just then, why he did what he did, there might have been one answer: he was too fat to stuff through the porthole.

Spring Upon Her Cable

Back in the cargo hold, the Castaways heard the hue-and-cry and prepared for action. Already, the rest of the crew were responding to the lookout’s barking claxon and rousing themselves against the implicated passengers. Likewise, the Castaways’ allies awoke to the sounds of imminent combat. “How long was that?” asked Gelik, to Jask, who was sitting up in his bedroll. “About thirty-six hours,” answered the priest. “Ha!” the gnome exclaimed, “I’m way closer! You owe me ten crowns. Pay up old-timer!”

“What’s happening?” asked a sleepy-eyed Aerys. “Looks like we’re going to take over the ship,” replied Kishtari, nonplussed. Aerys broke into near-hysterics. “We cant! We’re guests! There’s a code!” blurted the pirate before somehow managing to explain that as evacuees, they had a debt to their rescuers. Betraying that hospitality discouraged ships at sea from rescuing other stranded souls.

If Aerys was in near-hysterics, Monica was full-fucking-on — then just… snapped.

“Listen to her! We can’t do this! I don’t want to be a pirate!” the human archaeologist protested.

Meanwhile, the ship’s bosun, the hideous Foul Frithoth, emerged from his cabin aft of the cargo hold where the Castaways were arrayed. He was leveraging a pistol to his left. “Best you stand down,” the smuggler gloated, “lest the little girlie here get shot, point blank.” The weapon was trained on Sasha, or at least, the shadowy nook where the teen was thought to be sleeping. The heroes couldn’t see her from their position, but it was a good bet Frithoth wasn’t bluffing.

Speaking of shadows, Tyst was like a blur, his exotic straight-blade drawn as he vaulted to within stabbing distance of the smuggler. The cagey Frithoth sidestepped the blade and started to squeeze the trigger before he swooned and collapsed in a slumbering heap.

“You’re welcome,” Kish said, her eyes aglow from the psionic expenditure.

The next thing Tyst saw was the peacefully sleeping Sasha roll out of her sleeping bag in one fluid motion, kukri in hand, giggling as she ran the curved blade across the unconscious gunman’s throat. The blood sprayed and pooled around the assassins. “There’s a girl,” Tyst praised, before his emerging inner beast began to take hold in a gruesome metamorphosis.

As the halfling’s muscles and bones twisted, bolts fired from the crew’s sleeping area fore of the cargo hold plinked around the heroes. Four of the smugglers had kicked over their room’s card table and were firing from behind it. Their aim wasn’t that good, and the party paid the volley little heed as they quickly coordinated their response. Dornas had a tough time believing that that Kor’lec, presently absent from view, was responsible for whatever the Red Gull crew were accusing them of. He insisted on going topside, and Monica followed, still urgently echoing Aerys’s protests about hijacking their rescuers’ vessel.

“I’ll protect the treasure!” Likki said, before heading down to the bilge where he’d been catching rats that were, to his savage mind, more valuable and delicious than anything that glistened. “Better follow us,” Dornas corrected. The rest stayed in the lower deck to deal with the crossbowmen, though Kish turned to Aerys with an intent to calm the Shackles-bred woman down.

Kish knelt in front Aerys and looked deep into her eyes before accentuating her calming words with a little psionic coersion. Kishtari felt her charm fizzle against the rugged half-elf’s will. The telepathic persuasion failed, and Aerys’s determination and passion won out.

Aerys grabbed Kishtari’s head and pulled her face to hers, and with the sounds of battle and incoming missile fire fading into the back of their thoughts, the women lost themselves in a long yearned for — and long-lasting — kiss.

Blunder Trust

Dornas emerged on the upper deck to find Kor’lec and Kai beset from all sides. The druid presented a swashbuckling figure with his tricorne hat and cutlass, his curved blade desperately parrying punishing blows from the burly lizardman’s bastard sword. Smugglers were shooting crossbows at them from the raised forecastle, poop deck, and crow’s nest. The scowling Taldan moved to his comrade’s side and rapped him on the shoulder. “Congratulations,” Dornas chided, “you’ve put a big red target on ‘your’ island.”

From the poop deck, the Kaava halfling Punketah took to the air, revealing wild psychic abilities as he levitated hovered over the melee. His veiny forehead pulsed and bulged as he called down to the Castaways. “Lay down your arms or be annihilated!” he rasped. At the wheel, the dwarven First Mate, Bloodbeard Bjorn, echoed his pygmy crewman’s warning. “Best do as he says, landlubbers!”

“No, keep fighting,” Gortross hissed between chops of his broadsword, “so I can swab the deck with your guts.” Kor’lec twisted and deflected blow after blow while Kai was being harried by the lizardfolk’s airborne companion, the averaptoran Craw-craw.

Monica emerged to proclaim, in a shocking turn, “we surrender!” In an even more shocking turn, the archaeologist drew her double-barreled pistol and aimed it at Kor’lec! For a moment, her trusted companions believed the Taldan woman had some trick up her sleeve. Then she opened fire, putting a bullet in Kor’lec’s lower back before dropping the weapon and kneeling, hands behind her head.

Dornas joined her. But Monica’s countryman had something up his sleeve. The magus picked up her very expensive gun and tossed it overboard. “We don’t surrender, actually.” Dornas stared knives at Monica before taking to the air to deal with the flying halfling.

“No quarter!” shouted the First Mate.

Fervor Down Below

“I… I love someone,” Aerys meekly whispered, before Kishtari drew the half-elf’s lips back to her own. They were fighters, acutely aware of the battle around them, their own place in the line of enemy fire, and Tyst in full beast-form barrelling past them on the way to do something to their foes that the word ‘murder’ seemed too gentle a word for. But in that moment Kish and Aerys were invincible in their vulnerability, and nothing else mattered save yielding to the world and to each other.

One of the smuggler’s bolts tore Kishtari’s flank as it zinged past. “Hold on,” the psion said, and with a hand wave three of the four crewmen dropped their weapons and crumpled into quiescence. “Thanks for leaving ONE,” roared Tyst, barely intelligible in dire badger form. The last of the crossbowmen gulped, emptied his bladder and bowels, and was mauled with the ferocity of a dozen bears.

All Hands on Death!

Likki passed Monica on the way to heal Kor’lec, shaking his head. “Why you hurt your family?” The sentiment was plain — but in Abyssal, as Monica herself once pointed out, it sounded like the harshest curse. Meanwhile, the halfling witch-doctor had blanketed the melee beneath him in magical webbing. Monica and Likki were held fast, as was Kor’lec and his reptilian aggressor. Dornas deftly skirted past the sticky strands on the way up to meet Punketah in aerial combat, staff twirling. “I’ve longed to measure my power against a magus,” boasted the halfling, “now BURN.” Flames fanned out from the Kaava pygmy’s fingertips, singing Dornas.

Monica freed herself from the webbing and reminded the Red Gull crewmen she wasn’t on the side of the hijackers, a.k.a. the people whose lives she’d equally saved and depended upon for the last few weeks. “Then help us take ’em down!” shouted Bloodbeard Bjorn, still fighting with the ship’s wheel on the choppy sea. Kor’lec was battling blood-loss, the webs, and a bloodthirsty lizardfolk — and losing. “Could use a little help here, Likki,” reported the druid. The oracle needn’t of understood the exact words to know his friend was hurting for curative magic. “I sorry I stuck!” apologized the monkey goblin in the demon tongue. “I’ll take care of him,” threatened Monica, before flashing her rapier at the injured half-elf.

Dornas answered Punketah’s not-really-all-that-impressive fire magic with a little alchemy, and hurled a tanglefoot bag. The goo burst upon the halfling, effectively neutralizing the spellcaster and rendering him a little less sure of his aerial alacrity.

Finally, the others emerged topside. Tyst, Kish, and Aerys, the latter still sort-of complaining about circumstantial maritime codes. Kishtari had mollified the pirate a bit by promising her captaincy of their brand new ship — if the kiss hadn’t done so already. Sasha remained below to make sure the sleeping crewmen wouldn’t be any more trouble, and everyone understood that really meant making sure they couldn’t be any more trouble, forever.

In her smartest move of the night, Monica surrendered, again. Tyst and Kish were around now. Tyst in beast mode could barely tell friend from foe under the best circumstances and Kishtari was even less likely to put up with any of Monica’s apologist nonsense. Kai finally broke away from the flying dinosaur and the human crewman she’d been tangling with, to help her master put the old flank-and-finish to Gortross. As he hissed out his final breaths, it was the lizardman who noticed he was swabbing the deck with his guts, while his animal companion, now just an animal, flew away.

Kor’lec managed to weave his webbed hands into a spell that burst radiantly on the poop deck, blinding and injuring the villains arrayed there, including the glue-covered halfling who was floating back down to regroup with his allies. Punketah called out for someone to help him remove the tarry goop from his person, and received only snores in return, thanks to Kishtari’s psionic lullaby. In desperation, the witch-doctor blindly flew off for the shore — and was intercepted in mid-air by Tyst. The lycanthrope ninja had clawed up the wall of the aft section and launched himself an impossible vertical distance toward the fleeing smuggler. Claws met flesh, and with a sickening rip, the Kaava pygmy’s midriff and legs plopped down on the deck in a deluge of gore, while his torso continued to soar, for a short distance, over and into the sea.

Tyst landed, and spat the chunks of vertebrae off of his tusks. “Creepy halfling,” he growled, and shook blood from his splattered pelt.

Laughter ensues.

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Buried at Sea

This is the law: blood spilt upon the ground cries out for more.

As we open our short chapter, a man’s corpse floats gently to the bottom of a moonlit sea. Above him, galloping on the chop is a two masted sailing vessel, a caravel by the looks of her. A gravelly, staccato roar bellows from the deck before the roarer howls words from the same raspy throat. “Murder! Murder! A passenger’s killed our captain!”

Lamps wink on above and below deck. There is a commotion of voices. What mess have our Castaways gotten to now – barely a day and a half into their voyage from Smuggler’s Shiv?!?

Anchors Away

Red_Gull.jpgIt all started just a few hours after the Castaways and friends boarded the Red Gull. The compact, speedy and maneuverable caravel appeared to have been curious enough about the distress signals blazing from the old Sargavan settlement to risk their jolly boat and two men. While the abandoned village was well-known for its cannibal squatters and the whole island considered cursed by sailors, the signals themselves were only a few months old, according to Aerys, who suggested using them. “They’ll know we’re on the up-and-up.”

After being taken aboard, the Castaways were informed by the captain, a human with the unfortunate nom de guerre of “Snake-Eyes,” that his ship had just departed Eleder (which was to be the next port-of-call for the Jenivere), and wouldn’t be returning. Time at sea was money, and the ship had goods headed to Bloodcove. This sat fine with the party. They were just glad to be on their way, anywhere. After finding spots to lay their bedrolls in the cramped cargo hold, it was time to get a feel for their hosts. Their ordeal in a jungle full of monsters had made the adventurers wary.

Aside from the captain, the party took note of most of the other officers. There was a red-bearded dwarven First Mate, a ghastly-looking human pistoleer who was the ship’s Bosun, and the ship’s mage, a Kaavaland halfling that even managed to creep Tyst out. The crew was minimal for a vessel its size, just eight sailors, with four or five on duty at any given time.

The Castaways remained somewhat demure about their business. Gelik, less so, and the little comedian enjoyed regaling his captive audience with crude jokes, pratfalls, and tales of his associates’ escapades. None of this sat well with Kor’lec, who rather wanted the Shiv’s sinister reputation to stick. Unfortunately, the proverbial cat was out of the bag, Gelik or otherwise. The surf around the island was calmer than anytime the Gull’s crew had seen. The air itself seemed cleaner, fresher, the landscape seemed more inviting. Many had noticed. Kor’lec brooded on the island’s immediate future while flying around the ship as an osprey, amusing himself by bombarding the gnome with hawk-hockey. But Gelik took it in stride, joking every time.

“You’re telling me that’s a hawk? I could’ve sworn it was a stool pigeon!”
“Someone just HAD to remind me why we call this the poop deck!” and
“Nice to have my friends dropping by to catch my act! Hey up there, sorry you had to scat!”

Then he’d snap his fingers and magic the poo away, winning gales of laughter from his audience. “Some people just want to stay mad, even when you come clean to them.”

Kor’lec did note the unusual nature of the vessel’s principal lookout while flying around; a gecko-like lizardfolk as at home in the heights as most of his kin were in wetlands. Further, the lizardfolk had an animal with him, a avialan dinosaur that Kor’lec could tell was, like Kai, more of boon companion than a tamed beast.

Meanwhile, Likki wondered why the best treasures were kept in the bowels of the ship—then slorped down a rat tail like a noodle. He asked when he’d meet the big Chief of “Wreck-born Land,” so he could impress them with his royal lineage. Before bursting the little guy’s bubble completely, Likki had it explained that there were many big Chiefs and they didn’t usually agree on things. Then Dornas got down to brass tacks. “They will see you as you used to see us.” The monkey goblin winced. “But I not food!” he protested, and swore under his breath that no wreck-born would try to eat him. He was a person. He was a prince. They’d know. He’d show them.

Charade in Voyage

Some of the Castaways were happy to finally schmooze with new faces. Kishtari enjoyed gambling, smoking, and drinking with the unruly seamen, like she was back among the rowdies of Riddleport. Dornas and Monica tried to make headway on Ieana’s notes, though Dornas broke away occasionally to canvass the crew about Bloodcove’s hot spots. On these matters, the sailors were furtive and tight-lipped, which further aroused the party’s suspicions.

Tyst and Kish both spoke the casual cant of scoundrels, and soon details emerged about the “merchant” ship and her crew. The Gull belonged to a Lord Maragorn, whom Tyst knew to be a ex-pirate king turned Bloodcove business kingpin. As it happened, Maragorn also owned the Jenivere. “Strange coincidence, that,” Aerys pointed out. The sailors were not nice men. Kish caught thought snippets of their cruelties and crimes, and some confessed even worse to Tyst. The Gull sometimes flew a pirate flag, but its primary concern was smuggling.

As night began to fall, Kishtari was tasked with swindling information from the captain. The telepath was in her element, having excelled in confidence jobs even before she’d read her first aura. It wasn’t a difficult grift. Old Sigurd Snake-Eyes longed for feminine company and clearly underestimated women from outside his own Ulfen homeland. Though his mind wandered toward the money he’d make selling the beautiful "Varisian half-elf " into slavery, he knew he was better off doing as the boss had instructed him—recover any salvage from the Jenivere and bring any survivors to him for debriefing.

Hunter’s Bend

Meanwhile, Tyst had taken note of the cold shoulder Sasha was giving everyone lately, with her worst scowls and sardonic smiles reserved especially for him. He’d spent a good part of the day shadowing her. Sometimes the canny huntress noticed him, to her credit, and pretended not to care. More often she didn’t. She was continuously wrapped in a cloak she’d fashioned on the island from sailcloth, feathers and straw. The girl was hiding something, an unsheathed weapon, by the sound of it’s scrape when she knelt for what had become a rigorous prayer routine. Tyst knew the teen normally favored small arms, and found he recognized the hymns, too—they were for Achaekek, the mantis god of assassins.

Tyst attempted to get a looksie at whatever it was Sasha was hiding when she bed down for the night. But he was sniffed out by her dimorphodon hatchling, who squawked an alarm. Having tired of the game, Tyst confronted the young woman, and asked what her problem was. Sasha started out with her usual doggerel about the lycanthrope’s presumed mission for the Red Mantis. She’d seen him at the assassin cult’s Citadel, where she grew up. “But I don’t want to kill you,” Tyst explained. “I was nice to you.” He assured the paranoid girl he had very little recollection of his time with the cult, other than his training and their possible culpability for his curse.

Sasha fell to the halfling’s earnest charms and admitted in spite of herself that she was a daughter of one of the leaders, the infamous Vernai. She intended to return to the Crimson Citadel and tout Tyst’s failure to kill her, and hopefully expose whatever political enemy of her mother’s the were-beast served. “Good luck with that,” Tyst said. “Tell you what, you do just that. Go your way, and I go mine.” It finally dawned on Sasha that Tyst really didn’t remember anything about his mission, or his employer, and that he really did intend to leave the Red Mantis behind. She laughed manically.

“But, there is no leaving the cult, and living!” Sasha scoffed. “You really think you can just… quit? The most ruthless and effective assassins in all history?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Hoo. Then I wish you luck. You’ll need it more than me.” The teen relaxed back to her childlike temperament and made Tyst pinky-swear that he wouldn’t try to blackmail her later. He indulged her, and in so doing, unwittingly became the perfect person to have reached out to the troubled teen—just in time.

That Escalated Quickly

Tyst passed by the captain’s quarters to check up on Kishtari. The halfling ninja found her tooling around with Snake-Eyes’s strongbox, while the old Ulfen was slumped over his writing desk, out cold, gripping an emptied bottle of brandy. And, she was about to trigger a potentially lethal—but more likely permanently disfiguring—trap. Tyst slipped in the room, casually dispatched the trap, and popped the lock on the strongbox.

Inside the strongbox were some coins and gems, and Tyst nabbed the most valuable, a black pearl, for himself. Then he left without a word. “Aw!” Kish pouted. But there was still mischief to make, and the thieving kalashtar went over the charts and notes on the smuggler’s desk. There was a map of the Shiv coastline, with likely impact points for the Jenivere outlined in consideration of that fateful night’s winds. There were dossiers on the passengers, and orders penned by Maragorn that confirmed what the telepath had coaxed earlier from Snake-Eyes’s limpid brain.

When Kishtari returned to the group in the cargo hold, she explained what the smugglers were up to. Kor’lec being Kor’lec presumed the worst—this “Maragorn” would have their heads! Monica being Monica presumed the hunky-dory—the guy just wants to know what happened to his boat. Dornas being Dornas presumed the plots—some machination was afoot and they needed to play along. Likki being Likki presumed the yummy—if there were as many rats in Wreck-born Land as its people took traveling he’d be fat and happy.

After mentioning lifting Snake-Eyes’s gems, Monica was horrified that her companions had just robbed their rescuers. Aside from the not-at-all insubstantial ethical concern, they’d all be assumed as culprits and clasped in irons. The party tossed ideas around like hijacking the ship, finally deciding to let Tyst return the jewels and make it look like nothing untoward had happened in the captain’s cabin.

While the group prattled on, Kor’lec wordlessly excused himself from the conversation and slipped away. Up to the top deck prowled the druid, with Kai stalking behind. Into the sterncastle he crept, where snored the captain in his cabin. The half-elf lifted the besotted smuggler’s drooling head—and with his scimitar, opened old Snake-Eyes’s neck.

Kor’lec ignited the plans and maps of Smuggler’s Shiv with a simple orison while the man he’d just killed bled out. The druid dragged Snake-Eyes’s body out to the main deck, and under the cover of darkness, lifted the captain’s corpse up and over the railing where it plopped into the sea.

A saurian growl issued from the shadows of some cargo. “These eyes are just as good in the dark,” rasped the reptilian voice of Gortross, the lookout. A lamp winked on overhead, held by someone in the crow’s nest. On the poop deck, a match was lit, and then another lamp.

“He should have listened to me,” grumbled the lizardman, "if I had my way, you’d have all made this trip in cages. Without limbs.

“They’ll listen now.”

His croaks echoed across the upper decks, and practically resonated through to the cargo hold. The off-duty seamen in the cabin fore of the hold began to rouse from their hammocks or card games, while nearby, the Castaways noticed Kor’lec’s absence. “A passenger’s killed our Captain!” echoed across the ship. Gortross had some pipes on him, and the words were repeated in whispers from the crew.

“Sounds like we can keep the gems!” Kish cheered.

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Rolling Snake Eyes

Oh, ‘tis a mere nothing! A snake! A snake! The commonest thing in the world. A snake in the bosom – that’s all…

When last we left our dauntless Castaways, they had breached the scriptorium of Zura’s sanguine sanctorum and were about to get a massive learn on!

Then from out of nowhere, or rather, a priceless ten millennia-old porcelain amphora, burst a black blur of claws, fur, and bloodlust – wrapped in a dusty green cloak.

Tyst!

Half the Battle

Fortunately, Kor’lec already sensed something in the library of cuneiform slabs was amiss and had readied his shield against the frenzied lycanthrope. Unfortunately, the beast-halfling’s claws were not quite half-sized and bit deep into the druid’s leathers. Kishtari, certain the lycanthropic assassin was responsible for Nemanji’s disappearance, had that hazy glow and focus she often showed right before making some attacker’s remains impossible to identify.


This is going to hurt

“Big Sister! No!” Likki was tugging on the psion’s hand. “He not in charge of head!”

" Ieana’s got him," Monica confirmed. Kish finally saw it too, and didn’t relax so much as shift her concentration to something slightly less annihilative.

“What do we do in the meantime? Ack!” wondered Kor’lec aloud, somehow holding Tyst off with a shield that – despite being made of a wood as hard as granite – was halfway to a heap of densewood shavings. Kai was barely restraining her instinct to defend her master.

Likki said an Abyssal prayer to Mechuiti and called upon the cannibal god to abjure the halfling’s mind of evil influences. The goblin bounded like a mullered monkey over to the blur of fangs and claws and put out his glowing hand. Though the effect, oddly enough, was granted, it failed to release Tyst from Ieana’s mental enslavement.

“Stand back Little Brother,” was Kishtari’s only warning.

Tyst… just stopped. Kishtari had mastered the telepathic processes to free dominated minds. It would not be the first time she’d need this rare and delicate ability. And not for the first time, Tyst was unclear about where he was and what he was doing. It had gotten old. One thing was clear to the were-beast, though. He was on the hunt, now. Ieana and snakes like her were going to know their place on the food chain.

Gazing into the Abyss

Tyst explained that he’d had little recollection of what had happened to him since he and Nemanji got separated in the chaos of battle against the fungoid hordes of (formerly) Grey Island. The halfling admitted he was deep in the senseless frenzy that marked his animal side. Kishtari believed that if she were allowed to telepathically plumb the depths of the green-cloaked halfling’s mind, she might glean some insight into the whereabouts of their missing friend.

Tyst, earnest to a fault when in halfling form, readily agreed.

Kishtari confirmed the ninja’s recollection of events on Grey Island, and the psion struggled to maintain contact after the point in the mental narrative where the rage took hold of him. But Kish rode the (proverbial) tiger – and the (literal) badger – through the stocky carnivore’s rampage.

What could this bitch want?

He was a growling cyclone of claws that ran riot through the fungoid ranks, flinging out heads and innards as he went. Finally, just as Tyst began to tire, the grey islet’s landscape seemed to melt around him like a watercolor painting left out in the rain.

The halfling’s mindscape shifted, transporting Kishtari to a northern forest lit by moonlight. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, the psion noted the details of the scene suggested horrific aspects. Bark patterns resembled trembling, stitched together flesh, light through the treetops cast perverse shadowplays at her feet, the moon itself was agonized face…

Finally, the kalashtar reached a clearing where Tyst was crouched, naked, prostrate. Standing over him was a tall, pallid woman, with flowing black hair. Closer Kish looked, and the hunger-stretched skin of the woman was actually a down of white fur, and her hands ended in claws. As she turned to face the psion, the woman growled, “this one is …. MINE!” and her face contorted into a slavering wolf’s!

Amid a chorus of howls, Kish fled, only to find herself behind the eyes of the halfling again, this time in ratel form, ambling along the Thrunefang paths. He encountered Ieana. “Oh, what a fortunate find you are, beastie!” spoke the serpent woman, before she ensnared the lycanthrope’s mind…

When Kishtari ended the effect, subsequent discussion touched little on Ieana’s enslavement. They all figured it had happened as Tyst remembered. But the presence of the wolf-woman was more troublesome. The realm described was not unlike the Moonbog, the Abyssal realm of Jezelda, Demon Lord of Werewolves. What the entity wanted from Tyst was a mystery, though Dornas suspected her presence was simply a construct of Ieana’s.

Zura’s Challenges

Kor’lec, Kai, and Tyst together made a formidable tracking team, and it would be effortless to hunt down Ieana’s general locale in the darkened temple. As interesting as the Azlanti incantations and images were on the walls, it was to the opposite wing of the edifice toward their query. It was difficult to tear Monica away from the scriptorium, though, and the archaeologist argued that there might be clues as to what challenges they could expect to find while making their way to the inner temple.

The Taldan polymath would be proven correct about the challenges, but the party vote was to make haste, anyway.

The first obstacle, the Test of Presence, was a series of hidden pits in a hallway. Animated paintings depicting the Queen of Vampires were hung on the wall. As the ikons reacted realistically and disturbingly to the observer, it would have been easy to absently walk onto the hinged trapdoors and fall into the thirty foot deep pits. However, Kor’lec was cautiously keeping an eye out for traps, and managed to detect each of them before anyone blundered to their death. Monica skillfully affixed the trapdoors shut. Tyst, in anthro form, ripped down and shredded one of the paintings with his claws, just to see the ikon within it recoil.

The next challenge, the Test of Prowess, appeared to have been defeated by Ieana, but it took its toll in blood. A knife-bearing marble statue of Zura was lying on the floor of an intersection, in a position suggesting it had come to life at some point and was defeated, but only barely. The serpent-woman’s blood was spattered about the scene. “It will be better for us if she’s still wounded,” Kish remarked.

The last trial would await in the chamber containing the blood-filled bath that Naga had discovered earlier. The Test of Penitence activated as soon as Kor’lec entered the room, and he tried to keep everyone back. An all-too-curious and excited Monica forced her way inside while the trap detected by the keen-eyed druid activated. Razor-sharp scythe blades arched out of grooves in the ceiling amid a cacophony of screeching machinery. The archaeologist dove to the pillars surrounding the bath, and in a split second determined the switch upon it would stop the blades.

She was right. The room was safe, and only the inner cathedral of Zura, and their long-elusive prey, awaited the Castaways. They prepared themselves for battle with protective magic, and went over the various ideas and plans they’d made over the past few nights. Though Dornas was insistent they get the serpentrix talking about her true objectives, they all agreed to act before their abjuration magics died out. There was a grim certainty among the Castaways that Ieana would not leave the room alive. They’d bled and sweated and hardened themselves for justice, answers, and vengeance.

It was time. Destroy Ieana, or die trying.

But First, These Messages

The enormous vaulted chamber was a fitting shrine to the vampiric demon lord. Pillars topped by winged demons supported the ceiling arches. The room was bisected by a five foot wide canal of bubbling red liquid, crossed in two places by bridges. At the party’s left was the pulpit, dominated by an enormous nude statue of Zura, from whose engorged breasts the trench’s liquid flowed. Before her was an ornate altar, from which black waves of necromantic energy drifted. To the group’s right a giant portcullis blocked a vast, crystal-lit natural cavern. Niches containing reliefs and Azlanti cuneiform were staggered along the length of the temple. Rubble was strewn about from fallen pieces of the ceiling.

Opposite the entrance, a flickering torch was wedged in a pile of fallen masonry. Behind that was a creature with a coiled serpentine body – humanoid from the waist up – studying script in one of the niches. She turned around.

Trust in me... just in me...

“I rather hoped we could parlay,” Ieana stated with gentle aplomb. Her words, spoken in Taldane with a slight Varisian accent, had nary a hint of hiss or sibilance. Mid-sentence, the yuan-ti seamlessly forsook speech entirely in favor of communicating telepathically. “I never meant you harm. I will answer your questions.”

“You wrecked our boat!” Monica accused. The scholar was affronted by the snake-woman’s nonchalance. “I never intended to scuttle the ship,” Ieana explained, “it was the first mate’s fault for turning on the captain.”

“Who you mentally enslaved!”

“Yes, but only to drop me off here.” Someone asked why she kept trying to kill them all the time. “I was protecting myself. I couldn’t know that you’d listen to reason. Warmbloods rarely give us the benefit of the doubt. And yet here you are.”

“What exactly,” Dornas calmly interjected, “are you looking for on this island, in my people’s ruins?”

“Oh please,” Ieana rolled her eyes, “the mythic bloodlines of old Azlant devolved long ago. You are far removed from their glory.” The serpent-woman explained that she was on the verge of a momentous discovery, one that “your fragile race has not been able to solve since the sky fell eons ago.” Ieana glanced at Monica, “You will make your name with the discoveries on this island, but I can lead you to something that will turn the world of scholarship upside-down, and make you a legend…”

For a second, Monica seemed a little less sure of herself. Then shook her head and decided, “you wrecked our boat!”

Dornas reached out with a conjured hand, to seize the notes and charcoal rubbings piled on the floor of the niche before the coiled serpentrix. After he’d levitated them over, the magus scrutinized the Azlanti rubbings and Ieana’s Aklo notations. His eyes widened.

“Go ahead. Read it if you can. My people are returning while yours weakens. The Age of Aroden is ending. There is a place for you, though, in the Age to come.”

“Slaves.”

“It will never happen,” Dornas contended. “It IS happening,” Ieana countered, with a tinge of impatience in her telepathic speech. “It cannot be stopped.”

“We will stop it.” Dornas stated, flatly. He emphasized the point with a staff kata that stirred up his magic. Talk time was over. Likki started slapping his bongo. Ieana appeared disappointed.

“You wrecked our boat!” accused Monica for the umpteenth time and opened fire.

Let’s Show This Prehistoric Bitch How We Do Things on Smuggler’s Shiv

Kor’lec and Kai were already making their way closer to the serpent-woman as she was talking. Near the canal, he noted a skeletal face lurking just beneath the surface of the flowing blood. There were three skeletons lying in wait. Tyst had been rendered invisible by Monica’s illusion magic, and was carefully stalking toward Ieana as well. Dornas was also flying by the channel, at the bridge.

Ieana locked her gaze on Kishtari, “there are psionic mysteries my kind developed to traverse planets and rule an interstellar empire. This power could be yours…” The kalashtar seemed tempted, and even smiled as she mulled over the possibilities. She wanted so badly to return to Castrovel. The psion struggled.

“Destroy them,” Ieana commanded, telepathically enveloping Kish’s impressionable mind with the order, like a constrictor twisting its body around a surrendering hare.

Kishtari made up her mind, partially because the yuan-ti’s psionic compulsion recoiled from Likki’s defensive spell, mostly because there was no way she’d ever, ever allow someone to make it up for her.

“Bitch, that was sloppy,” Kish rebuked, like she was schooling a hopeless amateur.

Ieana finally rewarded her foes with the villainous hiss and sibilant screech they all expected to hear. In a blink, the furious snake-woman undulated to the closest column and coiled around and up like a corkscrew midways to the top. The yuan-ti was about to strike a fearsome pose before a magic fucking snowball walloped her in the face. Dornas turned out to be the mischievous snowball-thrower. Everyone laughed as the monstrous reptilian wiped her eyes, spit out ice, and tried to shrug-off the wooziness and humiliation.

Likki danced and capered. “Likki make good protection on Big Sister!” he rejoiced. “Thank you, Little Brother,” Kish patted the swooning goblin on the head. “Thank Mechuiti!” was the last intelligible thing the oracle uttered before the excitement had him babbling in Abyssal.

He wasn’t the only one babbling. Slowly slorping into the temple from the natural cavern was a true horror: a blob of flesh that formed tendrils, toothy mouths, and eyes upon its surface as it crawled along like a slug. “Good thing the gate is there!” Kish remarked, before the gibbering thing oozed through the bars. “Oh, never mind.”

As it formed mouths and reabsorbed them into its amorphous mass the blob uttered blasphemies that resembled the susurrus of a hundred caged lunatics. The sound dug itself into the minds of the heroes, causing them to act crazily. Most of them imagined their own bodies turning on them, and used their weapons against themselves. As Tyst did do, the magic hiding him failed, revealing him just within striking distance of Ieana.

“Did you think,” she boasted, “you were the only slave I’d acquire?” Ieana opened her jaws and spewed a gout of caustic acid on the were-creature. Soaked with the liquid, Tyst’s flesh sizzled and sloughed off his face bones and chest muscles like a waxwork effigy left out in the sun. But the tenacious lycanthrope stood in defiance of the pain and ruin of his body. His claws were no less sharp.

Monica tried to keep her distance from the mouthy ooze, recognizing the danger it represented. If it got too close to anyone, the thing would envelope and devour that person in seconds. She shot it. The bullet grazed the membrane holding the gibbering monster together but didn’t seem to slow it down. The polymath noted that at any given second, the creature had a great many eyes on its surface…

Meanwhile, Kor’lec and Kai were struggling against the blood-covered skeletons emerging from the canal’s crimson effluent. Kai was set against the bony guards, dispatching one easily by yanking its skull off with her jaws. One was trying to pull the druid into the viscous substance as he concentrated on Ieana. He called upon nature’s magic to vex the serpent-woman, and discovered yet another of the so-called First People’s strengths, their damnable resistance to spells.

But the mouther was just as vulnerable to magic as any creature, and Monica showered it with glittering particles that sank into its multifarious eyes. They reddened and winced as they submersed back into the blob’s amorphous bulk while its extended pseudopods flailed in pain. The creature was blinded, and the sluggish thing was easily sidestepped. The rest of the group began to regain their senses as Ieana’s last real advantage was effectively neutralized.

Kishtari had the crackling psionic nimbus about her that said “gulp” to anyone familiar with what she could do. Lighting and fire exploded from her, blasting Ieana off the pillar and sending her flaming body careening to the alcove where she had been finishing her research. It was all slipping through her fingers, the plans and the discovery she’d made and staked her life upon. How many years or decades had the lady serpentfolk studied and plotted, only for a motley group of survivors to band together, against all odds, and simply take it away from her?

Tyst, a horror of exposed bones and melted flesh on his hairy beast-man body, stalked toward the snake-woman. Likki had bound and leapt over to the wounded were-creature, and with a harsh-sounding plea to his cannibal god, mended and made whole Tyst’s furry hide. But Ieana had a spell ready for him.

Tyst vanished. For a split second, Ieana’s head darted back and forth and she flicked her tongue in a panic. When the lycanthropic ninja reappeared, it was with his long claws dug into her lower back and pelvis — the place where Ieana’s humanoid body met her serpentine posterior. The were-beast severed the bones of Ieana’s lower spine with his tusked jaws, and with all his strength ripped her tail away!

As Ieana’s life’s blood gushed from her rump, the victorious heroes gathered around her. The babbling blob retreated, and the last skeleton was blasted away by a beam of positrons from Dornas’s pointed finger. Ieana seemed as if she wanted to cry, but the reptilian had no tear ducts, and here at the end, even that small solace was denied her.

“Would you… allow… me a prayer to my god?” Ieana pleaded between bloody coughs. The heroes looked at each other and then nodded their permission. But the snake-woman started reciting a healing spell, and with that, Kishtari sliced her neck wide open with Ieana’s old fang-shaped dagger.

No Time for Losers

The altar to Zura was clearly the source of the necromantic curse that had afflicted Smuggler’s Shiv for ten millennia. With a combination of sacred energy and good old-fashioned smashing, the slab crumbled away with little fanfare.

For about two seconds.

Then a gout of black blood erupted from it, and it belched one blast wave of profane power. Kor’lec felt confident the souls trapped in the surf, and the undead who lingered throughout the jungle, would all soon find their way to final rest.

Monica accessed the fading magic in the rapidly collapsing statue of Zura to assume the form of a mist and reach a hidden sanctum of the Zura high priests, found a little more loot there and mention of a “serpent door.” In the crystal caverns, the party located the door, but after figuring out it would not easily open without sacrificing the soul-gems they picked out of the doll guardians, they left it – and whatever treasures lay behind it – untouched.

'Cause f$ck treasure, I guess?

The heroes returned to the surface, and the Tide Stone where they’d left their friends. The party found Gelik, Aerys, and Jask surrounded by a circle of about a dozen Thrunefangs, including Chief Klorak and the cannibal brides, holding the trio hostage by spearpoint.

“Looks like I have the upper hand now,” Klorak slurred, with the shmarmy rotten-toothed smile that he probably thought was charming. He winked at Dornas. “Maybe now we re-negotiate our deal, yes?”

“No.” Dornas nodded at Kish, and the circle of Thrunefangs was instantaneously transformed a circle of fire and flaming Thrunefangs. Most were incinerated instantly. A few managed to flee a few steps before collapsing into blazing heaps. The brides probably made it furthest, expiring while they desperately tried to rip away their burning hair and clothes with their blistering hands.

Dornas helped Klorak save himself before the chief was consumed. Coldly, the magus intimated that it was not for him to decide Klorak’s fate.

At that, a horde of hooting Mongrukoo stormed up the hill, led by Cenkil, just in time for the heroes to say, “thanks, we saved you the trouble of cooking them.”

Let Us Take the Adventure That Falls to Us

Cenkil explained the monkey goblins had followed the Thrunefangs to Red Mountain, after guessing that they were on the way to cause trouble for the Castaways. Cenkil, of course, thought he was saving his brother, his would-be bride, and their companions. Likki was glad to see his brother, who was acting as chief now. Also present were Likki’s remaining wife, Vershnat, and the child she’d birthed with him. Cenkil sauntered over to Kishtari. “I now realize I cannot hold you here,” Cenkil admitted, speaking the Goblin tongue “I think I should prefer quieter brides.”

Kishtari didn’t allow her fiancé’s heartbreaking revelation to despirit her. “We will remain friends, but that child,” Kish gestured to Likki’s family, “will be your chief when he comes of age.”

“That very well may be…” Cenkil began to say, but Kish cut him off, and allowed her ancestral quori spirit – in all its nightmarish majesty – to evince itself around her. “It will be as I say.

“I will see it is so.”


The party went to collect Pezock, fully intending to give the friendly, if somewhat mentally troubled, tengu the opportunity to escape the island with them. With the lighthouse up and running thanks to Monica and Dornas, the group expected rescue in short order. Aerys knew a few signals that were recent enough so passing ships wouldn’t mix up their genuine intentions with those they knew were once employed by the extirpated cannibals to lure “food.”

They found him dead. For all appearances Pezock had ignominiously poisoned himself by eating a deadly species of nudibranch. But Kor’lec wasn’t so sure. The tengu had survived alone for a decade. Why make that mistake now? The incisive half-elf noticed that Pezock’s weapon, a magical sawtoothed saber, was nowhere to be found in or around the bird-man’s shack.


A salvage vessel called the Red Gull, traveling out of Eleder to Bloodcove, was the first passing ship to notice and investigate the lighthouse’s distress signal. Within the span of a few hours, jolly boats ferried messengers and finally passengers. The adventurers and friends, those that history would name the Shiv Castaways, set sail toward bigger challenges, greater perils, and far, far, more legendary adventures.

THE END???

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Blood in the Water

I always thought the appeal for vampires are the same as religion, the desire to avoid death and live forever.

While exploring the underwater landscape in the form of a graceful porpoise, a slightly wounded Kor’lec was unexpectedly set upon by a frenzied silvertip shark!

Thinking quickly, the shapechanged druid temporarily cursed the hungry animal with a spell that made it afraid of the water! The panicked beast began thrashing and breaching in a vain attempt to get away from the very environment it depended upon, obliterating the upper decks of a nearby shipwreck in the process. Soon thereafter, the poor beast leapt out to open sea in search of easier prey.

Familiar Hilarity Breeds Contempt

Returning to humanoid form, Kor’lec thought he’d seen something aglow in the lower decks of the shark-whacked shipwreck. After making his way to the submerged upper deck, a voice called out “Stand and Deliver!”

Out from the water popped a little impish creature wearing a soggy bicorne. “You stand before captain Ekubus of the Salty Strumpet!” challenged the mephit, and gesturing to the innocuous sea life crawling about the hulk, “and me crew has you surrounded!”

By this time the rest of the party had reached the thin strand between the bluffside of Red Mountain and the lagoon. From there, the adventurers observed the parley betwixt Kor’lec and Ekubus with bemusement. The druid had managed to convince the funny little creature to “stand down.” It was clear that Ekubus was quite mad, believing that the Strumpet was still at sea. Kor’lec asked if he’d seen anyone strange pass by.

“Aye, yes!” admitted the mephit, “a funny-looking lady nearly scuttled me ship when she pushed back the ocean and entered the scary doors leading into the mountain yonder.” Kor’lec prompted Ekubus to elaborate on what he meant by “funny-looking” and “scary.”

“Well, the lady had a long snake-tail, and well, her head was also like a snake.” As to the doors that Kor’lec had only seen from afar when he was a porpoise, Ekubus added, “they’ve got pictures of vampires on ’em what makes ’em scary!”

Kor’lec played along with the mephit’s fantasy, and said he was a captain as well of the Briny Demon. After a little hiccup where the half-elf had to explain he wasn’t a spy, Ekubus let slip that his ship’s original captain was a wizard transporting magic booty to Mediogalti. The elemental being then allowed his fellow captain to return to his own crew.

Back ashore, Kor’lec recapped his solo adventure to the others. Monica and Dornas suggested that the mephit was probably once the familiar of the dead captain, if they were indeed a wizard.

Everyone else had already decided that they wanted to try using the occult ritual from the Typhonian Proposal to activate the Tide Stone and allow them all access to the secret sanctum below the surface of the lagoon. Kor’lec wasn’t sold on participating in ancient serpentfolk ceremonies, but he did think it was probably the right thing to warn Ekubus as to what was coming. All of the party, Kishtari especially, were interested in the Strumpet’s treasure.

The half-elf returned to the Strumpet, this time with Kai, and practically had to reintroduce himself all over again to the insane mephit. Kor’lec made a diplomatic play for the mephit’s plunder, saying he’d help get it to its destination while the Strumpet was forced to anchor during the coming storm. Ekubus, perhaps a little more savvy than anyone realized, invited the druid to go into the cargo hold and haul the treasure topside.

Kor’lec dove down into the dark, submerged cargo hold with a magical light. Sleepily perched in front of the glowing treasure was a spear urchin, which wouldn’t have been too much of a problem if it weren’t as big as a fucking horse.

Kor’lec tried his best to mollify the creature, but his druidly efforts only succeeded in raising the urchin’s hackles – particularly pointy hackles that injected a potent paralytic venom. After the half-elf had surfaced in utter “nope!” a jocular Ekubus asked Kor’lec if he’d talked to the “quartermaster” about the ship’s stores.

To Eschew What Lies Below

Satisfied that mephits were some kind of cruel prank perpetuated on the cosmos by some demented overpower, Kor’lec returned to the strand to catch up with the others. On the way back up the bridges and ledges, the party came upon none other than Gelik, Jask, and Aerys! And the Castaways were not happy to see their dear friends. “I thought we all agreed you’d stay put.”

Gelik surrendered and admitted it was all his idea, but Jask and Aerys interjected before anyone could beat the snot out the gnome. Both said they were of sound mind and agreed to come on their own. Aycenia had ensured the speed and safety of their travel before having to return to her tree. Sasha opted not to come, which Aerys chalked up to the teen not taking Nemanji’s death well. It was the first time anyone had verbalized what was probably so. The tiefling hadn’t been seen since he and Tyst made their heroic stand against the fungoid horde – and wasn’t coming back.

Gelik explained that he’d gotten a look at the charcoal rubbings of the Typhonian rites when he was helping Monica gear up for the away team’s destined date with Ieana. Familiar with occult magic, Gelik knew the group stood a better chance for success – and averting the ofttimes deadly consequences of failure – if they had more participants in the dangerous rite. Casters like himself and Jask were especially valuable, and Aerys was happy to lend a hand, and a fist. The trio – whose lives were secured and bettered by Dornas, Kish, Kor’lec, Likki and Monica – felt they owed their friends at least their support.

Jask had brought the copper helm he cooked with to provide seawater in a “vessel of purest metal,” pouring it into the basin atop the pyramidal Tide Stone. Aerys smeared a bloody palm onto the monoliths, the “blood from a thinking creature.” To fulfill the “tempered with the kiss of a serpent’s tongue” Kishtari tried kissing the stones, but they didn’t light up with magic writing until Kor’lek summoned a tiny snake to touch them with its tongue. The last ingredient seemed to necessitate calling upon Ydersius, which put the divine acolytes in a difficult position. Jask wondered, as it was concocted by serpentfolk, if the ritual would work just as good if it called upon another god, in other words, was the final element faith? After carefully studying the magical notations on the text and those illuminated on the stones, the mages confirmed the priest’s suspicions. As they knew of no one whose faith was as unshakable as Jask’s, he would call on Nethys.

With only a little further ado, Monica took the lead in the ritual, explaining that the ceremony depended on the focus and noesis of its practitioners. Elemental forces, biofeedback, magical awareness, and theosophy were required of the minds of the participants – Kor’lec, Kish, Dornas, and Monica would handle each respectively.

And as they began to focus their minds, the heroes and friends immediately felt themselves awash in eldritch energies. The air was charged with static that detonated into lightning around them. It fed from the Tide Stone and lashed into the pillars before arching skyward into the swirling clouds. Jask called on Nethys, over and over, using the ancient deity’s titles and anonyms. “Nethys! All Seer! Great Eye!” and so forth. Miraculously, the janus mask of the god appeared at unpredictable intervals in the vortex of clouds that formed a black funnel around the peak of Red Mountain.

Monica was losing her focus as the occult powers plumbed her mind for an awareness that she was doing her damnedest to feign – when Gelik grasped her hand and said “I haven’t been entirely truthful with you, about me, but I love you…”

Great, dark hands, crackling with lightning, appeared in the lagoon and seemed to push back the ocean! And behold! the waters of the bay were pushed back to reveal a seabed of rocks, scuttling crabs, plants, flopping fish, and sunken ships to the open air! And across the exposed shelf of the bay were great, spiky stone doors that ground noisily as they slowly opened beneath Smuggler’s Shiv to the secret dungeon beneath it.

Rust and Stardust

The ceremony took just under an hour, but the party was sorely drained by its effects. The dark clouds dispersed, yet the lagoon remained laid bare, and the doorway to the dungeon beckoned. Dornas looked at Jask, Aerys, and Gelik and – admitting that if he couldn’t get them to stay put – asked if any of them intended to come with? Gelik readily made no bones about his cold feet (er, foot), and also that he’d never been a part of the Pathfinder Society, which was his original lie. The gnome, hat in hand, admitted he tried to get in the organization by passing off fake artifacts. He was nothing but talk – a fraud and a crook. Monica replied that she’d known all along.

Jask repeated what he’d said on his last impromptu adventure with the a-team – he was just too old for this shit and was looking forward to being a free man on the mainland. As for Aerys, the pirate seemed torn – until a silent nod from Kishtari let her off the hook. Aerys opined everyone would be better off if she’d just kept an eye on Jask and Gelik, as her pegleg would only slow everyone down. The proud half-elf’s pain and frustration were evident to everyone.

Dornas, Kish, Likki, Monica, Kor’lec and Kai once again left their friends at the apex of Red Mountain to do what only they could do.

Confront Ieana.

Make history.
Be history.

Sanguine Sanctorum

By the time the party reached the shore, their exhaustion had subsided. The march over the emptied lagoon was surreal, but uneventful. Finally, the adventurers arrived at the scary doorway, and it lived up to the name. In addition to the jagged spikes protruding from the open stone doors, images of demonic vampires, dressed in cultish Azlanti garb feasting on maidens, dominated the reliefs. The embellishments likewise betrayed their Azlanti design.

Dornas admitted his keen interest in Azlanti culture, and Monica stated that their ruins weren’t often found in Garund, though their presence in the south had long been a theory in fringe academia. Beyond the doors awaited a seemingly endless stairwell going up.

The long stairs continued upward for about fifty feet, which put the adventurers just above normal sea level and deep inside the crag. The first chamber was a vaulted cathedral exalting the demon goddess Zura. Columns decorated with demons supported the ceiling arches. A crumpled, bloodstained altar listed on a dais in the room’s center, and urn-cluttered alcoves were arrayed in the west and east walls. An arching walkway, forty feet high, crossed the south quarter of the chamber, with no apparent access from the temple floor.

The decorum was a fitting tribute to the Queen of Vampires. Reliefs and frescoes depicted cannibalistic blood orgies and all manner of vile atrocities visited upon people and serpentfolk alike by fang-bearing men and women wearing capes and high headdresses. Images of bats, bat-like humanoids, and themes of bloodletting and the consumption of still-living victims were ubiquitous.

They Won’t SSSssstay Dead

But very little of all that imagery was immediately apparent, for as soon as the heroes reached the top of the stairs they came under fire from assailants on the walkway. Kor’lec’s keen elven eyes spotted two serpentman skeletons up there hurling javelins at them.

Deciding they’d had it with these guys, Kor’lec launched a spear that struck true and shattered a few dozen ribs. Dornas moved to the archway under the bridge and saw stone doors leading out of the room to the south, decorated with spikes and motifs just as the ones outside, and called Monica over to check them. The undead snakemen tossed the last of their javelins, and deciding they’d also had it, leapt to the temple floor. The one Kor’lec had already hit shattered into pieces, and the other arose just in time to get taken apart by Kai.

A thorough search of the room found a lever behind one of the alcoves that Kish couldn’t resist messing with, which, fortunately, just open and shut the outside doors. The urns had nothing but dust within them. Kor’lec discovered a pit in one of the alcoves leading twenty feet down to a pile of jagged bones and a lit cavern.

Kishtari sent her serpentine homunculus, Naga, down the pit to investigate. For the first time, Naga protested. And everyone heard it. “Have we considered all options?” it asked, “it might be dangerous down there!”

“Oh, you can hear that now?” asked Kish of the others, somewhat surprised. The psion explained that her mother’s psicrystal would speak, sometimes. It was a sign of her own psionic development. Kishtari insisted that Naga do what was asked of it.

Dangerous Toys

Naga slithered into the pit and described a natural cavern lit by glowing crystals. Aside from the skeletons, mostly human, there were old beat up crates, broken pottery, and other detritus. The psicrystal described a shallow pond of mineral soup containing motes of crystal. “There is a rather unpleasant doll sitting on a shabby box,” Naga reported, “and oh! it’s turned its head to look at me. And there’s another coming out a vase. I’m fleeing now.”

The snake-like construct bee-lined back up the pit and resumed its regular job as its master’s hairband. The tiny dolls floated off the floor up after it, brandishing tiny knives. Worse than the knives were the nimbi of blackness around their hands. “Come on, they’re just stupid little dolls!” Kor’lec teased as he walked up to the lip of the pit and slashed hard with the scimitar that he’d painstakingly sharpened that morning to a razor, toy splitting edge. Yet, he barely chipped the puppet-like monster. “Hey, why didn’t that work!?!” the druid gasped.

Dornas, dodging the dolls’ deadly negatron touch, identified them as a type of construct animated by soul-gems – precious stones that confined a sapient creature’s soul indefinitely. Which meant they had minds.

“Interesting,” yawned Kish. One of the soulbound dolls lost consciousness and plummeted down into the pit, breaking on the spiky bone pile. “Couldn’t get both of them.”

But the other one wasn’t long for the world, as Dornas jammed the butt of his magically-enhanced staff into the construct’s eye-socket in an attempt to dislodge the gem he’d guessed was rolling around in the skull. Head and gem both cracked, and the doll spun itself around to flee. But its toughened shell could only withstand so much punishment. Kor’lec and Dornas bashed the fleeing thing to bits.

Soul Schism

“So, if those things have souls in them,” asked Kish, “can we eat them and gain their power?” Likki hugged his ‘big sister’ and said “Welcome to family!”

The party had all descended into the cavern for a look around. Dornas ruminated deeply on one the Azlanti skulls he’d picked up, gazing into the face of a person ten millennia dead. The magus bagged up the skull to add to his ancient head collection. Then the conversation turned dead serious. Kish had sensed the emotions of the gems – they were suffering and insane from confinement. But they were also rubies and incredibly valuable, especially after she psionically repaired the crack.

Monica asked to see one, then tossed it upward, quick drew her gun with a twirl and BANG! The blast resounded around the cavern and echoed throughout the complex.

But Dornas had snatched the ruby into hand with some speedy legerdemain. The Taldans didn’t so much argue as disagree, icily, on the fate of the gems. Monica felt in her heart the relics were abominable and their inhabitants deserved to be released into the afterlife. Dornas thought just as strongly that it was foolish to try and free them without knowing more about them. Nobody else seemed to have strong feelings about them one way or another, save Likki who thought Kish’s joke about eating them had the most merit.

Liturgy of the Devourers

The cavern contained several tiny twisty tunnels leading who-knows-where, so Kishtari dispatched her homunculus into them. Most were dead ends, but the slithering crystal did find some larger passageways and a chamber that contained a bath filled with congealed blood.

The Castaways returned to the temple and climbed up onto the bridge, opting to check out the western wings of the structure. Opening the stone doors, the party shone their magical lights on that most dangerous of dungeon discoveries – knowledge!

They’d found the temple scriptorium.

As one with the library’s shadows, a familiar and deadly predator lies-in-wait…

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View
In Darkened Storm or Sunlight Glare

They’re gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out… That they’re fucking with the wrong people.

Picture a wide shot of our heroes – Dornas, Kishtari, Kor’lec and Kai, Monica, Likki – shoulder to shoulder with determined expressions, walking slowly down the trail from Aycenia‘s grove. Behind them, the sun forms a brilliantly-hued halo over the mighty hill, the drumlin’s crown and its monde, a ring of baobabs and the ancient tree that serves as Aycenia’s fetter to the mortal world. Around the tree in silhouette stand those the heroes are leaving behind – Aycenia, Sasha, Aerys, Jask, Gelik – perhaps never to be seen again. As the quintet watch the heroes vanish below the treeline, the thoughts of each turn to their personal remembrances of the friends and saviors who’ve ensured their survival.

A Seed Twice Sown

Aycenia the dryad, in many respects, is a symbolic representation of the tropical island known as Smuggler’s Shiv, a place where nature, virginal and virtuous, has struggled to take root in a soil tainted by ancient civilizations and eldritch curses. Though she recognized the contributions of all the Castaways toward ridding the isle of its evil, it was the druid Kor’lec on whom she’d been focused that morning…

“Something troubles you my love,” said the fey, hours earlier, as she and Kor’lec watched the stars subsumed by the multi-hued swathes of daybreak’s light. After a night of love-making, the two had slowly awoken in caress upon a bed of giant fronds, shaped by the dryad’s magic in the highest branches of her tree. Aycenia continued, “there is an anger in you.”

Kor’lec tried to convince the fey that the brooding was merely his tendency, and while that was correct, he added that it was mostly his mind preparing itself for the battle to come. “Yes, but there is more,” Aycenia nudged, her ages-old empathy and intuition undressed the druid’s thoughts as effortlessly as her petite golden-brown body and mint green eyes had divested him of his clothes. “You are so angry, and conflicted.”

As to his inevitable battle with Ieana, now known to be a dangerous serpentfolk, Aycenia said, “you will return, for the sake of your son and daughter.” Taken aback, Kor’lec stammered. The dryad put her forefinger to his lips, a very humanoid way to engender his silence. “It is what we wanted from each other,” she promised.

Aycenia revealed that she had gotten used to the isle’s corruption, and the curse upon it that assured her many centuries of loneliness. “But then you came, ready and willing to change what I could not.” The dryad went on to thank the druid and his friends, and added, “your journey will take you from me, from us, but I hope someday, you will return here to rest. Perhaps even establish a grove?” The suggestion seemed fitting to both Kor’lec and his fey paramour. The dryad continued, "you’ve already been responsible for healing this place. It seems the Will of the World is for you to become its protector.

“As to the conflict between yourself and your companions, despite your differences, you must know that they love you? You need each other.” Kor’lec agreed. Aycenia’s eyes narrowed a bit and she sighed. “We need to discuss your hatred for Gelik.” The dryad was sensitive to everyone’s (save Monica’s) bad feelings for the gnomish knave, and Kor’lec’s attempt to muscle Gelik off his feet in the hollow of her tree the night before evinced the half-elf’s disgust. Kor’lec defended himself and his actions to the nature spirit by explaining that Gelik was unrepentant and dangerous.

Aycenia assured him that her concern was mostly his ability to understand and be a parent to their part-fey offspring. “Gelik has a lot to answer for, true,” Aycenia countered, "but consider that he and his kind are not of this plane, and we fey are not separate from our natures. We ARE natures! In the First World, gnomekin were childhood, personified. Their bodies like children, the whimsy and imagination you value in children, and all the obsessions and selfishness of children that frustrate adults. Perhaps we were bad parents, because we let them wander out of our world. Aycenia sighed heavily.

“Know also, that to us, our magic is part of us, we use it with as much forethought as you have breathing, or picking up a utensil to eat with.” Kor’lec admitted that it gave him a lot to chew on. They spent the rest of the morning speaking of lighter things, just a woman and man enjoying the sunrise.

Kor’lec didn’t look back as he and his companions descended once again into jungles of the Shiv. But true to his own nature, he brooded and worried. This journey, this quest, the events yet to unfold that he and his party were all starting to feel inexorably bound to, would soon take him away from Smuggler’s Shiv. What would become of this place when they were gone? Truth be told, the island couldn’t hold any of them anymore, save in one way: the stone not turned. Ieana and her evil race had returned, and it was a good bet the Castaways were the only ones who knew anything about it. The island had changed them all, and it had whittled and carved Kor’lec and Kai into something like ironwood totems – unbreakable, unpretentious, and standing for nature’s forces.

A million years ago, Golarion grew too cold for the domination of reptilian life, and beasts of feathers and fur won the world from their scaly ancestors. Kor’lec was certain that Golarion had made its intentions to the serpentfolk clear.

The druid intended to remind them.

A Fool and His Honey

Gelik was still sore. Was this hurt he felt? Jealousy? His inability to put his feelings to prose – clever, obscure, florid, excessively aureate words – just made him feel worse. Last night the holier-than-thou druid had tried to trip him. Monica, his so-called girlfriend, had barely defended him! Gelik could scarcely contain his embarrassment at having a romantic partner less-than completely dedicated to his honor and wellness. He hoped all humans weren’t like that in love. I mean, sure, she’d probably been through a lot with those jerks as they traipsed around the jungle like idiots murdering monsters and taking their stuff…

Aw, that’s gotta be it… the gnome supposed. They’d saved each others’ lives a few times. His eyes rolled. It was like currency to them. Gelik struggled to wrap his head around it all once again while trying to recall the “eureka!” moment he’d had last night…

After deftly avoiding stumbling and then thoroughly trouncing the bullying half-elf (the male, not the other bullying half-elf) in a contest of speechcraft, Gelik realized he was losing Monica. Her indifference irked him, but she was still the love of his life, the only woman he could say believed that the heart of a gallant beat in his chest, and who was too nice or naive to pry out the truth. She got his jokes, too. Gelik knew he needed to put aside the sting of Monica’s emasculating affront, no matter how wrong she was, and act quickly lest his hopes and dreams of future fame, fortune, and glory slip away.

“So, yeah, I lied about being a spy,” the gnome admitted, in front of the barely surprised adventurers. It worked! Monica said she was proud of him! But Gelik needed to play against the human propensity to mistake pride for bad intentions. He left without saying a word to anyone, or sparing Monica a glance after making his shocking revelation.

Gelik chose to sleep alone last night. Let her try to suss that out! he’d mused. This morning though, he was at the archaeologist’s side silently helping her prep for the away team’s journey to Red Mountain. A few harrumphs and heavy sighs finally got him what he was after:

“What’s wrong, Gelik?” Monica asked. The gnome blurted out that he just didn’t get why she was leaving again. “We’ve got a safe place, rescue is inevitable, and you’ve made discoveries here to secure your place in academic history a hundred times over. Why are you risking all of that?” In spite of himself, Gelik suddenly realized that his trepid pleas weren’t part of the long con, they weren’t his usual romantic pandering, and were as close to the truth as he’d ever come. Wait, had the human ensorcelled him?

After a long pause, Monica tried her best to explain. “I feel, we all feel, that stopping whatever it is Ieana’s planned is important. More important than making a name, or discovering things.”

“You’re a scholar though,” Gelik argued. “These kinds of problems are for people a lot bigger and more powerful than us. I mean, you’ve really built up a lot of muscle in the past weeks but… I mean, you used to be afraid of bugs for gods’ sake!”

“Yes,” Monica admitted, playfully flexed her arm and giggled. “I always imagined myself the world-saving type, I am an archaeologist, after all. But fantasy is one thing and reality… I’ve grown, and I feel for some reason, I think this one falls on us.”

Gelik realized he was crying. Real, tears! He cared about her. Did he always care about her? Gelik decided it didn’t matter. “Just, just please come back in one piece.”

“I will.”

The gnome had thrown his arms around the human woman’s midriff, and in that embrace they remained until Monica was called.

As Gelik watched the perplexing, amazing, adventurer he’d come to love leave him that morning, an idea occurred to him that was probably as dumb as the one that nearly got him killed (and earned the ire of just about everyone around him). What the hell? They should expect it by now. The gnome suddenly clapped, shattering the silent pall that had overcome the b-team. Having everyone’s attention, with a mischievous look Gelik proclaimed, “something’s just occurred to me. Now, hear me out…”

Red Gush

“Boy it sure was nice of Kor’lec to bring you back, Hesediel,” whispered Sasha to her pet dimorphodon chic. “But it sucks they left Nemanji to get killed by the green-cloaked halfling.”

“Oh, I warned them! Over and over, and they thought I was crazy, or stupid, or whatever. ‘Just a figment of your imagination, Sasha!’ Even when the wretched thing shows up… admits he’s stalking me… and fucking reveals he’s an unholy beast-monster! Nemanji always believed me, yes he did! Except he trusted the assassin, too, didn’t he? What the hell, dorks?

“Gee, I sure hope they don’t all get killed,” Sasha feigned a sob and started giggling, then collected herself before furtively looking around to see if anyone noticed. “I wonder if the fairy can steal thoughts like the alien? Oh yeah, Bitch-Tari, I know exactly What. You. Are. The Men from Leng did brisk business in Ilizmagorti. Lots of slaves from space… all of them too weak and pathetic to stand up for themselves. Sure liked to talk about her dumb planet when they were on their knees scrubbing blood from the Citadel training floor.” Sasha returned her attention to her pet. "She said she was Nemanji’s friend? Yet she almost got him killed over a few dumb snakes? Not exactly leading the search for him, either, is she? So full of it, like the worst Riddleport con-artists and bad at it to boot. Right? Right.

“Omg, omg, omg … try not to laugh Hesediel, but I think Gelik’s tearing up.” Sasha sighed, "alas, there was hope for him. Finally, someone as clever and ruthless as myself. And even more hated by those holier-than-thou hypocrites. Milquetoast Monica must’ve gotten to him. ‘Oh my hero! please regale me with more morality fantasies you read about when you were a wee lass!’ You know what, Hesediel? The real world is cold and hard and laughs at heroes – just like Monica’s ‘tried and true’ friends laugh at her. I’d rather be eaten alive than hear about how much she cares about me, or any of us, one more time. Scratch that, I’d rather her be eaten alive. By spiders or ants or something small and crawly. Probably she wouldn’t even fight back, saying something like ’it’s okay, the ants need to eat, too.’ Oh, I’d love to see that.

“Dornas, how I wish I knew enough about him to hate him more. But I know enough that he might be the hardest to fool, the hardest to fight, and the hardest to kill. He’s playing a game, and maybe I’m just curious enough about it to let him live… ho ho! You’re right Little Wing, he almost got me, didn’t he? Almost. I must correct myself, I hate him just fine.

“Kor’lec, oh god. Poor dope. I guess I don’t hate him as much as I feel bad for him. He did reunite us, didn’t he Hesediel? I think he understands better than anyone the awful truth about the world. It’s a hierarchy, yes it is, isn’t it Baby Biteykins!” Sasha dangled a squirming grub above her immature companion’s toucan-like beak. The tiny reptavian jumped up from the young assassin’s forearm and gulped the treat down with a happy chirp, then glided in a spin down to her feet. “A devouring helix of predators… and the prey they shit out, lol”

Sasha looked up from her pet to see the Castaways enveloped by the tropical flora. “Maybe you don’t understand it yet, mister wisenheimer druid, but you will. And I hope you have the wisdom to stay out of my fucking way when I demonstrate it to your friends. But you won’t.” Hesediel squawked angrily at the ground, so Sasha picked him up and placed him on her shoulder. She no longer winced when the pterasaur dug and scraped his climbing claws into her flesh for purchase. Anything worth living for was worth spilling blood for, believed the titian-haired teen.

“Oh, Little Wing. All this blood-and-guts talk is making me homesick. Do you… do you think its time to go home?” Hesediel absently crowed in response.

“Why, yessir yessir! Thanks for reminding me! There is, in fact, something I need to pick up first.”

Divine Introspection

“Great Nethys,” prayed Jask, "many say that it is a fool’s hope to pray to you, for yours is the impassive mask and your burden the balance of the cosmos. But I pray to you now to see these men and women, skilled casters and seekers after knowledge all of them, through to their destiny. Their trials would please you, God-King, as their motives, collectively, span the breadth and depth of good and evil, law and chaos. You, Great Eye, hold the scales of creation and upon those a world, our world, of humans and our humanoid allies. That world, your great work, these mortals would see preserved.

“You may, or may not as your whim dictates, appreciate their methods and motives, but it is your great will to see the practice of magic persevere. That is where these, I hesitate to call them heroes as I entreat you, though they are certainly my personal heroes, these champions are worth your attention. That which they oppose; the First People, the Old Masters, yuan-ti, call them what you will, are of a kind who wouldn’t simply make slaves of humanity, elfkind, dwarfkind, and all others offensive to them. The serpentmen, if the tales are true, would ensure their dominion by making beasts of the fair, civilized, and learned of Golarion’s races. You were born a man of Osirion, my god, surely you wouldn’t allow this feral regression of humanity and the loss of every advancement we’ve made in magic and science to these reptilians?

“If that is indeed your desire, All-Seer, then perhaps I can sway you with another point in these peoples’ favor. They are all, my Lord, casters and lovers of learning, as I’ve said. Further, they are all of them quickly proving to be among the most naturally talented magicians this age has known.

“I have seen you smile upon Dornas, as he develops martial katas with the stave, your favored weapon, to work spells forgotten and obscure. I have felt your interest in Kishtari, who surprises even herself as she unravels her inner-mind’s phrenic mysteries. I have noted your hand behind Monica’s uncanny luck, surely you appreciate the woman’s knack for activating foci beyond her purview with nothing more than grit and imagination, and the sheer wonder she takes in discovery. Ah, yes, other great powers look out for her too, more than anyone I’ve known who wasn’t a priest.

“And of priests, I must make a case now for my fellows Kor’lec and Likki. Both have risked their lives and saved your servant from certain death, and their reasons for it are so simple, a cynical man might question it. Kor’lec, steward of nature; wild, capricious and cruel. Likki, prophet of a demonic jungle god. I have sensed darkness and ancient evils like cobwebs draped on their souls. They have slipped, done things cruel and selfish out of anger and ignorance. And yet? They are, at heart, good men. Good. Men. That in itself is so wonderfully confounding, I can only pray that the riddle this pair poses is as engaging to you, All-Seer, as it is to me?

The old Garundi squinted to make out the last of the adventures as they seemed to meld into the treetops partway down the hill’s scant trail. I need to get a pair of good spectacles he thought as soon as we get to the mainland. Too many years a scrivener’s killed these peepers. Despite the pain it caused to focus his sights – mundane and magical – Jask searched around for some signal from Nethys that his prayer had been heard. A mark in the auras, a cloud pattern, a twig in the shape of a rune, a black and white stone. Anything. Hells, I’ll be happy to see a snake right now. Least I’d know someone was listening.

But the aged cleric’s search was to no avail. His was a confusing, aloof god, and he’d just have to take the lack of a sign as a sign in and of itself.

Ship in a Bottle

If Found, Remit to Captain Kassata LeWynn
in care of The Offices of LeWynn Shipping and Repair
(North Pier Chancery)
Eleder, Sargava

My Dearest Kassata,

This is the last message I’m tossing into Besmara’s Chest. I hope the Lady of the Black Flag sees fit to get it to you when the rum I emptied from this bottle reaches her in the Maelstrom. I know, unthinkable, right? “Waste of grog you dingy sot!” you’d say. Its been over a week since I’ve had a touch of hooch, to my betterment. Senses are sharper, my reflexes are swifter. Still the fightin’ shitehawk you knew and loved, more of a sharp cutlass now than a blunt instrument. There have been temptations. I lost a foot, and it went gangrenous midway up the calf. Got a nice peg for it. Really wanted a swig throughout the whole grisly business. Good story there. I’ll tell you over tea. Ha!

It has been many months since you left the Shackles, and me, to take over your Pa’s business in Sargava. If you got the other messages, you’ve already heard me lament the fight that split us. In summary: I blamed the drink for the fist that dissevered your nose. “Don’t follow me,” you said. Promised I wouldn’t. Did anyway, cause the echo of those words kept knocking about my head and the drink wouldn’t hush them. Scuttled here on the Shiv, was certain this would be my grave. Now, I’m almost as sure it won’t. I don’t have to let those words you said be the last between us, or that face, that scowl of betrayal and blood and disgust, keep burning in me mind’s eye.

I’m not asking for a second chance, or begging on you to take me back. What I am asking is for you to take me on. Your crew, on the Last Hurrah I mean to say. I’m thinking the lot of the old river rats who served your Pa won’t like taking your orders. You’ve likely lost, what? half your hands? You know barges and waterways better than me, but I’m still handy with rigging, making and breaking tow, moving crates. Still just as good in a scrap, but less likely now to start one for no reason. Sobriety’s gettin’ me gentle, maybe, but not soft. Jask, the nice old priest here has been teaching me meditation. I’ll let you get a good laugh outta the image. Here’s another for you, I’m thinking of taking on the cloth myself. Ha ha! The black-jack of course! We’ll see if the Queen does me right by getting this note to you.

Also, I’m wanting your trust, maybe? A cautious friendship? I suppose I’d like that truth be told. Too much?

So, I’ve a new partner in crime, so to speak. Her name’s Kishtari, a pearl of a lass from Riddleport. Gorgeous, golden skin, elvenblood like me, methinks Vudrani and Varisian on her human side. Yeah, me and the “K” names and the swarthy little jeune fille out of water. Not sure it’s love in the making, though. She’ll look a might frail to you but the girl is a living fucking cannonade, I’m told. Some kind of mental magic she does the likes I’ve never heard of. No words, no gestures, or fetishes. The gnome says she can play tricks in the head, too. Peculiar, but I’ve heard that of Vudrani. Peculiar and useful, I’d think, in our business.

I think some of the others might be swayed, with the right spin on things. These people are brilliant. Cagey, brave, dangerous. Lots to offer the business. You’ve got Dornas the fancy Taldan; good skirmisher, knows a little magic, and I’ve seen he’s got sea-legs from somewhere but he doesn’t talk about himself much. Kor’lec’s an Expanse native I’ve heard. Might have some family in the interior we can partner with. He’s also a doc and a wild priest – I heard the predators inland grow as big as whales and have teeth like sabers, and there are mosquitoes the size of kites. I’ve heard of crocs and river beasts that can flip a hoy with as little as a nod. Not that I’m a’feared of all that, but a good wild priest on the crew would save a lot of time and ammunition. There’s an educated lass named Monica… not sure what she does, but I’ve seen her pull some clever of slight of hand that makes me think larceny is her trade. Never know when that might be useful, ha ha! We picked up a gobbie native too. A witch-doctor, I think. The gobbies here brew a liqueur that’ll knock you daft. Would fetch a tidy profit if we can get the recipe, or partnership with his folk.

The others – Jask, Sasha, Gelik – all say they’ve got plans when they reach the mainland, but those other five? I don’t think they know how they’re getting about the Expanse when we escape this accused isle. I overheard they aim on sticking together, though. A tidy package to raise the quality of any crew, I trust you’ll agree.

As I close this letter, I hope I’ve whet your interest, if anything, and we can at least negotiate an accord. I know that what we shared in the Shackles won’t sway you, I made sure of that when I struck you. That, that evil err, I’ll live with for all it pains me, and I deserve it. But I want to make it up to you, through usefulness, loyalty, and the promise of getting you the wealth your family business deserves, and vengeance on your Pa’s killers you deserve.

My fate and livelihood are as good as in your hands.

Yours,
Aerys

The Red Mountain Debacle

The Castaways’ overland journey may have been fraught with peril, but there was little remaining on Smuggler’s Shiv that could challenge the septet. Kor’lec guided his companions swiftly along the old Thrunefang hunting paths, and Likki had laid upon the party a dweomer that protected them from the midday heat.

They traveled almost in silence, though Kish had something she wanted to make clear to her druid friend. “Your amulet, I understand it creates a new body for the dead.” Kor’lec confirmed that his amulet could indeed restore the dead in a new form from the elements at hand. “I ask that you don’t use it on me.” Kish explained that as a being of two natures, spirit and humanoid, that she feared a loss of her bond to her ancestral spirit. Kor’lec wasn’t sure that would be the case, but agreed to his kalashtar companion’s request.

A spider the size of a pony descended from the canopy, but Kor’lec had taken it upon himself to know the dialect of vermin in the primordial tongue. “You won’t find a painless meal here…” The spider returned in peace to her web in the treetops.

After a half a day, the heroes finally reached the foothills surrounding Red Mountain. Descending a hill adjacent to the towering rise, the party noted a series of rope bridges going back and forth between the extinct volcano and its neighbor that took advantage of eithers’ natural ledges to ascend. Likki thought they looked like Mongrukoo work, though the bridges could have been built by the Thrunefangs, too. In between the rises was a perilously deep ravine, carved out by a trickling waterway.

Ancient statues, covered in lichen and moss, stood at the ingress of each of the bridges. The white marble effigies depicted nobly posed humans with fanged countenances and radiated faint abjuration auras. Monica said the style was clearly Azlanti, and the protective magic could be staving the stone’s decay. The motifs and habiliments depicted on the statues were used by Zura cultists, even in the present. One hundred centuries ago, was there an Azlanti Zura cult on Smuggler’s Shiv? “Looks like they moved in and kept some of the furniture,” guessed Kor’lec, after the Taldan scholars explained that the Azlanti humans of that age quickly displaced the serpentfolk as Golarion’s dominant culture.

Despite Kish’s fretful protestations, the adventurers ascended the ledges and bridges.

At around sixty feet above sea level, the Red Mountain Devil attacked!

The winged chupacabra swept down upon the party without sound and the sun behind him, making him nigh invisible until he struck. Kor’lec was a few steps ahead of the rest, and was picked out as prey by the ferocious monster. The Devil sank its fangs into the nape of the druid’s neck and grabbed him.

Monica, quick on the trigger as ever, drew irons and fired (temporarily deafening poor Kish who was standing in front of her) from the back of the bridge. The beast presented a difficult target, maneuvering on the wing to keep Kor’lec in front of him – but the gun-slinging historian’s aim was true enough to hole the Devil’s patagium.

Dornas struck a solid blow with his staff that must have rang the Devil’s bell, but he kept digging his claws deeper in his captive’s flanks. Tilting his wings to catch the canyon’s updraft, the Devil suddenly launched upward with Kor’lec in his grip!

At 85 feet, the flying chupacabra let go – and imagined the gory feast he’d have waiting at the crevice’s bottom.

But Kor’lec simply stood there in mid-air.

Back on the bridge, Kishtari had mentally taken control of Kor’lec’s gravity!

The chupacabra was confused and enraged; took another shot in the wing from Monica, and a defiant saber slash from Kor’lec. Likki tossed a tanglefoot bag and struck true, forcing the Red Mountain Devil to contend with a heavy, sticky goop that imbalanced his flight. Once the terrifying bogey of Smuggler’s Shiv, the so-called Devil of Red Mountain had finally met his match several times over.

Knowing he was licked, the chupacabra spun and struggled to keep flight as he fled away further along the vale.

The Castaways weren’t about to let the monster who’d taunted them from day one get away unpunished. The heroes gave chase, clambering up to Red Mountain’s apex with the intention of following the vale’s lip to the Devil’s lair. Once in sight of the circle of monoliths further up the mount, the adventurers started taking fire from hidden foes. Monica hesitated a second and tried to make out the javelin throwers in the shadows of the peak’s monoliths. “Later! focus on the Devil!” shouted Dornas. The hunt was on!

The magus was flying for the first time, not by wing, but by a magic honed into deadly efficacy through the dangers Dornas and his companions had overcome in their grueling two week ordeal on the Shiv. He reached the Devil’s lair first, a nest of reeds and driftwood wedged into a niche in the crevice’s corner. The chupacabra looked pathetic as he was trying to scrape the tanglefoot bag’s goop from his wings, but attempted a ferocious front of roars and raspy, unintelligible words. Amidst all his vocal posturing, the Devil paused to choke down a throatful of wood, ice, broken fangs and teeth as Dornas smashed the butt of his staff – enhanced by wizardly frost – into the monster’s face.

Coughing blood, clutching his chest, the Devil’s eyes grew wide as he looked beyond the magus to the entrance of his nook. Kor’lec was soaring toward him, scimitar in his outstretched hand. The druid was still under the effect of Kish’s “optional gravity” effect and had been hurtling himself by hand across the canyon’s rocky sides. Kor’lec coasted past Dornas and collided with the Devil as the druid’s saber ignited! The chupacabra was eaten inside out by fire and become a terrified effigy of ash that was carried away, top-down, by the swirling draft.

“We’ve killed this island’s gods. Fitting we’ve killed it’s devil too,” remarked Kish.

Time and Tide Don’t Wait

There was no time to loot the Devil’s nest. Kish had ascended an olden stairwell carved into the cliffside to the apex of Red Mountain with Monica close behind her. They were greeted by the sight of four obelisks etched with serpentfolk motifs surrounding a waist-high pyramid-shaped stone — the Tide Stone. It was clear that the pyramid was recently excavated – Ieana’s handiwork. There was also a pair of animated serpentman skeletons hidden in the shadows of the monoliths who leapt out hissing. Dornas flew over from the dead Mountain Devil’s lair and the others weren’t long to catch up. The skeletons fell quickly thereafter.

The heroes noticed that the pyramid seemed designed to catch liquid in bowl-shaped impression at its top and funnel it down through grooves at the edges. Monica brought up the ritual for the Tide Stone she’d duplicated from the Typhonian Proposals in the serpentfolk temple. The Castaways bandied about ideas for enacting the same ritual “to eschew what lies below” as Ieana must have done. Monica reasoned that there was something hidden below the surf accessible if the ancient serpentfolk ceremony lowered the water. With the party entirely comprised of magic-users, it wouldn’t be too difficult to wrangle the elder eldritch forces involved…

Kor’lec would have none of that, thank-you. With his weight or lack-thereof still being handled by Kish, the druid ran and launched himself off the peak of Red Mountain toward the sea, transforming into a porpoise before splashing down.

Beneath the waves, the undersea world in all its brilliance and majesty was opened to the druid’s metamorphosed eyes for what seemed the first time — a native, not a visitor. Kor’lec quickly noticed the presence of many dead fish, reasonably assumed to have perished when Ieana pushed the water out of the lagoon. There were quite a few wrecked ships. Less than a hundred feet south from him, Kor’lec found what he’d dove for. In the curve of the inlet was what looked like an archway with stone, spiked double doors leading under the island.

Kor’lec tried to make out the details and felt a slight ripple in the water around him. Then he remembered that assuming a new form didn’t mitigate a druid’s wounds, and he hadn’t completely recovered from the clawmarks of the chupacabra. And of course, all these dead fish attracted scavengers.

The silvertip shark seemed to erupt from out of the kelp forest beneath him.

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Unfinished Business

What are you, some saint all of a sudden? What has the galaxy ever done for you? Why would you want to save it?
‘Cause I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!

In the last episode, the intrepid adventurers had breached the inner sanctum of a serpentfolk temple! After recording the blasphemous rites contained within, the heroes were dramatically confronted by a horde of lacedons and their leader, Nylithati, the terrible Mama Thrunefang!

And Monica had shot her.

Should’ve Stayed in Their Humble Abodes

Nylithati screeched in agony as black viscera oozed from the bullet-sized cavity that was once her chest. The ghouls moved toward the Castaways cautiously while their leader drew the cathedral’s shadows around herself, obscuring her location. Only one of the lesser undead remained to guard Mama Thrunefang within the cloud of darkness.

“Take the humans first!” howled the Zura priestess, presuming Dornas and Monica would be more vulnerable to the lacedons’ paralyzing touch. She was nearly as wrong about that as her tactical decision to confront the heroes in the first place. One of Nylithati’s children buried its fangs into Monica’s shoulder. The lacedon chewed off a succulent chunk, so the archaeologist helped him wash it down with hot lead.

Dornas had no intention of allowing Mama Thrunefang to regroup, and with his staff boldly vaulted into the darkness, blindness be damned! Like a virtuoso of the stave, the magus found his audience and played a symphony upon the skull of the harridan ghoul. Though she managed to conjure a flying blade of force, aiming it at her foes was tricky while she ducked and wove around Dornas’s twirling staff.

Meanwhile, Kishtari psionically blasted one of the lacedons into a hot soup that splattered against the cathedral’s fixtures. Kai and Kor’lec worked together like the jaws of a bear trap, the druid hitting low on one side and his saurian companion leapt high on the other to turn their undead foes into gory mulches from the neck up. Likki darted and tumbled about like an unholy monkey to channel curative magic on anyone the lacedons managed to wound – first repairing Monica’s ravaged shoulder.

Jask did what he could, channeling holy healing and poking nearby ghouls with his long spear, though the heroes were cautious to keep a tight battle line between themselves and the aging priest. Monica approached the railing separating the dais from the lower floor of the temple and the haze of blackness where Dornas fought alone against the undead priestess.

The last lacedon henchman reached out of the darkness and through the bars of the railing to clasp its hand around Monica’s ankle. The Taldan could just make out its slobbering, grinning mug behind the banister, resembling a jailed lunatic. Kishtari was forced to hose it down with phrenic fire, adding another fine layer of ghoul glop to the temple décor.

Kor’lec imbued his cutlass with primordial flames and presented a swashbuckling figure complete with tricorne. True to the image, the druid leapt the railing and landed atop the stump of the broken pillar, then sashayed down its fallen length. The magical shadows seemed to flee from the half-elf as he flashed his blade like a man sparring with darkness itself.

As the darkness dissipated, Nylithati found herself surrounded. For the first time in a century, the monster knew fear. She tried to cower and flee, and was beaten back and forth by the heroes like a footbag losing its stuffing. Finally, Mama Thrunefang could move no more.

“We make her talk now?” queried Likki, half-kidding on account of the team’s original intention to question the Thrunefang’s founder on Ieana’s whereabouts.

“Not unless you can suddenly talk to the dead,” answered Dornas. “Still, she might be useful.” The magus pried the recently expired creature’s head off and bagged it up. The heroes also found on her an amulet of protection, and Kishtari discovered that the former Captain Kovack had worn magical armor that molded itself into a fetching, feminine leather suit when she donned it.

“I want one of those orbs,” said the kalashtar, pointing to one of the amber, snake-filled globes that topped the temple’s pillars.

The horrible relic was about the size of a person and weighed about ten stone.

Pray I Don’t Alter It Any Further

After making a thorough search of the lacedon’s warren (towing and rolling the huge serpentfolk ornament all the way), the adventurers were almost surprised to see the trailing rope leading to the surface right where they left it. They ascended, though Dornas and Kish opted to levitate themselves out of the tunnel. Dornas continued higher up to the balcony of the old lighthouse and signaled its cannibal occupants.

Chief Klorak the Red seemed annoyed to be called on. Dornas couldn’t care less.

“I have Nylithati’s head.” The magus pulled the hideous, tongue-lolling trophy from his sack.

“Give it to me,” growled the cannibal, through a fanged grin.

“No.”

Klorak’s expression turned grim. “We had a deal.”

“It was never made clear that we would give this to you,” countered Dornas, “and besides, we want to make certain you hold to the parts we did agree to.”

“Go ahead,” the chief’s smarmy smile returned, but there was uncertainty behind it. “See what happens when my men learn you’ve slain their beloved Mama Thrunefang.”

Dornas gestured at the Thrunefang corpses still littering the yard. That pretty much spoke for itself. Klorak cursed and returned to his den. Satisfied the chief knew who was sheriff ‘round these parts, the heroes headed home to Aycenia’s grove.

Reckoning’s Eve

Jask was especially happy to be safe at last, and was welcomed back by the rest of the home team. Aerys, standing now on a very piratey-looking pegleg, might’ve even cracked a smile, but quickly recovered herself. Sasha wasn’t looking quite so pallid, and Aycenia reported the patient had made a full recovery. The teen took her pet dimorphodon chic back from Kor’lec with a muttered “thanks.” Gelik’s wooden foot was shaped by his and the dryad’s magic into a fully articulated and fashionable pointy toe that he showed off to Monica.

The Castaways and friends retired to one of the hollowed-out baobabs to catch up with each other. Jask mentioned that he was happy to leave adventuring to younger, healthier heroes, and he was thinking of establishing a Temple of Nethys on the mainland once his name was cleared. Aerys seemed a little sullen as the evening’s chatter wore down, and Kishtari learned that the half-elven pirate had lost her opus, The Abendego Cantos when the Brine Demon was destroyed. “It’s all right,” Aerys reflected, “I can recall most of it, and I’ve a new inspiration.”

It came time for the away team to discuss their plans for the next day, and the home team graciously left them the little bungalow for serious hero talk. Right before clearing out, Kor’lec tried to trip Gelik, but the gnome managed to keep his balance in spite of his wooden foot. Gelik had had it.

The druid and bard exchanged jibes and insults that grew increasingly tense and ugly. Monica said nothing to either side. Finally, Gelik threw up his hands and admitted that he’d lied about being a super-spy. Nobody was surprised, though Monica said she was proud of him. The gnome “whatever-ed” and stormed out of the room into the late night rain.

The discussion that followed confirmed that the majority of the team wanted to go after Ieana at first light. Kishtari didn’t argue as much as wonder aloud if there was a good reason to take the risk. They had treasure and a means to signal the shipping lanes, after all. The decision to go after the serpentfolk wound up being unanimous – justice for those who died on the Jenivere, to cleanse the isle of evil, to finish what they started, and to prevent catastrophe.

Then the storm struck with a vengeance.

On the far side of the island, dark clouds rumbled and flashed as they revolved above the apex of Red Mountain. The pressurized atmosphere seemed to heave and exhale as if it were suffering a chest wound. The phenomenon lasted about fifteen minutes.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have decided to wait until morning,” said Kish.

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Shrine of the Serpent Lords

When the will defies fear, when duty throws the gauntlet down to fate, when honor scorns to compromise with death – that is heroism.

Last time on Age of Serpents, our intrepid Castaways had just breached a hidden cathedral to Ydersius, the god of the serpentfolk! Incredibly well-preserved, the subterraneous structure was ages old and would be a momentous archaeological find should its discoverers live to tell of it! Because, as is often the case with ancient edifices of evil, the Shrine of the Serpent Lords was occupied… by the undead!

Knocked Into a Cocked-Hat

Just as ominously as it’s skull rose from the enormous urn at the head of the great hall, the skeletal snake coiled back inside its container and was silent. Meanwhile, the four serpentfolk skeletons continued to hiss and rattle the bars of the portcullises they were trapped behind. The ghoulish monster that was once Captain Kovack stood up from the pile of remains at the back of the cathedral and shuffled toward Kor’lec. “My… hat…” snarled the lacedon through broken teeth. In response, the druid lobbed a spear at him. He’d become accustomed to wearing Kovack’s tricorne, but also had a hard-line against compromising with undead.

“Captain, we’re honoring your orders,” declared Monica, referring to Kovack’s penitent missive, before letting her pistol continue the conversation. Grazed by spearpoint and gunfire, the lacedon frowned sorrowfully before his eyes reddened. He lurched toward his attackers with a gargling groan.

Kishtari figured her friends could handle one dumb ghoul. Curious about the serpentine motifs everywhere, she made her way to the center of the temple. Once the brash psion strayed into the shadow of the urn, the skeletal snake in there suddenly snapped up and slithered down toward her like a rushing stream. In its suddenness, the undead serpent toppled one of the temple’s pillars – and tripped the lever releasing the portcullises. The serpentfolk skeletons were freed and scuffled to surround the intruders. Impossibly, the fleshless prehistoric viper dripped venom from fangs that scored Kishtari’s flesh as she twisted to avoid impalement.

Bad to the Bones

The lacedon formerly known as Captain Kovack fell first, mercilessly clobbered into real death. “Yeah, it’s my hat now,” quipped Kor’leck. Dornas pummeled one of the serpentfolk skeletons with his animate hair, and through it delivered a pulse of necromantic magic. The undead guardian was overcome by terror and fled. But despite the adventurers’ prowess in battle, one of the prehistoric skeletons gouged its clawed hand into Jask’s midsection, sending the old priest, and his innards, to the floor.

Kish was also doing her best to stay conscious despite the relentless attacks of her assailants. After seeing Jask go down, the kalashtar decided she’d had enough of all the biting and scratching, and after saving it up all day, had enough phrenic energy for everyone and everything. Her eyes crackled with electricity, and an elegant wave of her hand turned one of the dead serpentfolk into a galvanized salvo of bones that shattered against the skeletal megaviper.

Likki, babbling in demonic tongues, was at Jask’s side in a blink and managed to magically mend the fallen priest’s nearly fatal wound. Meanwhile, Monica maneuvered behind the skeleton that came within an inch of sending the Garundi cleric to the court of his god. Hoping to give it something to think about other than the critically injured — and very vulnerable — Jask, the archaeologist sucker-punched the undead with fistful of curative magic. The damage barely registered, but the ploy worked. The skeleton slowly turned and hissed at its new target, even as Kai was right on top of it chomping and clawing.

Jask was administered a healing potion that woke him to consciousness, and coughed his throat clear. “I’m getting too old for this sh…” Jask grouched, his sentiment cut off by an explosion of energy as Kish obliterated, well, whatever it was she happened to be looking at that moment. The giant snake fossil crashed into the fallen pillar and crumbled away to smoldering ash. Meanwhile, Kor’lec conjured a badass eagle that screeched, dove, and sank its talons into another undead guardian. The skeleton tried to swat away the bird on its way toward Kish, but a sudden snap of the eagle’s beak severed the ancient reptilian’s spine – along with its tether to unlife. Kish swore she saw the summoned bird wink at her.

Between Monica’s whip and Dornas’s hair, the remaining guardian was having trouble staying on its fleshless feet. Monica uttered a word that echoed like an angelic choir and the unholy creature was consumed by white light that irrupted into gossamer moths and swallows!

Fangs for the Info

Leaving the skeleton who’d fled to cower in a corner to be dispatched by Jask and the animals, the heroes surveyed the cathedral. In front of the looming statue of Ydersius were scorch marks and splattered blood not more than two days old. Also, empty decanters that bore the traces of healing magic suggested Ieana was wounded – severely – by a trap there. Monica disabled the dangerous ward and discovered a tiny slot in the great pedestal of the statue. There was enough evidence to indicate some manner of egress, and Dornas guessed that Kish’s fang-shaped dagger – found in Ieana’s quarters aboard the Jenivere and clearly psionic in nature – was the key.

The kalashtar drew the weapon, which vibrated out of her hand and into the slot of its own accord. The statue pulled itself up and back against the wall as the base split down the middle and parted to either side. The unveiled chamber was vaguely hexagonal in shape. It had an altar inside and likewise fell beneath the predatory gaze of Ydersius, this effigy carved from strange, swirl-patterned stone that projected an eerie green glow.

The walls of the hexangular chamber had eons of grit build-up, save one. Ieana had cleansed it of detritus to reveal the Aklo text and serpentfolk hieroglyphs beneath. Those fluent in the complex tongue deciphered it as an ancient ritual to activate something called the Tide Stone. The party presumed the other walls of this unholy chamber had instructions for the other serpentfolk power stones on Smuggler’s Shiv, whose presence they’d already deduced. When Dornas and Monica used their magic to quickly excavate the remaining walls, their suspicions were confirmed. Together, the inscriptions formed the “missing” Typhonian Proposal – infamous in arcane scholarship and previously known only by its citation in another obscure book of forbidden lore. Though most magicians believed the occult magics of old were best left buried, Monica couldn’t resist recording the crowning discovery of an already amazing assortment of archaeological achievements.

After stuffing the last of the charcoal rubbings in her pack, a sardonic hand-clap echoed from back in the cathedral. Mother Thrunefang herself, the harridan ghoul known as Nylithati, was standing on the broken pillar as her children, lacedons all, prowled toward the party.

“You have come far!” the amphibious crone rasped, “and proved your worth by blood spilt. Zura favors you! I offer you… eternal life… among us!”

“That ain’t living to me, lady,” answered Monica, before making a counteroffer with bullets.



By all means, leave us a comment!

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Boils and Ghouls

No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess.

After leaving the cannibal chief Klorak’s chamber, the Castaways made a quick search of the Thrunefang’s camp. In a shanty set aside for stores, Kishtari found a fat fluffy kitty that wasn’t interested in being “rescued,” and some smoked “human” strips in addition to some fruits and tubers. The latter rations the party stocked up on, and Likki merrily stuffed his pockets with the people jerky when he thought nobody was looking.

The late Malikadna’s lodge was a filthy mess, but within it the heroes discovered a trove of alchemical goods and potions that probably would have helped the witch’s tribemates tremendously in battle had she thought to distribute the material ahead of time.

Choosing to bed down in the Thrunefangs’ general bunkhouse, Dornas took first watch on the adjacent lookout tower. The Taldan noted that, true to his word, Klorak had one of his wives on the lighthouse balcony to keep an eye out for the now-canceled dinner feast’s late arrivals before the savages discovered their uninvited guests. The Castaways enjoyed an uninterrupted rest, fraught as it was with the seething stares and baffled mutterings of their cannibal hosts.

Breakfast in Blood

First light brought with it the inevitable challenge from one of the barbarians. A casual gesture from Kishtari toward the decaying bodies of the objector’s kinsman and a gentle suggestion from Dornas that anyone unhappy with the truce should take it up with Klorak, ensured the cannibals’ cooperation – at least for the time being.

After cowing the cannibals, the Castaways returned to their daily business — adventure. They cleared the sticks covering the hole leading to the subterranean caverns where they all knew Nylithati, the dreaded ancient “mother” of the Thrunefang tribe awaited them. After a brief discussion regarding the information they hoped to learn from this wicked matron concluded – namely, what had Ieana wanted from her? – the heroes descended into the hollow.

Kor’lec and Kai took point, followed closely by Dornas and his conjured globules of light. The rest of the party followed. The druid was unmistakably more sullen than usual, prompting Likki to ask his “big brother” what was the matter. Kor’lec responded that the armistice with the Thrunefangs didn’t sit well with him and as far as the half-elf was concerned, the only good reason to be in the caves was to remove a blight.

Recent prints in the cavern’s soil revealed the steps of a heavyset man, Captain Kovack. Alongside and across them, however, were track-marks that resembled… something, or someone, slithering.

A tight, winding cleft led the delvers to a gore-splattered chamber with some oubliettes carved into the north wall. Before these could be examined more closely, Kor’lec detected in a shadowed corner a pair of cadaverous creatures whose humanoid figures looked forcibly fractured into four-legged forms. When Dornas’s lights exposed them, the beings bounded over the jagged floor toward the intruders like broken-backed jackals – except very fast.

Kishtari had a crossbow at the ready and an itchy trigger finger. With a twang the psion’s bolt scraped a scissure in the wricked watchdog’s flesh, rupturing a line of pestilent pimples. The pus spouted like a fountain, but the heroes weren’t near enough to get sprayed. The undead abominations might have been dangerous in close-quarters, but their opponents were downright deadly in all the other quarters.

Dornas casually swung his voluminous black locks toward one of the creatures. To his teammate’s astonishment, the magi’s hair stretched forth and skewered the ghastly thing through the face! A coconut spun out from Likki’s over-sized hand put the beast down for good. As the goblin did a little victory dance, the remaining monster was shorn by an earsplitting report from Monica’s dual-barreled gun. As the archaeologist’s shot signaled the undead’s destruction, it just as loudly announced the Castaways’ presence to whatever else lurked down there.

Ghouls!

Jask informed everyone that the creatures they’d dispatched, festrogs, were a type of failed, animal-like ghoul employed as guards in their master’s warrens. The grated cavities were probably where the accursed monsters kept those they allowed to transition into undeath. Monica added that ghouldom was a pitiable state that bestowed an insatiable, eternal hunger.

Damning Testimony

Able to have a look at the oubliettes unmolested, the heroes uncovered a scrap of leather near a word scrawled in blood: “MURDERER.” Also in blood was a message reading thus:

The testimony absolved the Jenivere’s captain in the party’s eyes, and cemented an already iron resolve among them to make Ieana pay for her crimes.

As to their enemy’s nature, the evidence was getting heavy. Monica was correct all along.

Ieana had to be purecaste serpentfolk.

Serpentfolk! whose prehistoric empire once stretched across the solar system and into the planes; a species that presaged the evolution of feathers and fur, and perhaps even predated the arrival of the aboleths and elder things. Their dominance was so complete that an entire epoch was named for them. But as formidable and eonian as their age was, the purecast serpentfolk of ancient myth were thought to be extinct – as dead as their patron saint – survived in the modern day by scaly savages with but a smidge of sapience…

Until now.

Ghoul Crush

Suffice to say that whatever the Castaways’ quarry sought, it could only mean ill. The delvers made their way ever downward through the constricting passageways of the cavern and before long encountered one of its denizens. The ghoulish thing might have been human once, but it possessed an unmistakably ichthyic cast. Even in tight quarters, the lacedon barely registered its own destruction before the party took it apart.

Kor’lec sensed the shuffling sounds of a potential foe in large chamber ahead of them. Kishtari unfurled her psicrystal Naga and sent it slithering onward to get the lay of the land. The serpentine construct went undetected by the waiting creature, and it relayed the chamber’s contents to its creator. A briny well laid in the center of a roughly circular chamber, surrounded by ridges of varying elevation. There were two more lacedons in there, and one was lying-in-wait – poised to claw the first creature out of the tunnel.

Kor’lec sent Kai up to draw the creature’s attention, relying on his animal companion’s quickness to avoid attack. The ploy worked. The lacedon sprang after the swift dinosaur, allowing the Castaways to hasten into the chamber unharmed. The aquatic undead was soon surrounded and cut down. The other ghoul joined the fray, but was just as quickly overwhelmed. Monica entangled the undead in her thorny whip, and with amazing panache, whisked it up into the cavern ceiling, where it was impaled on a stalactite! The ghoul’s blackened viscera, along with its death screams, attracted a shark-like predator swimming in the well. The beast shot up out of the pit and snatched the lacedon like a prawn off a toothpick before vanishing from whence it came.

Temple Out of Time

Having defeated their foes, and with several passageways leading out of the well chamber to choose from, the Castaways selected one seemingly at random. A short tunnel to the east, further inland as opposed to those leading toward the sea, appeared to be part of a construction – a ruined hallway. Following it, the delvers set eyes on something never before seen by living human, elf, or coeval race:

A serpentfolk temple, aeons old, remarkably intact. A graven image of a cobra-headed humanoid loomed over the hall, and before it, a large red-bronze urn-shaped object was etched with glyphs. Three great obelisks, topped with amber orbs preserving the corpses of prehistoric snakes, were lined up in a central row.

The structure was a discovery that would make the name and fortune of any adventurer or scholar of history a thousand times over and send shockwaves throughout nations – if it could be reported in civilized lands. If not for the fact that they were stranded on a desert isle – and a murderous, once thought-to-be-extinct member of an ancient, advanced race of mind-controlling reptiles were there ahead of them – the gravitas of this archaeological find might have been better appreciated.

Also, the undead present were a big distraction. Four skeletal serpentine humanoids hissed at the intruders from portcullis-enclosed alcoves. In the hall’s corner opposite the statue, a hulking lacedon in tattered leathers that resembled poor Captain Kovack munched and sucked on yellowed bones amid a pile of ancient remains.

Finally, from the large urn in front of the statue, like a cobra conjured from its basket by a Vudrani punji player, the skull of an enormous fanged serpent coiled upward atop a sinuous body of ribs.

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The High Chief's Aegis

My old enemy… stairs.

After decimating the terrible Thrunefangs in the cannibals’ own camp, the witch-doctor the Castaways left alive for questioning had little more to offer in terms of information. As far as he knew, Ieana “the sorceress,” was in the lighthouse, a guest of the chief. As for the tribe’s fearless leader, “he be up there with his wives purifying himself for tonight’s feast” revealed the captive. He nodded toward Jask, “we was, after all, going to eat a holy man!” The savage added that only the chief’s wives were allowed in the upper floors of the tower.

It seamed the lighthouse was next on the plate for the adventurers, though there were some questions posed to Likki about what he might have learned from his mysterious “grandmother.” The Mongrukoo oracle intimated the truth of the creature’s origin and his relationship with her when he stated with all earnestness that “she following us now, and I supposed to go with you from now on.” Though the answer was apparent, the question as to dear Grandma’s present location was posed anyway. “She in the netherworld,” Likki whispered.

“Can we talk to her?” they asked. “I not recommend it,” Likki said, sorrowfully. “I go through three wives talking to her already.” After shaking off the “what-the-everloving-fuck” impression that chestnut left on them, Monica and Dornas deduced the minacious implications: Granny required sacrifice. Likki was prompted to explain that his matrilineal ancestor required vessels to speak through, preferably female, but the hosts usually didn’t survive. “Maybe future-sister strong enough?” the goblin wondered aloud, referring to Kishtari.

Choosing not to chew on the distasteful matter any more, the chat changed course to the usual “what now?” Jask opined that if there was indeed some evil lurking in the tunnels beneath the cannibals’ camp, the heroes should descend to take care of it. Especially so considering Captain Kovack, Ieana’s enslaved accomplice, might be alive down there. Monica agreed vehemently, but the lighthouse needed to be secured first, as the adventurers were certain that Ieana and the cannibal chieftain were holed up inside.

The party headed to the tower, save Kishtari, who turned a murderous eye – and a slightly less murderous knife – toward the captive witch-doctor. “Y… you say on your honor I get to live if I talked!” pleaded the evil shaman. The commotion brought the rest of the team back to the scene. “You!” scoffed Kor’lec, “you would appeal to our honor?” Nonetheless, the druid ordained that the party make good on their promise – so they tied the witch-doctor to the same post the cannibals had pilloried old Jask. “Let the rats have him.” The rest of the team agreed that was fitting, and probably so did the rats.

Just Slay No

After being especially careful to scan the lighthouse’s foyer for concealed traps, the Castaways proceeded into the tower itself. The ground floor of the old edifice was divvied up into three rooms. The immediate chamber was simply a reception area containing a crude stage with a throne of bones on it. Another chamber the party guessed was where Ieana made herself at home. Had made, for the room hadn’t been slept in for a few days at least. Ominously, there was a raw, rotting, half-eaten monitor lizard on the floor. The last and largest chamber was a clutter of evil knick-knacks from the ship Thrune’s Fang, including part of the figurehead. The cannibals had made up an unholy shrine around it.

The explorers returned to the entryway where a shift in the air caused the unmistakable scent of opium and pesh to waft down from the floors above.

“They’re really just up there getting high?” Kishtari marveled. The giggling that followed the narcotics’ aroma confirmed that was the case.

The stone staircase spiraled to the upper floor, where a single, shabby wood door separated the circuiting hallway from the source of the laughter and smoke. The heroes crouched just beyond the bend as Kish unfurled from her coif her serpentine homunculus, Naga, and sent it to peek through a gap between the door and the floor.

The cannibal chief was having himself a nice little party. He had four barbarous women arrayed around his chair in a chamber carpeted by furs and pillows. Two hookahs smoked profusely, and the five Thrunefangs looked happily oblivious to the slaughter the Castaways had just perpetrated on their doorstep. Content to leave the chief and his brides to their “purification rites,” the heroes attempted to seal the door shut with a combination of minor water- and cold-producing magics courtesy of Kor’lec and Dornas. But even in their less-than-mindful condition, the Thrunefangs almost couldn’t help but notice the muffled muttering of the two spellcasters’ magic words – that and the groaning, perspiring door right next to them. The stoned savages’ miens shifted into scowls and their eyes blazed with rabid ferocity. Their buzzkillers, totally busted, backed down and jostled around each other on the stairwell.

A pair of cannibal women each drew a pair of war-razors and charged out the door. Kor’lec was the first bleary shape the Thrunefang women recognized as an intruder, and he took some hideous cuts. Dornas got slashed as well. The spiral staircase favored the tower’s occupants, and the invaders could neither withdraw nor fight as effectively as they needed. Despite having just left a yard full of corpses, the lighthouse’s restrictive environment stymied the Castaways’ efforts to sustain their astonishing, homicidal winning-streak. Worse, the wives had high ground advantage and were way better warriors than those rubes whose corpses were piled up outside. “Only the best get to mate with the chief!” rasped the cannibal woman through broken teeth. “I don’t see anyone good enough to mate with,” quipped Kor’lec. The barbarian slashed him again, “I’ll cut out that tongue and eat it!”

It was no idle threat – on the stairs, a single warrior could do a lot of damage to an incursive enemy. Jask radiated healing energy that knit his rescuers’ wounds as the party coordinated a tactical withdrawal down to the ground floor. Only one Thrunefang pursued, buying the Castaways time to regroup. Dornas conjured an eldritch grease on the base of the stairs while Kor’lec produced a spider made of freaking fire. The elemental arachnid leapt upon the bloodthirsty bride, setting her alight as she struggled to keep her footing. Kai courageously braved the flames and launched herself talons-first at the burning barbarian. It didn’t take long before the fire and the wild woman’s wounds consumed her utterly.

Devils in the Details

“My thanks for culling the weak among my tribe,” bellowed the man’s voice from the top of the stairs, “we can fight all night, or we can talk!”

The cannibal leader was right – any attempt to take the tower by force could cost the Castaways more than they had to bargain. As foul as it was, the heroes agreed to parlay. “Come, avail yourself of my hospitality,” mocked the chieftain, "I’m called Klorak, the Red." Those of his wives who weren’t smoldering at the bottom of the stairs giggled and returned to their opium as if nothing happened.

Klorak was honest enough to admit that though he would have tried to kill them anyway, Ieana had indeed revealed the Castaways’ presence to him. As to the enchantress’s whereabouts, he had no clue. “Ask Nylithati, if you dare,” the cannibal chief mocked, “the one ya’ll seek left us in the night, right after she’d gone below to see Mother Thrunefang.”

Klorak wanted Ieana dead for infiltrating his camp and putting the screws to his mind. The chief went on to suggest that not only would he like Ieana served to him on a very literal platter, he wouldn’t be too broken up if the Castaways put an end to Nylithati, either. “Alive or otherwise, there always be a Mama Thrunefang.”

Though the Thrunefangs had abandoned their parent nation’s Diabolism and thrown in with Zura, Klorak at least seemed to enjoy hashing out a devil’s bargain. For one dead Ieana, he offered the Castaways three days to repair and utilize the lighthouse. Dornas had already figured it would only take half as long to get the reflector and its turning mechanism operational. As an added bonus, Klorak said the Thrunefangs would all do their level best not to eat them in the immediate future.

Kor’lec had been silent, but visibly ill-at-ease with the negotiations. Just before his companions finalized the deal, agreeing to deliver Ieana prêt à manger like so much catering, Kor’lec stalked out of the room.

“This makes me sick,” muttered the druid, and it wasn’t all the food talk.

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