Make sure everybody in your boat is rowing and not drilling holes when you’re not looking. Know your circle.
The Castaways finished up their morning making preparations for an extended hike along the coast of Smuggler’s Shiv’s great lagoon. Kishtari noticed Pezock perched on a rock, longingly looking out to sea. Before they were joined by the rest, the kalashtar and the tengu chatted alone, and Pezock showed her vague, luminescent faces in the surf. As the ghostly figures vanished in the light of the sunrise, Pezock said he spoke to them sometimes, but couldn't decide if the phantasma really answered him back.
In a moment of lucidity, the avian admitted that he was conflicted about joining up with the heroes, though he was reminded that the Castaways were not unanimously in favor of it anyway. Pezock asserted that the beach had been his home for at least a decade, and he’d hate to leave behind the friends he’s made, even if they are just ghosts and shellfish.
When asked what he could contribute to the party, the unhinged bird-man unsheathed his magic saw-tooth saber and demonstrated his skill with a splendid sword dance. "I wouldn’t mind using this on the Thrunefangs, " declared the tengu, “they ate my friends and left me with no one to talk to!”
Unfortunately, the heroes could not reach a consensus on whether or not to let Pezock join them on their adventures – though they probably knew more about him and his abilities than they knew about one another.
“Rats off to Ya!”
Leaving poor, crazy Pezock at home, the Castaways made their way west. Kish cautiously mentioned the surf ghosts and Kor’lec nonchalantly informed her that he already knew about them. The psion was curious as to why he never discussed them, and whether or not they constituted a threat. Dornas answered that the druid had reported their presence to him, and no, they didn’t seem to be dangerous. Kish let slide what might have been an oversight on the two men’s part, but was unsettled by the possibility that they were deliberately keeping things from her.
Rounding the lagoons’s corner to turn south, the heroes took note of the two islets further north. They were reachable, at low tide at least, via rocks and reefs that poked out from the sea. To the far north was the foreboding “isle of never going there” whose purple-gray overgrowth contrasted significantly with the lush greenery of the rest of the Shiv.
After a mile or two south, the sandy beach began to break up into an upward incline of jagged stones, and that’s when the signs of some sort of predator gave the travelers pause. Giant pouched rats, a vicious Mwangi rodent about the size of a jackal, prowled the area. Though they hoped to meet the threat on their own terms, the party were too late to avoid the starving muridae before they began to poke their sniffing snouts out from their hiding places in the cracks and crevasses of the rocky shoreline.
Six of the animals revealed themselves and bared their filthy brown tusks before charging the heroes, deftly skipping across the jagged stones. What were barely a challenge to most nascent adventuring parties proved more formidable to the Castaways than expected, as Monica and Kor’ec were subjected to brutal bites. Dornas finally demonstrated his developing mastery of martial magicry, vaulting over the rats to vanquish a few with an ice spell levied via a smack of his staff. Nemanji was impressed, and perhaps a little jealous, to see a teammate approach his level in the art of bloodshed, but there were more than enough rodents for everyone.
Sink or Swim
Finally giving in to Monica’s repeated appeals to explore some of the more intact shipwrecks surrounding the island, the party spotted a promising candidate in relatively calm waters barely a hundred feet off shore. The Castaways waded out, but at about thirty feet from the shoreline, the woeful realization sunk in that not all of them took to the water like ducks, and a few were as stones.
Monica and Kish struggled in vain, then failed, to keep their heads above water as the shelf dropped away from their tiptoes. The others only noticed that they were missing when they were almost to the shipwreck. Dornas turned back and scooped up Monica before looking for Kish. Panic started to creep in as the psion was nowhere to be found, and Dornas couldn’t trust Monica to tread water on her own. With every passing microsecond, it seemed more likely that Kishtari had been swept away by the undertow. The best anyone could hope for was a miracle – or that the telepath would reach out for rescue with her mind.
It seemed as if their adventure had taken a turn for the worst, when it suddenly got a lot worse.
Those bitten by the rats a bit earlier hadn’t thought their injuries too big of a deal, until their blood in the water attracted a trio of blue requiem sharks. Perhaps it was fortunate that Kor’lec had swum furthest out, for the hungry threesome were momentarily distracted by the druid’s attempt to talk things out with them. The sharks were not too interested in conversation, however, and while it was always difficult to translate an animal’s thoughts to words, theirs were quite plain: “blood”, “blood” and “eat”.
Kishtari continued to sink and drift out to sea, and when she detected the sharks, casually focused her mind in their direction. One of them fell into shark-sleep but the other two remained pretty stoked to eat Kish and Monica, who were, to them, indistinguishable from seriously injured turtles.
Two things happened to prevent any of our heroes from dying in such an ignominious and random manner. Kor’lec had made it back to shore and had tossed out several rat carcasses – the ones Likki hadn’t previously gorged himself to a coma on – into the lagoon. The sharks seemed okay with the offering, even though they had to wait for the undertow to make up for Kor’lec’s mediocre throw. The other was Nemanji’s red-demon ape-hand reaching to a drowning Kish and saving the woman who nearly cost him his own life just the other day.
Though the shipwreck and whatever treasures it might have held remained beyond their reach, the Castaways found something far more valuable: their lives, and a better understanding of each others’ limits.
The Spirit of the Hill
By mid-afternoon, the adventurers reached the hillock that they knew to be the home of whom Pollock called “the spirit of the island.” The gentle slope was not a rough climb, and at the apex of the rise the Castaways were greeted by the site of a circle of trees, several small baobabs encircling one large and very old baobab. The striking tableau called to mind worshipers kneeling in supplication. Cautiously the Castaways approached, and the bark patterns of the largest tree morphed into the form of a captivating woman. The dryad emerged and strode toward the explorers with a purposeful, but friendly gait.
"I am Aycenia," said the fey in perfect Taldane, “and you I know, priest of the Green,” addressing Kor’lec directly. After introductions were made, the dryad hinted at the information and benefits she proffered, though these were, she admitted, exaggerated by her messenger. She knew or could find out information from the land itself, and possessed magic that could restore power to Kor’lec’s reincarnation amulet. She could heal wounds and ailments, and most importantly, her hill was a safe place, avoided by the cannibals camped to the south.
Apparently none of this was particularly appealing to the Castaways, save Kor’lec. Though they tentatively agreed to her quest to remove the gray blight from the oft-mentioned “isle of never going there,” Nemanji in particular started interrogating Aycenia and bargaining for more immediate favors. When the dryad’s answers were not satisfactory to the demon-spawn, he became agitated and disrespectful. Soon some of the others joined in to make light of Aycenia’s plight. The dryad simply turned her back and returned to her tree. Kor’lec was silently livid.
The party, all feeling less-than-welcome, left the hill as Pollock suddenly appeared just to sardonically applaud their diplomatic “expertise.” “She is a dryad,” he explained, mockingly, “and very old. She expects her appearances to carry a little gravitas.”
After a bout of mindful meditation at Aycenia’s tree, Kor’lec caught up with the others at the bottom of the hill. Nemanji and he argued about how the scene played out. The barbarian admitted that she rubbed him the wrong way and didn’t trust her. “I would cut down her tree!” boasted the tiefling, and it seemed very likely that he would given half the chance.
It dawned on Kor’lec that Aycenia might have been just as reticent, for good reason; perhaps bringing an axe-wielding demon to a nature spirit’s sacred grove didn’t make the best impression.
The Isle of Totally Going There
Having agreed among themselves to complete the dryad’s quest, the heroes headed back northwest. They crossed from the main of the Shiv over a bridge of jagged stones, then the sparsely-vegetated islet preceding their destination. It was getting dark, and the tide had risen above the kelp-covered rubble connecting the two islets. Even in the gloaming dusk, the alien landscape of the furthest isle was ominously apparent. A gray carpet of mold and towering dull-purple fungal stalks were seen to writhe against the wind, giving the impression of clutching talons clawing their way out of leaden soup. Likki reported “guys” moving about in the shadows of the purplish stalks. Monica explained her feelings that the vegetation of the gray island was most certainly alien, and resembled some of the corrupted fungi found deep in the Darklands. “There has to be a living source,” she said, “remove it, and the place will return to normal in time.”
The Castaways decided not to attempt the crossing until sunrise, and made camp on the first isle in view of the morrow’s adventure. As the party began to bed down, a flapping sound was noticed above the crash of the shore. The night was dark, the stars only revealed themselves in flashes beyond the gaps in the clouds. But the intermittent starlight was enough to reveal the approaching flier as it grew from a dot above the horizon to a familiar silhouette. The Red Mountain Devil was coming, and it was carrying something large and oblong in its taloned feet.
Nemanji instantly kipped up from slumber and had an arrow ready to fly. Despite the impossible distance and breakneck speed of his target, the tiefling hunter squinted and released the bowstring. With a resounding twang the projectile soared hundreds of feet toward the approaching beast – and struck true! The bundle it carried dropped as the winged chupacabra rolled into a spin, its spine-tingling screech piercing the gloom of night. The Devil’s howls betrayed the fact that the wound Nemanji’s crack marksmanship delivered to it was no small one – the beast was vulnerable, killable.
The chupacabra regained itself, turned in the opposite direction and vanished above the cloud cover as its package rolled on the rocky islet’s surface. When it came to a stop at the heroes’ feet, the challenge the Red Mountain Devil posed became certain. The Castaways had sent the monster a warning, but received one in turn. For the object the winged beast dropped was an animal’s freshly-decapitated head, wrenched free from the body of a very familiar bull dimetrodon.