‘I fear thee, ancient Mariner!’
Be calm, thou Wedding-Guest!
’Twas not those souls that fled in pain,
Which to their corpses came again,
But a troop of spirits blessed
This very eerie edition of Age of Serpents began as many classic tales of thrilling adventure do, dusk approaching, the men out hunting and the girls at home on the Brine Demon developing their relationships – Monica‘s with Science! and Kishtari’s with wine…
In the nearby jungle, Kor’lec and Kai were left alone to face a very formidable-looking bull dimetrodon, who had just killed two previously formidable-looking monitor lizards over a goat’s corpse. Dornas had magically vanished and taken cover, while Nemanji hung motionless in the canopy, bow drawn.
But the brawny sail-backed beast simply guarded his kills and growled at the half-elf, either not recognizing Kor’lec as a threat or somehow aware that the druid meant him no harm. The carnivore’s passivity was refreshing, because just about everything else previously encountered on Smuggler’s Shiv was out for blood. After a few tense moments, Kor’lec backed away from the mammal-like reptile and left him to his dinner. Rendezvousing with his teammates, Kor’lec, Nemanji, and Dornas discussed the apex predator’s presence so close to their base camp. The druid was certain that he could procure the old sail-back as an ally, and was loathe to destroy a beast that he and Nemanji agreed could only be part of a very small population. Dornas didn’t think that the work involved gaining the creature’s trust was worth the effort, joking “I know it has a sail but not the kind we need to get off this island.” But when Kor’lec pointed out that the dimetrodon could prove an invaluable weapon against the Thrunefang cannibals, the magus consented the very cool possibilities.
The sun was starting to set, and Kish was on the top deck drinking old wine and enjoying Aerys‘s Abendego Cantos, finding great inspiration in the narrative poem. Monica was working in a makeshift lab she had set up in the forecastle to reverse engineer the Mongrukoo ointment that protected the Shiv’s monkey goblins from disease. The rest were elsewhere around the area of the Brine Demon’s hulk.
Kish gulped down the last of the wine and noticed something strange at the bottom of the bottle, and it wasn’t sediment. Looking through the glass, it appeared as if a man were standing in front of her. Several sheets to the wind by this point, the kalashtar held the bottle in front of her eyes while trying to work out who her caller was. When she finally removed the bottle, whoever it was, or whatever it was, had disappeared. Kish was pretty sure it was the wine, but then she remembered the relentlessly deadly island she’d shipwrecked on. Kish braced herself and focused her psionic vision, and was disheartened to discover gauzy ephemeral strands floating about. Never a dull moment, it seemed. Kish picked up her lantern, thoughtfully put a weight on Aerys’s manuscript, and as the deck of the old scuttled hulk seemed to be rollicking on rough water, she carefully chose her steps to the lower deck.
Seconds later, Monica shared a similar glass-related encounter. The gun-slinging archaeologist’s sobriety served to shed a little more light on the intruder. The Taldan caught the reflection on one of her beakers of a tall man standing behind her – a man in mariner’s garb with a visage of death. The ghostly visitor reached up toward her… and one of his hands was a hook! “Aeshamara…” he moaned, then vanished as Monica stolidly turned to meet his gaze. The sharp-minded scholar had immediately deduced who the presence was, sensibly snuffed her burners, and went to find the others.
Monica soon caught Kishtari on the short stairwell leading down into the stern; the driest area of the Demon where most everyone had strung their hammocks. It was also where the Castaways discovered Captain Kinkarian’s remains. Few words were needed between the two adventurers, their expressions told the tale. There was a ghost, they were all in great danger, and it was time for action. Suddenly, a feminine screech tore through the deck from deeper back in the aft-castle. “Gelik”!! Monica cried.
The heroes soon came upon the gnome lying ghastly still, with much of his vibrancy and color blanched and dulled. Monica feared the worst as she took the little fellow in her arms. He was breathing, and Monica realized she hadn’t been since hearing Gelik cry out. The scholar only allowed herself a breath when her paramour began to whimper a bit. Sasha was standing nearby. “I had my back turned and the little guy said ‘look out!’ and shoved me so hard I landed on my face,” the teen ranger explained.
“I heard something groan something like ‘ash mama?’ Nobody gets the drop on me, but Gelik must have noticed something I didn’t, and when I got up and turned the light back on, he was like this! Oh, how brave of him! A brave gnome, who’d have guessed?” When asked if she saw anything else, Sasha predictably responded, "no, no the halfling is too well trained." Kish stumbled back out topside to find Jask. If they needed a miracle, only one nearby was specifically trained to work them.
Monica continued to cradle her wounded lover until she gathered herself, then gently set him down. Opening his blouse, the gnome’s chest bore the dissipating vestiges of a vicious hook-wound. Though the abrasion was merely ectoplasmic, the damage to the gnome’s soul was very real. With a bit of theatrical pretense that he probably couldn’t help, Gelik slowly blinked open his eyes and clutched Monica’s hand, “my dearest,” he said, and after a pause, “the ship… it is haunted!”
Dead Man’s Tale
The next scream heard was more of a shocked, raspy battle cry. The ghost, Captain Kinkarian, had found Aerys, who was, of course, a dead-ringer for the woman depicted in his gold locket.
Kish shone her lamp from the top deck out to the beach toward Jask, who was knee deep in the rising tide looking for crabs. Apparently he was making sure dinner would be served should the hunters come back empty handed. The besotted psion stammered out to him “ghost! Need help!” Jask misunderstood the words but the context was obvious. There was something strange, and it didn’t sound good.
The heroes rendezvoused and headed down to the mostly flooded hold of the battered brigantine, and discovered Aerys backing away from the insubstantial figure of Avret Kinkarian. The skeletal specter seemed spellbound by the half-elf, who had her ordinarily formidable fists raised in a defensive stance – but her hands couldn’t help her here. Kinkarian languidly floated toward the woman, his skeletal hand and hook reaching toward her. Aerys slowly withdrew backwards toward the wide break in the hulk that dropped into the lapping ocean. “My Aeshamara, you have come for me at last…” rejoiced the phantom pirate, his sepulchral voice tinged with hope and regret.
“The locket,” Monica exclaimed, “who has the gold locket?” The shrewd scholar was leading Gelik by the hand down the stairs. Kish was right beside them. The Taldan polymath knew that ghosts were shackled to the world of the living by memories and regrets; and like their living counterparts, associated their strongest feelings with objects. Monica, it seemed – and as usual – had worked it all out.
“I have it!” Kishtari exclaimed, but didn’t have time to give it to her teammate while she was throwing her lantern at the ghost. Which she did in response to… well, Kish was pretty drunk. His reverie broken, Kinkarian turned toward the heroes as his skeletal face morphed from passivity to hate and his eyes blazed with phantasmal flames. “Mutineers!” howled the undead captain. Then, to Aerys, he hissed, “you deceiver!”
The apparition raked his spectral hook across the half-elf’s throat. Aerys faltered backward, hands still raised uselessly like a cold-cocked pugilist, as streaks of white appeared in her indigo locks and wrinkles etched themselves across her face. "Someday, I will find a way to hurt you ", threatened the Shackles brawler.
Monica repeated, “the locket?” and when unacknowledged — again — tried to calm Kinkarian down. “The mutineers have been defeated my Captain!” But the ghost remained enraged as he turned his eyes on her. Gelik had been holding the archaeologist’s hand, kissed it, and let it drop. “Wish me luck!” he said, “tallyho!” and the gnome entered melee with the piratey presence. Muttering an incantation, his ink-stained fingers beamed aglow with golden positrons.
Thus it was Gelik who drew first blood against the Castaways’ spectral foe. After his hand passed through Kinkarian, the ghost moaned and seemed to bleed white. The gnome had cast a simple healing spell whose energy was antithetical to the undead. His second attempt to wound the presence was not successful, and neither was Monica’s attempt to do the same thing. Kinkarian was a swordsman in life who deftly dodged their attacks.
Kish was likewise having trouble nailing the undead pirate with crystal missiles manifested from her psyche, and finally acknowledged what Monica was trying to communicate about the locket. The psion dug the potential fetter from her pocket and tossed it to Aerys. The half-elf swallowed her rage and understood what she had to do as Kinkarian raised his hook to finish off Gelik.
“Avret,” she yelled, then gulped. “My love. Please stop.” The ghostly mariner turned and beheld the living facsimile of his lost love bearing the trinket that meant the worlds to him. “Aeshamara,” he said “it is you! At last.” Kinkarian reached toward Aerys with a look of euphoric joy. “I… am… so… sorry…” When his skeletal hand clasped upon the locket, the ghost’s form dispersed into millions of motes of twinkling light that drifted to the floor – and vanished. The Brine Demon was haunted no more.
The Usual Functional Discordance
Jask finally arrived in time to help Monica convey curative magics on Gelik and Aerys, which restored their youth and vigor. Sasha showed up to let everyone know her halfling stalker was nowhere outside. Finally, the trio of huntsmen arrived with a hard-fought handbasket of horned melons for dinner. Nobody would be getting scurvy on their watch! Everyone wearily debriefed everyone else, and consequently, everyone thought everyone else was kidding.
When it approached time to bed down, Aerys and Kish had yet another touching heart-to-heart that this time, devolved into an argument. Aerys said she wanted to gather up Kinkarian’s bones for a proper burial at sea, but still didn’t like the feel of the locket. She gave it to Kish while admitting her admiration for the adventurous kalashtar. Though Avret Kinkarian was likely on his way to join Besmara’s crew, Kish saw a trace of the felonious captain remained to protect the bearer of the locket. When the comfort level between the two women reached its tipping point, Aerys threw out an ambiguous intimate invitation to her new friend… that was not well-received. Both tried to salvage the moment while sniping at the other, and finally Aerys just threw her hands up and claimed she was kidding anyway. Kish shoved the Abendego Cantos back in the half-elf’s hand and curtly said “going to bed. It was really good.”
The rest of the night passed without incident, and despite the horrors everyone had encountered in the moments before nightfall, they all slept peacefully…
Morning arrived and the nine Castaways gathered on the tilted upper-deck where Jask had set up a makeshift table and chairs for breakfast. Aerys brought some water and comforting words to Kish, who was nursing a hangover. No hard feelings, assured the Shackles native. Aerys knew what it was like to misfire when one’s head was soaked in wine.
Kor’lec revealed to the group the presence of the grig Pollock and the little shit’s hate-on for Likki. The away team discussed all their options and reached a consensus to follow Ieana’s trail. She had too much a head start already on whatever it was she was after and needed to answer for her crimes. Then Likki arrived, exhausted from moving nearly non-stop through the trees to his village and back. He had a few more ointments, and a message summoning Kishtari on behalf of his brother Cenkil. The party consensus shattered into pieces. Though the pros and cons were considered for heading back to Mongrukoo territory for more gobliny intrigue, and while there, maybe going back up to Black Widow Bluff to use the Beast Stone to reach the alleged Spirit of the Island, or possibly even doing the Nightvoice quest… the Castaways eventually felt it was better to gain ground on the serpent priestess.
And so they were off.
First World Problems
On the trail, Nemanji brought up his ire with Kishtari, namely, the incident that nearly got him killed. Everyone started to argue the point when Likki intervened. The monkey goblin firmly but gently got everyone to see the issue from the others’ perspective. Kish (“future-sister,” Likki called her) wanted to preserve snakes, and if the team thought the psion had value, if they cared about her, they ought to make a token effort. Everyone saw the wisdom in the Mongrukoo shaman’s call for compromise, and finally even Nemanji agreed to try for Kish’s sake to avoid slaying their ophidian opponents – assuming they were innocent animals and there was some alternative. In return, there was a strict moratorium on Kish using her scary, swiftly-developing abilities on her teammates.
Touched by Likki’s concern for his newfound family, the Castaways started brainstorming schemes to safeguard him from Pollock. As if on cue, the ex-mite appeared hovering before them, breaking the fairy glamour that rendered him invisible. “Gah,” the grig said with his palm on his face, “so much ‘gah.’ You folks do get that I am owed my vengeance?” Nobody agreed. Except Likki.
“I will fight,” said the monkey goblin.
“What? No way!” said most everyone else, to variable degree.
Pollock had the biggest, smuggest grin. Someone asked him what his goddamn deal was. "The goblin murdered me in cold blood. You are all responsible for the death of my father and brothers, but killing the grandson of Grougak, and the most loved son of Basako, will give me satisfaction. If you want to meet the Spirit of the Island, my demands will be met." While he was talking, Kish subtly wove her mind into the fey’s consciousness.
“Where is this Spirit?” Kish asked. The grig stifled a laugh, “I’m not telling you that.” Yet he did in his mind, and Kish got a good impression of his flight path to the tree-covered hill where the Spirit dwelt. It wasn’t far out of their way, actually. However, Kish made the mistake of asking the fey for more information on the Klixarpillar grudge with the Mongrukoo, and was treated to a mnemonic montage of horrors: goblin raiders, led by a bloodthirsty Grougak, barging into the mite nursery, smashing and spearing mitelings, and killing the creche-mother just after she managed to stuff six of the mite kids – and an invisibility decanter that the Castaways now had – into an escape tunnel.
Though it hadn’t been a quarter hour since the moratorium on Kish using her powers on her teammates, she linked her mind with Kor’lec’s solely to communicate what she knew. Despite the fact that she apologized – profusely – and insisted the power she was using to speak telepathically was incapable of delving into surface thoughts, the druid resented the mental intrusion — and rebuked the psion for it. In any case, the information the kalashtar conveyed was revealing to the druid. The mighty baobab tree ringed by smaller counterparts on the hill said it all to Kor’lec: dryad.
Likki interrupted the circular arguments persisting between the grig and the Castaways. “I will fight,” he repeated. “Good,” said Pollock with a coprophagous grin, “the goblin dies next dawn.” The fey vanished.
Thus started the arguments, Dornas and Monica admonished “you’d be throwing your life away.” “We have what we need from him,” Kish pointed out. Several others were familiar with the magical abilities of grigs, and Likki’s tendency to use a torch as a melee weapon, “he’ll turn flame against you!” it was argued. Though the Castaways made short work of them, Nemanji did note that the mites were in fact well-trained soldiers. “I will not stop you. But. If he has retained his skills, you can not match him,” testified the tiefling. Everyone presumed that despite the difference in size, the grig fighter would trounce the goblin oracle in a duel.
“None of that matters,” answered the monkey goblin, with the same gravitas that helped the away team come to terms on their issues earlier. “One of Likki’s wives with child now. Child no have coward for father.”
He continued, with a downcast mien, “Likki kill when enemy helpless. Make Likki happy at time.”
Monica was affected by the goblinoid’s words, and perhaps academically intrigued by polemic socio-philosophic ideas concerning “evil humanoids” like goblins. “Do you feel guilty about that? Do you feel it was wrong?” Likki admitted that he wasn’t sure, that the few days he’d been among the Castaways had made him see things differently. He was clearly pulled and torn by doing right by his family, his tribe, and his new friends – and indeed the Castaways were certainly friends to be as invested in his survival as they showed in those moments. Even ever-pragmatic Dornas offered, “nobody is going to stop you, but there is no need to indulge that fey. We need you.”
Likki tugged his ears in aching aggravation and climbed into the wicker creel on Nemanji’s back. “Need think. Sun bright.”
The Bloody Doll
Ieana’s trail led to a stretch of bouldery beach on the Shiv’s inner lagoon. The beach was infested with rock crabs, a few dangerously large. Though these crustaceans were normally difficult to spot amid the natural stones and plinths, the Castaways sussed them out with ease. With but a few moments teamwork, the explorers rigged a trap to lure a particularly large specimen to its doom. The animal was quickly butchered for eating later, and the heroes proceeded along the beach. When the shore started to rise to a cliff, the group immediately spotted the remnants of a camp – a partially-collapsed hut and long snuffed campfire. Kor’lec scouted ahead. Standing there, staring hopelessly out to sea, was a woman in a fancy, but tattered dress. The druid and his dinosaur companion inched closer, as the rest of the party carefully made their way behind him.
The woman turned away from the sea and vacantly looked toward the heroes’ direction. Writhing green vines bearing yellow buds permeated the woman’s flesh and orifices. It seemed there was no end to the Shiv’s twisted perversions of nature.