Skulls of the Serpent
Although Dante wanted to immediately search for the traitorous pair of Captain Kovack and Ieana, he reluctantly agreed with the wisdom of Vayla, Dhanga, and Ren that the most prudent course of action would be to set up a temporary campsite and rest for the night.
The sun was just beginning its descent toward the horizon, and the rains that had made the heat of the midday bearable were dissipating, giving way to clearer skies. The group of castaways gathered together and assessed their possessions, determining what would be beneficial for setting up a camp.
From the wreckage of the Jenivere, Ren, Dante, and Dhanga had managed to rescue most of the personal equipment of the survivors, as well as many other useful items from the ship’s kitchen, storage hold, and captain’s chamber.
Ishirou, the rugged man from Tian Xia, had reclaimed his samurai armor, which was so battle-worn and rusted that it appeared as though it would provide little real protection in a fight. The man from the far east had also recovered his beautiful katana, which stood in stark contrast to the armor. Where the armor was dingy and pitted, barely held together by rusting or rotten straps, the sword’s blade gleamed brightly, with a golden engraving of a serpentine dragon along its length. The hilt was pure ivory carved in the shape of a second long dragon, with the pommel’s carved ruby representing the beast’s fiery breath. Ishirou seemed particularly grateful when Ren returned the katana to him, stating that it was his only real link to his former life and culture. Ren had noticed that Ishirou carried himself with the countenance of a warrior, and the anti-paladin was complimentary when he handed over the blade.
Aerys, the gruff and severe half-elven woman, had been primarily interested in reclaiming her personal chest, which was particularly heavy, laden as it was with clothing, bottles of fine spirits, and several tomes. The woman quickly discarded most of the clothing onto the sand, pulled out a bottle of clear alcohol, and slowly sipped on it while she assisted the group in building the campsite. In addition, she donned her chain shirt and strapped a sheathed longsword to her waist in case the group was attacked again.
Gelik, the finely dressed gnome, had initially claimed not to care whether his possessions were returned or not, instead focusing on the safety and well-being of the others. However, with every trip that Dhanga, Dante, and Ren made back to the Jenivere to retrieve equipment, the gnome became more and more persistent in asking whether his equipment had been located. When the group finally handed the gnome his gear, which included several fine suits, a personal journal, a longsword, and a short bow, Gelik muttered under his breath about not being fully appreciated.
The young red-haired woman, Sasha, asked only that her fighting equipment be returned: a rapier, a curved blade known as a kukri, and a chain shirt. She happily assisted the group, skipping and whistling as if she were on vacation, and doing her best to bolster the spirits of the castaways by remarking on the natural beauty of the island.
Finally, Jask, the Mwangi man who was bound in shackles, requested yet again to be released from his bonds. He claimed that the obsidian dagger and leather armor recovered in the captain’s quarters, as well as the spell component pouch and holy symbol found there, were his and that they should be returned to him immediately. Eva pulled Vayla, Ren, and Dante aside and argued that the group should free the shackled man so that he could assist the survivors. She reasoned that the group would likely need the services of the divine spellcaster if they were to survive on this deserted island. Furthermore, the holy symbol that Jask claimed was his was of a good-aligned deity, suggesting that Jask may be telling the truth about being framed for a crime he didn’t commit. After a brief discussion, the group agreed to free Jask. However, before doing so, Ren questioned the man extensively, asking him to recount his story several times. By the time Ren was convinced that Jask was telling the truth, the Mwangi man was so frustrated and angry that even unlocking his manacles didn’t brighten the man’s mood. He stoically thanked Ren for freeing him, perhaps with a slight amount of sarcasm in his voice, and sulked by himself, helping the group only occasionally.
In addition to personal gear, Dante, Dhanga, and Ren had brought back shovels, axes, several long boards, netting, a block and tackle, and several other items that they felt might prove useful for erecting a campsite.
From deeper within the jungle, the sounds of whooping and hollering monkeys could be heard, and it appeared as though the activity of the primates was increasing as the afternoon transitioned to evening. In addition, large birds of prey, distinctively colored in dark reds and purples, could be seen circling farther along the coastlines to the north and south. It appeared that late afternoon was a time of great activity on the island, as the heat of the day faded and the island’s atmosphere became more pleasant.
However, with the dropping temperature came the biting flies and mosquitoes. The insects had been a minor nuisance earlier, but their numbers quickly escalated to the point of severity. Dhanga warned the group that on the mainland of Sargava, which was likely at or near their current latitude, such biting flies were known to carry a multitude of diseases, and that it would be wise to find a way to avoid the insects, either by constructing a small shelter or by building a campfire to ward off the creatures. Vayla and Grud, with their familiarity with the outdoors, agreed, and the pair led the group deeper into the heart of the jungle to find a suitable place to set up a more solid and defensible campsite. Vayla asked if anyone would be willing to carry her large tent, and Dante immediately stepped up and offered to help. However, it was soon clear that the young man had neither the strength nor the stamina to carry the relatively heavy tent through the dense jungle foliage, and Ren soon convinced Dante to allow him to carry the item.
Along the way, Vayla and Grud kept their eyes open for any plants that might serve as a natural insect repellant, but were unable to find such a botanical salve.
Despite her near-total blindness, Vayla took the lead, guiding the party by following the ‘stars’ at the edge of her limited vision. While Eva, Dante, and Ren knew enough of Vayla’s prescient powers to trust in the oracle, the rest of the group was more hesitant, questioning how successfully a blind woman could lead the group. In short time, however, the group found themselves approaching an overhanging region of a sheer cliff wall. Long, thick vines hung off the lip of the cliff, forming a crude wall that enclosed the region somewhat. The combination of the vine wall and a small campfire under the overhanging cliff face all but eliminated the biting insects.
A hundred yards from the group’s new campsite, a thin waterfall plummeted into a small pool, providing a clean source of water for the dehydrated castaways. This, combined with the small amount of food scavenged from the wreckage of the Jenivere, was enough to fill the stomachs of the survivors.
From the beach that the group had originally awoken upon, the interior of the island rose steeply to a ridge line some two miles inland. That central ridge seemed to run parallel to the beach, and from it, several sharp fins of land projected out to the ocean, forming a series of ridges and valleys along the island’s length. The campsite that Vayla had lead the party to was in one such valley, and from this location, the group could see little of the island beyond the bay where the Jenivere sat.
As the sun dropped to the edge of the horizon, the waters of the bay shone with a brilliant emerald color. Strangely, this hue persisted long after the sun had fully set, causing the waters near the island to glow, seemingly of their own accord, with an ethereal fluorescent green. The light was too dim to navigate by, but bright enough to notice the crashing waves. None of the survivors could explain the persistent glow of the waters, and the effect left the castaways with a somewhat eerie feeling throughout the evening.
Throughout the night, at least two individuals kept watch and maintained the campfire while the rest of the group slept. Eva and Vayla shared the oracle’s tent, while the rest of the castaways slept on the relatively soft ground, evenly spaced around the fire. The night was silent except for the distant crashing of waves, the occasional howl of a monkey in the distance, or the flutter of bats or small birds of prey making their way through the night air. The only light came from the group’s campfire, the moon and stars overhead, and the subtle greenish glow of the water in the bay.
The first pair to stay awake and guard the camp were Issa and Ishirou. As the only two survivors originally hailing from the eastern continents, the pair had much in common. Throughout the night, the two spoke of their childhood and the travels that brought them to the western edge of Avistan and down to the primal continent of Sargava. Issa managed to befriend the normally close-lipped Ishirou. The Tian man explained that his father had been an ocean trader, and that as a child, Ishirou had always longed to stop his family’s endless wanderings and force his parents to settle down in one location. To this end, the young Ishirou foolishly set fire to his father’s ship, only to watch in abject horror as his father died trying to put out the flames. The shame of that incident weighed heavily upon Ishirou throughout his formative years, and it was clear to Issa that the man still had a hard time forgiving himself. Upon becoming an adult, Ishirou fell in with the Aspis Consortium, a notorious group of merchants from Tian Xia known to deal in illegal materials and to use strong-arm tactics to ensure steady business. After years of working for the Consortium, Ishirou had finally paid off his debt to the group. However, he did not wish to remain in his homeland, and instead left for the western edge of the world, seeking to start a new life in Avistan. His last act had been to steal several maps from a high-ranking Consortium marshal, and he explained to Issa that he believed that one of these treasure maps may detail Smuggler’s Shiv. Issa convinced Ishirou to share the map with the rest of the group, although he insisted that the treasure marked upon the map was his and Issa’s to split.
With that, Ishirou and Issa woke the next pair to keep watch: Eva and Jask. Jask was still clearly in a foul mood and did not appear to be interested in speaking with Eva. The young woman tried her best to engage the Mwangi man in friendly conversation, but every inquiry was met with suspicion. Issa was having a hard time sleeping, and she rose and sat next to Eva and joined in the conversation as well, hoping that she might be able to get the former prisoner to open up. However, she only managed to further enrage Jask, and the man eventually stomped away from the campfire and laid down to sleep far away from the others in the group. It was clear that he was frustrated and angry with the group in general.
Several hours later, Dante and Sasha took their turn on watch. Eva subtly sneered at Sasha as the young sorceress passed the red-haired girl on her way to Vayla’s tent, a gesture that neither Sasha nor Dante seemed to notice. Dante was quite interested in getting to know more about the pretty young Sasha, and tried to engage her in idle chatter. Sasha seemed pleasant and affable until Dante asked her about her family back home, at which point her attitude abruptly shifted. The girl’s eyes narrowed and she wrinkled her nose at Dante, saying that she didn’t want to talk about it. Dante apologized and tried to shift the conversation to Sasha’s home country, but again, the young woman seemed offended at being asked the question. She huffed, crossed her arms angrily, and moved to the opposite end of the campfire from Dante, refusing to speak with the young knight any further, and the pair sat the rest of their watch in awkward silence.
The next few hours were spent with Ren patiently listening to Gelik’s rude and crass jokes, which were mostly told at the expense of the other castaways. Ren was gracious and did not specifically call out Gelik’s rudeness, although the warrior did try to steer the conversation to a more productive pattern. Ren asked Gelik, who had claimed to be a writer and actor of comedic plays, if the gnome could give a brief performance to make the hours pass more quickly. Gelik beamed at the opportunity to show off his acting skills, and the gnome put on a one-man performance of a somewhat trite and hackneyed one-man play. Although Ren was less-than-impressed with both the material and with Gelik’s acting, he feigned interest and gave the gnome many seemingly sincere compliments. Gelik was incredibly grateful for the attention and offered to teach Ren the secrets of comedic improvisation if he was so interested in the future. Ren agreed to take him up on the offer and the two chatted pleasantly for the remainder of their watch.
Finally, Dhanga and Grud had the early morning watch. The pair sat in near silence, meditating or quietly observing the natural world until the rest of the castaways began to awaken with the rising morning sun. Gelik was the last to rise, and the gnome was clearly suffering from some form of sickness. His face and skin was flush and he had a significant fever. In addition, he complained of a severe headache. Vayla tended to the man and diagnosed his illness as mindfire, a treatable, but potentially deadly disease that inflames the skin and the brain. She immediately set about treating the gnome, although she realized that proper long-term care would require better equipment than what she currently had on hand. Nevertheless, she did her best to aid the gnome.
Immediately after waking, Dante pressed the group onward, anxious to search the island for the whereabouts of Captain Kovack and Ieana. Ren suggested that the short, but strenuous hike to the high ridge line half a mile inland might provide a better view of the island and may give the party some hint as to where to begin their search. Dante and Ren suggested that they might go alone up the ridge and come back down to report what they saw, but after a brief discussion, it was decided that for the safety of all in the group, it would be best to stick together. Gelik put on a brave face and did his best to keep up with the group, which was not difficult considering that the thick jungle and steep ridge forced everyone to move at an extremely slow pace.
Shortly after the group started on their trek, Eva noticed that Jask was missing. Indeed, no one remembered seeing the Mwangi native after the group awoke. The last individuals to have seen Jask, it seemed, were Dante and Sasha. During the early parts of their conversation, before Sasha became upset at Dante, Jask had risen to relieve himself. Neither Dante nor Sasha recalled the man returning, and a quick re-examination of the campsite revealed that he had taken his leather armor, dagger, and holy symbol with him, indicating that he had purposefully left the group. Although all of the remaining castaways were saddened by his leaving, particularly Eva and Issa, who felt that something they had said the night before may have been the tipping point in his decision, it was decided that the group could not afford to search for the man, and instead continued on their journey.
Two hours later, the castaways arrived at the peak of the ridgeline and found that they were on a long arm of a roughly crescent-shaped island. Comparing what they saw to the island depicted on Ishirou’s map of Smuggler’s Shiv, the group surmised that they were, indeed, upon the notorious island, and they were able to position themselves along the isle’s northern-most edge. The island curved from north to east to south, with a small opening in the west that led to a relatively calm cove on the interior of the island. In addition, a smaller island sat perched in the western entrance to the cove, an island that appeared entirely devoid of the lush green plant life that existed everywhere else on the island. Pulling out a spyglass that he had obtained from the captain’s quarters of the Jenivere, Ren examined the gray island, noticing that it was densely covered in dull-gray, tree-sized mushrooms. In addition, he thought he saw something moving about on the island, although he didn’t have enough resolution in the spyglass to determine what it was. Ren handed the spyglass to the others and they too could see subtle movements on the island. It appeared that the moving figures were well camouflaged to blend in with the gray mushrooms and stone of the island.
On the southern edge of the cove sat several sandy beaches, each at least half a mile long and separated from each other by sharp ridges or sea-side cliff walls. Two of these beaches appeared to have small, somewhat primitive-looking campsites, with a fire-ring and several lean-to shelters erected near the border of the jungle. The third beach was relatively empty, likely because of the nearly twenty-foot-tall crab that sat sunning itself on the sands.
Looking north from the ridge line to the ocean proper, three wrecked ships could be seen among the rocky outcroppings that surrounded Smuggler’s Shiv. One of these was the Jenivere. The other two looked to be considerably older, given the sun-bleached color of their wood and the mere tatters that remained of their sails. No movement was seen around any of the shipwrecks, and the party decided that the best course of action to locate Captain Kovack and Ieana would be to walk around the island to examine the two campsites to the south or possibly try to make their way onto the gray, mushroom-covered island.
The group traveled along the top edge of the ridge line, surmising that this would afford them the best view of the coastline on either side of the ridge, as well as prevent them from having to continually hike up and down the ridge. As the sun reached its zenith, many in the group began complaining of the intense heat, and to avoid exhaustion, the party rested in the shade of a large banyan tree during the hottest several hours of the day. A troop of small, monkeys, their coats a blend of browns, blacks, and ochres, skittered about in the tree above the group, curious enough to look, but not courageous enough to climb down from the safety of their perch.
With the food scavenged from the Jenivere long since eaten, many of the survivors were growing hungry. In addition, Aerys began complaining that she had consumed her last drop of spirits, and she bemoaned the thought of living on this deserted island without alcohol. Grud and Vayla briefly took leave of the party to forage in the nearby jungle and in short order, returned with enough food to feed the entire group. Vayla had taken note that many trees and bushes in the area bore fruit and berries, and the oracle gathered as many of these as she could carry. For his part, Grud managed to track down a wild goat, felling it quickly with a well-placed shot of his sling. After a small fire had been started, the group managed to cook or dry most of the goat meat, as well as several carrot-like tubers that Grud had discovered.
With their bellies full and the blazing heat of the midday sun passing, the survivors rose and continued their trek along the ridge line, heading east. For the next several hours, the party continued their uneventful hike until the sun was once more nearing the horizon. At this point in their journey, the ridge began to turn southward, rising to a high peak that the party could not see beyond. It was decided that the group would make camp at the peak after surveying the surrounding environs.
A few minutes later, standing atop the ridge’s peak, Ren and Eva scouted the island’s interior with the spyglass. The large cove was now to the west of the party, and the ocean to their east. The heart of the island sat to their south, a dense, lush mass of jungle flora covering every square inch of sharply undulating land.
Looking down at the coastline to the east, the pair saw a small bay that ended in a sandy beach. Peering through the spyglass, Eva could make out a small fire pit and several items of clothing, including a tricorn hat and several brightly-colored strips of cloth. Eva gasped as she realized that the tricorn hat looked identical to the one Captain Kovack always wore, and that the strips of cloth looked similar to the colored scarves that Ieana donned each evening at the communal dinner.
Eva immediately informed the group and Dante hurriedly grabbed the spyglass to confirm for himself. The young knight-in-training agreed that the items of clothing likely belonged to Ieana and Captain Kovack, and he immediately started bounding down the steep hillside toward the beach. Ren struggled to keep up with Dante, but after a few minutes, the pair stopped and realized that it would take several hours of relatively dangerous scrambling to get down to the beach, and that they would be doing most of that traveling in the dark of night. They decided to return to the rest of the group to set up camp and seek out the traitorous captain in the morning.