Skulls of the Serpent
The campsite awoke to the sounds of Gelik retching. It seemed as though the poor gnome had contracted a second disease overnight, one that included vomiting and diarrhea among its symptoms. Once again, Vayla tended to the man, identifying his new illness as the red ache, a blood-borne disease that threatened to weaken the man with every passing day.
While Vayla did her best to assist Gelik, she recounted to the assembled group a particularly vivid dream that she had experienced the night before.
She recalled being back aboard the Jenivere, bent over the railing, and experiencing a particularly severe bout of sea sickness. After her latest bout of retching, she slumped back and noticed that the rest of the passengers and crew were on the deck as well, all of them sick save for the captain and the quiet Varisian scholar Ieana, who stood at the bow of the ship watching the others. Ieana whispered something into the captain’s ear, and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. Suddenly, the captain’s face lit up with an artificially large smile and he held up his right hand, in which he held a simple wooden spoon. Vayla quickly realized that she, too, held a wooden spoon in her right hand, and that, in fact, everyone aboard the ship was carrying an identical spoon. The ship began slowly taking on water, and it appeared that the only way to stop the ship from sinking was to bail out the entire ship’s hold with her spoon. Vayla worked feverishly, as did the others, but the waters continued to rush in. Monstrous things with lobster-like pincers and scorpion-like tails climbed their way onto the ship just as it sunk below the waves. Vayla struggled to hold her breath as one of the crab-like creatures crawled up her leg, aiming its stinger at her chest. Vayla closed her eyes in fear.
When she opened them, she was sitting down in the galley aboard the Jenivere, getting ready for the evening’s communal dinner. The ship’s cook had just given everyone a steaming bowl of split-pea soup, but Vayla dropped her spoon. Looking down, she noticed that the deck at her feet was covered with seawater up to her ankles, and the wooden spoon had been carried by the sloshing waves out to sea through a hole in the ship’s hull. Vayla had no choice but to lift the soup bowl to her lips and drink directly from the bowl. However, something rather large suddenly slithered into her mouth, and she felt a sharp sting upon her tongue. She dropped her bowl, only to reveal a thin serpent that had been hidden in her soup and was now dangling from her tongue, chewing furiously. Vayla awakened with a start at that point in the dream, and realized that she had been biting at her own tongue.
The group pondered the potential meaning of the oracle’s dream while they broke down the campsite and began to snuff out the fire. Suddenly, Issa screamed and pointed to the thick jungle north of the camp. The group looked in that direction and saw what appeared to be a living carpet comprised of thousands of spiders, all moving together as a single mass. The swarm consisted of black and brown spiders ranging from the size of a fingernail to that of a clenched fist, and while no spider in the group would individually pose a threat, the fact that there were thousands upon thousands of the creatures frightened all within the group.
Issa panicked and shot at the spider swarm with her short bow, realizing only after the fact that physical attacks would be virtually useless to seriously harm or disperse the creatures.
Eva scrambled out of the tent that she and Vayla shared, and the young woman unleashed a spell that created a minor earthquake beneath the spider horde, hoping that the tremors would stop or disorient the spiders. Unfortunately, the swarm continued their march, unabated.
The spiders crawled forth from the jungle, reaching both Ren and the continually unfortunate Gelik before the two men could scramble out of the way. The spiders managed to nearly completely engulf the pair, crawling their way inside every opening in their clothing and armor. Frantically, the men tried to slap the spiders away or squish them against their own skin, but it was to no avail, as the creatures bit the men hundreds of times, each bite injecting a tiny amount of poison into the victim’s bloodstream.
Dhanga surveyed the situation and bolted toward the fire pit, where the hot ashes and coals from the previous night’s fire still glowed with an amber hue. He picked up a thick branch from the ground and used it as a make-shift spade to knock the coals out of the fire and onto the nearby spider swarm, taking careful aim to avoid burning either Gelik or Ren. Unlike Issa’s singular arrow attack, the cloud of hot coals spread and rolled throughout the swarm, burning hundreds of the small vermin, causing them to pop and hiss in a ghastly chorus.
Ren and Gelik did their best to rise to their feet and flee from the swarm, knocking nearly all of the spiders off of them in the process. They could each feel hundreds of tiny welts rising on their skin where they had been bitten, but for the moment, they were safe from the horde.
Issa managed to calm down, and she followed Dhanga’s lead, rushing toward the firepit and knocking hot coals onto the spider swarm with a thick branch.
For her part, Vayla rushed to the nearly unconscious Gelik and administered first aid. She did her best to apply natural salves to the spider bites in the hopes of diminishing the effects of the spiders’ poison, realizing that the sickened gnome was in no condition to deal with yet another toxin in his system.
Dante attempted to mimic Dhanga’s technique, but the young swordsman was considerably more comfortable with the thrusting, piercing motions used with rapiers and short swords, and the act of swinging a large stick through hot coals was a completely foreign endeavor. As such, Dante’s swing managed only to create a thick cloud of dust and ash, and the young man failed to actually knock any coals out of the fire pit.
Eva rushed to Ren’s side and pushed a vial of lamp oil into his hands, urging the warrior to throw the flammable liquid on the spider swarm, hoping that the next cloud of hot coals would ignite the oil and destroy or frighten the swarm. Ren nodded and tossed the vial at the swarm. Unfortunately, his aim was off, and the vial landed instead in the center of the fire pit. The ceramic container broke and the oil immediately caught fire upon the coals, sending a sudden gout of flame roaring up from the center of the fire pit. Dhanga, Dante, and Issa had to take a step back and shield their faces from the sudden wave of heat.
The flames quickly died down, but the oil had re-ignited the fires, and when Dhanga swung his branch through the coals once again, he managed to knock large swaths of flame onto the crawling spiders, completely killing or scattering the entire horde in the process.
Immediately after the vermin were dispatched, Vayla did what she could to assist Ren and Gelik fight off the spider venom. She realized that the spiders carried not only a poisonous bite, but also a disease, which she was able to identify as mindfire, the same affliction already affecting Gelik. She applied what salves and antidotes she could concoct on the spur of the moment, but she was unsure if her aid was of any avail.
With adrenaline still flowing through their veins from the recent battle, the group hurriedly cleaned up the camp and began the long journey down to the beach. From their vantage, they could see that the tricorn hat and brightly colored scarves remained on the beach, giving the group hope that Captain Kovack and Ieana might still be using the region as a campsite. However, no sign of movement was seen anywhere along the beach. The land descended sharply from the ridge line to the ocean, with ever-increasing steepness as the group drew nearer to the beach. Finally, after several long hours and with the use of a length of rope to scale down a short cliff wall, the group reached the sandy beach of the cove.
It became immediately obvious that the discarded tricorn hat and multi-colored scarves did, indeed, belong to Captain Kovack and Ieana, respectively. The ring of stones that had served as a fire pit was now filled with wet ashes, and it was clear that it had been a full day, if not more, since the captain and scholar had used this site as a camp. In addition to the hat and scarves, other discarded clothing was found along the beach, including the white, frilled shirt that the captain often wore. Dhanga examined the shirt and could see many small rips and tears in the fabric that might have come from general exploration in the rough jungle environment of Smuggler’s Shiv. However, two large cuts in the front of the shirt appeared sharp and precise, as though they had been made with a long blade of some kind. In addition, faint red around these particular holes suggested that the captain had bled from those wounds, although the blood had been quickly washed off. Ren and Dante assumed that these tears had been caused by Cacciaguida when he presumably fought Captain Kovack aboard the Jenivere.
Focusing inward, Vayla divined that the captain and Ieana had left the beach heading south, and she relayed her suspicions to the rest of the castaways. Sure enough, on the southern edge of the beach, the group found a pair of human footprints leading into the jungle beyond. Vayla guided the group with her second-sight, and it seemed that every time a member of the party would begin to doubt the oracle, they would be presented with clear proof that the pair of traitors had passed through the region before. It appeared that Captain Kovack and Ieana were not following an established trail, which made tracking them considerably more difficult. In addition, the rains that seemed to pummel the island nearly every afternoon had all but erased any bootprints left by the pair. Fortunately, however, the dense jungle foliage bore signs of their passage, from crumpled grass to torn leaves and vines to broken branches, and it was evident that Alizandru Kovack and Ieana had previously passed along the path that Vayla was following. Ren was particularly struck by the thought that the pair seemed to know where they were going, as their path led in a relatively direct line to the southwest through otherwise trackless jungle terrain.
After several hours of difficult travel through the merciless jungle, just as the heat of the day was becoming almost unbearable, the skies opened and a torrential rain fell upon the group. Only minutes later, rivulets of water were running past the survivors, roiling down the hillside in search of the ocean to the southeast. The heavy rains reduced visibility, and the party moved incredibly slowly, keeping together for safety.
Eventually, the group found themselves upon the banks of a river, now dangerously swollen from the continuing rain. Vayla determined that Captain Kovack and Ieana must have crossed the river at some point in the past, and so the group decided to wait out the storm, hoping that the river would quickly subside once the rains ceased. Nearby, the party found a particularly large kapok tree, and took shelter from the rain under its dense canopy and within its large, fan-like buttress roots. From the nearby jungle, the group gathered large palm fronds and began to construct a make-shift roof within the exposed root system to keep out most of the rain.
Before the group could set the first palm leaf in place, however, Eva let loose a sudden cry, pointing to the lower branches of the tree. There, a brightly-colored coral snake some six feet long sat coiled on the tree limb, watching the party through the dense rain. As soon as Eva screamed, the serpent dropped from its perch onto Issa, its fangs dripping with poisonous venom.
Issa reacted instinctively to the attack, turning and flinging the snake against the trunk of the kapok tree. The large snake seemed momentarily stunned, but quickly regained its senses, turning back toward Issa and hissing loudly at the woman.
Ren drew his warhammer and charged at the snake, but the snake’s quickness helped it avoid the brunt of the anti-paladin’s attack. Vayla, who happened to be standing near Issa when the snake attacked her, poked at the snake with the tip of her walking staff. To her own surprise, the attack was particularly successful, as the snake tried to strike at the staff just as Vayla thrust it at the serpent, sending the wooden tip deep into the snake’s gullet and ripping a hole in the throat of the beast. Issa quickly maneuvered herself opposite Vayla and drove her rapier into the snake’s body, killing the creature before it had a chance to strike a second time.
Drawing upon her training and her inherent knowledge of the anatomy of serpents and their poisons, Issa used her blade to quickly sever the head of the viper, hoping to later extract the snake’s venom and apply it to her own blade.
Quickly, the rest of the group managed to erect a temporary structure within the kapok tree’s network of buttress roots, and the party patiently waited out the storm. It wasn’t until many hours after sun down when the rains finally ceased, and by then, the group had accepted that this would be their campsite for the night. During the evening, Issa managed to isolate several pure drops of the coral snake’s venom, carefully storing them in a finger-sized glass vial for later use.
The following morning, it was clear that Gelik was quickly succumbing to the mindfire he had contracted during the first night the group spent on Smuggler’s Shiv. The pitiable gnome was nearly unconscious, laying in a stupor and babbling incoherently. With some amount of prodding, the group could force Gelik to eat and drink, but it was clear that if the disease didn’t turn around quickly, the gnome would soon fall completely unconscious. Dhanga and Ren worked together to construct a litter to carry the gnome, using thick vines to lash large palm leaves to a pair of bamboo stalks. In addition, Vayla did her best to provide care for the gnome.
Fortunately, no other individual in the group seemed to be suffering from any illness.
The party made their way back to the river and found that, although the waters were still flowing quite rapidly, they were considerably less dangerous than they had been the previous day. Issa nimbly made her way across the river, leaping from rock to rock. Once on the far bank, she tied a length of rope to a tree and tossed the loose end back to Dhanga, who in turn tied it to a trunk on his end of the waterway. Using the rope as a hand bridge, the group managed to get across the natural barrier, taking special care to get the delirious Gelik safely across.
Once safely on the far side of the river, the party found themselves surrounded by a thick bramble of thorny red vines. Following closely along the river’s bank, the group was able to avoid the nearly six-inch-long thorns protruding from the bramble. Vayla identified the plants as viper nettles, and recalled that while the thorns bore a debilitating toxin, the berries of the plant were particularly useful for curing all manner of disease. Realizing the dire straits that Gelik was in, and accepting that the other survivors may also succumb to such diseases in the future, the group set about to obtain a large number of the purple berries. Eva created a magically controlled earthquake just beneath the vines, shaking loose many of the berries and knocking them to the earth. Vayla, Dante, and Issa were then able to use staff and sword to sweep several handfuls of the berries out of the nettles. Eva and Vayla stored the berries in their packs and fed several to Gelik, hoping that the medicinal properties of the fruit would aid the sickened gnome. Dhanga carefully broke off several dozen of the toxin-laced thorns, placing them carefully in his belt pouch. He made a mental note to locate an appropriate length of bamboo from which to craft a blowgun.
Searching around the perimeter of the bramble, Vayla was again able to locate evidence of Captain Kovack’s passage. It appeared as though the traitorous pair had passed through this region heading due south, and it was in that direction that the group of castaways trekked, hoping to catch Ieana and Alizandru Kovack.
After a quick glance at Ishirou’s treasure map of Smuggler’s Shiv, Dhanga came to the realization that the path of Captain Kovack and Ieana was aimed directly for the large X on the map, as if the pair were seeking the map’s treasure themselves. This revelation piqued Ishirou’s interest, and the far eastern man kindly reiterated to the group that the king’s share of that treasure was rightfully and honorably his, as he was the one who had obtained the map. None in the party disagreed with Ishirou on that point, but the fear of others stealing ‘his’ treasure was enough to cause Ishirou to urge the group onward, pushing them to hike just a little faster.
Fortunately, the trail seemed to follow the river to the south, and travel along its banks was considerably easier than the earlier legs of the journey had been. In a matter of just a few hours, the party found themselves hiking down a steep slope with the open ocean several miles ahead of them. The river they had been following merged with the sea at a small, sandy beach.
A ship, roughly the same size as the Jenivere, was wrecked upon the jagged cliffs just off the shore of this beach, and as the group drew closer, they could see that although the ship’s masts remained intact, the sails had long since rotted away. This, coupled with the salt and moss that encrusted most of the exposed timbers of the vessel, indicated that the wreck was at least a decade old. A caked-green brass masthead carved in the likeness of a baatezu demon dominated the front of the ship. Ren was particularly cautious once he saw the statue, and memories of his time in Cheliax where he served side-by-side with actual baatezu flooded back into his mind. He warned the others that the ship may pose a significant danger to the party.
A correded brass plate near the rear of the ship marked it as the Brine Demon, and Dhanga vaguely recalled stories of this ship and its nefarious Captain Kinkarian. The infamous Brine Demon was known to plunder merchant vessels along the Sargavan coastline until almost twelve years ago, when the ship seemed to suddenly disappear. It was assumed that either Captain Kinkarian had retired from his life of piracy, or that he and his ship had met a tragic, and fittingly just end. It seemed to Dhanga that the latter was true.
Dhanga and Ishirou expressed their desire to search the Brine Demon, and Aerys threw in her vote of support for the notion as well, hoping that the ship may have rum aboard. However, Ren and Dante were opposed to an investigation of the wreck, with Dante pressing the group onward to bring Captain Kovack and Ieana to justice, and with Ren wary of any ship that would boast a powerful demon as a figurehead.
The group turned to the wise Vayla, and the oracle drew forth her Harrow deck, laying out several cards before her and pondering their meaning. Finally, the aasimar stood and proclaimed that the cards foretold of something important happening that night should the group explore the Brine Demon and that whatever trouble might occur could be resolved through non-violent means. Finally, she believed that the group would encounter a leader of men through their actions aboard the ship. Beyond this, however, the oracle could not see.
Vayla’s premonition was sufficient to convince the group to turn their attention to the shipwreck, although Dante was clearly anxious to continue his search for the pair who had murdered Cacciaguida and the young knight was slightly upset at this apparent detour from that task. Indeed, the bootprints of a man and a woman were clearly visible leading from the sandy beach into the jungle to the south, and it seemed certain that the tracks were made by Captain Kovack and Ieana. Furthermore, it did not appear that the pair had paid any attention to the Brine Demon, as the tracks seemed to lead directly from the river to the southern end of the beach, with no diversion.
The group easily climbed aboard the wreckage of the Brine Demon, and they discovered that while the ship’s lower decks were completely destroyed and rotted away, the upper deck and chambers were still largely intact. A brief search revealed that most of the ship had been stripped clean, with virtually no loose objects to be found anywhere aboard the vessel. Interestingly, however, the captain’s quarters were sealed, with the doorway locked. The round window in the door was broken, and it was clear that a bookshelf inside the quarters had been pushed in front of the door, further blocking entry.
Issa managed to pick the lock on the door, and several minutes of loud hacking later, the group had bashed their way past the bookcase and into the captain’s chamber. Inside, a skeleton dressed in the now-rotting finery of a pirate captain laid stretched out along the floor. The skeleton had long, wiry hair, a patch over its left eye, and a hook where its right hand should be, all features that Dhanga recognized from tales of Captain Kinkarian. It appeared that in his last few moments of life, Captain Kinkarian had crawled to his desk, opened a secret compartment in the bottom drawer, and pulled forth a metal coffer. The coffer sat, unopened, in the skeleton’s stiff hands.
Wary that the skeleton might rise of its own accord, the group approached and carefully pried the coffer from its bony fingers. To the relief of the gathered group, the skeleton did not animate, and the party turned their attention to exploring the quarters and the coffer. In the remaining drawers of the desk sat rotten logbooks, none of which were legible after a decade of exposure to the humid, salty air. The room itself held furniture and accoutrements appropriate for a pirate captain’s chamber, all rotted and covered in moss or mildew.
The locking mechanism of the iron coffer was corroded, but Issa managed to pick the mechanism and open the relatively large box. Inside, the group found a finely crafted golden locket decorated along its exterior with diamonds, a pristine dagger with a light, redwood handle that did not show any signs of age or corrosion, and a collection of several fat ledgers and journals. The ledgers and journals, although partially rotten, remained mostly legible, and contained irrefutable proof of collusion between Captain Kinkarian and half a dozen Sargavan government officials who were skimming off the tithes and taxes of the citizens and funneling them directly to the Brine Demon for personal services. It was clear that these documents provided absolute proof of Jask Derindi’s innocence, and the group held on to the documents in the hopes that they might find the Mwangi man in the future.
The locket contained a tiny, incredibly detailed portrait of a beautiful red-haired half-elven woman, identified along the bottom edge of the picture as Aeshamara. Dhanga hypothesized that Captain Kinkarian might have wrecked upon Smuggler’s Shiv because of his obsession over Aeshamara, just as Captain Kovack seemed to have wrecked on this same isle due to his obsession over Ieana. The monk pondered the similarities and raised his concern to the group that Aeshamara and Ieana may be one and the same individual, despite the fact that the image of Aeshamara bore little resemblance to Ieana. Dhanga surmised that the woman known as Ieana may have caused many ships in the past to wreck upon this island, though for what purpose he could not divine. Although none in the party seemed particularly taken with this idea, Dhanga did not immediately dismiss the notion.
With little else of interest on board the ship, the group continued their search for Captain Kovack and Ieana. The tracks on the southern edge of the beach led once more into the dense jungles of the island. After several hours of hard trekking through trackless terrain, the sun was nearing the horizon and the group decided to make camp at the base of a large mesa-like rise in the land. According to Ishirou’s map, the treasure was likely somewhere atop the mesa. However, the tracks of Captain Kovack and Ieana had turned sharply west at the base of mesa, leading into the heart of island’s interior.
The group decided to make shelter at the base of the cliff for the night, delaying the decision about whether to chase the traitors or seek the treasure until the following morning. Throughout the travels of the previous day, Gelik had gotten considerably worse, despite the attention of Vayla and the administration of the viper nettle berries. The poor gnome was now wholly unconscious, and it was clear that he was nearing death. The group did their best to assist Gelik, and they managed to get the gnome to swallow several more of the nettle berries, hoping that the medicinal fruit would help turn around the gnome’s failing health.
While Vayla tended to Gelik, the rest of the party set about building a small campfire, doing their best to shield the light of the flames in order to keep their location hidden. Not more than an hour after the fire was lit, the group was startled as a figure coalesced within the very flames themselves.
To the fearful surprise of the entire group of castaways, a shimmering ghost-like apparition stepped out of the flames and toward Ren. The ghost bore a perfect resemblance to the skeletal remains of Captain Kinkarian that the party had discovered aboard the Brine Demon, and the spirit spoke in a deep, booming voice. “My Aeshamara! You have taken her from me! Return her to me at once, you mutinous thief!” Ren knew from his religious training that spirits are often prevented from leaving this realm if their true desires remain unmet. He surmised that Captain Kinkarian may have wished to hold the locket of his beloved Aeshamara one last time, so the anti-paladin extracted the locket from his pack and held it out for the spirit. The ghost stared at the closed locket with a bizarre mix of longing and confusion before cursing once more at Ren. “Aeshamara! You cannot keep her from me! I will see her again! Return my love to me!” The rest of the group gathered together, drawing their weapons and readying their spell components in case the ghost attacked. For his part, Ren remained surprisingly calm, opening the locket and holding it out so that the spirit could look upon the image of Aeshamara. Indeed, the ghost of Captain Kinkarian stared at the picture and a wave of pure happiness and relaxation seemed to wash over the skeletal spirit’s otherwise unemotional visage. The ghost began to slowly fade, as wisps of the spirit were carried with the flames of the fire up into the skies. “Aeshamara, I will be with you again!” In moments, the spirit was no more.
With their hearts pounding, the group did their best to rest for the night, knowing that the following day may be their opportunity to locate the traitors who murdered Cacciaguida and stranded them all upon Smuggler’s Shiv.