Grigmar nods back to Oak in conciliatory fashion, tapping his broken nose with a wry grin. “No ard’ feelings!” he replies emphatically, glad to have resolved the issue on both sides.
The Orc assures the barbarian that the Queen’s Men will be pursuing the imposters as well, with fervor. “They’ll be goin’ to the top o’ the Hunter’s Guilds wanted list, ken’ tell ya’ that! We’ll have one eye out fer’ em…hell, the whole ocean will, once they find out what’s ‘appened here! Changelins’ an’ Doppelgangers’ are going straight to the top o’ the menu again…” Although Grigmar seems resolute, he sounds less than pleased with this result. From his tone, you all get the distinct sense that the tide of public opinion is very much about to turn away from the Changers within the Expanse. “Listen,” Grigmar says, in a halting manner. “If yer friend…Arno…pops up again, we’ll do what we can to keep em’ safe, I promise. Just know…da’ attitude towards the Faceless…it’s gonna get ugly again.”
Gorgeous Grigmar nods along to Oak’s chores list. “Yep…yep...standard shore leave. Tell ya’ hwat’ I ken’ do….can send word round at the Shipyard, and the Marauder’s Market...try to see if we ken’ cut you all in on our “Veteran Prices”. Might not be much, with all the damages today and the strike…wish I could do more, but if we ken’ save ya a copper here or there…”
He shakes his head sadly at the Issue of the Writ. “Ehhh…that one may be an issue in the immediate, sadly. Vault got damaged in the riots. They cracked the lobby, an’ now protocol says they have to do a full recount. This, all right after the run on the place by the Rak’ta withdrawls! That bein’ said, they told me they’d be ready to open again in…” Grigmar flips once again through the notebook, towards the back. “…couple o’ days?” Grigmar finally answers, tentatively. “I’ll have em’ send ye a message by Harrier Express-Post when they reopen an ken’ exchange with ya’!”
Gorgeous Grigmar beams noticeably when Oak offers to help, and his approach gets jarring and overeager. “Yeh! Yeh! Excellent, glad to hear it! Tell yer friends, tell yer crew! We’ll take eny’ elp’ we ken get! I’ll send Marodath around to find yeh’ tomorrow afternoon, after we get a better idea o’ all the jobs we’ll need doing. Ye’ll know her; she was the great big woman what sat next to ye’ at El Gordo Loco this mornin’. An’, er, thanks.” Grigmar says, akward and avoiding eye contact, but clearly greatful. “’Preciate it personally. Helps me’ more en’ you know!”
He listens as the Tiefling finally speaks up, and seems relieved to have his suspicions confirmed. “Ahhh, so it was just er’ coincidence!” He smirks and sits up a bit straighter, his day finally starting to turn around for the better. “I knew he were still dead! People get to caught up in these myths an’ stories, ye’ know…start to forget how the real world works, start depending on heroes an’ legends et’ don’t exist…”
“But ya’, if you wanted to read up on it, the library’s still there! Othro’s Oddities has a big ol’ book section,” However, then Grigmar frowns, pained to be the bearer of more bad news. “…course, Othro’s is one of the places yer imposters hit when they came through. Heard they fooked the library up pretty bad! Plus,” Grigmar doesn’t seem sure how to express this next bit, fumbling for the proper words. “Othro’s a bit….different. Bit of an odd bird, that one. Might be an issue, gettin’ im to understand what you want, er’ to get him to help you.”
“Alright, well,” says Grigmar, straightening up. “Think that should be all, then, less’n you have any questions for me? I’ll send Marodath around to find ye’ tomorrow, at some point to pull ye’ in fer fixing the place! Stop by the Athena or send a post, when y’all figure out where yer’ headed next…might be able to point ya’ in the direction of an Outpost or Colony o’ ours along the way, help out yer’ voyage.” Despite his exhaustion, Grigmar’s pride shines brightly at ever. “Queen’s Men ar’ still a “Safe Sight in Unsafe Waters”, Dogs be damned!”
Gorgeous Grigmar suddenly turns to Fiver and Whistler surprised, as if considering them for the first time. “An’ ye’ two? The parrot and the rabbit? Were ye’ ready to go as well…?”
“Oh no, I’m ‘fraid not!” says Fiver, suddenly taking on a dramatic, hacking cough out of the blue. “Gonna stay right here for at least the night, Mister Orc! Smoke still ain’t out o’ me lungs…” Fiver looks right up at Grigmar, smiling his unpleasant grin, but makes every effort to avoid looking anywhere near the Wild Bunch.
Gorgeous Grigmar barely hesitates this time, before tearing into one side of the small cake Jack offers. He soon inhales the sweet in a manner which Jack can personally relate with, and washes the rest down with the gritty remainders of his coffee. He grins wryly up at Jack, nodding with appreciation.
"Heh...yer' alright kid! Thanks fer' looking out, ain't had a chance to sit today, much less catch a nip'..." From somewhere unexpected, Grigmar burps, and looks on afterwards with satisfaction. He sighs deeply, and leans back in the chair, resting his eyes for a single, contented moment. "S'kinda funny...the Lupine in the tower never had a face, an' it mystified the shit out o everyone. But you? Yer' just a sweethearted fella, ain't cha?"
"Heya, kid," Grigmar says to Jack, before he goes to leave the room. "I owe ya' one, yeah? Yer' ever in a spot around here, you just mention Gorgeous Grigmar..."
The Wild Bunch takes in a night of elegant, opulent splendor within the Copper Camel. They are each brought trays of nuts, cheeses, meats, fruits, and wine to their individual, over-large rooms, and that night, they all sleep upon sheets of satin. Weary from the day’s events, each man finds an opportunity for rest in the luxurious accommodations. It’s almost enough to make them forget the state of the city outside…
Jack makes his way from the Camel through the smoldering city, back towards the Shipping Warehouse. He still gets the occasional odd look from the random citizen on the street, but the tones are more muted and confused than angry now. Everyone is too busy, or too frightened to approach the Shifter.
Lucky Jack finds the Professor amidst a swarm of Modrons, apparently all busy packing up his kit and equipment into a series of crates. What remains of the Balloon apparatus has been broken down and disassembled, and only the odd bit of machinery or equipment still sits out.
As the Professor sees Jack approaching, he drops an armful of pipes out of his arms and approaches fuming, fists at his hips. Around and underneath him, tiny Modrons swerve out of the way of the rolling pipes. “You!”the old man says, half awed and half furious, turning bright red and ears aglow. “What did you do?!”
Oak makes his way from the Camel through the ruined city, looking for familiar faces from the Curse. He soon comes upon the Edgar trio taking in a smoke and morning coffee near the center of town. After some jabbering back and forth, Oak eventually comes to understand that they fared well during the riots (helping a group of citizens to safety, and beating the hell out of a man who turned half into an Elephant and tried to attack them all), and are now helping the stripping and rebuilding effort in the city. Upon further questioning, they confirm that they have seen Baron Reynard, and he’s doing the same sort of thing at the moment….except up in the Murderer’s Row district, where they’re currently digging out the slums from the smoldering ruins of Tick Tock Tower.
Oak walks the again-unfamiliar boardwalks back towards where the SS Oak had once been tethered (where did that little dingy end up, anyway?). It takes him some time, but the barbarian eventually finds Cardan Byrne shovelling debris into the ocean. He’s stripped off his fancy clothes, and sweat beads upon his brow and chest. The former Baron smiles gladly to see Oak, and approaches with a hand extended (after he finds it to be grime covered, and wipes it clean upon his shirt).
“Mr. Oak!” he says pleasantly, looking to catch his breath. “Do what do I owe this fine honor….errr, I mean, how’s it going, man?” He laughs, embarrassed at the slip up.
Urixes makes his way from the Camel through the wounded city, past the center of Chaff and towards the strange looking craft known as Othro’s Oddities. It looks to have been partially scorched on one side of the Ship, but seems to have otherwise avoided damage from the riot.
But when the Tiefling enters the strange shop, he suddenly isn’t so sure. Glass and wood broken…everywhere. Shelves have been damaged, their contents tossed to the ground (and occasionally broken into bits). Once fine chandeliers overhead have been shattered, and there’s deep gashes and puncture marks in the walls of the place.
At first, Urixes thinks the shop might be abandoned. But a distant smell of a thick, druggy sort of smoke, and the quiet sound of flipping pages draw Urixes past the first few rows of shelves, deeper in towards the very back of the shop.
There, at what must be the stern of Othro’s Oddities, the Tiefling finds a surprisingly large library. The shelves are sunken in to the craft itself, and stretch from the deck to the top of the roof. Ladders, built into the shelves and sides of the Ship, creak back and forth slowly, as the waves rock the craft from underneath.
The source of the sounds and smoke turns out to be an ancient, rotund Halfling, sitting cross legged among a nest of stacked books, pages, and tomes. He’s lit and hung a lantern overhead, but overwise sits in the near-dark, whirring through the texts like a creature possessed, and puffing his pipe like an active volcano. One of his eyes, still bearing scratch marks, is covered by a brand new eye patch, and his beard curls down over his large belly. The Halfling’s eyes are bloodshot, and he occasionally halts his organization to read (or reread) a passage he has come upon as though entranced.
It isn’t until his pipe goes dead, and the Halfling picks up his pouch to fill it, does he discover Urixes, standing amongst the shadows. The pouch goes flying into the air, but the shopkeep manages to retrieve it before it can spin underneath one of the shelves. “Saint’s Bells!” the Halfling cries, staring at Urixes like he’s tricked him. “Thought you was the devil come to take me!” Hands shaking, the Halfling refills his pipe, and lights it, all the time unable to look away from the Tiefling. Once he gets a good puff going again, he asks, nervously “Who in the blazes are you? Whadye’ want?”
The Professor listens on raptly, slack jawed, hands to his hips and ears beaming red. His face goes through a mixture of emotions during the story, but by the time Jack pulls out the cup, he simply seems dumbfounded; at a loss. Wordlessly, the Professor puts up a hand to politely decline the offer of “coffee”. Deep in thought, the Professor slumps down right where he stands, hand to his chin and his goggles pressed forward against his nose. The busy Modrons, clicking slightly without emotion, almost immediately diverge their walking paths around him.
The Professor sits for some time, fretting silently. Finally, he remembers Jack and Fusspot are there and addresses them, encouraging them to come over and sit. He seems to be picking his words carefully, before revealing, “It’s not your fault, you know. Should’ve gone up with you myself. But I keep trying to help everyone, and keep making…” the old gentleman's face looks frustrated, contrite. “….mistakes.”
“You see,” the Professor whispers, looking nervously around the warehouse for a moment, before turning back to Jack with a conspiratorial stare. “…I’m not from here. Not just the Expanse, I mean; here-here. I’m a Traveller, between worlds. Or at least, I was.”
The Professor continues to spill secrets to Jack: “I was able to “Blink” to other worlds….places very like this, and places very unlike this! I learned things any scientist, any man would sell his soul for the knowledge of! But then…I delved too deeply, and too greedily. On my journeys, I accidentally lost my Way home. I’ve been trying to find it, or a way to duplicate it, ever since.”
“I came to this place because, with its Rifts, with its abundant Wild Magic, the windows into other worlds, the vast repositories of knowledge and impossible geography…it seemed like the best place to search for a solution to an impossible problem.” Maybe the Professor sees Jack give him a quizzical look; or maybe, now that he’s revealing himself, the Professor is simply on a roll. “Ah, you see, I could “Scry” into the different worlds before entering them…get a basic sense of the makeup of the place, the history, and the players involved. Sort of like, errrm, reading a rather rushed history and geography book all in one.”
“It’s how I knew who you all were…or at least, I thought I did.” The Professor now turns to look straight down his goggles at Jack, examining him with the thoroughness of a physician. “Which reminds me…what is your story?” The Professor doesn’t seem to be trying to be rude by asking this, but his manner is rather pushy. “Are you Fae? A creature from the Outer Planes? Maybe even, a Possession? My Scrying’s gave me a fairly good picture of Urixes and Oak, but for some reason you…the manner of your mind and motivations were a mystery.”
Cardan Byrne leans on his shovel, looking off into nowhere, deep in thought. He replies gradually, like he’s putting the memories together for the first time in a long time.
“You heard the Queen’s deal, right? The drow, before she was ever “the Queen”?” the moustachioed Half-Elf asks calmly, with a hint of nostalgia. “Toughest survivor from the Sanguine Seeker, bar-none, an’ that’s counting,” he counts them off on his fingers. “Urixes the Eternal, Rax the Revolutionary, a Dragonborn strong enough to crush a giant’s head with his bare hands, and a Dwarf strong enough to save everyone!”
Unthinking, Cardan smiles at the memory. But his face goes dark once more. “Jennie dyin’ probably broke her more than it broke anyone, the exception being Crolthear, who never spoke a word to any of us again. But where the Dragonborn just dropped his arms and walked away, N-The Queen, I think she knew this would never stop before the rest of us really did. That even though we’d left the Teeth, gotten away with our lives and stopped Iquim from opening the door….we would never really get away.”
Cardan Byrne looks tired and old again, his years as the Baron weighing heavily on him. He sighs, resigned. “Anyway! While the rest of us were making plans to leave, she was already making plans for this. For Chaff, for the Expanse. “I’m gonna bring em’ together, Cardan, under one flag” she told me one night. “Band together the pirates that’ll listen to sense, get some civilization and shelter out in the Wilds. “A safe place to come home to”.” An I asked her, for the love of God, for what?” After a moment, Cardan shrugs at Oak, as if he still doesn’t understand her answer even today. “She said it’s what she would do (meanin’ Jennie), but can’t anymore. That she couldn’t make it up to Jennie, but she could make the Expanse a bit of a better place instead. An’ then she said, “Fer’ next time.”
Cardan Byrne lets the story sit a moment, a single tear coming to his left eye which he wipes away with a wistful smile. “Well, I didn’t know what she meant then…but I found out, soon enough, didn’t I?” He turns back, all-business, to the Big Man. “Oak, this place is her “baby”. She wouldn’t leave it, not without letting her people know, and not unless the reason was that it was the direct safety and concern of this place!”
“I had hoped to visit her myself this evening, but it had been postponed fort obvious reason. Please,” he beseeches you. “We weren’t always close, but if something has happened to her, I need to know. Go find this Grigmar, and tell him that “That Warbling Moron” has sent you to seek an immediate parlay…with Nagara.”
The Professor listens breathlessly, intent on every word of the story. Once or twice he cocks an eyebrow, and looks as though he’s about to make an interjection, but refrains. Except for the once, as Jack describes the encounter with the Accursed Hag. The elderly gentleman reaches up a patient hand, and then asks, “The Hag…was she draped in animal pelts? Bones and skulls? Just, absolutely covered in them? And…did it happen to be a full moon that evening?”
As Jack finishes his tale, the old man shakes his head, with an incredulous but gleeful look on his face. “A young cub…just a simple, Polymorphed wolf! The void in the search for your “face” makes perfect sense now! If you only knew, young Jack, how many scholars and schemers sought your identity, or guessed at it in vain! Or, in the case of the Prince’s Shifters, had used the mere suggestion of it for their own benefit…”
The Professor seems noticeably cheered by Jack’s heartfelt pep talk. The old man sits a little higher, and smiles up at the ceiling of the Shipping Warehouse. “You know, you’re not wrong about that! Sometimes, I get so caught up in the memory of my lost home, that I forget how much I have found and achieved out here in the unknown! Physics untold…gods unheard of! Sights that mortal eyes were never even meant to glimpse…” Although the Professor almost manages a moment of relaxation in all this, the situation soon brings him back to reality again. He notices the gun in the holster at Jack’s belt and sighs, nodding over towards it. “Like that. I made great large versions of that pistol you’re packing for the Expanse and shared them, thinking I could help these people, if I gave them a leg to stand on. But, all it did was make things worse…” He looks around, at the towers of stacked wooden boxes and disassembled parts, and sadly back at Jack. “The plan tomorrow was to share these with them as well…the technology for the Balloons, and the Submersible. But, just like the rest, and like you proved to me last night, if I give them something they shouldn’t have, I’m just going to make things worse…right?” The Professor glances over at Jack, at a loss for an answer.
The old man looks around at the bots’ with Jack’s mention, mostly irritated. “The Modrons? Found them recently, on an excavation trip to Playa Del Perdido. A rift from Mechanus opened while I was digging, and a few hundred washed up on the beach.” He shrugs his shoulders, clearly annoyed with the ever-present nature of the machines, but having resigned himself to their presence. “They watched me dig up and restore some ancient tech, then started following me like faithful hounds. From what I’ve gathered, they seek to build a safe haven within the Expanse, and create some sort of “anchor” construct back to Mechanus, to link their realm with this one, and create “Order”. And apparently, they think following me is the quickest way to accomplish their goals so…..”
The Professor gazes upon Jack with the air of a concerned father. Leaning in, he asks, “Jack, when you say you want to be you…do you mean return to your wolf form? Forever? Leave all this, “people” nonsense?” The Professor is curious, but cautious around the topic. “I can understand the instinct, myself…gods know how many times I’ve thought to simply turn into a dolphin, and dive into the depths of the ocean!”
“These waters, the Expanse, Jack…it holds the answers to your heart’s desires.” The Professor says solemnly. But his tone turns warning, and bittersweet. “But…it may drag you to a down to a deep, dark, place, if you’re not careful. Selune’s Lighthouse follows the moons, but Malar haunts the Wilds…”
Othro’s pipe puffs and he works himself up to getting annoyed, nearly wagging a finger at the Tiefling. Then, at all once, the Halfling catches himself. His bloodshot eyes light up in solemn recognition, and he nods, as though utterly terrified by the stranger he recognizes entering his library. Urixes’s reputation proceeds him once more. “Yeah. Yeah, I can help you… Lord.”
As though entertaining royalty (or in deference to a ghost), the half-blinded Halfling walks Urixes over to one of the more central stacks of books; knocks it down to floor and scatters it in search of a couple titles. Panting and looking in awe, Othro brings the books over to Urixes, offering them up with deference…
As Urixes takes in the titles and rifles through the first few pages, the Halfling disappears to a sideroom, to return soon afterwards bearing two additional texts. “These were put in the “Reserved” section, under order of the Queen! Weren’t damaged when that nutcase tore through the library. Queen said the time would come someone special would come looking for these, and I’d know it..”
The decks of the Apollo and the Athena are abuzz with activity. Everywhere, hands (both of this place, and some clearly not) are lugging 2x4s, pushing baskets of ingots, stacking scrap debris to be picked through for salvage. The city’s inhabitants are all pitching in, busy at work trying to heal.
It takes Oak quite awhile to push through the busy crowd towards where he can see anything, and evenlonger to find Gorgeous Grigmar. As it turns out, the Orc is conducting business from the stern, charts and lists out among a group of a dozen or so other pirates and hard at work discussing the logistics of the riots damage and their efforts to mitigate them. Oak has to convince a handful of tough brutes to let him pass, as they try to box him out and ask what he thinks he’s doing. Before Oak can react, Grigmar looks over at the commotion and notices Oak. With a slight, almost unnoticeable smile, the Orc waves off the brutes, and waves Oak over. Around him, the pirates who were busy at discussions look at the newcomer, annoyed.
“Mates! This here is Oak, one o’ the fellas I was telling you about!” Gorgeous Grigmar walks up, gives Oak a nod, then a quick and firm handshake. “We’re here coordinating the relief effort, gettin’ food an temporary housing figured out. How can I help ya’, man?” He grins, hopefully. “Ye’ here to volunteer early?” The other organizers look on at the conversation, staring at the gruff Shifter and waiting impatiently for his answer so they can move on with business.
Gorgeous Grigmar catches Oak’s intention. He nods subtly before dropping his eyes, and turns back to his companions. “Yeh, just gonna check in with the Big Guy here for a minute…apparently, some o’ his crew might have the magic to help out with clearing the wreckage from the Public Village, but they’re afraid to pop their heads out due ta’ criminal records…”
“Grigmar!” one of them says, irritably. “We still have to discuss which direction we’re gonna send the schooners out to pick up emergency supplies, or this place will starve inside of three weeks!”
“Heavy hangs the crown, alright?” Grigmar responds glumly, a sharp edge under his tone warning the pirate not to respond. “Look, just finish writing up who’s available, and who’s ready to pull up anchor now. You can handle that much on yer own. I’ll be back shortly.”
Gorgeous Grigmar points his head over towards a secluded corner of the Ship, near the railings at the Bow. “No news is good news,” the Orc mutters thicklyas they walk, the bitterness at his situation growing more acute by the day. “Assume you’re not pulling me aside to tell me what a good seamstress you are.” Taking a deep breath, Grigmar grabs the railing, looking out over the ocean and away from the Shifter. “Well? Hit me. What’s this thread you’re on about?”
The Professor nods thoughtfully at the Hag’s description, his suspicions seemingly confirmed. “A Witch of the Wilds, Mistress of the Hunt…just as I suspected! If you don’t mind, my lupine friend?…” The Professor, far too familiar now, moves in directly behind the Shifter. He grabs Jack by the neck and obtrusively begins to part the hair along the nape, searching for something at the back of Jack’s head. As he roughly pulls another large patch of hair aside, the Professor gives a triumphant noise. “Ahhhh…indeed! I’m guessing you didn’t know about this…a magical insignia, carved into the base of your skull! The Mark of the Hunt!”
“You see,” the old man explains to Jack, “Every third full moon, a High Hunt is held by the adherents of Malar. Those who have been “Marked” are stripped, given meager equipment with which to defend themselves, and pursued by the Hunter’s inside an enclosed space (usually an Island, but not always), for the “glorification” of the Beast Lord.”
“The Marks present themselves in three distinct manners. An Active Mark will be blood red, and itch and burn ever so slightly. It is a sign of great, impending danger! A Deadened Mark can be found on the necks of those who have partaken in a High Hunt, and survived the ordeal. Usually just a bit of healed scar tissue, in the familiar shape.” The Professor looks on the young Shifter with resigned pity. “Yours is a dark blue shade…an Inactive Mark, someone who has evaded the grasp of the Hunt, but still is bound by it.”
“This Hag of yours not only transfigured your body, but she branded you as well!” The Professor shakes his head with quiet disbelief. “I imagine she must have let you go to prolong your suffering. Send you off, alone and changed into the Wilds: either to die scared, or to last long enough to be be found and imprisoned, or hunted.”
“It’s amazing though…” the old man says in quiet awe. “In all this time, you haven’t been rounded up by Malar’s Hunters? Even with all your ship-hopping? (whistles) My lupine friend, you are either incredibly clever, incredibly quick, or incredibly lucky!””
The Professor nods sadly at the gears and widgets being carried in boxed atop the heads of Modrons. “Yes, well, I’ve already discussed with the interim head of the city having myself and the Modrons assist in repairing the Cannon Arrays. Chaff shouldn’t be left as an easy target for the Prince’s Elysium. But as to the rest…” He hesitates, but after a few conflicted moments shakes his head with finality. “They’re not ready for the people of this place. Yet. Perhaps, with more time, or more refinement, but with a war building, the last thing I need to do at the moment is add more weapons into the mix. I don’t need any more mistakes on my conscience. Maybe one day, if it becomes absolutely necessary…”
The Professor is unable to provide Jack with any answers about the people and places he’s looking for. Fortunately, he’s able to coax over a trio of Modrons, who after having the words carefully repeated to them, are able to point Jack in the proper direction:
“BARNABAS USUALLY FREQUENTS THE HUNTER’S GUILD, AS IT’S CHIEF OFFICER AND LONGEST SERVING MEMBER. HE MAY ALSO BE ACTIVE IN THE COMMUNITY TODAY, DRAWING UP NEW BOUNTIES.”
“THE ARRAYS WHERE THE CHANGELING ARNO WAS LAST SIGHTED LIE DIRECTLY EAST THE CENTER OF THE CITY. THE AREA WAS BADLY DAMAGED, AND GRIGMAR’S MEN HAVE CLOSED OFF THE AREA AND AREN’T LETTING PEOPLE NEAR.”
“THE HARRIER-EXPRESS BRANCH IS *IMMEDIATELY* BEHIND THE CANNON ARRAYS YOU SEEK. THE BOW OF THEIR OFFICE WAS BADLY BURNT IN THE FIRE, BUT LOOKED OTHERWISE INTACT. THE AARACOKRA HAD ALREADY BEGUN RESTORATION.”
The Professor is already back to double checking the Modrons work, reorganizing equipment and wiring. He waves goodbye kindly to Jack. “Thank you! For the meeting, and the kind words! As I said, I’ll be in the City one more day, to help fix the Cannon Arrays. After that,” he looks over with quiet annoyance at the Modrons. “I’ll be shipping out with the Modrons again. I’m hoping to find an island with a large enough metal ore deposit to get them toleave me alone, and get back to my research properly.” He smiles, looking back and forth between the young Shifter and Fusspot. “I am glad to have met you, Jack the Lucky Lupine! I have the firm feeling you and I may meet again one day soon. Until then, take care; you and your friends!”
For a long time, Gorgeous Grigmar says nothing, continuing to stare out over the waters in the distance. Finally, he fatalistically remarks, “The Doppelganger wearing your Tiefling friend’s face used one o’ the “signals” too. Know that ain’t on you, o’ course. The Queen, she said any o’ the Sanguine surivivors that came through here, knew the right things to say would be friendlies, but…” The Orc sighs, and shrugs, the heavy weight on his shoulders almost visible by now. “Above me’ pay grade, I guess, like the rest. I just follow orders, when I can.”
Grigmar pulls himself from the railing, with a resolute, defeated air. He looks straight at Oak once more, a strange, detached look upon his face. Licking his lips, he moves past the Barbarian and towards the stairs to the Lower Decks. “Fine. Fook it. Follow me.”
The Orc leads Oak through the corridors and stairways of the Athena, past countless pirates and ship hands hard at work within the Ship’s structure. This place is bigger than the Curse, by several stories, but the architecture is familiar to the Barbarian. They should soon come upon the Athena’s Orlop Deck, and a Hold behind it…
At the door of the Lower Decks Hold, two pirates stand ready guard, playfully bickering between each other. They tense up at Oak’s approach, and the swashbuckling male reminds Grigmar, “Eh, no one allowed in this area! Those were your orders, “Cap’n”…”
“I know me’ orders, Finlan,” Grigmar responds gruffly. “He gave me one er’ “signals”. He’s a friend. Let us in.”
Finlan looks wary, as does his companion. “But Grigmar, the l-”
“Now.” the Orc says firmly.
The pirates, still unsure, find a ring of keys between them, and open the door to the hold. Oak walks in, slowly…
Within the room are fine, wooden drawers and built in shelves, and bay windows that look out onto the ocean. On a chaise lounge at the center of the room, sit a hefty pile of crystals and transparent stones, which seem to resemble a feminine shape. Except….
“Oak Demon-Crusher,” Gorgeous Grigmar says, the words sticking in his throat. “Meet our Queen, Nagara.”
Othro, a ring of smoke constantly encircling his brow, shakes his head sadly. “Never got the chance, me’self…although I’ve heard the tales! Me’ granda, he’s the one who wrote the Introduction for the “Myth n’ Fact” book an’ got to meet the Undying…er, youself.”
The Halfling, half in a daze but highly attentive to the Warlock’s needs, helps clear a table for the Tiefling, finds him a chair, starts a kettle boiling. When he returns, old memories seem to have stirred for the one-eyed Halfing. Serving a strong, bitter tea to Urixes, he remarks, “Granda, he said he met you twice in his life: once at the beginning, once at the end. When he was but a wee’ child, he was on board a Clipper, where “the Undying” forcefully boarded, burned the place down. Granda’ had to cling to the side of a wreck for three days, alone, before he washed to shore…”
Sipping from his own cup of tea, the Halfling refills his pipe, watching the Tiefling at his study. He continues, “Granda’ met him once more, near on thirty years ago now. Came into the store to do the same as’ you: copy some spells, do some research.” Eyes glazed, Othro stirs his tea, staring of into the distance. “Granda’ said he never mentioned anything, but the Tiefling….he weren’t the same guy. Was real nice, gentle…gave me Granda’ a large tip at the end, and read his fortune. ’Pparently fore he left, he even mentioned he remembered me Granda’, an said he was real sorry for what had gone down…”
Othro shurgs, once more lighting up the pipe. “That always impressed Granda’, specially cause’ it were near his last days. He said, “Gods can change, too, me boyo! Ain’t nothing permanent in this universe…”
“Two weeks,” Gorgeous Grigmar replies hoarsely in response to Oak’s question. “Ther’ Urixes-Doppelganger came in a bit before thur’ others, quiet-like, an’ made parlay with the Queen two weeks ago. Told er’ he had to lay low for awhile, an’ handed her a pair o’ gloves e’ told er’ to watch fer him!” Grigmar’s face is expressionless, but it’s clear from the sound he’s making that he blames himself for what happened. “She lost er’ hands first. Couldn’t write, couldn’t open doors no more. Helped er’ as best I could, but within a few days she’d scratched her face on accident, an’ wasn’t too long after that…” Grigmar closes his eyes, and growls.
“Usually,” the Orc eventually continues, “Ozoro’s remedies would have something fer’ the Rot in its earlier stages, but as luck would have it, the ingredients needed fer’ the cure were one of the items Pom an’ the Prince’s Dogs were holding up! Pretty soon, was jest’ too late…crystals had advanced too fast, an’ she fell asleep in there an’ didn’t wake up…”
Grigmar’s eyebrows raise at Oak’s offer of help. He looks happy, like a load has been lifted….but reticent, and nervous. “I mean…I need to find er’ a cure! The Groundlings from Geo-Prime probably have something, but I can’t spare the men to go past the Inner Circle, an’d be scared to risk it regardless. I can’t let anyone know about this, lest’ Chaff take another hit to it’s morale. And I need to be careful, because whatever it was that took her,” Here Grigmar points to areas around the chaise lounge and floor where the chair sits. Part of the couch has become rock hard and calcified. At speckled portions around the body, tiny stalagmites rise from the floor. “…it seems to be spreading!”
For a long while, Urixes is confused, wondering why this book in particular would have been put aside for him. On the third read through, he has a sudden epiphany: the play’s strange plot and tortured metaphors aren’t meant to be taken literally, or even figuratively. It’s a Ritual Text. The character’s bizarre actions and airy words are a sequence of sacraments by which to open an actual door somewhere. “What Lies Beyond the Door” seems to be a place far, far away from “The Sun”, “The Moon”, and “The Stars”.
Urixes tucks the book away somewhere safe, for later. The Old Boy had told him that he would “join you back at where it all began, below the ocean and beyond the stars”. The Tiefling still hasn’t found the location of “Midlight’s Deep”…but now, he seems to have found the key!
The strapping, loud, rather stinky pirate turns on Jack like a snake.
"Oh yeah? You lost your friend, huh?" He asks, mockingly, smoking a cigarette two inches from Jack's nose. "T'was a fucking civil upheaval, sweetheart, near everyone lost a "friend"! Now obey the ropes, an' stop wasting our time!"
"Hazardous zone," his companion drones on drolly. "Nothing to see here. Please move along, and stay out of the waters."
"Yeh, piss off!" Stinky follows, plucking the lit cigarette from his lips and flicking it at Jack as he goes...
Jack finds the Harrier-Express just as the Modrons described it. The large, Galley-type ship has been scorched from the front towards the midsection of the Ship from without, but the interior seems to have remained mostly untouched.
Aarakocra, roughly a dozen of them, move about the craft. Some are hard at work cleaning, or clearing debris. Four in the back organize a countless amount of letters, postcards, and boxes into a complex looking series of cabinets along a deck wall.
One of them, a female, notices Jack enter, and approaches helpfully. Through her strange and thick bird-accent, she asks. "Name's Flutter! How kin I help you?"
The Aaracokra (who introduces herself as Yekka), is able to patiently take dictation from Jack. “It comes up a lot, you know. Nothing to be ashamed off!” she stresses, trying to make Jack feel better. “I’d be surprised if, half the pirates on the streets out there know how to read an’ write!”
Yekka nods, an expression on her face that might be a smile. “5GP! Is correct. An’ this address…well, right in town! Your lady friend will probably get this before we close out doors today…you may even hear back from her as soon as tomorrow! We’ll be sure to track you down, if that’s the case…it’s what we do best!”
She waves Jack off, already getting back to work. “Thanks again! Let us know, if you need to send any other letters or packages!”
Gorgeous Grigmar finds a chair, and sinks down into it with a long, deep sigh of relief. “Oh, thank the gods! I was ‘fraid ye’d rat us out, or turn tail! Ye have no idea, what it means to me, offering to help her.”
“Listen, talk to yer people: figure out how ye’ wanna do this. Above all, keep it to yerselves, please. Only reason this place is runnin’ even this well is cause they still think there’s a power behind the throne, as it wer. If it gets out there ain’t, well…”
Grigmar pumps Oak’s hand again, his face shining with gratitude. “Thank you, Big Man…thank you. Come back an’ see me when you’re ready; I’ll be waiting!”
After meeting back up, Oak and Jack walk through the smoking, charred city on their way to the far north end of town; a place known as “Garrety’s Redemptions”.
Crude the Rak’ta meets you both just outside, several small lizard-children crawling over her person. She greets you both kindly, but it’s clear she’s irritated, stressed out, anxious.
“Sssorry I brought the children with. Arno wassss to watch them, but well…I’m sssure you’ve heard. I’m…very ssssorry for your lossss.”
Crude rocks the one child at her chest while the other two run around her legs, literally nipping her ankles. “Thissss isss my lasssst official act, as Deckhand aboard the Curssse, asss I reminded the Captain. I am to help you ssstaff the Ssssship, pick my replacement, and then I will be departing with my wee-onesss to the Inner Circle. Our passsssagesss have already been bought. I musssst protect my family, now…and I cannot do that, on a hounded Ship, or by joining in Rax’ssss nonssssenssse.”
The Shifters and the lizard folks enter Garrety’s. A greasy, bespectacled man has his legs up behind the desk, and is opening admiring what appears to be hand-drawn pornography. He takes his time before he looks up at the newcomers, then goes right back to leering at the pictures. His voice dull and emotionless, the man kicks over a leatherbound ledger with one boot, and nods listlessly at it.
“Welcome ter’ Garrety’s,” he monotones. “Widest selection of scabs, scoundrels, service workers, an’ staffing this side o’ Civilization.” He begins to rattle off a disclaimer from memory, bored. “Note: Garrety’s is not responsible for the quality, condition, or criminal record of your hired hands. Up front fee is one time, after that’ it’ll be on you to keep em’ engaged in…” The man grins at your group, teeth black and glistening “…whichever manner you’d like!”
The man (likely Garrety himself) continues. “Staff locked up below should be able to be brought up shortly, after we clear out whatever bounty remains on’ em, after which they’ll be at your disposal post-haste. Few hours, maybe. Staff situated in town will be contacted shortly through Harrier-Express, and should be available to be on-call within forty-eight hours.”
“All sales are final!”
”The cowardly Half-Elf? E’ heard about some Rift opening up during the riots near the center o’ the city, went to check it out. That one it too fascinated by the Expanse….gonna get himself killed by it, eventually…”
”The pushy Triton woman? She’s currently running a volunteer security squad for Grigmar. I swear, that woman thinks she’s the authority out here…”
”Silent miss sally? Imprisoned, until you! Apparently, a few hands in the local tavern made a particularly unsubtle pass at her, and she chewed one of their noses off. Made a weird bed in her cage later, outta paper an’ trash…”
”The Tortle is a piece of garbage; we’ve dealt with their like before. Currently in jail, but you can release them. Problem is, debtors are still hounding their trail…
”The loony, loud wee’ Gnome? Locked up, at the moment. Hopeless romantic, but terrible taste in men. That one would figure her shit out quick, if she could ever find someone to love er’ an’ tell her “no” to the rest…”
”The Orc’s a fucking brick-shit house! But arrogant; constantly trying to prove himself. You’ll be hiring a hell o’ a Striker, but one giant pain the arse…”
”The wee’ frog woman’s been a cook at Ratshit long as I can remember. Ameniable enough, but talks en’ talks. A bit to experimental fer’ my tastes, as well…”
”The Loxodon is a lot. Ran er’ two-sided pickpocketing scheme, though we never caught their partner. Bit o’ a moron, but loves their fancy clothes an’ jewels…”
”The Warforged is a *nutter*. Thinks he’s some kind of fancy royalty! Loyal, but like talking to an’ expensive brick wall….”
”Ahh, yes, the fiery Kobold. A laborer at the Shipyard, but been looking fer’ a way to ther seas. I….urhm, I wouldn’t take an *eye* off this one! Seems to like *breaking* far more than *building*…”
Garrety snaps the binder shut. “That should do it, then! Your Cap’n’s already paid up fer this lot ahead of time, so you’re all taken care of. Your new hires will all have forty-eight hours to get their shit together and get to the Whispered Curse. If you get any no shows, lemme’ know: we’ll throw a bounty down on em’.”
Crude the Rak’ta, taking a quick break from her children, comes over and wishes Jack and Oak the best. “Take care!” the lizard woman says, showing her teeth. “I haff come to love the crew of the Curssse, dessspite my mate’sss passssing. I wisssh you all the bessst of luck, and zank you for bringing ussss thiss far!’
Their business completed, Jack and Oak leave Garrety’s and head down to The Nimble Weasel tavern, to meet up with their Tiefling companion…
Oak and Jack arrive at the Tavern Ship, fairly crowded this evening as workers and volunteers drink away the cares of their day repairing the city. The bartender (a weasel-kind, named Rikki), kindly ambles over and drops down a couple glasses of ale. “All we got, I’m afraid!” Rikki says apologetically. “Those blokes who stole your appearance came in and bout’ drank us dry the other night! I heard about yeh, though, what you all did….drinks on the house tonight, yeah?”
Not too long afterwards, Urixes arrives, and the Shifters wave him over to their table.