A "defence mechanism"

The sailor, the imp, the crystal, the treasure and ourselves were transferred back onto the firm decks of the Amoroso, and we watched as the pirate craft sank at last below the waves. Deagh immediately claimed the crystal and all the booty as the property of Falfax - and Captain Plummer felt constrained to abide by Deagh's wishes. So the crystal was secured in the hold and the treasure placed under guard in a storeroom. As for the pirate, Plummer threw him in the brig. The presence of the imp seemed to cause no little consternation amongst my friends, but I was certain even then that the small creature was harmless - of course I may be wrong - and had to prevent one or two of our party from throwing it overboard. I fed the cute little blighter and at length we repaired to our cabins. It was an uneasy rest that some sought that night, knowing that we had brought on board an alien artifact which was most likely responsible for the death of the entire crew of another vessel. As for myself, I still had work to do.

As Sister Luana snored in the bunk below mine, I examined the ornately carved box I had recovered from Uncle Tom's cabin. Eight inches by four by one and a half, it is as heavy as two gold bars and covered in strange designs. I will keep my description of it to a minimum, as no doubt you have it before as you read this report. For a time I could detect no lock, but then I found it - carefully hidden in the fabric of its design - a small circle of pin-sized holes. I determined to seek the key on the morrow in amongst the treasure trove, but for the moment turned my attention to the papers I had recovered.

Amongst the papers were letters filled with billious sentimental claptrap that Captain Thomas had written to his loved ones. There was in addition a letter adressed to yourself which I have included for your perusal. There were also maps and charts of what I assumed to be local waters, and I shall confirm this when possible. Of most interest was the ledger, describing as it did the events leading up to the pirate captain's suicide. To summarise, the pirate vessel came to hear of the imminent return of the Falfaxian-manned ships from an unnamed source in Cottlesmore, and set forth to intercept them. They found one craft and raided it with ease, and ascertained through torture that two more ships were expected but not for another year - apparently these ships will not carry any money, only T. and W. (these are the initials used in the ledger - at a guess, the 'w' may stand for weapons of an unusual make, but as for the 't'......?) The great crystal artifact and the hoard of booty were recovered from the ship and transferred across, and the crew made for the port of S. (?). The pirates, however, were disturbed in some wise by the presence of the crystal, and at their request, the Captain ordered it thrown overboard. However, when such was attempted, four of the brigands exploded! Cripes! Cleverly interpreting this as a warning, the pirates were forced to replace the artifact, but by this time it was too late, for over the ensuing days, superstition and fear reduced the crew to a divided rabble, as 'ghosts' were sighted and crew members vanished in the night. So it was that we of the Amoroso came upon a ship of death, whose captain had chosen to take his own life rather than face whatever demon thing was destroying his crew.

I had only just completed my initial examination of the papers when Sister Luana, who had been snoring in the bunk below me, awoke with a grunt. In her sleep she had somehow detected a presence in our cabin. Shortly she informed me that Deagh was 'sweeping' the Amoroso with his mind. According to Luana, his aim was to confirm his own security, but nevertheless after a time she was able to divine that he was in communication with someone not on board the Amoroso. The identity of this communicant was masked, but to her credit Luana ascertained that Deagh informed this Mr (or Ms) X that he had 'recovered The Shard'. It seems certain that he referred to the giant crystal in the hold. This was interesting in itself, but Luana was forced to break her contact for reasons of security, and feeling nervous about the possibility of being watched by Deagh from a distance, I secured the papers and the gold box and retired.

The next day, though in retrospect it might be considered as the calm before the storm, seemed in itself strange enough, beginning for everyone with dreams of such strength and lucidity as to leave no mistaking their origin, for we all but one dreamt of the Shard. This will give you some idea of the power with which this item seems imbued, both in its aura and in the uncanny sense we gained that it could present itself within our minds as it chose, so that it seems almost as if the great crystal is possessed of a kind of sentience.

Our dreams differed in their detail, but as I have stated, for the most part they centred around the Shard and each seemed to carry with it an intimation of prophecy, as though we had been shown possible futures. Though my own dream was filled primarily with scenes of oppression, there were some who dreamt of happiness, and indeed I must confess that even my dream concluded with feelings of well-being emanating from the Shard. It was not surprising that the talk on this day centred around the Shard and the meaning of our dreams, yet a surprising fact came to light. There was one among us who protested that he had spent the night in a sleep untroubled, and this was Captain Plummer. The quick-thinking under-mage Sanguine immediately became suspicious, for had not Captain Thomas of the pirate vessel been the only crew member of that ill-fated craft to avoid murder with the exception of the rum-soaked villain in the brig? It was resolved that Plummer be watched for signs of odd behaviour, and while Sanguine voiced his concerns to the half-elf Arabella, I joined Deagh's acolytes in the storeroom where they catalogued the hoard of treasure.

My purpose here was to seek and make my own the key to open the gold box, and through good fortune I had soon achieved my aim. By chance Sister Luana already knew of the existence of the casket, but now I must decide the wisdom of sharing the knowledge of my find with the others of our small band, for I well perceived the dangers inherent in this action, not because of lack of trust, but due to the powers of Deagh who might observe such a meeting and would thence undoubtedly contrive to take the box for his own. However, I deemed that in such an important matter the wisdom of five might well outweigh the wisdom of two, so in the best approximation of secrecy that we could arrange, I spilled the beans.

How wrong I was! for shortly after our meeting, an accident of the tongue (the source of which is irrelevant) placed our possession of the box and key in jeopardy, but in this matter we had good fortune also, for through it I came into candid discussion with the First Officer Reich and learned that Captain Plummer was captain in name only and had been indisposed for some time due to a nervous complaint stemming from the fatality of a crew member. Indeed when I had convinced Reich of my allegiance to the flag of Lagoner, he offered me all help, and in return I resolved to reveal to him the ledger of Captain Thomas, for its bearing upon our own predicament was patent.

That night, seven of us met in the officer's mess - our party of five, Reich, and the psychic Arabella, whose job it was to provide shielding from the sly and weasel-like mind of Deagh (which task as we were later to discover proved unnecessary , for all the while Deagh was magically securing himself in his own room). I read aloud excerpts from the ledger of Captain Thomas, omitting sections which I considered to have no direct bearing on our situation, and then, with Reich voluntarily absenting himself from the room and Arabella in an oblivious trance, we made an examination of the gold box. You will see for yourself what this casket contains when you come to open it, so any description of mine will be superfluous. Suffice to say that we could detect no immediate danger from the ten small crystals and - pertinently - they seem to be constructed from the same material as the Shard itself. It occurred to us, however, that these minor crystals might act as keys of some sort. Accordingly, we determined to attempt a further examination of the Shard. This proved to be impossible, however, for upon entering the hold we discovered that the cunning Deagh had placed a magical ward around the great cannister, and several of our party sustained minor injuries before we abandoned our search.Yet let it be noted that from a distance of five feet, that being the circumference of the protection charm, we could see nothing on the crystal which might be construed as 'keyholes'. This is not to say they are not there, for the surface of the Shard is anything but regular, and indeed it would seem logical that the smaller crystals be connected in some wise with the larger.

Our sleep that night was dreamless. Would that we had had the luxury to sleep all through the day which followed.

The events of this day still remain somewhat confused in my mind, but I recollect that it began with panic, for during the night five of the ship's crew had mysteriously disappeared, leaving no trace but for a stain of blood on the exterior of their porthole. It appeared that what had happened on the pirate vessel was beginning on board the Amoroso. Needless to say, we were all concerned. Captain Plummer's nervous condition seemed to have taken a turn for the worse, leaving Reich in charge, and he ordered the ship be searched. No sign of the five men was found. During the course of the daylight hours, more men were reported as missing, and it was also found that the ship's armoury had somehow been emptied, leaving the bulk of the crew without defences. It seemed to many of us that an invisible beast or spirit must be at work, for no sign of any enemy had been seen. This erroneous assumption, however plausible, would prove to be the cause of much further death and bloodshed before the day was out.

Midday passed, and the afternoon was drawing on, when we realised that Sister Luana and Arabella had not returned from their intended interrogation of the mad pirate in the brig. Accordingly, several of us descended from the decks to investigate. What we found would have straightened the hairs on my chest were I not smooth-skinned and pallid, for the bars of the pirate's cell had been caved in by tremendous force, and he lay terribly wounded and bleeding on the floor. His guard had been smashed to pieces, but worst of all was the sight of Arabella, the half-elf, dead, her body torn in two. Of Sister Luana there was no sign. We had to bear these sad tidings to Reich. We also bore the shattered body of the sailor, who seemed somehow to be clinging to life, up on deck. Here was another mystery - Arabella was dead and Luana missing, but the pirate had been spared. We attempted to interrogate him, but his ramblings were in the main incoherent and senseless. He seemed to want desperately to be carried aloft to the crows' nest, and we obliged, thinking that in this way we might discover something of the beast which assailed us. Two guards we posted with him.

Throughout the night, these two guards were slain, but incredibly, the pirate survived again! We had all of us gathered on deck, for there was safety in numbers. Our party had donned its battle garb, (so much for my cover), and helped in the directing of the defences. For myself, I am particularly proud of the flour bombs which I hastily manufactured from flour and paper. These cunning devices were to be used against the invisible creature at close quarters to render him an easy target. Unfortunately I had no opportunity to use them, but perhaps at some future time they shall come in handy. I think they would be especially useful for dropping out of windows on people's heads.

With the coming of the dawn, there was great relief amongst ourselves and the crew, for even though the beast might still be invisible to us, yet now at least we could see each other. Captain Plummer seemed close to madness. Reich was torn by grief at the loss of Arabella. All of us were exhausted. Of Sister Luana there was still no sign, and we feared the worst. No other vanished seaman had returned - why should she? A boat was dispatched to Cottlesmore to warn them of our plight, and another had been trailed from the stern of the Amoroso for some reason which escapes me now, but this was where we put the ancient pirate. The clay golem Clay and Sanguine went below decks to try to rouse Deagh or his acolytes. There had been no sign or word from the foul evil priest or his sorry followers for the past day and a half. After a time, we detected a disturbance in the boat being towed behind us.

Rushing to the stern, we saw that the small yacht was slipping beneath the waves. Before we could act, it was gone. Miraculously, the drunken pirate was clinging to the rope for dear life. Somehow he had managed to survive once more, and for some reason it now seemed even more imperative to save him and bring him on board to ask him pertinent questions. This was accomplished, and we laid the dazed old pirate on the decks, at which point he at once regained his faculties, although oddly his memory seemed to have been wiped clean. Shortly, evidently exhausted by his further encounter with the beast and by being dragged through the water at the end of a rope, he fell into a deep sleep.

There was still no sign of Sanguine or the golem Clay, and I for one thought they were both dead. However, in this I was wrong. Around noon, while we were once more probing the drunken sailor, and also asking him some questions, a strange apparition burst from below decks, shouting incoherently. This weird form looked like a shimmering wave of air somehow supporting a fat stone head on a stick. Naturally I immediately recognised Sanguine holding all that was left of the golem, but the crew reacted in a negative manner to this sight, and would have laid about it with swords and sticks had not they been restrained. Sanguine was still loudly ranting, but had by this time made himself clear. He was trying to tell us that the hideous beast which sought to destroy us was in fact the old drunk pirate.

My Lord, no doubt in the reading of this report you had already guessed the identity of the beast, but lest you think that your humble servant is a little slow on the uptake, bear in mind that, although the truth of the matter had already occurred to us, we had in fact dismissed the idea, not because of its unlikelihood, but because it went against the grain of all that we hold dear - the preservation of life and the succour of the weak. If you believe that you'll believe anything, and you can imagine our surprise when, before our very eyes, the sailor was transformed into a terrible creature possessed of a ravening maw and long rasping tentacles. Fearsome though this beast appeared, I must confess that I felt the thrill of battle juddering through my veins as I drew my blade, and let it also be said that Roggan Thurgood Oakstaff, Sir Edward Ballantine, Sanguine and Scrylashe of Lagoner acquitted themselves well and bravely in the slaying of this beast.

The battle itself raged across the decks of the Amoroso, and several there were who fell by the way, not dead, but sorely injured. Ballantine struck the foul creature a mighty blow, yet in return it stove in his chest, so that he fell. Roggan came at the loathsome thing time and again with her axe, and was blessed in the combat, for it would flail at her, yet each time did she seem to dodge its long arms. For myself, I had no choice other than to meet it head on, and tried with my slim blade to at least cause it some inconvenience, but when the chance came, I let fly with poisoned barbs. But of all, the highest accolade must go to Sanguine, who had in the first instance braved the darkness below decks, and in the second was he who, when he ran out of spellcraft, appearing naked and devoid of any weaponry or artifice of war, ran directly at the creature's gaping, razor-toothed mouth and lauched his head at the creature's own, and when, after he lay sorely wounded on the deck, his right arm ripped from its socket, endeavoured to pick up this severed limb with his other hand and use it to bludgeon the creature into submission. Or so it almost seemed in the flurry of battle.

At the height of the destruction, when the decks were strewn with the bodies of the wounded and the air was filled with cries and groans, the loathsome creature faltered. We who still stood took heart at this, when moments before all had seemed lost, and we attacked the shape-changer with renewed vigour. It was surrounded and beset with a flurry of blows from all sides, and Roggan Thurgood it was who, seeming to grow in stature in the frenzy of her bloodlust, delivered the fatal strike with the blade of her axe. The creature staggered, striking out in its death throes, but undaunted, Thurgood hacked at the dying thing until it lay unmoving on the deck, and even then she would not cease, hewing the dead creature until she had exhausted her wrath.

Great was the jubilation of ourselves and the crew, but we had no time to celebrate, for Sanguine the under-mage was sorely wounded, and it seemed that he would either lose an arm or perish. Such was the judgement of the medical officer, as she examined his pale form in the sick bay. It was clear that magical healing was needed to restore his limb, and in the absence of Sister Luana, our only hope was Deagh. Ballantine, himself suffering from serious cuts and wounds, accompanied me hurriedly below decks, where we succeeded in dragging the cowardly priest from his self-imposed imprisonment. Such was my anger at his lack of interest in our predicament, and his unwillingness to serve any but his own cause, that I could not help displaying my anger and my low opinion of him, and his clear disdain for the desperate plight of Sanguine did little to placate me. We were here fortunate that, rousing the female acolyte Helen from her chamber, she agreed to use her spiritual power to save the under-mage's arm. She need not have undertaken this act, but her disenchantment with and detachment from Deagh were completed with this noble deed, and I commend her to you for her humanitarian spirit. With the added note that the whole thing may have been a clever ruse and it is possible, although in my view unlikely, that she is in fact a spy.

With the healing of Sanguine ends the greater substance of my report. There remains to add that upon our arrival at Cottlesmore, we discovered to our delight that Sister Luana had survived an encounter with the beast and a perilous few days at sea, where she had been able to use her powers to summon aid from creatures of the sea sympathetic to her plight. This happy reunion completed our strange voyage. I am reunited with my master Chiselmeet, and Ballantine with his troop of soldiers, and tomorrow we begin the second part of our journey, heading into Falfax. We shall be heading in the first instance for the Temple of Sol, currently being rebuilt under the guidance of the newly-promoted Chief Sergeant Grover.

In conclusion, let me stress that from the beginning of our journey the priority of Deagh has been the recovery and safe transportation of the great crystalline artifact, the Shard. It is also know that he has the means to communicate at long distances with his masters. As my main priority lies with him, I shall endeavour to discover more of this Shard and why the Falfaxians covet it so. It is clear from our experience of it that it is possessed of great powers, and one wonders at how it was acquired, for surely they who originally created this thing would be reluctant to part with it. That having been said, it is possible that the Shard is an independent 'being' in its own right. It is capable of invading the minds of men, and it is more than likely that the beast we slew on board the Amoroso was a defence mechanism which was activated when the pirate captain attempted to have the crystal thrown overboard.

This document is carried by trusted soldiers in the charge of Ballantine, and the gold box should accompany it. Note that the key for this box will be arriving independently. Note also that it is the intention of the former acolyte of Deagh, Helen by name, to come in time to Ashwell.

I do not know when next I shall be able to report to you at such length.

Your faithful servant,
Scrylashe Tirk.