Sunday, April 10, 2011

HelgaCon IV: Mutant Bastards - The Pirates of Quar

They'd all been cooped up in these tiny cages for days, in the darkness and stench of the steerage of a slaver barge headed south. They each had their own story of how they'd ended up here, but it didn't much matter anymore. Whatever they were before, they were merchandise now.

There was barely room to move, and the slavers put old zap in the bars, that give a painful shock if touched and put those with minds full of powers into a state of disoriented numbness. A scoop of stinking meat paste a day has been their only food, served with more jabs of zap at the end of the first mate's hated sparky stick, followed by a hoseful of frigid bilge water to flush out the cages and keep their merchandise from dying of thirst before they got to market.

So they slept as best they could, preserving their strength for whatever fresh misery awaited, propped against a scrap of plastic tarp that was all that protected them from the zap in the bulkheads.

One day, they awoke to shouting and pounding feet above, followed by the sound of muskets firing, which in turn are followed by the roar of thunder brought down from the sky onto the water, with a sound like spoons tapping on the bulkheads and shrieks of pain and terror.

The barge listed, and they felt it lurching to port when to the sound of even louder thunder, so loud it shook the floor under their feet and caused their whole world to shift around. Those who had been caught off guard were thrown into the bars, and were shocked, or more truthfully not shocked, finding that the old zap didn't bite them this time. It was dead quiet up above, and the motley assembly of mutant freaks looked at one another in the dim darkness, and set to work breaking free.

Club was an augie, a human who's ancestors had been blessed in the genes by the ancients to be faster or stronger or tougher or smarter. In this case, it was tougher and stronger, as he reached up with his scarred hands and tore the weakly welded rebar cage that held him open like it was made of wire hangers.

Craw was some kind of mutated arthropod, probably with horseshoe crab in its ancestry judging from its flattened disk of a head, although from the shoulders down it had the arms, legs, and torso of something resembling a human, albeit covered in chitin and spines. This body it slipped ably between the bars of the cage after wedging its head through, compressing in ways no vertebrate could manage.

Aroma was a skunk about the size of a black bear, gifted with the natural weapons of her kind along with the power of speech. These didn't really help her get loose from her cage, and she spent a while gnawing ineffectually at the lock until Club came over and ripped the bars open for her.

Brother Frederick was a strange, wizened little man who'd fashioned a couple of burlap sacks into a robe and cassock, and who spoke reverently in his prayers to the almighty Atom. When the zap had left the bars and he could think straight again, he merely bowed his head, and in the blink of an eye later he was standing outside the cage, looking a bit dazed from the effort of willing all of his own atoms to be a couple of feet from where they once were without actually crossing the space.

Crowly was an odd fellow with a prounounced speech impairment, brought on by the eight feet of prehensile tongue he kept in his jaw. He had mind powers as well, but instead of teleporting outside his cage, he merely forced it open with raw telekinetic force.

Lechmere, as it would come to be known, was a tick the size of a serving platter, that scrabbled at its cage, squawking an assembly of perfect imitations of words that had been spoken in its presence into entreaties to be released. Not one to play favorites, Club came over and tore open its cage as well.

Once released, the liberated slaves set to work exploring their surroundings and collecting things they might find useful in further escapes. They found the locker where the mate kept his zap stick and the cans of meat paste, as well as a wealth of cargo in boxes in the hold beyond the slave pens.

Aroma and Lechmere ran toward the companionway forward and scratched at the hatch. They were unable to budge it until their universal opening tool, Club the augie, came barreling over to shove it open. The dead slaver that had been weighing it shut was rolled off, and the mutants climbed up onto the deck.

There, they found a scene of carnage, as the bodies of the barges crew lay strewn all about, done to death by what looked like the mother of all musket fusillades. The barge was run aground on a sandbar, and through the fog that surrounded them they could see the tall, leaf and vine festooned towers of an ancient city rising over the rustling green grasses of the fens.

This could be the fabled city of Boss, they marveled, or perhaps even Probiden. There was no way of knowing for sure until they made for shore.

So the odd assembly split up and began to search the barge for necessaries. From the crew they scrounged armor and weapons, and saw the grim fates of the slaver's leaders.

The quartermaster had been dashed against the crew's quarters in the forecastle, his head caved in from the force of hitting the corrugated metal of the quonset hut that had been lashed to the prow.

The bosun had been pinned like a bug to the wheelhouse with a harpoon thru the chest, leaving his well cared for musket and his prized club (a sawed off pool cue reinforced with hose clamps all down it's length) for Craw to claim.

The hated first mate had been burned beyond recognition, and they only knew it was him from the gaudy katana sword he carried with him at all times. Upon closer examination, it was found that the sword was of very poor quality, with a loose hilt and bits of thin gold flaking off of the sword's ornaments, revealing plastic underneath.

Aroma had been sniffing around the upper wheelhouse when she found the captain huddled beneath the barge's control panel. He was still alive, his usual crafty mein replaced by a dull, drooling stare. When she nudged him, all he would say was "Qua! Qua!".

As she lost interest and began to search the small cabin, Lechmere the tick came scuttling up the stairs and saw an opportunity. He climbed onto the captain's back, and carefully inserted special feelers in through the neck joints of the mariner's battered lobstah shell armor. The human stiffened and rose, as the huge tick took over his nervous system and began working it like a horrible puppet. He pulled his lips back in a rictus grin and introduced himself as Lechmere, using the captain's vocal chords to articulate what his own primitive voice box could not.

Creeped out but undeterred, the plucky mutant skunk continued her search, and found a pair of inflatable life rafts under the captain's bunk in the cabin. These she proceeded to drag down the steps with the Lechmere puppeted captain in tow. Club went up the steps to help her with the second ungainly bundle, and in doing so discovered an immaculate ax hanging from hooks on the wall of the cabin, with a double headed eagle engraved on the blades and a bright orange, high impact handle. This, truly, was a weapon of destiny meant for his hands.

Meanwhile, Crowley had used his telekinetics to haul the cargo in the hold up onto the deck, and had been busily rooting through the boxes and crates. He found many fine treasures, including an ancient battery powered device with a rotating chain for a blade. He too had discovered a weapon of destiny.

Once the little band had finished looting, they inflated the rafts and tossed them into the water, struggling a bit to leap into the bobbing platforms while loaded down with loot, but managing allright without losing anything. Aroma and Craw both volunteered to push the rafts by holding on and kicking, and so they set out toward the fog shrouded ruin to shore.

Of course, nothing ever goes as smoothly as one would like, and wouldn't you know they fell afoul of the strangles on their way in.

Here's what the learned heads of the college of Brand Eyes in the Walled City of Tham have to say about strangles: "This mutant form of kelp is extremely dangerous to swimmers and boat crews alike. These plants lurk near the bottom among dense vegetation, watching above them for anything that moves into their territory. If a likely target comes into view they will swim rapidly upward towards them, in a motion very similar to that of an octopus or jellyfish. They will then attempt to constrict the victim in their muscular fronds. When all the life is squeezed out of their prey, a Strangle will drag the body to the bottom and feed off of the decomposing corpse for several weeks with it's root tendrils. The central core body of a Strangle is roughly 1-2 feet in diameter, but the tendrils can extend out to 8 feet on larger specimens, and size is never an issue when it comes to their attacks. Since they operate in groups, several of these plants can benefit from a large kill, although theres no real communication or co-operation going on among them. Strangles have been known to attack boats, often jamming the propellers or intakes of motorized ones. While this may kill one or two, the remainder of what could loosely be called "the pack" become a serious threat to any hapless sailor sent down to clear the obstruction."

It was poor Aroma who first felt the searching tendrils wrap around her legs, and she let out a shriek. The others hastily pulled her aboard, slashing and chopping at her slithery attackers as she struggled to free herself. Club, who was in the raft pushed by Craw, pulled the mutant arthropod out of the water and carefully set him among the bundles so that his spines wouldn't puncture the raft.

It was Brother Frederick who came to the group's rescue, sending a powerful pulse of electricity through the water that scalded the strangles as they swished up towards the rafts. They managed to bludgeon and rip the stranded weed that had wrapped around Aroma until it stopped twitching, and tossed it's mangled remains over the side to be ripped asunder by others of its kind as the monstrous plants scattered for safer prey.

After they'd calmed themselves, the group set about making the rest of the way to shore, toward a large slab of duracrete they could see jutting thru the mist about a hundred feet away. The mighty Club bent some rebar into a crude grapple, adhered it to some webbing from Craw's spinnerettes, and tossed it ashore. Crowley followed suit, with his ability to perfectly mimic another's motions, and spinnerettes of his own providing the line.

As they pulled themselves onto the pier, they were greeted with accordion music and sea chanties, from a gruff looking humanoid clad in a yellow rain slicker and peaked cap.

He introduced himself as a priest of the waters, keeper of the Shrine of the Compass, and asked if they be pirates from the fortress of Quar, nodding darkly to an ill favored, angular structure that squatted on the ancient harbor, black smoke rising above it from numerous watch fires in its superstructure.

After some initial confusion as to what might be the best answer to give, the group of escaped slaves convinced him that they weren't pirates, which turned out to be the right answer.

And thus, the little band of mutants fell in among the peaceful but downtrodden Boat Folk, and their adventures among them wait to be told at another time, perhaps with an accordion accompaniment.

Editor's note: Some of the details here are a bit hazy for me in the hurly burly of the weeks following HelgaCon, so if any of the participants want to correct any errors, then please drop me a note and I'll fix it. Thankee.

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