Rather than mount up and rashly pursue the elusive Seibei Kreed, the Heroes of Sand Point sagely returned to Mama Crandal’s cafe for food and rest. Wounds were tended, stomachs filled, and plans contemplated. Row Ander, Nicto, Starsha, and Edgrin would ride out on Jabb’s timber wagons, bound directly for the port while Quarrell, Toska, and Ja (forewarned of the man’s connections) set out to kill Kreed wherever they happened to find him.
At sunset, Ja took a moment to contemplate his relationship with Droskar. Making the most of his barbarous insight, the demi-Titan, raised the Grasp of Droskar and hailed the Dwarfen God of Endless Toil. Sadly, Ja’s Ork-flavored lexicon lent an unsavory coarseness to his salute. The earth before him opened, and an emissary of the deity climbed out. Avitus, one time slain paladin now probationary messenger, pummeled the ill-mannered messiah into a confused lump of bruises.
“Hail Thomniel the Redeemer! I am Avitus messenger of Tireless Droskar. What is your petition?” intoned the emissary.
The much drubbed Ja had not the presence of mind to request spells, nor did he possess the perception to judge that the Dwarfen nature of his deity prohibited the embrace of alternative races. And yet, he did manage to express gratitude for the miraculous transformation of the gisarme into a glaive. As a kindly response, Avitus warned Ja about his sloth and urged him to procure a smith’s hammer, a pick, or an anvil.
And that’s when Ja introduced Quarrell as a potential acolyte. “Are you mad?!” barked Avitus. He laughed and then realized that the barbarian was not joking. “That is not a Dwarf, Thomniel,” pointed out the messenger in the tone reserved for addressing particularly dim witted children. Even so, a glance at Ja revealed the sincerity of his interest. Avitus circled Quarrell, frowning and mumbling, obviously conflicted. At last, Avitus looks at Ja and shrugged. “Very well, I will convey your desire to the Master.” The earth opened and swallowed him.
In the same instant, Droskar stood before his Chosen One. The Dwarfen God of Toil wore a form different than his previous incarnations. His copper hair was bound back with a ring of onyx, another gathered his beard. His skin was platinum, his eyes were flashing ruby spheres. He wore black enameled armor with trim of red gold.
“Avitus brings me strange news. I wonder if he is worth keeping as a messenger,” grumbled the deity. “Tell me, what is it exactly that you want.”
Quarrell watched Ja stammer and fumble for words, but when he made to speak on his own behalf, his armor went instantly rigid, and his chinstrap tightened to the point that his jaw could not open.
“Is he your slave?” demanded Droskar.
Ja sensed the deity’s displeasure and had the sense not to lie. He stated clearly that no, the man was not his slave but that he seemed to possess qualities suited to the God of Toil’s world view. As he spoke, the demi-Titan could not ignore the withering aura of fury emanating from his master. Maybe an iron-hearted Dwarf god did not wish to number humans of any stripe among his followers. Maybe a supreme being who dedicated himself to a particular race for a particular cause would employ rather inflexible criteria to those lesser beings he chose to call his own. Mumbling a barely intelligible apology, Ja expressed an ill-defined measure of regret for his actions.
“This is a man,” pointed out Droskar. “What do I care for men? The heretics you slew were corrupted by men.” He looked hard at Ja. “You have eyes, but you do not see. I will limit your confusion.” Droskar took Ja’s left eye, and over the hole, he placed a Mithral plate adorned with the crossed hammer and pick in red gold. “When your vision is clearer, you may have this back,” said Droskar, bouncing Ja’s eyeball on his palm. “There is a Dwarf you will procure for me. You will know him when you see him, so keep an eye out, eh?” Droskar’s laughter rang in Ja’s ears, but he had vanished.
In the morning, the Heroes rode out with Jabb’s wagons, parting company when they met Sam on the roadside. The ranger had followed Kreed to Sand Point, even to the Lord Mayor’s home. She reported that after Kreed’s arrival, the Sherriff was summoned. When he left, the Sherriff didn’t look happy. Kreed was still at the house when guards began to arrive. Sam left before anyone spotted her.
At the Northern gate of Sand Point, the Heroes found Sherriff Hemlock awaiting their arrival. As they approached, a downcast Belar walked out to meet them. He knew that the Heroes could turn Sand Point into a bloodbath, and he had warned them not to get involved in Falcons Hollow politics. He just wanted to resolve the situation with the least violence possible. When guardsmen began to follow him, the Sherriff waved them away. Belar didn’t like his orders. He read the warrant aloud and then handed it over for the Heroes to read themselves.
“For the crimes of banditry, arson, murder, and willful defiance of ordained authority, the persons acting under the names of ‘Ja’, ‘Sam’, ‘Toska’, and ‘Quarrell’ will remand themselves to custody of Sherriff Belar Hemlocke forthwith.”
Hemlocke knew the Heroes, and the story he’d been told made no sense. He couldn’t fight the Heroes, and he had no desire to do so. The Sherriff asked for their version of the story and listened attentively. It was Ja who was most concerned about the fate of Kitani Eaveswalker, possibly because the seamstress still owed him a shirt, but when the barbarian mentioned the abducted woman, Belar interjected with questions. Hemlocke was the personal friend of Yojii Eaveswalker, Kitani’s lost husband, and even Kimi’s godfather. Animated by the unwelcome news, Hemlocke hurried the Heroes to the Lord Mayor’s home, dismissing all but a pair of his most trusted officers.
Upon discovering the most wanted band of murderous brigands in his domain standing in his parlor, Lord Grobaras was wary. He made no sudden moves and was careful not to raise his voice. He asked Hemlocke, “To what do I owe the honor of meeting our guests?” then invited the Heroes to sit down. The more perceptive members of the party could tell that the nobleman was likely to say anything to get these people out of his home. “What ransom do they require for Jurin?” said Grobaras, spotting his nephew among the outlaws.
Jurin was urged to join his uncle, and explanations followed. It took a while, but eventually Grobaras recognized Quarrell and Toska from the boar hunt to which he had treated them. He asked Hemlocke, “Are these the ‘monsters’ that Seibei was raving about?” Refreshments were brought, and Grobaras shared Kreed’s account of affairs in Falcons Hollow.
The Heroes told the tale of the raid on the Kobold lair to free the children, and Grobaras expressed genuine gratitude; Jurin was his only nephew and heir. Seibei’s elder son was the product of the man’s first marriage and bore all of his father’s faults. The beating of Sam and the abduction of Kitani were described, and Grobaras summoned his steward. At the retelling of the attack on Jabb’s lot, Grobaras demanded, “His men openly attacked Colbin Jabb?”
Shortly, the steward returned to the room with Seibei Kreed. Immediately, the portly villain flew into a rage. Spitting criminal accusations as fast as his lips could flap, Seibei worked himself into a lather. He was in mid-harangue when Kitani Eaveswalker was led into the room. Kreed was silent for a moment. Changing tack, he reminded the Lord Mayor of their kinship, of their profitable venture, and lastly made the ultimate mistake of denouncing, by name, the war criminal hiding out in Falcon’s Hollow.
Grobaras looked to Hemlocke. The Sherriff motioned to his men. Kreed’s outrage echoed down the hallway as he was removed from the room. When his cries abruptly ended, so did the life of Seibei Kreed.
In the wake of such unpleasantness, the Lord Mayor invited the Heroes to be his guests for the evening. The Heroes enjoyed a marvelous dinner, and afterward enjoyed a relaxing evening. Quarrell went to bed early, as was his wont. Sam, who had not enjoyed a quiet night at Momma Crandal’s, took advantage of a bath, clean linens, and her own chambers for deep sleep. Ja was careful to avoid bungling Vespers as he had the previous evening. In fact, he was so careful as to avoid any propitiation whatsoever. Taking to the woods, the barbarian sought a quite copse and laid himself down.
Only Toska made the most of her return to the town she had earlier befriended. She was enthusiastically greeted in the streets and cheered in the taverns. On an epic pub crawl, the witch drained tankard after tankard until, with the dawn, she stumbled down to the docks and heedlessly boarded Row’s ship with Talla in tow.
Ja was already there as were the slumbering Sam and Quarrell. Even in her inebriated state, Toska realized that when the sun was up, the ever industrious Quarrell should be on his feet. To find that he had slumbered through the night and the cart ride from the Lord Mayor’s home planted seeds of suspicion in Toska’s mind. She asked questions. Only vague answers were given by crewman apparently too busy to be bothered. Even so, the Druid’s ale soaked mind recognized that she and her companions were being whisked out of town. Someone didn’t want them hanging around Sand Point.
The open sea lay before the Heroes, and the cool air filled their lungs with the fragrance of freedom. Ahead, the world of promise rose and fell to the rhythm of the waves. Troubles and entanglements seemed land bound creatures, and the Heroes were afloat on an ocean of promise… as was the Cheliax Navy. A thousand-oar galleon bobbed to the south. A trio of smaller vessels bore down from the north. Westward, into deep water was the only avenue of escape.
The Stroke Master pounded out a ferocious pace, and the slaves heaved with all their might. Even so, the westernmost of the small craft came along side. Cheliax Marines leapt from deck to deck. Glaive in hand, Quarrell checked their advance. Toska called forth a flaming orb with which she cunningly crafted a blazing wall along the enemy’s rail. Ja hurtled onto the Cheliax deck and rushed the row of crossbowmen. While the boarders, stabbed and chopped Quarrell at their powerful Sergeant’s command, their comrades battled flames and carved generous portions of barbarian. Deadly was the fire and deadlier the flashing steel. Only a desperate gamble carried Ja once more to Row’s ship while the Cheliax pyre cast the ashes of her crew to the heavens.
Well beyond sight of land, Row Ander signaled a halt, and the Stroke Master bellowed fore and aft relaying the order to the slaves. Exhausted, many of the rowers simply collapsed over their oars.
Row turned to the Heroes. “Give them a few minutes then go pull the dead ones out. We’ll have to do some shuffling, but we should have plenty left to keep us moving. I’m going to get the sail up. It won’t do much, but it might make the difference until we catch another ship.”
After the bodies were dumped and the canvas set, the galley began to move once more. The breeze was out of the North East, and Row was content to run before it. The galley held course through the night and well into the following day. Even so, when Row made his noon observations, he was not pleased. The ship was much further South than he wished. At his command, the Stroke Master roused the slaves, and the captain furled his sail. After correcting his heading, Row bound the tiller and retired to his cabin for a rest.
When the first stars appeared above the horizon, Nicto pointed out the planet Gylippus… in the wrong quarter of the sky. Night overtook day, and the Captain’s mood darkened. The stars gave him bad news. Noon the following day was no better. Rowers began to die that evening. Charts, compasses, instruments of every kind failed Row. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months. Without Toska’s sustaining magic, none would have survived; as was foretold, Talla did not.
Upon the sweltering surface, the survivors saw… something. A dolphin leap into the air? A mermaid straight out of a fairy tale? As she drew near, all beheld a woman walking through ankle deep water. Her hair was long and black, her skin tanned. A net draped her shoulder.
To Ja, she spoke, “Come to me, nameless bastard.” The barbarian gazed upon soft flesh, gentle eyes, and a creature desirable above all others. He eagerly heeded her summons with no idea that he trod upon water. Closer to the figure, Ja’s one good eye feasted upon a tall woman of rare beauty. Her body was strong and graceful. She was worthy of his attention. Only when he was too close to flee did Ja see a goddess in her power, terrible and wondrous beyond description.
She asked, “How do you call yourself?”
Ja uttered his name. The goddess considered a moment, puzzled, and then laughed as though she were in on the joke and he was not. Setting her mirth aside, she told the barbarian that her name was Ran or Tethys, if he preferred, but in this aspect, “Ran” was most common.
Ja could recall only that “Ran” meant thief or robber in his native tongue, but Toska knew much more. Ran was the Ship Stealer. In her net, she captured ships that plied the deep waters. Her captives perished in the unknown wastes of the ocean, far from hearth and kin. Ran was both sister and wife to AEgir/Okeanos, Titan of the World Ocean, son of Uranus and Gaia. Their progeny were 3,000 Oceanids (sea nymphs) and the spirits of every river. Worse still, Ran ruled the constellations. She and Okeanos were the only Titans to survive the Titanomachy. Here was a merciless primal force from the dawn of creation.
Ran asked Ja why would he ever be so foolish as to venture out on the open sea. His answer was the muddled collage of random impressions that Ja’s closest companions had come to expect. While the barbarian struggled to compose a coherent answer, Ran decided that her question was meant to be rhetorical and injected a more direct inquiry into the conversation, “Do you know who I am?”
Ja briefly revealed his limited knowledge, and Ran informed him of the details previously known only to Toska. It took a lot of words, and Ja’s mind began to wander. She had called him nameless bastard earlier. That had the ring of a pejorative. The barbarian wanted to know why such a hurtful term had been applied to him.
Ran replied, “Because that is what you are. The unwanted spawn of an unfaithful husband who only wishes to hide his shame. He mounted that Rhime Thurs bitch like a rutting swine, and you are the product of their infamy. AEgir, my husband, raped a Frost Giant maiden named Gydir. Gydir’s father is King of the Jotunn. He discretely hid you away in his cave on the island of Hlesey. You were given no name so that you should have no Skane of Fate, no destiny.”
Ran pondered aloud, “Should I tell you how you came to be called ‘Ja’?”
“Orks raided Gymer’s cave when the sea ice reached the Hlesey. You were taken along with the Jotunn’s treasures in hopes that you could be ransomed. No emissary ever returned from Hlesey. In the end, you were adopted by the Orks and dubbed ‘Ja’ for ‘Jotunn’ as a man might be called ‘Hu’ for Human,” explained the Titan.
A flare of insight illuminated the cobwebbed corners of the barbarian’s mind. Ran had arranged for the sea ice and the disappearance of the emissaries. He owed her his life and his freedom.
“But you are named ‘Thomniel’ now by a lord of soil and stone,” Ran observed. “Will you tell me what you know of him?”
Ja related what he knew of Droskar without troubling the Titan with theology, philosophy, or even the most rudimentary outline of doctrine.
“Is he a generous master?” asked Ran.
The glaive given to Quarrell leapt to Ja’s mind and out his mouth. His own splendid girdle, mighty gantlet, and ornate eye patch did not.
“A divided future lies before you.” Ran cocked her head and hung her net on Ja’s right shoulder. His arm grew cold as the Northern sea while the shadow of the net was inscribed on his flesh. “So long as you bear this mark, you cannot be submerged. Beware the Children of Okeanos; they are many thousands. All of them will know what you are and hate you for it. I have chosen two mates for you. Fenja and Menja, with them alone, you will find safety. Seek out King Frodi when you desire them.”
Slowly Ja’s arm warmed and returned to normal. He asked where Frodi reigned, and the answer was Lejre, a term with no meaning whatsoever to the barbarian.
Sensing that the interview with her companion had ended, Toska called out to the Titan. Ran recognized the druid’s special link with the natural world. She listened patiently to questions about the proximity and direction of land. Her answers were vague but meant to be encouraging. What’s more, the Titan gave Toska an amulet and these instructions, “When you find yourself in the presence of the divine, and you wish to speak with them, hold this in your hand.”
Ran sank into the sea, leaving the ship to its current driven course. On the following day, the survivors spotted a ship.