On land, it is often said that each continent has a claim to the title of the greatest. Citizens of all five continents argue over such things as if it matters. For instance, in Izril, the Drakes will proudly boast of their Walled Cities, pointing to these relics of an era when Dragons flew through the skies as a marker of greatness. The Humans on Izril speak more quietly of a land won by steel and magic, a place where they bow to no [King] or monarch—a place to be free.
Of course, were you to go north to Terandria you would hear much the opposite. The people of the myriad kingdoms on that continent think of their enduring generations of rulers as a treasure, and point to their ancient castles and ruins as a symbol of their status. Too, Terandria is the only home to Dwarves, those master-craftsmen of metal and stone. A place where legends remain. Surely that alone speaks to Terandria’s greatness?
Perhaps though, that is not the measure by which a land can be judged. The enduring folk of Chandrar must survive arid lands and the might of the largest desert in the world bar none—yet that hardiness leads Chandrarians to declare themselves the true survivors in a soft world. They scoff at the soft lives led by those in Terandria and Izril, and are in turn sneered at by the people of Baleros. For what is a harsh land to that of one where war is both a way of life and economy?
And Rhir…the less said about the struggle of those desperate people, the better. But woe to any who might suggest Rhir somehow falls behind the other four continents. The citizens of Rhir claim with some accuracy to be the most courageous, most resilient and stubbornly hopeful of all five continents.
And so the debate continues. From every land, every species will shout their greatness. Much to the amusement of those who have no home on land of course. Greatest continent? It is a laughable joke to compare such tiny specks of earth to the infinite depths of the sea. There is but one land under the waters of the world, and it is more terrible and more awe-inspiring than anything above it.
The sea. The only land where cities have yet to be built in great number. A vast abyss from which monsters emerge that Gold-rank adventurers and Named Adventurers can only dream of in nightmares. This place is the home to the Drowned People, the damned souls who have given their bodies to fuse with other creatures and breathe water as freely as air. Drowned People, the rumored Merfolk, [Pirates] and [Sailors] who merely float on the surface of the ocean, all call the sea home.
But they would never claim to rule it. No. Go down far enough and the sea will engulf you. The abyssal depths stretch deeper than any mountain, so deep that there are places magic itself begins to fail. The deep ocean is a place where an Archmage would find her magic lacking, where the greatest of [Warriors] would find his strength worthless. It is so dark down there, and one can sail for days, weeks, months, without seeing anything in the darkness.
But it is not always quiet. There are songs in the darkness, if one but has the courage to listen.
Most do not. To listen to the siren call of the blackness is to invite madness or worse—sanity. So the crew of the Kraken’s Horn made it a policy to cover their ears as they worked. This crew of Drowned Men and Women had sailed for many years in such places and knew what measures must be kept.
Maintain the bubble. Deafen the ears. Shine no lights above decks. Speak no word of ill against another crew. Such were the litanies of the crew. Each rule was sacred, inviolate.
Maintain the bubble. That was first and foremost. While each of the Drowned Men and Women—former Humans fused with the aspects of crabs, fish, or other sea creatures—could breathe underwater, the crushing pressures they sailed at would smash their bodies into pulp, as well as their ship, in seconds. Were it not for the magical wards that formed a protective sphere around the ship, the Kraken’s Horn would be gone in a moment.
So each sailor checked the runes on the ship and watched the mana stones to make sure the enchantment was not failing. That was their first rule. The second was for safety and sanity. Listen not to the whispers and songs of the ocean. Many a crew had vanished or slaughtered each other when the ocean had talked to them in the depths of their paranoia and fear.
As for the prohibition against lights—more safety. Light attracted attention, and attention underwater was the last thing any sailor wanted. Horrible things craved the light and sought it out.
As for the last rule, it was just common sense. A crew was a crew, and while a crew could brawl and fight over the smallest of issues, the instant it began turning on itself it was finished. It might seem incredible to the land folk that a crew could go for months without quarrel, but that was the law of the sea and the sailors of the Kraken’s Horn usually obeyed this last law without fail.
But today, the arguments between the [Captain] and [First Mate] of the ship came perilously close to breaking that rule. The two sometimes [Sailors] and sometimes [Pirates] strode along the broad deck of the ship, talking in hushed voices.
For them, that was shouting. It was an unspoken corollary to the rule of no light—keep your voice down. Noise travelled far in the waters, after all. But some things had to be said above decks, rather than down in the hold where they might be heard.
“—Ridiculous! I won’t hear of it.”
“She’ll die if we don’t go up, Captain. Or the babe will.”
“We’re tens of thousands of leagues from any port, and that’s without the risk of surfacing so quickly. And for what? A squalling babe? I won’t have it! We’d starve ourselves for your mission of mercy, Rendala. No more arguments!”
The [Captain] was a big, swarthy Drowned Man, as befit a man of his rank. He had once been a huge Human with a beard like a fireball—now his left arm and part of his chest were translucent and elastic. He had merged with a Blackwater Jellyfish, and his body was part monster.
Some might have seen the [Captain]’s tendril-like arms as a weakness, but the poison contained in the [Captain]’s body made up for any defects in appearance. He could paralyze a whale with a touch and his body could heal from wounds that would cripple normal flesh. Now he was staring with no little ire at his [First Mate].
She had been a Gnoll. Only, like all Drowned People, she had merged with a monster. In her case it had been a swordfish and she had lost her arm but gained an unparalleled cutting weapon on her right side instead. It was a tradeoff many would consider not worth the cost, but such was the nature of Drowned People. They did not choose their destiny. The ocean claimed them.
Rendala didn’t speak like most Gnolls did, with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ endings to her sentences. She had left her tribe as a child and like all of the crew of the ship, she spoke like a sailor.
“Captain, she’s fit to bursting. And the babe’s difficult—you know it’s already half fish! She needs a [Healer] or she’s like to bleed to death in the hold. And what would we do then? Jettison her body? That’s no way to do a sea burial and the blood would have predators in the water in minutes.”
“So we do what? Try and surface? Even if we survived moving up that fast there’s little to no chance we’d find a [Healer] out on the open ocean.”
“It’s standard for all ships to have a medical officer. And we wouldn’t be in this place if we had a [Doctor] on board, Tugrim!”
“Bah. Old Sawlegs never did more than hand out healing potions. We have enough on board—why not use them?”
Captain Tugrim had sailed his vessel for over a decade and served with Rendala as his First Mate for over half that time. Still, he couldn’t ever recall her giving him a look with as much scorn as she did now.
“Childbirth ain’t that easy, Captain. There’s ways to lose a babe or the mother that no healing potion’ll fix. Or if it does fix the problem—it’ll fix it wrong, as if the child weren’t ever there. There’s a reason why [Midwives]’re employed when we have magic and potions about.”
The Drowned Captain growled under his breath as he stalked the deck. His footsteps echoed eerily in the silence of the ocean depths around him. He kept his voice to a low hiss as he replied.
“This is all that damned idiot’s fault! Who goes to sea when they’re pregnant?”
His words wavered treacherously close to violating the law of the sea. But Rendala kept her mouth shut. She understood Tugrin’s feelings, she really did.
“I’m not saying it’s right! But you’ve a duty to your crew now.”
“Aye, but it’s the crew I’m thinking of. The crew or the crew, Rendala. What’s worth more, a life we might not save or an empty hold?”
The Drowned Gnoll fell silent. Tugrim was right. Their ship, the Kraken’s Horn, wasn’t an easy vessel to keep repaired and afloat underwater or above it. The mana stones they used to power the ship’s bubble cost hundreds of gold coins and the crew needed pay. Added to that, there were the costs for oil, food, the supplies of healing potions and other enchanted items…
To pay the costs, the crew were [Pirates] of opportunity, [Scavengers] and [Treasure Seekers] whenever they passed by a sunken wreck, and occasionally honest [Sailors] carrying cargo as well. Right now they were on a trawl for sunken wrecks on their way to a Drake port city on the south-eastern coast of Izril. Surfacing would mean going back the way they’d come, costing them precious days in time and resources.
“I can’t believe it’s come to this. We should have turned back the instant we found out.”
Rendala shook her head. Her fur became scales halfway down the side of her neck on the left side. She gestured with her sword-hand.
“It was too late by then. She’d pretended for too long. Sea’s salt, how could we not see it? The vomiting in secret, the eating—”
“I thought she was just getting fat. The depths does that to the best of [Sailors].”
“Well, there’s little more it can do at the moment. Right now it’s us. Up or onwards, Captain?”
Rendala looked at Tugrim, waiting. The [Captain] paced along his decks, navigating in the near-pitch black darkness more by memory than sight. He walked heavily towards the bow of the ship, back along the main deck, and then spun and went towards the bow again. When he walked back, shoulders heavy, Rendala knew what his answer would be.
“We surface, First Mate. And may the seas have mercy on us if a larger fish senses us. We’re too far from a safe zone, but we must ride the Rower’s Currents if we’ve any chance of getting her to safety in time.”
“Aye, Captain. I’ll give the orders.”
The Gnoll woman saluted in relief. It would cause trouble along the ship and no doubt a few unkind words spoken in the privacy of the crew’s heads, but she would gladly take that squall than face a death of both a mother and child on board without anything being done. Besides…the thought of what the blood of childbirth might attract in these depths made Rendala shudder.
She and Tugrim were about to head below decks when they sensed a change in the sea around them. The waters were so black this deep that only the faint light from the runes on the ship itself provided any sort of illumination. So finely trained were the eyes of the two Drowned Sailors that they could see in this blackness. And now the blackness was growing brighter.
“I see it. Quick, towards the wheel.”
Tugrim and Rendala crept towards the stern of the ship. Neither Drowned Sailor reached for a weapon—their weapons were their bodies. Rendala’s sword-hand cut the air in small circles as she crouched low, keeping an eye out for something—anything—in the blackness.
What could it be? Angler Ghouls? Phantomlight Sharks? A light-based leviathan? All she knew was that if trouble came calling, they had to be close to the wheel.
There was a [Sailor] at the wheel. There always was—it was known as the Ghostwatcher’s Time. The ship needed no real direction most of the time—the [Sailor] on duty simply had to watch out for oncoming obstacles. But the mind would play tricks, so you’d see phantoms coming up on you in the distance. The trick was separating the illusions from a real threat approaching in the murk.
“Sailor. What do you see?”
Tugrim approached the half-squid Drowned Man at the wheel. The man turned, his beard a mass of wriggling tendrils and replied, eyes wide.
“Nothing, Captain! Just a light. Growing brighter?”
“Headed this way? Avoid it!”
“I have! Twice I’ve turned and twice it follows.”
“Then we’re hunted. Rendala, prepare to shout the alarm.”
Tugrim seized the wheel and turned the ship. Not away—there was little use running from something locked onto them. They had to see the threat before they judged whether it was worth the noise of fighting—or fleeing. Rendala nodded as she prepared to yell. A loud voice would wake the entire ship in this silence.
“It’s getting brighter!”
Now the glow was an almighty shine. Rendala had to squint to see, but she could tell the light was coming from something ahead of her. Not too big…which was a relief if it was a monster. But what was that light?
“Ahoy! What have we here?”
There was an exclamation, a sharp intake of breath as Tugrim saw something in the depths that Rendala could not. He spun the wheel and she heard a splash as something breached the bubble of the ship.
“Hold! Who are you? Answer or we attack!”
Tugrim roared into the silence as he faced the source of the light. Rendala raised her sword-arm, staring into the blinding glare. And then—suddenly—the light winked out. In the darkness the spots in the Gnoll’s vision took a few moments to clear. Then she saw him.
Standing at the edge of the bubble surrounding the Kraken’s Horn was a man. He was standing on top of a metal…tube. It was some kind of vehicle—a metal contraption of steel that had opened to let him climb out. The vehicle was beyond strange, but it was the man who drew Rendala’s gaze.
He was dressed in some kind of uniform, a pristine white cloth. He had a white cap with some kind of gold insignia on the front—hardly a proper [Captain]’s hat like the swaggering broad-cut monster of a hat like Tugrim wore. And yet, he was clearly part of some army, albeit one neither Tugrim nor Rendala had were familiar with. Two black epaulets with gold tassels sat on his shoulders along with four black stripes. He stood erect, his back straight as a rod, and his eyes—ah, his eyes.
They were the eyes of the deep itself. Piercing, unwavering—they bore a hole into the three stunned [Sailors] as the Human man descended off his strange vehicle onto the deck of the ship. The maniac glare the man gave Rendala and Tugrim was at odds with his calm voice
They stared. The man with the steely eyes waited for a response. When none was forthcoming he spoke again.
“My name is Captain Ad. This is my submarine.”
He gestured towards the metal vehicle he’d emerged from. Rendala stared at it.
The black metal contraption was as foreign to First Mate Rendala as any eldritch horror she’d seen dragging itself across the sea bed. It defied her understanding of how a ship should be. And yet, the long, oblong shape, the way it sat in the water rather than swam—it had its own symmetry, its own grace.
And clearly, it could move about the depths without an enchantment of its own. That alone gave her pause, and clearly made Tugrim think twice about a rash move. She could see her Captain shifting and knew he was ready to lash out with his poisoned hand should this strange ‘Captain Ad’ prove dangerous.
“The Peace of the Drowned upon you. I am [Captain] Tugrim of the Kraken’s Horn. What business have you in these waters? No—what foolishness led you to shine a light this far down?”
The question seemed to puzzle the other Captain. Ad stared around, his burning gaze making the other Drowned Sailor flinch.
“It was dark. Darkness needs a light. Or how else would I navigate?”
“You’d sooner end up in the belly of a monster like that!”
The lack of common sense clearly shook Tugrim. He gestured to the submarine, his eyes on Captain Ad’s face. He didn’t dare meet the Human man’s eyes—the piercing stare was too much even for Tugrim’s seasoned years.
“Either you’ve a deathwish or your strange ship can destroy titans, stranger. Which is it? And why did you seek me out?”
“I had a feeling I was needed.”
Once again, Captain Ad gave an incomprehensible reply. Tugrim exchanged glances with his First Mate—it was Rendala who responded.
“What do you mean, a feeling? What is it you do?”
Rather than answer, Captain Ad’s gaze once again swept the ship. He spoke in a distant voice.
“Is there, by any chance, a pregnant woman on board your ship? I have a Skill that senses them.”
Rendala’s eyes widened. Tugrim swore a sailor’s oath.
“Storm waters take me! How did you—”
“I’m an [Obstetrician].”
Captain Ad replied coolly. Tugrim paused.
“A what now?”
“An obstetrician. I deliver babies. If you have a pregnant woman on board, I can help her give birth.”
Rendala’s skepticism was warring with a sudden hope. Tugrim took a step back, his eyes narrowed.
“Now hold on. How can we be so sure we can trust—”
Captain Ad turned his paralyzing stare on Tugrim and the [Captain]’s words died in his mouth. Slowly, Ad reached into a pocket. Rendala tensed, but the man just took out a strange, long, cylindrical object out and put it into his mouth. She stared.
It was a pretzel. Ad mistook her look and pulled out another.
“No. No, I—”
“Take me to the patient. Time is running out.”
Rendala hesitated and Tugrim gave her a look. But they had no choice. She beckoned, and Ad strode after the Drowned Sailors, still chewing on the pretzel.
“I have toffee if anyone wants it.”
Below decks, the crew of Kraken’s Horn were in a small panic. They were clustered outside one of the cabins where the pregnant female [Sailor] had been housed. Until this moment only ghastly groaning noises had echoed from that place and it had been avoided by all but Rendala and the [Cook] who brought the poor woman food. Now Rendala, Tugrim, and the rest of the crew peeked around the doorframe as Captain Ad tended to his patient.
“You’re sure you know what you’re doing?”
Tugrim glared at Captain Ad, breathing heavily. He was protective of his crew, but pale-faced, ill-at-ease in this situation that called for neither steady hands nor a heart of steel. Well, actually, it called for both things, but Tugrim would have happily fought a Kraken naked in a lifeboat than be called on to assist a birth.
Captain Ad nodded. He’d eaten his pretzel and now donned a pair of white rubbery gloves.
“I told you, I’m a medical officer. And this is my patient. Let’s see how she’s doing. Miss, breathe slowly for me. In, out, in, out…”
It had to be his soothing voice that calmed the pregnant [Sailor]; it definitely wasn’t the piercing glare he trained on her. And yet, despite the sudden appearance of this intense, strange man, Rendala saw the young pregnant woman calm down a bit, and after a cursory inspection Captain Ad straightened and nodded.
“She’s due any minute now.”
Nothing could have thrown the crew of the ship into a worst panic. Nothing, except hearing the pregnant [Sailor] cry out and realizing the pregnancy had shifted from being imminent to in progress. Screaming occurred, and only some of it came from the mother-to-be.
And yet, there was an icy void of calm amidst the chaos. Captain Ad calmly delivered the baby with the help of the ship’s crew, ordering Drowned Men and Women to bring hot water, tools from his submarine, scissors of all things—
Rendala watched with a mixture of horror and awe as the baby was born. Tugrim fainted as the head poked out. But in short order it was done, and Captain Ad held up the squalling infant and regarded it.
“It’s a…hmm. It’s a…well, it’s got scales. And tentacles. And a beak.”
“Is he—is the curse—”
The weak mother struggled up. She was afraid. All Drowned People were, to give birth. The ocean’s taint on their bodies could pass on to their children in odd ways. But when she saw her son she cried out and took him from Captain Ad with trembling hands.
“That he is. We can’t thank you enough, sir. What can we—”
Rendala was about to ask how they could repay their mysterious savior when she heard a shout from above. Her blood ran cold.
“Leviathan to port! All hands! Leviathan!”
A monster of the depths had found them. The jubilation below decks ended in a moment. The Drowned Child wailed as the [Sailors] scrambled above decks. What they saw terrified Rendala to her core.
A fish thrice the size of her ship was circling them, its wide, gaping mouth showing rows of teeth as it eyed their vessel through a set of multi-colored eyes along its length. It looked like a salmon if you mutated it, gave it wings like razors, three more eyes on each side, a serpentine tail, teeth—actually it looked nothing like a salmon at all.
It looked like death, though. The sea monster had noticed the Kraken’s Horn, that, or it had heard the noise or seen the light in the waters that Captain Ad’s arrival had prompted. Either way, it was here and there was only death now.
Captain Ad had strode onto the decks after Rendala. He was the first to break the horrified silence. He calmly put the pretzel in his mouth, staring up at the giant fish monster as it opened its jaws wide, wide, trying to engulf both ships.
“Well, darn. That’s big.”
The moment was broken. The [Sailors] scrambled across the decks, shouting, firing the magical cannons towards the fish. Rendala scrambled across the deck, towards the steering wheel. The First Mate screamed at Captain Ad as she furiously turned the wheel of her ship.
“Run! We’ll all be eaten by that damned thing if we hang about!”
There was a gas petal by the steering wheel that allowed the ship to rise and sink as need be—she was pressing with all her might to get it to rise as the sea monster swam closer, maw closing in on her ship.
She had to get her ship away, even if it meant abandoning Captain Ad’s ship to the depths. But the man was already swinging himself into the hatch of his vehicle. He gave her a reproachful look as he paused with the hatch’s lid in one hand.
“There’s a time and place for foul language, Miss. And that’s never. I have a plan.”
She stared at him. Captain Ad was turning his submarine. She could hear his voice, echoing out of the sub as he turned it to face the giant fish.
“Now look here, you. I’d reconsider anything you were planning to do. Turn around, swim away, and we’ll all go home happy. Understand?”
The gigantic fish stared at Captain Ad. Perhaps it was his devilish stare, which pierced the fish through the layers of his submarine, or maybe it was his calm, implacable voice, but the monstrous fish hesitated for just a moment.
The fish hesitated for just one moment and Renalda held her breath, incredulous. Then it made up its mind and swam forwards, not towards the Kraken’s Horn, but towards Captain Ad’s sub. She heard the man’s voice speaking faintly in surprise.
The gigantic sea monster’s jaws closed around the submarine. Rendala, pushing her ship upwards as Captain Tugrim marshalled his crew for a desperate defense, saw the ship disappearing into the fish’s mouth. And then there was a flash, an underwater explosion, a wave of heat—
It was a strange farewell the crew gave to Captain Ad on the surface of the ocean. Strange, awkward, and made all the more surreal by the giant floating fish’s corpse drifting just off the bow of their ship.
“You killed it. Just like that.”
Tugrim was staring at the fish, large enough to feed a city for weeks. It had been blown apart from the inside. Captain Ad hadn’t wanted it, so it was the property of the Kraken’s Horn. Rendala had no idea how they’d transport it—the sharks were already beginning to circle and nibble at the corpse.
“I’m not a [Hunter]. I’m a man of peace. With a submarine.”
Captain Ad answered calmly, sucking on a piece of toffee he’d produced from somewhere. He hadn’t wanted any part of the feast—although the teeth alone were probably worth a fortune in ivory. He had accepted a small payment for delivering the baby, nothing else.
“How’d you do it? Where did you learn all those Skills? Are you some kind of high-level [Captain]?”
The man shrugged in response to Rendala’s questions.
“I am a [Captain] as well as a [Doctor]. But high-level? I like to think it’s just skill.”
Captain Ad nodded.
“Underwater naval combat…dodging fish, delivering babies…it’s all like tennis. I play it all the time. Underwater tennis, aerial tennis…I’m a [Tennis Player]. I’d like to think I’m good at the game.”
The [Sailors] of Kraken’s Horn stared at him. Captain Ad chewed thoughtfully at the lump of toffee.
“Or ping pong.”
He nodded, and then, with a casual turn of the shoulder, walked over to his sub. He opened the hatch and began to descend.
“It was a pleasure meeting you all. If you should ever have a medical problem, I’ll be sure to drop by.”
He saluted, and then was gone. The submarine sank out of sight. Rendala and the crew of the Kraken’s Horn stared at the spot where a few bubbles rose upwards for several minutes. Then Rendala turned to stare at Tugrim.
“Who was that?”
Legends. Each continent has them. They have heroes, Named Adventurers, famous [Generals] and so on. But what people forget is that the sea has its own myths as well. How could it not? But you seldom see those legends in person. You only hear of them, perhaps on the lips of a sailor who knew a man (or woman!) who knew someone else who’d seen the legend in person. And one of those legends that was told by the now-rich crew of the Kraken’s Tooth was the tale of the mysterious man with the piercing gaze, the fearless Captain Ad.
They say he sails to this very day, the man with the piercing glare, cutting through the depths of the ocean with his metal submarine. Occasionally chewing on a pretzel or toffee. More than one baby owes him their life, or so it’s said.
But who would speak such stories? Who would carry his tales above? Not sailors. Some stories, the real stories are too good to jabber on about like some land-locked fool. Some stories are true.
Or close enough.