“Are you willing to kill flesh and blood soldiers?”
I remember the question so clearly in my mind. The King of Stonehaven, standing before a group of us, all of us called to fight for the military in the days that followed what became known as the Shattered Calamity. I remember it so well because the others around me answered, yes, so instantly… so proudly. My own mind was clouded with confusion. Could I really kill the Zinji that easily? I’m sure in a moment of defense I would protect my own life at all costs… but was that the question? Was this a moral discussion, or a loyalty quiz?
I didn’t answer. No one else noticed. The roar of the others answering covered my own silence. I stood there, waiting for someone to call on me and demand I give an answer, but no one ever did. It had been rhetorical, I hoped.
Our mission was explained without fanfare. An island chain had emerged in the wake of the cataclysmic earthquakes that had rippled across the world. The islands were useless rocks and sand, barren of life, but they were close to the shores of Stonehaven, and they were large enough to be used as a base of operations if the enemy tried to invade. We were to move on it first, secure the island and build a stronghold. I would be one of the many magic users that would aid the builders with anything they needed.
No combat expected, but a small guard was coming too, just in case.
We were put aboard the Sea Slicer, a merchant ship turned mercenary, that the King of Stonehaven had loaded with all the supplies that would be required to get us started in our quest to build a fort.
The guards they assigned to go with us were not war-hardened soldiers of the frozen realm, or even the older veterans of the Yunai invasions. We had a lot of fresh ones, young and inexperienced in anything other than keeping a watch on supply lines that never fell under attack.
Then, in the sea of all these young faces, I saw the man in charge.
Captain Gaylan Taylor. The man looked like he hadn’t aged a day since I last saw him. We didn’t interact directly, of course, but he was the first officer aboard the small air ship that brought me back to Stonehaven from Vers all those years ago.
He must have recognized me too, because he came over straightaway.
“Sionis Sepher,” he said, smiling widely. “I haven’t heard that name in years.”
“It’s been a while,” I replied.
“I’ll say. It’s good to have you on board, Sepher. These folks don’t look like they’ve seen a real day of combat in their lives. I don’t think you and I have crossed paths since we came back from Vers after the Yunai invasion. How have you been?”
I thought about trying to track the events, to cover the story of my last few years, but there seemed to be no easy way to begin. How could I? I was confident his life was the same, so I just smiled. “I suspect it’s too much to tell you now.”
Taylor laughed. “True words. Once we get to the island chain we can have a drink and catch up on life. I don’t get to meet many of the folks from Vers these days.”
“Of course, a drink sounds nice.”
“Good good. Now, you get to your post, wherever that might be. I need to get these guards ramped up and the ship prepped for departure. I look forward to seeing you around, Sepher.”
“You too. I’m glad to know you’re in charge.”
The preparations took much longer than anyone anticipated. We ended up staying in the harbor overnight and still didn’t get out to sea until nearly midday. By the time it was all said and done, Captain Taylor announced that we would likely arrive at the islands by the next morning, and he also reported that early scouts had reported enemy activity in the area. Just as the King and his advisers had feared, the Zinji appeared to scouting these lands for their own stronghold.
After the sun had set, I made my way to the deck of the ship to look out into the darkness of the ocean. As always, the sky was filled with the brilliance of the stars shining above. Out on the sea you could get a great view of the night sky. I think many of us, thanks to the Besherman and the knowledge of the world above, understood those stars weren’t real, but it still looked glorious.
I saw a soldier or a guard walk by every once in a while, wandering across the deck, too nervous for sleeping. They had probably been told this would be an easy mission, with nothing to do but stand guard and pretend to be at the ready. Now, at least some of them were no doubt wondering if they would die tomorrow.
I thought of the crowd again, when the soldiers all proudly answered yes to the King’s question of slaying enemy soldiers. By now, at least some of these young troops realized that the enemy soldiers had been asked the same question by their leader.
I wondered if any of the enemy had stalled, like me, and if they would stay their blade when the time came. I wondered if it would even matter. The Zinji seemed set on claiming their place as a commanding force in our world. We didn’t understand it. I don’t know that they did either, but we were here to stop it from destroying us in the process.
I didn’t have any more time to think of it, however, as the voice of the man in the crow’s nest of the ship shouted an alert, pulling me firmly back to reality. “We’ve got a shipwreck to starboard. It looks like there are survivors!”
I rushed to the ship’s edge and saw a few faint lanterns in the distance, voices shouting out in a panicked frenzy in the waters below. At first I assumed they were trying to get our attention, but as I used a little magic to focus in on the noise, I realized they were calling out to us, telling us to stay away.
I turned to warn the others of the trap, but I didn’t have time.
The next thing we saw was a set of large tentacles stretching up over the ship’s hull, breaching from the dark waters below. They glowed with a luminescence that was incredibly fascinating, and also deeply terrifying. Instinct took over. My fireballs slammed the tentacles and sizzled against the creature’s side. It seemed entirely unfazed, but the tentacles came down on us, sweeping across the deck and wrapping tightly across the hull.
I heard Captain Taylor’s voice shouting for the soldiers to attack, but the sudden sound of the ship’s hull cracking under the pressure of the tentacles was so loud that it drowned out everything else. Another large swipe from the creature landed next to me, and I was propelled off the ship, into the ocean water.
The Sea Slicer had been hoisted so that it was much higher from the water than I realized. I fell far enough that the collision with the water knocked the air from my lungs. I wondered if I might have broken a few ribs. I filled myself with magical energy, propelling myself and keeping my mind at attention.
My heart was pounding, but I was alive.
I hit the surface of the water and looked around. The glowing tentacles had crushed the Sea Slicer, and pieces of the hull littered the water, themselves coated in the glowing slime of the creature.
I started to swim toward the fight, hoping I could still help fend off the creature, but then I noticed something moving in the water, not far from from where I was. It was moving under the surface like a snake, but it wasn’t glowing. I saw a dorsal emerge from the water and I knew immediately.
I waited for them to get closer, briefly hopeful that we might communicate, but then the Zinji slashed at me with a magical weapon that moved through water like my own weapons moved through the air. I froze a piece of water and defended myself from the attack. The Zinji swept around the ice, then bit down on my shoulder with its vicious jaws. The pain exploded in my chest and I thought I might pass out on the spot. I landed a firm punch in the creature’s throat, and it released me for a moment, spinning away to recover.
My world started to get fuzzy. I knew I was losing a lot of blood from that bite, but I pulled on aethereal energy to keep me moving, to try and survive this. I looked in the dark waters for the Zinji that had attacked me, but I couldn’t see it. It appeared from the black water an instant later, and I knew I was done. I closed my eyes and waited for death, but then the Zinji recoiled wildly and spun around. In the darkness I saw a shadowy figure. Someone was helping me!
As the creature thrashed at the surface, I heard the figure shout, “Die monster!”
The Zinji twisted and growled, hissed, and then fell silent. The large body of the creature slowed, then sank below the water. I quickly lost sight of it. Instead, I saw the one that had killed the Zinji now, floating at the surface with me, and he held a spear in one hand and a swirling bubble in the other.
He was not human.
In fact, he was a Musfurin.
I tried to speak, but realized I couldn’t. In fact, my arms felt heavy, and I was having trouble kicking my legs. I remembered too late that the Zinji had a venom in their saliva that was known to immobilize humans. I struggled against it, and tried to plead with my expression the danger I was in, but before my rescuer could act, another Zinji sprang from the water and attacked him. He growled in rage, spinning to engage, and I began to slip under the water, unable to do much more than take one last deep breath of air.
As I sank deeper into the water, I wondered how long I could hold out. The darkness all around me began to creep into my vision, and I knew I was going to pass out. I had to breathe. I had to try. I fought it with every ounce of my energy, but my body overpowered my will.
I pulled in water, expecting to choke as it filled my lungs, but all that I felt was air.
Suddenly, my face felt dry, and I opened my eyes to see a large bubble of air had encapsulated my head. I had heard of some spells like these before, but I certainly hadn’t done it. I felt my body growing weaker, still sinking deeper, and I wondered how deep I could go before the water’s pressure overwhelmed me.
I had nearly slipped out of consciousness when I felt two arms take hold of me, cradling me like a child. I wanted to confirm what was happening, be it a friend or foe, but my vision was far too blurry, and I was just so tired.
I passed out a moment later.