I swirled through a cacophony of dreams.
Voices came and went. I felt myself stirring, then falling back to a deep sleep.
It felt like an eternity passed before I opened my eyes. When I did so, I discovered that I was in a poorly lit… coffin!? I sat up, but the wooden confines were far too roomy to be my burial box. Water dripped from the ceiling, and I realized that I recognized this place… only it was upside down.
This was the Sea Slicer.
I started to remember the events that had led me here. The monster that attacked, the Zinji biting me, and my unexpected savior. I looked to my shoulder and saw the bite marks had all but healed away. I looked around and realized I was not alone. Several other survivors were laid out on dry pieces of debris, and a few others walked around.
“Ah, the Flamecaller awakens,” a voice said, catching my attention. “The captain will be happy.”
I turned to see the one that had saved me, the Musfurin. “I didn’t think I was going to survive,” I said, struggling to sit up. “I should start with a thank you. I owe you my life.”
“You’re welcome,” the Musfurin replied with a bow. “My name is Erisk Thell. My ship was attacked by the monster hours before your own. Tell me, do you remember much of the attack?”
“Nothing of value. The monster with the tentacles… then the Zinji.”
“We will all need to learn more of this, if we hope to survive. Now, Flamecaller, I have given you artificial gills, just for the time being. Without them you would be quite limited.”
I touched my neck and felt the small openings there. I couldn’t quite feel them, but my body was definitely aware of their presence.
“Captain Taylor is already sending survivors to find armaments from the wreckage. There are many of the enemy that linger, so we must fight to defend ourselves.”
“Okay,” I replied. “I can…”
“Fire is a limited power underwater,” Erisk said, slightly grinning. “However, there is another task that Captain Taylor has requested from you. There are many large crabs here, and they are difficult to capture alive. If you might be able to help… the soldiers are tired and hungry. We all need to get our energy up.”
“You want me to capture food?”
“And cook it,” Erisk added.
I was about to argue my usefulness elsewhere, but then my stomach rumbled and I realized I was absolutely starving. The survivors had little left in their supplies, as most of it was either soaked or washed away. “Alright,” I agreed. “Food.”
Erisk grinned again. “While you capture some of the crabs, I will boil seawater and filter it so we have something to drink.”
I nodded. “Sure.”
“Finally, a more prudent question. Can you teleport us out of this mess?”
I shook my head. “Unfortunately, using teleportation is difficult at the best of times. We need some kind of bearing, using ley lines or life energy to trace a route through the twisting aether. Assuming I did manage to lock onto something out here and successfully teleport out… I wouldn’t be able to come back.”
“I was afraid it might be like that. For now, then, we must focus on what we can do. A fresh meal and water will help get these young ones back on their feet. I am confident that many of them are suffering from broken spirits. I will see if we can lift them.”
I looked at the wounded and wondered if their spirits could be lifted. Many of them were still dressed in their plate armor, a few were sleeping, but a few others were simply staring off into oblivion. These soldiers would need more than kind words and some food. They would need a plan. The only hope they had was finding a way to survive this mess and acting on it. They would have to keep moving.
I slipped into the icy water and frowned. I pulled the water in through my mouth, and I felt it… leave… through my neck. My lungs took in oxygen as they normally would, and I felt a little disgusted by the whole thing. It was like an extra step had been added to the process of staying alive.
I ignored it as best I could, and started looking for a crab.
Erisk had been right about fire magic having its limits down here, but that didn’t stop me from creating some ice lances to spear the crabs with once I found a few scuttling about on the seafloor. It wasn’t difficult to hit them… they were actually quite large.
I glanced up toward the surface of the ocean, but it was spectacularly far away, and only the slightest glints of blue light filtered down to where I was currently located. I would have sighed, but I don’t think sighing was really a thing with gills.
I whipped up a spell to carry the large crabs I had killed back toward the shipwreck when, suddenly, a large golden trident stabbed into the sand a few feet ahead of me. I recoiled, falling upward slightly, as it were.
“THE ONE FROM THE LAND,” a voice hissed through the water. It was audible to me, which made it all the more terrifying. It echoed all around me, like I was surrounded the entity.
The trident snapped up out of the sand and into the hands of a large Zinji. I didn’t have time to think, as the creature took another swing at me almost immediately. I got out of the way, mostly, but the sharp edge of the enemy trident nicked my shoulder. As I saw a little cloud of blood leak out, I couldn’t help but feel bad for my poor shoulder.
I continued to spin through on my dodge, coming around to catch the trident by the handle while the Zinji was recovering from his lunge. He wrestled it from me with ease, but the spell I had passed through it went to work almost immediately. It froze the water around the creature so quickly that it had no time to escape. It was suspended there, momentarily, then the ice began to float toward the surface.
I grabbed my crustaceans and started back for the shipwreck.
“They’re out there,” I said as I pulled the first large crab into the ship’s hull.
“What’s out there?”
Now out of the water, I snapped up a flame and began to cook the first crab while using another spell to pull up the second kill.
Erisk looked displeased by my entrance. “We are aware of that.”
“One of them attacked me,” I said. “They’ll figure out where we are before long.”
“We should eat,” Erisk replied.
“Wait,” a worried soldier said, sitting up. “We’re just going to eat? Didn’t you hear what Sionis said? We need to get out of here.”
There was a large splash of water as someone barreled into the room. I turned to see it was Captain Taylor, himself sporting a shiny pair of gills. He stepped up to my side and put an arm up to calm the soldiers. “No, we’re not staying here. We’re eating here, and then we’re going to make our first move.”
“Where can we go?”
“There’s a cave that our scouts have found. We believe it actually goes all the way to the surface, has fresh air, and can serve as a hiding place for some time. Those of us with the energy are prepping what we can for the move. The rest of you should eat and rest as long as we can afford it.”
Before anyone could speak, a soldier’s head popped up from the hole in the ship’s wall and he looked panicked. “Captain! Another ship was just attacked by the beast. It was one of the mercenary ships set to depart after us. A Zinji attack force…”
The soldier suddenly disappeared into the water, and a moment later, a red cloud appeared where he had been moments before.
“NO!” Taylor shouted. “Okay people, new plan! Everyone in the water! This is not a drill!”
The Captain had barely finished his statement when the wall of the ship exploded inward, sweeping us all around as water filled our last refuge. We were just recovering from the chaotic attack, but I got my footing quickly enough to grab a short sword that was spinning in the water around me.
I put my feet against the wall and torpedoed out of the large opening, pointing my blade straight out and skewering one of the waiting enemy Zinji. It was almost impossible to pull the blade out of the impaled creature, so I simply released the handle and went back to work forming magical ice spears that I could use to hurl at my foes.
Thick black blood from the enemy was soon mixed with the thinning red blood from our own. The soldiers attempted to hold the line, but the battle was heavily skewed to the enemy. They knew how to fight in the water, while we did not.
My magic was helpful, but it wouldn’t save us.
As I prepared another attack, I was suddenly compelled to swim. I felt an idea entering my mind… a nearby cave.. I had to get there if I wanted to win the fight. I had a direction, but the idea was planted in my brain in the moment, not something I had learned.
I looked around and saw I was not alone.
The surviving soldiers, including Captain Taylor, had already started fighting energetically, moving in the same direction that I felt I should go. I changed my tactics, throwing my spears at farther targets to clear a way for our strange retreat. The enemy, for whatever reason, seemed oblivious to my attacks until it was too late. I was able to quickly cut through their numbers and our group successfully broke away, pushing for the cave.
As I started to celebrate our efforts, one lucky Zinji got through.
It dropped its weapon and went straight for Captain Taylor, grabbing him and dragging him away from the others. The Captain resisted as best as he could, but the enemy was a powerhouse of muscle.
I was forced to watch him get pulled away.
We soon broke the surface of the water, safely inside the cave.
“Make a defensive line,” Erisk shouted as he climbed onto the dry sand. “They are coming for us!”
The soldiers did as ordered. I looked back out the way we had come in. I didn’t know if I could get to Taylor, but the Captain was the leader for these people. I had to at least try.
Erisk, clearly aware of my plans, called out. “There are others out there. Help them if you can.”
I nodded, then went back underwater, swimming hard to get back into the open ocean. I conjured up several more icy spears as I approached the underwater opening of the cave and I was ready to hurl them at my foes, but when I reached the deep waters, the Zinji were nowhere to be seen. They had completely retreated.
I wasn’t sure if I should feel relieved or worried.
I swam out, looking for signs of survivors, but after a half hour I gave up.
There were only a few bodies, but many more had gone missing. The enemy had taken them, just like Captain Taylor. I swam back to the underwater cave where Erisk was helping the wounded soldiers that had managed to make it into the dry openings.
“I know where we are,” one of the soldiers said, reaching for my arm as I passed.
“You see the light up above?”
I looked up and saw what he was referring to. Indeed, there was a large circle straight up, and the sunlight was visible as a glowing halo.
“This is Smuggler’s Scar,” the soldier continued. “My brother told me about it. Up there is just a little spit of land, but this cave is the perfect hiding place for their supplies. Look around.”
I did as he asked, and almost instantly saw it. There were spare coins, bottles of booze, even a crate of spoiled food.
“One party hides the supplies here, and the other party comes along to pull it up.”
“So, can we get help then?” another soldier asked.
“Maybe,” I answered. “For now, we need to make sure we’re ready for another attack. Erisk will take the lead while I conjure up some food. It won’t go far. We’ll have to capture some more crabs for real sustenance.”
“The Zinji are the biggest threat,” Erisk said in agreement.
“Great input,” a snarky soldier grumbled.
“I can weave an aether shield that should mask our presence, at least for now,” I suggested. “It won’t be a permanent fix, but it will buy us some time. We have two agendas now. The first is securing rescue… the second is finding our captured allies.”
I went to work on conjuring the first loaf of bread and only then realized how uncomfortable I felt. The salt water, the sand, and now the cold air of this damp cave on top of everything else.
It was awful. I made a mental note to fix that too… somehow.