The water was always cold.
Still, we had an almost endless supply of firewood to stay warm. A diver would swim out and fetch broken boxes, torn sails, or anything that looked like it may burn, and they’d bring it back to the cave so that I could pull the water molecules out. The dried materials would burned easily after that.
Meanwhile, Erisk was careful to pull fresh air down the long pathway up to the surface, supplying us with a warm breeze that helped put our weary minds at ease. We were seven days into our underwater adventure and I think everyone had grown tired of the repetitive activities. I had just started to wonder if I should venture out for the daily supply of crab meat when I heard something thrash in the water near the cavern’s entrance.
“More Zinji?” I asked, looking to Erisk.
“No,” the Musfurin replied, his eyes closed. “A soldier.”
I turned to get a better look and saw several of our survivors helping pull a soldier out of the water. They led the man to the warmth of the nearby fire where he could rest. He looked beaten and starved, but he was breathing steady for someone in his shape. I quickly conjured some fresh cold water for the new arrival and took it to him at the fire.
“T…ha..nk you…” the soldier said between gulps. “I feel like I’ve been underwater for days.”
“Can you tell me what happened?” Erisk asked as he approached behind me. “How did you find us?”
“I didn’t know you were here,” the soldier replied. “I was just trying to get away. There was a jail break at the Zinji prison camp where I was being held.”
“They were holding you captive?”
“Yeah, we were trapped in these bubbles… strong bubbles. We couldn’t pop them with our bare hands. They had us floating around like idiots. Every once in a while they would take one or two of us off never to be seen again. They kept bringing in others, from the recent string of wrecks on the surface, and they’d come and go. I don’t know why I never got hauled off.”
“So how did you escape?”
“One of the prisoners got out. The Zinji didn’t notice at first. He could have swam away and never been caught, but instead he played the hero. He took a knife in the camp and started hacking our bubbles until they popped. What a rush that feeling was. Some of the prisoners he freed actually drown on the spot, but I was lucky enough to have those gills you gave me before I was captured.”
Erisk nodded. “We are glad fate brought you to us.”
“Yeah well, the Zinji won’t be far behind.”
“Did you see Captain Taylor?” I asked. “Was he a prisoner?”
“I don’t know. The bubble I was in wasn’t exactly clear viewing. The prisoners came and went with such frequency that I couldn’t keep track. The man that freed me from the prison… I didn’t even know his name.”
Erisk looked the soldier over once more and then stepped back, tugging on my shoulder so I would know to follow. We had done this several times in the last few days, pulling away from the others so we could talk about the gravity of the situation without destroying any hopes of survival. We were powerful people, and the rest of the Sea Slicer’s survivors took our thoughts and opinions very seriously.
“We need to make our move soon,” Erisk stated with his voice calm but firm. “Are you in agreement? He either came her by accident as he says, or he was sent here as a trap. In either case, the Zinji will be coming for him.”
“If we move now, we leave our only shot at survival up there on the surface. That’ll leave people feeling hopeless.”
“Unless we leave here to mount an assault,” Erisk suggested.
“An attack? I’m listening.”
“The prisoners in that camp need our aid. If this is a trap, the Zinji will be coming here, and we will be gone. If the soldier is truthful, we have an advantage. We know their location, prisons, and how to help our men escape.”
“It’s a bold plan,” I said, contemplating. “The Zinji outnumber us down here, so how do we stage an offensive with the few soldiers we have?”
The Musfurin contemplated this. “It’s true that we do not have the physical numbers to launch an attack, but if we can make the Zinji believe we are coming in force, they will retreat long enough for us to make our move.”
“So, we raid the camp, scare them off, then free the prisoners. What happens once they realize we don’t have the numbers? There’s a dozen of us, all malnourished on some level, too. We can’t win in a direct fight.”
“Then we will move fast,” he replied. “We free the soldiers and flee. Find refuge, food, and rest.”
“Where can we go, Erisk? There are only so many caves to hide in.”
The Musfurin smiled slyly. “We’re not the only survivors down here, Sionis Sepher. I have been contacted by another of my kind. His name is Gadra. We have communicated as of late, and I believe it is time for us to seek out his group.”
I contemplated this revelation with a small spark of glee. Abandoning this cavern would mean giving up hope for a lot of the folks here, but if we could spin the situation into an attack against our enemy and a strategic retreat to more allies… then hope could live on.
“Okay,” I agreed. “We attack. We rescue. We retreat to your new friend.”
“So, all we need to do now is convince the Zinji that a dozen soldiers are actually a few hundred. I think I have a plan, but it’ll require you using that magic projection thing you did with us when we fled the Sea Slicer.”
“I offered you a vision,” Erisk clarified.
“Can you do it to the Zinji?” I asked.
The Musfurin nodded, understanding almost immediately. “Yes. I do believe I can.”
The Zinji prison camp’s warden was a particularly rough looking individual. His face was deeply scarred and his fang-like teeth seemed to jut away from his mouth instead of folding inward like other Zinji. For me, swimming up close to the terrifying creature was enough to get my heart pumping faster than I wanted, but I was busily trying to keep myself from getting worked up while also maintaining my invisibility spell.
I almost wondered if the concern was partly because of Erisk, who was busy filling all the Zinji in the area with a sense of dread and impending doom. The warden’s death would serve to kick start that fear and, hopefully, create enough panic that the various groups would retreat. The dozen survivors had slipped secretly into position so they would be able to begin the rescue of the thirty or so soldiers that we had found trapped in the translucent bubble prisons.
I waited patiently. Erisk was helping to channel my thoughts to the warden so that I could literally see his fear building. The timing was important as it wouldn’t simply do to assassinate the enormous commander. He needed to cause a ruckus, to scare the others into shouting or screaming if possible. It would need to spur the rest of the emeny into a true panic. If their leader had been slain, they would surely fear for their own lives.
Slowly…steadily…the fear boiled up inside the naga until he was literally shaking. The time was now, and I had to make sure I did this right. I formed a special spell that I had been working on for a little bit… I liked to call it an ice bomb. I started with a shell of thick ice, then pulled out everything within and replaced it with a blazing hot fire spell, shielded with aether energy so it didn’t melt the ice. The blast itself wouldn’t do much under the water, but the explosive force would propel the ice shell, designed to break into hundreds of ice needles, through my intended targets.
I propelled the bomb through the water and it went right up to the warden’s face. The naga’s eyes went wide just as the bomb went off. The blast shot fire and ice shards out around it, just as I had hoped. The warden’s agony was loud and terrifying, and the wounds from the blast turned out to be hopelessly fatal for the creature. He writhed for a moment and then fell silent; his body bobbing lifeless in the water. There was a sudden rush of feelings in my mind, the urge to attack, scream, shout, and yell. I knew that Erisk was aiming to create a scene, so I allowed the feelings to wash over me. I propelled myself over the warden’s ledge and flung several ice spears in various directions.
I actually caught an enemy in the arm. I was surprised when I saw that they were all fleeing as quickly as they could. A few of the survivors gave chase while others went to work on freeing the prisoners. Erisk was busy giving the freed prisoners their own set of gills, which was apparently rather painful. I was glad that I had been unconscious when I got my set.
Our soldiers were quick.
While the survivors looked weak, Erisk was happy with their results.
There was a prickling on my neck, and I realized that I was getting a sense of impending danger. The Zinji must have regrouped sooner than anticipated. That was unfortunate. There was a moment where I wanted to head to Smuggler’s Scar, but Erisk’s emotions pushed toward the dark reaches where the Zinji would be less likely to follow. There was little option in the matter, as the survivors and prisoners quickly started moving the way our friend directed them. Even if I had felt uncomfortable going that way, my only other choice now would be leaving alone.
As we all swam toward the deep trench that would lead to our next destination, I saw a small group of Zinji approaching. I was going to have to stay behind to fight them, but I would need Erisk’s help. The survivors, however, were lost without the Musfurin’s guidance… until I realized my mind was now swimming with new thoughts and emotions. It was the other ally that Erisk had mentioned. The two seemed to communicate for a moment, my brain an incidental audience to their conversation, and then Erisk turned away from the group.
I felt his resolve. He was coming to help, and possibly die, so we could escape.
I found myself surprised and overwhelmed by the power of his emotions. I turned back toward the approaching enemy. I was going to fight, but I had no intention of dying at the hands of these or any other Zinji. I had been through all of this before. I wasn’t going to let myself get killed at the bottom of some ridiculous ocean.
I sent that mental message to Erisk and formed another ice bomb.
We swam headfirst at the enemy. I used my fire power to start boiling the water between us, creating bubbles that confused and aggravated the enemy. They punched through it quickly enough, and when they did, they came face to face with the ice bomb I had prepared for them. The explosion knocked four of them out of the fight, a fifth looked fatally wounded, but there were still five more heading for us.
Erisk was quick to disarm the enemies that reached him, spinning ther weapons and impaling them with ease. I was truly impressed, but then I saw Erisk was in danger. I formed an ice spear and stopped the ambush before he was harmed. For some reason, it seemed that Erisk was taking the brunt of the attack, leaving me unfazed and able to defend from the side.
For a brief moment it looked as though we were going to kill off the final three enemies and flee for the caves, but a distant horn-like sound echoed in the waters. We’d heard that sound before. More Zinji would be arriving soon. I felt Erisk’s thoughts surging within my mind. He wanted me to flee. I responded silently in my mind with a firm rejection of the idea. I wasn’t going anywhere.
I whipped up another ice bomb and sent it spiraling into the three Zinji that were closing in. They ignored the attack since it missed them all, but I used my power to spin the attack back around, then detonated the bomb only inches behind them. The blast ripped through them like paper.
I reached out to Erisk with my mind once more, unaware if we could even hear my thoughts.
Cave. I repeated the word silently. Cave. Cave.
I was overjoyed when I saw him wave at me, then begin swimming toward the caves where the other survivors had gone, toward the darkest depths of the ocean. It was a surreal mixture of joy and fear, and I knew I was in this for the long haul.