Gold Hollow was the boon that we all needed. It had been ages since the devastating sea monster attack that left us stranded in the ocean, and our numbers had been growing thinner, even with the recent victory at the prison camp. We had been on the run, been hiding, for far too long.
The stronghold we had been told about turned out to be just that.
We were not the only ones that had made it here, either. Stonehaven Command was collecting up survivors from all over the area, and many of our soldiers were reunited with someone that they had known back home, someone they had assumed they would fight beside on a very different front. I also learned that of the thirty special Stonehaven soldiers sent to study the creature, only sixteen remained. The others had been lost on missions to discover the true extent of the Zinji’s plot down here.
Initially, I was put to work doing what you might expect. I gathered supplies, started fires, pulled oxygen from the water, or helped create drinking water for the famished soldiers that congregated here. It’s strange to think about it now, with all this behind me, but in those days under the surface… you didn’t think about the rest of the world. You were so focused on here and now.
My routine was disrupted only a few days after our arrival when I was summoned by Erisk to speak with a particularly interesting member of Stonehaven Command. He was named Bosch, and I didn’t care for him.
“The time has come to push back the Zinji,” Bosch said as soon as I was within speaking distance. “You’re the man to help lead the charge.”
“I’ll happily lead the charge,” I replied. “You have an army around here that we don’t know about? Because none of these poor souls are going to launch a full-scale assault.”
“Salvation is at hand,” Bosch boomed. “Sea-Lord Zin’jatar died at your hands, but his plans remained in motion. At last, the reward for his slaughter has revealed itself to us. All of the prisoners we have been unable to locate… we found them.”
Hearing that did interest me. “Where?” I asked.
Erisk gasped. I just raised a brow. “What now?”
“The creature we’ve discussed, the one that lives between realities. That’s Narshina.”
“Oh, right. The big conch shell. You’re telling me that’s alive?”
“Narshina is a massive crustacean,” Bosch confirmed. “The shell is large, and filled with many cavities. The Zinji have taken refuge within those crevices, and that is where they are holding our allies.”
“Why?” I asked. “What does a giant crustacean do for them?”
“The creature is serving as a bridge,” Erisk surmised. “That’s why they need prisoners. They’re going to make them vessels for the Yunai.”
“So, now you can see,” Bosch said. “Our prisoners must be freed. The Zinji must be stopped. We have only one option.”
I sighed. “Alright. Let me gather our most capable soldiers…”
A few short hours later, we were outside of Narshina’s shell. I had just fourteen men with me on this run. Bosch had suggested I bring at least a hundred fighters. I wasn’t sure how aware of our situation he really was.
The Zinji had definitely taken up residence inside the creature’s shell. Our one benefit to being such a small group of individuals was that we were able to easily pass between the guards that loomed outside of the massive structure.
“The new Sea-Lord will be a problem,” Bosch said quietly to me as we moved.
“Is he worse than the old one?”
“I cannot say,” he replied, his eyes scanning the area with great frequency. “He is our primary target. As you have seen, killing one of their leaders can cause a momentary panic in the Zinji.”
I gave a firm nod. “Okay, here we go.”
Bosch looked shocked. “Should you go—”
Before Bosch could say anything else, I forced myself forward through the water. I had done this enough already to know that my ice bombs were devastating on the enemy. They were not used to being attacked like that. I knew how to do this, and I needed to know we were going to win the day. The new Sea-Lord was going down.
“Hey!” I shouted through the water, my voice not reaching very far. “I’m here for you!”
The Sea-Lord, a fairly small Zinji compared to his predecessor, turned toward me just as my ice bomb reached his chest. There was a moment where the water turned a dark red, but the currents soon carried the blood away and all that was left was the shredded remains of another Zinji leader.
The panic that Bosch spoke of was instant.
Just like the prison camp, the enemy scattered in fear.
“Flee!” I shouted. “Flee or fight. Your life ends today!”
The creatures turned and fled, but I knew they weren’t going to go far. There were dozens of other forces out there, and plenty of angry Sea-Lords that would want to avenge their ally’s death. I signaled to Bosch and we began the next part of the plan.
Stepping through the moist, hot, air inside Narshina’s shell was not unlike stepping inside the mouth of any other living being. There was a substance, a slime, all over the shell’s interior walls.
We slid through a narrow passageway, slime-coated, and I felt warm air blowing out while cold air was pulled in. I tried not to think of someone climbing through an ear canal.
We had just reached a rather large and open area inside of the shell when we were suddenly confronted by another Zinji. I pulled up a spell, prepared to fight, but Bosch took hold of me and lowered my hand. “He’s one of ours,” he explained.
“What are you doing here?” the Zinji asked, sounding angry.
“Your time is up, Duran,” Bosch said. “It is time to end this.”
“We still have time,” Duran said, his anger turning to fear.
“Wait,” I said, stepping between the two. “What’s going on here?”
“My name is Duran,” the Zinji answered. “I study living creatures. In this case, the largest living creature I’ve ever seen. I have attempted to speak with the creature, but I am not having any luck. It seems that the beast wants to remain silent as this damage is done within its body.”
“The time for study has passed,” Bosch said. “I have approval to do what must be done. We will end this creature’s life and halt the Zinji effort here once and for all.”
“You’re going to kill it?” I asked.
“The creature is helping to hold open a fracture in reality,” Bosch emphasized. “If we kill the creature, then it can’t be used to usher in more Yunai.”
“We don’t even know the creature will do as you suggest,” Duran countered. “You’re just assuming.”
Bosch frowned. “I understand your reluctance here, Duran, but this is too big to risk.”
“He’s right,” I said, feeling saddened. “We need to free our friends, then stop the Zinji. If that means killing this creature, so be it.”
Bosch nodded confidently. “Well said. Let’s save our people.”
Narshina’s shell was like most shells you might find in the water. Little segments, all growing into compartments, and getting bigger and bigger as it goes on. This design made our campaign feel almost like a game. We charged into the first room and barely three of us could fit inside, but in the next room we had space for five, then eight, then twelve… you get the idea.
The fighting was messy, but our team was used to messy by now. The Zinji were out of their element when they had no water. Their weapons were heavy and slow. Their armor was bulky and didn’t flow. They tried to fight us, but they hadn’t been expecting any kind of resistance at all.
We worked our way through the shell, level by level, until we eventually found all of the prisoners that Narshina was willing to offer up to us. I can’t recall the exact number, but I do believe we found over sixty able-bodied soldiers there.
Most importantly… we found our leader.
“Captain Taylor,” I said, looking at the man and offering a salute.
“Good to see you, Sionis,” the man replied. “I thought you might have been lost to the sea after the attack. I’m glad to see that isn’t the case. I owe you my life.”
“You’re a sight for sore eyes, Captain. The survivors will be happy to hear that you’re still with us down here.”
“Survivors?” Taylor asked. “There’s more?”
“More than you might think,” I replied. “Now, we need—”
The ground beneath us suddenly rumbled. I heard a horrible echo that carried across the air, bouncing every which way.
“What was that?” Taylor asked.
“Trouble,” I replied. “I think it is time for us to depart.”
“Shouldn’t we stay and fight the Zinji?” Taylor asked in objection.
“No,” boomed another voice, one I recognized immediately.
“Erisk!” Taylor shouted. “You’re alive too?”
“Captain, I’m glad to see you are well,” Erunak said, his voice sincere. “I wish I had time to explain, but the creature is attacking everyone within its shell. We must flee now before we’re all killed.”
Taylor looked around and then nodded. “You don’t have to tell me twice!”
We went to work, helping the prisoners as they started following Erisk toward the opening in the shell. The whole experience of running around inside a living crustacean was a little overwhelming, to be sure, but when I slipped back into that icy salt water I couldn’t help but wonder if a mucus-filled membrane house was worse than the cold rocky caves.
I knew we had to be done with this.