Captain Taylor was the key that we needed.
After returning with us to Gold Hollow, Taylor organized our troops, worked to rearm those he could, and put together what he believed would be an excellent force to keep pushing against the Zinji. He whipped us all into action and made us feel like we were fighting for something. I’m not sure that he ever said what it was we were fighting for, but leaving the blank there allowed each of us to fill in whatever we wanted.
Home. Peace. Revenge.
It didn’t matter.
For me, that wasn’t enough. We’d been two weeks out from the attack that sank the Sea Splitter, and while Captain Taylor and Erisk worked tirelessly to fight for our survival, the very notion of rescue had been dropped from the discussions.
I was ready to get that conversation going again.
At our usual meeting to discuss strategy, I made it my point.
“We need to get out of here,” I said bluntly, hoping that to convey my frustration about our current deployment. “We are fighting a war removed from everything else that may be happening in the world. These soldiers are tired and hungry. They’re ready to be rescued. The Zinji and their plots can be dealt with by the volunteers of Stonehaven Command.”
“Your troops have been instrumental in allowing Stonehaven Command to act,” Erisk said, looking concerned. “If you flee now, all of Azirin could be in danger.”
“You think that this is the only threat to our world?” I snapped back. “The Shattered Calamity, the Yunai, the Vinrul… we’ve fought down here long enough. It’s time to find an exit strategy, Captain.”
“Enough,” Taylor said, his voice firm, but calm. “Sepher, if I could call a boat and make a full retreat for my men, I would. The truth of the matter is, we’re not in that position. Right now, I know that these enemies pose a threat to Stonhaven. Despite all of the things that have unfolded for us, I find myself in a position to help keep my world safe. I can’t just walk away from that, even if I could.”
“Of course,” I conceded. “I apologize for speaking out of turn.”
“Think nothing of it,” Taylor said, placing a hand on my shoulder. “I am glad that you care about our safety. I am glad that you want us all to survive. If we play our cards right, we might still make it out.”
“Now, I have a mission for you,” he added. “I want you to draw the full attention of the local Zinji patrolling the area to the south of here. It’s an old Besherman settlement that was lost eons ago, when this whole realm was said to be above water.”
“So, just a distraction? I shouldn’t engage?”
“Correct. You want shock and awe, but not necessarily casualties. Don’t take any unnecessary risks. The goal is to confuse them, make them question where the attack is coming from, so that my soldiers can pierce through a weak point.”
“Wouldn’t my abilities serve a better purpose with the actual attack?”
Taylor looked up at Sionis for a moment, then sighed. “I agree we could use you there, but I don’t have anyone else that can do the amount of damage you can, with the distance you can cover. You’re the only option here.”
“I understand, sir.”
Captain Taylor turned away, a sign the conversation was over, so I headed for the entrance to the outpost with my initial plan brewing in my head. There were scouts out in the waters that would fill me in on the mission’s finer details. That’s how it always went. I got my order from Taylor, then someone else did the explaining.
At the entrance to the cold ocean water, however, I was stopped by a wounded woman in armor. She pulled her helmet off and I recognized her to be Besherman.
“I am,” I answered.
“Taylor sends you to the ruins. I have a bonus objective for you.”
“I’m with Stonehaven Intelligence, a subset of Command.”
“When you are out on your mission, you’re authorized to take out several targets as a distraction to the Zinji. I have a specific target for you to destroy. Not a person. A statue. I can describe it to you. If you’re successful, there is no doubt that the creatures will be distracted.”
The Besherman woman smiled. “I’ll describe it to you. All you need to do is be as destructive as possible. Can you handle that?”
The ruins weren’t hard to find. For some reason, I had imagined a small settlement in the water, some rocks or structures scattered about, but no, this place was an actual city. It had been drowned in a devastating event, supposedly millennia before I had been born, and the true power of that event was witnessed here.
I heard the rumors about the Zinji, that they had once been like us, but the same event that sank this city also led to our evolutionary differences, as aethereal energy changed them. That seemed plausible enough, though I didn’t care much about the backstory at the time.
All that mattered in the moment was that this abandoned underwater city was completely filled with hundred of Zinji forces. There was a variety of them, some looking ready for war and others like they might be having a summer stroll. This place seemed almost like some kind of Zinji settlement.
There were plenty of armed forces swimming among what might have been innocent bystanders, so Taylor and his men would have plenty of work cut out for them once the fighting started. I wondered how it would go down, if we were successful. Would we slaughter the unarmed? Would they surrender or fight to the death? Even a juvenile Zinji had the jaw strength and razor-sharp teeth to remove a human arm.
Ignoring the greater moral implications for now, I swam in and out of ancient pillars and columns, avoiding contact with the enemy as they patrolled around me. I could hear them speaking to one another in their odd language that echoed in water. Along the way, I placed pre-crafted explosives under specific weight bearing beams. While water reduces an object’s weight, it does not eliminate it. These key pieces of rubble were holding tons of stone and metal in place and it was all going to come down.
I also paused long enough at an enormous statue, the one the Besherman woman had told me about, and I wondered what good it would do to destroy this one monument. Still, I had no reason not to follow through, so I attached an explosive and swam on.
I was just thinking of the death trap at the bottom of the sea when I caught sight of something metal in the distance. I swam over, completely dumbfounded by what I was seeing. It was a long pole-arm, but it was bigger than any Zinji weapon I had seen so far, including the blade used by the Sea-Lord. I had nearly reached it when I realized one of the enemy patrols had spotted my movement.
My distraction had to start now.
I triggered the explosives with a simple press of a button. That Besherman engineering is a thing of wonder. The watery world erupted in beautiful balls of hot gas and fire as the detonations sent shock-waves through the ruins. The Zinji that was approaching me spiraled away in a panic, and I wasted no time in making my own escape. I swam away as fast as I could, cutting back toward our outpost.
I hadn’t made it far when I felt an urgent fear swirl in my head.
The attack wasn’t working. We were losing.
I knew Erosl had placed the thoughts in my mind. I felt his urgency and concern, so I changed direction and swam toward the fighting. I reached the forces as they began their final retreat. I went to work killing the enemy left and right, but there were so many we had no hope of turning this around. Before I retreated, I caught sight of the massive monument, unharmed and still standing in the courtyard ruins.
“The distraction didn’t work,” Taylor said, throwing down his breastplate once he had reached the dry caves. “They knew we were coming. They were ready for us.”
“I think they must have found one of the explosives I planted,” I explained. “There was a monument that I wanted to take out, but it was still there after I set off the explosives.”
“Your instructions were pillars and load structures. You went after some artwork?”
“In my defense…”
“It doesn’t matter,” Taylor said angrily. “We’re preparing balloons and ropes as a kind of system to lift our people to the surface of the ocean as quickly as we can. Now that the enemy knows where we are hiding… they’ll be coming for us all.”
“What good will getting to the surface do?” I asked. “Without rescue ships the Zinji will just kill us there.”
“Then we should hope there are rescue ships,” Taylor snapped. “I’m taking volunteers to remain here in the cave and delay the enemy for as long as we can.”
“I’ll stay,” I said.
“No, we need you to go. You’re a powerful fighter. You can help them if the enemy attacks at the surface.”
“With all due respect, if you let me fight here, I can keep them from getting to the surface.”
Captain Taylor raised a brow and looked me over again, as though finding some kind of new respect. “It’s a death sentence, Sepher.”
“I’m aware, Captain.”
He was silent for a moment, then nodded. “Very well. May the Luminary One be with you, mage.”