Aloyan Erosei the Younger stared into the blue line of the horizon, ignoring the water as it foamed up to either side of the ship’s prow. All his attention, all his rage and desire were fixed on the dark fleck he could now see resolving from the waters — the island he and his quarry had sought for the past three weeks at sea.
That Enkhaelen could have pulled so far ahead of him felt like a slap in the face, for Aloyan Erosei was the one who held the spirit of water within him; he should have been the one to race faster, to close the distance between their ships and board and cut that awful, presumptuous little monster to bloody ribbons. His hands twitched over the hilts of his paired swords at the thought of his missed opportunities, but there was nothing yet to cut. The island was yet marks away.
A part of him – the Guardian, the dark spirit that buoyed him here on the sea and made him unstoppable on land – was satisfied with their pace, for at this rate they would arrive upon the island near nightfall. It was always powerful, but more so after sunset, and its counterpart – the bright Ravager that Enkhaelen bore like a captive more than a master – would be substantially weakened in darkness.
Yet Erosei burned for the fight, and had since the moment atop Howling Spire when Enkhaelen had looked down upon him and said, ‘You should understand vengeance.’
Next to those words, the terror of being flung from the twisting metal spiral into thin air a hundred feet above the mountain’s peak had been negligible. He was more durable than that; with the Guardian inside him, not a bone had broken when he struck the rocks with pulverizing force, and though he had bounced his way down an infuriating number of cliffs before he finally managed to dig his hands into the stone and arrest his fall, all that had truly suffered was his pride.
Those words, though, dug like needles in his brain. Yes, he understood vengeance. He who had lost everything to the blasted Altaerans, who had broken open the doors of Muria like his namesake and demanded their aid, yet who had been unable to claim justice even with all the peoples of metal at his back. He did not need to be reminded of his failings.
What that bastard had thought he would accomplish by mentioning it, or what he wanted from undoing the Seals – in Howling Spire, in Du’i Oensha not long after, in all the places before and finally here, at the island that slowly rose from a fleck to a sandy rock in the endless sea – he could not guess. Nor did he care.
The man in the crow’s nest cried out something about a ship, and Erosei squinted hard, trying to make out his enemy’s transport. As bitter as he was, he understood why Enkhaelen had arrived ahead of him; sea travel was as much about the wind as the waves, and the Ravager controlled the air the same way the Guardian could control the water. He had only glimpsed Enkhaelen’s ship once or twice in their race, but knew it as narrow and shallow-keeled – more like a knife than a truly seaworthy vessel, something that could be tossed high or tipped by the slightest surge of waves — yet while Erosei’s ship lumbered along, propelled by the Guardian’s control of currents but burdened by its practical bulk, Enkhaelen’s had skated away like an ice-dancer. It had taken the full force of Erosei’s attention to drag at it with the hands of the sea, to slow it down.
Now he saw the black smudge rising from alongside the stony island and knew the delicate ship was burning.
His hands fisted on his swords, brows furrowing low over dark eyes. That made no sense. The island was a mere dot in the tormented expanse of the Lisalhan Ocean; it had taken a ridiculous stack of coins before Erosei’s captain had agreed to let him set their course, as the vast majority of ships stuck close to the coastline lest they be seen as fair game to the vicious ruins-dwellers beneath the waves. This whole ocean had been considered cursed since Lisalhan sank, and no place in it more so than the island he now neared. Not the centerpoint of the destruction but one of its anchors.
The Seal of Water. The broken remains of the Pillar of the Sea.
Closing his eyes, he saw again the flickers of memory from a previous Guardian vessel: Jeronek, the Yezadran who had witnessed the creation of the Seals and died in the destructive aftermath. The mountains that had once stood where now was only open water; the vast plains full of hissing, writhing insectile monsters, their carapaces stained black from the fires that had consumed farms and cities alike; the intense light that refracted through their bodies and wings and scraped at the reddened air even from hundreds of miles distant, pinpointing the dread center of the invasion and the place where the Outsider itself sought to breach into this world.
The Seals had been made to stop that, a last-ditch attempt at fixing what the Lisalhanians had unwittingly broken. Six sacred places, each attuned to an element: Howling Spire for Metal, Aekhaelesgeria for Fire, the Hag’s Needles for Air, Varaku for Earth, Du’i Oensha for Wood, and the Pillar of the Sea. Six gatherings of the most powerful mages and priests of the era, all concentrated on one vast communal working – a shield that would protect the world from the invasion of the Outsiders by tapping into its primal essence and reshaping it to defend itself.
The Ravager and Guardian should not have been involved, Erosei knew. Their memories never decayed; everything they witnessed, every word they heard, every spell they wove, was engraved upon their spiritual essences until the end of time. It was too dangerous to let them watch and remember the creation of the Seals, for it had been decided that once they were made, all details of them should be destroyed. So many different energy-workers had contributed to their design that no one could ever reverse-engineer them unless he had witnessed it all, and no one wanted to chance a rogue wizard reopening the world.
But the team sent to the Pillar of the Sea had not responded when the others tried to contact them, and those sent to check never returned. Jeronek and his Ravager counterpart, Kuthra, had finally been tapped to clear the way for a new team of mages only to find the landscape overrun with the Outsider’s seething horde, and when they reached the Pillar they found the mages there not just dead but infiltrated and betrayed. By the time Guardian and Ravager had secured the top of the Pillar, it had been too late to summon any other spell-casters to do the deed.
And so the Ravager had carved the Seal into the Pillar of the Sea, while Jeronek the Guardian had stared out upon ruined Lisalhan and dreaded what the future might hold.
Erosei sneered as he considered how all their fears had come to pass. The Outsider had been banished, yes, but the disasters that followed the Sealing had riven the old world apart and reformed it into something unfamiliar — something split by new fault lines, new cliffs, new volcanoes, and centered in a vast new sea where once had been a thriving empire. And all of that loss, all of that damage and destruction…
Perhaps it had been for nothing.
Enkhaelen had already opened the five landlocked Seals. At Aekhaelesgeria he had scorched the previous Guardian vessel to death and ignited an eruption in that once-dormant volcano; much of the east now cowered under a pall of ash. Erosei had been claimed by the Guardian and had tried to stop him at Howling Spire only to be thrown down, and again at Du’i Oensha only to be forced to flee as Enkhaelen ignited the entire forest to cover his escape. He still remembered the sight of that bastard fleeing through the dense vegetation, wings of flame streaming from his back to devour everything he touched.
And now Enkhaelen’s ship burned.
This was the last Seal, in the heart of the sea where no ships dared come without a well-paid cause. No merchant vessel would pass by to rescue a poor, stranded villain; no pirate nor any flag-flying privateer would ever come out this far. If Enkhaelen had burned his ship, it was because he had no intention of leaving.
He meant to die here, perhaps, once the last Seal had been broken.
Erosei would be happy to oblige him.