As a wraith-mage and a constant interferer in the business of mortals, Kuthrallan Vanyaris knew his assistance would not be welcomed by the skinchanger- and spirit-folk. Unfortunately, the Seals he wanted to create necessitated the spirits’ permission, if not their aid, and they were leery enough of the motives of human mages that any indirect overtures would only be turned away. If he wanted to command their attention and thus be able to state his case, he would have to do so personally.
He decided to start at the top with the Guardian and Ravager, but since mutual hatred had long ago cut the lines of communication between the haelhene wraiths and the spirits, he had to ask Ylwain the Observer to make contact with them. Though Ylwain had never managed to reconstitute the blackbird-spirit he had slain, the Great Spirits recognized his attempts at reconciliation and were now cordial toward him.
Ylwain arranged a meeting. Kuthrallan attended alone, in part because he wanted to show that he was not intimidated by the Great Spirits but also because Daenivar-cultists and sleeper agents had been cropping up throughout the arcane ranks and he did not trust any of his subordinates—wraith or human—with the entirety of his plan lest it be leaked.
In retrospect, it was not the best choice. The Great Spirits made some attempt at politeness and listened attentively as Kuthrallan explained his plans and needs, then requested a moment to discuss the situation between themselves. Kuthrallan allowed this, only to find the ground and foliage lashing up to capture him once the Great Spirits were out of easy arcane range.
Kuthrallan destroyed his bonds and could have escaped then, but he was frustrated and angry that no one—not even the native spirits—seemed to take this danger as seriously as he did. What he could not know was that while the Guardian simply did not understand the plan, the Ravager comprehended it due to the wraiths it had already eaten but judged Kuthrallan too dangerous to be allowed to perform the spell himself. When he advanced upon the Great Spirits instead, shouting about their foolishness, they attacked him ferociously.
At the height of his power, Kuthrallan was barely a step below Daenivar, and he refused to flee this fight. In his mind, he would beat these upstart spirits into the dirt and then dictate his terms to them, perform the spell, and become the celebrated hero of the world. However, though he had clashed with the Ravager more than once, he had never encountered the Guardian, and the two spirits working together quickly sapped him of more power than he could spare.
His mistake lay in concentrating on the Ravager who, though flashy and aggressive, was only as dangerous as a skilled wraith. In comparison, the Guardian seemed too slow to ever catch up, but it did not need to; any time the aerial duel swept too close to the ground or to it, the Guardian could snatch away a broad swath of Kuthrallan’s energy like pulling off a husk. When Kuthrallan realized that and tried to avoid the Guardian, the Ravager became even more aggressive and began grappling the wraith in midair, trying to force him down toward the Guardian despite the damage Kuthrallan could do to both of them from that range.
Still Kuthrallan would not flee, and between the Great Spirits’ tactics and his own stubbornness it was only a matter of time before both he and the Ravager were hanging on by a thread. He did not want to kill the Great Spirits, and he told them that repeatedly, but the Ravager seemed too berserk to listen. Finally, reasoning that he could bargain with the Guardian from the air once the Ravager-host was dead, Kuthrallan struck a death-blow on his annoying opponent.
With the death of its host, the Ravager spirit was free to take a new vessel. It chose Kuthrallan, and the wraith was too worn-down to resist.
Possessed, Kuthrallan found himself forced into full and uncomfortable physicality, his six-dimensional nature folded down tight into four. He tried to struggle against the confinement but no longer had control over his magic, for it seemed the Ravager could disrupt him at any time. Beside that, though, the Ravager was not as onerous a burden as he would have expected; it sat in the back of his mind like a suspicious overseer but made no other move to interfere. The Guardian likewise ceased hostilities and explained that this was the only way Kuthrallan could be trusted.
Though not happy, Kuthrallan knew enough about the Great Spirits to understand that he had lost—that he was essentially dead. His essence was inextricably bound to the Ravager and he would go with it when his newly fleshy body died. If he wanted to complete his greatest work, he would have to suffer this debasement and hope Ylwain could find some way to extricate him later.
Or he would have to figure out how to devour the Ravager from the inside.
More pressing issues were at hand, though. With the Guardian and Ravager on his side, the rest of the spirits and elementals pledged grudging support, and the plan for the Seals could move forward. The locust-scorched lands were still expanding in all directions and had consumed all of lowland Lisalhan and much of the Xiroacen and Altaeran frontiers; even formerly-indifferent Yezad was becoming uneasy as the horde encroached on its outposts. Mage-volunteers poured in from there, from Gejara and from the refugees of Lisalhan.
The Guardian himself was a Yezadran elemental-blood named Jeronek the Stonehand, descended from a line of elementalists who had long ago discovered how to integrate the essence of earth into themselves. Though not friendly toward Kuthrallan, who after all had killed his former Ravager-partner, he took pains to protect the fallen wraith from any hostilities leveled toward him. He also did his best to intervene in any conflicts between the disparate mages, because as the Guardian he could drain their arcane energies away into the earth and force them to use words instead of spells.
Even with that, the gatherings to discuss the Seals were plagued by politics, religious arguments and the constant threat of a Daenivaran agent. Kuthrallan eventually divided the volunteers into twelve teams and met each individually to give them their Seal instructions—two teams per location. If one team was compromised, the other would have to perform the ritual. If both were, Kuthrallan would send a new team to the teleport-tracers he had tattooed onto all of the human volunteers.
There were a few noteworthy individuals among the volunteers, foremost of them Darcaniel the Hunter–the wraith-captain who dwelt in the Border Forest with the skinchangers and would spearhead the Seal effort at Du’i Oensha. Others were the Yezadran mage-scholar Tardik Veram, known for his exhaustive histories and investigations into the nature of the universe; the Lisalhanian adventurer Gwydren Greymark, who had been claimed by the lion-spirit in his youth; the haelhene Cyloer and Ilshenrir, who continued to serve Kuthrallan despite his possession; Altaera’s official court wizard Tantathe Aurehath, who volunteered against the Divine Protector’s wishes; and several mysterious robed individuals from the Desert of Aervach beyond Yezad’s southern border.
Darcaniel’s teams would obviously take Du’i Oensha and the Seal of Wood. Veram’s teams were assigned to Varaku and the Seal of Earth, Aurehath’s to Howling Spire and the Seal of Metal. The mysterious Aervacheen volunteered to place the Seal of Fire at Aekhaelesgeria, and Greymark—as a Lisalhanian and thus a potential Daenivaran—was sent with his teams to the Hag’s Needles and the Seal of Air, where spirits would watch his every move. Finally, Cyloer and Ilshenrir would each lead a team to the Pillar of the Sea, which was already under threat by the locusts.
With the teams dispatched, Kuthrallan and his advisors barricaded themselves into a sanctum in the Yezadran capital of Rassevar to oversee the operation through scrys. They had the Grey Grimoire at hand to further update them, and watched anxiously as the teams approached their destinations.
Darcaniel’s teams and Aurehath’s teams both arrived without incident, especially as the Muriae allowed Aurehath to use their mountain tunnels to reach Howling Spire rather than forcing him to take the deadly overland route. The Aervacheen recounted a few attempts to waylay them on the road toward the Khaeleokiel Mountains, but had no problems once off it. Greymark’s and Veram’s teams were attacked repeatedly en route to their sites and experienced psychological attrition due to nightmares and hallucinations, but arrived more or less intact.
Ilshenrir’s team vanished without a trace.
Cyloer’s team, which reported back regularly, had to carve its way through the Lisalhanian lowlands toward the Pillar of the Sea alone. They were under near-constant assault by Rhehevrok berserkers, Daenivar cultists, mundane bandits and even necromancers, all of them maddened by the Portal’s constant light and the miasma of nightmare-energies that the Daenivarans kept spreading. In addition, locust outriders patrolled the skies and dive-bombed anything that moved.
Mile by mile, the team crept toward the Pillar, until finally all contact was lost.
Kuthrallan was furious. Cyloer and Ilshenrir had not been his best students, but they were by far his most loyal, and he did not trust the others not to sabotage him to gain some favor with psychotic Daenivar. Likewise it was apparent that sending only mortals would not do; Cyloer had spent all his time either banishing locusts or protecting his team from the deleterious effects of the Portal-light, and his tireless work was only possible because he was a wraith and thus capable of bending that light to his will. Human mages did not have the capacity to banish even a scout-locust.
Ylwain’s mages were all researchers; they would not do for this situation. No haelhene could be trusted, and the airahene of the Mist Forest still refused to help. Darcaniel’s tiiahene had fallen too far to wield the required amount of energy. That left Kuthrallan himself.
He knew he could place the Seal on his own. The Ravager’s presence might have restricted his dimensionality, but it added the capacity of all the wraiths it had devoured before him, as well as its own not-inconsequential reservoirs of spirit-power. The problem was that placing the Seal was an all-encompassing task; he could not defend himself at the same time as he placed it.
Fortunately, he had the Guardian on his side.
Eschewing a full team, Kuthrallan and Jeronek left the command-center in the hands of Rassevar’s council of mages and headed toward the Pillar of the Sea. Kuthrallan got them as close as he could by teleport, but that was barely into the hills; the Portal’s influence was too strong for him to take them closer. To conserve energy for the inevitable locust-fights, they were then forced to travel on foot, which annoyed Kuthrallan to no end as he was used to flying wherever he could not teleport. Jeronek smoothed their way as best he could, but Kuthrallan found the physicality insufferable—especially in the wilderness. It was all he could do not to lash out at petty obstructions like trees and rocks, which would invariably draw attention to them.
They hiked through the rough country for more than a week, with their connection to the command-center in Rassevar fraying due to the Portal’s interference. Even in that little time, the locust hordes had advanced into the mountains, and had eradicated all life before them—including the bandits and cultists that had so plagued the previous teams. Kuthrallan and Jeronek found themselves running over glassed earth and melted rock branded with the outlines of the fallen, and then over seething tides of carapace as they encountered the locusts’ front lines. The massive radiant beetle-things that served as the locusts’ shock-troops would have rolled over a human team, but Kuthrallan warded Jeronek from the searing light while Jeronek did his best to sap the locusts of energy, and together they ran on toward the Pillar with the locusts snapping sluggishly at their heels.
From then on, there was no opportunity to rest, no time to stop—except when Kuthrallan sensed the presence of his fallen student Ilshenrir. The locusts swarmed heavily over the spot, but he insisted on intervening, for a wraith-soul so far away from the crystal spires might never find its way home. Jeronek conceded, and warped the tortured earth with his elemental powers to divide and trap the locusts and allow Kuthrallan the time to catch Ilshenrir’s essence. Binding it into a piece of crystal, he then flung it into the sky, where the Ravager’s air elementals caught it and ferried it swiftly away from the locust-lands.
Ilshenrir’s team, it seemed, had been spotted and slaughtered by the locusts. They were not alone; as the Pillar came in sight, so too did the massed remains of its defenders. Rhehevrok marauders, necromancers and desperate civilians alike had gathered around the tower as if it could protect them, and it seemed they had held out for some time; the ground was disrupted as if from elemental magic and covered in mounds of bones, as if the necromancers had withdrawn here with armies of all the slain they could find. After all, the dead were the only ones who had any success in holding back the locusts. They could not feel pain as they slowly burned away.
But the defenders had fallen, whether from the locust horde or from internal disputes, and as Kuthrallan and Jeronek raced closer, they saw that the tower was burning from the inside, its white stone walls stained by the smoke that poured out from its windows.
Bright beetles and worse monstrosities clustered so tight around the tower that they had to climb upon their backs and enter the burning tower through a window. Kuthrallan had intended to go down into the depths of the Pillar to place the Seal close to the water, but the fire had collapsed much of the interior structure and he could only contain the smoke so much. They went up instead, because the Pillar was infused from top to bottom with the essence of Water; it had even been suggested that it was not made of stone at all, but of the upthrust bone of a primordial leviathan that had roamed the sea before the continent locked in place around it.
Along the way, they discovered that not all of the occupants of the tower were dead. A few stunned and traumatized members of Cyloer’s team had managed to hide in the upper levels, even as the wraith and the other team-members were torn apart. They followed Kuthrallan and Jeronek up to the top, and at Kuthrallan’s command began to move automatically to scribe the Seal on the flat tower roof.
They were only barely clear of the Portal’s disrupting influence. From the roof, the gleam of that searing light was visible on the horizon despite hundreds of miles of separation, and Kuthrallan’s signal to the command-center in Rassevar nearly failed. Had they waited one more day, the whole project might have been lost.
But the signal went through, and soon Kuthrallan saw the telltale marks in the sky that indicated the other sites were casting their Seals. He turned to his own work and left his defense in Jeronek’s hands.
The six dimensions were to be sealed with the six elements: earth for spatial length, wood for spatial width, water for spatial depth, metal for temporal length, fire for temporal width, air for temporal depth. In essence, the Seals would create a bubble around the world that was impenetrable not only to objects but also to probability- and possibility-shifters, making it as effective against wraithkind and similar beings as it would be against the Dark’s standard debris-bombardments. Kuthrallan was not entirely sure what the locusts were, but he felt secure that this would work on them.
As for what effect it might have on the world itself, his experiments said little. In the short term, he imagined no trouble; in the long term, data suggested that the Seals would need to be opened now and then to allow a bit of chaos into the bubble. He expected to have a long, long time to contemplate such things, as soon as the Portal was closed.
In the middle of his work on the Seal of Water, one of the surviving team-members stabbed the other in the back, then started to counter his spell.
Whether she was a Daenivaran cultist or just someone who had become possessed by the nightmares, Kuthrallan would never know. He could not raise a hand to defend himself—to do so would be to disrupt the entire Sealing, now that it was underway, which could kill everyone involved—but he had Jeronek, and Jeronek had a stonewrought khopesh all too ready to cut down a fleshly enemy. Even when other cultists surged up from within the tower, perhaps having hidden in the depths below the fire-level, Jeronek was prepared to defend.
And when Kuthrallan completed the Seal and saw the magic unfurl from the Pillar’s roof to join the great red arcane sigil that etched the sky, he was pleased, for it looked like every piece had fallen into place. Still channeling energy into the Seal, he rose to look out at the Portal and wait for it to be extinguished.
The spell completed with a tangible snap. The continent-spanning sigil in the sky glowed like a bloody sunset.
Then it drove down upon the locust-infested landscape with the force of an asteroid strike.
It was impossible for anyone to say what happened at the moment of impact, for all six elements reacted as one. In the Khaeleokiels, the volcano Aekhaelesgeria erupted around the Seal of Fire; in Varaku, a tremor shook the mountains around the Seal of Earth; at the Hag’s Needles, the whipping wind flung people around like rag-dolls. Howling Spire nearly collapsed in on itself, and likewise the landscape around the grove at Du’i Oensha subsided in huge furrows.
Closest to the Portal, the Pillar was hit worst, with tremors reverberating up the tower like a struck pipe. Both Kuthrallan and Jeronek were nearly thrown from the top in the first moment, but Jeronek managed to bond them to the surface. Not entirely a blessing, as the quakes did not cease and the wind had begun to rage so hard around the tower that they could not see. Jeronek’s Guardian senses were overwhelmed by the strain in earth and sea, and he could barely maintain his grasp on the tower; likewise Kuthrallan had no access to the Ravager’s connection to the air, and could make no sense of what he was seeing.
There was fire. Dust. Riven landscape as far as the eye could see. Huge chunks of rock—entire ridges and hills—seeming to float weirdly like boats closely-packed on a river, disconnected from their former moorings. And in the distance the bloody imprint of the Seal’s sigil, fading, as the land seemed to liquefy…
The Pillar jerked to one side, leaning at a bizarre angle. All around them, the mountains had gone askew, and the land to the north was coming apart in huge seams. Tremors continued to chase each other through the rocks, and they saw locusts crushed beneath falling debris, drowned beneath sudden bursts of water, blasted from the sky by red lightning.
The majority of the Seal’s concentric rings of sigils still hung in the sky, just the centerpoint fallen down like a hammer on the portal area. As another tremor ripped through the Pillar, though, Kuthrallan saw the next ring of blood-red light fall toward the earth and realized what he had done wrong.
The primal elements did not care about people. Humans, skinchangers, wraiths–they were all insects crawling on the planet’s skin, just like the locusts. Kuthrallan’s Seals had been designed to slough off the invasion as well as close the Portal, and since they had relied so much upon the six elements for power, it had also been necessary to design them to give the world itself the discretion in how to destroy the enemy. Kuthrallan himself had not known how to do that; no power in his comprehension could scoop up all the locusts and shove them back through the portal before closing it, so he had placed his trust in the world to do what was best.
As the second ring of sigils came down, the land cracked open, exposing the limestone bones of Lisalhan. Locusts fell through or were pulled down or struck down, and as the cracks raced south toward the already-fractured mountains, Kuthrallan grabbed the still-stunned Jeronek and tried to gather his wits.
There was no way to teleport out of this—not with the oppression of the Seals now taking the place of the Portal’s disruptive aura—and he could not fly on his own, not with all the energy he had infused into the Seal of Water. Inside him, the Ravager was just as terrified as he was, for it too had underestimated just how much the world was willing to destroy to rid itself of invaders. The Great Spirit might have been connected to the elements but it was the essence of animals, who all considered themselves too important to be brushed away like bugs. Too vital to the world, no matter what the world thought. Now they were all learning a lesson.
With the Ravager’s support, Kuthrallan unfurled its wings. Clumsy half-physical half-spiritual things, they were not what the wraith was used to, but they would have to do, especially since the Pillar was about to fall out from under them. With Jeronek in his arms, he lifted off from the Pillar’s roof in the desperate hope that the Seals wouldn’t identify him as a danger and strike him down with lightning like they did to the flying locusts.
He felt when the Guardian fled Jeronek; unlike the Ravager, it was not bound into its host until death. The loss of that Great Spirit actually lightened his burden, since the two counteracted each others’ powers by their mere presence, but at the same moment he heard the ominous roar of water from the south.
The collapse of the Overwatch Mountains had sent a tsunami through the Sea of Storms, wiping out the coastline of Zhangi-Uru and the jungles south of Xiroacer. The subsidence of that land, the rebound of the waters from the mountains beyond, and the dropping of the third ring of sigils compounded together into a titanic wall of water that backwashed north, climbed the disintegrating Overwatch ridges, and deluged the Pillar and the lands beyond. Destruction that should have taken the better part of a day came down upon the land in moments, driven by elements infuriated beyond belief, and both Great Spirit hosts were lost in the ensuing maelstrom.
The havoc did not end there. The first impact had irretrievably warped the continental plate it hit, and as the other rings of sigils dropped, the damage was compounded. By the fifth strike, the strain was too great, and the fault-line that ran along the entirety of the Varaku Range and across the western Khaeleokiels fractured. The land on the west side dropped precipitously, while that on the east rose. The sixth—and last—ring compounded the split, creating a massive cliff that ran from the north end of the Desert of Aervach all the way up through the cold wastes of Krovichanka, effectively cutting the continent in two. Eventually known as the Rift, it varied from a few hundred feet to nearly a mile high, with some edges crammed together into rugged new hills while others separated into chasms that swallowed rivers and cities alike.
Even after the last ring dropped, residual quakes, eruptions and battering waves continued, and fatally-fractured land collapsed in on itself. The entirety of the locust-infected area had been pummeled to nothing, and the Sea of Storms swiftly submerged the ruins; the swamp-area around the former Danarine Sea was drowned, and Altaera and Xiroacer found themselves with ragged new coastlines. Yezadra, despite not having been touched by the locusts, fared miserably as water backwashed up the gulf that divided it from Zhangi-Uru; this both submerged their shared swampland and helped erode the cracked land out from under the coastal cities. Over the course of several years, all of Yezadra’s western cities—including the capital at Rassevar—slowly fell into the sea.
The uninvolved east was not spared, as the earthquakes ran throughout the continent and shook the far end of the Garnet Mountains apart. Water poured in through new rivers and deluged the great eastern swamp before connecting with and swelling the Atharine Sea. Additionally, the creation of the Rift tilted that entire side of the landscape slightly, changing the courses of rivers and hiking up the mountains—some of which were still busy erupting.
No one had expected anything like this. No one was unaffected. So much dust and smoke hung in the air that summer did not come properly for several years, and for nearly a decade the harvests were scant. The gods and spirits were just as stunned as their followers, and did their best to bless and aid their faithful, but many people turned away from them for the fact that they had let this happen.
Light and Moon-Shadow, in particular, lost large amounts of followers both in and outside of Yezadra. Additionally, they found that they could not reach down to the surface of the world as easily as before. The Seals had not only locked out the Outsiders, they had locked out the sun and moon as well.
Another godly victim was Law, whose followers tried feverishly to restore order to a decimated Altaera but were accused at every turn of letting this happen, of not doing enough. Instead, people began to turn to the worship of Athalarr the Lion, a beast-spirit of the plains who promised to hunt food for those who put themselves under his protection. Athalarr was the first of the beast-spirits to actively seek followers outside of his skinchanger bloodline, and would become the first to be declared an actual god—but in the years right after the Seal, he was treading on Law’s toes, and Law did not like it.
Thus ended the old world, with Lisalhan destroyed, Xiroacer isolated, Yezadra and Altaera traumatized, and the other lands shaken to their cores. The Ravager and Guardian would return with new hosts eventually, but for a long time they were considered villains—they, and the mages that conspired with them to do such a horrific thing. By popular and multi-empire decision, the Silent Circle was formed to police magery and destroy anything or anyone that had to do with necromancy, battle-magic and the Seals, and often the religious orders helped them. Law and Brancir of the Trifold Goddess in particular were known for executing unsanctioned mages.
Yet from the ashes, new empires soon rose.
Next: The New Empires, Part 1: Ruen Wyn
Explains a lot about how people treat mages.