THE sea cradled the moon and shattered against a silvered coastline. Froth churned on rocks that gnashed at the water like teeth. Barely seen on the horizon, a single island, shaped like a horn, lifted above the ink-black surface. Cian saw no way to the beach but to climb down the bluff on which he stood.
There was no way to the island at all.
Sea magic, the most elusive of the seven arcana by which a man might order the elements, was tightly guarded. Fresh water belonged to the sky or the earth, and could be ordered by those who knew their words of power, but the ocean was its own domain, answerable to its own gods. Only one man had ever mastered its secret language.
Many great mages had tried to find the sea’s master and failed, but Cian hadn’t let that stop him. At the age of six, he had confounded his village’s elders by transmuting iron into gold, a talent that, a few years later, had attracted the attention of an avaricious monk. Sequestered in a mountain monastery, he had toiled in captivity, making gold until he was seized by an even more avaricious king, whose sorcerers had refined his gifts. Under their tutelage, he had learned the keys of magic.
At sixteen he became restless and, sensing that his usefulness was limiting what others allowed him to know, began delving into arts his masters would not teach. With singleminded dedication, he had burned his hours until he had learned the language of dragons, necromancy’s black secrets—and of the sea’s one master.
He had escaped every one of his keepers, and now he was in the full prime of his adulthood. His skills were such that he could draw knowledge through the thick skulls of kings and mages, adding to his trove of lore, but no matter to what land he traveled or what power he touched, the man he sought was never to be found except in the form of a rumor, a myth. At last, from the mind of a sea creature dragged from the ocean’s depths, he learned a name.
Muir the Scarred.
That was the man Cian sought. A man who commanded the oceans, their currents and creatures, whose fell whispers gave birth to whirlpools, storms, and tides. A man who, decades before Cian had been born, had destroyed a great civilization in an hour, sending it to the bottom of the Twice-Gated Sea.
I have found you, old man, Cian exulted as he climbed down to the beach. The sea creature had told him to seek Muir on an island at the edge of creation, the place where the sea had first given birth to land. This was that place. But once on the beach, he stood confounded. A wide channel separated this tongue of primordial headland from the island. Even if he could swim strongly enough to break across swift, dangerous currents and whorls, the water here was too cold for him to survive long.
Muir guarded his island well.
Cian looked around. He might command rock to fill in the channel, but the sea here was deep, the natives said, and it might take the whole headland to do it. Even for him such an endeavor would take many weeks, and such activity would surely attract Muir’s notice. However, the beach was not entirely barren; the tides had left behind drifts of battered wood, planks and masts from ships that had foundered on the rocks.
Form of a boat, he spoke the language of the earth, material of a sail. Wood and seaweed, errant roots and living creatures buried in the sand, released their previous natures and reformed as stout timber, canvas, and rope. The boat was large enough for sea duty and small enough for one man to command. Cian pushed it out past the breakers and hauled his soaked body aboard. Taking the helm and manning the lines, he turned her out to sea.
THE sea struck before he could reach the island. The water turned furious, hurling black waves at the small boat, spilling over its sides with claws of white spume that threatened to drag it under. Soon the violence would break the masts and weaken the hull. Muir had warded his hiding place against vessels. Cian cursed, though he had predicted the precaution. No matter. The boat had done what he needed: brought him close enough to the island he could now commit his body to the task of reaching its shore. He pulled off his boots and jacket.
As he dove into the water, seeking to distance himself from his sinking boat, he heard the mast snap. There would be more peril, but he did not turn to look. Muir would not content himself with waves; there would be vortices, also. The cold water filled his clothing and threatened to cramp his limbs, but he stroked toward the island that reared before him now like a great black stair. He was a strong swimmer. And he’d learned all there was to know about Muir.
The waves got the best of him. No mere man could overcome the sea, and Cian, in the sea, commanded no magic that could help him. He managed to mouth a spell that created a shell of air in which he might breathe, and it held for a minute, then a wave bigger than all the others pushed him under with such force his bubble struck bottom. The bubble cushioned the impact so his body was spared, but the cold dark currents of the sea ripped it free. Tumbled by currents, Cian flailed desperately in search of the surface until at length his strength gave out and his lungs opened, inhaling water.
This, he thought, was death.
Battered against the sea floor, his body exploded with pain as he tumbled over smooth, eroded rocks and tangled in weeds, rolled over time and again until he lay sprawled in water and opened his eyes to see a man in a billowing black robe, hooded and terrible, striding toward him along a path above which the sea towered on either side, churning white froth. Cian watched black boots treading seaweed and sand underfoot, coming closer and closer; then a giant hand reached for him, and he sank into merciful blackness.