Authors: Eric Van Lustbader
Dragons on the Sea of Night
A Sunset Warrior Novel
Eric Van Lustbader
This is for my father
Who asked for more tales
The world is more â
Once we understand there is
Only this, we have woken
From the Dark
From the Tablets of the Iskamen
That which is known as Magic
Was once the progeny of ignorance
Ancient Shinju saying
He is coming!
Qaylinn, the chief Rosh'hi of the Bujun, gripped the wooden balustrade of the terrace that ran the entire length of the top floor of the temple of which he was the master. His old, lined face shone in the deep russet glow of the huge, oblate sun as it began to sink over the marshes where geese rose and alit as they had from time immemorial.
âI told you he would come!'
âYes,' the voice said from behind him, âbut will he listen to what we have to say?'
Qaylinn, who had been trained since infancy to intuit intent from the nuances of the human voice, turned to face the other man â a tall, stately figure with a halo of steel-gray hair. Even so long from the battlefield, he is still the soldier inside, Qaylinn told himself. âYou are afraid,' he said quietly.
âAre you not?'
Qaylinn shook his head. âYou forget. I have met the Dai-San. I know him.'
The tall man shook his head. âI, too, have met the Dai-San in the presence of the Kunshin, our sovereign, and my private opinion is that he is allowed too near the Dragon Throne,' he said. âI think it is foolish to delude oneself into believing that he is knowable. Can one know a god? I think not.'
âWhatever he may be now, he was a man, once,' Qaylinn said steadily. âAnd I assure you he has no designs on the Dragon Throne. He has bonded with the Kunshin; they are closer than brothers.' It was important to keep the minister's fear in check. Should it spread to the other members of the council â¦ In any event, their faith in the Dai-San must not be shaken. His work was not yet done, and he was their only hope. âFrom the womb of woman he came and so in his mind â whatever he has now become, whatever magic has been worked on him â he remains at his core a man.'
High Minister Ojime grunted. âWould that I had your faith, sayann.' Sayann, a Bujun term for extreme respect, was not often used, and even less by Ojime. âI, too, know that our fate â and the fate of the entire world of man â rests in the hands of the Dai-San.'
A wind was rising, unnatural and unsettling. It caused Qaylinn's deep saffron robe to swirl about his bare feet, ruffled Ojime's oiled cotton and cured leather coat which was the color of indigo, connoting his senior rank within the Sekkan, the council of Bujun.
Of course Ojime is frightened, Qaylinn thought. He is a political animal; he has been taught to fear and covet power that is greater than his own. It is how he came to don the cloth of indigo. Qaylinn wondered how many of the other high ministers feared and envied the Dai-San his godlike powers. His bald pate tingled. There was danger here, he knew, over and above the pressing reason he had summoned the Dai-San to Shinsei na-ke Temple in Haneda, Amano-mori's capital. It was a danger closer to home, the viper hidden in the breast of those who would have you believe they were friends. Ojime â and, indeed, all the high ministers â would need constant surveillance.
He looked to the west, where it seemed the lavender clouds were parting and, if he squinted, he could just make out a black speck near the horizon. The wind blew in his face and he felt the kind of electricity in the air one experiences during a lightning storm.
âI see him,' Ojime whispered from just behind Qaylinn. âHe answered your call, after all.'
âAs I knew he would,' Qaylinn said without inflection. âHe is the Dai-San.'
âEven so,' Ojime said, âhe is not going to like what you have to tell him.'
âWhat the snow-hare's feet have told me!'
The Rosh'hi had whirled around, his voice uncharacteristically tense. âWhen I speak to the Dai-San â when I tell him what I must â I will merely be a messenger of the kami, the spirits who reside in Ama-no-mori and protect it from harm.'
âLet us hope the Dai-San believes that, eh?' the high minister said darkly.
The wind whipped their cloaks around them with a fiery turbulence. The speck, illumined by the setting sun, was now an identifiable object. As he stared, Ojime's bowels threatened to turn to water, for he found that he was facing the great triple-horned head of a Kaer'n, one of the ancient beasts all Bujun warriors rode in the days of fire, ice and necromancy which, even for the Bujun, were becoming a thing of legend.
Where once they had been plentiful, living in harmony with the Bujun, the huge winged Kaer'n were now vastly reduced in number, living in a valley protected by the icy alpine regions of the northernmost of Ama-no-mori's three islands.
What I would give to get my hands on one of those beasts
, the minister thought, shifting from one foot to the other.
My power would increase tenfold if I was seen directing one of the legendary Kaer'n. My drive to become head of the Sekkan would be assured, and I could then begin my assault on the Kunshin himself. But, by the gods, this creature makes my knees weak!
Qaylinn's thoughts were also filled with the Kaer'n, but they were tinged with nostalgia and regret that the Bujun had somehow lost their abilities to nurture and interact with the Kaer'n. He looked upon the beast with awe and veneration.
The flapping of the Kaer'n's wings filled the men's ears just as it caused the curling and blowing of the cloud formations high above. There was a certain rhythm, a kind of pulsing that seemed to invade the entire body. It was said, though Ojime had never seen documentation, that when the Kaer'n killed, their wings beat the air with a rhythm that slowly aligned itself with the victim's heartbeat. When synchronicity was achieved, the victim somehow died.
Astride the beast was the last person on the planet able to control and speak to the Kaer'n â the Dai-San, the Sunset Warrior.
Qaylinn felt a fire on his face as the Kaer'n's golden talons extruded through flesh, horned and armored to grip the highest parapet of the temple. Its iridescent wings folded in upon themselves, its long scaled neck bent, the large-boned, trapezoidal head almost touching the stone flooring, the amber intelligent eyes impaling the minister and the Rosh'hi in their unwavering gaze.
The two men stood transfixed as the Dai-San dismounted over the arch of the Kaer'n's neck. He was impossibly tall, wrapped in a cape of an unidentifiable material the color of night. His high curious helm was studded with gems that gave off a lambent illumination not unlike starlight. His faceted armor was unlike anything Ojime had ever dreamed of. A veritable galaxy of mythical beasts was embossed into the metal with such consummate skill that they appeared to be alive. What unknown artisans had fashioned this fantastic second skin he had no idea, but he longed to touch it, to don it, to investigate for himself its efficacy, the heady sense of invulnerability it must surely engender. Oh, what he could do with such armor!
The Dai-San's face was human-like, but in a multitude of ways it was vastly different. For one thing, his hooded eyes were faceted. It was almost as if one were being scanned by a company of people all with different personalities, differing points of view. His prominent nose seemed sculpted out of granite, his cheeks to have been scraped from the depths of the howling deserts. His mouth was like a dagger of ice, slashed horizontally across the lower half of his face. He was, in short, like no other creature either man had ever met.
âDai-San,' Qaylinn said softly, with a small, ceremonial bow. âIt was good of you to come.'
The Dai-San's terrifying mouth split into what might, in others, have been a smile. âIt is good to see you again, my friend.'
Qaylinn lifted a hand briefly in Ojime's direction. âMay I introduce High Minister Ojime. He represents the lay portion of Bujun society.'
When the Dai-San fixed Ojime in the glare of those inhuman orbs, the minister blanched. He was adept at reading people; this was, after all, a talent that had served him well in his climb up the political ladder. But this was another story. He tried to fix his sights into the depths of those eerie eyes, because he knew that the soul of each man and woman was written in those individual depths. What he saw now appalled him. Rather than the blank wall he had imagined, he encountered a hall of mirrors which threw back on him the excesses and sins of his own soul, so that he felt a line of sweat creep down his spine and his stomach turned to ice. He bowed deeply, if only to free himself of the terrible images that had danced before his gaze. He felt sick to his stomach, but he hid his distaste deep down as Qaylinn ushered the Dai-San into the sanctuary of the temple. Through the Hall of Secrets they went with its peculiar curved walls and massive thousand-year cedar columns, down the Corridor of Remembrance where the scrolls of the founding Rosh'hi hung in hand-carved niches, until at length they came to the Chamber of Prayer.
The last dying rays of the sun touched the thick stone sill of the high narrow west windows so that slices of crimson stained the tea-green walls, illuminating in electric fashion the raised platform from which hung a vertical scroll in stark black and white. The running calligraphy upon it had been written by Qaylinn's greatgrandfather, who had founded this temple long ago.
âPlease excuse us for not offering you hot tea, Dai-San,' Qaylinn said, bowing again, âbut our purpose is urgent and time is very short.' He went to the platform and, kneeling at the spot directly beneath the scroll, pressed two of the short wooden boards. Ojime, almost morbidly fascinated by the Dai-San, switched his gaze momentarily to the Rosh'hi. Lifting aside the boards, Qaylinn reached into the space beneath and, a moment later, lifted out an object swathed in layers of sueded leather. He rose, holding it away from him as if he would become contaminated by it. Without a word of explanation, he slowly unwrapped the cloth until all the layers had fallen away. He offered it up for the Dai-San's inspection.
Ojime caught the quick reaction in the Dai-San's face before he bent down, sniffing the thick gray object. To Ojime's surprise, the Dai-San's head jerked quickly back.
âIt is fresh!' His voice, though a whisper, thundered in Ojime's ears.
âFresh.' Qaylinn nodded. âYes.'
The Dai-San took a step backward. It happened so quickly that Ojime missed the motion. One instant, the Dai-San was in one place, the next he was in another. Astonishing!
With a whisper of polished leather and beaded silk, the Dai-San drew his enormous sword,
. Its long blue-green blade shone in the last of the day's light just as if it were noon outside instead of dusk. The Dai-San held the blade horizontally, the point almost touching the layers of sueded leather as they lay open like the petals of some alien flower. Slowly, the tip slid along the leather, then beneath the gray object until it rested on the blade. Then the Dai-San lifted it away. Was it his imagination, Ojime wondered, or did the Rosh'hi heave a sigh of relief?
The Dai-San regarded the thing with intense interest. âIt is the tongue of a Makkon.'
âA Makkon, yes.' Qaylinn nodded. âOne of the Chaos beasts that were the outriders for the Dolman.' The Dolman, ruler of the creatures of Chaos, had attempted to take control of the world some years ago. A pitched battle had been fought, culminating with the Kai-feng at the citadel of Kamado. The Dai-San was intimately familiar with the Dolman. They were linked in a curious and particular manner, since it had been the Dolman's decision to invade this world which led to the creation of the Dai-San, the savior of mankind, he who had defeated the Dolman.