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Authors: Eric Van Lustbader

The Sunset Warrior - 01 (10 page)

BOOK: The Sunset Warrior - 01
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The red-cheeked man beckoned to him, stretched his arm towards the doorway in the far wall. Ronin passed him. He put a delicate forefinger to his lower lip.

It looked to be an open patio, but that was impossible. Even so, it was a square room whose very high ceiling and diffused lighting gave it a tremendously open feeling. He went across the stone flagging while a breeze stirred his hair. Quite suddenly, he was curious. All of this was a part of the Salamander’s quarters that he had not seen before.

He heard strange sounds: a small high trilling, a repeated whistling, others he could not isolate. They seemed to emanate from high up in the air.

He passed, in the centre of the room, a square pool of water, which bubbled and gurgled, fed from some hidden source.

On the far side of the pool, some distance away, was the Salamander. He sat on a bare wooden chair with thick arms. A small stone table with crystal flagon and goblets was on his left side. A second chair stood near, empty and waiting.

He was wearing a dull black robe under which he wore jet leggings and loose shirt. His high black boots were polished to a gloss. A scarlet sash banded his ample waist. Just below his throat, like a startling splash of fresh blood, lay an uncurling lizard carved from a single ruby, its body graceful and rich in colour, slightly translucent. Its eyes were of jet, and onyx flames danced around it, arching up into its mouth.

He looked not a moment older than the day Ronin had first met him. Large, squarish face with highly pronounced cheekbones that, had he not heavy jowls, would have given him almost an alien cast. Thick black brows shielded deep-set eyes as jet-black and shiny-hard as those on his brooch. His hair was thick and dark and long, brushed back away from his high forehead to give the impression of small wings.

‘My dear, dear boy!’ the Salamander exclaimed from his chair. ‘How pleasing it is to see you again after all this time!’ He smiled his jowly smile, the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkling.

Ronin gazed into the onyx eyes and was not fooled. They were heavy-lidded, the lashes long, but he knew what lay behind that effete exterior.

‘Come, come. Do sit down beside me.’ With a diffident wave of his thickly ringed fingers he indicated the empty chair. Ronin went up two wide flat steps and sat.

The Salamander reached over to the crystal flagon, but Ronin declined.

‘And what do you think of my atrium?’ asked the Salamander.

Ronin looked around, said blandly, ‘Is that what it is?’

The Salamander laughed deep in his throat; the corners of his eyes crinkled and he showed his white even teeth. But the eyes remained unchanged. ‘Many centuries ago, when people lived on the surface of this planet, they built houses, low, separate dwellings, you see, with a central room open to the natural elements: the sun and the rain and the stars, and there they gathered to relax and talk of pleasant matters and smell the fresh air. A marvellous custom, do you not agree?’

He changed tones abruptly. ‘My dear Ronin, I have told you a thousand times that you must be more well read.’

‘If I may say so, it is quite out of the question without access to a library such as yours. Books are a rarity Downshaft.’

At that moment the red-cheeked man stepped through the far doorway and the Salamander looked over. ‘You have met Voss, my Chondrin.’ It was not a question.

‘He seems quite attracted to doors,’ Ronin said.

The Salamander shifted minutely in his chair; the jet eyes were unblinking. ‘Dear boy,’ he said without inflection, ‘one of these times you will make a remark like that to a person without a sense of humour—a person with power—and then you will be in most serious trouble. Voss can do a great many things very well indeed.’

He gestured and the Chondrin dropped to a crouch. Both hands became a blur and Ronin was aware of an angry humming cutting through the background sounds. The brickwork of the wall to the left and behind him crackled and he turned to look. Two very deep incisions had been cut barely a centimetre apart. On the stone floor directly below lay the two jewel-hilted daggers that had, up to a moment before, been sheathed at Voss’s heart and hip. A split second was all that he had needed to throw both with deadly accuracy.

Ronin turned back to the Salamander.

‘He has no sense of humour.’

Again the big man’s deep laugh echoed off the walls. ‘You always had peculiar ways of letting me know the people you disapproved of.’ He rubbed his nose. ‘Which was almost everyone, I might add.’ With a flick of his fingers he dismissed the Chondrin, who, after retrieving his weapons, withdrew, closing the gates after him.

The Salamander breathed deeply. ‘Ah! Feel that! It is almost like being on the surface three centuries ago. Do you hear the birds? Did you recognize the calls? You are sufficiently knowledgeable to have heard of birds.’ He waved, a curiously brusque movement for such a normally expansive gesture. ‘All of this is not wasted on you, I trust,’ he drawled.

Ronin forced himself to sit completely still and say nothing.

The Salamander’s right arm, lying thickly along the arm of his chair, was somehow menacing. ‘Let me tell you something. It has been many years since you have been here. Everything has changed.’

He cocked his head to one side as if listening to a far-off but important conversation. ‘How peaceful it is here,’ he said after a time, his tone soft and reflective. ‘How comfortable, how secure. It took me quite a long time to build this. For instance, this room was under construction when you were last here. It has taken an enormous effort to get all the elements gathered and integrated. The lighting was difficult but, as you can see, not insurmountable. But the birds, the birds, dear boy! For a while I thought I would never hear them in here.’ He cocked his head again. Their sweet singing sounded over the music of the water. ‘Ah, listen! In the end it was worth it. This place gives me great pleasure.’

There was silence for a time, at least a cessation of human speech, during which a kind of dreamy peacefulness descended upon them.

Broken. ‘And you have changed the most, dear boy. You are no longer my Student. You are a Bladesman. That is in itself significant.’

Ronin let out the breath he had been holding. ‘Yes?’

‘It means that you have been extremely fortunate in not having run across a Saardin without a sense of humour.’ Once more he laughed. Ronin thought he liked to hear the sound of it.

The laughter died suddenly. ‘Or have you? One hears the most distressing stories. You seem to have put yourself into a somewhat embarrassing position.’ One eyebrow arched, giving him a vividly predatory look.

‘What have you been told?’

He shifted his bulk in the chair. ‘Enough to wonder how much of your training here you still remember. Freidal distrusts you, that is not a good thing.’ He looked down at his jewelled hand, then up again. ‘He can become quite—um—annoying.’

Ronin sat rather stiffly. ‘I did not come to you for that reason.’

‘Indeed? But I daresay that you will have to adjust to the fact that you blundered. He has marked you; perhaps he is having you watched. I need only—’

‘No.’

‘I thought not. It makes no sense, but then—’ He shrugged. ‘Perhaps then you will tell me why you came.’

Ronin nodded. ‘It is about a Magic Man,’ he said.

For a time after he had finished, the Salamander said nothing. He laced his fingers, resting them on his thighs. The scent of cloves came very strong on the air. The ‘birds’ sang. Along one wall, moss had been encouraged to grow, moist and green. Ronin found it hard to believe that they were underground. He felt isolated, quite disconnected from the world Downshaft, and he recognized this as a form of offering. It was no accident that the Salamander had received him here.

‘How do you suppose,’ the Salamander said, ‘I am able to maintain all of this?’ His hands unfolded like a fan.

Ronin thought: So it has been a mistake after all. He got up.

The Salamander’s eyes opened wide. ‘Ah. What is it?’

‘There was a time when this was necessary,’ Ronin said angrily. ‘Now—’

‘Indulge me.’

‘As you said, everything has changed.’

‘Did I not teach you all explanations in their proper time?’

‘I am no longer your Student.’

‘You made that quite clear some time ago.’

The onyx eyes were all pupil, black and glittery, locked with Ronin’s. An electric charge built itself in the room.

‘All right,’ the Salamander said finally. ‘All right. Sit down. Be assured that I have an answer for you. At least let me reach it at my own pace.’

The gates opened across the room and Voss appeared as if by a signal. He came immediately across to them and stood in front of the Salamander, who said, ‘Open the Lens.’

Voss shot Ronin a quick glance, then nodded and went out through a narrow door behind them that Ronin had failed to notice before.

‘Now where were we?’ The Salamander cocked his head. ‘Ah, yes, my not so humble quarters. They are extensive. When you were last here, you saw only what all my Students are allowed to see. You could have—’ He shook his head. ‘But old ground is pointless.’ He rubbed his hands down the smooth wood of the arms. ‘I have an entire Sector, you know.’

Ronin was surprised in spite of himself. ‘No, I did not.’

He nodded. ‘But that is only part of it, an insignificant part. Decoration, one might say. One impresses those who must be impressed. For the rest, it is all pleasure. And it is only the tip, having it. Getting it, that is what counts. To do that, one needs but one item: Power.’ He leaned forward. ‘I have it.’

‘So it is said.’

The onyx eyes bored into him.

‘You do not fear it,’ the Salamander said, not without some contempt. ‘That is a mistake.’

‘I do not worship it.’

‘You would do well to heed me.’

‘That time—’

‘Yes, quite.’ The Salamander rose gracefully. ‘If you will follow me.’

He crossed to the narrow door and led Ronin into darkness.

Light that bloomed in front of him was dim and faded, the colours smeary and washed out, as if, having been painted quickly and tentatively on canvas, they were now covered in a fine film of dust.

He saw himself as a small child, and everything looked too large for him to use. He was in a room filled with stifled silence. It was very hot and he pulled at the collar of his shirt. It seemed he could not breathe. He wished his sister were here. She was very young, her features still forming, but he loved her. She would come to him when she was sad or lonely or had had a fight, and he would comfort her, help her, protect her. And then she would laugh and hug him around the waist and her happiness would transmit itself to him. She could make him smile. Why isn’t she here, why are all these people here, what’s wrong? Someone said: ‘It is no use, they have called it off.’ A figure loomed over him. What’s wrong, what’s wrong? The figure said: ‘Your sister is dead. Can you understand that? Dead.’ He began to cry. The figure slapped him hard. Someone said: ‘He is too young.’ The figure hit him again and again until he stopped.

‘—in this room.’ It was small, lit only by points of glowing green light, winking like jewels from some far-off city. Ronin rubbed briefly at his eyes.

‘Very few people have been in this room,’ the Salamander continued. ‘Very few people even know of its existence.’ Voss was sitting before a metal box, low and wide, from the centre of which an oval cylinder projected perhaps a metre into the air. His hands were busy moving across a complex control panel. ‘Do you follow me?’ The Salamander moved behind Voss, put a jewelled hand on his shoulder. ‘I think that you were wise to stay a while longer.’

He turned and the tiny jet eyes at his throat flashed, reflecting flatly the hard green light. The lizard’s body had taken on a dull, dusky hue, like the film on stagnant water. ‘This Magic Man, is he sane or mad? You are unsure.’

He lifted his arm, the palm of his hand standing out dead white against the dense black of his robes—even the scarlet sash was turned black by the strange light. ‘This is the Lens. We do not know how it works, or even its original purpose, but in a moment you shall see what few men in our lifetime have ever seen. Look. Look upward.’ And he squeezed Voss’s shoulder.

At first Ronin thought that the ceiling had in some way opened. A swirling opalescent oval lit the darkness. Then he saw that it was a projection from the cylinder of the Lens.

Pearl greys and the lightest of violets swam blurrily above them. Then quite suddenly the scene was sharply delineated. And Ronin stared in awe. This cannot be, he thought. How is it possible?

Thick banks of magenta cloud and pearled, frigid mist whipped by them, forming, and then were gone. The light was diffuse and cold. It seemed infinite.

‘Yes,’ said the Salamander softly and dramatically, ‘we are indeed observing the sky above our planet. This is the outer shell of the world, Ronin.’

Slowly the layers moved upward and out of their field of view as the Lens shifted its focus. They became lighter, finer, shredding before their eyes like gossamer robes.

‘We shall now take a look at the surface of the world.’

A whiteness, a terrible frosty barrenness. Sheets of snow and ice picked up by the heavy winds, dragged across the frozen mountains and crevasses, raking the terrain. Ice and snow and rock and not a hint of anything else. It was impossible for anything to live Up there.

‘This is the world,’ the Salamander intoned. ‘Destroyed by the Ancients. Devastated beyond any hope of redemption. A desolate, decaying hulk, useless now. You are seeing what is directly above us, Ronin. This is why we remain encased three kilometres below the surface. To reach the surface is to die. No food, no shelter, no warmth, no one.’

‘But is it all this way?’ asked Ronin. ‘The Magic Man spoke of a land where the ground was brown and green plants grew.’

The Salamander’s rings glinted as he squeezed Voss’s shoulder again. The scene above them dissolved, shifted, yet all was the same. Ice and snow.

‘The range of the Lens is finite. However, for our purposes here, it is more than enough. What you see now is over fifty kilometres distant. And now—’ Dissolve. ‘One hundred and fifty kilometres distant.’ Dissolve. ‘More than five hundred kilometres away. As you can see, it is all the same. Nothing lives on the world, save us. We are the last. The other Freeholds are gone, contact lost many centuries ago. The Magic Man is quite mad. Perhaps his mind snapped from the constant pressure he was under—they are a strange breed. Or perhaps—’

BOOK: The Sunset Warrior - 01
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