Savage Machines Are Afoot…
At the age of twenty, Kanze Zenjiro’s bloody footprints mark the bodies of those who stood in his way to protect the throne of Nihon. Now, the tyrannical Iberian Empire is bent on destroying his kingdom, and they send their steam-powered giants and iron spiders against him.
Zen, affectionately called the Dragonfly Warrior, embarks on a quest that takes him on the most dangerous journey of his life. To succeed, Zen must kill all his enemies with only a sword and a pair of six guns and survive a test of faith and loyalty in a world so cruel and merciless, it borders on madness.
Beyond Victoriana is happy to present a preview of Jay Noel’s DRAGONFLY WARRIOR. Take a look at the prologue and first chapter after the jump, and interested readers can find more info to purchase his e-book here.
PRINCE KANZE ZENJIRO KNEW HIS mother was going to die one day from the illness that robbed her of her usual vitality. Zen secretly begged the spirits to grant her life long enough to witness him wearing a soldier’s uniform. She had deteriorated recently, and his wish seemed more impossible with each passing hour. It was childish anyway, even for a thirteen year old.
A sharp wind swirled around him and dried his tears as he watched the procession of dark clouds pass by above him. He closed his eyes; the dark thoughts contemplating life without his mother began to overcome him.
After only a short moment, a harsh jolt from the airship’s landing shook him from his trance. When Zen opened his eyes, he was startled to see that his flight was over. He hadn’t realized that they had even left the ground yet. The pilot couldn’t open the gondola’s wooden door fast enough.
The aeropad near the top of the palace was soaked from the early morning Spring rain. When Zen pushed past the pilot and leaped from the docking airship, the glistening, slick cobblestones made him slip and fall onto the cold wet ground. His body was adept at ignoring pain and obeying the commands from his mind. He wiped away a long strand of black hair that came loose from his topknot and forced his body to continue.
Zen stumbled down the narrow spiral staircase at the end of the landing area, finding himself in the long courtyard. The iron gates at the far end of the garden were already open. His feet slapped hard on the winding stone pathway that took him to the palace entrance. He nearly slipped again as he darted through the gates and careened around turn after turn through the labyrinth of the palace, until he reached his parents’ main chamber.
The two guards pushed open the tall wooden double doors to the dark room where Zen’s father and a nurse stood at the bedside. The dim chamber’s ceiling stretched three stories high, and the lack of furniture accentuated the room’s enormity. Heavy fabric curtains were drawn over the tall windows, adding to the gloom. As he entered, Zen stopped when he saw his mother’s anguished face. She looked minuscule in the expansive space surrounding her.
Lord Hideaki turned, looking at Zen with bloodshot and watery eyes. “My son, please come quickly.”
Zen inhaled, calming his nerves. With each slow step towards the bed his mother’s bony visage became clearer. She looked so pale, so fragile. Her sickness had taken away the powerful woman that was once his mother.
She tried to smile and motioned for him to approach. He swept past his father and the nurse, climbing onto the bed and lying next to his mother.
“You are wet,” she whispered, moisture building in the corners of her eyes.
Zen laid his head on her pillow. “I fell down.”
“Before I leave this life, I want to tell you some important things.” Her face contorted for a second, and Zen gently took her hand.
She spoke so softly that Zen was certain no one else heard her. He remained still, keeping his face next to hers. Even near death, she still smelled of vibrant lotus flowers.
“If you so desire, you may become a warrior before your eighteenth year. All I ask is that you wait eight more seasons. Just two years. Your father and I have agreed to allow you to enlist on your fifteenth birthday.”
There was a growing darkness in his belly, and a sharp bitter panic rose from his throat. Zen fought back these sensations. He allowed his mind to record every word, every sound, and every shallow crease on his mother’s anguished face.
“You were born for greatness, Zen. Generations to come will know of Kanze Zenjiro’s heroic deeds. I have seen it in my dreams. I see you as a young man…so handsome.”
Zen’s grip on her hand tightened, and she smiled again as if she found comfort in his strength. Her eyes fluttered, and she fought off the deep sleep that craved to take her away.
“Be brave.” Her breathing became labored, shallow. “Take care of your father. He will need you now more than ever.”
He heard his father moving behind him. He caught the swishing of his royal robes. Zen thought he was whispering a prayer.
“Remember and think of me always,” his mother said, a single tear escaping and sliding down her face.
Zen kissed her hand. “I will, Mother.”
Her eyes rolled backwards, her weak breaths coming at longer intervals. The nurse at his right side covered her face to muffle her sobs, and Zen heard the faint agony of his father’s breathy cries.
“Zen…” Her voice was barely audible over the sound of wind rattling the closed windows. “You must…”
Her lips barely moved. She gasped and her body tightened, her lungs too weak to expand. She went limp again, and she struggled to speak.
“I must what, Mother?” Zen asked, his eyes blind with tears.
It was only an instant, a moment without pain or agony. Her eyes opened and her face intensified. Her voice, less than a whisper, strengthened to convey her final message.
“You must save the Machine Boy.”
Still clutching her hand, Zen watched her eyes empty. She breathed out softly before her spirit left the confines of the material world.
Into the unknown realm.
ZEN FLICKED HIS SWORD, CLEANING the blood-soaked blade. He stood in a circle of bodies in blue lacquered leather armor. The air was cool, but drops of perspiration ran down the sides of his face. Morning fog enveloped the battlegrounds, and he heard the frantic scurrying of his enemy who had fled into the dense forest in front of him.
He closed his eyes and prayed to the spirits of the four men he had defeated. They had fought bravely, and Zen finished his prayer with a slow bow.
It had been seven years since his mother’s death, and Zen wished she was here in the flesh to witness this great victory and celebrate their country’s unification. He whispered a prayer to her, asking for strength.
The swaying yellow and orange trees provided cover for the retreating Kaga soldiers. It would be a challenge to flush them out. Several of his own comrades in their traditional, red uniforms ran past him and gave chase, but one of them stopped at Zen’s side. It was his commanding officer, General Takeo Yoneda.
Takeo wore faded, red-lacquered leather nerigawa with the dragonfly emblem on his chest to signify his blood ties to the Kanze Clan. Zen’s own suit was similar in design, but the red hue blazed like fire. The golden dragonfly on his breast plate was of luster, a stark contrast compared to the weathered pitting of Takeo’s nerigawa.
Above them, Zen spotted a lone Kanze Clan airship. It was a small craft with a singular spherical balloon and carried only a crew of two pilots. It was most likely on its way to spy on the enemy. Distant rolls of violent thunder filled the sky around them, and the dirigible remained decidedly out of range of the Kagas’ artillery.
Takeo slid his helmet off. “With our cannons softening the Kagas’ front, General Ishimoto’s forces are relying on us to do our job. We do not have time to go chasing after the enemy in those woods. But we have no choice. We must clear the path.”
Zen took a moment to slide his sword back into its scabbard and reload his two revolvers. “It is only a matter of time. Today will be a glorious day for the Kanze. With this victory, we take the final step to uniting our country. My mother’s dream of a unified Nihon is about to become a reality.”
Takeo nodded. “Let us hope so. Our victory must be absolute. The Kaga forces must be completely crushed, their will to fight broken. Only then will they be willing to surrender and pledge their allegiance to your father. The Kaga is a proud clan.”
The ground shook with the deafening blast beyond the tree line. Takeo put his helmet back on before checking his weapons. Zen inspected both of his revolvers and slid one back into its holster. After a deep breath, Zen felt his anxiety and excitement subside as a determined calm quickly filled his body. More gunfire echoed from the darkness. They exchanged encouraging glances before stepping into the wild wood.
Above them, the thick canopy of trees blocked most of the infant blushes of early sunlight, giving the forest an otherworldly feeling. Takeo kept his rifle level as he led the way deeper into the woods.
The sounds of battle grew louder until an explosion threw dirt in their faces. A Kanze soldier stood up from his hiding place, exposing what remained of his miserable body. Ragged flesh hung in pieces; his blood and shredded armor were indistinguishable from one another. Zen gave his fellow soldier one last short prayer until gunfire whizzed above his head.
Takeo dove behind a tree while Zen crouched low beside him. He took cover behind an outcropping of stone. Zen could only see a few feet through the heavy gloom, but he spotted two dead clansmen near him. Another pair of Kanze soldiers approached Takeo, and they belly-crawled their way to their commanding officer.
“General,” one of them whispered, “ten Kaga warriors are positioned north of us. Four of our clansmen are making their way to flank them.”
Takeo squinted. “Keep your eyes open for any more of those grenades. Do we have any of our own left?”
“No, General,” replied the solider. “We are all out.”
Takeo shot Zen a crooked grin. “Should I even bother asking?”
Zen shook his head. “I do not carry them. Ever since I watched Captain Saito’s bomb blow up in his hand before throwing it, I have decided not to trust the mechanics of those things. Besides, I have terrible aim.”
“You are too young to be so pessimistic, Zenjiro,” Takeo said.
More gunshots rang out. After waiting several moments, they heard someone running towards them from the rear. Zen flipped on his back and raised his pistol. The approaching runner was in red armor, and it looked like he might have been unarmed. Zen noticed that more sunlight penetrated the forest. Morning gave way to the rising sun.
“It is Taku.” Takeo reached over and pushed Zen’s gun away.
Taku threw himself onto the ground next to them. “We tried to surprise them on both sides, but they overwhelmed us. We got two or three of them, but I am the only one of our group to make it out of there. The remaining Kagas have taken refuge at the bottom of a small hill, maybe only forty paces north of our current position.”
Takeo tossed the weary soldier a pistol. “Take a deep breath. We will get them.”
A deep voice rumbled through the trees. “You Kanze dogs, we will never surrender to you!” The taunt was followed by the roar of Kaga soldiers. The same man yelled, “Come and get us, and we will send you straight to Hell!”
More bullets zipped over Zen’s head as the Kagas hollered and cheered again. Hot impatience rose from Zen’s chest. A full Kanze regiment was only minutes behind them, and they expected the path to be cleared for a flanking attack on the Kagas’ main columns. The timing had to be perfect.
His anger melted into calm, his breaths became deeper and slower.
“What are you doing, Zen?” Takeo asked.
Zen ignored him.
“I promised your mother that I would protect you on the battlefield. Somehow, I have managed to do so the last five years, despite your recklessness. I made the same vow to your father this morning.”
Zen felt Takeo grab his arm, but he didn’t fight the general’s grip.
A familiar hum filled Zen’s head, and his mind reached out through the dark woods. He heard everything, even the enemy’s movements in the brush from forty paces away. His eyes sharped, which improved his vision in the dim forest. His muscles twitched, coiling like steel cables ready to burst. His body was in the state of full Ishen now.
Zen’s mind and body languished in reptilian coldness. Inside and out, he was prepared to strike. His desire to kill poured into his icy veins. In the calm before the inner-storm, Zen leaped to his feet, breaking free of Takeo’s hand. His powerful legs brought him closer towards the Kagas’ position, but he first had to clear the hill. Zen pounced into the air with his pistol in his right hand.
As he hurled his outstretched body over the steep hill, he saw the Kaga soldiers scramble in all directions. His heart pounded against his ribcage, and time stretched and pulled as he took one final deep breath. The enemy appeared in shock when they fumbled with their guns. To him, they moved in slow motion. Zen’s movements felt out of sync with real time, as if he
existed outside of it.
Zen fanned the hammer of his revolver with his left hand while still in midair; his bullets found their marks as he hit the ground and rolled onto his stomach. Two Kaga men fell dead, but another pair of soldiers fired their unsteady weapons.
Zen emptied his first gun, and his last bullet struck a man between the eyes. The last enemy soldier raised his pistol and made eye contact with Zen. Pistol spent, Zen rolled himself behind a small tree. Three Kaga bullets ripped past him on his left.
The Kaga ran out of bullets, and Zen heard the enemy tear his sword from its scabbard. Zen did likewise, despite having his second pistol fully loaded, and he holstered his empty sidearm. He got to his feet, and with sword drawn, Zen walked out to face him.
“You will not take me alive.” The Kaga warrior raised his blade. “I will never bow down to the Kanze. Never. My lord is Nihon’s rightful king.”
Diffused light now penetrated the forest, and Zen embraced the flow of erupting energy throughout his body. The power of Ishen continued to consume his insides, and his senses remained as sharp as his blade.
The enemy soldier stood a shade taller than Zen, but the man possessed long arms. The blue chest piece bore the Kaga symbol, a circle with a square in the center. The man breathed hard, his eyes and sword steady.
“I would rather die than surrender to you, boy.”
For one fleeting moment, Zen allowed himself to admire his opponent. A true warrior always chose death over surrender. It would be an honor to take this brave man’s life.
The Kaga swung his sword in a crazed fury. The soldier slashed wildly, and his attacks met with Zen’s blade. Taking full advantage of his now-enhanced abilities, Zen parried each blow and deflected a sweep towards his legs. He followed with a sharp upwards thrust of his sword’s hilt. The butt of the hard metal slammed into the Kaga’s face and drew blood from his nose and upper lip.
The enemy reeled backwards, exposing his torso. Zen twirled his blade and plunged the tip through the Kaga’s chest. He rammed his katana deep into the man’s body. The soldier’s mouth bubbled with blood, his face twisted, eyes suddenly hollowed before crumpling to the ground.
Takeo and the others descended from the hill. They stepped over the casualties that lay strewn on the ground, their eyes wide and disbelief covering their grimy faces.
One of his comrades whispered, “Incredible.”
Zen felt the scrutinizing stares of his fellow soldiers. They exchanged nervous looks among each other, but they remained silent. Zen waited for them to circle around him and congratulate him for his bravery, but they looked at him as if he were a walking spirit.
Breaking the uncomfortable lull, Zen paused to pray over the still bodies of the fallen enemy. The soldiers followed proper decorum with a bow of their heads.
Takeo placed his gloved hand on Zen’s back. “I never tire of watching you in battle. It is a thing of beauty, Dragonfly Warrior.” He closed his eyes and bowed over the dead. “I would have assisted you, but it was obvious you did not need me. I do not know why I even bother promising your father to watch over you. You need no protecting.”
Zen flicked his blade once more before putting it away. “Do not call me the Dragonfly Warrior.”
The Ishen faded, and Zen felt all of his senses return to normal. His body loosened, and his lungs felt as if they took a much needed deep breath after being underwater for too long.
“Seriously, Zen. As a general, I should be commanding our brigade against the Kaga column, not out here on the fringes hiding about in the woods and fighting a guerrilla war.” Takeo led them down the small hill towards the edge of the forest.
“This is pure combat,” Zen insisted. “I prefer this to marching among another five thousand soldiers or being in a mechanized unit, riding around in the confines of a cramped gun carriage or locomobile.”
“If you say so.” Takeo’s angled face hardened. “The way is clear. We will join the approaching regiment and strike from the west. When this day is done, we shall have forged a new country.”
The thunderous march of the Kanze soldiers grew louder, and Zen returned his sword to its sheath and reloaded his pistol. In the quiet of the moment, he thought of his lost mother once again.
The wars between the twelve provinces would soon be over.
They will be one country.
One Nihon to stand against the world.
About the author: Jay Noel is a medical sales warrior by day, writing ninja by night, and the author of The Mechanica Wars series. The first book, Dragonfly Warrior is now available, and the next installment, The Shadow Warrior will be out in June 2014. He loves science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, biographies, and chocolate chip cookies. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @jnoelwriter.