Prologue: Under The Lantern Of The Moon
CHOLLA PROVINCE, KOREA, the region of CHOLLABUK-DO, 66 kilometers from the city of Chonju, during the time of the KORYO KINGDOM. Buddhism flourished, the Mongols threatened invasion, and The Devil walked the land with arrogance and impunity.
Four hours before sunup?
The warm wind was still damp with the recent night’s rain and it was scented with the slightly musky smell of dying flower blossoms. It wound through the forest like a predatory serpent. It slithered down Mudung Mountain hungrily, like it was looking for prey.
The shaman, a tall gaunt man far too old to be out on a wind-fanned spring night like this, tried peering deep into the gloom of night, as if his strength of will would improve the sight from his failing eyes through the ink of night. He listened, straining to pick up, separate and identify every sound awash the forest and his frustration at the limitations of his senses aggravated him far more than usual.
The forest was a ninety-acre diamond of land between a mossy bog and a cold, briar bush lined lake nearly four miles in circumference. The lake, like this wild and seldom seen section of forest, had no name. The people from the nearby township of Chyun-mun, indentured serfs and merchants mostly in service to the Warlord Piunmang, were a dull-witted incurious lot and they never ventured away from the stone barricades of the Warlord’s village-fortress unless there was the promise of huge amounts of food or vast riches. Both were in short supply in this backwater valley under the mighty Rock of the Winter God commonly called Mudung, the Throne of Storms.
He heard the raucous yapping of a starving jackal and he tried not to show his growing unease.
He shouldn?t have come here. Anyone who knew anything about the forests under the Throne of Storms knew not to come here, especially at night, in the hours before dawn. This was the cursed time, the hours when the souls of the restless dead, those souls who were angry slaves of the Star Devils, roamed the dark woods looking to exact their revenge on the living. Normally, he didn?t put much faith in the superstitions and legends that the uneducated in the villages of this region perpetuated, but this was different. He could feel it. The earth smelled different here, the ground moved of its own accord, the trees would sway against the force of the wind when the night skies were clear and the stars shone like jewels. Sometimes the villages and the soldiers of the Warlord heard things they could put no name to, sounds of something large and angry moving through the trees, something far, far larger than a bear or a buffalo, something that scared the mountain cats. These were the sounds of massive footsteps, like quiet thunder, and of trees being brushed aside as something large passed between them, the sounds of a giant shrugging past obstacles in its path. Yet whenever a party of curious peasantry or soldiers went towards the area where the sounds had emanated from the night before, they found nothing. No footprints, no broken or shattered trees, nothing.
The locals said that those sounds were made by the Lord of the Star Devils, wicked and faceless tricksters who lured men and women out into the lonely night where they died from exposure, from panther attacks, or were mauled by bears. The greatest amongst them was a giant they called "The Walker Between the Stars," or, more popularly, "Qi?gatthqua." The learned men of the Warlord’s temple said that there were no such things as Star Devils and that Qi?gatthqua was a myth told to unruly children to keep them indoors at nightfall.
But that was before they found the frozen bodies of The Six Who Fell From Grace.
Two months ago, the ice-encased bodies of six men, all wearing armor of the Imperial Army and carrying weapons marked with the Emperor’s Seal, were found in the fields behind Warlord Piunmang’s stables. These men were not strangers to the Warlord or to his commander: they had prepared for the arrival of the Emperor’s handpicked cadre of killers nearly nine months ago when it was rumored they?d been sent to enforce the Emperor’s tax lien against Piunmang’s property. The Warlord had arranged for an ambush of the men, but they had never passed through any of the roads or towns along the way. It was thought that new matters, the arrival of the hostile Mongols perhaps, had occupied the Emperor’s attention and that Piunmang’s taxes were forgotten. Obviously, such was not the case.
The perfectly preserved, ice-encased bodies were each resting in small craters some four inches deep, evidence that they had fallen to the ground from a great height.
Dropped, some said, by a malevolent giant who walked the incredibly cold and vast spaces between the stars of night.
The shaman knew that there were no such things as giants, but he believed wholeheartedly in the existence of the Star Devils and of the great fierce being who commanded them.
He knew because the man he came out into the forest this night to meet was a sorcerer in-service to that vile unnatural being. The man was his nephew: Yun Kim Cho. The old man, Ke Chian Lim, had been Yun Kim’s teacher and had acted as his foster father when Yun’s real father, a general in the cavalry, had been killed in service to Piunmang. The death of Yun’s father, a man beloved by his soldiers and by the community within the Warlord’s fortress-city, had not been accidental. His death had been secretly arranged by his own second-in-command, Captain Ma Hung Chee, who was a power-hungry toady of Piunmang. A bandit named Taehong Yi had provided Yun Kim Cho with circumstantial evidence of the clandestine murderous contract. Taehong had left the province as quickly as he could under cover of night, to seek his fortune elsewhere. But he hadn?t gotten far: they?d found his flayed body only four miles beyond the village. Obviously, Captain Ma Hung Chee had decided to clean up a few loose ends. Yun Kim Cho was known to be a drinking partner and friend of the charming dead thief, so Piunmang had issued an order for the young apprentice to be rounded up and brought before court for conspiring to undermine the Warlord’s authority. Yun Kim had caught wind of the plans and had left the village. Nearly a year and a half had passed since then.
And now, suddenly, a young girl came to the village acting as a courier for his nephew and apprentice, telling the old shaman that Yun Kim needed to see him, that justice was near for his murdered father, Ke Chian’s own beloved son.
But they had to meet here, in this dark place, in the gray cold hours before dawn.
And Ke Chian could swear he could hear and feel the approach of something massive, something angry and impatient, as it stomped through the forest from the base of Mudung Mountain several miles away, drawing ever closer.
Qi?gatthqua was coming.