The Forever Knight: A Novel of the Bronze Knight (Books of the Bronze Knight)

BOOK: The Forever Knight: A Novel of the Bronze Knight (Books of the Bronze Knight)
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DAW titles by John Marco

 

The Books of the Bronze Knight:

The Eyes of God

The Devil’s Armor

The Sword of Angels

 

The Forever Knight

 

* * *

 

The Skylords:

Starfinder

THE

FOREVER KNIGHT

J
OHN
M
ARCO

Copyright © 2013 by John Marco

All Rights Reserved.

Jacket art by Todd Lockwood.

Jacket design by G-Force Design.

DAW Books Collector’s No. 1605.

DAW Books are distributed by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

All characters in the book are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.

The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal, and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

 

 

DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED

U.S. PAT. AND TM. OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES

—MARCA REGISTRADA

HECHO EN U.S.A.

With heartfelt thanks for her encouragement and faith, this book is deservedly dedicated to my good friend, Janîce Leotti.

THE STORY

M
y father was the kind of man who never taught me anything. This is not because he abandoned me when I was young, or because he worked in the foundry each day until his face was sooty black. It is simply because he showed no interest in me, not even enough to strike me. Most men have strong memories of their fathers, even if they were tyrants. My father was a ghost, no more memorable than a day when nothing happens.

Without a father’s love, a man might still become many things. I have seen people pray to all manner of gods, and I have seen genuine magic, but I don’t account my fortune to anything of heaven. I’ve learned to place faith only in myself. It was merely good luck that plucked me from the streets as a boy. I grew up in the house of a king and became a man there, with the king’s own son for a brother. You could say I didn’t deserve any of this, and you’d be right. But in those years I endured jealous stares.

Then, one day before I knew it, I was no longer a bastard. I was a knight, one of Liiria’s Royal Chargers. They say that our gifts are the things we are best at, and if that is so then killing is my gift. My real home, I discovered, was the battlefield, and I proudly carried the standard of my king to war; to make our country great only to see it fall. In my lifetime I’ve spilled much blood, but I have paid for these sins dearly. All the things I touch seem to wither just for being close to me. To be honest, I think I’m owed some solace now. In some parts of the world I am called a legend, a hero, a traitor, a myth. But the only thing I want to be is forgotten.

I remember a story from when I was a boy, about a knight who spent his whole life protecting his city from a monster that lived in the hills. Every year, when the monster came to find a maiden, the knight would ride out from the city and fight the beast, and every year he would win his battle and send the monster back to the hills. Then, one year when the knight was very old, a little boy asked him why he never killed the monster and wouldn’t that make much more sense, instead of having to fight the monster every year.

The next day, the knight rode out to the monster’s lair and killed it while it slept. When the city people heard the news, they rejoiced. The little boy asked the knight if he was happy now.

“No,” the knight told the boy. “Now I have no reason to live.”

For years I wondered what the story meant. Now, I think I understand.

My father told me that story. So perhaps he taught me something after all.

1

E
asy . . .

The sand, still warm from the day, clung to my lips as I slithered. My one remaining eye blinked away the burning. Head down, chin scraping the sand, I pulled myself with bloody fingers closer to the lair. Whenever I stalk a rass I get the same sick feeling of excitement. My guts churn. My brain turns to fire. I wanted to leap but I calmed myself. I told myself to wait, but the voice in my head wasn’t my own.

Easy, Lukien . . .

I know
, I answered back.

Malator fell silent, but I could feel his unrest. He’s like a second skin on me, impossible to get away from. I laid my face down flat in the sand and cursed him. His home, the sword, pulsed against my thigh.

Stay out of my head
, I said. I wondered if the rass could hear my heartbeat.
Let me do this alone.

Malator retreated. I spread my fingers in the sand, took the smallest breath, and lifted my face to see. The moonlight had turned the desert into a shimmering sea, the dunes like waves. The sun had gone down an hour ago and the temperature was dropping quickly. Rass love the first, cool hours of the night, when they come awake to feed. I spied the lair, surrounded by bones. The scarlet markings of the creature’s hood writhed as it awoke.

The sight of a rass can make a man’s heart shrivel like a dead flower. In Torlis, where I found the Sword of Angels, the rass are worshiped. I can almost understand that, but here in the real world we hate them for a reason. This one is old, a scarlet monster that kills for pleasure. Not many travelers come through the desert any more, not since the war with Ganjor, but this rass has made sport of them. He’s a hunter.

So am I.

I should have killed it in its lair. One stab through the brain and I could have walked away. Instead I tracked it and stopped, giving it every chance to taste me in the air. Finally, I pushed myself up just a little too quickly, just loud enough for it to sense the tremor in the sand. Its hood rose up and its red eyes opened wide. Across the sand, it gazed at me.

I was amazed by the thing. How easily it saw me in the darkness! With no more reason to hide, I stood up. The sand fell like rain from my white robes. Curious, the rass uncoiled from its lair, swaying high against the moon. I must have looked like a mouse to it, a stupid rodent who had stumbled into its own death, because the thing seemed to smile.

“You think this was an accident?” I asked it. “You think I made a mistake?” I hooked my thumb over my sword pommel and felt the instant surge of strength. “I’ve been watching you and asking myself the same question. It’s your nature to kill. Maybe I should just have accepted that and stayed in Jador.”

Malator had enough.
Lukien! Stop talking and do it!

If I moved quickly the rass would strike. Very slowly I unsheathed the sword. The Sword of Angels isn’t a beautiful weapon, but now it glowed like starlight. It was my talisman, the only thing keeping me alive. I held it out in both fists and looked up into the serpent’s shining eyes.

“Don’t think you can kill me,” I said. It wasn’t a warning. I’d been out in the desert for more than a week. I should have been dead from lack of food, or at least too exhausted to stand, but I wasn’t. I was still alive and always would be, and for that I hated Malator. “You should run,” I warned my prey.

We both chose that instant to strike. I thrust out the sword and saw the fanged mouth coming down at me. A rass doesn’t fight like a regular snake. It’s whole body moves at once. I leapt and watched the tail fling out from the lair, trying to snare me. My blade caught its throat as I twisted away, rolling quickly through the sand. Without a sound the rass encircled me. The patterns of its body, like tattoos, rose up around me like a prison.

There’s no time to think in battle. Strategy is for the night before. Every plan you make just disappears, and all you have is instinct.

Draw it closer,
said Malator.

In his own life he had been a soldier too. Instead of hurdling over the snake’s body, I let the noose close around me. I squatted on my haunches, held the sword down low, and waited for the monster’s face to block the moonlight. As I felt its scaly flesh press against me, the burning eyes appeared above.

I jumped, screaming, both arms thrusting up. I felt the sword puncture skin. Hot blood and saliva struck my face. I drew the blade deeper, not really sure what I had struck. But I was still in the creature’s coils. For a moment the rass opened its grasp in shock, only to tighten up quickly around me. The thing hissed and spat, its dripping venom popping on my skin. I pulled out the blade then stabbed it again.

“Malator!” I summoned. “Strengthen me!”

The snake’s muscled body wrapped around my own, crushing out my air. I thought about the mouse again. Red eyes flashed before me. I worked the sword, slicing through the creature’s jaw. It reared back its bloodied head, half its mouth hanging from fibers of flesh. It would die from the wound, but not quickly. Not before I did. And still Malator’s magic strength didn’t come. My voice was gurgled as I shouted his name.

“Malator!”

Where was he?
I’m dying
, I thought.
This time for real!

And then I heard his voice, so calm it enraged me.

Do you want to die?

“No!” I screamed.

Are you sure? You seem to be trying hard.

The rass constricted around my chest. My rib cage groaned, ready to crack. “Stop . . . it!”

As I screamed I felt the Akari’s power flood my bones and blood, scalding me. My fingers stopped shaking. I could grip the sword again, and this time sent it charging up into that grinning, reptilian face. The tip slammed into the creature’s eye and kept on going. With all the might Malator could give, I pushed and pushed the Sword of Angels deep into the rass’s brain. Its coiling body fell away, dropping me to my knees. The rass thrashed, blinded and bleeding, its tail whipping me aside. I spun as if struck by a club. Stunned, I lay in the dirt, unable to move. The dying rass made for its lair. Half its body disappeared into the ground . . . then the thing fell dead.

I was bleeding, my shoulder torn open by the beast’s spiky tail. Every breath made my ribs cry out. The sword lay just feet away. I turned my head and stared at the enormous, twitching snake. Malator’s burst of strength had left me.

Pick it up
, said Malator.

I could hardly hear him through the fog of pain.

Pick it up!

The blade seemed so far away. I made a claw of my hand and stretched for it with my wounded shoulder. Breathing was almost too difficult.

You said you didn’t want to die
, the spirit chided.
Prove it.

Some Akari were gentle, but mine was a taskmaster. “Eat shit!” I growled even as I rolled to reach the sword. My fingers touched its worn out hilt, wrapping around it. Suddenly, I could breathe again. I dragged the sword over my chest as I rolled onto my back. The fog in my mind began to lift. The pain in my shoulder subsided.

The stars in the desert are like no other place in the world, and I remember how many stars were out that night and how close they felt to me, as if my spirit could just rise up and join them in the heavens. I felt sleepy. I wanted to let go of the sword, but I had promises to keep. Or maybe I was just too afraid to let it go. I shut my eye and felt my body healing. When I opened it again he was kneeling next to me. To anyone else he would have been invisible. Even to me he seemed a ghost, his boyish face shimmering. He shook his head with a scowl and a loud, motherly sigh.

“My shoulder,” I sneered. “Fix it.”

“Rest. In the morning you’ll be fine.” He glanced over the at the dead rass. “What will you do when there are no more rass to kill, Lukien?”

I thought about his question as I lay there. It’s impossible to hide your thoughts from an Akari. That’s the hardest part about having one. They’re not like little angels on your shoulder. I wanted to tell him that the world would never run out of monsters to kill, but none of this was about the rass. I was testing myself, and Malator knew it.

“I can heal you this time,” he warned. “But if you make me go along with this much longer . . .”

“What?” I asked. “What will you do? Leave me?”

“You could be so much more.”

“You keep telling me.”

I didn’t want to talk, so I looked into the sky again and pretended not to care. I—we—had been gone from Jador too long. We were irritating each other, bored with each other. I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with Malator—a life that really had no end—and the thought frightened me more than any monster. I tried to ignore him, but he kept staring at me, waiting for an answer.

“Malator, a friend would let me sleep.”

“I am your friend, Lukien. I’m the only friend you need.” He bent forward, and his eerie light around me made me stronger still. “You keep looking for something that’s right in front of you.”

“I miss her,” I said. “You don’t know what it’s like.”

“I feel everything you feel, Lukien. I know precisely what it’s like. I was a man once, remember?”

Malator had died when he was young, so his ghost looks young too. His smile is more like a smirk, charming and maddening. He wanted me to go home to Jador; he’d been pushing me to go back for days. Now I was out of excuses. The sword sat across my chest, rising and falling as I breathed. And the stars kept calling to me.

If I died
, I thought,
I could see her again.

Malator didn’t even pretend my thoughts were private. “But then you’d never know what lies ahead for us.”

“True,” I nodded. But did I want to know? Not really. Not then. All I wanted was to look up at the stars and imagine I was all alone.

BOOK: The Forever Knight: A Novel of the Bronze Knight (Books of the Bronze Knight)
13.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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