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Fall of Knight

Peter David

  Praise for Peter David

  “David’s best-known style—light, breezy, and chock-a-block with well-chosen pop culture references—is rarely so well employed as in his Knight novels. His Arthur is a true treasure of light fantasy, fully human and yet a walking legend both, full of foibles and yet the sort who could lead battalions into Hell. His cast of returnees from Camelot, reborn into the modern era, are true to themselves, though the outcome now is generally happier (or more harmonious) than it was in the age of myths…Anyone looking for a delightful Arthurian tale set in the here-and-now will enjoy David’s trifecta of enchantment. It’s not your father’s King Arthur—but it might be the one you share with your kids. Recommended.”


  Praise for

  One Knight Only

  “This irreverent romp impartially jousts at White House staff pomposity, the inanities of today’s press corps, Congressional antics, and mismanaged U.S. foreign policy. Some of the goings-on are belly-laugh funny…a wild mix of ancient legends.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  Praise for

  Knight Life

  “A fun spin on that Mark Twain classic. A mix of classic Arthurian fiction and satiric commentary about the nature of today’s politics. Engaging.”

  —The Monroe (LA) News-Star

  “A rollicking urban fantasy in the manner of Neil Gaiman or Christopher Moore. Lots of humorous incongruities, as Arthur’s old-fashioned ways meet contemporary absurdities such as politics and television.”

  —Science Fiction Weekly

  Ace titles by Peter David





  Fall of Knight




  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Group Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.) Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi?110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0745, Auckland, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.


  An Ace Book / published by arrangement with Second Age, Inc.

  Copyright © 2006 by Second Age, Inc.

  Cover art by Tristan Elwell.

  Cover design by Annette Fiore.

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

  For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

  375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

  ISBN: 1-4295-4766-9


  Ace Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

  ACE and the “A” design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


































  T HERE WAS NEVER more than one unicorn. No matter what you may have read elsewhere, there was neither a first nor a last. There was only one, because that was all the world needed and all it would allow. Just as there was never more than one God, but He/She/It had many names and was seen by many different people as being many different things, either splintered into multiple facets or unified as a whole. One unicorn. One God.

  This is what happened to the one unicorn…

  There once was a great warlord who lived thousands of years ago, a master of many lands and many tribes, all of which bowed down to him and pledged fealty. By the standards of what would be his far more civilized descendants, he was very fierce and brutal. He wore metal ornaments interspersed with memorabilia removed from the bodies of the greatest of his opponents. These included anything from their fingers to the skulls of their youngest sons, depending upon his mood.

  The warlord…whose name is lost to posterity, and a very small loss it was, we should add…was determined that nothing and no one in his land should be stronger or braver or faster or smarter than he. To that end, if he ever saw any of his soldiers becoming a potential threat, he would “reward” him by sending him off to head up his conquering troops in a distant land, then taking steps to make sure the soldier never returned. A small bit of poison dropped into a cup during a meal, or a fast dagger in the night…whatever means were convenient.

  There were giants in those days, as well as creatures of myth, except they weren’t referred to as “creatures of myth” but instead as “prey.” The warlord was one of the more active predators, and whenever he or his hunters would bring down some particularly fantastic being, there would be a great feast during which the warlord would drink the blood of his conquest and devour its heart. The rest of the creature would be cut up and served raw, since it was firmly believed that scorching the meat with fire only ruined the flavor.

  Now the warlord had a son, Lailoken, who often participated in these hunts. But the son held a terrible secret close to his heart, and that secret was that he found these indulgences repulsive. In fact, he had little taste for battle at all. Not that he was incapable of engaging in the fine art of war; he could and did as needed. He was neither as tall nor as powerful as his father, which was probably for the best since gods only know what the warlord would have done to the young man had he seen him as a threat. Lailoken fought in the name of his father, and he fought in the name of his people. He disliked takin
g life, however, and he certainly despised taking it needlessly.

  Whenever they would embark on a hunt for a fantastic creature, Lailoken always made certain to be nowhere nearby when the killing stroke was required. He saw it all as a needless cruelty and wanted no part of it if he could at all avoid it.

  Whether his father noticed this reluctance and set matters with the unicorn hunt into motion deliberately, or whether it was mere happenstance that things turned out the way they did, no one will ever know. What is known is this:

  Word reached the warlord through his spies and lookouts that the only known unicorn in the world had wandered into his territory. The creature was occasionally referred to as the King of the Unicorns, which angered the warlord greatly, for he himself was not a king and it rankled him that this animal—fantastic or not—sported such a title when he, the mighty warrior, did not. It further irritated him since there were no other unicorns in existence for the creature to be king of, and what point was there in being a king if there were no followers?

  So the warlord marshaled his best hunting party and, with Lailoken at his side, went out after the unicorn.

  There was a mighty forest not far off, and it was believed that the Unicorn King had taken up residence therein. So the warlord and his followers stormed into the forest, beating the bushes furiously, unleashing their hounds and sending them careening wildly through the woods accompanied by even more beaters (not to mention footmen, soldiers, scouts, spies, and whoever else was available for this great hunt).

  They spread out through the forest, breaking up into groups of three, two, and even—in Lailoken’s case—one. Lailoken made his way through the woods, easing past bushes and trees and broken branches. His long black hair kept getting in his face and it was a constant chore to push it out of his eyes. In the distance he heard the sound of dogs and eager pursuit; all the while he kept his ears strained for the sound of the unicorn. But none came, and he began to hope that maybe the reports of the creature’s presence were exaggerated.

  Then he thought he heard something not too far off. The barking of the dogs changed from eagerness to sudden fear. There were shouts of men blending in with the howling of the hounds. Lailoken could tell even from this distance that some sort of battle was going on. Some of the dogs were outright screaming, which was a terrible sound because Lailoken didn’t think dogs were actually capable of screaming. He was amazed how human they sounded in their distress…and, by contrast, how much like animals the human voices came across.

  More crashing, more screams and howling until Lailoken could not separate animal from man, and was even moved to wonder if—deep down—there was all that much difference. His heart thudded viciously, and he felt completely paralyzed by the moment. He knew that he should go and help. He carried no sword, but he had a long, elegant spear clutched tight in his hands. The shaft was dusky brown hardwood, strong but supple. The head was leaf-shaped, flared at the bottom and slightly wavy along the blade edges. Twin half-moon-shaped cutouts were inset into the lower section of the head. The blade gleamed in the glare of the sun, and Lailoken stared at it fixedly, as if the sun itself was trying to convey some sort of message to him.

  What Lailoken kept waiting to hear—and what did not reach his ears—was the sound of some other beast…possibly the one they were hunting or perhaps something else. Certainly whatever it was, he would be able to distinguish its cry from that of hounds and men. If it were a unicorn, as they were hoping to find, it would undoubtedly make some sort of whinnying, horselike sound, wouldn’t it? And if it were something else—a phoenix bird, perhaps, or some other fantastic creature—it would likewise have its own unique sound, correct? Yet Lailoken was hearing nothing like that, and it almost made him wonder if instead of a creature, the dogs and men had encountered something far more down-to-earth. Attackers from another tribe, perhaps, or maybe cleverly hidden traps that were mowing them down while he, Lailoken, remained frozen in the woods…

  “I must help them,” he said forcefully, gripping his spear so tightly that his knuckles turned white. “I must help them before—”

  That was when he heard the mighty crashing in the woods, almost right on top of him. He jumped back and cried out in fear and alarm, even as he leveled his spear and braced himself for whatever it was that was coming at him.

  The beast stumbled out into the clearing nearby him, and Lailoken gasped in wonderment. He didn’t lower his spear, but he felt as if his eyes were going to burn out of their sockets.

  It was not white, as he had expected it might be. Instead the unicorn was dappled and gray…or at least it had been. Now its hide was stained with red, dozens of wounds covering its magnificent body. A long, thin tail with a bushy end whipped around, and its head was long and elegant and also had wounds upon it. Its eyes were the most extraordinary blue orbs that Lailoken had ever seen. To say that the eyes looked human would have been to understate it. They were human…more than human. There was a transcendent human soul within the body of that astounding beast.

  Most astounding of all was the horn. It was not a simple, straight white cone. Instead it looked like two separate bones, or perhaps hair so hard that it was akin to bone, for they were intertwined like braided hair. One “strand” was purple, the other pink.

  The unicorn’s right leg was broken. It was nothing short of miraculous that the beast was still able to walk. Whatever divine ability was keeping it upright deserted it the moment it stumbled into Lailoken’s presence, and the unicorn crumpled to the ground not five paces from the astounded young man.

  The tip of Lailoken’s spear trembled as he aimed it at the unicorn. The creature lay there, looking up at him, and there was something in the beast’s eyes that looked like nothing so much as recognition.

  The others were coming, and Lailoken knew that he had to act quickly. He was prepared to lunge forward, driving the spear deep into the unicorn’s heart, or at least where he approximated that the heart might be. But he found himself unable to do so. His feet were rooted to the place, and he cursed himself for his weakness of spirit and his cowardice. So instead he retreated a few steps, drew back his arm, and prepared to let fly with the spear. He very quickly discovered that he could not do that, either.

  The unicorn, with what seemed to be great effort, lifted its head.

  And it spoke.

  To Lailoken’s shock, the creature’s mouth moved, but no words came out. Nevertheless, he heard the beast’s voice inside his head. It sounded both old and young at the same time, and even though it was one voice, it sounded like many. Like a hundred, no, a thousand voices speaking in concert.

  You must kill me.

  “No,” whispered Lailoken, realizing that he had no choice but to admit the weakness within him. “No, I…I can’t…”

  I am the Unicorn King, and I am done for. But it is not meet that I die at the hands of such as they. Only one such as you is worthy.

  “I’m not.” He looked desperately in the direction of the oncoming hunting party. Perhaps sensing that their prey was helpless, was dying, the hounds were pursuing with renewed vigor. The soldiers were shouting to each other, drawing in the tight circle of pursuit. “I’m as nothing. Ask my father, he’ll tell you…”

  Your father is as nothing. You have a destiny. You must do this thing.


  Do you love me?

  He looked into the eyes of the unicorn, deep into those eyes, plummeting forever into them, and even though it took barely seconds, he knew the answer. “Yes. I love you as I do the full moon on a soft winter night. You fill my soul with the knowledge that there are still things in this world worth marveling at.”

  Then honor me…by taking me out of it. Now. Please, now.

  Lailoken felt hot tears running down his face even as he held tight upon the spear and charged forward. He couldn’t bring himself to throw it. It would have seemed dishonorable. Instead three, four quick steps, and he thrust forward, putting his full weight behi
nd the spear. It slammed into the heart of the unicorn, cleaving it in twain. The creature jolted from the impact, throwing its head back, and for the first and only time it let out a cry of anguish. It did not sound like any sort of animal noise at all. Instead it sounded like the blowing of a ram’s horn, except much louder. The ululation was so overwhelming that the trees and ground shook, and leaves blew off as if whipped from the branches by a powerful wind. In the distance Lailoken heard the hunters cry out and the dogs bark in anguish, their sharp hearing no doubt receiving the most assault from the unicorn’s death cry.

  And with all that, still the beast was not done. Its head, having thrust upward, had fallen lifelessly, and the soul was departing its eyes; yet, for all that, its voice still sounded within Lailoken’s head.

  Now yourself. Mix our blood. Hurry.

  Lailoken didn’t hesitate. He yanked out the spear and stared in wonderment at the thick blood that was upon it. Twisting the spear around, he drew the bloodstained blade across the palm of his hand. Blood welled up, and he drew the flat of the blade across the palm, intermingling his own blood with that of the unicorn.

  You have your destiny now…

  The words echoed within him, and he cried out in agony. He thought the world was exploding around him, but it turned out not to be the case. Instead it was simply a massive eruption of white, directly behind his eyeballs, and there was intense heat coursing through his bloodstream. He collapsed, howling, begging for it to stop, and he curled his legs up into the fetal position and flung his arms around them, drawing his knees almost up into his chin. “Make it stop, make it stop,” he moaned repeatedly, and even as he did he kept wondering what in the world the unicorn could possibly have meant in saying that he was worthy of this, that he had a destiny.