A Knight of the Word Prologue
Use of this excerpt from A Knight of the Word by Terry Brooks may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: copyright ©1998 by Terry Brooks.
He stands on a hillside south of the city looking back at the carnage. A long, gray ribbon of broken highway winds through the green expanse of woods and scrub to where the ruin begins. Fires burn among the steel and glass skeletons of the abandoned skyscrapers, flames bright and angry against the washed-out haze of the deeply clouded horizon. Smoke rises in long, greasy spirals that stain the air with ash and soot. He can hear the crackling of the fires and smell their acrid stench even here.
That buildings of concrete and iron will burn so fiercely puzzles him. It seems they should not burn at all, that nothing short of jackhammers and wrecking balls should be able to bring them down. It seems that in this postapocalyptic world of broken lives and fading hopes the buildings should be as enduring as mountains. And yet already he can see sections of walls beginning to collapse as the fires spread and consume.
Rain falls in a steady drizzle, streaking his face. He blinks against the dampness in order to see better what is happening. He remembers Seattle as being beautiful. But that was in another life, when there was still a chance to change the future and he was still a Knight of the Word.
John Ross closes his eyes momentarily as the screams of the wounded and dying reach out to him. The slaughter has been going on for more than six hours, ever since the collapse of the outer defenses after dawn. The demons and the once-men have broken through and another of the dwindling bastions still left to free men has fallen. On the broad span of the high bridge linking the east and west sections of the city, the combatants surge up against one another in dark knots. Small figures tumble from the heights, pinwheeling madly against the glare of the flames as their lives are snuffed out. Automatic weapons-fire ebbs and flows. The armies will fight on through the remainder of the day, but the outcome is already decided. By tomorrow the victors will be building slave pens. By the day after, the conquered will be discovering how life can sometimes be worse than death.
At the edges of the city, down where the highway snakes between the first of the buildings that flank the Duwamish River, the feeders are beginning to appear. They mushroom as if by magic amid the carnage that consumes the city. Refugees flee and hunters pursue, and wherever the conflict spreads, the feeders are drawn. They are mankind's vultures, picking clean the bones of human emotion, of shattered lives. They are the Word's creation, an enigmatic part of the equation that defines the balance in all things and requires accountability for human behavior. No one is exempt; no one is spared. When madness prevails over reason, when what is darkest and most terrible surfaces, the feeders are there.
As they are now, he thinks, watching. Unseen and unknown, inexplicable in their single-mindedness, they are always there. He sees them tearing at the combatants closest to the city's edges, feeding on the strong emotions generated by the individual struggles of life and death taking place at every quarter, responding instinctively to the impulses that motivate their behavior. They are a force of nature and, as such, a part of nature's law. He hates them for what they are, but he understands the need for what they do.
Something explodes in the center of the burning city, and a building collapses in a low rumble of stone walls and iron girders. He could turn away and look south and see the only green of the hills and the silver glint of the lakes and the sound spread out beneath the snowy majesty of Mount Rainier, but he will not do that. He will watch until it is finished.
He notices suddenly the people who surround him. There are perhaps several dozen, raged and hollow-eyed figures slumped down in the midday gloom, faces streaked with rain and ash. They stare at him as if expecting something. He does not know what it is. He is no longer a Knight of the Word. He is just an ordinary man. He leans on the rune-carved black staff that was once the symbol of his office and the source of his power. What do they expect of him?
An old man approaches, shambling out of the gloom, stick-thin and haggard. An arm as brittle as dry wood lifts and points accusingly.
I know you, he whispers hoarsely.
Ross shakes his head in denial, confused.
I know you, the old man repeats. Bald and white-bearded, his face is lined with age and by weather and his eyes are a strange milky color, their focus blurred. I was there when you killed him, all those years ago.
Killed who? Ross cannot make himself speak the words, only mouth them, aware of the eyes of the others who are gathered fixing on him as the old man's words are heard.
The old man cocks his head and lets his jaw drop, laughing softly, the sound high and eerie, and with this simple gesture he reveals himself. He is unbalanced--neither altogether mad nor completely sane, but something in between. He lives in a river that flows between two worlds, shifting from one to the other, a leaf caught by the current's inexorable tug, his destiny beyond his control.
The Wizard! The old man spits, his voice rising brokenly in the hissing sound of the rain. The Wizard of Oz! You are the one who killed him! I saw you! There, in the palace he visited, in the shadow of the Tin Woodman, in the Emerald City! You killed the Wizard! You killed him! You!
The worn face crumples and the light in the milky eyes dims. Tears flood the old man's eyes and trickle down his weathered cheeks. He whispers, Oh, God, it was the end of everything!
And Ross remembers then, a jagged-edged, poisonous memory he had thought forever buried, and he knows with a chilling certainty that what the old man tells him is true.
John Ross opened his eyes to the streetlit darkness and let his memory of the dream fade away. Where had the old man been standing, that he could have seen it all? He shook his head. The time for memories and the questions they invoked had come and gone.
He stood in the shadows of a building backed up on Occidental Park in the heart of Pioneer Square, his breath coming in quick, ragged gasps as he fought to draw the cool, autumn night air into his burning lungs. He had walked all the way from the Seattle Art Museum, all the way from the center of downtown Seattle some dozen blocks away. Limped, really, since he could not run as normal men could and relied upon a black walnut staff to keep upright when he moved. Anger and despair had driven him when muscles had failed. Crippled of mind and body and soul, reduced to an empty shell, he had come home to die because dying was all that was left.
The shade trees of the park loomed in dark formation before him, rising out of cobblestones and concrete, out of bricks and curbing, shadowing the sprawl of benches and trash receptacles and the scattering of homeless and disenfranchised that roamed the city night. Some few looked at him as he pushed off the brick wall and came toward them. One or two even hesitated before moving away. His face was terrible to look upon, all bloodied and scraped, and the clothes that draped his lean body were in tatters. Blood leaked from deep rents in the skin of his shoulder and chest, and several of his ribs felt cracked or broken. He had the appearance of a man who had risen straight out of Hell, but in truth he was just on his way down.
Feeders gathered at the edges of his vision, hunchbacked and beacon-eyed, ready to show him the way.
It was Halloween night, All Hallows' Eve, and he was about to come face-to-face with the most personal of his demons.
His mind spun with the implications of this acknowledgement. He crossed the stone and concrete open space thinking of greener places and times, of the smell of grass and forest air, lost to him here, gone out of his life as surely as the hope he had harbored once that he might become a normal man again. He had traded what was possible for lies and half truths and convinced himself that what he was doing was right. He had failed to listen to the voices that mattered. He had failed to heed the warnings that counted. He had been betrayed at every turn.
He stopped momentarily in a pool of streetlight and looked off into the darkened spires of the city. The faces and voices came back to him in a rush of sounds and images. Simon Lawrence. Andrew Wren. O'olish Amaneh. The Lady and Owain Glyndwr.
His hands tightened on the staff, and he could feel the power of the magic coursing through the wood beneath his palms. Power to preserve. Power to destroy. The distinction had always seemed a large one, but he thought now that it was impossibly small.
Was he still, in the ways that mattered, a Knight of the Word? Did he possess courage and strength of will in sufficient measure that they would sustain him in the battle that lay ahead? He could not tell, could not know without putting it to the test. By placing himself in harm's way he would discover how much remained to him of the power that was once his. He did not think that it would be enough to save his life, but he hoped that it might be enough to destroy the enemy who had undone him.
It did not seem too much to ask.
In truth, it did not seem half enough.
Somewhere in the distance a siren sounded, shrill and lingering amid the hard-edged noises that rang down the stone and glass corridors of the city's canyons.
He took a deep breath and gritted his teeth against the pain that racked his body. With slow, measured steps, he started forward once more.
Death followed in his shadow.