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Authors: J. Robert King


BOOK: Conspiracy
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Forgotten Realms

Double Diamond Triangle Saga: Conspiracy

By J. Robert King




I’m mesmerized by you.

I lie upon this rough-hewn bed and watch you. My head is pillowed on big dry sponges, piled against a coral headboard. You’re the only fine thing in this room.

Lord Garkim has said that this bedchamber, like all of the mage-king’s lower palace, was once part of a sea cave. The stone walls here were carved out by generations of tides. Even the brown blankets I he upon come-from the ocean, woven from seaweed. The mattress is just a net of kelp. I feel like a netted fish.

But you, you make me feel like a king. You don’t come from this barbarous place. You’re not rough, reek—

ing of brine. You’re smooth and fine, lithe and magical. You move from the bed to the limestone doorknob and then back with a round-hipped dance. Your golden strands tickle along my chest as I gather you in.

“Let’s have another go,” I whisper to you.

Listen to me, speaking as if you were Aleena Paladinstar. But how could I compare her to you? You’re only a bit of rope. Golden, yes, but still, you’re rope.

You seem eager to fly again.

I twirl your looped head once more before releasing you. Your smooth sinew snakes to my idle day pack, where the broken buckle protrudes. You snap down to grasp it. Your line goes taut.

You’re so nimble, so precise, my golden lasso. You can lay hold of a fly’s wing without brushing its leg. You can catch whatever I desire within fifty feet, no matter how large or small. You go out like a golden messenger. You leap from my hand and cross this room to grasp that clamshell coat peg or that nautilus lantern or that whalebone pitcher.

I send you coiling out again. You seize the doorknob. I flick you free, careful not to open the door; there are paladins out there. Real paladins. Once I was only too eager for their company. Now, I dread it.

I don’t want to be like them—stiff, loud, indelicate. I want to be like you, my golden lariat. I want to be facile and silent, lithe and quick, strong but smooth and sleek and golden. I don’t want to be like Miltiades or Kern, but like Piergeiron Paladinson. He doesn’t pray for truth. He goes out and wrestles it. That’s what I want. I want to be like you, golden lariat, going out to grasp whatever I seek.

I flip my wrist. You lightly grip the bed knob, carved from driftwood. I tug, but this time you are snagged, so tight is your hold. I sit up and pry you loose. You leap to coil into my open hand.

“Let’s have another go.”

Chapter 1

We heard and saw it all.

Perhaps in our madness, we have forgotten some of the minutia, but we are like the sea. Only truth survives our ceaseless churning; we melt falsity into silt.

We remember truth. We remember how the catastrophes of Doegan were set into motion. And when. And by whom. We were there. We were everywhere. We heard and saw it all.

The catastrophes were triggered one fine morning within our own walls….

The Fountain of the Kraken sprayed tentacles of briny mist into the air. Ocean breezes caught the questing arms of fog and spread them low and flat over the Plaza of the Mage-King. From there, the mists sifted past slums before sliding through the teeth of the outer wall. The fog scintillated for a moment, transfixed on slaying wards, and then moved on, across a scoured plain of salted ground and into the arid forest beyond. What happened to the mist next, only trees and fiends could have told.

Trees, fiends, and a haggard crew of pirates. A short while ago, they had entered the city of Eldrinpar, capital of Doegan. The claw slashes carved across their arms, chests, and legs told that they had come by way of the fiend-filled forest. No one came through that death trap. And what were pirates doing so far away from ship and sea?

Their leader was short, dark-haired, and olive-skinned. He had muscles like silken cords and eyes keen as razors. He was no pirate. This one preferred dark caves to the bright sea. He was as comfortable on land as any wolf. Like a wolf, his chief weapons were concealed, small and deadly. He wore a sword, but not a swaggering cutlass like those of his companions. They knew him as Belmer, though he knew himself by another name—one he had buried deeply.

His companions were the real pirates. They were swarthy locals from Doegan, Edenvale, and Ulgarth. They stepped hard on their heels and lingered too long on tiptoes, their legs accustomed to rolling decks instead of dead ground. The cut of their jerkins showed tailoring. No mere seaman could afford this expense. A privateer might—especially if he had new gold in need of being hastily spent. Pirates, yes: their eyes were as cold and calm as ball lightning.

The woman was obviously an accomplished fighter. Pirate ships are not virgin vaults. To survive, free, with a face and body like hers, she was more than able to defend herself. Her tan visage was flawless, set with sapphire eyes and an even row of gleaming teeth, forming a comely smile.

Sharessa “the Shadow” Stagwood, or Shar.

What of the rest? There was a moon-faced sharper with deft hands. He could slay as surely with cards as with blades. He aided a staggering young man, blind and bloodied. Behind these two came a seaman whose red jags of hair and beard blended smoothly with the orange scars lining his face. Then a dwarf, whose ears and nose jingled with electrum rings. His eyes were fixed in a wary, haunted stare. Last in the company was a tired sea captain, his large frame compromised by a gut of rotten wood. He had the look of a plague ship. The bilge rats had risen up to take possession of him, and he smelled of death.

The olive-faced man led his tattered party to the long, curving edge of the great fountain. There, one by one, they knelt, scooped up water, and laved away mud, grit, blood, and exhaustion. The fountain flowed with salt water. In it, they washed. They knelt at the cool stone rim as if at an altar stone, and washed as if with holy water. Released from a long ordeal, they laughed and sported in the fountain’s basin until called to order by their leader.

The fountain was, indeed, an altar. The statue of a god stood in its center: a man wrestling a great kraken. His anguished face, frozen in chiseled marble, had eyes bored deep into his skull. In one mighty hand, he gripped a constricting tentacle. In the other, he held a trident, thrust down among more octopus arms. The jetting sprays of water showed how the battle of these colossi churned the oceans of the world.

So grand was this tableaux that the mercenaries could not see their opponents.

The men approaching on the other side were in every way the pirates’ opposites. In place of tattered rags, most wore polished armor that glared silver and gold in the sun. Instead of staggering, they marched. Instead of bowing to the statue, the warriors turned their backs. One even sat down on the fountain rail, as though it were a mere bench. Another produced a golden lasso and sent its silent loop whirring up to snag one of the marble tentacles.

Paladins. Their glamorous armor, ridiculous in this brutal heat, meant they were paladins, madmen, or both.

Their leader was larger than life, with thick black hair streaked with gray, a granite jaw, silver armor, and a cold, unyielding demeanor. His eyes narrowed, and his gaze swept the adobe buildings ringing the plaza. There was evil here, and he could sense it. His hand strayed to the warhammer at his side.

In the shadow of the silver warrior stood a younger man, garbed in gold. His mail shimmered across a large heart. His eyes watched his mentor. He sensed the man’s unease and also reached for his hammer.

These two were flanked by three others. The first was a Silver-haired warrior with leather armor and a quarterstaff. Beside him was the young man who sat on the fountain edge. He had blond curls and a jaunty sword. Last of all was a lightly armored youth, absently flinging his golden lasso.

The silver paladin gestured to the others. “Check this plaza. Report any strange signs, especially symbols of Tyr perverted by fanatics of the Fallen Temple. Once we find the Fallen Temple, we will find Lady Eidola. As true believers, we must rescue not only the lady, but also the worship of Tyr in this savage land.”

The others nodded, all except the youth. His lasso was snagged about the granite head of the wrestling god.

The golden paladin said to his leader, “Miltiades, might I suggest we go in pairs, ready for ambush?”

“Excellent, Kern. You come with me, but give your pendant to Trandon. Your antimagic aura may well be preventing the pendant from sensing Lady Eidola.”

Kern’s sweating, sunburned face colored more deeply. He lifted the jeweled pendant from his neck and handed it to the leather-armored man. “You’re right, of course. It was only my pride that made me hold on to it.”

“We’ll patrol this side of the plaza.” Miltiades gestured to the seated fighter and said, “Jacob, you and Trandon check out the other side.” Miltiades turned toward the youth with the lasso. “And, Noph, get that rope off the statue before the mage-king’s men haul you away.”

Noph peered along the dripping length of his rope. He gave it two more flips, shaking saltwater from it. The lasso did not come loose. Noph sighed and stepped over the stony rim, into the pool. Up to his knees in sea-water, he visibly shivered.

Shaking his head, Miltiades said, “Let’s go.”

The paladins and pirates were destined to meet, as fresh water flows ever into the salty sea. But they need not have clashed so soon, or so violently. We had hoped, in fact, to keep them separate, to use them both. The paladins were useful for fighting our deadliest foes—the terrorists who called themselves the Fallen Temple. The pirates, on the other hand—we could smell their greed. They had come for riches and glory. They would be easy to manipulate. Before the tenday was done, they would be fighting for Doegan, too.

But it was not to be. The gods had placed a catalyst among them. A traitor. We could smell him. Traitors always smell of decay.

Among the pirates was a weak-bellied sea captain. He had lost his ship and, with it, his last scraps of courage and dignity. All that remained to drive him were despair, rage, and shame, the humors of betrayal.

Captain Jander Turbalt—let history dote on the traitor’s name—had sold his companions even before he shuffled casually toward Kern and Miltiades and betrayed his leader.

“Excuse me, sirs, but you appear to be on official business,” Turbalt said, grovelling ostentatiously.

“We are conducting an investigation into the Fallen Temple with the sanction of the mage-king,” answered Kern.

“Perfect,” said Turbalt. He wrung his hands in nervous anticipation. “Do not be obvious in looking, sirs, but the scrofulous band of pirates behind me have held me captive for the last weeks. They kidnapped me aboard my own ship, forced me to sail into the worst of storms, and destroyed my Morning Bird right out from under me. They’ve since dragged me across desert and dale, through fiend dens and icy streams. It is only by the good grace of the gods and my own courage—not to boast of it, though—that I have lived long enough to tell you.”

These were, perhaps, not the actual words the coward spoke. We do not remember; so much has happened since. The captain may have merely identified his leader, Belmer, as an illegal immigrant. Or he may have spoken Belmer’s true name; we do not recall. The words are lost, but not the traitor’s name or his fate.

“Blessed hammer of Tyr,” Kern remarked. He gazed past the man, and so did not see the captain’s ingenuous look. “Look who that man is, there in front.”

“Hold there,” Miltiades called out toward the little man. The paladin drew his warhammer and marched toward the pirates. “We would speak with you.” Kern followed likewise, and called the others.

The olive-skinned man smiled falsely. “Perhaps later. We have pressing business in another part of the city.”

The silver paladin spoke in a voice of command. “I said hold. I am Miltiades of Tyr, and I speak with the authority of Justice. I wish to know what you are doing in Doegan—why the Sword Coast’s most notorious assassin has come to the Utter East! Tell us, why have you come here, Artemis Entreri?”

Without awaiting a reply, Miltiades and Kern closed upon the stunned man and his party of pirates. Silver-haired Trandon and young Jacob also charged inward. Only Noph Nesher did not attack, busy climbing to the top of the fountain to free his lasso.

The rotten-bellied captain, meanwhile, made to slink away.

Artemis Entreri drew a small, deadly blade from concealment and flung it through the fountain’s mist. The steel flashed for a breath before it buried itself in Captain Jander Turbalt’s head. The sound was like a snake biting into an egg. The man’s limbs went limp, though he remained upright, as if the dagger pinned him to the sky. Then he dropped.

He flopped into the base of the fountain. Tentacles of gore reached out from his pulpy head, toward the wrestling god, as though in mockery.

The pirates rallied to Entreri—all but one, the blind young man Ingrar. He drew his blade and shouted,” ‘Ware! Paladins!”

Could he smell paladins?—old armor scrubbed and waxed to shine hot beneath a cruel sun? Could he hear paladins?—voices of virtue in a world of vice? Somehow, he knew what and who they were. We marked this young man, Ingrar. He had gained a unique blessing. No longer could his eyes fool him. No longer was he the victim of illusions—double images and double walkers. The windows of his higher self were shuttered; the windows of his lower self, his animal self, were flung wide.

Black-haired Miltiades roared a holy vow and brought his warhammer singing down at Entreri’s upraised sword. The massive hammer cracked off to one side and swung down by the paladin’s hip.

Entreri’s blade had no sooner deflected that attack than its tip danced in to jab beneath the warrior’s breastplate. The tongue of steel tasted blood.

Miltiades pried it away with the head of his hammer and staggered back to take the measure of his foe;

In that moment’s confrontation, just before the other fighters met in skirls of steel, Entreri and Miltiades saw each other truly.

BOOK: Conspiracy
11.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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