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Grand Conspiracy
Volume 5 of the Wars of Light and Shadow
Book 2 of Arc III: Alliance of Light
Excerpt from Chapter X

This morning's nap started more pleasantly than most, with a gentle west breeze wafting off the biting flies who viewed Dakar's sprawled flesh as a banquet. He slept with his hands laced over his belly, while the fruits of the tropics gave painless relief to three months' steady diet of jerky, squeezed limes and hardtack.

The first whisper of danger broke in a dream, arrived without fanfare or warning.

His undisturbed sleep became wrenched out of peace. Dakar was consumed by a sickening sensation of falling through bottomless darkness. His senses were locked. As though his awareness was throttled by wound thread, he could not break free, or wrest back the will to awaken. The whirling, downward spiral into vertigo presaged no ordinary nightmare. Dakar battled the gripping pejorative of his unchained gift of prescience.

"No," he whispered, even as his futile fabric of protest became dashed into fragments of light. Power flamed through him like volatile oil, and he saw past the veil that sealed Ath's creation to the constraints of linear time...


Against the wind-ruffled waves of a lakeshore, a rider sat laughing on a moorland pony. He wore a plain longsword strapped to his waist, and the cross-laced felt boots of a goatherd. Yet when the wind tossed the black hair off his cheek, the profile stamped in the morning's raw light had the bone structure of a blood s'Ffalenn prince...


The scene snapped like a cobweb rent through by a gale. Sprawled in trance on the black lava sands of the atoll, the Mad Prophet stirred and moaned. A chill breeze of destiny blew straight through him, and beyond any question he knew. That rider signified the break in the peace Althain's Warden had foreseen fifteen years ago. Dakar fought the dream. His hands spasmed to fists, and his paunchy flesh shuddered, yet waking perception eluded him. The reeling onslaught of visions resumed, pinwheeling in wild and vivid disorder across his inward awareness...


Before the magistrate at the prisoner's dock in Jaelot, the same boy in stood in chains pleading innocence. His back moorland's accent quavered with tears, but none heard. The wheels of due process ground on unchecked, until a struck look of terror transfixed his green eyes, and an arraignment for black sorcery was read out by a nasal secretary. Then that scene ripped away, replaced by another: of the accused, chained to a scaffold, stripped for a ritual execution. The sharpened sword waited, and the bundled, oiled faggots. Nearby, a cowled headsman mounted the stair, while a mob shook raised fists and clamored for redress in blood against the Master of Shadow. The vision rippled. Townborn faces contorted and screaming with hate condensed and dissolved into one: that of a bronze-haired enchantress who wept...


Dakar snapped awake, gasping and soaked in runnels of terrified sweat. He could not reorient. The palm fronds and blue sky over his head seemed a jumble of meaningless color. For an interval he squeezed his eyes shut and trembled, raw dread like the tang of flaked rust on his tongue. Something had just gone terribly amiss. His spurious gift of prescience never touched him like this, nor left him with the hollow, used feeling of a discarded old boot. The nausea that racked him carried a taint, as if the violating fingers of a spell had just tickled the length of his aura.

Another chill swept him. An instinct, chased by fear, let him suspect that someone powerful had meddled with his gifted prescience. The unnatural, acidic fragments of his dream stayed lodged in his memory like impressions stamped in smoke and sulfur. A spell seal based on forced mastery would impose such unpleasantness, not a working drawn from the Fellowship's craft, laid down in harmony with the Major Balance. The rare intervention sent by Ath's Adepts would be gentle, a feather-touch channeled from the prime source that anchored the weave of the firmament.

"Lie under a palm tree, annoyed as all that, and you're sure to get whacked by a coconut."

Dakar flinched and looked up to find Arithon s'Ffalenn standing over him.

"Go away," he said in a gritted, forced croak.

Arithon's teeth flashed in a perverse, airy smile. "Poor man. Has the fruit left you griped?"

He sat down. Clad in dark breeches and a loose shirt with laces left open at the neck, he was enviably vibrant. The effects of seafaring had always agreed with him; his presence held a stunning, charged vitality gained back through his years of free sailing. Sun and wind had reduced the deep shadows in his eyes. The nightmares came less and less in the night, robbed of their venom by the distance in leagues from Desh-thiere's curse-driven urge to seek bloodshed.

Dakar clamped his jaw through another wretched spasm. He racked his churned thoughts for some telling rejoinder that would send the s'Ffalenn prince safely packing.

Too late; the green eyes now fixed on his face. In a tone very changed, the Shadow Master said, "Dakar, for mercy, what's wrong?"

The Mad Prophet turned away. Even slight movement upset his equilibrium. The spasm returned, steel claws in his belly, and he curled in whimpering misery with his cheek pressed into the sand.

Hands gripped him, found his head, and raked his loose hair away from his gasping lips. He was raised up, supported through the ugly, sick spasms which emptied his last meal in raw violence.

"Hang on," said Arithon. The whipcut awareness of just what was happening had already dissolved his carefree note of light banter.

Dakar felt swift fingers loosen his belt. He was laid back, gasping, against something soft: Arithon's shirt, folded into a pillow to ease his spinning head. A shadow raked over him, then returned. Cloth soaked in seawater streamed over his forehead, damping the pounding, fierce pangs of a headache.

The Mad Prophet blinked through a salt stream of runoff. "Too bad I'm not female. You'd have me swooning." He swallowed the lingering burn of heaved bile and forced the charade a step further. "Such fuss, for a commonplace hangover."

Arithon knelt in his small clothes, still arranging the compress made at need from his breeches. "Don't speak." The lame effort at deflection had left him unfooled; the opposite in fact. Dakar sensed the fearful effort in his calm as his exquisite schooled voice tore past the veneer of pretense. "Whatever string of prescience your talent has uncovered, the news can wait. Lie still. Just breathe 'til you're steady."

A child shouted inquiry from somewhere down the beach. Through the whisper of palm fronds and the curling lisp of the waves over sable sands, the treble cry jarred the air like tapped glass.

The Mad Prophet held on to his reeling senses, saw Arithon turn his head and call answer. "I need the simples chest from the brigantine. Now! Also, find the watch officer. Tell him I want a man sent back with a litter."

Dakar felt a firm hand on his wrist. Then darkness enfolded him like soundless felt and swallowed his flickering consciousness.


Full awareness returned in the lucent chill of twilight. Dakar opened his eyes to the softened gloom of the stern cabin. The ship's wake unreeled like mother-of-pearl through the casement's salt-splashed roundels. The board that worked and squealed in the bulkhead, and the taint of salt-fusty sail cloth informed him that Arithon had the Khetienn set under way and driving to sea once again. Through the hollow, dull repletion of illness, Dakar kicked his mental processes back into shambling order. Through mage sense, he picked out the ship's course, due northwest, affirmed by the gravitational draw of the new moon and the faint, distant pull of the planets.

From strength he did not believe he possessed, he dredged up a breath and tried the first lie his befuddled brain could assemble. "You're not going back to the continent for the sake of a rock slide that maimed a few sheep and some unlucky shepherds."

The soft voice he expected gave answer from the shadows somewhere to the left of his berth. "Drop pretense." Arithon dipped a tin cup in a basin and trickled a stream of cool water to wet the Mad Prophet's lips. "Your raving already told me the truth."

Dakar rammed up straight to the everlasting zeal of the demons still spiking his temples. He crashed into the cup. The contents splashed over his neck and tickled in runnels down his chest. "A nightmare. Don't believe it."

A towel settled over the spill, backed by Arithon's hands, which rammed him inexorably flat. "No nightmare could possibly be that macabre."

Defeat took the punch out of Dakar's struggle. "Then would you mind telling me what you heard?"

Hard fingers softened, then blotted, and whisked the soaked towel away. On deck, the boson called the change in the watch. Bare feet drummed on wood as the sailhands responded. Forward, a young mother crooned a lullaby to her child, while the ocean, ever restless, wove in splashing refrain as the bow clove like smoke through the wave crests.

Arithon stirred finally, retrieved the cup from the berth and hooked its handle to the basin with a clink. He had not lit the lamp. His hair was ink upon shadow against the varnished interior of the cabin. Lapped in failing light, his expression was blurred, unreadable as a blank slate.

"What did you hear," Dakar insisted. "At least let's make sure we're drawing presumptions from the same list of unpleasant facts."

The lean, ringless hands clasped taut on one knee, no doubt to lock down their shaking. Arithon said, ice laid over snow, "You saw the same future my lord Jieret dreamed and journeyed to Corith to give warning. My death on a scaffold, by sword and by fire. Except the vision foretold by my caithdein wasn't accurate. The victim isn't going to be me."

Brooding stillness ensued, through which the Master of Shadow pondered, and Dakar glowered back with distilled rancor.

"Your blurted prophecy wasn't pretty," Arithon relented at length. "You said at winter solstice that an innocent boy will be sentenced for the crimes of black sorcery townsmen claim I committed over twenty-five years ago."

Dakar swallowed, his throat gone sandpaper dry. "You can't imagine you're going to save him."

Arithon arose, moved one step, and braced his palm flat on the sill of the stern window. He had found a fresh shirt. He wore another pair of dark breeches knotted at the waist with a scarlet sash sent him by Feylind. Wind plucked the loose cloth, and feathered the sable hair silhouetted against the coiling foam of the wake. "Who is he, this boy?"

"Who knows? Who cares?" Dakar shoved up on one elbow. "He could be the throwback of some ancestor's byblow. He had the accent of a moorland goatherd." Hating the strangled desperation in his plea, the Mad Prophet tried reason. "Believe me, if he were close enough kin to carry the virtues of the s'Ffalenn bloodline, the Fellowship Sorcerers would know him!"

Arithon spun, a coiled spring of bleak fury. "I don't care who he is! If this fate overtakes him, he'll be frightened and alone, and condemned to a terrible death for an act even I never stooped to commit."

"He could be anywhere," Dakar argued, horrified. "How will you know where to start looking?"

Arithon's quick breath sliced the night like a knife cut. "But I do know. Your mimicry was plain. You repeated the arraignment in the voice of the official who will come to pen the mayor's writ of execution. I know him, as you must. He's the Mayor of Jaelot's judiciary secretary, and that's twice now you've sought to obstruct me. What else are you trying to mask from my notice?"

"You can't do this," Dakar insisted in an obstinate change of subject. "To meddle with a chained prisoner in Jaelot --"

Arithon cut him off. "Then stop me with something more substantial than lies!"

A disastrous pause, while Dakar slumped back, each labored effort to breathe like suctioning liquid lead. He mustered his nerves, prayed that bare bones good sense could prevail against volatile s'Ffalenn temper. "All right. That dream didn't come through my channels of natural-born talent. The prescience was tagged onto my aura by someone's act of forced spellcraft. Which means that boy won't land in Jaelot through blind luck. He's being set up as bait for a trap."

He had Arithon's attention now, the unpleasant, ruthless focus of a mage-trained observer measuring an undesired obstacle. A small rustle of cloth as the hand not on the sill came to rest on the edge of a locker. "Lysaer wouldn't make use of children or innocents."

"You can't know that!" Dakar swore for the lack of a light. He needed to determine whether Arithon braced in shock, or if he was pitched for combative, hot argument. Left no tool but blind trust, he probed softly. "In the course of three decades, the curse could have changed the half brother you knew past all scruple."

"No." Arithon shoved away from the stern window, his admission touched by an odd, heavy weariness. "By now, I recognize Desh-thiere's workings firsthand." His clipped speech wove through his fidgeting steps. "Lysaer was claimed into thrall through his true gift of justice. Change that, and the Mistwraith's hold on him weakens."

Dakar argued with bloodless honesty. "He slew children well enough on the banks of Tal Quorin."

"For a principle, yes." Pain shot through, expected and sharp as Arithon crossed through the patched sun let in through the grating. His face contorted in recoil from that particularly harrowing memory, he explained, "Lysaer caught them killing. This execution you've forecast to take place in Jaelot isn't anywhere near the same thing."

"There aren't many factions who wouldn't choose mayhem, or consort with Sithaer itself to see you dead." Dakar swore through the splash as the Khetienn knifed through a trough. "Don't forget, Lysaer's high priests now dabble in spellcraft."

All the signs pointed toward disaster. Nor could Arithon hedge in denial. The warning delivered from Elaira had been unequivocally plain. Despite her concern, and her strong exhortation, the wise option of retreat had already seen the Shadow Master's emphatic rejection. Above decks, the boson shouted to a thundering flog of canvas. Hands were aloft bending on topsails, sure promise of a drenching, fast passage that battered Dakar's brain and turned his gut inside out with seasickness.

Dakar tried futile argument anyway. "The boy will burn, no matter how blameless, and no matter how mismatched the evidence. You trod on the pride of the city dignitaries too hard. The Mayor of Jaelot keeps a grudge like a champion, and whoever's behind the meddling this time is sure to have Koriani backing."

"Then they'll discover the consequence of manipulating me through using the fate of an innocent." Wound into implacable rage, Arithon grasped the knob to the companionway. "The Khetienn makes landfall on the continent with all speed. Stop her, or me at your peril."

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