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BOOK I

1

When she looked at the game board in the first light of dawn, she saw that a new piece had been added. She grew very still.


The game board was a vast slab of moss agate, its patterning natural but precisely chosen by the wizard who had cut and polished it in the ages before mankind. She kept the board secret, not behind bars and locks but on a plane of its own from which she alone could summon it for meditation.


To an untrained eye the pieces were assorted pebbles of precious tourmaline, uncarved or barely carved by some barbaric gem-cutter with crude vigor but little skill. To a trained eye, to a careful eye...to a wizard's eye like hers, the pieces displayed all the subtle differences of the living creatures on whom her will worked; the human pawns that she moved and her unseen opponent moved, and whose movements in turn shifted the pieces on the board.


She had put infinite time and art into studying the tourmaline pieces so that she could perfect her strategy in dealing with the living beings they mimicked. There were hundreds of them on the board, all of some value; but the skill of the game lay in identifying these few pieces which controlled the path to victory. Last night there had been four.


Two were pieces of great power. The hard, brittle stone of which they were shaped was sea green on one end, red with the fire of ruby on the other. The form of the crystals differed from top to base, and in aspect from one piece to the other.


They were Halflings: the offspring of a human and a creature human only in shape, hybrids who had abilities which neither parent shared. They were not wizards, but they could work with forces no human wizard could shape however great her skill and power.


The Halflings would be dangerous if her opponent directed them, but they had no art of their own. If she was unable to turn them to her own ends, she could at worst set them out of play.


The other two pieces were spirals twined as though the pair had been carved from the same tourmaline prism...which they had not been, could not have been. One piece had the brown metallic hue of a crystal with a large admixture of iron in its structure. It was darkly translucent, and shapes swam in its depths. The other helix was water-clear, though like water it had the least tinge of color; in this case the gleam of dawn's first rosy figurings.


She touched her fingertip to the twin spirals. They felt cold or hot, but she could not be sure which; in all the time she had spent studying the pieces, some of their aspects remained an enigma. She must separate and examine them individually, for one was the key: the piece that would uncover the Throne of Malkar where Lorcan of Haft had hidden it a thousand years before.


All the power in the cosmos lay with that piece, and the piece could be controlled. It would move as she directed or to the direction of her opponent, the hooded figure she sensed but never saw. There was no third player in the game!


And yet...


This night between dusk and dawning a spike of blue tourmaline had appeared on the board in conjunction with the four pieces of power. She must learn what it meant, that slim piece, and still more the fact that the piece was here.


She tossed a thin silken coverlet over the board and strode to the outer door. The only apparent bolt was a wisp of spiderweb, but anyone attempting to force the panel from the outside would find himself in a place other than where he intended—and very little to his liking.


She opened the door. The cold-faced servitor nodded obsequiously.


"I'm not to be disturbed for any reason," she said. She nodded toward the tray of covered salvers waiting on the small table beside the door. "I'll be fasting, so get that away."


The servitor nodded again. "As you wish, milady queen," he said.


She closed and sealed the door. Her hooded opponent could not have placed the new piece on the board....


And if not him, who?


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