Chapter Five--Chess

Above Serpenalik, at the First School of Sorcery, Nostradamus had been debating whether torturing information out of an enemy, despite the time it took, was preferable to using spells because of the pleasure that accompanied the process. He was still making up his mind when he became aware that the Channel had opened and Throckmorton had entered.

The Liche quickly focused the power of his own mind and likewise entered. Both Lords of Hocwrath now faced each other across a black nil-space, a unique pocket dimension reserved for the Schoolmasters when they held council. Yet the two great Liches, despite their hatred for each other, regularly came together dropping, for a time, the endless charade of fighting through their intermediaries to do battle one-on-one here--in the one arena where direct confrontation held no true danger for either of them.

It was here, of course, that Throckmorton first learned of Doremi a few months earlier.

Many times after that fateful meeting here, Throckmorton’s mind would turn toward the Bard as he wondered just what Nostradamus had in mind for her. Curiously, his counterpart had never seemed to take an interest in her again once she left Serpenalik. That left the Liche with nothing but speculation.

Then he had his answer. Not too surprisingly, it came from Arwin--an incident that normally would have meant nothing, but which ironically brought all the pieces into place: During his yearly report to his master, the Liche had learned from one of his sets of ears in Arwinium that an important salt merchant named Sevillus had complained months earlier to the Praefect of Arwinium that a group of thieves, hired by the First Citizen of the Republic, had stolen a piece of gold from his villa. But this was no ordinary piece of gold--it was a piece of a legendary treasure map made of pure gold called the Puzzle of Abu Salaar.

Sevillus’ possession of the piece was common knowledge, but no one had ever paid much attention to it, for the remaining twelve pieces of the map had been lost for centuries, and one piece was useless without the others. If they could all be found, however, a way could be had to the location of the greatest Library of Sorcery even known outside of Hocwrath!

The Praefect naturally dared not bring accusation against the darling of the Senate, and so the matter died. But the theft of the piece could only mean one thing: Someone either had the other twelve pieces, or else believed they could obtain them.

That someone had to be the Pirate.

The scenario thus began to make itself clear: The Pirate now had the complete Puzzle. Her planned attack on Nostradamus was thus coincidental and based, as Throckmorton had originally presumed, on seeking revenge for her father’s murder, which the Liche had viewed through his crystal ball as the mercenaries encamped for the night northeast of Serpenalik. (Throckmorton, you see, made a habit of observing how Nostradamus dealt with his servants after releasing them, for occasionally it was entertaining.)

Nostradamus, meanwhile, had discovered what the Pirate herself owned, and foresaw that she would seek someone who knew Karnaki and Arwinian languages to read the incantation upon the Puzzle and open a gate to the tower in which Abu Salaar had hidden his priceless Library.

Apparently, he intended to use the Bard to somehow steal the quest away.

Throckmorton was now satisfied. Irrespective of the Pirate’s desire to attack Nostradamus, he would force her into a joint expedition to find the Library. If it so happened that Nostradamus was still in the picture and could neither be muscled nor maneuvered out of the way, it would become a three-way expedition, and in the end the two Liches would share the proceeds equally, leaving the Pirate out in the cold since she would be powerless to prevent it.

But something still nagged at the Liche: From what he knew of the Pirate, she didn’t seem to be the sort who would care about Libraries of Sorcery.

Then it struck him like a bolt of lightning and shook him to his core: Not the Library, but the Circle said to be with the Library! That would be the one thing both a Liche in the last decades of existence and an aging female whose beauty was starting to fade would crave--immortality itself!

This could only mean that each somehow had a piece of the Circle!

Now he understood the game both were playing against each other. She was coming to attack Nostradamus and profit doubly: First, by gaining revenge; and secondly, by seizing the Circle he must have in his treasure room.

Nostradamus, in turn, plotted to steal or make use of her own.

That was the reason behind all his expeditions into Arwin over the years--he was seeking the four Circles of Al-Arwin the whole time! Throckmorton had been biding his time, awaiting Nostradamus’ eventual death, while his enemy had been taking steps to subvert death altogether and gain immortality itself!

How could he have been so stupid?!

Somehow, while he had sat idly by, both Nostradamus and the Pirate had found where the other pieces were, and it was only a question of who would end up with all four of them.

Briefly, the Liche considered making his own presence known in this matter: The final Circle was in the temple of Istari in Arwinium, and he debated sending in a team of his wizards and mercenaries to steal it. Nostradamus and the Pirate certainly had this in mind after one or the other had obtained the other two pieces anyway, but each was clearly holding off to keep the other in the dark. Prudent intervention would guarantee his own place in the ultimate quest--something that would drive Nostradamus berserk, he noted with delight.

But in the end, Throckmorton decided it was best to likewise show restraint--let the other two fight it out, weakening one another as much as possible. If Nostradamus eliminated the Pirate, or if the Pirate--whom Throckmorton believed would bring her brother Nightshadow (which he presumed him to be)--somehow managed to eliminate Nostradamus, he would win either way.

And so he left the last piece of the Circle alone, instead sending a team of his cronies to Arwinium, awaiting his orders to take it. He would let the Pirate and Nostradamus fight it out, then deal with the victor, the third piece being in his possession by then.

The only thing that nagged at him was how each knew what the other possessed.

He never did find a suitable answer. But he was convinced he had stumbled upon the Gambit both players were going to use against each other, and thus he began to weave his own plans to enter the game....


As soon as he had entered the Channel, Throckmorton concentrated, and a ball of ectoplasm appeared and started to expand until it stretched itself into a flat plane that filled the space between the two Liches. The field of energy ebbed and flowed for several moments until nebulous shapes began emerging from the surface, taking form.

“Back so soon?” Nostradamus asked in his typical low-pitched sibilation as he arrived.

Throckmorton’s glowing red eyes locked themselves upon the lifeless glowing orbs of his counterpart.

“I have had more time on my hands than usual to consider my response, having arranged the School in such a manner that I can count on its smooth operation with a minimum of my direct oversight, leaving me free for other activities.”

“So your predecessor, Disakomon, thought as well, ‘til the day you substituted false reagents for his circle of protection against the demon he had conjured, and took his place--weak, trusting fool that he was,” Nostradamus answered.

“Yes--a pity you were not cunning enough to exploit his laxness yourself,” Throckmorton shot back, “else you might have taken this School.”

“I was merely occupied with first breaking the alliance by three of the Schools in Disdoma, which I foresaw could threaten Serpenalik. Had you not struck when you did, in a few weeks I would have saved you the trouble. You were fortunate.”

“No less fortunate than you were that Disakomon was delaying his ultimate plan to align with the Third School against you while you were so occupied,” Throckmorton answered.

“Oh, yes--I well recall that rather pathetic plan of Disakomon’s. Of course, what no one knew was that Lord Solarius’ apprentice at the Third School had long before betrayed the plan to me for appropriate payment.”

“Which was precisely why I had him assassinated afterward,” Throckmorton boasted. “No one betrays the Second School, and lives--even if I profit by that betrayal.”

Throckmorton concentrated, and a pawn advanced upon the board, threatening Nostradamus’ exposed knight. His opponent had expected this and left the piece alone, for his strategy depended on removing the pawn from that row of squares, and thus he wanted it out of the way. To accomplish this, he was more than willing to sacrifice a knight--or anything else--to get that pawn to move. He therefore ignored the move, advancing a bishop across the board.

If Throckmorton still breathed, he would have let out a sigh. Instead, he expunged a cross between a rattle and a groan.

“Once again,” he observed, shaking his head, “you are displaying that foolish habit you have of sacrificing good pieces for minimal tactical gain.”

“Not so foolish that I won’t call Checkmate in nineteen moves,” came the sibilated response.

Throckmorton snorted in derision. “Your strategy is as naked as a harlot plying her trade. You would do better to rely upon subtlety and an efficient plan that provides for both victory and the preservation of valuable resources.”

“If I cast away every piece on the board, what does it matter if I call ‘Checkmate’ by the time I’m done? Extra pieces merely get in the way. Eliminate all unnecessary pieces and let the Power pieces do battle, with the better strategy prevailing, I say. The times your own Power pieces have been blocked by the knights and bishops you seem bent on protecting, leaving me free to checkmate you, are uncountable. This brilliant philosophy of yours is why you lose half the games we play,” Nostradamus taunted.

“Nay,” answered Throckmorton, “it is why you cannot win more than half the games we play, despite having had centuries more than I have to master this game.”

“Unfortunately, most of those extra centuries were spent mastering every possible aspect of the sorcerous arts. Unlike you, I had very limited time to devote myself to games.”

“Ah, I quite understand. I had no time for chess either, until I had achieved the Twentieth circle of skill in both my disciplines when I was--forty-seven, was it?”

“Took you that long, did it?”

“Yes, unfortunately it did. But you must bear in mind that I didn’t even begin the study of magic until I was twenty-five.”

“In any event,” spoke Nostradamus, “please feel free to take advantage of my foolishness. The knight is at your disposal.”

“Take him I shall, as I will take the game in twenty-seven moves.”

“I think not, Lord Throckmorton.”

“Really, Lord Nostradamus, I predict this impatient tendency of yours to throw good pieces away will someday be the death of you--just as this move will give me ultimate victory in this game.”

“We shall see if you are still so confident after my eleventh move, Lord Throckmorton,” his opponent grunted in response.

“Yes, indeed we shall,” answered Throckmorton, settling back to ponder the board. He had long ago summed up Nostradamus’ strategy, and knew well that his counter-moves would break the stalemate in his favor. Even so, prudence dictated he at least make a superficial review of all the variant strategies his counterpart could employ against him, and so he chose to go through the formality of taking a moment or two to review every possible strategy his opponent might employ, before taking the knight as both Liches knew he would....