Tigris, while her withdrawn master pondered, had perched herself seductively upon an enormous skull nearby-the unfleshed head looked like that of some mythological beast, higher than her own head when she stood before it. Only the head of a great worm, she supposed, could be so huge-but she was no expert in inhuman anatomy.
Despite the pertness of her attitude, her voice was humble in tone when next she spoke, daring to interrupt her Ancient Master’s private deliberations to ask him what his next move was going to be. Somehow, during the brief interval of travel from the gaming table to this half-real wasteland, she had come to be wearing a short black skirt instead of trousers, and now there was a flash of pale thighs when she crossed her legs.
Wood, turning his head to peer out of the shadows of the tall stones, gazed at her blankly for a moment. As a rule the great wizard was not insensible of his assistant’s physical attractiveness-far from it. But now other matters of greater importance had first claim on his attention.
His attack on Prince Adrian, launched with the help of Coinspinner, was only one of these, though one of the most pressing. And his decision was still not made as to whether he would go himself into the City of Wizards and collect his prey.
But now he decided that there was one other decision to be made first, one that Wood had to admit must take priority over all the rest.
Holding up the naked length of Coinspinner, he inspected the Sword more closely. Frowning at the Blade as if he could wring its secrets from it by sheer force of will, Wood twirled it, somewhat awkwardly, in his strong right hand. At the same time he was resting his left hand on the almost identical hilt of Shieldbreaker, which very rarely left his side by night or day. Touching two Swords at once, he could feel his own immersion in the godlike power of the Swords. It was like no other power he had ever encountered, either in the ancient world from which he came, or in this one. Perhaps not even Ardneh or Orcus, his enemies of thousands of years ago, would ever have been quite able to match this.
Tigris, shifting her weight restlessly on the great skull, her short skirt riding yet a little higher, persisted in her nervous questioning: “What will you do with it now, my lord?”
For a moment he blinked at her distractedly, as if he were not quite sure who this woman might be who questioned him.
But at last he answered her aloud. “With Coinspinner?”
The magician held the blade up, then paused, holding it very still. “Perhaps I will destroy it.”
For once his clever assistant could only stare at him without comprehension. “My lord?”
The man on the ground, he who could grow reptilian wings, or dispose of them again, whenever he chose to do so, chuckled dryly. “Do I mystify you, Tigris? But I suppose that is inescapable.”
Then he twirled the Sword of Chance again, and cast it down before him forcefully, so that the point stabbed deep into the rocky earth, and the weapon remained standing upright.
His right hand, having thus emptied itself, went promptly to the other scabbard hanging at his other side. From that sheath it drew out his second Blade, equally dazzling to look at.
Now the wizard said to the young-looking, innocent-looking woman who sat above him on the great skull: “Look, here’s Shieldbreaker!”
“I see it, my lord.”
“Do you? Do you see that I am now granted an opportunity that may never come again? Here in my hand I now hold the Sword that blocked Coinspinner’s power in tonight’s game, when that power would have been used against me; this same blade can shatter the other’s metal forever. Believe me, it can. It has done the same for both Doomgiver and Townsaver, in times past.”
“But. . . O master, to destroy Coinspinner! Why?” Tigris was openly aghast at the thought that Wood could even consider annihilating such a magnificent weapon, an almost matchless treasure, nullifying the great advantage that he had just managed to acquire.
Actually, though the woman appeared to be taking seriously his threat to destroy the Sword, in her heart she could not really do so. Her master, for his part, could almost read her thoughts: Was this talk of destruction only some regal jest? But no, hardly that. She would know that
Wood was too sober to play such games, not much of a jester at any time.
She would, he thought, probably be virtually convinced that his talk of shattering a Sword was only some kind of a test he had devised for his subordinate.
While on occasion he might arrange such tests, now he had no time or inclination for them. Nor had he much patience for giving explanations. Still, he saw that if he wanted any intelligent response from his assistant at all, something in the way of explanation was a necessity.
“I am perfectly serious, girl. Consider that this unpredictable Sword now lying at my feet will always pose an obstacle to me, or to anyone else, who seeks to attain perfect power.”
“But you really don’t see that, do you?”
He gestured impatiently. “Suppose that I managed to get into my possession every Sword, including this one, of the ten that still remain intact. Yet this one, with its cursed independence, might fly away from me at any time. It might leave me, and then it might create problems for me, only the gods know what problems, once it had arrived in the hands of someone else.”
Tigris, having grasped the point as soon as it was stated plainly, was quick to be reassuring. “You’ll find some clever way around that, my wise and powerful lord. Some way to bind Coinspinner’s power forever to your service, and to that of no one else.”
Wood answered slowly. “I might. Such magic would be a supreme challenge, but I might attempt to manage it, if only I were not so busy just now with other matters. On the other hand, if I destroy the Sword of Chance now, now while I have the certain power to do so . . .” Again he brandished Shieldbreaker. There was no other known means to destroy any of the Swords. “Then I need fear Coinspinner’s power never again.”
Once more Tigris shifted her shapely weight on the great skull, her pale thighs flashing as if she could not choose to be anything other than seductive. “And yet,” she murmured. “And yet, my master hesitates.”
The master, plunged deep in thought again, scarcely looked up at her. But he did reply. “I do. I hesitate, indeed. Whilst Coinspinner is in my grasp, I can use its power to achieve . . . great things. Yes, already it has given me advantage. Presently I’ll have Prince Mark’s princely whelp firmly in my grip. And then I think his father-aye, and his grandfather too-will cease to be such sharp thorns in my side.”
The woman spoke cautiously. “I understand that your decision regarding this Sword must be a very difficult one, my lord.”
He did look at her now, and carefully. “Do you understand, Tigris? Do you begin to grasp my problem? I wonder if you do.”
And Wood closed his eyes briefly, casting abroad his inner vision, doing his best to follow the progress of the spells he had cast and the powers he had dispatched to snare young Adrian. The trouble was that the Tasavaltan whelp was guarded, better protected than Wood had ever realized . . . but yet, with Coinspinner’s help, success now seemed imminent.
Oh, the overwhelming force of Chance, of Fortune, that came with this Sword was too great a power to give up!
The wizard opened his eyes. He paced about, groaning intensely though almost inaudibly. Demons and spells were of no help to him now. His mind was in a frenzy, unable to come to a decision.
Then abruptly he stopped in his tracks. Suddenly he issued a sharp order. “Back to our headquarters! I will make my decision there. Wait, this time I will ride with you.”
The griffin, which had dropped out of sight for a time, now appeared again as if from nowhere, spread its wings and lowered its body to make it easier for the people to get aboard. In another moment, the creature and its double human cargo had whirled into the air again.
This leg of their flight was considerably longer than the first had been, though still not long enough to bring them into daylight.
The aerial voyage terminated at Wood’s headquarters. This edifice, when seen from the outside, appeared to be-and indeed was-a fortress of dark stone, sprawling along a mountain peak. It looked a forbidding place indeed, its lofty stone walls surrounding the sharp central crag that arose within them. The two arriving humans, on landing inside the high walls, entered an aspect of the place somewhat more civilized in appearance. They dismounted from the griffin at one end of a courtyard garden. This garden boasted fountains and statuary, though many of the plants that grew in it were not ordinary flowers. Blue flames, welling from some of the fountains, provided an eerie but serviceable illumination.