“Who are you?” asked Victor.
“I,” said the man, “am the incarnation of cunning, the epitome of wisdom; I see ten steps ahead of any mortal, and comprehend a thousand possible paths at once. Never defeated, my strategy is infallible, my defence impenetrable, my attack irresistible. My queen strikes fear into the bravest hearts, and all will bow before my king. I am the wizard of the sixty-four squares. I am… The Chessmaster!”
“Why do you have a sickle?”
“What?” said the Chessmaster.
“Your staff—it has a bloody great blade stuck to the top. That’s a sickle, right?”
The Chessmaster raised his wooden staff upright and then hammered its base on the ground like a judge with a gavel. He stood tall, with his chin raised, and glared at Victor. “It’s a scythe.”
“Oh,” said Victor. “What’s the difference?”
The Chessmaster sighed, and his head dropped a little. “A scythe has a long handle like this, see? Sickles have short handles.”
“Ah, okay. So why do you have a scythe?”
There was a long silence.
“I have a scythe,” said the Chessmaster, “because I am a wizard. I just told you I am a wizard a few moments ago.”
“Oh,” said Victor, staring up at the glinting steel. “I thought wizards had wands, or staffs.”
“Wizards can have scythes too. I am a wizard. I have a scythe.”
“The Grim Reaper has a scythe, doesn’t he?”
The Chessmaster closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, sure, I guess so.”
“Maybe he’s a wizard too—”
“Silence!” boomed the Chessmaster.
He moved toward Victor, rapping the heavy, wooden handle of his scythe against the floor with every other step.
“Enough trifling, mortal,” he said. “You have entered the Cavern of Ancient Mystery, so obviously you have come to challenge me.” He released his scythe but it remained upright. It levitated and hovered back of its own accord to lean against the throne. “I accept your challenge.” He brought his hands together with a dramatic clap, and then rubbed them slowly. Red smoke swirled from between his palms. “I hope you are ready. In a thousand ages, no one has beaten the Chessmaster.” He turned, held his palms flat in front of his face, and blew the smoke toward the table. It swept over the chequered board, dividing into thirty-two tiny spirals, which solidified into stone chess pieces. The Chessmaster walked back to the throne and sat down.
Victor stared at the table. He turned and looked at the thick, insulated door, and then turned back to the Chessmaster. “So… we play chess, and then what?”
The Chessmaster’s slender lips stretched into a malevolent smile; his bleak, beady eyes shared the joy. “Chess is a game of war. And war is never without its casualties. If you play me and lose… you must die.”
Victor straightened his tie.
“Perhaps now,” said the Chessmaster, “you understand why some wizards prefer scythes.”
After a minute pacing the room, Victor stopped and eyed the board. The Chessmaster’s bony fingers slid forward over the arm rests, and his smile widened to reveal a jagged row of festering teeth.
“Ha-heh-ha!” he cackled. “Thousands upon thousands of possible moves—an elaborate dance where one false step means doom. And in this dance, you may consider me Frank Astaire. Ha-ha!”
“Frank?” whispered Victor. He scrutinised the Chessmaster with a look, and then eyed the scythe. “How many people have played chess against you in this house?” he asked.
The Chessmaster grinned. “No one has been foolish enough to challenge me.”
“Thought so. You know what, wizard? Rack ’em up, let’s get the game on.”
He unbuttoned his jacket and sat on the stool. The Chessmaster’s mouth dropped slightly open; he drew his hands back and stared.
“You… you want to play chess?” he asked.
“Yeah, let’s do it.”
“Uh… Because you know how good I am, right? I am undefeated.” He raised his trembling fists. “I am the Chessmaster!”
“Yeah I know,” said Victor. “So let’s play.”
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