Water dripped somewhere within the cavern. It echoed among the stalactites into the sound of a distant
stream, but the basalt on which Countess Balila of Sandrakkan stood with her companions was dry.
Their two lanterns did little to illuminate the high dome, but the flames raised occasional iridescence from
the pearly flow rock deposited there before the volcanic upheaval of a thousand years before.
The wizard Dipsas squatted before the eight-pointed figure she’d traced on the basalt in powdered
sulphur. She tapped one angle with her athame as she called in a cracked voice, “Phrougi panton!”
To Balila, only a few feet away, the Words of Power were lost in the murmur of the cavern breathing
and the earth’s unfelt trembles. She hugged herself and trembled also, though the air in the chamber was
warmer than that of the palace from which she and her companions had descended not long after sunset.
Balila had taken good care of her appearance. In the cave’s dim light she could even now pass for the
pink-cheeked, strawberry blond of fifteen who’d married Earl Wildulf of Sandrakkan twenty years
before. She was fearful and uncomfortable in this place, but she remained here because of the same
determination that had preserved her looks through exercise and control of her appetite for sweets. Balila
wasn’t ambitious for herself, but there wasnothing she wouldn’t do to make her husband King of the
“Picale zamadon!” Dipsas intoned, tapping her athame, a knife of black horn cut out of a scale from the
back of a huge reptile. Dipsas herself didn’t understand some of the symbols carved into the blade. The
athame had been found in the sarcophagus of a wizard of millennia past. As she dipped and raised the
point in time to her Words of Power, quivers of vivid red and blue shone through its opacity.
“Alithe zamadon!” said Dipsas, her voice rising. Her wrinkled face had the settled blankness of
burgeoning fear. Her pronunciation of similar syllables had changed during the course of the incantation.