Where All Roads Lead

The Game of Fate

May 26th, 2024

Megame walked quietly back into the forest where she had built her temporary shrine. The sky through the dark trees was an overcast grey, a solid slate of empty color that cast everything in a pale light. The birds were quiet, there was no sound of snapping twigs or rustling leaves as the stillness over the forest became slowly absolute.

Hachi had wanted to come, but both Megame and Kara had insisted that she had to do this alone. Any attempt to help or provide advice might be taken as an attempt to cheat, and if Kara was to be believed, there was nothing that Skuld hated more than being cheated. Still, Megame silently wished that she had someone with her for her support.

She reminded herself that she was never truly alone. The kami were on her side, Inari-sama in particular, and that luck would keep her going strong into the future so long as she had faith in it. Still, it was hard not to have doubts when she felt so alone in a silent forest, about to play a game of fate with death itself.

Kara had been very blunt on the full nature of her opponent. Skuld was not a death goddess, not a mere Norse divinity who could read the future. While Megame had not wanted to believe it, she could sense the ancient power behind Skuld’s eyes just as surely as she could feel the world enter the spectral pale of death around her when they had last spoken.

Being a relatively devout Shinto-Buddhist, Megame believed in the cycle of Samsara and reincarnation. That did not, however, eliminate the specter of death from her worries and fears. Death still very much existed, and while it was not an end to her spiritual existence, it was not a threshold she felt ready to cross.

In the clearing she had made, a table had appeared in the center where her shrine had once been, sitting in the shade of the large tree at the center. It was made of finely carved wood with a pair of matching chairs, and seemed somewhat at odds with the rustic surroundings.

Walking to the table, a hand running over the polished wood surface, Megame couldn’t help but feel her heart hammer in her chest, waiting for her opponent to arrive.

“Right on time,” The voice of Skuld filled the air as the tall woman stepped into view from around the trees. “Will you be ready to play?”

“I am,” Megame nodded. “I said I would. I’m not about to back down.”

“To back down would be the wiser choice,” Skuld said. “It would have been years yet before you can play this game on my level. But you will only have luck to guide you now.”

“I have faith in that luck,” Megame said firmly. “And I believe what I’m doing is right. I need to stay with that.”

Skuld only smiled as she took her side, a deck of cards appearing in the center of the table before them, and with a wave of her hand she gestured Megame to take her seat, which she did without comment.

“When this game ends,” Skuld said. “There will be little time for questions; it will be better if you asked them before we begin.”

“I just have a few,” Megame nodded. “You…aren’t just a Norse goddess are you? That’s what Kara said.”

Skuld smiled. It was an empty and hollow smile that sent fear down her spine.

“Who are you?”

Skuld didn’t respond at first, merely looking Megame squarely in the eyes. That, however, was all the confirmation she needed.

This woman of a thousand faces and a thousand names was the tender of the future, the caretaker of the branches of destiny, the aligner of threads.

The Bringer of Death.

This beautiful blonde-haired young German woman may as well have been a skull wreathed in a dark cloak, scythe over her shoulder. But all that was just imagery, the curtain dropped before the truth that her eyes made clear.

“What will you do to me?” Megame asked. “If I lose?”

At this Skuld’s smile grew somewhat sinister as she spoke, adding a slight melodic quality to her voice.

“I’ll fix your feet so you can’t walk,”

Megame shuddered as a feeling of cold came over her body as if all the warmth had fled her.

“I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk,”

Her body stiffened, joints aching as if her very bones protested.

“I’ll take your sight so you can’t see”

“Why?” Megame asked, body shivering. “Why do this? Why play with lives like this?”

Skuld’s smile fell, and the cold feeling left Megame all at once.

“You would ask me why I would demand life as payment,” She said. “You would ask me to be satisfied with money or currency, some token to be offered?”

“I…” Megame began, but Skuld interrupted her.

“Money will never buy life,” Skuld said. “The threads of fate are not spun from gold, only life can pay for life.”

“So that’s all you take,” Megame said. “Money won’t pay for life, so the only thing you’d take as a wager…”

“Nothing will satisfy a debt of death save for years of life. It is why the dead will never be able to gamble for more years. They will have nothing left to spend.”

Megame nodded. “Alright. I’m ready to take that risk.”

“Your years,” Skuld said. “Will be offered as an opening wager the fate of Constantin’s undead soul.”

“I agree,” Megame said. “Though first, I want to know how our games will be structured. How do I win and…how do I lose?”

“We will play three games. On each, you shall be the one to choose the subject,” Skuld said. “And for each game lost I will take a third of your remaining lifespan. Should you win a single round, your life will be restored in full and the price on Constatnin’s head will be delayed.”

“Delayed until when?” Megame asked.

“His thread will be wound back into the tapestry to prevent snarl,” Skuld said. “It will be cut of course, as all threads are, but he will have some time yet before my sisters and I come for him again.”

“Alright,” Megame swallowed. “I just need to win one game? Out of three?”

“Just one of three,” Skuld smiled again. “To beat me at my own game.”

Megame didn’t know if those odds were generous or horribly unbalanced. She also didn’t want to know the answer.

“I agree,” Megame said. “To all the terms you’ve given.”

Skuld gestured to the cards. “Then we may begin.”

Megame shivered as something cold ran through her body. A fog began to pour in the clearing around them, pooling like banks of snow at their feet. From the fog, standing at the side of the table between them, stood the ghostly image of Megame herself. Even at a glance Megame knew what this apparition was. It was her available funds, the remaining years of her life made real so she could watch them slip away.

Taking a deep breath, Megame tried to ignore the apparition as she took hold of the top card, putting it face up on the table to reveal it to both of them.

“Oh, how fun.” Skuld smiled.

The image on the card was labeled “The Warrior”. Unlike the card from the previous game with Kara, she did not recognize the girl on this one. She was young, around Megame’s age, but with bright red hair kept in a ponytail, and her body adorned with what looked like classical Greek armor like that which could be found on a statue. In her hands was a long spear.

“You will draw the first card,” Skuld smiled, politely ceding the first draw to her. Megame nodded and drew again, looking the card over.

This one was much more malevolent looking. Filling the card was the shadow image of an enormous black dragon, its body a mix of withered skin and exposed bone. Skeletons danced at its feet, and its great maw was opened to breathe poison gas and reveal a gaping maw of teeth. At the bottom of the card read:

“The Dragon”

Megame thought for a moment, The use was obvious, that a warrior should be destined to kill a great dragon, but doing the obvious thing might just make it easier for Skuld to counter her. She decided to try and be more ambiguous, give herself more room to wiggle.

“The dragon,” She said, putting the card down. “The warrior’s destiny is to face a great dragon in combat”

Her wording was deliberate. She didn’t make promises of dueling or slaying a dragon, merely to face it; it made her goal that much easier to reach.

Skuld apparently approved, the enigmatic smile never leaving her face. Silently, the Norn drew the next card and looked at it for less than a second before placing it down on top of the dragon.

The card portrayed a massive hulking figure with skin of bronze and eyes like fire. Everything about them seemed burning red and furious.

“The Rage,” Skuld said. “You warrior will not reach her goal, burdened as she is with the weight of her own fury.”

Megame frowned. She had expected Skuld to make the dragon inaccessible somehow, but instead she had handicapped the warrior. She drew her next card and her heart fell.

The image on this card was not one of courage or inspiration; rather it was the image of a wolf with bright red fur. It did not look particularly fearsome or ferocious, rather a proud and noble she-wolf. At her feet were two young human babies, seemingly at ease with the predator before them. In the background, she could see a vast city built atop some hills. At the bottom the label read:

“Mother Wolf”

Megame puzzled over the wordings. How could a wolf be motherly? She racked her brain for a moment as she tried to think of stories with wolves that didn’t come with the monikers “Big” and “bad”. Nothing came to her mind, but an idea slowly crept over her mind. She might not know the specific story, but the image and its use were undeniable. Not all wolves were ferocious, not all foul looking things were to be feared. Sometimes those we would think of as enemies could be our strongest allies.

“Mother wolf,” Megame put down the card. “The warrior is angry, and rightfully so perhaps, but with a wise mentor and an understanding hand she can tempered into something great. Although that person may not take a form they expect.”

Skuld’s smile widened.

“You will not be the average adversary,” She said with clear amusement in her voice. “Good.”

With that she drew and put down her next card without delay.

“Tragedy,” Skuld said, placing down a card displaying a weeping mask. “The anger in her soul can be quelled, but at its root is tragedy, which no mentor or training can heal.”

“Mmm…” Megame frowned, wondering if she could ever hope to stump Skuld before she drew her next card.

Once more the card stumped her at first, and she was a little frustrated at how Skuld drew these easily-applicable cards while hers became steadily more arcane.

This newest card displayed the image of the spear-carrying warrior descending a dark staircase, lit only by a single light at the top of the stairs, reading:

“Journey to the Afterlife”

Megame put down the card. “A death is a tragedy,” she said, trying her best to keep eyes on Skuld. “But sometimes, even if death can’t be stopped, closure can be found beyond the land of the living. The Warrior descends into the underworld, reuniting one last time with those she lost and finding peace.”

Skuld simply drew her next card before placing it down over Megame’s.

“The army,” She said. “The hordes of the dead stand before the Warrior and the dragon. Too much for one soul to stand against.”

Megame stubbornly drew her next card. She felt vindicated that attempts to break the warrior had failed, but this battle wasn’t over. She put down the next card she drew almost as soon as she drew it.

“Brave companions!”

Megame almost shouted, getting very into it. The card she had put down depicted more warriors. At the head was her own red-haired subject, standing alongside another young woman, her hair blue and a sword clutched in her armored hand. Behind them, more figures remained, obscured by darkness.

“Not all armies need be fought alone,” Megame said. “Working together, many can share glory as one.”

Skuld quietly drew and played her next card.

“Primordial,” She said, putting down the card and revealing a card that appeared to be a plain swirling black void.

“There are things that cannot be fought and killed by strength of arms. Some dragons which are more than they appear to be. The warrior’s prize is forever beyond her power.”

Megame frowned, hoping her luck would hold as she drew her next card.

Her heart froze in her chest as the next card revealed itself. It displayed only a shattered spear upon the ground with the words written plainly

“Loveless”

Even without revealing the card Skuld’s smile grew.

“Stumped are we?”

“N-not yet!” Megame objected as her mind raced. She could place it down, try to come up with some excuse. But she knew that Skuld would be more than happy to see through any obfuscation. She might even be penalized for it.

“I concede,” She hung her head. “I can’t win this round.”

With a flick of her hand the card Megame had been holding vanished and appeared in Skuld’s hand as she looked it over.

“Ah, a difficult future indeed.” She said. “The warrior will be strong and has new allies, but there will be nothing in her to fill the hole in her heart. A weakness you should have seen to. Without love, her journey is doomed to fail.”

“How could I have known that!?” Megame objected. “I fixed her tragedy!”

“One cannot simply fix a tragedy; that is human nature. It will be your duty to see that wounds will not fester in the future.”

Megame frowned, but more than the usual shame of having lost, she could feel something tugging at her spirit. She looked at the ghostly image of herself and saw it begin to fade, becoming less solid and less substantial with each passing moment.

“How many years do you think you have left?” Skuld asked. “Would you like to take a guess?”

“Next round!” Megame insisted as Skuld shuffled the cards into the deck.

“There is yet the option of surrender.” Skuld said. “If you will back down and abandon Constantin you will walk away with two-thirds of your remaining life intact. Those lost years will be nothing but the price of your foolishness; they need not be your entire life.”

Megame bit her bottom lip. As she felt a cold sensation sink through her bones, she realized just how high the stakes of this game were. Every lost game was a third of her remaining lifetime. Years, perhaps entire decades, where she would have smiled, laughed, and loved, lost to time.

She should stop now. She could get out while she still had a life to live. Constantin was a vampire, he had used up all the life he had and then some. What was the point of dying to try and save him?

Because in the pit of her heart, Megame knew that she could not abandon someone that she had a chance to save, just to save herself. It isn’t who she is.

“Keep playing,” Megame said. “I still have two rounds to beat you.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=65&sl=14

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One thought on “Where All Roads Lead

  1. Pingback: Where All Roads Lead | The Cities Eternal

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