“Oh now this will be an interesting game,” Skuld smiled, as Megame put down the second subject. This one depicted an armored young woman, similar to the one on the Brave Companions card earlier, the one with bright blue hair and a sword in hand.
“Let us see how well you will understand the Hero’s Journey.”
Megame tried to steady her nervous hand as she drew the first card. It depicted the Hero, this time dressed in crown and framed with wings, standing as a great vaunted figure before a cheering crowd. The bottom of the card read:
Megame put down the card.
“It is the duty of a hero to become a legend,” Megame said. “To become famed in story and song, celebrated for centuries as a person worthy of remembrance.”
Skuld smiled as she drew her card and played it.
“The Solitude,” She said, placing a card down depicting a lone figure wandering a desert. “Though they may cheer her name, those words will never reach her. She is alone, and suffers for that loneliness as those she cared for fall from her grasp.”
Megame drew her next card in stubborn silence, and was surprised to find the first repeated card she had ever seen.
“Umm…” She hesitated before putting it down. “The Warrior”
Once more she put down the card of the red-haired spear-wielding woman that had been her first subject. “The hero need not be alone. There are those who she’ll always have by her side. Those who will inspire her to save the people in need, and those who will love her when she needs them.”
Skuld’s smile never left as she put down her next card.
“The Beasts,” She said, putting down a card displaying a terrifying draconic monster. “Our hero will be strong, but there are some monsters that would make meals of heroes; there are some threats she can never overcome, brought low before her legend will born.”
Megame quietly drew her next card. She saw an unfamiliar figure upon it this time. They appeared to be little more than a child, but in their hand they carried a large warhammer, a weapon that blazed with light and electricity that filled the rest of the card. At the bottom read:
“The Hero is never alone,” Megame said, fortifying her previous position. “And while she cannot slay all monsters, no monster can stand before the mighty thunderer! The one who can strike down giants and dragons with all the power of a god.”
“Fascinating,” was all Skuld said as she eyed the card. “You may yet have impressive skills if you can reach this deep into the deck.”
Without any further comment, she drew the next card from the deck and placed it.
“Hidden Knowledge,” She said, putting down a card illustrated with a thick leather-bound book that was clasped tightly shut and wrapped in chains. “All the strength will be of no use if our hero lacks the mind to use it properly.”
Megame drew her next card stubbornly, and this one gave her pause. It was, again, another figure. This one was a person with long dark hair, from their back spread the wings of a black butterfly, and monstrous claws rose from the background, inches from wrapping around their head. At the bottom of the card was the label:
“The Dark Herald”
Megame stared blankly at the card. What was this figure supposed to represent? The champion of some monster? The dark angel of some cruel god? How was that supposed to help the hero overcome hidden knowledge?
Once more, Megame found herself without an answer. Did she try anyway, find the thing that came closest and risk further decades of her lifespan? The way she saw it, she had little choice.
Gingerly, she put down the card as her mind raced. Skuld merely sat in silence.
“The Dark Herald…” Megame said slowly. “Will…” She sighed. “They will likely fight.”
“That is one possibility,” Skuld said as she swept the cards away. “But that will not be the path of fate she should followed.”
“What could I…she have done?” Megame asked.
“That will be for the hero to decide,” Skuld smiled. “There will be one more round should you choose to continue. The final risk will be upon you. Remember child that I will have nothing to lose while you sit here with everything at risk.”
The cold feeling came back, and Megame looked to the apparition before her as she saw it fade away entirely. At first she feared that it was already over, but then the reality set in. She was all the lifespan she had left.
One last shot to make things right.
“I will keep playing,” Megame said. “Not just for me, or for Constantin but…I want to prove I can make a good ending.” She nodded vehemently. “I want to prove that…despite it all, despite all the things you do…there can still be a happy end for the people in this world.”
The words were confident, but with each one spoken her courage waned. What was she doing here? Why was she risking her life for this stranger? Even if she told herself it was for a greater reason, to show she could defy fate, was that enough? Was she the one to fight that battle?
Was she wrong?
“Draw the card,” Skuld’s face had grown stony. “The time to play for your fate will arrive.”
Megame, her hands shaking, drew the card. When she looked at the picture it almost fell from her hand.
As she placed it with utmost care upon the table, the image upon it became etched into her mind: That of a bright-eyed, dark-haired girl dressed in robed of white and red, a fox dancing at her heels.
“The Shrine Maiden”
It was her. There could be no mistake. Even in an abstract illustration, she could recognize herself in the card. There was a connection she felt, like rope tied from her heart to the card. Skuld had been right, the time had truly come for her to play for her fate.
“Let us see what fate you will desire, Shrine Maiden,” Skuld spoke to the card and to Megame.
Megame didn’t want to draw the card. She didn’t want to play this game. Even if she had a feeling that the other cards had been the fates of others, to play for her own fate…
Megame had underestimated Skuld. She had expected to play for Constantin’s fate, not for her own. Slowly, she convinced her hand to reach out and draw the card, even as her fingers screamed at her to stop.
On the card was the image of a landscape, of pastoral fields, deep forests, and sloping mountains and hills, all beneath an orange evening sky and a bright red sun. Once more, even in abstraction, Megame recognized the truth of the card’s meaning, she could see the fate that it held, and she felt the desire deep within her soul for it.
“The Land of the Rising Sun”
She placed the card on top of the Shrine Maiden after a moment in taking comfort from its imagery.
“And what will this card mean?” Skuld asked, as Megame sat in silence.
“I want to go home,” Megame said quietly. “I want to see Japan again…I don’t want to die in this country.”
“None will ever find comfort in the thought of death on foreign shores,” Skuld said. Her voice lacked its earlier amusement, though a smile from her now would be unspeakably cruel.
Skuld drew her card in silence then placed it on the table.
“All who venture will desire a return to hearth and home,” Skuld said as she placed it. “But the shrine maiden must answer to a Higher Calling.”
On the card was the image of the Shrine maiden, being directed away from the red sun by a great hand, towards a distant land and a city built on seven hills. “This duty in Rome will keep you from your homeland as far as the future can tell.”
Every cell in her body wanted to stop her from drawing the next card. One wrong draw, one lack of imagination, one stroke of bad luck, and that would be the end of her. This card was the knife at her throat, the gun to her head, and she was toying with it.
But the only way to win was to draw the card.
Slowly Megame pulled the next card away and looked at it.
Once more she felt a warmth within her heart as she looked into the card. She was there, the Shine Maiden, but she was not alone this time. The Searcher, The Warrior, The Hero, The Thunderer, The Dark Herald, all the subjects and characters she had drawn walked beside her. There were smiles in their faces and a brightness in the air.
Slowly she put down the card, her confidence rising. It was as if they were standing around her, all the people she had tried and failed to save. Perhaps, if she could escape this match, if she could win this one goal, then she could help them, and they could help her in turn.
“I don’t need to do this alone,” She said quietly. “And I won’t do it alone. I’ll find them all, each and every one, and I’ll help them on their paths and…by doing so, they’ll help me. My duty fulfilled…then they’ll help me get home.”
She could feel her heartbeat again. Life flowing through her body. Skuld wasn’t throwing monsters or calamity at her, and she didn’t need their strength. She needed their love, and a bond between them, these people she had not yet met.
Skuld’s voice was quiet as she played the next card and ripped the warmth from Megame’s body.
“The End of Days,” She said, displaying a card that showed a withered black world beneath a bleeding black sun. “Will be a time when all mankind is gone and the world falls silent.”
Megame stared for a moment, mouth agape. What sort of card countered the end of the world? Had she lost already? Was this the end?
Shivering slightly, a cold wind blowing through the clearing, she drew the next card. There was no figure on its surface, instead merely a number of shining blue threads that wound through empty space, some crossing, others tying together while others still strayed apart. Merely looking at them almost made Megame feel as if the threads were moving on their own. At the bottom the card was labeled:
“The Threads of Fate”
Megame almost slammed the card onto the table. She would not die here, not at this table. Not only for her own future but for the future of the others.
“That fate is not written,” She said. “The Threads of Fate twist to prevent such a catastrophe.”
“You should be careful,” Skuld said, her eyes flashing up to meet Megame’s with their terrible gaze. “You will be venturing into my territory.”
“I’m not going to back down,” Megame stood firm, even as her insides felt like ice.
Skuld drew her next card and placed it down. It depicted three women standing around a pool of water. One old, one middle-aged, one young. It was an image that was both strange to Megame and remarkably familiar.
“It will never be for a mortal to decide how the threads of fate are drawn, sewn, and cut as they need,” She said. “I will play The Three, they who will command fate, they who will mandate the future, and they who will not be denied.”
Megame was frozen to her seat.
This was it. The End. Megame had walked directly into Skuld’s trap; she had contested her fate against the will of those who decided them. She had attempted to beat a master of fate at their own game. There was nothing left now but to draw her next card and die.
Her hand reached about halfway to the deck and froze, and she could not move it further.
Megame felt tears run down her face as her arm shivered.
“I can’t…” She stammered through her caught throat. “I don’t want to…”
Skuld rose from her seat and gently walked to the side of the table. She took Megame’s bare wrist in her hand and guided it to the deck.
Megame expected to die instantly, or at the very least feel the icy cold touch of death. Instead all she felt was warmth.
“It will be alright,” Skuld said gently. “In any future, along any path, you should not be afraid.”
“But…” Megame couldn’t manage her words as tears streamed down her face. She didn’t want to draw the card. She didn’t want to see it.
“This will ever be why humans should not play the game of fate,” Skuld said quietly as she pressed Megame’s fingers to the cards. “But whatever the draw may be, you will prove yourself a tremendous player of the game, Megame Kamigawa. You will have felt not only for your own fate but for the fates of others. You will have felt how their destinies could tie to your own. It will be that empathy, that kindness of spirit, that will make you a player of the game that others could only hope to be.”
Slowly Megame drew the card.
“Let us play the last round,” Skuld said as she retook her seat. “Let us see what fortune brought you.”
Without a word, Megame put down the card.
“Paradox,” She said simply.
On top of the pile of cards that had grown was one that was simply a complete blank, nothing drawn for the single word.
“Fate has decreed it, but fate will not have its way today.” Megame said. “Something will happen regardless of the plan of fate, and the Shrine Maiden’s dream, and the dreams of the others, are some of them.”
Skuld stared at the cards for a while, her expression inscrutable, before her face finally split into a smile. She drew her last card, looked at it, and then simply put it into her sleeve.
“I will cede the round,” Skuld said. “Whether you will win for the blessing of the fox goddess or your own abilities, it is my sisters’ jobs to say.”
She rose form the table. “Your life is yours again, Constantin’s unlife is his once more.”
Megame sat in her chair, body limp, as she inhaled for what felt like the first time in years.
“I get all my years back?”
“And Kara’s contract is over?”
“Will you repeat all the conditions you placed?” Skuld asked.
“Ah, sorry,” Megame said.
Slowly, she drew herself from the table and rose to stand before Skuld. She bowed deeply at the waist before her, hands at her waist.
“Thank you, Lady Skuld,” She said. No response came, and when she eventually looked up, she saw that Skuld was gone and Megame was alone in the clearing.
A smile slowly starting to spread across her face, Megame started back towards the face, the sky looking bluer than she had ever seen it before.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=66&sl=469