Where All Roads Lead

 

Chapter 33

“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.

“The Hero”

“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:

“The Legend”

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 Thunderer”

“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.

“The Bond”

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 win?”

“Yes.”

“I get all my years back?”

“Yes.”

“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.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=66&sl=469

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

The Three Sisters of Fate

schadow_grabmal_alexander_2

“When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
“When the hurly-burly’s done,
“When the battle’s lost and won”.
That will be ere the set of sun.”
“Where’s the place?”
“Upon the heath”
“There to meet with Macbeth.”

(Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act I)

(Image source: Wikipedia)

Fate is a concept that has run a course through fiction, mythology, history, and philosophy since the early days of humanity, so it should be little surprise that it makes a prominent appearance in The Cities Eternal. The exact nature of fate, however, and the trio of women who appear to command it is left largely ambiguous, and deliberately so. In today’s post, however, we will examine the mythic origins of the three sisters and what they represent.

A trio of witches determining fate is a common theme in western myth and storytelling. The Greek Moirai, the Roman Parcae, the Norse Norns, and Shakespeare’s Wyrd Sisters are all variations on the same theme: a trio meant to represent past, present and future. The Sisters in The Cities Eternal are a deliberate amalgamation of their traits. They carry the properties and names of all three, for they are all three. We saw in The Wolves of Rome that some gods can change their behavior or appearance under different epithets. And more recently in Where All Roads Lead we saw that across pantheons even gods with common origins such as Ares and Mars can be very different. The trio, however, are specifically not gods. They are something older, more ephemeral, and altogether more powerful.

The names of the fates and the bodies of the witches can be seen more as vessels than true forms. Like an actor playing a role, when one wishes to confer with the being known as Atropos, then the younger sister inhabits that form and that pattern. It is the form most people know, but it is nothing but a mask for the tenders of fate to wear. The Younger sister might also take the name of Skuld, Morta, or simply the Grim Reaper.

And the sisters are not fate. A deliberate choice was to make the trio of sisters the menders and caretakers of the “threads” of fate rather than a representation of fate itself. Fate is a non-living but constantly shifting idea, best represented by the threads of a tapestry. The Elder Sister spins new threads and tends the threads that have already been woven. The Middle Sister ensures that everything is woven properly in place, measuring the lengths that will be needed. The Youngest sister plans the shape the tapestry will take, and cuts the threads once they have been put in place. Together they weave a tapestry of fate that dictates the rise and fall of people, nations, and worlds.

So who are the mythological figures from which these figures drew inspiration?

The most well-known are the Fates, also known as the Moirai, of Greek Mythology. Rather than past, present, and future explicitly, they were identified more as the ones who weaved, measured, and cut the threads representing the lives of gods, heroes, and mortals. As with similar figures they numbered three: Clotho, whose name meant “spinner”, who would spin the threads of fate from a distaff onto a spindle; Lachesis, whose name meant “allotter”, who would measure the length of the thread, the length representing their allotted lifetime; and Atropos, whose name meant “unturnable” who held the “Abhorred shears” to cut the thread of life when it reached its end. In a reverse of their Norse counterparts, Atropos is the eldest while Clotho is the youngest, as they are more representative of the three stages of life as opposed to the passage of time.

As with many figures of Greek mythology, these three had prominent Roman counterparts, known as the Parcae. Their roles and symbols are largely similar, with Clotho becoming Nona (the Ninth, as it was on the ninth day of life a Roman child was named and from that day their thread was woven), Lachesis became Decima (the Tenth), and perhaps most disturbingly Atropos became Morta (the Dead One).

The power of these figures varied across time. One of Zeus’ Epithets was “Master of Fate” and he was occasionally seen as able to command the Moirai to follow his will. On other occasions, however, even the gods are beholden to the fates chosen for them by the Moirai, Fate was a powerful force in Greek mythology that even the gods feared. This can be seen near the end of The Wolves of Rome, where Zeus implies that the fates have ceased to listen to him with the Days of Revelation, as our trio have their own business to conduct.

The Norse equivalent of the trio are the Norns. Classically they appeared as a trio: Urd (from the same word meaning “wyrd/fate”), the Eldest. Verdandi (Meaning “present/happening”), the Middle Sister, and Skuld (“debt/future”) the youngest. Unlike the Moirai, the trio did not have predefined roles save perhaps what can be gleaned from the etymology of their names. They work together, rather than separately, to divine the fates of men and the path the world would take. They draw knowledge from the Well of Fate and tend to the World Tree Yggdrassil. Another unusual feature of the Norns is that there are implied to be many, or at least they take different forms. They are often conflated with Norse sorceresses (Volvas) and Valkyries, and in the words of the dragon Fafnir in the Poetic Edda:

“Of many births

the Norns must be,

Nor one in race they were;

Some to gods, others

to elves are kin,

And Dvalin’s daughters some.”

This implies that Norns either appeared as, or occurred as gods such as the Aesir, giants,elves, and dwarves. In Norse mythology this may have been literal, with many Norns existing across the worlds. In The Cities Eternal the number stays at three, but those three can take any shape or form they desire, and are not as easily bound by things like time and causality.

macbeth3

This image of the trio of witches who could determine the time of birth and death as well as the fates of nations, has been repeated in fantastic literature ever since the image first appeared in mythology, most prominently in the play Macbeth by original wordsmith William Shakespeare. There the “Weyward/Wyrd/Weird” Sisters acted as a warning and prophecy to the ambitious Thane Macbeth, a decidedly fantastic element in the tragedy.

Our trio in The Cities Eternal is at once possibly the most powerful and the most ephemeral. They are the tenders of fate, its guardians and its diviners, unreachable by all when they do not wish to be found. The Younger Sister, be she Atropos, Morta, or Skuld, is every bringer of death across cultures. She is the diviner of the future and the one who deals out death at the allotted time. Whether she can be bargained with is debatable, as her plans are entirely inscrutable. Does winning a game of chance against the Unturnable One mean you have truly added years to your allotted time, or was it always part of the plan, and you always had those years to begin with?

Only the Three Sisters can see the threads, and they aren’t telling.

The Wolves of Rome

Fate’s Pool

It was a gathering of three, as it always is. They arrived, one-by-one, in the wooded glade, as they always do. Their location didn’t matter, so long as it is near water and will have trees in a purer, more ancient part of the world.

The eldest had been the first to arrive. Though timeless and untouched by age, the difficulties of her duties had proven themselves on her features. Her hair had become somewhat more flecked with silver, her eyes wearier. She moved with an almost nervous energy, her arms crossed over her chest as she had waited for the others to arrive.

The middle sister was second to arrive. Punctual as the movement of the stars, she was never late nor early. Counter to her elder sister, she was seemingly unburdened by the weight of her tasks. If anything, the middle child was the happiest of the three, her clever smile growing to the edges of her lips.

The youngest is the last to arrive. Her face is like sunshine, a brilliant mask over a merciless and tireless interior. On her face is a warm smile promising comfort and kindness, but her eyes are far from kind. There is a cruel ambivalence in her visage, her burden the heaviest to bear.

“So here we are, now and again.” The Middle smiled as they once more drew into their circle. “We three, as we are and ever are. Let us hear our joys and worries now.”

“My worries, as you have called them, were endless.” The Eldest frowned. “People forgot. Their minds were withdrawn from the past we drew, so I have been drawing another from so much smoke and aether. Again, I have asked what sense is there when the future alters the past? Even the mortals have noticed.”

“Mortals will always notice things in small numbers.” The Youngest child smiled.

“What is it they are calling it?” The Middle asked. “The Cavallo-White Effect?”

“That is what they will call it.” The Youngest said. “They will not call it that for another year or so.”

“What does it matter what it was called?” The Eldest snapped. “It was pestilence upon my work!”

“I ask that you abide.” The Middle said in her calm diplomatic tone. “We are all struggling.”

“How has she struggled?” The eldest lost her temper, rounding on the Youngest. “She has been free to weave and wander, to play and toss the threads so loosely.”

The Youngest laughed an empty laugh. “I will suffer as I always have,” She said. “With dignity and grace. For while it will be your charge to measure the births and spin the threads for those who will tread the paths of history, I shall stand, shears in hand, to meet them at their end.”

The Eldest, though still in her petulant mood, silenced herself before the Middle spoke again.
“Still, we are making progress.” She said, gesturing to both of them. “The prophecies we spin from Fate are holding true. Rome is the center of mortal activity for the time.”

“As it will be.” Said the Youngest.

“As it was” Said the Eldest.

“But it is not all there is, is it now?” The Middle said. “We are beginning to see other lands with other threads of fate begin to rise alongside it.”

“Sicily…” The youngest marked them off, as if in order. “Germany, Japan, Aztlan, Carthage, Egypt. These will simply be a few of many.”

“Good, good.” The Middle smiled as the Eldest kept her sulking silence. “And how are our actors on this stage of Rome. Are their lines well-tended to?”

“The threads have been handled decently.” The Eldest spoke up. “The incongruities and oddities have been dealt with in large part. Several of them have been worked to their conclusion.”

“Already?” The Middle asked in false surprise. “We work quickly, sisters.”

“The Tale of Echo’s Curse has been concluded.” The Eldest said.

“Then it is time for young Nora to move to center stage in her own role.” The Middle smiled. “How is that coming along?”

“It will be in your domain momentarily.” The Youngest smiled mischievously. “The last details I will attend to will soon be falling into place.

Perhaps a thousand miles away, tugged perhaps by chance or the pull of fate, a girl rises from a weeks-long sleep. A girl named Lenore.

“Excellent.” The Middle said. “And fine time as well. And what of the youngest wolf of Rome? Is he being handled?”

“His work into the cult will continue some time yet.” The Youngest said. “Though he is moving to the wayside. The Hour of the Wolf will be over soon in Rome.” She added with an impish grin. The others did not share in her amusement.

Another thousand miles away, Giovanni looks wistfully out a window, imagining the fields and forests at his feet. The work he does now is better fit for human hands and human minds. The humans will need their protection for some time yet, but how much longer will they need their aid?

“And what of our little heroic upstart?” The Middle one finally asked. “How is she?”

“That will be your job.” The Youngest giggled. “We merely handle how she will be.”

“And how she was.” The Eldest added.

“Fine then.” The Middle huffed. “I can tell you that she is taking her first few steps.”

“As have many others.” The Eldest said. “We were mistaken before to put so much faith in mortal hands. Many have died.”

“As will many more.” The Youngest said. “But we will all know she is something special, though she will not accomplish much alone.”

“This is very true.” The Middle smile. “She needs accomplices.”

“Her adoptive Sister was a candidate.” The Eldest shrugged. “But she had her own tale to tell.”

“Then our work is obvious.” The Middle said. “With one potential hero in our hands, it is time we found others.”

“Heroes will be rare to find.” The Youngest replied. “It will be easier to find more specialized accomplices.”

“You have something in mind?” The Middle cocked her eyebrow.

“I will.” The Youngest said. “I will have many things in mind. Friend, lover, teacher, wanderer, all will find their way to her.”

“And to what end will all of this have been?” The Eldest asked.

“Now, now.” The Youngest wagged a finger. “That is not yours to know, only mine. Just as I will never cross into your realm. Once things cease to be “What will be” I shall never see them again.”

“Which was a troublesome distinction these past few months.” The Eldest frowned.

“Which will not be my problem.” The Youngest shrugged.

“Ahem!” The Middle brought their attention together. “Is there anything else?”

“Zeus was mad at us.” The Eldest said. “As we had ceased to pay him lip service as we so often did before. We failed to tell him how his once servile Moirai have become so unbound.”

“It is not the first time.” The Middle said. “And it shall not be the last.”

“And we know you have had your own dealings with Odin.” The Eldest glanced her way. “Though he has always been wise enough to know the Norns were never at his beck and call.”

“He is quite wise.” The Middle’s smile grew. “And we do have dealings in regards to the fates of one of his chosen.”

“That valkyrie, of course…” The Eldest furrowed her brow. “Has she not seen enough?”

“Which Valkyrie?” The Youngest glanced between them.

“You cannot know everything, dear sister.” The Middle smiled at her. “Some things are ours to decide.”

The Youngest frowned. There was very little she never saw, and she did not appreciate plans for the future to be hidden form her. Still, she held her own advantage, there were things she knew that they could not, and this bred plans of her own.

“Now I believe that is all.” The Eldest smiled at them as they rose once more.

“It was.” Agreed the Eldest.

“It will be all.” Said the Youngest.

Without any further words, each of them turned away and left in their own time. The Eldest was the first to remove herself as she had been the first to arrive, already weary of the sorting work she had to do. So many little threads to be realigned. The Middle followed her in turn. She had people to meet, and threads to nudge in the right direction. The Youngest left last, the heaviest burden hidden behind her laughing face. So many little threads to cut.

Their wheel was spinning quickly, and it would need all hands to tend to it.


Previous Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Prologue

It was a gathering of three, as it always is. They arrived, one-by-one, in the wooded glade, as they always do. Their location didn’t matter, so long as it is near water and will have trees in a purer, more ancient part of the world.

The eldest had been the first to arrive, as she always had. Though older, she was far from a “Crone”. She was little past her mothering days, at least in appearance. Her hair had grayed and lines and deep shadows had appeared beneath her eyes, and she was clearly exasperated that she, yet again, had been the first one to arrive despite being the last to have known.

The middle of the sisters was the second to arrive. To say she was anything but in her prime would be a grave error. She was dark-haired and dark-eyed, full-figured and she carried with her an expression of calm grace that belied a menacing presence. She arrived precisely on time, exactly as she meant to, on a schedule that bound everyone but that only she knew.

The youngest of the sisters is the last to arrive. She is the youngest by far, hardly past her teenage years, and the flaunting of her relative youth is an eternal thorn in the sides of her elder sisters. She is bright, blonde, and beautiful, a smile on her face and a spring in her step as she joins them at last, her face a mask lost in thought, as if unaware she is just shy of being late.

They arrived in a circle around the pool of water as they had done countless times before in countless ages past. Though they could pass as women the truth was in their eyes. There was wisdom in their eyes, knowledge beyond mortal ken, but above all else there was time, an abyss of time behind their eyes that marked them as something far apart from humanity.

“So when is it we are meeting again?” The middle sister asked. “Shall it be on a clear autumn’s day or in a raging storm?” From her pocket she retrieved a schedule book meant for little more than show, after all what planner could account for the turn of fate and the passing of an age?

“When wolves will rise and dragons will fall.” The youngest smiled, hands clasped behind her back as if hiding something. “When the battles have been lost and won.”

“Then we had best see to our task now.” The eldest said, annoyance on her face. “Since we have come here to talk. We have made a mess of madness and our tapestries have been undone.”

“Only because you will never have the benefit of foresight.” The youngest smiled. “Merely the curse of hindsight.”

“Only because you have meddled where you shouldn’t.” The eldest snapped. “What sense was there when the future changed the past?!”

“Calm yourselves.” The middle sister’s cool and calculated voice spread between them. “There is a great disturbance in the threads, it sends ripples up and down that which we weave before, now, and after, so let us find a solution together.”

“A solution she says.” The youngest smiled, “Yet she will always have so many plans.”

“Plans in plans.” The eldest smirked. “But we always have heard her out before.”

“Our plans are undone, our dear threads frayed and unraveled. The solution is obvious, we must weave a new Tapestry.”

The eldest scoffed. “Easily said, but you were not the one tending to those woven threads. The work needed to be done is more than we have ever done before.”

“I know it is much to ask, but it is not a light weight upon any of our shoulders.” The middle said.

“So many new pieces we are moving into place, so many tasks I am setting my little bird upon.”

“I suppose it will not be so herculean a task.” The youngest considered. “Still so many changes, so far in the past. Cities will rise and will have risen, people will blink in and out of time and space. The repercussions will be seen by even mortal eyes.”

“That is the least of what they are seeing.” The middle smiled. “The world is a quickly changing place.”

“It has changed far too quickly if you asked me.” The Eldest frowned.

“She won’t.” the youngest smirked, “Besides I will have more than enough of my own work to do as well, believe you me.”

“So you may, but your work failed to make mine any easier.”

“Blame the Dragon and the Witch, not me.” The youngest smiled.

The Dragon and the Witch. That was why they had gathered again after a now unclear but undoubtedly great span of time. One rogue Witch, though she was far more than a simple witch, had set their dusty wheel turning once more.

“Oh we’re just getting started!” The youngest continued, clapping her hands together, turning to the Middle. “Tell me, what of the others?”

“Aetna has been bellowing smoke and fire for days.” The Middle stated, as if reading from a list. “The sands are churning under Egypt. An eclipse is frozen over Mexico, and the tzitzimimeh begin their descent. I’ve noticed the stars are not right over Japan either. Your doing as well?” She glanced aside at the Third, who laughed.

“None of this will be our doing.” She grinned. “We simply will make sure it all goes smoothly. Admittedly for once in history that will make my job easier than yours.”

“You said it.” The Eldest sighed, running a hand through greying hair. “No small amount of effort will have been needed to sort this out. I preferred when the past didn’t change as much as the present.”

“Change is the only way we track time.” The Middle smiled “But yes, we might have our work cut out for us for once. Luckily I have some extra help on hand.”

“Where have you gone with all this anyway?” The Eldest frowned again at the Third. “I would have liked some forewarning.”

“Rome.” The Youngest said plainly. “Oh there will be a little here and there, but for now if you must maintain your focus, I would start in Rome. Everything will be happening there. In truth everything will be happening everywhere but a little more everything will be happening in Rome. Understand?”

“I rarely have.” the Eldest sighed.

“Well, we all have our work to do.” The Second smiled her enigmatic smirk once more.

For once they seemed to agree. The Eldest was the first to remove herself as she had been the first to arrive, already weary of the sorting work she had to do. So many little threads to be realigned. The Middle followed her in turn. She had people to meet, and threads to nudge in the right direction. The Youngest left last, the heaviest burden hidden behind her laughing face. So many little threads to cut.

They had met to confirm each others’ presence, little more. Each of them had known, like a candle come to life, that their spinning wheel was turning again, and it would need tending.

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