Reading the Cards.
“Do come in.”
A small flame flickered on the edge between living and dying, its fitful breaths of light the only illumination in the tiny room. Guile couldn’t see the owner of the voice nestled in the shadows, but his presence was heavy and pungent. He slipped himself onto the fur-lined floor, crossing his legs and staring evenly into the darkness across from him. “Am I expected?”
A hoarse laugh. “Hardly. Someone like you seeking a reading is something even I would have difficulty foretelling.”
Guile snorted. “I don’t believe much in prophecy.”
“With good reason. Give me your hands.”
Guile’s empty eye sockets widened, just a little. But before he could say anything, the hoarse laughter in the shadows spilled out again, and his host leaned forward. Even in the dim light of the flickering flame, his yellow eyes and the sallow jaundice of his skin stood out, and he grinned wide with a mouthful of rotting teeth. “Afraid? The appointed guardian of Moroloth’s heir is afraid of something so trifling as disease? You cannot contract what I carry unless I allow it to happen. Give me your hands.”
He obeyed, albeit reluctantly. The other man slipped his own bandaged hands over Guile’s, turning them palm-up and sliding his thumbs over the skin. His grin never left his face. “Your head and heart lines overlap, but both of them are broken.”
“I did not come here for an analysis of my past or my personality, Crimson Lord.”
The other man let him pull his hands away. “And yet I need to know something about you other than what I overhear on the road or see in the reflecting pools, guardian.” He pulled a small chest out from somewhere behind him and unlatched it, dumping its contents haphazardly onto the floor. The sickly man rifled through the cards, keeping them face-down and counting out thirteen. He shoved the rest unceremoniously to the side. “Say your name.”
“My name is Guile of Amoth Shyr.”
He turned over the first card. “Twelfth blade. The knight. You’re inverted, Guile.” He traced a finger over the face of the upside-down card, eyeballing the other man. “The first card tells me about you. You’re certainly no knight in shining armor.”
Guile gritted his teeth. “Obviously.”
He snickered and tapped the deck. “The second card tells me about how you see yourself. Your perception of yourself can color everything else around you, so despite what you may believe about me knowing your personality, it is important.” He flipped the next card over, crossing it with the first. He paused for a moment, raising an eyebrow. “… The fool.”
He flicked his sunken eyes up to Guile, who only scowled in return. The other man shrugged and drew the third card. “Second blade. The Storm. Feeling a little lost in the middle of the maelstrom, love? The next card will tell me your hopes and fears about whatever it is that is troubling you.”
Guile’s eyeless glare turned away, choosing instead to focus on the faltering candle. The Crimson Lord turned the next card. “Eighth chalice. The altar. Would that be a hope, now, or a fear?”
A long moment of silence passed in the dim light of the room. Guile’s jaw clenched tight, and he wondered – not for the first time – why in the name of all the worlds he had decided to come here. He could feel his sharp teeth digging into his gums, welling up blood that he forced himself to swallow. He would not allow himself to be egged on by this cursed man.
A finger and thumb around his chin startled him back, and he found his head forced to turn and look into those maddening yellow eyes. “A fear.”
Guile nodded once, silently.
“You fear you must sacrifice that which is most important to you, or risk losing everything you have.”
He released Guile’s chin and settled back into his cushion. “Such a thing we all fear, love. Only it seems you have much more to lose than one would imagine. That should not shame you.”
Guile stared at the floor. “Now that you have told me things I already knew about my perceptions, are you not going to tell me of my situation?”
The Crimson Lord grinned wide. “Indeed.” He turned the card, placing it above all the others.
“Sixth chalice. The - ”
“The child.” Guile traced his finger over the edge of the card. “It’s inverted as well.” Guile stared numbly at the unfinished spread, a sour feeling growing colder in his stomach. How…
“Fourth blade. The tree. Another inverted.” He set this one to the left of the previous card. “This is the cause of the problem.”
Guile rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. This was becoming a little too close for comfort, but he really could not have expected anything else. “Tell me.”
“He has severed his roots. He no longer cares about who he is or where he comes from. This world means nothing to him anymore.”
Guile nodded. “I… I had suspected that might have been the case. I did not wish to believe it.”
“Such things are difficult to adjust to. Shall we continue?”
“The next two cards will tell me about the influence you and others have on your… situation.” He resumed his reading. “Arcana – the dragon.”
Guile frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t suppose you would. It is a difficult card to interpret, even for me. Suffice it to say that you are surprisingly strong. I think you have meant more to those around you than you realize. Or even they realize. I suppose some may come to understand that, but I have a feeling most will only do so until it has become too late.”
“Next card. The ninth blade. The eye.” He stared hard at the card, frowning down at it with an unreadable expression shadowing his features. He turned his piercing gaze to Guile and leaned forward. “You know what this means. Yet… Yet I do not.”
Guile drew his knees up to his chest. “There are many things I am aware of that you are not, Crimson Lord.”
“That may be the case, but this in particular intrigues me.” He brushed his fingers along the edge of the card.
“Can we get on with this?”
“As you wish.” His gaze lingered over Guile for another brief moment before he drew the next card.
“Fourteenth stave. The throne. This is the past. As for the present… The fifth chalice. The winding stair.”
Guile leaned forward and placed a hand next to the card, studying it closely. “Something tells me that this is far more than a metaphor, Crimson Lord.”
“I would not doubt it. You have a long journey ahead of you, guardian, and that path is a steep and dangerous one that will lead you through into depths neither of us can imagine. What fate may have in store for you, I can only guess at with another card. And even that will only be a possibility.” He turned over another.
Guile sat back with a thump and he stared at the card, his eye sockets widening. Neither man said anything for a very long moment. Guile shook his head slowly. “Raesiel.”
The Crimson Lord looked up at him, raising an eyebrow at the use of his given name. “Guile?”
“I don’t know.”
There was another long pause, before Raesiel leaned forward and grasped Guile’s shoulder. His ragged fingernails dug into his skin, drawing a little blood and a sharp inhalation of breath. He smiled an unusually gentle smile, rank breath seeping through Guile’s senses. “Do not worry too much about it, love. The possibilities of the future are always shifting, and no matter how likely one or the other might be, something is always bound to change. It may be of little comfort, but I assure you I will be watching over you throughout your travels and trials. You are not alone.”
He released Guile, who rubbed his shoulder absently. “I… do not know whether I should thank you or not. Yet I know where your diseased heart lies. Your soul may be blacker than the waters of the dark lake, yet I trust you.”
The toothy, rotting grin returned. “Shall I continue? The next card will tell me what is holding you back.”
Guile nodded and Raesiel turned over the twelfth card, placing it below the first he had drawn. “Arcana. The lovers.”
The scowl returned to Guile’s face. “I can make nothing but nonsense out of that. I have no lover.”
“Perhaps it is not you to whom the cards are referring.”
“I know of no lovers who stand in my way.”
The Crimson Lord shook his head. “It is not about someone standing in your way, Guile. It is about what is holding you back. What you keep within yourself that holds you back.”
“Then it is meaningless.”
“Meaning can be a tricky thing, Guile. You come to me to tell you that which you already know and to tell you that which you do not want to hear, because you seek guidance. You are lost and roaming without a direction, and without a candle to light your way. You fear losing that which has already been taken away from you, and you fear what might happen if you ever find it again. You have lost your lord, you have lost his heir, and you have lost your purpose. You have lost your meaning, Guile. You are falling in a downward spiral into depths that I cannot follow, and there is nothing I can do to help you find yourself again.”
He drew the final card. “Fifth coin. The hourglass.”
Yellow eyes bored straight through Guile, past the stair behind them and beyond, out into the dark of the oppressive night.
“And you’re running out of time.”