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Of Pawns and Purposes

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The Star City was always so lovely this time of year. As a matter of fact, he quite relished inhabiting a place where few mortals would ever get to lay their eyes upon. There was something delightful about it, knowing that this was their world and yet there would be a sliver of it they would never allow themselves to see, save for their chosen hierophant. It still tickled him to this day, how foolish they all were.

That’s not why it was lovely, though. No, it was the time where the Eternals were all hustling and bustling about, tucked away in festivities for this was the one-hundredth anniversary of their arrival. Oru always loved a good party. It was around this time where they all let their guard down, submitting themselves to indulgences of games and fortune-telling. While it was always fun to tease mortals, it would never compare to the effect he could have on his kind.

There was one, however, who would never allow herself to interact with him such a way.

Zandora. Oh, what a buzzkill she was! He never got to have any fun with her around. No, she’d always show up in that gleaming armor of hers, radiating starlight as she put a stop to his antics, sparing the minds of those who attempted to tangle with his powers.

Now, why would he be thinking of such a star? Well, the answer was quite simple! She was walking towards him, her gaze nothing but steel.

“Ah, Zandora, it’s so good to see you! How are you? How have things been because they have just been oh-so peachy for me.” Zandora glared at him with a muted disdain. “Awh, c’mooooon Zandy, can’t ya spare at least one hello?”

“Sprite.”

“Ah! She speaks!” Oru floated in front of her, rubbing his hands together. “So! What brings you to this little corner of the city? Got time to gossip? Oh! Who. Am. I. Kidding. Of course you do! I don’t see a future where you go anywhere.” He cupped his “cheeks,” rotating forward and swinging a leg back and forth. “Why’s that, I wonder?” Zandora scoffed.

“Truth be told, I was hoping for an encounter with you.”

“Oho? Ohohoho?” The seer’s face lit up in a grin. “Me? Really? Then why the irritation? Don’t you know that scowls scorn? What ever would we do if that radiant complexion of yours was tarnished?”

Zandora ignored him.

“I was curious as to whether or not you’d be interested in a game.” Had he had a jaw, Oru was one-hundred-percent sure that it would’ve clattered on the ground. A game? Her? With him? A game? He smacked his head, spinning it around. Nope! Not a vision. This. This was happening. A game! With Zandora! Who could’ve ever foresaw this? He didn’t!

...For once!

“Who do you take me for? A big pink downer? Of course I’d be interested!” He leaned forward, inspecting the object tucked beneath her arm. “Is that what this is? What is it?”

“Chess.” She held out the board, almost slamming it into his face. Almost. “Aurion fashioned the pieces after us as well as their lords, hierophant, and high priestess.”

“Who was an ex-hierophant promoted to god! How cute.” He pulled out his cards, absently running his thumb across their corners. “Would this game happen to have a deck of cards?”

“Please allow me to finish.”

“Oh please do.”

“The purpose of the game is to capture all of the other player’s pieces. When a piece has been captured, they may draw a card from the Seer’s deck—” Oru clapped in excitement, “—and hold onto the card, having to option to enact its granted effect later in the game. It ends once a player’s Empress and Emperor have been captured.”

“In-ter-es-ting. I think i’d prefer a classic game of cards. Either way, I’m psyched!”

He should be thankful, he mused. It was odd enough that Zandora was looking to play a game, but she had the sensibility to not go with cards; all of the inhabitants of the city knew not to compete with him in that field. That said, it only made sense that she’d go with a game neither party knew about. A shame, really. He could only imagine how much digging she’d have to do to find a game like that, only for the outcome to always turn out the same.

-

Zandora slowly removed the board from its case, carefully setting it down on the table. It was odd, seeing the caution she demonstrated while handling such a dinky little thing. Did she really think it was going to break that easily? Sure, she’s an Eternal of pure might, but not even something as powerful as she could splinter something like that into pieces. If she was being forceful about it, maybe. No, yes. She could.

“So! How are we going to set it up? Also, I must say, while yellow and purple are complimentary, these shades are, oh, how do I put it? Quite rancid! If I had eyes I’m sure they would sting.” Zandora ignored that.

“The pieces are mirrored across the board.”

“Uh huuh~.”

“From my left to right, starting from the end rows: Twin, Knight, Hierophant, Emperor, Empress, High Priestess, Hermit, Twin. In front of them are the eight lords.”

“Still find it kinda strange they included the Hermit, of all stars. Why not the Magician?”

“You know very well why Aurion wouldn’t include them.”

“Well, yes, but they’re such a delight!” Her brow furrowed in irritance. “Oh come on, you’ve hardly gotten to know them! Sure, they might be a little on the extreme side, but—”

“Now, both players will draw a card from the deck.”

“Hmph! Rude. Who draws first?”

“The player with the golden pieces.” And, go figure.

“Oh, is that why you chose the uglier pieces? That’s not very noble.”

“Funny how you speak of nobility, being that you scarcely know its meaning.” Zandora drew a card, glancing at it before placing it facedown at her side. Oru did the same. Oh! A late bloomer, are we? he mused, setting it down on the table. “According to the rules, I’ll be the one to make the first move as well.”

“I’m sure you need it.” Annoyance flashed in her eyes, but she chose not to speak. Instead, she moved the first piece forward, the lord in the middle-left. That was going to come back to bite her, later. Depending on what she did next, of course.

“Your move.”

The next few minutes passed by in a long, aggravating silence. Oru wasn’t sure why he expected the Knight to play like she did on the battlefield. There, she made split-second decisions, trusting her gut to make all the right calls. Here? She spent forever thinking, staring at the board with her thumb tapping at her chin. Why couldn’t she trust her gut here? Her head was never any good.

Maybe a conversation would push things along. Besides, could he really say he was spending time with Zandora if he wasn’t pushing her buttons? It was their thing. Now was certainly not the time to change that decades-old routine.

“So,” he chirped, “why the game?” Zandora’s gaze flicked up towards him, a splinter of mistrust highlighting the red of her eyes. “It’s not like you to indulge in something I enjoy. Were you bored? Tired of answering prayers? Or was there, perhaps, something weighing on your mind? Something with far more gracious roots than I could ever possibly begin to perceive?” He tittered, toying with the head of the hierophant, spinning it round and around. The temptation to delve into his future vision was omnipresent, uninvited, unwilling; it was never any fun when he knew everything, but the instilled habit of collecting all the possible pins and pieces would never tire.

It was too late; he had his answer.

Zandora nudged a lord forward, the sound of wood sliding across wood grating in his “ears.” A calculated risk.

“I’m all too familiar with your powers, star sprite,” she started, her voice unwavering. “You already know why I’m here, yet you continue to jest.”

“Do I? I don’t seem to recall doing anything that could’ve warranted a visit, nonetheless a game, from someone as dignified as yourself.” Clack.

“You don’t consider revealing yourself in the reflection of a crystalline orb as doing anything?”

“Oh! You’re talking about thaaat~” he giggled, folding his hands underneath his chin. “I don’t see what the big deal is. Scare a few, scare a few hundred, what does it matter, really? It’s not like it actually means anything.”

“You know as well as I do what you mean to mortals.”

“So? I’m not the one who chose to become something akin to a sign a misfortune.” Zandora growled. “What? Am I not allowed to have a little fun from time to time? Besides, you know as well as I do that the omens don’t actually mean anything.”

“You aren’t one to talk, Seer.” Oru tutted, eyeing her as she slid another piece forward.

“Nor are you, Miss Holier-Than-Thou. If the mortals decide to shift the blame onto me because destiny had determined something less-than-fortunate befalling them, that’s on them.” Zandora narrowed her eyes, the beginnings of a scowl pushing at her brow.

“That doesn’t justify startling them half-to-death.”

That doesn’t justify startling them half-to-death,” he mocked, his face spinning into a full mimicry of hers. “You’ve really let this whole god-thing get to your head, haven’t you?” Clack. “Y’know, It’s fun using it against mortals, but why use it to be good all the time? Tut-tut snoot-snoot that’s just so bo~riiiing!” Zandora’s expression hardly changed as she nudged another piece forward. “Awhhh do you have to be so bland all the time, Knight of Light? Can’t you learn how to have at least a LITTLE fun?”

“Is that not what this game is? Fun?”

“You know what I meant.” He slid a new lord forward, waiting, baiting. “Enough about me. What about you? Why even bother with the mortals if not to derive enjoyment out of them?

“They look to us for wisdom and guidance.” Zandora took the bait. “The least we can do is fulfill their wishes.”

“Hm, funny that! You’re choosing to be humble with them and yet, when it comes down to it, you’re really no better than the rest of us! Sure, I may be the call of misfortune, but you, you’re their holy knight! Their savior who answers when they are bruised and broken, the guiding light feeding into their fantasies with honey-saturated words and righteous glory. Tell me, how does it feel to have stories spun about your unaccomplished deeds? Your song sung before innocents are slain? Your image hung above the gallows in the name of justice?” Her fingers curled into fists, her posture stiffening in anger. “Oo-ho-ho! Did I strike a nerve? Drop a take a bit too hot for you to handle?”

Clack.

“There’s no telling what the mortals would do if they knew the truth.” Oru snickered, leaning into the palm of his hand, tapping against the table.

“Are you really concerned about mortals, or have you, like the rest of our, sorry, your kin, fallen prey to the priests’ ideological fantasy? Become a little drunk on power, as it were?”

Forward.

“I’m sincere with my worries.”

“Is that so.”

And captured.

Oru drew a card from the pile. He didn’t need to spare a glance; he already knew that was pictured on the other side. As much as he would’ve loved to make a comment on her inadequacies at playing mind games, he kept quiet. It would’ve been a shame to interrupt the aura that had settled thick around them, after all. Mood setting wasn’t something Oru typically found delight in, being it often lead to a shameful predictability, but this? If he could project a part of him outwards and conjure a bag of popcorn, he’d do it without a heartbeat. It was an honest shame that no one would bear witness to the knight’s struggles.

Their little game continued on in a pressing silence. It was almost saddening. Almost. For all her impressive feats in battle, he would’ve never thought that Zandora would’ve been quite, well, inadequate at board games. Seeing her make every possible bad move upon the loss of a lord made him wonder how she’d play at checkers.

Hm...now that was an idea. He should ask her sometime.

Sometime, of course, meaning not any time soon. Based on the futures he saw, Oru had a creeping suspicion that Zandora would make herself scarce if he made an offer.

Oh. Would you look at that. He was so absorbed in his musings that he went on autopilot, his vision half-submerged in...visions. Even his thoughts have gone dull. Was this what Zandora was trying to do? Bore him out of his mind? So much so that he’d knock himself out for a year or two? Because, if that was the case, well, she should know that the Dreamer has already tried. And failed.

Sigh.

“Do you ever wonder about the intricacies of fate, Zandora?” he blurted out, desperate for something, anything to happen.

“I care little for those kinds of musings, Seer,” she retorted, pushing a knight forward. “I’ve found it better to lay down seeds as opposed to attempting to grasp at branches that have not yet grown.”

“Using metaphors, are we? Hm hm! I like it!” Perfect. “Fate’s a kaleidoscope. From the distance, you see that refined eye piece, showing glimpses of thoughts and wonders. When you peer into it, however, you’re met with further altercations, splintering pieces of glass of varying sizes and shapes, each similar yet so vastly different. Choices are a similar thing. You think, you ponder, you calculate, you move. Behind it all is some other, hidden equation, precisely calculating each thought and decision you could’ve possibly made over that time frame. For example,” he pointed to her knight, stationed in front of the hierophant, “in one future, this piece would’ve captured one of my lords, had you played your cards correctly. And yet, through some miraculous turn of events, we’re in the future where you’ve failed to take any of my pawns!”

“Pieces.”

“Pawns, pieces, what’s the difference, really? In the end, it’s just carved wood given a purpose while we’re the puppeteers, commanding their every move and leading them to a brilliant conquest or a crushing defeat.” He twirled a piece between his thumb and glove, flicking it back and forth. “Who’s to say we are any different? Do we truly have free will? Or are we simply being guided by celestial strings? If everything has already been decided ten times over, then what are we obtaining? The illusion of accomplishment? Of misfortune?”

“...” she moved her priestess to the side. Oru captured her hermit.

“You already know how this ends.”

“Only a fool would challenge you with the idea of victory.”

“So why are you here, hm?”

“Not even I can answer that. I suppose you can consider it something akin to an impulse, a spur of the moment decision.” Oru knew his words had unsettled her. The knight wasn’t one to demonstrate nervous tics, and yet here she was, her fingers tapping against her arm, brow furrowed in thought as she pondered the weight of his words.

He giggled.

“Philosophical ramblings really aren’t your thing, huh?”

Only 4 pieces left.

“As I’ve told you before: I care little for these kinds of musings.”

“Well, yes, but I assumed it was out of an absence of interest as opposed to existential crises.” The emperor marched forward.

The knight rose up to challenge him.

The priestess stepped back.

Oru held up a card, prompting a weary sigh from his opponent.

Roleswaaaaap~” he sung, switching the place of his knight with hers. “That’s a fun card. ‘When in the presence of either the Emperor or the Empress, you may switch a piece’s place with that of your opponent’s so long as they are the same class.’” The priestess has fallen. “You could always forfeit.”

“It’s better to fight till the bitter end than lay down your arms in submittence.”

“Even if it could cost lives?” She held her tongue. “No wonder why Karakesh likes you.”

Such an enticing beginning. A shame the ending had fallen flat. Oru was never one for dull endings and, to his sullen misfortune, there were no futures that would change this outcome. Those were always the worst ones, when the roots pushed out of the ground to grow into a solid trunk. It would branch off again, but branches took time, and time was never a thrilling thing.

Her pieces were captured. All of his remained. How predictable.

“Thank you for the game, Oru.” He gave a melodramatic gasp.

Oru?! What, are we on a mortal-given name basis now?” Still no smile. “Aw, you’re no fun.”

“Perhaps I’ll see you again soon.” Ah...the complete and utter disregard of his enthusiasm. How typical.

“You won’t.”