by M.D Schultz
Sometimes board games are more than what they appear.
|Previously "The Ravens of Babel Tower"
As the owner of a curiosities shop, Alma was used to seeing unusual items. It’s what the store was famous for even a century ago when her great grandmother ran it. Such a place displayed things like the bones of ancient lizards, accursed idols from long-dead tribes, and collectors paraphernalia such as posters of Clive the magnificent in his heyday. Alma had even peddled for a monkey’s head once, shrunken like a raisin and smelling of salts and alcohol. Nothing was off the table save for that which was most taboo, and despite outward appearance, she made a pretty good living. At all times her store was stocked to the brim with books piled in corners and dusty shelves crooked from the weight of magic scepters, stone idols, and the ribcage of a rare boar. Alma often dealt with traders at all hours of the day for a quick turnaround, so it was no surprise when a man stumbled through the doors late one night as she was preparing to leave.
“Otho? It’s been a while, my old friend.” Alma said as she wiped down the front counter with a wet rag.
The man smiled air whistling through his missing teeth and hair like an unkempt mop. He never could stand up straight on account of a terrible accident, and so he hobbled over to her dropping a bag at his feet with an exasperated sigh.
“How’s the family, Em?” He asked, running his hands through his hair.
“We are doing well enough. The girls miss you though, you’ve been gone for a while this time. Was your expedition successful?” She asked her voice steady but with a glint in her eye. You see, Otho was a scavenger who traveled to fallen cities of ancient man uncovering relics long lost; relics that, more often than not, made her a lot of money.
“Oh yes it was.” he smiled. “In fact, I brought something just for you.” From his pack, he pulled an old long rifle still intact and bearing the maker’s emblem.
Alma gasped, carefully picking up the instrument with a gloved hand and wiping down the stock. Some of the original paint was still visible. “You always do know how to make a girl blush.” She put the rifle back on the counter. “How much do you want?”
“I want twenty gold pieces for it.” He paused. “But since we’re old friends… I’ll let it go for fifteen.”
“Fifteen? Otho, I have to make a living here.” She looked at the rifle once more. “I will give you five gold pieces.”
“Oh come on, Em. You can at least do ten.”
“No, I can’t. I would give you ten if it were in perfect condition.”
Otho pursed his lips pausing once again. “How about seven and eight silvers?”
“Otho…” Alma crossed her arms.
“AND, I will throw in those glasses you like so much.” He darted into his bag pulling three, four, no five clay cups with glossy finishes of assorted colors.
Alma looked them over slowly while her heart pranced like a lovestruck girl. “There’s a crack in one, but… Alright, you drive a hard bargain.” She took his hand with a firm grip.
“Give me a second, and I will get your money.” She reached under the counter and pulled a metal box. There was no lock of any kind, but none save for her could retrieve its contents. While her grandmother wasn’t magical, she was quite good at pulling the strings of reality and warping two locations together with tools. If anyone other than Alma reached in, they would get a painful surprise from old wedge the family snapping turtle.
“There was one other thing,” Otho said as she counted out the coin. “It’s an item I’m not sure you would want, but maybe your daughters?” He pulled out an old wooden box with color long faded and only the word hungry visible on the top.
“What is it?” She asked, looking over the unusual rectangular woodwork.
“I think it’s a board game.” He opened the box and pulled out a wooden platform with four sculpted heads on each corner. The craftsmanship was spectacular which depicted foreign beasts with broad snouts and jutting jaws.
“It also comes with these.” Otho pulled out a bag and poured colored marbles onto the platform. “Now, if you press down here.” He tapped on a lever behind one of those unusual heads, and its mouth lunged forward, biting back down to swallow a few marbles whole before returning to its original position. A slot on the back of the platform stored the stones consumed so the user could count them.
“Up to four kids can play at a time, and I think the one that eats the most wins.”
“Where did you find this?” She laughed, certainly Emily would love such a game. “Let’s try it out.” Alma took a position on one side of the board, pausing her finger above the wooden lever.
“Alright.” He smiled, putting a few marbles back onto the arena and taking the opposite position. With each push of the lever, mouths lunged forward with a force that shook the board, and marbles bounced around, caught within an inescapable arena. Alma smiled as the polished glass dwindled until only a few remained. When only one was left, they frantically tapped the levers trying to push that last token to their corners. Yet, as it leaned towards Alma, there was something in the light that caught her attention. These were not simple marbles, no, these rounded bits of glass were painted in different colors; colors that reminded her of the clouds, the oceans, and the earth below. Colors that melded with the surroundings and swept her from the comfort of her shop to grassy plains. Looking up at the night sky, what she saw was not the gentle light of distant stars, but a gaping maw that swallowed the horizon, and within a black so deep that the edges of reality stretched outward like soft noodles. She felt a crushing weight, as the last vestiges of sputtering light gasped their last with only nothingness beyond.
“Nooo!!” She screamed, pushing her arms out, and her hands smacked the wooden gameboard to the ground with marbles scattering like ants beneath the shelves.
“What is it, Alma?! What’s wrong?!” Otho reached out his hands, but she stepped away, catching her breath.
There was a memory stored within that game, she was sure of it. No doubt, some sick cultists hid away an ancient fragment in a child’s game.
“I’m alright, Otho. Thank you for your concern.” She said, helping him to pick up the board and scattered pieces. “I will pay you ten gold pieces for this game.”
“What?!” His words caught in his throat. “But, Em, that’s too much.”
“Just take it as an apology for damaging what you worked hard to recover.” Alma dropped the money on the counter.
“Well, if you’re sure.” He was hesitant to secure the money.
“I’m sure, old friend. Please, with my blessing.” She smiled, shaking Otho’s hand one last time before he pocketed the money.
“Bless you, Em, I don’t know what I would do without you.” He waved to her. “Give my best to the Girls.”
“You should stop by tomorrow; I will keep dinner for you. I know Emily would love to see you again.” Alma waved back.
“I will do that, thank you, and have a good night.”
Just as Otho shut the door behind him, Alma bolted it and returned to the wooden game board. She flipped it over and found an ouroboros scratched into the wood along with an inscription. She knew the language well enough to understand what it said.
“In the blackest of places, when a deity was one, it craved a hunger so fierce that it could not be satiated. When the stars were born, it tore its stomach free to find relief. That pouch of unsatisfied gluttony scours the darkness still, consuming all in its path until nothing remains. Unlike the others, it is the only one to have forgotten its name. Blind to its sin and free of thought, it holds the abyss behind a thin curtain; a curtain that we call the Hunger; a curtain that we call the Great Devourer. Many believe the nameless beasts who worship the Hunger originated from its flesh, but to make such a comparison is a grave mistake for the Devourer worships none and is the most powerful of all Ouroboros. Its form and size are indescribable, and, to match its appetite, it has many mouths embedded in the stars. Matter, space, and time are all consumed in equal measure. Not even light itself can escape once caught within the Hunger’s grasp. Few can say for sure what lies beyond the darkness, but we will share this secret. Deep within its belly lies a gate, and beyond that is a jaw-less maw so massive it will swallow all of creation. Glory to him who has the key for not even the Devourer can find the way home.”
Alma sighed, flipping the board over and securing it back in the wooden box, never to open again. She pulled a key from around her neck and took the box into the back of her shop, past a hidden door behind moving bookshelves. In that room, where lights flickered yellow, and dust is substituted for air, were cursed items. Things that should never grace mortal hands, this room was a lockbox and the real purpose behind the curiosities shop’s founding.
She placed the game board in a vacant space next to a doll that winked at her. Alma wouldn’t stay long, but before leaving, she took one marble from that blasphemous game. The marble that looked so much like home. At least this would be safe from the Devourer, for now.
Closing the door behind her, she thought about how much she was going to make on that rifle. Thirty gold pieces would do, she thought with a grin tossing the key in the air to catch before hooking it to her neckless.
Next "The Praetorian"