The Other Side
Jonas Rindegard | Art by Annabel Qin
The elevator opened with a sharp ring and the rattle of unsteady barred doors. The tower loomed above the spectacle of the underground, a gleaming monument to the distorted glory of the dead below.
“Welcome to the VIP floor,” the manager said. He was built like a twig, a faded face stacked upon narrow shoulders riddled with rotting bullet holes.
The gambler took his first steps into the room. A sudden coldness whipped her face, snapping at her skin like a whip. The room was like a neon nightmare, not an inch of space safe from its hellish glare. At the end of the room overlooking Elysium was a blood-red table surrounded by the apparitions of ghastly wealth, a skeletal figure in the center in a velvet vest shuffling a deck of cards and staring blankly ahead.
One of the members around the table was fitted with an ancient conquistador’s armor, an extended feathery plume sticking from his dented helmet and even more dented skull. Another wore a gilded crown atop his head, ornate jewels stacked nearly a meter high, his sunken head
floating well above a decaying body. Yet another wore the torn and tattered fatigues of a bloodied soldier, pinned medals slowly ripping at it as they drooped. One more sat in a pale ten-gallon hat marked by blood, with a leather vest torn by countless bulletholes and a satchel overflowing with the grim spoils of his manifest destiny.
And at the end of the table sat another. His barreled-chest rested above the heads of the others. His arms were like logs, crushing against the table. Adorning his broad body was a pinstriped suit of blazing orange and sickly green, garish against his stark white skin. Above it all loomed his massive face, smiling joyously with rotting teeth and peering directly into the eyes of the gambler.
“FRESH MEAT” he bellowed. “WHAT BRINGS YOU TO THE TABLE,” he asked without caring. The gambler told him. She was just lucky on the lower levels.
The table stared at her. She felt small in their presence. The pinstriped man continued to smile as she reluctantly approached the table, taking a seat just opposite him. The skeletal dealer began to distribute the cards, two to each.
“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE MAY HAVE BLESSED THINE HAND BELOW,” said the pinstriped man, “BUT UP HERE THE FATES ARE DIFFERENT. THE CARDS ARE CRUEL AND UNLOVING. BUT WE MUST OBEY THEM.”
The table drew up their cards as the dealer stacked the remaining twelve in the center. The pinstriped man’s smile vanished, replaced with grim neutrality. The soldier stuck out of the sea of impassivity, even his miniscule frown marking him for death. The gambler, though overshadowed by the others, kept her expression discrete.
The conquistador set the pot and the king next to him raised. The gambler called their bets. The soldier and the cowboy both called too. Then it came to the pinstriped man. “GENTLEMEN,” he bellowed, “AND WOMAN” he slowly added. “I TIRE OF THESE TRIVIAL GAMES. WHAT SAY WE RAISE THE STAKES.” His devilish smile returned, gleaming in the neon light. He reached deep into his chest pocket, slowly unsheathing a glistening blackened token that seared into his fingers as smoke rose.
“MY SOUL,” and he placed it in the pot.
The room sat in silence for a moment. The soldier was the first to react by folding his cards to the table, The Hanged Man and Temperance. “The Reader ain’t gonna call ‘em true anyhow,” he sighed. He marched off in defeat. The conquistador stood his ground, reaching for his own dark token, followed by the king, as the two of them slowly called the pinstriped man’s ante.
The gambler froze. She looked down at her cards. Strength and Judgment stared her in the face. She knew they were true. She reached for her own soul’s token, light to the dark of the others, and upped the ante. The cowboy tried to reclaim his calm, but still succumbed and spent his soul as well. The pinstriped man grinned.
“Alright folks, time to discharge a card” rattled the skeletal dealer. Each player slid one face down towards the center and drew a new card from the unused stack. The gambler now held The High Priestess and Strength, and was convinced the Reader would see them true.
The pinstriped man radiated with gleeful malevolence. The skies outside the window ran with darkness, the neon kaleidoscope of the casino tower burning all the brighter. He who bets highest controls the game, and bet high he does. His pale face smiled as he said “NOW THAT WE’VE COMMITTED, IT’S TIME TO HAVE FUN.” He reached into a deep pocket, producing a worn bag of clinking metal. The tokens of souls not his own.
The gambler sat horrified. Possessing the soul of another was unthinkable, let alone this many. And in that moment fear swept over her. But she looked at her cards and the High Priestess looked back. She steadied herself.
“I RAISE BY THE SOULS OF THOSE IN MY SERVITUDE,” the pinstriped man declared. “REMEMBER YOUR SOULS SHALT BE GIFTED UNTO ME SHOULD YOU FORFEIT.” He laughed. The gambler would take no more. She lew upon the table with a strike of thunder, and the lights seemed to dim except around her. She screamed upon the pinstriped man and to the sky, calling upon the spirits of her ancestors, her descendants, the past and present and future. She knew that to beat him would be to become legend, to become the queen of the wicked lands of the dead. To rule the spirits of the dead is to rule the future of the living, and she would ascend. The pinstriped man lost his smile. For the first time, shock seemed to overcome him. The two locked eyes and the room began to shrink and he began to smile his wretched smile once more. The lights of Elysium below darkened to the glow of the great spire of monumental sin. The cowboy was quick to withdraw. His collection of souls was meager and he wished to keep what he had. The king and the conquistador too held onto the souls of their captive subjects — and what use would a man have for their own soul they had never truly earned?
The gambler and the pinstriped man remained at the table, deadlocked in the intensity of their stares. The apparitions of the others descended through the floor to the levels below. The pinstriped man snarled, and sat down with a thunderous crash, shaking the foundations of the tower upon which they gambled their legacies. The gambler was slow to sit, and lifted her cards. Her borrowed souls would not be in vain, she decided — they would be repaid tenfold upon her ascension. The skeletal dealer in the velvet vest made himself heard, as the words slowly arose:
“I call upon the Grand Reader folks, and the game will be decided. The one with the cards most aligned with the ultimate fates of their souls wins it all, so get ready.” And from his maw crawled a black spider, striped with a silver-gray. The gambler showed her cards to the table, and the pinstriped man followed. Both smiled with awful exhilaration.
The room was enveloped in a sudden darkness. Before them stood the slender and disheveled gray specter of the Grand Reader, interpreter of Fate, in many-patterned and esoteric robes that bestowed upon them an unparalleled and unexplained magnificence. Their face alit with an almost manic-energy, winds lying around them the highest powers coursed through the room. Elysium and the casino faded away as the world became enveloped.
The High Priestess and Strength are true to her future. Her hand is aligned with the fates. Yet so is his — The Devil and Death have become him, and he them. And in the all-seeing eyes of the fates, that is truth. To become is less than to be. With a howl, she made her declaration: BEHOLD HIS HAND FOR IT IS TRUE. VICTORY HATH BECOME HIS.
Darkness suddenly faded, and so did the Grand Reader. The floor was drowned in silence. Slowly the sinful sounds of Elysium below them began to seep up to their high stronghold. The gambler sat in the quiet of her second death. The pinstriped man continued to smile. He stuffed the tokens of his fresh spoils into his disgusting suit. He laughed and his pale face glowed. “THE HOUSE ALWAYS WINS.”
He took his winnings to the glistening city of vice below. She sank further into the hellish depths than she had ever known.