Avatar Wanted: Inquire Within

I’m a long time fan of the Ultima series of games, a really incredible fantasy RPG series from Origin Systems in the 80’s and 90’s These games established many of the conventions of modern computer RPGs, and even spawned the first MMO – Ultima Online. I wrote this brief bit of fan fic as a depiction of the famous character creation scene that started many of the Ultima games, wherein the soon-to-be hero encounters a strange gypsy woman who begins the process of setting the hero’s feet upon the path of virtue. If, like me, you feel a deep sense of nostalgia when you think of these games, then perhaps you will enjoy my writing. And don’t forget to listen to the “familiar tune” the gypsy hums at one point.

“Come in, come in,” she said with a smile. “I was just about to make tea. Would you like to join me?”

The young man looked warily through the curtains at the interior of the gypsy caravan wagon. You expected to see such things at a renaissance faire, but this one had a strangeness to it that set it apart from the others. For one thing it was a real wagon, while the others were obviously decorative affairs set up purely for the tarot card readers and other hucksters working the faire, but this was a proper full sized wagon that could easily be hitched up to a team of horses. It was large, too, perhaps fifteen feet long and six feet wide, with a wooden shell over it giving just enough room to stand up in. There were colorful, gauzy curtains over the entrance in the rear, reached by steps that could be raised up for travel, while heavy canvas was rolled and tied up above the door ready to be let down during bad weather or when the wagon was moving. The outside was painted brightly, like the fake wagons but with much more care and attention to detail, with intricate arabesque patterns bordering each of the wooden panels making up the walls and arched roof.

Inside the wagon there was an explosion of the senses. Old tapestries and decorative fabrics hung from the walls giving the eyes a feast of colors to gorge themselves on, and many fragrant herbs hung drying from the ceiling: lavender, rosemary, juniper, cedar, mints, and peppers hung there among other things more exotic and difficult to identify. On the floor was a worn but soft Persian rug with a delicate tracery of flowers woven into it. There was a low, dark wooden table to one side upon which a cool blue cloth was spread, as well as a small teapot sitting over a candle warmer. Cushions beside the table provided the only places to sit down, and curtains about half way through the wagon obscured the front area.

On one of the cushions, facing the entrance, sat the old woman offering tea. She had a kindly look to her face, but the wrinkles at her eyes showed more than her smile. They seemed to betray years of strain and worry, as if she had long borne some heavy burden that had left its mark upon her. The clothing she wore gave evidence of this too, for while it certainly fit the theme of the renaissance faire, it was obviously well worn everyday wear of a practical nature to this woman, and no mere weekend costume.

The young man looked around for a moment, unsure of himself, but then he blinked and said “I’m sorry, I thought this was one of the attractions. I didn’t know this was your campsite.”

“Oh it’s quite alright” she replied. “I’ll admit I don’t get many visitors coming back to see me, but you’re more than welcome here. I’ll even do a reading for you if you’d like. Why don’t you sit down and chat with me and keep an old woman company for a while?”

Hesitantly he stepped in and sat down on the cushions. “Thank you” he said. “I was hoping to find someone who could tell me my fortune, and I get the feeling that you’re probably the real deal.”

“Oh I am, dearie, you can be sure of that. In fact, I’d like to give you a special reading today, one that I reserve for rare occasions.” She pulled out a deck of tarot cards from a pocket in her dress and began shuffling them as she hummed a familiar tune. He couldn’t name it, but he must have heard it somewhere in the fairgrounds earlier in the day.

As she shuffled she spoke. “I’ll be showing you eight cards. Each card has a story associated with it, but the ending of the story is uncertain. Only you can choose how it ends, and the choices you make will determine your fortune, just as they do it your daily life. Are you ready to begin?”

“I suppose so,” he replied.

The woman turned up the first card: the five of pentacles. “Do you see the man in the card, how he sits upon his chair guarding his wealth? He is a merchant, and he has charged you with delivering a purse of coins to his bank. You know that the coins have not yet been counted so that if a few of them were to be lost no one would ever know of it. Along the way to the bank, you meet a desperately poor man in the streets begging for help. Do you show compassion and give the beggar a coin, or do you honestly deliver the bag intact to the bank?”

The young man sat silently for a moment: this was not the kind of card reading he’d expected. He had certainly never been asked questions like this before. But the old woman had a look in her eyes that was both sincere and … seeking. Yes, she was looking for an answer to something beyond her stated question, and she needed him to help her find it. “I give the beggar a few coins. They won’t be missed.”

“Interesting,” she said. “Oh dear, I mustn’t neglect the teapot!” She reached up and took a pinch of some herb and put it in the pot still warming over the candle.

She drew another card, the five of swords. “This young man seems to be celebrating the defeat of his foes, but now he also bears a burden for it, for he has yet to decide the fate of his mortal enemy of many years who is now disarmed and at his mercy. Should he show compassion and let his enemy live, or slay the foe as expected of a valiant warrior? What would you do?”

“I’m not sure,” said the youth. “I suppose the enemy deserves to die, but I don’t think I could really kill him if he is defenseless like that. I’d let him live I guess.”

“You are very kind hearted I see,” she said while adding another pinch of herbs to the teapot.

The next card drawn was the five of wands, showing five young men fighting each other. The old woman spoke of it. “Your friends are fighting in a close pitched battle, as you see on the card, but your absent lord had ordered that you not join them. What would you do in this circumstance, valorously join the fray knowing you can deny it later, or remain where you are so that you can honestly claim obedience later?”

These questions continued to strike the youth as odd, but he played along anyway. “I would stay out of the battle,” he said. “Honesty is important to me.”

“It is generally a wise policy, of course,” remarked the woman as she placed a bit of a different herb in the teapot. “The fourth card is … the seven of swords. See the man sneaking over the wall? He is your fellow soldier, but during an intense battle you see him desert his post, endangering many lives. But as he flees he is set upon by several enemies. How would you respond to this? Would you let him face them alone knowing that he has met justice for his desertion, or would you risk sacrificing your own life to aid him?”

The young man was starting to feel a little irritated at the unusual card reading and its questions, but he answered quickly anyway. “I would help him. Everyone’s courage fails at some point, but that’s no reason to let him die.”

She smiled warmly as she put another herb in the teapot. By now the steeping leaves were beginning to give off an earthy and pleasant aroma that was quickly filling the small room. It would have been pleasant and relaxing if not for the strange circumstances.

Another card was drawn. “We’re half way done now. Here is the five of cups and you see someone who has lost something and yet retains something as well. It is a bounty hunter who has captured a wanted man, but now the bounty hunter believes the man innocent. What do you think will happen? Will the man go free and the bounty be sacrificed, or will the oath to capture the man be honored? How would you choose if you were the bounty hunter?”

“I’d let him go. I won’t hurt an innocent man.”

“I see that you are a virtuous person,” she responded as she added yet another herb to the teapot, sending more heady fumes into the air.

“That’s quite a strange tea you’re making,” the young man said.

“Yes, I suppose it is. It has plain tea in it, of course, since that’s always a good start, but I like to add a pinch of this and a smidgen of that to give it a nice flavor and scent. It smells lovely already, don’t you think?”

He had to agree that it did, but all he said in reply was “let’s move on.”

“The six of wands. A hero rides triumphantly down the street to the adoration of the crowds, but who is he? It was you who slew a great dragon, but a penniless warrior has stepped forward to claim the reward instead. Do you justly claim the reward yourself, or let the other receive the acclaim while you go about your life with humility?”

The young man finally lost his patience. “Look, these questions don’t make any sense to me. None of the other card readers do this. Why don’t you just do a regular reading like they do?”

The woman gazed at him searchingly for a moment. “Perhaps you are right. Perhaps this is not the kind of reading you need – there are few who really fit it. Would you like me to start over?” She held her hands over the table ready to pick up the cards and begin again, and really the young man wanted to say yes, but looking in her face he could see disappointment and sadness and maybe even a little weariness as if she’d been in this situation many times before. Staring into that face he just could not bring himself to let her down.

“No, let’s keep going. We’re almost done, I suppose. I would claim the reward myself. If I slew the dragon it’s only right that I get the reward.”

With an audible sigh, the woman relaxed and added yet another of her herbs to the bizarre tea she was making.

“Next we have the eight of cups, and a man walking away from his worldly things, for he is on a sacred quest. But when he was younger he pledged to marry his sweetheart, and now she calls for him to uphold his vow and return to her. Does he honor his vow, or does he continue his spiritual crusade?”

The youth paused in thought, for this was not as straightforward he preferred. “I suppose there’s no easy answer here. If he marries her she might then be willing to join his quest, but she might also need him to stay home. If he goes on she might be willing to wait longer for him, but she might not. I think he’d have to go on with his quest and hope for the best.”

“Sometimes that’s all we can do,” she replied and added more the the fuming brew in the pot, it’s odors now permeating everything and beginning to affect the young man – it was such a powerful scent and it made him feel relaxed and a bit drowsy.

“Here is the final card. It is the three of pentacles. Ah, the decisions of a youth in choosing a path in life, much as you face right now. Your parents wish you to become an apprentice and two positions are available. The first is to become a humble cobbler making shoes for your village. The second is to take the vows of a new acolyte in a spiritual order. Which do you choose?”

Slowly the young man blinked as he considered the choices, though really he knew his answer. “I would join the order and take vows. It seems the most balanced way of life to me.”

The woman nodded slowly and smiled as she added one final bit to her teapot.

“Tea’s ready!” she said cheerily and began pouring a cup.

“But what is my fortune?” asked the young man as he fought growing sleepiness.

“Ah, your path lies chosen before you, but it is a path that is fraught with danger and there will be many more choices ahead of you.” She passed him the cup and absent-mindedly he drank deeply from it, the warmth filling his body and the exotic flavors washing over his tongue leaving him with the sensation that he had just tasted another world, and another life.

“Listen carefully to what I now say. As you begin your journey, seek friends and companions – they are there for you – and keep in mind the questions you have heard today and the answers you have given. Let them guide you in a life of virtue.”

He slumped down to the floor and she put a pillow under his head.

“Always keep in mind the principles of truth, love, and courage and they will keep you upon the path of virtue. Mayhap thou wilt even be the avatar we seek.”

And he knew no more on these shores.