I stand at a crossroads. Wind whips my hair around my face as I prop my hands on my hip. I tap my thumb on the pommel of my sword and consider my options. One path leads into the forest that grows darker by the second. The other leads to a cave. I need to find shelter before night falls. To stay out in the open means certain death once full darkness settles. Both of my options hold dangers. All sorts of wild plants and animals. Thieves. Dragons. Dragons are my biggest threat.
I open my money pouch and pull out a coin, my default for making hard decisions. I have been warned not to leave my fate to a coin, but I do trust in Providence as well. Heads, I will face the dangers in the forest. Tails, I will enter the cave, come what may. I draw a deep breath and flick the coin into the air.
People called me crazy when I set off on this adventure with nothing to my name but a loaf of bread and my grandfather’s dull sword. A journey to the castle across the Fanlair mountains was the same as swimming in the Garloh River during the flood season. Something only a desperate or stupid person would do. But times are hard and the first there would be granted knighthood. Anyone else who made it would receive a sack of gold and a job in the castle, or provisions for the journey home, should they choose to risk it. And I? I was a bit too sure of myself.
Forty of us started off from Lockly Village, the assigned starting place for this corner of the land. We thought it would keep us safer to travel together, but it made us a target. That first evening, a dignity of dragons descended on us. There were so many, we didn’t stand a chance. It became every man for himself amidst the deafening roars, blinding flames, and the clash of armor that only a few wore. It was a huge blow to my pride and grounded me in the reality of the hazards of this trip. If not for the crevice in a boulder that I was able to wedge myself into, I would not have survived. I had not seen any of the other competitors since then, including my closest friend, even though I searched for him.
That had only been the first of many obstacles. Lack of food being one of them. Thankfully, poisonous plants were one thing I did not have to worry about. I knew how to forage from my childhood in the wilderness. Giant carnivorous plants were another matter, though.
As I passed through villages, I collected provisions for helping the people with tasks such as hunting, clearing land of the man-eating plants, building a barn, and so on. Each assignment set me back in time, but the rewards were worth it. I upgraded to a new sword, earned some coin, and wore leather armor instead of the cotton clothing I had left home in.
Today had been fairly uneventful, aside from one battle with a small pack of wolves during which I was very grateful for my new sword. Now, I stand at these divergent paths and watch the coin as it flips end over end through the air. It lands in my palm and I close my fingers around it, then slap it onto the back of my other hand. I draw in another deep breath and release it slowly before I move my hand. Tails. I bite my lip. The cave it is.
A bad feeling tumbles around in my gut as I approach the dark entrance. I glance toward the path to the forest just as the wind kicks up, bending the trees and almost knocking me off my feet. If a storm is coming, I want shelter. And not the kind of shelter that could fall on me and kill me.
“Well, here I go.” I draw my sword and enter the cave. I hear and see nothing. All seems well. I turn to look outside and a deep, earth rumbling grumble surrounds me. Slowly, ever so slowly, I pivot toward the inner cave. Two eyes reflect the light from the setting sun a tree’s height above me. The rumble comes again. I freeze in place as I stare up at the two pinpricks of light. Fear courses through me as the stench of sulfur fills my nostrils. “Uh oh.” Flames blast from the dragon’s mouth and engulf me.
YOU HAVE DIED flashes in large red letters across a black screen.
“Dang it!” I rip the Virtual Reality headset off and clunk it onto the desk in front of me before I exit the immersive pod. I had waited a year for this game to be released. The week-long daily competition to see who could survive the longest was an added bonus. The winner would receive a copy of the game, though not the immersive version. Those pods were too expensive to give away.
I look up to see a group of my friends waiting for me, laughing as my death is replayed on a screen above my pod. My face heats as I think of how much I had boasted about winning this competition. “I should have gone into the forest,” I say as I join them and glance over at my best friend’s screen to see the words:
Congratulations! You have survived the longest in The Trek Through Fanlair Mountains. Claim your prize at the front desk.
He grins as he exits the pod. “What happened? I thought you were going to win.”
“She got barbecued,” one of our friends says.
I roll my eyes but chuckle. “Okay, fine. You’re the better player.”
“Thank you,” my friend inclines his head graciously.
“But only until I beat your record,” I add.
He frowns. “It’ll never happen.”
Our friends laugh and head over to another game.
I shake my head. “I can’t believe you won.”
“You flipped a coin for something, didn’t you?” he asks.
I avoid eye contact. “Maybe.”
He snickers as he turns in his ticket and receives his prize. “I tell you this all the time. A coin flip is a poor replacement for wisdom and instinct.”
I cross my arms. “It’s a game.”
He shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter.”
I frown. “But God can guide us with a coin flip, can’t he?”
He tilts his head. “Why did you die, then?”
I stop and my cheeks grow warm. “Probably because I boasted so much.”
He bursts into laughter. I huff and snag the game from him to scan the information on the back as we exit the arcade.
“So, what now?” he asks. “Pizza or subs?”
I grin and pull a quarter from my pocket. “Heads pizza, tails subs?”
He drops his head into his palm with a groan as I flip the coin into the air.