In a tarot card deck there are seventy eight cards, which was the exact number of days I had to live. Now I had hours. The Tarot, my doom, were spread out before me in a random fashion across the table beneath a shadeless bulb. My room was now my prison and I cowered within the chalk circle had drawn across the bare wooden floorboards. Around the circle were ancient symbols I copied from books on demonology at the four compass points. I kept looking over the symbols, convinced they were fading or finding fault in the wards of protection.
The truth lies within the cards, I reasoned, my eyes locked onto the story they played out. Seventy eight cards with different pictures, a game of fortune and fate. There were Wands, Pentacles and Swords. Each card burned with meaning and all were connected together by the thing that was coming for me.
When I first got into the business of psychic readings, I was a fraud. When I saw how much money could be made from giving people what they wanted to hear, I grabbed myself a few books on the subject and began studying, not really believing in the paranormal. To me, it was all tricks, an intricate performance. Once I had finished learning the basics, I began to create a mysterious past for myself, rewriting my own history so I was a seventh son of a seventh son and saw the dead.
“My grandmother told me that I have the gift, that I should help people,” I would say. “Of course, my grandmother was already dead when she told me this.” And pause for the laughter as people warmed to me and bought into my act.
The look was essential. I created myself an eccentric, mysterious look that consisted of tweed jackets and bow ties. Most psychics had their props, I noticed, so I invested in a mysterious looking Tarot set. The rest was pretty easy, giving out readings for free and building up a client base. All those night classes in business school and management served me well and soon I was able to start charging a modest amount of money.
But I was small time in a much larger world. I must admit to being impressed with some of the fellow psychics I came across. They would often make my readings look inaccurate, which they were. I kept it deliberately vague to avoid difficult questions. No refunds, of course. If what I predicted didn’t come true, then you simply turned down a new path. What I needed was something to give me an edge, to learn how these successful types pulled off a good show.
That was how I came to possess this Tarot deck, seventy eight cards to count down my doom. I was having a bad day at the village psychic fare. The full heat of summer was too much in the airless village hall. My readings were all over the place; a few people told me honestly that I was the worst psychic they had ever seen. Stalls around me had lines of people desperate for a glimpse of their future, or a message from a loved one. No one came to me. Word had began to spread around the psychic circles and people began to doubt my credentials.
“Where has he suddenly popped up from?” people began to ask. “Who is this Raymond Estore?”
That wasn’t even my real name. Who would go to a psychic called Dean Smith? So I decided to call it a day, take a holiday and keep a low profile for a while. Perhaps I would even try a new area where my reputation wasn’t frowned upon. As I was gathering up my set of Tarot cards, long, yellowed nails drummed upon the table and I looked up into the weathered face of an old man with the longest, whitest beard I have seen outside of Middle Earth.
“I’m finished for the day,” I told him, slightly creeped out.
The old man leaned close, and I could smell something rotten upon his breath. He whispered, barely audible above the crowd. “I can give you what you need to be really good at this,” he said, his dark eyes wide. He reached into his jacket pocket and brought out an old cloth as yellow in age as his fingernails. He paused, then placed it on the table in front of me. He pushed it towards me and I went to pick it up. His hand closed over mine and it felt like dried leaves. “Pass them on within seventy eight days,” he warned.
The old man gave a half smile and released my hand. “These are old cards, inked with darkness and printed upon pain.”
I was speechless, so I just nodded and the old man nodded back as though we both understood. “Yeah, sure, seventy eight days. What happens then?”
“Then He will come for your soul.” He turned and entered the crowd where I lost sight of him. Shrugging, I looked down at the yellowed cloth and cautiously opened it. There before me upon my table was a set of cards, the backs of them plain and the colour of pale skin. They looked ancient, all creased like the old man’s skin. I touched them and felt a tingle shoot up my arm.
“Are you reading?” a young, attractive woman asked. I smiled and gestured for her to take a seat. “I’m Rachel,” she added nervously. Ignoring her, I shuffled the cards, trying to hide my revulsion to the feel of them. It not only looked like old skin, it felt like it too. Normally I would ask for the client to shuffle them, but that didn’t feel like the right thing to do. These cards were mine.
The first card I put down for Rachel was unrecognizable at first, then I saw the similarities to the Empress card from my own deck. For a moment, I just stared at the morbid picture of the Empress looking back at me with a decayed, corpse face. I drew another card and after a moment I saw it was the Hermit card, but this Hermit was disfigured with blood dripping from his wrists running red streams across the bottom of the card. I turned more over and they were all a horrific spin on the standard deck, the theme of decay and illness throughout. The woman seemed fascinated, but I felt sick. Twenty minutes later, the woman left with a look of awe upon her face and my number. I sat back, exhausted. I looked at the spread before me, amazed at my new ability. This had been my best and soon I had a line of people eager for a reading. Raymond Estore was back in business.
Things had been good for a couple of months. Now, seventy seven days later I was a top psychic and my reputation filled halls at reading events. But in less than a day, He will come for me, that thing I have seen within every card. I didn’t see Him at first, but then I started to see a figure in every card. In most cards, it was a distant figure, dancing in the background and barely worth a glance. Then in some, it got closer, glaring around a rock at the King of Wands, or climbing from the water to reach out at the Knight of Cups upon his horse. His face is fixed into a wide grin from where the skin is stretched back painfully with hooks. It has a row of sharp teeth and a long tongue that flicked out in a fork. His single eye burned red and looked right at the reader.
Arranging the cards, I put them in order of where the demon was least visible, the fool, to where he was most visible, standing in place of Death.
Card seventy eight.
At first I just laughed at it, but there was something chilling about that demonic figure and I was convinced it was watching me with hunger. The readings I gave with the cards were so accurate I began to have a sense of dread about the old man’s warning. I searched the internet to find out about these strange cards. When I was about to give up, I found what I was looking for.
“Beware the cards of the demon Puazlu, made from the skin of the dead and painted from the blood of the living,” the internet page told me. “Puazlu looks for the greedy and offers the owner of the cards great power. But if the unfortunate does not pass the cards on after the seventy eighth day, then Puazlu will consume his soul. For Puazlu is the demon of corruption, and seeks to possess the living.”
I gathered the cards up and wrapped them in the cloth they came in. On day seventy eight, will a demon really come to possess my soul? But I was scared and also curious to see what will happen. It was just four more hours until day seventy eight, perhaps my last day on Earth. Oh, but I was a survivor and didn’t take unnecessary risks.
There was a knock on my front door. Perfect timing, I thought. I grabbed my cards and clutched them close to my chest. I ran downstairs, my heart thudding, and pulled the door open. Rachel stood on my doorstep in the pouring rain. She smiled at me, but failed to hide her shyness. “I got your call,” she said, shivering in the rain. “You said you would show me how to read the cards.”
I stood looking at her silently, never happier at craftily slipping my number to a woman I took a fancy to. She looked at me expectantly and I handed over the cards. She took them, staring at my yellowed fingernails. “Use these cards, but pass them on after seventy eight days,” I said, hiding my guilt with a smile.
“What happens then?”
I looked over her shoulder, thinking I saw a shadow. “I hope you never find out.”