Tom was a relatively benign man. He paid his bills on time, kept his anger check, did everything in his power to not stand out in the crowd. All this was a conscious effort on his part because he made a very rash bet in his youth and spent years paying for it.
Born to an impoverished farmer, Tom spent his upbringing wanting nothing more than to get away. He always had a curious mind and wanted to know as much about the world as he could. One day, an old man showed up to his family’s farm looking to rest. Tom’s father was a kind soul and told the stranger he was welcome to stay as long as he pleased.
After a couple of rest and making himself at home, the stranger caught young Tom looking through his things.
“And just what do you think you’re doing?” He asked.
“I’m sorry!” The young boy jumped and almost dropped the stranger’s belongings. “You’re the first person I’ve seen that I’m not related to in as long as I can remember. You carry such odd items that my curiosity got the better of me. Please don’t tell my father!”
“Don’t worry,” the man cackled, “I was once like you. I take no offense, I just ask that you be careful with those. They were given to me as a gift and I hold them quite dear.”
“What are they,” Tom asked.
“Pieces to a game, one that requires great skill. Would you like to learn?” Tom nodded in enthusiastic agreement.
The next several weeks were spent with the old stranger learning the ins and outs of the game he carried. The man didn’t lie when he said it was a game of great skill, and it required a keen mind to learn to anticipate your opponents moves without leaving yourself open to their counters.
“I have a proposition for you, young one.” The old man said one day. “If you can beat me in the next game we play, I will grant you a great boon, one that no other human can posses.”
“You’re on!” Tom said with excitement. His skills had come to rival his guests and he was confident he could win.
For hours the two traded pieces. When one would start to get the advantage, the other would rally and make his opponent pay for any ground he gained. After several intense moves, both sides were down to their final pieces. Tom saw an opening and in a grand flourish delivered his final move. He cheered at his win over his mentor.
“Congratulations, boy. Hold out your hand and I shall give you your reward.”
Tom held out his hand and the old man took it in his own. After a few seconds, a sharp pain started in Tom’s hand and began to spread up his arm. His veins rose to prominence and it felt like his entire arm was engulfed in flames. Tom tried to wrench his arm free, but the man’s strength bellied his seemingly fragile form.
“I pass onto you a curse that was given to me,” the old man said as his appearance began to age rapidly. “You will watch as those around you age and turn to dust. You will beg and plead for a death that will not come, no matter what harms befall you. If you wish for freedom from this life, you must do as I have and find someone who can beat you in the game we’ve played today.” With his final words, the stranger grinned and turned to dust. As the fire spread through his body, Tom could do nothing but scream in pain and pass out.
Several days later he awoke surrounded by his concerned family. They informed him that they heard his screams and found him laying on the ground unconscious and their mysterious guest gone. When asked if he remembered what happened, Tom merely shook his head.
As the years wore on, Tom lived in constant fear of the strangers words. He noticed that age seemed to not affect him like it did everyone else in that, while he visibly aged to a degree, he didn’t experience the physical weakness or loss of faculties that most other suffered. By the time he was in his sixties his appearance resembled that of a man half his age.
With suspicion mounting, Tom made the difficult decision to leave the life he had always known behind. Spending centuries traveling the world, he was unable to find anyone that could match his skills in the game that became known as chess. There were a few times he tried losing on purpose, but that proved pointless as whatever power put the curse into motion required genuine effort. Realizing he couldn’t live with the burden of placing the curse on someone else, he resigned himself to a life of immortality.
Using his immortality to his advantage, Tom amassed a sizable fortune, but not one so great it would draw attention. He would spend his days reading, learning about the new advancements of the world, and romanticizing about the life he could have had. He would spend hours at the local park playing chess against any and all who would play him. After a few years people topped challenging him because they knew if they won, it was only because Tom let them.
One day, a young boy came up and challenged Tom to a game. The boy was young and brash, confident that he could beat the old man. Like thousands before him, Tom soundly beat the youngster. Not satisfied with being put in his place, the young boy vowed to come back every day and play against Tom until he won.
True to his word, the young lad began to show up every day. With every game his skills improved. After a few months he could bring Tom to a stalemate. Every time the boy showed up, Tom’s heart would practically beat out of his chest out of anticipation of the match to come.
One day the boy sat down and, with a stern look upon his face said, “Today is the day I beat you”.
With those words the match commenced. Both sides refused to give ground and, like all their matches before, the duo remained evenly matched. For every piece one side took, the other was repaid in kind. Each move was carefully plotted and a dozen counters developed in an instant. After several hours, and a foolish mistake, the young boy claimed victory.
Caught in the moment, Tom leaned over the board to congratulate the boy. It was only after his hand has taken did he realize he condemned the boy to a fate he was was unprepared for. He could see by the boy’s expression that he was beginning to feel the same pain Tom felt all those centuries ago. Tom stood silent as he felt the muscle beneath his skin wither and dry.
“I’m sorry,” were last words he could muster before he turned to dust.