The Daemon's Deck
There’s no better time to conduct business than during a siege.
In the northern nation of Jendria, famous for its cliff-side palaces, deep forests, and multitude of pretenders for the throne, it’s not difficult to arrange such a meeting. On this particular afternoon, four thousand knights and mercenaries of House Cabrel were laying waste to the walls of Castle Blacktoe, currently occupied by House Irmus. Half a dozen miles away, across the river, we watched from the mud brick parapet guarding the town of Silvertrough’s southern border. Where there is despair, there is entrepreneurship, and Jendrian townsfolk always set out chairs behind the crenellation and served expensive food and drink to the spectators. Those with lighter pockets had picnics on the grass below. With each swing of a trebuchet, there was a brief pause of breaths amongst the crowd, and then a blend of vulgarity and laughter, as wagers over the next target to be struck were fulfilled.
Since there was already a spectacle and intoxicating sense of danger, little attention was paid to a pair of lounging foreigners, neither of which appeared armed or dangerous to the naked eye. Though he wore the pruny body of a simple old man, the man sitting to my left was an Inquisitor of Khamel, a zealous daemon-hunter from a secretive and feared order. He was impressive to be so advanced in years, considering the mortality rate of his profession. He was dressed in commoner clothes and neatly groomed. The only riches he wore were his many rings, doubtless enchanted, the most intriguing of which was a diamond-embedded platinum band, slightly loose on his finger. How easily it would slide off, if he weren't alert. Except that Inquisitors were always alert. Best not to think about it.
While the crowd oohed and ahhed at a missile cleaving a chunk from one of Castle Blacktoe’s tallest towers, the Inquisitor had been rambling about the eternal struggle to protect our realm from the terrors crawling in from Void, when I interrupted him with a vital question: “Why should I care?”
After a moment of surprise at the abruptness, he actually chuckled, and continued speaking with the measured, steady speech that simpletons equate with wisdom. "Because I doubt that someone like you has the means to jaunt to another realm, should daemons from the Void overrun this one."
I flared my eyes and nostrils, and shouted, "Oh gods above, there are daemons!" Approximately one man from the row of onlookers turned away from the massed armies to face me, until I added, "...about thirty miles from here." He wrinkled up his nose, and turned back to the distant orgy of destruction. I again faced the Inquisitor, vindicated. "See? That’s a wise man, who doesn’t worry himself about vague threats to distant lands. There are all sorts of troublemakers out there: witches, assassins, barbarian tribes, bandits, warlords, tax collectors... There are knights and whatnot to deal with this nonsense when it gets out of hand. Working for you increases my risk of daemon-related death considerably."
"There's money in this."
"There's death too. Look, I am a businessman. I evaluate jobs on two factors: risk and reward. I'm stuck on the risk."
He scoffed. "You thieves are all alike--"
"I prefer the term 'outlaw'."
"You present yourself as a seasoned professional, even respectable. But whatever skill you have in thieving could have been directed towards a lawful trade, for nearly as much money and far more security. Admit it: you're a thrill-hunter. And I think you're still at this table because I offer excitement."
"You've offered nothing yet, and I'm still here because you're buying." I gestured to a young boy who was nearly out of breath from running orders back and forth from the tavern. I traded my empty goblet and a coin for my third head of swill, while the Inquisitor continued to hold his first beer in his lap, having ordered it only as a politeness.
"I have been tracking a cult called the Indebted," whispered the old crusader, leaning over. "They worship a daemon named Sayyoug, and eighty years ago, they nearly completed the ritual to bring him from the Void to our realm. Six heroes stopped them and destroyed the components they would need to attempt the ritual again. Sayyoug was humiliated, and chastised his followers, vowing never to turn his attention to this realm again."
"So they're trying to get back in their master's good graces?"
"For five months, they have been active, and I have watched them from afar."
"My kind of cult.” A direct hit shattered Castle Blacktoe’s drawbridge, and while the man to my right boasted to his friend over his winning bet, I downed more beer and discretely relieved him of the promissory note protruding from his pocket.
The Inquisitor rolled his eyes and said, "After all those years, the six heroes who foiled Sayyoug have all sprouted large family trees, and the cultists have found ways to arrange high-stakes gaming with at least one descendant for five of those heroes. Some of those descendants gamble routinely, so it was quite easy for the cultists to enter a game; sometimes, they have used drink or seduction as bait. In every case, the cultists have goaded them into gambling away everything they have owned, ruining them."
"An entertaining way to get revenge. If they'd hired me, they'd be done already."
"But why now, and why this method? Whatever their scheme, I want it stopped. If I am correct that they mean to ruin one member of each bloodline, they are only one game away from completion. They appear to have targeted Lord Hathar, a drunken lout from central Jendria. He plays a game called Blind Batty once a week at a local gaming hall, and is already in debt up to his eyes. The Indebted will have their man at his table two nights from now, and they are spreading rumors that he is a surrogate for a rival peer of Hathar's, who supports another contender for their nation's throne. Hathar will play aggressively and recklessly. I have collected a favor to get you a spot at the table, posing as a wealthy knight from Sadeland."
I laughed and asked, "Don't you Inquisitors normally have a more direct approach for dealing with cults?"
"My order has no standing to sound the alarm around here. Besides, my fighting days are behind me, and the cultists know my face. They will have no idea to look for you; I've never hired a burglar before now. They'll have no reason to doubt your cover, and once you've done whatever it takes to foil them, just get out before they get revenge. If you succeed at ascertaining their plan and stopping it, you may keep all the gold I send you to play with, plus all of your earnings, plus the following reward."
He wrote the figure in his notebook with a wax pencil and handed the paper scrap to me. I considered the substantial figure while downing another mug and licking my lips. I said, "One condition."
Pleasant surprise raised the Inquisitor's eyebrows. "Which is?"
"I keep the knight garb. And the sword."
And quite a garb and blade they were, when, two cool autumn evenings later, I wore them on my way to the House of Cards gaming hall. Far better than feathered hats, purple capes, and bulbous boot tops: typical noble attire around these parts. Appearing absurd is fine if I am disguised as a lord, but as a handsome knight who defends a mining outpost from the jotunn in the frozen wastes of the north, I had to look more practical. All the ladies swooned at the lean young knight with fox-like, playful eyes, dressed clean but ready for trouble at a moment's notice in a brown leather jerkin over a light green tunic, with a turned-down black hood and a bastard sword sheathed upon my belt. I felt so proud in my role that I was disappointed not to get still more attention on my way in. Most heads were turned toward the screaming, struggling man being led away by a pair of porters, followed by a third carrying a golden brick. A familiar sight: the prisoner must have been an opportunist, like myself except not so clever, who had been caught trying to fund his gambling with gold bars that were actually gold-glazed tungsten. Any reputable coin-chasm like the House of Cards could afford a third-rate enchanter to check that sort of thing. He'd learn his lesson in the House's shack across town, where they could show him the error of his ways without his screams disturbing patrons.
The House was once a gallery for a local religion's holy relics, a destination for pilgrims until some incident with a saint's skull and a serving of red wine led to the haughty declaration that this was an unclean place. Considering the intrinsic value of the building, Count Benedek purchased the deed from the church at a steep discount and had it recommissioned as a place where visitors were unlikely to care who had drunk from whom. Perhaps that digression is unnecessary for a story I mean to keep brief, but if you're reading my compiled tales for anything, it's to learn about a steal.
It was a pleasant enough establishment, though perhaps not so grand as the gaming halls far to the west, south, or east... nearly any direction except the frozen north. Actually, though, the architecture seemed inspired by warmer and wealthier lands to the south, with sconce-dotted pillars leading up to the ribbed vaults in the ceiling. At least twenty card and dice tables filled the spaces between the pillars, and four times as many elegantly-dressed peers, attended by an army of black-suited waiters and dealers, overseen by a severe-looking chamberlain who fluttered about watching their every move. Jendria's teeming nobility frequented this place and the nearby hot springs, always fooling themselves over how much the holiday would cost them. For these lands, this was the lap of luxury, and even I, a man who has robbed places much more sophisticated, was impressed with how quickly attendants took my name, inspected me unobtrusively for counterfeit gambling tokens, verified the stamp seal of my ring against my reservation, served me a flagon of spiced rum, and led me toward my table. We passed a villager throwing down a triumphant hand at a Sticky Sweetmeat table, a sweating stripling beside a face-concealing lady-friend throwing dice in a game of Flick the Frock, and two monolithic fogies contemplating the pewter pieces on their Chivalric Ranks board. All encircled by the boar racing track, which we crossed on both sides by a pair of arched footbridges, with the beasts barreling underfoot. This place was hot with excitement and anxiety, fragrant with opportunity.
I was shown to a private table in a relatively quiet back corner. Five men were seated, although more stood back and watched, whispering to each other: it was obvious that many were interested in the outcome of this game, although likely not all for the same reason as the Inquisitor. In turn, I made acquaintance with Maester Gellert of the Textiles Guild, Colonel Jozsua of the King's Guard, and Lord Otto of Sarzstrom. All of them endlessly fascinating, I'm sure, but terrible gamblers as I would soon confirm, and unimportant to this story.
Lord Hathar was already five pints to the wind by the time I bowed to him. A burly brute with a braided beard, he was right to wear his hair long so as to cover up his pug-like face and perhaps filter some of the alchemic error bubbling its way back out of his stomach. His drooping eyes were filled with ginned-up vigor, I'll give him that; he looked determined to win this game, or at least not be awake for the loss. But apparently my dashing image boosted his morale, as he shook my hand vigorously and patted me hard on the back.
"Yer from Gnollsburg, eh? Tough place! Fighting jotunns's a young man's job, a brave man's job," he blustered. "If I could throw a game and let some other bloke win, I'd a do it for ya, ya know it? But I cannah, so I hopes yer gamblin' width yer sovereign's coin."
I said, "Only in the way I'm gambling his armor and horses when I charge into battle, certain to triumph. And you have quite a reputation, but you're no jotunn."
"Heh-heh-heh!" He patted me harder. "Good luck to ye. Tell ye what. I'll take yer gold, but you can have a daughter. I've got a pretty one who's only sixteen... no, fifteen... between fourteen and eighteen year old."
"Then if you win my money, just consider it a dowry."
From the man's unexplained bruises on the skin just under his collar and the ginger way he sat back down, I guessed he suffered brittle bones. Which must have been why, for all his fearless talk, this table was the only battlefield he was said to have ever seen.
And then there was the cultist. My deduction, of course; he went by Sir Edvin of Mauro, and was introduced as having spent most of the past five years mapping the lands across the Setting Sea. Of course he had; considering the soberness and institutional stability of this region, it was inconceivable that some ambitious pretender could borrow the name of a cartographer who was currently mapping the lower Stingwhale Trench. A lanky gray man with sunken pox-scarred cheeks and large but disinterested eyes, he busied himself arranging all his gambling tokens--the House used painted teeth of a rare hyena--into neat little rows. He never looked up to me until I offered a hand to shake, and then just barely. In contrast to Hathar, he hardly pressed my hand with his leather gloves when we shook, and only with his fingers, as if it was I, not him, who was the loathsome bug-ridden cultist. I didn't mind; I'd have been disdainfully envious of me if I wasn't who I was, whether we’re referring to my true identity or the knight.
"Pleased," he said, as if reading a foreign word.
What he did have that I envied was an eye-catching assistant. Whereas the other players had their varied retainers standing three steps at their backs, Edvin had only one well-proportioned young lady, with icy white skin, dark freckles, and short blonde hair. She was tucked into a floor-length black satin gown, though the glossy shine followed her curves so that we could all see her bundled shape. That's what she was: a gift all wrapped up. Even her arms were bound in long beaded gloves, and her neck in a choker of silver lace and onyx. She held a heavy log-book, and her quill and ink-bottle were fixed to a band around her same arm: quite a useful device. If opportunity later arose, I hoped to snatch it for the purpose of forging documents while in transit.
Edvin seemed to notice my glances her way, and intercepted them with a glare. "A knight without a squire," he droned flatly. "Or a warrior's physique. Odd."
"As is an explorer without a tan," I countered.
He didn't smile or scowl, but pursed his lips slightly in acknowledgment. "Take a note, Zita," he said to the girl behind him, keeping his glower upon me. "I must write home to ensure that my children are not keeping awake all evening to play as knights."
She expertly balanced the book, opened it, and dabbed the quill before writing. I am quite sure she snuck a coy glance my way as she did. I definitely liked her: playful, literate, and mysterious, albeit likely a daemon-worshipper. I'm open-minded.
A guard collected my bastard sword, to keep during a game certain to prompt hasty outbursts, and I sat. Attendants piled a back bench with large chests of gold bars and other precious trinkets, our stakes. The house had already supplied us with tokens equivalent to their appraised value. My chest was malnourished among the six, though I had to decide at what rate I would expand it, so as not to draw suspicion of being a plant or a cheat.
Blind Batty is an occasionally interesting betting game, more so than most in the unsophisticated north. The gaming deck they use in Jendria has ten cards each, numbered one to ten, of five suits: swords, chalices, horses, dragons, and maidens. The House's dealer places a community card, called the "cave." Players are dealt five cards that they review privately, though you must reveal one to clue (or deceive) other players to the power of your hand. Your goal is to play the cards with the highest combined value, but you cannot play a card of the same suit as the cave card. So if you're dealt a ten of dragons, but the cave is a dragon, it's worthless to you. Once the cave is revealed and the hands are dealt, there's an initial round of betting, and each player must either meet the highest bet or fold. Then, players may replace up to three of their four still-concealed cards with new ones from the deck. After this, a second cave card is revealed, which means that another suit might be worthless. A second round of betting commences, with players knowing the final value of their own hands; it could be anything from zero to forty-nine points. After all players match the highest bet or fold, hands are revealed and one player takes the whole pot.
Initially, I laid low, playing roughly as well I expected of a novice, and getting similar results. Hathar played confidently, too much so, and Edvin calmly won five of the first ten hands. Rarely by much, but enough to be the funnel into which most of the teeth gradually swirled. He won at almost the exact rate that I did when I was cheating.
"Damn these leaves, not fit for wiping a man's arse!" Hathar shouted at his cards, throwing down a hand full of swords devalued to nothing by the second cave card. Edvin had met the bluff, and now calmly pooled his winnings toward him.
"A fine excuse, blaming the cards," Edvin said, not granting his prey eye contact. "Your pretender king must train you in finger-wagging, when he explains why he sits upon dirt and not a throne."
Hathar snarled, but no sound came out. Instead, he dabbed the sweat on his brow with his sleeve. It was a cruel sight: the warrior fire had been there at the game's start, but it had been snuffed out quickly by the familiar routine of losing, and he was realizing that this would be the night he lost everything.
And I supposed that my reward depended on that not coming to fruition. There are three keys to successfully marking cards: timing, misdirection, and sharp eyesight, which I train by reading nightly with one eye covered. I spent several rounds using an outgrown pinky nail to subtly scratch the edges of cards, marking them by suit. I was baffled, though, that ten hands later, I still could not spot any of my markings after the dealer shuffled. This technique had worked for me many times, and if it failed, it should have been because I was sniffed out, not because the cards always emerged crisp as a frozen apple. Something was wrong.
At our first half-hour break, I snatched my sword back from the guard and vanished into the crowd while tracking the House's dealer, a necessarily inscrutable man of bland features. He had to be the mole. I tracked him around back, following him outside into the chilly night. From the bushes, keeping my distance, I watched him amble to a gazebo by a swan-infested pond, and waited a few minutes, as did he. Eventually, who else but Zita, Sir Edvin's assistant, came strolling along with her creamy shoulders sheltered from the cold by a shawl. They met under the moonlight, their conversation cloaked by the clatter of crickets. He appeared nervous, but she was cool and elegant, seemingly diminishing his worry with idle conversation.
I concentrated, flooding out all distractions so as to read lips and string words. But what I could not ignore was the rustling of branches behind me, or the emerging growl.
Instinct shoved tact aside. I spun around, drawing my sword. The attacker recoiled from my swipe, so I caught only a sliver of cheek with my foible. For an instant, I admit I was petrified by his sight as he turned back to me. He might once have been a man, but there was little left of what his mother bore. Olive eyes without irises matched the color of the blots on his rotten skin, and wriggling pincers filled his mouth. He was clad in a peasant's cloak, and he swung back at me with a sickle. I leapt back, and he rushed me, swiping recklessly, indifferent to his own injury. Then he lunged, and I swung my blade to intercept his oncoming slash. His forearm tumbled away in a crimson shower, but that did not even slow him, for he crashed into me like a bag of diseased potatoes, pinning me and pushing those squirming things between his lips toward my neck, pulling my head closer with his remaining hand.
I struggled to hold him back, but struggling is quite different from failing. My sword had fallen just out of reach, but fortunately, while the porter had checked my sleeves and pant legs for weapons, he hadn't checked the breach between my left boot's leather and the sole. From there, I wriggled out a tiny dagger, which I drove into the warped cultist's neck and twisted. A few seconds of gurgling later, he went limp.
I climbed out from under him, ready to run. Already the night was spilling darker shadows my way. Broad cloaks, bounding closer. The nearest of them raised the hoe he carried in both hands, and I flung the dagger straight as a sunbeam from my fingertips into his face. While he collapsed, I rose and raced into the foliage. I heard footsteps drawing from the direction of the gazebo.
Perhaps ten minutes later, I was composed enough to stroll back into the main hall, slightly winded, hands washed hastily of blood in a fountain, and bearing a few grass stains, but otherwise no worse for wear. From a passing table, I grabbed a bowl of braised beef with blood gravy and ate it sloppily along the way, which explained away the stains on my surcoat for a small cost in dignity. I waited for there to be some commotion about the two bodies in back, but none came. I should not have been surprised: the cult apparently needed this game to continue without interruption or suspicion, and they must have cleaned up after themselves. I wondered if they had identified me as the man spying upon their mistress, but regardless, no place would be safer than the table.
The game resumed, and my focus was on the cards themselves, and how they had been made to defy me. It would have been risky to enchant them, since gambling houses often hired plain-dressed mages who could sense magical auras. But something was wrong with the cards, something Edvin was exploiting. Now that I knew the dealer worked for him, my next move was obvious. After two hands, I forcefully told the dealer, "Freshen the cards."
All those around the table seemed surprised, though the only acidic glare came from Edvin. Of course, as would any reputable gaming hall, they replaced the cards with a new deck. The dealer hesitated, but mostly kept his own bluff alive. From then on, it was my turn to dominate. Nothing underhanded (not to besmirch cheating as a viable strategy against uncreative opponents). All I needed was razor-sharp judgment and precise reading of every player's tell. Gellert bit his lip. Otto got quiet. Even the sullen mastermind Edvin had his tic: shuffling his weight upon his seat. Hathar's tell was of course loud, but I ensured that he took the pot most occasions that I couldn't.
I even faked my own tell: sniffles. I could see this falsified epiphany grow in Edvin's alerted eyes when I gave the old nare a subtle snort after laying down a ten as my one card to show the table. He was so certain I was bluffing, that he had figured me out all on his own, that we raised each other three times before he was satisfied. And when I laid down pairs of tens and eights to join my bait card, beating his fives and other assorted rubbish, he just stared at the cards, then at me. Mouth sealed, but jaw moving.
"So tell me, Sir Edvin, is it true that they keep mice as pets in the lands across the sea?" I asked him.
With that, Sir Grumps had enough. "Freshen the deck," he said icily. And with the new cards came the cultist's old winning ways. Over and over, Hathar and I would draw ferocious hands that were narrowly overcome by Edvin's or swallowed up by the cave. I came to squirm with anger. I even scratched a card, hard, just to watch it disappear back into the deck and emerge smooth as a baby's ass at the next draw. I don't know how many of the House of Cards' staff were working for the cult, but enough to get Edvin's favorite deck back on the table.
After the last hand before I saw the chamberlain arriving to announce a break, I shoved four cards back to the pile, but flicked one back into my sleeve. Later, if need be, I could say it had fallen and gotten stuck on the underside of my boot, but for now, I wanted a closer look at the thing.
I stomped quickly to the outdoor lavatorium in the cloister, my head cloudy in the clear night. I washed my hands in the stone basin until two other gamblers, moaning about their fortunes, had departed, which left me alone with the nine of chalices. I held it up to the moonlight to see if an enchantment would glisten. Nothing. I dipped it in the basin water, and it dampened, as would any paper. Gritting my teeth, I wondered what else I could do. I looked around the gardens to make sure that the cultists hadn't ventured this way, and I noticed the lamp-posts providing gentle illumination at this awful hour. I walked up to one and dipped the card's corner in the flame. For a moment, it felt as though I was the one who burned.
The card seemed to scream at flame's lick, and that scream doused my brain with agony, followed by a horrible emotional cacophony. Anguish, loss, hopelessness. Ridicule, remorse, dread. All these sensations swirled through my spirit, but they were not mine, nor were they even one other person's; they came in many flavors, the pains of many mortals. The rush of terrible emotions subsided, but I was left breathless, steadying myself on the basin. I had felt what it was like to have things that a man like me could spend a lifetime fighting for, and watching them seep back into oblivion.
"They don't emit ether, so mages cannot sense enchantment," came a silky voice. I turned. Zita. Alone, unbothered. Her log-book was gone, as was her deferential demeanor, replaced by directness. She said, "The cards are simply alive, as much as you or I."
"Or dogs," I said, righting myself and blinking away the pain. "Dogs loyal to their master."
"Yes, they perform tricks for him. Such as changing the symbols on their faces when no one looks. Actually, I must avoid cringing at my brother's play; he never enjoyed games, even when we were children. Quite unlike myself; I believe they train one's concentration. And moreover, they are fun. But a woman playing cards would draw us the wrong manner of attention."
I looked down to the card upon the grass. The burn was fading. The card was healing.
"Why?" I asked. "Why go to all this effort to rob Hathar? Why not just kill him?"
"Death does not shame one's name. What's happening in there will. The cards absorb the fear, the dread that oozes from Hathar's sweaty palms. They have collected it from the bloodlines that wronged my master, writing a song of despair. For that song, our master has promised us a tiny sliver of his power, which will enable us to shape this world. And in time, we will make it desirable to him once more."
"Don't get ahead of yourself. That card's not the last thing up my sleeve."
"Nor mine," she said. She raised her hand and enunciated words in Deium, the language of the gods: "Submersus spiritus."
The water of the basin lept at me, dragged me down towards it. If the idea of being tackled by water sounds bizarre, you should feel it. It was not ice, and was even somehow warm, but it was solid. Tendrils of it slithered over my neck and shoulders, thick and slippery, like a squid's, tightening until I couldn't breathe. It howled straight up into my ear.
Even as I struggled fearfully against whatever the basin had become, I looked to Zita through thrashing water. She slunk toward me. The satin of her gown actually glowed blackness, snuffing out the candlelight. For a moment, I saw her as she truly was. Her delicate skin darkened with putrid green spots, and the rot filled up her eyes. By the time she stood over me, she had no beauty, no humanity--only power. She knelt to collect the card.
"Finish the game quietly and stop protecting Hathar," she demanded dispassionately, "or you will lose more than the Inquisitor’s stolen riches."
The basin released me, and I spilled onto the grass wet and freezing. I lay there gagging in the dark, watching her silhouette stride assuredly away. I cannot deny that I was terrified, and as I walked shivering back inside, I again felt humiliation, and now it was my own. However, what separates me from all those fools who had been ruined by these bone-scraping cretins is that I resolved to do something about it. Want to know how you win a game while disadvantaged? Change the rules.
When I returned to the table, I flopped into my seat and sighed. Zita stood beautiful again, as though nothing had happened. Edvin squelched a smirk. Someone made a joke about my state, but I didn't bother hearing it. Nor did Hathar, who grimly ordered that another chest of staked gold be brought out to fund him. For this last stretch, minimum bets would be doubled.
Shortly before play resumed, an attendant came up behind Hathar. "Message for you, m'lord, delivered by courier from Lady Hathar."
Hathar unfolded the sheet of paper and read. For a moment, Edvin and Zita both eyed me, obviously suspecting that I had warned him. Perhaps I was about to demand the cards be destroyed here at the table, which would force some kind of blood-soaked conclusion to the evening's entertainment: me and the glass-boned drunk against the sorceress and the ghoul. Roughly even, considering that I knew how to flick cards with great speed and accuracy, which was a method of attack I longed to use again. Swords, flying cards, sorcery, enraged boars freed from their racing track, deformed cultists, drunken nobility: it would have been a hell of a better battle than the one I had watched three afternoons ago.
But it was not to be. Hathar merely crumpled up the note and kept playing. And kept losing. A total collapse that surprised no one, and which I did nothing to stop.
Hathar didn't stay for drinks and fellowship after the last hand, in which he folded after the revelation of the second cave card. It was nearly dawn, and it showed on his face. Everyone stood, and Hathar, redeeming a tinge of lost pride, quickly congratulated his opponents' efforts. "Well played," he conceded to Edvin.
Edvin said nothing. He and Zita merely led out the attendants who hauled their winnings. And, of course, the dealer collected the cards scattered around the table and discretely handed them to her.
When Hathar came around to shake my hand, he offered no words, only a wink and a flash of a half-smile. I admit, I felt mild pity for him, though not enough to change my course. He had lived longer in luxury than I ever would, and all good things must eventually be pissed away. I vanished out a side egress, and eluded any further meetings on my way out to my horse, riding off at full gallop.
I like to imagine what happened the next evening, piecing together what I know of the setting and the scene that was left. All the moldy cultists gathered around a big, black, lonely well dug in the ground, somewhere out in the fen. They're sitting in a circle on the dirt: sweating, chanting some unearthly song in their daemon-master's praise, shaking under the influence of a ritual deliriant. It's a night hot with anticipation. Flocks of birds fly directly away from that clearing. Infants in villages miles away cry for no known reason. Ill omens for this world; good ones for the things that called themselves Edvin and Zita, and their decayed family. When they are at the peak of religious excitement, Edvin casts the cards into the well, and they flutter down like snowflakes. And the cultists wait, preparing for the Void portal at the bottom of the well to receive the cards, and to cast back their master's gratitude.
And they wait.
And the well finally answers, with tongues of hellish heat that roar back up and scorch the skin from their bones.
Three days later, near an abandoned dock along the river and beneath a new dawn, the Inquisitor asked, "And what did the note say?"
"That I was a spy working for his would-be king," I explained, "and that I had spent the previous adjournment stealing the fabricated gold bars that had been confiscated from that poor fellow caught earlier, and replacing the staked gold that Hathar was now gambling away. He spent the last several hands thinking he was losing only worthless metal, and that Edvin would be in for a surprise when he returned home and tried to show off his winnings. Shortly after the game, Hathar undoubtedly learned that he had, indeed, lost everything. But the emotion imprinted on the cards during those final hands was Hathar's triumph, his victory snatched from defeat."
"And that's why I found eight dead cultists around a well, surrounded by seance materials and their own charred innards."
"Sayyoug must not have enjoyed his gift."
"So you defeated a daemon cult with a note." The Inquisitor spoke with reverent astonishment.
"And a generous tip to the attendant," I admitted.
He nodded, wrinkled old face thick with gratitude, and reached out a hand. "Thank you, Raven. Your reward has been deposited in your bank. Gods shine upon you."
I shook his hand heartily, smiling.
We went our separate ways. He with the knowledge that a great evil had been stopped. And me with his diamond-encrusted platinum ring.