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The wind lashed Dexy LaRue as he pulled his long coat around him. If everything that the seer on the hill had said was true, for the first time in his life LaRue was needed.
The tavern had saloon-style doors, and Dexy smiled. He pulled his hat down enough to shadow his face and pushed the doors aside, striding into the tavern. No one looked up, except for the bartender.
"What can I do you for, sir?" the man asked. The bartender was one of the least descript men Dexy had ever seen behind a bar.
"Stout," Dexy said. "Double head, with a stone in't."
The bartender nodded and set to work.
Dexy scanned the tavern. It certainly seemed larger inside than it did from the road. Then again, it was a dark night, and Dexy's eyes weren't what they used to be. At least, his left eye wasn't. He rubbed the scar that jutted diagonally out from where his eye once was. Perhaps the effect was due to the twin mirrors: one behind the bar, the other along the right wall of the tavern. The illusion they gave was one of infinite space. It made Dexy a little nauseated.
Still, it didn't take Dexy long to find the person he was looking for. An old, toothless man sat in the back of the tavern, shrouded in a dark blue cloak. The cloak was clasped with the symbol that the seer had drawn in the dirt, all those years ago.
Dexy sat down at the table across from the man.
"You're the harbinger, aren't you, old man?"
The old man was silent.
"They're coming here, aren't they?"
"You're too old to stop them from coming through, aren't you." It wasn't even a question.
A tear ran down the old man's face and he looked up at LaRue with mournful eyes. However, whatever solace the old man had hoped for from the one-eyed man was denied him as the tavern doors swung open.
A tall man in a black cloak, his face hidden within a silver mask, stood titanic in the doorway. There were figures behind him, but the man's bulk hid them from Dexy. The man reached out an arm and pointed to the old man.
"Engillac de sebetekh," the dark figure whispered, and the old man stood, shaking.
"Smen cimmoc," the old man whispered.
The dark man's hand made a fist and the old man suddenly seized up before LaRue. Blood ran from his nose, and he shook spasmodically before finally falling onto the table, dead.
The tavern was a deathly silent.
Suddenly, the bartender had a giant crossbow levelled at the figure. "I don't know who you think--" he began.
The rest of the sentence was cut off by a hiccough of blood. The bartender fell, and a dark, brooding woman with slitted eyes stood behind him, a bloody knife (of a sort never before seen by LaRue) in her hand.
"We claim you," the dark man said to no one in particular. "You are now ours."
Dexy LaRue steeled himself and uttered the only words of power he had.
"I've got fifty-two cards that says differently." The gambler's smile crept onto his lips and for the first time since the omens had begun Dexy felt that he might have a chance.
The dark figure walked into the tavern and towered over LaRue. Four others followed him in, but LaRue couldn't take his gaze (what gaze he had) away from the dark man in the silver mask.
"Do you know who we are, mortal?"
"Than you know that there is nothing you can do to stop us. You have been claimed."
"Five card draw. Gambler's rules. One hand, double or nothing."
The dark figure laughed with no humor in it.
Dexy reached up to his face and removed the gem that rested in his eye socket. He plunked it down onto the table that was all that stood between LaRue and the dark figure.
"One-eyed jacks wild."
The figure's companions had approached as well, and Dexy tried to size up his opposition here. There was a sleek grey figure in loose attire and a woman so beautiful that Dexy thought she might be Arianna incarnate. Another was short, and unpleasantly lecherous looking, the last large and misshapen. The woman behind the bar had served herself a large glass of red fluid.
The dark figure sat across from Dexy.
"For the eye of a dead man," he spat. "Double or nothing."
Dexy shuffled the deck of cards hand had appeared in his hands. Bridged. Shuffled. Spun and tossed. Bridged. The cards flew beneath his fingers in patterns familiar and comforting. Finally they shot out in two streams, like shots from a bow, forming two piles of five cards.
The figure picked up his hand and held them up to his mask. Nothing was reflected but the figure's black glove. Damn, Dexy thought. No help there.
Dexy's hand was uncomfortably weak for the stakes involved. A pair of fours, heart and diamond, the seven of clubs, the ten of diamonds and the knight of hearts. Dexy looked at the silver mask. There was no expression.
Why did the seer pick _me_ for this, he thought. A gambler's no good with something that's not... something that's like _this_.
The figure placed one card on the table. Shit, Dexy thought. The stakes are set, so there's no reason to bluff, and he asks for _one_?
Dexy handed him the card from the top of the deck. Either he's got me dead to rights or he's trying to make a straight or flush. Let's hope he's the latter, and let's pray he doesn't make it. I promised Kera... never again.
Dexy tossed the seven and the ten. Knights were lucky to Dexy. He drew another four, clubs this time, and the ten of spades. His gambler's smile never faltered, though his stomach withered at the draw.
"What've you got?"
The dark figure laid down a straight, 8-9-10-J-Kn, clubs. Dexy had lost. He had failed the seer, and the world.
Kera flashed unbidden to his mind. Kera, beautiful, her red curls haloing her head on the pillow... He looked at his hand, crap of the lowest sort.
Forgive me, Kera, he thought. I always meant to be true to my promise. I always meant to be true to you.
Dexy lay down his cards, slowly.
"Four of a kind," he smiled slyly. "Three fours and the Jack of Shit. One eyed jacks wild, y'know."
He found he could no longer remember what Kera looked like.
The dark figure stood and slammed his fist on the table in rage. "Gambler, I will..."
"That's the way the cards fall," LaRue grinned hollowly. "I win, double or nothing." He picked the jewel up and set it in his eye socket.
There was a dizzying effect, and the six figures were gone. Only strange images in the mirrors, in their inifinite illusory taverns, let LaRue know for certain that this wasn't a dream. That, and the small copper coin sitting on the the table that hadn't been here before.
Dexy picked up the cards, carefully, respectfully and replaced them in his wooden deck holder. All except for the Jack, which he returned to the leather clip in his sleeve.
He hadn't noticed, but the tavern was completely empty now. He palmed the copper coin, slipped it in his pocket, and strode out again into the windy night.
"Good-bye, Kera," he whispered.
The road was long and comfortless before him, and the coin, so falsely won, was no consolation.
Flicker and Max return to Trade. Flicker explains that Riklandir is being occupied by unknown forces that have subverted the Valkyrie, and asks for help. Max introduces ManTec, explains that Savis has disappeared, and informs the group of an unusual prophecy involving them he found on the other side of the earth. When the party touches the tablet he shows them, they feel a strange restless feeling Flicker says reminds him of an unfulfilled geas. Centia appears and introduces herself. She shows an unusual interest in Max's amulet, and Flicker shows an unusual interest in her. It is largely decided to go to Riklandir.
Character tip of the session: Flicker does not say "Oh for crying out loud!" under any circumstances. (:
Flicker came bursting through the portal about a foot off the ground, skidded sparking along the pavement, and despite desperate gesticulations went crashing head-over-skis down the steps. Pedestrians jumped off the sidewalk; something snapped loudly and nastily as the elf hit the fourth stair, and he checked his somersaulted fall at its base with his feet still in the air,staggering three steps on his hands with the momentum. A couple people applauded. He watched the portal huntedly for a few telltale seconds, but nothing followed him. He inverted slowly and shakily onto his right ski and detached the left one with both hands and leaned on it. "Can I help you, sir?" said a portal guard, soberly.
Flicker shook his head. "Thank you." He hobbled awkwardly past the guard, without putting pressure on his left leg, and extended his hand to the startled councilwoman who had come to investigate the commotion. "Shilree," he said. "Eren Messala, Sunfighter. Am I ever glad to see you."
"I liked your old body better."
"Why, Tila. I never knew you had a thing for Threnody." Flicker squatted easily on one leg, holding the healing one out at an angle. "Spots, buddy, how're you doing?"
He blinked laconically and gave him an indifferent tongue flick.
"He's just a lizard," apologized Tila.
"Are you going to tell us what's going on?" said Shilree.
"Riklandir is under major assault," he said. "I don't know why or by whom. The Valkyrie were ousted something like two years ago; we blamed the jotuns, but I'm beginning to think the jotuns are just a pawn in this. If you're familiar with us at all you'll understand how serious that is."
"Of course," said Shilree, impatiently.
"The Valkyrie seem to have resurfaced. I don't know if they're some sort of clones or they're being mind-controlled, but they attacked *us*, and they were genuine enough to beat the crap out of us. They've taken Sigrid, who I know is a true Valkyrie. I don't know what they want with her. I admit I have a personal stake in this, but if someone is rebuilding and controlling the Valkyrie, the implications could be *very* serious. We are not a country overloaded with magic, and I fear some dark alliance. I was hoping if I made it to Trade I could count on some reinforcements. Are you guys available?"
"I've solved our problem, Flicker!"
"What problem is that?"
"I know just what our group needs! We need our own secret language to baffle would-be eavesdroppers!"
"Did we *have* to get him involved in this?" said Shilree.
"I've even come up with one. I call it--Egg Latin!"
Flicker smiled and shook his head. "Schneider," Tila said, "*everybody* knows Pig Latin."
"Latin Pig knows Zzenith not."
"Not Pig Latin, EGG Latin. You speak it by inserting the word "egg" between the consonant and vowel sounds of every syllable. No one will ever understand us then!"
"I don't think we have to worry about anyone ever understanding you," Shilree said.
"Rhynwa, I'm so sorry to hear about Luthien."
"He is perfect in Arawn's arms now," said Rhynwa, calmly. "And I will find and dismember whoever it was who killed him, and all will be well."
"That's a good attitude," Shilree complimented her.
"So anyway," said Schneider, "I have the most excellent mission for our new team."
"Mission what is, Schneider friend?"
"Staging the greatest panty raid in the history of civilization as we know it!"
"Sounds cool," Tila said.
"Absolutely not," Rhynwa pronounced.
"Aw, c'mon," Tila said. "Why do we always have to save the world and fight powerful people who want to kill us?"
"Look, I am a widow, I have a son, and I'm a high priestess of the God of Death. I do not go on missions to steal underwear."
"Hmmph. Luthien did it all the time."
"He did *not!*"
"Besides, Rhyn," added Tila, "you'd be surprised how many jewels people keep in their underwear drawers."
"That's right," Schneider said, patting his lap. "I got the family jewels in my drawers right he--oooofff!!!"
"As I was saying," said Rhynwa sweetly, "the situation in Riklandir seems to call for our immediate attention."
"Okay. A lot of those Viking guys are real studs."
"That was tactfully put, Tila," Flicker praised her.
"Max should be joining us at the Mithril Dagger tonight, once he's found Savis." Rhynwa stood up with finality. "We can talk about this some more then. It's time for me to call Gordon."
"So, it's really you."
"More or less." He smiled a still little smile at the jester. "Mostly more."
"What happened to Threnody?"
"Oh, demon guys killed us. It was always something. Shalini's soul is still pretty fucked up, if you know any gods who owe you a favor." His weird reflective eyes skimmed the jester's face and mask, and he smiled again. "It is good to see you again, Schneider. Janther never had the perspective to say it and Threnody never thought it mattered, but I always liked you."
"Uh..." Schneider gazed back at him plaintively, for once at a loss for something flippant.
"It doesn't need an answer. It just wanted to be said. What's new in your life?"
"So what ever happened to poor Threnody, anyway?"
"Max... Nothing ever "happened" to "poor Threnody". Threnody happened, and the world happened. Sometimes you got good harmonies and sometimes you didn't. That's all."
Go on to the Hoaxes and Imaginary Stories Part 2
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Read Orrin's essays on Native American blood and the Bering Strait
Language of the day: Ioway language