Vazel was a gambler, and a bad one at that. However, Vazel was very good at disappearing shortly after making a fool out of himself. He had traveled to seven different villages in the mountains of Koheed, yet always seemed to find himself in very similar places.
Every village had slums, but they seemed to get worse and worse the more Vazel journeyed through the country. The place Vazel was now, was even more putrid and diseased than any other place he had ventured. Unlike many other places that snuggled in the flat valleys, the town, Paliko, sidled against the mountainside. Its location made the roads crooked and narrow, all the roofs were lopsided, and many houses were left in ruins after a storm or a mudslide. Some people tried to farm, but aside from a few pounds of witherberries and riffle root, the people of the town took little pride in farming. Due to the rugged houses, they took little pride in their homes as well. In fact, things the town boasted of were skewed and distorted. Their goats and chickens were all diseased; for little food was available to them, and they were bound to die within the next storm.
The only thing citizens found comfort in those who could produce the most choggy, those who could drink the most choggy, and, (most importantly) what one would do when enough choggy had been drunk. So many isolated years of famine and disaster, the only thing the whole town cared for was their fascination with choggy. Choggy was easy to create from stellow leaves and pink thistles, which grew by the dozens in their altitude. Oil from the leaves, mixed with the thistles, and boiled slowly for a full moon phase, would create a thick gooey tar. The tar would be left in a cheese cloth, and most of the Choggy would seep through within a fortnight.
Choggy would allow people’s minds to pass through time; they would find themselves laughing for hours, followed by a few more hours of silence, and an overwhelming feeling of awe and pleasure. After the silence passed, people under choggy’s spell would be found doing all kinds of ridiculous things. Some are easily angered, and have been known to hurt each other. Sometimes, they can be tricked into hurting themselves. Other people may even run off the steep cliffs of the mountain. However, despite all these circumstances one could find them in, citizens typically kept the brothels full and the streets quite bloody. The streets were lined with a thick smell of bile, being that, many people cannot handle the thick aroma of Choggy, and would soon find their bodies rejecting the substance a few hours after ingesting it.
Although the streets were thin, and usually lined with a collage of human waste, there was something about Paliko which made Vazel feel somewhat content. He didn’t like Pailko, (to say the least, he loathed it) but he was not afraid to make a mockery of himself. He knew the town was filled with fools who could not even feed themselves, let alone run him out of their town.
Vazel sat in half-a-skeleton half-a-cottage of a pub. Part of it’s structure was gutted out, and the open side faced the edges of the mountain. The floor was charcoal silt and the walls that remained standing were rotting wood; and squeaked as the wind howled downhill. Everything inside was damp and smelled like winter moss. Even the bar counter Vazel sat at was a sad excuse for a table; dried flakes of resin, stomach acid, bloodstains, and fingernail marks scared the tabletop in which Vazel sat at. He took a few more sips of the watered-down Choggy from his leaky stone tankard. He traced his tongue over his sandy teeth; pushing over the gap where his canine tooth once was, the water and choggy don’t really mix, the water just bubbles around the choggy, creating a rough bitter texture. Vazel’s tree bark fingernails danced along the tankard. In is other hand he held a lucky wager stone, he would feel the smooth side with his thumb, and then, once and a while, would flip it around and feel the other side.
It was a good way to subtly show another gambler that he was ready to make a bet, but Vazel also enjoyed the feeling of the stone, and the way the sides would glisten in the dim light of the egg yolk candles. Vazel felt the escape rushing over him; the choggy warmed his belly and the stone began to feel warm from his fingers squeezing it. Within the shiny stone he saw his reflection, only it was different from where he sat. Vazel saw his neck covered in gold, and rings on each of his fingers. His face was clean, and his hair was thick and unmated. Beside him sat his lovely wife drenched in jewels and a fine tiara, she smiled and held him. Vazel then heard a low voice coo behind him, “Do you wish to make a wager, Sir?”
Vazel turned behind him and saw a man who was rather unfamiliar. Took little notice of the stranger; Paliko was not a large village, however, it was large enough to not recognize many faces. Being that Vazel was an outsider, too, and had not spent more than a moon cycle there, gave him some relief. Even still, there was something about the man that made Vazel uneasy. It was peculiar, only because Vazel had gambled with orcs and acamas, so intimidation was not his concern. He would take anyone who asked, it was never a question when one wanted to wager, and the simple truth was Vazel had a moment where he didn’t want to wager, and this sensation seemed foreign to him. Nonetheless, Vazel brushed off the feelings. The man was quite old, with very dark eyes and wisps of grey hairs resting on his pale skull. His faced appeared to have witnessed years of hard work and even harder terrain. Vazel thought he could be a merchant; for he had layers of heavy robes that did not appear to come from anywhere Vazel had been before.
“Of course, friend,” Vazel said with a smirk, “But you seem tired; may I ask what inquiries have brought you here? Surely you do not come from a place of such filth and poverty.”
The old man took a seat beside Vazel, his voice was low as he said, “No, you’re right, I hail from a land very far south, but my business is not your own, I’ve just come to look for a place to rest for the night and swiftly leave the next morning.”
”Might I be so bold as to ask your name, then?” Vazel asked.
The old man reached into his sleeve and pulled out a suede satchel tied about with twine, “No decent man has asked for a name without giving his first,” replied the old man, “I’ve asked for a wager, and no more than that. You look to be a dirty bit of meat, not even the wolves hunger for. Who are you to ask so many questions?”
Vazel was not offended by the man, partially because the choggy had entered into the lighter stages of humor, and Vazel laughed as he answered, “So be it, Old Man, what is your wager?”
The only man stiffly reached into the same sleeve and pulled out a dissal stone, no bigger than a bean, “Do you have something that matches the value of this?”
Dissal stones were not the rarest of minerals, however, in this areas of the mountains, most minerals of value were not to be trifled with in the south. Dissal stones were precious because they could be placed into any liquid, and when placed under the moon, could purify it over night. They were not common to come by, but were durable, and the cleansing properties would certainly have some use to Vazel. Alas, he knew he did not have any mineral to mirror its value. Even if he could find something, the odds proved that he would lose it, and the old man would be off on his way, with a mineral Vazel could use just as wisely.
“Aye,” said Vazel, “I do, however, this town is dangerous to carry too many minerals about, and I have a racine crystal the same size in my cabin.”
Vazel had to hold his tongue after his remark. A racine crystal was much more rare than a dissal, to infer that they were equal either meant Vazel was either a fool or a liar. A racine crystal could duplicate any liquid it touches. If a glass of choggy was half full, one could place a Racine crystal in the drink and (depending on the size of the crystal) enjoy an overflowing cup in a matter of seconds. Vazel was certain the old man would find out the truth; that Vazel was just as poor as the rats in the pub.
“Racine…?” The old man asked raising his bushy grey eyebrows, the then put a rough hand against his hairless chin, “If I can’t see it, how am I to possibly know you have it?”
Vazel’s brain churned a clever idea. If he was to win this match, he would obtain the dissal, and there would be no debate. But if he were to lose, he could escort the old man back to his cabin, where he could easily kill him, and take the dissal, and any other minerals the old man kept.
“Perhaps you could take an honest man’s word,” Vazel urged, “I haven’t a reason to lie, and if you win the wager, I could simply take you back to my cabin where I will gladly give you the stone, and a place to rest for the night. There are no inns close by unless you want rats gnawing on your toes at night.”
As the old man took time to consider this, the barmaid abandoned chatting with the regular visitors and leaned over against the table. Her face was wilted; one of her eyes sat half-open while the other subtly looked in other directions of the bar. Her skin had patches of red and brown, and her thin lips were covered in a chapped brown substance that extended to the areas around her chin and cheeks. Her hair stuck to her face and dripped with water from the leaky roof, and moisture in the pub. Her breasts poured over her bodice and leaning over the bar constricted them even further.
“A tankard of choggy, for ya, Old Man?” She asked in a raspy voice, her breath reeked of tar and vomit, the Old Man looked up at her and his nostrils flared. The barmaid stared at the man for some time, and then gave him a teethless black smile.
“Just have one drink on me,” remarked Vazel, disturbed by the silence. He figured the man would be keener to wager after the choggy had made its way into his stomach…and much easier to kill. Vazel then placed a crumb of benfite on the table. Benfite was a nearly useless mineral; when thrown into a fire, benfite will keep the fire hot, but make the wood burn faster. However, when making choggy, benfite was pretty useful.
“Make it nice and strong,” Vazel added.
The barmaid scowled and brushed the benfite into her hand and stomped off muttering to herself about how rude the old man was.
“Now, Old Man, do you see how decent I am? I have little use for racine if all the water I drink is putrid and dirty. Many might think that it’s a foolish trade, but can you understand why I would find our minerals to be of equal value?”
The barmaid slammed the tankard and the table, and leaned over the bar again as she placed her face close to the old man’s.
“Drink up,” She hissed, and then strutted off.
The old man’s eyes fallowed the wench and when she disappeared though the darkness of the pub, he clapped his tongue against his hard pallet and inspected the choggy. He swirled the liquid in the tankard, and then took a great gulp of it. The old man swallowed as if he tasted nothing, then took a deep breath, and drank even more. Vazel watched, his eyes smiled, but he tried to keep his continence sincere.
The old man burped, and made a slight expression of tasting the bile in his throat, but then licked his lips and smiled slightly. Vazel was just about to add to his guile, but the old man interrupted him, “I’ll accept your wager,” he said.
“Yes, my friend,” Vazel laughed, “yes, good! But first, let us toast!” Vazel raised his tankard and said, “To fair games, and long lives!”
The old man hunched over the bar, resting on his elbows, and rolled his eyes as he drunkishly raised his cup. Vazel clanked his tankard against the old man’s, a little bit of liquid spilled out from both cups. Neither of the men seemed to mind as they both took a deep drink.
“Here, now,” said Vazel, reaching into his bag which sat on the ground next to him, “We can use my tablets.” Vazel removed three decks wrapped in rags, he unfolded each of them and placed them in between himself and the old man. The three tablets were made of thin glass stone. They were all clear, except for the edges which were lined with a smooth metallic finish. The edges of the first deck were dark blue, the next was blood red, and the last was a forest green. The old man peered down at them, then looked back at Vazel. He smirked and drew the first tablet from the green deck, and placed it to the side.
Vazel drew the next tablet from the same deck and placed in front of himself, then wrapped the deck and put it away. The old man then took a tablet off the red deck, and Vazel fallowed. Then wrapped up the deck and put it away again. Then the repeated the process, so that three thin tablets sat in front of each of them.
“Are you ready then?” Vazel asked. The old man nodded and removed a stone from his satchel and waved it over the green card. A small clear castle emerged hovering a few inches above the table. The castle was built like a series of towers and was tall enough so that the top was at eye level with the old man.
Vasil’s heart began to race, he already knew that the man had an upper hand, but Vazel masked his nervousness as he waved his wager stone above his card. Just as he had expected, his castle was much shorter than the old man’s, however, it had walls that acted as barriers to the inside.
Vasil rubbed his brow, then looked back at the old man. The man waved his stone above the blue-lined card, and a small knight emerged. The knight was big enough to go inside the castle, and live comfortably. The knight had glistening armor with a horned helmet, and a large sharp axe. Although Vazel could use the axe to pick his teeth, he was intimidated by the magnitude of power this tiny knight had.
Even still, Vazel waved his stone above this blue-lined card, and his knight appeared. Vazel’s knight had a smaller stature than the old man’s, and his armor seemed much lighter. The tiny knight had a small sword, and rode on a chocolate colored horse. The little knights stood in front of their castles, patiently waiting for the next illusion to appear.
It was at this time, Vazel and the old man waved their stone above the remaining cards simultaneously, and their monsters were pulled from the cards.
The object of the game, was for the knights to fend off the monsters from their castles. The first to have their monster or their knight killed, would lose. If someone had their castle destroyed, they would lose. What depended on the strength of the monster, knight, and structure of the castle, depended greatly on the cards and stones. Although all the cards were the same, they symbolized the chance and luck of the game. The stones were the strategy; they peered into the heart and mind of the player, in a way, the stones allowed the strengths and weaknesses of the players to be the power source which the pieces were made of. The cards filtered this power into advantages and disadvantages.
The monster which emerged from Vazel’s card was wingless; quite a disadvantage to the old man’s tall castle. But the beast had great claws and heavy knuckles. Its legs looked strong and thick, and it was covered in short grey fur, except for the bones which shot from its spine like razors, and the bones spiked out of its tale like a heavy deadly weapon, it’s face was short, and it’s teeth were rounded, but it looked like a strong beast, despite the teeth. It let out a soft, but powerful battelcry, as did the old man’s monster. The old man’s monster had wolf-like qualities, but a face of a rabid dog. It’s teeth were long, and it prowled on six muscular legs. Out from its back shot two long tentacles with claws attached to the ends of them.
Now, all that was left was to watch the battle.
Vazel finished off his choggy, expecting his knight to take the first blow from the dragon, but to his pleasant surprise, his knight did not waste any time in chopping off one of the legs of the old man’s monster.
Vazel was not one for strategy, nor knew anything about fighting a monster. In the past battles, Vazel would monitor the fight very closely, until he was certain his castle would crumble, or his knight would die. Vazel had not lost every game in his life, but he had not totally won in years. Excited, he peered at his monster, which was clawing its way up the towers to the castle, while the old man’s knight was having a hard time catching up with the creature, due to his heavy armor.
“Wench!” Vazel called almost laughing, “another round of drinks for me and my opponent!” Vazel reached into his pocket for a few more crumbs of benfite, never taking his eyes off the battle. Before he knew it, his monster was breaking the castles down with it enormous claws, while the old man’s little night toppled down the stairs, losing balance from the monster’s strength.
“Seems as though your knight wore too much armor,” Vazel laughed nudging the old man.
“Indeed,” agreed the old man calmly, “it seems as though you may have bested me.”
The barmaid came with a pitcher and refilled their drinks. She peered down at the battle, “This is a trick,” said the barmaid, “Just look at how the other side doesn’t even try…there is something not right about this game.”
“Oh be off with you,” Vazel retorted, and smacked the pitcher so she was splashed with choggy, “No one wants to hear your doltish mouth speak, anymore.” Vazel laughed a bit more and placed an arm around the old man. He then continued, “If we wanted any part of your lips, we would loosen out belts!”
The old man chuckled and wheezed with Vazel, as they watched the battle.
“Be that way, if you must, Vazel of Belhalla, but I warn you, there is some trickery here.”
Irritated, Vazel stood up, and stared at the barmaid, “You are hideous, wench, you are ugly and no man will covet you. Your face looks like that of a pig, and if you could be any uglier it would be by my hand, so speak no more.” With that, Vazel slapped the barmaid across the face and she fell to the floor, spilling the choggy.
Many other people in the pub over heard what Vazel said and laughed, some walked over and pointed at the barmaid calling out, “yes, be gone! We have all had our taste of you, and you’re good for nothing, now unless you serve our pitchers.” After the men had their laugh, they watched the battle Vazel was having with the old man. By now, the old man’s monster was nearly dead, and his castle was in shambles, but the old man’s knight remained alive. Bu the knight was only making a fool out of himself by toppling down the stairs and towers of the palace. The men in the pub laughed, and even the old man found humor in the night. The men began to congratulate Vazel before he had even fully won. But when the dragon was fully slain, the illusion disappeared back into the cards and Vazel smiled at the old man.
“Now, if you’re a man of your word, you should now give me that piece of dissal,” Vazel said after the cheers from the men were silenced.
“Ah yes,” said the old man, again removing the little golden bean from his robes, “the dissal, as promised, but may I ask for something, not in return, but as a new friend?”
Vazel snatched the gem from the old man happily, and held it towards the light, watching his winning sparkle, “Yes, of course, my friend.”
“You mentioned I may stay a night,” cooed the old man and he slowly placed his wager stone back in his satchel, “You said the inns were not well kept, and although I have made merry here, I should like to rest soundly, for I must leave early tomorrow.”
Vazel stopped and thought of his idea to kill the old man. He did not expect to win, and now that he did, he had no reason to kill the man. But Vazel was happy, so much happier than he had been in so long, that he graciously, and honestly said, “But of course, you can! But we should leave soon, it’s getting late.”
The old man agreed, and the two of them gathered their belongings and made their way down the damp filthy streets to Vazel’s hut. It was small, and the floor was dirt, but it had a fireplace and a full roof, which was more than most had in the village. Vazel prepared a stew of rats and weeds, and they sat by the fire for some time, saying very little until the old man finally broke the silence.
“The barmaid mentioned you are from Belhalla?”
Vazel was not expecting such a forward question from the man, but he thought for a while until he answered, “To have a woman share her body, you must share your past.”
The old man cackled, “You would lay with a woman like that? Surly there are ones far more beautiful and quiet in Belhalla.”
Vazel looked down at the stew; the shadows of the weeds made it seem like there was much more in his bowl than there really was, “I have a wife in Belhalla I cannot return to. I have seven sons and a baby daughter who was born just days before I left.”
The old man’s voice became concerned when he asked, “why would you ever leave?”
Vazel stared into the fire, “the game we played…it’s meaningful to me. But the wagers land you in quite some trouble when you become blinded by the riches. Today, in the pub, that feeling it gives me, I cannot get away from. I bartered my home, and left my children and wife with nothing. I was ashamed, and so I thought I could get the house back, but I only lost more. Now I’m banished from Belhalla, and I’m not to return without payment for my debt.
The old man nodded and waited quite some time as the fire cracked, a cold silence fell over, and that was when the man said, “I can pay your debt for a bargain…”
Vazel stared at the man in disbelief. In the dark, but the fire, the man’s face looked like a mask. His skin was so wrinkled, Vazel could not see where his eyes or mouth began. But even still, he pressed the man, “How could that be possible? I owe too much.”
“As you might have guessed, I am a merchant; a businessman. I have many minerals of all types of value. But I have something that will pay your debt, and allow you and your family comfort for many years…all I need is a small favor in return.”
“I would do anything,” said Vazel, “there is nothing more I desire than to be with my family. For three years, I have traveled like a prisoner, searching for a way to pay my debt, and it has turned me into a man of rock. I have nothing now.”
“I have a daughter, she is passing through the age of finding a husband. I fear she will never marry my job keeps me traveling, and she deserves a man to come home to her…”
“Are you proposing one of my sons marry your daughter?” Vazel asked, uncertain of what any of his sons would think.
“No,” said the old man, “I don’t know your sons, and as much as I fancy you, a son does not always reflect the likeness of his father…”
“Old Man, just tell me! Anything you want me to do I will do.”
“How old is your wife?” the old man asked tilting his head. In the darkness his eyes seemed black, and when he tilted his head, it looked as if a neck is not meant to bend that way.
Vazel felt his joints begin to shiver, but he felt he had to say something to the man so he asked, “Are you proposing that I marry your daughter?”
“When your wife passes away, on her own time, eight children is a lot to bear, and three years of poverty have probably left her quite weak…your children will need a mother when your wife passes.”
The old man’s voice seemed much different than before, it was not low and calm, it seemed forceful; it sounded like the old man was desperate for Vazel to marry his daughter.
“My friend, as much as I wish to go home, and as much as I would like to please you—“
“Please me?” Growled the old man, “You wish to please me?”
“B-but of course,” Vazel quivered.
The old man’s neck twisted the other direction so that his head was turned sideways, “But were you not the one who had lied to me in regards to your racine?”
Vazel back-crawled to the corner in terror, “H-how…”
The old man’s neck twisted in the other direction and his shoulder popped out of its socket as he inched his arm closer to Vazel, his elbow snapped backwards as his thick hand morphed into long thin claws that pointed to him, “was it not you who conspired to kill me, VAZEL?”
Vazel’s chest began to heave with each breath, “No, please…”
“I need people like you Vazel, you were once good, and now you have become corrupt.” The old man clawed closer to him, each of his joints popping and morphing as he spoke, “With no help from me, you have become like those who follow me. I need you; I need you so that others who were good can see it is possible to become evil. I need your blood to flow through the children of tomorrow. Mortal blood of a man who was once good, mixed with blood of a woman drenched in darkness…”
“No, I am not evil!” Vazel cried.
The old man’s body continued snapping, until another set of arms were released from his sides, the claws dripped in thick blood, and pinned Vazel’s shoulders against the wall. This face began to bubble and slid off his skull as he spoke, revealing that the fleshy chunks of skin and wrinkles were never real.
“But you are, Vazel. If you weren’t I would not be here, and my rising is steadily approaching. Soon the whole world will know my power and bow before me. And you, Vazel, everyone will come to know it was you who was the first to turn.”
The man’s eyes turned completely white, and has he spoke, his mouth grew smaller and smaller, but Vazel could still hear him speak. Until the man had nothing but a twitching face with only his eyes. But Vazel could hear him speaking in his mind.
“You will return to Belhalla, I will give you one year until you will be with my daughter. But you cannot redeem yourself, for now I hold you, Vazel…”
The demon then placed its claws on Vazel’s chest. Vazel felt its body twitching as its hand entered his body, the demon wrapped it’s jagged claws around his heart. Vazel gasped for air, but found no way to breath. The demon squeezed his heart and Vazel exhaled the last of his breath in a sickening scream, which seized after the demon removed his heart from his chest.
Vazel’s vision blurred and grew dark. He fell into a self-loathing sleep, losing himself in memories of his wife and children. He had done this every night for years, but now he feared for more than just his family.