"... A soul?" Charles scoffed. "That's it?" A chuckle rippled around the table. The man in the deep purple vest waited for the laughter to die down, staring at each of us in turn. When his black gaze lighted on me, for a moment I was gripped by an icy panic, cold fingers of fear massaging my temples and traveling down my spine. Then it passed, though the memory did not. In my companions' faces I saw my own experience reflected, and I knew that the expression on my own must have looked just as surprised, just as nervous. It wasn’t so much the odd bid—a single soul was low, of course, but not insanely so—as it was the stranger’s ineffable confidence and terrifying gaze that tore at my gut.
Finally, the interloper returned his arresting attention to Charles, one eyebrow arched in---was that amusement? On anyone else, the expression would have seemed cartoonish, ripped directly from an animated villain, overblown and two-dimensional in both senses of the word. But employed by him, the thin-lipped and tightly expectant look was enough to quell even the ever-present smirk on Charles's face. Charles swallowed, nervous, and his smile returned, though this time with a hint of unease. It was the kind of smile one puts on to mask an unwilling and unwelcome flip of the stomach, when one does not want to give off even a whiff of weakness, but is failing miserably. Although I, too, was put off by the newcomer's icy manner, I almost admired him for his ability to rattle Charles. Not in the eleven centuries that I'd known him had I seen my oldest friend truly scared. Not that I’d never tried—fear was my specialty, after all. Charles had always responded to my efforts with a hearty chuckle and a wink, though, promising me Next time, maybe.
"Right.” The swirling blue light cast by the vial gave Charles’s already gaunt face a decidedly sickly tint, as if he had aged a thousand years in the last minute. “Well, the opening ante is low tonight, accounting for the absence of a certain demon-who-shall-not-be-named, so one soul is fine enough." Nervous laughter echoed the unease of Charles's obvious rambling. We all knew who he was talking about; Gregor was notorious for driving up bids, a religious devotee to the motto: What fun is a gamble if you haven't got ten thousand lives on the line? In his absence, Friday Night Poker had had a relaxed and tame atmosphere; that is, before the arrival of this stranger in mauve.
“And?” The stranger’s face no longer betrayed any emotion, his smooth visage unmarred by wrinkle and dimple both.
“. . . And?” Charles looked puzzled. A bead of sweat would have trailed down his temple, I’m sure of it. That is, if Charles were capable of sweating.
“Oh! Right. Uh, lads, what was it again?” Charles paused, his index finger riffling the deck with a palpably nervous energy. No one spoke, all of us momentarily paralyzed.
“Sixth-Circle Hold ‘Em?” offered Peggy then, weakly. I quickly nodded agreement, and the others followed, eager to get to playing. Anything to distract from the growing tension, so thick now that one could cut it with a blade, serve it on a platter, and call it charcuterie.
The stranger nodded, sage and silent, and Charles dealt out the first hand. After everyone had their two, I took a quick peek at mine. An ace of hearts and a queen of diamonds. Unsure of what to think of the high but incongruous face values, I called Jezebel’s weak bid of twenty-three head. To my surprise, the usually aggressive Peggy and Damar were both mute as they pushed their cards away. Folds, both. An odd choice, but given the oddness of the situation already, I couldn’t blame them. Still, the icy chill that had taken hold of the room had piqued my interest, in the same way that it had extinguished theirs. Who was this mysterious stranger, that he could inspire such fear with only a glance? I knew then that I wouldn’t fold—I couldn’t, not until I had him figured out.
The stranger and Charles both called Jezebel’s twenty-three, neither raising, and that was the first round done. The flop came next—Jack of clubs, queen of hearts, ace of spades. My heart sped, as it always did when I saw I had a real shot at something good. I tried, again as always, to control myself, to not give anything away. I stole a glance at Charles, but his eyes were locked on the stranger. Jezebel raised her earlier bid, a hint of confidence in her voice as she intoned--one hundred head, nineteen fingers. So she had something. Not good news for me, then, unless she had a run. I called, the stranger raised by thirty head, and Charles unexpectedly folded. The smile had once again fled from his face. His eyes flickered to the vial in the pot, and mine followed.
The substance inside—a deep cobalt blue that was part liquid, part gas, part something else—arrested my attention, refusing to let go. I barely ripped my gaze away to glance at the turn (ace of clubs, accompanied by a collective gasp and a whistle from Damar), and call the bet, whatever it was. At this point, I was beyond caring about wagers. There was something familiar about the soul, something in the way that it flitted about. It was beautiful in a terrible way, dancing within the glass like a caged bird fretting itself against the bars of its gilded prison. Whose soul was it, I wondered. It had to be somebody worthwhile, for the stranger to offer it as an opening ante. But, the larger question remained: was the stranger confident—or arrogant—enough to wager a soul that was actually important? Or was this a run-of-the-mill sinner, with a tragic backstory or an aborted redemption arc? Somehow, I got the sense that it was the former, that this soul was special. That we had a chance here, proffered by this strange man in mauve, to win a real prize.
Feeling a now-familiar, icy prickle in the back of my neck, I looked up to see the stranger staring directly at me. He smiled then, a wolfish grin that cut across his smooth face in a violent slash. There was my answer, then. There was something, someone in that vial, that was vitally important. I was seized with a hunger that surprised me, an all-consuming avarice that took my breath away. I didn’t want to win; I had to.
With just three of us left in the game, the stakes were high for the last reveal. Charles burned a card and emitted a barely audible “Styx” before flipping the last. My heart leapt again. Queen of clubs. I had it. A full house. The vial was mine. Jezebel, seeing the triumphant look on my face, she folded, her mouth twisted in disappointment. I bid two hundred head and turned to see what my opponent would do. The look on his face once again stopped my heart. Had he beat me? Did he, improbably, impossibly, have the other two aces? For a moment, he said nothing. Then, “Call.”
It was over. Now for the reveal. My heart ached in anticipation, my hunger turning to a ravenous thing, a beast within me. I had to win. The greedy beast agreed, pacing, clawing at the floor of my ribs, roaring its assent.
The stranger flipped his cards over suddenly, with little ceremony: An ace of clubs. And a two of spades. Incredibly, he had almost nothing. I had won. The beast yowled, and I reached out for the vial, heart racing, fingers closing around its delicate neck. When I looked up, however, the stranger’s face was not etched in the defeat I expected. Instead, a small smile of triumph twitched at the corners of his mouth, and I was gripped with a feeling of panic, with a certainty that I had somehow made a grave mistake, a terrible misstep that could not be taken back.
“Well done, Ammika,” he said, and a small part of me wondered how he knew my name, how he had known about this game, and who had invited him. “Enjoy your reward.” The way he stressed reward sent another shiver of disquiet through me, but before I could muster a response, he pushed his chair back from the table, grabbed his coat, and left without so much as a goodbye. The air should have lost some of its awful tension, but somehow, his departure made the silence maddeningly more strained.
The eyes of my friends were all turned to me. I was still stretched across the table, gripping the tiny bottle with a crazed possessiveness. I knew, and they knew, that I could no more resist from uncorking the vial than either of us could resist the torture of a deserving soul. It was in our natures, in my nature, and it was with this certainty that I felt my thumb peel itself from the glass neck and push the cork from its niche with a satisfying pop.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then, a shriek pierced the silence, a peal we had all heard a thousand million times before. It was the scream of the damned, eternally rebounding around the cavernous, endless halls of Hell. It was a scream I had heard before, but not in a thousand years.
It was my own soul, my own scream that catapulted from the tiny mouth of the insignificant bottle. The scream of a soul that I had cast away years ago, wholly confident that I would never lay eyes on the thing ever again. And it was the scream of my current body that ripped from my own throat as my soul, at last, was reunited with its other half, that terrible beast finally sated. And it was the scream of my own consciousness that knew, with dreadful certainty, that an eternity of torture and pain lay in my future. For if Hell looks unkindly on the poor commonplace sinner, how much more would I suffer, for having fallen from the ranks of the demons into the ranks of the damned?
First written in 2019.
[WP] Prompt: The man smiles, and puts a single vial filled with a swirling blue gas into the pot. “A soul,” he sneers. You aren’t exactly sure which one of your friends invited him, but Friday Night Poker just got significantly more interesting.
I have always loved to write short fiction, and pursuing a PhD hasn't stopped me! Most of these stories below were inspired by writing prompts from various internet sites. One day soon I'll submit to an actual writing magazine. For now, just enjoy.