"… I started thinking about the card games people play in the D&D universe… It felt like D&D's card game should have a lot to do with dragons and big stacks of gold coins… " -Rob Heinsoo (DRAGON Magazine advertisement) "… as a standard action, she can perceive anything within ten miles of her worshipers, holy sites, objects, or any location where one of her titles or names was spoken in the last hour."
-Rob Heinsoo (DRAGON Magazine advertisement)
"… as a standard action, she can perceive anything within ten miles of her worshipers, holy sites, objects, or any location where one of her titles or names was spoken in the last hour."
-Deities and Demigods, page 94
She was everywhere.
Her chill swept over every blasted, frozen tundra.
Her fumes permeated the dankest, foulest swamps.
Her fires turned every dark, hot, silent underground cavern into an inferno.
Her gaze quenched hope and kindled despair. It stilled joy as it ignited terror.
And at her rawest and most primal, she would stop the spinning of Life, holding it in an ancient, ancient claw… and watch it slowly turn to Death.
And she would smile many smiles.
Her bed was the treasure of a thousand worlds.
The oldest and most powerful mortal creatures in existence were nothing more than her servants; her consorts at best, her meals at worst.
And Hell was her home.
Glenn slammed his cards down on the table with a flourish.
One eye of ten opened.
The dwarf sitting directly across the circular table from the bard scowled as he watched the human scoop up his third consecutive pot. Tronder's brown eyes, barely visible between his massive beard and his perpetual squint, turned in his seat and gazed through the smoke at the rest of the crowd of the Fool's Reward. Those tavern patrons who were not suddenly staring down at their drinks in a nervous silence were glaring at the card-playing trio in a decidedly unfriendly fashion.
Tronder was bereft of weapons and armor as per the admittance policy of the Fool's Reward, but you wouldn't know it from his voice. Quiet but forceful, it carried across the entire common room without effort.
"Anyone has a problem or a question fer us, ya say it now. If you don't, turn yer prying eyes and ears elsewhere."
There were some mutterings and several shared glances, but attentions were sullenly returned to their previous pursuits.
Tronder snorted and turned back to the game. He hadn't expected otherwise. The sum total of human courage in this dive wouldn't fill his ale mug.
Glenn had barely noticed. The tall, lanky blonde man was still carefully pouring platinum coins and a few gems into that magical pouch of his. It looked like it couldn't hold more than forty, fifty coins at most, but Tronder knew that it currently held over three thousand gold worth of coins, jewels and assorted items.
His items. Bellix's items. So recently gained. So hard-won. Lost now. Lost to a fop of a human who was growing more irritating with every passing moment and with every swig of ale.
The halfling seated to his left squirmed around on his hard wooden stool, vainly seeking some comfort, and then smiled consolingly at his long-time friend.
"There, there, Tronder. We can't begrudge Glenn here his good fortune. We're all Luck's servants, not her masters, and she is a fickle Lady indeed!" The hobbit finished by raising his glass of wine and toasting Glenn with a shining smile.
The bard returned the smile in kind, just as false as Bellix's.
He knew both of them hated him equally. The halfling just hid it better, that was all.
Glenn's mind was racing as he watched Bellix take the deck of rectangular cards, made of lacquered ivory, and begin mixing them up again. He caught a brief glimpse of a five-headed dragon before it was turned over and vanished amid the blur generated by an experienced shuffler.
It was the only one in the deck, and tonight, she was his friend.
The bard took a sip of beer (a small one- no way in Hell could he afford even the tiniest lapse of judgment tonight) and calculated.
Adding his share of the loot they had obtained from the dragon's lair to the portion of his companions' share he had won from them, Glenn had about three thousand equivalent at the moment. The High Priest he had covertly contacted said the spell would cost about 5,000 gold to cast.
All he had to do was clean his "friends" out, and he would have enough.
Glenn was silent for a moment. An uncharacteristic surge of anger shot through his thin frame as he silently berated Tachina for getting herself roasted alive by that dragon.
That had completely thrown things off. Dragon-slaying was certainly not anything Glenn had done before. Nor (he was sure) had Tachina, despite the witch's assertions to the contrary. Yet the pair's successes in Kaport Bay at their more traditional scams had made it prudent for them to relocate for a while. They had gone west, to Bellport. Tachina had known of the dragon's lair in the northeastern Blemu Hills, and had assured her lover that all they needed was a standard model, all brawn/no brain soldier of fortune type or two to round their abilities out, and the big lizard was already history. True, she had surmised, the haul wouldn't be quite a hoard worthy of legend. The dragon was still fairly young, as dragons went.
"But that's not a problem, is it, my jewel?" she had purred coldly, sliding one long delicate finger under in his chin in that special way only she know.
"It'll grow as large as you want in the retelling, Glenn. As large as you want…"
In a startling moment of clarity, Glenn realized that he was enslaved to a cold, domineering seductress, and would be for the rest of his life.
The fact that she was dead now was completely irrelevant. Freedom was a complete illusion. Here he was now, as free from her as he could ever be, and he was going to go back to that horrible cave when this was all over, and use his magic to bring her body back to that equally horrible church, and have her raised.
He was under no magical compulsion to do this. The choice was his, and for all the terrible mockery that it was, and for all the anguish it would cause to his already cracked and blackened heart, Glenn chose what he thought was love. He wanted her back.
Of course, the dragon had been just a little bit bigger than Tachina had thought.
And her unplanned death had made Tronder and Bellix's planned deaths afterwards quite impossible…
"One more round!" bellowed Tronder suddenly. The dwarf drained the rest of his ale, then slammed the mug down on the table in anger as Bellix's deal brought him his first face-up card. A Red Dragon Wyrmling.
The halfling spared only a glance at his own Adult Brass before dealing Glenn's card- an Adult Gold.
Glenn was far too experienced a card player to show any emotion. Instead, he turned a wry smile to the others. "Luck has her say, to be sure Bellix, but Three Dragon Ante favors a brave heart and a quick mind, as well. The willingness to take a chance- and tonight, my gambit is the Chromatic or better still- the Tiamat."
Another eye, currently located about thirty feet from the first one, opened as well. A scaly ear larger than ten tavern tables combined ceased its pleasant playbacks of a million death-screams and turned its attention elsewhere.
"Hmpf," Tronder grunted as he eyed his second card- an Adult Red. His brown right hand, still bearing burn blisters, stabbed across the table at Glenn. "That Gold won't help ya with that Gambit, ya flower! That's too good a card to be throwin' away like that. Ya think yer gonna git that lucky twice in a row?"
Bellix waved away his second arriving glass of wine. Like Glenn, he had drunk less than he had been pantomiming all night, though the bard had not been fooled. The halfling's second dragon was an Adult Blue.
Glenn drew a Black Wyrm.
Tronder's scowl deepened; no easy feat at this point. "Damned mess of a game, this is," the dwarf growled, snatching his arriving refill of ale from the circling waiter, who was clearly offended but even more clearly afraid. He looked up again at Glenn. "Where'd yer say ya learned it again?"
The bard hesitated. Lies were second nature to him, but he saw no advantage lost here by telling the truth- skimpy enough as it was.
"About a year ago, in Eastfair. There's a college there that Tachina is- was- a member of. Some friend of hers showed it to her, and she taught me. We've been playing it ever since." His long face grew thoughtful. "It's a fairly recent invention, as far as I know. Not that many people know of it, but I teach it whenever I can. More people who know it, more money I can win." He shrugged with an easy smile. "Less work than singing for my supper."
"Easier on my ears, too," scowled Tronder. "Ya got a voice like an annis. Still," the dwarf's voice grew quieter, "there's somethin' about this game I don't like."
Glenn couldn't help himself. "The fact that you're losing, maybe?"
Tronder's hand reached instinctively for an axe that wasn't there. "Watch yer mouth, boy," the dwarf muttered, then turned his eyes downwards. His last arriving card- a Red Wyrm- seemed to brighten his spirits somewhat.
Bellix dealt himself a Brass Wyrmling, but the hobbit's eyes were on the human's face now. "I heard it was cursed."
Glenn frowned. "What is?'
The halfling shrugged. "The game. Three Dragon Ante. I'd never seen it myself 'til you taught it to Tronder and me, but I'd heard rumors… here and there. How terrible things had supposedly happened to… certain big winners."
They stared at each other for a moment.
Glenn was the first to paste a smile back on. "That's why I only play with friends, Bellix. People I can trust."
Bellix smiled oddly at him, and flipped Glenn's card expertly through the air so that it landed face-up right by his first two.
A Gold Wyrmling.
Bellix was all business now as the halfling dealt out the remaining three cards face down to each player.
Tronder had a good hand showing, but it was all out there. Nothing hidden. He had three Reds already showing, and unless his face-downs were exceptional, the dwarf would try for a Full Red Brood of six- or at least as many Reds that he could accumulate. Depending on how many more he drew, he could be tough to top. Reds tied Gold for Broods, and beat any other color.
Bellix. Hmmm. Two Brass and One Blue. The hobbit might try for Eternal Foes- three Brass and Three Blue. That would beat any Brood of less than six. Or he might ditch the wyrmling and go for a simple Gambit of Adults. Worth less than an equivalent Brood, but easier to accomplish.
Glenn himself had a couple of options. The Gold Brood was probably the safest, but he only had two Gold so far to Tronder's three Red. The Black Wyrm was a nice card, as the dwarf had mentioned, but didn't fit with the others. He'd wait and see what the halfling had managed to deal-
Glenn couldn't help it.
His impassive mask was hardened by years of experience, but the odds of what he had just drawn were so astronomical, he had-
Or had he? The bard's blue eyes darted to his companions. If he had betrayed any emotion, either they hadn't caught it, or they had, and were just as good as he was at concealing it.
Glenn knew what every amateur learned when they first picked up a deck. A winning hand does no good if everyone else folds first.
The bard regarded the six cards in his hand, letting what he hoped was a small sigh of repressed disappointment "leak" through his lips.
Against all odds, he'd been dealt a Red, Blue and Green Wyrm. Added to his Black, he now had a Wyrm Gambit of four. Not bad at all, and what's more, they were of all different colors. If he could score a White Wyrm on one of the two remaining draws, he'd have a Chromatic Gambit again. Either a White Wyrm, or-
Fully back in command now, Glenn gazed patiently at his fellow players.
One round, he thought. I only need to win one more round.
The dwarf was so still, it seemed almost like he had been turned to stone. Then his brown eyes stared directly at Glenn. He ignored his halfling friend completely. The dwarf slowly counted out stacks of platinum coins and two gem-encrusted gold necklaces (only now, Tronder thought with an inward grimace, did he realize why the conniving human had insisted that they get all of the gems and jewelry from the dragon's hoard appraised the moment they had gotten back to Bellport.). He then shoved the pile roughly into the center of the table.
"Five hundred worth," he breathed heavily. "Match it or run, boy."
Bellix, seemingly unconcerned about being ignored, quietly pushed an equivalent amount into the kitty. "I'll match," the hobbit said quietly.
Glenn considered. He had a feeling Tronder had more Reds, but the stupid dwarf had shown an overconfident streak all night, and Glenn didn't think he'd be any more cautious on what was probably the last hand of the evening. The bard smiled a false smile once more.
The three players discarded and drew. Tronder threw out a Copper Wyrm. That clinches it, thought Glenn. The dwarf was working on a Red Brood for sure. This was not good news. If Glenn didn't make the Chromatic Gambit, even a Wyrm Gambit of four could be beaten by a Red Brood of five. The odds were in Tronder's favor here.
Bellix had discarded, almost casually, a Green Wyrmling. Glenn almost snorted. The hobbit was probably trying to conceal his intent, but he might just as well have thrown away his initial Brass Wyrmling. If he wasn't going for a Wyrmling Gambit, he was obviously trying for Eternal Foes. He wasn't likely to get it- but if he did, that would beat anything less than a Full Red Brood of six.
It would also not however, beat the Chromatic Gambit. A Full Red Brood would though, unless the sixth card in the Gambit was...
Glenn slowly discarded his Gold Wyrmling. He could see in the others' eyes the obvious. They'd know he'd given up on a Gold Brood, and no one would do that unless they thought they had a chance at something even higher. It couldn't be helped, though. He needed every card of his that wasn't going to be a Wyrm to be of as high a value as possible- and his Adult Gold was worth more than the Wyrmling. He hoped they'd think he was trying for an Adult Gambit. Even if he got a Full Adult gambit of six, that still wouldn't beat Bellix's Eternal Foes- but a Full Wyrm Gambit would.
All three ponied up another five hundred.
There was no more talking. There was no more drinking, no more smiles, fake or otherwise.
The last three cards came around.
And Glenn Keither of Arrowstrand, bard, con artist, ne'er-do-well and unfortunate sex slave to a now-dead woman, got his White Wyrm.
Calm and cool. He had them now.
Tronder threw out an Adult Green. No surprise.
Bellix discarded a Copper Wyrm. Have your cards made of glass, why don't you? thought Glenn snidely.
Tronder suddenly pushed the last of his wealth into the pot. He no longer seemed to care about decorum, bluffing or any social niceties.
"Match this, ya sad excuse fer a skald!" the dwarf snarled, all pretense of friendship gone now.
Glenn said nothing. He merely glanced over to Bellix, once again passed over by his partner. The hobbit's face seemed blank, but Glenn thought he could read the halfling's body language.
He didn't get it, thought the bard. I can beat Tronder. One more round.
Still, Bellix matched the bet, throwing in the last of his wealth with almost a whisper of a sad sigh as if he were merely going through the motions.
In a display of bravado, Glenn ostentatiously matched the bet even before picking up his third and final card.
He was long past the point of turning back anyway.
Glenn was just beginning to imagine that peculiar feeling of being in Tachina's arms again when he finally noticed his third card.
And all of Glenn's cares and worries vanished along with his self-restraint.
"Tiamat!" he screamed, throwing all six cards down on the table- the highest possible hand. "The Tiamat Gambit! I got it again! I win! I win! I win!"
With a rumble louder than that of a collapsing building, a colossal mass of scales and claws shifted. A massive black skull-like head turned to peer into the darkness of an unimaginably huge cavern. "Watch over everything," the head hissed. Another black dragon's face, smaller but similar, stared back from the edge of the darkness. "That game again?" it asked in an almost sympathetic tone. A gigantic red dragon's head sidled up to the black one. "These mortals never learn. I do not suffer fools." A smaller red dragon partially emerged from the shadows. "Will you be long, my mistress?" "Not at all," came the reply. And Tiamat The Chromatic Dragon smiled many smiles. "I'll only need one round."
"Watch over everything," the head hissed.
Another black dragon's face, smaller but similar, stared back from the edge of the darkness. "That game again?" it asked in an almost sympathetic tone.
A gigantic red dragon's head sidled up to the black one. "These mortals never learn. I do not suffer fools."
A smaller red dragon partially emerged from the shadows. "Will you be long, my mistress?"
"Not at all," came the reply.
And Tiamat The Chromatic Dragon smiled many smiles.
"I'll only need one round."