qui audet, vincit
who dares, wins

The room was dark, plain and smelled of decay. There was one big table in the middle. It was round and four chairs waited to be filled. Above the table hung a single light, illuminating only the objects underneath it. Nothing else could be made out, the structures of the room swallowed by darkness' enormous maw. The walls were sketchy schemes and although it couldn't be made out, the old, dusty portrait of Dr. James Marcus adorned one of the corners, covered with a flimsy sheet of fabric. That way his observing eyes couldn't judge what was going on in the room.

James Marcus had never liked card games. Neither had William Birkin. Or Albert Wesker, although the latter had never openly voiced his dislike. The only one who always enjoyed it and always won was Ozwell E. Spencer.

And Spencer always won (Wesker had figured this out early in the game) because he made the rules. And he made the rules in order to suit him, and those who couldn't adapt or refused to bend, lost.

Marcus, with his forgotten, withered portrait kept reciting the company motto.

Obedience breeds discipline, he'd say. And discipline breeds unity, he'd go on and nod his head. And unity, well unity is power, Marcus would tell them and Spencer would smile. Birkin never noticed that twitch on the old man's lips, or the peculiar glint in his eye. William Birkin was always absorbed in the game, forgetting the world around him, forgetting that the game was played by more than one person.

Wesker prided himself about keeping the upper hand, or at least having the feeling to do so. He would always have an eye on Spencer, watch his mimics, anticipate what cards he would play next. Spencer loved to play the 'OR' card.

"Results, doctor, or…"

While the sentence had never been completed yet, each of the players knew what the missing part could mean and for each of them it was something they didn't want to happen.

Birkin fidgeted, put the cards face down on the table and wiped at his brow with the sleeve of his lab coat. It was hot in the room. The air stood and was heavy with sweat and worry. It stunk of decay. Birkin took up his cards again, but sighed.

"Pass," he said.

All eyes turned on him. Spencer had satisfaction written on his features.

"There's no pass, doctor."

"But if you've got no cards," Marcus suggested. "You can always raise the stake."

"Sell your soul," Wesker joked and everyone laughed, because all of them had done that so long ago already.

"I need time," Birkin said thoughtfully.

"That's no problem," Spencer told him with a smirk. "Take all the time in the world."

Wesker put the cards down on the table, as did Marcus and Spencer. They left their chairs. Birkin eyed his cards with a bead of persiration trickling down his temple.

"Hard decisions sometimes, hm?" Marcus said as he came to stand beside Wesker. They looked at the older man's portrait that was covered with linen. The formerly white material had taken on a yellow color in time. The professor's stern face peeked from under it and when Wesker turned his head to the real Marcus, he looked into the same solemn expression.

"No one claimed it was easy," he said.

Marcus shrugged and glanced over at Birkin. "He's an intelligent boy. He'll pull through for another while."

Wesker only nodded and looked around the dim room for Spencer, but the man had vanished. Spencer never stayed in the room for breaks, always appeared when the game begun and left when it ended. After he'd won, no matter how small the victory was.

"You know," Marcus suddenly said, pointing at the portrait. "That's there for a reason."

"I know."

"I've played the game a while now. Understood the rules, tested the grounds, found my limits."

"Did you?"

"I did. I think it's time to call it quits."

"Now? That cloth has covered the portrait ever since I remember."

"I've been considering it ever since it was put there."

"Who put it there?"

Marcus gave him a sideways glance, then nodded towards the table. Birkin was still staring at his cards. Spencer was there too, again. Wesker hadn't even noticed his entrance. He never did. When the Umbrella head noticed the two pairs of eyes focused on him, he gave them a wry smile that showed some of his white teeth.

"Shall we continue?"

Since his question was never a request but an order, everyone complied and took their seats. Birkin played his cards. Not the best move, but it kept him in the game. The next round started. Spencer's turn, neat. Wesker was lucky.

Dr Marcus was not. Whether intentionally or a stroke of bad luck, nobody knew or really cared. You were happy if it didn't get you and looked away so fate wouldn't notice you next.

"A pity," Spencer said in mock dismay. "We'll need a new player."

When Wesker looked to his right Marcus was gone. His seat was empty and his cards were off the table. He looked over his shoulder into the corner that housed the portrait. It was gone the same way as its master. The only remnant was the old linen that had covered the picture, lying discarded on the floor.

Birkin, who sat to Wesker's right studied the fabric for a moment, before turning back to his cards. Never waste too long mourning losses, lest you want to become a loss yourself.

Before either of them could question what was going to happen with Marcus' empty place, a figure appeared in the room. There was no door it had entered through, because the room had no exit. Once you sat down to play the game, you played it till the bitter end.

The figure was a shabby clad man. He wore a brown suit and dirty trousers that were ripped and patched up again at the knees. His white shirt was stained dark brown and drool dropped from the corner of his mouth onto the hem of the suit. His hair was ruffled, fatty, clotty. The skin draping over his face was paper thin and had a waxy composure to it. In the dim light of the bulb above Wesker could have sworn that someone had simply roughly pulled a scrap of skin over a skull.

The man held a big item in his hands. It had the dimensions of a picture. It was the same size as Marcus' vanished portrait. Wesker turned his gaze from it and studied the man instead, but his empty eyes looked right through the players and the table. They were fixed on the wall behind them and Wesker turned his head to find out what there was to see. There was a grey wall and it was cracking in some places. If it had ever been painted, that must have been a very long time ago. A thin layer of dust covered most of the surface. What caught the thin man's attention though was a mystery to Wesker. There was nothing off about it. He turned back to the person in question, but already the man had moved, standing in front of the wall he had observed so thoroughly.

A little clumsily he balanced the big picture to hang it to the single nail sticking out of the wall. When he was done he took a step back to examine his work and Wesker managed to get a glimpse of what the portrait showed.

It reminded him a lot of James Marcus, the stern expression that had overlooked the Training Facility's mainhall so many years. But this version was distorted, a mockery of the man who had just lost the game. Marcus' eyes were sunken, deep circles spreading under them. He emitted a look of deathly sickness… and decay. Wesker could almost smell the decay emanating from the picture. Had this been the smell that he'd sensed from the beginning?

Beside him, Birkin shook his head. "How tasteless," he commented. "Why would someone ever put up a portrait of a carrier? It's disgusting." He uttered the words with such a note of repungance that Wesker wondered whether his old friend actually realized who the picture showed.

The man in the shabby suit took Marcus' place, sitting to Wesker's left. Only now that the light caught all of his features could Wesker see that apart from the waxy skin, something else was wrong about his face. The man turned his head to him and flashed him a toothless grin, winking. With only one eye, because the second was missing. One big hole protruded into his skull, where the eye socket should have been.

"Welcome our new player," Spencer said.

"Who is he?" Birkin asked casually, not even looking up from his cards. He was hardly shocked by the appearance of their new companion. It was as if he couldn't even see what state he was in. Oh William, always so engrossed in his work to forget what was going on around him.

"He's the Raggedy Man," Spencer explained.

Wesker looked into the eye. It only stared back, before dry lips lifted to display what was left of the teeth. Bloody stumps. The Raggedy Man held out a hand to him. The skin was white and cracked and he had dirt under his nails. He seemed to notice this and pulled the arm back apologetically, saying without really speaking that it was from clawing my way out of the grave.

Wesker's face contorted in disgust and he wrinkled his nose at the strong smell that came from his neighbour. It reminded him of wet earth, moldering wood and decomposing skin. He glanced at Birkin, but Birkin either didn't notice or didn't care.

"Shall we continue, gentlemen?"

Of course they did and the game went on. Birkin kept his head above water, Wesker was lucky and Spencer made the rules. The Raggedy Man was an exceptional player. His one eye was unreadable. It was impossible to anticipate his next moves. Whenever Wesker tried, the Raggedy Man would catch him at it, fixate him with his remaining eye and wink with the other. Sorry lad, it meant. You're not good enough.

The more they played, the more the hierarchy of players surfaced. Wesker and Birkin helped eachother out, as much as competitive spirit allowed. The Raggedy Man played for himself and Marcus' distorted portrait in the background and Spencer made the rules, anyway.

Suddenly, the old man spoke. His gaze was directed at Birkin. "Bad luck today, doctor?"

He voiced the obvious with that, and although nobody dared to say a word in agreement or dissension (not even the Raggedy Man without actually opening his mouth) both he and Wesker stopped concentrating on their respective cards to observe Birkin.

The scientist's face was coated in layers of cold, sticky sweat and his eyes gave away just how critical the situation was. Bad luck, that was a fatal understatement.

In the short time before his demise William Birkin was on bad terms with luck. He had dreadful cards, impossible to play a good combination without risking a huge loss. Wesker couldn't see his cards, but they were difficult to handle well. In the end, Birkin made the wrong decision. It cost him his life and that of several thousand others. Spencer only gave a sly smirk, Wesker knew for his own best that silence was golden and the Raggedy Man used his special skill to talk without actually doing so. He stared at Birkin who was deathly white and said bang, bang, game over.

Before Birkin dropped out of the game though, several things happened.

Another break was called in. The Raggedy Man was not well. He stood from his chair, leaning heavily over the table. Two sinewy arms gripped the edges for support. His head dropped to his chest in some form of agony, the darkness swallowing his strained expression. For a moment nothing happened.

Then something in his belly seemed to wriggle, work its way up. Wesker saw it squirm under the skin of the throat as it tried to climb out of the body. The Raggedy Man started to salivate, the muscles on his jaw so tight that the stumps of his teeth clashed together, a feeble cage to keep the plague from escaping. Wesker could hear it writhe in his mouth, wet slaps against the lips, the walls of its confine. The struggle forced strained gurgles from its captor and the Raggedy Man seemed close to lose the battle. For the blink of an eye he parted his lips and Wesker saw the hint of something black and sludgy winding its way out, but in the next moment putrid teeth clattered against eachother, trapping the beast inside.

The Raggedy Man looked up slowly, his chest heaving with exertion, his limbs trembling from exhaustion. His one eye was fixed on the far off wall and in one abhorrent gesture he took a huge gulp, swallowing the thing back into its prison. Wesker saw how it thumped against the throat in an attempt to resist, but then it was gone, back into the Raggedy Man's belly.

He slumped back into his seat, his expression one of utter fatigue. It was then that Spencer announced the break.

Wesker and Birkin rose from their seats, Spencer disappeared again and the Raggedy Man recovered from his exertions with long, strange gasps.

"Horrible," Birkin said and shook his head.

"I wonder what that was," Wesker asked absentmindedly.

Birkin threw him a confused look, as if his question was silly. "What that was? My fucking downfall, that's what it was. I've got no good cards and no more stakes to play. If this continues you can hang my portrait on the wall, too."

"You don't have a portrait."

"It doesn't matter. I'm dead."

"There are worse things."

Birkin's eyes met his. He looked despaired. "I know. I fucking well damn know! What do you think I'm afraid of so much?"

Wesker nodded, but his attention was focused on the Raggedy Man. His breathing pattern had returned to normal, but now he stared off into space again. It was hard to follow his sight, but in the end Wesker realized what the man was looking at. It was the nonexisting door, the one Spencer always used to slip out in between games. To the place beyond the room that was inacessible to the players.

"I want you to take this," Birkin suddenly said. His hand was outstretched and he gestured to Wesker to do the same. When he complied, Birkin placed an item in his palm. It was a card, face down and Wesker turned it around.

"The ace of spades?"

"Just keep it," Birkin said and glanced at the Raggedy Man to assure he wasn't looking. "You'll see soon enough."

"Why are you giving it to me?"

"You'll see."

"It's cheating."

Birkin gave him a sincere smile and patted him on the shoulder in passing. "There's no rule against it yet. You'll see."

Birkin took his seat at the table and after initial hesitation Wesker quickly pocketed the card – before Spencer returned and caught him with it – and followed his friend's example, sitting down.

The Raggedy Man still stared, undisturbed by the happenings around him. Even if he had listened in on their conversation, Wesker doubted that he would tell on them. At least not loudly. It was a wonder how much people could say without speaking. Wesker glanced at the man and wrinkled his nose at the strong smell of death that hit him as he did so. The Raggedy Man was unaware of all of this.

Moments later Spencer appeared again, as suddenly as he had vanished. The Raggedy Man recovered from his trance and the game continued. Everyone knew that they would be one player short when this round ended and Wesker suddenly felt a pang of worry for his old friend.

It was Birkin's round. The silence had never been so deafening as everybody awaited his move. Wesker thought about the ace he had received and if Birkin shouldn't have kept it for himself.

"Shit," Birkin muttered as he drew a card and all attention turned on him.

He was clutching his chest, his face contorted in pain. Blood was seeping through his fingers, but Wesker couldn't localize a wound. Neither did he dare to move and offer his help, because that would be against Spencer's rules. Live and let die.

"Fuck…" Birkin whispered. He slumped forward, hit the table and didn't move. Spencer leant over and pushed him aside roughly, uncovering the cards he was holding.

"Bullets," he said and held up two aces. "How ironic. He should have played them earlier."

Spencer leant over Birkin's limp body, his hands searching determined after something in the scientist's pockets. At last he retreived something, a golden chain dangling between his fingers. When he placed the item on the table, Wesker realized what it was and sent Spencer a disapproving glare.

"Why are you doing that? He's out of the game. Its his."

Spencer's triumphant grin shrunk to a slim line that formed his lips. "Watch your tone, doctor. Your colleague forgot to raise the pot in his move. I'm merely ensuring that we can continue to play."

The Raggedy man agreed in silence and Wesker kept the anger to himself. Spread out on the table was a golden chain, at its end a small, beautiful pendant. It was William's lucky pendant. He would have never given it away, not even in exchange for his life.

"Who's the new player, then?" Wesker asked.

Spencer chuckled and nodded to Wesker's right. Birkin had vanished and something big and terrifying had taken his place, a creature that showed this little familiarity with his old friend that it frightened him. The Raggedy Man tried to laugh at his uneasiness, but it came out as a forced gurgle, as whatever resided in his belly tried to escape again.

To his right the thing that had once been Birkin grabbed a new hand of cards with long claws. Rips of white fabric hung from its body where it wasn't coated in crude flesh and blood. Its face was a distortion of pain and what could only be described as animalistic rage. Swollen lips were turned up to reveal a deadly set of teeth and bloodshot eyes observed the cards it was holding. Whereas the Raggedy Man lacked one eye, the new player grew one in its shoulder, a huge, pulsating orb that made Wesker internally shiver whenever it fixed on him. The creature made a sound as if it wanted to speak but all that left its malformed lips was a low growl and the game went on.

He found it harder to keep himself above water with every round, surrounded by no less than exeptional players. The Raggedy Man never failed and the Birkin thing played with such brute force that it would smash whatever tactic Wesker tried against it. Spencer was calm as ever. He seemed to enjoy the game with every minute passing and whenever Wesker encountered a choke point, it entertained Spencer immensely.

Another break was called in, but this time Wesker didn't stand up. His whole body was tense and alert in the presence of the new players and Spencer disappeared as he always did. Normally it didn't bother Wesker, but left alone with two players he thought he had once known but was now sure he hadn't, made his heart beat faster. It made him sweat and the back of his head throb and the fact that both… things sat immobile in their seats only unsettled him more.

Suddenly, the Raggedy Man coughed. It was a violent cough and he gripped his throat in frustration. Droplets of blood sprayed on the table as whatever was in his belly set for its final attempt at escape. The Raggedy Man's eye grew wide with horror, tiny veins bursting from exertion as he tried to contain his plague. This time, he failed. The little black thing in his mouth won out against the toothy cage, wound out into the air in between the Raggedy Man's decomposing lips.

With a wet slap, it fell on the table. Caked in saliva it wriggled helplessly on the wood for a moment, before it regained balance and orientation and upon turning its faceless front to Wesker it made a strange hissing sound,revealing a row of tiny sharp teeth that shouldn't be there.

Before anyone could react to the whatever the Raggedy Man had just given birth to, Spencer was in his seat again.

"A clever move," he congratulated the Raggedy Man, as if the winding leech on the table was there to raise the stakes. Wesker found it plainly disgusting.

The thing that had once been Birkin directed their attention back to the game. With an excellent set of cards it managed to win some of the pot for itself. Soon, the golden pendant didn't lie exposed on the table anymore, but dangled from one of the thing's huge claws. Wesker couldn't say if the monster had retained some form of Birkin's memory or taken its price by simple circumstance but the fact that his old friend's treasure was not in the game anymore somehow relieved him.

While the other players did their moves, Wesker couldn't help but throw unnerved glances at the sloppy leech, how the single light of the room reflected off its slimy body. He thought he could recognize a small, pulsating mass under its skin. It had to be its heart, the throbbing life force keeping it squirming on the table. Over the course of a round the thing had wormed its way over to his part, as if it was planted by the Raggedy Man as a mole to spy out his opponents.

The leech made a wet sound as he slapped it away, feeling a shiver creeping up his back at the eerie touch of the creature.

"Dr Wesker?"

Spencer and the other players were waiting expectantly for his move, but upon glancing at his cards, Wesker's face turned ashen. When had they turned so bad? They'd been better, a lot better. He stared at the groggy leech in confusion. His cards had been a lot better before it had come to spy him out. To distract him. Fool his plans.

"Dr Wesker?"

"Yeah.." he played something without really paying attention to it. A bead of cold sweat trickled down his forehead and he blinked as the salty liquid ran into his eye. He didn't have much left. Two eights, clubs and spades and Birkin's secret card, a literal ace up his sleeve. Three black cards, mirroring an equally black future.

Unsurprisingly none of the other players dropped out during the following round. Before the turn went on to him, he caught the Raggedy Man's single bloodshot eye. It said sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. That had been one of Dr Marcus favorite quotes and he would use it whenever a breakthrough in their research would demand bending Spencer's strict rules to fit them.

Wesker slipped Birkin's ace under his cards and hoped no one would notice. Then he said, "All in."

"Everything?" Spencer asked increduosly.

Wesker nodded. Then he drew a card from the deck. It was the ace of clubs. He put the four cards down and Spencer started to laugh so loud that the other players fell into shocked silence around him.

"You don't know what you're playing there, are you?" he asked and a bemused grin adorned his lips.

"I'm playing everything I have."

"You're playing your demise."

"I'm playing what I have. I can't give more than that."

"You can," Spencer informed him and his expression darkened suddenly. "And you did. You cheated, you bastard."

Wesker was silent. What was the sense in denying it? He didn't know how Spencer had found out, but somehow wasn't very surprised by it all. Perhaps the Raggedy Man had whispered it without words, or the Birkin-thing had found one more of his colleague's memories and twisted them around.

"You know what you played there, Dr Wesker?" Spencer asked.

He looked down at the cards. The leech was starting to crawl towards them, in some inexplainable hurry. Two aces, two eights, all black.

He glanced back at Spencer, but Spencer wasn't there anymore. His seat, for the first time during the game, was empty. The Umbrella head was gone, out by the nonexistant door that led out of the room. The Raggedy Man and the Birkin-thing had slipped back into their curious trances. Only the leech was happily munching away at the ace of spades.

Wesker's heart skipped a beat. Behind Spencer's chair stood a Tyrant, towering dangerously above the players. It had a mocking, lipless grin, revealing sharp teeth and bloody gingiva. Its eyes were fixed on Wesker, but all he could concentrate on was the Tyrant's heart, thumping rhythmically on its chest as if it was not the least bit afraid to be assaulted in its vulnerable position.

The Tyrant lifted a massive hand, razor-like claws illuminating in the single light bulb of the room. It growled ferociously. Then its features softened again and it grinned at Wesker. The Raggedy Man said game over and what had once been Birkin was too busy with its unique pendant to react in time.

Faster than he could realize, the Tyrant's arm shot out. There was a moment of absolute silence, blackness, then Wesker whimpered at his muscles contracting in agony. A scream left his lips, but was soon choked by rivulets of blood oozing out of his mouth. His eyes were as wide as the Birkin-thing's and as the Tyrant retracted its crimson claw Wesker slumped against the table, trembling hands covering the fountain of pain the Tyrant had left behind.

On the table the leech seemed distracted from its work and stopped gnawing at the ace. Its faceless gaze was set on him and it shuffled closer. By that point, Wesker couldn't care. Blood was everywhere, in his throat, in his mouth, in his nose and ears and pain clouded most of his vision. He wanted to cry but couldn't, his body too busy to keep up the vital systems to bother with such superficial wishes.

At the edge of his vision, Spencer appeared. He held Wesker's cards in his hand, the ace and eight of clubs, and the same of spades.

"You know what you played there, Dr Wesker?"

He tried to shake his head. Blood came out of his mouth instead. Although he couldn't see or hear him, the Raggedy Man said, what harms, teaches. The Birkin-thing had dropped the pendant at some point. It had lost the last thread keeping it hooked to the past. Now all that was driving it on was anger. Unexplainable rage.

Wesker felt some of that too, because he couldn't figure out what Spencer wanted and blood came gushing out of his body at alarming speed.

Before he blinked the last time and everything went dark, he saw how Spencer took on the Tyrant's lipless grin.

"You played the Dead Man's Hand, Dr Wesker."

-

Then he woke up, body coated in sweat and trembling beyond control, but as it was with nightmares, he could never remember just what had happened. He often found himself on the very verge of remembrance, without being able to, in the end, recall the bizarreness of Spencer's horrible games.


What is plucked will grow again,
What is slain lives on,
What is stolen will remain -
What is gone is gone.

- Peter S. Beagle


THE END


This is the product of simply sitting down and writing, so there haven't been any plans made for it. The result is certainly confusing and might not make much sense. Still, it was a great deal of fun to write so apart from the general confusion I hope you enjoyed it.

It's just a little in between until I start on the next multichapter story. Giving off some life signs, so to say.

Cheers,
Chaed