Author's note: The formatting here is not exactly what I want since the system doesn't seem to accept small caps, but bold seems as good a substitute as any. Oh well. This should be amusing to a few people.
"hello ciaphas, we have been expecting you."
Laying on his deathbed, reflecting upon the scoundrel life he had led and regretting the decisions he had made more acutely than when he had been writing his secret memoirs for Amberley, Ciaphas Cain had not exactly expected what he beheld before him. Okay, the skeleton in the black robe with the glowing eyes and the scythe set against a shadowy background he got. The green visor on its brow and the green velvet card table he didn't.
Then Cain clued into the 'we' part of the skeleton's statement and would have run screaming with the sort of indignity that he had spent the better part of two centuries trying not to reveal. The only reason he didn't was because he appeared shackled to his own chair. Flanking the skeleton on either side, divided evenly were four daemons of Chaos, one for each of the major groups of their blasphemous kind.
Then a heavy hand clamped down on Cain's right shoulder and said, "Don't worry Ciaphas, things are under control."
Cain turned his head to the side slowly and would probably have soiled his shorts had he still had the capacity. Sitting next to him at the table, faintly glowing with divine radiance was a being that could only be the Emperor.
"it is not often mortals are so jumpy without a body and all those sloshing chemical reactions," the skeleton noted while it got out a deck of cards and began to idly shuffle them.
"It is his nature, beyond even the simple confines of flesh," the Emperor replied before he pulled out a cigar case. Flipping it open, he pulled one out before he turned to Cain and asked, "Do you want one? They're Cuban, and those haven't existed anywhere but my memory for the past thirty-eight thousand years."
Cain's eyes crossed in theological and spiritual confusion at the Emperor offering him a cigar. Somewhat dazedly, he said, "Of course my Lord!" and took one before he really considered that he didn't smoke. He then just sort of stared at it in dumbfounded bewilderment for a time, causing the Emperor to chuckle while he lit his own cigar.
"I know this must be confusing, but you're taking this better than Thor or Macharius did," the Emperor replied jovially.
"Oh those two were so much fun to poke fun with, will this one be any better?" A voice to Cain's left said. Whipping his head around, Cain found a man in a strange black and red jumpsuit sort of uniform that looked even less useful for stopping a las round than his commissar's uniform. Despite the ridiculousness of the man's dress though, there was a sort of malicious glint in his eyes and Cain quickly concluded that he was probably just as dangerous as every other being already at the table.
"Unlike those two he has something approximating humility," the Emperor replied.
The androgynous abomination sitting in a cloud of narcotic smoke across the table grumbled, "He's such a spoilsport."
"Quit whining Slaanesh, this is our one shot at revenge," one of the other entities replied, at which point Cain's limited but still uncomfortably extensive knowledge of Chaos kicked in.
Sputtering, Cain looked up at the Emperor in absolute horror to which the Emperor just inclined his head and said, "Yes, those are who you think you are. You've managed to annoy a rather large number of entities in your career, so your soul is quite the valuable commodity at the moment."
Cain's jaw flapped uselessly until the strange man next to him pulled out a large metal briefcase and plunked it down on the table. Opening it up, he started to distribute piles of poker chips. Blue, red, brown, and purple all went to the entities of Chaos, while gold and white went to the Emperor and the man, respectively. As each entity received their stack of chips they knocked them, causing them to glow slightly. A much smaller stack of black chips were placed in front of Cain. Grinning, the man said, "Still, not that valuable."
Cain looked at the table with growing horror as he realized what was going on.
Putting the now depleted case back underneath the table, the strange being that somehow had the same stake as the Emperor and the horrors of Chaos smirked and said, "Still, it's not often that all four of these barbarians chose to enter these games at the same time. You really managed to piss them all off… not that it's hard with our friend Khorne here."
"Shut it Q," the blood and brass giant growled threateningly, hefting a sword into view.
Feigning shock, the being, apparently called Q, turned to the skeletal figure across the table and asked, "Death, do I have to take this sort of treatment."
"no. put your weapon away khorne, or i will take it away," Death replied calmly before turning to Q and adding on, "don't provoke him."
"I think that's enough of the pre-game taunting; there will be enough during the game to go around, I'm sure. Now Death, could you explain the rules to our mortal player here?" The Emperor suggested while he idly counted his chips.
"the game is poker, five card draw. there are three rounds of betting to each hand, and you can replace up to your entire hand each round. minimum ante each round is one chip and no one can bet more than the mortal unless he folds or goes out, in which case it is unlimited. betting proceeds clockwise from the mortal until he goes out followed by clockwise from the dealer. no players can cash out until the mortal has left the game and one player possesses all of the mortal's chips. whoever has all of the mortal's chips at the end of the game gains the mortal's soul," Death explained as he began to deal out five cards to each player.
Cain stared down at his cards in horror, too terrified to even consider picking them up. If he had the biological capacity to do so he suspected that his mouth would be drier than Tallarn, and the possibility of fainting would have been quite distinct. But he was dead, a soul given substance by the will of the gods, and such things were no longer possible, even though his fear quite was.
Picking up his own cards and keeping certain to have them concealed, the Emperor looked over them with his cigar clamped between his teeth and said, "Don't worry Ciaphas, you might be up against gods, but you're not up against godly power. Death prevents cheating."
"not that it prevents you all from trying," Death added on. Q grinned sheepishly. Death then said, "i suggest you pick up your cards ciaphas cain, the game requires your participation and while time has no meaning to us, not all of the players have a great deal of patience."
Trembling, Cain picked up his cards and began the process of quashing the greatest existential terror he had ever experienced beneath a greatly extended lifetime of dissembling. Still, the Emperor was watching and in fact gambling with the other gods to obtain Cain's soul. Cain had never thought himself so important, never thought that the Emperor's eye was on him and his cowardly actions. He had no idea why the Emperor was willing to go to such lengths to snatch his soul away from Chaos, but he couldn't fail now.
Cain looked down at his cards. The exact suits weren't known to him, but he had played several thousand variants of card games across the galaxy and he knew this one. All ragged. Damn. He threw in a chip and discarded three cards, keeping his two off suit face cards. Q copied the action, and it proceeded around the table until it was Cain again and he called it. Death then dutifully dealt out the replacement cards and the next round of betting commenced.
It went on like this, quiet and uneventful for the rest of the hand until the final betting round finished. By pure chance Cain won the hand with a three of a kind and nervously swept in the round's pot. When he touched the chips from the Chaos gods he felt sick to a stomach as voices wailed piteously in his mind. Recoiling in shock, he looked up at the Emperor and asked, "What was that?"
"We bet with things of value. Each chip holds the soul of an Imperial servant unfairly captured by Chaos when they take a world. It's incentive for me to play," the Emperor replied gloomily.
Cain looked down at the meagre stack he had taken and then at the enormous stacks still in the clutches of the Chaos gods. Each one had to have nearly five hundred chips each. A tiny fraction of the untold billions damned just in the time of Cain's career, but every one was a citizen of the Imperium he had sworn to protect. He had seen the depredations of Chaos first hand more often than he desired to dwell upon, but here was the ultimate end of it all.
The chaos gods sent him various grins, leers, and scowls at the horrified look on his face upon this revelation. Cain picked up one of the Emperor's golden chips and he knew that it contained the soul of a faithful servant, now risking damnation so that the Emperor could snatch Cain's soul and the souls of others from the foul powers.
He then picked up one of the white chips from Q's pile and felt nothing. He asked, "What are these chips worth?"
"Favours from Q. We can forcibly trade them to anyone else for one of our starting chips or to him for any chip he has in his hand. Of course, since he has no interest in souls he sells them back to us at the end of the game in exchange for favours to him," the Emperor explained.
Q grinned and said, "Your Emperor is quite loathe to part with his followers so he has owed me quite a few favours over the millennia. I haven't collected them all yet."
The Emperor grumbled and said, "I am quite aware of that."
"Back to the game!" Khorne roared, pounding the table in impatient fury.
Cain looked over all of this with horror until his face settled into a mask of hatred that was then subsumed beneath his neutral gambler's mask. He was a coward, a liar, and a cheat whose entire life had been a farcical charade. He did not deserve this much attention, but today he would finally earn his title of Hero of the Imperium. He was going to clean these bastards out.
Tzeentch chuckled and said, "I think the mortal just got serious."
Hours later and Cain's pot had grown quite handsomely as he and the Emperor had utterly annihilated three out of four of the Chaos gods and Q had lost most of his hands because Death kept catching him trying to cheat. Despite not wanting to look too closely at them, both Khorne and Slaanesh were pathetically easy to read tells on, and while the bastard had the best poker face in the universe, Nurgle also played far too conservatively and was eventually worn down to the nub by the other players.
Now it was down to Cain, the Emperor, and Tzeentch, with Q watching on with enormous amusement from the sidelines. He idly commented, "Most mortals just figure out how to get all of their chips to the god they want to go with, they don't attempt to win it all. And the few that do usually lose catastrophically rather quickly. I'm impressed."
Cain ignored the strange entity while he looked over the cards he had just been dealt before he casually told Death, "I keep my cards, and I bet all in."
There was stunned silence before Death asked, "are you certain?"
Cain nodded and then laid his cards on the table face-down, folding his hands on them calmly with his face calm and impassive. Of course, the reason he had his hands folded over his cards was because his palms were itching like crazy. He knew a disaster was looming and his instincts told him that it was one of the disasters were it was better to charge in head first rather than run away.
The Emperor looked aghast at Cain for a second before he roared, "Are you insane? If Tzeentch wins this hand he wins your soul and the souls of thousands of others!"
"I have faith in you, my Emperor," Cain replied, wondering if he would be struck down then and there by a divine fist for lying. Only the fact that the Emperor hadn't already pulped him up to this point let him keep his nerve.
The Emperor was about to say something when Tzeentch spoke up, his voice that of a screeching hawk fed through a malfunctioning vox. The terrible god said, "I do believe it is my turn to bet. I keep my cards and go all in. I see you and also go all in. Your turn Emperor."
The Emperor gaped for a moment before he growled and turned to Cain and said, "I don't know which one of us will make you suffer more when this is over. Two new cards and I'm all in as well."
Death nodded, dealt the Emperor his cards and said, "very well. you are all in. reveal your cards."
The Emperor looked at his cards and his face fell before he roared, "Cain you asshole! Do you know how many saints you just damned?" He then threw down his cards, revealing a pair of kings.
Tzeentch began to cackle with maniacal glee, the awful screeching sound grating on Cain's ears before he placed his cards on the table, revealing four aces with a queen for a kicker. He laughed and then glared at Cain, screaming, "Do you know how many thousand year plots you derailed? Do you know how many beautiful plans were wrecked because of your actions? Do you know for how many million years you will be torn to pieces only to be reassembled so that it… can… you… what?"
Tzeentch's rant dissolved into confusion as Cain calmly revealed his cards: the two, three, four, five, and six of spades. Both Tzeentch and the Emperor let their jaws drop open in stunned amazement, while Q fell out of his chair in gales of hysterical laughter.
Death cocked his skeletal head to the side and said, "the mortal is the last remaining player in the game. i suppose he and i could play chess, but at this point i think he has probably won his soul and his life back."
Tzeentch fumed and said, "You may have won today, but this just means that you go back to your life and we get to play again! And you won't be so lucky next time!"
Crawling up from his prone position on the floor, tears streaming down his face from laughing too hard, Q said, "Oh no my fine feathered friend! I still owe this mortal quite the favour or favours as he has won all of my chips! Cain, how would you like to spend your new lease on existence far away from the nightmares of this galaxy? I now of this wonderful place that you humans seem to enjoy called Risa…"