Hardly Fair, a preview

This is the prologue to my first novel. I have been hard (hardly) at work on the sequel. Thought it would be fun to share a little.

Prologue – The Demon’s Stone
Somewhere in the Iranian Desert

“Are you in or not Gambler? Make a choice or forfeit the pot,” the strained voice across the table drifted listlessly in the tent. The flap fluttered slightly and a cold wind raced down his back.
The Gambler sat and stared at his hand. He had no idea what the symbols meant on the lacquered cards. He should have paid more attention. The incense was giving him a headache. He flipped a coin in his head. Heads. He smiled and pushed an array of gems and vials into the center of the table.

The entire tent froze. He gave a look around and wished he hadn’t. Everyone of whom was nine-foot-tall with bright red skin. Their eyes were all black and wide in what he assumed was shock. Mouths hung open and each had four rows of what seemed to be razor sharp fangs. Sharks. They looked like red sharks that had somehow evolved into a semi-human form. The haze of incense was too damn strong and the air felt thick. The red face across the table gave up any pretense of trying to remain neutral and broke into what he could only assume was a smile. He stopped himself from giving a cartoonish gulp of worry as he tried counting the teeth in that too wide mouth. What did Scram call these things again? Hanbees? Hanbois? Hanbii. Some sort of Mesopotamian spawn of evil something or other. Not the first ancient evil he had played poker, or whatever this game was called. Soul something? If he was honest with himself, which he rarely was, this wouldn’t be the last either.

“Very good Gambler. Very good. He has spirit!” The demons cheered as the faint voice gave a semblance of a shout. “Too bad that spirit shall be ours!” Another cheer echoed the room. It drowned out the gulp that escaped his throat. The demon pushed his pile into the center as well.

He put on his casual bravado and leaned back into the worn wicker chair and had to quickly grab the table as the damned thing nearly toppled back. Smooth, real smooth he mentally shouted. “Not so fast there my friend. The deal, if you recall, was my soul if I lose. But if I win I get the Sacred Stone. And I ain’t lost yet.” The eyes around him grew into slits at this and he wondered if maybe he overplayed his hand.

The red shark monster demon thing smiled and set down his cards. The room fell silent for a second and then cheering erupted. He craned his neck and saw three matching, hell, snakes turning into bird wolves? They were accompanied by four staves of differing shapes. He looked at his cards again. None of them matched except for what looked like gradually larger bloodstains. The coin flipped in his head again and once more showed heads. He sucked in a lungful of putrid perfumed incense and laid his cards down with more confidence than he felt.

No one moved for what felt damn close to an eternity. Fifteen sets of pure black eyes just stared unblinking at his cards. Then horrifying screams came out in a symphony of the tortured to fill the room. The candles flickered as they roared. It was terrifying and he began to wonder if they would just rip him apart here in this goat skin tent in the middle of the desert in Iran. But the look from across the table was even more horrifying than the screams. It was cold and blank as if calculating how long it would take him to reach across the table and tear the spine from this conceited little human trash. They just stared at each other for a long minute. The Gambler’s eyes noticed the seven fingered hands on the table slowly flexing and the small splattering of hissing liquid onto the wood as the tips of what appeared to be very sharp claws peeked out of the tips. The Gambler gave a part look around and saw six of the fourteen watching demons had positioned themselves between him and the tent flap. He was one hundred and fifteen percent screwed and everyone knew it.

Then the demon in front of him barked something guttural in a language he didn’t quite know but by the sound of didn’t sound happy at all. Two of the demons behind him turned and opened a chest and handed over something the size of a football wrapped in silk. The demon across the table slowly unwrapped the silks and a chunk of weathered stone sat in the light. Strange wavering runes were etched across the stone. They were sickening to look at for too long and as he stared dark thoughts began to fill his head. Break the chair and impale the red skinned demon bastards, a little voice said. Flip the table, grab the stone and break off a leg and crush their skulls until their brains oozed down the side of their half shark faces, it encouraged. He felt his hands gripping the edge of the table tightly. It wasn’t a bad plan. He’d escaped worse. And he needed this stone. With it he could do great things. Terrible things. As if reading his mind, the demon smiled and folded the silk back over the stone and the whispering demands stopped.

“Your Sacred Stone as we agreed Gambler. You play the game of souls very well for an amateur. Tell me, who taught you the game?”

He smiled and reached out and grabbed the stone. “A drunken leprechaun with a penchant for gambling and losing. Thanks for a fun night guys. Next time we’ll do it at my place. Bring more of the incense, it is delightful. Do you have a guy you get it from? I’d love to stock up on some?”

The demons seemed confused. He stood up and made his way towards the flap.

“This leprechaun you mention. His name wouldn’t be Scramulous O’Shea would it?” the voice hissed as the six demons formed a red wall of muscle and menace in front of him.

“No sir. Duncan Fairypiss is his name. Why?”

“Years ago, a leprechaun with a, how did you put it? Penchant for gambling and losing, stumbled in here and stole an heirloom of ours. A ruby about the size of your head. We are very eager for any information about his whereabouts.”

“I can ask Duncan when I get home. Do you guys have a good contact number I can reach you at?”

The confusion grew. “Contact number? Do you dare mock us mortal? We roamed this plane for millennia killing and destroying when your kind was hiding in caves and painting with feces on the walls. We are death given form. Summon this Duncan Fairypiss so that we may, question him at our leisure. How many of these leprechaun folks would know the ways of the game of souls? He must know of the one we seek.”

He cursed himself for his big mouth. “Duncan died. Two years ago. The drink got him. You know how it is with the little people.”

The demons behind him drew closer. “I’m afraid we insist Gambler. We have ways…”

“Of making me talk. Yeah. I know. It is pretty much the first thing every big bad monster and villain says. Jeez. Do they make you guys go through a seminar? Coach you on the same five or six phrases and then set you loose to cause mayhem and destruction? You need to work on the banter if we are going to do business.”

The demons all stopped and stared at their leader. He stared at the Gambler slack jawed.

The Gambler reached into his pocket and pulled out a small glass bottle, no bigger than his pinkie finger and held it up. “You know what this is?” Blank stares greeted him. “This is three strands of Helios’s hair.” More uncomprehending looks. “You probably know him better as the God of the Sun from the old Greek pantheon. Basically, as far as the internet could tell me about your kind, this is your kryptonite.” Fear and confusion greeted him this time. Progress. “Ugh. Superman is like basically a god himself but he has one weakness. Don’t you guys have cable or the internet or anything out here? They can do amazing things with satellites, even in the middle of nowhere like here. Anyway. I open the jar and from what I read you guys combust. Or turn to stone. Which one is it?”

“You dare bring that vile thing to our sacred game?” He hiss bellowed.

“Yeah. See. You guys are evil demon things that look like sharks. Kind of. Anyway. I thought it prudent to bring a little protection. You know, just in case. Now kindly let me leave or it’s up in smoke with the lot of you.”

“Stone. We’re immune to fire.”

“Oh shit. Cool. I’ll update the wiki. Thanks for that. And the game. It was a real hoot. But I’m gonna leave now. It’s been fun. Call me and we’ll see if we can arrange something down the road.” He turned and waved the bottle at the six demons menacingly. They slowly made a path for him to pass between them. He smiled and popped the cork on the bottle and for an instant a beam of light shot out of the top. He quickly put his thumb over it and saw all fifteen demons cowering. He choked back a smile, no need to add insult to the loss of the stone.

As he opened the tent flap and began to make his way outside the hissing voice stopped him. “Arthur Hardly, you’ve made a grave error this evening. One for which you will surely pay with your life Gambler.”

The coin flipped in his head and he saw the smiling head of Fate winking at him. He turned back, “But not tonight. Toodles gents.” The flap fell heavily back into place and he quickly entered his rental Range Rover and made haste towards the East where the slight lightening of the sky promised safety in the new day. He swore he could still hear the howls in the desert behind him. He laughed a little as he drove and patted the silk covered stone beside him. Another good night and another handsome reward awaiting him back home.

Had he looked up into the brightening sky he would have felt that laughter choke in the back of his throat. In the sky above his vehicle two black shapes circled the air, riding the thermals of the desert. As the sand dunes ahead of him finally parted and he saw the landing strip and silver jet that waited to take him home, they both vanished from the sky.

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