Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 135

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House Rules

Blind eyes stared at the mutilated soldier. “Your humor is not appreciated.”

“Well, neither are your dogs. Just because I’m not quite alive doesn’t mean I don’t feel pain. Either I’m in shock or it’s all a bit numbed, though. I would have expected all of this to hurt a lot more. It hurt a lot at the time, it’s only that now that we’re standing here and talking that it’s not nearly as much as it should for all the blood and holes.” He examined one of his hands that looked as if he’d shoved it into the mouth of some sharp-toothed beast and waved it around for a while. Which is what had happened, more or less. He looked back at Arnau’s shade and returned to the earlier topic. “That’s your loophole, the quota? If you can get enough souls you ransom your own?”

“And in the meantime they have the most diligent hunter to capture the damned.”

“Seems like it’s in their interest to keep you from succeeding.”

Arnau nodded his bitter agreement.

“I used to know this one fellow in the regiment,” said the soldier, tucking a piece of the inside of his body back where it ought to be through the hole that it slipped out of, “a gambler, he ran all the dice games. In fact, now that I think of it, he ran the game that got me in so much trouble. I guess you never now where the chain of events is going to start linking together, do you? Anyway, I’m not one much for gambling and losing and he knew it, so one night on guard he told me about his system. He wasn’t particularly dishonest – not more so than most people you know, which is to say only reasonably so – and mostly the way he’d get you is that he’d offer more money for more unlikely rolls. You let temptation get the better of you, you make a bad decision, you almost certainly lose, he gets your money.”

The phantasm blinked and his voice betrayed impatience. “What was the point of that story?”

“Don’t you get it? No? House rules. The odds are stacked against you and you’re made to feel – strongly suggested, perhaps – that you’ve got a fighting chance. And you do, technically speaking, but only enough to make you keep playing. The house always wins in the end.”

“You’re saying I have a choice as to whether or not I am devoured by incubi every new moon?” Arnau was becoming visibly angry.

“The consequences are always real,” the soldier said. “People lose wages, property. I’ve heard stories of people betting away their first born child. No, it’s deadly serious. And it doesn’t seem like you have an alternative to playing now that you’re in the game. I’m only suggesting that your path out is rather less likely than they’d have you believe.”

“I’ve had about enough of your ramblings. You’ll be a great deal less mouthy when you’re one of my hounds.” He stretched out his arm toward the body of the soldier.

“Can’t we talk about this,” stalled the soldier, who was not at all eager to join the ranks of the creatures that had savaged him. He thought frantically of the great horned spirit. Nothing happened. One hand fell on No Legs’ and No Eyes’ reed pipe, but his fingers were too stiff to close on it properly and he couldn’t even get it out of his pocket. “One cursed man to another?”

“I am you and you are me,” declared Arnau.

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