Short Fiction

On the first day of Fic-mas, these writers give to thee, a poker game in hell to see …

House Edge

“Remember the stakes,” the dealer cautioned when he saw the gleam in the current player’s eyes. “Loser is pranking Heaven. Don’t lose sight of that.”

The demon in question just tipped him a wink. “I’ll see that gold, and raise you three,” he grinned. It was a look that said he sensed the proverbial blood in the water this hand.

“Three, Al?” Naberius glared. “Fine. I call.”

“Well, Beri’s got nothing.”

Alloces’s smile grew.

“This is in the bag already.”

Melchiresa tossed her hair over her shoulder and looked down her nose across the smoke clouded table at the cocky demon leering at the rest of the gathering. “I don’t think you’ve got a damned thing in your hand. And I think this is going to be your year to send our little gag gift, Al.”

Laughter traveled around the table in a wave. Alloces narrowed his eyes at her. “Money where your mouth is, Resa.”

She laughed lightly, almost able to ignore the blond demon to her left who wasn’t even looking at his cards. He was just leaning back in his chair, resting an elbow on the arm and worrying his lip with his thumbnail, while seeming to almost look through Alloces who sat just across from him.

Resa looked over her hand dramatically. “I do believe I’ll see that, and do you one better.” A collective impressed murmur went around the table then. “Although if I lose, my gift will most certainly get under His skin. The boss’ll be so pleased.”

She tossed the gold onto the table, as though she didn’t know she was taking her rather comfortable eternity into her hands by risking a loss tonight and being the one to have to send the “gift” Above.

Everyone looked to the next demon in line to bet. He was relatively new among them and everyone was still trying to get a read on him. Something he was all too talented at making difficult. He continued to stare across the table for a moment.

Resa nudged his chair. “Ronoven, your bet.”

He didn’t respond with anything more than a creasing across his forehead.

“Ronoven! You! Ben! Pay attention!”

He glanced up, a bit taken aback. But when he answered, it was with a confidence that made his words entirely believable. “I’m thinking it over. Don’t rush me.”

He still didn’t look at his cards, but rather let his startling golden gaze travel around to the faces of each of the other players, his expression that of someone trying to do complicated math in their head and not liking the sum.

The fingers of one hand drummed against the table top for a moment. Then, in what appeared to be a snap decision, he tossed his cards onto the table. “Fold.”

“Again?” Stolas asked from across the table. “You, young Ronoven, are entirely too careful to be any fun.”

He gave an indifferent shrug and a half smile. “Sorry I give such poor entertainment value, Stoli. But you’ll notice my pile of cash isn’t dwindling half so quickly as everyone else’s. And … I watched you deal.”

He gave a significant raise of his eyebrows and a knowing smirk that caused the table to explode with accusations about the propriety of the Prince’s deck. “Damnit all, Ronoven! Look what you started!”

The demon laughed and ran a hand through his tousled hair. “I’m sorry. I’m really … Oh, you guys are too easy. There’s nothing wrong with the deal or the dealer.” He took a minute, getting his amusement down to a conversational level. “I’m just screwing with you. I don’t know any of you well enough to bet aggressively.”

“It’s just a game, Ronoven,” the Prince reminded him, sounding just a little wary of his own words.

“A game where every previous loser has lost his head and immortal soul to Lucifer’s ire after God finds the gag funnier or more useful than he was supposed to,” Ronoven returned, tapping his finger on the cards he’d cast aside. “I like my head attached, that’s all.”

Resa frowned. “Some of the gifts have done well,” she insisted. “What you’re saying … That’s not true at all.”

A blond eyebrow arched. “Isn’t it though?” He paused, thoughtful. “In fact, name one time one of Hell’s gag gifts hasn’t backfired.”

She frowned. “Well, there was …” her frowned deepened and she threw Ronoven a glare.

He smirked. “He made the platypus the freaking official mascot of Heaven, Resa!” Several of the demons laughed at that, but it was beginning to be more strained than before. “Hell’s game is so weak, I bet the Big Guy is rubbing his Almighty hands together waiting to see what we cook up next.”

Prince Stolas cleared his throat. “Regardless of how previous games and/or gifts have ended … We are playing a new one now.”

“And everyone who got invited has pissed off the boss, or his second, in one way or other,” Ronoven mumbled.

“Beg your pardon?” the demon to the blond’s left asked.

He shrugged again, his foot beginning to tap under the table. “Nothing, Xaphan. Just talking to myself.”

The other demon let out a long puffing breath in irritation, and looked around the table quickly. “I call.” Then he glanced back at Ronoven. “I’m curious though, since you cannot, as usual, quite keep your thoughts to yourself, have you considered what your gift would be … If you had the great misfortune to lose, despite your measured approach to the game, my boy?”

“Of course I have,” he replied, as the betting continued around. “No one should come to this table unprepared for the game to favor the House.”

He paused, considering whether to reveal his own idea. Then he decided as the new guy, the rest of the party was unlikely to let him off the hook (and around here that could go from an idea to a literal hook pretty damned fast).

One shoulder twitched in what might have been another shrug as he watched the House once again clear the table as the hand concluded. His pile of gold was starting to make him feel a little more confident that he might just make it out of this game unscathed.

“I’d mess around with the humans … with their holy books,” he finally answered, and was unsurprised to see skeptical expressions from everyone who was still paying attention to their side conversation.

“Whatever for?” Resa asked, picking up the new hand being dealt around.

“Look, we all know how humans feel about their religions. And we all know God has a real ego, right?” He observed a few nods before continuing. “It’s all about inserting some plot holes, temporal inconsistencies, contradictions,” he looked around. They didn’t seem to be getting it. “I’d use their words against them. Most of you have never been on Earth, so you don’t know how important words are to people. But, they’re more powerful than an army, spoken at the right moment, in the right ear.”

He looked so serious, several of the others laughed. Starting out as a human was such a liability. Naberius seemed to find it particularly funny. “I forget sometimes, Ronoven, that you are a child among us, and you were barely more than a child when you came to us with your fragile human soul. It still marks you, lad.”

Ronoven gave him a steady look. “Child though I might have been, though I may be, I won my place.” He paused significantly. “How did you come by yours?”

“Now, now!” the dealer interrupted when he heard the challenging note creep into Ronoven’s voice. The young demon meant well, but Stolas had rarely met one so impulsive and stubborn when he was convinced he had the right of things. “This is all in good fun here, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s not forget that.”

Ronoven shook off his dark expression and smiled. “Of course, but Stolas, you know, as well as I, the power words have.”

“Ronoven does have a point. Words can start a war, or end one. Make a woman fall in love with you …”

“Or at least fall out of her clothes,” Ronoven interjected, breaking the earlier tension completely as every erupted into laughter again.

Naberius nodded at Ronoven. “Alright, you know the human condition better than I. That’s a fair idea, I do believe.”

“Thanks,” Ronoven smirked.

“Is that what you plan to do if you lose?” Resa asked, nodding to him to remind him it was his turn to bet again.

“I’m not going to lose,” he replied with a cool confidence they were learning to recognize. “I fold.”

He tossed his cards down again, shaking his head at the suspicious looks he was being given.

“The deck has not gone in my favor tonight.”

The game continued for some time.

When it was finally over, Alloces aggressive betting backfired and he walked away from the table, broke and obligated. As they all made their way out of the gaming room Al nodded to Ronoven. “That holy book idea wasn’t half bad, boy.”

“Are you going to take it for your gift this round then?” he asked, entirely happy to let anyone have any idea they wanted. He had no intention of being asked back to that table again for the rest of eternity. And if he was, he would play the same slow careful hand he had this time.

“No, no …” Al answered, already distracted by his plans. “I have something else in mind. Along the same lines, I suppose. But I want to go bigger, more visible. Something that no one, including our recipient could possibly miss. I’m thinking of setting a sign in the sky. Making the humans dance around and think it’s an omen from above. That ought to be fun, right?”

“Sure.” Ronoven gave a nod as he broke off from the rest, ready to retreat to his own apartments and regroup after a night of mental and verbal sparring that others seemed to find entertaining, but which left him feeling a little flat.

He said without much conviction, “I hope that works out for you.”

~~~~

Metatron entered the Heavenly Father’s room looking harried and harassed. The Voice had considered this whole taking human form plan a bad idea from the first moment God mentioned it. God wanted to understand the humans, their interest in Him, to understand suffering of all things.

Metatron couldn’t see any point in it, personally, but a God wants what a God wants, he supposed.

“My Lord,” he said tentatively. “It’s time … If you’re still committed to doing this.” His statement went up at the end, making it almost a question.

“I am.” He chuckled softly to Himself. “Don’t be such an old woman. Everything is going to be splendid.”

“As you say, Father.” His tone belied his acquiescent words.

Another warm laugh filled the room. “All will be as I say.”

The laughter continued to twinkle in His eyes, letting Metatron know there was some secret humor in this for his Father. Something He, in His infinite wisdom, was unlikely to explain.

“Of course,” Metatron replied. No sense trying to talk Him out of it now, not with the time for Him to join the woman He’d chosen as His mother at hand. “Before you depart, Father, do you want me to arrange for the sign, the guiding star, for those wise men to find you and tell the world what’s happened as was foretold in the human’s holy books?”

“I’m still not sure I think bothering about their holy books makes much sense,” He replied. However, the council of angels he’d taken in to his confidence seemed to think that attaching Himself to some human ideas of some importance might make this experiment a safer and more productive one.

“Lord, we’ve made a good case.”

“You have,” He agreed.

“So …” he prompted. “Shall I see to the star then?”

A hum that was almost another laugh vibrated in His chest. “No need, Voice. It’s being taken care of as we speak.”

“By whom?” the angel asked, almost indignant. That sort of thing was his job, really.

“Subcontractors,” the Father replied, and seemed to find this uproariously funny. Then He murmured, “They’ve managed to make it so bright, no one on Earth is likely to miss it. It’s so amusing when they do the heavy lifting for us.”

Metatron frowned. “What was that, Lord?”

“Nothing, old friend. I’ll miss you, you know.”

“And I you,” Metatron answered, feeling a lump he’d been determined to avoid, forming in his throat.

He paused, swallowing hard. He had to say something.

“Do …” Metatron stopped.

He didn’t want to question his Father, but … But, those who knew, well, they were all so worried. Except for Michael who was being distressingly indifferent.

“Are you sure about this? Sure you’ll be alright? That you’ll make it back to us?”

God smiled at him fondly and the light of it drove the doubts from the angel’s mind. “Of course I will, son.”

Metatron nodded. “I’ll go speak to her for You, Lord. Prepare her for Your arrival this night.”

“Thank you,” He replied, dismissing His Chosen Voice with a wave. And He was sure things would ultimately be just fine. It just might not always take the expected route, or wear the expected face. In the end, that which was intended would prevail.

He spoke softly to Himself as He prepared to leave, giving one last glance around His private chambers. As far as creations went, this was a good one.

“Because, when all is said and done, the House always wins.”

– End –Star-of-Bethlehem

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