Red Dragon

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The Gathering

After such an uplifting, invigorating tale, Francis had no desire to slink back into his hovel. How could he? How could he feel right doing so? A poor, literal slam-pig was driven to the brink of suicide only to be saved by a horse girl –which everyone knew how obsessive they could be. Such a story brought shame upon him; his life, filled with desperation, hatred, loathing, death, and true despair didn’t hold a candle to the plight of a poor girl who failed at the one thing she truly tried to do. But no. She was far worse off. After all, her only friend was a horse girl... oh, and feelings for a literal monster among monsters. At least he knew if he didn’t find a hole to fill soon there was one just waiting to be porked, and it would be quite kosher.

But what did he do in the meantime? What could he do? He didn’t even have the food vouchers Eve told him about. If he didn’t even have those, why would he bother with any of the shops... At least it was pleasant that night. A clear sky, a soft breeze, ebbing between tepid and warm, and a full moon looking down upon him with a sea of stars backing it. Even a walk in this weather, in such a sleepy little city, would be rather blissful... Yes. That’s what he will do. He will take a walk, enjoy the scenery. Especially when it got closer to the dawn.

He huffed, smirking, and jumped over the rail. His muumuu flew up, legs pointed down, tight together while his knees and hips were loose, rippling with the wind. Another part was rigid under the blue Hawaiian dress, which made him chuckle. I’m an umbrella!

It didn’t last long, though, and his boots cracked the concrete as he landed. He pulled his right foot out first, the knife in its heel bent up, making another layer for the steel cap, then the left, turning around before the hobby store. Again, he didn’t need to really see it; the place reeked of nerd... And yet, the art on display in the window, now illuminated, given life by the neon robes that laced through them... it reminded him of that simpler time, of his life with his father and his craft. He couldn’t care less about the models or robots, but those dragons, those elves, that fiery woman (literally and personally); they hearkened back to those times... and his heart plucked at his mind, coaxing it to the door.

I can’t afford anything in there. Besides, it’s all nerd shit... Well, what would it hurt to look? You never know until you do, right?

Both sides were giving compelling arguments, one from cold, hard logic and reality... the other from emotion, and hope. He learned long ago that hope was a lying bitch, but how she worked her ways... as they did now. As he pushed that caked glass door open and welcomed that retro rock from yesteryear –though none of it was older than the seventies.

Unlike the two apartments he had been in before, the shop, The Chalice, did not have the kitchen to the right nor the piss closet to the left. I did not have a guest room, nor did it seem to have a master bathroom. Instead, it was all open –and even delved down. There was a staircase, fourteen steps down to the right before it settled on a landing before continuing further, hidden the foundation it wound around. To the left was the clerk’s station, where its keeper sat, reading one of those backwards comic books from the land of the weebs. Which, as Francis expected, he fit the stereotype: pale, almost sickly-looking, dark circles under his eyes, both thin yet chub at the same time, and with all the social platitudes of a dead roach in the middle of a clean kitchen.

That naga shot Francis a dirty look over the cute little girls he had his nose buried in... before realizing who -rather what- he truly was. It took those jaded, faded blues to spark with true life, and when they did so did his hood. But Francis didn’t watch as he scrambled to unwind behind the counter. He didn’t care about the blue-hued naga in the slightest; instead, his eyes dropped to the tiny boxes at the counter, to the woman on the purple box.

She was a thing of beauty, looking like a mixture of Eastern and Middle-Eastern descent. It was sort of hard to tell with the purple tattoos that burned through her skin, but what he could make out was she was a well-defined woman. She was no stranger to her sexuality, and seemed to revel in it with her purple dress. She had a crown of gold, keeping back her raven locks, and giving her face a rather... hawkish appearance.

He approached and picked it up, turning it over.

“‘Black magic’, huh,” he mulled, licking his lips again as his eyes befell that beauty. “I wouldn’t mind being tempted by that... The sign attached. This is truly free?”

“They are?” the clerk muttered- and even his voice fit the stereotype! High, nasally, no backbone to be had; somebody like him would have made a perfect patsy back in the day. “Interested?”

“Sort of... Why?”

“N-no reason-”

“Think someone like wouldn’t?”

“No! Of c-c-course n-”

“Think your game is reserved to only ultra nerds? Think I’m too dumb, too ‘jock’ for it! Well, I’ll have you know I like titties regardless of where there at.”

“Then you are interested in the wrong game. That one has been censoring them for a while now. You want titties? Try this one out, instead.”

He pulled out a product under the stand, which had a striking black card back with an archaic, alchemic sign. The name of the game was on it in bold, white print, but he wasn’t kidding. Francis could see the difference clear as day with the woman with the magnificent breasts on the red compared to the seductive black woman on the one in his hand... The artstyle, though. There was no denying it; it was from weebland.

“You’re right. Those are great titties. Got anything a bit more... American?”

“Why? At the end of the day, it’s how fun it is to play.”

“Then what about those two over there? The one with the ball and the brown-and-black swirl?”

“I’m not a big fan of either of them. The first is definitely for kids, while the second has zero investment.”

“I thought you said it was all about the fun of the game.”

“With that one, there is no fun. You either draw into your combo turn 1 or brick.”

“Brick? That does sound fun! Do you get to throw it in people’s faces.”

“What? No! What I mean by brick-”

“Is that you drew then draw nothing and lose,” another, sultry voice cut in, and both of them turned to look at the black-feathered harpy standing beside Francis. She was dwarfed by him, but still seemed rather large for one of her kind –which she was a low-born, her talons capped with silver ends. She wore a dark red dress, its bottom flaring out into several, white ruffles, while her chest had its own, though suffered from the sheer weight under that material and feathers. She had striking yellow eyes in a heart-shaped face, staring into Francis’s. Without a shadow of fear. Her hairstyle, also, showed no fear; it was tied up into two, great balls, where it was streaked with so many colors it was a wonder one could tell her natural color was blond.

She took the deck box out of Francis’ hand, biting her purple-glossed lip, and waggled a finger for him to come hither, guiding him towards those steps. With an invitation like that, how could he refuse? He didn’t even get a chance to browse the many shelves of items, comics, models, card accessories gone as that big-chested goth harpy lead him down those steps. Her tail flipped at him whenever he took one step too many, those five, black tips feeling like claws against his arms, scratching with each misstep, but, finally, they made it to the bottom. They were in darkness for the last trek of it, ten steps in total, but then she opened a door, and soft light met them, glowing upon rows of tables. Some of which were already packed.

“I’m Beatrice, by the way,” the harpy said. She held the door open, and still waggled her finger for him. “I own the place.”

“You?” He stepped through- and there it was. That familiar feeling of all eyes on him. Even those that initially had their backs to him in the twelve, long tables that ran the span of the space, the could all be their own stadium in their own rights, turned to look at him. They all had the same mixture of emotions on their faces, but that was to be expected. He looked marvelous in his muumuu.

He didn’t pay them any more mind, though, following his would-be captor to the right table, the closest to the door. She walked around its end, while had him sit on the outside, resting his elbows on the sturdy, white top. Though it felt strong, he could tell they were the cheap bulk ones; the chairs, however, were not. More care and consideration were put into them, every single one clashing against the tables they sat at, but... fuck ’em. The chairs were that comfortable. Even if Francis was only going to be a couple minutes, he could understand the need to be comfortable for hours at a time with the sorts of games upstairs demanded.

She settled into her seat with a sigh, then opened that tiny box. It turned out there were two sealed “decks” inside, each of thirty cards, with a welcome letter to the game. She placed both “decks” on the table, one black... the other white.

“I’ll let you pick,” she said, tittering as she put her phone in between them, as well. There was an app open on it, one side displaying her name and a large 20. The other had GUEST on it, with the same 20, both with a plus and minus symbol –which she demonstrated changed the number. “Though, since you picked it up, I assume you want black?”

“Hey, once you go black you never go back. Who wants to be white, anyways? Brings nothing but trouble.” He picked up the black “deck” and unwrapped it, shuffling. She did the same with white, but he could tell he was in for a treat. The way she handled those cards was an art in itself, how she shuffled them a demonstration of grace and elegance. In comparison, Francis’ shuffling was like a Mac truck dumping soil while she was a rapier, dealing swift, poignant strikes at the perfect locations. “As I was saying, you own the place?”

“Yeah. Surprised?”

“A little. When I imagine board games, card games, and the like, I imagine greasy man-children in their mother’s basements dressing up and acting like faggots. Like that table over there.”

“Oh, please be kind. I don’t want to have to throw you out before I had a chance to kick your ass. Besides, Ed and his pals are a simple lot. They come here for their extracurricular, just like you-”

“Actually, I’m suspended at the moment. One week.”

“Suspended already? Didn’t classes only start yesterday?”

“What can I say? I’m a trend-setter... So how do we begin?”

“Well, we both draw seven cards, then if we are happy it’s whoever has gotten laid the most who goes first.”

“Why don’t I believe you?”

“I can assure you that you can easily not like your hand. If you don’t, you can choose to mulligan. You draw one card less but get to look at the top of your deck and choose to keep it there or move it to the b-”

“I understand that just fine. What card game doesn’t have a mulligan rule?” Someone at the far left table coughed... Francis cleared his throat. “Anyways, I think I’m happy with my hand, though I’m already confused. What are these strange cards with only a skull in their text box?”

“Those are lands. Normally you can only play one a turn, then, for other cards, you’ll see that skull and some numbers. The numbers require generic while the skull demands that specific kind.”

“Okay? So how does that work? Does it simply need to be played-”

“You need to tap it.”

“Look, I know gamers tend to be desperate, but I’m not fucking a card.”

“No no. In the game’s terms, to tap is to turn it on its side-”

“Look, I’ve done my fair share of tapping back in the day. Turn to the side, completely around, standing up with her legs flopping over your shoulders, wheel-barrow like, driving her into the ground with your feet by her head while you squat in; there are plenty of ways to tap.”

“That’s... quite a colorful repertoire you have under your belt. I must admit, it’s starting to sound like you should go first.”

“Oh, you have no idea... So I play one of these skull things, then... this shambling gilf-looking motherfucker?”

“You can, but it enters tapped.”

“Damn! Granny already used goods? I’m not even sweating yet.”

She rolled her eyes, and sighed. “Anyways, that is all you can do, so it moves to my turn. I draw a card-”

“Wait. I forgot to do that!”

“The first player doesn’t draw.”

“Well that fucking sucks. I would rather go second! Card draw AND seeing what your opponent is doing? That sounds like hella advantage.”

“You sure you’re playing the right game?”

“Why? Is there a game where people fight to go second- I can hear you coughing over there! I can also smell you.”

“Hey, fuck you man,” the guy yelled back.

“He has a point, Garret,” his buddy said.

“Look, it’s not my fault! I was rushed out the door.”

“We know, bro, but he doesn’t-”

“Aww, what’s the matter?” Francis shot back. “Stayed up too late jerking it to your female body pillow? You know it doesn’t, and never will give, consent, right?”

“H-how did he- fuck off, man! We’re just trying to play a few hands before we go home.”

“Then stay out of my business, bitch... Anyways, what did you do?”

“I played the white version of your skull,” she said, pointing to it, then the dandy with a fencing sword on her side. “As well as this fine dapper. You will see that it has this ability, which, when it enters combat-”

“So I draw a card, play another skull, then... I understand what a monster is. I understand what a spell is-”

“All cards are spells. Do you mean-”

“No no. I know what I mean... and I take it this is literally what the name implies?” He held up a card, and, on it, it showed it could give -2/-2 at any time. “So... I take it the bottom numbers are their attack and bulk?”

“Yes, actually. You wouldn’t know how many don’t grasp that.”

“And I take it anything that hits 0 in health immediately dies.”

“From negatives, yes. From battle damage, there are exceptions.”

“But I’m not fighting yet. I’m going to use this on that flashy bitch then give my gilf a good loving that’ll scar you for two. Then... I’ll pass turn?” She nodded, and drew card –which he did remember to do! Progress... He huffed, drumming his fingers on the table. “So how did someone like you get into this nerd shit?”

“What do you mean ‘someone like me’?”

“You know. Pretty, dominating, sultry, risque- oh God... That’s exactly why you got into this. You are using this place to prey on the innocent and corrupt them, as well as sate your harpy desires... Won’t lie, that is bloody genius –unlike that move you just made. Another skull into a motherfucking murder! Bye bye, birdy... Then I’ll spoon granny for two more therapy sessions.”

“You are being incredibly aggressive. If you’re not careful, you’re going to lose steam.”

“If there’s one thing I have, it’s endurance... But am I right or am I right?”

She smirked, drawing her card for the turn.

“No, actually.”

“Damn. So you’re not a genius.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t fellate myself that much, but I appreciate all the other compliments... When I was young, I had a horrible disease, one that stripped me of my immune system. I couldn’t leave the house for well over ten years. I was hermetically sealed in my room, so I had to do something. Video games weren’t exactly cheap for my family, so I couldn’t ask that. I wrote. A lot. I also tried to draw... that’s when my love of card and board games and comics came to be. I needed inspiration, something to aspire towards... A new game came out at the time in select locations, and my dad managed to swipe me up a few starter decks. No one knew about that Andrew Garfield character yet, but the art, the artists he commissioned... They were my goal. They became my life, with each new set giving me something to look towards and try to create.”

She passed the turn, playing not one but TWO creatures –both destroyed. One with another kill card, while the other with a new type that needed to be placed on the creature. How it was any different that the two-cost he used earlier he will never know; same result. He swung with granny again, which, after this much, he was starting to really fall for her. She might have been in her autumn years, but her dark, grimy curls, the sheen of bog water on her bloated, gray skin, the claymore driven through her chest... he could use that as a handle to hold onto while he gives her the best ride of her unlife. It would be a first for him, too. He never thought nor dreamed he would want to do it with the dead, but she wormed his way into his heart, as her own was brimming with maggots.

“So,” he uttered, sighing as he sat back, cracking his knuckles. “If I’m following, you finally found your immune system again, unwrapped your fine ass, became a true present to the world, came to Vereor Nox, and, after graduating, opened up a card shop. Cards became so much more and now you are running your own personal sex dungeon- wait. What’s that?”

“Hmm? It’s an angel. That can fly over and hit you straight in the face and doesn’t even get exhausted.”

“Ah. Angel. Makes sense; they don’t get to tap.”

“Probably regretting using all those removals now, aren’t you?”

“Nah. I have faith granny will see me through. Draw, play a skull- say, how often do people complain about the land system?”

“All the time. Why?”

“I don’t know. Seems like the sort of thing that can screw you over hard. Especially if you are able to run multiple colors... Anyways, I am simply going to clip that angel’s wings-”

“You drew all three?”

“Yup. As well as another granny. Starting next turn, I’ll be double-decking geriatric pussy.”

“Well, I can honestly say I’m being fucked over by the elderly... I pass.”

“What? No monster?”

“Nope.”

“That’s a shame. Well, in that case, I will play this strange horsey thing, swing with my two, and my name’s Francis, by the way. Since you never asked.”

“Because I didn’t need to. Your name is the talk of the town. I didn’t know about the incident yesterday, but I knew a big, strapping, young drachen was moving into the dorms... No one told me about your fashion sense, either.”

“Hey! Careful. Don’t. Knock. The muumuu.”

“I’m knocking it!” A familiar voice called over.

“Garret! I swear to God, I will come over there and introduce you to your own colon!”

“Garret,” his friend said, but he pressed on.

“Do it! Do it! I dare you, motherfucker! I fucking dare y- never mind. Never mind! I didn’t mean i- I’ll go no- no! NO! NO!!!

Francis sighed, lumbering back to his seat. He was using Garret’s blue (now purple) hoodie as a towel, wiping his hands clean. There was a bottle of hand sanitizer in the pocket, applied liberally in between wipes until his hands were clean as a whistle again. He tossed the hoodie across the room, picked up his cards again... and saw she played more of those strange spell-not spell-spells. They were attached to his ghouls.

“What are these... wait! You put chastity belts on my hos?”

“Yeah,” Beatrice said, rolling it out as it gave into a purr. “Sorry. If I’m not able to tap, then others shouldn’t either.”

“You... sadistic... Fine. I’ll just swing with the horse th- what’s that?”

“A kill spell of my own. Destroys any attacking creature.”

“Oh now that’s some bullshit. You kill my horse, deny my gilfs... I’ll just pass.”

“I thought you would... Anyways, that wasn’t very nice.”

“He had it coming.”

“Still not nice... It’s rather fortunate you walked into my shop. It beat me the hassle of coming to visit.”

“Oh? I’ve got to warn you; I’m not gentle when it comes to jerking chicken.”

She barked a laugh, a single, bitter noise... then played a new angel before passing the turn.

“So full of yourself... Luckily, that’s exactly what I need. Eve approached all of us about a week ago and said if we could, per chance, hire you. Out of everyone on the strip, I was the only one to agree.”

“Well, as nice as that is, I’m gonna have to pass.”

“But you haven’t even heard my offer yet. It’s a simple job; I need you to be a ‘judge’. Rather, a security guard. You would be surprised how rampant theft is in the card game world –and physical violence! How long have you been holding those two cards?”

“Since the start of the game.”

“Why! They are too expensive- have you been top-decking this whole time? What was your starting hand!”

“These three, then these, and this one skull.”

“You started the game with only one skull- you’ve been drawing into all of this! You have the luck of a saint, I swear.”

“Sometimes. Other times I’m at the bottom of the Delaware in a plastic bag being eaten by bull sharks.”

“Again, that’s... oddly specific... So, I guess I’ll play this second dapper gentlemen and pass the turn... You know it’s a sweet gig, right? Someone like you, as big as you are? All you would have to do is walk over and people will behave. You think the same can be said for Wesley upstairs?”

Francis snorted, shaking his head as he drew. “Wesley? His parents must have hated him... Then again, my whole name, its initials, spell FUC.”

“Not right now. Maybe later.”

“And you say I’m the bold one... Not very professional to say to a possible employee, either.”

“So you are considering it?”

“Depends on the pay. I won’t work for cardboard crack... alone.”

“How does $9.95 sound?”

“Horrible.”

“How about I throw ‘an hour’ at the end of it?”

“... Horrible.”

“It’s $2 above minimum. You wouldn’t need to travel... and we could sneak in a hand or two every so often.” She huffed, and started to pick up her cards. “You won that one... Ready for another round?”

“Sure. That was quick enough... You do pose a good argument. Why do you want me so bad?”

She huffed again, far more bitter this time, and shuffled her deck.

“I’m going to be straight: Unless I have a judge, I can’t hold sanctioned tournaments. That’s where the real money is. If I can, I get more product. As it stands, the newest cards released for this game aren’t selling well. They just aren’t up to snuff... Sadly, this game is also my main breadwinner. I NEED to hold tournaments... My very livelihood is at stake.”

“Then... don’t you think you can sweeten the deal-”

“You will get two free booster boxes every set release and access to one pack of sleeves and one new deck box every paycheck.”

“That... is definitely a way to sweeten it... Tell you what. Give me a bit longer to think it over, then I’ll get back to you. For now, let me get my gilfs back out.”

The harpy smiled, but wasn’t she a bit hypocritical? She was the one to have played her hand far too early... It was a good hand, but Francis had to hold true to what he said. Don’t shit and eat in the same place... Would it be, though? Would it be... Regardless, he had another hodown to partake in. Then another. And another.

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