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He had named his casino Pascal’s, because his patrons would be betting against God.

All things being equal, anyone with even a small talent for clairvoyance, prescience, or telekinesis could clean out every casino on the Vegas strip, but that would be a very quick way to get themselves in trouble with the various vested interests who wanted the Masquerade kept intact. But more importantly, it would have been dreadfully boring. What the gifted people of the worlds needed was a gaming house where they could use their gifts openly at games that would offer them a real challenge.

Monty – as he liked to be called – had created Pascal’s for just the purpose. It was a ‘Private Room’, a type of liminal space between planes that required privileged knowledge to enter or leave, allowing them to be very selective in choosing their clientele. The laws of nature were highly malleable as well, making it a cinch to ensure that the odds were always in the house's favour.

Pascal’s main gaming floor was beneath a large domed skylight, revealing a massive, sea-monster-filled aquarium overhead. The undulating light that descended down into the silver and sapphire casino bathed it in a surreal ambience, one that was only enhanced by the alien yet whale-like calls of the creatures that called the aquarium home.

‘Quantum Clockwork’ slot machines of proudly polished sterling littered the central floor, cheerfully chiming away as patrons attempted to empty them of their treasure of ancient coins. To win, players either had to correctly predict which sequence of icons a pull of the lever would produce, or stop each dial at the precise instant to produce the desired results. The stochastic nature of the machines made prescience, clairvoyance, and telekinesis all but useless in divining or intervening with the outcome, forcing players to hone in on any slight advantage they could find.

Such tame attractions were for beginners, however. Betting on the Cockatrice races or fights yielded higher returns, though at much greater risk, for one could not bet on a Cockatrice without first knowing something of it. For every detail a person knew about a Cockatrice, it knew something in return about them. The trick was to limit one's knowledge of the creature to as little as possible and through mental discipline choose which information about oneself to give in exchange. So long as the Cockatrice didn't have enough information to get a clear sense of who you were or have reason to view you as a threat, you were safe. But should it ever get more than a fleeting glance at your identity, and you didn’t leave the best of impressions on it, your body would be turned to stone without it ever needing to lay eyes on you.

But of course, at Pascal's, the most dangerous thing to bet against were your fellow patrons.

As with any casino, making sure the guests didn’t get too rowdy was essential, and this was especially true with the clientele that visited Pascal’s. The waitresses were all members of a nigh-human clan known as the Aurelions. They were golden-skinned with tall elfin ears, raven black hair and void black eyes, and were exceptionally talented at foreseeing trouble and diffusing it before it got out of hand. Should that prove to be insufficient, tall and slender automata of quantum clockwork kept a careful vigil, able to spring to life in an instant should the need arise. How these two mysterious humanoids came to work for Pascal’s, or if they had any prior association with each other, was a subject of rampant speculation among the patrons.  

What was clear, however, was that with such a fearsome retinue of bodyguards at hand, guests seldom had reason to feel ill at ease at Pascal’s.

Despite this, Monty couldn’t help but feel an unexplained sense of dread begin to well up inside him as he was approached by a waitress with an anxious expression on her ageless and shining face.

“Ah… Mister Monty, sir; the Darling Twins are here,” she said in a hushed tone, taking the greatest of care not to be overheard. “We comped their drinks and chips, but they’d like to speak to you about getting into the VIP room. They say they have something; something they’d like to show him.”

Monty cinched his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose as he suppressed a groan as much as he could.

“Alright; thank you, Serina. Where are they now?” he asked.

“At the Einsteinian Roulette Wheels,” Serina said with a nod of her head towards another segment of the casino.

“Very well. Go to the VIP room and see that everything’s ready. I’ll deal with the Darlings,” Monty said reticently with a heavy sigh.

“Of course, Mister Monty,” Serina said with a curtsy of her black cocktail dress before scampering off to the VIP room. Monty pointed at two of the silver automatons, indicating that they should accompany him. With a small amount of mechanical whirring and clanking, each automaton roused itself and lumbered along at its master's side.

Checking to make sure that his concealed pistol was drawable at a moment’s notice, Monty cautiously jaunted into the Roulette section of the gaming floor, having mentally prepared himself for the worst.

The Darlings were not hard to spot, as most of the other patrons had discreetly vacated the area – if not the casino – the instant they saw them. Black-haired and blue-eyed, he in a dark tuxedo and she in dazzling red evening dress, both of them looking like they had stepped straight out of the 1950s. The waitresses all gave them a wide berth, and the croupier manning the wheel looked like he was severely tempted to rig the thing to ensure they won.

“Your next bet, Mr. Darling?” he asked with a nervous swallow.

“I’ll take Cancer on thirteen Black, Clockwise, and Capricorn on sixteen Gold,  Counterclockwise,” James grinned as he swirled a pair of gold and black dodecahedral dice, each side engraved with a zodiac sign. The dice shared a quantum entanglement so that they always came up opposite of each other whenever they were rolled. It also made it extremely difficult for their outcomes to be predicted or manipulated. "Mary Darling, how much do you think we ought to wager this time?"

“Hmmm. I think we’ve managed to collect a big enough pot that I’d be quite upset if we lost it all now, so… let’s go all in!” she beamed, shoving the pile of several hundred one-thousand-point chips towards the croupier. Her sadistic gaze darted around the room wildly at the frightened staff, the lot of them looking like they were just waiting for the axe to drop.

“All in at 340,000. Very good. Base odds are one to nine hundred and twenty-four, and the payout is one to one. Good luck, sir.”

With a firm shove, the croupier spun the Einsteinian Roulette wheel, which actually consisted of an inner and outer hub that spun in opposite directions.  James opened his palm, letting Mary blow on his dice for good luck before rolling them onto the wheel. The black die landed in the clockwise outer hub, and the gold die into the counterclockwise inner hub, so that was a good sign. Gradually the wheel began to slow, and when both dice had settled firmly in a slot, the croupier stopped it entirely so that they could get a good reading of it.

The black die had landed with Cancer facing up in number thirteen, and gold had landed Capricorn up in number sixteen.

The Croupier, waitresses, and even Monty himself let out sighs of relief at the Darlings’ win, even though the Darlings themselves seemed rather nonplussed at the outcome.

“Win again, do we? I swear there was a Twilight Zone episode about this,” James lamented as the croupier pushed their chips towards them.

“Maybe we should try to track down Veronica’s Circus. I’m sure they have some rigged games there that will give us plenty of excuses to slit some throats,” Mary suggested, her hand actively resisting the urge to draw her knife from her side.

“Now now, none of that! If there’s one thing I won’t tolerate from you two, it’s insulting your hosts,” Monty said with the most good-natured smile he could muster, whilst making sure his automatons were no more than a few steps behind him. “James, Mary, it’s delightful to see you again. How is everything? Anything I can do for you?”

“Yeah; tell your gold-painted whores to keep their empty eye sockets off my brother!” Mary spat vehemently, shooting murderous glares at every other woman in sight.

“Mary Darling,” James said in a gentle reprimand. “Monty, please excuse my sister. Domestic goddess that she is, she’s not as accustomed as I am to being outside of our playroom.”

“I’m sorry, James Darling, but I just don’t know how everyone else manages to suppress the urge to kill," Mary explained. "James and I went hunting before we came, and that helps a little, but not when skanks keep giving me reasons to want them dead!"

Monty fought back an urge to defend his staff, knowing that would most likely only provoke Mary further.

“Not to worry, Miss Darling. Pascal’s is more than willing to accommodate the needs of our patrons,” he said through the biggest smile he could manage. “If you would allow it, it would be my privilege to serve you personally for the remainder of your visit.”

Mary glowered at him coldly for a moment, and without bothering to ask what he had said to offend her he took a step backwards into the protective embrace of his automatons.

“It’s Mrs. Darling,” she hissed at him through clenched teeth, possessively throwing her brother’s arm around her.

“Of course. My apologies, Mrs. Darling,” Monty said with a contrite bow. “I was told that you two were looking to get into the VIP Room? I can see why, since our standard games are clearly far beneath your ability. If you want more of a challenge, the Very Important Person can give you that. However, since he has not personally issued you an invitation, I will have to insist on seeing what sort of tribute you intend to offer him. It’s… It’s not another severed head, is it?”

“Of course not. He didn’t appreciate the last one,” James replied with a smug smirk. Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out a small satchel. He plucked out a marble-sized orb of translucent, bluish-green amber. It glowed slightly, seeming to radiate thin trails of vapour, all while pulsating rapidly as if to the rhythm of a tiny heart. Within the orb’s volume was a spinning pupa, emblazoned with an occult sigil that Monty did not recognize.

“Is that… Ichor?” Monty asked, squinting as the light from the orb strained his eyes slightly.

“From a slain Titan of a far-off Plane, yes sir," James nodded. "Got a whole purse full of it. Not something that’s likely to come through this place again. If the Very Important Person would like to add it to his collection of curiosities, then he’ll be seeing us now or not at all.”

“And… may I ask where it was that you acquired this Ichor?” Monty asked.

“A Real Estate Agent,” both Darlings replied simultaneously. Monty studied them for a moment, ultimately deciding not to press any further.  

“Very good then. Right this way, Mr. and Mrs. Darling. The Very Important Person will be seeing you now,” he replied as he packed their chips into a carry-all for them. With excited smiles and manically gleaming eyes, the Darlings followed him arm-in-arm away from the busy gaming floor and up a flight of spiral stairs, ascending into the aquarium above. The water quickly dampened the sound of the bustling vice den below, and all they could hear was the gentle lapping of water and forlorn wails of aquatic beasts. Serina held the door at the top of the stairs open for them, but said nothing and kept bowed to avoid eye contact with either of them.

The VIP Room traded in the silver and sapphire of the casino below for even more ostentatious platinum and diamond, transparent walls and ceilings offering a nearly 360-degree view of the spectacles surrounding them. The room was adorned with crystal chandeliers, furnishings, and statues that gleamed as if they were carved from imperishable ice, and an impression made all the more remarkable by the abundance of fireplaces in the room. An Aurelion played enchanting music upon a pristinely white grand piano, and at the head of the VIP room sat the Very Important Person.

Though he was roughly the mass of a grizzly bear, his proportions more closely resembled those of an infant. His head in particular was disproportionately large and lopsided, held in place by a specially made headrest. In fact, his entire throne seemed to be a custom-made mobility device of some kind. It was forged from the same quantum clockwork as the slot machines and automata, and seated upon an assembly of a dozen pairs of mechatronic, crawling legs.

Aside from a few wisps of red hair, he was bald, and his left eye was enlarged to the point that it was no longer mobile. His burnt orange skin was mottled, aged, and saggy, as though in spite of his massive size he had recently lost a vast amount of weight. His lumpy body, with its rolls of fat and stunted limbs, gave him an appearance vaguely suggestive of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, an impression which was enhanced by the presence of a hookah on his table. The base of the hookah looked to be a seeing stone of some kind, as the smoke within it swirled to form strange and prophetic visions, visions that presumably became clearer once the fumes were imbibed. 

Despite his odd proportions, The Very Important Person was dressed in a midnight blue pinstripe suit and cravat, with diamond studded cufflinks. The table before him was laid out in a lavish banquet which oddly seemed to be completely untouched. A pair of the Aurelion waitresses stood at attendance should he want for anything, and he was flanked on all sides by security automatons.

“Now what have I told you two about threatening the staff and patrons?” the Very Important Person demanded, his goblin-like voice surprisingly harsh and shrill for a being of his size.

“Sir, I assure you that my sister and I have been on our very best behaviour,” James beamed at him.

“Then tell your little psycho Stepford Wife there to stop calling my girls whores and skanks!” he wheezed, gesturing to a mechatronic display unit built into the left arm of his chair. James sneered at him, his monstrous and sadistic temper starting to seep through the cracks of his cheerful public demeanour.

You don’t talk that way about my sister,” he growled. The Very Important Person dismissively waved a stunted arm at the threat.

“You two are bad for business, and worse for my disposition, so you had better have brought me something pretty damn valuable to compensate me for the trouble,” he told them.

“They have, sir. Gems of crystalized Ichor from an unknown Titan,” Monty said obsequiously. “A truly generous gift –”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Did I say it was a gift?” James asked, vicious smiles coming across both his and his sister’s faces. “Mary Darling, did I ever say it was a gift?”

“Absolutely not, James Darling. Monty here might have thrown the word ‘tribute’ out there at some point, but we never said anything of the kind,” Mary stated, grinning at the now terrified expressions of Monty and the Aurelions and the open irritation of the Very Important Person. “No Ducky, we came here because we would like to play you for them. That is, if you’re willing to bet something of equal worth?”

“Don’t waste my time, Darlings. What do you want?” the Very Important Person demanded sharply.

“We want to know how we can find Emrys,” James replied, equally to the point. The Very Important Person immediately scoffed at this.

“I’ve already told the Ophion Occult Order that I won’t –” he began.

“We’re not here on behalf of the Order! Emrys broke into our playroom, humiliated us, and killed our pet Voggathaust!” Mary screamed, her face twisted in vindictive rage. “We want him dead, and you know where we can find him!”

“That ain’t my problem, Ducky. And if the Ophion Occult Order couldn’t bribe or threaten me into helping them, what makes you think you can?” the Very Important Person asked snidely.

Faster than they could react or even realize what was happening, Mary pulled out a long butcher’s knife from beneath her dress and threw it straight up with such force it impaled itself into the crystal ceiling. There was a horrible cracking sound as hairline fractures began to spread out from the puncture point, and the diamond groaned as it began to strain under the untold weight of the water above it.

“I believe you’re all familiar with my sister’s uncanny talent with knives from our last visit?” James asked with a signature smug smirk. “So long as she wills it, that ceiling will hold, but one psychic command from her is all it will take to send us for a swim.”

“But then we’ll all die!” Monty screamed.

You’ll all die, you mean. Mary and I can handle a bit of water and a few sea monsters,” James claimed casually. “And even if I’m bluffing, I’m sure you’ve heard that old Injun story about the scorpion and the coyote, right? It’s in our nature.”

The Very Important Person pointed his one mobile eye up towards the ceiling, and saw that water was starting to leak through the crack, and a few of his more curious sea creatures were starting to swarm around it.  

“It’s a Russian parable about a scorpion and a frog, but a bigger animal would make more sense,” he retorted. “The game is Seven Hand Hangman’s Tarock; one round, between you and me. You lose, I get them marbles. I lose, I spill everything I’ve got on Emrys, which for all you know isn’t worth shit. Either way, you fix the damn roof and we all walk away from this alive and dry. Deal?”

The Darling Twins exchanged glances, coming to a wordless agreement.

“Deal us in, Monty,” James said, pulling out a chair at the table for his sister, then taking his seat beside her.

Monty anxiously dealt out two hands of cards while Serina offered the Very Important Person a hit from his hookah, all of them trying to avoid looking up at the ceiling as much as possible. When each hand was dealt, James picked his up and showed them to Mary, whereas Serina held the Very Important Person’s cards for him while being careful not to look herself.

Monty drew a single card from the deck and placed it in between them.

“Three of Pentacles is the card to beat, gentlemen,” he announced, waiting patiently for one of them to make the first move.

“Pass or play, Darlings?” the Very Important Person asked irritably.

“Hmmm,” James sighed with a tapping of his fingers, making a show out of mulling over his decision for as long as possible. “Mary Darling, do you think we should be polite and give the Very Important Person first go of it?”

“Polite? That doesn’t sound like us at all, James Darling,” Mary replied. She took out a cigarette from a silver case and held it out for him to light, and he promptly obliged her. She then held out the case so that he could take a cigarette for himself. “Oh, you don’t mind, do you, Ducky? It would be pretty hypocritical if you did, what with that oriental contraption of yours. Though I suppose it’s a little more practical for you, given your disability or whatever it is you prefer we call it. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little tempted to give it a try myself, but James and I have been smoking Satin Stag cigarettes since we were kids. I remember one time when we were smoking under the bleachers –”

“You pass! I play Eight of Pentacles! Stall like that again and you’ll forfeit the whole hand!” the Very Important Person snarled at them as Serina threw down his card.

Mary’s right eye began to twitch, and the cracks in the roof grew deeper as she twisted the knife further into it. A steady stream of droplets began trickling down, causing Monty and the Aurelions to back away from the table and start eyeing the exit.

“You’re making my sister miss her knife, VIP. I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” James warned with a shake of his head. “Ace of Pentacles.”

“Queen Of Pentacles!” the Very Important Person barked, though he now struggled to play his own cards without the assistance of an Aurelion.

“I play The Devil. Oh, and I guess I’ll put this card down too,” he smiled as he played The Devil trump card. “You pick the next suit.”

“Four of Chalices!”

“There’s no need to yell. Four of Swords.”

“I need to yell to be heard over the sound of rushing water that’s flooding my VIP room! Double Sevens, Swords and Wands. I change the suit to Wands.”

“You ought to change suits. The one you’re in is terribly gaudy,” James quipped. “Double Nines, Wands and Chalices, but unlike you, I'm perfectly comfortable in the suit I came in. Speaking of chalices though, if you girls aren’t busy, can you bring me another whiskey and cola cocktail? And a sweet martini for my sister, cherry on top?”

The Aurelions, including the pianist, all nodded eagerly and took the excuse to flee the room, slipping on the wet floor as they raced for the stairs.

“Monty, would you be a dear and man the piano?” Mary asked with a sickly-sweet smile. "I think the band should keep playing as the ship goes down."  

“Belay that! Ace of Wands!” the Very Important Person announced as he laid down his penultimate card. James would have regretted the strategic blunder of not changing the suit from his opponent’s choice, but the smug smile on the Very Important Person’s face told James that his last card was a trump card. That was a bad move, since you couldn’t play a trump card over another trump card.

“I play Death. And I – or never mind, I made that joke already,” he said, throwing down the Death card. Surprisingly, this didn’t upset the Very Important Person in the slightest.

“Fine by me Darling, because I’ve got someone here that’s got themselves an appointment,” he grinned as he laid the Hanged Man down on the table. For of course, in Hangman’s Tarock, the Hanged Man was the ultimate trump card.

James glared down at the card coldly, then up at the Very Important Person, slowly turning his final card around to reveal it to him.

It was another Hanged Man.

“Well then, it seems one of us is a no-good cheat,” he said plainly. “And since you were the one that picked the game…”

“Bollocks! You’re the cheats, and you lost anyway! Now fix my roof and hand over the Ichor!” the Very Important Person ordered.

“Tell us where Emrys is, or we all die!” Mary threatened, telekinetically drawing her knife back down from the ceiling and letting a torrent of water and broken diamond pour into the room.

Cursing under his breath, the Very Important Person pressed a sequence of buttons on his display. A mechanical canopy folded down, encasing the seat and its occupant in a  sealed shell. Before it shut tight, Mary threw her knife in the hopes of impaling the Very Important Person, only for it to be caught by one of the automaton guards.

“Seize their Ichor, then get them the hell out of my casino!” the now metallic and echoey voice of the Very Important Person ordered, his one good eye peeping out through a porthole. The automatons began advancing upon the Darlings, who looked all too eager for a chance to test their mettle against them.

James dove for the piano, grabbing a leg and tearing it off in one swift motion. Wielding it as a club, he jumped towards one of the automatons and brought the leg down on it so hard it bifurcated, leaving two crudely hewn halves to fall and float away in the rising water. The one holding Mary’s knife took a lunge at him, but found itself turning the blade around and plunging it into its own chassis, eviscerating itself of its clockwork innards.

“Try to use my knife against my brother? I don’t think so, Ducky,” Mary sneered as she snatched the knife back from the mechanical corpse’s hand.

Two of the automatons had managed to usher Monty out of the VIP room by some secret escape passage, but two still remained to defend the Very Important Person. The Darlings poised themselves for an attack, but before they could make a move, the automatons each shoved an arm into the water and released a powerful thaumo-electric shock. It was powerful enough to send each of the twins convulsing in agonizing muscular spasms, collapsing into the water and thrashing about without any bodily control.

“Hah! Knew you two weren’t as tough as everyone says!” the Very Important Person mocked triumphantly. “Now stay down if you know what’s good for you!”

Sadly, the Darlings did not know what was good for them.

Mary’s knife and James’ Hanged Man card came slicing out of the water at impossible speeds, instantly cleaving both automatons in two. The furious twins came screaming out of the water, James bashing in the Very Important Person’s shell and Mary jumping on top of it and trying to pry it open with her bare hands.

“Where’s Emrys!” she screamed. Despite his limited field of vision, the Very Important Person saw that one of the smaller sea monsters from the aquarium had finally managed to wriggle through the crack in the ceiling, and was now circling the three of them with predatory intent. 

“Same place you’re about to be; in the belly of a snake!” he sneered. The twins spun around to see the approaching serpent, knowing that if they took the time to fight it off, the Very Important Person would likely use the chance to flee to wherever the escape passage was. If they weren’t going to get the information they had come for anyway, then they might as well just kill him.

Drawing her knife back to her once again, Mary threw it up at the ceiling, this time with so much force the whole thing shattered. The entire room was flooded within seconds, and the three of them were sucked out into the massive aquarium.

The sea monsters immediately swarmed them, but they seemed to be naturally able to sense that there was something not quite right about the Darlings, so left them be.  Instead, they chased after the Very Important Person’s throne as it sank to the skylight of the casino, their enormous jaws piercing through the metal casing like it was an egg shell.

The Very Important Person’s last breath bubbled upwards as he used it on a final desperate, gurgled scream, frantically trying to activate his last resort.

James put his arm around Mary and helped drag her to the surface, hoisting their bedraggled forms onto the cement deck above. Nearly the instant they were out, there was a thunderous smashing sound from below as the skylight over the casino gave way, shattered by some secret weapon concealed within the Very Important Person’s throne. The contents of the aquarium rapidly drained down into it in a monstrous maelstrom, flooding the floors below it and ravaging everything in its path.  

“Well, that was a bust!” Mary choked out through desperate gasps for air, holding out her hand to summon her knife out of the rapidly retreating whirlpool. “We still have no idea how to find Emrys, we didn’t get to cash in our chips, and we didn’t even get to kill any real people! Where’s the fun in fighting robots?”   

“You want to know what the real kicker is?” James asked as he wiped salty water from his eyes. “I wasn’t cheating. The VIP lost fair and square. That dastardly cripple legitimately owed us answers that we’ll never get now.”

Mary groaned as the sheer magnitude of the night’s events began to dawn on her.

“… Do you think Monty will ban us for this?” she asked, biting her lip nervously.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, Mary Darling,” James assured her. “At Pascal’s, you bet against God, but having us as his enemies is a gamble even Monty wouldn’t take.”    



Written by The Vesper's Bell
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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