Interactive Audio Story: “Echoes of the Fallen”
Interactive Short Story: The Signal”
Audiobook: “The Stormrider Saga”
“The birth of a god,
the death of a world.”
From the notes of Talon, first stormrider.
With a frown, Ilana peeked over the edge of her playing cards at her opponent. Two jacks, a ten, a seven, and a measly five. A hand with which even old Moira couldn’t do much in terms of card reading. It was even less suited for a game of poker. At least, the prediction for Ilana’s immediate future was clear in this case: decidedly bad.
With these cards, she wouldn’t be able to win anything, and she really needed to in order to pay off her debts to Chiran. She simply couldn’t resist when the crafty merchant showed her the book with its only slightly scuffed cover. A real book, with paper pages and deeply embossed letters. He knew exactly that Ilana wouldn’t be able to afford it.
“Are you going to take your turn soon, darling?” she was abruptly interrupted by a raspy voice. Her opponent leered at her greasily. Oily dark hair, a nose that had been broken multiple times, and probably no contact with water and soap for days. That was Tyze, a Stormrider from House Hyara. And like everyone of his caste, he was an arrogant bastard.
Arrogant because the Stormriders were the elite troops of the leading houses and, due to their privileges, considered themselves superior. And bastards because they cheated at card games and their mothers produced them in the barracks of the Lower City like on an assembly line. At least, if one were to believe the rumors.
Ilana’s eyes went back to the cards in her hand, and her thoughts began to race. She couldn’t afford to lose the accumulated coins in the middle of the table, and it was her turn. With a heavy heart, she made her decision.
“I’ll match… and raise by two,” she declared with more confidence in her voice than she actually felt, pushing her last three coins to the center of the table. Annoyed, she noticed her opponent’s gaze wavering, following her hand and, evidently, not just her hand.
She provocatively pursed her slightly thicker lower lip and smiled back while silently cursing the fool—and herself. She could feel the hidden card under her top, but there had been no opportunity to switch it with one of her poor cards or at least let some of the coins slip off the table with a casual arm movement into her pocket.
“Well, looks like someone really wants to play hard…” Tyze stubbed out his cigar on the table and downed the last bit of the awful algae concoction that the bartender of the ‘Mist Mixer’ dared to call a house specialty. “Raised by two? Pretty brave, darling. Just hope you don’t collapse when you lose it all. That would be a real pity.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are ways she can earn something on the side,” grunted Evan, the third player at the table, letting his gaze sweep over her body. He was one of Tyze’s stupid drinking buddies, with a face only a mother could love, and even then, only if she were almost blind. Unfortunately, Ilana wasn’t.
She valiantly fought down the rising revulsion and forced herself to ignore the remark. If the other visitors wondered what a young, pretty woman who usually worked at the Archaeological Archive was doing in a rundown tavern like “The Gischtmischer”, the answer was clear: getting into trouble. Ilana was particularly good at that, as she regretfully realized once again. Well, those with bad cards must be able to bluff even better. And this applied to a poker game just as much as to life in the floating city itself.
She watched impatiently as Tyze laboriously produced a small, worn-out bag from under his cloak. The loud clang with which he dramatically dropped it onto the rough tabletop silenced the murmurs of the surrounding onlookers at once.
“Where did you get so much…”, Evan murmured in disbelief, staring first at the bag and then at Tyze with wide eyes. Ilana’s mind raced too. Were those all coins? If so, it was definitely more than she had ever owned in her life and probably ever would. Even for a Stormrider, this was an almost unimaginable fortune. How did a fool like Tyze come by such wealth?
“Call,” Tyze announced, in a slightly slurred voice, that he matched Ilana’s raised bet. With a slightly shaky hand, he took two coins out of the bag and dropped them onto the pile of coins that had grown considerably during the game. Then, with a smug grin, he leaned back and turned to the onlookers, no doubt to enjoy their attention and admiration. Ilana was just about to use this moment of distraction to swiftly smuggle the hidden Jack from her top to her hand when she suddenly felt an intense gaze on her, making her stop mid-movement and look up, disturbed.
She only got a fleeting glimpse of the man who seemed to be passing the table disinterestedly. Middle-aged with short-cropped dark hair and prominent cheekbones, he looked worn out and battle-weary. But she couldn’t help but feel that in each of his movements, and in his still powerful shoulders, a shadow of his former strength resonated. Their eyes met briefly, and she saw deep, tired-looking eyes. Did he imperceptibly shake his head to warn her?
Doubtfully, Ilana let her hand fall again. But in the next moment, the man’s gaze moved on, casually glancing at Tyze and his bag from the corner of his eye before continuing on his way to the exit.
“Come on!” Tyze snapped impatiently, pulling her out of her thoughts. “Show what you’ve got, little one!”
He had laid out his cards: an eight, two tens, and two kings, clearly a better hand than hers. Ilana felt her eyebrows knit and a dull throbbing began behind her forehead. When under pressure, she was prone to getting headaches. This had never made a situation better, and she doubted it would be different this time.
Damn it, she cursed in her thoughts. If there had been a chance to turn the tables in her favor, it had now passed, all because of that stupid man who had distracted and unsettled her. Her vision started to blur as it wandered aimlessly between Tyze’s cards, the coins, and the cards in her hand. Don’t cry, she told herself. Anything but crying.
“Well, show us what you got,” Evan taunted. “Or you could just show us your cards!” The surrounding men rewarded his joke with lascivious laughter. Suddenly, Evan leaned forward, pressing down her hand, revealing her cards. Ilana couldn’t resist; she didn’t even have the will to. It felt as if all strength had left her. Don’t cry, was all she could think of, as she pushed back the thought of what losing her last coins would mean to her.
“Just a measly pair of jacks?” Tyze laughed mockingly, as he pulled the pile of coins vigorously towards him. “I guess you’re going to bed hungry this week, sweetheart. But maybe you’d like to share it with me? As you can see, I am…”
“Hey, what’s this?” Evan suddenly exclaimed, still holding onto her wrist. His right hand shot forward, pulling back the fold of her blouse. Ilana could only watch helplessly. She didn’t need to look to know what Evan saw.
“Hey!” Tyze shouted in a drunken stupor. “The little slut’s cheating!”