the conclusion of a short story series by lawton von emelen
“Well. We’re here,” announced Leo, gesturing to the waterfall in front of them.
The Gambler took a confident pose, one foot upon a moderately-sized rock, hands on hips, as he looked on Falling Branch Falls. Adam, hugging himself in the early morning mist, stared into the waterfall, his legs shifting weight with eagerness.
“Months of searching, all for this,” said Adam, who found it hard to mask his excitement. The Gambler glanced at Adam before patting him on his shoulder. “The time has come,” he said, and the three made their way toward the falls.
As they drenched their shoes in the pond below the falls, Adam craned his neck in attempt to peer through the falls. Was the herb just beyond the falls? Was there a cave? A tunnel, perhaps, leading to some chamber? As he had these questions, he heard Annalise within him answer them, though Adam heard these answers in his own voice and thought himself clever for divining the true location of the herb.
The men were up to their shins in water. Spray from the waterfall dampened Leo’s unshaven beard, only irritating him further. The Gambler looked around for a moment before turning to Adam. “Where does Annalise say she hid the herb?” The Gambler asked.
Very quickly, Adam pointed down to the water, roughly four feet away from them. “There is a hole, far deeper than where we are, with muck covering a trap door. It leads to an underground cavern.” The Gambler paused for a moment, contemplating how Adam responded with the information so quickly, and concluded that Annalise must have told him beforehand. The Gambler trudged through the water, and just before came to where Adam pointed, he plummeted into the water and the hole beneath. Adam smirked slightly while Leo buried his face in his hands as The Gambler promptly retrieved himself from his debacle. Adam could hear Annalise’s faint laughter.
“You idiot,” remarked Leo, “he said four feet away.”
“That was not four feet, you fiend,” retorted The Gambler. “Neither of you saw that. Leopold-”
“-be a doll and find this trap door? You are taller than I and have longer arms.”
“Why me? Only gods know what lies in that mud.”
“Are you telling me you fear crayfish?”
“Well, no, surely I-”
“Get to it! You are best equipped for this task.” After a little more senseless bickering between the two, The Gambler stepped away and to Adam’s side as Leo then lowered himself into the water hole, filling his lungs with air before dropping down and rummaging through. He came up for air twice before finding the door, and upon the third time, there was a vortex of water funneling downwards as Leo then rose again. “It has opened! Water is rushing downward to fill the tunnel! Quickly now!”
Leo then dropped down. The Gambler ushered Adam to be second, and Adam then approached the small vortex. He did not hesitate; he nearly jumped down, finding himself sucked through a funnel of water for a brief period before tumbling down a relatively wide tunnel. When he finally was still, he sat up, drenched and heavier, and marveled at the sight before him.
The cavern was relatively small, no more than three hundred square feet, and more than ten feet high. The walls and ceiling of the cave were covered in lush vines and leaves, and the floor featured many mushrooms and flowers. All of the scene was bathed in a warm, golden glow, which Adam saw emanated from the center of the room, from their prized objective.
The Godsblood herb, Adam saw, featured many golden leaves that grew from a single stem. It was larger than he expected, reaching nearly two feet in height. These leaves glowed brightly, illuminating the rest of the room. The roots of the herb, also glowing golden, could be seen within the ground, despite the dirt’s opaque nature. At the base of each leaf, golden liquid squeezed out and dripped downward to the ground. With every drop of the golden liquid, the roots seemed to pulsate, and the flora around them seemed to breathe.
Adam stepped forward, his craving and hunger for the powers of the Godsblood nearly seizing him. If it wasn’t for the abrupt entrance of The Gambler, who nearly knocked Adam over while tumbling from the entrance, Adam felt he might have gone insane.
Leo seemed entranced by the beauty of it. “I have not seen a Godsblood herb since . . . ” He trailed off, reminiscing of perhaps simpler times. The Gambler finished his sentence: “ . . . since Theodoric gifted us with power.”
“How long has it been?” Leo asked no one in particular.
“Many centuries,” replied The Gambler, who stepped next to Leo and gazed upon the herb.
Although Adam had seen many conflicts between The Gambler and Leo over the past months, now he saw some solidarity. For a brief moment, The Gambler and Leo looked like brothers, brothers who fought often, yet came together at the important intervals. The Gambler then wagged his head back and forth, spraying Leo with water. The latter scowled at The Gambler, who retrieved a vial from his cloak and knelt before the herb. He paused for a moment, closing his eyes. Adam stood still, wanting to not give away his impatience. Get on with it, he thought.
The Gambler then raised the vial to the stem, collecting drips of the liquid. Once the vial was full, he withdrew from the herb, slowly and carefully, respecting the fragility and power before him. He stood up, turning to Adam, who could feel sweat dripping down his forehead. At last, what he sought was before him!
“Here, and now, another joins us,” said The Gambler. Leo watched with intensity as The Gambler approached Adam. The Gambler stared into Adam’s eyes, as if he wished to see Annalise within Adam. Every bone in Adam’s body yearned to seize the vial, even though The Gambler was about to give it to him. The next minute seemed to last an eternity, as The Gambler scrutinized Adam. Adam thought he looked skeptical. Did The Gambler sense Adam’s desperation?
The Gambler then handed over the vial. Adam took the vial and felt an immense weight in his hands. Although the vial and the liquid within it were light, it seemed as if the burden of the supernatural rested in his hands. He raised the vial, analyzing its contents, before looking to The Gambler. “What is the process?”
“Process? There is no process,” replied The Gambler. “No rituals. Simply drink it and we see what happens.”
“See what happens?” Adam asked, his eyes darting between the vial and The Gambler.
“Well, everyone reacts a little differently. At least, whoever has ingested the liquid.”
The Gambler said more, although Adam didn’t hear him. The Gambler’s words were drowned out by Adam’s own thoughts. Drink the vial . . . drink the vial . . .
The Gambler finished what he was saying, nodding at Adam. Adam looked to the vial once more, then to Leo, who was staring at him. Adam could feel the suspicion; Leo knew something was amiss.
And so Adam drank the vial’s contents in one gulp.
Immediately, pain seized his body. He threw himself backwards with a cry of pain as he was brought to his knees. His heart stopped, then entered overdrive. The Gambler stepped back, holding a few fingers to his chin as Leo stepped forward to join him. They had both seen this, experienced this before. They knew all too well the uncomfortable process as the soul awakened.
Adam squeezed his eyes shut, rocking his torso back and forth in excruciating pain, and when he opened his eyes, he saw The Gambler and Leo’s souls. They shone just beneath the skin, golden silhouettes of their bodies. Adam then doubled over, and the sensation of vomit built up in his throat. He groaned as his muscles tensed and relaxed at uncomfortable speeds. He reached a hand upwards to clutch at his stomach, but it didn’t stop his abdomen from shaking.
All the while, The Gambler and Leo whispered to one another. Adam doubted that he could have heard them even if they were screaming. All he could hear was a faint buzzing sound as he keeled over on his side and screamed in agony.
Adam swore it lasted for over an hour, although in reality, it only lasted a little over a minute. Eventually, the pain began to recede, wearing off gradually until Adam felt he could stand properly. He rose to his knees, and then to a hunch, and finally to a respectable posture, looking to The Gambler and Leo. Within The Gambler’s cloak, he saw something quite strange: rectangle-shaped glowing objects, the same color as Godsblood souls. Annalise’s suspicion had been correct, all along…
“Those cards . . . ” were the first words Adam said. Leo lowered his head slightly in defeat as The Gambler furrowed his brow.
“What about them?” The Gambler tested.
“They . . . they have souls in them.”
“Indeed they do,” said The Gambler, with not an ounce of sarcasm.
“Whose souls are those, Gambler?”
“They are the souls of Godsbloods who thought themselves gods,” explained The Gambler succinctly.
“He is no better than our enemies,” said Annalise, from deep within Adam. He looked to his hands, marvelling at the strength he knew he now possessed. He then looked to The Gambler and Leo, who were both very suspicious. Both of them now saw Adam’s eye color as golden. His eyes seemed to glaze over momentarily, as if he was out of it, before refocusing on them. Adam then tightened his jaw and narrowed his eyes.
“Leo, we’ve been betrayed,” concluded The Gambler.
“You should have seen this coming!” Leo replied. “You did not listen to my warnings!”
Before either of them could speak further, Adam rushed them. It was Adam’s body, to be sure, though the pilot was no longer Adam, but instead Annalise. Many months of slowly corrupting Adam’s psyche and conscience provided an opening for Annalise to act once more.
The Gambler immediately twirled to the side as Leo met Adam in his charge. Adam, the real Adam, was terrified, for he was no longer in control of his body. He could only watch as Annalise, now in full control, squared off against Leo.
Leo spared no ounce of strength; he seized Adam where he stood and hurled him across the room with ease. It took Adam a moment to recover, and when his bearings returned to him, Leo was already upon him. Adam could only barely defend himself against the incoming onslaught of fists. Annalise was out of practice, clearly.
It came to her soon, however, how to fight. She saw an opening in Leo’s assault and took it, striking Leo in the chest with Adam’s fist and launching him backwards. The Gambler took this opportunity to throw one of his golden aces toward Adam. It cut at his arm, eliciting a pained groan.
“Adam, return to your senses!” shouted The Gambler.
“You fool!” Leo chimed in. “That is no longer Adam! It’s Annalise! She has betrayed us!”
“I refuse to believe that Adam has lost his way!”
“We have to imprison them here! We cannot allow Annalise to escape!”
Leo then made for the entrance of the cavern, followed shortly by The Gambler. Adam followed them as quickly as they could, though even Annalise had trouble re-learning the tactics of Godsblood combat and movement. Leo and The Gambler disappeared in a surge of golden luster, and Adam saw their souls quickly move up through the tunnel and out of the hole. He attempted to physically follow suit, but the trap door was closed before he could reach it. He attempted to open it and found that he couldn’t: as he was, The Gambler and Leo worked to seal the entrance. Adam could feel Annalise’s anger grow to exponential levels.
The Gambler and Leo, of course, were piling as many rocks as they could find into the hole, to bar the entrance to the cave and the trap door. “This will only hold her back temporarily,” said Leo, and The Gambler nodded in agreement. They worked rapidly, far faster than mere mortals, as entire boulders were lifted easily to keep the entrance closed.
As they had predicted, Adam and Annalise were only caged temporarily, though they escaped far sooner than The Gambler and Leo had expected or hoped; as they finished their work, the great pile of rocks erupted out of the hole. The trap door, blown off its hinges, followed suit, and shortly after, Adam climbed clumsily out of the hole, surrounded by ethereal golden energies.
What came next was Adam’s voice, though it was Annalise who was speaking. “Finally,” she said nonchalantly, “some leg room.” She stretched Adam’s arms to the sky and flex his legs. “A fitting host.”
“Let him free!” commanded The Gambler. “Adam did not deserve this fate!”
Annalise seemed to give it some thought, before shaking Adam’s head. “No, he didn’t.”
Adam then charged at The Gambler, who was joined by Leo in returning the favor.
Although both The Gambler and Leo were experienced in centuries of hand-to-hand combat, it was clear Annalise was superior. Adam’s body took a bit of getting used to, but in no time his body was performing stunts and maneuvers Adam himself would have never thought himself capable of completing. Adam was relentless in his assault, throwing punches that would have killed mere mortals. Leo was strong, but still staggered after every punch; The Gambler, however, experienced in battling against other Godsbloods, was more prepared. Yet even the prepared Gambler would find himself in a difficult situation against Annalise. After many blocks and parries with forearms, deflecting and redirecting blows, The Gambler forced distance between him and Adam. While Leo attempted to restrain Adam’s body, The Gambler drew his golden aces and threw them toward his foe. They sliced at Adam’s skin, and although blood was drawn, not much damage was done. Leo tried multiple times to lock Adam in a chokehold, all attempts unsuccessful. Eventually, Adam distanced himself from Leo, and the three Godsbloods, equidistant from one another, stood in a ranged draw.
“Why, Annalise?” The Gambler asked. “Why did you betray us?”
“You think yourself better than our brethren,” she spoke in reply as Adam. “You killed Godsbloods! As if that weren’t enough, you imprisoned them in your wretched playing cards and abuse their very essences for power.”
“It had to be done! What world would we have, had they conquered and enslaved mortal humans, who they thought lesser?”
There was no reply. The Gambler paused for a moment, before saying, “Adam! You are not yet completely lost! Find the will to resist Annalise’s control! Banish her once and for all!”
Adam’s own conscience, who was terrified, heard The Gambler’s plea. He then heard Annalise’s voice echoing. “The words of a man who has slaughtered Godsbloods and imprisoned their souls. Do not listen!”
“I have known what it is to be shackled,” said Adam. “No more! My will, my destiny, is my own!” And with that, Adam fought with not strength or speed, but pure willpower. Adam’s body doubled over as he cried out in pain; both Leo and The Gambler knew that the spiritual struggle between two souls took a toll on the human body.
“Idiot,” said Annalise. “To think that your destiny has not already been written. We are all mere chapters of a larger book.”
Adam ignored her and continued to struggle. His now awakened soul was new and inexperienced, but rich and full of vigor and life, while Annalise’s was experienced but weary. With months of preparation, Annalise could overthrow the conscience, but in an outright battle of wills, she would surely lose. She knew her very existence would be forfeit should she resist the inevitable. She had not expected Adam’s rebellion. She had underestimated his will and want for freedom.
The Gambler and Leo watched as Annalise’s soul purged itself from Adam, knocking the new Godsblood on his back. Her soul drifted in the air temporarily, quivering and fragile, desperate and frantic. Without hesitation, The Gambler drew forth a new item that neither Leo nor Adam had seen before: another steel playing card, far more mundane than the other golden ones he was known to utilize. He flicked it forward at Annalise’s soul, and she screamed in panic as the card drew her soul inward. Adam, his body and soul now his own, sat up slowly and watched in shock as the card floated in mid-air, sucking Annalise’s spirit in. The last cries of Annalise begging for mercy echoed in the air shortly thereafter, then all was quiet. The card glew golden, and The Gambler called it back to him, to then deposit it with the other golden aces in his cloak.
All Adam could do was stare at The Gambler.
The Gambler stared back, solemn, a man who was at terms with what he had done.
Leo strode over to check on Adam. “Are you yourself?” he asked, and Adam wasn’t sure whether the question was rhetorical.
“I am myself,” replied Adam, who did not take his eyes off The Gambler. “How long have you known about this, Leo?”
“A couple centuries. I was as shocked as you were when I first learned of what he had done, though I too have come to terms with it. It was what was ultimately necessary.”
“Necessary?” Adam asked, standing up slowly. “It is necessary to kill them, perhaps, and imprison their souls, perhaps . . . But to enslave their essences for your own use?” He stared The Gambler down, who did not move. “What possible reason could you have?”
The Gambler said nothing at first. He looked to the water, which was calm but moving, resonating from where the falls pounded on the pond. At last, he said, “At first, it was necessary. Then, it was an opportunity.”
“An opportunity.” Adam nearly snorted. Being now a Godsblood, he felt much more The Gambler’s equal, and as such was much more candid. “They might have been evil in their life, although centuries of imprisonment within those cards of yours . . . Gambler, I cannot go on colluding with this.”
The Gambler narrowed his eyes. “And what do you mean by that?”
“Our goals may be the same. But I refuse to ally myself with you. You have enslaved these souls, and though I surely am not able to give you the sentence you deserve, I will not walk with you any longer.”
Leo stood quiet. The Gambler frowned. There was silence for several moments, before The Gambler murmured, “Very well.”
Adam looked up to the sky. The sun was further above the horizon. He then looked at his hands, then to Leo. “I need you to understand why, Leo.”
“I know why,” Leo replied, looking then to The Gambler. “He must manifest his own destiny. You know this. I know this. He knows this.”
The Gambler nodded slowly. “Very well,” he repeatedly after some moments, before turning away. “Know that I will be watching, Adam, and should you err . . .”
“I won’t. I will not repeat the mistakes of the gods you’ve slain, nor Annalise’s, nor yours.”
The Gambler said no more. He ushered Leo on with him, and Leo took one last look at Adam before nodding solemnly. Then, he went with The Gambler, and both walked away.
Adam took a deep breath, looking upwards once more, then at his surroundings. He was no longer a mere man, but now a Godsblood, and though his power was great, his brethren still needed help. He would not simply stand by.
The time travelers he would deal with, if The Gambler did not beat him to it. He was confident that he could handle them. He did not know the method, but he had faith it would come to him at the right time.
Adam then spent the next half-hour filling in the hole of the trap-door with his bare hands. The Godsblood herb, Adam thought, should remain hidden; Adam remarked mentally on the quality of this hiding place. So long as no one decided to dig (and he felt there was no reason to), it was better for the Godsblood herb to not be moved and risk falling into the wrong hands. Adam wasn’t sure if the herb was even capable of being moved.
Once he was finished, he took off running in the other direction from The Gambler and Leo. The wind whipped past him. As a Godsblood, he could run much faster than a mere mortal human, and this excited him. For the first time in his life, he felt, he was truly free. Free of enslavement. Free of the lust for power. Free from a centuries-old conflict. He promised himself, while sprinting at full velocity, that he would not squander this gift he struggled for. This gift that he now had, he would harness, improve, and then deliver justice where needed.
This was Adam’s pact. He knew that from afar, The Gambler would observe. He did not care. At this moment in time, the gust as he ran felt good. Refreshing. Free.