Words and whispers rippled throughout the SS Mary, Queen of Steam at the speed only rifle bullets and gossip possess. Before long, curious onlookers appeared in the upper galleries of the Mary‘s luxuriant gambling parlor.

The two master card sharks who had been on the boat since the beginning of its river cruise had finally sat down to play a high-stakes game.

On one side sat E. Jubal Jackson, whippet-thin and resplendent in a starched white plantation suit and bow tie, lips pursed between carefully-groomed mustache and goatee, eyes shining behind pince-nez spectacles. On the other glowered Lee B. Bragg, his clothing roughspun but clean and in immaculate repair and his hair gathered into a great swept-back mane over his tanned and unshaven face. Both had brought their own decks rather than chancing the house decks provided by the Mary, and there were already cards on the table.

Jackson squinted over his hand, carefully considering his next move, before delicately withdrawing a card and placing it on the table. “I tap three black mana cards to play Onyx Minotaur,” he said in a Carolina drawl. ” Your Quicksilver Cavalier takes three hit points of damage and is destroyed.”

Soft gasps rippled through the viewing gallery. Bragg snorted and rummaged through is own deck. “I counter with Resurrection of the Ancient Scholar,” he snarled in a voice flecked with bayou Cajun. “My Quicksilver Cavalier returns to play and is immune to damage for one turn.”

This development perplexed Jackson for a moment, but after adjusting his tie he withdrew a card and laid it down with the utmost care. This time, the gasps and crowd noise were clearly audible: the blue-bordered card and its Dali-esque skeletal denizens were distinctive and instantly recognizable.

“It’s a Time Walk card!”

“One of the Power Nine!”

“The second-rarest Magic: The Gathering card in existence!”

“It’s banned in Legacy and Commander tournaments!”

But card games on the SS Mary, Queen of Steam were no-holds-barred Vintage games, and the card was fully legal. “I play Time Walk,” Jackson said with a lip-curling smirk. “I take an extra turn.”

Two turns in a row, especially with Jackson’s powerful Black mana deck, was enough to reduce most of Bragg’s landscapes, creatures, and enchantments to rubble. Surely, the famously cutthroat riverboat Magic gambler had met his match this time.

But Bragg was coolly confident. He added chips to the pot, and played a card of his own.

The crowd wend wild. “Timetwister! He played a Timetwister!”

Indeed, Bragg had laid down a Timetwister, which required both men to return their cards to their deck to re-shuffle and re-deal. In an instant, his extraordinarily rare card–rivaling Time Warp in rarity and price, and banned from most tournament play in the same way–had leveled the playing field. His next move, though, raised the crowd’s energy level to that of a frenzy.

“Black Lotus,” said Bragg. “La fleur noire. I add three White mana to my mana pool.”

That play, with the rarest and most valuable Magic card in existence, led to absolute pandemonium. In a fell swoop, Bragg had eliminated Jackson’s advantage and given it to himself.

Most players, staring down a Black Lotus, would have despaired. Jackson, though, was stony. “May I see that card?” he asked.

“Of course,” grinned Bragg. “You’ll find it’s authentic.”

Reaching across the table, Jackson appeared to move toward the card…and then fiercely seized Bragg’s wrist. A card tumbled out–another rare Power Nine, an Ancestral Recall.

“Cheater.” The word was hissed with malice and implied threat.

In a lightning movement, Bragg reversed the hold and shook out Jackson’s sleeve. An ultra-rare Power Nine Moxen, the Mox Sapphire, flitted to the table. “Look who’s talking, mon ami,” growled Bragg.

In seconds, the table had been upended, rare and common Magic cards flurrying about, as both men drew derringers from concealed inner pockets.

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Soul of the Hopeless Slaughter
Hardean's Last Prophecy
Captain Lynx

Generated with this tool, and incorporating these public domain images from the Library of Congress.

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Officer Caruthers rubbed the back of his head. “Chief Strong has brought in an…outside advisor.”

Detective Gorrister sighed. “Strong and his outside advisors. This isn’t another radio psychic, is it?”

The apartment door nudged open, and a large man waddled in. He was dressed in Lincoln Green, and his greasy dark hair was thin in front and long and flowing in back, as if it were being grown out for a comb-over. “Hardly,” the man said. “Like any expert, I am here because of my overwhelming knowledge of and appreciation for the applicable lore.”

“Sherman Gregward,” Caruthers said. “He helped us out with that hostage situation a few months ago.”

“Please address me by my true name, Sherwood Greg, if you please,” intoned the man. “Collector, scholar, dungeon master, level 24 elven sorceress, head of the Council of Twelve, and overall coordinator for Nerdicon. Pre-registration for Nerdicon ’13 begins next week, and I’ve got plenty of plus ones if anyone’s interested.”

Gorrister gripped the bridge of her nose. “And what, exactly, do you bring to the table, Maid Marion?”

Sherwood Greg walked to a nearby end table and slapped down a thick deck of worn cards. “That’s what I bring to the table,” he said.

“A deck of Magick: Battle of Warlocks cards?” Corruthers snapped. “Tell me you’re joking.”

“You tell me, detective.” The corpulent collector cut the deck and revealed a card called The Multiphase Fleshwalker. It depicted a beautiful woman with one leg and one arm denuded of flesh, drawn in a quasi-realistic fantasy style, with the following text beneath it:

Strength 6/Defense 6
Costs three cornfields to activate
Restore one life to casting warlock
Protect casting warlock from life damage for one turn when rotated
Once rotated, may not be used unless caster rotates an additional six cornfields
“They restore one’s flesh at the cost of their own, and are always looking for a lifeforce to drain to restore the beauty they so desperately crave but never attain.”

“Holy shit,” said Caruthers. “It’s just like the murder.”

Sherwood Greg nodded toward the mutilated corpse behind the two officers. “Looks like someone is desperate to restore their life points,” he said.

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The Jack-of-Cards will, if you win a game of high-draw against it, grant a simple request. Many, to their peril, have asked for something as they would a genie, only to have themselves dealt a two of spades for their insolence. Wiser folks have used the boon to ask the Jack-of-Cards something about itself, and their reports form all that is know about the figure’s nature. Asked where it came from, the Jack-of-Cards will answer that it has always been.

Asked whether it is God, the Jack-of-Cards will laugh and allow that there are powers greater than it to which it owes no fealty. Asked why it uses a deck of cards, or what it used before cards were invented, the Jack-of-Cards will only say that it is the latest in a long line of ‘tricks.’

Those who do not wish to be bothered will have their wishes respected. But should someone, of their own free will, approach or accost the Jack-of-Cards, they will be dealt a card that has irrevocable effects on the fabric of the universe. The Jack-of-Cards will often play a simple card game with those that are willing, with a card as the penalty for losing and a request as the prize. But just as often it will fling a card at the interloper without so much as a sound.

Witnesses and researchers have attempted to catalog the effect that the various cards have, but have reached few conclusions. One report holds that the suicide king, the King of Hearts, bestows imbecility. Another holds that it besots the bearer with an impossible love, while a third has it giving immidiate and most painful heartbreak. Cardholders have vanished, had their personalities or forms subtly or grossly altered, and more.

The one thing all agree on is that the two of clubs, when dealt, brings instant and total annihilation.

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