(Trigger warning: This story contains mentions of violence and suicide)
The Game began on a Saturday in the spring of 1932. The blue sky arched like the tents of the fair that had arrived the night before, unnoticed by the inhabitants of the small harbour town. It was the fishermen who first noticed the lights behind the hilltops and already an hour later the message was on everyone's lips.
Now you have to know that pleasure rarely reached the southernmost tip of Cornwall. People lived on what they fished out of the rough waters in their cutters early in the morning or grew in their tiny gardens and harvested later. Most of them had two sets of clothes, one for the day's work in the numerous factories or tin and copper mines and one for attending church on Sundays. And if you could spare a few cents, you donated them at the collection, for there was always some poor wretch who needed the money even more urgently than yourself. Yes, all in all it was a meagre, often arduous life.
So, you can imagine that the arrival of a fair suddenly lifted the morose mood and sent young and old into a frenzy. The villagers all agreed that they did not want to be stingy on this day.
The little money that had been put aside for hard times was taken out of piggy banks and mattresses, the children were dressed up and coats and top hats were taken from the wardrobe. Then they made their way together to the hills where the fair had set up its tents.
Francis Hawken, a young man of twenty-two who had just completed his apprenticeship with the local master carpenter, cut a particularly handsome figure in his new pinstripe suit. His dark hair was neatly parted and bright blue eyes that usually held a mischievous spark stood out from under bushy eyebrows.
The suit had been an expensive purchase, a custom tailoring made of blue wool for which he had paid the tailor a whole month's salary. But when he had looked into the mirror that morning, he could not have been more pleased.
Francis was of marriageable age. He received a modest but secure salary and was thinking of leaving his father´s house and moving into a small hut near the coast.
Since the girl he had long fancied had been promised to someone else, he had hesitated for a while to go ahead with his plans. But with the arrival of the fair, his determination had also returned and he found it was time to move forward. Life had to go on, after all.
And so it was that Francis, like the other villagers, stood outside the wrought-iron gates of the fair on that balmy spring morning, craning his neck to catch a glimpse of the colourful tents and rides beyond. A small tin sign had been attached to the black iron bars, announcing in accurate letters that the fair would not open its doors until the noon hour.
Disappointed sighs rang out in the tense silence and soon people were spreading coats and scarves on the lawn and settling down on them while the children sang a rhyme and passed the time with boisterous games.
Francis found a shady spot under a weeping willow, folded his arms behind his head and let himself sink into the soft grass as the sun very gradually climbed towards its zenith.
When the church clock finally struck noon, he sat up and watched as the gates were opened amid loud "Ah" and "Oh" and people streamed into the interior of the fair in little groups.
As if in a trance, he stood up and followed the villagers. The sound of his footsteps was muffled by a thick layer of forest litter and everywhere there was the smell of candy floss, small cakes and sweets.
For a while he let himself drift with the crowd, wishing he had four more pairs of eyes. It was impossible to take in everything at once. There were flashing rides, stalls threatening to collapse under the weight of sweets and delicacies, small tents, hurdy-gurdies, singers and jugglers, shining horses, acrobats and fire-eaters. At one tiny stall he bought an apple pie, still warm from the oven, and kept an eye out for a familiar face. In the morning, he had thought he had spotted Deirdre Mellyn among the waiting crowd, a pretty girl with blonde curls and dimples whom he would have been only too happy to buy a ride on the fairy lights carousel. But when he finally spotted her on the arm of George Rosemergy, he took a different tack. He was drawn to a remote part of the fair.
It was less busy here and only occasionally did villagers stray among the workers' horse-drawn carts and battered caravans.
It was a small, inconspicuous tent that caught his attention. The tarpaulin was folded back at one side, revealing the dark interior. Curious, Francis stepped closer until he could make out what was hidden behind it. Only then did he notice the sign above the entrance: ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.
"Enter at your own risk," he muttered and traced the letters with a pensive expression. Apart from the sign, there was nothing to indicate that the tent was one of the circus attractions. It was plainer than the other stalls. No lights were flashing here, no music was playing and in general the place seemed deserted. Forgotten, like a worn-out pair of shoes left by the wayside. Nevertheless, or precisely for this reason, Francis could not avert his gaze. Just as he was about to duck to step under the canvas, a voice came from the depths of the shadows.
"Ahhh, a visitor. Come, enter. I promise I won't bite."
Francis stopped rooted to the spot as a man stepped into the narrow cone of light that fell inside the tent from outside. His pale skin seemed to glow in the darkness, almost silvery, as if he had bathed in moonlight, and his movements were as smooth as the silk scarf Francis had given Merrin Davies for her last birthday.
The man indicated a slight bow.
"Asmodeus del Vi," he said. "It´s a pleasure to meet you... Come, please. Make yourself comfortable. I'll prepare some tea for you."
Francis hesitated. Strictly speaking, he was looking for a girl he could impress with the dapper suit and his saved-up wages. But if he was honest, he was in the mood for something else entirely.
Asmodeus turned to him. A slight smile played around the corners of his mouth.
"No tea? How about a whisky? Or perhaps a brandy? I have a good vintage in stock."
"Thank you. I'll have the tea, please."
While Asmodeus filled a kettle with water and placed it on a small cooker, Francis looked around curiously. The only source of light was a half-burned candle whose glow illuminated dozens of bundles of dried plants, herbs and spices hanging from the ceiling. They gave off a pleasant smell, tart like the herbal tea his mother had brewed on cold winter evenings. The memory stung him.
Books were piled up on a circular table and on roughly nailed-together shelves whose boards seemed to groan under the weight. A mirror caught his attention. It was about man-high with a gilded frame that gleamed in the candlelight. A magnificent piece, but unfortunately useless. For the glass was blind as an old woman's eye.
"I see you have discovered my mirror," said Asmodeus. "It was a gift from my sister, Dina. They say it shows you the truth, past, present and future..." He eyed Francis with pitch-black eyes.
"Tell me, are you an honest man?"
Francis pondered. Was he an honest man? Could he in good conscience claim to always prefer the truth to a convenient lie?
"A liar would probably answer yes," he finally said. Asmodeus laughed out.
"Very good, very good. You know how to play the game."
"Ahhh, that's the question, isn't it?" Asmodeus walked over to the cooker and took the whistling kettle off the plate. Then he filled two cups with dark herbs, poured the boiling water over them and handed one cup to Francis. The second he placed on a small tray before sinking into an armchair.
"I offer my clients a deal," he explained, lifting a small velvet pouch that clinked softly. "A very lucrative business, in fact."
"What is in the pouch?" asked Francis. Asmodeus smiled, opened the little ribbon, slipped his hand inside and pulled three thick, golden coins out of it. Francis's eyes widened.
"Are these real?"
Asmodeus handed him a gold coin.
"As real as you and I, sir, make sure of it yourself."
With a look of disbelief, Francis bit down on the golden metal. Soft and definitely real.
"The gold is yours. On one condition." Francis listened up. What could he offer a man like Asmodeus in return?
"We'll play a game. If you win, you can keep the gold, plus everything you see in this tent. However, should you lose..." Asmodeus paused, and now a cunning expression entered his eyes that sent a shiver down Francis's spine, "your soul becomes my property."
"My soul," Francis repeated dazedly. "How could I gamble away my soul?"
Asmodeus waved it off.
"That is a mere formality that should not worry you. If you abide by the rules of the game, you will be in no danger."
"Explain this game to me. Then I will decide whether or not to get involved."
Asmodeus smiled and rose from his chair.
"Come, I will demonstrate the rules with an example. It's quite easy, you'll see."
Francis swallowed his discomfort and followed Asmodeus to the mirror that reflected the flickering candlelight. As he stepped closer, he noticed that the words Memento Mori had been carved into the frame. Memento Mori. Latin, he thought, annoyed that he had only attended primary school.
"Stand in front of the mirror. A little to the left... Yes, that's it. That's it."
The stained glass showed him his reflection.
"The mirror is able to see the truth. The whole truth. I am now going to ask you a question and your task will be to tell me what the mirror shows you. Do you understand?"
Francis nodded, even though he would have preferred to return to the other villagers at this point.
"All right... Tell me, what do you desire most in the world?"
Francis looked into the mirror. At first, he saw only himself, a tall young man, well dressed and cleanshaven as befitted his age. But then the milky glass before his eyes turned into a razor-sharp image. Only it showed not himself or Asmodeus, nor the inside of the tent, but a young woman.
"Merrin," he whispered, stepping up to the mirror. Carefully, he reached out for her, but as he touched the glass, the image dissipated and the mirror clouded until he was once again face to face with his own blurred image.
"Excellent!" exclaimed Asmodeus, clapping his hands.
"What... what was that?" he asked.
"The truth, sir, the truth. I asked you about your deepest longing and the mirror showed you the answer. All you have to do in order to win the game is to answer my questions honestly."
"And then you'll let me have the gold? What's the catch?"
Asmodeus's smile widened. He put a hand on Francis's shoulder and drawled, "Four questions. Four honest answers. No catch. I promise."
"It's a tempting offer," Francis said. Very tempting. Too tempting. He would be a fool to let this opportunity pass. After all, there was no secret worth giving away thirty gold coins.
"Fine," he finally said, holding out his broad hand to Asmodeus, "we have a deal."
Asmodeus chimed in. It took all of Francis's control not to pull his hand away instantly. Asmodeus's skin was cold as ice and smooth as the stones he had fished out of the sea as a child. A sly smile crept into the corners of his mouth and Francis was overcome with the oppressive feeling that he had fallen into a trap.
"Well." Asmodeus pointed to the mirror in an inviting gesture. "Shall we begin?"
"Yes," Francis said, "I am ready."
Asmodeus chuckled softly. "Oh, but you are never ready, my dear."
"Tell me, what are you most afraid of?"
Time seemed to slow down. For the first few moments he saw only himself, pale and nervous, while his heart pounded in his ears. He knew what the mirror would show him and yet he felt himself break into a cold sweat as the glass cleared and he caught sight of himself, his right hand closed around a leather strap. His arms were bloodied, his face bright red and his eyes shadowed by thick rings. At his feet crouched a young woman bending protectively over a child as he brought the belt down on her again and again.
"Tell me what you see," Asmodeus whispered.
"I'm older," Francis breathed. "Drunk. And I beat my wife and child. They are afraid of me."
"Like father, like son, isn't it?" Asmodeus's voice was soft as a breeze. Francis had almost forgotten that he was still standing beside him.
"Yes," he said. Like father, like son. And for a brief, fleeting moment, he thought he could feel the bruises and welts that his father's anger had left on his body so many years prior. But then he pulled himself together, clasped his trembling hands behind his back and tore his gaze away from the mirror's surface.
"Can we go on?" The sharpness of his tone seemed to bring Asmodeus back to reality too, for a sly expression flashed in his eyes.
"Fine, fine," he drawled. "Then look into the mirror and tell me about your darkest memory."
It was as if he was looking through a window into his past. The lifeless form of his mother swayed gently in the wind. Her face was pale as porcelain, her lips chapped and cracked, and a dark bruise shimmered through the almost transparent skin under her left eye. Francis opened his mouth. He tried to speak but the words would not come until he thought he would choke on them.
"It was I who found her," he finally brought out. "On a crossbeam, down by the docks. Hanged. I think she just couldn't take it anymore. The beatings and threats, the constant fear she lived in." He fell silent, swallowing against a wave of nausea. He had shoved away the memories of his mother's suicide years ago. That door had been locked, like a secret that wanted to be kept. A secret he had just sold for a bag of gold.
Disgusted, Francis turned away from the mirror, but as he was about to take a step aside, Asmodeus grabbed him by the arm and said in a dangerously soft voice, "Remember the Game's stakes, Francis!" Francis froze. "I never told you my name."
Asmodeus smiled. There was nothing human in his gaze any more.
"Look. Into. The. Mirror." Francis obeyed. "Now tell me who you see."
A strangled yelp escaped his throat as Asmodeus's eyes turned blood red. If he had been handsome before, charming even, he looked like a monster now. Like... "The incarnate," he gasped. "You are the devil."
"Asmodeus," he whispered. "I am Asmodeus."
It was then that the scales fell from Francis's eyes. Father Williams had spoken of Asmodeus in one of his sermons last year.
"And fear also Asmodeus, the demon of covetousness, wrath and lust. For he leads you down the paths of sin." The Father's warning rang in his ears as he looked around at Asmodeus. He was almost surprised that it was not the devil's face that now stared back at him.
"That leaves one last question, doesn't it?"
One last question and he could go his way. "You made a pact with the devil," whispered a small voice in his head. "Do you really think he would let you off the hook so easily?"
Francis was shaking all over. He didn't care about the gold anymore. What happened to it no longer concerned him, for he would reject the prize. What he did care about, however, was the promise he had made to Asmodeus.
"Now. Answer me this one, final question and you are a free man," Asmodeus purred. "What do you see in your future?"
And one last time Francis looked into the mirror. Dread crept under his skin as he saw what was reflected on the glass surface. He shook his head.
"No," he whispered. It was not possible, it could not be.
"The mirror always shows the truth." Asmodeus smiled. "What do you see?"
"I... I see…"
One day later, Francis Hawken's broken body was found down in the bay. The tide had washed him up on the beach like flotsam, but when the sun rose, an attentive observer would have caught a glimpse of gold between his pale fingers.