Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Jack smiled across the card table, and the newly bankrupt old man glared back with open hatred. Jack busied himself stuffing his winnings into his cavernous coat as the coin was collected by the dealer, counted, and after the house tax paid, credited to one of Jack’s many account cards. He’d compensate the dealer later for the extraordinary luck he’d had tonight.

The rest of the nights losers had already wandered off, a teacher, a housewife – beholden now to Jack for a fortnight, and the young ranger who’d lost his recoilless pistol to a low pair. Jack hefted the weapon for moment before it too was stuffed into a pocket. A chronometer, food ration tokens, several knives and a nice pair of long glasses all disappeared into the coat. As he picked up the old mans last offering of the game, a velvet bag full of beans, Jack paused.

“Beans?” he thought out loud “What the hell am I going to do with beans?”  Jack hadn’t wanted the old mans beans, but he had wanted the win. There was something special about cleaning someone out of everything they had, no matter how worthless the items themselves.

“Magic beans.” the old man spat at him, “You’d best be careful with those, you don’t respect ’em and they’ll bite you in the ass”

“Sorry about your luck, and thanks for these.. magic beans.” He spoke over his shoulder, turning towards the door “If you can muster up something else to bet with, I’d be happy to take it off you some other time”. He could feel the mans eyes burning into his back as he strode out the swinging doors into the night, twirling the bag of beans deliberately by its drawstring as he left.

He walked quickly, down the alley past Madame Harlots House of Whorers, over the canal bridge and down the path along the waters edge, still twirling the bag.  It was here that the straining drawstring broke, sending the bag and it’s beans skittering across the path into the shallow of the water.

Jack could have cared less about the beans, and had almost walked past them when the ground began to shake. The shallow water erupted with explosive force, and a thick vine began to claw its way skyward at an impossible rate, sending Jack staggering backward as he stumbled and fell. The vine thickened as it grew, strong roots visibly churning their way outward beneath the ground, some erupting in the canal proper, some unsetting the underbrush lining the edge of the forest that traced the shoreline.  Jack lay on his back, watching the vine rocket into the dense fog of the night sky, and for a moment, childhood stories filled his head.  The old peddler and his beans, a ladder to a dimensional rift in the clouds and a castle filled with riches beyond imagination. Jack’s eyes lit up at the thought, and he scrambled excitedly to his feet, rushed to the base of the towering vine and began climbing, feet and hands finding purchase on the shoots protruding from the vines’ spiny flesh.

He pulled himself skyward tirelessly, in and out of the fog, great boots tearing broad gashes in the plant flesh beneath them as he went. After some time, the fog cleared, and he could feel that the vine itself had stopped rising. Jack had stopped where the plant had taken a sharp perpendicular turn, snaking out sideways into the darkness.

‘This is it’ Jack ventured into the night ‘this must be it…’

Something stirred just on the edge of his sight, an area of blackness, growing, blotting out the stars peppering the darkness beyond.  Could this be the portal?  Jack strained to see as the patch of void moved towards him. The dark shape took form as the distance closed, revealing itself as the end of the vine itself, truncated in a misshapen clutch of petals. It paused, just a few meters away, and the petals peeled back, revealing row upon row of barbed and ribbed spines, bristling inward and foaming angrily.  Jack recoiled in horror, his feet slipping on the torn wet welts his boots had left behind in the haste of his climb. The words of the old man rang again with finality in his ears ‘Best be careful, treat em badly…’

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