Birdcage

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 3 (v.1) - Chapter III - Tested, or: the part where a dream comes under fire

Submitted: May 14, 2019

Reads: 32

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Submitted: May 14, 2019

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The exam to become a knight was split into two distinct parts: a written exam and a combat exercise. Before the Purge, only one in twenty recruits managed to actually get accepted. After the Purge, the acceptance standards were lowered. Under the new system, one in three recruits succeeded. The recruitment test was held once a month, with seventeen serving as the minimum age for a recruit. As if by fate, a test was held the morning of my seventeenth birthday.

 

Early in the morning, my grandfather led me the grand palace standing in the center of the Capitol, home of Knights of Cieleta and the King who they served. The palace was an ornate old building, surrounded by a large wall. A tall spire rose out of the palace, towering over the entire kingdom. We arrived at the palace gate. A pair of knights pointed their spears at us.

 

“Who goes there?” one of them shouted.

 

Grandfather rolled his eyes. “James Zuckerman and guest,” he said.

 

The guards raised the visors on their helmets before bowing. “Sorry, sir!” one of them said, “We didn’t recognize you.”

 

“It’s the beard,” his partner said.

 

“Yeah! The beard. Not the old age, the beard.”

 

Grandfather rolled his eyes. “Just open the gate,” he muttered.

 

The guards opened the gate and let us into the large training field that sat in front of the palace. Dozens of knights were scattered around the field, sparring with each other and with training dummies. Grandfather led me to the center of the training field. “Ernest, I’d like to introduce you to the Knights of Cieleta,” he said. “What do you think?”

 

“It’s amazing,” I said.

 

Grandfather smiled. He looked around the training field, his eyes eventually landing on a tall man wearing silver armor. “Wait here for a moment,” he said before walking off.

 

I stood in the middle of the training field for a few minutes, gazing at the various knights. Suddenly, an arrow whizzed by my head. I leaped my back and turned my head to see where the arrow struck. The arrow sat in the center of a large target sitting twenty yards away. I turned the other direction and spotted a man holding a bow.

 

He wore a green leather vest and carried a sword and quiver over his shoulder. He had long black hair pulled into a ponytail. The two of us stared at each other for a moment. His eyes contained the same empty gaze I’d seen a thousand times before in the mirror, the gaze of someone whose heart is filled with loss. From a single glance, I knew that the archer was no ordinary knight.

 

He walked to the target to retrieve his arrow, ignoring me as he walked past. He pulled the arrow from the target and placed it back in his quiver. “Nice shot,” I yelled.

 

He turned and looked at me. “Have we met?” he asked.

 

“I’m the guy who you almost shot in the head, asshole,” I said while approaching him.

 

He rolled his eyes. “I don’t miss,” he said.

 

I gritted my teeth and clenched my fist. “Is that right?” I said as I closed the gap.

 

“If I wanted you dead, you’d be lying on the floor right now,” he said.

 

My punch was quick, catching him off guard and almost knocking him off his feet. He clutched the side of his face, covering a small cut with his fingers. “You have a decent right hook,” he said, dropping his bow and raising his fists.

 

The ground below me suddenly turned into mud before immediately hardening into solid stone. I tried to move my feet, to no avail. The archer punched me in the stomach, sending me flat on my ass. “I sincerely hope that you have more going for you than a decent right hook,” the archer said.

 

I sat up. “You’re an asshole,” I said.

 

“You aren’t wrong,” he replied.

 

A hand landed on my shoulder. I turned my head to see my Grandfather kneeling behind me, the silver armored man at his side. “I see you’ve met MacDonald,” the armored man said. “I’d like to apologize on his behalf. He’s a good man, but he can be a little...temperamental.”

 

“As you so eloquently put it, I’m an asshole,” the archer, MacDonald, said with a smirk on his face.

 

MacDonald picked up his bow and walked away. Grandfather helped me to my feet. “Ernest, I’d like you to meet my good friend Calvin,” he said.

 

The man in the silver armor, Calvin, extending his hand for me. “I’m Captain Cross, leader of the fifth squadron of the Knight’s of Cieleta,” he said.

 

I shook his hand. “Squad V, that’s the Squad my grandfather was in, right?” I said.

 

Grandfather nodded. “Back in the day, Calvin was my right-hand man. Now he’s in charge of my old squad,” he said. “And, if the rumors are true, he’s been doing a damn good job.”

 

Captain Cross looked at his feet. “I don’t know about that,” he mumbled.

 

Grandfather laughed. “Always so humble,” he said. “Who’s running the exam today, by the way?”

 

“I’ve been assigned to handle the written exam.”

 

“And the physical?”

 

Captain Cross sighed. “Firebrand decided to handle the physical examination,” he said before turning to look me in the eye. “Ernest, I wish you all the luck in the world on this examination. Gods know you’ll need it. In the event that you are recruited, I would be honored to have you on my squad.”

 

The written exam was simple enough. Difficult, yes, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Seven of the ten applicants managed to pass in some form. The second exam was a nightmare. This exam was run by Captain Cross’s superior, a gruff man by the name of Richard Johnson. Johnson managed to earn his position and the nickname Firebrand through his exceptional combat abilities. A few years before I became a knight, he was chosen to serve as one of the King’s two top advisors. Of course, this led to him seeing combat far less often. That probably had something to do with his tendency to be a little “aggressive” with new recruits.

 

Captain Cross led the remaining applicants out to the training field. Firebrand Johnson stood in the middle of a small circle he himself had marked out, twenty feet in diameter. He was shirtless, displaying for all his chiseled muscles, covered in scars from years of fighting.

 

“Alright, here’s how this is going to work,” he shouted. “The seven of you managed to pass Cross’s little exam. I’m not really surprised, he likes to go easy on the greenhorns. If you thought that this exam would be the same, I’ve got some bad news for you. I don’t hold back.

 

“Your mission is simple. Knock me out, either out of consciousness or out of this circle. Once you enter the circle, you can’t leave again without being eliminated,” he said. “Use any method you can think of. If I leave the circle, all of you pass. Otherwise, no one does. You can work together, but there will be a special reward for the individual who actually manages to knock me out. Now then, who’s first?”

 

One of the other applicants, a large man with a crew cut wearing a red tank top, walked into the circle. “It seems we have a volunteer,” Firebrand said with a smirk.

 

The man with the crew cut charged at Firebrand and threw a punch at his head. Firebrand ducked to dodge the punch and struck the man with an uppercut, knocking him out. He slung the unconscious man’s body over his shoulder and carried him to the edge of the circle. Another one of the applicants, a short woman with a scar on her cheek, snuck into the ring and followed Firebrand, using the blindspot created by the crew cut man to avoid detection. As Firebrand reached the very edge of the circle, the short woman lunged at him. Firebrand swung crew cut at her, knocking both applicants out of the circle.

 

“Two down,” Firebrand said with a smirk. “Who’s next?”

 

Two applicants, a boy with blonde hair and a girl with red hair, nodded at one another before stepping into the circle. Firebrand walked back to the center of the ring before nodding his head at the applicants, inviting them to attack him. Both applicants charged at Firebrand, the one with the red hair taking him head on and the one with blonde hair darting to the right to flank.

 

Firebrand grabbed the arm of the red-headed applicant, stopping a punch before it even came close to his face. The blonde applicant slipped out of Firebrand’s view for a moment and aimed a kick at Firebrand’s leg. Firebrand dodged this by flipping over the red-haired applicant. As he flew through the air, he pulled the red-haired girl with him, slamming her to the ground as he landed. The moment, his feet touched the ground, Firebrand turned into a punch, striking the blond boy directly in the nose.

 

Both applicants crawled back to their feet. Firebrand smiled as the two of them swung firsts at him. Both fists passed through Firebrand’s skull like a blade moving through the air, moving through without harming Firebrand. The confused applicants punched each other in the face.

 

Firebrand slammed the duo’s heads together, knocking them out, and drug them out of the ring. I rewound the event in my mind, trying to figure out how Firebrand dodged punches. “You cheated!” one of the applicants, a young woman with a mohawk, accused.

 

“Tell me, what did I do that was against the rules I laid out when I began this exercise?” Firebrand replied.

 

“You used magic to dodge that attack!”

 

“I told you guys you could use any method you could think of. It’s only fair that I do the same.”

 

The woman with the mohawk scowled and Firebrand rolled his eyes. “Fine, I’ll give you guys a little hint,” Firebrand said. “I can phase through attacks for up to five seconds. For every second I’m intangible, it takes me two seconds before I can use my ability again. Use this information as you see fit.”

 

I looked around at the other recruits. Four were injured and lying on the ground, already eliminated. Aside from me, there was the woman with the mohawk and a man wearing a black cloak. The woman with the Mohawk, still pissed about Firebrand bending the rules and using magic, decided to go next. Only, instead of entering the circle, she walked away. “You scared?” Firebrand asked.

 

“You said that as soon we enter the circle, we can’t leave again without being eliminated, right?” Mohawk asked. Firebrand nodded his head and Mohawk smiled. “So, if I don’t enter the circle, I can’t be eliminated, right?”

 

Firebrand laughed. “I suppose so,” he said. “Of course, I don’t really see how you plan to knock me out without stepping foot in the ring.”

 

The woman with the mohawk walked over to the bows and picked one up. “Any method I can think of, right?” she said while drawing the bowstring.

 

Captain Cross walked in between Mohawk and Firebrand. “That is quite enough,” he said. “While I commend your creativity, shooting a commanding officer is absolutely ridiculous.”

 

“Let her be, Cross,” Firebrand said. “I’ve dealt with worse.”

 

Cross sighed and walked away from the ring. “Leave now or I’ll shoot,” the woman with the Mohawk said.

 

“I’ve heard bluffs before,” Firebrand said right before an arrow flew by his ear.

 

“Like I said, leave now or I’ll shoot,” Mohawk repeated while drawing another arrow.

 

Firebrand crossed his arms over his chest. “Take the shot,” he said, “If you dare.”

 

Mohawk released the arrow and it flew through the air. As it approached him, Firebrand raised h

Is right arm. From his palm erupted a large blast of flame that engulfed the arrow, vaporizing it. “Word of warning, kid,” Firebrand said with a smug smile on his face. “You aren’t the only one with ranged attacks.”

 

Firebrand threw another fireball at Mohawk, who dodged it by diving behind the weapon stands. An arrow flew through the burning arrow stands, narrowly missing Firebrand’s head. “Clever trick,” he said, “Using the burning weapon stands to hide your position so you can get in a good shot.”

 

I looked at Captain Cross. His hand was on his forehead. I got the feeling that this wasn’t the first time Firebrand did something like this. “This is insane, right?” I said to the man next to me, the man with the black cloak.

 

He didn’t respond. Instead, he pulled a small dagger from his cloak. He looked me in the eye and placed his finger on his lips.

 

Another arrow flew through the flames, prompting Firebrand to create another wave of fire. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mohawk run from the burning weapon stands, using the blindspot created by the flames to escape. As she ran, she drew the bow once more and fired an arrow at Firebrand.

 

The arrow caught Firebrand off guard. He didn’t have time to create another wall of fire. A moment before the arrow reached him, he activated his intangibility. The arrow passed right through him. That’s when the man in the black cloak struck.

 

He rushed into the arena, holding the dagger in front of him. By the time Firebrand noticed the man in the black cloak, it was too late. His five seconds were up. The man in the black cloak plunged the dagger into Firebrand’s back. “Any method I can think of, right?” the man in the black cloak said with a twisted grin on his face.

 

“I’m pretty clever, aren’t I? Using the other applicants to figure out your weakness and distract you,” Black Cloak continued. “Clever thinking like this isn’t just going to get me hired, it’s probably going to get me your job someday.”

 

“Maybe, if you’re lucky,” Firebrand quipped, his voice shallow.

 

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you,” Black Cloak said. “That’d probably make things awkward when I join the Knights. All I’m going to do is wait until you pass out, then take my reward.”

 

“How nice of you.”

 

“Say, what’s the prize for being the one to take you out, anyway?”

 

“This!” Firebrand said before elbowing Black Cloak in the face.

 

Black Cloak stumbled back and Firebrand lunged at him. Right as he reached Black Cloak, Firebrand acted his intangibility. He passed through Black Cloak. “The hell?” Black Cloak said before getting hit in the shoulder by one of Mohawk’s arrows.

 

Firebrand shot a pair of fire streams from his palms, propelling him into the air and knocking Black Cloak to the edge of the ring. While in the air, he threw a fireball at the ground near Mohawk, throwing her at the wall on the edge of the training field and knocking her out. As he landed at the edge of the ring he spun into a kick, striking Black Cloak in the face and knocking him out of the ring.

 

Firebrand fell to his knees. “Seven down,” he mumbled through heavy breaths.

 

Captain Cross walked over and knelt down beside Firebrand. “This has gotten out of hand, don’t you think?” Cross said. “Let’s postpone the exam for a few hours so you can get that wound looked at.”

 

“No. There’s only one left and he should only take a few minutes to take out,” Firebrand replied with a half-hearted smile on his face. “Besides, this isn’t the first time I’ve been stabbed.”

 

Firebrand crawled back to his feet and stumbled back to the center of the ring. He grabbed the dagger by the handle and ripped it out, throwing at my feet. “What’s your name, kid?” he asked while using fire to cauterize the wound.

 

“Ernest,” I replied.

 

“Why haven’t you stepped in the ring yet?”

 

I took a deep breath. “I was waiting for you to take out the others so I could figure out how you fight,” I muttered.

 

“You saw how that worked for the last guy who tried that, right?” Firebrand asked.

 

“Yeah, I did,” I said. “There’s something I should get off my chest. I saw the man with the dagger draw his blade before he stabbed you. I could have easily stopped him.”

 

“Why didn’t you?”

 

“Because you’d already taken out four applicants without breaking a sweat, and I was afraid no one would be able to defeat you.”

 

“Guess that didn’t work out for you.”

 

“Not necessarily. That wound isn’t hurting you too much now, but it will need to be treated before long. If I wanted to, I could easily just stand here and wait for you to forfeit.”

 

I stepped into the ring and drew my sword. “I don’t want to win that way,” I said while throwing my sword outside of the ring. “I don’t want to become a hero through underhanded tricks.”

 

Firebrand laughed. “You’ve got guts kid, I’ll give you that,” he said. “Your armor looks fancy, what is it, enchanted steel?”

 

“Mithril.”

 

Firebrand whistled. “That stuff’s a bit nicer than the stuff most recruits where. Of course, you’ll need to keep better care of it if you want people to respect you.”

 

“What do you mean?” I asked.

 

“Your cape’s a bit dirty.”

 

I glanced at the armor’s blue cape and noticed that it was covered in mud, a remnant of my brief scuffle with MacDonald. Firebrand used my momentary distraction to his advantage, propelling himself through the air using his flames and pulling his arm back for a punch.

 

I braced for impact. Only, I didn’t feel a punch. Instead, I felt a deep sense of uneasiness as Firebrand passed through my body using his intangibility. The second he passed through me, Firebrand used his flames to reverse his momentum, spinning into a kick and striking me in the back of the face.

 

“Bit of a cheap blow,” I said as soon as I recovered from the kick.

 

“You got to go last, kid,” he said. “I’m not holding back.”

 

To emphasize his point, he spun in a circle while blasting out streams of fire. I had to drop to my feet to avoid being roasted. When he was done, the edges of the small ring were engulfed in fire. I gulped and prepared for his next blow.

 

A geyser of crimson flames erupted from Firebrand’s palms, consuming everything in their path, myself included. All I could see was fire. But, much to my surprise, I was okay. I remembered that my armor protected me from magical attacks right before Firebrand punched me in the face.

 

“The fire won’t hurt you,” he said. “If it did, you’d be dead. What it does do is give me good blindspot to beat the shit out of you from.”

 

I swung back at Firebrand and my fist simply passed through without doing any damage. Firebrand deactivated his intangibility and slugged me in the jaw. He followed this up with a knee to the stomach that knocked me on my ass.

 

I rolled out of the way to avoid an elbow drop. As I rolled, I noticed that the mud on my cape had dried, turned into a brittle flaky substance by Firebrand’s geyser. I punched my cloak, creating a dust cloud that consumed Firebrand.

 

I knew that, if he was smart, Firebrand would keep his intangibility up until he could see me again. If I could force him to keep his intangibility up for five seconds, I would be able to land a hit in the following ten seconds.

 

As the dust cloud began to clear, I reached down and unclamped my boot. The moment Firebrand could see me, I flung my boot at him. He was forced to keep his intangibility up until the boot passed through his body.

 

I charged at Firebrand as the boot flew through the air. He placed his arms in front of his face to protect it. I kicked him in the stomach with my remaining boot, scoring my first blow of the duel.

 

“Nice trick, kid,” Firebrand said with a smile. “But, the thing is, you aren’t the only one with tricks.”

 

He used a blast of fire to send the two of us flying to opposite sides of the ring. Firebrand flew at me using his flames. I knew what was coming, he was going to pass through me and kick me in the head like he did at the start of the match. This time though, I was prepared.

 

As he passed through me, I turned around to prepare for the kick. Firebrand switched up his plan on the fly. Instead of deactivating his intangibility a moment before the kick connected, he kept the intangibility up, passing through me a second time. Then, and only then, he deactivated his intangibility and kicked me in the face.

 

I gritted my teeth and grabbed his leg, swinging him at the fire surrounding the ring in an attempt to throw him out. Firebrand twisted midair, freeing himself from my grasp, and threw one last ball of fire at me.

 

The fireball knocked me off my feet. As I sat back up, I saw Firebrand looking at me from the other side of the flames. He’d won. And I had lost.

 

Captain Cross roused the unconscious applicants and placed us all in a line. Firebrand stood before us, arms crossed. “None of you managed to knock me out of the ring,” he said. “I’m not surprised by this, just disappointed. I said that if no one defeated me, all of you would fail. Fortunately, I’m feeling a bit generous and have decided to judge each of you individually.”

 

Firebrand pointed at the large man with the crew cut. “You, you’re out,” he said.

 

Next, he pointed at the short woman with the scar on her cheek. “As are you.”

 

Finally, he pointed at the man in the black cloak. “You especially are out,” he said, inspiring a string of curse words from the cloaked man.

 

Firebrand walked up to the boy with blonde hair and the girl with red hair and placed his hands on their shoulders. “You two, believe it or not, have passed. You seem to be the only applicants here who managed to figure out the real objective of this exercise: teamwork. Really, the fact that I challenged you to defeat an experienced soldier in a fight and said you would all pass if any of you managed to take me out should have made it obvious.”

 

“The world ended a few years ago. This city is one of only a handful of human settlements still standing. If the capital falls, so does the world. Outside of the walls are countless abandoned villages and hordes of hungry monsters. If this city is going to survive, it needs its defenders to be the best. Not just smart and strong, but loyal and honorable. Those who can’t work together, those who care only for their own personal glory, those who use one another for their own gain, they are the type of people who will cause this city to fall. People who win at the expense of their allies have no place in this world.”

 

He said a lot more things to that effect that I barely heard. I felt like I was drowning. I cursed myself for being so foolish. Then, Firebrand pointed at the woman with the mohawk. “You’re smart, kid,” he said. “If you can learn to work in a team, you’ll probably make a good soldier some day.”

 

My heart stopped as I looked at Firebrand. He glanced in my direction. He sighed. “Stop glaring at me, kid,” he said. “You’re a decent fighter and have just enough honor for me to respect you. You pass.”

 

I think I literally jumped for joy when he said those words. From that day on, I dedicated myself to the people of Cieleta. I swore that, like my grandfather before me, I would become the hero of this dying world.


© Copyright 2019 Casey Jarmes. All rights reserved.

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