Birdcage

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

Chapter 4 (v.1) - Chapter IV - Downswing, or: the wager that should not have been taken

Submitted: May 22, 2019

Reads: 31

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Submitted: May 22, 2019

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Cross and Firebrand led us into the castle throne room, a large open hall filled with golden pillars and crystal chandeliers. Hanging from the walls were paintings of long-dead royals. A scarlet carpet led to a staircase at the end of the room. Atop the stairs sat a golden throne, and atop the throne sat his majesty, King Tasciovanus von Cieleta. We bowed as soon as we saw him.

 

The King was an old man, a descendant of a vampire slayer who saved the Kingdom of Cieleta. He wore a white tunic and a maroon cape. A golden crown sat atop his head and a rapier hung at his side. And yet, he didn’t look intimidating. He was thin, his clothes hanging loose around his frail body. His hair had long since begun to fall out and wrinkles from years of worry covered his face. And his eyes, his eyes were empty.

 

“It is my honor to welcome you to this prestigious organization,” he wheezed. “For years, the Knights of Cieleta have protected my family and my people.”

 

He lifted himself from the throne and hobbled over to us, drawing his rapier and placing it on the woman with a mohawk’s shoulder. He asked for her name, asked her why she joined the Knights, and assigned her to Squad IV. He repeated this process with the other two recruits, placing both of them in Squad III. Then he came to me.

 

“What is your name?” he asked while placing his rapier on my shoulder.

 

“Ernest, your majesty,” I said. “Ernest James Zuckerman.”

 

“Zuckerman,” he repeated. “Why have you decided to become a knight, Zuckerman?”

 

“I want to be a hero, like my grandfather before me. I want to fight evil and protect the innocent. I want to give hope to the hopeless.”

 

A slight smile formed on his face. “I am happy to hear that, Ernest,” he said. “Now then, what should we do with you? Squads II and VIII are both in need of swordsman such as yourself.”

 

I attempted to hide my frown, but the King saw it anyway. “No, that wouldn’t be right, would it?” he said. “I think I’ll place you on Squad V.”

 

The king returned to his throne. “The fate of my kingdom is in your hands now,” he said.

 

After handing the other recruits over to their respective Captains, Cross took me to Squad V’s barracks, a room full of trunks and bunk beds built located in the palace gate. A dozen knights hung out around the room, chatting, sleeping, or playing card games with one another. Of the twelve knights, I knew only one: an archer by the name of MacDonald who sat alone in a bunk reading a book.

 

Cross cleared his throat and his men came to attention. “I’d like to introduce you to our newest recruit, Private Ernest Zuckerman,” he said. “He’ll be working with us for the foreseeable future.”

 

One of the Knights, a guy in his twenties with a scraggly beard wearing a red bandana, came up to me and offered his hand. “I’m Lieutenant Connors,” he said as I shook his hand. “I’m Calvin’s second in command.”

 

“I have a meeting I need to attend,” Cross said. “Connors, would you mind introducing Zuckerman to the others?”

 

“I’d be happy to, sir.”

 

Connors places his arm around my shoulder and led me through the barracks, pointing at people and calling out their names. “That’s Mathews, he’s our monster expert. Over there are Rayburn and Grant, they handle equipment. Carlisle and Hendorf are our resident mages, Kaplan’s our medic, and Marple, Mallory, Rizzo, Harper, MacDonald, and myself all handle combat. Got it?” he said in the span of five seconds.

 

I meekly nodded my head. “Great!” he said as he led me over to a card table covered in coins. “Up for a little card game?”

 

“What game?”

 

“Ever played Black Aces?”

 

I shook my head as he pulled a deck of playing cards out from under his bandana. Connors shuffled the cards and spread them facedown on the table. “Rules are simple,” he said. “We take turns drawing cards. The last card you draw determines how many your opponent draws during their next turn. Face cards are worth ten, and we go until one of us draws an ace.”

 

“What happens then?”

 

“That’s when things get interesting. If it’s an ace of hearts or diamonds, you win. If its an ace of spades or clubs, you lose.”

 

“So it’s just a game of luck?”

 

“Is that a problem? At the end of the day, life is nothing more than a game of luck. If I’m going to be fighting alongside you, I’d like to know if you’re lucky enough to be trusted.”

 

Connors grabbed a single card from the table and showed it to me. It was the three of clubs. “Draw three, Zuckerman.”

 

I pulled three cards from the table, the eight of spades, nine of clubs, and five of diamonds in that order. I breathed a sigh of relief. “Not bad,” Connors said as he drew another card.

 

Connors stared at it for a moment before placing it face up in front of me. “Ace of clubs,” he said. “Lucky you.”

 

A few of the other squad members cheered and patted me on the back. Some of them poked Connors in the ribs and made fun of him for losing to the new guy. Connors rolled his eyes. “Beginner’s luck,” he said. “I’ll bet anything he’d lose if we went again.”

 

“I don’t know about that, I’ve always been pretty lucky,” I said. “Why don’t we go again and see which of us is right?”

 

Connors raised an eyebrow before smiling. “Okay, but if we’re going to go again we should make it interesting and actually wager something,” he said while shoving all of the coins on the table into a neat pile. “When you came in, we were playing cards and I’d just earned a neat sum of money. If I pick up the next black ace, you can have all of the coins on the table. Of course, you’ll have to put up your own wager.”

 

“I don’t have anything valuable on me.”

 

“Sure you do. That armor’s covered in mud, but I can see that it’s made of some pretty nice metal.”

 

“This armor is a family heirloom, I can’t give it to you.”

 

“Then lend it to me. If you lose, you give me your armor for a week. That’s a fair wager, considering how much money I’ve got on the table. Besides, you’ve always been pretty lucky, right?”

 

Connors shuffled the deck and spread it back out on the table. I drew a single card, the king of clubs. “That means you draw ten, right?” I said with a smirk.

 

In an instant, Connors swiped ten cards from the table. He held them between his fingers, showing them off to the room. None of them were aces. “Draw two, Ernest,” he whispered.

 

I drew a three and an eight. Before I could say anything Connors grabbed his eight cards. He slammed them down on the table. No aces. The final card was a jack. I drew my ten cards, one at a time, my heart pounding in my chest. The other squad members had long since gone silent, entranced by the game. Finally, I drew my final card. It, like each of the cards that came before it, was not an ace.

 

Connors drew six card, I drew four cards, and Connors drew seven cards. Still, an ace did not appear. Four cards remained on the table. Each of which, by process of elimination, was an ace. “Would you look at that?” Connors said, a bead a sweat dripping down from his bandana. “You’ve actually been getting pretty lucky with your draws.”

 

“There are two red aces left and two black ones left. That means, regardless of what happens, this will determine who wins.”

 

I gulped and hovered my hand on one of the cards. Then Connors smiled. It happened in only a fraction of a second, but I saw it. A smile from someone who shouldn’t have known what was on the other side of the card. I moved my hand to the side and picked a different card.

 

It was the ace of spades. Connors let out a deep breath. “That was close, wasn't it?” he said while pushing the cards into a neat pile.

 

“Yeah, it was,” I muttered.

 

A few minutes later I found myself sitting on a blanket free bunk, shivering in my underwear while Connors tried on my armor. MacDonald was still on his bed, reading his book. He glanced at me and sighed before tossing me a blanket.

 

“Thank you,” I said.

 

“The chattering of your teeth was distracting,” he said before returning to his book.

 

I looked over at the other knights. They were testing my armor by hitting Connors in the chest with various weapons. “You know they were hazing you, right?” MacDonald said without moving his eyes from his book.

 

“What?”

 

“Black aces, it’s a game Connors uses to mess with new recruits. It isn’t the type of game you can actually win.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Did you examine the deck before Connors shuffled it?”

 

“No.”

 

“If you did, you would have probably noticed something strange.”

 

“What?”

 

“The fact that there are two cards missing.”

 

I thought back to the second game. Specifically, I thought about the amount of cards that each of us had drawn. MacDonald was right, there had only been fifty cards instead of the standard fifty-two.

 

“The ace of hearts and ace of diamonds are missing from that deck,” MacDonald said. “Because of that fact, it is impossible for you to draw a winning card.”

 

“I could have still won if Connors grabbed one of the black aces.”

 

“Do you really think he would have done that?”

 

I thought back to the end of the game, at the slight smile Connors had made when I hovered over the cards. He knew which cards were black aces.

 

“He put a special mark on the black aces, small enough that you wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t looking for it,” MacDonald said. “That way, he can make sure he doesn’t eliminate himself when there’s money on the line. Plus, it allows him to fake a loss when he’s introducing the game to sucker you into playing.”

 

“So I was doomed from the start?”

 

“Don’t take it personally, Connors does it to all of the new recruits. If it makes you feel better, you came pretty close to messing up his plan. If you’d drawn one of the two cards that wasn’t an ace, you wouldn’t have won, but you would’ve made him own up to his bullshit. How’d you pull that off, anyway?”

 

“I got lucky,” I said while rubbing my head.

 

Captain Cross came back not long after. Glancing at me, he sighed. “I don’t even want to know,” he said.

 

“Do you have a mission for us, sir?” Connors asked.

 

“Yes, I do. According to the Temple, a large amount of monsters have appeared in the catacombs beneath the city. Squad V has been tasked with clearing them out. Unfortunately, I have meetings to attend all day, so we will be unable to head out until tomorrow morning.”

 

“We can handle it without you,” Connors said with a smile. “Besides, we’ve got the new guy to fill in for you.”

 

“I was hoping to give Ernest a few weeks of training before sending him out in the field.”

 

“I can handle it, sir,” I said while jumping to my feet. “I’ve been training for ten years. I’m more than ready.”

 

Cross glanced around the room. “Well, if you think you can handle this, I see no reason to stand in your way,” he said.

 

I borrowed a leather tunic from one of the other squad members and set out on my first mission. We left the palace and traveled through the streets of the Capital. It was a sunny day and the city was bustling with people working and walking about. We received smiles and waves as we passed through the crowds on our way to the Temple.

 

“There’re miles of tunnels beneath the city,” Connors said as we walked. “Natural caves, sewers, storm drains, military bunkers, burial crypts, that kind of thing. An interconnected maze of abandoned garbage beneath the city. With the exception of the passageway to the crypts in the Temple basement, all of it’s been closed off. The thing is, these tunnels are monster breeding grounds, so we have to go in and clean them out every once in a while.”

 

The Temple stood on the western side of the city. It was a beautiful old building, with marble pillars and stained glass covered spires. Seven stone statues stood in front of the church, effigies of the seven deities who created the world. A statue of the holy mother, the patron of Cieleta, stood taller than the others. I bowed my head and whispered a quick prayer as I walked past it.

 

Grandfather took me to the Temple throughout my youth. By the time I joined the Knights, I knew each of the clerics by name. The head priestess, Sister Nancy, was a close friend of my grandfather. She greeted me with a hug as soon as I entered the temple. “Congratulations on becoming a knight, Ernest. I’m so proud of you,” she said.

 

“Thank you, Sister Nancy,” I wheezed. “Would you mind hugging a little less tightly?”

 

Sister Nancy led us to the Temple’s basement, a dark room filled with old books. A large iron gate split the room in half. A staircase leading into the crypts sat on the other side of the gate. “Good luck,” Sister Nancy said as we descended into the catacombs.

 

I was put in charge of carrying the torch as we traveled through the catacombs. The dim glow of showed me an endless room filled with stone coffins. “The crypts can be a little scary for new recruits,” Connors said. “Don’t worry, the people in those boxes are going to stay dead. Probably.”

 

Connors led us to a small hole on one of the crypt’s walls. “This leads out of the crypts and into the catacombs proper,” he said.

 

As I passed through the hole, I finally saw the walls of the crypt. They were covered in skulls. I screamed and dropped the torch. “The walls!” I shouted. “They’re, they’re-”

 

“They’re covered in bones, we know,” Connors said. “Not an architecture choice I’m especially fond of, if I’m going to be honest.”

 

Connors reached down and grabbed the still lit torch. He leaned in and punched me in the stomach. “Don’t drop the torch again, okay?” he said.

 

I followed the others through the hole into a tunnel with a circular brick ceiling. A thirty-foot wide, fast flowing river ran through the tunnel, with eight-foot wide concrete walkways on either side. The tunnel stretched as far in both directions. “What is this place?” I asked.

 

“It’s an underground river the Knights converted into a storm drain,” Connors said.

 

A bat flew out of the darkness, charging at Connors. Without flinching, he drew a pair of playing cards from his bandana and threw them at the bat. The cards pierced the bat’s wings, sending it crashing down in front of him. Connors grabbed a hatchet from his belt and swung it on the bait, cutting off its head.

 

I leaned in and looked at the bat, and noticed that it had two pointy horns protruding from its head and a single red eye in the center of its forehead. A few seconds after Connors decapitated it, its body turned to dust. “That, new guy, is what we call a monster,” Connors said. “Keep your eyes open or they’ll get you.”

 

Connors held his arm out and the playing cards flew back to his hand. I heard a growling coming from farther down the the tunnel. I held the torch in front of me and shined its light on a large wolf with glowing red eyes and tangled black fur. I drew my sword as the wolf jumped at me. Before I could strike it, an arrow flew by my head and hit the wolf in the eyes. It crashed down next to me and howled in pain. I stabbed it in the stomach and it turned to dust.

 

“You got one, new guy!” Connors said while patting me on the back.

 

I looked over my shoulder and saw MacDonald holding his bow. Without a word, he walked over to the dust pile, grabbed his arrow, and placed it back in his quiver. The squad continued through the tunnel, killing any monsters we came across.

 

About a mile from where we entered, we came across a side tunnel. We walked through it and came across a circular cistern, with pillars stretching to the ceiling and an ankle deep pool of water. Our feet created ripples that spread through the water. As we reached an archway on the other end the cistern, Connors raised his hand and signaled for us to stop.

 

We stopped, but the ripples kept traveling across the surface of the pool. In fact, the seemed to get stronger as time went on. That’s when I heard it, the deep thud of large feet stomping through the tunnel.

 

I turned around to see a fifteen-foot tall man with green skin, a large belly, and a mouth full of sharp teeth. It held a large club, the size of a tree trunk, in its oversized hand as it slowly walked towards us. “It’s an ogre,” someone whispered.

 

Connors walked forward. “Stand back, I’ve got this,” he said as he threw his hatchet.

 

The hatchet curved between the pillars and struck the ogre in the back of the head. Connors smiled. “Bullseye,” he said.

 

Those were the last words he ever spoke. The ogre, enraged, charged at us and swung its club down at Connors. The force of the blow sent him crashing through one of the stone pillars, landing in the pool of water. His bandana, knocked from his head, fluttered down into a pile of blood and playing cards.

 

I dropped the torch and ran.


© Copyright 2019 Casey Jarmes. All rights reserved.

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