The Games of Death
Anyone, if given the chance, will want to rule the world.
“No mercy. No fear. No self-doubt. Those are the signs of a true leader.” Even in the deepest depths of sleep, my father’s words seem to find me. But he didn’t like me calling him father. I correct myself. The King’s words.
I hear the familiar sound of an orchestra of violins and woodwinds playing, the music echoing down the hallway’s castles towards my chambers. They play a familiar haunting melody. The rhythm quickens and ascends, preparing for the climax. Finally, the drums set in. This was our kingdom’s alarm. It was morning. Time to wake up. Take care of our duties.
I reach my hand out to grab a pillow, to drown out the music. But my hand finds resistance. I yelp out in pain. What the hell? My hands are cuffed together. I try to open my eyes to find them forced closed against a strip of fabric. Blindfolded and cuffed. My heart starts to beat faster as realization dawns on me. Today is my twenty-third birthday.
Every year on my birthday, my father plans something extravagant– not a birthday party or banquet or anything like that though that would be nice. It’s always meant to teach me a lesson. Once it was a surprise journey to the Lowcity, where all the Lowlifers and criminals lived. I’d come back with just a broken leg and a stabbed back. I’d also had my first kiss that day though that’s a long story. When I turned eighteen, I’d been led to the middle of the Duel Arena where the stands were filled with excited villagers and townsfolk, sitting in anticipation. I was preparing myself to duel the best knights in our kingdom, but instead a tiger had come charging towards me once the gates opened. Its sharp fangs were out. Its pupils were dilated with excitement, ready to taste my heart. Of course, I had made it out alive. But barely…
As I got older, the lessons got more and more dangerous. Though I don’t believe the King was trying to teach me lessons. He was testing me. Always testing me. Today, I am turning twenty three years old. I should have been prepared, but the King had played it low yesterday. He didn’t mention my birthday even once. I almost hoped he’d forgotten.
But he never has. The orchestra continues filling my eardrums with the same, familiar, annoying music. It would be torturous enough to spend the whole day listening to this music. That would be a good lesson. I tilted my head, listening carefully. Behind the music, I hear something else. A churning sound of gears and wheels turning. Over and over again. I feel a breeze on my forehead. I was on a train. I grit my teeth. Fucking hell dad.
Finally, the music ends. All is quiet except for the wheels of the train. Turning over and over again. Taking me who knows where.
I hear a rustle towards my left, and my muscles tense. I hear another rustle to the front. And then a breath, released as though it was held for a long time. Blood is rushing through my veins, adrenaline filling my body. I’m not alone.
The train suddenly fills with a familiar voice, my father’s. His voice echoes through unseen speakers.
“In this train, sits four of you. All blindfolded and cuffed. All helpless and vulnerable.”
I hear a rough voice scream. “Let me go, my Lord! Please!”
Yet, the King continues as though uninterrupted. A recorded audio.
“Four of you are on this train right now. But only one will leave the train when it stops. Only one will leave alive.”
My heart is beating fast, as my mind starts to realize something that I’ve denied for so long.
“I challenge you all to a game. A game of death. As this train races through the lands of our country, you all will be tested on your intelligence and courage. Using different means, you must kill each other till only one stands. And for the one who remains, he will be gifted with– well what else is more valuable than your life?”
“BULLSHIT! LET ME OUT YOU BRAINDEAD BRUTE.” The same voice from earlier screams, all pretense of respect and adoration gone.
Yet, I was quiet as I finally acknowledged the very words that I kept pushing away and denying all these years. My father was the absolute embodiment of evil.
The recording continues. “To get out of your cuffs, you must first find your keys. And I’ll give you all a clue. It’s somewhere on this train.”
The train is filled with my father’s cackling laugh. How I wish to shove the keys down his throat at this very moment.
“The train will continue to run and run and run till only one remains alive. I wish each one of you the very best. Time to pull the trigger and fire the guns.”
“Please lord… I have kids, a daughter and a son.” The same man cries.
“And one more thing, Happy Birthday Jonas.”
The man stops whimpering at the King’s last words. I’m screwed. They all know I’m here now. Prince Jonas. The son of the very man who put us all here. And this time, I wasn’t in an arena. There was no audience. If I die, I would die in secrecy.
The train is silent. I’m trying not to breathe loud. I shouldn’t give away my location. I shouldn’t let them know I’m scared. I’m not scared.
5 seconds pass. 10 seconds pass.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
Someone is trying to break off their cuffs. The sound pulls me back to reality, and my body sets into motion. I hear the others beginning to move too. The keys. I need to find my keys.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
My fingers grasp everything and anything I can find. I try to get a sense of my surroundings. I’m sitting on a velvet couch. There’s a pillow. Another pillow. Wow, what a luxurious ride. My fingers meet cool glass. This must be the window.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
I need to hurry. I try to pry my eyes open against the fabric, but it’s too tight. I get up and walk away from the banging sounds, trying not to panic. My hands feel more velvet seats as I walk down what must be the aisle.
I suddenly lose all sense of balance. I fall with a deafening sound as my chin bangs against a wooden edge. A swear escapes my mouth. I must’ve tripped. I lie on the ground, hissing in pain as the bangs continue on the other end of the train.
I slowly prop myself up, sitting on the heels of my feet. I use my face to trace the wooden edge. It has a flat surface. It must be a table. I press my nose and lips against it trying to find something of value. I must look like anything but a prince right now. I finally feel something cold and metal against my face– THUMP!
Something– or someone– lands on my feet and I freeze. Has someone already freed themselves? Is this it? I stop breathing, waiting for a knife to come slashing down on me. What feels like eternity passes until the man moves, cursing under his breath as he crawls unsteadily over my feet, continuing down the aisle. The bangs continue on the other side of the train.
I roughly prop myself up against the table so my back is against it. My fingers explore the metal object.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
It’s long with a fatter end. It has a small opening on the other end. A drop of sweat runs down my back. It’s a rifle.
My father’s words come back to me. “Time to pull the trigger and fire the guns.” That was the real clue. My index finger traces the familiar trigger. The keys have to be somewhere near.
I hear a sound of triumph then a tinkling sound towards the end of the train closer to me. Crap. He’s found his keys. My fingers glide quickly along the rifle’s rib and over the action bar. Wait. I trace my fingers back towards the action bar where the bullets should be. But instead, I find a tiny metal object with sharp, rough edges and a circular end. Keys.
BANG. BANG. BANG. The banging continues on the other side of the train.
The tinkling sound on my end of the train continues, more hurried this time. He’s trying to open his cuffs. I grab the keys with my right hand and feel for the keyhole with my left. I push the keys in and turn it. Yet, it doesn’t work? I try again and again, but the bloody cuffs don’t give. These aren’t my keys.
The tinkling stops up ahead. I hear a click as the man finally unlocks his cuffs.
I drop the keys in my hand and pat down the rifle again, desperate and hopeless. By some course of luck, my fingers find another pair of keys shoved into the action bar.
I freeze. Even the banging on the other end stops.
“I have a rifle in my hand. Pointed right at your head.” His voice is deep and oddly familiar.
I slowly stand up, facing the source of the voice. My clammy hands grasp the key tightly behind my back.
“If I could, I’d put my hands up right now.” I say. My fingers find the keyhole.
“I see you found a rifle. Did you find your keys?”
I smoothly unlock my cuffs and drop them to the floor.
“I did.” I untie my blindfold to find a masked man, ten feet in front of me. The rifle is in his hand, pointed in my direction. But not at me…
I turn around to find another masked but buffer man on the other side of the train. The muzzle is pointed right at him. It’s the man who was trying to break open his cuffs. The arm of his velvet sofa is broken and jagged.
He remains cuffed and blindfolded. A whimper escapes him. “Please…”
I look down on the floor where I threw away the first pair of keys I’d grabbed. It must be his.
“There’s only one bullet in here. Only one man I can kill.”
“The Prince! Aim for him!” The blindfolded man cried.
“But you’re too strong for the rest of us. You’d have to go before we’re fighting with just our fists.”
I quietly kick the keys under the velvet sofa beside me.
“Please… My family–”
Blood spatters over the train’s walls as the man falls to the ground. The bullet had gone straight through his forehead. Just like that, one was down. But the impact of the bullet had shredded his mask.
I walk towards the body as if in a trance. Something about his face was so familiar. I kneel down beside him as I pull his bloodied mask off. Behind me, I hear a gasp.
Lying dead in front of me was Arnold. He was one of the officers who patrolled the Lowcity. He was known for his generosity and support for the Lowlifers. He’d seen how they lived with scarce resources and strict rules. He was a part of our rebellion.
I turn around to find the other man dropping the rifle. He falls down to his knees, taking off his mask. I immediately recognize him. Luca. The rebellion leader.
I look around the train’s cabin, looking for the fourth. And there he is, sitting quietly on one of the velvet seats. He remains masked and dressed in black just as the others, but he isn’t cuffed or blindfolded. I wonder when he’d freed his hands. How long he’d been watching. Yet I am certain about one thing. All four of us are a part of the rebellion. Terror fills my heart. My father must know. If he set all this up, he knows not only about the rebellion. He knows I’m a part of it.
Eight years ago, my father planned a journey to the Lowcity for my birthday. He’d expected me to come back full of hate for the Lowlifers and the scum they lived in. Instead, I’d learnt about how we’ve wronged them, the resources we stole, the rules we imposed. I shared their hatred for the King and his kingdom. That’s when I’d first met Luca and his daughter, Bella. The same Bella my father had beheaded years later as a lesson to those who opposed him. That’s when I first began conspiring, and the rebellion slowly took form.
Inside the train, there are red velvet sofas on either sides of the aisle with beautifully carved wooden tables in front of each of them. Antique chandeliers and lanterns fill the ceiling. It was a display of royalty and luxury, meant to flaunt and show off. In the middle of the train, was an extravagant dining table with three wine glasses filled with white wine. Did my father actually think we’d sit down and rejoice at our unlucky fates over some wine?
I sit down on one of the sofas, defeated. Luca remains on the floor, his face in his hands. He and Arnold had been close in the earlier years. They’d grown up together, shared the same dreams. They’d helped each other's families out in moments of despair.
We all sit in silence, rebelling against my father’s game. We won’t be his pawns, moving at his will. Yet, another feeling gnaws at my insides. Betrayal. Arnold had pleaded with Luca to kill me instead. I keep a wary eye on the silent, masked man who remains seated.
Outside, rain patters the train’s windows as we pass through deep, dark forests. The sky is filled with dark clouds and in the distance, we could see the Elora Mountains that border our country.
“It’s so heart-warming to see old friends reunited.” My father’s voice booms throughout the train once again.
“But have we forgotten the rules of the game? Only one man can be left standing.”
“Stop this train, now.” Luca mutters.
“Remember the rules. Only one man can leave the train alive.” My dad’s voice continues uninterrupted.
“And I can see how you’ll all be reluctant to kill each other, knowing the days and hours you’ve spent together. Behind closed doors, in dark hallways. Conspiring against your own King. Your own father.”
I run my hands through my hair, nervous. There was more coming.
“More than a game, this is a lesson. To my son. Anyone, if given the chance, will want to rule the world. And they will do anything for power and glory. As of now, the rules change. The winner will not only get to live. He’ll be the next in line for the throne.”
I look up in disbelief. “WHAT?”
“Any man capable of planning and leading a rebellion is worthy enough of leading my country. Maybe even worthier than my own son who so willingly betrays his own kingdom.”
I see Luca’s head jerk up. Even the quiet masked man looks interested. It was a good proposal. Too good to be true.
“Let’s begin narrowing down the choices, shall we? Take your seats at the white table.”
I remain seated, reluctant. I look up at Luca and the masked man. Will they take the bait? No one moves. I hear the low rumble of distant thunder as we pass through a long, narrow bridge high over a lake. Down below, fast waves come crashing down against the bridge’s beams.
Luca gets up, and takes his seat at the table. Seconds later, the masked man joins him.
I sigh. The proposal was undeniably good. It was an opportunity for them to run the country the way they wanted to. To liberate the Lowcity. I walk over taking the third and final seat.
My father’s voice fills the train again. “Three chairs. Three wine glasses. And three vials.”
In the centre of the table lay three small vials filled with colourless liquid. I whisper the word before my father does. “Almory.”
“One of them is filled with Almory. The other two are filled with water.”
Almory is an odourless, colourless, tasteless poison. My father had been renowned for using them back in the 2060s when there had first been risk of war between the Lowcity and the kingdom. When spies and traitors lived under our roofs, amongst us in the castle.
“You will each pick your vial and fill your glass with it. Altogether, you’ll take your first sip. The one who chose Almory will die before he takes his second.”
I mentally race through all the random facts I’d learnt about Almory from my father’s physician. I hadn’t cared back then, but my life depended on it now.
“Oh but I forgot! You can change your vials amongst each other after choosing them. Let’s make this a game of wits rather than fate shall we.”
Lightning flashes outside. The bridge whines as the wind and waves pound against it.
“Cheers to the future King! Drink on.”
Outside, the thunder rumbles. Loud and piercing this time.
Luca stares straight at me. “So Jonas. Tell us what you know about Almory, won’t you? Your father was a fan, I heard.” The masked man remains silent beside me.
“I would. If only I could remember anything,” I respond, racking my mind for answers.
Luca scoffs, disbelieving. “Once royalty, always royalty.”
I look away. I’d always yearned for approval from Luca, the leader of the rebellion. I looked up to him more than I had to my father.
“You make the first move, Jonas.”
I hold up the three vials, looking at them up against the lanterns’ lights. They all look the same. Colourless. Transparent. I grab one of the three, placing the other two back in the centre. This is a game of fate for me. There is only one third of a chance that I’m holding the vial with Almory.
Luca grabs the second vial, while the masked man takes the remaining one. That’s when I remember the physician’s words. There is no way to distinguish Almory just by looking at it, tasting it, or smelling it.
I watch as Luca pours the vial into his drink. The liquid quickly mixes and dissolves into the wine. There is now one half a chance that my vial is the one with Almory.
The masked man pulls out his vial’s cork, spilling its contents into his glass. It mixes well. No hiss. No flame. No bubbles. The vial with Almory is in my hand.
I try not to let my hands shake as I pull off the vial’s cork. I pour the poison into my wine. I watch as a tiny flame of gas escapes the surface of the wine. You wouldn’t see it if you weren’t looking for it. Almory reacts with alcohol to release a small amount of gas. If we didn’t switch glasses, I would surely die.
Luca is watching me carefully. I smile at him though it must look more like a grimace. “We ready to drink lads?” I ask nonchalantly.
Luca eyes me up and down, as rain batters down on the train. The train sways against the wind, creaking and whining.
Luca smiles back, holding his glass up. “Let’s do this. If we don’t hurry up, we’re all going to die with this train crashing down any time soon.”
Right then, a big bang rattles through the train. We all look towards the windows as the train lurches off the bridge towards the lake.
“Crap!” I yell out.
The train immediately corrects itself, swaying back onto the bridge.
Luca chuckles. “Must’ve been a sharp turn.”
“You’re right. We’re all going to die on this bloody train one way or the other.”
Luca holds his glass up. “On three?”
“Wait– we’re not switching glasses?”
“Let’s leave it to fate, shall we?” Luca says, winking.
At his words, everything seems to slow down. My body feels like it’s made out of lead as realization and truth washes over me. Today is the day I die. From my father’s own poison.
Beside me, the masked man holds his wineglass up too. My hands tremble as I pick up my wine glass, my doom. If anything, I will die a death of honour. No cheating or begging, like my father would have wanted. I’ll oppose my father even in death.
No matter what, death will always be imposing, imminent.
I bring the glass towards my lips.
I take my last breath, then my last sip.
Luca falls to the ground, lifeless and limp. I look down at the shattered glass in his hand, then at mine. “What the–”
“He switched his cup with yours.”
I look to my left in even more disbelief. The fourth is a woman.
“He switched your cups when you looked away. When the train lurched,” she says softly.
Her voice sounds achingly familiar. I must know her.
“You should know the rules by now.” My father’s voice echoes through the speakers.
“The train is making its way towards the kingdom. But only one of you can remain on this train alive. And you know, no good challenge ends without a proper duel.”
I tighten my fists. He wants us to fence.
“Under each of your seats is a fencing sword. But this time, there’s no armour. No helmets.”
The masked woman grabs her sword from under the chair, its edges gleaming in the lanterns’ lights.
“Aim to kill. And make every hit count.” My father's voice continues.
I grab my sword, looking anywhere but at the woman. She will be my first kill, ever. But that voice… It can’t be. There’s no way.
“And one more thing. Make it a good show please. Let the battle begin!”
She comes at me right away. I manage to side step out of the way, but the tip of her sword cuts open the sleeves of my arm. Man, she’s wicked fast.
I turn around to slash out at her, but just then, all the lights in the train turn off. It’s pitch black outside too. We must be passing under a tunnel. This has to be my father’s sick idea of adding more thrill to the duel.
I peer into the darkness, ready to defend, ready to attack. Everything is quiet, except for my heaving breaths. I’m giving myself away. That’s when I feel it. A breath against the back of my neck.
I lash out behind me, and I feel my sword cut skin. The lights come back on, and I’m face to face with the masked woman. Her shirt has been cut and there’s a gaping wound on her abdomen.
I only see a flash of gleaming metal before I have time to bring up my sword. BANG! Our swords clang against each other over and over again. This isn’t good. She’s doing all the attacking. I’m only defending.
Right then, I lose my grip on my sword, and it drops to the ground. Her eyes find mine as we both realize her victory. Dark blue eyes just like hers. She brings her sword up, ready for the final hit. The kill.
The lights go out, and it’s pitch black again. I hear a rush of wind on my left, where she’d brought her sword down. She missed. Panic rushes through me as I fall to the ground, my hands desperately slapping the floor. Where’s my bloody sword? My hands feel cold, rough skin. Luca’s body. I feel another rush of wind on my right. My hands finally find the grip of my sword as she brings down her sword again. This time it hits, slashing a deep cut into my shoulder. I cry out in pain as I swing my sword into the darkness. And I feel it, the final hit as it cuts through her throat.
Light finally fills the train as we get out the tunnel. I turn to look at the dead woman. There’s still blood gushing out from the open cut on her throat. Few long blonde strands had come undone from under her mask. My heart beats faster. Just like hers.
I fall to the ground and carefully take her mask off. Red rosy lips. A small nose. Dark blue eyes. It was her. Bella.
“No… no, it can’t be.”
Memories flash through my head. Meeting Bella for the first time in the Lowcity. The first kiss we had shared. How’d she’d first introduced me to her father, to the rebellion. How she’d entered the castle posing to be a maid. The nights she’d secretly spent in my bed, the promises I made her. The dreams we shared of a new world, a better one.
I push away the thoughts. She was dead. She’d been dead for three years after my father had caught her and beheaded her in the centre of Lowcity. Or that’s what he’d told me… And I had believed him like I’ve always had.
Tears fall to the ground. I pull her head on to my lap, knowing she’s well past saving. I cry out at the loss of her, at the unfairness of it all, at my father’s brutality. How couldn’t I tell by the way she welded her sword? She always attacked but forgot to defend. My father must’ve kept her imprisoned all these years, keeping her alive just for this duel. Like a lamb to the slaughter.
My father’s voice booms once again through the train. “Congratulations Jonas. You can come home. A feast awaits you.”
The bitter memories of the last twenty-three years flood through my head. I’ve always had a good memory, a lot of patience, and now I have an evil streak. I look down at Bella’s dry blood on my hands.
In the distance, past the rolling hills and dark clouds, I could see the faint outline of our castle and its lights. The sky has become darker over the past hour, and looms over the country. Imposing. Imminent. I watch as the kingdom gets closer and closer. As I get closer to the King. My hand tightens on the grip of my sword, ready to commit the biggest act of treason.
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Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Easy to read and follow
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Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
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