Rain poured down upon the town of Navahorod, the villagers running quickly from one place to another, eager to get inside and out of the rain, those in the pub glad to have a warm drink and hoping the rain would let up before they'd have to make their way home. The pub had no windows proper, just holes in the wall that were patched up during the winter months and then opened up again for the summer. It being midway through August, the windows still stood open, and the rain outside gave the pub a damp feel to it.
Ashen Winter sat near one of the windows, just outside the small circle of wet floor caused by the incoming rain. He sat alone at his table, the others avoiding him for his strange outfit, a long red coat and a tall black top hat, a pair of white gloves over his hands, yet the whole thing so battered and old that he was clearly not a member of the upper class. A crude black cane with a white tip completed the ensemble, that of the poor man pretending to be rich.
Ashen sat, shuffling a deck of cards, until eventually a man sat down across from him, the pub having run out of space at other tables. “How do you do?” the man asked in a grizzled voice. Ashen grabbed the edge of his top hat and nodded slightly, freeing a few bangs of blonde hair, which rested for a moment in front of his yellow eyes before he brushed them aside. “You've got a deck, I see,” the man continued, “Are you one for a game of chance?”
“I prefer not to rely on chance,” Ashen said softly in a voice that carried an accent far to the west of Navahorod, and then looked away out the window.
“Then why're you here, with a deck of cards and no drink?” the man asked.
“It's raining,” Ashen said, “And I'd rather not get my hat wet.” There was a momentary pause. “It's brand new, you know,” Ashen said, tapping the brim of the hat, which looked to be at least ten years old.
“Is that so?” the man asked.
“Yes,” Ashen said, “But the coat is ancient, at least a month old. I should see about getting it replaced sometime, else I'll have to declare it a family heirloom,” Ashen continued, indicating the long red coat, which appeared to be twice as old as the hat. There was a moment of silence, and the man was about to say something to the effect of Ashen's clothes seeming much older than he'd said, when Ashen beat him to the breaking of the silence, saying “Would you like to play a game of cards?”
“I thought you said you didn't play games of chance?” the man said.
“Yes, but this isn't a game of chance, it's a game of cards,” Ashen said.
“How do you figure?” the man asked.
“I don't,” Ashen said, “Would you like to play?”
The man paused for a moment, and then decided that a game of cards would be that much easier to win when playing a madman. “What's the wager, then?”
“I have no money to spare on me,” Ashen said, removing his hat and placing it on the table. He shook his head a bit, his hair, once flattened by the tophat, now simply messy and untamed. “I'll wager this hat for starters, though.” The man pulled a few rubles from his pocket and tossed them onto the table. “My man, you are severely underestimating the worth of this hat,” Ashen said, “But, it's been so long since I've played a good game of cards, I'll take the bet anyway. Have you ever played Rogue's Court?”
“I can't say I have,” the man said.
“It's simple, we each draw five cards from the deck, and then we play five tricks. Each trick, we each play one card, highest card wins the trick, whoever wins the most tricks takes the pot. Spades trump, deuces trump aces, but,” Ashen pulled the top card off the deck, the Ace of Spades, “The Ace of Spades is the death card, it trumps all, except for the King of Spades, whom the Ace answers to. But that doesn't matter because the King of Spades is actually missing from this deck.”
“The King of Spades is missing?” the man asked, “Are the rest all there?”
“Oh, yes,” Ashen said, “Just the King is gone, fifty-one cards.”
“I think I understand it, then,” the man said, “Let's play a game!”
“Alright, then,” Ashen said, shuffling the deck twice and then handing it to the man. The man began to draw his cards, but Ashen held up his hands to stop him and said “Wait, wait, no, you shuffle first.”
“I shuffle, too?” the man said.
“Yes,” Ashen said, “We both shuffle the deck so that no one can rig it in their favor, right? You don't do that here?”
“No, not here,” the man said, shaking his head.
“Well, you must be a refreshingly honest town,” Ashen said, not mentioning the possibility of their being refreshingly stupid as the man shuffled it and then drew his cards. Ashen took the deck back and drew his own five, the Two of Clubs, the Jack of Diamonds, the Ace of Clubs, the Nine of Hearts, and the Three of Clubs.
“Alright,” Ashen said, shuffling the Three of Clubs up to the top of his hand and asked “You ready? We play at the same time.”
“Of course,” the man said and pulled a card out. The two of them slapped the card on the table simultaneously, and Ashen peered over his hat to see the cards on the table. His three against the Queen of Diamonds. “Well, that's yours then,” Ashen said, and pulled a golden colored chain from his pocket and laid it down on the table next to the hat. “That's painted tin, by the way, not real gold,” he said.
“What's this, then?” the man asked.
“Oh, the loser raises the wager and the winner has to match it or bow out, and leave everything on the table to the loser,” Ashen said.
“You didn't mention that earlier,” the man said.
“Fair enough,” Ashen said, “Shall we just call the game off entirely then, take back what's ours?”
“No, no,” the man said, pulling out a few more rubles and placing them on the table.
“Right, then, ready?” Ashen asked, ready to play his Nine of Hearts. The man nodded and they slapped the cards down on the table again, the other man playing a Four of Spades. “Well, that's mine then, you raise,” Ashen said. The man placed a single ruble on the table, and Ashen stared at the table for a moment. “I'm going to match you with the deck of cards we're playing with right now, how's that?”
“Fair enough, fair enough,” the man said. Ashen smiled and shifted the Ace of Clubs to the top of his hand. The two slapped the cards down again, the other man having played a Six of Hearts. Ashen pulled the cards away, but the other man was smiling as he added a large pile of rubles to the table, Ashen raising him by a pocketwatch, which he flipped open briefly to show the clock still ticking before removing the brass chain and leaving it on the table. They slapped their cards down again, Ashen's Jack of Diamonds against the man's Queen of Hearts. The man grinned and took the trick, the two of them now even at two and two. Ashen pulled out the brass chain the watch had been on and laid it on the table next to the watch, and the man heaped over several more rubles, now having nearly two days wages on the table.
“Are you sure you don't want to call this off now? We can just walk away completely, each taking his own back,” Ashen said, his expression twitching slightly.
“No, no, we're even, let's finish it, I'm feeling lucky,” the man said.
“Alright,” Ashen said, “We've only got one card left a piece, why don't you play yours first?”
“We're supposed to play at the same time,” the man said.
“No, on the last trick, when you've only got one card a piece and you haven't got anything else to change your mind to, you play them one at a time. That's just how you play the game,” Ashen said.
The man nodded and grinned, and said “Well, I hate to ruin the suspense, but...” He played the Ace of Spades on the table, “I have the Death Card.”
“Well,” Ashen said, playing his own card on the table, “I found his master.”
The man gaped for a moment at the King of Spades on the table and began stammering, “Y-You said the King of Spades was missing! Fifty-one cards!”
“No, no, no, no,” Ashen said, taking the watch, both chains, and his hat back, “I said the Ace of Clubs was missing, you must've misheard.”
“You said the King of Spades was missing!” the man shouted, drawing a crowd as Ashen gathered the deck up.
“No, you misheard, I said the Ace of Clubs was missing, and you still haven't told me who Boris is.”
“Boris?” the man asked.
“Yes, according to you, I'm as much a freak as his mother,” Ashen said.
“What?” a voice called from the crowd, “Who said my mother was a freak?”
“Technically, no one,” Ashen said, while the man he'd been playing with stared at him in ever-growing fury, “But this fellow here said that I was 'as much a freak as Boris' mother,' I honestly don't even know who that is.”
Boris pushed his way to the front of the crowd and demanded “What're you saying 'bout my mother?”
“I didn't say anything!” the man shouted, but Boris was already grabbing him by the collar while Ashen grabbed the rubles off the table and ran. As he passed the door out of the pub, a small girl, perhaps no more than twelve years old, hurried after him. She was dressed in a long white dress with simple brown boots, her face concealed by a porcelain mask and her right arm heavily bandaged.
The two of them hurried out into the rain, the music of street performers cutting through the air and the pitter-patter of rain on the rooftops. An accordion, playing a circus tune with an eerie violin as accompaniment, and a young girl, perhaps only fourteen years old, singing an eerie tune to match them both.
All of the cast, you will see smiling,
Although their forms, are rather interesting,
But it is fun, when you see the show,
In the Dark Wood Circus performance!
One body with two heads...Smiling!
One young diva with her deformities,
One blue beast who takes his meals,
Inside the shadows of the stands.
Ashen smiled as he passed, dropping the pile of rubles into the basket in front of the street performers. The singer glanced down into the basket and suddenly stopped singing. The other musicians, noticing her sudden silence, looked down to see the rubles in the basket, a huge grin spreading across their face, seeing the money they usually make in a week lying in the basket. “Thank you, sir,” the singer said, “Would you like a special-” She stopped speaking as she turned around to face him, and found that he and the girl who had followed him had both vanished.
Wilder had been trying to go to sleep, having worn himself out from hours of rage. The chains around his hands had been made to hold him, though. The supernatural strength of his claw-like right hand, all the flesh stripped away leaving nothing but his the sharpened bones of his fingers, was useless against the cold steel of the chains, and would be equally so against the harsh iron bars. Strength beyond that of a man he was granted by his Devil's Hand, but not strength enough.
He was stirred momentarily when he heard a strange gurgling noise, and some shouting, but he soon blocked it out and closed his blood red eyes once more. He was tired. Tired of living in a cage and being fed the desecrated remains of the last town's graveyard for the sake of a crowd, tired of being too starved to refuse the meals, and tired of trying in vain for the thousandth time to tear his way out of the chains and the cage.
The shouting grew louder, and was eventually accompanied by a gunshot from the manager's flintlock pistol, his bellowing voice heard over the shouts of the traveling freak show momentarily before being silenced. Wilder stirred and looked over in the direction, where the other three members of the show, each infinitely more willing than Wilder himself, seemed to be fighting with one another. Wilder grinned and strained his neck, trying to get a better angle on the chaos, and hoped that they'd all die from the wounds they inflicted on each other. Perhaps Hell was bringing vengeance on those who'd dare chained up its infernal servants?
A moment later and his hopes seemed to have been confirmed. Someone, not much older than him, but dressed in a long red coat, stepped out from behind the crates, wiping the blood off of several red-handled knives before sliding them back into his coat. Once in place, they were practically invisible. The man tucked away his bloodcloth into a coat pocket and grinned at Wilder, who instantly noticed his razor sharp teeth. Sharp like Wilder's own. This man was also a Devil's Hand. “You were sent by the demons, weren't you?” Wilder asked, “You were sent by Lucifer?”
“No,” Ashen said, “The force that has brought me here is far greater.”
“What could possibly be a greater force than Hell?” Wilder asked.
“Economics,” Ashen said, “Jenna, the keys, if you would?” Jenna, a young girl in white with a porcelain mask, crept nervously out from behind her hiding place, carrying a set of keys in her good hand and handed them wordlessly to Ashen. “You haven't met Jenna, have you?” Ashen asked as he began trying different keys on the lock to Wilder's cage.
“I haven't met either of you,” Wilder said.
“What?” Ashen said as the cage door swung open, “You don't recognize me? Wilder, I'm hurt.”
“I don't...Who are you?”
“It's me, Ashen,” Ashen said, unlocking one of Wilder's manacles and then moving on to the other while Wilder moved his arms in circles, trying to work away the aches from being chained in one spot all day.
“Ashen?” Wilder asked, “So you did make it out? They told us you'd been killed in the fire!”
“And you trusted them?” Ashen said as he unlocked the second manacle and Wilder began rubbing the feeling back into his wrists.
“Well...No, of course not,” Wilder said.
“You're still a bad liar, Wilder,” Ashen said. Wilder opened his mouth to respond, but Ashen didn't pause to give him the chance. “Wilder, this is Jenna, Jenna, this is Wilder, you can meet and greet later, for now I have a job offer for you.”
“A job offer?” Wilder asked.
“Yes,” Ashen said, “When you were a little boy, did you ever wish you could run away and join the circus?”
“I'm-” Wilder began, but Ashen cut him off.
“This,” Ashen said, waving his hand at the crates, the cage, and the caravan it was attached to, “This is not a circus. Circii have acts. This is a freakshow.”
“Yes, it's latin, are you in or not, Wilder?”
“I...You run this circus?” Wilder asked.
“Yes,” Ashen said, bowing a little. “Ringleader of the Dark Wood Circus, at your service...Or rather you may well be in mine, do we have a deal?” Ashen said, offering his hand to shake. Slowly, Wilder took it, and Ashen shook it quickly before pulling away. “Excellent,” Ashen said, pulling out a deck of cards and cutting to the middle of the deck. He pulled the top card off and handed it to Wilder
“What's this?” Wilder asked, looking at it.
“That,” Ashen said, “Is the Ace of Spades, it's your card.”
“My card?” Wilder said.
“Yes, your card, your identity, how we sort out who's who in this circus. It's the Death Card, Wilder. It's who you are.”
Wilder looked down at the card in his hands and grinned. When he looked back up, Ashen and Jenna were already walking away. Wilder shoved the card in his pocket and hurried to catch up.