January 2022 Stories: Grimdark World Cup, Group A

Welcome to Group A! Each month, stories will be scored on a 5-Point System. Points will be accumulated over the period of 6 months. The 5-Point System takes into account the following criteria:

A. Worldbuilding

B. Characters

C. Plot

D. Enjoyment

Each of the 4 criteria are judged on the 5-Point System. A score of 20 would be considered a perfect story by the judges’ standards.

1: Hated it, confusing, illogical, or has mostly negative aspects

2: Didn’t like it, had a lot of negative elements

3: Middle of the road, nothing good or bad particularly stood out

4: Very good, shows a lot of positive elements

5: Great, on par with some professional stories you’ve read, mostly positive aspects


Prompts for January 2022
1. New Year
2. Old Blood
3. New Blood

The Darkness Calling by Joe Coates

Keziah sat and drank and stared out of the window. Far below her, out on the hard-baked plain that she always saw as a golden sea filled with scattered bones, the storm raced across the desert like a bandit out on the loose. Behind the dust storm, past the far horizon and sitting in the sky like the painted background of some melodrama, the huge blue moon hung.

Behind her, the door to the alehouse creaked open on protesting hinges. Heavy boots sounded on the boards as someone else stepped into the almost empty taproom. The door shut, latch clicking with an inevitable finality. Keziah removed her broad-brimmed hat. Ran a hand through her dusty black hair, as the sound of the heavy boots approached the corner of the bar at which she was sitting. She knocked back her glass of rotgut, her amber eyes watching the cracked and tarnished mirror that hung above the bar.

A dark shape appeared in it. Dressed in the same sable attire of the desert wanderer as she was––loose trousers tucked into high boots, long close-fitting shirt tied at the neck with a bandana, and a hat pulled low––the man had shoulders a couple of axe handles wide. Only one man she knew who was built like that.

“I’m telling you Gunn, I had it,” she said, without looking round, as the man she hated and respected more than any other perched himself on the stool next to her. “I had the relic in my bloody hands. If I hadn’t been discovered and taken in by the nomads they wouldn’t have found it and I’d still have it now.”

The newcomer removed his hat revealing a scarred and battered face that looked like a stump used for splitting logs on.

“That might be so, Keziah, but you’d also have been suffocated and buried under a thousand fuckin’ tonnes of sand if the nomads hadn’t picked you up,” said  And don’t fuckin’ call me Gunn.”

“Sorry, Father,” Keziah said. She stared pensively into the dregs of her rotgut and then out at the huge blue moon through the window.

“New moon. New year,” her father said.

Keziah grunted. Tapped at the hilt of her sword.

“You should’ve fuckin’ waited for me to get there, girl,” Gunn said. “You lost two of my men.”

The muscles in the sides of Keziah’s head flexed under skin the colour of burnt caramel as she gritted her teeth. The nail of her thumb tap-tap-tapped against the pommel of her sword. “That relic was going to go a long way to covering ours debts with the Marrs. I was listening to my instincts and––”

Her father snorted. “Fuckin’ instincts. Instincts are an unerring and automatic form of knowledge, girl. You’re gettin’ the word confused with another word––‘desire’. A desire ain’t an instinct. Even a desire to live doesn’t give us the understandin’ required for keepin’ ourselves alive. People have to learn that, or they die.”

He left the words hanging in the air like a noose and signalled the barkeep for a drink.

“Put it on my slate, McCann,” Keziah said to the barkeep, without much hope. “Worth keeping your most loyal and non-judgemental customer happy, isn’t it?”

“Customers pay their bills, Keziah,” the barkeep pointed out. “Far as I recall—and a dark-elf’s memory is incorruptible, the last time you paid your tab was… No, that’s a thing that ain’t never occurred.”  

The barkeep slid another glass of rotgut down the bar so that it fetched up next to Keziah’s empty one. The fortune-hunter nudged the glass to her father and looked at the barkeep.

“I thought you said you were done extending my credit?” she asked.

“Did I say that?”

“Your exact words were, ‘Keziah, there’s more chance of you falling off that barstool and missing the ground than there is of me extending your line of credit.’”

The barkeep shrugged. “Let’s just say I’m banking on you remembering this kindness when you finally take your place as the head of the Gunn Company.”

Gunn drained his rough-cut glass in one long swallow, swilled the rotgut around his back teeth and swallowed.

“I’ve been sayin’ it for years, McCann,” he growled, “but the horseshit that comes out of your mouth is matched only by the horse piss that you sell.”

“Ain’t a nice thing to say behind a man’s back,” McCann said.

Gunn ran an eye over the slovenly dark-elf, taking in his great sloppy gut hanging over his belt and his mop of greasy blond hair.

“I might be tempted to say a lot worse behind your back, you fat fuck,” the grizzled old man said, “but I doubt there’s a horse with stamina enough to make the journey. Now, fuck off and let me speak with my daughter in private.”

McCann flushed and moved don the bar out of earshot.

“Tellin’ folk that you’re gonna be takin’ over the Company, eh?” Gunn asked his daughter, reaching over the counter for the bottle of rotgut.

“Well, you did mention it, Father,” said Keziah. “New moon. New year. New blood.”

Gunn took a drink. “That was before you fucked up the takin’ of the relic,” he said. “What happened?”

Keziah recalled the fight in the cave. The dull flashing of blackened steel blades. The wet warmth of arterial spray across her face.

“Just a fucking mess,” she said.

“Went wrong straight from the off?”

Keziah recalled the stink of raw magic. The way that one of her father’s men had been caught by the thaumaturge’s curse.

“Didn’t go right. Boyd’s clothes and armour just sort of crumbled away like dead autumn leaves. Skin and flesh peeled away from his breastbone to reveal all this secret white bone and the slimy purple organs underneath,” she said quietly, staring unseeing into the bottom of her glass. “It was bad. Bad as it gets” 

“You think that’s as bad as it gets, but that’s only ‘cause you ain’t ever seen worse,” her father grunted.

The condescension in her father’s voice was a cudgel to her guts, sending lancing tendrils of hot resentment snaking up through her chest.

“Maybe not,” she said, etching each word carefully and slowly, trying to keep her anger at the old bastard in check. “But still, you did say; a new moon would bring new blood.”

“That a fact?” her old man said, pouring himself another shot.

Outside, far below on the deadlands, the sand storm had wrapped itself lovingly around the foot of the Fortune’s Tower. Looked like nothing more than a big cloud of dust undulating like a flock of starlings from where Keziah sat. Down there though, the wind would be strong enough to flay a horse in less than a minute. Just went to show really; there were no facts, only interpretations.

Keziah took the bottle and splashed another measure into her own glass. Knocked it back. Felt cold disappointment and acceptance as to what her father’s next move would bound to be, where she should have felt the burn of the rotgut.

“This land is ready for a fresh perspective, Father,” she said, trying to keep her tone deferential. “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in this world, are being challenged more and more by the other fortune-hunters. This land––”

“This land is a lot like the people that inhabit it, girl,” her father snapped. “It don’t give two shits about you. Only cares about survival. Only cares about continuing. People have always said things like, ‘We’re destroyin’ the world’ or ‘the land can only take so’. Been sayin’ that since the beginning of things. What they mean is ‘We’re gonna die’. Land won’t die. The land sucks up our blood the moment it’s spilled. The land hordes the bones, waitin’ for the next bunch of arseholes to ride in. This world don’t give a shit about us one way or the other. It just sits here waitin’ for us to kill ourselves.”

“Gettin’ chatty in your dotage, old man,” Keziah said, hitching something that might have passed for a smile in the dim light.

Gunn grunted again. “Must be the horse piss in me,” he said, tapping the rim of his glass.

“You always told me a fortune-hunter’s got to be careful. Don’t say a word to nobody about nothing anytime ever.”

Her father grunted again. He had a good face for grunting. Worn out and weathered. Looked like he could have kept it up all day.

“I think there’s only one way I can hand the Gunn Company over to you, Keziah, you know?”

“I know it.”

Keziah kicked her stool away even as her drink was halfway to her lips. Her father, for his part, moved quick for an old man. He lashed out with a backhand, his callused finger crooked into claws. Keziah ducked and the spell rippled over her head, hit a table and it burst into splinters.

Gunn’s sword whipped out towards Keziah’s face––not her throat, her face. Bastard meant to blind and incapacitate her instead of kill her outright.

Keziah spun inside her father’s guard, crouching low as she did so as to present a smaller target. A blade of blackened Avalonian steel appeared in her palm. Her hand thrust outwards once, twice. A blur. There was a temporary pressure that yielded to her knife point; skin parting, flesh giving. A grating shudder ran through her palm on the second stab as her dagger scraped one of her old man’s ribs.

Her father fell past her with a grunt. Fell like a tree. Crashed into the bar and slid to the ground clutching at his side, at the gap in between breast and backplate of the leather cuirass that all members of the Gunn Company wore.

“Shit…” her father groaned, and Keziah saw a spume of misty blood froth from the wounds she’d punched into his flesh. “Shit…”

“That about sums it up, yeah,” Keziah said, kneeling down opposite him and wiping her dirk on her trouser leg.

Her father wheezed something.

“What was that?” Keziah asked, amber eyes narrowing.

“I said… You look glad to see me die.”

“Glad? I’m not glad. You’re my fucking father. ‘Course I’m not glad it turned out this way, but you just couldn’t fucking step down, could you?”

Keziah got to her feet, poured herself another drink and necked it. She sighed and picked up her hat.

“Still,” she said, “I will admit that there’s something remarkably cathartic about this. Out with the old blood and in with the new.”

Her father coughed wetly. Blood ran down his stubbled chin. “I thought… I thought I had a lifetime to… teach you what you needed to know,” he rasped.

Keziah brushed some dust from her hat and put it on.

“We all get a lifetime, you silly old fuck,” she said levelly. “Funny how a man like you could forget that a lifetime isn’t the same as a long time.”

She strode slowly to the door.

“You’re just goin’ to leave me here?” her father called weakly after her. “Without a word of farewell? To bleed out like a stuck boar? Where’s the comfort in that?”

Keziah looked out of the window at the new blue moon rising.

“Well,” she said, “you’ve a fine evening for it.”

McCann, the barkeep was pressed into a corner. Keziah nodded to him as she passed.

“I always believed you’d find your place, Keziah,” the dark-elf blurted in a high voice.

“You should be careful with belief, McCann,” Keziah said, pausing in the doorway. “Belief’s far harder to kill than beings made of flesh and blood and bone, but it can be killed.” She looked down at her father. He was still now. “And when it is, it dies totally, unlamented because it is unremembered.”

McCann said nothing. Just nodded at the door as it creaked slowly shut.


*

JUDGE #1’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 3

Characters: 4

Plot : 3

Enjoyment: 3

TOTAL: 13


JUDGE #2’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 4

Characters: 3

Plot : 3

Enjoyment: 3

TOTAL: 13

JANUARY 2022 TOTAL: 26 POINTS
OVERALL POINTS: 26 POINTS


*

A New King by Jon Strugnell

Drake slammed his empty tankard onto the bar, the hollow thump lost in the revelry that filled the Broken Promise. The inn was packed with bodies, sweating, arm wrestling, playing cards and boasting about people killed or beasts hunted. Three musicians strummed out a tune and the stamping of feet set reverberations through the floor. A space had formed around Drake, tributes would come later. He drank in relative peace.

The barkeep replaced the tankard, foam slipped down the side onto the stained wood. Drake took a large drink, he hated it here. It was too crowded, but he needed to be here. To let people know he was alive, and they could seek him out next year. He was the underworld king, and when the nobles needed someone removed, they came to him.

He paused, mug halfway to his lips. Someone was looking at him. Years in the underworld had honed his senses. He lowered the tankard and slowed his heart rate. Drake forced his perception outwards. There it was to his right. He scanned the room trying to block out the noise. People playing cards, one man slapping the back of another, a man trying to grab a maid as his friend worked to stop him.

There. A young well-dressed man, they held each other gaze. Shit. Drake continued scanning the room but they both knew. There was no getting away, but to be challenged here? Now?

The young man stood up and stalked towards him. New leather jacket, high collared loose shirt, short swords and knife strapped to his waist. Gold to burn from the look of his clothes and weapons. He moved with confidence slipping through the crowd like a snake.

The young man took the stool next to Drake and there was a change in the room, the music faltered, then restarted. A single beat dropped.

“A bit early, aren’t you?” Drake asked. “It’s a few minutes until new year?”

The man leaned closer causing Drake to lean in, he wasn’t worried. The man would not try anything in here. He wouldn’t make it four strides.

“I am not here for that, not exactly. I am going to be where you are.”

Drake let out a laugh. “You think you can take my place? You see all these rich men? They are waiting to pledge to me, I have worked for them for year. The king of the underworld needs to be a man, not a boy.”

The young man looked around without a care who saw him, wanting to be seen.

He looked back at Drake, “I see them. Time for some new blood.”

Drake shrugged. “You’re serious?”

“Fresh year, new face.”

Drake could feel everyone’s eyes on them.

“Not here kid, if I am going to kill anyone this night it will be in the alley. Master Lewis doesn’t need to be carrying a body out.”

“Fine with me old man.” He gestured for Drake to lead the way.

Drake took another mouthful of ale and pushed himself up. “Let’s get this over with.”

He walked through the tavern hearing the young man following behind him. He worked his shoulders lose, no need to take any chances, but he would knock this kid over before he knew what happened.

There was no one else in the alley, moonlight glinted from the damp cobblestones. A few boxes were stored against the rear wall, rubbish piled up next to them. The cold misted Drake’s breath, he found he missed the warmth of the inn.

Drake watched as the young man strolled to a position opposite; he must know who he was fighting? Drake’s anger rose, to be challenged on tonight of all nights. It was a celebration of the last year and a promise for the next.

“Who the fuck do you think you are?”

The young man met his eyes, “Lord Bequil.”

“Can’t be. I know I killed him. Job from Lord Hariel if I remember rightly.” He didn’t care if he told the kid, he would be dead soon.

“That was my father.”

Drake shook his head. “Odd night to pick for revenge.”

Lord Bequil shrugged, “Not at all, wrap everything up this year. Make ready for the next and I fancy being king of the underworld.”

“Fuck off. A lord can’t be king of the underworld. You can’t take jobs to assassinate or steal from other lords. It would break the system.”

Lord Bequil smiled. “I know. The power you have and being a lord. I will rival the king.”

Drake’s thoughts flew, he couldn’t let this happen. He didn’t care for Lords and their games. Sure, he made gold from it, organising thieves and assassinating people. But the effect this would have on the people. Lord Bequil would become true King in all but name. All other Lords would need to come to him. A step above everyone else.

Drake had a secret though; he could channel and that gave him the edge. He was sure it would kill his rich lordling.

“Let’s get this done.” Drake said confidence filling every word.

“As you wish old man.” Lord Bequil said. Shrugging off his leather coat to reveal a shining chainmail shirt and gold torc with blue gems set into it, an expensive price. Lord Bequil pulling his sword and knife from their sheaths. They looked wicked sharp, the moonlight playing off their edges.

Drake unsheathed his pair of short swords. Preferring the longer reach over the speed of the shorter knife. He assumed his stance and took a deep breath, try with the swords first, Lords don’t fight so this should be easy. Channelling was always a last resort, it drained too much energy.

Both fighters became still, and Drake took small note of the perfect stance the lordling took.

Drake moved first closing the distance and slashing with the sword in his right hand. More of a test than a killing blow. Lord Bequil parried and blocked his attacks with frightening speed and power for such a thin man. The clashes of their weapons bounced from the close walls making it seem like a mighty clash of forces rather than an ugly fight in a back alley.

Drake took a cut to his arm grunting through the pain. This was not going how he had expected. He felt his left sword run across Lord Bequil’s thigh. A couple more clashes and they broke apart.

Both were breathing hard. Drake’s left arm was numb, shit. He saw Lord Bequil favouring his right leg, leaning back into it. They were evenly matched, but Lord Bequil was younger. Drake began to worry; he knew he would have to channel now, confidence spilling away.

Lord Bequil attacked, he seemed to have somehow found more speed. Drake parried for all his worth, giving up on counterplay to keep the blades from sinking into his skin. His left hand was becoming slick with blood, he was reacting slower, strength leeching from him.

He ducked a thrust to his face and threw out a kick which connected with Lord Bequil’s knee. Sensing an opening he thrust forward but Lord Bequil somehow blocked the strike.

Drake closed the distance and concentrated within. Pulling his remaining strength together then channelled it directly at the other man’s head. He felt his strength rip out of him causing him to stagger back. The strength shattered in the air in front of Lord Bequil’s face, blue lightning slashing into the stone walls with almighty cracks. Drake’s ears hurt; sound deadened. The blue gems in the torc shattered. Chips flying in all direction stinging as they tore at Drake’s face.

Drake staggered back, drained of strength of breathing hard. Fighting to stay upright.

Lord Bequil had a smile on his face. “I always wondered how you killed my father. He was a better swordsman than me. Now I know.”

Drake could just make out the words and laughed. Of all the ways to die, a stupid assumption, made by a rich idiot.

“I killed him in his sleep.”

Lord Bequil joined in the laugh.

“No matter. My lucky night then.” With that Lord Bequil closed the distance and started raining strikes at Drake.

Drake fought all he could, but he hadn’t had the time to regain his strength. His blocks were slow and lacked power. He tried to channel again, but he was spent, and he knew it. Fear gripped him, a new feeling that he didn’t much care for.

He saw the thrust coming and couldn’t block it. Pain and heat sudden in his chest as the knife pierced his lung. He couldn’t get any breath in to cry out. His arms dropped, and Lord Bequil’s sword swung for his head.

Then there was nothing.

Lord Bequil let go of his sword as the old man’s body fell, sword stuck halfway through his head.

He took deep breaths. So, he could channel after all. He took off the torc off and tossed it behind the boxes, it was useless jewellery now.

He put his foot on the old man’s face and worked the sword free. He wiped the blood off on the old man’s cloak tutting as he examined its chipped edge.

He sheathed both weapons and picked up his coat, not his normal outfit but it got the dead man out here and kept the chain mail and torc hidden. He wondered if Drake would have fought him if he had known, he suspected so. Overconfidence will kill you. He would have to remember that.

He walked to the door opening it, music, singing, and sweat assaulted his senses. He was glad this would only be once a year. This place was terrible.

He walked into the main room. The music stopped. All eyes fixed on him, he smiled and walked to the old man’s stool. He sat and picked up the half empty tankard taking a sip, almost spitting it back into the mug. Horrible drink. He pushed it away. So much for foolish gestures.

“Barkeep. Wine if you have any, preferably red.”

The man nodded and reached for a glass just as the city’s bells rang in midnight.

He placed the wine where the ale had been. The Lords moved to form a queue. Lord Bequil wondered if he should tell them who he was. No. For now take their patronage. It was a new year, why spoil the celebration.

*

JUDGE #1’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 4

Characters: 4

Plot : 3

Enjoyment: 4

TOTAL: 15


JUDGE #2’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 4

Characters: 3

Plot : 3

Enjoyment: 3

TOTAL: 13

JANUARY 2022 TOTAL: 28 POINTS
OVERALL POINTS: 28 POINTS


*

Blood from Stone by K.L. Schwegnel

“Recite it again.” Darstab made the demand of the spindly cleric without looking at him. Alystrand annoyed him on the best of days and this day was far removed from those.  

“To what end?”

Darstab’s nostrils flared as he pulled in a deep draw of air tinged with the acrid scent of blood and piss. “Just recite it.”

Alystrand hadn’t been his first choice on this venture, he had been the only choice. Forced upon Darstab by the King. He knows more of the garguole than men four times his age, Jenroe had told him, his hand on Darstab’s shoulder. Trust him, my friend. Awaken the ancient ones and return with them and our enemies will beg for peace. With them at our side we can put an end to war forever.

Ineffectual fool.

Alystrand straightened from his propping of a body at the feet of one of nine grotesque stone sculptures. “As you wish then.” He cleared his throat. “At the turn of the year the new blood must flow, only then will awaken the old.”

Darstab turned to look at the man—though calling him that was being generous. The barest hint of stubble shadowed the cleric’s chin and he still bore the soft mold of youth about his features. Darstab clasped his hands behind his back to keep them from the cleric’s throat. Sadly, until the garguole awoke, he needed Alystrand. “We are, are we not, at the turn of the new year?”

“We are. Else why make the arduous journey?”

Why, indeed. “And have we not caused new blood to flow? Was that not the point of them?” Darstab pointed to the swiftly cooling corpse the cleric had just finished positioning. Nine corpses in all, one for each of the garguole, their blood still staining his dagger. “Newborn child. New mother.” Another stab of a finger toward another corpse. “Newly made a woman? Newly made a man?” Every outburst came a bit terser with an increasingly angered gesture at the corpses. “This ground is drenched in variations of new blood and yet these creatures—” He flung an arm out in an all-encompassing sweep of the ledge they occupied. “— remain as immobile as the rock they are carved from.”

Alystrand gave a terse smile. “You must exhibit patience, General.”

Darstab closed the space between them and glared down at Alystrand. Restraint is what he truly needed. The three gods knew how tempting and how easy it would be for him to snap the cleric with his bare hands. “My patience wanes with the day. When one is gone, so shall go the other.”

He’d made sterner men piss themselves with the look he awarded the scrawny cleric and yet Alystrand merely nodded without giving to Darstab’s intimidation.

“All things in their due time. The ancients have been sleeping for centuries they cannot merely be shaken awake like some slumbering lover.”

The cleric turned away and walked to the nearest statue. Twice again as tall as Darstab, its bat-like wings remained half-opened as though the creature had been made stone before it could fully fold them against its back. A chill of excitement stole down Darstab’s spine as he studied the fanged muzzle frozen in a fierce snarl. He had seen drawings, of course, but they hardly did the things justice. The garguole, towering over men, rippling with muscle, powerful, indestructible and, once awakened, at his command would bring the northern hordes scrambling to unite beneath his banner and he would finally see the end of Jenroe’s rule and his pathetic line of simpering, peace-loving sops. Alystrand claimed he needed patience? Darstab had shown a decade of patience, planting subtle hints to grow the seed of the idea in the king’s thick head, to push Jenroe to reexamine the old manuscripts and put forth the effort of the journey Darstab had just undertaken.

Our enemies lick at our heels, Darstab, Jenroe whined. I fear we will not survive another war.

What of the garguole? Do you think they ever really existed? If only we had them now.

That had been the beginning and this… Darstab trailed his gaze over the nine stone figures, each more grotesque than the other. This would also be a beginning. For him, at least. And where there was a beginning, there must also be an end.

“Tell me, General,” Alystrand’s squawking voice cut into Darstab’s musing. “Did you ever actually study the legend of the garguole? Or did you touch only on the bits that interested you and would benefit your goals?”

Darstab narrowed his gaze on the cleric but Alystrand’s back was to him as he reverently positioned the last of the corpses. The nine subjects Jenroe had so generously provided had been resigned to their fate by the time they reached the garguole’s resting place on the ledge high above the valley. No throwing themselves at Darstab’s feet begging for mercy. No tears or blubbering. Not even the mother for her infant. She held the child quietly as Darstab slit its throat, then bared her own to his blade. It had been somewhat disappointing. Alystrand had stood beside each, mumbling some prayer in their ears, grey robes drenched in their blood as he lowered each to the ground while they gurgled out their last breath.

“It matters not, I suppose,” Alystrand went on when Darstab declined to answer. The cleric stood and surveyed his handiwork. “You, like many others, have misunderstood the writings. You believe new blood needed to be shed here to awaken the ancients but these people, they are not the new blood. These people represent the oldest families of Brytane. Their lineage goes back a hundred years and a hundred more beyond that all the way to the times before. To the times when these magnificent creatures lived and breathed, and served the ruling family. Oathbound, you see. This blood–” A gentle smile curved the cleric’s lips. “–the blood that you have spilled, was given freely and without reservation. This is the old blood. Pure and untainted through the generations.” He pointed at the garguole. “Their blood, now returned to them.”

The chill finger of uncertainty trailed down the back of Darstab’s neck. His hands went to this sword. “And the new blood?”

An eager light glowed in Alystrand’s otherwise dull eyes.  “Do you honestly think the king was blind to your treachery? That he did not know you plotted against him all these years?”

A slender, darkened blade appeared in Alystrand’s hand and Darstab drew his sword, a grin splitting his face. So the man had a spine after all and would make a fight of it. Well enough.

The cleric laughed. “It is too late for that. Too late for you, General.”

With quick, certain motions Alystrand slit his left wrist, only a flicker of discomfort in the stare locked on Darstab. He kept his eyes on Darstab as he moved quickly between the statues, ensuring his blood fell on each one. Darstab took a step toward him then halted, his own gaze going to the first of the garguoles Alystrand had anointed. Did his eyes fool him or had a crack formed along its shoulder? Alystrand continued on his rounds as Darstab stood transfixed. Definitely a crack that grew wider until a large chunk of stone split and fell like caked mud to reveal the figure beneath. Grey, leathery skin rippling with veins and muscle took the place of cold stone. Clawed fingers flexed, breaking off more chunks. Wings unfurled with a shattering of stone and dust.

“Incredible, aren’t they?” Alystrand’s voice came strained and breathy.

Darstab turned to him. The cleric lay slumped against the shins of the largest of the creatures. He lifted his arm and his head lolled to look at the spurting wound. Lolled back toward Darstab.

Alystrand smiled. “New blood.”

Darstab sheathed his sword. “Then it hardly matters what Jenroe knows. In a matter of moments you will be dead and the garguole will be mine. And then the kingdom shortly thereafter.”

“It would have served you to more carefully read the ancient scripts.” Alystrand’s breath slowed. His focus seemed to drift. “The loyalty of the gargoules is unshakeable. Unbreakable.”

A deep intake of breath and low rumbling accompanied the steady crack and clatter of layers of stone chipping and falling.

“The old blood binds them to the line of kings. Holds them to their oath to serve no other. They answer to Lord Jenroe alone.”

The cleric’s lids fluttered. A low snarl rose up behind Darstab. A fetid wash of dank air ruffled the hair at his collar and he turned slowly to face the towering creature whose yellow eyes were no longer vacant but filled with primal rage.

“Not that it will do you any good,” Alystrand said, “but… you should run.”

*


JUDGE #1’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 3

Characters: 4

Plot : 3

Enjoyment: 4

TOTAL: 14


JUDGE #2’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 4

Characters: 4

Plot : 3

Enjoyment: 3

TOTAL: 14

JANUARY 2022 TOTAL: 28 POINTS
OVERALL POINTS: 28 POINTS



*

Blood of the Old, Blood of the New by James A. Moore

The world had changed. The old ways were fading, and thus new traditions were needed, as the gods decreed.

Berek did not believe in any gods, not really. When he was younger, he had prayed and they had never responded. He had begged the gods to save his village and the raiders had come just the same and killed everyone. He had tried to fight against them and begged the gods for the strength to avenge his people, but he had fallen quickly to a single sword stroke that left him bleeding in the dust and dying. It was only luck that the merchants had come along and found him as he lay dazed and bleeding.

Enough of that. He had thanked the gods that day, too, for all the good it did.

Berek spat into the dirt and looked around the great circle of stone outcroppings. All signs and portents said that this was the place where he had to be. He didn’t much care for the advice of mages and seers, but he was also wise enough to at least listen when the warnings were offered to him, especially when there was no price tag with the warnings.

 He had been getting properly drunk at the Broken Boar when Estralla the Seer warned him that the Blood Moon would see him meeting new gods. He’d listened to the old lady while his friend Valen laughed and carried on. That same night a pompous man with too much money, known for his sorcerous ways, had come into the tavern and found him as he was considering where he would sleep.

“The gods are watching you, Berek.” The man spoke to him with unnerving familiarity. “They would see your blade run with fresh blood.”

“Fuck the gods,” he muttered back. “They’ve never done for me.”

“They will, boy. They’ll have you as a champion.” The man’s face was wild. His muscles twitched under a thick beard and his eyebrows drew together over dark eyes. “I warn you because I must, not because I choose to.”

Berek had stood to his full, towering height, and managed not to fall over on his face despite the heavy wine that threatened to sour in his stomach. “I warn you because I choose to. Get away before I cut your eyes from your head.” The man offended him by speaking and he was drunk enough not to care about sorcery.

Wizard or no, the man had retreated quickly. Berek had a reputation as a fighter who won battles. It was well earned.

Valen had laughed all the harder at that. Valen, who was cousin to a king and wealthy enough, and who often hired Berek as a guard. Valen, who rose from a drunken slumber in the night and spoke to Berek in a voice not his own, and warned, “The Sentinels will see you under the blood moon, offering a sacrifice to the gods. Do not disappoint them.” Valen, who did not remember the late night encounter, and swore the next day that he had not left his bed or the woman who kept it warm when he was asked about his late night visit the next day.

Three portents in one evening were enough to convince Berek that he was best off listening to the advice, little as he wanted to. And so here he was, staring at the Sentinels, those vast rocky teeth rising from the rough ground, forming a wide circle around the spot where he stood, with Valen a dozen feet away, yawning as the moon rose over the area.

“Are you sure this is the spot?” Valen scratched at the back of his head.

“You’re the one who told me to look for the Sentinels.” He pointed to the towering teeth of stone, some rising to fifteen feet in height and others only eight feet, each a different shape, and all of them of a stone that was not seen anywhere else in the area. As if, at some point, someone had moved the massive things and planted them in the ground hoping to make them grow. The circle they formed was too precise to be natural, but beyond that they seemed to serve no purpose. “These are the only sentinels in the area, near as I can tell.”

“I never said a word about them.”

“You said something about me shedding blood here, under the blood moon.” Berek sighed and considered the sword at his side. “I don’t see anyone needs bleeding, but this is the place and the right time.”

“Can’t recall coming to your room, that’s all I’m saying.”

“Well, I didn’t come to your room that night. I was too busy sleeping.”

“Much as I consider you a friend, Berek, I didn’t leave Lessa’s side to talk to you. She’s far too lovely for that.”

“You were drunk, and not speaking in your own voice.”

“I’d have to be very drunk.” Valen paused a moment then added, “And why would I tell you to look for a fight? You do that all on your own on any given day.”

Berek made a rude gesture and looked around the area as the darkness crept in and the moon reached higher. Valen sighed and walked back to their horses, preparing a fire to keep them warm if the night got as cold as they both expected it would. The air was clear at least, with little threat of a storm coming in.

The figure that approached rode in quietly, but did not hide his presence.

Berek watched him coming, and before long Valen was there at his side. The horse was a charger, and the man riding it was an impressive figure, Berek watched him and felt a storm ride through his guts.

“That’s impossible.” He was barely aware that he had spoken.

“What’s that then?” Valen squinted at the man and frowned. The man was large, too large, really. He looked very nearly a giant. Berek and Valen stood on a hillside that clearly showed the Sentinels and the man moved into the stone circle from below that hill, but nearly stood as tall.

Berek closed his eyes and sorted through a lifetime of memories. He thought back to the day his people had been slaughtered, back to the raiders, the very filth that had killed his family and cut him down when he begged the gods first for protection and then for vengeance and received neither.

That man, the one climbing down from his horse looked beyond familiar. He was literally the stuff of nightmares. He had haunted Berek’s dreams for a dozen years or more.  Ever since his blade had hacked into Berek’s face.

“I am here for you, boy. We’ve unfinished business.” The voice was wrong. It carried against the southerly winds and bore a strange echoing quality.

“And who are you, then?” Berek bristled slightly at the use of the word “Boy.” He had been a grown man by any measure for the last decade, and he had earned the right to be treated as a warrior, but he would not let himself fall to the bait of name calling.

The towering stranger looked directly at him in the growing darkness, his eyes reflecting back the light of the fire, but none of its warmth. When he grinned he bared fanged teeth. “Me? I’m the answer to your sad little prayers.” The man took two steps closer. “The gods say ‘No.’”

Berek started as if slapped. “Then fuck the gods!”

“They’ll have me fuck your corpse, boy!”

That was the end of the preamble. Didn’t matter if gods had called him. Didn’t matter if the man he faced was a giant. Nothing mattered at that moment but cutting the smile off the bastard’s face. Berek drew his sword and felt his face pull into a feral grin.

The impossible raider drew his own blade and readied himself as Berek charged down the hill toward him. He was just as tall as young Berek would have remembered. For the first time in years he faced an enemy that towered over him by more than three feet.

Their swords screamed as they met. Berek was a strong man, and Valen had recounted more than once some of his feats. He had once lifted a horse on his shoulders and carried the beast a dozen paces, and though it was a small horse, it was an impressive feat. He had knocked in doors that were barred against entry and once struck an armored man hard enough with his bare fist to leave a substantial dent in the breast plate. He was a terror in battle.

The giant slapped him aside as if arguing against a toddler, and Berek went airborne before crashing to the ground. He rose to one knee and shook his hed to clear the ringing from his ears.

The giant snarled, and came his way. “Your prayers mean nothing, boy! The old gods will have their say and they will see you dead!”

Berek pushed away as the giant’s sword came down,

 and managed to keep his head. The raider from his nightmares roared, a sound that was as far from human as thunder.

Valen moved forward, drawing his sword, but Berek shook his head. This was his fight and he knew it. He felt it in his bones.

 Berek dodged again as the giant chopped wildly with his sword, as if he might cut the smaller man in two. The blade cut through the thick grass on the hill and buried itself in the rich soil.

He brought his own blade up and rammed it into the raider’s neck, slicing meat and cutting into bone. Hot blood flowed down over his hands, his forearms, and across his chest. Berek danced back and pulled the blade free as his enemy fell to the ground, coughing blood and gurgling air from his opened throat.

He moved further back, until he was out of the raider’s reach, and the giant fell forward, bleeding and dying in fits.

Valen looked on, eyes wide and mouth hanging open before he said, “That was fast.”

Berek nodded, “Best not to toy with an enemy twice your size.” He shook the gore from his hands and then wiped his arms free on his cloak.

“I find it best to run away from that sort.”

“’Course you do.” Berek nodded again. “You’ve always been the smarter of us.”

The skies above them were clear, but they both heard and felt the thunder that blasted over the clearing. They saw no changes in the darkness. The stars were shining and the blood moon had risen, dark crimson and shining, over them. The sun was a distant memory and only the moon and their meager fire offered much lighting, but they had adjusted as the night came on. The giant was dead, still they took turns standing guard while each of them rested.

In the early morning light, they saw that the Sentinels had changed. Great chunks of stone had fallen away from them, revealing effigies of men and women dressed in ceremonial garb. Not a one of them looked iat all familiar.

“What are they?” Valen asked as the two of them packed their belongings and prepared to ride away.

Berek studied the figures for several moments, and finally shook his head and spat. “Gods, I suppose.”

“Then you truly did fight for the gods, eh? Just…Not the ones you thought you were fighting for.” He as trying to be amusing but his tone was not as light as he wanted.

Berek shook his head. “Fuck them, too. I’ve no need of gods.”

“And what if they need you? What then, Berek the Godless?”

To that query, Berek had no answer.

*

JUDGE #1’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 4

Characters: 5

Plot : 3

Enjoyment: 4

TOTAL: 16


JUDGE #2’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 4

Characters: 4

Plot : 4

Enjoyment: 4

TOTAL: 16

JANUARY 2022 TOTAL: 32 POINTS
OVERALL POINTS: 32 POINTS



*

Scrape by Tim Clark

Outside the rusted iron cell door he could hear the muffled sounds of the loathsome guards celebrating the new year, noisily slurping the leftover wine sent down to them from the midwinter celebration of their superiors. It was now officially 1276 and the fifteenth year of his miserable incarceration, officially the fifteenth time the annual celebration was decidedly not happy. For Sharble the Tailor at least.

He looked over to his cell mates, Bones and Ratty. Bones was propped up against the slime-coated wall, grinning that inane grin of his. Rags clinging to his yellowing frame, one tooth still hanging from his upper jaw. He didn’t seem to mind the creeping chill, nor mourn his lack of liberty.

‘How’s it going, Bonesy my old chum?’ intoned Sharble. ‘Having the time of your life over there?’

The calciferous bugger didn’t answer. Hadn’t answered for a good few years now. Still it was good that his flesh was all gone now. His transitions from human to corpse and then corpse to skeleton had not been pleasant.

‘Right, don’t answer if you don’t want to,’ grumbled Sharble. ‘What about you, Ratty-boy?’ he added, pointing at the rodent.

The rat didn’t move a muscle. Hadn’t moved a muscle for many years. Had eaten a good portion of Bonesy’s though. Muscles, tendons, flesh. After Bones had died, of course. Otherwise that would have been rude. Not something one did to a mate, not even a cell mate.

‘Go on, it’s New Year. Twelve-seventy something. Have a gnaw on a bone,’ laughed Sharble. ‘Bonesy won’t mind. You won’t mind will you, you old lag?’

Bones stared. The rat remained motionless. Bulging oddly in places where he had been poorly stitched together. Amateur prison taxidermy at its most mundane.

Sharble was awoken in the night by the sound of scraping. He opened his eyes wide and squinted into the dark but he couldn’t see anything so he shut them again and tried to use his hearing.

It was definitely scraping. Not scratching. Scratching was a common sound what with the place being so full of a wide variety of vermin. But this wasn’t vermin.

‘Not vermin,’ whispered Sharble. ‘Oops, no offence Ratty,’ he added.

The rat didn’t reply, but Sharble presumed the silence indicated that his apology was accepted.

The scraping continued. Not very subtle. Scrape. Scrape. Scrape. Crack. Scrape. Scrape. Scrape. Crack.

‘Is someone there?’

The scraping stopped.

‘I heard you scraping!’

Nothing.

Then a slow sliding grind. One of the wall stones was being removed. Slowly, carefully.

‘Are you breaking me out?’ whispered Sharble hopefully. ‘Ratty, Bones, I think we are being rescued!’

There was a crash. Bones everywhere, slumping and breaking in a heap.

‘What’s going on in there!’ growled a sleepy drunk guard. ‘Knock it off, we’re trying to sleep out here!’

Sharble froze. So did whoever, or whatever, was in the middle of unscheduled deconstruction work on the cell wall. One minute. Five minutes. No further investigation.

A tiny light shone through the new gap in the wall and illuminating the part of the cell where Bones had suffered his final indignity.

‘You killed Bones,’ whispered Sharble.

He did not know how long he sat there, staring at the faint light coming from the gap in the wall and contemplating the heap of bones that had once been Bones. That had seriously been unlucky, choosing that very stone to lean up against.

After a while he began to grow impatient. And eventually the impatience overtook his fear of moving. Sharble flopped onto his chest and began to haul himself and his dead useless legs towards the hole.

The light was a curious thing too. Reddish green. Some kind of glowing gemstone or phosphorescent item. Magical or pulled from the arse of some humongous firefly, Sharble couldn’t tell. One thing for certain though. Whoever had left it there, was long gone.

Unpleasant as it had been crawling though the remains of Bonesy, knocking over Ratty had been worse. Ever since he had treated the rat to a new lease of the physical appearance of life things had gone downhill for the rodent rapidly. Taxidermy without the proper chemicals and tools was not a reliable craft and Sharble knew the rat was not well preserved and would not be long with him. That was why he had placed Ratty on the other side of the cell, next to Bones who hadn’t minded the rot. Now half of Ratty was stuck to his hand. He would have retched, but the wretchedness of his situation had long since robbed Sharble of that reflex.

 He must have dozed off again. It was the middle of the night after all, but he awoke once again whilst it was still dark. The light was flickering. A hand was grasping it.

‘Yes? Can I help you?’ groaned Sharble.

‘No, but I can help you,’ rasped a voice from beyond the wall.

‘Are you breaking me out?’

‘No, I am breaking something in.’

Slowly a hand emerged from the hole. It was clasping something, something too dark to see properly.

‘What is that?’ asked Sharble.

‘It’s for you, compliments of, well, an admirer.’ The object was set down and the hand withdrew.

‘Wait,’ said Sharble, but the hand did not wait. There was much scraping and shuffling in the darkness, during which the stone was replaced in the wall and then the noises stopped. ‘Wait,’ repeated Sharble. To himself. And half of Ratty.

The next morning the grate in the cell door cracked open and some scraps were shoved through. ‘Happy New Year. Welcome to 1276 my favourite guest,’ laughed the jailer.

‘Fuck off, Trout, you slug,’ spat Sharble.

‘Now that’s not nice Master Tailor,’ laughed Trout. ‘Not when I brought you some nice pie crusts.’ Two buggy eyes appeared at the grate, half of Trout’s fishy face invading the cell. ‘Look that one’s still got a bit of meat on it. Just wipe off the shit from your cell floor, and it will be delicious.’

Suddenly the remembrance of the previous night set in and Sharble lurched over to cover both the hole in the wall and the object that had been left on the ground next to it. It didn’t matter. Trout couldn’t see much in the gloom. He was just sticking his face in to make his presence felt.

‘Well, get you pie bits, then,’ he cackled. ‘I’ll go and see if the boys can recycle you some wine from last night.’

The grate slammed shut and once again the cell mates were alone.

‘Piss off!’ Sharble shouted at the door. He didn’t doubt that Trout the Jailer heard him.

When he was sure he wasn’t being spied on, Sharble swept up a great heap of Bones’ bones and made a pile of them next to the loose stone in the wall. The pile would temporarily cover the loose brick. In time, he may rebuild Bonesy. It didn’t look possible, but then again, the impossible sometimes becomes feasible given ridiculous amounts of spare time.

The object itself was a leather pouch, tightly wrapped in cord. Quite bulky in places, and also a little squishy. Sharble dragged his legs around and sat with his back to the cell door. He placed the pouch in his lap and slowly began to undo the cord. It opened out into a kit bag, full of many useful things. Tubes, needles, glass vessels. Miniature medical implements and instruments. A smile crept onto Sharble’s face.

That evening, when it was nearly dark and the guards had mostly given up for the day, Sharble took the medical kit out. ‘Arsehole!’ he called out, but there was no reply. The guards would have gone and left Buggo or Left-eye in charge. Both of those bastards liked to use their turn guarding the lower cells as a time to catch up on their much, much needed beauty sleep. ‘Sleep soundly, whichever one you fucks is out there!’ shouted Sharble. Still no reply. He was certain he could now work undisturbed.

He opened the pouch. Removed tubes and empty vials until he found what he was looking for first. A blood-letting needle with an attached receptacle to catch the red stuff.

The needle pierced his wrist easily. Thankfully it was sharp, clean and free from rust or contamination. He watched as his old blood spilled out into the glass container. Ratty watched. Sharble had spent the day carefully stitching the rodent back together and he didn’t think he had done a bad job of it. He looked back to his crimson outpourings, then to the rat and decided he had enough. Quickly he pulled the needle out and stopped the flow with a wad of gauze.

‘Shit, I’m feeling light-headed, Ratty old chum,’ he said, but in truth he did not know whether it was the blood loss or the excitement of what he was about to do.

The Rat remained dead and stitched.

It was now pitch dark in the cell. The wound in his wrist has stopped bleeding but it hurt like the hells. So did his bruised head and his bludgeoned shoulder. ‘Shit, must have been the blood loss, after all,’ he moaned.

There was a scratching sound which stopped him moaning. It was definitely scratching this time, not scraping.

‘Who’s there?’ hissed Sharble. ‘Have you brought me something else?’

There was no reply and the sounds abated. He reached out and knocked over the medical equipment that was oddly already set up. Must have been halfway through when he lost consciousness.

Suddenly the cell door exploded with a crash, swinging open with the force of Trout and several of his cronies bursting though. It was suddenly bright inside as at least some of them were brandishing lamps.

‘Cell inspection,’ Trout screeched, accompanying his words with an unannounced blow to Sharble’s head. Sharble only sat up momentarily before his head bounced back to the ground in an explosion of fireworks.

‘Call us arseholes, would ya?’ roared Left-eye or Buggo. He could never tell the difference. The kicks and punches then came thick and fast. Painful blows and cracking bones, sweat, spit and blood. Piss and shit (both probably his own) and the huffing and puffing of the fat pigs that were his jailers doing a number on him. It went on for a longer time that usual, until Trout shouted at them to stop.

‘Now, lets see what that demonic colleague of yours broke in and left you last night,’ laughed Trout. ‘You didn’t think we don’t know everything that goes on around here?’

Sharble tried to speak but he couldn’t. He reckoned he had lost more teeth this time that he actually would have thought he had before the beating began. But missing teeth were not the problem. Lost brain cells, blood and organ function were more of a concern.

‘Here it is,’ said Buggo or Left-eye from within the daze.

‘Well, let’s see what we have here. Tubes, vials, oh shit, you are a sick bastard aren’t you? Tailor, my arse. None of you were tailors. I don’t know why we lock any of you up. Should have chopped you up and burned the pieces if you ask me. Now, show me his wrist.’

Buggo or Left-eye grabbed Sharble by the hand and ripped off the gauze. He was powerless to resist, but somehow he began to feel that he didn’t need to.

‘Drew some of your own blood again, but who was going to get the new blood this time?’ roared Trout. ‘Who, dammit, who!’ He grabbed Sharble by the rags and shook him, spitting in his face and cursing his dark arts.

But Sharble was gone. His body lifeless, his eyes briefly stared back at the jailer and then rolled back up into his skull.

‘We already did the transfusion, you fuck,’ squeaked the patchwork Ratty just before he scurried out through the hole in the wall.


*

JUDGE #1’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 4

Characters: 4

Plot : 4

Enjoyment: 4

TOTAL: 16


JUDGE #2’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 3

Characters: 4

Plot : 4

Enjoyment: 4

TOTAL: 15

JANUARY 2022 TOTAL: 31 POINTS
OVERALL POINTS: 31 POINTS



*
To check the current Standings you can click the following link: https://negative-hp.com/2022/02/07/2022-grimdark-world-cup-standings/