January 2022 Stories: Grimdark World Cup, Group B


Welcome to Group B! 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



Making of an Immortal by Joe Price

Nabriales’s blood dripped from my hands as Ustegot chanted the words of the ritual. It had been over eight centuries since last they were spoken, yet Ustegot recited them as cleanly as her thick dwarven accent would allow. I had hardly known a handful of the men and women writhing in agony before me as their bodies were broken and remade. Nabriales’s left arm had fallen off, his right leg was split open from hip to knee his bone glistening in the firelight as his lower leg began to rotate counterclockwise below the kneecap. His right arm vanished inward, the bones snapping as what looked to be his hand crawled through his intestines. Hours earlier I had broken bread with him, assured him his safety. This agony was not our intention. Had we known what would become of this event, we might not have even bothered playing our hands at a god’s work.

It all began many moons ago, and yet now this seemed as if our work was for not. Ustegot and Tirur, two of our ancestorial dwarven siblings along with Irys, Malthel and Ereneon of elven heritage had volunteered to return to the land of our making. These hallowed halls the Forge Master of the Realm, Balthoron, had called home when we had been risen from the mortal coil. They had tasked themselves with the restoration of the ritual alter. A task well suited to those who had once called themselves some of the best crafters on the continent of Fen’doril. Their timing was key, we had only until the beginning of the new year, the first moon of the year of the shifting sand as it was called in the elder tongue. Yet it seemed this was irrelevant now.

As their restoration efforts started Evelynn, Valen, Drunn, and I had a different task. We were to find the those best suited for the duties we held, to act as arbiters of balance. And the thirteen of us had been spread to far and thin to properly accomplish this task. Evelynn had taken to the Asterian countries of southern Fen’doril, a land constantly on the verge of collapse. Twenty kingdoms of men sullied the lands, and each believed themselves the best and brightest. None of these kingdoms had thought to look beyond their borders further than to raid or pillage. Valen traveled the northwestern portion of the continent ruled by the line of Illithariel, one of the oldest and most well-respected elven mages. Drunn had taken to the Istarin Isles, to find new opportunities in the bestial races. I was sent to the ancient homeland of the humans, to Hoshiri, a continent bathed in tradition. Our task was to find the those best suited for the duties we held, to act as arbiters of balance. And the thirteen of us had been spread to far and thin to properly accomplish this task.

Twenty were chosen yet I knew only the names of six of them personally. Nabriales was the first, he was sorcerer of great renown from Corvas. I had met him prior to leaving for Hoshiri and I had wished I could bring him with me. His skills would have been most useful, but I could not risk him dying. I had sent him towards Evelynn to join our path. Kiriyu and Sinna had joined with me not long after my arrival in Hoshiri, both had fought under the Tohiru Shogunate during one of the many civil wars the land had recently come out of. Sinna had little love for the lands of her birth, raised in the rice fields only to become one of the greatest bowwomen the land had ever seen, killing shogun Morimatu with an arrow at over two hundred paces. Kiriyu had earned a stay on his execution at my request, he was what the Hoshirin had called a ninja, I believe a precursor to the assassins on Fen’doril. His skill with short swords and daggers was nothing short of mastery and his use of a short bow would give Evelynn a fright. Toshiro was what he had called a samurai, though Sinna had said he was a ronin? He carried a long-curved sword with a blade sharper than any dwarven forged mithril, he had named it Hirikiri and said it was a katana? Further into the lands I met Kana, a priestess of Lithlynn, though her worship of the nature goddess was far different than I had ever seen. She prayed at alters with incense, near prostrating herself on her knees before aged paintings of the gods. She had said it was her goddess’s will that she come with me and become one who could bring balance. We left Hoshiri soon after and on our return voyage to Fen’doril we met Jax, an older, but quite strong swashbuckler who was tired of “privateering” though I had full knowledge of his background. He had once gone by another name, a decade prior, and I had fought him. His real name was Captain James Black, known as Blackhand. He always wore gloves, dyed black with the dried blood of his fallen enemies. Though he was the least savory man I had met, thankfully, his skills with a blade earned a place among our ranks.

Those memories were a lifetime ago now as I watched Kiriyu drown on his own blood. Kana had succumbed a moment prior after her eyes melted into black ichor and small chunks of brain matter floated to the surface, smoke rising as skin melted. Toshiro’s stomach swelled until it burst, yellow bile and shit intermingled on the floors next to him. With every passing minute the symptoms changed and more perished. I watched as Ez’mo’den, the only Mythra, catfolk, to be selected burst into violet and blue flames, his body was quickly devoured, not even ashes remained.

The only dwarf of the bunch, I had not learned his name, had been twisted and torn, his arms had been tied into a knot above his head, his beard wrapped around his crotch. Both of his legs had become more malleable than bone should allow, bending forward at the knees his toes fitting nicely into his mouth. One eye had exploded moments beforehand while the other was rolling next to him on the floor.

“We could stop this.” Faed’lorhin had said watching as two elven women in unison melted into pools of flesh and blood. Their bones having seemingly vanished.

“Then all will die.” Acaris said her voice unmoving. “Best to see if we can succeed before accepting failure alone.”

“I agree with Acaris, though this is unbecoming of our creed we cannot forfeit now.” Evelynn said, her eyes locked onto Nabriales, who still breathed but slowly. The wounds on his arms and hands slowly vanishing.

“What do you say Thaireon?” Drunn asked as Sinna’s muscles contracted, her spine snapping backwards, bisecting her body just below her ribcage. A scream left her lungs as her head was pulled to face her ass. The popping of vertebrae as her neck gave way.

“We cannot end now.” I said as Jax’s hands ever wrapped in their black gloves began to turn to dust. The skin of his face suctioning to the bones his eyes ejecting from their sockets.

“Tis the first moon of the new year. The night when magic is most potent, this devastation was not the intention we had. The strongest moon to allow us to channel the spell at our fullest and yet. They are dying faster than a plagued city drinking water filled with their own shit.” Eryll said her voice far too condescending. “I had known it would come to this.”

“We had agreed, ten to three, we are spread too far and thin. We needed more of us. And Balthoron had not answered our call. Nor Furellion or Muiriell, Lithlynn even was silent to our prayer.” Rhylenn said, another Salamandir, this one female, her scales liquifying into ruby pools as her teeth popped like corn over too hot a fire.

Hours earlier, we feasted, we drank of wine and told tales of bravery and courage. They joined with us sharing their own trials and tribulations. We sang the songs of our people, shared customs of lands near and far with them as our guides. Had they known their wine was laced with our blood and their flagons etched with runes meant to empower the potency of alcohol. Something we had been unable to feel in far too long. We had poisoned them to make them unaware of the trial they would soon face. If they had known what would become of them would they have agreed? Would they have accepted a fate knowing full well their chances of making it out of this room were impossible? Would they have questioned us as we corralled them onto the alter? Would they have fought as their wrists were opened by my hand? I know not.

Minutes turned to hours as the three who remained continued to draw breath. Their wounds healing, their breathing stabilizing. Of the twenty only the strongest had survived. Three, two humans, and the only dwarf. Nabriales had miraculously survived, his body had returned to a working state. He stirred moments later, as the first sunrise of the new year became clear in the western horizon. Next the woman rose, earlier her skin had dissolved, and her organs emerged from her mouth and now they were back where they belonged, or so I hoped. Finally, the dwarf jolted to life. Standing and taking a guarded stance. Three, only three, remained.

“Greetings my friends. You who have survived the transformation, ascended from the mortal coil and joined with those who strive for balance. You are the few who are worthy of the title of Grey.” I said standing before my newest brothers and sister.

“What in all of the void?” the woman said looking down at her hands. “We died, how do we still breath?”

Evelynn walked up to her, pulled out a dagger and removed her own hand. I had seen this trick before. I watched our newest siblings’ expressions as a new hand began to form first the bones sprout then the muscles cording themselves arounds the bone, followed lastly by skin, starting from the base of the palm and slowly working its way forward, as each joint was finished the next began to form until every fingernail was regrown. “Would anyone like to try as well?”

No one spoke a word as horror painted their faces.

“You will eventually grow accustomed to this, we all have.” Ustegot whispered. It was clear the ritual had taken a toll on her.

“Welcome to the family.” Evelynn said with a smile. “Now to guide the others to their eternal rest.”

*

JUDGE #1’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 4

Characters: 3

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

*

Longest Night by Matthew Johnson

Damnable way to spend the longest night of the year. The night when all sorts of evil things happen, and as proof of it, blood fell in large drops from the sky. Warm drops like rain, but dark red. Stannis’s armor was streaked in gore before the real fighting had started. Standing at the end of a line with hundreds of other men holding heavy pikes to storm the small castle to capture an even smaller baby that Stannis never knew. There to signal the deadly confrontation, Priests of the Eternal Goddess, who turned out to not be so eternal, clustered, buzzing worse than a hornet’s nest and poisonous stingers eager to strike.

“Eire is dying,” the priest, wearing a dragon mask shaped from bones of a really large lizard, said. “We need to take the baby now if we are to preserve our world before the new dawn starts.”

Another priest, this one wearing a mask shaped like a snake, hissed: “Peace! The child isn’t even born.”

“When the old blood ceases, and the new blood replaces, then the world will see a new dawn of a new millennium,” Dragon Priest quoted from the Book of Ages— a popular one used to gather up the soldiers from the ten fiefdoms to threaten the eleventh into submission. “Should the old blood dry and the goddess die without another to reign, then darkness shall circumvent all.”

Stannis wished he were home with his Maggie, who was pregnant with his first child, drinking bitter ale around the Yule log. A son, I hope, to take over the land when I am gone. Let it not be tonight. Hold one more day. One more day. He shuddered at the memory of the bleak messages crossing the ranks—several men who had pregnant wives at home went into labor and all delivered were still-born.

“The depths of the darkest hour the deliverance will commence,” a third priest said, this one sporting a bear mask from the bones of an actual bear. “The sands in the hour glass tell us when the time is right to strike. Before, we risk a premature birth.”

“Too late we risk the world,” Dragon priest said.

“Trust in the prophesy, brother,” Bear Priest said, caressing the Dragon’s arm.

Blood began to puddle in the sopping dirt around Stannis’s feet. The sky showed no signs of relenting. They might soon drown in the Goddess’s blood before they spilt that of a baby. Stannis shoved aside the image. Better someone else’s child sacrificed and ascend. His cousin, Fromm, promised to bring word soon as Maggie delivered. For all he knew, his cousin could be at the camp, waiting to give bad news, but those were not good thoughts to have before entering battel. Stannis had to survive were he to receive the news in this all too frail fleshy existence. He shifted the pike upright against his shoulder. Like him, it had begun to waver.

Tink-tink-tink. The blood rain splattered his armor, sluicing through the grooves in his helm and coating his face. In the dim light of lanterns their faces all appeared like demons rising from hell.

Bear Priest held up the hour glass and Stannis watched the few grains of sand slip through.

“It is time,” Bear Priest said.

“Blow the horn!” Snake Priest shouted, drawing two jagged short swords that were curved like fangs.

A deep bellowing noise surged through the rain. Three blurts and the line of men began to move, slowly at first. Stannis’s section remained in the same bloody mud, breath puffing out in anticipation. Come on, come on, come on, come on. The man in front of him shuffled forward and the one beside him and soon the entire row. He couldn’t see anything more than the man in front and he watched the back, keeping a step back so he didn’t slam into him at a sudden stop. One important rule stuck with Stannis: keep your feet. Otherwise, he would be trampled by the hundreds of men behind him. Though, he had some maneuvering ability being at the end of the line.

The man in front of him staggered and fell over. Stannis stepped around him, noticing a arrow jutting from his face and he squirmed in the blood and the mud trying to extract it. His cries joined a multitude as more arrows dropped from the sky. One clicked off Stannis’s helm and he flinched. There was no turning back, not without facing the hundreds of men behind him and possibly still taking an arrow in the back. Forward. Faster. Forward. Faster. He hunched, hoping to make himself a smaller target. The line stopped in front of him and Stannis found himself much closer to front than he originally started. Large stone walls were outlined in wavering fire light.

“Lower pikes!”

 Pikes against a stone wall?

Then he saw an outline of men approaching. The tips of their spears closed in, though the pikes had longer reach. Stannis lowered his pike, observing men falling, bodies churned in the mud and darkness, and he moved closer to the front. Another arrow clattered across his shin, bouncing away to sting someone else in the night. He lowered his pike in time to watch the steel point press into a man, eliciting a painful scream, and Stannis dug in his heels, bent his knees, and pushed. The fleshy resistance gave way, nearly ripping the pike from his hands.

Movement caught his eye. He shifted the pike, but too slow. The shaft vibrated in his hand, the weight of it turned to the right and a man shouted garbled words. Pain lanced up Stannis’s left side, forcing him to drop the pike and grapple the man who had stabbed him. They rolled in the mud, punching, growling, fingers probing for throats and eyes. Stannis lost his helm and the man lifted it, battering him on the forearm, neck, chest and a blow that lanced through his face as it landed on his nose. Blood rain threated to drown him. Panicked hands gripped something sharp and slammed it into the man’s side two, three, four times, followed by grunts. The man slid off, falling to the ground and clutching his side. Stannis coughed, body aching. He rolled over and jammed the broken spearhead into the man’s throat.

Stannis staggered to his feet. The field was a mass of writing bodies, horrific shadows fighting in the backlight of spreading fires. His nose was clogged with blood, throat lined in daggers, and the night dissolved into haze and shifted back into a living nightmare.

“The gate! Get to the gate!” Dragon Priest pointed with his gore covered mace. “Don’t let them close it!”

A deep breath fell over the battlefield and fighting slowed. Then the defenders ran to the gate pursued and hacked by the attackers. Stannis picked up an abandoned axe and then a sword, lurching across the slop, hoping not to be struck in the back, mistaken for a fleeing foe. How anyone could distinguish friend from foe was beyond Stannis’s ability to comprehend. Blood anointed all.

Across the rampart he limped, pursuing and pursued. He struck one man in the back, hoping it was an enemy, then continued beneath the gate. Small skirmishes broke out, but Stannis walked among them, beyond them. A ghost, neither attacking or defending.

A man hailed him and Stannis approached.

“Help me with the wounded.” His eyes widened as Stannis stuck him with the sword and kept moving.

For Maggie, and their child, he hunted the Princess. A boy, please let it be a boy. The sound of battle faded replaced by the cries and moans of the wounded and dying. Morrigan guided Stannis, her messenger, the blood of Eire masking his true identity until it was too late and he sent soul after soul to the unsatisfied thirst of the gods. A venerable feast on this long night, the longest night that never ended. Torches burned, casting long, deep shadows. Faces blurred and few questioned his presence. When they did, he murmured words about a breech and stabbed the surprised men, further coating his body in blood. Dripping red, leaving a trail of bodies and gore, he came to a large building.

A woman dressed in white ran inside, carrying a bundle what might have been linen or rags, followed by another hefting a bucket. Stannis approached, expecting a cry to halt, but no one stood guard at the door. They probably figured the enemy wouldn’t breech so far and from the distant battle cry, they were mostly correct.

Stannis opened the door and heard sounds of a woman in distress. Calm voices tried to sooth her. Stannis followed their sounds to a small room. A Yule log burned in the fireplace producing an uncomfortable heat, and a young woman lay with her legs spread on blankets, surrounded by three women in white. None noticed his presence.

“Breath, lass, keep on breathing,” an older woman said, holding the younger one’s hand.

“There’s its head, hold it gentle,” another woman said, tossing a bloody rag into the bucket.

“Goddess, what’s that around its neck?”

The young woman grunted, sounding like a beast. The baby squeezed out into the waiting hands. Stannis watched, his heart sinking. The baby was blue. The bloody umbilical cord wrapped around its throat like a noose.

“Get me a warm blanket,” the woman holding the blue child said.

“It’s too late,” Stannis said. “She’s dead.”

The room went deathly silent, three pale faces turned to him, while the fourth, red and sweaty, twisted in anguish. Fire crackled and the young woman, the Princess Stannis neither knew nor cared about, sucked in a deep breath.

“No!” she screamed. “Give me my baby!”

Stannis held his left hand out to the woman cradling the dead infant, holding his sword up to her throat.

“Give it here and I’ll let you all live.”

The woman handed him the corpse and he cut the cord. He moved slowly, stunned, caught in hopelessness. This was to be their savior, Eire’s replacement. No, the baby was as dead as the Goddess would soon be.

Outside, the bloody rain was becoming a red mist. Soon the Goddess would be dead and the light of a new year would not shine on humanity. Stannis carried the corpse back to the gate where the battle had ended. Bodies piled up, so many bodies, and among the living he saw three masks. The Dragon, Lizard, and Snake priests. Each questioned a man, thrust a blade into his body and cast it aside before bringing up the next prisoner.

“Where is the Princess?” Lizard Priest demanded.

“Here is the baby,” Stannis said. “She is dead. The Princess’s baby is dead.

A stunned silence filled the courtyard.

“But the prophesy?” Dragon Priest said.

Shoulders slunk in defeat.

“What do we do now?” Stannis placed the corpse in the Dragon Priests hands. “There is no salvation.”

A man pushed his way through the soldiers at the gate and whispered to the Snake Priest.

“There is another,” Snake Priest said. “A messenger brought word of a birth. A girl! A living girl!”

Stannis noticed Fromm standing next to the Snake Priest. Fromm looked away, and Stannis knew Maggie gave birth. Not a boy. Stannis’s legs felt weak and he wanted to lie down among the dead. Not a boy. Gods-damnit, a girl! A bloody girl! They would kill her and leave Stannis with no child.

“Bring up the horses!” Dragon Priest commanded. “We may yet see a new year.”

Maggie will be so disappointed. Stannis drew the sword and stabbed the Dragon Priest through the back. He tore it free, turned, and killed Snake Priest before he could flinch. The killing continued for a long time.

New blood joined the old blood.

The rain ceased. Eire died.

And the longest night got even longer.

*

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 Curse by Kenneth Bragg

The path through the Harfeld Wilds is a treacherous one, full of innumerate ways for a soul to be lost. Throughout the last thousand years most found their way there through bad luck, but luck holds no sway over the three men now making their way to its heart.

“I still don’t see why we have to do this. Couldn’t we have just hired a wizard to undo the spell?” Corgel walked with his shoulders high and chin raised, but the grimace on his face grew ever greater with each new splotch and stain on his freshly oiled boots.

“Curse, Corgel. Witches curse you. They don’t cast spells.” Weis pushed up his spectacles and adjusted the belt on his ill-fitted trousers.

“And what’s the difference? I’m sure a wizard could undo a curse too,” said Corgel.

“Aye, they could, but it’s tricky. Curses require a time, an intonation, and conditions to be met before they activate. Spells work immediately. So to undo a spell, you just have to know the counterspell,” Weis gestured in a way reminiscent of a novice wizard casting his spell, “To undo a curse, you have to know the exact time, conditions and language used in the original. All of which requires a separate divination, meaning it’s also much more expensive than what we could afford,” Weis drove this last point home by jingling the small coin purse at his waist.

“Getting this smell out of my clothes is going to be expensive too, think of that, Weis,” asked Corgel as he brushed the sappy pine needles off of his shoulders.

“I’m sure the New Year celebration in Dionys would have proven equally soiling to your garments,” sniped Weis.

“And remind me again why we left that for…this,” asked Corgel.

“Because had we not, we would have fallen over with blood pouring from every, and I mean every, orifice on our body before convulsing and dying at the crux of the celebration,” replied Weis.

“So you’re saying we could be dying full of beer and mirth, partying our asses off in dry clothes instead of being caked in mud and shit, trekking through the cold wilderness? Not sounding like a bad option right now,” said Corgel.

“Hush, now. Both of you. We’re close.” Captain Roesh, formerly of the Dionys royal infantry and current condottiere of The Gallant Mercenaries, walked at the fore of the party. He had listened to the two men squabble for the past hour, pushing away the thoughts of his current misfortune. These were the men he had and he needed them sharp.

“I see her hut through the treeline ahead,” said Rosch. He had only seen the place before in the fever dreams that haunted his sleep this past year, but the wrenching feeling in his gut told him that they had reached their destination. “Eyes forward now, and mouths shut.”

Rosch and his lieutenants stole their way across the field between the treeline and hut, a fire burning inside the only source of light now that the moon hid behind an overcast sky. The men assembled themselves around the door, ready to strike, but as Rosch’s hand made contact with the handle, the world around them distorted and the ground became uneasy.

“It’s a trap!” yelled Weis.

“No shit!” yelled Corgel as the ground opened to swallow them.

A moment later they found themselves sprawled across the floor of an earthen chamber lit faintly by ethereal green torches.

“Where are we?” asked Corgel.

As they regained their footing, Rosch pulled his own torch from his pack and lit it. “I don’t know, but we need to find a way out,” he said.

The roots hanging from the ceiling and dank, musky air told Rosch only that they were somewhere beneath the surface, but the way in or out eluded him.

“I have something,” said Weis, stooping to the ground at the center of the room. He pulled a long, age-worn bone from the midst of leaves and soil on the floor, “It’s…it’s..”

Rosch checked the ground beneath his own feet and found the empty eye sockets of a bronzed skull peering back at him.

“A graveyard,” he said.

“Fuck this shit. I knew I shouldn’t have come here,” said Corgel as he pulled at his hair and stamped the ground.

“We’re trapped…we’re never leaving…she won’t let us,” added Weis, the tremor in his voice mirrored by his body’s unbidden shaking.

“It doesn’t do us any good to panic now,” added Rosch as he breathed in deep to calm himself.

“Like hell it doesn’t, If I…” began Corgel.

A loud cackle emanated from all around the room, it’s piercing maleficence like blades in the hearts of the men. Rosch unsheathed his sword and steadied himself, but he saw to his frustration that Corgel and Weis still stood as if frozen in place.

“Prepare yourselves,” he shouted.

At that Weis shook himself and picked up his crossbow, sliding a bolt into the track and cranking it taut. Corgel needed only seconds to slide the daggers beneath his sleeves into view.

The blood of new and blood of old shall this night mix in dark and cold.

Ichor shall rise until two fall, and the one set free consume it all.

The curse complete, then enters she, the true queen of the damned.

The ground began to shake, and from the walls emerged several chutes.

“”There’s writing on the sides,” said Corgel. As he leaned in closer to get a look at the words, a viscous red liquid spewed out.

“Fuck! She meant it literally,” he said, spitting and shaking his arms free of the substance.

“Of course she did, you moron,” yelled Weis.

As the other fountains poured out their contents, the saturated floor released the old bones beneath its surface to bob and weave around the chamber.

Corgel advanced towards Weis, “Then I suppose she meant we had to kill each other to get out.”

Weis leveled his crossbow in Corgel’s direction as Rosch sloshed his way towards them.

“You gonna shoot me? Come on then, only one of us gets to live,” said Corgel, raising his hands to his sides.

“Stay back, or I damn sure will,” replied Weis.

“Stop fighting each other and help me find a way out of here,” said Rosch as he reached them.

Corgel’s fingers twitched, their past experiences weighing heavy on his indecision. After a tense moment, Corgel lowered his blades and Weis followed with his crossbow.

“Fine. But I swear if this stuff gets above my waist all truces are off,” said Corgel.

“Agreed,” said Weis.

“Let’s not let it get to that point,” said Rosch, “Do you think we could dig our way out?”

Corgel followed his gaze, looking up at the thick growth of the dome.

“There’s not a lot of space for digging. The roots are tangled everywhere. We’d have to hack away at some of those first. And they’re too high to..”

A thrum sounded, and Corgel went silent, his eyes wide. Rosch felt an intense pinch in his shoulder, and when he looked down he saw the shaft of a bolt. He glanced back at Corgel, but the man was dead and the weight of his body pulled him down into the rising gore. As he fell he saw Weis speaking, but the blood rushing in his ears drowned everything else out.

In the dark, copper rich liquid Rosch snapped the bolt to dislodge himself from Corgel’s corpse and raised his sword blind as he leapt upward. His steel met flesh.

“It…had to be…this way,” said Weis.

“No, but it was always going to be me if it did,” replied Rosch, sinking his sword further into Weis’ chest.

As Weis’ body collapsed, the chutes went dry. The witch cackled again from somewhere outside the chamber and the slurry of bodies, bones and blood began to concentrate in the middle of the room. Rosch planted his sword and held on as best he could to keep from being swept up through the hole that opened up at the center of the room.

Congratulations, mercenary.

“Don’t speak to me, witch! Just keep your end of the bargain and let me out of here,” he said.

Patience. Your reward is coming. Very soon.

As the torrent subsided a demon hand grasped the edge of the abyss, rising to take macabre form from the bodies and bones the witch had collected throughout the millennia. It lurched towards Rosch, but his exhaustion and injury made it a fight to keep consciousness.  Before he drifted off he heard it speak.

You have freed us. Now you shall deliver us.

*



JUDGE #1’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 3

Characters: 3

Plot : 3

Enjoyment: 3

TOTAL: 12


JUDGE #2’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 4

Characters: 4

Plot : 3

Enjoyment: 4

TOTAL: 15

JANUARY 2022 TOTAL: 27 POINTS
OVERALL POINTS: 27 POINTS


*


God’s Gift by Sean Crow

The downpour continued as the Moralian mag-train powered through the City of Saints. The acrid stink of contaminated rainfall seeped through the filtration system as the vast cityscape passed by, bright lights and holo-marketing a forgotten wonder as Oscar Ortega clutched the long, titanium briefcase in his lap.

Oscar glanced between the pairs of Martyrs’ Sons standing at either end of the mag-train car. Their gilded power-armor, interwoven with depictions of the Saints who had fallen during the Third Crusade, amplified their already impressive bulk beneath. 

He swallowed and chewed at his lower lip. The Martyrs’ Sons were the most formidable fighting force in the City of Saints. It was hard to believe that their unprecedented arrival in the Moralian Sector was on his account, especially as most of their order had gone to the border of the Columbian Republic, where the threat of attack was imminent.

Of course, on the day of the Aztec New Year, things had changed for Oscar, the Martyrs’ Sons… for everyone.

Panicked laughter threatened to bubble out of Oscar as he looked about the empty train car. With millions in need of evacuation, he had been given special treatment. Oscar could still hear their desperate cries for help as the Martyrs’ Sons forced their way through the crowd at the station in order to reach the mag-train. 

The face of a woman appeared in Oscar’s mind, dark eyes pleading as she offered her child to him. He had almost reached out, but fear stayed his hand. It would have been a simple act to take the child and give it to the Church upon arrival, yet his hands remain locked around the case. She had been quickly driven away, only to be lost in a sea of anguish. 

Yet those eyes were burned into his memory.

The Church had decided that Oscar was more important.

No, Oscar told himself, what he had discovered was important. His life was a secondary focus.

The Blessed of the Sun had somehow bypassed the border defenses and arrived at the doorstep of the City of Saints. If it fell, like the United Cities of Brazil and Columbia, the slaughter that followed would stain the earth for centuries to come.

One of the Martyrs’ Sons at the front of the car put a hand to his com while his companion adjusted his helmet and double checked the rail-rifle in his arms. Oscar glanced back to see the other pair seemed to be on edge.

Oscar wasn’t a soldier. He was a researcher, a scientist, and a scholar. While he had watched the conflict of the Fourth Crusade escalate through vids on the various news networks, he never imagined it would have come to the City of Saints so quickly. Even so, he knew trouble when it raised its ugly head, and the manner in which the Martyrs checked their gear told Oscar that trouble was on its way.

The emergency broadcast network emblem of the eagle clutching a snake atop a cross, blinked off of the vid-screens within the train car and Oscar found his eyes fixed on the woman speaking.

“Attention citizens, the outer walls have been breached. Additional aero-lifts have been dispatched for transport and will be arriving within the hour.”

She paused, her attention flickering to someone off screen. He saw the fear in her eyes as if it were a reflection of his own. 

“Please maintain a semblance of calm as you-” 

Heavy footsteps sounded through the train car as one of the Martyrs’ Sons tapped the power tab to the screen, cutting off the news feed before Oscar could hear the rest. The Martyr had yet to don his helmet, revealing a deep scar that ran from his eyebrow to the back of his head. He was an officer, Oscar realized, noticing the tears engraved on the Saint patch on his chest piece. 

 “The next stop has been compromised,” the Martyr rumbled. “Best hunker down beneath the seats as best you can.”

The soldier reached for his side arm and held it out.

Oscar stared at the firearm, hands still wrapped about the case, unable to release. “I-I’m not a fighter.””

The officer shook his head. “You’ll fight if you value your life, or if you don’t have the balls to stand, you’ll put it in your mouth and pull the trigger. Personally, I don’t give a shit, but know this; if those Tecca’s get their hands on you, you’ll wish with every ounce of your being that you died fighting.”

Oscar’s mind was reeling. “How are they ahead of us? The news said-”

The Matry snorted. “You believe that trash? The city has been lost already, now get down if you value your life. Point that piece at anything that isn’t us and pull the trigger until it stops moving, got it?”

“Station’s coming up,” another Martyr called from the front of the car. 

Still holding the gun out and seeing that Oscar was frozen in place, the soldier sneered and tossed the side arm in the seat beside him. Without another word, the man took his position up at the front, shoulder hard up against the siding with his rail-rifle raised. 

“Incoming,” the second Martyr in the front began to call, but his voice was cut off as the train car windows were ripped apart. 

Tearing metal, like the shrieking cries of La Llorona herself filled Oscar’s ears as his body finally bolted into action and he hunkered down.

Lights went out, breaking apart the bright train car and replacing it with flashes of intermittent rail-fire. Each round fired by the Martyrs’ Sons reverberated in Oscar’s chest, the deep concussive blasts from the high powered weapons almost more than his body could withstand. Pressing himself as far as he could to the floor of the train car, Oscar held the titanium case overtop of him. At some point during the firefight there was a sharp pain that shot down his arm from his fingers, but he was too afraid to see what had caused it. 

Oscar didn’t know if the firefight had lasted minutes or moments, all he knew was that he didn’t want to die. He prayed and wept in his hiding place, asking God to save him from the nightmare he found himself in. Eventually something grabbed his leg and Oscar screamed, the case he held forgotten as he tried to flail away from the iron grip that held him.

“Calm the fuck down,” the grim voice of the Martyr snarled as he shook Oscar like a ragdoll.

Oscar blinked a few times, the snot and tears still dripping from him as he realized they had survived. It was only after the Martyr shook him again that Oscar realized he was still screaming. 

“Saints help us, he pissed himself,”  the Martyr said, backing away, and Oscar noticed the warm, chafing damp of his pants.

Numbly he looked around himself, seeing blackened shards of what looked to be obsidian sticking up from the steel. His breaths came out ragged, his heart pounding like a drummer on chems. Reaching up, Oscar brushed a bit of his hair back only to feel something warm where his hand touched skin. Holding his hand out, Oscar realized he was missing two fingertips. 

“Oh God…” Oscar murmured, voice rasping and raw.

A small canister fell into his lap with the words ‘Synth-skin’ printed on the side. 

“Spray it anywhere you’ve been cut. It’ll stop the bleeding.”

Still numb, Oscar looked up to see the result of the firefight. The entire car was filled with obsidian shards sticking into the seats and siding. The rush of wind from shattered windows whistled through the car, but it was muted. Everything was muffled. One of the Martyrs was down, blood seeping from the corners of his armor that weren’t covered in plates, obsidian shards sticking out of the neck guard as well. The Martyrs had moved the soldier’s body to a corner, one of them exchanging his obsidian riddled rail-rifle for his fallen companion’s weapon.

The officer turned to his remaining companions, “That should be it. The checkpoints ahead are cl-”

Oscar looked up and saw a figure standing motionless on the other side of the door leading into the car. The man seemed to have been dipped in gold. Everything shone like the sun, from his form-fitting armor to the feathered crest helmet over his head. Human eyes, embedded into the golden plates, filled Oscar with a deep dread as he realized their gaze was entirely focused upon him. 

He needed to look away, but…couldn’t. 

The golden figure set about the Martyrs before they could turn their weapons on him. He moved with silky grace that no mortal could possess. In moments, three of the most fearsome soldiers the City of Saints had to offer were lying in pools of their own blood, limbs scattered about the train car like discarded toys. Their officer writhed on the ground, snarling as blood pumped out where his arm had been torn free.

Oscar tried to move, but couldn’t. His eyes were locked on the golden figure before him.

The man was surprisingly short, yet he moved like one accustomed to more space than he filled. The Tecca leaned over the dying officer and pulled the soldier’s helmet off just as the Martyr attempted to throw a punch. Several eyes on the armor shifted to address the threat. The man in gold didn’t even seem to move, but suddenly he held the powered fist in one hand, never breaking his eyes from the dying man.

“Poor little Christian,” the golden man said, his free hand darting forward to remove an eye.

The Martyr screamed even as the man in gold placed the eye onto his shoulder. The gold plates opened up, allowing the optic nerves to be attached into the armor before drawing it in and adding the eye to the collection adorning him. As if an afterthought, the Tecca shifted his weight and snapped the arm of the Martyr at his feet. The Martyr’s cries were weaker now, the blood pumping from his socket slowing to a trickle as life left him.

The man in gold watched the soldier die.

But the eyes on his armor turned to Oscar.

Oscar knew his life was about to end and something inside him finally clicked. He went for the gun that had been laying on the seat, only to find it had fallen to the floor. Reaching out, Oscar wrapped his fingers around the grip.

“We heard you carry something that belongs to the gods,” the Tecca whispered, suddenly looming above Oscar.

He turned to fire, but his phantom fingertip passed through the trigger. The Tecca laughed, swatting the gun aside, and lifted Oscar onto one of the seats. Obsidian shards dug into Oscar’s thighs, and he let out a whimper. As if that small sound was the cracking of the fragile dam that held back his emotions, Oscar broke, tears falling as he sobbed.

“Hush now,” the Tecca told him, caressing Oscar’s cheek. “There is no need to weep. You have brought me something beautiful.” 

There was a brief snap as the locks on the titanium case were broken, revealing the macuahuitl inside. Even after millennia of disuse, bits of old, dried blood glistened on the obsidian. The man took the weapon with reverence and smiled.

“Please,” Oscar pleaded, “let me live.”

 The Tecca turned. 

“Only if the gods wish it so, little one. If not,” he brandished the flat wooden club, obsidian shards all around its edge, “the new blood of this glorious age will spill from your veins. I honor you; there are few who have been offered up by the Blessed of the Sun.”

Oscar held up his hands as the weapon rose higher, remembering the officer’s warning.

He should have put the gun in his mouth when he had the chance.

*



JUDGE #1’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 5

Characters: 4

Plot : 4

Enjoyment: 5

TOTAL: 18


JUDGE #2’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 5

Characters: 4

Plot : 4

Enjoyment: 4

TOTAL: 17

JANUARY 2022 TOTAL: 35 POINTS
OVERALL POINTS: 35 POINTS

*


The Belltower by Frank Dorrian

The bronze doors slammed shut. Agallon dropped the bar in place. ‘Seal it, Elkara,’ he panted, voice ringing through his closed helm. ‘Quickly.’

Elkara nodded. She swept a hand from the depths of her robes, tracing the sigil-shapes in the air, fingertips trailing golden light. The doors’ edges glowed, running liquid over their bar, cooling rapidly into a solid slab of bronze.

‘It is done,’ Agallon uttered.

‘There will be no coming back from this,’ said Elkara, a prayer to Kathas almost forming on her lips. She chided herself.

‘I have made my choices,’ said Agallon, ‘as you have yours. Come. This will not hold the others for long.’

‘I know.’ Elkara bit her tongue as Agallon made for the Bell Chamber. Fear dragged the question out of her again. ‘When they breach it, what –’

‘Then I will stand as your aegis,’ Agallon said over an armoured shoulder, ‘as I always have. This Chamber will be my grave, whatever the outcome. All that matters is that you succeed.’

Agallon went forth, armour glittering with the Chamber’s light. Elkara lingered. Every moment doubt and anxiety screaming into the quiet behind Agallon’s footsteps.

‘I’m sorry.’

The Summoning Bell of Kathas rang high overhead, flaring gold against the Belltower’s dome. Sweet thunder filled the Bell Chamber, full of power.

Full of fear.

Kathas knew why they had come.

A wave of power slammed into Elkara with the Bell’s tolling, staggering her. She bit down, striding through its resonance and the false god’s might.

Today would be the end. The beginning of the end, at least. For the first time since Kathas had raised her Belltower an aeon ago to protect Gellas’s people, the Sleeping God’s Bell would fall silent. Kathas would starve. The Heroes of the Belltower would be no more.

Agallon would be no more.

Elkara pushed the thought away, moving to his side. The platform housing the Bell’s mechanisms rose before them. The Bellkeeper watched from atop its golden stairwell, towering on a beast’s reverse-jointed legs. Its first pair of arms were crossed upon a vast, scarred chest, the second clutching a pair of massive, curved swords, their ancient blades notched and worn. Its charge, the Bellringer, toiled beyond it, its four arms hauling upon the golden chain that turned the wheels and pulleys that set Kathas’s abomination clanging.

Elkara winced, another surge of the Bell’s power setting her sorcery stirring within her chest.

‘Ready?’ she gasped. Agallon nodded, hefting Sorrow, the massive hammer at his feet. Urros, High Priest of Kathas’s blood was still slick upon its face.

Elkara moved toward the stairwell. The Bellkeeper’s head followed her, encased in a fully-enclosed golden helm without so much as an eye-slit upon its glittering surface. She prepared to speak the challenge.

A boom shook the doors in the passage behind them. Agallon looked over his shoulder, calm as ever. ‘They’re here, Elkara.’

She muttered a prayer inadvertently, blood on her tongue as she chewed her lip. The Bell tolled. Another boom shook the doors.

‘Elkara.’

‘I know!’ she spat, tears upon her cheeks as she met Agallon’s stare, his face hidden beneath Kathas’s feminine countenance sculpted in steel.

‘We’ve no time,’ said Agallon. ‘Your blessing, Priestess. Please.’

Elkara’s teeth ground, her sorcery swelling against another crash of Kathas’ accursed Bell. She stepped toward him, fingers tracing the filthy sigils of their false god’s blessing.

‘Strength of Kathas, Gilded Soul of Men, the Shining Grace be with you.’

The sigils upon Agallon’s armour burst into life, rippling with heatless flames. Elkara lowered her gaze.

This was their final moment together. No matter how many times she had prepared herself, still, it broke her. The Bell’s toll smothered her grief. Cold steel pressed against her forehead.

‘Elkara.’ Agallon’s gauntleted hand raised her chin. ‘Please. The blessing. Be strong, Priestess.’

She nodded, stepping back. ‘Go forth, Agallon, the Shield Unbreakable – teach our enemies the meaning of sorrow.’

Agallon nodded, his armour’s sigils roaring. He turned, the Chamber shaking beneath the might of his tread and the corrupted weight of Kathas’ favour.

Cracks webbed the buckled doors’ housing, wall and ceiling more willing to give than this sacred gateway.

Agallon planted his feet, marble shattering. A voice trickled through the doors. ‘Elkara! Agallon! Open these doors and answer for the murder of Urros!’

Haellas, the Blade Unyielding, greatest and most terrible of their order.

‘All who pass through these doors will feel Sorrow’s bite!’ Agallon roared, shaking the passage. Another voice answered.

‘Don’t be a fool, Agallon!’ Essa, the Arrow Unerring. ‘Enough blood has been spilled! You know what Elkara means to do! She’ll kill us all!’

Agallon growled. Death, at long last, was a cold prospect, and even colder reward for victory.

‘What of the people, Agallon?’ Essa pleaded. ‘We are all that stands between them and the darkness of Vakar!’

Essa spoke true. The abominations sent by the dark god Vakar would slaughter countless. But he had seen the truth of it at Elkara’s side – seen the lies, the bed of rot beneath Kathas’s lustrous scab and gilded grace.

The two were one and the same.

Vakar. Kathas.

They were nothing but masks for a nameless, slumbering creature that  dreamt and fed upon the faith and fear of the weak masses, dangling its puppet Heroes before them. The people of Gellas were naught but children at a shadow-show, surrounded by wolves.

The madness of their legacy would have rendered most of the Heroes beyond those doors quivering wrecks, had they been willing to face the truth. They were nothing but slaves to a formless leech, souls trapped by its dreaming, summoned time and time again by the ringing of its foul Bell to butcher the creations it set upon the people of Gellas. But he was Agallon, the Shield Unbreakable, aegis of Elkara, and he feared neither truth nor grave.

Kathas must die.

‘Heroes of the Belltower,’ Agallon cried, ‘turn back or be broken!’

‘Sannas!’ Haellas roared. ‘Tear these doors apart!’

The doors glowed with terrible heat. Agallon thrust his hand out. His greatshield, Dour, flared into being in its grasp, swinging before him as the doors exploded.

‘Bellkeeper.’ Elkara ascended the stairs, forcing herself to ignore the thoom behind her. ‘Stand down. Your watch is over. I, Elkara, Priestess of Kathas, will shoulder your burden.’

‘Blind, I am, but I see your heart, Elkara.’ The Bellkeeper spoke with the crashing of a hundred mournful bells, the air filling with the sound of distant chimes. ‘You would betray us. Plunge our fragile wards into the darkness of Vakar.’

‘The darkness of Vakar is the forge of your making, Bellkeeper.’ Elkara climbed another step, hands splayed. ‘You are no different to the abominations it sends to bring misery to Gellas.’ Her fingertips trailed light. ‘I have seen the truth of Kathas. She is source and salve of this land’s ills. Stand down.’

The Bellkeeper reached for the second pair of swords riding its hips. The blades met on the draw, spraying sparks. ‘I yield my charge to no traitor.’

Elkara closed her eyes. ‘I feared as much.’

The Bellkeeper charged.

Sorrow smashed Sannas, the Eternal Flame, deep into the wall, the sorcerer hanging broken, chest crushed flat. Agallon stepped over the bodies of eight other Heroes, blocking the passageway. Ulo, the Grimblade, charged through the ruined doorway.

Dour shuddered beneath Ulo’s axe. Agallon countered, the Grimblade’s knee exploding in a spray of steel, blood, and bone. Sorrow silenced his scream, splattering Ulo across the passage.

Agallon sagged upon Dour. His armour was cracked, dented from a hundred blows, its sigils arcing, leaking power. Blood squelched in his right boot, pouring from the wound in his side.

‘Enough!’

Essa loomed in the doorway, sigil-bow drawn. Haellas towered behind her, black-armoured, his six arms each clutching a long, single-edged blade. Agallon straightened against his wounds.

‘I am the Shield Unbreakable.’ Dour’s edge slammed into the floor. ‘I will let no harm come to Elkara. None may pass.’

Crack! A glowing shaft pinged from Dour into the ceiling, detonating, a mountain of masonry crashing down atop Agallon.

The Bellkeeper’s form contorted, two of its blades a hair’s breadth from scything through Elkara. The ancient creature strained against the sigil of binding wrought upon it.

‘Why, Priestess?’ it grunted. ‘You were Hopebringer. The Dawn of Kathas. Why doom all you once protected?’

‘A thing born to chains could never understand freedom.’ Elkara swept her hands out, tearing the Bellkeeper in two.

Haellas and Essa moved through the gloom as Agallon heaved a slab of stone from his chest. Pain flooded him, his armour’s sigils crackled, flickered, their power fading. His left arm was trapped beneath a pile of masonry, and agony blazed through a crushed leg.

The pair loomed. Agallon’s heart sank as he groped for Sorrow, finding her lost beneath stone.

‘It’s over, Agallon.’ Sadness pooled in Essa’s eyes.

‘Put the bastard out of his misery,’ Haellas snarled.

Essa kneeled. Her fingers traced the face of Agallon’s helm. ‘Do you seek Kathas’ mercy, brother?’ Tears in her dark eyes, her raven hair stained grey with dust. A sigil-knife appeared in her hand.

Agallon reached for her, found the warmth of her cheek. She took his hand. Her sob became a gasp, his fist knotting in her hair. He smashed her face into the stone across his chest and flung her body aside, splattering against the wall. ‘None may pass,’ Agallon croaked.

‘Stupid bitch should have just killed you!’ Haellas moved, swords a stabbing frenzy. Agallon seized the one that fell for his throat, its edge slicing his palm to the bone, grating as he strained against Haellas’s horrific strength. He twisted the blade, snapping it in half. Snarling, Haellas dropped to a knee, the sword’s broken end punching through the armour about Agallon’s neck, straight through his throat.

Haellas’s six-slitted visor filled his vision, dark sigils pulsing. ‘I longed for this, Agallon.’ The blade twisted, grinding steel, flesh, cartilage. Agallon coughed blood inside his helm, darkness pressing against his vision.

A scream snapped Haellas’s head up. ‘No…’ The distant clang of bells swallowed the horror of the Bellkeeper’s final moment.

She did it.

Agallon managed a smile as Haellas’s blade ripped free. Darkness snapped shut.

A wave of sorrow staggered Elkara as she mounted the platform, crying out. Agallon was gone, snuffed out, ripped from her.

I’m sorry. Forgive me.

No. Weakness had no place here, not at the end of the path they had wrought together. Agallon would have said as much.

Elkara stood. The Bellringer lay before her, its arms working tirelessly. Like the Bellkeeper, it wore a sealed golden helm, its legs bent like a beast’s. She moved toward it, through the turning, glittering gears lining the platform.

‘Bellringer.’ Elkara’s fingers traced subtle sigils at her sides. It ignored her. ‘I come to relieve you of your curse.’

‘The Bell must ring,’ the creature rumbled.

‘No.’ She moved closer. ‘Take your rest. Bring us silence.’

‘Elkara!’

The Blade Unyielding leapt high over the platform, falling with all six swords poised for the strike. They snapped shut like the legs of a pouncing spider, the air flooding with golden light. Hero and blade hung frozen above her, binding sigils glowing across both.

‘You dare continue with this madness,’ Haellas grunted, twitching. ‘I will tear the limbs from you like a fly, you bitch!’

Elkara met Haellas’s hateful stare. One of his swords was broken, bloodstained.

Agallon.

‘I will watch this world rot,’ Elkara snarled, ‘and a new one rise from its corpse – born in blood – free of Kathas, free of Vakar – and I will cherish the sound of your screams.’

Sigils of rending and death awoke across the Bellringer’s back.

‘No!’

Elkara tore the Bellkeeper apart and the world with it. The Bell Chamber flooded with golden light, its walls resonating with the screams of the Heroes of the Belltower, the ringing ended at last.

*

JUDGE #1’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 5

Characters: 4

Plot : 4

Enjoyment: 5

TOTAL: 18


JUDGE #2’s SCORING:

Worldbuilding: 5

Characters: 4

Plot : 4

Enjoyment: 4

TOTAL: 17

JANUARY 2022 TOTAL: 35 POINTS
OVERALL POINTS: 35 POINTS

*

To check the overall standings of the Grimdark World Cup so far, you can check the following link: https://negative-hp.com/2022/02/07/2022-grimdark-world-cup-standings/