February 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 February 2022
1. A Frozen Heart
2. A Bleeding Sword
3. A Timely Massacre

*

Just a Job by Joe Coates

Rosa Vestergaard had always believed that panic, of the full-blown hysterical kind, was not something a person could experience on their own. On the few occasions when her work had given her cause to consider it, she’d thought that proper, mind-numbing terror needed at least one other person to feed off, to make whatever horror was being faced real and shared and tangible, somehow.

Now, hovering uncertainly at the bottom of the stone stairs that led up to the main atrium, her face covered in something wet and sticky that she suspected must be blood—Petra’s or Adriel’s, or maybe old Feleti’s—she realised how wrong she’d been about that.

Rosa squatted by the heavy tungsten door with her hand pressed against it. It was only then, as she counted her heartbeats, that she realised she wasn’t sure what she was waiting for. For survivors? For someone to actually be alive after what had just transpired? She didn’t believe it, not really, but she was squatting there in the cold, stony dark anyway.

A pale hand, gore encrusted, lunged out of the doorway. It clasped Rosa by the wrist.

The thrill of fear that surged through her almost made her vomit. Ignoring every instinct telling her to tuck tail and run, Rosa reached forward and hauled Raphail Manidis into the relative light of the corridor. His wispy white hair always reminded her of the dandelions she’d read about. He was only forty-four, but their work had taken its toll on him.

“Go…” he said, his shock of snowy hair stuck up every which way. “Go now! Wait! Do you have the sword?”

“No,” Rosa said.

Raphail’s face fell. “My god…” he whispered.

Rosa kicked the door shut and, grabbing Raphail by his bony shoulders, exerted a strength she wasn’t aware she had and towed him up the stairs.

Raphail’s breathing was a gasping whine, grating in her ears. He wasn’t a fit man. His face was so pale that Rosa briefly wondered whether he was suffering from an internal haemorrhage. The geneticist could run his damned mouth when he’d a mind, prattle on for days about his gorgeous wife and daughter in an almost ceaseless flow, but not now. It sounded to Rosa like it was taking all his willpower not to just sit down and howl at a world that had suddenly gone so very wrong.

Come on, you fucker, come on, said her brain, the words looping through her head like a stuck record. Urging both the man she supported and herself on.

#

“What a fucking town,” Torsten muttered to himself, as he pulled on his trousers and boots. “What a fucking job,” he added as he shrugged on his faded green, duster over his adaptive, skintight habi-suit.

“What’s the ship reading the outside temp as?” McCann asked him. She was already dressed and ready, her helmet in her hand.

Torsten checked the Indiana’s readout.

“Minus one-eighty,” he grunted.

“Crisp,” McCann observed.

Torsten buttoned his duster and pulled his helmet down from the rack. He was glad they’d had time to pack some normal clothes. The habi-suits might have been designed to ensure their wearers remained comfortable and alive in an extreme range of climates, but there was no getting around the fact you looked like you were wearing a full-body condom packed with a half-inch of cotton.

Torsten slid down the ladder that led to the tiny galley, McCann close behind, stopping only to grab a pulse energy pistol, or pulser, from the gunlocker and slip it into his thigh holster. The pair of them fastened on their helmets and took the extendable airlock down to the surface of the docking pad.

Above and to their left, almost filling the entire star-strewn void with its bulk, was the unmistakable cider-coloured mass of Saturn, with its trademark icy ring system. Torsten paused for a second to drink it in. With a radius going on sixty-thousand kilometres, it didn’t matter how many times you laid eyes on it, the gas giant was still one hell of a sight.

“You got the package?” McCann’s lilting voice came hard and flat through Torsten’s tooth mic. He didn’t much like the feel of the thing clipped to his back teeth, but it was good for this clandestine kind of work. Incoming sound was transmitted through the wearer’s bone matter in the jaw and skull to the auditory nerves; outgoing sound was sent to a radio transmitter on the neck. Even without a helmet it was damned hard to detect someone wearing a set-up like that.

“Course I’ve got the fucking package,” Torsten replied tersely. He reached into his duster pocket with a gloved hand and pulled out the metal cannister. The blinking red light on the front told him the gene-lock was still engaged.

McCann leaned forward, the front of her helmet almost touching the small glass window set in the cannister. Torsten saw the blue internal LED reflected in his partner’s helmet.

“What in the fuck do they want with a Andromedan’s frozen heart anyway?” she murmured.

“Nothing good, I reckon,” Torsten said, slipping the cannister back into his pocket.

He heard McCann take a shuddering breath.

“Shit, Tor, now we’re here, I don’t know if what we did was right, you know? Carving some fuckin’ arsehole’s heart out just to save our own skins… I don’t know if––”

“Shut the hell up, McCann,” Torsten growled. “You did what you thought was proper, whatever the fuck that is out in this wasteland. How do you judge proper? With what instrument do you measure it, eh? With what instrument? You’re the fucking instrument! No one else knows what the thing they’re cooking up in this station is capable of. Only us and the fucking boffins. If they need some Andromedan’s ice-bound heart to fix it, to stop it running wild, well then…”

Torsten tailed off. Truth was he was regretting getting mixed up in this whole affair. The money had been good, but as soon as the Indiana had touched down on the ice-covered moon of Enceladus his gut had started nagging at him.

He swallowed his doubt, wishing he was swallowing the corn liquor he had stashed under his pilot’s seat. Still, there’d be time for that, just as soon as they delivered the package and were transferred their fee.

“You’ve got to stand by your call, McCann,” he said. “Not just stand by it. Live by it. If you can’t do that… Well, maybe that tells you what we did wasn’t decent after all.”

Torsten turned on his heel. Began following the winking guidelights across the docking pad. Set against the incredible backdrop of Saturn, tall spotlit derricks moved smoothly this way and that on their gyroscopic bases like mechanised wading birds; loading and unloading cargo, lifting spacecraft that were scheduled for maintenance, or moving separated parts of a mining vessel that was being shipbroken. Welding torches glittered and winked sporadically. Occasionally, he heard the helmet-piercing sound of a klaxon, as one of the half submerged unmanned freight-switchers used for moving cargo and gear around the port, hummed past on its vacuum-sealed electromagnetic track.

“McCann,” he said gruffly, “you’re alright. You’re a good woman. Just don’t let the good woman inside of you go to the grave along with that Andromedan.”

McCann’s voice was flat when she replied. “Might be a little too late for that, Tor.”

Torsten walked on. Boots crunching on ice. Then he stopped. In front of him, the huge, squat laboratory building crouched. All around it, gaslights burned with blue flames.

The emergency signal.

McCann had seen it too. She pulled up next to Torsten. Torsten could hear her breathing quicken through his mic.

“Shit,” she said.

#

“I… I just need… need a rest,” Raphail Manidis said, his sour breath brushing against Rosa’s face.

No. Bugger that, Manidis,” Rosa said. “Come the fuck on.”

They rounded one of the switchbacks in the stairs. She couldn’t remember the interior staircase of the lab being so long.

“Miss Vestergaard, I think it’s imperative that you warn…” wheezed Raphail Manidis, sinking to his knees on the shadowy stairs. His eyes were huge and beseeching in his ashen face.

There was an almost regretful groan. A gentle sigh.

A profoundly thoughtful silence.

And then, with a sudden whisking rush of cloth and a brief cry of surprise, Raphail Manidis was dragged suddenly into the gloom that gathered at the bottom of the stairs. One second there had been a work colleague of seven years kneeling before Rosa; the next he was gone, and all that remained of the happy family man were a series of bumps as his bony body was dragged down the stairs followed by a fading shriek abruptly cut off.

Without conscious thought, Rosa found herself cannoning up the stairs. She pinballed off the walls, tripping on the uneven steps. The lighting seemed to have dimmed—or maybe that was just her dread and alarm tunnelling her vision into something dark and pink and hot. Breath rasped in her ears. She thought it was hers. She hoped it was hers.

She reached the top of the stairs and almost fell through the open doorway. Her hand left a smear of dark red on the wall as she steadied herself. Outside the small, two-foot thick windows, she could see the emergency gaslights had been ignited.

The shadows lay black as coffin air around the edges of the cavernous atrium. Careful to raise her shoes high enough not to make a sound, Ross moved in the general direction of the airlock that would lead her out of the Sodality’s R&D lab, and out to the welcoming, safe bustle of the port beyond.

A metallic tapping noise was her only warning. There was another rushing scuffle of sound and she whipped her head around, only to realise the vast space and its echoes had played tricks on her hearing. Her legs were bowled out from under her. There was a cloying mineral stink that she recognised all too well. She spun in the air and landed with tooth-jarring force on the stone floor.

Rosa’s head, usually clear and sharp, felt like a diamond that’d been turned back into coal.

She looked down the length of her body. Dimly, she noted she’d lost one of her expensive genuine leather shoes. She pushed herself up onto her hands and knees and lunged at the airlock console. She caught the edge of it and used it to haul herself up. She put her weight on her bare foot, meaning to pivot.

Pain bloomed through her lower body, bleeding up into her guts. She went down in a pool of something slick and wet.

“Oh,” she said.

Where her foot had been was a ragged stump of torn sinew, flapping skin and snapped shin bone.

A bemused sigh parted the air just beyond her head and a length of metal––a sword, she realised––running with blood touched the floor in front of her face.

Christ, it has the bloody sword…

Then, something inhumanely strong grabbed ahold of her arm; snapping and splintering the bones, scrunching up skin and muscle like wet parchment. And, with a bewildered whimper, Rosa Vestergaard was ripped away, and vanished into the darkness.

#

The airlock slid open to reveal the blood that covered the walls, floor and ceiling. Darkness flowed out like a vapour.

“We don’t have to go in,” McCann said.

“It’s a lot of money,” Torsten said, sliding his pulser from his holster and turning up the dial so that the microwave beams were set to eye-popping, organ-bursting frequency. “And money fucking talks.”

McCann sighed and pulled her own pulser.

“Nah, it doesn’t talk,” she said resignedly. “Most of the time it sings a fucking siren song.”

They stepped into the passageway, blood sticky under their boots, and the airlock doors slid closed behind them.    

*

Judge #1’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 5
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 17

Judge #2’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 5
Total: 17

*

The Price of Victory by Sharon Rivest

Halthed, son of Ulthed, looked out across the steppe as the afternoon light bathed the gathered horde of his enemy, Amed ud-din Bador. Their front line appeared a blur as the southern invader’s tall camels paced and fretted, eager to charge. The air was thick with fog from the braying throats of these beasts. The war cries of his Randor infantry drifted to Halthed as they raised their curved swords toward their god. Three thousand strong and somewhere deep in their midst was their grim leader, a man in league with devils and sorcerers and all manner of unnatural beings. Or, so he’d been told.

Facing them stood Halthed’s outnumbered troops, perched atop a low hill, the first of many leading to the mountains at their rear. In the valley behind him, his camp followers hid in the forest, hopeful of victory, but dreading defeat. Fur-clad and resolute, his band of Ormstead’s finest stood close at hand, awaited his command. It was nearly time. Halthed chose this place and hour for battle at the prediction of his seer, Gormthed. The old woman had never failed him.

He looked behind him at the storm surging over the ridges. Peaks stretched so high the night stars stood within reach. A smile spread across his scarred and craggy face as the wind picked up, blowing his grizzled hair about his wide shoulders. The mild day would turn to winter as the predicted storm descended from the heights. The untamed warrior Shehara approached, bringing her shield of cold, her battering ram of wind-blown snow, and her irresistible kiss of frost that stole a man’s fingers, toes, and senses. With her help, Halthed would defeat Amed. His men understood Shehara and her power. These invaders from the south did not yet fear her. They would, in those moments when their frozen limbs betrayed them and their blood turned the white ground red.

These few brave remaining Ormstead had drawn the enemy toward the mountains, sacrificing scores of men to entice Amed league after league north. North to where rain fell from the sky like stone pellets. North where water turned hard as the ground you walked on. North where the cold stole your breath and your grip and glued your eyes shut with frozen tears.

When clouds dimmed the sky and flakes of snow began to fall in earnest, Halthed raised his war axe high and shouted. The Ormstead descended toward the enemy like a pack of wolves on the prowl, Shehara’s might nipping at their heels. The Randorians began their own charge and the two forces met near the bottom of the hill.

 The colorful silks of the Randorian soldiers soon proved worthless against Shehara’s wrath. Within minutes, snow, a hand deep, covered the battlefield where men clashed sword against axe, metal shield against wooden. The ground churned into a mud that caked sandaled feet, encasing them in bone-chilling cold. The Ormstead’s fur insulated them from the snow, which melted on the silk. Wet cloth stuck to skin, transferring the cold even faster into the bodies wearing it.

Shehara’s irresistible embrace sapped the southerners as much as their efforts in battle. The camels fared better than their riders, but many now wandered about the battlefield without guidance, their saddles empty, their single reins dragging in the snow. A war song started up somewhere amongst Halthed’s men and soon all were singing it as they hacked at their enemy.

As the battle peaked, there came out of the swirling flakes a man made of flames. Snow sizzled off him and his red-hot sword. He strode through the battlefield, felling all who came within reach of his blade, friend and foe alike. Before long, another joined him. Then there were three.

As if angry at being thwarted, Shehara’s fury increased. The snow flew so thick a man could only see a few feet in every direction. In this mass of whiteness, the flamemen became wraiths. A hiss like water on a burning log announced their approach. The tide of the battle began to shift and the Ormstead axemen fell back in disarray, moving toward the hill, hoping the high ground would save them.

Gormthed materialized out of the driving snow at Halthed’s shoulder. He had fallen to a knee in hopes the flameman passing only a few paces away would not see him. Together they watched as the flameman took the head of one of Halthed’s men, its sword bleeding burning drops of blood onto the snow.

She pointed at its orange glow as it moved on. “You must find the heart of these Jinn,” she whispered. “Slay the one who controls them. It is the only way to defeat them. Shehara cannot fight such unnatural creatures. A soldier must do what the cold cannot. Kill the source and I will tell you how to take the power.”

“Who must I kill?” Halthed said.

“That I do not know. Find me on the hilltop when you have done the deed.” Gormthed turned and fled, disappearing into the blowing white.

The hiss and glow of the flaming Jinn moved away from where Halthed huddled, hidden by Shehara’s cloak of snow. Her cold did not affect Halthed, but the screams of the dying carried to him on the wind sent a shiver through him. His soul called him a coward for not engaging the Jinn, but his head told him only a living leader could hope to help his men.

He had to find the source of power. Did it rest in Amed? Is that how he conquered with such ease? Or did he have a sorcerer to do the work for him? Either way, the source of the Jinn was most likely behind the lines where it could remain safe while the burning swordsmen did their work.

The snow fell heavy and all the twists and turns of battle had left Halthed unsure of his location. Then he recalled the storm came from the north. He put his back the wind and let it push him south. The day grew ever darker. Shehara, in her kindness, gave him glimpses of his path while the sea of flakes danced to her tune. He stumbled into a camel and grabbed up its fallen rein. Using the dusk and animal as a shield, he continued on.

The wind howled but the snow lessened and he saw three men seated around a roaring fire. Eyes closed, they rocked from side to side, chanting four words over and over in their foreign tongue. On the other side of the flames, a ring of swords lay arrayed upon the ground. If these chanting men noticed the camel with six legs, they gave no sign.

The chant increased in volume and as it did the random flames of the fire coalesced into a man who walked out of the flames and took up a weapon. Coal black eyes set in a face of glowing embers surveyed the area and fell on the camel. The flaming Jinn strode toward Halthed and his camel shield, raising its sword above its head.

The camel snorted and shied, ripping the rein from Halthed’s grasp. The ember eyes traced the path of the beast and the Jinn followed, ignoring Halthed, who stood frozen to the spot. There was no doubt the chanters were the source of the Jinn.

Halthed took his great axe in both hands and sprinted toward them. Only after the closest chanter’s head tumbled to the ground, silencing his voice, did the others falter in their cadence. Their eyes flew open, too late for the second one to duck the axe swinging toward his neck. The third and finest dressed made it to his feet, denying himself a quick death. The axe cut him in the gut, doubling him over, causing his long black hair to fall forward. Halthed severed the exposed neck with his next stroke as his camel shield let out a death moan.

Halthed looked up to see the Jinn’s steps falter as it tried to run back to the fire it had emerged from. After three strides, its form dissipated, collapsing on the snow as a spray of black ash.

*****

Halthed stood on the hilltop surveying the battlefield, his lonely figure silhouetted by the thin rays of a winter’s dawn. His men had proclaimed him victor, yet he knew they spoke in haste. Less than one in ten remained alive. The bulk of the Randorians had fled when the Jinn turned to ash. He didn’t have enough men to pursue them. Should they decide to return, he doubted he could stand against another assault.

Gormthed climbed the hill toward him, leading three young girls walking hand in hand. She stopped at his side, her breath puffing clouds about her head.

“Lead me to the men of power and I will keep my promise,” Gormthed said.

“And the girls?” Halthed said. “Why are they here?”

“A part of my promise. You shall see.”

Halthed led them down the hill and picked his way through the dead until he reached the remnants of the Jinn fire and the three headless corpses he had left there. Shehara had taken her fury out on them, their brown skin now covered with a layer of frost. Gormthed bid the girls sit, then bound their hands and feet as they stared at her in wide-eyed wonder.

“What’s this?” Halthed snapped.

Gormthed bent and retrieved a sword from beside the fire. She pointed at the corpses. “The hearts of each of these must be cut out with a sword cleansed in virgin blood. Partake of the heart and gain the power of its owner. Three men. Three girls.”

“No,” Halthed shouted. “I will do no such a thing.”

“Then look upon our doom,” Gormthed said, pointing toward the southern horizon where the Randorians were massing. “Do what you must, Halthed. Save your people.”

There was no time to argue or think. There was only time enough to do. He ripped the sword from Gormthed’s grasp and turned on the first girl, plunging it into her chest, deafening himself to her cry and the pleas of the others. Marching to the first corpse, the sword bleeding virgin blood upon the skiff of pristine snow, he cut out its frozen heart and swallowed down a bite. Twice more he did the deed, choking down the flesh of the dead men, blood of the girls dripping down his chin.

He didn’t see from where the men came who started a great bonfire before him. His mind was too occupied with forcing his rebellious stomach to keep the meal he’d fed it. And with avoiding the sight of the children he’d massacred.

“Sit,” Gromthed said. “Say the words. Call forth the Jinn. Save your people.”

After laying an array of swords and axes on the far side of the fire, Gromthed and his men hurried toward the hillside, leaving Halthed alone to face the invaders.

In the heat of the flames, he closed his eyes and chanted the words he remembered so well from the night before. He heard the fire stir. He heard the snow sizzle. Once. Twice. A dozen times more. At last, he dared open his eyes. Flaming Jinns strode out to meet his enemy, their swords held high. Halthed wept. He’d saved his people. But, at what cost?

*

Judge #1’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 3
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 14

Judge #2’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 16

*

As Cold as Ice by K.L. Schwengel

A grey wash of smoke where there should have been none, smudged the already murky horizon of a bland early winter day. Ghany gave Larett a what the fuck look and picked up her pace considerably. By the time Larett caught up with her, the chop-haired guide was perched on a large boulder, chewing at a hangnail on her thumb, eyes locked on a small valley and what Larett assumed was the village of Minon Tor. The smoke they had spotted rose up from several large fires burning just outside the walls. From inside those same walls the unmistakable sounds of a massacre rose on the light breeze. Larett supposed some might have called what was happening a battle, but in her mind that implied anyone within the village could have mounted some kind of defense.

“Marauders?” Ghany made the obvious statement into a question.

Larett nodded. She reached into the pouch at her belt, fished out three coins and held them out to the other woman. “The remainder of your fee. I expect you’ll want to be on your way.”

Ghany peeled her eyes from the ongoing slaughter, glanced at the coins then to Larett’s face. “Job isn’t over till I deliver you to the gates and… well…” She tipped her head to indicate the village. “I don’t see that happening any time soon.”

“Your dedication is admirable, but from the looks of things, they’re nearly done down there.”

“Oh? How’s that?”

Larett quirked a brow. “You don’t know much about marauders, do you? They’re a bit like a sudden storm. They rip in, kill anyone over the age of ten, and rip on out again, children and livestock in tow. They don’t waste time looting and pillaging. Material goods hold no enticement for them.”

“Huh.” Ghany looked back at the village. “In that case, keep your coins. For now, least ways. I suspect I’m bound to find even more once all is said and done.”

Larett caught the obvious meaning and her nose wrinkled in disgust.

“Oh, what?” Ghany awarded her a skeptical look. “You’re too good to rob the dead? Tell me you’re not here to get something? And, thanks to them—” She flicked a gesture toward Minon Tor. “—whatever that something is, you’ll be taking it from a dead person. How’s that any different?”

Larett didn’t bother to answer. She had only herself to blame; hiring a guide of little standing and apparently even fewer morals. She left Ghany perched on her rock like a vulture and moved closer to the edge of the rise. Leaning a shoulder against a gnarled, aged oak, Larett folded her arms across her chest, watching as the first marauders filed out of Minon Tor driving a handful of sheep and cattle ahead of them. More followed with horses, goats, a few swine and a gaggle of children tied together to keep them from running off.

In one regard, the marauders were an unexpected boon. With the villagers dead, there would be no witnesses to what was to come. No one to stop what had to be done. And, even if Tilneyyn had somehow survived their attack, something Larett found highly unlikely even for the Mother, she would likely now have no one to stand between her and the will of the Sisters.

“My apologies, Mother,” Larett said softly. “But you knew this day must come.”

Though who would have ever guessed it would be by her hand? Larett, the shy child found abandoned in the streets of Julster and passed to the Sisters to do with as they saw fit. The child most gave not a second look to. Nondescript, average in looks and height, invisible in a crowd. The very things most saw as weakness were what made Larett the best at what she did. And what she did was whatever the Sisters asked of her.

“Looks like they’re moving out.” The vulture had abandoned her perch to rejoin Larett. “Shall we go?”

***

The acrid smell of blood, piss and shit mingled together to assault the senses as the two women stepped over the corpses of the first wave of protection Minon Tor had to offer and entered the silent village. Larett stopped Ghany before the other woman wandered off and tipped her head back toward the gates. 

“Help me close these.”

“Afraid they’ll be back?” Ghany asked.

Larett shook her head. “Wolves. They follow marauders like gulls follow fishing boats. I’d rather not have to fend them off.”

Ghany glanced back the way they had come as though expecting to see a pack of wolves loping toward them. She helped Larett roll a body out of the way. The man’s tunic was sopped in his own blood, his head barely attached. His single weapon, what looked to be a much used hunting knife, still hung at his waist.

“At least they’ll have something to gnaw on while we’re busy in here,” Ghany said, wiping her hands on her pants.

 The two women heaved the massive gates shut, and Larett barred them for good measure. It wouldn’t do to have someone wander in.

“Your pay.” Larett once again handed the guide the three coins. “Your contract is complete. My thanks.”

This time Ghany took them, stowing them in a pocket without a glance. “Where are you headed first?”

“My business here is my own. As is yours.”

“True enough, I suppose. Do you know the village at all though? I do. Been here a time or five, and you none at all or you wouldn’t have needed a guide to get here in the first place.”

Larett shot the vulture a sharp look and for the first time in their six days together, laid a hand to one of her three weapons, though she did not pull the sword from its rather plain sheath. “I no longer require your services. You came to scavenge, see to it. I’d as soon not see you again.”

Ghany raised her hands and backed away. “Alright then. Alright. You won’t ever lay eyes on me again. As you wish.” She offered a mock bow with an exaggerated flourish of her arm. “It has been an honor, m’lady. Safe travels from here on out.”

The guide turned and wandered off without a backwards look. Larett watched until Ghany rounded a far corner, then made for the center of the village. There was very little creativity when laying out towns and villages. One was pretty much like another, just larger or smaller, richer or poorer. Minon Tor was on the small yet well-off side, certain to have a town square where public announcements and the occasional execution would draw a crowd and where the marauders would make a statement.

And as Larett feared, the Mother was that statement.

Tilneyyn stood propped against a column, bound there with rope, her silver robes dyed crimson. Her personal guards, four in all, were placed around her on their knees, facing outwards, heads bowed. Their backs had been split open, ribs separated from their spines and angled up toward the sky. All other bodies had been removed from the immediate area, leaving a pile of corpses around the perimeter of the square.

Larett bowed her head and whispered a quiet prayer for Tilneyyn’s passage, from all appearances it had not been an easy one.

“I’m not… yet dead, child.”

The words, a barely audible rasp, brought Larett’s head up sharply and she angled a look back to the bloody figure to find Tilneyyn’s amber eyes locked on her, bright as the morning star. She laid a palm to her chest and extended it open and upright toward Tilneyyn. “In honor, Mother.”

“Yet not in health.”

“I wish it were otherwise. Death comes regardless, Mother.”

“Ah.” A wet wheezing breath. “Were the maurauders… part of the… plan?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Hmm. A pawn… would not… know. Well then…” Tilneyyn straightened against the ropes, pulling upward to her full height with what had to have been the very last of her strength. She lifted her chin, proud to the end, and jerked her shoulders back to expose her chest as much as the ropes would allow. “Take what it is you were sent for. Thief.” Red-tinged spittle flecked her thin lips as she spat out the last word.

“It is as was ordained–”

“Do not presume to lecture me.”

Larett backed a step in the face of the Mother’s rage, impotent and short-lived as it was, and averted her gaze as she drew her sword. “I would rather you go in peace than with curses upon your tongue.”

“I would rather… not go at all. We, neither of us, gets… our way this day.”

“Then let us be done.” Larett sucked in a deep breath, ignoring the putrefaction accompanying it. “May the winds lift you to the sea.”

Her polished blade slid effortlessly through Tilneyyn’s breast. A tug drew it down to split the Mother’s chest open. It took but a few breaths yet Tilneyyn’s unflinching glare upon her made it feel to Larett as though a lifetime passed. She laid the bloody sword aside and used her fingers to finish opening the Mother’s chest to reveal… 

“What the hells?”

Tilneyyn’s chuckle bubbled up, froth spilling down her chin. “Not what you expected?”

“It’s–”

“Yours now.”

A grip of steel closed around Larett’s wrist. She jerked back but the Mother’s grip held her fast. Larett’s fingers went numb. Ice clawed up her arm, burning and freezing all at the same time. Larett wanted to scream but the frigidness claiming her had paralyzed her throat so no sound emerged through her parted lips. As the coldness took her, the light in the Mother’s eyes dimmed until they shined no more.

Sudden heat seared Larett’s chest. She blinked down in confusion at the hand span of blood covered steel jutting from her chest. Warm breath feathered the hair on her neck as Ghany’s voice tickled her ear. “Apologies, Sister. May the winds lift you to the sea.”

***

Even with her own sword wedged in her back and her life’s blood mingling with the Mother’s at their feet, Larett remained standing, her face a frozen mask of shock, arm still locked in Tilneyyn’s grip, the two figures adding to the bizarre tableau. With care to keep from touching it, Ghany chipped the blue stone of the Mother’s frozen heart from her chest and let it drop into a leather pouch lined with multiple layers of cloth. The Sisters had vowed it could not harm Ghany without the Mother to guide it. Then again, they’d also told Larett she was blessed to be chosen for her task, so their credibility was somewhat tarnished as far as Ghany was concerned.

The howl of wolves on the hunt rose on the wind as she turned her back on Minon Tor and made for Julster, the frigid pouch bumping against her thigh with each step like the steady beat of a heart.

*

Judge #1’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 16

Judge #2’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 15

*

Heartfelt by Tim Clark

‘What is that?’ the deep-voiced client had said.

‘A heart, like your notice said,’ Hanbert had replied.

‘Why is it grey. And dead?’

‘It’s not dead, it’s frozen. Fresh and frozen. What did you want, one that was still beating?’ Hanbert grimaced like a man about to lose heart over a heart.

‘Yes.’

Hanbert gasped, turned and walked away. Rapidly. Not looking back.

He grimaced like a sweaty bailiff as he replayed the conversation in his head, striding down the dusty hillside, back to the contemptible town of Shardling Flat. He grimaced like a sentencing judge as he paid Ulf, the hostel-keeper at the No Bones Inn, with coins he could ill-afford to part with, before gathering up his meagre belongings and heading for the door. He was still grimacing as he left through the Pig Gate, stopping only to smile when he was clear of the town, and away from the tower. Shardling Flat was dead to him now. He would never go back. Never go near that tower. Never even think about the whole mess again.

The road was already muddy when the rain began to fall, but quickly the downpour turned the highway into a running sewer. Hanbert looked down with dismay at his pigskin boots. They were tightly bound to his feet with scraps of cloth and random pieces of cord but even if the bindings were keeping the footwear from falling apart, they weren’t keeping out the rain. He was sore, wet and blistered but he didn’t mind. Things, in a strange way, were looking up. Crap shoes was not a bad problem to have, not when compared to pissing off a psychopath by bringing him a pig’s heart when he wanted a live human one! He didn’t even mind when the cart in front of him hit a deep rut and showered him in road shit. And he didn’t mind when he stumbled and fell in a ditch. Thirteen times. Hells, he didn’t even mind when he was pushed off the road by one of the golden-thumb-up-the-arse nobility riding too fast on a horse that was far too well-bred for him.

But a still-beating heart! What the hells was that all about? He shuddered to think what nefarious practices went on in that tower. He grimaced like a drowning sailor when he realised that he had already broken his resolution to never think on the matter again.

A week ago, Hanbert had thought himself quite clever to have taken the cheaply-purchased heart of a newly-butchered swine up to the snow line in the Cragsharp mountains for a night. The temperatures had dropped nicely and the harvested item was beautifully solidified by the following morning. It had retained most of its shape and even some of its colour, although he did wonder whether the greyness was permanent, or whether the original hue would be restored by thawing. He had wrapped it in an oilskin and packed it out with snow. The walk to Shardling Flat, the long way, over the ridge, had taken less than a week, and the organ had stayed nice and frozen the whole time.

As he trudged along the main road he thought back to the noticeboard in Swinbury where he had picked up the job:

WANTED: a HEART.

FRESH and in WORKING ORDER.

Bring it to THE TOWER above SHARDLING FLAT.

By TUESDAY.

Substantial REWARD.

Substantial reward should have read ‘stinking unobtainable reward’. At the next main junction, he turned north, resolving to avoid Swinbury with its stupid, pointless and downright deadly contracts and head up to Cart-and-Bough, where no doubt some safer money could be made.

The job he picked up in Cart-and-Bough was much better. Someone had lost a sword. It needed finding and returning. That sounded simple, especially given the fact that it had last been seen in the company of a company of brigands who had been in town masquerading as a company of actors, there to act as part of the annual masquerade ball. Brigands were just people, and people could be stolen from. This was going to be a piece of cake.

‘Heading north they were,’ the beadle had said. ‘No doubt back up to a filthy lair in the Cardsharps. I shouldn’t think you want to wait for them to get that far though. Better to take them on the road. I’d hurry if I were you or they’ll be long gone.’

The beadle’s words had made sense. Take them on the road. Hanbert was thinking this over when he nearly bumped into the brigands a day later, camping by the roadside, not even wary enough to realise that someone may have been coming after them.

‘Careful,’ the leader of the brigands had said.

‘Sorry,’ Hanbert had mouthed, backing away slowly. ‘I’ll camp somewhere else.’

The missing sword had until recently hung above the great fireplace in the Mayoral mansion. By all accounts, it was a beautiful, ornate and yet not simply ornamental weapon. The hammered steel was said to be razor-sharp, immune to tarnishing and rarely in need of stropping. It was a magic sword to boot, by other accounts, forged by a manic wizard in the fires of some far-flung cavern. Belonged to a knight who slew a dragon-riding demigod, said the regulars in the Cart-and-Bough Inn, but that was probably as reliable as the assertion that the perpetual stew hanging in that insalubrious establishment had never had domestic pets added to it.

He needed a plan. He was very aware of that. He couldn’t just march up to the brigands and demand that they relinquish the stolen blade. That might work with goblins or southerners, but definitely not with this lot. There were six of them and they were no doubt well-armed and at least some of their number would be skilled in limb removal. Hanbert grimaced like a man without a plan. He resolved to follow them for a while longer. Find a better time to strike.

That better time came that very evening. It had rained hard all day and the brigands had taken refuge in a barn. Now, all he had to do was wait for the cover of darkness, sneak in, find the sword, steal the sword and sneak out again.

Everything turned out to be far easier than he would have imagined. After a short amount of sneaking and breaking and entering, Hanbert found the brigands, but they were all dead. Cut down to a man and woman. A timely massacre. An opportune slaughter. Odd, but it was time someone cut him a break.

He worked his way methodically through the bodies until he found it. It was a beautiful sword. For a moment he considered running away with it and adding Cart-and-Bough to the places he could never return to.

He had no idea who had killed the brigands, but they were all dead, and that was good enough for Hanbert.

‘Stop there!’ boomed a voice, instantly destroying Halbert’s much-needed moment of triumph.

‘What is going on in here?’ roared a second voice.

‘Err, I am working for the Beadle of Cart-and-Bough,’ Hanbert called out, as quickly as he could, before things got ugly.

‘Are you now?’ said the first voice. ‘And did the Beadle of Cart-and-Bough ask you to assassinate these men?’

‘No, of course, not. I just followed them to retrieve this sword.’

A lamp shone in his direction.

‘That sword?’ said the inquisitor. ‘Is that the sword you used to murder these men?’

‘No! Wait, no!’ pleaded Hanbert. ‘That’s not it at all. They were dead when I found them. All of them. This sword was wrapped up. I only just unwrapped it. I am not involved.’

‘Come here,’ said the second voice. ‘Bring yourself and that weapon into the light.’

Hanbert shuffled forward, sure that the blade was as sparklingly clean as it was when it hung upon the wall of the Mayor of Cart-and-Bough’s hall. He raised it up. ‘See, this is a treasure, an ornamental sword. It was stolen and I was sent to reclaim it. I would not lie.’

And it was at that point when the hitherto unblemished blade began to bleed. First a drip, then a drop, and the next thing it was drenched in gore.

‘No wait!’ cried Hanbert, but the two men were upon him.

‘We are arresting you in the name of Lord Bennington!’

Hanbert had no idea who Lord Bennington was, but he was so tired he was barely able to put up a fight.

The way back to Cart-and-Bough was much quicker by horse, and yet much harder, given the fact that Hanbert was unceremoniously slung over said horse like a side of wattle-beast heading to the pie manufactory.

He had been tied, gagged and blindfolded and accordingly could not plead his case to his captors, although he was sure that once he was back in front of the beadle he could explain that the magical sword somehow decided to bleed of its own volition, at exactly the wrong time, and incriminate him most unfairly. And he would explain that the brigands he had been pursuing had just been killed by complete strangers who no-one had seen nor heard, and who had vanished into the night without leaving so much as a footprint, broken armour buckle, nor drop of their own blood. Oh hells! It did not look good. Hanbert grimaced like a man framed by an evil magic sword.

Surprisingly, Hanbert was not taken into the town of Cart-and-Bough when they arrived. His blindfold was removed but not his gag. He wanted to tell the thugs that they had no right to claim the reward for the sword. It was his for the taking just as soon as he could clear his name.

But that was all to no avail. Instead, he was left tied to the milepost while the two of them went into town.

Hours later, only one of them came back. ‘Come on, we need to get going,’ he laughed, untying Hanbert from the post and manhandling him back onto a fresh horse. Hanbert could see he was a bounty hunter of sorts, like Hanbert, although decidedly better at it.

He shook his head violently and attempted to spit vehement words, but he was forced to eat his own syllables against the gag. In short, he achieved nothing. The blindfold was replaced and the journey resumed. They did stop at one point during the night and Hanbert was pulled from the horse, given some water, and allowed to lie on the cold, wet ground for a while. The water made him drowsy and he fell asleep.

When he woke he was no longer on the horse. He was on a hard surface, a chair, or a stool, or a barrel. He could not really tell. His hands were still bound, and the blindfold and gag were still in place. There was no breeze. He was indoors somewhere. It was cold. He was hungry. Really, really hungry. And he was dizzy. Things were not good. The bounty hunter had not told him where the other bounty hunter had gone, whether they had handed back the sword, claimed his reward or even told the authorities about him. Or the apparent murders.

He could hear a conversation taking place outside.

‘Who is that in there?’ said one voice. A familiar voice. A deep voice. Someone he had briefly conversed with before.

‘A heart, like your notice said,’ replied the bounty hunter.

‘Why is it nearly dead?’

‘It’s not dead, it’s fresh and beating nicely. I’d hurry up if I were you though. The man it is in is nearly dead though.’

‘Am I supposed to get it out myself then?’

‘Not necessarily, but I thought you’d enjoy it if you could.’

‘Very good. Your reward.’

Hanbert grimaced. Like a man about to lose his heart.

*

Judge #1’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 5
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 5
Total: 18

Judge #2’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 5
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 3
Total: 16

*

Worthy of a King by James A. Moore

“Why the fuck am I doing this?”

Berek rode hard, his sword coming round in an arc and hacking down into the skull of the closest lizard man. The reptilian head obligingly opened up, and the bastard let out a gasp as he died. Berek didn’t have time to congratulate himself, there were a dozen more of the things and they all wanted his blood.

Valen had done it to him again, and he’d have to remember to thank his employer by beating him to death. The next of the scaly bustards charged toward him and his horse alike. The stallion was well trained but not suicidal, it looked at the charging seven-foot-tall lizard and promptly turned the other way, throwing Berek from his saddle in the process.

Berek landed on another of the Arhillian lizard men, and drove his sword deep into its breast as they both crashed into the ground. They looked big when he was on horseback, and bigger still while he was lying on the ground and trying to avoid getting trampled by the horde. A spear poked at him and Berek rolled out of the way, standing as quickly as he could and defending himself from a second and third jab. Then it was time to retaliate, and he cut the spear wielder’s arm off just above the wrist

Oh, how the thing shrieked. Berek dodged to the side and hacked the same one in the stomach, opening its belly for all to see.

The lizard men backed away in a semi-circle, eyeing him more closely than they had before. He was lucky, it was winter, and they were not as lively as they were in the summer months. They were not exactly slow, but they reacted at half the speed he’d dealt with before from the things, which could sometimes strike as fast as a venomous snake.

From the closest hillside Danael took careful aim with her longbow and a second later one of the lizards whipped its head to the side and fell over, a fletch from her arrow replacing the eye on the left side of the Arhillian’s face.

The men who were supposed to be attacking with him finally showed up, and Berek took advantage of their appearance, retreating from the collection of reptilian warriors.

All of this over a sword. All of this because his employer wanted a sword “worthy of a king” and the Arhillians allegedly had a weapon that was suitably impressive. Four of the horsemen rode between him and the lizard men letting out war cries and swinging swords and axes with every intention of killing their enemies.

The Arhillians did not agree and attacked back. One of the horsemen was knocked free of his ride, a spear pushing through his chest and very nearly punching through his back. His war cry became a gasp of pain as he was thrown back and dropped to the ground, still firmly impaled.

Another of the lizard men looked at Berek and charged forward, hissing and baring an impressive array of fangs. He blocked the spear that swept for his head and retreated as quickly as he could, watching every move his enemy made.

His sword was not as long as the spear, and the lizard man was not slow or foolish. He was a seasoned warrior judging by his scars, and serious about killing Berek. It spat and said something in its native tongue and Berek shook his head. He didn’t understand the words, but the intent was obvious. The lizard man wanted him dead, and it meant to take care of that desire personally.

Berek charged in, ducking low as the spear jabbed for his face, and slammed his entire body into the Arhillian, trying to knock the creature backward and failing. The damned lizard did not move, did not flinch and instead brought an elbow down on Berek’s shoulder with brutal force. His entire arm went numb, and his sword clattered to the ground.

Nothing to be done about it, he was up close, and the lizard man couldn’t use its spear, but it didn’t much care. The same arm that had struck before clawed at Berek’s face, heavy nails sharp and ready to rend flesh from bone.

Berek’s hands went to the thick neck of the creature and his thumbs hooked around the throat sack of the thing and tried to chock the bastard to death. The lizard man coughed and tried to pull back, but Berek held tight and pushed in harder, his body pressing in closer to the thing as if he were seeking a lover. The lizard man coughed agan and tried to pull back, but Berek was determined.

The Arhillian dropped its spear and attacked with both hands, clawing at Berek, thick nails catching on his tunic and chain mail.

“Fucking die already!” Berek roared and the lizard man grunted, its eyes bulging.

A moment later a sword blade hacked into the bastard’s face, carving one eye in half and splitting the thing’s heavy snout.

Berek stepped back as the body fell, revealing Valen, who was screaming his fool head off as he attacked.

Just that quickly the fighting was done. The other mercenaries were fewer in number, but all of the lizard men present were dead, leaving the single wagon they’d been guarding without any protectors.

“There it is,” Berek looked to his employer and hook his head. “Your prize.”

Valen smiled, but it was a look that was without humor and lacked in enthusiasm. “I hope it’s my prize I’d hate to think all of them died for nothing.”

Berek stayed where he was and caught his breath as Valen approached the wagon. Danael was there a moment later, walking with him. It was her vision that said a worthy weapon lay inside the wagon, and she would only be paid if the weapon was there. She wanted to get paid, so she moved with Valen on his quest.

Inside the wagon were two Arhillian women. They were not as bestial in visage as their male counterparts, having slimmer forms and smaller snouts, but they would never be beauties in Berek’s eyes. He had heard of humans and Arhillians mating. He thought the notion a touch repulsive.

Valen gestured for the two women to leave the wagon and they did, looking around nervously.

Valen said, “Let them pass. There’s been enough blood.” And the mercenaries listened letting the two remaining Arhillians flee from their wagon leaving behind his prize, one frozen corpse of a frost giant, and one sword rammed through the giant’s heart.

“The body of Czrousak, the giant king.” Danael spoke softly enough that Berek had to strain to hear her. “They say the sword sheathed in his icy heart is all that keeps him from rising.”

Valen nodded and pointed to several of the mercenaries with a sweep of his arm. “All of you come on and tie the body down. Bind the arms and the legs and be ready to set the wagon on fire. I’ll have the sword but I’m not that foolish. I don’t need a frost giant trying to kill me.”

“Why are they moving that thing?” Berek spoke without much actual concern. The giant was dead, its body withered with age, the once powerful muscles shriveled into little more than dried meat over hardened bones.

Danael answered, “Czrousak is seen as a sign from the Arhillian gods. He was killed in a battle with their people, and he has been moved with them wherever they roam, ever since.”

“So, we’re here to steal a religious symbol from the lizard men?” Berek shook his head. He had little concern over gods, but angry fanatics were a different story. Without another word said he retrieved his sword from where it had fallen and stepped back a few paces.

“What makes this sword special, exactly?” Valen looked to Danael.

She replied, “It’s marked by the gods. It weeps poison strong enough to kill a frost giant.”

Valen looked at the great frozen form, watching as his hired swords tied the corpse in place.

Berek said “You’re really going to do this Valen? Despite the warnings?”

“I do what I must. Harrick wants a sword worthy of a king. I’d say this is a real possibility.”

“A crying sword?”

 “No, a sword that bleeds poison. Strike a foe and watch that foe die.”

“Or sleep.” Berek shrugged. “You take the sword, and the giant is supposed to rise.”

“Yes, well, I’m not taking any chances.”

Berek shook his head and backed away again. “Have at it. I’ll be over here.”

Valen rolled his eyes toward the heavens and sighed. “Never thought you were a coward.”

“I’m not. I’m just smart enough to leave the dead alone.”

”No one seems to make enchanted swords these days or I would get one forged.”

“Have you actually asked around?”

“Well, no, actually. Finding one seems easier, too.”

With that said, Valen walked over to the giant’s corpse, looking down at the sword hilt sticking from the bony form. “I hear his heart is still frozen, encased in ice.”

“Well, it is winter. Maybe it just never gets a chance to thaw.”

Valen looked to a man named Unfulf and said, “Build a bonfire. I want the bodies burned, and I want the fire big enough to burn a frost giant.” The man nodded and called to a few of his fellow mercenaries. They began gathering wood and Berek walked over to his horse and climbed in the saddle, ready to leave the area, but knowing he would not run if things went wrong. Valen was a friend, and he paid well besides. Still, a man could dream.

Valen grabbed the sword in the giant’s chest and pulled for all he was worth, but the blade did not move. He placed a foot against the giant’s chest and threw his weight into the effort to unseat the weapon and Berek watched the blade start to slide free of its prison.

How long had the sword been in the same spot, locked in place, resting in the icy heart?

Valen stepped back abruptly as the sword came free of its prison. The blade was lined with frost almost to the hilt, but as Berek watched, dark red droplets welled up on the blade at several points and bled slowly down the length.

“It bleeds,” Valen said softly.

Danael nodded. “It bleeds the poison that killed the giant. It is called Claegan, ‘the sword of bloody tears,’ and it has great powers, some barely even known by the gods themselves.”

Berek shook his head. “Do whatever you’re going to do and let’s leave this place. The lizards might have friends nearby and you let two of them go.”

Valen thought about that for a moment and nodded. “Burn the wagon.”

The wagon caught fire easily enough and Berek looked to the west, where the two lizard women had run. “We need to leave, Valen.”

Valen set had gone to his horse and was pulling a heavy length of oiled cloth from a roll strapped to the back of his saddle. “Soon enough. First I secure the sword.”

The blade did not thaw. It had been several minutes, and the length of blade was still rimed in frost and slowly bleeding out a dark red poison.

Berek shook his head. Enough of magic weapons and dead giants and Arhillian lizard men. He wanted an ale, a meal and sleep.

Valen carefully wrapped his prize and tied it with leather straps he intended to secure across his back.

In the distance a horn sounded to the west.

“That would be the damned lizards,” Berek shook his head. “We need to ride now, before they can find us.”

*

Judge #1’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 3
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 15

Judge #2’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 3
Characters: 4
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 14