March 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 March 2022
1. A Wounded Beast
2. A Withered Tree
3. A Witch’s Crown

*

Only One by Sharon Rivest

Ale flowed and women whirled while Arne Audson rested his head on the long communal table after a sixth, or tenth, mug.  A drum banged. Pipes blared. Someone sang a discordant shanty Arne vaguely remembered.

Birger Erikson shoved him to one side and sat at the table. “You’re the one they call the Eagle, right?”

Arne peeled his face out of the mixture of stale ale and pig grease on the tabletop. He blinked the man into focus. They’d never met, but the big man’s reputation preceded him. Birger, like Arne, was a captain and sometime pirate. He nodded.

“I’ve heard tales about how you came by that patch. It’s said you’ve been to Niflheim and spoken with Hel,” Birger said.

Brave man, Arne thought as he wiped drool off his beard with a sleeve. Few dared to reference the patch. It covered a gaping hole and a missing eye.

“Both true,” Arne slurred, banging his mug on the table to draw the serving girl’s attention. “Hel found me washed ashore after a shipwreck. She took me to Niflheim and her bed.” He grinned at the memory. “Both were glorious. Hel is beautiful as a star-strewn midnight. She fancied me and bid me stay to rule with her, but I missed the sun on my face. Refusing earned her wrath. She vowed to let me leave if I ripped out my eye and gave it to her. I agreed and was glad it was an eye and not my cock.”

The ale arrived and Arne downed half in one tipping. After a burp, he held up his hand and continued, “By this did I lose it. So impressed was Hel, she let me carve a section from the sacred tree, Yddrasil, before I left.”

“For what purpose?”

A sudden rapid banging of the drum and the resulting silence made Arne stop his story. King Ulfthod arrived in the hall and Arne got his first look at Ulflhod’s only child. Princess Frega appeared as pale, blond, and modest as rumor reported. A worthy prize for a cunning man. The two took seats at the head table and the raucous celebration began again.

Arne clutched Hel’s second gift hidden beneath his tunic as a plan hatched in his ale soaked brain. On his second try, he made it onto the tabletop and raised his mug toward the ceiling.

“Good king!” he bellowed. When all eyes turned to him, he went on, “A princess as beautiful as your own deserves a crown that is her equal.”

The drunken crowd agreed, banging mugs on tables and whooping loudly. He looked down to see Birger squinting at him. The man knew he was up to something.

“Shall I get her that crown?” Arne shouted above the banging.

The king nodded his consent. After a quick, fiery glance at Arne, Frega blushed and cast her eyes modestly toward the floor. Oh, yes. A most worthy prize.

Rising, Birger shouted, “I shall help you get this crown.”

In a matter of moments, thirty drunken men had pledged to the quest. Spinning about, Arne accepted their foolish offers with a roar and a fist above his head, Puffed with pride, Arne stepped off the table. The next moment, he was face down in the shite on the straw-covered floor. The laughter faded as he let the drink take him.

*****

A week later, a good wind brought Arne’s ship, Nidhogg’s Tongue, to the Koper islands. Arne and Birger stood at the prow as it entered a central bay surrounded by four rocky mounds of land. Seals played in the surf or basked in the sun on sandy beaches below the rocks.

Birger cast a doubtful look at the uninhabited place. “Why have we come here?”

“To find some of Ran’s handmaids.”

“Ran? The witch queen of the seas? Why do you look for her?”

“We’re after her crown. I mean to persuade her to give it to me.”

Birger spit into the sea. “That’s as likely to persuade her as anything you can do.”

Arne reached inside his tunic and brought forth a silver amulet in the shape of a winged dragon. “This is my second gift from Hel. When I say his secret name and cover him with my blood and tears, he will eat the tree Yddrasil and live.” Arne pointed to the withered length of tree tied to the mast. “He will grow large enough to do my bidding. Once. Then he returns to Hel.”

“By the gods,” Birger said leaning in close and squinting at the dragon. “You could use this to take all of Scandia for yourself.”

“True, but how would I keep her?” Arne gazed across the water toward the seals on shore. “Whoever crowns a princess could also be the one to wed her and win a kingdom.”

“Also true,” Birger whispered.

*****

Arne ordered Nidhogg’s Tongue beached. Leaving behind a few men to guard her, he leapt over the side and set off down the beach with Birger and the rest.

“You think Ran’s here?” Birger said.

“No, but some of her handmaids are surely here disguised as seals. If we part them from their limbs and toss them in the sea, they won’t be able to swim. They’ll call to Ran for help.”

“How do we tell handmaid from seal?” Birger said as they worked their way through the creatures basking in the sun.

Arne watched the seals’ reactions to the men. Most merely barked their annoyance at being disturbed and rolled out of the way. The true seals were not afraid. The handmaids in disguise would be. Several of the basking seals turned silently toward the surf, moving across the sand like great undulating caterpillars. Arne sent his men after them. Two made it to the water, disappearing under the waves. The final four were not so lucky. Men pounced on them, holding them down with sheer numbers. Arne and Birger set to hacking of their flippers with great swings of their swords.

“And now?” Birger said above the bawling cries of the handmaids. His face was splattered with gore.

Arne cleaned his sword with a handful of sand. “Toss one in the water.”

The seal bodies of the handmaids were round as sausages. The men couldn’t find handholds. In the end, they rolled one like a log down to the water and pushed her into the tide, a trail of blood in her wake on the sand.

Once in the sea, the handmaid turned from a seal into a naked woman with long blond hair. Without arms or legs, she was only able to keep her head above water for a few moments. Blood turned the water red around her and her keening cry split the air. Many were enticed into the water to save her. Those not so afflicted held them back as they begged to help her. Arne ordered a second handmaid into the water. More men succumbed to this one’s voice, but they were quickly dealt with.

When the fourth handmaid disappeared below the waves. the water of the bay began to froth and churn. An enormous grey-green head, covered with scales, rose above the water. Instead of a mouth, it had a collection of long, thick tentacles, which bore the bodies of the handmaids in them. Massive shoulders appeared, pushed out of the water by arms thicker than the hulls of several ships combined. On one scaled shoulder sat a woman clothed in seaweed. A golden crown on her head flashed in the sun. From this crown a golden net hung.

“A kraken,” Birger gasped.

Mesmerized, they watched as the kraken placed Ran on top of one of the island’s hills. Her seaweed gown and long green-black hair fluttered on the wind. She pointed in their direction.

In ten strides, the kraken had passed Arne and grabbed hold of his ship, picking it up as easily as a child does a toy. It shook off the men caught onboard. Some landed in the water. The rest crashed to the ground in tangled heaps of blood, snapped bones, and busted skulls.

The ship lasted little longer, crushed between the kraken’s claws. Bits of it flew everywhere. The mast landed on the beach, scattering the barking seals back to the sea. The kraken’s yellow eyes fell on the men.

Birger drew his sword and shouted to Arne, “Call the dragon!”

Arne pulled the amulet over his head. He sliced his arm with his sword then coated the amulet with his blood. He heard his men running. Heard the splashing strides of the kraken. He turned, dry-eyed, to watch the beast stomp two men out of existence.

“I’ve no tears,” he howled.

Birger didn’t hesitate. He threw a handful of sand into Arne’s face. Arne tried to dash the sand away then realized why Birger had done it. He let the tears flow, added them to the blood on the amulet, and softly chanted the secret name. The amulet grew so large he couldn’t hold it. He tossed it away.

Blinking his eyes clear. Arne found a red dragon standing on the sand before him, fully formed, stretching its wings. It devoured the tree and the mast, growing huge as it did so.

Brilliant blue eyes looked at Arne. “Command me,” Nidhogg hissed.

“Defeat the kraken and return me to Scandia,” Arne said before running for cover behind the rocks above the tideline.

Nighogg turned toward the kraken. The sea beast stomped across the shore dispatching Arne’s men with ease, oblivious to the dragon. Nidhogg launched himself into the air. Two beats of his wings and he soared past the kraken, raking its back with his claws. The kraken turned from the few men left alive and batted at the dragon, which was long gone by then.

Thus began a lopsided battle between two titans. The kraken struck Nidhogg only once. Nidhogg scored a dozen stripes on the earthbound beast. As if tired of the game, Nidhogg spewed a stream of fire at the kraken, setting its tentacles and the haidmaids ablaze. While the great beast was beating on the flames, Nidhogg bit into the back of the kraken’s neck, driving it onto the beach with the weight of his body. Pinning it there. The blue eyes fell on Arne.

“Don’t kill it,” Arne shouted.

Arne climbed the hill toward Ran. Still as stone, she waited for him. No fear marred her perfect face.

“What do you want, mortal?” she said, her voice liquid as the ocean.

“Your crown, witch, in exchange for your beast’s life.”

“You have my sister’s dragon.”

“Today, it’s mine.”

Smiling, she handed over the crown. “How will you get home, mortal, except by over the seas I rule?”

Arne only returned her smile. He descended to the beach where the remainder of his men gathered around him. He bid the dragon let the kraken go, which he did reluctantly. The sea beast pushed itself to its feet and retrieved its queen. It strode out of the bay, disappearing beneath the waves with Ran.

Arne approached the dragon, his men following. “Time to go,” he said.

Fire snicked out of Nidhogg’s nose. “Only one, you. That is all you asked of me.”

The men looked at Arne expecting him to take their part. He’d needed a crew to sail his ship here. He’d always planned to fly home alone.

“Only me then.”

As Arne continued walking, the dragon torched his crew, Birger last of all. Nidhogg lowered a shoulder and Arne climbed on his back. They lifted off the ground, the dragon banking eastward over the bay.

As the sea rushed by below, Arne clutched his prize, A crown worthy of Frega. The next steps of his plan awaited. A royal wedding. Then, his own kingdom. All with a new tale to make his legend grow and no one left to tell it but him.

*
Judge #1’s Scores

Worldbuilding: 3
Characters: 4
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 14

Judge #2’s Scores

Worldbuilding: 3
Characters: 4
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 3
Total: 13

*

Powder or Hammer? by Joe Coates

The tree that stood in the elbow of the river, which tumbled down from the mist-swathed mountains, was old and beautiful. In the stark winter light, its five main limbs resembled the frozen fingers of a dead hand.

Hannibal Perfect had seen many hands like that; on many battlegrounds and in many alleyways, on a host of different planets, over the past twenty-five years. He had watched countless broken warriors and guileless outlaws from all over the system––Frekirie, Mistrovers, Painted Kyn––grasp vainly for the undersides of impassive clouds. Desperate fingers clawing heavenwards. As if, in the anguish of their final throes, their owners thought they might be able to find purchase on the sky and pull themselves back to their feet.

Hannibal was yet to see it.

The only tree for miles around, standing by a ford on the main road running up from the quarry, it was where recalcitrant workers and outright criminals were left to dangle and die.

Hannibal ran a callused hand over the rough bark of the hanging tree. Looked up at the two corpses swinging from it; eye sockets gaping empty, tongues swollen and black, shit caked down the inside of their naked legs. The faint white scar that ran around his own bull neck tingled unpleasantly.

Bounty-hunting was not a profession in which introspection was of much use. However, Hannibal was always impressed by the way that humanity, no matter how far it came in terms of technology, knowledge and scope of collective vision, cared less and less about honouring its namesake.

He turned away from the depressing sight. His eyes were a mixed mess of deep blue and light jade. Patient, shrewd, and perceptive. A survivor’s eyes. He revolved slowly on one worn boot heel to focus on his target.

Below Hannibal, at the bottom of the large, stony hill he stood on, was a neat cluster of utilitarian pods. Through the frost-rimmed heated windows of of these pods he could see the sweating aug operators suspended off the ground in their motion-capture exoskeletons. He watched as the operators went through all the motions of unloading and moving equipment, excavating, walking around the quarry, and repairing mining vehicles, with the aid of their exoskeleton’s negative feedback. The men and women wore goggles that supplied them with a live video feed to their augs—the colloquial term for the massive humanoid-shaped man-amplifiers they controlled—as well as a hud displaying all the crucial information about battery and fluid levels, logistical data, and a job priority list.

At the end of the row of aug-pods, with their blue-collar quarry workers sweating away inside, was a large ramshackle building. It looked to have been constructed from rough-cut stone and miscellaneous parts of cast off quarry machinery; huge sheets of rusted hull from a transporter and old girders salvaged from the surface-to-orbit elevator that supplied the mining camp on this vast asteroid. Five rickety towers sprouted from the roof of the pub––for that’s what the place was. Each one was festooned with a host of dishes and signal-jammers.

A sign over the door read, The Witch’s Crown.

Hannibal smiled grimly to himself. He checked his wrist-mounted comm-tab. There could be no doubt. He was picking up his target’s genetic residue dead ahead, most likely within the walls of the large tavern.

“I have eyes on the Witch’s Crown,” he murmured, speaking for the tiny mic fused to his collarbone. “Repeat, I have eyes on the Witch’s Crown. Do you copy?”

“Copy, Perfect,” the voice of Felix Venari answered him in his guttural Alpha Centaurian accent, so clear and distinct he might have been standing right next to Hannibal. There was the intimate sound of the other man gulping something down. That was the thing about the first-gen embedded mics that Hannibal despised; they lacked the finesse to only pick up words, so once a comm channel was opened you heard everything.

“Alright, I’m inbound,” Hannibal growled.

He hefted his short-barrelled coilgun and checked its charge. His cryopistol was concealed in a shoulder under his leather aviator’s jacket. He started off down the hill, leaving the gnarled tree and its swinging bodies behind him.

The sound of his partner’s throat muscles working again filled Hannibal’s ears.

“Can you stop doing that?” Hannibal growled, as he reached the bottom of the hill and his boots squelched into the churned mud.

“Bit hard to remain inconspicuous in a pub if you’re not drinkin’, Perfect,” the other man muttered.

“You’re in the Witch’s Crown?”

“’Course I’m in here, where the fuck else would I be?”

Hannibal shook his head as he strode along the rutted road. It hadn’t been paved. Not many asteroid mining companies bothered doing that, not with most of the work being carried out by augs. It was smokier and dustier down here on street level. The cheap, mass-produced buildings were stained with glittering carbon-grey quarry dust.

“We were meant to sit back and observe until your contact arrived,” Hannibal pointed out, nodding at a group of grim-faced miners slouching outside of a refectory. As he passed, one of them said something under her breath and the others laughed.

“I am sitting back and observin’,” Venari said.

“From a distance?”

“You’ve been sailing the stars with the guild long enough to know that distance is all relative, Perfect,” Venari said.

“If he spooks and this whole thing blows up…”

“Shit, it’s gonna blow up, one way or the other. All we need to concern ourselves with is, when it does, whether we’re the hammer or the powder.” 

“This contact reliable?” Hannibal asked, stepping into a trash-strewn alleyway so that an aug could stump past, motors whining.

Venari snorted.

“Shit no, he’s an informant, Perfect,” he replied. “Son of a bitch is so crooked I imagine he has to unscrew his trousers at night. But he’s our only lead on finding the––”

“I know, I know,” Hannibal snarled.

He checked his comm-tab once more as he ascended the tottering steps that led to the front doors of the Witch’s Crown.

“I’m getting high intensity residual genetic readings,” he muttered, scratching his nose to disguise the fact he was talking. “If the beast we’re looking for is in the area, I’d be willing to bet it’s hurt.”

“How much?” Venari asked.

“How much what?”

“Would you be willing to wager?”

“Don’t fucking start, Venari. You know I feel too guilty taking your money.”

Venari snorted again. “Please, the only way I could make you feel guilty is by etching the word into a knife blade and sticking you with it.”

At the instigation of a cantankerous woman behind a counter set just inside the doors of the Witch’s Crown, Hannibal was obliged to check his coilgun and was given a plastic counter to collect it when he left.

As he pocketed the counter, Venari’s voice sounded in his ear.

“I’ve got a visual on our contact. He’s coming over.”

“Copy. I’ll be there presently,” Hannibal said.

He stumped through the lobby and pushed open the doors that led to the taproom. A quick scan of the busy, smoke-filled room with the HUD contact lenses he wore instantly revealed Venari, outlined in blue, sitting at a small table. His partner had his booted feet up on the table and was watching the crowd through his fringe of greasy red hair. As Hannibal manoeuvred his way through the throng he saw Venari suddenly sit up straight as he was joined by a second individual.

“Duran, how nice of you to join me,” Hannibal heard Venari say.

Before Duran could say anything in response, Hannibal arrived at the table and sat himself down on the contact’s other side.

The rangy bloke had the tall beanpole physique of someone raised in low gravity. He bristled and looked at Hannibal through bloodshot eyes set in a washed out face. He opened his mouth to say something, then paused when he actually saw Hannibal.

Hannibal had a good face for making people pause. Apart from the noose cicatrix around his throat and the strange abalone-coloured eyes, he was missing a fair chunk of his upper lip and half of his teeth had been replaced with silver after an unfortunate run-in with a whacked out runaway wielding a pulser.

“Who the fuck is this?” Duran slurred.

Hannibal couldn’t decide whether it was the powdered adrenaline or the bathtub rum that Duran was obviously riding that made him sound like his jaw was broke. Whatever it was it was, the man appeared to be working hard to appear cool.

“This is Perfect,” Venari said.

“The fuck it is,” Duran said.

That’s droll,” Hannibal said.

Duran blinked hard and looked at Venari. “Droll? I thought your name was––”

“Focus, halfwit! Tell us what you want in return for the escaped specimen,” Venari said, slamming his hand down on the table.

Hannibal leaned toward Duran and slid his tarnished GIPD badge across the table. Duran leaned away from Hannibal as if he’d just deposited a fresh dog shit in front of him.

“You know why we’re here,” Hannibal said.

I know,” Duran said, nervously licking his pale lips. “But, I don’t think you two do.”

Instinctively, Hannibal’s hand migrated from the table towards the holster under his jacket. The sound of swift, sure footsteps clattering across the floor reached him at the same time his finger brushed the butt of his cryopistol.

He was grabbed by his coat and thrown backwards off his stool. He managed to get one foot under himself before he smashed through one of the faux-wooden tables behind him, sending the chairs around it tumbling.

Hannibal freed his cryopistol, but one of Duran’s accomplices smashed it from his grasp with a baton. Hannibal countered with a kick that caught his adversary in the knee so that his leg buckled under him and he careened sideways into a table. The man snarled and raised his baton. Before he could launch himself at Hannibal, Venari appeared behind him and rammed his knife into the man’s ear canal with a noise like an egg being stood on.

Hannibal whirled. He saw his pistol lying a little way away and scooped it up. The cryopistol absorbed moisture from the atmosphere and transformed it into simple slugs that were stored in a small drum magazine. It was recoilless so it didn’t affect the shooter in microgravity, and had been specifically designed to penetrate clothing and flesh, but shatter against spacecraft and habitation bulkheads.

Bad for man. Good for machine.

He levelled the pistol at a woman heading for Venari.

The floorboards of the Witch’s Crown erupted. Dust exploded outwards. Spinning slivers of wood scythed out in all directions. Cries. Men and women falling. Blood. Chaos.

The fucking usual, Hannibal thought.

The curiosity he and Venari had been sent to find hauled itself up out of the cellar. Humanoid, with skin like mercury and eyes as black as sin, it was six times the size of a man. A ragged wound scored one flank.

There was an awful, heavy pause.

“Venari, that contract was for alive or––?” Hannibal began.

The curiosity moved so fast that Hannibal was in the air before he realised he’d been hit. Pain bloomed through his chest as he was propelled through the wall of the pub. Then––

Hannibal blinked. He was lying out in the street. Inside the Witch’s Crown, it sounded like hell had broken loose. Hysterical screams and garbled roars vied for dominance. As Hannibal tried to collect himself, a window burst outwards and he found himself showered in blood, lengths of silky intestine, and other assorted viscera.

“Yeah. Okay,” he grunted to himself.

He looked around. Behind him an aug was parked next to its control pod, clawed fingers gleaming.

Spitting blood and ignoring his broken ribs as best he could, Hannibal hobbled towards the pod.

“The hammer it is,” he said, and climbed inside.

*

Judge #1’s Scores

Worldbuilding: 5
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 17

Judge #2’s Scores

Worldbuilding: 5
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 5
Total: 18

*

Depth by Tim Clark

We lived in the shadows, as did they, but they were not like us. I heard one in the cavern walls, and it heard me, but we never met.

The lesson was dragging on. It felt like unnecessary repetition to show us, for the fortieth time, the subtle art of rivet-bashing. We knew how to bash rivets now. In fact, we knew how to bash rivets six weeks ago, when this course of instruction started. Maybe we weren’t accomplished rivet-bashing experts back then, but at least we had an idea of the basics.

‘The rivet is a deceptively simple piece of gear,’ the forge-master droned. ‘It can bind metal to metal, metal to cloth, metal to leather.’

‘And cloth to leather?’ called out one of the older dwarfs from the back.

‘Of course, cloth to leather, and cloth to cloth if you like, but that is not part of this lesson. We are dwarfs not tailors.’

At the word ‘tailor’ everyone hushed and the room inhaled and exhaled with a collective shudder. The forge-master, Dronkl, shook his head, lashing his numerous braided beard-tails from side to side like a demented squid. ‘No, No, No. Not those tailors!’ he rumbled. ‘Not the Tailors. I mean actual tailors, who make clothes. Which they don’t and we dwarf craftsmen most certainly don’t.’

The sinister stories of the Tailors, the semi-fanatical group of maniacal necromancers, ran back many aeons and had left such a bad impression on good-minded upright folks, us dwarfs included, that many of us avoided using the word altogether. I suspect that old battle-birds like Dronkl knew this and enjoyed using the term accordingly.

I tried to focus back on the lesson, which had resumed. Dronkl had decided it was necessary to start over, with the forty-first iteration of his diatribe on the sublime and arcane art of bashing rivets, but my mind was quickly drawn away again.

For the last few weeks, whilst I had sat in the cramped forge-master’s teaching hall I had been aware of an unseen presence. I was sure that someone or something was in there with us, watching either us, or Mordina, Goddess of the Fiery Forge help them, listening to Dronkl drone on about rivets.

I am not sure how I knew about this presence. It was dark, but unlike actual forges, where work and not just talk took place, the air was clear and not smoky. Visibility was not normally a problem.

We lived in the shadows, as did they, but they were not like us. I heard one in the cavern walls, and it heard me, but we never met.

Today, like every other day since I had discovered the lava shaft, I was watching. Watching the strange stumpy creatures with their knotted beards and stone-stained grey skin. Watching them watching one of their kind bashing something, repeatedly. I think he is a crafter of some kind. But not like our metal-workers. Our forge-masters spend little time polishing and refining and more time adding jagged pieces and poisoned barbs to any weapons we take from the upright folk.

I do not understand what they are saying, but I can see clearly what they are doing. Not much as it seems, but I am curious nonetheless.

I have not told anyone in the clan that I come here. As a young orc I am expected to prepare for war, hone my skills in killing and maiming, practise stealth and evasion. Well, I guess that is what I could say I was doing here if Shnarg-Huk or any of the other overseers caught me. But they won’t. I am small and move unseen. I am like running water, dripping through the cracks.

I do have one concern and that is one of the dwarf-creatures. I almost thought she looked at me the other day, even though the vent through which I peep is only fingernails in width. She is smaller than the others and seems to spend a long time wishing she wasn’t in that metal bashing class. In some ways I feel sorry for her. There are a million things she could be doing instead. But then again, in other ways I envy her. At least the dwarfs take time to instruct their own.

I do this for one reason and one reason only. I want to learn.

We lived in the shadows, as did they, but they were not like us. I heard one in the cavern walls, and it heard me, but we never met.

Class was over for the day and we were thankful, but it turned out there had been quite a lot we had missed whilst we had been cloistered away for those long hours. One of the scouting parties had returned, hauling a wounded beast on a leather sled. We were not allowed to get close. In fact such a large crowd had gathered we probably would not have been able to get near anyway.

The beast itself was a cavern wolf of some kind. We could not see much but everyone could hear its pitiful whining, interspersed with terrifying snarls of violent warning.

‘We took out an orc war-band,’ the leader of the patrol was saying to the crowd. ‘Captured this beastie, dragged it back here to show you all.’

‘Good strong sled that,’ shouted Dronkl. ‘Good leather, strong rivets.’ Everyone ignored him.

‘But why haul an injured monster all the way back to the hearth? Is that what you are asking?’

‘Tell us,’ shouted a voice from the throng. ‘What is wrong with the beast?’

‘This,’ said the patrol leader. There was a squelch and a whelp, followed by a tearing sound. The whining and the snarling stopped. In the oil-fire illumination of the cavern we saw the beast’s freshly severed head raised up, dripping gore and pouring with a blackish blood. ‘It’s wearing a crown.’

We lived in the shadows, as did they, but they were not like us. I heard one in the cavern walls, and it heard me, but we never met.

When their class ends I do not know where they go. There are other lava tubes but I have not found one that allows me to get further into their chambers. The one I am using is enough of a windfall. Normally those dwarf creatures find and plug up every weakness, including the smallest cracks.

Tired and not particularly feeling better educated I headed back to the den. When I got back there was a tremendous commotion.

‘They ambushed us and killed us like dogs,’ shrieked one of the clan warriors. ‘Nasssty dwarfs, bastards every one of them.’

‘How many did we kill?’

‘Plenty, but they took Gronnoth!’

There were howls and shrieks. Every adult orc was deeply distressed. I managed to find Shunshank, my cousin, I think. ‘Shunshank, who is Gronnoth?’ I whispered. Discretely, I thought. But obviously I was not discrete enough.

‘Gronnoth! Who is Gronnoth!’ shrieked the one we all avoided. Margg, the Witch-Shaman. ‘Gronnoth is the wolf who wears my crown!’

We lived in the shadows, as did they, but they were not like us. I heard one in the cavern walls, and it heard me, but we never met.

The discovery of a wolf wearing a crown obviously had a large impact on our people because Dronkl’s classes were cancelled the next day. The crown was left on display in our meeting hall and I went there first thing to take a look for myself.

It was a curious thing, a crown made of twisted pieces of wood, woven and meshed together.

‘I’d get a good look now if I were you,’ said my mother. ‘They have sent for the priests. They will take it away and destroy it.’

‘But why?’ I asked. ‘Why would a wolf wear a crown?’ She did not answer me.

‘Come now, you’ve got no class today so you can come and help me in the workshop if you’d like?’

I shrugged. Boring as Dronkl’s rivet classes were, helping mother polish gemstones was not much more exciting. ‘I may take a tunnel-day, if that’s all right with you?’ I suggested.

Mother smiled. ‘Sure, that’s important. And you know I don’t really like sharing my gems,’ she added with a wink.

We lived in the shadows, as did they, but they were not like us. I heard one in the cavern walls, and it heard me, but we never met.

After Margg’s crown was lost I had to flee the den, as almost everyone small and weak in my clan had to. The elders were on the warpath, literally. Once a year Margg would summon spirits, I had managed to learn before I fled. Evil, strong spirits who were bound into a crown she would make from the tallest thorns of the withered tree which grew in some deep cavern far, far away from our den. This crown would be placed on the head of the strongest beast she could find and would protect the clan for the whole year. In some years that beast had been one of the clan. For this year it had been Gronnoth, a dark wolf who had been stolen from someone called the Tailors, I think. Humans, I think. I didn’t find out any more.

We lived in the shadows, as did they, but they were not like us. I heard one  in the cavern walls, and it heard me, but we never met.

So today would be a tunnel-day, a ritual us dwarfs are encouraged to do from time to time. Literally a whole day finding new tunnels, shafts and passageways. Never straying too far, but going far enough to add something to the knowledge of our surroundings. But before I left, something told me to do something wicked. It was not like me. I don’t really know what I was doing.

We lived in the shadows, as did they, but they were not like us. I heard one in the cavern walls, and it heard me, but we never met.

I had fled, naturally, down my lava shaft. The one that was only known to me. It was dangerous, yes, for it took me near the dwarfs, but no small amount of danger would put me off from getting out of the den. Things were getting sacrificed, beings were being tortured. Margg and her fanatics would stop at nothing to get the crown back.

As I approached the end of the part of the lava tunnel I knew, I realised something was wrong. The scent of dwarf was much stronger than in had been before. And there was a draft. I realised with horror that maybe the classroom end of the shaft had been opened up.

We lived in the shadows, as did they, but they were not like us. I heard one  in the cavern walls, and it heard me, but we never met.

My hands were bleeding and my face was on fire, but nothing could stop me on my tunnel-day. A day out hunting. I could smell flesh. I could smell blood. I could smell orc.

We lived in the shadows, as did they, but they were not like us. I heard one  in the cavern walls, and it heard me, but we never met.

I knew she was coming, the she-dwarf. I was excited to meet someone other than my kind. Maybe she could share more of what she had learned. More than I had seen through the crack in the wall.

We lived in the shadows, as did they, but they were not like us. I heard one  in the cavern walls, and it heard me, but we never met.

I am hungry. The thorny crown whispers to me. Commands me. Leads me on to my prey.

We lived in the shadows, as did they, but they were not like us. I heard one  in the cavern walls, and it heard me, but we never met.

Until now.

*

Judge #1’s Scores

Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 3
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 14

Judge #2’s Scores

Worldbuilding: 4
Plot: 4
Characters: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 16

*
A Soul for A Crown by K.L. Schwengel

Any other night Felian would have attributed the low growling to Bergan’s snoring. Those times were past. The big man lay sprawled on his back, staring at the stars through the leaves with his right eye, Felian’s small knife obscuring his vision from the left.  

Small. Felian snorted. “Still long enough to pierce your brain, you raging cock-sucker.”

A pained roar split the night, many miles distant. Too many miles for her to find the source without Bergan. 

Felian growled in frustration and laid a hard kick into the corpse’s ribcage. “Stupid, cunt. Damn you. Pushed me to it, didn’t you? I made myself perfectly clear at the outset of this venture, didn’t I? Strictly business but you just had to push it.”

She landed another hard kick, spun, paced across the small campsite, fists on hips, and cast a glance skyward. She didn’t bother to implore the Goddess. This entire situation was on Felian. A softer roar made her choice clear. The beast was growing weaker. Felian returned to Bergan and dropped to her knees beside him. 

Damn and double damn. She turned her head to the side and spat. “I hate you more for this than the groping.”

Felian took a deep breath, past the stench of unwashed flesh, the sweet smell of burning wood, the must of the forest floor. Past all the tangible earthly odors to the sharp cold of the beyond. She spread her fingers, held them splayed above Bergan’s still warm corpse. She counted on his stubborn nature to play to her favor.

In the darkness behind her closed eyelids the beyond took shape. Felian did her best to ignore the shiver that chased down her spine. She detested venturing here. Detested what she was about to do. It was unnatural and evil and it came far too easily to her. Always had. Something out of the norm for a witch, or so she’d been told. To be honest, though, it was probably the only reason she wore the crown. Not because of anything she had done, but because of what she could do.

“Not yet, Bergan,” she murmured. “Not yet.”

Others found her before she found Bergan. Restless, decaying spirits with no true will of their own. Their thoughts were purely malevolent yet they were as impotent as the corpse before her. 

“Where are you, you floundering lout?”

Felian emptied her thoughts, and put aside her anger and frustration. Temper had brought her to this pass but it would not get her through it. A wave of emotion swept over her; confusion followed in fast order by anger, fresh and raw, not like the stagnant pining of the old souls.

“There you are,” she murmured. “Come back, Bergan.”

A sharp gasp preceded the flailing of limbs and Felian ripped herself from the beyond and stood, backing hastily as the newly made corpse sat abruptly upright. There was never any telling what a person’s reaction would be to finding themselves returned to their body shortly after first realizing they were dead.

Bergan’s mouth worked as though he had something stuck in his craw. His one eye darted about in his skull before finding Felian. It locked on her as he clambered to his feet. “What the fuck did you do to me, witch?”

Felian scowled. “Sent you to whichever gods would take you.”

“And then… how is it I’m here then?”

“A temporary condition. I can’t raise the dead. I merely recalled your spirit for a time.”

“Why?”

“We have a contract.”

Bergan barked out a short laugh. “Oh, that’s rich. If you can do–” He waved his arms about. “– this, you can good and well find your beast on your own.”

Felian rolled her lips and counted to nearly ten. Temper, Felian. Control it or be damned. She drew in a deep breath. Blew it out slowly. Smiled. “I’m not a tracker. That’s what I hired you for.”

“And if I refuse?”

“I’m afraid at this point it ends the same for you regardless. All I can offer is a quicker or slower departure. And, in case you’re wondering, slower isn’t always the better choice.”

“Is that a threat?”

“Just the sad truth.”

Bergan reached to scratch his head and his hand brushed the knife. His functioning eye narrowed, then widened as realization hit and his mouth twisted into a savage growl. He wrapped his fingers around the hilt and pulled. 

“Oh, no no no, you really don’t want to do that.” Felian lifted a hand to stop Bergan from his intended action but the big man hadn’t listened in life, why she thought he would listen in death escaped her. She covered her mouth with her hand and looked away, swallowing bile as the blade slurped from Bergan’s eye socket bringing the eye with it. The red-shot orb slipped from the tip of the knife and slapped against his cheek, swinging there like a grotesque pendulum. “I told you to let it be. Could you please… I don’t know… tuck it back in or something? It’s quite disgusting.”

Bergan’s disfigured face contorted even further and he raised the knife in his fist, taking a step forward. “I’m going to kill you, bitch!”

Felian sighed. “No, you’re not. You can’t. Though you’re welcome to try if it will make you feel better.”

Bergan lurched forward. His muscles strained but the blade came no closer to Felian than a hand span. She folded her arms across her chest trying her best not to look at the dangling eye. “Can we be finished with this now?”

Bergan stared at her, voiceless, for what seemed an eternity. “What if I didn’t want to be dead just yet? Hmm? Did you ever think of that?”

“Quite frankly, no. You tweaked my temper and I really didn’t think about it until after I’d planted my knife in your skull. It may have been a bit of an over-reaction, I see that now, but done is done and there’s no going back. Look, we’re wasting time we don’t have.”

Bergan set his jaw and pinned Felian with a one-eyed glare. “You’ll pay for this, witch. One way or another. I’ll see to it.”

Felian nodded. She’d been cursed more than once. Often enough for it to mean less than nothing. What meant more was that she hadn’t heard the beast in the whole length of time they’d been arguing and she feared she would be too late to save him. Something else she could blame on an easily triggered temper. 

“Do something about this.” Bergan jutted a thumb at the dangling eye.

Felian’s stomach lurched and she looked away. Healing wasn’t one of her talents. “There’s nothing I can do. Push it back in or something.”

“I’ll be da–”

“For the love of the goddess, man, I swear to the unholies I will keep your spirit as my personal pet for all eternity if you don’t get back to it.” Felian’s muscles twitched with the desire to stab him again, not that it would do any good. In his current state, he felt no pain. Good thing, she supposed, or he’d be wondering why his ribs were caved in. She untied her scarf and held it out to him. “Here, wrap this around your head.”

Bergan slapped her hand aside. “Wrap it around your throat.”

Keeping his good eye on Felian, Bergan grabbed his other one and yanked until it snapped free of its tether, then threw it at her. Felian danced out of the way, the orb barely missing her face. It was a pretty accurate throw, all things considered.

She covered her mouth with the back of her hand, swallowing bile. She tried to avoid looking the man fully in the face. The fresh, gaping hole, lined with blood, was worse than the dangling orb had been. “You’re disgusting.”

Bergan laughed, cold and heartless. He tossed Felian’s knife at her feet, picked up his pack (for all the good anything in it would do him), and started off on what Felian could only hope was the beast’s trail.

***

They found the beast slumped against a gnarled, withered tree that, prior to the creature’s arrival, had likely been green and lush. The beast had sucked the life from it, in an attempt to save its own. Felian blew out a sigh as she dropped to her knees and caressed the creature’s bull shaped head.

“You shouldn’t have taken it, Glor,” she said softly. “I warned you, didn’t I? I told you there would be consequences. Now look at you.”

The beast shifted. Its eyes opened to mere, bloodshot slits and it blew out a heaving, stuttering sigh and the wrinkled muzzle moved. “Sorry.” The softest of whispers. 

Felian ran her fingers through the dense black fur on the beast’s neck. “No you’re not. You don’t think I should have the crown. I see that now. And maybe you’re right, but time is the only thing that will prove you out. Now, where is it, Glor?”

The beast shifted to a more upright position, revealing a smear of blood matted fur along its massive rib cage. Such a hulking, muscle-bound creation her Glor was. A blend of bull and bear with a dash of something else. Felian didn’t know what. The beast had come to her as a lost, mewling infant and never left. The child I never wanted. Proud, loyal (until now), fiercely protective. 

“Idiot.”

The beast blinked. 

“Why, Glor?” The huge head dipped at her question and Felian lifted it back up with a finger under the whiskered chin, asking her question a second time with less gentleness. “Why?”

“It’s not for you.” The beast’s muzzle, never made for speech, delivered the words in a stilted, clipped fashion accompanied by a fair amount of spittle. “Dangerous.”

“For me, or others?”

“Both.”

“Such a wise beast.” Felian caressed Glor’s cheek, trailing her hand to the massive neck. The beast winced when her nails dug into its throat. “But it’s not your choice. Where is my crown?”

Glor huffed. “Gave it to the Wanderer.”

Felian’s fingers tightened despite her best efforts to control them and her temper. “Then you must take me to the Wanderer.”

The beast nodded dejectedly and did its best to stand, using both the tree and Felian, and finally Bergan when she waved him over. The tree groaned nearly as loudly with the effort as the beast did. Glor wavered unsteadily. The tree had withered to nearly nothing but it would be days before its strength became the beast’s. Days in which the Wanderer would be further from Felian’s reach with her crown and goddess alone knew what they intended to do with it. Or who they might give it to. That crown was more than just a symbol of her power, it was her power and without it, Felian was no better than any other witch peddling her trade.

Except… I am better than any other witch.

She looked at Bergan, a slow smile spreading across her lips. He, in turn, backed a step, brow furrowed. “What are you up to, witch?”

“You’re going to be staying around a while longer, Bergan. My beast needs the extra strength. Behave yourself while you’re in there.”

“While I’m in where?”

Felian slipped into the beyond, just enough to grab the confused spirit of Bergan and shove it toward the beast. Both resisted but in the end, Felian succeeded. Bergan’s truly lifeless body crumpled to the ground and the beast let out a roar certain to be heard for league’s in all directions. “There, now, let’s go get my crown, shall we?”

*

Judge #1’s Scores

Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 5
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 5
Total: 18

Judge #2’s Scores

Worldbuilding: 3
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 15

*

What the Tree Saw by Jon Strugnell

The old tree felt its branches sway in the breeze, a bird hammered against its trunk trying to get to the grubs twisting away eating its flesh. The tree liked the birds, it didn’t care for the grubs. The temperature was dropping, and the tree was relaxing curling its few remaining leaves for the night ahead.

It heard a rustle on the ground and a man stalked into the clearing eye scanning the area then shaking his head, not finding what he sought.

“Always late.” He muttered and walked up to the tree pulling a knife from his belt.

He carved at the bark, chipping away until words formed. “Gav was ere.” The tree felt the letters and sighed. Why do men always need to mark where they have been? He could have at least spelled it right, the tree hoped others wouldn’t associate him with this idiocy. The tree liked Gav even less than the grubs.

“Gav you old fucker.” Another voice called as a women walked into the clearing, a wolf tied and bound slung over her shoulder red bloody matted fir covered its haunch.

“You took your time Stel.” Gav said gesturing with his knife.

The women shrugged her shoulders making the wolf bounce, it let out a growl as it moved. “Some things are worth the wait.” She tossed the wolf onto the ground, it struggled but was bound tight.

Gav eyed it licking his lips. “Still alive.”

“Yeah, and that ain’t easy. Now be killing it already, I am hungry for power.”

Gav knelt beside the wolf and stoked the fir on its head, the wolf snapped at his hand. Gav jerked back, checking to see if he still had all his fingers. Stel laughed and he glared at her. He turned back to the wolf and grabbed the hair on its head plunging the knife into its neck. It whimpered, kicked then fell silent.

The tree felt the blood ooze into the ground and surround his roots, it did not like blood. It clogged up the soil and attracted insects, and that meant more grubs. The tree hated grubs. Gav flicked his knife before running it down the underside of the wolf, opening it up.

“Quick whilst it’s still warm.” Stel said crouching on her haunches next to him.

He glared at her before looking back at his work. “I know what I am about woman, its nearly free.”

He made a couple more cuts and pulled the heart free, blood covered his arms to his elbows. He raised the heart and examined it in the dying light before lowering it to his lips and taking a bite, pulling away a chunk of the meat.

As he chewed, he past the blood mass to Stel, she stuffed it into her mouth and ripped off her own mouthful. They didn’t talk, bite, chew, pass until the heart was gone and they sat back onto the ground.

Gav unslung a pack from his back and brought out a waterskin, taking a large swig before passing it to Stel.

She drank and tossed it back nodding her thanks. “You feel it?”

Gav shrugged looking around the clearing. “Not yet. I guess it can take some time to kick in.”

Stel stood and took some experimental jumps, she unbuckled her axe and gave it a couple of swings. “Maybe it only works when we get to the witch. Are you ready Gav, imagine it, we kill that old crone and take her crown? Then I will be the witch in these parts. Think of the power.”

Gav stood as well, drawing his sword. He gave it a few swings. “Not feeling any different Stel. You sure we did this right.”

“Of course, kill a wolf and eat its heart. Everyone knows that protects you from witch magic.”

A laugh cackled through the clearing, echoing off all the trees. The tree felt its branches vibrate with the laugh, its trunk adding to the noise. It saw Gav and Stel cover their ears.

The tree saw someone else enter the clearing staff placed on the floor with each step, her grey robes almost lost in the dying light. She had a woven crown of thorned vines. The thorn pierced the skin of her forehead sending lines of blood down her face overlapping dried stains from old blood. The tree didn’t think she ever washed. She continued to laugh as she walked towards Gav and Stel.

“They say! You pair bet your sorry useless lives on they say.” The witch cackled words bounced around the clearing. “You useless sacks o’ shit.”

Stel and Gav stared at the witch, weapon hanging loose in their hands. Bloody mouths hanging open.

“You should see the look on your faces.” The witch said, coming to a stop before them. “Come on then Gav Kinslayer and Stel Devilsword. Here I am and you’re ‘protected’” She sneered out the last word.

She spread her arms wide, walking staff gripped by slender fingers.

Gav and Stel shared a look, neither of them moved.

The witch shook her head, “Neither of you have the balls for it now then.”

Stel managed to get some words out, “How did you find us?”

“You ain’t some hot shit Stel Devilsword. I followed you once you asked about protection from witch magic.”

“They set us up?”

“Course they did, no one wants people messing with their witch.”

Gav shifted his feet. “The wolf heart?”

The witch swung her gaze to him. “Its just a wolf’s heart, poor beast. Still surprised you were able to stomach it.” The witch pointed her staff at Stel. “I won’t go easy on you, foolish girl. People need to know where they stand.”

Stel leapt forward towards the witch growling, her axe cut through thin branches as it swung over her head. The tree hoped she would pay for that. The witch blocked the axe with her wooden staff held one handed, there was a solid clunk, and the wooden staff did not even move. Stel glanced at her weapon, the blade with chipped.

She pulled back and swung again from her right, the witch blocked again letting the momentum of the swing flick the other end of the staff into Stel’s face, teeth flew out adding her own blood to the ground. She staggered sideways, blood dripping onto the grass. More blood, thought the tree.

“Is that all you have Stel Devilsword?” the witch took a step forward. “Why Devilsword? That’s an axe?”

“It’s because I kill Devils with sword.” Roared Stel and she brought her axe up in an underarm swing. The witch calmed stepped back out of range and thrust her staff into Stel’s stomach. She doubled over onto the ground, wheezing.

The witch kicked her in the head as she walked past. “Fucking silly name. Care you try Gav, or too cowardly? I hear you only really attack children and wounded beasts.”

Gav looked at his sword, looked at Stel coughing on the ground and then at the witch’s staff. It was unmarked. Finally, he looked into the eyes of the witch, black eyes surrounded by blood streaks. The face was grinning, white teeth shining at him.

He dropped his sword. The witch scoffed.

“You never had the balls, you useless sack o’ shit.” She turned away from him. “I wouldn’t have let go of your weapon though, some crimes you have still to face.”

A growl filled the clearing, the tree saw the wolf was standing, its wound gone. The growl made the trunk of the tree vibrate pleasantly.

Gav saw the wolf and scrambled for his sword trying to keep his eyes on the beast. He didn’t find it in time. The wolf leapt and knocked him to the ground, pinning Gav’s neck in its jaw before squeezing. Blood ran from its jaws and Gav stopped kicking.

The tree decided it could put up with that blood. It hadn’t liked Gav.

“And you Stel Devilsword. As much as I would like to be done with the pair o’ you. People need to hear the tale of this day. I think you are more likely to tell truth than Gav.” She poked her hard with her with her staff. “Am I understood?”

Stel had regained her breath, she looked up into the bloody face of the witch. “Yes.”

“Good girl. You would have made a shit witch anyway. So don’t feel so bad.”

The witch bend down and picked up Stel’s teeth. These I am keeping in case I need to find you.

The witch walled away without looking back and disappeared into the trees.

Stel staggered up and looked at the wolf, it still had Gav clutched by his neck in its jaws. It calmly lay looking at her the way only a wolf can.

“Fucking witch.” She slurred to herself before staggering out of the clearing.

The tree was left alone as the sky darkened. Sometime later it could hear the wolf’s jaws snapping bones and then its light footfalls as it walked back into the forest. The tree suspected it left the body. Some other scavengers would come along soon it was sure. The tree curled up its leaves and waited for tomorrow.

*

Judge #1’s Scores

Worldbuilding: 3
Characters: 3
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 3
Total: 12

Judge #2’s Scores

Worldbuilding: 3
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 15

*

A Final Knight by James A. Moore

She sat on her throne, a nest of bones in a bent and withered tree, a queen only of desolation and ashes, and considered the world around her. Three knights had come for Ingveldt since the last new moon, and all had died for their efforts, but she knew another would come soon, and she prepared herself for his arrival.

The armor of the fallen knights stood guard around her; each shell filled with the dead, rotting flesh she animated for her own uses. They stood with a dozen others, guardians of her domain, should she decide she needed any assistance.

The winds blew cold across Remdaru, and winter’s kiss would come soon to steal away any hope of warmth,  but she did not care. She had chosen the area as her home because the cold was inconsequential, and because here, in the lost woods with thorny trees and mountains of jagged stone, she could work her sorceries in peace.

At least that was the plan, before explorers came in search of wealth and possible power. The Kragen had worked one last evil before dying, and she cursed the thing for its gift of lies that tasted true.

Five moons earlier the Kragen left the area after fighting her, and stumbled, wounded, dying, all the way to Scarasea before falling at the steps of the summer palace. Why the damned beast had attacked her she did not know. How it lived as long as it did after she cursed it with venomous blood was a mystery she might never solve. The Beast of Cahwhuel was stronger than she expected, to be sure, but like all of her enemies it thing eventually died.

Now its final revenge haunted her. Rumors of gold of gems, of power, rumbled through Scarsea, and those desperate to find a better life came here to take what little she had, or found her presence here offensive enough to want her dead. Had it only been peasants who sought those treasures she would have suffered little but there were always those who had wealth and sought more, who had power and felt powerless, and they came as well, and when she did not run from them, they begged the royal blood of Scarsea to send men of honor to fight for them.

She had cast her runes and studied the stars, and listened to the songs of the carrion crows as they feasted on the dead of the battlefields. All had told her the same secrets, that four warriors would call for her death in the final month of autumn, so far three had come in their gleaming armor with the entourages of followers, and sought to see her fall. One by one those three had fallen in her stead, their lackeys fleeing before her power or dying if she found them before they left the area. The dark woods wee littered with their corpses, hung from the branches of trees as a warning to others and feast for the crows.

Even before the latest attacks a plague of knights had tried to drive her from the area, simply because she was a witch. They, too, died for their  efforts.

Now she prepared for the last knight, the final threat before she could end this plague of interlopers. The king of Scarsea had no particular interest in Cahwuel or Remdaru. Both were uncivilized places, too wild to easily tame, but he had sent his warriors just the same, to sate the requests of his nobles and to give the peasants more stories of victories that had not manifested themselves. Instead, of new songs of glory from the lips of bards, the king had lost a dozen good warriors  to the witch queen since she had made the wasted territory her home, and one more would come to end Ingveldt before, finally, this madness would be over.

Weary of the fight, wishing only for the peace of solitude and her studies of the arcane, the witch of Remdaru rose from her throne and dressed in her robes, prepared herself for one more battle.

The sword was an uneven blade, carved from a fang of the Great Wyrm, the very first dragon, shaped by the only weaponsmith brave enough to touch the monster’s corpse, the very man who had slain the first and greatest of the dragons, Korrigan Grimn sometimes called mad, but always spoken of with awe or fear.

The finest of those swords he had kept for himself, and in truth the weapon was too large for her to wield, but the thin blade she held in her hands was long, and deceptively well-balanced. The ivory blade glowed in the semi-darkness of the predawn sky, and she took the weapon called Wyrmfang in her grasp and carefully wrapped it in willow bark soaked in illusions until it resembled nothing but a wooden staff.

When she was done preparing herself for the combat she looked like a different creature altogether. Her long dark hair was hidden in a witch’s crown of thorns, twigs and vines, and her graceful body bent into the form of an old hag. Her beauty hidden behind mud and ashes, lost to the eye until anyone seeing her would have thought her little but a crone.

The last few knights had come seeking a powerful sorceress, a witch queen capable of destroying kingdoms and leveling mountains, and not a one of them had considered the possible threat of a toothless woman hobbled by age and broken by solitude.

The dead knights surrounding her were buried in illusions, made into a copse of trees that creaked and sagged in the cold winds from the west. Each of them had seen her, expected her to be little threat, and died for their foolishness.

She foresaw the same from this final knight.

The rider came from the south, wrapped in a heavy cloak against the cold, his breaths merging with the air and fading after each exhalation. His hood was raised, and she could see little of his face beyond a black beard shot with streaks of gray. An older man then, not a young noble. A minor complication, but nothing she expected to cause her troubles.

Ingeveldt shuffled away from her usual seat and past the cauldron where she so often worked her magics. She leaned on Wyrmfang as if she needed the hidden sword to let her walk, and kept her head lowered. “You are far from the common paths here, stranger. Are you lost?” She made certain her voice sounded weak and hopeless, the better to bring the man in closer.

When his cloak opened to showed a simply tunic, not the armor she’d expected. There was no sword at his side, no sign of a spear or lance.

“I seek the witch queen, Ingveldt.” His voice was calm, deep and soft.

“You’ll find no witches here, sir.”

“It would seem not,” he answered.

She stepped forward, moving closer to the man, tightening her grip on the hilt of her sword as she looked up at the him on his dark charger.

When he shifted his head she saw more of his face, and recoiled.

Often called mad, sometimes called cunning and feared by more men than most would ever meet, Korrigan Grimn blow dart from his tunic, aimed and spt a sharpened needle-dart at her in one quick, fluid motion.

She had exactly long enough time to register what she was seeing before white hot pain lanced through her left eye.  Ingveldt cried out and wept blood. She cursed and spat and tried to lift he sword, but felt it drop from fingers rapidly growing numb. Her tongue felt too big for he mouth, and her knees wobbled.

A moment later her head crashed into the stones of the forest’s floor, and she twitched.

“I was warned about you, witch queen.” He carefully climbed down from the saddle and approached her, a giant of a man from her current angle.

She tried to speak and failed.

“Poisoned, of course.” He squatted above her and pushed her hair and her crown from her brow. “Yes, I thought I recognized her name.” He sighed. “Nothing personal. King Erlot has something that belongs to me and I want it back. You are the price.”

 Her set her almost gently on the back of his horse, and then went back for her staff. When he approached again, she could just see the hilt of Wyrmfang peering from under his belt, nearly hidden beneath the cloak he sported.

“Depending on perspective, the good news is you are worth more alive than dead. The bad news is that Erlot has excellent torturers.”

*

Judge #1’s Scores

Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 3
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 15

Judge #2’s Scores

Worldbuilding: 3
Characters: 3
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 13

*