March 2022 Stories: Grimdark World Cup, Group B

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

A. Worldbuilding

B. Characters

C. Plot

D. Enjoyment

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

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

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

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

4: Very good, shows a lot of positive elements

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


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

*

Bodies to Bury by Sean Crow

The harsh autumn wind beat against the command tent, giving the Freeman a taste of approaching winter. Some said it was an ill omen, a warning to turn back from the task ahead. Now that the Witch Queen had killed the emperor and taken his crown, people saw bad omens in everything.

True or not, Captain Jarek didn’t give a shit, he just needed sulfur. 

And he would only earn his payment when the whining noble shut his mouth.

The tale Prince Terrian told was the same from every would-be noble trying to reclaim portions of their homeland. The problem with nobles was that they didn’t think commoners could understand their pain. As if the Witch Queen’s Curse hadn’t affected everyone in the Empire. 

The captain nodded along as the noble continued his story and slid the three bullets he had left into his belt. He would need to return to the Homestead when this was over. 

Three wouldn’t last long.

Jarek’s eyes turned to the crescent ax atop his cot. Creator only knew he hated getting in close, especially with the beasts that now roamed the land. Jarek flexed his hand a few times to stave off the pre-battle nerves. 

Munitions weren’t something folks could manufacture. Outside of Jarek’s limited setup in the Free Lands, he wasn’t sure there was anyone from the former Empire that could still produce. The Witch Queen destroyed the few sulfur mines the Riflemen’s Guild managed to discover before she hunted down and executed them to a man.

And that man ran out of patience when he heard the prince sniffle.

“Witch Queen’s tits would you shut up?” Jarek snapped as he began strapping on his breastplate. “You must have been a spoiled brat even before this, allowed to wave your sword around like a five year old playing with his pecker until you got your first taste of suffering.”

The prince’s face turned a deep shade of crimson. “How dare you. I’ll have you-”

“I dare,” Jarek interrupted, cursing himself for putting on his thick hide gloves before strapping his armor, “because whatever threat you’re about to level won’t hold up. You don’t have a leg to stand on, or else you wouldn’t have cut a deal with me. Fact is, you and the handful of bloody peacocks you’ve got are outnumbered, undisciplined, and lack the combined brainpower to outwit the den of beasts that have overtaken your keep.”

The prince clenched his teeth, eyes ablaze. 

A predictable reaction that came with every entitled prick. Even as Jarek secured the strap of his breast plate and pulled it tight, he could see Prince Terrian’s anger ease into a sulking resolve.

 “You’ll get your pay, captain,” the prince said. “I don’t know what you want with that stretch of mountain, but I am a man of honor, and the Craigs will be yours.”

Jarek stood and took up his single shot carbine, which drew a sneer from the prince. Nobles who had built up their militaries around knightly orders held considerable resentment for the Riflemen’s Guild. Back before the Emperor’s death, there had been a great deal of mud-slinging toward men like Jarek.

“You remember the plan?” Jarek asked, pulling the lever of his carbine which opened the barrel so he could load a round.

The prince looked like he would rather eat rotten meat than take orders from Jarek. “You draw them out and we will ride them down.” 

“Good.” This time Jarek gave the would-be prince his full attention, his voice matching the chill wind outside. “Don’t fuck me over, prince. I’m not a forgiving man. I’m sure you’ve heard about the last bastard that tried.”

For a brief moment the condescension and arrogance faded from Terrian’s face. The tale of Lord Castell’s punishment was widely known in this part of the country. 

 Jarek had cut out the liar’s tongue, nailed it between his eyes, and hung the lord’s body at a frequented crossroads outside Freemen territory.

The captain had no time for culls who could not keep their word.

“Understood,” the prince said as he backed away and left.

Jarek waited for a moment longer, his eyes falling to the ax on his cot once more. It was a different ax, he told himself. He had thrown the other into the burning remains of his home, but it didn’t matter. Every ax became the same he used to kill his wife and two children when the Curse took them.

“Grab it, coward,” he muttered, the words breaking his hesitation.

Taking the weapon he put it in his belt loop and left the command tent.

“Here they come, captain,” sergeant Borris hollered over the wind. 

The big man had a grin on his face, the battle-fever setting in as the officer took his place at the front of the shield wall.

Madman, Jarek thought, leaning in the saddle. Then again, that’s why Jarek had taken the northman for this job instead of pulling a pikemen company from the eastern front.

Sometimes madness was required when facing nightmares.

Howls rose up from deep within the keep, baying cries that made a man question his resolve. Flames from the Withered Tree in the center of the keep began to lick higher as his saboteurs sprinted back.

Withered Trees were nasty bits of magic. Whenever a Breed-Mother established a den, a Withered Tree rose to attract mates. The taller the tree, the stronger the mates. Thankfully this one was only as tall as a tavern roof. 

Cursed grew fast, which made them all the more difficult to handle. In the three months since the beasts’ occupation it was likely they had reproduced at least once, possibly twice, though the second litters would be adolescents. 

Hopefully they burned with their mother, Jarek thought.

Saboteurs rushed toward the battle line as the howls from the keep grew louder. The shieldmen before Jarek opened ranks to allow their brothers through, just as the first beastial figures began to emerge.

Jarek’s stomach churned as he saw them.

Each was a perversion of humanity and animal, twisted together with fel magic. The fastest were always those with too many joints. They moved silently over the keep’s broken ramparts on long limbs that ate up ground as they seemed to pull themselves across it.

Jarek guided his mount to join the horse archers on the left flank, who were already peppering the enemy with flights of arrows. A good number of the lead Cursed fell, but many shafts missed their targets on account of the heavy winds.

Jarek counted at least four saboteurs who wouldn’t make it. Poor sods that had timed their escape wrong and would now pay the price. 

He watched the first fall. A multi-jointed limb, riddled with arrows, snatched his leg and twisted. The faint crack of bone could be heard over the wind. It grabbed the screaming man’s head, twisted, and pulled, spilling spine and innards across the ground. Two more went down in a similar fashion, but the fourth was nearly to the shield wall.

Jarek pulled up his carbine, took a breath, and slowly released it as he pulled the trigger. The Cursed behind the fourth man went down just as it was about to grab him, its blood and brain spattering the creature behind. 

By this time the rest of the Cursed had arrived: large, powerful creatures, dense of bone and muscle. A few bore weapons, but the rest were unarmed. It was a small blessing that this place had yet to be supplied. The new arrivals let loose hate fueled howls as their goatlike legs carried them across the opening at terrible speeds.

As the last saboteur made it through the lines, Borris called the shields to close. There was a clash of steel as the burly northmen of the front lines moved in unison and prepared for the impact. Behind them, the men who had made it through were already hurling javelins into the fast approaching enemy.

Jarek worked the lever of his carbine, pocketed his brass, and slipped another cartridge in. 

“Signal the prince,” he ordered.

Beside him, young Liam placed the trumpet to his lips and let out three sharp notes right before the Cursed crashed into the shield wall. The screams of men and beasts rose up as violence ensued, but Jarek was already ordering his cavalry archers to engage as he heeled his mount.

Two more bullets, he reminded himself as he spotted a Cursed with a massive ax capable of splitting a man’s head like an overripe melon. At a gallop, it was a difficult shot, but he managed to put a fist sized hole in the beast’s chest.  

As the bloodletting continued, the shield wall held, but not without a price. Several men were pulled from the ranks to be ripped apart, while others lost their footing as blood turned the earth into mud. Borris held the resolve of his men, bellowing orders that rose above the chaos.

Jarek glanced to the east, where the prince should have been coming, and found a line of fifty lances sitting idle while Freemen died. Terrian was looking in Jarek’s direction, as if to make a point, then let his hand fall, ordering his men to charge. 

“Bastard,” Jarek growled, urging his mount onward as the Cursed took note of his archers and split off toward them.

The cavalry hit the main body of the enemy and it was as if the frenzied bloodlust the Cursed had been filled with dissipated as lances drove through hide and steel clad hooves broke bones. 

Jarek slid his carbine into a sheath and pulled out his ax while the riders around him followed suit.

“Let’s see this done,” he snarled and charged into the fray.

Jarek sat on a stool in the middle of his camp, ax forgotten at his feet. The nausea had faded after he puked his guts out. 

Flashes of the fast, but brutal fighting raced through his mind. Men being torn out of their saddles, blood splashing his face, all the damn screaming…

So much death in so short a time.

“Here he comes,” Borris said, the big man easing himself to his feet. “Want me to tell him to piss off?”

Borris had a tendency of keeping people away from Jarek after a battle. The officer knew the toll it took and had taken it as his duty to allow his captain time to recover.

“No,” Jarek said, getting up, happy that his legs weren’t weak anymore.

The prince and his knights arrived, many of them grinning after the skirmish. They hadn’t lost many of their own, not like Borris’ boys. 

Terrian dismounted and pulled a rolled up scroll from a pouch at his side. Jarek couldn’t help noticing the lack of blood on the man’s armor.

“I’m a man of my word,” the prince said, holding it out.

Jarek took it, glanced over the document to make sure everything was in order. Then he handed it to Borris, turned, and punched the prince in the mouth. 

Terrian went down in a heap, spitting blood and teeth as he writhed on the ground like a wounded beast. Some of Terrian’s men drew steel, but the grim-eyed Freemen in the camp, still bloody from the conflict, surrounded the handful of knights in short order and the knights paused.

Jarek squatted down beside the prince whose armor was finally tarnished. “I lost sixty-four men today, good men, family men, because you had to prove a point. Now let me make mine.” Jarek leaned in close, voice almost a whisper. “If I ever see your toothless face in Freemen lands, I’ll make what I did to Lord Castell seem like a kindness. Understood?”

The prince nodded as he held his hands to his mouth.

“Good,” Jarek said, lightly slapping the prince’s face. “Now leave my camp before I waste my last bullet on a blue-blood. I’ve bodies to bury.”

*

Judge 1’s Scores

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

Judge #2’s Scores

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

*
Calahan’s Hart by Kenneth Bragg

Warm breath misted in the cool autumn air as the last of the morning fog burned away. Dew drops fell in synchronous waves from trees and grass alike as the hunting party trampled past. Only Calahan noticed the beauty of the forest in the way the light slanted through the canopy to glisten on the tear-shaped drops at the edge of the leaves. At sixteen he was old for his first hunt; his mother had insisted he stay in and be tutored by master Ferrol in the ways of academia and statecraft. He was a natural learner, but with each passing year as his brothers all went out on hunts with their father he felt increasingly isolated. Last year was his youngest brother Dearig’s turn. Other years hadn’t felt so lonely, but with no one left to keep him company the weight of his solitude bore down on him so much that he insisted he be allowed to join this time.

“Let the boy come along, Margaritte. He’s been cooped up long enough. It’s time,” his father said. When King Kiron spoke this in public the matter was settled. Calahan didn’t know what his mother’s fussing was about. Why should he be the only one left out of the hunt? His clubfoot barely affected him, and besides that he would be on horseback most of the time.

“Looks like the little scholar let his mind wander again,” said Bol’regar, stamping his way to Calahan’s side. Calahan shot the centaur a mean look.

“Have not!” he blurted out.

Bol’regar laughed and scratched at his gray speckled beard. “Whatever the little scholar says.”

“You don’t have to be so close to me all the time, you know,” said Calahan.

“Well that’s where you’re wrong,” replied Bol’regar, “the king himself ordered me to stay by your side.”

Calahan harrumphed and set his gaze forward.

“Pay me no heed then, little scholar. Hurts me none to be ignored,” laughed Bol’regar.

Now several miles into the trek, the party reached a fork in the road where the lead huntsman signaled a stop to rest and break their morning fast on cold meat pies and jellied breads. When it was clear that the meal was ending the king stood and the gathered crowd grew silent.

“Today, fair court, my eldest son embarks upon the sacred rite that all men of noble blood must take,” he sloshed his cup towards Calahan, “and in doing so he takes his place amongst his forebears as a defender of Euridia.”

The throng of men let out a cheer.

“Stand, my son,” bellowed the king.

Calahan stood with his face ablush, unsure if it was from the wine they let him drink or the sudden attention paid to him. King Kiron pulled a short sword from his belt and handed it to Calahan.

“By right this blade passes to you, my firstborn. Use it well, as I know you shall,” said the king.

The fervor died down naturally and the men broke down the temporary camp. Calahan and Bol’regar broke away from the main party to forge a path to the proving ground. Calahan glanced back once more towards his father and brothers, all resplendent in their confidence.

“We should move along,” said Bol’regar.

As the sun traced its path across the sky the pair continued on deeper into the woods. Calahan wanted to prove he was up to the test and so remained silent for most of the trek, but his impatience got the best of him.

“Where is this proving ground, Bol’regar?” he asked.

“Saddle sores bother you, little scholar?” he quipped.

“What would you know of those?” Calahan barbed.

Bol’regar chuckled and pointed to a hill crested with the jagged ruins of an ancient fort.

“When you can see that hill you’re in the proving grounds,” he said.

“You mean the witch’s crown?” asked Calahan.

Bol’regar looked surprised. “So you know your geography, then,” he said.

“And history,” said Calahan, “they say it was cursed by a witch they burned there.”

“All superstitions have their truths, but your family has used these lands as a proving ground for generations,” said Bol’regar.

 Bol’regar knelt on his front legs and inhaled deeply of the earth.

“Ready your bow. Your hart is nearby,” he said.

Leaves rustled deeper in the forest, and a flash of motion revealed a massive hart that exceeded even Calahan’s broad imagination. It was a deep red, larger than even Bol’regar’s bulky frame, with one majestic golden antler protruding from its skull. Calahan drew his bow taut and let loose an arrow. The beast let loose a horrid scream as the missile hit its mark and staggered forward, but instead of falling the animal ran. Calahan pursued it, now flush with the thrill of the hunt, as it made its way towards the witch’s crown.

“Slow down, little scholar, the woods are too dense!” yelled Bol’regar, but Calahan paid him no heed.

The hart reached the apex of the hill and disappeared into the ruins. As Calahan gave chase his horse hit a snag and he tumbled forward hard into the ground. His every bone ached from the sudden stop, but he was determined to finish the hunt. The horse was too injured to continue on, and the crutch he relied on for mobility broke on impact, so he grabbed a branch and used it to keep himself upright as he dragged his distorted leg behind him.

Drops of blood dotted the floor of the broken fort leaving a trail for Calahan to follow. He weaved around the bits and pieces of walls until he came to an open area where a grand courtyard held a withered, blackened old tree split down the middle. Here he found the hart sprawled across the knotted roots of the tree, its chest rising and falling with ragged breaths. Calahan approached the wounded beast with gut-wrenching fear, his vision tunneled so that everything beyond the animal was shut out. He let the branch fall and went to his knees beside the deer. Calahan pulled the sword from its sheath and hesitated for only a moment before he slid the blade across its neck.

“Little scholar,” Bol’regar said as he trod into the courtyard.

Calahan made to stand, but his body refused to move. He looked down at the sword in his hand, but it had transformed into an antler. He noticed in horror that along with the sword his body was changing. Against his will his arm moved the antler to his head and with great pain it was attached to him.

“What’s…happening…to…me,” he managed to ask.

Bol’regar moved closer to the boy.

“Your family didn’t come to power by accident. The witch you thought burned at the stake granted them the power to defeat their enemies and unite Euridia,” he placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder, “but her price for them to keep this power was for the firstborn son of each king to be given up to her service as a beastling.”

Tears streamed down Calahan’s face as his slow transformation continued.

“It’s the reason your mother held on to you for so long. But the fractures were already forming. Crehar and Rentalor are in open rebellion, and the rest of the nonhuman clans are becoming restless,” Bol’regar looked Calahan in the eyes, his own tears running down his face, “It’s the king’s duty to keep the kingdom together. Just as it is my duty to serve the king.”

Bol’regar stayed with the little scholar until his transformation was complete. Calahan looked longingly at the old centaur before his eyes took on a yellow hue and the witch took control. He left him through the split in the tree, disappearing into the depths of the earth. Bol’regar wrapped and dragged the hart through the forest, straining from the massive creature’s weight, until he met up with the main hunting party.

King Kiron declared the hunt in his son’s honor and had the hart’s head mounted in a prominent place in his dining hall where a feast was held to commemorate him, but Bol’regar could not eat. He stood in the hall that night far past the time that the celebration ended for most staring at Calahan’s hart and thinking about the little scholar who wanted only to please his father. The other mounted stags throughout the hall all had their own plaques in honor of the sons of past kings who met the same fate. And so it was that the house of Erick the Unifier continued on. 


*

Judge 1’s Scores

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

Judge 2’s Scores

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

*

Crown of Witches by Frank Dorrian

The Shardspine screeched as it staggered up the plateau, crashing through a maze of black briar thorns. The arrow in its side snagged, dragging it back down a step in a tangle of thorns before the shaft snapped and the beast vanished with a final howl.

Aturro nocked another arrow and followed through the failing light, the air reeking of the beast’s blood. He hunkered low, face turned to the ground as the thorns snatched at him, emerging onto the plateau’s edge.

A red sun hung low over the jagged mounds of the Blistered Vales. Far to the north, past the grim peaks of Jolath, black against the sun, the Moonscourge Sword loomed like a vast sinking cross, the ancient bones of the fallen Starbeast splayed about it.

Aturro squinted through the ruddy light. Bare rock yawned upon the slope below, swallowed by the mouth of the forest that grew in the shade of thorn-rimed crags. A trail of dark blood snaked its way down the slope into the trees. Aturro’s mouth twitched.

The Singing Wood.

He’d hoped this hunt would be over before his mark drew near that accursed place. But still, it mattered little in the face of things. It would die today.

For her.

Aturro loosened his belt knife, picking his way down the slope as the sun glowered bloody.

It was night beyond the fringes of the Singing Wood, a black canopy of pine and glowering evergreen denying the sun. A pale blue light seeped through the forest, plunging bole and bough into purest void. The glow of the Songstones that lurked between the trees – the broken fragments of the stars that had shattered the skies when Morhol, God of the Moon, and the Starbeast had fallen at the climax of their battle.

Their song reached Aturro’s ears as he followed the beast’s trail, a high-pitched hum that seemed to emanate from every direction, and set his skin to crawling with its foulness.

The trail quickly grew faint, obscured by the Songstones’ ghostly light, the beast’s path lost as the forest seemed to twist and build upon itself. ‘Fuck.’ Aturro knelt, fingers tracing the earth, seeking any sign of spilled blood.

A noise echoed through the trees behind him – the clack of tumbling stones. Aturro spun, rose, bow drawn and arrow seeking a mark. Shadows and half-light twisted as he moved, the Songstones hum all he could hear.

A woody scrape came from somewhere close, echoing all around. Aturro spun again, bow cracking as a shadow dropped down from the trees and landed upon a fallen trunk. It twisted about the shaft with hprrific speed, hopping down to land on its haunches before him. Aturro nocked another arrow, took aim.

‘Easy, you great prick!’ Placating hands caught the half-light.

Aturro hesitated. ‘Carrig?’

‘Aye.’ The figure stood and threw back a dark hood, unveiling a face Aturro hadn’t seen for years. Not since…

No.

He shook himself. ‘What’re you doing here?’

‘Good to see you too, eh?’ Carrig smirked, gap-teeth glistening. ‘I could ask you the same thing, mate. Not a place I’d expected to see you. Thought you of all people would know better.’

‘Hunting,’ Aturro grunted, ignoring his old friend’s jab and gesturing with his bow. Carrig gave the weapon a look, a shitty sneer playing across his lips.

‘Big fucking Shardspine, by any chance?’ he chuckled. ‘Arrow stuck in its arse?’

Aturro nodded. Time hadn’t dulled the sting of Carrig’s wit. What the fuck was he doing here? Aturro let his hand drift toward his knife. Carrig’s dark eyes flicked toward it, his sneer widening.

‘It went that way,’ Carrig tittered, jerking a thumb to his right, where the light of songstones pulsed foully through a gap in the trees. Aturro squinted, pacing toward it, the light too overwhelming for him to make out a trail. Carrig appeared at his side, looming like a ghost.

‘It’s heading for the Crown of Witches,’ he said, cocking a sidelong look at Aturro. ‘The tree at the forest’s heart.’ A long knife shimmered in his hand, the other cold upon Aturro’s shoulder. ‘What do you say? You and I, like the old days. For Meisha, like I promised.’

Aturro shrugged off the hand at the sound of that name, seizing anger to smother the coldness that name birthed. ‘No. Get fucked and mind your business. I do this alone.’

‘Suit yourself,’ Carrig replied, voice fading beneath the Songstones’ hum as Aturro pushing into the forest.

The Crown of Witches loomed in its clearing – a withered, half-dead tree with a broad trunk stabbed through with hundreds of shards of crystal. Bare branches scraped the bruised sky with hateully, like the warped points of a crown. Towering clusters of Songstones surrounded it, their drone ringing through Aturro’s skull as he slinked into the clearing. The Shardspine was here, as Carrig had said, back legs dragging as it crawled toward the Crown of Witches. Its whimpers carried beneath the stones’ droning.

Aturro made to draw his bow, loose another shaft into the beast’s armoured back – but every muscle, every fibre of his being screamed to feel the thing die. He drew his belt knife instead, sweeping toward the beast.

Stepping about its chitin-plated legs, Aturro seized the Shardspine by one of the crystalline projections on the back of its head, tearing a yelp from it as he yanked it about, exposing the grey flesh of its throat. He raised the knife for the kill, cold hate putting a tremor in his fist.

The Songstones’ droning became a scream, the crystal shards impaling the Crown of Witches blazing with a light so terrible that Aturro fell back, tripping over the Shardspine’s outstretched legs and landing with a cry. The light swelled, pouring over him.

Ghosts moved beyond the fingers of his outstretched hand.

*

‘Daddy.’

Tiny hands tugged at Aturro’s sleeve, plucking him from drink’s oblivion. He blinked the bleariness halfway into focus, Meisha’s pale face surfacing through the inn’s gloom. ‘Get lost, girl,’ he grunted, burying his face back in his arms to chase whatever dream he’d been having.

‘I’m hungry, Daddy, mummy’s working and it’s getting dark –’

The back of Aturro’s hand silenced her, sending the child to her knees and crushing the chatter that had filled the inn. ‘I said fuck off, you little shit,’ Aturro slurred. ‘You and that cow have bled me fucking dry all summer! Go and ask that bitch to fill your belly, and tell her I’m sorry I ever filled hers!’

Meisha rose, tears in her eyes as she clutched a swollen cheek, her nose running red. She fled, and Aturro looked away, reaching for the mug before him.

‘Shardspine attack.’

Aturro blinked as the cartman peeled back the bloody sheets clinging to what was left of Meisha’s little body. He looked away, lowering himself and his hangover onto a bench to stare at the filth congealing in the gutter. Her pale face caught in its final moment lingered, cheeks torn and studded with broken crystal fangs, no matter how hard he screwed his rheumy eyes shut.

‘It took her on the edge of town,’ the cartman grunted, emotionless as the corpses he ferried. ‘Must’ve been looking for berries off the roadside and disturbed its nest. Vicious fucking things. Like a warhound rutted on a swamp drake, covered in crystal sharper than–’

‘I know what a fucking Shardspine is,’ Aturro hissed, pressing fists into his stinging eyes, straining against the void that had opened up in the pit of him.

Meisha. His little girl. His little star. She was gone.

She was dead.

Carrig’s arm took him about the shoulders. ‘We’ll find it,’ the hunter muttered, voice thick. ‘We’ll track it down and make it fucking pay. I swear it, mate.’

The cartman hawked and spat as Aturro sobbed into the silence that echoed in the wake of his friend’s words. ‘It’s a silver for the cartin’ and ruined sheet,’ he drawled, picking at a dirty fingernail. ‘Another, if you want her taken any further.’

Aturro’s fist cracked him about the jaw, flopping the prick atop the corpses piled about his daughter’s body. Numb, he cradled what was left of Meisha in his arms and bore her home.

‘Get up.’

Rough hands shook Aturro from foggy dreams of Meisha. The few memories he held of her at play, face flushed with laughter. As she should have been. As she deserved.

Another shake. ‘Get up, you fucking sot!’

He raised his face from the tavern bench to find Carrig’s disapproval looming over him, his friend’s dark eyes weighted with disgust.

‘What’s the fucking point?’

‘The point?’ Carrig’s mouth twisted. ‘Your wife’s left you, is the point, you worthless twat! She’s on a caravan headed for Leydis City!’

Cailla? Gone? When had that happened? Aturro mulled the point over, the void of Meisha’s passing not so much as stirring, and shrugged. ‘Fuck her.’ He fumbled for the mug at his side, downing a blazing mouthful of whatever rotgut shite he’d had the innkeep pour.

‘Pathetic,’ Carrig snarled. ‘I gave you a month to drown your grief before we track this fucking thing. I’ve got the thing’s trail at last, but you stay here, piss artist, and I’ll avenge your daughter’s memory for you.’

‘You…’ Aturro slammed the mug down on the table, silencing the inn. ‘Fucking. Dare.

‘Oh, I will,’ Carrig took a step toward him. ‘And you can wallow in drink and call it grief for her all you like while I –’

Aturro barrelled into him with a drunken roar, and the two crashed through the inn’s door into the twilit street beyond. Fists flew as the pair hit the ground, grappling and flailing through the mud and filth of Bridgehold town’s gutters.

The knife on Aturro’s belt came loose as punch burst his lip, finding its way into his hand. He mounted Carrig, slamming him into the muck, knife raised. ‘Wait! Wait!’ His friend’s hands pleaded mercy, the terror in his eyes begging forgiveness. The knife and drink cared nothing, and made a red ruin of Carrig’s throat.

*

The Crown of Witches wretched light faded. Aturro found himself on his knees, staring at his shaking hands, head spinning. The Songstones’ drone faded just enough so that he could hear himself sobbing like a child.

‘Meisha…’ Fragments of his memories still flitted through the Songstones towering all around him. He tried to move, tried to reach for them, and found himself numb.

Carrig stepped casually from the shadows behind the Crown of Witches, glancing at the wounded Shardspine, collapsed atop the tree’s roots with forked tongue lolling. He huffed, chuckled, and padded toward Aturro. Carrig’s sloughed away, vanishing more with every step, unveiling the void that lurked beneath.

A thing wrought of shadow knelt before Aturro, its eyes pale discs of ghostly light in its featureless face. A crystalline voice slithered through the trees over the Songstones’ droning.

What a thing, that one like you could find the gall to weep for all you so willingly broke.

A fist of writhing darkness seized Aturro by the front of his shirt and hauled him off the ground, feet dangling. It drew him close, pale eyes scourging him. The distant light of stars flickered in the depths of its being for an instant, before darkness swallowed them.

Or do you merely weep for yourself? No matter. In the end, you are all just meat, and spite, and woe.

It moved to the Crown of Witches. Weep for yourself in the cold and the quiet, call your daughter’s name, and may she step from the void to hear your pathetic reasoning.

Aturro screamed as the creature threw him at the tree, onto its shards of crystal, the tearing flesh and snapping bone smothered by the Songstones’ endless humming.

The creature dissipated like black fog upon a breeze as left Aturro screamed his daughter’s name, its sound flaying a crescendo over the Singing Wood.

*

Judge 1’s Scores

Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 5
Plot: 5
Enjoyment: 5
Total: 19

Judge 2’s Scores

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

*

Thorns and Stone by Joe Price

I followed the white doe as my legs carried me beyond the realm of my birth. This was the furthest I had walked, far beyond the grove where my uncle and I watched birds. Far beyond the river my aunt taught me to swim in. And farther still than the contested lands the elves and dwarves fought for. Yet this would become my home, the forbidden realm of the fae. No one would have me after what I did. I would let fate decide. The fabled aisling weald, a land my uncle had said was surrounded by dark magics which distorted the senses. One would lose their way as soon as they set foot within as time and space distorted to forever ensnare their unfortunate soul trapping them for eternity.

Yet the doe continued her path without pause, and so I followed. Before long, the elves and dwarves would want my head. I had broken the peace; I had rekindled the war. As I entered the aisling weald I could feel the pull of magic as my body was dragged further in, the doe vanished from my sight. My vision vanished, and my mind stopped registering time. I had entered the dream.

The endless screams filled my ears as I wept. Outside everything and everyone I had known and loved was being put to the sword. An entire dwarven battalion had taken up camp at the edge of the village, their war machines raining hell upon us. The few of us with magic had been targeted first. Master Illithariel was the only one to succeed in a defense, keeping the nursery safe under a barrier. I was not sure how long he could last.

We had a treaty. We had peace, yet they wished for bloodshed and violence. Everything south of the Ofeiri Mountains would be the land of the elves, leaving all the land of the north and the mineral rich mountains for the dwarves, the only land we all agreed to avoid was the aisling weald, the Fae-wild lands, the dreaming woods. I sat bloody and beaten; I could not remember how many attacked me nor did I want to. My teeth were already returning, though this wasn’t uncommon, at least for me. The wound on my left breast was healing slowly, both of my hamstrings were slowly reconnecting as well. I had more than enough aether present to repair my wounds. If only I had the time. The next patrol would find me soon and repeat what the previous one had done. Again and again, they would continue their torture.

You have all the time the voice whispered in my ear. This had been happening since the beginning of the moon. This voice had begun whispering to me often at night encouraging me in every thought. I had asked Master Illithariel but he said this was nothing to worry about though the look in his eyes as he said it was worrying. So, I ignored it. I let the voice whisper and I did not pay any mind to it, until now.

You can save everyone you can prevent the war it whispered and this time I acted. I closed my eyes and began to weave the treads of magic together. I started the spell by taking the deepest threads, the ones so far away no one ever pulled. The threads which whispered of lost magic. I let my mind slip into the spell, pain vanished as I slowly worked the deep threads into the spell the whisper desired.

As a little girl Master Illithariel said magic came differently to everyone. For some it was book learning and memorization, for others they gained their power through pacts made with patrons and finally those who had innate magic. I fell into the latter category. Master Illithariel had also taught me how magic was different for each practitioner of the art. For some it was music, for others it was like cooking, for me it was like knitting. My fingers acted as the needles and the aether around me each stitch slipped and purled over and over until a weave formed.

I felt breathless as the final backstitch was made, the spell locked into my mind and the aether acting now of its own accord blanketing everything around me. I had expelled all magic I had in me. I closed my eyes and let the magic do the rest.

The cry of an owl and a cold floor was not an ideal awakening. The room was darker than it had been before casting the spell, but I was not sure how late or early it was. The moonlight was lighting the room enough for me to see, thankfully. I looked first to my legs, if I was to investigate what had happened, I would need to be able to walk. Somehow, my legs had fully healed while I slept, which was new for me. I had never successfully been able to actively regenerate or use healing magics while sleeping. The other wounds had also healed, and my dress had mended itself as well. This was strange. I stood and surveyed the room, the walls and floor were a cold white stone, smooth to the touch. The door was also made of the same stone, though looked as if it should have been oak or mahogany.

This was most definitely not a dwarven prison. Whatever this was, was unnatural. I hadn’t ever been strong physically, but the door thankfully swung open rather easily though the grinding of stone grated at my ears. Outside life had stopped. Dwarves standing over frozen men weapons raised but never being lowered. Forever snared in the same alabaster stone. I walked as slowly as I could towards the nursery, the cold ground beneath me slowly growing less cold with every step. I entered what was once the market, toppled vegetable stands now the same stone as everything else. I walked unthinkingly and stumbled, pain flaring in my toes as I looked down at a head of cabbage, the vibrant violet vegetable now as ashen as the world around it. I looked towards the open herb storefront, I could still see Mordreth’s severed head next to the parsley and thyme. His body on the ground. the pools of blood had also turned to stone. I stood and ran keeping my eyes to the ground as I headed once again for the nursery.

The Heart tree, a once proud willow hung lifeless and gray. The once vibrant leaves only one moon old were now gone. The tree had withered and turned to stone, as had everything in the village. I could see the nursery from here, all hope was lost. The building was the same stone colors as the tree. I willed my legs to carry me forward. The thirty steps to the nursery were agonizing, the thought rising in my head as I feared the worst. I opened the door and found three dwarves, all stone, along with Master Illithariel, frozen forever in stone. The few children, still too small to walk were laying still in lifeless stone. What had I done?

I left the nursery to a white doe walking freely across the stone beneath her, unfazed by the world of stone. She stared at me, watching me as she slowly began to walk away from the village, every so many steps she would turn her head to look at me, begging me to follow.

I awoke to bell like laughter of a woman and the chattering of a squirrel. My body ached but I was otherwise unharmed.

“It seems our young little witch is finally awake. The magics of the dream are beginning to wane.” The woman said. I opened my eyes to see a young woman, slightly shorter than myself with hair a fiery red and eyes like emeralds. “Well now, it’s time for some tea and a bit of a long overdue chat.”

I sat up as the woman conjured a table with two chairs. She also conjured a kettle and two beautiful cups adorned with leaf motifs. A small violet fire was lit beneath the kettle and steam was beginning to rise from its stout.

“Where am I?” My eyes not leaving the woman.

“The Dream Wood would be the easiest terms to use.” The woman said beckoning me to sit. “Do you like your tea with honey or as is? I honestly cannot recall.”

“Tea on its own is perfectly alright, have we met before?”

“Yes and no,” the woman said pouring the tea. “a long time ago when you were a child. But you would probably not remember me.”

“I am surprised I am still alive. Everyone would have found the village by now; they are tracking me or will be.” I said looking down at the tea, it smelled of peppermint.

“They will not enter into my realm.” The woman said. “If they do, the dryads will pick them off one by one until no dwarf or elf lives.”

“Then why am I here?” I said taking a sip of the strange woman’s tea.

“You are not an elf, nor are you a dwarf. Though you were raised by the elves, I had to make a calculated decision on which would raise you better.”

“What?” I said spitting my tea. “Do you not see my ears?” I pointed towards my slightly pointed ears. Not as pointed as others but they were still pointed.

“Do you not see mine?” the woman said moving her hair? It was then I also noticed the crown of thorns adorning her head. Sitting nicely above her also pointed ears.

“You are an elf as well?” I said taking another sip of tea.

“I am no elf. And I am surprised you never learned of me.”

“A crazed elf mage living in the middle of the Dream Wood would be quite the story.”

“Have they not taught of you the gods?”

“Furellion, Balthoron, Murielle, Valiren and Lithlynn.” I said speaking clearly my eyes not leaving the woman’s.

“And how would you describe them?” the woman said leaning in on with a sly grin.

“Furellion is the All God, head of the order and the most powerful. Balthoron along with his children, the dwarves, deserves to die. Murielle is his daughter and the wife of Furellion, she is the Goddess of Magic and Waves. Valiren is the God of Dragons and known as the Will of the Void. Last would be Lithlynn, Queen of the Fae-wilds, Goddess of nature and order, as well as the twin to Valiren.” I recited from memory what Master Illithariel taught me.

“Now what is the Dream Wood?”

“The Fae-wild lands no elf nor dwarf is to dare cross into.”

“Exactly. Now why is it we are sitting here with a spot of tea in the middle of the Fae-wilds if we are both elves?” The woman said taking her tea and drinking deep of its contents before setting her cup down and pouring herself more. “Why have the Dryads not killed us where we sit, to then take our tea and drink it themselves?”

“Enlighten me then? Who are you?”

“I am Lithlynn, though calling me as such would feel rude, as I am your mother. Though, honestly you could look in a mirror and get the same answer. We look so much alike.” The self-declared goddess said with a smile I recognized all too well.

“You are delusional.” I said though I could not disagree, I smiled the same way when I outwitted people into corners they could not escape.

“This realm is my manifest delusion. A realm where my lovely children can be safe from those which can harm them. Now, my daughter, let us discuss the whispering of demons and the use of forbidden magics and why not to acknowledge their call.”

As day turned to night we talked.

*

Judge 1’s Scores

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

Judge 2’s Scores

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

*

The Most Feared by Matthew Johnson

Love, fairytales tell us, transforms a beast into a man. A chance for the uncivilized to be reformed into a couth Prince who once spurned the hospitality of an old woman because he was vain, and she ugly. True love’s kiss before the stroke of midnight when the last rose petal drops might’ve absolved his sins. Might’ve returned his humanity. Might’ve righted the wrongs and restored order from chaos.

This is the web storytellers weave.

I tell you; storytellers are fucking liars.

More than Cupid’s arrows pierce a man’s heart, or in my case, a beast’s heart. Good old steel and wood are enough to kill. All for the sake of a beauty. A la belle dame sans merci, as one poet put it. A dead poet, gone before old age could ravage him and steal away his beauty.  What is beauty, but a distraction from the ugliness of the world.

Oh, how ugly the world can be without beauty and love.

The storm rages over the mountain, a sort of symbolic anger mirroring that which coursed through my bloody sinews, blinding me, surely as lightening that forked through the night sky flashed across my retinas, more sensitive to light and madness than any normal man. Curses taint the cursed for a reason. A reason that “normal” civilized men give for raiding a villainous creature’s castle in the night after a mad tinkerer sacrificed his daughter to the outrageous lust of an uncompromising beast. The jealous huntsman rallied a knight’s quest to save a damsel in distress. Really, this damsel was happy enough to read in the quiet, cavernous library, in a kind of stasis any intellectual being would desire, or simply wish when wishing upon a star. Over the beast’s head, my head, the stars are all covered by thick clouds, drizzling cold rain, tears of love denied and dead. Those are the proper stories told at night— tales as old as time, and all that shit.

Bloody, wounded in my side by an arrow I dare not remove, I climb the steep, muddy slope. Each step is agony and only pure rage drives me forward like the caravan’s master’s lash on the lathered beast’s back. With everything taken from me, one last option remained. On this mountain, one where an evil sorceress died at the edge of a silver blade to free a sleeping village, there is a rocky crag where the sorceress had perched in her form of a dragon. After her demise, a twisted tree grew. Twisted trees always meant something bad, especially on dark and stormy nights. Nature warped by evil rising up from some metaphorical hell. The very branches caught in agony as it raised a fingered branch to the heavens as its cries fell on deaf ears. This is closer to the truth. We all want truth, though this one is not packed in the beautiful transformations neatly packaged in childish fairytales. In this grim reality, on one of the twisted branches, sat a witch’s crown. Witches, we all have been told, are wicked creatures and everything they create must also be wicked.

Including myself.

“She never loved you,” a voice hisses from the darkness. “She only stayed for the books.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” I growl, clutching at the pain radiating from my side— a pulse like a steady heartbeat of one that is heartbroken.

“Why do you care?” the voice asks, rational, too rational for my current state. I want to sink my fangs into the speaker and ravage it the way I would ravage the bastard huntsman who invaded my castle, broke my servants, and burned all I had. Including la belle dame sans merci. She was my one and only happiness. My hope. My last flame flickering on the burnt wick teetering on the edge of wax.

“This isn’t about her.”

Lightning flashes. There stands a beautiful figure. She is dressed in an exquisite gown, gold like the embers in her eyes. The only blemish is the ragged hole in her gut where the iron spike from the gate pierced her. I try not to gasp, but the pain is too much.

“Only a fool or a madman would climb this far without a reason.” She smiles, brighter than a hundred candles, like she did on discovering the thousands of books. Now burned. Their stories turned to ash. “There is no greater reason than love.”

 “Revenge,” I say, crawling closer to her slender, bare feet. A trail of blood leaks from under the skirt and drips into the mud. My own wound calls out to it in fire.

She laughs. No sweeter sound have I ever heard. None more bitter.

“Always the brute,” she says, kneeling beside me, her soft hands cradling my distorted head, small horns like those drawn on a devilish figure protruding from my forehead. “A gentle beast. Frail. One who couldn’t protect his home, or me, from the superstitious worms who kill what they don’t understand. Love wounded and blind, nearing death, oh another failing, a long a list of failings, none larger than this, his last. Greater men have come to my mountain to kill for the love of a dainty, beautiful thing, but you, my gentle beast, have nothing left. Revenge is a hollow dream and you’re at the end of your nightmare.”

Lightning flashes and thunder rumbles. My body shakes. The truth is sharper than a sword carving out my heart. She strokes me, the way one would pet a favorite dog. Her smile never falters. I could die here, my beastly head in her lovely lap. Surrender to all she says. So, easy. So, easy. As easy as swallowing poison.

I lift my head, grunting at the effort of straining to be on all fours. I stare into her blue eyes, nose close enough to smell the jasmine of her perfume.

“What do you want, witch?”

“Whatever do you mean?” An unnatural lilting in her voice, sweeter than a song bird. Much like a siren singing sailors to their doom. “The world would be better off with one less beast.”

“That we can agree upon,” I say. The image of the brave hunter struggling with my Belle on the parapet, she kicking, scratching, biting, while trying to escape his grip. The entire time, her eyes were on mine and I thought I saw concern that the arrow flung from the hunter’s bow had killed me. I reached for her and in that instant, either the hunter attempted to shove her or she recoiled from my touch, but she lost her balance and fell from the parapet. A quick scream and the ringing of iron as it pierced her body, driving the iron stake through her, impaling her on the fence below.

She must see the rage, feel it crackling across the sky with lightning raising the small hairs on her neck and arms. The bloody wound in her gut seals and her visage shimmers, changing, morphing into a new, but old, recognizable face.  A cruel beauty not interested in love or books, but to twist and control.  

“Then you’re not ready for death?” She fondles the shaft sticking in my side.

“Death is not ready for me. I have so many to add to his collection.”

I grunt as she slides the arrow shaft out, snarling as the metal head scrapes a rib. It is out and blood runs anew. I could still die, but I would snap that cruel, beautiful face off her skull before I did. She presses a small hand inside the hole in my vest where the arrow rudely went unannounced, uninvited. A rush of cold shudders through my side and I gasp again.

As quickly as it had started, the hands pull away. She stands, half my size, long black hair trailing down her nude back. She walks away to the twisted tree. “Destruction and ruin will always follow you.”

Thunder cracks the sky open. I trail her, no longer weak. No longer wounded. The huntsman bested me once, escaping to the village with his cronies. There would be no second time.

She stands at the edge of the crag and the gnarled branch bends, bowing to her as she reaches her hands out for the crown. Her crown. She used to be the dragon killed by a prince. Used to be the old lady begging for shelter and turned away. She used to be fairest of them all, demanding the hearts of those predicted to be fairer. La belle dame sans merci. There will always be someone fairer.

The crown itself is black with spikes like wrought iron pointing to the stormy sky. Black, metal thorns wrap around the circlet, cresting at the top of each iron spike. A faint, blue-light glows in the darkness against her pale skin.

“You could go into the village and maybe kill a couple of henchmen before they hacked you to pieces,” she says, “a valiant effort to avenge your lost love.”

“It’s not for love.”

She shrugged.

“Fine, to soothe your ego,” she says, looking down at the crown. “Or—”

Thunder booms.

“Give it to me!” I snarl and lunge for the crown.

My claws miss snatching it. She holds it aloft over the edge of the precipice. Her tongue tsks in disappointment.

“All these years and you still haven’t learned manners.”

“Manners? Is this what you’re about, witch?”

“If only those tiny ears were good at listening,” she says. “Stop your petulant grumbling and hear what I have to say.”

“Fine.” She did, after all, save my life for a moment. I sat beneath the bowers of the twisted try, waving for her to continue.

“Good, little beast,” she says, cradling the crown like a precious child. “I hold here all that you need to drive them to their knees. You know what this is, but you do not know its worth. Like a child playing with fire, you’d burn your house down. I will show you how it works. For a price.”

“Always a price,” I grumble. “What is it, witch? What is the cost of this power? My immortal soul?”

“Oh, no,” she says, “I have that already and it isn’t worth very much.”

She taps her lip, mimicking calculations. All a ruse. She knew exactly what she desired when I stepped foot on the mountain, probably before she transformed me into this hideous creature nearly a decade ago.

“You will owe me a wish.”

“A wish?”

“Anything I want when I come to collect. No refusal, no bargaining. Just what I ask of you in that moment.”

“Done,” I say.

“You don’t—”

“No.”

She smiles. All the more beautiful in her natural face.

“Come to me,” she says. “After I place this crown on your head, the pact is set and there is no going back. Death itself may break it as it breaks all things.”

Thunder and lightning conjoin as witnesses to the bargain. I step forward and kneel so she may reach my head. The crown appears heavy, but weighs almost nothing as she settles it between my horns. I feel it shift. The thorns twist, digging through the thick fur and burying in my flesh. Heat spreads through my body and my bones begin to creak. I roar out my pain, arching my back, and arms spread wide. Everything hurts and, in an instant, it didn’t.

“You look fantastic,” she says and hands me a mirror, laughing. “Mirror, mirror in his hand, who is the most feared of all the land.”

I stare down in shock. My hands touch smooth flesh, fingers, no longer bearing claws. I hardly recognized the face it had been so long covered in thick fur.

“I’m….”

“A man,” she says. “A Prince, again, to be exact.” She takes the mirror from my hand. “Go spread ruin and wage war. Bring death. Death to all.”

Lightning flashes and I cry. Tears of triumph.

*

Judge 1’s Scores

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

Judge 2’s Scores

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

*