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:
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 April 2022
1. A Scarred Fool
2. A Ban on Laughter
3. A Silent Huntress
The Minikin by Sharon Rivest
Mere days ago, the king fell ill at the banquet. Mere hours ago, the temple bells pealed out his death knell. Mere minutes ago, Rossetta was caught riding a donkey out the back gate. Fleeing for her life and failing rather poorly at it.
Her crime? Not dying from the poison that killed the king. Poison she was supposed to have found by tasting all he ate or drank. But at that particular banquet, at that particular time, she’d been dancing a jig on the tabletop when his last glass of wine was poured. Everyone laughed as she tried her hardest to perform the intricate steps of the reel. Steps made awkward by her bent back and lack of toes.
“Dance minikin, dance!” they shouted, laughing and pointing.
Dance she had, kicking aside plates and upsetting goblets. All the while, she’d sung a ditty, the words slurred by her ravaged lips and too many sips of wine. Lips the victim of a dozen acids intended for the king. But not the thirteenth. No, that one she didn’t drink.
At least she’d been spared the agony of days spent trying to die by poison. She was now assured a somewhat quicker death when she received the honor of being buried alive with the king. The fate of every king’s fool. One she thought she’d never suffer since kings so often grew tired of their fools and looked for new ones.
It was her particular burden to take the kingdom’s sorrow with her into the afterlife so that people could by happy again. As long as she lived, there could be no laughter in the land. Only weeping and despair. People did so sorely miss laughing.
Her prison cell door opened, and the jailor walked in, a rank bucket in one hand and a pitcher of water in the other. Rossetta scuttled into a corner, hiding her twisted features behind her hands. The beating she’d endured could have only made her look worse.
The jailor put his burdens on the floor and looked out the barred window at the dying light. “They bury the king at noon tomorrow.” His eyes ran over her. “They might not have beat you if you hadn’t run. Still, who would expect anything different from a fool?” He started toward the door and stopped. “Heard you was a witch, but that can’t be true, easy as they caught you. I’m a god fearing man. Can I get you something to comfort you on your last night on earth? The good book? A leg of roast mutton?”
“My cat?” Rossetta mumbled through her broken teeth and mangled lips.
“That would be difficult,” the man said, scratching his head. “How about any cat?”
Rossetta would have preferred her own cat. It would make things easier. However, she didn’t want to make the request too difficult.
She nodded. “Any cat.”
A few hours later, the jailor brought her a candle, a leg of mutton, a loaf of bread, and a scrawny tabby cat. Instead of thanking the man, she blubbered, and he made a hasty retreat, just as she wanted. The door banged shut behind him, the lock clanking into place.
After she could no longer hear him or anyone else, she sprang up and grabbed the cat, which was intent on making itself acquainted with the mutton. It tried to scratch her, but she pressed it to her chest as tight as she could, smothering the life out of it.
Tracing a circle of her blood on the floor, she surrounded it with glyphs painted in blood or with her plaited hair. She placed the cat in the circle and lay down next to it. Mumbling the words of the incantation, she sucked in a great breath, then blew it out at the cat. With that breath went her life essence. Like liquid fog, it flowed into the creature. Her body grew cold as her soul left its scarred and battered husk. The still warm cat became her new home. A body young, lithe, and supple.
Rossetta rose and stretched and leaped to the windowsill in a single bound, squeezing through the bars. A star speckled sky smiled down on her. Its air cool and fresh, free of the stench of her prison. The sill beyond the bars was narrow, but her new form proved surefooted. She leaped to a neighboring sill and looked through the bars. The door to this cell was ajar. A rumbling started in her chest as she purred.
Part of her wanted to flee this place in her new and glorious form, so graceful and strong. But she wasn’t ready to quit the palace yet. On silent feet, she jumped down, crossed the cell, and moved into the hallway. No one had remained behind to guard the king’s fool. His feeble minikin.
She didn’t have to hunt long before she found the key to her door. She returned to the cell with the key in her teeth. Entering her broken body, she lurched to her feet and scuffed away the blood and hair of her magic circle.
As she did, she sang, “A prance and a dance, hide the evidence. Insert the key. Set yourself free. Seek and find. Bundle and bind. Unkind man. Stupid ban. Revenge my plan.”
When she finished, she shook her aching head, trying to banish the mad thoughts magic always brought. A clear mind and a bit of luck were required to complete tonight’s tasks. The years had hardened her heart into a thing as tortured as her soul. Every scrap of mercy long ago beaten out of her. There was a score to even. An injustice to right. It didn’t matter how wrongly some might think this done.
All she needed was an hour. An hour to reach the royal nursery. An hour to steal a toddler to take her place. The king’s son would do nicely.
It was far easier than she thought it would be. With the miniscule murderer locked away, there was nothing for average folk to fear. No guards to post. Grief had driven everyone early to their beds. The halls were empty.
By the end of the hour, she had cast a sleeping spell upon the child and brought it back to her cell slung over her shoulder, its fingers dragging on the floor behind her. Once there, she’d changed clothes with it. Tore out its hair. Beaten it until it was unrecognizable. Left it unconscious in her cell, the dead cat wrapped in its arms.
“Such is a minikin’s mercy. You should have chosen a kinder father,” she said to the sleeping boy as she closed the door and turned the key in the lock.
The next morning, she paid a giant of a man for a change of clothes, and to take her to the funeral. He eagerly accepted a ring she’d stolen from the prince’s finger. Cloaked and hooded, she rode atop the giant’s shoulders, appearing to all like his child. No one gave her a second look.
Whispers about the missing prince filtered through the spectators, making Rossetta smile until it hurt. To her delight, the big man pushed his way to the front of the crowd. She could see all the proceedings clearly from here.
The casket and its entourage arrived. A golden box on a regal wagon at the head of a slow procession of black garbed royalty. Church bells pealed at noon. They lowered the king into his grave to the slow beat of a war drum. Colorful banners snapped in the wind. A priest cried out the accomplishments of his sovereign to a reverent onlookers.
It was a glorious funeral.
The drumming stopped and his minikin, his fool, his disguised son, unconscious but alive, was tossed onto the royal coffin. Knights and nobles took up shovels. They filled the hole while his queen stood by, weeping for her dead husband and her missing son. A double tragedy for the kingdom. A fitting punishment confirmed by every ache in Rossetta’s battered body.
When all was done, Rossetta whispered to the man her final words as fool, “With a whimper and simper, a king’s line does end. All at the hand of a minikin.”
The man chuckled. “Good rhyme.”
“I’ve seen enough. Let’s go,” she said.
He turned away from the lamentations, weaving through the crowd of tearful mourners. The day was bright and cloudless. From high atop his shoulders, Rossetta looked down on the world as she rarely did. It was magnificent to be so tall. To be above all. To move without fear. The best view in years.
She glanced about. Had she spoken aloud? Too much magic, like drink, loosened the tongue. Best day in a long time. Best not get caught.
They rounded a third corner and the sounds of the mourners faded away. The king’s fool was buried. The price for laughter had been paid. Alive and revenged, and rich, the minikin cackled with joy, fingering the prince’s remaining five rings in her pocket.
Judge #1’s Scores
Judge #2’s Scores
Endmost Layers by Joe Coates
If I’d learned anything in that job it was that you should tell the people you do that you love them every day. Without fail. That’s how serious life could be, when it came right down to it. When all the fat was boiled away and just the bones were left. It was ironic; I was the one filling the graves and so I had no one to pass on this enlightenment to. That’s what happened when you made the bodies, I guessed. That’s what happened. I learned that shit early on, and it never changed.
But hell, what would I know, really? They called me the Silent Huntress because I never got to talk to anybody. Occupational hazard. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to. Just didn’t ever get a chance.
I left the Khonsou hidden in a glade. She was a twenty-five metre long, thirty-tonne surface-to-orbit shuttle with more scars, dings and scrapes along her sleek carbon-grey sides than a blind blacksmith’s thumb, and stood out like a bullet wound in a wedding dress, but I had no fear she’d be tampered with. Not on this forsaken planet.
The four spherical feet of her landing gear, filled with buffer-gel, were covered in snow up to their shock attenuators. With the dirty sleet still falling sluggishly from the cracked sky, she would be impossible to see, unless she was stumbled across, soon enough. She was old, and ugly, and mean-looking as an alleycat, and I cared for her more than I did most—if not all—of my humanoid acquaintances, but under all the scars she was packing some state of the art systems.
I walked the six and a half miles through the thigh-deep snow until I reached what used to be a main road that ran into the heart of the ancient, broken metropolis. My augmented muscles made little of the journey. Soon, dirt changed to cement under my boots.
I looked up at the rusting sign outside the city, hanging high over one of the old motorways that was little more now than a corridor for wolves to use. Wolves and fouler, more twisted things. Ice crusted it, bullet holes pocked it.
LONDON, it read.
The place had been the seat of an empire long ago. Had been a capital of Old England, back when countries having names was in some way important and relevant. Back before I could remember.
Before I was Altered.
Absentmindedly, I stretched the fingers of my right hand. It was below freezing, but I wore no gloves. My sham-skin gave the organic tissue underneath all the protection it required. I could feel the viscosity of the lubricants growing sub-optimal though; thickening. The cold did that. Slowed the cybernetics. Slowed the hunters like me and dulled their reaction times. It was the one card the unaltered could play against the Altered. It was why those who were Marked took shelter in the old cities of northern Europe. There were still warrens to get lost in, people to hide amongst, the weather to use as some scant protection. The deeper the history the deeper you could get lost.
Under the fading white letters some wit had daubed, ‘LAUGHter banneD sInce agEs ago’.
Laughter banned since ages ago.
Just one of the many insane, inane rulings the desperate people who believed they ran this dilapidated cesspool had decreed. Wasn’t like it would be a hard edict to abide by, if you were that way inclined. There was precious little enough to laugh about since things had all gone to shit. Since the colonial powers from beyond the asteroid, Enceladus, had arrived and decreed humanity as nothing more than vaguely intelligent and interesting game. Since the Hunts had begun in earnest.
Laughter. Now there was a sound that I hadn’t heard for long enough. Whether it be banned or no. So, it came as all the more jarring to my ears when I heard it floating out of the semi-blizzard that was whisking my coat tails around me.
I turned my head. A man came stumping out of the snow. It was he who was doing the laughing. At his heels padded a wolf. This surprised me more than anything, and put me on edge. There weren’t many wolves fool enough to take up with humans, but fewer humans who’d not eat non-human meat if given the chance.
“Look, look, look!” the man crowed, as he sighted me. “A girl! A girl! What’s a girl doing out here, hm? So fine and so clean and so brave. And all alone too.”
The man was not gaunt, but he was scarred like no man I had ever seen. His face was a mess of twisted tissue; shiny white in place, a deep fleshy pink in others. As he stepped towards me, the wolf stayed at his heel.
“Your face,” I said. “The wolf did that to you? Whilst you trained it?”
“The wolf was invented to test man, man was invented to best the wolf,” the man said.
He skipped a pace closer to me, testing my boundaries. In the cold air I could see his rank breath plume towards and touch my face. The stink of it coupled with the jittery gait, the yellow eyes, the full frame, and the obvious madness, decided me. Here was a keen eater of his fellow men; afflicted with mercury poisoning. A different kind of hunter to me.
A long-time survivor.
How long had he been crawling around out here, chasing the moon?
My weapons were slung under my coat. Laz-knife strapped to one thigh, beam-slinger on the other, and the antique shotgun over one shoulder.
“I’m looking for a woman,” I said.
“A woman?” the man parroted. He had no lips to speak of so his grin was permanent, but it widened all the same.
“She runs this… place,” I said. “This thing that was once a city.”
“She who writes the laws?” the man asked, his piss-yellow eyes flicking up towards the graffiti-covered sign above us.
“She who writes the laws. The Autarch… The Autarch!” the man gibbered. At his side, the wolf whined.
The wind teased a lock of my bright blond hair out from under my hood. It commanded the lunatic’s attention in the same way a gun usually did.
“Silver and gold, precious metals, I’ve been told,” the cannibal hissed. “But it’s sweet young flesh that I like to hold.”
Both he and the wolf leapt at me, but the wolf reached me first. It weighed all of one-hundred and thirty pounds, so I staggered back a step as I caught it by the forelegs and snapped them apart like a chicken’s wishbone. It hadn’t hit the snow before the cannibal was on me, slavering and rabid, more animal than the dying wolf could ever have been on its darkest day.
I held the wiry maniac at bay with my cybernetic arm while I brought the hand holding my laz-knife around in a sweep. The crackling blade went through his lower spine, cauterizing the flesh even as it cleaved it. He fell to the snow, screaming.
I had read that there were many sounds in the world that people used to consider to be soothing; the distant hum of a lawnmower on a sleepy summer afternoon, the dawn chorus of birds, and rain on a tin roof, to name but a few. To me though, nothing relaxed the spirit and calmed the mind like the soft rasp and gratifying click of a twelve-gauge solid slug shotgun shell being slotted into the loading port of my Winchester Model 87.
Maybe that would have been a problem in any other gig. In any other world than the one we had.
“I can give you the Autarch, but I am innocent!” the scarred fool squealed.
“The innocent die with all the rest of us,” I told him.
I pulled the trigger. The cannibal’s furious wails were cut off as his head was reduced to pink porridge. Blood and bone sprayed out across the gorgeous white snow in a rich red pulp.
I pulled my coat around me, shouldered my shotgun, and started off down the deserted motorway. The wind bit at my face, but I couldn’t feel it. Hadn’t been able to feel it for years. I knew it was there, but the chems blunted its teeth, blocked the sapping cold.
As I walked I gazed ahead of me at the graveyard city of old London town. The buildings rose like shattered teeth into the sullen sky. Beyond their uneven heads, lighting the dirty clouds, the flicker of torch-ship afterburners ferrying the rich spectators of this Hunt this way and that could be made out.
My Mark was out there somewhere.
I looked around me. Gazed with wonder at the shapes the wind had sculpted the snow into all around me. Piling it up and around and against the hulks of old abandoned automobiles, which had been left to sit forever by those who had tried to flee the galactic pioneers from beyond the asteroid belt all those years ago. Flowing folds of the most perfect smoothness tapering to the finest points; deep hollows with knife-edge rims; soaring cliffs with overhanging margins almost transparent in their delicacy. The skeletal trees and leaning light poles looked like charcoal sketches against the smooth whiteness all around.
The scarred fool’s blood was the brightest, most joyous thing for miles around. Red on white. Soon to be joined by the black of the ravens.
It didn’t always used to be like this, I thought, as I trudged on. Once, there used to be more to life than death.
* * *
He watched it play out in his memory. Like a film projected onto the backs of his eyelids.
Wine and expensive blackmarket cigarettes at Mish Mosh. Out on the terrace. Inter-planetary imported sauvignon blanc left in an ice bucket at the side of the table. Real, soil-grown tobacco. In the winter she would wear a black coat. Black gloves. A scarf. She looked lovely in a scarf. The walk home. The two bottle meander. Straight up the street from the bar to a building on the left that was painted white. Smiling. Knowing. The pause in the service entrance, around the corner from the front door. As if it wasn’t decided. Reaching out and grabbing her by the belt, by the waist band, and pulling her to him. The kisses etched in smiles. The smiles fading when it stopped being funny and it started being something else. Pressing bodies in the elevator. Opening her front door, laughing softly, padding through the lounge. Falling onto the bed, hard breathing, desperate fingers. Frantic.
All those nights. All those mornings.
And she never realised what they were doing.
But he did.
He had cleaned the visible blood off many hours before, but he could still see it there. Deeply ingrained. Within the prints. Sometimes the kill order took a while to be passed down.
Ebony skin. Green eyes. A smile that could stop a cat-fight at a roller derby.
Alfie Nyx was one handsome motherfucker, and there was a trail of Marks of all sorts of personalities, sexes and descriptions left in his wake to prove it.
If they could. Obviously.
This next Mark would be a doozy, though. This Mark would define him.
* * *
The Mark stood in the middle of the hall.
A striking, dark skinned man stood at one end of the corridor, while an intense blond woman holding a beam-slinger stood at the other. Both had the most terrifying look on their faces. The look of people that believed that what they were doing was both good, and for a profit.
The Mark was caught in the balance. And there was a lot that hung there with her.
Her finger touched the hair trigger.
A lot hung there.
Judge #1’s Scores
Judge #2’s Scores
Mire by Tim Clark
The ban on laughter had come very suddenly and very urgently. In fact it was not so much a ban on laughter as a moratorium on all vocalised noise. Too easy for the dreaded fal’si patrols to pick up on. Too easy to betray yourself and all of your kind. Too easy to die for nothing.
She signed this to her reconnaissance squad who were waiting underground for her, crouched down and huddled like sewer rats. Pressed into the slime-coated wall. Sitting ducks in a brick chamber below the streets. No laughter, no speaking, no noise. A stern stare presented to each one of them to underline the fact that she was deadly serious.Passing the orders on from up high. Orders that needed to be heeded, so to speak.
‘What, we can’t we even sing? Eh, Captain Sheilu?’ signed Shitshow. Cheeky bastard that he was. Good fighter. Good scavenger. Average tactician. Cheeky bastard though.
‘Arsehole,’ Sheilu signed back. She didn’t need specialised hand gestures to sign that one to him. She hoped he got the message and, for a moment, stopped stirring the pot.
One of the others began to laugh. The captain whipped around like a ravenous predator finally locating some prey. Teef it was. Matted hair, dressed in green rags, face a real mess. The scarred fool. He took a fal’si axe to the chops when he was a kid. Lost his teeth, half his nose and acquired scarification patterns to mark him out for the rest of his days. The blade of the axe was poisoned. Poison spread, scarred him up good. Wasn’t the axe that had made him a fool though. That was from birth.
Donal, the shy one, blond hair, green eyes, a winning smile, reached forward carefully, deliberately and grasped Teef on the arm from behind. A tight squeeze to say, ‘shut up you idiot’. Another to say, ‘Captain just said no laughing’. And third to ask, ‘do want to get us all killed?’
Feeling his upper tricep in Donal’s grip, Teef realised what he had done and slunk down ever further, instinctively, making himself one with the shit and slime in the sewer. The others followed, moving like one mass. Responding collectively to the situation. Donal, Shitshow, Retch, Doll and slightly behind them, always taking one last moment to assess the situation, Captain Sheilu. The whole squad. All that was left of the royal bodyguard. Deep in the mire. Literally.
The click clack squeal of the silent huntress came all too soon. Right above them, on street level, just above the sewer grate. The strange sounds were one of the two signatures of the fal’si. The other was the lung-ripping stench. Acrid and venomous. Like Teef’s personal hygienic, but a thousand times worse. To both of the fal’si signatures, the correct response was to fill your trousers in panic, bite your tongue, and pray today wasn’t your day to die.
The fal’si had not always been this good at hunting them. This picking up on noise, like fucking insects, was a relatively new thing. Prior to the invasion they had just been a regular enemy. Evil as fuck, yes. But just a regular enemy. Now they had the run of the citadel. Squads of survivors, like Captain Sheilu’s were few and far between. Not enough to even be called a resistance, she suspected.
The click clack squealing had stopped. Either the huntress had gone. Or had gone silent. Silent was when they were dangerous. No longer needing to echo locate or whatever the fuck they were doing. Prey located. Time to kill.
The fal’si huntress came down through the metallic grate with a stunning force, smashing through it like it was rotten wood. Death from above. Before she landed her scythe cut Doll in half, and took Retch’s arm with the same blow. Doll died. Retch retched and screamed. The huntress landed.
‘Fucking run!’ yelled Sheilu, bursting out of the sludge like a crocogator taking a sandjack.
And they began to move, Shitshow grabbing and dragging Retch who was still looking at the place where his arm had been. Struggling to understand how he was still able to look at the place where his arm had been.
Teef drew the next short straw, the huntress catching him with a spiked chain which hung from the handle of the scythe. ‘Come here, weakling,’ she hissed.
He was ensnared. With a morbid resignation he allowed himself to be tugged back towards her, but at the last moment he spun around, drawing his rusted sword to meet the fal’si. She was tall, twice his height. Same number of limbs, but an extra ear or two. Grey skin and blue scaly parts. No clothes. No armour. Fucking ugly.
‘Yessss!’ she cried, exhilarated by the bloodshed.
Teef had built up enough speed, helped by his taking advantage of the momentum his enemy had provided with the chain. She was strong and he had been yanked more than dragged.
‘Hee!’ she screeched. She was enjoying this too much.
Teef hit her as hard as he could, sword clasped with two hands, taking an arm, spilling ichor and mucus. Ripping into her side. A lucky strike. Accurate and deadly. She slumped to the ground. Dead.
‘Wait!’ yelled Teef in disbelief. ‘I got the fucker! I don’t fucking know how, but I got the fucker!’
Shitshow shoved Retch onwards. ‘Keep going,’ he grunted. The Captain was somewhere behind them, but he knew she also wouldn’t be going back.
Captain Sheilu turned to look but it was too late for her to save Donal.
‘Let’s see,’ he yelled back to Teef, joining him in celebration.
Sheilu bounded forward and caught up with Shitshow and Retch. ‘Down there, now,’ she whispered.
The three of them tumbled down a partially clogged but still fast-flowing weir, deeper into the sewer system. Right into even more shit, but at least away from the previous shit. Thankfully an already identified and planned escape route. Used more than once in the past. Still effective.
After the fall, they regrouped at the bottom, sore and wet but alive, listening to the screams of Donal and Teef being killed by the fal’si hunters avenging their mistress.
Hallway up a cliff, kneeling in the mouth of a cave which punctured the rock like a hastily performed tracheotomy, Shitshow finished binding up Retch’s stump with an old shirt. Beside him a rivulet of slime and filth from the city sewer system above flowed out an into a wretched waterfall.
‘Will it grow back?’ mimed Retch. It was sad but to Shitshow it looked like the poor bastard wasn’t joking.
‘No,’ he snarled, under his breath. Lucky if it doesn’t kill you, he added in his head but kept to himself.
Captain Sheilu appeared. Back from her reconnaissance, filthy and exhausted. Beautiful in a messed up way. ‘All quiet up there now,’ she signed. ‘I climbed all the way back up, but no sign of those poor bastards. We’ll have to drink some straw to Teef and Donal and Doll. One day. When we get some straw.’
Shitshow nodded and raised an imaginary tankard of straw-fermented spirit. Retch rocked and kept trying to grab hold of his knees with both arms. He had taken the losing his limb thing really badly. Shitshow had told him it wouldn’t grow back.
Outside the sun was setting and it was getting cold. Mandrake owls were screeching and packs of crag jackals were getting ready to hunt. All three up in the cave were shivering. They were too tired to carry on in the dark.
‘What do we do now? Our old squad is not much good if it’s just the two and a bit of us,’ whispered Shitshow. Retch didn’t even flinch at the insult.
‘Signing only, Shitshow,’ the captain gestured back. ‘At least until it is too dark to see,’ she added.
They sat in silence until it was too dark to sign. And then they slept without talking.
When morning had come Captain Sheilu had led them wearily and in silence down the scree-covered cliff and away from the city, all three partly glad to be alive, partly sad that the hunters hadn’t put them out of their misery. They had travelled to a hidden gulley in the crags, grey slate and brown scrub, a place they new to be safe enough.
‘I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I guess now is as good a time as any,’ Sheilu began. It felt strange to be speaking out loud and she glanced around more than once.
Shitshow was bathing in a dirty pool, wallowing like a hippopotamus, up to the nostrils. Retch was attempting to build a trap of some kind. With a big rock, and some rusted wire he had found. And with one fucking arm. The stump still seeping a brownish ooze.
‘We found out that the fal’si huntresses got some help from the kentan bio-sorcerers up in the highlands. They hear us now more keenly. Somehow. And they are far more attuned to laughter than anything else. Stop looking at me like that Shitshow, that’s all they told me’
‘The bio-sorcerers? Why would they help the fal’si?’ snarled Retch.
‘Same reason you do shit for us,’ Sheilu snarled back. ‘Metal.’
Shitshow sank beneath the water and then came up and out with a huge wave of filth. ‘So they gave them extra ears? Ones that can find us if we laugh?’ he roared.
Sheilu nodded. Retch laughed.
‘And they work out here too,’ hissed the huntress.
Judge #1’s Scores
Judge #2’s Scores
The Best Medicine by K.L. Schwengel
Hargesh could have made a joke out of it; a noble, a soldier, and an old lady walk into a pub. Only they weren’t walking into a pub, they were being herded onto the gallows to stand with arms bound behind their backs and a noose around their necks. In the case of the old lady, there was also a rather large rock attached to her ankles by rope to ensure when her hatch opened there was sufficient downward force to snap her neck. Of the three of them, she appeared the calmest. Or perhaps merely the most resigned to her fate. The soldier fought against his restraints, anger twisting his features. The noble bluthered like a babe, pleading with anyone within earshot, offering wealth to any who would save him, or take his place.
“Do you see this?”
Hargesh’s head jerked back with the force of someone’s fingers twined around a fistful of his hair. That someone, the same person who hissed the question into his ear with an excessive amount of spittle, was Lord Rappaport, duke of this small corner of the Wasted Realm and mad as an old hag. A fact Hargesh had discovered far too late to save himself or anyone else.
“Their deaths are on your hands.”
“How is that so, your grace? I do not even know them.” Hargesh’s voice cracked despite his best effort to prevent it.
“You broke the edict.”
“I’m not sure–” Hargesh yelped, eyes watering and scalp burning as the duke twisted his grip.
They watched the executions from the royal viewing balcony across the square from the gallows. The executioner, one hand on the first lever, watched them, awaiting Rappaport’s signal.
“I am a fool, your grace.” It was Hargesh’s best argument. His only argument, truth be told. “I claim a fool’s protection.”
“Fools have no protection here.”
“Unheard of.” Another yelp escaped Hargesh’s lips, stifled by the duke’s other hand closing around his throat as he was jerked to his feet.
“Do you dare dictate law to me, fool?”
No was on Hargesh’s lips but breath was more important than speech and likewise much more difficult at the moment so he merely attempted a shake of his head. He sucked in air with Rappaport’s release of his windpipe and the no burst out. Not in reply to the king’s question, however, but in response to the signal passed to the executioner. A screamed denial as though Hargesh could prevent first the rock and then the old lady from falling through the hole that opened up beneath her.
A roar went up from the crowd; equal parts anger and cheer.
“Was your jest worth it?” More spittle peppered the side of Hargesh’s face. “Does her laughter ring in your ears?”
“I beg you, your grace, I do not know what I have done–”
Another signal. The soldier gave a last twist, trying to break free. His roared curse cut off abruptly as the hatch opened and he fell. He kicked and bucked for what seemed an eternity before finally going still, the rope creaking in the hush that followed.
The noble, now alone with the executioner on the gallows, lost his lunch.
“What have I done?” Hargesh’s own stomach rolled in on itself. “I deserve to know how this is laid at my feet?”
“At your feet? It is on your soul. Seared as a brand for the remainder of your misbegotten life.”
“I implore you–”
The noble screamed like a woman and then went silent. The cheer from the crowd sounded more favorable with his demise.
Rappaport shoved Hargesh forward as he released him and the fool landed on his stomach, sobbing into the plush furs meant to keep royal feet warm during such spectacles. His treatment was an affront to the Amuser’s Collective of which Hargesh was a due paying member, for all the good that would do him at the moment. All he could hope was the duke found himself censured to the utmost once word of Hargesh’s death reached the Collective. His death seeming to be a prospect of increasing likelihood.
“On your feet.” The duke laid a kick into Hargesh’s ribs. “You shall entertain me tonight. A last, private audience before I remove your tongue.”
Shein, watching the scene in the viewing balcony from the shadows of a winged gargoyle on the opposite rooftop, couldn’t be certain who she detested more; the sniveling fool or the madman duke. She settled on the latter. It was the duke’s steadily deteriorating grasp of reality that caused the paranoia bringing death to any subject who dared laugh within earshot of him. His delusions convincing him the laughter came at his expense and any who showed such disrespect deserved to die.
Duke Rappaport, although reportedly a tad eccentric, hadn’t always been so unreasonable. Word was, his decline began after the untimely and horrific death of his only son which had the misfortune of happening during the summer festival. The revelers, unaware a boy had been trampled on the avenue, did what drunkards at a festival did; they laughed, hooted, and carried on in an unseemly and uncaring manner. All while the duke cradled his son’s broken body and screamed curses at the cruelness of the world. The duchess, a frail woman by nature, threw herself from the tower a short time after the incident and shattered what remained of the duke’s sanity on the cobbles.
The fool currently suffering the duke’s ire should have done his diligence before coming to ply his trade in Brambenk. Word had certainly spread to the surrounding villages that Rappaport had lost all grasp on reality. It had, in fact, spread all the way to Lornhalv and the ears of the king who in turn bent Shein’s ear and sent her to do that which she was very, very good at: quietly and efficiently removing embarrassments to the crown. A talent which had earned her the moniker of the Silent Huntress. Shein found that a tad over the top. Though she was a huntress born and bred, no dispute there, use of the descriptor put undue stress upon her to actually live up to it and it was impossible, no matter how stealthy one was, to be truly silent.
Shein sighed into the warm afternoon air. The lynching crowd was dispersing, their excitement over for the day. Those who placed wagers on who would twitch the longest, who pissed themselves first, or whatever else entertained them, collected their winnings or bemoaned their losses and headed to either their daily trade or, more likely, the nearest pub. And if there was any jocularity to be had it was kept well hidden behind closed doors lest they be the next to dance.
Rappaport wouldn’t be the first madman Shein had dealt with, but he was, perhaps, the saddest. Most madmen held onto laughter. Cherished it. Even bitter laughter was better than none at all because it told of a lingering spark of joy, however misguided, and perhaps a sliver of hope. Rappaport had neither and, worse, sought to rob his people of the two things that made life bearable.
Even Shein found the need for a good laugh every now and then. She had been the royal huntress more than a decade now. It brought her no fame due to the need for anonymity, and only a modest fortune. The more years that passed, the more she considered taking that coin and retiring to some mountain villa. Her blood, however, refused to allow such normality of existence. A curse of birth. Or a gift as her mother would have had her believe.
“Ach!” Shein spat. These maudlin moments were becoming annoyingly more frequent.
She shook her head to rid it of any thoughts but the job at hand and slipped from her perch, making her way unnoticed to the duke’s chambers by paths no sane person would every attempt.
Fools, despite the name, were typically quick of wit, intelligent, and masters at reading their audience else they were not given the Amuser’s Badge. At that moment, standing before Rappaport, bruised ribs punctuating each breath with a sharp pain, Hargesh felt immensely unworthy of his badge. His mouth had gone dry as the sands of Manuush, his eyes unable to leave the glittering blade of the knife resting on the table beside the duke.
Rappaport took a long, slow drink of wine, smacked his lips and directed a bland stare Hargesh’s way. “Well, fool? Have you no jests for me?”
They were alone, just the two of them in the duke’s private chambers. Rappaport sat in a comfortable, padded chair beside the crackling fire. Hargesh, despite knees gone to water, stood before him, unbound. A greater man would have taken advantage of the situation and attacked the madman, at no thought for his own well-being, wrested the knife from his hand and ended the people’s torment. Hargesh was not such a man and the realization left a sour taste in his mouth; an unusual sense of self-loathing that did nothing to help him. The sad truth was, there would be no help for Hargesh, not from within or without.
That realization brought something else altogether. He blinked and the corners of his mouth lifted slowly. Rappaport had left a scar upon his soul that would never heal. If he was to die, which would come painfully after removal of his tongue, he was certain of it, then he would do so in such a manner as to honor what he was.
Hargesh drew himself up, struck a pose, cleared his throat, and reached for his bawdiest tale. “There was a friar of rotund girth–”
The duke stiffened. The goblet dropped to the floor, wine pooling like blood. His face contorted. His mouth twisted into a bizarre mask of mirth and, much to Hargesh’s confusion, he began to laugh. Not just a tiny chuckle, not some evil maniacal sound befitting a man of his inclination, but true laughter. The sound was not reflected in the duke’s eyes, however, which had gone round and shone with a maddened glare.
Hargesh stepped back when a sudden outburst from the duke brought with it gobs of froth. It spewed across his lips and down his chin to plop onto his chest. Each laugh now came hand-in-hand with a desperate gasp for air as Rappaport’s face darkened to a terrible shade of purple.
Hargesh screamed for the guards and made a dash for the door.
Shein had to admit, watching the duke laugh himself to death was one of the highlights of her career. She’d waited a long time to try that particular poison. Never had there been such an opportune moment. She left the shelter of the heavy tapestries and exited by the balcony as the guards rushed to their duke’s aid, far too late to be of assistance.
What was it the Amuser’s Collective liked to say? Shein chuckled. To laugh is to heal oneself of all ailments.
She saluted the gate guards as she rode from Brambenk. “Consider yourselves healed.”
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In the Silent Hills by James A. Moore
Revan ran for all he was worth and the hounds pursued, cutting the distance between hunters and hunted easily. He was afraid and he was desperate, and Miral watched him as he limped along, lame and scared. His horse was bone, his weapons lost after the half dozen previous times she’d sent her dogs to hunt him down.
She let him heal each time. Her hounds had taken pieces of him, wounded him and torn at him until he had more ruined flesh and scars than he did unmarred areas. His face, once so handsome, was a map of scars and half healed wounds. He had not been the goal on earlier hunts, he had merely been an obstacle. It was his friends, the others who’d run with him, that were her goals then. She had saved the best for last, and finally it was his time.
He was a strong man once, but now he was hungry, desperate and wounded again. That was the way Miral liked him, scarred and desperate. His legs pushed him on, and his arms thrashed at his sides as he did his best to move faster and faster. Unfortunately for him the hills around him all sloped upward and he was no longer the man he’d once been. He was a scarred, broken wretch, with little by way of weapons.
Miral allowed herself a smile, but made no sound. The only voice she had these days was a piercing whistle and she saved that for calling the dogs to either hunt and kill or stop hunting. She had called them off seven times before, but today that would not happen. She’d grown bored with her revenge and it was time for Revan to die.
Her hand scratched idly at her throat and felt the thick line of scar tissue from the blade meant to kill her. Revan and his filthy companions should have made sure she died along with her family. That was the fool’s biggest mistake. Two years she’d hunted them down, and Revan was the last of them. He would die now. It was time.
Revan would also provide her money. He had offended the king with his laughter to the point that Ossirck had outlawed laughter in his kingdom. Of course, the rule was hardly enforced, but in the case of the man who’d offended the king of Praylaine, there was a bounty. Ossrick the Lame as he was often called, suffered from poor health and often had trouble walking and standing for long, but he also walked his gardens every day and was often seen with any number of people.H e was not a fearful man, he did not fear attempts on his life and he was also wise enough to make his daily walks with several palace guards nearby. He was not fearful, but he was proud. When he fell one day and heard laughter nearby he ordered the group of men where he heard the laughter coming from taken to the stockades. There were twenty men in that group and thirteen of them were taken by the guards. The rest ran, and in the case of Revan, a guard who tried to stop his escape was met with a sword’s edge and died for his efforts.
Had anyone else known who Revan was she might have lost her vengeance, but she’d already been hunting him, and her hounds had his scent, and of course, he no longer matched the description. No one would easily recognize him. He’d lost an ear and two fingers over the last few hunts. He’s had his lips torn open and his nose was smaller than it had been.
Revan stumbled and fell, rolling awkwardly down a rough patch of craggy earth and falling over a small cliff into waters she knew were barely warmer than ice. The dogs bayed and howled and followed, unwilling to lose their prey. Miral smiled and joined in the hunt, walking calmly down a steep hillside, and running her finger over the hilt of her skinning knife.
There had been a time, when she was younger and foolish, when she thought Revan was a handsome man. She had seen him several times as he and his band of mercenaries moved through her village to one destination or another, staying at her father’s inn and sharing drunken laughter amongst their small group. The night they decided to kill her family was the same night her father recognized the men as outlaws. The problem was, sadly, that they were faster to silence him than he was to report their presence to the local authorities for reward. After the mercenaries reacted, after they murdered her family, Miral saw behind the bastard’s pretty smile. Hard to find anything redeeming about the man when his hands were soaked in her family’s blood and his knife was slashing a deep wound in her neck and stealing away her voice forever more.
The time for memories was done. Time to finish this forever.
Revan tried to wade across the cold stream but didn’t get far before the first of the hunting dogs caught u with hi and tore at the back of his left thigh, drawing blood and tearing meat and gristle away from his body.
Revan screamed as shrilly as she once had, and collapsed into the water as the other hounds approached. The last of the dogs looked to her as if to ask if they would be called off again, but Miral remained silent.
Dogs bite down and tore away muscle, drew blood, feasted on lie prey. Throughout the attack Revan screamed and begged to no avail.
Finally, as he started to flounder, his thrashings growing weaker, she called the animals off.
Revan lay wounded and bleeding and the hounds settled around hm, staring at his shaking, mutilated form and licking the blood from their muzzles.
Miral stepped closer end looked down at the last of the men who had ruined her world, stolen her innocence and her family in their drunken attack.
She pulled her skinning knife and contemplated her prey.
He groaned and wept.
She took her time, making a hundred small cuts as she took his hide, every scream a song of victory for her silent voice. Her tortures lasted form hours, far longer than the degradations and crimes he had committed against her family.
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