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:
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 Broken Path by Sean Crow
Nochtli watched the target from a distance while she waited for the rest of her team. The Obsidi-rifle in her hands was powered down so as not to draw unwanted attention while she monitored her target. She was a Jaguar, a silent huntress within the vast concrete jungle that was the Outskirts of Twilight, and, as always, she had found her prey.
The man seemed oblivious to the world as he wandered back and forth in the dark alleyway, holding a ragged doll in one hand and an archaic sword in the other, all while speaking to the air as if there was someone with him. Nochtli had been watching him for two hours. She had scanned him for cybernetics or augmentations and found nothing save for a Net port. He didn’t even have a communication device.
If not for strict orders from the Blessed, she would have killed him already.
Strange, Nochtli thought, he didn’t seem like a threat. His clothes were dishevelled, face covered in an unkempt beard of black and silver, save for the scars that ran along the side of his face. A well-placed round would drop him like a sack of wreckage from the Wastes.
Nochtli’s finger caressed the activation tab on the side of her rifle but stopped as a faint trembling in her wrist notified her of an incoming call. Nochtli tapped the embedded bead.
“Where are you?” she snapped.
Ramone’s answer came through her auditory implant. “Chill cuz, we’re a few blocks away. Had to bypass some Valhalla Steel patrols. Turf isn’t what it used to be.”
Nochtli pinched the bridge of her nose in a vain attempt to reign in her annoyance.
“Blessed said this is a priority, so hurry your ass over here so we can get it done. He doesn’t like to be left waiting.”
She tried not to let the fear in her gut bleed into her voice, but Nochtli’s cousin must have picked up on it. The Blessed wasn’t lenient to those who broke their word.
“Shit, I thought you were messing with me. He really wants us to drop some homeless guy?”
“You can always give him a call. You know how much he likes to repeat himself.”
Another stretch of silence. “I wouldn’t have left you hangin’ if I knew-”
“Just park and follow my tracker. The Blessed seems to think this asshole has some clout. I got Obsidi-tech but bring whatever heat you can.”
Nochtli ended the call without waiting for a response. Ramone and his gang weren’t the best team to have at her back. Yet, their willingness to do violence was what she required. Ramone and his gang were killers, but their motivation was linked to creds.
Nochtli had other aspirations.
If she could complete this task, the Blessed would realise she could help the Teccas rise to power again, and he’d be sure to elevate her to his Eagle guard.
No more mindless patrols or street deals. As an Eagle, she could really contribute.
Nochtli, a true believer of the Gods of Sun and Sacrifice, could even establish her own stretch of turf, just as her father had before the Crusade.
The approaching footsteps broke her reverie and signalled the arrival of her cousin, Ramone. Nochtli turned to assess those with him. Five thugs accompanied Ramone. All carried firearms, though none had Obsidi-tech. Two were useless. A lack of weapon discipline, safeties off and fingers on triggers, were clear signs that they would better serve as targets. Two more, along with her cousin, had a hard look about them. There was a certain surety in the way they moved, a restrained eagerness that spoke of experience. The last man, however, was known to her.
“Ix,” she said, fixing the man with a level gaze.
“Nochtli,” Ix replied with a professional nod.
They had worked together before. The man did not boast the physique of the would-be toughs who wore their size for a reputation. Ix was one of the deadliest killers she knew. The sheer number of augments applied to his body were hidden by the loose-fitting hoody he wore. Ix didn’t need firearms…
The man was a killing machine.
It was the only reason he had not been elevated. Eagle warriors were required to think outside of the violence that was required of them. Ix had only one desire, and it wasn’t the glorious adrenaline rush found in battle, but the delight in steel on flesh and hearing the screams of his prey.
At least she wouldn’t have to share credit.
“So,” Ramone said, glancing behind Nochtli to the madman, “is that him?”
Nochtli and the rest turned to see their target kneeling down in the filth of the alleyway, sword lying against an overfilled dumpster as he laughed. It sounded genuine and echoed across the street, completely at odds with the violence that was about to unfold.
Laughter like that ought to be banned.
For a moment, she almost pitied the man. It was clear that he was no longer the threat the Blessed believed him to be. Perhaps, she mused, killing him was a kindness.
“Okay,” she said, turning back to her team and tapping the activation tab on her Obsidi-rifle.
The weapon whirred to life and the deep purple of the super-heated power source within gave off a faint glow in the dark alley as it prepared to deliver a stream of obsidian shards at speeds that put most firearms to shame. It had been her father’s weapon, during the Fourth Crusade, back when the Teccas had been a world power. The DNA code in the weapon only allowed it to be passed to his blood kin. Nochtli had taken it up at the age of thirteen, when the weapon was recovered from the rubble that was New Morelia and returned home.
Ix, her cousin and the rest of his gang, gathered in.
“Let’s make this quick. We’ll make as if we’re passing by, then unload and move out. Ramone, you parked close by?”
Her cousin nodded. “Just a block from where we came. Edger will be waiting.”
“Good,” she said. “Now let’s-”
“Have you come for communion?” a calm voice asked.
Nochtli nearly jumped out of her skin as she turned, Obsidi-rifle up and ready to fire. Her target was standing there, sword hung over his shoulder and without an ounce of aggression in his bearing.
Nochtli prided herself as a dedicated Tecca. The lives she fed the gods of Sacrifice were many. Yet the sheer lack of intimidation from a man both outnumbered and outgunned, who had also managed to walk up on them completely undetected, sent up red flags.
For the first time in years Nochtli froze.
One of Ramone’s companions let out a yelp and fired, but the strange man was already moving. There was a disturbing lack of effort as the bearded swordsman took a small step forward, avoiding the round completely.
As if he knew it would happen.
There was a flash of light and the body of the man who had fired the shot remained standing for a few seconds before his head toppled to the ground.
Nochtli stood there, stunned by the sheer speed in which the madman had delivered the blow. The bullet must have breezed past his ear, but there was no fear written on his face and Nochtli felt her stomach sink.
The man looked down at the sidewalk as if he hadn’t just killed a man and said, “See, I told you they would come.” He looked up and gave an apologetic smile. “Now that you are here, perhaps you can help me? I’ve lost the Path. I know it’s here somewhere, but I can’t find it.”
There was hope in his voice, as if he truly thought they could help him. Ramone looked to Nochtli, waiting for the order to attack the man who killed his friend. She slowly shook her head.
Eagles knew there was more to service than blood and violence. The Blessed’s warnings were there for a reason, one she now understood. The hit was a bust, and she needed to get her people out of here. Hopefully Ramone got the hint.
As she was about to speak, hoping to lower the temperature of the situation, Ix stepped forward.
Her ocular implant revealed some of the inner workings of the Tecca’s augmentations coming online. Adrenaline boosters and electrical pulses designed to activate the nanites throughout his musculature immediately engaged. Dark, obsidian blades emerged from his arms.
This was bad.
The Tecca’s lips peeled back in a smile as he shifted his weight. “Crusader.”
The word immediately conjured images in her mind. Crusaders, the Church’s most dangerous warriors during the Fourth Crusade. Men who, it was said, could only be felled by the Children of the Gods themselves.
“Get inside sweetie,” the homeless man said, his free hand moving as if to guide someone behind him.
Nochtli could see a sort of tired resolve settle in.
“Please brother, don’t-” The homeless man’s face went slack and the confusion vanished as he locked eyes with Ix. The Crusader’s voice became as cold as the dead of winter. “Rivers of blood,” he whispered, “and countless dead to float in it. Do their screams remind you of her?”
The words made little sense to Nochtli, but they seemed to hit Ix like a hammer. The smile became a snarl and through Nochtli’s ocular implant she could see additional chemical releases from hidden systems in Ix’s body as he let loose a scream and launched himself at the man.
Ix was so fast that Nochtli didn’t have much time to order the gang back as they followed him in.
The Crusader’s sword blurred as he moved amongst them, white flashes of near blinding light illuminated the dark alley as the bloodletting began. Ix was split in half, his momentum carrying the upper portion of his body across the alleyway, still thrashing. Shots rang out, deafening in the small space, but none of them seemed to hit their target. It was as though the madman knew exactly when and where to step, as if he could see the blades of fate as they sought the thread of his soul. The sword, flickering between a bar of white light and steel, carved through each Jaguar until only Ramone remained. He made it a few steps in the opposite direction before Ramone’s arm came off at the elbow. Ramone tripped and hit the ground headfirst, knocking himself out.
Nochtli willed herself to bring the Obsidi-rifle up, but there was a surety that had settled in her mind that, should she make a single aggressive movement, it would be her last.
She stood before death, and death watched her, his gaze seeming to burrow into her very soul. Then he glanced down and turned his ear, as if listening to somebody nearby.
“Still some fertile soil,” he said, nodding and sheathing his sword as he continued to listen to nothing. “Perhaps, let me ask.”
“Excuse me, miss, have you seen the Path? I was on it not long ago, but I can’t seem to find it.”
She knew that even unarmed and returned to his state of confused calm, there was every chance he could still kill her. Slowly, she raised her free hand and obviously deactivated her Obsidi-rifle. It powered down, the power unit beginning to cool.
“The Path? I haven’t seen it.”
The madman gave a sad smile, “Ah, well that’s unfortunate. I could have sworn it was here someplace. On we go little one,” he said.
With that, the scarred fool held out his hand and seemed to take hold of something as he walked down the alleyway, stepping over the mutilated dead as he did so.
Nochtli ran to check on Ramone and was relieved to see he was breathing, his wound cauterised by the madman’s blade.
When she looked up, the Crusader was gone.
Judge #1’s Scores
Judge #2’s Scores
The Fool by Frank Dorrian
Hessa couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard a laugh. At least one that hadn’t been her own. And yet, as the crumbling walls of old Cerganon Keep loomed before her, a storm of it came spilling through the rotting gates, freezing her to the spot.
Hessa’s skin crawled as the sound faded. She drew a breath, teeth clenched so hard she tasted blood. The sun was setting scab red over the keep’s broken mass, the wind sweeping cold over the curtain wall. It almost seemed to stain the sky about it, a patch of spreading rot, leeching the world’s soul away.
Bowstrings creaked behind her. ‘Hurry up.’
Hessa glanced at the men escorting her to this forsaken place. Twelve of them, volunteers from the town militia, all far too keen to shepherd her with spear and bow. They all kept a good twenty pace distance from her, terrified of her curse of laughter spreading.
‘Get inside, and get you gone,’ the one at their fore said, jabbing his old spear toward the open gates. Lerin, part time militia chief, part time landlord, and all round miserable fucker. His men shared a ripple of grunts, gesturing with their weapons at the decaying gates.
‘Care to hear a joke first?’ Hessa snarled.
Thunk. An arrow bit the earth between her feet.
‘I’ll take that as a ‘no’,’ Hessa muttered. She stepped through the gates of Cerganon, and sealed her fate as sacrifice to the Laughing One.
Laugh, giggle, snort through your fucking nose, and your cursed arse was ferried off to Cerganon at spearpoint to be fed to the Laughing One and sate its wrath. A sacrifice for the good of the village, before the Laughing Curse spread and turned them all in mindless, giggling savages.
It hadn’t always been this way. At least, that’s what Hessa’s father had told her. Things had been different, once. You could laugh, you could be happy, without fear of the Curse making a chuckling beast of you. He’d slit his wrists not long after.
It was hard to imagine, as she crossed the overgrown courtyard, its expanse littered with the grinning bones of the long-dead, and the withered bodies of the more recently deceased, pecked and plundered by the carrion birds.
Another bark of laughter spilled through the keep’s open door. She closed her eyes and muttered a prayer to Atalthi, the Solemn, that the divine, miserable bastard would somehow spare her from what was to come.
Laughter was a curse. The mark of the damned. A beacon that drew the eye of Ynar, the Laughing One, the thing that had twisted something so primal into a disease waiting to spread, rotting its victims from within.
Hessa clutched the pendant of Atalhi hanging about her neck against the laughter, its sword-point digging into her palm, terror’s teeth gripping her soul.
She hadn’t meant to laugh. She couldn’t help it – that moron Tonbo had been telling their drinking mates how, when canoodling with Kathlin, she’d tried to slip a finger up his arse. Who the fuck wouldn’t?
Now, she was here – cursed, waiting to be devoured by the Laughing One, while even the sun abandoned her, naught but a ruddy glow haloing the keep.
Shadows stretched across the courtyard, pooling in the hollows of the bones and bodies littered around her so that they almost seemed to move. Torchlight glowed from the keep’s open gate. She made her way toward it in a crouch like a silent huntress, still clutching her god’s pendant.
The stink of death hit Hessa as she slipped around the keep’s open door. She covered her mouth, keeping low as she passed through the greasy torchlight. The sound of muffled, yet frantic giggling came trickling down the corridor from where it branched off either side, and opened up into what must have been the old court ahead. The sound of it put a fear in her like no other, but it was either shelter here and pray to see another day, or sit and wait with the dead and their hollow, shifting eyes, while some nutcase cackled in the throes of the Laughing Curse’s madness.
She kept moving.
Another barrage of laughter sent Hessa reeling into the wall at her side, clinging to it like a babe to the tit, what was left of her resolve crushed. The sound rang down the corridor with a malign shrillness, the air billowing as if caught upon some diseased storm wind.
Hessa cracked an eye as the voice tinkled through the court’s darkened archway. Fear begged her to run, but she clung to the wall still, her nails biting damp stone.
‘Come forth, child.’ It came as a chuckle, warm and lively. ‘Come, come! Don’t be so shy!’
It was as if hooks seized Hessa about the limbs and peeled her gently from the wall, hauling her back onto her feet. She moved toward the archway.
‘You are safe here,’ the voice said again. ‘This is a place of welcome for those like us, for our mirthful congregation to revel in each other’s company. Come. Fear not the dark, child, and join us.’
She could hear it, now, as the voice faded. The sounds of… merriment, flitting through the archway. Snatches of song, bawdy music – serethleaf smoke, ale, and wine. And laughter – endless laughter, drunken barks and smoke-dulled chuckling. It was… beautiful. So alien, so… free.
Hessa stepped through into the dark. Something wet squelched beneath her worn boots, but the endless laughter drew her forward. Shapes moved through the darkness around her, cavorting and cackling in utter freedom, the sound worming its way through her until she was tittering herself.
‘Good, good. Come, child, let me look upon you.’ Hessa drew a halt before the dais at the court’s end. A figure moved before her, rising from the crumbling remains of an ancient throne. Bells tinkled, and shadows peeled back from the scarred face of an old court fool. It loomed over her, withered features drawn in a rictus grin of broken teeth.
‘Ahh…’ The rusting bells at the ends of its mouldering cap tinkled, its head tilting. Fear tried to grip Hessa again as hollow eyes raked her up and down, lit by the tiniest pinpricks of light. She snorted a laugh through her nose, clutching her belly as a fit of it threatened to consume her.
‘You are like us,’ the fool said, its grin showing black gums. ‘Forsaken. Full of mirth. Free.’ Its gloved hands twisted about the shaft of its fool’s sceptre, leaving smears of rot. ‘Come, little Hessa,’ it tittered, an arm waving awkwardly about. ‘You are welcome. You are safe. Away from that miserable world and among your own kind.’ The stink of death wafted from it, seeping through its rotting clothes, pouring from between its broken teeth. ‘Listen to our tale, Hessa, and let the laughter take you.’
The darkness seemed to clear as it raised its sceptre, the laughter of the revellers swelling to a cacophony. Hessa turned, trying to hold a snigger in check as she swept her gaze across the court. Revellers swarmed over tables, their maimed faces creased with laughter as they cavorted together. Their features coursed with blood, streaming from hollow eye sockets, from the ragged wounds where ears had been clawed and torn away. Many lay atop the filthy benches, howling with laughter as the others pawed and clawed over them, hauling the ropes of their guts from torn stomachs to be sucked and torn between ragged, rotting teeth.
The Laughing Curse.
It should have revulsed her, should have broken her wits with terror, but it was just… so… fucking funny. She dropped to her knees, rotting blood and shreds of flesh squelching beneath her, hands clasped to her mouth to keep the laughter in.
‘Once,’ the fool said, its dead face lowering over her shoulder. ‘There was a Fool. There was a Lord.’
Lights awoke in the eyes of the revellers, twinkling pinpricks in the darkness as they devoured and consumed one another, their chuckling unbroken.
‘The Lord was a dour man. A dull brute, who hated the joy of mirth. The Fool was a famed merryman from distant lands, with a smile bright as the sun, and wit sharper than a warrior’s brand.’
All the empty eyes in that court turned toward Hessa as she fell into a fit of hysteric laughter, the swarming bodies of the revellers pressing closer, their dead stares roving her hungrily. Men. Women. Children. Naked, withered, half-devoured, and half-rotted.
‘It so happened that the Fool came to the Lord’s court. He danced, he juggled, he jested. His antics made the court thump with beautiful, beautiful laughter. All except for the Lord. Oh, the Lord grew angry, and sour, sat upon his throne like a thunderhead. And so the Fool thought to meet anger with humour, and made a joke at the Lord’s expense, as he had with so many other miserable old men. And what, child, do you think that the Lord did?’
A rotting hand lay itself upon Hessa’s shoulder, bobbing atop her laughter, the Fool’s head lowering further beside her own. She could see greying bone at the edge of its jaw where the flesh had sloughed or been chewed away. Something black ran from it, vanishing into the darkness behind the Fool. She snorted, head shaking – her father had told her this story, but she couldn’t think – the miserable old git had never told it so fucking hilariously as this.
‘Well. The Lord was upset. He had his soldiers beat the Fool before his court. Had them drag him away into the darkness beneath his castle in a bloody mess. There was no laughter down there, child. Nothing but cold darkness. And the glittering eyes of the rats that gnawed and gnawed at him.
‘Only when they finally took his eyes and ears, wriggling into his skull to feed, did the fool laugh once more, and cried out for the mercy of his god. Ynar, Fool of Fools.’
The fool shifted about to look upon her, rat-eyes twinkling in their voids. Something vast and dark ran from behind its body, stretching away like bundles of cord into the darkness pooling above the throne. Hessa dared to look, tearing her eyes away from the fool’s unending rictus, to look upon the shrouded horror that crouched above her.
It was vast, hanging on many bent, black limbs, like raw flesh left to rot. Tendrils squirmed about a horned head, shifting through the shadows that smothered it. A pair of eyes glittered, as though the rats’ from the fool’s tale watched her.
‘Ynar answered, child,’ the fool said. ‘I answered. I freed them all. The Fool, the Lord, the court. I gave them my mark, my gift, and let them spread it – until all the kingdom rang with laughter, and sent its sweet children here.’ It came closer, hanging like a puppet upon the tendrils burrowing through the back of its limbs, squirming through its ribs. ‘Ynar cares, child. Ynar sees. You are one of us. Here, you will be free, and you will know nothing but laughter.’
A rotting arm swept toward the nearest table, where an ancient, crowned man lay, stripped to the bone in most places, his fists still thumping the table as he roared with dusty laughter.
Hessa crawled to him, through the filth and flesh coating the floor. The revellers surrounding her snatched at her as she went, their laughter steering her like a warm river current, even as teeth began to tear strips from her limbs.
There was no pain, no fear – only laughter.
She crawled her way up onto the bench beside the rotting, hysterical old lord, plucking a festering black strip of meat from his leg as the Fool’s voice echoed behind her.
‘So fear not the laughter, my child, and let the feast begin.’
Judge #1’s Scores
Judge #2’s Scores
Flatus and Felicitas by Kenneth Bragg
A man with a scarred arm dressed in a fool’s garments burst through the cathedral doors, a hot breeze whisking in past him. He breathed heavily with his right arm limp at his side and the motley array of his clothes in tatters.
“She’s coming,” he said.
A year ago, the king declared Fools outlaws, and indeed the very act of laughter was banned. It mattered not that the man who raped and murdered his daughter was tried and hanged that same day. He wanted more. Accountability passed to the Order of Fools to which the man belonged. A campaign of violence and death carried out by his Silent Huntresses followed.
“She? You’re sure you only saw one?” asked Felicitas. The eldest of the remaining members of the order, her sharp wit once sought after throughout the five duchies, shifted her weight to the cane in her right hand. Wit no longer took a seat in her eyes. Only fear and resignation reflected from those clouded globes.
All of the surviving members of the order were holed up in the derelict cathedral south of the Castil River Basin. It was once a bastion for the followers of Ridere, the Laughing God, in the centuries before religious practice was limited to the Calderan Pantheon.
“Doesn’t matter. It’s not a huntress, Felicitas. It’s the Huntress,” said Flatus, the balding, pot-bellied gas passer, “Even a lesser huntress would have an advantage against seven fools, especially when most of them are well past their primes.”
The man at the cathedral entrance collapsed.
“Make that six,” said Flatus, pulling a knife from his belt.
At that moment an arrow whizzed through the partially opened doors and hit one of the fools in the forehead. A short, long-eared woman they knew as Spiga screamed and ran to him. Another arrow jutted through her neck before she reached him.
“Damn, three now,” said Flatus as he pulled out a set of throwing knives.
“You mean four,” corrected Felicitas as she separated the blade from her cane.
Flatus nodded to his left.
“No, it’s three. Rojer must’ve died of fright. Wouldn’t have noticed but his bowels let loose. Smells worse than anything I ever did evacuate,” replied Flatus, another blade appearing from under his cloak.
Felicitas held her nose and checked the man over.
“Thought that was you. Hells Flatus, he’s cold as stone,” she said, picking up a small vial and sniffing, “it wasn’t fright that killed him, you lummox. He drank wolfsbane.”
“All the same, there’s three of us left now,” Flatus said as he continued to pull knives of all shapes and sizes from his pockets.
“A hundred knives won’t help you anymore than two would,” said Felicitas.
“If I’m gonna go, I’m gonna give it my all. Throw them all at the bastard,” said Flatus, “just stay behind me and be ready to stab her once I’m down.”
Felicitas sighed and took her place behind him. She looked around for their other survivor, but she was nowhere in sight.
“Ombra’s gone,” she said.
“Probably ran. I don’t blame her. She’s still young. Fast too, from what I remember. Might make it a few more days out in the wild before she catches her,” said Flatus.
The doors creaked open further, and the Huntress stepped inside. She wore the ceremonial armor of Janis, Goddess of the Hunt. The sleek leather shimmered in the heat of the day.
“Gods that must be as hot as a goblin’s asscrack,” said Flatus, letting loose a barrage of knives towards the woman.
Most of them missed their mark, but a single blade sunk into the exposed flesh in her shoulder. Her bow dropped to the ground, but she made no sound.
“Fuck,” said Flatus, a loud trumpeting sound emitting from his rear.
Felicitas sniffed and curled her nose.
“Oh gods, Flatus. That’s not Rojer this time,” she said.
“Sorry. Figured I’d let loose one more time,” he said.
The Huntress marched onward towards them, her ceremonial sword in hand. Felicitas held her blade ready as Flatus kept himself between the two women. They met the wall all too soon, blocked in by the debris strewn around the building. As the huntress reached the spot where the two of them had been standing, however, she let in a massive breath and stood as if paralyzed, her eyes rolling back as she fell forward onto the floor.
“Ha! You see that, Felicitas? Felled by my flatulence!” bellowed Flatus, letting out a hearty laugh.
Felicitas rolled her eyes and shoved him out of her way, reinserting her blade into its cane sheath and walking to the downed Huntress. She flicked the arrow that was planted in the woman’s back.
“Yes, the mighty Flatus took down The Huntress with naught but his smelly farts. Nevermind the arrow in her back,” said Felicitas.
“Oh, well. Yes. Of course. It must have been Ombras,” said Flatus, his face turned crimson.
“Where is she?” he asked.
Ombras revealed herself from within the shadows of the farside balcony, but her face remained cloaked in darkness.
“I pledged my soul to Ridere, and through my corporeal form shall his will on this plane become manifest,” she intoned.
Flatus and Felicitas looked at each other and shifted uneasily.
“Yes, well, we’ll have to deal with that later, dear,” said Felicitas.
Flatus cleared his throat. “But…uhm…thank you. So very much,” he said.
Flatus and Felicitas skirted around the body of the Huntress towards the door. Felicitas stopped.
“Guess you’re not coming with us, then?” she asked.
Ombras shook her head.
“The will of Ridere compels me to stay. It is through me that his greatness shall be revealed again to the world of men. Laughter and revelry shall become commonplace once more before we are finished,” she said.
“Right. Best of luck then,” Felicitas said, closing the door behind her.
“I know we’re all a little odd, but I never knew one of us was that peculiar,” said Flatus.
“Just be glad we made it out alive,” said Felicitas.
“Aye, for now. Until a new Huntress catches wind of us,” said Flatus.
“We’ll deal with that when it comes time for it. Something tells me that girl and her new god are about to become a bigger problem for the king than a couple of old fools ‘well past their prime’ as you called us,” said Felicitas.
Flatus laughed heartily again, and this time Felicitas joined him.
Judge #1’s Scores
Judge #2’s Scores
Whisper’s Fool by Joe Price
“They say her Eminence is too esteemed for japery, and I find this to be an affront to logical beings. Does she not understand the purpose of comedy? What’s next outlawing expression?” Mordekai complained as the carriage drove onward. Recently, the empress had decreed a ban on laughter and jokes, after an unfortunate joke at her consort’s expense. He was a tiefling with skin the color of blackest night and horns coming from his temples and curling backwards ever so slightly. His hair was just as black with eyes a soft violet. His teeth were pearly white and sharp as daggers. Some would consider him attractive, but not Lilly who sat quietly tuning her violin. Lilly’s only desire was to make it to the imperial capitol without being incriminated by this fool. She had business there. As Mordekai prattled on eventually another man interrupted him.
“I do believe you have said enough good man.” Dorian said in a low somber voice. He had shoulder length brown hair, tied into a ponytail at the nape of his neck with only a small section of his bangs not being held back. He had grey eyes, pale skin, and a complexion the empress herself would covet. “Do you not agree good bard?” Lilly nodded her agreeance, if she had to listen any longer, she would be seeing exactly how far down this tieflings’ throat her bow could be forced.
If looks could kill Mordekai’s would have acted as a ballista. “A bard’s life’s work is to promote the freedom of expression, express the world through various means of song, poetry and literature. Should one not jest? Not whisper a joke, spin threads of humor and sow the seeds of laughter?” Lilly remained silent, gently plucking the strings doing her best to ignore the lunatic.
“We will be in the capitol shortly; you may want to watch your tongue.” Dorian said softly as he looked out the window. Lilly looked as well, and she could see the outer walls of Aster coming ever closer into view. Once through the gate they would be at the station within an hour.
The College of Whispers was hidden deep within the Outer District, it was arguably the only gem within the den of the less desirable of the city. Thieves and murderers policed themselves outside the prying eyes of the imperial guard as no one cared enough to. Yet hidden behind merchant stalls on Hawkers’ Way its whitewashed walls of the college concealed the most elite spies in the empire. When the college became the spies of the empire Lilly did not know, but she knew the college was once known as a proud school of scholars who found joy in learning and keeping secrets. Lilly stood quietly waiting. Minutes passed and eventually a robed man appeared from the shadows, the exarch.
“What secrets will you share Flower?” the man whispered. “Many and more it would seem.” Lilly hadn’t spoken a word; she could feel the exarch feasting upon her shadow learning her secrets.
“Ah, the tiefling will need to be watched, you knew this I trust.” The exarch whispered. “The empress will be done.” Lilly only nodded and waited as the exarch to continued. “You will continue whatever business brought you here and remain discreet. Keep watch if you can on the tiefling.”
Lilly stood before a man taller than she by quite a bit with a brimming smile and the enthusiasm of a new puppy. “Lilly the Nightingale of Esta, it has been far too long my friend.” Julius said as he wrapped Lilly in a crushing embrace. “You haven’t changed in years.” The past five years Lilly had spent abroad on the Shattered Isle of Helieor. Working as a musical coordinator for a theatre company there.
“I am just glad you agreed to perform for us. The Countess and the Beast is my most ambitious opera yet. A story of the fabled warrior Thaireon and his love of the Countess of Corvas. A tale tragedy and love unfulfilled.”
Lilly only smiled at Julius. This was the perfect excuse to return home, to share her secrets with the exarch. And the opportunity to mix work and pleasure was seldom at best. Beyond the curtains Lilly could hear the all too familiar complaints of Mordekai.
“You wish for me to omitting some of the best parts of the tale.” Mordekai wailed. “I was born in Corvas and Thaireon often joked about the Count’s lack of length and girth.”
“This is a tragedy, not a comedy. We are showing the despair of two lovers who cannot be. Not making a fool of a former count of Corvas. The current Count and Countess will be in attendance, as will the empress herself if she so decides.” The mention of the empress stilled the tieflings tongue.
“As you can hear we are having trouble with our Thaireon. He just arrived in from Leed today and is already making trouble. We have three days until the show.” Julius said shaking his head. “Nevertheless, the show must go on. I trust you will be able to memorize your part in time.” Lilly simply nodded as she took the book of music from Julius and left.
Lilly found accommodations in the Middle District and was directed to eat at a reputable tavern called the Gelded Gremlin which was just across the street. She was told they served the best lamb in all the empire and Lilly did not doubt it. The chef was an orc and in their native lands lamb was abundant. Lilly sat quietly in the corner eating her meal. Everything smelled delicious and tasted just as delightful it was served with a type of flat flexible bread, diced onions, tomatoes, and a white sauce which tasted slightly strange though complimented the meat. It was pared with a sweet elderberry wine. At the bar Mordekai sat complaining. Thankfully he had not noticed Lilly, or Dorian who sat in the other corner of the tavern covering his mouth as he ate. He looked up and saw Lilly, his soft grey eyes catching hers.
Lilly’s night was spent memorizing the music. She was to be the instrumental voice of the Countess, a simple enough task though it required perfection. Each break she took she would look out the window she had yet to notice if Dorian or Mordekai had left the tavern, she assumed Mordekai was continuously drinking and attempting to argue his reasons against the ban on laughter.
Just after sunrise Mordekai was carried out of the tavern and thrown in the gutter. He was alive, Lilly could tell, but he was inebriated beyond belief. His understudy would probably be more qualified and less a nuisance. Unfortunately for everyone Mordekai arrived three hours late and only half sober.
Surprisingly Mordekai was a decent baritone, though his contant nagging and unwavering push for comedy was driving everyone mad. Every other rehearsal was cut short by his japery. Gellert, the other soloist and horn player was on the verge of resigning entirely.
“This tiefling will need to be eliminated if he continues as he is.” The exarch whispered from the shadows. Lilly only nodded her agreeance. The exarch could read her shadow he knew all. “You are intrigued by a human man.”
The exarch remained silent for a moment taking in the secrets. “This mystery, I would suggest trying to find him again to question him.” The exarch’s leeching on Lilly’s shadow ended. And she was released back into the streets. It had been two days since she had seen Dorian at the Gremlin. She knew little on if she could find him again.
Lilly checked her dress in the mirror backstage before ascending the stairs into the box seat she was to play from. Julius had a brilliant idea and the conductor felt it was decent as well, to have the soloists’ stations on opposite sides of the stage separate from the orchestra to accentuate their music. This was convenient for Lilly as it meant Mordekai would not see her at all. She could see Gellert taking his position and picked up her violin and bow. The orchestra was coming into the pit and the audience was fully booked. Not a single open seat. Lilly’s eyes scanned the audience both in the box seats and the balcony, lesser nobles were seated on the balcony with a few exceptions. The Count and Countess of Corvas were in a box, as was the empress herself. She had pale skin akin to porcelain hair like spun gold and eyes a crystalline blue.
The first love song began, and Lilly’s fingers danced on the strings. Lilly was surprised Mordekai had yet to fuck things up, but it was coming she felt. This song was about how Thaireon was better than the Count in every way possible, while the Countess lamented. Here was where Mordekai gave the most issue, and he did again without fail.
‘Oh, how my heart sings for love
Wanting and yearning
Like a soft winter dove.’ The diva sang.
‘I shall be your stallion,
With such girth my thrusts will woo you
Your heart will be my medallion.’ Mordekai sang and the music ended. As few in the audience let out a laugh.
The words needn’t leave the empress’s lips, Mordekai’s execution was at hand. With the best care she could muster while maintaining a steady pace she left her violin and began her descent towards the back. The crashing of instruments and the shouts of the guards came from beyond the walls as the thumping of wood and the ripping of canvas and terrified screams followed Mordekai as he attempted to flee.
Behind the theatre Mordekai ran and Lilly followed. Mordekai rounded a corner and screamed. Though it was cut quite short. Lilly slowed and approached the corner with care drawing a dagger. Dorian stood where she had expected Mordekai, there was no blood or signs of a fight. Dorian smiled razer fangs spread ear to ear.
“My lovely, silent huntress, you were my true prey. I wanted your face most of all.” Dorian said.
Lilly silently dodged around Dorian’s punches as he was doing all he could to avoid Lilly’s face. While bobbing out of her dagger’s reach. Hopefully the guards would arrive soon though a fight was nothing for the empress’s personal guard they might ignore it. Dorian’s skin shifted. He began to shorten his fists became larger, and a beard was growing on his chin. He was changing into a dwarf before Lilly’s eyes. Dorian was a changeling. He had more than likely eaten the tiefling out of convenience. I hope they tasted awful. The dwarf form was stronger and faster than the human as the dwarf’s hand connected squarely in Lilly’s ribcage knocking the wind from her lungs as she fell.
“My silent beauty, you are mine now.” The changeling which once was Dorian said. Lilly felt the sandpaper like tongue on her ankle as she was dragged across the ground towards the monster. Her skirt ripped on the stone as the creature’s mouth unhinged, rows of jagged teeth she slashed violently with her dagger removing teeth but to no avail. She was bleeding from thousands of tiny cuts, behind a set of teeth she could see a tuft of black hair, another showed ebony skin and further still a violet eye staring lifeless into her soul. She was consumed by darkness. Not a scream could be heard.
“Where did the tiefling go?” the guard asked, and the girl only smiled and put her finger to her lips in a shushing motion. Her dress had been torn, though no other signs of struggle were visible. “Empress’s will be done?” the guard asked quietly to which the girl again nodded. Lilly learned Mordekai scared of imprisonment had died, as had she as Dorian smiled in her skin.
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