Grimdark Story World Cup 2022: May 2022 Stories, 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 May 2022

1. A Night of Flowers

2. A Mother’s Flesh

3. A Burnt Gift


Knight of Flowers by Frank Dorrian

It was the Night of Flowers, Father’s ball was in full-swing, and Mother was drunk. The matriarch of the Baelfor household sat at the corner of the table, leaning over-close to blabber in a young knight’s ear. Some arrogant cock-end that had bought himself a seat at their family table. Mae’s hands knotted in the folds of her dress. She shot them a glare across the empty seats. Mother was practically draped over the lad, one hand clutching his face, the other barely clinging on to her goblet of wine.

‘Mother!’ Mae hissed, face burning. Eyes were drifting toward the spectacle around the court, mouths whispering behind dainty, bejewelled hands. Mother gave her a scathing look, a curl of raven hair escaping her circlet of wildflowers.

‘Oh, piss off, girl, and let me enjoy myself for once,’ she snapped, attention swinging back to her prey.

Mae shot to her feet, face blazing with embarrassment as she stormed from the table, sweeping across the dancefloor like a thunderhead. Her rage opened a path, masked faces following her through the pall of blossom the servants were flinging from the upper galleries. The nobles were laughing before she’d even reached the archway to the gardens.

Outside, Mae stormed through the sculpted privets lining the path. The more drunken of Father’s arselickers were frolicking in the summer air between the gods’ leafy avatars; half-nude, twice-drunk, and red-eyed behind their flower-masks from serethleaf.

Mae turned away, disgusted, making for where the moon sparkled from the pond at the garden’s edge. She halted at its bank, and screamed her fury at the twilight. Raw-throated and weeping, she plopped down in the mud, burying her face in her hands.

She hated them. The guests, her parents. They were nothing but hedonists and addicts – worms, slithering through the arse of a beast too bloated and drunk to care it was dying.

The name Baelfor had meant something once, like a stamp of fucking quality. They’d been respected. Feared. Now, Father was nothing but a leaf-smoker with too much gold in his vaults, and Mother was a drunken slut that would spread her legs for the first sharp-jawed buck that sauntered past. Her little sister, Thellia, had been married off two years ago to some lecherous scab in the south, and now Mae was left alone to suffer their parents’ disgrace. Twenty years old, and powerless in the face of their degeneracy.

She screamed again and punched the bank, mud spraying beneath her small fist.

‘Difficult night, my lady?’ someone said nearby.

Someone moved in the shadows between the trees behind her. Mae shot to her feet and plucked one of the long silver pins from her hair, brandishing it like a sword as her bun fell to disarray. Armour clanked, rustled, and a knight in heavy mail stepped into the moonlight, helm tilting in greeting before he looked away.

‘Aye. A difficult night,’ the knight muttered, watching a knot of revellers pelt bollock-naked through the moonlight. ‘The Night of Flowers was once a time of solemn oaths, and sacrifices remembered. Honoured. Now, they drink, they forget, they rut like animals, and the quiet honour of the old days withers. Wouldn’t you agree, my lady?’

Mae shivered as the knight’s gaze found her. ‘Who are you?’ She brandished her pin. ‘I’m armed – I’m… do you have any idea who the fuck I am, approaching me like some drunken, common lech?’

‘Aye, that I do, Lady Maebella,’ the knight answered, his voice the scrape of dry wood. ‘Last daughter of Baelfor. Last honour of her line.’

Mae squinted at the pomposity, looking the knight up and down. He was a pauper in rusting armour. The pale tabard draped over it was tattered, and stained with gods’ knew what from shoulder to thigh. A crown of woven flowers graced his enclosed helm, the kind that most knights donned for the Night of Flowers, yet it seemed almost… as though it were growing straight through the steel of his helm.

Mae shook herself. ‘Leave, before I have you hanged from the ramparts by your balls!’

The knight laughed, stepping toward her. ‘But, my lady… you called me here.’

Mae backed away into the pond. ‘I did no such thing.’ Cold water flooded her slippers, a wretched fear sinking its claws into her gut. The knight chuckled again, stepping onto the bank.

‘My name is Durenar, Knight of Flowers. And here, upon the day they named for my sacrifice, I answer the call of your pain, Lady Maebella.’

Durenar? Durenar the Flayed? Durenar the fucking Eternal? The phantom knight from the myths?

The man was a nutcase.

Mae gave a screech. ‘Guards!’

‘They can’t hear you, my lady.’ He waded toward her.

‘Guards!’ Water splashed up the inside of Mae’s thighs as she slipped in the mud, a mouldering glove reaching for her.

‘Come.’

‘Get the fuck away from me!’ Mae swiped with the pin as the knight lunged for her, seizing her wrist in a crushing grip.

‘Men forget how they named this night for my sacrifice, long ago,’ he rasped. ‘After I lay screaming in pain, begging them to give me death’s mercy. And so – on this sacred night – I, Durenar, Knight of Flowers, offer you an accord, Maebella.’ He twisted the pin from her hand and bent her face to the water

‘There can be an end,’ said the knight. ‘An end to the misery. An end to the anger. And all you need do, Maebella, is speak your truth, as once I did.’

Mae cried out, her shoulder threatening to snap. ‘Stop! Stop, please! Please, I’ll give you whatever it is you want – my parents have money! Land!

‘I am not here to take from you,’ said the knight. ‘I came to help you.’ He pressed something full of points into her palm and closed her fingers about it.

Mae splashed down on her arse as the knight released her. She scrabbled away toward the bank, his form a dissolving to a twisting mound of shadow beneath the moon’s rays. A pair of pinprick lights awoke in the void of the k, cold eyes following her. ‘Utter your truth to that offering, then burn it. Do that, and I promise you, Mae – your pain will end.’

Mae bolted for the keep, wet dress slapping her legs.

It was an ugly little thing that the knight had given her. A pair of weeping eyes carved into the heart of a pointed wooden bundle, crude enough to be a child’s work. An effigy of Yolgul, the Thorned, god of the sorrowful and bitter. They said Yolgul had bestowed its favour upon Durenar, Knight of Flowers, when Ossefold, the Ember of Atalthi, had captured, tortured, and skinned him alive. It raised him as Durenar, the Flayed. The Eternal. Its phantom warden of the miserable.

Mae flopped back on her bed, holding the effigy up against the glow of her hearth, mind reeling with the night’s horror and embarrassment. The moon had fled, but the Night of Flowers was still pulsing outside her chamber.

It really would never end. Every year, a horde of oinking swine would shit over her family’s legacy. Father would sink himself into the smog of serethleaf, letting their affairs rot. Mother would let every sharp-jawed courtier rut on her like a drunken sow.

Mae’s wet eyes found the moonlight creeping through her shuttered windows. No end, except for the fall, or the knife. And she was too great a coward for either.

What harm could it do, truly?

She held the effigy of Yolgul to her lips. Whispering her truth to it, she tossed it into the hearth.

A scream woke Mae, bolting her from the sheets. Darkness cloyed, stained by the hearth’s embers. Silence swelled. It was the Night of Flowers – there should have been no such thing. A shard of ice slipped through the bleariness of sleep into Mae’s gut. She padded to the door, and slipped out into the empty corridor, making her way toward her parents’ chambers.

Mae froze. The doors were ajar, candlelight flickering beyond. The memory of that scream drew her toward them, despite the fear clawing her insides.

‘Mother?’ Mae croaked, reaching for the door. She drew a breath, peered about the edge. ‘Moth–’

A cloaked figure crouched upon her parents’ bed, outlined in candlelight. A face turned toward her, sagging, coursing with blood.

Mother’s face.

The thing wearing it stooped above a red ruin of peeled flesh. Mother’s corpse bled into the tattered sheets, her lipless mouth frozen in a silent scream. The creature’s head raised, pale eyes leering beneath the flayed edge of Mother’s face. A fanged maw opened in a hiss

It hopped down, landing with a wet thud. Skinless arms unfolded, talons like flensing knives flexing at their ends. Another set of talons closed about the edge of the door as it moved for her. The young knight’s dripping face appeared with a rattling breath.

Terror sent Mae fleeing down the corridor, her scream shattering from the walls. Taloned feet clattered behind her, hisses slithering at her heels. The staircase to the court materialised from the darkness ahead.

A shadow mounted the stairs, skin-cloak flapping. Mae’s foot caught on the hem of her dress as it reached for her, and sent her spinning past the creature; a line of stolen faces watching her fall. Her head cracked the wall with a thud, a flash of light obliterating them.

The court surfaced from deepest murk. Torn faces hung over Mae, passing by with a lurching gait. A swarm of creatures picked over the peeled bodies strewn in the court’s shadows. One of them was carrying her – cradling her in its talons, a skinless chin bobbing over her.

She should have screamed, but a monstrous weariness had Mae in its grip. The back of her head throbbed as the creature mounted the dais at the court’s end, shifting her weight carefully in its arms. It lay her carefully, almost reverently, upon her father’s throne, talons withdrawing carefully. It stepped back, bowing low and hissing.

Mae sat up, fear kindling. A swarm of them pressed in about her, lurching over bodies, through congealing bloodstains and crushed petals, skin-cloaks shifting. In an awkward wave, they slouched into deep bows.

The doors to the hall creaked open before she could make sense of it all, and Durenar strode forth, the creatures parting before him like rats from an open flame.

‘Lady Maebella.’

Durenar took a knee before her, eyes glittering with ghost-light. ‘A truth uttered. A blessing given. The filth of your home is cleansed by Yolgul’s grace.’ The creatures shifted answered him with a frenzy of hisses.

Her truth… the one Mae had uttered to the effigy. That Yolgul would rip away the filth of her family’s degeneracy like the scab from a festering wound – the skin from a slaughtered beast – and let it be over.

Her eye twitched, a void swelling within at the realisation of what she’d done. She should have felt something, yet… there was nothing. No guilt. No remorse. No sorrow.

Only relief.

Durenar rose. ‘Ours is an accord of sorrow, my lady, and it will be honoured. Speak your will. Give your command. The Thorned One is listening.’

Mae’s lip trembled, throat dry as she found the nerve to speak. ‘Make the people of this land remember the legacy of Baelfor. Make them remember the Night of Flowers. Make them fear us again.’

Durenar bowed his head and swept away through the open doors into the night beyond as the court resonated with the harrowing of the creatures’ howls. Their bloody tide surged after him to the clattering of flensing claws and slap of still-bleeding skins.

Maebella reclined upon her father’s throne, blinking back the bead of blood that seeped into her eye. For the first time in years, a smile crept onto her face.

*
Judge #1’s Scores

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

Judge #2’s Scores

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

*

Blood Lilies by Joe Price

“Tonight, is finally the night. The lilies will bloom.” Muni said the thrill in her voice matched her smile which was ear to ear.

“I bet they will be just magical.” Illum said also smiling.

“I wouldn’t know. Master Moonen hasn’t described these magic lilies to me yet.” Luma said matching her friends smiles.

“Mother said it takes a druid to make them bloom and even then, it only happens every fifty years.” Illum said twirling in the air. “Think you can do it Luma?”

“Master Moonen hasn’t shown me how to make flowers bloom yet.” Luma said the fluttering of her wings slowing. Though she had been Moonen’s apprentice for twelve moons, he had yet to show her much in the way of druidcraft.

Luma began to drift away from the conversation. She had tasks to complete before nightfall including a lesson with Master Moonen. Her first stop was home. She needed to collect her things before heading to Moonen’s Grove. As she arrived home, she could hear her mother’s soft singing. It was the one comfort Luma remembered of her childhood, her mother’s lullabies.

“I’m home.” Luma said flying into the opening of their home. It was a small place inside a massive old Oak tree. About sixty pixie families called this tree home. Each one having a small one to three room home worn comfortably within the ancient wood.

“I had thought you would already be training with the Archdruid of the Blackthorn.” Mama said as she fluttered towards her daughter. “Taking the morning to stretch your wings?”

“As always mama. It helps clear my mind for the day’s learnings. I need to grab my notes before I meet with Master Moonen.” Luma said as she collected her things and left. Her flight through the Blackthorn Woods was almost always peaceful. The squirrels often greeted her as did the deer and the rabbits she passed. The woods were believed to be the second most magical in all the realm with the Dream Wood holding the distinction as being the most magical of all.

 Luma was heading east towards Moonen’s Grove, named for her master. He was often found there; it was his home or so everyone believed. Luma found the grove boring. Consisting of a singular moss-covered boulder and an old hallow log it was unimpressive for an Archdruid to call his home. There wasn’t even shelter from the rain. Yet every day without fail Luma founder her master there.

In the underbrush Luma couldn’t tell if she was running late or early. As expected, the only satyr in all the Woods was sitting on his usual log polishing the old willow staff etched in runes Luma had yet to learn to read.

“You’re earlier than I expected youngling.” Moonen said putting the polishing cloth away. His staff was shinier than usual.

“I am eager for today’s lessons.” Luma said. “What magics are you going to be teaching me today?”

“Ever eager to learn, we have much and more to cover. Lithlynn’s will be done. Our Mother of Blessed Nature has far too many tasks for us today. First, we must ask after the rabbits, then the deer, and our friend old Bumbles the bee.” Moonen said with a heartfelt smile as he stood. His hooved feet clicking softly as he stood. Luma knew this to be magic, without feeling the ground she knew the morning dew had made the ground soft. “Come along now, lest we be late for our chat with Rollen.”

Luma flew to match Moonen’s pace. He was an older satyr now and was not as spry has he could have been. Luma knew this to be true as he relied heavily on his walking stick most mornings. When they arrived at Rollen’s hole, they found the usual chipper and cheery rabbit was aggressively agitated.

“Good day to your Rollen, you do not seem yourself today, is aught amiss?” Moonen asked the rabbit.

“Not good, Moonen, Commons are at the edge of the wood, uprooting and burrowing.” Rollen said with a thump of his foot. “Not good, not good at all.”

“This is rather strange. Commons have stayed far from these lands in the past. Why change now?”

“Beats me, killed my brother yesternight with their flying sticks.” Rollen said collecting his belongings. “I am making for the northern edge of the woods, away from the commons.”

Moonen’s face grew grim. “May Lithlynn bless you and keep you safe and may she hold your bother safe within her embrace.” After this Moonen began walking towards the south and Luma followed.

They had forgone speaking with Bumbles, as this was a matter most pressing it seemed. Luma was having a difficulty keeping pace with her master who was now near running through the woods faster than she had ever seen. Luma had never seen a Common, she had heard stories of them. How they came in many “flavors” as Hymbert the bear would say. Some, like the elves, had pointy ears while others had darker skin. A few even came in different sizes. Luma was always curious about this but had yet to get the time to ask Hymbert to specify what he meant. Once at the edge of the woods Moonen motioned for Luma to stop.

“They are building here. On our lands.” Master Moonen’s face was stern as he began to walk from the woods. “Watch young one. I will handle this.”

Luma could see the commons lips moving across the way as Master Moonen approached. She could not understand what they were mouthing their pinkish creamy skin so distant from the violet hue of the pixies. They were strangely tall as well, all of them seemed to look down on Master Moonen. Luma watched as her master extended his staff the faces of the commons changed from jovial to sinister and then terrified. Root tendrils of wood and ivy erupted around Moonen as they began to swat and ensnare the commons as Luma would an annoying fly buzzing past her head. Bulbs began to pop causing the commons to cough and choke on spores. Luma watched as Moonen stumped as he turned two large hornets appeared from the roots. As he fled Luma noticed two feathered sticks protruding from his chest.

Luma flew high above her master as he fled into the Blackthorn. The commons were keeping pace, and a strange thumping noise could be heard every so often. Followed by the yipping of their strange not-wolves. In a matter of moments Moonen had guided the Commons to his grove. Having the lead, he took the opportunity to begin conjuring spore bulbs, vines and roots. The old druid seemed quite unphased by his pursuers. The four-legged beasts entered the grove first and Moonen responded simply and effectively, the creatures turned tail and calmly walked away, the druid had cast a calming spell on them. Luma guessed they must be some form of wolf if the spells worked on them as effortlessly as they did actual wolves. The commons entered the clearing next shouting words Luma could not understand whatsoever. There were perhaps twenty commons. And Moonen began to move his staff in a waving motion as the roots and vines began to assault the commons. Spores filled the grove, but this did not fully hinder the commons anymore, few had covered their faces with cloth and were setting long thing sticked against a string attached to curved branches. The sticks flew though some missed two had reached Master Moonen. The first had went into his chest, the second into his eye. This however did not initially stop Master Moonen, who buried the two commons up to their necks into the ground for the vines and roots to crush their skulls. It was only after this where trouble arose. Three more sticks landed into Moonen’s back. As five commons approached and began to bludgeon Moonen with their hands and other weapons. Slowly the vines and roots went quiet, the spore bulbs began to pop less.

Luma watched in horror and waited until the last commons began to leave before descending from her hiding place. To her surprise Moonen was still alive. His breathing was shallow, each hole left by the feathered sticks bubbled slightly with each breath “Master?” Luma’s voice hardly a whisper. Moonen’s remaining eye opened though slightly. Luma had seen this before in her grandfather, Moonen was dying. “Master what do I do?” tears welled in her eyes.

“Follow my teachings. I have a tome for you, under my log, keep its secrets safe, is my-” Moonen’s whisper ended as the light left his eye. Luma left the grove heading home.

The warmth of her mother’s embrace was the only comfort Luma found at home. She had thought Luma to be joking as no common could kill an Archdruid. Yet she had not seen the horrors Luma had. “An Archdruid dying at the hands of commons. Pulling irises for cattails child. Druids are powerful and strong, as you will one day be. No common could ever kill one.” Mother had said. Though Luma now knew this to be false.

After nightfall before the midnight ritual Luma left home to return to Moonen’s grove. She had buried him there using what little magic she had learned but seeing the vines and roots posed for an attack yet unmoving was disturbing. She was here to find the tome Moonen had mentioned. She had little trouble moving the log and beneath was a leatherbound tome, as Moonen had said. The tome was large and heavy Luma found it hard to lift and opted to drag it behind her. Leaving her unable to fly.

“You need help Youngling?” Shifty the Squirrel said looking at Luma from the side of a tree.

“Would you be able to carry this?” Luma asked pained as she was dragging the tome, she hadn’t even moved ten feet with it and it had already felt as if the moon had reached its zenith.

“Alone, no, but I can get friends.” Shifty said his tail flicking as more squirrels came from the trees. “We saw what happened to old clicky-hooves. We are sorry Luma.” The squirrels said as they picked the tome up and began to return it towards Luma’s home.

The smell of smoke filled the air as Luma flew towards where the lilies would be blooming. There had not been any recent storms, so all Luma thought was it had to be in relation to the commons, perhaps their fires just smelled stronger. She did not know. Yet all around her she could feel the sorrow the trees grieved, and Luma knew not why.

Screams filled her ears as she arrived in the lilies clearing. Before her very eyes she saw them. Commons had made their way into the Blackthorn. Trees burned as Luma watched her friends being slaughtered. Illum and Muni lay still, wings clipped with their bodies cleaved in half. Vacant eyes staring endlessly towards the sky. Violet blood seeped into the soil and the cries of joy from the lilies as they began to bloom in violet splendor.

Luma listed as her mother scream for Moonen’s protection as silenced as a common removed her head from her body and began pealing her skin from the sinew below. Elder Mustard the last to keep a “traditional” name from over twenty-seven hundred moons ago was crushed under a commons foot, the crunching of his bones like twigs being broken to burn. Luma watched in horror unable to will herself to move or advert her eyes.

Trees burned as Lilies bloomed. The commons had left nothing but death in their wake. Luma sat cradled in her mothers embrace, holding her head on her lap. As Shifty alone dragged the charred tome towards her. Tonight, the blood lilies bloomed and the world she had known was turned to ashes.

*
Judge #1’s Scores

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

Judge #2’s Scores

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

*


Burning Blossoms by Sean Crow

Kage Kanda, third son of the Kanda line and 5th Dan Blossom Collector, watched the sacred orchard burn. Kage and his mother had planted many of the trees that filled the valley below, each a representation of the Collectors who had fallen for the honor of their clan. Collectors were the Stone Dog’s most instrumental tools in establishing their dominance in the City of Light. And today their enemies were attempting to remove them from their rightful place.

 Fools, Kage thought as he looked through the scope of his Heron-Mark II. 

Augmented soldiers bearing the insignia of the Nizari, rushed through the blazing orchard as they sought an escape. It had been a bloody day. The Nizari, rivals in the world of shadows and death, dishonored themselves by striking at their student chambers.

Kage’s mother had been teaching the youngest in the ways of spiritual Ascension when they attacked. The high caliber rounds used by the Nizari didn’t leave much to recover, though Kage had gone from room to room in search of survivors.

The only blessing was that his youngest brother, Akio, had managed to survive. Kage found the thirteen year-old boy hunched over their mother’s body, a bloody knife in his hands and two dead Nizari soldiers, a testament to his resolve.

Kage had told his sibling to flee, but the boy refused. It took several sharp strikes to quell the child’s outburst, and soon after Akio obeyed. He would make a fine Collector, should he survive the rest of the night and learn to control his emotion.

Says the hypocrite, Kage thought.

Once Akio was gone, Kage had carried their mother’s body out into the orchard. A waste of time, he knew, yet rather than continue the fight, he was determined to lay her body beside her father’s cherry tree. Their mother was not the first of their family to fall, nor would she be the last. Yet that didn’t stop the memories surfacing in Kage’s mind, threatening to break his focus.

There was little sorrow in Kage, even as he set the orchard ablaze, for sorrow was only a distraction. Blossom Collectors were trained to remove emotion from combat, allowing them to enter a state of calm until service ended. He could feel the pain stirring within, and knew that his concentration might break should he provide an opening.

Thankfully, the arrival of a pair of Nizari soldiers drew Kage’s thoughts away from the image of flames consuming his mother’s skin. 

Seeming to have lost their team in the inferno, they made a run for the open path left to them. When the lead soldier spotted the dead bodies along it, a moment of hesitation arose. Kage put both down with brief squeezes of the trigger. 

Two more burnt offerings for the fallen.

 The Nizari soldiers were mere grunts in the conflict that spanned the low valley and Kage waited for his true target to reveal itself. Of the six Collectors stationed here, only three remained, which meant only one thing; a Gallu was roaming the premises, hunting what Collectors still lived.

Another reason to burn the orchard. 

Gallu detected their prey through heat signatures and while Collectors were trained to lower their body temperature through extensive and oftentimes brutal training exercises, the Gallu could attune itself in order to find them.

They excelled in specific target removal and had clearly been given orders to hunt his kind.

Kage didn’t need to check in with Etsuko and Hanako to know they were nearby. They had been in the same cadre growing up. Each class bonded with their fellows, sharing a spiritual link they developed through the Ascension process, allowing them to sense each other’s presence.

 A team of Stone Dogs emerged at the entrance of the path where Kage had set his trap. A good sign he thought, realizing that their arrival meant the conflict was coming under control. 

“The beast stirs near the entrance,” Hanako said with quiet confidence. “Moving to engage.”

“Allow the Dogs to distract it and I will join you,” Kage said, tapping the retraction tab on his rifle. The weapon transitioned into a compact rectangle that mag-locked to his hip and he rose from concealment.

Kage felt no pang of remorse for the Stone Dogs. Life was but the passing of a cherry blossom floating on the currents of time. The Stone Dogs would die and it was better to use their passing as a distraction than waste their sacrifice. 

“On my way,” came Etsuko’s baritone voice.

Good, Kage thought. Three Collectors might stand a chance against the abomination, although it was far from a guaranteed victory. 

As Kage rushed down the hillside, he could already hear the shouts and gunfire as the Stone Dogs engaged. Knowing they would only buy a minute at most, Kage activated the quick-twitch amplifiers within his body, his heartbeat accelerated to match the overdrive requirements.

Kage tried to clear his mind for the trial to come, yet as his body moved along the hidden paths, avoiding the burning cherry trees, he could not escape his mother’s face. The life of a Collector was a cold existence. In his time, he had collected hundreds of blossoms. So many, in fact, he had forgotten all but the first few deaths by his hand.

 Yet in the early years of his childhood, a time when it was only Kage and his mother, bits of joy remained, only to assail him now.

Coming upon the remains of the Stone Dogs, Kage slowed. Piles of dehydrated dust, intermixed with scattered limbs and gore, gave evidence of their fate. The Gallu stood at the bottom of the staircase leading to the orchard; a black silhouette made up of tiny hexagonal plates, several of which were dulled and cracked from small arms fire, formed into the curved shape of a woman. It held the last Stone Dog, hand punched clean through the man’s chest to grip his spine. The Gallu’s head ticked to the side as it evaluated its recent kill, then the hexagons making up its body opened and it drew the body into itself. The crunch of bones followed as the hexagons closed, a high pitched whirring that sounded like a scream indicated the Gallu was consuming its prey, using the bio-energy from the body to repair the dulled and damaged hexagons. The remains of the man filtered out of the vents in its back as dust.

Kage pulled a shock lance from hip and drew the monofilament wakizashi from the other. 

He had faced a Gallu once before and knew that, unless gauze weapons or something of higher magnitude were available, small arms fire would be useless. It was better to override its systems with a shock lance then skewer its core with a blade to negate its regenerative properties.

The Gallu let out mechanical groan as it watched Kage with void-filled eyes.

Kage knew he was no match for the creature’s speed and would have to anticipate its movements if he hoped to survive long enough for his companions to arrive.

When the first hexagons of its body began to shift, Kage was already thrusting the shock lance forward. There was another mechanical shriek as one moment it was twenty paces away, and in the next it was upon him. Kage’s shock lance grazed its side, the electrical blast that followed knocking it off center even as Kage threw his body backwards, narrowly avoiding death as the hexagons transitioned into a claw that raked across his chest, ripping through the body armor he wore and cutting the flesh beneath.

Kage hissed and was moving back in an attempt to keep the Gallu in front of him. The Gallu transitioned forms as it approached, darting from one edge of his vision to the other as it attempted to find an opening. There were two options it could take and Kage knew he only had enough time to pick one to defend. He could sense his companions nearing his location, but they wouldn’t arrive before the second attack.

Kage feigned a misstep, concealing the lance thrust as an attempt to right himself in hopes that the Gallu would take the bait. If he was wrong it wouldn’t matter for he would be dead.

Unfortunately, it spotted the deceit shortly after taking the bait, and managed to swing a multi hinged limb with its momentum, whipping into Kage’s shoulder with an audible crack as the bone of his sword arm snapped.

He only felt the initial agony as pain inhibitors within Kage’s body flooded his system with narcotics. Kage rolled with the hit, barely managing to keep his feet from the sheer power of the strike. Then his companions arrived and the Gallu, ready to pounce, pulled back and created distance.

The Gallu returned to its feminine shape and regarded the three. Another deep moan issued from somewhere within it, for the creature had no mouth to speak of.

“Well done,” Hanako said, shock lance and wakizashi at the ready.

Etsuko held a crackling naginata, his powerful frame set in a defensive stance as he nodded his agreement. 

“Strike together,” Kage said, testing his sword arm.

It didn’t move as it should have and Kage knew he would need to throw his body into any strike he made. The pain was dulled for now, and while using his arm in such a manner might never allow it to heal properly, it was better than death.

Or worse, failure.

The Gallu remained in place, but its limbs spread out into several multi-hinged blades that slowly rotated. 

Kage engaged every adrenalin amplifier and body modification he had. Doing so would take years off his life, but then his kind didn’t live long. He could sense his companions do the same and, in the next moment, the three Collectors rushed their target.

The engagement that followed ended in seconds, but the frozen moments in between were filled with violence.

Kage was the slowest of the three, his movements slightly dulled by the narcotics. Hanako met the Gallu first, her wakizashi a blur as it deflected most of the blades that descended upon her. The rest drove deep into her body, but not before her shock lance landed in the Gallu’s thigh, temporarily immobilizing it . Etsuko was next, his naginata cut in half by the other limb as the blades punched through his chest, but Etsuko was a powerful man in his own right and managed to drive the bladed half of his crackling weapon into its collar. The monofilament edge drove toward its core until the side of the Gallu opened up and engulfed part of Etsuko’s torso inside itself, killing him instantly. 

Kage felt their deaths in his mind as the last of his cadre passed from this plane of existence. The loss threatened to break his calm but Kage was a true Collector, and drove onward. Wounded as it was, his shock lance landed true, opening the creature’s body to reveal its core. Whipping his broken arm forward, feeling the bone in his arm grind and tear muscle, the tip of his wakizashi drove into its central core.

The Gallu screamed, an electronic wail of disbelief and agony as its systems shut down. Before its life could end, however, it kicked Kage squarely in the chest. His ribs and sternum cracked under the impact, sending him skidding across the ground.

Laying there, struggling to breath even as the various systems in his body attempted to keep him alive, Kage found himself watching the burning blossoms drift across his vision. It was as if the night was filled with a field of burning flowers. 

Kage’s breathing slowed as his eyes fixed on one of the burning cherry petals floating in the air, his mother’s voice soothing him from somewhere in the growing darkness.

Then Kage’s soul joined the burning blossom as it danced on the breeze of time. 

*
Judge #1’s Scores

Worldbuilding: 5
Characters: 4
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 16

Judge #2’s Scores

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

*

Three Flowers for a Crown by Kenneth Bragg

Flames lit the night sky from the coast just beyond the capital as a storm raged and rains soaked the land. Distant sounds of battle made their way through the otherwise quiet streets as the city held its collective breath. That night the people of Elithiel would gain a new ruler, as the children of Nerus bled in the name of power.

In the heart of the city, High Priest Makarios held a vigil on the steps of the Temple of the Flayed Mother, his expression unreadable, his posture steadfast throughout the little hours of the night, protected from the weather by the outstretched skin on the statue of the flayed mother. The same man who held such a vigil in the last war games, only now much older. Three standard bearers flanked him, one for each of the siblings. The violet on white represented Ione, first daughter of the late king and a paragon of the people. Gladiolus, the king’s eldest son and most military minded of the children, was represented by a deep red flower of his namesake on a yellow banner. For Ilitha, only fourteen years old and most moldable of the children, a white lily on green.

 Down the coastal road was lined the honor guard that would escort the winner of the games after the ceremony of succession. As the hours ticked away the sounds faded and rose in waves until at last the sound of a lone horse galloping down the cobbled road  stood out from the cacophony. Makarios’ eyes were not as good as they once were. He could see that the rider was fully armored and larger in stature than the youngest child. Clearly it was one of the older children. But why then had the sound of battle not cease? Was this a victor, or had one of them fled in fear?

The rider reached the bottom of the steps and dismounted. At the top of the steps in the shadow of the statue they stood, rider and priest. Makarios ignored the slight of not being bowed to. The soon to be ruler was making a statement that they were equals.

“Welcome, my child. The Flayed Mother embraces you in your victory and–”

The rider held their hand out to silence the priest. His face turned red and he choked on his words. How dare they silence the Most Holy?

“A moment, your Holiness. My guard is on their way with a gift for the Flayed Mother.”

Mention of a gift blunted the outrage the high priest felt at the interruption. The rider had yet to remove their helmet, but even so muffled Makarios could tell that it was not the booming voice of Gladiolus. In truth he had believed him to be the most likely successor to their father, but Ione would make a fair and just ruler.

The two stood there for a moment as the sounds of battle slowly died off. Makarios thought it was late but nevertheless a good sign that the others had decided to lay down their swords and accept their sister’s victory. Ione stood in a stolid silence that unnerved the priest. It reminded him of her father all those years ago. Perhaps he had misjudged her fortitude, or the experience of a battle had awakened a side of her even she hadn’t known was there.

The sound of a group of riders swelled down the road. Makarios looked on as they approached the raised grounds of the temple carrying a large chest between them. As they reached the statue they laid the chest in front of the priest and stood around Ione in a protective half circle. More riders arrived down the coast, stopping in a hostile formation around the honor guard.

Makarios wrinkled his brow.

“What is this? You would rebuke your own honor guard?”

“A precaution, your Holiness. My father’s men might not agree with the outcome of the fight.”

“Ione. You can’t possibly believe that. Your father loved you, loved all his children, and his men know to respect the royal traditions.”

The rider placed her hand on the chest to open it.

“It is true that my father loved his legitimate children,” she opened the chest and stepped aside. Makarios gawked in horror at the contents.

“But his bastards were less well loved. Cast out like garbage when they weren’t outright murdered.”

Inside the chest were the heads of the king’s children. Gladiolus’ head was burnt almost beyond recognition.

“My magus had trouble with him.”

Makarios could hardly tear his gaze from the scene when he noticed the rider remove her helmet. Her short-cropped scarlet hair and fine features stood out from the usual dark brown hair of the royals.

“Calista.”

Calista grinned.

“You recognize me, then.”

 The standard bearers leveled their spears at her as her personal guard did the same. Makarios’ hand shot into the air faster than a man of his years should have been able to manage. Calista had already won. At this point all that remained was a formality.

“Stop! She is the blood of the king. Last known of his line and winner of the games.” he paused for a moment. “By the laws of the Gods she has the same right to claim this title as any of the king’s legitimate children.”

Tensions eased enough for the warriors on both sides to put up their weapons. Two of Calista’s guards took a furled up banner and entered the temple foyer. Makarios could not change what had already transpired so he picked up the crown on the pillar to his right. However, instead of kneeling to be anointed by him Calista snatched the crown from his hands and placed it upon her own head.

“Now kneel.”

Calista gestured to the priest first. He obeyed and got to one knee in acquiescence to her command. All of the others followed suit from the standard bearers to the honor guard beyond the steps.

As she looked out upon her queendom a black banner was unfurled from the balcony overlooking the temple’s front gardens. On its front was Calista’s chosen flower, the Belladonna. A roar went up amongst the assembled soldiers.

“All hail Calista! All hail the Queen!”

*
Judge #1’s Scores

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

Judge #2’s Scores

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

*