Grimdark Story World Cup 2022: June 2022 Stories, Group A


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

A. Worldbuilding

B. Characters

C. Plot

D. Enjoyment

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

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

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

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

4: Very good, shows a lot of positive elements

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

Prompts for June 2022

1. A Skinless Assassin

2. A Living Amulet

3. A Broken Villain


Black Paw by Sharon Rivest

The air of the longhouse crackled with anticipation, much like the roaring fire at the center of the log and bark structure. Elders from each of the clans had assembled here in the lodge of Mogtuck, Elder of the Bear Clan. Each wore a luxuriant robe made of the animal skins their clans were named for: bear, moose, deer, elk, lynx, wolf, otter, badger, and fox. Each came with a dozen skin-robed warriors. Black Paw walked alone into this gathering.

The crowd silenced as Black Paw spread his arms, showing he carried no weapon. Without a word, he sat cross-legged beside the fire opposite Mogtuck, his eyes meeting those of his host. He was here to be judged. Mogtuck, as chief among the elders, would carry out the ceremony. He’d find no justice here. The result was not in question. He would be punished.

Mogtuck glared at him. “You know why you’re here?”

Black Paw scanned the crowd. “To answer for stories told by men too frightened to face me and say them. Cowards unwilling to defend their words in combat.”

From among the elders came snorts and angry murmurs. A disturbance started in the crowd as a man was carried from their midst. Bandages indicated he’d recently lost a leg. A deep cut across his face had taken out part of his lower jaw. He looked near death as he was set down beside Mogtuck.

“Spotted Feather is all that remains of Hawk Clan,” Mogtuck said. He looked at the wounded man. “Tell us who did this to you and killed your people.”

Spotted Feather raised a trembling hand, pointing at Black Paw. The angry mutters rose in volume. Eyes dark with hate swung toward Black Paw. He didn’t acknowledge either, his gaze fixed on Mogtuck. The truth was, when he went looking for Hawk Clan, he found most of them already dead. He’d only killed the few left alive. He had reasons, but those wouldn’t matter. Whoever killed the others meant for him to take the blame for all.

“As chief elder, Fox Clan asks me to pass judgment,” Mogtuck said. “Have you anything to say?”

Black Paw looked at the hard faces of his clan mates. His years as the strongest among them counted for nothing now. The illusion of justice was all that mattered. He shook his head.

Mogtuck waited a moment, as if considering. “You’re cast out of Fox Clan. No clan will claim such a villain as you. No longer can you wear a skin. You are skinless now and without a clan’s protection.”

Rising slowly, Black Paw swept off his robe. He stroked a single time the many foxtails running down its back. Hardening his face, he tossed the robe into the fire where it burned. Sacrilege. The robe should have been surrendered, not destroyed.

Shouts erupted from all corners of the longhouse. Many leaped to their feet, weapons drawn. Black Paw didn’t move. Didn’t acknowledge the slurs flung at him. He only stared at Mogtuck.

The judgment wasn’t over.

Mogtuck continued, “All clans shun you. You’ll suffer the breaking so that your hands can never harm another clan. Survive in exile if you can, though better to die quickly, dog.”

At a signal, ten men climbed to their feet and moved toward Black Paw. They forced him to his hands and knees while one produced a stone axe. Four blows landed on each of his hands. The crunching of bones and the sickening smack of stone on flesh the only sound in the longhouse. He flinched silently as the axe ripped his skin, while it broke and twisted his fingers.

They hauled him to his feet. He gave Mogtuck a mocking smile before he was escorted out past men silent in respect of his bravery. Past women and children staring with horrified eyes at what was left of his hands. At the edge of camp, he entered the forest. Alone.

*****

Black Paw woke covered in rushes on a cave floor. His aching hands were splinted and covered with mud poultice. A fire blazed in a ring of stone near the cave entrance. He didn’t know how he’d gotten here.

“Awake, I see,” said a voice harsh from disuse.

Looking toward the sound, he sat up. In a corner of the cave sat a woman wearing a robe of squirrel skins. Her greying hair was a tangle full of twigs and leaves. Dirt smudged every portion of her skin.

“Why have you helped me? The clans forbid it.”

“I decide what I do. You didn’t find them where you looked, did you? They didn’t know, though you asked, did they?”

He started at the comment. How could she possibly know he’d been seeking someone? Hawk Clan had stolen his wife and daughters. Killed his three sons. Buried his father to the neck in the shallows of a lake where the waves had drowned him. Tied his mother to a tree with her arms over her head so she could watch her husband die as she slowly suffocated. All his fault, because he’d stolen a headband made of porcupine quills and shells from the tent of the Hawk Clan elder. A gift for his wife, taken on a thoughtless impulse. It was worth so little. It cost him everything. 

“You looked in the wrong place,” she said. “The headband meant nothing to Hawk Clan. They laughed about it when they told another. He was the one who crushed your family. Took your women. Raided the Hawk Clan, leaving only the last few alive for you to destroy.”

Black Paw leaned forward. “Who did this?”

A toothless smile spread across her face. “No guess?”

“I’ve already guessed wrong, old woman. Tell me.”

“Whose land borders the Hawk Clan’s? Who now has free access to their hunting grounds?”

“Mogtuck,” Black Paw whispered.

“My brother,” she said. “He killed my father and brothers. His lies made me an outcast. You, as well. For these things, he should die. And for that, I need a warrior.” Her hard eyes rested on him.

Black Paw held up his broken hands. “How can I take on Bear Clan with these?”

“I know a way. Are you willing to try anything to succeed?”

With nothing left to lose, he said, “Anything.”

“Good. Call me Daughter of Death.”

*****

The next morning, Daughter entered the cave with an elk skull full of an oily green substance. She sat down beside Black Paw.

“You have been exiled from Fox Clan. Now you must leave the clan of man to become the warrior you need to be,” she said.

“To do that, I must die.”

She shook her head. “No. You will leave it like you left Fox Clan. You must cast off your skin.”

Before he could protest, she raised the skull and threw the green slime at his head, where it ran down his face and neck. Everywhere the slime touched, his skin started to slough off. His desperate rubbing only hastened the process. Daughter produced more and more skulls of the thick liquid, throwing it until his whole body was coated. Until his long hair tangled in the exposed finger bones of his hands. Until his lips, nose, and ears joined his flesh upon the rushes.

He didn’t know how he was still alive, but he rose to his feet, looking down at his exposed muscles, tendons, and bones. Then half his eyesight failed. One eyeball rolled down his stomach, knocking off what was left of his manhood.

“Waaa,” he croaked with no lips to form words.

As he reached for Daughter, his second eyeball fell out, leaving him blind. Though his flesh was gone, he felt no pain. Something dropped over his head and came to rest on his chest. He could see again. A flying squirrel tied to a leather thong about his neck looked up at him, its enormous eyes blinking.

“As long as the squirrel amulet touches you, you will see, even in the dark. No pain will you feel. No weapon can kill you. ”

He gestured wildly while trying to get his mouth to work and ask if he could change back into the man he was. All that came out were half-formed words. “Aaa…ooo…akk?”

“No. This is who you are. This is what you agreed to.” She handed him a stone knife with a thick bone handle. “I made this from my brother’s thighbone. Kill Mogtuck with it. Avenge your family and mine.”

*****

Black Paw and Daughter followed Mogtuck’s hunting party. After partaking of a roast deer, Mogtuck left the fire and found a secluded log on which to sit and relieve himself, chaps and breechcloth pooled around his ankles.

The sound of shit hitting leaves, combined with several long wet farts, covered Black Paw’s advance. He grabbed the man’s braid and pulled his head back. The stone blade bit into Mogtuck’s throat before he could react. A trickle of blood appeared beneath the knife, glistening in the light of the rising moon. Daughter stepped out of the shadows in front of Mogtuck.

“You!” Mogtuck growled.

“You should have killed me when you had the chance,” Daughter said. She inclined her head. “The same is true for my warrior, Black Paw. Where is the rest of his family?”

Mogtuck’s eyes grew wider, the knife cutting deeper. “I sold his daughters. To traders from the lake region.”

“His wife?”

With a twisted smile of victory, Mogtuck said, “Had she not refused me, I could give her back. Used, but alive.”

Hearing his beloved wife was truly gone chilled Black Paw to his core. He didn’t see the knife in Mogtuck’s hand until it plunged into his thigh. Just as promised, there was no pain.

The elder twisted away, falling over backwards to roll in his own shit as he fought to gain his footing. Black Paw gave him no chance. He pounced and the two men set to stabbing each other in as many places as they found openings. Mogtuck was a skilled warrior, but Black Paw was faster and stronger now that he didn’t have to carry around the weight of his skin. Soon, both were covered with shit, slashes, and blood.

Black Paw ducked a blow as his stone dagger cut through Mogtuck’s windpipe and jugular. Daughter watched in silence when Black Paw, not waiting for Mogtuck to die, took his eyes so that he would be blind in the afterlife. Cut his fingers off and stuffed them down his throat so that his belly would always be empty. Lastly, he shredded the dead man’s bear robe so Bear Clan wouldn’t know him and shun him when he arrived in the land of shadows.

“It’s done and done well,” she said. “Come. We’ll find your daughters and with their sons, we’ll make Squirrel Clan the strongest of all. I’ll be your elder. You, my second.”

He could say nothing as Daughter draped her squirrel robe around his shoulders, giving them an approving squeeze. Not waiting to see if he followed, she turned and walked into the wood, slowly merging with the shadows.

Daughter had taken the pain from his body but not his heart. She’d robbed him of tears. Tears for a wife. Tears for a lost family. With a sigh, he let the dead go. Somewhere in his dark heart, a flicker of of hope for his daughters bloomed, replacing the dull pain with new purpose.

Silently, Black Paw staggered after Daughter. Wounds that should have been mortal were already healing. He would no longer begrudge her his losses. She’d given him great power. Provided a chance for revenge against Mogtuck and helped him learn the fate of his family. He had a new clan. Those who plotted against them would fall. His journey was only beginning.

Judge #1
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 5
Enjoyment: 5
Total: 18

Judge #2
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 5
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 17

*

The Fickleness of Fate by K.L. Schwengel

One would have thought skinning Visllyn alive and hanging him spread eagle on the wall would have snapped Muerynn out of his morose mood. It was, perhaps, the crowning achievement of a noteworthy life. Yet it achieved nothing other than sinking him further into his self-created abyss of despair.

He had broken the cardinal rule, Muerynn had. Love is the bane of evil. It makes a man soft, forgiving, and worse of all, merciful. Had I a mouth the very word would have turned to ash in it. Oh, Brillian had been beautiful. Most women are in one way or another, and Muerynn had taken his share of them. Brillian, however, had used her beauty and gentle nature to bewitch him. She was the first chink in Muerynn’s armor. The first crack in the wall built to ensure he fulfilled the destiny laid out before him.

The child that came of their union shattered the rest of that wall.

It was why Visllyn was sent in the first place. Muerynn could not be allowed to sink into a life of mediocrity and normalcy. The Fates had decreed otherwise and so it fell to Visllyn to remedy. Kill the mother and child. Eliminate the softness Muerynn had surrounded himself with. Set him back on the path the Fates had decreed at his birth.

Visllyn’s rotting corpse was testimony to the failure of that grand scheme. Oh, he had done the killing. That was his path. But even the greatest assassin to have lived could not best the greatest villain. Or so we had thought. The death of his beloved woman and child brought only a momentary spark of madness and rage. Glorious as it was, it was also short lived and on the backside? Drink and despair pulled Muerynn into depths the like of which I had no idea existed.

“What’re you starin’ at?” The question, words slurred, startled me as I had assumed Muerynn to be passed out in the padded chair enveloping his slouched and unkempt form.

He meant Visllyn’s corpse, of course. He never talked to me. Not anymore. Not since the day he removed me from his breast after turning Visllyn into a macabre piece of wall art.

“Should’ve given the crows yer eyes.”

“Yes. You should have.” It took an inordinate amount of effort to move Visllyn’s mouth, to make the words appear to rise from his throat. It was the product of countless hours spent practicing, schooling my power, shaping it to be something other than it was and hoping against hope I never needed to use it to such ends as I now intended.

Muerynn’s rheumy eyes widened briefly, then narrowed. His head swiveled to where I hung, suspended by my chain off a hook near the window, the filtered sunlight lost in the obsidian jewel at my center. So, he was sharper yet than I gave him credit for. In that moment I thought he would come for me. Thought I glimpsed a spark of the old Muerynn. The man whose name made all other men tremble in fear and loathing.

The moment passed on a trembling sigh as Muerynn sank back into the chair, a tear trickling down his cheek.

“You could have stopped it,” he whispered, sounding suddenly much more sober than I believed him to be. “You should have stopped it.”

“And you should never have grown so weak as to allow it.” The words were out before I could stop them. I regretted them only an instant because they brought Muerynn to his feet, fists balled at his side, face twisted in anger and grief. Yes! This is what I needed to see. This was the old Muerynn returned. As it turned out, I was wrong. Too much grief, and not enough anger. In days long dead, such an affront would have had me smashed with a rock or melted down to make a spreading knife. Now?

Muerynn stood, trembling, unable to act on the impulse to lash out. I could bear no more. The Fates had made me Muerynn’s for a purpose. This was not it.

The rattling of chains drew Muerynn’s attention to Visllyn’s corpse. Animating the assassin in death would drain me significantly but I had little choice. The Fates had created me, gifted me to Muerynn as a young man to ensure he fulfilled the destiny they had chosen for him. Without me Muerynn would have been just another pitiful do-good. He never would have prevailed against Visllyn. Without me, he would drown in the sorrow and self-pity of a broken man. I could not allow that to happen.

It took longer to free the assassin of his shackles than I had anticipated. The iron had bit into the sinew left behind, in some places sinking into bone as it decayed. Muerynn watched in morbid fascination but did nothing to stop me. Even after Visllyn dropped to his feet with a sickening slurp, still Muerynn did not move and I questioned my timing. It may have been wiser to wait until he was sober and less deeply entrenched in wallowing. It was difficult to startle a drunkard.

Visllyn’s first faltering steps were met with an outburst of laughter. “What is it you intend? You think to set a rotting corpse against me?” Muerynn chortled like a mad man and ripped open his robe to bare his chest. “Give the creature a blade, then. Drive it through my heart and be done with it. Better yet…”

Muerynn strode across the room, yanked me from the hook, the chain catching then ripping free. Once his touch had sent a shiver of delight through me. Now there was only a distant sort of hollow pain. He lifted me on level with his face, a sneer distorting his features, spittle flecking his lips.

“Give your beloved Fates my regards.”

Muerynn lifted my chain over Visllyn’s head and dropped me against the sodden, hollow chest. I trembled against the unfamiliar touch. The power I had honed to rise Visllyn from his sleep of death and push Muerynn back from the edge of madness slid from me into the assassin. 

“What have you done?” I vibrated on my chain, unable to resist the tug of my power seeping into Visllyn. The first stuttering beat of his heart sent a shock through me. “Remove me. Remove me at once.”

Muerynn resumed his seat, hands folded in his lap, legs crossed, a smirk splitting his features. “Not what you planned, my friend?”

“We are bound, you and I. This cannot be.”

“Can it not? You have made it so. Your mechanizations have brought this to its inevitable conclusion.”

“The Fates–”

“The Fates be damned and you with them.” This new anger was cold and eerily calm. “I am no puppet. My family was not yours to rip from me but your existence? That is mine. I relinquish you to this–” He waved a hand to indicate Visllyn’s form. “May you destroy him as you have destroyed me.”

“No.” Another beat of Visllyn’s heart beneath me. Another tremble. I was a spider caught suddenly and irrevocably within a web of my own making. “You are making a mistake.”

Muerynn smiled. “If so, it will be my last.”

***

I longed to avoid the touch of the finger, sinew wrapped around bone, that caressed my face almost lovingly as Visllyn studied the new corpse decorating what was now, I supposed, his wall. More so, I longed to look away from the scene for it seemed to me that Muerynn’s skinless face still held the hint of a smile and the serenity of someone who had found their peace.

Judge #1
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 5
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 17

Judge #2
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 5
Plot: 5
Enjoyment: 5
Total: 19

*


King’s Fall by Joe Coates

Lightning shattered the dark, white cracks fragmenting the sable dome of the sky, the road that led up from the outskirts of Neon City illuminated abruptly before being enveloped in darkness once more. Rain roared down in merciless sheets.

A bone-white anti-grav bike hovered above the road. Atop it was a figure, bundled and cloaked against the building storm.

“Uh, are you seein’ that, Sergeant?” Private Hogg said.

“I am,” replied Sergeant Graves.

“Did you, um, see ‘im approaching?”

Graves frowned. Truth was, he hadn’t.

Hogg’s voice was slightly strained as the young man asked, “D’you think it’s a real bike, sir?”

“As opposed to…?”

“An unreal bike, sir.”

The swaddled rider must’ve thumbed the throttle, for the gleaming white machine started heading noiselessly towards them.

“Aye. A real vehicle, that is. Real rider. Real sky and rain and lightning.”

There was something not right about the figure, Graves thought. Something that was pulling at the sleeve of his consciousness in an attempt to be noticed.

The anti-grav bike stopped about ten paces from them. The rain continued to hammer down.

“Could just let him through, Sergeant,” Hogg suggested hopefully.

“Nay, boy. We’ll do what honour and duty dictate. Fear’s fleeting. Honour lasts forever.”

Then, Sergeant Graves’ brain clunked into place. He recognised the expensive conveyance—though he hadn’t seen it around for a while.

It was Lord Njal’s.

The rider was concealed under a voluminous cloak, its face hidden in a patch of night under the hood. Graves had seen Lord Njal skulk away after his brother had exiled him; after he had been caught coveting his wife, the woman whispered to be the personification of their clan’s power. Njal had been hunched, broken, defeated. His shattered arm tucked to his side, his maimed face half-hidden under the brim of a wide hat.

This individual was taller than Lord Njal. Broader at the shoulder. Riding confidently, as if it owned all it saw. For all its air of vitality though, it was slightly lopsided; left arm hanging noticeably lower than its right.

And, Sergeant Graves suddenly noticed with a thrill of dread, it was quite dry. Whereas everything in the vicinity was drenched to its core, this entity seemed to repel the rainwater. It slid off the stranger in rivulets of tiny silver globes.

The figure dismounted.

Apprehension pulsed through every fibre of Graves’ body.

“What brings you to the king’s gate at this late hour, stranger?” he called. “Riding his brother’s own anti-grav bike, if I’m any judge. Explain yourself!”

Instead of the bubbling hiss that Sergeant Graves might’ve expected, a familiar suave, plummy voice came from the blackness under the hood—though there was something new running through it.

“Come, come, Sergeant Graves! I haven’t been away that long, my dear fellow, surely?”

Graves and Hogg’s backs straightened instinctively.

“Lord Njal,” Graves said.

“Indeed.”

“How may we serve, my lord?”

“Well, Graves, you could go and pull my brother and his whore out of bed and drag them down here to talk to me. Or, you could let me in.”

Private Hogg gulped.

Behind Njal, the lightning continued to fall noiselessly.

Graves felt the sweat begin to prickle on his brow, despite the foulness of the evening.

“My lord, your brother has issued explicit instructions that you’re not to set foot inside the walls of the palace. Nor, indeed, the boundaries of Neon City…”

Lord Njal did not answer, but his head snapped sideways to look at Hogg, as if he thought the boy might countermand Graves’ decision. Hogg stepped backwards under the unseen gaze.

“I had a tutor once, don’t you know,” Njal said musingly, turning his head back to look at Graves. “A brainy old boy; an apothecary. Spent hours teaching us about elixirs and the like. He taught us that the world was made up of five elements. Five, I hear you ask? Surely there’re only four? Earth, wind, water and fire, no? Well, yes, but this pedagogue told us there was a fifth element. One is often overlooked, but is more prevalent than all the rest.”

Njal’s head moved slowly back to Graves.

“We have the water in the rain, the wind in our faces, the earth under our feet and the heavenly fire in the air—but there’s also chance. You can’t see it, but you can feel it, I’m sure. It is the chance for you two to walk away.”

The rain fell, ricocheting off the cobbles, but not a single drop touched Njal. The silence stretched.

“And then, it was gone,” the cheerful voice said from under the hood.

Njal’s arms shot out from under his cloak. His gauntleted hands seized the two guards by their throats, lifted them off the ground, and pinned them to the gate with a strength that belied mortal muscle.

The two men struggled. Their heels thudded off the damp wood of the gate. Hoggs’ tears mingled with the rainwater on his face.

“Death in the name of duty, chaps?” Njal said amiably. “There’s no future in it, you know.”

His hands clenched around the two throats, his fingers compressing so tightly that the skin and flesh of the men’s necks squeezed out through the gaps of his gauntleted fingers like pâté.

The two pairs of legs went limp. Rain and piss and blood dripped from the toes of the two sets of boots.

#

Twenty-seven years later, and the Neon City had fallen. A once prosperous mining planet, it had been raped and ravaged by the growing horde of King Njal’s enemies, who flocked in droves to the Myrmidon System to wage their vendetta wars on him and his people.

Now, both kingdom and king were long gone, and all that was left were the Badlands.

“R-E-V-E-N-E-N-T; revenant,” Arne Wade said, laying the letter tiles triumphantly across the carved wooden board, in the same cocksure way a fellow might slap down four aces in a poker game.

“Goddamn, Arne, that ain’t how you spell revenant,” the greying Ulfson sighed. “It’s an A, not an E.”

“You sure?”

“Sure as I am that you weren’t born, just squeezed out of a bartender’s rag,” Ulfson replied, looking up from the porch they were sitting on, and staring out over the dry moonlit scrub. He was peeling an apple with the utmost care. Peeling it as if his life depended on it.

Arne snorted, scooped the tiles back towards him with bad grace, and had himself another drink.

Across the desolate pan, past the branching river that shone like an unwound spool of silver thread under the light of the twin moons, the flash and sparkle of welding tools breaking up torchships twinkled. 

“My wife was always tellin’ me I was gettin’ too fat,” Arne said, adjusting the patch over his eye and scratching at a paunch that could’ve served three men comfortably. “You believe that?”

He laid down a fresh word, tiles snapping down like punctuation to his words.

Ulfson raised an eyebrow at the man opposite him. Arne was wrapped in a dusty black cloak, much patched and frayed, that swathed most of his bulky body. The patch over his eye gave him a roguish look.

“You tell her you’d got yourself into this state so that you could give her warmth in the winter and shade in the summer?” Ulfson asked.

“That ain’t funny, Ulfson.”

“No. It ain’t.”

Arne took another slug of whisky. It wasn’t the real deal; made from some vat grown protein designed to taste like whisky. A thing pretending to be something it wasn’t.

Just like Ulfson.

Just like the man calling himself Arne Wade.

“How d’you know I spelled revenant wrong?” Arne asked, filling his glass again.

“’Cause,” Ulfson said, continuing to carefully peel the apple, “I’m cultured. And you ain’t.”

Arne bristled. “I got me culture,” he said.

Ulfson grunted a laugh. “Oh, yeah, you’re the kind as thinks a seven-course meal is a dead rat and a six-pack. That’s real cultured, Arne.”

The two men eyed each other for a moment; bloodshot eye staring into granite grey ones.

“Your wife,” Ulfson said casually, trimming the peel daintily away from the fruit with his small knife, “where’s she now?”

Arne’s good eye was glued on the near naked fruit. “Dead,” he said.

Ulfson flinched. The peeled apple dropped onto the board, scattering tiles.

Arne Wade snorted. “Game over, is it?”

Ulfson said nothing. Just stared at the man across from him.

He was sure now.

“You gonna eat that?” Arne asked, nodding at the apple.

“No,” Ulfson said, and his accent seemed to change in mid word. “It’s for you.”

Arne snatched the apple up eagerly and took a slobbering bite.

Ulfson watched the other man scoff down his own death. Watched as the realisation that something was amiss dawned in his one good eye.

“Why?” Arne choked, bloody foam flecking his lips.

“Why d’you think, Njal?” the man who was not Ulfson asked.

#

Dressed in his nightshirt, King Skarde stared unseeing into the fire, while his pregnant wife slept soundly in the next room. The king didn’t sleep well anymore. Not since he’d been forced to exile his brother.

A brother custom dictated he should’ve killed.

There was a knock at the door.

“Come.”

The knock sounded again.

The king’s tired face darkened. “Come,” he barked again.

The door opened. Something bounced across the floor, rolling and bobbling until it came to rest half in and half out of the fire crackling in the grate.

It was Graves’ head.

As the king watched, his sergeant’s thick red hair started to smoulder and shrivel.

“Hello, brother,” came an amiable voice.

“Njal?” the king said.

He ran his eyes over the cloaked figure that had appeared in the doorway. His brother had grown, both in stature and in… presence, somehow.

“What are you—?”

“I’m here, simply, to take back that which you’d so flippantly give away,” Njal replied. “The key to the kingdom, as it were. This kingdom.”

Skarde’s stomach was a cauldron of molten dread. He pictured his wife asleep next door.

“There’s no shame in forging peace, Njal,” he said.

Njal chuckled genially. He took a couple of steps toward his older brother and pulled back the hood that shrouded his face.

Skarde’s mouth went dry.

His brother’s face was still a mess of scars and stitches, but here and there, in between the flaps of newly sliced and stretched skin, came the unmistakeable gleam of metal. A pale, dead, jellyfish eye looked straight into his.

“What have you been doing?”

“Oh, you know, this and that. Healing. Blending Old Magic with new technology mostly. Jolly interesting.” Njal’s face darkened. “Jolly painful.”

He stooped, picked up a glowing coal from the heart of the fire, and rolled it between his fingers.

Skarde’s skin crawled as he watched his brother. “The Old Magic is dead,” he whispered.

Njal ignored him.

“It seems, in blending Old Magic with technology to fix myself, I impregnated my formerly useless flesh with a certain… resilience. Interesting, no?”

He tossed the coal to his wide-eyed brother.

Skarde caught it on instinct, then dropped the burning fragment with a gasp.

Njal turned to him.

In his brother’s eyes, Skarde saw the monster—that he’d known lived in the rotten dark of his brother’s heart of hearts—stretch out its head and taste the air.

Skarde lashed out with his secreted plasma-dagger.

Njal’s left arm blurred upwards. There was a tortured screech. The blade of the plasma-dagger exploded into molten sparks.

King Skarde looked down at his brother’s slightly elongated and crooked arm. Saw the rent in his cloak. Saw the blood, and the sheen of metal just under the skin. He looked into the one good jade eye.

And saw only an abyss leading to nowhere.

“What do you want?” Skarde asked.

“I’m here for the living amulet, brother, I’m here for the Periapt,” Njal said. “I’m here for your wife.”

Judge #1
Worldbuilding: 5
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 17

Judge #2
Worldbuilding: 5
Characters: 5
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 5
Total: 19

*

The Amulet by Tim Clark

In the forgotten depths of time, in the seldom remembered kingdom of the Chilathions, there was once a mighty ruler, Methredeis, known as the God-Chosen.  Methredeis was actually the third to bear that name, it having been belonged to his father and great-grandfather before him.

King Methredeis was one of the first great people of this world to build an empire, which was said to be as vast as anyone could imagine, and filled with more wonders than there were words in the Chilathion language to describe them.

He ruled from a golden throne in the heart of the Palace of the Sun, an immense edifice which rose up from the centre of the city of Chilathos, honouring Urcal, the god of the sun, the stars and the skies. The Urcan Empire over which Methredeis ruled, was named after the same god, the chief of all gods.

The city of Chilathos, which was one of the first cities of our world, sat right at the centre of civilisation and it was said that if you travelled for the same amount of time in any direction out from the Palace of the Sun you would reach the shores of the circular sea, which engulfed the world, in the same number of days.

Methredeis’ ambitious wife was Hepphation, known as the Sun-Catcher. She was said to be as astute as a stork, and as perceptive as an eagle, but she was also a relentless schemer who wanted nothing more than to rule the entire known world for herself. Naturally, this was going to be difficult if her husband was still amongst the living, so she engaged the services of Skiathio, a foreign assassin of great repute, to give her sole dominion over the Urcan Empire.

Skiathio’s methods were extreme and for this particular task, which was accompanied by no uncertain amount of danger, he chose something even he had never attempted before. For this, he enlisted the help of the witch-priestess Harvia, who was said to hail either from the same far-off place as Skiathio, or indeed, actually just from the underworld itself.

So it came to be that King Methredeis was presented, upon the day of the great festival of the Waning Moon, with a gift by his queen. A spectacular amulet, in the shape of a heptagon hewed from Menican lapis lazuli and bound with Cimmini gold. What Methredeis did not know was that within the amulet the malignant Harvia had placed Skiathio’s soul. Her price for the transfer had been the soulless body of the assassin, which she had indicated she would keep as a trophy, and maybe a plaything.

When the amulet was placed around the king’s neck, Skiathio the assassin made his move, but to Queen Hepphation’s horror, instead of leaping into the body of one of the members of Methredeis’ bodyguard in order to do the deed, Skiathio instead drove out the soul of the king himself.

‘Seize the queen, she is a traitor and has turned to madness,’ the new false-king pronounced. ‘Do not pay heed to her ravings!’

The hapless and helpless Hepphation was dragged away by the royal guard, screeching like a she-lynx being removed from her cubs, kicking out in every direction, her protests falling on deaf ears.

The treacherous Skiathio, in the guise of the king, ruled for forty more years and was by all his own accounts a beneficent ruler. Every wall surface and every monument throughout his empire proclaimed this to be true. In reality, to his people he was a tyrant and an oppressor.

Both for her treachery and misplaced trust Hepphation was kept in the royal dungeon beneath the sun temple and allowed to wither and diminish, but never to die.

Skiathio kept the old king near to his own heart, choosing never to remove the lapis lazuli amulet in all his years as usurper.

For her aid, Skiathio had Harvia hunted down like a rogue lioness. It was reported that she was caught and killed out in a canyon near the royal road, but that report was never confirmed.

One day, many years after the insurrection, Hepphation had a rare and unusual visitor. An ageless crone gained access to her place of imprisonment.

‘Why do you wither here, once great queen?’ asked the crone.

‘Do you mock me?’ replied Hepphation. ‘Can you not see that I have been greatly wronged and am imprisoned in this barren place in abhorrent perpetuity?’

‘That is all of your doing, once great queen’ replied the crone.

‘So you are here to scold me and chastise me then?’

‘No, although that would be warranted, I am really here to help you.’

‘Who are you?’ asked Hepphation.

Harvia did not identify herself.

A few days later a most unusual gift was delivered to the king. It was accompanied with instructions, inscribed into an obsidian cylindrical seal, which were to be carried out the letter.

The task fell to Skiathio’s chamberlain, Goocra the Officious, who after imprinting the message that the seal contained onto clay, awkwardly had to ask the king-emperor to vacate his own throne room whilst the gift was unpacked.

When it was all done, the king was called to return to his chamber to find a great tapestry of human skin hung behind his throne.

‘This does amuse me, but who has been flayed and so displayed upon my wall?’ demanded the king.

‘The writings revealed say that it is the skin of the evil assassin Skiathio, sire,’ replied Goocra.

Skiathio did not know what to think, so he chose not to. ‘Find me the sender of this gift!’ he roared. ‘They will answer for this!’

Goocra also did not know what to think, so he scurried away in desperation.

Goocra did return, a day later, but not with information, instead with another gift. The magically preserved but skinless body of Skiathio was carried into the throne room. Despite the fact that he had long since abandoned his corporal form to the depravities of the witch Harvia, Skiathio howled with rage to see what once had been his body so desecrated.

The king’s howling made the amulet on his breast glow and grow as hot as the burning pitch that the Chilathions used to caulk their reed boats. Then it became hot as the sun, searing itself into Skiathio’s chest.

At this moment the combination of Skiathio’s physical pain and the torment that was in his mind, rent a hole in the enchantment large enough for the soul of the imprisoned true king to escape the living amulet which was his gaol. He did so by driving Skiathio out of his body. Skiathio’s soul in utter despair and confusion fled to the place it knew best – the skinless corpse.

The queen was returned from the dungeons and brought before King Methredeis. ‘Did you really mean to kill us and take our place?’ the ancient king asked of his ancient wife.

Hepphation could not answer, knowing that any knowledge she had of the amulet would confirm her guilt.

‘You are banished. Take your agent with you!’ her husband pronounced.

The howling Skiathio was dragged before the queen, hideous and oozing.

The pair were unceremoniously released outside Chialthos’ Western Gate. When they were alone Hepphation turned to confront the abomination Skiathio who was following her. ‘You must go back,’ she commanded.

‘Why must I?’ he raged. And wept.

‘If you want your skin back. You must go back. If you kill the king I will find Harvia who kept your body and instruct her to reunite your flesh with your skin.’

‘Was it Harvia who helped you betray me?’

‘Yes, although she does not know I know it was her,’ replied Hepphation.

Even in extreme old age, and in a body without skin, Skiathio was good. He managed to gain access to the old king’s bedchamber by slithering like a serpent through the palace sewer system. Having neither skin nor hair had some advantages, especially where infiltration was concerned. Although the pain and sickness was excruciating, the desire to destroy Methredeis drove him onward.

In the first hours of the dawning morning, Skiathio returned to the queen outside the city and found her in a cave where she had spent the night. In one hand he held the living amulet, in the other his own skin. ‘It is done, the king is dead,’ he groaned. ‘Now do what you promised.’

The queen re-entered the city, reclaimed the throne and had herself pronounced as the rightful ruler of the kingdom. She also had the witch Harvia brought to the palace.

‘Ask her for what you desire,’ the queen directed the wretched assassin, who lay at her feet wrapped in blood-soaked bandages and cloths.

‘The queen said that you could reattach my skin and give me my life back,’ Skiathio said to Harvia.

‘Don’t be ridiculous, it doesn’t work like that,’ said the witch with a smile.

‘Do something,’ Skiathio pleaded, but it fell on deaf ears.

Skiathio, raving with fever and madness, died of infection a few days later. A broken villain. The queen quietly rejoiced.

Hepphation did not last much longer, advanced in age as she was, and driven to near-madness with bitter resentment and hatred. When her body died, in exchange for giving the witch her liberty, she directed Harvia to transfer her royal soul in the amulet, so that one day she may return to the corporeal world. Harvia left the city shortly after and never returned. The empire crumbled soon after and that was the last anyone ever knew of the Chilathions and their Urcan Empire.

‘And that is all the text found in the tomb tells us,’ concluded Professor Sakiss, addressing the gathered members of the press outside the excavation site. ‘All we have to corroborate the assertions made is this lead-lined box, which if we believe the inscription to be telling us the truth, contains the very amulet that caused so much trouble in those ancient days. So with no further ado, get your cameras rolling and let’s crack this box open-’


Judge #1
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 3
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 15

Judge #2
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 16