Grimdark Story World Cup 2022: June 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 June 2022

1. A Skinless Assassin

2. A Living Amulet

3. A Broken Villain


Imyous by Joe Price

“Why in all the hells are you listening to these voices again?” The incessant nagging of a whisper groaned ever louder at the back of my mind. Her voice slowly turning sourer as my skin shifted. “And you had to use my face. Why?”

What I had thought to be a most wonderful boon of the cosmos granted specifically to me had proven in time to be a curse… Lilly was not pleased, as I dressed in the sister’s attire. Earlier Kage had figured out the locks and copied every key to the complex and thankfully, over many years, I had learned priests do not question when sisters changed their charges. However, I acted at the voices’ behest. I wore the pristine skin with small nearly nonexistent pores, bright gold speckled emerald eyes and brown hair of Lilly. This came at the cost of her relentless berating me for the past half century. If only she maintained the silence she had kept in life as in death she had yet cease… I walked calmly with eyes down following the call of the child’s plea. Why these calls came I know not, but over the years I had gained so many children it mattered little. I passed seven rooms and ascended into what I could only assume was the priest’s chambers. This was a smaller town with only two churches after all, they clearly couldn’t afford multiple priests dedicated to any singular deity. The second to last door on the left was my destination. The cries of the innocent came loudest there. I took the key Kage had forged and unlocked the door letting myself into the room. I kept my head down as any good sister of the cloth would. Strapped to the table was a boy no younger than six and no older than eight, he had fiery orange hair and eyes like springtime grass. His skin was pale with small freckles covering his face and arms. If he were older than eight, he would be vastly malnourished for his age. This I could not condone.

“Sister, what brings you at this hour? It is rather late, after all.” The priest said, though the sun was only at its apex.

“Forgive me father,” I began my voice dripping with distain. “For you have sinned.” I had little need to move any faster, the shadows were my friends. My closest companions, and all I needed was to be

one

       with

   the shadows.

I was at not a moment later behind the priest with a dagger forged of the blackest night in my left hand. In my right a cloth which I forced between his teeth as I slid the blade slowly across his throat. Sweet crimson nectar freed from vein and artery. As my blade vanished Kage along with Sophie and Quillen appeared from the shadows. They were the oldest of my children. Kage, the sprightly dark elven boy with sickly skin, hair of ivory white and eyes like sapphire jewels, his dagger like a hot knife through butter severed the first of the ginger boy’s restraints. My Sophie was a younger girl, perhaps five years old, though I could not know truthfully, she laid down a set of clothing for the newest of their siblings, her missing left eye covered with a violet patch of cloth she had wrapped around her head and through her nut-brown hair. Her remaining eye smiled at the boy, though a lemony yellow in color, I had not asked nor was it my duty to know why this occurred. I had already killed her mother for it. Lastly, young Quillen a fire genasi boy with deep scars on his arms and face melted through the last of restraints before quickly vanishing back into the shadows. He was still so shy after all these years.

“Come child, come along now. Away from the pain and fear. Come, come along now.” I sang softly as my skin changed gone was the pristine pale skin of Lilly and out came the inky skin and horns of a tiefling. “Runaway to a place safe from torture and sorrow.”

“Come, come.” Kage said, “Much fun we shall have.” He said this as he fell backwards into the shadows.

“Come, come, let us play the night away.” Sophie said as she too fell backwards into the shadows.

“Come, come and be free.” I said as the boy sat up and dressed, he took my hand and I transported him through the shadows. Kage, Sophie and Quillen would most assuredly take this child and help him find his place amongst the other children.

With business concluded, it was time to secure my payment. Feeding hundreds of children was not cheap and any profits I could muster were a necessary evil. I was not one for stealing after all.

“You really do enjoy putting on a show of things.” Lilly said as I began rummaging through the priest’s closets and drawers. “You act like Mordekai some days to the point I wish I could spoon your eyes out.” Ah, yes, Mordekai was the name of the tiefling. I had forgotten long ago; his voice had not remained. I had hated his constant jabbering about comedy to the point I would rather his face be mine and quiet and not blathering about like an idiot. He died screaming, the opposite of Lilly… Perhaps I was thankful she started speaking instead of him.

Cabinets and drawers clean of coin I spotted a locked display within lying the greatest prize of the evening. A pristine clear, faceted jewel of sapphire blue encased in the telltale bluish silvery sheen of a mithril amulet glinting faintly in the lowlight of the chamber, whispering sweet nothings to my ears, how could I resist? The lock was not special, simply a twist of my hand and sliding two pins. Not fun at all. This was to be the greatest of prizes. If only everyone I had killed carried such beautiful accessories. No one would miss this simple bauble after all. Oh, how wrong I was… Now, it isn’t uncommon to me, anyway, to have voices in my head. From the voices of children to Lilly and others who rarely speak any longer. However, it is different to have one of these voices greet me openly. Yet this amulet spoke, and I was already beginning to fear for the worst.

“Hi, I’m B.O.B.” the voice rung loudly. “You’re interesting, I can’t seem to find your name.”

“By the gods, did you eat another one?” Lilly groaned.

“My name is of no importance. And quiet down Lilly.” I whispered softly as I too now became one

        with

                the shadows.

Returning to my home, a small pocket realm I had found so long ago now within a labyrinthian temple of a long-forgotten goddess. Countless trees under a violet sky cloudless and bright. The soft singing of the children distant yet near in their cheery tune.

“Wow, this place is nice. Reminds me of the Maker’s realm. Though more trees, like his granddaughter’s woodland domain.” The amulet said within my mind.

“Great, a zealot of Balthoron, you really pick good ones.” Lilly said.

“You are quite rude Ms. Lilly.” The amulet spoke. “Though Balthoron created me, I am my own sentience.”

“Don’t speak to me peasant.” Lilly said though I firmly believe the amulet hadn’t listened.

***

“Hey, what are we doing?” B.O.B. asked as I watched the woman cross the street. Her blond hair tied tight to her head.

“My duty.” I said softly.

“You mean listening to the will of those who call on you for protection?”

“Protection, he is going to be killing someone. You really picked a humorous one…” Lilly snickered.

Three years had passed in moments, and this “amulet” had grafted itself into the flesh of my hand, a constant cerulean blemish consistently annoying my every moment. Unlike Lilly and other others whose wailing ceased upon sleep this B.O.B. remained questioning my every action long into any dream which attempted to manifest. It had watched as I murdered, lied and stole children away, questioning my actions with every one of them. ‘Why did he have to die? Why did you steal this child, you have the coin to buy her…? Why lie about who you are and just give them a name?’ his prattling never ended. It was affecting my ability to work. His dogged pursuit of a name long forgotten was making my actions more present and less anonymous. Wanted posters became common for the many faces I bore and skins I wore. And further still, I was starting to slip. I was putting them on wrong. What once was Lilly’s beautiful pristine skin was marred by the abyssal horns and hooves of Mordekai and the black beard of a dwarf, B.O.B. had to ask his questions ruining my focus of the many skins I wore.

I watched as night fell and the woman finally returned home. I watched as Kage, worked his picks as Trevor, the ginger boy, made quick work of casing the exterior.

Yet here I was yet again, walking openly across the way as B.O.B.’s questioning was abruptly halted by the cries of the children grew stronger than ever. I could not stop my legs from carrying me to the doorstep, through the door with my rapier in hand and into one of the worst sights I had seen.

Two men well into their forties were pummeling a child no older than Sophie. His brown skin darkened further from their blows. Blood dripped from his nose and mouth where teeth were missing. The woman was deeper in belt in her hands and a small pale girl less than half the woman’s size lay motionless in a growing pool of blood.

“Oh, now I understand, these children need your protection.” B.O.B. said as my rapier penetrated through the elder of the two men’s vertebra and ribcage. As I pulled the rapier, I knew he would be dead momentarily, there was no comfort for abusers in the abyss. I ducked under the roundhouse punch of the slightly younger man and where my first connected with his stomach a dagger appeared opening his entrails, exposing them to the world. I drug the blade downward opening him to the pelvis.  This if he survived, would not be easy to repair. Lastly, I aimed for the woman.

“You wouldn’t harm a woman, would you?” She said stepping back, she had traded the belt for a pistol. A newer weapon with a firing pin which launched small balls at high speeds into flesh-creatures.

I looked at my reflection in the glass hutch. The dwarven beard and tiefling horns annoyed me so. “B.O.B., could you remain quiet for a moment.”

“Understood.” The amulet answered.

“What did you jus-” the woman’s words were silenced as my skin shifted and a warm pain penetrated through me. “What are you… Who are you?” the woman said fumbling to reload. Fury and hate fueled new life as my bones contracted once taller, I now matched her height. The smell of flint and powder filled the air as my skin shifted pale.

“Who am I? Why does everyone have to ask this.” I said my eyes slowly matching her sky blue, “So many, the amulet, Lilly, the dwarf. Why does it matter? Who am I?” my hair matched her blond locks to perfection.

“Why, I’m you!” I said, pain building in my stomach.

 Imyous, was my name, or so I had decided.

“Are you trying to pun?” the amulet said.” I like it.”

The screams of the woman echoed through the city as Kage disappeared with the boy. Sadly, the girl could not be saved. I laid a jacket across her body, there was nothing more I could do. The woman’s body would never be found. She had gotten her answer as Lilly and B.O.B. began their introductions. This one would suffer.


Judge #1
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 3
Total: 14

Judge #2
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 15

*


Blue Bones by Kenneth Bragg

“Twenty pounds of gold and the lord’s favor, and you think we shouldn’t have taken the job,” The sinewy muscles on Oswin’s scruffy neck tensed as he cracked a mocking smile towards Afton, “Are you out of your head?”

Afton went along with the crew, because what else could he do? Oswin, Graeme and Chaff all relished the chance to make a quick buck. They were older, and he supposed they were more cynical than he was of the stories.

“All embellished nonsense, lad,” Graeme, the oldest of their crew, had said when he noticed Afton hadn’t jumped for joy when he told them he’d taken up the job.

“Why would they hire us, then? It doesn’t make sense. They say one man ran the lord and his entire household from the keep. That the lord’s man-at-arms had wrestled him until they fell into the great hearth, but the man came out alive. Only with his skin melted off, and his blue bones shining in the light,” said Afton.

“It weren’t no ‘one man’,” bellowed Chaff, the scars on his arms dancing as they worked tirelessly to bring cups of ale from the table to his mouth, “The Blue Bones is a crew. Seen ‘em before back in my Brecton days. Hooked on bombe from what I remember. Paint themselves blue to scare folks.”

The others all nodded their agreement. Graeme set his hand to Afton’s shoulder.

“I heard it from Lord Wulfgar himself when I took the job. The Blue Bones took them by surprise. Killed his man-at-arms, that much is true. But the man he tossed in the fire is dead, and the lord has the keep surrounded. He doesn’t have the manpower to storm the place without risking some of them getting away, so he’s sending us in to do the wet work.”

“And reap the reward,” added Oswin, slamming his knife into the wooden table, “they’ll be crashing from their high by the time we reach them. Easy pickings.”

Graeme chose to leave the bulk of their traveling gear in the innkeeper’s care, their mounts included, so the crew made the journey to the keep on foot. Dawn had seen them to the base of the hill on which the lord’s family had laid their stake in the land generations ago. It was an old family; they rested their heads in the remains of a once great tower leftover from the time when man-made wonders were commonplace. Only three stories of the structure had survived the test of time, but their origins were unmistakable.

“Halt, there,” yelled a guard at the keep’s gate, “there is to be no entry into his lordship’s dwelling without official permission.”

Graeme pulled out a small metal disk inscribed with the lord’s family crest from his pocket and showed it to the guard.

“Permission enough for you?” he asked.

The guard paled and nodded his head.

“Gods help you,” he muttered, “Open the gate!”

A trio of men worked to turn a large drum with protruding arms at the side of the entrance. They were well-suited to the task, and before long the gate stood open.

Once inside the signs of a struggle were immediate. Hanging bars of light highlighted the overturned busts and broken bits of priceless artifacts scattered across the front gallery as the entrance closed behind them.

“All this beautiful loot. Trashed. My heart can’t take it,” said Chuff, his massive hand clutching his chest in feigned agony.

“Yes, my friend, I feel your pain,” said Oswin, joining in on the theatrics with his own exaggerated sorrow.

“You can buy as many pretty ornaments as you like once this job’s done,” said Graeme.

 Afton sulked along behind the others, his mind marking each broken thing as a testament to his fears. Chuff gestured towards him.

“We’ll have to get something to cheer him up, too,” he laughed.

“I’ll be fine once this is over,” said Afton.

Chuff shrugged and the men moved on to the main chamber. Inside even more destruction met them, and the smell of burned flesh wafted across their noses.

“That’d be the burned man, then,” said Graeme, pointing to the pile of bones on the still smoldering fire at the center, “nothing extraordinary about him.”

“But where are all the bandits,” asked Afton.

“Wulfgar said they locked themselves in on the top floor. We’ll have to take that stairway on the far side to get there and use this disk to get inside,” said Graeme, holding up the disk from earlier.

“I still don’t understand it. Why would trained soldiers be so afraid of a few bandits,” asked Afton.

“Listen, Afton, there’s a difference between a trained soldier and a green houseguard. Wulfgar’s best men are out fighting the Vega tribes on the Barren Plains, and these lot all just saw their leader killed by a group of blue bombe crazed lunatics,” said Oswin.

“Right. You saw that guard go pale when we showed ‘em the insignia. They’re all your age. Hell, probably younger. Got the idea in their heads that they’re up against something inhuman and it spooked ‘em. Their lord hired us to save face,” added Chuff.

“There’ll be no more discussion on this, Afton. Either follow us or leave,” said Graeme.

Afton hesitated for a moment, but as the men reached the stairwell he decided to throw his lot back in with them. They’d been there for him for years, so he felt compelled to do the same.

When Graeme slid the disk into a slot at the top of the stairs, a click sounded and the door swung outward. A screech greeted the men when they entered and the door latched itself into place. The silhouette of a man with his head hunched over resolved in front of them, and when the lights cut on they stood before a skeleton with shimmering blue bones.

“Hells, Afton. You were right,” said Chuff.

“It’s not human,” said Oswin.

The skeleton’s head lurched up, catching at a slight angle, and it let out a roar of dissonant sounds as it lurched towards them. Graeme charged forward, leading Oswin and Chuff, but Afton stood frozen in place. When Graeme reached the undead creature it absorbed his blow without any signs of distress.

“What the hell are you,” Graeme asked.

The creature turned its head towards him and shot its arm through his chest faster than any living man could have managed. Graeme’s body crumpled to the floor. Oswin and Chuff spread out and Oswin stopped short of the creature.

“You bastard,” roared Chuff, swinging his ax wide as he approached it. His head rolled to the floor before the ax reached its target. Oswin turned to Afton.

“Get out of here kid,” he said.

The door wouldn’t budge, and the disk was still in Graeme’s pocket, next to Blue Bones. Afton ran to a door on the opposite side of the room with Oswin covering his escape. There were no windows in the room, and no other way out, but when Afton went to leave he was hit with a crippling headache.

Wait. Come over here.

“Who is that,” asked Afton, the headache subsiding.

I can help you. That creature outside this room, it’s looking for me. It wants to kill me.

“What do you mean? Why do I hear you in my head?”

I’m a weapon. From what you call the time of wonders. Look at the box on top of the desk.

Afton found the box the voice told him about.

Good. Now, I’ve already overridden the safety…the lock to respond to you. Just place your palm on the glass to open it.

Afton did as the voice asked. A warm sensation flowed through his body as he put his palm to the glass and the box opened for him. Inside was a strange translucent crystal filled with specs that glowed with a faint green light.

The…amulet you see before you is what you need to defeat the creature you call Blue Bones. On his back is a space where you can strike true and send his soul back into the abyss of hell from whence he was spawned. But you must be ready to sacrifice everything for it.

Sweat trickled down Afton’s face, but something about the amulet’s voice made him feel invincible. His feelings of terror were gone, wholely replaced by the certainty that he could kill the monster outside the door.

Back in the main room, Oswin and Blue Bones still stood in their same spots. Neither man nor monster had moved an inch while Afton was gone.

Steady. Stay quiet and it won’t hear you.

Oswin glanced at Afton, but Afton shook his head and pointed to Blue Bones with the amulet. Oswin shot him a worried look, but he nodded slightly and moved further to the creature’s side.
“Hey, ugly, are you just going to stand there all night, or are you gonna finish the job?” he asked.

Blue Bones continued to track Oswin as Afton snuck up behind him.

The shape outlined in red on his back, can you see it? That’s his weak spot.

“Yes, I see it,” answered Afton.

Blue Bones turned as Afton lurched forward, but the amulet was set in place. Blue Bones’ splayed fingers were centimeters from his face when his glowing red eyes went out and he collapsed to the ground.

“We did it,” said Oswin, “We really did it.”

Afton laughed in relief and the two men embraced.

“I just wish we had listened to you. Graeme and Chuff didn’t have to die,” said Oswin.

Yes, they did.

Three fingertips protruded and then retracted from Oswin’s skull before his body fell to the floor next to Graeme’s.

Blue Bones stood in front of Afton, trapped between the creature and an unyielding door.

Thank you for reuniting my body and mind. I thought I would be trapped in that box for another millennium.

Afton tried to run, but Blue Bones grabbed him with a strength that would have made Chuff seem like a child. Blue Bones looked him up and down for a moment

That’s really nice skin you have.


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

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

*

Broken King by Sean Crow

“Alright,” Jarek said as they came upon the hive-like structure jutting up from the fetid marshlands. “We’re here.”

“Reeks like a bloody latrine, Captain,” Liam said, the young messenger holding a kerchief over his mouth and nose as he peered at the strange structure.

“That’s Skinnies,” Borris offered. “They nest like this when it gets cold.” The hulking sergeant pointed the nub of his index finger where mucus covered holes in the structure were. “See them? Nasty bastards let their waste trickle out and rot along these bottoms. Toxic shit. Same stuff they coat their limbs in before hunting.”

Liam took a few steps back, doing his best to keep from vomiting but failing the moment a small flow of excrement dripped out. Borris chuckled along with a few of the bodyguard Borris insisted upon. 

Skinnies, or Skinless Assassins as the storytellers call them, were something of a nightmare for people in these parts. A smart man would burn a hive the moment he found it, which is exactly what Jarek intended to do, once he tossed the dice.

There were artifacts in the world from forgotten eras. Many hidden or guarded when the Empire was at the pinnacle of her might. Yet when the Witch Queen unleashed the Curse, crippling the world power and slaughtering those who ruled, those prized possessions became ripe for the taking. The Witch Queen had collected many, but for those like Jarek who wanted to forge a new world from the remnants of the old, a sharp eye allowed for the acquisition of such artifacts.

Today, he would test one.  

“Wipe your mouth and tell King it’s time,” Jarek told Liam.

The messenger did as requested, happy to put some distance between himself and the stench. The boy jogged to the end of their small column, the fourteen men Sergeant Borris brought along as a bodyguard, until he reached the man sitting on a fallen tree, his back to the hive. Jarek couldn’t hear what was said between them, but he watched King nod to the boy and stand.

Standing just at six feet, King was not the biggest warrior Jarek had seen. He did not swagger or strut, but the manner in which he moved drew eyes. There was power within the man.. A proud bearing that no boasting could replicate. The pulsating amulet over his heart only amplified his presence.

Jarek watched his old foe approach.

“Jarek,” King said.

There was no subservience in the words. Ironic, Jarek thought, considering King would serve Jarek’s will long after he passed from the world. 

The amulet would see to that.

Jarek nodded. “Still think you’ll be up to the task?”

King squinted up at the hive tower and Jarek could almost see the wheels of King’s mind turning. Without a word, the man walked around the structure, hand tapping the hilt of the heavy falchion on his hip. All the while, the amulet embedded in his chest pulsed with every heartbeat. It was a slow, steady pulse, one Jarek envied. Not for the power the amulet gave, for it was just as much of a prison as it was a gift, but for the calm the man was able to master.

“Just one?” King asked.

Borris snorted. Jarek had seen Borris take on a Skinny once. An ugly affair that nearly resulted in the sergeant’s death, but then, the northman was notoriously hard to kill.

“Aye,” Jarek said. “Just one.” 

This was the first time Jarek had called upon King since defeating his army on the field of battle. King had made his stand where his banner fell and Jarek had called off his men, offering the once powerful noble a choice. Either fall on the field, a grim task considering the death toll bound to follow, or King could swear fealty to Jarek and his soldiers would go free.

Jarek’s allies, at the time, had cursed him something fierce, but payment had already been fulfilled and he met the exact wording of his contract. 

It wasn’t his fault his former employers hadn’t concerned themselves with the specifics.

“Borris,” Jarek called.

The hulking northman dismounted and offered King a small vial. “Drink it after you’re stabbed. It’ll dilute the poison and keep it from locking you limbs down. Kept me alive after my run in with one a few years back.”

King took it. “I am in your debt.”

Borris shrugged. “No debt between us. One day, you and I will cross blades and finish what we started. Can’t fulfill that if you’re rotting in a Skinny hive.”

King held Borris’ gaze and nodded. 

They had faced one another on the battlefield once before and neither had come away from that exchange without scars. Jarek had seen many champions face off, but the duel between those two had been something else. The sheer size and power the two were capable of made their conflict something of a tale unto itself all those years ago.

Jarek eyed the structure and removed his single shot carbine from his saddle sheath. Opening the barrel, he slid a cartridge in before glancing over to King. “I’ll give you an hour. After that, I’m burning the hive down and everything in it.”

King nodded and, without a word more, entered the largest opening of the hive and was soon gone from sight.

Borris turned from the entrance and approached. “We could have put a team together to go with him. A Skinny is no meek prey.”

Jarek shook his head. “Aye, could have.”

“I barely made it,” Borris continued. “Void be damned, it was more luck than skill that kept me alive.”

“I remember,” the captain said. “Just as I remember passing town after town of starving villagers. I remember seeing packs of children trying to collect bugs just to have something to eat after his soldiers took every ounce of food they possessed. We saw the aftermath of his greed and the suffering of his people. Only fitting that he pays for it now.”

Borris said nothing and Jarek’s good mood vanished. If King survived and the amulet worked, then he would turn his broken villain into a valuable tool. Should King fail…

Well, Jarek thought, then the thousands of starving dead could rest in peace knowing that their killer had suffered.

*****

Maker preserve him, it reeked, King thought as he moved through the ankle deep liquid covering the lower portion of the hive. The acrid stink filled his nostrils, making his eyes water, but he pressed on.

What was one more penance for his sins?

Falchion drawn he scanned the otherworldly structure. Bone white hexagonal shapes made up the walls, reminding King of tendons in a body while a thick layer of mucus glistened along the walls. 

It was suicide, going against a Skinless Assassin. They simply moved too fast and their poison was vile beyond the pale. Men who died from it did not go quietly.

King took the small vial that Borris had given him, popped it in his mouth and cheeked it. Knowing how fast Skinnies could be, King was all too aware that he would have no time to uncork the tiny vial. When he was stabbed, for there would be no avoiding it, he would bite down and worry about removing the glass shards from his mouth later.

For a moment King wondered if Jarek intended for him to die here. There was no love lost between them, and yet Jarek still offered him a chance at life. 

No, King thought, his life was over. Jarek had allowed for lives of his men to be saved.

Had it only been King’s life on the line he would have died on the field. Death was but a gift of rest from the Maker to Her faithful. When the offer was made King could see the glimmer of hope in the otherwise grim faces of his remaining soldiers. Yet not one of his remaining officers voiced their desire to quit. If he had asked it of them, they would have laid down their lives, to the last.

In that moment, Alexander Donnay, the man who would be Emperor, surrendered and became King.

A splash sounded behind and King whirled to face it. Only ripples remained in the filth around his feet, and his eyes scanned for any sign of movement. Nothing revealed itself, and as his eyes traveled along the hive, he noticed a chunk of the ceiling had been cut out.

It was a trap.

King was already turning and swinging his sword when the first talon entered him. A sharp strike followed by three which more punched clean through his chainmail. King nearly lost his footing as the poison caused his muscles to contract. Throwing the Skinny off, King bit down on the vial, the glass stabbing into his gums as the acidic contents burned the opened wounds in his mouth. Continuing his turn, there was a flash of white as the Skinny attempted to pull away from his descending sword. The edged nicked a chuck out of his carapace before redirecting into one of its four skeletal arms, severing it at the elbow. 

The Skinny shrieked and skittered away, using all four arms to crawl along the wall where King couldn’t follow. The rapid flashes of the amulet in his chest matched the laboring of his heart as the poison worked through him. Even with the vial, the wounds in him were likely too deep and severe to counter.

He watched his killer as it continued to crawl along the edges of its hive. Its pale white carapace reminded King of a man with his bones outside his body. As it moved the Skinny swiped a talon across the mucus lining of the walls.

That when King realized it wasn’t alone.

Frail, bone white hands reached out from the mucus lining. Premature young were being released, malformed, but quick to recover as they tumbled into the pooling liquid. 

The flicker of the amulet began to slow and King realized that, even if he managed to kill his target, he wouldn’t leave this place alive.

Then the light from the amulet intensified.

 Consume, it whispered, drawing King’s attention to the Skinny’s severed limb.

There was something intriguing in the voice, for with one word, it conveyed a promise of power undreamed of by men. It showed him how, even in servitude, his name could echo through the vast halls of time.

Should he be worthy enough…

As the Skinny and its brood neared, King picked up the limb. Quickly severing a finger, he set the digit into the small opening of the amulet. The beating intensified, becoming so bright that the Skinnies screeched and backed away. Yet theirs was a fragile cry when compared to the shifting of bone and guttural screams coming from King.

*****

“The job is finished,” King said, a hollow resonance in his voice faintly echoing the words he spoke.

Jarek had watched the man, if he could still be called that, as he exited the hive, the screams from before having gone silent. 

The structure of King’s face, once broad and noble, had taken an angular appearance. In fact, the big man had become thinner altogether and stood with a stillness that Jarek had only seen in mountain cats before the pounce… Or Skinnies lying in wait. Puncture holes could be seen in the mail hauberk he wore, but no blood issued from them.

“I see,” Jarek said. “And is King still the man I am speaking to, or has the being awakened?”

King reached into his mouth and pulled out a long piece of glass. Staring at it, much like a bird of prey, and King eventually looked up. “We are both.”

Jarek smiled, content his gamble had paid off. Yet as he watched King, he couldn’t help notice the utter lack of humanity in his eyes.

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

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

*


Amulet by Frank Dorrian

The Magnate’s chamber doors swung open. A waterfall of grey smoke spewed out between them, so thick and perfumed it sunk immediately to the floor, coiling about Talavain’s boots. He stepped into the gloom beyond without waiting to be summoned.

The smoke stung his eyes, neither its heady scent nor the mask about his face able to hide the tang of disease that lingered beneath it. A vast bed squatted at the chamber’s end, heaped with cushions. Its occupant stirred at Talavain’s approach, gluttonous bulk shifting behind the smoke’s curtain. Lithe shapes detached themselves from the shadows either side of the bed, robes swishing as they moved to bar Talavain’s path.

Thralls.

Their weapons chimed – Runeglaives crackling into vicious life as their wielders sunk into defensive stances about the Magnate’s bed, their curved blades dancing with rainbowed lights and glowing symbols of arcane power.

Talavain froze, instinct moving his hands to the blades beneath his long coat. A faint creak of floorboards – one was behind him, close and utterly silent – likely with one of the envenomed needles Magnate Steilward’s Thralls liked to employ a hair’s breadth from his spine.

The Magnate’s bulk shifted irritably, bed creaking. ‘Stand down you flaccid cucks – stand down! He’s already in the room, for fuck’s sake!’ The Thralls withdrew as one back to their positions in the shadows, Rune-lights fading. Talavain eased, hands lingering upon his blades until he was certain the creature at his back had retreated.

‘You’re late, assassin,’ the Magnate wheezed, phlegm-filled throat rattling. His eyes glittered rat-like through the gloom, blood-coloured beads. Talavain could feel the pudgy old bastard appraising him, sure as an uncut stone. A habit of the Magnates. A value and price for everything and everyone.

‘I am never late,’ Talavain answered. Steilward made a coughing noise that might have been a laugh, fat arms shuddering as he tried to push himself upright. A robed Thrall scurried from the shadows, insectile and precise as it swept over the bed, hauling its master into position. ‘What do you want from me, Magnate?’

‘Straight to the point!’ Steilward wheezed, fat finger waving. ‘Never a man for bullshit! Always liked that about you, assassin. Business before banter!’ His beady eyes narrowed, bared teeth gleaming red, grinding with the noise of crunching granite. ‘I have been robbed, Talavain.’

‘How awful.’

‘Don’t take the piss out of me, assassin,’ Steilward hissed. His Thralls bristled in their hiding places, shrouded jaws clicking. ‘One of the ungrateful little fucks in my household’s employ has taken something of great value from me. An amulet – a relic of forsaken Elenyr. I want it returned to my collection, and the little cunt found floating in the Shit Rivers outside Nebara Market!’

The Magnate’s bed shuddered as his Thrall helped him slam a fist into the wall. Talavain nodded, the sereth amber Steilward had burning in the bedside censure beginning to nip at the edges of his wit. ‘Name?’

‘Larrad Hellimor,’ the Magnate wheezed. ‘Formerly a junior beancounter in my tax wing.’

‘That’s all I need. My usual fee applies.’

Steilward nodded, a bloody grimace twisting his face behind the smoke, sweat sheening his hanging jowls and sagging tits. ‘Stalk him. Tear him apart. His family, too, if you find whatever rat’s den they’ve scurried into. Return my treasure to me.’

There had been a time, once, when Talavain’s blade had been an arbiter of fate. When he had changed the tides of war with a few artful strokes across the right throats – spared thousands by slaughtering a few. A time when his name had emperors sweating and shivering and shitting their beds at a shadow’s twitch, or the whisper of cloth beyond their door. He had duelled blades with the grim Silent Wardens of the Forlorn Archive, and not only prevailed, but robbed them of their most secret and precious tomes of knowledge.

He had been the Knife of Vostarra, and assassin of kings.

Now… now, he was just Talavain, an enforcer for the Vostarran Republic’s Magnate class in the wake of their revolution to, as they sold it: free the common man from the yoke of kings.

The yoke of coin seemed little different than what had come before, truth be told, except now he was just a rat-killer for bloodsuckers and rich bastards.

Talavain stepped from the shadows into the street, through Old Yarvael city’s quickening night, and toward the hovel clinging to the arse of a merchant’s basement storehouse. His boot shattered the lock and sent the door thundering inward, a woman’s screams hiding the whisk of his knives leaving their sheaths. Her shadow scurried into the corner of the tiny room, dragging her half-asleep children with her as Talavain swept in with the wrath of days long gone, blades gleaming.

‘Before you die, woman, you will tell me where Larrad is, or you will watch these children bleed.’

Talavain crouched upon the temple’s spire, watching the moon rise bloody over the towers and rooftops of Yarvael’s merchant district. The place was an endless jumble of towering stone, faded bronze, and the withered glories of better times. Fog churned thick through the streets below, hiding gutters that brimmed with filth, obscuring the skulking bodies ambling through the murk. A perfect hiding place for the sereth addicts, leaf-peddlers, and muggers that did business here when the Magnates had retired for the evening.

Perfect place for a thief to lurk, too, supposing Larrad’s wife had spoken true that he’d come here to sell Steilward’s amulet on the Night Markets.

Talavain produced the handkerchief he’d taken from her, holding it between thumb and forefinger. Larrad’s, she’d said. He slipped off the glove on his other hand and yanked down his mask. Wincing, he bit the corner of his thumb and drew blood, daubing it upon the handkerchief, tracing the Rune of Seeking. A trick he’d stolen from the Silent Wardens. It flickered into life, smouldering with bloody light.

Talavain’s vision reduced to a rush of crimson motion as the streets of the merchant district raced past, every twist and turn setting his stomach lurching. A sudden stop nearly snatched him from the temple’s spire – the Rune’s half-formed vision halting near the crumbling Royal Hammerhall on the district’s edge. A bloody pulse flooded one of the narrow alleys running its flank, swelling to the beating of a fearful heart.

There you are, rat.

The Rune’s vision shattered, and the handkerchief burst into flames between Talavain’s fingers. Scattered the embers to the night, he hopped down to the rooftops below, leaping across them toward the Hammerhall’s tumorous silhouette.

His mark was close.

Talavain dropped down into the alley’s mouth. Ripping his blades from their sheaths, he strode into the fog.

‘Larrad Hellimor!’ he roared. ‘You have something that belongs to my employer! Show yourself and surrender it, and this will be over swiftly!’ Silence answered him. ‘Larrad!

A groan came shuddering through the fog. ‘Take it…’

Talavain stopped, craning his ear, trying to pinpoint where the thief’s voice had from. The murk about him was thickening with the cooling air. ‘Get out here, before I drag you from whatever shithole you’ve dug yourself!’

‘Take it from me…’

Talavain spun, blades at the ready as a figure came lurching through the fog at his side. A man stumbled toward him, bollock naked, reaching with crooked arms. His limbs were jagged, twisted – as if broken and healed a dozen times over. Skin and flesh sloughed from his form in stinking, rotting ropes, trailing like the ooze-clotted bandages of a plague victim.

‘It wants my family…’ The skinless man took another shuffling step on a clubbed foot stripped almost to the bone. ‘It wants me to feed them to it… take it from me!

He leapt at Talavain with a scream and unnatural burst of speed. Talavain stepped to the side, blades plunging through the freak’s ribs in a spray of dark blood, deep enough to pierce the heart. It should have been an instant kill, yet the man turned, crooked hands grasping at Talavain’s arms. Lidless eyes filled his vision, filmed with blood, full of sorrow. ‘Take it! Take it! Take it!’

Talavain gave a roar as oozing hands tried to pin him, his blades a storm of flashing steel as he hacked and sliced at the diseased bastard’s chest and arms, the rending of flesh swallowing his endless chanting. With a final scream, he drove both blades into the fucker’s gut, lifting him from the ground and slamming him down on his back with an eye-watering crunch.

Silence fell, leaden, the alley’s fog laced with blood, every heaving breath Talavain took thick with the stink of it, eyes stinging. A sliver of moonlight glinted upon something around the dead man’s neck. A polished teardrop stone, its shade deep as an ocean at night, fixed in a frame of delicate silver wire, thread upon a fine chain.

Steilward’s amulet.

He plucked it carefully from the corpse’s neck. Rising, Talavain eyed the body at his feet. It had to be Larrad Hellimor – but what the fuck had happened to him? He was barely human anymore – even without being torn open, he was as rotted and broken as any battlefield corpse.

A light awoke in Talavain’s fist.

He opened his hand, wincing at the brightness within. The amulet was glowing, spewing out an aquamarine light. Something moved at its heart – a flicker of impurity, like an eye glimpsed through filthy glass. Talavain bolted as black tendrils shot through the gaps in the silver wire, fastening themselves about his wrists and throat, the amulet holding itself afloat. His boots scraped earth as the tendrils tightened and dragged him toward it, their very touch cold-blazing agony, the flesh about them bubbling black. Talavain tried to scream, choking as the tendrils about his neck tightened again. A voice – deep, beyond human – slithered past his ear.

You will bring me another, Talavain, or I will devour you whole.

Steilward awoke as his chamber door rattled on its hinges. He blinked, thoughts trickling like syrup from the sereth amber smoke still oozing from the censure beside him. His Thralls were clicking in the depths of their robes, rushing through the gloom into defensive positions. Runeglaives crackled into life.

‘What…’

His chamber door exploded in a volley of splinters. Steilward yelped as one stabbed him in the cheek, searing despite the sereth-numbness. A bent shape came stumbling through the smoke and gloom, screaming as if every lurching step was agony. Between the milling limbs of his Thralls, Steilward caught a glimpse of a ragged tricorn hat and long coat.

Fucking Talavain! Insolent, turncoat little bastard!

‘It’s the assassin!’ Steilward wheezed, wriggling himself upright. ‘Kill him, you worthless bastards! Don’t let him near me! Kill him!’

A Thrall fell hissing, thrashing, its clawed fingers grasping at the bloody hole in its chest. Talavain leapt over it toward Steilward with a puppet’s jagged grace and a harrowing roar. A Thrall lunged from the side, its Runeglaive punching through Talavain’s side in a shower of multicoloured sparks and smoking flesh. The assassin’s left hand shot out, corpse-stiff, and the Thrall fell screeching with a knife lodged in its collarbone.

‘Fuck me!’ Steilward tried to roll off the bed as Talavain leapt onto it between his legs, the ruin of the assassin’s face made bare by the weak light. Beneath the thug’s tricorn hat, a fleshless skull leered open-mouthed, oozing blood and rot, lidless eyes wild with pain.

‘Thralls! Thralls!’ Steilward threw a pleading hand between them, trying to drag himself off the bed, his wounded Thralls dragged themselves to their feet. Talavain knelt over him, flayed hands knotting in the rolls of Steilward’s neck.

‘I have your amulet, you fat fuck,’ the assassin hissed. An aquamarine light awoke about his neck, Steilward’s Thralls screeching and fleeing through the broken doors. Black tendrils shot out and fastened themselves about the Magnate’s wrists and face, silencing his squeals.



Judge #1
Worldbuilding: 5
Characters: 4
Plot: 5
Enjoyment: 5
Total: 19

Judge #2
Worldbuilding: 5
Characters: 5
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 18