July 2022 Semi-Finalist Stories, Grimdark Story World Cup 2022

Welcome to the Semi-Finalists for the Grimdark Story Battle Royale 2022! 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 July 2022

1. A Writhing Wall

2. A Forbidden Dance

3. A Missing Tongue

4. An Insect Plague

5. A Melted Hero

Ache for a Heart by Joe Coates

“There’s not much of a story to this,” the Reaper sitting in the driver’s seat of the van said, “but there might be a lesson in it. There was an industrial investigation that I worked where a guy got his arm caught in a lathe—a steel lathe.”
“Lathe?”
“Well, that’s what they claimed.”
“Right.”
“And we got there, and what it had done was it’d ripped the meat from the inside of his elbow to his wrist. Had torn that whole chunk of meat out. Right off the bone. Like a massive steak. And that was just sitting on the ground. Blood all through the filings and shavings and everything. And that was a bugger of a job because there was also oil in it. Blood and oil. But I ended up sorting that out, only… Well, I’d quoted them five-fifty, and they wouldn’t give me any more than two-hundred creds for the job.”
“Really?” the young woman occupying the passenger asked, incredulity slightly exaggerated, as any novitiate’s should be.
“Yeah.”
“There is a lesson there,” the young woman said.
“Yeah?” the driver asked.
“Oldest one there is.”
“Go on.”
“People,” the woman said, “are, invariably, cunts.”
The two Reapers—pay-per-hour detectives that the Last City grudgingly hired to solve its more heinous, embarrassing, or public murders—sat in silence for a moment. Both of them, the rangy veteran and the short, prickly greenhorn, stared out of the front of van, as the hydrogen fuel-cell engine idled almost silently, gazing at the grisly scene illuminated by the headlights.
“Kind of wish we hadn’t stopped off for ice-creams before we took the call,” the tall man said. “Seems a little fucked up now.”
“I needed a sugar hit,” the young woman replied defensively.
The driver looked at himself in the rearview mirror, at the bags forming under the bags under his eyes. He looked like he’d been punched. He felt like he’d been punched. His body ached for sleep even as his mind reviled the notion for the dreams it would bring. He fingered the little packet of Dwarven flake in his pocket. Straight from the subterranean labs in the Sawatch Range. Dwarves had been great miners, but they were even better chemists. He switched his tired, cynical gaze to his new partner.
Her dark hair, cut pragmatically short, spilled across her ice-chip eyes. She pushed it back out of the way, tucking a few of the longer strands behind her ears. On the back of her right hand a crooked line with an arrowhead at one end was tattooed. On the left, a simple arch with teeth on the underside of the curve had been inked.
One of the Nix, he noted.
“Still,” the man said, rubbing at his stubble-covered head with his spare hand. “Doesn’t strike the professional note, does it?”
It was that long, secret hour that preceded the dawn. The hour for black deeds and dark secrets, when the sun took a deep breath before it dragged its arse over the horizon and seared itself like a brand into the sullen underbellies of the clouds that hung over the high buildings. Late, or, technically, early, as it was in the Last City of Denver, the pavements were still crowded.
In the passenger seat of the stationary van, the young woman stared out of the window and into the door mirror, her face cut into opaque lines and hard, black plains by the neon lights reflected in the glass. Outside the acrylic-coated ballistic glass, the nocturnal denizens swirled and fluxed; amoeba running riot over the mother of all Petri dishes. She watched the streams of people passing the mouth of the cordoned off alleyway the van was parked in. She hated the crowds. Hated what they embodied, hated the secrets they hid. But she recognised she needed them too. There was nothing like a crowd to grate, like a knife along a whet stone, the frustration and rage at how your life had panned out.
For years, the politicians that had come and gone—often to gaol—had stuck to the tired line that the supernatural population of the city were really ‘one united community’, pulling together. Had slipped into that theme again and again like a favourite pair of worn, comfortable boots. Even after all the shit they had suffered; the dust storms, the warlock uprising, the caustic rains three months earlier, and, most recently, the plague of scarab beetles.
One united community.
A bunch of good old boys and girls putting the civil in civilisation.
Civilisation.
The woman in the back of the van had often heard tell of that unicorn, but she was yet to see it.
“What a mess,” the man called Noose, on account of the thick scar that ran around his throat, said. “I’ve seen some messes over the years, but this…”
“It’s up there, is it?” the young woman asked.
Noose considered that.
“Yeah, Mads,” he said eventually, “I’d say this is right up there at the top.”
They lapsed into silence again. Then, Noose cursed.
“What?” Mads asked.
Noose was rubbing at the front of his shock suit, the body armour that Reapers wore under their trademark long coats. It was constructed from five thin sheets of kevlar, the middle layer of which was soaked with a special shear thickening fluid that hardened in the blink of an eye when it underwent an impact or sudden stress. Essentially, a shock suit moved like cloth, until it had to stop a slug or a shank or a spell, when it transformed into tungsten.
“Damn ice-cream is melting,” he said.
“Everyone knows you can’t muck around eating a Hero,” Mads said reproachfully, as she popped the last of her cone into her mouth. “There’s no savouring them. That’s why they’re so moreish.”
Noose touched the door-release panel. “Time we took a closer look anyway,” he said, as the door hissed upwards. He wrinkled his nose. “Fuck, I can smell the witchery from here.”
As the two Reapers exited the vehicle their boots crunched on the carpet of dead scarab beetles. Even to Mad’s inexperienced ears, it sounded like they were walking on bones. They gazed upwards.
Across the side of the warehouse—spread across it—were the remnants of the beautiful, taught body of a goldskin; a she-elf. She’d been encased in some kind of caustic goo. It had solidified around her, glueing her on display, whilst simultaneously dissolving her. In places, organs glistened wetly, trembling. Chunks of flesh were missing from her thighs. The white points of her ribcage and collar bones gleamed in the secondhand light entering the alley from the street.
“What,” Mads said, looking up at the warehouse wall and the quivering, spasming, moaning she-elf spread across it, “could do something like that?”
“Whatever it is,” Noose said, “it was hungry.”

* * *

The Song rose from the depths of his confused and pain-racked mind the moment he laid his eyes on the goldskin. It couldn’t have come at a less opportune time really, but then the universe was a callous thing with a wicked sense of humour and he’d long since decided to hate it rather than try to understand it.
For a moment, the hunger writhed in him, caught in the white-hot space between the hammer and the powder, between who he’d been and what he was. The gentle strumming pull of The Song that only he could hear, that he both hated and loved, that heralded the eon-old dance between predator and prey, welled in his chest and groin.
The fact that she was a goldskin, and the dance forbidden by the oldest Laws, left him suddenly feeling more like the belly of the beast than the knife that was to plunge into it.
He remembered, back when he’d first started working the conjurations into himself, before the addiction had taken hold, when The Song had been like a kind of prayer. Like a hallowed obsecration that he’d been able to summon in the atmosphere. It had brought him power. Freedom. And then a terrible, insatiable hunger. Remembering that, as he felt the acid glands in his throat swelling in anticipation, mirrored by the heat in his crotch, made him ache for his heart like some tin man.
Hunched in his oversized hoody, he was invisible in the crowd. He’d always been invisible, even when he was on his own. That had been the problem.
He picked up his pace and shoved the she-elf into the gaping sable mouth of the alleyway before she even knew he was there. She struggled and lashed out with a dagger of glass, but his once feeble muscles were teak-hard now. Engorged with the bloodlust coursing through his changed, deformed flesh.
As the dagger broke against his malformed bicep, he pondered on what a marvellous self-fulfilling prophecy the world had become. Theirs was a society that gave its disillusioned people all kinds of reasons to be discontented, but at least it then manufactured, advertised and handed them the perfect drugs to take that discontent away.
That was what had set him apart. He had crafted his own antidote to the horror that was his insignificant life. He had found a way to matter.
The goldskin lashed out with a spinning kick, but he was already out of the way before her boot passed through the space his face had been occupying only a second before. He hit her then, a soft blow that left red blood smeared across her face in the parody of a smile.
The Song thrilled in him as he felt the bones of her sternum crack under his next blow. He sent her flying down the alley. A spray of dead beetles went up as she skidded across the concrete on her back.
The Song built to a crescendo inside of him as his mutated jaw extended, revealing a tongueless mouth.
The she-elf screamed then, as the acid boiled from his throat and blasted her off her feet, pinning her to the wall of the warehouse. Rendering. Burning.
Later, as he began to feed on her bubbling, still-living flesh, Leto tried humming The Song, but it had already left him.
* * *

Looking over her shoulder down the length of the alley, Mads could see a fifteen-foot tall mechanised aug now parked in its mouth, manned by one of the private security personnel. It was a mean-looking piece of gear that’d been designed for civil construction projects, but had quickly found a more lucrative home in the private security sector. Nothing dispersed a riot like a half dozen badge-wearing thugs piloting augs, each of which was capable of tearing a car in half.
“You’ve got a look of fiery intensity in your eye, Noose,” she said, trying to keep things light in spite of what was in front of them.
“A urinary tract infection has fiery intensity,” he replied sourly.
Mads pulled a face.
“The elf ain’t dead,” Noose said, distaste etching his words. “Ain’t got long, though.”
“No,” Mads said. “No, I’d say as far as this goldskin’s fate goes, the writhing is on the wall.”
Noose looked across the hood of the van at his new partner. Then he tossed his ice-cream cone aside and shook his head.
“Have some decency, why don’t you?” the lanky man said, wrapping his long coat around his skinny frame, concealing his shock suit and the cryopistol he had hanging on his belt.
“Decency?” Mads scoffed. “In this city? And how do go about judging that? With what instrument do you measure it?”
“We’re the fucking instruments,” Noose snapped.
He looked up at the jellied mass that had once been an elf, spread across the wall of the warehouse like discarded pâté. It had stopped twitching and rasping. Finally.
“She’s dead,” he sighed.
“Immortal my arse,” Mads sniffed.
“That’s what scares the shit out of me,” Noose said. “Now, let’s go to work.”

*

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


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

*
One Man’s Treasure by K.L. Schwengel

Shellaht toed the rancid, gloppy mass on the rough floor in the center of the chamber, a look of disgust wrinkling her smooth face. “Is that…” She bent slightly to get a better look without moving any closer than necessary. “It looks like…”
Pedra glanced distractedly over one shoulder and signed something to me, then went back to studying the runes scribed across the wall, her torch light dancing with the darkness surrounding us.
“It’s Bensnach,” I said, without emotion, breathing through an open mouth to avoid the stench that had been burning my nostril hairs before we’d gotten even half-way down the rough-hewn stairs from the upper tunnels.
Shellaht’s face paled and she turned away, a gloved hand covering her mouth. I never would have guessed the mage would get so squeamish over a corpse. 
“Bensnach was the Hero of Temtalli,” Shellaht said. “If he fell in the doing of the task, what hope is there for us?”
I settled my fists on my hips and cocked a look at the other woman. “Bensnach was no more a hero than I. Less so, and that’s not ego talking, purely a matter of fact. If anything, I’d say he was luckier than I. Until now that is.”
Shellaht frowned. “It is unwise to speak ill of the dead, Vanisse.”
“Pah! What do you expect? He’ll leap up and throttle me?” In truth, it wouldn’t be the first time a corpse attempted murder on me. Perhaps not one so thoroughly… melted, but the act was not without precedent. “He was a selfish sot, attempting this on his own. He”s done us a favor when you think of it. He triggered whatever trap we may have stumbled across. That could have been one of us lying there.” I thought on that a moment. “Huh. What do you know? I guess he was a hero, after all.”
“An.” It was the best Pedra could do for my name being that most of her tongue was missing. Cut out by the same man we were currently working for, as it happened: Chen-chen Wansye, self-proclaimed emperor of the Ninth Kingdom, an overbearing, pretentious ass as evidenced by both the title and the designation of a tiny, dung-walled city in the corner of the Waste as any kind of kingdom. He paid well, though, and I had never been one to let someone else’s ego affect the contents of my purse which, at the moment, was sadly lacking.
Pedra had never told me why she lost her tongue. Chen-chen was a sadistic bastard and known to enjoy nothing more than a bit of torture but why he had turned on Pedra who, once upon a time had been a trusted advisor, was the subject of many a rumor and much debate. The most popular story had to do with a tinker’s daughter Chen-chen had taken a liking to. The girl was, from all reports, highly skilled in the snake veil, an erotic dance forbidden in the actual empire. Chen-chen recognized no laws but his own, however, and demanded the girl perform for him. When Pedra spoke up on the girl’s behalf, Chen-chen took offense and her tongue. Then he took the girl and had her father watch before executing them both.
I had asked Pedra about it, but she refused to confirm the tale. That spoke of its truth as far as I was concerned.
I skirted the puddle that had been Bensnach to join our petit, dusky-skinned guide. Pedra moved her hands and fingers in a blindingly rapid series of signs of which I caught less than half.
I shook my head. “Slow down.”
Pedra sighed and slowly repeated her hand-speak. So slowly and precisely as to suggest I was a dimwit.
“What is it?” Shellaht asked over my shoulder.
“We’re close. The Eye is just behind this wall. This is where you earn your pay, mage. There’s some sort of ward that needs your special touch so as to not spring the trap. Pedra and I will deal with the…” I looked a question at Pedra. She rolled her eyes and moved her fingers and I frowned. “Yeah, that’s what I thought you said, I just wanted to make sure I had it right.”
“Had what right? What is it, Van?”
I shrugged a shoulder to get Shellaht to back away, giving myself a moment to debate the wisdom of telling her Bensnach’s bane was likely still lurking amidst the ruins of the underground temple.
I settled on a lie. “Nothing of importance.”
“An!” Pedra’s round, brown face scrunched in disapproval. I needed no additional hand signs to interpret the arch of her brows and twist of her lips but she felt it necessary to throw a few in for good measure, one of which wasn’t so polite.
“Fine.” I pivoted to face Shellaht. “The runes suggest the Eye is guarded by trice beetles.”
“And those are?” Shellaht asked.
I hesitated and Pedra elbowed me.
I growled under my breath. The telling of it wouldn’t change any possible outcome but I knew Pedra wouldn’t budge unless I came clean. “It’s likely what killed Bensnach. They’re a rather large, venom spitting type of beetle.”
“How large?”
“About the size of a small hound, I would say.”
Pedra nodded. Shellaht’s eyes slid Bensach’s way and her mouth twisted. “I didn’t sign on for this.”
“What say?” I blinked at the woman and swallowed the first three retorts that came to mind. “It’ll be a waste of valuable time, but if you’d prefer, I can certainly produce your contract, signed and witnessed, in which there are no, zero, none, not one, stipulation nullifying it in event of coming across a trice beetles. There are provisions, however, for action to be taken should you choose to break said contract.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Not at all. Merely pointing out the fine print you may have missed beneath the blinding enticement of your share of the profits of this venture. Which, by the by, would be added to the other members’ haul should you forfeit them by turning tail.”
I’d known Shellaht a good many years and yet had never seen the cold stare she fixed on me in that moment. I wouldn’t have guessed the mage had it in her. “You’re a lying bitch, Vanisse.”
“How’s that, then?”
“In and out. That’s how you described the job. You reckoned there were a few warded locks that might need dealing with. Never mentioned a thing about giant beetles that melt the flesh off you.”
I spread my arms to the sides. “How was I to know what we’d find down here. Never been. Only heard the same tales as everyone else about the Eye. Powerful talisman, worth a small ransom, lost for centuries, blah, blah, blah. If you’d rather run at the first sign of trouble–” I backed away and gestured in the general direction of the entrance. “–have at it. More for me and Pedra.”
Shellaht took a step toward me, eyes blazing. Quite literally blazing. Mages were unnatural and yet here she was squawking about giant bugs. “I’ll deal with the traps and wards. If these bugs make an appearance, you keep them busy long enough and then I can deal with them as well.” She jutted a finger at my nose. “In the event that happens, I get the larger cut.”
Pedra stepped between us, a hand against my chest to push me back. She glanced back at Shellaht and nodded once, then signed her opinion of the matter to me, slowly and clearly. As hot and bright as Shellaht’s eyes had been, Pedra’s were cold and intense. Not for the first time I wondered that she had even agreed to come on the job, given her history with Chen-Chen.
“Get on with it then,” I said to Shellaht over Pedra’s shoulder.
“We have an accord?”
I frowned down at Pedra, then nodded to the mage. “Sworn and witnessed.”


Shellaht made surprisingly short work of clearing the wards, disarming the traps and opening the alcove housing the Eye. For a long moment the three of us simply stared at the oblong, fist-sized hunk of obsidian sitting bathed in an unnatural green light. It sat cradled in criss-crossing bands of silver that met over the top in a pair of intricately laced shapes putting me in mind of a dragonfly’s wings. The thing looked more like some badly shaped insect than anything having to do with eyes but I’d learned never to try and make sense of the names folks gave to artifacts. They were typically obscure and meaningless.
Shellaht reached for the Eye and Pedra slapped the mage’s hand away, her look stern. She gestured at three points around the Eye and drew a slim finger across her throat in a manner needing no translation.
“Best let her handle it from here,” I said.
The mage scowled but stepped back, allowing Pedra room to work. She held her torch aloft and traced the line of runes scribed into the wall beside the alcove. Her mouth twitched in what I swore was a sly grin. She handed the torch to me, grabbed one of Shellaht’s hands and drew her closer, pointing to a spot directly above the Eye and gesturing at it with an open palm.
“Put my hand against it?” Shellaht asked, then suited actions to words at Pedra’s nod.
As soon as the mage pressed her hand against the stone, Pedra pushed two fingers into a set of grooves and twisted, as though turning some sort of key lock. The air shimmered around the Eye and the unnatural light blinked out. Pedra snatched the jewel, dropped it hastily into a pouch at her belt, tipped her head toward the entrance and sprinted off, not waiting to see if we followed.
Shellaht opened her mouth as if to object when a distant clattering echoed from deeper within the cavern. We needed no other coercion to follow after Pedra as fast as we could.


“Nothing better than a job well done and a heavy purse,” I said. “Although a celebratory meal wouldn’t have been out of place.”
The last I said with a glare at Pedra’s back. She rode ahead of me, her fine boned mare prancing beneath her, both of them seeming to be in a rare, fine mood. We had delivered the Eye to Chen-Chen, Pedra handing the prize to him in person, collected our pay, and, at Pedra’s insistence, left the Ninth Kingdom without stopping for so much as a drink to chase the dust of a hard journey from our throats.
The trail we were following twisted its way up the Fampe Summit, overlooking the valley and the Ninth Kingdom. Pedra reined in at a switch-back and turned to look down at the city as though needing one last look. A strange, smug smile crept across her face and she looked my way, signing a rather lengthy sequence.
“The walls,” Shellaht said from behind me. “It looks like they’re moving.”
I watched Pedra’s hands carefully, and then burst out laughing. Shellaht nudged her horse up alongside mine, a question wrinkling her brow. 
“The walls aren’t moving, they’re covered with beetles.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Eye was cursed. It’s why Pedra pushed us so hard once we snatched it. The trice beetles will seek out whoever holds the Eye and, well, you saw what they did to Bensnach.”
Shellaht paled. “What of the other people?”
I shrugged. “Let’s hope the beetles are only interested in the Eye.”
Pedra grinned our way, turned her mare, and headed up the trail, her back to the Ninth Kingdom.

*

Judge #1
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 16

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

*

The Price of Duty by Sean Crow

Kade stumbled from the collapsing barn, doing his best not to stare back at the remains of the man who saved his life. Bits of debris from the explosion drifted in the breeze, accompanied by a wave of heat emanating from the detonated propane tanks. 
“Head count,” somebody shouted, the words muffled in his ears.
“Here,” Kade said, not bothering to look for the voice’s owner as he surveyed what remained of the settlement.
The still burning outbuildings, mostly the cattle sheds and a few bunkhouses, were beyond saving. Holes had been melted in the perimeter fences and piles of insect-like bodies lay around them. The remains of dozens of settlers and rangers were scattered across the ground where the mimics had come through. Kade didn’t have to look long to see that a good number of tongues had been ripped out. 
The young ranger could see the retreating forms of the mimics as they regrouped around their mound. A collection of the warrior caste raised their many taloned limbs as they shied away from the inferno surrounding the settlement.
It wouldn’t be long before they returned. A writhing wall of death, surging forward from the Wastes to feed. A brood like this could consume every crop, cow, and settler in a fifty mile radius. 
Something grabbed Kade by the shoulder and, without thinking, he turned and drew up his .50 caliber Boone Cannon, trigger nearly pulled before Kade realized it was another of Emmer’s Recon Rangers. 
“Shit,” Clint shouted as he tried to move out of the way. “I didn’t survive that shit show just to turn into a fuckin’ pulp.”
Kade blinked and immediately lowered the weapon, allowing the barrel to retract into the arm sleeve of his body armor.
Wiping the grit from his eyes, Kade shook his head. “Sorry Clint.”
The ranger’s glower faded, and he chuckled. “Don’t sweat it. Come on, Captain wants to redress the situation.”
“He’s still alive?” Kade asked.
The last Kade saw of the captain, the man stood in the middle of one of the fence breeches, his Boone Cannons ripping mimics apart even as they were about to overwhelm him. That was when the rangers set off the underground propane tanks in a last ditch effort to save what they could. 
“Mean bastards like Emmers don’t die so easily,” Clint said, twisting one side of his handlebar mustache. “Come on kid, let’s see who’s still standing and get that hand taken care of.”
Kade glanced down, only then realizing there was a good size piece of shrapnel sticking out of his left hand. Of course, that was when the pain decided to make itself known. Kade gritted his teeth and turned his gaze to the mimics on the mound half a mile outside the perimeter. 
The danger was far from over.
Already the creatures were regrouping. The warriors gathered on the hill began to move, carapaces shifting side to side as their multiple legs swayed. Mimics raised their bladed arms and slowly scythed them in unison. It was like watching some forbidden dance, one that inevitably brought death in its wake.
“This don’t look good,” Clint muttered, drawing Kade’s eyes to the center of the settlement.
Emmers stood there, all six foot four of him, staring down the surviving settlers while the rest of his rangers watched the confrontation continue. Almost immediately Kade felt a newfound tension in the air. Expecting these people to be grateful for their help, Kade couldn’t fathom what would have them hounding the captain, especially with mimics preparing for another attack.
“Cowards!” said an older settler with a singed beard and a missing ear.
More shouts of outrage followed and Kade could see his captain’s face grow harder. 
The giant captain was a bit of a legend out on the frontier. Having fought in the Crusades, he had been awarded multiple medals and honorifics after holding the Teccas at bay at the Battle of San Jose. Captain Emmers was not a man to be questioned.
It didn’t surprise Kade that Emmers decided to use violence instead of words. There was a sharp crack as a hammer-like fist connected with a younger man who had gotten up in Emmers’ face. The settler’s legs gave out as unconsciousness took hold. What did surprise Kade, was that Emmers seemed to be losing control, become less and less of the man he once was.
“What the hell is going on?” Kade said, drawing the eyes of both rangers and settlers alike.
“Your captain wants to turn and run,” the old settler said, fixing Emmers with a withering glare. “Says we’re a lost cause.”
Emmers’ eyes locked onto the old man and didn’t so much as flinch. Patches of acid had burned a good portion of the captain’s body. “Stand down and gather your mount,” Emmers snapped at Kade.
Kade had served under Emmers for three years. They had ridden together, shed blood together, and had even built up something of an understanding, if not friendship. Yet there was a change in the captain’s normally unwavering mentality. For the first time since Kade had known the man, he noticed an emptiness in his eyes. A look he never thought to see from a man like Emmers. 
“Sir,” Kade began, glancing back at Clint and the eight other remaining rangers. None of them seemed to move toward their grav-bikes. “We’ve got orders to hold.”
Kade had seen that look in the eyes of a few of his fellow rangers when they came close to death’s touch. Those who showed it quite the rangers within the year. Whatever had happened before the explosion, it had scarred the man far more than the burns on his body ever would.
“Got new orders,” Emmers growled. “This settlement is lost. We’ll pull back to San Antonio Outpost to resupply and return for survivors.”
Kade’s stomach knotted as he looked at the settlers. 
His family had come from Twilight when he was born, hoping to start a new life for themselves away from the Mega-cities that now ruled so much of the world. They had come to the Lone Star Republic and signed on for citizenship; one earned through a decade of settlement service. Frontier life was a constant struggle, but for those who sought freedom outside of the Corporations, they were willing to face whatever horrors emerged from the Wastes. 
It was a small price to be free.
Perhaps it was the familiarity in which Kade related to the people watching them, or perhaps he was just as stubborn as his father used to say he was, but Kade held Emmers’ stare with one of his own.
“Think it through, captain,” Kade said, eyes never turning away from the giant before him.
Emmers’ brow furrowed, like a bear uncertain what to think of the squirrel barking at it. Captain Emmers didn’t so much as glance in the direction of the rest of the rangers who followed him, but there was no doubt as to the deadly seriousness of his intent as Kade heard his captains Boone Cannon activate. 
Boones were standard issue for rangers patrolling the Wastes, designed for the many large monstrosities that roamed the vast stretches of radioactive desert and dunes of glassed sand. Yet it took a strong arm and a steady eye to use them accurately. 
It was also the primary weapon used in duals.
“I’ll give you one, kid,” Emmers said, a single finger held between them. “But know this, there’s not a man alive who can speak those words to me without death following.”
Kade felt his heartbeat pick up at the prospect of facing the giant before him, yet it was the eyes of the settlers, the tiniest flicker of hope, that gave strength to the words that followed.
“Reconsider your orders,” Kade said, a faint whisper that traveled the now silent space between them. “It’s a bad deal, I’ll give you that, but if we leave them now, there won’t be a survivor left to recover. It’s our duty, captain. Let’s keep these folks safe.”
Settlers and rangers alike began to move away, even though Kade kept his Boone Cannon mag-locked to his thigh. He never would have imagined standing against his captain, but he could see the tiniest fraction of reason begin to return.
Then the mimics began their chant in the distance. The tongues they stole from the dead they grafted to their mouths, allowing the creatures to replicate portions of human speech.
“Come play,” they chanted, a common lure for those in settlement life. Almost childlike, save for the faint buzzing that followed it. “Come here, come play, come dance,” they continued.
The fragile hope that the man Kade knew was returning, vanished in that moment. 
“We’re out of time,” Emmers snarled, eyes too wide for Kade’s liking.
Without thinking, Kade lowered his arm and allowed the Boone Cannon to reattach. “Don’t-”
Emmer’s hand tensed and Kade engaged his cannon. 
A single shot echoed across the valley floor, temporarily silencing the mimics’ chant, and Captain Emmer’s upper half became little more than pink mist.
Kade stood there a few moments as the reality of what he had done settled in. All the adrenaline coursing through his body made his limbs tremble and he suddenly felt the need to vomit his ration pack from earlier that day. Killing a beast was one thing, but to kill a man you followed…
Forcing the bile down, Kade turned to face the majority.
A few rangers watched him with open disbelief and one or two hands seemed to inch closer to their weaponry. Of course, those were stilled by the realization that they would be challenging the man who killed Emmers. Apparently there were few who considered themselves up to the task. While Emmers wasn’t the easiest to serve under, he had done a great deal for the people of the Lone Star Republic. He was a hero, and now he was dead at the hands of one of his own.
Thankfully, those were the minority.
A number of other rangers, Clint included, gave nods of acknowledgement. Not the approving sort, but those born of the knowledge that the job of a ranger came with difficult decisions.
In the distance the mimics began their chant once more, snapping Kade back to reality.
“They’ll be here soon,” Kade began, clearing his voice and raising his head to address the survivors. “Seal up the breaks in the fence and resupply. We hold out until the mimics give up.”
“And if they don’t?” another Ranger asked, his eyes narrowed to points.
Kade acknowledged the hate filled look of the man who questioned him without denial.
“No ifs about it,” Kade said, voice a note colder than before. “We hold and we don’t turn yellow, understood?”
The ranger held his eyes a moment longer, then spat on the ground between them and headed toward the fence. With that the tension broke, igniting the rest of the settlers and rangers into action as they busied themselves preparing for another attack.
Clint sidled up beside him, “That was fast, kid.”
Kade gave a slow nod, doing everything he could not to look at the remains of the man who had led him over the last three years. Emmers was a pillar in his community, a family man, and a damned legend of the Republic. If they survived the plague of mimics, it was unlikely Kade’s life would ever be the same.
“I’ll put his body along the breaches,” Clint said, pitching his voice low. “Acid will melt what’s left. We’ll say he died a hero.”
“Might be a mess of dead heroes when the smoke clears,” Kade said.
The rest of Kade’s response was cut off as the mimic chant became a cacophony of screams that only hinted at the hell they were about to face. Kade and his rangers gave their reply as Boone Cannons whirred to life and the bloodletting began.

*

Judge #1
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 16

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

*

Plague Lord by Frank Dorrian

The old beggar beside the bog raised his head at Grigor’s approach. A rot-toothed smile stretched the leather of his face, steepened by the shade of a withered tree. ‘Another one, eh?’ he rasped, filthy shoulders bobbing with wheezy laughter. He stared up at Grigor, the sun’s grimy light making terrible things of the empty, scarred holes where eyes had once been.
Grigor inclined his head, rusted helm and looted armour grating.
‘Not far left to go, now,’ the fellow chuckled. ‘Not long left for you, either! This is the Vale of Juris. The Valley of Plagues. No hope beyond this path, you’d do well to remember that.’ A foul grin folded the creases of his face, dirt and filth flaking from his cheeks. ‘You’re not the first to the walk the Blighted Path, boy – you won’t be the last. Old Rotfoot sits upon his throne in the Ulcerated Keep, and the Plague Lord sees far, son.’
Grigor coughed, reaching for the map in his pouch, hawking up a bloody wad in his mouth that he swallowed back down.
‘You don’t sound well,’ the beggar tittered. Grigor gave a quiet grunt. ‘What’s the matter? Lost your tongue?’
After the battle at Shylstol, Grigor thought bitterly. To an avenging captain with a red-hot knife. Grigor the Tongueless, they called him now.
‘Well, no matter,’ said the beggar, raising a wasted arm to point westward, where the trees grew withered and yet somehow bloated. ‘There. Follow the trail. If Juris wills it, you might survive.’ A faint shadow lurked in the distance, shrouded by diseased-looking fog.
Grigor grunted, chest burning, and turned away. The old man cleared his throat, thrusting a scrawny toward Grigor. ‘Bad luck not to cross the ferryman’s palm when you’ve taken wisdom from him, stranger.’ He smiled again. ‘Very bad luck.’
Grigor flicked a corroded penny to him, turning away as another coughing fit began. Survival and luck be damned. He would have an audience with the Plague Lord.

The Vale of Juris was like the heart of a putrid wound. Trees grew warped, stunted, the worst of them grey nubs in slime-pooling earth, pus oozing through the lesions in their fleshy bark. Either side of the trail, festering waters stirred with the passing of shapeless creatures, the air full of stinking fumes.
Grigor fell to his knees, broken sword tumbling from his grasp. Head swimming, another coughing fit took him, his ruined lungs refusing the Vale’s dirty air. He collapsed, blood flooding his mouth as the Vermillion Grip ravaged his insides.
Creatures moaned somewhere in the haze ahead, their shadows shuffling toward him, but Grigor’s vision wavered, his body falling numb.

*

Sweat rolled from little Massena’s forehead, the Vermillion Grip’s fever heating the damp cloth Grigor pressed to it. She hadn’t moved near on a week. He wet the cloth again, praying it would quell the terror clinging to his soul.
Ravessa was coughing on the other side of the room. Sitting up awkwardly, she spat a bloody lump into the kerchief in her hand. She met Grigor’s stare, wheezing, his wife’s once-sweet face withered and peeling with the Grip’s brutality.
‘She’ll need some honeywater soon, my love,’ Ravessa croaked, a crimson trickle escaping the corner of her mouth. Black veins were spreading up her face, the Grip’s rot deepening. Wouldn’t be long before her flesh began to slough away, just as little Massena’s had.
‘Grigor?’
Grigor’s eyes lingered on their daughter’s ruined face. Her teeth exposed through rotted lips, gums festering black, bubbling blood with every breath. She’d been one of the first to fall sick when the Vermillion Grip had begun to infest Vaina’s Lament. Ravessa had not been far behind, and yet, somehow, blessed Irra had spared him from its –
A coughing fit took Grigor, swelling until it felt as though scalding knives were scraping the inside of his lungs. Ravessa was croaking his name as he tipped from the chair, curling about his agony.
‘Grigor?’ Ravessa’s wheezed. The pain faded, leaving a smouldering breathlessness in him. Grigor lifted the hand from his mouth, its palm smeared with blood.
‘What’s wrong, love?’ Ravessa was trying to get out of bed, coughing, blood spattering her blouse. ‘Grigor?’
Terror was screaming through Grigor as he staggered for the door, its thud silencing his wife’s wheezing pleas.

*

Grigor pushed himself onto his hands with a groan. The first of the Blighted came lurching toward him, it decaying limbs jerking as though caught in the throes of some forbidden dance. Massena and Ravessa’s memory clinging to him like bog-filth, Grigor took up his stolen sword, struggl to his feet.
The Grip had Grigor deep within its clutches now, pulverising what was left of him. He was weak. Frail.
A coward.
He damned the thought and staggered to meet the first Blighted, ramming his sword’s broken end through the walking corpse’s gut, pitching it to the ground. He was weak, but the Blighted were weaker – mindless shells, rotting in the Plague Lord’s realm – and not even the Vermillion Grip could withstand the last ebb of a coward’s desperation.

An oath unto Irra, goddess of health. A phial of water from her sacred lake. The smoke of sereth amber. A month of atonement for the misdeeds of your life.
Lies. All lies.
No matter what shite the priests in their perfumed temples spouted, there was no cure for the Vermillion Grip. It had taken Massena. It had taken Ravessa. Now, it would take Grigor. The only path left was that of the craven. An audience with Juris, the Diseased. The Plague Lord.
So be it.
A trail of broken Blighted behind him, Grigor’s fingers squished through the writhing, rotting flesh of the Ulcerated Keep’s curtain wall. Blood and stinking filth seeped between them as he hauled himself higher, the wall shuddering beneath each grotesque handhold.
The Plague Lord’s fortress was a pulsating monstrosity of putrid flesh, rising from a pus-filled moat, and shrouded by noxious haze. Its foul gate was a gargantuan, running sore, oozing from a poxed mockery of the stonework of men.
Every breath Grigor took was a sour flame, thick with blood, a rope of it drooling from beneath his helm as he finally hauled himself over the horrid battlements, coughing on hand and knee.
Grigor found himself staring into a nightmare torn from a Grip dream. A vast pit yawned before him, as if scooped out by something monstrous. It was all flesh – oozing, raw, pinkened flesh – sloping down toward a nadir flooded with corruption. A great ulcer in the earth, weeping and undulating. At its epicentre, a wasted figure rose from the filth upon a fleshy throne.
Juris.
Grigor’s legs refused to take his weight. He had hours at best. Leaving his sword behind, he crawled desperately down the slope like a wheezing animal, through the Ulcerated Keep’s revolting warmth and running fluids, all too aware of the distant eyes that followed him.
Grigor’s head was spinning when he finally passed into the Plague Lord’s shadow, knee-deep in filth as he sat back on his haunches to look upon it. Juris towered over him, an unmoving corpse, haloed by a buzzing swarm of gnawflies. Rivulets of rot coursed from the lesions covering its form, pus running from its open, toothless mouth, from the empty hollows of its eyes. It was man-shaped, and yet at once… inhuman. A three-fingered hand clutched a wooden chalice overflowing with corruption. Legs, jointed and hooved like a beast’s, splayed in the filth beneath it.
It was dead.
Grigor coughed, confused, the gnawflies’ buzzing reaching a harrowing volume. It felt as though there was a presence – he could have sworn it – but the titan slouched before him was a thousand years dead.
Another coughing fit took Grigor, blood splattering his thighs. There was no time.
He had no tongue to speak them, but surely a god would hear his pleas? Grigor raised his hands beseechingly to the creature. His gloves were decaying at the edges, crumbling rapidly, rust creeping up the sleeves of his mail hauberk. The flesh of his hands bloated beneath the gloves, rotting before his very eyes.
Please, Grigor begged, the agony of the Vermillion Grip and Plague Lord’s rot ravaging him, trying to twist him in knots. Please… spare me. You’ve taken enough. Spare me. I will serve. I will serve you in whatever way you want of me, Lord Juris. Just please… spare me from the Grip.
‘It’s been a long time since someone made it this far.’
A hunched form moved through the shadows between the titan’s legs, wading through the filth toward him. The cloying fumes peeled back, and the eyeless old beggar drew a halt, a grin stretching his scarred face.
‘A very long time,’ he said. Gnawflies crawled and buzzed over his tattered rags like a shifting skin. ‘But what use have I, for a coward such as you, Grigor?’
Grigor sagged, chunks of his rusting helm falling away. Was this some waking Grip dream? Some hallucination wrought by the fumes of this rotting place?
‘Neither,’ chuckled the beggar, the hands he clasped before him blackened with rot. He looked confused, then. ‘What?’ He followed Grigor’s stare to the decaying titan ‘Him? Juris? Old Rotfoot?’ He gave a phlegmy laugh. ‘Certainly not. This creature fell from the sky an age ago, leaving this gaping wound. A fascinating specimen of new diseases, and a resplendent centrepiece for my little kingdom… but a god?’ The beggar shook with laughter. ‘No. I can assure you, Grigor,’ he said, ‘I am far, far older than this thing.’
The Grip dug its knives into Grigor again, fuzziness devouring the edges of his vision. His hands lay upon his thighs, the flesh gone and bones already black.
‘And that brings me back to my original point.’ The beggar moved, his form a shifting shadow as he circled about Grigor. ‘What would I, Juris, Plague Lord, want from a creature like you, Grigor, the Tongueless?’ His voice grew strange, distorted and huge. ‘Why would I spare you from my blessed Vermillion Grip, and let you serve, when your own captain had your tongue sliced from your mouth for your cowardice? A man who flees and sells the secrets of his comrades to spare his own skin?’
The beggar appeared at Grigor’s side with a monstrous snarl, a terrible, warped thing through the Grip’s murk, wrought of countless gnawflies. ‘A craven who abandons his wife and daughter to seek my blessing and save his own worthless skin?’
The scalding guilt of cowardice managed to slip a needle through the numbness taking Grigor. The men that had died because of the secrets he had uttered. The echo of Ravessa’s terror as he left her and their daughter to die.
‘I created diseases for the likes of you, Grigor.’ The beggar appeared before him, fumes cloying thick around his frail form, swallowing what light there was. The buzzing of the gnawflies screeched a crescendo as they swarmed about him. Something seemed to move, to loom in the fumes above and about the beggar, just beyond the edges of sight, as though it were pressing itself upon the fabric of the world.
‘I do not suffer cowards,’ the beggar said with a voice that was not his own. ‘But I am a forgiving god. I am merciful. Few come this far to beg audience with me.’ The beggar’s form was but a shadow, now, at the heart of a swirling maelstrom of fumes and churning haze, his eyes twinkling stars in the void of his face. He stooped, dipping a hand in the filth.
‘You can join my Blighted, and find atonement with the rest of them.’
A festering hand lifted Grigor’s chin, brushing away the remnants of his helm. The beggar’s smiling face filled what was left of his vision. Fingers dripping filth forced their way down Grigor’s throat.

*

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

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

*