July 2022 Number One Contender Stories, Grimdark Story World Cup 2022

Welcome to the Number One Contender Tournament for the Grimdark Story World Cup 2022! Each month, stories will be scored on a 5-Point System. The lowest scoring story for each month will be eliminated until only one story remains. This writer will be eligible to challenge the Grimdark Story World Cup 2022 Champion at a later date. 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

July 2022 Prompts

1. A Writhing Wall

2. A Forbidden Dance

3. A Missing Tongue

4. An Insect Plague

5. A Melted Hero

A Hero’s Toast by Sharon Rivest

The housekeeper shoved undermaid Ladra through the door into High Mage Rammek’s audience room, but did not follow. The door snapped closed and Ladra understood she wasn’t here to clean as she’d been told. Fear gripped her as she scanned the room she’d never seen before, noting a bronze brazier two paces across in the center of the marble floor. Rammek reclined in an ornate chair on a dais opposite the door. The dark man’s flowing white hair was braided with red beads about his face. His robes were red, a color reserved for mages. A portion of wall behind him was easily the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. Iridescent and bordered by columns, it looked to be made of huge different colored shells arranged in a shining, intricate geometric pattern.
“Come here, girl,” Rammek said.
His inky black eyes met hers as he held out an arthritic hand, motioning her closer. She walked around the brazier to stand before him. Wrinkles creased his aged skin, sagging on his chin, neck, and arms. Appraising eyes ran up and down her.
“You’re as pretty as promised, but not pretty enough for Kalib. We must do something about that, if you are to succeed.”
“Succeed?”
“Of course. Success is everything.”
Rammek snapped his dry fingers. The beautiful wall behind him began to move. It wasn’t a wall, but instead an enormous writhing snake. Ladra shivered as the snake slithered around a column and coiled itself about Rammek’s seat. The urge to run almost overwhelmed her, but she dared not draw the snake’s attention.
“A dose of beauty lice should do the trick,” Rammek said.
He lifted one of the snake’s scales. His hand immediately disappeared behind a layer of tiny dark insects. They swarmed across his skin, covering his arm. He climbed onto the seat of his chair, spinning and kicking in a circle while weaving his arms. As if on some signal, the insects all changed color at once. Rammek’s arm now appeared youthful, all traces of age and arthritis gone.
“You look surprised,” he said. “One cannot make magic without knowing the specific steps to a spell. Every dance is different and forbidden to all but mages.”
He flicked his hand toward her. The lice flew over the snake’s back, smacking into Ladra’s cheek. The tiny insects scattered, crawling across her face, into her hair, under her dress. They creeped around her breasts and burrowed into her nethers, working their way to her fingertips and the ends of her toes. Horrified, she tried to rub them off, but a curt motion from Rammek stopped her.
“I understand they’re a plague, but you must learn to endure them. At least until your task for me is done.”
She balled her hands into fists to keep from scratching. “Task?”
“You will find your way into General Kalib’s bedchamber where you will cast a spell on him. When this is done, I’ll take back the lice.”
“Who would welcome a woman covered with lice?”
Rammek smiled. “Look in the brazier.”
Ladra turned around and bent over the highly polished vessel. She expected to see herself. She didn’t. The woman looking back at her was breathtaking, with enormous brown eyes and a cascade of exotic blonde hair hanging to her waist. Gold earrings dangled from her ears, connected by thin golden chains to a ring in her nose resting above delicate red lips. A gown, gossamer thin, did little to hide her rounded shoulders or the swell of her bountiful breasts. She was perfection.
Ladra snorted with surprise. “That’s me?”
“Beauty is a seduction we all succumb to. Do you still think you’ll have trouble getting into Kalib’s bed? You’re exactly the type of woman to attract a true hero like Kalib. Only a true hero will do.”
A woman this glorious would find the task easy. Ladra grimaced at the idea, but it appeared she couldn’t decline. Not if she didn’t want to itch forever from the thousands of feet and mouths constantly moving beneath the beautiful veneer. Crawling. Biting. Sucking. She clenched her jaw and tore her gaze from the brazier.
Still smiling, Rammek leaned over and stroked the back of the snake. The room filled with the sound of its scales scraping across each other as it raised its head and opened its mouth. As its jaws moved closer and closer to Rammek, Ladra gasped, fearing the snake would kill the mage and leave her plagued to death by lice.
Rammek fearlessly put his hand in those jaws. “I have need of this for a while, my pet. I’ll return it soon.”
When Rammek’s hand reappeared, he held the snake’s forked tongue. Somehow, he’d detached it. Again, he weaved and stepped, then flung the tongue toward Ladra. It struck her arm, coiling around it, turning from flesh into a golden bracelet.
“You will dance the dance I teach you and put this cuff on Kalib. When the general is rendered harmless, he’ll be brought to me.”
The snake returned to the wall behind Rammek’s chair, but Ladra barely noticed. All she saw see was the bracelet. Never had she held so much gold. Enough wealth to last her to old age.
“I see your hunger for gold,” Rammek said. “Don’t worry. You’ll receive proper payment when your task is complete.”
Ladra thought payment sounded good. “Teach me the dance.”


Ladra soon found herself outside General Kalib’s banquet hall, knees knocking, her mouth dry. The place was filled with nobles packed tight on benches at two rows of tables laden with enough food to feed her village for a year. Taking a deep breath, she strode into the room and walked between the tables.
The sound of laughing, joking, and small talk stopped. Jaws dropped. Knives clattered onto pewter plates. Cups slipped from hands. Both men and women cast lustful looks at her. With each step, Ladra’s confidence swelled, giving her something she’d never felt before, the heady feeling of power. She came to a halt in front of the head table where the general sat.
Engrossed in conversation, Kalib leaned toward a dignified older woman. Ladra studied him, a rugged face alive with laughter, a voice like honey. It took him several moments to notice the room had gone quiet. When he looked up and saw Ladra, his continence grew brighter, making him more striking. He slapped the tabletop and rose, spreading his arms wide.
“Ladies and nobles, may I present my gift from the king? Little did I know that winning the war would get me more than words of gratitude from my sire. Here stands a gift worthy of a prince, not a general.”
Kalib vaulted over the table, plates clattering to the floor. He took her hand and the crowd cheered. Pewter mugs banged out a rhythm on the tabletops. Hounds scurried out of the way, as Kalib twirled Ladra around for the crowd to admire.
“Shall I accept this gift?” he bellowed.
“Take her. Take her.” Their chanting grew louder and louder.
Without another word, Kalib gathered her up and swept her out of the banquet hall. She leaned against his broad chest as he carried her up a flight of stairs, down a long hall, and into a chamber with a roaring fire and an enormous fur covered bed. He set her down on a bearskin rug before the hearth.
“You’re as fine a gift as I’ve ever received, girl. What’s your name?” He tossed his rich blue jacket on the floor.
“Ladra,” she demurred. “I’m instructed to dance for your pleasure.”
He paused unlacing his breeches. “Dance?” When she nodded, he stepped back, amused. “Very well. Dance for me.”
Ladra performed the dance that Rammek had taught her. There were only a dozen steps, but they had to be repeated three times. She faltered on the first sequence, but the next three repetitions were perfect. When she finished, she took off the tongue bracelet and moved to Kalib’s side, reaching for his arm.
“This is for you as well.”
He ignored the bracelet and took hold of the shoulder of her gossamer dress. “Later.”
Later wasn’t an option. Panic gripped her. She had less than a minute from performing the dance to attaching the bracelet, or the spell wouldn’t work. She twisted away, causing the dress to rip.
Kalib let her go, a surprised look on his face. Had the rip broken the spell? Had he seen the lice? Desperate, she swiped the bracelet at his arm. She lost her grip and dropped it. He snatched it up before she could.
An indulgent smile spread across his face. He handed her the gold cuff. “If it’s that important to you, please put it on me.”
She snapped the bracelet down on his forearm as hard as she could. So hard, it must have hurt. Leaping back, she waited for the spell to take whatever effect it was supposed to.
Nothing happened. Had she done the steps wrong? Would he hit her because she’d hurt him?
Kalib stood where he was. Not moving. Not blinking. And, she realized, not breathing either. He was frozen in place, the smile still on his face. Easing forward, she reached out to tap his cheek. It was cold and hard as ice.
She jumped when a knock sounded on the door. Rammek’s men had come to secret Kalib away. She let them in.


Ladra followed the men carrying Kalib’s immobile form into Rammek’s audience chamber. The mage sat in his chair. A roaring fire burned beneath the brazier, warming the room. The men set Kalib on his feet. The general looked like a statue dressed in a torn shirt and half-laced breeches. The journey in the back of a wagon had been hard on his garments.
“Remove his clothes and leave,” Rammek said.
When the men were gone, Rammek rose and made his way to Kalib’s side. A sheen of condensation shimmered on Kalib’s skin. Rammek walked in a circle around the frozen man. His eyes widened as his fingers brushed along the muscled stomach and across the narrow hips. They lingered on the golden tongue bracelet.
“The stories sell him short. He’s more than I expected.” Rammek turned to her. “Did you have any trouble?”
Ladra shook her head. “All went as you said it would. Is he dead?”
“No, only frozen in a moment. Help me put him in the brazier.”
Shocked by the request, she dared not refuse. The two levered Kalib over the edge of the bronze vessel. Like a snowball in a frying pan, the general began to melt, starting with his back, which lay on the hot metal. He slowly became a red puddle as more and more of his body succumbed to the heat. His face submerged last of all. As his lips disappeared, a single low moan filled the room. Only the bracelet remained intact.
“Come, my pet,” Rammek said.
The snake abandoned the wall and moved to mage’s side. Rammek placed the tongue bracelet back in the snake’s mouth. He removed one pearlescent scale and, using it as a ladle, scooped up the Kalib-liquid and drank. With every scale-full he consumed, he grew younger, taller, more handsome. The grey left his hair. The arthritis fled his hands. He turned toward Ladra with a face so perfect it made her heart ache.
“Beauty is a seduction we all succumb to.” Rammek took up another scoop of liquid and held it aloft. “My thanks, girl. To Kalib.”
After downing his drink, Rammek said, “She’s your’s, my pet.”
The snake surged forward, coiling itself around Ladra. The lice fled back to the snake as it lowered its mouth over her head.
“You lied,” she cried.
A glimmer of Kalib’s smile on the mage’s transformed face was the last thing she saw. 

*

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

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

*

The Wall by Kenneth Bragg

“Soldiers, stand at attention!”
General Sellis provided an honor guard for the four men selected to go off into the Great Wastes that day in a last ditch effort in search of something that would save the settlement of Kelahar from a slow and ugly death. Somber faces met the men as they left the walled city. What few people were present were only there to take their minds off of the crisis they faced, and the soldiers’ attendance was mandatory. The reality of their situation wasn’t lost on anyone. Nobody believed these men would save anything. They would just be the next in a long list of citizens sent to their deaths in order to slow the crawl towards disaster.
As the ancient gates creaked closed behind them, the ragged men looked to each other, complete strangers who had only met at the gate as they were brought from their respective burrows after the drawing of names, but rumors went about fast enough that one of the men volunteered after his wife’s name was drawn.
One bony old man in a wide brimmed hat snatched the poorly provisioned bag of supplies and ran in the opposite direction as the wastes. A couple of the others started after him, but stopped short of chasing the spry man down.
“Not worth the waste of energy,” said a tall man who had kept some semblance of his formerly musclebound form intact, his bald head already glistening with sweat.
“I’m Balor by the way,” he said.
“Delno,” said the other runner, a man with few distinguishing features other than the wide sarape he wore, extending his hand in greeting. Balor grabbed the hand to shake it, but the man’s arm came away with him and he started back in shock. Delno laughed.
“Sorry, thought that might lighten the mood a bit,” said Delno as he looked at the
expressionless face of the last man, “guess not though.”
Balor laughed, and Delno grabbed the prosthetic back from Balor.
“No hard feelings,” said Balor, “but we should probably get going now. We need to get somewhere with water.”
As they journeyed through the wastes, the evidence of the magnitude of the problem they faced hit them head on. Once verdant fields full of grain were reduced to nothing by drought, and the locust plague that swept through afterwards picked clean what little crops could weather the harsh conditions. The only bright side to the plague was that it left a temporary source of food in the insects that the people were out of desperation able to harvest for a short time.
“Is that…a person?” asked Delno, pointing to a slumped over figure in the distance.
“Guess we should find out,” said Balor, “You gonna say anything?” he asked the third man.
The man looked at him for a second, then took the lead.
“Guess not,” said Balor.
The third man reached the body first. It was facing away from the group so that when they reached it they had to walk around to see the dead man’s face.
“Gods above,” proclaimed Delno.
“His tongue…” said Balor.
The dead man’s eyes were shut, hands bound in front of him in a mock prayer with his mouth open and his tongue ripped out. Delno and Balor reeled in shock and disgust, Balor heaving dryly for a moment and Delno backing away to fall to his knees, but the third man held his ground in front of the man. A croaky laugh rose from his throat.
“You find this sick shit funny?” asked Balor.
The man turned around with a sickly smile on his face and opened his mouth. His tongue was also missing.
“Guess we know why you never told us your name, then,” said Delno, “Friend of yours?”
Delno pointed to the man on the ground and the third man shrugged with uncertainty before grabbing a stick and scribbling on the ground. Balor and Delno moved in closer to see what he wrote.
“Roy,” read Delno.
The man pointed to himself.
“So that’s your name,” said Balor.
Roy nodded and began to scribble again.
Forbidden dance. Wanted rain. Captured. Escaped.
He pointed to himself again after this last word.
“So that’s why they sent you out here with us? To find the people who did this to you?” asked Balor.
Roy nodded yes.
“And then what?” asked Delno.
Roy smiled and made a slashing motion across his throat.
“So it wasn’t a random draw this time,” said Delno.
“What do you mean?” asked Balor.
“They know I can kill. Quiet like. And you’re likely the strongest man left in the settlement,” said Delno, “so they want us to take them out.”
Roy nodded and pointed to the far horizon, where they could just make out the outline of a building.
It was dark by the time they reached the building, and Roy showed them to a place where a tunnel hidden behind a collapsed overhang led them inside. Delno produced three blades from the inside of his sarape and handed one to each of the others before they opened a door onto the main floor of the building. Here a group of ten men laid sleeping soundly on floor cots, and the three men made quick work of taking them out.
“There’s something wrong with them. Their skin. It’s not…right,” said Balor.
Roy gestured them forward through another door, and inside of it was a makeshift cage filled with poorly nourished people. Roy ran to it and tried to pull the door open, but it was welded shut. Some of the people stirred and made throaty noises as they woke from their tortured slumber.
“Here, let me,” said Balor as he grabbed ahold of the frame and pulled, but the door didn’t budge.
“Allow me,” said Delno, producing a key in his left hand, “found it on one of the odd people out there.”
Once unlocked Roy ran inside and embraced one of the people, tears streaming down his face.
“I’m gonna see if they have any supplies in one of these other rooms,” said Delno.
Balor nodded, “I’ll clear some cots for them.”
Half an hour later, Delno returned to the main room smiling ear to ear and carrying buckets of water, his prosthetic arm swaying as the weight of it put him off balance.
“Here, let me take those,” said Balor.
“Go ahead. There’s a room with a reservoir full of it,” said Delno.
Balor, Delno and Roy spent the next little while sharing the water with the people from the cage.
The next morning Balor woke up with a splitting headache. His vision swirled and he struggled to stand, but once he did he noticed that everyone else was gone. Out in the distance just outside the small fire they’d lit in the middle of the room he saw Delno gesturing towards him.
“Delno? What’s going on?” he asked.
Delno said nothing, gesturing once again as he left the room towards the place where he had told them the water was held. Balor took a burning piece of wood from the fire and followed him. When he reached Delno again in the water room he could see everything and the wall across from them writhed with the motion of a thousand sickly forms.
“They’re…people,” he said.
He looked over at Delno, but as the light from his makeshift torch reached him the man jumped into the pool and melted into a puddle of flesh. Back on the water a series of bright green pillars rose from its depths, and Balor looked on in horror as the wall grew in size. The eerie green glow became brighter and brighter, beckoning him on until Balor could no longer resist its pull and jumped in, adding his own flesh to the wall.

*

Judge #1
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 3
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 3
Total: 13

Judge #2
Worldbuilding: 3
Characters: 3
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 3
Total: 12

*

The Final Days by Joe Price

The Forum of Nahden had known for months the walls would not hold yet their tongues were stayed. The populous must never know, to the west Durreum had not responded in over eleven days, and all scouts had gone silent. Imminent doom loomed in the back of Orum’s mind, he knew the Forum had the best interest of the people at heart, yet something was wrong. This invisible threat, unknown beast, had destroyed everything in its path. Civilization was doomed, it started with rumors from the coast, the collapse of the mines ended the salt trade as well. Not a single refugee had arrived. No word from the outside world had come from the west. Nor had word come from the east a darker sign still. The Forum had kept these events silent, imposing restrictions on trade for “prosperity’s sake” and limiting the salt for sale as a “health measure”. Thankfully, the city was rich, and supply remained strong, but a shortage would soon come.
Illiya lay still next to Orum, the warmth of her skin against his was soothing. They were both members of the Forum and inter-forum relations were forbidden by generations past. Their forbidden dances had gone unnoticed or, so Orum hoped. Though in truth he hardly cared. The end was near, and he would rather spend his final days without regret. He had fancied Illiya since their time in the University and though both were made members of the Forum Illiya had an easier time than he. She was a direct descendant of the Blade Singer, one of the heroes of ages past, and her skill with a rapier was a sight to behold. She had earned her seat by familial means, Orum rose by winning the populous to his cause earning him a seat and securing his future. Or at least it originally had. He had not fallen out of their favor, but his deceit sure had him feeling as if he had. They trusted him. From the man with the sandwich shop on Lords’ Way to the cobbler in Greentown. He was the voice of the people, and holding his tongue, felt wrong.
Yet would it be better if they did know of their imminent demise? Panic would spread as would looting and riots as people fled only to die elsewhere. At least here, if any survived this apocalypse they would be found in the comfort of their homes, a sign of a grand life once lived here.
“You should go back to sleep love.” Illiya said turning towards Orum. Her nut-brown hair falling into her face and hiding her cerulean eyes.
“I wish I could. You were right we should have told them.” Orum said, laying down facing her. “The Forum be damned.”
“We will all live out the end of days in peace. What is to come will come and we will accept fate.” Illiya mumbled. “They know more than we, and though I disagreed you remained silent.”
“And I regret it.” Orum’s voice a whisper. “I should resign tomorrow.”
“Don’t.” Illiya replied before she moved closer to Orum. “Sleep.” She whispered and Orum’s mind went blank.

The sun rose directly into Orum’s face as he woke. Illiya sat across the room sipping tea and eating a biscuit wearing one of his shirts. Orum had always enjoyed this. Though he often hated Illiya using her magic to put him to sleep. Like all the heroes of eld, she had inherited her great grandfather’s magic. Use of magic against any member of the forum was frowned upon, though not illegal, Illiya had been using her skills to allow Orum some reprieve and he appreciated it though hated how long it made him sleep.
“You have an hour until the Forum meeting, you might want to start getting ready.” She took a bite of her biscuit and sipped her tea.

Orum took his seat in the middle of the west side of the chamber, seventy-six other members slowly made their way into the room including Illiya. Each was dressed in the standard attire of a forum member, white cloak, black shirt under it, grey pants, and black shoes. Woman had the option to wear a dress under their cloak so long as it was black or grey. Orum never cared for the rule, but as a member he had to follow it without question. An elder named Jask took the podium in the middle of the chamber, the seat of the orator of the Forum was always held by the senior most member and no one alive remembered how old Jask was.
“We gather today to discuss the looming threat outside our walls. Our scouts to the north and west report low lying dark clouds slowly approaching the city. The scouts vision even improved by magic cannot pierce the cloud cover.” His voice was firm and cold. “We believe this to be the threat we have been fearing. By all reports the cloud should arrive in three days’ time.”
“We should tell the people. They need to know their lives end in three days.” Illiya stood and looked to Jask. “Master Orator, I would vote to notify the populous.”
“All in favor?” Jask said raising a hand. All knew this to mean raise our hands to vote in favor. Orum raised his hand but only him. Seventy-four other hands remained down. “Motion denied. The final days are upon us, and we will remain steadfast in our decision.”
“The wall will not hold. Durreum had vastly better defenses and fell. You have little hope in humanity’s survival, and it sickens me.” Illiya slammed her hands into the desk. “I am the great granddaughter of Blade Singer Alithrius Silver, I will fight this threat myself if I must.”
“I am the son of Ranger General Quinn Quilvas, and I will not let a descendant of a hero fight alone.” Torren Half-hand said he had earned this name due to missing the ring and pinky fingers of his right hand. He was old now but still the best bow in all Nahden.
“I shall join you as well. Grandson of Alistair of the Twin-blade.” Mathias Greyblood said standing, his scimitar resting at his hips always even against the Forum’s rules no one questioned him.
“Then you shall all die. Fools. Utter fools.” A woman in the northern section of the room said, she was descendant of some famous archmage or necromancer, none of us really knew, but her house had always been important to Nahden.
“Stay your tongue Mordigan.” Jask said raising his hand. “If those descendants of heroes wish to fight, they always have the Forum’s favor under article seven of the Code of Rule. Never shall we question said judgement. Even if one is of their lot.”
Orum watched Mordigan’s face go red with embarrassment. She had never been silenced so severely in Orum’s tenure. He was enjoying this even if it was to be the final forum meeting.
“Is there any other business before we retire?” Jask turned looking over the members of the Forum. “None appearing, we will reconvene in two weeks’ time if the world does not indeed end in three days.”

“I don’t like your plan Illiya.” Orum’s voice shook as he spoke. “We can still flee, head south as fast as we can. If we cannot escape the end, we can delay it together.”
“Orum, love, I must do this. If anyone can possibly stand a chance at stopping this, it’s a hero. I might not be one, but it’s in my blood.” Illiya said touching Orum’s cheek. “Let me fulfill my final wish dear. And know I always did love you.” She said kissing Orum before turning away.
Orum watched as Illiya walked towards the eastern wall, the eastern cloud was hours away and only the Forum knew. Those who witnessed these actions were confused. It was rare to see descendants of heroes in battle attire, Nahden had been at peace for nearly two decades. Yet the families and loved ones of the three who would act as sacrifice to the coming doom all met in the central gardens, under the gaze of their ancestral namesakes. The statues of the Twelve Heroes of yore stood in silent vigil of the city each one renown for deeds nearly forgotten by time. Orum could not stop Illiya he was powerless.

The walls did not hold. As the whining of steel twisting under the pressure was unbearable. Children screamed as everyone ran for the western wall. Orum watched from the garden, unwilling to see the slaughter to come. The black cloud made its way into the city in a wave of death. The outer wall twisted and buckled as if folding swans from paper. Next the buildings began to crumble and the screams of those last to flee were silenced. A buzzing vibrato rose within the city as everything in its path crumbled.
Orum watched as not fifty feet before him a mother with child melted into nothing her plea for help silenced in the cacophony of death rushing towards him. The statues of the Twelve began to melt away halting the advance of the swarming plague. Orum had accepted his fate. Illiya was already dead. The first reports the Forum received not even a full hour ago had said the descendants had all perished. Their skin melting from bone before their bones also vanished. Orum closed his eyes and awaited the insect plague. He had accepted his fate. Hopefully in the afterlife he could be with Illiya again.

The world around Orum ceased to exist without pain he embraced the swarm.

*

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

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

*