August 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 August 2022

1. A Key of Ash

2. A Desecrated Altar

3. A Golden Promise

4. A Shattered Image

5. A Time of Decay


Hunting a God’s Land by Joe Coates

Lenny only realised that he was upside-down when something started trickling up his face. He blinked a couple of times. Looked at the dashboard, then at his feet. His legs dangled down in front of his eyes. Blood drip-drip-dripped onto the roof.

The aureate ichor pooled like molten sunlight; the golden promise of eternal life that he, as a gen-u-ine supreme being, numen, and all-round immortal, was meant to keep secret from the Mundane.

“Shit,” Lenny croaked.

His breath was so thick with assorted good spirits—the drinkable kind—that it all but crystallized in the air.

He must’ve been hurt bad. Golden ichor, if a daemon or deity was careless enough to spill it, usually evaporated as soon as it encountered the living atmosphere. To have it pooling under him was not a good sign.

He hoped Grace hadn’t noticed. That’d make for some awkward questions.

Grace… he thought. This is what happens when you let a mortal in. This is what happens when you fall.

He’d drunk too much to be able to manage any spellworking. With some difficulty, he managed to launch his portly corporeal form back into his seat, undo his seatbelt, and drop onto the roof of the car. He landed in his golden blood, but even as he looked it faded from his clothes and hands.

Healing, then.

Lenny crawled around the ruined front end of the car to the other side. His head was stuck in a loop, as he tried to remember what Grace had been saying before he’d got distracted and missed the turn.

The radiator burst. He watched the water flow out into the slushy road. It meandered aimlessly, taking the path of least resistance.

His gaze wound up the stream, up to the car that lay dying on its back, sputtering out its last breaths at the indifferent sky.

Lenny frowned.

Grace’s wheat-blonde hair cascaded towards the roof of the car, but it was wet. Matted. Red. Her arms dangled down. Her head hung slack; twisted around too far so that her eyes, pale blue as starling eggs, stared out at him. Through him. Towards a horizon he could, and would, never see. She looked like a photo, she was so still. Framed behind, and decorated with, broken glass. A shattered image of something once vibrant and vital.

A black hole opened in Lenny’s chest. Where his lungs had been there was only ice and sand and nothing.

He began to scream.

* * *

The woman, with a sharp, serious and angular face, resembled a hawk that some enterprising individual had managed to coax into a business suit. She slid onto a barstool—next to one filled with a pile of ripe-smelling laundry—with the liquid grace of a greased ballerina. Slowly, she swept her gaze over her immediate, rather sticky, surroundings.

She turned and addressed the pile of malodorous clothing next to her. Compared to her severe outward demeanour her voice was incongruously serene; calm as a chloroform hot-tub. 

“Darling, whatever’s the name of this charming establishment I find you in?” the woman asked.

The ambiguous pile of garments grunted, stirred, and transmogrified itself into a rather scruffy bloke, wearing a velvet smoking jacket, with rumpled ginger hair and an unkempt moustache. He was the shared poster-child for hangovers and halitosis. Bloodshot eyes squinted up at the austere woman with the posh voice. An onlooker, with a drastically crippled sense of smell, might’ve noticed that, amidst the spiderweb of blood vessels, his eyes were the same curious amber colour as his new companion’s.

The man peeled his face off the bar and rubbed his eyes meditatively. “Could be… The Devil’s Arsehole? Or maybe The Ashen Key? Don’t think it’s Naked For Satan. Hard to be definite. What country are we in?”

“New Zealand.”

“Hm,” the man grunted, scrubbing at his crusted mouth. “Could’ve sworn it was Australia.”

“I wouldn’t let any of the local inhabitants hear you say that. You know how touchy they can be about that.”

“Fair point. Have a drink!”

The dishevelled chap slapped his hand on the counter. When he pulled it away a glass of red wine stood shimmering seductively on the bar.

The woman picked up the glass and inhaled deeply. “Dar-ling. Chateau Margaux. As close as mankind ever got to divine nectar. I confess, I’m surprised you remembered, Lenny.”

“Clio, I forget much, but I never forget a drink,” Lenny replied.

Clio took a sip of her drink.

“No offence, you sweet thing,” Clio said, “but one does wonder; how’re you still here when so many of our lot have been absorbed back into the ether?”

“None taken! I mean, you’re part of the very fabric of things, being in charge of history and all that. As tedious as it sounds, you’ve got a job for life,” Lenny said. “The answer: people still unwittingly worship me.”

“Elucidate.”

“Look, I know I’m pretty bloody useless, but there’re few prayers these days, when it comes to numbers and sheer desperation, that can beat mankind’s entreaties for the weekend to hurry up and arrive so they can get happily sozzled.. That’s me the buggers are praying to, you know: a god of drunken excess. They usually start drifting out into the universe around half past nine on Monday mornings.”

Clio’s hawkish features narrowed into a look of fierce focus.

“I’m here on business,” she whispered.

Lenny snorted.

“But first… Rumour got around that you fell. Do you want to tell me about it?”

“Tennessee. Few years back. Her name was Grace.”

Lenny sighed, reached over the bar, picked up a glass, and poured himself a pint. Of port. From out of his sleeve.

“One minute, it was just the world—full o’ neon colour and the smell of brisket, the cry of pine warblers and the sound of a hundred blues guitar trickling out of the bars on Honky Tonk Row like molten silver,” he said morosely. “Then… Grace walked around the corner.” He sniffed. “You remember Daedalus’ boy, Icarus?”

Clio nodded. “I was there watching the bloody dimwit.”

“It was like that,” Lenny said. “Fell for her like a screaming, flaming idiot.”

“Romantic,” Clio said. “She must have seen something good in you. Like I do. You might be ugly as five miles of bad road, Leneus, but at least there is good in you.”

Lenny smiled; a bitter attempt. “I lament your appalling judge of character, Clio.”

Clio put a hand on Lenny’s.

“Sometimes, the Fates—”

“Don’t talk to me about those three hellcats!” Lenny snarled.

“Actually, darling,” Clio said slowly, carefully, “it’s concerning the Fates that I’ve come.”

Lenny raised one bushy ginger eyebrow.

“Ah,” he said, the word trickling out of him like the last drop from a bottle. “I see.”

“No you don’t, darling,” Clio said. “But you will. And when you do, you’ll look into the face of the one who snuffed Grace’s life earlier than was ordained.”

Lenny went cold and calm.

“Show me,” he said.

* * *

“Would that be our boy, d’you think?” Lenny asked, gesturing across the courtyard at one of the oaken doors that now stood ajar. He and Clio had stepped out through the doors of the pub in Wellington, New Zealand, and into the Temple area of London. They were surrounded by legal institutions, barristers’ chambers, solicitors’ offices, and the numerous other cogs that make up the London legal machine.

The figure in question was tall, wearing an offensively bold navy pinstripe suit that hurt Lenny’s eyes to look at, and had oiled hair that was fronted by a widow’s peak of such severity that it reminded Lenny of the prow of a Greek trireme.

“That’s Tyr, darling, yes,” Clio affirmed.

The man gazed at them with the cold, baleful eyes of a lawyer that eats non-profits for breakfast.

“Yes?” Tyr said, as Clio and Lenny approached. A cruel, supercilious smile sat on his face like something dead.

 “Tyr!” Lenny said heartily. “Last time I saw you you were sporting a beard that you could lose a racoon in and were dressed in full battle armour.”

Lenny subjected Tyr to one of his most unflattering up and downs. He didn’t say it, but he found this version of the Norse God of War and Law even more intimidating than the bare-chested barbarian that he’d been.

“I see the Law well enough, but what about the War element?”

Tyr held up the stump from which his right hand used to sprout to stop Lenny.

“You’d be amazed at how often the law wraps around and co-mingles with war, Leneus,” he said. “If one wishes to start a really first-class conflict amongst the humans in these times of moral decay—one that lasts a good five to ten years, I mean—one has to wade through the acid waters of oceans of bureaucracy, not just purloin someone’s wife.”

“Sounds dull,” Lenny observed.

“In the long run, it’s a lot easier and more efficient to stand at the back of both armies and urge them on to slay each other, than it is to lead from the front of just one,” Tyr said.

He made a show of checking his watch.

“Let us not waste time,” he said brusquely. “You two are here to ask me whether I know of the plan the Fates put into action the day they decided to sever the thread of the Mundane woman poor Leneus here stupidly gave his heart to—despite it not being her time.”

“I fucking knew that wreck wasn’t severe enough to—!” Lenny growled, his words bubbling molten-hot from under his moustache.

“I do know,” Tyr interrupted, with a cold chuckle, “but I will not help you.”

“Why?” Clio asked.

“Because they’re the Norns. They decided to put a certain course into action. For a Norse god such as I—for any god—to go against their wills would be to desecrate the alter of our world and to go against the laws of the Universe.”

Lenny pulled a bottle of wine from a pocket that couldn’t possibly have fit it. He took a deep, soul-restoring draught and wiped his lips.

Tyr regarded him. The taut smile on his lips had all the amiability and aesthetic appeal of a tightened sphincter

“You know, Tyr,” Lenny said, “I’ve never liked that look of yours.”

“What look?”

That look. Condescending. Like you know more than’s good for you.”

“That’s just my face.”

“Exactly,” Lenny said.

The wine bottle came scything upwards and caught the barrister an absolute beauty under the chin. Lenny was a small round god, with a figure that had more in common with the average potato than Adonis, but he was still, crucially, a god.

Caught with his metaphorical trousers down, Tyr was sent cartwheeling across the courtyard and smashed through one of London’s famous red telephone boxes, totally obliterating it.

Scurrying pedestrians all froze at the sound of the explosive impact. Then, as one, they bolted in every direction. There were a few screams, but mostly the air was filled with the sound of well-fed lawyers puffing and huffing as they scarpered.

“Leneus!” Clio said disapprovingly, her golden eyes flashing.

Lenny was busy carefully removing his velvet smoking jacket, revealing the tweed waistcoat underneath. “It’s the only way we can make him understand, Clio,” Lenny said, rolling up his shirt sleeves. “We’ll get the information out of the bastard. One way or the other. You might want to start on working on a way we can appeal to his intellect though. Just in case I’ve overstretched myself here.”

“Do you think you’ve overstretched yourself?”

“There’s courage in wine, didn’t you hear?” Lenny countered, winking.

“I wonder how many brave warriors have ended up littering the gutters outside kebab shops and nightclubs using that same logic,” Clio asked.

There was the sound of crunching glass and the moan of bending metal.

Tyr straightened from the devastated telephone box, rubbing his jaw. Worryingly, he was beaming. He stripped off his tattered jacket and dropped it.

“Do you really intend to do this?” he asked.

“’Fraid so, old chap. It’s amazing how much vim the scent of revenge can put into a bloke.”

Tyr pulled a silver fountain pen from his pocket and held it out to his side.

“Bit less spectacular than that sword that you used to carry,” Lenny quipped.

The Norse god’s eyes glowed an iridescent blue. The pen flowed towards the ground like mercury, snaking outwards until it settled itself into the shape of a very large, very sharp sword.

“Oh, there it is,” Lenny said. He swallowed audibly. “I don’t suppose, as God of War, you’d care to furnish me with a tip or two before we get cracking? For old times sake.”

“The only tip you’ll be receiving from me is this one,” Tyr said, holding the sword point towards him.

Clio stepped forward. Her fists were balled at her sides.

“Now, look here,” Tyr said, aggravation blowing across his face like a flurry of snow, “whoever heard of history fighting. History is meant to be impartial.”

Clio snorted, one of those derisive ones that could knock a toupee off from across a room. However, she didn’t contradict Tyr.

A silence, stuffed full of impending violence, fell. Golden eyes stared into ice blue ones. Tyr, swishing his sword as a bull might paw the ground, impaled an unlucky wasp in mid-flight.

Lenny was not the Sky God—he didn’t have the sexual appetite for it for one thing—but he was of Zeus’s line and, as such a being, he had a bit of the old lightning running through his ichor-filled veins.

Without warning, he hit Tyr with a fairly juicy handful of the stuff. The barrister caught most of it on his sword blade, sending tendrils of refracted lightning grounding around him. The cobbles at his feet popped like hot rocks and the pavement was streaked with molten glass.

The jolt of Lenny’s arrested blow sent out a shockwave that burst every window in a twenty-meter radius like a soap bubble. Glass cascaded down in a diamond rain. An abandoned delivery van somersaulted over the empty road like a gambolling lamb and crashed, upside down, through the front of a café, squashing a cowering defence lawyer into bloody paste.

Then, the two immortals engaged, and their immediate vicinity became a vortex into which litter, broken glass and smaller pieces of debris were sucked in and then spat out again as shrapnel. As their battle took them out into the middle of the road, the paint from the road-markings started to bubble and run under their feet.

“Not bad for an amateur, Leneus,” Tyr said casually, as the pair broke apart.

Lenny backed slowly away. He was breathing hard; his life of debauchery and excess already presenting its bill.

“Don’t suppose we could stop for a little pick-me-up?” he gasped.

His backside bumped into a courier’s motorcycle.

“No,” Tyr said.

There were probably few things more terrible than a being that, after carving you into small pieces and strewing your insides around the street like so much confetti, could then sue you (under paragraph nineteen, section 7b of the Public Liability Act of 1963) for getting his shoes dirty after he steps in your spleen.

With that in mind, Lenny twisted around, grabbed the motorbike and flung it at Tyr. Without even checking his step, the other god spun his sword and, with the flat of the blade, batted the motorcycle back at the Greek satyr. It caught Lenny right in the guts and propelled him backwards, into the side of a brick building, knocking all the wind out of him.

Lenny blinked, slightly dazed.

Much to his surprise, he found himself practically white-hot with resentment. Here he was, trying to do some good by uncovering whatever hellish plot the Fates were weaving, and Tyr was digging his sanctimonious feet in, quite prepared to let the world burn over some old law.

“I’ll show him burn,” Lenny hissed through gritted teeth.

He was up and charging towards Tyr before he knew it. As he ran, he scooped up a fallen lamppost, tucking it under his arm like a lance. Lenny’s legs gave a deific spurt and, with the customary bellow, he rammed the end of the lamppost right into Tyr’s stomach.

He smashed the Norse god through a bus stop, reduced a beautiful stone fountain to rubble, and then crashed through a couple more ornate oak trees in bursts of disintegrated wood and bark. With a final mighty thrust, he crushed Tyr into the solid stone buttress of a library, grinding him into the two-hundred year-old stone like sour-faced cigar butt.

But Tyr wasn’t a god of war for nothing.

As Lenny leaned on his improvised lance with all his godly strength, Tyr got his hand and stump under him and started to push back.

And so, Lenny gave him all the lightning he could could summon, with the incautious, wholehearted determination of the professional drunk.

The courtyard was turned into a life-size plasma globe. Tendrils of electricity snapped and flickered from Lenny and Tyr in the centre, lancing into the surrounding buildings, blowing chunks of stonework into the air, and liquefying the windows so that they ran like syrup down the sides of the Grade II-listed structures. The few remaining vehicles parked on the street were tossed spinning into shopfronts.

A cataclysmic boom rolled across the clouded sky, as if the atmosphere itself had been struck like a drum. The clouds undulated and heaved. 

Then, there was silence—except, of course, for a lone car-alarm wailing somewhere off in the distance.

In the centre of a shallow crater ringed with blackened pavers, Lenny raised a broken bottle. Slowly, channelling his inner angry drunk, he pushed it into the abdomen of the stunned Tyr.

“Now,” he growled, “tell me what the Fates have in store.”  

*
Judge #1’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 5
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 5
Total: 18

Judge #2’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 16
*

The Fall of Riven by Sean Crow

“It’s time to go.”

The words were spoken softly, but there was no hiding the certainty behind them. 

Zia didn’t turn right away, instead choosing to watch from her window as the Faithful’s mob finally toppled the statue of her great-grandfather, screaming gleeful obscenities as the image of their once prominent House shattered on the cobblestones below. The priests of the Hungry God shouted further encouragement from the rear of the frenzied gathering outside the estate.

Her father, barely able to stand with the Blight coursing through his body, had chosen to don his armor and stand at the gate with what remained of his honor guard. What had once been a proud assortment of Names and veteran soldiers were now a handful of grim-eyed loyalists who had chosen where they would die. Zia’s eyes lingered on the steel clad form of her father as the last remaining gate slowly gave way to the weight of numbers.

 “I’ve never seen such blind hatred before,” Zia said, rising from her place at the window.

She could not bear to watch his end.

Standing at the door, chain hauberk marred, his gauntlets spattered in bits of flesh and gore, was the Anvil. Unlike the remaining servants and lingering soldiers, the man didn’t seem perturbed by the violence just outside their home. 

The barrel chested Named man shrugged and awaited her command, one hand on the basket hilt longsword at his hip and the other on the punch dagger he carried. The Anvil of Riven held the same flinty eyed stare that so many of his enemies must have seen in his duels.

“Stay close to Donovan, my heart.” her father had said. “He has given his oath that he will keep you safe until it is time to return, and his promise is worth more than gold.”

Now Zia’s father had gone to meet the Creator on his feet, as was his duty. She would soon be the last of House Laird at the age of sixteen. A deep, gnawing anger rolled within her, tensing against the shackles of duty that kept it in check; defiant of the fear that lurked in the shadows of her heart. Zia was no warrior, but she was no coward either, for the women of House Laird understood that sacrifice and honor came before all else. Their prestige in Riven came not from the finances they gathered or the manipulation of Houses that so many others had prided themselves in before the Blight. 

House Laird was forged in the blood of Names and warriors who stood unbroken while lesser men fled. Their reputation for martial might was widely known and justifiably feared. It was also why the rioters had saved their estate for the end. Zia’s House had earned their right to rule through the strength of their sword arms and the unwavering nature of their resolve. 

So while the flames of civil unrest rushed throughout the Haven, exceeding that of the burn piles where so many of their dead had been tossed, it was nothing compared to the inferno raging within Zia.

Even after the Blight ravaged their leadership and reduced House Laird’s military might to a paltry few, the priests of the Hungry God and that glutton, the Butcher, had saved their House for last. They knew well that the death toll would be high, and now it was time to pay the price for insurrection against the Houses. 

“If I ordered you to accompany me to join my father, at the front, would you?” Zia asked, fixing Donovan with a hard stare.

Although he towered over Zia like some unyielding mountain, she had been given authority over her people many times over and had learned a great number of lessons from her mother. The first and most prominent in her mind, as always, was that the women of House Laird were born with wills of iron. It didn’t matter that she had seen the man before her end the lives of Names throughout the land, he was pledged to her, and Zia would test the worth of his word.

The hulking swordsman watched her for a moment, his dark eyes sparkling as his lip tugged up in a grin. “I admire your grit, m’lady, but I don’t much care what order you give. I gave your father my word I’d get you out, and that’s exactly what I intend.”

For a moment their wills met, and she could see that, while she prided herself in an ability to hold her own against the weak wills of House politics, this man lived and died by his own. There would be no authority that would break it.

As it should be.

“Very well,” she said. “Do you have the Ash Key?”

Donovan nodded, pulling the key from a chain around his neck. It was the only one in existence and would allow them to exit the city though the cistern tunnels that ran beneath their estate. From there, a wagon would be waiting with what good planting seed was left from the storehouses. 

“Then let’s be off,” she said, even as the screams outside the estate rose and the sound of steel on flesh began.

Zia longed to look one last time at her father, but she would rather remember the kindness in his eyes, than the killer he would become in his final moments.

It wasn’t enough that the Blight killed so many. Like the ‘Hungry God’ the priests claimed had punished their world, the disease was an insatiable beast. It ravaged the land and livestock as well, so that not even the survivors could pick up the pieces. Their world was dying, and House Laird had seen the writing on the wall before the rest.

Knowing it was only a matter of time before the fanatics and their gluttonous leader came for their storehouses, Zia and her father had planned an escape. Months before the first House fell, House’s Laird’s scouts had found a place that would give them a chance at survival, even if they had to start anew in the Blighted world outside of Riven. 

Even at the cost of so many lives. 

Yet the success of the Hungry God was beyond what anyone imagined. The city-wide feasting that came from raiding House foodstores, after years of ration lines, sent the people into a frenzy. The sickening cannibalism, that some had taken to in their twisted faith, was now a ritual of celebration. No longer were bodies set to flame in order to keep the Blight at bay. 

Now it was something one did to eat. 

Those of the House staff who could be trusted had gone on with Annabel, their last remaining advisor. The rest of the soldiers had gone to hold off the rioters, a final sacrifice so that something of their House and families who had gone ahead could survive. The world might be dying and its people gone mad, but House Laird would do as it had always done and forge a path during this time of decay.

The conflict outside the estate grew and Donovan set a steady pace down through the lower levels, eventually leading them through the cistern where the sound of steadily flowing water drowned out the screams of the dying. In the torchlight, Donovan’s face took on a grim appearance, his dark gaze shifting to the shadows around them in the dank depths beneath their home. The Named man’s hand never strayed from the sword belted on his hip.

Zia had often explored the cisterns when she was a child, usually receiving a firm hand and harsh words for her wanderings. Yet the aged history of their young society was one that interested her greatly. There was a small altar to the Creator located beside the Ash Gate which she had found interesting, for it had to have been erected during the foundation of Riven by one of her ancestors. The small murals around it were depicted differently than the temples of the modern age. 

In her youth, the water flowing beneath their city had been relatively clear and was a cool escape during the hot summer days. As Zia glanced at the flowing darkness below, she saw the bloated remains of countless dead that had not been burned. Death was a fact of life now, yet the smell of decay rolling up from the now fetid water was enough to make the bile rise in her throat.

Murmured words rose from the waters below. Faint at first but growing in strength the further they marched through the tunnels. Holding the torch Donovan gave her over the edge, she spotted a figure reaching up from the water below, nails bloody from raking against the stone walls. The light caste below showed a woman, gray skinned with swollen glands, drawn to the light.

 “Where are you my sweet? Where are you?” the woman garbled as the distress in her voice became wet laughter.

Donovan snatched Zia’s torch away and she could see a hardness in his eyes. “She’s well past death, lady. Withers have found their way down here, it’s best that you leave them be.”

Zia had heard of Withers but had yet to see one up close. Some folk, it was said, could live on after the Blight ran through them. Those poor souls were never the same; often becoming violent as the disease twisted their minds just as it did their bodies.

As they pushed on, she could hear the Wither’s laughter become a desperate scream.

“Where is he? WHERE IS HE?”

Zia repressed a shudder and continued, only to find Donovan had come to a stop. Ahead, she could see the locked Ash Gate illuminated by a brazier, which caused her heart to skip a beat. 

The cisterns should have been dark. 

While there were several entrances to the lower levels of Riven, only House Laird had the key to this particular exit. Someone was waiting, and they knew their prey had nowhere else to run. Donovan reached down and pulled a spare dagger from his boot and handed it to her, along with the Ash Key from around his neck.

“When I tell you,” he whispered, “make a run for the gate. Anyone grabs you, cut them wide and deep, then keep running.”

“What about you?” Zia asked.

“Lock the gate behind you. Annabel will know where to go. Don’t wait for me.”

 “No,” she said.

 Donovan’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t understand-”

“I understand your intent quite well, Anvil, and I will hold you to your word. If you intend to honor your oath to my father, then I will not have you throw your life away. We leave together, or not at all.”

Donovan began to growl something when Zia shouted, “Come out then, cowards. Or is your fear of House Laird so great that you would strike from the shadows?”

Donovan cast a withering glare at Zia as he drew his sword and punch dagger, just as three men stepped from the small alcove where the Creator’s Altar was located. In that moment, Zia contemplated her actions, for each of the three were known throughout Riven as Names to be feared.

The first to step out was a good head taller than Donovan, his movements smooth as he came to stand before them. He was known as Godsbane, a swordsman of renown and peerless skill. A political assassin, known to seek out and challenge any Name for the Houses willing to pay for his bloody service. Behind him came Linebreaker and the Asp. Both had earned their reputations on the battlefield and were, before the Blight, considered to be of substantial skill. 

“Fear the name of House Laird,” Godsbane chuckled, holding his hands up in mock fear. “Come down from the clouds child, your House has fallen.”

Zia gripped the hilt of Donovan’s dagger and held her ground. Ignoring the predator’s gaze, she set about a facade of disinterest. “Three Names for me? What brave men you must be.” Zia offered them a false smile. “Of course, when facing the Anvil, I can’t blame any of you for wanting to gather in numbers.”

“Bite your tongue, bitch,” Godsbane hissed. “I’ve taken him in single combat twice.”

Though the severity of their situation was dire, Zia forced out as condescending a laugh as she could. 

“Oh sweet man, you and a dozen others could say the same at the Festival of Houses. To bleed the Anvil is as much of an achievement as wiping your ass. In matters of death, all Names find themselves broken against the Anvil.”

“Not today,” Linebreaker snarled, stepping forward only to find Godsbane’s hand on his chest. 

“Know your place,” Godsbane said, the hint of violence in his voice an assertion of his station amongst the three. “The Anvil is mine.”

Donovan didn’t glance in her direction, but she felt the slight tap of his pinkie against her arm. A small indicator that violence was moments away. 

Stepping forward, the Anvil rolled his shoulders, raised his blades, and his bearing simply changed, like a man having stretched and was prepared to continue the work of his craft. The vigilant guardian, strong and quiet, vanished, and in its place was a being of certain and brutal violence.

When Donovan spoke, there was no bravado in his words. No passionate outcry of a desperate man before the end. The Anvil addressed the man before him as if he were of noted interest. “Come then lap dog, and die in place of the fat bastard you serve.”

Godsbane and the Anvil came together in a flurry of steel and blood. Their blades clashed four times, and the Anvil’s blood spattered the stones below as Godsbane’s sword sought a killing blow that never seemed to find the desired mark. On the fifth pass, something changed and suddenly Godsbane began falling back. Brief moments of perceived victory quickly turned as the Anvil measured his worth and found it wanting. Each strike grew faster as the Anvil gathered momentum. Godsbane’s retaliatory thrusts and slashes grew exceedingly more desperate and, despite scoring several cuts along Donovan’s arms and legs, none were deep enough to slow his terrible speed. 

In a sudden shift, Donovan ceased his momentum, leaving Godsbane desperate to defend as he took a premeditated step. The Anvil lowered his positioning, and dove forward, thrusting the punch dagger deep into the meat of Godbane’s thigh. The Name cried out, eyes wild in disbelief as he screamed, “Kill him!”
           
The other two sprang into action, but Donovan was already amongst them. The first to go down was Linebreaker as Donovan punched his basket hilt into the warrior’s face. The bones there gave way to steel as he crumbled to the ground. Asp made a disciplined slash, his sword impacting the Anvil’s midsection when a heavy thud. A grunt escaped Donovan’s lips, but his hauberk held and the injury did nothing to slow his blade as he thrust it through the side of the Asp’s face. The blade exited the back of his neck before being ripped out with savage efficiency.

           
Seeing his companions downed, Godsbane hobbled back. The Named man froze as his back pressed against the Creator’s Altar. Gone was the predator who thought himself amongst prey.

Donovan wasn’t far behind, blood dripping from the wounds they managed to slide past his guard as he stalked toward Godsbane. 

           
The two Names stood opposite each other for a moment. Godsbane gripped his sword in both hands now as his lifeblood oozed out of his thigh. A blow meant to sever an artery that had just missed. 

           
“You won’t fucking survive out there,” Godbane hissed, testing the weight on his punctured leg. “Butcher will see to that.”

           
Words ceased as the two came together, their blades touching twice before Donovan severed the other swordsman’s wrist. As Godsbane’s sword clattered to the ground, Donovan moved in and sank his dagger deep, his cold dark eyes staring into Godsbane’s own.

           
“Perhaps,” Donovan said as he shoved Godsbane atop the altar. “But you won’t be around to see if you’re right.”

Godsbane tried to rise from the altar, desecrating the holy site with arterial blood that pumped from his severed wrist and thigh. Attempting to get to his feet, the pool of blood building on the stones caused him to slip and fall down. He made a few more attempts, but his strength was fading and eventually he went still. Donovan walked over to Linebreaker as he stirred from unconsciousness, knelt down at the prone warrior’s side, and quickly cut his throat.

Zia watched the Anvil with a mixture of awe and terror. While violence was not unknown to her, the sheer brutality of the man was something else entirely. 

Donovan turned to look at her. Blood still trickled from the many lacerations he had sustained and she could see the way in which his eyes tightened with every breath. “Best get moving, m’lady. These were the first to find us. That glutton won’t stop there.”

 Feeling the shawl of responsibility return, Zia turned her gaze away from the bits of skin still clinging to the basket hilt of Donovan’s sword and nodded. Striding over the bodies, Zia unlocked the Ash Gate and locked it behind them. 

Donovan’s breathing became more labored, but the Named man gave no other indication that they should stop until the light of day broke through the darkness. As they emerged where the cistern fed into the nearby river, Zia could see the horses waiting on the edge of a forest of twisted trees and dying undergrowth. 

The Godless Lands, as they were now known. A fitting name for such a bleak place. Yet glancing back at the Anvil, she did not fear the prospect of the hardships ahead. 

For the men and women of House Laird knew the price of survival, and they would not falter.  


*
Judge #1’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 5
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 17

Judge #2’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 5
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 17
*

Ashen Revenant by Frank Dorrian

A detonation tore through the heart of the battlefield, sorcerous power spewing violet and golden flames skyward in a twisting cloud. The shockwave flattened men of both sides in waves, their screams shuddering up the hillside with a sickly pulse.

Yarran blinked back stinging afterimages, forced his vision back together, and gaped at the abomination rising over the Kardathi Highlands. A pillar of miscoloured flame scraped the sky, churning its way upward through the clouds. Bodies and charred earth were falling like burnt leaves, arcing away from the inferno, dissolving to ash as they fell or bursting apart as they hit the ground.

The fighting had stopped, Yarran realised, picking himself up from the ground – the armies of both the Kingdom of Obaerun and the Vostarran Republic flattened and decimated. Those that could were already fleeing, scattering in every direction, peeling away like ants into the folds and cracks of the highlands. Most lay where they’d fallen, too wounded or dumbfounded to do much else than stare at the obscenity churning in their midst.

‘Healers! Healers!’

Yarran remembered himself as the rest of the Mycellan Healers unit slouched uncertainly down the hillside from beneath Lord Phaerloc’s leaning banner. He shot after them, phial-pouch clattering at his side, unable to rip his eyes from that pillar of sorcerous flame dominating the battlefield. Which side had unleashed it? Obaerun? Vostarra? Were things truly so desperate they had no fucking care for how many of their own died?

‘Closer to the fire!’ Healer-Serjeant Belsen hollered back at the unit, hurdling the fallen. ‘I don’t give a fuck what sigil’s on their shirt, critical wounded first! The Vostarrans, too! Save as many as you can!’

Yarran echoed the unit’s grunt, his stare still unbroken as he slid across gravel into the first rows of fallen, screaming men, his eyes still fixed upon the blazing pillar. The clouds were twisting about it where it punched through them, a bruised vortex staining the sky.

The cries of the fallen grew deafening as the healers drove deeper into the blast site. The battlefield, already filled with the piled dead of Vostarra and Obaerun’s war, was littered with the shrieking half-charred that thrashed amid the silent dead, the wandering numb, gibbering wrecks crumbling to ash as sorcery took hold, and more shredded limbs than Yarran could count. In all his years in the Mycellan Healing Houses, he’d never seen anything so utterly fucked as this.

The stones cracked like glass as the healers reached the blast’s edge and dispersed. None among them needed Belsen’s orders for a job like this. Yarran skidded to a halt in the midst of chaos, surrounded by men whose bodies were broken and fucked beyond all hope, shutting out the desperate pleas on every side to find the ones that needed his attention first. A young Vostarran lad lay to Yarran’s side, silent, jaw clenched and eyes bulging as he gawped at his frozen arm, the hand at its end crumbling to dust. The armour across his chest had been rent by the blast, a mess of burnt flesh and bone yawning beneath.

Yarran dropped to a knee beside him, phial-bag clinking as he shrugged it from his shoulder to enact basic trauma protocols. Water from Irra’s sacred lake to cleanse the wounds. Clotweed paste for the bleeding. Distillation of sereth amber for the pain. A prayer to the Healing Mother you didn’t fuck her rituals up so bad there was no coming back for the poor bastard on the receiving end.

‘Chew this,’ Yarran grunted, shoving a bundle of serethleaf into the lad’s mouth. His skin crawled putridly, prickling with something unnatural. He cut a glance up at the churning pillar of fire. Gold and violet flames were writhing skyward, slithering over one another like the coupling of serpents. A phial of clotweed slipped from his grasp and shattered as Yarran recoiled.

Something moved within the inferno – a monstrous, long limbed shape, wrought of the flames it scraped and thrashed against with its many-fingered hands. A vast, fanged mouth, wrought all of golden fire, bellowing silent hatred at the world beyond its prison. Another face surfaced through the flames beside it, snuffling at its confines. There were more of them, all fighting, wrestling one another to find a place at the fore and leer at the devastation they had loosed upon the world of men.

Fresh screams tore Yarran’s attention back to the present. One of the Mycellan Healers, Galdin, darted past him, clutching at an arm that hung in red ruin at his side. ‘Get away from them! Fucking run!’

‘What –’

Yarran’s question died with a choke as the Vostarran lad at his feet seized him by the tunic with his remaining hand. His eyes were corpse-white, dancing with the sorcerous flames at their side, his bloody teeth bared in a dead man’s rictus. ‘This world is ours, child,’ the lad hissed with a voice that shook the earth. ‘It has always been ours.’

Yarran spun away, and found Healer-Serjeant Belsen stood behind him. A grin split the Serjeant’s bloodstained face, the gaping wound in his throat pissing blood as he slammed the broken end of a spear up through Yarran’s jaw and into his skull.

*

The Scribe raised its head from its blessed work as the hall’s stone doors ground open again, spilling miserable sunlight and wretched sound through the hallowed corridors of the Forlorn Archive. It craned it’s head upon a scrawny neck, scratching at the bandage that covered the eyeless, scabbing holes in its face. Footsteps echoed from outside. Fleeing the solitude of its alcove, it rushed to meet them on all fours like a beast.

The Wardens and their sacred work could not be disturbed yet again.

A party of four stepped through the door, bearing a litter between them. Men and women of what had once been the Vostarran Republic. Mercenaries. Dogs begging for scraps from those that thrived in the face of what lesser beings cowered before. They stopped in their tracks as the Scribe skidded across the stone before them, barring their way in a crouch, its hiss shuddering from the Archive’s holy walls.

‘Far enough! Far enough!’ It swept their group with a lipless snarl, stub-nose snuffling. ‘Your stink violates the sanctity of my masters’ halls! Leave, before they show you what depths lay beneath these stones!’

‘Meat order for the Silent Wardens,’ one of the churls at the fore said, mopping a sunburnt brow. The Scribe sniffed the air, shot between them with another hiss to prod at the litter they carried.

‘Dead. Dead-dead! Bah! Too far gone! You would defile their holy altars with this filth! Remove it!’

‘Freshest we could find,’ one of the other serfs snapped. ‘You ever seen a two-month old battlefield corpse? Not fucking pretty.’

‘This one’s not too bad,’ said the lead one again, scratching at a patchy, louse-riddled beard. ‘Looks like he was Obaeran scum, but he fits the bill. Made sure to wrap him up good for you. Not many Untainted left, these days, with your masters’ appetite. Plenty of Tainted still roaming that place though. Wasn’t easy. We expect paying properly for it this time round, you shitcave rat.’

The boor’s thumb traced the handle of the knife thrust through his belt.

The Scribe snarled, fished within its tattered robes, plucked out a stained purse of clinking Archivist gold and threw it in shadows for them to scurry after. ‘Leave the meat, take your golden promise, and go,’ it snapped, crawling over the stinking bundle they left behind, long fingers prying and stub-nose snuffling.

Yes. Yes, this one would suit the Wardens just fine, after all.

*

A mindless shell. Flesh and bone, driven by instinct and base purpose. Worthless in life. Death shall give you meaning. The Molg the Devourer has been freed from his amulet, and the Shunned Gods have returned to Eirra. Their putrid Rune of Cleaving pierces the Sundering Veil, and our worlds begin to meld.

You alone can stop them. Take up the Ashen Key, carry it into their flame, and seal their blasphemy back into the void for good.

Rise. Death has no hold on you in our presence.

*

Yarran’s vision bled back through darkness as whispered words flittered through the emptiness within his head. The Kardathi Highlands yawned before him. Different to they had been only a moment before, a shattered image of their former beauty.

That accursed pillar of flame still burned, piercing land and sky remorselessly, yet the sky itself now burned – churning liquid sulphur. The scraggly plants that grew in this place were gone, and the endless gravel worn to dust and sand. The dead from Obaerun and Vostarra’s battle studded it, grim islands in windswept sand. Men were wandering the waste, shrivelled, shambling forms ankle-deep in sand, their armour ragged and hanging from withered frames.

Yarran noticed the solid weight that sat in his hand. He raised a grey, peeling palm to his face. A length of dull metal sat upon it, its face etched with runes that flickered with faint sorcery, their light marred by splotches of rot from his hand.

He pondered the state of himself for a cold moment, plucking at the stained ceremonial robe he was clad in, before his mind wandered. He realised he could see it then – the foul pulse of sorcery emanating from that ungodly pillar of flame, corroding and warping all that it touched. It was like distortion, bleeding into where it had no place, reducing reality to a shadow of itself.

It had to be stopped.

Yarran slouched forward without thought, ambling toward the flame that had obliterated the Highlands, his body corpse stiff and reluctant.

Shadows of the battle passed Yarran by as he made that agonising journey through the rows of the dead and the rotten. Shambling corpses turned harrowed faces toward him as he strode toward the pillar, fleshless hands reaching with a hunger that was not their own. Yarran hurried on, the words he had awoken to echoed through the cracks of his mind.

You alone can stop them. Take up the Ashen Key, carry it into their flame, and seal their blasphemy back into the void for good.

The blazing pillar filled his vision, waves of sorcery pulsing endlessly from it as he stood upon the precipice of the blast crater. Yarran could see the forms trapped within the flame once again – leering, monstrous faces, jostling to watch his approach. The shadows of something greater, more terrible, pressing themselves upon the mortal world.

Who had unleashed this upon the world? Who would do such a thing?

The thoughts came slow, as if surfacing through chilled oil, pushing aside the endless urge to deliver the metal object in his hand into the flames. Something caught Yarran’s eye down the blackened slope that led to where the flames pierced and made a molten lake of the earth. Bodies. Countless bodies. Not the battlefield dead that littered the Highland wastes in broken, rotting armour. They were desiccated things, clad in tattered ceremonial robes that trailed streamers of ash into the wind.

Yarran plucked at the robes clinging to his chest, a vague frown creasing his face as he stepped down into the crater, shuffling his way toward the burning inferno as though hooks were sunk into his every limb. Their robes. They were the same as his. Endless numbers of them, all collapsed and facing the flame.

Lengths of metal glimmered within each hand.

Yarran paused, a horrid realisation setting in, and found himself stood upon the edge of where the ground became a molten lake of fire around the flame. The faces within it watched him with a harrowing lust. He wondered again, a glacial horror creeping through him – who had brought this upon the world?

Offering of Ash. Step forth into the flames.

Yarran’s weary eyes swept the crater’s edge as the words slithered through his mind. Figures ringed the crater as far as he could see, their forms wavering with the flame’s sorcerous distortion, but clear enough to mark the grey robes they wore, and the empty masks that hid their faces.

Offering of Ash. Step forth. Fulfil your duty where your forebears failed.

Yarran’s revulsion was crushed beneath a smothering, unseen fist that closed about what little remained of his mind. He turned toward the flame as the figures raised their hands to the sky as one, and stepped into the molten lake, flames racing up the flesh of his legs.

Voices tore through the roar of the conflagration like thunder spewed from the tongues of men, a choir bellowing as one to shake the very bones of the earth.

Those Who Were Shunned. We give you this final sacrifice of untainted purity. This last oath with which to build our bridge to the Time of Decay. Come to us. We are the Wardens, the Disciples of Fallen Elenyr. And we are silent no longer.

Sparks flew from the metal object in Yarran’s hand, the runes traced upon it bursting to life with crackling power that shot through his body, pouring from his flesh like chained lightning to lash against the flames and the fallen, peeling back the layers of Yarran’s being. He saw the rotting flesh of his arm peel away like ash beneath its fury, the blackened bones beneath covered in minute runes that glowed with hidden fire.

Yarran tried to scream, push the horror and madness of it from him. Darkness snapped shut upon his mind, the last words of the Silent Wardens echoing into the void it brought.

This world is yours. Do with it as you will.

*
Judge #1’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 5
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 5
Total: 18

Judge #2’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 16
*

The Key to It All by K.L. Schwengel

Baurahn sniffed and forced down bile at the overwhelming stench of the men working at digging through the crumbled wall. Rot and decay. They would likely all be dead in a matter of days. There was no escaping it these days. Not even within himself. At least, not yet.

“Get on with it.” Baurahn’s horse shifted nervously beneath him. A reflection of his impatience and thin temper. 

“Apologies, m’lord.” One of the nameless drudges working the picks dipped his head, flinching as though Baurahn had flicked a whip at him.

A tempting thought, to be sure, but he had already lost three workers in as many days. He could ill afford to lose any more. Not yet. 

“The stone is thick and mightily hard and…” The drudge edged further away. “Ulnit is ailing and Forn injured his hand.”

Baurahn pushed his mount forward, crowding into the man. “Spare me your excuses. I will return with the dusk. I expect you to be finished.” 

It was an unreasonable expectation, Baurahn knew that. Just as unreasonable as the savagery with which he yanked his horse’s head around before setting spur to flank. The gelding’s black tipped ears flattened and he tossed his head, lurching forward as though attempting to flee his rider. Baurahn relaxed his hold, giving the beast his head and allowing him to run out his anxiety. The pounding of the horse’s hooves, throwing up clods of dirt, helped sooth Baurahn’s temper… to a degree.

He had no destination. No reason to be leaving the ruins of the temple behind. None beyond needing to distance himself from the fate they shared if the Hag proved deceitful. She had made Baurahn a promise. A promise for which he had paid an inordinate amount of gold: within the ruins of the temple of Kash m’Thown, the very same ruins blocked by several tons of rock, Baurahn would find the key to curing the disease decimating the men of Mismon. 

Not that Baurahn had a burning desire to save the world. The vast majority of people deserved whatever horrendous fate was thrown at them. Even his own subjects were, for the most part, replaceable. It was his own future Baurahn feared for.

A frustrated growl verging on a scream erupted from Baurahn’s throat and he sat deep in the saddle, hauling the gelding to a sliding stop. The horse’s sides heaved beneath Baurahn’s legs; the deep bay coat slick with foam. The beast coughed and chomped at its bit and Baurahn hoped it wasn’t about to drop dead beneath him. As of yet, the strange affliction running rampant through Mismon hadn’t affected animals. Or children. Or women, for that matter. Only men. Slow, and insidious. A painful, decay from the inside out. A curse, the Hag had said. A manifestation of man’s greed.

Baurahn scoffed. He was a fool to trust the Hag. He knew more greedy, manipulative bitches than their male counterparts and his own wife ruled them both figuratively and literally. He would have been rid of Fellysan years past but she held the lower moor, a deceptively valuable tract of land on Mismon’s southern border. That was nearly her only worth. Though, he had to admit, she was an exquisite and willing lover. Yet their many unions had earned Baurahn three daughters, each one raised in their mother’s image. Since Fellysan could not seem to give him a son, Baurahn had turned to his mistress. Well, several mistresses, until he found success. Six months later, the boy was among the first to succumb to the nameless blight eating its way through the capital.    

Yes, Baurahn was perhaps a fool to lay any faith in the Hag but he had little choice. His own advisors were either dead or incompetant. And his chief surgeon was preoccupied with dissecting corpses, as though rotted innards would provide a solution. 

Baurahn’s nose wrinkled of its own accord. His surgeon was skilled at stitching wounds and setting bones, the best in Mismon, but Baurahn found his obsession with death and peeling apart bodies disgusting and more than a little disturbing.

 “Have you found the key?”

The rasped question came out of nowhere startling both Baurahn and his horse. The gelding tossed his head and danced sideways, away from the bent, gnarled excuse for a woman standing suddenly on the side of the tract. A twisted pipe jutted from the corner of her thin mouth, a curl of dark smoke circling up and around her head.

“How is it you are here, Hag?”

She pulled on the pipe; let out a stream of smoke around a chuckle. “I am where I am when I am. How is it you are here, Lord? Why are you not at the temple?”

“My workers are –” Baurahn stopped himself. He owed this decrepit, old cow no explanations of his actions. His guts churned suddenly and he tasted blood. His blood. He turned his head and spat. That had been happening more frequently over the past days.

“So close,” the Hag said. “Death rides at your shoulder, Lord.”

Baurahn drew the back of his hand across his mouth and fixed her with a narrowed glare. “Your death will swiftly follow mine should this key of yours open nothing.”

The Hag clicked her tongue at the empty threat. “Such irrational anger. Such ferocity. You should be thanking me for showing you the way.”

“Gold was all the thanks you’ll get from me.”

“The less fortunate crowding Almon’s gates appreciate your generosity.” The Hag turned to look back the way Baurahn had come. “You should hasten your return, Lord, lest your loyal workers breach the opening without you. They may be tempted to play the robbers and abscond with your treasure.”

“This key… what does it unlock? How will I know what’s to be done with it?”

The Hag smiled up at him; chapped and stained lips parting to reveal blackened and rotting teeth. “I will be there at the end, Lord. Never fear. It is as I said it would be. It is the key to your salvation. Do you have such little faith in my words?”

“I have little faith or trust in the words of any woman, Hag. You, perhaps, least of all.”

Bony shoulders rose and fell in a shrug. “As you will, Lord. As always. Hasten, now, or the choice will no longer be yours.”

And with that she began shuffling along the tract away from Baurahn and in the opposite direction of the temple. 

“Where are you going?” Baurahn called after her.

The Hag waved a hand above her head without looking back. “Never fear. I will be where I am when I am.”

Baurahn growled his irritation. Pain pricked in his guts as though he had swallowed shards of glass. He opened his mouth to call to the Hag, clamped his lips shut and spun his horse, tearing back to the temple with as much haste as he had left.

***

One of the workers sprawled in the dirt off to one side of the gaping hole through the mass of stone outside the temple. The others parted like grass as Baurahn strode past, groveling, eyes lowered, frantic looks anywhere but at him. 

What a waste, Baurahn mused, his focus on the dark opening beckoning him. What would it matter if they all fell, to a man? None. I, on the other hand? He shook his head to silence the thought. Soon enough he would be healed. He would get himself another son by another mistress and send the boy far from Mismon until this horror passed.

It took a moment for Baurahn’s eyes to adjust to the gloom inside the temple. He searched about for a lantern, found instead a brazier loaded with oil soaked tinder and a few logs. A few strikes of a nearby flint and the fire leapt to life with such unexpected ferocity Baurahn was forced back, shielding his eyes with an arm until the flames settled.

The room was smaller than Baurahn would have thought. An altar sat at its center, several alcoves broke the smooth curve of the wall, each with a carven image of some deity or another, but there were no other doorways or exits. More importantly, Baurahn saw no key of any sort.

The light from the brazier outlined something atop the altar and Baurahn moved in cautiously for a closer look. The temple – though calling it that seemed pretentious even by Baurahn’s standards – set his nerves on edge. It must have had the same effect on the workers as they made no attempt to follow him in. In any case, the object on the altar was no key but a literal pile of crap. Old, perhaps, as it had no odor, but crap nonetheless and human looking at that. Still…

Baurahn cast about for something to push the feces out of the way. He found nothing, so using his dagger he flicked the excrement aside. To his relief and, admittedly, disappointment, there was no key under it.

“Devils take it!” 

“Oh, come, my Lord. Such impatience does not become a man of your standing.”

Baurahn whipped around to face the Hag, his dagger naked in his hand, a snarl across his face. Another pain ripped through him, almost doubling him over. “Where is it? Where is this key you promised?”

The Hag reached a hand into the bodice of her smock and drew out a dull grey key attached to a leather thong around her neck. “It is here, Lord. For safekeeping.”

Baurahn stared in disbelief. “You had it? All this time? What game is this, Hag?”

A cough took him then. Deep and painful, bringing up globs of blood and phlegm. Baurahn clutched at the edge of the altar. He held out a hand to the Hag. “The key. Give it to me. Quickly, Hag.”

“Of course, Lord. Of course.” 

She slipped the leather thong over her head and held the key out to him. Baurahn snatched it from her but as his fingers closed around it, the key disintegrated to nothing more than ash. Baurahn stared in disbelief for a moment before letting out a roar, part fury, part pain. He doubled over then, falling to his knees, spewing a mouthful of his innards across the floor.

“I’ll kill you, Hag.”

“Oh, love, when will you learn?”

Baurahn looked up, blinking sweat from his eyes. The voice was smoother, cleaner than the Hag’s, though it was the Hag who still stood there. A smile creased her worn face and then, like a mirror shattering, the Hag’s visage splintered and fell away to reveal a much younger, much lovelier woman. A woman Baurahn thought he knew well until now.

“Fellysan?”

His wife reached a hand out to gently lift his chin. “Hello, my dear.”

“What is this? What have you done?”

Her smile, gentle as ice and twice as cold, never faltered. “Rid Mismon of its ineffectual, tyrant of a ruler, of course.”

“You will not… see this through. You cannot kill me.”

“No? I think I already have.” She stood then and strolled leisurely around the temple. “Do you know why those men outside won’t venture in to save you, even should you command it? Even should they hear your screams and pleas?” She stopped at one of the alcoves and lifted the statue, turning it in her hands before placing it reverently back. “They believe the temple of Kash m’Thown to be cursed. It is not, of course. That is little more than a tale I concocted many years past when this whole plan was formed.”

Baurahn tried to regain his feet but the agony twisting his insides refused to allow it.

Fellysan squatted down near Baurahn. “I enjoyed killing your son. More so, I enjoyed seeing your pain when you heard of it. Sad the innocent babe had to suffer, but his death could be no different than any of the others lest suspicion be raised. And his death, like the others, is on your hands, Husband.”

“Bitch!” Blood flecked his lips with the word.

“Witch, love. There is a difference.” She stood, looking down at him for a long while, the smile never lessening. “Worry not.” She laid a hand across her stomach then. “This child is a boy. My son. I will hold the throne for him and, along with his sisters, we shall make Mismon what you never could.”

Baurahn tried once again to get to his feet, swearing, cursing the woman with his failing breath. She laughed and the sound twisted into a grating sound, like cartwheels on cobbles. It was the Hag standing there then, as Baurahn’s vision faltered. 

Then the Hag’s voice, “Our Lord has perished. He has succumbed to the illness. Let this cursed temple become his tomb.” Fellysan’s voice after that, for his ears alone, “Goodbye, Love. Sleep well.”

*
Judge #1’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 3
Characters: 4
Plot: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 15

Judge #2’s Scores
Worldbuilding: 4
Characters: 4
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 15
*

OVERALL STANDINGS AS OF AUGUST 2022

Frank Dorrian: 69

Joe Coates: 68

Sean Crow: 67

K.L. Schwengel: 62