October 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 October 2022

None!

The Hunt Within by Sean Crow

Lars, known to many in his occupation as Three Shot, told Joben the stream wasn’t safe. He said time and again not to go out in the open on a hunt. Yet his young apprentice hadn’t conserved the water in his canteen, another failed lesson, and thirst got the better of him. As it stood, the young man’s insides now painted the snow crimson. Joben’s face was stuck between surprise and confusion. It stayed that way even after his head left his body.

This would be Lars’ third apprentice in as many years. 

He probably shouldn’t have given the would-be Hunter the lead on this particular contract, but that was retrospect for you. Each time he thought an apprentice ready to go it on his own, giving them the benefit of the doubt, he was proven wrong. It was a wonder the Academy even bothered sending him fresh apprentices each year. He told the Headmaster that the rigors of Academy training weren’t enough to prepare these lads for the nightmares that awaited them, but nothing changed.

After the Midnight Campaign, the lands became rife with roaming beasts. After the Tsarvan Practitioners were rounded up and executed, the Void touched beasts were untethered to their masters. They were fully unleashed .

If the Academy was willing to turn a blind eye to number of dead apprentices under his guidance, that must have meant that other Hunters were losing apprentices at a higher rate than he.

Perhaps he should be flattered?

The beast’s deep, rumbling growl drew Lars’ mind back to the now.

Right, Lars thought, I’ve still got a problem on my hands.

The massive Vulfkin towered over him, each lumbering step bringing bloodstained jaws closer. Taloned hands twitched in anticipation of another kill. It’s golden eyes were focused on Lars with single-minded intent. Worst of all, Lars thought, the damn thing smelled like the Half-Dead in summer. He fought the urge to pull the perfumed kerchief from his pocket instead of the Wolfsbane.

It was near thing.

Instead, he took up his pouch and poured a liberal amount in the barrel of his flintlock pistol as he slowly backed away. If his initial shot didn’t kill it, the additional Wolfsbane in the air might buy him time to draw another pistol or go for his saber. Seeing the hulking beast come closer Lars did not relish the idea of close combat. Sabers were such a dirty bit of business. Better a clean kill from a distance.

Four years back, when the Midnight Campaign was in full swing, Lars had managed to take a Vulfkin with his saber after it broke through the battalion of riflemen. He had tracked it’s movement and met the beast before it could rip any more of those helpless sods apart.

One he was confident he could take, unfortunately the Vulfkin wasn’t alone.

Looking past the beast, he spotted a pair of Black Wolves across the stream.

Now those were a concern, Lars thought as he continued his slow walk backwards, keeping an eye on the Vulfkin. It didn’t charge immediately, for it was still trying to figure out why he didn’t run like the rest of its prey. Dangerous as they were, Vulfkin still behaved like animals. The same could not be said for Black Wolves.

Unlike their bloodthirsty friend stalking toward him, Black Wolves were almost as crafty as their former masters. They would either join in while he was distracted or, should he succeed in felling the Vulfkin, retreat and wait until nightfall to devour his mind.

He had seen what a devoured mind looked like and didn’t relish the prospect. Rotted a man’s brain, making him see things he shouldn’t. A hunter’s worst nightmare.

The Vulfkin snarled as it got closer, likely smelling the Wolfsbane in the air.

“I haven’t forgotten you ‘ol chap,” Lars said, settling into a pistoleer stance. “I’m afraid you shouldn’t have killed those farmers.”

Was it farmers? For a moment Lars paused as he tried to remember. No, that had been his last hunt. What had this one killed?

The question rose in his mind and vanished almost immediately. Vulfkin killed just about anything they got their hands on, he thought. Didn’t much matter what this one had killed. Best to put them down on site.

“Moreover,” Lars continued, “you made a mess of my new apprentice. Poor sod’ll never dance again.”

The beast’s shoulders hunched ever so slightly, a clear indication of a lunge. Predictable, as most animals were. Just as it began to move, Lars steadied himself, aimed, and squeezed the trigger.

The flintlock boomed in his hand and the great beast fell face first into the snow. His shot had taken it square between the eyes. A leg twitched, kicking mud, shoulders spasmed, one hand clenched and unclenched nothing. Much like a concert bereft its conductor, each instrument played its own tune until it finally went still.

Swift, clean, and mostly painless.

A proper way to go.

Lars glanced up from the body, not seeing any sign of the Black Wolves that had been watching earlier.

He reloaded his flintlock in a professional manner, swift and unhurried, not a hint of trembling fingers. Nerves had been a terrible thing to overcome, he mused as he withdrew the ramrod, eyes never watching what his hands did. Instead, he scanned the tree line around the stream.

Watch what you’re doing, he told himself as he reloaded. A common reminder for a man like Lars Three Shot. He still struggled at times with the trembling, especially during combat.

The sudden contradiction of thought made him stop.

Calm as he prided himself in being, Lars knew the aftermath of conflict. He always had a damnable time reloading, hence why he kept two more pistols ready and loaded in reserve. He wasn’t called Three Shot for nothing. Yet he had just reloaded the weapon in his hand with pristine efficiency. He couldn’t actually recall a time he had ever done so.

Immediately, Lars focused on his surroundings. He was at a stream, in a forest, hunting a Vulfkin. What forest was he in? In which Province?

Lars was never one to go into a hunt without pouring over maps of the area. He prided himself in knowing the country he traveled before he ever stepped foot in the area. In fact, he always knew the crime for which his prey was wanted. The fact that he hadn’t been able to place the deed of this particular beast meant something wasn’t right.

A deep, rumbling growl sounded just over his shoulder. Like quicksilver, he turned, pistol raised, only to find no target before him. Still, the growling continued.

Then it dawned on him.

Black Wolves seldom showed themselves if they could help it and hastened to cover and shadow when they were exposed. Yet the two he spotted earlier just stood there, watching him face off against a Vulfkin, which was one of their main defense against Hunters like him. Without a full pack, the only time they committed a Vulfkin to defend them were when they ran out of options. Yet Lars had simply ignored that fact.

Or, he thought, his mind was not his own.

As he focused on the tree line, realization sank in. Nothing lay beyond it, just fog and mist. What he was seeing wasn’t real. Or it was, but drastically altered. He had been caught in a mental trap, and the world around him was twisted by the Void gifted abilities of the Black Wolves he was hunting.

Lars wasn’t nearing danger; he was already knee deep in it. His mind was likely being devoured as he stood there. 

Dismissing the pistol to the frozen earth, he reached a hand into his Wolfsbane pouch. 

Empty.

It had been full when he shot the Vulfkin. Yet the Black Wolves were several steps ahead of him. They already knew he figured it out and were altering his perception. It was a first for Lars, yet he didn’t hesitate as training took over. Lars took deep, slow breaths, focusing on who he was and where he had come from. He had to ground himself in reality. Slowly, the world at the edge of the clearing seemed to warble, and his confidence grew.

Suddenly a cry sounded from the wrecked form of his apprentice. Lars glanced by the stream to see Joben reaching out to him.

“Help me,” the young man whimpered, eyes pleading, blue lips trembling.

Lars found himself striding toward his apprentice without a thought. The young man hadn’t been wounded as grievously as he’d originally believed. Amazing considering his head had been…

Lars stopped, catching the deception before he bought into it too deeply.

Clever beasts.

“Sorry Joben, but your head isn’t on quite right,” he told the dead man.

The world shifted again and the remains of his apprentice were once more laying beside the stream. Gore and bits of body strewn about as he remembered them. Joben’s head, facing Lars, stared at him with wide, unblinking eyes.

Lars reached once more into his pouch of Wolfsbane. It didn’t matter that it had been empty. This was a battle of the mind. It wasn’t real. Therefore it stood to reason that he could make real what wasn’t and possibly break free. Concentrating his will, Lars convinced himself that Wolfsbane would be found. 

His fingers dipped in and, after a moment of feeling nothing, he found a small pinch of the ground herb within.

Slowly, keeping his focus on the product, he drew it to his lips.

Another growl sounded behind him, deep and foreboding, which he ignored. His hand trembled as he brought it to his mouth. If he could just get a bit of it in his system, it might give him an edge…

Then Joben’s head started screaming. 

The Wolfsbane in his hand wavered, flickering in and out of existence as his dead apprentice let loose a series of unearthly shrieks.

Lars found himself screaming as well as he brought the fading herb to his mouth, tucking it under his lip and drawing it into himself. He closed his eyes as the world around him trembled as what felt like fire raged in his skull.

When Lars opened his eyes once more, he was at the edge of the tree line, facing the creek. The world was brighter and had come into focus as it should have been. There was no fog or mist in the background, just more trees, and brush. The bitter taste of Wolfsbane filled his mouth as the dried grains dug into his gums where he tucked it. Doing a quick mental check, Lars was relieved that he remembered the creek was called Antlers Branch and he was in the Halvasi Province; on the hunt for a pair of Black Wolves.

He was back in control.

Joben still lay dead, but not in so messy a way as he had been in the illusion. Unlike the images portrayed by the mental trap Lars had been in, Joben was nowhere near the stream, but rather at his feet. His face frozen somewhere between surprise and terror. A single hole between his eyes and bits of skull behind a clear indication of the cause of death. 

“Looks like they got the drop on us after all,” he told his dead apprentice.

No time to mourn the lad or question his own inability at keeping him safe. He had been duped and now Black Wolves were about.

Lars reached for the second pistol strapped to the bandoleer over his jacket as he scanned the area. As the moments stretched, he spotted one wolf laying low to the ground, brush covering all but its muzzle. He didn’t draw down on it just yet, as he continued his sweep. Shooting to kill one without knowing where the other was might just spell his end.

The other crouched beside a large, moss-covered boulder. This one hadn’t done as sufficient a job in finding cover as its counterpart. Yellow eyes locked on him as he continued pretending to search the area. Slowly he pulled his third pistol from his hip. Only a fool would attempt to fire two pistols at once, but if could transfer the fresh pistol to his right once he fired the initial shot, he might be able to put them both down before they made another attempt on his mind. 

He could do this…

Lars eased into the pistoleer stance once more, then shifted his weight suddenly and fired at the first of the two wolves. 

The Black Wolf let out a sharp cry, dragging it’s back legs as it tried to get away. Lars knew it was a mortal wound and immediately turned his attention on the last beast.

Dropping his used pistol, Lars switched his remaining flintlock to his dominant hand. Sighting down at the second wolf by the boulder, he was about to pull the trigger when the boulder itself shifted. For a moment he thought they had managed to twist his reality again, but it was only then he realized the boulder wasn’t covered in moss at all, but rather matted hair. What he thought to be a boulder, untucked itself and stood.

Lars found himself facing not just a lone Black Wolf, but a massive Vulfkin as well.

Two opponents and only one more shot.

Lars chuckled darkly, “Well played beast.”

The Vulfkin flexed its massive claws, shoulders bunching. The Black Wolf at its side snarled and kept close.

Keeping the pistol aimed, Lars slowly drew the saber at his side with his off hand. “Time for a bit of the dirty business then.”

As the Vulfkin let out a challenging roar, Lars fired his last shot at the remaining Black Wolf, not quite seeing where his shot hit, before dropping the pistol and transitioned his saber to his dominate hand. The Vulfkin barreled toward him, closing the distance between them. He just managed to block the first set of talons that descended upon him and his confidence soared for a few brief moments before the beast’s other hand hit him.

While the gambeson and chain under his coat held, the impact was accompanied by the breaking of ribs and the quick exiting of air from his lungs. Lars felt himself lifted from the earth before hitting the ground hard.

Instinct and training took over as he rolled through. Lars didn’t earn his place as a Hunter without knowing what to do if something big and nasty tagged him, but it had been years since anything had and his wits were rattled by the impact.

The snapping of wet branches alerted Lars to the Vulfkin’s unrelenting approach. Lars’ limbs protested his every movement, and his lungs were on fire as he struggled to breathe. With what strength he could manage, he brought his saber up in a two handed grip which his thrust forward as the Vulfkin descended upon him. The blade went through its midsection but was soon torn from his weakened grip as one of the Vulfkin’s claws buried into his thigh.

He screamed then, knowing his chances of making it out of here alive were dwindling. The Vulfkin tackled him to the ground then, the pain in his thigh erupting in fresh hot agony. How he managed to gather enough air to scream was a distant thought as the beast’s acrid breath washed over him.

At this point he knew it was over. He had no firearm, no sword, and no means of defending himself. Its jaws came down and Lars simply reacted, holding his left arm up to avoid having his throat ripped out. His forearm snapped under the power of the Vulfkin’s jaws, but with his entire body in pain, it was just one more drop in the bucket. Lars kicked, feeling his boot brush the hilt of his saber still buried in the beast’s midsection. The Vulfkin let out a mixture of yips and snarls, jerking his broken arm back and forth as it ripped muscle and crushed bone.

Then, through the haze of shock, horror, and adrenaline an idea came to him.

In a last ditch attempt to avoid being eaten, Lar’s worked his remaining hand down to the Wolfsbane pouch and clutched it in his fist. Then he kicked the hilt of his saber as hard as he could.

The Vulfkin let out an agonized roar, releasing his arm to do so. With what little strength he had left, Lars thrust his hand with the Wolfbane into it’s open mouth. Immediately the creature bit down, breaking bone and severing tendons which opened up his hand down its throat.

The Vulfkin continued to chew on his arm for a moment until it felt the first touch of the Wolfsbane it had swallowed. The beast immediately jerked back, tossing Lars off to the side like a rag doll. He hit the ground hard, but hardly felt it as he watched the hulking beast fall to all fours.

It let out a pained howl followed by choking gags as it tried to vomit out the deadly substance. Blood poured out of its mouth and it fell to its side, legs tearing up the earth as the death throws took hold. He watched it die, feeling his own lifeblood pump out of him as the last of his quarry eventually grew still.

Lars Three Shot had won again.

He tried to chuckle then, but he was having a hard time breathing. Instead he spat a glob of congealed blood to the cold earth. The world was beginning to dim as he struggled for air, but thankfully the pain was growing faint.

Better than being eaten, he told himself.

As his vision dimmed, he thought he saw something move in the undergrowth, but he couldn’t tell. Then he closed his eyes, and the growl of a Black Wolf echoed in his mind.


*

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

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

Total: 35

*

The Gilded Soul by Frank Dorrian

Magnate Aserhaug dabbed his forehead with a damp kerchief. Flames glittered beyond his office window, painfully bright. Yarvael City burned.

The fires had spread from Old Yarvael, where the rats of Undertown had gone on their beggars’ rampage, looting the food markets and putting the torch to everything that would burn. Now, they swept through the buildings of Yarvael City’s once-pristine financial district, dragging noble families from their homes, butchering and humiliating like despoilers torn from some myth.

The Rune of Cleaving glimmered through the smoke in the eastern sky, mocking the failure of Aserhaug and his peers on the Vostarran Republic’s Grand Council.

A knock at the open door startled Aserhaug then, his fat arse scattering a pile of papers on his desk, and spill ink across them. His household guard’s lieutenant, Valk, filled the open office doorway.

Aserhaug breathed. ‘Yes?’

‘The men are ready to leave at your command, Excellency,’ said Valk.

‘And the ship?’

‘Prepared as you asked,’ said Valk, ‘docked at Moorlin Harbour, guarded by your Thralls, and ready to make for Azenthul immediately.’

Aserhaug nodded, taking a last look out his office’s window. The fires were nearer, towering against the night sky, the rooftops of the buildings before it a jagged black horizon beneath a world of flame. Something moved atop them. A man, or woman, striding across the roof of old Gnarler Witburn’s manor. They paused halfway along, and turned to face him, an uncomfortable jolt passing through him like the feeling of meeting an unwanted stare.

Aserhaug blinked. They were gone, the rooftop empty and lapped by flames.

Stress on an empty stomach, old boy. Calm, now – can’t let the churls see you vulnerable. That’s when they strike.

‘Is the path to the harbour cleared?’ asked Aserhaug.

‘Cleared, and secured, Excellency.’

Aserhaug nodded. Time to go. He kicked the bottom drawer of his desk open and snatched up the small chest in its gut, fat coins clinking within as he tucked it under his rotund arm.

‘Get me out of this shithole, Valk.’

The streets of Yarvael were choked with smoke, strewn with abandoned wagons, carts, and possessions. Every prime property lining the streets was empty, doorway and window hollowed and dark.

Aserhaug spluttered into his kerchief as Valk and a dozen men of his guard stormed toward the docks. The smoke was blinding. Something caught Aserhaug’s foot and sent him crashing down on his side, the corner of his chest stabbing the wind from him.

A rough hand took Aserhaug under the arm. ‘Up, Your Excellency!’ Valk’s voice came. More hands pressed themselves into Aserhaug’s flab and set him lurching back to his feet with an indignant tirade.

‘This way, Excellency,’ Valk cried, urging him toward where a line of his men had closed off a side street with shield and spear. ‘Through –’

The men vanished in a great gout of flame, its shockwave sending Aserhaug, Valk, and the others sprawling into the ruin of an upturned cart.

Coughing, Aserhaug peered through the spinning murk at the flames consuming the street. Dust and debris spewed from the side of one towering building as it lurched, collapsing into the building on the opposite side. Both crumbled, shattering one against the other into a heap of rubble that swallowed the path to the harbour.

Valk gained his knees, leaning breathless on his sword. Four of his men were strewn in pieces across the street, guts trailing in glistening ropes. Another was slumped against the cart’s broken side, a broken axle skewering him through the shoulder.

Aserhaug forced himself upright, shooting Valk a glare as the lieutenant and his remaining men moved to help the impaled, screaming little shit instead of him. A noise came over the rubble before he could reprimand the ungrateful shits, something like the muttering and chuntering of countless voices. Through the pall  dust and smoke, the red glare of fire crowned the fallen buildings, a lone shadow moving through it.

‘Valk,’ Aserhaug coughed, trying to stand. The impaled lad gave another scream. The shadow crested the hill, a man-shaped void stepping through fire and smoke, ribbons of flame trailing from its shoulders and limbs, its form hauling them along behind it like a tattered cloak. It began to descend, a chorus of whispers slithering through the air with it.

‘Valk!’

The impaled lad came free with a shriek, and Valk glanced over his shoulder, spinning to his feet with sword levelled. ‘What…’ His face slackened as the shadow reached the foot of the rubble, cloaked in fire, its void of a head sweeping the corpse-strewn street, Aserhaug’s guards falling into a stupor beneath its gaze.

Valk’s sword lowered. ‘Elaryn?’ He stepped toward the shadow.

‘What are you idiots doing?’ Aserhaug spluttered, rolling onto his feet. ‘Get me out of here, Valk! Valk!’ The lieutenant was moving toward the shadow, caught in some moronic trance, his face streaked with tears.

Aserhaug waddled toward him fast as he could, and gave the lieutenant a pudgy-handed slap across the chops, gripping him by his mail collar. ‘I’m not paying you to commit suicide, Valk – get me to my fucking ship, now, or I’ll feed you and your men to that thing myself!’

The lieutenant cast a glance back at the shadow. Its arms were spread now, shoulders ablaze, a pair of Valk’s men shuffled toward it on their knees, caught in some lurid spell. ‘But…’ Valk made to turn away, but a great cacophony came spilling over the rubble into the street. A mass of ragged forms crested the heap, blades and sharpened tools gleaming with firelight.

‘The rioters,’ Aserhaug quivered. ‘The ship, Valk! Now! Get me out of here, you fuckwit!’

‘There,’ Valk croaked, pointing to an open side passage and calling for his men.

‘But, Solin’s wound –’ one prosted, red to the elbow as he knelt over the injured guardsman.

‘Fuck him!’ Aserhaug bellowed, scurrying for the open gate.

A great roar of voices came from behind, the rioters spilling down the rubble in a cloud of dust, weapons lifted. Whimpering, Aserhaug threw his bulk through the open gateway, cracking his shins on the stone stairs beyond.

Valk and two of his men came charging through into the cramped passage as Aserhaug rolled onto his back. The remaining three were legging it toward the open gate, the rioters’s bloodstained faces barely two paces behind them, eyes wild and bulging. Beyond them, the shadow watched with an empty face, its form coursing with flame.

‘Shut the fucking gate!’ Aserhaug screeched. ‘Shut it!

Valk threw his shoulder into the door and slammed it home. One of his men dropped the bar into place with a thud, leaping back with a curse as the men they’d abandoned slammed into it, voices pleading. The rioters struck, silencing them with bloody gurgles and wet thuds.

‘Shit!’ The guard who’d dropped the bar stepped back. Blood seeped beneath the gate.

‘Ungrateful bastards!’ Aserhaug roared, deflating as the moment’s safety pulled the tension from him.

Valk sat down on the steps, trembling. ‘What was that thing? It looked…’ His head shook. ‘No. It wasn’t… it couldn’t, but I swear…’

‘It looked like my mother,’ said the guardsman who’d dropped the bar, eying the gate wearily.

‘I don’t know what I saw,’ said the other, a queer look on his face, almost of guilt.

Aserhaug shot them all a glare, cursing his bleeding shins and torn pants as he stood. ‘Have you all lost your wits, or just your bollocks?’ he snapped. ‘It was some sorcerous trick, conjured up by one of those paupers with a talent for lightplay! Get up, and get me to my fucking ship before those wretches tear their way through that gate!’

‘Do you even know where you’re going, man?’ Aserhaug puffed, a mile’s worth of sweat dampening his shirt. Valk had led them deep into the warehouses that clung to this side of the street. The fires of Yarvael’s burning glared through shuttered windows, daubing the darkness around them with an orange tinge.

‘I’m not…’ Valk started, shaking himself. ‘I’m not familiar with this part of the city.’

Aserhaug ground his teeth.

‘We need to find a clear street,’ Valk blurted. ‘Move carefully, keep our heads down , we can link up with our men holding Gilder Street.’

‘They’re dead,’ a voice came.

Valk and his men sunk into stance around Aserhaug, sword and spear brandished at the gloom. ‘You, there!’ Valk spat. ‘Step forth – slowly!’

A shape emerged from behind a crate’s abandoned shell, stepping toward their circle with hands raised. A pauper’s gaunt, stubbled face slid into view as he passed by a shaft of firelight leaking through a shutter.

‘Easy, lads,’ he said, ‘I’m not one of them mindless things – I’m an old dockhand. Name’s Tellin.’

‘No closer,’ Valk snapped. ‘How do you know what’s happened to my men?’

‘Saw it,’ said Tellin, ‘barely an hour ago. An arm of the horde came sweeping down Gilder Street from the Exchange District. Torched the gaff, and stomped half those boys of yours into shit pies. The rest…’ He chuckled. ‘You won’t get to Moorlin Harbour by Gilder Street, trust me.’

Aserhaug blustered forth. ‘I suppose you know a way there, do you? Want paying for it, will you? Here! Out with it, you maggot!’ He flicked a copper penny at the man that bounced from his chest and rolled noisily away.

‘Aye, I do know a way,’ Tellin said, smiling. ‘So long as you let me on that boat of yours, and get me out of this crispy shithole, I’ll be happy to share.’

Aserhaug snorted. ‘Let a serethed-up beggar like you on my ship? Why would I do that?’

Tellin stepped closer. ‘You’ve seen it, haven’t you? That… thing, moving through the flames. Like a shadow, only not.’

Aserhaug waved the notion aside, but Valk stepped forward. ‘What is it?’

‘No idea,’ said the man. ‘But I watched it round half of Undertown up like a shepherd.’

‘The ramblings of a sereth-addict,’ Aserhaug snapped.

‘This way of yours is safe?’ said Valk.

‘Safer than the streets.’

Valk lowered his sword. ‘Lead the way.’

Aserhaug gave a snort. ‘You expect me to follow this amber-huffing wretch into some shit-filled –’

A wave of whispers crept through the darkness behind them.

Tellin swore, scurried back a step. ‘It’s sniffed us out!’ Aserhaug spun, coin chest clinking, and saw the void shifting within the gloom near the warehouse entrance. The shadow rose, long arms unfurling, towering against the darkness. Flames awoke upon its shoulders.

‘Here!’ Tellin hollered, bolting for the door at the rear of the warehouse. ‘Don’t look at it!’ Aserhaug bolted after him, not looking back until his bulk was through the door and into the alley beyond. Valk came tearing past a moment after, face drawn as he watched his men standing mindless, the shadow descending upon them.

‘Forget them,’ Tellin cried, tearing down the alley. ‘This way!’

Aserhaug splashed down in knee-deep filth and fell on his arse in a blusterous tirade. ‘Unbelievable! Un-fucking-believable!’ He staggered to his feet, clutching his coin chest and shaking himself like a hound, liquid shit splattering the ancient waterway walls. ‘Scurrying through pauper’s shit like a starving plague rat!’

Tellin’s shadow plopped down neatly between the two of them. ‘Most of this shit flows from the Magnate estates in southwest Yarvael, actually, Your Magnificence.’ He fished in his pocket, producing a small stone that gave off a morsel of pale light, enough to outline the walls – and the turds swimming about Aserhaug’s legs. He gestured behind Aserhaug. ‘This way is a straight run to an output beside Moorlin Harbour. Come. It won’t take long for that thing to find us if we tarry, even down here. Follow me.’

‘I know you know what that thing is, beggar,’ the lieutenant quailed as the three of them trudged on and on through the shit of Yarvael. He had been unusually morose since the shadow had appeared. Subdued, even, since the warehouse. A coward after all, Aserhaug thought.

‘No idea,’ said Tellin. ‘But it appeared in Undertown not long after that thread of light in the eastern sky appeared. Can’t be a coincidence. People started seeing shit. Most wouldn’t say what, but it was things from their past. Shit they’d done.’

Valk made a noise at that last.

‘Wasn’t long before there were bands of those who’d seen it, dragging others before it, chopping up those that resisted.’ He gave Aserhaug a look. ‘How do you think the fires in Old Yarvael started?’

‘By a bunch of ungrateful, bitter parasites, who’d rather tear down the great works of our forebears than do a day’s honest work,’ Aserhaug snarled.

Tellin stepped in his path. ‘Spoken like a true rich bastard,’ he sneered. ‘You never noticed the people beneath your heel before they burned all your shit to the ground, did you?’

‘I am a Councillor of the greatest nation on Eirra,’ snapped Aserhaug. ‘I sign papers that deal with destiny itself – things beyond your little mind’s imagining. If you and your ilk are so desperate to be noticed by those above their station, then perhaps you should do something to fucking-well earn it.’

Tellin was silent for a moment. ‘I wonder if that’s why it hasn’t taken you yet,’ he muttered. ‘It takes a soul to feel guilt. And you – you’re just a hollow, fat fucking pig at the trough like the rest of the Magnates.’

Aserhaug’s cheeks blazed. ‘Lieutenant,’ he snapped. ‘Are you going to just stand there while I am insulted? Or are you going to beat some manners into this little scrote?’

Valk blinked, rubbed his filthy face. ‘Elaryn… she…’

Valk!

‘I never…’ The lieutenant shook himself, noticed Aserhaug’s glare, and sloshed toward Tellin, sword in hand. ‘You will not speak to His Excellency in such –’

The bottom of Tellin’s fist struck Valk in the face and sent him staggering back into the wall, blood pissing from a burst eye.

Aserhaug gave a cry and stumbled, spluttering as Valk slid down the wall and sank open-mouthed into flowing shit. ‘Why?

Tellin flipped the dripping knife over in his hand and moved on Aserhaug. ‘Because fuck him,’ he snarled. ‘Man was a bootlicking pig. No loss to the world. Whatever he did to that poor girl he named, it wasn’t fucking good. That’s why that thing showed him it, brought it back for him. And now you, you fat, rich cunt,’ he hissed, stepping so close that Aserhaug slipped on the wall’s curve and fell on his arse into the shit. ‘You’re going to waddle along, get me on this ship of yours, and make sure it sails out of this shithole faster than cockrot spreading in a brothel!’

Whispers swelled around them. Tellin’s head snapped round, his face falling pale. ‘It’s here –’

The pauper screamed as Aserhaug slammed the end of his coin chest straight into his bollocks, dropping him into the shit.

The Magnate splashed to his feet, staggering past Tellin, and looked back. Faces swarmed the end of the tunnel in the dim light – blood-splattered and filthy, crude weapons raised as they came trudging on. The shadow moved in their midst, oil-like and hateful, its flames extinguished.

Tellin managed his knees with an inhaled scream, snatching at Aserhaug’s leg. ‘Here!’ Aserhaug bellowed at the horde. ‘Teach the little fucker his place for me!’ He put a shoe to Tellin’s shoulder and shoved him back into the filth, turning heel and fleeing down the waterway. Tellin’s scream reached him a heartbeat later.

Aserhaug burst from the waterway’s mouth and fell, splattering into a heap of cold shite with a river of the stuff lashing his back. He staggered out of it, still clutching his coin chest, into the cold night over Moorlin Harbour, wheezing as he drank down the clean air.

He was on the western bank of the Moorlin River. The tide was low, the city blazed behind him, and there – not a hundred strides away to the south – the harbour framework rose against the flame-lit river, his three-mast galleon, Gilded Soul, bobbed proud and defiant. The lights of his Thrall’s runeglaives flickered about it in rainbow shards. Aserhaug had never seen anything so damned, abominably beautiful.

He waddled toward it, splashing through the river’s cold shallows, wheezing and heedless of the fire in his chest. ‘Thralls!’ he panted, staggering onto the harbour’s lower stairs. Their chittering reached his ears, insectile limbs clacking as they rushed to intercept, a defensive line of them forming upon the platform. ‘It’s me, you idiotic maggots! Magnate Aserhaug! Get me on this ship, and get the crew fucking mov–’

Aserhaug slipped on something as he reached the top stair, landing on his knees with an agonising crunch. The reek of blood crept through the drying shit he was caked in.

Aserhaug opened his eyes. ‘Atalthi, spare me.’

Gilded Soul’s crew were strewn across the platform in pieces, splattered and torn across the deck of the ship, limbs and guts tangled in the gunwale.

He turned his face up to the Thrall that approach, the ends of its snapping jaws slick with blood. ‘Not this,’ he trembled. ‘Not this!’

Two Thralls rushed forward and seized Aserhaug’s arms, his coin chest bursting open in a clinking cacophony as it hit the platform. They hauled him screaming onto the deck of the ship, past the runeglaive-shredded bodies of its crew, and dragged him down into the dark oblong of the hold.

A million coins, a voice whispered through Aserhaug’s screams. A million lives.

A fire awoke at the hold’s end, its light dancing crazed patterns over the heaped, glistening dead. The shadow rose and threw back its burning cloak, sweeping toward Aserhaug. A black claw shot out and closed about the Magnate’s face, darkness crashing down

And you will suffer every last one.

*

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

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

Total: 33

*

Frost on the Bones by Joe Coates

The further away from the freshly dug grave he walked, the more the makeshift marker looked like just another random stick jutting from the earth in a plain filled with random jutting sticks. Another friend buried. Another stick in the ground.

Perfect shook his head and spat into the dry grass. He swung his leg over the saddle of his repulsor bike, feeling the hovering machine sink under his bulk. Fucking humans and their pride and vanity, thinking that after all the stains they left upon the world it was going to give two shits about some crooked bit of wood.

He adjusted the metallic suction patch that covered his missing right eye. Scratched at the mess of scarring on the side of his face that’d been all burnt to hell by a ricocheting two-phase plasma round. Hadn’t been all that long ago, really. The worst four months of his life. He’d been a good-looking rooster before the war. Before he’d sustained the injury. Before the wise-cracking sergeant who’d coined his new moniker had had his guts blown out by a mishandled hatch-charge…

He gave the unscarred side of his face an admonishing slap. Shook his head.

“Goddamn graves,” he muttered into the wind. “Dunno why I even bother diggin’ anymore.”

He lifted his head and sniffed. There was snow on the air. Turned and looked across the brittle grasslands at the unforgiving Beartooth Mountains. Someone with more imagination than Perfect might’ve said they looked threatening in the flat silver light of the dying day, but to him they just looked like mountains. He knew they didn’t give one wet fart about him or anyone else. It was typical human arrogance that tried to make them out as enemies that needed to be outsmarted.

Closer at hand, a lake sat like a still mirror under the high, white sky. Perfect mulled over riding down there to fill his canteen, but didn’t much fancy the idea of seeing his own face. There’d come a time, not so long previous, when he’d looked into the mirror backing the bar of some whorehouse or other, and he’d realized that what he saw was all that he was ever gonna be. He’d drunk his shot of red-eye and thought about that awhile. Then he’d accepted it. You had to accept it. To Perfect’s mind, you had to accept a fact like that, or else kill yourself. Or you had to stop looking in mirrors.

Perfect kicked his bike into drive and thumbed the throttle. The repulsor engine whined. The smell of burning grass filled his nostrils, replacing the smell of approaching cold. As he took off, he looked over his shoulder. He snorted to himself, realizing he couldn’t even recognize the damn grave he’d spent the better part of an hour digging.

Just another stick, he thought.

Would’ve made sense, ending it with a bullet. Seeing as it started with a girl. The universe liked stories like that. Was built on stories like that. But just ‘cause something liked something else didn’t mean the two were mutually exclusive. Didn’t mean things ended up working out all nice and neat. To Perfect’s mind, endings seldom did. Come to think of it, Perfect wasn’t so certain that there even was such a thing as endings. He’d a suspicion the grand narrative carried on regardless and heedless, while folks’ stories stopped.

Shit, he needed a drink. How long had it been since he laid off the stuff? Too long, if he was thinking these thoughts. Or not long enough.

* * *

What passed for full-consciousness for Perfect those days reestablished itself. He became vaguely aware of his surroundings once more. Modern music was dripping down the walls like sweat; a slow, throbbing beat that contrasted weirdly with the smell of old, ingrained violence that permeated the atmosphere.

With an effort he opened his eyes. Found he was facedown on a table. Judging by the drool patch that’d accumulated he’d been there a good while. He hauled his head up.

Straight into the path of a shaft of cold dawn sunlight that’d managed, against all odds, to find its way through the filthy windows of the Cocked Hat flophouse and brothel. It was so bright it made Perfect groan.

“Why d’you do it?” a voice asked from next to him.

Perfect let his groan run on an extra second or two.

Fucking hell, he thought. Hard-case the Red. Fucking great.

“Why do I do it?” Perfect asked.

“Hm.”

“Do what?”

“Don’t be a smartarse,” Hard-case the Red said, without rancour. “Why do you drink like that? Why not just bloody well kill yourself? It’d be cheaper.”

Perfect wasn’t sure about the logic of that one, but he was too hungover to delve too deeply into it. He ran a hand over the scarred and pitted surface of his shaved scalp. His callused fingers made a soft hissing sound. Grudgingly, his bloodshot eyes focused on the man sitting next to him. He sighed.

“Bugger me,” Hard-case said. “Have you been rinsing your mouth out with cat urine again, Perfect?”

The head of the Consociation of Hassassins always surprised Perfect with his appearance. He surprised most people with it—some of them very, very briefly. Many expected Hard-case the Red to be a shadowy figure, dressed in robes or some shit, faceless and unidentifiable—as suited the stereotypical idea of a master of assassins. What they didn’t expect was the well spoken punk—complete with dyed green hair that was pulled back in a utilitarian warrior’s tail—who weighed every word and was respectful and who smiled, and who gave the impression of being about as safe to take for granted as a coiled viper.

“What do you want, Hard-case?” Perfect asked.

“I want to know why you drink yourself stupid, rather than do the smart thing and—?”

“Blow my fuckin’ brains out?”

Hard-case inclined his head.

Perfect reached for the half-empty bottle. Or was it half full?

“Because I like drinkin’,” he said, pulling the cork with a soft thwop. “Drinkin’ the way I do—with purpose—is that perfect middle-ground for folk too scared to kill themselves outright.”

“Death by cowardice?”

Perfect upended the bottle and pulled at the contents. He felt the butt of a cheroot he must’ve doused in the red-eye suck into his mouth. He gagged a little, but then decided on balance to swallow it.

“A coward’s drinking. Right,” he said. “Drinkin’ to forget a while. Drinkin’ because that type of forgetting is as close to the abyss of death as most people are comfortable at getting.”

“And you say you like drinking like this?” Hard-case asked drily. “I feel blessed to have caught you in such a jolly mood.”

Perfect grunted and took another pull on the bottle.

“There are days, no matter how poor and futureless you are, when the snow on the prairie and the mountains, and the talk of the rivers and the forests, are enough, Hard-case,” Perfect replied. “Days when you look out, and the world is enough. There are may days like that. But, in my experience, there are plenty more that ain’t.”

Hard-case cocked his head to the side and regarded Perfect.

“The Siege of Snowslip really rattled your cage, didn’t it?” he asked.

“Twenty-thousand dead in a day,” Perfect grunted. “I’d like to meet the man who wasn’t rattled by that.” He wiped his lips on the back of his hand. “Come to think of it, no I wouldn’t.”

The two lapsed into silence. Around them, the tavern creaked and groaned, as if it was an entity in itself and its patrons the parasites that tormented its guts.

Eventually Perfect turned to stare at Hard-case the red with his one remaining eye.

“Don’t give me that look, Hard-case,” he growled.

“What look?”

“That fuckin’ look.”

“That’s just my face, Perfect.”

“Exactly. And never yet have I looked upon it before shortly being offered a job I fuckin’ regretted.”

Hard-case spread his hands then moved them across the table. A stack of high denomination Sultanate credit cubes were left upon the scarred polycarbonate, along with a cheap docu-slate.

“And never yet have you turned me down,” he said.

Perfect sighed. Swilled liquor around his teeth—a handful of which were still genuine.

“What d’you think my chances are on this gig?” Perfect asked without preamble.

“What do you care?” came the mild reply from the head of the Consociation of Hassassins.

Perfect’s face went perfectly still for a couple of seconds. Then he said, “Fair point.”

“About the same as they always are where the Yishmaloi are concerned,” Hard-case said, sitting back on his bench and examining his fingernails critically. “Iffy at best. I wish it was otherwise—”

Perfect snorted.

“—but between what we wish and what we get there’s the whole galaxy between, usually holding a length of pipe,” Hard-case finished.

“Not exactly the answer I was looking for, mate,” Perfect said, his words laden with sarcastic reproach.

“Yes, well, I think that more often than not people would rather have a bad answer about something than no answer at all, don’t you think?”

Perfect disregarded the question. Philosophy had never been his bag. “What kinda job?” he grunted.

“Intelligence retrieval.”

“That’s all?” Perfect asked, surprised. “No wetwork?”

Hard-case the Red’s eyebrows rose. “Only if you’re clumsy getting out. You’re not disappointed are you?”

“I have… unresolved anger issues.”

“It’s a job, Perfect. Not therapy.”

Perfect drained the last of his bottle. “You ever beat someone ‘til you were exhausted? It’s surprisingly cathartic.”

* * *

Perfect felt a subtle pawing at his mind. There was a guard below him, identifiable by the sash he wore wrapped around his middle and over his shoulder. Inwardly, Perfect rebuked himself. A wandering mind was a liability on a job, but in Yishmala it attracted attention. Obviously his divagating thoughts had alerted the telepathically-attuned guard to an unaccounted mind-presence on his factory beat.

The flash pan on the guard’s six-barreled swivel-rifle clicked open and shut as the watchman checked the weapon. He turned, checking over his shoulder.

Perfect hoped very much that the Yishmaloi would not look up.

Hard-case the Red had been unequivocal in his instruction not to steal the book. The Yishmaloi guarded information far more assiduously even than they did gold. They would soon miss the volume if it were to just up and disappear.

Slowly and smoothly, Perfect unlatched the leather satchel at his side and produced a camera. He fumbled with the contraption.

“Stealin’ the blasted thing would be far simpler,” he grumbled, as his fingers muddled around, unfolding the small device. The eyepiece clicked into place, the bellows unfurled. He slipped a celluloid plate into the receptacle.

Hard-case had shown him how to use the thing. Imagination was a tool that could take you anywhere, the assassin had told him, but not being gifted with much of one meant that Perfect could mimic the steps his employer had gone through to take a picture with perfect accuracy.

This was, as had reiterated on multiple occasions, an essential skill for this job. The chief of the Consociation of Hassassins wanted detailed pictures of each page. Readable photographs. Perfect needed to use every film plate wisely. He checked the camera’s focus. It was old tech. He’d need to get closer. Much closer.

Perfect unhooked a tube from his belt. With a twist it telescoped into a blowgun. He removed a flechette dart from his heel quiver. Perfect was no scholar, but he’d received an education of sorts. He’d been taught that capable agents shot flechettes from high ground. A person would need immense lungs to fire one straight on, but, when fired from on high, gravity could be relied upon to drive the dart deep into its target.

Perfect selected his mark: the furnace which powered the printing presses. The pipe he wished to puncture was twenty yards off, at the opposite side of the factory. He flipped the tiny reticle on the blowgun up. He zeroed in on the furnace’s main steam release tube, using his remaining eye to pick out a possible degradation in the rubber hose. He watched the conduit expand and contract as it siphoned out the regularly building pressure within the complex contrivance.

Perfect took a deep breath. He released air from his nose to find the sharpshooter’s stillness. With his remaining breath, he loosed the dart.

The flechette slowed as it peaked. Its flights kept it steady and straight as it entered into its pernicious descent.

It thunked heavily into the pipe.

The pipe let out an aggravated hiss. The typebars slowed, but the presses carried on. The Yishmaloi workers cocked their heads at the drop in pressure.

“Bastard,” Perfect hissed.

He took a second flechette from his heel quiver—but as he notched the dart, the steam pipe ruptured.

The boiler exploded. Rollers, typewheels, and hinges shattered the windows. Shrapnel sprayed, popping the gas lamps like glass bubbles. Metal tinkled musically to the floor. Shredded rag paper filled the air like parade confetti as moonlight spilled into the factory. Steam billowed from the remains of the boiler, filling the production floor with fog.

Workers rushed to the compromised boiler. The Yishmaloi were nothing if not efficient. They measured time in the exact same way that they measured money because they were one in the same; the less spent the better. 

Camera in hand, Perfect repelled silently from the rafter.

He landed with the softness of a shadow. The book was hot to the touch. He knocked it off the conveyor belt and hunkered down. Inside, he found drawings of an airship. The vessel sported an unfamiliar chaos engine, and it had giant antlers attached to its prow. In a cutaway, Perfect saw that the vessel sported—

“Railguns…” he breathed.

With a compliant calmness, Perfect took a photograph, inserted a new celluloid plate, then turned the page.

There was a cross section of the airship—a diagram of its numerous compartments. The decks made it obvious this was no commercial or passenger vessel. It was military.

What is this thing? Perfect wondered—but he wondered if for a very short length of time before he answered himself.

This is a goddamn warship. This is rebel shit.

His taut smile had all the amiability and aesthetic appeal of a tightened sphincter.

He photographed page after page of blueprints, along with their unintelligable Yishmaloi descriptions. The words looped like indecipherable waves in an ocean of mystery.

A Yishmaloi worker screeched.

Perfect’s head snapped up.

An invisible force grabbed him around neck and lifted him from the ground. He dropped the camera. He flailed, but the worker he had neither seen nor sensed held him at arm’s distance with her mind.

The Yishmaloi worker warbled. She was confused and angry.

Perfect wheezed. Quickly, before his tongue swelled, he flipped the hinge on his hollow molar. The tooth opened like a tiny box. The spy worked the contents of the hidden compartment like the more orally agile sex worker working a cherry stem.

He jerked his head. The miniature dart landed on his tongue.

Perfect inflated his cheeks. The Yishmaloi worker was close—the air left in Perfect’s mouth might suffice. He raised the blowgun and puffed the dart into the Yishmaloi worker’s right eye, popping it. Aqueous humour spattered across Perfect’s face, and the Yishmaloi’s telekinetic grasp broke.

Perfect hit the ground hard. He sucked in a grateful lungful of air. He floundered for the camera and the case of celluloid plates while the Yishmaloi worker wailed and clutched her face.

“Sorry,” Perfect wheezed. He half contemplated killing the woman, but thought better—or worse—of it.

Before the back-up brigade arrived, Perfect ascended his rope.

Despite is PTSD, he was a different breed. He climbed without much urgency. He’d been in tighter spots. He almost craved capture. Almost hoped for death.

Telekinesis brushed at Perfect’s heel—the watchman attempting to grab him, he reckoned—but threw himself into his egress vent, shimmied through the duct, and emerged atop the book factory roof.

From there, New Yishmala spread out around him like a rug on which beads of light had been carelessly spilled. The Yishmaloi were a fabulously wealthy race and had a limitless appetite for insane architecture. It was, Perfect had to admit, a wondrous place.

Twisting towers rose impossibly high into the orange clouds. Their black, almond shaped windows were the size of houses. Steam locomotives coiled around the towers like caterpillars. Iron bridges and gondolas stretched between the obelisks. Train smoke mingled with the smogs and steams of the manufactories.

Like everyone who had come before him, Perfect’s gaze was drawn to the king of the skyline: the lighthouse. At over a mile high, it towered over the city. It’s light cut through the everstorm and guided skyships to port.

Pretty, Perfect thought, as he caught his breath.

Several vessels lumbered and rocked above the city, their sails tied, waiting for Yishmaloi inspectors to give them clearance to land.

Beneath Perfect, a train chugged unconcernedly by, the cotton-white smoke from its funnel floating up into the heavens like a silver-gilt prayer.

With the grace of a thrown brick, Perfect jumped from the factory’s roof onto the carriage of the trundling train. As soon as he landed he engaged the magnets on his boots. He screwed up his eye against the rushing wind. The train descended; it wended through the foundations of the Yishmaloi skyscrapers, purring along its oil-greased rails.

As the train unknowingly delivered Perfect to safety, he allowed himself enough time to catch his breath. He tallied up the celluloid plates he’d managed to take.

“Shit.”

His simple count told him he’d photographed less than a third of the book. Not nearly enough to satisfy Hard-case the Red.

Blueprints… Warship blueprints… Railguns…  

“And the world burns again,” Perfect muttered.

The train sped on.

*

Judge #1
Worldbuilding: 5
Characters: 5
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 17

Judge #2
Worldbuilding: 5
Characters: 4
Plot: 3
Enjoyment: 4
Total: 16

Total: 33

*

OVERALL STANDINGS AS OF OCTOBER 2022

Joe Coates: 138

Sean Crow: 138

Frank Dorrian: 135