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:
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 November 2022
1. A Pack of Liars
2. A Broken Toy
3. A Hellish Oasis
4. A Crucial Wound
5. A Grim Star
An Echo of the Past by Frank Dorrian
The Kardathi Highlands’ sand grated beneath Bolen’s nails as he dragged himself up the face of the dune, beads of blood welling under them where it cut like glass. Panting, he flopped down upon the dune’s peak, sand nipping at his face through the eyeholes of his mask.
The Highlands were growing dark, shadows stretching across the drifts beneath the dune, and yet a blood-coloured sun glowered overhead, searing Bolen’s back through his cloak even as its light receded. Somewhere across the dunes, something gave an unnatural screech, one of the Shunned Gods’ many obscenities.
Picking himself up with a groan, Bolen peered westward through the gathering darkness. The Rune of Cleaving twisted upon the horizon, barely larger than it had been yesterday, churning gold and violet as it pierced earth and sky, the clouds above it clustered like scabs.
Not much farther, he told himself, groping for one of his waterskins. He eased a trickle down his parched throat beneath his stolen mask, the skin crumpling empty in his hand. Pray it’s not too far still.
He stuffed the skin in his belt and staggered down the other face of the dune, the bundle slung across his shoulder thumping against his back with a morbid weight.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow, the Shunned Gods would meet their end at long, long last.
Bolen crested another hill, the weight of the bundle of his back dragging him down to his knees. The Rune of Cleaving dominated the landscape before him – a horrid tower of churning flame, punctuated by rippling, gurning faces of the things that dwelt within it. Beyond it, rather. The Rune’s appearance was naught but a façade – a mask for what it truly was. A doorway. A gaping wound through the flesh of reality, one that opened up onto a place that the gods had wished to hide. Torn open by the machinations of the Silent Wardens and their Ashen Offering, the Shunned Gods and their insanity flowed from it like rivers of filth.
Bolen shunted the pack from his shoulder. Laying it upon the sand, he unwrapped the layers of stained cloth. A glistening black fragment sat at its centre, sharp-edged and ugly.
Bolen licked his lips. What shrunken priests had been left at the old, broken temple in Obstal had uttered of this thing in fearful tones. One of the Silent Wardens’ direst blasphemies. A fragment of Irra, the Goddess of Health and Healing, plucked from her lost grave by their foul hands and fouler magics.
Now, it sat in Bolen’s hands, and with it he would scour the Shunned Gods’ stain from Eirra.
Screams shuddered across the sand, then – slithering beneath the wind, half-formed words laden with accusation. Bolen glanced through the dark, neck prickling with recognition, and found nothing save darkened mounds. It was the Silent Warden he’d taken, just beyond the walls of the Forlorn Archive.
Wasn’t silent for long once the knife got to work.
Reality had warped here. The Highlands knew, had plucked the memory from the depths of Bolen’s mind, tried to turn it against him. This would be hard. The Shunned would know of his coming by now.
Bolen grasped the fragment before him and raised it to his face. It was barely a third the length of his thumb, and yet it weighed easily as much as a fist-sized rock. Another of the Warden’s screams echoed – nearer than before, the wind shifting direction. He shoved the shard in his mouth and swallowed it, grimacing as the edges tore the inside of his throat open. He gave a gasp it hit his stomach with a boulder’s weight and buckled him over his knees.
Blood spattered the sand, the back of his hands, the screams of the Silent Warden drawing nearer as pain roared through him, and oblivion came crashing down.
The broken streets of Obstal offered two paths in life for those who still dwelt there. Brutality, or thievery. Bolen’s own path had crossed somewhere between both, as the Silent Wardens had learned when he snatched the fragment of Irra from their shitstained Archive. One of the Shunned – Valas, the Withered – had reduced the Kingdom of Obaerun to a cesspit of want, its people to wretches and paupers, stricken with a hunger that bred desperation and callousness. Parasites among their own kind.
That would soon change.
The thought ebbed at the fore of Bolen’s mind as the Highlands emerged from oblivion before him. The Rune of Cleaving blazed before him, spewing from its crater into the sky, ringed by a lake of molten rock, a hellish oasis in the midst of the Highlands’ desolation. Figures ringed it upon the barren crater ridge, shimmering and flittering beneath waves of sorcery and heat.
He had no memory of getting here. His throat still blazed from swallowing the fragment, his limbs heavy with overexertion, yet he found himself descending toward the ridge – toward where ancient gods stood watching over their gateway into this world, a pack of waiting liars and jackals. Something had a hold of Bolen, driving him upon a current of cold purpose, frozen hate.
The years spent groping through the filth and wreckage of Obaerun, warring with other children for the scraps clutched in the hands of dead men – the endless, gnawing hunger. Those days would be repaid in screams, the ravenousness that refused to ebb would be no more.
Bolen dropped into a crouch, the Silent Warden’s stolen garb he wore whispering over the sand as he reached for the knife at his side, his every muscle resonating with an unknowable strength. A wiry figure stood before him, silhouetted against the Rune, arms spread, lost in whatever foulness it wove. One of the Shunned, wearing one of their many man-shells – thin and scrawny enough to be Valas himself.
It mattered not. All of them would die here today, expunged from the world with the same ravening hunger they had inflicted upon Bolen.
Irra, shield me.
New strength surged through Bolen as he surged forth, his feet silent as they bit the sand, his knife’s blade parting the air without so much as a whisper.
Something huge shot into Bolen’s path, a massive shoulder checking his charge with a bone-crunching thud.
A fist seized Bolen by the collar and snatched him upright before he could hit the sand. A vast, pudgy face filled his vision, rotting teeth bared in a snarl that promised suffering, black beard twitching with rage and fat lice both.
‘What’s this?’ The voice that thundered from that foul mouth belonged to no man. ‘Another one of those pretender’s rats come scurrying for scraps?’
Bolen’s head was spinning from the blow he’d taken, his vision wavering but whole enough to see the faces of the Shunned begin to turn toward him. Something in Bolen’s body was broken, grated as the Shunned beast gripping him drew him closer, its vessel’s pug nose sniffing at him like a scavenging hound.
‘Irra,’ it growled, glancing at the figure upon the ridge behind, ‘it’s filled with that bitch’s stink.’
‘It’s one of mine,’ a thin voice answered, the eyes in the figure’s hollow face glittering like distant stars. ‘From that rank pit, Obaerun.’
‘You let too many lice live, Valas, and you will never be rid of them,’ snarled the one holding Bolen, its riddled beard shifting as though offended.
Bolen’s knife hand shot up toward the Shunned’s face – point seeking eye. The Shunned’s massive hand caught him by the wrist, decaying teeth bared in another snarl as the knife’s point wavered a hair away from its mark.
‘You dare think you can strike me with a dead thing’s stolen power?’ It roared. The hand clutching Bolen’s collar released him, left him hanging by the wrist as the Shunned splayed a filthy palm before his face. A jolt shot through Bolen, the strength he had taken fading as a monstrous laugh pounded his skull.
‘The Wardens let a thing like you sneak through their halls? Let you rob them of a sacred charge? We must have words with them.’
‘Their failure must be punished, Molg,’ said Valas. Molg’s filthy head inclined, fat mouth a dark line.
‘It will be done. But first, cough up that fragment, creature, or I’ll rip it out your stomach.’
Molg’s hand clenched, arm drawing back. A savage pain exploded in Bolen’s stomach, reduced him to a jittering ruin in the Shunned’s grip, his cry stifling by a rising lump in his throat. The fragment burst from his mouth in a shower of blood and splintered teeth, trailing glistening flesh as it shot into Molg’s waiting hand.
‘That’s better,’ Molg grunted. Its fist clenched about the shard and crushed it into dust. Scattering the ruined fragment to the wind, Molg’s face turned back to Bolen, still hanging in the god’s grip, spluttering blood down his stolen clothes through torn lips. Molg yanked him higher, dangled him before its disgusting face like a broken toy, the pain of his separating shoulder nothing compared to the agony of his ravaged insides.
‘Now what to do with you, little rat?’ Molg snarled. ‘You’re a bold one to come so far. But I hold no mercy for any fool that –’
Molg’s head snapped around toward the scabrous sky as a shrill keening cut through the Rune’s endless growl. The shadowed faces of the shunned turned skyward. Drawing a horrid breath down a ruined throat, Bolen stared after them.
Something moved against the night sky, trailing pale light as it came, broad wings battering the air. Another screech descended, setting some of the Shunned about the Rune flinching back fearfully.
‘No.’ Molg’s greasy mane shook. ‘No, it’s not possible. It can’t –’
A skull-crushing shriek silenced the Shunned God, making what was left of Bolen’s teeth rattle. A vast shape burst through the clouds, twisting upright as it fell, vast wings spreading to slow its descent. It crashed into the ridge with explosive force regardless, sending a shockwave billowing through the sand and Shunned sprawling. Towering three-dozen feet high or more, the beast threw back a tentacled head, wings spreading as it loosed another roar upon the Highlands.
‘It’s a fucking Eater!’ Molg roared.
Bolen’s shoulder snapped as Molg chucked him aside. He spun across the sand, landing in a crumpled heap against a drift, every limb numb and blood pissing between his broken lips, the agony so consuming he could do nothing but gibber and stare aghast at what unfolded before him.
Flashes cut through the murk toward the Eater. Threads of power, lashing from the hands of Shunned gods. Most flickered and died as they struck scaled skin, but one scored a glowing gash across its chest that tore a warbling, earth-shuddering cry from it. A hand greater than two houses slammed down in answer, shattering part of the ridge, snatching up the Shunned God and wreckage both. It crammed them into the writhing mass of its tentacled mouth, heedless of the sorceries that tore through its flesh, glowing wounds knitting shut within heartbeats.
Molg’s vessel was tearing across the ridge, faster than its pudgy form had any right to. It faceplanted into sand with a crunch and lay still, the air above it writhing, coalescing as some immense form pressed itself against reality – bloated and almost formless.
The Eater turned to face it, shoving another fistful of rock and Shunned into its maw. A clawed fist swung, sending a hurricane gale through the air. It missed, staggered forth a step and shook the earth with a screech, it’s back bending, glowing blood spraying from between its neck and shoulder. The air shifted behind it, warping into the shape of a vast face wrought all of rippling teeth and fangs.
Molg the Devourer tore a chunk from the Eater in a great gout of shimmering blood and swallowed it down, the beast’s cry like a blade between Bolen’s fading eyes. It spun, blood spraying, and sank its own fangs into the half-seen mass behind it, birthing and inhuman roar.
Molg staggered back beneath the Eater’s feasting, writhing like a blurred storm of tentacle and fang. The two crashed down the ridge in a bloody tangle, splashing through the magma pooling beneath the Rune of Cleaving’s assault upon the world.
Rising, the Eater snarled, snatching at Molg’s shrouded, shadow-wreathed form, hands spraying divine blood and molten rock both. Molg’s shape slipped back, something almost like a whimper cutting through the chaos as it darted toward the Rune. Magma sprayed, the Rune’s surface sputtered with golden flame, and Molg vanished through it.
With a final snarl, the Eater shot forward, plunging into the Rune after Molg, and vanished in a great spray of gold and violet fire.
The sand and rock beneath Bolen shook then, segments of the ridge collapsing. The Rune’s mighty pillar of flame shuddered, writhed, pained screams shaking the skies. With a last shriek, its golden pillar twisted one last time and shredded, flickering out into nothingness.
Silence fell over the Highlands. Long heartbeats passed. Bolen tried to wrap what was left of his mind about the magnitude and insanity of what he had just seen, but the pain was gnawing, a cough splattering dark blood across the sand before him.
Shoes crunched nearby.
‘Ah, there you are.’
Skinny legs strode into view. With effort, Bolen swivelled his gaze upward. Valas stood over him, hands clapsed behind his shrunken back. Bolen loosed a pathetic, bubbling whimper, blood and drool spilling over torn lips.
‘Mercy?’ Valas chuckled. ‘Not my usual trade, child, as you should know. You lived in my shadow long enough.’ Valas shifted, dropping onto his haunches to peer curiously at Bolen. ‘Quite upsetting though, that one of my flock would come here, thinking use the corpse of one of my ancient foes to take my life. But, you are children, after all. Nasty, spoilt, selfish little children, who refuse to know their place.’
Valas looked over his sunken shoulder, gazing at where the Rune of Cleaving had once blazed. ‘Still, fortunate for you, I’m in a good mood, despite events. That thing took a good number of my rivals with it, and that bloated prick, Molg.’ He turned a glittering squint upon Bolen, and laid a hand upon his shoulder. ‘You will live, child,’ he uttered. ‘And bear my gift of hunger, until the Highland winds sweep the flesh from your bones.’
A sickening jolt filled Bolen then, life screaming back into him, awakening every bit of agony that had faded from his wounds with a revolting clarity. And worse, deep within him, that feeling – that fucking hollowness of weeks with naught but scraps – began to claw at his insides once more.
Valas stepped back with a small smile, shadows falling over his face. ‘Let the hunger become you, child,’ he whispered, his form fading as Bolen’s screams pierced the desert winds.
Fall of an Age by Sean Crow
The heavens bled as starships burned through the atmosphere, dying leviathans that ripped the sky asunder as they cut loose payloads that could glass entire cities. Grim stars blossomed in the distance as the massive crafts crashed to earth, eradicating life for hundreds of miles wherever they impacted. Atop the Pyramid of the Creator, Altharius Glint stood at the forefront of his honor guard, awaiting the end of all things.
It wouldn’t be long.
Reports had come in over the last few days that the remaining holdouts against the incursion on their world were wiped out, leaving the City of Ancients and the pyramid on which Altharius stood as the last bastion.
“Oathkeeper,” came a voice from behind.
Altharius almost missed Reaver’s scent in the burning ozone from the war above and the blood from the battle in the city below. If not for the Divinity Shield that protected this holy place against the worst of their now broken world, they would have been accosted by the raging storms that ravaged the planet as the climate tried to regulate. Lightning strikes and acid rain covered the valley beyond. Floods from spacecraft crashing into the ice pack in the northern and southern hemispheres wiped out entire nations as all their works over the centuries were swallowed up by the oceans.
Yet the Pyramid of the Creator remained as an oasis in that hellish landscape.
“You should reconsider,” Reaver said, his harsh voice quiet now. “The Prophet desires that you join the others below. They’ll need you, whenever they awaken.”
Altharius turned to Reaver, the golden pauldrons of his battle suit marred and dented from endless battles over the last six months. The warrior was of human descent, one of the few races that held true to the teachings of Creation. Yet with Altharius’ own blood altering the man’s body composition, he was far more than the rest of his kind.
He was a Packmate.
“I gave an oath to the Creator that I would hold until the last. That is what I will do,” Altharius said calmly.
While his memory of times past was faint, his purpose and the Oaths he had already upheld, remained. Of the seven thousand, seven hundred and seventy seven Oaths to guide the races of man, he had fulfilled seven thousand, four hundred and twenty three. It was further than any of his kind, outside of the First Oathbound who fell in the previous Age.
The scent of defiance cut through the stench of death and ozone. Altharius could feel Reaver struggle to reign in his emotions. Adrenaline engaged, Reaver’s pheromones gave off an acrid hostility.
“You were chosen!” Reaver snapped. “Millions who now lay dead beneath the waves or corrupted by the Enemy would have gladly taken what you cast aside. You were selected to rebuild our world, and instead you seek death? It is a mockery to all we sacrificed.”
Altharius felt his anger build but kept it in check. “The Prophet and his pack of liars who claimed to know better than the Creator? They were fools who defied the ancient teachings and opened this precious world to the plane of existence where the Enemy dwells?”
“Heresy,” Reaver warned.
“Truth,” Altharius snapped. “Just as I spoke it at the High Court when the priests expressed their desire to Travel into realms they had been warned against.”
Altharius could feel the potential violence between them and noticed how tightly the kinetic spear in Reaver’s hand was held. It wasn’t unheard of, in these final days, that order fell to chaos. That authority and duty gave way to selfishness and self-preservation. Too many of the faithful had already given in to the helplessness of their predicament, serving their own interests until their inevitable end.
In better times, Altharius would meet a challenge such as this in open combat, but today, on the eve of the end, Altharius found himself oddly at peace. He offered Reaver a sad smile.
“Did Karrina and Delphine make it to the stations below?” Altharius asked.
At the mention of his wife and daughter, Reaver’s demeanor changed. The violence, once balanced on a knife’s edge, seeped out of him.
“Yes,” he managed. “I saw them encased below.”
Altharius nodded. “Family is the most precious thing we have, old friend. It is the pillar on which all civilizations are built. Father, partner, and guardian, these are roles given to you by the Creator and I have seen how well you have upheld your duty. Go to your loves. Re-awaken in a new Age, one in which you can begin again.”
“Oathkeeper…” Reaver began, but Altharius cut off whatever frail protest the man might offer.
“You are dismissed.” Altharius turned his attention back to the battle ensuing below.
He could hear the warrior shift about, uncertainty warring with duty. Reaver was a good man and a better father. He had broken bread in their home and found a place of love. For the man to die here would be a waste of his potential.
Once, in a different Age, he joined the rest in the chambers below. The Whisper had sent him there; that quiet voice of the Creator that guided him in times of cataclysm. In the thousands of years of his life, he had only heard the Whisper five times. Each had been in a moment of great change or catastrophe. The fifth had come when the Prophet accepted the request of his priests to Travel deeper into the Elder Planes.
After a moment, Altharius heard Reaver leave and was happy for it.
The Divinity Shield over the city flared as the concussive blasts from the invading force pounded against it, painting those beneath in golden light. Below, and muted by the remaining levels of the Divinity Shield, the Enemy continued their approach.
Twisted creatures, manifesting through the bodies of the people of this world, surged through the defensive lines of this holy place. They were the embodiment of chaos; a malformed and disjointed mass of hate and rage, longing only to destroy what had been set in place by the Creator. Kinetic spears of the pyramid’s defenders unleashed rays of burning energy into the unending hoard of monstrosities, ripping limbs away and burning gaping wounds through the unthinking mass.
It wouldn’t be enough.
The Broken, those who were once Oathbound, were amongst the enemy masses. Unlike the twisted bodies and sprouting limbs that occurred with the younger races of the world. The corrupted Oathbound reverted to their true lupine form, but their corruption was clear. Shadowy figures, clad in black powered suits that elicited a sickly green light, darted through the endless ranks. Altharius’ Packmates were down there as well. They fought valiantly, dispatching a number of the Broken as they hunted in teams, but the cost for each was too high.
He felt them dying.
Altharius pulled away and approached the control panel on the dais. According to what the readings there indicated, all lower levels had been closed off. Of the self-sustaining chambers beneath, there were still thirty open places. Looking over his honor guard, seeing what remained of his golden warriors and Packmates, Altharius tapped into the conscious-com and projected his voice into the minds of his followers.
“There is room for thirty below. If there are any remaining fathers amongst us, let them come forward and join their families in the Age to come. There is no duty greater than those who raise and guard the next generation. Take your rightful place below.”
Hundreds turned to look up at Altharius before a low murmur rolled through their ranks. Of the seven hundred and eighty five warriors remaining with him today, only eight embraced their brothers in arms and ascended the final steps of the pyramid. There was no joy in the eyes of those who stepped forward, only shame.
“Eyes up,” he said and each snapped to attention. “In the new Age, you eight will serve Reaver, who has gone below. The world will be changed when our people awaken. There is no telling if the other Powers of the world have prepared for this end, but if they have then rest assured, your skills will be vital to our survival. What we do here today will matter little when the world begins anew.”
Seven hundred and seventy seven remained. A sacred sign of the Creator’s will.
Altharius raised his voice. “These are our honored brethren, send them off as the heroes they are.”
The honor guard below pounded their chests in disciplined rhythm three times, followed by a deep shout that momentarily silenced the battle below. The shame faded from their eyes, just enough for them to understand the weight of the responsibility thrust upon them and bowed their heads low.
“Dismissed,” Altharius said, stepping aside so that they might descend into the pyramid and sealed the entrance behind them as the second to last shield broke.
Altharius and his warriors readied for the moment when the final shield fell. He could sense his remaining Packmates amongst the human warriors, smelling their pheromones shift as they prepared to lay down their lives. In the valley beyond, massive waves rushed into the enclosed valley in which the City of Ancients stood.
Altharius strode toward the frontline. Warriors pounded armored chests and stepped aside as he walked forward, drawing from the power the Creator had bestowed within him and allowed the power to fill him completely.
Limbs elongated and muscles thickened as he embraced the gifts of his Creator. The armor he wore grew tight, but the technology within immediately adapted to his ever growing form until he was a good head taller than any man gathered. Thick hair, the color of wheat before the harvest, revealed itself from the spaces where his armor didn’t cover, and his face took on a lupine visage.
“Today I state my final Oath,” Altharius called, his voice deeper than it had been.
Focusing his will, a curved blade of light manifested itself in his grasp. Within him was the purest power of creation itself and it burned like the sun above. The heat it radiated caused the closest warriors had to step back.
“I will not leave this place until the waters of the Creator wash me away. For here, on this day, we will show the Enemy the ferocity of those who remain. We will hold until the blood of the Enemy stains the waves crimson in a testament of our passing!”
A bestial roar rose up from the remaining seven hundred and seventy seven. The cacophony of armored fists on chest plates reverberating their final act to the flooding world around them.
At this point, there were no more orders to give. Whatever victory could be had today was already achieved by those who would brave the new Age when they awakened. Now, all that remained were the few moments of time before eternity.
Then the Divinity Shield cracked, a critical wound in the pyramid’s last defense which skittered along the golden orb before shattering completely. Then an endless tide of chaos billowed forward.
Kinetic spears sent waves of violent energy through their retreating brethren and twisted Enemy alike. Bodies, torn apart by the close range, were tossed from the pyramid like so many broken toys. The shrieking madness that rose from the endless ranks of the Enemy hit like a physical blow, but the honor guard endured. Thousands perished under the concentrated fire until mounds of dead began to pile up, even as the first ocean waves began to ravage the outskirts of the city below. If had only been the Enemy abominations, then Altharius and his warriors might have stood until the very waves claimed them.
Yet the arrival of his fallen kindred, the Broken, turned the tide.
Altharius saw the first of his kind materialize atop the piles of dead. Dark armor, pulsing with sickly green light, the Broken pointed an obsidian blade at him, and Altharius met the challenge.
The Broken seemed to blink out of existence, but Altharius was a being beyond the physical realm. He could feel the presence of his kindred, corrupted or not, and timed his strike the moment the other materialized out of nothing. Blackened blade met that of gold as the two came together. The sheer power of their weapons knocked down honor guard and twisted fiend alike as the power of their souls connected.
In two passes, Altharius removed his kindred’s head and moved on as he felt the arrival of eight more.
From that moment on, the battle shifted to a final stand.
By the time the water swallowed the entire city below and reached the highest level of the pyramid, Altharius remained the last. Four of his corrupted brethren paced around him, with a handful of the Enemy clinging to the steps to keep from sinking to the depths.
His golden armor was a wreck, much of it discarded or ripped away in the melee. The regenerative properties of his body had already healed, save for where the Broken’s dark blades found purchase.
Those would not heal.
His shoulder ached from where one had lanced through his pauldron, two fingers from his left hand were gone, and the gashes along his arms, which should have healed in moments, still dripped his lifeblood to the stones at his feet.
This is what it meant to die.
Altharius stood a bit taller and leaned his head back to the storm. Soon he would embrace the Creator, but not yet.
“What’s wrong?” Altharius called to his killers. “Are the tainted gifts bestowed upon you not enough to steel your nerve?”
“It’s over,” intoned one, voice reverberating when he spoke. “Your world is ours.”
Altharius chuckled, offering a feral smile, holding his arms out to the rising ocean. “Enjoy it for the moments you can, Creation will reclaim what was lost.”
The sharp whirring of some mechanical device sounded from the side, and Altharius glanced over to see centipede-like abomination, made up of machine and flesh. It buried it’s head into the stone and immediately began to burrow through it, filtering the rubble through its body only to expel it as dust.
“I think not,” said another, once known as Nobleborn. A close friend and confidant, now twisted like the rest. “The Creator’s light in this world will be snuffed out. Whatever Powers survive will learn that time is no escape. The Path has been opened and there is no closing it.”
The beasts head was already submerged into the stone, the golden inscriptions within and beneath the sacred stones flaking away as it drove deeper.
They didn’t need to kill him, Altharius realized. They wanted to survive as well. It was all an attempt to reach the top, where the stone and protective power was weakest so they could consume and hibernate while the world rebalanced itself.
Altharius knew that the connection they once shared as Oathbound remained, so it came as no surprise when they sensed what came next. Violence was in the air as thick as the bloody water now frothing closer to the top.
Without further hesitation, Altharius and his brethren came together. He cleaved the first from neck to sternum and removed the leg of another that tried to attack from behind. A blackened blade entered his stomach, and another cut away his ear and part of his scalp, but the sudden loss of two of their number caused the others to fall back, allowing Altharius to cut the creature burrowing into the pyramid in half.
What remained of the Enemy surged toward him with a tenacity born of desperation. The wounds sustain from the abominations healed just as quickly as they were inflicted, yet the two remaining Broken darted in and out of sight, waiting for the time to pounce. His burning blade became a scythe and his enemies the harvest. Altharius howled his defiance as the waves reached the top.
Nobleborn and the other came in the moment a twisted monstrosity of limbs latched on to him. He tore them away, but it delayed him enough for their blades to sink deep into his chest, cold and burning all at once. He disemboweled one and trapped Nobleborn’s blade between his ribs before removing his head.
A few more abominations piled on him, and Altharius barely managed to cut them free until he was alone, sitting half submerged as the waves in the distance continued to grow. His heart was beating too fast, and he couldn’t get enough air to cease the panic growing within him. The remains of the Enemy were beneath the water, their unreasoning minds causing them to thrash and sink.
Altharius couldn’t find the strength to stand, so he pulled himself toward the control panel and held on. Then a voice he had heard only a handful of times in his life, called out to him.
Altharius felt the world spin around him, but the Whisper called, and he would obey.
Hand shaking, he pressed the button that would draw energy from the reserves stored deep within and commanded the top of the pyramid be protected. Golden light flickered around the top, then suddenly snapped into place as the waters began to surge against the shield.
Altharius’ body gave out and he fell away from the divine machine and into the water trapped inside the shield. His vision darkened, even as his gaze settled on the hole that the creature had burrowed. Distantly he realized that water was draining into it.
Had it gotten in?
Altharius had no strength left to see if it survived. His soul screamed to rise once more and ensure the safety of those below, but soon the darkness took hold and the world faded away.
Whole by Joe Coates
My name is Runa. My husband died suddenly a few days ago—murdered. He was a stimulant salesman, a dope-runner. A man who lived to work for a pack of wolves and died for a pack of lies. Such work is a gamble that rarely pays off, even under the best of circumstances. The creds roll in, then you die. Those are the best of circumstances. Gunner never told me what he did, but I knew. Sometimes you don’t ask. Sometimes not asking becomes the regret that defines your very existence.
They boarded our cruiser and did things to me that… hurt. They killed my husband in front of me. It was faster than he deserved. I decided that later. Then they took my five year-old daughter. They took her, and they made me watch as they walked her into the airlock with her favourite stuffed giraffe and they patted her on the head and spoke something into her ear that I’ll never know. And they sent her out into the crushing cold of space to die alone.
They even gave her a vac-suit.
They left me as a message, as a warning to competitors. What would be the point of doing harm like that if no one ever got to hear about it from the delirious grieving widow, after all?
As forward-thinking as they might’ve been when it came to gangland public relations, those gangsters forgot one crucial aspect when it came to strategic brutality: if you’re going to do a person harm, if you’re going to inflict a crucial wound, make sure you needn’t worry about their reaction.
I’m thirty-five. A widow. With a little girl floating out there in the void. It’s so heavy, and so hard.
But this morning, just before this junker I am on initiated its retrograde thrusters, I threw on a mix I had stored in my omni-com, and this song came on over my tooth-mic. I smiled and I sobbed and I felt my daughter. Out there. Lost. Wasted. Free of the shit that humans still, even after leaving five-hundred generations of village and city living, even after traversing the stars and shaking off the sedentary life that left so many of them so edgy and unfulfilled, wallow in. Music is medicine, some say. It transcends space and time, and life and death. It thins the veil between everything that feels binary, and I’m so grateful.
And all that is very fine, but I would still have my vengeance.
The truth of that knowledge holds me tight; rocks me like a child in a mother’s arms. I find it soothes me with its surety, as the looming shadow of death creeps out to swallow me in its cooling shade.
I will have my vengeance.
I will be whole.
* * *
Runa walked through the security portal and was stopped in front of a booth. The booth contained a slightly rumpled and extremely cynical-looking man, who may as well have had ‘civil servant’ tattooed across his forehead. He had the stocky, thick-boned build of one raised in high gravity, and an expression so indurate that Runa could’ve carved a birdbath out of his face.
On the wall, behind the official’s desk, a mammoth screen projected an image of the curving copper-coloured expanse of Iniquus Major.
Runa remembered the first time she had set eyes on the hateful rock. She’d tried to find the words to describe it to Gunner, when she’d managed to finally send a message to him, but couldn’t. Nothing had prepared her. No data-sheets. None of her schoolmen. Not even her parents. She’d heard a hundred stories, but none had done the place justice. It was one of those planets that had to be witnessed to be understood. Hell, she’d seen it before now and understood it far less than before she’d first clapped eyes on the fucking place.
Many called it the Backwater Bastille, others the Skookum Planet. But those labels were used by people far away, surrounded by the illusion of comfort and order, and the fantasy of right and wrong.
Runa knew what the place really was, just as she knew that to understand it, you had to walk its neon streets. Bleed into its gutters. Drown in its sewers. After that, it’s name became clear to any and all.
It was Hell, and there were fiends everywhere.
And if this is Hell, and I’m here, then that must mean I’m a fiend too, Runa thought, the bitterness in her heart sharpening the hate she had for this place like a whetstone. And I’m already dead.
“Sorry?” she asked.
The border custodian sighed through his flat nose.
“I said, have you ever been convicted of a felony, Miss…” he scanned her genometric readout on the holographic display in front of him, “Järvinen?” he finished, in his unreadable bureaucratic monotone.
Runa cocked her head to the side. “I didn’t realise it was still a requirement,” she replied.
The border custodian did not smile. He just scanned her omni-com and waved her through, the look on his face telling her that if she were to step out an airlock without a spacesuit he wouldn’t be opposed to it.
That makes two of us, buddy.
Iniquus Major had started off as a prison colony; a planet where various nations sent their rotten dregs. After a time it had developed what some optimistically referred to as a ‘culture’. Others were quick to point out the word was not synonymous with class—certain kinds of popular fermented cabbage were cultured after all.
After a brief corporate war, the convicted felons were moved to another darker moon, and Iniquus Major had been turned from abandoned planet into a hellish oasis in a barren quadrant of the Myrmidon System, lit by the orange dying light of a grim star.
Now, the place professed to welcome travellers of all species, colours, races and shapes, so long as they had ready credits to spend and a fuelled space-cruiser to take them away again once they’d been fleeced.
Despite the lack of culture, there was, admittedly, a certain brassica-like pungency to the atmosphere, Runa thought, as she stepped through the airlock door and out into a gloomy passageway.
Maybe the descriptions of this shithole weren’t completely hyperbolic after all, she mused.
She started walking along a skybridge that connected the orbital shuttle docks to the orbit-to-surface ferry berths. Around her, humans from all corners of the sector thronged and jostled, cursed and laughed. The stink was appalling; a miasma created by the great unwashed, by those who had better—or worse—things to spend their credits on than the water that was shipped in by the ice-carving vessels that mined the few meteors nearby.
Runa allowed herself a small smile. Now that she was safely through security, and her bogus genometrics had been accepted, it was unlikely that she would be recog—
Runa’s arms were wrenched behind her and held there. Her yellow eyes went wide as a large, rough hand grasped her by the nape of the neck and slammed her sideways into wall of the skybridge. Behind her, she heard the unmistakeable gentle whirr of augmetic tendons, as whoever had laid hold of her shifted their grip.
Runa hissed a curse as she felt her wrists engulfed in the cool numbness of gel-cuffs.
“She’s got the marks on the backs of her hands, see?” a soft, sibilant, asexual voice said. “The crooked arrow and… yeah, the arch with the teeth.”
Her cowl was ripped off her head and a biometric scanner thrust in front of her face. There was a soft bleep.
A new voice grunted—a man “Järvinen? That’s a good one. Don’t suit you much, though, if you ask me. Ain’t pretty enough.”
Runa felt her attacker’s breath on the side of her neck; hot and fetid. She heard him snuff at her short white hair. She gritted her teeth and there was in in-drawing of breath followed by a curse when she stomped her foot down onto a booted toe.
Unfortunately, the grip of the man behind her did not slacken.
“What d’you want?” she growled, feigning confusion.
With no apparent effort she was yanked around, manhandled for a short distance with such ease that her toes barely scraped the floor, and then shoved through an already open service airlock. Although Runa could not make any of the details about her abductors, she saw the way every single person in the milling crowd around them studiously kept their gazes averted.
A promising sign, she thought.
“What d’you want?” she repeated.
Behind her, she heard the soft voice say, “Ain’t what we want, Miss. Madsen. It’s what Mr. Carver wants. And that’s a word with you.”
“Shit,” Runa whispered. She thought she’d been so careful.
“Oh, I don’t know if profanity is called for, Miss. Madsen,” the soft voice said morosely. “Mr. Carver is nothing if not fair. Nothing if not just.”
The ‘s’ in the word ‘just’ seemed to trail on for far too long.
I’m fucked, Runa thought.
Still, there was such thing as a good show.
“I know Carver might like to think that of himself,” she spat over her shoulder, “but, the fact is, you can’t make strawberry jam out of pig shit. No matter how much sugar you use.”
There was a hiss of anger from behind her, then something sharp was shoved into her neck.
“What—?” Runa started to say.
And the world was sucked away into nothingness.
* * *
Runa’s senses came back in fits and starts. Sound. Smell. Vision.
The room was filled with your classic toughs—thugs, gangsters, strong-arm men, wannabe killers, and chancers of almost every skill level and proclivity. It helped that Runa hadn’t seen it all before. Not like Gunner, who’d no doubt frequented the company of men like this on dozens of planets under a handful of different suns.
Still, though Runa had had a good taste of the general shape of humanity’s malice and blasé cruelty when under orders, she was not scared.
She doubted she could ever be scared again.
There was a dull hum and clunk as the airlock cycled and the all-glass tunnel that the small group had stepped into was made safe. Even that sound made Runa’s head throb.
A door, made from a type of genuine dark wood by the looks of it, opened in front of Runa and she was propelled through it with a vicious shove. The harsh stink of ozone vanished, replaced by the comforting artificial scents of sandalwood, tobacco and something that might have been waxed leather.
It was a spacious office. The walls were bare rock, complete with the scars, divots and scorings that the excavation equipment and mining lasers had left behind when Iniquus Major had first been colonised. Runa could see that there was a two-inch thick layer of transparent insulation gel sprayed all over the exposed stone to keep the bone-numbing chill of the planet’s surface from permeating this inner cavern.
To the left of Runa, set in a slight depression that was surrounded by elegant sofas and chairs, a holographic log fire burned. It must have been a good system that the owner of the office had rigged up, for the fire shifted occasionally and sent flurries of sparks up towards the cavernous ceiling.
In front of this sat a wide, heavy desk. Behind the desk sat a wide, heavy man.
Like the office he resided in, the man gave the impression of having been crudely carved and chiselled from the bones of the earth before being coated in a veneer of refinement. His blocky frame was draped in an expensive, high-collared suit. Despite the obvious quality of the tailoring and material though, it appeared to Runa that he wore it with thinly veiled disdain. A collection of rings festooned his thick, scarred fingers. They glittered in the faux firelight, as the man ran one hand through his luxuriant white hair.
“Runa Madsen, former husband of the late Gunner Madsen,” the man behind the desk said, not looking up from the data-sheets he was perusing.
“Silas Carver, professional murderer, sometimes businessman, and all-round scumbag,” Runa replied, the rage climbing like bile up the back of her throat.
Carver spooled through something on his comm-tab, then shrugged and looked up. “That’s not very nice,” he said mildly.
Runa looked into a pair of dark eyes that were, at one and the same time, dead and seductive. At once, she knew that here was a man who lived and worked, breathed and swam, in the subterranean world; in a world beyond or above or below the world she inhabited.
The fake fire crackled. Carver tapped his omni-com, then swept his finger up it. A holographic log appeared in the air, as if he had tossed it, and tumbled into the fire. The holographic image adjusted itself, absorbed the log so that the fire looked just as it would have looked had it been real.
“You wanna hear a secret?” Carver asked abruptly.
Carver chuckled mirthlessly. He looked around at the half dozen men arranged along the walls of his plush office.
“Listen to her, will ya? Smarter than Gunner that’s for certain. Fuckin’ no. No?”
“I’m not here for your secrets,” Runa said.
Carver snorted. “That’s too bad, ‘cause I’m gonna tell you one all the same, you cheeky little cunt.”
He leaned forward on the edge of his desk.
“The secret to all of this,” Carver said, waving an airy hand, “is knowing everyone’s vulnerabilities. The secret is knowin’ what people prize beyond everything else—what they love and care about so much that they’re willing to do anything to achieve or save it. The secret to enduring, Miss Madsen, is knowing peoples’ hearts.”
Runa ran her tongue along the inside hinge of her false molar. It was a laughably old-fashioned method of smuggling the lethally potent psychostimulant-adrenal cocktail, but it hadn’t been detected by the scanner she’d run over her.
“And you think you know my heart, is that it?” she asked. “That’s news to me. I wasn’t sure I still had one after what you did to me.”
“Bah, don’t be so fuckin’ morose, Runa,” Carver said flippantly.
“Morose? You killed my family, you fuck—”
“Men…women…humanity, we’re never happy with what we have,” Carver continued. “It’s an old adage because it was as true when it was first spoken back in the depths of time as it is now. We’re always foolin’ ourselves into thinking that things are a little less shitty over the next horizon or beyond the next star. It’s that which brought you, in a roundabout way, to stand before me now.”
“It was Gunner’s greed that did that,” Runa hissed.
Runa couldn’t believe the man’s callous indifference. It was like he was talking about some toy that he’d broke, not people. Not a hint of remorse at what he’d had his men do to her. To her daughter…
“Sit down, Miss Madsen,” Carver said.
Runa was unceremoniously manhandled into one of the chair’s opposite Carver.
“You might think this is as bad as it gets, love,” Carver said, his voice a honey-coated razorblade, “but that’s only because you’ve never known worse.”
Runa stared defiantly at the old man in front of her, while her heart flipped around in her chest like a dying bird. She could feel the final seconds of her life sliding past.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I want you to do a job for me.”
Runa laughed in spite of herself. The fucking gall of the man was incredible.
“What kind?” she asked.
“The kind that requires someone with balls and luck enough to kiss the fire without burning their lips,” the old man said.
There was a long pause.
“You’ve got nothing left,” Carver smirked. “Just your life. And that’s only at my behest.”
“There’s nowhere to run,” Runa muttered. She felt an elation at that.
“Too right,” Carver said, with absolute certainty.
He got to his feet and walked through where the holographic fire was crackling merrily and stopped at a sideboard.
“Drink?” he asked.
“Not for me me, but you go ahead” she said.
She flipped the fake molar open with her tongue and bit down on the acrid capsule inside. After imbuing the user with an extreme state of hyper-physical and mental acuity the synthetic compounds now flooding her blood stream would cause catastrophic organ failure.
“I get the feeling you’re going to need it.”
She stood, kicked her chair backwards with such force it snapped the knees of the man standing behind the wrong way. She threw a lamp at another man so hard it caved his face in, killed another by ripping his throat out, and broke a third’s spacer-carbine in half before shoving the barrel through his eye socket and out the back of his head.
That all happened before the man with the broken legs had hit the floor.
The other two men were scrambling for their phase-pistols, fingers fumbling, eyes bulging when Runa came for them. One managed to scream before she headbutted him so hard his entire bottom jaw burst, spray teeth and blood in all directions. The just stood as she grabbed him by the collar and hurled him across the room and into the desk, which, to all intents and purposes, exploded into splinters.
It only took seven seconds to kill six men. At the end of it, Carver was still standing, glass in one hand and decanter int the other, speckled with blood and brains. He looked surprised.
“What d’yuo think you’re doin’?” he breathed.
“You might know my heart, Carver,” she said, her insides already starting to spasm and ache as she stalked towards him, “but I’m going to enjoy showing you yours.”
OVERALL STANDINGS AS OF NOVEMBER 2022
Joe Coates: 174
Sean Crow: 171
Frank Dorrian: 167