Welcome to the Semi-Finalists for the Grimdark Story Battle Royale 2022! We have reached the end of this year-long challenge. Congrats to all the particpants for presenting some stellar work.
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 December 2022
1. A Celebration of Scabs
2. A Bizarre Buffet
3. A Mysterious Birth
4. A Wise Man
5. A Forgotten Year
I’ll Follow You to Hell by Joe Coates
Sometimes there are things you love. And sometimes there are things you hate. And oftentimes those things are one and the same things.
* * *
The day that Amos Redman finally snapped happened to be the same day his father died. That had been yesterday, or it might’ve been that day—today. Earlier. He couldn’t rightly recall.
“People called me an outlaw. I didn’t like it,” his father had told him, stroking his fingers through the luxuriant tawny feathers that covered his pet owl’s mantel; the creature that had given him the moniker of The Wise Man.
Amos had hated that fucking owl. Hated the fucking ridiculous affectation of riding about with it perched on his saddle horn that his father had adopted. The old man had allowed himself to believe his own legend. Amos knew there weren’t no such thing as legends. Not out here. Not since The Last War. Not since the sky fell and the world had been reduced to a more base model of its former self. Legends were synonymous with great deeds and good men. Amos had spent a life hearin’ about them things, but he hadn’t ever laid eyes on ‘em yet.
They were both lean and haggard, Amos and his father, their faces gaunt and weather-beaten. They shared the same eyes and the same pinched faces. The only sound was the occasional soft crunch of snow as their horses shifted a hoof.
Amos grunted non-committally and his father blathered on, whilst they sat their horses atop the ridge-line and looked back at the frozen, broken landscape below. Pocked with the craters of ancient wars so violent they had torn out chunks of the very moon and sent them falling to earth, the winter desert was a stark reminder of the distance a grudge could go.
“One guy had the temerity to call me a bandit, so I stuck a crossbow in his mouth and educated him that I weren’t a bandit, and I said, ‘Look, mister, I’m a merchant, and my business just so happens to be crime.’”
The winter sky was a deep shade of blue; clear for now, but there were thunderheads massing on the western horizon like cattle gathering on a riverbank. It was hard country. Even the air was so crisp and cold that it nipped and scratched at the inside of a man’s lungs as it went down. A thin layer of snow dusted the shattered boulders and stunted sage. The metal skeletons of the mammoth sky-boats, tales of which concerned mortal men travelling from one star to another in the Long-Ago, sat like serrated teeth in the jaw of the plain. With the beige rock underneath, the snow gave the impression that the whole world had been reduced to little more than a sugar-dusted cake that’d been allowed to rot.
Amos and his father sat on the ridge, looking out over the open country below. The snow-covered landscape they left behind was dotted with clusters of trees and the occasional cabin or barn. A couple of the burned out buildings were still smoking.
Just another hard and lonely day in a hard and lonely existence.
“I know what you’re thinkin’ boy,” Amos’ old man said. “You’re thinkin’ we shouldn’t have set fire to the barn once we’d herded the women and kiddies inside. Well, ask yourself this: we only did what this winter woulda done to ‘em. They’d go out there, wailing and moaning. And maybe someone comes across ‘em. Or maybe a mountain lion does. Or wolves. Better they died warm.”
Better they died warm…
“You don’t think we ought’ve sent a rider down first to see if they were anthropophagi?” Amos had asked.
Amos’ father had pushed his hat back on his head with one finger. Given Amos that patient look that got right under his skin.
“You’ll learn to quash that kind of thinkin’. It’s like anything—if you’re shootin’ ‘em, cuttin’ ‘em—once you’ve done one, half a dozen ain’t too many. You become hardened, and that’s why it’s important, boy. Burns the weakness out of your heart. ‘Course, makes it nigh on impossible for a man to show love or emotion, or any of that sort of soft shit, because you’ve gotta bring the shutters down. ‘Cause if you don’t, you go insane, or you put one in your own mouth, you know? Later, I’ll—”
That was the moment it had happened. That was the moment that Amos Redman, freshly branded homestead razer and burner of children, had lost his vertical hold. His expression hadn’t changed one iota as he leaned over and pushed his hunting knife slowly into his father’s neck.
Wise Man’s eyes went wide. He looked surprised. He might well have done, Amos reckoned. His own flesh and blood cutting his throat out seemingly out of the blue like that. Blood welled up as the blade slid slowly into the soft, wrinkled flesh, then sprayed as Amos wrenched it sideways. It spattered; a warm and familiar sensation to him, across Amos’ face.
“Ain’t no later, old man,” Amos had grunted, and shoved his old man off his horse. “This is later.”
He turned his horse and rode back to where the rest of the gang were waiting for their orders.
* * *
“I’m tellin’ you, Earl, It was like a wall of ice got shattered. And when that wall of ice got shattered, everything that I’d experienced in my tours; through New Franca, through the Teuton, Gran Colombia, Texas… I couldn’t stop it. The wife noticed it first. She noticed that there was somethin’ wrong—due to my isolation, my snappiness. Just depression really, and suicidal thoughts. I ain’t going to hide it, I’m a big advocate for talkin’ about this kind of shit, but I find I’m ashamed to find I feel weak when I do. Shit, Earl, I’m the first one to admit it, it ruins your ability to fuck—can you believe that?”
Earl said nothing. Just carried on polishing his glass and avoiding the hunched figure’s eye.
“Turns your friendships to dust ‘cause no one wants to be around you, because you’re just miserable,” McCrae continued. “You don’t want to go out drinkin’, because you get so fucking angry, so quick.”
The big man slapped his big hands down on the counter, making Earl jump. Lank blonde hair fell about his stubbled, ruddy face as he looked down at them. They were a mess of white and pink lines. What wasn’t old scarring was fresh or half-healed scabs, some of them oozed the way burns tended to.
“The Militia noticed it,” McCrae continued. “I got called into the sawbones’ tent. From doing twenty-odd years, it took that leech less than half an hour to get rid o’ me.”
“That ain’t… right, McCrae,” Earl said tentatively.
“Right,” McCrae snarled, in a voice that sent Earl stumbling back a couple of steps until he bumped into the wall and set the bottles to jingling. “That’s the goddamn thing, Earl. We all get the same nine-month shuffle on the tabletop, and then the deal. Some of us get a flush. Most, unfortunately, get a six-high. That’s how right the fucking world is.”
Earl saw McCrae’s fingers clench on the rough counter, digging up splinters that wedged themselves under his nails. Earl winced. McCrae seemed not to notice.
Why my joint? Earl asked the universe. He’d been in his trade a long time. He’d met psychopaths a plenty; men and women who knew the difference between right and wrong but flatly refused to give a shit about it. Outlaws and desperados who wandered the blasted wastelands doing the-Devil-knew-what, and made up for their lack of consciences by always, for instance, paying their tabs.
But this man… Hell, he looked like whatever road his past had led him down had involved having him cut apart and stitched back together. Both inside and out.
McCrae’s sudden incandescent anger faded, quick as a red-hot brand being quenched in a trough. He sighed. Shrank in on himself. Quite a thing, seeing as the man’s shoulders were a couple of axe handles wide.
“Yeah, I’ll say it,” McCrae murmured, stirring Earl from his thoughts. “My wife and I went down to Foul Bay, to where my family’s from. Stayed there for a bit. My wife had to ride back to Rum Creek sudden—to see to her mother and, yeah… I nearly shot myself.”
McCrae spoke soft and even as if he was telling Earl about a horse he’d thought about purchasing.
“I took all the rounds out of a gun and was practising where to do it, where I would do it, you know. And I put the bullet in, cocked it, put the iron in my mouth…” McCrae grinned. It was a slow, lazy grin without anything that even resembled humour touching it; a rictus. “Funny thing. I’ve done that to more people than I can remember, Earl, but ain’t never had it done to myself. It was…” he ran a tongue covered in a white film across his teeth, “cold.”
McCrae paused. Blinked sluggishly.
“And then I realized that Betsy was sat on the back of the sofa. Right near my head. She’s a little mutt terrier me and the wife traded a basket of corn for—a gift for our little lad. That hound saved my life. I wouldn’t be here now, talking to you or on this planet, if it wasn’t for my wife or that dog. No fucking way. I would have checked out.”
McCrae nodded. Nodded down at his scars and at his drink and at his troubles.
“Became a farmer,” the big man snorted bitterly. “Tried to make things grow. Yeah. Taking life. It’s hard, it’s hard, it’s hard. That’s why, now, finding those as make it their business to take it doesn’t bother me none.”
“That’s all very well and good, McCrae,” Earl said, not following too closely what the man was saying, setting down the glass and reaching for another, “but you know I’m goddamn bartender, right? I ain’t qualified to pick any of that shit apart and tell you what it means or how to deal with it. I can pour you a drink, though.”
McCrae tipped his head back, and his drink along with it.
“That’ll do, I guess,” he grunted. “Have one yourself.”
“Planned on it,” Earl said, with perfect truth.
As Earl refilled their glasses with red-eye, he watched out of the corner of his eye as the hunched figure rubbed absently at the thick cicatrix that looped under his jaw and ran right across his throat.
“What’re we drinkin’ to?” Earl asked.
McCrae held up his hands. Showing off his injuries; the old and the new. “These.”
Earl raised his glass. “A celebration of scabs,” he said.
He passed the rotgut over his hind teeth. Felt a trickle of perspiration run down from his bald pate to his collar. It was only then that he realized, in spite of the cold that battered relentlessly at the thin windows of the tavern, he was sweating.
Earl put the bottle down, hitched an ingratiating smile onto his face, and voiced a question he’d come to regret asking for the rest of his rapidly shortening life.
“So, why’s it you’re here and not home, then, eh?”
McCrae sucked his drink down slowly. Then, with exaggerated care, he replaced the glass on the counter.
“Party came through two days ago, while myself and some of the other men from our town were out hunting. They killed my dog.”
Carefully, Earl swallowed. The action was still a loud noise in the suddenly silent inn.
So, it’s grief, he realized. Grief’s put the edge on this son of a bitch. Grief’s honed his hatred until its started him bleeding from the inside. But, for a dog?
“That’s—” he started to say
“Rounded up all the folk they could and burned them alive inside the chapel,” McCrae continued. For the first time his eyes came up from the counter and skewered the bartender. Gray and cold; the genetic calling card of the survivors of the war that broke the moon.
Earl felt his chest constrict.
“My wife and child were among ‘em,” McCrae said. The cold eyes flickered. Went hard and dead.
“When we returned and found… Well, there was no knowing whose bones belonged to who. It was all just ash and fat that had run and then frozen in the cold.” He spat. “A failed harvest, then this.”
“Hell of a year,” Earl said weakly.
“A year I mean to forget, soon as you tell me what I want to know, Earl.”
“Bandits,” Earl blurted at once, though he knew, sure as the moon would one day fall out of the sky altogether, that it weren’t.
The cold gaze never left Earl’s face. “You think so? What about those who make sport of hunting out the anthropophagi—the people-eaters?”
“Those that hunt down those sick fucks that gather for the ceremony rumoured to be called the Bizarre Banquet?”
Earl swallowed again. None knew how that mysterious ritual had been birthed, but there was no denying it went down: a nightmare observance that haunted the wastelands.
“I still don’t—”
McCrae stood so suddenly that the stool he’d been slouching on fell over. He was tense as a fiddle string. He filled his beat-up cattleman’s attire like a storm that’d been reined-in.
“I tracked those responsible a ways and found the outlaw they called The Wise Man, Earl. Friend of yours, ain’t he? Him and his boy. Patrons.”
He started to walk towards the end of the bar.
Earl dropped the glass from a loose hand. Quite a thing to know Death was coming for you. A whole other thing entirely realizing you just shared a drink with him.
“I’ll tell you anything,” he rasped. “I’ll tell you where Amos Redman thinks the Banquet’s gonna be. I heard him talkin’ about it only one night past!”
“Honestly, I derive as much satisfaction from talking to you as I might pissing a skid-mark off the side of a chamberpot, Earl, but I know you’ll keep talking,” McCrae said, stalking carefully around the end of the bar and drawing a hatchet from his belt. “You’ll talk ‘til you’re all talked out.”
“You ain’t no better than them!” Earl screamed. “Look at you! You’re a devil made flesh.”
McCrae smiled that slow broken smile of his.
“If you’re gonna make me out to be a bad guy, Earl,” he said, “then I’m going to show you just how bad a guy I can be.”
“The blackness of your past sits your shoulder like a raven,” Earl whispered, as a huge hand took a hold of his shirt front.
McCrae’s demonic leer faded a little. For a moment, his eyes came alive with the grief that was eating him up from the inside like a cancer. Earl almost pitied him.
Then they hooded over. The smile returned, looking like it was nailed to his face.
“That’s the thing about the past, Earl,” McCrae said. “Damn thing ain’t ever where you think you left it.”
* * *
Amos Redman watched the cannibal, with his distended belly, walk over to the woman bound to the tree. Without haste or rancour, the sinewy figure pulled up the frantic woman’s shirt sleeve, taking meticulous care not to rip the material. Then, he slid a knife free of the sheath on his belt and carefully filleted out the meat from the inside of her elbow to her wrist. Just like that, the people-eater took the whole chunk of meat out. One dripping slab of meat. Like a massive steak.
The woman, unsurprisingly, screamed herself hoarse. Screamed until her eyes bulged, screamed until ropes of spit turned to mist. Her tendons stood like wires in her scrawny neck, and then she collapsed limply in her bindings. She looked like she’d screamed herself to death.
“She’s goddamns dead,” the cannibal who’d mutilated her said moodily, fresh gristle hanging from his chops. “Weak cunt.”
Amos felt the ice that coated his soul crack. He urged his hidden riders into a gallop, leading them down the northward slope and into the Bizarre Banquet.
* * *
Wealth without work.
Pleasure without conscience.
Knowledge without character.
Commerce without morality.
Science without humanity.
Worship without sacrifice.
Politics without principle.
Those were the tenets that McCrae knew the Riders of the Wise (as they were fucking egotistically and now erroneously named) abided by.
Hunter often hunted, killer often killed.
The words of McCrae’s unit.
The ache he felt, as he watched Amos Redman, the man he knew had been at least partly responsible for the death of his family, was a hollow one. To face cannibals should have been scary. But nothing was.
As he crouched in the shadow of the downed sky-ship he’d been taking cover in and felt his muscles singing with the promise of mutilation to come, he briefly questioned why he was willing to risk throwing the closely guarded biological secret of his galatic-faring race away for this outlaw.
His answer: his lost son was an emptiness that would resound throughout time. It would encompass not just the places he should have been in with him and was no longer, or even those places he would never enter together with him. The nullification was deeper. It was the knowing that in every place he entered for the rest of his existence, his son should be there, and was not. And McCrae’s memories of his son would become a signpost to that absence. A lost son, for him, was a tale that was never allowed to end.
McCrae saw Redman.
Redman caught his eye. His face, speckled in blood as it was, fell.
McCrae’s face hurt so good.
He was going to enjoy this.
A Feast of Scabs by Sean Crow
Able eyed the table of food from behind the protective ivory mask he wore while the rest of his fellows reveled in the feast. Unlike the synthetic nutrient pastes they survived on day to day, at the Celebration of Service, they ate like kings. That was what Madam called it, but to Able, it was the Celebration of Scabs.
A bizarre buffet of half consumed leftovers from the clients serviced by Madam Aphra and her staff. Real meat and unprocessed foods that only the rich could afford in bulk. To those elites, the meal before him might have been considered scraps, but to Scabs it was the one time out of the year when they found some semblance of enjoyment.
To his right sat Dutiful as he grabbed a half-eaten plate of ribs, his missing upper lip giving him the appearance of a grin as he wolfed down the tender meat. Further down the table was young Eager who, in keeping with his name , quickly grabbed everything he could with his three fingered hand. The older a Scab was, the more scars he carried. They were a host of marred and broken faces, killers and intelligence collectors, disfigured boys and young men who just tried to survive in a world full of hate.
They were living examples of Madam’s love, and Able was the oldest amongst them.
A useful Scab was one who did not speak and followed the Madam’s orders without hesitation or question. Those who did so long enough earned a name associated with a trait. In his twenty years, Able had proven his worth time and time again, from easing cred-sticks from low tier clients to taking the lives of those who had wronged Madam or her staff. Poisonings, intel collection, the life of a Scab was wrought with the peril and each had to be wary of the consequences of failure. Should a Scab get caught, they held no records of citizenship nor employment within the Velvet District. That meant they were either executed by the Tenocore Peacekeepers, or cast out into the Wastes where they would slowly die from radiation poisoning.
Scabs vanished without concern or care. And why not? It was no mystery that the birth of Scabs like Able were but the unaborted reality of the Velvet District. Unwanted, reviled even, by those whose positions kept them from seeing the consequences of their actions. Some saw Madam as a savior for taking in so many, but Able knew better.
The worst fate of all was reserved for those who truly displeased Madam. Those poor souls were locked in the darkness below the House, where the beings there fed off their suffering. It could take months for a life to end in the darkness below, less if the things that dwelled there could break you. It was suffering on a scale that should not exist in the world, but was commonplace under Madam’s care.
The Velvet District in Twilight was the painted whore of the Great City, dolled up to conceal the twisted brutality beneath the surface. Madam Aphra’s establishment was no different.
Another reason why he didn’t eat the meal before him. It was a kindness, to move the celebration forward. And kindness, especially in a time in which Madam had reason to rage, meant something else was going on.
Madam was a sharp business woman who didn’t like to waste resources unless she absolutely had to. There was no love in her heart. He had endured, first hand, the evils within her; from the many scars that marred his face to being forced into the cage beneath Madam’s House, where her vile pets whispered madness from the inky darkness and took pieces away from you…
She was his mother, and a mother without love for her children was no better than the monsters that dwelled in the streets outside.
A wise man had told him that, shortly before Able killed him. He still saw the man’s face. Refined, beautiful even, for the lack of blemish and scars on his dark skin. A premiere athlete, or so Able had been told. He had been a former lover of the Madam and father of Able and his sister. When he fell from Madam’s graces, those had been his final words once he realized that Able poisoned his drink. He did not rage or fight, he simply looked at Able and asked him to remove his mask so he could see him. There was sadness in his eyes, regret so deep that it nearly drowned Able to look at him. For in that man’s eyes Able saw a reflection of what he could have been.
Unlike the rest of his kills, the death of his father still tore at his mind when he allowed it.
The man who had sired Able, though he never knew of it, had been kind. Caught up in the Madam’s pheromone trick, he had been unable to deny her until she conceived a second child. Once she birthed a daughter, his usefulness faded. The man had spoken to Able three times in his life, during those rare moments when the pheromones dimmed enough that he regained a sense of himself. Each time he offered to help Able escape, but his father was no more free than Able was.
For that reason, while all his fellow Scabs gorged themselves on the waste of the elite, Able refused. Even as his stomach growled and his mouth watered with every envied bite his fellows took, he knew something was off. Madam had called the Feast of Service early this year, a fact Able could not help but acknowledge as it came shortly after his sister, the one child Madam had been cultivating over the years, had disappeared a few days before her virginity was to be given to the highest bidder.
That had been a major blow, not only to Madam’s reputation, but to her creds. A prize like his sister, whose genetic markers had been refined and cultivated in order to produce, had cost a fortune. One that would have been quadrupled with the price settled after the auction. Now his sister was gone and not a single whore or Scab could tell Madam how.
Yet with the early feast set before him, Able suspected the part he played in his sister’s disappearance would soon come to light.
The doors to the lavish dining area in which he and the rest of the Scabs had been sitting swung open as Madam entered. It was difficult to tell just how old his mother was, for she had invested a fortune in keeping her physical allure. Yet even that did not explain why she looked no older than he. For that, he suspected the two creatures behind her to be have a part to play.
To the outside world, the women who flanked Madam were just as gorgeous as her. Curves that drew the eye, lips that begged to be kissed, and a bodice that could have been the envy of any who longed for such. Yet he had seen what lay beneath the surface of either succubus and the horrors therein quelled any longing he might have felt.
To see a succubus feed was a terrible sight, and Scabs were not an uncommon option on their menu.
“Good evening my darlings,” Madam purred.
There were roughly fifty Scabs in attendance and each scrambled for his ivory mask as she entered. Madam did not like to look upon them, making it a rule that every Scab must be masked from her sight. Some may have been half-brothers of his, others the children of whores who refused to offer them to Moloch Enterprises. None of it mattered. They were less simply because the desires of those in power said so.
“Do not be bothered,” she said, voice calm and unusually nurturing. “Please, eat your fill. This is all thanks for the work you have done for myself and my girls over the last year.”
Most hesitated, unsure how to respond to such an uncharacteristic greeting to their exposed faces. Many were the scars delivered by her hand. Yet hunger eventually overcame them as they slowly resumed their consumption. All but Able and a handful, those who had a sense for when something dangerous was coming.
You did not survive long as a Scab without an acute understanding of when danger was near and, being one of the longest lived amongst their number, he knew how to keep off the chopping block. Those who continued eating were all younger boys ranging from five to fifteen who had yet to develop an understanding of the hell that was the Velvet District.
“Have you all enjoyed your feast?” she asked.
Heads nodded, half turned out of habit so she would not see their faces fully. Yet it did not stop them from eating. The slow smile that curled the side of Madam’s lips caused Able’s stomach to sink. One of the older boys, Dutiful, saw it as well and quickly rushed to one of the rubbish bins in the back and began vomiting the contents of his meal. Out of the corner of his eye, Able could see another use his glove injector to put what was most likely a purifying agent in his bloodstream in hopes of countering whatever he had consumed.
It wouldn’t be enough. Madam had equipped all of them with various toxins and remedies to administer in particular situations. The gloves they wore were of Fae design and allowed for a multitude of actions; from the violent and deadly to life saving if needed. Each fingertip could inject or distribute life and death. They were servants to Madam’s will and did as commanded.
Whatever she had put in the food would prove far more effective than any means they had to counter it.
Madam waved an indifferent hand at Dutiful and one of the succubus strode across the room. It gripped Dutiful by the shoulder, the very touch causing him to let out a painfully pleasant groan that might have almost been a whimper. The strength seemed to leave the Scab as he slumped onto the succubus’ shoulder and was led out of the room.
If he was poisoned, whatever type it might be, it would be a mercy compared to what the succubus would do to him.
Soon plates began to fall to the ground as whatever poison had been put in the food revealed itself. Beside him, the closest Scab, a boy no more than seven years, began tearing at his skin as he screamed. Many others tried to vomit or inject themselves, but it was all for naught. As the screaming grew in intensity, a few drew the monofilament knives they all carried and took their own lives rather than allow the poison to run its course. The cries in the room rose up as his fellows writhed in agony and ripped at their own flesh.
Greek Fire, the toxin was called. A particularly painful death, generally reserved for revenge kills.
Soon Able found himself standing alone in the room, hands clasped behind his back as what life remained in his fellow Scabs finally drew to a close. Madam and her pet watched him from the other side of the room.
Madam turned her head to the side as she inspected him, one immaculately kept eyebrow raised. “Tell me where she is Able, and we can forget any of this happened. In fact, we can forget the entire year as we enter the new one. A fresh start.”
Able suspected it was a lie, but even so, the temptation was there. He didn’t want what came next. He wanted to live, to be free of this place. He wanted to join his sister with the junkers who lived in the Outskirts, hunting the Wastes for tech. That was how the plan was supposed to go. He had received word last night that she was safe, and he could flee this place and join her.
But now his time was up.
Slowly he removed his mask and stared his mother in the eyes. He had done it once as a child and it had cost him his nose. A quick treat by the creatures that lived below the House. The rest had come as disciplinary measures or consequences of his duty as a Scab. The nightmare that his face had become was not something anyone would want to look at. A missing nose and broken teeth, with enough scar tissue to mar what face there had been. As he stared deeply into the pale green eyes of his mother, he knew exactly who the monster was.
“Put your mask on now,” she snapped.
“No,” he whispered, holding himself a bit taller. “Not today, Mother.”
The word might as well have been a physical blow as her face grew scarlet. The sneer that split her beautiful features revealed her true nature. “I have other means of getting answers.”
The succubus stepped forward and began to change. The gorgeous woman standing at his mother’s side emitted a series of pops and snaps as her true form shifted beneath the skin it wore, and revealed itself as the flesh peeled away. Lidless eyes stared at him, a gaping maw, unable to shut, dripped spittle from sharpened teeth.
“This is a final warning, Able.” Madam’s composure had returned, but she watched him with a certain hesitation that told him she was serious. “Tell me where she is and I will let you leave my service unharmed.”
He had what Madam wanted and, being the business woman she was, he might actually be able to pull off an agreement. Otherwise, he would already be suffering. If he wanted, he could leave the city and go to Pillar. It was said the Great City to the north was accepting citizens and it was far from her influence.
If he was smart, Able realized he could actually live.
Then green eyes, similar to his mother’s but softer, filled with love, entered his mind.
“Why do you wear that mask?” his sister asked.
Able had been twelve and she was only six. Knowing their bond, Madam ordered her protection as one of his duties. At first it had been an annoyance. One more responsibility in a world filled with troubles. Yet their time together soon became the calm in the storm he called life.
“Because you wouldn’t want to see what lies beneath,” he told her, harsher than he intended.
She remained unfazed as little hands reached up to lift the blank ivory mask. The technology allowed him to see from behind it and assess tech feeds as a matter of security. She wouldn’t be able to remove it without Able allowing it, and yet, that day, he had. It had been years since he showed his face to the world and found himself shaking as her tiny hands worked the clasps keeping it in place.
Closing his eyes, he prepared himself for a scream or, at best, a brief intake of breath when she saw him. When neither came, Able opened his eyes to see a face filled with wonder.
“Your eyes are so beautiful,” she told him.
And Able wept.
All thoughts of survival vanished.
While Madam’s eyes were now fixed upon his broken face, he tapped the glove of his index finger, activating the Heart-Throb injection and delivered it in his back. It would take a minute to work through his system, but the chemical compound would rapidly deteriorate his nervous system at the stem of his brain, killing him instantly.
The succubus must have sensed what he had done, as its gibbering snarls increased. Unsurprising to Able, Madam understood it.
“You little bastard,” Madam spat. “Why? Why give it all away for that brat?”
Able drew his monofilament knife and activated every lethal poison he had loaded in his offhand glove. “She called me beautiful.”
With that, Madam unleashed her pet and Able met it head on. It was far too fast for him to survive the encounter, but that had never been up for debate. Its claws ripped away his flesh and its teeth sank deep. Yet he was a Scab from birth and had studied the succubus’ movements throughout his life, as he did with all threats that entered the Madam’s House. Hunger dominated its reasoning and, knowing he only had a limited amount of suffering and emotion to give off before he died, it went for the kill. Able allowed its teeth to sink into his neck, as it got him close enough to drive every poison in his glove into its chest. The succubus screamed and fell back as both the fast and slow acting chemicals filled its system.
His blood spattering to the ground, Able managed to keep his feet and advance on Madam, her eyes widening with shock as she backed away. Able’s spine grew warm, especially at the base of his neck, and he knew he only had moments to reach her. Madam’s screaming notified the second succubus and it burst into the room, mid transition from beauty to devil.
The warmth in his neck grew hot and, realizing he wasn’t going to be able to reach her in time, Able threw his blade. In those final moments of life, his eyes seemed to fix on the weapon as it tumbled edge over hilt through the air. His vision blurred, but he saw it slam home, though he couldn’t see where.
Then there was a white hot flash and the last memory he saw were the love filled eyes of the little girl, who once called him beautiful.
The Wrath of Wise Men by Frank Dorrian
The temple hall echoed with lonesome footsteps. Seminarch Ferrin stepped through the grand stone doors, torch held aloft. Shadows played across the reliefs carved into them, scenes of Atalthi the Solemn’s struggle against Molg the Devourer, the background cluttered with a mess of warring gods. A celebration of scabs.
Beyond, the temple hall was dark, deserted. Few souls roamed here, these days, ever since that fool Ralstad had left on his fool’s quest to find the corpse of Atalthi. The Peonids had once seen to it that the torches were lit without fail for the evening sermons. Now, since they had departed and lifted the veil on their true forms, what torches that could be scavenged from the town below rested unlit near the dais at the hall’s end.
Ferrin went to his knees as he reached the dais, genuflect in gloom as he raised his face toward Atalthi’s cobwebbed grimace above the four empty thrones that sat upon it. He shaped the Humility prayer-form with his hands, closing his eyes.
‘Atalthi, Solemn Lord,’ he whispered, the plea faltering. Bitterness flooded took its okace. ‘Is there any point? You are gone. Devoured by one of the God Eaters… The tombs of your brothers and sisters have been torn open, plundered for power, and the Rune of Cleaving has been sealed, trapping the Shunned in what is left of our world.’
His whisper faded, a breeze shifting over the filthy rushes. He cracked an eye. Atalhi’s face grimaced on, the cobwebs hanging from its inhuman features drifting upon the breeze, swaying from its lipless mouth like a moron’s drool-rope.
‘You have failed us,’ Ferrin snarled, pushing himself to his feet. ‘Time and time again, you miserable fucking weakling!’ He hawked and spat a wad up at Atalthi’s worthless face, the glob sailing high over the dusty thrones, falling short on its arc by several feet to land with a faint splat in the shadows behind them.
Ferrin’s lip curled at his failure. Atalthi stared on, unimpressed. ‘Fuck.’
‘What are you doing?’
Ferrin spun. Occlusiarch Jalas was stood in the archway to the left of the dais wearing bloodstained robes and a disgusted look on his aging face, the tallow candle in his hand was barely a glimmer against the darkness. Ferrin’s lip twitched, embarrassed he’d been caught red-handed in an act of blasphemy. He cast a hateful glance up at the Solemn’s dusty, morose face. ‘Wasting my breath,’ he snapped.
No one gave a shit anymore. The gods were dead. Devoured. Prayer was but wasted air, and this temple was a worthless shell of what it had once stood for.
‘Tetrarch Solos will see you now,’ the old surgeon said. ‘I warn you – mind your tone, and your temper. His Grace does not have long left with us, and I would not see his final breaths tinged with anger.’
‘Come, then,’ said Jalas, turning away into the shadows.
The door to the Tetrarch’s bedchamber stood halfway open, the greasy light of tallow candles spilling through. Ferrin paused as Jalas eased his skinny form into the room beyond. The scent of sacred incense and burning sereth amber wafted from the Tetrarch’s chambers, their pungency unable to hide the reek of death and the stink of the old bastard’s shit-bucket.
Voices murmured. Jalas appeared, beckoning Ferrin forth. He took a deep breath and answered the summons, stepping carefully about the door as the surgeon had done, so as not to disturb His Grace’s final moments with the ungodly rattle of its hinges.
The room beyond was shrouded with the heady mix of incense and sereth-smoke, the latter already nipping at the edges of Ferrin’s wit. He did his best to ignore it, stepping across the tarnished splendour of Tetrarch Solos’s chamber, strewn with the obscenity of countless meals that had gone uneaten in this day and age.
Once, the walls of this room had glittered with gold, lit by the warm glow of lamps burning sacred, sweet-smelling anaphas oil. Now, the hangings rotted, were dull with dust and cobweb like everywhere else in this rotting temple, and the air stank of an old man’s ravaged innards.
Ferrin held his breath, eyes watering as he made his way toward where Jalas stooped over a dust-coated bed at the chamber’s end, wafting thick smoke over the small lump coddled beneath bedsheets wrought of cloth of gold, tarnished and stained beyond belief.
‘Your Eminency,’ the surgeon whispered, hand still wafting, ‘Seminarch Ferrin approaches, as you requested.’
‘Your Eminency.’ Ferrin took a knee at the bedside, hiding a grimace as he noticed he’d chosen a spot next to the old bastard’s brimming shitpot, the stink already forcing its way down the back of his throat.
The bed sheets shifted. ‘Seminarch?’ a small voice rasped. ‘I asked for a brother of ability, not an archive-scribbler and prayer-leader, Occlusiarch… Bring me Adept Nosfellox, immediately.’
Ferrin dropped the prayer-form his hands shaped. Miserable old fucker, even in death, just like the rest of the miserable, wrinkled twats had been. Jalas gave Ferrin an awkward look. ‘With all respect, your Grace, Adept Nosfellox died more than a year ago, defending the High Wall against a horde of the Shunned’s creations. Seminarch Ferrin, here, is the most senior of the few brothers we have left.’
A withered face stirred among stained swaddling cloth, corpse-grey and green-tinged as it turned toward Ferrin, soulless little eyes regarding him.
‘A Seminarch… this sacred hall’s most senior brother…’ Solos’s dimming eyes regained a gleam of hatred for a heartbeat for a moment before it faded. ‘Then all truly is lost.’ He reclined back upon his crusty pillow, bedsheets rising on irregular breaths.
Jalas elbowed Ferrin in the ribs as an awkward silence swelled. Ferrin glared at the surgeon, cleared his throat, hands shaping a half-arsed prayer form. ‘Your Eminence, how can I be of service? You have but to ask, and it will be done.’
Tetrarch Solos laughed weakly, twisting Ferrin’s mouth sourly. Hopefully the old git would snuff it before he could get his request out.
‘We had hope, still,’ said Solos, ‘if we had an Adept left to us. But all we have a is a scribbler, a prayer mumbler.’ Solos’s face emerged from the sheets, eyes twinkling hatefully. ‘Do you fancy a challenge, scribbler? Or at least a quick death?’
‘Speak, and it will be done, Your Eminence.’
No matter his anger, obedience to these wrinkled fucks was ingrained, chafed like sand until they got what they wanted. Another reedy laugh came from Solos. A grotesquely thin hand emerged from the sheets, waving vaguely toward the wall behind Ferrin. ‘Occlusiarch… my safe box. Bring it to me.’
Jalas bowed as he stood, shuffling away. ‘The Tetrarchy…’ Solos whispered, more to the ceiling than to Ferrin. ‘My brothers… Oh… we hid so much from our underlings. Squatted like serpents… upon our secrets. Hid our lies behind a shroud of blasphemy.’
Ferrin frowned as the wretched old bastard fell to dry weeping. Underlings. That was one way of putting it – the Seminarchs of Atalthi were little more than glorified Peonids to the upper tiers of the priesthood. Skivvies, prayer mutterers, and convenient arsewipers to the elderly brothers of their order, while the Adepts, Occlusiarchs, Administrarchs, Justiciarchs, and Tetrarchs spent their days honing craft and skill, or elsewise down in the High Wall’s mountainside brothels, twisted among the bodies of young women.
Or even younger boys, Ferrin thought.
‘We lied,’ Solos wept again, reed-thin shoulders shaking, clawed hands fretting at the bedsheets. A sturdy lock clicked behind Ferrin, a panel in the stone wall swinging open. ‘We lied! We lied! For so many years! And now, there’s nothing left! Nothing, but fallen gods and hungering demons!’
‘What do you mean, Your Eminence?’ Ferrin asked, trying to squash his disgust at the old creature’s self-pity. Jalas reappeared at his side, kneeling again with a rusting iron strongbox in his hands. Its surface was inscribed with rust-filled runes of warding – ones forbade by the temple. The Tetrarch’s eyes gleaming fearfully as a fat key scraped into the lock.
‘We called them blasphemy,’ Solos wheezed. ‘Said that prayer was our greatest weapon against the Shunned… but then that fool… that fucking utter fool! Ralstad! He laid it all bare! Exposed us! Took our servants from us and gave them weapons!’
The strongbox’s lock open with a sharp snap, Jalas’s brow dewed with sweat as his shaking hands prised its rusting lid open on squealing hinges. Solos whimpered and twisted away, the candlelight glistening upon something that lay upon a bed of decaying velvet.
It was a heart – withered and crystalised, yet huge despite it. Ferrin could see himself reflected faintly on its surface, as though it were hewn from obsidian. ‘What…’
‘Atalthi’s heart,’ Solos wailed. ‘My brothers and I… we pulled it… straight from the Solemn Lord’s chest. Forgive us!’
Ferrin turned his stare to the artifact before him. The heart of the greatest god that had ever walked Eirra. The God Eater that Seminarch Ralstad had unleash was supposed to have devoured the corpse of Atalthi, and yet here was a Remnant before them…
How many in the temple had known of this abomination?
This was a blasphemy worse than any that Ferrin could name, the likes of which only the Shunned Gods and their Silent Wardens were capable of unleashing, and wrought by the hands of Atalthi’s own Tetrarchy.
Disgust coiled through Ferrin. The Tetrarchy had ruled over the High Wall and the temple for hundreds of years, decrying any mention of the Remnants as blasphemy. Their word was gilt-edged law, every utterance sacrosanct…
What else had they lied about?
‘The gods gave us the seeds of hope long ago,’ Solos croaked, ‘and instead, we thrust ourselves into the void they left. Take it… take it into the belly of the Forlorn Archive, where the last dregs of Forsaken Elenyr fester, where the Shunned’s corruption was first born! Purify their taint with it at last! Go! Go! Pray for a swift end, Scribbler! We are alone!’
The last of the Tetrarchs fell to a fit of mindless wailing. Jalas rose. ‘Leave,’ he snapped at Ferrin, ‘Your journey begins with the dawn, now go.’
Ferrin stood and made for the door without so much as a word, anger warring against the wit-dullness of second-hand sereth smoke.
The Forlorn Archive clung to the mountainside, a swollen tick burrowed beneath the fold of a dying dog’s ear. Ugly and utterly foreign to the eye, hewn from rough panels of bone-pale stone, it squatted where the mountains met, its gates half-open.
Ferrin licked dry lips, drew a breath, and checked the height of the moon above. No sight of guards, nor the ghostly Silent Wardens. He made his way toward it in a crouch, the weight of the strongbox chained to his back abominable. There were no sentries posted at the Archive’s gates, nothing to deny Ferrin entry as he crawled up shadowed steps toward the opening, and slipped through the gap into the void beyond.
Inside, he kept to the wall, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom within the Archive. He was in a vast, yawning hall, its stone-worked hollows and galleries festooned with webs from spiders and other wretched things, its torches unlit, the candelabras empty and tarnished. It seemed abandoned, fled in some forgotten year. Ferrin prayed it was so, as he crept toward the hall’s end, but something prickled his skin with every breath.
Something skittered on the stairs behind Ferrin. He fled to the nearby shadows, sweating and cursing the pain in his back from the strongbox. Nothing moved in the archway’s void at their peak. Silence cloyed. He relaxed against the empty scroll-cabinet at his side. The very air of this place seemed to poison the mind with fear, swell every little doubt into some monstrous –
Something crashed into the back of Ferrin’s shoulders and flattened him upon the stone floor. He cried out, thrashed, pinned beneath the thing’s weight and that of the strongbox. Bony fists pummelled him, sharp-fingered hands snatching at his limbs as a shrill voice shrieked, ‘Foul thing! Sneak-thing!’
Ferrin lashed out, the back of a hand colliding with a fleshless skull. Long fingers knotted in his hair, jagged nails cutting his scalp. ‘Meat-thing!’ His head was yanked back with absurd strength and slammed into the floor. ‘Meat! Meat! Meat!’
It slammed Ferrin’s face into the floor with every cry, until silence reigned.
Noise crept through the darkness, the light of candles pushing back the murk. Cold grit bit Ferrin’s cheek. He lifted his face from the floor. A withered hand was clasped about his wrist – a stooped, shrivelled creature was dragging him down a corridor. Its bald head turned briefly toward him. A blood-crusted bandage was wound about its eyes.
‘Meat-thing,’ it hissed, stub-nose sniffing. ‘Awake! Awake! Valas, the Hungerer, has a place for you at his feast!’
The sharp twist of its arm sene Ferrin bouncing down a set of steps to land in a crumpled heap through an archway. Head spinning, back throbbing from the weight of the strongbox still chained to him, the smell of the chamber beyond hit him before aught else did.
Ferrin squinted, lifting his head on a wobbling neck to behold the monstrosity that filled the candlelit chamber before him. It was a thing wrought all of raw, oozing meat, towering floor to vaulted ceiling, rising from a festering bed of torn and shredded flesh, a glutton at a bizarre buffet. It was shaped something like a man, its long, dripping limbs crafted from sundered muscle and tissue, the fingers flexing at their ends flensed and severed arms.
Something writhed in its bed. A figure pulled itself free from the tangled meat, its once-white robes sodden with blackened, clotted blood, eyes bulging from a face hidden behind a plain white mask. One of the Silent Wardens.
‘I hunger,’ a voice rumbled through the stone floor.
A tendril of flesh whipped from amid the creature’s bed and coiled around the Warden’s waist, snatching him into the air where a vast, bleeding hand closed about him. With a sickening squelch, the thing slammed the Silent Warden into its oozing chest. The Warden thrashed, not a single sound leaving him, even as glistening threads coiled about his limbs, his bloody robes dissolving in curling ropes of smoke. In heartbeats, the Warden’s flesh melted, ran, merging with the being’s putrid form, until only bulging eyes and a mouth open in a silent scream remained. Threads of glistening meat swarmed across them, and the Warden was gone.
A featureless, bulbous head turned toward Ferrin, pulsating and writhing with a sickly pulse. The thing’s voice rumbled again. ‘Little morsel. Sate my hunger.’
A pink rope of flesh quested toward Ferrin from its bed. He tried to stand, but the weakness in his limbs and the weight of the strongbox sent him crashing back down face first into the floor. The tentacle shot out, slithering beneath Ferrin like a serpent’s tongue, wrapping itself about his waist and hauling him toward a waiting claw.
The tentacle stopped just beyond the reach of its claw. It turned him about, presenting the strongbox toward the creature.
‘I knew I felt the sting of Warding Runes. What are you hiding from me, morsel?’
The tentacle split, a forest of oozing fronds fretting at the strongbox and its chains. ‘Ah – could it be?’ The chains snapped, and Ferrin fell with a yelp, landing with a squelch in the meat below. Tiny tendrils immediately sprouted from beneath him, tightening around his arms and legs, his clothes sizzling and dissolving at their touch, blistering the skin beneath. The tentacle moved the strongbox closer to the creature, a gruesome hand reaching out. Meat sizzled as dead arms groped the strongbox, metal screeching as the creature tore the lid open.
‘Atalthi,’ it rumbled, ‘your corpse, betrayed and ravaged by your thralls? How miserable, even for the Solemn Lord.’ Twitching fingers plucked the crystallised heart out and let the strongbox drop with a splat. ‘Molg would have given everything for this moment. But now, brother, I, Valas, have become the Devourer.’
A ragged vertical gash opened in the creature’s head, the splintered ends of ribcages bristling like a rending maw of teeth as it made to shove Atalthi’s heart into it. It hesitated. Red runes winked into life across the heart’s surface. ‘What –’
Atalthi’s heart exploded in a cloud of flame and liquefied flesh, fragments pinging from the chamber walls. Above, something burst from the ruined stump of the creature’s arm – roots, gnarled and thorned like those of some savage tree. They spewed forth, growing and spreading with absurd speed as the creature’s screams shook the chamber. Thorned tendrils raced through its flesh, sprouted from its chest and head, constricting and shredding as they grew.
In moments, the creature was aswarm with them, its screams fading as the roots burrowed their way into the stones of the Archive. From the knot enveloping its head, a bole burst forth, streaking upward and punching through the chamber ceiling almost vengefully.
Ferrin let out a giddy laugh as the chamber ceiling was torn apart by the wrath of a sprouting tree, chunks of masonry splattering into the pile of flesh. It was dead – dead – and the Archive’s stain would be erased by the birth of Atalthi’s tree. That old bastard Solos had been right, the Remnants were –
A root burst through Ferrin’s thigh in a spray of blood and torn meat, swelling in size as it wrapped itself around his leg. More burst from the bed of flesh around him and swarmed Ferrin, their hissing smothering the sound of his screams, forcing their way down his throat as Atalthi’s sacred tree burst into bloom above him, every bough shining the colour of bloody gold.
OVERALL STANDINGS AS OF DECEMBER 2022
Joe Coates: 206
Sean Crow: 205
Frank Dorrian: 202
With that, our winner of the Grimdark Story World Cup 2022 is Joe Coates! Congrats to him and all of our awesome writers we’ve had. It’s been a pleasure reading the stories and I hope they find good homes for more people to read them.