Nasty, Brutish, and Short
Evil Fiction by Patrick M. Tracy

Bronar Returns 3: Born of Chaos and Eternal Night

By Patrick M. Tracy

All the birds flushed from their perches, making their noisy way up into the winter gloom. Dogs and livestock panicked, breaking free to run into the waste and stubbled fields to the south of the village. Tahni didn’t know the name of the town. Remnants of a fallen empire, the name may have sat awkwardly upon her tongue regardless.

She, Bronar, and a double handful of warriors hid in a chilly barn, peering through the gaps between weathered boards. A simple plan lay before them. Wait until the enemy attacked and killed the raiders. Simple, but for the fact that the enemy stood as some unknown and uncanny force, a sort of evil no one could easily articulate. Thus, who could say if they would be sufficient in number? They would have to be, or death would be their reward. The same mathematics as battle always held. Tahni knew now that, beside the agony, the manner of a person’s death meant little. Abed with a fever or painting some battlefield with blood, dead was dead. The destination awaited everyone, only the journey a mystery.

A child ran by, screaming out something that contained no words, holding the end of a rope. Others followed a few moments later, running at their best speed. 

The bellows sound of panicked breath, the dragging of heels as oldsters tried to get their aching limbs to run, the calls of mothers to their children. This cacophony filled the air. Tahni remembered a time when it would have struck her deeper, filled her with the urge to flee and hide. Those most tender and human parts of her had been seared and darkened by the Night Wolf, that embodiment of her powers. The darkened voice whispered to her, even now, promising her new and untasted exaltation, could she but kill the doom that stalked all those frightened villagers. She who killed the bringer of death – she grasped the infinite, for a moment becoming like unto a god.

But that work had yet to be done, and its dark gift lay as merely a promise made by a liar.

“The sky grows darker, does it not?” Tahni’s voice sounded detached, like a person asking about the price of a loaf of bread at the daily market. Was it good or right that she had become so deadened to misery, to even the likelihood of her own demise?

Bronar touched her shoulder squeezing briefly. “It’s the way of the ancient enemy. They carry the chill and darkness with them. It is the stuff of them. Darkness and churning chaos.”

The clouds clotted and blackened above, the wind swirling even colder than it had yet been. From out of the north, it seemed that a maw of inky despair opened. A sound so deep that it shook the skin and raised the hair on Tahni’s neck reverberated through the air. She could feel it in the soles of her feet, in the splintered boards of the barn. Nearly inaudible, it yet made her ears ache with the pressure. 

A few of Kaldogurn’s men began to show the signs of fear, grasping hard against spears and axe hilts. Hardened men, the chosen of the Conqueror King, yet still susceptible to the horrors of the world.

“How many will there be? This feels like the oncoming of a whole dread army.” Tahni’s heart beat hard, the battle-taste at the back of her throat. She had learned to savor the moments of awaiting before, but this wasn’t the same. This was not the prospect of men or even beasts. No one had been able to tell her exactly what she would encounter when she battled them. Not even Bronar, who had once slain such a creature.

“Just one. It is always just one.”

Those words echoed in Tahni’s mind. 

One. 

What uncanny thing could bring the storm and black of night around it? What business did they have, hoping to kill such a creature? 

*****

Criminals awaiting the headsman’s axe had been culled from the Conqueror King’s jail, forced to drink all the honey mead they could stomach, and shackled to fixed points every few houses throughout the town. They would perish as lambs, or they would be set free. The ancient enemy would not enter a town devoid of life. Something in their alien minds ached for the kill, and cared nothing for the conquering of territory or the capture of treasure.

Tahni listened to the screams of the northmost criminal, manifestly the worst among them, whose murder and rapine had gone to lengths shocking to even the most barbaric of countries. The skin-shuddering bass tone stopped, leaving an echoing silence in its wake, making the man’s cries all the more unnerving. An impact like a melon dropped from a high window followed, cutting short his anguish.

“Now?” the youngest of Kaldogurn’s men asked, his eyes flicking back and forth wildly. Tahni reached, squeezing his wrist with all her strength. His breath pulled in, and he turned to her, steadying a bit. 

“Not yet.”

They waited. The sounds of fear waxed to a crescendo, punctuated with a single, brutal impact. The nameless enemy didn’t move in any linear pattern, rather drifting randomly from criminal to criminal. Whatever weapon it held, no man required a second strike to be rendered forever mute. Without seeing her adversary, she knew that the only survival would be to slip its blows and strike it unto death before her luck ran shy.

One after one, they died. Every man, regardless of their reserves of courage or surfeit of mead, screamed before they met their end.

Close now. Tahni licked her lips and took a big breath. She met Bronar’s eyes, and nodded. 

“Now we go,” she whispered. “Me first, then Bronar when I have drawn it. The rest of you in a group if we two fail.”

“But,” the young warrior began.

The Night Wolf, that name she gave the deathly power within her, awakened. The youth, brave as he was, gave back before the cold terror of her glance. “Only if we fail.” Her voice sounded altogether unfamiliar in her ears.

Tahni stepped out into the greater chill of the street. Her shield close against her, she spun her spear up into throwing hold. Just beyond the corner, her ears picked out the sound of the enemy’s progress. Not like footsteps. Like a thousand thousand small creatures exhaling. Like a wind that lived, and peered at the world with malice.

It came before her. Her mind reeled and shuddered against the impossibility of the thing. The way that her mind, even fortified as it was with her Death Witch’s power, sought to deny what she saw, to slide away from it and keep the reality of that thing from impressing upon her forever. Tahni knew why no one had been able to tell her about the ancient enemy. Words failed. Even the picture her eyes captured could not be easily passed into her brain. It flouted any understanding or logic of the world.

And it mattered not. The shape of doom, the face of it, appeared in a thousand configurations. With a whisper or a scream. Whatever form it took, the victory fell to doom when a warrior’s courage failed.

The ancient enemy paused, regarding her, stood silent and alone before it. And in that moment, her arm shot forward. Her spear sliced into the gloom of the thing. Dark tendrils like dying eels made of ink blasted out into the winter air. A torrent of sound so intense that her ears felt as if she’d dived into the deeps of the ocean washed over Tahni, and in that moment, Bronar leaped into the fray, his outsized hammer scooping gloom away from their uncanny adversary. The dislodged essence fell to ash like burning parchment. 

The ancient enemy struck out. Bronar caught the full brunt of the assault, and his great hammer’s haft snapped like a kindling twig. He jumped backward, drawing his warblade. Tahni slammed her own sword and shield into the monstrosity as it turned, releasing hold of every shred of her magic. The essence of death itself flared their darkfire into her enemy. 

And then she felt herself flying across the narrow village street, breaking through a shoddy fence, and falling into the frozen quadrangle of a pig stye. All wind departed her lungs. Her view of the darkened sky pulsed and washed into paleness. It took her a moment to sit up.

When she did, she saw Bronar step back from the benighted thing. It spun and shuddered, a storm of animate darkness, a shape her mind rebelled against. A thing that she couldn’t fathom, not even seeing it. Not even feeling the chill and pain of its strike. She shucked her arm from the shattered remnat of her shield, the wood itself rotting to powder from the assault.

And then, for just a moment, wind seemed to rush inward toward the ancient enemy’s death throes. From all points of the compass, a sudden gale, and then nothing, and the place where it had been was empty. The sky waxed to its leaden pall once more. Everything about the natural world whispered that the ancient enemy could not have been real. The few still living didn’t have the luxury of that denial. They knew that a madness of living shadow seeped out of the horizon sometimes, destroying everything in its path.

Bronar took a knee on the spot, his face ashen. Steam rose from his breath and his tensed shoulders.

Struggling up, Tahni went to him, all magic departed. Just a woman, limping and bruised from the fight. A woman whose strike had killed doom. Taking Bronar’s head against her belly, she held him hard against her. 

“I am sorry, my love,” he whispered.

“There is no need. I am whole.”

His big hand wrapped around her hamstring. He looked up into her eyes, shivers wracking his flesh. “We, none of us, could be whole after seeing such a thing. I prayed to never behold it again. And to bring you here, to put you, my whole world, within the reach of that abysmal touch…”

“If there is a duty that one built as I am might have, this is the task. For what have I been forged, if not this?”

The rest of the war party stepped from the barn now, their cheeks hollow and their eyes haunted. Perhaps mistaking what was correct for them to do, every man among them knelt before her. Tahni forced herself to look away, to look out into the south, where the slowest of the fleeing villagers were still visible. She tried not to blink, because the spectre of the ancient enemy lingered there. In every darkness, in every stray thought, the impossibility of it jeered at her.

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