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

Bronar Returns 6: Frozen Fields, and the Rictus Grin of the Dead

By Patrick M. Tracy

She could behold them now, in all their loathsome splendor. Within the creeping, tar-like gloom of their bodies, within the madness of what they were, beneath the shroud of ruin they wore. Remnants of divinity shivered within their cores. Tormented slivers of power forever forlorn. As the Ancient Enemy surmounted the walls and began killing men faster than hummingbird’s breath, Tahni understood them as they truly were. 

And she shook. What she carried, this new knowledge. It made her altogether alone within the realm of all humans. She had seen the true face of doom.

The sickness in her guts, the tears that squeezed from the corners of her eyes. She had no time for these things. No time for anything but that half-made exhalation, that precursor to the kill.

“Crossbow,” she breathed. Bronar handed her the heavy, winched arbalest, and Tahni surrendered altogether to her power. The strange, sweet wonder of death. The chill of the day no longer touched her skin. Every fighting man, fallen and shattered upon the frozen mud of the battlefield, became naught but straw and clay before her eyes. Their spirits, rising to the clotted sky like smoke – simply details. The relentless, inaudible thunder of the Ancient Enemy drawing nearer, distant as pain below the surface of frigid water. Known, remembered, but unreal. 

“Come to me, all ye gods dethroned. Come and taste the draught that brings the end.”

Tahni shouldered the heavy crossbow and bedded the brass bead sight within the groove, touching the trigger. The clack and recoil of the weapon talked in vibration’s tongue to her hands and shoulder.

Without even looking to see how the shot fared, she passed the weapon to the Conqueror King, Kaldogurn, and received the next from Bronar. 

Full with purpose, bereft of all but the rudiments of human emotion, she aimed and shot. Always the nearest of the inky enemy. Always with no desire but to destroy them as efficiently as could be done. All her life, she had been the clumsy swimmer who fought the current of the river she couldn’t escape. She had slapped the water and shouted against the frothing eddy. She had denied the damp, even as it covered her. 

Now, she swam to the deepest, strongest part of the current within. The thing that made her a Death Witch. The power she personified as a wolf with stars in its eyes. Yesterday and tomorrow faded. The outcome of today dwindled to nothing. The sound of the maker gods, crying out in a thousand thousand voices as they perished at last, simply meant that the bolt flew true, and the poison of her magic did its work.

Bolt after bolt, every time her eyes swept for her next target, the interior war field shortening, made empty of the living as the Ancient Enemy swept forward toward them. Within ten paces now of their raised rampart, the nearest of them groaned out its song of madness. The truth of it revealed, it stood a billowing cloud of blackness wherein countless winged tentacles writhed, pulling men into its snapping hundreds of beaked maws. Blood splashed across the front of their stone rampart. The screams of men as they died or went mad at its touch filled Tahni’s ears.

“They will be through the lines, upon us at any moment,” Bronar said, his voice flattened, devoid of nuance in the extremity of the fight. He pressed the heavy crossbow into her hands, and she shot into the largest of the unmade god’s mouths. It began folding in upon itself, stuffing its own limbs inside of itself, and finally exploding into noisome vapor and dust.

Kaldogurn slid her heavy shield onto one arm. Bronar pressed her spear into her palm. The blade, having already tasted of the flesh of gods, shone in the gloom of the day, steel tempered to a gleaming black.

Three of the Ancient Enemy remained. Three last remainders of a time when worlds and stars were forged. The largest and grandest of all of them stood back, sending the others, the least among that terrible host, forward. 

Kaldogurn, armored with iron enough for three men, already breathing like a bellows, lumbered to intercept one of them. Two battle axes whistled through the air, and the sound of crunching metal and screaming god shook the rampart. 

Bronar, locked with the other ruined god, threw it back, the muscle of his arms and shoulders rolling like another animal was trapped within his skin, struggling to get free. 

The last of them, the greatest of the damned, pointed to her. Somehow, he retained some semblance of a humanoid form, the ghost of a hand pointing to her, the fire within the gloom what passed now for his eyes. 

“You. Avatar of the persistent nothing. You will whittle us down to only me, or you shall make an end to us.” He said these words simultaneously in every language that intelligent folk had or ever would speak. 

Her mind, suffused as it was with the power of the grave, somehow saw through the countless chaotic echoes and made sense of it. 

“As the powers of the universe will it.” she said back. Tahni didn’t know the sound of her voice, nor where the words had arisen from. From her? From the Night Wolf, or perhaps something far older and more ineffable than that.

Without pausing to consider that, she rushed forward, leaping from the rampart and colliding with the king of doom.

******

He breathed a cloud of wings made of the protean bones of stars at her. The sound, as if time could consider its ascendance and laugh. Tahni cut through the shroud of living shadow and burning. The image of her death, of everyone’s death, flashed across her mind. The thought of an altogether empty world, without so much as an insect or nascent seed of a tree remaining. A clear-painted image of the king of doom still extant, battering down the high mountains and leveling the hills of dust. Of him scorching the sky until the sun’s brightness might boil the oceans. Of every remnant of every life being erased and rendered moot. 

Through this incalculable net of unmaking, she thrust her spear, and felt the flesh of him part. She, a small and momentary thing, yet still a reminder that all things end, even an instrument of the grandest making and unmaking.

And she tumbled back, shield flying away from her shattered arm, sky and ground trading places a dozen times before she landed. Rising, she limped to her spear once more, the haft broken through, leaving only a bare yard of wood to her. 

The screaming of arm bones grating against one another. The sky now gone black with the last wild surge of the doom king’s energies, and all sound utterly obliterated by the incessant thunder of his magic. 

She struck. She struck again. He touched her, grasped her and hoisted her from the ground, legs kicking. 

“I will,” he started, and she stabbed the spear’s blade clear through the place where his semblance of a face lingered, exploding stars within the arch of his brow. “I will take your seeming and your name into eternity as I go.”

And she fell to the frozen crust of the earth, the black whirlwind of his true death screaming like all the horses in all the world, dying at once. That maelstrom touched her, finding the voids and empty places within her, forging a strange and unknown alloy within her flesh before it passed forever from the world.

Sideways, looking with nerveless and unfocused mind, Tahni saw Kaldogurn hug himself close against his adversary, burying his axe into a dethroned god. With that last move, he and the creature disappeared in fragments of a black mirror, shards falling to earth all around. 

And Bronar. With a swing fit to cave in the side of a brick house, he laid the last of them low. Not, as he’d imagined, a lucky single fight, that moment in the distant past. He, without magic, could emerge the winner of a fight with a god’s haunting shade. Not once, but thrice. So often, he could survive when any other man would perish. Her king. Hers.

He wavered, went to a knee, and sagged to earth. 

No one else in clear view had survived. Tahni rolled to her back, closed her eyes, and let go of everything. 

 

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