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

Aug
19

By Patrick M. Tracy

“I remember when you were a child, when I was your cherished friend, and you confided all things to me. This was before you learned the fear of your own power, and the distrust of me.” The Night Wolf, standing in the strange, indistinct fields of Tahni’s mind, touched a clawed and bestial hand to his chest. His lupine eyes filled with pathos as he considered this memory. Strange how familiar his home inside her was. How it called out to something and someone she had once been, so long ago as to seem like another person’s recollections.

“That isn’t true. That’s a fiction you made up, or I made up in order to assuage my own guilt.” Her voice, even with the acid of fear upon it, seemed unsure, even to her own ears.

She watched the Night Wolf, his eyes like the night sky and filled with all that same nameless sadness. He stood like a man, moonlight shining on his coat, tall above the soughing grass. A creature in his full power, stronger even than a few months before. Stronger than she could easily imagine. He said nothing against her words, but only waited, waited for them to reverberate inside the dream, decaying into things no longer words or human sounds. 

A memory Tahni couldn’t recall tickled at the corners of her mind. She had never…never known him until she finally came into her power, accepting it. Never known that face or the full truth of him. There had always been something. The great nimbus of a fated thing, casting its shadow across her steps, forever filling her with a sense that she had been built wrong, built by angry hands for a dark purpose. 

But.

A flash filled her. A thing long discarded.

Snippets of conversations she’d crafted as a tiny girl, hidden in the high summer grass, a world of her own where only she and her favorite friend lived. The old, ragged hound. The dog with a field of stars in each of his eyes, whose words never made her feel small, or less, or bad. The one she would come to when the world didn’t make sense. And to a little girl, built strange and sharp at the edges, it so rarely made sense.

“You,” she whispered. “It has always been you.”

Had she been standing, or awake, she’d have thrown herself to the ground. In what emotion? Shame? Relief? Sorrow at the fact that she’d never had more than the illusion of a choice in what she was made of? Maybe all of those things.

The Night Wolf’s face came closer. She could see the shadow of the old, ragged hound there, but now, in the flush of her power, so much more. What had been old and tattered had become graceful and mighty, aging in reverse.

“Welcome back, my child.” He took her in his arms, and a thousand days she’d erased from her memory returned, all the subtle things she’d allowed herself to learn before the fear had slammed shut that door. 

“I’m sorry, Father Wolf. Father Hound. I couldn’t be all you hoped, and I left you alone within a locked room for so long.”

“Ours is a patient power, Tahni. What is time against the truth of death? You have returned when your skills are needed most. It is enough. Soon, your true work begins.”

“But what? This ancient enemy? Are they…why I am incarnated as I am?”

The Night Wolf’s muzzle curled in a dismissive frown. “To face them, yes. And more than that, of which is hazy even to me. But tell me, they must know more than you say. The minds of men remember so little. Do they truly not know what they face?”

“Even I cannot hold onto the truth of them. Looking upon their animate darkness threatens to take my mind apart.”

The Night Wolf put his soft snout against her neck. Such comfort arose, something she had forever needed and denied herself. For a time, she simply lost herself. Or, more accurately, found that fraction of herself she hadn’t been able to reconcile for so long. 

“Of course they don’t remember. It is inimical to life, that knowledge. None among mortals could contain it, I suppose. Listen, then, and I will say the words they cannot. They are the Gods That Were. Dispossessed relics of an older age, cast out into the screaming wastes beyond anything a human soul could conceive.”

“What do they want? Why do they come here?”

“To kill. Better still, to die, and be shut of the torment of unending life within their broken shells. Powerful as they are, it is but a flicker of a shadow of what they once were. They were builders of stars, forgers of whole worlds in their time. The spinners of the fabric of the night sky, now miserable remnants haunting the land where the Young Gods arose and engineered their demise.”

Tahni, even in a dream, shivered at the words. “And it falls to me. To kill the ghosts of these withered deities.”

“It is time, and long beyond time. Death comes for all. Even those who once wore the flesh of godhood about them like armor.”

Tahni could feel herself begin to awaken, the light searing the edge of the midnight field within her. “I fear that I am not strong enough. And if I am…what then?”

“You must be equal to this task, Daughter. They are altogether slipped free of their prison, and will gnaw at the world until it is bereft of every living thing, should you fail. As to what may come after, even I cannot say.”

*****

The window at the far high apex of their room filled with the harsh light of a winter’s morning. Tahni’s face, wet and hot and tight, couldn’t relax. It couldn’t relinquish the anguish of the dream. Far more than a dream. A homecoming. The doors within her kicked wide open, so the darkness could burst outward across her whole consciousness. All that she feared, and also needed. 

Bronar’s hand sat gently on her hip, his eyes filled with concern. She’d learned to read him now, to go far below the often bluff and obdurate exterior. All the unspoken thoughts that floated near him like a song only she could hear. His breath came in, and a word began to make its way to his lips. 

Tahni pushed him back and climbed atop his mighty torso, stopping the sound with her mouth. She gripped the sides of his face and kissed him with all her energy. A desperate thing, and with reason. How many mornings would they have? How long until fallen gods, or assassins, or ancient wizards found a way to kill them? How many more times would they two be lucky enough to cheat death’s skeleton grip?

It would never be enough. Not by half. The pain from all her half-healed wounds filled her nerves like the sound of a stone being dragged across rocky ground, but she simply accepted it. Bronar held her hips. She could see the right words behind his eyes. The ones that said he loved her, and it would be so for always. That he would allow her the darkness and the strange silence of being a deliverer of death. 

Tahni took what she needed from him. She moved above him until sweat rolled down her body, and the injuries turned her limbs to lead. She slumped atop him at last, and Bronar held her until her heart finally found its rhythm, and then longer still.

“What changed in the night, my love?”

“Nothing changed. I simply remembered what I had long ago forgotten. All those night cities I had covered with sand within me. I grasped all that cowardice forced me to renounce as a girl.” She knew it couldn’t make sense to another, that her words drove angular and unseen paths through twilight. But her lover did not ask. He simply rolled, still enmeshed with her, and carried on with the task she’d begun.

They were still thus engaged when someone battered against the door and shouted that the Ancient Enemy had come.

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Aug
07

By Patrick M. Tracy

The feast in Conqueror’s Hall had long since ended. Servants cleared away the spilled mead and discarded pork joints as quiet descended and revelers found their beds. As seemed to always be the case, those who had seen the greatest danger were the least interested in a celebration. The noisy toasts of victory served those who had not been there far better than those whose weapons had been pulled free and used in anger.

Tahni sat on the stairs, attempting to think of nothing and failing to do so. The details of the ancient enemy slid from her mind, leaving only a grey place, an abstraction that would have to suffice for the face she’d beheld but not fully understood. Human minds couldn’t long hold such a vision without madness taking over. But the sound, the darkening of the day, the sense of an utterly alien mind…those things remained, a chill that wouldn’t be warmed by the fires. Doom had come for them, and she’d killed it. In so doing, a part of her soul broke away and drifted into the void. Lessened, darkened, she carried on. Or hoped to.

What would happen now? Everyone seemed to think that the war would end, though it seemed impossible that slaying a single foe could accomplish such a feat. Tahni couldn’t imagine it being over in this way. But perhaps her fatalism spoke these thoughts. Even if this unlooked-for conflict came to an end, she and Bronar had battles to fight, uncharted realms to brave. At the end of all of them, an old and vindictive wizard to slay. A mage so great in his powers that he’d lived a thousand years, some claimed. In that moment, she felt exhausted and unequal to it all. Even faking a single smile seemed far too great a burden.

A step on the stairs. Tahni touched her dagger’s hilt, but the face approaching in the gloom held no threat. Though they’d never shared a word, she knew the woman by sight. Kaldogurn’s consort. Not his queen. Tahni imagined that she’d know a queen when she met one. Queens, she supposed, were not narrow-waisted and scarred, with eyes like houses where ghosts lived.

The thin and yellow haired woman sat on the stairs next to her. For a time, they said nothing, just existing above the quiet expanse of the hall. A functionary came and put new logs on the central firepit. As they caught and snapped, the light increased. The hundreds of mounted antlers on the high walls created spider-shaped shadows and glimmers in the firelight. Something in those shapes resonated with the animate darkness of the ancient enemy, bringing back a bare verge of what her mind rejected as impossible.

Tahni’s hands began to shake, and she pressed them between her knees to hide her frailty. Looking again, the shadows moved just as echoes thrown by the light. No more than natural darkness. All hurts couldn’t be seen in the skin and sinew. Some cut far deeper. Even one such as she could not count herself immune.

“They say that you were the one to slay the creature of darkness,” Kaldogurn’s woman said at last.

“I had a hand in it. These deeds are rarely done alone.”

“Even the mighty Bronar, the king that was, came back pale of face and skaken. Yet here you are, unhurt.”

Tahni turned to face the other woman. Her face felt hot and compressed. “Unhurt? Is that what you think?” 

She stood, pulling her shirt and tunic over her head. She raised her linen undergarment and showed the livid bruises across her torso, the swelling of her elbow and forearm where her shield had shattered. Many hurts beyond these remained, and all paled before the lingering horror of facing a thing that should not exist. And all those marks upon the flesh were as nothing. They could be explained and understood.

The sudden movement after a time of idleness caused the pain to crest, and Tahni had to catch hold of the wall at one side of the stairs or fall from the sudden weakness. Still mostly unclad, she sunk to the stair again, sudden sweat upon her brow. She couldn’t hide her shaking hands now, the nearness of collapse. The sound of blood in her veins sounded like sharp wind in her ears.

“You never betrayed it on your face. I would have never known your hurts.”

“Tonight, the crowd needed to feel that a great victory had been won. They needed me to be well, and so I gave that illusion. With courage, one can pretend at cheer for an hour or a day. This, I have done. Tonight, my injuries grieve me, and weakness has stolen upon my limbs. Despite the cheer of a feast, I remain desolate and wounded.”

Kaldogurn’s consort reached for her cautiously, summoning a wan smile that seemed out of place on her. She helped Tahni put her outer clothes back on, and levered her up to a standing position again. A sound like a hurt animal crept from Tahni’s lips, despite her hope that it wouldn’t.

“I am Vandrid. I…the king sometimes…”

“I know, Vandrid. When I saw you before, he was thusly engaged. It doesn’t commend me that I watched you two in a moment better shared with only two.”

Vandrid brushed the words aside with a slight shrug. “Kaldogurn treats me gently. He could pick from many, but perhaps I am more comfortable than those still in the flower of their beauty.”

Tahni pushed a strand of yellow hair behind Vandrid’s ear. “I think he is fond of you. His heart is likely a scarred old thing, and he gives to you what he is able.”

“It is enough for me. I don’t need all the many dreams of the younger girls. I wouldn’t know what to do with romance and love poems, after all the hard roads I’ve walked. Just a strong hand against me sometimes in the night.”

Tahni put some of her weight on Vandrid’s shoulder and managed to climb the stairs. She had to put her back against the wall and gather herself for the walk to her room, but she’d be able to make it unassisted.

“Thank you. I sat too long, and should have sought my bed long hours ago. I should have kept the bleakness of my mood to myself.”

Vandrid nodded abstractedly. “How did you come to…be such a woman as to fight and slay uncanny monsters? What paved that road?”

“A wolf made of night lives inside me. For many years, I denied him. The truth of what my power meant frightened me, and so I stifled it. But one can only run from her power so long. When Bronar and I met, I knew that I couldn’t put off my fate another day. I knew that his was the strong hand I needed in the dark, and that I could only come by his heart if I knew my own in full.”

Tahni turned aside from the further questions as they bloomed upon Vandrid’s face. Skimming a steadying hand against the wall, she made her leaden legs move, made the thudding ache in her body merely a detail in her mind. Victory. The bards failed at the task of telling its bitter taste.

By the low red luminance of the fireplace in their room, she crawled into bed, burrowing in behind her lover. She turned her cheek against Bronar’s wide, warm back, and let the tears she’d been suppressing for days finally fall. 

*****

“Wake him up,” the Conqueror King ordered. 

The healer looked between the dying man and Kaldogurn, whose frown let it be known that he would have his will. The healer sighed, went to the side table, and mixed a powder into vinegar. Foul vapor arose. When he held it beneath the man’s nose, he coughed and roused from his comatose slumber. Both his legs had been cut away, the stumps tourniqueted. He’d somehow rode his horse three days with shattered leg bones, but his death sat upon him like a stone now. 

“My…king,” he managed. His breath sounded like a burial spade scraping across rock and wet soil.

“Tell me of Jatarthion.”

“That city…fell, and but few survived. The enemy. They sent…many. More than we thought could possibly exist.”

Kaldogurn attempted to learn more, but all his further questions were directed at a corpse. Those few words had been the last the bellow of the man’s lungs could create.

The Conqueror King turned to Bronar. “It has always been one. You know this. And when we managed to slay a single dark vanguard of them, they would recede. Not for a day, or a week. For a decade at least.”

Bronar clicked his back teeth together. “It is not that way this time.”

“But why? What drives them forward that did not in the years of the past?” Kaldogurn gestured to the healer to take the body away, and slumped his bulk into a chair that could narrowly withstand such burdens.

Bronar shook his head. Both he and Kaldogurn turned to Tahni, as if she might have the answer.

“I am only just come here. I know even less than you.” She looked up into the high corner of the room, at the angle of the roof. They stood in Kaldogurn’s own quarters, at the apex of Conqueror’s Hall. Would that she could change herself into a raven and fly away from this frigid and cursed place. But no. She couldn’t leave Bronar to this. In her heart, wordless, she’d sworn to always be with him, until the very death.

“What are you thinking of, my love?” Bronar asked. 

“Of the meaning of ‘many’, and how impossible our odds have become.”

“Jatarthion was a city of thousands. It had a garrison. Many experienced warriors. Few men between knee-high and their dotage lacked for an axe or a spear.”

Tahni considered Kaldogurn’s words. Thousands. “But we have seen the enemy. All three of us have seen it and felt the shiver of its call upon our skin. Would one warrior of any hundred be so brave as to stand against that? Would they have whatever dark gift that is required to slay that which is made from doom itself?”

Kaldogurn seemed to pull in on himself. The bulk of fat upon his once-mighty frame seemed to hang from him with all the weight of a ship’s anchor chain. “We have but few who could do such a thing. Even my best, those I sent with you, came back shaken. I like to imagine that, in the power of my youth, I could have been counted among those august ranks, but much has slipped from my grasp. After a season’s forced march, and short rations, and the grueling days needed to harden the calluses upon my palms…but perhaps not even then. The hunger in my heart and fire in my blood is not the same as it once was. I’ve grown old and useless.”

“It is beyond any of us, the march of time. Our glory, on its brightest day, is already slipping from our hands. So it will fall to us to lead the fight. And more than that. It will fall to Tahni. After this last battle with them, I am more convinced than ever that the time I killed one in the past – that was simply a matter of luck.”

Tahni felt the strength leave her legs. The thought of being the only defense against the horrors from beyond the darkest horizon overwhelmed her. She sat down on the side of the bed a mere hand’s breadth from the dead man. “One…one was too much. Looking into the living darkness of it, surviving its touch…”

Bronar moved to her with the surprising, sudden speed that had saved him so often. His hands found Tahni’s waist, and she came free of the bed, free of the ground, and draped against his chest. Bronar held her as easily as normal man would hold a folded blanket. For all his strength, perhaps the greatest warrior in all the known world, he depended upon her in this. Fire bloomed inside Tahni’s chest. She wished to call it pride, but it might well have been fear.

“Your spear hurt it. Hurt it unto death. Unlike anyone in the whole history of this war, you could hurt it from afar,” he told her. 

“But I can’t hurl a spear more than twenty paces. Not far enough for safety. It nearly killed both of us before succumbing to its wounds.”

“The spear and the short blade aren’t the only weapons I can teach you, Tahni. I believe, whatever killing tool you grasp, it is your magic that will allow it to kill the ancient enemies. We have had many allies in the past. Holy men and wizards, blessed warriors and madmen, but we have never before had a Death Witch.”

Held as she was, Tahni saw Kaldogurn’s eyes widen when Bronar spoke the truth of her power. He put a heavy hand across his mouth. 

“You do have me, and the Night Wolf within. And I will only stop fighting at your side when the breath forever leaves my body.”

Jul
28

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.