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

Aug
05

By Patrick M. Tracy

It always hurt. Not because he meant it to, not because he was cruel. Bruises from his blunt and heavy hands would bloom upon the corners of her like the shadows of birds in a misty sky. Tahni was tougher now, the strain and deprivation of a warrior’s life rarifying her tissues. Still, when she clung to him, her sweat mixed with Bronar’s, in a crisis of breath, the shimmers of pain called warnings to her from every quadrant.

In a different life, when she’d run from everything she feared about herself, Tahni hadn’t understood what the pain meant, the many voices in the chorus of her flesh. She hadn’t wanted to believe that the pain could teach her so much, revealing whole vistas heretofore unknown. This wisdom couldn’t be carried by a breath of air or told by a written word. It had to be earned with a furrowed brow and clenched jaw.

They lay, her whole form curled around one of Bronar’s mighty arms, the cool of the early morning drying their skin, the quiet before the carts and hawkers and the cries of the beggars filled the street below surrounding them. A kind, soft place. Perhaps the only such place in Evaldr, a city wracked with terrors and fire and death. Much of which they had perpetrated. The two of them, running red-handed across the night, sewing mayhem and murder.

The faces of the dead, the outlines of all their broken limbs and the growing crimson that was born out of their shattered lives – these images lived inside her. She had eaten of the dark table of madness. Did she feel so different? It seemed, perhaps, that she wasn’t. She’d always been fated to be the taker of lives. Ever since the day of her birth, from what the old crone once said. Tahni’s fate had been wound in such a way as to make her thus.

If, in fact, such a thing even existed. Fate. A convenient thing, if it explained the darkness creeping up inside her soul. If it forgave her growing skill for violence.

She held Bronar’s arm harder against her, his torso too much to easily encompass with her hands. He watched her, letting her into his eyes, the portals so often holding her away. Only in looking at him, his broad, scarred face, did she know that she’d been crying. Tears like rain on a hot night, the same temperature as the humid air and with but little relief to give.

“Should I have left you where you were? This is an ugly road we are upon.”

“This is where I belong. Before…I was just hiding. A wasted life.”

“The people in these towns. Maybe one in a hundred of them really know the swoop and slam of combat, of the feel inside your throat when you’ve bought your life with steel, at least for one more hour upon the earth.” A sudden roughness changed his voice, old pain flashing in his eyes.

She pushed him and he gave way so she could climb atop his chest. Not with any intention now, but for nesting closer. Her cheek pressed against the V below his sternum, next to a long, raised scar from some enemy’s blade. A wound Bronar had been lucky to survive.

The feel of all their ghosts trailing behind you like incomplete dreams. They don’t know how those chains drag upon you,” she said into his leathery skin.

He cupped the back of her head, his fingers sifting into her hair with the slow care he always used, when his blood wasn’t wild with passion. “They can’t know. They shouldn’t.”

“We’ve finished with them. Killed them all and left their houses awash with blood. I want to stay here all day. Just like this. The Elf won’t be out until after dusk, so there is nothing much for us to do.”

“There will be something,” Bronar said, but he didn’t lift her off of him. Simply reached back, assuring that his mallet lay within easy reach.

“We can make love again, if you wish to. I’m not so frail as I was.”

Tahni knew that Bronar had some vague foreboding, though. She could feel it in his skin and the workings within him. Since her denial of her own nature had shattered, a thousand small signs swam up from the shallows of each day, each moment. Like the hush that fell, just as the street vendors had begun calling out their wares. Like the faint sound of shattering and the smell of lamp oil. In a moment, she looked forward, and knew.

“We are betrayed,” she whispered to Bronar. “They come with fire and crossbows. It has already begun.”

He wasted no words, putting her on her feet, pushing his own into untied boots and slinging his mail atop bare flesh. Tahni found her hands steadier than she had dared to hope. By the time smoke rose to their window, she was armed and armored. But few of their belongings could not be replaced. She followed Bronar as he bounded down the stairs, smashed the kitchen door from its hinges, and kicked a cook down, trampling over him.

“Fire,” she whispered to him as she vaulted the downed man, gasping for air as his eyes rolled wild.

And as if summoning it, as if she were a wizard, flames burst at the closed kitchen window. All of life blurred into a passing flash, a fire seen from the corner of her vision as she kept tight behind Bronar. He destroyed the door, sending it in pieces back into the alley.

Archers, not entirely ready, loitered at both entrances to the alley, but they turned toward the short stub, the one that let onto a warren of haphazard structures, all made with no square or seeming skill. Bronar smashed one man to his knees, bursting his skull like a melon, as Tahni took the other one low in the belly, wrenching the spear blade sideways to spill his lunch pipes to the dirty ground. Bronar coughed in pain as a crossbow bolt smashed against the heaviest of his armor, and she saw a second shaft skitter across the building, no more than a few inches from her.

And then they were out, into the tangled slough of jagged alleys and narrow places. With fire towering behind them, spreading from hovel to hovel like the hand of a cleansing god, they ran, and no one stood brave enough to slow their steps.

Half the town rose into the sky as acrid smoke. Tahni ran until she coughed flecks of blood from the exertion and the befouled air. At the far, seedy end of the dockside, they found a fishing boat, compelled the drunken fisherman with the point of the spear, and huddled in the smelly hold as the vessel wallowed and slapped upon the stale wind. She watched the fisherman’s hungry eyes fall to her, and to their rich wares, as the craft made slow progress out into the deeper water. He grinned, his rotted teeth and purple gums as foul as the entrance to the netherworld.

Evaldr yet burned at dusk, and lay with a belly of ashes as night gave way to morning.

“Maybe it’s better.” Bronar studied his scuffed knuckles.

“That isn’t a decision I ever wish to make. But this…we were not the authors of this madness. In his efforts to avoid a fair payment, he has brought wholesale slaughter to his own home. You were correct. No one here is innocent, few enough worthy of any human sympathy.”

He watched her for a moment, then knitted his hands together, sinking back into the gloom of the hold to rest a bit longer.

Tahni went to the topside of the vessel, squinting into the red sunrise and the smoke that lay thick upon the bay. She would have to come to grips with the workings of the boat and get them back to shore somehow. The fisherman, who had grown bold and cruel in the night, when he thought them both to be sleeping, floated on the calm face of the sea.

She remembered his face, the shocked, strangled noise when her blade went through his throat. Bronar had simply opened one eye, nodded, and left her to the grim work of pushing him over the rail.

Fate. The crone had been right. The sign of death held tight, woven into the skein of her life, and all those years trying to deny it only made its expression more grandiose now, like the crack and rush of a poorly made dam, finally giving way to the will of the water. But water it was not. Fire and blood, and the noise of the dying. Like she had carried hell within her all this time.

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Jul
28

By Patrick M. Tracy

There was a hole where Gardov Zeck’s face had been. A hole she’d put there, with teeth clenched so tight pain sparked up her jawline. Tahni couldn’t seem to catch her breath. Blood and something thicker than blood clung to her spear blade, dripping in noisome globules onto the floor. She tried to turn herself away, but she couldn’t. Her eyes drew back into the void in Gardov’s face, where she could see down into the shattered bone and the gray brain within.

Outside, someone screamed in pain. “I have done nothing. I do not know your face,” the voice called out, hope already leaving, the truth of death already hanging upon the tone of his voice like ship’s ballast. The cut-short cry before the strike. The soft thump of a body hitting the earth preceded silence. Tahni knew what those noises were, could see through into another place and picture them in her mind. An eye had opened in her. An eye she would just as well have always remained blind.

Bronar appeared at the shattered door, stepping over the remnants that hung on the hinges like wings cut from a bird’s back. His eyes looked flat as unpolished stone, his face filled with a fatigue that had nothing to do with his heart or the working of his lungs. With strange care, he set aside his weapon and stood, meeting her eyes, something growing in him she had never seen before.  

Tahni drove her spear into the wood of the wall, shrugged free of her shield, and let it clatter to the floor. She pushed her face against him and held him to her so hard that anyone normal, anyone without the iron flesh of a colossus, would feel the pain of her embrace. He touched the back of her neck, the braid of her hair, the boiled leather and overlapped metal of her hauberk.

“This won’t always be the way, will it?”

His breath sawed in the stillness of the room. Sweat rolled from his brow down into her hair. An electric shimmer went through his sinews. He opened and closed his hands behind her, the creaking of the joints like the working of oars within their oar locks. “Not always. But sometimes, there are jobs that make this look like easy work. This – this will get worse before it gets better.”

It took her some time to feel like she wanted to stand on her own.

They’d killed everyone.

Everyone.

Tahni thanked the goddesses of her ancestors that there’d been no children. She still saw the terror on their faces. She could still smell the stench of their bowls going loose in death, still see the waxen truth of oblivion slide across her victims’ eyes. This place didn’t have the look of a den of thieves. This manor house cost more than a hundred working people could earn in their lifetimes, the property and trappings, two fold that figure. Respectable people had lived here. No more. They had rendered it an abattoir. She had killed people, simply as a means to an end. The ache of that clenched at her soul, a cramp that wouldn’t ease.

“It shouldn’t,” she whispered to herself. “I can’t wash this away with yesterday’s road dirt.”

He watched her, his eyes seeming small and black beneath his heavy brow. “These dead. They were hardly blameless.” As if he knew her mind, all those questions and horrors filling her. Like he could see within her, as the Elf had done before, but with such subtlety that she could feel no intrusion.  

“But…”

“Every starving waif we passed, every dead pauper on the roadway? People like this bite the side of the world and take their fill. They steal the money, the food, and finally the very breath of the poor. I’ve seen it in every city of the known world. Without fail. Everyone rich enough to have enemies has walked over the bodies of the dead to get his coin.”

“Is that just what we must believe? To not be ruined in our souls after these attacks?”

He took a long breath. Was this a colorless place for him? Just another battle, another day to survive?

“It’s the truth. Ugly as it is. Not as we would have it, but how things have fallen.”

Tahni picked up her shield. It felt five times as heavy as it had at daybreak, but it hung from her arm nonetheless. She turned her spear blade against the trouser leg of a fallen house servant, a man she’d stabbed a handful of times in the guts, carrying on until his screams finally faltered. This had become her life. Cleaning the gore from her weapon on an unsodden side of the dead.

“Perhaps it has always been fated. A thing that no running could ever forestall forever,” she said, her voice devoid of all the roiling emotion she felt. She remembered the crone her mother had brought around, the look of her filmy eyes going wide when she put a wrinkled hand to Tahni’s brow. The words. Fated to kill. Doomed to bring misery and death. Witch. And that old crone, who had not survived the impending winter that year, had been correct on all counts. No amount of running had been able to stop it.

Bronar touched her with his shoulder, drawing her away. “You have to be the broken or the breaker. In this world, you can’t simply float like a cloud of steam. You have to chew your way through the guts of the dead.”

Tahni looked at the side of his face as they slipped to the back of the estate. The scars. The places where deprivation and acid and the cruel spear of the desert sun had done its work. Somewhere deep, she’d known. Known that going with him would lead her into her destiny. If not by sorcery and flame, by steel. Fated to kill.

The flames of the manor going up lit the night behind them as Bronar lifted her to the top of the wall. The shouts began, the frantic movements as the nearby neighbors became aware of their red-handed mayhem. Far, far too late.

Down an overgrown culvert, then across the hills and into the smokehouse districts, thick with wet wood tang and the stink of poorly cured fish, they jogged. The third time. The third attack, and this time was the worst. The most shocking thing remained that getting away with mass murder had been so easy. Though Evaldr had a city guard that bristled at the walls and prowled the better places, they’d been no impediment at all.

It seemed that no one cared. The powers of darkness had given them some investiture, some proof and power over death here. They walked the streets like a wind bearing corpse ash and battle stench, the noise of their armor like the clinking of coffin nails in the undertaker’s pouch.

Jul
21

By Patrick M. Tracy

“I am not interested in baubles,” the wizened creature croaked. He flicked his spidery fingers, throwing the emerald back to Bronar in the most dismissive of gestures. “I grow aged, and riches do not buy me anything I want.”

Bronar’s face remained as expressionless as a frying pan as he put the emerald back in his pouch. The old crone with gold teeth behind them radiated hatred, her eyes on the pouch, the tips of her claw-like fingernails lifting, almost calling out to the wealth held within the gem. Tahni imagined the tawdry glamour of precious gems would never fall from that one’s favor. Nor, perhaps, would any lizard hunger abate while she clung to the grimy straws of her life.

“You’ll make a counter offer, then?” Bronar asked, the tone of his voice so flat that Tahni couldn’t understand how a living human could produce the sound. The the words of dead men, staring up at the leaden sky of the Warhells. She had never seen him this way, not even as the black breath of deadly combat was upon him. All gates closed, all windows filled with brick and mortar, every torch of his humanity shuttered. It frightened her a little, but a part of her clenched in pride at that control, the ability to make himself that way.

The Elf, his bowed back rendering him nearly chin-level to the table, watched them like a malevolent toad. Tahni had imagined that his moniker had simply been that – a name given to a slim man of sharp features. But here was a true elf, a cast-off of their underground realm. The writing of a thousand years scrawled in deep wrinkles across his face, his skin the color of old iron. The smell of fresh-turned earth wafted out of him as he moved.

How old was he, to only come out at night? Incalculably ancient, she guessed. Old enough that his only food was blood and salt, the full light of the sun like poison and acid upon his flesh. Not that she knew any more than the stories from a book her mother gave her as a girl.

Tahni wondered if, having walked far enough across the world, she would find out that all the tales held a kernel of the truth, all pointed to something real below the gilded words. Every scrap of knowledge became the whisper of enemies in the dark, it seemed. Myths made true, and perhaps less for their truth.

As if sensing her attention, the Elf’s red-tinted eyes slewed in her direction, pinning her in place like a traitor is pierced to the side of a barn in the North.

Without his mouth moving, she heard his croaking voice inside her head. “No one knows you. No one looks, and sees the truth within you. Not even the great heap of a warrior here. Will you tell him of your secrets, witch?”

Tahni felt herself break into shivers all over at the invasion of that voice, at its knowledge of her, at that name. The name she’d never uttered before another. The badge worn by her fear, turned inward. The person she had tried so hard not to be.

The Elf turned to Bronar again, releasing her from the pain of his attention. “There are many still living whom I owe a debt of vengeance. I would like them to precede me into the grave.”

Bronar blinked once and waited, his slabbed hands resting at his sides, heat cooking off his skin in the gloom and smoke of the rogue’s gallery. Tahni knew that many mistook his silence for stupidity, and he used that as a lever to open them and make them speak too much. She knew that he used that bull-thick neck and the arms as big as a grown man’s thigh to mask his intentions. She wondered if the Elf could reach inside his mind, or if all those doors were closed, battered shut by all the horrors he’d seen.

“Well?” the Elf rasped. “What say you?”

“Do you have it? The amulet of Karadanosh?”

“You don’t want to know about my enemies?”

Bronar flexed his jaws, muscle pushing out like hard triangles against his bearded cheeks. “I don’t see the purpose in that. They are to die, and are the payment you wish. That is enough. I am here for the amulet.”

The Elf’s spindly hands played upon the stained and blackened desk surface. “I have heard of your predicament. The old wizard wants you dead. You, the last of those who dared oppose him in his demesne. I can see how an amulet that hides you from scrying would be of great worth to you.”

“Killing his assassins has come to bore me,” Bronar said, hooking one thumb into his wide belt.

“And you have a woman to think of now,” the Elf said, favoring Tahni with an unwholesome grimace.

Bronar’s shoulders twitched with muscle. “She has herself. She knows the location of my wealth. If I die, she grows rich enough to buy a kingdom.”

The Elf didn’t look convinced, but let the matter drop. He pushed a single sheet of parchment across the desk. “Deprive these people of their blood and breath, and we will have an accord. You will have your amulet, and we will both have a little peace.”

Bronar gestured at the parchment with his chin, as if he had no use for it. Tahni picked it up, holding it to her chest for reasons she couldn’t name. Up close, the aspect of the Elf grew all the more repulsive, the blots of broken veins across his skin like spiders who had died within him and turned to shards of amethyst.

“He doesn’t know you at all, does he? Only thinks of you as some soft place to sheath himself of a night, a woman to stitch the leather and read him the letters he never learned.” The Elf’s awful voice echoed inside her mind.

It wasn’t true. They had more than that between them.

And yet.

Just enough of what he thought to her rang true. Just enough to feel like lightning sparks bursting in her heart and the onrushing pall of a woolen sack pulled down over everything she wanted to hope.