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


By Patrick M. Tracy

The flying serpent’s guts showered down on Tahni, pale and glutinous. The revolting smell of the creature’s inner workings bloomed like acid and rot and burning hair. Her eyes watered, but she had no time to wretch, no time to freeze or run. 

All around her, the cavern shook with their terrible screams, that sound that shook the darkness like broken-legged horses inside a firestorm. A serpent struck from out of the shadows, snapping one of her maidens in half with a single gnashing shake of its jaws. The girl, Tahni hadn’t ever learned her name, succumbed without a cry. The monster’s jaws simply erased her life from the world. Her spear and shield clattered to the rocks below as her legs still stood, the phantom of nerve impulse keeping them upright for an awful moment.

Vandrid gave out a high, ululating scream, leaping and catching a serpent around the belly. She clung to the beast with her feet and one arm, plunging her short blade between a chitinous plate. The serpent, Vandrid still attached, smashed through one of the tents and left Tahni’s vision. Whether she lived or died, no one could say.

In the next moment, Tahni was forced to sidestep, hewing the head from another hundred fanged creature in a single swing. Anointed with the blood of fallen gods, her half-spear’s blackened blade could bring death to anything that walked for flew or dug through the deep veins of the earth. The weapon of a Death Witch, of a Conqueror Queen, of a Harrower of Doom. She could kill until the fires burned out, bathing in the blood and viscera of the dying world, but how did that protect the ones she loved? Her powers could only subtract, could only cut away at the edge of reality. They could never add. 

Another serpent swam through the press, suddenly there and at her flank, all wicked teeth and smooth, eyeless horror. A thing without remorse or thought. A monster of dark hunger. It snapped, and Tahni had to raise her iron arm to shield herself. The deathly maw snapped down on the transfigured limb, made more of godflesh than human. Tahni closed her eyes as the serpent’s teeth shattered upon the obdurate material of her new skin. Using every ounce of her new strength, she threw the serpent to the rocks and thrust her half-spear through its head, just behind the bloodied mouth. It died in a spasming snake thrash that she barely leapt away from. She felt, even amongst the desperate energy of battle, the bleakness of the broken dragging at her like hooked chains.

Tahni turned, seeing the living members of her Maiden’s Army, shields up and bristling spears. Within their phalanx, Bronar stood within a knotted pile of dead earth serpents, so awash with gore that none of his features could be seen. Just a juggernaut of annihilation, busy at the task he was made for. Many of the serpents flew away, their screams fading, even their unthinking ferocity knowing that only death existed for them now.

One remained though, a last attacker up in the cavern’s shadowed heights. Falling like a high-flung arrow, a flying serpent dove straight down at Bronar. His great maul described a circular path, and the sound of its impact shook the air with a cracking thunder. 

Its whole head shattered into shards, it splashed to the ground, the curdled-milk material of its lifeblood draining out in a torrent.

In the silence, Tahni could yet hear ringing after-echoes of the serpents’ screams. The shaking suddenness of it all overcame her. Going from the beautiful embrace of her lovers, from warmth and pleasure to the stand-or-fall finality of the fight threatened to break her apart inside. Her body, perhaps, could altogether stand it, but her spirit recoiled. 

She had to turn aside, walking away from the insectile gore of the battle’s remainder, kneeling down on clean stone, head low, trying to get her heart to fall back to its resting pace. Trying to put the momentary images away. The images of girls dying, of monstrous beasts no human should ever see, of violence so profound that most couldn’t imagine it. Of her own part of it. Of the truth of her condition. A force of destruction upon the face of the world. These tore through the darkness of her mind like falling shards of broken mirrors.

A hand fell on her shoulders. A body next to her. A slim arm around her shoulders. Vandrid. She could easily tell. So she lived, and was unhurt. A thing she would have once thanked the Lighthammer for. A blessed boon. But the distance between her and the gods she’d once held in her heart could never be walked in a thousand years of travel. It was only her now. And darkness, and the Night Wolf.

“Are you hurt, my sweet queen?” Vandrid whispered.

“I will be well. In a moment. But don’t let the girls seem me thus. They wouldn’t understand.”

“Wouldn’t they?” Vandrid asked. “I think you give them too little credit. More than anyone else, each of them knows what surviving costs. And they know what currency you’ve paid to keep them safe.”

“We have all paid. I am just…much as death should be my meat and mead, this is not always easy.”

“And I love you more because you do it, nonetheless. Within the iron and the magic, your heart is still a beautiful jewel, darkened by nothing.”

“I wish it were thus.”

Bronar’s massive hand cupped her iron-black shoulder. “Believe her, my queen. It is as Vandrid says. When the bloodletting and mayhem becomes utterly effortless, when no more tears will fall with the loss – that is when your heart has scarred over and become ugly. You are still whole, and the pain proves it.”

Tahni put her face against Vandrid’s neck, the reasons for her tears grown complex enough that she couldn’t quite explain them. Not that anyone would ask.


“Seven dead,” Nosira told her. She stood there, favoring one leg, eyes blackened, one arm tucked into a makeshift sling. Fatigue hung upon her like a mantle of lead.

Tahni sighed, nodding. It could have been worse, but the bitterness of losing her girls burned in the back of her throat. Nosira was perhaps as close as she would ever have to a daughter, and she had trained her to kill and put her in harm’s way. Harm had shown its ugly face to them, doing its characteristic damage. Aching to put her arms around the girl, she didn’t. Foul ichor covered her yet, and Nosira’s hurts were too recent and too tender. So they simply looked at one another, within the gyre of sadness for a long moment.

“Another two will likely succumb before a day’s out. Two maimed, a handful that will have permanent scars and need a few weeks to be ready for another fight.” She looked down at her own injuries. “I suppose I can be counted as the walking wounded, myself.”

“Thank you, General,” Tahni said.  It seemed so impersonal. She wished that some term of endearment sprung to her lips, something that would let Nosira how much she meant. Tahni had made these girls, none of which had more than twenty summers, into fighters. Fighters took wounds. Fighters died. Thus was the world made. But that didn’t assuage any of the guilt. “Tend to them the best you can. Tell them that I saw their bravery, and am proud of every spear in the army. What you have made of them is a strong and brilliant thing.”

Nosira studied her for a moment, pensive, her face pinched with emotion. “I will tell them, but…”

Tahni’s jaw clicked together hard. The thought of concocting some fitting speech caused her vision to pulsate and her legs to weaken. Like as not, she’d burst into fresh tears at the second word. “I can’t. I mustn’t talk to them now. The battles, Nosira. They have costs that no one can truly calculate. These interior scars we take. They grieve me now, and I am not fit for anyone to know.”

The young general’s face filled with hurt, then determination. “You are always fit, my queen. In the darkest moment of your worst day.” She turned away, fading into the dimness of the caves.

At the very back of the huge cavern, a deep and swift river ran, disappearing into a foaming fall and going down into the depths. They washed up, bandaged everyone who had a wound, and moved the tents away from the clinging filth of the dead serpents. No one wanted to consider eating their stinking flesh, so Bronar had taken it upon himself to haul their carcasses out into the snow, helped by the strongest of the Maidens. 

The dead lay in state, arrayed in one of the tents. The best honor that could be managed had been done, but they had no capacity for burial or pyres at present. They would have to cast about for an unused catacomb or burial vault. It seemed that such a place as the holy mountain would have space for such things. Until then, the grim reminders of lives lost would be with them.

Now, with the terror departed and the shock fading, with the aching in the ears only a memory, Tahni sat at the earth-warm river’s edge, her feet in the fast flow, her body feeling hollow and strange. She couldn’t tell whether she should feel tired or hungry. Dumbness clung to her. Most things she’d ever done in her life seemed wrong, seemed foolish.

Vandrid pressed a bowl of stew into her hands and made her eat. Subsequently, she drank some sort of tea. Vandrid took her to their relocated tent, holding her, saying nothing. Among everything she had to feel thankful for, Tahni relished the lack of words the most. That, and the slim arms around her.

Bronar came later, when Tahni hovered on the verge of sleep. Her hooded eyes looked into his, and she understood so much. The long silences that couldn’t be breached by anything. The moments, in the gray light of morning, when he would bend around himself, stricken by some clawing remnant of the past. The terrible distance that would sometimes creep into his eyes. It was always the faces of the dead that haunted you. Always the holes in the world where their brightness had been. The world had seen fit to change them. Something allowed them to stand when all else fell. And after a time, survival didn’t seem like a blessing anymore. More a burden, a weight of a thousand stones across their shoulders. Again and again, to play a game that had long since failed to make sense.

But at least she did not play this wicked game alone. At least there were three to whom she did not have to make an accounting of her sorrows.

Without any useless talk, Bronar pulled her free of her garments. He asked for nothing, but put his lips upon her in all the places that could take her mind away from the invincible pull of the grave.


The blast of elemental heat forced Tahni’s eyes closed. Closest to the edge, she turned her cheek aside, then retreated from the heat of the mountain’s open veins. The glimpse, hundreds of feet below, of the blood red molten stone, still lingered in her mind. 

Retreating, she joined the others. Even well clear of the shear of the blistering wind, she still felt the burn and sting on her face. Bronar reached out, bringing her to his chest, his blunt fingers in her hair. 

“This is a good place for them. Better than tombs. Better than slowly mouldering to bone and rot. We’ll feed the fallen maidens to the earth’s maw. All that they contained will enter the great mechanism once more. Only their spirits will rise to the places beyond. It is a good place.”

Tahni felt Nosira’s hands on her back, Vandrid’s slimmer fingers touching her hip. All that was broken within her would be a long time healing. She had no words to let them know this, but they knew it. They knew it and did not recoil from the cracked vessel of her. An overwashing tide of grateful emotions surged within her.

“You aren’t ready for what comes next, my love,” Bronar whispered. No indictment of her, only truth. 

“I want to be, but I have deferred payment on too many debts. For too long.”

“I know.” Bronar scooped her up into his arms, carrying her as easily as a roll of fabric. They left the excruciating heat of the lava vein behind, going into dimness and down a winding corridor that would lead back to the great cavern. “Arvodeth set no date upon our arrival, no time limit before he would send further assassins. We will give you the time you need, and the care. Vandrid and I will be with you, as you were with me in my time of weakness.”

“We all will,” Nosira added.

Tahni tried to form words to thank them. They escaped her, taken by the memory of earth fire. Taken by the pulling blackness she fought with every hour. The fear that whatever had made her the woman she’d always been had been ablated away to nothing. She could only cling tighter to Bronar’s chest, trying to burrow within him for a safety she so desperately needed. This terrible final phase of their quest had just begun, and already, it seemed far too much, a pinnacle to which she couldn’t climb.



Bronar, Tahni, and Vandrid will return in the third story arc, the third “season” of this episodic tale.



By Patrick M. Tracy

The entrance to the holy mountain lay beneath an overhang of dark stone, like a brow of some dim titan long passed from the world. Bronar stood there, looking into the impenetrable gloom, saying nothing, tapping his palm against the haft of his maul. 

“We shouldn’t bring the maidens beyond the threshold. And again, without the shelter and warmth of the caves, they’ll likely perish. So it’s a dark bargain. Freeze out here, or dare the perils of the imperial tombs. Regardless, we can’t take them where I mean to go. I’ve seen the way these things end. In some ventures, numbers are more a hindrance than a help. Just more bodies to carry when they die. Too many young ones…taken suddenly, blotted out from the world in an instant. For your girls, we have to find a way to find a better way.” The huge warrior’s face quirked, old and bloody days passing once again within him. Of all the things he had survived, all the wars and wounds, he could not altogether escape from the empty faces of the dead. 

Tahni leaned against his hip. “I follow you in this. You indulged me in my want to heal the Voravan, to sit a throne and try my hand at such leadership as such a wild place could abide. But that is done now, and you know best the ways of war and adventury.”

Bronar shrugged. “Do I? The further I drag myself across the broken skin of the world, the less I am sure of anything. When I look back at all my decisions, I’m certain of a precious few of them. Often, I can’t even remember why they seemed like a reasonable course. As to indulging you…”

“Allow a girl her conceits, will you?”

“Girl.” He crinkled his brow at her. A half smile flickered, and he tousled her exposed hair. “As you would have it, my queen. Any conceit you choose.”

Tahni remembered when he had held himself so aloof, so emotionless amongst everyone. At least around her and Vandrid, all that hardened stone and steel had been shattered. She had battled to within his walls and battlements. She reached up, scraping at her lover’s beard with her iron hand. That transfigured hand, still shaped just as it had ever been, now always sung with warmth. Even in the frigid winter of the Voravan. Even thrust into a snowbank. It clicked at Bronar’s neck, meeting the supernatural godflesh that crept in dark rivulets across his flesh. Neither of them was quite so human as they’d been. 

Only in heart. Only in mind. For the time being, anyway. 

Human enough to love, and to crave that small warmth in a callous world. “All my foolishness aside, I agree. We’ll take the Maiden’s Army just far enough to find a good place for them to settle in. Provided such a place can be found. I took their lives into my hands, and I mean to hold them dearly. I don’t aim to spend a single drop of their blood unless I must.”

“Nosira won’t like it,” he said. “She’ll want to be with us, every step.”

Tahni blew air out of her nose. “I know. But she’ll heed my words. That is enough.”

Vandrid came behind the two of them, then envigled herself between their bodies. “You won’t leave me alone, though, will you? You wouldn’t cast me aside when you go into the depths of the mountain?”

“I expect you wouldn’t have it,” Bronar said gently, giving her backside a little squeeze. One of his mallet-sized hands covered her narrow flank, lifting her up onto her tip-toes with the merest fraction of the power it held.

Vandrid’s eyes closed, her breath coming out in a rush of cloudy vapor. “Whatever you would have of me. I am the luckiest woman in the world. I give you everything, in hopes to be worthy of the fortune you two have granted me.”

Bronar swept her up, pushing his bearded face into her neck, holding her pinned to his chest with one hand. She called out, almost a hopeless sound, before he put her unsteady feet back on the stony ground. “The days are gone when we can blithely order you about, Vandrid. And our love doesn’t measure you and squint at a set of scales. It simply is. Not because of what you might do, simply because of who you are.”

Vandrid put her hand to her mouth. Tears touched her cheeks. “I never knew to dream of this, of having so much as I have today.”

It seemed strange that it had not always been thus, the three of them wound about a single axis. Strange that the world seemed to always count in twos, when this arrangement felt so right. But counting a year backward, Vandrid had been King Kaldogurn’s woman. That old war master, perhaps not able to love her as she deserved, had been fond of her. At his death, she’d become Tahni’s handmaiden when she had succeeded him on the throne. And now, so much more than that. The owner of a third of her heart. It was as Bronar had said. Every word. And again, she felt as Vandrid did. Like she had found far more than she’d ever known to look for.

And here this mighty mission rested. Upon a barmaid, a kept woman, and the son of a stonecutter. Three who had never known the sound of two gold coins rubbed together until blood and bravery and battle brought them such riches.


Veins of glittering ore shot through the stone all around them. The tents set, the fires lit, they crouched within less than a third of the massive underground vault. This single towering room could house a whole village, and by some of the works and musty remainders, it must have done so in some distant time. With the sheer scale of the excavations, the place would have had to play host to a city’s worth of miners. Likely for the span of hundreds of years, if the rumors of the depth of the tunnels were to be believed.

The earth heat cooked out of rock, making them strip out of their heavy gear as quickly as they could accomplish it. The fires were lit simply to cook and to cut the ever-present gloom of a place where the sun had never shown. 

“I wonder who lived here. They must have come and gone even before the days of the empire,” Nosira said. She’d taken the news that she and her maidens would be staying here better than Tahni imagined, only folding in on herself a little and nodding. Still, she had been clingy ever since, rarely beyond twenty feet from Tahni.

Tahni shook her head. “I know precious little. Most of what passed, even in the true imperial age, is fading from anyone’s remembrance. What came before…perhaps there are books with such wisdom, but they weren’t at Conqueror’s Hall. Outside the Voravan, even the current state of things is all but unknown. Before Bronar said we were coming this way, I never knew what lay beyond the mountains. Just a blank place on the maps, just a place where anything was possible.”

“Anything…” Nosira said, a wistful look crossing her face. She seemed twice her actual age, as if she were older even than Vandrid, who bemoaned the grey hair that no one could see inside her blonde. As if she and Bronar cared about such things.

Tahni reached, squeezing Nosira’s hand with her softer, safer extremity. “Even orphans, bereft of their homes, finding a place again, building a community great enough to withstand all the rigors of this savage place.”

The young general let her breath go, a small smile making something very like a surprising sunrise, transfiguring her face completely. “Even that. Though my heart seems to have no sense of shame, for it wishes for ever more. What you and Vandrid and Bronar have. That family above blood.”

“You can find such things. Life is filled with doors, filled with gates you can force open and walk through. For so many years, I thought that nothing would ever happen to me, that I would never come nearer to living my true life, being my true self. I was too afraid. I couldn’t imagine confronting all the obstacles. But Bronar came. And somehow, I had the bravery to reach out to him. Everything else followed.”

“Everything? Surely…”

“I may well have lived and died, meaning nothing to anyone, no one knowing my name, had I not, for just a moment, overcome my terror of what might be. You have already done that. In the decision to come to me, even when you imagined that you would be put to a bloody death, you did it. In bringing others with you, you deepened it. In taking a lead and becoming the general of this army…” Tahni enumerated. 

“But you did that. You named me as such,” Nosira objected.

“I merely observed what already existed and put a name to it. You were always the leader, always the force behind the group.”

They stood there, looking at one another, the words suddenly run dry. Tahni put her iron hand over Nosira’s, letting them both exist in this good moment. She didn’t wish to think about the fact that it might be their last. That the hazards of the mountain could easily kill them all in an hour or a day. If any great wisdom had devolved to her in all her deadly adventures, in fighting men and gods and ghosts, it was that you only had the moment in which you existed. That was the one true thing, floating between a memory and a dream. And it was enough.

“Will you go…I don’t know if it is tonight or today. Time seems to leave you the moment the earth swallows you up. Will you go soon?” Nosira’s face turned pensive, brittle with the fear of their separation. Whatever sweet togetherness they enjoyed shrugged aside, replaced by logistics and duty. 

“Setting up camp has been more taxing than I thought, and it will take all of us a time to get used to the heat in here. After the weeks of chill, to be suddenly sweating is a shock. We will eat and rest before we depart,” Tahni told her. She watched as Vandrid pulled Bronar into their tent, holding him by the belt, her eyes flashing in the firelight. Her first impulse was to catch up with her two lovers, but she knew there would always be enough of them for her, regardless of any delay. While they all lived, no jealousy befit them.

Nosira deserved her full attention now. The young general would have to hold here, regardless of unknown dangers. Tahni needed to make her feel cherished, trusted, and comfortable. In a way, she hated that she could think so clear-eyed about it. With such nominal intent, rather than a more organic regard. But, once seated upon a savage throne and hailed as a queen, her thoughts had forever been clarified, hardened.

“My queen, I have a question. I have been thinking of it, and some of the other girls have also asked.” Nosira seemed to study a twinkling river of pale stone as it wound near her feet. 

“Ask it. Remember that the only dominion I hold on any of you is voluntary. I would force none of you to this ancient and deadly place against your will.”

“We won’t turn aside. You are our queen forever. But we are called the Maiden’s Army. What if some of us have known a lover’s touch? What if…we perhaps wished to? Would we have to return to the dust and ash of our homes?”

Tahni put her hands on the girl’s shoulders. Nosira was a fair bit taller and bigger than she, but that simple touch brought her to her knee, her head bowed, black hair spilling down over her face. “It’s just a name, Nosira. Love as you choose, with whomever moves your heart. My only directive in this is to keep yourself and your sisters safe. Don’t bring an enemy or a cruel heart into the circle of your fires. I think the wicked world has taught you that already, yes?”

“It has, my queen. My heart needs to trust before it loves. I will make sure all of the girls know that this is the rule.”

Tahni hauled her back to her feet, tilting Nosira’s chin so she could look into her eyes. “Good. A life without love is a barren thing. Your heart is of good soil. See that something takes root there, general. I would sooner see you parted from me and joyous than miserable in my service.”


The sound of them froze the blood. Like the screams of dying horses. A whole herd of horses dying in torment. But somehow worse even than that. With a strange chill and note of horror that had no parallel in Tahni’s experience.

The pleasure of another’s touch shattered against such hard and keening noise, and Vandrid’s face swam out of the gloom, the flush of lovemaking quickly turning to the pallor of shock.

Bronar touched Tahni’s shoulder, saying nothing, and burst from their tent. Naked and armed. She and Vandrid rolled out into the flickering firelight of the underground camp, finding that the Maiden’s Army had encircled the camp, shoulder to shoulder, spears and shields foremost. 

But their enemy wasn’t bound by the land. It flew, and screamed. Tahni’s mind recoiled from the look of them, like sea serpents with wings, wide mouths with a hundred jagged teeth their entire faces. Where their eyes should have been, shimmering obsidian smoothness shimmered. A spear reached up for the foremost of the dozens of flying horrors, and its blade skittered ineffectually off the chitinous armor. 

Only the first of their obstacles. That was what the ghostly emperor had said. Only the first of the dangers of the holy mountain. Here flew the terrible second of their bloody tests. Here, they proved their worthiness of receiving the treasures left by the dead.

“Don’t die, my love,” Tahni whispered to Vandrid. 

“I won’t if you won’t, my queen.”


By Patrick M. Tracy

The snowfall obscured all vision, drawing a veil across the winter’s light. This near to the Forgeheart Mountains, every flake liquefied as it touched the rocky ground. From liquid to steam, rising back into the air, until visibility fell to nothing, and they were forced to stop the expedition. 

The horses remaining to them stared into the muffled silver, making sad, small sounds. Nosira set the Maiden’s Army to making a camp, as there would be no further safe progress. The sounds of tent stakes being hammered into the hard ground, the occasional small spark as the iron cracked against the shale. The feeling like they had all become ghosts here, all closer to the realms of the dead than that of the living. Those thoughts filled Tahni’s mind. She clung to Vandrid, unsure if it was condensation from the storm upon her cheeks, or if her eyes bled tears for some unknown reason.

“I feel it too,” Vandrid said, her voice muffled and further distant that it should have been. “No one comes here. Since the first fall of the Varovan…we all fear this place. It’s been so long since the Imperial Caravans would come here, the aged and outgoing rulers adjourning to beneath the mountains, along with their immediate family and close advisors. No one remembers why they came here, or what happened to them once they entered the mountain. We only know that they brought their magic, their riches, and their wisdom hence. The things they didn’t want to pass on to the next emperor. Secret and special things, all down there for the taking, but no one dares try for those whispered riches. Even desperate brigands wouldn’t see shelter in the caves beneath the Forgeheart Range. No story exists in which someone walks out after having known the shade of those ancient tunnels.”

“Then that is a story we must live, a story we must survive to tell, my sweet.” Tahni caught her hands in Vandrid’s hair and kissed her with gentle thoroughness. When Bronar’s mighty form appeared out of the soft, billowing gloom, she passed Vandrid to him. She climbed up into his arms, her slim legs astride his hips. All the questions had fallen aside now, the rhythms of their concordance becoming a new natural state. Three felt just as natural as two, perhaps even more so. Her face in Vandrid’s back, Tahni reached to put her palms against Bronar’s ribs, together with both of them. Safe as it always felt, and warm, it didn’t altogether banish the unease of this ancient place. Nothing could, not even the knots of love between them.

“The tents are set,” Nosira said from nearby. Tahni knew she’d been watching them for a time. “And one of the horses is flagging badly, these past few days.”

Tahni broke away from the embrace, feeling the heat of it still in her cheeks and deeper places. She went to Nosira, taking her hands. “Thank you, General. We took the oldest and weakest of the horses on the journey, knowing full well that few of them would live out the winter. Do you need help putting the beast down and butchering it for the fires? As grim and strange as this place is, a hot meal might spark our spirits a bit.”

“No, my queen. Most of us are farm girls, who know the way of such things. We’ll put the old fellow to his last rest easily, and bleed him so the meat isn’t tainted.”

“It’s a hard task, but we are so many now, and the winter will be long, with precious little forage. When we first thought to go this way, it was only Bronar and I. Two vagabonds, alone in the world, specks lost in the storm of dust upon the long plains. Things had a certain desperate simplicity then.”

Nosira frowned. “I am…”

Tahni brought the girl’s hands to her heart. “Never say you’re sorry. I am honored to have you here. I wish I had more to offer you than the grim winter road and the haunted shadow of these mountains. Bloody, thankless tasks and a dinner of tough old horse meat. I wish that every road I walk didn’t hide a thousand dangers. Were I all you deserve, I could somehow cut a new town out of the face of the Varovan. A place where you could live and flourish, plant seeds and see them grow. But my skills are not for such things.”

Nosira couldn’t meet her eyes. “That isn’t how we see you. You saved us. All of us. You did make something new. You planted the seeds of hope within us, and they have grown. Whatever happens now, we have become part of something we can be proud of. None of us thought we would find that again.”

“You found it in yourselves, Nosira. I had but little to do with it.”

The young general’s eyes finally turned upward. “But you did. In all ways. A Conqueror Queen? There’s been perhaps one other in memory. And you wore the crown with wisdom and kindness. Aside from the mighty powers you have, you show us that we can be as we feel. We can reach out for things that bring us joy. Whatever lines others have drawn, we do not have to always follow those for our lives to have purpose.”

Tahni gave Nosira’s hands a small squeeze, then let them go. “We are not all built of the same boards as the average. Some of our hearts are shaped with many doors, some with none at all. I spent so long being afraid of myself, afraid of all the thousand differences within me. But if, in seeing me as I begin to step free of those chains, you are emboldened, then that is a fine thing.”

“It is.” Nosira eased within the circle of Tahni’s arms. “It is.”

In that moment, she learned why everyone feared this land, why no one dared venture here. All sound stopped. Nosira’s body froze, solid as ice. Out of the steam-cloud warmth of melting snow, the spirits of the dead appeared, eyes as dark as ink stains.


Tall and gaunt, the specters of ancient emperors stood in their ruined finery, no more or less real than anything in the soft charcoal of the dying light. There may have been ten, or perhaps a thousand. Tahni couldn’t tell, and perhaps it didn’t matter. Their eyes, devoid of light in their faces, drew her in, but unlike everyone else, their presence couldn’t mute her, couldn’t freeze her in a moment of stopped time. The power of the Night Wolf burst within her, a torrent coming up from the strange recesses of the world like a secret spring. Whatever was of death and whatever was undying, these things were hers to grapple. 

“You have come,” the leader of them rasped, voice like cloth billowing on the wind. “We didn’t know if you would. Always him, the fated one, but your path was hidden from us. Until just now.”

Tahni slipped free of Nosira, now no more alive than a sculpture in the presence of the kings of old. “We did come. Not knowing what we might fight, or if it would aid us, we came, for there was no other hope left to us.”

She unsheathed her half spear, spinning it in the air and bringing it to rest, blade held out and at the ready. “Among our host, there are two Conqueror Regents. Perhaps that doesn’t give us the same warrant as the emperors of old, but we have made the journey.”

“To die?” the spectral liege asked. “Brave as you stand…yes, we will allow it. We would welcome you, Conqueror Queen, into our eternal ranks.”

“No. That long rest is not yet for such as we. We came for victory, for the spoils that lay beneath the mountain. To find a weapon against a wizard who has made himself deathless.”

The emperor’s ghost chuckled. “Then we will be just the first of your obstacles.” He unsheathed a ghostly great sword, burning with sickly yellow light. “One that has stood a thousand years, never yielding.”

Tahni grasped her power, but as her spear’s blade turned aside the burning sword, the strength of it shook her to the very soles of her feet. The blade came down again and again, moving effortlessly through the falling snow. Only her new strength and the fact that she’d sparred with Bronar for so many long evenings allowed her to weather the assault. Tahni danced aside, iron arm held along the axis of her short spear for leverage. She took the minimum amount of the impact, doing her best to dodge away from the swing, rather than challenging it with her full force. 

From out of the gloom, she could see that her opponent was slowly consolidating all the other ghosts in the fog. With every swing, another of them merged with him, making him a bit grander, a bit more real. An instinct deep inside her spoke with the Night Wolf’s voice. “Keep him fighting, force him to pull in every vagrant spirit, every pale king. Only then…”

Breath coming so hard that her vision pulsed, arms aching, legs threatening collapse, there remained just a single emperor, now hardly glowing with translucence, but pressing his heavy footprints into the muddy ground. The sickly yellow fire burned bright and full across his shoulder plates now, falling snow sizzling upon its fire. The mighty blade moved like a viper in his hands, weightless until each strike landed. Then – bearing all the thundering force of a falling boulder. 

Too slow, her footing imprecise in her fatigue, Tahni caught the full power of his swing. The half spear slipped from her hands, spinning into the night, and she flew back, knocked to earth with the mighty blow. 

Slowly, savoring his victory, the ghost emperor came to stand over her. “None of the thousands I have killed have fought so hard.  None have made me draw every king’s strength unto me in order to gain victory. It is no shame to die, witch. From you and your retinue, my thirst will be slaked, and I will rest easy within the shadow of the stones again. I, the first and greatest of all, Varovan the Uniter.”

The lambent blade arose, and Tahni relaxed. What more could she do? This wasn’t where she’d hoped to end, wasn’t what she’d wished for all those who loved her, but one could not win every battle. One could not always prevail. “I was close, old ghost. Close to the killing strike.”

The cracked and empty-eyed face grinned, long and yellow teeth inside leather lips. “And yet…”

Varovan’s sword began its downward arc, so huge and potent that it would cleave her in half. But another small sound revealed itself, another presence in the darkness.

Out of the shadows, a metal-barded maul swung, connecting with the ghostly emperor’s shoulders in a downward arc not unlike that of his sword. And at the bare second of the hammer’s touch, the specter exploded into uncounted fragments, flying through the air as yellow gems, falling as sharp hail all around her. 

And as the emperor’s form disjoined, time started its count again, Vandrid and Nosira shouting in surprise as everything shifted from the last moment they’d experienced before the freeze.

Tahni lay on her back, looking up at Bronar, who leaned upon the haft of his maul and gave her a grim little smile. “You know why I had to wait, do you not?”

“Of course, my love. There was only ever one chance to finish him cleanly.”

“But you didn’t believe anyone would be there to help you,” he said, kneeling. “You thought you were alone. Even after all these miles, you imagined I would leave you in your hour of need.”

Tahni covered her eyes with two knotted fist, knowing it was true. Even together, even within the perimeter of her lovers’ arms, she had a hard time not feeling that all would slip from her, that all would be taken by cruel fate. She had yet to altogether escape the old stories and their power over her. Even a witch, a harrower of doom, and a queen, she still sometimes felt the fears of a powerless barmaid in a dead-end town. Of all the things she could do, all that she could defeat, she couldn’t banish that old version of herself. That original enemy stood an implacable and deathless monster, always just behind her eyes.

“You were there, despite my fears. You were there, and it meant everything to me, Bronar. Not because of living, not because we found victory, but only because I couldn’t face myself alone again.”