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

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.

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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.

Jul
15

By Patrick M. Tracy

The boy and his mother lay dying in the alley. The stink from whatever plague raised bloody welts upon their flesh made Tahni’s gorge burn at the back of her throat. She jammed the back of her hand against her mouth, looking away. She touched her shoulder to Bronar’s for some support, and he glanced in her direction, his mouth hard, his eyes like chips of stone below his brow. The look that any stranger would take for anger, but was truly the sadness of a powerful man who could do nothing but walk away from the hopeless. No mighty feat of arms could wrench the city up out of its grotesque state.

The paving stones swam in filth, every building decrepit, the smoke of burning offal wafting down the street. They were dressed in simple layered furs, nothing but their weapons marking them, but the abject poverty of every person they passed made her feel like she had never known deprivation or struggle. The hollow of their eyes, the sallow sickness of their cheeks. The fact that, even in the mild chill of the coastal winter, they shivered in worn sack-cloth, their withered limbs reaching, begging silently for some mercy.

Tahni understood why they’d left their horses in a town a day away, paying a vast, kingly sum for their upkeep and leaving all but their necessities behind in a locked chest ringed with heavy chain. The sight of draft animals among this starving squalor? They would have had to brandish steel at every street corner to keep the starving hordes from dragging their ponies down and gnawing at their flesh. Alone, she wondered if they’d have rushed her. Bronar’s war mallet, scarred and stained with the blood of both men and monsters, told them there would be nothing but death to find here.

After the best part of an hour of walking, they left the abject slums for a stretch by the dockside where corsairs lazed atop cargo crates and hard-eyed longshoremen touched their daggers at everyone nearby.

“They say that Evaldr is the richest city in the known world, but I’ve seen naught but filth and despair and the lowest reaches of human suffering,” she whispered.

Bronar didn’t look at her, but kept his eyes on the movement of all the ill-favored characters lingering just near enough to rush them if they looked weak. “There’s riches, but not here. When we’re clear of this, look out across the harbor, and you’ll see a tall island. That’s where the finery and gold remain, caught like insects in drying tree sap. What little flows over here is money stained with blood and the grubby hands of brigands.”

“Then why are we here?” she asked.

“Not now. Don’t say anything, where we’re going. A word is more dangerous than viper’s fang in there. Meet no one’s eyes, and be ready to put your short blade to work. It may come to bloodshed.”

The doorway loomed there, like a dark void in a rotten tooth. Rough men with hard eyes stood athwart the path, hands on the pommels of their blades. Most of of them had pale and sallow faces, the look of rogues who ran down benighted streets and avoided honest work like a sickness.

A fat man whose eyes glowed with jaundice pointed toward a weapon rack. Bronar leaned his mallet in the stand but kept his dagger and short blade. Tahni followed suit, her shield and spear resting in the dry-rotted wood. The scent of old, rotted fish clung to every surface, mixed with the ugly smell of low tide. They followed a boy without his left foot, whose copper-ended cane clacked against the boards in rhythmic counterpoint to his bare heel. Tahni knew that she would think about the hundreds of whip scars that spread out from the over-loose sleeves of his tunic for as long as she lived. Scars traced across his one intact leg, and had swept across his face, leaving an empty eye socket.

In a fetid backroom swirling with smoke, they found a sharp-faced woman whose front teeth had been replaced with wedges of gold. Tahni thought she had perhaps been pretty once, but age and whatever narcotic swirled about the place had long since stolen all that.

The gold-toothed woman grimaced. “What?” Her voice sounded like the muttering from up out of an open grave.

“I’m here to see the elf,” Bronar told her, looking as ill-tempered as Tahni had ever seen him.

“The elf don’t see people.”

Bronar fished out a large emerald, uncut and worth the whole building and all its occupants. The whipped boy made the noise of indrawn breath, received a hard glance from the gold-toothed woman, and left the room, closing the door behind him.

“He’ll be here after night falls. Only you, though. Leave the girl and come back alone.”

Bronar shook his head. “She will be with me, crone. My voice is as loud as that.” He pointed to the gem to make his point.

“That’s not how the elf does business.”

“It is today. We will come back at moonrise.”

Bronar turned away, headed for the door. “We could just take all you have,” the gold-toothed woman rasped.

“That has been tried.”

No one impeded them as they walked from the den of villains. When the late winter’s light touched them again, Tahni felt like she’d emerged from below the shadow of the gallows.

Twenty minutes of walking down the dockside brought them to where the legitimate cargo came ashore, the ships larger and better maintained. The dark had fallen and the sound of roistering emerged from every quayside tavern. Still rough and dangerous, this quarter, at least, didn’t stink of the lowest degradation, of people devolved to rabid rodents.

They turned into the golden light of a bar called The Treacherous Reef, sat at a table in the dim far corner, and awaited their meal and ale. Tahni reached, taking Bronar’s hand in both her own. “What is this about?”

His face settled, looking older than its years for a moment. “I met you. I can’t simply accept my own death as a certainty now. I have to…take certain steps.”

“You met me…”

He squeezed her hand. “When you look into the open jaws of death for a long time, it gets hard to find a reason to fight it. I found a reason.”

Tahni felt blood rush to her face. Bronar didn’t engage in romantic talk with her. All his assurance came in a moment of touch, a quiet look. She wasn’t sure how to respond.

“So this elf, he has something you need?”

“I hope he does. I hope I won’t have to kill my way through a hundred thieves to get it.”