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

Sep
05

By Patrick M. Tracy

That screaming. Her own voice, echoing off the scorched walls between burned out buildings. The wreckage of Evaldr, burned in the attempt at killing them and burned for naught. Tahni’s spear-haft smashed against a scrawny manchild’s knee and burst the bones out the inside of his thigh. His pain cry joined the chorus as he crawled through wispy ash, his foot turned the wrong direction and dragging like a piece of him had died. Fatigue muted everything, even the pain. Her ears, deafened by the clang of weapons, gave her only vague grasp of the battle now.

In the screaming of the iron, her shocked ears could still hear the louder tones. Enough. Enough to hear Bronar’s groan as he took a blow across the back and fell into the dust. The image of him, of his massive arm buried in the blackened remnants of a consumed hovel, fire-cracked bones still there where fire had killed the vagrants, glimmers of copper pieces warped by the fire. Tahni felt like someone reached into her chest and smashed her heart with the tongs of a blacksmith’s shop, then drove a hammer strike into her gut. Seeing him there, the mightiest of men she’d ever known, motionless on the ground…

Time clamped down to a quarter of its pace. Tahni whipped her spear across her body. Deep inside, she felt that nameless something bloom and burn. Her power. The killing magic she had run from all her life. The only reason she yet lived. Was she a good enough fighter to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a near-unkillable legend? No. Not without inviting something dark and carnivorous to join the fight. And she had. At need. And now…now the need was not just for the life it might buy, but the feel of it inside her skin. The burn and sting of power, better than any wine.

Blood burst from the stringy rogue’s side, and his legs buckled. The spin of her weapon reversed, and she caught the injured brigand across the face. The shock and give of his bones breaking. Crimson and ivory flew as he fell across Bronar’s still form.

There were more. Always more, as if they belched up from some hellish netherworld, each one as ugly as the last. They’d been on the verge of running before, but with one to face, a woman a third of Bronar’s size, they bristled and found their courage. They yelled taunts at her, grabbing at their stinking crotches. An old message. She’d die, yes, but it would be a long time coming, if they had their choice of it.

But they wouldn’t have that choice.

Tahni set her feet, her heart beating so hard that her vision swelled and shivered with every pulse. The tip of her spear dipped, then she made herself hold it steady, watching the three cretins who still drew breath. She looked into their eyes, screaming again. Words had long since become irrelevant.

That bloom of dark magic. She reached out to it. Grabbed at it in desperation, deeper than she’d ever dared. Flares of ice and sparks shot through her tissues. So weary, but she found herself rushing at them. Every tissue flexed, infused with the external madness, that doorway within her kicked all the way open and flooding her with killing rage.

All human thought faded. Tahni tasted blood in her mouth. Chasing. Rearing back to throw her spear. The looks from a shadowed door of a burnt out building…normal people who flinched away from her wild glance as she wrenched her weapon from the dying man, a sickly looking oldster with greyish skin.

Not wanting to, she hissed at them, making the displaced refugees of the wild fire retreat further into shadow. Still in a bestial crouch, she probed the street. People fled from her presence, as they would a ravening wolf. She was but little different from one now. Perhaps worse, bereft of the clarity of purpose an animal would have. She wanted to kill again. Not because of the threat, or the anger, but simply to carry on letting blood upon the ground until there was no one left.

But there remained no one else. No legitamate threat. No one who would stand against her steel. Only shocked survivors and starving vagabonds now. Her pulse slowed, the red insanity of battle washing from her eyes.

The last quiver of magic died. Tahni went to a knee, hair hanging in her face. Blood dripped into the ash on the broken paving stones. Not her own. If she’d taken a wound, it ripped deep, somewhere inside her soul. An interior scar that only she could feel, the price of which she could not yet guess.

But her own darkened interior couldn’t be her only burden. There was something. Someone she had to help, but thought eluded her. All rational feelings and emotions fled.

Bronar.

Likely dead, her mind told her as it regained its words. Her mind told her she’d be alone again, as it had been so long, and she recoiled from that dark idea. She battered against it, like someone fighting smoke in the locked room of a burning house.

It took her a dozen tries to find her feet. She had to rest and lean on her spear with every few steps. Pain screamed from every muscle and joint from her hands to her shoulders. One cost of hitting far harder than she ought to be capable of. Her feet dragged upon the filthy street, legs numb and leaden.

The alley had grown to be a thousand years long, a whole eon of toil to walk.

Tahni let herself fall across Bronar’s body. She couldn’t tell if he yet breathed. Blackness swirling behind her eyes, she wondered if the price of her magic would snuff her own candle.

Pushing her face against Bronar’s hip, she set free all her regret, all her dreams of other lives. A life was an easy enough price to pay. In that moment, in the tomb of a city with its heart burned away, death did not seem so bad.

“This is enough,” she whispered as the bell black ocean swallowed her.

*****

A lean-to shelter built into a rock outcrop kept the sun from her eyes when she awoke. Tahni had no idea where she was, or how long she’d been insensate. She pulled air into her nostrils. Not Evaldr. None of that wretched city’s scent came to her. Nor did the wet ash of its fire damage.

She flexed her hands, wincing at the new pain and swelling in her wrists. She couldn’t close her hands into a fist yet, but nothing felt broken. Hunger and thirst muttered inside her, making themselves known. Tahni tried to sit up, but it proved more than she could do. She settled for rolling to her side, ignoring the flare of fire in her shoulder as it bore her weight.

Naked below a roughspun blanket, someone had cared for her. Someone. Tahni’s voice stuck in her throat, too dry to make a sound. She couldn’t call out. Should she? Where was she and what manner of folk had taken her away? Taking an inventory, she couldn’t find any unexplained injuries.

A woman she didn’t recognize drew back the animal pelt that closed the lean-to’s end and peered in at her. Lines etched the woman’s face, but it was hard to tell if that weathered look came from years, care, or the harshness of the wind. The stranger gave her a gentle look, then came in and knelt by her.

“Suppose you’re thirsty, eh?” The woman’s words had the inflection of the coastal villages, her voice as rough and worn as her face.

Tahni nodded, feeling the strained muscles and cords in her neck.

The woman left, coming back with a wooden mug filled with liquid. Water, cool and sweet. Country water, from a free-flowing stream. Tahni made herself drink it slowly, and found she could speak after the dust and blood washed from her voice.

“Where am I? How long has it been? Who are you? Bronar?” Everything tumbled from her lips in half-made questions.

“I’m Darva. You’re a ways down the coast. I’ll let the man himself tell you the rest, eh?” She brushed strands of hair from Tahni’s face and smiled before exiting the lean-to.

Tahni’s ears had recovered themselves, and she heard quiet words some distance from her, and the muttering of the sea beyond that. The brushing of tree limbs in the forest, and but little more than that.

Bronar came through the hide opening, filling the space and dwarfing the whole enclosure. He moved carefully, as if pinned together at the corners. His eyes were blackened, his nose a few degrees askew, but otherwise looked whole.

“I thought you were dead.” Tahni chided herself for such a stupid thing as her first words to him.

“I would have been. But for you, the Elf’s work would have been done. And the Old Wizard’s for that matter. You fought until the breath barely moved in you, Tahni. I have not often seen that. I thought that, like the others, you would die, but you didn’t. You are different.”

“If, by different, you mean that I’m cursed with the powers of a Death Witch, yes.”

He rocked back and sat down. He looked at her for a long time, saying nothing.

“Well?” That fear. The fear that had haunted her every day since the old crone’s reading. Everyone would leave her. If they knew her curse, they would cast her aside. And now…

Bronar nodded. “It makes sense.” A flicker of a smile passed across his battered face. “And it changes many things.”

“What does it change? Tell me what you mean.” She tried to speak forcefully, but didn’t have the energy yet to do so. Fear froze her stomach as she waited for his repudiation.

His heavy hand rested upon her brow. “First, we finish what the Elf began. For a thousand reasons, he cannot live beyond a week from now. Once that’s done, our real task will start. Something I should have done a long time ago.”

“You aren’t…going to leave me behind?” Her voice sounded so small in her ears.

He picked her up into his arms, as easy as one would pick up a child. “Why would I do that?”

“I…”

“We’ll heal up. Then, revenge. Perhaps justice, even.”

Relief washed over Tahni. Relief and a feeling she couldn’t name. A thing she’d never even dared to hope for. Acceptance. Another word she didn’t dare utter, even within smallest, darkest room of her mind.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be like this, Bronar. I hurt myself, deep into the bone and gristle.”

“It will pass with food and rest. These things always do.”

“Can you…”

He tangled his fingers in the hair at the base of her neck and cradled her skull in his palm. “What do you wish?”

She felt the vibration of his words through the rough fabric of his tunic. It shimmered through the bones of her face where her cheek rested upon his chest.

“You must only ask,” he breathed into her ear.

Bronar had never been so tender with her. Gentle, yes, but not like this. Things had changed. Perhaps to a man like him, a battle as they’d just survived meant everything. “I just need to feel you near me. Not…that way. I’m too hurt. But holding me against you.”

He said nothing, tucking her back below the blankets. He kicked his boots off and drew his tunic over his head. The profusion of bruises, scrapes, and healing wounds across his torso made her wince, but he only shook his head, nestling close to her. Tahni relaxed into the heat of his flesh and the smell of his healthy sweat.

Her eyes closed again. Whatever grasp on the waking world she had faltered and tore away. The ocean of her dreams now gleamed like still water beneath the moon. A beast like a winged wolf that walked upright on its hind legs paced at the edge of the still waters, eyes flashing in the silvery light.  

It howled, and within the howl were words. “I am awakened in you, Witch, and I must be kept ever sated. You know the nature of my hunger. That which can feed my belly will fill a thousand graves.”

“I’m not going to run anymore, Night Wolf. You will taste the blood upon your tongue, and I will have your power,” she swore.

Whatever the cost, she would hang onto what she’d found for herself.

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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.

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.