This short story is posted in Fiction, Short Stories, Fantasy, and Grimdark.
If you aren’t familiar with Grimdark, just let me warn you: nothing good happens in this story. It’s full of awfulness and I apologize in advance. Also a little NSFW for mild language and sexual content.
How I Felt When I Saved The World
by Rick Cook Jr
Our white clothing blended with the whitewashed walls and décor. Sprays of crimson marred the columns on our way up. Delaana wiped her daggers on the corpses as they fell, and we dashed up the interior stairwell before their bodies even settled. Delaana ran ahead, scouting; already her disguise was painted in gore. I strengthened my barriers against the fear and anger borrowed from the guards, letting it wash through me until I was alone with my own emotions once more.
I took up mid-position on the stairwell landing somewhere between the first and second floor and waited for Delaana to wave me forward. The payload strapped to my back strained my ability to move with the same ease and grace as Delaana and Maric. I checked behind me and saw Maric’s face, turned in a rictus of an unnamed agony as he watched the first floor for guards.
“Maric?” I whispered. The expression changed in an instant as he stared up the stairwell, to the easy smile I was used to. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head. “Thought we’d been made; servants walked by and I was sure they’d see the dead guards. But they kept going.” The bitter tang of apprehension and the acrid scent of fear bloomed inside my body, and it was all I could do to force them back out. Sharing Maric’s bed made it difficult not to share his feelings, too.
Delaana whistled from above and we began the upward trek once more. “You sure you’re all right?” I asked as we cleared the second floor and delved deeper into the stronghold.
Delaana scoffed. “Funny girl, asking a question like that at a time like this.”
“I’m fine,” Maric answered. “As fine as we might expect given we’re about to commit genocide.”
I hated that word. “We’re short on time and options. You heard what the Sage said same as me. If we let this war continue, it won’t matter who wins.”
“All the poor bunnies and squirrels,” Delaana mocked. Her head poked out into another hallway, waiting and listening. I slipped my hand into Maric’s and squeezed. He smiled and squeezed my hand back, but he seemed distracted.
Delaana stepped through the doorway. “All clear.” My hand lost his and we were on the move again. Another doorway, another whitewashed hallway, another stairwell. Delaana sliced the throat of another guard just making his rounds on the third floor, stuffing him into an alcove before his blood could spread.
We made it two more floors without incident, to the top of the stronghold tower. We were close now.
Delaana scouted ahead once more. I stepped away from the inner wall and stared out the stone window upon the sleeping city. The sun had crested the horizon while we were in here, and by its pale glow I could see the shape of the city we would destroy. Tall buildings already lay in ruins, their sides blackened and charred from magical fire. Smoke still rose from some of them, as if each building was a sleeping dragon. But all the dragons were dead.
I couldn’t see from this high up, but the streets were supposedly littered with bodies. At this hour, from this vantage, I could imagine the city wiped clean, the war over, and we the inheritors of this broken world.
Maric’s hand found my shoulder, and he squeezed it from behind. “Isn’t gonna do you any good looking out there.”
I reached up and covered his hand in mine. I knew every callous, every bump and scrape, of his fingers. This man’s hands chaffed everything he touched, but I wanted to touch them anyways. “When’s that ever stopped me.”
“Farissa.” I turned and looked into his eyes. “Are we doing the right thing?” That bitter apprehension returned, and it was harder to shove down this time.
“If we weren’t, I wouldn’t be here.” I reached up to stroke his cheek, and he kissed the palm of my hand before a white-hot spike of jealousy erupted inside me, so strong it pierced my empathic barrier like an arrow through cloth. I staggered and nearly fell backwards through the opening, if not for Maric catching my fall.
Delaana appeared behind Maric, her expression guarded. I’d never felt jealousy like that before. She watched us with an impassive frown as Maric helped set me to rights and I checked the bomb on my back.
Delaana’s white clothing was stained from neck to boot in the blood of our enemies. She caught me staring and said, “Guards.”
“How many?” I asked.
She grinned. “Not nearly enough. The inner sanctum’s clear.” She turned and looked at me over her shoulder as she walked away. “You were right. The place is empty on the eve of the new year.” She disappeared back into the inner sanctum and her jealousy wafted away from me.
I sighed and leaned into Maric. “I bet we could have just let her sneak around for a few weeks and kill everybody.”
He rubbed my shoulder. “I don’t know why that seems worse than genocide, but it is.”
I smiled, but it collapsed under the weight of what we were about to do. “Let’s get this over with and get out of here.”
Again that apprehension gripped me, like spiders crawling in my skin. I squeezed Maric’s hand and said, “It’ll be over soon.”
His weak smile prompted me forward, and we followed Delaana’s path up a final stairwell into the center of the inner sanctum, where Delaana had taken a seat on one of the pews, digging at a fingernail with one of her daggers.
The sanctum was a large, egg-shaped room, torches lit along the crystal balustrade, sparkling and winking in the early morning light. Four guards lay crumpled and bloody: two on the ground in pools of crimson, one collapsed over the altar still dripping blood, and the fourth had been knocked through a crystal baluster and hung halfway out into the air.
All around us the city was waking up. We were running out of time.
“Delaana, watch the stairs,” I said, unstrapping the bomb and setting it down. She got to her feet and strode past me as I unbuckled the pack, and then something struck me on the back of the head, so hard my vision fogged and I crumpled to the ground. I had a momentary flash of Delaana’s boot in the space my head had just occupied, then I blacked out.
A sharp slap brought me back, and I fought the urge to vomit from the sting on my cheek and the throb in my skull. My hands and legs were bound and something heavy lay in my lap.
“Darling, you really need to wake up,” Delaana said. My vision began to clear. Delaana and Maric stared down at me, but something was different about them. I couldn’t place it. And the bomb was in my lap, a strange whirr coming from it. Oh gods, what was happening?
“You may have been misinformed about our goal,” Delaana continued. “You see, this isn’t an explosive.”
“No?” I managed. Even that sent black dots swirling across my vision and my eyes closed while I concentrated on my empathic barrier. When I reached out to yank on their emotions I found nothing. It was as if they were stones in front of me for all the empathic energy I sensed.
I opened my eyes again and realized what was different about the two. A circlet of silver rounded their heads, coming to a point right over the metaphorical third eye in the center of their foreheads.
Maric tapped his circlet at the point. “You shouldn’t have told our researchers how you tap into their emotions, love.”
An empathic barrier? They’d created physical barriers? “Why?” I asked, struggling to fight the tears.
Delaana giggled. “Why? Why would we destroy the entire city when we can merely wipe out the population, leaving the walls intact?”
“What does this thing do, then, if not destroy?”
Maric leaned down and stroked my cheek where Delaana had slapped it. I struggled, but I was bound hand and foot, tied to both the bomb and the altar on which they’d set me. “It’s an amplifier. Remember the electro-magnetic pulse they used on us a few months back?”
I did. Crippled all our technological advances. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
Maric went on, checking the bomb in my lap as he did so, “Well, an EMP overloads electrical circuitry, essentially frying it. This,” he patted the bomb, “is the same thing, only for emotions.”
“And you had to bludgeon me to shit and tie me up to use it?”
Delaana laughed, a low, throaty chuckle that in most circumstances I would have found appealing. “Knocking you out was a bonus, but yes.”
I turned back to Maric. “You used me.”
“For the good of the world, Farissa. You are going to be the heroine who sacrificed everything to win us this war and end the destruction of the land. We’ll make sure you get a statue.”
The bomb cycled up. Delaana rubbed Maric’s shoulders and said, “It’s time.”
Tears came unbidden and I blinked them away. “Please, Maric. Don’t do this.”
He only shook his head. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry you have to see this.” He didn’t sound sorry, the snake.
Then he kissed Delaana and forced her up against a pillar, dropping his trousers as Delaana tore her blood-soaked top from her body. She clasped him around the neck and waist as he entered her. Something snapped inside me, watching them rut against the pillar.
Delaana and Maric. My closest friend and my fiance. I couldn’t conceive of it. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t look away. My heart ached, like the hand of an angry god squeezing it in his vicelike grip. I choked back a sob, fought back the urge to just curl up and cry. I had to shut my emotions down. I focused on the barrier. I imagined it shrinking, cutting off all emotive response. I pictured it so small it couldn’t even contain my own feelings.
But what was happening was too strong. The image of Maric and Delaana fucking like rabbits in front of me was too new, too raw. My barrier swelled again, the empathic energies bursting it from within.
The empathic amplifier’s tone changed. Delaana was screaming in ecstasy; Maric grunted as he climaxed, his head buried in Delaana’s bosom. The amplifier hummed. I struggled to rein my emotions in for the last time, and then the amplifier set off.
I could feel it sucking in my heartache, almost like a child feeding off its mother. The pain dwindled as the last of my empathic energies swelled inside the machine, and I had a moment to reflect, void of emotion. Why were there tears? What was their purpose?
Then the empathic amplifier pulsed, and a spherical wave of black energy poured out of it, rocking into me, passing through Delaana and Maric, running out of the sanctum and into the stronghold. Screams came from below as faceless soldiers and servants surely doubled over at this wave of heartbroken energy. It was my same emotion amplified and sent back out. It pressed against my weakened barrier, like a physical pressure in my mind, and suddenly all that emotion welled back up inside me, stronger and even less tolerable.
I had barely begun to try and manage the emotional flood: reining it in, compartmentalizing it, ignoring it, when the amplifier cycled up again, humming as it sucked away the stronger emotional torture tearing away my cognitive ability. When it was all gone, I couldn’t focus. Maric and Delaana finished dressing, their lips locked together in a grotesque display, and then they disappeared into the stairwell, looking as happy as I’d ever seen them.
Happy? What was happy. Had I been happy once?
The amplifier pulsed again, and the spherical wave emanated out, rocketing faster and farther than before. Once more I was assaulted by my own heartache, exponentially more powerful than it had been moments before. My heart was crushed, my lungs wanted to collapse. I felt I could disappear forever into a vast crevice in the earth and no one would care. I knew it was over, no one would ever love in this city again.
My empathic barrier was all but shredded and torn away. My emotions leaked from me in a deluge, tears like waterfalls down my cheeks. The pressure behind my eyes mounted, and I thought they would burst.
The racking sobs I couldn’t stop halted as the amplifier cycled up once again, a whirling vacuum of empathic energy. I couldn’t survive another one. I knew I couldn’t.
The parasite on my lap whirred up again. I had a moment, a brief window of clarity, where I wondered how many this thing had killed already. Surely those without empathic training had their hearts burst in their chest, or their minds snapped and rendered them vegetables.
Surely they couldn’t endure my agony.
The machine pulsed. My eyes rolled in the back of my head. Incapable of expressing the torrent of heartache and betrayal, my body began to seize when this new, more powerful wave struck me. Blood obscured my vision, rained down my face. I had no more tears to give. I felt my right eye pop; sight vanished from that eye as the liquid ran down my face. There was no pain. Only sensation. Only the everlasting loss of a broken heart.
The empathic amplifier hummed. From my one good eye I saw smoke rising from it. It began to drain me once more, and this time I didn’t fight. I lacked the will. Maybe it would explode after all.
It pulsed, and with that pulse my final thoughts were:
Love saved us all, and my statue better be gods-damned gorgeous.
My heartache rushed onward on a tide of shrieking metal. Oblivion folded me into its depthless, emotionless void.
That was way harder to write than I thought it would be. Grimdark is evil.