Gwyn chose her victim because he was alone. The man sat in the corner of the inn, withdrawn from the welcoming flames of the hearth. She hated this part. She hated every part, but this one especially. She let the bubbling unease build up into a frothing lake that made her want to flee, to find any excuse to not be there. She relished that feeling, that desperate unwillingness to keep her promise. It reminded her that she wasn’t a monster. A monster wouldn’t care.
A piece of her, the one piece that hadn’t been crushed into submission by her own necessary ruthlessness, hoped he was a bad man. It would make it so much easier, though she didn’t do this because it was easy.
She stood for a while next to the inn’s entrance, her fingers fidgeted as she eyed her target. She tried to move and her mind instead asked what would happen if she just didn’t do it. It bought her a few merciful moments of contemplation, which she indulged in with a sense of almost jubilant procrastination. If she just left, no one would die. Not tonight. But, would that really change anything? The people whose lives might end tonight could very well come across a Winterstorm and see their spirits sent to the Wintersea. By comparison, a swift end could be seen as a mercy.
She chided herself internally. She wasn’t naïve enough to believe that. She wasn’t doing this out of a sense of mercy. No, it was greed. Not just a desire for money, though that was a part of it. How did she expect to feed herself if she abandoned the task? Her business would come toppling down alongside her reputation and she’d be reduced to common thievery. Sure, she wasn’t a half-bad thief, but she also didn’t particularly care about stealing things. It was easy to lie to yourself about stealing, about needing the item more than its current owner, or about having to get by through any means. It was much harder to rationalize what she was doing now as anything but malicious.
So, she would get to sleep better at night, or sleep at all, and all she would need to do is destroy everything she had worked for. Her fingers slipped into her cloak and wrapped around the hilt of her dagger. She felt the magic swirling inside, a vortex created by her own self-loathing. That was the real reason, after all. Every time she made herself into a monster, she channeled all of that disbelief and hate she felt towards herself into her cursed dagger. To complete her goals, she had to be strong, and those awful emotions were the strongest of them all.
Besides, what would she do when her employer discovered she hadn’t followed through? What could she hope to accomplish in her hypothetically serene, weakened state against an ebon mage? She probably couldn’t even do anything to him now, at the peak of her power.
She sighed. She had forced herself into this situation, and she had done an excellent job of ensuring she couldn’t get out. As always, Gwyn was her own greatest ally and worst enemy.
Gwyn commanded her feet to move towards her target. This time, they obeyed. Now that she was in motion, she felt her instincts kick in. They resisted the screaming remnants of her childlike innocence as she glided through the tavern. She flowed between servers and drunkards, none of them even aware of her existence, all thanks to a pre-prepared charm. The only way anyone would realize she was there was if she wanted them to.
She slid into the seat opposite him and waited for the man to take notice. He seemed focused on something he’d rather not be and his fingers drummed an unsteady rhythm on his flagon whilst he chewed his lip. Politely, she cleared her throat.
The man jumped, nearly spilling his drink. Gwyn watched carefully as his hand slid to his waist towards a concealed weapon. Probably a dagger. A tingle appeared at the base of her spine. Not excitement—maybe it was at first, but not anymore. Now, it was a sense that she knew something no one else did. The giddiness of a secret coupled with the dread of the details.
“Jumpy tonight, are we?” Gwyn flashed the man a smile. Like a wyvern’s grin before a meal. It was clear it didn’t take. Some people just had an intuitive sense of danger. That tingle crept just a bit higher.
“You snuck up on me. I was lost in thought,” the man replied. His hand hadn’t moved from his waist. “Is there something I can help you with?”
A strand of black hair slipped from its position and Gwyn quickly tucked it behind her ear. “I’d like to get to know you.”
The man flushed for a moment and then his hand slipped from his waist. Was that what she looked like to him? She didn’t know whether to take it as an insult or a compliment. Either way, he had the wrong idea, but it had dropped his guard. “Sorry, I just came here for a drink.”
“Humor me. What’s your name?”
“Koll.” He took a sip of his drink. “You get four more questions. After that, you leave me alone.”
Gwyn laughed. A challenge was good, it would keep her mind off her current task. She watched one of the younger barmaids carry a wobbly tray of flagons out to an eager crowd of men as she thought. Koll waited patiently for her question.
“Everyone else seems to be having a good time, why are you drinking alone?” She asked.
“I’ve never been the best at making nice. Plus, I like the quiet.” There was something else there that Koll didn’t want said. Gwyn knew what that was like, to dance around a question.
“Come here often?”
“Most days. The owners recently got engaged, it’s a happy place. Helps me cope.” Koll’s eye twitched after he spoke, Gwyn knew he had said something he hadn’t meant to. She latched onto that, for her own curiosity and the sake of her job. A loner wasn’t a good target, they tended to have few emotional attachments.
Koll grew sullen. He kept his composure, but Gwyn could see it in his eyes. That look of tortured remembrance.
“I didn’t mean to say that. Sorry, but I’d rather not talk about it. Kind of defeats the whole purpose of coming here to get away from it all.”
Gwyn gave him the most innocent face she could muster as she played with a loose strand of hair. Inside, a storm of frustration began to brew.
“I disagree. I’ve found it helps to talk. There’re some things you can only tell a stranger.”
Koll looked into her eyes and she felt a flicker of panic. Could he see what was underneath? She dove into the depths of her memories and found the ones she had stuffed away. The ones she had tied to rocks and sank to the deepest recesses. For the briefest moment, she let Koll see that part even she feared to look at. He nodded and took a long drink from his flagon.
“You have experience in this, don’t you?”
If only he knew. “Tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine.”
“I lost my wife and son when giants raided my old town. They struck just after dawn, when I was collecting my traps. I couldn’t do anything.” Koll paused and sighed deeply. “The whole town was destroyed. I salvaged what I could and headed west, wound up here. Now, I work, and then I drink—try to forget.”
“My condolences,” Gwyn said. She meant it. It was a terrible thing to lose a family, it was something she had capitalized on time and time again. But more than that, she could feel that storm within her swirling about. Without a family to go back to, Koll might not be worth her time. After all, she had promised the ebon mage something truly tragic. She looked around the tavern and tried to see if there was some way to salvage the situation.
She looked at the group of men, happily drunk. A few other customers sat by the bar or in pairs at tables. No physical contact between any of them, just a group of strangers and friends. Nothing powerful enough for her purposes. Then, she watched a woman exit the kitchen and stroke the bartender’s arm. He turned to her and Gwyn saw it in the woman’s eyes. Love.
She had a way out. Her heart sank.
“It’s okay, I won’t pressure you to share if you don’t want to.” Koll said gently.
“Hmm? Oh. Apologies, I just got lost in a thought. No, I’ll share, it was part of the deal. Before I do, you said that the owners just got married?”
“Aye, that’s them there,” Koll pointed towards the bartender and the woman. “Why?”
“Nothing. I just had a thought.” Gwyn squeezed the hilt of her cursed dagger. Some part of her was excited to share her woes with Koll. No one had ever asked about them before.
“I’m not a bad person. At least, I don’t think I am, deep down. I do bad things, but I know they’re bad. I think if I was truly evil, I wouldn’t care. But I do. Everyone has those thoughts that crop up from time to time, right? The ones you immediately dismiss because you know they’re wrong.” She paused and waited for Koll to react. He nodded, his expression uneasy. His hand had slipped back towards his waist.
“I’ve always been gifted—or cursed, depending on who you ask. It changes you, to have power. Those crazy ideas stop seeming crazy once you can actually do them. I remember the first time I made someone kill. That was the hardest one. It taught me that there’s a big difference between thinking about something and actually doing it. Even when I was planning it, even while I was searching for a victim, it was all just a thought experiment. It wasn’t until the screaming started that it hit me. Four lives, destroyed because I thought it would make me stronger. It did. Gods, it did; but I didn’t sleep for a week. Even now I can hear those screams. Children should never have to scream like that.”
Gwyn reached across the table, took Koll’s flagon and drained the last few drops within. She hadn’t expected it all to come out like that, though she supposed it had been a long time coming. She kept her eyes on him the whole time. She willed the liquor to drown out the screams in her head, but she had untethered them, and they would stay on the surface for a long while.
Koll said nothing. He drew his dagger and placed it on the table. His posture had shifted dramatically. He was ready to fight.
“I’ve never told anyone that before. Thank you, for making me share,” Gwyn paused. The question she had always wanted to ask lingered on her tongue. She had never had anyone who could really answer it before. As terrified of the answer as she was, she couldn’t help herself. The words just slipped out. “Do you…think I’m a monster?”
She regretted asking as soon as she saw his eyes. They were hardened and wary, like he was staring down a bear rather than her. There was fear, yes, but mainly there was disgust. She recognized it immediately, it was why she avoided her reflection.
“Yes.” Koll whispered.
It was different hearing it from a stranger. A confirmation of something she had never truly wanted confirmed. She wondered where the girl who loved collecting herbs and working with papa had gone. She wondered what she would think if she saw her now.
Gwyn knew what she would think. She would scream, it’s what all children do when they see monsters. And if she was a monster, then she would act like a monster.
“Thank you, for being honest.” Gwyn and Koll moved at the same time, both lunging forward with their blades. Koll faltered when he saw hers coming towards him faster. The red Winter Crystal, jagged, throbbing, tore into his skin.
Other witches needed their cursetomes and time to prepare to cast their more intricate spells, but Gwyn had never been adept at such complicated magic. Instead, all of her curses had been carved into her cursed dagger, and all she needed to do was expel the power necessary to trigger them. She triggered her preferred curse with a release of power, her damnation of this innocent man. He had become the star of a new tragedy, and she was the skald who sung his tale. Her employer would have his bloodbath, and she would have her nightmares. It was just the way things were. Like a breaking dam, the curse smashed its way through Koll’s psyche, powered by necessity and desperation and everything Gwyn hated she had become.
Koll began to twitch, his light blue eyes filling with red energy much like blood meeting water. The veins on his neck pulsed with the same cardinal power. Months-worth of murderous rage flooded through Koll, overwhelming him with a need to kill everyone besides Gwyn.
Gwyn shut her eyes and gripped her curseblade tight. “Start with the husband, please.”
It would be easy to close herself off. Death was death, and she’d seen plenty—caused plenty of it too. But she needed to feel it, the raw pain and heartache she remembered from her first time killing. It was her source of power. She opened herself to it, she embraced the part of her who was still that young girl with pigtails and a gummy smile, and let her sins wash over her.
She didn’t watch him rise and walk towards the bartender, knife quivering, slavering. She heard metal sink into flesh and the shocked outcries of the nearby patrons. Something wet hit the floor, a lot of it, then something heavy and solid.
I did this, I did this, I did this. She thought as she let everything she felt flow back into her cursed dagger. If I had just said no, that man would still be alive.
The smacking of fist and flesh, then the ripping of cloth and skin and a howl of terror and pain; the cry of someone experiencing their first grievous wound.
They would try and stop him, they always did. He would watch, unreachable, trapped in his own mind as he watched his body rip and tear through anything in his path. It was worse that way, knowing he was watching his own body self-destruct. Worse for both of them. Gwyn imagined how he felt, forced to commit these terrors, feeling every blow he landed and was landed upon him.
She wanted to picture the ends of her means, but forced herself back to the present. She couldn’t let herself escape or justify, it would defeat the purpose.
A tear escaped its prison. It ran down her face as she heard the wife scream. Koll snarled in response and there was the sound of crashing wood and cracking bone. The wife’s screams went from grief to pain to something transcending both. It was its own language, the screams of the dying. The way they could encapsulate the fevered amalgamation of emotions they were feeling in one exhalation. The way each one stayed with you, like the notes of some hellish instrument.
The copper tinge was assailing her nose now, mixed with ale and fear. The whole tavern was in an uproar, pairs of boots stomping up and down. Some towards the exit, some towards the raving madman at the center of the panic.
She could picture his wife and son watching over him. She could see them if she closed her eyes tight enough. Clutching each other and trying just like her not to see or hear or smell.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to them. To herself. She pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped herself in her cloak. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Curses and prayers confused the air, colliding off one another so that none of them found their way to the right person. Underneath the panic, Koll’s ragged breathing and frothing snarls flew across the room.
Flesh hit flesh and metal and flesh and metal and flesh. Screams turned to whimpers or silence or the wheezing gasps of severed windpipes and punctured lungs. Still, men and women fought the beast Gwyn had created.
They were so brave. They could have fled but instead they tried to stop the madness. She wished she could be on the other side. Things were much clearer there. Here was a monster that needed slaying, let’s go slay it for the good of all. Where she was it was all muddy. It wasn’t gray. It was never gray. Gray got lighter eventually. It was black and red, a vortex of selfishness and loneliness and hate and death.
Gwyn let out a sob and the taste of slaughter forced its way down her mouth, laid against her tongue and pinned it down with its chilling acridity.
Like wine, she let those ugly, raw things—regret and guilt and shame and fear—ferment, consume her wholly and fully. Only then were they distilled, the essence of what made them powerful siphoned into her cursed dagger for future use, the catalyst of whatever foul hex or curse she needed. Still, even after the power entered the blade, she was left with the husks, her forever-burden.
The tavern had gone quiet save the sound of a single, begging man. She focused on his pleas. He was weak, but he wanted to live. She could feel it in each word, that pure desire to wake up the next morning. She reminded herself that if he had truly wanted to live, he would have found a way. That part was the real her. No matter how the guilt drowned the rest of her, Gwyn knew she could rely on that part. The cold, animalistic sliver of her spirit that had forced her into this dark world with the sole purpose of making it darker, all so she could have a chance to be free. The monster hiding in the skin of a scared girl. The part that got what it wanted no matter the cost. The part that relished the power. The part that ignored the pain. The part that grew a bit more every day.
She shuddered in rhythm to his squeals until they were silenced by a wet crack. It seemed to be over. She shoved that traumatized little girl inside down into the depths and opened her eyes. It was a scene she had seen many times now. Bodies in various pieces, wooden floors dyed red, each victim’s face frozen in fear. Business as usual. Her cursed dagger filled to the brim, she subdued as much of the emotion as she could. Bits floated to the surface, but not faster than she could push them down again.
Gwyn wiped the last tear from her cheek and rose from her seat. Across the tavern, Koll turned his head to the noise.
His body was ruined. Koll was dead, his body was nothing more than a sack of meat fueled by rage and black magic. His head had been cracked open, a nasty gash covered his entire face in blood. His chest was a mangled mass of broken ribs and a knife was stuck in his right lung, while an axe had buried itself in his shoulder.
The two locked eyes, and what used to be Koll broke the gaze. He shuffle-stalked around the tavern as Gwyn walked to the wife and examined her. The woman was still alive, although just barely. She sat leaning on the side of the bar, breaths infrequent and ragged. As Gwyn approached, the dying woman gave no indication she was aware of Gwyn’s presence. Instead, she just stared at her husband’s corpse with fading eyes.
Gwyn caught a glimmer of a necklace tucked under her neckline. She squatted to be level with the woman, and the movement caught her attention.
“Help me,” she said softly, a trickle of blood running from her mouth. “Please.”
“Your necklace, is it important to you?” Gwyn asked, ignoring the plea.
“I’ll help you, but you need to answer my question first. Is your necklace important to you?”
“Ogmund gave it to me as a wedding gift,” she said, looking towards her husband. “Why?”
Gwyn leaned down and started to unclasped it.
“No, please,” she begged. She tried to shake Gwyn off, but was too weak to truly resist. “We store the money beneath the bar. Take that, but please let me keep it.”
The woman moved a bloodied hand to her neck and pinned the jewelry in place. Gwyn grunted in frustration as she tore the dying woman’s hand away.
“You want to live? Stop fighting,” Gwyn threatened. The woman didn’t need her making it harder than it already was.
That changed the woman’s attitude. She hung her head and let Gwyn slip the necklace off. Gwyn had seen nicer pieces before, but even covered in blood she could tell it was special. She flipped it over and saw two pairs of initials carved with diligent care. Her employer was especially fond of necklaces and amulets. She let it dangle from her hand and opened herself to the emotion surrounding her. Immediately she could feel the power emanating from the necklace. All of the fear and pain and shock the wife and all the other inhabitants of the tavern had felt had imprinted upon the necklace. It was exactly what she had been looking for.
“Go outside and run wild.” Gwyn told Koll. The ruined man grinned with savage enlightenment, like the idea hadn’t occurred to him yet. “Please try and kill the ones with weapons first.” Koll shuffled towards the door and pushed it open.
“Did you…do this?” The wife asked.
Gwyn knelt back down to her level and looked her in her eyes. “Yes.”
The woman tried to say something, but the words caught in her throat. Her eyes conveyed it through. Gwyn had been around covens long enough to sense powerful emotions, and the hate she felt radiating from this dying woman was staggering. If the woman had been a witch, Gwyn doubted her ability to defend against whatever spell would come from such an outpouring of rage. Those kind of spells were the ones that warped the world around them. The ones that conjured Witching Moons. The ones that terrified towns so much they greeted witches with a noose.
But she was no witch, just some unlucky woman. As quickly as it had come, the rage faded, and so did her spirit. Her head slumped and whatever air was left in her lungs slipped quietly from her mouth.
Already, the fury that had been in her eyes was seared into Gwyn’s mind. Another outpouring of regret flowed into her cursed dagger. She pocketed the necklace and turned towards the door.
She heard the sounds of feeble breathing and the clinking of chains. There was a grunt, a crack, and then silence. It seemed the town guard had finally shown up and Koll had met his end. Gwyn messed up her hair and made her posture as meek as possible, she could easily pass off as a survivor.
“That man was under a curse, we’ve got a witch on our hands. Don’t let anyone leave until I talk with them.”
Gwyn cursed. She peeked out the window to see three guards, one of whom had the telltale hammer and shield of a steward. Gwyn swore again, she hadn’t thought the town large enough to have a steward.
It would delay her, but she would have to deal with them. She couldn’t be spotted at the scene or her operation would be at risk. She drew her dagger and gave it a flourish, she was at the height of her power, and they weren’t prepared—this wouldn’t take long. The two town guards, a man and a woman, flanked the door, while the steward stayed back. She drew her hood and slipped on her red facemask, then pushed open the door.
She charged the first guard, moving in low. She took some of the power from her blade and channeled it into her other hand. She slashed her hand across her chest and released the magic, summoning in several shadowy ravens that assailed the man’s face. Gwyn paused for a moment and waited for the man to swing his blade at the ravens, and then rushed into his blind spot and drove the dagger under and up his jaw.
She spun and pulled the blade out just in time to parry a thrust from the other guard’s sword. Gwyn pushed the blade away and took a small step towards the woman, slashing at her chest. The guard blocked it with her armored forearm. If it had been a normal dagger, the guard would have gotten away with a minor wound at worst, but the red Winter Crystal cut through the leather effortlessly, and Gwyn let just a bit of power seep into the woman in the form of one of her favorite hexes. Before the woman could tell what fate had befelled her, Gwyn slashed again, this time blocked by the sword. Two more slashes and the woman was forced to once again block with her forearm. Gwyn smirked as the guard’s sword clattered to the ground and she started screaming. The flesh on her arms had blackened, turning to a wispy dust that reveal charcoal-colored bones.
Gwyn put the woman out of her misery with a quick slash to the throat, and heard the whistling of a hammer behind her. She launched herself into the dying guard, knocking them both to the ground as the steward’s hammer collided with frozen dirt. Gwyn rolled off the ground a pounced at the steward, slashing at his wrist.
The man knew what he was doing, and released his grip on the hammer. Now, mere inches separated their chests, and Gwyn drove a knee up at his sternum. She grimaced in pain as her knee instead collided with his shield. His fist tagged her jaw and she spun away, clutching her face. The steward once again moved to grab the hammer and Gwyn slashed at him. The cursed dagger carved a line in the wooden shield as the steward hunkered behind it.
He pushed the shield into her legs and she toppled backwards. She recovered before him and leapt into the air, intending to drive her dagger straight through the shield with her body weight. Something metal flashed in the moonlight as she leapt. Internally, Gwyn cursed. When he had pushed her, it had given him just enough time to grab the sword next to his leg.
She plunged the dagger into the shield and angled her body to roll out of the way of the oncoming blade. Instead of flesh, the sword found only the fabric of her hood. The steward’s chain mail was able to absorb most of the blow, and only the tip of the cursed dagger found purchase in his flesh. Fortunately, that was all Gwyn needed. The wither hex that had spelled the end of the other woman began to rot away the steward’s chest. Gwyn pulled her dagger free and wiped it clean as the steward died, his heart now black dust.
She didn’t look back as she ducked into a nearby alley and swiftly made her way out of the town, which had become abuzz with the ringing of bells and cries of sleep-addled confusion. Even after the use of some of her more powerful hexes, she still felt fresh and brimming with occult might.
She heard the fluttering of wings to her right, and looked to see a raven perched on the limb of a barren tree. Gwyn nodded at the bird and it cawed twice before hopping to the next tree. She followed the bird off the path into the forest. After a minutes-long foray into the dark underbrush, the bird led her to a clearing.
Waiting for her was a man in dark leathers, decorative plumes of raven feathers adorning both shoulders. A thin beard ran along his chin, just a bit too thick to truly be stubble. Along his cheeks were etched ritualistic scars, blackened with occult magic.
“Raud,” Gwyn said in greeting. The two had known each other for years, the two standouts of that particular coven. Raud had gone on to lead it, while Gwyn had simply gone on with her life. She enjoyed working alone, though it was nice to know she’d always have a place, should she wish to return. They were by no means friends, she wasn’t sure she could make friends anymore—and doubted Raud’s ability equally—but they had kept a professional relationship.
“Gwyn,” Raud replied. “It appears you’ve caused quite a fuss.”
“It was a messy one,” she said as she took the necklace from her pocket. She tossed it into the air and a raven materialized from the forest to catch it. The bird flew to Raud and dropped the necklace into his gauntleted hand. Gwyn couldn’t tell whether the raven was real or simply a conjuration.
“I can feel the power. It will make for a fine artifact.”
“It’s what I do. Now, the payment we discussed?”
Raud pulled a small tome from his leathers and gave it to the raven, who flew it over to Gwyn. She took it with glee. It was bound in black leather, a book of rituals and incantations few could ever hope to harness. Power for knowledge, a more apt exchange between a curseblade and an ebon mage couldn’t be found.
She flipped open the cover and strained her eyes on the table of contents. With only the moonlight, it took time to read the scrawled text, but near the end she found what she was seeking. There was nothing Gwyn wanted more than to have a seat and read the ritual, but it would prove impossible in such dim light.
“Mind if I ask you something?” Gwyn said as a thought popped into her head.
Gwyn twisted her mouth. The words had slipped out before she really thought about it. Raud was one of the most paranoid individuals she had ever met, and her question may turn her from an asset to a liability in his eyes. It was also unprofessional, extremely so. If she was smart, she would leave it be.
“That’s the fourth artifact I’ve given you. Why task me with gathering artifacts if you already have yours?” Again, the words spewed forth whilst she debated asking them.
Raud chuckled. “Because there are very few witches capable of becoming ebon mages, and an even smaller amount of artifacts worthy of the ritual. If I have the artifacts, I control who joins the ranks, and that makes me invaluable. I’m in a position of immense power, and I intend to keep it.”
Gwyn was relieved, she hadn’t expected an actual answer. In fact, she had half-expected he tried to kill her then and there.
“I didn’t think you would actually tell me,” she said. She sighed, she really had to work on her filter.
“I know you better than to think you would tell the other ebon mages.”
“Fair enough,” Gwyn replied. She knew Raud expected their dealings to continue. Gwyn had to ensure he kept that assumption, for her own safety. She finally had the ritual, and the power necessary to complete it. To lose it now would destroy her, and Raud was one of a few in the Skels with enough power to take it from her.
“Those rituals require immense power, I doubt my own ability to complete some of them. Which one are you intending to pursue?” Raud asked.
Gwyn chuckled. “No offense, Raud, but that’s not something I’m going to tell you. Think of it as a compliment. It was a pleasure doing business with you, as always.”
“Of course,” Raud replied. Gwyn began to back into the forest, one eye on Raud at all times.
“If I were looking for a power source, I would go to the Crystal Peaks,” Raud called out.
Gwyn smiled and whispered under her breath. “My thoughts exactly.”