Maker of Woes

Find the last story in the saga here.


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 The man sat in the corner of the inn, withdrawn from the welcoming flames of the hearth.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.


“Cope?”


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.


“Your turn.”


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 compli