Author’s note: Dark America will return with the next update! This is a brief one-shot inspired by a late-night idea.
Walking past the tavern, I caught sight of a familiar shape inside. Frowning, I pushed open the door, blinking as I tried to adjust to the interior’s dimness.
“Wrynn?” I asked, moving over towards the grizzled man sitting heavily at the bar, scarred knuckles wrapped around his flagon. “What are you doing in here?”
He turned a single eye to fix me, and I felt my spine snap towards attention without any conscious input. Wrynn was the oldest man in the village, and the oldest Gifted that I’d ever met. Others were older, of course – ones like Glass Alice had their own legends built up – but Wrynn was the oldest that I’d actually met.
“What d’you think I’m doing in here?” the old man grunted at me, tightening his shoulders slightly. “Drinking. Trying to get some damn peace and quiet.”
“But…” I paused, wondering briefly if I was intruding on a sensitive area. Wrynn was notoriously close-mouthed, and although he talked to me more than most, I still didn’t feel like I truly knew him. “Don’t you know who’s coming?”
He just kept one eye on me as he lifted the beer to his lips. I waited for him to ask, but finally spoke again to fill the silence.
“Lord War has announced that he’s choosing a new champion from the next town over!” I burst out, unable to hold back my excitement any longer. “Isn’t that amazing? It could be someone I know, one of the Darby brothers, or maybe someone like Cenn!”
“Bloody great,” Wrynn grunted, turning back towards his drink. I saw his lip curl slightly with disgust.
I paused. I’d been about to ask Wrynn why he wasn’t rushing out to watch the crowning of the new champion. After all, this was the biggest thing to happen in the area of Green Lake for… well, maybe as long as I could remember! Certainly the biggest happening of the year. Wouldn’t he want to see another person receive the Gift?
“Why aren’t you excited about it?” I asked.
For a moment, I thought that Wrynn might not respond. Sometimes, he filled with grumpiness and told me to shut up and not dig into things that I didn’t understand. He looked like he was about to shut down this conversation, like so many others – but then, just as I got ready to slide off the stool and head out to watch the crowning without him, he parted his lips.
“Bran!” he called out. “Two more!”
Bran O’Dale, the owner of Bran’s Tavern, came bustling out, wiping his hands on the wide white apron. “Right away, Mr. Wrynn,” he said, grabbing wooden cups from beneath the bar and holding them under the tap until they foamed over with ale. He dropped them in front of Wrynn and retreated without waiting for payment.
Wrynn drained the last of the ale in his cup, and took one of the new arrivals – but pushed the other towards me. “You’ll want this,” he said.
I frowned – I was old enough to drink, now, but why would Wrynn show such uncharacteristic softness by buying me a drink? But as I accepted the other mug, he reached down to undo the button on the long sleeves of his shirt, the shirt he always wore.
“Gifted,” the old man growled as he undid the button and rolled up one sleeve. I looked curiously at him – but the curiosity shifted to horror as my eyes dropped down to look at his exposed forearm. “Bloody stupid name for it.”
Wrynn’s arm looked as if it had been charred in a fire, horribly scarred and twisted. I had to fight the bile that rose in my throat as I saw the twisted and blackened skin, still alive but knotted and horribly mangled. My mouth dropped open, but no words came.
“Take a drink,” the old man commanded, and I did as told. The ale helped calm the gorge burning in the back of my throat.
Wrynn let out a loud sigh, huffing down into his own mug. “Everyone wants to be Gifted,” he said, his words dripping with disgust. “Power, they think. Do what you want, work magic, shape the world.” He shook his head. “Damn idiots, every last one of them.”
“Why?” I wanted to ask a million more questions, but I only could manage the single word; the rest of them ran together and tangled up into a knot before they could leave my tongue.
“Because gettin’ the power is only half the challenge. Everyone thinks about getting it, but no one bothers with controllin’ it.” Wrynn lifted his hand, flexed his fingers. I grimaced at how the charred and twisted skin moved from the action. “They can’t bloody regulate.”
“Regulate?” He’d emphasized that last word.
He looked over at me. “Too much power destroys, boy. The heat of sunlight warms your skin – but a raging bonfire will destroy it. No one’s s’pposed to have too much power running through them. It burns you, like walking through fire.”
“But Lord War – Glass Alice – the Gatekeeper-”
Wrynn snorts at the names of the great Gifted, those of legend. “Lucky fools, the lot of them. They figured out how to regulate before it burned them out completely.” His eyes ran over his tormented skin. “But it still leaves a mark. That much power, it tears you apart from the inside.”
Still not wanting to look straight at it, I nodded towards his arm. “So that is because…?”
“The cost of my Gift.” He tilted his arm back and forth, as if examining the horrible scars for the first time. “And I’m one of the damn lucky ones.”
I still wasn’t fully sure that I understood. So having the Gift wasn’t all perfect – but wasn’t an injured arm worth the ability to work magic? To be able to go out and do great things, have legends and stories be told about you?
I didn’t speak this, but Wrynn clearly read it on my face. “Drink,” he commanded, and I once again did so. “Think about this, boy. Lord War is passing through to crown a champion. Why would he do a damn fool thing like that?”
“Lord War appoints champions to defend his borders, to keep the peace,” I recited, although I sensed that maybe this normal, often-spoken answer might not be what Wrynn wanted to hear.
I guessed correctly. He barked a short, sharp, humorless laugh. “What a load of shit. War’s no fool, much as I wish he was. He’s got his own problems, thankfully big enough for him to not bother with me. But he’s selfish, just fighting to not burn himself out.”
“So he has scars like you?” I asked, trying to imagine Lord War with scars. The man always wore a huge suit of armor, which made him so scary and intimidating that, the first time I saw a woodcut of him, I had nightmares for a week. But was that armor because his skin was scarred underneath?
Wrynn shrugged. “Everyone regulates in their own way. But War’s feeling the pain, I’m guessing. So instead of doing all his own work, he hands it off to these ‘champions.’ Let them kill themselves for him.”
I thought about the complex game with the many pieces, that Wrynn had spent so many nights teaching me to play. “They’re pawns for him,” I exclaimed. “He’s like the queen, but he doesn’t want to use his powers all the time ’cause it makes him vulnerable, so he makes pawns instead!”
For an instant, Wrynn gave me a rare smile, and I beamed as I knew that I’d hit the mark. “More like the king than the queen, but yeah,” he approved. “Smart, kid.”
“So you don’t want to see him crown a new champion because that person will just be a pawn?” The thought made me annoyed, almost angry. Lord War watched over us, but shouldn’t he tell the people he chose as champions that the Gift came with strings? Or did he, and they just never told the rest of us?
The smile had vanished from Wrynn’s face. “That’s not why I’m not watching,” he said softly.
“But why, then?”
Slowly, he began pulling his sleeve back down to cover his burned forearm, his thick fingers fumbling slightly with the button at the end. “Think about it, boy. I’ve figured out how to regulate, and I still look like I take baths in the hearth while the fire’s still burning.”
He turned his eyes on me, and I shrank back from the intensity of that burning gaze. “So Lord War’s picking some idiot with no experience with a Gift,” he roared, spitting out the words like coals. “What do you think happens if that idiot can’t regulate? What happens when you pour molten iron into a weak wooden cast?”
I opened my mouth, still confused – but then it hit me, and my blood went cold in my veins for a second. If Wrynn’s scars were when such power of a Gift was under control, then when it wasn’t, how would it…
A new sound slammed into me, a booming rumble so deep that it made every bone vibrate inside my body. I felt my eyes vibrate in my skull, the sound so deep that it seemed about to shake me apart. It sounded like had come from a great distance away, but if it was so loud as to deafen me here, what could it possibly be? It was like the world itself had just opened its mouth to moan.
I slammed my palms over my ears, trying to block it out. I couldn’t tell if covering my ears had any effect, but the sound mercifully died away, and I could finally hear again. I slowly sat up from where I’d pressed my head down against the bar, felt my panting begin to subside.
Wrynn sighed. One elbow pushed my half-drunk beer back towards me. “Finish it, kid,” he said, a curious note of emotion in his voice.
I took the mug. “What was that?” I asked, softly and unsteadily, as I lifted the mug towards my lips with trembling fingers, trying not to spill too badly.
Wrynn didn’t speak for a second. “Damn kid couldn’t regulate,” he said, and tossed back the rest of his own drink.
I didn’t want to ask anything more. I just sat beside the old Gifted, finishing the drink he’d bought me and trying not to think about Cenn, or the Darby brothers, or anyone else I knew who’d gone to watch the chosen receive his Gift.