One hour previously...
Gwen was fast asleep in bed on top of the covers. An arsenal of guns and ammunition was spread out beside her. Four empty 9mm pistols laid across the patchwork quilt. At her feet lay a 12 gauge shotgun. Her right hand rested on the pillow by her face, clutching a 9mm magazine. Finally, a hunting knife lay on her nightstand.
Her soft, white sun dress was discarded on the floor, replaced with a more rugged outfit. Having liberated a set of clothing from the security team's abandoned van, Gwen now wore a black, leather jacket, unzipped, with a white shirt beneath; all magically altered to fit. A rugged pair of leather pants and solid looking boots completed the ensemble. Her long, red hair was done back in a tight braid.
Agravian tilted his head to the side looking at the firearms. He reached down and picked up one of the pistols. Peering down into the barrel, he heard a click from the bed.
Gwen was sitting up with a loaded pistol aimed at him in both hands.
Groggily, she registered the shadowy figure of Agravian unwittingly aiming a gun at himself. "I wouldn't do that, if I were you," she advised.
As Agravian replaced the gun, she noticed him inadvertently pull the trigger back.
Good thing I didn't leave that loaded, she thought. Gun safety for the win.
Gwen sat down heavily. She'd woken up abruptly, sensing someone else was in the room. The rush of adrenaline she'd had was gone now.
"Good morning, m'lady," Agravian said, with a small bow.
Her eyes narrowed to slits.
"Good morning," she replied bitterly. She set about checking the safeties on her pistols and loading them with magazines.
Agravian watched silently as Gwen gathered the weapons together, slinging her shotgun into the holster behind her back. The pistols she slid into holsters at her belt and on her upper thighs. Finally she sheathed the hunting knife in her belt.
Agravian pointed, politely maintaining his distance, "What are these? 'Guns', you said?"
"Yes, they're guns," she said shortly. Glaring at him she continued, "They're... weapons. Just don't touch them."
She took a deep breath and folded her arms.
"Let's get this over with."
"You are upset with me," he said, posing it as a question faintly.
She paused in the middle of zipping up her jacket to gave him an astounded look
"Are you for real?"
He tilted his head again, considering her words.
"I suspect you are using modern slang. No one has ever asked if I am 'real' or not," he said, stroking his chin.
His form was still naught but shadow, giving Gwen cause to believe this question was actually rather valid, considering.
"Okay," Gwen said taking a deep breath. His casual demeanor was grating her last nerve. "The last time I saw you, you shoved a hand straight through my chest. You turned me into a shadow creature. And when I tried to say something to my father-in-law about all of this, my mind shut down!" her voice became steadily louder, screaming the last words at him.
She drew in shaky, angry breaths. Realizing her teeth were clenched, she forced them apart and said, practically in a growl, "Just open the damn gate already."
She thought she could see his wispy form wince.
"Please, calm down, m'lady, your anger is very taxing," he said, placing a hand on his forehead.
"Taxing?!" she shouted in disbelief. She was taxing him? After everything she'd been through in the past twelve hours; the fear, the not knowing, the waiting, and here he had the gall...
Agravian stumbled to the bed and sat down heavily, muttering quietly to himself.
Gwen wasn't sure, but she thought she heard him whisper something about 'women' somewhere in his mutterings.
Agravian indicated a spot beside him with a hand.
"Please, sit and," he tried to say his next words in as delicate a tone as possible, "try not to become emotional."
Gwen glowered at the shadow man, but sat beside him.
"I have not been in the company of others in some time. Forgive me, I've been socially indelicate," he slouched forward into a comfortable position.
"I owe you a great many explanations. To begin with," he snatched the knife from her belt in the blink of an eye. Holding it up his left hand, he slashed the knife across his palm.
Gwen clutched her left hand in pain. Carefully, she removed her right hand and looked down at the cradled palm. To her surprise, her skin was pale and unmarred.
Agravian returned her knife.
"My mark," he said, his voice as echoing and unearthly as always, "is the sign of our contract. With it comes a bond."
"I didn't agree to be part of any contract," Gwen said decisively.
"You wouldn't need to, this particular contract is one-sided. It is my burden, not yours."
"I feel your pain though... what happens to me if you die?"
He chuckled. The sound was oddly disconcerting due to his shadow voice.
"I am exceptionally hard to kill. But, if I did perish, you would experience extreme discomfort, but be otherwise whole. My runes would fade and our contract would be at an end."
Gwen swallowed. Her anger was gone now, replaced with uneasiness. Talking to a shadow was, well, eerie to say the least.
"Who, and what, are you?" she asked
"Your people call my race 'Shadow Assassins'."
Agravian looked away, lost in thought, Gwen sensed.
Startled, she realized she wasn't making an astute observation. She could actually feel his mind empathically.
"The Otherworld can wait for us a little longer," he said, coming to a decision. "I will tell you a story. Long ago, human wizards ventured into The Otherworld for the first time. They found it both beautiful and terrible. Some groups of humans sought to establish cities. They had no idea what manner of beasts lurked in the dark."
Gwen felt a slight chill.
"My people feasted upon many souls. Human souls were unique, the taste unparalleled."
Gwen surreptitiously rested a hand on the pistol furthest from Agravian.
"Of all the denizens that attacked the human settlements, shadow assassins were the most feared and abhorred. A group of wizards calling themselves 'The Inquisitors' emerged."
Though he looked placid, she could feel a seething, overwhelming hatred emanate from him. The feeling was so powerful, hearing the word 'Inquisitor', made her dizzy with anger.
"My race was far from innocent. However, we had lived there long before the wizards came, and we only did what came naturally to us. The Inquisitors hunted us down, murdering every man, woman and child."
Gwen fought down the fury rising up inside of her. She understood all too well why he had emphatically referred to her emotions as 'taxing'.
"Declaring humans the only 'pure' race, they devote their existence to the extermination of all other beings."
Gwen found this information shocking. School had never mentioned anything like it. Was this in later history books, or did witches and wizards do their best to forget it, she wondered.
She felt underneath all of his anger a wave of frightful loneliness.
"How many of you are left?" she asked quietly.
"I am the last. As far as I know," he replied distantly.
"I was nearly executed by a group of Inquisitors when I was young. I barely managed to escape, but I was badly injured. That was the day I met Talfryn."
A warm feeling of nostalgia made Gwen smile wistfully.
"I had crawled into a dark alley to escape the men pursuing me. I was trying to blend with the shadows, but my strength was waning. A light snow was falling. I hadn't realized that my blood had left a trail to me on the white snow."
Gwen felt a tear roll down her cheek.
"With no family left to return to, no one left of my race, I began to bitterly laugh. Fighting so hard for my survival, I felt, was a joke. I had nothing to survive for. And at that moment, I looked up and saw Talfryn."
Closing her eyes, Gwen could just see a tall, angular man with dark hair. He was dressed in black furs and splendid robes.
"I smiled up at him, thinking he had come to end my suffering. My own dark angel of death, come to kill me there in the dark, with the snow falling around us."
He grew silent.
"What happened next?" Gwen asked quietly, her curiosity unbearable.
"To my surprise, he took me into his home and placed me under the protection of his house. His family nursed me back to health. He was willing to risk his life and his station to protect a 'shadow assassin'. Touched by his kindness, I swore to protect his family until the day I died. He was the first human I granted my mark."
He chuckled to himself.
"When he would take his shadow form, Talfryn would jokingly call himself the 'Shade of Shetlock'."
Gwen's eyes widened in wonder.
"Sorry, Shetlock was the name of the human settlement there," he explained.
Shetlock... she whispered in her mind. Then she recalled Aloysius' signature:
16th Viscount Montague
Shade of Shetlock
"You swore to protect the Grabiners," she said in astonishment.
"In honor of Talfryn Grabiner. The first Viscount Montague. I have protected many generations of his house. My race is long-lived compared to your own."
"This mark..." she said, pointing to her chest where the runes had appeared last night. "You only share it with Grabiners?"
He nodded once more.
"Then, honestly, why me? Why not Aloysius or Hieronymous?"
"Do you remember when I told you, I needed your assistance with a very dangerous matter?"
"Yes..." she said with trepidation.
"What you see before you is not my real body. This is a shadow projection. My race can blend with shadows and use shadow magic, but our normal form looks human. My physical body is imprisoned. I sleep in the same location as your husband, Lord Grabiner. I need you to set me free."
Gwen looked at him incredulously.
"Why are you in prison? Did you devour someone's soul?" she asked, sickened.
"Would you eat a chicken or a cow if you could hold a conversation with one?"
"There's your answer."
She eased her hand off of her pistol, content in the knowledge that he would not be trying to eat her soul. Their psychic link seemed to afford her the ability to tell if he was lying or being truthful. She sighed, wondering where she had went wrong in life that her morning musings included such thoughts as, no, he's not going to eat my soul, I can psychically tell the 1,000ish year old, imprisoned shadow assassin is telling the truth. Other people my age are wondering if they want a summer job in cashiering or not, she thought with a small pang of envy.
"I imprisoned myself," Agravian continued.
"Come again?" Gwen asked, doing a double take.
"The Inquisitors threatened the family of the fifth Viscount Montague. They demanded I be put to death. Instead, I imprisoned myself with the help of a woman named Camise Grabiner. I slumbered, content the family would wake me if they had need of my protection. This satisfied the Inquisitors, though they were vexed that they could not kill me. But they left the family in peace."
"I'm still not sure how I fit into all of this," Gwen said, frowning.
"I was sealed by a member of house Grabiner, hence, only a member of the house can release me."
His explanation for being imprisoned felt honest, but she could only conclude one reason for his coming to her instead of the other two men of the family.
"And you thought, 'only Gwen could possibly be that naive and trusting', was that it?" she asked in irritation.
Honestly, you unnecessarily rescue a man from a manus, get forced into marrying him, and you never hear the end of it! she thought in a huff.
Gwen was surprised to hear Agravian snickering quietly at her.
"What?" she demanded, glaring at him.
"Apologies, m'lady, but you are amusing. I didn't come to you because I thought you were either 'naive' or 'trusting'. Two nights ago I was able to project my shadow for the first time in a long while. I watched as you recklessly attacked the smug, contemptible manus ten times your superior in power to save your husband. And forced him to yield. In that moment, I felt us... kindred," he said with pride.
Gwen couldn't help but smile at the complement.
"I gave you my mark to protect you, not to anger or frighten you. You are of house Grabiner, and I would see no evil befall you. I thoroughly wish it was not necessary to ask you to journey into my realm. My mark will help protect you, granting you speed and grace. You will be able to meld with shadows and become immune to the effects of white magic. But until I am free, you cannot make use of my powers."
Gwen blew a loose strand of red hair away from her eye.
"Alright, Agravian. I think... I trust you. But, tell me, why can't I say your name to others?"
"It's dangerous to say my name with magic. My mark prevents it, for your protection. The Inquisitors are always listening. Anything relating to me cannot be said magically."
Gwen felt a chill along her spine. She'd assumed these so-called "Inquisitors" were a thing of the past, not the present.
"You're afraid," he said directly.
"Yeah... Despite how I'm dressed, I don't feel like Lara Croft. I don't want to be a hero. Heroes get killed," she whispered, hugging her knees.
"I agree," he said. "But you aren't a hero, you are an assassin. And rest assured, no one has ever called a shadow assassin a hero."
Gwen smiled faintly, feeling slightly reassured.
"Why did you agree to go?" he asked, intrigued.
"You know, that's something I've been asking myself a lot. And, I expect it's because..." she paused, flicking the tail of her braid apprehensively, "I couldn't live with myself if I didn't try."
She looked at him, her brow creased. Her feelings were all tangled up. She was terrified of dying, embarrassed that he could sense her fear, and self-conscious that her emotions were probably overwhelming him.
Gently, the shadow assassin draped a reassuring arm around her and let her rest her head on his shoulder. His shadow form felt cool and oddly supportive.
"Lady Grabiner," his echoing shadow voice said, squeezing her in a small hug, "my people have a saying in times like these. 'Cheat death, for the bastard will surely try to cheat you.' Let us cheat death together this day."
"Alright," she smiled, grateful she could steel herself with his confidence through their link.
She stood up, smoothing her jacket and hair.
"You are the first woman I've granted my mark. It's... unique," he said playfully mocking her.
"Ohhh, I pity you once a month," she said diabolically. "We'll be hitting the Rocky Road ice cream together," she added with an impish smile. "Unless we can block out this empathy, somehow?"
"Yes, proximity makes it difficult, but it's easy at a dist-" he broke off mid-sentence.
"We have to go. Now," he said urgently.
After a chant and a wave of his hand, the lock of the Spiral Gate fell away and Gwen raced through the gate.
Agravian's form melted away, his shadow projection spent from opening the gate.