📜Tales from the Path: The Stories of Gwent's Journeys

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This thread is an archive for Gwent's Journey stories:
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Journey I: The Witcher and the Bard

Principle writer: Magdalena Kucenty. Principle editor: Jason Slama.​
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Journey II: Meditations by the Fire

Principle writer: Magdalena Kucenty. Principle editor: Jason Slama.​
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Journey III: Wayfarers at the Crossroads

Principle writer: Alex Sutton. Principle editor: Jason Slama. Editor: Magdalena Kucenty.​
Contributing consultant: Riven-Twain.​
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Journey IV: The Legend of Yennefer by Nimue

-Illustrations by Katarzyna Bekus and Sandra Chlewińska​
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Journey V: The Tale of Triss by Condwiramurs i

-Illustrations by Katarzyna Bekus and Sandra Chlewińska​

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Journey VI: Alissa Henson of Aretuza
Principle writer: Alex Sutton

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Journey VII: Regis

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From 2019: Novigrad Confidential: The Journal of Walter Veritas
Principle writer: Jason Slama. Consultant: Riven-Twain.
 
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Journey I: The Witcher and the Bard

Chapter 1.


DANDELION
Dandelion was fighting.

The alcohol he had drunk was still pulsating in his veins, dulling his senses. Throbbing pain reverberated deep inside his skull. His heavy breathing marked the rhythm of his torment.

The bard cursed under his breath. His nausea only agreed to relent once the vodka had been forcefully purged. Despite his best efforts, the sheets became victims of this cleansing. So he cursed once more whilst panting heavily until finally making a hesitant step from his bed. Then another despite his feet dancing strangely on the floor with questionable stability. The thirst grabbed him by the throat.

He scrambled for a jug of water whilst attempting to recall the previous evening.

The spring festival, an age-long tradition stolen from the elves, attracted many to the small city of Gulet. It was a pompous celebration with copious amounts of booze and food, yet, it lacked refined entertainment. Until the local mayor decided to pay a young poet for his renowned talents…
Not enough, thought Dandelion, licking the last droplets of water from the jug's edge.
Definitely not enough.

GERALT
Geralt was fighting.

The potions he had drunk were still lingering in his veins, sharpening his senses. Last night the damp air clung to his lungs. His heavy breathing marking the rhythm of his strikes.

The witcher cursed vehemently as he struggled to strike the creature’s scale-covered flesh. Having finally hit the mark, the wounded creature retreated; diving swiftly underwater; somehow vanishing despite its large size. So he cursed once more whilst panting heavily, until finally taking a hesitant step forward. Then another despite the thick sludge clinging aggressively to his legs. Something slithery crawled into his boot, sending chills deep into his bones.
He barely managed to turn around as black water gushed out behind his back.

The giant vypper, surely as old as the surrounding swamp, had been hunting around Gulet for years. For years it had been killing, growing in size and hardening it’s now rigid scales. Until the local mayor decided to pay a witcher to end its rampage…
Not enough, Geralt thought, evading a stream of toxic venom.
Definitely not enough.

Chapter 2.

DANDELION
The mayor’s daughter flinched in disgust at the sight of the monstrous mess. Still, she entered further into the chamber in which her father housed their guest. She stopped after reaching the bed and cast a meaningful look at Dandelion.

He was accustomed to others looking down their nose at him after witnessing such a trifle. This, however, did not deter him from unleashing a rather charming smile. In fact, it would be hard to find a smile more disarming than Dandelions.
But the mayor's daughter sighed with resignation.

Furthermore, she surprised him with her frigidity as she cut straight to the matter of his performance at the spring festival. She proclaimed that there must be no shortage of poetry and singing - and that his young and, in her humble opinion, questionable talent would be no excuse for failing to provide.
Dandelion glanced at her rather disappointing bosom, about which he had already started composing a spiteful ballad.
He grinned once more.

GERALT
The mayor flinched in disgust at the sight of the monstrous trophy. Still, he peeked curiously into the gaping jaw and tried to count the vypper's teeth. He gave up after thirty-something, casting a meaningful glance at Geralt.

The witcher shrugged. Officials such as the mayor often searched for excuses to skimp on payment. It was, however, hard to argue results after having had a vypper’s head slung directly onto your desk.

Thus the mayor of Gulet paid without any hesitation.

In fact, he even showed some unusual hospitality towards the witcher, painting a tempting picture of the local spring festival. The streets would flow with boundless alcohol and succulent meats within arms reach. Furthermore, the performance of a talented young poet was planned. So the mayor insisted; “Relax, enjoy our culture at its finest”.

Geralt took a long look at the bloodied head, which had already begun filling the office with a repugnant stench.
He shrugged once more.

Chapter 3.

DANDELION
After reaching the market square, Dandelion made his way directly to the stage prepared for the spectacle. In order to make up for his tardiness, he began stringing his lute commencing his concert unconventionally. He slid past a stocky tradeswoman, who despite his brilliance, didn’t even bother to give him a second look.

One could not say that about the restless crowd forming by the stage.

Excited whispering began as people stepped aside. Even a white-haired fellow, which the learned bard quickly identified as a witcher, respectfully made room for him. The inhabitants of Gulet seemed capable of recognizing a virtuoso, even before hearing him! Splendid! Dandelion took a deep bow, sweeping the cobblestones with the heron feather on his hat.

Then, he fulfilled the silent wish of the crowd.

He swiped his fingers nimbly across the strings of his lute. Both his steps and his melody were mesmerizing all in attendance. Yet it was clearly his majestic voice that finally won the hearts of his audience. By its conclusion, he saw that he managed to achieve the seemingly impossible.
There stood an unfeeling witcher with a tear in his eyes, clearly moved by his poetry.

GERALT
After reaching the market square, Geralt did not immediately search for the stage. First, in order to ensure his merriment, he secured himself the necessities: a bottle of vodka and a ring of sausage. The stocky tradeswoman, who was selling the goods, did not bother to give him a second look.
Clearly an exception.

Whispers from the growing crowd started and people stepped promptly out of his way. Some glanced failing to hide their fear, others gawked openly at the white-haired witcher. Geralt ignored all of them, calmly sipping vodka and eating the greasy sausage.

The sounds of lute began diverting the crowd’s attention.

Music flowed from the direction of the nearby town hall and whoever was playing it, was clearly hungover, as both his steps and his melody were clearly not very rhythmical. However, once he began singing, his voice proved to be quite pleasant, and the song itself, entitled “The Ballad of The Two Tiny Tits”, while crude, was quite amusing. Nonetheless, with the performance concluded, Geralt judged the gastronomical feast as superior to the artistic one.
The sting of the last gulp of vodka brought tears to his eyes.

Chapter 4.

DANDELION
One had to admit that music stimulates the senses. The bard was good with rhymes, knew how to sing, and how to navigate feminine shapes – ergo, he must be the highly desirable type. Oh, how the wenches eagerly displayed their assets to him creating a heated atmosphere that even vodka couldn’t quench.
While Dandelion did not partake in the festivities, he stayed nearby, to accompany one of the more eager looking female inhabitants of Gulet. He soon felt pleasure. One that he longed for since the morning.

Suddenly he heard an angry roar sending all his prospects of pleasure straight back to hell.

The bard was lying under – both the stage and the wench – with his… 'sword' out. Fortunately, he managed to sheath the blade, before the armed assailants entered his hideout. And when they rushed at him, Dandelion did not fall back, successfully defending his lady. Nonetheless, he pretended to be a weakling, so the scoundrels would lower their guard, allowing him to strike at an opportune time. A familiar-looking witcher quickly joined clearly intent on rescuing his favorite performer. Two fearless heroes against some common no good thugs.

Dandelion liked those odds.

GERALT
One had to admit that music soothes the savage beast. Those who had previously given Geralt hostile glares now joined in his merriment by drinking vodka and consuming sausages. This, coupled with lively music and dancing raised all their spirits – ergo, he must be a good guy.
Nonetheless, Geralt did not partake in most of the festivities, but he stayed there, to watch the carefree, twirling inhabitants of Gulet. He felt bliss. The kind of bliss that he had not felt for far too long.

Suddenly he heard a scream. And all his bliss went straight back to hell.

The witcher’s senses pinpointed the scuffle as occurring under the stage. He rushed in with a sword in hand, only to quickly sheath it at the sight before him. The assailants were unarmed. They grabbed their terrified victim – the young bard from earlier who seemed to have finally recovered from the previous night. They shook him violently with their bare hands preparing to strike. Behind them, a young half-naked wench was screaming her lungs out, unsuccessfully trying to get between the attackers and the terrified bard. It was a simple equation then. Four bruisers against one man cowering, clearly unable to put up even a meagre defence.

Geralt decided to even the odds.

Chapter 5.

DANDELION
Once the situation was under control, Dandelion kissed the rescued maiden goodbye and walked casually away into the celebrating crowd. He did not say farewell to the witcher, as men have no need for words in such situations. But after a while the bard noticed that he was being followed and turned nonchalantly, stretching out his hand to the man behind him.

Witcher awkwardly returned the gesture, grabbing his sleeve instead of his palm. Dazed by his brilliance, he barely managed to speak comprehensibly yet it was clear that he wished to converse. It was only after a while that he regained his composure in order to introduce himself as Geralt of Rivia. And what he failed to say aloud, even though it was painfully obvious, was that he needed company. A witcher’s work had to be oh so lonely, with his horse likely his only stable companion. So Dandelion suggested moving to a quieter place - a well-renowned bordello with a great kitchen. For appearances, of course, he used some irrelevant excuse to go there. But in truth, it was just an act of benevolence.

So they set off together.

The bard and the witcher.

GERALT
Once the assailants were lying on the ground and the wench covered herself, Geralt felt like something did not add up. The poet had vanished. Quite suspicious, thought the witcher. The so-called “noble propagator of culture” escaped a little bit too hastily. What if he had a guilty conscience? Maybe did something that would put the whole situation in a completely different, less savory light? Fortunately, he did not make it far. Geralt noticed the escapee still in the crowd near the stage. Taking a cue from the thugs, the witcher grabbed him by his colorful attire. The youngster was scared at first, but quickly managed to compose himself. Holding his hat with a heron feather, he bowed politely and introduced himself as Dandelion. He promised that this was just a simple misunderstanding and would gladly answer any questions in a more amicable locale. Actually, he knew a perfect place, a brothel of sorts, where he had conveniently left most of his belongings the previous night. With angry shouts already coming from the stage’s direction, it became pretty clear, he desperately needed help.

So they set off together.

The witcher and the bard

Chapter 6.

DANDELION
Upon reaching the door of “The Little Flower”, Dandelion came to the conclusion that his assailants must have been sent by some jealous competitor. He dug deep within his memory and recalled a man from Cidaris who had clearly envied his talent. That coward and talentless piece of shit! He would have to be such a wretched dickwad to send hired thugs to kill the more capable poet. Dandelion simply could not allow in good conscience such an affront to remain unanswered. He had the urge to immediately depart in order to seek justice.

However, revenge had to wait, since the bard had a Witcher to entertain.

Geralt, oblivious to his rudeness, seemed enthralled by the amply bosomed owner. Dandelion wondered when the mutant had last enjoyed... but decided to not follow that thread of thought any deeper. Determined to make the best of the situation, he ordered from a lovely serving maiden a few local delicacies this establishment was famous for. The bard spared no expense on his new friend by procuring a sizeable quantity of their finest vodka. In return, he only hoped that the witcher would open up and start talking more.

Well.

He did not.

With time, however, the bard had to admit that Geralt could be quite an amusing companion, especially after having knocked back a few shots. Dandelion even managed to get his real name out of him, which was Geralt Roger Eryk du Haute-Bellegarde.
Exactly that.

GERALT
It was no great surprise to Geralt that the burly madame who ran “The Little Flower” was already well informed about the situation. Rumors, along with other unsavory things, tended to quickly and easily spread in such establishments. She revealed to him that the wench recently deflowered by Dandelion was the youngest sister of four notoriously overprotective brothers. To make matters worse, she was betrothed to a wealthy albeit extremely unpleasant merchant. A union that their family desperately needed, she assured him. Case closed, thought Geralt. He could now part ways with a clear conscience.

Nonetheless Dandelion, cheerful and seemingly carefree, showed a profound lack of understanding regarding his predicament. The poet, having seemingly just snapped out of a daydream, ordered two portions of groats with onion and a bottle of lousy, yet strong moonshine. “Cheapest possible” the bard muttered under his breath as he tossed over the last coin from his purse. Thus Geralt appreciated the gesture of the meal and refreshment that much more. He only wished that Dandelion would cease talking so much - at least whilst eating supper.

Well.

He did not.

With time, however, the witcher had to admit that he was growing less annoyed with the ceaseless prattle, especially after having knocked back a few shots. The bard even taught him a song about maidens… from Vicavaro? Vicovoro?

Something like that.

Chapter 7.

DANDELION
Both were pulled by their hands, then pressed into the wall against their backs. It was quite pleasant, that is until the courtesans suddenly disappeared, leaving them alone in the dark.

Dandelion waited until the blackness thinned and the floor stopped tilting so strangely. Women really had no mercy. How could they just leave them like that? After all the cuddles and giggles? He would bet his own lute, the courtesans planned to charge them for services that did not actually take place... Well, at least they left some alcohol.

Dandelion raised a bottle, which seemed to fall into his hand completely by itself. Meanwhile, Geralt mumbled under his breath. First, something about shouting. Second, about paying for the wine that the bard just took. Maybe it was a professional habit of sorts – to look for problems even in the privy. Where were they right now...? It did not matter, really. For Dandelion, such idle talk seemed like nothing more than a waste of time. He was a poet of action, not only of words. So he told Geralt to do something useful already! Look for a way out of this goddamn place or at least drink some more. But the prude grumbled even more. Who would have thought that a witcher could have such moralizing impulses, not to mention a conscience?

Well, Dandelion didn't want to argue with him – he was definitely too sober for quarrels about the moral relativity of his actions. So he gave in and prepared a generous payment for the services provided by the "The Little Flower".

GERALT
Two brothers burst through the front door, while the other two more subtly entered through the back. Only the cellar remained safe, so with the aid of the nearby courtesans, they quickly made themselves scarce leaving their pursuers none the wiser.

Geralt listened as four pairs of shoes shuffled on the floor above. The angry voices of the four brothers, searching the brothel, carried through to the cellar. The witcher didn't have the desire to fight once more, and Dandelion ... Dandelion had become mesmerized with thoroughly examining the wine rack.
Theft seemed a miserable way to show appreciation for aid rendered, which Geralt felt obliged to point out. Outraged, Dandelion mumbled with anger that he hadn’t robbed anyone, but simply made a purchase. It wasn't his fault that the current conditions made it impossible to pay! Nonetheless, he put the bottle down and pulled some writing instruments from his bag. Geralt watched in silence while the bard wrote a letter that was supposed to oblige the mayor of Gulet to settle their bill. The poet claimed that he had not yet received the final payment from his performance, and well, he shouldn’t be expected to go and get the coins at present now, could he? Best to spend it on the wine clearly laid out for them.

The witcher found it impossible to argue with such logic - mainly because he had difficulty focusing himself. Therefore, having agreed, he took another bottle out of the rack.

Chapter 8.

DANDELION
Ha! Dandelion shouted cheerfully, seeing a dim light in this arse of an... Wait, where were they? Doesn't really matter. The witcher was just raving about escaping, clearly overlooking something more important - their need for more wine.

Still, this light was an exit, right? Rather strange, though. High above, no stairs... Bars instead of doors? Bulltshit of a... Gods and their virgin mother, what was that?! The bard clutched his head. A sudden blow swept him off his feet and, even worse, sobered him up a little. Seconds later the floor changed places with the ceiling again. Someone ... Geralt? ... threw the poet like a sack of wheat. Ouch! - he groaned, landing on hard stones. It’s… He looked down. Yes! The one last bottle of wine was still under his doublet. He saved it! Oh, what beautiful act of heroism! And great ballad material, the poet did not doubt, because he intended to write it himself. Smearing that bastard from Cidaris in it! Ha!

He immediately shared the thought with Geralt. And the witcher laughed! Dandelion couldn't believe his ears. The matter was serious, even deadly serious, and this asshole was croaking, like a wench deflowered by… Wait a minute, it dawned on the bard. He began to hum the tune he sang on stage during the day. Under the stage…? Witcher, he asked loudly, sing with me! It may help us remember...

No fucking way, really?! Noooo…. fucking? How could you, Geralt? So disrespectful... And I shared my wine with you, I revealed my secrets to you. For fucks sake, I even love you like a brother!

GERALT
Shhh, he murmured to Dandelion, trying to determine if those above... wait, who were they actually? Geralt couldn't remember. Hmm, never mind, he thought.
They have already gone, haven’t they? I guess so, but why risk it? There was a window in the basement that a man could easily squeeze and escape through. There were also bars, but nothing that a little Aard couldn't fix. Just be careful ... Quiet... Plague! What the fuck?! Geralt shook his head, deeply stunned. Meanwhile, Dandelion was just trying to rise from the shifting floor, stumbling over his own legs.

The window was gone, leaving a large hole in its place.

Geralt glanced back to the demolished wall of the “The Little Flower” from his new vantage outside; stooped in a dark street. How did I get here…? - the witcher asked himself. It's probably Dandelion's doing. This fool does everything in... Oh, he took wine with him. Wonderful man.

Geralt accepted the bottle and, taking a sip, listened to the poet's constant jabbering. What the fuck is he blabbering about? What troubadour from Cidaris? Oh, dumbass, Dandelion. He has to be denser than a rock. This is no other bard's plot, only the unpleasant consequences of a frivolous ride.

Time passed over the witcher's head for a third time. Where were they actually ...? Geralt was unable to concentrate due the bard's insistent bellowing. Hey poet! Give our ears a rest! And wine! More wine!

Okay, okay, Geralt waved a hand. Don't fret, I respect you. Duh! I too fucking love you like a brother!

Chapter 9.

DANDELION
To his surprise, Dandelion woke up not only in his bed but also with a beautiful girl at his side. This circumstance would typically have been a pleasant turn of events if only his head did not ache as severely as it had the previous morning. The events of the nightly escapade with his newfound witcher compatriot remained foggy at best. To his dismay - his lute was nowhere to be found from among his belongings scattered on the ground. While he was searching frantically for it, the girl's big green eyes glared at him in a disturbingly piercing manner: as if she was enjoying something... too much.

Dandelion frowned, suddenly remembering the more critical part of the conversation with Geralt. The witcher had rather crudely explained to him why the band of thugs was chasing them. From these observations, it became clear that they certainly should do their best to leave the city as soon as possible. Yet instead of being far behind the gates of Gulet, he found himself in the chamber of the mayor's house, in the company of the green-eyed maiden, who at the second glance seemed strangely familiar... The answer to this quandary, he pondered, was likely hidden behind her stare, which had now grown into a disconcerting smile that sent shivers crawling down his spine.

Seeing no other solution, Dandelion finally decided to ask her about his lute and inquired into the reason she smiled at him so.

GERALT
To his surprise, Geralt woke up in the muck of the stables firmly under Roach's watchful gaze. This circumstance would be considered as the norm for him if he hadn't felt so miserable, as if he had lost his natural resistance to toxins. The night's events were a faint blur requiring considerable effort to recall. But what's most unexpected - he had Dandelion's lute under his arm. When the witcher looked at it closer, Roach's blind expression became so strangely human and full of reproach: as if the horse blamed him for a late return, drunkenness, and...

Geralt winced, suddenly remembering the nightly conquests with Dandelion, especially one idiotic part of their conversation. The bard had moved quite smoothly from the uncomfortable topic of four angry brothers to the issue of brotherly love. Despite this, somewhere between patting themselves on the back and loudly placing male friendship over fleeting affairs, they agreed to leave the city together. However, something different happened. Something unfortunate. Damn... Along with the memories, the witcher became overflown by the strong urge to depart Gulet. Roach was now not only staring at him but also snorting accusingly.

Sighing heavily, Geralt finally stood up, hid the instrument in the horse's saddlebags, and went back to find the manchild musician, poetic liar, an all-around unfortunate idiot.

Chapter 10.

DANDELION
Wedding.
There shall be a wedding, about which the groom, namely Dandelion, had just learned from his future wife. He also finally discovered her name, Kora. At least that much he ought to know before they get married...

Kora, the poet repeated in his thoughts. Quite pretty, he deemed while trying to comfort himself, feeling the noose of happy-ever-after marriage tightening its grip around his neck. The wedding, to make it even more terrifying, was to take place today, in conjunction with the second day of the festival, which, as it turns out, was just one big wedding party. During it, Kora was to be married to the other guy. But a merchant, even a wealthy one, was not comparable to an aristocrat, sighed Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove, better known as Dandelion. He could not recall when he had divulged his title. The noble poet could not even recollect having proposed, though he had a strong impression he never really had. Kora’s previous fiancé had to be a nasty older man, stinking of fish or whatever goods he was known to trade. And he certainly wasn’t very generous, having chosen a group wedding over a more pristine private ceremony. No wonder the poor girl was so quick to seek a more worthy and appropriate partner. Aristocrat, instead of a greedy and decrepit man, how her parents will be pleased. The brothers will finally be calm, and the new would-be spouse will politely and quietly get out of the way.
The perfect wedding.

GERALT
Funeral.
There shall be a funeral, Geralt was convinced of it, especially considering the joyful news he had heard from the market. Someone had already spread rumors of a misalliance between a certain young miss named Kora and a Viscount of Lettenhove...

Was it the same lady who, as if by chance, came across them in the middle of the night? Yelling at Dandelion for the disgrace she had suffered? The bard, of course, quickly resorted to sweet lies, promising that he would repay her for any harm done. When she refused to calm down, he flaunted a noble title, which was likely yet another lie. Nonetheless, young Kora immediately cheered up, promptly ending her accusations and threats to not only call upon her brothers but the city guards as well. A poor threat, but they were particularly drunk and dim-witted at the time. So Dandelion went with her, leaving the witcher his lute for safekeeping and assuring him that he would return once the maiden had fallen asleep. Now Geralt had a strong inkling that it was Kora who had slipped out of bed to chat with peddlers, and gods only know with who else. Her family was likely already adjusting plans of the previously planned celebration, unaware that an impoverished artist was replacing a wealthy merchant. Geralt felt confident that the truth regarding the groom would inevitably be revealed. Her brothers will heat tar, and the would-be spouse will meet the executioner.
Just a quick funeral.

Chapter 11.

DANDELION
Dandelion hoped the news of the engagement had not yet spread, making it easy to call the whole thing off. Upon opening the door to leave the chamber, the mayor of Gulet appeared and showered the young couple with congratulations, swiftly burying the bard's short-lived aspirations. Passing servants could hardly conceal their crooked smiles while busily helping prepare them for their departure. However, waiting outside, to his dismay, stood a welcoming committee composed of Kora's four brothers demonstratively massaging their knuckles. They graciously agreed not to coat the viscount in tar and sawdust, not unlike a pork chop in egg and flour, so long as he kept his word and joined their family. They graciously offered to help protect the new family castle, which as a viscount, they were expecting him to own. Dandelion swallowed hard. Where the hell was he supposed to conjure a castle from? In truth, it mattered not what these damn half-wits' expected. He had no intention of sticking around long enough for things to get that far. The real problem was: where the hell had his lute gone!?

The mayor proudly presented tables overflowing with food, surrounded by mercilessly fiddling second rate musicians. At the far end stood a wedding gate built of flowers and ivy where oaths would soon be exchanged. Beyond, the main market square was being prepared for all the celebratory dancing to come.
Dandelion straightened up, suddenly keenly interested in the official's words.

The ceremony was almost upon them.

GERALT
Geralt hoped that the funeral would not take place if he helped the bard escape. The witcher did not hold the slightest doubt concerning the eventuality of Dandelion's escape attempt from his upcoming nuptials. So he went to the mayor's house, where he hoped to find the equally hungover poet along with his blushing bride to be. At the gates of the estate, however, he saw familiar faces: a real wedding party led by the mayor himself. It seemed that the young bride had even appeased her brothers. Geralt preferred not to guess what she had promised them - preferring to remain as detached as possible. One evening of drunken bonding did not oblige him to rescue the poet, the witcher reminded himself. Declarations made in such a state were not binding, he repeated while making a first step back towards the stables. But then Geralt remembered the lute hidden within his saddlebags. Sighing heavily, he turned back.
The witcher wasn't going to risk arrest by starting a fight to free Dandelion, but surely there was no harm in waiting around for some opportunity to aid him, was there?

Unfortunately, both the bride and her brothers did not leave Dandelion even for a moment. Meanwhile, the mayor played the role of a gracious host, showing his guests around the festival and explaining local rituals, utterly unaware of the tense situation.

Geralt followed them at a distance, eavesdropping until it became clear when the bard would make his move.

Chapter 12.

DANDELION
Dandelion danced.
He danced with all his vigor. Following Gulet traditions, the groom was tasked with rescuing his blushing bride trapped within a densely dancing crowd. Only then could the wedding ceremony begin in earnest. The bard, rightfully so, saw this as his last opportunity to escape his predicament. Unfortunately, his soon-to-be brothers-in-law shared the same viewpoint. They had preemptively blocked his likely escape route and were in the process of forcibly leading him towards their sister, Kora.

Dandelion would not be so easily deterred. Participants all around were busily dancing and laughing as they carelessly bumped into one another. Fortunately, this was preventing him from reaching his bride. Lively music filled his ears as the world began spinning around him. Nevertheless, the bard found a rhythm to this madness and proceeded to dance his way out.

He passed by the first of the brothers with a few well-timed sharp turns. He smirked, stomping on the second one, who just happened to trip clumsily. The third he took by hand, twisting it in a pirouette only to let it go at the just the right moment for his opponent to lose his balance. The fourth proved to be the most difficult. Dandelion jumped right, jumped left, made a turn, yet the muscle head reacted to his movements like a mirror image. The poet, feeling desperate, decided to attempt a simple trick by taking a step back. The oaf also backed up, so Dandelion continued until finally he just turned around and fled. As he disappeared behind the nearest stall, he heard Kora's desperate cry but did not dare risk looking back.

Now was his chance to be free, yet first, the poet had to find his precious lute. Thus he began wandering the alleys of Gulet in search of the witcher, feeling resentful and abandoned. In a move of desperation, he made his way to the stables hoping that Geralt had not yet departed this foul city. He groaned miserably upon seeing the horse's absence, then knelt, and bowed his head. The witcher, his steed, and the bard's lute were surely long gone. Dandelion was once again all alone, stripped of his belongings, and unfairly punished by fate.

In the height of his despair, a shadow rose behind him. A shadow with a lute in one hand and reins in the other. A shadow with a voice hoarse from vodka, asking the bard to stand the fuck up.

Dandelion turned, overjoyed at this newfound luck.

He could sense that this was just the beginning of their journey together.

GERALT
Geralt did not dance.
At least he avoided it as much as possible, since navigating the rabble before him required either timely jumps or forceful shoving. The witcher again was looking for Dandelion, who was swallowed by the crowd as soon as the the idiotic tradition began. Instead he spotted a wealthy yet old looking merchant seeming at a loss regarding the actions of his distant fiance. Devils only knew if she ever told the poor fool of her new intentions.

Geralt pushed forward. Some of the dancing townsfolk tried to stop him, although without much effect. The music bellowed ever louder, making any conversation impossible. Despite this madness, the witcher finally managed to find within the crowd a distinct hat decorated with the feather of a heron. Its owner, to no surprise of the witcher, was obscured by four familiar looking thugs.

Not wishing to waste a moment longer, Geralt shoved the first of the brothers with all his weight deep into the crowd, away from Dandelion. He then smashed the second one, sending him to the ground, where he fell right under the poet’s feet. He found himself holding the wrist of the third one while the bard performed some idiotic and pointless pirouettes. The witcher ended this spectacle by kicking the ruffian's legs out, sending him hurling onto his back. The fourth took seemingly forever to deal with, mainly due to Dandelion. The poet acted like a jester, trying to mislead his opponent before finally fleeing away. The thug, one moment intent on taking the chase, suddenly turned towards the sound of now screaming Kora. Her original suitor had embraced the poor girl possessively with misery marking her lovely face as she scanned the crowd for one poetic savior. Who, of course, was nowhere to be seen at this point. Meanwhile the witcher, having had his fill of getting involved in the affairs of others, turned and made his way back to the stables.

He smiled to himself as he entered to the sight of the bard on the ground. Dandelion was kneeling dramatically, clearly unaware that if he glanced to the left, he would have seen his lute sticking out of Roach's saddlebags. So Geralt smiled, took out the music instrument and told the clumsy fool to compose himself, ending this miserable show.

Some time later, once on his saddle and well underway to the gates leaving Gulet, he glanced back at the bard who now followed him. It seemed like Dandelion meant to journey with the witcher, even to the edge of the world.

Back to Index.
 
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Journey II: Meditations by the Fire

Chapter 1.


Wait, I forgot about the mugs! Let me just grab them from the saddle.

Okay, back to the fire. Now, where do I start? There was so much of it, uncle Vesemir. It’s just hard to recall the first thing⁠—oh! I got it! It’s not from our training or theory lessons though ...

Do you remember the fairy tale about the tabby cat and the red fox? The one where hunters wanted to tear their fur off? Make them into muffs? Of course you remember. How many times have you told it as a bedtime story to the kids of Kaer Morhen? Dozens? Hundreds? Even to Geralt, right? I just can’t seem to imagine him as a child. Was he ever, really?

Okay, I know. He had to be.

Anyway, it was Geralt, who told me this fairy tale when I was just little. Ugh, I didn't like it when others would call me "little" back then, and now here I am doing it myself. Well, that’s the truth: I was little. And lost. And all alone. I had fled from King Ervyll’s men and his nasty son, Kistrin, whom I really, really didn’t want to marry. I mean, his breath alone—eugh! Anyway … that’s how I ended up lost in Brokilon forest. And that’s where I’d have died, if it wasn’t for Geralt. If he hadn’t shown up out of nowhere and killed this overgrown centipede … Oh, I know, I know! Not a centipede, but a yghern, also known as the scolopendromorph. However, you must admit, even in the engravings it looks just like an overgrown centipede.

So Geralt rescued me from the yghern, and later, when I was lying on the forest floor with the stars blinking at us through the crowns of trees, unable to fall asleep, he told me your bedtime story. About the cat and fox hunted down by humans. In a way, despite not having met yet, it was the first lesson you gave me. It’s pretty good, by the way. While escaping, it's usually better to act like a cat rather than try to be clever like a fox. Just quickly, react without a second thought, without trying some thousand two hundred and eighty-six plots to outsmart the hunter. Do one: hop up the tree. Run away. Don’t look back.

Otherwise you end up as a piece of decorative fur. Like this red muff.

Chapter 2.

Who shall we toast to? Geralt? Cheers!

Whew, that’s strong. Waters of Brokilon strong, heh.

You see, uncle Vesemir ... Already then, which feels like an eternity ago, I realized that I was meant for him. When he was telling the story of the cat and fox, I felt it clearly⁠—this power binding us together even more than the strongest of blood ties. But he turned out to be too stubborn to believe it back then. Dumber than a child lost in the wilderness, you understand? Of course you do. I’ve heard you tell him how stupid he was yourself.

Indeed, uncle.

But back to your first lesson. The fairy tale.

You also used it as a bedtime story for me once. I woke up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep through those nightmares of mine. All alone in the dark ... Suddenly, I heard your voice, so warm and caring. The fear vanished at once, disappearing without a trace. You were telling the story differently from Geralt⁠ though—in more detail, yet not at all boring. That's why I never said anything. Sorry to admit, but in the end, this particular teaching turned against the teacher himself.

Yes, you heard me right. Against you.

I was a bit⁠—or even a very—unruly child, but we both know you liked it. Although in this case I probably drove you crazy. Just a little.

It was when the monster from Brokilon had already become a vague memory, the ugly prince Kistrin completely forgotten, and when Cintra ... Cintra utterly ceased to be. The Witchers' Keep became my home. And you, the big bad Wolves themselves, were my family. Yes, indeed, you know that very well. I guess I’m stalling, sorry.

Erm, so ... do you remember that time I slipped away? No, not the first. Nor second.

I’d already grown very fond of the place by this time. Sure, it wasn’t much⁠—a bed, a trunk, and that huge, filthy rat I killed and kept as a trophy⁠—but I’d never felt more at home. It was far from the comforts of my chambers in Cintra, sure, but given a choice ... I’d have chosen Kaer Morhen every time.

So, why run away then, you ask?

I will tell you in a moment. But first, let's pour some more of that brew.

Chapter 3.

I won’t lie to you, uncle Vesemir. Fear overtook me upon seeing Kaer Morhen for the first time. I was scared as hell.

When Geralt found me after Cintra's fall⁠—this time to finally take me with him⁠—I thought I would never feel fear again. That the worst was over ... But, instead of a home, I was in this dark, ruined castle, full of rats and nightmarish echoes. I saw menacing black figures. I saw evil, incredibly shiny eyes staring at me. Glowing in the dark. Suddenly, I heard your voice for the first time, warm and caring, and just like that, the fear had been vanquished. Black silhouettes became friends. Protectors. Glossy eyes expressed curiosity.

In fact, you all cared. Very much so.

But some things ... Only you were able to take care of. For instance, the leather jerkin you made for me. It was a little bit crooked ... Well, okay. Very crooked. Truth be told, it looked like the nightmare of any self-respecting tailor. But I still liked it, just as I liked the sword you forged me. Nobody in the keep—absolutely nobody!—forgot about my training. Not once. But only you remembered that a child, even one with my talents, needs proper clothing and a sword befitting her size. You really tried your best, and I appreciated it.

Maybe even too much?

If I hadn’t wanted to repay you so eagerly, maybe I’d have stayed on the Trail. Not run into the woods instead of sticking to my training. I just thought I'd be able to get back to the stronghold before anyone noticed my disappearance. You see, I'd heard a couple of times how much you wouldn’t mind eating some venison. Sometimes you even mumbled under your breath: if only one of you younger witchers could kindly go hunting, we could have a feast. But nooo… It’s just beans and beans, over and over again.

Well, I was young. And a witcher. Kind of. So I thought it would be a splendid idea to fulfill your wish. There was only one small concern ... that you may not quite acknowledge the accuracy of my reasoning, or worse⁠—you’d have me polishing swords for the whole day, after hearing it. Because you cared, of course. About me and the swords. That's why I decided it would be better to surprise you. With a delicious boar.

And I knew exactly where to find one …

Chapter 4.

No, not at all.

I didn't go for this boar completely unprepared. I made snares ... All right. I admit. It was no Talgar Winter or even a Wolf Pit. Just a simple trap.

But it worked!

Well, okay. It almost worked. It sprung. Snap! Crash! However, the boar could somehow still move. Then … the huge beast charged.

Charged straight at me.

Still, I didn't run away, uncle Vesemir. I bravely raised my sword, which you fitted so well to my hand. And then I boldly repeated everything that you all taught me during my training. Lunge, attack, retreat! Half-pirouette, blow, rebound! I balanced with one arm, cutting with the other, jumping over a slippery forest floor with roots reaching out from under the leaves.

The boar didn’t give a damn about my pirouettes. Someone could even say that he reacted with admirable resistance. I stabbed his hairy rear at least once, but he didn't even grunt. Then, suddenly, he lifted his head⁠, kicked up dirt, and pivoted, charging straight at me again.

I stood my ground, ready to fight. You’d have been proud to see it.

Attack, bounce! Riposte! Half-pirouette! Riposte, full pirouette! Half-pirouette! Jump and cut!

But the damned swine didn’t even blink. He looked me straight in the eye. Tenacious. What was I to do? My blows seemed ineffective. Pointless even. Like stabbing a sack of millet or a wooden log.

But no! One must remain calm⁠—breathe⁠—keep going. You taught me that. Stay focused, wait until the last possible moment to evade. Steady … Steady … Pirouette!

Unfortunately, that particular pirouette didn’t work very well. And by this I mean: not at all. He hit me sideways⁠—thwack!—and I flew a good twenty feet into the air. I thumped my back against one of the trees and the sword flew from my hand. For a moment, Brokilon flashed before my eyes, together with the stars. The water rustled in my head.

And one thought: Escape! Run away like the cat from your story. Hop up the tree. Don’t look back.

The boar was in no hurry. At first, he sniffed the sword lying in the dirt. Then he slowly raised his big bulky head towards me⁠—a small girl huddled in a tangle of branches. My ribs burned cruelly, every breath spreading through my body with dull pulsating pain.

He stood sentinel, this tenacious boar. Staring. Waiting calmly under the tree.

I don't know how much time passed before he got bored. But it was enough for you to notice my absence.

Chapter 5.

As I waited for our would-be dinner to go away, I recalled the words of a nursery rhyme. You recited it in my mind:

“How doth the little wild boar
Improve his shining tusks,
And rut them 'gainst the forest floor,
And on the trees' rough husks!
How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little lasses in,
With gently smiling jaws!”

Louis of Charolleis’ poem is another of many things I know thanks to you, uncle. Unfortunately, it turned out to be of little use in this situation.

Annoying, really.

Huddled in the large oak tree, I couldn't keep your voice and rhymes out of my head. I had a hard time gathering my thoughts⁠—to come up with some plan. The sight of my muddied sword, trampled on by the boar’s hooves, didn’t help my concentration. It frustrated me. What you would say, seeing the blade in such a state... I couldn’t bear the thought! So, when I was sure the beast was gone for good, all that was left on my mind was the desire to get my weapon back.

I slowly slipped off the tree and took a few careful steps. My ribs still stung with each breath, and my heart thrashed like a bell.

Suddenly, I heard your voice.

No, not in my head, but for real. Getting closer. You screamed my name, but instead of joy it filled me with panic. I quickly plunged my hand into the undergrowth and grabbed the sword. Its blade shimmering beneath the filth. Then more shouting—my name ringing out all around. Shadows moved among the trees. From the darkness came louder and louder: Ciri! Cirilla!

Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon. Princess of Cintra...

Suddenly, the nightmares came back, even though I was awake. There was a wall of fire before me. I saw a frightening black knight with a winged helmet. I heard the screams of Cintrians being slaughtered.

There was no “hop” this time.

Just like that, on an impulse, I appeared in the crown of some random pine tree. And then I fell. But just before I hit the ground, it happened again. Another pine tree. This time, I grabbed onto a branch before I plummeted like a stone. Miraculously, I somehow kept hold of my sword. Then I watched in amazement as you traced my footsteps all the way to the large oak tree. How you scratched your head when my trail just... disappeared.

Back then, I didn't know what happened, but I think it was probably the first time I teleported.

Chapter 6.

How come you didn’t hear about this before? Well, Geralt helped me. Although you were all looking, it was he who finally found me. As always. Destiny, huh?

I know, I know, it's getting old. Just destiny and destiny, over and over again.

And beans, ha!

In any case, I was so confused as I watched you from atop the tree I should never have been in. The world seemed unreal. Time passed at a strange, altered pace. I don't think I prophesied on this occasion, or you surely would have heard me.

But I had a vision...

A cat ran away with a skulk of foxes. She jumped, hop-hop, from tree to tree. The foxes raced down below. And hunters swarmed from behind. Blacks, reds, hounds, and even one really scary lion.

Needless to say, the foxes were turned into bloody muffs, while the cat ran and ran and ran away. It seemed she would never stop...

My eyes snapped open.

Geralt was leaning over me with a stern face, but the faintest of smiles betrayed his facade. He was angry with me, sure, but I was safe and that was most important to him.

Of course, I started talking pretty quickly. About leaving the Trail, about this grand plan of mine, about the trap that didn’t quite work, and the stubborn boar that refused to yield. I just didn't mention the strange jumps, or talk about the vision. I was afraid⁠—wanted to pretend it hadn’t happened. I thought, instead of dwelling on such things, why not convince him of my original plan? After all, working together as a team, well... that boar wouldn’t stand a chance!

Geralt disagreed. He said I had probably come across the Old Wild—the caring spirit of the forest. So… no boar. But we didn’t leave empty-handed.

While returning to Kaer Morhen, we managed to hunt a hare along the way. It was small, skinny, and stringy, but the soup came out surprisingly tasty. You remember? No, of course not... You didn't even notice the hare when we came back. You didn't care about fatigue or hunger. You were more interested in me⁠—the fear that echoed in my voice and the bruising on my ribs. You immediately took care of my wounds and started brewing some healing potions.

You never touched the hare soup. Not even a taste. Instead, you made me eat it all to regain my strength.

Chapter 7.

Fairy tales and nursery rhymes. All these fat volumes read together. Fencing lessons… Anything else? Hmm, maybe for a change something you didn't teach me?

A lot of things. Right. But this is quite a crucial one.

Contrary to appearances, neither you nor Geralt showed me how to kill. How to defend myself, yes. To survive, sure. To not give up… But not how to take someone's life in cold blood.

Because to fight is not the same as to kill. You know that well enough.

So you taught me how to swing a sword and to pirouette. How to dodge and block. Well, even how to attack! How to cut through a leather bag. A straw mannequin. An overgrown rodent. But not how to kill another human...

That I had to learn myself. Much later.

By the time of my first, I had long left Kaer Morhen⁠. I had attained some basic education at the Temple of Melitele, where I received magical training under the supervision of Yennefer. But, once again, just as I started to warm to my new surroundings, I was whisked away to someplace else. This time, I found myself on the island of Thanedd.

During the coup.

I won’t recount the whole incident for you, uncle⁠. You already know the events well enough.

But it was terrible. One moment I was asleep in bed, the next I was kneeling among dead bodies. Suddenly, Thanedd became a second Cintra. People screamed, fought desperately, and died brutally before my eyes. Whether by sword or sorcery, death is ugly. So I ran from it. Especially as those I loved had disappeared. Left me to be hunted—again. And in the chaos, in this mad dash for my life, I found myself in Tor Lara. At the portal. It attracted me, summoned me, even whispered... And there was no other escape, only this shining oval. So, I closed my eyes and stepped into it. Then there was a blinding brightness and a furious whirlpool; a breathless blast that crushed my ribs and sucked the air from my lungs.

I ended up completely alone. In the middle of nowhere. The warped portal had spat me out in some random desert, where I was certain I would die. But I didn’t. I found my way out—you know I somehow always do. Unfortunately, I ran straight into the hands of mercenary bandits…

It seemed no matter how far I ran, trouble would always find me. Capture looked to be my fate once more. And as we both know by now⁠, it’s pretty hard to outrun destiny. But it was not to be. Thanks to the help of a skulk of foxes, I managed to escape.

I had always wondered when the foxes of my visions would show up, who they’d be, what they’d be like… As it happens, they turned out to be a rather violent hanza.

Yes, uncle. I want to tell you about a past that I'm not proud of at all. About deeds I have never fully forgiven myself for. About the time when I became a common bandit.

A Rat.

Chapter 8.

So, how did I join the hanza? Well, while the mercenaries who had captured me were feasting with another gang, the Rats attacked the inn. They did so because that other gang had imprisoned one of their companions⁠—had him tied up next to me.

Anyway, considering the circumstances, the Rats seemed like the best of two bad options, so I helped them⁠—to help myself.

Another fight broke out, as if the one on Thanedd wasn't enough already. Along with the Rats, I ended up running away again.

That's when... I...

I was racing through the village away from that damned inn, trying to escape the chaos.

Trying to avoid being captured at all costs.

Suddenly, one of the settlers emerged from a pigsty. He attacked me with a spear.

What happened next haunted my dreams for a long time. I remember everything. Every move. The instinctual half-turn that saved me from the spearhead, the settler that didn’t have time to block my riposte⁠—my cut was simply too fast.

For a moment, I saw his mouth open, ready to scream. I saw an elongated bald forehead, pale above the line where a hat must have protected it from the sun. Now that paleness was spattered red. He howled and wheezed, fell and convulsed among the straw and dung. Blood spurted from him like a stuck pig, and my stomach rolled up into my throat.

I tried to justify what happened. Explained to myself that it was the fault of my training. Pure muscle memory. That I didn't want to take anyone's life. It was only self-defence.

And that was the truth... at least that first time.

Later, when I had officially joined the Rats, that changed. I changed. I started killing for reasons not worth killing for. Certainly not worth dying over.

But this didn’t happen right away.

You could say I stalled for a long time. Pretended to be a killer in front of the others. During subsequent skirmishes and attacks, I used ferocious-looking blows during combat. Made them look deadly. But in reality, they were only meant to incapacitate. To overwhelm the opponent before death was necessary. Like that time with the bailiff transport...

We caught them near a fallen bridge. The Rats had killed the entire convoy, except for one soldier. The one that started to run away, but upon seeing me… turned his horse and rushed to attack… missing the mark. Even though he blocked, expecting a counter, I got him. A cut straight to the mouth. Not fatal, but nasty, just like the one that would eventually disfigure my face...

I wonder if he lived to tell someone his story?

I really hope so.

Chapter 9.

As you can see, uncle, people were eagerly jumping onto my sword. Maybe because I was the youngest Rat. Or I just looked the least threatening. Whatever the reason, death was a constant presence. Following my every step. Ahead of me. Surrounding me. Always in my hand.

I often thought about Kaer Morhen, especially at night. The home I wanted to return to with all my heart. But I was scared. I had lost so much on Thanedd, uncle. Or so I believed back then. I felt powerless.

I didn’t want to forfeit what little I had left. End up all alone.

But I could hope… I suspected you might still be there. I dreamed of returning to the stronghold—seeing your warm smile upon my arrival. I charted maps and trails in my mind, wishing to make it so. But you know how it is. In times of war, loneliness on the road means a swift and brutal death.

And I didn’t want to die. So I clung to my colourful gang. Hid within their ranks like a real rat. Just… went through the motions to get by.

Until the night we attacked the village of New Forge.

We snuck in with a single purpose: set fire to the mayor’s house. Burn it to the ground. You see, he was the fool who gave our companion to the mercenaries—the ones from the tavern. And we needed people to know that punishment for such an offence was inevitable. The penalty…? Death, of course.

But you must understand, uncle, it wasn’t all villainy. The Rats’ reputation was just as good as bad. For we—the children of contempt—shared most of our spoils. We distributed cattle, grain, and cloths from the Nilfgaardians to the villages. Helped people. We paid handfuls of gold and silver to tailors and craftsmen for what we cherished above all else—weapons, clothing, and ornaments. And in return for our generosity, they fed us. Hosted us. Hid us. And even when smitten to a bloodied pulp, they didn’t reveal our hideouts. They were loyal.

Eventually, the prefects placed a hefty reward on our heads.

Those with more greed than sense started to go fishing for Nilfgaardian gold. Just like the mayor of New Forge, who was blinded by his lust for coin, sealing his fate and condemning his own village to ruin in the process.

But what happened that night… amid the flames and chaos… snapped me back to reality. Made me realise what was truly important. Convinced me that I had to leave the Rats as soon as possible.

If I could.

Chapter 10.

When we handed out gold, we were loud and flamboyant. Made a real show of it. But when we attacked, we did so like rats, or rather… like foxes. Quietly, treacherous, cunning.

That night, the first sound to break the silence was the crackle of flames. Then it all got so loud. Screams of people fleeing the fire, shouting and wailing. Our mounts, accustomed to such noises, barely reacted to the commotion. The first survivors ran out of a smoking hut. Servants, by the look of their garb. We unsheathed our blades. Whoever the fire couldn’t fry, we were to finish off with our own hands.

Suddenly, a ruckus broke out at the back of the house. Riders spilled from a hidden stable. Among them was the mayor, wearing nothing but his pants. His fat, naked belly bouncing as he rode. Since the servants didn’t really matter to us, we chased down our main target, along with his kin. There were many of them—the mayor apparently lived with his entire family, even his fifth cousin on the distaff side, no doubt. Each Rat had more than enough targets.

I had two.

One on a big strong gelding, the other on a slender filly. The larger rider sat firmly in the saddle, the smaller one could barely hold on to the mount. I galloped after them, swallowing acrid air. They were within arm’s reach when the wind blew their hoods down. They glanced at me, their flowing hair red in the glow of the fire. Smoke wafted from the flames, and I choked. Coughed wildly until tears welled up in my eyes. I wiped them away to get a better look. I wasn’t sure if I’d just imagined it⁠—or if it was a trick of the light—because… the bigger one, uncle… he looked just like you. And the smaller one was around my age. A kid, really.

I blocked their path, swinging my sword.

The older one took up the fight. And although he looked like you, he definitely didn’t have your fencing skills. I bested him quickly, with little effort. I threw him from the saddle, pushed him to the ground, then instinctively asked: who are you? As if it mattered. The man began spewing out words chaotically, writhing like an eagle owl caught in a net. The kid clumsily slipped off his horse and clung to his chaperone, even though the old man told him to run away. But the little snot didn’t want to leave his guardian.

Then it hit me.

Mentor and student. Like you and me.

The boy had to be the mayor’s child—had the same chubby face. But his look… his expression… reminded me of… me. Stubbornness, fear, pain. It was all painted across his young face. It mirrored my own from a time not so long ago. Because that night I had a different face. The face of a hunter. Just like those who had chased me long ago.

Now I was the pursuer. I hurt, I stole, I killed...

The sword fell from my numb fingers. My lips barely moved as I spoke the words: Go away… Run. Fuck off already!

The elder asked no questions, didn’t attempt to make sense of my sudden change of heart. He quickly grabbed the kid’s hand and stuffed him into the saddle. Immediately after that, he jumped on his mount and urged both horses to a trot.

Motionless, I watched as they galloped away.

Behind me came the tortured howls of the boy’s family.

Chapter 11.

So, I decided to leave.

The next night, I collected what few belongings I had and slipped out of camp. I might die a lonely death on the road, but I had to take that chance. I wanted to return to Kaer Morhen. To find you, if not Geralt or Yennefer...

The leader of the gang stood in my way: Giselher.

He said he knew what I did. That I let the kid go free. And he didn’t even blame me for that, but the kid’s mentor... he should have died. No adult should be spared. Otherwise, rumours will spread that the Rats can be crossed and afterwards, they will just smack your bottom and send you on your merry way. No, the punishment must be more severe. All traitors must pay with their blood. That was the code⁠—and the reason Giselher stood before me, sword raised.

But I wasn’t a traitor. Not yet, at least.

The threat flashed in his eyes: return to camp or betray us. Live or die⁠—what’s it to be? Because if I didn’t retreat, a Rat would die that night. That was just the way of it. And if there was even the slightest chance it would be me, I might have raised my sword. Took up the fight. But he would lose for sure, uncle⁠—I was far more skilled. And I couldn’t use my magic because back then I thought I’d lost it for good. I couldn’t simply jump behind his back and disappear into the night without a trace.

No, I had to make a choice: kill a Rat… or stay as one.

You see, uncle... Giselher had always treated me well. He never tried to hurt or take advantage of me. He shared his spoils. Supported us. Took care of our ragtag band of outcasts. The rest of the world could burn to cinders for all he cared, but not us… not his Rats.

I didn’t raise my sword. I feigned a laugh—an artificial peace-maker. Told him to stop being so dramatic. Can’t a girl go for a midnight stroll? Was that not allowed?

Giselher smiled crookedly. Then invited himself along on my improvised walk.

He never mentioned the kid and his mentor after that, though I assured him I’d kill the old man the first chance I got. Fortunately, I never got that chance, even though I spent many more moons in the Rats’ company.

Weeks passed. Months. More banditry and bloodshed. Until the day came when I finally left them...

That was the day the Rats all died, uncle—the whole hanza. Even when I chose not to kill, death followed me every step of the way.

They were slaughtered by the lion from my vision: Leo Bonhart. A bounty hunter. A hired killer who took pleasure in doling out pain, who had his eye on me above all others. He was the scariest man I had ever met in my life. He turned my band, my little foxes, into... into trophies.

And I...

I need a short break, uncle. How about another drink, eh?

Last one, I promise.

Chapter 12.

I killed him, uncle... Bonhart, I mean.

Finally, after so much time had passed. After enduring pain, loss, humiliation. After running so far. To other worlds, even. Other times. And it seemed like I would never stop. Death behind me, in front of me, always in my hand. But you can’t outrun destiny, not for long.

Fighting that son of a bitch... it was quite something, uncle. If you saw how I dealt with him, you would be so proud of me.

But that is a story for another time.

The fire is dying. My cup is empty, yours... quite full. And I would like to tell you about the final lesson you gave me.

Someday you have to stop running away. Even if your loved ones shout the opposite.

My grandmother, Geralt, Yen... you. You all told me to run away. So I ran away. I ran from Cintra and Brokilon, from Thanedd and Tir ná Lia. I ran from hunters and assassins, elves and humans, blacks and reds. I didn’t want to endanger my loved ones, so I escaped to other worlds. I thought you’d all finally be safe if I left you alone. But you still searched for me. Relentlessly. Because that’s how love works. Because when you love someone, you tell them to flee. You gladly face the danger alone, knowing that they are safe.

But it was my fight as well, uncle. Not just yours.

In my darkest moments, it was the memory of your care that helped me keep my humanity. But there is so much darkness in this world. You could never have kept me from it⁠—it never works out that way. Evil will always catch up with you. Death will eventually overtake you, surround you. Until you face it. Together with your loved ones... and for your loved ones.

It took me a long time to comprehend. And so much blood had to flow before I did. Your blood too, uncle. I had to lose you to understand.

Because that’s when I finally decided to stop running. A year ago.

When you died.

When I was still a child⁠—a little witcher in a ruined castle full of rats and scary echoes⁠—you said you would not live forever. That you would soon rest in a shallow grave. But no one really believed you. Took it to heart.

You were eternal to us. Indestructible.

Taught us all so much.

That’s why I’m here, on the anniversary of your death, paying you tribute by these fading embers, in the shadow of the ruins of your beloved Keep.

Because even though you are not here in body, you will always be here in spirit, living on through the wisdom you shared and the love you gave.

Eternal, after all...

Farewell, Vesemir, last master of Kaer Morhen.

My mentor.

Goodbye, old friend...

I will never stop missing you.

Back to Index.
 
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Journey III: Wayfarers at the Crossroads

Chapter 1


'They were all dead. Except me, of course.' Galanthea's tone grew sombre. 'But everyone else… Everyone I had ever loved, up till that moment...'

The flames of the campfire danced in her big brown eyes, as she panned over the gawking faces of her impromptu audience⁠—a company of dwarves, a halfling tailor, a merchant, a soldier, and some colleagues from Oxenfurt. No one looked poised to interrupt her story, and so she continued…

'We had been travelling through the countryside, a routine journey on our annual circuit of estates, taverns, brothels⁠—whoever had enough spare coin to shell out on entertainment. It was a cold, early morning and a layer of mist hung around us, making the woods seem ethereal. A beautiful sight, really. On the wagon up front, some of the actors were being rather boisterous. Joel and Elba. They were jesting loudly, still drunk from the night before. I remember it clearly because that was when they came...' she paused, allowing the suspense a moment to crescendo, '… the flying terrors.'

The halfling tailor's eyes widened, captivated. Some of the dwarfs shook their heads and mumbled obscenities under their breath. The others, however, went back to draining their mead and mumbling to each other, uninterested by the talk of monsters—attacks were a common occurrence, and they'd heard it all before.

'Suddenly, the atmosphere shifted. Birds stopped chirping; the gentle breeze fell deathly still. The mist seemed to grow thicker, more imposing—its wispy tendrils weaving between the trees, spreading across the glade. Consuming us. In a matter of moments, we were all engulfed by the thick fog, and all I could see was a blanket of white before me⁠. Nothing else. Not another soul.

Some of the lads thought it was rather amusing at first⁠—I could hear them laughing. But that didn't last long. A fearful cry silenced their merriment, followed by a harrowing shriek. Then another. Shadows swooped through the mist above our heads, all around. I quickly jumped off the wagon and scurried underneath to hide. Cowering in the wet mud, I listened to all my friends die. Nightmarish screams as they were picked off one by one, with nothing I could do⁠—I was just a child, you see.'

'How did you escape?' The soldier interjected, impatient and anxious to know the outcome.

'Shush it, you. Let the lass finish,' barked a dwarf.

She nodded in thanks and tossed some twigs into the flames. 'I could no longer hear any of my friends. All that remained was the monstrous cawing from high above as I trembled in my hiding place, crippled with fear. Then... thud! Something landed on the wagon; perched on its edge. A long, scaly tail snaked down in front of me—a guttural rasping right above my head, so very close. I don't believe in any gods⁠—never have⁠—but in that moment of despair, I surely prayed⁠. And as if on cue, lightning forked through the fog, and a spectrum of colour whirled towards the cart. A piercing shriek as the tail fell into the dirt, severed at the rear. All around, caws gave way to screeches and frenzied yelps. Flapping silhouettes in the mist exploded into balls of gore as the stench of charred meat flooded my nostrils, choking me. One of the winged demons fell from the sky and landed in the blood-soaked earth, its grotesque body scorched and smouldering; writhing feebly, yowling, trying hopelessly to fly before collapsing back onto the ground, lifeless. Then he appeared from the mist—the man who had saved me.'

'—Heh!' A cloaked figure, slumped against a tree just outside the glow of the fire, grunted and spat with contempt. Galanthea eyed the hooded man for a moment, pondering on his boorish gesture, then decided to ignore it and conclude her tale.

'With all the creatures dispatched, the rescuer stood before me, calm and composed. Pure energy crackling around his fingertips, he wiped the monsters' blood from his sword and sheathed the blade. Then knelt before me, and in a resounding, mellifluous voice, he soothed my dismay: "Fear not, little one. You're safe."

And there it was. On that accursed day, within the fog, among the bodies of my loved ones, when all hope was lost... my prayers were somehow answered. But not by any god, oh no.' Galanthea gleamed. 'By a renowned mage named... Alzur.'

Chapter 2

‘Is that why you stopped being a bard, then? Quit being Snowdrop?’ asked the halfling tailor.

‘Ach, goodness, no!’ Galanthea replied. ‘‘Twas the moment I started!’

‘Then, why finish? At your age⁠—you could have written a hundred ballads by now. A thousand even!’

Galanthea tilted her head and contemplated. She’d been posed that question many times since she’d hung up her fiddle. ‘Because life changes, dear fellow. Life changes, and ofttimes it’s best to change with it.’

The halfling contorted his lips, dissatisfied with the obvious evasion, but reluctantly nodded in agreement.

‘Tell us more about this renowned mage of yours...’ the soldier requested, leaning forward.

‘Bollocks to “renowned!”’ snapped one of the men in the back who, not so long ago, seemed utterly indifferent to Galanthea’s story. ‘Infamous, more like! The guy is a rebel and a madman, with a price on his head, not some heroic saviour of little girls.’

‘Oi, watch yer lip there, lad!’ The dwarf stepped to her defence again. ‘After all, he saved the lassie. He couldnae be all bad.’

‘But why?’ interjected the merchant, flapping his arms. ‘Why go out of your way to save a child—no offence⁠—surely, a sorcerer has far more important endeavours to occupy his time? Was he just passing by and happened upon the ruckus? Figured “why the hell not?” and jumped right in? Seems rather far-fetched, if you ask me.’

‘No one did. And use yer noggin’, would ye?’ spat the dwarf. ‘Mages are all-seeing! And can teleport! In a snap, they can be here, there, any-bloody-where. Any eejit knows that.’

‘Yes, you’re absolutely right, it would take an idiot to think that. But that’s beside the point in any case. The “why” is far more significant than the “how” of it. So, I must reiterate... why?’

‘Because that’s what heroes do, isn’t it?’ chimed in another onlooker.

Galanthea smiled and sipped some of her wine. She always enjoyed a heated debate and knew full-well what a sensitive topic this was.

‘Yeah! They step in and save people!’

‘Not likely! Mages are cold. Calculated. What do they care of our troubles? How does saving us serve them?’

‘Maybe he was hunting them flyin’ beasties for, like, ingredients or summin’?’

‘Nah, they gots them ‘pprentices for stuffs like that⁠.’

‘Perhaps it was just a bit o’ fun, then, recreation or⁠—’

‘Vainglory!’ The coarse, scornful voice ripped through the campsite, stopping the discussion dead in its tracks. ‘And fuckin’ pride!’ The ensemble of travellers turned in unison and gazed at the cloaked man, who still lurked at the edge of the site, slouched against the foot of a withered oak. It was the first thing he had said since joining the caravan, just after Vizima. Most of the party had pegged him for either a mute or a dullard. Their eyes lingered on the hooded man, awaiting a followup to his brash outburst. But they were left wanting, as he remained silent and stoic amid the shadows.

‘I believe⁠— hum, hum,’ the halfling started, breaking the awkward lull. ‘Sorry. Hum. I believe he wanted to prove himself. Alzur. He wanted to be gallant. Like a knight.’

‘Oh, really now?’ Galanthea replied curiously. ‘And what brings you to that conclusion?’

‘Well, you see, one of my ancestors, would you believe it, worked on the very same estate where Alzur was brought up⁠.’ He dabbed his sweat-beaded brow with a tattered handkerchief. ‘Sometimes we’d hear tales about the old days; stories from the past, you know? Growing up, I heard various⁠—’

‘Aye, aye! Enough scene-setting,’ Galanthea interrupted, ‘crack on with it.’

‘Yes. Right. Apologies. Well... Erm... Well… You see, it all began with a child surprise…’

Chapter 3

'No, no, no⁠, not that sort of child surprise! Apologies, poor choice of words. I meant, more like... a "bastard surprise", if you will—for when Alzur was but a babe, he was left upon the doorstep of a noble estate on the outskirts of Maribor city, accompanied by a simple note: "His mother perished, he's one of yours."'

The tailor hopped off the felled trunk he'd been perched upon and wandered around the campfire, poorly attempting to imitate a theatrical narrator.

'It was assumed his mother had been a courtesan from the nearby house of ill repute. However, the various so-called noblemen of the estate were all notorious for their debauchery, leaving no way to determine with certainty his father's identity. None dared risk throwing the potential fruit of their loins to the wolves and thus it was agreed to take him in. But it was not a happily-ever-after. No man dared show him undue affection, for fear it could be seen as an admission of guilt, whilst the ladies of the court pitied the poor boy and ensured he was cared for. But pity is a poor substitute for love.

Not to mention, he was shunned and mocked by his siblings for being baseborn, and so would tuck himself away in the estate's library. He would read day and night, absorbed by wondrous worlds and brave tales of mighty heroes. One volume in particular captured his imagination, oft being drawn to read each week afresh. A Guide to Chivalric Virtues by... Sir Mateo of Metinna, if I recall. He was utterly and completely captivated by the deeds of noble knights and the chivalric virtues which inspired them to valour...

And thus, he would incessantly wander around the estate and surrounding countryside, seeking trials to prove his virtues⁠—honour, compassion, generosity, that sort of thing, you know—like a proper knight of old. Helping wherever he could. Hopelessly trying to win folk's approval.

However, being just a child, the virtue of valour eluded him. How could he possibly prove his bravery like the courageous knights of the stories? Hmm?

Well, one day, on the way to market to run some errands, Alzur happened upon a wagon set upon by bandits. Any other lad would have simply run, called for help maybe. But not him. He needed to prove his valour. So he stepped in and foolishly confronted the brigands...

They found Alzur hours later, unconscious, bloody and beaten, lying at the side of the road. He'd taken quite a thrashing from which it took him weeks to recover! But recover he did. To everyone's surprise, the encounter left him even more determined to prove his worth! Only this time, he didn't wait for an opportunity to arise... the mad boy went looking for it.

And once again, they found him pummeled, tossed in a ditch, within an inch of his life! But even that was not enough to dissuade the boy. More trouble followed. More thrashings. More recoveries. Again and again, so on and so forth, until one day something quite unexpected happened.

Alzur had once more gone missing, prompting the noblemen to reluctantly commence their search at the behest of their better halves. But once finally discovered, they didn't happen upon a clobbered child, not this time. Oh no, he was unscathed, standing motionless in a back alley, in shock, staring at the corpses of three burly men lying in a heap in front of him, their crisp skin scorched black.

Turns out the boy had chaos coursing through his veins. A great power that, lain dormant within him, had finally been ignited and unleashed. He could channel magic... but he could not yet control it. And so the family, fearing for their safety, called upon the services of a powerful mage to guide the boy, to help him harness his potential. And he did. Under guidance, he became a gifted and famous sorcerer—the very one we debate over this night.

But I believe that childhood still influences him; drives him to uphold those knightly virtues that captivated him all those years ago⁠—ingrained deep within him, see. And that's why he stepped in to save the day, why he always does.

At least, well, that's what I think anyway...'

Some of the company of travellers started to mutter and murmur, creating a jumble of opinions, but quickly simmered down when Galanthea began to speak. 'A curious insight.' She paused to think, tapping her fingers against her goblet. 'I agree. Childhoods play a big part in shaping our lives, but I don't think knightly virtues alone compel Alzur. No, I believe something much more powerful is at work. The most powerful thing in the known world, in fact...'

'Aye, an' what'd that be, then?' asked the dwarf.

'Love.'

Chapter 4

'Love!?' shrieked the merchant. 'That's a cartload of horseshite! Love!? This was the man who slaughtered half of Ellander's army, just because he could!'

'Aye, I say "love" for good reason,' reassured Galanthea. 'I say "love" because of something I discovered the second time I met Alzur—the second time he saved me, as it happens. Two for two,' she chuckled. 'In an unfortunate twist of fate, I found myself... somewhat cursed. Oh, yes! Afflicted by a hex that, ever-so-strangely, converged on my skills as a balladeer.'

The halfling gasped. 'So that's why you hung up your fiddle!'

'No, no. Quite the contrary, the curse turned my middling melodies into enchanting chansons. Catch was⁠—singing was all I could do,' she grinned. 'I'd open my mouth to speak, only to have an unruly rush of rhythm and rhyme.'

Some of the travellers chortled with amusement, sure that Galanthea was merely spinning a merry tale.

'It was quite whimsical at first; a comical oddity. And the remuneration for my performances was nothing to scoff at, either. Alas, coin aside, it quickly became quite the burden. Perpetual song, day in, day out. If I wished to utter but a measly word, nothing could stop me from spewing forth a stanza of verses to accompany it. Finally, I resolved myself to seek assistance. Primarily due to a rather mortifying experience. You see, I was attending a funeral and made the poor choice to inquire as to where I could…' a blush crept up her cheeks, 'relieve myself… To this day, I dare not return, for fear of reliving the embarrassment.' She shuddered from the thought. 'Months passed, with not a shred of luck finding aid. Then... destiny⁠—being the sly mistress she is⁠—decided to intervene once more, and I soon found myself staying in the same countryside inn as a certain mage…

'I pleaded my case to Alzur, sure he would once again jump in to assist. But he refused. Told me he had far more important matters to attend to; "let some other poor wretch waste his time on curious cases of delusion". But, I stuck around. You see, he wasn't yet aware of my unyielding persistence. So, I enlightened him... with three whole days of song. Every ballad, lullaby, poem, and solemn chant I could dream up. He tried his magic to silence me, of course, but it was futile⁠—the curse was unrelenting. Finally, he crumbled, beseeching me to stop; agreed to investigate the matter if only I'd vow to keep my mouth shut.'

'What's all this got to do with love?' demanded the soldier.

'Well, we were travelling to the town where I was first afflicted, staying at inns along the way. One night, Alzur was up late with the local lads, drinking and playing dice and... see, I was awfully nosy back then—as young 'uns are—and I decided to rummage through his belongings. Found all sorts of strange and wonderful trinkets but, being a lass, I was drawn to a particular item: a medallion shaped like a flower⁠. A lily, as it turned out. And... I tried it on... Just as Alzur strolled in...

'He immediately flew into a rage⁠—shouting and scolding me ever-so-fierce. I was startled and… so confused. It was just a simple bauble, after all, and it wasn't as if I'd marred it,' she smirked, 'the power of sentimentality, it seems, eluded me back then. But he soon calmed; even apologised for his outburst. He settled before the hearth, reeking of liquor, and gazed into the flames, his anger giving way to sadness. Then, something quite surprising happened. He confided in me.

'Told me how he had assembled the medallion many years ago for someone... very dear to him. Imbued it with magic even, to keep her safe. "Lylianna", he whispered. He talked ever-so-fondly about her, mumbling drunken homage to her memory. Expressed his admiration for her ambition. From what I was able to stitch together, she was utterly enthralled with the idea of a safer world; one free from murderous monstrosities lurking behind every shadow. A grand vision, to be sure. And she worked towards this her entire life which, sadly, proved rather brief⁠—for a sorceress at least.

'He didn't mention how she died, just fell silent for a time and brooded in a drunken stupor, his eyes full of sorrow.' Galanthea paused, reminiscing. 'He never used the word "love", but the way he spoke of her, the look upon his face when recalling her memory... it couldn't have been anything else.'

'I suppose that makes sense,' admitted the halfling. 'Hold on... did⁠—did he take up her work? After she died? He did, didn't he?!'

'Indeed, I believe so. An obligation to the departed can be dreadfully hard to sever.'

'Aye!' The dwarf leapt up, turning to face the merchant. 'And that's yet another reason why he saves people from monsters! Does that satisfy your inquisition, milord? Ha!'

The merchant shook off the blatant affront. 'Well⁠—well how the devils did he continue her "work", anyhow? One man prancing around the continent slaying beasties in the name of his delusional lost love could hardly put a dent in their numbers, now, could it?'

'One man? Goodness no,' Galanthea answered with a devilish smile, 'not one man at all...'
Chapter 5
'...Witchers!' exclaimed the soldier, 'she's talking about witchers!'

'What was that now?' questioned the merchant, casually pouring himself another drink from a sheepskin flask.

'Witchers. At least, that's what I've 'eard 'em called.' The soldier scratched his bristly chin. 'Think, like... a mercenary, only they's magically enhanced. Ruddy strong 'n fast, more so than any man. Been goin' round, they 'ave, loners on the road, so I hear, pledgin' to kill monsters for coin.'

'Sounds like gibberish to me.'

'Yeah? And what the 'ell would you know?'

'You said "mercenaries", correct? Well, I happen to know a fella who should be able to provide some insight on that.' He gestured to the cloaked man sitting in the shadows. 'A mercenary himself, as it happens. Well, more of a back alley cut-throat, really. Isn't that right, Cut-Throat?'

The cloaked man spat in response, spurring the merchant to guffaw.

'Not the most courteous of gentlemen, I'll admit, but a solid reputation for killing⁠—seen so first-hand, as it happens. Of course, I was on the lookout for a suitable chaperone, so pledged to toss a few coins his way should he see me to Maribor safely. Quite the bargain, weren't you?' A pause lingered. 'But I digress. Cut-Throat! As an expert on the matter of sword-wielding hirelings, what do you think about these "exceptional monster slayers"?'

The cloaked man tilted his head and pondered for a moment. 'A man kills a beast… so what? Nothing exceptional about it. Just bedtime tales.'

'And there we have it!' declared the merchant, a smarmy grin plastered across his face. '"Bedtime tales!"'

'Nay, nay! Not true. These stories I've 'eard from reliable men. From all over 'n all, they are, sayin' the exact same thing. How could they all 'appen upon the same lie? Tell me that!'

'Deceptions spread fast, my friend. Offtimes faster than the truth.'

The soldier shook his head. 'Nay, nay⁠⁠—'

'Listen, I'm not saying these chums of yours haven't seen brave men put down a beast here and there⁠—I won't deny anyone's fighting prowess. But "magically modified soldiers" is complete and utter balderdash, you must admit. And even⁠—even if⁠—' The merchant sprang off his stump, seized a stone, and flung it at a couple of rats skulking near the perimeter.

The rodents hissed and chattered as they scurried away into the underbrush.

'Now, where was I? Ah, yes: even if these, these "witch men"—'

'—Witchers, I just ruddy well said!'

The merchant flapped his arms. 'Yes, yes! "Witchers!" Even if they do exist, as you and your pals say, what need have we of them, really? Are the monsters that much of a threat? Sure, I'll admit, they kill off a few unfortunate sods here and there, but it's only the senseless really, isn't it? Those ignorant fools that stray too far from the beaten path; get themselves eaten in some dank swamp in the middle of nowhere.'

'That's feckin' preposterous, that is. A mockery!' bawled the dwarf.

'Quite apt, actually! You haven't got the coin to afford safe passage? Then you bloody well stay put, where it's safe. Too poor or frugal to invest in a good escort like myself? Then perhaps you shouldn't go galavanting across the countryside in the first place. Besides, the monsters probably do us all a favour, when you think about it... get rid of the dregs of society, if you will. Cull the herd.'

The soldier ground his teeth, suppressing his rage. 'And what makes you so special?'

'Have you not been paying attention? Or perhaps hard of hearing?' He nodded towards Cut-Throat, who was now strolling around the edge of the camp. 'Like I said, I've an astute sense of self-preservation, and thus, am amply prepared for anything.'

'Best prepare ye self for a good slap, ye keep yappin' away with that trap o' yours,' the dwarf snapped.

'—Quiet!' Cut-Throat hushed. He was now standing deadly-still, head tilted toward the darkness beyond the campfire's glow, fixated on something. 'Keep it down. It's too late in the night for a ruckus.' Hand on the pommel of his sword, he stalked away from the camp.

'Excuse me,' the merchant persisted. 'Where do you imagine you're going? Cut-Throat!?' Cut-Throat, unabated, disappeared into the inky wilderness without another word.

'He's right,' Galanthea said, 'it's rather late, and my old bones need their rest.' She climbed to her feet and made her way towards her tent. 'We have a long day on the morrow.'

'Aye, aye,' mumbled the dwarf, draining the last of his mead. 'Aye, we've that indeed.'

Within the hour, the entire party had turned in and were sound asleep, even the designated lookout…

... While somewhere nearby, amid the shadows, two beady red eyes glinted in the pale moonlight.

Chapter 6

Guttural snores resounded through the campsite, along with the soft crackling of the fading flames. High above, the light of a full moon peeked through looming clouds, painting everything outside of the embers' glow in an eerie monochrome.

One of the tents rippled. The merchant stumbled out of the front flaps, dazed by drowsiness. He eyed the silhouette of a large tree at the perimeter, and worked his way towards it, weaving between sleeping travellers snuggled up to the fire.

Finding a secluded spot in the shadows, he unfastened his breeches and relieved himself—

SQUEAK!

The merchant lurched, sloshing urine over his feet as he pivoted towards the sound. 'Curse it!'

A rat perched on a nearby stump, glaring at the merchant. It chattered, mimicking laughter.

'You little shit!' he shrilled, picking up a fistful of stones and flinging them at the rodent. 'Shoo!'

The rat, unfazed by the bombardment, remained where it was, chirping defiantly.

'Right!' declared the merchant, surveying his surroundings, 'I'll bloody well show you, you vile—ah, there we are!' He picked up a large rock and lugged it towards the creature. 'Don't. Say. I. Didn't. Warn⁠—HUAH!' He hurled the heavy stone, and the rodent jumped away, retreating into a nearby bush.

'Ha!' he proclaimed with a conceited grin. 'And let that be a lesson⁠⁠⁠—'

SQUEAK, SQUEAK!

The merchant jumped, twirling around. A mischief of rats stood behind him.

'Where in good graces did⁠—'

SQUEAK! SQUEAK! SQUEAK!

More rats scurried from the underbrush, encircling him.

'W-w-what the…' he croaked.

They glared at him; a sea of tiny eyes twinkling in the moonlight.

'Cut-throat?' he whispered. ‘Cut-throat...w-w-where a-are…'

A shadow slowly enveloped the area, blotting out the moonlight as it rose above the merchant. Trembling, he turned⁠—’Cut-Throat?’—to face two scarlet eyes peering down from high above, a frothing maw, and elongated incisors dripping with putrid saliva.

The merchant let out a terrified wail, just as his throat was ripped open.

An army of rats scampered through the campsite as travellers spilt from their tents and sleeping nooks, yelling and jeering amid the chaos.

Someone screamed as the dismembered torso of the merchant hurtled through the air and landed in the centre of camp. Then a bristly behemoth appeared from the shadows; an intimidating physique of exposed muscle and scarred flesh. It bellowed, chattering its oversized maw, and swiped a charging dwarf, effortlessly launching him across the site and into the darkness beyond.

The giant rodent's eyes darted around and fell upon Galanthea, who was emerging from her tent in a state of confusion. It gnashed its teeth, then lumbered towards her, snarling and slobbering.

THWACK!

A crossbow bolt embedded itself into the monster's shoulder. It shrieked and tore out the wooden shaft, snapping its jaws viciously as it scoured for the source.

THUD!

Another bolt, into the thorax this time.

'Get back!' Cut-Throat dashed out of the thicket, dropped the crossbow, and unsheathed his sword. The blade shimmered with a silvery luminescence as he twirled it around.

The beast roared, then rushed at him. Cut-Throat lifted his sword and braced himself, waiting until the last possible moment... he pirouetted to the left and slashed the monster's broad back with a wide stroke, sending a mist of crimson across the camp.

A mesmerising flurry of slices, feigns, and ripostes followed, accompanied by blood spatter and piercing yowls as the cloaked man confidently commanded the flow of the fight, cutting with inconceivable speed and expert precision.

Succumbing to the lacerations, the rodent abomination let out a whine, stumbled to its knees, and slanted forwards, red seeping into the dirt around its mighty frame.

The man angled his blade, ready to administer the final blow.

One of the bystanders gasped as the monster's arm shot out, seizing its opponent by the throat. The beast snarled and climbed to its feet, lifting the man high above the ground. The wounds on its disfigured body closed back up⁠—severed flesh and slashed muscle knitting themselves back together. The sword slipped from the man's fingers as he reached up, clasping at the furry mitts throttling him.

Spectators stood frozen, gawping as Cut-Throat flailed in the beast's grasp. Then, in a moment that amazed all present, he extended his hand towards the rodent's gnarly face and made a peculiar gesture with his fingers.

Flames surged from his palm, blasting the monstrosity with an inferno; melting its face and sternum. It howled violently, clawing at its snout as it released the man and stumbled backwards.

In a flash, Cut-Throat pulled out a leathery orb with a fuse, ignited it with a snap of his fingers, and tossed it at the feet of the caterwauling behemoth.

The bomb fizzed and sparked...

BAROOM!

The wererat exploded into chunks of charred flesh and bone.

The remaining travellers, drenched in blood and innards, stood in awe.

Cut-Throat sauntered over to the mangled corpse of the merchant, rummaged through his satchel, and retrieved a small jingling pouch. He cast his gaze over the onlookers' gawking faces, shrugged, then pocketed the coin.

Mouth agape, the soldier stuttered, pointing a shaky finger at the cloaked man, then uttered a single word of disbelief. '... Witcher.'

Chapter 7

The sun glared down on the travelling caravan ambling along the dusty road to Maribor. Towards the rear of the convoy, Galanthea sat in the back of a wagon, watching the witcher intently as he slowly approached her on horseback.

She greeted him with a welcoming smile. 'You have my utmost gratitude for your services last night.'

He furrowed his brow, resentful of the compliment, but reluctantly accepted and gave her a cursory nod.

Galanthea chuckled to herself as a thought crossed her mind. 'I guess, by extension, Alzur saved me yet again.'

The witcher clenched his jaw; his nostrils flaring.

'Something the matter, my dear?' she asked, 'I'd wager you didn't just trot over here to bask in my appreciation.'

He paused, taking a moment to compose his thoughts. 'Did you even know Alzur?'

'Oh... I knew him better than most.'

'Then why spew shit you know ain't true?' He cracked his neck. 'Maybe you're just delusional. Or utterly blind.'

She smiled. 'Truths aren't necessarily universal, my boy. Sometimes they're just a matter of perspective.'

The witcher grumbled, rode in silence for a while, then shook his head with frustration. '"Love"...?' he rebuked. 'If he actually cared for others, he would never have done what he did. What he no doubt still does.'

'You have something you'd like to say.' Galanthea eyed the man, then stifled a yawn. 'Sleep eluded me last night⁠—as you can imagine—so hop to it, lad... while I'm still cognizant.'

'Do you even have an inkling of how Alzur and his lackeys make witchers?'

'Not with love, I deduce...'

'They take little boys. Nab 'em from the streets. Pay off parents, if they have to. Do whatever they can to get their hands on fresh subjects. You see, it has to be children⁠—that's what they told us. Cosimo, the older mage⁠—white-bearded bastard⁠, he was—used to always rattle off some bullshit about... malleability. He and Alzur would refer to us as slabs of wet clay, primed for moulding. So fuckin' detached. Once you've lived so many years, they'd say, life takes its toll, and the clay, well, it sets. Hardens. Tryin' to reshape a grown man becomes impossible because they just splinter and snap. So, kids are the only ones that can be subjected to the mutations⁠—at least, they're the only ones that stand any sort of chance. Even then, most break anyway.' The witcher stared at Galanthea, assessing her reaction. 'Many of the boys I knew now sleep in shallow graves.'

She avoided his gaze and instead surveyed the pastures aside the road.

'Yeah... dead children don't make the best ballad material, do they?'

Turning back to the witcher, she remained silent, her eyes welling with curiosity.

'We had to bury them ourselves; with their mangled bodies and twisted faces—mouths still agape from their final screams. Thing is, they were the lucky ones. Got out quick. The rest of us poor sods had to go on and endure Alzur's various "Trials"—or so he called them, as if they were heroic feats we had chosen to undertake, to prove our worth. As if we made a choice to go through hell for that cunt's validation.'

'You say he does it all for some vision of a better world. I say fuck that⁠—he does it all for himself. Vainglory. Helpin' others is just... overspill. Sure, he'd feign compassion from time to time, when eyes were on him. Like when the fools who funded his sordid little projects came to visit. Oh, he'd put on quite a show for the aristocrats. Real hospitable he'd get⁠ while parading us around. Flaunting his success. His brilliance. "Behold what the Great Alzur hath conjured for you, gentlemen''. Arrogant fuck.' He snorted. 'Then, content with their investment, they'd leave, and he'd snap right back to cold indifference. Return to his tower. Wouldn't see him again until the next trial was ready, and those weren't exactly happy occasions for us. Nah... we were just a means to an end for that bastard⁠—a way to establish his reputation. Ensure his legacy.' His eyes glazed over as he pondered. '... Just wet clay in the hand, ready to be shaped to his will.'

A moment lingered.

'You tell quite the tale, witcher.' Galanthea smirked softly. 'Ever considered a profession in storytelling?'

'Jest if you must, but it's the damn truth⁠—fuck perspective.' He hawked and spat into the dirt, then returned to brooding in memory.

Her eyes lingered on the witcher as he ambled alongside the wagon, steeped in thought.

'You know...' She paused, considering her words carefully. 'I'm genuinely grateful you were with us last night. I wish you to know that.'

The witcher hesitated, then nodded. 'I should go on ahead⁠... make sure no surprises await us down the trail.' He blinked away a memory, then grasped the reins of his horse⁠—' Enjoy your rest'—and galloped away.

Chapter 8

Galanthea reclined in the back of the wagon, relaxing as she gazed up at the cloudless sky. She blinked slowly, her lids heavy and sluggish as she listened to the rhythmic trot of the horses upfront...

... High above, a flock of birds circled amid the vast azure. One of them let out a hellish shriek. She squinted and realised they weren't birds at all. Wide, ragged wings flapped sporadically, and long scaly tails flicked behind them. The flying terrors swooped lower, descending on the caravan. One yowled as it exploded into a ball of gore. Then another, and another. A torrent of blood and guts rained down.

Alzur's voice reverberated all around. 'Fear not, little one. You're safe.'

The crimson downpour lapsed to clear water as it thrashed against the outside of a town hall; a warm glow radiating from its windows.

Inside, emaciated bodies coughed and wheezed as they huddled together in groups of men, women, and children, shaking and whimpering. A figure in a black waxed overcoat and beaked mask weaved through the bodies, prodding them inquisitively with his cane.

On a makeshift stage of crates, a young Galanthea, donning boyish troubadour attire, played a fiddle and sang a cheery song for her sickly audience. Their sunken eyes gleamed with contorted joy as they smiled through their agony.

A croaky, brittle voice cut through the scene. 'Oh, dear, sweet, poor thing. The sickness, 'tis in you. Deep hath it burrowed.'

Galanthea stopped playing and lowered her instrument, her eyes widening. A congregation of corpses sat before her, their naked bodies withered and rotten. Each wore a beaked mask. One by one, they began to caw, growing louder and louder. A symphony of hoarse coos consumed the soundscape.

The candles extinguished, plunging the room into pitch black and eerie silence.

'Death looms, and your light fades.' Two eyes shone amid the dark. 'But fret not, my child, for Old Thelma can cure thy rot.'

Flames from a central hearth blazed up, illuminating the inside of a small cottage. An assortment of trinkets and baubles piled up high around the room, and crows adorned the shelves and rafters, cawing as they hopped about.

Young Galanthea, skinny and pale, sat in front of the fire, staring at the old lady draped in black feathers on the other side of the flames.

'An oath shalt thou take, thy song thou shalt give,' she flashed her teeth at the young bard, 'and Old Thelma will ensure thou go on⁠—that thou shalt live.' She sniggered.

The flames of the hearth flared and swelled, spilling across the timber flooring and crawling up the walls; consuming everything.

In the middle of a secluded grove, a cottage burned violently. A harrowing scream pierced through the roaring inferno. 'Child! What hast thou done!?'

Galanthea stood in the grove, watching the fiery destruction through wet eyes.

Alzur's voice echoed all around. 'Just nod, Snowdrop, and consider it done.'

A hand squeezed her shoulder. She turned to see Alzur standing next to her, his face and chest spattered with blood. He knelt before her, and a malevolent grin crept across his face. 'Two for two.' He chuckled.

Fire devoured the grove.

The hideous wailing crescendoed⁠—

Galanthea's eyes snapped open, and she sat upright, her skin slick with sweat.

Catching her breath, she surveyed her surroundings and noticed the wagon had stopped.

Sounds of an argument came from nearby. A shrill voice shouted, 'We ain't messin' around, ye hear? Step⁠— step the fuck back!'

She hopped off the back of the wagon and saw they were pulled up next to an inn alongside a crossroad. A wooden sign read: "The Double-Cross".

Galanthea rounded the wagon's rear to see the caravan encircled by a mismatched band of men and women in peasant garb, armed with rusty swords, scythes, and pitchforks. In the middle, a lanky woman brandished a crossbow with a tense, shaky grasp and pointed it at the soldier.

The soldier took a step towards her. 'C'mon, don't be daft.' He took another step, a tad too aggressively. 'You don't have to⁠—'

TWANG.

A bolt sprang forth, striking the soldier in his knee. He grunted and clasped at the shaft, then toppled to the ground. 'Ploughin' bitch!'

'I-I-I fuckin' warned you, I did,' she stuttered, then flicked her eyes around the onlookers. 'None of ye fuck about, alright? Or⁠... or see what ye get!' she exclaimed nervously as she hastily fumbled another bolt into the groove. 'Anyone take issue with that?'

None of the travellers responded.

'Good!' The woman nodded to one of her men. 'Get 'em inside, outta the way.'

Chapter 9

'Just our fuckin' luck, this is,' the dwarf glowered as he lit another candle, placing it on one of the kegs in the corner of the cellar.

'Please do be careful⁠—with the flames,' the halfling cautioned. 'Lest we hop out of the frying pan and into, well, you know...'

'Ach, dinnae worry. Got hands as steady as stone.' He lit another and positioned it on a shelf. 'How long ye been down here, laddie?' he asked the innkeeper, who was perched on a barrel.

'Oh... not too long. A few days, perhaps.' The innkeeper panned over the company of travellers. 'You're the first they've…'

'Robbed?' the dwarf cut in.

'Yeah. Sorry. Don't take it personally. They aren't brigands⁠—not really. I even know most of 'em. Local farmers and helpin' hands mainly. But... with this accursed drought lingerin' as long as it has, folks have got desperate—real hopeless. So, they're… improvising.'

The soldier let out a moan as Galanthea tightened rags around his bloodied knee.

Dust fell from the ceiling as stifled footsteps trampled the floorboards above their heads, along with muffled voices.

'I'm sorry about your friend. I'm sure they didn't mean it.'

'Dinnae worry; he'll be fine. Won't ye?'

The soldier grumbled.

'But nae more soldiering for you, eh?' he chuckled. 'Best get used to guard duty. Heh!' He grinned as he lit an oil lamp, illuminating a large painting resting against the back wall. The huge canvas depicted an immense battlefield. One side raised white and black standards in triumphant celebration, while the other army cowered beneath a torrent of raining fire descending from the sky. Amid the victors, an illustrious-looking mage stood proud with his arms raised, surrounded by luminous runes.

'The final battle of The Endless War,' the innkeeper informed them. '"Alzur's Double-Cross"… the painting's called. We get⁠— well, we used to get many folks from Ellander passing through, and it seemed in bad taste, so we popped it down here, out of the way.' He chuckled. 'Can't do much about the name of the inn though.'

'So it's true then?' the halfling probed. 'Alzur used his magic to slay an army?'

The dwarf held the lamp's glow up to the painting. 'Aye. Looks that way.'

More dust fell from the ceiling as people moved about above. The indistinct voices increased in volume.

'You've heard of him then? Alzur?' the innkeeper asked.

'Some tales here 'n there, aye.' The dwarf scanned over the burning army, its soldiers fleeing and screaming as they perished. 'They didnae stand a chance.'

The innkeeper rose from the barrel and strolled over to the painting. 'The artwork doesn't show it, but it's said he opened a portal. Used a spell⁠ to summon something dreadfully powerful from, well... another world, I suppose⁠. People talk about how the sky split apart, and a storm of swirling fire swept across the battlefield. But it weren't no dragon or anythin' like that. No... somethin' much worse...' He stroked his moustache. 'Laid waste to their army, whatever it was—a crushin' defeat. And Ellander, well, they had no choice but to surrender outright; gave up the throne of Vizima to the Duke of Maribor the very next day. Finally puttin' an end to The Endless War.'

'Ain't right,' scorned the dwarf, gawping at the canvas. 'It's a swindle. Battles should be fought with honour, on equal footin'. None o' this… otherworldly shite. Those men shouldnae died in such a way.'

'Yes. Quite right, I have to agree,' the halfling added.

'He did it...' Galanthea looked up from the soldier, her eyes sombre. '... to save lives.'

The dwarf guffawed. 'Aye, lass, aye! And I fuck for chastity!'

'No, no, she's quite right,' the innkeeper corrected. 'The war was some nasty business indeed. Endless bloodshed raged across these parts, for generations, all so one Duke or another could sit upon a slightly bigger throne.'

'Aye, I've heard about the skirmishes, but... why'd it last so long?' the dwarf asked.

'Well,' the innkeeper sat back on the barrel, 'both forces were equal in strength, so they found themselves at a constant stalemate, no side winning more than its fair share of battles. And with that balance came the hope of eventual victory, I guess, for both sides, so neither Duke would back down… nor their sons... or their sons' sons. They just... kept on sending their men to slaughter, time and again... for duty, or honour, or pride⁠—or whatever other lie the nobles tell their pawns to justify the sacrifice. And "sacrifice" is puttin' it lightly. Around these parts, you'd be hard-pressed to find a family who didn't lose several ancestors to that blasted war.'

The dwarf shook his head solemnly.

'Without Alzur's intervention,' the innkeeper concluded, 'there's no sayin' how long the bloodshed would have continued...'

The dwarf furrowed his brow. 'Aye... But it cannae be right, can it? To do such a thing... He shouldnae meddle in the fates of others...'

'Meddling in the fates of others…' Galanthea smiled, '... is what he does best.'

A shrill scream rang out from upstairs.

THUD!

Chapter 10

The witcher made his way back down the dusty road...

Fortunately for the caravan, the only thing awaiting them was a steady supply of animal remains strewn across the fields; their bones picked clean. Victims of the drought, he suspected. Poor bastards.

He approached the inn at the crossroads⁠—the caravan should have arrived by now, and would no doubt stay for the night. Then, just half a day more and they'd be at Maribor city… He furrowed his brow, contemplating: why even come this far after already collecting his coin? His employer was dead, and he no longer had any obligation. Not a professional one, at least...

He hawked and spat into the dirt. Just a way to kill time, he concluded. Just something to do...

As he neared the inn, he saw familiar horses and wagons out front⁠—as expected⁠—but, the scene was off; something not quite right...

He trotted over carefully and surveyed the indentations of the disturbed dirt from horseback, then slid from his saddle and crouched to get a closer look. Some sort of struggle, he deduced. Specks of dried blood⁠—no doubt about it. He frowned. 'Fuck.'

The witcher threw his steed a casual command—'Stay’—then strode towards the inn.

Outside, a burly man in a dirty yellow tunic was hunched on a bench, playing with a dagger and glaring at the approaching witcher. He stood up and puffed out his chest. 'Sorry, chum, we's closed.'

He ignored the warning and continued. The dull-looking man stepped in front of the door, blocking the way. 'You lookin' for a beatin'? I said we's fuckin'—'

Without hesitation, the witcher launched his fist into the man's gut, dropping him to the ground. Winded, the dullard rolled around, gasping for air.

The witcher threw the man a casual command⁠—'Stay’—then entered the inn.

Inside, the group of would-be bandits were gathered around tables, sifting through the trinkets they'd collected from the caravan. The murmur of their conversation simmered to silence as the witcher entered, and they collectively stared at the intruder.

'Where are they?' the witcher asked, calm and composed.

After a brief moment of surprise, the lanky woman snatched her crossbow from the table.

'Don't bother…'

She tautened the string and hurriedly notched a bolt as the witcher rolled his eyes. 'Who… who the heck are you?' she demanded.

He cracked his neck and placed his hand on the pommel of his sword. 'Where are they?'

The woman narrowed her eyes, then nodded to the others, spurring them to spread out and surround the witcher.

'What's the plan then? Hold up here? Prey on passers-by? How long you think that'll work, huh? Before they send the guard and you all dance a jig on the end of a rope.'

'Nah… they're too busy dealin' with the riots in the city. Drought's caused right anarchy. They ain't comin' out here no time soon⁠—no chance. Now... piss off 'n leave us be, 'fore I drop ye.'

The witcher tilted his head, listening intently. 'Hmm...' He heard muffled voices from down below. 'Why capture them? Why not just rob 'em and let 'em be on their way? Simpler.'

‘Cos⁠— That's⁠— Cos⁠— Well... 'her eyes flicked around as she thought. 'None⁠— none o' your fuckin' business, that's why.' She tensed her aim. 'Last warning, I swear.'

'My advice…' The witcher's grip tightened around the hilt of his sword. '... Cut your losses, and go home.'

The woman blinked rapidly, considering, then slowly fingered the trigger.

'Don't…' the witcher warned, bracing himself.

Her eyes widened⁠⁠—she'd made up her mind.

The witcher unsheathed his sword.

TWANG!

The bolt flew.

In one fluid stroke, he caught the projectile mid-flight with the flat of his blade.

CLANG!

The bolt reeled sideways through the air and hit one of the gang members in his throat. He let out a half-gasp, gargled blood, then collapsed onto the floor. The woman screamed⁠—'AAAH!'—then fell quiet with shock, the crossbow slipping from her fingers.

Silence lingered, then, finally, the witcher panned over the onlookers, scowling. 'Anybody else?'

They immediately dropped their weapons and displayed the palms of their hands in submission, shaking their gawping faces from side to side. A raggedy man stammered, 'P-p-please, sir.'

The witcher casually sheathed his sword. 'Go on… fuck off.'

The band cautiously shimmied towards the front door; their eyes fixed on the witcher. When they were close enough, they rushed outside, stumbling over each other as they fled.

The witcher looked down at the blood pooling around the unfortunate wretch. He sighed, then clicked his tongue regretfully. 'Unlucky, pal...'

He surveyed the room and found a large trapdoor nestled in the corner.

A hushed voice came from beneath. 'Witcher?'

He lifted the hatch and saw Galanthea at the foot of a wooden ladder, peering up. She smiled at the sight of him and nodded with gratitude.

The witcher glowered at her for a moment, then smirked ever-so-slightly. 'Two for two.'

Chapter 11

Atop a shallow bank beside the inn, the witcher shovelled out another heap of dirt from the grave he was digging. For a moment, he was back within the grounds of Alzur's castle, burying the mutilated bodies of his fallen brethren. The mage's voice echoed in his head: 'It's a sorry affair, I know. But it has to be done, my boy. It must!' He squeezed his eyes shut, quashing away the memory, then resumed his task.

Nearby, Galanthea sat upon a bench hewn out of a felled oak, fondly watching the soil-spattered witcher. 'Perhaps he wanted a pyre...'

He shot her an unimpressed side-eye. She smirked.

'You're proving quite the knight in shining armour, I must say.'

He kicked the shovel into the earth with a grunt and scooped out another load.

'Perhaps I should dig out my fiddle... compose an epic ballad about your escapades.'

He huffed.

Galanthea pondered for a moment. 'Of course, I would have to find some suitable words to rhyme with "witcher"....' she paused. 'Or... with "Madoc"...'

The witcher froze, then slowly lifted his head towards her.

'He spoke ever so fondly of you. The last time we met.'

The witcher vaulted out of the grave, threw down his shovel, and took several aggressive strides towards Galanthea. 'He tryin' to meddle in my affairs now? Follow me around? That it? What are you⁠—his loyal lapdog?'

'I'm no man's operative, my dear. 'Twas fate alone that entwined our paths. Yet, the very first moment I laid my eyes upon you… oh, I knew for sure who stood before me.'

'Horseshit!' The witcher feigned a guffaw. 'Typical! He can't fathom anything being outside his control, can he!' He scoffed, 'Has to pull at the fuckin' strings!' He cracked his neck. 'So, what? He sent you here to soften me up? Coerce me to come crawling back to his fanciful fellowship, eh? Well, it ain't gonna happen. I don't belong there⁠—never have. It's all a blasted farce! I'm just a killer⁠—a good-for-nothin' cut-throat⁠—I'll never be anything more than that.'

Galanthea let his anger hang, then tilted her head. 'Oh, Madoc… Why spew shit you know ain't true?' She smiled. 'Maybe you're just delusional. Or utterly blind...'

Madoc seethed. 'Don't you...'

Her eyes grew sombre. 'You must know, he really wants⁠—'

'Fuck off!'

'You're so very special to him. You can't imagine, even after all this time, being one of the first⁠—'

'I'm not his pet⁠—his fuckin' plaything.'

'No, no, of course⁠—'

'He needs to let go, dammit!'

Galanthea paused, considering her words. 'Aye, you're quite right, he does. He needs to let a lot of stuff go. But so do you.' She eyed Madoc, then patted the space beside her. 'Come. Sit.'

The witcher's scowl lingered as he clenched his jaw, quivering with frustration. Then he gave in and perched himself on the edge of the bench.

'You spend an awful lot of time brooding, don't you?' She let the moment linger, his silence becoming the answer he did not want to give. She continued facetiously, '"Oh, woe is me! I'm stuck as a monster, a freak!"... eh? Well, boo-fucking-hoo!'

Madoc faced her, taken aback by her tone.

'Grow up, lad, and get over it.'

He glared at her, then veered his gaze out over the prairie.

'I always duck the question of why I stopped being a bard. Wanna know why?' She didn't wait for an answer. 'Because it's a story not worth telling, and certainly not worth hearing. There's no charming adventure to be found, no magical moment, no grand finale. Just… a simple truth that doesn't sit well with most folk. You see, I never even wanted to be a bard in the first place, it was but a self-imposed obligation... to honour the memory of those long past. I kept on, for decades, singing to strangers, playing that damned fiddle... miserable and unfulfilled. Propelled onwards by guilt⁠. Surviving when others have not can be... a heavy burden to bear. But, of course, I needn't tell you that…'

The witcher mumbled something unintelligible.

'I was just depriving myself of a life well-lived, for a futile cause born from penance.'

'That's on you,' the witcher muttered.

'Aye. Aye. And it took me a good long time to realise it. You cannot allow the past to dictate your future. It's a helluva waste of life, to be held prisoner by the dead and buried. Even Alzur—with all of his wits and longevity⁠—still hasn't figured that one out. He's obsessed with a time long gone, one he cannot let go of. But that's his choice to make. And you, Madoc, have your own.' She paused. 'Alzur isn't the one shaping your clay, my dear. Not for a long time now…'

Madoc remained silent, wallowing in thought.

'You've been through hell. And I feel your pain, I do. But do not make the mistake of thinking you have a monopoly on suffering. On the contrary, you're in quite the privileged position. Most folks have to eke out a sorry excuse for a living, barely surviving from one day to the next. Denied any aspirations. Then⁠—poof!—they die, and it was as if they were never here at all. But you, you can go places and do things most of us could only dream of. You can accomplish incredible feats, make the world a better place, and be remembered for it. To renounce that gift because of bad blood and stubbornness... well, it would be a grave affront to all those less fortunate.

'So, I say this to you: Alzur and his vision be damned⁠. Heck, your fallen brothers be damned as well. This is about you. Take control of your destiny and shape your future for the better, before it's too late. Because, Madoc, you are afforded the luxury to do so.'

The witcher slouched forwards, his eyes glazed over with contemplation.

Galanthea held out her hand, palm upturned, then glanced towards the sky. 'Looks like you best finish that hole of yours.' Seemingly from nowhere, slate-grey clouds had assembled across the once-spotless sky, and a light rain was falling. 'Something tells me you don't have very long.'

Chapter 12

The innkeeper tumbled out through the front doors and dropped to his knees in the mud, arms extended jubilantly towards the heavens. 'A miracle⁠—praise be!' He closed his eyes and smiled, basking in the refreshing drizzle. 'So many years forsaken, so many⁠—' A thought hit him, and he hopped to his feet and rushed back inside. Moments later, he reappeared, followed by the halfling and the dwarf, their arms all overflowing with copper pots and pans.

Madoc and Galanthea, still sitting upon the nearby hillside, smiled in unison at the sight of them frantically collecting rainwater in the various vessel-like wares.

The witcher's gaze ascended towards the sky. He eyed the clouds warily as they drifted outwards from a singular point in the distance. Strange, he thought, furrowing his brow. He scratched his bristly throat and cocked his head to the left. 'Alzur…'

'... Aye.' Galanthea said after a moment.

He brushed away the thought and diverted the conversation. 'How... How did he lift your curse? You never said.'

Galanthea mulled over the question, then sighed sedately. 'That, my dear, is a tale for another time. And one I won't relish the telling of, that's for sure.'

The witcher frowned.

She smiled softly. 'Let's just say: life sometimes leaves you with no good choices. No clear avenue towards respite. But a choice must always be made, and the consequences faced, whatever they may be. You'll do well to remember this, witcher: consequences, if shunned, are wont to accrue. And in the end, the piper must always be paid, one way or another.' She gazed at some of her travelling companions dancing with glee in the rain outside the inn. 'Few of us make it through life unsullied, Madoc. And those that do tend to die young. Best we can do is to try and balance the scales, somehow, before we take our final breath.'

The witcher snorted. 'Life is debt.'

'Aye.'

The sounds of joyous celebration were suddenly engulfed by an ear-splitting boom.

RUMBLE!

CRACK!

Flashes of blinding light, both green and red, illuminated the landscape.

Madoc jumped to his feet and cast his gaze out across the fields to the horizon, where the walls of a far-off Maribor city could be seen reaching above the freshly sodden plains. 'What's he doing?'

High above, the voluminous clouds tumbled unnaturally across the sky, growing darker as they shifted ominously from the capital.

Suddenly lightning flashed and forked over the dismal vista, swiftly followed by the bellowing rumble of thunder. Light rain gave way to a torrential downpour, and the breeze burst into a stormy gale. The grey-black clouds whirled in the distance, circling a hole in the sky that was opening up. Sinuous rifts of pulsating light veined outwards from the expanding breach, casting a spectrum of vibrant colours dancing across the horizon.

Galanthea and Madoc joined the travellers that had congregated on the crossroads to watch the distant chaos unfold.

'Oh, no, oh, no,' the halfling muttered to himself. 'Oh, dear.'

"Tis a portal!' the dwarf yelled over the sound of belting rainfall. 'Just like Ellander!'

'P-p-ploughin' hell!' The soldier's face turned white, and his eyes widened with disbelief. 'It cannot be…'

From deep within the faraway cyclone, an enormous and horrific form snaked downwards from the portal. Its giant elongated body, adorned with rows of hooked limbs on either side, wrapped and writhed in the sky, descending upon the city of Maribor.

The ground trembled as the terrible monstrosity crashed into the ill-fated metropolis.

The gaping hole snapped shut in its wake, and the spectrum of vivid light faded from existence. All that remained was the blackened clouds, the blackened landscape, and the blackened silhouette of the colossal monster illumined by the spasmodic lightning. Each flash revealed a fleeting glimpse of the massive centipede wreaking havoc upon the city; its immense mandibles snapping violently as it constricted its long thorax around protruding towers, shattering and smashing them to rubble.

Dammit, Madoc thought. Dammit to hell.

He squinted through the rain towards Galanthea. Her big brown eyes, soft and sombre, pleaded to him. 'Go,' she mouthed. 'He needs your help… we all do.'

Without hesitation, Madoc bounded over to the hitching post and vaulted onto his steed's saddle. Clenching the reins, he turned one last time towards those he had rescued. The halfling was busy using a saucepan to shield himself from the rain. The dwarf was barking something utterly lost amidst the backdrop of the now thrashing downpour. The soldier, holding onto the innkeeper for balance, was shaking his head woefully from side to side. Galanthea, her sorrowful eyes betraying her fear, smiled hopefully at the witcher and nodded with appreciation.

Madoc returned the gesture, then pivoted his mount onto the darkened road, spurred the horse on, and galloped towards Maribor city. Towards the blackness. Towards the lightning. Towards the all-consuming monster and savage ongoing carnage. Towards destruction, death and chaos incarnate.

Onwards he rode, towards his maker.

Onwards, towards his fate.

Back to Index.
 
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Journey IV: The Legend of Yennefer by Nimue
Caption translations by @betraymechino .

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'Year of birth - 1173. The birth of Janka.'
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'1180? Teased by kids. Difficult childhood.'
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'1187. Taken by Tissaia.'
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'1187. One awful night.'
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'1191. The birth of Yennefer.'
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'1245. Famous Last Wish.'
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'1248. Dragon Hunt.'

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'1263. Battle of Sodden Hill.'
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'1266. Temple of Melitele.'

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Journey V: The Tale of Triss by Condwiramurs
Caption translations by @betraymechino .
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'Year of birth - 1221. Long awaited child.'

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'1226. Little redhead troublemaker.'

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'1233. Arriving at the Aretuza.'
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'1235. Skilled healer.'
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'1241. King's new. . .'
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'1243. A witcher comes.'

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'1263. Fourteenth of the Hill.'
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'1266. Big sister.'
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'1267. After the Thanedd Coup.'


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Journey VI: Alissa Henson of Aretuza

CHAPTER 1:

My name is Alissa Henson, and I am a sorceress.

I introduce myself out of common courtesy, but the truth is: I don’t intend on anyone other than myself reading these words. But if you are not me and are indeed reading this, then I should probably state why it’s being written in the first place.

It all started with something my aunt, Aurora Henson, once told me:

‘At some point in your life, you will reflect upon your journey thus far and be compelled to recall your past. For those of our longevity, this sentiment is somewhat inevitable and certain to arise more than once. So, I bequeath this advice unto you: take notes along the way, as many as you can.’

Lo and behold, it appears my dear aunt was correct. Or, perhaps the mere suggestion of such things was indeed some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy⁠—a seed planted long ago by someone far wiser than I. Would I have felt this nagging urge to recount my past had I not spent so many years dutifully documenting it? It would seem a waste, would it not? If so, I find myself thanking Auntie regardless, for I have found great comfort in the therapeutic process of self-reflection over the years. I still do.

Of course, I don’t have to recall, as I had written it down at the time, but I do indeed remember when she first spoke those words to me. We were sitting in a carriage, ambling down a dreadfully bumpy and tediously long road to Thanedd Island, where I was to become, just like my aunt, a sorceress of Aretuza. I find it hard to put in words the excitement that coursed through my veins during the journey, but if I had to choose one, I suppose ‘electrifying’ would be adequate. You see, I had known I was to be a mage from, well, my earliest memory of life. Unlike most that find their way into the illustrious halls of Aretuza (and Ban Ard, for that matter), I was destined for it. At least, that’s what I was told by my aunt and her dear friend Agnes (who was another sort of aunt to me growing up, albeit more distant). Knowing I was to be a sorceress meant I spent much of my youth eagerly anticipating the day I would become one. And being the impatient child that I was, I found the wait a tantalizing ordeal, on the cusp of torment. Much to my dismay, Aunt Aurora would often reassure me that there was absolutely zero chance of Aretuza admitting a toddler, no matter how much said toddler pleaded. Which, in hindsight, was fair enough.

I spent much of my youth fantasizing about myself as a sorceress—in a pointy hat, with illustrious flowing robes and wand extended in a striking pose⁠—although, even as a child, I knew that’s not what they looked like in reality. I knew this because I had already spent a lot of time around mages, as Aurora would always bring me with her whenever she left Gors Velen to visit her colleagues and acquaintances. I even met all founding members of The Chapter of the Gift and the Art before I could walk or talk, which, as I was constantly assured, was a rare privilege indeed.

In fact, that was the time when I had my first “conduit event,” as it’s often referred to (when a child first displays an affinity for magic). I don’t personally remember the details, but the story had been told to me many times growing up. All these years later, I still find myself smiling gleefully at the thought of Herbert Stammelford flapping around in hysterics, frantically attempting to brush the horse dung off his cloak. ‘Ghastly! Ghastly!’ he howled, so it goes. Although, I still take offense at his claim that I had merely used my hands to throw the droppings at him, outright refusing to believe a child of my age⁠—‘And a girl, no less!’—was capable of such potent telekinetic ability. The last time I met him, he professed to have entirely forgotten the event and questioned if any of it had happened at all. I think he was still embarrassed.

Anyway, the day we first traveled to Aretuza on that gods-awful wagon, I was eleven years of age, which, I’m still proud to flaunt, was relatively young for an adept. (I still don’t fully understand why we couldn’t have just used a portal⁠—although there was probably a lesson about patience in there somewhere, I suppose. Auntie did so enjoy her tutelage, both in and out of the classroom.) I had actually seen the school many times previous, from afar, yet had never been allowed to visit. Aunt Aurora had taken quite a firm stance on the matter, often responding to my pleas with an authoritative yet calm ‘when you’re ready, child.’ Instead, I had to stay at her nearby residence in Gors Velen while she taught, but thankfully I could at the very least gaze longingly at the school from across the bay. In hindsight, that was probably more of a curse than a blessing, as it did naught but further stoke the flames of my impatience.

Now, all these years later, I find myself stricken by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia as I gaze at the words I wrote so long ago. The first words I ever wrote after Aurora’s advice, in fact, scribbled upon a piece of spare parchment as our carriage pulled up outside of Aretuza:

‘I’m here. I’m finally here! This is the best moment of my life!’

I remember jumping from the carriage and standing in awe before the school, eyes wide and mouth agape. At that moment, I was sure⁠—more sure than I’d been about anything in my life⁠ so far—that becoming a sorceress of Aretuza was the only thing I wanted in the whole world.

It’s funny how things change.

CHAPTER 2:

For those who have not had the good fortune to behold Aretuza and the island on which it stands, I beseech you to seek an opportunity to do so. It is beautiful⁠—within and without. Although, unless you have important business or influential acquaintances, I fear that most of the complex will remain a mystery to you. Visitors⁠—and even clients⁠—are often restricted to Loxia, which is the lowest level of the island. Still, even the views from Gors Velen are rather spectacular, and one, on a clear day, can behold the whole of the Isle of Thanedd, with the gigantic stone block of Garstang palace, its body seemingly carved into the rock upon which it stands, crowned by golden domes that shimmer in the sunlight; and the soaring solitary tower of Tor Lara (‘The Tower of the Gull’) that looms high above the cape, its summit ofttimes lost amid the clouds; and, of course, Aretuza itself. The scene is picturesque, to say the least.

I still gawp at the beauty of it all. But back then, the awe I felt was simply overwhelming.

My first day at Aretuza was⁠—as I had noted down back then⁠—a wondrous occasion! The excitement that I had been harboring for so many years came bubbling to the surface, and I grinned uncontrollably, skipped around like an excitable grasshopper, and asked far, far too many questions. I so desperately didn’t want to come across as a giddy child, but I just couldn’t contain myself. Luckily, I think the other girls were too busy fussing about their own demeanor to take any notice of mine.

But as if often the case, my enthusiasm⁠—or, well, overenthusiasm⁠—soon dissipated. My upbringing had afforded me a certain level of familiarity with the basics of magic. So, by no fault of the school itself, I found the first lessons particularly simple and, it pained me to admit, rather dull. But, I understood that was the way it was to be. I had to follow suit. Auntie had made it crystal clear that I should be afforded no special treatment under any circumstance, as she did not want other students to presume nepotism. And neither did I, for that matter.

However, despite the tedious introductory classes, I actually rather enjoyed discussing magic⁠—and indeed practicing it⁠—with the other adepts. It was exciting to witness the wonderment of those still unfamiliar with the fundamentals of the Power they were to spend their lives mastering⁠. Those that made the cut, at least...

There were seven of us ‘initiates’ at the start, but one failed the entrance exams, which I was told was unfortunate but expected, as not all who have a conduit event possess the correct aptitude for magic. To this day, I still do not understand completely how the tests assessed our capabilities, for they had no tangible relation to the use of magic or knowledge of the practice. They consisted mainly of evaluating shapes, patterns, and elements, together with a round of questioning containing rather peculiar and somewhat random themes. Since my induction, the entry exams have changed several times, usually when a new headmistress takes the helm, and the later iterations have certainly made more practical sense. Still, I passed the tests, and that was all that mattered back then. (Oh, what an embarrassment it would have been if Aurora Henson’s niece, the extraordinary and gifted Child of Magic, had failed the entrance exams. The shame would have indeed been too much to bear.)

In the beginning, there were, as mentioned, only a handful of adepts, and so we shared many lessons with the older students. It was during one of these classes when I first met the kindest girl I’ve ever had the pleasure of calling friend. Her name was Kalena. She was in her fourth year at the time, and I liked her immediately. Although she wasn’t the brightest⁠—far from it, in fact⁠—she was friendly and funny and caring and made me feel welcome. She was exactly what I needed in a companion, and I am forever grateful to have known her.

If the universe is in a constant state of balance, as some scholars assert, then it makes sense that on the day I made a friend, I also made an enemy. Her name was Yanna, and she was a member of the first class of Aretuza, which meant she had already graduated and would assist in teaching the younger students from time to time. I fear words alone would not do justice in describing the extent of contempt I held toward her and her classes: they were simply awful. For reasons then unknown to me, she would find any and all opportunity to ridicule and scorn me in front of the other adepts. The simplest of mistakes⁠—even a differing opinion⁠—would quickly turn into a scathing rant about my lackluster capabilities or, on the worst of days, some form of monotonous punishment, like scrubbing the lavatories.

I truly despised Yanna but, unfortunately, had to endure her classes on occasion, as there were only a handful of official teachers⁠—or ‘Mistresses’—at Aretuza⁠. Just four, actually, with each specializing in their own Primary Element⁠—Water, Air, Earth, and Fire. You see, it was⁠—and still is⁠—widely accepted that a young mage will go on to master only one of the elements, if they are even able to achieve that feat (many don’t). So far, there has been only one sorcerer in the world known to have mastered all four Elements⁠. His name was Jan Bekker.

And back then, I desperately wanted to be the second.

CHAPTER 3:

For the first few months of school, most lessons were led by Aurora. Younger adepts rarely saw the other teachers, as their respective Elements were considered far too advanced for beginners. You see, my aunt was the resident Mistress of Water, which is widely regarded as the safest Element, and therefore the first which sorceresses must become proficient in.

From hydromancy to mind manipulation, we spent most of that first term submerged in the Element of Water, charting its many beneficial uses and learning the theory in meticulous and intricate detail. It was quite the slog, as you can imagine⁠—to be so close to using magic, yet restrained by the fetters of the curriculum’s schedule. The mundanity of the introductory classes have now all but amalgamated into one blurry memory, yet I can still vividly remember our first exercise.

We had not long since learned about the water veins that flowed beneath the ground. Practically everywhere. These veins⁠—and their corresponding intersections⁠—are one of the most accessible sources of Power from which mages can draw, and therefore an ideal starting point for the inexperienced. For our first practical, we were each challenged to retrieve a magical crystal from somewhere inside the caverns beneath Aretuza. Hidden deep within the labyrinth-like underbelly, they had been placed above the most powerful source of Power in the vicinity, and therein lay the challenge: We had to locate the most potent veins and intersections and follow them to the secret location. A relatively simple task.

Or so I thought.

Luckily, we didn’t have to go into those dark, damp passages empty-handed. We were each allowed to take a single item to help with our endeavor. Most girls, spurred by their ignorance, opted to take a water wand. This was an obvious choice on the surface, but a moment’s thought about the practicality of such an object exposed its flaw. You see, water wands can identify intersections quite easily, yet they can not distinguish the strength of the source. In short: within a maze of intersections, they were next to useless.

I decided to be rather unconventional with my selection and chose to take Scoundrel, a rather chubby tabby. Although he lived on the grounds of Aretuza, no one had claimed him as their own, and he was considered, quite affectionately, as the mascot of the school during his lifespan (which was implausibly long, if I recall). I chose him because, like most cats, he could sense sources of Power⁠, and they were said to be fond of sleeping on intersections. Scoundrel had often disappeared for hours⁠—even days⁠—at a time and would then return with a delicate aura surrounding him. I had always wondered where he was going to soak up the Power, and deduced that he probably went to bask in the heart of the complex beneath the school--no doubt where the crystals were hidden. It was worth a shot, at least. (Note: no one knows how or why cats absorb magic. It has stumped even the most inquisitive wizarding minds for centuries and is one of the great mysteries of our time.)

As it happens, my plan worked.

Barely...

I spent hours trudging behind the cat as he nonchalantly sauntered through the caverns with evidently no desire to reach any particular destination. He frequently stopped and lay down for no specific reason, or to clean himself, or to swipe erratically at a random pebble that caught his eye. However, the biggest blocker⁠—and something I really should have foreseen⁠—was the abundance of vermin living in the caves. Every time some rodent scurried out from a nook or cranny, Scoundrel would jump to action and chase it. I remember yearning for a water wand at one point when my furry friend had disappeared down a narrow passage in pursuit of a rather rotund rat and didn’t return for the better half of an hour.

After what seemed like days, Scoundrel finally led me to the secret chamber. Yet, it was not the victory I so desperately craved. There were only two crystals left, which meant I was the second-to-last student to locate them⁠. I was crestfallen. And although I sulked for a while upon exiting the caves, I soon discovered that my situation could have been worse. Much worse.

You see, the last crystal was never claimed.

Zoriyka, one of the oldest and brightest students of our year⁠, hadn’t returned from the underground network of passageways. We were reassured that this was usual and happened to one or two students each year, but they would always, sooner or later, find their way back to the surface. Yet, sundown soon came, and there was still no sign of Zoriyka.

That night, Nina Fioravanti, the Mistress of Earth, led a small search party consisting of a handful of older adepts. They had been studying the caverns as part of their archaeology classes and so were quite familiar with the system of caves. Yet, apparently, the labyrinth contained numerous corridors still unknown to them and extended far deeper than they could have imagined.

It took them twelve hours to find the girl, and she left Aretuza the very next day. For good.

Kalena told me she had bumped into Zoriyka as Klara Larissa de Winter, the school’s founder and headmistress, whisked her out of the front gate and onto a carriage. She said the girl was far from her usual cheery self⁠—her face was deathly pale, and her eyes glazed and vacant as if lost in a deep trance. When Kalena had asked how she was, she completely ignored her. Or didn’t hear her at all... As Kalena had put it, the girl was somewhere between petrified and paralyzed.

I still think about those caverns from time to time⁠—about what could have happened to her down in the dark of Aretuza’s underbelly. Or what she saw. The teachers⁠—my aunt included⁠—outright refused to talk about the situation and would scold anyone who brought it up. All I knew then⁠—and now, for that matter⁠—is that soon after Zoriyka left the school, Mistress de Winter ordered every known entrance to the caves to be sealed indefinitely, and they never sent adepts looking for crystals in the dark ever again.

CHAPTER 4:

Those who know me know that I prefer a hands-on approach. I always enjoyed theory⁠, and I was always very good at it, but nothing quite compares to putting one’s knowledge and talent to constructive use. Of all my time at Aretuza, it was, above all others, Nina Fioravanti, the Mistress of Earth, who instilled in me this appreciation for the practical.

Earth is a reasonably tricky Element to learn, and I always respected those who mastered it⁠—of which there were, and still are, very few. Its difficulty stems from its inefficiency, as the Power harbored within, much like the structure of Earth itself, is stagnant. It does not actively flow⁠—like Water, Air, and Fire⁠—and so cannot easily move from one place to another, even with a magical hand guiding it. In short, it takes an incredible amount of energy to draw from and is therefore impractical, especially for unseasoned adepts.

After a year of nothing but Water (and some classes in Air), we were deemed ready to tackle the basics of Earth. I had prepared myself for a few months of introductory theory, as was customary, but was pleasantly surprised when Nina⁠—for our very first class no less⁠—took us to a nearby archeological site to assist with a dig. These outings continued for the better part of a month, and the most peculiar thing was: we didn’t use any magic. Day in and day out, we dug trenches, sifted through dirt, and categorized any objects we found⁠--mostly, we uprooted tiny bones of local wildlife and the occasional coin or worthless trinket.

Years later, I found out that we had discovered nothing of note because the whole endeavor was a sham. On the surface, at least. Nina had used the same site (which held exactly no historical significance) with every class she had taught since Aretuza first opened its illustrious doors for business. I was informed of this ruse by Nina herself years later when I was in my fourth year, during one of our private get-togethers.

Nina had apparently been fond of me since that very first dig, as, without hesitation or question, I had jumped right on into the task at hand. Unlike the other girls, I didn’t complain once about the situation, even after I had ruined almost all my garments with scuffs and stains, and she remembered that. That’s why, years later, she had recruited me for a special assignment that she described as ‘extracurricular’ and made me promise to keep it a secret from the other girls (I think I told Kalena almost immediately⁠—sorry, Nina). Of course, I, the would-be prodigy, pounced at the opportunity to earn extra credit. (Such a sycophant I was back then.)

It turned out that Nina’s responsibilities extended far beyond the Element of dirt and debris. For years, she had been in charge of solving a particular problem that emanated from Tor Lara. At the top of the tower resided an infamous and notoriously unstable portal, which no one ever used as doing so almost always⁠—so the stories go⁠—resulted in death. In fact, the whole tower was entirely off-limits to all students. Apparently, the portal emitted a strong magical field that interfered with nearby magic, and even the simplest of spells cast near the grounds would be warped into something erratic and dangerous. And so, Nina had been slowly imbuing the foundations of Tor Lara and the nearby palace of Garstang with a unique aura that, once fully implemented, would suppress all magic in its vicinity. After all, spells cannot be warped if they cannot be cast. Indeed, it was an incredible feat of magical engineering, especially for the time.

My job was to help with general research, to provide assistance with the imbuing process, and to gather any items the mistress required. The word ‘lackey’ could be used, but I didn’t mind. Even though the work itself was far from thrilling, the secrecy and importance of the venture excited me and made me feel rather special. Besides, I craved validation, and this was a sure way to gain Nina’s favor.

It was during one of the late evenings at Garstang palace when I learned about Nina’s scheme with the first years and the fruitless archaeological digs. She had chuckled quite heartily, expressing how it entertained her and saddened her in equal measure to know that the adepts, no matter how hard they’d try, would never find anything of significance during those fake excavations. When I questioned her on it, she pointed out the true nature of the lessons, and her answer is a sentiment that has stayed with me.

‘Given enough time and patience, anyone can move a mountain, one scoop at a time.’

It was a truth well-known to anyone pursuing mastery of the Earth Element and an attitude Nina wanted to instill into her students from the beginning. It turned out those outings weren’t about discovering some great treasure or long-lost secret⁠—on the contrary, such a find would have been detrimental to the lesson she wanted to teach. Instead, Nina wanted the adepts to embrace the concept of patience, hard work, and determination, even when there was little to show for one’s efforts.

‘A mage can spend a hundred years honing her chosen Element and still be a hundred years from mastering it. If one becomes entitled to instant gratification, then greatness, I fear, will forever elude them.’

I sometimes recall these words and ponder on how I would respond to them today, all these years later.

‘Perhaps, dear Nina, there is more to life than greatness…’

She’d probably scoff at that. Or laugh.

CHAPTER 5:

My conduit moment was the use of telekinesis (launching waste at venerable Stammelford), and so it was always presumed I would be most proficient in Air and would go on to master it. Truth be told, I fully expected to do so (on my journey towards total dominance of all elements, naturally!).

And so, I was incredibly excited to learn the element under the guidance of distinguished sorceress Agnes—or, Agnes of Glanville, Mistress of Air, if we are to be formal, which she always was. Other than my aunt, Agnes was someone I knew reasonably well. Since as far back as I can remember, she would often visit Aurora⁠—and by extension, myself⁠—so was a frequent presence during my childhood. One could argue that my official training began many years before I stepped foot in Aretuza, and considering all the ‘spontaneous’ lessons and insightful anecdotes I received on behalf of Agnes and Aurora, one would have a solid basis for argument.

There’s no doubt about it: I had a privileged childhood. I was relatively happy, healthy, and wanted for absolutely nothing (yearning for Aretuza aside). Yet, in hindsight, the main boon of my privilege stemmed from the constant access I had to two of the most prominent women in the wizarding world⁠—practically no six-year-old could have boasted such illustrious kinship. I mean no disrespect to Auntie when I say this, but whereas Aurora was (and is) well-respected and somewhat famous, Agnes was by far the more eminent figure. She is, you see, a living legend.

In the not-too-distant past, all mages were men (a fact that will surprise no one). Indeed, there were women who could harness the power of the elements, yet they were mainly branded as ‘healers’ and ‘herbalists’ and were disregarded as anything more. Being a human wizard, you see, was a safeguarded status, and only a select few (men) were officially recognized by their peers (men) as such⁠.

Then along came Agnes.

Apparently, she had inadvertently summoned a ferocious whirlwind for her conduit event at a very young age. As the story goes, it quickly turned into a raging storm which reduced a small coastal hamlet to nothing but rubble. I thoroughly believe this tale to be exaggerated (to say the least), yet I’d never state such thoughts aloud. Regardless, word soon spread about the ‘miraculous child’ and finally reached the ears of Giambattista (one of the architects of the Novigradian Union, along with his peers Jan Bekker and Geoffrey Monck). Eager to locate and identify conduits of Power (or ‘Sources,’ as they’re referred to now), Giambattista sought out the young girl, paid her mother handsomely for the child’s life, and then subjected her to his magical tests (which would later be implemented as entry requirements for Ban Ard).

Unlike all other children tested before the girl, Agnes amazed the mage with her innate capabilities (she has assured me, on numerous occasions, that he was indeed ‘amazed’) and so was taken under the wings of Monck, Bekker, and Giambattista and indoctrinated in the basics of magic.

Soon after, Monck gathered some of the gifted children, which were referred to as ‘Chosen Ones,’ and of which Agnes was the only girl. He then sailed up Aevon y Pont ar Gwennelen (today more commonly called the Pontar) to Loc Muinne, where he convinced elven sorcerers to teach the younglings the ways of the Elder Races. And thus, Anges’ fame was secured, as she became the first-ever woman (well, girl) to obtain the status of Sorceress (or ‘Enchantress,’ as she tells it).

And that’s pretty much all I know about that. I’ve asked Agnes on numerous occasions to tell me a story about her time with the Sages of the Blue Mountains but, upon hearing the request, she always becomes aloof and delays the matter with ‘another day, perhaps.’ I’m not sure why she’s so reluctant to recall that period of her life, but I am adamant that the next time we meet, I shall coerce her into telling me a tale or two (perhaps some alcohol will help to loosen her tongue...).

As I was saying: with the influence of such a woman (and Auntie, too!) guiding me, you can understand why such lofty expectations were placed upon my small, inexperienced shoulders. For me to not excel at mastering the ways of magic⁠⁠—well, that was simply not acceptable, and there was no excuse. ‘To squander your potential is an affront to all those less fortunate,’ Aurora would often tell me. ‘You have the luxury of options, so choose the correct one.’

And so, I pursued greatness relentlessly, for it was my obligation.

Or, as I’d frame it now, my burden.

CHAPTER 6:

Despite its many beneficial uses, there’s no denying that magic is dangerous, especially in the hands of an inexperienced mage, and especially when dealing with Fire⁠⁠—the most unpredictable and chaotic of all the elements. In fact, most adepts would do well to stay clear of it altogether if they value their safety and the safety of those around them. Heck, if you’re not willing to endure a lot of pain, mastery of Fire is the last thing you should pursue. This was a truth I learned right away during our first lesson with Klara Larissa de Winter, the Mistress of Fire and rectoress of Aretuza.

She was a cold (quite ironic, I know) and indifferent woman, and spent as little time dealing with the newer adepts as she could. On the surface, one could easily make the mistake of thinking Klara didn’t care for the profession she found herself in, but nothing could be further from the truth⁠. De Winter, it would often surprise folk to learn, was actually the school’s founder and cared deeply about the establishment’s image. She believed⁠—and rightly so⁠—that men and women should have equal support, and if the former had a school (Ban Ard) dedicated to nurturing the abilities of would-be mages, then the latter should have one too. And thus, Aretuza was born.

When the time finally came to meet her acquaintance, Klara was exceptionally blunt, and her past aloofness became abundantly clear. During our first lesson in Fire, she told us that she had no time for unexceptional students and would only tutor the best and brightest. ‘One of you...’ she had stated, clenching her jaw and scowling at us with her piercing, icy eyes. ‘I shall take on one of you. And that is all.’

As you can imagine, I was determined to be the one (I had to be!), even after Mistress de Winter’s attempt to rid us all of any illusions we had about the element:

‘You shall be burned. Many times. You shall endure pain and hardship. And each time you call upon the power of Fire, you shall dance with death⁠, for Fire has taken the lives of many mages⁠—both amateur and experienced⁠—and it will take yours, too, if you’re not attentive.’

She was not wrong. Fire can be channeled quite easily, yet that is far from the challenge of wielding it. Its erratic nature combined with the incredible amount of energy it withholds often leads to a mage experiencing an overwhelming surge of Power⁠. And such a surge is impossible to control. Over the years, many mages have been engulfed in flames and burnt alive due to their inability to stop the process. Some survivors have described the moment before absolute chaos and destruction as pure ecstasy, with some shamelessly professing their lust to feel such power again, even if it costs their life and hurts those around them. I guess with great power comes the potential for great corruption...

But, of course, I still very much wanted to master all four Prime Elements, and so I wasn’t dissuaded by Klara’s warning. At least, not until the prerequisite for joining her class was made apparent. That was the first time I ever saw her smile. Well, it was more of a sinister smirk, really. She very precisely and very slowly extended her hand and turned her palm upward, and then said, calmly:

‘Whoever can take my hand will be considered for the position.’

Then she made a peculiar gesture with her fingers. Her hand began to glow bright red and orange; her skin blistered, burned, and then charred as it melted from her fiery appendage. In place of recently blanched and delicate skin was now five molten fingers, sizzling and smoldering.

The challenge was clear.

‘If one wants to play with fire, one must be willing to burn.’

No one moved. Most didn’t even breathe for a few seconds. I don’t think anybody could have possibly envisioned this for the introductory class.

I wouldn’t have blamed the other girls for thinking it might have been some sort of ruse. A joke to break the ice. But I knew it wasn’t. I saw it in Klara’s eyes: she was deathly serious, and this was the dedication she required. Therefore, I was left with no choice. I had to act. And so, I tentatively stepped toward the scorching hand and reached out, slow and deliberate. In that moment, I had hoped the gesture would have been enough—that Mistress de Winter only required proof of intent.

But she was unmoving, her glassy, emotionless eyes fixated on me. Waiting...

And so there was only one thing left I could do...

I closed my eyes, grabbed her hand tightly, and howled.

CHAPTER 7:

The Four Kingdoms boast two prominent schools for mages. Ban Ard School for Sorcerers in Kaedwen and Aretuza School for Sorceresses in Temeria (perhaps one day there will be no need for the segregation of sex, but for now, this is the way of it). As anyone who knows even the slightest about human nature will guess, there has indeed been an ongoing rivalry between the establishments since their conception.

The tutors of both schools meet regularly to discuss important issues of magic and its use, and are increasingly interested in the political landscape of the Northern Realms. But, mainly, they get together to gossip and boast about their corresponding academy’s various successes. I have met many of the boys of Ban Ard, and so I shall bypass any humility and openly state that academically speaking, the girls outclass the boys almost every year. Yet, the real competition does not lie with exams and assessments⁠—oh no! Alumni of either school know full well that all bragging rights instead reside with the annual winner of The Clash of Chaos (unofficially dubbed as such by the students).

Each year, the two schools meet for a showcase (or, well, showdown) of academic and physical prowess, with the previous year’s winner assuming the honor of host. I’ve lost track of who’s won most times, but I can certainly say one thing for sure: it is very close. For any girl of Aretuza, this fact alone brings much joy, as it is well-known just how serious the boys take the competition. So much so, they prioritize training for The Clash above all other academic studies, which probably explains why Aretuza often fares better on that front.

Other than the use of magic, there isn’t anything extraordinary about the occasion, as I’m sure similar events happen all over the world⁠—most folks do so enjoy a good competition. As things stand, over three days, the schools engage in various activities and events, ranging from potion-making and problem-solving to obstacle courses and dueling (the last of which is the most prestigious event and punctuates the end of the games). Points are then tallied up, the winner is awarded The Trophy of the Gift and the Art (or ‘The Clash Cup’), and then the schools spend the night feasting, dancing, frolicking, and celebrating (or consoling). Truth be told, it’s one of the most exciting times of the year, and there was always a lively buzz in the weeks leading up to the event when I was still a student⁠—I’m sure there still is.

Although most students participate in The Clash in some capacity (team-building is a fundamental part of the experience), the main event does tend to dominate the scene. And that, as tradition dictates, is a one-on-one affair. Naturally, the most prominent student is selected to represent the school as Aretuza Victrix (or Ban Ard Victor), and both adepts face off in a thrilling⁠—albeit somewhat dangerous⁠—duel. The winner of this final bout receives a hefty number of points, and so the result of this matchup usually (but not always) corresponds with the overall winner. This, as you can imagine, is a tremendous amount of pressure for the duelers.

In my third year at Aretuza, Mistress de Winter chose me to represent the school, much to the dismay of Yanna, who had participated as Victrix the previous two Clashes. I had witnessed Yanna’s rage on numerous occasions, yet I had never seen her seethe like when it was announced I’d be representing the school in the tournament’s finale. ‘How can SHE be the face of Aretuza!?’ she had shrieked. ‘She hasn’t even been beautified!’

She wasn’t wrong. I hadn’t. I still had all the imperfections that made me, well... me. Much to the confusion of my classmates, I never warmed to the idea of magically altering my appearance and so had refused to partake in the beautification process.

Yanna, however, had taken the first opportunity to do so. I had never seen what she looked like prior, but rumor had it that, before the change, she was speckled all over and had crooked buck teeth. To look at her, you couldn’t fathom such a thing, as her pale skin was now like porcelain, her smile was portrait-perfect, and her long auburn hair would always fall in just the right way to frame her beautiful, symmetrical face. The process, in short, had utterly eradicated any perceivable imperfection. (I do wonder what she would look like without her ‘enhancements’... Still pretty, I imagine. Just more naturally so.)

Even Kalena, who was usually exceedingly supportive of my choices, had hounded me for days, trying to convince me to ‘just give it a go!’ But I liked being me. And I enjoyed gazing upon the looking-glass and seeing myself staring back⁠⁠—not some glamorized stranger mimicking my movements. So I refused the process (it’s not like I couldn’t just alter my appearance later if I changed my mind anyway, so I didn’t see what the big fuss was).

Still, all of Yanna’s ranting and raving did little to change the course of events. I had been selected, and Klara was not the sort of woman to second-guess her decisions and certainly not one to change them at the behest of an apprentice. So, that was that. I was to face off against Ban Ard’s best student at the annual Clash of Chaos tournament.

Back then, I was so confident in my abilities that, truthfully, the thought of losing never crossed my mind, not even for a fleeting moment.

I believe they call that hubris.

CHAPTER 8:

That particular Clash of Chaos finale was perhaps the most embarrassing moment of my entire time at Aretuza (but not the most upsetting, unfortunately). I faced a short-statured boy called Gereon, whose personality I could only describe as unctuous. I can’t recall seeing that self-assured smirk of his ever leaving his face, not even for a single moment.

Of course, of all the boys I could have lost to, it just had to be him!

I had been trained extensively in the weeks leading to The Clash by Klara herself, which comprised daily one-on-one sessions in addition to the regular syllabus. Even Yanna volunteered to help me prepare when Klara had other matters to attend to. ‘I do not wish Aretuza’s Victrix to make a fool of the school she represents,’ she had told me in a tone I had not yet witnessed from her⁠—encouraging and friendly, almost. After her anger had subsided (or diminished, at least), she was actually helpful and dedicated much of her free time. But all the advice and extra help did little to prepare me for the showdown that awaited.

Gereon, much to the surprise of everyone, it would seem, used magic that hadn’t yet reared its head in any of the former games. It turned out he was a natural when it came to constructing illusions and used tricks of the eye to completely throw me off my game. Within moments of the duel starting, I was presented with various copies of Gereon (at least a dozen) and had precisely no idea which was the real one. I stood there, in front of a crowd of onlookers from Aretuza and Ban Ard, absolutely and utterly bamboozled, my eyes flicking back and forth between numerous faces, all with the exact same conceited grin. And all with the exact same laugh,⁠ which echoed around me, mocking as I attacked⁠—and missed⁠—time and again, hopelessly unable to locate the correct Gereon.

I soon tired, drained of energy, and presented myself as an easy target for the boy. With a quick burst of air, the real Gereon sent me flying into a stone column, crushing the breath from my lungs and rendering me helpless. And, well, that was the end of that. Gereon was crowned Champion, Ban Ard won The Clash of Chaos by a trifling margin, and I was left to wallow in self-pity, flustered, heartbroken, and utterly ashamed of myself.

‘Always expect the unexpected.’ The only words ever exchanged between Gereon and me. He had said them while helping me up after the contest, his lip curled on one side, with an eyebrow raised in self-assured smugness. I didn’t care much for those words⁠ at the time—I still don’t. I mean, how can one prepare for the unknown? It makes no sense! (Although, perhaps I really shouldn’t have been so cocksure before the duel⁠—maybe that’s what he meant. Considering his own demeanor, that would have been terribly ironic.)

I didn’t attend the post-tournament feast that night. I was far too crestfallen, and so I hid away in my chambers, sulking. The thought of facing a room full of jeering Ban Ard boys made me anxious and queasy, but the idea of facing a room full of the peers I’d let down made me feel abominable. After the closing ceremony, I had also avoided Aunt Aurora, terrified at what she might say to me. I imagined the tone she would take: ‘I’m not upset, dear Alissa, I’m just… disappointed.’ The thought filled me to the brim with dread. (She was actually far more comforting when we finally spoke⁠—situations like this are often much worse in the mind than in reality, I’ve realized.)

Even though Kalena⁠—I later found out⁠—had taken a fancy to one of the Ban Ard students, she dropped her pursuit of courtship the moment she realized I hadn’t shown up to the celebrations. Instead, she found where I was moping and spent most of the evening comforting me. Well, at first, she did. But then, my incessant huffing frustrated her to the point where she did something completely unexpected. She chastised me.

‘Oh, grow up, you silly thing. Did your aunt never tell you that you can’t be the best at everything in life? Heck, most don’t even get to be the best at one thing. You’re skilled beyond your years, I’ll give you that. You’re intelligent and determined. And you know a lot about the world⁠—about magic. But you’re far too vainglorious and, dare I say it, entitled. The world, it might shock you to discover, doesn’t revolve around you. For a moment, for just one moment, stop trying to impress—to prove your worth to everyone—and have a go at just, well... being. Try and enjoy yourself. Because all of the greatness and accolades in the world don’t mean a damn thing if you’re not happy.’

This was the first time I’d ever been taken aback by something Kalena had said. And I never, ever expected to receive any sort of wisdom from her. But... there it was. Undeniably clear.

After giving me a moment to process her chiding, she convinced me to accompany her down to the hall, where the celebrations were still in full swing. She was uncharacteristically persuasive, and so I followed her lead without a second thought. And you know what? No one mocked me. No one blamed me. No one was upset (except for me⁠—initially). I actually ended up having one of the best nights of my life.

Little did I know back then, but that chat with Kalena was a turning point for me. For the first time ever, I really, truly thought about who I was and, more importantly, who I actually wanted to be, regardless of others’ expectations. For the first time, I questioned my ‘destiny.’

CHAPTER 9:

Jan Bekker, the Master of the Elements, had appeared at Aretuza many times during my stay there, mainly to attend the Clash Cups (to support the Ban Ard boys, naturally). However, one year, in the wake of an overwhelming victory for Aretuza, he decided to prolong his visit and teach at the school for a semester. He stated during his opening address that he had witnessed a tremendous amount of potential in some of the girls and wanted to assist them in their ‘pursuit of greatness’ by offering a series of insightful lectures. Although, I thoroughly believe that was a mere ruse, and he was actually evaluating the mistresses⁠—perhaps hoping to learn how they were able to successfully discipline and nurture their students, who were a stark contrast to the unruliness of the Ban Ard boys (as this is still the case, it would seem his reconnaissance somewhat failed).

For those unfamiliar with Master Bekker, his general ideology and approach to magical tutelage can be summarized by an excerpt from his opening speech (the entirety of which took up almost twenty sheets of parchments during my note-taking):

‘If one does not expand the boundaries of what is possible, then one has simply failed the Gift and the Art. Remember this: It is all our obligation to pursue greatness, attain it, bypass it, and form a new standard of excellence for our successors to exceed. As mages, anything less is simply unacceptable, and it is our duty to hold our peers accountable for any and all shortcomings. Only together, through strength and solidarity, can we hope to alter the shape of our reality for the betterment of all…’

As you can see, he was a very intense man. But I suppose one has to be to achieve the feats he had. Regardless, I lapped up each and every word at the time, as the sentiment reinforced what my aunt had already taught me. Yet, it sparked in me what I would refer to now as a moment of tremendous weakness and skewed priority. With Master Bekker’s sage words ringing in my ears, I was convinced that I needed to heed his advice in its entirety and decided⁠—stupidly⁠—to perform my ‘duties’ as a mage and confront my best friend Kalena about her ‘shortcomings.’ (Heck, it’s making me feel ashamed to even write these words.)

And so I sat her down and told her she needed to do better. That she needed to pay attention, focus more, and work harder to eradicate her flaws (of which, I had rudely pointed out, there were many). I remember the expression on her face. It wasn’t one of someone upset, nor angry. Far from it, in fact. She took my barrage of condescending drivel rather well, as it happens. Her expression, it seemed, was closer to surprise than anything else⁠—she was merely surprised that her best friend could take such a pretentious stance and talk to her in that way (I truly wish I never had).

Instead of arguing or retaliating (which was well within her right), she simply tried to explain her point of view on the matter:

‘I want to travel the world. Meet people⁠—help them. I don’t care about grand achievements, about pushing the boundaries of science and discovery. I will happily leave those ambitions to the ambitious⁠—to you, and Master Bekker, and Yanna, and to all the rest. I have more than enough power to do a lot of good. To help people who truly need help. And I will⁠. I’ve decided. I will soon travel the world as a dwimveandra, and I’ll help all those in need whose paths I cross. And you know what? I don’t think I’ll ever come back...’

Sometimes, fate has an awfully ironic and cruel way of interpreting folk’s desires.

‘... I don’t think I’ll ever come back ...’

Those words still haunt me, echoing through my mind whenever I’m alone. Whenever I take a moment to ponder on the past. A constant reminder that it was me⁠—my actions, my idiocy—that made those words come true in the worst possible way.

CHAPTER 10:

‘We are only as strong as our weakest link. Therefore, we must surround ourselves with those of the same caliber as us⁠—equal in prowess and promise⁠—for one simply cannot fly while burdened by dead weight.’

Another one of Bekker’s maxims, in all of its pseudo-wise and warped glory. And this just so happened to be the speck of wisdom that toppled my friendship with Kalena into an irreversible moment of regret and utter despair.

‘I’m sorry, Kalena, but we can no longer be friends.’ I had said it sternly. Stoically.

But I didn’t mean it. Really. I meant only to use it as a way of… motivating her (emotional blackmail, yes; I know that now). She had taken my ranting in stride, so I hadn’t expected her to have such a stark reaction to my silly little ploy. But those words... Those words hit her hard.

‘You want to leave Aretuza? Then go! What are you waiting for? We don’t want you here, anyway!’

Again, I didn’t mean it. I was just riled up, agitated and aggressive and so very sure of myself (how most of us are mid-argument, I suppose). More heated words were exchanged, but I care not to delve deeper into our argument. Heck, I believe I’ve regressed the worst of it, which is probably for the better, as I’m sure such intricate recollection would make the memory sting even worse than it does now. How things concluded, however, is simply unforgettable.

Kalena, unable to fathom my coldness, finally burst into tears and ran away. For reasons I’m sure I will never really know, she fled to Tor Lara (perhaps because she knew it was off-limits and consequently no one would be there to bother her).

Then, I made one last mistake…

Not wanting to let things be, I followed her. Confronted her. Cornered her, I guess. But she didn’t want to talk. She wanted to be left alone. And she had precisely one way to go to get away from me⁠... up. Up to the top chamber of the tower, to where the notorious portal sat waiting. Still, I pursued her. Still, I didn’t leave her be. Still, I directed her towards her only way to escape me...

Before I could stop her, she powered up the portal and, without a second thought, had stepped through into the swirling, distorted light⁠, and into the vast, cosmic chaos beyond.

In a blinding flash, she was gone. Forever.\

No one knew what fate awaited her on the other side of that forsaken portal. Most said she was likely dead, split into a million fragments and scattered across the planes. Others presumed she had been spit out in some distant and inhospitable land, far from home and with little-to-no hope for survival. But, of course, no one knew for sure. We couldn’t determine what had happened, and there was absolutely no way to pursue her (even if de Winter had sanctioned such a dangerous venture, which she most certainly did not), as the unstable portal was impossible to predict. The only thing we all agreed on was that Kalena was gone, and as the days turned to weeks, then months, then years, the sad truth became painfully clear to everyone: she was never, ever coming back.

Yet, in all the sadness that followed that event, a shimmer of hope eventually presented itself.

A few years after Kalena had stepped through the warped portal, a small group of Aretuza seniors, myself included, had ventured to a small village in Ellander to provide assistance (along with some priestesses from the Temple of Melitele). The locals had been stricken by a deadly disease, and those we could not heal (magic can only do so much) were to be made as comfortable as possible in their final moments.

One of the dying men I attended to had told me that a traveling mage (we call them ‘dwimveandras’) had passed through the previous year, and stayed for a few days to assist the locals with their work (planting crops, shearing sheep, and the like). He described her as one of the friendliest folks he had ever had the pleasure to meet, and although he couldn’t quite recall her name, was convinced it started with a ‘K’ (‘Kayden, Kayla, Keena, or summin’ like that,’ he had said).

And that was it.

That was more than enough to give me hope.

Of course, I realize the chances of it being Kalena are rather slim. But slim is far better than naught, after all. And so I take some solace in the possibility that my friend is still out there somewhere, following her dream. Helping people wherever she roams. Changing the world not through grand achievements but through humble gestures of generosity and kindness, one deed at a time⁠—being Kalena, essentially.

If this is indeed so, and I so desperately hope it is, then maybe, just maybe, our paths will one day cross again, and I can finally make things right between us.

I would so very much like that.

CHAPTER 11:

My final week at Aretuza came much earlier than expected. Mainly because I dropped out of school. (A decision I still stand by to this very day, if you’re wondering.)

In retrospect, it had been a longtime coming.

Initially, I had been blinded by a predetermined vision of what success would look like. My auntie had told me who I was going to be, and I had tried, with all my might and mettle, to become that person⁠—for years, it had been my whole identity, and there was a certain level of comfort in that constancy.

I was a young adult by the time I started to question what I really wanted from life. What would bring me joy? A sense of fulfillment? What did I want my legacy to be? On the night of the Clash of Chaos celebrations, Kalena had planted the seed of doubt about my aspirations, and later, with her parting words, had instilled in me the desire to rethink⁠—and, ultimately, to realign⁠—my goals. Reflecting upon her vision of becoming a dwimveandra, I slowly warmed to the idea and began to understand why a pursuit of such a purpose was attractive. It was a life that offered freedom, adventure, and a chance to do good each and every day. Thinking about it filled me with an unfamiliar warmth—a feeling I enjoyed—and imagining myself living such a life was an increasingly enticing vision.

For lack of a better term, I had been primed, ready for a climactic moment of clarity. Yet, it wasn’t until my final year that this moment came and I truly embraced the long coming change in direction. And the final push I needed, as it turned out, came from a most unlikely of sources.

As a senior of the upper echelons of student hierarchy (or, well, something like that...), I had been paired up with one of the new adepts, to act as their mentor throughout the introductory period of their first year (it was mandatory, and a way to prepare soon-to-be graduates for the possibility of one day becoming a Mistress of Aretuza). I had been charged with guiding a scrawny, doe-eyed girl called Skylark and, upon meeting her, quickly realized just how much my previous passions had eroded during my school days. For one, she was brimming with enthusiasm for the Gift and the Art, and was utterly infatuated with the tenets that underscored our magical institution. Moreover, she was the most proper girl I had ever met⁠—both inside and outside of Aretuza. For example, during one of our many study sessions, she once mused, ‘If magic is chaos, then it makes sense that all those who wield it should be orderly. To avoid anarchy.’ (I believe it was at that moment I just knew she would become a Mistress of Aretuza, and perhaps even a Rectoress⁠—I was not wrong.)

I guess you could say that this unassuming girl was a coup de grâce to the remnants of my past self. The final blow that severed those threadbare tethers I was so desperately clutching onto. And so, with the veil lifted and my true desires clear, I knew exactly what I needed to do next.

Astonishingly, Aunt Aurora took the news of my imminent departure rather well (relatively speaking)…

‘If one wagers on a horse race, my dear, of course, one is going to yell all the encouragement they can muster to support their chosen steed. But what use is it to howl and holler at a mare that no longer wishes to compete? Hmm? It would be an awful waste of breath, if you ask me.’

I’m not sure I fully understood her analogy, especially the part about wagering (on me?), but I didn’t press my concern, as I was content with her dissatisfied tone⁠—it was far better than the vehement response I had been expecting. (My commitment to study had been wavering at the time, so I imagine auntie knew something was amiss and prepared herself for my impending revelation.)

Though, I’m still quite shocked at how fast things shifted during that final year. In what seemed like an overnight turnaround, I went from promising protege to shunned outcast (I may have skipped the part where de Winter had ‘subtly’ suggested I was no longer welcome in the halls of her academy, but the less said about that particular exchange the better, I think...).

And so, with the few belongings I had in tow, and with all my farewells said, I took leave of my once-beloved Aretuza and ventured out alone into the world to travel as a dwimveandra.

And, as it happens... I’ve never gone back.

CHAPTER 12:

As of late, the days have been shorter and colder, and so I once again find myself spending more time inside, basking in the comfort of the hearth (when I have the luxury of staying in such a dwelling, that is). This also means I once again have more time to sit down and catch up with my notations.

I have somewhat neglected my diary duties over the past year. After concluding my memoirs, I found myself once again slipping into inconsistency, reassuring myself that I will surely just remember the important events upon my travels and recount them later on (easier said than done). Aunt Aurora, for one, would be most displeased with this lackadaisical approach. She always used to underline the importance of consistency, even when one didn’t feel like doing something (actually, especially when one didn’t feel like it). I recall her stating that ‘we cannot rely on motivation alone to get us through the tough times. We need unwavering commitment⁠. Only commitment ensures consistency.’ I cannot fault her logic.

Regardless, as of right now, duty does not guide my hand⁠—motivation does (I can just picture Aurora’s sullen glare judging me from across the Continent). I am inspired to write because I believe the predicament I currently find myself in simply calls for documentation. It appears to be an important affair. Well, it is curious at the very least and, dare I say, nefarious at worst (and I truly suspect the worst).

It seems the general attitude towards mages has shifted, and not for the better. A couple months back, I was turned away from a village by a hostile and rather rude alderman. ‘We nay want your wicked kind here—be gone! Be gone!’ he had shrieked at me before launching a glob of phlegm in my general direction. It was the first time since setting off from Aretuza that I had come across such animosity and, unfortunately, it wasn’t the last. Many other rural communities shunned me, even towns I had previously visited, where I had built relations and formed friendships, outright refused their usual hospitality.

Something, evidently, was amiss.

A few days back, however, I had the good fortune to run into a fellow traveler on the road. A young bard, she was, and, curiously, seemed to be afflicted by some sort of strange hex (or it was some sort of silly lark and she was merely jesting with me). She claimed she couldn’t utter a single word without bursting into song and rhyme, and after listening to her bellow out stanza after stanza, I believed her plight to be real (surely, no one would keep that up if they didn’t have to).

Anyway, we traveled together for a day (she was on her way to meet a friend who she was sure could help lift her choral curse), and during our time together she sang about the events she had witnessed in a nearby town the previous week:

‘The town was in uproar, emotions began to swell,

A fawn, they had found, slaughtered upon a well,

Its innards lay asunder, its eyes gouged right out,

A ritual of evil, there had truly been no doubt.

Yet, lucky they were, for specialists soon did come,

“We’ll find the vile culprit and shan’t leave till it’s done!”

So they searched most thorough, upon high, upon low,

And eventually they found the source of their woe.

A witch, they unearthed, her purpose most wicked,

With nowhere left to run, the wench soon submitted,

Then a pyre they did build, to burn her body alive,

Job done, they claimed their coin, and left as swift as they’d arrived.’

I may have paraphrased that somewhat⁠ (I’m no poet), but the general gist remains the same.

In my years, I have certainly heard tales of mages, corrupted by power (or just indifferent to the suffering of others), engaging in morally dubious acts. And, yes, I’ve heard tales of innocent folk being hurt during such pursuits.

But this was something different.

The troubadour told me she had heard many other stories of wicked witches, and even went so far as to describe the situation as an apparent scourge.

Of course, I don’t believe it—not for a second (and neither did she, for that matter).

Something, I fear, is terribly wrong with this scene. Mages don’t just turn evil en masse. Heck, there aren’t even enough mages across the Northern Realms to populate such widespread reports, especially out here in the countryside.

And so, I have decided to investigate the matter, for it is most certainly worth investigating.

Thus far, I don’t have much to go on, and due to the circumstances, many folks are, as you can imagine, somewhat uncooperative. But I do have a lead. A name that the bard mentioned, and a name that I have heard talk of in the few taverns I have been fortunate enough to secure lodgings in.

It is a name that I’m sure will lead me to the source of this strange phenomenon⁠—at the very least, it is something tangible that I can pursue.

The name, so it goes, is ‘Hale’.


Back to Index.
 
CHAPTER 1

The hospital smelled of death.

‘You need blood, Regis.’

‘I need time.’

‘They’ll die anyway.’

‘Not by my hand.’

Discarded dressings, stained red and stiff with frost, crunched under their shoes. There was no one there to clean them up, nor anyone to bring fuel for the fire.

‘I don’t understand what’s driving you.’ There was irritation in Dettlaff’s tone.

‘Nevertheless, I ask you to respect my decision.’

‘Your stubbornness puts both of us at risk. You’re weakened. You’re slowing us down.’

‘Ethical issues aside,’ Regis continued, ‘your behavior, inherent in your nature, has brought us to our present trouble. We have attracted attention. The trail of drained corpses will only make it easier to track us. So let me direct the route for a while.’

‘What do you suggest?’

‘Blend in. Disguise ourselves.’

‘Among humans? It’s… demeaning.’ Dettlaff shifted uneasily and hissed in pain as he touched the wound under his cloak.

‘It festers,’ Regis stated, discerningly.

‘How is this possible? I can’t close it. And when I tried to transform, I felt it tear more. I don’t understand, it was only a human...’

‘No. Not a human. A witcher.’

Dettlaff shot his companion a look in which reluctance fought hopelessly against curiosity.

‘They are mutants adapted to kill. A guild called on to protect this world from visitors from other spheres,’ Regis explained.

‘From us...’

‘Us too, indeed. Over the centuries, they have accumulated considerable knowledge of those they consider enemies. You experienced that expertise first-hand.

Therefore, I recommend extreme caution.’

The muscles in Dettlaff's jaw twitched as he brooded over his companion's words. ‘Let it be your way,’ he said finally.

The canvas rustled. The vampires’ eyes darted toward the tent’s entrance. An acolyte of Melitele gave them an exhausted smile. ‘I’m now at your disposal, gentlemen. Forgive me for making you wait so long, but I’m here alone. The sisters followed the army to Vizima.’

‘Leaving the wounded to the cold?’ Regis was surprised. ‘What has prompted such haste? The war is over, the Nilfgaardians are defeated at Brenna.’

The adept looked down. ‘The crown was overdue with their payments. Six months. The army was threatening to revolt. The soldiers forced the constable to lead them to the capital so they could retrieve their payments there. I volunteered to serve at the infirmary. And if one vows to serve, it is not only in pleasant weather and with a full belly.’

‘This hospital has been left without ample supplies.’

‘Mr. Constable graciously offered us his personal tent. This one here. And he promised to send provisions and medications, paid for from his own pouch. There will also be some refreshments for you, gentlemen, though sparse. Would you care to eat?’

‘Thank you.’ Regis smiled, lips pursed. ‘We won’t. But tell me please: Did you happen to see any honest travelers passing by? It’s not so safe to venture on our own nowadays. All kinds of shady types prowl the highways...’

‘In the morning, three soldiers wandered here. They claimed a wounded man⁠—said it was their commander. Then they headed west. I was glad they took him. One more unfortunate soul rescued.’

‘Thank you.’

Soon enough, they left the makeshift hospital. The road wandered west among clawed elms.

‘Nobody’s coming for them,’ said Dettlaff. ‘They will be forgotten. I know humans. They have short memories.’

‘The girl stayed,’ Regis replied.

Above them, crows circled the tent.

CHAPTER 2

The snow had stopped falling.

Erskine rubbed his eyes and stared straight ahead at the Sodden fields fading into the twilight. He decided it was a good time to stop. He signaled his two companions to leave the road and turn into a nearby hollow.

Néris threw off her backpack; took out blankets and provisions. Osyan struck a fire. Erskine let go of the sledge rope, sat down, and began massaging his hands.

‘I’ll help you in a moment,’ he said.

Néris eyed the man lying on the sledge. ‘You better rest—while you can.’

‘Fucking sergeant,’ Osyan said, blowing on his fingers. ‘Did he need to stuff himself so much? If he were lighter, we would have crossed the Ina already.’

‘Such luck,’ said Néris.

Erskine hunched over the bandaged sergeant and listened to his shallow breaths. ‘We’re stuck with each other,’ he said. ‘I’ll take first watch.’

*
The stolen wine tasted of ginger. Erskine grimaced, wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, and looked at his sleeping companions. Osyan could very well be his son. He enlisted in the Temerian army shortly before the invasion of the Black Ones. They fought together for Dillingen under Jan Natalis, then with King Foltest when they liberated Sodden. Néris, a condottiere of the Free Company, claimed to be the daughter of a Lyrian baron. Erskine was sure she was lying, because if she had been, he couldn’t imagine she would end up here, freezing half to death on this crazy journey of theirs.

Ah, the journey. Erskine sighed and took a sip of wine. It started with the sergeant and his story about a chest in a debris-strewn basement. Then came the decision they all made together—the path from which there was no return.

The warmth of the fire called to Erskine, inviting him to sleep. He yawned, stood up, and nudged Néris with the toe of his boot. ‘Your watch,’ he said, and handed her the bottle. Néris rubbed her eyes, took a sip, and spat into the flames. He was about to mention the ginger, but stopped when he realized the condottiere was peering into the darkness behind him.

‘Do not worry,’ someone said from the shaded perimeter of the camp.

After a moment, two strangers emerged and entered the illuminated space. ‘We’re unarmed,’ said one of them, gray-haired; the same voice they had just heard.

‘We are on our way to Dillingen. Troubled times, such as these, are best spent in the company of others, don’t you think? Especially when their destination is the same.’

‘How can you be sure it is?’ asked Osyan, who was crouching, his dagger already drawn behind his back.

‘We don’t need companions,’ said Néris.

Erskine was silent. He was assessing the situation. The newcomers did not look threatening. First, they did indeed appear to be unarmed. Second, they looked rather sick—or weak, at least. The gray-haired one was deathly pale and spoke in a soft tone. The other, dark-haired and silent, slumped slightly and pressed his hand against his hip. A fresh wound, perhaps?

The gray-haired man nodded at the sledge. ‘This man won’t last a week,’ he said. ‘Fortunately, however, I am a medic. I have a refuge in Dillingen. If we hurry, perhaps I can help him.’

The wind shook the branches; ignited the fading fire.

Erskine realized that Néris and Osyan were waiting for his response. He considered. If the sergeant dies before they reach their destination, it will all be for naught. A sawbones would indeed be useful…

He released his sword hilt, grunted, and nodded. ‘Do you have names?’

*
By dawn, they were ready to go. Erskine shifted the ashes with his foot while observing the new comrades. The gray-haired one, Regis, wasn’t lying. Although he himself was barely standing, he efficiently replaced the sergeant’s bandages and prepared a compress for his wounds. Surprisingly, the other one, Dettlaff, offered to pull the sledge.

They moved onward. After a few steps, Dettlaff paused, wincing in pain. Regis steadied him with an arm. Erskine adjusted his backpack and caught up with them.

‘You look pretty worn out,’ he said. ‘Who put you in such a condition?’ The newcomers were silent. Dettlaff glanced over his shoulder at the road behind as if he expected to see someone following. Erskine didn’t press him for an answer. Somehow, he was sure he no longer wished to know.
CHAPTER 3
‘An abomination has its lair in our bell tower, master witcher. At night, it flies over the city, kidnaps people from the street, and hauls them up to its den, to devour them. Such horror! How much will it cost for us to be rid of this plague?’

‘Two hundred orens, Mr. Councilor. You have a vampire there. And not just any.’

The councilor was impressed. ‘Indeed, you have already deduced the creature’s nature?’

‘I’ve examined a corpse.’

Sorensen did not see fit to explain that he had been tracking the beast for a long time, on the orders of someone much more important. That he had ended up in the town of Warfurt following its trail. He surmised that if people are willing to pay twice for one job, there is no point in discouraging them.

The councilor mused; shook his nose. ‘Expensive.’

‘Then try it yourself.’

‘We have, of course. Gallant boys from the castle guard are eager to act. But iron does not like this devilishness. We wanted to set fire to the bell tower to drive the bastard away, but...’

‘It’s not right!’ the reverend patriarch, who had so far been gloomily looking through the stained-glass window of the temple at the dark pillar of the belfry, rose and thundered, ‘to kindle a fire under the holy place! Three thousand orens went to the bell tower from the chapel box! Not to, I say, burn it down now!’

‘Aren’t you afraid,’ said the irritated councilor, ‘to scream like that so near to the beast?’

‘Psalms protect us here,’ the priest spat angrily. ‘As long as the song continues, witchcraft has no power.’

The choristers, gathered in the nave, continued to sing. The monotonous sound melted into the noble walls of the temple like the smell of incense. But now, recalled in the conversation, it made Sorensen think. ‘Reverend Father,’ he said to the priest, bowing his head, ‘faith and holy psalms are the surest means against a vampire. Could I perhaps borrow your choristers? Prayer will confuse the monster’s senses and deprive it of its power. I’ll be able to get in close and deal a killing blow.’

The prelate puffed up like a turkey and looked toward the councilor. ‘Of course, son. Of course.’

*

The bait had done its job. The psalm exploded into screams of terror as the vampire plunged from the black sky and fell among the choristers. An eyeless skull, bat wings, veins pulsating with blood under slick skin. Gharasham tribe.

The monster seized the nearest chorister and sunk his fangs into the body. He pinned another one to the ground with an elongated, clawed foot.

The euphoria they experience while feeding overwhelms their senses; makes them lethargic. This is the best time to attack. Sorensen emerged from behind a stone gargoyle, curling up into a throw like a discobolus. The chain whirred through the air. The links twisted around the creature’s limbs; skin hissing against silver. The Gharashami fell, rolled down the sloping roof of the temple, collapsed onto the cobblestone street below, taking a downpour of tiles with him. The witcher gave chase down the gutter. Time to finish the job. He drew his silver sword and struck the neck of the creature struggling in its bonds.

The bat’s silhouette spilled into a pool of blood. The blade rang against stone, and the chain slackened. Released from its constraints, the vampire mutated back into a flesh-like form, struck his wings, and took off with piercing yelps. Sorensen jumped out of the way of the furious charge, rolled over his shoulder, and kneeled down. Spring-loaded arms clicked as he unfolded the switchbow. He aimed. Fired. The stunned vampire staggered mid-flight, rose laboriously into the sky, and tumbled into the belfry with a thunderous brass thud.

The hunter followed the game. He grabbed the elevator rope left by the masons and cut off the counterweight with his sword. The momentum of the falling bricks propelled him to the top floor in an instant.

From here, he could see a bat silhouetted against the moon as it streaked away to the west. He cursed ugly.

CHAPTER 4

The wind brought the scent of herbs and dried meat. Regis stopped. ‘There are other people around.’

Dettlaff confirmed silently.

They had been walking along the Yaruga for three days. Their human companions, still wary of the duo, mostly avoided them and said little. The vampires kept a few paces behind.

‘You found us an interesting company,’ said Dettlaff. ‘The priestess said they were soldiers. Yet, they reek of fear and deception.’

‘They’re deserters.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I suppose. The wounded man… the insignia has been removed from his jacket.’

‘So we attempt to blend among humans by joining a gang of ragged escapees. Perfect.’

‘It’s easy for you to pass judgments. Forgive the cliché, but living among humans teaches one that nothing is simple. We don’t know who they are or why they are fleeing. And from whom. We know nothing about them.’

They stopped at Osyan’s call. He was waving to them, pointing to a nearby farm. A small compound at the edge of the forest. A shabby wagon stood by the fence, and horses were neighing from the stables. The smoking chimney and its promise of a warm hearth called to them. The vampires watched as their new companions consulted, then left the road and headed for the buildings.

‘Right, we know nothing about them,’ said Dettlaff. ‘But I feel that is about to change.’

*
The farmer returned with the cask. He sat it on the table and started filling clay cups. The smell of beer wafted through the room. ‘Forgive me, but I don’t understand,’ he said.

Erskine gulped; wiped the foam off his mustache. He tapped the lily patch on the table with his finger. ‘Well, right, I have already explained. We are the Temerian army, and we’ve been given a covert mission. To carry this... captive... ransomed from Nilfgaardians. We must get him across the Ina as soon as possible. That’s why we need your carriage.’

‘And both horses,’ Osyan said.

Néris was standing by the door, her back propped against the wall. In her hand, she was holding a bare sword, which she was picking between the floorboards. ‘And the contents of the pantry,’ she added.

‘It is not right. How can we survive without a carriage, in winter, here in such remote parts?’

‘We?’ Osyan asked. ‘Who else?’

The farmer glanced towards the door. Osyan spat, pulled out a dagger, and put it on the table. The furnace fires flickered on the flat of the blade.

‘Good people, have mercy...’

‘We’re not good people. It would be such a pity for you to find out exactly why that is.’

‘Osyan...’ Néris said.

‘Shut up. His choice.’

Dettlaff, who had been standing in the shadows so far, approached and tossed a pouch on the table. Coins rang. ‘Do what you want,’ he said. ‘I’m going for a walk.’

As the door slammed, Regis scooped up the purse and moved closer to the farmer. ‘My comrades are soldiers, not thieves,’ he said, looking Osyan in the eye. ‘They only need one mare, which they will harness to a sleigh. The mare for which you will receive... adequate compensation.’

Erskine opened his mouth, scrambling to find some words.

The vampire smiled through pursed lips. ‘Temerian soldiers understand they must not deprive you of your belongings,’ he said. ‘If they did, the news of their covert mission could reach the wrong ears. And that… well… that would put them in grave danger.’

*
Aine felt the branches under her boot.

She scattered the snow, picked up the brushwood, and threw it in the basket. She had collected enough, so she decided to go home.

She walked briskly, humming her favorite song under her breath. Stopping at the edge of the forest, she dropped the basket and backed away sharply. She waited behind a tree for a long moment, then slowly peeked out from the trunk.

There were strangers at the hut. A woman was pulling Ludka by the reins; the mare huffed and kicked restlessly. Two men emerged from the pantry, lugging sacks and casks. The fourth, the older one, was talking to her father at the cabin.

Aine then sensed someone else. Someone much closer.

‘You’d better wait here,’ said a voice from behind her. Low, mesmerizing.

‘But my father...’

The stranger put a hand on her shoulder. Cold and pale. Bloodstains on the palms. ‘He’ll be fine. They will be gone soon. Look. Take a good look. This world of yours where nothing is simple.’

‘I do not understand.’

‘Nevermind.’

The girl was silent. She watched the gray-haired man take something from his purse and put it in her father’s hand. Gold flashed.

‘They will only take Ludka?’ She asked after a moment.

‘Yes. My friend has the gift of persuasion.’

‘That’s good.’

‘Good? You were lucky. They wanted to rob you.’

Aine turned and looked the stranger in his eyes. ‘But someone was watching over us.’

CHAPTER 5

The Ina River sparkled in the last rays of the setting sun.

The Vidort and Carcano fortresses towered over the water. Burned down during the war, they were now being slowly rebuilt by the Temerian army.

Osyan turned their attention to the north.

‘There,’ he said. ‘Ice connects both shores. We’ll go that way.’

Erskine snorted through his fingers. ‘I don’t like it,’ he said. ‘The crust is thin in places, riddled with holes, and the forts are too close. We should go on to the Ina and Trava fork. Look for a secluded ford. It will be better, safer for the sergeant.’

‘As for your companion...’ Regis said. ‘If you do have his best interests at heart, I recommend you hurry. The most sensible thing to do would be to ask for help from Carcano. They probably have ample medical supplies. But I can see that you are not fond of this approach.’

‘Well, we’re not fond,’ Erskine said. ‘Took the words from my mouth.’

Dettlaff smiled. ‘What’s wrong with you, Temerian soldiers?’ He asked. ‘Won’t you look for support from your own?’

‘Look here, you smart-ass,’ Osyan said. ‘Did we ask who you are? Where you came from? Or who abused you to the point of looking like dead bodies?’

Dettlaff was silent.

‘Let’s go to Fen Carn then,’ Regis said. ‘I used to have a summer cottage there, maybe some supplies remain.’

‘Have you lost your mind, sawbones?’ Erskine asked. ‘We are not pushing upon accursed elven grounds. It’s not good for the sergeant, you say? Well, we’ll just have to force the Ina. Here. And then make haste to Dillingen.’

*
They entered the river under the cover of dark clouds. Only the cracking sound of ice disturbed the silence.

Just as it seemed they would pass unnoticed, a thud sounded behind them.

Osyan cursed. ‘Three riders. Armed patrol.’

The Temerians saw them right away. One spurred his horse and galloped towards the fortress, the other two trotted to the shore. They dismounted, drew their swords, and ran onto the ice. ‘Halt!’ they shouted. ‘Halt!’

The mare pulling the sleigh snorted and obeyed.

‘Move, you nag!’ Erskine shouted and yanked the reins. With no result. Moments later, the Temerians were on them, so close that they could see their faces.

Regis looked at Dettlaff. ‘Let’s try to negotiate.’

Osyan spat and twirled his slingshot.

The projectile whistled and dinged against the helmet of one of the soldiers. He groaned and fell onto the ice. The second jumped at the nearest—Néris. They got in a scuffle, lost their balance, and fell into a nearby hole.

‘Néris!’ Erskine dropped the reins and started toward the crevice.

Osyan grabbed his arm. ‘Leave it!’ He shouted. ‘We have to run!’

Regis had had enough of running. He jumped into the cloudy waters and located the condottiere, who was wrestling with the Temerian as they both sank—the latter’s armor dragging them to the bottom. Néris kicked, exhaling from her mouth. Regis swam down, took hold, and tried to lift, overestimating the capacity of his newly regenerated body. He tugged and felt his shoulder pop out of the joint. His teeth grated. He tried again. Bones cracked and pain exploded, pressing him to the brink of collapse.

Then Dettlaff plunged into the water.

He pushed Regis aside, grasped the condottiere with one hand and the Temerian soldier with the other. He separated them and swiftly ascended to the surface.

*
Erskine and Osyan were nowhere to be found by the time they crawled onto the gravel beside the Ina. An alarm sounded from the riverside forts. Regis attempted to help Néris stay standing, but she refused the offer and ambled as fast as she could towards the forest. He quickly followed, turning back to catch a glimpse of Dettlaff dragging the soldier away before the treeline blocked his view.

They ran for a long time through the forest; then, exhausted, they walked among the Fen Carn mounds. Néris had heard of the dark fame of the place but was too tired to protest.

Finally, they came to a hut with a simple interior. There was a table lined with bottles and dried herbs on the walls. The smell churned in her nostrils.

Regis dug out dry clothes from the mess, and as she changed, he looked for something among the bottles on the table.

‘This is your cabin?’ She asked.

‘Mine,’ he said, and winced in pain as he rubbed his shoulder. ‘There it is.’

They went outside and sat down by the bonfire. Regis kindled the flames. He wiped the dust and cobwebs from the flask, uncorked it, and handed it to Néris.

She swallowed. Alcohol scratched her throat; filled her with heat.

‘Oh, gods... What’s that?’

‘Tincture of mandrake.’

‘Want?’

‘Thank you. I am abstinent.’

‘An abstinent moonshiner, who, without hesitation, throws himself into treacherous depths to help strangers. You are a mysterious figure, Regis.’

‘Well... I once met a dwarf who called himself an incorrigible altruist. Apparently, this attitude is close to mine.’

They sat in silence. Néris stared at the shadows blinking in the snow behind Regis for a long time. Something was wrong. Finally, she understood what. She stiffened and groaned softly. ‘You don’t cast... You’re a...’

‘Yes. I am.’

She pulled away sharply, covering her neck with her hand.

Regis threw more logs on the embers. ‘Relax. I said I was abstinent. Besides, if I wanted to hurt you, I would have just let you drown.’

‘Dettlaff?’

‘Dettlaff, too. But it will be better if you keep it to yourself.’

The fire crackled. As if summoned, Dettlaff emerged from the shadows and sat down between them.

‘The Temerian will live,’ he said. ‘I carried him to the walls, made sure they could see him.’

Néris was trembling. Her head was buzzing. Regis’ clothes irritated the skin, and his oversized pants were slipping from her hips. She pulled them up and tightened the belt as much as she could.

‘What’s with you?’ Dettlaff asked.

She hesitated, but only for a moment. Then she decided.

She swallowed the tincture and smiled.

‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘Everything’s all right.’

CHAPTER 6

Out of breath, the councilor scrambled up the tower. They warned him of what he would find there, so he readied himself with a scented handkerchief, which he pressed against his nose. Sorensen was already inspecting the scene. Corpses in various stages of decay filled the vampire’s nest, yet the pungent stench did not seem to disturb the witcher.

‘The money is waiting next to the horse, master witcher. The patriarch urges you to leave the city as soon as possible.’

The hunter shrugged. He measured the distance between the wounds from the fangs with his hand. ‘Peculiar. Bite marks indicate two different jaw patterns. The Gharashami brought victims here, broke their spines so they could not defend themselves. Like a bird that chews up worms for its young.’

The councilor frowned. ‘What does it mean?’

‘It means he was feeding someone.’

*
‘Sabrina.’

Nothing, again. The xenovox faltered in the cold. Sorensen would have loved to toss the talking box into the river and be done with it. Unfortunately, he needed an answer. As curiosity overcame his irritation, he tried again.

‘Sabrina, you stupid wench.’

‘Sorensen, honey. How courteous you are,’ the device replied in a metallic voice. The anxious horse pricked its ears and slowed to a trot. The witcher gave him a spur.

‘You lied to me.’

‘Really?’

‘There are two vampires. It will cost you double.’

‘This is the only reason you bother me? To bargain?’

‘I want to know the identity of your fugitive. And the circumstances of the escape.’

‘"No questions.” Was that not our agreement?’

‘The risk has increased. I need to know who I’m dealing with. Otherwise, I go back to Angren.’

The silence stretched on. Sorensen began to suspect that the xenovox had once again refused to cooperate.

‘Me and two fellow sorceresses were entrusted with razing Stygga Castle, the seat of the renegade wizard Vilgefortz of Roggeveen. We found the remains of this creature killed by a spell. We tried to regenerate it. And we succeeded.’

‘You resurrected a vampire? For what purpose?’

‘To question him. He could have had important information. Stygga Castle witnessed epochal events that we still do not fully understand.’

‘I’m sure he turned out to be a charming interlocutor.’

‘Not really. Among the humans, he introduced himself as Emiel Regis. There are many indications that this is an ancient, sophisticated creature. But upon awakening, he was driven by blind hunger. Before I could question him more thoroughly, he fled. I apparently underestimated him.’

‘Or he was assisted. As I said: there are two vampires. They travel together.’

‘Are you regretting our deal? Or are you still haggling?’

Sorensen ignored her. A shabby little cottage appeared around the bend. He pulled the reins and steered his horse there.

‘I have to go. I’ve got work to do.’

‘Good boy.’

*
‘Temerian Marauders. Common thieves. They wanted to rob us outright. The gray-haired one stopped them. He calmed them down. Without even raising his voice. Didn’t let the others strip the pantry bare. And he paid for the mare.’

‘Gold...’ Aine looked down. The word slipped out of her mouth before she could think.

The witcher rubbed the scar on his neck. ‘Show me.’

The farmer glared at his daughter. The newcomer had enough weapons on his horse to supply a dozen troops. And those eyes, like a snake’s or a lizard’s. No point messing with a man like that. Willy-nilly, he took off his clog, tore open the sole with a knife, and took out a coin.

A winged lion with a human head, stamped in tarnished gold. A chariot on the reverse. Sorensen had seen such coins before. In the Dur Lugal Iddin mounds. A wolf's grin spread across his face. He had been thinking the trail was going cold.

‘This coin is over three hundred years old. Today, it can mostly be found in tombs. You are lucky, landlord. That they were not interested in you.’

‘Grave robbers, right? Graveyard hyenas?’

Sorensen adjusted the girth, put his leg in the stirrup, and jumped onto the saddle. ‘Worse. This is someone who remembers those times.’

The farmer watched the departing gold. He swallowed hard, sighed, then went to calm his daughter, who had locked herself in the woodshed. He had not the heart to be angry with her.

CHAPTER 7

Néris shielded her eyes from the wind and caught up with Regis.

‘You said you had a refuge in Dillingen. This is where you go?’

‘Yes.’

‘For what?’

‘To hide. A witcher is following us. A monster hunter.’

Two days had passed since they left Fen Carn and returned to the Yaruga. The sky was finally clearing up, and the snow-covered plains sparkled in the setting sun.

‘A witcher? In my eyes, for beings like you, even five of them should pose no challenge.’

Dettlaff unbuttoned his coat, exposing his hip.

‘Look.’

Néris hissed as she assessed the hideous cleft in his side.

‘He attacked me in Warfurt three weeks ago. Normally, it would heal overnight.’

‘Vampire hunting seems to be his specialty,’ Regis said. ‘We have to be extremely careful.’

‘It would be careful, then, to stay at Fen Carn. Use its reputation as shelter…’

‘Superstition and a pile of stones aren’t enough,’ said Dettlaff. ‘But there are places that have been created to give us a safe haven.’

Néris cracked her fingers.

‘I want to ask you for help. Somewhere near Dillingen...’

She broke off at the sound of voices. Regis pointed to a camp set among the wilted trees. A couple of tents with holes and smoke billowing out from fires within.

‘We’ll return to this conversation,’ he said.

*

‘They ousted us from our homes at the end of the war and are still sitting there. Soldiers—damn them to hell.’

Stone-faced, they stared at the camp of exiles behind the woman as she told her story.

‘They’ve festooned our village with their banners, they’re treating it like a military post. I told them: this here is my home, and there, on the water, that’s the boat in which my father and grandfather used to sail the Yaruga. But they didn’t care. So I took the kid in my arms and I begged for mercy. It’s winter, I said. It’s cold. We’re hungry. I pleaded for them to spare one hut, to behave like human beings.’

‘They didn’t budge,’ said Dettlaff.

A child peeked out from behind the woman. Hopeful eyes on a hungry face. She brushed his hair back from his forehead, then adjusted his hood.

‘They called the Nilfgaardians intruders,’ she said. ‘Bloody invaders. But now the fight with the Blacks is over, the country is supposed to be liberated. Yet we cannot return to our own huts. Seems to me, we’re the ones who lost.’

Regis gritted his teeth.

‘Wait until tomorrow. Return to your homes at dawn.’

‘But the military ... We tried.’

‘Yes. Now let me try.’

*

It was dusk when they reached the settlement. There were five huts with snow-crushed roofs, a lone pier, the swinging masts of fishing boats. Laughter and joyful shouts came from the largest hut.

Regis took the bag off his shoulder and handed it to Dettlaff.

‘Wait here,’ he said.

The door creaked as he pushed it open and stepped inside, into stagnant air thick with pipe smoke. The soldiers gathered at the table fell silent.

‘Who are you?’ asked a bearded man with a scar on his temple.

‘My name is Emiel Regis. I am traveling to Dillingen.’

The soldier leaned forward, resting his bristly chin on a plump fist.

‘Are you going alone? Brave of you.’

‘Or stupid,’ another soldier chimed in.

‘Or stupid, indeed,’ said the bearded man. ‘You are lost, Emiel Regis. But luckily for you, there is a road that leads beyond the Hills. Then you just need to go straight on.’

‘I know that.’

‘Then why come here?’

‘I met some people who you expelled from their homes. Children, even, were denied shelter.’

Regis closed the door behind him and approached the table. Tentative fingers drifted towards the hilts of swords.

‘Those were the orders,’ said the bearded man.

Regis met his eyes and raised his hand. The bottles on the table trembled.

‘Orders have changed,’ he croaked. ‘This place doesn’t belong to you. You will depart to Vidort without delay. You will forget our meeting and forget that you were ever here.’

The bearded man’s features loosened, and his face lost all expression.

‘Yes, my lord,’ he whispered.

As the last of the soldiers left the cabin, Regis felt his eyes fog up. He tried to approach the bench, but his legs refused to obey. He collapsed, banging his head against the chair.

As the darkness enveloped him, he remembered the beginning of their journey. A hospital in the wasteland, the quiet groans of the dying. The smell of death.

They will die anyway.

Not by my hand.


Dettlaff stands beside him, his hands dripping red.

You need blood, Regis.

CHAPTER 8

‘Where’s the money, you son of a bitch? Talk!’

‘Ghrr!’

The crows watched indifferently as the men went about their errands. The sergeant, now pale as a drowned man, quickly regained his blush as Osyan grabbed his throat and choked him.

‘Ghrr!’

Erskine entered the glade. He cursed and dropped the pile of brushwood he was carrying. In a few strides, he reached the sled, grabbed Osyan by his coat and threw him to the ground.

The old man, now the color of beetroot, flailed under the furs as he gasped for air.

‘You want to kill him, you halfwit?’ Erskine growled and gave his companion a kick in the ribs.

‘Have you lost your mind? Why didn’t you call me when he woke up?’

Osyan scurried on his elbows, out of reach of Erskine’s boot.

‘Not kill. Just scare a little.’ A snotty smirk crept across his face.

Erskine glared at him. If Osyan had somehow managed to extract the location of the hideout, he would have grabbed the sergeant and dashed off into the woods without a second thought, abandoning his accomplice in the cold. Just like they did with Néris.

‘It happens again, and I’ll hang you by the balls.’

‘You’ll both hang,’ growled the sergeant. ‘Deserters. Traitors!’

They chuckled in unison.

‘Why treat us in such a way, Commander? We snatched you from Death’s gaping maw! Tended to you while you were sick! You ask me, we deserve a crumb of gratitude, eh?’

‘The executioner will gladly thank you with his axe.’

Erskine blew on his rough, stiff hands, then leaned against the railing of the sled. Osyan got up from the ground and took his place on the other side. The sergeant scowled at them from under frosted eyebrows. The dice had already been cast. There was no point in lying. Not after Osyan’s display.

‘Where did you hide your loot, you old thug?’

‘It belongs to the company. It will be divided fairly.’

’Don’t make me laugh. It’s the spoils of robbery—in Dillingen. Oh-ho, the honor of a thief, eh?’

‘Taken under Conqueror’s Law. From a city reclaimed from the Blacks. What are you, Erskine, a wartime virgin? This your first, is it?’

‘Not the first. But probably the last, once we claim this loot. I think I’m done marching behind trumpets.’

Osyan pursed his lips, drew his knife, spat on the blade, and wiped it on his cuff.

‘Why waste time explaining yourself? Let’s start cutting and let him sing already.

’Erskine shrugged, adding nothing but his silent consent. He still felt a semblance of respect for the sergeant, whose steely stubbornness had led their unit to success on numerous occasions, and didn’t want to yank him around like some rabid animal. So he allowed the old man a moment to come to his own conclusions, to familiarize himself with the severity of the situation.

Osyan, of course, understood little of this. He had entered King Foltest’s service last fall after Kaedweni cavalry plundered and razed his father’s farm. Experience had taught Osyan that ‘soldier’ meant ‘thief with impunity.’ That’s why he enlisted.

The blade slid beneath the furs, its cold edge pressing against the sergeant’s skin. In his scarred face, anger and bitterness gave way to helplessness. Resigned to his fate, he spoke.

‘On the Yaruga, a day’s ride east of Dillingen, there is a sawmill. We clashed with the Nilfgaardians there⁠—they wanted to use the barges to retreat across the river…’

Erskine and Osyan stooped over the wounded man like ravenous vultures.

CHAPTER 9

Dettlaff seated Regis at the table. He looked around the room, went to the basement hatch.

‘It was reckless,’ he said.

‘I know.’

‘Just don’t say you need time. You know what needs to be done.’

‘I know.’

The fire in the hearth had died, and darkness engulfed the interior of the abandoned hut. Néris sat down at the table and sipped the mandrake tincture. Regis was massaging his temple, sore from the fall.

‘You said you wanted our help.’

‘Yes.’

‘So I have a condition: end the secrets. It’s time for the truth. Provided in its entirety and as succinctly as possible. Please.’

‘The truth is boring, Regis.’ She sighed. ‘Somewhere near Dillingen, there is a chest containing the spoils of war. Arnault—that’s the sergeant’s name—hid it there to keep it safe until the end of the war. Unfortunately, at the end of the campaign, he was wounded in battle. We took him from the field hospital so he would not die there, cold and miserable.’

‘And so he could give you the location.’

Néris was silent. Regis spread his hands.

‘Forgive me, but I am not convinced.’

‘You know what awaits him if we don’t follow them. Erskine and Osyan … you’ve met them. You have seen who they are.’

‘And who are you?’

‘I’m only interested in gold. I don’t want him dead.’

‘How noble.’

‘Nobility I leave to you, Regis. No, don’t protest. I’ve seen you take care of Arnault day after day. You helped me too, though you didn’t have to. Do you want the truth? Here it is: you already know that without our help, he will die. You will come with me because your conscience compels you.’

Dettlaff raised a trapdoor in the floorboards.

‘She’s right, Regis,’ he said. ‘Let’s get it over with.’

*

It was damp in the cellar, and darker still.

Regis ran the charcoal across the floor, closed the symbol. Inside the circle, he placed the clay bowl they had taken from the hut at Fen Carn.

‘Why did you save him, Dettlaff?’

‘Who?’

‘The Temerian soldier, back at the Ina. You could have left him.’

‘I could. But saving his life ... it seemed like something you’d do.’

The circle glowed, ancient magic set the air in motion. Dettlaff stood over the bowl. With a swift movement, he cut his wrist. Blood flowed.

‘It’s always been easy for me,’ he said. ‘I’ve been around for a long time. I have a firm opinion about humans and their parodies of civilization. They spread through this world like a plague. They arranged it so poorly that it could not possibly work.’

‘You thought so until now.’

‘I still think so.’

‘And yet something has changed.’

Dettlaff winced, wiggled his numb fingers.

‘You see something more in them,’ he said. ‘You’re still trying to help them. It’s...’

‘Naive?’

‘Intriguing.’

Dettlaff closed the wound and left the circle. Regis took his place. He grasped the bowl in both hands, whispered an incantation, and drank.

Fresh blood spilled inside him, spurring tremors of euphoria. Vampire senses, previously muted, exploded forth. He heard every murmur. A whirlwind throwing snow across the hills. The burble of the Yaruga’s cloudy waters. A horse’s neigh and hoofbeats on a faraway track.

*

The stallion grunted. Sorensen slapped him with the reins. He wanted to make sure he got far enough away from the hut.

Dawn was breaking when he reached the clearing at Turlough Heights. Pines cast long shadows on the rocks. He sat on the trunk of a fallen tree and wrapped his cloak around him.

‘Sabrina.’

‘Do you have any idea what time it is? Do you think sorceresses don’t sleep?’

‘I found the vampires.’

A sigh.

‘Contract fulfilled?’

‘Not yet. But I heard their conversation. I know who they are following.’

‘Sorensen, sweetheart ... if I needed a tracker, I’d hire one. I believe you are a witcher?’

‘A witcher, not an idiot. The gray one, Regis ... I assumed killing him would be an act of mercy, but he is not going to his grave. At the Yaruga, he hypnotized a band of soldiers.’

‘Do you want to bargain again?’

‘I want help.’

A soft laugh.

‘You’re lucky I’m prepared.’

It flashed, then a portal opened nearby. Power poured forth from the swirling chaos and formed the shape of a weapon. The contour became clearer and clearer, then finally it filled with heat and solidified. An ornate dagger fell into the snow.

Sorensen picked it up, ran his finger along the runes.

‘What do I do with it? Sharpen stakes?’

‘It’s enchanted. It activates on contact with vampire flesh. I didn’t manage to reproduce the spell completely, but what I imbued into the dagger should be enough.’

‘Are you sure it’ll work?’

‘No. Vilgefortz, the creator of the spell, was devilishly clever. Recreating the formula was an expensive challenge, the blade infusion process alone took a week. Use it wisely. It only lasts a single use.’

‘I remind you that there are two of them.’

‘Yes, yes. But you, my dear…’

Sorensen sighed. He hopped off the trunk and slid the dagger under his belt.

‘But I am a witcher.’

‘And you will come up with something.’ She paused. ‘Correct?’

Sorensen mounted his horse. He looked at the sled tracks that ran across the clearing to the west.

‘Do I have another option?’

CHAPTER 10

The door, hanging dubiously from a single hinge, ricocheted off the wall as Osyan stormed out of the sawmill, huffing and heaving.

‘Nothing. Nothing! Not even a rusty old coin!’

‘Did you find those loose bricks he was talking about?’

‘Have you seen the cellar? Half the bricks are loose! I pulled down most of the wall and there was no hiding place. Dirt’s caving in from outside for fuck’s sake. We’re in the wrong place, I’m telling you.’

Erskine looked around at the clearing: An exhumed mass grave, frozen corpses scattered about, their bodies gnawed on by wild animals. Black Nilfgaardian cloaks emblazoned with the scorpion mark.

‘There is no mistake. These are the corpses of the Seventh Daerlan lancers. Just like the old man told us.’

‘So he must have mixed things up a bit. Wake him.’

A rattled laughter came from the sled; the sergeant was already awake and listening to their conversation. He guffawed, relishing the moment.

‘What you laughing for?’ Osyan growled and swung at the old man. Erskine grabbed his wrist.

‘Calm it, would you? He’s saying something.’

Erskine brought his ear to the commander’s mouth and listened to his whispered rasps:‘You’re already dead, you foolish fucks.’

Grinning, the sergeant pulled his hand from the furs and pointed towards Dillingen with a trembling finger. A low-hanging sun, hiding behind a forest of bald ash trees, cast long sinister shadows across the terrain. The two deserters scanned the direction the old man had indicated.

Suddenly, Erskine squatted and inspected the nearest body. Armor plating was etched with a crisscross of claw marks, pried open to expose the frozen, shredded meat beneath. Bones were splintered and snapped by jaws far more powerful than a wolf’s.

The Temerian, now himself pale as a dead man, sprang to his feet and turned to his partner.

‘Dead Eaters.’

The sergeant’s malevolent cackle rang in their ears as terrible eyes flashed frantically amid the trees in the falling darkness.

*

The witcher followed the tracks of the sleigh. It was dusk when the forest turned to a clearing where an abandoned lumberjack hut stood aside clusters of felled trees. Then a hungry howl burst through the mellow hum of the river. And mad baying. The horse huffed, threw its head, and refused to go any further. He had to leave him, continue on foot.

Sorensen slipped behind the tree line and into the opening. The full moon danced on the silver waters of the Yaruga, on the silver snow, on the witcher’s silver sword. A pack of ghouls crept around the sawmill, trying to get to the people barricaded within. A sleigh lay abandoned by the waterwheel. One of the wretched creatures was devouring some poor sod lying upon it. The horrid smack and crackle of rent flesh and crushed bone filled the air.

A bolt from the arbalest swept the monster off the sleigh and nailed it to a tree.

Sorensen removed a small bomb from the hook on his belt, fired the fuse with the Igni sign, and went to work.

*

The witcher, in all honesty, was just as terrifying as the Dead Eaters.

The reptilian eyes. Swollen, blackened veins bulging in the neck and temple. Clothes sodden with the foul stench of monster blood.

‘Do you have booze?’

Somehow, that instantly made the man more relatable. Osyan handed him a canteen.

‘Your friends are coming here. They will join us soon.’

The deserters glanced at each other. Erskine instinctively placed a hand on the grip of his blade. Although, he did not favor his odds.

‘What gave you the idea we’re traveling in a larger company? You following our tracks?’

‘Only the two who joined you on the way.’

‘You got beef with them?’

‘Sort of. I was paid for them. I am a witcher, if you hadn’t surmised.’

‘And they are, what, drowners?’

‘Vampires.’

Erskine was speechless for a moment.

‘They seemed quite ordinary,’ he finally choked out.

‘I am surprised too.’ The witcher shrugged. ‘Nevertheless, they are most deadly.’

Osyan, consumed by his disappointment, kicked a pile of rusty tools, as if they were personally accountable for his failure. The heap replied with a sad clatter as it fell apart.

‘The old man fooled us. Led us here to find death instead. Such a long way, and we won’t even earn an oren.’

The witcher reached into his pouch. He rolled the coin between the fingers of his bloodied hand. Sphinx on the obverse. Chariot on the reverse. Ancient gold caught the reflection of the moonlight. The deserters gawped at it, as if mesmerized.

‘I don’t know what your business was here. But I think I can suggest something better. I need partners.’

‘You pay…’ Osyan swallowed ‘… with gold?’

‘Not me.’ The witcher smiled maliciously. ‘Vampires. They have more of it. And you ... you can help me set a trap.’

CHAPTER 11

The battlefield was silent. The full moon sparkled on the icicles hanging from the sawmill, on the rusting armor of the fallen soldiers.

They found the sleigh by the water wheel.

Regis stepped over the bloodied remnants of the mare. He parted the furs under which the sergeant lay.

Black holes where eyes should be. Shredded cheeks. A mouth frozen in a contorted scream.

Néris doubled over, vomited.

Somewhere behind them, in a shadow-shrouded thicket, a bolt-ring clicked.

A flash shot through the darkness. The projectile shattered Regis’ arm, pinning him to the sleigh. The wound sizzled and smoked, the smell of burning meat engulfed the air.

‘Over there!’ Néris shouted. She yanked her sword from its scabbard and dashed towards the tree line.

Dettlaff already knew who they were dealing with. He remembered the sound; he remembered the gleam of runes on silver.

Transforming in an instant, he thrashed his leathery wings and flew towards the forest. He overtook Néris and descended into the thicket, ready to meet the witcher.

*

The monster took the bait.

Sorensen watched it rise to the sky, spread its wings, then disappear into the trees. The condottiere ran after the beast, her sword drawn.

The witcher was grateful for this decision; he didn’t want to have to kill her.

He drank his potion, sighed heavily, and jumped out from behind a pile of boards. In two strides, he reached the vampire still pinned to the sledge. One quick blow to behead the bloodsucker.

He swung his sword and the silver blade whistled.

A heartbeat too slow.

The vampire freed itself at the last moment, deflecting the blow with its claws. But the witcher allowed no respite. He feigned a downward strike, broke the rhythm of his steps, then lunged forward, thrusting at the beast’s midriff.

The monster recoiled out of the way, then pounced, its gleaming claws missing Sorensen’s head by an inch. The witcher dropped to his knee, cut low. This time, he hit his target, slashing the beast’s lower leg. Without a moment’s hesitation, he aimed his follow-up at the neck. The vampire shielded itself with its hand. The blade sliced through its fingers, lost momentum, and hissed past the beast’s maw.

The monster lunged at the witcher, its claws wrapping around his throat. Sorensen grunted, snatched a bomb from his belt, and dropped it at their feet. There was a bang, followed by a high-pitched whine. A thick fog enveloped the area, blotting out everything but the immediate vicinity. The witcher swung his sword, slashed the beast’s chest, then blasted it backwards with an Aard sign. The vampire careened into the sled and rolled into the darkness along with the sergeant’s corpse.

Sorensen inhaled greedily, rubbing his neck. A smile crept onto his lips. The monster was bleeding profusely; the wounds inflicted by the manticore’s silver would flare up at any moment, weakening it further.

He gripped his sword in both hands and calmed his breathing.

‘Time to end this,’ he said.

*

Human shapes flashed red in Dettlaff’s eyes. A crossbowman and… someone else, lurking in the shadows. Their blood bore a familiar scent. The two fools with whom he had recently traveled. He did not detect the witcher’s presence. Disturbing.

The string twanged, but the bolt missed, struck away mid-flight by a dismissive wave of his claws. Dettlaff swooped lower, faster, hooking the shooter with a wing and knocking him from the boughs. He dropped the weapon as he fell from his perch, landing hard in the snowdrift below.

Dettlaff made a tight arc in the air, then landed, reverting to his human form. The other man must have imagined he had gone unnoticed, as he sprang from his hiding place behind a trunk, his dagger lunging at the vampire’s neck. With inconceivable speed, Dettlaff caught the ambusher’s wrist before the strike landed. His gaze lingered on the blade, the runes etched into it glowed an ominous blue. He was curious, but only for a moment. Turning his attention back to the man, he crushed the bones seized within his grasp. The attacker howled as the weapon slipped from his limp fingers. Dettlaff shoved him backwards into the snow.

He glared at the two cowering men, both helpless and terrified. They looked at him like condemned criminals awaiting their sentence. Hearts pounded like hammers beneath their chests. Lungs expanded, sucking in nervous gulps. Breath exhaled, steam billowing in the chilled air. So much fear, trembling, struggle, deceit⁠—what was it supposed to do? What good was it?

‘Why?’ he asked. His own breath was cold. Invisible.

Before they could force their tight throats and chattering teeth to obey, Néris appeared from the direction of the sawmill.

‘They’re monsters,’ Osyan gasped, clutching his broken arm. ‘You stuck with them, and they’re monsters!’

Néris did not grace him with a reply. Catching his lustful glance towards the dropped dagger, she picked up the weapon and turned to Dettlaff.

‘They killed the sergeant. Finish them or let me do it.’

The vampire gestured to her to wait.

‘I can’t understand. Why?’ he repeated. ‘The commander led you here. Was it not enough to take the money and leave? Why draw weapons against us?’

‘There is no money!’ Osyan screamed. ‘The old man lured us to a battlefield haunted by Dead Eaters! He took his secrets to the grave—that’s what he did, the rat-bastard!’

‘But they,’ Erskine interjected, pointing to Dettlaff, ‘are carrying real royal treasures with them, they are! Gold from ancient tombs. What they used to pay for the horse we took along the way. The witcher ... the witcher showed it to us.’

Metal flashed. Néris caught the coin tossed her way by the Temerian, inspected it closely. It had to be worth a fortune.

‘They have more. More than you could ever spend. We were chasing the sergeant’s cache, while all this time…’

Dettlaff was disappointed. Regis had almost convinced him that there was more to these creatures. That humans weren’t just treacherous oafs consumed by greed and bewitched by base desires. That they weren’t as vile and debased as they seemed at first glance. But his friend was wrong. They were irredeemable. Like the sergeant’s hidden cache, there was no treasure to be found among humans. The casket had been opened, and it was empty—it always would be.

Dettlaff picked up a flailing Osyan with one hand. He tilted his head, extended his fangs, and let the scent of blood fill his nostrils. Euphoria pulsed throughout his body.

Then there was a sudden pain.

Néris, striking with the speed of a viper, had sunk the dagger as far as the crossguard into Dettlaff’s arm. The vampire dropped Osyan, jumped back, hissing and baring his teeth. Blue flames flared from where the enchanted blade had been lodged. Slowly, the blaze consumed his limb, licked at his neck. He reached for the weapon, attempting to free himself from the malevolent spell. Then Erskine grasped the crossbow in the snow, took aim, and released. A silver bolt whirred through the air and pinned the vampire’s free arm to a tree trunk.

With one arm nailed to a tree, the other devoured by enchanted flames, Dettlaff called for the power of blood and tried to transform. But the witcher’s silver prevented the metamorphosis.

He let out a chilling howl, and the night responded with a distant bark.

‘I want my share doubled,’ Néris said, helping Osyan to his feet.

CHAPTER 12

He tried to get up, but his shattered leg refused to obey. Blood oozed from a gash in his chest. His fingerless hand throbbed incessantly.

Regis looked at the sergeant beside him, envious. At least he felt nothing anymore.

The witcher was closing in. The moon danced on a blade of silver.

There was only one way.

I’m sorry.

He crawled to the corpse and sank his fangs into it.

A metallic aftertaste fluttered on his tongue. The euphoria hit in waves, pulsating within. The wounds faded, and the pain dulled, drifting somewhere far away.

The witcher emerged from behind the remains of the sleigh and cursed. Regis got up. He inhaled deep. His eyes turned red.

He roared like a feral animal. His face elongated into an ominous mask, long claws sprouted from the fingers of his healthy hand.

The rest was a blur. He watched the events unfold from behind a veil, like an intruder in his own body, wearing the flesh of a primal beast.

And the beast wanted blood.

The witcher folded his fingers into a sign, but this time the monster dodged easily, letting the wave of energy scatter snow instead. He then reached for another bomb, but was too slow. Far too slow. The vampire hit him with a furious blow, claws pierced his body with ease. His fingers slackened and the silver blade dropped into red-spattered frost.

The beast extended its fangs.

The artery was throbbing, the heart beating, blood pumping. It was time to surrender to nature. To do exactly what he was made for.

I do not want this.

Regis froze. Facial features smoothed and softened, claws retracted with a hiss. He released the witcher, letting him collapse into the snow.

He listened to the pre-dawn placidity. Soon, the rhythm of beating blood faded, then disappeared entirely. He stooped over the hunter and looked deep into his eyes.

‘I’m not a monster,’ he said.

He turned and walked away into the trees, leaving the witcher alone.

*

The blue flame charred Dettlaff’s hand and forearm, lapped at his shoulder and neck.

‘The witcher said it would finish him off. Burns down to naked bone.’

‘Let him not fool us like the old man did! Where’s the gold, you bastard?’ Osyan drawled.

The vampire wiggled the numb fingers of his surviving hand. The bolt crushing his arm left little leeway. He pushed back his cloak, detached the pouch from his belt, and tossed it to the ground.

Osyan, although wounded, was the first to reach the pouch. Then came the creaking of a bolt being loaded.

‘Leave it be, mongrel,’ Erskine growled. ‘We came for the loot, and you ain’t no soldier, just a stray.’

‘I helped!’

‘Fuck off, you helped. Néris stabbed him.’

‘That’s why I want a bigger share,’ she said.

‘As if.’ Erskine side-eyed Néris. ‘A moment ago, you were in partnership with bloodsuckers. Osyan, don’t you move, or I’ll stick a bolt in you.’

‘There are two ... two of us ... you ... you can’t … reload…’

‘Deal with him, Erskine, then we’re out of here. Before the witcher finishes and asks for his share.’

Erskine snorted. ‘You are a real snake.’

‘Sums are better divided into two than three.’

‘You want a witcher snapping at your heels?’

‘The two of us can deal with him.’

‘You must be kidding. I ain’t sleeping anywhere near you.’

Osyan tried to take advantage of his companions’ squabbling and scrambled away through the trees. They caught up with him quickly. Néris tripped him with her leg. He rolled over the frozen ground and fell into a gully. Then the argument started again.

Soon, eyes lit up among the trees. They had come in large numbers in response to Dettlaff’s call. Silently, they surrounded the ash tree, a stone’s throw from the unaware deserters. Hot saliva dripped from their mouths into the snow as they waited for orders.

One of them yanked the bolt with its teeth, freeing Dettlaff from the tree. He stretched the stiff fingers of his released hand. With a sickening crunch, he tore the remnant of his arm consumed with magic fire and tossed the dagger-pierced stump onto the ground, letting it sizzle in the snow.

He raised his hand, and the creatures of the night trembled in anticipation. The sergeant seemed to know these people best—knew best what they deserved. So Dettlaff decided to honor his memory.

He unleashed the Dead Eaters.

*

It was snowing at dawn.

Dettlaff sat alone by the old ash tree. Regis approached, kneeled beside him. Silently, they stared at the three bodies fading beneath a blanket of white. Gold coins scattered between them.

‘Those two ... deserved to be punished,’ Regis said. ‘But not such a fate.’

‘All of them. All three. They brought it on themselves. Their nature doomed them.’

‘So you have become an expert in human nature.’

‘Expert? No. But I have learned the truth of it.’

Dettlaff noted Regis’ wounded hand.

‘The witcher?’

‘I let him go.’

‘You’re insane.’

‘No. I’m just not who you thought I was.’

The sun peeked out from among the trees. A frosty wind blew snow from the leafless branches. Regis climbed to his feet and adjusted his bag.

‘I’m going.’

Dettlaff stared into Néris’ glassy eyes. He reached down and took a coin from between her fingers.

‘Go,’ he said. ‘Live among the humans. Among your own. May you not find your end there.’

‘And you? What will you do?’

Dettlaff slipped the gold into the purse.

‘I do not yet know. But I know where to start.’

*

Flop, flop, flop. Splash.

‘Sabrina.’

He chose another pebble. Flat. Smooth. Perfect. The calm surface of the Yaruga sparkled in the sun.

Flop, flop, flop, flop. Splash.

‘Done?’ Her voice came from the xenovox.

‘In a sense. I resign from the assignment.’

There was a silence—the sort that comes before a terrible storm.

‘What do you mean, “resign”?’ There was more venom in her words than a scorpion’s sting.

‘You heard.’ Sorensen turned a pebble in his fingers, weighed it in his palm, skimmed it on the water. Flop, flop, splash.

‘You’re scared, huh? I guess the cat’s out of the bag. You coward. Bastard. You poor excuse for a man. You worthless sack of shit...’

The litany went on forever. Sabrina had a mouth like a cobbler and a surprisingly rich and depraved imagination. The xenovox vibrated from all the screaming on the other end.

Sorensen listened for some time, staring at the water. After a while, he grew tired of the whining. He picked up the magical box and weighed it in the palm of his hand.

Splash.

*

A log broke apart in the hearth, a pleasant warmth spread across the room.

Aine sat down on the furs, pulled her bow. The fiddle sounded wrong. She twisted the pin, tuning the instrument, but before she could play, someone opened the door.

She recognized him immediately.

‘Where’s your father?’

‘In Kagen. And your ... comrades?’

‘I’m alone.’

‘Come in, my lord. Keep warm.’

The newcomer sat down at the table. He stared into the flames, pondering.

‘Ludka did you well?’

‘She has reached the end of her journey.’

Aine put the instrument down, moved the logs around. The stranger reached for his belt.

‘The gold you received ... it was worth more than you think.’

‘We don’t have it anymore.’

‘I know.’

The newcomer unraveled the purse and put two coins on the table. Aine sighed.

‘No ... it’s not right. You paid us fairly for Ludka. It is not your fault that we lost our gold because of my stupidity.’

The stranger was silent for a long time.

‘So let’s say that this is also fair payment.’

‘What for?’

‘For the lesson you’re giving me right now.’

He got up and left. Aine stared at the glistening coins. After a moment, she grabbed her sheepskin coat and ran out into the night.

Footprints in the snow disappeared after a few steps. The stranger was nowhere to be seen.

There was only the chilly wind that whistled among the lonely trees. A foretaste of a long winter.

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