The night started like any other in the small town of Chorac with the sounds of children laughing as they were called in for dinner, a few outraged shrieks as a stray animal startled someone, and the creeping darkness that brought with it the buzzing of mosquitoes, hoots of owls, and flapping of bats as they emerged for the night. Cars traveled from work to home, or for the unlucky few, from home to work, and overall, it was a mostly serene and very suburban atmosphere that so many were use to that they completely ignored as “boring” and “normal”.
No one noticed the clouds roll in rather quickly when it became full dark, but everyone noticed the strange, unseasonal chill that filled the air. Windows were closed as people started shivering and reaching for sweatshirts or sweaters before they put it out of their minds, returning to their normal lives. Fog started rising to fill the streets, thick and heavy as the cold air met the summer hot ground, and a few of the businesses that had remained open late decided to close as no one was out on the streets. The fog brought with it a strange feeling that had nothing to do with the temperature drop, and doors were locked and double checked by nervous people, and soon the fog was so thick, people were told to shelter where they were, be they at work or home. Those caught outside on the streets carefully made their way back to their houses where they locked themselves in and vowed to not move until the strange weather had stopped.
Ebra Richardson was quietly swearing to herself as she crept through the fog choked streets in her modified Hummer. It had been a military surplus purchase that she had invested her time and skill in fixing up into the mostly comfortable ride it was now with bench seats, surround sound with bluetooth speakers and microphone for her cell phone hookup, and best of all, a front dash camera because sometimes she saw the damnedest things and no one believed her without proof despite the fact she was employed as a scout for the town council to ensure none of the local beasties decided to make an easy meal out of any of the outlying houses or cause any other troubles that would require them to hire the expensive but very well trained and prepared Witchers to deal with it. The council always bitched and moaned whenever it was talked about bringing a Witcher in because the first thing they wanted to do was raise taxes instead of use the discretionary funds that were put aside for just such an occasion, which made Ebra wonder just what was going on with those specific funds. Personally, she suspected someone was skimming when they shouldn’t be, and should a Witcher be called in, the theft of the funds would be discovered.
Cheap ass bastards are probably taking their secretaries to the coast for so-called vacations where they screw their brains out in between getting stinking ass drunk, she thought, a dark frown on her face as she carefully turned down Cemetery Road, all too aware of the various animals that enjoyed jumping out in front of vehicles as they raced through and out of the large cemetery that was on the edge of Chorac. Several accidents had happened along this road from a deer suddenly bolting out into the street or someone swerving to avoid a stray cat or raccoon. Meanwhile, I’m out here risking my life and sacrificing my sleep on minimum wage. Volunteer job my ass!
Something dark loomed out of the darkness, and she slammed on her breaks, her startled scream adding to the shriek of her tires suddenly locking up as they skidded along the asphalt. There was no sound of impact so she knew she hadn’t hit anything, and so she took a few moments to swear as she forced her racing heart to calm down from the adrenaline spike. When she opened her eyes, she stared at the thing that was now illuminated by her headlights and felt her blood run cold.
Standing before her hummer was the half decayed body of someone, possibly male if the ratty clothes that were tattered and worn, barely clinging to the body and was probably the only thing that was holding some of the bits and pieces onto the bony frame that was peeking through more than one bit of decayed flesh and muscle. As she stared at the one, she realized there were other shapes lumbering through the fog.
Emerging from the cemetery.
Baring her teeth to keep from screaming in fear, she slammed her foot down on the gas, and the powerful engine roared as the hummer jumped forward, plowing into the zombie that was in front of her and the half a dozen beyond that. She managed to keep driving down the street, ignoring the gore that streaked the hood of her hummer as well as some of the dents she had from the impacts.
“Call 911!” she shouted at her cellphone, and there was a couple of clicks before a calm, male voice picked up.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“This is Scout Ebra Richardson for Chorac,” she announced, her voice slightly loud from her fear. “The local cemetery is moving!”
“I’m sorry, Scout Richardson, could you please clarify,” requested the emergency operator, sounding a bit confused. “Our records show that the cemetery is on very shallow hills. Is there a landslide or sinkhole happening?”
“No, you damn bastard!” she shrieked, her fear getting the better of her common sense as she sped off into the fog. “The dead are rising!”
A frown on his rugged features, Geralt of Rivia carefully moved closer to the large burn mark on the grass. Behind him, he could hear Ciri following on nearly silent feet, and he would remind her yet again that heeled boots did not make for good hunting shoes. Why she insisted on wearing those ridiculous things, even with those thicker heels, was beyond him. Give him a set of steel toed construction boots that were guaranteed to take out teeth with a kick instead of break his toes.
He shook his head and focused back on the charred circle in front of him. It was obviously the location of the ritual that had brought Chorac Cemetery to life a few days ago, located in the very center of the gravestones, and his wolf medallion was faintly vibrating on his chest in reaction to the lingering magic there. A flicker of brilliant blue caught his eye, and he crouched down, carefully brushing some ashes aside with a gloved finger to reveal a butterfly wing. It was almost iridescent blue with a couple of bright purple dots along the edge where the blue changed to black. Next to it was a small broken glass bottle with part of a charred label still attached to it.
“Ciri,” he called, motioning her over to him, and she moved over to crouch next to him, somehow balancing in those ridiculous boots of hers. “When are you going to get sensible boots and save the heels for dates?”
“When you actually let me go on a date, or I find someone willing to brave your grumpy bear attitude to actually ask me out on one,” she countered with a small smirk before looking at the ashes. “What did you find?”
He pointed at the butterfly wing even as he picked up the bottle, turning it over in his hands to examine the label. He was just able to make out W-E-S H-O-L on the paper before he grunted in irritation and held it out to her, wondering if she would make the connection yet wishing he was wrong. He really hated heading south.
“I don’t recognize this species,” confessed Ciri, gently picking up the butterfly wing and turning it over in her fingers. Without speaking, Geralt handed over the broken bottle, and she frowned at the label. He watched her lips move as she said the letters there, a frown of concentration on her face, and he smirked as her aqua green eyes suddenly lit up with recognition. “Westmarch Holy water!”
“The butterfly is a species known as a Caldeum nightshade,” Geralt lectured, rising to his feet and brushing his hands off on his legs. Leather chaps over jeans made for pretty good armor when also paired with a heavy leather coat, but they were a headache to get clean when he had been rolling around in the mud fighting a monster of some sort. “They’re known for their magical properties, and used by both mages and craftsmen to enhance their abilities.”
“That means the necromancer originally came from Sanctuary,” concluded Ciri, tucking both the butterfly wing and the broken bottle into a pouch at her waist that would keep them safe. They were evidence after all. She looked around at the torn up graves that had only been halfway filled back in. “Does that mean they’re heading back there for more supplies? And what’s their goal?”
Geralt didn’t say anything as he headed back to his Ford F-150 pickup, and he dropped the tailgate, revealing a sort of mobile outpost tucked under the metal camper top in the cargo area. He hauled himself up easily before pulling out a map of Temeria and Sanctuary, and he turned to settle it on the flat board of the tailgate. Pulling a pen out of his pocket, he carefully marked the Chorac Cemetery as close to the center as he could before grabbing a ruler. Ciri wandered over to watch, curious, but at least she wasn’t griping about the old fashioned techniques in this age of computers and microchips. She had hopefully learned that not everything could be solved with a microprocessor.
Carefully lining up Chorac plus the other three towns that had also been subject to their cemetery residents suddenly going for a walk to terrorize their former neighbors, Geralt drew a straight line through them before continuing that line down through the border and into Sanctuary. It was obvious that whomever was doing this was looking to slow down anyone trying to follow them because each town had to not only be investigated to see if it was linked to the previous one but the restless dead also had to be put down to keep from drawing worse things, like monsters that ate carrion.
“There’s no towns between here and the border,” Geralt stated, tapping the map as Ciri peered down at the stark black line. “As it is, the next town of any size on this path is New Tristram in Sanctuary.” He sighed and threw the pen down in an obvious show of frustration. “I hate dealing with demons.”
“Think we might get lucky and catch this person before they hit the border?” Ciri asked, a hopeful note in her voice as Geralt folded up the map, sliding out of the back of the truck with it in his hands.
He tossed her a bitter look. “And Triss will stop trying to save the world using Witcher secrets,” he countered, almost enjoying the wrinkled nose of distaste he got back from her. Triss Merigold was a good sorceress but she was also a bleeding heart who believed that the key to saving the world lay in the elixirs and potions the Witchers used to fight monsters as well as change their own mutated biology. Every time she showed up at Kaer Morhen, Vesemir always double checked that the potion laboratory was locked and no one went in and out without one of the Witchers with them. Honestly, if they didn’t occasionally need the magic support, Geralt was sure that Vesemir would simply wash his hands of all magic users and bar them from Kaer Morhen. He slammed the tailgate closed and made sure it was locked before starting for the cab. “Come on, we need to talk to the mayor before packing it in.”
Nodding, Ciri moved around to the front cab, shrugging off the twin swords across her back. While not a full Witcher yet as she hadn’t gone through the Trial of Grasses, she had progressed far enough for field work which had earned her the right to carry the silver and the steel swords. Geralt wasn’t going to tell her just yet that this was her last field assignment as an apprentice. Vesemir had approached him before they left about arranging for Ciri’s trial when they wrapped this up, believing it to be a simple matter of a young necromancer with more power than brains and a grudge against someone for some minor slight.
Shrugging out of his own sword harness, Geralt easily caught the blades up in one hand as he climbed up in the driver’s seat, tucking the blades next to Ciri’s own on the back of the bench seat. He started the engine with a loud rumble of power, and a small smile curled his lips. He had to admit that there was just something really nice about having that much horsepower under the hood. Shifting into gear, he started out of the cemetery, being very careful of the various ruts and holes that littered the ground between the tombstones and mausoleums.
“Gonna call Vesemir?” asked Ciri, glancing at him as Geralt turned out of the desecrated land and onto the well paved road heading back into town. “Let him know it looks like we’re heading to Sanctuary?”
Geralt rested his left arm on the window, easily steering the powerful truck with one hand. “Give him a call since you have hands free,” he ordered. “Put it on speaker so we can both hear.”
She nodded, digging out her phone and punching in a number long since memorized. Neither of them had the number to Kaer Morhen’s direct phone line programmed into their cell phones in case they were lost or lifted. There was a public number that anyone could use to get in touch with the Witchers of Kaer Morhen if they didn’t use the web page and e-mail first, but the number all Witchers memorized was the one that connected directly to Vesemir’s personal phone.
“Catch that necromancer yet, Geralt?” Vesemir asked as soon as he picked up the phone.
“They’re apparently heading back to Sanctuary,” Geralt announced, smirking at Ciri even as he started a mental countdown to when the Head Watcher of Kaer Morhen actually heard what he had said.
“Well at least there won’t be any problem heading…. “ Geralt bit his lip to keep from laughing as Vesemir suddenly squawked. “What do you mean back?”
“Just that,” Ciri stated, punching Geralt’s arm as he stopped at a red light. “There was a wing from a Caldeum nightshade butterfly and a broken bottle of Westmarch holy water at the latest site. Also, from what Geralt can figure out, if they follow the line on the map, their next stop is New Tristram.”
“Have you managed to get a picture of this person yet?” sighed Vesemir, sounding tired, and Geralt wondered if there were more jobs coming in than when they had left.
“The sheriff is pulling video at all four of the gas stations in town to see if there’s any familiar faces,” Geralt stated. “The other two towns were a wash as no one stepped into the store itself or were in clear range of the cameras they had focused on their pumps.”
“Damn Sanctuary,” grumbled Vesemir. “Why do they have to cause so much trouble for honest folk?”
“I’d suggest contacting a Priest of Rathma to make sure none of these places have a resurgence of restless dead,” Geralt remarked, ignoring that remark even though he had to wonder the same thing.
A world weary sigh came back, and Geralt felt a chill run down his spine. “Their main temple was attacked two days ago, and most of the High Priests were killed, buying time for the acolytes and lower priests to get out with all of their tomes,” Vesemir confessed, his voice tired. “I don’t know if these two events are connected, but I only heard back from the highest ranking priest at their back up location when he called back in regards to the request I sent for assistance.”
“Damn. That will make things even more complicated to help these people,” Geralt grumbled, frowning hard as he thought. The Priests of Rathma were trained at an early age to maintain what they called the Balance which was essentially the living eventually die and the dead nurture the living. “Any way for any of them to come help? Maybe if we offered them crash space until they got back on their feet?”
“They said they’d try to send someone, but to not get our hopes up,” Vesemir stated. “So, do what you can to settle the dead even if you’re crushing them under Roach to keep them from moving again or taking them out with a baseball bat. Then get on that necromancer’s trail and stop him so we can collect our fee.”
“Don’t talk about my truck like that,” huffed Geralt, throwing a dark look at the phone. “Roach has gone a lot of miles with me and helped me out of several tight spots.”
“Normally when he has to leave suddenly due to an angry husband or boyfriend,” teased Ciri, and Geralt pointed a warning finger at her. He wasn’t one that would deliberately make a move on a married woman or one who was attached, because that just led to so many issues that he didn’t want to deal with, plus a couple of people who had tried to declare some baby was his whenever everyone and their cousin knew Witchers were infertile.
“Not my fault some of those women are less than honest,” Geralt stated with a shrug and a touch of smug pride. “Some just can’t resist me.”
“Which is why you have a discount at the local house of ill repute near Kaer Morhan,” taunted Ciri with a smirk and a toss of her head that sent her silver hair out of her face.
“Enough. I don’t need to hear about Geralt’s sordid adventures,” grumbled Vesemir, sounding greatly put upon. “Especially since Yennifer was rumored to be in the area. Less I know about you, the less she can worm out of me so she has an excuse to be mad at you.”
“Or she’ll inflict more stuffed unicorns on me,” grumbled Geralt, glaring at the small beanie baby that was laying on his dash. He honestly wanted to toss it out the window, but he had the strange feeling that if he did, Yennifer would find some way to magic it back into his truck after giving him hell. “We’ll call again when we have something more or at least a destination in Sanctuary.”
“Be safe, Wolf and you too, Cub. Demons are much more nasty than any beastie you’ve gone up against,” Vesemir stated before hanging up. Geralt shook his head at the fond nicknames Vesemir had settled on them as it was his way of saying he cared. For as long as Geralt had been a full Witcher, he had been called the White Wolf, and when he had taken on Ciri, his Surprise Child twice over, Vesemir had teased him about getting a cub, which stuck the young and rather excitable girl with that particular nickname.
“Let’s see if the sheriffs had more luck than us,” he remarked, turning down another road. He really hoped there was something before they hauled it down to Sanctuary to deal with that particular brand of crazy. He was probably going to have to buy all new clothes by the time they were done because demon blood reeked of sulfur and was impossible to get out of leather.
Being the polite individual that he was, Geralt was going to let Ciri find that out on her own.
“His name is Azar Javed, and at first look, he’s a small time thug wanted in regards to a string of robberies and other headaches for the police of Vizima,” drawled Franklin Bradford, sheriff of Chorac as he dropped some pictures pulled off of the slightly grainy video feed. “Her name is Adria, no known last name, or at least none on record for her. Last known address was a shack on the outskirts of Tristram before they had that demon problem destroy the town.”
He eyed both of them, and Ciri could almost hear the next words out of his mouth as she felt his eyes linger on her chest when she reached over to pick up the pictures off the table. He was pushing sixty if it was a day, and his gun belt was slung underneath the beer gut that showed he preferred lifting a can of beer and the occasional doughnut to actually getting out behind his desk to work. Absently she wondered if him delivering the pictures personally was suppose to impress them somehow.
“You sure you wanna go after someone like Azar Javed, little lady?”
She smiled at him and fluttered her lashes, getting a slight blush on the overweight sheriff’s face before she spoke. “You sure you wanna insult a Witcher by calling her ‘little lady’?” she asked sweetly, causing him to splutter and verbally try to backpedal, but she took the satisfaction in knowing he wasn’t staring at her chest any longer. She frowned at the picture that showed a dark skinned man with a wide variety of facial piercings and dressed in ragged clothing that looked like he was determined to wear them until they fell off his body and a pale skinned woman with a cloth tied over her dark hair and wearing a sort of stereotypical New Age witch’s outfit of broom skirt, loose blouse, sash, and lots of bangles. “Are you sure they’re working together? She looks like someone who runs a New Age store that is more dried herbs and crystal power than anyone raising a cemetery.”
“According to Strawberry Fields, the girl that was working the counter, they were arguing on whether they had time to get something to eat at the gas station’s attached diner,” Bradford offered, looking at Geralt as if he ignored Ciri long enough, she wouldn’t get the chance to get another point made against him. “Azar Javed wanted to take his time and sit down to eat something that wasn’t drive thru while Adria pointed out that they had a limited time to get to their destination or the timing would be ruined.” He shook his head. “She won by the way. They were there long enough to get take out, pay for their gas, and hit the bathrooms.”
“What can you tell us about Azar Javed?” Geralt asked, frowning down at the pictures as if they held the key to the motives behind the two, and Ciri wasn’t so certain that he couldn’t tell their motives. There was so much that Geralt knew that came from simply experience, and in a way Ciri resented him for that because it always made her feel like she’s playing catch up and will never be ready for her Trial of Grasses. She knew half the apprentices at Kaer Morhan had taken their Trials already, but none of them were Geralt of Rivia’s apprentice as so many were quick to point out. More was expected of her because of who her teacher was, and she honestly hoped that this hunt would prove that she was ready for her Trials.
“He’s associated with a criminal organization called Salamandras, or the Salamanders,” Bradford reported, pulling out a folder and flipping it open. “No one’s sure just how high up in the chain of command he is or if he’s just an out runner for them. Someone loosely connected on the edges but who enjoys the connection and perks being connected offers.” He shrugged. “Salamandras seems to do a little of everything; protection, gambling, underground fight clubs, drugs, B&E, theft, prostitution... you name it, they’ve either dabbled in it, work in it, or mastered it. One of their number went away for impersonating a cop and shaking down other gangs for protection money.”
“Protection from who?” asked Geralt, and Ciri shook her head, wondering how that little scam was pulled off.
“The cops if you can believe it,” Bradford drawled, shaking his head. “Apparently, they paid the fake cop so much money for an operating license that would supposedly allow the gang to work as they wanted without fear of being arrested and hassled by the cops.”
“Working with some real geniuses there,” chuckled Ciri, her admiration of the fake cop going up. “How many gangs did he manage to con before they clued in on him?”
“A dozen in different parts of the city,” huffed Bradford, and Ciri burst out laughing. A dozen? Someone was definitely looking out for him to get away with swindling that many gangs out of their money before they clued in on it. “Azar Javed has been seen at various crimes, and let’s face it, he’s rather remarkable with that face full of metal, but no one’s been able to lay hands on him. The few that got close…” He shrugged. “I understand they had nice funerals.”
Right, don’t let Azar Javed get his hands on me, at least without not making him completely regret it, Ciri decided as she sobered some. “Any information on Adria formerly of Tristram?”
“She was a quiet almost reclusive before Tristram fell and Mount Arreat blew its top,” Bradford stated, briefly glancing at her. “The she just sorta vanished. Someone went to her shack and reported that it looked like she packed a few things and left for whatever reason. Rumor she was a witch, might have had a kid but there’s no official record. No criminal record, no known relatives, and basically, just seems like the local crazy cat lady.”
“Except she seems to have a taste for men with enough metal to open their own jewelry stores,” countered Geralt before glancing at Ciri. She nodded and gathered up the pictures, shuffling through them until she found the one that showed Adria and Azar Javed best. They would take that with them and hopefully someone would remember those two. If nothing else, they might be able to run down Azar Javed and find Adria that way. If she was an actual witch, she wouldn’t be able to fire spells off at the drop of the hat.
Witches’ spells required time, ingredients, and preparation to set in motion, like tossing a snowball onto snow to create an avalanche. With enough time and foreknowledge, a person could theoretically escape a witch’s spell, but if someone didn’t know it was coming, they were going to be hit by it. On the other hand, those who could manipulate arcane energy could toss spells around with very little preparation and warning, causing much more instant damage until they ran out of energy. Much like firing a gun, devastating and instant but with limited ammunition.
Climbing back into Geralt’s truck, Ciri settled back in the seat and frowned at the picture in her hand. With Adria coming from Sanctuary, she was the obvious reason the Caldeum nightshade and the Westmarch holy water was at the scene of the latest cemetery walk about, but why did she come for Azar Javed in Temeria? Or had he summoned her from Sanctuary? And why were they raising cemeteries behind them? Well the obvious answer for that last question was a distraction. It kept them busy investigating each one while letting them get farther and farther ahead. But why? No one was actually hunting them until now. Well aside from various law enforcement agencies that might want to either talk or capture them.
“What possible connection could these two have?” she asked as Geralt climbed in behind the wheel and started the engine. “She’s a witch whose spells take time to set up and comes from Sanctuary.” She shook her head. “Somehow I sincerely doubt she’s looking to con some demons out of their money.”
“Maybe she needs his knowledge and expertise in one of the various criminal actions for something in Sanctuary,” suggested Geralt, glancing over at her.
Her frown deepened at that, but it was more thoughtful than irritated. That did make sense but… “Wouldn’t it have been easier to find someone willing to help her in Sanctuary?” she asked, thinking out loud. “It would have been undoubtedly easier because she wouldn’t have had to risk a border crossing, so there has to be something special about Azar Javed that had her come all the way to Vizima, risking various beasts and back roads for no guarantee success in gaining his help.”
A sudden thought struck her, and she looked at Geralt, eyes slightly wide. “Unless she also plans on escaping back to Temeria to hide from the fallout of whatever she has planned and wants to use Azar javed as a sort of passport to slide into the criminal underground where they might be able to use her knowledge and abilities.”
“And Azar Javed?” asked Geralt, a small smile on his face that she always knew meant he was proud of her deduction. It was one of the reasons why she had gotten into the habit of thinking out loud.
“There’s obviously something of value in Sanctuary, perhaps even in the same spot her target is that is valuable enough to tempt him to risk demons, quill fiends, and the other nasties that call Sanctuary home,” she stated. “Someone with a record like his, it has to be something that can only be found in Sanctuary to get him to head south of the border. And circumstances ensure that he has to go there personally to get it or he would just contact someone to bring it back to him without risking his own hide.”
“What makes you say that?”
“He’s egotistical but not suicidal,” she countered. “Why else would he have such distinct jewelry? He wants to be seen and have it know he did such a thing. He might have engineered that entire argument just so they were noticed and identified later after the cemetery exodus.” She tugged off her gloves and dropped them in her lap as she tugged the tie out of her hair, letting the thick braid her silver hair was caught up in to fall over her shoulder. It always amused her how many people thought that Geralt was her father because their hair color matched, and it wasn’t until they saw his golden eyes with their slit pupils that they realized exactly what they were looking at wasn’t a father and daughter.
“How do you figure he’s not suicidal?” Geralt inquired, briefly glancing over at her before returning his attention to the road. “Seems pretty suicidal to me since he was willing to argue with a woman that he is traveling with for days.”
“I’m sure that’s something you figured out the last time you traveled with Yennifer,” Ciri replied with a small smirk, getting the faintest of flinches from Geralt. It was always amusing to needle him about his relationship with the sorceress, and she stretched as best as she could in the seat. “He always has a way out of whatever he happens to be involved in or he would have been caught before now, and he isn’t afraid to kill to get out either. He’s also never officially become part of the Salamandras, which means he can deny all knowledge of them should the situation require it.”
“Very good and well thought out,” Geralt said, and Ciri smiled, a thrill of pleasure and delight running through her at the praise. “We’ll be sure to ask him if he’s suicidal when we catch up with him and drag him back to Vesima.” He jerked his chin towards her. “It’s gonna be a few hours to the border. Get your netbook out and get familiar with Sanctuary.”
Rolling her eyes, Ciri reached down for the bag at her feet and dug through it before hauling out the small, cheap looking netbook and booting it up. Every file that was there was just a travel book on various destinations that anyone could pick up from any travel agency. Of course, hers had some extras added to them in the form of Witcher specific notes that remarked on the strengths and weaknesses of various monsters and beasts. There were even a couple of books written by someone named Abd al-Hazir who claimed to be a traveling scholar. Shaking her head at the flowery descriptions, Ciri settled in for the long trip.