Author’s Note: This story takes place within the realm of the Witcher 3 and references certain side events that take place, but without any of the main storyline in existence. Also, I imagined Ciri to be pretty young in this story—naïve and rash and just a bit lost in her purpose, as if she’s just old enough to be out on her own. I like to think of it as though these experiences would have helped shape her into the women she is in the Witcher 3. And I flubbed a little with the geography of Velen (pretty sure there aren’t mountains right there), and with the layout of the Chameleon a bit, but I don’t think anything is so much as to be world-breaking. I will be posting a chapter a week, probably on Fridays. Please let me know what you guys think in the comments! I hope you enjoy!
UPDATE 8/17/18: The full story is now up!
“Don’t do this, Ciri,” Zoltan cautioned as he followed Ciri down the stairs of the Chameleon. “I don’t like this. Not at all.”
Once on the landing, Ciri purposefully strode around the room, gathering supplies and stuffing them into a large pack. “You know a storm is coming,” Ciri answered without turning from what she was doing. “I don’t have a choice. The village won’t stand a chance otherwise.”
“Join one of the deployments to the other villages if you must. To think you can protect one on your own is folly.”
“There are too many villages for the soldiers alone to protect, you know that as well as I do. And you know I’m a better fighter than any of them. I can hold a small settlement on my own. Besides, the villagers will take up arms if attacked. They just need someone to rally behind.” Ciri bundled up in her fur-lined overcoat, pulling on her thick gloves, and stuffing a wool hat over her head just before slinging her bulging pack on her back. Striding to the door, she snatched up her sword and added it as a final accoutrement.
Zoltan reached out and spun Ciri around by the elbow just as she reached for the door handle. “Cirilla, stop!”
Ciri set her feet impatiently, a look of exasperation clouding her eyes.
Zoltan seemed to fight with himself for a moment, struggling to find the right words.
Ciri filled the silence, hardness settling into her eyes, her tone. “There’s nothing you can say that will stop me. I can’t leave them defenseless. I won’t.”
The silence stretched on a moment longer until, heaving a solemn sigh, Zoltan met Ciri’s eye. “Please be careful.”
Face softening a bit, Ciri relaxed her stance and nodded. “I will.”
Giving Zoltan one last reassuring glance, Ciri pulled open the door and stepped out into the frigid air.
Ciri headed east on Kelpie, a fine if somewhat cantankerous grey mare she had acquired a few years back. A settlement a day’s ride from Novigrad was her destination. It was deep in the heart of winter on the Continent. A foot of snow was ever present on the ground, a biting chill lingering in the air. The conditions weren’t great for riding. The icy roads could be treacherous to a less experienced rider with a horse likely to slip and break a leg, but Ciri knew to stay to the edges of the paths, where the snow was less packed and gave more traction. She would need as much help as she could get. She would have to ride hard to reach the settlement by nightfall. If she didn’t, it might be too late for its inhabitants.
A dangerous group of bandits was stirring to the East, growing ever larger, ever bolder, emerging from the mountains’ forests to raid villages on the very outskirts of Novigrad before slinking away without a trace. The Guard’s men had been deployed to help, but the raiders struck multiple locations seemingly randomly and there were so many settlements that there weren’t nearly enough men to protect them all even with measly three or four men squads spread out randomly amongst the villages. At best they could cover half the settlements and that was stretching it. Ciri had been working closely with them, offering her services whenever she could. The men had come to respect her, even the Captain acknowledging her prowess and thankful for any help they could get.
The biggest problem was, no one knew where the raiders camped, though it must have been somewhere up in the mountains to the East since they always attacked from that direction. The only thing they knew for certain was that they attacked after nightfall during snowstorms, presumably to cover their tracks. The raiders’ main goal seemed to be taking food and supplies from the village stores. That alone was bad enough. The villages needed those stores to get through the winter. Already many such places had had to cut their winter rations in half. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
Villagers were being taken as well, though not from every village and only one or two per raid. The exact numbers didn’t matter to Ciri. One was too many. And none of them had been seen since.
No one could work out the exact selection criteria either. They seemed to go after the people who fought back, although that theory didn’t fit entirely as only a few soldiers had been taken. Far less than villagers anyway. To Ciri, it seemed obvious that the soldiers were simply too much trouble to bother with unless the raiders just got lucky and caught one by surprise.
Ciri didn’t know what they were doing with those men, but whatever it was, it wasn’t good. That’s why, when the forecasters had seen a storm on the horizon, she had turned down the Captain of the Guard’s offer for her to join one of the other deployments. There was a remote village on the edge of the forest that had gone overlooked by the Guard. It was too small to warrant a Guard detail, the Captain had stated; his limited resources were better spent elsewhere.
Ciri understood his decision, she really did. It was an impossible decision and he had to protect as many people as possible. But that didn’t mean she would just stand by and watch that tiny village be plundered if she could do something about it. There was something in her gut telling her it was a perfect target, that the raiders would hit it sooner or later.
Not if she could help it.
In fact, it was the perfect scenario. The village was small enough for her to guard on her own, skilled as she was, and she was better off there than backing up soldiers that could hold a town perfectly well without her. She just hoped she had enough time to reach it.
As it turned out, the going was much slower than Ciri had wished. The village was so remote that the roads leading to it were not nearly as well-maintained as the main thoroughfares, the snow deepening the further Ciri rode from Novigrad. The upside was that they were not in as much danger of slipping, but Kelpie was having to work twice as hard to plow through the knee-high powder and her movement was hindered. She could only manage a labored trot by the time the sun met the horizon behind them.
Ciri pushed her on regardless. The storm hadn’t hit yet so they still had time. It was close though. Everything had gone deathly still, the sky holding its breath.
And then came the release.
A few hours after sundown, a wall of biting wind crashed into Ciri and her mount, icy droplets stinging her face. Half an hour later, Ciri spied embers dancing with the snowflakes on the wind and panic welled up inside her. They were too late. The raiders had struck.
But they were close. Close enough to perhaps still make a difference.
“We have to hurry!” Ciri urged Kelpie, digging her heels into the mare’s sides, willing her to give one final effort.
Kelpie ground the bit, but surged forward, throwing out a wake of snow to either side as they passed. As they neared the town, an ominous orange glow brightened through the gloom and shouts of rage and panic waxed with it. Then they crested a low rise and laid out before them was fire and ice battling across the village.
A large barn was burning, the flames lapping up the snow on the roof and sending most of it flooding to the sides. Underneath the raging inferno was chaos. Families were screaming as they desperately barred their doors to attacking raiders, soot-blackened animals scattered in every direction, and a few brave souls fought back with whatever they could to defend their homes.
Ciri wasted no time charging in. She sent Kelpie pell-mell down the hill, aiming for a raider opposing a man with a pitchfork, sliding her sword from its sheath as she did. Before the raider could do anything, Ciri hurtled past, lopping off the man’s sword-arm. The villager moved in to finish him off, but Ciri had already moved on.
Kelpie was starting to get skittish now, what with the noise and the fire and the storm. It was all Ciri could do to rein her in and guide her across an open square toward another raider who had a man with a hammer cornered. The man tried his best to defend himself, but his hammer was no match against the much longer sword wielded by the raider. Still, the man managed to deflect what would have been a killing blow toward his leg and cried out as the blade cut through his thigh. Ciri steered Kelpie as close as she would go and then launched herself from the saddle onto the raider, driving her own sword through his chest and landing atop his lifeless body. Kelpie galloped away, ears flat against her neck and kicking at anything that moved.
The man with the hammer fervently thanked Ciri for saving him and waved away her offered assistance, saying his injury was only a flesh wound and that she was needed elsewhere. After a quick glance around her, Ciri agreed. There were raiders everywhere. Including the two she had dispatched, there were at least ten, which was unusual. Ciri had defended larger villages than this against only five raiders. Now they were sending double, maybe even triple that number. Were they growing larger? Or simply more desperate? What were they after?
Two more men charged Ciri during her momentary contemplation. They put up a decent fight, but Ciri quickly put them down, ready for more. Nothing came. Ciri searched across the fire-lit scene and saw the raiders pulling back. A man on horseback on the fringes of the village seemed to be ordering them away. He motioned toward his men and they filed past him carrying what they could, leaving the villagers to sort out their dead and wounded and to deal with the roaring blaze that would destroy their whole town if it weren’t stopped.
The captain must have felt Ciri’s gaze because his eyes drifted toward hers and locked onto her for a moment. It was then that Ciri realized she had seen that man before at a previous attack. He had short, black hair and dark eyes and was utterly average in build and features. Nevertheless, she knew it was the same man because of his ears. The edges seemed to have been cut off at some point in his life, leaving them extremely disfigured; a detail that was only just visible in the eerie glow of the fire.
Another two riders broke in front of Ciri’s scrutiny of the captain, riding past him into the forest with two large bundles tied behind either of their saddles. It took a second for Ciri to realize that they weren’t bundles, they were people, bound and gagged. Anger flared up inside Ciri as her eyes drew back to the captain. He lingered only for a moment before turning and chasing after his comrades.
Hatred and rage stole away any rational thought in Ciri’s mind and she tore after them. Even knowing there was little chance of her catching up, she pushed on into the relative silence and darkness of the forest.
The trees were still thin there and the moon reflected off the snow to provide enough light for her to see by. The trail left by the raiders was easily tracked, but as the miles wore on, Ciri understood why they attacked during storms. Even now the prints were being filled in by the traitorous snowfall until all that was left was a single line of hoofprints—presumably the captain’s, hanging back to guard the rear.
The forest grew thicker and darker the further Ciri went, the storm strengthening into a tempest that swirled around her, recirculating the snow at her feet; a vortex of snow and wind enveloping Ciri from both above and below. The trail grew fainter with each step.
But Ciri wasn’t going to give up. Rage-laden tears fell unbidden from her eyes as her failure drew ever closer.
And then the trail was gone.
Ciri kept on for a while longer before finally admitting defeat. She had no idea which way they were going. They could easily have carved a winding path through the forest that she could no longer follow. She had lost them. She had failed the villagers.
Just as the bitterness of guilt coated Ciri’s tongue, a chill that had nothing to do with the weather crept up her spine. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end and Ciri froze, eyes searching in the darkness.
She was being watched.
Maybe the captain hadn’t been guarding the rear at all. Maybe he had held back on purpose to draw Ciri further into the woods, into their trap. And, foolishly, she had walked right into it.
Visibility was decreasing every minute. Ciri could barely see the trees to either side of her though they were no more than ten feet away. She didn’t know where the attack would come from, but she knew one was imminent so she readied her sword, eyes still scanning the periphery.
Suddenly, a man appeared from behind a tree to her left, rushing toward her with a feral cry, his sword swinging over his head. She threw up her own sword to meet his blow, stopping it mid-strike. Crunching footsteps alerted her to another two men racing in silently behind her, seeking to catch her off-guard. Ciri twirled underneath her own sword, twisting around and sending the first attacker’s blade skating off the end of hers straight into one of the men flanking her. They awkwardly swerved to miss each other and stumbled. Meanwhile Ciri blocked the final attacker’s blade with her own, quickly disarming him with a flick of her wrist and thrusting her blade directly into his heart. He crumpled to his knees before crashing face-first into the snow.
The other two recovered and were slowly approaching, maneuvering to surround Ciri. She could do nothing about it as they flanked her to either side and charged in simultaneously. Nerves of steel had her waiting until the last possible moment to make her move. A split second before the attackers’ swords met at her head, Ciri ducked toward one of the men and a little to the side. She skied just underneath his arm and kicked out into his back. The extra momentum he now carried flung him into the man approaching from the other side, the first man’s sword impaling the second with a sickening squelch. Before the last man left standing could process what had happened, Ciri swung around again and severed his head in a vicious slice.
With adrenaline coursing through her veins, Ciri pivoted in the reddening snow, sword at the ready, daring any others to try their luck. But none came.
Instead, dark silhouettes materialized just outside of Ciri’s range of visibility, pairs of glowing red eyes piercing through the blinding snow. They were wolves, Ciri realized as they closed in around her. There were dozens of them, all encircling her, but staying far enough back that she could only see them as vague outlines. And then a massive howl, deep and almost forlorn in its tone, called her attention forward.
A great wolf stalked forth from the obscurity of the storm, its fur matching the snow and ice out of which it crept. To either side of it were four smaller wolves, their coats the color of cold steel. They snarled and bared their teeth, hackles raised to the fullest. With heads down and ears pinned, they snapped their teeth at Ciri, but stopped short when the larger wolf paused.
A flicker of panic rose up to Ciri’s throat. She wasn’t sure how she could defeat them and escape would be impossible. She may have made a monumental mistake in coming into these woods. Possibly her last. But before she could brood too long over her decision, the four darker wolves detached from their leader and shot toward Ciri. Writhing in amongst each other, their padded feet ate up the intervening space with frightening ease.
Ciri barely had time to react. She swung at one of their faces and clipped its shoulder instead, a sharp yelp telling her she had connected. The other three pounced onto her, two ripping into her legs, and the third snatching her left arm in its jaws. She cried out as they flung their heads, and tried desperately to fend them off. Her feeble attacks only stymied them for a moment before they lunged back onto her arms and legs. Then one crunched her right wrist and she lost her grip on her sword. She attempted to grab it again, but a biting mouth had her snatching her hand back to her chest. Soon after, her bloodied legs collapsed beneath her and she could do nothing but scramble backwards, throwing up her arms to shield herself, thrashing fur and blood and snow the only thing left to her sight.
Abruptly, the assault ceased and she cautiously lowered her mangled arms to see what had stopped them.
The great, white wolf was approaching, lip now curled, malice-filled eyes lambent in the low light. The other wolves drew back as it advanced and the sight inspired pure terror in Ciri’s heart. In a flash of white, it bounded the few remaining feet.
And Ciri could do nothing but stare down its throat as its dark maw closed in.
Geralt started awake, heart pounding out of his chest, sweat soaking his clothes despite the cold. It took him a moment to remember where he was. As he fought to slow his breathing, he looked around the quaint room he had rented for the night at an inn. The small fire in the stove in the corner had long since burned out, only blinking embers peeking out from the ashes. It would soon be dawn. Geralt sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the straw mattress, taking a deep breath to clear his head.
As his consciousness finally returned to the present, Geralt’s mind gripped one thing with absolutely certainty—Ciri was in trouble. And before the cock could crow, Geralt was racing toward Novigrad.
Contrary to the poor weather the night before, the lightening sky was clear as spring water freshly melted from the mountains. It permitted the sun to provide a modicum of warmth on Geralt’s face as it arced up into the sky.
He rode hard to the East on Roach, a black stallion of exceptional quality, a sense of urgency pressing him to greater speed. As the day wore on, the hard-packed ice softened and allowed Geralt an extra bit of speed, for which he was thankful. Dread was rising up within him, drumming in his ears. Ciri was in danger. He could feel it with every ounce of his being.
Geralt hadn’t seen Ciri in years, he’d been wandering the land as witchers do, taking odd jobs and contracts. The past few months, he’d even been in the area, roaming Velen, but had never managed to go and see Ciri, who he knew was staying with Dandelion and Zoltan at the Chameleon. He knew he should have, he kept telling himself he needed to. He certainly missed spending time with Ciri, as she had basically been his adoptive daughter since she was very young. There just never seemed to be enough time. There was always another contract, another monster, another distraction calling. Now, he wished he had gone after all.
At least he had been in the vicinity. He couldn’t imagine what he would have done had he been weeks away, in a whole other country. After last night’s dream, Geralt wasn’t so sure that his presence in Velen was entirely coincidental, as if fate had led him to Ciri so he could be there when she needed him.
Whatever the reason, he was grateful for his proximity.
It took him almost a full day to reach Novigrad. It was well past midnight when he finally spotted the city walls. The guards at the gate shouted their protests as he thundered past, but were too unconcerned or lazy to go chasing after him into the city. Steering Roach directly into the Chameleon’s stable yard, Geralt dismounted in a hurry and pounded through the back door, a blast of chill air preceding him through it. There he saw Dandelion and Zoltan arguing, huddled over a low table, worry etched into their faces.
“What are we supposed to—” Dandelion cut off midsentence as the door bashed into the wall and Geralt stepped in, quickly shutting it behind him. Zoltan and Dandelion snapped their heads around to inspect their intruder, their expressions swiftly shifting to bewilderment. “Geralt?” Dandelion probed incredulously. “What are you doing—”
Geralt didn’t let Dandelion finish that sentence either, instead marching forward and demanding, “Where’s Ciri?”
“She…how did you…” For once Dandelion was at a loss for words. That only worried Geralt further.
“I know something’s happened to her. Tell me where she is,” Geralt growled, more out of frustration at their seeming lack of urgency than anger. He knew his sudden presence was a shock to them, but he was disinclined to abide their confusion.
Sensing the conversation circling as Dandelion, for the first time in his life, fought for words, Zoltan stepped forward and voiced the unspoken question. “Geralt, how did you know Ciri was gone? How did you get here so quickly? We only just found out not an hour ago.”
Striving to be patient, but with panic churning in his stomach now that Zoltan had verified that Ciri was in danger, Geralt answered, “I had a dream about her last night. I can’t remember much of it, just flashes of emotions at this point, but I knew she needed me. I was in the area, so it didn’t take me long to get here.”
“Amazing,” Dandelion piped up brightly, having finally found his voice. “Simply amazing. Wonders never cease, I always say. You know, there was a story once of a young maiden who—”
“Dandelion!” Geralt couldn’t contain himself any longer. He needed to get to Ciri as soon as possible and he was in no mood for Dandelion’s rambling. “Where is she?” he ground out through his teeth.
Dandelion threw up his hands in a placating gesture. “Alright, alright.” He moved back over to the table and pointed to a spot on the map spread over it. “This is where she went. She left yesterday and hasn’t returned. She should have been back by now.”
“Aye, and Kelpie showed up about an hour ago without her,” Zoltan added morosely.
Now that Geralt thought about it, he did remember seeing Kelpie in the yard looking quite the worse for wear. And Ciri was not one to leave her horse in such a state.
Zoltan spoke again, drawing Geralt’s attention back to the table with a sweeping gesture that roved over the town Dandelion had specified. “And there are reports coming in of raiders hitting these areas.”
“Mmm,” Zoltan confirmed grimly. “They’ve been a real problem of late. Ciri’s been working with the Guard to try to stop them, but without much success. She went on her own to protect that village. I fear something’s gone wrong.”
He should have come sooner. Why hadn’t he come sooner?
Geralt studied the map for a moment and then turned to leave.
Zoltan grabbed for Geralt’s arm. “Wait! Where are you going?”
Exasperated, Geralt spun back around, annoyed that they were hindering him further. “To find Ciri.”
Dandelion circled around the table. “No, Geralt, you don’t know what you’re dealing with here. These men are dangerous.”
Geralt gave them a look that said he would see for himself just how dangerous these men really were.
Zoltan must have read the sentiment in Geralt’s eyes because he chimed in as well. “He’s right, Geralt. These are no ordinary bandits. They’re organized, disciplined. And they have far greater numbers than you can handle.”
Hardness in his eyes, Geralt stared them down. “I don’t care.” Pulling his arm from Zoltan’s grasp, Geralt strode to the back door, ignoring the protests from his friends, calling over his shoulder just as he reached for the handle. “Dandelion, I need your horse.”
It took ten minutes for Geralt to saddle up Pegasus, a proud and noble bay stallion that Geralt knew would do well on a difficult journey. Dandelion had sold his old gelding a while back, wanting something more fitting for “a bard of such high standing.” Of course, Dandelion could barely control his new mount and so Pegasus hardly ever got out. That suited Geralt even more. The steed would be itching to stretch his legs. Geralt would have rather taken Roach, familiar as he was with him, but Roach would be too worn out from the ride to Novigrad and Geralt couldn’t afford to tarry.
Leaping astride an already prancing Pegasus, Geralt held firm on the reins, guiding the eager stallion to the gate. As soon as he saw the path clear before him, Pegasus reared high on his hind legs, nostrils flaring in anticipation, then bolted down the road like an arrow from a bow.
Geralt pressed himself flat to Pegasus’ neck and let him gallop out of the city, enjoying the freedom such a fine beast could bestow, and bemoaning him an owner that never let him prove it. Frankly, Geralt was just glad to have some sort of direction now, that sense of purpose quelling the panic rising within.
About a mile after crossing the eastern bridge, Geralt slowed Pegasus to a steady canter. The stud chomped at the bit, but obeyed. Geralt knew he couldn’t keep up such a wild pace all day. They needed to pace themselves if they wanted to make good time, as much as Geralt—and Pegasus—wanted to fly across Velen. Besides, the roads were still hazardous in their current condition and it would be reckless to go galloping across such ice and snow. The roads had been relatively clear so close to the city, but they were already beginning to worsen.
A few miles further, Geralt heard hoofbeats approaching from the rear, coming up fast. He snuck a glance over his shoulder and pulled Pegasus to a stop at what he beheld.
Zoltan rode up to Geralt on his curly-haired pony, halting next to Pegasus. He meaningfully shifted the strap holding the axe across his back. “I’m coming with you.”
Geralt raised an eyebrow in concern, eyes flicking from Zoltan to his small pony.
“Don’t worry, she’ll keep up,” Zoltan said with a cheeky grin, patting his mount on her shaggy neck.
Taking his word for it and grateful for the gesture, Geralt gave a heartfelt nod of acceptance.
It turned out Geralt needn’t have been worried. They made good time through another clear day. In fact, it was Pegasus who was beginning to flag as they reached the village around midafternoon. Zoltan’s pony may have been short, but it was hardy and strong, a fitting match to the dwarf himself.
While they journeyed, Zoltan had filled Geralt in on what had been going on the last couple of months. Geralt remembered hearing vague tales in the taverns he would visit during his travels, but he had dismissed them as idle gossip. Now that he knew they were true, he began to understand the gravity of the situation. And he couldn’t make any more sense of the raiders’ motivations than anyone else. His first thought strayed to cannibals, but it seemed unlikely that people lost to such madness could act with the organization and tactics displayed by these men.
Their motivations mattered little to him in any case. He just wanted to find Ciri. What happened after that was none of his concern. Bandits roamed the land in droves. There was nothing he or anyone could do to stop it. If it wasn’t this group attacking it would be another, so he assigned little importance to defeating them.
Although it was hard to turn his thoughts aside when he beheld the utter destruction before him. A small village lay charred and morose at the bottom of the hill they had just climbed. The people were devastated, some milling about glassy-eyed and aimless, others sobbing, but most trying to salvage what they could from the wreckage.
Zoltan and Geralt approached to wary glances and cautious hostility. Both stopped and dismounted, leading their mounts up to a group gathered in the center of the village. A few backed away timidly while a stout woman stepped forth and met them with a hardened gaze.
She regarded their weapons as she hailed them. “What do you want?” she barked.
Geralt held up his hands to show he was no threat. “Easy, we just want information. We’re looking for someone. A girl with ashen hair and green eyes. She should have come through here two nights ago, presumably when you were attacked.”
At his description, the flash of recognition and awe was unmistakable on many of the villagers’ faces. It was a man from behind them that answered Geralt’s query though, calling out from the building across the way.
Geralt gave the woman one last glance to show he meant no harm and then turned and walked over to the man, Zoltan trailing alongside.
“She saved my life, that girl you spoke of.” The man, a blacksmith it seemed, addressed the duo as he rummaged through burned and looted tools, occasionally tossing one beyond repair over to the side. He looked up and indicated to a large bandage around his leg. “One of them was about to do me in, then she came riding out of nowhere, flung herself from her horse, and killed the man attacking me. Next thing I know, the bandits were all leaving, and she went chasing after them into the woods.”
“Did you see which way?” Geralt questioned eagerly.
“Aye.” The man nodded and pointed due east.
Without another word, Geralt mounted and rode off, leaving Zoltan to offer a quick thanks and hurry after him. Once he was a few yards inside the tree line, Geralt stopped and cast around for a trail. There was none noticeably visible.
“This is the problem we’ve been having,” Zoltan offered. “They’re clever like that. The storm always covers their retreat.”
Geralt dismissed the comment, intent on finding some sort of clue. “They’ve never had a witcher tracking them.”
He led them further into the trees, following what seemed a likely path, hoping the bandits would have felt no need to take further countermeasures against being followed. Geralt had yet to find any sort of trail, but searched every inch of ground they covered with the eyes of a hawk. Zoltan mirrored his actions even though Geralt knew he was no great tracker. Still, another set of eyes never hurt.
Almost an hour had gone by and they had trekked well out of range of the village. Geralt was too intent on his purpose to feel any sort of discouragement, but Zoltan, it seemed, was more easily dissuaded. He drove his pony in front of Pegasus to bring them both to a halt. Geralt looked up in surprise, the unexpectedness of the maneuver shocking him out of his concentration.
Zoltan let go a heavy sigh. “Geralt, I don’t think we’re going to find anything here. We can’t just go searching the entire forest.”
Geralt blenched at Zoltan’s suggestion that they give up. “She’s here somewhere. And I’m going to find her. I don’t care how long it…takes.” His words trailed off as his gaze wandered past Zoltan’s ear. Steering Pegasus around Zoltan’s pony, Geralt drew closer to a tree in the distance.
Zoltan followed curiously after. “What is it?”
Excitement bloomed inside Geralt. A few low-hanging branches were snapped at the very tips and dangling from one of them, lilting in the breeze, was a single grey horse hair. Riders had come through here recently. He had found the trail at last.
Geralt faced Zoltan, a grin breaking out across his face. “Like I said, you should have hired a witcher.”
Though Geralt was sure they were on the right track, the trail was still extremely obscure. Once, the only marker was the barest hint of a boot print up under the base of a tree. The falling snow couldn’t reach there and so hadn’t concealed it. The companions labored on in such fashion for another hour, winding deeper into the forest.
As they were trudging along, a growing sense of familiarity came over Geralt and he lulled to a stop.
It took Zoltan a moment to realize that Geralt was no longer beside him. Bringing his pony back around, Zoltan rode up to Geralt. “What’s wrong?”
Geralt offered no response because he wasn’t sure himself. His silence had Zoltan nervously checking the trees around them, mistaking Geralt’s reticence for fear.
Asking himself why he felt like he had been there before, Geralt cast his gaze around them, searching for answers. As he did so, flashes of a battle invaded Geralt’s vision. They weren’t enough for Geralt to glean anything useful, but left him with a lingering sense of dread. Not really knowing why, Geralt suddenly dismounted and ran forward a few yards. He fell to his knees and ran his hands through the snow, shoving aside the top layer of powder.
Blood. A lot of it.
Geralt recoiled from it, springing up to his feet and scrutinizing the landscape, all the while piecing together what would have happened.
Ciri had obviously found the raiders, otherwise there wouldn’t have been a battle. But then, where were the bodies? And whose were they? There was something inside Geralt telling him Ciri was alive. But was it truly knowledge, or simply hope? Zoltan, having ridden up and inspected the discovery himself, gave Geralt a look that seemed to say he shared Geralt’s conclusions.
Just then, a fox trotted through the distant trees ahead of them. It paused a moment when it spotted the travelers, licking its lips, and then continued on its way.
Maybe it was a bit of a stretch, but if those bodies were nearby, then that fox may have found them and enjoyed an easy meal. The merest chance was enough for Geralt. They didn’t have much else to go on at this point.
“This way,” he beckoned to Zoltan as he clambered atop Pegasus once more.
They followed the fox’s tracks northeast. As they went, Geralt could just hear the cawing of crows at the edge of his hearing, all but confirming his hunch. After half an hour, they found what they were looking for.
Three bodies, half buried in snow, but uncovered and gnawed on by scavengers, were laid out under a tree. The arms of the middle one were crossed over his chest, hands clasping a short sword between them. It seemed as though the others had been laid as such, but they were much more ravaged than the third and their arms and legs stuck out at odd angles.
A wave of relief washed over Geralt when he saw that Ciri was not among them. Zoltan, too, let out an anxiously held breath.
It was strange to Geralt that the bodies would have been moved from the battle and then placed with such care here. If they were going to leave them, why move them at all? The only explanation that seemed at all plausible was that the raiders had planned on bringing the bodies back with them, but soon discovered it was going to take too much effort to do so. And they couldn’t burn them because the smoke could draw too much attention if they were being followed. The fact that they had tried to bring the bodies at all was something novel to bandits as far as Geralt was concerned. Most of them couldn’t care less about a fallen comrade, which suggested a much higher level of respect amongst this particular group.
On the flipside, the fact that they had decided to leave the bodies meant they were still a good distance from wherever the bandits were heading.
They needed to get moving.
From the makeshift graveyard, the trail wavered between east and northeast. The good thing was, it was easier to follow now. The forest was growing thicker and that meant less of the snowfall had reached the ground. The bad news was that the sun was setting and tracking would be immeasurably trickier in the dark, effective as Geralt’s night vision was.
Nonetheless, they persisted through the night, Zoltan staying as close to Geralt as he could in fear of losing him in the dark, able to perceive just enough to see where he was going.
Determined now that they had a clear lead, Geralt brushed off the weariness that endeavored to drag him down after not having slept for two days. He set his will against it and pushed on.
In the early hours of the morning, Geralt smelled wood smoke—campfires. And they couldn’t have been more than a mile away. Indicating this detail to Zoltan, Geralt led them on at a faster pace now, but still cautiously in case there were any sentries patrolling the woods. When a warm glow began to diffuse through the trees, they dismounted and tethered their horses, proceeding the last quarter mile on foot over a low rise. Crawling forward on their bellies so as not to expose their profiles to any potential onlookers, Geralt and Zoltan peered over the summit.
Below them was laid out a large camp in a sizeable clearing. Multiple fires were warming dozens of men, some armed, but most not. Whether they didn’t have weapons or simply weren’t wearing them, Geralt couldn’t tell. He was certain, though, that there were dozens more men currently sleeping inside the myriad tents spread haphazardly through the depression and extending a little way into the trees to the East.
Somewhere, surrounded by that battalion of men, was Ciri, Geralt was all but sure of it. And he didn’t know how he was going to do it, but he was going to get her out.
If he had been there before last night, he could have protected Ciri. He could have prevented this.
He was going to make it right.
No matter what happened.
“What do you think, Geralt?” Zoltan whispered. “She has to be in there somewhere.”
“Yeah, but there are too many tents to check one by one. We wouldn’t get a fraction of the way through them before we were discovered.”
The fact that they had come so far only to find themselves no closer to saving Ciri really grated on Geralt. And it made him wish he had listened to his friends. Still, there was nothing else they could have done. They would have needed half the Guard to defeat this many men and Ciri didn’t have that kind of time. Geralt’s mind came up empty as he searched for a solution.
Next to him, Zoltan seemed to spot something to their left and pointed. “There!” he remarked in a hushed tone.
Geralt followed his gaze and saw a lone sentry on the northwestern edge of the camp, his back turned to Geralt and Zoltan.
Zoltan slung his axe from his back. “How about we go say hello?”
They did a quick check of their surroundings to make sure no other sentries were nearby and found none, so they wended their way over to the solitary man. There was really no way to make a silent approach over snow and even with the low murmuring of the camp behind them, their footsteps were clearly audible. Therefore, Geralt decided to opt for speed over stealth and nimbly snuck up behind the man. Just as the man realized there was someone there and turned, Geralt wrapped his arm around the man’s mouth and twisted one of his arms behind his back to immobilize him. Then Zoltan came around front and jabbed him hard in the stomach with the top of his axe, doubling him over. Now that the man was unable to call out, Geralt let go of his mouth and cast Axii on him. A glassy-eyed trance came over the man, who immediately stopped struggling, though he was still bent over trying to catch his breath.
Geralt straightened him back up and calmly spoke into his ear from behind him. “Tell us where the girl is. The one who followed you into the forest.”
The man answered in a monotone voice, eyes staring at nothing. “She’s in the camp. In one of the tents.”
“Which one? Show me.” Still keeping a hold on the man in case he somehow broke free of the spell, Geralt steered him closer to the edge of the camp, but kept as far into the shadows as possible while still being able to see everything.
“There.” The man languidly lifted a finger to indicate a tent directly in the middle of the camp.
Having received the information they needed, they knocked the man out and leaned him up against a tree to make it look like he had fallen asleep on the job.
They regrouped on the crest of the rise. Zoltan looked ready for a fight. “What’s the plan?”
Studying the layout of the camp for a moment, Geralt didn’t reply right away. “I’m going in alone.”
“What?! No, I can’t let you do that. It’s suicide, Geralt.”
“Look, no offense, Zoltan, but you’d be a little conspicuous down there. Our best bet is for me to go in there and walk straight to the tent without trying to hide. If I put my hood up, I’d be just another man bundled against the cold. But they would spot you immediately.”
It wasn’t ideal, but it was truly their best option. With that many men and the creaking snow betraying his location, Geralt would stand no chance at sneaking in there unnoticed. Not to the middle of the camp anyway. But with such a large force, it was unlikely that they would know all of the men by sight and their exact movements within the camp. He would pass a cursory glance. Especially when none of them were expecting anyone to find them here in the forest. They would see what they expected to see—just another man going out to take a piss or grab a drink. The way out would be slightly more problematic, but he was hoping the same principle would apply. If Ciri put her hood up, she might just pass for a smaller man.
Zoltan growled, clearly unhappy with the plan, but realizing that Geralt was right. “Fine. But if anything happens, I’m going in there to get you two out.”
Geralt simply nodded. “Stay here and keep an eye on him,” Geralt instructed, hooking a thumb toward the sentry. “If he wakes up, we can’t have him raising the alarm.”
Zoltan gave Geralt an encouraging clasp on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about me. You just get yourself in and out of there safely. I can handle things up here.”
With one last survey of the camp, Geralt shrugged the fur-lined hood of his cloak over his head and headed down the hill. He reached the edge of the camp without incident and continued forward toward the very heart of it at an ambling walk even though every muscle and instinct was screaming at him to make a run for it, to hide. Luckily, his path didn’t take him directly by any campfires, where there were still huddled several men, most of which were silently staring into the flames. Step by agonizingly slow step, Geralt wound his way through the maze of tents toward Ciri’s until he was at its entrance. Miraculously, no one had paid much attention to his passage. Only a few had even lifted their heads as he passed and those quickly dismissed him and went back to whatever they were doing.
Sighing in relief, Geralt cautiously ducked underneath the entrance flap. A muffled cry greeted him as he finally set eyes on Ciri. She was in a bad way. Angry bruises crawled up her neck and over her face with many deep slashes to match. Her hands and feet were tightly bound and she was tethered to the central pole, a thick gag between her teeth. Despite Ciri’s condition, Geralt felt a surge of relief that he had found her alive. But he also knew they had a long way to go before they were free.
He padded over to her and untied the gag first, then set to cutting the ropes around her wrists and ankles free with his knife.
“Geralt! How are you here? How did you find me?” Ciri asked in barely more than a whisper.
“I’ll tell you when we get out of here,” Geralt said without looking up from his task.
Ciri opened her mouth like she wanted to voice a million more questions, but Geralt leveled a pointed look at her that suppressed any further inquiry.
Ciri’s bindings dropped to the ground and she rubbed life back into her wrists. Geralt stood and proffered a hand to Ciri to help her up, but she just held up her hands to forestall him.
“No, wait! The guard’s going to be back any minute now. He went to relieve himself, I think. We need to make sure he doesn’t come back to find me missing.”
Sure enough, just as Ciri finished talking, the sound of boots crunching over snow came from around the side of the tent, a low voice muttering to himself about having to be on “babysitting duty.”
Motioning for Ciri to act as though she were still tied up, Geralt backed to stand just inside the entrance, his knife still clutched in his hand. The guard’s arm pushed back the flap and he stepped inside, pausing a moment as he took in Ciri.
A moment was all Geralt needed.
He threw his left arm around the man’s mouth from behind and with his right, plunged the knife straight into the man’s heart, killing him instantly. Geralt gingerly lowered the body to the ground and beckoned silently to Ciri, sticking his head slightly out of the tent to check that the coast was clear. Content for the moment that it was, Geralt pulled back inside.
He looked to Ciri. “We need to go, now.” He opened the flap to the tent and motioned for Ciri to pass.
She stepped up to the opening, but halted at the threshold, turning back to Geralt. “I can’t leave yet. They’ve taken other prisoners. At least two that I know of. I can’t leave them behind.”
Geralt dropped the entrance flap. Ciri’s desire to rescue the other prisoners caught him off guard and he was a bit taken aback at the determination in her voice. Granted, he already knew there were likely other prisoners in the camp, but he also knew there was no way they were going to be able to get them all out of there. He had come for Ciri and Ciri alone.
He shook his head. “Ciri, we don’t have time.” He tried to will Ciri to understand just how much danger they were in, but she seemed to take no notice. He held back the canvas opening once more and surreptitiously checked outside. “We have to—wait!”
Ciri darted past him and took off without looking back, heading further into the camp.
“Ciri!” Geralt hissed after her. She edged along the next row of tents, ignoring his remonstrations. She always had been stubborn. “Shit,” he grumbled to himself and took off after her.
The only good thing about the situation was that the other prisoners were only a few rows over. He supposed Ciri had marked their position within the camp in relation to hers when they had been imprisoned because she took them directly to their tent. Geralt had followed Ciri there, but he motioned her aside once they had reached it. He would go in first in case there was another guard in there. It turned out he had made the right call because there was a guard inside, numbly attending to his detail. Geralt took care of him as he had the other one, though this man had managed a strangled cry before Geralt silenced him.
Then dread prickled up Geralt’s spine when he heard a faint voice outside the tent.
“Did you hear that?”
“No, what?” a second voice replied vapidly.
Ciri had joined Geralt in the tent and he gave her the knife to start cutting the two prisoners free.
“I heard something over there. I’m going to check it out.”
“Whatever. It’s probably just Rusty snoring again.”
Halting footsteps approached from the back of the tent, stopping every now and then. As silently as he could, Geralt moved back over to the entrance, sliding his sword from its sheath. As big as the tent was, it was still small enough to hinder Geralt’s ability to wield his sword fully. He would only be able to manage short swings or thrusts in the confined space, but it would do. The steps pulled up alongside the tent and stopped again. Belatedly, Geralt realized Ciri was still cutting the rope bindings and he turned to bid her to stop, but it was too late. The man outside must have heard the rhythmic sawing because he called out, much louder this time.
“I think it’s coming from in here!”
The man charged around the corner and as soon as he appeared through the entrance flap, Geralt struck out and ran him through. The man choked on the blood bubbling from his mouth, thankfully unable to yell to his friend. He gave a pitiful cough and slid lifeless from the end of Geralt’s sword.
By this point, Ciri had freed the two prisoners and was helping them to their feet.
All four compatriots jerked their heads around to the voice calling out.
“Holt, you there?”
The camp was beginning to stir around them at all the shouting. Geralt could hear men rousing from their sleep, angrily wondering what all the ruckus was about.
Turning to the others, Geralt spoke quickly and concisely. “Go. Don’t run, but don’t dawdle. And hoods up. They don’t know what’s happening yet. Act like you’re meant to be here.” They made their way to the opening, all throwing their hoods over their heads as they did so. Ciri made to return Geralt’s knife, but he pushed it back in her hand. “Keep it. You lead the way. Head west, Zoltan is waiting just over the ridge.” Ciri nodded and reversed her grip on the knife, stowing it within her sleeve. “Now, hurry.”
Geralt sent them all out of the tent before him, staggering their departures so they weren’t all grouped together, sheathing his blade before he followed at the end. As much as he wanted to keep it in his hand, it would be too conspicuous. In any case, he could certainly draw it fast enough if they ran into trouble. Geralt left the tent a good twenty paces behind the second prisoner, and ducked past the alley just as Holt’s friend poked around the corner. It wouldn’t be long now until the bodies were found. Even then, if the two prisoners could hold their nerve, they might just make it. The bandits still wouldn’t know who they were looking for and they wouldn’t be looking for people casually strolling along.
Eyes scanning every tent from beneath the hood, ears straining for any sign of trouble, Geralt kept up a brisk pace, heart pounding in his ears. He hadn’t gone far when the first cry of alarm rang out.
“The prisoners are gone! The prisoners have escaped!”
It was as if someone had kicked a beehive, the camp now buzzing with anxious energy. The bandits who had been awake jumped up, some of them drawing swords and running toward the source of the alarm, others hunting for the escapees.
It took every ounce of willpower he had, but Geralt didn’t run and, he was pleased to see, neither did any of the others. The four, led by Ciri, all held to their jagged line. Geralt could just make out the tops of their heads over the smaller tents that made up the majority of the camp.
Being the farthest back, Geralt was much closer to the bustling activity as it spread out from its epicenter. More and more bandits passed by in the aisles to either side of him. Disaster struck as a tent flap fluttered out right in front of him. His quick reflexes had him swiveling on the spot, heading back the way he had come. He even jogged a few steps to sell his guise as he heard several men emerge from the tent behind him. They pushed past him, thinking him one of them, just slower to react to the alarm. Once they had passed, Geralt turned back around and drove onward, wondering how he was ever going to make it.
Unfortunately, it seemed one of the prisoners they set free had the same concern. The one closest to Ciri broke into a run, arms churning as he dashed for freedom. Geralt watched on in horror as more and more bandits singled him out, pointing and shouting to their associates. He watched Ciri turn at the commotion. One of the bandits caught up with the prisoner and swung a sword at him, slashing him across the back. The prisoner stumbled forward and Geralt lost sight of him, though he saw the bandit close in and raise his sword, then drive it hard toward the ground. A pained shriek echoed through the clearing. Then Ciri charged in from the left, her hood flying back from her face as she did so. She ducked a blow from the bandit and buried her knife into his chest. She bent down for a moment, but neither bandit nor prisoner rose with her.
Geralt was running by now. The time for caution was over, the camp was pandemonium and the bandits knew their location. A few of them had even spotted Geralt and were giving chase. They were only a few yards behind him when he caught up to the prisoner that was closer to him. A brave soul if he ever saw one, the man was still holding to Geralt’s command, still walking. But Geralt shoved him forward.
Immediately, the man obeyed, sprinting for his life. The time it took to get the man going was enough pause for the bandits to catch up to Geralt. It was too late to outpace them. He would have to fight his way out now.
Geralt threw his hood back and drew his sword, swinging it backhanded as he turned to strike down one of his pursuers. The remaining two attacked simultaneously, one with a short sword, the other with an axe. A last second shield of Quen blocked both of their blows, but sent them all staggering backward as the energy dispersed. In the momentary lull, Geralt moved into a narrow alley between two tents next to him. That way, only one of them could attack at a time. The man with the axe advanced and slung a powerful overhead blow toward Geralt. Geralt hopped back to avoid it and used the longer reach of his two-handed sword to stab the man in the shoulder. The man recoiled and dropped his weapon, and Geralt finished him off. The second man was more cautious in his approach, but he had neither the strength nor the ability of the first man and he was easily defeated.
Once he stepped back out into the larger thoroughfare, Geralt could see that Ciri and the last prisoner were nearly to the edge of the camp. Past them was Zoltan, who had made his way down the hill and was clearing a path toward them. But there were still so many bandits heading their way.
After the first prisoner had broken formation and run, Ciri and, by extension, the remaining prisoner, had become their main focus. It made sense that they were more focused on Ciri. They must have simply thought that she had escaped and freed the others. They couldn’t have realized that Geralt had set them free. Only a few bandits had seen him, and most of those Geralt had already dispatched.
Currently, he was alone and anonymous, watching the scene progress. Over the tops of the tents, Geralt could see the bandits flooding toward Ciri and the others. They would soon be overwhelmed.
He had to buy them more time.
If Geralt could draw the bandits’ attention somehow, draw off some of their forces, then Ciri and the others might stand a chance. To that end, Geralt set the tents around him ablaze with a spark of Igni. He kept up the stream of fire as he sidled forward until a proper inferno was running rampant, leaping from tent to tent.
Geralt had accomplished his goal and, as he emerged from the fire and smoke, he saw a horde of men returning from the fringes of the camp. He contemplated briefly trying to skirt them and make his way out of the camp unnoticed while they dealt with the fire, but it was too late for that. He was clearly visible, silhouetted as he was against the backdrop of the flames. They knew he was there now, and they swarmed him within a minute.
Dozens of men enclosed Geralt within their ranks, swords and maces and fists bared. He was vastly outnumbered, but he wasn’t yet ready to give up. If he could just break through them, then he might be able to make a run for it. Not waiting for them to close formation, Geralt sent out a wave of Aard. Eight men were knocked to the ground by its potent blast, clearing a path forward. Geralt picked his way through the heap of writhing men before those around them could fill in the gap, and cut through two men that had kept their feet, merely having been shoved back by Geralt’s magic. The wriggling mass of bodies would slow down any pursuers.
It was a good sprint before he met a straggler that was just now returning to combat the fire, presumably having given up on recapturing Ciri and the others, or discerning that there was a larger threat at hand. The man ran straight up to Geralt, blocking his way, pressing Geralt to defend himself. Their blades met between them with a spark and Geralt swung his in a circle to the side to dislodge it. He didn’t even care about killing this man, he just wanted to get by him and break free. But the man recovered and sidestepped to keep himself in Geralt’s path, sweeping his sword at Geralt’s feet to force him to retreat. It was just Geralt’s luck that the only man with any skill at swordplay was now the last thing between him and freedom.
Geralt drove forward to attack the man, the throng, having finally disentangled themselves, swiftly approaching him from behind. The man held Geralt off, stalling until reinforcements could arrive. Geralt was engaged in battle with the swordsman when he heard men nearing. He compelled the swordsman back with a quick slash, then turned to convey another shot of Aard toward the charging men behind him.
That bought him a few seconds.
He barely returned in time to block a blow from the swordsman, made to catch it full on rather than parrying or deflecting it. Geralt was bent backward with the force of it. Exercising his considerable might, Geralt pitched himself forward and shoved the man back. The encroaching reinforcements, who had only been yards away when Geralt had hit them with Aard, were now right behind Geralt. He dodged a swing from the swordsman and initiated contact with the leading row of men behind him, deflecting one’s sword into parrying another, then stabbing a third in the confusion. The dying man fell, clutching at his chest, and Geralt seized the sword from his hand. Geralt flung the short sword into another two men who were threading single-file through an alley around a tent, trying to flank Geralt. The sword speared through the man in front and, when the first’s momentum halted abruptly, the second man ran himself onto the point of the blade. Tied together by the bloodied steel, they crumpled in between the tents, obstructing that avenue of approach.
Geralt had just enough time to cast Yrden on the men stepping over their disarmed fallen comrade behind him, slowing them to give himself more time, when the swordsman was back, swinging at Geralt, much more intent on defeating Geralt now that Geralt was actively thwarting his plan.
The swordsman’s swollen intensity was evident to Geralt, who was finally seeing the man’s full potential. He was good with a blade. Maybe not as good as Geralt, but Geralt was having to steer clear of the stabbing blades behind him. And more and more were coming in from other alleyways as well. Amidst the duel he was having with the swordsman, Geralt was glancing all around him, watching as the mob closed in. Nonetheless, Geralt managed to fend off the swordsman and kill two more of the men mired by the glowing trap.
It was a small victory. Geralt was barely managing, the numbers around him swiftly becoming overwhelming. Stalled as they were, the men stuck in Geralt’s trap were inching ever closer, their outstretching arms and blades just shy of Geralt’s back.
Then his spell of Yrden broke and all hell was unleashed.
Geralt couldn’t turn to defend himself, so thoroughly was he engaged with the swordsman. A kick to the back of his knee sent Geralt collapsing to the ground. He attempted to rise, but the masses swarmed over him. A few of them stomped onto his calves, keeping him down, while at least five seized his arms. He wrestled with them, heaving himself from side to side with a feral snarl, desperately trying to dislodge them. But they were too much for him and he was forced to concede, lungs burning from the effort. A moment later, his sword was wrenched from his hand and someone behind him ripped his head back by his hair.
His eyes met with the swordsman’s and for the first time, Geralt noticed the mangled ears flanking the sides of the man’s face. Geralt was expecting to find anger in the man’s eyes, but he seemed rather to be intrigued, calculating. Then, out of his peripheral vision, Geralt could just see three figures at the top of the ridge behind the swordsman and he willed them to stay away, to leave and save themselves. They would only get themselves captured or killed if they tried to come back for him.
Then the swordsman finished his appraisal of Geralt. The mob waited impatiently for him to speak, looking as though they desired nothing more than to tear Geralt to shreds. In return, Geralt was gauging just how many he figured he could take with him when they did.
But the swordsman allayed Geralt’s fears, speaking in a tone that brooked no argument. “Bring him. I want him intact when we get there. Salvage what you can. We leave at dawn.” The man met the eyes of those around him before striding past Geralt and cutting through the crowd.
The hand holding Geralt by the hair released and Geralt threw himself against his captors once more. But his struggles came to naught when something hard clubbed his head from behind, flinging him into the snow, those holding him letting go as his momentum dragged him from their grip. He tried to gather himself, but his body failed him and everything faded to blackness.
Ciri had walked through that camp, holding her breath half of the time as she had tried to steady her nerves. She had been halfway out when the alarm had been raised, when chaos had broken loose. One of the villagers had panicked, had run nearly past her when he was caught and killed. Ciri had tried to save him, but wasn’t able to reach him in time. Then the other villager had caught up with Ciri and she had fought to get them both out. Zoltan had, by that time, come stampeding down the hill and was ploughing through the bandits toward them.
She had been so absorbed in simply staying alive that she hadn’t ever looked back, hadn’t thought she needed to. By the time they were up the hill, on their way toward freedom, Ciri realized Geralt wasn’t right behind them as she had thought. And when she finally looked back, it was too late.
Geralt was completely besieged, a haze of heat distorting his image down below. Ciri had to go back. She didn’t know where he had come from, but Geralt was only there because of her and she couldn’t let him take her place. She stabbed one of the few bandits left chasing them through the neck and kicked his dying body back down the hill, ready to follow it. It was Zoltan who stopped her, seizing her by the arm and holding onto her in spite of her struggles.
“I can’t leave him! He needs our help!”
“There’s nothing we can do for him now. We go down there and we will all be taken. Or worse.”
The surviving villager stood by nervously, clearly wanting to leave, but also afraid to leave his saviors’ sides.
Several more bandits started clambering up the hill and more were turning from the host amassed around Geralt.
“Ciri, we have to leave. Now!”
Ciri knew deep down that Zoltan was right, that there was nothing they could do. And she owed it to the villager to give him a fighting chance as well. And so, hating herself for every step she took, silently promising that she would come back and free Geralt, Ciri turned and fled into the night.
Geralt awoke groggily, a splitting headache blurring his vision. Blinking to clear it, he soon realized his hands were bound and he was leaned against and tied to the back of a large sledge pulled by a four-horse team. The camp around him was bustling to and fro, loading a matching pair of sledges several yards away. The one Geralt was tied to was already fully loaded, many of the contents charred and reeking of smoke.
The sledges were on the eastern edge of the camp, the opposite end from which Geralt had entered. In the middle of the camp, there was a swath of melted snow mixed with ash, a multitude of ruined paraphernalia strewn about and abandoned. Most of the camp had been packed up. Any minute now, they would finish loading the other sledges and once they did, they were going to come back for Geralt.
As it was right now, they paid little attention to him. Whether that was because they didn’t think he was going to wake up, they didn’t think he would be able to escape, or they simply couldn’t spare the manpower for a guard, Geralt didn’t know. Whatever the case was, he was going to use the time he had to the fullest.
His plan was simple, if he could even call it a plan. The knot binding Geralt’s hands was well executed, but the one tying him to the sledge wasn’t nearly so. He could undo it with his teeth and sneak away while everyone was distracted.
The first part of Geralt’s plan went exceedingly well. He undid the knot in a matter of seconds, constantly casting furtive glances around him to make sure no one was looking. Once he was free, he crawled on hands and knees around the side of the sledge directed away from the others and rose into a half crouch to remain concealed behind it as he moved toward the front, the undone length of rope still trailing between his legs. Even though he didn’t want to go east, the forest was much closer in that direction and he liked his chances a lot better going through the forest than trying to sneak across the open campground.
He was already at a trot by the time he came level with the horses, muscles itching to make a break for it. Then disaster struck. There were two bandits on the other side of the horses, one checking the straps harnessing the lead horse to the sledge, the other doing the same for the wheel horse. Geralt hadn’t been able to see them over the mountainous load aboard the sledge and by the time he realized they were there, they had already seen him.
“Hey!” the bandit called out, looking up at the sudden movement. Then his eyes settled and he turned back to the others. “Here! Over here! He’s escaping!”
Geralt darted into a wild dash for the tree line, startling the horses, who shied away in fright. The man who had called out stepped in front of Geralt just as he pulled up level with the nose of the lead horse. Geralt rammed his shoulder into the man, ploughing him over without breaking stride. With that man down, it was a clear shot to the trees.
But a few steps further, the rope dangling from Geralt’s hands snapped tight, pulling him toward the ground and tripping him when his leg met the taut line. He crashed into the snow, the line held firm by the bandit Geralt had knocked over. Now on his back, Geralt tried to yank the rope free, but a second bandit had come up and also had hold of the line while many others were running over. Another grabbed the line to keep Geralt in place and the other ten that had responded quickly formed up around him and started kicking and punching and stomping. Geralt could do nothing but curl up and try to protect his head. By the time the man in charge came over, the man with the gnarled ears, Geralt was bruised and bloodied, though not seriously injured.
Unfurling himself, wincing at the movement, Geralt gazed up at the man. The man glared down with stern but pitying eyes. “I don’t want to hurt you, witcher.” Geralt grimaced and hissed as he was pulled to his feet by several men. “Don’t make me have to.”
From that point on, Geralt was never left alone. Two guards were always by his side, always vigilant. Both had swords sheathed at their hips, but held clubs ready in their hands. Geralt supposed the weapons were to nonlethally apprehend him should he attempt to escape again. He wasn’t sure why, but they definitely wanted him alive.
He wasn’t sure if that boded well or not.
They had also added more rope and looped it around his arms and core so that his arms were always down by his sides, his hands forced to jut out from his middle. A gag was then shoved in Geralt’s mouth and tied securely around the back of his head, the pressure of which set Geralt’s head pounding again. Thus bound, Geralt stood by and watched as the final sledge was loaded and, within the hour, they were off, the navy sky just beginning to redden.
The camp steadily emptied and fell into line behind the trio of sledges; only a few of the men mounted on horses, their captain among them. The forest was thick, the path just wide enough to permit the sledges, the men walking in a haphazard formation, two or three abreast. Geralt was toward the front of the line, his guards ever present on either side of him. He soon realized that Ciri and the two she had gone after were not the only prisoners these bandits had taken. Two more fell into step behind Geralt and his escort. Both had the look of countryfolk, farmers, maybe, or tanners. They walked on with heads bowed and shoulders hunched; they were already resigned to their fate.
Geralt, on the other hand, was not. He wasn’t going to give up without a fight, though he would have to be careful in choosing his battles. Right now, everyone was on alert, ready for him to make a move. He would have to wait a while, let them grow complacent. Once they were convinced he was no threat, he would strike. He just hoped this trip would be a long one.
As it turned out, Geralt was not disappointed. They trudged long into the morning, the sky darkening overhead despite the rising sun. A storm was coming, the wind confirming it with every gust. Close to noon, the snow started falling, thick and heavy. Everyone hunched against it, wrapping themselves as best they could against the cold.
This was the moment Geralt was waiting for. A group such as this was likely to stop for a midday meal and they would be doing so shortly. Now was the perfect time to act, while everyone was cold and miserable, their thoughts turned from their duties toward hunger and warmth and rest.
Without warning, Geralt stamped hard on the foot of the man to his left, breaking a few toes, then shouldered him to the ground. Geralt turned just in time to dodge a swing from the club of the remaining guard, bending backwards underneath the blow. Once clear, Geralt sent the man tumbling with a shot of Aard.
The next moment, Geralt was gone, off into the trees, legs pumping as fast as they could go. It was awkward running with his arms bound around him, but Geralt kept his balance and pushed on, ducking behind a giant boulder to break their line of sight and praying that the snow was falling fast enough to disguise his tracks.
Geralt didn’t know how far he had run, but he finally had to slow to a jog to somewhat catch his breath, the gag hindering his ability to get any meaningful lungful of air. He could only faintly hear the shouting from the convoy now. Then, in the relative silence, came hoofbeats, growing steadily louder. With a stitch in his side and lungs burning, Geralt took off again, not caring which direction he was going so long as it was away from that sound.
It wasn’t long before Geralt’s body was slowing, begging him for air. Geralt ignored the alarms going off within him—he would catch his breath when he was free. With blood pounding in his ears and boots crunching through the snow, Geralt couldn’t hear the sound edging closer with every step.
Thundering hooves were his only warning before a horse smashed into Geralt’s back and sent him careening into a nearby tree. Geralt was able to turn his shoulder, but felt a terrible crunch through his ribs, the wind thoroughly driven out of him as he slumped down the trunk. He struggled to gasp in a breath while the rider returned and drew a sword, the tip angled across Geralt’s throat.
The captain seemed to fight with himself, muscles tensing to send the sword twitching dangerously close to Geralt’s jugular. “If you were any other man, you would be dead three times over by now. I need you alive. But with every defiance, that need grows less dire. Do not let it expire.”
Due to the gag, Geralt couldn’t offer any response, which probably was for the best. He couldn’t have spoken anyway, he was only just recovering his breath and his ribs pierced his side with every lungful he inhaled. The captain dismounted and undid a length of rope from behind his saddle. He tied one end to the ropes looping Geralt and secured the other end to the saddle horn, swinging a leg up over his horse once both were in place.
Defeated and too winded to resist, Geralt let himself be led back to the awaiting procession, hunching to favor his broken ribs.
The bandits were just finishing up their brief meal as they came into view, the other two prisoners chewing on some crusty bread as well. Geralt regretted now choosing this particular time to mount an escape. He was ravenous and would have liked some respite, however morbid the encompassing circumstances were.
The captain, Lund, Geralt heard someone call out in greeting, resumed Geralt’s place in line. Whatever hope still resided within the other two prisoners drained from their faces as they watched Geralt return.
Lund pointed to four men and beckoned them over, gave them specific instructions, then ordered the convoy forward. The four men surrounded Geralt, two walking behind him, and one to either side. They stood close enough that they could react swiftly to any action Geralt leveled, but stayed far enough away that they were out of immediate reach. Geralt had to hand it to Lund, he was smart. Lund still kept Geralt tied to his own saddle, now taking personal responsibility for Geralt’s delivery to wherever they were going.
With his battered body and inflated guard detail, Geralt saw little chance of escape now. There was not much he could do but slog along behind Lund’s mount and hope that some sort of opportunity presented itself.
But as the hours wore on, that seemed less and less likely.
The snow continued all day, slowing the group’s progress deep into the mountains. The rarefied air and the burning in his thighs alerted Geralt to just how high they had climbed. They stopped only briefly around sundown to rest before continuing their trek. It was well into the night when Geralt made out a familiar glow through the trees. As the light waxed, a low murmur followed. Soon enough, Geralt stepped out into open air and the sheer scale of what Geralt saw stopped him in his tracks for a moment before the rope yanked him into motion again.
Geralt had thought the camp he and Zoltan had found was the main camp; that they were relocating because they had been found. Now he realized that it was merely a forward camp, a place from which to spring their attacks before retreating to their true base of operations. Zoltan had warned Geralt about the bandits’ superior numbers, but even Zoltan would have been shocked to discover the accurate count.
A massive camp stretched up a steep hill to an impassible mountainside that extended on into the trees in either direction. The mountain’s arms reached from its base around the top portion of the camp to create a horseshoe shape. Directly in the center of the horseshoe and backing up to the cliffside was a large rock outcropping some fifteen feet above the rest of the camp. Out of the front edge of the rock grew a young elm tree, stripped bare by winter’s cruel touch, its knotted roots breaching the front of the rock face and cascading down to the ground below. Behind the outcropping formed a raised platform where several large tents were pitched, the ground steeply sloping down around the sides of the formation to where the rest of the camp lay.
From there, hundreds of tents fell away down the mountainside, encircled by crude pikes driven into the ground to ward off intruders. There were rows of pikes within the camp as well, forming multiple tiers of defense. The forest had been cleared to allow such a large gathering; the trees presumably having been used to build its defensive wall of pikes. Every now and then, a boulder would rear up out of the ground, a few of which had scaffolding leading up to the tops to form a lookout. An opening at the bottom of the camp, just wide enough to permit the sleds, was the only entrance, and twenty feet within that was a line of pikes that forced anyone entering to cut sharply to the left or right.
It was a veritable fortress, or as much of one as could be built high in the mountains. For such an enormous camp, there weren’t many people out and about, but Geralt guessed that most of them were sleeping. Judging by the numbers of tents, there had to be over two hundred. Plus the forty or so men that Geralt was traveling with. Even with the full strength of the Guard, they would be hard-pressed to overcome the numbers here.
With no other choice but to keep moving forward, Geralt stepped into the camp, awe and despair turning his empty stomach.
Geralt and the two other prisoners were led up onto the outcropping at the back of the camp and lined up next to the elm tree which sat just off center on the rock and a few feet back from the fifteen foot drop down to the camp below. Geralt stood closest to the tree, underneath its outstretching limbs. The other two were to Geralt’s left, all three with their backs to the drop-off behind them. Lund, seemingly unwilling to let Geralt out of his sight, sent another man toward one of the few tents erected up near the mountainside. The man disappeared inside it and emerged a few minutes later, standing to the side to allow a sinewy man behind him to pass by.
The man was horribly disfigured. The tip of his nose was missing along with most of his ears. The disfigurements lent a skeletal look to the man whose thin and wiry frame only added to the assessment. Beyond that, he seemed young, maybe in his thirties, with spotty hazelnut hair and matching eyes that were weathered well past his years. He was clad in simple clothes with a hunting knife sheathed at his hip. There was a quiet authority in his bearing, one which commanded respect, but not out of fear as so many disreputable leaders chose. He seemed weary, but was also limned with a certain liveliness that leapt up into his eyes as he approached their little group. Geralt’s medallion quivered as he neared.
“Nelan,” he addressed Lund cordially.
Geralt was surprised that he called Lund by his first name. Most superiors didn’t address their subordinates as such. A fact which gave further credence to Geralt’s feeling that this man was either loved or idolized by his men. And that the respect was mutual.
“Endir,” Lund answered back, dipping his head.
“I’m glad to see you’ve returned safely, though with far fewer numbers than I expected.”
Lund jerked his head at Geralt. “We ran into some unexpected trouble.”
Endir ran his eyes over Geralt, slight shock playing with his eyebrows. “You took a witcher from one of the settlements? I’m impressed.”
“Actually, he found us,” Lund started. He raised his eyebrows meaningfully. “At the camp.”
Awe and disbelief flashed onto Endir’s face. “How can that be?”
“I don’t know. Our tracks were covered, as usual. No one should have been able to find us.”
“Hmm. And yet he did,” Endir stated contemplatively. He set his eyes to Geralt before ambling up to him.
Lund stepped down from his horse as Endir neared Geralt, motioning to the guards around Geralt to close in. One of the guards commanded Geralt to kneel and then kicked the back of his knee when Geralt didn’t obey. The four men formed up around Geralt, holding him on his knees. Lund drew his sword and held it at the ready.
Endir simply seemed amused by the proceedings, casting a questioning glance at Lund who countered with a look that said the show of force was more than necessary. Shrugging, Endir returned his gaze to Geralt. “I wonder, what was a witcher doing tracking my men through the forest?”
“He was trying to free the prisoners,” Lund answered for Geralt. “Two escaped and we were forced to kill one. But he will more than make up for them, I promise you that.” He then went on to describe the events of the preceding night, focusing on Geralt battling his men and how he had tried to escape himself after being captured.
A greedy light crept into Endir’s eyes at the retelling. “And what would a witcher be doing freeing our captives?” he directed at Geralt. At a silent command from Lund, Geralt’s gag was removed and he gratefully worked the stiffness out of his jaw.
They must not have suspected any connection between him and Ciri. And Geralt most certainly wasn’t going to apprise them of it. He spat out the first lie that came to him. “A witcher needs to be paid. You’ve left plenty of angry and grieving villagers wanting closure.”
Endir was unaffected by the underhanded jibe. “I see. And if I were to pay you, would you work so diligently for me?”
Geralt humphed. “Not a chance.”
Like a candle in a blizzard, the amiable amusement in Endir’s demeanor went out. It was replaced with an intensity that narrowed its focus on Geralt. His words were soft, but underlined with an ominous menace all the same. “Do not take your position here lightly. You have stripped us of three sacrifices—”
Sacrifices? What was he talking about?
“—and while I am forgiving, that forgiveness comes with a price. You will serve me. Whether you do so of your own free will is up to you.”
Geralt’s ire was up at the audacity of Endir’s request. He honestly thought that Geralt, who had fought to free three people from his clutches, who had then been taken captive himself, would just side with Endir on a whim? And Endir didn’t know it, but there was no way Geralt was ever going to forgive someone who tried to take Ciri. “Do what you want,” Geralt sneered back, holding Endir’s gaze. “I’m not going to be your mercenary.”
Amused once more, Endir scoffed and stepped back. “I think you’ll want to reconsider.” He trod over to the next man in line.
The man was forced to kneel and was visibly shaking, though not from the cold. When they removed his gag, the man burst into speech. “Please, please! I’ll do whatever you want, I’ll serve you. Just don’t kill me, please!”
Endir studied the man for a moment then flashed him a sad smile. “No, you won’t serve me. But you will serve our purpose and there is a great honor in that. You will be saving many lives.”
The prisoner looked confused, but hopeful, as though he might still make it out of this because of his complaisance. Geralt knew better than to think anything but death awaited the man.
Drawing closer, Endir raised up his arms toward the man, his sleeves falling back. As they did so, they revealed two gnarled stumps in the place of Endir’s hands. Shock danced in Geralt’s eyes, but he was quickly sidetracked by his medallion thumping on his chest. Endir closed his eyes, reaching out with his mangled arms, but not touching the man. The man’s eyes rolled into his head and something akin to pain flickered across his face. Less than a minute later, Endir’s eyes popped open and the man’s followed shortly thereafter.
Contrary to how he had been acting, there was no emotion in the man’s eyes now, no fear, no sadness, no desperation. He stared without seeing somewhere past Endir, then slowly rose to his feet. With Endir’s eyes locked onto him, the man reached out and slid the knife at Endir’s hip from its sheath.
The knife seemed old, but taken care of. The wooden handle was worn smooth and evidence of rust was just starting to coat the blade, though the edge was still keen. The man grasped the knife firmly and slid his eyes to Endir, questioning. Endir nodded solemnly.
Geralt was at a loss as to what was happening. His eyes flitted confusedly from the prisoner to Endir to the knife and back. What was Endir up to?
Without delay, the man reached up and slit his own throat from ear to ear. Geralt actually recoiled in surprise, watching as the man’s body collapsed and his blood stained the pristine snow, the knife falling at Endir’s feet. Lund moved over and picked up the knife, wiped it clean, and then stowed it once more in its sheath at Endir’s side.
They both turned to the last prisoner who was violently struggling against his captor.
“No. No, no, no, please! I’ll give you whatever you want. Anything! Don’t hex me! I’ll give you anything!” he blubbered.
“It’s going to be alright. This will all be over soon,” Endir soothed, raising his arms.
“No, please—!” The man’s cry was cut off as his eyes rolled back. A minute later, he too lay bleeding out at Endir’s feet. Both of the corpses, already being covered by the unending snowfall, were dragged away by a couple of Endir’s men.
Endir strode back over to Geralt. “As you can see, I can be quite persuasive when necessary, but I would prefer you join me on your own.” He came to a halt directly in from of Geralt. “Have you reconsidered my offer?”
Geralt ignored the question. “What do you want? Why kill those men? What are you trying to accomplish?”
“Fair enough, witcher. I will explain myself if it will sway you to join us.” He paused a moment, his gaze intensifying. “The White Frost is coming.” Eyes growing distant, Endir stared past Geralt into memory. “Many have felt its cold wrath. It came for me when I was young, but I survived it. And every day it grows stronger. Soon, there will be nothing we can do to stop it.” Endir’s eyes snicked back to Geralt. “These sacrifices appease it, keep it at bay. But I fear the day they will not be enough. There is only one way to stop it for good, an individual foretold to defeat the White Frost, one born of the Elder Blood.”
Geralt’s heart leapt into his throat and he was eternally grateful that he had omitted any connection to Ciri earlier. He fought to keep his emotions from reaching his face with difficulty.
This wasn’t some ordinary group of bandits, Geralt realized uneasily, it was a cult, which made them infinitely more dangerous. On top of that, the cult centered on a fairy tale; a fairy tale that, unbeknownst to Endir, was linked indelibly to Ciri.
“Alas, I don’t know where this person is or who they may be. And until I find them, I must continue my work, as much as it pains me to do so.”
Calming his frantic heart, Geralt finally mastered himself enough to speak. “You’re a madman. The White Frost is a myth.”
An incredulous look washed over Endir’s face. “You cannot deny the signs.” Endir made a sweeping gesture around him. “The winters grow colder, the summers shorter. It is only a matter of time before the White Frost covers this land and all will be lost. What we must do to prevent that is regrettable. I wish there were another way, I truly do. But there isn’t. And we need all the help we can get. Someone such as yourself would be invaluable to our mission. Join us and save this world. What more cause do you need?”
There wasn’t much Geralt could do, he was surrounded by hundreds of Endir’s forces. Escape was impossible at the moment. But now that Geralt had been stunned out of his anger, he saw another possibility. If he agreed to go along with Endir, then he may just get a chance to steal away later. If he read the situation correctly, they were planning on sending Geralt out on their raids. In the midst of battle, no one would be keeping tabs on Geralt and he could easily slip away. He would just have to act the part until the right moment.
“Fine,” Geralt acquiesced in a mock show of concession. “I’ll do what you want. I’ll join your mission.”
Endir laughed, but the mirth did not reach his eyes. “Do not mistake my generosity for folly. You cannot deceive me, witcher. If you won’t devote yourself to our cause, then I will do it for you. The White Frost must be abated. And I will do whatever is necessary to do so.”
In a flash, Endir cast out his arms and a presence assaulted Geralt’s mind, shoving him deep within himself. The world winked out of existence as a blustering gale strove to drive Geralt back. He fell to his knees, hands and feet straining to find purchase on the incorporeal ground, his hair whipping frenetically about his face. Another gust slid Geralt back a few feet, but he managed to stop himself. Stumblingly, Geralt stood and, with arms up to shield himself, he heaved himself forward. It was like wading through tar, each step a monumental effort. A powerful blast sent Geralt backwards a few steps, but he kept his feet and, with a wild roar, raced forward and delivered a volcanic blaze of Igni.
The next thing Geralt knew, he was back in reality, on his knees before a disheveled Endir, Geralt’s sides heaving as though he had just run several miles. Lund steadied Endir, who was also breathing heavily. With a look of reassurance from Endir, Lund released him, but continued to look on with concern.
“I’m alright, Nelan.” Gathering himself, Endir stepped back up to Geralt. “I’ve never encountered a mind such as yours. No one has ever managed to repel me,” Endir added with a hint of admiration. “But nothing worthwhile ever comes easily. My father taught me that.” He was silent for a moment, considering his next move. He looked to his men and nodded toward the elm behind them. “Tie him up, leave him for the night. I need to rest. We will resume in the morning.”
As Endir turned to leave, the four guards around Geralt dragged him back toward the tree, Lund instructing them to strip off Geralt’s cloak and armor. They had to untie him to do so and Geralt fought against them, but to no avail. When they were done, they had left only his thin linen shirt and breeches, his gloves, and his boots. Geralt supposed they didn’t want him to get frostbite if he was to be of any use to them. Although he found their actions a bit contradictory considering even he doubted he would survive the night.
An iron ring was nailed into the elm’s trunk, high above Geralt’s head, and they tied his newly bound hands up to it. Geralt winced as the action stretched his aching ribs, taking in a few choppy breaths as they adjusted to their new position. His feet were then lashed to the trunk at its base. Thus secured, Geralt was left alone, Lund heading back to one of the tents next to Endir’s. Everyone else wrapped around to head down the hill to either side of Geralt, back to the rest of the camp. Lund was clearly confident that Geralt could not break free. Or at least, if he did, that there was nowhere he could go. Unfortunately, Geralt had to agree.
Things were looking grim. The night was blisteringly cold and a wet snow was still drifting down from the sky. Already shivering, Geralt tried to keep himself from falling asleep, exhausted though he was. By Geralt’s reckoning, it wasn’t even midnight yet; he had a long way to go until morning. If he fell asleep, in that kind of weather, he doubted he would wake up.
Part of him wanted to give in, to let himself go and deny the cult their prize. But Geralt couldn’t bring himself to do it. There was a primal instinct that shouted at Geralt to keep going, no matter the odds. Another part of Geralt thought of Ciri. As long as Endir was alive, Ciri was in danger, and that alone was enough reason to keep fighting.
It was ironic, how he had been so near to her for so long and had never gone to see her. Now, he wished nothing more than to see her smiling face, to hold her and know she was with him and therefore out of harm’s way.
But it was not to be.
The only thing Geralt could do was set his chattering teeth against the cold, wondering where Ciri was now, hoping that she was safe.
Ciri could barely stand to look at herself. She was a coward. Geralt would have waded into that fray and slain every man alive to free her. And what had she done? Fled with her tail between her legs.
They had delivered the prisoner safely back to his village, to much applause and adulation from its other residents. From there, Zoltan and Ciri had gone straight to the Guard and told them of what had happened, that they had found the bandits. The Captain was exceedingly enthused with the development and dispatched a delegation of his men to immediately accompany them back to the forest. He himself went with them.
Even with all their haste, it had taken days to make it back to the campsite. When they arrived, Ciri’s worst fear had come true. Everyone was gone, the campsite buried in such a thick layer of snow that they could barely make out that it had been there in the first place. There was no trail. At least, none that anyone there could follow. Ciri had held out hope that even if the bandits had moved on, the snows would have held off. There hadn’t been any snow down near Novigrad, but clearly a storm had blown through the mountains.
She had had Geralt back for a fleeting moment. But he was lost now. And whether he was even alive or dead, Ciri didn’t know.
Heartbroken and guilt-ridden, Ciri collapsed to her knees and wept into her hands, Zoltan offering a consoling hand on her shoulder.
The night was long and hard on Geralt. He had, at first, struggled against the ring holding him to the tree. He nearly dislocated his shoulders trying to unseat it, pain flaring through his core with every attempt. But it held against his efforts and Geralt was forced to endure.
The storm that had followed the cultists all day was still blowing, though it had softened into a gentle snowfall. It would have been beautiful if it weren’t so perilous, soaking Geralt through with its melting flakes. Just past midnight, the storm subsided, leaving behind a bitterly still air that somehow seemed even worse.
The cold took its toll on Geralt. He shivered so badly that he rubbed the exposed skin above his wrists raw against the tree bark and his muscles were so tight that he could barely breathe, only the faintest wisps of breath spewing erratically from his chapped lips. Nor could Geralt feel any of his extremities. He wouldn’t have been surprised if he did have frostbite, despite Lund’s intentions. His body wanted nothing more than to fade away, but Geralt didn’t let it, snapping himself back to the misery when he felt his focus failing.
When the first rays of the sun sparkled onto the landscape, Geralt was delirious with cold and exhaustion. His clothes were frozen stiff, icicles dangling from strands of his hair and a thin layer of hoarfrost coating his beard. He had barely survived the night. Scarcely lucid enough to perceive a small party of men approaching, he could do nothing when, without preamble, Endir strode up and assailed Geralt’s mind.
The same presence slammed into Geralt with renewed vigor. Only this time, Geralt didn’t have the strength or fortitude to fight back. He tried clinging to the ground beneath him with clawed hands, but his body was numb, his fingers fumbling to find purchase. Blast after blast of frigid air cut through Geralt, pushing him backward. His hands bloodied as they scraped desperately along the frozen ground. In a last ditch effort, Geralt pulled his feet beneath him, throwing all of his strength into one, final push. But just as he raised himself, the full force of the gale slammed into Geralt and sent him flying.
He spiraled into darkness.
Countless memories pummeled Geralt, flashing before him. The presence sifted through them with polite interest and Geralt did everything he could to not think of Ciri, to send its focus elsewhere.
A split second later, the oppressing force lifted and Geralt was back in his body. Barely conscious, Geralt merely collapsed when they cut him down from the tree, a shower of ice sprinkling from his body. His vision winked in and out as they dragged him into a warm tent, laid him out on a small cot, and swathed him in blankets. The last thing Geralt saw was the triumphant and eager look on Endir’s face before the warmth and comfort were too much and Geralt let himself plummet into a dead sleep.
Endir’s voice echoed through his dreams.
Warmth and comfort enveloped Geralt as his consciousness returned. He was laid out on a straw mattress with a fluffy down pillow under his head. For a moment, Geralt couldn’t remember where he was and thought he was at some inn after a long night of drinking. Then his eyes lazily flicked open and next to his bed stood Endir, the sight of whom sent all of Geralt’s memories rampaging back.
He made to jump up, to throttle the man who had caused so much pain and anguish. But Geralt’s body didn’t obey, didn’t so much as move an inch. Panic flared within Geralt. Was he paralyzed? What was Endir planning to do with him?
But Endir, noticing that Geralt was awake, simply bade him sit up and then seated himself on a stump acting as a stool across from the bed. The strangest sensation crept over Geralt as his body sat up against his will and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, his eyes focused on Endir. The blankets fell back with the motion, exposing Geralt’s bare chest, and a chill crawled over his pale skin, though the tent was still moderately warm due to the small fire crackling in a stand off to the side.
“I’m glad you’re finally awake,” Endir started conversationally. “You’ve been asleep for over a day now. Though, from what I could tell, you needed the rest.”
Geralt had been bandaged while he was asleep. His ribs were bound and various other cuts had been cleaned and taken care of, though they were still painful. He could feel the bandages in place, but he couldn’t inspect them, couldn’t do anything, and Geralt raged against his own docility. He felt like a caged animal, and thrashed and threw himself against the bars.
Not even a muscle twitched. Geralt couldn’t bring himself to speak either, though it didn’t seem as if Endir expected him to answer.
Leaning forward and resting his arms on his knees, Endir met Geralt’s eyes. “I respect you, Geralt. As such, I feel I owe you an explanation. Call it a courtesy. I know it’s not really necessary, considering,” Endir gestured to Geralt’s still form and then gave a half chuckle. “You know, Nelan thinks I’ve taken too much of a liking to you. I think he’s wary of you after what happened the other night. I, on the other hand, know just how useful you are going to be to our mission. Though, admittedly, I’ve never met a witcher before and I find myself fascinated by what you can do. You’ve had quite the exciting life—monsters and women and plots. I’ve seen into many men’s lives and yours is by far the most interesting. With your skill and abilities, we may just win this war against the White Frost.”
At first, Geralt seethed against Endir’s intrusion into his memories, but then dread chilled him to the bone at the thought that Endir would have seen Ciri as well. It soon became apparent, however, that Endir either hadn’t seen Ciri, or hadn’t marked her significance. If he had, he surely wouldn’t be acting as calmly as he was now, not if he had discovered the identity of the only one supposedly capable of stopping the White Frost.
Sensing that he was digressing, Endir brought his monologue back around to the original point. “Look, I know you oppose me and that may never change. But you are here now. You may not agree with me, but at least you can understand the reasons for my actions.”
Geralt scoffed internally. Not likely, he thought.
“I wasn’t always this way, you know.” Demonstratively, Endir displayed his lack of hands. “My father was a hunter. He and my mother and my younger sister and I all lived happily in our remote cottage up in the mountains far to the east. We grew up mostly isolated from the world; my mother had her little garden and my father brought us game to use for meat, pelts, and tools.” A sad smile stretched across Endir’s face. “I would play with my sister while our parents were busy and then we would all gather around the fire at night to tell stories.”
The smile faded and a deep sadness welled in Endir’s eyes. “Then, when I was maybe eight, a particularly harsh winter had us snowed in for weeks. We were trapped in our house, the doors and windows frozen shut with snow banked up almost to the roof. It was late in the winter and our stores were already running thin. But we couldn’t go out to find food and could only get water by melting whatever snow blew down our chimney.
“Things were bleak and my sister, she was so little…” Tears pooled in Endir’s eyes and his throat caught on his words. “My sister, she… she didn’t make it. We had run out of food by this time and the snows wouldn’t cease, so we…we did what we had to,” he added ashamedly.
Horror settled within Geralt and, despite himself, he felt a twinge of pity for the man.
Endir broke eye contact with Geralt, ducking his head and staring at his lap. “My mother, she couldn’t live with what we had done. She took her own life a few days later.” Geralt could see tears falling from Endir’s hidden face. “But still the snow wouldn’t stop. A week later, we had nothing left. My father tried to be optimistic, but he knew—we both knew—we were going to die.” Heaving a sigh, Endir looked back to Geralt. “So he took out his knife.” Endir grabbed the hilt of the knife at his hip with both stumps and unsheathed it, holding it aloft for a moment before laying the blade across his legs. “He told me not to be afraid, to do whatever was necessary to survive.” His voice grew quiet. “Then he told me he loved me and he slit his own throat.”
There was a long pause. Geralt couldn’t believe what Endir was telling him. It was no wonder the man had gone mad.
Endir finally found his voice again, though his eyes had misted over. “The snow stopped that day. And I… I… survived another week while I waited for it to melt enough for me to get out. Still, I had to claw my way out of the cabin and struggle through the snow for a day and a night to reach the nearest settlement.” A self-effacing huff cleared Endir’s throat and he motioned to his many deformities. “As you can see, not all of me made it through the ordeal.
“I couldn’t see then, but I was lucky just to be alive. Many perished that winter. A great sadness swept over the town when the bodies were accounted for, the cries of the mourning tolling through the streets. The White Frost had ravaged our sliver of the world. Of course, I was too young to understand that at the time.
“Left orphaned and crippled, you can imagine how hard life was for me after that. Rage and bitterness filled my heart. I stumbled through life, begging and stealing and cheating, doing whatever I had to just to stay alive. But then, maybe a year later, I noticed something strange. I could control those around me to do what I wanted. At first, I didn’t think anything of it, that people were just being nice to the poor cripple and doing as I asked. But that had never been the case before and I started to realize that it was more than that. I pushed the boundaries of what I could get people to do, testing the thoroughness of my control. After honing my skill over the years, I found that control to be absolute.
“In testing my skills, I also figured out that I could control the minds of those around me to a lesser degree, even if I had not invaded their minds and taken over completely. I could make them see things, convince them that things were different than what they actually were, as long as the illusion wasn’t too improbable. Mostly, I used this gift to disguise myself, to make myself whole in the eyes of others. That alone was enough to improve my lot in life considerably. Here,” Endir motioned around himself, “I have no need of such trickery. Here, I don’t have to be ashamed of who I am. Many have flocked to my cause for similar reasons. One of them was Nelan Lund. In fact, he was the first to join me.
“It all started a few years back when, one day, I came across him, begging on the streets. I immediately recognized the cause of his deformities and, for the first time in a long while, I felt pity for someone other than myself. Here was a man who, like me, had been cast out. Only, he had no powers of control to make his life easier. Through our shared tragedies, we took to each other instantly, brothers in our misery.
“That day, it hit me. There were others out there who had been through what I had, that had survived the White Frost, reaching out its icy claw to smite whatever it could, retreating only briefly before striking again, biding its time until its true coming. Nelan and I had both survived, but there were scores more that hadn’t and there would be thousands, millions more that wouldn’t if it weren’t stopped.” A veiny stump wandered over the knife in Endir’s lap. “I didn’t see it at the time, but my father had already shown me how to defeat the White Frost, stave it off at least.”
“So I started my work,” Endir explained passionately. “I knew there would be opposition, that many would not share in my conclusions. That’s why we hide ourselves. Not because we are ashamed of what we have done, but because others would condemn us. And our mission is far too important to be stopped. Our methods may seem harsh, but we are simply doing what is necessary for our world to survive.”
Endir resheathed his knife with some difficulty. Then, standing, Endir ambled a few steps, Geralt obediently following him with his eyes. Endir spoke quietly, almost to himself. “I wish desperately that it were not so. But this task has fallen to me and I will see it done, no matter who stands in my way.” Looking up as if suddenly remembering that Geralt was still there, Endir strode to the entrance of the tent, pausing at the threshold and speaking over his shoulder. “I know you don’t wish to be here, Geralt, but we must all play our part. And I think you’ll find that life here is not so bad. You’ll have food, shelter, and not a care in the world.” Endir turned his head to meet Geralt’s gaze. “You’re going to be here a while. I hope you can learn to enjoy it.”
Geralt was internally screaming at Endir as he exited the tent, wishing he could chase after him and end him and his cult. He didn’t care what Endir said, nothing justified what he was doing. The worst part was that Endir actually believed he was keeping the White Frost at bay with his blood sacrifices. Someone as devout as Endir was in their beliefs would stop at nothing to achieve their end goal. And that put Ciri at immeasurable risk. With Geralt so close at hand, Endir need only glimpse into Geralt’s mind to find the information he so desperately sought. Plus there was the fact that Ciri was likely to try to rescue Geralt. She was too much like him for her own good. For once Geralt was grateful that this camp was well hidden, he doubted anyone could have followed their tracks. As much as he had taught Ciri about tracking, she would never have the finely tuned senses that Geralt possessed as a witcher.
There was nothing Geralt could do, to stop Endir, to protect Ciri. And that scared him more than anything.
Geralt had been in many prisons throughout his life, but he had never felt so trapped.
Life continued on for Geralt, despite his inward raging. His body would eat when hungry and drink when thirsty. He would sleep after a long day of chopping wood or standing watch and warm himself by the fire when his body grew too cold. It was a dismal imitation of life and the helplessness it instilled in Geralt set his teeth on edge.
He fought uselessly against every step his body took. But he couldn’t so much as slow himself down.
After a week of fruitless battling, Geralt was exhausted and demoralized. He didn’t see any way out, so he gave up trying. There was no point in wasting his energy.
Though he had given up on controlling himself, Geralt wasn’t quite ready yet to give up completely. He turned his attentions outward, focusing on gleaning anything he could from the cultists.
One of the first things he noticed was that the camp was surprisingly quiet for one so large. The reason why came as a shock to Geralt, though he didn’t know why he hadn’t seen it before. When he caught glimpses of those around campfires or walking past, Geralt recognized the same passivity he felt in himself. These men were enslaved just as Geralt was.
A bit of panic rose into Geralt’s throat at the thought that those men had been enslaved much longer than Geralt himself. Endir had said he had started his crusade years ago. Could some of them have been his prisoners that long? Geralt didn’t think it likely. Most had probably been killed and replaced in the raids. Nevertheless, there may have been a handful that had been trapped for months. Or more. Was he to become the next in that count? It wasn’t bragging to say his skill was substantial. It was unlikely he would fall in a raid against simple townspeople. If he couldn’t find a way to break free, he would become one of Endir’s long-standing minions, just one in a sea of nameless thralls. And judging by the vast number of them, they made up the majority of Endir’s forces, with only about a third of his men being true believers in the cause.
Geralt couldn’t necessarily fault those men for wanting to join up. True to Endir’s word, they were all fed and housed and comfortable, with those whose minds were free finding a fierce companionship amongst themselves. Most of them had probably been beggars and widowers and outcasts, those who were searching for something more because they had lost everything. Endir had given them a home. He had given them a purpose. A heavily misguided purpose, but a purpose nonetheless. Geralt didn’t think any of them were inherently bad people and, had their lives gone a little differently, they probably would have remained normal members of society. But Endir’s delusion had turned them into thugs and murderers. Geralt would have pitied them for throwing their lives away were they not taking so many in return. In the end, they had made their choice, and they would pay for it before too long.
The larger contingent of the encampment, the enslaved, was largely ignored. Not out of disdain, but simply for the fact that they didn’t engage in anything but tasks relating to keeping the camp running and raiding the settlements. Geralt would sit at a fire at night and watch as the others talked and laughed and played Gwent, blissfully unaware of the torment those next to them were experiencing. He didn’t think they knew either, that the consciousnesses of those whose minds Endir had captured were bubbling just beneath the surface, like a river running swiftly beneath a thick layer of ice.
Lund seemed to know. In fact, he seemed not to trust Geralt. Geralt would always catch him out of the corner of his eye, lurking around every corner. Endir had said that Geralt not immediately succumbing to his control had shaken Lund. More and more, Geralt concurred. Where once Lund had fought so desperately to get Geralt back to the base camp, now he seemed almost to regret it. Lund was in charge of organizing the raids, but he kept holding Geralt back. When Endir would ask, Lund would say that Geralt had not yet healed and he didn’t want him out there injured. But Geralt, though admittedly still injured, knew it was a lie. Lund was afraid of him, of the potential threat he posed. Even though Geralt couldn’t so much as blink of his own volition.
Eventually, a few weeks after Geralt had been captured and his injuries were more or less healed, Lund had no more excuses and was forced to put Geralt out in the field. They set out on a dreary day, Endir palpably excited to see how his new weapon would perform. The caravan headed southwest, a different direction from which Geralt had first approached the main camp. They weren’t stupid enough to go back to the site Geralt and Zoltan had found. As before, three sledges, though much less burdened this time, led the way while perhaps sixty men followed along behind. Lund, mounted as usual, stayed close to Geralt for the entirety of the journey, only leaving his side to check down the line occasionally.
They arrived at their new campsite by early evening and efficiently set up the tents. Once they had settled in for the night, Lund approached Geralt, bearing his swords. He even had the sheath that once held Geralt’s knife, though Ciri had taken the blade itself with her when she had escaped. In its place was a new knife, not as good of quality as the one Geralt had had before, but it was still of decent make and freshly sharpened.
A bit reluctantly, Lund handed the weaponry over. His words were curt, but not overtly hostile. “Endir wanted you to be fully armed.”
Geralt took the weapons and wordlessly strapped them on.
“You’re with me tomorrow. Your only job is to protect us while we take what we need and get out.” Lund searched Geralt’s eyes. “I hope Endir was right about you.”
Without waiting for a reply, Lund strode off, and Geralt returned himself to the circle of men gathering around the fire.
It had been weeks now since Geralt had been taken. Ciri wanted to believe that he was alive, she felt in her heart that he was. But all of the evidence pointed to the contrary and Ciri didn’t know if it was easier to keep convincing herself that there was still hope or just to let herself accept that he was never coming back. Each day passed in a haze of guilt and sorrow, and dreams of wolves circling in the shadows plagued her sleep.
Ciri berated herself for moping like a child. She needed something to take her mind off of everything, and she knew just the thing.
The bandits were still attacking regularly and the Guard was hard-pressed to keep up. They needed her, they needed any help they could get. So she volunteered for every watch she could, although her confidence had been shaken and she never went out on her own. She didn’t know if her decision to act as a sole guard to that small village had been a mistake or not, but she certainly wasn’t going to do it again. Not after what had happened.
Ciri worked every hour that she could, turning her sorrow into anger, determination, not giving herself any time to rest. More importantly, not giving herself any time to think. She would sink into her bed at night so exhausted that her mind shut off completely—no dreams, no nightmares. It was the only way she could keep going.
She wasn’t going to stop. Not until they found the bandits. Not until they found Geralt. Or what became of him.
Until then, she wouldn’t give up hope, not if there was even an ounce of it left. For Geralt’s sake and for her own. For if Geralt died because of her, then what did that make her? No better than a murderer, a patricide. She couldn’t face that reality.
Geralt had to be alive. He had to.
It was late in the evening when they reached the settlement, a fairly large town far southeast of Novigrad. The snows had just begun to fall when Geralt could sense it in the distance, all the sounds and smells of nearby habitation. The group consisted of about twenty men, including Geralt and Lund. The remaining number had split into four other groups of various sizes depending on the settlements they were to attack.
Their approach was quiet, no war cries were uttered as they slinked from the trees, a few of their number skirting around the edge of the town to set a fire on the far side. It would draw attention and manpower away from the main force of cultists.
They were nearly to the edge of the buildings and hadn’t met any kind of opposition, and Geralt thought maybe this town hadn’t been lucky enough to receive the Guard’s protection. But just as they filed into the narrow streets, a call rang out and arrows rained down from above.
Two archers were stationed on the rooftops above. One cultist was hit in the shoulder. He clutched at his wound and staggered backward. The second arrow narrowly missed Lund, who retaliated with a knife thrown into the chest of his attacker. Geralt felt himself raising his arm, aiming a torrent of Igni at the last archer. He watched it soar into the man, watched it ripple across his arms and face as the man flailed in agony and fell.
Turning from the blaze, Geralt looked ahead. His body was ready for the coming fight, every muscle and sense alert, every movement balanced. He drew his sword and charged into the town, seeking out his next victim.
There was no one in that town who posed a threat to Geralt, his sword slicing through them like a scythe through wheat. The residents that raised arms against him were cut down before they could even strike. The Guardsmen fared better, but still were nothing compared to Geralt’s proficiency.
His blade was bloodied with the lives of the innocent. And there was nothing Geralt wished more than to look away from the horror he unleashed.
The attack was short-lived, skillful as Geralt was at stopping any resistance. Most of the cultists had cleared out, Lund had ridden past just a second ago carrying a squirming prisoner on the back of his horse. Geralt, set to defend their retreat, waited a moment longer, then turned to leave as well.
An all too familiar voice called out to him and his feet planted in the reddening snow.
“Geralt?” a lilting voice asked softly, incredulous.
He swiveled slowly to source the inquisitor, but Geralt already knew what he would find. His eyes met Ciri’s and dread clutched his heart.
No! How could this be happening? How could she be here?
Tears rolled down Ciri’s cheeks as she ran up to him, relief and joy distinct on her face.
“How are you here? How did you esc—?”
Geralt cut her off with a well-aimed slice of his sword. Ciri dodged at the last second, taking only a minor wound to her arm and bringing her own sword up reflexively.
Thank the gods Ciri had good reflexes. And that he had taught her well.
Something akin to betrayal flickered in Ciri’s eyes as Geralt advanced, looming menacingly over her. “Geralt! What are you doing? What’s wrong with you?”
Without answering, he closed with her and commenced his attack. She parried Geralt’s blows, but Geralt knew it was only a matter of time before he would win out. He had taught Ciri well, yes, but she would never have the abilities that a witcher did. She would never be as strong and fast and enduring, she just couldn’t.
He had never been so terrified of his own ability.
Frantically, Geralt fought his every stroke, his every step. His heart was pounding, his struggle dire. He threw everything he had into trying to control himself before he did something he could never come back from.
“Geralt, stop! It’s me!” Ciri bade as their blades struck over and over again.
There was fear in Ciri’s eyes, true fear. And it was directed at Geralt. The sight brought bile to his throat, but urged him on even more. He pounded against the walls of his cage, arms flayed to the bone with the vehemence of his protests.
Then, after a particularly vicious attack from Geralt, Ciri lost her footing and stumbled. She recovered quickly, but Geralt’s next thrust was fast as lightning, pointing directly at her heart.
In that moment, nothing mattered but stopping himself. Geralt poured every last ounce of energy into halting his strike, gaining control over his own body to save his daughter. With one last assault, the walls of his cage shattered around him and he fell forward into his own body, the killing stroke frozen a foot from its target.
Every muscle in Geralt’s body shook with the effort of keeping himself in control. He couldn’t even raise his eyes to look Ciri in the eye for fear that he would divert too much focus on that task and lose control elsewhere.
Ciri was breathless and confused. She didn’t seem to know what to make of the current situation. She steadied herself, sword still at the ready, but dropped it a fraction when she realized Geralt wasn’t advancing anymore. She took a cautious step toward Geralt, reaching forth, probing, “Geralt?”
“No!” Geralt hissed between his teeth. His words were halting, each one taking a monumental amount of focus and effort. “Stay back. He’s…controlling…me.”
Concern saturated Ciri’s voice as she withdrew the hand she had extended. “Who? Who is?”
“Endir. He leads…the cult. They’re trying to stop…the White Frost. They think…sacrificing people will…keep it at bay.” He had to convince her that her life was in danger with these men. She knew as well as he did her relation to Ithlinne’s Prophecy and the White Frost. If they found out who she was, nowhere would be safe for her. “You have to…stay away.”
Geralt’s hand was shaking violently now, the sword inching slowly forward. Emitting a guttural cry, Geralt pried his fingers from the hilt and the blade fell to the ground.
Horror flashed across Ciri’s face as she watched Geralt struggle with himself. “No. I’m not going to leave you with them. I’m going to get you out of here.” She reached forward again to grab Geralt’s arm.
Before Geralt could stop himself, he reached down to his hip and grasped the hilt of his new knife, drawing it and slicing outward in one motion. Geralt managed to pull the blow at the last second, keeping Ciri from harm as she leapt back.
Spit was flying from between Geralt’s teeth. He didn’t know how much longer he could hold out. And then, from behind him he heard distant hooves running toward him. It had to be Lund. Coming to see what had become of Endir’s prize.
“Run,” Geralt bade Ciri fearfully.
Determination set Ciri’s brow. “No. No, Geralt, I’m not leaving you again.”
“You can’t…let them…find you. Go,” Geralt pleaded, desperate for her to obey.
Ciri was refusing to move and Geralt was losing control. Lund would show up any minute and probably take Geralt away, but Geralt couldn’t risk fighting Ciri again before he did. He had to make sure he wouldn’t be able to hurt her.
With a concentrated effort, Geralt raised his knife, Ciri backing away slightly in alarm. He set his gaze beaming toward Ciri’s. “Run!” he bellowed at her. Then plunged the knife deep into his own thigh.
Ciri didn’t know what was happening. At first, she had been elated to see Geralt, alive and well. It was like some miracle. After all that time, there he was right in front of her, unharmed and free. She was so blinded by the relief and joy that she didn’t notice the emptiness in his eyes, the menace in his stance. She didn’t care to question how he had come to be there or why. All that mattered was that he was alive.
Then he swung at her, and she was so taken aback that all she could do was defend against his onslaught. It wasn’t Geralt. Geralt would never hurt her. Never.
But it was all happening so fast, she didn’t know what to think, she didn’t know what to do. She felt herself losing ground and fear gripped her. Deep inside she knew it wasn’t him, but her body couldn’t help but feel betrayed by the one she called father. He was going to kill her and there was little she could do to stop it.
Her distraction almost cost Ciri her life. Her boot met a patch of ice and she lost her footing for a split second. Skilled as Geralt was, that was more than enough time. His sword plunged straight for her heart.
She watched the blade race toward her, knowing it would be her undoing.
Yet, somehow, the sword stopped mid-strike. Tremors racked Geralt’s body and he spoke as if he was in great pain. Ciri couldn’t believe what he was saying. A cult? If they were vying to end the White Frost, then they must not yet know who she was. Geralt had hidden her identity from them, was striving to keep it that way.
But she couldn’t just abandon him. Not again. Not when he was so close.
She tried to reach out to him, but he rebuked her, slashing at her again before mastering himself. She honestly didn’t know what to do. There was no one around to help her, they had all gone to attend to the wounded and the fire. Geralt told her to run, but she found herself rooted to the spot.
Then a great cry erupted from his lips and he reared his knife. Despite herself, Ciri flinched backward, fearing, fearing, Geralt’s next blow. But his roar of determination turned into one of great anguish when he skewered his own leg and Ciri realized what he was doing. He was crippling himself so that she could get away.
The world froze for a moment as she watched his act of self-mutilation and her heart sprung out at the pain he clearly felt. He collapsed to one knee, blood pouring down his leg and melting the snow beneath him. His head was bowed so Ciri could only imagine the suffering contorting his face. His cries of agony gave her enough of a clue. Suddenly, his tormented cries morphed into heaving grunts. He remained where he was, his breathing returning to a more normal pattern, giant plumes of fog spewing from his mouth with every laborious breath, like some kind of frost dragon.
Carefully, Ciri advanced a step toward Geralt. She wasn’t just going to let him bleed to death. She had to help him. “Geralt?” she breathed. He didn’t move, so she took another step, and another, her hand extending.
Just before her hand met his shoulder, his leapt up to grab her wrist, his head snapping up to greet her. By the blackness in his eyes, Ciri knew it wasn’t Geralt anymore, and by the tightness of his grasp, she knew he wasn’t afraid to hurt her. She struggled against him, but she couldn’t bring herself to injure him and he was too strong for her to break free. Geralt made to rise, but stumbled when his leg didn’t function as he had expected.
Seeing her chance, Ciri wrenched her arm free in his distraction and trotted backwards a few yards, sword up and ready. It was a good thing too. Geralt, as if suddenly noticing the knife protruding from his leg and its hindrance to his goal, yanked the blade free and, now armed, hurled it toward Ciri. Reflexes as swift as a cat saved Ciri as she deflected the knife with her sword.
Just as she was contemplating what to do next, Ciri heard them—hoofbeats—coming up fast. Shortly thereafter, she could just make out the outline of a rider through the gathering darkness. Whoever it was would be upon them within a minute.
How had everything gone so wrong? Geralt was there, in Ciri’s grasp, yet he had never been so far away. She couldn’t defeat him. And if that rider were coming to help Geralt, then there was no hope of defeating the both of them. Nor could she follow them back to their camp as she had before. It hadn’t worked out the first time and she saw no reason why she should fare any better a second time around. If only there were someone from the Guard nearby, she would call for help. As it was, by the time anyone would arrive, Geralt would be long gone or Ciri herself would be taken prisoner.
She was loath to admit it, but there was nothing she could do. Her body seemed to accept it before her mind did and started retreating further into the town. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she chanted, tears crowding her eyes as she backed away.
Geralt took a fumbling step toward her, refusing to let his quarry get away even as blood spurted from his wound with each footfall. Ciri told herself it was the fact that Geralt may very well kill himself if she didn’t remove herself from his sight that had her turning to leave. In truth, it was the lifeless malice in Geralt’s eyes that jolted her into running.
Ciri ran and didn’t look back. Only when she had gone a hundred yards and was about to turn a corner did Ciri steal a glance behind her.
Geralt and the rider had vanished, and along with them, a fractured piece of Ciri’s heart.
Geralt spun in and out of consciousness after Lund had hoisted him onto his horse and ridden away. Blood seeped from Geralt’s wound, streaming down his leg and onto the horse’s flank where it dripped steadily to the ground. Lund had done his best to bind it, but it would take more than a thin piece of cloth to close up the gash. They met no one else on the way to the campsite. Lund must have doubled back to find Geralt, sending the others on ahead of him.
Because he wasn’t fully conscious, the trip seemed abnormally short to Geralt. After what seemed only an hour or two, they were riding into the forward camp. The others were busy trussing prisoners or securing stolen supplies. A few of them detached from their current preoccupations, however, when Lund reined in his steed. They shuffled over to him and Geralt, one taking charge of Lund’s horse and two others pulling Geralt down from the saddle as Lund dismounted himself.
By this time, Geralt was barely aware of anything going on around him. He could feel himself fading. Despite Lund’s haste, Geralt had lost a lot of blood. Geralt only caught a few lines of what Lund was saying before he succumbed to his injury, but he was coherent enough to note the fire in Lund’s tone.
“Patch him up. I’m taking him back to Endir at dawn.”
It wasn’t until late the next day that Geralt tenuously regained consciousness. Still woozy and weak from the blood loss, it took a moment for him to realize where he was. He was mounted on Lund’s horse, legs bound to either side of the saddle and hands tied to the horn. Geralt wasn’t entirely sure the bindings were there simply to keep him in place. Not that it mattered either way. Geralt had no more control over his movements than he did when he had attacked all those innocent people.
His body looked up nonetheless and Geralt saw that Lund was on foot, leading the horse, doggedly ploughing through tight drifts of snow. And there, just through the trees, was the main camp, not five minutes away.
No one else was with them. It seemed that Lund had gone on ahead of them. That certainly didn’t bode well. Geralt wasn’t sure if Lund had seen Ciri or not, but he wasn’t a stupid man. If he had seen her, then he would know there was something between Geralt and Ciri. Lund may not have realized that Geralt had come to save Ciri before, but he was sure not to miss the connection a second time. Not if he saw what Geralt had done to keep himself from hurting Ciri. The fact that they were now hastening toward Endir ahead of everyone else all but confirmed that Lund suspected something. Geralt just wasn’t sure what would become of it. Or if Ciri’s anonymity were about to become compromised.
Lund led them through the camp with barely a greeting to anyone except the few men stationed by Endir’s tent when they finally stopped atop the rock outcropping. Lund exchanged a few words with the men, dispatching one to fetch Endir, and sending the others to join Lund back at his horse, Geralt still bound astride it.
It only took a few seconds for Endir to emerge, confusion at Lund’s sudden arrival strewn across his face.
“What’s happened? Is everything alright?” Endir approached their group casting a questioning glance over them.
Lund met Endir before he got too close. His words were tense and rushed, like he had barely been containing himself the whole trip back and simply couldn’t hold back any longer. “I don’t know how he’s done it, but he’s broken your control.”
So he had seen. This was not good. Geralt knew something bad was going to happen, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. Struggle as he may, Geralt sat stoically atop the horse, obediently awaiting his fate. Not that he put up much of a fight. His mind was still hazy and his body barely recovered from his self-inflicted wound.
Endir was skeptical at the news. “That’s impossible,” he said without conviction, eyes roaming over Geralt as if considering the possibility.
A warning crept into Lund’s voice, tinted with a hint of fear. “I know it is, but he’s done it.”
“It was that girl.”
Geralt’s heart stopped at Lund’s words. He had seen her. He knew about Ciri.
“Girl? What girl?” Endir seemed lost. He had never known about any girl, only that Geralt had set several prisoners free.
“We had taken a girl that night, that raid before he found us,” Lund explained, tipping his head at Geralt. “She was one of the prisoners that escaped. I never realized he had come for her specifically, but now I’m sure of it. I saw her again last night. Geralt let her go. He should have killed her, but he didn’t. Instead he stabbed himself and let her get away. I find these circumstances too compelling to be merely chance that it was the same girl.”
There was a look of intense contemplation on Endir’s face as he listened to Lund’s account, like he were trying to piece together some mystery that just wouldn’t coalesce. “I agree,” he answered, still focused on Geralt. Then his tone shifted from contemplation to curiosity. “Let’s find out just who this girl is to inspire such defiance.”
Endir resumed his approach, Lund moving up with him. At a beckoning gesture, the guards around Geralt cut him loose and dragged him from the saddle, though Geralt mounted no struggle against them. As soon as his feet met the ground, his injured leg collapsed beneath him, leaving him on one knee before Endir. The guards seemed content to leave him there, each keeping a hand on either shoulder.
A familiar presence entered Geralt’s mind and he put everything he had into shutting it out. He tried to keep Endir at bay, but his resistance was futile. Like they had before, more memories relived themselves in Geralt’s mind. Geralt desperately fought to think of anything but Ciri, to try to conceal her identity. If Endir found out about her, he would let nothing stand in his way of finding her. But Geralt could hardly organize his own thoughts let alone turn aside those of another, especially of one who had already wrested control from Geralt. Traitorously, every memory of Ciri sprung to the forefront of Geralt’s mind; everything from when he had first taken her in to the moment he realized who she was, what Ithlinne’s Prophecy foretold her to be. At that, the presence violently vacated Geralt’s mind, heaving itself backward, leaving Geralt breathless on his knees and a look of disbelieving shock on Endir’s face.
“It cannot be,” Endir whispered.
“What? What is it?” Lund was clearly concerned for Endir, he couldn’t have known what had transpired.
“That girl, she is the one. The one that can end all of this.” There was hope now and triumph in Endir’s bearing.
Inside, Geralt was screaming, at himself, at Endir. How could he have let this happen? He raged against himself. He had to kill Endir. He had to kill him before he could hurt Ciri. He tried to muster that feeling of control he had exhibited before, tried to find that place within him that had granted him the will to resist Endir’s influence. But he couldn’t summon it, he was thoroughly spent in both mind and body. The only thing he managed was a twitch of his finger, which went unnoticed.
“That girl is the one foretold to end the White Frost?” Lund asked in amazement. Suddenly he looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, Endir. I didn’t know. I—”
Endir held up a stumped arm to cut Lund off, his voice understanding. “Do not trouble yourself, Nelan. No one could have known.” He looked back to Geralt, his fervor growing. “But it seems that fate has sent us a gift. Here we have within our ranks a man who not only knows the identity of the prophesied one, but is the perfect man to bring her to us. Our struggle is nearly at an end.”
All trace of apology faded from Lund’s face and he stepped in front of Endir, challenging. “We can’t trust him! If he’s broken your control once, he can do it again. No doubt you already know where this girl is from his memories. We have no more need of Geralt. We have to get rid of him, he’s too much of a liability.”
Endir was not affronted by the challenge, rather he seemed to respect Lund’s opinion, though he didn’t heed it. “He’s our best shot at capturing the girl,” he countered. “We can’t afford to lose him.”
“Send our forces. Let them take the girl,” Lund argued, throwing his arms out in emphasis.
“No. She lives in Novigrad. It’s too risky to launch a frontal assault. We are not equipped for a siege, we would never make it through the gates. Our only choice is to send him in alone. He’s more than capable of getting her out of there and he wouldn’t draw attention entering the city alone.”
“Endir, this is too much of a gamble. What if he breaks free again? What if he takes her somewhere out of our reach?”
Endir set his gaze on Geralt once more, a fierce determination lighting his eyes. “He won’t.” At a cue from Endir, Lund stepped back, recognizing that the discussion was over. Endir took Lund’s place in front of Geralt. “I’m sorry, Geralt. I didn’t want to have to do this, not to such a gifted warrior. You deserve better. But twice now, you have thwarted our mission to end the White Frost in freeing this Ciri, and while I can’t hold that against you, I cannot abide a third.” There seemed a great sorrow in Endir’s eyes, but it was tempered by a determined fire that burned past all other desires. “I will do what must be done.”
Before Geralt could prepare himself, Endir launched an assault on Geralt’s mind, though this time it was much wilder, much more eager. His lucidity still questionable, Geralt found it hard to put up any kind of opposition. He barely had a foothold within his mind as it was and now Endir was working to clear away any remaining trace of Geralt’s being. Endir’s incursion blasted through Geralt’s mind, wiping out everything in its wake. Geralt could do nothing but retreat before it, deeper and deeper within, holding on to whatever piece of himself there was left.
But Endir was a tidal wave over an insignificant ship; capsizing it, sinking it, flooding every compartment until there was nothing left but murky water. There was nowhere for Geralt to hide. When the wave finally broke over him, Geralt drowned in its relentless resolve.
Memories faded and the world dimmed, all sense of being receding further and further away.
He felt nothing. He was nothing. Nothing but emptiness drifting in the dark.
“I left him there, Zoltan. I just left him there,” Ciri sniffled disconsolately.
Zoltan finished up the last stitch in Ciri’s arm and stepped back, looking her in the eyes with a sympathetic glance. “There was nothing you could have done.”
Ciri had returned a short while before, shamefaced and devastated, hating herself once again. She was thankful for once that Dandelion hadn’t been having any customers due to the weather. She didn’t think she could handle putting on a cheerful face to make it through the crowd. As it was, she had flung her sword into the corner as soon as she had entered the Chameleon, disgusted and frustrated with herself.
At the time, Zoltan had been sitting by the hearth reading a book and had startled at her sudden entrance and behavior. He had rushed over immediately—Ciri admittedly had been in quite a state, covered in blood and soot and weary from travel. Despite her protests, he had sat her down to tend to her wounds. Clearly sensing that she was distraught, Zoltan had kept a patient silence.
Ciri had tried to keep herself together, but she hadn’t lasted long before she had burst into tears and Zoltan had simply held her while she sobbed into his shoulder. Only once she had settled slightly had he resumed his ministrations and Ciri told him what had happened.
Now she met his gaze, still puffy-eyed and snuffly, unready to forgive herself for abandoning Geralt for a second time. “I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. But I should have done something, anything. And for all I know, he could—” Her throat caught at the words. “—he could be…” She couldn’t bring herself to say it.
“He’s not,” Zoltan stated with conviction. “You know he’s not. It’s going to take a lot more than that to stop Geralt.”
“Either way, there had to have been something I could have done.”
Zoltan placed his hands on his hips, his tone suddenly snippy. “Tell me. What could you have done?”
The new sternness to Zoltan’s voice shook Ciri out of her weepiness. “I…I could have gone for help,” Ciri answered fumblingly.
“And put other people’s lives in danger?” Zoltan argued, raising an eyebrow. “Do you really think they would have stood a chance against Geralt?”
“Fine. Then I could have at least stayed with him. If we had him with us, we could have tried to help him.”
“And what would you have done when that other man arrived? Who knows how many men could have been coming in behind him? If you had stayed, we could have lost you too.”
“I don’t know then!” Ciri shouted defensively. “I…I don’t know,” she added more quietly, mind spinning. She didn’t fully understand why she was arguing so fervently against Zoltan when all he was trying to do was comfort her. And he was only making the same arguments she had made with herself at the time. She supposed deep down, she didn’t feel she deserved to be comforted. Not after everything Geralt had been through to protect her. She had been the one to get captured in the first place. She should be the one paying for it.
“Look at me.” Zoltan grabbed her by the shoulders, a feat only possible because she was still seated. He spoke gently and slowly, enunciating each word. “There was nothing you could have done.”
His words brought a new wave of tears burning into Ciri’s eyes.
“It was more than that though. I was afraid of him,” Ciri admitted, ashamed. There was no reason why she should have been afraid of him, the man she considered her father. The fact that she felt even an inkling of fear left nothing but shame in her heart.
“I should think so,” Zoltan responded straightforwardly, not understanding the depth of Ciri’s emotion. “He’s a dangerous man. He could have killed you.”
“That’s the thing though.” Ciri rose, brushing aside Zoltan’s grip. She strode a few steps away. “He could have killed me. But he stopped himself.” She dropped her gaze contemplatively. “The only time he was in control was when I was in danger.”
She hadn’t really thought about it before, but it was true. The moment her life had been in danger, he had regained control. Whoever this Endir was, his control over Geralt didn’t seem to be absolute, which meant there had to be a way to break Geralt free. If she could only find him again…
“Ciri.” There was a warning in Zoltan’s tone as he cut into her thoughts. “I know what you’re thinking, but you can’t go putting yourself in danger just to try to get through to him. He clearly didn’t want that and neither should you. It’s too great of a risk.”
She swiveled to face Zoltan. “It could be the only way.”
Zoltan was visibly upset by her suggestion. “Dammit, Ciri, what if it doesn’t work! What if he kills you? Trading your life for his gets us nowhere.”
“That’s exactly what he did! Why does he get to make that decision and not me?” Ciri retorted. Geralt should never have been captured. None of this should have been happening. It was all because of Ciri’s arrogant chivalry that Geralt was now some sorcerer’s puppet. Ciri’s voiced cracked as she finally voiced what she had been feeling for the past few weeks. “All of this is my fault!”
Through her tears, Ciri saw Zoltan approach. He took her hands in his and let go a deep sigh, speaking warmly.
“You are a good person, Cirilla. And good people like to blame themselves for bad things that happen. But none of this is your fault.”
Ciri searched his eyes, wishing it were true. Her gaze fell. She couldn’t find it within her heart to accept his words.
“This Endir is the only one to blame.” Suddenly there was a fiery edge to Zoltan’s voice. “He started all of this and we will make sure he pays for it.” Zoltan raised his eyebrows at Ciri, waiting.
Ciri nodded sheepishly, done with arguing, but still not absolving herself of all guilt.
“You can’t win every battle,” Zoltan added. “But that doesn’t mean that this war is over.” With one of his callused hands, Zoltan raised Ciri’s chin so that her eyes met his. “We will find Geralt. I don’t know how or when, but we will. And when we do, we will find a way to set him free.”
Ciri wanted with all her heart to believe Zoltan, but she just couldn’t shake the feeling that things were only going to get worse.
“Don’t give up on him, Ciri. There’s still hope.”
Thanks to Zoltan’s bolstering, Ciri’s spirits had marginally been raised, and she had even been hopeful about setting out again to oppose the cult. They had agreed that Zoltan would go with her whenever she went to protect another village. That way, she would have reinforcements if Geralt happened to show; they were confident they could take him down together.
But a week had gone by without any storms and thereby no settlements had been attacked. The waiting was wearing on Ciri, anxiety building with every moment she was stuffed inside the house. And every moment she remained in all her luxuries, Geralt spent suffering. Guilt crept back up on her. It weighed her down more and more through the days, casting a somber mood over the Chameleon as Dandelion and Zoltan couldn’t help but take notice. They could do nothing to assuage it, even Dandelion’s relentless optimism couldn’t dent Ciri’s gloom.
Most nights, Ciri slept fitfully. The wolves that had been encircling her were growing closer, yipping and snapping at her heels, but disappearing every time she turned to confront them. She couldn’t tell if they were some kind of sign or just a figment of her distress. Whatever her dreams were, her lack of sleep did nothing to ease Ciri’s conscience, rather it only exacerbated everything she was already feeling.
By the end of the tenth day of idleness, Ciri was right back to where she had been when she had arrived. She hadn’t spoken to Zoltan or Dandelion in days, spending most of her time holed up in her room or out in the stables taking care of Kelpie and Roach, whom Geralt had left behind. Kelpie’s stalwart presence was always appreciated and offered an understanding that Ciri’s human companions could never provide. With Kelpie, Ciri could be whoever she wanted or needed to be, could feel whatever she needed to feel, and the mare would always treat her the same, nuzzling Ciri for an apple or being content in Ciri’s affectionate grooming. Ciri could appreciate Zoltan’s and Dandelion’s concern, but they just couldn’t leave well enough alone sometimes and Ciri tired of them always trying to cheer her up.
At first, it was difficult for Ciri to want to be near Roach, as he did nothing but remind her of Geralt. Seeing as how Ciri did nothing but think of Geralt anyway, she thought it unfair that Roach should be neglected. After that, she took it upon herself to see that Roach was well taken care of, as if it were a small way of atoning for everything Geralt was going through. Soon, Roach was just as happy to see Ciri as Kelpie was and nickered to her whenever she passed. She would stroke his velvet nose when he did, donning a sad smile.
It had been thirteen days since Ciri had seen Geralt and there had been no sign of the cult. Ciri spent her afternoon, much as she had been, exhausting herself in the stables. She meticulously groomed all three of the horses and Zoltan’s pony until they gleamed, despite their long winter coats. After that, she mucked out all of the stalls, lugging away the soiled bedding and replacing it with fresh straw. The tasks took the better part of the evening and it was dark when Ciri, sweating and thoroughly chilled, stepped back inside.
She ate a somber meal with her two companions, the uneasiness in the air palpable. They said nothing as they ate; Zoltan and Dandelion knew she wouldn’t listen to anything they said anyway. As soon as she could, Ciri dismissed herself to her room, a low murmur springing up behind her as she ascended the stairs. Ciri couldn’t bring herself to care.
Closing the door behind her, Ciri lit a small candle by her bedside, pulled on her nightclothes, and tucked herself into her bed, thoughts swirling as they always did. She didn’t fall asleep for a long while. Instead, tears trickled down her cheek onto her pillow as she wrapped herself in her misery, unable to turn her thoughts aside from everything that had happened and her uselessness in the past few weeks. Unable to purge the image of Geralt’s merciless face from her memory.
She hadn’t even realized she had fallen asleep when she was suddenly awake, unaware of what had disturbed her. The candle was barely alight, only the smallest of flames illuminating her room, melted wax sloppily spilling down the side of the candleholder and onto the table. She was laying on her side, eyes crusted from dried tears, and she groggily scanned the dim room in front of her. Then a creak beyond the foot of her bed caught her attention.
The door to Ciri’s room swung inward on rusting hinges and there, silhouetted by the light of the still-lit lamps on the stairwell, was Geralt. Though she could only see his outline, Ciri knew instantly it was him. What she couldn’t figure however, was whether he was real.
This has to be a dream, Ciri thought. It had to be her subconscious bringing Geralt to her, striving to release her guilt.
He took a step forward. As he did so, his eyes entered the dim light diffused by the candle, eyes that held neither recognition nor life, and they stoked within Ciri a familiar fear. A fear that snapped Ciri out of her hopeful stupor. This wasn’t a dream.
It was a nightmare.
When Geralt lunged, Ciri was ready for him. She cast her bedcovers over him like a fisherman casts his net, leaping from her bed at the same time. Geralt swatted at them, but the action caused the fabric to wrap around him and he was tangled up momentarily. In that moment, Ciri weighed her options.
She had to stop Geralt somehow, had to save him. To do that, she had no choice but to capture him. In his current state, there was no way he would come willingly. To that end, she would most likely need her sword. Geralt was much more powerful than her and she could never best him in hand to hand combat. Unfortunately, her sword was still downstairs by the door where she had discarded it nearly two weeks ago. Feeling her failure so acutely, she hadn’t had the heart to touch it since then.
But Geralt was currently blocking the doorway. She wouldn’t be able to get past him without coming within his reach. If she did that, Geralt was sure to overpower her and who knew what he would do with her then. Would he kill her? Or would he bring her back to Endir—
The realization struck Ciri like an avalanche. They knew she was the one foretold by Ithlinne’s Prophecy. Why else would Geralt have come? So far as she could tell, the cult had never gone after any specific person before. And it might help explain why they had gone so quiet of late. They had no need of anyone but her. And Geralt was the perfect weapon to send after her.
With difficulty, Ciri pushed aside her sudden revelation. The fact that Geralt was there to bring her back to Endir didn’t change what Ciri needed to do. She had to get downstairs.
That left the balcony.
Wasting no time, Ciri sprinted for the shuttered doors to her small balcony, efficiently unlocking them and slamming them open just as Geralt freed himself from his entanglement. She didn’t stop to consider what she did next. If she had, she very likely would have talked herself out of it.
Geralt’s long strides swiftly carried him across the room and he reached out, grabbing for Ciri at the edge of the balcony. His hand met with nothing but the gust of air Ciri created as she hoisted herself over the railing. She turned herself around and slid down the rails to the bottom of the platform, catching just a glimpse of Geralt’s impassive face before he was blocked from view.
Her room was on the top floor of the Chameleon, three stories up and overlooking the stable yard. She knew she couldn’t jump from her balcony directly. If she didn’t kill herself, then she would have been seriously injured. But there was an overhang directly over the first floor that was within jumping distance. From there, she could get down to the ground safely.
Maintaining her momentum from her initial swing over the railing, Ciri launched herself toward the overhang. It wasn’t very wide so she couldn’t actually land on it, rather she would use it as a springboard. When her feet made contact, she let her knees take the impact. Snapping her legs out and rebounding as much as she could manage, she directed herself back away from the building and toward the—now much closer—hard-packed earth of the stable yard. Her landing was clumsy. She half rolled, half tumbled onto the ground, her ankle twisting slightly at the initial contact. Her hands and feet were scuffed from skidding across the dirt, but she had made it, and all in one piece. Ignoring the throbbing in her ankle, Ciri scrambled to her feet, bursting through the back door of the Chameleon.
Just as she entered, Geralt blindsided Ciri from the stairs to her right and seized her by the arm. His attack didn’t faze her, she simply kicked out backward toward his knee and wrenched her arm free as he stumbled. There were still a few lamps lit in the main room so Ciri had no difficulty in snaking her way across the room to her sword. On her way, Ciri heard Zoltan’s voice call her name from the stairwell. He was heading up to her room by the sound of it, having heard the commotion up there.
“Zoltan!” she shouted over her shoulder, though Ciri didn’t have the time to wait for a response. She had to reach her sword.
It only took moments for Ciri to cross the room and retrieve it. Once it was in her hands, Ciri drew it and turned to face Geralt, who had barely moved.
Seeing the sword in Ciri’s hand, Geralt reached behind him and pulled his own sword from its sheath, but not immediately attacking. He stood stoically, waiting.
Ciri knew that Geralt was at somewhat of a disadvantage. His sword was much longer than hers and while it was more effective in an open area, it would be limiting in the cramped space of the Chameleon. Ciri could fight much more freely than he could. Not that she wanted to fight in the first place. She would do what she had to, but she wanted to keep him from harm as much as possible. Maybe there was still a way to reach him. She may as well try.
She lowered her sword to the side, lifting her free hand, palm out. “Don’t do this, Geralt,” she implored. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Geralt made no reply. He was getting twitchy though. Ciri knew he was going to attack soon. She dreaded the idea of having to fight Geralt again, but she knew there was no other way and so prepared herself mentally for the imminent quarrel.
From the corner of her eye, Ciri saw something that snapped her out of her concentration. Zoltan was flying down the stairs, his panicked shout of, “Ciri!?” preceding him.
Geralt turned toward the new threat, stopping Zoltan in his tracks.
“Geralt?” The disbelieving question escaped Zoltan’s lips as he skidded down a few steps in his haste to come to a stop.
The distraction was just the opening Ciri needed. She charged across the room and closed with Geralt, knowing that the closer she was, the less effective his sword would be, though still keeping in mind that he had strength on his side and she needed to keep some distance between them. Their blades met with a metallic clang and the force of Ciri’s assault drove Geralt back a few steps.
Still on the stairs, Zoltan recovered from his shock quickly and leapt onto Geralt’s back when he neared the steps, tying his legs around Geralt’s middle and latching his arms around Geralt’s throat, cutting off his airway. At the unexpected assault, Geralt flailed his arms out wildly and Ciri had to leap backward to avoid the sword that came with them.
Geralt blundered around the room, eventually dropping his sword and using both hands to try to unseat the stout arms closed around his throat. He bashed Zoltan into the walls repeatedly, but Zoltan endured, letting go a pained grunt every time he was smashed by Geralt’s considerable force.
Ciri wanted to help, but she was afraid if she moved in, she might end up hurting Zoltan instead. Plus, she was still hoping to keep Geralt from harm and Zoltan’s plan seemed to be a perfect balance between subduing Geralt and minimizing damage. So she remained on the fringe of the tussle, ready to attack if need be.
Ciri could tell Geralt was weakening; his steps faltered and his attempts to remove Zoltan from his back grew less and less vigorous. She was sure Zoltan was about to prevail when Geralt gave one final heave and threw himself onto his back, crushing Zoltan beneath him. The blow stunned Zoltan whose lax arms released Geralt. Still dazed, Geralt came up onto one knee, hauling in rasping breaths to recover the oxygen of which his body had been deprived.
It was the perfect moment to strike. And Ciri came up with a solution that she wished she had thought of sooner.
Sheathing her sword, Ciri ran at Geralt, swinging the covered flat of the blade into his head. He did nothing to try to stop her, paralyzed as he was. His head went careening into the edge of the nearby table and he instantly crumpled to the floor, unconscious.
Zoltan coughed as he raised himself onto one elbow next to Geralt’s prone form. Ciri moved over to Zoltan, offering him a hand that he gratefully accepted. They both stood over Geralt, worry and guilt and sadness brewing between them.
Finally catching his breath, Zoltan spoke, voicing the very thought that was running through Ciri’s head. “That was easier than it should have been.”
“I know,” she answered back sullenly, a little breathless herself. “It’s because it’s not him.”
She had noticed it little by little in their confrontation, the utter lack of substance behind Geralt’s eyes. When Ciri had seen Geralt in that town, there had been an emptiness and a coldness in his eyes, but there had been something more simmering beneath the surface as well—the slightest spark of desperation and life clinging to whatever it could. Now there was nothing. An empty void had stared back at Ciri and it unnerved her to her very core.
Were they too late? Was Geralt gone for good?
“What are we going to do?” Ciri probed.
Zoltan shook his head. “This is beyond any of us. We need someone with more expertise.”
She jerked her head toward him. “You mean—”
“Yes,” Zoltan interrupted. “I have some contacts that can get a message to her. Let’s hope she’ll know what to make of all this.”
Now that they had Geralt safely with them, Ciri felt hope returning, trifling as it may have been. She didn’t know if they could break the spell on him or what would happen if they did. But she wasn’t going to give up on Geralt. He needed their help and she would stop at nothing to free him from his imprisonment. No matter the cost.
Just as they made to find some rope to bind Geralt, heavy steps thudded down the stairs, a disheveled Dandelion rounding the corner, accusing, “What in the blazes is going on down he—” He halted abruptly as he took in the unlikely scene. “Is that Geralt?” he finally asked, a bit slow to catch on.
Ciri and Zoltan couldn’t help but sigh as they exchanged exasperated looks.
Yen arrived by portal a day later, concern flooding her face as she stepped into the Chameleon. The message she had received had been vague and brief, merely conveying the fact that Ciri and Geralt were in danger and needed her help. Yen, of course, had dropped everything and had come as soon as she could. The sight she beheld when she stepped out of the portal took her a little aback.
Geralt was tied up to one of the wooden pillars in the main room of the Chameleon, his hands straddling the pole and bound on the other side of it, his legs trussed similarly. Ciri, Dandelion, and Zoltan were all standing around him while Geralt snapped and snarled at anyone who came too near, like a wild animal caught in a snare.
They swiveled to face Yen at her entrance, Ciri running up to her and throwing her arms around Yen’s neck.
“Yen!” Ciri greeted excitedly.
Yen returned her hug. “Ciri, I’ve missed you,” she replied warmly.
Ciri stepped back, motioning toward Geralt. “Oh Yen, we didn’t know who else to turn to. You have to help him.”
There was a desperation in Ciri’s eyes that broke Yen’s heart and she tried to answer with an encouraging look. Then, stepping past Ciri, Yen greeted Zoltan and Dandelion with a nod of her head as she neared Geralt. Like they had with the others, Geralt’s hackles rose as she came closer. She came to a halt out of his range, scanning him. There was a nasty welt burgeoning on one side of his head, a purpling bruise just peeping out from his hairline. Crusted blood matted the hair on the other side of his head, flattening his hair to his face.
His external wounds were obvious. And it was unmistakably clear that Geralt was not of sound mind. More than that though, Yen could sense something was terribly wrong. It was like she was looking at a stranger, a stranger that happened to look exactly like Geralt. A suspicion rose in Yen’s mind. She doubted it would be that simple, but she had to check.
In the corner, Yen spied Geralt’s swords. She crossed over to them, drawing the silver one.
“What are you doing?” Ciri asked concernedly.
“I have to make sure,” was Yen’s only answer.
Without waiting for anyone’s approval, Yen moved over to Geralt and sliced his arm with the sword. It was a shallow cut, but deep enough to draw blood. Geralt hissed and tried to grab the sword, but couldn’t manage it bound as he was. Satisfied, Yen returned the blade to its sheath.
Zoltan stepped forward, looking a little offended at Yen’s actions. “What was that about?”
“I had to make sure he wasn’t a doppler. And don’t look so concerned, Zoltan. That little scratch is the least of Geralt’s worries.” Her test had done little to settle Yen’s mind. In fact, it would probably have been easier to deal with a doppelganger rather than whatever deep magics coursed through Geralt’s veins. But at least one possibility was off the table. It was a start.
Yen approached the group. Zoltan didn’t budge from his place next to Geralt, seeming not to be pacified by Yen’s answer. Conceding, Yen forced back her pride and turned to him, apologizing, knowing that Zoltan was merely worried for Geralt as she was. “I’m sorry. I meant no offense. But it seemed the simplest answer and we have no time to lose.”
Zoltan held his hands crossed over his chest for a moment before his expression softened and, arms falling concedingly, he resumed his place within the group.
Struggling to keep herself from formulating a million other theories before she had all the facts, Yen eagerly addressed the group at large. “I need to know everything that’s happened before we proceed.”
They spent the next hour filling Yen in on the events of the last month, Dandelion spreading out a feast at the table as they did so. Once they were all sated and the recounting had ended, Yen sat in contemplative silence for a minute.
She was astonished to hear that Geralt’s mind was being controlled. Such a thing was rare among sorcerers, let alone one who was unknown and seemingly untrained. Even more strange was the fact that distance didn’t seem to matter to the degree of control Endir maintained. Most of the time, the further the subject was from the sorcerer, the less control they had. This was obviously not the case. Unless Endir was camped out somewhere outside the house, of course, but Yen dismissed that thought immediately.
Mind control cases were very finicky. Yen had never dealt with one herself, but she had heard reports from her sisters at the Lodge. Very few of them had ended happily. There were only a handful of cases where the subject’s mind was set free by another sorcerer who was able to steal back control. Most of the time, the sorcerer who had set the affliction was the one to reverse it, either because they had accomplished their goal and no longer needed to control the other’s mind, or, in more extreme cases, through coercion. Sometimes though, whoever was trying to set the subject free took the coercion too far, or didn’t know the consequences of what they were doing, and killed the sorcerer who was controlling their loved one. In those cases, reports were varied on the outcome. Many of the subjects went mad, some returned back to their normal selves, but there were a few that died the instant the sorcerer did.
They had to proceed with caution.
Yen explained all of this to her companions. Ciri in particular seemed shocked and horrified to hear what could become of Geralt, each emotion legible on her face as it passed.
Though she hadn’t said a word while Yen had talked, Ciri could no longer hold her silence. “What are we going to do then?”
“I’m going to try to set him free using my own sorcery. Based on the amount of control Endir exhibits over Geralt, it seems doubtful that it will work, but it’s worth a try all the same.”
Worry crept into Ciri’s eyes. “Is that safe?”
“I can’t say, to be frank. If I succeed, there’s no telling what will happen to Geralt. But I don’t think we have any other option right now short of Endir releasing Geralt himself. From what you tell me of him and his cult, that seems extremely unlikely.” Yen swung her leg over the back of the bench and stood, beckoning to the others. “We may as well get started.”
Geralt, who had gone quiet while no one had been near, redoubled his efforts to break free at Yen’s approach. His wrists were already raw and bruises were forming where his arms met the post. The sight was sobering to Yen, to see Geralt in such a low place. She would do all she could to restore him to his former self.
Kneeling down in front of Geralt, Yen reached out toward him, weaving a spell as she did so. The others gathered behind her, already waiting with bated breath. Focusing solely on her task, Yen closed her eyes as her spell took effect and her mind ventured forth into Geralt’s, leaving all sights and sounds of the Chameleon behind her.
As soon as she made contact, Yen’s breath was stolen from her at the vast emptiness that stretched on in front of her. Geralt’s mind was utterly vacant. It engulfed Yen in its scale and the further she went, the greater her sense of foreboding grew. Yen could sense no trace of Geralt’s consciousness. She called out to him, but the sound was swallowed up before it could escape her lips. Deeper and deeper she burrowed, yet she seemed to make no progress whatsoever. The all-pervading blackness was impenetrable. Worse still was that it seemed to be drawing her in, like it were an endless chasm into which anything that entered its vicinity fell.
Fear gripped Yen abruptly. She felt like she were losing herself, like she had indeed tumbled over the edge of the chasm and would fall forever into the depths of Geralt’s mind.
She needed to leave.
Yen made to extricate herself from the darkness, but it was as if there were a force holding her in place. She could only move forward, not back. Like an animal that finally realizes it has run into a trap, Yen thrashed against the barrier preventing her escape. Violently she struggled, making very little headway for all her vehemence. Then, faintly, she could hear voices in the distance. She headed toward them and started to make some progress, as though she had merely needed to be shown the way back. Agonizingly slowly, Yen retreated from the void, the voices growing ever louder. The blackness somehow grew thinner and thinner, until, suddenly, it dissipated altogether and Yen came back to reality.
She was free, and back inside her own body, falling back onto the floor with a thud.
The others swarmed around her, Ciri kneeling on one side and Zoltan on the other, Dandelion hovering fretfully over them. Geralt was leaned up against the pillar, unconscious, but looking no worse for wear. It took a moment for Yen to come back to herself, the world around her hazy. When she did, she realized there was blood streaming from her nose and Zoltan was shaking her slightly by the shoulder, calling to her as he leaned over her.
“Yen! Yen, look at us. Yen!”
All of a sudden, everything was clear again and Zoltan’s voice rang in Yen’s ears. Her head was pounding and his yelling was deafening for it. She cringed at the booming sound. “I’m fine,” she lied, pushing herself into a sitting position, leaning back on her arms.
Ciri was distraught. “Yen, what happened? You were in there for hours!”
Hours? Had she really been in there that long? It had only seemed like minutes. But Yen checked the now blackened windows and they confirmed Ciri’s assertion. It had been midday when Yen had started and it was obviously dark now.
Since Yen didn’t answer her right away, Ciri spoke up again. “Yen, are you alright?”
Yen gave her a wan smile. “I’m fine, really. Or, at least, I am now.” Truly, her headache was starting to recede and the blood had stopped pouring from her nose.
Zoltan and Ciri still seemed skeptical at her claim. Dandelion merely handed her a handkerchief to clean the blood off her face. Yen politely thanked him, then pushed herself to her feet and plopped herself down on a chair nearby. She proceeded to explain what had happened inside Geralt’s mind.
More than she was willing to admit, the experience had unnerved Yen. Who was this Endir? He was clearly a very powerful sorcerer and not one to be trifled with. But where had he come from? It wasn’t unheard of for there to be unknown sorcerers out in the world, but it just seemed strange for one so powerful to spring up in such a way. And the fact that he was leading a cult made him all the more dangerous. Suddenly Yen’s thoughts turned to Ciri and the threat this cult posed to her. A threat that Yen understood all too well now.
It was Ciri herself who called Yen’s attention back to the present. “Are you saying there’s nothing left of Geralt? Can he really be gone?” The last question came out as little more than a whisper.
Snapping out of her reverie, Yen shook her head confidently, clarifying, “No. No, he’s not gone. A soul cannot be destroyed, that is indisputable. When we die, it is transferred from one plane to the next, but it is not destroyed. And the body could not live on without it. Even with necromancy, the body would decay, so Geralt has to still be in there somewhere.”
Ciri remained concerned and confused. “But you said you couldn’t sense him in there.”
“No, I couldn’t. But that doesn’t mean he’s not in there. I think he’s just been so far repressed that he is beyond conventional reach.” Yen hated telling Ciri this, but she needed to hear it all the same, she deserved an explanation. Still, the hopelessness in Ciri’s face was hard to bear. She was clearly scrambling for some kind of answer, becoming more and more agitated as the conversation drew on.
“What are you saying? I mean, there has to be some way we can reach him!”
Yen spoke softly and calmly for Ciri’s sake. “We’re not giving up on him, Ciri. I’m merely stating that I could not reach him directly. But magic provides many avenues to achieving the same goal. We just have to keep trying.” Yen flashed Ciri a sincere smile. “I know you want him back as soon as possible. We all do. But these things take time. The important thing is that you and Geralt are both safe now.” Standing, Yen addressed the group as a whole. “I need to rest. We’ll carry on tomorrow.”
With a final glance at Ciri, Yen followed Dandelion, who showed her to her room. Yen thanked and dismissed him, settling herself into the bed, but finding it hard shut down her mind regardless of her weariness.
Despite her assurances to Ciri, Yen didn’t think their chances of extracting Geralt were very high. She would try all the same, but Yen found it hard to get her hopes up when the odds were stacked so high against them. And succeeding was just as frightening a prospect as failing. Would Geralt come out the same man? There was just no way to know.
But one thing was for certain. No matter what happened with Geralt, Yen was going to hunt down this Endir and kill him. Not only for Geralt’s sake, but for Ciri’s.
No one threatened her family.
There was nothing but emptiness, darkness, and silence. Geralt perceived nothing, not even himself. Time didn’t exist where he was, nothing did. There was no pain or peace. No happiness or despair. Geralt didn’t fight it. There was nothing to fight for, nothing to fight with. He couldn’t even have conceived of the concept anyway. He was pure instinct, but without any context into which it could apply.
Then, out of the blackness came something, a disturbance to the normal flow of nothingness. Geralt’s consciousness gave a flicker of notice, but it disappeared just as soon as it had materialized, and Geralt went back to his persistent state of nonbeing.
The next few days were hard on Ciri. She was constantly worrying about Yen and Geralt, all the while unsure whether what they were doing would work. Yen tried tirelessly to free Geralt from Endir’s control, but nothing she did made an ounce of difference. Though Yen never fared as badly as she had the first time, the process still took its toll. Ciri was afraid that Yen would end up just as bad as Geralt if she weren’t careful. There was no telling what could trigger another assault on Yen’s mind. And the more they tried, the more likely it became that something bad would happen.
As much as Yen was endangering herself, Geralt was undeniably taking the brunt of the abuse. His bouts of unconsciousness after Yen’s sorcery were lasting longer and longer. He seemed gaunt and drawn, though he would eat and drink when they fed him, and he would do nothing but stare mindlessly into the corner, even if they were near. Ciri never thought she would miss Geralt trying to snap at them, but watching him devolve into a husk made her wish he at least had some spirit left in him.
Their attempts to free him were only making things worse.
Dandelion had had to close down the Chameleon, telling the few customers that sought entry that they were remodeling and would be closed until further notice. To be fair, Geralt’s wrestling match with Zoltan had left a few holes in the walls and more than one broken furnishing. The curtains were kept drawn and the front door securely barred. If any of them had to leave, they used the back exit. Geralt had to remain a secret.
As it was, no one knew about Geralt save for the four of them and Priscilla to whom Dandelion told everything, though she was smart enough to keep her silence. It wouldn’t do for anyone to find out they were holding a prisoner in the main room of the Chameleon. It would be extremely bad for business, not to mention what the Guard might do. Ciri wasn’t worried about getting into trouble, she was worried that the Captain might come and take Geralt to try to get information out of him. But Geralt had never said a word. She didn’t think he could speak. So there was no point in putting Geralt through such torment in an attempt to get information he could never share. Not that Ciri would have let them torture Geralt even if he did have information.
Although, she was starting to feel that they were treating Geralt no better than the Guard would have.
It was three days later when Ciri felt she needed to put an end to their trials. Yen had just finished another failed attempt on Geralt’s mind that had left him unconscious. Only this time there was a thin trickle of blood coming from his nose. He was definitely getting worse.
When Yen seated herself at the table to get a drink of water, Ciri spoke up. “We have to stop this. Nothing is working and Geralt is getting worse and worse by the hour.”
Zoltan and Dandelion sat morosely across from Yen, eyes downcast. They looked up at Ciri’s remark, but said nothing.
Yen set down her glass. “We can’t give up, not yet. There are still more spells that are worth a shot.”
There was turmoil roiling within Ciri, forcing tears into her eyes. Obstinately, she fought them down. “Yen, I want Geralt back desperately. But not like this.” She motioned toward Geralt. “Look at him. Whatever you’re doing, he can’t take it. We’re going to kill him at this rate.”
All eyes focused on Geralt, Yen’s especially. A forlorn look crept into her gaze, a longing for something that was and may never be again. With a deep sigh it was gone, and Yen seemed to steel herself against her own vulnerability. “You’re right, Ciri. I think my magic may be too much for him in his current state. I guess I just didn’t want to believe that I was causing such harm.” Yen’s eyes found Ciri again. “But I don’t think we can give up trying. We’ll give him a few days’ rest. That should give him enough time to recuperate before we try again. We don’t have any other choice. If this doesn’t work, I wouldn’t know what to do next. There’s just nothing else we can do at the moment.”
“Actually, I think there is,” Ciri rejoined defiantly.
Zoltan perked up and growled at her statement. “Ciri, that’s not going to happen.”
Ciri threw up her hands. “We don’t have any other option here.”
A confused look glazed Yen’s face as she swiveled her head between Zoltan and Ciri. “What are you two talking about?”
Zoltan piped up before Ciri could answer. “She wants to put herself in danger to draw Geralt out.”
“It’s the only thing that’s ever worked,” Ciri quickly added, confident in her conclusion. “He was going to hurt me, but he stopped himself.”
The bench scooted back over the wooden floor with a squeaking drawl as Zoltan stood abruptly, becoming incensed. The sudden action nearly unseated Dandelion who had been sharing the seat. “Are you forgetting that he did hurt you?”
Ciri dismissed Zoltan’s comment. “It was a scratch. He barely touched me.”
“And what if that little scratch had hit an artery? What if he can’t control himself next time? You said it yourself that he had changed for the worse. This is much too big of a gamble and I won’t stand by and let you do it!”
Ciri had never seen Zoltan in such a state. She knew he was just worried about her, but she could make her own decisions and right now, this could be their best chance at reaching Geralt. “Nothing’s going to happen. Even if he can’t control himself, you’ll all be right here. Geralt—”
“Enough!” Yen’s voice boomed over their argument.
Shocked into silence, Ciri swallowed what she was going to say.
“Ciri, putting you in danger is out of the question.”
Violet eyes bored into Ciri, brooking no argument. “This is not a discussion. You’re smarter than this, Ciri. This kind of risk is foolish.”
Fuming a bit, Ciri was lost for words.
Yen continued on in a softer tone that soothed Ciri’s ire. “We’ll try again in a few days.”
Ciri took a breath to speak, but Yen held up her hand.
“If that doesn’t work, then maybe we will discuss other options.” Yen met all of their gazes. “But putting any one of us in danger has to be our absolute last resort,” Yen added pointedly, eyes completing their circuit around the room and settling once again on Ciri.
“Fine,” Ciri acquiesced, defeated. It wasn’t the outcome Ciri had wanted, but at least Yen hadn’t necessarily put the option off the table completely in the end. Ciri would go along with Yen’s plan for now. But, based on past results, Ciri didn’t hold out much hope that it would work.
A few days passed and Geralt had indeed recovered a bit. Some color had bloomed in his cheeks and he started watching them with wary eyes, though he still hadn’t regained the strength to put up a struggle. Since he was no longer unconscious at the end of the day, Ciri would steal downstairs after everyone else had gone to bed to speak with him. Or, at least, speak to him. She would tell him how much she missed him and how she wished he would come back. The conversation always seemed to steer toward some shared memory between them—of the first time he had brought her to Kaer Morhen, of how he had taught her swordplay and horse riding, of quiet nights sitting by the fire, staring at the stars. She would laugh and cry as the memories stirred emotions within her. But Geralt remained impassive as always, simply staring at her with a stranger’s eyes. When she could no longer bear the uneasy silence, Ciri would leave, wishing Geralt a good night and padding back up the stairs, his eyes following her all the way.
Three days after the argument, Yen tried once more using her sorcery to free Geralt. As Ciri had expected, it accomplished nothing and what color Geralt had gained had immediately drained from his face as he was left unconscious yet again.
Ciri began to seriously worry for Geralt’s health. A concern that the others didn’t seem to share. She didn’t think they were completely apathetic, but they didn’t seem to think that Geralt was deteriorating as rapidly as Ciri knew he was. She had to do something, no matter what the others thought.
In fact, she had been thinking more and more on her plan over the past few days and was convinced that it was the right thing to do. Geralt wouldn’t hurt her, she was sure of it. The only thought giving her pause was that she didn’t know how far things would have to go for Geralt to break free. But that didn’t matter now. Time was ticking away for Geralt.
Ciri had to act.
That night, Ciri waited until past midnight, when she was sure everyone else was asleep. Still dressed in her day clothes, Ciri snuck downstairs, the very knife that Geralt had given her to escape Endir’s camp so long ago held firmly in her hand. As usual, Geralt studied her approach.
Coming closer than she ever had before, Ciri knelt down in front of Geralt. “I know you’re still in there, Geralt. I don’t want to see you hurt anymore and I think this could work.”
Geralt made no move toward her, his face remaining expressionless, though his eyes never left hers.
Conveying a meaningful glance, Ciri said, “I know you won’t hurt me. This is the only way.”
Rather than waiting for a reply she knew would never come, Ciri bent down and started cutting the bonds that held Geralt, sawing through the rope that bound his feet and then moving up to his hands. He was utterly still while she worked, his fingers didn’t so much as twitch.
Her heart soared at the realization. He would have made a move by now if he was going to, she thought.
There was only one cord of rope left around his raw and oozing wrists. She was nearly there.
But just as the knife reached the last twine, Geralt snapped through it, rising up and grabbing her by the throat with a snarl and pivoting them around to shove her into the very post that had been his prison. Ciri was shocked by the suddenness of his attack, but not by the fact that he had attacked. After all, that was kind of what she had been hoping for. She dropped the knife, clutching at his wrist and forearm instead, her instincts compelling her to fight back.
She tried to gasp out his name, but he was crushing her windpipe. As her brain became more and more deprived of oxygen, her will to survive reared up and panic coursed through her. She fought back in earnest now, her need to breathe overcoming her willingness to put herself in harm’s way to save Geralt. But even in his weakened state, Geralt easily overpowered her.
Everything in Ciri’s mind was going fuzzy. She couldn’t think and she was losing control of her limbs. The edges of her vision closed in. The last thing Ciri saw was an emotionless Geralt bearing down on her, like she meant nothing to him, like she deserved no more consideration than a pig at the slaughter.
But there was no time for regret or hurt or sadness. Ciri didn’t even think of herself or what she supposed would soon be her death. Morbidly, her only thought was that she hoped Geralt never found out he had killed her.
Then everything went dark.
Something was wrong. Yen couldn’t put her finger on it, but she knew something was wrong. She had woken with a start, her heart racing. She sat up, scanning the room for intruders. Finding none, she sprung out of bed and flew down the stairs, a nagging fear drawing her toward Geralt. When she turned the bottom corner, her heart stopped.
Geralt was gone.
Yen raced up to Ciri’s room, heart in her throat knowing what she would find, calling out Ciri’s name frantically as she went. She could hear Zoltan and Dandelion stirring behind their doors as she stormed past, but she didn’t stop to explain. Once she reached the top floor, Yen’s worst fears were confirmed. Ciri was gone as well.
Geralt had taken her.
By the time Yen made it back downstairs, Zoltan and Dandelion had gathered there as well, looking just as distraught as Yen herself. Normally unshakeable, Yen found herself infinitely flustered by what had transpired. All she could manage to say was, “He’s taken her! He’s escaped and he’s taken her!”
Zoltan held up the length of rope that had bound Geralt. “He didn’t escape,” he stated miserably, pointing out the neatly cut ends of the rope and the knife laying nearby.
Managing to pull herself together, Yen took the rope from Zoltan, musing, “Ciri, what have you done?” But now was not the time for accusations and chastisements. They had to act, and quickly.
“He’s taken his armor and weapons,” Zoltan observed as he roamed around the room.
“And Roach,” Dandelion called, just having stepped in from the back door. For once showing some initiative, he must have gone out back to check the horses while they had searched inside.
Overcoming her momentary panic, Yen snapped back into her usual, calculated self. “Then he’s got a lead on us. But there’s one thing that’s in our favor.” Zoltan and Dandelion both looked at her, questioning. “He’s going to lead us straight back to their camp, straight back to Endir. And we are going to wipe them out.” She turned to Zoltan. “Gather the Guard, you need to leave within the hour, even if you can’t gather their full forces. We can’t afford to tarry.”
“Where are you going?” Zoltan asked, already gathering supplies.
“I’m going to follow Geralt’s tracks, make sure we don’t lose him. When I find the camp, I’ll teleport back to you and lead you in. Just keep heading east until I do. We know they have to be camped somewhere deep in the mountains. Here,” she said, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a small token. She whispered an enchantment over it and handed it to Zoltan. “Keep this with you. It’ll allow me to locate you once I’ve found the camp.”
Zoltan nodded and pocketed the token himself. He looked back up to Yen. “They have to be an hour ahead of us at least. What if the trail is already lost?”
Yen flashed him a sly smile. “I’m a sorceress, Zoltan. They won’t lose me.”
It was the incessant bouncing that woke Ciri. The world was blinding around her and she squinted her eyes against it. When her pupils finally adjusted, she realized that she was encompassed by snow and trees, seated astride Roach, directly in front of Geralt. His arms were wrapped around her so that he could hold onto the reins. She could feel his warm breath down her neck. Her hands were tied securely to the saddle horn, though her feet were dangling freely to either side of Roach. She thought briefly of attempting an escape, but even if she managed to unseat Geralt, she wouldn’t be able to reach the reins to steer. She would just have to bide her time.
The wind bit uncomfortably at Ciri’s face, but she was warm leaning up against Geralt and, she realized, she had her fur coat on. Geralt must have garbed her in it before they left. It was strange that he would do such a thing. Ciri wanted to believe it was because he held out some lingering regard for her wellbeing. More likely, though, it was because Endir wanted her alive and it wouldn’t do if she froze to death on the way there.
Although, now that she thought about it, why had Geralt taken Roach if not for some residual familiarity? Roach was a fine steed, but Pegasus was more muscular and taller by a hand; he was much more suited for carrying two. Even one not well-versed in horses could have seen that. Ciri couldn’t work out any reason why Geralt would have taken Roach other than the obvious—that deep down, Geralt knew Roach, and took him instinctually. Ciri’s stomach fluttered at the implication.
There was still hope for Geralt. She had to keep fighting for him.
They rode ceaselessly, Geralt alternating between a ground-covering trot and a sedate walk when Roach would tire. They were heading somewhere high up into the mountains, presumably to Endir’s camp. Geralt would deliver Ciri to Endir and Endir would sacrifice her because he believed her death would stop the White Frost. She should have been afraid at the prospect, but somehow she felt safe next to Geralt, even though he was the one spiriting her to her doom. She supposed she might have felt differently if she could have seen his face, his empty eyes.
If only somehow she could reach him.
She tried talking to him, pleading, threatening, enlightening, anything she could do to get his attention. But if he heard her, he showed no sign of it. And soon her parched throat prevented her from making any more entreaties. It had already been a little sore from Geralt’s assault and the bitter air only made it worse.
Now in utter silence, they rode on through the night and late into the next day, Ciri dozing in the saddle. Ciri guessed it to be midafternoon when they finally trotted up to a large camp, the sounds and smells of it presaging their arrival.
The sheer size of the camp stole Ciri’s breath away. It was beyond anything she would have imagined. And for the first time since she had awoken, fear settled into her stomach, as if only now that she was here was the threat to her life real.
Alert to all around her, Ciri took in everything she could, memorizing as much of the camp as possible in case she came across an opportunity to escape. All eyes turned toward them as they made their way up the slope toward the back of the camp. Ciri could hear whispers shadowing their passage, some excited, some disbelieving. It took everything she had to keep her nerve. She was deep in the heart of enemy territory now, even more so than when she had been captured the first time. And every step they took led her closer and closer to certain death.
By the time they reached the top of the rock outcropping, a sizeable crowd had gathered behind them, still murmuring amongst themselves. A group of men stood outside the largest tent before them, talking amiably between them. Upon further inspection, Ciri realized that she recognized the one with his back turned. It was the man with the mangled ears, the man that had captured her and started all of this. Fury erupted inside Ciri, her face burning with it. If she had had a sword, she would have run over and cut his head from his body, damn the consequences. As it was, all she could do was curl her lip in unbridled hatred, promising that she would see him pay for what he had done.
As they neared, one of the other men tapped the disfigured man on the shoulder, a look full of amazement staring back at them. “Lund,” that man said, looking past the disfigured man demonstratively.
Lund turned mid-sentence, any cheer at his conversation paling from his face as he beheld Geralt and Ciri. As Geralt halted Roach before him, Lund simply stood there, seemingly at a loss for what to make of them. Then, just as Lund made to speak, another man stepped from the tent.
Ciri was aghast at his figure, he seemed to be death embodied. But when he spoke, there was such vigor and tenacity in his voice that it warred with his terrifying image. This had to be Endir. A bearing like that is either borne of power or commands it.
“Geralt?” he asked incredulously, striding up to them. Lund walked up and planted himself next to Endir, visibly less excited than Endir was. “I thought you would not return.”
Was that concern in his voice? How could this be Endir? She had conjured up an image of such a powerful and evil mage that she couldn’t reconcile her fantasy with the reality before her. Why would one of his position greet his thrall so warmly? Ciri didn’t know what to make of it.
Geralt, of course, made no reply. He silently dismounted and turned back to untie Ciri from the saddle. Again she thought about making a move, but every eye in the camp was focused on her right now. There was no point in putting them on edge when she had little chance to escape. Patience was not a virtue she excelled at, but she kept herself in check for the time being.
Lund however, took a half step in front of Endir, grasping the hilt of the sword at his hip. “Be careful with her, Endir. She’s trouble, this one.”
Though she had no intention of doing anything, Ciri cast a cheeky smirk in Lund’s direction, holding her head a bit higher as she slid from the saddle and was led toward Endir, Geralt’s hand firmly on her shoulder.
Lund snarled at her insolence, but did not retaliate.
Endir, paying no attention to the exchange, looked at Ciri like she were a long lost treasure, his eyes gleaming with triumph. “You have done well,” he directed at Geralt. “Thanks to you, the time of the White Frost is so nearly at an end.” Then Endir’s attention drifted upwards. He sniffed the air experimentally, like a dog catching a scent.
Ciri eyed him suspiciously, not really knowing what to make of his actions.
His eyes returned to the both of them. “A storm is coming.” Endir’s gaze wandered upward once more. “She’s been holding her breath just as we have, waiting to see if our plan would hold true. And now that it has been set in motion, the White Frost seeks to put a stop to our undertaking. But we will throttle her at the height of her fury.” A manic grin stretched across his face as his eyes bored directly into Ciri’s. She found his gaze unsettling, but refused to look away. Eventually, he turned his gaze and cast it on the others nearby. “The beginning of the end is close at hand. In a few hours, we will perform the final sacrifice. In a few hours, we will finally be free of this curse.”
After a moment of silence, Endir addressed Geralt once more, his voice on the edge of emotion. “Thank you again, my friend. You know not what a service you have done.”
Then Endir dismissed them with a nod of his head and Ciri was being whisked away to one of the smaller tents adjoining the larger one, Lund leading the way and Geralt guiding her from behind.
Her heart was pounding. What was she going to do now? She had no idea. But at least she had a few hours to come up with some sort of plan. Though she couldn’t think of any means of escape. Even if she broke Geralt free of his enslavement, then what? The two of them couldn’t defeat Endir’s full forces. It would take a small army.
She wished that she were alone with Geralt. He would know what to do. He somehow always did. Assuming she could spring him from his prison, that is.
Unfortunately, Lund had led them into the tent and immediately stationed himself at the entrance, eyes constantly roving from Geralt to Ciri. It seemed an odd behavior. Was he wary of Geralt? It was possible he knew that Geralt had snapped Endir’s control once before. He might be worried that Ciri would manage to free Geralt again. Not that it mattered much now. With Lund’s ever-present vigil, there was no chance of Ciri getting through to Geralt, not that there was much hope to begin with.
She sought again and again to surreptitiously catch Geralt’s eye, to glean some bearing as to his state of mind, Lund’s presence preventing her from making any more obvious of an approach. Despite Ciri’s attempts, Geralt’s eyes never moved. His demeanor never tempered. He sat indefatigably, stiff as a board, an empty hull, awaiting an order from his captors.
As the hours fell away and the storm blew ever closer, the gravity of the situation finally descended over Ciri, crushing her beneath its mammoth weight.
In a last-ditch effort, Ciri leaned forward toward Geralt, Lund’s scrutiny warily tracking her. She paid no attention to Lund, instead focusing on the one she had always called father. “Geralt,” she tested, her voice soft, forlorn.
“Quiet!” Lund snapped, hand shooting to his sword.
Geralt made no response, didn’t even look at her, didn’t even acknowledge her existence. His listless gaze kept itself rooted to the corner of the tent.
He was beyond her reach.
Ciri slunk back, crestfallen.
Doubt skulked into her mind, towing despair along behind it. She may have made a mistake in setting Geralt free. It was like every decision she made turned to ash before her very eyes. She didn’t know what to do anymore. She couldn’t escape. She couldn’t save Geralt. She couldn’t even kill Endir and at least put a stop to him. Hopelessness crept up on Ciri in that tiny, chilled tent. And, for once, she embraced it.
She deserved every bit of this.
At least once she was dead Endir would have no reason to hurt anyone else. It was little consolation, but it was all she had.
“This way, Zoltan, we must hurry,” Yen bade as she stepped through a portal.
A battalion of Guardsmen greeted her deep in the forest, Zoltan and their Captain at the head of the company. By her cursory count, Yen thought there to be nearly a hundred men in total.
“Is this everyone?” she asked as she cast her gaze over the group.
Zoltan looked apologetic. “This was all we could muster in an hour. And half of them came from the towns we passed along the way. Most of the Guard had been posted to the surrounding villages, awaiting any attacks. There was no way to recall them in time.”
“Well, it will have to do,” Yen stated brusquely. They were going to have a hard fight ahead of them. She had hoped they would be able to summon more men. As it was, they would be outnumbered nearly three to one if her estimation of the number of cultists at the camp was correct. Either way, they couldn’t have afforded to spend more time gathering men. “We don’t have much time. Ciri is safe for now, but I can’t say how long that will last. They seem to be waiting for something. What that is, I don’t know, so it’s anyone’s guess when they will decide to act.”
There was fire and steel in Zoltan’s eyes. “Don’t worry, Yen, we’ll get there in time.”
Yen nodded. “I’m going back to make sure they don’t make a move on Ciri. I’ll come back to you if I sense you heading in the wrong direction.”
Yen was fidgety and on edge, feeling like every moment she spent with Ciri out of her sight was the moment they would choose to strike her down. She didn’t even wait for Zoltan’s answer, rather she turned on her heel and strode back through her portal.
Nearly four hours after they had arrived, the snows had begun to fall, cascading down around Ciri and Geralt as they emerged from the tent, Lund following closely behind. Endir met them at the edge of the outcropping, Geralt guiding Ciri toward the edge near the elm tree. Once there, they turned back to face Endir, Geralt with a hand clutched around Ciri’s arm, holding her in place, Lund stopping to stand a pace behind Endir to his left, a handful of men scattered further beyond. From his position, Endir would have a full view of the camp and of his men gathered below. The energy emanating from him was eager and exultant, a conquering ruler lording over his prize.
This was it. There was definitely no turning back now. Not that Ciri cared at this point. She had made her own decisions and they had only ever caused pain. She had doomed Geralt to a life of imprisonment. Why should she walk away unscathed? Her death was all that she deserved. And even that was a mercy compared to what she had brought upon Geralt.
Although maybe there was a way to save him.
Endir cut into her musings, joining Geralt and Ciri on the edge of the precipice and addressing the crowd below. He spoke intimately, his voice carrying on the wind toward them. “My brothers, we have done it at last. We have found the one who can end our sorrows and the sorrows of so many others. This girl,” he announced, pointing a pale stump in her direction, “she is the one prophesied to put an end to the White Frost. I always had faith that I would see this prophecy come to fruition. But I could never have known we would see that day come so soon. The gods have blessed us and our cause.” Endir paused a moment. In his hesitation, he studied Ciri and she withered under his gaze, resigned to her fate. Then the moment passed and he turned his attention back to the eagerly awaiting crowd, his intensity escalating. “Let us not waste their favor.” His voice was building amidst the storm that seemed to answer back in kind, the snow beginning to eddy around them on the crescendoing breeze. “Let us give one, final sacrifice. Let us end this great evil once and for all!”
Great cheers erupted below and echoed in Endir’s eyes. Even Lund, normally impassive, seemed sobered by the thought of their hard-won victory so close at hand. Geralt, as ever, showed no emotion and Ciri’s heart couldn’t help but leap out to him.
It was in that moment that Ciri realized something. She may not be able to make it out of this alive, but Geralt might yet. He, at least, didn’t deserve to pay for her folly. She would ask Endir to set Geralt free, beg him if she had to. What did she have to lose? Maybe she would get lucky. Maybe Endir would grant her a final wish. Whatever happened, she had to try. For Geralt’s sake.
After the tumult died down, Endir made his way back over to stand in front of Ciri. She didn’t wait for him to speak, instead launching into her own appeal.
“Please, please let Geralt go. You have me. You have what you want. Free him,” she begged, exigency steadying her.
Endir listened thoughtfully to her plea, then broke into a sad smile. “I’m sorry, dear girl. I can’t do that.”
She supposed she hadn’t really expected him to comply, but his response still sparked a tinge of rage within her. “Why the hell not?!” she spat at him. Her fate was sealed, so there was no reason for her to hold back. “You claim to do this for the good of everyone. Well, look around you!” She gestured to all that had gathered around them, motioning as best she could with her hands bound together. “Who does this benefit? Who comes out ahead?” Her lip curled. “It seems to me, it’s just you.”
The modest chuckle that rose from Endir’s throat doused the flame building inside Ciri. “You’re right,” he said. “I admit my part in this venture was brought on by selfish motivations. But I do not discredit the benefits of what I have achieved with it either. What we have done, dreadful though it may seem, has saved lives. And what we will do here today will save countless more.”
“You still haven’t answered my question,” Ciri shot back a little more evenly this time. “Once you’ve done what you set out to do, once you’ve ended the White Frost, why can’t Geralt go free? You have no need of him after today.”
The corners of Endir’s mouth tugged upwards, a sparkle twinkling in his eyes. “If you had said that to me yesterday, I would have agreed. But your arrival has changed much.” He dropped his gaze, pulling in an elongated breath. “I’ve been thinking, these past few hours, about what I would do next. I’ve been so focused on this exact point in time that I could never see beyond it, never imagined what could follow. But then it hit me. Who am I to use my power and ability on my problems alone? I have cured one evil in this world, yes, but there are innumerable other injustices still plaguing this land. I can’t stand by and watch while so many struggle.” His eyes brightened as they returned to Ciri’s. “I will work tirelessly to right these wrongs, to end them all. But I cannot do it alone. And so, when you say I will have no need of Geralt, you are mistaken. He will no doubt be instrumental to my plans going forward. He has already more than shown his worth.” Endir’s face softened a bit. “I truly am sorry. But his freedom is one wish I cannot grant.”
There was rage and sadness and guilt welling up inside Ciri at Endir’s words. But, mostly, she just felt defeated. Endir let her brood for a moment before speaking again.
“Don’t worry,” he went on with a sincere look on his face. “I’ll make sure—”
Ciri was jolted out of her self-pity by Lund’s sudden outcry. He stepped up next to Endir, pointing down the mountainside, his other hand straying automatically to his sword. Ciri turned to look where Lund was pointing while Endir took a few steps forward to peer over the edge.
“No,” he breathed in disbelief.
A massive host was pouring from the tree line near the base of the camp. Ciri could just make them out through the bountiful snow. It was the Guard judging by their colors. And there, up front, was Yen and Zoltan next to the Captain.
Ciri couldn’t believe it. She hadn’t even considered the idea that her friends would show up with the Guard to oppose Endir. Though now that they were here, she wondered why she had had so little faith. Of course Yen and Zoltan would come after her and Geralt. They hadn’t given up on her. They never would.
Now she couldn’t give up on herself.
Endir was furious as the Guardsmen amassed outside the camp, the Captain’s voice booming up to them from lungs well-practiced in giving orders over the din of a battlefield.
“Endir!” he called. “Lay down your weapons. Surrender, and you will live to face justice in Novigrad.”
A growl escaped Endir’s lips. “You don’t know what you’re doing!” he called back vehemently. “Stop me now and you doom the world to an endless frost. It will destroy everyone and everything it touches. Is that worth one girl’s life?”
The Captain paid no heed to Endir’s words. “This is your last chance.”
“Enough!” Endir now addressed his men, who were waiting expectantly below. “Attack!” he bellowed. “We cannot let them stop us.”
The cultists raised up their weapons and pivoted on the spot, charging back down the hill with ferocious cries. The Guardsmen sprung into action in response. They were lucky. Most of Endir’s forces had gathered to see Ciri sacrificed, only a handful remaining at their posts near the entrance, so lost were they in their enthusiasm at the prospect of ending the White Frost. The few at the entrance to the camp were swiftly overcome and the Guardsmen streamed around the front barricade, flooding into the camp to meet the cultists head-on, the battle quickly devolving into a myriad of smaller skirmishes. Neither side could maintain a formation in the labyrinth of tents.
In a blink, Endir conjured up a shield around himself and Lund, Lund drawing his sword at the same time. Ciri and Geralt were left outside of the glowing orb since they were now several feet away from the pair. Geralt drew his sword just as Ciri heard the twang of bowstrings snapping below. Throwing herself to the ground, Ciri turned her head and watched in horror as Geralt placed himself in front of Endir despite the shield, a thrall unthinkingly protecting his master.
Ciri thought he would surely be skewered and it would all be for nothing. Endir’s shield was protection enough. To her relief, only two arrows even came their way and Geralt deftly deflected them both, one rebounding dangerously close to Ciri. She waited for the next volley, but none came. Curious, she crawled to the edge of the rock and peered down at the battle raging below.
Many had fallen already, Guardsmen and cultists alike, the snow melting into a red slush as more and more warm blood splashed upon it. Some were felled by arrows and Ciri guessed that most of the archers had preferred to aim for closer targets than Endir, especially in the unpredictable winds that were blowing. After that, the archers had had to abandon their bows and pull out their secondary weapons as they closed quarters with the encroaching cultists.
Ciri searched, but couldn’t find Zoltan amidst the fray, though she spotted Yen making her way up onto one of the scaffolded boulders that served as lookouts. Ciri also noticed that the ground directly beneath her was clear of combatants, the battle raging a little ways from the outcropping. She could clamber down there and be free of Endir, or at least have a fighting chance.
A stolen glance to the side informed Ciri that Endir, Lund, and Geralt were still distracted by the battle.
It was time to move. Before they could stop her.
Taking hold of one of the thicker tree roots sprouting from the outcropping, Ciri swung herself over the edge and rappelled down the sheer rock face. All was going well until the root thinned and ended abruptly. Ciri scrambled to grab onto another one, but her bindings severely limited the mobility she had with her arms and she fell the remaining seven or eight feet to the ground, landing with a thud and doing her best to tuck into a roll to spare her legs the full impact.
She mostly succeeded, though her unceremonious dismount had garnered the attention of a cultist nearby. He turned from the man he had just slain and rushed her, sword poised to cleave down on her. As Ciri rose from her roll, she grabbed a fist-sized rock in her bound hands. Nimbly sidestepping the cultist’s overhead swing, Ciri slammed the rock down onto his hands, forcing the sword from his grasp. Using his downward momentum against him, Ciri then swung the rock from his hands back into his face, crunching through his nose and sending him staggering backward, clutching at his face. The man struggled to recover as tears unwittingly blinded him and blood gushed down his face. Ciri used that time to cut herself free, sawing through her bindings by holding the man’s dropped sword upright along the ground with her feet. Before he could fully recover, Ciri scooped up the sword and sliced horizontally across his shoulders, severing both hands along with his head.
It was then that she heard the first indication that Endir had noticed her absence. An enraged bellow sounded from above and she glanced up to see Geralt staring down at her. His face was only there for a second before he pulled back from the edge.
Scanning her surroundings, wondering what she was going to do next, Ciri thought she glimpsed Zoltan down a few rows of tents to her left. If she could regroup with him, then she would stand a better shot at making it through this, they both would. So she made her way over, away from the outcropping, weaving her way through the tents until she came to where she had thought she saw Zoltan. But there was no one there, Zoltan was nowhere in sight. She swiveled on the spot, trying to find him again.
The only eyes she met were Endir’s. She had moved far enough away from the outcropping now that she could see him atop it. As he spotted her, he looked briefly to his left then back at her, pointing. When she followed his gaze, her heart stopped. Coming down the slope, flanked by four of Endir’s men, was Geralt.
Ciri swallowed as she stepped clear of the rows of tents.
The storm was swelling into a blizzard. From her position atop one of the boulders near the entrance, Yen could just barely make out the tree growing from the outcropping and visibility was only worsening. She certainly couldn’t distinguish any individuals at that distance, though she always knew where Endir was thanks to the ethereal glow coming from his shield spell.
That’s what she was focusing on for now—taking down Endir’s shield so that they could finish him off. Yen, of course, would be the only one capable of doing it. It was strange though. No matter what she threw at it, nothing was able to grab hold, like her magic just passed right through it. It was like it wasn’t even there, an incorporeal shield that repelled without substance. And she couldn’t dispel what she couldn’t sense.
The situation was immensely frustrating to Yen, especially since she had long since lost sight of Ciri. She considered moving to a closer location, but it was too late for that. Yen was too busy simultaneously maintaining her own shield, fending off any attackers making their way up the scaffolding toward her, and attempting to thwart Endir’s shield.
She just had to trust that Zoltan was on his way to Ciri. They had agreed beforehand that Zoltan would do so while Yen took care of Endir. But there were so many men between Zoltan and Ciri, that Yen was unsure whether he could cut a path through them.
And then there was Geralt to worry about. Yen wanted him back just as much as Ciri did, but if it came down to it, Yen would have no choice but to protect Ciri over Geralt. Even he would want it that way.
They may have had the drop on Endir, but he had them backed into a corner. And the battle was not going well either. As Yen had predicted, their forces were hard-pressed to overcome the superior numbers that Endir employed. At best they were at a stalemate. Both sides would end up decimating each other by the end.
It felt like it all came down to her. If Yen could dissipate Endir’s shield and silence him, then his forces may surrender.
It was their only hope at this point.
“Stop her!” Ciri heard Endir shout above the gale blowing in. “Do what you must, she cannot leave here alive.”
Geralt, it seemed, needed no prodding. He was already intent on her, a wolf that had cornered its prey.
They were facing off at the bottom of the slope leading up around the outcropping, one of the few patches of ground clear of tents inside the compound. Since Ciri had gone to find Zoltan, the battle had thinly spread up around both sides of the outcropping, a few Guardsmen even making their way up to Endir’s tent behind Geralt. Lund and some of his men were holding them off, preventing them from attacking Endir.
Geralt and his pack loomed forth from the blinding snow, his yellow eyes almost aglow in the diffuse light. As they made their way toward Ciri, a Guardsman happened to finish off one of the cultists on the slope around the outcropping. Seeing a new set of adversaries, he turned and attacked the outer man flanking Geralt. The Guardsman felled the first cultist, then took out the second one nearer to Geralt. Ciri tried to yell to him, to warn him not to attack Geralt, but she couldn’t do so in time. As the Guardsman swung at Geralt, Geralt caught the man’s sword on the crossguard of his own. The attacking sword was momentarily trapped and Geralt twisted his sword, wrenching the sword out of the Guardsman’s hands. Then Geralt shoved the pommel of his sword into the man’s abdomen. When the man doubled over, Geralt sliced through him from one shoulder to the opposite hip, neatly cutting the man in half diagonally. Geralt had already moved on by the time both halves fell, steaming, to the snow.
There were two men remaining on Geralt’s right and they both charged down the hill toward Ciri ahead of Geralt. With little difficulty, Ciri dispatched them. She had fought plenty of Endir’s men before and very few of them were expert fighters. They overwhelmed by numbers and surprise, not by skill. None of them, except perhaps Lund, were any match against Ciri, trained as she was by Geralt himself.
Though one thing that worried Ciri was her borrowed sword. In her few brief stints of combat, she had noticed it was a bit forward heavy, not nearly the finely balanced weapon she was used to wielding. After every swing, she had to overcompensate on the recovery and that would both tire her more quickly and potentially upset her balance. And Ciri needed every advantage she could get in a fight against Geralt. Any setback at all was less than ideal.
But any sword was better than none and Ciri clung to it as Geralt closed in.
His onrush was vicious. He swung at her again and again with the full force of his might, his two-handed sword easily outreaching Ciri’s smaller hand and a half. Each blow reverberated along Ciri’s sword and up her arms, the sheer force of them driving Ciri back. Ciri parried or dodged as the occasion called for, throwing up her own attacks when she was able.
Savage as his attacks were, it soon became clear that Geralt was not fighting to his fullest ability. When Ciri had faced Geralt in that village weeks ago, he had fought like she remembered he could fight, balanced, poised, and calm. Now he was leaning his full strength into every swing of his sword, every thrust and counter and block. It was simultaneously both Geralt and not him. It was more like someone trying to imitate Geralt, like they knew every move he had, but didn’t have the experience or knowledge to apply them proficiently. Whatever Endir had done to Geralt before he came to Novigrad, it had stripped him of much of his skill.
Be that as it may, Geralt still had the strength, stamina, and reflexes of a witcher. Plus, he was fighting all out, without any worry about himself or Ciri. Ciri, on the other hand, was both defending herself and, to some extent, Geralt. She still didn’t want to hurt him. Many times he left himself vulnerable to attack, but Ciri wouldn’t press forward, or would mount a stifled attack, unwilling to strike too hard of a blow against him. That left Geralt with the slight advantage, even diminished as he was.
The one option left to Ciri was to get through to him.
“Geralt, if you can hear me, you have to fight. I know you can defeat him, you’ve done it before,” Ciri bade him as they stood face to face, their swords locked together. He shoved her back and stalked toward her, presenting no indication that he had heard her. “Geralt, listen to me!” He closed in. “Follow my voice, I know you’re in there. Don’t do this! I need you to fight!”
He slashed diagonally across her, forcing Ciri to deflect his sword to the ground or be cut in half like that Guardsman. His right hand fell away, still holding the sword, but his left hand followed through with a brutal left hook. Admittedly, Ciri didn’t see it coming. His knuckles connected with the side of her face, splitting her cheek open on the bone and flinging her to the ground with a clipped shriek. Scrambling to her knees, Ciri was just able to raise her sword over her head to halt Geralt’s incoming overhead swing. Their swords connected. With both hands, Ciri held up her sword, her left hand on the blade itself. It cut into her as Geralt bore his weight down upon her. Just as it seemed he would succeed, Ciri tilted her sword to the side and let Geralt’s blade skate down past her head. Unfortunately, Ciri couldn’t move her hand out of the way fast enough, Geralt’s sword shearing off down and to the side in less than a second.
Taking two of Ciri’s fingers with it.
The last two fingers on her left hand were sliced off above the knuckle and Ciri howled even as she withdrew. She curled her hand into a fist at the pain, reflexively clutching her hand to her chest, blood pouring from her shortened digits. But Ciri didn’t have much time to dwell on the stabbing pain or the blood staining her hand.
Adrenaline coursing through her, Ciri focused beyond the anguish. What were two fingers compared to her life? That was too close, she thought. She was lucky to still be breathing. Loath as she was to do it, Ciri would have to start pressing on Geralt if she was going to make it through this alive. Just as Geralt had done himself to save Ciri, Ciri might have to injure Geralt to stop him. In fact, it might be the only way to save him.
Geralt was thrown to the side by Ciri’s move and was still recovering. As she rose away from him, she brought her blade up, slicing through his thigh. His armor stopped most of it, but there was blood dripping down his leg as she twirled and came around to face him again.
She didn’t let him recover fully this time, instead pressing forward and driving him back, all the while beseeching Geralt to fend off Endir, to come back to her. During their battle, they had made their way nearly to the edge of the camp, Ciri had been struck to the ground just behind the ring of wooden pikes encircling it. Now they worked their way back toward the outcropping, the tree emerging from the tempest of snow and wind and ice that buffeted them with every step.
Now that Ciri was on the offensive, she could choose her own method of attack. At first, she considered using her full arsenal of complicated strokes and maneuvers. However, she ended up deciding on a much more minimalistic approach; there was nothing she could throw at Geralt that he couldn’t handle anyway, he had taught her everything she knew. Her moves were simple—only basic forms and rhythms. She used speed rather than fancy flourishes to keep Geralt on the defensive, their swords flashing in a blinding display. He matched her stroke for stroke. Each time Ciri completed a round of moves, she repeated them, only faster and more aggressively.
They were the beginner moves Geralt had taught her when he first put a sword in her hand. They had to have gone over them a thousand times before they moved on to more intricate swordwork and patterns. She thought maybe she could trick his body into remembering their countless hours spent sparring in the practice ring. At the very least, her method seemed to be keeping him so occupied with defending himself that he couldn’t mount a counterattack.
But nothing seemed to be stirring within Geralt, there was no change in his bearing, no recognition of their shared past. Ciri wouldn’t be able to keep up her onslaught, particularly as her unbalanced sword grew heavier with every stroke. It was also getting harder for Ciri to maintain a hold on her sword with her left hand, the blood slicking the pommel and her throbbing fingers distracting her more and more.
They had moved halfway back to the outcropping, Geralt having even turned somewhat to back a little way up the slope when Ciri missed her own beat, her arms uncooperatively clumsy. In an instant, Geralt turned the tide and, like a flash flood, he washed over Ciri, unafraid to use his own deadly arsenal of moves against her.
At this point, she could do nothing against him. Her arms were lead, her hand was fire, her mind so overrun by conflicted emotions that she couldn’t react properly. His every swing battered her, jarring her teeth with their intensity. She was too slow to fully block one of his attacks and took a nasty cut to her arm when she had to deflect it instead. Following his own momentum, Geralt spun and swung low. Ciri staked her sword into the ground just outside of her leg, bringing Geralt’s sword to a ringing halt a hair’s breadth from her shin. If she hadn’t stopped him, he would have amputated both of her legs. But he still turned the setback to his advantage, angling around her sword and drawing back, carving a deep gash into her calf.
Ciri screeched in pain, blood drenching her leg. She hobbled a step backward and hissed as her foot made contact with the ground. “Geralt, please!” Ciri wailed, terror infecting her heart.
Clearly showing no concern for her anguish, Geralt twirled again, slinging a horizontal arc across Ciri’s throat. She couldn’t stop it and she wasn’t agile enough anymore to avoid it. Ciri threw herself backward underneath Geralt’s sword, the blade just a flash of steel inches from her face. With her injured leg, Ciri lost her balance and fell onto her back. Before she could recover, Geralt stamped onto her right wrist, preventing her from using her sword.
In the next moment, he had reversed his grip on his sword and was driving it downward, a consummate killer wasting no time on gloating or reveling in his success. There was nothing left for Ciri to do.
This was it. This was the moment she was going to die. And though she couldn’t see him, Ciri could feel Endir’s eyes searing into her and Geralt, knowing that his victory was at hand.
Ciri didn’t have any time to react, any time to feel anything as Geralt’s sword dove toward her seemingly in slow motion. She looked for any sign that she would be saved, any budding light behind Geralt’s eyes. But it was too late.
His sword was plunging straight for her heart.
Darkness was the only thing Geralt knew, an infinite, soundless nothing that encased him in its totality.
But, out of the seemingly impenetrable darkness, came something. Something that roused Geralt’s being. It flitted in and out of Geralt’s perception, as if it were a dim light blinking in the distance. Like a newborn calf searching for its mother’s teat, he reached for it without really understanding why. All he could do was extend himself toward it, toward what he soon came to realize was a sound.
The further he went, the more he understood, about himself, about his surroundings, about the sound that was guiding him.
He was Geralt. He was a witcher. But where was he? Why couldn’t he see or feel anything? Why was there only one sound in this world of shadow?
As he became more and more self-aware, his progress toward the sound became more difficult. He was wading, waist-deep, through thick mud, every step taking more effort than it rewarded him in headway. Part of him questioned why he was doing this, why he was fighting an uphill battle. Was he not perfectly content where he was now? It seemed peaceful enough. But there was still that nagging itch in his mind that kept him going, told him that he needed to reach that sound. So he forged ahead.
The more he advanced, the more dire Geralt’s need to find that sound became. It seemed familiar to him, though he couldn’t quite place it. Like a word that was on the tip of his tongue, it dangled just out of his comprehension.
Then, all of a sudden, Geralt recognized what he now understood was a voice, calling out to him.
It was Ciri.
Everything came flooding back. All of Geralt’s memories issued forth, ending with Endir overcoming Geralt’s mind and banishing him to the endless void.
Desperately Geralt fought now to return himself to the world, to Ciri. She had to be in trouble. Gods, he hoped it wasn’t too late already.
Vaguely, he could feel his arms describing familiar motions, repeating them over and over. The sensation was too faint to recognize the action, but somehow he knew it meant danger for Ciri and he redoubled his efforts to reach her, his heart in his throat just thinking about what might be happening.
After what seemed an eternity, a light filtered into the emptiness surrounding Geralt, diffusing around him. Sounds grew along with it—swords clashing and wind gusting, shouts of pain and misery. Cutting through it all was Ciri, pleading with him, begging him to return. The desperation in her voice lent him some remaining strength he didn’t know he possessed and he threw it all into a final burst toward her.
The light bloomed into a scene of death and destruction, the dead and wounded strewn everywhere about Endir’s camp, a raging blizzard obscuring everything more than twenty feet away.
Geralt’s gaze didn’t linger on his surroundings though. He could feel a lump beneath his left foot, could feel himself reversing his grip on the sword in his hand. And then he was plummeting down toward Ciri, ready to stab her through the heart.
Nothing but emotion and instinct drove him, the rest of the world draining away.
He couldn’t kill Ciri.
That one thought became the sole focus of his being until killing Ciri turned into such an impossible reality that his body refused to let it happen.
“NOOOOOOOO!!” His internal roar turned outward as Geralt fought his way back to himself. He was screaming the word at Ciri when he turned the blade at the last possible second, shearing a hole through her coat and nicking the side of her chest. The sword sunk deep into the snow beside Ciri and Geralt came to a rest on one knee with head bowed, his left foot still on Ciri’s wrist.
“Geralt.” There was joy and relief and pain intertwining in Ciri’s voice, so many more emotions than Geralt thought possible from uttering a single name. Most of all, though, he could hear her concern. Not for herself, but for him.
And then, when he had finally returned fully to his body, agony struck. Blood was streaming from his nose and ears. His whole body shook violently, so much so that he feared he would slice further into Ciri if he couldn’t control himself. Beyond that, beyond the cuts and bruises showering his body, was a fire exploding in his head, pressing excruciatingly outward in every direction. He felt as if his brain were melting in the blistering fires of a forge, every breath a hammer to his skull. Both of his clammy hands clawed onto the pommel of his sword, clenching and unclenching with each tremble that tore through him. He gasped and moaned as he remained where he was, frozen with the effort of staying in control.
Geralt’s panicked brain only grasped one thing besides the pain—he had almost killed her. He had almost killed Ciri. And if he lost control again, he would. There was only one thing left, only one way to ensure that didn’t happen.
“Kill…me.” He could barely stutter the words out past his grinding teeth.
“No.” Ciri responded readily, her voice cracking. “No, I won’t. I can’t,” she added with almost an apologetic tint to her voice.
Geralt panted through his clenched jaw, summoning the strength to speak again. “Please,” he begged hurriedly before another wave of pain silenced him. He couldn’t do it himself, otherwise he would in a heartbeat. But if he moved, he doubted he could point his sword anywhere but toward Ciri.
An enraged snarl clipped any response Ciri might have had, coming from somewhere above Geralt and to his right. It was Endir, livid that Geralt had once again trounced his control and upset his plans to destroy the White Frost.
“Nooo!” he snarled at them.
And then Geralt could feel Endir taking hold once more, his limbs shifting without his consent. “Ciri!” Geralt inhaled in warning just before he was shut out.
His notice gave Ciri just enough time to scuttle out from underneath him before he set upon her. She limped backward and Geralt could see now that she was injured, blood spurting from her leg every time she took a step, her hand mangled and oozing, the pain at her various injuries apparent on her face. Unbidden, Geralt skulked after her, Endir’s presence now a parasite at the back of Geralt’s mind. It seemed he had taken control directly.
Geralt swung his blade heavily at Ciri, a blow that would have disemboweled her had she not hopped backwards in time. She groaned as her maimed leg took her full weight.
Geralt fought the presence within him, striving to drive it back, to hinder his own murderous rain of blows. With each step toward Ciri, Geralt threw more and more of himself into his struggle and, as he did so, the pressure mounting inside his head expanded exponentially. He howled in unheard agony, but he didn’t stop. He couldn’t.
Blood steadily spilled from Geralt’s nose and ears. Adding to it were crimson tears leaking down Geralt’s face, his eyes so bloodshot that he looked like some sort of pale-faced demon. His struggle with Endir was too much, his mind couldn’t take the strain. But he continued on regardless, knowing that Ciri’s life hung in the balance.
Even with all of Geralt’s efforts, the most he accomplished was to slow himself, allowing Ciri just a fraction of a second more to react, pulling every swing of his sword so that it didn’t reach quite as far. It wasn’t much, but there was nothing more he could do. The full force of Endir’s control was upon him.
Ciri wasn’t going to last long like this. He could sense her slowing, fatigue and pain taking their toll on her. Yet, somehow, she kept going, surviving blow after blow of his onslaught through sheer power of will. Geralt might have felt proud if he could feel anything past the anguish that blurred his senses and the fear that drove him on.
“Why—won’t—you—kill—her!” growled Endir manically, each word punctuated with a thrust of Geralt’s sword.
Ciri deflected each blow, her sides heaving with the effort, her breaths ragged and sharp. Despite her injuries, she had a look of renewed determination in her eyes, a fire alight within her. Geralt drew from that fire, kindling it within himself.
But he was fading fast. His clouded vision turned red with the blood smearing his eyes and he thought surely his head would explode with the pressure building within, his skull to shatter out into a thousand fractured shards.
Just when he thought he couldn’t hold himself off anymore, Geralt came to a halt and dropped his sword down by his side. Ciri was winded a few feet in front of him and badly favoring her left leg, but still holding her sword up at the ready. Her stubbornness was trying at times, but in a situation like this, it served her well.
Endir gave a frustrated cry.
Now that he wasn’t going after Ciri, Geralt stopped fighting and the pressure lessened inside his head, though it still throbbed incessantly. At the dwindling of the pain, Geralt unwittingly let go a sigh in relief. He let himself relax marginally, but kept vigilant in case Endir stoked him into attacking again.
Instead, Endir’s voice carried down to them, malicious in its fervor. “Fine!” Geralt could feel Endir’s unmitigated attention on him now, his fury radiating through his consciousness. “If you won’t use those hands to serve me, then you won’t use them at all!”
Before he knew what was happening, before he could even attempt to impede himself, Geralt had flipped his sword into his left hand, dropped onto one knee, and started bashing the steel pommel of his sword onto his right hand, which was splayed out on the snow. Bones cracked and blood sprayed, tendons and muscles shearing and splitting. Geralt cried out, but the sound didn’t make it past his stoic lips. He just kept hitting and hitting and hitting until his hand was a mangled mass of flesh and bone, stark red against its icy backdrop.
Geralt must have really pissed Endir off, he had never known Endir to be so cruel. Then again, Geralt already knew there was a madman lurking underneath Endir’s composed façade. There had to be. No one in their right mind could do what he had done, could justify such wanton murder. Geralt was just the tipping point.
Endir had fully given in to his madness.
Once his assault on himself had paused, Geralt could hear Ciri wailing at Endir next to him, imploring him to stop. Thankfully, she didn’t try to come over to Geralt. He didn’t think Endir would have allowed her to get too close without making another attempt on her life.
But Geralt’s tribulations weren’t over. Now that he had dispensed with one hand, Geralt’s eyes strayed to a fallen arrow nearby. Releasing his sword, he snatched the arrow up and drove the feathers deep into the snow until it was almost fully buried, only the arrowhead and a few inches of the shaft still showing. Geralt knew what was coming, however he didn’t have the fortitude to fight against it. All he could do was grit his teeth as he raised his left hand high above the jagged point…
“Wait!” Ciri cried out, lunging toward Endir. “Stop! Please, I’ll do what you want. I’ll do it. I’ll be your sacrifice. Just let him go. Please,” she sobbed. “Just set him free and I’ll do it.”
Geralt’s hand halted in midair.
What was she doing?! Geralt couldn’t say he was shocked that Ciri would go so far to save him, but then, he had always known she was a compassionate soul. Regardless, he couldn’t let her go through with it. He would gladly trade a life of pain and slavery for Ciri to go free. Gladly.
If only he could have killed himself when he had had the chance. Then none of this would have happened, Ciri never would have felt compelled to give herself up. Without Geralt to stand in their way, Ciri and the others could have fought Endir wholeheartedly. He had no doubt they could have defeated him in the end.
Yet here they were, at the worst of all possible outcomes.
At Ciri’s words, Endir’s presence withdrew a bit from Geralt’s mind. Geralt’s airborne hand fell to the snow and, though he couldn’t move from where he was, he did manage to look up toward Endir.
The fury had drained from Endir’s face and was replaced by a sympathetic triumph that danced in his eyes. He locked onto Ciri, nodding. “Very well. Once it is done, I give you my word that I will set him free.”
Ciri bowed her head and heaved a great sigh.
Geralt tracked her with his eyes as she started trudging past him. “Ciri,” he ground out, his body shaking. She couldn’t do this. He couldn’t let her. He tried to stop her, but Endir must have sensed what he was doing and the presence subjugated his mind, bearing its full force down on him, bringing his struggles to naught.
Ciri hesitated and half turned to Geralt, a sad smile morphing her face. Geralt stared back at her with utmost concern in his eyes, willing her not to take another step. But she only held his gaze for a moment. The sad smile fell from her lips as she took another step and another, soon lost from Geralt’s peripheral vision.
The upper ledge of the camp had, by now, been cleared of Guardsmen, only the bodies of the few that had made it that far remaining, buried in the falling snow. The rest of the battle still raged below. Geralt could hear their war cries and death throes, the sounds of their weapons clashing warped by the unpredictable wind. Neither side seemed to be making any headway, the cultist’s numbers balancing out the Guardsmen’s superior abilities.
The battlefield would become nothing but a frozen morgue if the battle didn’t end soon. But Geralt had thoughts only for Ciri, appreciative as he may have been for the Guard’s struggles.
The cultists cleared a path for Ciri out to the edge of the outcropping, Lund taking her sword from her before she got too close to Endir. She rounded Endir and turned, back to the drop-off, her bearing conciliatory and downcast, just a hint of fear glazing her eyes. Even though her conduct was mature beyond her years, in his fatherly eye Geralt saw only his young daughter. She was too young. Too young to face the enormity of a burden she should never have had to bear.
With his enhanced hearing, Geralt could make out every word they said atop the exposed rock, though no normal human could have heard them above the howling wind.
A disarming smile lit Endir’s face as he gazed at his prize, his mask of calm back in place. “You’re doing the right thing. We must all make sacrifices to fend off great evil. Know that yours will not be in vain.”
“I’m not doing this for you,” Ciri rejoined sadly, but defiantly. “I’m doing this for Geralt.” A single tear leaked down Ciri’s cheek despite her obvious efforts to hold them back. “This is all my fault. And I should be the one to pay for it, not him.”
Geralt inwardly recoiled at her words. Was that why she was doing this? Some erroneous belief that she was responsible for all that had happened? How could she possibly think this was her fault?
“It’s alright,” placated Endir soothingly. “It will all be over soon.”
Geralt searched desperately for a way to stop Endir, but there was no way he could get up there in time and Endir’s shield was still protecting him. But then something happened that made Geralt pause.
Ciri, who was standing just outside of Endir’s shield, reached up to wipe an unsolicited tear from her face. For the briefest moment as she did so, the very tip of her elbow protruded through the magical sphere. No one gave any indication that they had noticed. Not Endir. Not Ciri. And Ciri would have known had she just broken through some kind of arcane barrier; Geralt knew there was power within her that would have reacted to it. More importantly, she shouldn’t have been able to cross inside the shield anyway. If the shield were meant to keep out threats, then Ciri unquestionably qualified.
Somewhere in the back of Geralt’s mind stirred a memory. Hadn’t Endir said he could cast illusions on those around him? The more Geralt thought about it, the more it made sense. Endir had never shown any inkling of power other than his ability to control the minds of others. Why should he be able to cast a shield all of a sudden? It was possible that Endir simply hadn’t had the need to before now, but Geralt had all but convinced himself otherwise. Endir’s shield was a ruse, a tool to keep himself safe when he was wholly defenseless. The others couldn’t know it wasn’t genuine, not if Endir had cast it into their minds that it was reality. Why should they question it when he was clearly a powerful sorcerer? He had outplayed them all.
Unfortunately, Geralt couldn’t share his epiphany with anyone around him, bound as he was by Endir’s restraint. What was he going to do?
Horror struck Geralt like lightning as Endir stretched forth his arms and Ciri’s eyes rolled back into her head.
Geralt didn’t have any time. He had to act now.
Something primal ignited within Geralt in that moment, a father’s need to protect his child. A need that outweighed all else—all pain, all obstacles, all impossibilities. He didn’t question if he could do something, he only knew that he needed to. And so he moved.
Dipping into reserves of strength that sprung endlessly from will alone, Geralt bashed through Endir’s hold on him, seizing his sword from the snow. He rose and reared back, holding the sword in his left hand and steadying it as well as he could with his right.
The pain in his mind and body didn’t matter now. If Geralt didn’t act in this moment, all would be lost.
Pitching himself forward, Geralt flung the sword at Endir. It went hurtling end over end toward its target, just barely missing the edge of the outcropping. As good as Geralt’s throw was, he wasn’t able to put as much force into it as would have been ideal and a sudden gust of wind caught it as it rose over the heightened plane where Endir stood. The downrush coming off the mountainside disrupted the blade’s clean rotation, sending it tumbling and dropping it downward more quickly than Geralt had intended. Geralt felt a grim sense of satisfaction as the sword passed unimpeded through Endir’s shield, striking Endir longways across his left arm and cutting deeply above the elbow before spinning off to the ground. What little satisfaction he had gleaned ebbed away as Geralt saw that Endir was still standing and, for the most part, still intact. Geralt had been aiming for Endir’s head and, had the wind not veered the sword off course, he would have been finished.
Geralt’s assault merely succeeded in distracting Endir, who snapped out of his trance and whipped around, growling at Geralt’s audacity. The illusory shield remained in place and Geralt could only hope that someone had caught on to what had just occurred, though visibility was low and he doubted anyone was even looking at Endir, busy as they would all be in their individual engagements. Ciri, meanwhile, stood numbly in front of Endir, entranced and oblivious to all else around her.
Endir pounded a step closer to Geralt, his face emblazoned with rage. Lund moved as if to go after Geralt, but Endir stopped him with a wave of his arm. “No,” he commanded. Obediently, Lund stood down, but he kept a watchful eye on Geralt and moved closer to Endir. Endir met Geralt’s defiant gaze, his lip curling. “I have been more than patient with you, Geralt.”
Geralt could feel Endir’s influence working its way through him, straightening out Geralt’s body so that he was displayed before Endir.
“I suppose you served your purpose,” Endir conceded. “I cannot deny that without you, we never would have found the prophesied one.” The tone of Endir’s voice shifted and a wildfire caught behind his eyes, lending a deranged menace to his bearing. “But now, you are little more than a nuisance. A pesky gnat that doesn’t know how to fly away before it is crushed.” He paused, continuing in a quieter voice. “You could have served a greater purpose. You could have changed this world for the better. Now all you’ll do is rot,” Endir sneered.
As Endir finished, Geralt could feel himself grabbing for the knife at his hip. He grasped the handle, drawing the sharp blade from its sheath awkwardly with his left hand.
Geralt was going to kill himself. He was going to end up like the rest of the people Endir had “sacrificed.” Fighting against it, Geralt managed to slow the ascent of the blade, but he couldn’t stop it completely. He just couldn’t tap into that extra force of will that had safeguarded Ciri.
Defending Ciri’s life had given Geralt a purpose to rally behind. Without that objective, Geralt’s resolve seemed to constantly fail him. He had always been a bit cavalier with his own life, his profession practically demanded it. So long as those he cared about were safe, Geralt never quite cared whether he lived or died. And now, it seemed, that conviction betrayed him, finally calling his bluff and sending him to his untimely end.
The knife rose, Geralt’s hand quavering with the struggle to control it. But Geralt couldn’t prevail, not this time.
It was all over.
He was so sure that he was going to slit his own throat that Geralt was genuinely surprised when he plunged the knife deep into his abdomen instead—Endir was being cruel indeed.
The cold steel lodged inside Geralt with a sickening thud.
All breath was driven from Geralt’s lungs and warm blood oozed over his hand. He stood, stunned for a moment while the reality of what had just happened sunk in. Before he could yield himself to the truth, Geralt yanked the knife free and struck again. Geralt coughed this time and blood flew from his lips, the bitter taste of it coating his mouth.
The world around him went silent, although, somewhere behind him, Geralt could hear the horrified cries of Zoltan growing closer.
It seemed as though Geralt would pull back for a third strike, but the knife fell numbly from his hand as it slid from his body, the bloodied blade tumbling to a rest near his feet. Somehow he still stood, like Endir’s sway was determined to hold him until his dying breath. His knees buckled once as his lifeblood drained from his body, but Geralt managed to right himself, agony flaring through him at the movement.
And then Zoltan was there, disheveled and covered in blood. “Geralt!” he shouted as he approached.
Zoltan’s eyes roved over Geralt, settling on his wounds. He pressed his hands over the gushing slashes. Strangely, Geralt couldn’t feel Zoltan’s hands on his wounds though it should have caused him great pain. Thickly, Geralt realized he couldn’t feel anything. It was almost a relief. Zoltan’s mouth moved, but Geralt couldn’t make out what he was saying. The world was dimming. Geralt wheezed in shallow breaths, blood dribbling from his mouth, his eyes starting to roll. He wanted to tell Zoltan to leave him, to save Ciri, but Geralt’s body was done. He could only stand there until death finally claimed him.
Then, miraculously, Zoltan turned and looked up to Endir, a snarl forming on his lips. Zoltan leveled one last look at Geralt, an apology that he needn’t have issued. Leaving Geralt, Zoltan turned and ran up the slope, following after a man dressed in the Captain of the Guard’s uniform who had already stormed past. Together they ploughed into Endir’s defensive circle of men, Lund directing the counter charge against them.
There were seven cultists in total. Zoltan and the Captain cut through the first two easily, Zoltan with his axe and the Captain with his broadsword. Lund stepped forward and engaged Zoltan, temporarily forcing him back while the Captain took out another cultist. Then the Captain was beset by the remaining three and his progress came to a resounding halt. Zoltan and the Captain were both at an impasse with their respective opponents, trading their foes between them as their battles intertwined. Lund, it seemed, had kept the most capable of his warriors to defend their liege.
Endir, meanwhile, was already returning to Ciri. And when he got there, it would only take a matter of seconds before she would be at his mercy. She would slit her own throat and it would all be for nothing.
A cultist fell by Zoltan’s axe. That left three against two. They were making good progress, but it just wasn’t fast enough. Endir was stepping in front of Ciri now, turning to face her.
Zoltan wasn’t going to make it.
They had all failed.
And the worst part to Geralt was that Ciri would die thinking she deserved to when nothing could be further from the truth. Endir was responsible. He had torn their lives apart, torn the lives of so many apart in his senseless crusade.
Geralt wished he could do more, but will could only carry him so far.
He swayed dangerously on the spot, barely coherent. Many times through his danger-infested years, he had naively thought he was going to die, but now he truly knew what it was like to feel the life ebbing from his body. He was at his end.
There was nothing more he could do except loathe his uselessness. He would die on that bleak mountainside, thoroughly incapable of preventing his own death.
More importantly, incapable of preventing Ciri’s.
How had it all come to this?
So many choices. So many divulging and reuniting paths. Somehow, they had all led here. Here where time ran out.
They were both going to die.
Maybe Fate would be kind enough to let them see each other beyond the darkness, on the next plane.
Yen had long since given up on breaking through Endir’s shield. Her fruitless attempts had been doing nothing but depleting her reserves of magic anyway. She had to get closer, she had to employ her sorcery more productively. She may yet be able to make the difference in this conflict between failure and success.
Then Yen spotted Zoltan down below her, tangled in the fray. He clearly hadn’t been able to break out of the masses and go after Ciri. Yen’s heart hammered in her chest at the realization that Ciri may very well be dead already.
Yen needed to get to Ciri. Now.
But that was more easily said than done. Cultists were swarming up the scaffolding to her, her own glowing shield a beacon to them. Normally, they wouldn’t pose much of a threat to her, but she had exhausted most of her power already and the cultists’ sheer numbers were rapidly becoming a problem. Any lane she cleared was instantly filled in by more and more men, flocking to her as the threat of the Guardsmen diminished. Their weapons collided constantly with her shield, draining her strength in maintaining it.
Yen chanced a glance back at Zoltan. He had teamed up with the Captain and they seemed to be making headway along the edge of the throng. Yen wasn’t going anywhere. Not quickly enough. But if she could clear a path for them, they might just make it.
She summoned what remained of her magic, the cultists taking advantage of Yen’s momentary lapse and forming up around her, her shield the only thing keeping them back, though it frayed and sparked with each strike against it. She couldn’t hold it much longer. With an incantation and a dazzling flourish, Yen fired a bolt of pure energy from her hands. It surged through the cultists just outside of her shield and arced over the fray below her, striking the ground in front of Zoltan, obliterating the men opposing him and crackling its way up the mountainside.
Shocked, Zoltan stumbled backward and swiveled to face Yen.
“Go,” she mouthed to him as the cultists around her regrouped and sprang forth anew. Zoltan took a step toward her, worry on his face, her shield flickering, but Yen gave him a look that told him she could handle herself.
Hesitating for just a moment, Zoltan withdrew and gave a terse nod in response. He turned back and, motioning the Captain forward, they tore through the open path up the hill, dispatching the few cultists that were spilling into the gap.
Their dwindling figures were lost to the storm just as Yen was overrun.
Ciri was drifting lazily through an endless abyss. She couldn’t remember why she was there or how she had gotten there, but she wasn’t frightened of it, a distant acceptance overcoming any other emotion that might have bubbled up. She was content to stay in that place, but something deep down inside her was fighting against it, pushing her upward. Rising fast, the force smashed into her and shoved her out and out and out. The journey seemed to last forever despite the force’s urgency, Ciri’s senses flashing back into life the further she went.
As her memories returned, she realized that Endir had put her under his control, that she was to be sacrificed and Geralt would be free.
At that thought, Ciri tried to quell the force within her. She didn’t want to fight. If she did, Geralt’s life would be forfeit. But nothing she did foiled that power’s desire and ability to deliver her back to the world.
Ciri was rushing back to her body in spite of her own wishes, that power betraying her. Soon enough, it had succeeded.
Her eyes popped open.
Endir was gone. Not gone, she realized, but returning from the edge of the outcropping. Looking past him, she spotted Geralt where she had left him, injured, but still capable of going on to live a full life.
Something was wrong.
Blood was pouring from him. There was so much of it that Ciri couldn’t pinpoint its source. Geralt seemed on the verge of collapse, his face drawn and pale, his body drooping. How he was still standing, Ciri didn’t know. But she knew he was dying, his bloodshot eyes glazed over. Devastation thundered through Ciri, her stomach dropping out from underneath her.
Then Ciri’s eyes zipped back to Endir and she knew that there was only one possible explanation for Geralt’s decay.
Anger flared white hot through Ciri. Endir thought he could kill Geralt and still come back for her? Well, she wasn’t going to let him have his prize. And she would kill him for what he had done.
He strode back in front of her to find her fully conscious and fuming. But his shield was still in play. She couldn’t touch him. Their eyes met and it took him less than a second to realize he no longer held any sway over her and, by the look on his face, he was taken aback that she, like Geralt, had broken his grip.
“How—?!” His confusion swiftly turned to action, his face contorting just before he lunged with his mind, throwing Ciri back into darkness.
She fought against his onslaught, his mania ringing through her. He leaned the full weight of his power into her and Ciri thought she would succumb to it. Then that force that had freed her before reared back. She now recognized it as her own magic, activating in response to Endir’s, repelling him. Ciri embraced her magic and charged with it, compelling Endir out of her mind. She cried out as she gave a concerted shove, the world returning around her.
Endir was incredulous and riled at the same time. He couldn’t have understood the deep-seated power residing within Ciri. He seemed like a man whose power had never failed him. And men like that never considered any avenue other than overcoming via brute force.
He butted into her mind again, but Ciri’s sight didn’t even flicker before she was pushing back. They were locked in battle, his mind grappling with hers, wrestling and poking and prodding to try to find a weakness, hers responding in kind, their minds melding together. In their shared mind, Ciri suddenly saw through Endir’s illusion. His shield was nothing, a farce. Which meant he was defenseless before her.
And there was a knife dangling tantalizingly from his own hip.
Instinctually, Ciri drew Endir in, letting him believe he was winning while she collected her boundless magic behind her.
“You…will…obey!” Endir spat out both mentally and verbally, his body shuddering, his sweat-beaded brow furrowed with determination.
Just as the darkness closed in around her, Ciri unleashed her magic. It eradicated all traces of Endir’s mind from her own, thorough and ruthless in its process.
He recoiled, a pained grimace creasing his face.
“You clearly don’t know me very well,” she derided with a lip-curling sneer as she shot out her hand. It passed effortlessly through Endir’s shield and stole his knife out of its sheath.
In less than a second, Ciri struck with Endir’s own weapon, her assault no more than a glint of steel slashing across Endir’s throat.
When she was done, he clutched at his neck with his stumped arms, unable to stem the flow of blood spewing from between them. Disbelief shone in his eyes as he fell backward, a sparkling layer of icy powder billowing out around him when he met the ground.
Behind him, Ciri could now see Zoltan and the Captain engaged with a lone-standing Lund, multiple other bodies scattered about them.
Lund saw Endir fall past his own battle and called out to him, his eyes bulging with concern. In Lund’s distraction, Zoltan lodged his axe into the man’s stomach. When Lund doubled over, blood dripping from his mouth, the Captain heaved his sword and cut cleanly through Lund’s neck, severing his head in a single stroke. Zoltan looked up as Lund fell to the ground and, just now noticing Ciri’s attention, raced toward her.
A gurgling noise drew Ciri’s focus back to Endir. He was still alive, choking on his own blood. His eyes were intent on her, his mouth moving as if to speak, but only blood bubbled forth, spattering his face. Ciri knew he had only moments left. Part of her wanted to scream at him, to ask him why he had done it, why he had caused so much pain. But no answer would ever assuage her need nor undo what he had done. So she simply watched as his struggles weakened, his jaw slowly ceasing to move. Fear and longing hid inside the final look he cast toward Ciri, but in a blink it was gone and his eyes clouded over, his arms falling limply to his chest.
Endir was finally dead.
Zoltan ran up to her then and pulled her into a massive hug. Ciri indulged him, but turned to check on Geralt at the same time, fear for his life still rife within her.
She had just caught sight of Geralt when it happened—one moment Geralt was standing and the next, he dropped, crumpling to the ground. The life drained from Ciri’s face. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw so many others follow suit, the vast majority of Endir’s forces all falling in an instant, like candles being snuffed out by a stiff breeze.
Breaking free of Zoltan’s grasp, Ciri dashed down the slope to Geralt as quickly as her injured leg would allow, Zoltan following in her wake.
Sliding to her knees beside Geralt, Ciri grabbed him up in her arms, cradling his head. “Geralt!” she called out to him, stroking the side of his head, her hand running over hair matted with blood. He didn’t respond, he was scarcely breathing. And there was so much blood. Ciri didn’t know how much longer he was going to last. “Geralt!” she called again, desperately. Tears were falling thick and fast down onto Geralt’s face as she rocked disconsolately.
There was nothing she could do for him but hope that he would hold on.
All around them the storm was abating, no longer blowing with a vengeance that strove to lend credence to Endir’s claims. The wind died away to a steady sigh, broad snowflakes still wandering lazily along it.
Across the battlefield, through the clearing air, Ciri could see what was left of the Guard capturing those who surrendered, and killing those who foolishly thought they could still prevail. The skirmishes didn’t last long. Soon the Guard was roving the camp, helping the wounded and inspecting the dead. Beyond the few still alive, a massacre fell away down the mountainside. The mutilated bodies were frozen in place, all half-buried by a blanket of pristine snow, many with only a limb or distorted face showing. It was as if the storm had tried its best to obscure the violence.
Zoltan had come up behind Ciri, his presence at the sight of her and Geralt melancholy, the Captain lining up with him as well. And then Yen was hurrying toward them, stumbling in her haste. She was haggard and wounded in numerous places, blood tinging the black of her garb red. Relief softened her blood-smeared face as she sighted Ciri and the others, though it turned to dismay as she closed in and beheld Geralt.
Ciri quested red and puffy eyes up to Yen, begging for there to be a remedy to their hopelessness.
Without response or delay, Yen conjured up a portal, the darkness under her eyes seeming to deepen as she did so, her shoulders slumping ever so slightly. She turned to the Captain, her words brisk. “Gather your wounded, I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
The Captain merely nodded, knowing now was not a time for superfluous conversation.
Yen turned back to Ciri and, with a determined gaze that quelled the utter terror roiling within Ciri, bade them forward.
Together, Ciri, Zoltan, and Yen carried Geralt into the swirling portal.
They stepped forward, gratefully leaving the keening breeze and the violent desolation behind them as they were whisked into the void. Their shared bond was the only thing keeping any one of them from falling apart, not one of them wanting anything more than safety and recovery for the others. Not one of them wanting to think anymore on what had transpired.
Not one of them looking back.
The next few days were tense. They delivered Geralt to a hospital in Novigrad, to the very same doctor that had patched together Priscilla when she had been attacked. It had taken the doctor’s vast expertise, his extensive stores of medicine, and more than a little of Yen’s sorcery just to heal Geralt to the point where he was stable. Even then, he was balanced on the very edge of death. At any second, he was likely to tumble over it and never return.
Though Geralt was by far the worst off, he wasn’t the only one to have sustained dire injuries during the confrontation. Yen and Zoltan both had similar wounds. Many lacerations marred their bodies, some deep and needing stitches, others merely needing binding. Yen was sporting a black eye and Zoltan had a few broken toes, but overall, they were intact.
Ciri however, had been bleeding profusely for some time before they ever even reached the hospital. She supposed adrenaline had kept her going as long as she had. Perhaps something more. Whatever it was that had lent her strength, it languished just as soon as they had deposited Geralt on his hospital bed. She had turned from his bedside to address the others and before she knew it, she had crashed to the ground, fainting outright. She was told later that they had brought in another bed for her and placed it next to Geralt’s, tending to her fingers and her leg first and foremost and then to the myriad other small cuts and bruises she hadn’t even realized she had accumulated.
After she had regained consciousness, Ciri never left Geralt’s bedside. She stared intently at him with eyes reddened from exhaustion and grief, gripping his hand like she could keep him in this world with her touch alone, his rasping breaths rattling through her.
Yen had left as soon as she was able. There were still other men on that mountainside that needed immediate attention. She systematically brought more and more, having warned the doctor beforehand that she would be bringing an indeterminate amount throughout the next few hours. Once she had transported every last soldier back, wounded or not, she had nearly collapsed at the door to the hospital, only saved a face-full of dirt because the Captain, who had been among the last group to return, had caught her as she fell. Zoltan and Dandelion, who had come as soon as he had gotten word, had escorted her back to the Chameleon to sleep and recover.
The others had tried to get Ciri to leave, telling her that she needed to rest, but she refused. She had vacated the bed they had provided at first, there were Guardsmen in much worse shape than her and she didn’t feel right taking it up when it was needed elsewhere. When her exhaustion overwhelmed her, Ciri passed out with her head next to Geralt’s side, her contact with him unbroken.
She knew there was nothing she could do for Geralt and she didn’t begrudge the others their comings and goings. But she just couldn’t let Geralt out of her sight. If anything happened to him while she wasn’t there, she would never forgive herself.
Eventually, after four days of frazzled nerves and little sleep, Geralt’s breathing evened, and his wounds began to heal. The doctor believed he was over the worst of it. At that point, Ciri could deny the others’ pleas no longer, Zoltan having threatened to carry her out himself once she was asleep anyway. With a tender kiss on Geralt’s forehead, promising her return, Ciri left, heading for the Chameleon and some much-needed rest.
Her leg was already on the mend. Luckily, Geralt’s sword had only shorn through her muscle and hadn’t hit any tendons or ligaments. Her wound would scar, but wouldn’t leave any lasting effect on her mobility so she paid it no more attention, other than to keep it healthy. Her fingers were more problematic. They throbbed day and night even with the tonics the doctor had provided. More than that though, it was strange for Ciri to reach for something and not have those complete fingers there. It would take some readjusting, but Ciri still had full use of her hand for the most part, so she pushed the matter out of her mind as best she could.
It was Geralt, now, that garnered her worry. Not because he was dying; once he had pulled back from the brink of death, his witcher healing had taken over and set him on an expeditious course toward full recovery. Much more so than many of the soldiers, in fact, despite the extent of his injuries. What worried Ciri now was the fact that he seemed as though he would never wake up.
Every morning, Ciri would race down to the hospital, sullenly greeting Geralt’s doctor as he made his rounds. When she would inquire as to Geralt’s condition, he would always answer the same—that Geralt was doing well, but still hadn’t awakened.
Of the soldiers that had made it back, twenty had ended up in the hospital. A few had only needed a wound stitched or a broken bone set. Three of them had died from their injuries within the first few days. The remaining ten or so had all made full recoveries and variously departed as they were able, the Captain checking up on them and even Geralt as his duties allowed.
It had been three weeks now since the battle. After that blizzard up in the mountains had blown over Novigrad as well, the weather had turned. The storm had been winter’s last hurrah. Now the sun shone purposefully down on the snow-blanketed landscape, seeking to overthrow winter’s reign. Melting snow flowed in runnels through the streets, eventually emptying out into the harbor. The air was still brisk, but with an undercurrent of warmth that had people waking from their hibernation.
The Chameleon filled once more with life and jubilation at the fast-approaching spring. Priscilla, her voice weak but no less beautiful from her near-fatal assault, sang as entertainment a few nights a week, Dandelion joining in occasionally to lend his tenor harmonies to a duet. The turn of the season was always a merry occasion.
But not for Ciri. Not this time.
She couldn’t find any joy in the nightly proceedings when her thoughts were always with Geralt, lying in his lonely hospital bed, dead to the world. Many times Ciri even resented the patrons’ joyfulness, so callously thrown about in the midst of such sorrow. She knew it was unreasonable, but she felt it all the same.
On one such night, Ciri didn’t even try to hide her displeasure, instead stealing out of Dandelion’s tavern with a scowl and heading for the hospital, hoping to spend the night there to escape the crowd.
Her presence there was unexpected to the doctors, but not forbidden, and she settled into the chair next to Geralt’s bed, his steady breaths calming her nerves.
At least he was still alive.
So many had died that day, the costs catastrophic on both sides. Only about thirty men of the original hundred remained of the Guard, the Captain among them. The cult had sustained much higher casualties due to their greater numbers to begin with. Over a hundred had died in the midst of the battle and Endir’s death alone had killed nearly sixty more of his enthralled, a stroke that had ultimately decided the battle.
A pang of guilt hit Ciri as she remembered them falling, lifeless, to the ground. Though she knew Endir had had to die, she still wished there had been some way she could have saved them. They were victims just as much as anyone else.
Ciri wondered grimly if the Guard had known any of the enslaved they were forced to battle. How many had come from the villages they were sent to protect? How many had ended up on the tips of their blades? She shuddered at the thought. They had all been captured just as Geralt had. The only difference was they had paid the ultimate price in the end when Geralt had somehow survived.
That was something Ciri still couldn’t figure out.
As far as Geralt’s injuries went, the only reason he was alive was because he was a witcher. Any other man probably would have succumb to the injuries Geralt sustained long before they would have even reached Novigrad.
As far as why Geralt had survived Endir’s death when no one else had, Ciri couldn’t rightfully say. It could have been because he was a witcher and Endir’s magic affected him differently. It could have been because he had repeatedly managed to wrest back a modicum of control from Endir. Or it just could have been some inner strength that couldn’t be quantified, couldn’t be accounted for. It was Geralt—that would have to be explanation enough.
She stared at his slack face, willing him to awaken. She didn’t speak, though she often had, pleading with him to find his way back. Ciri merely sighed a heavy sigh, closing her eyes as she held Geralt’s hand aloft clasped between her own.
And then his breath fluttered. It lasted no more than a split second, but it was there.
Ciri’s eyes shot open. She leaned closer to Geralt, heart racing.
He drew in a deep breath, eyes oscillating behind their lids. Slowly, ever so slowly, his eyes pried open and lazily flitted around the room.
Ciri could hardly breathe. “Geralt,” she whispered. She couldn’t believe it. Surely she had to be dreaming.
Her voice seemed to catch his attention and his muddled eyes settled onto hers.
Her heart soared, her breath finally coming back to her in a dry sob. Before Ciri could say anything, Geralt drew in a deliberate breath and moved his lips, clearly trying to speak though no sound came out. Repeating the action, he managed to find his voice.
“Where am I?” he asked, the sound barely dragging from his mouth.
A genuine smile, the first that Ciri had experienced in a long time, stretched across her face at the sound of Geralt’s voice, feeble though it may have been. “You’re in a hospital,” she answered plainly. Then, unable to keep her elation in check any longer, Ciri dove forward, wrapping her arms around Geralt as best she could. “I’m so glad you’re back. I’ve missed you so much,” she blubbered into his chest.
When Geralt didn’t reciprocate her embrace, Ciri thought at first that he didn’t want to move because he was still hurting. But then his stiffness started to cast doubt into her mind. She pulled back, her smile still tenuously gracing her face. Though he hadn’t balked at her touch, he looked up at her with a distance in his eyes that she hadn’t noticed in her relief. A question tweaked her brows.
Geralt spoke again, more clearly this time, his brow drawing together in confusion. “Who are you?”
Chest constricting, still trying to keep the smile on her face, Ciri stammered, “I…it’s me.” The corners of Ciri’s mouth began to droop at Geralt’s nonplussed look. “Geralt, it’s…it’s me, Ciri.”
Geralt’s eyes searched the air before him as if trying to recall something, but he was unable to drudge it up from the banks of his memories. After a moment, he returned his gaze to Ciri’s.
Ciri’s heart plummeted.
Ciri had wanted to run to Yen and the others at Geralt’s words. Words that had pulled the rug out from under Ciri’s feet and sent her tumbling. Though initially flustered, Ciri composed herself. As much as she wanted to fetch help, she also didn’t want to leave Geralt right after he had woken up. Especially since she was now the only person he knew in the world.
It soon became clear that Geralt didn’t have any memories. Not one. Not before waking up to Ciri’s face.
Patiently, Ciri had explained in broad terms who Geralt was and what had happened—that he was a witcher, that he had been injured in a battle with a dangerous cult, and that his friends had brought him back to Novigrad to recover. She had left out the specifics, she didn’t think there was any need to go into the more gruesome details just yet.
Geralt had accepted her explanation, though he clearly remained lost. And then it seemed that what little energy his weakened body had contained had been expended and he had passed out again. Ciri’s heart tugged at her when Geralt had closed his eyes. She had feared he would sleep for another three weeks. But he woke up the next morning when the sun’s rays blazed through the window.
Over the next few days, he was awake more and more. Ciri had gotten the chance to alert the others to his awakening and they all exuberantly followed her back to the hospital to greet him. She had warned them of his amnesia, but only Yen had seemed disquieted by the news. Yen hadn’t said anything, but Ciri could tell that Geralt’s loss of memory disturbed her more than she wanted to show.
As Ciri had expected from his bearing the night before, Geralt was somewhat overwhelmed by everyone that came to greet him and he often forgot their names or mixed them up. The doctor seemed to sense this and started only allowing one or two visitors at a time to keep Geralt from being overtaxed. His body was still recovering. And not just from his injuries.
Geralt had wasted away in the hospital. The only sustenance he had been able to receive was a beef or chicken broth massaged down his throat. His lack of nutrition and movement had atrophied his muscles and eaten away what little meat there was on his bones. He had always been trim, but still muscular. Now, his face had hollowed out and his ribs shone painfully through his skin, his arms and legs incapable of supporting him fully.
Whenever any of them visited him, they brought as much food as they could—succulent meats and ripe fruits and steaming breads. Geralt devoured them all voraciously. In less than a week of such treatment, he had regained some of his vigor and strength. Enough to where he could go home.
Geralt was allowed to leave the hospital the next day. With arms slung over Ciri and Dandelion, Geralt wobbily took his first steps and they made their way to the Chameleon at a meandering pace.
It was around noon when they arrived so no patrons were in the tavern. Most nights, people didn’t start showing up until sundown. They plopped Geralt down on a bench, all three a bit breathless from the arduous journey. Ciri placed herself next to Geralt, with Yen and Dandelion across from them. Zoltan pulled up a chair to join them.
None of them had spoken of Geralt’s amnesia while he had been in the hospital. Partly because the doctor had been very strict about not upsetting him, but also because they hadn’t wanted to go into anything in such a public setting.
Now seemed the perfect time to address what needed to be said.
At Yen’s bidding, Ciri told the full story, or as much of it as she knew. Obviously, there was no way of knowing what Geralt went through at Endir’s camp. The only thing Ciri glazed over was Geralt wounding and almost killing her, she didn’t think there was any point in heaping any unnecessary guilt upon him. The others added their little tidbits as they saw fit until, finally, the room fell silent.
Yen broke through the tension, addressing Geralt. “Geralt?” she probed. “Do you remember any of this? Anything at all?”
All of their eyes swiveled to him, but Geralt had grown accustomed to their company and didn’t balk at their attention. He shrugged and shook his head. “No. Nothing.”
Ciri had watched him during their retelling and it was as if he were an avid listener to one of Dandelion’s epic ballads. He was clearly distraught by the horror of the events and amazed at the insanity of what had happened, but his reactions were purely from a distanced perspective of someone experiencing them second-hand. He offered no emotional or personal response.
Yen frowned, contemplative. “Hmmm. I was afraid of something like this.”
“What do you mean?” Ciri asked.
“I’ve been in contact with the Lodge and we’ve been discussing this whole scenario. Unfortunately, none of us could come up with an answer for what has happened. This is what I was afraid of from the start. Mind control is dangerous and fickle. There was no knowing what would happen if the link between Geralt and Endir were snapped. Geralt escaped the worst of it, considering what happened to the others, but this amnesia must be some byproduct of the whole affair.”
Ciri leaned forward, anxious. “But his memory will come back, right?”
Yen just shook her head sadly. “There’s no way to know for sure.” She turned her eyes to Geralt. “I’m sorry. There are a few things that I could try, but I don’t have much hope that they will work and they could very well make things worse. This magic and how it has manifested itself is something that I nor any of my Sisters understand. It would be unwise, I think, to try meddling with it. The only course of action we have is to wait and see if your memories return on their own.”
Geralt didn’t seem to know what to make of all this. His eyes roamed over everyone in turn, his mood a little dejected.
Zoltan pulled on a grin. “Don’t you worry about it, Geralt. I’m sure you’ll be back to normal in no time.”
Dandelion, catching on to Zoltan’s tactics, piled on. “Yeah, enough with all this gloominess.” He stood suddenly and strode across the room, selecting a few choice bottles of wine and bringing them back to the table. “You all made it through this horrid affair. And Geralt has returned to us, alive and well. We should be celebrating!” He uncorked the bottle and filled several goblets, handing one to each of them in turn. He held his own up out in front of him. “To Endir’s demise, and Geralt’s triumphant return!”
It took a few seconds for the others to join in, but Dandelion’s cheer was catching and even Ciri found a smile spreading her lips.
He was right. Geralt was alive. And he was awake and healthy. They shouldn’t be dwelling on the bad. Brooding would do Geralt no good. He just needed time. His memories would return eventually. Until then, there was plenty of fun to be had in Novigrad and Ciri was determined to make sure Geralt was as happy as he could be. He deserved it.
“Hear, hear!” Ciri exclaimed, standing and raising her own goblet.
Zoltan stood next, quickly followed by a grateful Geralt, whose smile at their regard lit up his eyes. Yen forced a reluctant smile to her own lips and added her cup to the raised collection. They smashed together their goblets, some of the wine sloshing out as they did so, and drank deeply, soon feasting on the delectable fare that Dandelion provided.
It now seemed to Ciri unimportant that Geralt had lost his memories. He would be back to normal in no time. For now, he was here. He was alive. That was all that mattered.
Besides, she thought, he was still Geralt.
Geralt was happy with his life at the Chameleon. Spring was in full swing now. The trees were bursting with fresh foliage, little buds blooming into vibrant colors. He loved the sighing of the gentle breeze dancing with the leaves and, above it, the sounds of the city as they grew in volume each morning. He would lay in bed and listen to them drift in through his open window, excited to experience a new day.
Everywhere, the city was a bustling hive of activity. Fleets of ships swept through the harbor, bringing goods and people from distant lands, their garb and accents just as interesting as their wares. The markets rang with merchants calling out to passersby, many of those summonings ending in ardent discussions and heated negotiations.
Once Geralt was able to walk on his own, he would wander the city, often accompanied by Ciri, who would point out locations of interest and steer him away from the seedier parts of town. It turned out that Geralt had amassed quite a sum of money in his forgotten travels and he had no qualms about spending it on various fascinating baubles and delicious fare for their wanderings.
A few times, Ciri had taken Geralt out horseback riding. She would easily swing astride her horse, Kelpie, while Geralt fumbled with all of the tack for a steed that he apparently owned. Roach, they had called the stallion. Geralt thought it an odd name, but they had told him he had chosen it. Geralt still hadn’t regained full use of his right hand, so he rode with his left. He honestly didn’t think it would have mattered which hand he used, he was a terrible rider.
Ciri took them out into the open countryside and flew across the rolling hills, completely at one with her mount, laughing with the exhilaration. Geralt struggled just to keep his seat as Roach surged after Kelpie, not wanting to be left behind. Half of the time, Roach would stop to graze on the verdant spring grasses, clearly sensing Geralt’s ineptitude. Ciri would coach Geralt on what to do, mainly yelling at him to kick harder and pull on the reins, the mirth at Geralt’s lack of skill apparent on her face. No matter what Geralt did, it didn’t seem to accomplish anything, and he usually just let Roach follow Kelpie.
After the fourth session, Geralt gave up riding as a lost cause and started making up excuses whenever Ciri asked if he wanted to join her.
When it was clear that Geralt was no longer going to go riding with her, Ciri bade him to join her in the practice yard. There were a few straw-stuffed dummies propped up in the stable yard where he had seen Ciri practicing her swordplay.
That was one thing that Geralt didn’t even bother trying, despite all of their encouragement for him to pick up his swords. They kept telling him what a skilled swordsman he was, but he assured them that he had no skill to speak of. He wouldn’t even know where to begin. Not that he could have wielded a sword very effectively anyway, his grip was still pretty poor.
Instead, he took joy in watching Ciri adeptly stab and slash, her feet dancing across the ground as she pirouetted and pivoted to obtain new angles. She must have had a good teacher, he mused.
He did try his hand at the witcher signs they told him about, if for no other reason than it sounded exciting to be able to do some form of sorcery. Yen coached him as best she could on the correct hand positions and how to summon his power from within, but no matter what Geralt tried, he couldn’t produce anything. He could sense no power biding within him as Yen had described. Eventually, he gave up on the idea and they didn’t press him any further.
At night, everyone would gather in the tavern, drinking and feasting and singing and dancing. Priscilla and Dandelion were wonderful performers and knew how to entertain a crowd. Geralt even tried his hand at Gwent, Zoltan generously offering to teach him the basics. Though he wasn’t much good at it, Geralt enjoyed the game nonetheless.
His life was a good one. And he was eternally grateful to Dandelion for letting him stay at the Chameleon.
It wasn’t until almost three months after Geralt had awoken that he began to feel a little differently about his situation. He knew the city and much of the surrounding landscape like the back of his hand by now and while he still enjoyed roaming the city, the charm of adventure was starting to lose its luster.
And he began to see something in his friends’ eyes when they looked at him—an unexplained longing. He wasn’t sure if it was new or if he simply hadn’t noticed it before. They still treated him the same, still smiled and laughed and joked, but he felt like his position within their group was shifting.
He was a stranger to them. And they were strangers to him, close as they had become over the past few months.
It wasn’t news, they all knew it from the moment he woke up. They had graciously overlooked the fact and invited him into their lives, but he couldn’t help feeling like he was imposing upon them, like he didn’t quite belong. At least, not in the way they wanted him to.
It was strange, too, people telling him of deeds that he had supposedly done. Most of them seemed so outlandish that he couldn’t tell if they were joking or not. It was like they all believed him to be the hero of some epic tale, when he alone knew he wasn’t.
He wished he could give them what they wanted, wished he could turn into this “Geralt.” They deserved to have their friend back after the kindness they had bestowed upon him. But he just wasn’t that person. Maybe he had been before, maybe he hadn’t, but he certainly wasn’t now.
And he wasn’t sure if he ever would be.
As spring gave way to summer, Ciri grew more and more worried about Geralt, about whether his memories would return.
As per Yen’s advice, they hadn’t tried anything magically to bring back Geralt’s memories. Ciri agreed with what she had said. She too doubted that anything would have helped. And Ciri was a bit worried to try based on how badly their experiments had gone before.
They did try more subtle ways to stimulate Geralt’s memory. Dandelion told endless stories of their adventures together and Priscilla sang of Geralt and Yennefer’s love. Nothing worked. Geralt was enraptured by the tales and songs, but only as a part of the audience. Ciri didn’t even think he understood half of the time that he was the one in the story, if it wasn’t expressly mentioned. He listened with wide-eyed awe and then went back to his game of Gwent or his ale when the story concluded, none the wiser as to its significance.
Still, Ciri kept up hope. Geralt would come back to them in time, Ciri was sure of it. Until then, they just had to enjoy the new Geralt. In fact, it had been fun showing him around the city, taking him on little adventures, and seeing his wonder at the world. Seeing everything she loved through new eyes.
To be honest, this new Geralt was, in a way, more fun-loving and more vibrant than the old. He would even join in on the nightly dancing on occasion, a smile always readily available on his lips. He was so…joyous. In a way that Geralt never had been. And that brought Ciri joy as well. At least for a time. She thought she had never seen Geralt so happy.
In particular, Dandelion seemed thoroughly enamored with this version of Geralt. He would spin his wild yarns with Geralt keenly listening. Always expanding upon the truth, it seemed that Dandelion enjoyed, for once, having the ability to thrill Geralt, to be the one with some control over the situation. It would have been a rare occurrence, if not the first time for Dandelion. Or maybe it was just his boundless enthusiasm and amiability that placed no necessity on any particular personality. He could truly appreciate Geralt as he was, rather than expecting or waiting for him to be someone else.
It was a quality that Ciri loved about Dandelion, and one that she wished she possessed.
She tried her best to emulate it, she really did.
In her heart, Ciri loved Geralt, no matter who he was. But she still couldn’t help but miss Geralt as he had been, couldn’t help but try to bring him back. Any time they talked, she always steered the conversation back toward some shared memory they had, hoping it would spark something within him. Since the affair with Endir was the freshest memory, not to mention the one that had caused Geralt’s amnesia in the first place, Ciri talked of it the most. Geralt would always listen, though more and more silently of late. On one particular occasion, she spoke in more detail than she ever had before, describing the aftermath of the battle, the lifeless bodies, the blood, and the carnage. Soon she had lost herself in the memory, thinking back to that horrible day. She didn’t know why she was going into such morbid detail. She supposed it was almost cathartic for her. After all, she was still processing what had happened that day just as much as anyone else.
Before she got into the more grisly details, Geralt stopped her midsentence, his sudden reaction yanking her from her musings.
“Wait, Ciri, stop!” He blenched, waving his hands at her.
She looked up at his outburst.
He seemed disconcerted by what she had said. “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to hear all this. It’s too much.”
Ciri honestly hadn’t thought about what she was saying. Geralt had never been a stranger to violence or gore and she supposed she had acquired his strong stomach in their time together. “I didn’t mean to upset you,” she stated plainly.
“Ciri, why do you keep bringing this up?” he asked pointedly.
She didn’t answer.
He gave her a knowing look. “I know what you’re trying to do.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re trying to bring back my memories.”
Ciri tried to adopt an innocent look, even though a twinge of guilt was zinging through her. She had sort of forgotten why she had brought up the memory in the first place, so lost was she in its retelling. Now Ciri wondered how long Geralt had known. How quickly had he figured out her strategy?
Obviously taking her silence as affirmation, Geralt continued. His voice wasn’t angry. Mildly annoyed, if nothing else, but not angry. “Every time we talk, you always bring up something from the past. It’s clear you’re trying to get me to remember something, but after all this time, not one thing has come back. And, honestly, I don’t think anything is going to. At this point, I’m tired of feeling like I need to be someone else. I’m tired of you talking to me as if I am someone else. Can’t we just talk like normal?”
Feeling a bit chastised, Ciri found it difficult to hold Geralt’s gaze. He was right. She was inadvertently belittling Geralt, treating him as if he didn’t matter unless he regained his memories. “Of… of course,” she stammered. “No, you’re right. I… I’m sorry.”
Geralt stared at her for a moment and she eventually met his eyes. She saw a great sadness there framed by loneliness.
“You want him back. The Geralt you knew before,” he stated candidly.
Startled by Geralt’s frankness, Ciri struggled for words. “No! No. I… I mean… I mean yes, but.” At the growing dejectedness on Geralt’s face, Ciri stopped herself. She took a deep breath to organize her thoughts before she continued. “Geralt,” she started earnestly, “just because you’re different now doesn’t mean I don’t love you just as much as I did before. You will always be important to me. No matter what.”
Geralt seemed somewhat mollified, though his face remained forlorn. He shrugged, heaving a huge sigh. “Then I don’t know what you want from me.”
It took a moment for Ciri to answer and she hated herself for it, the span of time only confirming everything Geralt was feeling. But she just didn’t have any ready answer for him. What did she want from him? This whole time, she knew she wanted the old Geralt back, but she never really considered how he felt about it. And now it seemed that her efforts had only left Geralt feeling unwanted, like he wasn’t good enough as he was.
She did want Geralt back. With all her heart, she did. But that didn’t mean that this Geralt wasn’t important to her. That distinction was clear to Ciri, but she didn’t know how to express it. Any way she put it seemed to come out badly. She settled with something simple.
“I just want you to be happy.” It was at least partially true.
Geralt shrugged again. “I am happy. Are you?”
Ciri took in a breath immediately to answer, “Of course,” but the words never left her mouth. She was forced to close her mouth awkwardly, never able to find her voice after that. They stared at each other, Ciri searching his eyes even as she searched inside herself for a response, her gaze falling from his after a minute of introspection. Smiling sadly, Geralt eventually left her to her silence, their conversation having already fallen apart.
Later that night, Ciri lay wide awake in her bed, Geralt’s question haunting her.
Was she happy? She had thought that she was, but everything had been turned on its head. She had always operated under the assumption that Geralt had wanted to become who he used to be. She had fought so desperately to bring him back in their supposed shared desire for it. Now she found out that he didn’t care about his memories, and that bringing them up did nothing but hurt him.
Ciri didn’t know where to go from there. Did they give up on him? Or risk offending him? Which was worse?
It seemed extremely selfish to keep trying to stimulate Geralt’s memory at this point. Ciri couldn’t do that to him. She couldn’t purposefully upset him just because she wanted something more.
It was decided then. Ciri would steer clear of bringing up Geralt’s past.
She went to sleep feeling better about what had happened and about moving forward.
But Ciri’s resolve was tested to the fullest over the coming weeks, and it proved much harder than she had thought it would be not to talk of the past. She didn’t know if it was because she had formed such a habit of discussing his memories or if some natural path of their conversations always veered that way, but Ciri couldn’t help but coming around to some old story. Every time, she would catch herself midsentence and glance up guiltily at Geralt. Sometimes he would notice and sometimes he wouldn’t. Her abrupt silence, however, always seemed to kill the conversation, at least for her.
After a while, Ciri found herself staying away from Geralt, not wanting to upset him, but knowing she couldn’t help herself when she was in his presence. She only allowed herself to talk to him in a group setting. That way, if she found herself stalking familiar ground, she could just remain silent and let someone else steer the conversation in a safer direction until Ciri could join in again.
If she did find herself in Geralt’s sole company, Ciri turned the eager listener, letting Geralt do the talking and only offering little tidbits of commentary when appropriate.
Ciri hoped she wasn’t overcorrecting from her previous mistake, but she really did want Geralt to be happy and this was the only way she knew how to respect his wishes. He deserved to be happy after everything he had been through, everything he had done to save her. Even if he had forgotten all of it.
Even if she still didn’t have an answer to his question.
Summer was coming to an end, autumn stretching forth its withering hand and bathing the land in a new kind of beauty. The leaves crumpled and turned, the golds and crimsons and oranges casting a perpetual sunset. Pleasantly cool days wrapped up with chilly nights. The sun set earlier every night, the sky forever endeavoring to reflect the auburn magnificence below.
It should have been a peaceful time.
But Geralt was plagued by guilt and self-doubt. He wasn’t sure whether he should stay at the Chameleon for much longer.
Ciri was avoiding him. She had grown quieter and quieter around him ever since he had confronted her. Yen was distant if affable. Zoltan was so busy with his card trade that he frankly wasn’t around much, though he was always willing to lend Geralt an ear. Dandelion…well, Dandelion was as he always was. At least that never seemed to change.
Still, Geralt was starting to feel like he was overstaying his welcome. A feeling that was confirmed one night when Geralt overheard a conversation between Ciri and Yen.
He was lying in bed, sleep eluding him, when he could hear voices coming from upstairs. Many people might have considered his witcher hearing a blessing, but he begged to differ. Zoltan’s snoring every night was proof enough that it was a curse. Now, he could hear Yen and Ciri talking quietly from the room above him.
There were indistinct sniffles followed by soothing noises. Then Ciri spoke, clearly weepy.
“I took things too far, Yen. You warned me not to push him, but I did it anyway. And now I can’t even be around him. I tried, but I don’t know how to talk to him like he’s not who he used to be.”
“I think we all find it hard to reconcile the man that lives with us now to the man he used to be,” Yen replied comfortingly.
“It’s been so long.” There was a pause before Ciri continued, her voice despairing. “I don’t think he’s ever coming back.”
Yen sighed deeply. “Ciri,” she started, her tone a bit more stern. “Remember when Geralt’s mind was enslaved and he came here for you? You never gave up on him. Why?”
Ciri seemed flustered by the question, stuttering out her response. “I…because. Because, back then, there was something we could do to save him. Back then, he wanted to come back. And he was still himself, still Geralt, even if he was buried beneath Endir’s sorcery. But not now. You can’t tell me you think there’s a chance he’ll return.”
“Just because we can’t see a solution, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. You didn’t give up on him then and you can’t give up on him now. And whether he regains his memory or not, we owe him our love.”
“I know! And I do love him, I really do!” Ciri declared, somewhat louder. “But I just don’t know how I can look at him and not see everything I miss about him.” Her voice started cracking in her distress. “And I know that’s not fair to him. He deserves to be happy, no matter who he is. I feel like such a terrible person. He needs me now more than ever and yet I can’t even talk to him without messing everything up!”
Ciri broke down into shuddering sobs that were muffled, Geralt supposed, by Yen’s shoulder. At the same time, Geralt’s eyes fell in silent rumination, his feelings of guilt compounding.
Once Ciri had composed herself, she went on, “I just don’t know what to do, Yen.”
Yen’s reply was soft and warm. “We wait. It’s all we can do.”
“How?” Ciri asked miserably.
Some silent exchange must have passed between them because Geralt heard no more after that. He thought they might say more, but he didn’t hear anything again until a while later when Yen’s footsteps receded down the stairs.
He was tearing them apart.
And while he liked his home here, there was a part of him that fidgeted at his fixedness. A nagging itch longed for him to be on the move, an itch that he couldn’t quite explain. Regardless, the timing seemed perfect for him to leave. They could go on with their lives and he could travel the world, experiencing all that he could. Even if it was for the second time around.
Maybe it was time for him to move on. Maybe it was time for them all to move on.
Sleep didn’t come easily that night and when it did, it was afflicted with horrific nightmares, the details of which, Geralt could never remember. He awoke many times throughout the night and when he did, all that was left was a lingering afterthought of pain or anger or sorrow and even that faded as Geralt drifted back to sleep over and over again.
The next day, Geralt was distant. Dandelion was the only one still at the Chameleon, the others having gone off to their various activities. He approached Geralt around noon, catching him staring off into the distance.
“Are you alright, Geralt? You’re acting strangely today.”
Geralt hadn’t even known Dandelion was there until he had spoken, absorbed in his own thoughts as he was. He startled and swung to face Dandelion, plastering what he hoped was a sincere smile on his face. “Yeah. I’m fine.” Geralt didn’t want to make a scene.
Dandelion looked suspicious, but let the matter pass. “If it was the fish last night, then I need to have a word with my supplier. In fact, I might just do that anyway. I’ve been meaning…”
In a couple of seconds, Geralt had already tuned Dandelion out, though the bard continued to prattle as he strode around the room attending to his tavern’s various needs. Geralt took his leave when Dandelion left through the front door, mumbling to himself about skyrocketing fish prices. Geralt headed to his room, slumping onto the edge of his bed and whiling away the rest of the day deep in thought.
He should just leave. There was no reason for him to stay, not really. And there were many reasons for him to go. They didn’t need him there. He was nothing more than a burden.
Despite his arguments, it still took Geralt until almost sundown to muster the courage to walk out the door. No one was around, Dandelion was still out somewhere in Novigrad.
It was now or never.
With a provisioned pack slung over his shoulder, Geralt stepped out into a twilit Novigrad, glancing back at the only place he had ever called home.
One day he would come back, he told himself, though he knew deep down that it was unlikely.
As the sun fell, Geralt stepped across the bridge to the East. He had left Roach behind. As easy as it would have been to travel with a horse, Geralt wasn’t very confident that he could control the beast anyway, so he figured he was better off without him.
He had gone a couple miles when total darkness blanketed the countryside, only the occasional lantern from a homestead visible in the distance. In this particular case, Geralt was happy about his witcher mutations. The night was dark, but he could see through the gloom easily and so he kept walking.
He didn’t quite know where he was going to go, but he knew there was a town about a day’s ride from Novigrad; he had seen it marked on some of the maps Ciri had shown him once. He supposed that was as good a place as any to start with. Once he had built up some distance between him and Novigrad, he could decide what his end destination would be.
A few miles more and Geralt came into some trees, the road cutting through a small patch of woods. The silence deepened around him as the thick trunks smothered the night air and the sounds wafting along it.
Then, out of nowhere, a vicious snarl rent the night. Howls and yips trailed closely behind, a pack of wolves streaming out of the trees to Geralt’s right.
Panic had Geralt backpedaling away from them, tripping over the wagon ruts in the ground as he ran for the cover of the woods. He hadn’t brought a sword, hadn’t even thought about it. Even if he had, it was doubtful he could have done anything with it. Now he was regretting that decision. It sure would have been nice to have some form of protection, no matter how well he could utilize it.
The leader of the pack was a full length ahead of his brethren and leapt onto Geralt, biting deep into his arm. Geralt cried out and punched the wolf in the nose out of reflex. Stunned, the wolf pulled back.
With the time he had bought himself, Geralt scrabbled up a nearby tree, badly sheering his arms on the tough bark on his way. Pulling himself up onto a low branch, Geralt threw himself over the limb, tucking his legs up just in time to avoid the pack’s snapping jaws. They circled the tree, the leader infuriated at Geralt’s attack and subsequent escape. Heart pounding, Geralt could do nothing but clutch his bleeding left arm and stare down at the biting teeth flashing in the darkness.
The wolves tried unfalteringly to reach him, running up the trunk of the tree with snarls and growls, sharp canines falling just short of Geralt’s position. They didn’t cease their assault for nearly fifteen minutes, a stretch that felt much longer to Geralt. Finally, their ardor failing, their tongues waggling with panted breaths, the wolves trotted off into the gloom. Geralt thought he could just see the glow of their eyes as they turned back at the edge of his vision.
Too afraid to disembark from the tree, Geralt remained there for some time, at some point falling asleep leaned up against the trunk. Dawn came and the growing light roused him. He hadn’t realized he had been there all night. Presuming it safe enough, Geralt climbed down. Of course, his arm stung painfully and had seized up during the night so his dismount was more of a sliding fall down the trunk which further skinned his arms and hands.
He was back safely on the ground, but he had been thoroughly spooked by the whole affair. Perhaps he wasn’t ready to leave. He hadn’t considered the dangers of the world when making his decision. Hadn’t considered much beyond simply leaving. His decision might have been a bit rash, though he still felt it was necessary.
For now, at least, he would have to return. His arm needed tending and he needed to figure out some way to defend himself. Maybe he would try his hand at swordplay. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to see if he possessed some innate skill. If, by some chance, he had some ability, he could be on his way, at least somewhat capable of defending himself against minor troubles.
Until then, he would head back to Novigrad, a journey he wasn’t particularly looking forward to.
His arm had stopped bleeding during the night, but it still throbbed unremittingly as Geralt made his way to the Chameleon. He could hear commotion inside when he came up to the back door. He opened it to find all four of his friends standing there, frantic and worried. Ciri was the first to spot him and she jogged over to him, pulling him into a hug.
She stepped back and peered up at him, both reproach and concern in her voice. “Where have you been!? We’ve been searching for you all night.”
Geralt skirted over the eyes of everyone there, finally returning his gaze to Ciri. “I… I got lost,” he lied. He had left his pack out back, not wanting them to question him about it. “I went for a walk and I guess I got turned around. Some wolves attacked and forced me to spend the night in a tree,” he added sheepishly.
Suspicion rose on Ciri’s face, but before she could say anything, Yen came over and turned Geralt’s arms over, examining his bite wound and torn skin. “This needs to be cleaned and bandaged, but I don’t think it will pose much of a problem.”
She led him away, offering him a knowing smile, and Ciri just stared after them.
Thankfully, no one questioned him further about the incident, though Dandelion seemed to draw endless amusement from the situation.
“Geralt, treed by some wolves!” he laughed at dinner that night. “I never thought I’d see the day.” Zoltan had given a little chuckle at Dandelion’s comments, and Ciri and Yen had half-grinned as well. Even Geralt had joined in to show he was a good sport about it.
All the while, his lie stretched further and further between them.
He didn’t know why he didn’t tell them that he wanted to leave. They may very well be relieved for all he knew.
But he just couldn’t bring himself to do it.
He couldn’t leave right now anyway. Tomorrow, he would test out his swords and go from there. He needed to be able to defend himself. Until he could, there was no point in stirring the pot with talk of leaving. When the time came—he didn’t know.
Somehow, telling them that he was leaving felt like spitting in their faces, after the hospitality they had shown him. But then again, they deserved to know.
His indecision ate at him through the night, his indistinct nightmares resurfacing.
Was he not telling them for their sake? Or for his?
He honestly couldn’t say.
Ciri left early in the morning, the events of the day before unsettling her profoundly. Up until this point, she had been upset with who Geralt was now, but she never wanted him gone. Never. No matter what their relationship ended up being. That was one thought that had never even crossed her mind. When they couldn’t find him, it was like losing him to the cult all over again, not knowing whether he was even alive. She may have missed the old Geralt, but she would never wish any harm upon him, no matter who he was. Then he had returned, bloodied and beaten from an encounter with some wolves. Wolves. This new Geralt had always been different, but now it struck Ciri as to just how fragile he was. He could have died and that would have been it. Geralt gone. Permanently.
It was strange, how everything changed so quickly.
She couldn’t be near him, but at the same time, she had wanted him close by; his presence both troubling and comforting to her. The emotions had teetered back and forth, barely keeping themselves in balance. Geralt’s sudden absence had forced such a finality to the situation that everything had been torn asunder. Now she was spiraling out of control.
Plus there was the fact that Geralt had lied to them. She knew it from the instant the words had left his mouth. What she didn’t know was why he had done it. What was he hiding? And why was Yen covering for him? She had certainly glazed over Geralt’s lie quickly enough last night and Yen was not one to let something like that go.
Ciri would talk to her later about it, but right now she needed some fresh air and some time away from everyone. She needed to sort out exactly how she felt and how Geralt’s and her relationship needed to proceed. They couldn’t keep going like this. He deserved better and it was killing Ciri.
Not settling on any destination beforehand, Ciri’s feet unconsciously wandered to an old haunt well outside the city, a place that she and Geralt would often visit back before everything had happened. It was an old, rundown dock on the edge of a small pond, surrounded by trees. The wood comprising the dock was rotten and the pond devoid of fish, but they relished it anyway for its solitude. It was a place they could come and sit together, whiling the hours away talking, or just basking in the sun, enjoying the companionable silence they had so easily shared.
Ciri walked to the end of the dock, settling herself on the edge of it, feet dangling a few inches above the clear water. She stayed like that for hours, not even noticing when hunger gnawed at her belly, instead following the steady rise and then fall of the sun, the only thing she could count on to never change. The only thing that seemed to make sense right now.
The morning after Geralt had returned to the Chameleon, he woke and located his swords by the chest of his belongings in the corner of his room. Dressing quietly, he made a quick check through the tavern to make sure that everyone was gone and then strapped them on, heading out to the stable yard. Dandelion was still there, but he always slept late and could sleep through an earthquake, so Geralt wasn’t too worried about him.
It was a cool, but pleasant day, the azure sky stretching forth endlessly without a single cloud to disrupt its clarity. A bank of warm, autumn colors hung down over the fence encircling the yard, the trees still holding enough of their leaves to screen the area from the neighbors.
Awkwardly, Geralt pulled the steel sword from its sheath, having to check over his shoulder to verify he selected the correct one. They had explained the significance of the two swords to him when they had tried to get him to practice. Luckily, he had retained at least some of that information. Although Geralt doubted silver or steel would make much difference to a straw and burlap dummy.
The sword was weighty, much heavier than Geralt expected it to be. He marveled at how anyone could wield one for any length of time.
Experimentally, Geralt slowly sliced back and forth in front of him. He certainly didn’t have any expertise in the area, but Geralt surmised the blade to be extremely well-crafted. It stayed rooted in his hand throughout any movement, not pulling away on either the forward stroke or the recovery. Just for fun, Geralt gave the sword a twirl in his hand, something he had seen Ciri do quite often. But the hilt got away from him and the sword went clattering to the ground. Embarrassed, and furtively checking that Dandelion hadn’t come at the sound, Geralt picked up his sword and resumed swinging the sword out in front of him, sticking to simpler moves.
Pretty soon, he was getting bolder and bolder with his strokes, extending his arms and throwing his weight into each one. Out of nowhere, Geralt described an intricate circle of flourishes, ending with his hand somehow managing to twirl the sword perfectly. A second later, without thinking, Geralt thrust the blade into the heart of the dummy.
A face frozen in agony flashed before Geralt, a dreadful screech echoing in his ears.
He pulled the sword back immediately, dropping it as he recoiled in shock. The face was gone. Everything was normal, but Geralt’s heart still pounded in his chest. Panting, Geralt searched his surroundings, confirming that all was as it should be. He warily collected his sword from the ground, pausing a moment before gingerly sliding the tip into the dummy.
He withdrew the sword and approached the dummy now, running his hand over the stab wound, investigating the rough fabric for anything strange. Finding nothing, Geralt calmed his breathing, eventually going back to swinging the sword around the yard, avoiding the dummy for the time being.
After regaining some of his confidence, Geralt convinced himself that he had imagined the whole thing and proceeded toward the dummy from across the yard, pretending as if he were in a battle. He couldn’t seem to reproduce the dazzling flourishes he had done before, so his strokes were more power than skill, but he made his way closer and closer to his pretend foe, fighting off imagined opponents along the way. Sweating a bit now, Geralt finished a graceless thrust to his left. Recovering, he spun directly in front of the dummy and coiled himself for a powerful blow. He released a moment later, his sword slicing toward the dummy.
Just before the blade made contact with the dummy, Geralt was plunged into darkness, his sword falling through empty air and sending him stumbling.
He pulled himself erect, his sword hanging slackly down by his side. He didn’t know where he was or what was happening, but he was on edge from the abrupt change in scenery.
It was bitterly cold, his breath pluming out in front of him as he swiveled on the spot, searching for answers. Geralt found nothing but a frozen wasteland, some sourceless light giving just enough illumination for his witcher eyes to see several yards in any direction.
After a few rotations, Geralt spotted something at the edge of his vision, only visible because it was of a blackness deeper than its surroundings. Cautiously, Geralt strode toward it.
Once nearer to it, Geralt could see that it was a figure of a man, but seen only as a silhouette; a man of shadow made flesh. The edges of the figure were fluctuating and writhing in the wind, like a dark flame billowing and tearing.
Geralt halted abruptly, staring down the specter.
A true horror welled up inside Geralt at the sight of the man. His mouth dried and his throat constricted, all of the blood seeming to drain from his face. There was some primal instinct that was yelling at Geralt to run, to get away. But he couldn’t. He was frozen in terror.
Though the phantom hadn’t done anything, Geralt knew he was not a friend. He also knew that he would be as useless against this foe as he was against the wolves. Sure, he had a sword now, but he barely knew how to hold it, let alone wield it. There was nothing he could do and he couldn’t have felt more helpless.
Why was this specter here? What did it want?
The only answering voice was the pining wind slithering over the frozen ground.
The dark figure was just standing there, head bowed, hands by his sides.
Geralt was frozen in place at the sight of the man, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end. Though the man just stood there, his menace emanated forth, unnerving Geralt to his core.
Then the shadow man moved, turning his hand outward to reveal a sword made of darkness that Geralt hadn’t seen before, blended as it was against its black backdrop. At the same time, the man’s head lifted, revealing empty sockets for eyes. Inside was a blizzard of light, stark white against the pitch black of the man’s face.
Horrified, Geralt withdrew a step.
The phantom locked his eyes onto Geralt and stalked toward him at a measured pace.
It was all too much for Geralt. He turned and ran, clumsily tripping over his own feet in his haste. He stumbled and fell, scrambling backward on all fours before finally finding his feet again and taking off in earnest, only just managing to hold onto his sword. For whatever good it would do him.
Geralt checked back over his shoulder as he ran to measure his progress, but no matter how far or how fast he went, the phantom never lagged behind, even though he was moving at a mere walk.
Geralt faced forward again and stopped abruptly.
An endless tundra led into endless darkness. There was nowhere Geralt could go.
He would have to stand his ground. There was no other choice. He could run forever and never get away. He would have to face this foe eventually. It may as well be now. Before he wore himself out completely.
A little breathless, Geralt pivoted to face the encroaching specter, hands shaking at the prospect of what he must do.
Geralt was no warrior. Yet here he was, staring down an unknown enemy of unknown skill. Geralt had little illusion as to what would happen. He found it dubious that the phantom would be an amateur. And Geralt’s own experience amounted to about an hour of swinging a sword wildly. But he supposed it was better to die fighting than be stabbed in the back as he ran away. So he kept himself in check, holding his sword up in front of him.
The man was only a few yards away now. He raised his sword, ready to attack.
Faster than Geralt was expecting, the phantom struck, covering the remaining distance between them in the blink of an eye. Geralt barely positioned his sword in time to gracelessly block the blow, taking the full impact of it down his arms and almost allowing his own blade to crash back into himself. Throwing himself backwards, Geralt dodged the next attack, raising his sword vertically to prepare for another incoming strike.
The phantom feinted, then struck half a second later, catching Geralt completely off guard. Geralt’s blade was flicked to the side by its dark counterpart and, within the same breath, the man spun and bashed the pommel of his sword into the side of Geralt’s head.
The move was unnecessary, contemptuous. He could have easily killed Geralt, but he hadn’t. He was toying with Geralt. If the specter had had any perceivable facial features, Geralt thought he might be smirking.
As it was, Geralt was too preoccupied with the ringing in his ear and the throbbing reverberating through his skull to do anything but catch himself as he was flung to the ground. He drove his sword downward to break his fall, coming to a stop on one knee.
Something flashed before Geralt—an image of Ciri, frightened and worried, pinned beneath him.
Geralt flinched at the sight, shoving himself back to his feet. She had looked terrified of him, but he couldn’t imagine why. Still, the idea of evoking such a reaction from Ciri sent guilt shivering through Geralt.
He didn’t have any time to linger on the feeling though as the phantom closed in again. Geralt mustered his full concentration to fight the man off, but there just wasn’t much he could do. Every time he would go to block or deflect or strike back, the shadow blade would inconceivably shift positions. Geralt couldn’t tell if it was because of his lack of experience or if some sorcery was involved. Adding to the problem was the fluidity of the specter’s form, which made it even harder to track his movements.
Increasingly, Geralt discerned he couldn’t win this fight. He was just too inept, too slow. Utterly useless.
Finally, Geralt decided that he had to do something or he was undoubtedly going to die. So he went all out, wildly swinging his sword with as much speed and strength as he could muster. The tactic seemed to work initially. The phantom yielded a few steps, the first time he had even been driven back. But Geralt’s strategy left him unwittingly vulnerable. What Geralt took as concession was merely the phantom biding his time, waiting for an opening.
He found it when Geralt raised his arms a little too far, hoping to cleave diagonally across his foe’s body. With blinding speed, the phantom sliced across Geralt’s midsection, blood spurting forth in the wake of his blade. Any deeper and Geralt would have been disemboweled.
Howling, Geralt dropped his sword, hunching over and clutching at his wound. The pain echoed through him, rustling up an image of a blood-coated knife clasped in his hand. As the image deepened, Geralt could feel steel dragging from his flesh, the knife tumbling onto sullied snow.
Geralt fought to remain upright, but he eventually collapsed to the ground, whimpering and writhing in pain. Blood gushed out over his hands as he tried to hold himself together.
Two shadowed boots stepped up to him. Looming over Geralt, the phantom finally spoke, derision apparent in his voice. “Give up, witcher. You are powerless against me.”
For some reason, the voice was familiar to Geralt, stoking some intense loathing within him, though he couldn’t place whose it was.
At first, Geralt thought it might be easier to concede. He was going to die anyway, he could feel the life draining from him with every passing second. Why fight the inevitable? Maybe this phantom would grant him a quick death and spare him the pain. He didn’t know how much more he could take. Every breath, every miniscule movement was agony.
But, just as Geralt was prepared to give in, some untapped inner strength pulled him back from the brink of hopelessness, rebelled against the idea that he would allow himself to show such weakness. He wasn’t going to die. Not like this. Not without a fight. He wasn’t going to give this smug demon the satisfaction.
If he was going to stand a chance, he had to be better. He had to be more. The only way he would survive this encounter was to become this legend everyone kept telling him about. He needed to become this Geralt, this White Wolf.
It was the first time Geralt had ever genuinely wanted to be the man he supposedly was, the first time he had ever acknowledged that the myth was real. But it was also the first time he had needed it to be. It had to be true. And Geralt would have to make it so.
Or he would die.
Clenching his jaw against the pain and setting his mind to the task ahead, Geralt snatched up his sword and sprang to his feet, driving forward. Vicious snarls escaped Geralt’s lips with every stroke, borne of both anguish and determination.
Stunned at Geralt’s sudden resurgence, the phantom was forced backward. His eyes, empty as they were, contorted with anger and outrage.
Geralt kept up his barrage, somehow managing to keep the phantom on the defensive. After a while, it was as if his sword had a mind of its own, moving inexplicably into place. The strokes he employed resounded within him, a familiarity growing in his limbs. The fight moved into his understanding, but beyond it as well. He saw without seeing what the phantom was attempting to do and knew without knowing exactly what he needed to do to stop it. Geralt was by some means fluent in the language of swordplay and now the phantom was the one struggling.
Geralt laid out his onslaught, vying to win their spectral duel. Though the phantom never backed down, he was always a half step behind Geralt, always unprepared for what Geralt presented next, yet still capable enough to hold Geralt off.
The battle continued in dazzling displays of dexterity and agility, strength and speed, fortitude and will. Their blades clashed nonstop, the steel pealing across the frozen landscape.
Despite the pain building in his abdomen, Geralt pushed on, refusing to accept defeat. However, he could do nothing about the vast amount of blood he was losing. Geralt was slowing, opening up more and more opportunities for the phantom. The playing field leveled and the phantom was finally able to halt his retreat, actually striking back for the first time since Geralt had commenced his attack.
Geralt deflected the blow to the side, stepped around to the opposite side, and swung wide with a horizontal arc. Able to recover in time, the phantom caught Geralt’s sword with his own slanted across his body. Geralt’s blade slid down the opposing sword, stopping at the crossguard, the length of his blade just inches from the phantom’s side. Geralt threw his weight onto his sword, but the phantom let his own blade fall, dropping out the crossguard from underneath Geralt’s blade and sending it slashing to the ground. In the same movement, the phantom brought up his knee into Geralt’s gaping wound as Geralt stumbled forward.
A thunderous roar ripped from Geralt at the explosion of pain. He doubled over instinctually, only just keeping from falling over.
Some sixth sense told Geralt to move and, with a monumental force of will, he pulled himself backward, tucking his sword in tight, pivoting to avoid the downward stroke that was aiming to cut off his head. It was so close that a lock of Geralt’s ivory hair fell away onto the ice. As he completed his rotation, Geralt came out to the side of the phantom as his sword concluded its plunge through the air. Before the phantom could move, Geralt brought his sword down upon his arms, severing both above the wrist. Then, without any conscious thought, Geralt thrust out his hand and a torrent of flame streamed forth over the phantom’s head and shoulders.
Piercing cries shattered the chill air.
The phantom frantically batted at the flames engulfing him, backing away. Geralt, meanwhile, slouched over his wounds, grunting at his own pain.
When the flames eventually died out, a mangled, disfigured face stared back at Geralt. The shadows had lifted, revealing a tortured face that displayed only bitterness and disdain. The nose was missing along with most of both ears. The phantom’s two stumps had been cauterized as he had swatted at the flames and now stood as blackened, charred tips peeking out from ragged sleeves.
Instantly, Geralt recognized that face.
It was Endir.
At the sight of the sorcerer that had caused them all so much grief, Geralt’s memories charged through his mind, indiscriminate in their order or scale. Decades of experiences and emotions hurtled back, churning within Geralt as he struggled to take them all in. But there were so many that Geralt couldn’t keep up with them. Pain thundered through his head, magnifying with each new memory that shoved its way in. Geralt staggered, his sword slipping from his hand as he clutched at his head. His knees hit something cold and hard and Geralt realized he had fallen; he was so blinded by the pain that he hadn’t noticed.
From among the deluge of memories competing for Geralt’s attention, a few stood out above the rest, lingering just long enough for Geralt to identify them. He focused on them, grounding himself against the agony that threatened to split him open. He saw Ciri mostly, and Yen. Zoltan and Dandelion popped up as well. All of Geralt’s friends, his family. Then came Kaer Morhen, and Vesemir and the others he had trained with, followed by endless battles, whether they were against human or monster. Next, Geralt saw countless cities and vistas, so many locations that he struggled to name them all. Last of all were the emotions, though they were infinitely more powerful than any sight or sound or smell that had come before. They stabbed into Geralt and he thought he truly would shatter as the scope of their full force overwhelmed him. They perforated his memories, tearing them apart, reordering them, but ultimately binding them all together.
Everything collided in a whirling vortex in Geralt’s mind and once again he lost sight of everything but the pain, a burgeoning force that felt like it was trying to claw its way out of his skull.
After an eternity, the pain tapered off to the point where Geralt could begin to sift through what he had witnessed, what he had felt. Ever so slowly, Geralt pieced his life back together. As he did so, the pain in his head abated until he finally had a handle on who he was. By the time he opened his eyes, the pain was gone, and not just that in his head, but from the wound at his midsection as well. In fact, Geralt looked down to find that there was no wound at all.
It took a moment for Geralt to realize the magnitude of what had just occurred.
He was back. Geralt was finally back.
A tormented growl tore Geralt’s attention back to the present, back to Endir who stood before Geralt, lip curling.
“You will never be free of me. You are mine,” Endir ground out between his teeth, fuming at Geralt’s perseverance.
Geralt glowered back at Endir, his lips quivering, hardly concealing the snarl that threatened to burst forth. Geralt’s hand quested for his sword, his eyes never leaving Endir’s. His fingers brushed cold steel and a sudden thrill surged through Geralt. He knew Endir was powerless, defenseless. If he could have done something, he would have done so already. There was nothing he could do to stop Geralt now.
They had defeated Endir once already. And Geralt was going to put an end to this charade once and for all.
When he picked up his sword and hauled himself to his feet, Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, the Butcher of Blaviken arose.
He gave Endir one last sneer. “Not anymore.”
Endir bellowed as Geralt swung his blade savagely across Endir’s shoulders, cleanly cutting off his head. Endir’s snarling visage was frozen onto his face as his head rolled away.
The next moment, his body juddered and started collapsing into itself. Geralt stepped back in confusion, not sure what to make of the unexpected development. Endir’s body jerkingly shrunk into its core, drawing to a single point. Once it had all but disappeared, the body imploded into a dazzling light. Geralt threw his arms over his face in an attempt to shield himself from its brilliance, but the light exploded outward, smothering all before it and throwing Geralt backward. It felt as though he were frozen in time, flying backward through the air and surrounded by nothing but blinding white light.
When he struck ground again, Geralt was on his back in the stable yard of the Chameleon.
Panting and momentarily stymied, Geralt shoved himself onto his elbows, searching around him, but finding no one but himself. He was drenched in sweat, his hair plastered to his face. Across from him, the dummy was smoldering across the shoulders, its head decapitated. Geralt spotted the head at the dummy’s feet, the burlap completely burned away, only a pile of charred straw left on the ground, still ablaze.
Then Dandelion’s voice rang out from Geralt’s left and he almost jumped at it.
“What in the world is going on out here!” Dandelion spotted the fire and quickly grabbed a bucket full of water near the door and chucked it on the straw to douse the flames. He turned back to Geralt and his face morphed from anger to concern, as if he had just noticed Geralt lying on the ground. “Are you alright? What happened?” he offered as he stepped toward Geralt. He took in the sword in Geralt’s hand and gave Geralt a look that a parent would give to a small child when they were doing something too dangerous. “Look, I know the others wanted you to practice with your swords, but you could really hurt yourself. You need to be more careful.”
Geralt didn’t respond. He was still trying to process what had happened.
“Geralt?” Dandelion asked, now seemingly suspicious of the haunted look on Geralt’s face. “You don’t look so good. I think maybe you ought to come inside.”
Suddenly, Geralt’s mind caught up with reality and only one thought snapped into his head. He shot his eyes to Dandelion. “Dandelion, where’s Ciri?” Geralt demanded urgently.
Dandelion was clearly caught off guard by Geralt’s sudden request. “What? I…I don’t know.”
Geralt pulled himself to his feet and sheathed his sword. “I need to find her. Now.” Geralt was trying to be patient, but his urgency made his words come out a bit rudely.
Dandelion held up his hands. “I’m sorry, Geralt. I don’t know where she is. Maybe she went down to the docks?”
Geralt opened his mouth to reply, but Dandelion’s mention of the docks revived a memory within Geralt and he ended up remaining silent. He dropped his gaze, plucking a memory from years ago from his newfound cache. The sight didn’t go unnoticed by Dandelion who squinted at Geralt.
“Are you ok?” he asked again.
In response to the sound, Geralt looked up, but didn’t bother answering. He simply took off running, the gate crashing open as he charged through it, Dandelion calling out after him.
“Wait! Where are you going?”
Feet pounding the cobblestone streets, Geralt raced out of the city, heading south. He had no way of knowing whether Ciri would be where he thought she was, but something told him she would, a connection that tied them together in some inexpressible way. A connection that, until a few minutes ago, had been severed. Now that it had snapped back into place, Geralt had to see her, for more reasons that even he knew.
He ran for hours, despite the burning in his legs and the massive stitch in his side. On his way, Geralt passed farmers and peasants and travelers, many confused by Geralt’s haste, a few dashing to the side, thinking they were under attack. Geralt ignored them, focusing instead on the jubilant energy bubbling up within him.
He was free. He was finally free.
He rejoiced in using his body, in the feel of his legs steady beneath him. In the sights and sounds and smells he could review at his leisure. The world seemed more colorful, more alive than it had in a long time, like a dismal veil had been lifted from his eyes. A great peace settled over him.
Yet, for all his freedom, Geralt only had one thought on his mind, only one person he wanted to see. He let his feet carry him to her, the beauty of the world seemingly holding its breath in anticipation of their reunion.
All would be right once he found her.
When he spotted the faint trail through the trees that led directly to a small pond, Geralt finally slowed, allowing himself to catch his breath. The clearing was still half a mile or so down the trail. Geralt halted for a moment, finding himself suddenly nervous at what would happen. He remembered everything from the past few months, including what he had said to her, how she had felt about him after that. He didn’t know how she was going to react.
Nevertheless, Geralt set forth along the trail at a walk, steeling himself against any possibility. He was just coming around a bend when he spotted raven curls bouncing around an ivory face, violet eyes sparkling underneath.
Those eyes wandered to Geralt’s and Yen stopped in her tracks.
She knew, Geralt could tell. Without him saying a word, she knew. He drew up to her, but still he held his silence, the trees pressing in on their intimate moment.
Yen studied him for a moment, then asked, longingly, “Geralt?”
He slowly dipped his head.
An enormous sigh of relief emanated from Yen’s lips and tears pooled in her eyes. Neither of them said anything. Rather, they shared the emotions between them as they played out across both of their faces.
Finally, Geralt broke the silence. “Where is she?” he asked calmly.
The elation and relief on Yen’s face turned sorrowful and she looked to her left, along the trail where she had come from.
With one last glance at Yen, Geralt continued on, feeling Yen’s eyes following him down the trail, though she stayed where she was. He walked another five minutes before he came around the final bend and the trail opened up to a clearing surrounded by trees, a quaint pond situated in the middle. Lily pads coated the surface of the water and tall reeds stuck out along the banks. The sounds of the frogs, crickets, and birds radiated toward Geralt, seeking to settle his racing heart. The late afternoon sun was falling from the sky, nearing the tree line. Its reflection struck across the still water, leading directly toward the decrepit dock. And there, seated at the very edge of it, was Ciri.
She sat with one leg dangling and the other pulled up next to her, her arm wrapped around it and head resting on her knee. She stared off into the distance, unaware that Geralt stood behind her.
He came to a halt at the other end of the dock, not wanting to intrude so fully. “Ciri,” he said softly.
Ciri startled at his voice, sniffing loudly and half turning to face him. When she saw him from the corner of her eye, she turned back to face the water and hurriedly wiped her eyes as if embarrassed that Geralt had found her in such a state. She snuffled a few more times and cleared her throat before she spoke. “I’m sorry, Geralt. I just need to be alone right now. Let’s talk tomorrow, alright?”
Geralt’s heart plummeted at her words, but he didn’t move. “Please, Ciri. Please just look at me,” he begged, his voice catching in his throat.
A moment passed and Ciri took in a deep breath through her nose, letting it out in a sigh before she visibly composed herself. He shifted restlessly while she pulled herself together and stood.
When she finally turned and met his gaze, his fidgeting ceased. Both of them stood stock still, their gazes piercing each other.
In Ciri’s eyes Geralt saw a hardness struggling to conceal something raw underneath, an old wound that was festering and eating her alive. He saw a great sadness and a distance that he had never seen from her before. Above it all, though, there sparkled a kindling of hope, however faint it may have been.
As they remained motionless, a question lingered in her gaze, but it was driven down by some unwillingness to let herself believe what was in front of her. Her eyes searched his face while the world held its breath around them.
Geralt knew she had been aching for this moment for a long time. They both had.
He wasn’t going to leave her waiting any longer.
Before Ciri could say anything, Geralt spoke. “I remember. I remember everyth—”
Ciri crashed into him, cutting off his words, pressing her forehead into his chest as shuddering sobs racked her body. He returned her embrace, fiercely wrapping his arms around her and holding her, closing his eyes in a sudden gasp of relief.
“I missed you so much,” her muffled wail came from his shoulder.
Geralt breathed her in, rejoicing in their embrace, but also lamenting her distress. “I missed you too. But it’s all over now. Endir’s gone. For good this time,” he soothed into her hair. And for the first time, he believed it himself.
She pulled back and peered red and puffy eyes up at him, her cheeks slick with tears. Her brows creased in confusion. “What do you mean?”
Geralt huffed a laugh, breaking into a smile. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll explain later.”
Ciri remained confused for a second before she seemed to dismiss the matter, echoing Geralt’s smile. She buried herself in his chest once more, though her sobbing had ceased, and Geralt held her there, sharing in her need to be close.
As they embraced, Yen came around the corner and stopped, tears in her eyes, but a smile on her face.
They stood there for a long while, basking in each other’s presence, breathing in the shared joy and sadness and peace. They were simply content to be near each other, content to be whole. For however long they could keep it.
Geralt had been such a fool. He had had all the opportunities in the world to possess what they shared now. He could have been with Ciri when this had all started, perhaps could have even prevented it from happening. But he had chosen to stay away. And for what? Despite recovering his memories, he couldn’t even recall what he had been doing the weeks before Ciri had called out to him in his dreams.
He had been wasting his life away from his friends and family. Wasting his life with death and destruction, when there was peace and love so close at hand.
And by the time he had realized it, it had almost been too late. Endir had almost taken it from him.
It had been a long road back, but Geralt had finally made it. Miraculously, they all had.
He wasn’t going to take another moment for granted, wasn’t going to let the precious memories slip through his grasp when he needed merely to reach out and take them. He had to gather them while he still could.
Nothing could last forever. He knew he would have to leave Novigrad at some point, would have to continue on the Path. And Ciri would as well. She was blossoming into a capable young woman. Soon, she too would go off on her own adventures.
Geralt didn’t know what the future held; he didn’t know what forces might seek to tear them apart, be them sinister or benign. But right then, it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but that moment. A moment of reconnection. A moment of rightness in the world after so much had gone wrong. Geralt knew well enough that those moments were few. That they had to be held onto and cherished.
So Geralt held onto Ciri, held onto her for as long as he could.
It didn’t seem like much. Not after all that had happened. But, for Geralt, it was everything. He couldn’t ask for more.
For the tiniest, fleeting moment, it was enough.
It had been a month or so now since Geralt had recovered his memory and Ciri still couldn’t help but smile every time she saw him. Sometimes, she would fear that his return had been nothing but a hopeful dream, that she would wake up and he would have lost his memory again. But then he would bark at Dandelion for his usual nonsense, or sling a sarcastic quip at Yen, earning a withering look in return, and Ciri would laugh inwardly, sighing in relief at the same time.
She sought out his company eagerly and he was more than happy to oblige, his need seemingly matching hers.
They went riding into Velen quite a bit, swords strapped to their backs, packs laden with supplies enough for a few days’ travel. Whenever they found a good place to stop, they would tether their horses and practice with their swords, only stopping when the light grew too faint for Ciri to see. Sometimes not even then. Ever the teacher, Geralt wanted Ciri to be able to fight in the dark. She didn’t mind, of course. She relished any chance she got to train with Geralt and not just because he was a good teacher.
When they finished, they would lay back in the grass and watch the stars, not bothering to start a fire until it was so cold neither one of them could stand it. Most of the time, they wouldn’t even sleep, instead talking until the sunrise painted the landscape. They would be so tired by then that they would hurry back to Novigrad and their warm beds, turning their return trip into a race. Which, of course, Ciri always won.
They continued their little adventures until the season turned and it was too cold to be enjoyable anymore. The leaves had all fallen, the sound of boots crunching through piles of browning foliage pervading the city. The air turned nippy—a warning of winter’s swift approach.
Ciri couldn’t believe it had been almost a year now since Geralt had been taken. Almost a year since she had thought she had lost him for good.
By some whim of fate, he had come back to them. And miraculously all in one piece.
It hadn’t been an easy road. Looking back, Ciri knew she had made many mistakes along the way. There were so many things she wished she could do over. But none of that mattered now. All she could do was learn from them and move on.
It had all worked out in the end.
When the first snows came, Geralt announced he was going to stay through the winter, a decision which Ciri was thankful for. She wasn’t ready to say goodbye to him. Not yet. Though she knew he couldn’t stay forever.
Even Yen had stated her intentions to stay, citing her desire to keep an eye on Geralt, to make sure everything was alright with him mentally. Yen said that Geralt’s case was one of a kind and the study of it could prove useful for future incidents reported within the Lodge.
That’s what Yen said, but Ciri knew she was lying. She, like Ciri, just couldn’t help but want to be near Geralt right now.
Truly, Ciri treasured every moment she spent with him.
Then, one particularly cold night, when no one wanted to venture from their houses and the Chameleon lay silent, all five companions gathered around the roaring fire. Dandelion, naturally, placed himself next to the mantel and dove into one of his stories. As it often was, it was some adventure he and Geralt had shared, though somehow the details always seemed to change.
“So there I was,” Dandelion began dramatically, “sleeping peacefully in our campsite when I hear a bloodcurdling scream coming from behind me. I sprang out of bed, instantly awake, scanning the darkness for trouble. Another scream broke through the silence, and suddenly I realized that Geralt was gone, though his swords still lay by the dying fire.”
Geralt was rolling his eyes by now, though Dandelion was undeterred. Ciri sniggered to herself.
“Snatching them up, I raced through the trees, breaking out onto the shores of a lake. By the grace of the gods, it was a full moon that night and I could see easily through the gloom. It was a good thing too because before me was Geralt beset by no less than ten drowners. He had gone to relieve himself, you see. He had had a little too much to drink that night,” Dandelion added as a sidebar, speaking from behind the back of his hand. Getting back to the main storyline, he puffed out his chest. “Without pausing for a moment or even considering what danger I would be putting myself in, I charged forward, leveling a savage war cry as I—”
“Come on, Dandelion. Do you honestly expect anyone to believe that?” Geralt cut in, exasperated. “Why can’t you just tell the story like it actually happened?”
“Sometimes we artists have to take certain liberties to entertain the crowd, to make things more exciting. Someone as dull as yourself wouldn’t understand that,” Dandelion countered haughtily, placing his hands on his hips.
Ciri could tell that Geralt was getting annoyed and she, Zoltan, and Yen all exchanged glances of suppressed mirth at Geralt and Dandelion’s banter.
Geralt raised his eyebrows incredulously. “More exciting?” he drawled. “Because I suppose it’s more exciting that you were doing the rescuing, rather than the screaming? As far as I remember, you were puking your guts out while the drowners snuck up on you.”
Dandelion violently pointed his finger at Geralt. “You were just as drunk as I was that night,” he snapped back, dropping the pretense out of indignation.
“Yeah, but some of us had the good sense not to wander off in the dark without bringing some kind of protection.”
Dandelion regained some of his air of confidence. “So you were out in the woods! No doubt to relieve yourself as I said.”
“I was out looking for you!” Geralt growled, throwing a hand toward Dandelion. “I heard your screaming and came running. And there were only three drowners, I might add.”
Dandelion balked at Geralt’s comment and looked at him like he were an amateur. “Why would you want to downplay how many drowners there were? You always embellish a story in its retelling. That’s just a given.” He ended with a look of derision slung in Geralt’s direction.
Geralt crossed his arms. “Some of us don’t feel the need to exaggerate the truth,” he threw back offhandedly.
Ciri was barely containing herself at this point, hiding her smile behind her hand as her shoulders shook with bouts of laughter. She looked at Geralt as he continued to squabble with Dandelion and for some reason the conversation they had had when he had asked if she was happy came flitting back to her.
She hadn’t really thought about that conversation much since then. So much had happened, so much had changed, that it had gotten pushed to the back of her mind. It hadn’t really seemed important.
Now her eyes roved around the room—to Geralt, arguing with Dandelion. To some people the argument might seem heated, but Ciri knew it was all friendly, that Geralt did it just as much to egg Dandelion on as to mitigate his own annoyance; to Dandelion, giving just as much as he got with Geralt; to Zoltan, chuckling as he took stock of his Gwent cards in the corner; to Yen and her wry smile as she watched the display.
As Ciri thought back to that question Geralt had asked her so long ago, she took in the sight of her friends, her family, and smiled.
And felt as though she finally had an answer.
I’ve really been wanting to do a story with Ciri for a while now, especially after my last story which looked into the ramifications of Ciri’s death. If Geralt was that affected by Ciri’s death, then how would that manifest itself while she was still alive? (Although these timelines are not connected in any way). How far would he be willing to go to save her? I’m going to be honest and say that I was actually planning on having him die at the end of this (that was long before I ever started actually writing because I always run the whole story through my head until I’m satisfied with it before I ever put anything down). But I changed the ending because A.) I admittedly just couldn’t bring myself to do it (though I was still willing to if I couldn’t come up with anything better), and B.) I fell in love with this ending more than his death. And I hope you agree! I did consider doing a choose your own adventure kind of thing, but that’s not really my style so I dismissed it. Anyway, thank you so much for sticking with me through it all and for all your amazing comments! I really hope you found it worth your while! Please leave a comment to let me know what you thought of it. Any feedback is always appreciated!