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Whatsoever a Man Soweth

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The fire in the grate crackled dully in the background as Lambert raised the bottle of vodka to his lips and drank. He winced as it burned its way down his throat. It was harsh shit—near undrinkable, bordering on poisonous for a human.

Lambert wasn’t exactly human, though.

The contract had gone poorly. Much more poorly than usual. The size and ferocity of the basilisk he’d been hired to kill had caught him off guard. The thing must have been hunting around the village where the notice had been posted for decades; it was as big as a house and hit harder than a shaelmaar. Lambert worked his fingers down his sides, grimacing, and counted three—no, four—broken ribs. He took another draught of the vodka and swished it around his mouth before spitting it into the empty bowl in front of him that had once contained rabbit stew. It came back viscous and bloody.

He was beginning to regret arguing with Keira. Well, that wasn’t completely true. He’d meant every damn word of what he’d said. But he was beginning to regret storming off at the end. Things had been comfortable in Nazair. Comfortable was the last fucking word he’d have used to describe this ramshackle hut that passed for a tavern in the east of what was now Nilfgaardian Temeria. The wind howled outside and the cracked panes of the windows rattled in their frames.

“Oi, what’re you doin’ here, cat-eyes?” a drunken voice slurred. Lambert looked up to see a red-faced man stumbling toward his table. “We don’t like your kind ‘round here.”

Lambert groaned. He wasn’t in any shape for a fight right now. “Get lost,” he growled, drawing the sign of Axii.

The man stumbled and rubbed his head as if he’d just been hit with a mallet, and then wandered off in the opposite direction. Lambert sighed and took another draught of his vodka. He had a splitting headache coming on, and the low roar of raucous conversation that filled the tavern certainly wasn’t helping.

At a table nearby, a man slapped the waitress’s ass hard and made her drop the tray of tankards she’d been carrying with a crash. His friends roared with laughter.

“Fuck this,” Lambert muttered to himself, draining his drink.

“Come now,” a jovial voice said from somewhere behind him. “Surely it isn’t all bad.”

Lambert stiffened, his hand twitching toward the hilt of his sword.

“I can assure you that you won’t be needing that,” the man continued, clapping Lambert on the shoulder and sliding into the seat across from him.

Lambert narrowed his eyes, sizing up the newcomer. He was of average height, with thinning hair cropped close to his skull and a scattering of rough stubble. His threadbare yellow jerkin and blue leggings marked him as a peasant, but his eyes betrayed cunning that sent a chill down Lambert’s spine. The man leaned back in his seat idly, with an expression on his face that made him look very much like a cat who had just caught an especially plump mouse.

“Who the fuck are you?” Lambert was still considering drawing his blade. There was something about the man that deeply unsettled him.

“Ah, how rude of me.” The man made a mock bow from his seated position. “Allow me to introduce myself. Gaunter O’Dimm, at your service.”

“Doesn’t answer my question. Who are you?” Lambert squinted at the man, trying to read something, anything, from his expression. People didn’t go out of their way to strike up a conversation with him. They were usually more than happy to pay the witcher for his services and send him hastily on his way. He didn’t exactly do much to endear himself to the common folk.

“A merchant, of sorts. Some have called me Master Mirror, others The Man of Glass. Gaunter O’Dimm will do nicely though, I think.” He glanced at Lambert’s hand and made a long-suffering expression. “Please do forgo the theatrics. I can assure you I’ve not come here to kill you.”

“Be a damn fool if you had,” Lambert spat back. “What do you want from me?”

“The question is not what I want from you, Lambert. The question is: what do you want from me?

The hairs on the back of Lambert’s neck stood up. “How the fuck do you know my name?”

O’Dimm chuckled. “I’m not omniscient, but I know quite a lot. And I’ve only ever heard tell of one witcher who wears two medallions round his neck.”

Aiden’s medallion nestled close to Lambert’s heart suddenly felt as if it were made of lead. “What could you possibly have that I want?”

“Allow me to explain.” O’Dimm leaned in, clearly quite at ease despite his proximity to Lambert’s murderous glare. “I am, indeed, a merchant of sorts. My specialty lies in granting certain requests. Things that are difficult to achieve for most men. One might say that I can make dreams come true.”

Lambert narrowed his eyes, sizing O’Dimm up. He shook his head. “I don’t want anything from you.”

“Nonsense.” O’Dimm smiled widely. “I can accomplish things most would consider impossible. Surely there’s something you want, in that bruised and broken heart of yours. Is there really nothing you regret? No one in all your years that you miss?”

Lambert clenched his jaw.

“Don’t you wish to see him again?” O’Dimm cajoled, waving his hand and conjuring a cloud of smoke that morphed and twisted to take on the shape of Aiden’s face.

Pain shot like a bolt through Lambert’s chest. “How—”

“A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart,” O’Dimm replied with the air of one quoting a great philosopher. He smiled. It didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“Fuck off.” Lambert drained his mug and dug in his pocket for a few coins. He tossed them down on the table and gathered up his belongings.

“No matter.” O’Dimm shrugged. “Should you change your mind, my offer stands. Opportunities like these come by but once in many lifetimes, Lambert. You’d do well not to pass it up.”

Lambert bristled. “Listen, asshole. I’m leaving. If you follow me, I”ll kill you. That’s a promise.”

O’Dimm threw back his head and laughed. “That would be very entertaining indeed.” He rose and bowed once more. “I’ll not trouble you further. If you do decide that you’d like to take me up on my offer, simply speak my name at a crossroads when the moon is high. I’ll find you.” He took a few steps toward the exit, paused, and looked back over his shoulder. “Don’t take too long.”

The merchant whistled to himself as he walked off into the night; a mournful, almost menacing tune that made the hairs on the back of Lambert’s neck stand on end. It was only after he’d vanished into the darkness and a wall of noise hit Lambert that he realized the tavern had fallen completely silent.

 

Whatsoever

Chapter Text

Lambert felt profoundly unsettled somewhere deep in his bones.

He’d been feeling this way for weeks—ever since that thrice-damned mirror merchant had walked into his life and torn open old wounds. It was as if O’Dimm had reached into his chest and dug up something ugly and wanting. His medallions hadn’t stopped humming since, emitting the faintest vibration though he could never sense any imminent danger. Darkness lurked somewhere over the horizon.

And yet…

And yet he couldn’t stop thinking about what the bastard had said that night at the tavern. The promises he’d made weren’t ones any mortal man could keep. Not even the most skilled sorceress Lambert had ever met would dare to promise that they could raise a man from the shadows and have him walk amongst the living once more. Necromancy was reviled by all but the most narcissistic of practitioners, and it was messy. O’Dimm had promised something else. Something more.

Lambert did his best to put it out of his head. He’d buried those dead. He’d done his mourning. Not all of it in healthy ways, but still, he’d done it. Now those ghosts had been roused from their slumber and were clamoring at the inside of his skull. So many questions left unanswered. So many regrets.

Lambert’s heart still twisted uncomfortably in his chest every time he so much as thought Aiden’s name. Time and distance had done nothing to dull the pain. Nor had the considerable amount of alcohol he’d consumed in an attempt to numb it. There were few reprieves to be found from something that cut this deep. The flesh would knit, but the soul—the soul was another matter.

He tried to suppress it. He tried to keep his head close to the ground, to focus on whatever contracts he could manage to pick up, but the thought remained.

Aiden.

As he sat licking his wounds at an inn, making a point of ignoring the sneers and stares of the other patrons, he wondered. As he swung his sword, bisecting yet another drowner, he wondered. As he rode along the rocky path, bitter rain pelting his skin like a storm of tiny knives, he wondered.

A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart.

O’Dimm’s words echoed through his head even when he tried not to think about that chance meeting in the dead of night. Aiden’s face glimmered back at him through a veil of smoke. And eventually…well, eventually curiosity got the best of him.

Vesemir would have told him that desperation makes men clumsy and stupid. That it makes them grasp for things that aren’t there, accept money from people they shouldn’t, and eventually trip and fall under the sharp of a witcher’s blade. But Vesemir wasn’t here anymore. And Lambert had had decades of practice at ignoring what he had to say.

The crossroads looked as good a place as any. It sat beside a field of decaying sunflowers between two ramshackle villages in the east of what had once been Temeria. The paths that converged there were small, barely more than cow trails, with shoots of grass and weeds intermittently trying to force their way through the packed earth and reclaim it as their own. The sign on the post was crudely painted. Lambert rolled his eyes upon noticing that the name of the nearest town was badly misspelled.

Still, O’Dimm hadn’t specified any place in particular. Only a crossroads. And despite its failings, this certainly fit the description. The harvest moon hung high in the sky overhead. A chill wind whistled through the field, sending shivers down Lambert’s spine.

He stepped forward, looking up at the sign, and feeling like a complete jackass, spoke. “Gaunter O’Dimm—I’m here to make a deal.”

No voice answered. No merchant appeared. Lambert ground his teeth, looking at the signpost, which stared resolutely back at him.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” he muttered under his breath. Maybe he’d just imagined the entire fucking thing. It certainly sounded far-fetched. Oh yes, a mirror merchant approached me in a piss-poor tavern in the dead of night and offered to resurrect my dead lover. If he’d told Eskel that, the other man would have laughed his ass off and insisted Lambert had had too much to drink.

And maybe he had. But he didn’t have anywhere else to be, and some offers were just too lucrative to pass up. He did his best not to think about the fact that that sentiment was what had brought him and Aiden together in the first place.

Lambert sank to his knees in front of the sign, closed his eyes, and waited.

~~~~~~

He awoke to the sound of someone whistling.

Lambert’s eyes flew open to find O’Dimm sitting before him, perched lightly on top of the signpost. He wore a wide grin on his face and was eating an apple, lounging about as if he were sitting in a Novigrad salon rather than on top of a splintery pole in the middle of nowhere.

“Ah, awake at last.” O’Dimm took a bite of his apple.

“Took your damn time,” Lambert growled, standing and shaking the pins and needles from his legs.

“I had business elsewhere. I’m a very busy man.”

“How much business could a mirror merchant possibly have?”

“You’d be surprised,” O’Dimm said with a smirk. “I understand you’d like to take me up on my offer.”

“That depends.” Lambert eyed the merchant warily. “Got a few questions to ask you first.”

O’Dimm reclined, seemingly against nothing, and made an open gesture. “Ask away.”

“What are you, really?”

“Hmm.” O’Dimm tossed his apple lightly from hand to hand. “Not some common mage, I assure you. That will have to suffice.”

“It doesn’t.” Lambert crossed his arms. O’Dimm shrugged.

“Then that’s more your issue than mine. If I recall correctly, you’re the one who summoned me for this little meeting.”

Lambert wrestled with himself for a moment and then sighed in defeat. “Look…these things you’re claiming you can do—they’re just not possible. There’s not a sorcerer alive who can bring someone back from the dead. Not really, at least. I’m not a fan of necromancy. I’ve seen it done. It’s ugly.”

O’Dimm made a dismissive gesture. “No necromancy involved. This I swear.”

Lambert narrowed his eyes. O’Dimm sighed.

“My dear misguided witcher. I’ve already told you that I’m not some simple mage. In point of fact, I detest magic.”

“Then what the hell are you proposing?”

“Perhaps a small demonstration is in order?” He held out the apple he’d been eating on his palm. “A token, given freely. Watch closely.” He held up his other hand, and with the greatest of aplomb, snapped his fingers.

The apple decayed and collapsed before Lambert’s very eyes, its glossy red skin and crisp flesh shriveling and curling in on itself as spots of fuzzy white mold feasted on the remains. The color bled from it as it disintegrated into a pile of unrecognizable mush.

Lambert eyed O’Dimm warily. This was beyond the bounds of any illusion spell he’d yet encountered. He raised his hand to the medallions at his neck, but they were still as the grave. Not magic, then. Or magic that was completely different from anything else in this world.

He still wasn’t buying it that easily. “And?” he said, shrugging. “Doesn’t exactly prove you can resurrect a human.”

O’Dimm smiled. “You’ve quite the scruples for a lawless brigand.”

“Man’s gotta have standards.”

“Very well, then.” O’Dimm snapped his fingers once more, and the color returned to the pile of apple mush he still held in his outstretched palm. It plumped and reformed into its original configuration as the mold colonies shrunk and then vanished altogether. Within seconds it looked as if it had just been plucked from the branch. A drop of juice ran from the bite mark he’d left in it. Lambert bristled.

“You’re wise not to trust me,” O’Dimm remarked, taking a bite of the newly resurrected fruit. “But I shall leave you with this—you’ve summoned me here, to this crossroads, on this night, for a reason. If you should leave this place without our having struck a deal, there will be no third opportunity. I have been most accommodating, Lambert. But my patience wears thin.”

“If I accept…” Lambert pondered to himself for a moment. “What do you get out of this?”

O’Dimm chuckled. “Good, you’re a fast learner. Nothing for free in this or any life.” He finished eating the apple and tossed the core carelessly aside into the sunflower field. “I’ve found over the years that witchers can be very useful. Immensely frustrating, but very useful nonetheless. Were you a mortal man, I’d demand payment up front. In your case, however…let us say that when all is said and done you shall owe me a favor. A favor I will one day come to collect.”

“And Aiden?” Lambert said warily. “I burned his body. There’s nothing to reanimate.”

“He shall be as he was the moment his heart stopped beating. You have my word.”

The sensible part of Lambert, the part that sounded like Vesemir, was screaming at him to walk away. He did what he did best and ignored it. Nodding slowly, he unfolded his arms. “Deal.”

“Magnificent.” O’Dimm lightly dismounted the signpost and approached Lambert, extending a hand. On his face was a jovial grin that Lambert couldn’t quite trust. “Then let us shake and make it official.”

Lambert hesitated for a moment and then reciprocated. As soon as their palms made contact, he found that he could no longer move his arm. It was bound to O’Dimm’s as surely as if their skin had been melted together in a crucible. The wind whispered around them, rustling through his hair, the fabric of his gambeson, O’Dimm’s yellow tunic. A band of fiery runes formed, encircling the place where their hands were joined, and snaked its way up Lambert’s arm.

When it reached his shoulder, he felt a sudden, searing pain. He gritted his teeth and cursed violently, trying and failing to release his grip. O’Dimm’s smile grew wider. The runes flared and vanished. Lambert tore his hand from the merchant’s grip and pulled back his sleeve to discover a strange mark branded into the flesh of his forearm.

“What the hell is this for?” he hissed.

“Think of it as…collateral. Something to remind you of your debt until you’ve fulfilled your end of the deal.”

“Whoreson.” Lambert rubbed the burn mark and spat into the dirt. “Where’s Aiden?”

“What were you expecting? That I’d shove life into some fetid corpse and deposit it at your feet? Come now,” O’Dimm said reproachfully. “Have patience.”

Lambert glared at him murderously.

“Often, the best place to look for something lost is where you last found it,” O’Dimm said cryptically. He bowed with a flourish. “Always a pleasure to be of service.”

The man of glass turned on his heel and stroke off into the darkness before Lambert could say another word. The sunflowers rustled uneasily on their stalks. Lambert traced the brand on his arm with his fingertip and winced.

Where you last found it

Lambert glanced to the east, toward the weak rays of the rising sun that were just beginning to announce themselves on the horizon, and swore.

~~~~~~

Ellander.

Lambert had sworn to himself time and time again that he wasn’t going back. He couldn’t. The very cobblestones of the city were steeped in pain and blood—Aiden’s blood—and Lambert’s bitter tears. The very thought of it made a weight drop into his stomach like a ball of lead.

He’d puzzled over what O’Dimm had said several times, trying to come up with any answer other than the one he already knew was right. Eventually, he’d had no choice but to accept that he had to go back, if for no other reason than to see if the merchant had cheated him. It took a long draught on a bottle of pepper vodka before he could even bear to turn his horse in the right direction, but turn he did, and with a reluctant spur of his heels they were off.

A sick feeling settled in his heart, growing stronger with every passing hour as the walls of the city in the distance slowly began to rise above the lush green foothills of the Mahakam Mountains. What if O’Dimm had been telling the truth? What if he really found what he was looking for in Ellander? What then?

He was almost at the city gates before he realized that he honestly didn’t know.

A light drizzle began to fall as Lambert set out into the winding streets of Ellander. His feet knew where to carry him. He was numb to the bone, his mind already trying to protect itself from an anticipated wound. The putrid scent of the fish market slowly gave way as he passed by, down more residential streets, brushing shoulders with finely-dressed townspeople who shot him looks of disdain as they walked past.

The rain was falling in earnest now, thinning the crowds that had filled the city streets just a moment ago as it pelted down on the cobblestone. Lambert found himself emerging into an almost empty square bordered with townhouses and upscale shops. He scanned it briefly, looking for the next side street to turn down, and froze, his heart pounding in his chest.

Even years later, even after blood and pyres and bitter ash, even at great distance and partially obscured by the downpour that had by now soaked him almost to the skin, Lambert would recognize that silhouette anywhere.

“Aiden,” he choked.

The hooded man perusing the notice board on the other side of the square turned and looked over his shoulder, a flash of golden eyes meeting with Lambert’s own.

He smiled.

Chapter Text

Lambert stood frozen.

He couldn’t decide whether to cross the square and embrace Aiden or to turn on his heel and run. Was it truly him? For all the things O’Dimm had said, there was a not insignificant part of him that had dismissed this as impossible.

And yet here he stood, after all these years, standing just feet away and looking remarkably solid. Lambert clenched his teeth so hard he thought they might break.

Aiden had already seen him. There was no turning away now. Not after all the trouble he’d gone to in order to make this possible. Not after all the trouble he was still likely to get into because of it. Lambert stepped numbly forward, forgetting even the torrential summer rain that had drenched him to the skin. He stepped ankle-deep in a puddle and ignored the gush of water that poured into his boots.

Two medallions. Two medallions still hung around his neck, and on Aiden’s there were none. It was him, alive and in the flesh. Lambert raised a hand unconsciously to the silver cat’s head on its chain and squeezed it tightly.

Aiden turned as he approached, abandoning the notice board with its paltry offerings. He’d clearly been listening to Lambert’s footsteps as he crossed the square. “Took you long enough,” he said by way of greeting. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere—”

He broke off, his brow furrowing as he took in Lambert’s stricken expression.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

~~~~~~

It took the entirety of the walk to a seedy inn on the outskirts of town and a not insignificant amount of liquor for Lambert to even begin to form his thoughts into words. He held his mug with a white-knuckled grip as his soaked clothing dripped steadily onto the tavern floor.

“You’re angry with me,” Aiden said simply, his eyes downcast. “You’ve every right to be. We didn’t part on the best of terms.”

Lambert said nothing. Aiden looked as if he were wrestling with himself.

“I knew how you felt about the Law of Surprise, and I invoked it anyway. I wanted to explain myself, but I know the reasoning doesn’t matter. It took a long time after you left for me to come to terms with the fact that this, all of this, was my fault. It took much longer for me to start looking for you. I’ve searched everywhere, you know.”

Lambert was taken aback. Did he really think—how could he not know—

“How did you find me?” Aiden said, drinking deeply from his own mug and grimacing. “I thought I’d have to chase you halfway across the Continent.”

Lambert’s hands were shaking. He pressed them down hard against the table. “You died,” he blurted.

Aiden abruptly stopped talking and made an incredulous expression. “What?”

“You died,” Lambert repeated, softer this time. “Jad Karadin shoved a sword through your heart and put a fucking crossbow bolt through your eye, and I burned your body, and then I spent a very long time trying to die, but I didn’t.”

Aiden blanched at the mention of Karadin’s name. “Jad—How do you—”

“I took the whoreson’s head off his shoulders.” Lambert looked away. His stomach churned in a way that had nothing to do with the spirit he was drinking.

Aiden blinked and then swallowed. “I don’t feel dead.” He gestured down at himself. “I’m sitting right here.”

With shaking fingers, Lambert reached up and unclasped the cat’s head medallion from around his neck. He laid it on the table between them with a soft thunk. Aiden stared at it.

“Got this, too,” Lambert muttered, pulling a piece of battered parchment from his pocket. It had seen better days; its surface was marred with lines and water marks from having been thrown away in a fit of anger years ago, and the top corner was stained deeply with a rust-colored pigment that, even after all these years, still smelt strongly of Aiden’s blood. He held it out.

Aiden took it gingerly and unfolded it, his expression inscrutable. When he finished reading it, he set it down next to the medallion.

“How long?”

“Four years.” Lambert shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Maybe more.”

“Four years,” Aiden whispered.

For a moment, the silence between them felt like an uncrossable void. It sucked in all else, deafening Lambert’s ears to the sizzle of bacon cooking on the fire, to the dull roar of the bookie shouting over the fistfight that was happening in the corner, to the ragged sound of his own breathing.

A log on the fire crackled and popped loudly, bursting the moment like a soap bubble. Lambert swallowed with difficulty.

“What do you remember?”

Aiden shook his head. “Not a damn thing.” His cheek was wet. “If what you say is true, and given the contents of this letter, I find it hard to deny that it is—how did I come to be sitting here?” He touched his left hand with his right, tracing the lines on his palm with one finger. “I feel like I’m alive. I don’t have any sense of time having passed, but clearly it has.” He looked at Lambert sorrowfully. “You look like shit.”

“Feel like it, too,” Lambert said hoarsely.

Aiden listened with remarkable calm as Lambert recounted the events of that night at the crossroads. When at last he finished, the beer that was left in his mug had gone warm and sour. He drank it anyway, willing the alcohol to chase away the unidentifiable feeling that was crawling around in the back of his skull.

“Not that I’m not grateful,” Aiden said eventually, having pondered the details of Lambert’s tale, “But it sounds like you’ve chosen to deal with a very dangerous man. The gods only know what he’ll ask you to do when he finally comes to collect.”

“I know.” Lambert’s shoulders sagged. “Tell me, though—if it’d been you, would you have done the same?”

Aiden thought for a moment, and then nodded. “Yes. I think that I would.” He smiled ruefully. “Regardless of the circumstances, it’s good to see you.”

“Yeah.” Lambert sighed. The shaking had lessened, but it was still there. “I’d…I’d almost forgotten your face. What you sounded like. It’s good to hear your voice.” His eyes stung, and he wiped at them angrily.

Aiden reached across the table and placed a hand on top of Lambert’s. “I’m here.”

“I think I need a stronger drink,” Lambert said wetly.

“Coming right up.”

~~~~~~

The fire had burned down to embers in its grate and the rest of the tavern patrons had either passed out from too much drink or gone home for the night. The witchers sat alone at their table in the corner of the darkened room, sharing a bottle of spirit between them.

Four years was a long time. It had taken several hours for Lambert to recount the events that had transpired between their separation in Kovir and his ill-gotten deal with Master Mirror. By the time he finally stopped talking, his throat was hoarse and his jaw ached from the tension. He’d spent a very long time trying to repress these memories or drown them out with alcohol. Dredging them up on purpose was painful.

“The Wild Hunt.” Aiden whistled through his teeth. “You’ve been through a lot.”

“You’re telling me.” Lambert took a swig from the bottle. He’d purposely left his arrangement with Keira out of his recounting. There were still some things he wasn’t ready to tell Aiden about yet. If his relationship with the sorceress had seemed like an offense to Aiden’s memory at the time it had begun, it certainly felt like an offense to his actual person now that he was solid and sitting a few inches away. He did his best to swallow his guilt.

“I’m sorry about Vesemir.” Aiden took his hand and squeezed gently. “I know how hard it was for me when Kiyan disappeared. It must have been horrible for you.”

“At least the whoreson paid,” Lambert said, gritting his teeth as he remembered exactly how little relief killing Karadin had given him for Aiden’s death.

“Have you gone back since then?”

Lambert shook his head. “Don’t think I can. Kaer Morhen is abandoned now, anyway.”

“A shame,” Aiden sighed. “So much of what we are has already been lost. Soon there will be nothing at all.”

Lightning flashed through the windows of the inn, followed rapidly by a booming clap of thunder. The strike had been close; Lambert could feel the reverberations through his boots. In an instant, he was transported worlds away, to another inn, another stormy night, another mug of sour beer and bile rising in his throat.

Kovir. The last night he’d seen Aiden alive.

Lambert had been angrier than he’d ever been. Had been prepared to hurt Aiden. To make him suffer. It came back to him in waves. Icy rain pelting down on him with a vengeance, soaking through his armor. The anxious nickering of his horse. Aiden’s face, obscured by his hood and the darkness as he bowed his head and stepped aside. Rivulets of water running down his face like tears—

“Lambert?”

The moment shattered like glass. Lambert came back to himself breathing hard, his white-knuckled fist pressed hard against the splintery wood of the table. Aiden looked at him with concern.

“Lambert, what’s wrong?”

Lambert fought to get his breathing under control. “This. This is wrong. All of it.” He clenched his teeth. “Why the fuck are we here, Aiden? Why am I sitting here across from you talking about Vesemir like nothing happened? Why are we pretending that in the morning we’re going to pick up a contract like nothing’s changed and ride off to Vizima? Duvvelsheyss!”

He slammed his hands down. At a nearby table, a drunk startled awake, looked around blearily, and promptly passed out again.

“I…” Aiden trailed off, staring into the bottom of his mug like he might find answers there.

“I had a lot of time to think after you died,” Lambert said. “You never told me much about your past. I managed to dig some stuff up while I was looking for Karadin, and it didn’t exactly paint a pretty picture. It pisses me the hell off that the man who had you killed knew a damn sight more about you than I did.” He stopped and swallowed against the hard knot in his throat. “I’m not honestly sure what I expected to happen if this worked. I’m not sure if I even wanted it to work.”

For a moment, neither of them said anything. Lambert stared at Aiden. Aiden wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“You never said you loved me.”

Aiden flinched as if Lambert had struck him.

“I felt that you did,” Lambert said, looking down at his own clasped hands. “Or maybe I just saw what I wanted to see. I don’t know. It’s really fucking hard for me to reconcile the idea of you loving me with some of the things that you’ve done.”

“I did love you,” Aiden said quietly, still looking away. “Still do.”

“Then why didn’t you ever tell me?”

Aiden swallowed. “I don’t know.”

For some reason, Lambert felt as if a weight had been lifted from his chest. Finally speaking the words, being able to direct some of the vitriol he’d been carrying in his heart at its source after all these years, was cathartic. There was a not insignificant part of him that still wanted to hurt Aiden. Judging by the look on his face, he’d succeeded.

Relief was followed by guilt in short order. Lambert sighed, buried his face in his hands, rubbed his eyes.

“Look, I…”

“I know.”

Lambert sighed through his teeth. “This is pretty fucked up, isn’t it?”

Aiden finally looked up, a sad smile on his face. “That’s one way of putting it.” He reached across the table and covered Lambert’s hand with his own. “I missed you, you know.”

“I missed you too.” Lambert’s eyes stung and he wiped at them in frustration.

“It’s late,” Aiden remarked somewhat unnecessarily as the last ember in the fireplace crumbled to ash. “We should get some rest. Start fresh in the morning.”

Lambert nodded numbly and let himself be led up the stairs and into a sparsely furnished room that contained only a bed with a rough straw mattress and a rickety table with a bowl and pitcher for washing set on it. He shed his swordbelts and gambeson and hung them from the bedpost alongside Aiden’s, and then sat on the edge of the mattress and tugged his boots from his feet. Aiden lay sprawled out beside him.

“Come here,” he said softly, shifting to the side and holding out an arm. Lambert lay down in the space he’d created, pillowing his head on Aiden’s chest. Aiden pulled him close, and Lambert let out a shaking sigh.

“Are you still going to be here when I wake up?” Lambert felt foolish voicing his fear aloud, but he had to nonetheless.

Aiden pressed a gentle kiss to his forehead. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

Lambert awoke before the sun to the sound of someone vomiting.

It took a moment for his brain to finish processing where he was and who he was with. He was pervaded by a sense that something was very, very wrong, but he wasn’t sure why. He reached instinctively for his sword, but it wasn’t at his back.

The events of the previous day hit him like a brick wall as he looked across the room with bleary eyes to see his swordbelts hanging from the bedpost and Aiden kneeling on the floor over a chipped basin.

“Shit,” he mumbled, shoving himself into a seated position and rubbing his eyes.

Witchers’ bodies were exceptionally good at metabolizing poisons, alcohol included. It took an enormous amount of very strong liquor to get a witcher drunk. It took far, far, more than that to make a witcher sick. Lambert was sure Aiden hadn’t had that much. He hadn’t been sober when they’d gone to sleep, but he certainly hadn’t been drunk.

He dragged himself out of bed, still blinking sleep from his eyes, and sat beside Aiden on the floor. “What’s wrong?”

“I…don’t…know,” Aiden panted, spitting into the bowl.

Lambert swallowed the lump of disgust in his throat and peered at its contents. It was full almost to the brim with what appeared to be everything Aiden had ingested over the past day. He breathed steadily through his nose and willed his own stomach contents to stay where they were.

Aiden’s hands trembled violently, threatening to drop the basin. Lambert took it from him and set it on the floor.

“Let me see,” he said, lifting Aiden’s chin with his fingers and examining him as best he could. His skin was waxen and covered with a sheen of foul-smelling sweat. The whites of his eyes were shot through with blood, and his pupils were narrow to the point of slits. His entire body was wracked with tremors.

Lambert grimaced. Not good. “Has this ever happened before?”

“No,” Aiden managed. He looked as if he’d like very much to be sick again. “Must have been something I ate.”

“Or it might have something to do with the fact that you were dead until yesterday.”

“Maybe this is normal,” Aiden said weakly.

“That’s bullshit and you know it.” Lambert wracked his brain for ideas. Vesemir. Vesemir would have known what to do. He swore to himself under his breath. He didn’t have the first fucking clue where to start. Ideally, they needed a sorceress, but he only knew the whereabouts of one and there was no way in hell he was going to Keira for this. And the odds of finding a village witch in Ellander were vanishingly small.

There was really only one place they could go. He pulled on his boots, slung his swordbelts over his shoulder, and hauled a protesting Aiden to his feet.

“Where are you taking me?” Aiden’s face was completely drained of color. Lambert had to support most of his weight as they made their way clumsily down the stairs.

“To someone who can help.”

~~~~~~

The Temple of Melitele looked very much like a city in its own right these days. The main temple itself was half-buried in the rock of the cliff side, its inner chambers having been carved directly from the stone of the mountain. The parts that were visible were embellished with creamy white marble from the mines and quarries in Mahakam. Dozens of smaller buildings had sprung up around it over the years; a combination of low stone huts and wooden houses.

A wall constructed of round stones that had been unearthed from nearby fields and stuck together with thick mortar surrounded the compound. It opened in a wide arch where it met the road to reveal a path to the temple doors, which was lined with enormous polar trees. Their leaves had already turned the striking yellow of Quebrith in the cooling autumn air.

Chickens, having been left free to roam, scratched in the yards. Grey-robed aspiring priestesses flitted by like so many moths. Some of them paused to glance, wide-eyed, and the witchers, while others went pointedly out of their way not to acknowledge their presence.

Aiden, mercifully, had stopped throwing up—although Lambert was fairly certain that that was more because there was nothing left in him to expel than because he was improving. He was pale as death, and the hand that dug into Lambert's shoulder was cold and clammy. He'd regained a modicum of strength during the journey outside the city walls, but Lambert was still supporting most of his weight.

They passed through the great double doors and into the cool, dark interior of the temple. Lambert dragged Aiden across smooth tiles of colorful marble and deposited him on the first bench he found. His gaze lit upon one priestess in particular, who was observing the two of them with silent interest. Her round face was dotted with freckles and framed by a swath of red hair.

"Need to see your high priestess," Lambert said urgently. "It's important. Tell her we're friends of Geralt of Rivia. Can you do that?"

The girl nodded mutely and vanished with a flutter of grey robes.

"I still don't think this is necessary," Aiden said weakly.

"Please shut up." Lambert pinched the bridge of his nose. "You're not exactly in a position to argue."

Aiden tipped his head back against the wall, closed his eyes, and sighed. It struck Lambert suddenly how much he looked like a corpse. A fresh corpse, but a corpse nonetheless. His skin crawled.

The red-haired priestess reappeared a few moments later just as silently as she'd left. Following close behind her was an older woman in sweeping robes the color of charcoal. Her head was covered, but a few unruly wisps of grey had found their way outside her wimple. The lines on her face betrayed her years, but she stood straight and there was fierce intelligence behind her piercing green eyes.

"Oh, praise Melitele," she said, upon laying eyes on the two of them. "I was afraid 'friends of Geralt' meant that damnable shit of a troubadour."

Against his best efforts, Lambert found himself liking her.

The priestess leaned in to get a better look at Aiden and clucked her tongue disapprovingly. "What a mess. Iola, we'll be needing a room, some hot water, and my chest of tinctures. You know the one—yes. Off you go."

Iola hurried off to carry out her priestess's orders without a word.

"She's awfully quiet," Aiden remarked hoarsely.

"She doesn't speak," the priestess said in a matter-of-fact tone. "By choice; she's taken a vow. Let's dispense with pleasantries, shall we? I'm sure you've gathered that I am the high priestess of this temple. You may call me Nenneke."

"Lambert. This is Aiden."

Nenneke nodded. "Follow me, please. Up you come."

Lambert hauled Aiden to a standing position and followed Nenneke as she led them through a labyrinth of corridors and tight staircases. They came eventually to a small room with unadorned stone walls. It was empty save for a simple cot, a chair that looked as if it might collapse if it was sat on too forcefully, and a low writing desk.

"You can leave him here," Nenneke said, gesturing at the bed.

Aiden sank down on it gratefully and pressed his hands to his thighs in an ineffective attempt to still their shaking.

Lambert crossed his arms and tried to stand somewhere out of the way. This wasn't the first time he'd found himself in such a place, and it likely wouldn't be the last, but he was uncomfortable with religious folk. He'd stopped believing in gods when they'd seen fit to trade his life for his miserable drunk of a father's. If they were going to forsake him, he saw no reason why he shouldn't return the favor.

Iola returned in short order with the requested supplies. Lambert leaned against the rough stone wall and tried to look unconcerned as Nenneke bustled about, digging through the little velvet-lined chest and pulling out vial after vial of tinctures and powdered herbs. The hay-sweet scent of celandine and a sharp, almost caustic plant he didn't recognize stung his nose.

"You came to the right place," Nenneke remarked as she ground the herbs with a pestle. "Not many healers have experience treating witchers. I may be the only one this side of the Pontar."

"Lucky Geralt's gotten himself cut up so much," Lambert said ruefully.

Nenneke made a dismissive noise. "Geralt isn't the only witcher who's turned up on my doorstep over the years. Iola, put a cold compress on his forehead. He looks like he's knocking on death's door."

The priestess complied, wetting a cotton rag from the bucket of clean water she'd brought and placing it on Aiden's forehead. As she did so, her hand lightly brushed his skin.

It happened in an instant. She visibly recoiled from Aiden’s supine form, snatching her hand back as if she’d been burned. She did not cry out, but the expression of intense horror on her face said more than words possibly could.

Nenneke froze.

Iola turned to look at her for one paralyzing second and then fled the room as if the hounds of the Wild Hunt themselves were nipping at her heels.

Nenneke took one deep, centering breath, and put down her mortar and pestle.

"What the fuck just happened?" Lambert growled apprehensively.

"I think a more pertinent question would be: what have you not told me?" Nenneke said, the expression on her face belying her calm tone.

"What do you mean?"

"Iola is an oracle. She can't always control it, but she has been known to prophecy on occasion. What's happened to him?" Nenneke gestured at Aiden. "Has he been cursed?"

"Not exactly," Aiden groaned from the bed, covering his eyes with one hand.

"He was dead up until a couple of days ago." Lambert figured it was best to be as blunt as possible. Nenneke looked as if she might have him cut up and fed to the pigs if he was less than truthful.

Nenneke shook her head. "I may not be a sorceress, but I would know necromancy if I saw it. This is something else."

"You're right. It is."

Nenneke's eyes were piercing.

Lambert sighed. "You're not going to like what I have to say."

"Say it, and then I'll decide for myself if I like it or not." Nenneke crossed her arms.

Lambert shifted uncomfortably. "Aiden died a long time ago. I mourned him. I burnt his body. I did my best to move the fuck on with my life, but as it turns out, I wasn't very good at it. And then one night I met a man who claimed he could perform miracles." He glanced at Aiden. "He made me an offer I couldn't refuse. He held up his end of the deal. And now I apparently owe him a favor."

He rolled up his sleeve and showed the priestess the brand O'Dimm had left on his arm. Her expression was unreadable.

A few moments passed in silence, and then Nenneke sighed heavily. "I suppose I don't have to tell you that you're a damned fool and your stupidity is going to get you killed."

"You wouldn't be the first."

Nenneke gestured at Aiden. "I don't know what this is, or what kind of force is sustaining him, but like any spell I'd imagine it will decay over time. As will he."

"What did Iola see when she touched him?"

Nenneke shook her head. "I got a glimpse, and only a glimpse, but it wasn't pretty."

Lambert swore violently. He went over and over his meeting with O'Dimm in his head—the mark on his arm, the words he'd used, but he didn't understand why

"Fuck," he whispered, dread settling into his stomach like a ball of lead.

Nenneke raised an eyebrow.

"He shall be as he was the instant his heart stopped beating."

Aiden, who had until this point had been remarkably calm, visibly blanched. "That...cannot be good."

"Can you do anything to help him?" Desperation bled into Lambert's voice.

Nenneke shook her head gravely. "I'm a healer. I can mend wounds and treat infections, and I can do a small amount of magic. This is beyond my capabilities. I can't cure death."

"What about the vomiting?" Aiden propped himself up on his elbows.

"I can't say for certain, but my educated guess is that you are no longer able to digest the things you eat. The symptoms do seem to have abated."

"Great. So everything's fine, then," Lambert said, his voice dripping in sarcasm.

"Do not mistake my hospitality for weakness." Nenneke's eyes flashed. "We may not age the same, but I'm certain that I'm old enough to be your mother. Dull your tongue before you cut yourself on it."

Lambert crossed his arms and stared resolutely down at his boots.

"He's sorry," Aiden interjected. "He's just too proud to say it."

"I'll have to take your word for it."

A few moments passed in silence. The air in the room felt heavy enough to cut with a blade.

"So what now?" Lambert said quietly.

"I don't know," Nenneke admitted. "You could seek out a sorceress, or you could try to persuade the man who did this to fix it. I doubt you'll be successful, though."

Lambert sighed through his teeth. "Great."

"I don't envy you, witcher." Nenneke put her vials of herbs and tinctures back in their box. "It sounds like you've chosen to deal with a profoundly dangerous being." She closed the lid and the latch snicked shut. "The consequences, I'm sure, will be worse than you know.”

Chapter Text

The consequences, I'm sure, will be worse than you know.

Nenneke's words echoed through Lambert's head as the witchers began to make their way south. He'd tried his damnedest to think of any other way to do this, and after a few days of wracking his brain, he'd come up empty. There was no avoiding it. If a skilled healer couldn't help them, then their only real option was a sorceress. And as far as sorceresses went, Lambert only knew the precise whereabouts of one.

This was going to suck.

Aiden, for the most part, seemed to be in good spirits. He looked on wistfully when Lambert ate his meals, but the lack of food hadn't seemed to harm him in the slightest. As Nenneke had posited, once he'd purged everything he'd ingested he was right as rain. Still pale, and still somewhat dead, but well enough to travel and well enough to fight if it came down to it.

It was a long ride to Nazair. It would take them the better part of a week to get to Keira, even if they didn't stop along the way. The coin purse in Lambert's pocket was already much too light for his liking, though, and even if Aiden didn't have to eat, their horses still did. That meant they needed more gold. And that meant they needed to find work.

So a contract it was, then. The witchers rode south a ways, away from Ellander, checking notice boards as they passed them, but largely came up empty. The notices posted were of the usual banal fodder—looking to trade three empty flour sacks for a pint of goats' milk; a thousand curses upon Gemma, that pox-ridden whore; let it be known that Farin of Mulbrydale is a liar and a thief; lessons in Nilfgaardian, only twenty-five crowns. None of it was witchers' work.

Lambert and Aiden rode on as their supply of coin slowly bled away, making camp at night by roadsides rather than squander what was left on a bed at an inn. They managed to ford the Yaruga at Dillingen without too much trouble; thankfully the weather was merciful and the water was low. Lambert subsisted on hard tack and strips of salted meat. The food was disappointing, but he'd never let that bother him before. The witchers carried on in that fashion, awaking each morning with their hair thick with dew drops and the pitiful fire gone to embers and ash, until they eventually happened upon a village.

Calling it a village might have been too charitable, Lambert thought in retrospect. It was more a loose collection of shacks huddled together as if for warmth, with one sad well and an equally sad garden with one beehive and a few lackluster potato plants poking their way hopelessly out of the dirt.

No one approached the witchers. That in itself wasn't strange; Lambert's prickly demeanor didn't exactly inspire friendship in people, and even without that their golden eyes would have been enough to ward off most peasants. But neither were there any signs of life. No pale, wide-eyed faces pressed up against the windows of the little huts to gawk at them as they passed. What looked to have been the communal cooking fire was naught but ash, and cold ash at that. There was a thick layer of scum and dead leaves in the bucket that was used to draw up the well water.

"Something's not right," Aiden cautioned Lambert as they wandered among the ramshackle houses. "I can't hear anything."

Lambert had noticed the absence too. There were no heartbeats of peasants hiding fearful in their homes. No padding of dogs' feet on packed earth. Not even the low-pitched, molasses-like thumping of an overburdened cow's heart. He crept forward cautiously, silently, with one hand firmly on the grip of his silver sword.

The stench was insidious. It came on slowly and then swelled until the sickening sweetness of it overwhelmed Lambert's senses. The air was hot and weighed down on him like a sweat-soaked blanket. He prayed desperately for a breeze that would not come.

He already knew what had happened before he passed the last house in the little settlement and found them.

A dozen bodies—some old, some young, some infants—lay sprawled in the wheat fields beyond. They had fallen while running. They were twisted and contorted in unnatural ways. Lily-white throats were torn through and splashed with crimson that congealed in sticky rivulets. Chunks of meat were missing from arms, legs, abdomens. Lips had turned purple and bloated. Grey-green viscera glistened under the hammer of the beating sun. Some faces wore expressions of terror and agony. Some faces were gone entirely.

The whole of it was sickening.

Aiden bent down, covering his nose with the sleeve of his gambeson, and examined one of the corpses. "Throat torn out," he said dispassionately. "Looks like teeth. Big ones." He gently rolled the body over with his boot. "Clothing's torn, too. Especially the trousers."

Lambert grimaced at the crow intently plucking the sticky remains of a blue eye from the body closest to him. "From the look of things it's been about a week." He swallowed the bile that was rising in his throat. "This one's been torn open, too."

"Wolves?"

"Wolves would have gnawed the bones clean. Look around—no fur, no prints." He crouched down and peered closely at the corpse of a little girl. Her plaited hair was matted through with dried blood and gritty earth. Lambert shook his head. "No. I know what did this. And I'd bet my balls there's a contract out for it."

The witchers left the little village behind as fast as they could, desperate to get away from the stench of the garden of bodies that was planted in the field. They lingered only long enough for Lambert to gather the runty potatoes from the garden and slice off what honeycomb he found in the hive. The bees were long gone, but the honey still tasted sweet. He wrapped his spoils in some scraps of waxed cloth and tucked them into his saddlebags.

There was a larger settlement a few hours' ride from the slaughter. Lambert and Aiden reached it just as the sun was going down, which turned out to be a stroke of luck because two soldiers in the role of guardsmen closed and latched the gate as soon as they'd ridden through. Their armor was black and bore the crest of the great sun.

"Nilfgaard," Lambert muttered under his breath. Aiden nodded.

This town was large enough at least to have a wall surrounding it, and that meant that there was an inn. Lambert and Aiden tied up their horses at the post outside and made sure that there was clean water in the trough for them. Aiden patted his bay on the nose and it snorted in thanks.

The notice board here was rife with more of the same, but it also bore fruit after a few minutes of searching. A crisp sheet of thick parchment, bearing a heavy seal in black and gold wax, stood out among the tattered and faded notices that surrounded it. Lambert tore it from its nail and read it.

By order of His Imperial Highness, Emhyr var Emreis:

A contract has been issued for the extermination of the pack of wild beasts that has been ravaging the settlements on the outskirts of Coldwater. Whosoever both eliminates the threat and provides a trophy taken from the beasts as proof of their destruction shall be paid a sum of no less than two hundred crowns.

Please inquire at the barracks for more information.

Lambert shoved the notice into Aiden's hands with a grin on his face. "Easy. Let's go kill some monsters."

~~~~~~

Lambert and Aiden spent the better part of the next morning gathering information. From what they'd managed to glean from the innkeep, the attacks had been happening for a few months now. There was a shortage of witchers in the south; Nilfgaard was very efficient at a great deal of things, and one of them was exterminating necrophages. There was rarely any need for their kind under the Black Sun, which was fine by Lambert. He preferred to stay in the far north, where the pay was good and everyone spoke the common tongue.

A segment of the Redanian army had broken off from the whole and made its way here in an attempt to get behind the front lines and surprise the Nilfgaardian regiments marching north from behind. The plan had gone poorly; the Redanian soldiers had based their decision on bad information and ended up in foreign territory with no war to fight. And since there were no enemy soldiers around with which to slake their thirst for blood, they'd taken it out on the civilians.

Barghests often appeared in the aftermath of slaughters such as these, and Lambert was willing to bet a great deal of money that that was what they were dealing with. The contract should be easy enough, particularly with two witchers. All they had to do for now was relax and wait for nightfall.

The two of them whiled away the time until sundown playing Gwent with the tavern patrons. Lambert spent a few crowns on a roast chicken with an apologetic glance to Aiden—it'd been several days since he'd eaten a hot meal, and the smell of it was driving him to madness.

"It's alright," Aiden said, shrugging. "I don't really feel hunger anymore, anyway."

Lambert still felt a pang of guilt when he caught Aiden staring wistfully at him while he ate. He made a mental note to murder O'Dimm five times over if he ever saw him again.

Several hours later and a few crowns richer, the witchers stepped out into the cool dusk as the soldiers dutifully shut and bolted the gate behind them. They didn't go far; the beasts would come to them. There was a large, flat boulder in the middle of the fields surrounding the town, and there they sat, back to back with their silver swords balanced on their laps. Lambert was shit at meditation—always had been, probably always would be—but any form of rest beat staring out at the blandness of their surroundings. His medallion would wake him when the monsters came.

It took longer than expected. The moon was low in the sky once more when the buzz of metal against his chest roused him from his trance. A chorus of growls rose from the grass nearby as Aiden stirred behind him, hand moving to the grip of his sword. The two of them stood as one.

The barghests came flying out of the brush like a pack of ravenous wolves, all gaping maws of ghastly teeth and thick ribbons of slobber running down their throats. They gave off a faint, sickening green light as they ran. Lambert's lips curled into a smile. He drew the sign of Yrden.

As they threw themselves over the line of violet runes to attack the witchers, the beasts flickered into solidity. The first was so eager in its desire to tear into his throat that it impaled itself upon Lambert's sword—all he had to do was hold it out. He glanced over his shoulder at Aiden and broke into a grin. That dance, the lightness on his feet as he whirled and slashed like a weightless force of destruction—it was every bit as rapturous as the first time he'd seen it.
Lambert cut down two more as Aiden deftly dispatched beast after beast, his form in no way handicapped by the impermanence of his body. Whether its wielder lived or not, the silver did its job all the same.

The Yrden flickered and waned. Lambert shot sparks at one of the barghests, setting its fur alight. It howled and fell to the ground writhing. He plunged his sword into its heart, hard enough to embed the point in the dirt beneath. It abruptly stopped. Another beast replaced it, chomping at the flat of his blade in a desperate bid to get at him. Lambert braced it with both hands and held it off. It could get no closer to him, but nor could he harm it in any way that mattered while it was in an immaterial state.

"Aiden—"

Aiden dropped to a crouch, narrowly avoiding the crush of another's jowls, and drew the sign of Yrden.

Nothing happened. He cursed, dodged another bite, and drew it again.

Nothing.

"Shit," he yelled.

With a great deal of effort, Lambert managed to brace his sword one-handed. He slammed his hand into the ground, and the circle of runes flared to life once more. He forced the edge of his blade hard into the barghest's mouth as its claws scrabbled against the loose earth, and with a final push managed to drive it deep into its skull. The beast released its grip on the silver and fell to the ground dead.

Aiden appeared visibly shaken by the failure of his sign, but continued fighting nonetheless. The pack of barghests thinned quickly, and with a final plunge of Lambert's sword through the back of one of the lupine beasts, was snuffed out.

Aiden wiped his sword mutely on his sleeve and sheathed it. He stared down at his hands, turning them over in the pale moonlight. He drew the sign of Aard.

Nothing.

He drew the sign of Igni. The grass in front of him remained every bit as unburnt as it had been a moment before.

Aiden made a fist and clenched his jaw. He strode past Lambert, not saying a word, and set about collecting a trophy from the dead beasts. That done, he turned just as silently and stalked off toward the city gates of Coldwater, leaving Lambert behind him.

~~~~~~

"I'm a liability," Aiden proclaimed mournfully as Lambert ate breakfast at the inn the next morning. With their pockets weighed down pleasantly with gold, he'd given into temptation and bought some bacon and porridge.

Lambert’s stomach turned in a way that had nothing to do with the food. "That's a damn lie, and you know it."

"It's not. We could have both been killed last night because of me. If I can't cast signs, what good am I?"

"We managed just fine. I'm not even wounded."

"Lambert..." Aiden looked as if the gravity of his situation was hitting him all at once. Lambert put down his spoon.

"There are plenty of great fighters who don't have a drop of magic," he said. "And plenty more whose magic is piss-poor. We trained Ciri as a witcher, and even without signs or mutagens she faced down the King of the Wild Hunt by herself and lived."

"She's a child of the Elder Blood. Of course she lived."

"She can't control her powers," Lambert reminded him. "But fine, if you're going to be stubborn about it. Do you remember me telling you about Leo? His fingers were all broken before he could receive the mutagens, and he was never able to form the shape of a sign. He still managed to kick my ass in training more than once."

"And where is he now? Dead."

"Crossbow bolt doesn’t care if you can cast signs or not, smartass." Lambert reached across the table and covered Aiden's hand with his own. "It's only two days' ride to Nazair. We're going to find Keira, and she's going to help us undo this shit. I know this is a lot to deal with, but I need you to get your head out of your ass until then."

Aiden glared at him.

"Fine," Lambert said, throwing up his hands. "I admit it. This is shit. But I need you here, okay? Work's not done yet."

Aiden sighed. "Alright."

"We'll be there by sundown tomorrow," Lambert promised. "And then everything will be over."

Aiden smiled wanly. Lambert prayed, for the first time in decades, that he was right.

Chapter Text

The capital city of Assengard had once been the crown jewel of Nazair. Its decadence and beauty were famed the world over—only the richest and most successful of merchants could afford to cultivate the rare violet roses that grew there in their gardens, or to adorn their houses with baubles and trinkets carved from the rich veins of cinnabarite that ran through the earth beneath the city's stones.

That had been before the war, though. In its determination to seize Nazair for its own expanding empire, Nilfgaard had razed Assengard almost to the ground.

The Black Ones had never intended to destroy it entirely, but as the conflict grew in scale and ferocity, they lost control of the war. It had taken more than a decade to rebuild the city into even a pale imitation of its former self. Marks of conflict still remained—walls of rubble that had not been cleared, stones marred by ballista bolts and projectiles flung by trebuchet. There were no trees within the walls; they had all burned along with the houses and the people in them. The new buildings that had been constructed could not rival the elegance of what had been destroyed, but with their fluted columns and soaring roofs they were certainly a start.

It had been months since Lambert left Assengard. He'd done so in a fit of rage, simply mounting his horse and riding off one night after a particularly bad argument with Keira. He hadn't intended to return so soon. Her own temper was unlikely to have cooled in the scant weeks since they'd last seen each other. His certainly hadn't. What the argument had been about was unimportant; mutual stubbornness and unwillingness to apologize were what had driven the wedge between them, and neither of those things was likely to change.

Lambert could think of a long list of places he would rather be than here.

"I've never been to Nazair," Aiden remarked as they rode past the ruins of a building that was overtaken almost entirely by sprawling vines of violet roses. "It's beautiful."

Indeed it was, and even Lambert had to admit it. The blossoms were in places as large as dinner plates, a deep indigo in the center and violet at their curling edges. The thorns were large and wicked—beauty and the beast existing as one. The Amell Mountains rose up in the near distance, painted softly in shades of charcoal and blue and purple. Though few structures had survived the war, the blood-red cinnabar cobblestones that paved the city streets were still largely intact, and spiraled through its footprint like vast arteries.

They made their way along these crimson pathways until they came to a square with an enormous fountain carved from a single chunk of cinnabar. By some miracle, it had survived the assault on the city all those years ago, and in recent months had been restored to working order by some of Emhyr's engineers. In its depths carved dryads and naiads frolicked with dolphins and other beasts of the rivers and seas. Lambert eyed a carved siren ruefully and thought to himself that the sculptor had taken a great deal of artistic liberty with her likeness. Sirens could certainly sing a lovely song, but once you got close enough to see them properly all attraction tended to shrivel and die at the root.

Built on the edge of this fountain square was a grand castle, all high arches and columns and other decadent embellishments that served no architectural purpose. Many of the windows lacked glass, in the southern style; the weather was rarely poor enough here to merit it. Lambert strode up to the door, trying his best not to think about the terrors that awaited him within, and entered with Aiden close behind him.

Though the palace in which Keira had so graciously been given apartments by Emhyr var Emreis was lovely, Lambert knew that she was secretly displeased. She would have preferred to be further south, in the heart of the Nilfgaardian empire. Close to the emperor, or at least to his advisors. Unfortunately for her, that position had been promptly usurped by Philippa Eilhart the very instant Yennefer had turned her back. Luckily, the emperor had seen merit in Keira's research on the Catriona plague, but the caveat for her being allowed to continue it on Nilfgaardian soil was that she must do so in a less populated area. Assengard certainly fit the bill.

Lambert entered the main gate with some trepidation. The guards let him pass—that was a good sign, at least—but he’d never known Keira to forgive so quickly. Odds were high that she’d hex him the moment he stuck his head through her door.

“Come on, this way.” He nodded for Aiden to follow him, crossed the courtyard, and entered through a door at the base of a tower.

Keira had insisted that if she were going to be relegated to a keep so far from the capital that she was at least going to have the best view in the city. On that Emhyr had certainly delivered. There were no less than two hundred steps to her apartments at the top. She was fond of using teleport spells to come and go as she pleased. The witchers, on the other hand, had to walk.

“I should probably warn you,” Lambert said grimly as they approached the door at the top. “She might not be pleased to see me.”

Aiden made a face of mock incredulity and rolled his eyes. Lambert made a mental note to kick his ass later and, with some hesitation, knocked on the door.

It swung inward with no resistance. Lambert ventured inside, not letting his guard down.

“Keira?” he called out cautiously. “We need to talk—”

Before he’d even registered the buzz of his medallion, he was thrown violently upward into the air. He hung there, suspended by a force that squeezed his neck like a giant’s fist, his legs pedaling like an overturned beetle’s.

“Damnit, Keira,” he choked. “Get your ass out here or I swear—”

“I don’t think you’re in a position to do much swearing, darling,” Keira Metz said coolly from the shadows. She stepped forward into the warm glow of the fire that blazed in the center of the room, delicately fixing her hair with one hand. The other was held aloft in a pantomime of the invisible fingers squeezing around Lambert’s throat.

Lambert looked down to Aiden for help, but the other man simply shrugged and stepped aside.

“Not my fight,” he said with a grin, and leaned back against the wall by the door, enjoying the spectacle.

“Bastard,” Lambert wheezed.

“You’ve some nerve showing your face here,” Keira said, her eyes flashing as she advanced on Lambert. “I was under the impression that I told you not to come back.”

“Wouldn’t be here if I had a choice.” Lambert pulled ineffectively at the invisible vise around his neck. “For fuck’s sake, let me down!”

“And why should I?”

With immense effort, Lambert managed to concentrate his will and draw the sign of Aard. The blast hit Keira full force, sending her tumbling backward with a shriek. The bonds holding him immediately dissolved, and he fell to the floor gasping.

He got to his feet unsteadily and went to help her up. She swatted his hand away and stood, somehow managing to retain some dignity, smoothing the wrinkles from her dress.

“Keira—”

She slapped him hard across the face.

Lambert swore and rubbed his cheek. “Fine,” he admitted. “I’ll give you that one. Can we please stop the theatrics and just talk for half a damn minute?”

Keira’s gaze flicked to Aiden. “Who’s he?”

Aiden stepped forward, his witchers’ eyes glowing in the firelight. Golden compasses, immutable, unerring. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said with a dignified bow. “My name is Aiden.”

The sorceress stiffened, looking rapidly from Lambert to Aiden and back. She took in the cat’s head medallion around Aiden’s neck and the single chain around Lambert’s, and her mouth pressed into a thin line. She stepped back.

“You’d better come in, then,” she said, her voice uncharacteristically quiet. She stalked off toward the next chamber, beckoning for them to follow.

If there was one thing Keira Metz prided herself upon, it was style. She may not have been the most powerful sorceress Lambert knew—that dubious honor went to Philippa Eilhart—but she was shrewd and cunning, and when she wanted something she made damn sure she got it in full.

As a result, her parlor was grand. The circular chamber boasted an enormous balcony that ran half its length, looking out over the city. Torches and fires in the streets below twinkled like stars scattered upon the ground. The plaster walls were painted with elegant flowering vines, and the floor was covered with exquisite rugs imported from Ofier. Candelabras burned on the tables, and in the center of the room was a large brazier that was kept burning night and day. Keira’s megascope sat in one corner, surrounded by bookshelves and tables laden with alchemical supplies, and in another was a large bathtub carved from jade and half-hidden behind a painted screen. A sumptuous four-poster bed was set between the two.

Keira gestured for the two of them to take a seat by the fire and then snapped her fingers, conjuring up a platter of grapes and cheese and a carafe of wine on a nearby table. Lambert accepted the drink. Aiden did not.

The sorceress sat on a velvet chair across from them and sighed. “Start from the beginning.”

~~~~~~

The carafe was empty and the moon was high in the sky by the time Lambert finally ran out of words and the room lapsed into a tense silence.

Keira sat back in her chair and regarded the two of them with a grim expression. “And so,” she said finally, “You thought it would be best to seek out my help?”

Lambert held out his hands in a placating gesture. “Look, I wouldn’t be here if I had any other ideas. I know you’re not too keen on me right now.”

“That would be putting it mildly.” Keira sighed. “In a strange way, though, I am happy to see you.”

“Never a dull moment, that’s for sure.” Lambert rubbed at his throat.

“Is there anything you can do?” Aiden said, cutting directly to the heart of the matter.

Keira shook her head. “I’m deeply flattered, but I’m afraid not. This…whatever was done to you is far beyond the scope of my powers. In point of fact, I doubt any sorceress would be able to help you even if she was willing. It may come down to throwing yourself upon the mercy of the man who did this in the first place.”

“That’s not terribly reassuring.”

“Reassuring was never my strong suit. I am sorry,” she said with a sigh. “I can’t imagine what was done to you or to what purpose, but it must be dreadful. I wish I could offer more help.”

A breeze gusted through the open balcony, making the candles in their holders flicker and sputter. One on the table by the fire flickered and went out; Aiden reflexively drew the sign of Igni in an attempt to relight it. The wick refused to combust, cooling and curling in on itself resolutely in the night air. He made an expression of dismay.

“What about this?” He indicated his hands. “I can’t cast signs anymore. Even the simplest of magic eludes me.”

Keira frowned. “Your signs, much the same as my magic, require you to draw the Power and channel it through your body. If I had to make a hypothesis, it would be that the process requires living tissue. Unfortunately, you’re stuck somewhere in between.”

Lambert rubbed his temples. “Great.”

Keira’s eyes glinted suddenly, as if she’d had a revelation. “Did you say that this man left a mark on you?”

Lambert nodded by way of answer and rolled up his sleeve. Keira rose and took his arm, tracing the brand with one finger. “Hmm.”

“What?”

“I’ve seen something like this before.”

“What? Where?”

Keira smiled knowingly. “See, I’m not entirely useless.” Without a word of further explanation, she strode over to her workbench and began sifting through stacks of papers and loose vials of alchemical ingredients. “Where did I put it—oh, damnit—” she cursed as she knocked over a pot of ink, spilling cobalt blue across the polished wood.

“So,” Lambert said, getting up and following her. “Are you planning on enlightening me, or should I just stand here in befuddlement until I die of old age?”

“Hush, Lambert.” Keira was bent over a trunk, sifting through its contents. “Got it!” she said triumphantly, pulling out a ceramic disk engraved with runes. In its center was a crude carving of a mouth.

“Got what? What is that?”

“A xenovox.”

“A what?”

Keira ignored him and closed her eyes in concentration. The ankh she wore on her beaded necklace glowed momentarily, and Lambert’s medallion vibrated hard against his chest.

“Geralt, darling,” Keira said into the ceramic disk, “I need a favor.”

A startled yelp came seemingly from nowhere, followed by a great deal of muffled clattering and indistinct swearing. After a moment, the noise ceased and Geralt’s disembodied voice spoke gruffly from the disk in Keira’s hand.

“Damnit, Keira, what do you want?”

“Come now,” she said with a grin. “Is that any way to greet an old friend?”

“Forgot I still had this thing,” Geralt muttered. “You know it’s the middle of the night?”

“Yes, and I do apologize. But I have a matter of some urgency I’d like to discuss.”

There was a heavy silence and then Geralt sighed. “What do you need?”

“I seem to remember you recounting a story about a man you once made a deal with. One who left a mark on your face as a symbol of your pact. Do you remember?”

“Kind of hard to forget something like that.” There was a pause. “Keira, what’s happened?”

“I just so happen to have Lambert sitting here in my apartments right now with a very similar mark on his arm.”

“Shit,” Geralt hissed out through his teeth. “Can he hear me?”

“Yeah, I can hear you, wiseass. I already know I’m in deeper shit than a zeugl in a latrine. You don’t have to spell it out for me.”

“My apologies for interrupting this heartwarming reunion,” Keira cut in, “but can you tell us anything about this man?”

“He’s not a man,” Geralt said flatly. “Don’t really know what he is, as a matter of fact. Definitely not someone you want to cross paths with.”

“But you have before. And you’ve bested him.”

“…Yes,” Geralt admitted. “By the skin of my teeth.”

“Do you think you can do it again?”

“Was really hoping I’d never have to try.”

“Yes, well. What we wish and what we receive are often very different things.”

Geralt sighed heavily. “There’s a man—he’s as close to an expert in O’Dimm and the arcane as we can get. He owes me a favor. A big one. I can try to track him down.”

“That’s the spirit,” Keira said with a smile. “Once you’ve done that, would you mind meeting Lambert at—?”

“The Inn at the Crossroads,” Lambert supplied. “In Velen.”

“Fine,” Geralt said begrudgingly. “Any other requests, your majesty?”

Keira laughed. “My, how I’ve missed you. Good luck, Geralt.”

“Yeah, you too. We’re all going to need it.” The xenovox crackled and went silent. Keira’s pendant returned to its usual silver.

“None of that exactly sounded encouraging,” Aiden remarked from his chair by the fire.

“I’ll come up with something,” Keira said, laying the xenovox aside.

“If there’s one thing sorceresses are good at, it’s scheming.” Lambert retrieved his cup of wine and drained it. “I’d believe her on that one.”

“I’m going to choose to take that as a compliment.” Keira set about gathering up some of the supplies from her laboratory into a leather rucksack.

“What are you doing?”

“Packing.” Keira stuffed an elegantly-bound journal into the bag. “I’ve been meaning to pay Triss a visit for some time now, and this seems a good a reason as any. I hear Kovir is nice this time of year. Dreadfully rainy, but nice.”

“So what are we supposed to do?”

Keira glanced at him reproachfully. “I’ve found you people who can help. I know you’re apt to charge at the problem like an enraged fiend, but I’d very much like for everyone to come out of this alive—more or less,” she said, with an apologetic glance at Aiden. “Journey north and meet Geralt and his acquaintance at the inn. Once you’ve done that, the four of you can join myself and Triss in Kovir. We should have worked up a more concrete plan by then.”

Lambert nodded. "Alright."

"So it's settled, then. I plan to depart first thing in the morning. The two of you are welcome to stay if you so wish. I'm certain there are more than enough empty chambers to go around in this place."

"Thank you, Keira," Aiden said earnestly. "I understand that you're risking a great deal to help me, though you have no cause to. I can't express how much it means to me—and I'm pretty sure Lambert won't express it, even though he feels the same."

Keira granted him a small smile. "Don't thank me just yet. Curiosity has clouded my judgment before. I pray this isn't one of those times, but there's still a very good chance that not all of us will come out of this in one piece."

~~~~~~

"Who is she? To you, I mean," Aiden asked later, when the two of them had settled into the room provided for them, which was markedly less decadent than the sorceress's parlor and had only one small window looking out over the mountains.

Lambert, who was sitting beside the fire sharpening his swords, froze. He'd known this was something that would have to be confronted ever since he'd made the decision to bring Aiden to Nazair. The question, hanging unspoken in the air until now, had been clinging to him like a shadow ever since. It was both painful and a relief to at last hear it spoken.

"You were dead four years," he answered finally, drawing the whetstone along the sharp of his blade with great care.

"Yes, so I'm told."

Lambert looked anywhere but at Aiden. He could feel the other man's golden eyes boring into the back of his neck. "I lost you," he said, still intently working on his blade. "I lost you, I lost Vesemir, we lost Kaer Morhen, and no matter what I did nothing helped. Taking Karadin's head off his shoulders didn't help. Drinking myself half to death didn't help. I wasn't too fucking excited about setting out on the Path again after that. Seemed kind of pointless." He trailed off.

"And?" Aiden didn't sound angry. Just...sad.

"And Keira offered me an alternative. Don't ever tell her I said this, but she might be the smartest person I know. She's been working on a vaccination to stop the spread of Catriona for the past few years now. To do that, she needed ingredients harvested from monsters. Things that are difficult to obtain."

"And a witcher makes that much simpler."

"...Yes."

Aiden sighed. "I won't pretend I'm not hurt, but I’m finding it hard to fault you either. Why did you keep this from me?"

Lambert drew his whetstone slowly along the blade. "I don't know."

Aiden approached quietly and sat down by the hearth beside him. He rested his head on Lambert's shoulder.

"Do you love her?"

There was a heavy silence that felt like a physical presence in the air between them. Lambert's hand stilled.

"I don't know," he admitted, because it hurt less at this point to simply be honest. He thought about Keira, about her shrewdness and vivacity and all the times they'd nearly torn each others' throats out over the years. "Maybe I do."

He set his blade gently aside and wrapped his arm around Aiden's shoulder.

"But not the same way I love you."

Chapter Text

No sooner had the witchers arrived in Assengard, it seemed, than they had to depart. Keira Metz left via teleport, half her laboratory in tow, late the next morning. She took Aiden’s hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze just before vanishing. Lambert was both relieved and oddly rankled by the way the two of them had taken to each other. The looks they exchanged over the breakfast table were a little too knowing.

Still, he felt better, having Keira on their side. She seemed to harbor no ill will toward Aiden, and no more than the usual amount of ill will toward Lambert himself. He was certain she’d prove to be a valuable asset in the coming days. Keira Metz knew more about the human body and the various exceedingly painful and cruel ways it could be broken than perhaps any other sorceress alive. If anyone could figure out a way to reverse whatever curse was taking its toll on Aiden, it was her.

The decadent rubble of the once-fair capital city of Nazair faded into the distance as the witchers set off once more, in the opposite direction they’d ridden in the previous day. It was slow going; their horses were still tired from the earlier journey and, if Lambert was being honest with himself, his ass was sore. Better not to rush things, tempting though it seemed. There was no telling how long it would take Geralt to locate his occultist and make it to the rendezvous point in Velen.

And so, with these very persuasive arguments in his head and a strong desire for beer and some stew in his belly, Lambert gave in at once when Aiden suggested the two of them stop and investigate the goings-on in a small village on the outskirts of Brugge.

It had been obvious even from a distance that something was amiss. It was the peak of the harvest season—every able-bodied man, woman, and child should have been out in the fields, gathering up produce and storing it for the coming winter. Instead, the fields stood empty, and the hard-won fruits of the earth had been left to rot and go to seed under the unforgiving autumn sun. The pumpkins had gone to mush on their vines. Lambert thought privately that the sound they made when his horse stamped on them wasn’t unlike the sound of a drowner’s head smashing on a rock. He kept that revelation to himself.

As they rode into the little town, which the crudely-painted sign that hung over the main road informed them was called Seven Pines, folk seemed flightier than usual. They recoiled from Lambert in his black clothes and Aiden in his hood as if they were wraiths or specters of the Wild Hunt, come to raze their village to the ground. It took quite some time for the two of them to locate anyone brave enough to speak to them—most ran away or began spouting prayers to their household gods at the sight of the witchers’ approach. The only person brave enough to hold her ground turned out to be the village ealdorwoman, a gaunt, hunched-over crone with shrewd eyes.

“Not afraid we’re here to steal your souls?” Lambert said bitterly, crossing his arms as the woman peered at them. She leaned on her cane heavily, but it was clear that the frailty of her body belied a sharp mind.

"Don't mind them," she said, waving a hand dismissively. "They're frightened, and with good reason."

"But not you?"
She shook her head and smiled. "No. I'm not afeared of witchers. A lifetime ago, one of your brothers pulled my father from a drowner's grasp. I know the stories they tell about you are just that. Stories."

Aiden raised an eyebrow. "You said they had good reason. What are they frightened of?"

"The wraith," the woman said simply. "It haunts our fields. It's taken five already—we only found what was left of young Madja and Otis this morn. Our crops spoil on the vine. They're all too scared to venture out to harvest them, and I'm too frail to do it myself. I worry we'll have nothing left to hold us through the winter."

"Wraiths are something we can help with, provided you have coin to pay."

The crone nodded. "Aye, we've a bit. And we can feed and house you until the job is done, provided the dead don't trouble you. Madja's house stands empty."

Lambert nodded. "Deal."
"It's the one at the end, just past the well." She gestured with her cane to indicate the house in question.

"And the bodies?"

"Down the path and that leads past that hill, where the barrows are. They've not been prepared yet. Had a lot of deaths lately, and only one gravedigger."

"All the better." Aiden dipped his head in a gesture of respect. "We'll keep you informed of what we find."

The woman held up a hand. "I've no need for the details, so long as the monster is slain in the end. I have my hands full enough for the moment sitting vigil with Otis's wife. If there's anything else you require, ask Andre, the blacksmith. He'll provide."

Aiden smiled warmly. "You have our thanks for your generosity."

"It's our way." The woman looked over her shoulder, out past the ramshackle fence that encircled the little town, and shivered. "I only pray it dies fast."

~~~~~~

The vacant hut was much cozier than expected. There was a small yard for their horses, who accepted the offer of respite gratefully, and the inside was simply but practically furnished. The dead woman had clearly valued comfort—the bedclothes were much finer than she had a right to, and the pillows were stuffed with goose down. She had to have bought the linens off a trader, and likely at great expense. This sort of finery was hard to come by outside larger cities like Novigrad or Lan Exeter.

Lambert appreciated it nonetheless. Though he was more than capable of gritting his teeth and bearing the nights spent sleeping on damp and frozen earth by a guttering fire, he vastly preferred the idea of a sturdy roof over his head and a prohibitively expensive bed to sleep or fuck in. Keira was of the same mind in that regard, which was part of why the two of them had gotten along so well. Life was hard and short. Might as well take advantage of the finer things.

Their belongings stowed safely and their mounts well tended-to, the witchers set out along the path the ealdorwoman had indicated to them earlier. It was well-worn by decades of foot traffic, and wound its way outside the village gates and between a series of steep, rounded hills.
Lambert realized with an uncomfortable prickle at the back of his skull after they passed several hills of the same shape that they weren’t hills at all, but tumuli. Seven Pines sat on the outskirts of a vast necropolis, which from the look of things might have even predated the arrival of humans in this region. The occasional chunks of exposed stone that had eroded their way through the grassy mounds in places appeared to be elven in origin, carved with fluted details and archaic runes. Just as it was in many places, the humans had simply picked up where the elves had left off, continuing to build onto their ruins because they lacked the skill to construct anything comparable themselves.

The days grew short this time of year. The golden light of the afternoon sun was already fading as the two of them wandered among the barrows, robbing the world slowly of color. The dying light turned out to be a blessing, as it made the direction they should be heading quickly apparent. The dim glow of a lantern stood out amongst the darkening hills, beckoning them closer.

Lambert and Aiden arrived eventually at the base of one such barrow, drawn to the light like moths to a flame. The lantern sat on a table in a small, cave-like hollow that had been dug out of the base of the tumulus. In the cave’s depths resided several bodies, but only one person—an auburn-haired lad of no more than twenty, dressed in a threadbare and mud-stained jerkin. He stood examining the supine form of an older man intently in the low light. The scent of rosemary and horsemint stung Lambert’s nose.

The boy hadn’t heard the two of them enter. Lambert cleared his throat and he startled and yelped as surely as if a grave hag had wrapped her icy hands around his neck.

“K-keep back, the both of you,” he stuttered, snatching up a small knife from the table and holding it ineffectually between himself and the witchers. “I don’t want trouble.”

Aiden held out his hands in a placating gesture. “Relax. We’re not here to hurt you.”

He eyed the two of them warily. “What do you want?”

“Your ealdorwoman hired us to exterminate the wraith. We’ve come to look at the bodies.”

The boy hesitated, maintaining his white-knuckled grip on the knife. “I’ve heard tell witchers steal souls from unsuspecting folk.”

Lambert rolled his eyes. “Kid, if I could, do you really think that little needle would stop me?”

The boy blanched.

“Stop embarrassing yourself and put the damn knife down. If we wanted to hurt you we would have done it already.”

With a grimace and a shudder, the boy released his grip on the blade and let it drop onto the table beside the corpse with a thud.

“That’s better,” Aiden said cheerfully. “You have a name?”

“Austin,” the boy mumbled, looking pointedly at his shoes. Lambert let out a heavy sigh.

“The eyes are a side effect of the potions they gave us to make us this way,” he stated flatly. “They help us see in the dark. We can’t use them to curse you, or steal your memories, or control your mind.”

“…Oh.” Austin looked up. “Sorry.”

“You’re certainly not the first to hold that belief,” Aiden said with a rueful frown. “Not many of us left, now. I’ve heard the people in the south of Nilfgaard think witchers are nothing more than a story told to frighten children at night. There’s not much need for us anymore.”

“Lucky there are still poor bastards like this, then,” Lambert reminded him, stepping closer to the table.

He found himself feeling grateful for the bunches of pungent herbs that were strewn about the little cave. The bodies were still relatively fresh, having only been in this state for a day, but the sun had been beating down hard that afternoon, and corpses spoiled quickly in this weather. The horsemint wasn’t a particularly pleasant scent, but it was certainly an improvement on the cloying stench of decomposition and it kept the flies away.

“What can you tell us about him?” Aiden asked of Austin, walking around the table to examine the body from the other side.

The boy shrugged. “Otis was the miller. He was kind. He leaves behind a wife and a young daughter. Andre found him in the fields when the sun rose this morn. He was already…like that.”

It was plain what Austin meant, even without a witcher’s superior senses. The body had been rent almost in half by wicked claws, the entrails spilling wetly from the wounds in the belly, mottled pink and green and grey. There was an expression of intense horror on his face, and his eyes, which were frozen wide open, were bloodshot and anguished. A dark trickle of blood trailed from one of his ears.

Aiden’s brows knit as he examined the body. Lambert knew the calculations he was running in his head, checking the injuries against his mental encyclopedia of post-conjunction beasts. He didn’t bother doing the same. The bleeding from the ears meant there were only a handful of options, and none of them were good. There was a possibility they were dealing with a vampire; bruxae and alps could rupture eardrums with their powerful shrieks and had been known to disembowel their victims, but given that the dead man’s skin wasn’t pale as porcelain, he didn’t appear to have been exsanguinated. With those options eliminated, there was really only one left.

A beann’shie.

As far as wraiths went, there were worse options. He’d rather the beann’shie than a penitent or a pesta, but this was still going to be a headache of a contract nonetheless. Mutagens or not, he was pretty certain he’d permanently damaged his hearing over the past few years with the number of times his eardrums had been ruptured. He scowled, already anticipating the damnable itching that always accompanied the healing process.

“What about the woman? Weren’t there two bodies?” Aiden cast his glance around the cave.

“Weren’t much left of her.” Austin indicated another table in a darkened corner, which held a mound of torn meat and bloody rags that was barely recognizable as having once been human.
“Not sure what to do with her,” he admitted. “She’s got no family, and burying her like that just don’t seem right.”

“If you want my advice? Burn the body.” Aiden stepped back from the table, apparently satisfied with his cursory examination. “Along with any items that were of particular value to her. Otherwise there’s a fair chance she’ll rise again as a noon or nightwraith in a few weeks’ time.”

Austin’s already white face went even paler. “Y’mean there’s more of ‘em?”

“Gotta be honest, I’m surprised there are any of you left at this point,” Lambert remarked. “Living on top of a necropolis like this, you’re bound to encounter monsters. And since the lot of you are too fucking scared to even hire someone to clear them out, well…” he shrugged.

“Mother Melitele,” Austin whimpered.

“You’ll be fine,” Aiden reassured him, shooting Lambert a reproachful glance. “Just do as we said, alright? The sooner the better.”

Austin nodded.

“Good lad. We won’t trouble you any further.” He gestured to Lambert with a nod of his head to follow, and the two of them abandoned the herbal dankness of the cave for the cooling night air.

“You didn’t have to scare him quite so badly,” Aiden said after a while.

“True, I didn’t. And he could’ve gone on very happily until a grave hag decided she wants to take up residence in that makeshift morgue of his and scoops his brain out.” Lambert sighed. “I’ve never understood why people insist on living places like this. What’s to be gained?”

“Job security?” Aiden shrugged. “For us, I mean. For them it’s instinct. Their mothers and fathers settled these lands, put down roots. You’d be hard pressed to get them to abandon them.”

“Maybe I just can’t sympathize. Roots don’t grow on the Path.”

“I know.”

The moon was already high in the sky, though the final vestiges of daylight had yet to fade entirely from the horizon. The path back to the village was occasionally lit by the glow of an errant firefly. Samhain drew near, and soon the warmth would bleed from the world and the mountain passes would be blocked with drifts of blinding snow. Lambert found himself thinking about the coming winter, and where they would be able to weather it out. Being as Kaer Morhen was no longer an option, he was going to have to come up with something else, and soon.

A sudden gust of wind flared up, where before the night air had been still. The abrupt change in weather was accompanied by a plaintive wail and a sharp buzz of Lambert’s medallion. He and Aiden stopped walking, shared a horrified glance, and turned on their heels, back down the winding pathways of the necropolis.

The wailing persisted as the two of them crept through the darkness, their hands on the hilts of their silver swords. The sound of it grated on Lambert’s skull, sending piercing pains through his head whenever it crescendoed. A beann’shie, there could no longer be any doubt. He’d never encountered another creature that could produce a noise that came anywhere close to the noxious sound of its shrieks.

The screaming was accompanied by a sickly green glow between two barrows up ahead, and the terrified wails of a second person, which rose dramatically in pitch before abruptly stopping with a gurgle.

“Shit,” Lambert cursed, taking off at a sprint toward the source of the noise.

By the time his boots skidded to a stop on the packed dirt path just outside the morgue, it was already too late. He’d known it the instant he’d heard the boy’s cries, but the pit still dropped out of his stomach at the site of him, flayed open like a gutted trout on the cave floor. His neck hung at an unnatural angle, and his eyes stared blankly upward.

“Gods damn it!” Lambert kicked the wall in frustration and swore violently again when he injured his foot. “We were just here!”

Aiden said nothing, looking down at Austin’s body with a stricken expression. His mouth opened and closed wordlessly for a moment, and then he closed his eyes.

“Mother Melitele, take this child,” he murmured, just loud enough for Lambert to hear his words. “Hold him to your breast, and give him comfort. Forgive me for my failings, of which there are many. Watch over his soul on the journey between this life and the next.”

He knelt on the gritty cave floor and delicately closed Austin’s eyes. His task complete, he buried his head in his hands and took a deep, shaking breath.

Lambert came to his side and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “We couldn’t have known.”

Aiden dropped his hands and met Lambert’s gaze with wet eyes. “I told him everything was going to be fine.”

~~~~~~

“Can I ask you something?” Lambert said later that night, breaking the sorrowful silence in the little house as Aiden sat sharpening his sword pensively by the fire.

“Hmm?”

“You prayed for that boy’s soul. I didn’t know you still kept the old gods.”

Aiden pressed his lips together, drawing the whetstone along the edge of his silver blade. “It’s complicated.”

“Enlighten me.” Lambert moved to sit at the hearth next to him, sprawling out on the floor.

Aiden chewed on his words for a moment before speaking. “I didn’t lose my faith the same way you did. Even when I was strapped to the table, the mutagens burning their way through my body, I did not curse the gods and demand to know why. I asked only to survive, and I did.”

The silver rang as Aiden sharpened it. He tested the edge with his thumb before setting the whetstone aside and picking up a rag and a bottle of specter oil.

“I know what you’re going to ask me, Lambert, and the answer is that I don’t know. I don’t remember anything of my death or my resurrection. For all I know I could have been drinking and making merry in Valhalla with legions of Skelligan warriors, but I think that more likely there was nothing.” He worked the oil onto the blade with practiced hands, making tiny circles with the rag to ensure that every inch of the metal was coated evenly.

“If there’s nothing then what’s the point of praying?”

“What the harm in it?” Aiden shrugged. “I find comfort in the ritual. It’s familiar. It gives me something to do when there’s nothing else to be done. It was the last kind thing I could have done for that boy, so I did it. Perhaps I’m wrong and the Goddess does hear me. There are too many strange things in this life for me to write off deities entirely. Look at us—we’re monsters both, mutants and murderers. There are many in far-away places who would say that we’re just fairy tales gone sour, but here we sit.”

He set the bottle of oil aside and turned the blade over in his hands, checking for imperfections. Of course there were none—Aiden had always cared for his blades to the point of excess, and it showed. Lambert thought of Vesemir’s silver sword sitting neglected in his scabbard and felt a pang of guilt.

“Fair enough,” he admitted. “I’m fine with being a fairy tale monster if it means people stay the fuck out of my way.”

Aiden chuckled. “You would say that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’ve always been so obtuse—” Aiden broke off suddenly, his body jerking like a marionette with its strings cut. His head lolled forward on his shoulders and then suddenly snapped up.

“What the fuck?” Lambert recoiled, scrambling to his feet.

Aiden’s eyes—normally perfect copies of his own feline slits, fringed with thick lashes that somehow made them look warm and kind despite their otherness—were the sickly milk-white of one who’d gone blind from disease. His jaw was slack, and his movements irregular. He clambered slowly to his feet, still holding his silver blade.

“Aiden?”

There was no recognition in those horrible blank eyes. Aiden shuffled forward, brandishing his blade at Lambert. He dodged the slash, realizing with horror that Aiden was between him and his swordbelts, which he’d left on the bed. He had nothing to defend himself from whatever was happening—

Aiden swung again and the point of his sword caught Lambert’s shirt, tearing the fabric as easily as if it were made of spider silk. Lambert kept dodging backward, evading the worst of the blows, and realizing with dawning horror that he was running out of space to flee.

“Aiden! Fuck, snap out of it—”

There really was nowhere to go now. He was cornered like an animal, unable to find a trace of the man he loved in those dead, unseeing eyes. Paying more attention to the movement of the sword than to his footing, he tripped on the leg of a chair and fell back hard on his ass. Aiden stood over him, the blade held aloft.

Lambert made a fist, his heart pounding in his chest, and did the only thing he could do. He drew the sign of Axii.

Aiden’s body crumpled to the floor, the sword clattering out of his hand. Lambert kicked it away—it came to a stop somewhere under the bed. He fought to catch his breath, unable to make any sense of what had just happened.

The sign appeared to have worked. Aiden snored softly where he laid on the floor. Lambert rolled him over and pried open one eye, but there was no sign of the hideous purulent orb that had occupied the space moments previously. Aiden looked like himself, his eyes golden and clear, his brow knit with tiny lines of worry as he frowned in his sleep.

Lambert pressed a hand to his mouth and took several deep, shaking breaths through his nose. He didn’t have to understand what had happened to identify it as a portent.

Time was running out.

Chapter Text

Lambert sat on the dirt floor of the little house, leaning against the wall by the hearth. On the opposite side of the room, Aiden’s slumbering form lay peacefully on the bed. Lambert balanced his sword on his knees and drew a shaking breath.

He would get no sleep tonight. Not after what had happened earlier. He stood vigil over Aiden’s body for fear that whatever had taken possession of him would return while Lambert slept beside him and use Aiden’s hands to slit his throat.

At the outset of their journey, it had seemed cruel enough punishment that Aiden was no longer able to eat or use magic. Now Lambert was coming to realize that they hadn’t even begun to plumb the depths of O’Dimm’s wickedness. First Aiden’s body, and now his mind. There was no telling what was going to greet Lambert when he finally awoke.

Lambert thought of Nenneke’s pitying eyes, of Geralt’s trepidation. The high priestess’s prediction that the forces sustaining Aiden would likely decay over time seemed to hold water. Magic—particularly powerful magic, the kind of magic that bent the rules of what should have been possible—came with an expiration date. Lambert had seen the consequences of spells that remained in effect after that time had elapsed first-hand, and it was never pretty. Golems that turned on those they were created to protect and smashed them into a bloody pulp. Portals that rearranged travelers’ bodies and deposited them, screaming and mangled, on the other side. Illusions that morphed into nightmares turned solid. Glamours that ate away at flesh like acid rather than blurring its imperfections.

There was no telling what the passage of time had in store for the two of them. Lambert was forced to confront the fact that the sole responsibility for the situation they now found themselves in rested on his shoulders. It was he who had approached the Man of Glass at the crossroads that night. It was he who had spoken the words, he who had willfully let himself be deceived by O’Dimm’s silver tongue because he wanted so desperately to believe that the words he spoke were true. And Aiden was the one who was going to suffer for his foolishness.

Bitter waves of regret washed over his heart. He hadn’t wanted this. As desperate as his desire to see Aiden again, to get answers to the questions that had been torturing him for years, to reach any thin catharsis after all that had happened, he never would have taken O’Dimm’s hand if he’d known. For all they’d been through, Aiden had suffered enough. They both had.

Aiden tossed fitfully in his sleep and Lambert tightened his grip on the sword. A scant few hours remained before the dawn.

~~~~~~

The rising sun was of little comfort. Fatigue permeated Lambert’s bones. His jaw ached with the strain of clenching his teeth, and the dull red beginnings of a headache throbbed behind his temples.

Despite that, it was a relief when Aiden awoke as himself, his hands reaching out blindly for the space Lambert should have been occupying next to him. His frantic eyes scanned the room for Lambert, finding him still occupying his post on the floor beside the remnants of the fire. At the sight of his haggard face and drawn sword, Aiden’s brows knit in confusion.

“Lambert?” The sound of his voice, normal, rational, concerned, was a balm on Lambert’s frayed nerves. “What’s going on?”

“You don’t remember.” It was more of a statement than a question. Lambert was certain Aiden hadn’t been cognizant during the episode.

“Remember what?” Aiden rose and rubbed his eyes, crossing the small room to get closer to Lambert. Lambert eyed him warily as he approached, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Aiden stopped short, taking in Lambert’s white-knuckled grip on his blade and his torn shirt. “What happened?”

Lambert grimaced. “You’re not going to like what I have to say.”

“Tell me.”

Aiden’s face was an unreadable mask as Lambert recounted what had taken place, how Aiden had lost himself, how he’d turned feral and bloodthirsty and attacked the nearest warm body he found. He did his best to soften the blow, to not let his own fear and anguish bleed into the retelling of it, but could tell his words cut deeply all the same. Aiden looked away, staring resolutely into the embers that smoldered in the grate.

“I could have killed you,” he murmured.

“I think that’s going a bit far.”

“Lambert, look at yourself.” Aiden gestured at the sword that still sat between them. “Look how you’re sitting. You don’t trust me anymore—you can’t. And to be quite honest, I can’t blame you one bit.”

Lambert set the blade aside, made an effort to uncross his arms. “As far as I’m concerned, that wasn’t you. It was O’Dimm. I know you would never attack me.”

“That’s clearly no longer a promise I can keep.”

Lambert sighed and rubbed his temples. “We can fix this. We just need more fucking time.”

“What happens next time?” Aiden asked bitterly. “What happens when I come for you in your sleep, or when your back is turned? Your medallion doesn’t respond to me, Lambert.”

“No, but Axii was enough to bring you back. I’m a tough bastard, Aiden. Worse men than you have tried to kill me, and I’m still standing.”

“For now.” Aiden’s lip trembled, and he clenched his jaw angrily. “I can’t lose you again, Lambert. Not after everything that’s happened.”

A tear ran down his nose and dripped onto the packed earth of the floor. Lambert moved to sit beside him, wrapping his arm around Aiden’s shoulder and pulling him close. Aiden buried his face in Lambert’s shirt and sobbed, his shoulders shaking with the effort.

It was all Lambert could do to hold him, to rock him gently as the tears came and try not to fall to pieces himself. He was helpless, unmoored, a ship adrift on a stormy sea. He held Aiden as if he might vanish if he let go.

He said nothing. There was nothing he could promise, no words he could say that wouldn’t taste like lies coming out of his mouth. He sat there, unmoving, breathing in Aiden’s scent as his tears slowly soaked into the thin cotton of his shirt, and did his best not to break.

~~~~~~

The necropolis was larger than Lambert had realized. The mounded barrows went on for miles, only stopping when they reached a series of steep hills that were slightly too short to be called mountains in their own right. He suspected that the tombs continued even there, extending into vast caverns that ran beneath, but luckily that wasn’t their destination. The rest of those buried there had gone undisturbed for centuries, or perhaps even millennia.

The beann’shie, on the other hand, had only been terrorizing the people of Seven Pines for a few weeks. It was more than likely the tormented spirit of a woman who had perished here. All they had to do was locate her bones.

Admittedly though, in a city of the dead that was easier said than done.

The witchers roamed together down the paths between the hills, still feeling raw and shaken. The job lent some sense of normalcy to the day, if nothing else. If Lambert really tried, he could pretend that none of it—Karadin, O’Dimm, the Wild Hunt—had happened, and that the two of them were out on a contract like any other. He lied to himself that tonight they were going to get paid, that they would ride to the nearest large city and fuck in their room at the inn and drink and play Gwent until the sun was almost up once more. He could have been happy, truly happy, if they’d just done that for the rest of his life.

“Do you see that?” Aiden said, interrupting Lambert’s thoughts. He pointed to the zenith of a nearby barrow, at a circle of withered and deadened grass that sat atop its peak.

“Looks promising.”

Lambert found himself winded more easily than usual as they climbed the steep hill to investigate more closely. The grass within the circle was indeed burnt, black and crunchy underneath his boots. There was a harsh line at its borders where the lush green blades that remained met death. Lambert bent down and crumbled a dried blade between his fingers. It smelt of decay, of things once green and sweet that had rotted into nothingness.

“This has got to be where she rose,” Aiden remarked as Lambert got to his feet. “I haven’t seen anything else like this anywhere in the necropolis. The shape is too regular to be a lightning strike.”

Lambert nodded. “Her bones should be somewhere below, then.”

The tombs within the barrow were accessible via a small doorway at its base, which was sealed with a large stone. On most of the other tumuli, the stones had eroded together after centuries of rain and snow and creeping moss that all but hid the openings from sight, but on this one the moss had been scraped away and the earth around it had been recently disturbed.

“Someone’s been in here.” Aiden knelt and touched the gouged earth with his fingertips. “Perhaps a few weeks past.”

“Stand back.” Lambert drew the sign of Aard and directed the blast at the stone, which shifted out of the way with a groan of protest and a loud thud as it came to rest in the darkness of the barrow.

The pitch blackness presented no challenge to their feline pupils. The witchers descended into the tomb, past offering plates that were filled with the dust of flowers withered decades past and stubs of tallow candles. The passage led them under the hill, to a vast central chamber lined with niches stacked six-high. Most were occupied, their occupants having decayed to naught but bone and rags. By the shape of their skulls, Lambert took most of them to be Aen Seidhe.

There was one corpse among the many that caught their interest. It was out of place compared to the others, unmistakably human even in the near-darkness. The body was that of a woman’s. Beautiful she must have been at one time, with rich auburn hair that cascaded down her shoulders like fire. Her lips had once been plump and full, and her figure was lithe and willowy. Lambert imagined that her eyes, if she had still had them, might have been blue.

A terrible wound had been inflicted upon her breast. Someone had used a wicked instrument to remove her heart. Where fair flesh should have concealed a beating heart, instead there was a gaping hole that contained nothing. The edges of the wound were neat; the weapon that had done this had been sharp, and its wielder had had steady hands and intimate knowledge of what he was doing.

Lambert sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose. Underneath the cloying stench of decay was the unmistakable caustic burn of formaldehyde.

“I didn’t know they preserved their dead here,” Aiden remarked.

“They don’t.” Lambert frowned. “It’s not their way.”

“Interesting.” Aiden peered closely at the woman, eyes raking her body for details they may have missed.

“She’s missing a finger,” he pointed out, indicating her left hand. The third finger was indeed missing, severed just above the second knuckle.

“What's around her neck?"

The dull glint of gold was unmistakable. Aiden lifted the locket delicately, turning it over to peer at the inscription. "My darling Aja—my heart is yours in life and death."

Lambert let out a low whistle through his teeth. "That's...strangely relevant."

"I agree." Aiden let the chain slip from his fingertips. "I'm willing to wager that this is our beann'shie."

"Not a lot of other fresh corpses around here." Lambert wrinkled his nose. Fresh might have been too generous a sentiment. The air in the tomb, centuries-stale, bordered on insufferable with his amplified senses. "Not a lot we can do until nightfall. Let's head back, gather our supplies. We'll burn her body at dusk."

Aiden nodded in agreement and turned to follow Lambert back up the narrow passageway and into the mercifully clear air. They left the barrow unsealed; there wasn't much point in moving the boulder back if it had already been desecrated. As they walked down the winding paths back toward Seven Pines, Lambert did his best not to think about all the ways the coming fight could go wrong for someone who couldn't cast the Yrden sign.

~~~~~~

The village blacksmith was easy to locate by following the sound of his hammer clanging against the anvil. Sparks flew from his forge, kissing cherry-red iron and rendering it forgiving and malleable. The man who swung the hammer was both tall and broad, with a shock of white hair and a beard that obscured most of his face. His visage gave one the impression of a dwarf who had simply never been told that dwarves were supposed to be small in stature.

He eyed the witchers warily as they approached, but did not flee as the other townspeople had.

“What d’yeh be needin’?” he asked in a voice thick with a Skelligan accent.

“You Andre?” Lambert stood leaning against one of the low stone walls that encircled the forge.

“Aye.” The blacksmith plunged the glowing horseshoe he’d been shaping on the anvil into a bucket of water, which issued a hiss of protest and a cloud of thick steam. “And the two of yeh be witchers. Agnes said to expect yeh.”

“We found the body of a woman,” Aiden said, stepping forward. “Sealed in one of the ancient barrows, where she doesn’t belong. She had red hair and a golden locket round her neck.”

“Aja.” The blacksmith let out a sorrowful sigh. “She was the first the wraith took.”

“When was that?”

“One moon past. Austin, poor lad, found her body out among the barrows one morn. Were a right tragedy.”

“Why’s that?” Aiden shot Lambert a warning glance, as if he ought to know not to be so blunt. Lambert shrugged.

“She were about to marry.” Andre pulled the tempered horseshoe from the bucket with a pair of metal tongs and dropped it with a clunk onto his workbench. “Austin loved her, once upon a time. But her parents’d promised her to another. A vintner’s son, with better prospects than a gravedigger. Lad didn’t take it well.”

“You said she was the first victim of the wraith?”

The smith nodded.

“Forgive me for asking this,” Aiden said, “but are you certain it was a wraith that killed her?”

Andre’s brows knit. “Aye? Austin said he saw its mark on her.”

“The other bodies were shredded almost to nothing. We examined Aja’s corpse—she’s missing her heart and her ring finger, but her body is otherwise in excellent condition. Preserved, even.”

“What are yeh gettin’ at?”

Aiden turned to look at Lambert. “A spurned lover, knowledge of the human body, never mind the way it sought him out—”

“I agree with you.” Lambert stood and stretched. “We should find her heart. I bet he kept it somewhere.”

“Right.” Aiden dug in his pockets and pulled out a crown. “Thanks, you’ve been a big help.”

He tossed it to the smith, who caught it with a bemused expression on his face. “That all ye’ll be needin’? No weaponry or armor?”

Aiden smiled and indicated the swords at his back. “Special tools for special trades. I’m sure your work is solid, but I’m rather fond of the tried and true.”

~~~~~~

Austin’s house was barely more than a shack and much less lavishly furnished than the dead woman’s that Lambert and Aiden had been afforded for their trouble. He seemed to have relatively little in the way of possessions—the solitary dresser held only one change of clothes, and the bedclothes were nothing more than a single sheet of thin cotton and a pillow stuffed with straw.

Poverty wasn’t terribly unusual for a gravedigger. The boy had likely made a pittance for his work, though no one else in the village would have done it. It was a sad, lonesome existence that few would have undertaken willingly.

What was unusual were the souvenirs.

Lambert had seen it before. Men who went mad, clinging to shreds of their former lives like magpies decorating their straw nests with silver. In the back of a cupboard they found them—a lock of auburn hair, held together with a satin ribbon. A flower, dried and pressed flat between the pages of a book. A slender, withered finger with a gold ring still upon it.

A human heart, preserved in a jar.

Aiden retrieved it from the cupboard, cradling it in gentle hands like a priceless treasure. “Aja,” he murmured.

“Whoreson.” Lambert spat into the dirt.

“At least now we can lay her to rest,” Aiden replied. “It’s the least we can do.”

“Before we send her wraith to kingdom come, you mean?” Lambert’s words dripped in sarcasm.

“Yes.” Aiden took no notice of his tone and slipped the jar reverently into his bags. “Come on. Beann’shie’s waiting.”

It occurred to Lambert later, as they were walking along the winding pathways that led down into the necropolis, that perhaps he ought to have a bit more sympathy for the dead. After all, Aiden was one of them now.

As the sun grew low on the horizon, the witchers disinterred the young woman’s corpse and carried it to the top of the barrow, placing it in the center of the circle of withered grass where the wraith had risen. Aiden carefully placed the jar into her clasped hands, wove the dried flower into her auburn hair.

“You’ve already made it right,” he said, standing over her body with bowed head as Lambert stood awkwardly off to the side. “It’s time for you to rest.”

Aiden looked to Lambert and nodded. Lambert drew the sign of Igni, bathing the woman’s body in a stream of fire.

The flames took hold, licking their way hungrily across her withered skin, devouring the fabric of her dress. The witchers stood together, bearing witness, as the plume of smoke spiraled up toward the rising moon.

Hours passed in near silence, with only the crackling of the flames and the occasional call of a night bird to punctuate it. The body burned to embers and finally to ash. And when the last spark faded, a great wailing arose all around them, echoing off the barrows surrounding, seeming to come from every direction at once.

Lambert’s sword rang as he drew it from its sheath, the silver glimmering with a thin sheen of specter oil. The edge was sharp as a razor, and its very existence cried out for blood. He gritted his teeth, witchers’ eyes glowing in the darkness, and waited.

She came up on them like a storm, whipped into a fury by rage and sorrow, sweeping in from the darkness like an ominous cloud. Her claws were sharp, her face drawn with suffering. Even in her ethereal form, a gaping wound was visible in her chest where her heart should have been.

Lambert drew the sign of Quen—he’d be damned if he was having his eardrums burst again—and stood at the ready. The beann’shie circled them at first, keeping to the edges of the ring of burnt grass, and then, howling, descended upon them.

The witchers were ready. As the wraith drew close, Lambert threw his hand to the ground and drew the sign of Yrden. The circle of violet runes flared to life at once, crackling and ensnaring her in magical bonds. The witchers slashed and spun, dodging every desperate swipe of her claws, riposting with blades soaked in specter oil deep into her accursed flesh.

The beann’shie wailed, the sound painful even though not at full volume. It was like the reverberations of it sank hooks into Lambert’s very soul. There was a white-hot pain behind his eyes that felt as if his skull might burst. He gritted his teeth and bore it.

With a desperate wrenching, the wraith broke free of her bonds. Lambert’s Yrden dissolved into nothingness, and she blinked out of existence.

The silence was worse than the wailing. The waiting, not knowing where she’d come from next, the heavy air that pressed down on him silent except for the cry of a nightjar somewhere in the distance. Without realizing it, Lambert held his breath. His medallion buzzed hard against his chest.

The wraith flickered back into existence directly behind him, and with a vicious swipe of her claws sliced into his shoulder. Lambert’s Quen shattered in a shower of golden sparks. He let out a yell of mixed pain and rage and dodged to the right, managing to evade the worst of it. He came to rest half-crouched, one hand pressed to the wound to staunch the flow of blood, the other still brandishing his silver sword.

He could smell his own blood, sweet and hot and metallic as it ran down his armor in little rivulets. Lambert slashed at the beann’shie, his silver biting deep into her flesh. She wailed, the sound rising in pitch until it reached an unbearable volume, until the sheer force of it stunned him and forced him to clutch at his head in pain. On the other side of the circle, Aiden staggered backward.

With immense effort, Lambert threw out his sword arm and severed her tongue.

The wailing stopped at once, devolving into guttural howling. Lambert dropped to the ground and drew the sign of Yrden; the circle flickered to life once more.

“Aiden, now!” he shouted.

He needn’t have. Before the words had even left his lips, the point of Aiden’s sword erupted from the beann’shie’s throat. With one final choked gurgle and then a sigh, she collapsed into dust.

Lambert fell backward onto the scorched grass, panting. Groping blindly at his belt, his fingers managed to locate a vial of Swallow. He downed it in one gulp and breathed a sigh of relief as the pain in his shoulder immediately began to ebb and the bleeding slowed.

“Well, that certainly could have gone worse,” Aiden remarked, pocketing the trophy he’d sifted out from the wraith’s ashes. “Are you alright?”

“Will be eventually.”

Aiden held out a hand. Lambert took it and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet.

“What now?”

“We get paid.” Lambert wiped his sword carefully on his trousers and sheathed it.

“And then what?”

Lambert’s face settled into a grim line. “We ride north.”

~~~~~~

They didn’t ride north, not immediately. The prospect of one more night sleeping in a proper bed was too tempting.

With the threat of the beann’shie eliminated, the village came to life. The people of Seven Pines took to the fields in droves, working their fingers to the bone bringing in what was left of the crops. Apples, pumpkins, potatoes, sprouts, beets, and more, all brought in by the bushel. With everyone pitching in, most was harvested by the end of the day.

And it was almost Samhain. All the more reason to have a festival in celebration.

Lambert and Aiden were invited to stay for the celebration. That in itself was unusual; though Lambert hadn’t been chased out with pitchforks in the past couple of decades, it was rare for anyone to want a witcher to stick around past the completion of his task. Still, the villagers were grateful, both for the elimination of the wraith and for one of their own finally being able to rest peacefully.

The witchers saw no harm in remaining one more night. Lambert had done without quite a few meals lately, and the smell of baking pies wafting from the cottages on the eastern edge of the village was powerfully inviting. Geralt could wait.

For such short notice, the feast was quite impressive. Several long tables were set up in the center of the village around the well, laden down with roast chickens rubbed with salt and rosemary, and large flaky pastries filled with carrots and gravy and beef, and baskets of fresh apples and pears, and pies made of pumpkin and squash and allspice, and sweets made from nuts dipped in honey and then toasted over a fire. The alcohol flowed like water as well: homemade rye and pepper vodka; sweet, clear apple cider; wine mulled with spices in a large kettle.

Lambert ate like a starving man, not knowing when he’d next be afforded a hot meal, and drank until everything melted together in a colorful blur of alcohol—the young lads and maidens dancing to a wild tune as one of the farmers played a flute as if his life depended on it and Andre the blacksmith beat a skin drum as if it were an anvil and his hands were the hammers. Aiden looked on with a fond smile on his face, a crown of wildflowers resting jauntily on top of his chestnut curls.

Lambert rapidly progressed to stumbling drunk, and the music grew faster, more insistent. With a grin, Aiden seized his hand.

“Come on, let’s dance.”

“I don’t dance,” Lambert protested weakly as Aiden dragged him into the fray.

“Sure you do. It’s a lot like fighting. Just lean into it and try not to think too much.”

Lambert was more than happy to oblige the latter part of Aiden’s advice. He released his already tenuous grip on sobriety and let Aiden arrange his hands just so, and they flew into the whirl of colorful skirts and stamping feet on packed earth.

The rush of air over Lambert’s skin, the flash of joyous faces of the other dancers as they spun and wove between them, the pleasant buzz of alcohol inside his skull, was all oddly freeing. Lambert found that his feet knew the steps even if he didn’t.

As they whirled around the bonfire, Aiden threw back his head and laughed. Lambert realized faintly in a tiny, much more sober part of his mind that it had been years since he’d seen him so happy. His laugh was infectious, sweet and warm like the taste of mulled wine on his lips. The blue and violet wildflowers woven into the crown he wore made his golden eyes seem all the brighter.

The dance grew faster, and Lambert’s clumsy feet struggled to keep up. Aiden supported him, keeping him from falling when he misstepped, spinning him faster and faster until Lambert was breathless and laughing from the sheer absurdity of it all. One pocket of joy in a lifetime of sadness.

Lambert looked out at the crowd watching the dancers, their faces blurred by alcohol, the stomping of their feet in time with the music reverberating through him. Men and women, old and young, strong and frail—every soul in the village was in attendance.

As they spun once more, Lambert realized that there was one face in the crowd that he recognized.

It was a face that radiated joviality and menace somehow at the same time, one with cunning eyes and a wicked smile. The violent yellow of his jerkin stood out among the drab greys and browns of the other celebrants.

He was holding a wishbone.

It was as if time slowed to a standstill in that moment, anger and panic surging up Lambert’s throat as O’Dimm’s eyes met his. The Man of Glass stood there, hiding in plain sight, cold and calculating behind those soulless eyes. Lambert tried to shout, but everything had gone nightmare slow. He felt like he was trying to run through molasses.

Unnoticed by anyone else, Gaunter O’Dimm help up the wishbone and winked. Lambert was pervaded by a sense of impending doom. His heart squeezed uncomfortably in his chest.

O’Dimm reached up with his other hand, took hold of the wishbone, and snapped it.

Chapter Text

The wishbone broke, and so did Aiden.

He fell to the ground screaming, clutching a leg that was suddenly bent at all the wrong angles, the raucous sounds of laughter and merrymaking turning to shrieks of fear and horror as the villagers scattered and fled. Lambert scanned the crowd frantically for O’Dimm, but he was lost amid the chaos. As the villagers abandoned them, all that remained was a wishbone, small and broken, trampled down into the mud by fleeing boots.

“Aiden!” Lambert fell to his knees in the dirt beside him, alcohol-muddled mind still struggling to keep up with what was happening.

The other witcher’s face was waxen and drawn with pain. A thin sheen of sweat stood out on his skin. His teeth were clenched and bared like an injured animal’s. A howl of pain arose and strangled in his throat as he tried to suppress it.

Lambert did his best to swallow his panic and turned his attention to the wound.

The break was bad. The entirety of Aiden’s lower leg was bent at an odd angle, limp and lifeless and wrong. Blood flowed freely from the place where the jagged white end of a bone protruded from his skin. Lambert could see his muscles, suddenly free of their anchoring points, spasming around it.

“Fuck,” he swore, pressing his hands to his face, trying to think straight. “Fuck. Right.” He looked up at Aiden, who had propped himself up on his elbows and was looking at the splintered bone with abject horror. “I need to set this.”

Aiden nodded, breathing hard through his nose, and laid back. Lambert steadied his hands on either side of the fracture, took a deep breath, and yanked the bone back into place with a crunch.

Aiden’s screaming, muffled by clenched teeth, tore at the very fabric of his being. Lambert did his best to hold himself together as he fumbled with shaking hands for a vial of Swallow. He pressed it toward Aiden, who downed it in one gulp. His breathing eased.

The respite lasted moments. Lambert had just begun to let himself relax, to let the knot of fear and panic in his gut begin to unravel and replace itself with thirst for the blood of the man who had done this, when Aiden’s already pallid face went still paler.

“Oh no,” Aiden mumbled, and then turned to the side and doubled over as his body violently purged every drop of the potion he’d just drank. It pooled on the dry grass, blood-red Swallow and bitter green bile, as his entire being heaved over and over again.

Lambert could do naught but look on in horror. There was nothing to be done. Nothing at all.

~~~~~~

Some hours later, when the dust had settled, the witchers sat in silence around a fire that was more interested in smoldering wetly than burning.

They’d left the village quickly. There was no reason to stay. The people of Seven Pines, who had tolerated or even begrudgingly welcomed their presence due to necessity, certainly wanted nothing to do with them in the aftermath of O’Dimm’s appearance. They were frightened by Aiden, by they way his body had broken like a twig in a maelstrom. Lambert had heard them whispering that he was cursed as he was untying the horses. Were it not that Aiden needed his help to mount his mare, he would have taken out some of his misdirected rage on them and their detestable faces.

Given that Witcher potions were no longer an option, Lambert had had to stitch the wound where Aiden’s bone had broken the skin back together. They’d bound his leg tightly—there was no telling how long it would take to heal, but with the dressing at least it held together well enough for him to walk unassisted.

Aiden stared darkly into the stubbornly smoking campfire, looking for the first time as if the gravity of his situation had hit him. There was no delight left in him, no laughter. There was only grim resignation.

Lambert went without supper. Cooking something now seemed like adding insult to injury, and in any case his earlier meal had gone sour in his stomach. He felt sick in the core of his being. It was like the very muscle and sinew of his heart had gone black and withered with decay.

In time, the silence grew unbearable.

Lambert was used to silence between the two of them. It was something he’d always appreciated, that he and Aiden could comfortably occupy the same space for an indefinite length of time without needing to say anything to the other to keep the awkwardness at bay. But this was different. Aiden wasn’t sitting quietly at peace with his thoughts as he sharpened his sword, nor was he gathering potion ingredients or simply lying back appreciating the sky. His eyes had gone dark. The lines of his face were more pronounced, aging him severely. His hands, normally occupied with some small task, were still. He sat on a log by the fire with his forearms resting on his thighs, looking as if the weight of the world had settled fully on his shoulders.

And perhaps it had. Lambert approached him cautiously, moving so that he was sitting near him on the log but that there were still several inches separating them. He’d seen Aiden upset before. He’d seen him furious and heartbroken in equal measure, usually over something Lambert himself had done, but even in those moments he’d never turned Lambert away or refused his touch. His body language now was all but screaming a rejection of that. Lambert wasn’t entirely convinced that if he’d tried to reach out and comfort him that he wouldn’t end up with his hand sliced off at the wrist.

“What am I?” Aiden said finally, not taking his eyes away from the flames.

Lambert grasped for words and came up empty. A muscle jumped in Aiden’s jaw.

“You said you burned my body. I would have done the same for you. There should have been nothing left. My ashes should have scattered to the wind. It’s our way.” Aiden’s hand drifted unconsciously down his leg, feeling the bandages wrapped thickly around it. “So what am I made of? Where did this…this merchant pull me from?”

“I don’t know,” Lambert said quietly.

Aiden sighed. “This body…it’s not going to last, is it?”

“I don’t know,” Lambert said again. “Probably not.”

Aiden closed his eyes and nodded, his lips pressing into a thin line. He looked as if he were fighting back tears. Lambert was paralyzed on the spot, unable to move closer, unable to run away, unable to offer a touch or even a word of comfort. He’d never wanted this. He’d never wished it. If he’d known that this was what O’Dimm’s help entailed…

He let the thought wither and die. Time was immutable, and revelations always came too late.

“The entire time I’ve been sitting here I’ve been wondering,” Aiden said, his vocal cords creaking under the strain of holding everything back. “Am I even the same man? I feel like I am—who else would I be? But once I’d been taken apart and burned and scattered and put back together, surely there are pieces missing. Things that fell through the cracks. There are so many things I don’t remember, Lambert. I don’t even remember dying. I don’t remember Jad Karadin, or Lund, or Hammond, or Selyse. I don’t remember how it felt when he put his sword through my chest. I don’t remember Ellander. The only thing that was in my mind when I awoke was that I needed to find you. I don’t even remember where I went to sleep before that.”

Every word stung Lambert’s skin like a barb. He gritted his teeth and bore it.

Aiden reached up and fisted his hand in his hair as if he were trying to tear it out, eyes wild with anguish. “You say you love me, Lambert, but how can you? I’m not the same man you met in that tavern in Ellander all those years ago. I’m nothing but an echo of him, a pale imitation, scattered ashes scraped together and given a voice. The Aiden you knew died a long time ago.”

Lambert finally found his voice. “That’s not true,” he said, his words sounding strange and distorted even to his own ears. “I would know you anywhere. We’re bound by fate, the two of us, and nothing can change that. There isn’t a single form you could take or place you could go that I wouldn’t know you the instant I saw you. You’re you. I know that.”

“Not entirely.” Aiden stared down at his boots.

“Memories are cheap, Aiden. They fade with time and distance. There’s not a damned witcher left alive who hasn’t forgotten most of his life before the Trials. That doesn’t make them different people than they were before.”

Aiden wiped at his eyes. “When did you get to be the reasonable one?”

“Sometime between pissing off the only sorceress who tolerates me and making a deal with the devil.”

Aiden laughed, and the sound was an enormous relief. It washed over Lambert in waves, the tension ebbing from his body with every peal. Aiden closed the distance between them, and Lambert wrapped an arm around his shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” he said, realizing with a pang that this might have been the first time he apologized to Aiden for anything. “This—all of it—is my fault. But we’re going to make it right.”

They fell asleep much later, when the last embers of the fire had gone to ashes, tangled up in each other with Lambert’s arm still slung protectively over Aiden.

~~~~~~

When Lambert awoke, he was alone.

Confusion came first, followed in short order by fear and then panic. The sun wasn’t yet up, the sky a cold grey that promised awful weather to come. The ashes of the fire were cold as death. There was no sign of Aiden anywhere, nor any indication of where he might have gone. His armor and swords were missing. It was as if he’d simply vanished. And, for a terrifying second, Lambert was afraid that he had.

It took him several minutes to get his head on straight and think rationally. Aiden’s horse was still there. He couldn’t have gone far, and he’d left on foot. If Lambert concentrated, he could see his tracks in the soft earth, light and evenly balanced. He’d know the trace of Aiden’s near-silent gait anywhere.

Yanking on his gambeson as fast as he could and slinging his swordbelts over his shoulder, Lambert followed.

Even walking quickly, it took the better part of an hour to finally find him.

Aiden sat on a large boulder at the edge of a ravine, looking out at the pale sun that was struggling to rise above the tree line. He was curled in on himself, facing away from Lambert. Though he didn’t turn to face him, Lambert knew he’d heard the sound of his approach because he drew himself in tighter, as if he were trying to disappear.

“Aiden, what the fuck?” he said angrily as he approached. “I woke up and you were gone. I thought something happened to you. Can you even imagine how worried I was?”

Aiden didn’t respond. Lambert, who had reached the boulder at last, reached out to grab his shoulder. “Aiden—”

“Don’t touch me!” Aiden shouted, slapping Lambert’s hand away.

“What—” Anger flared in Lambert’s chest and abruptly died, replaced by fear and concern at the expression on Aiden’s face. “What the hell happened?”

If anything, Aiden looked even worse than he had when they’d gone to sleep. His eyes were bloodshot and red from crying. His face was drawn and his skin was mottled. Lambert noticed with alarm that his fingertips were stained with blood. He could smell it, sweet and metallic and rotten. It was on the grip of his trophy knife, on his gambeson, on the places Aiden had rested his hands on the rocks.

Lambert forced himself to take a breath and unclench his teeth. “Tell me what’s going on.”

Aiden wouldn’t look at him, wouldn’t meet his eyes. Lambert sat on the boulder nearby, giving him space, but wanting desperately to be close to him. To grab his face and make him look into his eyes and let him in so he could fix whatever was wrong.

Several minutes passed in silence except for their breathing. Finally, sounding hoarse and absolutely wrecked, Aiden spoke.

“I’ve been losing time, Lambert.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean there are gaps. Hours that just…aren’t there. That I have no memory of. It’s like my mind is full of holes that I’m constantly trying not to fall into.”

“Alright?” Lambert said, trying and failing to make heads or tails of what he’d said. “I still don’t understand what—”

“I tried to hurt you last night,” Aiden said flatly. “Maybe even kill you.”

Lambert froze.

“Like that night in Seven Pines,” Aiden continued. “Just like that. I lost myself…and I came to at the last possible moment, with the sharp of my knife pressed against your throat. If I hadn’t woken up…”

The rest of his sentence was lost. They both knew the implication.

“But you didn’t.” Lambert turned to face him, determined that if Aiden wouldn’t meet his gaze he would at least put himself squarely in the center of his vision. “I’m fine, Aiden. Nothing happened.”

Aiden was silent. Lambert’s eyes wandered from the blood on Aiden’s fingertips to his knife to his gambeson. And then, inevitably, to the wet lump of torn muscle that sat on the ground before him a few feet away.

Lambert swallowed. “What the fuck is that?”

“I was going to kill you,” Aiden mumbled.

Bile rose in Lambert’s throat. “Aiden, what the fuck is that?”

“I couldn’t risk it happening again,” Aiden said faintly. He looked up, and his eyes were unfocused.

The pieces fell into place all at once, and Lambert recoiled in horror as he took in the particular mottled tone of Aiden’s skin, the torn fabric of his gambeson at his breast, the blood…not as much blood as there should have been, but blood…

And a human heart, sitting uselessly on the ground before them.

“What the fuck did you do?” he all but screamed, scrambling to his feet.

Aiden blinked, and a tear traced a path down his cheek. “I tried to make it right.”

“You—” Lambert’s mouth opened and closed uselessly. “You tried to—”

“To keep you safe,” Aiden snapped. “And it didn’t fucking work—”

“I don’t care about that!” Lambert shouted. “I don’t care about me! Where the fuck have you been? When have I ever cared what happens to me, Aiden? All of it means nothing, not a single gods-damned fucking thing, if you’re not there. And after everything—when we’re just a day’s ride from the help we need, you try to leave me like this?”

“I won’t apologize,” Aiden said quietly. “I’m not sorry. I did what I thought was right.”

“You’re a coward,” Lambert spat.

“Maybe so.” Aiden looked up, and there was fire in his eyes. “But all I can do is try to preserve what’s precious to me. That’s all any of us can do.” He took a deep breath, and the fight went out of him. “Lambert, I think it’s time for us to talk about tempering expectations.”

“The hell it is,” Lambert snapped back.

“It is,” Aiden persisted. “Lambert, look at me. Look what I’ve been reduced to. It’s time to face the likelihood that this isn’t going to end well for either of us.”

“Keira—”

“Said she doesn’t think there’s anything to be done,” Aiden said evenly. “As did Nenneke, and I’m sure the same goes for any other healer or sorceress you can think of. What I am…nothing like me has ever existed before, and for good reason. I’m an affront to nature.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s a simple fact.” Aiden rubbed his beard. “The man who did this—I don’t think he ever intended for it to be undone. I don’t know if it can be undone. And as glad as I am to see your face again…” He sighed. “I’m tired, Lambert. I’m so tired. I think that when this is over I’d like to rest. It’s time.”

“Don’t,” Lambert said plaintively, the mere echo of that night standing vigil on a hilltop outside Ellander bringing him to his knees. “Don’t leave me again.”

“You know I don’t want to,” Aiden whispered, his face anguished. “But I hurt, Lambert. Every inch of me hurts. And I want it to stop, while I still have the power to make it so.”

Bitter tears welled up, try as he might to choke them back down. Lambert wept, hating himself for being so weak, hating Aiden for what he’d just done, hating Gaunter O’Dimm for his laughter and smug smile and the rune that was branded on Lambert’s forearm, a promise that his debt was still to be collected.

They were trapped, the two of them, caught between a rock and the inevitable. Lambert wasn’t the first man to try to cheat death. There had been many others over the centuries. Fear of mortality was a driving force behind human innovation. There was a reason, he realized, that none of them had succeeded.

Some prices were much too high to pay.