His father tells him to watch out for the Witcher before Atem as much as takes his first step out of the southern country.
He hears it again from his travel companions and from his guards. He hears it in taverns along his way, from children playing murder in the streets - he hears it everywhere until it's so thoroughly engraved into his brain that he hears it in his dreams.
And the stories, oh, the stories, they grow darker as the cold gets bitterer, and the higher up North he goes the more he understands about the people who tell them.
Northern country is cold and unforgiving, and its woods are as full of wolves and nightmares as the great rivers of the South are full of crocodiles and nightmares.
He can't help himself but be the idiot in every campfire story ever told. He can't help it because in the South, they tell the stories about the great and terrible Magicians, and, well, Atem is good friends with both of them.
To Atem, the Witcher is a genie in a bottle, polished with snow and hunger of the barren northern fields. And, of course, much darker wishes, and frozen bodies in the streets and starving dogs mauling their masters.
Atem can't imagine it can get much worse after he spends the night in some railroad town and wakes up snowed in as high as six inches, maybe even seven. It snows for four whole hours that day, and the northerners just laugh at him and tell him to go home when he notices that the puddles have hardened and asks if ice cubes grow from that.
It's nasty, but it's tolerable, and he goes his way with confidence.
But the next day, his train takes him further North, and it's worse - and worse after that, and worse again.
The railroad takes him as far as the tracks can go, and he learns that his train had ran over two men who chose traintracks over living out another bitter winter when he exists his final station. He hadn't felt as much as a bump, not screeching wheels, nothing. It's unbecoming, he feels he somehow should've known.
Gloom follows him.
He sees his hundredth frozen man in the street that day.
He wants to go home.
"You want to go home," a gypsy tells him, and Atem just bundles into his furs and holds onto his wallet. "But you want dragon more, no?"
Of course Atem wants a fucking dragon, else he would've turned the fuck around and went home the minute this white bullshit started falling right out of the sky.
North had to have some truly fucked up gods to even come up with this.
The gypsy just laughs at him.
"You're here for a dragon too, piss off," Atem tells her. "Everyone in this god-forsaken pilgrimage wants something."
"The Witcher," she tells him, her caravan is here to bribe the Witcher for a warmer winter.
And it's fair: Witcher to the left, dragons to the right. Fountain of Youth straight ahead, frozen solid and suspiciously yellow.
"Come on, small prince," she coos, and Atem makes his first mistake in not denying it, "I read your fortune. Free."
Hesitantly, Atem slips a mitten off his hand and offers it, but she ushers him into her tent and it's his second mistake.
Maybe she drugs him when she pricks his finger for some spell to 'speak to his destiny in a plate,' or maybe when she pecks his lips because 'he's a cute one.'
He doesn't know it yet, but in a few hours he will wake up left of the Piss Fountain, not right, alone in waist-deep snow, alone for miles with only chests full of stolen gypsy gold to feed him, alone in a middle of a storm so bitter that the skin of his face blisters, alone, alone.
But for now, the gypsy's tent is warm, and heat creeps up Atem's cheeks.
The gypsy takes his hand to tell his fortune and then goes through an assortment of mortified theatrics.
"Do not go back to your home," she spits. "Die here, is for the best!"
She smacks him on the back of the head like he's a boy being smart with her.
"I see misery! You bring home no dragons. Evil follows you home. You bring home evil. Do not come home."
"Maybe it's an evil dragon," he idles.
"The evil follows you and splits alllll," she makes a wide gesture, "of South in two, right down the middle, and cuts your stupid heart "- she snatches nothing from the air- "out of your chest. Die here! Is best."
Atem gives her a measuring glance, cautious of the theatrics and even a little impressed.
"Agh," she swats at him, "whatever. Come, look in your destiny plate."
The concoction smells like piss, and he begins to think this is a common theme in northern magic. He looks, and the piss is black, and she drips his blood into it.
"Talk to it. If you lucky, destiny talks back."
"Like a telephone?" Atem asks her, but she doesn't know how a telephone works except there are some in the warmer and richer parts of the North, so he abandons the subject and stares into a plate of black piss and asks it if there's anyone in there.
And the plate of piss whispers back.
Something like, " have mercy," and maybe she lied and there is a telephone under the table, or someone hiding there-
--but she knocks the plate over. It shatters against her floor and spills its dubious contents everywhere.
Her theatrics are frighteningly good when she goes silent as a grave for a minute, then throws Atem out of her tent.
And then Atem remembers nothing, just sleep, and bitter cold, and being left to die as part of offerings to the Witcher.