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Promises to Keep

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“Monster Problem

For anyone likely to survive more than two minutes fighting a beast, is in need of a bit of coin, or goes by the name Geralt of Rivia:

We’ve got a monster problem in the fields outside of Kaer Sliabh. Something’s been stealing our livestock as of late, attacking people who walk on the road to the castle, and seems to have acquired a taste for both sheep and humans alike. Jarl Carrik would be willing to give a generous reward for anyone who can slay the beast. If he is reading this, we would prefer the assistance of the witcher known as Geralt of Rivia. If this is not possible, then any whoreson would suffice. Kaer Sliabh can be found east of Boxholm.

The inhabitants of Kaer Sliabh.” – Contract found in Farylund

 

It started off as a contract.

The moorland is bitterly cold as Geralt returns to Kaer Sliabh, a castle owned by Clan Drummond. A chort head hangs from Roach’s saddle, swaying with each step. Even in his thick furred armour, Skellige’s mountainous gales still chill him to the core. Snow is starting to settle on his hair and beard, and already his hands are numb. But he hasn’t far to go now; the looming castle lies before him, surrounded by white mountains that are dotted with frozen ruins. Somewhere to the east lies the still-abandoned town of Boxholm.

Really, he shouldn’t have taken on this contract. It’s an unnecessary detour, and not a fun one at that. He and Yen are here to meet with Ciri, just south of Kaer Trolde, for a well needed catch up. It’s been four years since she vanquished the White Frost, and three years since she set off as a fully trained witcheress. Periodically, the three of them will meet up, but Geralt and Yen try not to overwhelm her with frequent contact. She needs room to spread her wings, live her life freely and as joyfully as she wants. But neither Geralt nor Yen can deny the longing they feel to see her, and the gaps between visits always seem too long.

So, once more, they’re meeting to see how she’s fared before winter approaches. Even the witcher, with his mutation-driven limited emotions, can’t help but feel a spark of anticipation at the thought of seeing his daughter again. Perhaps they’ll even convince her to stay in Corvo Bianco for the winter, in place of the now empty Kaer Morhen.

In fact, Yen has already gone ahead to meet Ciri, but Geralt had insisted on having a wander around the familiar isle again. Partly because his old lifestyle has ingrained the habit of travelling into him, even now, but partly because he was too proud to let Ciri realise how much of a helplessly doting father he’s become by visiting her so quickly. Of course, Yen doesn’t care and told him not to take too long. She’s not gonna be happy – he’s taken a much longer detour than she’d wanted.

 

He’d seen the contract on a notice board in the nearest village, Farylund. It vaguely described a monster terrorising livestock and preying on those who travelled between the castle and the village. What really caught Geralt’s eye, though, was a final passage to the contract.

If he is reading this, we would prefer the assistance of the Witcher known as Geralt of Rivia.

A call by name…It was enough to make Geralt trek all the way to the new castle of Clan Drummond. There, a steward greeted him. Promised a reward of 600 crowns – a hell of a lot of money that Geralt just couldn’t turn down.

The contract in itself was simple. After speaking to some farm hands, and some witnesses in the village, Geralt figured out very quickly it was a hungry chort, having been driven off its own territory and resorting to snacking on goats and the occasional human. Not an easy beast to bring down, but Geralt had certainly faced worse over the years.

And now, he returns to the castle to collect the promised 600 crowns, the bloody chort head at his leg, the last of the Swallow toxicity leaving his system. Then, to Ciri and Yen, he tells himself. No more detours. Go see your goddamn daughter.

 

Kaer Sliabh, owned by Jarl Carrik Harelip, is opposing and solemn. Nothing the size of Kaer Trolde, but still impressive. Farm hands and workers quickly get out of his way as he enters the courtyard, all looking at him with that age-old suspicion and disgust that he’s stopped giving a shit about. Apparently, even helping to fight in the prophesied Rag nar RoOg isn’t enough to change everyone’s opinions about witchers.

The steward stands in front of a large, fortified door, seemingly unaffected by the cold – probably used to it. He has a shrewd face, thin and slightly gaunt. Unlike so many other men in Skellige, his beard is neatly trimmed, his hair slicked back with care. He looks Geralt up and down with sharp blue eyes.

“You’ve returned intact, then.”

Geralt gets off Roach and holds up the chort’s head. “A chort. Got driven off its territory. Got hungry."

“I see.” The steward peers at the head in disdain. “What drove it off?”

“Dunno. Something bigger and fiercer.” Not something he’d particularly like to fight.

“Well, ugly fucker got what was comin’ to him either way.”

“My pay?”

The steward shakes his head. “Not mine to give. The jarl wants to see you. He’ll give it to you himself.”

Geralt sighs. Another delay. But he’s not leaving without the coin. “All right, fine. But let’s make it quick.”

 -

The steward leads him through the castle, much warmer than the bitter outside. Feeling returns to Geralt’s hands, and the snow melts off his armour. The halls are lined with animal trophies, mainly bears and wolves. An avid hunter, then? Or maybe a show off.

“Explain something to me.” Geralt says as they walk. “I always thought that Clan Drummond’s territory was in Kaer Muire, near Holmstein. Why is the new jarl of Clan Drummond all the way up here?”

“When Madman Lugos died, four years ago, his cousin became the new jarl. But he was stupid – waged a war with the An Craite without the tactical skills to succeed. He lost very quickly, and lost favour with the rest of his clan for turning traitor during Rag nar RoOg and the attack of the Black Ones.” The steward explains.

“That doesn’t surprise me.” Honour is taken so seriously in Skellige, after all.

“Luckily for the clan, his brother Davin stepped in and made peace talks with the An Craite to fix the rift between the clans and prevent anymore unnecessary bloodshed. Since the An Craite had seized some of Clan Drummond’s land in the past, Queen Cerys offered this castle back to them as a show of good will. Davin took over as the jarl for a short time – and a good jarl he was too. Smart man. But a bad hunting accident fucked up his leg and he decided to step down as jarl. His eldest son has taken his place now. Jarl Carrik resides here, while his father Davin maintains Kaer Muiren.” The steward explains.

“Is that a good thing? Lots of changing powers in Clan Drummond. From what I’ve seen, it can cause unrest.” Geralt remarks.

“Jarl Carrik isn’t as…skilled as his father when it comes to diplomacy. He’s a young jarl, after all. Lacking experience.” The steward says tactfully. “But he’s good at riling a crowd, inspiring his men. That’s equally as important.”

The steward stops in front of a heavy oak door, knocks, then steps away. “The jarl’s just ahead. Show him the trophy, and he’ll give you the money.”

Geralt nods, though for some reason, he’s feeling a sense of unease. He shakes it off. He’s just anxious to see Ciri, is all.

 

The hall is filled with music, shouting and the smell of lager. Men gather around the tables, eating meat, boasting about raids, spilling their beverages in their drunkenness. In one corner, two men are fist fighting. Typical Skellige feast, then.

All the men are wearing the same purple tartan colours – all the same clan. And sitting in a throne at the front of the hall, not touching the food or drink in front of him, watching the hall with a steely gaze, is a young man with a thick black beard and a scar across his nose and cheek.

So that’s Carrik, Geralt thinks to himself. He certainly leaves an impression in the room, though Geralt can’t quite put his finger on why. Not from his build – unimpressive – or from his face – pretty damn ugly. He just seems…impatient?

As soon as Geralt steps forwards, Carrik’s gaze shifts to him. A smile creeps onto his face, the kind of smile that makes Geralt want to punch it off. He beckons the witcher forwards.

As Geralt walks, none of the other feast goers pay any attention to him, even with the monster head hanging in a string bag. At the end of the hall, Carrik turns to the side and shouts. In response, a dark-skinned elven man comes to his side. Hm. Someone from Ofier?

The closer Geralt gets, the more he hears and sees.

“That wine we pilfered from the raid on the Black Ones – bring it to me. I feel like fine dining tonight.”

The dark-skinned elf simply nods. His face is blank, green eyes almost glazed over. Something’s not right here. For starters, his clothing is very clearly not fit for this climate. An almost bare chest, and thin, impractical trousers. There’s a cut on his left temple, the blood matting the surrounding black hair, the surrounding skin purple from a bruise. And he’s wearing shackles on his hands.

A slave. Damn it. A custom that Cerys killed some time ago, but still keeps raring it’s ugly head across the isles.

Then something strange happens. Geralt’s medallion begins to vibrate.

What is he? Geralt watches the Ofieri elf walk away. He looks entirely humanoid. Vampire? No, no way a vampire could be controlled with simple shackles.

“Ah, Geralt of Rivia.” Carrik’s voice grabs his attention. “I see you’ve solved my monster problem.”

Geralt hands him the trophy. “A chort.”

“Well, I never.” Carrik holds it up to his face. “Fucking hideous. Tell me, how big was it? Big as a horse?”

“Bigger. I’m here to collect my reward.”

Carrik laughs. “You’re very to the point, aren’t you? Very well.” He turns to the side and shouts, “Fox Face!”

The Ofieri elf returns, carefully carrying a tray with wine and a glass on it. He sets it down in front of Carrik.

“Bring me my bag.”

Again, the Ofieri elf nods, and Geralt can feel the medallion vibrating. Before he turns to go, the elf glances at Geralt – then pauses. Looks at the medallion on his chest, the swords on his back.

“Go on! Stop gawkin’!”

Quickly, the elf continues. This time, Geralt watches him go. He walks past a group of the feast goers. One man grins, winks at his companions, then sticks his foot out. The Ofieri elf trips, landing on the floor to the sound of jeering and laughing.

With effort, the elf slowly tries to get to his feet. He’s stopped by a kick to the ribs, and doubles over in pain, instinctively shielding his head.

“Now, lads.” Carrik calls over. “I don’t wanna be waiting for my bag all fuckin’ night.”

At this, the feast goers leave him be. The Ofieri elf remains curled up for a few moments more, then slowly gets to his feet and continues walking, as if nothing happened.

“So. Geralt of Rivia. How about we chat while we wait?”

“Sorry, don’t like associating myself with slave owners.”

To this, Carrik simply laughs. “Is that so? Shame. There were plenty of questions I wanted to ask you. For instance,” he takes a sip of the wine, “is it true you helped our good queen Cerys uncover the plots of the traitor, Birna?”

“Maybe.”

“How did she do it, then? The An Craite massacre?”

“Poisoned some Berserkers.”

“Berserkers? Hah! The stuff of fairy tales. What a load of bollocks.”

“Believe me or don’t. I don’t give a shit.”

“Hm.” Carrik leans on the arm of his throne. His gaze drills into Geralt. It makes him feel uncomfortable, so he simply stares even harder back, not showing a single sign of unease.

“Why did you help our good queen Cerys?”

“She’s smart. Sensible. Good plans for the future of Skellige.”

“And Birna? You had it out for her, huh?”

“No.” Why is he bringing up her? That was four years ago. “Didn’t really care until she killed all those innocent people at the An Craite massacre. I want my reward now.” Enough of this chit chat.

“Of course, of course.”

The Ofieri elf arrives with a large hunting bag. He avoids Geralt’s gaze, and only glances briefly at the vibrating medallion on his chest. His task done, he takes a few steps back, but stays in the hall.

“Now for your pay.” Carrik takes a deep breath, then shouts out, “Quiet!”

Immediately, the feast goers fall silence. Something tells Geralt to be careful. He tenses.

“You know, I did find that wench Birna an absolute pain in the behind.” He’s rummaging in the bag, doing something that Geralt can’t see. “I really did. But she wasn’t all wrong, you know. She’d been making plans, for what she assumed would be her son’s reign as king of Skellige. Plans that would’ve been very beneficial for me.”

Geralt glances at the feast goers. All are armed. He gets ready to grab his sword.

“And Cerys? Good, smart, sensible queen Cerys? She’s forgotten our traditions, our ways, our very being. We are warriors. Yet, with her ruling us, we are nothing but tame lapdogs.”

Shit. Get ready.

Carrik stands up. “You should’ve stayed out of this, Geralt of Rivia.”

Geralt barely manages to dodge the attack. Carrik lunges forwards with a long dagger, much faster than Geralt expected. He doesn’t aim for the chest, where chain mail protects his heart and lungs. Instead, he aims below by Geralt’s right flank, where the armour is sparser. Geralt feels it cut through cloth and pierce his skin, drawing blood from his right abdomen.

But it’s a shallow wound, superficial. In one clean motion, Geralt unsheathes his steel sword and brings it down on Carrik. It hits the nape of his neck, and Carrik falls, blood gushing from the artery.

Instantly, men start running at him. Great. If I’m late to see my daughter because of this shit…

One man swings his axe at Geralt, and loses his arm to Geralt’s sword for his effort. Another tries to parry with him, catch him off guard. His blow glances off Geralt’s armour, and Geralt thrusts his sword through his chest. A cross bow bolt shoots past a few inches away from Geralt’s face. Quickly, he closes the distance between him and his attacker, and cuts him down.

More are running at him. There are too many, he realises. He grabs a Grapeshot bomb and throws it towards the group. They scatter – some are able to scramble out of the way of the blast; some aren’t so lucky. The stained carpet promptly sets on fire from the bomb, growing alarmingly fast.

Good, a separation and a distraction. Geralt sheathes his sword, and picks up the deceased jarl’s chair. He throws it at the window, smashing it. Then he rips Carrik’s cloak from his body and places it on the base of the window ledge, covering the remaining broken glass.

He turns to the Ofieri elf, who has his back pressed up against the wall, paralysed with fear. Geralt holds out his hand.

“I’m not gonna hurt you. I promise. Come with me.”

The elf stares at his hand, then at Carrik's body, lying in a pool of his own blood. He grabs Geralt’s hand.

Geralt leads him to the window, all the while his medallion going crazy. “Climb out.” He gets ready to boost up the elf.

“Murderer!”

Geralt turns just in time as another man charges at him, sword aloft. Steel clashes. He protects his face from the blade, but he’s taken by surprise. Geralt’s own blade is forced from his hand, and clatters to the stone floor.

Shit. The man raises his sword again, but before he can strike, he freezes. Blood splutters from his mouth, and he drops down dead, an axe sticking out of his back. Behind him, the elf is staring at the body with contempt.

“Thanks.” Geralt grabs his sword and sheathes it, then helps the elf climb through the window. He follows quickly – the fire is getting bigger.

Outside, the cold air hurts to breathe in. Geralt lands in the bushes next to the elf, who’s shivering violently.

Geralt whistles for Roach, then pulls Carrik’s cloak from the window. He shakes out the broken glass, then drapes it over the elf.

“Hang in there. When we get out of here, I’ll get you some better clothes.”

The Ofieri elf just nods, too cold to even speak.

A few moments later, Roach canters around the corner, neighing and running in circles, seemingly startled. Geralt calms her with Axii, and realises why – a group of the farmhands are running towards her with pitchforks, accompanied by one of the jarl’s warriors. They know Geralt has killed their lord.

“Quickly.” Geralt mounts Roach, and helps the elf climb on, who then clings tightly to his back. “Run, Roach!”

Roach breaks into a gallop, and Geralt steers her away from the castle. A fire arrow whizzes last them. The shouts of the jarl’s men are getting further away. Geralt looks back behind him. The inside of the castle is glowing orange from the blaze, smoke billowing from the windows. He didn’t realise the fire would spread so fast. He hopes that none of the workers got caught up in the flames, but somehow, he feels absolutely no guilt over Jarl Carrik’s death.

 -

Even after the castle is out of sight, Geralt doesn’t stop. He travels a long distance, only slowing his horse when they’re miles from the castle and when Roach is beginning to tire. To be honest, he isn’t sure where he is – surrounded by heather, a forest to the south, further away from the mountains now, no sign posts or villages anywhere near. The only sign of civilisation is an abandoned house, it’s roof slightly caved in, the door hanging by its hinges.

“That’ll do.” Geralt gets off his horse, and turns to the Ofieri elf. “Stay here. Need to check it first.” Houses aren’t abandoned for no good reason. And if there are bodies inside, he’ll have to burn them, to stop necrophages from coming. If everything’s fine, they can stay there for the night. He suddenly feels exhausted.

Inside, though, the house is empty of corpses. A large house, but with only two rooms: a room for preparing food, and a bedroom with two beds, one somewhat smaller than the other. It’s dusty, but seemingly intact. In fact, there’s still food on the shelves – though all rotted now – and a pot hangs over an empty fireplace. A doll sits on the bed, clearly well loved by its owner and wearing a handmade dress, and by it are a pile of clothes. Good, The Ofieri elf can have those.

Next to the bed is a journal. The first page says, in shaky childish handwriting,

Journal belonging to Sorcha, age 7’

Geralt flicks through the pages. Some are covered in doodles of a black and white dog, some used for practising spelling difficult words, but most are entries about trivial matters. He reads some of the later entries.

Dear Dairy Diary, today Mammy showed me how to make bread. We got flower everywhere but it was very fun. I gave Lucky some because he works hard in the fields with Daddy, but that’s a secret so don’t tell anyone!

Dear diary, today it is my birthday! Mammy and Daddy got me a doll and we ate nice food. I love my doll so much! I have called her Serafina and Mammy says she will show me how to make her a dress.

Dear diary, Daddy says that we have to move to Farylund. I cried because I love our house, but Mammy says there is something in the fields that have been eating our sheep. We will have to leave tomorrow morning.

Hm, a monster. Too far from the castle to be the chort – maybe it was whatever monster forced the chort towards the jarl’s residence.

But they left some of their things behind, including the girl’s prized doll. Were they killed by the monster? No, the house doesn’t show sign of any enormous beast charging through, and he didn’t see any bodies, or smell any blood. He guesses that before they could fully pack, they spotted the monster coming for the house and the rest of the livestock, so they got out of here before it reached them, with no time to bring most of their possessions. He hopes the family made it to the village all right, and he decides to take the doll, just in case he ever finds the girl.

A beast big enough to scare off a chort, though…Geralt considers moving on from this house, travelling a bit more. If the monster is still around, their presence could attract it. But he’s so…so goddamn tired. And the house is infinitely warmer than outside, thanks to the shelter from the wind.

Fuck it. They’ll stay here.

A voice in the back of his mind tells him this is a bad idea, but his head feels fuzzy from exhaustion so he ignores it. Instead, he grabs the clothes and walks back outside to the Ofieri elf.

“House is fine. Here, take these.” He passes him the clothes, and pauses. Somethings not right.

Then he realises. He’s not cold. He thought it was just the house, but even out here in the open, he feels warm. He’s sweating, and the shallow wound at his side really hurts.

The Ofieri elf is staring at him, and he looks concerned.

“…Are you all right?” His voice is quiet, accented.

The world starts swaying, and Geralt can barely stand up right.

The dagger, he realises in panic. It was poisoned.

He blacks out.

Chapter Text

“Fiends are walking mountains of muscle capped with horned, tooth-filled heads. Like their rarer cousins, bumbakvetches, they live in thick forests, swamps and bogs. When possible they avoid humans, but when not possible, they kill them, and without much difficulty.” – The Bestiary on fiends.

 

When Geralt wakes up, the pain is still there.

He’s lying on one of the beds, his armour removed. His swords are propped up next to the mattress. His throat feels dry, and his side is aching dully, but his head doesn’t feel quite so fuzzy anymore. There’s a genuine warmth to the room – he turns his head carefully, and sees through the open door to the kitchen area that the fireplace has been lit. The Ofieri elf is sitting in front of it, the cloak still draped around him and the clothes Geralt gave him sitting by his side. Geralt realises that he’s trying to pick the lock on the shackles. He can’t put on the clothes otherwise.

Geralt tries to call out, but his throat is too dry. His coughing is enough to catch the Ofieri elf’s attention, though.

He walks over, sitting on the edge of the bed. Again, Geralt tries to talk, but the Ofieri elf just presses water to his lips, probably one he took from Geralt’s pack. Geralt takes it from him and drinks. His hand is shaking, but he doesn’t spill it.

“…Thanks.” He motions to the shackles. “Need some help?”

The Ofieri elf nods, and holds out his wrists. With effort, Geralt reaches for his hunting knife, then picks the lock, more through force than technique. With a heavy thud, the shackles drop to the floor.

“Aah!” The Ofieri elf grasps his wrists, gasping. Then he pulls the cloak hood firmly over his head, and turns away. All the while, Geralt’s medallion vibrates.

“Dimeritium?” He guesses.

“…Yes. I thank you.” Hurriedly, the elf leaves the room and gathers up the clothes. Geralt looks away to give him some privacy, but he’s curious. Is he in his real form now? Just what exactly is he?

After he’s done, the Ofieri elf comes over again. He’s still got the hood up. Carefully, he removes the dressing he put on the wound, and begins to dab it with alcohol.

It stings, a lot. Geralt grits his teeth from the pain.

“Where’s Roach?” He asks, mainly to distract himself.

“Roach?”

“My horse.”

“She is outside. Do not worry, she is fine.” Pretty good Common, almost fluent, but with an obvious accent. Definitely from Ofier.

“Name’s Geralt. What’s yours?”

The Ofieri elf hesitates, glancing down at the swords.

“…Ameer.”

“Ameer.” Geralt repeats, trying to copy the pronunciation. “How old are you, Ameer?”

Ameer hesitates, then says quickly, “28 summers.”

Hm. His appearance matches the age, but Geralt gets the impression he’s lying, that he's much older. Why else would he hesitate about his age, when elves are an already long-lived race? “You from Ofier?”

“Yes.”

“You’re a long way from home.”

“…Yes.”

He says nothing more on the matter, provides no clues as to how he ended up a slave to a jarl from Skellige. Instead, he asks,

“You are…They call you a witcher in these lands?”

“Yeah. I’m not gonna hurt you, though. As long as you don’t hurt me.”

Ameer considers this, and nods. “Your wound…It is not healing correctly.”

“Poison?”

“I am sorry, yes.”

“I’m supposed to be immune to poison.” Geralt frowns. “Whatever it is, it must be pretty damn strong.”

“Yes, I am…confused. I have not seen a poison like this.” Not exactly encouraging news to hear.

“Carrik - He set a trap for me, huh?” The fact he was named on the contract – he should’ve been more careful.

“…Yes. Carrik did not like you. I do not know why.”

“Cause I interfered with Skellige politics.” Geralt sighs. He doesn’t regret his actions that day, but he understands more and more why Yen wanted to get away from the realm of politics. No matter what choice you make, someone will end up being your enemy.

“Hm. I need more…resources.” He stands up. “I must go and collect some herbs. I will not be long.”

Giving one last wary look to the swords, he leaves the house, his footsteps light against the creaking floorboards.

 

Slowly, Geralt sits up in the bed. The pain from the wound sharply increases with the movement. Looking down at it, he sees that the dressing has been expertly applied, even with limited resources available. Before he ended up in Skellige, was Ameer a doctor? Or is he just someone who’s had a lot of experience with injuries, a soldier?

Geralt looks out of the window. It’s day time. A mist has fallen over the moorlands and the forest, its trees orange and red in their autumn colours. The sky is overcast, so it’s hard to tell, but Geralt figures its probably midday. He must have been passed out for a long while, then. Damn it. Yen and Ciri will be wondering where the hell he is. Hopefully they won’t be too pissed off when he eventually arrives with an Ofieri, who definitely isn’t just an elf, and a poisoned wound in his side.

He didn’t even get the damn reward. For fucks sake.

Carefully, he gets out of the bed. They can’t stay here for long. If that monster from the child’s journal returns, their only option will be to run; he can’t fight in this state. But every movement he makes is painfully slow. Even trying to put his armour back on takes an age, which then presses up against the wound and makes it sting even more. Eventually he has to sit back down, exhausted from the simple action.

Outside the window, he can hear Roach eating the grass. A raven sits by the windowsill, bashing a snail against the frame. Sitting in the dying heather, a red fox watches him. And somewhere in the autumnal forest, he can hear the bellowing of stags as they rut. All good signs. The second a big monster appears, all and any creatures in the vicinity will get the hell out.

The raven finishes its job and eats the snail’s slimy body, then fixes Geralt with its beady eye and cocks its head.

A raven… “Hey. Um…” He feels kind of foolish, but at least no one’s around. “Can you pass on a message? There’s this guy, Regis – he’s a vampire, lives in Nilfgaard – if you find him, tell him…tell him I think I’m in trouble.”

The raven croaks, and flies away. Geralt has no idea if it’ll pass on the message. And Regis is in Nilfgaard, anyway. Even if the message does reach him, he’ll either have cured the poison or be dead by then.

With no warning, he’s suddenly overcome with a horrible wave of dread – a dread that he rarely feels. Is it the nature of the poison? The fact that it’s so strong, even his witcher mutations can’t drive it off?

No. It’s not just that. There’s something else. A feeling he can’t shake.

But, for some reason, he can’t quite figure out why. Only thing he can do is gather his belongings. As soon as Ameer returns, they’ll leave, injury or no. They’ve stayed here long enough. The risk of the monster is too high.

Grunting with effort, Geralt bends down to pick up his swords and fasten them to his back. If he retraces their steps from last night, he might be able to reach the village. He doesn’t plan on staying there since he killed the jarl, but from there he should be able to figure out the fastest route back to Kaer Trolde. Once they get there, Yen can help treat the poison. Surely she’ll know what it is. If she doesn’t…

Geralt shakes his head. No point worrying about that right now. Leaning onto the walls for support, he heads outside to Roach.

“Ameer!” He shouts, his voice echoing out across the heather. “We need to go!”

Silence. No response.

Wait…

Silence.

The deer have gone quiet. The fox has gone, too.

 Roach lifts her head and looks towards the forest. She starts whinnying, pacing back and forth nervously.

“Shit!” Geralt mounts Roach, the action making his wound rage in agony. “Go!”

Roach begins to gallop from the house. A moment later, Geralt hears a roar.

A fiend bursts from the trees. Its hair is thick and scraggly, black with white stripes that have been splattered with red from a wound. It sees the mare running, and gives chase.

“Damn it!” Even as Roach runs, the fiend keeps on chasing. He doesn’t understand, fiends don’t normally hunt humans. Then he realises: the wound, it must’ve been the monster that fought with the chort. It’s injured, weak from its territorial disputes. It needs an easy meal. And it can sense Geralt is injured.

Geralt barely has time to think as he leads it away from the house, down steep paths and through the thick forest. It’s keeping up, deceptively fast thanks to its powerful leg muscles. He has no idea which direction Ameer went – he simply hopes that he’s leading it away, not towards him.

As Roach runs, the pain in Geralt’s side is getting worse and worse. His vision starts to blur, and he struggles to control his steed.

Shit. He feels himself slipping from the saddle. 

In a split decision, Geralt pulls hard on the reins, slowing Roach to an abrupt halt. Just in time. The world spins, and he falls off the mare.

He hits the ground, hard. The wind is knocked out of him, and the pain in his side is so bad that his vision goes dark. It’s a struggle to stay conscious.

From the corner of his eye, he sees Roach run away. Behind him, the roar of the fiend is getting louder.

Geralt takes a deep breath, and sits up as fast as he can. “Fuck!” He feels sick from pain. He grabs onto a tree trunk and heaves himself to his feet. The sheer effort it takes almost makes him throw up.

But there’s no time to delay. Sweat pouring down his face, he begins to stagger through the forest, moving from tree to tree for support. At least the forest should slow the fiend down somewhat, but his own pace is infuriatingly slow. His head is throbbing, and he can barely see 3 feet in front of him. The fear of tripping up is at the forefront of his mind. He knows that if he does, he won’t have the strength to get back up, and it’ll be over.

Soon, the trees get sparser. He’s quickly losing energy. He staggers into a clearing, breathing heavily, not daring to slow. After a few steps he almost stumbles, and just manages to right himself.

How far is he from civilisation? Is he back on the path? Is Roach nearby?

A wall of rock faces him.

Now, Geralt stops. It’s 50 feet high. Far too steep to climb up. And it's vast, stretching far on either side. Who knows how long it goes on for? Even if he finds a section of rock that’s less steep, there’s no way he’d have the energy to climb it, not in this state.

Is this it? Is he going to die?

No. Not yet.

He frantically looks around for something, anything. Somewhere to run? Somewhere to hide?

There. At the bottom of the rock face. Bush and brambles grow over the rock, but he can see a hollow or crevice behind them. Maybe it will be big enough to fit in?

The fiend bursts through the undergrowth, much faster than Geralt expected. Instinctively, he starts running – and feels the cool chill of the monster’s claws slicing the air a few inches away from his back. It’s too close, he won’t reach the hollow in time –

In one last attempt, he grabs his last Grapeshot and hurls it at the beast. Even with his blurry vision and impaired aim, it’s difficult to miss such a big target. The bomb hits the beast on its flank near its wound – the explosion doesn’t cause much damage, but it’s enough to slow it, make it roar in pain. Geralt runs towards the hollow, ignoring the piercing thorns of the brambles as he rips the vegetation away. The hollow is smaller than he thought it’d be; he has to get on his knees and crawl in. Further into the rock face, the hollow becomes higher and wider, and he’s able to sit up, shifting himself away from the entrance. Just in time. The fiend thuds against the rock face, sending shivers through the rock. Spiders drop from the hollow ceiling onto his armour. Dust and small pebbles settle onto his hair.

The fiend howls angrily, trying to stick its ugly head into the entrance.

With shaking hands, Geralt unsheathes his silver sword. He still has some relic oil left from the chort contract – carefully, his coats his blade with the liquid.

The fiend paces the entrance to the rock face. Once more, it tries to stick its head in.

Now. Geralt plunges his sword into the monster’s head.

The monster squeals in rage, and withdraws his head. The strike caught it in the eye, but Geralt didn’t have the strength to make the blow fatal.

Now, Geralt drops his blade. He can’t even hold it anymore. He’s too weak.

Outside, he hears the fiend grunting, and then the noise of scrabbling claws. It’s trying to open up the hollow, he realises. Like him, it can’t afford to lose. It’s injured, it’s wasted too much energy on this hunt to stop without getting the food it needs.

Geralt rests his head against the hollow wall. The truth is heavy, numb. The fiend will eventually make the hollow wide enough to grab him. He physically can’t fight anymore. He’s going to die, alone, in this tiny crack in the rock with only spiders to witness his passing.

He can’t believe it. He’s so angry. He’s survived all sorts of horrors: the Wild Hunt, higher vampires, battles, devilish monstrosities of all types. And now he’s going to die. All because he was too nervous to see his daughter. That’s the real reason he delayed, took pointless detours. He never doubted Ciri could take care of herself. All the years of running and fighting the Wild Hunt certainly proved that.

But now she was free to do as she pleased, whenever she pleased. She could grow and blossom as a person without the weight of prophecies hanging over her. She could finally be whoever she wanted to be.

The fiend continues digging into the rock face, snarling with anticipation.

But maybe the person she’d come to be wouldn’t need him anymore. She was always so stubborn, striving for independence and a need to prove herself. Her sudden departure from him while he trained her on the ways of the path already proved to him that she found being in his shadow too stifling. Maybe she had grown so fond of her ever-changing and solitary lifestyle, she didn’t want Geralt in it anymore.

It was stupid. He knew that. So stupid, he couldn’t even bring himself to tell Yen. But still, it weighed on his mind. So instead of going straight to Kaer Trolde with his lover, he delayed and roamed the Skellige wilderness, hoping the time would ease his worries and give him the courage to go.

And now he’s going to die.

The fiend is getting closer now. Soon, it will be able to grab him by the foot and drag him to a painful death.

“…Ciri. Yen.” He closes his eyes. “I’m sorry.” Let those be his last words.

At the hollow entrance, the fiend screams. He wishes it would shut up, at least let him pass with his hearing intact.

Wait…that sounded different.

Geralt opens his eyes. The fiend isn’t at the entrance anymore. Instead, he can just hear roaring – from two sets of monsters.

Carefully, he leans forwards, trying to get a better look. Out in the clearing, the black and white fiend is cowering and snarling. A much, much bigger one stands over it, roaring continuously, it’s thick red fur rippling in the wind.

He’s never seen a fiend that big before. Geralt doesn’t much believe in gods, but he prays to any out there that might be listening, that the monstrosity doesn’t notice him.

The first fiend is clearly outmatched. With one last snarl, it darts out from under the larger fiend’s reach and flees into the forest, almost knocking down trees in its haste.

The huge fiend stands still, almost unnaturally still. It flickers from his vision – and vanishes.

“What the…” He’s simply too relieved to try and figure out what’s going on.

Footsteps sound outside the hollow, autumn leaves crunching under foot. At the entrance to the hollow, he sees dusty shoes stolen from an abandoned house.

“It is all fine now.” Ameer calls softly. “The monster is gone.”

“…How?”

Ameer holds out his hand and helps Geralt out of the hollow. Instantly, Geralt almost falls, and Ameer has to hold him upright. His face is grave with concern.

“…How…What…”

“You must rest.”

“Your eyes…” Bright green eyes. They remind him of something. Bright glowing eyes, watching him intensely in a swamp. The pupils are slit. Like his own.

That fiend – it wasn’t real. It was an illusion. A very powerful illusion that even his medallion couldn’t pick up on.

And the jarl called him fox face.

“You’re…You’re an aguara?” Fox Mothers. Vulpesses.  Antherions. Shape shifters. But this one is male. Or is that an illusion, too?

“Please sit.” Ameer sounds genuinely concerned. “You are very sick.”

Instead of arguing, Geralt turns and throws up. His head is burning. The pain is becoming more and more intense. It’s going to take him over soon, he realises, completely incapacitate him.

Aguaras are tricksters. Masters of illusion. Powerful creatures. The one occasion in which he ran into an angry Fox Mother, he almost died, and many others did. But this one just saved him. He has no other option but to entrust his life to Ameer.

“Yen…” he gasps, spitting the last of the vileness from his mouth as Ameer holds back his hair. “Ciri…Kaer Trolde…find them…” the pain is getting stronger now, filling him with panic he rarely feels.

“I will. I promise I will find them, and I will take care of you.” Ameer forces him to lay on the ground, Geralt’s head resting on his lap. There are herbs in his hand. “This will force you to sleep. To hide from the pain until I can heal you.”

“Do it.” He can’t take the pain anymore.

Ameer carefully pours the herbs into his mouth. They’re bitter as potions, but he swallows them anyway.

Instantly, he feels groggy. The pain is still there, but it’s becoming more distant. Ameer is smoothing back his hair from his head, speaking in a language he doesn’t recognise but is soothing all the same.

 

At that moment, Geralt is suddenly aware of two truths. One reassures him, and the other fills him with dread.

This aguara will not hurt him. Ameer will return the good deed given unto him, and look after Geralt as best as he can.

The second is more worrying. Geralt realises what is truly going on. The reason for this whole mess. The poison. The real culprit behind the attempt on his life.

Before the herbs send him to sleep, he thinks,

Oh, shit.

Chapter Text

“What time of year is the best for visiting Ard Skellig? Any time. To whom is such a sojourn recommended? To anyone who seeks adventure, craves miraculous views and adores charming villages. These last Ard Skellig has in spades: it is the most densely-inhabited isle in the archipelago, though this does not mean it lacks virgin forests or untrammeled landscapes. Particularly worthy of a visit are the villages of Rannvaig, Arinbjorn and, last but not least, Holmstein, one of the most important ports in all the Isles.” – The Lonesome World Guide to Ard Skellig

 

Yennefer is getting worried.

It’s been three days since she arrived at Kaer Trolde’s harbour, south of the bridge – alone, without her partner. Though she would never admit it, she’s not exactly thrilled to be back in Skellige. The people here don’t like her, it’s no secret. They call her controlling, manipulative, scornful in the face of tradition – usually behind her back, and occasionally to her face.

But none of that matters, because she’s here with Ciri.

The two met at the cross roads just outside the harbour gates, Ciri having come from the east. They embraced tightly, something Yennefer never tires of. She fussed over her daughter, checking for scars and scrapes, pestering her with incessant questions – have folk been treating her fairly? Has she run into any trouble?

“I’m fine, Yen. You know me.” She was grinning, though. They embraced again. It must have only been nine months since they last met. It feels like an eon.

“Where’s Geralt?” Ciri looked around. “Not already off getting drunk with the locals, is he?”

“No, he had…business to attend to. But he’ll be with us as soon as he can.”

Ciri accepts this readily, thank goodness. But Yennefer can’t help but feel ever so slightly frustrated.

When Geralt had announced he wanted to roam Ard Skellig for a short while before seeing Ciri, Yennefer had been suspicious. She asked why he didn’t just wait until they caught up with Ciri and then the two could go on together; Ciri would certainly enjoy that. But he insisted on going alone.

Yennefer doesn’t use her mind reading powers on Geralt anymore – over time, her conscience has told her it’s dishonest and unfair in a relationship – but she doesn’t need to read any minds to understand what’s really going on. Geralt is nervous about seeing Ciri. He’s probably gotten it into his head that Ciri might have decided she doesn’t want him in her life anymore over the time they’ve been apart and the changes she might’ve been through. Completely ridiculous and utterly unfounded, but he fears it all the same.

Any other time, she might have dragged it out of him, told him that his fears were unwarranted and to not even think about running off when they’re supposed to be having a family reunion, for heaven’s sake. But this time, she held off. Geralt can be too stubborn for reassurances at times, and she didn’t want their first meeting with Ciri after a year to be overshadowed by an argument. So, she let him go. Told him not to take too long. When he came back, he could see for himself that his worries were stupid, and that nothing had changed.

All the same, a part of her wishes that he would tell her openly. His stubbornness and need for perceived masculinity through suppressing his emotions can be ever so frustrating at times.

Still, she missed him as she sat with her daughter, exchanging stories next to a hearth and over drinks in the inn she once stayed at with Geralt. Ciri regaled Yennefer with stories of her time on the path: monsters she faced, people she saved, both kind and unsavoury individuals alike. She spoke in excitement of one of her recent kills as a witcheress, a garkain, and gave Yennefer the play by play of how she defeated such a monstrosity.

“First, I lured it to the open, where it couldn’t hide, but also couldn’t attack anyone.”

“Very smart.”

“When it came to fighting though, it was bloody strong! For a moment – don’t tell anyone this – I was worried I’d bitten off more than I could chew.”

“Really?” Yennefer smiled. “Because I know for certain that my daughter could easily best some measly garkain. But how did you do it, then?”

“I took some black blood. I pretended to mess up, let it get a bit of blood from me.” She grinned. “After that, it was easy. Once it was weakened from the black blood, it wasn’t so strong, and I was faster. Eventually managed to slay it.”

By comparison, Yennefer’s stories seemed rather dull – her retirement from politics, moving down to Corvo Bianco in Toussaint to live with Geralt in his newly acquired vineyard. Boring, but that’s what Yennefer wanted, and Ciri listened attentively anyway, as if enraptured by every word.

Inevitably, conversation moved to Geralt – or rather, the lack of his presence.

“What sort of ‘business’ is he attending to, then?”

“A monster hunt, I believe.” In truth, that was a lie. Yennefer wasn’t even sure what Geralt was planning to do on his detour.

“Oh. Well, it’ll make for a good story.” Ciri said it cheerily, but Yennefer had known her long enough to recognise the disappointment hidden on her face, in her voice. She probably would’ve liked to go with him, for old time’s sake. God damnit, Geralt.

“Well, he’ll be back soon enough. In the meantime, you deserve a rest.”

After that, they chatted some more, deep into the evening and early morning. Despite everything, Yennefer enjoyed herself. They could talk about things that Ciri would’ve felt a little…uncomfortable disclosing to Geralt. Romantic encounters and other such things. Besides, it was nice to have some well needed mother-daughter time.

And in regard to Geralt, Yennefer knew his loneliness and excitement to see Ciri would eventually overcome his doubts and he’d come back to Kaer Trolde, no doubt with some ugly monster head fastened to his saddle. By her estimation, he’d be back by the next evening – at the very latest, early morning the day after that.

 

It’s been three days now.

Yennefer stands outside the gates of the harbour, facing the winding path that leads down to cross roads. Her breath is coming out in condensation, snow settling in her thick hair. Next to her, the horse she’s borrowing – a grey mare – shakes its head, sending the ice that had settled on its mane into her face. She barely notices.

He should’ve been back by now. Even with his tendencies to get involved in all manner of disputes, he should have returned. The fact that he isn’t here must mean something bad has happened.

Once, she wouldn’t have even bothered entertaining such thoughts. That was before he was killed with a pitchfork. That was before the Wild Hunt invaded, killing Vesemir – a Witcher with far more experience than him.

But the main problem isn’t just what might’ve happened, but where. He said he would stay on Ard Skellig, but what if he was enticed by some monster problem on Spikeroog, or Undvik? Even if he stayed on the main isle, it’s still by far the biggest. He could be on top of a bloody mountain for all she knows.

No. One step at a time.

She’ll head south, checking the local villages as she travels. That’s where he said he’d be going. If nothing turns up, then she’ll head east and upwards, do a loop of the island, however long that will take. After that, she’ll check the ports and ask if anyone saw him leave Ard Skellig.

“Hope you’re not planning to leave by yourself.”

She turns to see Ciri, donned in her Skellige gear, leading her own horse over to the gate. “You think something bad has happened, don’t you?”

Yennefer looks away. “…I think it would be foolish not to be…cautious. But I didn’t want you to worry.”

“No need – I’m worried already. And I’m coming with you.”

That resolute stare. Yennefer almost smiles. That stubbornness, for better or for worse. A trait she inherited from both Geralt and herself.

“Let’s go, then.” She mounts her horse. Ciri’s stubbornness aside, she’ll be useful in the search. The locals certainly like her a lot more than they like Yennefer; they’ll be more open and forthcoming with information if she’s the one asking the questions.

“Which way we heading first?” Ciri mounts her own steed and brings it up alongside Yennefer.

“South. That’s where he said he was heading.”

“South? Let’s stop at Raanvaig then.” Ciri suggests.

“Why do you say that?”

“I slew a group of sirens there, a few months ago. The herbalist who lives there, Bjarni, I know him. He took over after the last herbalist, Jonna, died of an illness. And he’s a huge gossip. He might have an idea about where Geralt could be.”

“We’ll start there, then.”

 

The town of Raanvaig bustles with activity as the fishermen prepare for the cold winter ahead. Boats rock out on the waves, while the earlier catches hang and dry on wooden frames. All around the rocky beach, the ground is littered with fish scales that shine silver in the light.

In fact, the fishermen are so busy, that none pay any attention to Yennefer and Ciri as they arrive and dismount their horses. Ciri heads confidently to one of the stone huts, past running children and women washing clothes in tubs of water. Yennefer can’t help but notice that the women quickly gather up their children, watching her with scornful gazes, muttering unpleasant words to each other. However, Yennefer holds her head up high and walks confidently. She refuses to let it bother her.

“Bjarni!” Ciri calls out.

In front of the stone hut a man sits, sorting through herbs and flowers. At the sound of Ciri’s voice, he looks up and grins. His face is greyed and bearded, creased and weathered from the constant onslaught of wind and brine, but there’s a somewhat youthful spark in his eyes.

“Ciri!” He stands up and embraces her. “Welcome!”

“It’s good to see you again, Bjarni. Having any more problems with sirens?”

“Not a single one, thanks to you. You here to have a ponder at my herb collection? I’m more than ready to give you a discount.”

“Sadly, I’m here on more pressing matters. I’m looking for a witcher called Geralt.”

“Geralt? Hm.” He scratches his head. “We’ve not seen any witcher come through here. Though, I believe that a witcher was in Farylund recently, just south of us. Was interested in a contract of some sort, I believe.”

Farylund. That’s where they’ll be headed next.

“He’s not in Farylund.”

Yennefer turns to see another old man with a thick beard and wearing red listening in. Unlike the equally old herbalist, he looks much…sadder.

“How d’you know that, Odhen?” Bjorni asks.

“Geralt, you say? White hair, a wolf medallion round his neck?”

This time, Yennefer steps forwards quickly. “That’s him. Have you seen him?”

However, the man shakes his head. “Not for four years. When we met, he took on a contract to find me sonny Olve.” He stares down at his hands. “…It was too late, but he avenged him. Killed the beast that slaughtered him.” Even now, the grief is eating him up. He looks at Yennefer. “I heard he was in Farylund and picked up a contract. A big monster was eating goats near jarl Carrik’s residence.”

“Jarl Carrik?” Bjarni asks, surprised. “As in, the jarl who was murdered a few days past?”

“Aye, the very same. His house burnt down, too. If you want to find the Witcher, you should go there. The castle is east of Farylund. They might have seen him.”

Ciri and Yennefer exchange a worried glance. A murdered jarl? What happened?

“We must go.” Yennefer grabs Ciri’s arm and begins pulling her towards the horses. Ciri looks over her shoulder and calls out,

“Thank you, Odhen. And thank you, Bjarni.”

The herbalist shouts back. “Good luck, Ciri!”

-

“You don’t think it was Geralt, do you?”

They’ve both been galloping since their conversation with the herbalist and the grieving father, trying to reach the residence of jarl Carrik as fast as they can. If either Yennefer or Ciri knew the exact location they could teleport there by portal or Ciri’s elder blood, but unfortunately they’ll have to ride by horseback, which feels painfully slow by comparison. Now, though, they’re heading up a steep path in single file, and have slowed to a trot – Yennefer at the front, Ciri behind her.

In response to Ciri’s questions, Yennefer signs. “I don’t know. He wouldn’t attack without provocation. But you know what men in Skellige are like, always spoiling for a fight. Things could have escalated.”

“Maybe that’s why he’s been delayed.” Ciri says after a moment of hesitation. “Maybe the contract went south, he killed the jarl in self defence, and he’s been laying low ever since.”

It certainly is a more pleasant alternative to the idea of Geralt being hurt, or dead, but Yennefer doesn’t let herself be too swayed by it. “Perhaps. We’ll find out more when we arrive at the jarl’s residence. Do you know much about jarl Carrik?”

“Not really, no. Maybe we should’ve asked more.”

With no warning, Yennefer’s horse stops. It neighs and shakes its head anxiously. Yennefer tries to make it move forwards, but it won’t budge. Instead it starts to turn around, trying to go back down the slope.

“What’s going on?” Ciri calls out.

“I don’t know.” Does it sense danger?

Ciri’s horse stops abruptly too. She kicks the stirrups, but it simply neighs loudly, eyes bulging in fear.

“Woah, something’s definitely wrong.” Ciri quickly dismounts her horse before it bucks her off. Yennefer hastily does the same.

“There must be something dangerous nearby.” Ciri unsheathes her silver sword. “We’ll have to be careful.”

Yennefer lets Ciri take the lead. Her daughter has more than proved herself capable of taking down monsters and powerful foes. But she readies a lightning spell anyway. No harm in some back up.

Together, they climb up the rest of the path, moving slowly and quietly. Ciri moves with the same grace and focus as Geralt – the mark of a true witcher. As soon as they reach the top, Ciri momentarily freezes, then grabs Yennefer and drags her down into the bushes.

“Stay still.” She whispers. She looks incredibly nervous.

Cautiously, Yennefer looks out through the bushes. A huge monster is sitting only 20 feet away from them. Quadrupedal. Its face is almost goat-like, but she can see huge fangs.

“A fiend.” Ciri breathes, confirming Yennefer’s realisation. “Never fought one of those before. Don’t think it’s seen us.”

Yennefer purses her lips, and peers through the bushes at the giant beast. It’s looking away from them, not at the bushes – it didn’t hear or see them. That’s one relief. She can’t see Geralt’s body lying anywhere in the near vicinity. Another relief.

But there’s something unusual about it, Yennefer realises. She stares at it, hard. What’s wrong about this fiend?

“If we work together,” Ciri is whispering, “we’ll be able to take it down. But we’ll have to be careful not to –”

“Wait.” Yennefer frowns. “It’s not moving.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it doesn’t even look as if it’s breathing.”

Ciri peers through the bushes in surprise. “You’re right.”

The more Yennefer observes the monster, the more certain she becomes. “It’s an illusion.”

“An illusion?” Ciri looks around. “I don’t see anyone here, though.”

“And it’s not Geralt. He can’t perform such magic.” Yennefer stands up and steps out of the bushes. Even with her obvious movement, the supposed fiend doesn’t move.

So, it’s simply there to scare off people, she realises. Having it in a stationary state is easier to maintain – someone must have cast the illusion and then moved on.

But who? Why? She walks without fear past the fiend, turning and beckoning Ciri to follow her.

“This is powerful magic. Whoever cast it wanted to deter people from coming this way.”

Ciri regards the illusion, impressed. “You don’t think this has something to do with Geralt?”

“Perhaps, perhaps not. It could just be someone trying to guard their valuables from thieves. But it would be foolish to rule anything out so early.”

Together, they continue past the illusion, through fields of brown heather as snow continues to fall. The grass and shrubs are covered in frost, and crackle under her boots as they tread through the moorland. A ptarmigan shoots out from the undergrowth, its brown feathers interspersed with growing white feathers, readying it for the winter months. Up ahead, a fox watches them with curious eyes.

 

As they search, it’s a struggle not to let her thoughts run away with her. So many things could have happened. Did he kill the jarl, then get killed by jarl’s angry warriors? Or was it someone else who killed the jarl, and didn’t want to leave any witnesses – Geralt included? It might even have nothing to do with the jarl. Maybe he was killed by the monster in the contract, or some other monstrosity. He could have simply been thrown by Roach, broken his leg, freezing to death somewhere in the wilderness.

Her thoughts are interrupted when the fox steps onto the path in front of them. It looks at them for a moment, then cries out loudly. It runs away, stops after a few metres, then turns back to face them and cries out again.

“What’s it doing?” Ciri asks, confused.

“…Foxes here are white or brown, aren’t they? Depending on the season.” Yennefer asks. This one is a sandy colour.

“Now that you mention it, yes. I’ve seen a few red ones too, but only at the very south of the island. Never seen a sandy one like that before.”

And this one has slightly larger ears than the norm. Yennefer knows enough about heat transfer that foxes living in the north need to have small ears, to conserve heat. The foxes that live in the deserts of places like Ofier need to have larger ears.

Ofier…

“No. It can’t be.” She breathes.

“Yen? What do you mean?”

The fox begins to run, surprisingly fast. Yennefer chases after it.

Surely it couldn’t be…Not here, all the way in Skellige, many miles from Ofier…

But that illusion – it has to be.

 

At last, they reach a clearing. Up ahead is what looks like an old barn, though the roof has long since caved in. What is left is coated in a dusting of snow, while icicles hang around the edges.

“Yennefer!” Ciri finally catches up with her, out of breath. “Why did you start running?”

“The fox – where did it go? Did you see it?”

 Ciri isn’t listening, though. She stares at the barn, and points. “Who’s that?”

Standing at the entrance of the barn is an elven man, one from Ofier. He’s wearing a blood-stained cloak, wrapped around dirty clothes. His eyes are unnaturally green. The hood of the cloak is up, but Yennefer knows what she would see if it were down.

He’s staring at her, almost in disbelief. When he speaks up, his voice is quieter and more uncertain than she’s ever heard it before.

“Yennefer?”

“Ameer!” She runs forwards and embraces him. He hesitates for a moment, then hugs her back tightly. He feels thin and frail.

“What are you doing here?” She examines his face. His temple is bruised, an old cut scabbing over. There are dark shadows under his eyes. He looks tired. “Why are you so far from Ofier?”

Ameer looks past her at Ciri, who is standing in confusion and awkwardness. “Is that…Ciri?”

“You know me?” Ciri asks. Yennefer is puzzled, too. She and Ameer met before Ciri had even been born.

“Geralt. He is sick.” His voice is filled with distress. “I do not know what is wrong with him.”

Dread fills Yennefer. Drowns her, suffocates her.

Immediately, she runs past Ameer and into the barn, almost tripping in her urgency.

 

There he is.

He’s lying in the old straw, covered in a dirty blanket. Unconscious. His face is pale, etched with pain.

“Oh God!” She kneels down beside him and shakes him. “Geralt!” He doesn’t stir. She feels his forehead – it’s hot to touch, sweaty.

Ciri is at her side, her own face pale with panic. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I made him sleep.” Ameer kneels down beside them. “He was in too much pain.”

“What’s wrong? Is he injured?”

“Poisoned.” Carefully, he removes the blanket. Yennefer almost recoils. There’s a wound at his side. It’s turned black, and it stinks of something vile.

“Oh God…” His hands are cold, but she holds them anyway. Tears are forming in her eyes, and she angrily blinks them away.

“What poison is it? How did it enter his body – orally? Through the blood?” She interrogates him, in some desperate attempt to remain pragmatic.

“Not a poison I know. Through blood, from a dagger wound.”

How did this happen? Why did this happen? Oh, Geralt. What has he gotten himself into?

“I cannot heal him, Yennefer. I do not know what to do.”

“We’ll help.” Ciri says quickly. “We’ll bring him back to Kaer Trolde. Figure out what’s wrong with him. Cure him.” She’s saying it for her own benefit more than anything else. “Right, Yen?”

Yennefer doesn’t look at her daughter. Her mouth feels dry. For the first time in her life, she’s at a loss. She doesn’t know what to do. If Ameer can’t stop the poison...

The terrible, horrible possibility that Geralt may die is quickly becoming a reality. And she doesn’t know what to do.

“Yen?”

Ciri’s voice snaps her back to the presence.

“…Ciri, I need you to teleport Geralt back to Kaer Trolde, before he dies of exposure regardless of the poison.”  She can’t fall apart now. It won’t do any good to start panicking. Geralt is still alive. There has to be something she can do, anything. And she won’t stop trying until he’s stone cold dead. Besides, Ciri needs her to stay strong. 

“Get help. Demand the best doctors and healers. Use your friendship with Hjalmar if you need to.”  

Ciri nods. Yennefer senses she’s trying to fight back tears herself, put on a brave face. She embraces her daughter quickly and tightly. Ciri then kneels down beside Geralt, holding his hands. There’s a flash of turquoise – and they’re gone.

Now she addresses Ameer. “I’ll bring us back to a Kaer Trolde by portal. When we get there, I need you to help me halt the progression of the poison, give us some time to figure out what we’re up against. And you need to tell me everything that happened. Leave out no details.”

Ameer simply nods. Something terrible has happened to him, clearly. He’s seems so unsure of himself, timid and fragile.

To the side, she sees Roach, who is busy browsing the hay, her reins tied to a fallen beam. Attached to her saddle by rope is some sort of wooden sled, hastily tied together. That must be how Ameer has been moving Geralt’s unconscious body around.

“We’ll have to get someone else to come back for the horses.” Somehow, she knows Geralt would be angry if Yennefer left something happen to the mare. But right now, it’s the least of her priorities.

Quickly, she opens up a portal, the noise and light spooking Roach slightly. She automatically waits to hear the complaint – I hate portals, can’t we travel some other way?

She might never hear that again.

We’ll cure him, she thinks to herself. We have to. He’ll be fine. He’ll be fine. 

She tries to ignore the voice telling her that he won’t.

Chapter Text

“Skellige the political entity encompasses the archipelago of the same name, composed of twenty individual isles. The largest of them are Ard Skellig, An Skellig, Undvik, Faroe, Spikeroog and Hindarsfjall. Originally these isles were inhabited by independent clans, but these later united to face the growing threat from barbarians as well as the rising powers of the Continent. Skellige then became an elective monarchy, ruled by a king chosen from among the jarls (clan chieftains).” – Skellige: It’s History and Geography

 

 

The inhabitants of Farylund are shocked when their normal morning routine is interrupted by their queen, Cerys, arriving at their village.

It all feels rather strange as they enter the village on horseback with an escort of soldiers following them, Ciri thinks, as all the villagers stare with wide eyes at them. Though their looks are more of admiration than of fear, which is good.

The entourage of horses gathers in the main square of the village. There, an older man waits for Cerys – probably one of the few elders in the village. Over a year ago, while Geralt was sorting out a leshen that had begun killing hunters, the young men of the village rose up and slaughtered the elders over disputes of tradition and progress. Ciri is sure that both sides probably had valid points in the argument, but the fact the young men had been so merciless has always made her wary of being in this village.

“Our Queen.” The man bows low, despite his age. “Workers in the field alerted me of your presence. What brings you to our village?”

Cerys dismounts her horse. Her black fur collar is flecked with snow, and her metal shoulder plates are wet from frost and condensation. Her very presence demands the attention of everyone around her, yet it is not her crown that she displays the most proudly, but the red scarf across her chest that bears the colours of her clan. “I’m here to investigate the incident that occurred at jarl Carrik’s residence, some seven days ago.”

A whole week has passed since they found Geralt poisoned in the wilderness. A whole week of worrying, of frantic investigations that have gone nowhere. In Ciri’s point of view, that’s far too long. The whole of Ard Skellig should be helping to cure him.

But, no matter how much Ciri thinks that, there wasn’t much she could do to hurry Cerys. She was away on the isle of Faroe the day they found Geralt, undergoing intense talks with the citizens of Faroe and Clan Dimun. It had been discovered that Faroe was still operating a secret slave trade with the continent, despite Cerys’s laws against it. When the operation was uncovered, Clan Dimun almost imploded, the different members all too eager to blame each other in order to escape justice.

Regardless, Ciri was still impatient. She had been unsuccessfully trying to interrogate the remainders of jarl Carrik’s men. But all she got were mistrustful stares, mutters and points, the word ‘foreigner’ repeated over and over again. No one would tell her anything. She almost teleported over to Faroe herself, to demand that Cerys help her in the investigation. Only Yennefer’s calm words stopped her.

“Ciri, I know you’re frustrated. But this is important.” She had told her with calmness that Ciri knew was forced, no matter how convincing it was. “But the issues in Faroe are important, too. After all, jarl Carrik might have interacted with those slavers. They might know something about his plans, or about the poison.”

Ciri had reluctantly agreed with Yennefer, though not just because of the possible information to be gained. For then she saw Ameer – one of Yennefer’s old friends, a quiet and nervous elf who doesn’t speak to her much. When she was faced with those terrible effects of slavery, she felt guilty about her impatience to hurry Cerys.

That doesn’t mean she isn’t relieved when Cerys finally returns a week later, though unfortunately with no new leads of Geralt's poisoning from Faroe. While Hjalmar is more experienced with warfare, Cerys is smarter and shrewd. Not only is she good at figuring things out, she knows how to handle matters diplomatically, gauge the path of least resistance to find out and get what she needs as soon as possible. And right now, time is of the essence.

“When the incident came to my attention, I sought to understand what had really happened. And in order to fully understand, I need to speak to witnesses. I was told that those who worked for jarl Carrik came to this village.”

“Not all of them, Queen Cerys.” The man says, almost sheepishly. “Many of his warriors never came here. His steward is gone, too. They perished in the fire. But many of the farm hands, the cleaners, are here.”

This is true; Hjalmar has been searching the burnt down castle for any survivors, though all they’ve found so far are charred and unidentifiable corpses.

“I wish to speak with these farmhands.”

“I shall fetch them at once.”

The man returns with ten villagers: mainly young farmhands with calloused hands, but a few family members among them: wives, some young children, a grandma.

“I have a witness who tells me that jarl Carrik attempted to kill the witcher, Geralt of Rivia. Is this true?”

They look among themselves, uncertain.

“…We’re not to know such things. The jarl never told us of any such plan.” A farmhand speaks up.

“A man would’ve come to the castle. White hair, orange eyes.” Ciri tells them.

“The man from the continent with eyes like a cat? That be him. And he came to the castle, and slaughtered our lord without a second thought! Set fire to the hall and burnt it to the ground!”

The farmhands all shout in anger and agreement. Ciri finds herself getting angry

“Shut it! Geralt wouldn’t do that – he didn’t! We have a witness!”

“Ciri.” Cerys holds up her hand, motioning for her to be quiet, then walks forwards. “It’s true: we have a witness. One who tells me that it was the jarl who struck first. He also told me that the fire started from a bomb of sorts, but the flames weren’t so big as to fell the whole castle. So I want to know, what happened?”

“We’ve told you what happened! Whoever your witness is, they’re lying!”

“The same witness also tells me that slavery was practised here. An accusation I find most serious. All those who hid this face dishonouring all their family for the rest of their lives. Unless they tell me what really happened.”

Now, the farmhands remain silent. But the old woman steps forwards.

“Aye, ‘tis true.” She says.

“Granny! What’re you doing? Do you want to bring shame to the jarl who housed us when our home was destroyed by a monster?” The farmhand hisses.

“Jarl Carrik is the dishonourable one.” His grandma replies in a hardy voice. “You only revered jarl Carrik’s presence because he plied you with drink and wenches to keep you silent. When the End Times came, it was Crach an Craite who laid down his life to protect us. Your precious jarl cowered in fear. I will save my respect for those who deserve it.”

She now turns to Cerys. “Like you say, my Queen. The fire started small. But the drunk fools in the hall tried to put it out with drink. It fed the flames till they reached the ceiling beams. Then it was all over.”

Ciri feels a wave of triumph. She knew that Geralt wouldn’t have been so careless.

“And what of the witcher?”

“I saw him.“ One of the women speaks up this time. “My husband – he was one of the beast’s victims. He asked me questions about the monster. I saw him again, the monster head in the bag. He spoke to the steward – Arvid. Arvid brought him into the hall. After that, the castle set on fire.”

A murmur of discussion runs through the crowd of people.

“Why did jarl Carrik seek violence against the witcher?”

This time, no answer from any of them. But one of the farmhands, the one who spoke against his grandma, is looking incredibly nervous.

With no warning, he bolts, pushing people aside, knocking them to the ground in his frantic haste.

But he doesn’t get far. All Ciri has to do is teleport, and she’s right next to him. She tackles him to the ground.

“Let me go, bitch!”

“Why’d you run, huh?” She holds her sword to his throat. “Let me tell you, I’m not in the mood for games. So I’d advise you not to piss me off anymore right now.”

“Your threats don’t scare me, foreigner.”

“Well, then.” Ciri looks over her shoulder to see Cerys standing behind her. “If you wish to maintain the honour of all your blood, I’d suggest you co-operate. I’m giving you this last chance.”

The farm worker hesitates, gritting his teeth. Finally, he speaks.

“…The jarl opposed the new queen. Birna had promised him riches, and you had her executed. Now, our mighty isle is weak and filled with cowards, not warriors. He wanted to kill those who helped her gain power. Like the witcher. His steward Arvid helped arrange it. He met with a man from the continent, all secret like. The foreign man gave him a poison, told him to put it on a dagger.”

“Where’s the foreign man now?” Ciri demands.

“I don’t know. They arranged to meet in secret after the deed was done. The steward was to get him to the docks and off the isle without raising suspicion. But Arvid perished in the fire, so I don’t know what happened.”

Ciri still doesn’t remove the sword. “The man – what did he look like?”

“I don’t know! I never saw him! He had an ugly scar on his forehead, is all I heard!”

That’s enough for Ciri. She makes to release the man, but Cerys holds out her hand, stopping her.

“Why’d you try to hide the plot? The witcher is from the continent, yet you took great lengths to hide the jarl’s involvement in his death. Why?”

The man closes his eyes. “…The jarl was planning to target you next.”

A gasp arises from the crowd of onlookers. Cerys turns away. She looks disappointed, but not surprised.

“…Close all the ports.” She addresses one of her soldiers. “Make sure no one leaves, not even a fishing boat. And I want everyone searching for this foreigner, and any of jarl Carrik’s men. This just became a matter of treason.” She looks down at the farmhand. “And arrest this man.”

“Fuck you, Cerys! Birna would have made us wealthy beyond belief! And Carrik would’ve made Skellige the mighty kingdom it was again!” The farmhand shouts as the soldiers drag him away. “You rotten bitch! They’ll get you!”

Cerys ignores him, unaffected by his insults and threats. However, the rest of the villagers look increasingly worried by his words and the scene going on in front of them. They look scared of Ciri, too. They did just see her teleport, after all, and hold a sword to an unarmed man’s throat.

As her eyes scan the crowd, Ciri spots a family – a mother, a father, a young girl. Next to the girl sits a dog, a border collie. Lucky?

She walks over to the girl. “Are you Sorcha?”

The girl, still frightened by the violence that has gone on in front of her, clings to her mother’s leg.

“Who be asking?” Her father steps forwards, trying to look as intimidating as he can.

Ciri reaches into her bag, and brings out the doll she found on Geralt after she brought him to Kaer Trolde. At first, she had no idea why he was carrying it, until Ameer gave her a journal written by the girl.

“I think Geralt wanted to return it.” Was the sole thing he said.

Upon seeing the doll, the young girl instantly runs forwards, jumping up and down and holding out her hands. “Serafina!”

Ciri smiles, and passes it to her. “Don’t lose her this time, all right?”

“I won’t!” The girl returns happily to her parents, who fuss over her. Her father lifts her up in his arms. Now, Ciri turns away, feeling a lump on her throat. Right now, considering what dire straits Geralt is in…

“Come, Ciri.” Cerys calls her, mounting her horse. “You need to search for this foreign man. He might have the cure for Geralt. And I,” she frowns, “I need to know more about this plot. Jarl Carrik and Arvid may be dead, but the plot might still be in action.” She speaks more quietly, more as a note to herself. “Perhaps I should look more into the late Birna’s notes and plans. I might find something of use there.”

That’s right. Ciri composes herself. They have a lead now. They’ll find the foreign man, and force him to tell them how to cure the poison. Then Geralt will be fine.

He has to be.

 

-

Another failure.

Yennefer curses, pacing back and forth in the room they’ve claimed as a medical bay. Geralt lies on a bed, still unconscious from Ameer‘s herbal remedy. He no longer looks at deaths door like he did out in the moorlands, thanks to no small part of being in more sterile, warmer conditions. But they’ve had very little luck in identifying the poison over the past week.

The doctors were of no use, though that didn’t much surprise Yennefer. So, she contacted Ermion. He wasn’t exactly happy to see her, considering their spat over the Mask of Ouroboros, but he agreed to look at Geralt’s wounds. Even with all his experience, he could only confirm that the poison was certainly not one native to Skellige.

He did provide a special brew that could slow down the spread of the poison by putting the body in a more comatose state, but only for a week at most. It’s filled with endrega venom and wolfsbane – fatal to any normal human, but it would work on Geralt in small quantities.

That’s bought them some time, but she’s still had no luck with identifying the cause of the poison. For a moment, she thought it might be Bohun Upas. The symptoms certainly seemed to match: necrotic tissue around the wound, pyrexia, splenogamy, plummeting blood pressure and an increased respiratory rate, the tell-tale jaundice in the eyes. But when she tested a sample, it came back negative.

“Damn it all.” She pinches the bridge of her nose. “I was certain I’d gotten it there.”

Ameer sits by the fireplace, his back to the blaze. Geralt had started to get cold, so they’d started the fire, but it seems he needs it almost as much as his patient. He’s bundled up in thick woollen clothes, completely unused to the cold climate of Skellige. Around his waist he has fastened a cloth of the an Craite colours. It was given to him by Cerys, to show he is protected by Clan an Craite rather than him having any pride or loyalty to this royal clan. He still wears a hooded cloak – after so long in dimeritium shackles, he’s magically exhausted, and is having trouble keeping his form entirely humanoid. “I thought it might be a type of snake venom that eats the flesh, an Ofieri snake called Yellow Head. It is not – his tongue is not swollen, and there is no rash near the wound. I am unsure what to test now.”

“What about concentrated archespore sap? That’s a necrotic poison, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but I have never heard of a case of jaundice. Also, the patient goes into respiratory distress, fewer breaths per minute than normal. What about Toad Foot fungus? I heard it grows in sewers in Redania.”

“Toad Foot fungus…” Yennefer summons her knowledge of the condition. “…No, that tends to accumulate in the lungs. Blood stream infections are killed off by the body, it’s only dangerous when inhaled.” She punches the bridge of her nose. “We’ve tested all the main necrotic poisons. What now?”

Ameer frowns. “Maybe it is more than one?”

“God, that’s a lot of possibilities.”

“Not all poisons will work together. Some may cancel out others. We should test which jaundice inducing poisons would co-exist with necrotic ones. That may help narrow it down.”

Yennefer sighs. “It’s worth a try, that’s for sure.” Right now, they don’t have many other choices.

 

The door opens without knocking – Skelligers are so rude – and Hjalmar enters the room. He’s a spitting image of his father: tall and muscular, with a broad face and features. He’s rowdier and more impatient, though. Even now, he still wears the garb of a warrior, although Skellige has been waging no wars as of late. She knows that ultimately, despite his rather boorish behaviour at times, he’s good at heart. He’s not unlike his father in that regard, who Yennefer was always fond of even after they ended things between them. Though he should try knocking.

At his presence, Ameer stands up and moves behind Yennefer, arms crossed defensively around himself. He doesn’t look directly at Hjalmar, and his face is shadowed with nervousness.

Hjalmar doesn’t notice this. “I have information that might aid you.” In his hands, he holds a sheet of parchment, which he gives to her. “Cerys spoke to the folks in Farylund. They claimed a foreigner provided the poison. Managed to get a description, had it drawn out from the eyewitness accounts.”

Yennefer examines the drawing. It shows a man with a long face and tasselled, shoulder length brown hair. Underneath the man’s fringe, she can see the edges of a long scar peeking out here and there. An unfortunate place to have a scar, but good news for them – it’ll be a useful identifier.

“Has there been any sign of him?”

“None at all – though maybe with the ports closed, we’ll find him.”

“Any idea where exactly he was from?”

“No, only that he was from the continent.”

It’s not much information, but it’s a start. “Thank you, Hjalmar. This will be helpful. And if you do find him, make sure he’s not killed. We’ll need to question him.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll ensure he’s brought to you unharmed.” He grins. “Mostly unharmed.”

 

 When Hjalmar leaves, Yennefer looks at Ameer with a critical and searching gaze.

“What’s wrong? Why did you hide behind me?”

Ameer turns away from her, scratching the back of his neck. He says nothing.

“Ameer…talk to me.” He’s only told her the basic details: he was enslaved by jarl Carrik for a year – an entire year – and Geralt rescued him.  She puts her hand on his shoulder. “I’m worried about you.” He’s not sleeping well, and barely eating. Despite the great feasts available to them among the an Craite in Kaer Trolde – roasted goat stuffed with vegetables and soaked in gravy, huge sea bass, oysters, mutton stews and broths – he’s barely touched anything. She knows he’s always had a sweet tooth, so she’s tried to tempt him with carrageen pudding, a surprisingly sweet pudding made from custard and seaweed. The old Ameer would’ve eaten it instantly, but he hasn’t even touched it. Only bread.

Ameer sighs deeply, and walks back to the fire. “I do not trust these people. They scare me. I cannot help it.”

“I’m not blaming you, Ameer. I just wish you’d tell me more.”

He purses his lips. “No. We are busy.”

“You’re exhausted. I’ll continue, but you need to rest.”

“I am not tired.”

“Yes, you are.” She crosses her arms, frowning. “I know you well enough, Ameer. Don’t try to pretend otherwise.”

He is silent for a long time, lost in thought. He looks so thin. So weak.

They met a long time ago, but she still remembers vividly what he was like. His confident voice could cut clearly across a busy hospital ward, and everyone would instantly do as he said. Now, whenever he speaks, Yennefer has to strain to hear what he says. He was confident, mischievous and intelligent. Now, he is nervous, uncertain, passive. A wrecked shell of his former self.

And to think, he was suffering in Skellige for the past year, and Yennefer had no idea. If only she’d known. Then, she would’ve burnt down jarl Carrik’s castle herself.

“….I do not want to talk about it. Please, Yennefer.”

She sighs, but nods. "…Fine.” She knows not to push him any further. He’ll tell her when the time is right.  “You should rest. I’ll keep on working on the poison.”

He nods. “Wake me when you are tired, and I will take over.” She expects him to leave, but he just curls up in front of the fire.

 

She works in silence, glancing occasionally at her old friend now and then. Eventually, his breathing seems to be become slower in sleep. Then again, that might just be an illusion, in some attempt to make her not worry. It’s impossible to tell with aguaras to start with. Their natural powers, combined with Ameer’s intellect as a doctor makes it even harder to know. He would never cast an illusion to try and scare her or in an act of hostility towards her, though. She can be thankful for that. 

There’s a knock at the door. Yennefer puts down the books she’s been studying. “Come in.”

“Still hard at work?” It’s Ciri, still carrying her swords on her back, her hair windswept.

“Yes. We haven’t made much headway, though.”

Ciri sighs. “Nor us. We’ve closed the ports, but there’s been no sign of this ‘strange man’ from the continent. Don’t know if he’s hiding somewhere on the isle, or if he left before the ports closed.” She’s trying her best not to look at Geralt’s unconscious body. “How…How is he?”

“…We’ve delayed the spread. Ermion’s potion to slow the metabolic rate of his body has certainly helped. It’s given us more time.” Though that time is now running out again, as the potent concoction begins to wear off. She doesn’t say that. “He’s given us access to all his resources for us to identify the poison, too. Including poisons that aren’t native to Skellige. We’re slowly but surely narrowing it down.”

That might be an overconfident statement – though they’ve ruled out plenty of poisons, they’re no closer to actually identifying it. But Ciri breathes out, this news some relief. “That’s good.” She glances at Ameer. “…So…How long have you known him, then?”

“Many years, though it’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other. Ofier is very far away, after all.”

“How did you meet?”

“I was in Nilfgaard, on…business, of the politics sort. Ameer was there at the hospitals, learning more about Nilfgaardian medicine. Though, they were learning more from him than the other way around. He’s had many, many more years of experience.”

Ciri touches her medallion. “He’s not a real elf, is he? My medallion shakes like crazy whenever he’s around. And he made that powerful illusion.”

Yennefer nods. “He’s an aguara.”

Ciri turns to her in surprise. “An aguara? Aren’t those the monsters that steal elf children? And I thought they were only women. And that aguara from the swamp-“

Yennefer holds up her hand, and Ciri stops talking. “…That is true. Have you ever encountered one before?”

“No, but I’ve heard stories, been taught about them.”

“What did Vesemir teach you about them?”

Ciri tilts her head and recites, as if Vesemir were behind her, testing her, “Fox mothers, vulpesses, are powerful creatures of the antherion class. That being, creatures who take the form of humanoids, rather than humanoids who take the forms of animals. Their base form is…fox like, hence the name.”

“Very good. What else?”

“Fox mothers don’t reproduce sexually. They take elf girls, transform them into their own kind. Once that happens, the bond between the Fox mother and her child becomes intensely strong. If someone tries to take their child away, they face the immediate wrath of a being who can manipulate powerful illusions, trick people into their death. And they’ll stop at nothing.”

“Well,” Yennefer smiles, “you have nothing to fear. Ameer has no children, and even if he did, you wouldn’t try to steal them from him, would you?”

“I suppose you’re right…I don’t understand one thing, though.” Ciri frowns. “Fox mothers are an exclusively female race, aren’t they?”

 “You’re right. And because of that, he’ll never be a true aguara. When he was a child, he was accidentally taken in place of his twin sister by a Fox Mother. By the time she realised her mistake, she had already given him the spells, transformed him so he was…well, no longer an elf, that’s for certain. He shares the same powers as his mother and his sisters, but he’ll never quite be as powerful.” She remembers when she saw him in a transformed state. She had been surprised to see it – eyes wild and glowing, his ears that of an animal, teeth sharp. When she had expressed this, he’d laughed, and told her of his mother.

“Do you trust him?”

“I certainly have no reason not to. And he trusts me.” When she figured out his secret, she swore not to tell anyone in Ofier or Nilfgaard, and has always upheld this promise. The fact he’s here, though, and was enslaved makes her think that her own secrecy was ultimately futile. Someone, somehow, must’ve figured it out. There’s no way someone could subdue an aguara without knowledge of their tricky illusions, and more importantly how to avoid them.

“Are you’re sure he won’t turn against us?”

“Yes, he won’t. He’s already proven himself to be a worthy ally.” She decides not to tell Ciri this, but if Ameer had wanted Geralt dead, Ciri and Yen would never have even found his body.

 

Ciri thinks for a moment. “…Well, I trust your judgement, that’s for sure. If he’s a doctor, do you think he’ll be able to figure it –” She pauses suddenly. Holding her finger to her lips, she unsheathes her sword and moves quietly to the door.

Silently, Yennefer shakes Ameer awake, motioning for him to be quiet. He glances at the door, seeing Ciri with her sword, and says nothing. They both stand in front of Geralt. Yennefer readies a spell.

A moment of stillness, then Ciri slams open the door. In an instant, she cuts down one of the three intruders outside the door before he can even lift his axe. The second fires a bolt from his cross bow, which she nimbly dodges. The third takes a step back, dragging his surviving companion away.

“He’s not in there!” He’s staring right at Geralt, but for some reason, he can’t see him. “Intel was wrong! Go!”

The two men begin to run.

“More of the jarl’s men.” Ciri turns to Yennefer. “We need one of them alive, don’t we?”

“I’ll ask the questions, you do the fighting.” She turns to Ameer. “Stay here. Keep up the illusion, hide Geralt and yourself. Keep the door locked and don’t open it to anyone except me or Ciri.”

He looks frightened, but he nods. When she leaves the room, she hears the door click behind her.

 

They run down the dimly lit hallways, hearing various shouts further down. Ciri is almost impossible to keep up with, thanks to her teleportation powers. But even with her speed, the attackers have a head start.

“Look!” Up ahead, two an Craite guards lie on the floor. One is trying to sit up, groaning and shaking his head. The other isn’t moving at all. As Yennefer gets closer, she sees he’s lying in a pool of his own blood.

“Which way did they go?” Yennefer demands.

The guard points down a corridor to the left. “We cut one badly before they escaped, but then someone in an Craite gear came and helped them!”

So there are people in the an Craite clan who are in on the plot, too. Damn it. This place isn’t safe anymore.

Yennefer and Ciri continue, this time following the blood trail of the injured attacker. “Get ready for a fight. There could be more people than we anticipated.” Yennefer warns her daughter. “Don’t let a single blade pierce you. They could have more poison."

 

They follow the trail of blood onto the outer battlements, facing the terrifying sheer drops surrounding Kaer Trolde. The wind is savage, throwing Yennefer’s hair into her face, blinding her, assaulting her with salt water and ice. She grabs hold of the stone ledge as the wind buffets her, startling a raven.

“I see them!” Ciri shouts, shielding her face against the wind. Yennefer looks to where she’s pointing – they’re trying to get back to the main bridge, to escape.

One of the men spots them. The injured man and the an Craite man continue running. The last one stops in the middle of the path, unsheathing his sword.

Ciri teleports towards him, launching herself into battle. Each clash of steel sets Yennefer on edge. Does that sword have poison on it? If it does, one single cut and Yennefer will have a dying daughter on her hands too.

 The injured man raises his cross bow, aiming it at Ciri. Yennefer launches a ball of lightning in his direction. It hits him and knocks him backwards. He screams and topples over the stone ledge.

“It’s over!” She shouts. But she can see the final an Craite man getting away. There’s no room to get past Ciri and her attacker on the pathway.

“You bitch!” The swordsman catches her blade, knocking it from her hand. Ciri stumbles, grabbing onto the stone ledge to stop her from falling.

It all seems to happen slowly. Yennefer readies a lightning ball, in fear for her daughter’s life. Ciri barely manages to right herself, stop herself from toppling over. The man raises his sword –

And is enveloped in black fog.  His sword clatters onto the stone pathway, and he makes a bloody choking sound. He drops to the floor, clutching his slashed chest and neck, writhing for a few seconds before going still.

Yennefer runs and grabs Ciri, pulling her away from the ledge.

“Are you alright? Did he cut you?” She doesn’t want to admit how scared she had been for a moment there.

“I’m fine, I’m fine.” Ciri stares at the dead man, then towards the last attacker, the man in an Craite clothes. Upon seeing his companion brutally murdered, he begins to run. The black fog chases after him. Some unseen force seems to grab him, trip him up, and slowly drag him back towards Yennefer and Ciri.

“What the fuck – let me go!” He shouts in a panic.

The fog deposits him in front of Yennefer and Ciri’s feet, still swirling around him. “Speak, and we won’t kill you.” Yennefer tells him.

“I’ll not tell you anything!” He spits at her. “You can’t stop us!”

“Where is the man from the continent?” Yennefer casts a fire spell. “What did you use to poison Geralt?”

He grits his teeth, tries to free himself from the grip of the black fog, which just drags him down when he tries to stand up. She tries to read his mind, but his thoughts are only on escaping the strange being holding him down.

“There’s no escape.” Ciri collects her sword and holds it at his throat. “Tell us what we need to know.”

With no warning, he grabs the blade of Ciri’s sword – and plunges it into his own throat.

“No!” Ciri pulls away the sword, but it’s too late. Blood spurts from his mouth, his eyes wide. He makes a horrible gargling noise, then stops breathing, stops twitching.

Ciri sheathes her sword, “Damnit! We were so fucking close!”

Yennefer stares at the dead man. He had rather died than tell her what was wrong with Geralt. All for some political plot that barely had anything to do with Geralt himself.

She sits down against the stone ledge, her head in her hands, not caring for the cold stone or the biting wind that roars in her ears, deafening her. “…We’re running out of time, Ciri. I don’t know what to do anymore.”

“Running out of time for what?”

That voice. She looks up.

A grey haired man stands on the bridge. He wears a brown long-sleeved tunic and an overcoat, with fingerless alchemic gloves. At his side, a bag is almost bursting with herbs. He looks at her with an amicable face and intelligent eyes, hiding centuries of experience behind them. For a moment Yennefer doesn’t recognise him, it’s been so long. And after all, she’d only seen that face for a moment before it was obliterated by a powerful mage.

“…Regis?”

He smiles at her, and helps her to her feet. “Yes, Yennefer. Goodness, it’s been a rather long time since we last saw each other, hasn’t it? Though our first meeting didn’t end particularly well – for me, anyway.”

She looks him up and down. Geralt had told her about his regeneration, but even so, seeing him now after she watched him be melted into a pillar…

“I never got the chance to thank you for saving my life. Or for helping Ciri. I’m terribly sorry for what happened back there.”

“Think nothing of it, my dear. Neither of us could have predicted how that encounter would end. I only regret we had no chance to truly greet each other in less dire circumstances, having heard so much about you from Geralt.” He looks to Ciri, who’s staring at him as if he seems familiar, but doesn’t quite recognise him. “And this is Ciri. It’s a pleasure to meet you again. Properly, this time. We didn't have much opportunity to talk when we last saw each other. I’ve heard a lot about you from Geralt, too.”

“You’re the higher vampire.” She remembers. “You fought against Vilgefortz.”

“And he paid quite dearly for it.” Yennefer touches his arm, pretending it to be a friendly gesture. In reality, she's curious. His arm is perfectly real. No illusion here. She knows that higher vampires can regenerate, but it’s still incredibly bizarre, going from a shapeless smear on a column to a walking, talking humanoid figure once more. It’s as if he never even met Vilgefortz, never met such a violent end. “But tell me, what are you doing here?”

“I happened to be in Brugge when I received a message, passed on from various ravens across the country, originating in Skellige. It’s a good job I was in Brugge, actually – transferring the message all the way to Nilfgaard would’ve taken a lot longer.”

“What message did you receive?” Yennefer asks.

“It was from Geralt. He said he thought he might be in trouble. Well, something along those lines. The message had become somewhat garbled by the time it reached me, but I could decipher well enough that he was in trouble. Such a message from someone like him shouldn’t be taken lightly, so I came as soon as I could.” Regis looks down at the dead men on the battlement. “And from what I’ve seen so far, I’m glad I did. Where is he?”

 

They take him back into Kaer Trolde, the blood from the injured attacker still wet on the floor. The dead guard is still lying where he fell, and his companion is gone, probably to go get help. There’s no sign of any more conflict, though. The attackers got in quietly and unmolested, it seems.

“Here.” Yennefer knock at the door. “Ameer? We’re back. The attackers are dead.”

“Ameer? Who might that be?” Regis asks.

“A friend.” She hears light footsteps stop outside the door.

“…Where did we meet?” Ameer calls out.

“Eversten hospital, in Nilfgaard.”

The door clicks, and opens. When he sees Regis though, he grabs Yennefer’s wrist, pulls her into the room quickly, and slams the door shut again.

“Yennefer! That is a higher vampire!”

“It’s all right, he’s with me. He’s a friend.”

Very slowly, Ameer opens the door a crack, staring at Regis warily – who looks amused more than anything.

“Ah, an aguara.” He notes. “No wonder you saw through my form immediately.”

“You can tell?” Ciri asks, surprised. “Even with my medallion, I wasn’t sure.”

“Well, it takes one to know one, I suppose. Both being creatures who can change our corporeal form.” He holds out his hand. “My name is Regis. Delighted to make your acquaintance.”

Ameer hesitates, looking at his hand suspiciously. Then he shakes it.

“…Greetings, and praise the world in its never-ending creation.” The traditional Ofieri greeting. “My name is Ameer. Are you here to help Geralt?”

“I should hope so. But what’s wrong with him?”

Ameer opens the door more fully, showing Regis the entire view of the makeshift medical bay.

Regis looks past Ameer. His face drops when he sees his old friend unconscious, unmoving on the table.

“He’s alive.” Yennefer tells him as Regis hurries towards him. “But we’re running out of time.”

He wastes no time in his examination: checking his vital signs, his temperature, checking the wound itself. He removes the dressing, examining it closely.

“…Necrosis.” Regis runs his hand over his face, distressed. One of his closest friends is ill, slowly dying. For someone like Regis, who doesn’t have many friends left alive in this world, it must be a dreadful, frightening shock.

He turns away, hiding his face from them. “…What happened?”

“A jarl tried to murder him. He got stabbed with a poisoned dagger.” Yennefer tells him quietly, trying to keep her voice as matter of fact as she can. “He’s sick, and we can’t figure out why.”

 “Poisoned? But the witcher metabolism –”

“Isn’t working. Whatever the poison is, it’s too strong to fight off.”

Regis is silent for a moment. He turns back, and his face is unreadable.

“Why? Why was he attacked?”

“He helped Cerys an Craite become queen. Now, he’s caught up in some plot to assassinate her.”

 “…The man who poisoned him?”

“Dead.”

“Anyone else who knew about the plot?”

“A steward by the name of Arvid. But he’s dead, too. Word is, he got the poison from a foreigner with a scar. Cerys and her men are searching the isle for him.”

Regis shakes his head. “Too slow. I’ll send out the ravens. They’ll give a more detailed report, much faster. I’ll start research, see what this poison might be.”

Ciri walks over and sits down beside Geralt, taking his hand. “We can’t stay here, though. It’s not safe anymore.”

“Why is that, my dear?”

“Some of the an Craite are involved, too. They knew where we were looking after Geralt. Tried to attack us.”

Regis shakes his head, sighing. “…I never understand you humans and your politics. So much effort, so much killing to get to the top, for what? A role that’s bound to earn you any number of enemies, and most likely eventual death by assassination or war.”

Yennefer glances away. “Trust me, I know.” It’s why she so happily retired from that world. The cruellest thing is, her career in politics hasn’t come back to haunt her, like she feared it might. Instead, it’s come for Geralt, the supposedly neutral witcher.

“I don’t know this island all that well,” Regis admits, “so I’ll rely on you to think of a safer place to move him.”

Yennefer paces back and forth as she thinks. “Perhaps somewhere abandoned? And somewhere warm, that’s a necessity…”

“Somewhere holy.”

She looks at Ameer in surprise. “Somewhere holy? What do you mean?”

“A place with lots of magic.”

“Hm…” she considers this. “I suppose there’s Gedyneith, the sacred oak. The druids of Skellige are based there, Ermion might let us use the druid headquarters. But why?” Her stormy relationship with Ermion aside, it’s not exactly the most cleanly place to bring a wounded man.

“…Arvid and this foreign man may no longer be on the island. It may take too long to find the identity of the poison. We need a…”

“A back up?”

“Yes, that.”

“And what kind of back up are you thinking of?”

He pauses, touching the back of his neck – there’s a scar there, one he got after falling as a child. He touches it when lost in thought. At least that’s something that hasn’t changed. “It is…I do not know what you call it in Common. In Elder Speech, we call it Scaradh.”

 “Scaradh?” Regis looks grave. “That’s not something to play around with.”

“I know. And I will only do it if very necessary.” He tilts his head. “You know this magic, too? Will you help prepare it?”

“Of course I will.” Regis says it with zero hesitation. “I just hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“What’s Scaradh?” Ciri asks, somewhat impatiently. “Is it dangerous?”

“Very much so, my dear. The word ‘Scaradh’ essentially translates to the word ‘separation’. It involves…” Regis looks at his unconscious friend. “…Taking out a person’s soul. Separating it from the body, so to speak, and storing it in another object for safe keeping, freezing the body in the meantime. But the soul can only remain stable outside the body for a maximum of one, perhaps two, months. And it’s incredibly fragile.” His gaze becomes troubled. “If something happens, if this so called ‘storage unit’ is destroyed, then so is the soul.”

“Gods, that does sound dangerous. I’ve not even heard of something like that.”

Yennefer looks at Ameer. “If you do this – take out his soul and put it in some trinket, he’ll be even more vulnerable than he is now. One fight, one fall, the simplest of mistakes and that trinket breaks...he’ll be dead beyond any recovery.”

“I know. And if the user of the spell – me – and the ‘trinket’ become separated, the spell will weaken, and the soul will…” He frowns, unsure how to finish in Common.

“…The soul and the trinket will lose compatibility. The soul will be ejected, and consequently perish.” Regis finishes for him. “Of course, this is all theoretical. Best-case scenario, we will have either identified the poison, or found the man who sold it and procured a cure from him. But if worst does indeed come to worst, and we run out of time…I’m afraid this may be the only option we have.”

Yennefer sighs. The best-case scenario…She’d like to imagine that with their combined powers – Ciri and the ravens searching the isle for this foreign scarred man, Regis and Ameer with their centuries of knowledge and experience – that they really will identify the poison, figure out a cure. Geralt will wake up, apologise for scaring them, for running off into the Skellige wilderness instead of talking through his worries with his partner, and they’ll slowly help him recover and reverse the damage. It will all end well.

But somehow, she doubts it.

Chapter Text

“An oak which is sacred to all Skelligers, as it is worshiped both by druids and Freya's disciples. The Isle's most important ceremonies are held here, including weddings and royal coronations.” – Map Description of Gedyneith

 

For once, the wind is quiet and the air is still underneath the sacred oak Gedyneith. The golden and orange leaves that make up its autumn plumage are lined with frost, glittering in the weak sun. The ground surrounding the oak is frozen, trapping dying flowers and dry grass in hard, compact ice as the season progresses and winter advances to the island.

Normally, Gedyneith is bustling with movement. Birds shelter in its leaves, and druids climb the slopes to pick the seasonal herbs and flowers. But today, ten days after she found her lover dying and poisoned, Yennefer stands underneath a hushed and almost empty tree. It’s just her, Regis, Ameer and Ermion. Ciri is off with Cerys, interrogating the guards and searching for traitors who might lead them to the foreign man. There are no druids, no an Craite guards present; the risk of traitors is just too high. The only birds are ravens, perched among the branches. A fox sits by the base – Regis isn’t the only one with messengers. According to Ameer, the foxes helped him keep an eye on Geralt while he picked herbs, and warned him when a fiend attacked.

Of course, Yennefer had explained away the sight of Regis seemingly telepathically talking to a raven perched on his arm, and Ameer bent down doing the same to a fox, as the two of them being druids themselves from far off lands. Ermion seemed incredibly dubious of this, but he didn’t know enough about Ofier or Nilfgaard magic practices to dispute her.

Besides, he had other concerns on his mind. “As long as you don’t suck the holy magic from this place like a leech, give it the same fate as our beloved garden, then I don’t much care.” He’d said bitterly. She still hasn’t been forgiven for the necromancy in Freya’s garden. All the same, he’d agreed to let them use the oak, provided he was present.

Now, they all gather under the oak. Geralt’s body lies on the same wooden platform where Cerys had been crowned four years ago, the event that started this entire mess. His wolf medallion lies not at his chest, but separately at his side. Ameer steps forwards, the hood of his fur cloak still up. He wears thick leather gloves made from the hardy skin of a stag, with pungent flowers woven around his wrists. A mixture of wolf blood and ash is smeared across his cheeks. Finally, he wears a cord around his neck – raven feathers and bear claws hang from it. The wolf blood, raven feathers and bear claws will help him locate and draw out the soul, apparently, borrowing the senses of the animals from which they came. The thick stag skin, the strong smelling flowers and the bitter ash will help mask his own soul, hide it from the spell. The way he’d described it to Yennefer, as if the spell had a sentience all on its own, made her uneasy. It still does.

Regis tentatively places hot coal in a circle around Geralt’s head, the heat not harming him or even making him flinch. For every piece of coal he puts down, Ameer places wolfsbane down on it, the violet petals dried and fragrant. The petals begin to smoulder gently, the smoke drifting up towards the oak’s branches.

Regis kneels down, holding a wooden bowl in his hands. It contains a blend of ingredients he’s been helping collect and concoct in preparation for this very scenario: a thick substance of goat fat, harpy liver, fork tail venom and yellow yarrow flowers, the combination creating an odd smell. Using a whale bone brush, he marks Geralt’s face – a line on his forehead, two lines on each cheek, and a line across his lips.

Next, Ameer takes out a jar of dark powder. He walks around Geralt’s body, sprinkling it onto his skin, into his hair, around him. It’s a mix of dried human blood, ground human bone, and the earth from around the sacred oak itself, bound together by an elven spell Yennefer had never heard of. For the more morally questionable ingredients, Ameer had taken use of the dead attackers’ bodies from Kaer Trolde. They may not have been useful in providing any information about the poison, but now they’ll help keep Geralt alive for a few more months.

Regis steps back, his job finished. Now, he’ll stand guard, lest their ceremony be interrupted. When Ameer finishes, he lowers the jar and looks at Yennefer.

 “It is ready.”

Yennefer steps forwards, aware of Ermion’s gaze watching her intently. She ignores it, and instead focuses all her attention on Ameer, waiting for his cue. This is the hard part. The moment the soul leaves the body, the body itself can’t survive. It becomes lifeless. It has to be frozen immediately.

Ameer kneels down and holds out his hands. He begins to chant in a language that she doesn’t recognise. Ofieri? Or perhaps something different, perhaps something belonging to his own race of vulpesses.

As he chants, his eyes glow green, and his hands emit a sharp blue light, illuminating Geralt’s pale and darkly veined face. He’s back on deaths door once more. Scaradh is the only thing that can save him right now. And thankfully, Ameer knows magic - strange and limited magic, but magic all the same - owing to the strong elven blood that the Fox Mother spells couldn’t quite erase.

Ameer chants louder, the light growing more and more intense. He grits his teeth in pain, struggling to control the light. It looks like it’s moving, trying to break free of his hold. He shouts one last word, then plunges the light into Geralt’s chest.

“Now!”

Yennefer closes her eyes, begins making chants of her own, these ones in simple elvish. She draws on the power of the sacred oak. The magic stored in it is immense, ancient. For such a spell, she’ll need to borrow some.

When she taps into it, her mind is stunned for a moment, the sheer amount of magic knocking the breath from her. But she overcomes it quickly and reaches her own magic capabilities towards the stock pile, siphoning some off for herself. Unlike the garden, she faces no resistance. The oak is a giving organism, lending its body and leaves to the survival of others for generations. It will not mind giving her a small dose of its own vast stores of magic, especially for a spell that won’t drain it like necromancy.

She opens her eyes, feeling before seeing the magic sparking at her fingertips, sending a wave of coldness up her arms. Still kneeling, Ameer holds his hands on Geralt’s forehead. He speaks in that language, opens Geralt’s mouth – and something comes out. White, misty, almost…iridescent. It looks like it could be dispersed by the gentlest breath of wind, yet Yennefer can sense something in it. Not magic. Something…something more unknown than that.

Yennefer takes her own spell, and pushes it down towards Geralt’s body, shouting in elvish. She can’t even feel her own hands as the spell works its way up Geralt’s body. For every inch that the spell passes, it leaves behind deep ice. Over his legs, his chest, across his face, until his entire body is frozen.

Quickly, Ameer guides the white wisp downwards, down towards Geralt’s medallion, speaking softly to it all the while. His hands now glow a soft, gentle yellow. The white wisp swirls for a moment – then suddenly pours into the wolf medallion.

Just like that, the yellow light vanishes. Ameer doubles over, out of breath and holding his hands in pain. Then, he hastily picks up the medallion and places it around his own neck.

Yennefer helps him to his feet. “It is done.” He touches the medallion – the ‘trinket’ which now carries Geralt’s soul inside of it. The fact the tiny metal wolf now contains the soul of her lover is, in itself, quite scary. Despite being around Ameer’s neck, the medallion doesn’t vibrate. Inactive. Perhaps because of the spell.

“You should rest.” She tells him. “You’ve just expended an awful lot of energy.” Her own hands feel like they’ll drop off from the cold.

Behind her, Regis kneels down by Geralt’s body again. Personally, she can’t bring herself to look at his frozen corpse for even a moment. But Regis hesitantly touches his skin, not even flinching at the touch.

“…Cold, far colder than ice could ever be.” He removes his hand. “The procedure was a success. His body will remain in stasis, not decaying, while we find a cure.”

Thank goodness. If she had failed at her own spell, it wouldn’t matter if they found the cure or not. His body is officially deceased, and his soul would have nothing to go back to except a rotting corpse if not for the freezing spell.

“…The oak is unharmed.” Ermion notes, pacified. “For once, it seems you’ve respected my wishes.” The only changes are the ground and oak leaves – the ice and frost has melted away, freeing the trapped plants from their cold prison, and leaving nothing but water on the oak leaves, glistening like dew in the weak light.

“I’ll help move Geralt’s body to the druid base.” Ermion continues. “And I’ll restrict all access to him, in case the plot has leaked its way into the ranks of the druids.”

As Ermion speaks, a raven flies down towards Regis. He holds out his arm and it lands, croaking and cawing. As he listens, his eyes widen in surprise.

“What? Have they found the man from the continent?” Yennefer asks quickly.

“…No.” He says it almost in surprise. “They’ve found the steward of jarl Carrik. The supposedly dead Arvid.”

Yennefer stares in disbelief. “Arvid?” Then she realises. The bodies at the castle were all charred from the fire, beyond recognition. The only proof they had of Arvid’s death was witness reports – unreliable witness reports.

“Where is he?”

 “He’s at the whale graveyard. With ten men, some of them an Craite.”

“We need to go immediately.” Yennefer knows the place, so she opens up a portal. “Regis, come with me.”

He’s already walking towards the portal. “I’ll take care of the men, you deal with Arvid.”

“Ermion, guard Geralt. Ameer, stay with them.” She doesn’t wait for an answer, and walks through the portal after Regis.

 -

Unlike the oak, the whale graveyard is normally empty. Not much to scavenge from old whale skeletons, not much to easily smuggle away. But today, it’s bustling with movement. Ten men, all armed, some wearing red an Craite colours, others wearing the purple of their dead jarl. Standing on the skull of a beached whale, in the middle of giving a speech, is the man they've needed all this time - Arvid.

Instead of wearing the purple tartan, he's wearing a long green cloak with the hood drawn. It’s decorated at the hem with red runes, and lined with thick black furs.

The noise of the portal draws their immediate attention. When Arvid sees them step through, he smiles.

“Men, it seems we have some….unannounced guests.” He has to shout to be heard over the spray of the waves. “These people are in liege with the witcher, with soon to be deceased Queen Cerys.”

Regis ignores his rambling speech, and turns to Yennefer. “He was clearly behind all this, then. I dislike killing, but I shall certainly make an exception here. Should I kill them now?”

She knows the men on the beach certainly won’t show any mercy towards the two of them. “Kill them, but leave Arvid alive. I’ll deal with him.”

“Understood.”

“…Now, let them face the same fate as their beloved freak.” Arvid finishes his speech. His men start unsheathing their weapons, running towards them.

Regis’s fingers grow into long talons. His eyes turn black, and his teeth become sharp, deadly. A transformation Yennefer has seen once before, but it’s still unsettling.

Th attacking men don’t realise, though. They continue running, shouting, brandishing their weapons. Regis disappears in a cloud of black fog – and reappears, slashing at the attackers. One after the other, the men fall down dead onto the stony beach as Regis’s claws cut through their flesh like butter. It happens so quickly, it’s over in the span of 30 seconds. Not a single man reaches Yennefer. None even had the chance to raise their weapons against her by the time Regis is finished with them.

Arvid looks at his gathering of men – now all corpses lying among the skeletons of giant whales. But he doesn’t look worried. If anything, he looks irritated.

“You brought a vampire? Not exactly a fair fight. Now, let me guess.” He seems completely at ease. “You’re here to find it why I started this coup against Queen Cerys.”

Yennefer summons a lightning spell. “No. Quite frankly I don’t care.” She begins to walk towards him, holding up the spell. “Now, you’re going to tell me what poison you used against Geralt. We can do this the easy way, or the painful way. Right now, I’d much prefer the painful way.”

Arvid just smiles. Suddenly, he summons a ball of ice and throws it down towards her. She barely dodges, and hears a guttural roar.

Where the ice landed, a figure is growing. Hunched over, bulging in form, colossal in size.

An ice elemental. “Shit, he’s a mage!”

The ice elemental raises its fist towards her. She jumps back, avoiding the shock wave just in time. It roars, and makes to strike again – then turns its attention away from her, angrily swiping at the vampire who attacks it with striking claws.

“I’ll deal with this! Don’t let him get away!” He’s impossible to keep sight of, turning to fog and appearing a second later somewhere else, weaving around the elemental much faster than it can keep up.

Yennefer begins running. She summons her lightning and throws it at Arvid. He holds his staff horizontally in front of him, a shimmering veil appearing in front of him. A protective spell. The lightning doesn’t reach him, but the force of the impact pushes him backwards, and he stumbles.

“Tell me the name of the poison!” Yennefer shouts, blasting spell after spell at him. Each time, he holds up the protective barrier against her spells, but Yennefer is driving him further and further back towards the water.

“The poison?” He grins. “I’ve no fucking clue.”

“You’re lying.” She focuses a beam of light at him, shooting the energy at him continuously. His barrier holds fast, for now.

“I told you, I don’t know. Bought it off a traveller. It did the job, that’s all I needed.” She searches his mind. He’s telling the truth. But there’s more.

No idea why the foreigner gave it to me on the insistence I poison the witcher, but I’ll never tell her that. Fucker deserved it anyway, meddling in our affairs

“The foreigner told you to poison Geralt? Why?” She shouts.

“You read my thoughts, didn’t you? Dirty wench!” When she tries to read his mind again, it’s defensively blank.

She guesses she’ll have to do this the hard way. She pushes the beam of light harder at him, concentrating all her energy into it. The barrier is beginning to fade, the ocean water lapping at his feet.

Finally, it fades with a crack, and Yennefer’s spell hits him. He falls backwards, the wind knocked out of him.

But as Yennefer moves forwards to strike, he suddenly sits up, planting the staff in the water. Around him, the water begins to swirl – and then rises up in a huge wave above him, at least seven feet high. It crashes down on Yennefer before she even has a chance to register what’s happening, the sheer force of the water knocking her off her feet, her lungs filling with ocean water. She’s blinded, the salt stinging her eyes. Desperately, she digs her fingers into the gravel, trying to stop herself from tumbling anymore and cracking her head open on a rock.

After an unbearable amount of time, the wave finally subsides. Coughing and spluttering, she looks up. Arvid stands over her, his staff in his hand, bringing it crashing down.

Yennefer rolls out of the way, and the staff lands where her head had been, covering the ground in razor ice shards. She gets to her feet, and blasts another lightning spell at him. This time, caught off guard, it knocks him off his feet and he falls with a thud, his staff knocked from his hands.

Yennefer doesn’t give him a chance to recover. She kicks him in the ribs, and picks up the staff. Behind her, she hears the ice elemental give one last roar, then fall with a heavy crash to the ground, slain by Regis.

“Are you quite all right?” He runs over to her, quickly reverting back to his normal form. She can see that his clothes are slightly torn on his right shoulder, but he’s otherwise unharmed.

As for herself, she coughs heavily, leaning against the staff, still feeling the salt in her mouth. Her side feels bruised from where she was knocked over by the wave. “I’m fine.” Gritting her teeth, she lifts the staff and swings it, crashing it against the rib of a whale skeleton.

“Fuck you, wench!” Arvid tries to get to his feet, but Yennefer delivers another kick. He clutches his stomach.

“The man who sold you the poison. Where is he?” She demands.

Despite his pain, he looks up with a mocking smile. “He’s long gone now.”

Yen grabs him by the neck, and begins to apply pressure. “Where?”

Arvid struggles with her grasp. “I’ll n-never –”

She increases the pressure. “Tell me now!”

“Novigrad!” He wheezes.

“What’s his name?”

“He didn’t say!”

Yennefer lets go before he suffocates. He gasps for breath, doubled over.

“Where in Novigrad?”

“Don’t know.”

“Why did he tell you to poison Geralt?”

He doesn’t answer. Instead, he lunges at her.

Regis pushes her away from the knife just in time. Instead, the blade pierces his hand, going straight through his palm.

Arvid turns and runs, his last defence finished. Yennefer doesn’t chase after him; he’s given all the information he knows. She’s been weakened, and is freezing from being doused by the ocean. She’d rather not risk another encounter.

“Regis, are you all right?”

He’s staring down at his hand in shock. “Damn, it’s poisoned!” He doesn’t even try to remove the knife. The fingers on his other hand extend into claws. In one swift motion, he cuts the injured hand clean off, flinching from the pain.

“Oh my God – why –” Regis can heal, surely poison wouldn’t hurt him –

“Couldn’t risk it.” He clutches his bleeding stump, turning away from her so as not to shower her with gore. “That poison – there’s something very wrong with it.”

Gods. If Regis was willing to cut off his own hand to avoid such a poison…Geralt was never even going to stand a chance against it.

Regis sees Arvid running from them, getting ready to open up a portal, and asks, “should I kill him? I’d very much like to, for his role in my friend’s poisoning. I can catch up to him in an instant.”

Before Yennefer can vehemently agree, she hears a shriek – deafening and ugly. Out of nowhere, a siren swoops down towards Arvid, grabbing him and lifting him into the air. He screams and struggles in its grasp, but it drops him quickly, about ten feet from the floor. It flies somewhat erratically, then dives into the ocean, out of sight.

Arvid writhes on the floor in pain. He’s landed perfectly in the rib cage of a whale skeleton. The fall was enough to break a few bones – as Yennefer cautiously approaches, she sees his arm is bent in a way that arms really shouldn’t be.

And standing on top of the whale skull, looking down, is Ameer. He’s still in his ritual outfit, the raven feathers waving in the wind, the bear claws clacking together. The ash and wolf blood are dry on his face. His hood is down for the first time, not hiding the fox ears that give away his aguara race. His eyes are glowing green, and at his neck, the eyes of Geralt’s medallion glow red.

He wasn’t there before, she’s certain of it. Was he hiding himself through an illusion?

“The siren…” she realises.

“I don’t think it was an illusion.” Regis watches Ameer with interest. She tries not to look at the unnerving sight of his hand growing back. “There have been records of Fox Mothers being able to bewitch other creatures for a short time. Including monsters.”

Arvid looks up at Ameer. “What the fu –”

“Do you remember me?” His voice is frighteningly calm.

“You…the slave that mutant freak stole from us.”

Ameer tilts his head. “And yet, here I am. Free, alive. Both things you shortly will not be.”

“Listen. I-I can give you money. Power. Anything you want. Help me, you have no loyalty to Cerys.”

“It is funny, the way you humans act.” Ameer sits down on the skull, resting his arms on his knees. “You were content to watch the other men beat me, humiliate me, treat me like dirt. But when you want help, you grovel and expect me to comply. Very strange. Not a fair exchange, is it?”

He jumps down from the skull, and kneels down beside him. “No. I think I am going watch you suffer at the hands of the woman you hate so much, like you let me suffer for a whole year. That sounds like a fairer exchange, does it not?”

“You…You piece of shit!” Arvid shouts as Ameer stands up and begins to walk away.

Ameer pauses, and looks over his shoulder. “By the way, the food and drink that you would have me bring you? I spat in it. Every single time.”

He walks to Yennefer and Regis, ignoring the mage’s screams of rage.

“Do not bother killing him. The foxes tell me that Cerys and your daughter are approaching.”

“That’s a shame. I would’ve been more than happy killing the mage myself.”

“Well, best not to piss off royalty, I suppose.” Regis says. “As much as I agree with your sentiment.”

“Hm.” Ameer gently touches the medallion around his neck, and looks out at the sea. His expression is one of…surprise, almost. “I should feel happy. I thought I would. But I do not.”

“It sounds like you’ve been through a very difficult year. Don’t feel bad if you’re not immediately better.” Regis tells him, trying to be reassuring.

“…I suppose you are right, when you say it like that.”

Yennefer hesitates. She feels that she should say something, but he’s been so reluctant to talk about his experience. Besides, she doesn’t particularly want to show such emotion in front of Regis. She knows he’s entirely trustworthy, owes her very life to him, but she doesn’t know him very well, considering he died shortly after they met. She feels…embarrassed, getting all sentimental in front of him.

But Ameer needs this. She puts her hand on his shoulder and forces herself to say it.

“I’m here for you. No matter what happens, no matter how you’re feeling. I’m here. You know that, right?”

He hesitates, the waves still ringing in the background. Then he places his own hand on top of hers. And smiles. The first genuine smile she’s seen in a long time.

“…Thank you, Yennefer.”

Chapter Text

“I know some would see another in my place. I thank those who stood at my side. Here, beneath the Sacred Oak, I pledge to be a good queen to the ones and the others. I want peace and prosperity to reign in Skellige. And I count on you to help me fulfil that dream.” – Cerys, upon being crowned Queen of the Skellige Isles

 

It doesn’t take long for Cerys to realise the true nature of this plot.

 

At first, it had been painfully slow getting any information about the incident at jarl Carrik’s estate when she returned from Faroe. Most of his men, including the steward, were missing or dead. Her key witness, Geralt, was unconscious from a poisoned wound. Her only other witness, an Ofieri elf by the name of Ameer, knew very little of the reason and nature behind the attack.

True, he’d been able to give a thorough account of the actual events. He’d sat nervously in front of her, shivering in his borrowed clothes. His face looked gaunt and haunted. Slavery…banning it was one of the first things she’d done as queen, but it seemed that all her laws would take a while to actually be practised.

She’d tried to be as gentle as she could in her questioning, asking about why Geralt was there to begin with – a monster contract – about who struck first – jarl Carrik did – and about how they escaped – Geralt started a small fire and they fled through the window. But it had been tricky. His voice was quiet, and though his Common was fairly fluent, he had struggled to understand her accent, while she had struggled to understand his.

Moreover, the entire time they were watched intensely by Yennefer of Vengerberg. The sorceress stood waiting in the background. Cerys has never cared for her much, and always disliked the way Geralt let himself be walked all over by her. She told herself time and time again that her uneasy feelings for the woman had nothing to do with Yennefer's past romantic history with her own father, though she wondered how much of that was the truth.

But dislike had nothing to do with respect, and Cerys knew Yennefer was not someone to let herself be pushed around or coerced. She could respect that, but it also meant she knew that the moment she pushed the Ofieri elf too hard, the sorceress would step in. Even if it meant talking back to the queen of Skellige. Of course, Cerys knew how to deal with stubborn people – Skellige being an isle full to the brim of them – but it was a conflict that would only hinder and distract if it came down to it.

Besides, Ameer was limited in the information he could give. He knew nothing of Skellige politics; seemed unaware that he was even speaking to the queen of the islands, and had no idea why exactly the jarl had chosen to poison Geralt.

 

The visit to Farylund drastically changed things. Cerys had started investigating due to some sense of personal obligation for Geralt. Now, it seemed her own life was on the line.

Amidst the insults that had been hurled at her by the angry farmhand, there was something that had stuck out to Cerys – the mention of Birna.

“Birna would’ve made us rich!”

An odd remark. Why bring up Birna now, well over four years after her death?

It makes Cerys suspicious. She needs to find out more.

“Cerys, I don’t know what you’re expecting to find. It’s not going to help.”

Hjalmar follows her as she storms down the corridors, towards the an Craite Treasury. “Birna died a long time ago, doubt she has anything to do with all this.”

“That’s not it. There’s something that doesn’t add up.”

She quickens her pace, but he easily matches it. “Doesn’t add up – that doesn’t matter! We need to be interrogating the clans, searching for any other traitors!”

She sighs, and flashes a glare over her shoulder. “I know what I’m doing, Hjalmar. And interrogating all the clans will just breed suspicion and mistrust – and maybe then they really will want to assassinate me!”

She unlocks a small wooden door towards the back of the castle, hidden away in the corner, used only by trusted members of the clan. Inside is a stair well, dark and stinking of dust and mildew. Quickly, she takes a torch off the wall of the hallway and begins to climb down the winding steps.

“It’s always better to strike first! Show confidence! Make them know you’re not someone to fuck around with!” He follows her down the steps.

“I’d rather strike when I have more information at hand.”

At the bottom of the steps is a much grander, solid door. The entrance to the vault of their ancestors. The Treasury.

Cerys hesitates. This place is where the belongings of their grandest ancestors are stored after their death, whatever isn’t burnt in the funeral pyre. Four years ago, she and Hjalmar placed the rest of their father’s belongings in here, after his final battle with the Wild Hunt.

She closes her eyes, inhales sharply, and unlocks the door.

 

Every corner of the treasury is filled with cobwebs that tremble violently at the sudden movement of new air into the room. It’s a huge chamber, filled with swords and shields, goblets, stuffed animals with their eyes falling out, even a partial and slightly rotting stern of a longship. Most date back many years, before her father or even her grandfather were born. But all is covered in dust – considering the most mighty of an Craite artefacts are displayed proudly throughout Kaer Trolde, the leftovers aren’t maintained nearly as well.

Behind her, Hjalmar starts to cough. “Gods, this place is dusty.”

“You’re still here? Not off to interrogate the first person you think looks suspicious?”

In response, he flips her long plait over her head and in front of her eyes, something he’s always done since they were children to try and piss her off. Instantly, she flips it back and sticks her fingers up his nose, hard. She’s always known how to piss him off, too.

“Ow! Le’go!” He catches her arms and they wrestle against each other’s grip. Then, they both let go, sharing a slightly childish laugh.

“You’re incorrigible, you know that, Crooked Gob?” A nickname he got stuck with ever since his accident while ice skating.

“Not as much as you, Chicken Face.” His alternative to Sparrow hawk.

Cerys smiles, the first genuine smile since this whole mess began. “Come on, let’s start searching.”

“What’re we looking for?”

“Birna’s journal.”

“Her journal?” Hjalmar frowns. “We didn’t burn a thing like that?”

“Dad kept it. After the bloody banquet, he thought it best to look over her notes in case she was plotting something else.” He was a smart man for doing that. Mentally, she kicks herself for not doing the same.

Thankfully, they deposited their father’s belongings relatively close to the door, so they don’t have to climb over too many old artefacts.

“Gods, look at this Cerys!” Hjalmar picks up a round shield, rubbing off the grime and dust. It’s gold plated, decorated intricately. “Why don’t we come down here more often?”

“Well, maybe after this is all over, we can have this room be cleaned.”

“For once, I agree with you. Sure to be all sorts of great stuff down here.”

Stepping over an old clothes trunk, she finally sees it. A pile of objects less dusty than the rest: her father’s old belongings.

She tries not to look too hard at his possessions – his old clothes, the very first sword he ever fought with, love letters to her mother – lest she start to tear up. She can see Hjalmar simply refuses to look at them. Thankfully, it does not take her long to find what she’s looking for: a small and neatly kept blue book.

“I think I’ve found it.” Hjalmar takes the torch from her and holds it, giving her enough light to read. When she opens the book, she instantly sees that the handwriting is not her father’s.

“This is it.” Birna’s journal, started just after the death of King Bran.

As fast as she can, she pours over the pages, skim reading the plans Birna had in place if her son had become king. Whether or not Svenrige would’ve listened is another matter, but she certainly had thought things out. Who would become in charge of trade, agriculture, weapons making – even listing specific members of staff she would have in charge, including a court mage.

But she doesn’t mention Carrik, or Davin, or Madman Lugos, or anyone from Clan Drummond. Not even once.

“…See? This isn’t right. Birna never cared for Madman Lugos, found him boorish and irritating. She didn’t care for anyone in that clan. And back then, Carrik was nowhere near in line for position of the jarl. I doubt she even knew who he was. Why would she give him a wealthy position? This confirms it. She had no plans for him, certainly none that would have made him wealthy. Either Carrik was mistaken, or he was lied to.”

“Fine, who cares? Doesn’t tell us anything more about this plot. Birna lied to him while she was still alive to gain his support, and that’s that.”

Cerys shakes her head. “If that was the case, why wait till now to strike? Why not rebel before she was executed? Or before Svenrige left the isle? Or when Lugos was still kicking up, when the Wild Hunt attacked? There’ve been plenty of ample opportunities to take advantage of the chaos. Why didn’t he strike before?”

“Dunno, he was never particularly smart, was he?”

“Or, someone lied to him recently. Not Birna. Someone manipulated jarl Carrik into thinking Birna had great plans for him, helped him think up this plot.”

“Like who?”

“Someone else who would’ve had a loss from Birna’s death.” She thinks hard, pacing back and forth. “Someone without the power or support to pull off a coup by themselves. They had to lay low, garner power slowly over time – that’s why they could only pull it off now!” She turns back to the book, looking for the most likely candidate. All the jarls are out; they’d have had enough support to stage a coup if and when they pleased. Svenrige couldn’t have come back, could he? No, the moment he stepped foot on the island, he would be killed.

She begins leading through the pages again. “The mage she mentioned, maybe it could be him? A mage wouldn’t exactly be popular.” His name is Eilif Heilesen in the text. “He’d have probably laid low, disguised himself, till he had the means and men to start a coup!”

But when she turns to Hjalmar, he’s watching her with a dubious expression.

“This is getting too theoretical, Cerys.” He crosses his arms. “You’re grasping at straws! You have no evidence to support any of this!”

Cerys glares at him. “At least I’m trying!”

“Hey, I have suggested again and again what we should do! We need to be rounding up the remainders of this plot, not wasting our time down here!” He shouts.

“And I’m telling you, there’s no point! There are too many people who could be involved! We need to locate the leader before we try to bring down the rest!”

“And what, you think you can figure it out by looking through that wench’s old diary? Is this a joke?”

“My life is on the line here, Hjalmar! You don’t think I’m taking this seriously?” She throws down the book. “I’ve only been doing this for a few years and already people are trying to assassinate me! Am I that terrible of a leader? All I want is for Skellige to prosper, and people want to kill me for it!”

She stops, breathing hard, and pinches the bridge of her nose. She’s so frustrated, angry – embarrassed. Being the first queen of Skellige was going to be difficult, she knew that. And such plots were always going to be a possibility. She just can’t believe it’s happening so soon.

“…I’m sorry.”

She glances at her brother. He’s staring at the floor, sheepishly.

“I…Look. I’m sorry. I’m just…I’m worried, Cerys. We’ve already lost dad. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. And a plot like this, it’s serious. I just want to help as much as I can”

She sighs. “I’m sorry, too. For losing my temper.” She feels as if they’re young children again, being forced to apologise to each other by their father after they took their rivalry too far and got in a scrap.

“But, let me tell you this.” He stands up straighter, and puts his hand on her shoulder. “If anything happens, if they hurt you in any way, I won’t rest until every last bastard involved in this plot is hunted down and killed. The steel of my blade will be the last thing they see. And their families will know the shame for generations, even after their miserable bodies have rotted away. I swear it on the honour of our clan.”

She tries to summon a smile. Sure, they’ve had their differences and rivalries in the past, but it’s reassuring to know at least someone has her back.

And somehow, slowly in the back of her mind, things are suddenly beginning to make sense.

“Come on. Let’s get out of this shabby chamber.” She picks begins climbing her way back through the clutter. “Think things through again back upstairs, where we’re not going to suffocate on all this dust.”

“Ok. I’m keeping this shield, though.”

“Hjalmar…”

“I’m keeping it!’”

 

Once they get upstairs, though, any possibility of a calm and productive talk is shattered.

“Queen Cerys!” One of the guards runs towards her in a panic. His head is bruised, his lip split and swollen. “We were attacked!”

Damnit, another attack already? “What happened? How many attackers?” She demands.

“Three, but they were helped by a fellow an Craite!”

She shares a very worried look with Hjalmar. The treachery has infiltrated even her own clan.

“The witcher needs to be moved immediately, and the sorceress warned. Speak to no one of this order -  no one at all.” She has no idea how many among the clan are involved in this.

Despite his injuries, the guard runs off to complete this task. Cerys turns to her brother, her thoughts tumbling over each other as the plot becomes clearer and clearer in her mind.

“I have a plan. One that will help us identify the ring leader, once and for all. I’ll need your help. Ciri’s, too.”

At this, Hjalmar grins, in spite the grave situation. “Finally.”

 -

Cerys can feel her heart pounding in her ears as she hides, waiting to enact her plan.

Right now, she’s hidden under her own bed. Even with the fireplace roaring and warming the room, she’s shivering. She’s only wearing a plain blue dress, having taken off most of her layers – her thick coat and furs, her heavy belt, her shoulder plates and armour – to help fit more easily under the bed, give her space to be able to move quickly. Her long hair has been tied into a bun, to keep it from getting in her way. She has only two weapons: a long dagger, and a small bomb. Not one made of regular explosives, but one made for her by Ermion. He hadn’t been in the best of moods when she asked a few days ago, probably due to his work place being overtaken by the elf Ameer and a man from the continent called Regis, who claimed to be a friend of Geralt’s. Nonetheless, he’s obliged her request and concocted a potent herbal powder for her. When the bomb goes off, it spreads the powder in a 2ft range. Any who inhale the spores are knocked into a temporary sleep. 

She’s not alone in the room. Though Cerys can’t see her from her position under the bed, she knows Ciri lies in wait in a tiny alcove atop of the huge bookcase in her room. Unlike Cerys, who had to strip down to allow faster movement in her hiding place, Ciri has more…magical solutions to that, being able to teleport out of her position with ease, and so has two swords strapped to her back.

The last person in the room is a simple peasant woman by the name of Hilde. She paces slowly and nervously in front of the bed. Just like Cerys, her hair is ginger and tied into a single plait – not quite as long, but hopefully no one will notice that. Her frame is slightly thinner, but her height is almost the same as Cerys’s. Her face has been marked with ash here and there, in an attempt to replicate scars. Most importantly, she wears Cerys’s clothes: the coat, the belt, the scarf, the furs, the shoulder plates, even the royal crown itself.

Of course, the an Craite guards know very well what Cerys looks like, and the moment they see Hilde’s face, they’ll realise the trick. But from behind, with only the back or the side in view, she looks enough like Cerys to fool anyone.

It’s been three days after she read Birna’s diary, and Kaer Trolde was infiltrated by jarl Carrik’s men. Geralt has been moved safely to Gedyneith, while the elf, Yennefer and her friend Regis prepare some sort of spell. In the meantime, Cerys has been hard at work keeping this a secret, making sure no one knows about Geralt’s true location. Instead, she’s spread false information about where she’s hiding Geralt, supposedly in the cellar. Any traitor wouldn’t fall for such an obvious set up, though, so she consequently spread another rumour, claiming the cellars to be a lie and instead pretending she’s really hiding him in the Treasury. The feigned secrecy of this second location, combined with the limited access to the Treasury, will hopefully trick the traitors into believing Geralt is hidden there. And when they sneak down, they’ll be met with a fully armed and angry Hjalmar.

As for Cerys, she told all the guards that she’d be in her room, working, and ordered them not to disturb her. She also turned down any offers to have any guards stationed outside her room – leaving her tantalisingly vulnerable, unguarded.

Now, all they have to do is wait. And she’s not left waiting long.

The door creaks open. Hilde freezes, her back to the wall.

“What – What is it?” She says, trying to alter her voice.

From her position under the bed, Cerys sees a pair of boots standing by the door.

“We have news.” The pair of boots is joined by two more. Three attackers, then. “About the witcher.”

“A-Another time. I’m busy.”

Cerys hears a quiet but unmistakable sound of unsheathing metal.

Now.

She rolls the bomb out at the attackers. A moment later, there’s a hiss – a man suddenly comes in her line of sight, slumped on the floor asleep, his sword clattering beside him.

Quickly, she gets out from under the bed, and grabs Hilde, pushing her out of the way just as the second attacker swings an axe. It narrowly misses the woman.

“Hilde, get down!” She unsheathes the dagger, minuscule in comparison to the weapon of her attacker.

The third attacker is raising a cross bow, aiming it. Suddenly, Ciri appears behind him in a flash of blue. With a battle cry, she slices her sword cleanly through his chest.

The man with the axe tries to strike again. She just manages to dodge, the axe swinging an inch away from her chest. He tries again, the axe coming down at her from above. She throws herself to the side, and the axe embeds itself into the wooden frame of the bed.

Gritting her teeth, she takes her dagger and plunges it into the man’s back. His body twitches, blood spurting onto her clothes and face. His grip on his weapon fades, and he falls to the floor.

“Oh shit!” Two more men are at the door. Messengers, or back up, maybe. “It was a trap!”

They start to run. But they don’t get far. Ciri teleports to one, slitting his throat in one clean motion. Cerys wrenches the dagger from the axe wielder’s back, and throws it at the other fleeing man. It embeds into the back of his neck. He falls down dead, instantly.

Panting, Cerys retrieves her dagger from the dead man, wiping the bloodied metal on the hem of her dress and sheathing it. Ciri drags the unconscious man to the wall and ties his wrist together.

All the attackers were an Craite men. Cerys ignores the sick feeling in her stomach and walks to Hilde, pulling her to her feet. The woman is trembling violently.

“Are you all right?”

She simply stares, mouth agape at Cerys. “I-I…I…”

Cerys is aware that her own appearance probably doesn’t help. Her hair came loose in the fight and is strewn over her shoulders, splattered with the same blood that stains her face and dress.

 “You did well.” Cerys tries to be reassuring. “You were brave to do this. I’ll ensure you’re rewarded greatly.” And she means it. One false move, and this woman could have been killed in her stead.

Hilde nods mutely, but she still looks in shock. Cerys sees some of the blood from the attack has sprayed Hilde’s cheek. Not much, but for someone not well versed in fighting or battle, it must seem like a lot.

“Ciri, will you take Hilde somewhere safe? Help her clean up?”

“Of course.” Ciri takes Hilde’s arm gently. She throws a smile at Cerys.

“You fought well. Don’t think those assassins would’ve stood much chance against you, even without the surprise attack.”

“Well, I doubt it would’ve gone so smoothly without your help. Might’ve been dead with an arrow in my back if not for you.”

Ciri smiles, and leads Hilde from the room, taking care to avoid the dead bodies as much as she can.

Not long after, the only living attacker begins to wake up. Groaning, he tries to stand up, only to realise his hands are tied. He sees the bodies of his dead comrades, and Cerys standing over him.

“It was a trap.” He says blankly.

“I know you.” Cerys narrows her eyes. “At the End Times, my father saved you from one of the wraiths. Cut it down before it could kill you. And this is how you repay him? Bringing dishonour on our clan?”

“You are the one who brings dishonour!” He spits. “Ignoring the Black Ones and making our island weak! You’re no queen!”

“Is this why you’re in league with the mage?” She says, bluffing. “You don’t care about Birna’s promise. Is this how he convinced you to join his plan?”

“What – how do you know about Eilif Heilesen?”

“You’re not very smart, are you?” Honestly, she’s expected more of a challenge to get the information out of him. “How did he infiltrate jarl Carrik’s estate?”

He turns away stubbornly. “I’m not telling you anything.”

“Was he a farm hand? A warrior? The steward?”

On the last option, his jaw tightens, and he stares very hard at the wall, trying hard not to look at her or change his face.

“The steward.  He pretended to be a steward.” Arvid must not have really perished in the fire. He’s hiding out there somewhere, plotting to kill her.

“Cerys!” Instead of an attacker, her brother is at the door. A little bruised, but otherwise fine. The blood splattered on his warrior garb proves the attackers fared much, much worse.

“Any luck? Did they fall for the bait?”

“They did.” He says triumphantly. “And they told me where their leader is.”

The beach of the graveyard isn’t just littered with the bodies of whales. Blood stains the sand and rock from the corpses of men, some wearing the colours of their deceased jarl, others wearing the familiar red an Craite colours. A flock of seagulls fly excitedly over the beach, screeching and squabbling among each other. But instead of descending upon the body of a freshly beached whale, they peck at the carcasses of the dead men.

Cerys, Hjalmar, Ciri and an entourage of soldiers climb down from the hills and onto the beach. The wind coming off the sea is strong and cold, and she can taste the salt from the waves on her lips. But she shows no discomfort in front of her men. At first, she had been hesitant about bringing guards with her, lest one turn around and try to kill her. But then she decided that this needed to be a lesson to them. Upon seeing their ring leader die, any other traitors – or men who might yet be swayed by the mage’s rhetoric – will lose their edge, become panicked and disorganised.

In the distance, she sees three people watching the scene curiously. Yennefer, for some reason, is soaked to the bone, shivering in the wind. Ameer wears an unusual outfit, one similar to those that the druids wear. And Regis holds something wrapped in suspiciously bloody cloth in his hands.

As soon as she sees them, Ciri vanishes in a flash of blue and appears with them an instant later, making Ameer jump. She embraces her mother tightly. None of them try to speak up or interfere as Cerys approaches the sounds of pain and vile curses coming from the rib cage of a whale skeleton.

The mage is writhing on the ground like a worm, trying to claw his way forwards. His arm and leg look broken.

“Eilif Heilesen.”

At her voice, he looks up at her, hatred quickly overcoming his face.

“You stand accused of treason and attempted murder.”

He spits at the ground by her feet, his voice filled with contempt. “Oh really? Care to explain, your glorious highness?”

She holds her head up high. “I’d gladly explain your wickedness and treachery. Birna had offered you a position of court mage, if her son became king. When she died, you had no power or support to attempt a coup.” Not many would trust a mage over their own jarl or ruler. “You never tried to approach me yourself. No doubt you knew I’d never trust one who had associated with Birna. And you’d be right. The only one who was foolish enough to be taken in by you was jarl Carrik.”

Eilif Heilesen says nothing. Her men stay silent.

“You disguised yourself as a steward and called yourself Arivd. And you invented some story, told him you’d found evidence that Birna would have given him a wealthy position in charge of trade if she’d gotten away with the bloody banquet. It must have been easy after that.” She paces slowly back and forth in front of the whale carcass.

“Jarl Carrik fell for it, rallied his men to rage against anyone who had played a role in Birna’s death – including myself and the witcher. As for the rest,” she looks at her own men – some looking down at the mage with contempt, others listening with shock and confusion – “you took advantage of the unsavoury opinions about my own rule. Fed them and encouraged them, until even some among my own men believed I was an ineffective ruler. Passive and weak.” This is perhaps the most frightening part of his plot. He’d hatched up no plan to try and make Cerys seem like an ineffective ruler. He’d simply used the doubt and discontent already present in the an Craite clan, amplified it to treacherous levels through chatter and petty bitching. She swears to herself to never underestimate the importance of her public opinion and the quiet talkings in the ranks ever again.

“With jarl Carrik and his men following your ideas blindly, and disloyalty in my own clan, you now had the perfect support to stage a coup.” She looks down on him scornfully. “Am I right? Please do correct me if I’m wrong.”

“…You think you’re smart, don’t you?” He finally says, glowering at her. “But I had this plan in the works for a long time, and you never realised.”

His words strike true. She had been naïve, too focused on trying to prove herself to be just as good as King Bran or her father. Never again will she be so complacent.

“You’re the foolish one!” Hjalmar steps forwards aggressively, his sword already in his hands. “You could’ve feigned ignorance, pretend jarl Carrik forced you into it, yet you admit it! All this plotting in the name of some bitch who had her guts ripped out by harpies over four years ago! What were you even expecting to happen? Who were you even trying to support?!”

Cerys puts her hand on her brother’s arm gently. “…You, Hjalmar.”

He stares at her in disbelief. “What…What are you saying?” He sounds almost hurt.

He’d been right in one sense – it’d make no sense for the mage to rebel against her in the sake of a job when the one who had promised the role was long dead. It was Hjalmar’s passionate and heartfelt promise that had made her realise.

“Jarl Carrik wasn’t just to garner support. He was also there to take the blame. When I died, Eilif Heilesen would come to you with evidence that jarl Carrik was behind my death, proof that he had planned the assassination.”

“…And I’ve had believed him, trusted him.” Hjalmar finishes, his voice shocked in the realisation. “I’d have been grateful, even. Given him a trusted role by my side when I inevitably became king.” Quickly, his expression turns to one of anger. “How dare you! How dare you try to manipulate me in such a way!”

Eilif Heilesen just laughs. “You’re a bloody fool. Loyal, you’d never turns against your sister, but still a bloody fool.”

Cerys holds her arm out in front of Hjalmar, before he eviscerates the mage. “You’re not so clever yourself. I’ve no idea why you took such a risk, luring the witcher to the castle to murder him. But he ruined your plan when he killed jarl Carrik, the man who was supposed to take the fall for my death.”

Now, she turns to her men. The an Craite soldiers watch her silently.

“I know there are some among you who’d see another in my place.” She shouts, her voice carrying even over the sound of the waves. “There are some who think me weak, cowardly even, for wanting peace instead of constant pillaging and war. Even now, I know there are some among you who side with this villain.  But let me tell you this.”

She points at the mage. “This man is filled with dishonour and trickery. When jarl Carrik died, you were his back up. After the deed was done and I lay dead, he was planning to turn you in. Reveal you to be traitors to your own clan to my brother, let you all face his wrath while he gained power and settled in comfort with the role of court mage. He never cared about honour, tradition, war or glory. That was all just a rouse to draw you to his side. In the end, was going to use you all, trick you, condemn you to death.”

She spreads her arms out wide, looking slowly across the crowd. “If any of you still side with this mage, even now, then make yourselves known. Attack me now, if you must. Show yourselves to be taken it by his deception.”

No one moves, but she hears quiet murmurs among the crowd.

Her brother steps up beside her. “And let me say – all those who think my sister weak are fools! Blind, cowardly fools who are afraid of change!” His voice is even louder than hers. “What is the point of waging constant war if we are weakened by constant squabbling and fighting among ourselves? Any enemy would gladly take advantage of that! It was Cerys who was wise enough to know this. I’d never had understood it.” He throws down his sword.

“If you still have quarrel against my sister, then strike against me, too. For I stand with her. If you are her enemy, then you are mine. And if you seek to kill her, then you’ll have to kill me too.”

Silence.

Not a single man moves, nor draws his sword.

Finally, all look upon her and her brother with genuine respect. And look upon the mage with anger and hatred.

She breathes out, surprised by the huge surge of relief she feels. She glances at her brother, smiling. He smiles back proudly.

Behind them, the mage grunts in pain. He’s grabbing onto the rib cage of the whale skeleton, dragging himself excruciatingly to his feet.

“It’s over.” Cerys says coldly. Enough of this foolishness.

“You ruined everything!” In his hand, he brandishes a tiny hunting knife. “I’ll kill you!”

Anger fills Cerys. Even now, his plan in shambles, he refuses to give up.

In one fluid movement, she unsheathes her sword. The mage lunges forwards, his pure rage fuelling his movement even against the pain. His face is filled with mad desperation.

She simply moves sideways, avoiding his attack, and brings her sword down. Right in the middle of his back, the sword cutting cleanly through him and out to the other side. The tip of her blade sticks out from his chest.

He flails, sputtering half formed curse words. She grasps the handle of her blade tightly, and pulls it out again. Blood pours from the open wound, and he drops down dead.

Sighing, she sheathes her sword. After all this – the poisoning of a family friend, the attacks, the betrayal – the end of his plot came surprisingly easy. His body is pitifully small next to the remains of the whale. Already, the seagulls and scavenger birds wheel overhead, eyeing his corpse with hungry eyes.

She looks at her brother, at her finally loyal clansmen. Tired, but triumphant.

“It’s over.”

Chapter Text

“No one can claim to have travelled the Northern Realms who has not been to Novigrad. If I were forced to list what during my many meanderings has made the greatest impression on me, it would be precisely this great, and yet at the same time free, city.” – Pearls of the North – Novigrad

 

Regis is plagued with a loneliness he has never felt before.

He sits in the druid base beneath the sacred oak Gedyneith, attempting to sew up his torn clothes in the dim light. He has to turn his head awkwardly, which means he keeps on botching up the stitches, pricking his finger. But he wants something, anything to do.

He’s used to certain types of loneliness. Living at Brugge and Sodden by himself. Always on the fringe, never getting too close to the humans who he can never truly fit in with, their short life-spans practically flashes in comparison to his own. He’s spent many nights alone, watching the stars as he tends to his herbs and plants. And the loneliness is one that makes his heart ache, one that he masks with thoughts about the world and its philosophy. If particularly bad, he seeks out the ravens; gives them food and contents himself with their trivial and nonsensical avian gossip that, at times, he can’t make heads nor tails of. Mandrake moonshine certainly helps to ease the aching in his chest and take his mind to happier things.

But the loneliness is a familiar one. A loneliness entirely natural for an immortal being who will outlive humans, time and time again. A loneliness entirely natural for one who must always, constantly be hiding their true nature from the rest of the world, a world he does not and never will truly belong in. He knows very well how to cope with such a feeling, even acknowledges it to be a normal part of his life.

 

This loneliness is different. Unusual and unnerving.

Only a few feet from him, Geralt lies on a makeshift bed. His entire body is frozen over with thick frost, discolouring his face and clothes. He doesn’t move, doesn’t breathe.

The body is, in fact, dead.

Without the soul, it cannot function. It is little more than an empty shell now.

Regis tries not to look at it, pouring his concentration into sewing up his clothes. He had always known Geralt would die before him. It would take a much longer time than most humans, since witchers have an unnaturally long life-span, but it would happen eventually. Maybe he’s just become complacent. Since a witcher is much harder to kill than a regular human, he became settled into the idea that Geralt was a friend who wouldn’t die in a heart beat, and the thoughts of him dying seemed so far away.

Geralt isn’t immortal, though. Regis would be wise not to forget it.

But that’s the thing – it’s not grief that Regis feels, because Geralt is not truly dead. His body is, but his soul is still alive and well. Trapped inside a wolf medallion.

The medallion in question hangs around the neck of Ameer the elf, Ameer the aguara. Right now, he’s curled up next to the roaring flames of a small fireplace, the main light source of the room. Such a fire won’t be able to melt the ice that covers Geralt’s body, which is magical in nature and ten times colder than natural ice itself. Ameer has scrubbed off the ash and blood from his face, taken off the gloves and necklaces, but he still wears the hood firmly over his head. No doubt a year of being shackled with dimeritium has exhausted his powers, and made maintaining an elven form tricky. His face looks thin and slightly gaunt, and his eye brows twitch into a frown in his dreams. As he sleeps, the wolf medallion on his chest rises up and down with his breathing.

Is he aware of what’s going on in there? Can Geralt sense their presence? Does Geralt even know that Regis travelled all the way to Skellige to find him? He wishes he could talk to him, ask him more about what happened, or even just chat as old friends.

That’s why this loneliness is so strange. He’s never experienced such a situation before – being in the presence of a dear friend, but being unable to communicate with them in any way, not check how they’re doing, or even see them. Not exactly absent, but not entirely present, either.

It’s not the kind of loneliness that causes the dull aching in his chest, one washed away by ravens and alcohol. It’s a kind of loneliness that causes dread and uncertainty, emotions that vampires rarely feel.

Geralt might die. He might not. Regis isn’t sure. And he can do nothing to discuss this dilemma with Geralt himself.

The needle pricks his finger, startling him more than hurting him. He jumps, accidentally pulling out half of his stitches.

“God damn it!” He throws down the needle in a brief fit of frustration, and resists the urge to swear very loudly. He pacifies this urge by thinking,

Everything about this situation is God fucking awful.

 

His outburst wakes up Ameer. It’s a subtle change; he doesn’t sit up, speak, or even move. He simply opens his eyes and watches Regis.

“…I apologise.” Regis picks up the needle, feeling abashed. “I just pricked myself.”

Ameer gets up and sits down by Regis. He takes the needle and begins to sew up the tears himself.

“How did this happen?” He asks.

“The ice elemental that Arvid summoned. Its ice shards snagged me. Of course, it didn’t hurt me.” Elementals are much harder to bring down than humans, owing to their lack of vulnerable flesh and delicate body systems, but with the right perseverance they can still be slain.

“Well, you are a vampire, are you not? I was never worried about you. Even a dragon could not really harm you.”

“Hm, I suppose. Though it’s best not to get cocky about such things.” His encounter with Vilgefortz taught him that much, at least. Even immortal beings can be…incapacitated if the correct methods are used.

And that poison…when the mage’s blade pierced his hand, he hadn’t wanted to risk it getting into his circulation. In fact, the pain of the poison was more than the pain of severing his own hand. Of course, he’s felt much, much worse pain than that, but the fact it was able to cause him any pain at all must mean it’s terribly potent. Yennefer requested that she study the tissues and the poison from the severed hand. Regardless of the tissue differences between a higher vampire and a mutated witcher, Regis had agreed – though it feels very strange, not cremating the tissue like his codex demands.

Ameer sews up the tear much faster than Regis did, his eyes glowing green in the low light. As he sews, he hums a tune, one Regis doesn’t recognise – maybe an Ofieri song?

It’s a thoughtful gesture, but Regis can’t help but feel slightly uncomfortable. Even to vampires, Fox Mothers are a reclusive and mysterious race, normally only interacting with humans and elves for the sake of children. The two races stay out of each other’s ways, and just like vampires, Fox Mothers don’t like to reveal much about themselves, so even vampires don’t know much more than the humans and elder races do. He doubts that he’d be able to tell the difference between reality and a vulpess-created illusion, either. Maybe with experience, but that’s not something he has a lot of when it comes to this race. And considering one of Regis’s strongest suits has always been his knowledge and experience, being faced with something, someone, he knows little about makes him uneasy.

“Thank you for your assistance.” No point in being rude, though. Besides, it would do well to befriend the one who carries Geralt’s soul around his neck.

“It is fine.” Ameer rolls up the thread. “…How do you know the witcher, may I ask?”

“We met some time ago. I was helping him find his daughter.” He finds himself suddenly unwilling to speak about it, ravaged by that same loneliness, but Ameer does not notice.

“That is the silver haired girl – Yennefer’s daughter, is it not?”

“Indeed it is.”

“Does he know you are a vampire?”

“He does.”

Ameer looks slightly surprised. “He does? And you are friends, even though he is a witcher?”

“Yes. He wasn’t particularly thrilled when he found out, I’ll admit that, but we remained friends anyway. Good friends.” He’s trying very hard not to look at the medallion hanging around Ameer’s neck, swaying slightly whenever he moves.

“…So, you’re a doctor?” He tries to change the subject instead.

“Yes. I was. When I was still in Ofier.”

“What was that like?”

Ameer tilts his head. “Our hospitals are more advanced than what I have seen here. But we have some diseases that this country does not – illness spread by flies and other insects.”

“Ah, parasites that use flies as vectors, and humans as hosts, you mean? You’re right, the only cases I’ve heard of those anywhere vaguely north is in Toussaint. And even then, only an occasional incident here and there.”

“You are very knowledgeable. Are you a doctor, too?”

“Not quite. I would classify myself as a barber-surgeon. I also have over 400 years of experience living in this world, which certainly helps. How old are you?” He isn’t entirely sure of aguaras’ life spans.

“300. Young for my species.”

“I see…What did your brethren think of your career options? I didn’t think aguaras liked to mingle with humans much.”

“There is truth in what you say. My mother was very…sceptical when I showed an interest. She says that humans are foolish and cruel. Many share her sentiment, prefer to live undisturbed in the wild. But not all.” He smiles. “There are more of us than you think. Those who are most powerful in their illusions will never be detected, even among many humans and elves. Some may even fool a witcher’s medallion, like you vampires can.”

“Is that so? Can you?”

“Mm…Not quite. I am not a true aguara; I am male. My power is not as strong. And most aguaras do not choose to conceal their presence from a witcher’s medallion.”

“Why is that?”

“As a warning. If the witcher is smart enough to know he is in the presence of an aguara, he will run away. If he is not, he will shortly perish. But do not worry. I would not attack this witcher. He helped me.” He smiles somewhat bitterly. “My mother was right in some ways. Humans are cruel. But not all of them are, and we do recognise that. We are not mindless beasts who seek to kill and eat humans.”

“I never assumed you were. Higher vampires are the same – though perhaps with a more notorious reputation.” He pauses. “Your mother – do you mean your Fox Mother?”

“But of course.” Ameer stares at Regis in confusion. “Who else would I mean?”

 That is something Regis can never truly understand – how such a fierce, strong bond is created between the Fox Mother and her Child when the elf in question has been abducted from her real parents. He supposes he can’t question or understand the effect of the magic spells that transform these mysterious beings, in the same way that humans cannot begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of a vampire. But to him, it’s still odd.

“Well, I…You really love your Fox Mother, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“What about your other parents?” When he gets nothing but a blank look, he elaborates. “The ones who gave birth to you?”

“They have been dead for many years. Why are they relevant?”

“Never mind.” There’s clearly no reasoning with him on this topic. “Are you going to come with us to Novigrad? Or will you stay here?”

“Novigrad.” Ameer says immediately. “I am worried that if I stayed here, the soul would be tempted back into the body. Besides,” his face hardens, “I do not like this country. I hate it. It is too cold and I only have memories of enslavement. I refuse to stay here.”

Regis doesn’t know why he bothered asking – of course Ameer would want to leave this place. Regis cannot claim to know the aguara very well, but he’s neither stupid nor unobservant. The very act of being on these isles makes Ameer immensely uncomfortable. In fact, he barely eats. The only time Regis has actually seen him eat was when Yennefer forced him to eat after the Scaradh spell, insisting he regain some of the energy used up by such a complicated enchantment. Eventually, Ameer acquiesced and had some cream of wheat, which Yennefer drowned in butter and honey, still obviously worried about his thinness and lack of any appetite. But who can blame him? He has no good memories here. Only cruel ones.

“Well, that makes two of us.” Regis isn’t entirely fond of this place, either. A country filled with many people who value brawling and spilling blood over thoughtful and peaceful interactions isn’t something he particularly warms to. And while Queen Cerys certainly seems to be an enlightened ruler who might change this, Skellige will now always be the place where Regis’s dear friend was brutally poisoned.

At first, he decides not to ask. It seems foolish. But at the last moment, he gives in to the temptation.

“Can he hear us?”

“What?”

“Can Geralt hear us? In this state?” He finally glances at the medallion. “Do you think his soul is aware of what’s going on? Can he hear me speaking?”

Ameer thinks about this. “I do not know, truthfully. I have only practised this spell once, when a shipment of medication was delayed and my patient was dying. They did not mention it, but I do not know for sure.”

“I see.”

He asks nothing else about it, instantly regretting the question. And as that loneliness plagues him once more, he tries and fails to look at anything but Geralt’s frozen body.

——

The wind is sharp and strong at the Skellige harbour, giving large ships and fishing boats alike great speed. Good. The sooner they leave this place, the better, Regis thinks.

They’ll be travelling to Novigrad by ship. Yennefer had considered travelling by portal, but considering the still too recent massacres that mages and nonhumans faced in the so-called free city, she decided against it, even with Radovid dead and rotting. Four years isn’t a long time for someone who’s been alive for one hundred years. As for Regis, he could easily turn into fog and travel back to the continent, the same method he used to get here. But he’s vigilantly aware of Geralt’s instability in the medallion. It could break all too easily, and their mission would be over before they even reached Novigrad. He should stay on the ship, just in case.

He, Yennefer, Ameer and Ciri are joined by Cerys and Hjalmar at the docks. No an Craite guards accompany them today.

“We hadn’t realised you’d be leaving so soon.” Cerys says. “I had planned to do this at Kaer Trolde, make a ceremony out of it. But here will do as good a place as any. You all helped apprehend a vile traitor, and in doing so helped stop my clan from crumbling into chaos and treachery. For this, you have not only my thanks, but the thanks of the whole an Craite clan.”

First, she turns to Yennefer. “For you, we offer this.” She hands her a horn, black and carved with a crow on the side, capped with polished silver and embedded with purple stones along the rim. “A summoning horn, imbued with magic.”

“Should you be in trouble on your quest to help Geralt, sound this horn, and we will know where you are.” Hjalmar says. “We will be ready to offer you our sword in battle.”

“And I shall teleport them to you.” Ciri says with folded arms. She looks very unhappy.

“Thank you.” Yennefer takes the horn carefully in her hands.

“Go well, Yennefer of Vengerberg, Horsewoman of War.” Now, she turns to Regis. “For you, we offer this.”

She holds forwards a book, a rather hefty tome with slightly yellowed papers, bound in sturdy leather. On the front are golden runes enclosed by a snake devouring its own tail in a perfect circle.

“We thought you might find this useful. It’s a tome belonging to the druids, one listing as many herbs and poisons as is possible to fit into one book.”

“Perhaps it might give you some more clues to the identity of the poison, or at least some ideas to help slow it further should your quest fail.” Hjalmar folds his arm. “Though we pray to mother Freya that you won’t find yourself resorted to that.”

“Thank you.” Regis accepts it. “It should be helpful.”

“Go well, Regis, ally of wisdom.” Now, Cerys turns to Ameer. “It’s my greatest shame that you were treated so cruelly in our home island. We promise to hunt down any survivors of Carrik’s clan, bring them to justice. Even so, please accept these gifts.”

She hands him a black cloak, embroidered elegantly with glossy raven feathers around the shoulders. “Even Novigrad will be terribly cold at this time of year. I hope this keeps you warm.”

Now Hjalmar speaks. “And please, take this.” It’s a long knife, sheathed in leather. The hilt, made from white antler, is carved beautifully on the sides with dragons, their bodies twisting in and out of each other. “I hope it serves you well.”

“Go well, Ameer, protector of souls.”

Despite his trauma and his hatred towards these isles, Ameer smiles. “Thank you. I will treasure them.”

After Cerys and Hjalmar leave, Regis and Ameer retreat somewhat, to allow Yennefer and Ciri some privacy.

Yennefer embraces her daughter tightly, and strokes her face. “Stay safe.”

“You know I will.” Ciri looks sadly at the boat. There had been a big argument, one he’d happily stayed out of, about Ciri staying in Skellige instead of travelling with them. In the end, Yennefer had managed to convince her to stay, on the grounds that she was the only person they could trust to guard Geralt’s body. Even with Queen Cerys killing the mage, all the treason that had sprouted like weeds among the an Craite clan has made Yennefer rightfully wary of leaving Geralt alone with them.

“…How long will you be away?”

“No more than two months. That’s the absolute maximum the spell can work for.”

Ciri nods, slightly forlorn. Yennefer’s gaze softens.

“I’m sorry that it’s ended this way. This is not how I imagined our family reunion would go. And I hate to leave you here alone.”

At this, Ciri tries to smile. “I’m not really alone. Ermion is certainly happy to catch up with me. So is Hjalmar. And…the poisoning…Not much either of us could’ve done. All you can do now is find the bastard who did this. When you find him, give him a…special greeting from me.”

This makes Yennefer smile slightly. “Oh, I will do.”

“What should I do if something happens? Cerys said she was planning to search for the mage’s base, see if he left any other important notes behind.”

This time, Regis speaks. “Find a raven. They can pass on a message to me. Granted, it may take a few days for the message to be transferred across the sea to the continent, but I’ll receive it all the same.”

“Do I need to perform a spell or something when I want to speak to them?”

“No need. Simply tell them what you need to, and they’ll do the rest.”

The ship’s captain calls to them. “Ship to Novigrad is settin’ off shortly! Get on board or you’ll be left behind!”

“Remember, don’t let anyone near the body.” Yennefer says quickly.

“I know.”

The captain shouts again. Ciri hesitates, then hugs her mother one last time.

“Stay safe, mama.” She whispers. “I love you.”

“And I love you, my daughter.” Yennefer whispers back. Though their voices are quiet, the exchange intended to be private, Regis hears it clearly with his enhanced vampiric senses. However, he pretends not to.

“Good luck. Be careful.” She turns to Regis and Ameer, giving them both a quick hug. “You, too. Stay safe, both of you.”

 

As the ship leaves the harbour, Yennefer stands by the bow silently and sombrely, watching her daughter get further and further away. When Regis comes to stand beside her, she fixes him with a steely gaze, almost daring him to say something on the matter.

“This place is beautiful in its own way, isn’t it?” He says instead. From here, he can appreciate the stunning vista of snow-capped mountains, rolling hills sheathed in heather, lush fields and forests of green pines and orange leaves as autumn claims the isle. “Though I will be in no hurry to return here, once this ordeal is over.”

“Do many vampires live here?” She asks, somewhat curiously.

“Not many. The folk around here are more superstitious than most, making it harder to conceal our identities. And they’re also very fierce.”

“When you put it like that…” She leans against the stern of the ship, watching seagulls wheel over the waves. "...I don’t think I’d much like to come here again. First the Wild Hunt, now this. I think it shall be a long time before we return willingly to Skellige.”

Ciri is now too far away to see, a speck on the harbour getting further and further away. Yennefer’s own face is blank, inscrutable.

Regis senses he should probably leave her in peace. She doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would welcome any attempt at a therapeutic talk about her feelings.

“I’ll go see how Ameer is faring.”

“Yes. Good idea.”

 

He finds Ameer with his back stubbornly to the Isle, refusing to even look at it. Though bundled up in warm clothes and the raven feather cloak, he shivers in the strong ocean winds. And he’s looking quite unwell.

“Are you all right, Ameer?” Regis approaches him. “You look rather ill.”

He glares at Regis. “I am fine.”

“Are you used to travelling on a ship?”

“I said, I am –” he clamps his hand over his mouth. Regis takes it as a cue to go and find a bucket, which Ameer then vomits into.

“…Ack!” He wipes his mouth miserably. It seems even a mighty species like the aguaras can still be laid low by sea sickness, Regis muses.

“Would you like me to go get Yennefer?”

“No!” Ameer says quickly. “…No. Do not bother worrying –”

He throws up into the bucket again. Ah, perhaps he’s embarrassed; doesn’t want an old friend to see him like this.

“I’ll stay with you, then. You’ll get used to it, soon.”

 

He doesn’t, though. The weather gets stormier, and all the passengers are driven below deck. Nothing to be worried about, and the captain seems entirely at ease, but the way the ship rolls up and down on the waves makes Ameer even more sick.

Regis spends the entire time patting his back and emptying the bucket. It’s not exactly a pleasant job, but one he undertakes nonetheless. He tries to give him some ginger to reduce the nausea, but it only settles his stomach a little.

At first, Yennefer tries to approach them, looking concerned.

“Ameer, are you quite all right?” She unfortunately enters their chambers when he’s in the middle of throwing up into the bucket.

Ameer can’t even raise his head to look up at her, so Regis answers for him. “Never fear. I’ll deal with this. You should continue your reading; do more research on the poison before we reach Novigrad.”

She looks like she might protest, so he matches her gaze and shakes his head urgently. Looking down at the powerful aguara being sick into a wooden bucket, the pieces click into place in her mind.

“Well, if you have everything under control, I’ll take my leave. Call me if you need anything.”

Eventually, Ameer’s nausea subsides enough to allow him to sleep in short bursts, more out of exhaustion than anything. In the safety of their room on the ship, he’s taken the cloak off. His fox-like ears, sandy in colour, twitch in his sleep.

The rocking of the ship doesn’t bother Regis at all, or make him even the slightest bit nauseous. If he was human, he wonders if he’d be feeling ill, too. But he feels nothing, except that horrible loneliness again.

The medallion shines dully in the light of the room.

Regis looks at Ameer. Asleep. Then he clears his voice, and speaks quietly.

“Geralt. Can you hear me?”

Nothing. Just the creaking of wood and the crashing of waves outside.

He swallows, and speaks again. “Geralt…If you can hear me, I’m sorry. That I didn’t arrive sooner. I promise I’ll do everything in my power to help you. I won’t let you die.”

Still nothing.

Regis sighs, rubbing his forehead. Instantly, he feels foolish. What is he doing, talking to a chunk of silver as if it might answer him back? Even if Geralt was somehow conscious in there, there’d be no way for him to communicate with him.

With no warning, Ameer sits up in bed, gasping. Regis gets ready to grab the bucket, but then realises he doesn’t look sick. He’s hyperventilating, gasping for breath and shaking like a leaf.

“Ameer? Are you alright?” Regis touches him gently on the shoulder – and is hit hard in the face for his troubles.

“Ahh!” Ameer pushes him away. He begins shouting something in Ofieri, unaware of where he is and what’s going on.

“Ameer, it’s Regis!”

Finally, Ameer stops shouting. He stares at Regis, still gasping for air. When he realises what’s just happened, his face goes red and he stares at the floor.

“Did you have a nightmare?”

“Leave.” His voice is angry, humiliated.

“Ameer –”

“Please. Leave me.”

Sighing, Regis gets up and walks to the door. His face hurts – he’d heard that Fox Mothers are much stronger than they look, but he didn’t realise how strong. The pain will subside in a few moments, but any normal human would be left with a very nasty bruise on their face, maybe even a broken cheek bone.

He stops when he reaches the door, though. Despite his pain, something akin to pity or sympathy stops him from leaving. He looks back at Ameer.

“The last time you were on a ship, you were being taken to Skellige, weren’t you?” To face a year of miserable, wicked enslavement.

“I do not want to talk about it.” Ameer says through gritted teeth.

Regis holds up his hands. “Fine, I won’t ask anymore. But I’ll tell you this. Just because beings like you and I are stronger than humans – infinitely so – doesn’t mean we can never be weakened.”

Ameer looks at him with a dry expression. “That is easy for you to say. You are a higher vampire. Nothing can harm you.”

“That’s not true.” He leans against the door frame. “While searching for Geralt’s daughter, we ran into a sorcerer. A very powerful one. So powerful, in fact, he even had the means to dispose of a vampire like me. I was melted quite spectacularly into the column of his castle, put into a state well beyond the means of my regeneration.” The memory is a terrible one, of immense pain and fear. “Geralt thought I was dead. Everyone did. But I was found by another vampire, who painstakingly brought me back to the realm of the living. It was a laborious process. I was completely dependent on his care. For the first year, I couldn’t even walk by myself. It was the very definition of weakness.”

“…What is your friend called?”

“His name was Dettlaff.”

His use of the past tense is clue enough for Ameer, who doesn’t question further. For that, Regis is thankful. These are painful memories, too. He dislikes talking about Dettlaff, even thinking about him. The grief is still too raw, too potent for him to handle right now. He cannot be thinking about the death of a friend, of one bound to him by blood, when another friend is at death’s door.

 “Don’t feel shame. I can’t claim to know what you’ve been through, but I can guess it was cruel and humiliating. You shouldn’t feel ashamed for moments of weakness after such an ordeal.”

Ameer sighs, and looks away from him. “…I do not want Yennefer to worry. But, you...” he plays with the wolf medallion in his hands. “…You seem to understand.”

“Would you like me to stay?”

Ameer looks taken aback. “…You would be willing to stay?”

“Why ever not?”

“I hit you in the face. Very hard.”

“Well, you were startled. It’s understandable.”

“But…”

Regis sits back down beside him, and places his hand carefully on his shoulder. “I’d like us to be friends, Ameer.”

Ameer watches him with wide, surprised eyes. “You do?”

“Yes. And friends don’t abandon each other in their times of need. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Ameer smiles wryly. “I do not think they hit each other on the face.”

Regis waves his hand. “Oh, never mind that. It was an accident, really. Now, would you like me to stay?”

Ameer hesitates for a long time. Eventually, he nods.

“…Yes, please.”

And so, Regis stays with Ameer for the rest of the night, easing his sea sickness and his intermittent nightmares. Somehow, it staves off the loneliness. A little bit.

——

It’s a relief to land at Novigrad.

By the time they arrive, night has fallen on the free city. The streets are almost bare of civilians, with only the occasional drunk ambling down the harbour, singing crude songs. But the streets aren’t empty; instead of civilians, soldiers donned in black armour patrol up and down, painted suns emblazoned on their chests.

“Novigrad. It’s been a long time since I last visited here.” Yennefer slowly walks down the gangplank. Her face is taut and solemn.

Regis follows her, Ameer clinging weakly to his arm. Another dose of ginger has seemed to help his sea sickness.

“When was that?”

“When Radovid was still alive.”

So, when her colleagues and old friends were being ruthlessly hunted and barbarically executed all throughout the city. No wonder she looks so tense. He isn’t particularly keen to be in any large city like this, and will have to take care to avoid dogs, but her unease is entirely more personal than his.

She says nothing on the matter, though. “Dandelion has an inn here.”

“Really? I had no idea.” Though, he thinks with amusement, it seems very much like something Dandelion would do.

“And somehow, it actually functions properly.” She says dryly. “We can stay there for the night, start looking for this scarred man tomorrow.”

“In the meantime, I’ll have the ravens search the city. If our culprit is still here, we’ll know.”

Regis scans the harbour for one of the birds, and spies one sitting on a low stone wall, preening itself. There isn’t anyone nearby, so he walks over to it. Upon seeing him, it begins to hop excitedly on the wall.

He holds out his arm, and it perches on his forearm.

 Vampire! New!

I need you to look for someone for me.

Who? Who?

A man with brown hair and a scar on his forehead.

The raven cocks its head. No see man.

Spread the word to your friends. If you see him, or if anyone knows anything, tell me. I will be with a man called Dandelion.

Singing man? Brown hair singing man with singing woman and dwarf?

Yes. He doesn’t know who this singing woman is, but he guesses the dwarf must be Zoltan.

At this, the raven begins to hop around excitedly, flapping its wings. Exciting! Exciting! Murder! Soldiers! Come see! Come see!

Murder?

Singing man! Come see! The raven flies up, wheels around Regis, and begins to fly towards the centre of the town.

“Any luck?” Yennefer calls over.

“We need to follow it.” He’s very uneasy about the garbled message from the raven. Immediately, his mind jumps to the worst conclusion. He quickly tries to snuff out the unpleasant thought.

 

Together, they follow the raven, which waits for them impatiently on roof tops and shop signs while they catch up before flying off again. He isn’t quite sure where it’s leading him – it’s been a long time since he’s been here – but he has no time to puzzle out where they are, or how the city has changed.

“Has it found the man?” Ameer asks. Every house they pass he stares at inquisitively, before Yennefer drags him along.

“No. But I fear something bad may have happened.”

Finally, the raven circles in front of an inn, cawing.

See? See?

A large group of people have gathered outside the inn, which is dubbed ‘The Chameleon.’ The lights are still on inside, and through the windows he can see a crowd of people talking in excitement.

“This is Dandelion’s inn.” Yennefer says in surprise. “What’s going on here?”

Suddenly, the doors burst open. Two Nilfgaardian soldiers drag out a familiar brown haired dwarf, who struggles in vain against their grasp.

“I’m innocent! I tell you! This is a set up!”

Neither soldier pay him any credence. Another two soldiers exit – this time bringing with them a very prim and overly confident bard.

“Now, now, I’m sure we can settle this misunderstanding in a civil way.” His voice is far too relaxed and grandiose considering his wrists are shackled.

“What’s going on?” Regis asks the nearest member of the crowd – a brunette woman with a nasty ailment on her neck.

“The owners of the inn are being arrested. A local shop keeper was murdered this morning. It seems the soldiers think that they killed him.” She tells him, her accent Nilfgaardian rather than that of a northerner.

“Oh dear.”

Yennefer sighs in frustration, and steps forwards.

“Excuse me!” She addresses one of the soldiers. “Could you please explain what’s going on?”

“Yennefer!” Dandelion exclaims. “How lovely to see you! Never fear, I have everything under control.”

“Dandelion, you’re being arrested.” She says bluntly.

“And all will be well, when these gentlemen realise they’ve made a mistake and apologise for interrupting our performance.”

One of the soldiers looks to Yennefer. “You know this man?”

“…Yes.” It’s almost as if admitting this causes her pain. “The dwarf, too.”

“You’re looking well, lass!” Zoltan calls out to her. “Wish I could say the same 'bout myself, but these dickheads seem to think we bumped off poor Parviz this morning!”

“Think? We know.” The soldier turns to Yennefer. “We got a tip. Found evidence in their room. I’ll give you some advice: make your farewells with them, help them tie up any loose ends. Unlike the witch hunters, we like real law and decorum. And murderers are not let off lightly.”

“This is a set up!” The door swings open, and a blonde woman stands in the entrance, being restrained by two soldiers. “They’ve been framed! This is injustice!”

“Don’t worry, Priscilla!” Dandelion calls to her as he’s dragged away by the soldiers. “We’ll figure something out! Take good care of the Chameleon!”

“All right, out of the way!” The soldiers drag away Dandelion and Zoltan, and the crowd outside begins to dwindle now the excitement is over.

“Well.” Regis sighs. “That is not how I was hoping my first meeting with Dandelion and Zoltan since my regeneration would go.”

Yennefer shakes her head. “I swear, that bard will be the death of us.”

Chapter Text

These scars long have yearned for your tender caress

 To bind our fortunes, damn what the stars own

 Rend my heart open, then your love profess

A winding, weaving fate to which we both atone

 

 You flee my dream come the morning

Your scent - berries tart, lilac sweet

To dream of raven locks entwisted, stormy

Of violet eyes, glistening as you weep” – The Wolven Storm, sung by Priscilla

 

 

The stars hang dimly in the night sky, obscured by smog and smoke, as the crowds outside the Chameleon begin to disperse.

“Yennefer, is that you?” The blonde woman peers through the dark. She wears red and green, a feathered cap on her head, and a pretty green crystal strung on a cord around her neck.

When Yennefer steps forwards into the light, the woman beams.

“Yennefer of Vengerberg!” She steps out to greet her. “What a delight it is to see you again!”

“Likewise, Priscilla. A pleasure to see you well and recovering.” Yennefer turns to Regis. “Regis, this is Priscilla, a friend of ours who helped us locate Ciri a few years ago.”

“Regis?” Priscilla stares at him in shock. “Dandelion told me you were dead!” She shakes his hand warmly. “Wonderful to meet a legend like yourself – a higher vampire, no less!”

“It seems Dandelion was not as tight lipped about my identity as I’d have hoped,” Regis smiles, “but it is an absolute pleasure to meet you, nonetheless.”

“And this is Ameer.” Yennefer pushes him forwards gently. “A friend of mine from Ofier.”

“Goodness, you’ve come from a long way away! Lovely to meet you!” She says it so genuinely as she greets him, even Ameer can’t help but smile.

“Greetings, and praise the world in its never-ending creation. It is very nice to meet you.”

“Do come in, out of the cold!” She ushers them into the warmth of the inn. “I just have something to take care of, and then I’ll be with you.”

 

Inside, the inn is filled with rather disgruntled customers – Dandelion mentioned being interrupted in the middle of a performance before being dragged away by the Nilfgaardian soldiers.

“I apologise, all of you.” Priscilla steps up on the stage. She picks up her lute, and sits on a stool. “I know you were promised a performance with the daring bard Dandelion and the graceful singer Callonetta, but it seems…unexpected circumstances have changed our plans.”

“What’s happening?” One of the audience members shouts out. “Did Dandelion kill Parviz?”

Priscilla hushes the murmurs. “No, Dandelion has not killed anyone. There’s just been a misunderstanding, is all. As for your show,” she strums the cords, “I’m afraid it will be just me tonight, but I will try my best.”

At this, not a single person complains.

She begins to sing, her voice slightly husky as it carries out across the room. Instantly, everyone is captivated.

She sings about a search, the desperate search of a father a across the continent for his partner and daughter, and their joyful reunion as a family. Her voice summons images of icy wraiths, the wrath of the Aen Elle, to the minds of her audience. She weaves a tapestry of grief, a fallen witcher burning on a funeral pyre. And when she sings of the End Times, the great battle on Skellige, the audience sees Zireael climb the tower to do mighty battle with the White Frost, fuelled by the love of her parents.

It’s certainly a beautiful song, and Priscilla is a very talented musician. Tears had been shed in the audience. Regis glances at Yennefer, who looks a little embarrassed at her life being displayed in such a way. Ameer claps along with the audience, but stops when he sees Yennefer’s face.

“Did you not like the song?” He asks.

“No, no, it was…lovely.”

“Perhaps you found it rather…personal?” Regis suggests, which earns him a glare.

When Ameer realises, he smiles mischievously. “Yennefer, this song was about you and Geralt?”

“Perhaps.”

“Very interesting! You have been doing many things since we last saw each other. I wonder what other songs this woman knows…”

“Don’t even think about it.”

 

When the crowd finally disperses, and the audience either leaves or retires to their rooms, Priscilla beckons them over to an empty table.

“I apologise for the wait. Please, make yourselves comfortable.”

“Priscilla, your song was very beautiful.” Ameer says with a wide smile, ignoring Yennefer’s hard stare.

“Thank you. Though, my songs are only as good as my source material. And what an interesting life you have led, Yennefer of Vengerberg.”

Yennefer allows this compliment. “Thank you, Priscilla. We’re rather tired from the journey. May we stay here for the night?”

“Of course. And I’ll get the cook to prepare some food before he goes home. Caetano!” She shouts over to a large and burly man. “Could you whip up something before you go?”

The man grunts. He’s still wiping away tears from Priscilla’s performance.

Priscilla sits down at the table. “Now, before we address the most obvious topic of conversation,” she clearly means Dandelion and Zoltan’s arrest, “What brings you here, to Novigrad?”

The three of them look at each other. Regis sits down at the table opposite her.

“…You know Geralt, don’t you?”

“I do. We’ve helped each other out before. Lovely man – surprisingly good actor. Why?”

Regis sighs. He glances at Yennefer, who stands at the side, arms crossed and staring down at the floor.

“…He was poisoned in Skellige, almost a week ago. Even with all of our combined knowledge and resources, we couldn’t figure out the poison’s identity. He’s…Well. He’s dying.” The words feel foul coming from his lips. They leave a sickening taste in his mouth.

Priscilla puts her hands over her mouth. “Gods…how terrible!”

“His poison was supplied by a man from the continent. Right now, finding him is our only chance of figuring out what kind of poison was used on Geralt. And he was thought to be headed for this city.”

“And Geralt? Where is he? How’s his condition?”

Regis glances at Yennefer, who nods. Priscilla is trust worthy, it seems.

Regis gestures to Ameer, who had been sidling closer to the fire place, to come and sit at the table.

“Ameer…has magic capabilities. We were able to use a spell called Scaradh –”

“Scaradh? The soul extracting spell?”

“Goodness, you’re very knowledgeable.” Regis says, surprised she knows such an obscure spell.

She shrugs. “Plenty of ballads about brave heroes placing their dying beloved’s soul in their sword and going on a quest to save them. Most just don’t realise that there’s some truth behind such stories. And I like to do my research.”

“Hm. You’re a very conscientious artist. I understand why you’re so popular.”

“Thank you.” She peers at Ameer. “So, Geralt’s soul is in a sword now?”

“Not a sword. By no means should the soul holder be used in combat. That could end…very badly.” Ameer touches the medallion. “He is in here.”

“Goodness! His soul is in that tiny thing?” She points at the silver wolf. “He’s…He’s right here, really?”

“In a way, yes.” Ameer confirms. “For no more than two months, though.”

Priscilla grabs his arms and leans across the table, her head at his chest. “Geralt!” She shouts at the medallion, startling Ameer. “Can you hear me?”

Regis almost smiles. And to think, he felt so foolish. “I’m afraid there’s no communicating with him, my dear. The soul seems to be in a…static condition. Asleep.”

Disappointed, she lets go. “Worth a try, I suppose. Now, tell me more about the one who poisoned Geralt. Perhaps someone might’ve seen them, whoever they are.”

Yennefer reaches into her pockets and pulls out a folded piece of parchment. She spreads it out and passes it to Priscilla, who studies it carefully.

“This is the man.”

Priscilla stares down at the parchment, then up at Yennefer with wide eyes. “This is Tye.”

Yennefer and Regis exchange a shocked stare. Quickly and urgently, Yennefer sits down.

“Tye? That’s his name? Where is he? Tell us more!”

However, Priscilla shakes her head. “He was a guest here, but he left quite promptly early this morning. I’ve no idea where to.”

Yennefer curses quietly and viciously under her breath, pinching the bridge of her nose. Regis puts his head in his hands, sighing deeply. To think, Geralt’s poisoner – his attempted murderer – was right here. Sitting under the very same roof, eating in the very same hall, probably listening to the very same song that they had heard this evening.

And they’ve missed him. By a single day. By mere hours.

Regis doesn’t know whether he wants to laugh manically from the sheer frustration of it all, or spit every bloody curse word he knows.

“…Why did he leave?” Ameer asks softly, the least affected by this bitter blow. “Please, tell me all that you know about him.”

Priscilla nods. “Tye…Actually, I doubt that’s his real name. When I asked, he hesitated for a moment too long before introducing himself. I suspect it’s an alias. Anyway, he arrived here roughly…a week ago, I think, from Skellige.” She points at the drawing. “Looked exactly like this, except he wore a strip of red cloth around his forehead. I assume it’s to hide that scar there.”

“Most likely.” Ameer agrees.

“He kept to himself most of the time. Seemed an odd fellow. Though, one evening he got quite drunk – one glass of wine went straight to his head. He played gwent with Zoltan, and practically interrogated Dandelion about the history and magic of the area. I’ve no notion why, but he seemed very eager to learn as much as possible.”

“Magic and history…What do you mean?”

“Sorry, I didn’t listen in much on their conversations. Dandelion told me about it afterwards, but I tend to pay little attention to the various gwent games and drunk conversations that go on here. They happen a lot.”

“What happened then?”

She shakes her head. “After that, he went back to being very withdrawn again. And early this morning, he left very quickly. Urgently, even. And when the Nilfgaardian soldiers came, they searched his room as well. It seems your poisoner is a suspect to poor Parviz’s murder, too.”

The same murder that Dandelion and Zoltan have been arrested for. Regis composes himself, raises his head and sits up straight.

“This murder…At first I thought it was simply bad luck of Dandelion’s.” He says.

“Bad luck? More like daily routine. Did you know he was imprisoned by witch hunters and almost executed a few years ago? Trouble is his favourite pastime besides poetry writing.” Yennefer says dryly. At least her humour has returned after that brief moment of frustration.

“That, I can agree with.” Regis seconds her opinion. “Our musical friend certainly has a habit of getting himself into all sorts of misfortune. But if this ‘Tye’ was also a suspect in the murder, and left the morning that the victim’s body was found…”

“You think they’re connected.” Yennefer finishes.

“It would be foolish to pre-emptively rule out the possibility.”

“Hm. I suppose you’re right.” She looks at Priscilla. “I hate to interrogate you like this, but please, tell us more about what happened.”

Priscilla smiles. “It’s no problem at all. I’d very much like to see this poisoner brought to justice – and Dandelion and Zoltan be freed from prison. They can be reckless and slightly idiotic at times, but they’re no murderers.”

 

The candles burn gently at the table, emitting a warm light as Priscilla talks.

“Parviz was a shop keeper. Owner of ‘Exotic Delights’, a few streets down from here. Dealt with antiques and trinkets from all across the world. In fact,” she gestures to Ameer, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you recognised some of his ware as being Ofieri in origin.”

Regis looks at the crystal hanging from her neck. It shimmers, catching the light of the candles and casting shades of emerald and turquoise onto the table.

“Is that where your necklace is from?” He asks.

Priscilla smiles and shakes her head. “I hate to admit it, but it’s actually from his rival, ‘Barney’s Jewellery Emporium.’” She touches the crystal gently. “They’re quite fashionable right now. So much so, it seems Parviz’s shop was suffering as a result. He didn’t have nearly as many customers as Barney’s Jewellery Emporium. It was losing more money than it could pay back debts, that sort of thing, getting in trouble with the loan sharks. Some of his items ended up causing complaints, too. I think someone got a rash from one of his necklaces, or so I heard.”

“All the symptoms of a sick and dying business.”

“Well, this morning, his body was found. Stabbed to death. There were believed to be at least two suspects involved, maybe more. The Nilfgaardians were quite vague on the details, so that’s all I know. But then this evening, they stormed into our inn, claiming that Dandelion and Zoltan had been in league with Tye, conspired to kill Parviz together to cut down on competition. They went into the bedrooms, and came back with bloodied cloth and a dagger. Evidence that someone must have planted.” She says firmly. “By then, Tye was long gone.”

Regis strokes his chin in thought. “I must say, considering what we already know about this Tye, it’s becoming more and more likely that he was involved in this murder. But the Nilfgaardians clearly thought there were more than one person involved. We could be looking at an accomplice, too.”

“Well, maybe if you find this accomplice, they’ll know where Tye went.” Priscilla suggests. “And at the same time, we’ll prove that Dandelion and Zoltan are innocent!”

“It certainly would be killing two birds with one stone, wouldn’t it?”

Ameer considers this. “It may be difficult, but I do not see how else we will learn where Tye went.”

Yennefer nods, but Regis can’t help but notice she doesn’t look convinced. Even when the food arrives and they eat, she barely says a word, deep in thought. What’s on her mind? He tries to ask, but she insists she’s fine. Perhaps she doesn’t want to say it in front of Priscilla.

 

In fact, it’s only when they’ve retired to their chambers that Yennefer finally speaks.

The bedrooms that Priscilla has given them are surprisingly fancy, with lush bed throws, tasteful paintings, bright flowers in vases and stained-glass windows. Dandelion and Zoltan certainly have done well for themselves, Regis thinks. It’s been decided that he and Ameer will sleep in one room, and Yennefer in the other.

However, sleep is clearly not on Yennefer’s mind. She comes immediately to their room, shutting the door securely and instantly launching into conversation.

“Listen, I’m not sure about this plan.” She confesses, pacing up and down the room.

Ameer watches her from the bed, sitting cross legged on the fine duvet. He’s looking a little better. Instead of refusing to eat, making excuses and pretending to not be hungry, he attempted to eat the cook’s roast chicken stuffed with hazelnuts, carrots and onions with parsnips and peas on the side. Unfortunately, owing to his terrible sea sickness only hours before, Ameer was unable to eat much. At least he actually tried this time. That’s certainly an improvement.

“What is wrong, Yennefer?” Ameer asks, cocking his head. “Why do you not like this plan?”

“It’s going to take too much time. Yes, this poisoner is ahead of us, but he’s only one day ahead – if that. He only left this morning; for all we know, he could still be on the outskirts of the city. We can’t waste time trying to solve this when he could be anywhere.”

“I appreciate your urgency all too well, Yennefer. But I don’t know how else we’re to find the information that we need.” The ravens haven’t come back with any information.

“There’s an oneiromancer in the city by the name of Corinne Tilly – a good one, she’s helped us before. She might be able to help us again.”

“And what of Dandelion and Zoltan?”

“We break them out. Between you – a higher vampire who can turn to smoke and fit through any crack – and Ameer with his illusions, it shouldn’t be difficult.”

Now it’s Regis’s turn to be unsure. “I’m not so certain it would be as easy as you think. Nilfgaardians aren’t as easy to dupe as witch hunters.”

“With the right planning, we’ll be able to pull it off. I know Nilfgaardians don’t believe in vampires, and they’ve probably not even heard of Fox Mothers.”

However, neither party is clearly convinced of the other’s point of view. Regis hopes this doesn’t become an argument.

Ameer looks between them, then gets off the bed and walks forwards. “Both plans have merit. But we are still lacking information. We should speak to this…Dandelion and Zoltan. They may also know about Tye. Regis and I should go visit them. Yennefer should speak to the Dream Dancer.” Is that the Ofieri term for oneiromancer? “If she is talented, she may be able to provide us with a lot of information. If we still have no new information, we should consider our plan of action again.”

Regis nods. “Fine, I see no problem with this.”

“Nor I.” Yennefer dons her own cloak. “I’ll go visit her right away. Let’s meet at the Hierarch’s Square when we’re done.”

----

The night is much milder than they were in Skellige as Regis and Ameer travel to the Nilfgaardian barracks where Dandelion and Zoltan are supposedly being held, according to Priscilla. Still, Ameer is shivering, and wraps his cloak more tightly around himself. He leans into Regis, wishing to steal whatever heat he can from him.

“These northern kingdoms…how does anything grow in such coldness?” He mutters.

“I’m certain if any northerner went to Ofier unprepared, they’d most likely perish in the heat.” Regis muses. “Both are adapted for such extreme climates, it’s no wonder they struggle in any other weather and temperature.”

As they walk through the streets, they pass few people, the majority being Nilfgaardian soldiers. A couple of drunks barge past them, but Regis is struck by how empty the streets are. He remembers many more rabble rousers, more drunks, pick pockets trying to take advantage of said drunks. He wonders if the Nilfgaardian occupation has anything to do with it.

“Does Yennefer like this city?” Ameer asks suddenly.

“Why do you ask that?”

“She seemed…pensive when we left the boat. I was no longer throwing up, so I noticed.” He says this last part with a wry expression.

“Hm. You could say…this city has had a difficult history, and a rather bloody one, too.” Geralt mentioned the terrible persecutions that happened while Regis was still recovering. He didn’t say much, didn’t want to talk about it, and that fact alone told Regis all he needed to know. “I’m certain such events are still present in Yennefer’s mind.”

“Like myself and Skellige?”

“Similar to that, yes. Though,” he adds as an afterthought, “don’t tell her that I told you. I can’t imagine Yennefer would be pleased.”

“I understand. And I hope you will not tell her about my…state on the boat?”

“Of course not.” Ironically, they’re both exactly the same – too proud to tell the other one of their troubles.

“…Thank you. For helping with my sea sickness back there.” Ameer says hesitantly. “I know it must have looked pitiful –”

“Don’t mention it. Really.” Regis reassures him. “You don’t need to thank me for that.”

“Well, I will anyway. Thank you.”

“In that case, you’re very welcome.”

 

When they reach the barracks near Temple Island, they’re immediately halted by two Nilfgaardian soldiers.

“Halt!” One marches forwards and holds up his hand. “This area is prohibited to civilians!”

“E’er y glòir.” Regis greets him. “Que suecc’s?

At this, the soldier looks surprised, and a little impressed. “You speak my language, and your accent is very good, yet you do not look Nilfgaardian.”

“I’ve spent time in your home country. The suspects in the Parviz murder case – are they here?”

“You must come back tomorrow morning.” The other soldier steps forwards, not taken in by Regis’s use of the Nilfgaardian dialect. “No visitors this late at night.”

Now, Ameer steps forwards, though he seems reluctant to leave Regis – his portable heat source – behind. He hands them a scroll of paper with a red wax seal, one he certainly wasn’t carrying a moment ago. As the two soldiers pour over it, Regis can see him smirking, though he tries to hide it.

“…I see. By all means, head inside.” The two soldiers step aside to let them in. “They’re being held in the temporary cells, to be transported to Oxenfurt tomorrow.”

“I thank you for your co-operation.” He walks into the barracks confidently. Regis catches up with him.

“Those powers certainly are useful, aren’t they?”

Ameer instantly leans into him again. “That was but a simple illusion. Even children could do something that easy. Humans have very primitive senses, and they do not question authority. It makes them quite easy to trick.”

Honestly, it makes Regis wonder how on earth someone with such a mastery over illusions could have been spotted and imprisoned in the first place, but he knows better than to bring it up now.

 

They find their way to the temporary cells quite easily, with Ameer showing his illusory paper to any soldier who questions their presence. From behind bars, he can see Dandelion and Zoltan – both unharmed – bickering with the soldier who guards them.

“This is ridiculous. What reason would we have to kill Parviz?” Dandelion complains.

“He was competition. Simple.” The guard tiredly replies.

“Aye, which would be fine…If we were in the bloody antique business!” Zoltan shouts. “In case you thick Nilfgaardians haven’t notice, we run an inn. Why would we give a single shite about a ploughin’ antiques shop?”

“Piemellikkers…” the guard mutters under his breath. When he sees Regis and Ameer approaching, he makes to stop them until Ameer flashes his paper.

“We wish to speak to the prisoners.” Regis tells him.

The guard nods, and steps aside, probably thankful for the opportunity to have a brief moment of peace.

Behind the bars, Dandelion stares with his mouth agape. “…Regis? Is that you?”

“Indeed it is, my friend.” Regis smiles. “It’s good to see you again, though I wish it were in better circumstances. And you too, Zoltan. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”

Zoltan scratches his head, bewildered. “Am I hallucinating, Dandelion, or is that Regis alive and in the flesh talking to us?”

Still shocked, Dandelion pushes his hand through the bars and grabs Regis’s arm, gripping it firmly.

“…No hallucinations, it seems.” He looks up with a grin. “How can this be?”

“Geralt told me you were killed quite thoroughly.” Zoltan crosses his arms. “Shame I wasn’t there to help bump off the bastard, but how can you be here?”

“Let’s say a friend helped me recover.” Regis leaves it at that.

“And who’s this?” Dandelion gestures to Ameer.

“Greetings, and praise the world in its never-ending creation. My name is Ameer.” He introduces himself.

“Ah, you’re from Ofier?” Dandelion immediately recognises the greeting. “Nice to meet you.”

“I’d say the same, but I’d be hard pressed to say it’s nice.” Zoltan says bitterly. “If we’d met in the comfort of the inn, or over a bottle of Mahakam spirit, then yes. But here?” He gestures to his prison.

“Yes, we’d heard of your predicament. We’d like to help you, if we can. In fact, as it happens, we’re very interested in your supposed co-conspirator.”

“You mean Tye?” Zoltan sighs. “He left shortly before the body was found. Can’t help but feel the bugger was responsible for it.”

“We think the same, though he may have had help. Please, tell us what you know about him.”

Dandelion frowns. “He was a weird guy, I’ll tell you that. Constantly wearing a dirty red cloth around his forehead.”

“To hide a scar.” Ameer tells him. “From people like us, perhaps.”

“A scar…huh. I just thought maybe he got a distasteful tattoo.” Dandelion muses. “No way to tell – most of the time he hid himself in his bedroom, barely spoke to anyone. Even mine and Priscilla’s gorgeous performances weren’t enough to entice him out of his room.”

At this, Zoltan laughs. “Well, I had something better. Booze and gwent.”

Dandelion throws him a look, but says, “yes, that did get him to talk more. One evening, he got very drunk and started talking non-stop. He was asking a lot about magic.”

“Magic? How so?” Regis asks.

Dandelion frowns. “He really wanted to know about protective magic. Things to mask his presence. And he wanted to know all the options. Old artefacts, sites of holy magic, sorcerers and sorceresses in the city who might help him create a spell to hide his presence. And when we finished talking about Novigrad, he asked about all of Redania, then Temeria.”

“Masking magic? Why did he want that?”

“I don’t know.” Then he says, “Maybe it was to hide from you? Vampires are notorious trackers, after all.”

“Vampire? What’re you blabbering about, Dandelion?” Zoltan laughs nervously, and makes not so subtle gestures to Ameer. “Don’t worry, lad, Dandelion doesn’t know what he’s talking about!”

“Never fear, Zoltan. Ameer already knows of my vampire status. Though, thank you for your consideration and caution.”

Zoltan breathes out in relief, and then glares at Dandelion. “Shame someone else here doesn’t have the same consideration…”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about. Priscilla better not make a song about it.”

“She wouldn’t!”

“Back to the matter at hand,” Regis interjects, “did he specifically mention either me, Yennefer or Ameer?” The possibility Tye was seeking to hide from Regis is worrying; does he know that Regis is searching for him? And does he know that Regis is a vampire?

“No, but if you and Yennefer are looking for him, I can’t think of anyone else he’d want to hide from.” Then he frowns, and addresses Ameer. “Are you magical?”

“I can use magic.” Ameer says simply.

“Are you a vampire, too?”

“No.” He lowers his hood, showing them his elf ears – not fox ears, thankfully.

“Ah, an elf. Don’t worry too much about concealing your ears, lad.” Zoltan tells him. “Things have considerably improved over these last four years, since Radovid’s death. That’s not to say there aren’t still racist pricks about, but you’ll not be in any danger this time.”

Ameer nods, though he’s clearly confused about what Zoltan is talking about. He probably doesn’t know about the race riots in Novigrad four years ago.

“Did Tye show any interest in your suggestions?”

“Hmmm…” Dandelion thinks about it. “I mean, I don’t have a great knowledge about masking magic, so I doubt I was much help. I did mention Parviz, though. The guy has so many contraptions from so many places – even if half of them are fake – I’d have been surprised if he didn’t have something that could help. After that, he went back to being his usual weird and quiet self. Three days later, he up and left without a word. Then this evening, we were arrested, and that brings you up to speed.”

“Did he mention where he might be going next?”

“Not at all.”

Damn it. Well, it would’ve been too good to be true if they had known.

Ameer looks around the guard camp. “Should we break them out now?” He asks Regis.

“Woah, woah! What do you mean, break out?” Dandelion demands. “You can’t do that!”

“Dandelion, what’re you playing at?” Zoltan argues back, then turns to Ameer. “Ignore him. Please, by all means, break us out.”

“No! I’m not living as a fugitive with a bounty on my head!” He looks imploringly at Regis. “You’re smarter than the two of us put together, surely you can figure out who helped Tye kill Parviz?”

“Dandelion, don’t be ridiculous. We could be hanged for this – we will be hanged for this!”

“Please listen. I’ve worked so hard with that inn. I’m sick of a life of constant travel, never having stability or a steady finance! I’ve got seven degrees and I was a professor at Oxenfurt Academy before travelling with Geralt, I don’t want to be reduced to the lowly life of a fugitive! I’m not as young as I used to be, and I’m not immortal like you! I’ve found something that can provide me stability, while still doing the thing that I love – I’m not willing to throw it all away and live in constant fear of these Nilfgaardian pricks hunting me down!” He folds his arms and turns away defiantly. “And where’s Geralt? He’d happily help me out!”

Regis sighs. Breaking the news in prison…Not the best environment.

“Dandelion…Geralt has been poisoned.”

Dandelion turns back to him, shock and confusion on his face. “What…What do you mean he’s been poisoned? Witchers can’t be…”

“Regardless of his metabolism. He’s very sick. And this man, Tye, is the one who supplied the poison.”

“Gods…” Zoltan spits on the ground. “If I see his ugly mug anywhere here again…”

“We need to find him. And time is of the essence. As much as I regret to say it, we may not have enough time to solve your problem to a satisfactory degree.”

Dandelion sighs, but he nods. “I don’t have a choice, do I? Not if Geralt’s life is on the line. But is there really nothing you can do to help us?”

“It’s too early to say. All I can promise is we will not let the Nilfgaardians execute you.” He pauses. “Of course, we still don’t know where Tye is. And if Yennefer’s lead comes up with nothing…I suppose we’ll have no choice but to investigate ourselves.”

This makes Dandelion’s face light up. “You will? Oh, thank you!”

“But should we find out where Tye is hiding before we figure out this case, then we absolutely need to move on. We’ll break you out, with no complaints. Understood?”

Dandelion bows theatrically. “Of course. And I have no doubt in your abilities.”

“Trust me, there’ll be no complaints from me either way!” Zoltan chuckles.

“We’d best be leaving, before these Nilfgaardian soldiers get tired of our presence.” Ameer’s illusion has worked like a charm, but there’s no point in tempting fate.

“Good to see you again, Regis. Hopefully next time we speak, it’ll be over a glass of wine instead of through prison bars.”

 

When they leave the Nilfgaardian barracks, Ameer turns to Regis with an expression of confusion on his face.

“You…are friends with that man?” He tries to say it casually, touching the back of his neck as he speaks.

“Yes. Though, I do admit that he can be rather…how should I phrase it…”

They both speak at the same time.

“A little difficult at times.”

“Like a whiny child – yes, a little difficult at times, that is what I said as well.” Ameer quickly backtracks.

However, Regis just laughs. “Yes, that certainly is one way of saying it. But he is not without his merit. Both he and Zoltan are incredibly loyal friends. They’ve followed Geralt through thick and thin, and both accepted me even after learning of my vampiric status. They’re truly good, reliable friends.” His compliments are all genuine. Despite the dire circumstances, he can’t help but feel that delightful joy at seeing old friends for the first time in a while.

Ameer nods. “Ah, I understand. Though…I am worried.” He frowns. “If Tye knows that we are searching for him, and if he also knows you are a vampire – or that I am an aguara – he is far more dangerous than I thought.”

“Yes, it’s troubling.” Regis agrees. “He might not know of our status, but if he did, I’d be rather perturbed if he started spreading our real identities among the local populace.”

Ameer’s face hardens, and he says nothing. Regis can only assume that such events are what led to his capture and enslavement in Skellige.

A raven’s call catches his attention. He sees that a few of them have gathered on top of and around a signpost.

“Oh, ravens.” Ameer seems happy to change the conversation. “Perhaps they have new information.”

“Yes, I was planning to speak to them again.” He approaches the sign post, quickly checking that no one is watching. The largest of the group, a raven with a slightly scuffed beak, lands on his outstretched arm.

Vampire. Vampire ask questions. Want brown hair man with scar. This one is more solemn, far less excitable than the raven he first encountered in Novigrad.

Yes, I’m looking for a brown haired man with a scar on his forehead, but he wears a cloth to conceal it.

The raven ruffles its feathers. Bad man. Bad man hate ravens. Chase ravens away.

Is he here?!

No. Bad man leave.

Where?

Ravens not know. Ravens stay away from bad man. Stink bad magic.

What kind of bad magic?

The raven begins to croak. Regis can’t quite make out what it’s trying to say.

…Bad smell, make flesh bad, poison smell not poison smell? He repeats slowly. He has no idea what that means.

The raven hops up Regis’s arm and settles on his shoulder. Regis has to move his head slightly to accommodate it.

Bad man. Stay away. Do bad things.

Did he kill the shop keeper? Who was with him?

Ravens not know. Ravens stay away from bad man, stay away from poison not poison smell.

Damn it. There goes another potential lead gone. It seems the ravens can’t help him after all.

The raven lightly tugs his earlobe with its beak, almost affectionately. Ravens like vampire. Stay away from bad man. Bad man dangerous. Bad man know about vampire.

He…knows about me?

Bad man know vampire and fox friend. Know true form. Bad man hurt vampire and witch lady friend and fox friend and soul friend.

With that final warning, the raven lifts off from Regis’s shoulder. Its flock follows, soaring into the sky and blotting out the stars with their black bodies.

Ameer watches them go, then notices Regis’s unsettled expression.

“Did they have news?”

“No.” He feels incredibly unsettled about what it said. “But it warned me about Tye.”

 How worrying.

Chapter Text

“Oneiromancy, the magic art deciphering the past and the future as they appear in dreams, is difficult for even a highly trained sorceress to master. Those born with the latent, however, excel at it without any formal education. Such was the case of Corinne Tilly, whose fame as a dreamer, as such diviners are known, had spread far and wide.” – Dandelion on Corinne Tilly.

 

“Close your eyes. Relax.”

The smell of incense fills the air of the abandoned house, strong and pungently sweet. Beside her, the repetitive sound of needles clacking together begins to start.

Yennefer shifts on the silk bed, trying to summon the mystifying and ever escaping feeling of relaxation. The low light of candles allows her to barely see around the room.

Corinne Tilly sits beside her bed, calmly knitting away. She wears a long-sleeved white blouse with a plunging neckline and a long orange skirt held in place by an ornate sash and green beaded ribbons around her waist. A large and intricate necklace sits on her chest, and hanging even further below it is a glittering turquoise crystal, glowing in the candlelight.

Yennefer hears creaking, and looks to the doorway. A small childlike being with blue skin and blonde, tangled hair watches her with huge, curious eyes. A godling. She does not look away even when Yennefer’s gaze matches with hers, but neither does she step into the room. Instead, she waits by the door frame, playing with a garish pink crystal around her neck. A gift from the oneiromancer, perhaps.

“…Who are you?” Yennefer calls out. The godling takes a step back, but she doesn’t leave.

Corinne lowers her needles and looks to the door frame. “Sarah, what’s the matter?”

“Do you have to do this now?” The godling's voice is identical to that of a child’s. “Can’t we go play instead?”

“I have to do a job for this nice lady. Then we can go play.”

“But I want to play now! I thought you were coming over for a secret sleep over! And this lady will be having nasty dreams!”

 “Nasty dreams?” Corinne asks.

“Dreams of scary people! Not fun scary dreams, dreams about nasty people! Nasty people who chase away birds and kick foxes and stink of bad smells!”

“I’ll be but a moment, Sarah. As soon as I help this lady, we can play. Why don’t you set up the tea set for our midnight tea party? We’ll have ever so much fun.”

At this, the godling’s worried face perks up. “Oh yes! I’ll go do that now! That’s much more fun!” All previous unease forgotten, she runs from the door frame, and Yennefer hears her light footsteps pattering on the stairs.

“Sorry for the interruption.

“What did she mean by that?” Yennefer asks.

Corinne turns back to her needles, calmly and methodically knitting. “She seems to know of the man you look for. This scarred man called Tye, she’s spoken of him a few times. It seems he has a bad reputation, by the standards of a godling. Though that’s all she knew – he was mean to the animals, and he smelt bad. She knew nothing of this whole poison business.”

“Smelt bad? Does she mean that literally?”

Corinne smiles. “Who knows? Perhaps we’ll find out for ourselves when you enter the dream.”

“Thank you for this, Corinne. And I’m sorry for waking you up so late at night.” Of course, Yennefer would do it again in a heartbeat, if it meant catching up with the poisoner – she’d do it as many times as needed – but she still feels a little bad about waking the oneiromancer from her sleep.

“Not at all. For someone to come at this hour means the matter must be serious, is what I thought. And this is a complicated matter too. With such limited information, it’ll be harder to seek out this scarred man. We’ll need absolute peace and quiet – why I brought you here. No interruptions or noise from the neighbours or passerbys; they all think this house is haunted. Sarah knows not to interrupt, either. And even with the utmost concentration, I must warn you: you might not get all the information you need. The accuracy of an oneiromancer relies heavily on what I know beforehand – which, in this instance, is little.”

“I know. But even the smallest detail will help.”

Corinne smiles, amused. “Well, I won’t be able to help you at all if you don’t relax. Your mind is troubled, isn’t it?”

“I’m fine.”

“There’s no shame in worrying for your lover and your friends.”

Yennefer purses her lips. Fine, yes, she is worried. Constantly worried. Her lover’s soul hangs in a flimsy piece of silver around the neck of a friend who hides his trauma, all the while travelling with a man who Yennefer doesn’t know and can’t confide with, yet she must carry the guilt of not being able to save him from his violent death.  All the while, she misses Ciri terribly, and longs for her to be here too. Yes, there is nothing she can do to help Geralt by worrying. Yes, Ameer will speak to her in his own time, when he is ready. Yes, Regis is trustworthy and has already stated he has no bitterness towards anyone but Vilgefortz for what happened. Yes, Ciri can look after herself and is carrying out the vital task of guarding Geralt’s body.

But reason and emotion are not always complimentary. And when she can’t control those niggling doubts and worries, Yennefer channels those anxieties into frustration and action. Gets up, does something useful, something that will get those anxieties to shut up.

And relaxing is the very opposite of this.

Corinne lights another candle. When it burns, a comforting smell of lavender spreads through the room.

“Take deep, even breathes.” She leans over her, the sparkling crystal hanging over Yennefer’s face, and scatters dried petals over the pillow. Yennefer allows herself to be distracted by the glittering colours, twirling with Corinne’s movement and dancing in the candle light. “Breathe slowly.”

Yennefer complies, allowing the strong incense and fragrant lavender to fill her head, make her slightly woozy, her gaze still on the turqoise crystal.

Now, Corinne places her hand over Yennefer’s eyes and carefully forces them shut. “Now let your mind wonder. Let the dream come to you.”

Soon after, she hears the clicking of needles once more. Repetitive, calming, almost hypnotising to listen to. Even with her eyes closed, the colours of the crystal still shimmers in her mind…

And then Yennefer’s walking on a field of crystals. They glow with bioluminescent colours all around her, gentle blues and greens as far as the eye can see, a calming glowing haze in an infinite black.

And in front of her, a long red strip of cloth hovers in the air. Dirtied with blood and sweat, vivid and ugly against the beautiful scene in front of her.

She grabs hold of it instinctively – and grits her teeth as it tightens and burns her hands. She begins to walk, following the strip of burning cloth with pained determination.

But as she walks, a fog begins to descend on the crystal field. Thick, obscuring her vision. She can barely see the red cloth in front of her, though the glow of the crystals just manages to penetrate the fog.

Hovering over the horizon, she sees a knife. Large, ethereal, flickering in and out of view. Blade sharp and dripping with something…not blood. Poison. The blade that poisoned Geralt. Is this dream mocking her?

Up ahead, she can hear talking. She tries to hasten her speed, with great effort; she feels as if she’s walking under water.

“…straight back?”

“No, I need to make some stops along the way.”

Yennefer squints her eyes, trying to see through the fog. With no warning, a figure of an old man in a hooded cloak suddenly appears.

“Where are you going?” It’s Arvid, the treacherous mage from Skellige. She can see him starkly through the fog, standing by a wooden desk covered in notes and flasks.

The one he speaks to, though, is barely visible. “Novigrad. I want to look for something there.” A nervous voice, deliberately devoid of any accent. Yennefer can see his shadow, and nothing else.

“What? What makes you delay your journey?”

“Protection.”

The mage looks solemn, and nods. He waves his hand, and a portal opens up.

“Good luck.”

The scene vanishes into the fog. So he travelled by portal. That’s why Cerys was unable to find him even when she closed the ports.

Again, she continues to follow the red cloth. The crystals crunch under her foot, leaking bright and fluorescent liquid. Up ahead, she can hear arguing. The liquid from the crystals turn a crimson red.

“…You weren’t meant to kill him!”

The shadowy figure paces up and down through the fog, and Yennefer hears broken glass. The only thing she can see on him now is the red cloth around his forehead, and red stains on his hand.

Beside him, a figure comes into view. Not a human, elf, dwarf or halfling. It moves on four legs, sleek and large.

A panther, she realises. The panther snarls, showing white teeth.

“I don’t care! You were supposed to make sure it didn’t come to that! Now the Nilfgaardians will be on our tails!”

The panther growls, and the figure hesitates. “…Fine. I suppose you’re expecting me to do this?”

The fog swirls like waves, and Yennefer must grip tightly to the cloth to stop herself from being blown away. In front of her, the scene changes.

The shadowy figure holds a bloodied cloth and knife. He buries it in a clothes trunk, all the while looking nervously over his shoulder. Yennefer can hear the faint sound of music floating in the air around him, each note beautiful and lively.

He’s planting evidence in the Chameleon, Yennefer realises. Around his neck is a large necklace, which he holds carefully. Silver and intricately decorated with splendid purple stones and glittering blue gems. Yennefer can feel a strong power emanating from it.

Suddenly, the fog begins to swirl again – more forcefully this time. An unseen wind pushes against her. Desperately, she tries to cling onto the red cloth, no matter how much it burns her. But the gale and fog get stronger and stronger. She can’t see anything, hear anything, as the fog smothers her.

 No! Where is he going?!

She feels something strong. Something old and malicious.

Then the wind knocks her off her feet. She loses her grip, and the wind pushes her violently away.

 

Yennefer bolts up right in the bed, gasping for air. Her head is spinning, and for a moment she feels she might faint.

“You’re all right.” Instantly, she feels someone gently push her back down into the bed. Corinne Tilly places her hand on Yennefer’s forehead. “It was an unpleasant dream?”

Yennefer resists the urge to remove the oneiromancer’s hand in a fit of pride. It’s actually easier to resist than she thought – Yennefer finds she has no energy to even raise her own arm.

“…What happened?”

“You dreamt. That is all.”

Yennefer sighs. The dizziness is beginning to subside, and she tries to sit up, but Corinne still forces her to lie.

“…I couldn’t see him clearly. He was in shadow the whole time. And entire conversations were just…gone, or inaudible. Everything was obscured by this…fog.”

“Fog?” Corinne frowns. “Tell me more.”

“There’s not much more to say. It was just…fog. And by the end, it grew stronger. Something blew me away, right at the most important point. As if it was deliberately trying to stop me from finding out about Tye.”

Corinne leans back, troubled. “…I’m afraid you’ve got another challenge ahead of you, then. This fog and gale you’ve described, I’ve only ever heard one client describe it in the whole of my career. It’s a sign of magic used by the one being searched for: masking magic.”

“Masking magic?” Yennefer sits up slowly in bed, and this time Corinne doesn’t stop her. “You mean, he’s trying to hide his presence from magical means?”

“Yes. Including my own skill. You’d be hard pressed to find him with mega scopes or divination, either.”

Damn it. Yennefer pinches the bridge of her nose. All the easiest options are out of the window, then. She’s becoming reluctantly married to the idea she’ll have to figure out this murder the old fashioned way.

Still, the visit hasn’t been an entire waste. The murder of Parviz seemed to be carried out by Tye, and some other unnamed individual – one symbolised by a panther. And Tye gained something here in Novigrad, some magical artefact in the form of a necklace.

“Thank you, Corinne.”

“Not a bother.” She rises from her seat next to the bed. “You may stay here as along as it takes until you’re fit to walk again.”

At the door way, the godling is waiting eagerly again. When Corinne walks to her, she jumps up and down in excitement.

Corinne looks back at Yennefer one last time before she follows Sarah for whatever fun and games they have planned. “Good luck, Yennefer. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

——

The night is cold, at its most icy peak, by the time Yennefer reaches Hierarch Square. No pyres with burning sorceresses and mages. No stakes with unfortunate nonhumans or simple herbalists impaled on it, dying in hideous agony. No piles of blazing books confiscated from homes and libraries, condemned for ‘blasphemous content’. Just closed up market stalls, the occasional Nilfgaardian patroller – and a scaffold where nooses sway in the wind. Tonight, they’re empty, but it seems the Nilfgaardians are as ruthless as ever, eradicating all disobedience with merciless punishments as they spread their ‘civility’. At least the Church of Eternal Fire seems to have been eradicated, too.

Still, Yennefer raises her hood from her cloak. Triss told her about the horror stories of the mages trapped like rats in the walls of the free city. She’d seen it for herself when she’d rescued Rita, when Geralt had put the tortured and dying Sile out of her misery. Such a vision, the once proud and scheming sorceress reduced to a painful husk of her former self, is not something Yennefer will forget quickly.

Up ahead, she sees Regis and Ameer waiting by a sign post. Both look uneasy.

“Ah, Yennefer. Did you find out where Tye went?” Regis asks her.

“No, unfortunately. What about you?”

To her dismay, Regis shakes his head. “Dandelion and Zoltan weren’t sure either. Though they were able to share some interesting information. Tye was searching the city for masking magic. I believe that might be the link between Tye and Parviz.”

“Well, I suppose he got what he was searching for. The dream was obscured by the effects of powerful masking magic. What for, though, I’m not sure.”

“For us.” Ameer speaks up gravely. “The ravens told Regis that Tye knows of us. Knows about our identities.”

“What?” Yennefer frowns, dread worming its way through her heart. “That’s troubling. Are they sure?”

“They’re rarely mistaken.” Regis says. No wonder the two of them look so uneasy. A foe like that, with such important information about their identities – information that could get them tied to a stake and burnt, even now.

Ameer in particular looks distressed at the news. Vulpesses may be strong and very hard to kill, but they’re not invulnerable in the same way vampires are.

“So, I’m assuming we’ve no choice but to help prove Dandelion and Zoltan’s innocence ourselves?” Regis asks, swiftly changing the topic.

Yennefer sighs. “…I suppose so. Whoever helped Tye might know where he is now. We need to find the accomplice, interrogate them.”

“I wholeheartedly agree. Perhaps we should retire for the remainder of the night, and head to the crime scene tomorrow morning? We’re likely to find clues better with a night of rest and fresh eyes.”

“I suppose…” No matter how much she’d love to start searching now, he’s right. Her energy is still drained from the unpleasant dream, too. Perhaps some rest would be beneficial.

 

She’s awake for a long while, though.

At first, Yennefer tries to lie in the bed and sleep. Her body is aching and exhausted, but her mind is still active, awake. The same worries that plagued her with Corinne Tilly still follow her, whispering doubts in her ears.

So she gets up. Stretches, dons a silk night gown, and paces up and down the corridors of the Chameleon, passing other chambers where she hears the sound of snoring. She hopes the mindless exercise will calm her mind, make it easier to sleep when she returns to bed.

Then she happens to hear a conversation.

She didn’t mean to linger outside the room where Regis and Ameer are staying. Yet somehow, she finds herself standing there, listening hard to their hushed voices.

“It’s ok. It was just a nightmare. You’re safe now.” Regis speaks in a calm, patient manner.

Ameer says nothing, but she can hear his heavy breathing.

“…Would you like me to fetch Yennefer?”

“No.” He says quickly. “No, I…I do not want her to know.”

His words strike Yennefer with hurtful blows. She purses her lips and continues listening.

“Would you like to talk about it?”

“No…” he sounds close to tears.

“...What are you worried about, Ameer?”

“What if everyone finds out? What if I am taken away again?”

“That won’t happen.”

“But what if it does?!” He sounds incredibly distressed.

“Tye isn’t in the city anymore. He’s fleeing from us. He won’t come back to Novigrad and risk putting himself in danger just to expose us. And even if something did happen, you’re not alone. We won’t let anything bad happen.”

 “Are you sure?”

“I promise.”

Ameer sighs. “…I am sorry. I am getting so panicked –”

“That’s all right. You don’t need to apologise.”

“…Thank you, Regis. And you are right.” His voice is becoming calmer, less distressed. “Tye would be very stupid to come back here. And if he does, we will be waiting for him.”

“Exactly. I’m sure he wouldn’t stand a chance against the three of us. Now, we should get some rest. We have a busy day tomorrow. Good night, Ameer.”

“Yes. Good night, Regis.”

After that, neither speak. Yennefer quietly walks back to her room, feeling more awake than before.

 

Why didn’t Ameer want to speak to her?

The thoughts torment her as she lies in bed, staring up at the ceiling. On the boat, she understood. He was sick, and he was a little embarrassed about it. Fair enough. She’d have probably reacted the same way. But this?

She doesn’t understand. Ameer has known her for a long time. Even though it admittedly has been a long time since they’d last met, they still have a much longer history than that of him and Regis. So why is he confiding in him, and not her? Why does such a proud being allow himself to be comforted by someone he barely knows, yet refuses to even speak to Yennefer about it?

Is it his pride? Even after what Yennefer told him on the beach, is he still too proud to open up to her about what happened?

Or…it is her?

Yennefer knows she can be sharp, impatient, shrewd. Filled with pride, uncompromising. Is he afraid of speaking to her for that very reason? Does he think she’ll dismiss him, get irritated?

The thought upsets her with surprising force. It upsets her even more when she realises that this might be the very reason they’re in this situation to begin with.

Maybe if Geralt had confided in her about his worries, he wouldn’t have been traipsing around Skellige. Maybe he wouldn’t have gotten poisoned.

Don’t be foolish, Yen. She tells herself. Thinking things like that will help nothing. For heaven’s sake, you are Yennefer of Vengerberg, Horsewoman of War. Survivor and hero of Sodden Hill, Kaer Morhen and the Wild Hunt invasion during Rag nar RoOg. Stop fretting like some teenage girl. 

But the thoughts torment her all the same.

——

The next morning, she is irritable from her lack of sleep.

She hopes no one notices, especially Ameer, as she helps him choose a new outfit from Dandelion’s wardrobe. At least he’s asking for her advice on the matter. That should count for something. So, she tries to look engaged and content, fighting through her tiredness and irritability, pretend she’s blissfully unaware of Ameer’s request last night.

Ameer looks at Dandelion’s various expensive outfits. “Are you sure he will not mind?” He asks.

“Of course he won’t.” Priscilla reassures him. “And if he does, I’ll make him not mind.” Maybe she’s sensed Ameer’s desperation to get out of those wretched Skelligan clothes.

“These are very fancy.” He looks to Yennefer. “I am not used to northern fashion. What do you think?”

“Hm. You’re right. I think most of these are a little too extravagant for your taste.” Dandelion certainly has been doing well for himself to have such clothes. The Chameleon must be very successful. In fact, Priscilla herself wears far finer clothes than when Yennefer first met her four years ago: a green satin blouse, decorated with golden swirling patterns across the bodice that looks similar to the pattern on her lute; green and white puff sleeves with longer burgundy sleeves that finish with lace at the wrists, no doubt to keep her warm in the cold weather; a golden high neck collar with a frill at the edges, interspersed with delicate white beads; all alongside her signature striped hose, mismatched stockings and feathered cap. Her performances as Callonetta have not suffered at all following the vampire attack. If anything, she’s been doing even better than before.

“What about this one?” Yennefer picks up a navy blouse with scarlet stripes at the upper chest and red pewter clasps along the middle, with a red silk border running parallel down the sides. The sleeves are cream from the elbow down, adorned with delicate, ruby coloured buttons. Simple enough, not gaudy like most of Dandelion’s clothes, but still elegant and refined.

“Hm…” Ameer examines it thoughtfully. “Yes, you are right. I will try this one.”

While he changes, Yennefer decides to exchange her own outfit for a new one. She has no desire to wear the same clothes she wore when she found Geralt, half frozen in a barn. Of course, she doesn’t stray far from her black and white colour scheme. She dons a black and white striped blouse fitted with a cream bodice, neatly buttoned down her chest and frilled at her neck. Over that, she wears a long sleeved bolero made from black velvet, with white stripes along the upper arm, and black lace over white satin on the forearm. The edges are lined with lilac lace, and a violet bow connects the two sides – a rare splash of colour in her usual style. A change in outfit always helped her mood. The feeling of casting aside one identity for another. It feels refreshing, in the same way as having a bath does. She hopes it’s enough to try and shake off her currently irritated disposition.

She greets Ameer back downstairs, where the hall seems significantly emptier than last night. She hopes that the inn’s business won’t suffer as a result of this murder.

“Ah, Yennefer. You are looking very lovely today.” Ameer smiles. He seems happy with his new outfit – all that remains of his Skelligan attire at the fur rimmed boots, the antler hilted knife with carved dragons on the handle, and his black raven-feathered coat. Good. He can do with as few reminders as possible of that land. “Is that colour I see on your outfit?”

“Enjoy it while it lasts.” She attempts to go along with his teasing. At least he looks happier than he did yesterday – much, much happier, now that he’s out of Skellige. And she’s truly glad about that, no matter her own bad mood. “You’re looking lovely yourself.”

He looks down at himself, an expression of contentment on his face. “Thank you. I like this much better than what I wore before. You have a good eye, Yennefer.”

Now, Regis arrives, the soil on his clothes giving a clue to where he’s been. Unlike them, Regis has not changed his outfit at all. But he has been busy – Yennefer can smell basil, spruce, rosemary and all manner of earthy herbs, leaves and spices on his person. He must have been out early this morning collecting herbs to help disguise himself.

“Apologies for keeping you waiting.” He brushes off some last specks of woodland soil from his attire. “Being in such a big city makes me…wary, especially if there are any dogs around. I thought it would be best to stock up on plenty of herbs to better conceal my presence.”

Ameer looks him up and down carefully. He leans forwards towards Regis, as if whispering in his ear, brow furrowed in concentration. “…You do not smell like a vampire anymore.”

At this, Regis looks relieved. “Good. Very good. If your keen sense of smell can’t tell, then I should be all right.”

Ameer smiles proudly. “Keen is an understatement. We Fox Mothers have excellent senses of smells, even better than you vampires.”

“I’m even happier to have your seal of approval, then. We should be safe from any unsavoury characters who might be searching for our identities, yes?”

Yennefer shouldn’t understand what he’s talking about, but she instantly thinks of their conversation last night. The bad mood she was trying to push out of her mind comes back in full force as she thinks about the conversation she wasn’t meant to overhear. Ameer doesn’t want her to know about his fears and worries, yet is perfectly fine admitting them to Regis. It bothers her. It really does. 

She hopes neither of the other two notice as she marches silently to the crime scene, following the directions given by Priscilla. What is she doing, sulking like a spoilt child? But she can’t help but walk ahead, the conversation  still lingering in her mind.

Either they don’t realise that she’s angry, or they’re too polite to bring her up on it. Instead, Regis comments on all the changes of the city over the many hundreds of years he’s been alive, and Ameer stares excitedly at every house and person they pass. This is the first northern city he’s been in, she realises. There aren’t exactly any cities in Skellige, and the furthest north he had travelled to this prior was Nilfgaard.  

When they reach the crime scene, Yennefer is surprised at the number of people milling about outside. A large crowd is gathered in the streets outside the shop, pretending to mind their own business but in reality peering through the smashed windows, chattering to each other under their breath. Yennefer wonders how many are actually curious, and how many are more interested in what left over items would be available to pilfer and sell on.

They won’t get much luck, though. Two Nilfgaardian soldiers stand outside the entrance to ‘Exotic Delights’, both armed and looking rather grumpy. Above them, the sign for the shop creaks and sways slowly in the wind. It displays a rather gaudy painting of a treasure chest.

Yennefer sighs, and begins pushing her way through the crowd impatiently.

“Oi!” One man shouts in her face, after she accidentally pushes him into another stander by. “Watch where you’re going, whore!”

Today, Yennefer is not in the mood for this. “Kindly piss off, and you won’t have to worry.” Completely aggravating, but worth it in her foul mood.

“What the fuck did you say?!” The man steps up, rolling up his sleeves.

“Please step away.” Regis says tiredly, standing in front of Yennefer. “No need to start an altercation.”

“Oh yeah? Piss off, old man.” Honestly, the fact this man thinks he can intimidate Regis, a vampire, makes the situation almost amusing.

“Move away. We have important work to do.” Ameer says coldly.

The man turns on him. “You think you can order me around, elf? If the Church were still here, there’d be a nice toasty bonfire for you! Now fuck off before I round off your ears!”

Ameer looks a little taken aback by the insults. However, the soldiers by the shop hear the curse words and threats.

“Halt!” One soldier orders, leaving his post to break up the confrontation. “What is the meaning of this? Are you threatening this elf?”

At once, the man begins to falter and stutter. “I…I-I didn’t mean – I didn’t –”

“Leave at once, or I’ll have you arrested!” The Nilfgaardian soldier shouts. At once, the man turns and hurries away. In fact, most of the crowd begins to disperse.

Interesting. The townspeople fear their Nilfgaardian invaders, their harsh and merciless punishments, and yet the invaders in question have dampened the fanatic superstition and racism that ran riot through the city. A most peculiar situation. Yennefer is certain that the nonhumans and mages never would’ve imagined that these ruthless invaders would actually end up protecting them from pogroms and massacres.

The Nilfgaardian soldier folds his arms, looking at Ameer.

“What business do you have here? We do not appreciate fights being started in the streets.”

“It was my fault –” Yennefer begins, but Ameer shakes his head.

“It is fine, Yennefer.” He then turns back to the Nilfgaardian soldier. “We have been granted permission to investigate this crime scene.” He passes the soldier a piece of paper, embellished in cursive and a red wax stamp at the bottom. An illusion.

The soldier reads the paper. “I see. So be it. The body was removed some hour ago, thought to have been killed at 2 hours past midnight. Three stab wounds from a six inch knife, thought to belong to the victim himself. May your search go well – no doubt the commissioner will not be pleased at a bumbled job.” He then steps aside, allowing the three of them to enter.

“That was quick thinking.” Regis praises him once they’re inside the shop.

Ameer just shrugs modestly. “It was very simple.”

“Yes, very good.” Yennefer says much more curtly than she meant to. “Let’s search. I’m not particularly fond of Nilfgaardians and would like to get this over with as fast as we can.” There is truth to her words. She’s never been fond of the Nilfgaardians, found them to be ruthless and greedy, and she feels uneasy being in the presence of her old employers who, owing to said ruthlessness, may decide to one day tie up loose ends and quietly kill her. If she stays away from them, then that becomes unlikely, but in Novigrad it’s a possibility she must contend with. “We’re already wasting enough time solving this murder the long way.”

Parviz’s shop is in shambles. The floor is littered with broken glass on one side, and scattered antiques on the other. Yennefer steps over cheap looking animal skins and scaly leather hides clearly made from a fake material. In the middle of the store, a dried pool of blood leaks through the floorboards. The body is gone, probably taken to the morgue.

“Look.” Regis points down at the blood stains. “Foot prints. Two sets.” Sure enough, Yennefer sees bloodied boot prints on the wooden floor. One set is slightly bigger than the other, the marks different in style and make. At least two culprits, like the Nilfgaardians said.

At the side of the store, a staircase down into a basement has been roped off. Next to it stands a sign: STAFF ONLY. Towards the back, most of the glass display cabinets have been shattered. Though, nothing has been taken. Trinkets, old medals and coins, a sword that looks as if it might break with one swing – obviously not deemed worthy enough to steal.

“Hm.” Regis picks up the rusty sword, weighing it in his hands. “This is no old relic – simply a Velen longsword that has been overused and left in a bog for a few years.”

Ameer bends down to look at an ornate rug, stained with blood and sprinkled with glass. “And this, someone has tried to replicate an Ofieri rug. But the patterns are sloppy, the material is not right. A cheap replica.”

Yennefer looks around the shop. Nothing particularly catches her eye as being magical or powerful. Only overpriced.

“Well, he still ended up dead, and Tye had something to do with it. There must be more than meets the eye. Perhaps there’s a hidden compartment somewhere.”

Ameer points to the staircase. “Shall we go down there?”

“You get started down there. Regis and I shall have one more look up here, in case we’ve missed anything.”

Ameer accepts this and ducks under the rope, heading down to the basement of the shop without any thought. However, Regis gives Yennefer a puzzled look.

She waits until Ameer is out of ear shot, then speaks. “Are you and Ameer close?”

Regis frowns. “Well, we haven’t exactly known each other long. But we certainly don’t dislike each other. He’s a rather interesting individual, in fact. I’d be happy to call him a friend.”

“Hm.” Yennefer turns and begins examining the broken display cases once more, feigning only causal interest in the conversation. “Does he speak to you a lot? About what happened?”

“Not particularly. He doesn’t like to speak of it.” He tilts his head. “Are you quite all right, Yennefer?”

“I’m fine.” She says sharply. “In fact, I am exceedingly content today, thank you for asking.”

He hesitates, then begins to examine the blood stains. “…I think he talks to me about certain things because we’re similar. Sorceress can be hated, but they can also gain great political power. Monsters like us…that’s never an option, not really. Our presence will always be shunned and hunted, no matter what. We always have to hide our true identity.”

“Hm.” She hadn’t thought about it like that before.

“Why do you ask?”

Yennefer sighs, instantly feeling foolish for her sulking and interrogation – at poor Regis, of all people. “Nothing…I suppose you can say I’m worried for him.”

“Well, he cares a great deal about you. Ultimately, you are the only person here he knows from before his troubling year in Skellige, and it’s clear he greatly values your opinion. He’s, dare I say, embarrassed about his current state. Because of that, it will still take time for him to open up about his experiences.” He pauses. “Let him take his own time. And dare I say, you have your own problems to be worrying about, surely.”

“Like I said, I’m fine.” She insists, instantly embarrassed at how easily he saw through her.

Regis nods, and wisely decides to drop the matter. “Shall we head downstairs? Not much else to be gained up here.”

“Yes.” She had always thought that, and just wanted an excuse to talk without Ameer being present. “I doubt this man was killed in the name of these cheap trinkets.”

 

Downstairs, a wooden desk is piled high with papers and notices. A bear rug with a poorly taxidermized face hangs from one wall, and a poor copy of Sunrise on Toussaint hangs on the other. Apart from that, a candelabra, and a few empty bottles of wine on the floor, the room is empty.

Ameer stands, reading slowly through one of the papers, touching the scar on his neck as he concentrates. He looks relieved when Regis and Yennefer enter.

“Could you help? I am not very good at reading Common.”

“Of course.” Yennefer takes the paper he was reading, and speaks out loud.

“To Parviz,

I am sorry to say I cannot lend you any money. Your previous financial transactions, and statements from the bank, means I cannot be confident you would be able to pay it back. However, I advise that you do not turn to any of the money lenders in the city. I will give this advice for free – you will only dig a hole deeper for yourself. Even with the Black Ones breathing down their backs, their interest rates are still colossal.

Good luck,

Cyprian Wiley.”

“And idea who that is?” Regis asks when she finishes reading.

“Yes. Dudu.”

Ameer cocks his head in confusion. “…Dudu?” He repeats, puzzled.

“A Doppler.” Yennefer elaborates. “Some years back, a very unsavoury gang leader – Whoreson Junior – got into a skirmish with Ciri, our dear friend Dandelion and the Doppler Dudu. Geralt eventually killed him, and quite frankly the city was better for it.” He only briefly mentioned the horrific scene he’d witnessed in the room where he cut the bastard down: all the poor dead women he’d found. After hearing that, Yennefer vehemently agreed with his decision to kill the man. “After that, Dudu took his place and appearance. Made his businesses legal, and much more profitable. Even with the Nilfgaardian invasion, it seems he’s still going strong. Apparently, he always had a head for business.”

“Well,” Regis flicks through various papers written in big, angry letters, “it seems our poorly departed friend Parviz did not have the same business sense. A lot of these are warnings from a money lender.” He reads out one. “‘You have 3 days to pay us back or you’ll end up with one finger less – and today we’re being reasonable.”

A motive, perhaps? Certainly something to consider.

“And look at this.” Regis passes her another paper. “Complaints.”

“Dear Mr Parviz, your necklace has left a horrid and painful mark on my neck. I demand a full refund and extra compensation for the medical bills. I expect this in 3 days, or the Black Ones will hear of it.” Yennefer reads out.

“Broken pocket watch…Fur coat gave a rash…Silver ring has left a green mark on my skin…Tsk, tsk, tsk.” Regis reads through them. “Oh, this one is particularly crude. You fired me, left me on the streets, after all I did for this business…I hope Barney’s Jewellery Emporium, my home now, crushes your pathetic business into the dirt…And then a lot of words I shan’t repeat in pleasant company.”

Ameer peers over Regis’s shoulder. “Hm. I do not recognise a lot of these words.”

“You don’t want to. Trust me.”

Ameer turns to study the bear rug and the painting. He frowns. “Too obvious…” Then he walks to the desk again. “Help me move this?”

They remove the piles of papers from the desk, and Ameer pushes the desk backwards. On the floor, Yennefer sees grooves that clash with the wood panelling of the floor.

“Ah, a trap door.” Ameer tries to open it. “…Locked.”

“Never fear.” With no warning, Regis transforms into black smoke, and filters through the cracks on the floor. After a moment, the trap door clicks and opens.

“Well, that’s a rather handy trick.” Yennefer comments as Regis pushes open the trap door.

“Yes, and one particularly useful if I were a burglar. Sadly, I don’t get many occasions to use it.” He begins climbing down the ladder. Ameer follows, though Yennefer readies a light spell first – it looks dark down there, and she doesn’t have night vision.

 

Once off the ladder, Yennefer hears a grunt of pain from Regis. “Careful. Don’t step any further.”

She casts her light towards him, and sees his foot caught in a bear trap.

“Are you all right?”

“Don’t you worry.” He simply forces open the bear trap with his brute strength, and gets busy disarming three others, all set out in a line that spans the width of the dark corridor in which they stand. “Actually, I’m rather interested to know why he bothered to set such traps in the first place.”

Ameer gingerly steps over the disarmed trap, still wary. “I can smell a lot of magic. I think we are getting close to what we need.”

The corridor isn’t long, but it still takes a while to walk down it. Every so often, they must step over thin trip wires, avoid pressure panels and hidden spikes in the wall. Parviz certainly spent a lot of time and effort fortifying this area.

When they reach the end of the corridor, and Regis repeats his fog techniques to open a large and locked door, they see why.

Hidden deep beneath the cheap and poorly made trinkets of Exotic Delights is a store room filled to the brim with expensive and powerful artefacts. Old and very legitimate paintings hang on the wall next to mounted weapons – huge morning stars, colossal swords and daggers with golden intricate handles. Glass cabinets contain all sorts of valuable, and often dangerous, looking artefacts, each one labelled: cursed necklaces, chunks of meteorite, golden figurines and a set of throwing daggers, all made from pure dimeritium.

Yennefer walks up along the glass cabinet. She spies a pearly, iridescent and spiralling horn. “That’s…a unicorn horn. Real and genuine. How on earth did he get his hands on this?”

Meanwhile, Ameer crouches and strokes the hair of an animal skin spread on the rug. It has white and black stripes, one Yennefer doesn’t recognise. “…This is real, too. From my homeland. We call them, Alwahshiu. In appearance, like a horse.”

“You have black and white stripy horses?” Regis asks.

“Mm…they are not really horses. They are not domesticated. If you try to ride them, they buck you off.”

Regis raises his eye brow. “Are you speaking from personal experience there?”

“No.” Ameer says too quickly.

“I assume alcohol was involved?”

“…Maybe. Ah, look at this.” Ameer quickly changes the topic, looking embarrassed. “This suit of armour looks real, yes?”

“You’re right.” Regis examines it. “This is from the invasion of Dol Blathanna. Look, you can see the faint colours of Aedirn’s flag on the shield, and this type of soil is only found in Dol Blathanna. Incredible. In fact, so incredible it amazes me how Parviz got in so much financial difficulties with such rare and expensive items in the basement.”

“Indeed. Yet he ran into it all the same. If the ones who wanted money from him knew of this array of treasures, though…Perhaps they sought to break in, steal something far more valuable than a debt or compensation money for a faulty purchase.”

“And Tye helped this burglar.” Regis continues. “Because Parviz had something he wanted, too.”

“Look at this!” Ameer calls them over to a glass cabinet. This one, though, is open and empty.

He points to the labels. “Tye must have taken this one.” It says, ‘Pendant of Rajul Sharir.’ “I know this. He was a powerful sorcerer in Ofier. But he always used his powers to trick, to deceive. The tribes grew angry and sought to kill him. He made a charm to protect himself from the druids and wizards who tried to seek him, and escaped Ofier, fleeing to Nilfgaard.”

“If he was successful, then how did Parviz end up with this?” Regis asks.

“He was too arrogant. And though he masterfully hid himself from magic, he did not hide himself from the skills of a simple hunter. The hunter tracked the wizard with conventional means, all the way to Nilfgaard – and killed him.”

“Let’s just hope that Tye is equally as careless.” Yennefer muses. “And what about this – a Zerrikanian transmutator?” She points to the empty slot next to the missing pendant.

However, Ameer shakes his head. “I was hoping you had heard of it. I do not know what that is.”

“Nor do I. But should we find something Zerrikanian in origin among the possessions of a suspect, we can assume they must be involved.” Regis says.

Yennefer paces back and forth, thinking through what she’s learnt so far. “Whoever was involved was represented as a panther. And they must have known about Parviz’s secret stash of valuables here. They were approached by Tye, or approached him themselves, and the two formed a partnership to break in a steal something. The burglary must have gone wrong, and Parviz ended up murdered. But who would know about this collection?”

Regis contemplates this. “…For starters, we should look at the two main parties who disliked Parviz: those with complaints about his products, and money lenders. Maybe he was too slow in refunding them, they started digging around to find a faster way to get money from him, and found out about this hidden room?”

“It’s as good as place to start as any.” Now, this – this helps ease Yennefer’s worries. Finally, thinking of a plan, getting ready for action. “Ameer, you come with me to visit Dudu. He was friends with Ciri, so he’ll speak to me. We’ll ask him about the money lenders. Just in case matters turn…problematic when we speak to any debtors, I’ll want your illusory abilities on hand.”

Ameer nods, and smiles. “Trust me, my illusions will sort any problems out.”

“I’ll start working my way through this list of complaints.” Regis decides. Good, his charming manner will get any customer to open up to him. “And I’ll request that Priscilla come with me. She has more knowledge of the locals than I, she might be able to provide some interesting information.”

“Good. We’ll meet at the Chameleon when we’re done.” Solving this won’t be easy. There are plenty of people who would want this Parviz dead, it seems. But someone in this city knows where Tye went. So they need to solve this, no matter what.

They’ve got a lot of work to do.

Chapter Text

“Robbed of Radovid's tactical genius, the Northern Realms could not withstand Emhyr's countless l egions. Black banners appeared over Novigrad and all Redania.” – Dandelion on the outcome of the third Northern war.

 

 “Ameer? What is it?”

They’ve barely even left the Chameleon to embark on their mission, and already Ameer has stopped three times. Always in front of a shop, peering at the displays. The first was a clothes shop – the fashion of the North was odd and unusual to him, he claimed, very different from Ofier interests. The second was a food stall, which he decided looked unhygienic, even if it smelt good.

Now, he stands outside a weapons shop, peering inside. The shop owner isn’t there, though Yennefer can smell dumplings coming from inside the shop, oddly.

Ameer says nothing, but stares at the display of weapons – swords of all shapes and sizes, a few shields, and a bow – with amazement. It’s a cold day, and his breath is coming out in condensation. Most of Novigrad seems to be wrapped up more so than usual, but Ameer was cold enough to borrow a scarf from Priscilla when they returned to the Chameleon to ask for directions, the medallion nestled in its folds. Priscilla had asked if Yennefer wanted one too, but she insisted she was fine. Now she regrets it slightly, with the weather suddenly taking a cold snap.

Their trip to the Chameleon hadn’t been a particularly long one. While Priscilla wrote out directions – shops and residences have changed since Yennefer last visited four years ago – Yennefer encouraged, rather than forcing as she had done in Skellige, Ameer to eat some breakfast. Much to her relief, he happily obliged and devoured his soft-boiled egg with hot bread, butter and honey preserve. At long last, his appetite has returned.

As has his curiosity, staring in interest at the various shops they pass. In fact, she has to call to him multiple times.

“Ameer? What's wrong?”

Her voice snaps him out of his daze. “Nothing, nothing.” He hurries to catch up with her.

Wait, was she too impatient? “Am I rushing you?” She’s feels guilty at being so curt with him this morning, now that her foul mood has dampened somewhat.

“No, we should hurry. And be careful, too.”

Ameer is right about that. Yennefer doesn’t have many concerns about speaking to Dudu – dopplers tend to be harmless creatures – but she’ll have to be wary when it comes to whichever loan sharks that leant to Parviz. She wouldn’t be surprised if there was some link to the black market, either, considering all the valuable artefacts in Parviz’s basement. And she isn’t sure how the crime world has changed following the invasion and the fall of the Church of Eternal Fire. Uncertainty is not something she is a fan of. Yes, she’s faced the Wild Hunt and lived, and her mind reading should foretell any surprise attacks. She and Ameer will most certainly be fine. But Geralt, his soul hanging perilously in a hunk of jewellery? They’ll have to be careful.

Once again, their journey is halted. They’ve already had to change their route: the bridge closest to the Chameleon, just north of the inn, has been damaged, and the Nilfgaardians have closed the bridge for repairs and safety. This time, they’re halted by a horse and carriage in the middle of the road. The carriage seems fine, loaded with crates, but the horse is neighing and rearing up.

“Woah!” The owner of the carriage, a tall man with a woollen hat and clothes dirtied with soot, is trying in vain to calm his horse. Then he turns to a group of fleeing children.

“Go on! Get out of here!” He waves his fist angrily at them. The children run away, shouting crude curses and giggling. Still, the horse doesn’t calm.

Suddenly it stops, and becomes instantly relaxed. Yennefer glances at Ameer, who approaches the horse. He just bewitched it, didn’t he?

The owner of the horse watches in amazement as Ameer speaks gently in Ofieri to it, stroking its neck. It must seem as if he calmed the horse down simply with his presence.

“How did you do that?” The owner asks.

Ameer falters – ‘I bewitched it’ isn’t exactly a normal answer, and he’s out of practice at hiding his identity, so Yennefer steps forwards.

“Well, Ofieri are known for their superior abilities when it comes to handling horses.”

The owner nods, scratching his head. “I was never sure if that was just stereotype or if it was true, though I guess you’ve just shown me.”

“Will you need any help?” Ameer asks. However, the owner stares at him, then grins. He takes off his hat, showing elven ears.

“Caedmil! Tá sé deas bualadh leat.”

“Tá áthas orm bualadh Aen Seidhe eile.” Ameer smiles, touching the other elf’s ears mischievously. “Tá áthas orm a fheiceáil go bhfuil Aen Seidhe thuaidh ag breathnú mar a chéile Aen Seidhe ó Ofier.”

The elf grins, then speaks in Common. “My name is Éibhear Hattori. And yours?”

“Ameer.” He gestures to Yennefer. “And this is my friend Yennefer.”

“Well, I thank you for your help, Ameer!” He looks in the direction of where the children went and scowls. “I caught those children trying to steal my dumplings and told them off. They thought it would be fun to throw stones at my horse and spook it. But, never mind!” He turns back to them cheerfully.

“Dumplings…” Ameer stares at the heavy crates in the carriage. “Are these ingredients?”

“Oh, goodness no!” Hattori laughs. “Dumplings are but a…complimentary business for me. I’m a blacksmith. You won’t find a finer sword in all the north!”

“Oh, a blacksmith. You own that shop on the same street as the Chameleon, don’t you?” That’s why Yennefer had smelt dumplings coming from it.

“The very one.”

“Ah, you own that glorious bow!” Ameer says excitedly. “Do you make bows, too?”

“Not exactly. Come, I’ll tell you more. Treat yourself to a dumpling for free, in thanks for calming my steed.”

Ameer looks hopefully at Yennefer, who sighs and nods. “I suppose a small detour won’t hurt.”

Hattori leads his horse through the street, carefully trying to avoid anything that will make it spook again. As they walk, he asks,

“You know the Chameleon well?”

“We’re friends with the owners.”

Hattori shakes his head. “Terrible shame about what happened. I can’t say I know them all too well, but I find it hard to imagine the likes of that bard ruthlessly murdering a fellow shop keeper.”

“You think they’re innocent?”

“Well, the Black Ones seem convinced, claiming it was to cut down on business, but as a business owner myself it makes no sense. Not only were they in completely different fields, but the Chameleon was doing particularly well!”

“Particularly well?” Yennefer repeats.

“Yes. You see, the Chameleon is an entirely independent businesses, by which I mean it relies only on products within Novigrad – people. Any other expense, food and the like, can be bought within Novigrad itself too. Whereas businesses relying on imports and exports have found themselves facing quite the sudden financial decline. The Nilfgaardian taxes on the items they buy from outside the city are higher than what was before, as to be expected. For me, I’ve just branched out. Started up my mini dumping enterprise again, and that has helped cover the extra costs, so thankfully I’m doing all right. Parviz is struggling – well, struggled – a lot more.”

“That makes sense. What’s your opinion on your Nilfgaardian overlords, then?” She asks curiously.

Hattori sighs. “For businesses, it’s been difficult. Some have been entirely run to the ground with the new taxation. The common folk struggled, too. New laws, new ways of running the place, all done by people with a different language and culture to their own. The underworld faced a very rough time of it, though I don’t know much about that. The Black Ones are, quite frankly, ruthless. But,” he emphasises the word strongly, “they are fair. Harsh, but fair. No group is treated any more leniently or harshly than the other. And any group trying to use superstition and fanaticism to gain power has quickly been put down. The racist attacks have stopped. No more lynching and mobs, or else one faces death at the hands of the Nilfgaardians.” He shudders. “And for that, I am grateful. Never will stop being grateful. If the Church of Eternal fire had continued going on as it did, it could’ve been me who ended up burning on a pyre. It was…terrible.”

“I understand. Many of my old colleagues were killed when Radovid purged the city of mages.” She says bitterly.

Hattori nods solemnly. “Ah, so you must be Yennefer of Vengerberg, the sorceress? Thought I recognised you.”

Ameer gently touches Yennefer’s arm. “Are things…still dangerous?” He asks, quietly and concerned.

“No, don’t worry.” She assures him. “Things are much calmer now.”

“Tá sí ceart, mo chara Ofieri. The sorceress is right. All there is now are a few racist remarks, harmless pranks – like those children. Nothing on the scale of a year ago.” Hattori agrees.

Ameer still looks concerned. When Hattori is distracted by his horse trying to veer down the wrong path, he whispers to Yennefer,

“Are you... feeling all right? Are you upset with being here?”

His comment takes her by surprise. She smiles despite herself, almost…flattered by his concern. “I’m fine. Don’t you worry about me.”

 

When they reach Hattori’s shop, Yennefer is secretly glad for a moment of relief from the weather.

“Here.” Hattori passes them both a dumpling, then starts unloading his cargo. “Made them fresh this morning!”

The dumpling is hot, warming up her cold mouth, and very good. If he were to abandon his blacksmith business, he’d have no trouble making a successful one out of these dumplings.

Ameer devours his dumpling very quickly, probably both out of hunger and enjoyment.

“You look thin, my friend.” Hattori passes him one more. “Have another.”

“So, this bow.” Yennefer quickly asks, eager to wrap up this visit and continue on their way to meet Dudu. “Tell us more.”

Hattori nods, and carefully lifts the bow down from its display. Yennefer doesn’t see how it’s different from any other bow, but Ameer stares at it in awe.

“I didn’t make this myself.” Hattori tells them. “In fact, I think it was swiped from Parviz’s shop. Saw it circulating around the market shortly after his death. I don’t use bows, but I instantly recognised it and had to buy it. Goodness knows any other random soldier or hunter wouldn’t know how to treat this bow right.”

“A bow from the Far North.” Ameer marvels at it. “Wingspan of sixty two inches, made from mahogany, whale bone and tendons. It is beautiful.”

“It’s not just any old bow.” Hattori tells him. “I recognised it from the tales. This bow belonged to none other than Milva, or Maria Barring. A legend among dryads, elves and humans alike. She travelled with the hanse of Geralt of Rivia on their journey to find Cirilla, and she bought this very bow on her travels. Sadly, she was killed – ironically, by an arrow – but her stories as a legendary archer and hero live on.”

“Milva…Yes, Geralt spoke of her. His hanse was almost entirely killed. He was particularly grieved by her death.”

“Of course, you know Geralt.” Hattori slaps his head. “You’re Yennefer of Vengerberg – Callonetta sings of your adventures together. He helped me out a few years ago. If it weren’t for him, this business wouldn’t exist. Now, I’m the most successful swordsmith in the city, and I’ve certainly upgraded my residence, too, from that hovel I lived in before.” He pauses, considering. “To be honest, I’d rather not hang onto this for too long – it very may well be stolen goods from Parviz’s store, and I don’t want any trouble with the Nilfgaardians. Yet I’d rather not give it to any old fool who’d mistreat it. You seem to have an appreciation for bows, and since you are friends with Geralt, I would happily give you a discount. 300 crowns for the bow and any arrows I have lying around, if you’re willing to buy it.”

Ameer's face falls. “I am most sad, for I have no money.”

300 crowns…that’s a lot. Yennefer purses her lips. That’s money to be used for a bribery here and there, or more accommodation and food depending on where their journey takes them. She shouldn’t spend so frivolously.

But…He has so little to call his own. Nothing except Dandelion’s clothes and his Skelligan gifts. Who knows how many of his possessions back in Ofier have been destroyed or sold on? He has nothing. And he looks at that bow so sadly…

Yennefer sighs, and takes out her coin purse. If anything, Geralt wouldn’t want the bow of his dead friend to fall into careless hands.

“I’ll buy it.” She tells Hattori, handing him over the money.

Honestly, it’s worth it just to see how Ameer’s face lights up. When Hattori passes it to him, he strokes the wood lovingly and carefully, running his hand along the smooth grain.

“Now, let’s be going.” Yennefer’s coin pouch is significantly lighter than before when she puts it away. “Thank you for the dumplings.”

“And thank you for calming my horse. Va fail!”

 

As soon as they leave the shop, Ameer turns to Yennefer with delight.

“Thank you so much! Thank you, thank you! I will treasure it always!”

She can’t help but smile. “All right, don’t get too soppy on me.”

Yennefer glances as he puts the bow over his shoulder in a fluid, practiced movement, and fastens a quiver of arrows at his side.

“I didn’t realise you could use a bow – or that you even needed to.” Any problems they encountered in Nilfgaard were solved using illusions and magic.

“Well, I am not as powerful as my mother, as you know.” He explains. “And illusions can only trick others into harm, not directly harm them. I have my strength, but against many foes that may not be enough. So she taught me archery. We practised many times, so that I have great skill.”

“Well, I’m glad you like it.”

He grins, and knocks into her slightly. “You are…soft, Yennefer. Underneath your sharp exterior.”

“Is that so?”

“Very soft.”

-- 

After that, they reach Dudu’s headquarters without much trouble or distraction. As soon as she mentions Ciri and Geralt’s name to the body guards outside, both Yennefer and Ameer are let through. They’re not left waiting long for an audience with the doppler, either.

The room is well furnished with expensive oak furniture, golden candelabras, and ornate rugs underfoot. A fireplace roars in the corner, heating the room comfortingly. A mahogany desk is stacked high with paper, mostly covered with financial recordings rather than overdue bills and complaints. Behind the desk sits a rather ugly man. Nose slightly wonky, teeth crooked, and a long scar over one eye. His rough face contrasts starkly with his refined doublet, which has golden cuffs and a ruby collar.

“Ah, unexpected visitors. I’d ask your name, but if you’re friends with Ciri and Geralt, I don’t much need to, do I?” Even his voice is unpleasant to the ears. But it has no hostility to it, which Yennefer guesses is very different to the late Whoreson Junior.

“Nor I. It’s good to see you’re doing well, Dudu.”

Dudu laughs. “Now that’s a name I haven’t heard in a while. Please, call me Cyprian, for the sake of any eavesdroppers nearby. How are you, Yennefer? And how’s Ciri?”

“I’m fine. Ciri, too.” She doesn’t bother going into it. “Thank you for helping back then.”

He waves his hand dismissively. “Nothing, nothing at all. And who’s this?”

“Greetings, and praise the world in its never-ending creation. My name is Ameer.”

Dudu peers carefully at him. “…Not a vampire, not a doppler like myself…” he scratches his chin thoughtfully. “Takin’ on the appearance of an elf…” He snaps his fingers. “Vulpess?”

“You are observant.”

“Met a few ‘round here. Thought they were all lasses, though.”

“...Lasses?”

“Women. Girls.” Yennefer tells him.

“Oh. Call me an exception, then.”

“So, what brings you here, Yennefer and Ameer?”

“Parviz. Dandelion and Zoltan are being blamed for the murder.” Yennefer tells him.

Dudu sighs, scratching his head. “Dear oh dear…that bard is always getting into trouble, ain’t he?”

“That’s one way of putting it.” Yennefer sits down in the chair opposite him. “We need to ask you about Parviz. We found a letter from you among his possessions.”

Dudu nods in recognition. “Yes, yes…I remember that letter. He wrote to me, askin’ to borrow money. Sadly, I had to refuse. His lendin’ history was too unreliable. Didn’t have much money sense, that Parviz. His wares were so shite, even a blind man could tell they were no good.”

Ameer is clearly struggling to understand the accent, so Yennefer decides to speak instead. “But he had many valuable items. Why was he in so much money difficulties?”

Dudu grins. “Ah, I see you found his secret stash of…questionable goods, then. Forbidden artefacts and stuff stolen from merchants.”

“Yes, and he had a lot of it.” Yennefer comments. “So why was he in debt? Why not sell it?”

“Oh, he wanted to. But he couldn’t. You see, he relied on black market auctions in Oxenfurt to sell his illegal wares when the Church was still in charge. Couldn’t exactly be sellin’ magic items with them lot around. So when the Black Ones came and shut everything down, all the illegal auctions, arrested any criminal they could find, he had nowhere and no one to sell his shit to – a lot of his old customers are either dead, or smart enough to lay low.”

“So he had a basement full of illegal items with no venue to sell them, and no customers who weren’t in jail or hanged.” Yennefer summarises.

“Yeah. And balls deep in debt.”

“Yes, we saw the warnings from a money lender. Do you know who he borrowed money from?”

“You familiar with the previous gangs of Novigrad? I say previous cause most of ‘em were busted by the Black Ones.”

Yennefer frowns, and tries to stretch back her memory. It’s not something she was ever particularly interested in, and her knowledge only comes from Geralt’s stories of his own encounters. “Well, there was Whoreson Junior – dead, obviously. Sigismund Dijkstra, though he’s dead, too. There was the dwarf, I forget his name, and the King of Beggars, the one who gave shelter to mages and thieves.”

Dudu nods. “King o’ Beggars – real name, Francis Bedlam. When the Black Ones invaded, he quickly learnt to adapt. Abandoned his so-called haven, the Putrid Grove – all the mages had left anyway, and he knew he was no match for the Black Ones. Honestly, it’s a miracle he wasn’t caught by ‘em. Always seemed to slip through their fingers. Anyway, he started legitimate businesses, like taking over the aforementioned Dijkstra’s bath house. And a money lending business.”

“Why would he start that up? Isn’t he getting income from the bath house?” Yennefer asks.

“Ah, but not enough.” Dudu leans closer to her, his voice low. “You see, the ol’ King of Beggars lost a lot of his men when the Black Ones took over. All arrested or executed – the smart ones fled or tried to live an honest life. But the word is, Francis Bedlam ain’t finished with his criminal ties yet.”

Yennefer narrows her eyes. “What do you mean by that?”

Dudu shrugs. “A lot of speculation, lot of rumours. Can’t be sure of the real answer. But word is, he’s up to something. Problem is, he’s…short staffed. Few people have the balls to try starting up major crime plots with the Black Ones around, not unless they’re desperate. But there are always people desperate for money. So, he had to take on more businesses to cover the costs of bribing people to help him. Including money lending. And those who couldn’t pay back the money, he could black mail into working for him.” He leans back in his chair. “Or so I’ve heard, anyway. I like to keep my finger on the pulse, especially when it comes to Whoreson Junior’s old associates, but with Bedlam you can never be sure. Man’s pragmatic, knows how to keep things a secret.”

“Did Francis Bedlam know about Parviz’s illegal wares?”

“Not that I know of. He was never interested in that sort o' thing, never participated in illegal auctions. Was too busy running the Putrid Grove back then, anyway.”

Now the most important question. “Do you think he’d have any reason to kill Parviz?”

“Dunno, to be honest. Plenty o’ reasons a man gets stabbed in this city. But Bedlam could have easily been one of ‘em. Maybe discovered Parviz was screwing him over, maybe negotiations went wrong. All I’m sayin’ is, is that Bedlam might not be as crazy as some of the other gang leaders we’ve seen in the past, but certainly wouldn’t be above murder and framin’. And he’s been…stressed lately. Things could’ve gotten out o’ hand.”

“Hm. Perhaps we should pay him a visit.”

Dudu laughs. “He won’t be willin’ to tell you much, I can guarantee that. Though maybe with your mind reading, you’ll get what you need. If you wanna speak to him, go to the bath house. He’ll probably be there.”

“Thank you for speaking to us, Dudu.” Yennefer stands up, then pauses. “Actually…”

“What is it?”

This is a bad idea. She knows it. But the opportunity is right in front of her, and she can’t resist it.

“Could you…Could you turn into Geralt for me?”

Dudu frowns. “Why?”

“Just…Please. Humour me.”

The doppler nods, and his form begins to change. Grow taller. Broader. His hair turns white, his eyes yellow and cat like. Around his neck is a medallion identical to the one Ameer wears.

Yennefer stares, her mouth dry. She feels like she can’t breathe. He’s right there. Breathing, moving, his eyes wide open and without pain. His face has no horrible pale grey colour, no sweat on his forehead. At his side, no necrotic flesh, no blood or pus.

Yennefer swallows, trying to compose herself. She strongly resists the urge to reach out and touch him.

Dudu folds his arms uncomfortably. “So…you happy?” Gods, even his voice sounds identical. She blinks back tears. “Can I turn back or…?”

Quickly, Yennefer turns away. She can’t risk looking at him for another second, lest she break down right there and then. “Yes. I’m sorry. Turn back, by all means.”

When she turns back, the form of her lover, the form of the one she adores so fiercely, is gone. The ugly gnarled face of Whoreson Junior has replaced it.

“Thank you. We best be on our way.” She says hastily, desperate to get out of the room now. If she cries, she’ll never forgive herself.

 

In the safety of the streets, Yennefer allows herself a moment to press her hand to her eyes, getting rid of those irritating tears. No time for water works now. There’s a job to be done.

When she feels Ameer’s hand on her shoulder, she automatically brushes it off. “I’m fine, I’m fine. I’m sorry. Don’t know why I’m getting emotional.”

Ameer cocks his head, concerned. “…Would you like me to do that? Create illusions?”

Quickly, she shakes her head. “No. No need. Won’t be trying that again.”

“…Should we go to this bath house?” She’s glad for his change in topic, that he’s offering her a distraction.

“Yes. Let’s get this over with.”

 

The walk to the bath house is painfully silent and awkward, owing primarily to Yennefer’s mistake with Dudu. She could kick herself. She wanted this to be an opportunity to bond more with Ameer, make him feel more comfortable to open up with her. That way, maybe he would open up to her more, prove Regis’s words to be true – the reason he opened up with Regis was because they are, to put it crudely, both monsters. But now, things have backfired. Ameer seems to be concerned with Yennefer, trying to get her to open up to him. The very opposite of what she wanted.

It’s a sweet mercy when they reach the bathhouse. The plaza just outside is crowded with people, Novigrad locals and Nilfgaardian soldiers off duty alike. Perhaps they’re here for some warm water during this cold snap that foretells of the colder winter to come.

But these people don’t look happy. In fact, Yennefer can hear snatches of Nilfgaardian swearwords among the Common curses and complaints.

Outside the doors, a bald man is trying to calm the crowd.

“I assure you, good sirs, we are acting as fast as we can to sort the problem.” His voice is at a higher pitch than Yennefer would expect. “Right now, we are searching for the most experienced monster slayer so that you may return to bathing at your leisure.”

Another problem in their path. Yennefer sighs, whispers to Ameer, “stay close to me,” and pushes her way through the crowd.

“Excuse me.” She calls to the bald man as she finally reaches the front of the disgruntled crowd. “Do you run this establishment?”

“No, I do not, I am merely the bookkeeper.” This doesn’t surprise Yennefer. She’d expect someone once named the King of Beggars to have more of a presence. “Though I am currently standing in for Mr Bedlam while he is away on business.”

“When will Mr Bedlam be back? There’s an important matter I’d like to discuss with him.”

“I’m afraid that Mr Bedlam will be busy all day, and will not have time for any additional appointments.”

Yennefer crosses her arms. She’s not leaving here until she speaks to the man. “What is the problem ailing your bath house today?”

“Drowners in the sewers. One got a little too close for comfort to our bath room, so we immediately withdrew our patrons and closed off the area.”

Hm. Time for a proposition. “It just so happens my friend –”

“Oh!” The bookkeeper stares at Ameer’s chest. “You’re a witcher?”

“Yes. I am.” He says firmly, after a millisecond of surprise.

The bookkeeper frowns in puzzlement. “Where are your swords, then?”

“Ofieri witchers do not only use swords. Many of us arrows.” He gestures to the quiver. “Special arrows. The heads are tipped with silver.”

Of course, Yennefer hasn’t heard of a single school that uses archery instead of swords, and is convinced that such a thing doesn’t exist. But the bookkeeper isn’t well read, and Ameer says it with complete confidence, so he believes it.

“In that case,” he steps aside, “please, do come in.”

 

The bath house is large and emanates wealth. No wonder, if Sigismund Dijkstra used to own the establishment. The pillars are crafted from fine, smooth marble. The same marble is used for the tiles on the floor, along with intricately patterned panels of gold and turquoise. Leading them from the main entrance, the bookkeeper takes them past a wooden mesh frame into the main bathing area. The pools of water are large and shallow, with colourful mosaics at the bottom.

“Hm.” Ameer’s gaze searches slowly over the bath house, taking in every feature.

“What do you think?” Yennefer asks him.

“It is…grander? Than I thought it would be. I am pleasantly surprised. The bath houses we have in Ofier are also very grand and wealthy. It is so hot, that many people like to use them, so their owners become very rich.” He glances at the bookkeeper walking ahead of them, and lowers his voice. “Though, our bath houses are also more hygienic, I think.”

Yennefer nods in agreement. “I can certainly imagine that being true.” All sorts of fights and violence have occurred here, and dead bodies are not a particularly hygienic thing to have in a bath house. 

“If I could draw your attention here.” The bookkeeper brings them to a smaller and deeper bath, right at the back. The water has been drained from this one, and when Yennefer peers inside the pool, she spots a large grate.

Ameer listens closely. “…I hear no monsters.”

“They’re down there.” The bookkeeper insists. “They’ve probably just retreated, now that all the people have left the bath house.”

Yennefer peers down the grate and sighs. She wishes she’d worn less expensive boots today. “Well, let’s get this over this.”

“I shall entrust this task to you and now take my leave.” The bookkeeper eyes the grate nervously. “Needless to say, I have no desire to hang around and encounter the monsters myself. I shall inform Mr Bedlam when he arrives.”

When he leaves, Yennefer readies a light spell. She hadn’t wanted to showcase her magic, out herself as a sorceress, in front of him. Just in case.

“Can you bewitch drowners?” She asks Ameer.

“Drowners…describe them to me. I am unfamiliar with this name in Common.”

“Blue, humanoid, with bulging eyes and scales. They live in water, normally in packs. Some folks here believe them to be dead corpses of those drowned in water brought back to life, though that is entirely inaccurate.”

“Ah, I see. We call them shaytan alma'. It means ‘water demon’. We do not see them very often, only in city sewers and sometimes at an oasis. I should be able to bewitch them, though I think we should still kill them. I cannot have them bewitched forever, and I would not like our meeting with this Mr Bedlam to be ruined if they return.” Carefully adjusting his bow, he begins to climb down into the sewers. “You follow after me. I will hide myself, check that it is safe to come down.”

She isn’t kept waiting long. Soon, Ameer calls up. “It is fine to come down.”

Sighing, she tentatively climbs down into the sewer after him. What an undignified job. She doesn’t know how Geralt put up with it for so long.

The inside of the sewers isn’t lit particularly well – many of the torches have snuffed out – so Yennefer is glad for her light spell. Ameer doesn’t seem to mind all that much, thanks to his night vision.

“Ugh.” She gingerly steps over a puddle of muck. “I hope these drowners come to us. I want to get this finished quickly.”

Ameer stands silently, listening to the dripping water and distant squelching. “I think I can hear them.” He points past a metal gate, where the ground is filled with used bath water mixed with dirt, past ankle height.

Yennefer groans internally at the thought of treading through it, and vows to herself to buy some ugly boots she wouldn’t mind sacrificing for future scenarios like this.

“They will be in a big group. I will hide us, and bewitch them. Then, you use your magic while I use my arrows.”

“This shouldn’t be too hard. Our combined powers aside, Geralt always said that drowners were sword fodder for him.” She stares uncertainly down the sewer tunnels, where she too can hear splashing water.

“Yennefer, here.” With almost no warning, Ameer lifts her up in his arms.

“Ameer, what on earth are you doing?” Yennefer says, startled. He may be tall, but he doesn’t look particularly strong. That’s his vulpess nature coming through, showing the species’ hidden and surprising strength. 

“It is very dirty up ahead, and you are wearing nice boots. It would be a shame if they became dirty. Beside, you are not heavy at all to me. I must be careful not to get my cloak dirty too, though,” he glances down at the hem, “it only goes down to my knees, so I think it will be fine.”

“Hm…This isn’t particularly dignified…”

A mischievous smile appears on Ameer’s lips. “Oh no…” he says dramatically. “My arms…they are getting tired…”

The second that Ameer begins to lower her, as if to drop her unceremoniously into the mud, she quickly grabs hold of his scruff and points her finger in his face.

“Don’t you dare.”

“Oh…my arms…” He lowers her further.

“Don’t you dare!”

He laughs, and rights himself. “Sorry. I could not resist.”

Yennefer smooths her hair. “You’re a little devil sometimes, you know that?”

“But I know you would not have it any other way.” He grins. “Now, I shall carry you to save your boots. You always were fond of your shoes.”

Yennefer’s pride doesn’t appreciate being carried bridal style through sewers, but then again, she appreciates ruining her boots even less. So she doesn’t complain when he carries her down the tunnels.

“How are you finding the stench?” Yennefer asks. “I know your sense of smell is far superior to mine, and I’m not particularly enjoying it.”

“You are right. It is not very nice.” He admits. “But I can smell your perfume strongly, too. I will try and focus on your lilac and gooseberries instead.”

She decides to do the same – focus on his own favourite lotion – when she realises he’s not wearing it. Of course he’s not wearing it, not after being stuck in Skellige for a year. Still, the realisation surprises her. Ameer always had a particular fondness for a glamarye made from oranges and jasmines, the scent simultaneously sweet and tart. He had told her that, by the mountain foothills where he grew up, he and his sisters would play among a grove of jasmine bushes, a subspecies of the flower that thrived in mountainous environments.  The flower reminded him of his childhood. And so, he grew them in his house in Ofier’s capital city. He’d buy oranges from the market place, distil the jasmine oils, and craft a lotion for his own personal use. Jasmine and oranges, made with love and nostalgia.

She had been intrigued the first time she smelt it. Oranges don’t grow in the northern kingdoms, so any imports tend to come from Toussaint or Nilfgaard – meaning they’re an expensive fruit. Moreover, she had never smelt jasmines before meeting him. But soon, she became accustomed to him using this lotion. Now, she sorely misses its presence. It feels so…odd, not smelling that sweet, citric scent on him.

Not that she dares to bring it up. He doesn’t need to be reminded of yet another thing he has lost, something so routinely part of his identity.

“So, we have not really had the opportunity to speak about what you have done since we last saw each other.” Ameer says as he wades through the grime, thankfully not noticing her sombre realisation. “Suddenly, you have a witcher for a lover and a child who is filled with great magic. How did this happen? I am curious to know.”

He hasn’t asked before – in Skellige, they were so preoccupied with fruitlessly trying to figure out a cure for Geralt. It was inevitable he was going to ask at some point.

“Hm, I didn’t realise you were one for gossip, Ameer.”

“We both know that is a lie.” He says with a hint of humour. “You once called me the epitome of nosiness.”

“Oh, yes, I do remember that. And you once called me the stoniest lady in Nilfgaard.” Yennefer remembers fondly. “Ironic, since you’re less than willing to hand out information about yourself, too.”

“And, being a politician, your career centred around knowing everyone’s secrets and how to exploit them. It seems we are both hypocrites, Yennefer. And I will accept that today I am being ‘nosy’, for I am very curious to know more about yourself while we’ve been apart. Call it a part of my nature.”

“Hm. I suppose I can make an exception.” Maybe this will encourage him to open up more. “Just until we reach the drowners.”

“I am excited to hear you speak.”

“Well, for Geralt, it started with an incident involving a djin, one that almost went spectacularly badly if not for his intervention, though I never would have admitted it at the time. He made a wish, that our fates would always be intertwined. For a while, we had a rather tempestuous relationship. On and off, poor decisions. But, we overcame that. Fell…Gods, I hate to say it, it sounds so childish, but…we fell in love. Even when I removed the effect of the djin’s wish, we still remained in love.” She stops, feeling her emotions coming treacherously to the surface, emotions she’d rather not deal with. Time to move on. “As for Ciri, she’s obviously not our child by blood. She came under our care by the Law of Surprise. Are you familiar with that?”

“Yes. We do not have many monster slayer schools in Ofier, unlike these northern kingdoms, but we do have one. The School of the Falcon, who keep themselves well hidden somewhere in the steppes by magic. They are only one school, and they heard tales of northern schools and even Nilfgaardian schools being slain or destroyed, so they closely guard the secret of their location. I think a sorcerer helps to hide their school. And I have heard of this law. If reward cannot be paid, then the person in question must offer up the first thing seen in their house that they were not expecting. Is that correct?”

“Yes, exactly. We learnt quickly that Ciri had great power, which we tried our best to train her in. Unfortunately, that also caught a lot of people’s attention. The Aen Elle, the Lodge of Sorceresses, mages and rulers alike. In fact, one such individual was the man who almost killed poor Regis.”

“I see. And Ciri, she is now also a witcher?”

“Yes.”

“Do you miss her?”

“Wouldn’t any mother miss her daughter?” Yennefer says curtly. “But I know it’s what she wants, and she’s proved herself to be more than capable multiple times.”

“I see…” Ameer considers this. “You know, at one point, I did consider having children of my own.”

“Oh?” Now this could be a point of contention. The vulpess method of stealing elven children is one that no human or elder race could condone, and yet it is the only way their species can reproduce, and a method they have unquestioningly used for centuries.

“Yes. There are as many orphans in Ofier as there are in the northern kingdoms. We have our own wars and strife, particularly in times of severe drought. But I was never sure. I did not know if I would even be able to, if my magic would be strong enough. And I was scared, I suppose. I see many people die in hospitals, but seeing my own child die…I became frightened of such a thing happening.” His face falls. “Maybe it is a good job I did not, considering how it ended…”

Here it is. Finally, a natural and non-interrogative way to ask about what happened. “Why is that, Ameer?”

“It is…a complicated story. I…” He stops, frowning, and looks out across the tunnel. “Do you hear that?”

She listens carefully, hears that tell-tale noise of splashing water, something burrowing through mud. Curse it all! Just when she’d gotten close!

But these monsters need to be dealt with if they want any chance of speaking to Bedlam. It would be foolish to forget the most important task at hand – finding the other murderer, and interrogating them about Tye.

“Put me down.” Yennefer says softly, which Ameer does. “Can they see us?”

“No, they will not.”

“Even though there are so many of them?”

“Yes. As a rule, animals and monsters are much easier to trick with illusions than humans. Even fiends can be easily duped, but humans and the elder races are harder to deceive. The exceptions are higher vampires, like Regis. They are as difficult to trick as any human – though their vampire status does not give them any advantages over a human when it comes to recognising illusions.” He looks down the tunnel. “Anyway, these drowners will stop moving when we approach, as I bewitch them. If it is a large group, I may only be able to control half at a time, so we must be careful.”

Carefully, Yennefer’s lip curling as she wades through the sewage water, they approach the noise of moving water. Ameer knocks an arrow into his bow, his face taut in concentration.

Up ahead, where they could hear the splashing water, the surfaces of deep grimy puddles are suspiciously still. Yennefer knows enough about drowners to realise the monsters have burrowed down, spotting or hearing the two approaching, and are ready to attack.

She steps forwards once more, and sure enough, one of the ugly monsters bursts up from the water in front of her. It’s been a while since she’s seen such a monster up close like this. The webbed hands and filthy claws, disgusting teeth and bulging eyes, their swollen and distended blue bodies – it’s a sight Yennefer has no desire to see again. Before the drowner can swipe at her, it goes suddenly still. Not frozen, but it’s abrupt lack of movement is entirely unnatural. Four more drowners erupt on the surface, and each one goes still when Ameer lays his eyes on them. Wordlessly and swiftly, he draws his bow and fires a shot into the first drowner’s head. It squawks and drops heavily to the floor.

The noise attracts its hidden brethren, which claw their way to the surface in rage. Yennefer targets each one with a fire spell, scorching them while Ameer swiftly takes out the paralysed drowners with his arrows, never once missing.

Between her fire spells, his arrows, and his frankly unnerving ability to make the drowners stand still in their tracks and allow themselves to be killed, it doesn’t take them long to wipe the area of the monsters. When the waters go truly still, no gurgles or thrashing as drowners bury into the ground, Yennefer breathes out.

“Finally.” She wipes her brow. “That was rather annoying, wasn’t it?”

Ameer is retrieving his arrows from the drowners he felled, abandoning the broken shafts if needs be, and wiping the gore from the arrow heads on the mossy stones. “Yes, they are quick and agile creatures.” He glances down at their bodies. “Any other time, I would be tempted to salvage their bodies for ingredients – potions, alchemy and such things – but I dislike this sewer, and would rather leave quickly.”

“I can certainly second that opinion.” Yennefer looks wistfully down at her boots. Hopefully a thorough shoe shining will wash away the rest of the dirt. “Shall we –”

She pauses when she sees it, right next to her boot. Something small and metal, slightly warped and barely the size of her foot. Is she just seeing things wrong, or is that…

Frowning, she reaches down and picks it up, trying her best to rub off the dirt from it. No, she wasn’t wrong. Metal bars arranged in a grid, even a tiny lock by the side…

“Ameer, look at this.” She beckons him over and shows it to him. He frowns and takes it from her, examining it carefully.

“It looks like a small gate.” He remarks, surprised. “A tiny metal gate.” His description is accurate – the gate looks not unlike many that they passed through while walking in the sewers.

“Strange, isn’t it? Almost as if it belongs in a doll’s house.” Though no doll’s house she has ever seen features a metal barred gate like that. “And I can sense magic energy on it.”

“I do, as well. But I do not know what. Perhaps we should take it with us.” He pockets it, and together they begin the walk back to the grate.

 

By the time they return to the grate, Yennefer still hasn’t had the chance to bring up that question she asked before they found the drowners. Ameer keeps on talking about what he likes to use drowner ingredients for, other monster materials he uses in his potions, which are the hardest to find and why. Yennefer joins in with the discussion, a subject she can easily contribute to, but each attempt to bring the conversation back to why Ameer was glad he didn’t have children, what happened to make him feel that way, is unsuccessful. How immensely frustrating. When they met in Nilfgaard, while she had been scheming – playing a difficult balancing act of delving into dangerous situations for a high reward – Ameer had been a friendly face, providing fun and mischief in times of great stress and tension. How many times has he made her laugh? She misses that. She hates how sad and scared he’s been, so unlike himself. She hates to see him suffer so. How desperately she wishes she could fix this, banish his misery, let him feel light-hearted and happy once more. But how can she help him when she doesn’t know exactly what’s wrong? Such problems can’t be fixed easily, Yennefer knows that. It’ll take time and patience. She’s not naïve, and certainly no fool. But that doesn’t stop her from wishing she could.

When they climb up and re-enter the bath house, the bookkeeper is waiting for them.

“Well?” He peers past them. “Did you manage to kill them all?”

“Yes, we did.” Yennefer brushes off some dirt from her sleeves. “Is Mr Bedlam here?”

“He has returned, and is willing to speak to you. Please, follow me.”

The bookkeeper leads them back through the bath house, in front of a large oak door.

“Here. Mr Bedlam is waiting inside. Now, if you’d excuse me, I must go open the bath house again, before our customers get any more aggravated than they already are.”

When he leaves, Yennefer gives her clothes a final look over, straightening and brushing off dirt. She needs to look entirely in control and commanding. Making sure her appearance is pristine will lend well to that.

She doesn’t bother to prep Ameer, since he is smart enough to not say something stupid, and she will most likely do the talking if Ameer struggles to understand the man’s accent. Knocking twice and not waiting for a response, a deliberate show of confidence and urgency, Yennefer opens the door to the room and steps inside.

From floor to ceiling, each wall is fitted with bookcases, and each bookcase filled with tomes. The floor is fitted with the same marble tiles as the rest of the bath house, though these seem even cleaner, most probably thanks to the lack of customers walking in and out. Hidden by a corner, Yennefer spots a desk, illuminated by low candle light.

A bald man sits by the desk, leafing through documents and notices. There are small ornaments along the edge of the desk, pushed back by the ever-growing piles of papers. A duck, a cat, a horse – detailed and astoundingly well crafted, but an odd choice in paraphernalia for a previous crime boss.

The man, though stuffed into formal clothes not dissimilar to Dudu’s, still appears broad and well built. He glances up at Yennefer and Ameer as they walk in.

“I hear you’re the ones who dealt with my monster problem.” He says, looking back down at his papers, a frown on his face. Money problems?

“Indeed. And now we’d like an audience in return for our free work.” Yennefer folds her arms.

The man puts down his papers and stands up. “Of course. Forgive me for being rude. My name is Francis Bedlam. I run this establishment. And you, I assume, are Yennefer of Vengerberg.”

“It seems my reputation precedes me.” Honestly, it’s not what Yennefer wanted. She’s still uneasy about being in this city, and doesn’t appreciate being recognised on sight as a sorceress.

“Of course. I’ve met many mages, many sorceresses, in my day.” No doubt when he was running the Putrid Grove, which Triss told her was somewhat of a haven for mages. “You begin to hear the gossip and rumours, which mages have been doing what. I heard a lot about you and your feats. I also heard you were running around with old Emhyr himself, reporting to the Nilfgaardians. So you should be right at home here in Novigrad.” He says this last part with a vague air of bitterness.

“That arrangement has long since come to a close.” She tells him. “I do no business with them now, nor do I have any desire to.”

He accepts this, nodding, and glances at Ameer. “And who are you, then?”

“Greetings, and praise the world in its never-ending creation. My name is Ameer. I am a friend of Yennefer’s.”

Bedlam glances between the two of them. “What brings you here, then? So desperate to talk to me that you slaughtered some drowners?”

“We’re here about the murder of Parviz. A shop keeper, owner of Exotic Delights.”

“Yes, I know the man. Such a shame.” She reads his thoughts. Bloody moron. “So you’re investigating his death? Am I a suspect?”

“No, not at all.” Yennefer keeps a calm and disinterested face as she lies. “We just heard you knew the man, lent money to him. Perhaps you could tell us more about him, about who might have killed him.”

Oh, good. Still, I should be careful. I’ve heard enough about her to know she’s shrewd and smart. Interesting. What is he hiding? “Well, if you did suspect me, I’d tell you that Parviz owed me money, and I therefore had no reason to kill him, since now I won’t get that money back. He had many enemies, though. The foolish bastard, may he rest in peace, was bad at business. Fired his business partner, the only one keeping the shop afloat, and pissed off many of his customers.”

“Yes, we saw his wares. They were…not very good.” Ameer remarks.

If only they knew what’s below the shop. Yennefer reads his irritated thoughts. Can’t believe the prick hid that from me for so long. “It’s all right, you can say they were shit. Because they were.” He grabs a piece of parchment and dips his quill in ink. “If you’d like to know who to speak to, here’s a list.”

A list that they already have, thanks to the complaints they found at his desk, but Yennefer feigns graciousness all the same.

“Thank you.”

“So, the Nilfgaardians really haven’t set you up for this?” Bedlam asks, somewhat suspiciously, as he writes. “They’re pretty eager to get this murder solved."

“No, they haven’t. This is something of a…personal matter. Why are they so eager to solve this murder, as you say?”

Bedlam smiles wryly. “Well, it’s something that perhaps I would know about directly, if I had been involved in the black market and been acquainted with previous gang leaders. But I wasn’t, so I heard about it from someone else.”

“Of course.” Yennefer plays along with his caution. “Because you had no involvement with any such things.”

“Exactly. But, one hears things. When the Nilfgaardians took over, first thing they did was dismantle the Church of Eternal Fire, took over all their businesses and confiscated their funds. Probably the best thing they’ve done. The whoresons got what was coming to them.” He shakes his head. “If they hadn’t been stopped, no doubt every non-human, mage and even herbalist would’ve been executed.”

“So we’ve heard.” Hattori, the blacksmith from this morning, Corinne Tilly, and even Zoltan, would either have been brutally murdered by now, or would have fled from Novigrad. Even Dudu could’ve been exposed and burnt at the stake.

“Yeah, and they didn’t go down easy, either. Some of them started a pathetic attempt of rebellion against their new rulers. It was brought down very quickly and ruthlessly. Then, the Nilfgaardians turned their attention to the underground. Made quick work of petty thieves and organised crime alike. The nooses were very busy, let me tell you. Those who were smart moved their businesses else where, or tried to live an honest life.”

People like him, Yennefer muses. Buying the bath houses and moving onto a legitimate business was a smart move from him.

“Anyway, the Nilfgaardians suspected that Parviz had ties to the underworld. Peddled some stolen goods, and that was the least of it, let me tell you. But they never had any evidence to incriminate him.” Good job they didn’t. If they found his stash and took the transmutator, we’d be fucked right now.

“That is a nice ornament you have.” Ameer speaks up suddenly. “Is it a cat?” What is he doing? Why is he derailing the conversation like this?

Bedlam swivels it around for them to see more clearly, a detailed sculpture made from black jet and brushed with bronze. Yennefer can see the creator even went to the bother to carve claws, teeth, whiskers. “Yeah, I got it from a merchant. Made all the way in Zerrikania. It’s a panther.”

A panther. Yennefer hides the realisation from her face, something she is quite experienced at. That’s why Ameer brought it up. He spotted it and made the connection to her vision.

“It is very nice.” Ameer continues, trying to make the conversation casual. “Very detailed.”

“We won’t keep you much longer.” This can’t be a coincidence. “Just one more question, so we can confidently exclude you from any suspicion. Where were you yesterday at two in the morning?”

“I was with Happen, here at the bath house.”

“…Happen?”

“The bookkeeper who showed you in. He worked here when old Dijkstra ran the place. He can vouch for me.”

An employee who was kept on when Dijkstra died and not tossed to the Nilfgaardians for his association with criminals…no doubt a man who would lie to protect his employer.

“I see. We thank you for your time, it’s been very useful.”

“I’m happy to help.” Thank God she didn’t catch on. “I hope you find his killer. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a very full day of business to attend to.”

 

As soon as they’re out of ear shot from the bath house, Yennefer turns to Ameer urgently.

“He’s definitely the murderer. The panther from the vision – it can’t be a coincidence. And when I read this thoughts, he mentioned the transmutator.”

“So, for whatever reason, he needed the transmutator. He must have broken in to steal it, and ended up killing Parviz.” Ameer says excitedly.

“His thoughts were incredibly guilty. He was definitely hiding something, and now we know what. We just need to find clear evidence, that bookkeeper will probably lie to cover him. We should go find Regis, report the news. He can help us find some way to prove Bedlam wasn’t at the bath house at the time of the murder. Maybe the ravens saw him.”

“What about this?” Ameer takes out the tiny gate. “How does this fit in?”

Yennefer frowns. “I still don’t know. Regis has been around for 400 years, he might have a better clue than either of us. Let’s get back to the Chameleon.”

As they quickly walk down the streets to return Dandelion’s inn, Yennefer both feels relieved and disappointed. Relieved to have solved this nonsense so quickly, but disappointed she wasn’t able to get more out of Ameer. Well, at least he seemed to enjoy himself. He certainly loves that new bow.

Next to her, Ameer suddenly stops. He pauses, and veers off to a side street without a word, crouching down.

“Ameer? What is it?” She follows him, and then sees what he’s doing. A red fox sits in front of him, making those strange ‘clek clek’ noises. Its fur is almost as muddy as Yennefer’s boots.

“What is it saying?” She asks.

He hesitates, still listening to its chatter, then speaks up. “She wants help with her cubs. They have fallen and she cannot reach them. This morning, I spread the word to the foxes about Parviz’s death, and asked them to tell me if they saw anything strange in the early morning when he died. She says she has news, but she wants help first.”

“Well, we’d better go help her.” This day is getting better and better.

 

The vixen leads them down the streets, sticking to the shadows away from the crowds of people. Eventually, it stops by the broken bridge just north of Dandelion’s inn. The entrance has been barricaded off, and Yennefer sees workers busily fixing the damaged bridge. The fox sits by the edge of the street, just before the drop into the river, and begins crying out.

“Ah, here.” Without a thought, Ameer slowly climbs down to the river bank, ignoring the puzzled looks of passer-bys. Yennefer peers over the edge and sees three kits, muddy and miserable, shivering and huddled together on the edge of the river bank. One, upon seeing its mother, tries to climb up the bank, but slips down immediately, almost landing in the water.

“Oh no!” Ameer then croons in Ofieri, which Yennefer assumes translates to something akin to ‘poor cute things!’ “Yennefer, take them from me.”

Yennefer would expect the kits to scatter upon being approached and touched, but they crowd around his feet, mewing excitedly. He scoops one up and lifts it, passing it to her on the ledge. The kit squirms in her hand, and she quickly places it next to the vixen, who licks it thoroughly and happily.

One by one, he passes over the kits, then climbs up back the bank. Yennefer helps pull him up, and then he leans down by the vixen. She chirps again, shakes herself, and begins to trot away, carrying the smallest kit in her mouth. The other two kits trot along behind her.

Ameer watches them with a smile, then turns to Yennefer. “She saw Bedlam, here on this bridge, in the early morning of the murder.”

“So he was lying.” Then Yennefer frowns. “Wait, I thought the bridge was closed because of damage.”

“Yes. He met with another person, who wore a cloak and she did not recognise. The person had a sword. She says that there was suddenly a terrible noise, so she ran away. When she returned, the sword was large.”

Yennefer frowns blankly for a moment. “…The sword was large?”

“Yes. Very large. It damaged the bridge from its weight. They seemed to be panicking. The horrible noise came again, so she ran away once more. And when she returned again, the sword was back to being its normal size.”

“…Are you sure the vixen got that right? Are you sure there wasn’t any…mistranslation here?”

“Yes, I am. No mistranslation. And she was certain of what she saw.”

Yennefer thinks hard about this. “…Well, if you’re entirely certain, then I trust the information to be correct. Besides, a giant sword, and this tiny gate…perhaps they’re related.” How bizarre.

 

At the Chameleon, they wait in the warmth of the inn for Regis to return. Ameer examines the small gate carefully in the meantime, though apart from its size and the vague magic traces, there doesn’t seem to be anything intrinsically unusual about it.

Soon, the door opens, and Regis arrives with Priscilla. Both look excited, and both hurry to Yennefer and Ameer when they spot them.

“Yennefer, Ameer, I come with good news.” He tells them. “We think we’ve found out who the murderer is.”

“Isn’t that great? Now we can help Dandelion and Zoltan, and you can find Tye!” Priscilla exclaims.

Wait, what?

Yennefer and Ameer exchange a puzzled glance. Upon seeing their expressions, Regis frowns in his own confusion.

“What’s wrong? I thought you’d be pleased.” He asks.

“We thought we had found the murderer.” Ameer explains.

“Oh. Oh dear. Well, this is rather awkward.” Regis says somewhat sheepishly.

“No, no, tell us what you found out.” Yennefer urges him.

He nods. “How about we pull up a chair? We’ve got a lot to cover.”

Chapter Text

“ -What was that?

 -A raven. Rather a common sight at this latitude. Very intelligent fowl. I asked him to look for the creatures you mentioned. Him and his brethren.” – A conversation between Geralt and Regis.

 

The air is sharp and brisk in the streets of Novigrad when Regis sets out with Priscilla, a list of bitter associates and unhappy customers in his hands.

“The morning certainly has taken a cold turn, hasn’t it?” He remarks as they walk: past crowds of people all donned in heavy coats, hats and gloves to handle the sudden cold snap, crystal necklaces hanging out from under their scarves; past stalls selling apples, peaches, onions, cabbages, some ideally fresh and perfect while others more bruised and overripe; past stands laid out with fresh fish on layers of ice, each cut and skinned to show their pink flesh, its current customer a brown tabby cat who sits and meows by the stand relentlessly until given a sliver of fish by the owner. Apart from the odd Nilfgaardian soldier on patrol, the town looks entirely normal. Charming, even. Any human who didn’t know the recent history of the city would be surprised to hear about the pogroms and witch hunts, the violence and cruel murders. But Regis himself was not surprised to hear it when Geralt told him, and he imagines that any elf, dwarf or halfling would not be surprised either, so used to slaughters and violence at the hands of humans in the name of race, territory and war.

“Yes, though you don’t look very cold.” Priscilla muses, correct in her assumption. She’s wearing gloves and a dark green coat, her breath coming out in condensation. “Is that because…of your upbringing?”

He knows what she’s referring to. “Yes, all people with my…upbringing aren’t bothered by cold weather. Not really.”

“I see. On an entirely unrelated note, may I ask you some questions about vampires, since you’re so well read?” She says that for the benefit of any eavesdroppers.

“Of course.”

“Well, I know that most tales about vampires are incorrect. Stakes through the heart, holy water, garlic, that’s all nonsense. Is that the same about sunlight, too? It must be, because…” She gestures to him. “And yet, I’ve heard tales from sources – legitimate sources – about certain nocturnal vampires, or ones that hide in caves and such things.”

“Both assumptions are correct. You see, there are many different types of vampires, each with different characteristics. Are you familiar with them?”

“Let’s see…I know there are very powerful higher vampires, obviously. And I’ve heard of other types, ones that look like giant bats, but I don’t know much else. I haven’t written a lot about vampires, you see.”

“Vampires are categorised into two main groups – lesser and higher. It’s rather crude, but it works well enough in distinguishing the types. Lesser vampires are the least intelligent. They act on animalistic instinct and not much else. Sunlight hurts them, resulting in nocturnal behaviours and feeding times, and they are vulnerable to a witcher’s blade. However, that doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous. Very dangerous, in fact. Garkains and Fledders could easily kill even a witcher, if they were careless or wounded. And any normal human or elder race would be killed very easily.” He decides to leave out the example of the Garkain that murdered Orianna’s entire orphanage in Toussaint. Better not to speak of abhorrent things out in the public.

“Then there’s higher vampires, which can be split into two more groups. Perhaps you have heard of katakans, alps and bruxae. They have no sensitivity to sun light, and are intelligent enough to adopt human forms in place of more bat-like or bestial ones. In fact, some can pose as humans convincingly enough to fool most people, even witchers on occasion. However, they can still be permanently killed by a witcher. And then, there’s true higher vampires. People like…Dandelion’s friend. They don’t need blood to survive, though many will choose to drink it, and they take on human forms most convincingly. Their power is significantly more than that of any other higher vampire, but the true difference that separates them is their immortality. No blade, no fire, nothing can kill a true higher vampire, due to their impressive regenerative powers. However, if a fellow higher vampire were to deliver the fatal blow, then regeneration is not possible. Death becomes permanent.”

Instantly, he thinks of Dettlaff, and the thought pierces and obliterates him more savagely than any blade could. No. He can’t think of such things, no matter how the memory torments him like some chronic illness. He has a job to do and he can’t be wallowing in his own guilt and grief.

“Ah, I see.” He clings to her words, grateful for a shallow distraction. “There was a vampire here around four years ago. He looked exactly like a human – he was actually the coroner, and no one realised his true nature. But Geralt killed him. So, that would be a higher vampire, but not a true higher vampire, like Dandelion’s friend?”

“Indeed. This is the first I have heard of the incident, but I assume the vampire was most likely a katakan.” He glances at Priscilla. “Why do you ask, my dear?”

“I was just curious. The vampire I mentioned, he was actually a serial killer. It’s why Geralt killed him. And I was one of victims – attempted, of course.”

She says it so casually, with absolute nonchalance on her face. Regis stares in surprise at her. Most humans quake at the thought of death, yet she looks entirely unaffected by the whole thing.

“Oh. I’m…terribly sorry to hear such a thing happened.”

She waves her hand dismissively. “I will admit, it was frightening at the time. I was jumped in the streets, but I managed to get away before he did too much. He poured some formaldehyde down my throat,” she touches it gently, “but the damage wasn’t irreversible. I have to rub a special cream on my neck every morning, or else it can begin to ache.” Indeed, he can smell chamomile and bergamot behind her woollen scarf. “But I can still sing. That’s the most important thing.”

“Why did he do such a thing?”

“I critiqued the Church of Eternal Fire in my songs and poems. Turns out he was quite a fan of the Church and didn’t take kindly to that kind of…blasphemy. I was one of the lucky ones. Others were tortured to death. But, here I am. My throat has healed and I can sing again, and I survived. He didn’t. So, who got the last laugh in the end?”

“Well, I am relieved to hear that you recovered well, and that such an unusually sadistic individual is no longer with us.” He glances at her, but spots no ill-will towards him on her face. She doesn’t even seem vaguely uneasy about walking with him, despite his own vampiric status.

“I’m not afraid of you, if that’s what you’re wondering.” She guesses and interrupts his thoughts. “Dandelion told me about you, how you helped him and Geralt all those years ago.”

“I see.” He smiles. “I’m glad.”

 

Not long after, they reach their first destination: Barney’s Jewellery Emporium. The shop isn’t as large as Exotic Treasures, but significantly cleaner and well kept. The paint on the sign and name of the shop is pristine, as if it had been painted only recently – a circle of diamonds and brightly coloured jewels arranged in a circle around the words. A couple peer through the display window, admiring a multitude of crystal necklaces, not unlike the one Priscilla wears.

“Here we are.” Priscilla looks at the list, and points. “Barney’s brother, Filip, works here now.”

“Yes, he used to work with Parviz. Surprising, since he and his brother were business competitors. But Parviz ultimately fired him, for whatever reason, and needless to say, Filip was less than thrilled about this. He sent in some rather angry and rude letters to Parviz.”

“I haven’t spoken with Filip myself, so I can’t say if he’d be the murderous type.” Priscilla tells him. “Let’s find out.”

Regis opens the door, hearing a bell ring loudly above him, and holds open the door for Priscilla. She hurries in thankfully, grateful for some relief against the chill outside.

“Thank you.” She rubs her hands together, cold even with her gloves on.

“Not at all, my dear. After all, you get colder than I do, owing to my…upbringing.” He glances around the interior. Like Parviz’s shop, thick glass cases are laid out with secure locks, but unlike Parviz’s shop, the contents are entirely authentic. Silver necklaces embedded with rubies, emeralds, sapphires, gold earrings with pearls, rings with heavy diamond stones…Regis isn’t particularly familiar with the study of such rocks, but they all look real and of good quality. What really catches his eye, though, aren’t the expensive necklaces and precious stones, but the multitude of crystal necklaces. The largest ones, made from delicate amethyst and quartz, are locked away in the glass safes, though many hang from stands on the counters, swaying almost imperceptibly. The crystal is secured to a thick black cord by silver clasps, the cord knotted in a way that the user can easily adjust the length of the necklace. Simple, and yet Regis has observed these necklaces several times among the citizens of Novigrad, even on the short journey between the Chameleon and the Emporium.

From the other side of the counter, a man walks out of a back room and calls out. “Greetings! Welcome to the Jewellery Emporium!” He smiles when he sees Priscilla. He’s a large man in both height and weight, with a brown beard and blue eyes upon a good humoured and friendly face. However, Regis spots a vicious looking scar, gnarled and poorly healed, on the side of his face. “Well, if it isn’t Callonetta, gracing my humble store! Welcome back!”

“Thank you, Barney. It’s a pleasure to see you again.” She smiles.

“How may I help you today? Looking for any additions to your necklace? I’ve just had a shipment of new red crystals, perhaps you’d like to have a look? You’d be the first customer to do so!”

“Red crystals? Hm. I think I will have a look, Barney. Though, is Filip around?”

“Filip?” Barney looks slightly confused. “Yes, he’s in the back. Would you like to speak to him?”

“Actually, my friend here would like to.” Priscilla gestures to Regis. “If that’s all right.”

“No, that’s perfectly fine. Let me just fetch him.” Barney disappears into the back of the store, and returns with another man. He’s as tall as his brother, but not quite as well built. His face has a gaunt shrewdness to it; a sharpness about his eyes. He looks rather surprised to be called out.

“Are you Filip?” Regis clarifies.

“I am. And you are…”

“My name is Regis. I’m here about this letter,” he passes it to him, “and I’d appreciate it if we could discuss this at some length.” Perhaps this interrogation will ease the heavy burden hanging on his mind, in the form of black hair, a golden moth brooch, and firm hands that nursed him back to health.

Filip gives the letter a quick glance over, his face tightening. He turns to Barney. “I’ll talk to him outside. Don’t want to get in the way of business.”

Barney frowns at the letter. “What’s that, then?”

“A new notice from the gwent club.” He lies. Interesting. His brother doesn’t know about the threatening letter, and it seems Filip would rather keep it that way.

“What, has Havel finally gotten sick of you borrowing his best cards to swindle newcomers?” Barney says with amusement.

“Something like that.” Filip waves his hand dismissively. “I won’t be long.”

 

Outside, leaving Priscilla to browse the crystals with Barney, Filip walks a small distance away from the shop, shivering in the cold.

“I knew when I was called, it’d be for something like this.” He gives Regis a wary glance up and down. “I run the business side of things, the finance and numbers. Barney talks to the customers, he’s a good salesman. So people don’t normally see me, have no reason to speak with me. I thought maybe you were going to be a Nilfgaardian solider, but you don’t look like one.”

“You would be correct. I have no associates within Nilfgaard, nor any loyalty to it. I am simply here on my own business. Though, the fact you knew someone was going to find this letter and question you in the light of Parviz’s death certainly intrigues me.”

Filip signs, rubbing his temples. “Look, I didn’t kill Parviz. I know…the letter looks bad. But I can explain.”

Regis crosses his arms. “Go on, then. My ears are cocked. Explain to me your side of the story, regarding the…colourful vocabulary within this letter.”

Again, Filip sighs. “…Ok. A few years back, I had a falling out with my family. A big one. And I left. I was renting out an apartment, but I was running out of money fast, like one does in Novigrad.”

That makes sense. Free city though it may be called, Novigrad certainly isn’t a forgiving one – or a cheap one, for that matter.

“I was a few crowns away from losing rent, being tossed onto the street, when I saw a notice in Exotic Treasures, looking for an assistant. Yes, it was my brother’s main rival, but I was angry with him, and desperate for money. So I applied and got the job. But I rose in the ranks, became more than just an assistant. Soon, we were almost running the place together. My business sense saved the shop from bankruptcy multiple times, and Parviz was saying he’d make us official business partners.”

“…You know, I’ve heard rumours. That Parviz had a secret stash of…rather illegal wares in his shop. Since you worked there, do you know anything about it?” Regis asks.

Filip frowns. “Hm…He did like to disappear into his office for long stretches of time. Once I went in and he wasn’t there, but later he claimed he’d been there the entire time. So I’m not sure. Didn’t see anything, but I always suspected he had a secret room hidden somewhere in there.”

Regis studies his face, but is unsure whether or not the man is lying. After all, he is a business man, and business men are notoriously skilled in the art of lying.

“Well, if he was going to ask you to be his partner, how did he end up firing you?”

“Redania fell and the Black Ones attacked.” He answers, his face turning into a scowl. “Parviz decided he couldn’t keep me on anymore. Chucked me out, even though I saved his shop more than once. He chucked me out without a second thought.”

“So I gathered, from the contents of the letter.” Regis remarks.

“It was rough, you know. This time, I really did run out of money. I was homeless. Kept on trying to apply to jobs, but with the chaos of the invasion, I couldn’t find any work. And the Black Ones were executing people left, right and centre. Criminals, rebels, even homeless beggars – like me. I was afraid they’d take me. Then Barney found me. He took me in. Even though we’d argued, even though I’d said terrible things, he took me in. And soon, I became his business partner.” He holds up his hands. “There. That’s what happened between us.”

Hm.  His bluntness and willingness to lay out all the facts makes Regis somewhat suspicious. He’s seen this before, people with deliberate and aggressive honesty who use it to mask a darker secret beneath the surface. Their supposed co-operation is designed to make the interrogator trust them.

“Please excuse my bluntness, but it sounds as if you have more than enough reason to kill Parviz. While any Nilfgaardian soldier would no doubt be raiding your own shop right now in search of evidence, I am going to request you explain to me why it wasn’t you.” If his story sounds too suspicious, if there are odd details than don’t fit, if he spots any vague semblance of a panther, then he’ll stop being so courteous. If this man truly is innocent, then he supposes he feels somewhat guilty. But this is for Geralt, so his guilt is minimal, and he is willing to do far worse if it means saving his dear friend. 

Filip’s face goes taut, but he nods. “I know. I know how it looks. But I didn’t kill him. Not out of business, we were doing fine.”

“Yes, I was wondering about that.” Regis remarks. “These are rough times, no doubt. New invaders and a new way of living must put people under stress – financially, in particular. And yet, your shop is doing remarkably well. In my experience, citizens prefer to save their money for necessities. Food, clothes and the like. Yet your shop, which sells extravagant luxuries, seems to be facing no financial problems.”

Filip gives something of a short laugh. “You know, you’re right. People are stressed. Miserable. And you know what miserable people do, when they can’t do anything about the main problem? They find other ways to make them feel good about themselves. Like shopping. And yes, our previous goods would be far too expensive for a comfort spend in this economy right now. That’s why I introduced the crystal necklaces.”

“I’ve seen many citizens in this fine city wearing these crystals. What about them is so popular?”

“For starters, they’re cheap. For us – we found a supplier who makes them for a very good price, they’re not real or expensive crystals – and they’re cheap for our customers, even though the stone itself looks expensive. That, and they can mix and match – we sell crystals of different sizes and all can be added into the cord quite easily. It makes it customisable, to be tailored to an individual’s interest. People buy the necklaces, and it makes them feel classy without spending too much money, and that makes them happy.”

“I see. And you thought of this?”

“I did. Like I said, I have a good business head.”

“And yet, Parviz fired you. Like I’ve said before, this seems plenty of motive to me.”

Filip rolls his eyes at this remark. “No, I did not kill him out of some quest for vengeance. I didn’t need to. I had vengeance already.”

“Please elaborate for me.”

“Without me, his shop fell apart. I know he was having money problems, borrowed from loan sharks. He was fucked, basically. And he wouldn’t have gotten into that mess if he hadn’t fired me. Let me tell you, it was very vindicating.”

“Hm.” Regis frowns. “Tell me, where were you at 2 in the morning yesterday?”

“Filip?”

Regis turns to see a woman only ten yards away from them, holding the hand of a small child. She wears a purple dress and fur hat, though peeking out beneath the fur and through her black ringlets of hair, Regis spots a pointed ear. A she-elf. She spots him looking and, nervously, tucks the hat over the ear point. A young lad, probably only eight summers old, hangs onto her other gloved hand and holds a wicker basket in the other hand, watching the scene with confusion.

“Filip, what’s going on?” The she-elf asks nervously.

“Lena.” Filip quickly steps forwards, Regis all but forgotten. “What’re you doing here?”

“I brought fresh bread and cheese for you and Barney. You forgot to take your lunches.” She gestures to the basket. “Filip, who is this man?”

“He’s someone from the gwent club.” Filip says hastily. “A friend of Havel’s. Havel’s leaving to go back to Kovir soon, he wants some of his cards that I borrowed back.”

Frowning, Lena leans down to the young boy. “Freddy, go and give dad his lunch.” When the boy leaves the scene, the door bell ringing as he enters the shop, Lena looks upon Regis and Filip suspiciously.

“This isn’t about gwent, is it?” She asks, staring at Regis. “Why were you asking where he was at 2 in the morning yesterday?”

“I’m here about Parviz.” Regis answers calmly.

“Parviz…The man who was murdered.” Lena realises. “I knew this wasn’t about gwent. Who are you? Do you work for the Nilfgaardians?”

“No, not at all.”

Lena frowns. “Well, I’m sorry to inform you that Filip isn’t the murderer. He stayed over with me and Barney at our house all night, going through paper work.” Then she folds her arms, looking at Filip in irritation. “So? What did you do to make this man think you’re a murderer?”

“I didn’t do anything!” He insists. When her frown doesn’t change, though, he looks away sheepishly. “I sent a rude letter to him. That’s all.”

“A rude letter? Filip! If Parviz started showing off some rude or threatening letter you sent to him, it could be bad for Barney’s business!”

He sighs, abashed. “Sorry. I didn’t think.”

“Next time, please do.” She implores him. “For Barney’s sake, for my sake, and for Freddy’s sake.”

He nods, looking immensely guilty. When she leaves, entering the shop to see her husband, he rubs his forehead and sighs deeply.

“…I was an idiot, sending that letter. It was the anniversary of when Parviz kicked me out, and I almost died on the streets. Saw a lot of terrible things out there, things I’d rather forget. So I got very drunk one night, and wrote it without even thinking of the consequences. But the last thing I want is to cause trouble for Barney and Lena.”

“Cause trouble?”

“Look. I know what happens to criminals in this city now. The Black Ones are merciless. They’re quick to make assumptions, put people to death without a second thought.” He stares at the shop. “Barney’s been through a rough time. Shortly after I left, our folks died. Then there were all the racist attacks four years ago.” His face darkens. “They killed Lena’s sister. Strung up her corpse with the other non-humans in Hierarch’s Square for everyone to see. A bunch of whoresons broke into the shop, tried to rape and kill Lena herself. Barney and I managed to stop them, but he got that big scar on his face. And I got this.” He pulls up his shirt, and Regis sees a long and ugly scar marring his flesh.

“Imagine what is was like for them. Imagine having to tell your own son why you got that scar, why he wasn’t allowed to go to school anymore. They almost left Novigrad for their own safety, but the Black Ones came and destroyed the Church. Even now, though, they’re still afraid of racist attacks. Lena could barely stand to be in the house. Me and Barney saved up as much money as we could, so they could move to a new house. Helped pick it out myself, get a discount. It was the least I could do, after they took me back in.” He shakes his head. “They’ve been through enough, and I’m not gonna mess up their lives by bringing the wrath of the Black Ones down on them. So, no. I didn’t kill Parviz. I didn’t need to, I didn’t want to, and I didn’t want to risk myself or my brother and his family.” He steps away from Regis. “I was with Lena and Barney in the house all night. I didn’t kill him.”

 “…I understand.” This lead is dead, as much as Regis hates to admit it. Interrogating the man won’t get him any closer to solving this mystery.

Filip sighs and shakes his head, fixing Regis with a puzzled stare. “Why do you care about Parviz, anyway? Are you a friend of his or something?”

“No. But he knew someone I’m looking for. Have you seen a man with brown hair, wearing a strip of red cloth across his forehead, going by the name of Tye?”

Filip shakes his head. “Haven’t heard of him. Is that all? I need to get back to work.”

“…That’s all. You can go now.”

With that, Filip returns to the shop, looking rather disgruntled by the whole conversation. Well, asking someone if they’re a murderer is never going to be a comfortable, polite conversation.

 

When Filip is gone, Regis scans the streets for any ravens. He spies one, not on the roofs or the skies, but by a small wagon outside the shop. The raven is caught in one of the wheels, flapping its wings in a miserable attempt to dislodge itself from the wooden bars that trap it.

Poor thing. Regis leans down and takes it carefully in his hands. The raven squirms desperately, thinking Regis is an attacker.

Never fear. I’m just trying to help you. He calms it.

Carefully, twisting the raven’s body slightly to the side, pulling back on the spoke of the wheel, he’s able to create enough room to pull the raven out. Once freed, the raven shakes itself and preens its ruffled feathers. Looking up at Regis, it caws happily.

Thank you! Vampire friend thank you! It’s somewhat smaller than most of the other ravens he’s seen, so perhaps it must be young. It has a single white feather amongst its glossy black breast. Regis holds out his arm and the raven hops onto it, perching on his forearm. Not wanting to stand out, he walks quickly down an alleyway with the raven. Despite the lack of the witch hunts, he still feels nervous in such a big city. Hiding his vampiric nature amongst crowds of people, even with his herbs to mask his scent from dogs and animals, is exponentially harder in an urban setting than a rural one.

Vampire! Raven like vampire! The raven croaks loudly.

Greetings. I must ask you a few questions about the man who works at this shop. There's no harm in double checking the alibi.

Big beard man? Smart man?

The smart man.

Smart man love elf woman! Smart man sad elf woman love big beard man.

Hm. An interesting but ultimately useless piece of gossip, so Regis doesn’t ask any further into it.

Where was he last morning, at two hours past midnight?

Smart man with elf woman and big beard man at house all night.

All night? Did they leave at all?

No! I stay there all night with raven friends, I see no leave!

So Lena was telling the truth – Filip’s alibi stands. The likelihood of Filip being Parviz’s killer has just dwindled from improbable to impossible, for a raven would have no reason to lie.

Why vampire sad? The raven suddenly asks.

Regis hesitates, not expecting such a question. But he answers it. I miss my friends.

The raven cocks its head. Vampire go see friends!

I can’t. One of my friends is dead, and the other is ill. And I miss them.

The raven pauses, then hops further up Regis’ arm. It nuzzles his face affectionally with its feathered head.

Raven like vampire. Vampire help raven. Raven vampire friend. Raven help vampire! It flaps its wings excitedly.

Regis can't help but smile. Thank you, my friend. I appreciate that.

He hears the sound of a bell ringing, and a moment later a voice calls out. “Regis? Where are you?”

The raven flies up to the roof tops, and Regis walks out of the alleyway. He sees Priscilla outside the shop. Her necklace now has some new additions – two smaller red crystals hang on either side of the green one.

“Oh, there you are. How did it go?” She glances back at the shop. “Filip seemed a little angry. Did everything go all right?”

“Ultimately, it ended without any significant incidence.” That’s not to say it went well. “He gave me various reasons why he isn't the murderer, and why he had no motive. I'm not sure if I'd believe him, but his sister-in-law gave him an alibi. He's not the murderer - unfortunately for us, and I've double checked the alibi.”

“Really? How did you do that?”

“I spoke to a raven.” He looks up, where the raven sits on the sign post of the shop. “He claims that Filip didn't leave his house at all on the night, and early morning, of the murder. And I didn’t manage to see any relation to panthers. Did you?”

“I didn’t, either. But we have a long way to go until we’re at the end of that list.”

 -

Together, with the raven flying overhead, Regis and Priscilla visit the names on the list one by one. Some take longer than others – Priscilla doesn’t know the address of each individual, so sometimes they have to ask other passerbys – but it’s certainly faster with two people than if Regis was by himself. Or rather, three.

At each stop, they speak to customers who were left dissatisfied with Parviz’s wares: a man who gave his fiancé a ring, believing it to be real silver until they saw the unsightly green band on her finger; an angry father and mother who bought a pocket watch for their son’s eighteenth birthday, only for it to fall apart immediately; a Nilfgaardian woman who bought a fur coat to brave the cold Novrigad weather, which then gave her an unpleasant rash. Malfunctioning wares, scarves that left stains on clothes, jewellery that broke after only two uses – Regis becomes convinced that if Parviz hadn’t been killed by Tye and his accomplice, the man would either be in jail or be driven out the city.

Each time they visit a suspect, Regis discreetly heads outside to speak to the raven, which has been busy conversing with other ravens in the area. It lands on his arm and reports back to Regis what it has learnt about the suspect in question from its feathered brethren. Where they were at the time of the murder, who they were with, what they were doing. It’s exceedingly useful, and allows Regis to determine whether or not their alibi is true or false.

So far, each one has been true. None of these customers murdered Parviz. Name after name, they exclude the suspects, until only one name remains.

“Your raven friend is a very helpful little fellow.” Priscilla remarks, watching it fly from rooftop to rooftop. “Do ravens like all vampires?”

This part of the town is significantly emptier, with no stalls or shops to be seen, only homes. Some are more dilapidated than others. Since there are few people around, he answers the question with no coyness or code. “Hm…I suppose it’s more that they tolerate us in ways other animals won’t. They’re smart enough to see through our disguises, regardless of any herbs or remedies we choose to use, and they’re smart enough to know that we have no reason or desire to hurt them. They’re very intelligent birds, you see. Most ravens are either friendly to me, or at least willing to carry out favours and deliver messages for me.” He looks at the raven up ahead, which is perching on a stone wall, waiting for them. “This one seems particularly friendly.”

Priscilla reaches into her purse and takes out a cloth tied into a pouch. Undoing the knot, she offers two slices of bread, some cheese and an assortment of nuts to him.

“No thank you.” He doesn’t technically need it, and dislikes taking food from other humans who do. However, Priscilla takes the nuts and slowly approaches the raven, holding them out on the flat of her hand.

The raven looks at her, then looks at Regis. Friend? It croaks.

Yes, she’s a friend. At his response, the raven flaps its wings and pecks the nuts from Priscilla’s hand.

A smile creeps onto her face. “Can’t say I’ve ever done this before. Is it a boy or a girl?”

“Male, I think.”

“Does he have a name?”

“Yes, most likely. But ravens don’t tend to introduce themselves to me when I speak to them. They have other ways of identifying each other, in ways we can’t really comprehend.”

“Well, how about you give him a name? Just so that you can tell me which raven is which.”

Regis smiles. “Hm. Perhaps I will. I shall have a thorough think, to see which name suits him the most.”

“So, ravens can see through your disguises…Can any other animals see through them? Obviously humans can’t, since none of us had any clue the coroner was really a vampire.”

“Hm…wolves and dogs have very keen senses – even better than we vampires, in fact, so they most frequently see through our disguises.”

Priscilla looks around the streets. “I don’t see any here right now. If we come across one, do you want me to chase it away?”

“Never fear. I made sure to collect an abundance of herbs this morning, so no dogs will be able to discern my true identity.” A fact that Ameer has confirmed – Fox Mothers, owing to their fox-like forms, have better senses of smells than dogs, and if he couldn’t smell Regis’s vampiric blood, then no dog should be able to either. “Now, may I ask you something?”

“Go on.”

“How should I best phrase this…are you and Dandelion…”

“We’re currently together.” She confirms without waiting to hear his full question.

“I see.”

“You sound surprised.”

“Well…You seem to be a very sensible, responsible woman, and Dandelion…he’s not exactly mature when it comes to the realm of romance, despite it being his main source of ballads.”

“That’s true. Actually, I’ve sent him packing once already.”

“Really?”

“Yes.” Priscilla shakes her head. “This was a few years ago. I caught him in the company of another woman, with his hands in places they really shouldn’t be. I tossed him out and told him not to come back. We hadn’t even been in a rough patch of our relationship, that’s what really enraged me.”

Regis sighs. “I’m afraid Dandelion can be completely incorrigible when it comes to his engagements with the fairer sex. He has absolutely no sense or decency about him at times. But I assume he somehow made it up to you?”

“I saw him about a month later. He’d just come off a ship from Ofier, looking in a terrible state.”

Ofier…Ameer’s homeland. “What on earth was he doing in Ofier?”

“Oh, that’s a long story, involving a magical teleporting trunk…Anyway, he came to me, on his knees, begging me to take him back, swearing he would never run to another woman’s arms as long as he lived. I flat out refused at first. But he came back, again and again, bearing gifts and singing all sorts of songs. He never does that for the other women who throw him out.”

“And so you took him back?”

Priscilla laughs at this. “Oh, no. I’m not swayed over by bribery. But I did miss him – we truly enjoyed each other’s company. I wanted to see if he really meant it when he promised he would never cheat on me again. So I took him to a party, filled with many pretty women and particularly strong wine. He got very drunk…And didn’t look at anyone but me for the whole evening. Didn’t even give a sideways glance to the waitress who was wearing very revealing clothes. I began to take his promise more seriously after that.” She smiles. “We took things steady, but it was clear he was finally leaving the life of a bachelor behind. We’ve been together ever since.”

Regis smiles. “I’m glad to hear that.” He’d never have guessed that Dandelion – the man who cheated on the Duchess of Toussaint – would have found someone he loved enough to stop his incessant romancing. But he’s glad. Priscilla seems to be a lovely woman, and a lovely singer. No wonder Dandelion has fallen for her.

 

At last, they reach the final house on the list. Out of all the houses on the street, it is the largest and cleanest one – although still small in comparison to some of the richer houses in Novigrad. Flowers grow in small pots on the outside of the house, and ivy vines climb up the brick stone of the walls. Regis can spy a garden by the back of the house, though the interior is shielded from his view by large fox gloves in pink and purple hues, crimson amaranth and bright sunflowers. On top of the roof, he spies three large ravens, huddled together in the cold. Good, his new raven friend can speak to them.

Priscilla knocks on the door. “I know this woman.” She tells Regis. “She comes by at the Chameleon quite regularly, likes to listen to our music. She’s from Nilfgaard. She came over roughly…four years ago, I think.”

The door opens, and a woman with brown hair stands in the frame. Regis recognises her as the woman he spoke to briefly outside the Chameleon, when Dandelion and Zoltan were being arrested. “Ah, Callonetta! It is lovely to see you!” Indeed, she has a strong Nilfgaardian accent. Her eyes are as black as peat, and her thick eye lashes long. She wears a periwinkle blue blouse with a deep indigo skirt that is stained with earth and mud by the bottom hem, and her chestnut hair is tied in a complicated bun. Around her neck is a garland of strongly fragrant primrose and lavender, and underneath he spies an azure crystal with smaller crystals all up the cord on either side, alternating between dark purples and deep blues. Her skin smells overwhelmingly of lavender, geranium and cypress lotion that must have been applied very generously.

Something about her unsettles Regis, but he isn’t entirely certain of what.

“Hello, Gwenllian. It’s nice to see you again.” Priscilla greets her warmly.

“And who is this?” She looks at Regis, her gaze scrutinising him up and down.

“My name is Regis. It is a pleasure to meet you.” He hides the caution from her voice. Her face is warm, but her black eyes are drilling into him.

“Please, do come in!” She steps aside. “Out of the cold!”

Priscilla, oblivious to Regis’s caution, follows Gwenllian inside. After a brief moment of hesitation, Regis follows in after her.

 

The inside of the woman’s house is small, her hallway plain and slightly dusty, but from there he can see that her main room is filled to the brim with countless tomes, squeezed into bookcases and piled on top of any available surface. A large table resides in one corner, covered in mortar and pestles, weights, knives and complicated tubes and burners. Herbs and chopped up flowers lay scattered on a cutting board, and one test tube holds a distilled pink liquid. His keen senses, far more advanced than that of a human, can smell a rose fragrance emanating from the tube.

“Please, do come to my garden. I have just made some rose petal cake, and I shall make tea. Would you like some, Callonetta?” Gwenllian smiles genuinely at Priscilla, but whenever her gaze flickers to Regis, it becomes harder.

“No, no, I couldn’t impose myself like that.” However, Gwenllian waves her hand dismissively.

“Oh, it is no problem, I insist.” She ushers them through the kitchen, which smells strongly of spices and herbs. Her kitchen shelves are crammed full of ingredients, pots and pans. On the stove, Regis sees a black pot that smells of cooking mutton. She removes the pot and quickly places a pan filled with water on top instead, allowing it to boil. “Please, go to my garden. There are seats out there, while I make you tea. What flavour would you like? I have fresh raspberries, I also have lavender?”

“Oh, raspberry would be lovely.”

Gwenllian glances at Regis. “And you?”

“No, I’m fine. Honestly.” He says hastily.

“As you wish.” Gwenllian smiles, though it doesn’t quite meet the eyes. “The garden is just through that door.”

 

When Regis steps out into the woman’s garden, he’s taken aback at the sheer colour. All around the edges of the garden are same towering sunflowers, fox gloves and amaranth as before, but there are also bushes of hydrangea with pearly pink and blue blossoms, marigolds with warm yellow and orange flowers, shrubs of lavender and spiky roses, blooming in every colour Regis knows – red, pink, yellow, white. Primroses and crocuses grow by the bases of their towering neighbours, showing their colourful blooms despite the shadows of the larger flowers. A small apple tree grows at the very back of the garden, heavily laden with green apples. The entire garden has an almost dizzying smell in the surprisingly warm air. In the centre of the garden is a small metal table and three chairs, each painted green with spiralling carvings on the back. Among the flower beds is the occasional small statue, most likely made from pottery. He spies a brown hare sitting amongst the primroses, and a red squirrel sits under the apple tree.

“Goodness, this is lovely, isn’t it?” Priscilla looks across the garden with a smile on her face, sitting down on one of the chairs. “Such a beautiful garden!”

That’s when Regis sees it.

Underneath the rose bush is a statue, not dissimilar to the pottery hare and squirrel. At first, Regis thought it was a black cat.

But cats don’t have such large teeth. Neither do they have rounded ears.

From behind them, he hears the door open. “I apologise for the wait.” Gwenllian carries a tray, on top of which is a white teapot with painted blue flowers and leaves, two cups and two small plates, a small jug of milk, a cake and a knife to cut it. She places it down on the table, and takes a seat next to Priscilla.

He can’t tell Priscilla, not with Gwenllian sitting right there. Something about this woman concerns Regis. He has no idea how powerful she is, but something tells her it would be very unwise to start a fight with her. He can’t directly confront her about being the murderer, not with Priscilla present as a target if this woman decides to get aggressive.

So instead, he sits down with them, trying hard not to look at the panther statue hidden beneath the roses.

“What a wonderful garden you have, Gwenllian.” Priscilla compliments her as the woman pours tea into first Priscilla’s, then her own, cups.

“Why, thank you.” Gwenllian beams. She gestures to the cake, which has a coating of fresh cream on the top with a slightly pink tinge. “Rose cake with strawberry cream. Would you like some?”

“Oh, that would be lovely.”

Gwenllian cuts a slice of cake for her, passing the plate over. She looks entirely enraptured by Priscilla’s every movement. She must be a fan, to say the least.

“Yes, you certainly have a very nice garden.” Regis comments, studying Gwenllian’s face. “We’re well into autumn, and the air is so cold today. How on earth do you manage to get your summer flowers to bloom?”

Gwenllian smiles an empty smile. “Ah, I have a way with flowers. Back at home, they called me the Garden Queen. I have many methods of making flowers grow, no matter the weather.”

No, it doesn’t matter what fertiliser and soil minerals are used, summer blossoms simply cannot grow in late autumn. Not only that, but the air itself feels warm. Who is she? A sorceress, perhaps? Someone with magical capabilities?

“So, Callonetta, what brings you to my humble house?” As she speaks, she gingerly touches her neck.

“Oh, you had that wound on your neck, didn’t you?” Regis interjects before Priscilla can speak. “I saw you in front of the Chameleon.” He hadn’t sensed this ominous atmosphere back then, though there were many people and he was far more focused on Dandelion and Zoltan’s arrest. “Forgive me for being rude, it just suddenly came to my mind.”

Gwenllian pauses, fixing him with an unreadable stare, before carefully moving the flower garland up. “Please, do not look, Callonetta, I would hate for you to be put off your cake.” The ailment certainly is unpleasant to look at. Her skin is red and blistered, with bubbles of yellow pus, across the side of her neck.

“Goodness. That looks painful.”

She lowers the garland again, hiding the unsightly wound. “Yes, it is, though my medicinal creams and a careful wash each night has helped with the pain and swelling.”

“Oh, you poor thing.” Priscilla says genuinely. “I’m glad to hear the pain has lessened, though.”

“Oh, do not worry, I am very capable at creating soothing creams and balms. So, I ask again, what brings you here?”

“I assume you’ve heard of Parviz.” Regis tells her. “We’re looking into his death, and we’d like your help.”

“My help?” Her black eyes watch Regis carefully.

“Yes. You see, the owners of the Chameleon were arrested, but we believe – we know – them to be innocent. Framed. You are a regular at the Chameleon, so we thought you could perhaps help us in identifying any patrons who seemed suspicious.”

He can sense Priscilla’s surprise at his lie, but he’d rather not directly question her about Parviz’s death. Right now, she seems to be very fond of Priscilla, and even though he’s certain she must be some kind of magic user, even though something about her reeks of danger to Regis, he doesn’t think she’ll openly attack them, owning to that fondness towards the famed Callonetta. She certainly doesn’t seem to like Regis, but right now the atmosphere in the overpowering garden is a vaguely contented one, and he’d like to keep it that way. He has no idea how powerful this woman is, who keeps the air in her garden warm enough for flowers to bloom even in the cold winds that come off from the sea. If a fight broke out, he wouldn’t want Priscilla go get hurt.

“Ah. I see.” Gwenllian leans back in the chair, sipping from her cup. “I would he happy to help. Such a shame, what happened. I told the soldiers that the owners of such a fine establishment would not partake in a horrendous crime, but they would not believe me.”

He’s sure that her statement is a lie, but nonetheless he asks, “oh, you spoke to the Nilfgaardians?”

“I did. You see, I had gone to them about Parviz a few days before his death.” She touches her neck. “This wound I showed you – it was caused by one of his necklaces that I purchased.”

Information they already knew, but he feigns ignorance. “Oh dear, really?”

“Yes. I suppose the metal caused some sort of…allergic reaction on my skin. It was rather frightening, not what one expects from a necklace. Of course, I was very angry. I wrote to him, demanding a refund and money to cover the medical costs, but he refused to pay. So I went to the soldiers, asked them to help me. So, when Parviz died, they came to me, asking about where I was at the time of the murder.” She shrugs with a smile. “I told them I was with a friend of mine, one who runs the bath house, at the time of the murder, and they let it drop.”

“I see.” A supposed alibi he’ll have to check with his new raven friend. “I’m sorry to hear about that necklace.”

“Callonetta, how do you like my cake?” Gwenllian ignores him, focusing all her attention on Priscilla instead.

“It’s delightful. You’re truly an excellent baker.”

“Thank you. I am happy that you like it.” She seems genuinely enamoured by Priscilla’s very presence. Hm. Perhaps she is more than just a fan – or would like to be.

“So, did you notice anyone suspicious? On the days leading up to the murder?” Regis asks her.

“Hm…” She thinks about it. Or pretends to. “There was a man, he stayed there for a week…Callonetta, perhaps you knew him…He had brown hair, wore a red cloth around his forehead.

“Ah, you mean Tye.” Priscilla nods. “He was very odd, wasn’t he?”

“Yes, he was. A night before Parviz was murdered, I saw him furiously washing his hands. I was not sure what was on his hands, but the water stained dark. It could have been blood.”

They already know that Tye was involved with the murder, and that he framed Dandelion and Zoltan, but Regis nods graciously. “Thank you for such useful information.” Though, he wonders why she would tell him something like that, something that would implicate her fellow accomplice. Maybe she knows he’s fled Novigrad, so has no issue incriminating him.

“Oh, are you going so soon?” Gwenllian’s face falls.

“Well, I need to be excused, but please Priscilla, stay as long as you’d like.” He’d actually rather her stay here, so that Regis can go speak to the raven without Gwenllian realising.

“Yes, I’d be happy to stay for a bit longer.” She smiles, oblivious to his unease.

 

He leaves them in the garden, discussing their favourite poets and ballads, and quickly heads out of the house. For a moment, he considers rifling through her belongings for any hard proof of the murder, but decides against it. He doesn’t want to end up aggravating her.

Instead, he leaves the house and walks a short distance from it, turning the corner so as not to be seen. The flowers from the garden should stop her from seeing out, but he doesn’t want to risk her spotting him. He looks to the skies, waiting for the raven. He can’t see his avian friend, so he takes a few steps towards to change his view, when something brushes his foot.

Briefly, he glances down, assuming it to be a rock, but the vision sticks out in his mind as odd, so he looks again.

“…What on earth…” Regis crouches down, frowning. It’s a tiny pair of gardening shears. They’re barely even big enough to be a pair of nail scissors, but the design is definitely that of shears, not scissors. Carefully, he picks them up and examines them. Goodness, they even work! He pushes down on the handles, and the blades snip close. What on earth is this, then? He sees no reason to use such tiny shears – even if trimming a bush with small leaves and twigs, it would be far more efficient to use larger shears. He supposes that it could be some gardening tool he hasn’t heard of, but he isn’t a novice at gardening, having cultivated many a herb in his own time, and he’s certainly never used one this small.

Suddenly, he hears a shriek. Standing up, he expects to see his raven – but sees four. His raven is flying frantically towards him, pursued by three more, the same he saw on Gwenllian’s roof.

His raven swoops, cawing furiously and trying to evade his attackers. Two of the ravens suddenly branch off, and dive towards Regis. Croaking loudly, they attack him, flapping their wings in his face, trying to claw at him with their feet.

Give back! They caw angrily. Give back! Go away!

He shields his face from their onslaught with one arm, gritting his teeth and trying to hit them away with his free hand. What is it? Why do you attack me?

Give back! Go away! Is their only response.

Up ahead, he hears his raven cawing desperately. What on earth is happening? Why are these ravens acting with such hostility?

He hears another caw, but this belongs to a new raven. Loud and demanding. The ravens attacking him quickly veer off, screaming in rage. Lowering his arm, he sees a larger raven – the one with the scuffed beak who warned him about Tye. It pecks at the two ravens, which quickly fly away, and then turns its attention to the third raven in the sky. It soars towards the fight and croaks angrily at the attacking raven, digging its claws into its back and pecking its head. The attacking raven squawks and writhes, eventually struggling out of the larger raven’s grasp with a few feather lost in the process. It hastily flies away, realising it can’t fight the new arrival.

Together, Regis’s raven and the larger raven with the scuffed beak fly down towards him. They settle on the stone wall, the larger raven fussing over his raven. Ah, do they know each other?

Nasty ravens! His raven ruffles his feathers indignantly. Nasty ravens chase me! Not talk to me! Not let me see woman in house!

They wouldn’t let you see her? Regis frowns. Why not? Were they trying to protect her in some way? He has heard of sorceresses being able to enchant animals to do their bidding. Maybe Gwenllian enchanted these ravens to prevent any other ravens – or people – snooping around.

The raven with the scuffed beak caws loudly. Stay away from bad ravens. Bad ravens not vampire friend. Bad ravens attack child.

Child?

The raven taps the head of the smaller raven. Child. I hatch him egg.

Oh, so she’s his mother. That’s why she came to his aid.

His raven ruffles his feathers again. I grown up raven!

Child. The mother raven preens his feathers affectionately, then flies over to Regis, landing on his shoulder. What you want know?

This woman who lives here, she claims she was with a man from the bath house on the night of the murder. Is this true?

The raven cocks her head. I not see woman, ever. Bad ravens keep other ravens away. But I see bald water man. I see him leave bridge, then him leave city. He not with any woman I see.

Interesting. His suspicions about Gwenllian are becoming stronger and stronger. He doubts that she would have killed Parviz over the necklace. No, considering her ability to enchant ravens and grow flowers so closer to winter, he guesses she would have found out about the hidden cache of illegal and magic items, and killed Parviz to get them instead.

The raven with the scuffed beak flaps her wings, pointing her beak at the tiny garden shears in his hands. Ravens want.

Why did they want this?

Bad ravens say woman possession. Want take it back to woman.

So this belongs to Gwenllian. He supposes that makes sense, since she’s such an avid gardener. Though, it’s size still puzzles him.

I’ll keep this safe. It could be important.

The mother raven tugs his ear lobe – her way of showing affection towards him – and then flaps her wings, flying up towards the roofs of Novigrad.

Careful, vampire friend. She caws one last warning. Vampire friend stay away from bad man.

He watches her go, still troubled by her warnings, and quickly puts the gardening shears into his bag, lest those ravens come back to attack him now the mother has gone.

His raven with the white feather flies and lands on his shoulder, chirping excitedly. I go ask bad raven about woman, and they chase me away! I fly all over city! I peck at bad ravens! Vampire friend pleased?

That was very brave of you. He strokes its chest with his finger.

The raven jumps up and down on his shoulder, delighted at this praise. I brave! Thank you vampire!

Then, it lifts off from his shoulder and waits on a roof top. He peers around the corner to see Priscilla waving goodbye to Gwenllian. The woman – enchanter of ravens and flowers, with a panther in her garden – smiles warmly at Priscilla. When she turns back into the house and closes the door, Regis cannot help but feel relieved. He shouldn’t - after all, he’s much stronger than any sorceress. Maybe it’s because of Vilgefortz. Maybe he knows better now than to be too confident.

“Oh, Regis.” Priscilla joins him around the corner. “What a lovely woman. I assume you spoke to the raven?”

“I did. Her alibi wasn’t right, apparently, but we weren’t able to clarify where she really was. The ravens outside her house were hostile. They attacked me.”

Priscilla looks shocked. “Really? I thought ravens liked you.”

“Not these ones. Walk with me, dear.”

He waits until they’ve walked a fair distance from the house. “I believe Gwenllian might be a magic user.”

Priscilla’s eyes widen in surprise. “What makes you think that?”

“The ravens, they were protecting her fiercely. She might’ve enchanted them to work for her. And those flowers – I’m something of a botanist myself. Flowers like that can’t grow in late autumn, it’s just too cold. Didn’t you notice how unnaturally warm her garden felt?”

Priscilla frowns. “Now that you mention it…”

“That’s not all. In the garden, I noticed a statue of a panther.”

“A panther? Why didn’t you say anything?” Priscilla demands.

“I meant no offence, my dear. I was simply worried. If she really is a magic user, I didn’t want a fight breaking out if I brought it up. And she seemed to like you. I thought we could use that to our advantage.”

“You really think she’s the murderer, then?”

“There was a panther in her house, like Yennefer’s vision suggested. She had been to Parviz’s shop before, and her purchase may have been her way of figuring out the best way to break in. Her alibi is incorrect, she wasn’t with the person she claimed to be – a raven told me that – and if she is a magic user, she most likely would have known the worth of the stolen item, the Zerrikanian transmutator. It seems that way to me.”

Priscilla shakes her head. “I can’t believe it. She seemed so nice…”

“Appearances can be deceiving, my dear. Now, we should report this to Yennefer and Ameer immediately, and discuss the best way to confront her.”

 -

When they finally return to the Chameleon, Regis has become more excited. The reality of the situation is finally kicking in. They can interrogate Gwenllian, find out where Tye went, and finally catch up with the poisoner.

Opening the door, he spots Yennefer sitting at a table reading a tome, her brow furrowed in concentration, while Ameer sits cross legged in front of the fire place, examining something small on his hands.

“Yennefer, Ameer, I come with good news.” He calls to them, closing the door behind him to keep out the draft. “We think we’ve found out who the murderer is.

“Isn’t that great? Now we can help Dandelion and Zoltan, and you can find Tye!” Priscilla exclaims.

However, the excitement Regis was expecting to see on Yennefer and Ameer’s face is entirely absent. Confusion is their only expression as they glance at each other.

“What’s wrong?” Regis frowns. “I thought you’d be pleased.”

Ameer looks to him, still not moving from the fire place. “We thought we had found the murderer.” He says sheepishly.

“Oh. Oh dear.” This isn’t what Regis had expected. “Well, this is rather awkward.”

But Yennefer shakes her head. “No, no, tell us what you found out.”

“How about we pull up a chair? We’ve got a lot to cover.”

Somehow, he has a feeling things just got a lot more complicated.

Chapter Text

“Oxenfurt - a gem snuggling into the bosom of the Pontar to the east of Novigrad. A cradle erected upon Redanian soil, nurturing the greatest minds not only of that kingdom, but of all the North. To walk its hallowed Academy's halls is to embark on a journey through learning, from the finest points of Philosophy to the grandest strokes of Art, with stops made to admire Architecture and dissect Medicine along the way.” – Pearls of the North – Oxenfurt

 

It takes a good half hour for both sides to regale their tales, and by the end, Regis is more unsure of the murderer’s identity than before.

“…What I really don’t understand,” Regis takes out the tiny shears from his bag, “is this. The ravens were so desperate to stop me taking it. They belonged to Gwenllian, but I have no clear idea why it was so important.”

Ameer passes Regis the grate. “Ours is very similar. Nothing unusual about the object itself, it is not made of any strange metal or have any magical properties. It is simply unnaturally small.”

“This can’t be a coincidence. The gate, the sword, and now the shears, they have to be related.” Yennefer pats the book in front of her. “I tried looking up any kind of spell that could fit. I’m certain it’s not compression, that has a different magical signature, but I’m struggling to find a specific one. All we know – all we can assume – is that the sizes of these objects were magically manipulated.”

Ameer frowns. “Do you think…perhaps this could be what the alleged transmutator is?”

Regis frowns, considering this. “I suppose it could be. And I suppose that Bedlam and Gwenllian could have worked in cahoots…”

“But my vision – and the footprints at the crime scene – only showed evidence of two people.” Yennefer counters. "One of which we know to be Tye."

“It is clear that both of these people are linked.” Ameer speaks up. “One, the unusually sized objects, and two, the fact that Ms Gwenllian claims to know Mr Bedlam. They are most likely both involved. Surely then, both would know of Tye? Ms Gwenllian even mentioned him.”

“I know, but I’m reluctant to confront her.” Regis admits. “Like I mentioned, she must be a magic user. I don’t know exactly how powerful she is, but I sense great danger around her.”

“Danger?” Yennefer frowns. “What do you mean?”

“That’s all I can describe it as. Danger.”

“How do you sense that?”

“Call it my vampiric instincts – much sharper than any human or member of the elder races.” He would not be able to explain it without taking another half hour, so he doesn’t bother. “And so, I would prefer to understand the exact powers and abilities of Gwenllian before we approach her with accusations of her involvement with the robbery.”

Yennefer rests her head in her hand. “I’ve heard plenty of sorceresses being able to enchant animals. And the warm air in her garden that allows the plants to grow, that could be a particularly high level spell, or some magically activated contraption. I think you’re right, but I’ll probably have to see her myself.”

“What about Bedlam? He’s certainly not magic. It may be easier to extract the magic from him.” Regis suggests.

“I’ve heard of the King of Beggars.” Priscilla plays with the crystal around her neck. “Everyone had heard of every gang leader, back before the Nilfgaardians came. And I’d heard he wasn’t as brutal or psychotic as the other gang leaders, but he was still very dangerous.”

“That is true.” Yennefer confirms her statement. “Not only is he dangerous, he’s smart. That’s how he gained so much power in the first place. He also knows how to make money, and he uses that money to garner unquestioning loyalty. He has multitudes of men who would back him up, and would attack us if we were too aggressive in our confrontation.” She frowns, thinking carefully. “…I suppose I should go and visit this Gwenllian for myself. If she is a sorceress, I should be able to deduce just how powerful she is.”

“And if Bedlam tries to attack us, I can hold off any of his men.” Regis says confidently.

“Letter for miss Yennefer?”

Regis turns to see a young boy standing in the door way of the Chameleon, dressed in dirty clothes. He wipes his snotty nose with one hand, and holds a letter with the other.

Yennefer stands up, a frown on her face. “That’s me. Who is it from?”

He walks over, now holding his hand out flat. “Can’t rightly say, miss Yennefer. Just told that I needed to give a letter to a black haired woman with purple eyes, hangin’ around with an old man and an elf in this ‘ere inn. And that I should be given 5 crowns for my bother.”

Yennefer sighs, but takes out the money from her purse, dropping the coins into his outstretched palm. He counts them and, satisfied, passes her the letter before hurrying away with his newly earned pocket money.

Yennefer examines the letter carefully before she opens it, most likely checking for any traces of harmful magic or a curse being cast on the paper. When she opens it, she reads it out loud.

“To Miss Yennefer, I have come across some information that would benefit you in your search for Parviz’s murderer. We have not met, but I know about you and the witcher. If you want to know more about who murdered Parviz, meet me at 8 in the evening tomorrow at the Alchemy in Oxenfurt.”

Regis frowns when she finishes. “…How peculiar. Who on earth could that be from?”

Yennefer looks puzzled. “Someone who I haven’t met, and yet knows about myself and Geralt…Our relationship, perhaps? I don’t know what else they could be referring to. How exactly do they know about me?”

“Well, you have been written about in various poems.” Priscilla almost sounds sheepish. “Or, it could be someone who knows Geralt. Found out from him.”

Ameer touches the back of his neck. “Do you think this is true? Or is someone trying to trick us?”

“Or lure us into a trap.” Yennefer puts the letter back into the envelope. “Since they’re claiming to know about Parviz, then we simply have to investigate. But we should be careful. The Alchemy – that’s an inn, and not exactly a good place for a team of bandits to carry out a stealthy assault without every Nilfgaardian soldier in the city realising. Even so,” she frowns, her brow furrowed in thought, “any form of attack is a possibility.”

“If you need to be there by tomorrow, you’d best not delay.” Priscilla tells them. “Oxenfurt is quite a distance. Unless you’re deciding to teleport?”

“Not directly into the city. I’ll teleport nearby, preferably to an empty field with no one around, and then walk the rest of the distance.” Yennefer decides. “Regis, I can only bring myself and one other person with me through a portal. Would you be able to get there by yourself?”

“Of course. I’ll travel by mist. Unfortunately, it won’t be quite as instantaneous as your method, but it should certainly be faster than travelling by foot, or even horse.” Whoever wrote this letter, for whatever reason, has certainly managed to intrigue him. Of course, the whole thing could be a dead end. Even an elaborate ambush could be looking too far into it. The writer could simply be a charlatan, pretending to offer psychically derived information about the crime to them. But at this point, they can’t afford to pass up on such a tantalising lead.

 

Despite the very rapid method of travelling by portal meaning they have plenty of time before tomorrow to arrive, Yennefer and Regis both want to set off as early as possible. If this letter really is setting up an ambush, then they might as well arrive early, give any potential attackers less time to prepare. But Priscilla convinces them to stay a little while longer.

“Have some food here first. Oxenfurt is quite expensive.” She tells them. “Dandelion loves to visit Oxenfurt, but I always dread the consequent food bill.”

Yennefer glances at her purse. “Hm. I suppose that’s a good idea.” Has she spent a lot of money on something as of late?

Though Regis is eager to leave, he does enjoy the cook’s meal. A pie stuffed with onions, turnips, parsnips, mushrooms and pork will certainly be enough to keep them full, and stop Yennefer’s purse from depleting. For a moment, Priscilla suddenly looks embarrassed.

“Oh, I never checked! Do you eat pork, Ameer? I’m ever so sorry.”

“It is no problem. I can eat pork.” He reassures her. “Different tribes have different rules. Some of us do not eat pork, some of us eat no meat at all. But myself and my family, we eat whatever we are given.” Living in the wild with his Fox Mother and siblings, he must be referring to that. The wilderness of Ofier must be even harsher than these realms – it would be foolish not to eat whatever food one can find. Though, does Ameer follow the rules of religions that most others in Ofier follow? Or elves? Or does he follow something different, something in line with his Fox Mother identity? There’s still so much Regis doesn’t know.

“Right, I see. We have a regular here who comes from Ofier, and he doesn’t eat pork.” Priscilla explains. “So I wasn’t sure.”

“I see.” Ameer says not much else on the matter, though he looks unsettled. Interesting. Regis would have thought that Ameer would react positively to news that brethren from his homeland were in Novigrad - especially when those from Ofier rarely travel to the northern kingdoms. Yet his reaction is entirely the opposite. Regis wonders why, but he knows better than to ask.

 

Thankfully, the dinner hasn’t delayed them by too much. Soon, they’re ready for their journey to the next large metropolis in the north.

“Thank you for letting us stay here, Priscilla.” Yennefer has packed up her bag, ready to transfer to the Alchemy inn.

“Please, it’s nothing. And there’ll always be a room for you, whenever you need to return.” Priscilla assures them.

“I hope that next time we see each other, we’ll have apprehended the murderer, Dandelion and Zoltan will be freed, and we shall be on our way to track down Tye. Even if we haven’t, I will surely look forwards to your company again.” Regis bows.

“It was very nice to meet you, Priscilla.” Ameer smiles mischievously. “I hope you write another song very soon. I would like to hear more about Yennefer’s adventures,” for this he earns a sharp nudge in the ribs, “and your singing is very lovely.”

“Thank you, Ameer.” She smiles. “No doubt, I have many songs still in the works. Good luck. I hope that this letter turns out to be a real lead.”

By the time they leave the Chameleon, at only 6 in the evening, the sun has set and the city is blanketed with darkness. Carrying their bags – Yennefer with the most, Ameer with almost nothing, and Regis himself with only a bag of herbs, some potions, and his hefty Skellige tome – they leave the empty streets of Novigrad’s city, and walk out towards the wilds of the Farcorners. Past old broken wagons, past shredded and rotten remains of Redanian flags, past pits of stakes and the remains of wooden pikes. No bodies remain from the vanquished Redanian forces, killed by the opposing Nilfgaardian armies years ago. He wonders if grieving family members were able to retrieve loved ones and give them a proper burial, or if they were dragged into a pile and burnt by the Nilfgaardians. However ruthless the latter option is, Regis supposes it’s better than the bodies being mutilated and eaten by necrophages.

Out of sight from the city, but not so far into the forest that they run into monsters, Yennefer opens up a portal. A stag rubbing its antlers against a tree trunk runs away, braying, and birds take flight from the branches at the noise. A rabbit dashes from the bushes, startled. The iridescent light illuminates the surrounding foliage dimly.

“We’ll meet by the Novigrad gate. If anything happens, if we haven’t reached the gate, then look for us near Gustfield farm. I’m teleporting a short distance from there.”

“Understood. I’ll travel as fast as I can myself.”

With that, Yennefer takes Ameer’s arm and together, they walk through the portal. After a moment, it swirls and closes, casting the forest in darkness once again.

Regis hears a caw from overhead. The raven with the white feather in its breast, his raven, swoops down from the canopy and lands on his shoulder.

Scary. Witch lady friendly scary. Magic hole scary. Raven not understand magic hole. So, the concepts of portals are beyond him, and he certainly wasn’t a fan.

You don’t have to be afraid, it won’t hurt you. Regis strokes the raven’s head. What are you doing here?

I come with vampire friend. I help vampire friend!

Regis feels…touched, almost. A small spark of joy in the midst of his loneliness. Yes, he’s touched. A new friend, as silly as it sounds. A new friend.

 But what about your mother? Won’t she miss you?

Raven mother know I strong. Raven mother know I brave, so raven mother know I good! Raven mother have many many child, I leave home! He’s leaving the nest in a very literal sense.

Thank you, friend. It makes me happy that you’re with me.

The raven puffs his feathers in pride. I happy! Where go?

I’m travelling to Oxenfurt. I’ll turn to mist to get there. Will you be able to fly such a long distance with me?

Yes! I fly very good! I fly to Oxenfurt and I help! I look for man with scar like raven mother say and I help what you ask!

However, it soon becomes clear that the raven isn’t quite as good at flying as first made out. Travelling by mist isn’t as fast or effective as actual flying, but the full moon is a good month away – and yet, Regis still stays ahead of his raven friend, who he should really think of a name for. Every now and then, Regis pauses on his journey, to see that the raven is a good few minutes behind him. He really should just fly straight ahead to meet up with Yennefer, but concern for the young raven makes him stop. At first, the raven flies quickly and confidently, croaking and claiming how easy the journey is. But the more time that goes on, the more tired he seems to become, and the longer it takes for him to catch up.

As Regis flies, he is able to see how drastically the landscape has changed. Regis may not have been in this area for some time, but he certainly doesn’t remember all the houses and hamlets having been established, peppering the fields and paths to Oxenfurt like daisies in a field. He can only assume that this area bore only battlefields and piles of bodies during the third Nilfgaardian war, but now that vague stability has finally settled on the land, new residencies have been built, taking advantage of the relative peace.

By the time he finally reaches a small forest outside Oxenfurt, a safe place to revert back from mist to a human form, the raven practically drops to the ground, exhausted from the journey. Shaking his head, Regis scoops up the bird and carries him the remaining distance.

I thank vampire friend. The raven caws tiredly. Regis just smiles.

 

When he reaches the Novigrad gate of Oxenfurt, pearl of the north, he can see Yennefer and Ameer sitting by the bridge. Grown tired of standing and waiting, they’re sitting down. Ameer is shivering, huddled close to Yennefer for warmth.

Spotting him from a distance, Yennefer stands up, clearly irritated. Ameer stands up too, and huddles close to her again.

“You’re finally here.” She remarks dryly when he reaches her.

“I apologise. If I had realised you were waiting for me in the cold, I would have travelled faster.”

Yennefer crosses her arms, not pacified. “If I’d realised it would take that long, I would’ve just teleported back to you again, and brought you through the portal.”

“But that would’ve drained your energy. And if we are attacked in Oxenfurt, it would cause us problems.” Regis counters calmly. “And you really didn’t have to wait for me.”

“Of course we were going to wait for you.” She snaps. Then she quickly adds, “What if we really were attacked? I’d much rather have an immortal vampire backing us up and helping us protect Geralt’s medallion.”

“…I see. Thank you for waiting, and I apologise for taking so long.”

Yennefer sighs. “…Well, you’re here now. We should find somewhere to stay, out of the cold.”

“Yes.” Ameer speaks up quickly, still shivering. “Yes, we should do that.”

Together, they walk over the bridge and up to the Novigrad gate. A Nilfgaardian soldier asks for papers, but Ameer’s illusions allow them to walk through without any difficulties.

The streets of Oxenfurt are even more quiet than Novigrad at this late hour, and somehow more heavily guarded. Soldiers stand at every corner, the yellow suns on their armour dull in the darkness. Again, this is a city Regis has not visited in quite some time, but what he remembers is a city filled with students, poets, professors, each quaint street bustling with activity and noise.

But tonight, the streets are messy. Red flags are everywhere – trodden into the dirt, half torn down from windows and doors, some neatly cut and shaped, others simply scraps of tattered red cloth. Occasionally, he spies the remains of torches, all which have long since fizzled out, and once, a pitch fork snapped in two.

“Something has happened here.” Ameer addresses the obvious question as they walk in the streets. “I know there have been many wars, but what has happened in this place?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been keeping up to date on the functioning of the northern kingdoms.” Yennefer admits, but her gaze isn’t on the flags. She’s looking around herself, constantly alert. Like Regis, she fears an ambush from any corner. Unless it was the likes of Gwenllian and her infuriating, dangerous aura, Regis would have little problem fending off an attacker. Unfortunately, it would be impossible to hide his vampiric state from the Nilfgaardian soldiers. And therefore, he feels uneasy walking down the streets.

As if reading his mind, Ameer speaks up. “If we are attacked and must fight, I can cast an illusion to hide us from the soldiers.”

“There are many of them, Ameer. Are you sure you’d be able to manage?”

“Hmm…Yes. I hope. It would certainly be within my normal range of abilities. My mother would be able to trick even more people than this, a large crowd, and while I am not as powerful, this number I should manage. I just hope I am not too…inexperienced? No, not inexperienced.” He frowns. “I am not sure how you describe it, the idiom, in Common…It has been a year, so my abilities are not as good as they were before, they may require time?”

“Ah, you’re out of practice.” Regis sums up for him. “I understand.”

“Out of practice.” Ameer repeats.

Thankfully, they reach the Alchemy inn entirely unscathed. Discreetly, Regis hides the raven in his bag, assuming that the owners of the establishment would not appreciate him bringing in a wild animal.

“I’m looking for two rooms.” Yennefer walks up to the front desk, ignoring the rowdy noises from the dining area. She looks around the inn with a scrutinising and disdainful gaze.

The owner shakes his head. “Only one room, with only one bed, but it’s a big one.”

“We’ll take it.” When the owner heads to a back room to grab a key, she whispers to Ameer, “we won’t be staying long in this grovel, that’s for certain.” From the dining area, someone wolf whistles at Yennefer, which she pointedly ignores and shakes her head at Regis and Ameer, clearly telling them to do as she has done.

The owner gives them the keys, Yennefer hands over some crowns, and the three of them head to their room. It has a double bed, a small closet, and large glass windows. In comparison to the Chameleon, the room seems quite drab and unclean, but it’s certainly better than other places Regis has slept in before.

“Finally.” Only ceasing his shivering now, Ameer sits down on the single bed. “This room is not very warm, but I will take any warmth instead of the cold outside.”

Yennefer puts down her heavy bag. “Yes, it will do. After all this effort, I’ll have some very choice and unpleasant words to say to the sender of that letter if this turns out to be a farce.”

Regis is about to agree with her when he freezes. Ameer is carefully taking off something Regis had not paid much attention to before. But now, he cannot draw his eyes away.

It’s Milva’s bow.

There’s no mistaking it. Her expensive, dearly beloved, excruciatingly cared for bow. Her bow crafted from mahogany wood and whale tendon, all the way from the Far North. The bow that, no matter how impressively well she wielded it, no matter how easily she dispatched enemies with this deadly weapon, was unable to save her in Vilgefortz’s castle.

Ameer catches him staring at it. “It is a beautiful bow, is it not? Yennefer kindly bought it for me.”

It’s Yennefer who catches on, realising why his gaze is so grieved at the wood and drawstring in front of him. “…You knew Milva, didn’t you?”

Regis closes his eyes. “…I did. We were both part of Geralt’s Hanse, on his quest to find Ciri. We...We were friends. Where on earth did you find it?”

“We bought it from a blacksmith’s. He claimed that it entered circulation shortly after Parviz’s death, so it’s likely he somehow found it…I knew that Geralt was fond of Milva. A bow will come in useful, Ameer is an expert archer, but I didn’t particularly want her bow ending up in the hands of some brutish soldier.” She hesitates, looking at him. “…I’m sorry to hear about what happened to them all.”

 For a moment, he finally understands Yennefer’s pride. He had found her stubbornness…amusing, to describe it in one way. Her strong and inherent dislike towards others prying into her business, her cold detached attitude, he had found vaguely understandable, and yet claimed to himself he was not the same.

But he is. How quickly Yennefer picks up on his inner turmoil of sadness, how directly she talks about it…He understands her attitude now, for it is not a pleasant feeling to discuss – especially about feelings towards the deceased.

Ameer stands up and brings it over to him, holding it out carefully. He says nothing. A silent invitation.

Regis picks up the bow, running his hand over the wood. Oh, Milva. Poor Milva.

As a vampire, he shouldn’t be so sad. Humans die. It’s an inevitable truth. But Geralt’s Hanse were his friends. The first true friends he’d had in a while.

And he lost them all.

Milva, Cahir, Angoulême…each one murdered in Stygga castle, where Regis himself was obliterated and assumed dead. He didn’t get to say goodbye to any of them. When he awoke, he didn’t even realise that all of them were dead. He had found Milva’s body among the other dead archers, bled out from a mortal wound of another archer’s arrow. But Cahir and Angoulême…only when he was well enough from his regeneration to finally walk and travel by himself, when he sent out ravens and searched the area himself for his friends, did he realise that Cahir was slain by the evil man Leo Bonhart. Only then did he learn Angoulême died shortly thereafter, bleeding out from a fatal wound. Geralt had supposedly been killed in a pogrom, murdered by a pitchfork, and his body taken away. Out of his friends, only Dandelion and Zoltan survived, but Regis didn’t go to find them. The death of his friends shook him to his core, reminded of human’s flimsy mortality, and he became afraid. Afraid of the grief he would feel when they, too, died.

That was foolish. Terribly foolish.

Sighing deeply, he hands the bow back to Ameer. “…I’m glad, that it’s ended up in your capable hands. Please, take good care of it.”

Ameer nods solemnly. “I would be honoured to look after it.”

Turning away, not wanting them to see how much it has affected him, Regis opens up his bag and carefully takes out the dishevelled raven. He sees that he’s been snacking on some of his herbs, and looks far more alert than he did after the long fly. Ruffling his feathers, the raven flies to the window, pecking on the glass.

“A raven? Did you have that in your bag?” Yennefer frowns, confused.

“I did. He’s decided he wants to help us – he is rather young and excitable, but very eager to assist us in our investigation. He helped me verify the alibis of our suspects.” He walks over to the raven.

I go find food. But I also look brown man scar! It croaks.

Thank you. And if you see anyone acting strangely, as if they might be planning an attack, please let me know.

Yes vampire friend! The raven ruffles his feathers again, and Regis opens the window. Spreading his wings, he flies off into the darkening and starry sky.

“…I think it would be wise if we take turns guarding the door, lest anyone really does try to attack us.” Regis says when the raven leaves. “I’ll go first.”

And so, as Yennefer and Ameer sleep in the bed, with only his thoughts for company, Regis watches the night sky as it changes from an unfathomable black to a dull, pale blue. He watches the dawn colours finally spill into the sky as the sun rises, spreading warm colours and swallowing up the stars. Occasionally, the raven flies back, to report no sign of Tye and nothing unusual. Other than that, the night is silent. He really should wake up Yennefer or Ameer, who insisted they share the guard duty, but he finds himself reluctant to do so.

Because, as soon as they fall asleep, Regis quietly takes the bow and holds it in his hands. The last trace of his deceased friends.

Every now and then, he looks over at Ameer. The aguara is asleep and, for once, not plagued by nightmares. And around his neck, the wolf head stares at Regis.

“…Did you bury them?” Regis asks softly. He knows there will be no response, but he asks all the same. “Did you find their bodies, after it all happened? Did you see them pass? Or did you only find them after the bloodshed?”

He runs his hand over the wood of the bow again. “…It must have been hard. Finding them. I…When Vilgefortz melted me, I wasn’t thinking of much. Pain, that was all that consumed me. But I do remember having a fleeting thought. Hope. That I’d bought you enough time. That you, Yennefer and Ciri would reunite, and find Cahir and Angoulême. Milva was gone. And I was scared, because I knew this pain, this fire…it would be the end of me. I couldn’t regenerate from it, not by myself. I knew that instinctively. But still, I had hope that maybe everyone else would survive. I suppose that was foolish of me.”

He looks at the medallion again. “I know you must blame yourself for what happened. For all of them. I told you not to blame yourself for my death, but I suppose that doesn’t matter much when I, in fact, didn’t die. But you can’t hear those words from Milva. Or Cahir, or Angoulême. But…Their deaths are only to be blamed on their killers. Not you.”

The dawn light gets stronger, and Regis can hear birds singing from the forests. Carefully, he puts the bow back by Ameer’s bed.

“…We miss you, Geralt. A lot. I wish that you could hear us, speak with us.” It seems that, until they find Tye and cure Geralt, this is the closest Regis is going to get to talking with his old friend.

——

“I had a strange dream.”

Yennefer had just been asking why Regis didn’t wake her up to let her take over.

“You really should have woken me up.” She had crossed her arms. “You look tired now.”

“Being a vampire, I do not require sleep in the same way that humans do.” Regis deflected. “I decided it would be better to allow you to sleep through the night undisturbed.”

“Vampires do need to sleep, though. Maybe not as much as humans, but you do need to sleep.”

“Well, one night shan’t do much damage, I would hope.”

That’s when Ameer says it. He’s been sitting on the bed, staring down at the wolf medallion, ignoring their conversation.

“You had a strange dream? What do you mean by that?” Yennefer asks.

“I…” He stands up, allowing the head of the medallion to rest in the palm of his hand. “I had a dream about Geralt.”

Instantly, their petty and passive aggressive argument is completely forgotten. Yennefer and Regis crowd around him, staring down at the medallion.

“A dream? What kind of dream?” Yennefer asks.

“Did he speak to you?” A thousand questions are on Regis’s tongue, and it requires a great deal of patience to not unload them on Ameer.

Ameer tilts his head. “I…I was in a castle. I did not recognise it, but…” now, he touches his chest. “It felt like…home.“

“A castle?” Yennefer frowns. “Describe it, if you can.”

“Mm…It was very big. Surrounded by beautiful forests and mountains. But, it did not seem very well kept. There was lots of broken stone, and the plants were growing everywhere.”

“Kaer Morhen.” Yennefer tells Regis. “It has to be.”

“I was standing on a balcony, and…Geralt was there.”

Regis feels his heart race, excitement and another, more treacherous feeling, quivering inside of him. “You saw him? What happened?”

“…He was trying to speak to me.” Ameer frowns, fingers tracing the ridges of the wolf head. “But, I could not hear what he was saying. As if…we were underwater. I could hear vague noises, but nothing else. And yet, when I woke up, I had strong feelings in my chest – feelings that were not my own.” He frowns. “I felt…happy. But also, scared. A strong fear, one that did not belong to me, but I was not sure what the fear was about. And Yennefer,” he looks at her, “I had a strong feeling to kiss you. No, not a feeling…as if there was a tiny voice at the back of my head, and that voice wanted to kiss you.” Then he turns to Regis. “And that same voice wanted to embrace you, to talk to you.”

“Geralt. That was Geralt, wasn’t it?” Yennefer turns to Regis, almost a hint of desperation in her voice. “You know more about this spell than I do. Can the user feel the soul of the spell’s recipient?”

“I’m not sure.” Regis answers, just as desperate as she is. “But it sounds very plausible, based on this information.”

“Ah!” Ameer cries out, startled and staring down at the medallion. “His eyes!”

When Regis peers at the metal, he sees it – the eyes are glowing a gentle, soft yellow.

“They’ve never done that before.” Yennefer states when she sees them. “Not once. Red, maybe, but not yellow.”

“Is it broken?” The thought sends terrible worry throughout Regis. “Is it damaged?”

Ameer studies the medallion. “No, no damage…They were red when I spoke to the mage in Skellige. Now they are yellow. Is he trying to communicate with us? Perhaps, it is an emotion?”

All three of them look at each other, the revelation of this theory stunning them for a moment.

Then Regis grabs Ameer by the shoulders, looking closely at the wolf’s face. “Geralt, if you can hear me, glow twice.” He says slowly and loudly. “Stop glowing, then glow, then off and on again. If you can hear me, do that, please.”

However, the glowing doesn’t change, doesn’t heed Regis’s instructions. The small cluster of hope that had built up inside of him is quickly squashed. Perhaps this is simply a fluke, some abnormal incident.

“Geralt. Can you see me?”

Regis turns to see Yennefer without her clothes on. Instead, she wears lingerie, a black laced bra with underpants. The black necklace and pendant is still around her neck, and she regards the medallion expectantly.

The yellow light of its eyes glows even brighter.

Her face brightens when she sees it. “A response. It has to be.”

Regis lets out a shaky, relieved laugh. “I believe you’re right. He can see us.”

Ameer looks less pleased. Frowning, he puts his hand over the medallion. “How rude – do not look! I do not want your nasty thoughts in my head!”

But neither Yennefer nor Regis can stop smiling. Yennefer places her hand on the wolf medallion gently, and Regis does the same.

"He’s definitely in there." Yennefer smiles. "The spell is definitely working. And he can see us." The relief and sheer joy is unlike anything Regis has felt in a long, long time.

“So, he can see us, but not hear us?” Regis asks.

“We have to assume so. And I suppose you’ve never seen anything like this, Ameer?”

“No, I have not. Though, the only time I used the spell, it was for two days, and the patient – a human – did not remember anything.” Ameer frowns thoughtfully. “This has been longer than two days. And Geralt is a witcher. Perhaps the mutations mean the spell works differently.”

Soon, the eyes begin to fade slightly, going back to their dull state.

“I think he is resting.” Ameer says before either of them can panic. “I can still feel him here.”

Yennefer sighs in relief. “That’s good. Very good.” All of a sudden, she looks slightly abashed at her emotional display. “I shall get changed again. Now, if we want food, I believe we should look beyond this inn – though are choices will rely entirely on price. I’m quite low on money.”

“I shall go hunting.” Ameer announces. “To pay back the cost of the bow. I can hunt us food, or perhaps sell pelts.”

“I’ll go with you.” Regis says quickly. “I can gather herbs and edible plants.” He needs to stock up on herbs again to keep up his disguise, since the raven decided to snack on them. And, in truth, he too feels rather embarrassed. Besides, this will give Yennefer some undoubtedly wanted seclusion to process her new feelings towards the situation.

Indeed, Yennefer doesn’t argue. “Good idea. Meet me back here when you finish. I have some research I’d like to do, anyway.”

 

Outside the inn, the streets are anything but empty. Civilians are gathered on the roads by the inn, whispering and muttering to each other. Beyond the streets, towards the main market area, Regis can hear shouting and chanting. And the sound of barking – he’ll take care to avoid any dogs, then, until he's replenished his herbal stocks.

“It’s going on again, mum.” A woman with a baby whispers to an older woman. “What do you think’ll happen?”

“With the Black Ones involvin’ emselves, who knows?” The older woman shakes her head.

“Excuse me.” Regis approaches them. “We only arrived here last night. If it’s not too much trouble, could you explain to us what exactly is going on?”

“You been at Oxenfurt before?” The old woman looks him up and down. She glances at Ameer too, who stands behind with his cloak hood up. “And you – you’re not from around here, are you? Been to this neck of the woods before?”

“It has been a rather long time since I was last in Oxenfurt.” Regis admits. “And my companion here has never been before.”

“Are you familiar with the Oxenfurt Academy?” The daughter asks him.

“Why, of course. A good friend of mine is an alumni of that most prestigious school.”

“Well, with the Black Ones arriving, ruling over Redania, they’ve decided to make some changes the staff and students of Oxenfurt Acaedmy aren’t pleased with.” She explains. “Changes to the curriculum, to the way of teaching. Specifically about Nilfgaard. People are calling it propaganda. A group of students started protesting in the market square, about a week ago. Started small, about fifteen people involved. The Black Ones tolerated it. But every day, it grew. More students getting involved, even teachers and professors.”

“No deaths.” The old woman says. “No violence from the Black Ones – so far. The ones in charge seem reasonable enough, but they’ve also refused to reconsider.”

“Now, the crowds are so big, the market is closed for a few hours every day. By midday, I’d say that the Black Ones will have dispersed them.” The woman shakes her head. “Just means we can’t get to our shops, our jobs, until it dies down.”

“Hm. If I’m to be perfectly candid, I’m surprised that no one has been fatally wounded.” Regis remarks.

“Oh, it’ll happen eventually.” The old woman points to her temple. “I remember it vividly, I do. 1242. The Oxenfurt uprising. Bunch of students kiddin' themselves that they’re doing something noble, something brave. Start bringing on local people like you an’ me. But then they start gettin' violent, start killin' anyone who doesn’t agree with them.” She shakes her head. “‘‘Twas awful, it was. But they were put down just as violently by the authorities. And I’m tellin' you, unless the Black Ones give in, or the students give up, it’s going to be the same. Either the students’ll start killin', or the Black Ones’ll get tired and kill ‘em.”

“Come on, mum, surely it won’t be that bad.” The daughter says hopefully.

“Hm. I wouldn’t be so sure. Let’s just hope either side has the sense to give in before things get too rough.”

“We’ll avoid the market area, then. Thank you for your warning.”

 

Weaving through crowds of disgruntled workers waiting for the market to open, past groups of citizens debating the validity of both side’s arguments, Regis and Ameer finally reach the Novigrad gate. There are fewer soldiers here than before, no doubt having been called for reinforcements in the market square.

Eventually, when they reach the forests outside of Oxenfurt, the shouts have faded considerably. Still audible, but not as loud as before.

“I suppose this is the most peace and quiet we’ll get.” Regis remarks as they begin their walk into the forest. Nothing can ruin his good mood now, though. He feels happy, the first time since he arrived in Skellige, as he walks. The grass has a thin layer of frost which crunches underfoot, and sunlight filters through the dying and branches of the canopy, providing an illusion of warmth. And yet the cold doesn’t bother him. The sounds of birds and animals echo through the trees, and Regis decides he likes the noise of it.

Geralt is conscious in there. He feels much closer to them than he was before.

Ameer seems more pensive.  He has his bow in his hands, eyes travelling across the canopy and undergrowth carefully.

“…1242. Why did they fight?” He asks, notching an arrow into the bow.

“If I recall correctly, it was something to do with democracy. Such events are so numerous in the 400 years I’ve been alive, it’s rather hard to keep track at times.”

Ameer stops suddenly, squinting at the trees. He raises his bow, but before he can take aim a wood pigeon takes flight and retreats further into the canopy.

He mutters something in Ofieri, most likely a swear word. “I apologise. I am not used to hunting in this biome. The animals, they are very different to those in Ofier. And so, I must learn how to hunt these new animals.”

“That’s not a problem, Ameer. Besides, I have a feeling that my low supply of herbs might be alerting the animals to my presence. I shall try and collect some promptly, so as not to ruin your hunt.”

Together, they travel deeper into the forest. As the trees become thicker, the little warmth from the light wanes. Despite the cold of autumn, plants abound – one simply has to know where to look, and rely on leaves rather than flowers for identification. Regis comes across wild garlic, rosemary, wood sorrel, sweet chestnut, hawthorn, pink purslane and chickweed. These should help mask his scent. He takes time to peruse the undergrowth for medicinal varieties, too. Henbane, hemlock and bryony are entirely poisonous to eat, but are useful anaesthetics. Among some of the more tumultuous soil, he finds poppies – a powerful analgesic and relaxer. Perhaps they’ll come in useful.

At first, Ameer does not bother to even raise his bow. He simply walks through the forest, observing the animals as they run from bushes, fly from trees and perch in branches. His head tilts as he watches them, and as he walks, he hums that little tune again, absent minded.  Eventually, he leans down and picks up a branch. Lowering his hood, perhaps to hear better, he arches his arm back and hurls it towards the branches of a tree. When the birds roosting there take flight, he draws the bow and lets an arrow loose, faster than Regis’ vision can keep up with. One of the birds drops down, the arrow in its breast. Ameer walks over to it and quickly breaks its neck, putting the animal out of its misery.

“…You have lived longer than I have, Regis.” He takes out the arrow and fastens the dead bird to his belt. “So may I ask some questions?”

“About what?”

“Humans.”

“Humans? I was certain you had plenty of expertise on them.” Regis carefully puts the minty leaves he’s picked into his bag. “You worked alongside them, after all.”

“That is true.” Ameer sits down on a fallen tree trunk, which is half covered in bushes and opportunistic plants. He picks a few wild raspberries from the bushes, and sniffs them – checking for poison. Even in a new biome, his highly superior sense of smell should allow him to identify poisonous fruits. Of course, Regis would stop him if he tried to eat a poisonous species.

“I lived among humans for…hm. Forty years? Unlike you, I did not have to hide or change places to avoid discovery as often, as elves are long lived anyway, so no one noticed my lack of ageing. And the elder races, especially elves, I know them very well.”

“So…why do you ask?”

Ameer frowns, breaking off a twig from the bush distractedly. “…I know humans well. And yet, my mother said I was naïve. That we could never understand humans, not really.” His gaze is suddenly averted, alert and focused into the bushes in front of him. His head swivels from side to side again, in a similar manner to a fox before it pounces. Carefully, he notches in another arrow, aims the bow – and sends it flying into the bushes, where it lands in an unfortunate rabbit.

He jumps off the log and retrieves it, taking back the arrow head and broken shaft, then hanging the rabbit on his belt.

“…We vulpesses, we live by simple rules. We have our children. We look after them, no matter what. They never go hungry with us. If someone takes them, we do anything to get them back. We kill, if we have to – sometimes, if we want to. Those who trespass onto our land are chased away with illusions. We try not to fight among ourselves, though we occasionally have spats about territory. But, we live off the land. We are not governed by laws, by kings or queens. We do not seek to kill humans, or those belonging to the elder race. If they incur our wrath, then so be it, but we have no…no agenda? Yes, no agenda, that is the word, no agenda to kill humans, manipulate them – nor to help them, meddle in their affairs. We have our children, our families, and we live our lives with our secrets.”

“And yet, you lived beside humans.” Regis collects some of the berries himself, tying them in a cloth. “Healed them, in fact.”

“I did. Because I am not a true vulpess.” He sits back on the log. “Hm…a part of me was not entirely bound to our customs, our secrecy. I was curious. And, I found it enjoyable to heal. I liked humans. They could be cruel, and they are so weak and fragile, but also hard working and tenacious, and sometimes even kind. When you find a poor, injured animal out in the wild, and it looks so tiny and helpless, and you want to look after it? That is what I feel towards humans.”

“They are rather frail, aren’t they?” Regis muses.

“Yes. But my mother, she did not approve. She warned me of their fickle natures, their innate violence. She told me, it is why the vulpesses strike back with such rage and deadly power when we are wronged, when our children are stolen. It is a warning. So they fear us, so they know not to persecute us lest they face our wrath. She said I did not understand humans.” He sighs. “I thought I could, being more elf than any of my sisters. I thought I may be able to understand them – truly live alongside them, even. And it was a charmed life, I must admit, living in the cities. Hearing so many different tales from different people, living in security instead of facing the harsh wilderness.” His face hardens. “But she was right. I did not understand humans – and I still do not. Tell me, Regis. Why is it that humans can be so quick to kill?”

Regis sits next to him on the log. “Well, everything can be quick to kill, depending on the reason.”

Ameer shakes his head. “If we kill, it is only because our children have been stolen, or to keep humans from killing us. When a fox kills, it is to survive, to feed. But humans kill because they do not like one breed of human, or because they are greedy and want something very badly.” He frowns. “I thought that humans would be more focused on life and mortality. For us, vulpesses and vampires, it makes little difference. We live too long, and it is something we would struggle to ever comprehend. So why is it that humans, who must comprehend it, who live in the knowledge of its…”

“Inevitability?”

“Yes. Why do humans like to take life, to kill, even though they should value it more than anyone else? The woman from the city, she said that those people killed all those who did not agree of them. What if I do not agree with a violent uprising? What if I think peace talks are more effective? It does not matter who is right or wrong, but because I do not agree, they kill me?”

“Hm.” Regis picks celandine flowers growing on the log. “What you ask, Ameer, is a question even humans themselves don’t know. Are humans inherently evil? I don’t think so. But they’re not inherently good, either. Most seem to have some basic drive to do well by others, to help instead of kill. And yet, so many seem so willing to do the most abhorrent, disgusting acts. In and out of war, for the deliberate detriment of others, for their own gain…I think, it would be far easier if we could classify them as they classify us.”

Ameer tilts his head. “…What do you mean?”

“Monsters. This human did this, so he is a monster. But they’re not monsters. That would be letting them off too lightly. Even the simplest peasant, one who works hard, looks after his family, treats his farm animals well, can involve himself in brutal pogroms without a hint of guilt on his conscience. They know the choices, they know the consequences, and they do have the ability to empathise – but some choose not to, or do not care. I’m like you, in a way. I walk among humans far more than any other vampire does. And I understand their customs, their culture, their morals infinitely more than anyone else in my race. But I’m afraid that neither of us will truly ever understand. Admittedly, even vampires – and I’m sure vulpesses – can show great acts of cruelty. However, these acts come from an entirely different realm of rationale.” Dettlaff…he bore no particular resentment towards the people of Beauclair. He did not understand the concept of being tricked, lied to, manipulated, so he simply reacted in a way he thought would both get what he wanted, and strike back at Syanna to hurt her, as she hurt him. His lack of understanding, his inability to truly empathise with humans, be aware of how they act, caused both his most inexcusable crime, and his ultimate downfall.

“Our species are just…built differently, I suppose. We were raised in entirely different cultures, and even the greatest empathy, the most intricate of knowledge, will never quite be enough to entirely and intimately understand humans.”

Ameer considers this quietly. “…I think my mother was right. I am foolish.”

“I don’t think it’s foolish to want to understand others, to even the smallest degree.”

Ameer nods, still silently thoughtful. Being captured and enslaved by humans would most certainly shift one’s perspective, raise doubts at one’s pre-existing knowledge and assumptions.

“…Thank you, for answering my questions. I am sure I must be boring you with all this philosophical talk.” Ameer stands up. So he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, getting too close to sensitive subjects.

“Not at all. As a matter of fact, I adore philosophical talk. But shall we continue?”

“Yes.”

 

Further into the forest, Ameer manages to down two more birds. Regis himself has a good harvest with herbs; the autumn fruit is plentiful, and not yet killed off by frost or snow. Among his retrieval he finds a multitude of horse mushrooms, large and fleshy. They’ll go well in a stew. They see no one as they walk, but swiftly take a different path when Ameer senses wolves up ahead. He offers to bewitch them, but Regis says it would simply be easier to avoid them.

Vampire friend! Regis looks up to see his raven swooping down towards him. Almost instinctively, he hold out his arm and the raven perches on it. In his beak are a collection of small stalks and leaves.

Hello, my friend.

I give plant! Regis holds out his other hand, palm outstretched, and the raven drops the leaves and stalks onto him.

“Goodness.” Regis examines it carefully. “How on earth did he find this?”

“What is it?” Ameer peers at the leaves curiously.

“It’s ebony spleenwort. Very rare, and quite a pain to reach – normally, one has to traverse caverns and subterranean tunnels to find this species.”

The raven puffs his chest up. I find plant on ground by elf cave! Vampire friend like?

Yes, I do. Thank you very much. Regis looks at Ameer, who has his back to him. “He’s done a lot of flying recently. You wouldn’t consider giving him some food –”

Ameer turns back around, the tip of an arrow head in one hand, something bloody in the other. Cawing, the raven flies over to him and lands on his arm, pecking at the bloody lump. Then, he flies away. Thank you fox friend!

“What was that?” Regis asks.

“Rabbit eyes.” Ameer kneels and wipes his hand in some moss. “The ravens here are different to the ravens in Ofier, but it seems they still like to eat such things…” He trails off, staring up at the trees again. His head keeps on tilting again in that fox-like manner. 

With no warning, he bares his teeth and hisses. His vulpess canines are showing. He picks up another stick and hurls it at the trees. From the branches, Regis spots an owl sleepily take flight. Ameer watches it go scornfully.

“What was that about?” Regis asks.

“I do not like owls. They are very annoying. They hunt foxes in Ofier. Of course, they cannot hurt us, but by principle we do not like each other.” He explains.

“I see.” Regis can’t help but smile. Ameer narrows his eyes.

“What?”

“Nothing. It’s just…very fox-like. That, and all the head tilting you do.”

Ameer frowns, flustered. “Well, you vampires are bats, yes? Do you not display some similar behaviours? Even in human form?”

When Regis shakes his head, a mischievous smile creeps onto Ameer’s face. “Really? Because I heard that vampires like to eat insects, just like bats do.”

“Well, you heard wrong. That’s most certainly not true.” Regis assures him.

“Are you sure?” Ameer sidles over to him. “You do not look at a moth and think, oh, how juicy?”

“No, I don’t.”

His protests otherwise only encourage Ameer. He nudges Regis in the ribs, grinning.

“Oh, hello my dear, my name is Regis.” He mimics Regis’s voice with frightening accuracy. It must be an aguara trick. An auditory illusion? “I am Regis the vampire, and I just love to eat insects.”

“Ameer…”

He leans his arm against Regis’s shoulder. “When I see a fly buzzing around a room, my stomach begins to rumble! Mmm, they are just so exquisite, my dear!” He holds out the flat of his palm in front of Regis’s face. It’s suddenly covered in insects – flies and spiders. “Do you want some delicious insects, Regis?”

They’re very, very realistic. Regis is not squeamish about insects in any way, but he shakes his head anyway. “I think I’ll turn down your offer.”

“Oh, but I got this treat especially for you!” Ameer watches him mischievously. “You really do not want these tasty insects, sadiqaa raeb?”

Regis looks back down at the insects. They do look disgusting. But after all that philosophical talk, it’s nice to see Ameer being cheerful. This isn’t Regis’s usual kind of humour, but for the sake of levity he plays along.

He takes a squirming spider and, only hesitating for a moment, pops it into his mouth. Instantly, the spider turns into a raspberry against his tongue.

“Ha! You really put it in your mouth!” Ameer looks delighted. He holds out his hand again. “You want some more?”

Regis takes one of the spiders, then tries to shove it into Ameer’s mouth. Ameer turns his head, and the raspberries is crushed against his cheek instead.

“Oh, we are playing this game now?” Ameer presses his whole palm up against Regis’s cheek. A whole handful of raspberries is now smeared on him.

“Ah!” Regis wipes off some of the crushed berries from his cheek. “You…” His own playful side gives in, and he attempts to wipe the mess back onto Ameer’s face. Ameer grabs his wrists with surprising strength, trying to force them back onto Regis’s own face. They struggle with each other, until another impish smile creeps onto Ameer's face.

With no warning, he leans forwards and licks Regis’s nose. It surprises Regis enough to give Ameer the upper hand. He forces Regis’s own berry covered hand back onto his own face.

“All right, all right, you win!” He protests. Ameer stops his fruitful onslaught, laughing. He has a delightful laugh, Regis thinks. Pleasant to the ear. Almost melodic in nature.

“Oh…It has been so long since I have laughed like this.” Ameer takes out a cloth from his bag, still grinning. “But I have made a mess of your face. Here, let me wipe it off.”

Regis stays still as Ameer wipes away the crushed raspberries. Somehow, he’s glad to have made Ameer laugh. Such simple pleasures can do wonders for the psyche. 

The raven lands on Regis’s shoulder, looking between the two with confusion.

Insect berry? Insect insect or insect berry? Ameer’s illusions certainly work on ravens, then.

Those were just berries. Ameer can create illusions, you see.

I understand. Fox friend very clever good magic!

Ameer watches curiously. “That raven is very familiar with you. Why does he follow you?”

“Hm…I’m not entirely sure. I suppose it may be because I helped free him from a wagon wheel, although he’s going much further to repay that debt, and he hasn’t mentioned it since. He simply offered up his services, and I agreed.” Regis smiles. “Now, if I were to guess, I would say he’s a young and excitable individual who finds the whole thing to be some sort of adventure, and wants to prove himself to be strong and clever to his raven friends.”

“That is a lot of personality in one bird.” Ameer remarks.

“Well, ravens have lots of it. For a bird, anyway. And I’m certainly not going to shun his help.” He doesn’t mention how he's also pleased to have another friend.

“Does he have a name?” Ameer asks.

“Of sorts. Ravens have their own ways of identifying each other. As for a formal name, at least so you know which raven I’m talking about…I might have something in mind. It’s silly, I know.”

“Please, tell me.” Ameer says curiously.

“…Tatanu.”

Ameer thinks about it. “Tatanu.” He repeats. “I like it.”

Regis smiles. “Tatanu it is.”

 

Eventually, they reach another path, leading up to a small blue and white hut with a thatched roof. Surrounding the hut, Regis can see beds of flowers and herbs, fenced off to keep hungry rabbits from snacking on the wares.

“A herbalist. Perhaps he’ll be willing to do some trade.” Regis wonders.

As they get closer, Regis spots a halfling sitting in the garden, pulling out weeds from the soil.

“Excuse me!” Regis calls over to him.

The halfling looks up, and waves them over. He stands up, brushing dirt off his trousers and hands. “Good morning, gentlemen. Otto Bamber, herbalist.” He introduces himself. “How can I help you?”

“Greetings, and praise the world in its never-ending creation. I am Ameer, and this is Regis. He likes to eat insects.” Ameer speaks up suddenly.

“No, I don’t.” Regis says quickly, stopping by the fence. “We were wondering if you’d like to trade. Unless we’ve come at an inopportune time.”

“No, no, not at all.” He leaves the garden, and opens the door for them. “Please, come in.”

They follow him into his house, which is cluttered with boxes and jars of herbs. In fact, there isn’t much room to even walk.

“Sorry for the mess. I’ve been clearing out my basement, you see.” He looks at Ameer, noticing his ears. “You’re clearly not from round here. Zerrikania? Ofier? Hannu?”

“Ofier.”

“Do elves in Ofier have escape routes in their houses, too?” Otto asks.

“Escape routes? Why would we have those?”

“Ah, so you're treated more fairly down there, then.” Otto perceives. “Up here, we’re always suffering from pogroms and racisms and whatnot. Had a real bad time of it four years ago. Things’ve calmed down since then, but we certainly haven’t forgotten how quickly humans can turn against us.” He gestures to the mess around him. “Escape routes are the fashion among nonhumans now. Building tunnels from our basements, away to a safer place, in case a mob comes knocking on our doors or tries to burn our houses down. In Novigrad it’s easier – plenty of pre-existing tunnels and sewers to take advantage of – but it’s taking me a bit longer, out here in the countryside.”

“Escape routes…” Ameer considers this thoughtfully. “That is not a bad idea.” Regis wonders what he’s thinking of.

“So, what would you like to trade?” Otto yawns. “Sorry, sorry. I’ve been having some awful night’s sleep recently.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Is it the protests in Oxenfurt?” Regis asks.

“Oh, no, that’s too far away for me to hear. No, I can hear people traipsing around the forest at god awful hours in the morning. But enough complaining from me. What do you have?”

Regis opens his bag, taking out the ebony spleenwort from his bag. “Would these interest you?”

“Oh, goodness me.” The halfling peers at the leaves, wide eyed. “Where did you find those? No offence, but you don’t strike me as the type to go climbing down caves.”

“You’re not wrong there. It was simply a lucky find.”

“Well, there are plenty of herbs I could offer you in return – or just money, if you’re looking for some crowns.”

“Show me your collection.” Regis is curious to see what’s in store.

Alongside herbs, Otto seems to have a great deal of alchemy recipes, including manuscripts for various witcher potions – tawny owl, white Raffard’s decoction, Killer Whale, Blizzard and Swallow, to name a few.

 But it’s a plant that catches Regis’ eye. Lush and green, with pearl white flowers sprouting from the ends.

“What is that?” He asks, not recognising the plant.

The halfling scratches his head. “Truth be told…I don’t know. Found a good crop of them growing by the river banks, so I took some out of curiosity. Can’t find them in any of my books, either.”

“Do you recognise it, Ameer?”

Ameer peers at the leaves carefully. “Hm…The shape of the leaves, the width of them – plants in Ofier are similar, to deal with the heat. But this is not Ofieri, I do not recognise it.”

“From the southern climates, then?” Otto nods thoughtfully. “That makes sense. Some Ofieri merchants moved to the northern kingdoms a few years ago – I hear they live in Novigrad now. I think some of the plants and seeds they brought with them have managed to spread into the wild.”

Ameer doesn’t look thrilled to hear about these Ofieri people again. He quickly changes the topic.

“What is written in your book, Regis?”

Ah, yes. The book that Cerys and Hjalmar gave to him. Regis takes out the tome from his bag, the golden snake on the cover reflecting the weak sun that shines through the windows.

“Let me see…It looks as if it belongs to the hyssop family, perhaps…” He flicks quickly through the pages, glancing at the illustrations with each turned page – until he finds one that looks identical.

“Hannu pennywort.” Hannu lies south of Nilfgaard, not far from Ofier. That would explain the similarities. This is certainly a remarkable tome, to list species so far from Skellige. He reads the description quickly. It seems the stalk has different medicinal properties, primarily as a disinfectant to stop the spread of infection. Hm. If they come across that poison again, this could prevent the strange toxin from spreading dangerously far into the body.

However, it’s the next paragraph that catches Regis’s attention.

Hannu pennywort’s perhaps least well known, but most interesting, feature is its remarkable anti-confusion and anti-hallucinatory properties. The plant has been used by doctors to ease the delusions of psychotic patients, or those suffering from fever-induced hallucinations. For protection against more hostile, deliberately evoked hallucinations, the plant can be enchanted with True Sight, and the stalks and leaves ingested. Doing so will show the hallucinations for what they are – nothing. Though it will not show the difference between reality and illusions created by creatures inherently imbued with shape shifting or illusory powers, such as Dopplers or Vulpesses, any who try to cast illusory spells will fail.’

Interesting. He gestures to the plant. “How much is that going for?”

“I’ll give you the whole batch for the ebony spleenwort and 40 crowns.”

After a moment of consideration, Regis nods. Who knows what other tricks Tye has waiting for them. “Yes, let’s do that.”

“Anything else?”

Ameer holds up one of the dead birds. “Would you be willing to buy?”

Otto thinks about it. “What else do you have? Aside from birds?”

“A rabbit.”

“Ah.” Otto looks considerably more interested. “With the pelt?”

“Yes.”

Otto examines it. “You managed to hit the eye, not damage the pelt. Very good. Fur for the scarf I’m making, and the meat for supper this evening. I’ll pay you 20 crowns.”

“Deal.” They exchange goods, Ameer looking happily down at the crowns he’s earned for himself.

Before the herbalist can thank them for business, a voice suddenly shouts from outside the hut.

“Otto!”

The herbalist sighs, closing his eyes.

“Otto! I know you’re in there!”

“Who’s that?” Regis asks. It sounds like a woman, with a strong northern accent.

“No one important.” Otto hastily moves to the door, opening it and stepping outside, closing the door firmly behind him. Despite this effort to create some privacy, Regis can still hear him perfectly.

“Look, lady, I’ve told you not to come here anymore.”

“I know you did.”

“So why are you here? I’m not selling you any more beggartick.”

“I don’t know why you’re so against it. Word is, you sheltered a master thief or some such in this hut o’ yours. I’m just wanting to sell a bit of fisstech, is all. That’s practically nothin’ in comparison!”

“I’ve had enough of criminals coming to me, so I don’t want any more to do with it.”

“Well, you won’t sell it to me, so I have to find it myself. If you tell me where it grows, then maybe I’ll stop having to come to you.”

Otto sighs, and after a few moments of frustrated silence, he speaks. “They grow near rivers. Not right by the edge, about 10 feet either side of the bank. Or in swampy biomes.”

“There we go! That weren’t hard, were it?”

“I wouldn’t get too involved in that sort of thing if I were you, though. You’ll incur the wrath of crime bosses if you’re not careful.”

“Well, you’re not me, so you don’t need to worry, love.”

The door opens, and Otto stands sheepishly in the door way. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you, and I’d be delighted to do it again in the future.”

“Likewise.” Regis decides it would be polite to pretend he didn’t hear the conversation. “If we ever need to buy some herbs, I’ll know who to come to.”

When he and Ameer leave the herbalist’s hut, they don’t get very far before they’re stopped.

“Oi. What you doin’ here?”

Regis turns to see a woman sitting on the fence surrounding the herb garden. She’s short in stature, with black hair that’s entirely shaved at one side. Despite the cold weather, she wears no scarves, and her blouse cuts low – on her chest, Regis can see several tattoos. Arms on her hips, she regards them with a sharp grin.

“You’re pretty eager, ain’t ya? Wasn’t expecting you till ‘bout eight this evening.”

Regis frowns. “Wait…You sent the letter?”

“Course I did. And you’re that old git travelling round with the witch. Along with your weird little elf friend there.”

“Who are you?” Regis demands. “How do you know Yennefer? And why did you summon us here?”

“Name’s Adela. I don’t know the witch, but I know her boyfriend. Old Puss Peepers did a favour for me, a few years ago or somethin'. And I know that Parviz the Black Market Prick is dead.” She jumps from the fence and strides towards them, entirely confident. “For whatever reason, you seem to be interested in him. And wouldn’t you know, I happen to have some juicy information about who did it.”

Regis narrows his eyes. “Who?”

Adela laughs. “Now, now, don’t have any concrete proof of anything. But Parviz was involved in some shady shite, I can guarantee that. And, lucky for you,” she smiles, “I know exactly what that shady shite was.”

“What do you want?” Money? An impossible favour?

“Less business competitors.” She replies. “Where’s miss Yennefer?”

“She’s at the inn we were supposed to meet at.”

“Well. No harm in havin' our little meeting early, I suppose.” She begins to walk down the path, back towards the forest. “You comin' or what?”

Ameer looks at Regis, looking utterly confused. “What did she say? Did she send the letter?”

“She did.” Honestly, this drug dealer was the last person Regis expected to have sent the letter.

“So, what does she know?” Ameer asks.

“I suppose we’ll have to ask her ourselves.” Slowly, Regis begins to follow the odd woman down the path, Ameer close behind him.

Chapter Text

“ -Hey you! Puss Peepers!

 -Name's Geralt.

 -But I'm gonna call you Puss Peepers. That a problem?

 -Get to the point.

 -Got an offer. Potentially lucrative, Puss Peepers. Someone's killed my mate. Name was Kluivert. You're to figure out who did it. Then cut the bugger's head off.” – A conversation between Adela and Geralt.

 

 

It’s well past midday when Regis and Ameer finally return to the Alchemy – led by a woman Yennefer doesn’t recognise.

While Regis has been collecting herbs and Ameer has been hunting for money, Yennefer hasn’t just been sitting idly. First, she washes her boots thoroughly. With some magical help, she’s able to get rid of the mud, and makes a mental note to buy some more in Novigrad. And as she washes her boots, her mind inevitably drifts to Geralt.

He’s awake in there. He saw her. He reacted to her presence. And while she wishes she hadn’t used a rather crude method of eliciting that reaction, it’s clear proof the spell is working.

How much is he aware of? Does he know how much she misses him? Oh, how she wishes she could speak to him. She wishes she could teleport back to Skellige and tell Ciri the news. That would definitely cheer her daughter up. There’s so much she wishes she could tell him. Does he know how hard they’re all trying to catch Tye? Does he know they only have two months, or else his soul will be lost forever?

No, she’s allowing catastrophic thoughts to run errant in her mind. Geralt saw her, and she should be happy enough at that. Using that happiness to keep the darker thoughts at bay, she finishes her boots and gets back on track with her task: figuring out where Tye could have gone.

So, she peruses every tome she has with her, scouring their pages intensely. Not for the origin of the poison; she knows from bitter experience that will get her nowhere. This time, trying her best to ignore the shouts from outside, she searches for any and all masking magic that Tye could be searching for. It has already occurred to her that the necklace Tye stole from Parviz might have been enough masking magic for him, and that her research is for nothing, but she needs to try anyway. Besides, it’s not unreasonable to assume he searched for more masking magic, since higher vampires are skilled trackers and wouldn’t be stopped by the necklace he stole.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t make much meaningful progress in her research. That’s not to say she hasn’t found any options. Rather, she has found too many. Spells, alchemy, potions, there’s just too much to choose from. It doesn’t help that masking magic in itself it quite vague. For example, her own necklace exudes what could be classified as masking magic; it prevents other mages and sorceresses from detecting the magic that Yennefer herself uses. Very different from the necklace Tye stole, which simply prevents others from tracking him down with magical means, and yet they have the same classifications.

When her search is too broad, she decides to change her tactics. He wasn’t just interested in masking magic, but also in powerful magical sites and people. Perhaps she should focus more on that.

But there aren’t many magic users in Novigrad anymore. Four years isn’t enough time to ease the painful memories of torture and persecution during Radovid’s reign, the horrific bloodshed and execution, especially when many mages are over one hundred years old. There’s always Philippa Eilhart, who took up position as Emhyr’s formal advisor and now resides somewhere in Nilfgaard-occupied Redania. But then again, Yennefer doubts she would give some odd and scrawny man with a dirty cloth on his forehead the time of day, let alone important magical artefacts or information. Even if she did, Yennefer doesn’t particularly want to visit her old colleague. Philippa has always been brutally competitive and cut-throat, even for a sorceress. Considering Yennefer’s old ties with Nilfgaard, both real and falsely accused, and their vicious arguments in the past regarding Ciri, she has a feeling she wouldn’t be welcome, to say the least. And Philippa certainly isn’t above dirty tricks.

After some fruitless research, Yennefer gets frustrated. She just doesn’t have enough books, that’s it. There are so many magic hotspots across Redania and Temeria, even her vast knowledge can’t cover every small detail. And all that shouting is really getting on her nerves.

For her next course of action, Yennefer decides to pay the Oxenfurt Academy a visit. She knows some professors who teach there, so perhaps they can help her, or at least allow her to borrow the necessary books.

But that plan turns into a failure, too. After wasting time being shoved, nudged and elbowed by protesting crowds, Yennefer learns that the university is closed, thanks to said protests. Determined to gain some use out of the trip, she asks for Professor Shakeslock. An odd professor, but one so devoted to his research, even a protest wouldn’t stop him.

As it turns out, he’s dead. He died a few years ago. None of the Nilfgaardian soldiers could tell her anything about it. Their sparse detail on the matter isn’t deliberate – some quick mind reading tells her that they honestly don’t know what happened, and that the previous Redanian soldiers were, for whatever reason, very secretive about the matter.

Cold, tired, her head aching from the shouting and bustle of the protest, and utterly frustrated at her lack of progress, Yennefer is certainly not in the best of moods when she reaches the Alchemy Inn again. 

So, she certainly doesn’t appreciate it when someone shouts at her from across the streets.

“Oi, witch lady!”

Frowning, Yennefer turns to see a short woman with cropped and shaved hair striding over to her. She wears knee high leather boots, a low-cut maroon jumper that’s stained suspiciously, and surprisingly expensive golden earrings embedded with topaz. She carries a small black pot with one hand; the other rests at the hilt of the sabre hanging from her belt. Regis and Ameer follow from behind, the latter with bird carcasses hanging from his belt.

“Who is this?” Yennefer asks Regis.

“Name’s Adela.” The woman answers sharply before Regis can say anything. “I’m the one who told you to come here.”

“You sent the letter?” Yennefer can’t disguise the surprise in her voice.

“I did.” The woman stretches casually, looking at the Alchemy inn. “And I’ve decided that our original meeting place is a little too busy today.” She points at the birds by Ameer’s belt. “We’re gonna go cook one of them birds that your elf friend has caught. I’ve even fetched a pot for us to use.”

“I’d rather not.” For all Yennefer knows, this woman could be leading them into an ambush.

“Oh, let me explain. We’re doin' what I want to do, or I’m not tellin' you what you need to know.”

“And what would that be?”

“Where you can find Parviz’s murderer.” She continues walking. “Come on, then. I’m starvin’, I am.”

Yennefer grabs Regis’s wrist. “Who is she?”

“A petty drug dealer, it seems.” He replies wryly. “But she insists knowing something about Parviz’s murderer. She doesn’t seem like the most trust worthy type, to be entirely honest, but she doesn’t seem particularly dangerous, either.”

Yennefer sighs. “…Well, I suppose we have no choice. But we should stay alert, be ready to fight if necessary. And Ameer, keep that medallion hidden.”

Ameer nods, quickly tucking the medallion beneath his clothes.

Warily, they follow the woman through the streets of Oxenfurt, and out of the Novigrad gate. She moves at a leisurely pace, deliberately confident and relaxed. Yennefer, too, feigns casual disinterest, both hiding her caution and her eagerness to get information.

 

Eventually, they stop in a grassy field opposite a forest, and a blue painted hut in the short distance. Regis frowns when he sees it.

“We were just here. Why did we walk all the way back?”

“Well, we had to get your friend, didn’t we?” Adela says bluntly. “And I wanted a pot to cook this food.”

“We didn’t all need to go.” Regis insists. “I could have just gone myself.” He doesn’t say it, but Yennefer assumes he would have turned into mist, a far quicker method of transportation than all of them walking there and back.

“Well, it was a nice walk, weren’t it?”

Regis goes silent. She’s deliberately wasting their time, Yennefer realises, forcing them to comply with her stupid whims, just to emphasise that she holds all the cards in this situation. To show that she’s in charge of this situation, and they have to do whatever she says.

Right now, Yennefer has no choice but to play along. And she’s come across these kinds of people before. Resisting and complaining only encourages them to play with their power more, make even more inconvenient demands. “Yes, it was. Now, shall we start cooking this bird?”

Regis fills the pot up with water from a running river, and boils it thoroughly. Ameer lays out a cloth and begins plucking and jointing the bird on it, then cuts up the meat into chunks using a knife borrowed from Regis. He had hesitated to use the beautiful knife Hjalmar gave him for such a menial task, so Regis had quickly offered his own. He makes sure to fully sterilise it over the fire before using it. Carefully, he puts the meat into the pot, and then Regis adds herbs and thick mushrooms cut into slivers. Soon, an aromatic stew is brewing.

Yennefer stays still, sitting on the grass the entire time, but she isn’t being idle. Her attention is focused on Adela.

The woman is sitting on the grass next to her, with that smug confidence still all over her face. She sharpens a knife with a piece of flint, not looking up at Regis’s and Ameer’s preparations even once.

“It’s ready.” Regis announces, handing out wooden bowls.

“Thank you, Regis, Ameer.” Yennefer smiles and takes a bowl. “It smells lovely.” She isn’t going to argue with this woman, but she isn’t going to show herself being rattled, either.

In actuality, the stew is very nice. With all her research, Yennefer hadn’t realised how hungry she was. The mushroom and herbs give the stew a nice flavour, and the meat both fills and warms her up.

Regis eats his quietly, only asking if the others are enjoying it. Ameer is entirely silent as he eats, and when he finishes, he takes out the now-bare bird skull and begins carving runes on it with his knife.

“This is very good. You had a good harvest from the forest then, Regis?” She strikes up casual conversation.

“Autumn is always a plentiful time for foraging. These forests are particularly abundant with life.”

Quickly, Yennefer glances at Adela from the corner of her eye. When she tries to read the woman’s thoughts, she gets nothing but smugness.

How much should I charge them for this information? The witch is dangerous, I’d best not piss her off too much…but I can probably haggle a decent amount. Not like they’ll figure it out themselves. That was good stew. These two chefs or somethin’? Bet Olgierd would’ve hired them.

Nothing useful at all. Though she does legitimately have some information for them, it seems.

“Give me some more, would you?” Adela holds out her already empty bowl to Regis, who hesitantly ladles some more stew into it.

“Ah, here we go…” She blows on it, and eats it quickly. “I’ve gotta agree with the witch here. This is some damn good stew.”

When no one says anything in response to this, she laughs. “You’re a fun lot, ain’t you?”

“Well, let’s just say we have a lot on our minds right now.” Yennefer says vaguely.

Swallowing another mouthful of stew, Adela asks, “You really care about Parviz or something? Had good wares – the real wares, not the shite stuff he sold up front – but he was a whoreson, he was. You mates or somethin'?”

“No. Nothing like that.”

“Oh, of course, it’s them guys that got arrested for the crime, isn’t it? You wanna prove them innocent?”

“If we can.” Yennefer frowns. “How did you know about the ‘real wares’?”

Adela wipes her mouth and stretches. “Ah, a good meal! Warmed me right up!” She glances at Yennefer’s face, and then at Regis’s. She grins when she sees their frustration.

“All right, all right. I’ll stop windin’ you up.” She puts her hands on her knees. “You wanna know about Parviz? Here’s the deal.”

Yennefer leans closer. Here it is. Finally, they’ll know if their detour to Oxenfurt was worth the time and effort.

“You see, I used to travel around with this guy and his troops. Olgierd von Everec, he was called. We were called the Redanian Free Company. Right good fun he was. We’d get drunk, party, have a cheeky bit of fisstech, get into fights. It was a good time. And he had a taste for fine art, but no venues would ever dare sell to a bloke like him. So he had to get his paintings and sculptures and whatever from other sources – sources like Parviz.”

Yennefer remembers seeing stolen art works in Parviz’s secret compartment. So, there’s truth to her words. And Yennefer cannot detect any dishonesty in her thoughts.

“Later on, von Everec began to lose it a bit. Went to Parviz for all sorts of weird and dodgey artefacts. Black magic stuff, you know? Don’t know why. He was a bit mental like that. Heard he cursed a man into a monster toad by accident. Thought it was horseshit, but it turned out to be the gods honest truth. Anyway, ‘bout three years ago, your friend Puss Peepers shows up. He does a job for me, kills the pricks who murdered my friend. And von Everec buggers off with some new identity and self-realisation bollocks. Shortly after, Redania falls. Black Ones take over.”

Adela looks across at all of them, her gaze lingering on each member of the group individually. “You know much about the Black Ones?”

“Yes, we do.” Yennefer has had far too much experience, in fact.

“Good. Then you’ll know that they swept over Redania like a fucking plague. People were bein’ hung constantly. The gangs were almost wiped out. But,” she smiles, “they didn’t disappear. We just learnt to adapt.”

“I assume you’re involved with dealing fisstech.” Regis guesses.

“You assume right. So many other drug dealers were executed by the Black Ones. I saw an openin’ – a business opportunity, if you will – and I took it.”

“Are you not worried? About being caught?” Ameer asks, his first input into the conversation. He’s been struggling to understand her accent.

“Nah. The ones who got caught, it’s ‘cause they didn’t adapt. Focused too much on territory, on fightin’ with other gangs. That ain’t a problem for me. There aren’t any gangs left to fight with. Well. Except one.” She corrects herself.

“And who would that be?” Yennefer asks.

“Don’t know the individual members, but I know where they’re based. See, I was buyin’ herbs off that halfling – some very particular herbs, if you understand me – and he was complaining about people makin’ noise. Thought to myself, nowhere big or crowded enough to make that kind of noise out here. Not even from Oxenfurt. So, I stayed up one night. Crept out here and hid by the halfling’s hut. That’s when I saw ‘em.” She pauses for effect. “Strings of people headin’ down through the forest. I followed ‘em, till they reached an old elven ruin. Lots of people goin’ in. They spent hours in there, come out all smug like, and next day a bunch of drug deals are made, encroachin’ on my territory. A new drug called grisial.”

She collects the trace remains of the stew in her bowl. “So, I made it a habit to go stake them out. I see who comes and goes. I see ‘em bringin’ in equipment, materials, safety equipment – it becomes damn well clear what they’re doin’, and drug deals soar in Novigrad with this new grisial. Makin’ fisstech look like child’s play by comparison. Problem is, can’t figure out how the bloody hell they’re doin’ it. They’re selling the wares somehow, but the Black Ones are none the wiser. There’s this one guy, he goes there every week. Has a big cape, and the workers are at his beck and call.  He’s the boss man.”

“Who is he?” Yennefer asks.

“Dunno. Never got a good look at his face. And those people are well armed. Even with my own crew, wouldn’t wanna start a fight right in their turf. I’m smart, see.”

“Yes, of course.” Yennefer says vaguely. “So some drug dealers are using the elven ruins as a base of their operations. What does that have to do with Parviz?”

Adela grins. “’Cause I saw him there. He walked straight into those ruins.”

Yennefer and Regis share a glance. “He walked into the ruins?”

“Yeah. Brought there by the boss man. He was carrying a big box. Didn’t look happy to be there, either.”

“What happened?”

“He went in for an hour or two, then came out without the box. Then, a few months later, he’s dead.” She leans forwards. “That whoreson gave them somethin', to help with their operation. One of his black market gizmos under the shop, I mean. And even though he was up to his balls in debt, he was one stingy bastard. Always tryin’ to find any way to make a profit, no matter how risky it was. He had no loyalties to anyone, so you can bet your left tit that he tried to outsmart this gang, tried to make a bit of money off them, and they got pissed off. And you don’t want to piss off a drug dealer.”

“So, you’re saying that Parviz helped these supposed drug dealers, and then when he tried to financially out manoeuvre them, they killed him?” Yennefer asks.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying, sweetheart. Now, could I prove this? No. Do I want to? No. I’m a tough lady, and I have more than a few fellas who’d be happy to go kick in some teeth on my behalf. But even I know this is way above me. And that’s where you come in.”

Yennefer narrows her eyes. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you were the ones who asked what I wanted. And I told you, I want less business competitors. See, dealin’ in the new Redania is a lot harder than it used to be. Black Ones’ll throw people in jail at the slightest hint of wrongdoing. And dealin’ was already hard – not because of the witch hunters, they didn’t give a shit about fisstech. Hell, they were some of the most loyal customers. But all the territories, all the gang wars, dealers murderin’ other dealers…If I want to pull off my operations without getting strung up, I could do without other dealin’ whoresons trying to slit my throat. Now, of course, a few crowns wouldn’t go amiss for this most valuable information…”

Of course. Yennefer resists rolling her eyes. No information is free.

“But I think we have a mutual partnership here.” Adela continues. “I know your mates were framed for Parviz’s murder. You find out the identities of who really killed him, bring this little drug operation down in the process, get your mates free, and in the process you’ll be doing me a favour getting rid of my competitors. And I know you can handle it. Puss Peepers was a strong whoreson, could beat even old Olgierd in a fight. Managed to kill that monster frog or somethin’, too. I reckon, any friend of Puss Peeps must be good enough to deal with those dealers just fine. And I know a witch like you could kill anyone in a fight if you wanted to. So,” she stands up, “you want to see these ruins?”

Yennefer glances at Regis and nods. He nods back. This could still be an ambush, but she also hasn’t picked up on any murderous thoughts, any notion of tricking them.

“…Yes. Show us these ruins, then.”

Adela grins, and holds out her hand. “That’ll be 90 crowns.”

Begrudgingly, Yennefer opens up her coin purse and hands over the crowns. It’s very light now.

Adela counts the money and, satisfied, puts it away in her own bag. “All right, then, let’s go.”

 

She leads them through the forest and slowly up hill, far from the trodden paths and roads. While Yennefer, Regis and Ameer follow at a slower place, Adela traverses the forest floor with ease, vaulting over logs and ducking under low-hanging branches fluidly. This is a route she’s taken many times before.

Finally, she stops by a grove of trees on the top of the hill, overlooking craggy rock with deep crevices, at least 100m from the ground. A tree trunk has been dragged near the edge of the cliff, a cloth draped on the top, and the plants have been somewhat flattened here. Vegetation right at the edge blocks the view, but when Adela moves it away, Yennefer can see a cave entrance blocked by sheer rock.

“This is where I sit.” She explains. “If you part the bushes you can see people walkin’ down there, but they can’t see you from up here.” She points to the cave. It’s nestled between the cliffs in the crevice, but a smooth slab of rock sits in the entrance.

“That’s the entrance to the ruins. I’ve been in there as a kid, and that slab at the front is definitely new. They put somethin’ on the rock, it glows, and opens. No clue how to open it myself. Maybe you’ll figure it out, since you know about magic and all that shit.”

“Thank you for this information.” Regis says. “It should prove to be most useful.”

Adela smiles. “Well, you focus hard on proving your friend’s innocence and bringin’ down those drug dealers. Then, who knows?” She begins walking away from the grove, calling over her shoulder. “Perhaps one day, if you’re in need of some special substances, I’ll give you a discount.”

“Much obliged.” Yennefer says dryly. “Although I’m sure we won’t take you up on that offer.”

“If you say so.” The woman gives them a mock salute, and then disappears back into the forest.

When her footsteps have faded into the distance, Yennefer turns to Regis and Ameer.

“She wasn’t lying. This could very well be linked to Parviz’s murder.”

“I agree. And my raven found some trodden ebony spleenwort – those are normally only found within caves. People transporting things in and out of the ruins could have accidentally brought some back up with them.”

“Do you think you can get in through that entrance, Regis?”

He peers down through the foliage. “…I’m afraid not. It looks airtight to me, so turning into mist isn’t an option. There’ll be other openings around here somewhere, otherwise they’d suffocate in that cave, but that could take a while to find, and you wouldn’t be able to follow.”

“You would not be able to open up the stone slab for us to follow, either.” Ameer sits on the log, staring down at it.

Yennefer peers down at the cave entrance. “Whatever they’re using to open it is clearly magical, but if I can see what they use to get in, I might be able to replicate the magic trace and open it for us.”

“So,” Regis folds his arms, “you mean we’re going to have a lot of waiting to do.”

“Unfortunately. But we came all this way, and it’s a promising lead.” Yennefer sighs. “I’m afraid it just might take a while.”

“Well, we might as well get comfortable, then.” Regis suggests.

 

Hastily, they create their lookout post among the trees and bushes on the cliff top. Regis decides to return to Oxenfurt and collect some supplies, turning into mist to make the journey faster and unimpeded. Ameer returns to Oxenfurt as well, though he simply walks, wanting to trade the birds for money and to buy more arrows. Yennefer stays at the grove, just in case someone tries to enter the ruins. However, none do, so she busies herself by flattening some of the vegetation and moving the log a little further away from the edge of the cliff. It was far too close for her liking. A clumsy slip, one false move, and the log might roll off. She stabilises it with rocks once she’s done, just in case.

Regis is the first back. She spies black mist billowing up the hill and pooling into the grove, where it materialises into her vampiric companion. He carries with him some blankets, and his bag looks considerably fuller than before.

“Here.” He passes her the blankets. “We don’t know how long we’ll be waiting. The herbalist mentioned he’d been kept up at night by the noise, so we could be here a long time.”

“Ah, thank you.” She places one down on the ground, having crumpled up Adela’s blanket and shoved it in the bushes, not wanting to sleep on it. When she picked it up, it had stank of fisstech. “This way, we can take turns watching the cave entrance while the other sleeps. And I mean really take turns.” She gives him a look, after how he purposefully took the whole shift last night. “In fact, I’ll even take the first shift.”

He allows the unsubtle remark. “Of course. And if I see anyone approach the cave, I shall wake you up immediately. Your knowledge of the magic arts and its associated artefacts is far more exhaustive than mine.” He opens up his bag, taking out a large cloth sack. “I also acquired some food, some of which I foraged for myself. Nothing fancy, but it should tide us over.”

“Excellent. I’m afraid we might be relying on your foraging and Ameer’s hunting for the time being. My financial supplies are somewhat lacking right now.”

Soon enough, Ameer arrives back at the grove too – far less dramatically than Regis. He simply climbs back up the hill, moving with ease this time. The birds are no longer at his belt, and his quiver looks fuller than it did before.

“Here. Hold out your hand, Yennefer.” When she obliges, he places a stack of 50 crowns into her palms. “It is nowhere near the cost of the bow, but I hope it should make a start.”

“Please, Ameer, you don’t need to pay me back.” Yennefer insists, but Ameer shakes his head.

“I would like you to have at least this money, for it will be far more of use for you than it will for me.”

Yennefer accepts this, and puts the money away into her purse. “Thank you.”

Ameer sits down on the log. “Ah, this is better. We will not fall off the cliff. Shall I create an illusion to hide us from whoever is down below?”

“I don’t think we’ll need to. We’re too high up here for anyone to see us well. And I’d rather you preserve your energy for when we really need it.”

“Good point.” Ameer looks out onto the road leading to the cave. “I suppose we cannot cook here, then. I was thinking of catching a fish…”

“But you don’t have a rod.” Yennefer frowns. “How were you planning to catch it?”

“Oh, I do not need a rod to catch fish.” He says simply.

“Really?”

“No. I am quite experienced catching fish without rods.”

“I thought you said you lived by the mountain foothills.” Yennefer remembers.

“I did. But every spring, my mother would take us to the nearest river. She taught us to catch fish there, while they were migrating to breed.”

“And how do you catch them?” Yennefer asks.

“Well, sometimes we would use spears in our elf form, but mostly we would catch them in our base form by the river shallows.”

“I suppose that took a lot of practice to get good at.”

“Actually,” he raises his head proudly, “I was very good. I learnt quickly.”

Yennefer smiles. “Really? I can imagine you falling in a lot.”

“What? No. I did not.” He insists.

“Fine, if you say so…” She says with mock coyness.  

He folds his arms, then smiles mischievously . “Believe me or not, but I am sure that even as a child, I was a better fisher than you are now.”

“What? Surely not.”

“I think you would fall in.” He grins sharply. “And you would get all wet.”

“I wouldn’t need to fall in. I’d just use my magic on the closest fish.”

“Fish are surprisingly fast. You would miss.”

“I have very good aim.”

Ameer looks down at the road. “I would challenge you to prove me wrong, but it does not matter. A fire would draw their attention. Unless there are other methods…I suppose there’s smoking…”

Instantly, his face falls. The good humour in his expression vanishes, dries up like a puddle in drought. For a moment, he stares into empty space. Silent.

“…Ameer? Are you all right?” Yennefer asks hesitantly, surprised at his dramatic change in mood.

He shakes himself. “Yes. I apologise.” His voice is quieter than before.

Regis steps forwards. “You know, I once spent some time at Mahakam. The dwarves who live there cook fish on rocks heated by small fires, using timber that produces minimal amounts of smoke. Perhaps we should mimic their technique, so we're not spotted.”

At this, Ameer’s face brightens. “Ah, that is a good idea. I shall catch one.” He smiles at Yennefer. “Would you like to come with me? So then I can see your fishing skills.”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to pass. I should keep an eye on the road, in case anyone comes.”

When he leaves, Regis turns quietly to Yennefer. “Smoking fish is a method widely used in Skellige.”

“Oh.” The realisation hits her. “Oh, I see.”

“I wonder if he remembered something unpleasant. Poor thing.”

“Yes. He must have remembered something.” She just wishes she knew what.

When Ameer returns, though, he seems in a much better mood again, so Yennefer decides against bringing it up. Triumphantly, he holds up a salmon.

“Here. See? And I am not even wet.”

“Very impressive.” It’s true, he’s not wet at all. “How did you catch it?”

“I tied string to an arrow and used it to drag in the fish once I hit it. Still, it is a little early to eat yet, so soon after that stew.”

“Well, I’ll start preparing it now anyway.” Regis decides. “It’s been a long while since I’ve seen that method of cooking, so it will most likely take me considerable time to correctly deduce the exact method. Though I can safely say we need to scrape off the scales first.”

Regis collects rocks and begins preparing a very small, gentle fire. Ameer hangs up the fish from the branch of a tree, while Yennefer sterilises Regis’s knife with a simple fire spell. She supposes she could just use her magic to cook the fish, but controlled, gentle heating – as opposed to a crude fireball that would turn the fish to charcoal – has always made her feel terribly sick, and she’d rather save her energy.

Ameer takes the knife, and begins removing the scales of the fish. As he does so, he asks, “that woman. She talked about a man…Olgierd?”

“Olgierd von Everec.” Yennefer confirms.

“And Geralt knew him?”

“Yes, I was wondering about that.” Regis joins in. “He never mentioned knowing such a man to me.”

“I knew that they met, and that’s it.” Yennefer admits. “He was very…scarce on details. For some reason, he didn’t like to talk about it. Said he’d explain one day, just…not that day. Nor the next time I asked.”

“I see.” Fish scales litter the ground. “Do you know anything about this…Olgierd?”

“I know of the von Everec family. Their sons, Olgierd and Vlodomir, are rich bandits who think their wealth and interest in the arts makes them somehow above that of the common bandits who plague the north. But that’s all they are. Bandits. Or were.” She adds. “Their family has long since vanished, and their estate with it. I heard they fell into financial problems.”

“I see. She mentioned this Olgierd cursing a man into a ‘monster toad’. Is this true?” Ameer asks.

“I don’t know.” Yennefer admits.

“I suppose it’s possible. Though, such an intense curse is rare for a non-magic user to cast.” Regis looks at Ameer. “Why do you ask?”

Ameer wipes silver scales off the blade off the knife. “I was wondering if this man was the one who cursed my prince. Prince Sirvat of Ofier.” When he sees their confused expressions, he clarifies. “Prince Sirvat, who was killed by Geralt?”

Yennefer freezes. She glances at Regis, who looks just as tense and surprised as she does.

“…What do you mean?” She asks slowly. “You don’t mean our Geralt?”

He looks entirely calm. “Of course. I do not know any other Geralts.” He notices their shock. “Do you not know?”

“…He never mentioned it.”

“Nor to me.” Regis adds.

“Oh. Everyone in Ofier knows. Geralt of Rivia, regicidal monster, they call him. Geralt the Prince Killer. Our prince went to the continent, wanting to learn more about the cultures of this land for when he became king. But he was cursed, turned into a monster frog. And before the King’s mages could cure him, he was eviscerated by a witcher called Geralt of Rivia, who escaped from the king’s mages.”

He says it so casually, as if he wasn’t talking about a man who supposedly committed regicide towards the prince of his nation. A man whose soul he carries. He makes no move to rip off the medallion from his neck, to crush it beneath his foot.

“…You’re very nonchalant about this.” Regis speaks up, clearly thinking the same thing as Yennefer.

“Of course. I am not angry. I knew who he was the moment I saw him, heard his name. But if I was angry, I would not have looked after him in the wilds of Skellige.”

“Well…why aren’t you angry?” Yennefer dares to ask.

Ameer looks between the two of them. “You really know nothing about this situation?”

“Well, if Olgierd von Everec was involved in any way, then like I said, Geralt wasn’t fond of talking about it.”

Ameer nods thoughtfully. “Let us cook the fish. Then I shall explain.”

 

The sun is beginning to set when Regis has finished cooking the fish. He hands out slices of the fish, garnished with some berries, and chunks of bread from his bag. The bread is a little stale, most likely due to the Oxenfurt protests interfering with crop imports, but the fish is wonderfully fresh. Regis has done a good job of taking out the bones.

“…Neither of you have visited Ofier, have you?” Ameer asks. “In the time we have been apart, I assume you did not travel there, Yennefer.”

“That’s correct.” She confirms.

“I’ve never been, either.” Regis tells him.

“I see. I have told you about Ofier before Yennefer, but Regis, you probably are not familiar with the people and politics of Ofier.” He looks into the glowing timber, their low light still warm, no smoke leaving their flames. “We are not one nation, like Temeria or Redania. We are many tribes and groups, united by one malliq, but still with our own councils and representatives.”

He takes a stick, and draws in the dirt four circles. “There are those who live in the steppes, fierce horse riders and nomadic herders. Those who live in the mountains, who carved tunnels into the rocks and sheltered from the elements. Those who live in the desert, where caravans travel from oasis to oasis with the seasons. And there are those who live by the ocean, who survived entirely off the waves and their hidden resources. Soon, those oceanic dwellers created a port town, began trading to both their neighbours and those from across the sea. That port town grew larger and larger, began expanding into the surrounding environments. Many left the life of oceanic nomads, and learnt to tame the scrublands around them. They kept on building until they created a beautiful city – a city that would one day become our capital, where the palace would reside.”

“That’s a lot of different environments.” Regis remarks.

“Yes. And there are many different tribes, different religions, different deities and beliefs. I was alive when these regions were separate entities, when the nation of ‘Ofier’ did not yet exist.” Being 300 years old means living through all sorts of changes, after all.

“After many hardships, after disputes and arguments between our tribes, after being invaded by our neighbours Zangvebar, and facing terrible raids from a Skelligan pirate called Yustianna, we became united under one malliq and Ofier was born. I will not bore you too much with unnecessary details, for it is not important. But, I must emphasise, we are not all assimilated into the culture of our capital. We still live in different tribes, different parts of our nation. And though we are all connected, though we all have one malliq – one king, who resides in that former port town – we have different cultures, traditions and beliefs. And, most importantly, different views on the politics of our country. Our capital has glorious buildings and philosophers, artists, inventors, and the palace is built here. But those who live there are very dedicated to the royal family.”

“So, Ofier has a monarchy, despite having so many separate tribes?” Regis asks.

“Yes. Allow me to explain. Each tribe has their own chieftain, and when the current king or queen dies, or is doing a particularly bad job and is removed, each are given the opportunity to present their own champions as potential new rulers of Ofier. If they do, then the royal family must engage in challenges against this new candidate, and the councils of the tribes vote on who they like the most.”

That’s similar to how Skellige operates, Yennefer thinks. But she doesn’t dare mention that.

“However, the royal family have ruled Ofier for almost the entirety of its formation. When the current malliq dies, most do not challenge the heir. And when they do, the heir normally wins.

 “Does that cause any tension between the tribes?” Regis asks.

“It used to, long ago, when the kingdoms were more…unstable. These days, things are better. The tribes are treated fairly, so they do not mind so much. But each tribe views the royals differently. Those who live in the capital city are very dedicated to our king – and his council, and his mage. So whatever the king, or his council, or his mage says, they will believe it. Now, to say everyone who lives in the capital is mindlessly supporting of the royals would be…unfair. But enough of them are to be noticeable. So, when a warrior who worked with the king’s mage Aamad tells us Geralt of Rivia murdered Prince Sirvat and Aamad, they believe it.”

“Ah, I see.” Yennefer nods.

“The nomad herders, they do not care. They live an almost entirely sustainable life on the steppes, and what happens in the capital affects them very little. The mountain dwellers and desert nomads are more affected by the royal family, and they are also wary. You see, before Ofier became united, those who lived in the port town became greedy and tried to invade the other tribes. Mainly, the mountain dwellers and desert nomads. Humans do not live very long, but they keep grudges for a very long time. And so, they are sceptical of what the royals will say, what news comes from the capital. And, since I was brought up in the borders between the deserts and mountains, and since my mother did not care for royals and governors, I heard the other side of the story.”

“And what was that?” Yennefer honestly doesn’t know. She’s very intrigued to hear now.

“I was visiting my family back in the mountains when we heard news of Prince Sirvat's death. A warrior proclaimed that Geralt of Rivia had slaughtered the Prince and the mage, Aamad, when he had been attempting to lift the curse. At the same time, a runewright sent a letter back to his family in the mountains. He had moved from the mountains to the capital, and then was sent to the northern kingdoms to spread the knowledge of his craft. He told of Geralt of Rivia, too, a man who helped return precious stolen manuscripts to his companion from dangerous bandits, who helped invest in his business after he lost all his tools. And he told the story of a witcher who was tricked into taking a contract, who believed he was helping to kill a monster that made the people of the town sick by poisoning the water, a monster that killed any person who went down into the sewers. In his story, Geralt of Rivia killed the monster without knowing it was a prince. The mage arrived too late and arrested him, hoping to bring him back to Ofier to regain his honour after failing to cure the prince. But a storm wrecked the ship, and Geralt escaped, killing Aamad to save his own life.”

“Oh.” So, yet again, his life has been thrown into peril by enticing witcher contracts. Yennefer can’t wait to return to Corvo Bianco, where Geralt has all but given up this dangerous profession.

“When Aamad died, another sorceress took his place. She was called Radeyah –”

“Radeyah?” Yennefer interrupts.

“Oh, Yennefer, you know her?” Ameer looks surprised.

“Yes. And not under the best circumstances. Some years ago, I was searching hard for a special artefact. She accompanied me on that trip, and spent the majority of the time doing nothing to help with the search, taking special interest in the mage I was working with instead. When I finally found the blasted artefact, she attacked me and stole it.”

“That does sound like her.” Ameer notes, amused. “One day, though, she vanished for a long time. I heard she returned to Ofier, but fled to the deserts and never returned to the capital. I was away visiting my family at the time, so I do not know exactly what happened.” He sees Yennefer’s face, her façade of innocence, and frowns. “Yennefer, do you know something about this?”

“Oh, no. I’ve no notion of what happened.” One day, while she was on holiday in Kovir, a magic chest arrived on her doorstep, with a letter from Geralt. It simply stated: ‘a present for you’. Inside was Radeyah. Yennefer has no idea how exactly this came to be, or how Geralt knew Radeyah – or how she had obviously wronged him in some way – but they had a nice, long chat after that. Of course, Yennefer didn’t hurt her. Just gave her a scare, is all, then let her find her own, very long way back to Ofier. It seems the event was so embarrassing for Radeyah, she decided not to show her face again in Ofier’s capital.

“Whatever happened, I do not care much. She was very…manipulative, I think, and her illusory skills were sloppy. Unfortunately, the one who took her place was not much better. Aamad’s younger brother became the royal mage. So, I hear a different story about Geralt the Prince Killer, and I do not know this witcher, but I know Aamad and his family. They are all ruthless and ambitious, willing to do anything to keep his political power – even doing the most dishonourable things, all the while preaching about honour and obedience. His brother is even worse, and ever since Prince Sirvat died, he is being even more ruthless and stringent.” He says this darkly. “Paranoid. Brutal. Handing out harsh punishments to the slightest wrongdoing that he perceives. So out of the two stories, I think Geralt’s is more convincing. When I meet Geralt of Rivia, and he frees me from jarl Carrik, I am not angry. He was tricked.”

“I’m relieved to hear that.” Yennefer says truthfully. Ameer is a dear friend, an old ally, but he was not aware of Geralt’s and Yennefer’s relationship. If he had believed the lies about Geralt in Ofier, then he might have killed Geralt, or left him for dead when the poison set in among the Skellige moors.

“The only person I am angry with is the one who cursed the prince.” Ameer’s face darkens. “Prince Sirvat was kind and eager to rule as fairly as possible. He wanted to help his people, he wanted to make better relations with the other tribes. He was a generous and caring ruler. And someone cursed him so cruelly. So terribly. For what? I do not know. But if I ever find this Olgierd von Everec, I intend to find out. To know what made him inflict such a terrible curse on a kind man. To know why a man would be so cruel. And then, when I find out, I will kill him.” He closes his eyes. “For I am so, so tired of cruel people.”

--

Night has fallen, and even though Yennefer is supposed to be watching the cave entrance, her mind is completely distracted.

The temperature has dropped considerably, and Yennefer has her cloak wrapped tightly around herself in an attempt to preserve heat. Around her, the trees creak and groan, and the wind howls at her ears painfully. She’s sitting in front of the log, leaning her back against it. Not exactly comfortable, but more secure than sitting on the log itself.

Behind her, Regis is asleep on the blanket. Ameer is asleep too, and has ensnared Regis in a tight grip, stealing as much of his warmth as possible. Regis doesn’t seem to mind either the cold or Ameer. He has his arm around the aguara, who rests his head on Regis’s shoulder. This will stop Ameer from freezing. They still have the small fire under the rocks, but they’ve kept it low, not wanting to give away their positions. Just as Regis said, no smoke filters from the flames, allowing them to remain undetected. But the flames are small, and Ameer still shivers in his sleep.

Yennefer tries to focus her attention back on the cave, but again, her mind begins to wander. The conversation with Ameer stands out starkly in her mind. His dark declaration is one matter, and though Yennefer is still relieved he hasn’t taken out his anger on Geralt, she isn’t sure what she thinks of his murder plan. She shouldn’t be surprised, though. Fox Mothers are known to be extremely vindictive, stopping at nothing to enact their revenge. Ameer may not be a true Fox Mother, but he’s always shared that vengeful streak.

After that conversation, he’d been quiet, subdued and sad. Maybe thinking of and talking about Ofier made him remember how much he misses his home.

But that’s not all. The story of what happened to Geralt has left her shocked. She knew his encounter with Olgierd von Everec had left to some unpleasant events, she could figure that out easily, but to learn he had inadvertently been involved in regicide…

Yennefer isn’t angry about the act itself. He was tricked. Had he realised the toad was a cursed prince, he would have tried to lift the curse himself. But why didn’t he tell her? Why did he fail to mention that a whole nation would take any opportunity to execute him for killing royalty?

Was he embarrassed? Was he worried she would be angry?

God, what is she thinking…Again, she’s acting so childishly…

But it bothers her. It really bothers her.

Geralt always hated it when she kept secrets from him. And she had dismissed his complaints, brushed them off as trivialities. Now, she truly understands why he hated it so much.

Yennefer heads a noise behind her. It’s Ameer.

His voice starts out quiet, but gets louder and louder. He’s speaking in Ofieri, whimpering and pleading to some unknown entity. He sounds scared.

“Ameer?” The noise wakes Regis. “Ameer, wake up.”

Suddenly, Ameer bolts upright. Gasping, eyes wide open, trembling like a leaf.

“Where –” He looks around himself wildly. “Where am I –”

Carefully, Regis sits up, placing a hand on Ameer’s arm. Ameer flinches, then leans against him. Hesitant, reluctant. But soon, the tension leaves his shoulders, and he allows himself to be comforted.

“Another nightmare?” Regis asks softly, smoothing his hand down Ameer’s back.

“Mm.” Ameer closes his eyes. “I…It was unpleasant.”

“It’s over now. You’re safe here.”

Ameer doesn’t move. Soon, he stops shaking, and his breathing steadies. Yennefer watches on awkwardly. She doesn’t want to intrude, but seeing her friend suffer still distresses her.

“…I did not mean to wake you up.”

“I don’t mind that at all.”

Ameer opens his eyes. Yennefer looks away too slowly. His gaze locks with her.

Damn it. Yennefer stares back down at the road. He saw her looking. Now what should she say? He clearly doesn’t want her prying, as much as that hurts her. But she can’t stay silent, either, when her friend is suffering so.

“…I think I would like to stay awake for a while.” She hears Ameer’s footsteps as he walks towards her, and then sits down next to her by the log. “I am not tired anymore.”

“I shall join you.” Regis sits next to him on the other side. “That sleep was very refreshing.”

Together, they watch the road beneath them. Ameer huddles closely to both of them, relishing in their warmth against the cold wind.

Yennefer wants desperately to ask about the nightmare. To prove once and for all that she isn’t the problem. That Ameer’s secrecy has nothing to do with Yennefer herself. That he’s just scared, and proud, and maybe even ashamed of whatever happened. Not that he doesn’t trust in Yennefer as a confidant. As a friend.

Because then, maybe Yennefer can finally cull those niggling thoughts in the back of her mind. Those thoughts that tell her Geralt getting hurt was, indirectly, her fault.

But she can’t. She can’t bring herself to ask. To interrogate him so bluntly. It would be insensitive to do so. Yennefer is not a patient woman; when faced with a problem, she simply works hard to overcome it, using whatever means necessary. But this isn’t a problem that can be fixed with a simple finger snap, no matter how frustrating that might be. This is a problem that will need time, time and more time.

She needs to be patient. And she needs to put aside her own pride, give Ameer the comfort that Regis – a stranger by comparison – has so readily supplied in his endless patience and kindness.  

Sighing, without taking her gaze from the road, her hand brushes against Ameer’s. Uncertain at first. But soon, more confident.

When he doesn’t move his hand away, she holds it. Not cooing over him, not fussing like a parent. He’s too proud for that. He’ll take that unabashed comfort from someone more detached, like Regis, but she and him have history, a friendship and mutual respect. He won’t want her to be overbearing. Not immediately, anyway. Maybe after some time. She knows, because she would be the same.

Her grip tightens. Her words almost fail her, struggling against her own pride and insecurities.

“…I’m glad you’re here, Ameer.” She says at last. “I’m glad I found you again. I just wish I’d found you sooner.”

For a moment, he’s silent. Entirely still. Only when his grip tightens on her hand does she know he’s accepted her message.

“I…” His own voice fails. “I…”

Yennefer says nothing. Neither does Regis. Allowing him time and courage to speak.

“…They were so cruel to me.” He stares down at the ground in front of him. “They knew I was powerless in dimeritium. And they loved that weakness. They were so cruel. And vicious. They took every opportunity to beat and humiliate me.” He bites his lip, and picks at the grass by his feet.

“…The chores I did were harmless enough. Wash swords, serve food and drink. But the beatings I received if I made any mistake…Even with my own healing, better than a human or an elf, my body would ache for days. They forced me to sing, to dance, take drugs, do whatever entertained them in that moment. Like I was some puppet for them to play with. I have never felt so humiliated. But I had no choice. I feared their punishments, their beatings. And I feared what would happen if they tired of me, or if they thought me too weak. I thought they might kill me, replace me with some other slave. So, even though I was scared and humiliated, I locked it away. I did whatever they asked, and learnt to do it perfectly. Even when they beat me for fun, I got back up and continued as if they did not. It is how I survived.”

He touches his chest, his face twisted with pain and distress. “But now…even though I learnt to hide it, now…now I feel it again. The pain, and the fear, and the humiliation. As if I was back there. And I do not understand. I do not want to feel that way. I do not want to feel that way ever again.” His eyes glisten, but no tears fall. His cheeks remain dry. Is that real, or an illusion?

Gently, Yennefer puts her arm around him, and wipes away tears she cannot see but knows are there. “This feeling now means you’re a survivor. Your body locked it away, and now is paying the emotional debt. You survived. This is proof.”

“It’s not a sign of weakness.” Regis places a hand on Ameer’s shoulder. “It feels terrible. But time will lessen the anguish, and make it easier to bear. Just know that it does not make you weak. And know that it does not make you alone.”

They remain that way for a while, soothing him quietly. At last, Ameer wipes away tears. “…I am glad. That I travel with you both. There are many cruel people in this world, but you are both kind. I am grateful for that, and I owe you much.”

“You owe us nothing.” Yennefer says firmly.

“I was saved from cruel men.” Ameer carries on regardless. “I will not let cruel men hurt either of you. If they do, they will face my wrath. I can promise that.”

 

Time drifts on, and Ameer is lulled back into sleep once more. He has returned to the warmth of the blankets and the fire, curled up to try and conserve heat as he sleeps. His fox-like ears, which are showing in this privacy, twitch in his dreams.

“…I’m glad he talked to you, finally.” Regis speaks up, his breath condensing in the cold. He has remained where he is, and he looks down onto the road beneath them.

“Why is that?” 

“The mind of an aguara is just as difficult for me to fathom as it will be for you. We may both be ‘monsters’, but we are still of different races. However, whether we are humans, vampires, elves or vulpesses, I can safely assume that the circumstances in which he found himself would most undoubtedly leave psychological scars on any individual.”

“Indeed.” His descriptions of his captivity didn’t surprise her. Yennefer has never enjoyed fox hunting, or sports where excitement is taken from the vicious pursuit of a fleeing and frightened animal. While some claim tradition or class as core to these sports, there are too many individuals who take strangely sadistic thrill from the activity, those who refuse to replace the live animal for simply a human runner leaving behind a deliberate trail to chase. Perhaps it is the feeling of control and dominance over another living being. And the men who kept Ameer captive, she can only assume they were the same. Men who delighted in being able to parade their power in whichever vicious way they liked. Especially over someone who, without the dimeritium shackles, would be able to kill them very easily.

“He hadn’t told me the details of his time in Skellige.” Regis continues. “But it would surely be unhealthy to keep such events hidden away in his mind. Therefore, I am glad he spoke of his experiences, even a little.”

“…I am, too. It’s a good job we let him come with us. He would have been terribly unhappy in Skellige, surrounded by those memories and with no one to speak to.”

“Yes, I can certainly agree with you there. And his mood has lifted considerably since we left that archipelago.”

Yennefer smiles. “Has he been teasing you at all? Playing tricks with his illusions?”

“He coerced me into eating insects.” Regis answers her, amusement in his voice. “They were only berries in the end, but it was very realistic.”

That does sound like him. “I’m assuming you’ve never eaten insects before?”

“No, no. Though Ameer insisted otherwise.”

“You’ve lived for four hundred years. I don’t suppose you’ve eaten other unusual things?”

“Hm…” He thinks about it. “As Geralt must have told you, I had quite a blood problem in my youth, and now abstain entirely from it.”

“He did mention that, yes.”

“Well…It’s rather embarrassing…One night I was particularly drunk, and mistook a comatose patient with Catriona plague for someone healthy, and, well…not dying.”

“Oh dear.”

“Yes. Apparently, the lad miraculously pulled through and became known as ‘the whoreson who cheated death twice’ among his compatriots. For me, the whole scenario was incredibly unpleasant.”

“Could you really taste the difference in blood?” Yennefer asks curiously.

“Imagine you have been craving a glass of Toussaint’s finest wine, a vintage from 1234. It is only when you put the goblet to your lips and take a long sip that you realise someone has poured you horse vomit, if you’ll excuse my rather repulsive allegory.”

“I see. I can’t imagine the Catriona plague tasting pleasant.”

“No. In fact, it was so repulsive that I began to retch, alerting others in the household to my presence. Needless to say, a vampire in the middle of throwing up is a lot less frightening than a vampire drinking someone’s blood. And so, the villagers had the courage to chase me out with pitchforks.”

“Oh dear.”

Regis shakes his head. “Like I said, it’s rather embarrassing. I don’t suppose you have any similar stories?”

“I can’t say I have. If I am forced to eat something I know to be unpleasant, I use an illusory spell to change the appearance and the taste of the food into something I prefer. Ameer taught it to me, actually.” There isn’t a better teacher in illusions, after all.

“Goodness, what a useful spell.”

“It is quite taxing, though, so I only use it if I really need to.”

Regis gives her a sideways glance and smiles. “So, no tales of your own embarrassing youth?”

“None.”

“Really?”

She sighs, realising he will continue asking. He is an inquisitive individual, it seems. Though she knows how to handle such individuals, having been friends with the ever-curious Ameer. So she decides to give him a brief story, to satisfy him and prevent him from prying into much more private matters.

“Well, I suppose there was when I joined the academy.” She had been a horrible, frightened mess at first. And although she had excelled at magic, it had taken a long, long time to build her confidence. But when she eventually did, she became quite daring. She doesn’t tell him these details, though. “I had seen the teachers drinking fine wines and was quite curious to see what they tasted like. However, alcohol was rightly banned for the students, to stop it interfering with our studies. One day, a friend and I decided to sneak into our teacher’s quarters and steal a bottle ourselves. We were successful, and had a grand old time getting drunk on miniscule amounts. What we didn’t know is that our teacher was prepared for such an event and had put a dye into the wine, left it out as a decoy. So, next morning, she was easily able to identify the culprits as those who had blue tongues. It took a week to fade, too. It was very embarrassing.”

Regis smiles. “Blue tongues…I can’t imagine you with that, somehow. I’ll refrain from telling Ameer this story.”

“Yes, please.” 

Regis looks over at Ameer, who sleeps obliviously. There’s been a frown on his face as he dreams, but it’s slowly relaxing. “…Are you relieved?”

“About what?”

“Well, all this time, you thought he was in Ofier. It’s only by mere coincidence that you found him, that he got rescued. If you hadn’t been in Skellige, you might never have found him. Don't you feel relieved...And yet also scared?  What if you had decided to meet up somewhere else with Ciri? Or what if Geralt had never found the contract?”

“I suppose ...When you say it like that. But he's here now That's all that matters isn't it?”

“Yes, yes, you're right. I…I suppose I'm just lamenting.”

“About what?” It's not as if he knew Ameer.

“Well…” He is silent for a long time. “You and witchers like Geralt are the only people – only humans – who can understand how I feel. You live such long lives, you see normal humans die all around you.” Regis stares down at the road. “I am the same. I see humans die all around me. So I became afraid. I knew Dandelion and Zoltan were still alive, but even when I became strong enough to travel, I decided not to seek them out.” He closes his eyes. “What if we hadn’t come here, hadn’t realised what had happened? We wouldn’t have known they were being accused of murder. And they would’ve been executed. All the while, I was off moping, while they had no idea I was even alive. I could have gone to meet them, spent at least an evening being jovial and chatting about trivialities over fine food and drink, and I didn’t. Like a bloody fool. Even now, we might fail in our task.”

For a moment, he says nothing, before sighing and shaking his head.

“I apologise. I don’t want to unload all my contemplations on you.”

“Don’t apologise. I…I can understand how you feel. And I’m certainly sorry you feel that way.”

“It’s my own fault. I shouldn’t have been so foolish.”

“…Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It can also drive us to madness if we let it. You’ve learnt your mistake, haven’t you? All you can do now is ensure they don’t die. Make sure you can spend that evening with them, make up for lost time.”

“Hm.” A ghost of a smile appears on his lips. “I suppose you’re right.”

“You’re not the only one with regrets, anyway.” Why is she telling him this? They’ve known each other for barely a week. And yet, she has grown tired of hanging onto these feelings, automatically trying to bury them in the back of her mind. Perhaps Geralt has softened her. Truthfully, she has opened up to Geralt about far more than to anyone else in her life.

But Geralt isn’t here right now. She glances at the medallion. He can’t hear her, and he certainly can’t answer back.

She decides, fuck it. The thoughts have been unpleasant and relentless, and she’s been too stressed and preoccupied with solving this murder to fend them off effectively.

So when he asks, “what do you mean?” she answers.

“I keep on thinking. And I know, it’s silly, and doesn’t help us at all to think it. But…I just wish that Geralt had spoken to me.”

“Spoken to you?”

“Yes. We were meant to meet Ciri together, but…he got some idiotic ideas in his head, about Ciri not wanting to see him. So he went off, traipsing around Skellige, and got himself poisoned.”

“You're thinking, if he’d spoken to you, he might not have gotten himself poisoned?” Regis guesses.

“It sounds stupid, saying it out loud.” But there’s a lot she doesn’t say, even now. This was different to hiding some scheme, some plan. This was emotional, the type of thing most partners tell each other. And he didn’t. So she remains quiet about her fears as to why Geralt didn’t tell her. Ameer opening up to her has assuaged her fears somewhat. At least one friend trusts in her. But the fear is still there.

“Well, just like I said. If he hadn’t have gone wandering around Skellige, he wouldn’t have found Ameer.” Regis says simply. “The only one to blame for Geralt’s current state is jarl Carrik and Tye. After all, if Geralt had taken the contract, but the blade hadn’t been poisoned, we’d be sitting with a non-poisoned Geralt and a freed Ameer. The best out of all the options.” He glances at her. “There are countless endings, multitudes of ways the scenario could have played out. This is the one we got. Now, like you said, all we can do is put things right.”

She sighs, watching her clouded breath unfurl in front of her. “…I know.”

“Besides, you can’t hold yourself responsible for Geralt’s stoic and deliberately reserved attitude, my dear.” Regis smiles. “We both know how he likes to maintain some ill-defined masculine demeanour when it comes to his emotions, however erroneous and inane that definition of masculinity may be.”

Yennefer smiles at this. “There’s truth in your words. Although it may be hypocritical of me to think that way. I know I’m not exactly a shining pillar of openness, either.”

“Nor am I.” Regis looks back onto the road. “Although, I must admit, I feel better having spoken to you.”

There are still treacherous feelings lurking beneath the surface of her consciousness, fears she’d prefer to not pay credence to. And she is sure that Regis is the same. Nonetheless, she says, “I am, too.”

Suddenly, Regis’s eyes widen. He peers down into the road beneath them, then speaks quietly.

“Yennefer, someone has arrived.”

Quickly, Yennefer looks down with him, her eyes battling against the darkness. Someone really is walking on the road, and thankfully, they carry a torch. Whoever it is wears a long cape and hood, obscuring their face from her sight.

“What can you see?” She asks Regis, knowing his nocturnal vision to be far more superior than hers.

“…I think it’s a man.” He reports. “I don’t recognise him, though.”

Carefully, Yennefer watches as he walks towards the stone slab. Quickly, he takes something out from underneath his cloak. A small, metal contraption, cube-like in structure. She can’t quite see it from here. A magic sensor? The mysterious transmutator?

The hooded man presses the metal contraption against the stone slab. The structure begins to flash a bright green light, which spreads up across the stone slab in a luminescence wave. With a click, the slab suddenly begins to slide, opening up a gap for the man to walk through. Inside, Yennefer can see light.

“Kalkstein’s Dispatcher.” She breathes. How mercilessly simple – a device used to send signals to another contraption, usually another magical object. Extremely difficult to make, as Kalkstein was not one for simplicity, but the operator doesn’t need to have any magical abilities to use it. This one must be connected to a magically fuelled pulley, used to slide the slab instead of relying on human strength, or the lack thereof.

“Will you be able to open the slab, then?” Regis asks.

“I think so.” All she’ll need to do is send out a magic signal that mimics the Kalkstein’s Dispatcher, allowing the slab to open for them. If only she’d realised it would be that simple.

“Excellent. Shall we go, then?”

“Yes. I’ll wake Ameer; we’ll need his illusions to remain undetected.” At last, they can understand the truth behind Parviz’s murder, and find out where Tye went.

Time to end this nonsense.