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Absolute Bearing

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“Below! Get below!” one of the ship's officers shouted, waving an arm urgently. The other passengers, those few who had not already vacated the deck, were scrambling to the ladders.

Kiyan held fast to the railing and eyed the approaching storm. He'd not traveled much by sea, a situation that was fine with him--Cats were not meant to be on the water--but to his inexperienced eye, the wall of rain that seemed to be gaining on them was cause for alarm. The clouds lit up periodically with flashes of lightning, and below them the sea rolled and swelled like a slyzard’s death throes. The Flying Stag seemed inadequate shelter in light of the approaching storm’s size.

“Master Witcher,” the officer said, hurrying up to him. “You must return to your cabin. The crew will have no time to spare to help passengers during this blow. It looks like a big one.”

Kiyan nodded, and turned to make his way down the nearest ladder. He knew the value of getting out of the professionals’ way for a tough job, but he did not relish the idea of riding out a storm in a tiny cabin with a stranger. The man who’d been assigned to bunk with Kiyan had introduced himself as Professor Steingard, and from the start of the trip, he’d watched Kiyan with a sharp, calculating gaze. His company left a great deal to be desired.

Oh, to be at a tavern in Novigrad, warm and dry. Or well, Kiyan wasn't picky; he would settle for a tavern in any flea infested village in the north. Somewhere he could drink some ale and eat some hot food and the floor would stay solid under his feet. A place where the looks sent his way were merely hate and distrust and not the unnerving attention of a down-on-his-luck academic composing a pamphlet in his head, or whatever it was Steingard was doing.

For all that, however, Kiyan did not wish he’d stayed behind to serve as a lapdog bodyguard to Prince Adrien. It had sounded too good to be true, which meant Kiyan needed to get as far away as possible before he stupidly began to think he could actually have a steady position and fair pay. There was no way that would end well. Facing the storm would be worth it to put that temptation behind him. Though if he wound up dead at the bottom of the ocean it would be a shame not to be able to spend the coin he’d made from his last contract.

Balancing deftly as the ship rolled under his feet, Kiyan made his way back to his cabin. Surely he could make it clear to Steingard that he didn’t wish to talk any more than necessary. Kiyan had brought a novel with him, one Aiden had passed on, declaring it "somewhat entertaining" and indicating that it had “some passable fucking in the second half.” Perhaps that would serve as a distraction.

When he pushed aside the curtain to his shared cabin, Steingard was sitting at the room’s tiny desk, writing something in a little notebook he was always scribbling in.

“Good evening, Master Witcher,” the human said, looking up at Kiyan with an oily smile.

A half-hearted grunt was all the reply Kiyan offered. He didn’t look at the man, wary of inviting further conversation. Instead, he retrieved his novel and settled himself in his hammock. At least in the hammock, the rocking of the ship was not quite so apparent. However, his attempt to discourage Steingard had apparently not been strong enough.

“Did you tire of watching the storm, Master Witcher? the man asked.

Kiyan glanced at the man briefly, then back at his book. He didn’t like the way the man kept calling him “Witcher.” He said the word with a strange emphasis, as if it were an unfamiliar title. Kiyan muttered, “Sailors asked passengers to stay below decks.”

He wondered if he could find another place to ride out the storm. Somewhere in the hold, perhaps, or in the crew’s quarters, which were likely to be empty with all hands engaged in navigating the storm. Maybe he could get in some target practice with his knives on the rats who lived there.

Steingard hummed consideringly. “It seems as if we may be confined to quarters for a while, then. Just the two of us, Master Witcher.”

Kiyan did not respond, but he felt a prickling at the back of his neck, a formless feeling that something was not quite right. The book slipped from his fingers, and his reflexes carried him out of the hammock and to his feet even before his medallion began to vibrate. Kiyan’s attention snapped to the only threat nearby--his unwanted roommate.

Steingard’s face fairly glowed with excitement as he spread his hands in a grand gesture. A circle of light began to expand before him.

Fucking wizards. Of course this man was a sorcerer. Just Kiyan’s luck. And with luck like that, there was no chance the man's intentions toward him were positive.

He could fight. In close quarters like this, the sorcerer might not be able to use the full extent of his powers without causing damage to the ship, whereas Kiyan had his knives on him, and could likely get to the swords stowed next to his gear with a bit of effort.

However, that little prickle against his skin that warned of danger told him fighting might not be wise. Steingard seemed to have been waiting to get Kiyan alone, and that spoke of some specific plan, rather than an opportunistic attack. If Steingard expected him to stand his ground, it was better to do something else.

Kiyan leapt for the curtain, diving into a neat roll that carried him under the fabric and out into the narrow corridor. If the man had been waiting to get him alone, perhaps he would be reluctant to pursue Kiyan into other areas of the ship. But Kiyan did not wait to see if that was the case. He charged down the corridor, taking the turns so fast his feet slid on the wet wood. He heard the footsteps of the sorcerer following him and cursed under his breath. Not unwilling to pursue after all.

He scrambled up a ladder, moving silently now that he was out of the sorcerer’s sight. The hatch at the top of the ladder was closed, but a hard shove opened it, earning Kiyan a face full of rain and wind. Nevertheless, he hauled himself up onto the deck amidst the chaos of the storm and the hollering of the crew, who swarmed over the deck to the shouted orders of the officer. He’d rather face a tempest than a mage any day. He slammed the hatch closed and pushed a nearby barrel over it, then assessed his options.

Kiyan could barely see the far end of the ship through the driving rain, and as he hesitated, a wave slapped over the side railing of the ship and slammed into the deck, knocking a few crew members off their feet. Kiyan managed to stay upright by grabbing onto part of the rope rigging, but as soon as the wave had passed, he scrambled further away from the hatch, hoping to put distance between him and his pursuer. If he had trouble keeping his footing in these wild swells even with his Witcher reflexes, the sorcerer might have difficulty following.

Kiyan whirled around at the sound of splintering wood to see the sorcerer rising from the hold amidst the shards of the hatch and the decking around it. His hands glowed with angry red power, a different sort than he’d tried to use in their cabin. Was that thing he'd started to create a portal? Kiyan knew he did not want to end up anywhere this mage wanted him to go, but he also wanted to avoid being blown to bits by magical energy if that was what Steingard intended.

Kiyan bobbed and weaved, trying to keep crew members, rigging, or other bits of the ship between him and the sorcerer, but the man unerringly pursued him. No one else seemed to have intentions of interfering, not as they worked to keep the ship upright. In fact, Kiyan saw the captain look between the two of them, then hurry away. He couldn’t expect any help from that quarter. And he was running out of places to run.

As Kiyan rapidly approached the stern of the ship, he had to admit that he had only two choices. First, he could try to kill the mage. Even if he could manage it--which wasn’t a certainty--he wouldn't get away with pretending it had been an accident, not in the presence of so many witnesses. Kiyan wasn't sure what the laws against murder were where they were headed, but he did know that most sorcerers had powerful friends, and that killing one usually caused more problems than it solved.

His other choice was to let the mage do whatever it was he planned to do. That did not sound appealing to Kiyan. There were many reasons a mage might want a Witcher under his power, and none of them were good. It would certainly end with Kiyan dead or worse.

And then he would be another Cat Witcher disappeared with no explanation, like Joël. Someone his brothers would mourn without ever knowing what had happened to him. It might even be years before they gave up hope that he was just occupied elsewhere. He'd made plans to meet up with Gaetan in Temeria later this year, but Kiyan was notoriously unreliable at keeping a schedule. If he did not appear, Gaetan would be irritated, but not necessarily worried.

From there, it would happen as it had with so many of their brothers. Whenever the other Cats saw each other, no one would have news of Kiyan to share, and after several years of that, they would come to tacit agreement that he was gone. No medallion, nothing to bury, simply another loss to carry. It wasn't fair. Gaetan had been close with Cedric, and it had been just last year that Aiden bought a Cat medallion that Gaetan had identified off a peddler, and they knew for certain he was dead. Gaetan had been even more angry than usual after that. Which was part of the reason Kiyan was meeting up with him.

This spring he’d had a little chat with Aiden about their brother. They’d made arrangements that Kiyan would meet Gaetan at Litha and Aiden would meet him at Lammas so Gaetan wouldn't spend too much time this year alone and brooding. Kiyan was supposed to come through with his part of the bargain, and he wanted to, wanted to be there when his brothers needed him, now and for many more years. There weren't that many Cats left, and the ones who remained didn't deserve another mystery.

And it would be a mystery--Kiyan doubted the mage would leave anything of him to find. It would be one thing to fall to the fangs of a katakan or the claws of a griffin, but to be kidnapped by a mage for who knew what purpose? Well it wasn't the sort of death Kiyan had signed up for. To be fair, he had not signed up to be a Witcher, but since his school and his caravan were more memory than institution now, no one could have kept him from fucking off into the wilderness and doing whatever he damn well pleased. He'd heard of at least one other Cat who had left the Witchering life behind, and reportedly even created some kind of family for himself. But Kiyan had stayed on the Path. There was a satisfaction involving the puzzles presented by each new contract. And more often than not, what he did as a Witcher resulted in leaving the world a little better. This death, Kiyan felt certain, would not help anyone but this gods-damned sorcerer. And devils take him if Kiyan would let this pompous bastard have what he wanted. He would rather his body rot at the bottom of the ocean than give this mage any portion of what he desired. Which is when Kiyan realized that there was a third option.

He could flee. Yes, conditions for that were not ideal, but running and living to fight another day was a time honored strategy taught by the school of the Cat. He didn’t let himself linger on the stupidity of this plan: the likelihood of death, the loss of equipment it would mean, the fact that he hadn’t even tried to attack the sorcerer. He could examine all those problems after he escaped.

Kiyan leaped onto the quarterdeck, grabbed hold of a piece of rigging, and swarmed halfway up. He could see the sorcerer coming after him, a beacon of unnatural light drifting across the deck in the darkness of the storm. Kiyan dragged his eyes away and focused on the sea instead. He waited for the next wave to hit, knocking the boat far over on its side, which put the mast and the rigging to which Kiyan clung angled over the churning waves. Kiyan took a deep breath and let himself drop.

His first few moments in the water were as chaotic as any fight he'd ever been in. He hadn't realized that the water would be so damned cold. It shocked the breath out of him and he couldn't tell which way the surface of the water was. He flailed wildly for a moment before sternly reining in his instincts. He wasn’t a green trainee yowling at being tossed in a lake the first time. He could hold his breath for quite awhile: he knew that. He just needed to wait a moment, and let himself float to the surface.

Once he stopped struggling, buoyancy took over, and Kiyan’s head did indeed break into the open air. He shouldn’t have worried so much, he thought, only to look up and see another huge wave crashing down on him, pushing him back below the surface. He surfaced once more and gasped in a breath before being smashed down again.

This had been incredibly stupid, Kiyan realized as he struggled back towards open air. He was a good enough swimmer, but he hadn't ever tried his skills in a tempest on the open sea. Witchers were tough to drown, but not impossible, and they’d been far from shore when the storm had arrived. Kiyan needed to get back to that damn ship and find a way to deal with the sorcerer.

The next time he climbed to the surface, Kiyan heard shouting and felt a stab of hope. When he at last maneuvered himself around to look back at the Flying Stag, however, he realized that of course none of the crew was worried about a Witcher falling overboard. They were more concerned with their own lives. Such concerns seemed quite urgent, as the ship’s mast had come crashing down and smashed into the side of the deck, leaving a gaping hole. The ship was listing alarmingly to one side, and the crew was scrambling to try to right it even as it was carried along at a tremendous rate, putting it far out of Kiyan’s reach.

Kiyan did not see the sorcerer anywhere, but he wasn’t in much of a position for reconnaissance, as he was soon pushed under again by another oncoming wave. He fought against the pressure of the water to remain upright and had no attention to spare for the ship until he heard a large crack that sounded very much like nearby thunder. He whipped around to see the ship splitting down the middle, small figures of humans splashing into the waves or clinging to the rigging.

Well, getting back on the boat was not going to be an option. Kiyan gulped in a breath, put his head down, and swam after the ship anyway. There might be something to cling on to there, or at least people who knew more about surviving in the ocean that he did. But in the driving rain and wind, it was all Kiyan could do to keep his head above water. He struggled to the surface once more, and looked up to see another wave cresting over him, this one carrying a load of debris from the ship. Kiyan braced himself, sending a silent apology to his brothers that he would be another useless mystery after all, before the wave slammed into him and took him under.

Someone needed to tell the others to shut up with all that cackling. It was too early for anyone to be so obnoxiously loud. Gaetan, Kiyan thought. That braying was certainly Gaetan’s laugh. Any moment, Kiyan would sit up and shout at him to keep it down.

Or maybe this was intentional revenge for the times Kiyan had taken advantage of Gaetan’s hangovers to torture him, as brothers were entitled to do. How much had Kiyan drunk last night, to feel so wretched in the bright light of morning? He tried to remember what he had been drinking, and why he had gone to bed without taking anything to counteract the effects. Where were they that he’d been able to let down his guard like this?

But memories swam back to him through the haze of pain and confusion. He hadn't been drinking. He'd been on a ship--the sorcerer. The storm!

Kiyan pried his eyes open and was greeted by the piercing light of the sun reflecting off water. The waves lapped around his feet, and the wet sand shifted under him as he sat up. He turned his head to see a group of seagulls squabbling over some other debris that had washed up on shore.

Well, in his defense, it did sound like laughter, though Gaetan would not have been flattered by the mistake.

Kiyan rolled his neck and stretched out his back, checking for damage, which seemed to be confined to already-healing bruises and scrapes. He then patted his knives, which were miraculously still in their sheaths, and his coin pouch tucked securely under his jerkin. He seemed… alive, which was more than he’d had any reason to expect.

With that realization he threw himself back down on the sand and laughed, brushing aside the various aches as he realized that he had lived. He’d thrown himself into the ocean in a storm like an absolute fool, and he had lived! He laughed and laughed until he had to stop and gasp for breath, then scrambled to his feet to laugh some more at the sight of the sea beneath a clear blue sky, its waves barely more than ripples.

Kiyan ran down the beach, sending the seagulls flapping away with indignant squawks and feeling his heart pounding, his muscles moving, the sun warming his skin. He slowed, then stopped and stood with his hands on his knees, panting. He wasn’t dead. Wasn’t a mystery or a disappointment or a ghost.

In which case, he realized, sobering a little, he was a Witcher with no swords, no potions, no other equipment. But he did have his knives and a healthy amount of coin--that was more than Kiyan had been left with on some previous occasions when things had gone this bady wrong.

A quick survey of the beach showed that debris from the Flying Stag had washed up all along the shore. There was likely to be something useful among it.

Well, it was a lovely morning for a walk.