CHAPTER I: SMOKE & ASH
The fire had smoldered into dying wisps of smoke as the sky darkened to hazy indigo, and as the sun flushed over the horizon in seething maroon, he dipped his soaked raven-black, soot-smudged boots closer to the expiring flame. Helios was a memory of warm gold, twilight settling in lavender dusk as night slowly built around the dark figure, around his dark clothes until he was part of it; careless cloak draped over his knee, akin to the silver sword that glinted like mercury in the rising moonlight. An idle hand added a few logs to the pyre, and it uttered a few sparks in protest but it smoked, budding embers sputtering to life. "Good," he thought. "It's finally night."
He preferred hunting at night.
His gaze, felidae halo of vivid malachite, scanned the chilly depths of the shadowy woodland. The green, admittedly a strange bedfellow in comparison to the tawny iris of his fellow Witchers, was drawn to the snapping and cracking of the forest floor and knew something vast moved within. Prey and predator, the leshen was an invisible shroud of power that melted into the backdrop of trees, of ash and elm, and the Witcher feared the inevitability: the ancient nature spirit knew why he was there.
Dimly, dully, the ache in his hip flared, and spread, and for a moment, he seemed to remember it (not that he could forget it): "Must be rain," Rue mused sullenly. The man in black could even smell it, earthy brown smells of petrichor as the clouds bundled over the inky firmament, blackening the smattering of crystalline flecks and eclipsing the crescent moon. Damn men and damn their wars; now his femur always festered when it was about to downpour, and cursed the need for gold. In truth, he might've tossed the job if he didn't need the orens. Hunting had been good lately, too good, but the guild was always starving for more resources, and the herbs to make their brews were costly. Lately, there was a sort of weariness settling in, a bone weariness, that he just couldn't shake. Do Witchers even retire? A mental memo stored away for safekeeping, a half-joke to ask Vesemir to maybe lighten the mood; f u c k knows, they could use a smile (or three).
Mercurial silver gleamed by the fireside, and Aegon stood with newly dry boots (thankful and toasty). Leaves, autumnal and a myriad of colour, tumbled on a frosty tempest downhill from the open maw of the forest: a seemingly foreboding and ominous apprisal from the danger that lurked within. The sole of buskin stomped what was left of the crumbling blaze to a scalding pit, the glowing ash a mere vestige of his time spent there. It was now or never. The tattered edges of the cape rustled in the frigid squall, sword at the ready, though his precarious gait favored his left leg. The smell of smoke followed him into the dark, into the copse of trees, where a legion of blackbirds brooded.
The leshen was close. Rue could taste the sickly-sour, sickly-sweet bouquet of death that followed it, and his inhuman eyes detected the human blood in muddled trails. "Oh, yea, this be the place," he thought. The Witcher dogged the scent like a bloodhound, not letting up and not letting go.
CHAPTER II: SO MUCH MEAT
Melitele, Freya, the Eternal f u c k i n g Fire: as a centenarian, Rue wasn't much of a praying man, but after gawping at the mislaid and partially consumed body parts, he was almost wishing he'd sent a younger Witcher in. "I'm getting too old for this s h i t." The mumble was only just above a whisper, intoned on a screamy breath that shuddered with pain. It wasn't that he was incapable, but moreso unwilling; the undiagnosed ailment in his head made him ever vigilant, an unsleeping swain that remembered the arduous years of the Northern War. All the g o d d a m n e d blood, on his hands and on his heart. He saw the phantom faces of men, like he saw the faces of men now, long dead, floating in his waking vision that bedeviled his already tired psyche.
Something moved to his right, slow and steady, crouched and on four legs. No - eight - twelve - sixteen. . . twenty canine legs in total closed in, bristling tails tucked and their rabid maws glistling with claret drool, bloody with a fresh kill. He hadn’t been quick enough to cease the senseless butchery: the threadbare fragments of a dress lay scattered, a haunting trinket of the paling corpse reposed not far. Her soft stomach had been torn apart, entrails scattered like so much meat and the look of terror frozen on her dirty face; her death hadn’t been a quick one, no. It made his heart hurt.
Nigh, obscured by the caliginosity of evergreen, the Witcher could distinguish the off-white color of bone. The deer skull was colossal, the biggest stag’s head he ever saw (and, remarking later, he imagined it might have been something else - moose?) but in that moment, epinephrine super charged his entire body with a sudden surge of movement. The wolves reacted instantaneously, their braying and barking snouts quivering in anticipation for another kill; driven to absolute madness by the leshen’s influence.
Gory flecks of dribble coated his arm, a solitary bite making contact as his fist collided with another furry muzzle. A different kind of blood splattered him: beastly crimson painted the right side of his beard, oozing down the chestnut to varnish silver medallion. He could almost kill the animals in his sleep (almost); he grew up hunting wolves, and during Witcher training, he killed packs of them. Here he thought it was going so well - . . .
A root loosened flinging soil, stinging his eyes and temporarily blinding him. It snapped like a whip, knocking him to the foliage -strewn floor; he lay, prostrate among dead leaves and moss. Oxygen heaved painfully through his startled diaphragm, screaming breaths pulled through his bleeding (and broken) nose. But he heaved himself to his feet, quick as a tarantula (though not nearly as limber) and cast the sign of Igni, the burst of flame lighting the wood with a swift torrent of illumination. Howls of agony erupted from the remaining hounds, their loyalty - or whatever remained of the enchantment - seemingly forgotten as they desperately withdrew from the spreading inferno, tearing at their coats with their own teeth to assuage flaming fur. Now, it was just him and the leshen. The spirit retreated further into the darkness, roots discharging rapidly but the Witcher was ready: Igni blasted once more, burning through the snapping tendrils.
His leg quavered. It was red-hot, searing, and it threatened to forgo holding his weight, and if that happened? He could kiss his ass goodbye, and somehow, a hundred years didn’t feel like enough - . . .
A primeval roar shook the forest, cavernous and never ending, and it imperiled his tottering balance. It echoed hollowly from the chasm of ossein, the stag’s head rumbling with fiendish snarls. “Well, f u c k. You didnae had to.”
Birds. He f u c k i n g hated birds. They always reminded him of battlefields, g o d d a m n e d carrion eaters, with their oily black feathers mottled with blood. “They ate eyes, they ate livers, they weren’t picky, oh, gods, let me live, or you’ll have me to deal with.” He dreaded inwardly, nauseated, his mind a roiling and sickened sea. They were descending upon him in a massive flock, blackbirds, winged crows, their pinions clouding his vision (however brief). Aard was signed with his free hand, the powerful wave shooting the villainous fowl abroad: the murder momentarily dissolved of their power. But Rue was exhausted, bleeding, and something - other than his nose - was broken: the question was what. He was panting, lungs breathing fire as he closed the gap between the colossal monster and himself.
Silver at the ready, it was ringing as it slashed through the frigid night air. But every cut was calculated: no energy was wasted, not even an ounce, his sword hand like a virulent cobra hacking at the wood-armored chassis. The creature’s ligneous and lacerating talons pulverized his sloe-black leather jerkin, the sheath hanging loosely in shreds baring his naked and vulnerable chest. Blood - his blood - tinseled the vast lechy in claret, and he felt sick again, the panic welling in his forebrain.
The spell Quen cast with a dog-tired, shuddery forelimb, he unleashed the bomb Dragon’s Dream from a sable sheepskin. Protected in the mystical circle, withheld only by his failing strength, he blasted Igni one last time and watched as the forest went up in smoke like so much kindling. The leshen groaned once more before crumpling into a pile of ash, into a pile of branches, and then Rue released Quen and stood among the smog. Red-eyed and half-weeping, he collapsed beside his fallen enemy with the hilt of his sword still clasped in his palm. Argent aglow in the blinding flames.
“A nap for us both, then, eh? Doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”
After all, a century was a long time.
He thought about Gambit, his wolfdog, and thought about how he’d never know why Rue never came home. The Witcher closed his eyes and thought no more.
CHAPTER III: WITCHERS NEVER RETIRE
The heavy redolence of aureate celandine and the heady brew of dwarven spirits permeated the small hut. Through half-lidded eyes, he could glimpse the womanly figure mulling over a small cauldron with a mortar and pestle. For a terse, and fleeting microsecond, alarm blared in his battle fatigue choked noggin; but no, didn’t move, didn’t twitch, didn’t give away his wakefulness. Her backside somehow reminded him of the Crones (which - admittedly - made him shudder) but as she shifted, she revealed her face. Tomira, her sweetness revealed in her gentle smile and cornflower blue eyes. The terror in his heart unlatched itself, though his hitched breathing remained unsteady.
The halo, wreathed by heavy lash, widened only a bit more to further investigate his surroundings: though he had passed by the cottage, it had been hastily, only to buy a few herbs to aid in the dangerous enterprise. Had he been such a man to say so, he might even say the place was cute. Dried honeysuckle, buckthorn, mistletoe, and ribleaf hung from the walls, wrapped in various colored threads. The girl, too, had made an attempt to paint a mosaic in disparate washes of natural paints, her skilled hand etching and healing with both fungi and bloom. Even her bed smelled of white myrtle petals and chamomile, and as he sat there breathing in all this panacea, he thought her as the secret gift of White Orchard.
“You’re awake.” Her words were short, but sure, and he said nothing. His dark hair shifted on the pillow to view the healer, though she was almost a silhouette with the glare of the hearth behind her.
A mug of steaming tea sat at his bedside, along with a pouch of orens (all two thousand of them) which evoked an uneasy smile from Aegon. “How long ‘ave I been out?” The floral melange sipped as he sat up. There was no memory of pain: just pain, which seemingly stretched across his entirety. He just noticed that his ribs were bandaged, and Tomira stopped him with a surprisingly strong hand. “You need to rest,” She urged, nectarous but dour all the same. But how - how could he tell her? Witchers never rest. Witchers never retire. “Can’t. Where’s my dog?” The drink was swallowed in its entirety, half out of the bed as covers were thrown off and he was already putting on a boot.
She sat there, mouth clamped in a straight white line, and her words were sullen and angry when they finally came. “If you don’t pick a time to rest, your body will pick it for you. I hope you reconsider.”
Tomira was right. He knew that, of course, but Kaer Morhen was calling him home. The last of his armor was laced (or what could be laced - his jerkin was still torn to shreds) and, his awkward gait teetered his weight in place as he sputtered a small apology. “I’d be dead without ya. Barbeque, probably.” A toothy smile, bordering on wolfish, was offered along with a few coins; after all, he was feeling generous. The healer, eyes downcast to the largest amount of coin she’d ever seen, and hand stalling, took them. “You’re going to kill yourself, Witcher. By exhaustion alone. I don’t want this, but - . . .”
“You need it. I don’t. Er, not really, but it is a bit drafty.” He joked, taking a glance down at his bare teats. Standing on the threshold of the door, he bade her farewell and left the balmy insides of the hut: his black mustang, Puddles, dutifully waited outside. His saddlebags packed, his lute thrown over the horse’s rump while he followed Tomira’s directions to the White Orchard Inn. One more night couldn’t hurt, right?
The building was quaint, flocks of chickens making their home in the courtyard. Pigs roamed, along with muddy laughing children, which he barely bypassed on shaking flanks. The thatched roof had seen better days, but the clement and fragrant warmth of the tavern was immediately welcomed to his cold veneer. Wreaths of flowers hung from the ceiling, colorful pageantry, and some petals were scattered on the floor and the tables; beside the bar, cloves of garlic dangled overhead. Many white candles melted into pools of wax, lit the tables and the bartop.
An old woman tended the saloon, and she was tending a glass when she looked up at her new guest. Her ancient face crinkled into a vision of disgust and vehemence.
“Hey, stop me if you've heard this one -”
“ANOTHER F***ING WITCHER! GET OUT! THE LOT OF YOU!”