Chapter 376: Meeting
The yellow sun started climbing through the skies, and the kids' morning exercise came to an end. Thirteen sweating, glowing boys and seven chattering girls took up their seats at the tables in the yard.
The kids could always deal with food fast, especially when they were starving. The fish, chicken, and bread couldn't stop their unrelenting onslaught, and the kids enjoyed breakfast like it was made of the best food in the world.
A piece of fish fell amidst all the feasting, and Acamuthorm picked it up in a flash. At the same time, he shot his companions a glare. He could see the two of them were about to take that piece of fish for themselves.
"You're not hyenas, Monti, Carl. Stop taking scraps. This is my fish. If you want more, just walk to the next table and get some more. If you can't be bothered to make that little journey, I don't mind telling the teacher. They might break your legs, though."
"Hey, your food flies around when you eat. How is that our fault? We were just looking out for ourselves. Next time, be careful when you eat." Carl licked his plate and rubbed his ballooned belly.
The kids then turned their attention to the girls at the next table and smiled like stooges. After their training and breakfast every day, watching the girls eat became some sort of entertainment for the boys.
Unlike the boys, the girls had a more polite way of eating. They took every bite slowly like a princess, and it was nice to watch. They would sometimes show their teeth when they were eating, their cheeks would puff, and their freckles would dance.
Carl shook his head. Most of the orphans came from regular families, and barely any of them were beautiful. Most of them had freckles, wide chins, and big foreheads. Vicki was the only one who looked like she came straight out of a portrait. After a month in the orphanage, her skin and hair were no longer dry. Instead, her skin was supple, and her hair was silky.
Carl and the boys would steal some glances at her if they could, and Vicki noticed their stares. She turned around only to notice all the boys stealing glances at her. She turned pink and almost buried her face in the table.
"Beautiful and reserved." Monti muttered, "She's the best girl I've ever seen."
"And only the best swordsman is worthy of her." Carl licked his plate again and grinned at his companions. "Once I pass the Trial, I'll marry her. You two can be my best men, I guess."
And then someone smacked him in the head.
"Who did that?" Carl shot up angrily and was met with an icy look coming from a pair of greyish-green eyes. The boy froze up and hung his head low like a defeated puppy. "Felix…"
Felix stared at his apprentice icily. "I see you didn't train enough this morning. Talking about girls, are we? You have fifteen minutes before class begins. Get to the stakes and do two sets of pendulum. Right now."
"What about them?" Carl looked at his silent companions in an attempt to drag them down with him.
"They need to rest. Now go!" Felix kicked his rear.
Carl forced an ugly smile and went to the training area reluctantly. Once Felix was gone, Monti and Acamuthorm held their stomachs and laughed quietly.
"Carl got one thing wrong. She's worthy of a man with brains," Monti muttered, and then his eyes went wide.
"What's wrong with you?" Acamuthorm put his hand on Monti's forehead.
"What are you talking about?"
"She's prettier than Vicki!" Monti tried his best to come up with a praise. "Her lips are like… blooming morning glories!"
Everyone looked at the orphanage's entrance. There was a woman standing under the plaque. It looked like she came out of nowhere, but more importantly, she was gorgeous. Her white dress clung to her perfect curves tightly, her fire-red hair tumbling around her shoulders, and her skin seemed to be glowing.
She was as beautiful as a goddess, and standing beside her was Roy, who had been gone for a week. The lady was holding his hand like a gentle wife, and the kids were dumbstruck to see them together. Their jaws formed comical 'O's.
"Well, if it isn't Lytta. Welcome to the House of Gawain." The witchers in the orphanage came to welcome them.
Auckes made a face to the mage and spread his arms for a hug, but the sorceress stared at him coldly. Auckes pulled his hand back without missing a beat and wiggled his eyebrows at Roy while giving him a thumbs up.
Letho stared at their interlocked arms and heaved a sigh. He then took a deep breath and shook the mage's hand. "Let's talk inside, Lytta. And we have some new friends you might want to meet." Serrit nodded and smiled.
"A minute, please." Lytta beamed and pushed her hair back. "We have a few more people on their way."
"Who?" Felix and Eskel had come out as well.
"Miss me, cubs?" an old, invigorating voice said from the woods, and in came Vesemir on his horse. He had a hat on his head, and his saddlebag looked packed with items.
Lambert and a man with short black hair and a scar on his chin appeared as well, and they were engaged in a conversation. A pendant resembling a cat's head was hanging around the newcomer's neck, and then Geralt and Kiyan trailed behind them.
"Well, looks like everyone's here." Auckes' jaw dropped, but he looked excited. "Come in, people. We're going to have a long talk in the conference room."
Twelve people were gathered in the simple conference room located in the leftmost part of the orphanage, and warm sunshine shone through the window.
"Brothers, the lady before you is Kerack's royal consultant—Lady Lytta Neyd." Auckes bowed as low as possible and pointed at the only lady among them. He looked like an usher who was welcoming an esteemed guest.
Lytta nodded at everyone, but she corrected, "Was Kerack's royal consultant. I have accepted Roy's invitation to work with the brotherhood. I understand we have a Trial to improve."
"What did I tell you, Aiden? They're lovers. He's the right man for the job," Lambert whispered into Aiden's ears before raising his head smugly.
Aiden was flabbergasted. Never did he expect a mage to work with them in this day and age, and he turned his attention to Roy. He managed to get a mage on his side. This isn't your ordinary witcher.
Vesemir gave Roy a look of approval, and the other brotherhood members were stoked. Their plan of building an orphanage and taking in orphans had been going well so far, and the addition of a mage in their ranks boosted their confidence.
"Thank you for coming today, Lytta."
"Well, I have my little heartbreaker here. Of course I had to come." Coral shook her head, laughing. Then she held Roy's arm without any concern of embarrassment.
The veteran witchers exchanged looks, and Geralt looked a little dazed. He used to be like that with Yennefer, but now he was just a bystander in someone else's relationship.
"Ahem, we're all brothers and friends here. Remember the rules. Respect and teamwork."
"My turn. Look here. We have Aiden from the Cat School with us. I told you guys about him." Lambert and Aiden stood up at the same time.
"Aiden, they're the brotherhood's—"
"Remember me, lad?" Felix looked at Aiden.
"Of course. I saw you decades ago, Felix." Aiden had respect in his eyes. He nodded and turned his attention to the grotesque Kiyan.
"Got into some trouble and got myself hurt. Serious injury, but it's all in the job description." Kiyan shrugged the weird look off. "Know who Joel and Gaetan are?"
Silence grasped Aiden for a moment. "Joel is my mentor, but it's been a decade or so since we last met. You know how we are. We go around the world and have no place to call home. The Trial venue changes all the time. We don't get to know where they'll hold the next Trial."
Felix nodded. "The school's filled with madmen. You don't have to stay in touch with them. You're one of the sane Cats. They're not the people you should hang out with. Want to join the brotherhood and fight with us? We're a family here, I promise."
Aiden fell into silence again, and he looked at everyone.
Lambert interrupted. "Give him some time, people. Once he sees what we have to offer, he'll come to a decision."
"And you'll be giving him the tour," Letho said.
Lambert nodded and gave the happy Vesemir a knowing look. "You had fun in Oxenfurt, Vesemir. Looks like some of your hair is turning black again. Didn't think you'd come back after spending a whole month in Countess Mignole's manor."
"Shut it, Lambert. I'd like to see you get a lady." Vesemir scanned everyone and announced, "And I didn't come back empty-handed. I have a few weapons and armor in my saddlebag. Mignole's courtesy to a friend. I have a full Viper's set and some bear armor pieces. Do with them what you will."
"The countess is rich, isn't she, Vesemir?" Lambert rubbed his thumb and index finger together. "Can you…"
"Lambert, once again, shut it. Who do you think I am?" Vesemir shook his head. "She's already kind enough to give us a part of her collection. You can deal with the money problem yourself. Building and expanding an organization isn't an easy task. You have to deal with more matters than you can imagine, and all of you are still too young to deal with the nitty gritty. You need an experienced guy to help you out with the management. Someone like me."
And then everyone smiled.
"Welcome to the brotherhood, Vesemir." Eskel beamed. "I'll give you a copy of the rules and give you some tasks."
"The trip was smooth sailing." It was Geralt's turn to report. "We found the Cat School weapon diagrams. And now we have the full set of diagrams for the Cat School gear."
They headed for Drahim right after leaving Est Tayiar, and they found Prince Adrien's remains on a rickety balcony. The guilt of telling Kiyan to slaughter all the archeologists gnawed away at him, and he hung himself eventually, bringing an end to the Sea Cats Dynasty.
The final Cat School diagram sat beside his remains. Collecting it gave closure to Kiyan, and he buried his guilt of killing the archeologists deep in his heart.
Now, the brotherhood had a full set of Wolven diagrams, a full set of Cat diagrams, the diagrams for Viper swords, and the diagrams for Manticore armor and steel sword. That was about half of all the missing diagrams of all six schools.
"So now we need a master blacksmith to research the diagrams and new alloy and make the best gear possible." Roy told Vesemir about Berengar. He hoped the grandmaster could convince Berengar into coming back.
Vesemir was silent for a moment, and his brows knitted together. Then he shook his head. "It was his choice to leave Kaer Morhen. Not even I can convince him. He's not going to join the brotherhood unless someone forces him to."
"We'll put the blacksmith business on hold," Serrit said. "We have enough armor and weapons for now, and Vesemir brought back enough to gear most people up. Research, development, and blacksmithing will cost a lot of money, and we're not in a hurry to make new weapons. We need to spend the money on something more important, like improving the Trial."
Everyone nodded. The brotherhood's first and most important priority would always be the apprentices.
Introductions and reports were done. Roy cleared his throat and stood up. "That brings our first phase to a close. Good job, everyone. And now it's time for the second phase. Coral will be doing her research on the Trial for the Wolf, Viper, Cat, and Manticore School in the underground lab from tomorrow onward."
Felix interrupted. "Lytta, I'm counting on you for Carl's Trial."
"And I have something to say about that." Coral pushed her hair back. She kept quiet for a while before continuing. "Felix, are you sure you want Carl to take Cat School's Trial? I have helped Roy with his Trial and roughly went through the pros and cons of the recipes I have."
All the witchers stared at Coral. They were interested in what she found.
"Your school's Trial has a relatively low death rate, but the side effects can possibly be disastrous and unpredictable. Even if he passes the Trial, Carl's negative emotions can be amplified and destroy his mind. It can turn him into a madman."
Coral looked at Vesemir, and he smiled at her. "I haven't gotten my hands on the Wolf School's Trial just yet, but it's obviously safer than your school's recipe."
She then said something unacceptable for Felix. "But if you want my honest opinion, Carl would have the best chances with either the Viper or the Manticore's Trial."
"No!" Felix's face fell. He protested, "He's been taking Cat School pre-Trial for months. You can't just tell him to take another school's Trial now. Can't you improve my school's recipe? You have nearly two months left."
Coral shook her head, and Roy squeezed her hand. "Felix, you have to know that improving the Trial is an intricate process. It'll take at least a year to make any progress, and I'm just one mage. I can promise you I'll do my best, but that is it. And don't worry. The pre-Trials aren't as different as you think they are. At most, they increase his resistance against poison a little. If he takes the Manticore's Trial, he only has a thirty percent chance of dying. Forty percent if it's the Viper's Trial, and there won't be any side effects either. If he goes with the Cat's Trial, he'll have a fifty percent death rate. And that's under my supervision."
She would need Roy to pass the Manticore's Trial first if she needed more data on that.
"So in other words, it's a seventy percent success rate?" Everyone's breathing was getting labored.
"Dammit! It used to be thirty percent for us!" Lambert smacked his knees in frustration as he thought of his friends who died in the Trial. "We should’ve kidnapped a mage!"
Vesemir was surprised as well, but more than that, he looked glad. Felix spat angrily, but he said, "Fine, Manticore it is."
He preferred the Cat School Trial, but he wanted his apprentice to live. "They're still witchers."
Kiyan nodded and held his friend's shoulder. "Carl's going to be the first witcher to take the Trial after the brotherhood's inception. This is symbolic, and he must pass. Think about the big picture. And remember rule six. No politicking. We promised we'd start abolishing the schools after we joined."
"It doesn't matter which Trial is it. What's important is it helps the apprentices," Auckes interrupted.
Coral smiled and exchanged a look with Roy. "Then I shall be researching the Manticore's Trial from tomorrow onward and increase its success rate even more. I will need an assistant. Roy will be perfect. He knows how I work."
Letho and Serrit gave Roy looks of suspicion. Are they going to spend a whole month dating in there?
"Kid, I don't want to hear any news of Coral getting pregnant when the research is done."
Unlike usual, Roy didn't get embarrassed from just a tease. He shook his head, smiling. "Maybe she's going to be pregnant with twins." Yeah, I'm sterile and she's barren. No way we can have kids.
"Shut it!" Coral bristled like a cat, and she shot Letho a nasty glare. But then she thought to herself, You pitiful fool. You have no idea that your own apprentice is going to undergo a second Trial for the brotherhood. Only I do.
Coral took a deep breath and held her complaints down. "Roy and I will try to make sure Carl passes his Trial. As for the components…"
"I have two sets of it. I'll give them to you later," Felix said. "The mutagens are largely universal, and there's that."
"So, is it time for me to know what I'm going to do?" Vesemir glanced outside the window, and the kids hid underneath the windowsill. "There are a few rowdy ones among the kids, and I think we need to whip them into shape. Why don't you let me try it?" He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I feel younger with the kids. Probably can live for a few more years."
Everyone stared at the grandmaster.
"Vesemir is right. The reserve apprentices have too much energy and nowhere to spend it," Letho answered. And he looked at a lock of hair poking out of the windowsill. "It's time to increase their training. Free time is canceled. Now it's the second swordplay lesson, and Vesemir will be the instructor."
The boys who were listening in froze up, and their faces scrunched up. They looked at one another and started sobbing in silence.
Coral noticed something, and then she leaned on Roy and chuckled.
Everyone talked about sending someone to the Poviss coastline to find the remaining Griffins. Vesemir told them the exact location of Kaer Seren, but he didn't recommend them making a move so soon. "Keldar is tougher than a rock that's survived years of the elements and more traditional than I am. And he's a tough customer who won't change his mind so quickly. Without any achievements to call our own, we won't convince him. I suggest we get in touch after we've raised some decent apprentices."
In the end, Roy and Lytta would start their experiment in the lab the next day and record the Manticore Trial's data to make things easier for Carl. Letho, Auckes, Serrit, Lambert, and Vesemir would teach the kids, handle the shop, and train Gawain's men. Aiden would survey the place, while Felix and Eskel geared themselves up with the items Vesemir brought back and prepared some vampire oils. They were going to clear out the monsters hiding in Novigrad sewers and take their mutagens to prepare for more Trials.
Lytta opened a portal and sent Geralt and Kiyan to the Velen's countryside in search of Griffin diagrams. They were the only ones who could go. If any of the Vipers went, the crones would swoop down to kill them.
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