Chapter 339: Heliotrop
Sunlight shone through the rusty bars of the window, raining down on the tattered rug. Roy was woken up by a cold gust of wind, and he found himself on the best wooden bed in the school.
The other witchers and Vesemir gave him the best room in this castle, as he was the youngest witcher, cook, and dishwasher. Even so, their best room was as stark as everywhere else. There were barely any decorations or furniture. There was only a bed made up of a few wooden boards, a crate of clothes, and a chair. There were a few hides on the door and walls. Roy recognized some of them as wolves, stags, and pumas.
It was the first time in a while since Roy had a good night's sleep. At the same time, he sorted through the plans he wanted to execute here. First, he wanted to make an alliance with the Wolves. Letho thought it was fine enough to reach a little agreement to help each other out, since this was their first visit.
But Roy had to tell them about the brotherhood and try to get them on his side. There was little more than a year left before the first Northern War would erupt. Time is not on our side.
He would have to gain the Wolves' trust by finding their missing diagrams. Roy memorized all six diagrams' locations, and they weren't far from the castle. Finding them would be easy.
And finally, the Wolf Trial's recipe. Roy had the Manticore, Cat, and Viper's Trials' recipes in his hands, so that was near last on his priority list.
There were also a few side quests, like witnessing the Circle of Elements, meeting Old Speartip, the trialmaster of Wolf School, summoning a demon in a remote place, sparring with the Wolves, and learning some new Signs. If I'm right, the Wolves have more than five Signs. "Wonder if they're awake."
The witchers talked about their romances until late at night. If they weren't in a castle surrounded by woods as far as the eye could see, Roy had no doubt they would have gone around to have some fun.
He changed into his armor and strapped his swords behind his back, then he stuffed a piglet into his hood. The young witcher stepped through the door, and his lips twitched. "You're heavy."
Cold winds blew from the fields and mountains. It felt like icy blades were cutting through the air. Brutal was the winter of these mountains, and the oak in the courtyard was shivering like a wizened hag. It swung its branches against the winds, leaves raining to the ground.
A silhouette was already in the training grounds going through his routines. His stance was solid, and he raised his sword over his head. His shoulders were relaxed, and his upper body was straight. His feet were joined in an L shape, and even though he wasn't moving, the man was reassuring to anyone who saw him.
He took two slow steps backward and fought with the enemy he was visualizing, and then he swung his sword downward. A white line pierced through the air and made it buzz. The air current that gushed from this strike sent all the leaves around the man flying.
He stopped swinging as the blade formed a horizontal line before him. Then the silhouette pulled the sword back like a giant holding a mountain. It felt like the man would almost produce a mountain and toss it into the air a moment later.
He stopped moving and raised his blade up, positioning it beside his left cheek. The blade was at a slight angle.
The silhouette was in the ox stance, and he tensed up like a bow, while his blade was his arrow pointing at the enemy he saw in his mind.
The man charged ahead while thrusting his blade forward. The beast trampled the ground, and leaves fluttered around him.
Roy blinked. The man might have had his back turned to him, but he felt like the thrust was coming straight at him. Even the air felt like it was going to break under pressure.
The young witcher tensed up, but the silhouette wasn't done. He pulled his blade back to his lower back and took a plow stance. The man started spinning his sword around as he stepped ahead. His sword spun around and around his body like a whirlwind of death.
Glints of metal shone throughout the training grounds. Unlike Cat School's swordplay, the man's spin was not as agile or precise. Instead of steps, he took strides, and his blade was pushed down at a lower angle, giving him more area of damage and power.
The man would change how he attacked even when he was spinning. Upper slice, downward swing, thrusts, and many more.
Roy was entranced. The swordplay went on for five more minutes before the man came to a stop.
He heaved a sigh and turned around. An ugly smile curled his lips, and his face glistened with sweat. Roy could almost see steam wafting from him, and it almost made his scar look even more menacing.
"Hello, Eskel. You're up early. Everyone is still asleep, right?"
"I'm used to it. Feels weird if I don't move around every morning. I thought you were going to sleep in. Want to train with me?" Eskel picked up a training sword beside the stakes and tossed it to Roy.
Roy took it and swung the sword around as he stepped into the training grounds. His left foot was forward, his right foot back. The blade was held on his right side, the tip pointed at Eskel's throat. Roy was smiling and filled with motivation to fight.
Ten minutes later, the young witcher was sitting beside the stake, sweat-drenched and brooding. Viper's dual blades were cunning, Cat's swordplay was precise and fatal, while Wolf's had variety. But no matter which school it was, no matter who he was fighting, Roy was always on the losing side. He could hardly throw a counterattack if they were only engaged in swordplay.
"Letho told me it's only been a year or so since you joined. You're already a decent swordsman." Eskel gave him a pat of approval and handed him a wineskin. "I had to put my neck on the line just to kill a drowner at your age. You will be the Vipers' leader in time."
"A loss is a loss, Eskel." Roy took a sip of the liquid and arched his eyebrow. It's not water. What's this green liquid? Some sort of juice that quenches thirst and replenishes stamina? "Pardon me for asking, but who's the strongest out of the four of you?"
"Battles ebb and flow. They're affected by physical and psychological variables, so I can only make a rough guess." Eskel leaned on the stake and scratched his head. "Lambert's the weakest no matter what in terms of swordplay or Signs. He's still not at a witcher's prime age. In terms of swordplay, Vesemir is the best one around. Geralt's not bad either."
Roy nodded. Vesemir was three times older than any of them. Not only did he master multiple schools' swordplay, he also had the experience.
"I'm about average," Eskel said. "Mostly assisting them in battles."
"You're too modest, Eskel. I don't think you're a worse swordsman than Geralt is." Roy saw the White Wolf's swordplay in Brokilon. It was as elegant as a dance, while Eskel went for a wilder approach. "Can you teach me more about Signs after this, Eskel?"
"I would say it's a discussion more than tutelage. Cast the Signs you know."
Roy made some strange gestures in the air and cast all the Signs he knew at the dummies. Five colors shone in the air, each representing a different Sign. Yellow for Quen, purple for Yrden, crimson for Igni, green for Axii, and blue for Aard.
Roy cast them in a loop.
"That's enough, Roy. That was a surprise." Eskel crossed his arms and stared at Roy. "You've only passed the Trial, but you're already mastering your mana to this degree. Excellent. Your casting is fine. The gestures are correct, but you need practice. A lot of practice. Try to shorten the time needed to cast the Signs."
Roy wiped the sweat off his forehead and heaved a sigh. Thanks to his Elder Blood, his elemental affinity saw a big increase, and his control over the Signs had improved greatly compared to how it was before.
"But why did your mentor only teach you five Signs?"
"That's the total number of Signs we have." Roy smiled and looked at Eskel expectantly. He asked, "Are you suggesting there's a sixth?"
"It's not a secret anyway. Listen closely." Eskel puffed his cheeks out and paced around the yard. "We call the sixth Sign Heliotrop. Like Quen, it's a defensive Sign, but Quen is mostly used for physical attacks, while Heliotrop is used for elemental attacks. Magic, so to speak. It can defend against fire, lightning, and frost as well. And we know that Sign."
They had Vesemir, after all. Roy wasn't surprised they knew one more Sign.
Eskel held his palm out and made a strange gesture. His index and ring fingers were held to his palm, his pinky was half-curled, while his thumb and middle finger remained erect. He pushed his palm ahead, and two identical black triangles with a line in the lower parts appeared in the air. Black light shone and crept up the witcher's body, covering him like a dark shadow.
"Got any Mana left? Shoot an Igni at me."
Roy made a gesture and pushed it ahead. A stream of fire licked Eskel, but the moment it touched the black light, Igni disappeared, while the black light only faded a little.
Roy stopped casting Igni, but he seemed excited. If this was Quen, his Igni would have burned through the shield, even if their most proficient Sign user, Serrit, was the one casting it. But Heliotrop can still hold on for a bit. This is a must-have for any battles involving monsters with mana. And I'm a mage-killer. No way I'm letting this go.
"I see the sixth Sign is a special one. Pardon me, Eskel, but can you—"
Roy's request was interrupted by the gate's opening.
A group of witchers came out, and they had dark circles under their eyes. Not even the sun could liven them up.
Auckes stretched his arms. "You two are early. What are you guys doing?"
"Did all the Gwent games blind you, Auckes?" Lambert scoffed, "Obviously the most hardworking lot of both our schools are training together. You're the veterans here, but a newbie is more hardworking than all of you? You should reflect on yourself."
"Ah, shut it, Lambert." Auckes shook his head. "Everyone slept in, including you. If you feel so ashamed, why don't you hang yourself on the stakes right there?"
The witchers started arguing, while Vesemir went straight for the stairs beneath the oak tree. He nodded at Roy and glanced at the training swords beside the stakes. "Hello, lad. How did the sparring go? Did Eskel go too hard on you?"
"I was going to ask him about Heliotop, and…"
The Vipers listened closely. They hated the fact they only knew five Signs. Now that the sixth was right in front of them, they wanted to know everything about it.
"Have you mastered it, then?" Vesemir gave Roy a gentle look of encouragement.
"Sorry. I'm not talented enough to master it yet."
"Well, what are you waiting for, Eskel?" Vesemir shot Eskel a glare. "You have one week! Make sure the lad masters Heliotrop!"
"That's alright, Vesemir!" Letho quickly stood beside Roy and said apologetically, "Thank you, but the kid's overstepped a few lines here. Ignore him. Signs are precious secrets. You can't possibly hand it over so easily.
Roy turned around and rolled his eyes. He's not helping me, and he wants me to be the bad cop here?
"It's alright, Letho. Don't scold him for a good thing," Vesemir said. "You came with gifts, and it's natural that we return the favor."
"We're not that kind of people, Vesemir," Serrit argued. "And the things we brought were practically things you can find anywhere."
"It's alright, I insist. There's only four Wolves left, and this is just a little trick we know. If we insist on keeping it a secret, the only place we're taking it is to the grave."
Since Vesemir insisted, the Vipers accepted the gift graciously. Roy's respect for Vesemir mounted. He's not the grandmaster for nothing. Generous and wise. Since you're teaching me Heliotrop, then I'm giving you something nice in return.
Roy thought that witchers had to share everything they knew, from Signs to diagrams, if they ever wanted to really expand. Keeping secrets was counterproductive. Vesemir had that kind of spirit, but Roy wondered if he would accept the concept of brotherhood.
Vesemir looked at everyone. "Eskel's going to teach Roy the sixth Sign, and we're going to have a little discussion about Signs with everyone else.
And then something interesting happened. The Wolves and Vipers split into teams of two, and the Wolves started teaching the Vipers how to cast Heliotrop.
Roy stood before the spinning dummy and curled his hand up in a strange gesture. He was used to swinging his weapon with his right hand, so he cast his Signs with his left.
His gesture was similar to Eskel's, but on closer inspection, his fingers were curled at different angles. It was far from perfect, so to speak. Learning a new Sign was a boring process. It was like practicing the five sword stances.
From a distance, it looked like someone was pulling and pushing his hand in an infinite loop, and that someone's hand was curled up like a little octopus.
When Roy first made that gesture, his mana was like dead, unmoving water. The elements felt like they were frozen.
After mastering five Signs, Roy noticed how they worked. Igni utilized the element of fire, Aard and Yrden used wind, Axii used water, and Quen used earth.
Just like Quen, Heliotrop utilized the element of earth. Roy kept doing the gestures, and Eskel kept correcting him patiently. Just like how he looked, Eskel was patient, meticulous, and never in a hurry.
Lambert, however, was different. "Honestly, Auckes, did you cheat your way through the Trial? I have never seen anyone with fingers as uncoordinated as yours. You're a fucking donkey!"
"And you're shutting the fuck up! I have never seen anyone who talks shit like they eat it every day! Stop buzzing around like a fly or I'm changing partners!"
Lambert and Auckes were arguing, while Geralt and Letho exchanged a look of resignation. Serrit, on the other hand, was learning quietly from Vesemir.
Four hours and a thousand failures later, Roy finally had a stroke of inspiration. He pushed his left hand ahead and curled his index and ring finger at the same time. His pinky was half-curled, while his thumb and middle finger were erect.
The Mana in his body rippled, and part of the earth element swam into his limbs, coursed through his arm, got into his palm, and came out of his fingertips.
A black triangle appeared in the air, and black light covered Roy's body. Then a message popped up in his character sheet.
'You have learned Heliotrop. Heliotrop: Creates a barrier around you. The barrier can deflect elemental attacks.
Eskel was surprised. "You're a talented swordsman and Sign caster, Roy. I spent three days just to learn this, but you did it in hours."
Geralt was staring as well. "I spent two."
Everyone huddled around Roy, staring at the black light around him curiously. They couldn't believe an apprentice learned a new Sign faster than the veterans of their school.
In terms of magical talent, Roy's Elder Blood placed him on top of the witcher pyramid, and the magical training he created helped him out.
"I spent a week, fuck! This is unbelievable!" Lambert was jealous. "Did you check his magical talent? Are you sure he's not supposed to be a sorcerer?"
"He's indisputably a witcher," Letho said. There was approval and praise in his eyes.
Vesemir suddenly came up and patted Roy's shoulder, and then he winked at everyone. "His magical talent is on par with a Griffin’s. It'd be a waste if he didn’t pay a visit to Kaer Seren. Why don't you lend the lad to us for a bit, Vipers?"
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