Chapter 439: News of Erland
"A hundred years ago, around 1150, the mages who were eyeing our secrets launched an ambush on a winter night. A huge wave of snow cascaded down the mountains, burying Kaer Seren in a freezing grave. Aside from Erland—who was observing the stars that night—no Griffin lived. After Erland buried his brethren, he left."
"What about Keldar?"
"He came back to life thanks to a phylactery named Book of Shadows. His life was extended by about a hundred years. Not too long ago, he realized the book imprisoned all the souls of the brothers he lost in that avalanche, so he destroyed it. With its destruction, the souls of the trapped were freed, and Keldar passed into the afterlife." Keldar's death was still raw. Coen had tears in his eyes when he recounted that tale.
"So I was still imprisoned during that avalanche." Jerome hung his head low in disbelief. "So that's why only ruins were left when I came home. But I scoured the whole fortress, and yet Keldar was nowhere to be seen. Even stayed for two years, but nobody came back, so I left."
"Keldar locked himself in the fortress for years after his resurrection just to research that phylactery." Coen licked his lips. This is a cruel joke fate played. "In 1154, he ventured the lands for years in search of Erland. Never came home."
"So I went back at the wrong time and missed meeting the only comrade I had left?" Jerome stared at the sky, a bitter smile tugging at his lips. "What did I do to deserve this?"
Everyone felt for Jerome. It was hit after hit for him. Little wonder he broke down. A solemn pause ensued. Everyone gave Jerome some time to process his emotions.
A while later, dusk descended, and a campfire was lit under the bridge, its light shining upon the faces around it.
"So, Jerome, where did you go after leaving Kaer Seren? Never heard any news about you."
Jerome wolfed down the bread. His eyes were bloodshot, and his cheeks puffed up. He looked like a starving refugee. "Kaer Seren and Erland were the pillars that kept me sane during my imprisonment."
Lytta held Roy tightly.
"For thirty years, they were the only things that kept my mind intact. I clenched my teeth and held on because I wanted to see them once more. But then I came back to a ruined Kaer Seren. I—" He coughed violently.
Letho handed him a bottle of Est Est to wash his food down.
"And my world shattered. Only one thing lingered in my mind. Since the fortress was no more, I had to find Erland. I knew he was still alive."
"A few months before I broke free…" Jerome took a deep breath. "I vaguely felt Erland somewhere…"
"WHAT?" Coen roared. He shot up and, with an unbelievably loud voice, asked, "How did you do it? How did you communicate with him while you were locked up?"
"It wasn't communication. He was sending messages to me. During my incarceration, I spent my time finding food, training my body, and meditating. Spent most of the day doing just that."
Roy nodded. No wonder he's Level 8 in Meditation.
"I heard a familiar voice calling out to me from afar. It was a voice carved deep in my soul. Something I grew up with. I concentrated and realized it was a summon from Erland." A hint of life returned to Jerome's face. "He used to tell me when someone reaches the pinnacle of meditation, they can shed their mortal vessel and come in contact with their heart. Like opening a door to freedom for their spirit and soul. We can explore the outside world even during meditation. We can search for familiar footprints."
Everyone leaned forward, listening intently to the story.
"I am his student. It's been many years since I was lost. He must have been looking for me, and he finally did. I saw him in the world of meditation. Everything's vague, but I concentrated and tried to gravitate toward him. And shadows appeared around Erland.
"His voice was weak, and his face was blurry. He was as stiff as a doll. Seemed to have no idea what he was doing." Jerome put his empty bottle down, a frown appearing on his forehead. "Erland seemed to be under something's control. Something brainwashed him. It took him a lot just to gain freedom for a moment."
Curiosity gnawed away at Coen's soul like a mouse nibbling at cheese. He blurted, "Who even has the power to control Erland?"
"I do not know. Erland only told me one thing." Jerome paused, and everyone's hearts skipped a beat.
"Do not search. Do not search!" Jerome's hysterical shout pierced through the night, the campfire flickering from his breath.
"I saw a great black lake behind his soul. I felt nothing but fear in it. That was his warning for me, but he said nothing else. Didn't even talk about my predicament. He was gone after a moment. I think something must have pulled him back into the void. I kept meditating, waiting for him to contact me, but nothing. One hundred years went by, and there was still no news about him."
Roy massaged his cheeks. Oh, shit. Things just got bad. Real bad. Griffin school's founder and one of the strongest witchers in the world fell into a trap he can't even get out of. Who or what is controlling him?
Roy knew this world enough to come up with a list of suspects. There was a prime suspect, but he wasn't sure if it was the mastermind.
Letho mused. He was reminded of the archnemesis the Viper School had fought against for a century. The ghostly knights that reigned in the skies, appearing before the night of the war. Many times these knights had abducted Vipers and turned them into one of their own. I wonder if this has something to do with them.
Hoarsely, Coen asked, "But what did he mean? Does he want us to stop looking for him?"
"That was what I thought, but I had lost everything. I didn’t give up." Jerome said, "After I left Kaer Seren, I scoured the whole Northern Realms. Even got as far as some districts in the south, but I found nothing. It's like Erland disappeared into thin air."
Darkly, Jerome said, "And then the whole world seemed to have left me behind. I lost all my goals and motivation. So I returned to Beauclair and stayed with the person who saved me—my mother. Guarded her grave like a tramp."
"You never returned to Kaer Seren after that?"
"I didn't have the courage to."
Everyone fell silent.
Jerome said, "Sometimes, when the pain became too much, I'd return to Mont Crane and run around like a madman. A madman who cared for nothing."
Roy nodded. Alright, that explains Grimm's encounter.
"If I had broken free ten years earlier, my whole world could have changed. The fates of the people I cared about could have changed." He closed his eyes. "Perhaps I should have died with my brethren in that avalanche."
"Don't say that, mate. You were alone. You couldn’t have saved everyone." Coen held Jerome's shoulder, consoling him. "But you're not alone now. There's still you and me. We're the Griffins. We should work together and find out where Erland is."
Jerome looked at the group, and he shook his head. "Do you know why I told you everything? I'm trying to dissuade you from the search. I do not care what organization you belong to, and your goals do not interest me.
"It has been a hundred years since I held a weapon. I lived my life as a tramp. Long have I tossed my school's creed behind me. Long have I forgotten about the way of the witchers." Jerome put his hands behind his head and laid back down on his haystack. Once again, he looked forlorn and uninviting. "All I wish for is to lay down and rot away. Please, leave me in peace. And thank you for your food. Thank you for listening to my rant."
Everyone exchanged a look.
"Jerome, you're lying to yourself," Letho said. "If you threw away your identity as a witcher, why don't you give your medallion to Coen, then? Not like you have any use for it. Why don't you give it to someone who still has dreams and passion? Contribute to your school. It might be the last contribution you'll ever make."
Coen wanted to say something. He thought Letho was being a bit cruel, but Roy shot him a look.
"Even dying patients have the right to reminisce about the past. This medallion is my only reason to keep on living." Jerome trembled. "You would strip me of this right as well?"
"Jerome, be honest with yourself. You still miss your school, so why not take up arms one more time?" Letho said, "If you keep hiding under this bridge and living like a tramp, you'll change nothing."
"It's useless. I couldn’t find Erland no matter what. Decades, centuries… Time has proven that Destiny cannot be challenged," he roared, his voice filled with despair. "We cannot escape fate!"
Letho shook his head and sighed. He could understand Jerome's frustration, but he had no patience to convince him.
"There's one fundamental aspect you got wrong." Roy gently pulled Coral's arm away. "You couldn’t change fate because you were alone. But if you come with us, we'll show you what a team can do." He clenched his fist and raised his voice. "The brotherhood might not be as big as your school in its heyday, but we have a dozen members at the moment." Roy said proudly, "We have Vipers, Wolves, and even Cats among our ranks. Coen's not a member yet, but we're working together."
Jerome was inscrutable, but his breathing was ragged.
"And I have a mage with me." Roy looked at Coral. Coral looked dazed. She covered her mouth and yawned, then she gave Roy a tired smile. She should have been asleep at this hour.
"A team is always more powerful than one person. Just because you can't find Erland doesn't mean we can't!"
Jerome turned around.
"You said everything could have been different if you had just escaped ten years earlier, so don't let history repeat itself." Roy said confidently, "If you refuse us, you might end up thinking that things could have been different if you had joined us. If you want to find Erland, then come with us. Stop pitying yourself. Don't wallow in the past. What would Erland think if he saw you in this state?"
Roy extended his hand. The night breeze made his hair flutter, tickling his cheek. This time, he got no reaction. Jerome was still facing him with his back. A long wait later, he shook his head in disappointment. "Opportunities don't come knocking every day, Jerome Moreau. You have two days."
Coen was the real Griffin Roy cared about, not this pitiful shell of a former Griffin who had languished for a century. He wouldn't force Jerome into joining the brotherhood if he didn't want to. "If you keep letting yourself go, you'll die in a few years. Think about that."
A sigh echoed in the night. Letho, Roy, and Coral returned to the secret lab under the Valley of the Nine, while Coen stayed back.
He sat on the ground across from Jerome, the campfire still burning between them.
Crickets chirped, and bugs screeched, but Jerome remained silent. A long while later, he asked, "Why didn't you leave?"
"I'd like to give it a go." Coen smiled. He looked up at the moss-filled walls and the twinkling stars in the night. "I want to see how it feels to live as a tramp. You didn’t change for a century. There must be something charming about it."
He took his armor off, only wearing a shirt underneath. Then Coen smeared his exposed skin with soil, turning himself into a dirty tramp.
He closed his eyes and took a little nap, a long sigh escaping his lips. "Feels better. Like I don't have any shackles anymore. I don't need to care about anything. Reviving the school, the virtues of a knight, Erland, Book of Shadows, Igsena… None of them have anything to do with me. I just wanna lie down and do nothing. Why don't I come with you and wander the continent, Jerome?"
"Who's Igsena?" Jerome answered with a question.
"My girlfriend. A country gir… No, she's a city girl now. She stayed by my side during my darkest hour. I guess I'm luckier than you were. I had Igsena in my darkest moment, but you had nothing. If I were in your spot, I might have sunk even further."
Coen grinned, and then he said, "But she was this close to leaving me. Thanks to Roy and the brotherhood, she didn't. Roy does everything with a goal in mind, and he shoots straight. Real straight, but he upholds his promises."
Over his long life, Jerome had ventured across countless places and heard many things. Most of the time, however, he was just a spectator of the events that were happening around him. For many years, no one bore their souls open to him.
Coen might not be the best orator; he might stutter and stammer and think a lot before he spoke, but his genuine style reflected the teachings of the Griffin school.
Jerome let down his guard ever so slightly, and his empty eyes had a sliver of light within them. Before he knew it, he was listening to Coen the whole night.
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