Chapter 430: Return
A blanket of mist covered the cattails of Kaer Morhen's river. Not even a whisper of the winds was heard. The air itself seemed to have stopped moving.
Within the mist stood a young witcher. Carl stood with his back against a tree, one foot in front of the other. His body was bent over, and the boy assumed the ox stance. His blade stood by him, its tip pointing at the deep mist.
Carl's wild eyes flickered around, watching out for any incoming danger. A yellow shield covered him, and beads of sweat trickled down his soil-covered face. They fell down his chin, absorbed by the earth.
A ball of yellow light shone in the mist. It was warm and saintly, not unlike a beacon in the dark. Like a lighthouse, it guided lost travelers to the right path. The light clouded Carl's mind, and a weird sensation welled within him. It felt like a long-lost friend was waiting for him within the mist, and he slowly advanced into the mist.
The voice of a child spoke. "Get back here! It's dangerous there!"
"Monti?" Carl froze for a moment. Why is he here? We're in the wilderness.
"You gotta help us, Carl. It's Vicki. She hurt her leg. Bad!"
Panic filled the boy's face, and he hastened his steps. Gusts of wind blew as he ran, and the boy saw the silhouette of a human standing within the mist. Its back was hunched, and it was beckoning him over.
Carl held his sword behind him, seemingly relinquishing all defenses. But when he got within three yards of the silhouette, the confusion on Carl's face turned into determination, and he shoved his blade ahead.
A surge of mana blasted ahead, tearing the mist and that silhouette apart, revealing the monster hiding within. It was naked, its arms were long, and its nails were as black as obsidian. Carl's Sign made it tumble backward, and it was struggling to get up.
Like a cat, the boy gripped the ground tightly with his feet. He leapt into the air and landed on the gaunt belly of the green humanoid creature. Carl swung his blade forward, its edge glinting like the fangs of a predator.
And then he brought it down onto the creature's neck. Blood splattered everywhere, and the creature turned into a ball of mist. Screams of fury, agony, and horror hung in the air.
The young witcher cursed under his breath. He swiveled around and swung his blade backward, but his judgment proved erroneous. The creature reappeared on the opposite side. It scurried close to the witcher's back and held him in a crushing hold.
Quen was shattered. The impact of the attack sent Carl flying away, rolling on the ground. He hit the ground headfirst and hastily tried to push the monster back with Aard.
Alas, the monster would not grant the young witcher this opening. It slunk back into the mist, turning into a gust of intangible wind that circled Carl. It would howl and roar at the young witcher in an attempt to cloud his judgment.
Carl looked around him, beads of sweat drenching his eyes. His cheeks were taut, and his breathing was ragged. The young witcher wanted to hit the monster with Aard, but he had no idea where to cast it. This was a gamble, and his life was at stake. He would not throw caution to the wind.
The monster's claw lashed out from the mist and attacked Carl from a spot he never expected.
A gash appeared on the back of Carl's hand. The young witcher's hand shivered, and he dropped his blade. Out of instinct, Carl shot Aard at the spot where he was attacked, but he was one moment too late. His attacker had slipped back into the mist yet again.
Carl's heart raced, and fear welled within him. Without any hesitation, he rolled on the ground. And not a moment too soon.
He felt something claw away at his nape, and another gash formed. And then, he was met with the maw of a monster. Within it, only death remained.
Carl couldn't react in time. His eyes went wide, and his jaw dropped. Is this it?
A surge of magical energy welled in the air, and then sounds of blade cutting through flesh filled the surroundings.
A silver gleam of light arced through the skies, and then a headless body slammed down on Carl, blood spurting from the stump where the body's head was supposed to be.
Miraculously, the mist that surrounded him disappeared. White sunlight shone upon the lands, and the river of Kaer Morhen gurgled beside him. A small hill and forest stood on his other side.
A witcher in a pair of sunglasses was fiddling with the monster's head. He shook his head in disapproval. "You failed, kid. Go back to drowners and nekkers." Felix took his sunglasses off. His eyes narrowed, and a smirk tugged on his lips. Then he tossed Carl a bottle of Swallow.
The young witcher gulped it down, and black veins crawled over his little face. A cool sensation washed across the wounds on his nape and the back of his hand, then a sigh escaped his lips.
"That was a decent performance, but you made at least three fatal mistakes. You should have gone for the eye at first, not the neck. You failed to recast Quen as soon as it was broken, and you forgot to cast Aard."
"I understand, sir. I won't repeat the same mistakes next time." Carl hung his head low. He wiped the blood off his face as he apologized to his mentor.
"Good. Foglets are beyond you for now." Felix patted the boy's back. "Don't get cocky just because you killed some drowners and won a fight against the boys. The world is a lot more dangerous than you think. Choose your battles. Prepare well. You won't get lucky every time."
"Yes, sir!" Carl nodded and took a deep breath. He hunkered down to cut the foglet's body up, taking its teeth and nails. A moment later, a smile tugged on his lips. "Quintus and Fyodor can make some arrows out of these, and then I can go hunting with Oreo at night."
"What are you mumbling about? Pick up the pace. You're as slow as an old man."
Felix and Carl went by the giant cave that used to hold a trial for the Wolves. Old Speartip, the late trialmaster, was nothing but a gigantic skeleton that slept within the cave now.
Carl stared at the skeletal remains in disbelief. The skull alone was about as big as him. If the monster was still alive, Carl had no doubt it could crush him like a little chick. "Sir, who felled this creature? He must have been a powerful witcher." Carl quietly picked up a joint the size of his fist. Cool. I can show the other kids this.
"Not just one witcher." There was a bit of disappointment in Felix's eyes. "Four Vipers and three Wolves. Seven of them did this. Poisoned it with puffer fish toxin first. It was a pity I wasn't there. This could have been a legendary battle, remembered for centuries. Ahem."
"Don't worry, sir. Next time we'll kill an ogroid together. And not just a cyclops. We'll kill an ice giant too!" Carl promised confidently.
"You little brat." Felix smacked his head jokingly. "Tell me that after you get your thousandth drowner kill."
And Carl looked as sad as a little, bitter cat.
They arrived at the troll's hill, and the family of trolls almost smashed their heads open with a rain of stones. Fortunately, Felix whipped out some Novigradian vodka and mentioned Roy's name.
The trolls showed delight and invited the two witchers to a feast made up of snails, frogs, and slugs. It smelled… pungent. With resignation and determination in his heart, Carl gulped down the unsavory concoction. Two servings of them, in fact. Felix refused to eat.
Before they left, the trolls gave them some gemstones and ores they found in the mountains. That managed to assuage Carl. A big grin broke across his lips. I bet Vicki will love this.
And then, the final part. Kaer Morhen's Elemental Circle. Carl meditated within the circle, while Felix lit up the candles that represented the four seasons and four elements.
He crossed his arms and leaned on a stone wall, staring at the plains. A thousand thoughts raced through his head.
Never did Felix expect to stay in a fixed spot, especially when that spot was Novigrad. It was loud and boisterous. And the orphanage was filled with people as well. The old him would have preferred places like Kaer Morhen. It was quiet, secluded, and close to nature.
Felix stared at his student. This life he led felt like retirement. The kids were always ready to run around, and he never felt bored around them. But I wonder how long this peace can last.
"I feel great, sir!" A happy Carl stood up and quickly made a blue triangle in the air. A gust of air slammed down into the ground. Grass and soil flew in the air as a crater formed from the impact. "Yeah, my Sign got stronger!"
Felix smacked his head. "Nothing to be proud of. Roy and Geralt's Signs mutated. Now, as promised, you've killed ten monsters and reached the Elemental Circle. You can pick a medallion."
He opened his hand, revealing six pendants that shone brilliantly under the sun. There was a pendant that resembled a wolf's head, one a cat, one a griffin, one a manticore, one a bear, and the last a writhing viper.
Carl's eyes shone. He took all the pendants and rubbed his little hand all over them. A big smile curled his lips. He looked like a girl who just got her favorite doll. "C-Can I have them all?" The boy pursed his lips.
"These medallions don't come cheap. Only one per person. The rest are for your friends," Felix lied. "You have an advantage. You have six options, but everyone else only has five. The later they pass the Trial, the fewer choices they’ll have."
"Really?" Carl tilted his head. He thought something was wrong, but that little thought was thrown away quickly. His eyes were set on the medallions, but now he was in a dilemma. "I took the Manticore Trial, but…"
In the end, he saw Felix's pendant, and he made his choice. "I'm your student." He picked the cat pendant and wore it around his neck.
"Good choice." Felix nodded, a big grin cracking his lips. And then he tore a portal open. A square door appeared out of nowhere, cooking up a storm around it. "Let's go home. Time to introduce a new Cat."
Already there were people in the yard's center when Felix and Carl came out of the portal.
Auckes was in a silk shirt and a muffin hat. Traditional bard attire. And he was bragging to his friends about his travels.
Carl left his apprentice friends to their practice and darted into the alchemy lab to show Vicki what he got from the trip. First, his pendant, then the cyclop's joint, and then the troll's gemstones.
Felix approached the crowd, and he finally heard what Auckes was talking about.
"The people of Toussaint are crazy motherfuckers. There's another festival they celebrate right after Lammas. It's called the Festival of the Vat."
"I've heard of that." Vesemir wiped his hands on his apron, reminiscence glinting in his eyes. "Toussaint has been extracting grape juice with machines since days of yore, but there's one ancient tradition they never abandoned."
"Hah! I bet you know all about it, you old flirt!" Auckes smacked Vesemir's chest and winked at him. "During the festival, all the people of Toussaint gather in the plaza of Beauclair. Nobles, knights, ministers, merchants, even peasants. All gather to enjoy music and acrobatics. And here's where the fun part starts."
The witchers listened intently, imagining the scene of the festival. Even Felix listened closely as well.
"There was a big vat in the middle of the plaza, filled with grapes just waiting to get their juices extracted. But they aren't using any machines. No tools either."
Auckes paused. Everyone shot him dangerous looks, and he grinned. "What they do is they send women into the vat. And these women—really beautiful women—start smashing the grapes with their bare feet. Those women were scantily clad, and I don't mean that lightly. Saw everything. Everything. And one of them was Anna Henrietta, the duchess herself."
Auckes made the shape of a gourd with his hands. "And by the gods, she's perfect. Has a bit of a buck tooth, but otherwise, she's perfect."
He suddenly walked around and moved his body around like he was dancing. Then he started to sing. A song he heard during the festival, judging from the lyrics.
That awakened some memories, and Vesemir hummed a little too.
Auckes continued. "Everyone sang and cheered. Lady Henrietta and her companions stomped the grapes to their hearts' content. And the ritual was complete."
"The duchess showed her bare skin in front of her people. And she wasn't wearing anything?" Eskel tilted his head. That's a wild ritual. And heretical. Disgust filled his eyes. "And then everyone drinks the juice her feet soaked in?"
Kiyan, Aiden, Serrit, Felix, and Coen shook their heads. They were more on the conservative side. However, Vesemir, Lambert, and Letho nodded.
"What do you know? Toussaint is a passionate, free, and romantic kingdom. That's its charm," Auckes argued.
"He's right." Lambert flung his hair, his eyes filled with anticipation. The duchess is a married woman if I'm right. "Someday I'll travel to Toussaint and witness this festival with my own eyes."
"But wasn’t the duke jealous?" Kiyan chose his next words carefully. Hoarsely, he said, "After all, the eyes of the people did besmirch his wife."
"That's tradition. Not like he can argue with it." Auckes shook his head in disdain. "Besides, he wasn't in Toussaint for the duration of the festival."
A bit of respect filled Auckes' eyes. He muttered under his breath, "And that's why someone managed to date his wife. Probably fucked her too. I think he's gonna be a father soon."
"What did you say?" His mutterings failed to escape the witchers' ears, and all of them wanted to know the story behind it.
"I promised I wouldn't tell," Auckes declared, but then he shook his head. "Forget it. Everyone in Toussaint knows. Not like I can keep it a secret much longer. Dandelion made the duchess fall head over heels for him. They've been going at it in Toussaint for two months. Like they're an actual couple. He was going to spend the winter there, but I dragged him back."
"That playboy." Coen shook his head. "Roy told him to never cheat on Priscilla, and he promised him."
"Well, can't change our nature." Some of the witchers sighed. Dandelion was incorrigible, and they knew it.
"Forget it. Let's pretend we never heard this," Lambert suggested. "We'll help him this once."
Auckes changed the subject. "The ladies in Toussaint are passionate. Really passionate. And incredibly charming, too. Tried to charm me all the way to their beds even though it was the first time we met. Their husbands probably can't get it up, or they've never seen a man in a decade." A stupid grin curled his lips.
"They came to me like moths drawn to fire. Naturally. I'm a man among men. I'm handsome, powerful, talented, well-read, and most important of all, I’ve got a lot of stamina."
"Oh, shut it." Serrit smacked Auckes' crimson cheeks. "You had too much to drink. You look more like a farmer than a bard, you know?"
"Hey, you might not believe me, but they were crazy for me. They were head over heels for yours truly. The poems I came up with finally had their use. They cried because of them. Laughed because of them. Can't even forget about them even if they tried. Boy, these two months sucked me dry of everything I had." Adamantly, he said, "If I were a normal man, I'd have fathered at least twenty kids."
"Ahem, that is quite enough." Letho interrupted his friend. "What about your work?"
"Hey, don't sell me short. Women are fun, but my work is more important. I've marked three spots. Mont Crane Castle in the southeast of Basane Farm and the northeast of Fort Ussar Ruin, Valley of the Nine located in Sansretour Marsh, and the church cave Serrit and I stumbled upon once. Mont Crane used to be the base of a group of bandits, but a knight cleared it out and left it in ruins." Auckes looked at everyone.
"And now we wait for Roy's return. Time for our next big adventure."
"Oh, I checked my stuff, and one of my books is missing. Dandelion's The Adversities of Loving. Anyone seen that?"
The look on Coen's face changed.
"Did you take it, Coen?" The change on Coen's face failed to escape Auckes. He came onto the Griffin.
"Um, sorry, man. Roy gave it… I thought it was his… I gave it to Igsena."
"Why, you…" Auckes solemnly yanked Coen by his collar. The Griffin hung his head low like a child who was caught stealing, and he gulped.
"Next time we go to Toussaint, you're coming with us." Auckes patted his shoulder and straightened out his collar. "Roy said the secrets of a Griffin named Jerome Moreau are buried there. You interested?"
Coen froze for a moment, but then he balled his fists and nodded.
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