Chapter 383: Real Goal
The Manticore's Trial was now in its critical phase. Roy entered a strange state after he was infected with the third strain of virus. Everything around him was a floating fog, thick and viscous, and all he could see was darkness. There was no sound nor light around him. Most of his senses were robbed from him. He couldn't even feel his limbs, and even time itself seemed to stop.
However, his mind was still awake. The void was fear. The void was terror, and that same terror was slowly growing within the young witcher, engulfing him. His consciousness was starting to fall deeper into the depths of this dark void, but eventually, something warm touched him. It felt like his mother was patting his back. Her gentle murmurs shone bright like a beacon, showing his soul where he should go. Roy finally broke free of the long, dark dream and stepped onto the path that would lead him toward the light.
Lytta was right beside the operating theater. She held his hand and brushed her finger across his palm. The sorceress hummed and whispered softly into the witcher's ears.
Serenity. That was what Roy looked like. He looked at peace, almost as if he were sleeping, but the bulging veins under his skin almost made him look like a monster.
Sometimes his brows would furrow as nightmares took a hold of him. And then the sorceress would caress his forehead like a gentle mother.
A bulky, yellow griffin was lying right beside him. It licked Roy's face and let out a harrowing howl, as if it could feel the agony its master was going through.
"Don't worry, Gryphon. He can do this. Trust him," Coral said, though it sounded like she was talking to herself.
The House of Gawain was standing peacefully among the alder woods, but they were receiving a group of uninvited guests that day.
Hundreds of armed dwarves and gaunt, unkempt men were flanking the entrance. Leading this troop was Cleaver and Bedlam, and they were looking around. Within the yellow fence stood five wooden houses neighboring each other. They weren't as grand as the houses in the city, but they looked adorable.
Colorful doodles that decorated the walls gleamed under the sunlight, and the racks in the yard had little trinkets hanging from them. A breeze blew across the orphanage, and the miniature windmill started to turn, bells chiming.
The place looked like a peaceful abode hidden away from the chaos of the world. Not one fallen leaf was found in the yard, and the ground was even, unlike the muddy paths littering most villages. Apparently, the showrunners took some time and effort to fix this place.
Cleaver and Bedlam nodded. At the very least, this orphanage didn't look like a slaughterhouse or torture chamber, but they kept looking. A row of bizarre wooden stakes stood in the corner of the yard, while the children were all gathered in the classroom. Some were giving the gang lords curious stares, and a wizened witcher was writing on the wooden board in front of the class.
The remaining witchers were standing side-by-side with the Collector. They were on high alert, not unlike bodyguards. There were two new faces in addition to the Vipers and Cats the gang lords saw last time.
"I didn't know you guys gained new allies." Cleaver looked at Lambert and Aiden warily. "Last time we met, there were five of you. Who are these new guys?"
"Cats." Letho crossed his arms and looked at the troops brought by the gang lords. Calmly, he said, "We're short on manpower, so we enlisted some help. Witchers live as long as dwarves, we're literate, and we fight well. We can be the kids' teachers and protect them at the same time. Kidnappers are always prowling around Novigrad, so there's a need to be careful."
"What about the stakes and the log hanging from the tree?" Bedlam gave the witchers sharp looks. Cats were infamous for their unsavory actions, and their presence served to deepen his suspicion. "I've never seen those before. Are those your torture tools?"
"No. It's training equipment. Witcher schools have it, but not anywhere else." Letho explained, "Running around these things can sharpen the children's reflexes. And jumping from stake to stake while they dodge the pendulum is a good way to train their balance and reflexes."
"Can't believe you guys came up with that idea." Cleaver was wondering if he should get a set for his men as well. "So what's the houses' deal?"
"From left to right: the toilet, kitchen and store room, boys' bedroom, girls' bedroom, and the last one is the classroom. The children are in class right now. Vesemir's teaching them."
Bedlam had conflicting emotions about this. There were about two hundred of them surrounding the orphanage, but the witchers were still going on with class like nobody's business. Aren't they worried?
"Do you have any other houses in the woods?"
"No. Sorry, you don't get to see the lab."
The gang lords exchanged a look.
"Can we look around?" Bedlam gesticulated.
"Be our guest," Gawain said. "But you'd better leave your men outside. I don't want them to scare the children."
"Oh, yeah. True. Sorry." Cleaver barked at the dwarves behind him, especially the one closest him, "You, yeah, you! The fuck you glaring at? You're scaring the kids!"
"But sir, you told me to 'look menacing'," a dwarf with slicked-back hair and a beer gut said to his smirking leader.
"Like that'd be useful in the face of death! Now piss off!"
The dwarves took a huge step back. Bedlam gave the same order, and he asked, "Since you claim that this is a regular orphanage, then tell me, how do you schedule the children's daily life?"
"Good question." Auckes bragged, "We came up with a rigid schedule that's sure to raise them up into contributing members of society."
The gang lords shot Auckes weird looks, and the witcher shrugged. "Okay, fine. That was an exaggeration, but they can still get a job when they grow up. They wake up at six in the morning for exercise. The boys train around the stakes, while the girls run around the yard."
"You'd ask the girls to train as well?" Cleaver grabbed his beard.
Most girls didn't even know the concept of training. Handling the chores, feeding the livestock, and cleaning up was hard enough for them. Daughters of nobility might hire tutors if they wanted to learn how to swing a sword or ride a horse, but that was all.
"Hey, can't afford to get sick if you're dirt poor. They have to train if they wanna stay healthy. But back to the point. Morning exercise goes on for an hour and a half, then it's breakfast time."
A suspicious Cleaver interrupted once more. "You're making breakfast for a bunch of orphans?"
"Yeah, we're not tormentors, for gods' sake. Training makes people hungry, and we won't let them starve. They need to eat," Letho answered matter-of-factly. "On the name of my school, I swear we never skimp on food for the kids."
"I'd say we provide better food than the orphanage in the church." Lambert thumped his chest and opened the kitchen's door.
There was a cauldron sitting over a fire, and the fat lady was stirring the stew. She was shaking her hips and humming a tune, though she was a bad hummer.
Steam rose into the air, and pieces of meat, carrots, and potatoes rolled around in the stew. The basket around the cooking area was filled with cooked eggs, bread, and fresh lobster and crab.
Cleaver sniffed the air. He could smell the tantalizing scent of onion and lemon juice, and his stomach started to rumble. As always, the dwarf went to the cauldron and tried to take a crab, but the fat lady smacked his hand with a ladle and shot him a glare.
Cleaver pulled his hand back like it was scalded by hot fire.
"If you're still hungry, you can have an egg and bread." Serrit stood before the fat lady. "Then we can have lunch. You'll see how the kids are 'tortured.'"
"I'll pass on the food, thanks." Cleaver wiped the sweat off his hands on his shirt. The stern attitude he took on earlier was not as intense anymore. "I have to say you provide good food. It's better than what we eat. But this must cost a lot."
"Can't starve the children."
"That's generous of you." Bedlam narrowed his eyes. "Did you put on a show just for us?"
"Hasty conclusion. You should see more before you make your decision. Time to see the bedroom. The witchers share a room with the boys, while the lady here shares the girls' bedroom. And don't give me that look, Cleaver, or I will make you kiss your own ass. Witchers aren't pedophiles."
Cleaver looked away sheepishly.
"Class starts after breakfast. The kids learn how to read and write. Mostly in northern Common Speech. And then it's lunchtime."
Letho kept explaining how the orphanage was run, and the gang lords listened to him. Eventually, they found themselves on the bench in the yard, staring at each other. No longer were they fierce and righteous.
Cleaver was looking at the witchers weirdly. He thought they were mad, but what they did was deserving of respect. The voice in his head told him the witchers were telling the truth. They never tortured the children, nor did they perform any dangerous experiments on them. He was sure of that after witnessing how happy and healthy the children were.
Bedlam heaved a sigh. "Witchers, the Collector, are you related to Lebioda in some form?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because what you're doing is similar to the actions of a saint. Are you telling me you're actually altruists?" There was disbelief in Bedlam's voice, but he also sounded kind and friendly. "You're providing better lives for the children than most families in Novigrad can, and to what end? Are you trying to raise students smart enough to study in Oxenfurt?"
The witchers smiled and changed the topic. "I take it the misunderstanding is cleared up, gentlemen? Why don't you talk to the children? Perhaps they'll give you a different answer."
Cleaver hung his head low like a defeated rooster.
"No. We're not blind, nor are we fools." Bedlam circled the group and sighed. "But we made the wrong move. The tip misguided us, and our prejudice led us on an incorrect path."
The witchers shrugged it off. "Can we see the letter?"
The gang lords whipped out a letter, and the witchers read through it. "Hm, the handwriting's the same. 'Witchers and Orloff are performing evil experiments on the children in the House of Gawain, an orphanage operating in rural Novigrad… The components include Mother's Tears, Wildrye Juice, wolfsbane, and belladonna… Only three out of ten can survive the experiment. Even if they pass the experiment, they will be forever disfigured and their minds ruined.'"
The witchers looked grim. "This isn't a total lie. Some components are correct, but some are wrong. Belladonnas and wolfsbane aren't used."
"And the part about the success rate is frighteningly on point, if we don't have a mage's help, that is." Lambert massaged his temples in frustration. "They took their time to look into us."
Gawain wagged the letter. "How did you receive this letter in the first place, gentlemen?"
"Some mysterious guy generously donated a few crowns to a beggar boy under the bridge two weeks ago and told him to bring this letter to us." Bedlam shook his head. "The boy said the donor covered themselves up entirely. He didn't know what he looked like."
"Two weeks ago, one of my most trusted lieutenants drank too much at Spear's Pit, and then he woke up to a letter beside him," Cleaver answered. "He read through it and thought it was an emergency, so that's how I got the letter. And then I paid Bedlam a visit. Reached a decision to cease the treaty and disassociate ourselves with child abusers. However, I see now that it was rash. I'm sorry, witchers." He bowed down shamefully, his beard touching the ground. "We believed the rumors too readily and sullied your name when you're actually doing good."
That bow was the greatest apology in dwarf culture.
"I'm ashamed that nobody saw who the guy was, and I have spies everywhere in this city." An apologetic Bedlam bowed as well.
"That guy wasn't your regular Novigradian." Letho's lips curled downward. He guessed, "They're good scouts who know how to escape detection, and they've done their research on witchers. I take it that you don't know who Sebastian is?"
"Never saw that guy." The gang lords shook their heads.
Lambert shot the quiet Aiden a look, and he went into the restroom only to come back with their captives: Jurgen and the fat man.
"Please, have mercy. I’m sorry!" The fat man's face was as swollen as a big balloon from all the torture. He was almost unrecognizable, but the guy could still shout. He groveled before the witchers like a sniveling kid and banged his head against the ground. "Have mercy. I won't kidnap the children again. Please! Please don't lock us in the toilet."
"Are you going to talk?"
"But I've told you everything I know!" The crying senator raised his head in confusion and begged for his life. He was an inch away from kissing everyone's boots.
"Yeah, keep talking." Aiden taped his mouth again.
"These guys were planning to steal one of our kids two weeks ago, but we caught them," Serrit explained. "And that's about the same time you received the letter. Both of these events are a plan to ruin us, and I don't think that's a coincidence."
"But I don't know these people." Bedlam rubbed his ring.
"Never seen these sons of bitches." Cleaver spat and slapped the fat man again, making his cheek swell even further. "Tell me, did you send this letter? Were you trying to pit us against the witchers, you bastard?"
The senator made muffled noises.
"Guy's a tough nut to crack. Told us the same story every time, but I bet the guy who gave you the letters is related to him."
"I don't care who the guy is. They played me like a fiddle, and I'll tear them apart. I'll stuff them in a sack and feed them to the sharks, or my name is not Cleaver!"
"Calm down, Cleaver. Now is not the time to unleash your fury." Serrit gave his companions a look, and they took the captives back into the toilet. "Our priority is to find out how these events are connected. They're trying to slander us using these letters and force us into breaking the peace treaty. And—"
Bedlam frowned and interrupted calmly, "But there's one thing I don't understand. If that pig's employer is trying to ruin you, why wouldn't they go straight to the church or the town hall? Why did they take the roundabout way of tipping us off? We're not the judge, jury, or executioner."
"Because they want you to call the peace treaty off so we're all alone and isolated. And the church is an official organization. They need evidence to convict us." Serrit said, "Yes, they need evidence. The guy had to kidnap one of the children and brainwash them into thinking we were the abusers. If they have a witness on their side, it'd be a deadly blow to us."
"Even if the witness' testimony was fake, it wouldn’t matter. We'd be seen as monsters and abusers. We'd be left with no allies or help, and the church would—"
Thunderous footsteps were approaching the woods, and everyone turned around. A big group of people appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and they were approaching the orphanage like a wave crashing onto the shore.
There were at least two hundred people, and all of them were in black clothes and leather helmets. A sword hung from their belts, and every single one of them was equipped with a lamia.
The one in the lead was a pale, sickly man with rashes on his cheeks and eyes that gleamed like metal. He was in a tight, white shirt, and this man was none other than the Chancellor of Security and the leader of the church's guards—Chappelle.
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