Chapter 288: Call of the Crossroads
A cool morning breeze blew across the delta, taking away with it the bloody air that loomed over the academy. Linus and the witchers were going around the zoo, cleaning up the mess of the battle.
"Witchers, the operation was a success. We got their weapons, sedatives, and boats. It's all proof they were going to abduct the animals. They can't deny it. The criminals are now imprisoned."
"What's the verdict?" Roy asked. "How long are they gonna serve time?"
"The judge is still going through it. It'll take a few days to reach a conclusion, but the Redanian Free Company is done for." Linus looked really excited. "Murdering an academy student and stealing from the academy aren't the only crimes they committed. They were also involved in a multitude of robberies a few years ago. Killed quite a few merchants too. Vlodimir will be sentenced to death for those crimes alone, and his men will be sentenced to torture. Even if they survive that, they'll be incarcerated for most of their lives."
"Now do you think I went too far, Mr. Pitt?" Felix asked. He was holding Carl's hand.
"Of course not!" Linus scrambled to explain himself. "I feel nothing but gratitude for you, witchers. It's all thanks to you that none of the animals were hurt, and I managed to escape with my life." He tried not to look straight at Felix. The guy was a cold-blooded killer. His lust for blood was terrifying, to say the least. About forty members of the Free Company infiltrated the academy the night before, and he killed seven of them. Everyone else held back. That was the only reason half of the infiltrators survived.
"Mr. Pitt, I'm afraid that your zoo is now exposed. After what happened, you can't keep it a secret anymore." Letho asked, "How are you dealing with the aftermath?"
Linus said, "Well, we'll see. At least it's better than having my babies stolen away. There'll be more people who'll try to steal the animals now, but it’ll be manageable. Just a while ago, everyone in the Natural History Faculty volunteered to keep the animals safe. It's surprising how passionate they are about this. Perhaps I've been too paranoid." He shook his head, smiling. "Perhaps the organization Dorregaray and I came up with will finally come to fruition thanks to this."
"The organization aside, are you sure all the Free Company members have been caught, Mr. Pitt?" Roy interrupted. "Did we… miss anyone?"
"Honestly, yes. Three of them are missing. Two of them are farmers' kids, so there's nothing to fear from them."
"And the other one?"
Linus hesitated for a moment, then he answered. "His name is Olgierd von Everec. Vlodimir's brother and another direct descendant of the Everecs. He escaped in the heat of battle last night, but not for long. The soldiers have plastered his wanted poster all over town. As long as he's in Oxenfurt, there'll be nowhere to hide." Linus sighed. "And another thing. Investigations say the von Everec brothers owe a huge debt. They tried to kidnap the animals so they could make money and pay off the debt. At this rate, the Everecs' estate will go on auction at the end of the month to raise money for the debt. The Everecs used to be a great family. Their estate is one of the biggest ones around. If you're interested, I can give you a letter of recommendation for the auction."
"Witchers aren't really rich to begin with…" Roy declined the offer. Oxenfurt was not his ideal place for a fortress. He had another thing in mind. The estate's auction shouldn't happen for at least a few more years. Why the speedup? And then realization struck him.
It's us. We're the ones who changed the timeline. If they hadn't come to Oxenfurt and meddled with the operation, the Free Company would have succeeded in their plans, and the von Everec brothers would have made a lot of money from this deal. Enough to keep their family afloat for a few more years. What about Olgierd? Now that his family's demise is brought forward, will Gaunter step in?
Olgierd was on the plains beside the river outside Oxenfurt, huffing and puffing. His chest was heaving violently. After the witcher pushed him into the river with his Sign, he swam down the river and eventually got back to land, but he fell asleep right away. He woke up finding himself outside Oxenfurt, and it was already noon.
Olgierd was a mess. His clothes were drenched and creased, his eyes were bloodshot and dreary, and his hair and beard were clumped together. His face was a sickly red. He had a low fever. "How did this happen? Where did it go wrong?" Those mutants saw through our plan. That operation yesterday was a trap, and I led my men straight into it! Fury and self-blame filled Olgierd.
Not too long ago, he went into the town and got some intel, but there were soldiers patrolling every entrance. He even saw his wanted posters on the walls of the town. To make things worse, his manor was surrounded too. He couldn't even go home. The academy is behind this. No way the soldiers would come after me so soon otherwise.
But I have one place left to go. He pushed himself up and wobbled slowly like an old man. Olgierd was heading to Oxenfurt's northwest area. A few hours later, an exhausted and hungry Olgierd finally came to a remote manor hidden among the trees. It was a quiet place.
This was the home of his fiancée, Iris. It was the manor of the Bilewitz Family. Iris' parents were famous merchants in Oxenfurt. They were rich and powerful. It would be great if they could offer him a hiding spot, but ever since his family went on a decline, the Bilewitz had been trying to break him and Iris up. They would probably make things harder for him, but he had no choice. He had to hold out for this sliver of hope, no matter how slim it might be. He washed his face at the pond outside the manor and straightened his clothes out before approaching the manor's gates.
"Halt! Who goes there? State your name!" A pair of muscular servants stopped Olgierd from entering. They looked at him closely and frowned at his outfit. "Why did you come to this manor?"
"You must be new here. I don't blame you for not knowing me." Olgierd was infuriated that a pair of mere servants would take that tone with him, but he was in no position to complain. He put on a polite front. "I'm Iris' betrothed, and I am here to see my fiancée. This is urgent, so stay out of my way."
"You're Olgierd von Everec?" The guards' faces fell, and they grabbed the hilts of their blades. "Sorry, but the master has revoked your marriage with the miss this morning. You're no longer affiliated with the Bilewitz Family. Leave. You are not welcome here!"
"He revoked the marriage? Damn that old bastard!" Olgierd's heart sank. Shit. They know what I did. They're cutting ties with me. "Fine." He held his rage down. "I'll leave after I see Iris one last time!" Olgierd still wanted to see her, even in this dire situation.
"The master has taken her to town." The guard was losing his patience. He was about to pounce on Olgierd. "Stay away from her if you know what's good for you, or else."
Another guard said, "Honestly, if Miss Iris hadn't told us to spare you, we would have taken you into town and collected our bounty. Leave. Get as far away from Oxenfurt as you can. That's the last thing Miss Iris can do for you. With how you are now, you're not worthy of Miss Iris. Do you expect her to go on the run with you?"
"I'm not worthy of her?" Olgierd froze, his rage doused. Reality was slowly sinking in. He lost his brothers, he lost his home, he racked up a huge debt, and now he was a fugitive. "Why did I even come here? I can't possibly ask her to come with me. She has a great life ahead of her. I can't ask her to give all that up for the life of a fugitive."
He shook his head bitterly, trembling in despair. The man gave the manor one last look, and he left.
Olgierd was left with no avenues of retreat. He wandered the wilderness like a lost soul. After what felt like an eternity, despair and confusion finally ate away at his sanity. All he could see in his head now was that nightmare again, but this time, he hesitated no more. Olgierd decided to take that only sliver of hope like a man who was about to drown. He moved ahead to the crossroads he saw in his dream.
The moon hung high in the sky. A man tortured by hunger, exhaustion, and illness came to the crossroads. His fever worsened. His vision blurred, his chest was stuffy, and he felt nauseous. His brain felt like mush, preventing him from thinking straight.
Everyone around him was bizarre. The sunflowers, bamboos, and even the shrubs beside the path were swaying around violently, as if possessed by some demon. The chirps of insects and the howls of winds were slowly getting farther away from the man, but then they would suddenly shout out like they were inches away. It felt like he was hearing murmurs in his head.
Everything was strange, but there was one thing getting clearer and clearer. A mysterious figure in a black cloak was standing at the crossroads. It extended his gaunt, spindly arm and waved at the man.
"I-Is that a fortune teller?" Olgierd wasn't sure if he was seeing things, or if this was reality. He dragged himself dumbly to the old woman and collapsed into a heap in front of her.
The woman slowly pulled her hood back, revealing an old, ugly face covered in keratosis. The hag had a big nose, a sharp chin, and her face was covered in odd paint. She looked as horrifying as the witch in his dream. "Did you come into my dream to warn me of this?" he asked, flabbergasted. “What’s your name?”
The witch shook her head. "My name isn't important. I was just passing by, and I noticed your concern, so I showed one of the possible futures to you in the form of a dream," she croaked. Her voice was grating, like a knife dragging itself against a smooth surface, but it also sounded weirdly rhythmic.
"Why'd you lead me here? So you could laugh at me?"
"Olgierd von Everec, to most people, you're in a dead end with no way out, but I'll give you a chance to choose. Look around you."
Olgierd was beguiled by the witch, and he looked around himself. What he saw were a few crossing paths leading into unknown futures.
"The crossroads are a magical place. They, like fate, point to different outcomes born of different choices. And now you're at a crossroad, literally and metaphorically speaking. You need to make a choice." She pointed to the left path. "This path leads you far, far away from Oxenfurt. It takes you to a remote village where you can live your whole life in peace and quiet." And then she pointed to the path on the right. "While this path leads you to a way out of your predicament."
"How?" He muttered to himself. Olgierd shot up and turned to the right. What he saw there was an opened tome and a black dagger.
"Summon the great entity according to the instructions written in the book. They'll grant you any wish you want."
"A great entity? Do you mean demons? They can actually grant you wishes?" If this was in the past, Olgierd would only take it as a joke. He was still sane back then. But even his dream was turned into reality now. He'd put nothing beyond the realm of possibilities. He didn't care about what was true and what was not, nor did he care about the price he had to pay. The man held the book. "What should I do?"
He flipped over the page with difficulty, brushing his hand across the parchment paper. He could read it thanks to the moonlight, but the book wasn't written in Common Speech. He had no idea what it was talking about. There was a picture of a big magical circle with the star of David in the middle. The outer circle was filled with esoteric runes.
"Patience, lad. Let me teach you…" The witch laughed eerily. She was happy with Olgierd's choice. "Now, you'll need to draw out the circle on the ground with your blood, then you'll need to chant the incantation."
Olgierd cut his wrist without hesitation. The agony made his face contort, but he didn't even whimper. Instead, he looked relieved. "If this is nothing but a dream, then please, snuff out the life from me."
His blood trickled down his hand and fell to the ground. The crimson liquid bloomed on the land. When he was done drawing the circle, Olgierd was already dizzy from the loss of blood. He could see stars around him. It was all he could do to kneel in the circle. Olgierd was covering his wrist with a piece of cloth torn from his shirt.
"Well done. The Great One shall smile on you. Now, say it after me. Bloede blethe col d' yaebl dice dwimmer… easnadh evellienn geas hav' caaren…"
Olgierd felt himself getting colder and colder as blood kept trickling out of his body. His life force was absorbed by the magical circle. Everything was freezing, and he was shivering, but he stubbornly stayed awake, chanting the incantation after the witch.
Winds started howling, and something invisible was hanging in the air, fidgeting around. And then the magical circle shone brightly, as if it were lit on fire. Olgierd fell. His eyes were rolled back, and he was spasming like someone having an episode of fits, but still he kept chanting.
Eventually, something popped, and the bizarre phenomenon went away. Olgierd stopped spasming, and he collapsed into a heap. It took him a moment to snap out of it, and he looked around nervously.
The sound of laughter boomed in the air, followed by a long, long sigh. Olgierd felt a gust of wind zooming past him. He looked up nervously and saw a skinhead in a messy vest.
The man stood under the moonlight, and the space around him rippled like it was water. Not even light could escape the ripples. They were sucked into it. The man was one with the shadows. It felt like he was darkness itself.
The witch bowed at the mysterious man and retreated into the trees. The man spread his arms and took a deep breath. Light shone through his body. It was like the man's body was broken and forcibly patched together. "Olgierd von Everec. Impeccable timing. I shall grant you an additional reward."
"Wh-Who might you be?" Olgierd stammered. He clutched the cloth on his wrist. The man was terrified but excited at the same time. This… bizarre creature that appeared out of thin air is a demon? A demon that can grant my wishes?
"You may call me the Master of Mirrors. I am a traveling merchant," he said raspily. The man's voice alone sounded magical, almost hypnotic. "I have responded to your call, now state your wish. And then we're going to sign a contract. You and I are going to make a deal. A fair one. You aren't worth more than one wish, but this time, I'm willing to make an exception. You can make three wishes."
"I'll be the judge of that."
Olgierd froze in disbelief for a moment, then joy filled his soul. He can grant any wish? And I get three wishes? So he is a demon. This is unbelievable! Olgierd covered his mouth. He broke into a sob, and then he burst out in laughter. He was shivering in delight. Not even the sweat on his face could bother him. The first thing he thought of were his men. The witchers tortured them, and he had no idea if they were still alive.
"I—" Olgierd was about to say something, but he came to an abrupt halt. For some reason, he was reminded of the old legends spoken in these lands. It was a story of untold horror. A wish from a demon always comes with a price. Which means… "What's the price, Master of Mirrors? What's the price for my wishes?"
The Master of Mirrors laughed. "I collect my payment in the form of souls. Nothing but souls."
Olgierd stared down at the ground. A lump had formed in his throat. His mind was in turmoil, and his heart was beating fast. A soul? What would I be without my soul? An empty husk. There's no reason for these wishes then. All of them would be for nothing! But it was impossible for him to give up this chance. My men, my lover, my family. I can save them all. He couldn't let this chance go. Olgierd gritted his teeth, clenching his bloody hand into fists.
"Is that a no? I don't have time to waste on you, partner," the Master of Mirrors said impatiently. "Waste my time, and all bets are off!"
"No, wait. I-I do have a wish. Hear me out!"
The Master of Mirrors was delighted by this turn of events. "Well, I'm listening."
"First, I want my brother, Vlodimir, to show up right here, right now. And I want him to be safe and sound. Second, I wish for a powerful and invincible body!" He could still imagine how that bald witcher killed off his men in mere moments, as if they were nothing. If I have that kind of strength, I can have all the wealth and power I want. And Iris… Iris will come back to me.
"Of course. Sign the contract, and I'll grant you your wishes."
"H-How are you gonna grant me my second wish?" Olgierd asked with a trembling voice. "Can you be more specific about it?"
"I'll give you a magical heart. One that's as hard as stone. You will gain invincibility. Nobody can kill you, and you can master a lot of magical spells too. How does that sound?"
Olgierd nodded. He was starting to tremble uncontrollably. Excitement and terror were welling up within him. One more wish, and I'll have made a pact with the devil. He'll come for my soul soon. I won't get to enjoy my wishes for too long, but the alternative is… unacceptable.
"What will your third wish be?" the Master of Mirrors asked raspily.
A gust of wind zipped by him, and Olgierd shivered. He regained a sliver of his sanity, but he had no idea what his third wish should be. "I don't know what I should wish for. Can I save it for another day?"
"Hah! Do you take me for a fool, Olgierd? If you're 'saving' that wish until the very day you die, then I would have gotten nothing out of this deal." The Master of Mirrors clapped in condescension.
"No. It won't take too long," Olgierd said nervously.
"I'll give you a time limit. Tell me your third wish in a month. Before that, I'll only grant you your first. Once you made up your mind, I'll grant the rest. And read the contract closely. Especially the wishes you can and cannot make." A pause later, the Master of Mirrors extended his arm and grabbed a golden parchment out of thin air. It was filled with terms and clauses, but a line was missing in the middle. "If you still can't make up your mind in a month, I'll take it that you're giving up the wish. And your soul will be mine."
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