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Alzur’s Story

Chapter 1

‘They were all dead. Except me, of course.’ Galanthea’s tone grew sombre. ‘But everyone else… Everyone I had ever loved, up till that moment…’

The flames of the campfire danced in her big brown eyes, as she panned over the gawking faces of her impromptu audience⁠—a company of dwarves, a halfling tailor, a merchant, a soldier, and some colleagues from Oxenfurt. No one looked poised to interrupt her story, and so she continued…

‘We had been travelling through the countryside, a routine journey on our annual circuit of estates, taverns, brothels⁠—whoever had enough spare coin to shell out on entertainment. It was a cold, early morning and a layer of mist hung around us, making the woods seem ethereal. A beautiful sight, really. On the wagon up front, some of the actors were being rather boisterous. Joel and Elba. They were jesting loudly, still drunk from the night before. I remember it clearly because that was when they came…’ she paused, allowing the suspense a moment to crescendo, ‘… the flying terrors.’

The halfling tailor’s eyes widened, captivated. Some of the dwarfs shook their heads and mumbled obscenities under their breath. The others, however, went back to draining their mead and mumbling to each other, uninterested by the talk of monsters—attacks were a common occurrence, and they’d heard it all before.

‘Suddenly, the atmosphere shifted. Birds stopped chirping; the gentle breeze fell deathly still. The mist seemed to grow thicker, more imposing—its wispy tendrils weaving between the trees, spreading across the glade. Consuming us. In a matter of moments, we were all engulfed by the thick fog, and all I could see was a blanket of white before me⁠. Nothing else. Not another soul.

Some of the lads thought it was rather amusing at first⁠—I could hear them laughing. But that didn’t last long. A fearful cry silenced their merriment, followed by a harrowing shriek. Then another. Shadows swooped through the mist above our heads, all around. I quickly jumped off the wagon and scurried underneath to hide. Cowering in the wet mud, I listened to all my friends die. Nightmarish screams as they were picked off one by one, with nothing I could do⁠—I was just a child, you see.’

‘How did you escape?’ The soldier interjected, impatient and anxious to know the outcome.

‘Shush it, you. Let the lass finish,’ barked a dwarf.

She nodded in thanks and tossed some twigs into the flames. ‘I could no longer hear any of my friends. All that remained was the monstrous cawing from high above as I trembled in my hiding place, crippled with fear. Then… thud! Something landed on the wagon; perched on its edge. A long, scaly tail snaked down in front of me—a guttural rasping right above my head, so very close. I don’t believe in any gods⁠—never have⁠—but in that moment of despair, I surely prayed⁠. And as if on cue, lightning forked through the fog, and a spectrum of colour whirled towards the cart. A piercing shriek as the tail fell into the dirt, severed at the rear. All around, caws gave way to screeches and frenzied yelps. Flapping silhouettes in the mist exploded into balls of gore as the stench of charred meat flooded my nostrils, choking me. One of the winged demons fell from the sky and landed in the blood-soaked earth, its grotesque body scorched and smouldering; writhing feebly, yowling, trying hopelessly to fly before collapsing back onto the ground, lifeless. Then he appeared from the mist—the man who had saved me.’

‘—Heh!’ A cloaked figure, slumped against a tree just outside the glow of the fire, grunted and spat with contempt. Galanthea eyed the hooded man for a moment, pondering on his boorish gesture, then decided to ignore it and conclude her tale.

‘With all the creatures dispatched, the rescuer stood before me, calm and composed. Pure energy crackling around his fingertips, he wiped the monsters’ blood from his sword and sheathed the blade. Then knelt before me, and in a resounding, mellifluous voice, he soothed my dismay: “Fear not, little one. You’re safe.”

And there it was. On that accursed day, within the fog, among the bodies of my loved ones, when all hope was lost… my prayers were somehow answered. But not by any god, oh no.’ Galanthea gleamed. ‘By a renowned mage named… Alzur.’

Chapter 2

‘Is that why you stopped being a bard, then? Quit being Snowdrop?’ asked the halfling tailor.

‘Ach, goodness, no!’ Galanthea replied. ‘‘Twas the moment I started!’

‘Then, why finish? At your age⁠—you could have written a hundred ballads by now. A thousand even!’

Galanthea tilted her head and contemplated. She’d been posed that question many times since she’d hung up her fiddle. ‘Because life changes, dear fellow. Life changes, and ofttimes it’s best to change with it.’

The halfling contorted his lips, dissatisfied with the obvious evasion, but reluctantly nodded in agreement.

‘Tell us more about this renowned mage of yours…’ the soldier requested, leaning forward.

‘Bollocks to “renowned!”’ snapped one of the men in the back who, not so long ago, seemed utterly indifferent to Galanthea’s story. ‘Infamous, more like! The guy is a rebel and a madman, with a price on his head, not some heroic saviour of little girls.’

‘Oi, watch yer lip there, lad!’ The dwarf stepped to her defence again. ‘After all, he saved the lassie. He couldnae be all bad.’

‘But why?’ interjected the merchant, flapping his arms. ‘Why go out of your way to save a child—no offence⁠—surely, a sorcerer has far more important endeavours to occupy his time? Was he just passing by and happened upon the ruckus? Figured “why the hell not?” and jumped right in? Seems rather far-fetched, if you ask me.’

‘No one did. And use yer noggin’, would ye?’ spat the dwarf. ‘Mages are all-seeing! And can teleport! In a snap, they can be here, there, any-bloody-where. Any eejit knows that.’

‘Yes, you’re absolutely right, it would take an idiot to think that. But that’s beside the point in any case. The “why” is far more significant than the “how” of it. So, I must reiterate… why?’

‘Because that’s what heroes do, isn’t it?’ chimed in another onlooker.

Galanthea smiled and sipped some of her wine. She always enjoyed a heated debate and knew full-well what a sensitive topic this was.

‘Yeah! They step in and save people!’

‘Not likely! Mages are cold. Calculated. What do they care of our troubles? How does saving us serve them?’

‘Maybe he was hunting them flyin’ beasties for, like, ingredients or summin’?’

‘Nah, they gots them ‘pprentices for stuffs like that⁠.’

‘Perhaps it was just a bit o’ fun, then, recreation or⁠—’

‘Vainglory!’ The coarse, scornful voice ripped through the campsite, stopping the discussion dead in its tracks. ‘And fuckin’ pride!’ The ensemble of travellers turned in unison and gazed at the cloaked man, who still lurked at the edge of the site, slouched against the foot of a withered oak. It was the first thing he had said since joining the caravan, just after Vizima. Most of the party had pegged him for either a mute or a dullard. Their eyes lingered on the hooded man, awaiting a followup to his brash outburst. But they were left wanting, as he remained silent and stoic amid the shadows.

‘I believe⁠— hum, hum,’ the halfling started, breaking the awkward lull. ‘Sorry. Hum. I believe he wanted to prove himself. Alzur. He wanted to be gallant. Like a knight.’

‘Oh, really now?’ Galanthea replied curiously. ‘And what brings you to that conclusion?’

‘Well, you see, one of my ancestors, would you believe it, worked on the very same estate where Alzur was brought up⁠.’ He dabbed his sweat-beaded brow with a tattered handkerchief. ‘Sometimes we’d hear tales about the old days; stories from the past, you know? Growing up, I heard various⁠—’

‘Aye, aye! Enough scene-setting,’ Galanthea interrupted, ‘crack on with it.’

‘Yes. Right. Apologies. Well… Erm… Well… You see, it all began with a child surprise…’

Chapter 3

‘No, no, no⁠, not that sort of child surprise! Apologies, poor choice of words. I meant, more like… a “bastard surprise”, if you will—for when Alzur was but a babe, he was left upon the doorstep of a noble estate on the outskirts of Maribor city, accompanied by a simple note: “His mother perished, he’s one of yours.”‘

The tailor hopped off the felled trunk he’d been perched upon and wandered around the campfire, poorly attempting to imitate a theatrical narrator.

‘It was assumed his mother had been a courtesan from the nearby house of ill repute. However, the various so-called noblemen of the estate were all notorious for their debauchery, leaving no way to determine with certainty his father’s identity. None dared risk throwing the potential fruit of their loins to the wolves and thus it was agreed to take him in. But it was not a happily-ever-after. No man dared show him undue affection, for fear it could be seen as an admission of guilt, whilst the ladies of the court pitied the poor boy and ensured he was cared for. But pity is a poor substitute for love.

Not to mention, he was shunned and mocked by his siblings for being baseborn, and so would tuck himself away in the estate’s library. He would read day and night, absorbed by wondrous worlds and brave tales of mighty heroes. One volume in particular captured his imagination, oft being drawn to read each week afresh. A Guide to Chivalric Virtues by… Sir Mateo of Metinna, if I recall. He was utterly and completely captivated by the deeds of noble knights and the chivalric virtues which inspired them to valour…

And thus, he would incessantly wander around the estate and surrounding countryside, seeking trials to prove his virtues⁠—honour, compassion, generosity, that sort of thing, you know—like a proper knight of old. Helping wherever he could. Hopelessly trying to win folk’s approval.

However, being just a child, the virtue of valour eluded him. How could he possibly prove his bravery like the courageous knights of the stories? Hmm?

Well, one day, on the way to market to run some errands, Alzur happened upon a wagon set upon by bandits. Any other lad would have simply run, called for help maybe. But not him. He needed to prove his valour. So he stepped in and foolishly confronted the brigands…

They found Alzur hours later, unconscious, bloody and beaten, lying at the side of the road. He’d taken quite a thrashing from which it took him weeks to recover! But recover he did. To everyone’s surprise, the encounter left him even more determined to prove his worth! Only this time, he didn’t wait for an opportunity to arise… the mad boy went looking for it.

And once again, they found him pummeled, tossed in a ditch, within an inch of his life! But even that was not enough to dissuade the boy. More trouble followed. More thrashings. More recoveries. Again and again, so on and so forth, until one day something quite unexpected happened.

Alzur had once more gone missing, prompting the noblemen to reluctantly commence their search at the behest of their better halves. But once finally discovered, they didn’t happen upon a clobbered child, not this time. Oh no, he was unscathed, standing motionless in a back alley, in shock, staring at the corpses of three burly men lying in a heap in front of him, their crisp skin scorched black.

Turns out the boy had chaos coursing through his veins. A great power that, lain dormant within him, had finally been ignited and unleashed. He could channel magic… but he could not yet control it. And so the family, fearing for their safety, called upon the services of a powerful mage to guide the boy, to help him harness his potential. And he did. Under guidance, he became a gifted and famous sorcerer—the very one we debate over this night.

But I believe that childhood still influences him; drives him to uphold those knightly virtues that captivated him all those years ago⁠—ingrained deep within him, see. And that’s why he stepped in to save the day, why he always does.

At least, well, that’s what I think anyway…’

Some of the company of travellers started to mutter and murmur, creating a jumble of opinions, but quickly simmered down when Galanthea began to speak. ‘A curious insight.’ She paused to think, tapping her fingers against her goblet. ‘I agree. Childhoods play a big part in shaping our lives, but I don’t think knightly virtues alone compel Alzur. No, I believe something much more powerful is at work. The most powerful thing in the known world, in fact…’

‘Aye, an’ what’d that be, then?’ asked the dwarf.

‘Love.’

Chapter 4

‘Love!?’ shrieked the merchant. ‘That’s a cartload of horseshite! Love!? This was the man who slaughtered half of Ellander’s army, just because he could!’

‘Aye, I say “love” for good reason,’ reassured Galanthea. ‘I say “love” because of something I discovered the second time I met Alzur—the second time he saved me, as it happens. Two for two,’ she chuckled. ‘In an unfortunate twist of fate, I found myself… somewhat cursed. Oh, yes! Afflicted by a hex that, ever-so-strangely, converged on my skills as a balladeer.’

The halfling gasped. ‘So that’s why you hung up your fiddle!’

‘No, no. Quite the contrary, the curse turned my middling melodies into enchanting chansons. Catch was⁠—singing was all I could do,’ she grinned. ‘I’d open my mouth to speak, only to have an unruly rush of rhythm and rhyme.’

Some of the travellers chortled with amusement, sure that Galanthea was merely spinning a merry tale.

‘It was quite whimsical at first; a comical oddity. And the remuneration for my performances was nothing to scoff at, either. Alas, coin aside, it quickly became quite the burden. Perpetual song, day in, day out. If I wished to utter but a measly word, nothing could stop me from spewing forth a stanza of verses to accompany it. Finally, I resolved myself to seek assistance. Primarily due to a rather mortifying experience. You see, I was attending a funeral and made the poor choice to inquire as to where I could…’ a blush crept up her cheeks, ‘relieve myself… To this day, I dare not return, for fear of reliving the embarrassment.’ She shuddered from the thought. ‘Months passed, with not a shred of luck finding aid. Then… destiny⁠—being the sly mistress she is⁠—decided to intervene once more, and I soon found myself staying in the same countryside inn as a certain mage…

‘I pleaded my case to Alzur, sure he would once again jump in to assist. But he refused. Told me he had far more important matters to attend to; “let some other poor wretch waste his time on curious cases of delusion”. But, I stuck around. You see, he wasn’t yet aware of my unyielding persistence. So, I enlightened him… with three whole days of song. Every ballad, lullaby, poem, and solemn chant I could dream up. He tried his magic to silence me, of course, but it was futile⁠—the curse was unrelenting. Finally, he crumbled, beseeching me to stop; agreed to investigate the matter if only I’d vow to keep my mouth shut.’

‘What’s all this got to do with love?’ demanded the soldier.

‘Well, we were travelling to the town where I was first afflicted, staying at inns along the way. One night, Alzur was up late with the local lads, drinking and playing dice and… see, I was awfully nosy back then—as young ‘uns are—and I decided to rummage through his belongings. Found all sorts of strange and wonderful trinkets but, being a lass, I was drawn to a particular item: a medallion shaped like a flower⁠. A lily, as it turned out. And… I tried it on… Just as Alzur strolled in…

‘He immediately flew into a rage⁠—shouting and scolding me ever-so-fierce. I was startled and… so confused. It was just a simple bauble, after all, and it wasn’t as if I’d marred it,’ she smirked, ‘the power of sentimentality, it seems, eluded me back then. But he soon calmed; even apologised for his outburst. He settled before the hearth, reeking of liquor, and gazed into the flames, his anger giving way to sadness. Then, something quite surprising happened. He confided in me.

‘Told me how he had assembled the medallion many years ago for someone… very dear to him. Imbued it with magic even, to keep her safe. “Lylianna”, he whispered. He talked ever-so-fondly about her, mumbling drunken homage to her memory. Expressed his admiration for her ambition. From what I was able to stitch together, she was utterly enthralled with the idea of a safer world; one free from murderous monstrosities lurking behind every shadow. A grand vision, to be sure. And she worked towards this her entire life which, sadly, proved rather brief⁠—for a sorceress at least.

‘He didn’t mention how she died, just fell silent for a time and brooded in a drunken stupor, his eyes full of sorrow.’ Galanthea paused, reminiscing. ‘He never used the word “love”, but the way he spoke of her, the look upon his face when recalling her memory… it couldn’t have been anything else.’

‘I suppose that makes sense,’ admitted the halfling. ‘Hold on… did⁠—did he take up her work? After she died? He did, didn’t he?!’

‘Indeed, I believe so. An obligation to the departed can be dreadfully hard to sever.’

‘Aye!’ The dwarf leapt up, turning to face the merchant. ‘And that’s yet another reason why he saves people from monsters! Does that satisfy your inquisition, milord? Ha!’

The merchant shook off the blatant affront. ‘Well⁠—well how the devils did he continue her “work”, anyhow? One man prancing around the continent slaying beasties in the name of his delusional lost love could hardly put a dent in their numbers, now, could it?’

‘One man? Goodness no,’ Galanthea answered with a devilish smile, ‘not one man at all…’

Chapter 5

‘…Witchers!’ exclaimed the soldier, ‘she’s talking about witchers!’

‘What was that now?’ questioned the merchant, casually pouring himself another drink from a sheepskin flask.

‘Witchers. At least, that’s what I’ve ‘eard ’em called.’ The soldier scratched his bristly chin. ‘Think, like… a mercenary, only they’s magically enhanced. Ruddy strong ‘n fast, more so than any man. Been goin’ round, they ‘ave, loners on the road, so I hear, pledgin’ to kill monsters for coin.’

‘Sounds like gibberish to me.’

‘Yeah? And what the ‘ell would you know?’

‘You said “mercenaries”, correct? Well, I happen to know a fella who should be able to provide some insight on that.’ He gestured to the cloaked man sitting in the shadows. ‘A mercenary himself, as it happens. Well, more of a back alley cut-throat, really. Isn’t that right, Cut-Throat?’

The cloaked man spat in response, spurring the merchant to guffaw.

‘Not the most courteous of gentlemen, I’ll admit, but a solid reputation for killing⁠—seen so first-hand, as it happens. Of course, I was on the lookout for a suitable chaperone, so pledged to toss a few coins his way should he see me to Maribor safely. Quite the bargain, weren’t you?’ A pause lingered. ‘But I digress. Cut-Throat! As an expert on the matter of sword-wielding hirelings, what do you think about these “exceptional monster slayers”?’

The cloaked man tilted his head and pondered for a moment. ‘A man kills a beast… so what? Nothing exceptional about it. Just bedtime tales.’

‘And there we have it!’ declared the merchant, a smarmy grin plastered across his face. ‘”Bedtime tales!”‘

‘Nay, nay! Not true. These stories I’ve ‘eard from reliable men. From all over ‘n all, they are, sayin’ the exact same thing. How could they all ‘appen upon the same lie? Tell me that!’

‘Deceptions spread fast, my friend. Offtimes faster than the truth.’

The soldier shook his head. ‘Nay, nay⁠⁠—’

‘Listen, I’m not saying these chums of yours haven’t seen brave men put down a beast here and there⁠—I won’t deny anyone’s fighting prowess. But “magically modified soldiers” is complete and utter balderdash, you must admit. And even⁠—even if⁠—’ The merchant sprang off his stump, seized a stone, and flung it at a couple of rats skulking near the perimeter.

The rodents hissed and chattered as they scurried away into the underbrush.

‘Now, where was I? Ah, yes: even if these, these “witch men”—’

‘—Witchers, I just ruddy well said!’

The merchant flapped his arms. ‘Yes, yes! “Witchers!” Even if they do exist, as you and your pals say, what need have we of them, really? Are the monsters that much of a threat? Sure, I’ll admit, they kill off a few unfortunate sods here and there, but it’s only the senseless really, isn’t it? Those ignorant fools that stray too far from the beaten path; get themselves eaten in some dank swamp in the middle of nowhere.’

‘That’s feckin’ preposterous, that is. A mockery!’ bawled the dwarf.

‘Quite apt, actually! You haven’t got the coin to afford safe passage? Then you bloody well stay put, where it’s safe. Too poor or frugal to invest in a good escort like myself? Then perhaps you shouldn’t go galavanting across the countryside in the first place. Besides, the monsters probably do us all a favour, when you think about it… get rid of the dregs of society, if you will. Cull the herd.’

The soldier ground his teeth, suppressing his rage. ‘And what makes you so special?’

‘Have you not been paying attention? Or perhaps hard of hearing?’ He nodded towards Cut-Throat, who was now strolling around the edge of the camp. ‘Like I said, I’ve an astute sense of self-preservation, and thus, am amply prepared for anything.’

‘Best prepare ye self for a good slap, ye keep yappin’ away with that trap o’ yours,’ the dwarf snapped.

‘—Quiet!’ Cut-Throat hushed. He was now standing deadly-still, head tilted toward the darkness beyond the campfire’s glow, fixated on something. ‘Keep it down. It’s too late in the night for a ruckus.’ Hand on the pommel of his sword, he stalked away from the camp.

‘Excuse me,’ the merchant persisted. ‘Where do you imagine you’re going? Cut-Throat!?’ Cut-Throat, unabated, disappeared into the inky wilderness without another word.

‘He’s right,’ Galanthea said, ‘it’s rather late, and my old bones need their rest.’ She climbed to her feet and made her way towards her tent. ‘We have a long day on the morrow.’

‘Aye, aye,’ mumbled the dwarf, draining the last of his mead. ‘Aye, we’ve that indeed.’

Within the hour, the entire party had turned in and were sound asleep, even the designated lookout…

… While somewhere nearby, amid the shadows, two beady red eyes glinted in the pale moonlight.

Chapter 6

Guttural snores resounded through the campsite, along with the soft crackling of the fading flames. High above, the light of a full moon peeked through looming clouds, painting everything outside of the embers’ glow in an eerie monochrome.

One of the tents rippled. The merchant stumbled out of the front flaps, dazed by drowsiness. He eyed the silhouette of a large tree at the perimeter, and worked his way towards it, weaving between sleeping travellers snuggled up to the fire.

Finding a secluded spot in the shadows, he unfastened his breeches and relieved himself—

SQUEAK!

The merchant lurched, sloshing urine over his feet as he pivoted towards the sound. ‘Curse it!’

A rat perched on a nearby stump, glaring at the merchant. It chattered, mimicking laughter.

‘You little shit!’ he shrilled, picking up a fistful of stones and flinging them at the rodent. ‘Shoo!’

The rat, unfazed by the bombardment, remained where it was, chirping defiantly.

‘Right!’ declared the merchant, surveying his surroundings, ‘I’ll bloody well show you, you vile—ah, there we are!’ He picked up a large rock and lugged it towards the creature. ‘Don’t. Say. I. Didn’t. Warn⁠—HUAH!’ He hurled the heavy stone, and the rodent jumped away, retreating into a nearby bush.

‘Ha!’ he proclaimed with a conceited grin. ‘And let that be a lesson⁠⁠⁠—’

SQUEAK, SQUEAK!

The merchant jumped, twirling around. A mischief of rats stood behind him.

‘Where in good graces did⁠—’

SQUEAK! SQUEAK! SQUEAK!

More rats scurried from the underbrush, encircling him.

‘W-w-what the…’ he croaked.

They glared at him; a sea of tiny eyes twinkling in the moonlight.

‘Cut-throat?’ he whispered. ‘Cut-throat…w-w-where a-are…’

A shadow slowly enveloped the area, blotting out the moonlight as it rose above the merchant. Trembling, he turned⁠—’Cut-Throat?’—to face two scarlet eyes peering down from high above, a frothing maw, and elongated incisors dripping with putrid saliva.

The merchant let out a terrified wail, just as his throat was ripped open.

An army of rats scampered through the campsite as travellers spilt from their tents and sleeping nooks, yelling and jeering amid the chaos.

Someone screamed as the dismembered torso of the merchant hurtled through the air and landed in the centre of camp. Then a bristly behemoth appeared from the shadows; an intimidating physique of exposed muscle and scarred flesh. It bellowed, chattering its oversized maw, and swiped a charging dwarf, effortlessly launching him across the site and into the darkness beyond.

The giant rodent’s eyes darted around and fell upon Galanthea, who was emerging from her tent in a state of confusion. It gnashed its teeth, then lumbered towards her, snarling and slobbering.

THWACK!

A crossbow bolt embedded itself into the monster’s shoulder. It shrieked and tore out the wooden shaft, snapping its jaws viciously as it scoured for the source.

THUD!

Another bolt, into the thorax this time.

‘Get back!’ Cut-Throat dashed out of the thicket, dropped the crossbow, and unsheathed his sword. The blade shimmered with a silvery luminescence as he twirled it around.

The beast roared, then rushed at him. Cut-Throat lifted his sword and braced himself, waiting until the last possible moment… he pirouetted to the left and slashed the monster’s broad back with a wide stroke, sending a mist of crimson across the camp.

A mesmerising flurry of slices, feigns, and ripostes followed, accompanied by blood spatter and piercing yowls as the cloaked man confidently commanded the flow of the fight, cutting with inconceivable speed and expert precision.

Succumbing to the lacerations, the rodent abomination let out a whine, stumbled to its knees, and slanted forwards, red seeping into the dirt around its mighty frame.

The man angled his blade, ready to administer the final blow.

One of the bystanders gasped as the monster’s arm shot out, seizing its opponent by the throat. The beast snarled and climbed to its feet, lifting the man high above the ground. The wounds on its disfigured body closed back up⁠—severed flesh and slashed muscle knitting themselves back together. The sword slipped from the man’s fingers as he reached up, clasping at the furry mitts throttling him.

Spectators stood frozen, gawping as Cut-Throat flailed in the beast’s grasp. Then, in a moment that amazed all present, he extended his hand towards the rodent’s gnarly face and made a peculiar gesture with his fingers.

Flames surged from his palm, blasting the monstrosity with an inferno; melting its face and sternum. It howled violently, clawing at its snout as it released the man and stumbled backwards.

In a flash, Cut-Throat pulled out a leathery orb with a fuse, ignited it with a snap of his fingers, and tossed it at the feet of the caterwauling behemoth.

The bomb fizzed and sparked…

BAROOM!

The wererat exploded into chunks of charred flesh and bone.

The remaining travellers, drenched in blood and innards, stood in awe.

Cut-Throat sauntered over to the mangled corpse of the merchant, rummaged through his satchel, and retrieved a small jingling pouch. He cast his gaze over the onlookers’ gawking faces, shrugged, then pocketed the coin.

Mouth agape, the soldier stuttered, pointing a shaky finger at the cloaked man, then uttered a single word of disbelief. ‘… Witcher.’

Chapter 7

The sun glared down on the travelling caravan ambling along the dusty road to Maribor. Towards the rear of the convoy, Galanthea sat in the back of a wagon, watching the witcher intently as he slowly approached her on horseback.

She greeted him with a welcoming smile. ‘You have my utmost gratitude for your services last night.’

He furrowed his brow, resentful of the compliment, but reluctantly accepted and gave her a cursory nod.

Galanthea chuckled to herself as a thought crossed her mind. ‘I guess, by extension, Alzur saved me yet again.’

The witcher clenched his jaw; his nostrils flaring.

‘Something the matter, my dear?’ she asked, ‘I’d wager you didn’t just trot over here to bask in my appreciation.’

He paused, taking a moment to compose his thoughts. ‘Did you even know Alzur?’

‘Oh… I knew him better than most.’

‘Then why spew shit you know ain’t true?’ He cracked his neck. ‘Maybe you’re just delusional. Or utterly blind.’

She smiled. ‘Truths aren’t necessarily universal, my boy. Sometimes they’re just a matter of perspective.’

The witcher grumbled, rode in silence for a while, then shook his head with frustration. ‘”Love”…?’ he rebuked. ‘If he actually cared for others, he would never have done what he did. What he no doubt still does.’

‘You have something you’d like to say.’ Galanthea eyed the man, then stifled a yawn. ‘Sleep eluded me last night⁠—as you can imagine—so hop to it, lad… while I’m still cognizant.’

‘Do you even have an inkling of how Alzur and his lackeys make witchers?’

‘Not with love, I deduce…’

‘They take little boys. Nab ’em from the streets. Pay off parents, if they have to. Do whatever they can to get their hands on fresh subjects. You see, it has to be children⁠—that’s what they told us. Cosimo, the older mage⁠—white-bearded bastard⁠, he was—used to always rattle off some bullshit about… malleability. He and Alzur would refer to us as slabs of wet clay, primed for moulding. So fuckin’ detached. Once you’ve lived so many years, they’d say, life takes its toll, and the clay, well, it sets. Hardens. Tryin’ to reshape a grown man becomes impossible because they just splinter and snap. So, kids are the only ones that can be subjected to the mutations⁠—at least, they’re the only ones that stand any sort of chance. Even then, most break anyway.’ The witcher stared at Galanthea, assessing her reaction. ‘Many of the boys I knew now sleep in shallow graves.’

She avoided his gaze and instead surveyed the pastures aside the road.

‘Yeah… dead children don’t make the best ballad material, do they?’

Turning back to the witcher, she remained silent, her eyes welling with curiosity.

‘We had to bury them ourselves; with their mangled bodies and twisted faces—mouths still agape from their final screams. Thing is, they were the lucky ones. Got out quick. The rest of us poor sods had to go on and endure Alzur’s various “Trials”—or so he called them, as if they were heroic feats we had chosen to undertake, to prove our worth. As if we made a choice to go through hell for that cunt’s validation.’

‘You say he does it all for some vision of a better world. I say fuck that⁠—he does it all for himself. Vainglory. Helpin’ others is just… overspill. Sure, he’d feign compassion from time to time, when eyes were on him. Like when the fools who funded his sordid little projects came to visit. Oh, he’d put on quite a show for the aristocrats. Real hospitable he’d get⁠ while parading us around. Flaunting his success. His brilliance. “Behold what the Great Alzur hath conjured for you, gentlemen”. Arrogant fuck.’ He snorted. ‘Then, content with their investment, they’d leave, and he’d snap right back to cold indifference. Return to his tower. Wouldn’t see him again until the next trial was ready, and those weren’t exactly happy occasions for us. Nah… we were just a means to an end for that bastard⁠—a way to establish his reputation. Ensure his legacy.’ His eyes glazed over as he pondered. ‘… Just wet clay in the hand, ready to be shaped to his will.’

A moment lingered.

‘You tell quite the tale, witcher.’ Galanthea smirked softly. ‘Ever considered a profession in storytelling?’

‘Jest if you must, but it’s the damn truth⁠—fuck perspective.’ He hawked and spat into the dirt, then returned to brooding in memory.

Her eyes lingered on the witcher as he ambled alongside the wagon, steeped in thought.

‘You know…’ She paused, considering her words carefully. ‘I’m genuinely grateful you were with us last night. I wish you to know that.’

The witcher hesitated, then nodded. ‘I should go on ahead⁠… make sure no surprises await us down the trail.’ He blinked away a memory, then grasped the reins of his horse⁠—’ Enjoy your rest’—and galloped away.

Chapter 8

Galanthea reclined in the back of the wagon, relaxing as she gazed up at the cloudless sky. She blinked slowly, her lids heavy and sluggish as she listened to the rhythmic trot of the horses upfront…

… High above, a flock of birds circled amid the vast azure. One of them let out a hellish shriek. She squinted and realised they weren’t birds at all. Wide, ragged wings flapped sporadically, and long scaly tails flicked behind them. The flying terrors swooped lower, descending on the caravan. One yowled as it exploded into a ball of gore. Then another, and another. A torrent of blood and guts rained down.

Alzur’s voice reverberated all around. ‘Fear not, little one. You’re safe.’

The crimson downpour lapsed to clear water as it thrashed against the outside of a town hall; a warm glow radiating from its windows.

Inside, emaciated bodies coughed and wheezed as they huddled together in groups of men, women, and children, shaking and whimpering. A figure in a black waxed overcoat and beaked mask weaved through the bodies, prodding them inquisitively with his cane.

On a makeshift stage of crates, a young Galanthea, donning boyish troubadour attire, played a fiddle and sang a cheery song for her sickly audience. Their sunken eyes gleamed with contorted joy as they smiled through their agony.

A croaky, brittle voice cut through the scene. ‘Oh, dear, sweet, poor thing. The sickness, ’tis in you. Deep hath it burrowed.’

Galanthea stopped playing and lowered her instrument, her eyes widening. A congregation of corpses sat before her, their naked bodies withered and rotten. Each wore a beaked mask. One by one, they began to caw, growing louder and louder. A symphony of hoarse coos consumed the soundscape.

The candles extinguished, plunging the room into pitch black and eerie silence.

‘Death looms, and your light fades.’ Two eyes shone amid the dark. ‘But fret not, my child, for Old Thelma can cure thy rot.’

Flames from a central hearth blazed up, illuminating the inside of a small cottage. An assortment of trinkets and baubles piled up high around the room, and crows adorned the shelves and rafters, cawing as they hopped about.

Young Galanthea, skinny and pale, sat in front of the fire, staring at the old lady draped in black feathers on the other side of the flames.

‘An oath shalt thou take, thy song thou shalt give,’ she flashed her teeth at the young bard, ‘and Old Thelma will ensure thou go on⁠—that thou shalt live.’ She sniggered.

The flames of the hearth flared and swelled, spilling across the timber flooring and crawling up the walls; consuming everything.

In the middle of a secluded grove, a cottage burned violently. A harrowing scream pierced through the roaring inferno. ‘Child! What hast thou done!?’

Galanthea stood in the grove, watching the fiery destruction through wet eyes.

Alzur’s voice echoed all around. ‘Just nod, Snowdrop, and consider it done.’

A hand squeezed her shoulder. She turned to see Alzur standing next to her, his face and chest spattered with blood. He knelt before her, and a malevolent grin crept across his face. ‘Two for two.’ He chuckled.

Fire devoured the grove.

The hideous wailing crescendoed⁠—

Galanthea’s eyes snapped open, and she sat upright, her skin slick with sweat.

Catching her breath, she surveyed her surroundings and noticed the wagon had stopped.

Sounds of an argument came from nearby. A shrill voice shouted, ‘We ain’t messin’ around, ye hear? Step⁠— step the fuck back!’

She hopped off the back of the wagon and saw they were pulled up next to an inn alongside a crossroad. A wooden sign read: “The Double-Cross”.

Galanthea rounded the wagon’s rear to see the caravan encircled by a mismatched band of men and women in peasant garb, armed with rusty swords, scythes, and pitchforks. In the middle, a lanky woman brandished a crossbow with a tense, shaky grasp and pointed it at the soldier.

The soldier took a step towards her. ‘C’mon, don’t be daft.’ He took another step, a tad too aggressively. ‘You don’t have to⁠—’

TWANG.

A bolt sprang forth, striking the soldier in his knee. He grunted and clasped at the shaft, then toppled to the ground. ‘Ploughin’ bitch!’

‘I-I-I fuckin’ warned you, I did,’ she stuttered, then flicked her eyes around the onlookers. ‘None of ye fuck about, alright? Or⁠… or see what ye get!’ she exclaimed nervously as she hastily fumbled another bolt into the groove. ‘Anyone take issue with that?’

None of the travellers responded.

‘Good!’ The woman nodded to one of her men. ‘Get ’em inside, outta the way.’

Chapter 9

‘Just our fuckin’ luck, this is,’ the dwarf glowered as he lit another candle, placing it on one of the kegs in the corner of the cellar.

‘Please do be careful⁠—with the flames,’ the halfling cautioned. ‘Lest we hop out of the frying pan and into, well, you know…’

‘Ach, dinnae worry. Got hands as steady as stone.’ He lit another and positioned it on a shelf. ‘How long ye been down here, laddie?’ he asked the innkeeper, who was perched on a barrel.

‘Oh… not too long. A few days, perhaps.’ The innkeeper panned over the company of travellers. ‘You’re the first they’ve…’

‘Robbed?’ the dwarf cut in.

‘Yeah. Sorry. Don’t take it personally. They aren’t brigands⁠—not really. I even know most of ’em. Local farmers and helpin’ hands mainly. But… with this accursed drought lingerin’ as long as it has, folks have got desperate—real hopeless. So, they’re… improvising.’

The soldier let out a moan as Galanthea tightened rags around his bloodied knee.

Dust fell from the ceiling as stifled footsteps trampled the floorboards above their heads, along with muffled voices.

‘I’m sorry about your friend. I’m sure they didn’t mean it.’

‘Dinnae worry; he’ll be fine. Won’t ye?’

The soldier grumbled.

‘But nae more soldiering for you, eh?’ he chuckled. ‘Best get used to guard duty. Heh!’ He grinned as he lit an oil lamp, illuminating a large painting resting against the back wall. The huge canvas depicted an immense battlefield. One side raised white and black standards in triumphant celebration, while the other army cowered beneath a torrent of raining fire descending from the sky. Amid the victors, an illustrious-looking mage stood proud with his arms raised, surrounded by luminous runes.

‘The final battle of The Endless War,’ the innkeeper informed them. ‘”Alzur’s Double-Cross”… the painting’s called. We get⁠— well, we used to get many folks from Ellander passing through, and it seemed in bad taste, so we popped it down here, out of the way.’ He chuckled. ‘Can’t do much about the name of the inn though.’

‘So it’s true then?’ the halfling probed. ‘Alzur used his magic to slay an army?’

The dwarf held the lamp’s glow up to the painting. ‘Aye. Looks that way.’

More dust fell from the ceiling as people moved about above. The indistinct voices increased in volume.

‘You’ve heard of him then? Alzur?’ the innkeeper asked.

‘Some tales here ‘n there, aye.’ The dwarf scanned over the burning army, its soldiers fleeing and screaming as they perished. ‘They didnae stand a chance.’

The innkeeper rose from the barrel and strolled over to the painting. ‘The artwork doesn’t show it, but it’s said he opened a portal. Used a spell⁠ to summon something dreadfully powerful from, well… another world, I suppose⁠. People talk about how the sky split apart, and a storm of swirling fire swept across the battlefield. But it weren’t no dragon or anythin’ like that. No… somethin’ much worse…’ He stroked his moustache. ‘Laid waste to their army, whatever it was—a crushin’ defeat. And Ellander, well, they had no choice but to surrender outright; gave up the throne of Vizima to the Duke of Maribor the very next day. Finally puttin’ an end to The Endless War.’

‘Ain’t right,’ scorned the dwarf, gawping at the canvas. ‘It’s a swindle. Battles should be fought with honour, on equal footin’. None o’ this… otherworldly shite. Those men shouldnae died in such a way.’

‘Yes. Quite right, I have to agree,’ the halfling added.

‘He did it…’ Galanthea looked up from the soldier, her eyes sombre. ‘… to save lives.’

The dwarf guffawed. ‘Aye, lass, aye! And I fuck for chastity!’

‘No, no, she’s quite right,’ the innkeeper corrected. ‘The war was some nasty business indeed. Endless bloodshed raged across these parts, for generations, all so one Duke or another could sit upon a slightly bigger throne.’

‘Aye, I’ve heard about the skirmishes, but… why’d it last so long?’ the dwarf asked.

‘Well,’ the innkeeper sat back on the barrel, ‘both forces were equal in strength, so they found themselves at a constant stalemate, no side winning more than its fair share of battles. And with that balance came the hope of eventual victory, I guess, for both sides, so neither Duke would back down… nor their sons… or their sons’ sons. They just… kept on sending their men to slaughter, time and again… for duty, or honour, or pride⁠—or whatever other lie the nobles tell their pawns to justify the sacrifice. And “sacrifice” is puttin’ it lightly. Around these parts, you’d be hard-pressed to find a family who didn’t lose several ancestors to that blasted war.’

The dwarf shook his head solemnly.

‘Without Alzur’s intervention,’ the innkeeper concluded, ‘there’s no sayin’ how long the bloodshed would have continued…’

The dwarf furrowed his brow. ‘Aye… But it cannae be right, can it? To do such a thing… He shouldnae meddle in the fates of others…’

‘Meddling in the fates of others…’ Galanthea smiled, ‘… is what he does best.’

A shrill scream rang out from upstairs.

THUD!

Chapter 10

The witcher made his way back down the dusty road…

Fortunately for the caravan, the only thing awaiting them was a steady supply of animal remains strewn across the fields; their bones picked clean. Victims of the drought, he suspected. Poor bastards.

He approached the inn at the crossroads⁠—the caravan should have arrived by now, and would no doubt stay for the night. Then, just half a day more and they’d be at Maribor city… He furrowed his brow, contemplating: why even come this far after already collecting his coin? His employer was dead, and he no longer had any obligation. Not a professional one, at least…

He hawked and spat into the dirt. Just a way to kill time, he concluded. Just something to do…

As he neared the inn, he saw familiar horses and wagons out front⁠—as expected⁠—but, the scene was off; something not quite right…

He trotted over carefully and surveyed the indentations of the disturbed dirt from horseback, then slid from his saddle and crouched to get a closer look. Some sort of struggle, he deduced. Specks of dried blood⁠—no doubt about it. He frowned. ‘Fuck.’

The witcher threw his steed a casual command—’Stay’—then strode towards the inn.

Outside, a burly man in a dirty yellow tunic was hunched on a bench, playing with a dagger and glaring at the approaching witcher. He stood up and puffed out his chest. ‘Sorry, chum, we’s closed.’

He ignored the warning and continued. The dull-looking man stepped in front of the door, blocking the way. ‘You lookin’ for a beatin’? I said we’s fuckin’—’

Without hesitation, the witcher launched his fist into the man’s gut, dropping him to the ground. Winded, the dullard rolled around, gasping for air.

The witcher threw the man a casual command⁠—’Stay’—then entered the inn.

Inside, the group of would-be bandits were gathered around tables, sifting through the trinkets they’d collected from the caravan. The murmur of their conversation simmered to silence as the witcher entered, and they collectively stared at the intruder.

‘Where are they?’ the witcher asked, calm and composed.

After a brief moment of surprise, the lanky woman snatched her crossbow from the table.

‘Don’t bother…’

She tautened the string and hurriedly notched a bolt as the witcher rolled his eyes. ‘Who… who the heck are you?’ she demanded.

He cracked his neck and placed his hand on the pommel of his sword. ‘Where are they?’

The woman narrowed her eyes, then nodded to the others, spurring them to spread out and surround the witcher.

‘What’s the plan then? Hold up here? Prey on passers-by? How long you think that’ll work, huh? Before they send the guard and you all dance a jig on the end of a rope.’

‘Nah… they’re too busy dealin’ with the riots in the city. Drought’s caused right anarchy. They ain’t comin’ out here no time soon⁠—no chance. Now… piss off ‘n leave us be, ‘fore I drop ye.’

The witcher tilted his head, listening intently. ‘Hmm…’ He heard muffled voices from down below. ‘Why capture them? Why not just rob ’em and let ’em be on their way? Simpler.’

‘Cos⁠— That’s⁠— Cos⁠— Well… ‘her eyes flicked around as she thought. ‘None⁠— none o’ your fuckin’ business, that’s why.’ She tensed her aim. ‘Last warning, I swear.’

‘My advice…’ The witcher’s grip tightened around the hilt of his sword. ‘… Cut your losses, and go home.’

The woman blinked rapidly, considering, then slowly fingered the trigger.

‘Don’t…’ the witcher warned, bracing himself.

Her eyes widened⁠⁠—she’d made up her mind.

The witcher unsheathed his sword.

TWANG!

The bolt flew.

In one fluid stroke, he caught the projectile mid-flight with the flat of his blade.

CLANG!

The bolt reeled sideways through the air and hit one of the gang members in his throat. He let out a half-gasp, gargled blood, then collapsed onto the floor. The woman screamed⁠—’AAAH!’—then fell quiet with shock, the crossbow slipping from her fingers.

Silence lingered, then, finally, the witcher panned over the onlookers, scowling. ‘Anybody else?’

They immediately dropped their weapons and displayed the palms of their hands in submission, shaking their gawping faces from side to side. A raggedy man stammered, ‘P-p-please, sir.’

The witcher casually sheathed his sword. ‘Go on… fuck off.’

The band cautiously shimmied towards the front door; their eyes fixed on the witcher. When they were close enough, they rushed outside, stumbling over each other as they fled.

The witcher looked down at the blood pooling around the unfortunate wretch. He sighed, then clicked his tongue regretfully. ‘Unlucky, pal…’

He surveyed the room and found a large trapdoor nestled in the corner.

A hushed voice came from beneath. ‘Witcher?’

He lifted the hatch and saw Galanthea at the foot of a wooden ladder, peering up. She smiled at the sight of him and nodded with gratitude.

The witcher glowered at her for a moment, then smirked ever-so-slightly. ‘Two for two.’

Chapter 11

Atop a shallow bank beside the inn, the witcher shovelled out another heap of dirt from the grave he was digging. For a moment, he was back within the grounds of Alzur’s castle, burying the mutilated bodies of his fallen brethren. The mage’s voice echoed in his head: ‘It’s a sorry affair, I know. But it has to be done, my boy. It must!’ He squeezed his eyes shut, quashing away the memory, then resumed his task.

Nearby, Galanthea sat upon a bench hewn out of a felled oak, fondly watching the soil-spattered witcher. ‘Perhaps he wanted a pyre…’

He shot her an unimpressed side-eye. She smirked.

‘You’re proving quite the knight in shining armour, I must say.’

He kicked the shovel into the earth with a grunt and scooped out another load.

‘Perhaps I should dig out my fiddle… compose an epic ballad about your escapades.’

He huffed.

Galanthea pondered for a moment. ‘Of course, I would have to find some suitable words to rhyme with “witcher”….’ she paused. ‘Or… with “Madoc”…’

The witcher froze, then slowly lifted his head towards her.

‘He spoke ever so fondly of you. The last time we met.’

The witcher vaulted out of the grave, threw down his shovel, and took several aggressive strides towards Galanthea. ‘He tryin’ to meddle in my affairs now? Follow me around? That it? What are you⁠—his loyal lapdog?’

‘I’m no man’s operative, my dear. ‘Twas fate alone that entwined our paths. Yet, the very first moment I laid my eyes upon you… oh, I knew for sure who stood before me.’

‘Horseshit!’ The witcher feigned a guffaw. ‘Typical! He can’t fathom anything being outside his control, can he!’ He scoffed, ‘Has to pull at the fuckin’ strings!’ He cracked his neck. ‘So, what? He sent you here to soften me up? Coerce me to come crawling back to his fanciful fellowship, eh? Well, it ain’t gonna happen. I don’t belong there⁠—never have. It’s all a blasted farce! I’m just a killer⁠—a good-for-nothin’ cut-throat⁠—I’ll never be anything more than that.’

Galanthea let his anger hang, then tilted her head. ‘Oh, Madoc… Why spew shit you know ain’t true?’ She smiled. ‘Maybe you’re just delusional. Or utterly blind…’

Madoc seethed. ‘Don’t you…’

Her eyes grew sombre. ‘You must know, he really wants⁠—’

‘Fuck off!’

‘You’re so very special to him. You can’t imagine, even after all this time, being one of the first⁠—’

‘I’m not his pet⁠—his fuckin’ plaything.’

‘No, no, of course⁠—’

‘He needs to let go, dammit!’

Galanthea paused, considering her words. ‘Aye, you’re quite right, he does. He needs to let a lot of stuff go. But so do you.’ She eyed Madoc, then patted the space beside her. ‘Come. Sit.’

The witcher’s scowl lingered as he clenched his jaw, quivering with frustration. Then he gave in and perched himself on the edge of the bench.

‘You spend an awful lot of time brooding, don’t you?’ She let the moment linger, his silence becoming the answer he did not want to give. She continued facetiously, ‘”Oh, woe is me! I’m stuck as a monster, a freak!”… eh? Well, boo-fucking-hoo!’

Madoc faced her, taken aback by her tone.

‘Grow up, lad, and get over it.’

He glared at her, then veered his gaze out over the prairie.

‘I always duck the question of why I stopped being a bard. Wanna know why?’ She didn’t wait for an answer. ‘Because it’s a story not worth telling, and certainly not worth hearing. There’s no charming adventure to be found, no magical moment, no grand finale. Just… a simple truth that doesn’t sit well with most folk. You see, I never even wanted to be a bard in the first place, it was but a self-imposed obligation… to honour the memory of those long past. I kept on, for decades, singing to strangers, playing that damned fiddle… miserable and unfulfilled. Propelled onwards by guilt⁠. Surviving when others have not can be… a heavy burden to bear. But, of course, I needn’t tell you that…’

The witcher mumbled something unintelligible.

‘I was just depriving myself of a life well-lived, for a futile cause born from penance.’

‘That’s on you,’ the witcher muttered.

‘Aye. Aye. And it took me a good long time to realise it. You cannot allow the past to dictate your future. It’s a helluva waste of life, to be held prisoner by the dead and buried. Even Alzur—with all of his wits and longevity⁠—still hasn’t figured that one out. He’s obsessed with a time long gone, one he cannot let go of. But that’s his choice to make. And you, Madoc, have your own.’ She paused. ‘Alzur isn’t the one shaping your clay, my dear. Not for a long time now…’

Madoc remained silent, wallowing in thought.

‘You’ve been through hell. And I feel your pain, I do. But do not make the mistake of thinking you have a monopoly on suffering. On the contrary, you’re in quite the privileged position. Most folks have to eke out a sorry excuse for a living, barely surviving from one day to the next. Denied any aspirations. Then⁠—poof!—they die, and it was as if they were never here at all. But you, you can go places and do things most of us could only dream of. You can accomplish incredible feats, make the world a better place, and be remembered for it. To renounce that gift because of bad blood and stubbornness… well, it would be a grave affront to all those less fortunate.

‘So, I say this to you: Alzur and his vision be damned⁠. Heck, your fallen brothers be damned as well. This is about you. Take control of your destiny and shape your future for the better, before it’s too late. Because, Madoc, you are afforded the luxury to do so.’

The witcher slouched forwards, his eyes glazed over with contemplation.

Galanthea held out her hand, palm upturned, then glanced towards the sky. ‘Looks like you best finish that hole of yours.’ Seemingly from nowhere, slate-grey clouds had assembled across the once-spotless sky, and a light rain was falling. ‘Something tells me you don’t have very long.’

Chapter 12

The innkeeper tumbled out through the front doors and dropped to his knees in the mud, arms extended jubilantly towards the heavens. ‘A miracle⁠—praise be!’ He closed his eyes and smiled, basking in the refreshing drizzle. ‘So many years forsaken, so many⁠—’ A thought hit him, and he hopped to his feet and rushed back inside. Moments later, he reappeared, followed by the halfling and the dwarf, their arms all overflowing with copper pots and pans.

Madoc and Galanthea, still sitting upon the nearby hillside, smiled in unison at the sight of them frantically collecting rainwater in the various vessel-like wares.

The witcher’s gaze ascended towards the sky. He eyed the clouds warily as they drifted outwards from a singular point in the distance. Strange, he thought, furrowing his brow. He scratched his bristly throat and cocked his head to the left. ‘Alzur…’

‘… Aye.’ Galanthea said after a moment.

He brushed away the thought and diverted the conversation. ‘How… How did he lift your curse? You never said.’

Galanthea mulled over the question, then sighed sedately. ‘That, my dear, is a tale for another time. And one I won’t relish the telling of, that’s for sure.’

The witcher frowned.

She smiled softly. ‘Let’s just say: life sometimes leaves you with no good choices. No clear avenue towards respite. But a choice must always be made, and the consequences faced, whatever they may be. You’ll do well to remember this, witcher: consequences, if shunned, are wont to accrue. And in the end, the piper must always be paid, one way or another.’ She gazed at some of her travelling companions dancing with glee in the rain outside the inn. ‘Few of us make it through life unsullied, Madoc. And those that do tend to die young. Best we can do is to try and balance the scales, somehow, before we take our final breath.’

The witcher snorted. ‘Life is debt.’

‘Aye.’

The sounds of joyous celebration were suddenly engulfed by an ear-splitting boom.

RUMBLE!

CRACK!

Flashes of blinding light, both green and red, illuminated the landscape.

Madoc jumped to his feet and cast his gaze out across the fields to the horizon, where the walls of a far-off Maribor city could be seen reaching above the freshly sodden plains. ‘What’s he doing?’

High above, the voluminous clouds tumbled unnaturally across the sky, growing darker as they shifted ominously from the capital.

Suddenly lightning flashed and forked over the dismal vista, swiftly followed by the bellowing rumble of thunder. Light rain gave way to a torrential downpour, and the breeze burst into a stormy gale. The grey-black clouds whirled in the distance, circling a hole in the sky that was opening up. Sinuous rifts of pulsating light veined outwards from the expanding breach, casting a spectrum of vibrant colours dancing across the horizon.

Galanthea and Madoc joined the travellers that had congregated on the crossroads to watch the distant chaos unfold.

‘Oh, no, oh, no,’ the halfling muttered to himself. ‘Oh, dear.’

“Tis a portal!’ the dwarf yelled over the sound of belting rainfall. ‘Just like Ellander!’

‘P-p-ploughin’ hell!’ The soldier’s face turned white, and his eyes widened with disbelief. ‘It cannot be…’

From deep within the faraway cyclone, an enormous and horrific form snaked downwards from the portal. Its giant elongated body, adorned with rows of hooked limbs on either side, wrapped and writhed in the sky, descending upon the city of Maribor.

The ground trembled as the terrible monstrosity crashed into the ill-fated metropolis.

The gaping hole snapped shut in its wake, and the spectrum of vivid light faded from existence. All that remained was the blackened clouds, the blackened landscape, and the blackened silhouette of the colossal monster illumined by the spasmodic lightning. Each flash revealed a fleeting glimpse of the massive centipede wreaking havoc upon the city; its immense mandibles snapping violently as it constricted its long thorax around protruding towers, shattering and smashing them to rubble.

Dammit, Madoc thought. Dammit to hell.

He squinted through the rain towards Galanthea. Her big brown eyes, soft and sombre, pleaded to him. ‘Go,’ she mouthed. ‘He needs your help… we all do.’

Without hesitation, Madoc bounded over to the hitching post and vaulted onto his steed’s saddle. Clenching the reins, he turned one last time towards those he had rescued. The halfling was busy using a saucepan to shield himself from the rain. The dwarf was barking something utterly lost amidst the backdrop of the now thrashing downpour. The soldier, holding onto the innkeeper for balance, was shaking his head woefully from side to side. Galanthea, her sorrowful eyes betraying her fear, smiled hopefully at the witcher and nodded with appreciation.

Madoc returned the gesture, then pivoted his mount onto the darkened road, spurred the horse on, and galloped towards Maribor city. Towards the blackness. Towards the lightning. Towards the all-consuming monster and savage ongoing carnage. Towards destruction, death and chaos incarnate.

Onwards he rode, towards his maker.

Onwards, towards his fate.

See also