9 The first among many

As they continued south on the road, they came upon a shallow crossing that could take them across the Gwenllech River. However, instead of continuing on their journey, Geralt came to a halt and dismounted when he noticed a peculiar assortment of footsteps.

"Atram, come over here." Geralt commanded and pointed at the tracks. "Tell me, what do you make of these?"

Atram jumped off his horse and approached, studying the tracks carefully. "Judging by the distance between each step, it looks like a creature with a short stride. They're also bipedal, four-toed, and have small claws attached at the ends of their feet. But..." He paused and nudged his head at the footprints of a completely different creature. "This one is huge; look at the furrows that its feet have left behind. It is a heavyweight monster with thick, blocky soles."

Geralt shook his head in agreement, glad that Vesemir's teachings hadn't gone to waste. "Can you pinpoint their species?"

Atram tapped his chin thoughtfully before answering. "Based on the size and shape of their tracks, the smaller ones should be nekkers. If you consider the surrounding misty environment and the fact that they're traveling in a pack, it only serves to further confirm my suspicion. The larger footprints are harder to discern at first glance, but if i had to guess, i would say they belong to an ogroid too."

Geralt grinned and lifted an eyebrow. "How did you come to that conclusion?" He inquired, already knowing Atram had the answer.

"I can't say about the freshness of the tracks, but the size and shape are a dead giveaway," Atram replied confidently. "Ogroids have distinctively broad and flat feet, with a prominent heel and toes that splay outwards."

Geralt grunted affirmatively. "Well done; i will make a witcher out of you yet. As for the tracks, they are very fresh." He stopped and took a deep breath. "I can even smell them; they are pretty close."

Atram shrugged. "I am a man of many talents, but sniffing the air like a bloodhound ain't one of them."

Geralt chuckled. "That and you can't drink our potions." Laughing even harder after watching Atram go pale.

The man had tried to drink one of the witcher's potions once, thinking that his absurd vitality and constitution would alleviate the side effects. Oh, how wrong he was. Sure, Atram's mutation rendered him immune to diseases and neutralized mild poisons almost instantly, but witcher potions are an entirely different beast. There was a reason they were the only ones who could handle them.

To Atram's credit... he didn't die. Instead, his vision blurred, he had convulsions, and he ran an extremely high fever for what seemed like days but was only a few minutes. "Let's never mention that again. Please." He pleaded, trying to forget that horrifying experience.

"Fine by me; just remember i told you so."

"I know it was stupid; that recklessness of mine will kill me one day." He muttered and pointed onwards. "Enough of that. Let us move on."

Geralt nodded and led the way. For the most part, they followed the dirt road that ran parallel to the river. Their figures were overshadowed by the snowcapped pines and the occasional rocky outcropping that jutted out from the ground. The air was crisp and cold, causing their breaths to form visible clouds in front of them. A few twists and turns later, they arrived at what seemed to be an old, decrepit dam.

Atram saw the outline of a form deeply encased inside the frozen water. He squinted and scrunched his brows, trying to figure out what it was. As he got closer, he realized that his previous assumption had been correct. The creature inside the ice had small, knife-like ears and a wringled, bulbous neck, which covered the monster all the way down to its chest. It had a short, thin body, long hands with sharp claws at the ends, and a hateful expression on its face.

"It appears we have our monsters, and the reason they ventured so close to the keep," Atram commented.

Geralt nodded. "They tried to draw water close to their lair, but it failed, so they found the shallow intersection where it was safe enough for them. And i think i know where their lair is."

"Great! Lead the way." Atram replied enthusiastically.

Geralt lifted his hand and halted him. "Wow, slow down there. I must prepare first. Apply the proper oil to my sword. By the way, if my guess is correct, how are you going to see inside the cave?"

"I have a spell for that; it is going to be bright inside, so i don't recommend you drink a cat potion."

"That is good; it saves me the materials. But how long will your spell last?"

"As long as I am within 20 meters of the effect and am not knocked unconscious, it will last around an hour."

Geralt shook his head in disbelief. "It still boggles the mind how easy it is to cast spells in your spellcasting language."

Atram scoffed. "It's not that magic is easy; rather, your so-called elder speech falls short of dragonic in terms of effectiveness and precision. Elves may be a magically attuned race, but dragons literally created spellwork and spellcraft."

Geralt was almost finished coating his blade, twirling it around to check the evenness of the oil. "Are dragons extinct in your world?"

"Officialy, yes. They went extinct centuries ago."

"And unofficialy?" Geralt asked with interest.

"The only thing i am 'allowed' to tell you is that only a few of their kind remain; some are hidden away in remote corners of the world, while others have learned to blend in with society unbeknownst to everyone." Atram replied with a slight forcefulness in his voice.

Geralt wanted to inquire further, but something in Atram's phrasing made him think otherwise. "I am ready." He stated, sheathing his sword.

The pair crossed the wooden makeshift bridge that was also the dam and turned sharply left. Descending the winding path, they found themselves in front of the entrance of what appeared to be a mine. Large boulders and rocks littered the entrance, but oddly enough, they had been pushed inwards or thrown out of the way with incredible force.

Geralt cursed under his breath. "Little bastards are working with a rock troll."

Atram understood immediately why the white wolf was cranky and couldn't help but chuckle. Rock trolls not only possess incredibly tough hides but also have their backs covered in a layer of rocky growth. In all honesty, they were the nightmares of all swordsmen, as one wrong move could result in a broken blade. Not that being in front of them was a wise idea. They were incredibly powerful monsters that, when frenzied, could kill someone in a matter of seconds.

"You could try to use your 'ki blade'. The rock troll would be the best target practice." Atram suggested.

"You know, i don't always get it right. If i don't gather enough energy, the blade will snap."

Atram shrugged and approached the entrance. "If you don't try , you'll never know," he said with a smirk.

Geralt gave him a sideways glance. "You just want to see the look on my face when my sword breaks."

"What.... No... Maybe... Yes." He said and dodged a punch from Geralt.

As they entered the dark and eerie cave, their senses were heightened. The sound of dripping water echoed throughout the space, and the smell of damp earth filled their nostrils. Old, almost unrecognizable mining gear was scattered around the cave, evidence of past human activity.

As they turned the corner, an encroaching darkness covered their eyes. Geralt could see, although barely, but Atram was blind as a bat. The latter clasped his hands together, as if holding an egg, and cast a spell. "Xoreutix Fosa(Dancing Lights)"

Atram's palms became as bright as the sun, and when he opened them, four torch-sized lights hovered in front of him. With a flick of a finger, he sent the lights slightly forward in a straight line, creating an ever moving tunnel of brilliant illumination.

Just as his preparations were finished, they heard a shriek and something clawing at the dirt and gravel around them. Atram looked at Geralt and nodded before going into a low stance with his feet slightly spread apart. Geralt, on the other hand, pulled out his silver sword, waving it around in a mesmerizing pattern. Both warriors were ready to face whatever was coming their way.

The sound grew louder and louder until, finally, five holes appeared in the ground around them, revealing a group of nekkers emerging from beneath. The monsters were snarling and hissing, their eyes full of frenzy and hunger as they sized up the intruders in their home.

One of the nekkers, which was slightly taller and more muscular than its brethren, charged Atram with a mad dash. The bear waited until the last second, planting his feet in the earth. When the nekker warrior finally leapt at the imposing wall of flesh and muscle that was in front of him, Atram took a step forward and, with a straight punch right on the chest of the monster, he cracked open its ribcage and sent it flying backwards. The nekker warrior let out a blood-curdling scream as it crashed onto the ground, becoming a motionless puppet in a matter of seconds.

After the fall of their bigger comrade, the remaining nekkers attempted to take advantage of their numbers, trying to overwhelm him. Alas, it proved futile. Despite his size, he could move with unnerving quickness and strike with deadly force. With every dodge, at least a bone would break, with every reaction, a skull would be shattered and with every mistake, a retaliation would be delivered with such strength that it created tremors in the ancient mine. The huge man finished his deadly dance and left behind a lifeless pile of flesh in his wake.

Geralt, on the other hand, took the initiative first, achieving a favorable position for his swordmanship and footwork. His first opponent wielded a makeshift spear made completely out of wood. The nekker shaman was adeptly moving the sharpened stick around... until he wasn't. With his final piercing attack, he felt the spear lighter than it should have been, only to realize it had been cut cleanly in half. Before he could react to the sudden turn of events, he saw the glint of the blade as it cleaved through the skull and painted bone mask like a hot knife through butter. The nekker shaman collapsed to the ground, twitching erratically, his body unaware that it was dead.

His other adversaries didn't fare better. At the start, the nekkers were spirited, emboldened by their numbers, they charged the white haired warrior with reckless abandon. However, when they thought they had the upper hand, Geralt's movements became more fluid and precise, and his phantom like footwork enraged them further, only for his sword to become the bane of their existence. His silver-plated blade sliced through the air with lethal grace, delivering surgically precise strikes and leaving only mutilated corpses behind.

If his brother in arms was an unstoppable, relentless juggernaut, that received blows with his iron like body and returned them with unmatched force, Geralt was an elusive, vengeful wraith, weaving through his enemies, spreading terror among their ranks and promising death with every flick of his sword.

In a few minutes, the pair had cut a bloody swath through the monster infested mines. Nekker bodies lay strewn across the cavern floor, their grotesque forms twisted and broken. Taking a moment to catch their breath, Atram and Geralt surveyed the carnage they had wrought. The stench of death hung heavy in the air, but they knew their mission was far from over. As if the universe itself was trying to prove them right , they heard a low growl that vibrated throughout the spacious cavern and heavy steps approaching.

With Atram's spell still in motion, the figure entered the spotlight, revealing itself to be a massive creature with a rocky growth on its back. However, instead of charging at them, it fell to the ground with a thud. His face was slightly caved in, and it bore numerous scratches and bruises.

"What could kill a rock troll inside its own lair?" Geralt pondered under his breath.

"Whatever it is, it sure takes its sweet time coming here." Atram exclaimed excitedly and with a little impatience in his voice.

"Why do you sound so enthusiastic?"

"Because whatever killed this big bag of rocks is surely stronger than it. And we will have to fight it!"

Geralt chuckled slightly. "You really are a battle maniac. And as i witnessed firsthand, you are insane enough to fight monsters barehanded."

Atram simply nodded, as nobody who knew him could deny the truth in Geralt's words. He had always been drawn to the thrill of battle, even when it seemed like a hopeless cause. The stronger a monster was, the more excited he became to face it head-on. Atram's reckless bravery and absurd martial prowess had earned him a reputation as one of the best warriors in his world, but his experiences had also brought him close to death on more than one occasion.

Despite the risks, he couldn't resist the adrenaline rush that came with each fight. He felt most alive on the razor's edge, and he relished the dance of death between himself and his opponent. However, as Geralt stated, many people consider him to be a madman, a fool who throws his life away for the sake of a few moments of excitement. Even so, Atram would never give up his love for a good fight; it was simply too deeply ingrained in his soul.

"I don't just fight monsters," he said, pointing at the pile of nekkers, their bodies bent and broken. "I exterminate them. Does that make me irrational? Maybe. But you can't deny the thrill of battle either. When a ghoul is about to bite your jugular off and you manage to dodge and strike it down, it's a rush like no other. Admit it!"

Geralt thought about it for a moment, but ultimately he had to partially agree with Atram. "You have to understand that I was literally bred for this purpose. Even if i were to quit and leave it all behind, i wouldn't know what to do with my life. Killing monsters and lifting curses is all i know. It's not just a job, it's who i am. But i do see your point. The calm before the storm, the silence before a successful hunt, and the battle that ensues are all exhilarating moments."

"There you go! You a-"

A sudden cawing brought them out of their conversation. Both men turned around and saw a crow, black as midnight, standing in place with a letter fastened to its little leg. When the bird noticed Geralt, it flew over to him and pointed with its beak, prodding the witcher to take the letter.

Geralt cautiously reached out and took the letter from the crow's leg. As he unfolded it, a familiar scent wafted up to his nose. It was the scent of lilac and gooseberries—the scent of Yennefer, his long lost love. The letter was written in her elegant handwriting, and Geralt couldn't help but feel a sense of excitement and apprehension as he read through its contents.

Dear friend,

Forgive me for not asking about your health or how you have been these last years. Time is very short. I have important news. We must meet, and soon. Ride to Willoughby, near Vizima, and don't spare the horses. While I do eagerly await our reunion, I won't be able to wait, eagerly or otherwise, for very long.

Your dear friend,


P.S. I still have the unicorn.

"Why would anyone mention a unicorn in a letter about important news and an urgent meeting? " Atram asked. As he was almost two heads taller than him, he simply 'observed' the happenings from above. No, he was not a busybody.

Geralt was so engrossed with the letter that he barely registered Atram's presence. He couldn't help but feel a sense of unease at Yennefer's words. What did she mean by not being able to wait for very long? Was she in danger? Geralt knew he had to act fast, so he quickly pocketed the letter and drew his silver blade, marching forward at a rapid pace.

Atram saw his friend's figure disappear in the darkness of the cave, and a moment later the crow disintegrated, leaving behind a glassy bird shaped skull.

'What the bloody hell is going on?'

Next chapter