The waterfront was quiet by the time he finished his short meditation, undisturbed save for the rippling current and rushing waterfall spilling into the river. No drowners rose from the depths to pursue them as the four endeavored deeper into the night, Iorveth in the lead, pointing out the direction he and his hanse had taken when they left the city.
Geralt walked cautiously beside him, scanning the shadowed trees they approached for signs of danger, listening to the night, the wind in the trees, toads chirruping, the waterfall rushing at their backs growing further and quieter with every step.
For once in his life, Dandelion was actually quiet. Geralt wondered if he was scared.
The two of them had seen plenty of danger and adventure together, or so the bard was always bragging, but try as he might the witcher couldn’t remember any of those dangerous adventures. He had to take Dandelion at his word, something he did with reservation, which only made him all the more certain he’d once known the troubadour far better than his memory allowed him to recall.
There were ruins just beyond the river, glinting eyes, not unlike his own, staring out at them from the shadowy protection of stone and trees as they edged their way quietly along the path. Iorveth continued to follow the trail, but Geralt kept his eye on the grass around them, searching for signs that someone else had recently made their way, been diverted from the trail drawn off the path.
He found exactly what he was looking for just outside the walls of the old ruins, leading away from the path.
“Here,” he said hunkering down beside the road and gesturing with his hand, “look at this.”
Iorveth continued on for several steps before he realized he was walking alone, and then he turned back to rejoin them. “What is it?”
“Someone or something went off the path here.” He pointed out a well-disguised cut through the grass none but him could see at first. “See how the grass lays in vertical cross patterns, almost as if something heavy crushed it in a steady, flowing swish of movement. It wound through those trees heading east.”
Iorveth tilted his head, squinted his eye and nodded agreement. “I see it, but that makes no sense if she was following my hanse. We went that way,” he gestured back over his shoulder.
“You don’t know that she was following you,” Geralt pointed out.
“And even if she was, why would she leave the path?” Helti muttered. “She is very clever. She would know better.”
Geralt hunkered down to study the flattening of the grass, which had already started to stand again after a heavy rain, nearly disguising the tracks altogether. His medallion trembled slightly against his chest. Something heavier than a pair of little feet had moved through that grass, something with a thick, serpentine tail that slunk and slithered through the mud just below the surface.
“She started out following the trail, but then something led her away.”
“What kind of something?” Dandelion wondered, an evident shudder in his voice before he gulped.
“Could have been a basilisk, but basilisk have no interest in leading children away from trails. My guess would be a lamiae,” Geralt muttered as he drew his fingers through the grass and mud and brought them up to examine them.
Iorveth dropped down beside him, forearms propped atop his thighs as he squinted and studied the path. “What was that, Gwynbleidd?”
“Lamiae,” he repeated. “Half-serpent, half-woman… An outdated curse once reserved for mothers who brought unspeakable horrors to their own children. From time to time I come upon one, but they are a rare and dying breed.”
Someone at his back swallowed hard, the sound echoing in their throat.
“Lamiae prey upon the negative emotions of children who are angry with their parents for one reason or another,” he paused for a moment, not looking back at Helti or Iorveth. “Drawn to the injustices children feel, they get inside their heads, learn their woes and then use those woes against them, promising whatever they want to hear if only they’ll come along. Then they lead them to their lair and poison them so they can feed off their energy.”
Out of everyone, Dandelion was the only one who had anything to say about it at first, “Kind of like a succubus.”
“What do they do with the children they take?”
“Will it hurt her?” Helti’s voice was strained, as if she’d forgotten how to breathe.
“Not at first, not even intentionally. Lamiae think they are atoning for the atrocities they committed by bringing comfort, and in their minds, justice to their victims. Unfortunately, they don’t sustain them and eventually the child starves.”
Iorveth swore under his breath as Geralt went on to explain.
“The toxins in a lamiae’s poison are both hallucinogenic and sedative. It will keep her suspended in a dream state, free from pain and filled with glorious illusions of all the things she wants, the rights to all the wrongs in her life. And while she dreams, the lamiae feeds on the energy she supplies. The grander the dreams, the more selfishly it feeds…”
“How do we get her back?”
“We bloede kill it!”
“It’s only been two nights, but no doubt it’s already convinced itself the child is hers, that she’s in some way protecting her from her horrible parents.” Drawing in breath through his nose, his nostrils flaring outward as he tightened his teeth, Geralt nodded agreement with the elf. “We’ll probably have to kill it. Let’s go.”
They followed the small footsteps, the trail of the lamiae’s tail and the nearly invisible slithering of it through the grass. It wound for miles through the brush and dirt, the child’s footprints eventually disappearing and the lamiae’s trail difficult to resume, but he always found it again.
Dandelion started to complain again, which was really nothing new, but it still got on Geralt’s nerves. Occasionally the bard could be heard mumbling under his breath about messy monster matters he didn’t know how he’d gotten involved in, even though he swore to himself he wouldn’t after the incident with the noonwraith. He loved to complain, but after helping lay the restless spirit of a bride accidentally killed by her own jealous sister before the wedding by composing a ballad with the witcher’s help, Dandelion hadn’t shut up about his heroics for weeks.
He was probably already composing an appropriate ballad about their search for Iorveth and Helti’s lost little girl, or rather, a tragic dramatic play.
That thought made Geralt want to wring his scrawny, lipstick-smudged neck.
Helti grew more defeated by the second, and it probably didn’t help to hear Dandelion complaining, but Iorveth remained determined. At one point, after she uttered a low sigh that sounded like a sob she tried desperately to choke down before it could emerge, the elf laid a comforting hand upon her shoulder and muttered softly, “We will find her. It’ll be all right.”
Geralt said nothing. He remained focused. He forgot he was tired, ignored how sore his muscles were, and grew increasingly oblivious to the nagging emptiness in his belly.
When they disturbed three harpies nested down in the trees, he dealt with them swiftly, Helti putting down a fourth that nearly caught him unawares. She fired off a rapid shot that struck the monster in the center of its forehead seconds before Geralt himself spun inward to take off its head.
The half-moon was high in the sky when Geralt’s medallion began to tremor, increasing in its ferocity as they approached the lamiae’s lair. Following the almost sweet, hypnotic sound of an old lullabye in the Elder Speech, it echoed from an old burial crypt several miles away from the city and the rest of the ruins. The four companions approached with caution. They might have arrived unnoticed in the opening had it not been for the dry twig that cracked beneath Dandelion’s muddy, ruined boots.
The lamiae’s head shot up. Her long, serpentine tale uncurled from the sleeping child nestled in the crypt beneath her hovering body.
A fork-tongued hiss rattled through her teeth as she drew back, whipped her tail with an eerie snap and spun in to block the girl from view. Her head wove back and forth in a strange, near-hypnotic dance, the narrowed slits of her dark red eyes widening as she passed a glance across Geralt’s silver blade, already drawn and glistening with Argentia.
“A witcher man?” She continued to writhe in that hypnotic fashion, and Geralt actually found himself reaching out to smack a hand into Dandelion’s chest to break any spell she might have over the strong-hearted poet. “Why cáemm ye here, witcher man?”
“You know why I came here,” he told the monster. He took a careful step forward, sword still raised in front of him in unspoken warning. “I came for the child you stole. She doesn’t belong to you, Lamiae. You destroyed your own children, remember? You were punished for the things you did to them, and you have no right to the one you stole.”
“Sorrows of the weddin, they calling in the darkness to me. ‘Ater,’ it say, chasing old saov through the woede. ‘Ater, no going where it cannot follow.’ It cry to the saov, me see it with me own two eyes.”
“You saw a ghost here in the woods?”
“Cedric,” Helti whispered.
“Hen saov. Hen seidhe, be he. Seidhe like the weddin. Where be its modron? She nowhere be. Weddin all alone, it say me. Heart,” she dramatically clutched her naked breasts, “it ache inside me chest, witcher man. Me hold out this hand.” She uncurled her long, clawed fingers, wiggling them enticingly. “Say to it, ‘Cáemm a me, Weddin. Lamiae keep ye safe. Take it to its ater in the woede where he play it songs and sing away its sorrows.’ Weddin cáemm. Me keep it safe, as promised. We wait. Ater no cáemm. It mine now be.”
“She is not yours,” the witcher said. “Her mother’s come looking for her and wants to take her home. You must let the child go.”
“Modron,” she spat toward Helti, a poisonous venom that burned the grass. “Care she not!”
Beside Geralt’s ear sounded the long, distinct creak of Iorveth’s bowstring, behind him the nervous shuffling of Dandelion’s boots.
“What are you waiting for, Gwynbleidd?” Iorveth called. “Kill it, or I will.”
Geralt held a hand out to stay the elf’s hot temper, but he should have been paying more attention to Helti, who until that moment hadn’t said a word to defend herself. She started forward, taking long, slow steps toward the cursed creature and never taking her eye off her daughter.
“That isn’t true,” she said in a steady voice. “She is all I care about in this world. The only reason I have left to rise in the mornings. She is all I have to live for, and I won’t let you take her from me.”
“Care, say Modron. Ha!” She spat again, a poisonous secretion that sizzled in the grass at Helti’s feet. “Think she lie, say Lamiae. If Modron care, why she leave weddin alone to chase saov through the woede?”
“I didn’t leave her alone, she ran away. She was upset because she lost her father, and I was upset too. I didn’t know how to comfort her… I felt so lost, and I am sorry for that. She must know I am sorry.”
“Helti,” Iorveth warned in a low voice as she took another step forward.
“Weddin run because Modron no care. ‘Look for Ater,’ it say. ‘Find him it must, before Ater go too far away and it cannot find him.’”
Iorveth marveled quietly as he took a step past Geralt, his bow still steadily aimed at the monster as he moved. He came to stand beside Helti, the two of them staring at the little girl just beyond the swaying body of the lamiae.
“You must give the girl back to her mother and father,” Geralt told warned. “They’ve come for her and want to take her home. If you won’t give her up, they will kill you, and I will help them.”
“You’re negotiating with this thing?” Iorveth railed over his shoulder.
“I’m giving her a choice. Give back the girl, and I will let her go free. Maybe I’ll even help break the curse that keeps her in this place and makes her suffer.” The withcer looked toward the monster, focusing on her as he offered, “You can rest, Lamiae, put an end to your heartache. I will help you break the curse that binds you to this place.”
“Lies!” She shrieked outrage and dismay, the terrible sound of it clawing at their ears.
Somewhere over his shoulder, Dandelion ducked behind a tree, both fingers pushed into his ears to block the sound. Iorveth lowered his bow, but Helti, unafraid and unwilling to risk her child’s life, raised hers, drew back an arrow and released it.
Geralt really wished she hadn’t done that, but it was too late.
The lamiae’s tail whipped out to swat it away the way a horse might swat at a fly, the wooden shaft cracking against the stone tomb and clattering to the ground several feet away. She surged toward the source of that arrow, clawed fingers ready to strike, mouth agape and screaming, venom hissing through her teeth, but Helti did not back down. Iorveth drew twin messers from his belt and edged Helti protectively out of the way with a hard shoulder that sent her sprawling to the side and into the grass. He spun agilely into battle with a fierce cry that echoed off the walls of the crypt.
She shot out her tale to strike him but he rolled swiftly aside, rising on her right and cutting across her arm and shoulder. Geralt wasted no time joining the fray. He careened forward in a swift, fluid dance of flashing silver that arced heavily to chop down on her wildly whipping tale. A second drop of his sword severed the tale from her body, a poisonous spray of black blood splattering across her face and armor.
The maneuver knocked the beast off-balance, giving Iorveth the edge he needed to follow through with a whirling attack that drew both blades across the monster’s neck from behind. He cut through it like a pair of styling sheers snipping hair and the choked sound of her rage died in a truncated gurgle. Her head rose in a high spiral, tumbling downward and landing with an empty thump on the ground. It came to a stop at the tips of Dandelion’s boots.
The bard squeaked and leapt back, cursing again about his ruined boots before kicking the head away.
No one moved for what felt like several minutes, the only sound the crackling torches that lit the crypt and their ragged breath. Helti broke the silence with a desperate cry. She crawled quickly across the blood-soaked grass, never minding the hiss of poison burning her hands. Arriving at her daughter, she wiped her hands on her skirt and then reached for the girl’s shoulders.
“Invae,” she murmured. Her grip slipped down the length of her arm, catching the child’s hand and bringing it up to her lips. She kissed the palm and wrist as she whimpered, “Mama’s here. You’re all right, my little flower. Everything’s going to be all right.”
Lowering his blades at his sides, Iorveth just stood back, head cocked in a strange, curious way as he watched her smooth the mussed brown hair from their daughter’s face before leaning in to shower kisses across her feverish brow. Still unconscious from the lamiae’s poison, the girl didn’t whimper or stir, but Helti didn’t care. She gathered her in her arms and rose without effort, as if she weighed little more than a baby, and then she walked between them without a word, heading beyond the opening and into the cool night air.
It was the first time the elf had ever seen her, Geralt realized, his own daughter. The witcher couldn’t begin to guess what was going through his mind as he watched a woman he barely knew lift a child he knew nothing about at all into her arms. Not just any child he knew nothing about, but his child.
For several minutes after Helti carried the girl out of the crypt and into the clearing to lay her beneath the tree where Dandelion had taken refuge during the fray, Iorveth stood inside the crypt staring at the place where she’d lain.
Geralt didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing at all. Wiping the blade of his sword on the grass to clean it, he returned it to the scabbard on his back and left the elf alone with his thoughts. Following into the night, he wanted to see if the girl was all right.
Elder Speech used in this chapter:
Weddin: little kid, little child