How Reading an Original Witcher Story Made a Modern Quest All the More Meaningful
The outstanding "The Last Wish" gets even better when you explore its background.
From its briny beginnings on a frigid seafloor to its snow-capped climax atop a Skellige mountain crest, "The Last Wish" is among my favorite quests of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt: so good, I've played it twice. It's one of the game's most visually arresting moments and, depending on how you handle the conversational parts, a tugger of the heartstrings, too. And now that I've read the inspirational story that came long before it—the substantial opening chapter to its spectacular conclusion of a significant sub-plot within Wild Hunt, if you like—it's all the more special.
Once the watery preamble of the quest is over, Geralt—the player-controlled witcher of the title—faces off against a crackling, cackling djinn amid the wreckage of an ocean-faring vessel now, improbably and magnificently, perched hundreds of feet above sea level. His on-off romantic partner Yennefer, a powerful sorceress, awaits its weakening, ready to trap the magical being within a force field. Why you're here is down to friendship, duty, and no little magic: this is not the first genie the pair has crossed.
"The Last Wish", or "Ostatnie życzenie" in the original Polish, is my favorite short story of the book that bears the same title. It's a collection of side-quest-sized—but still richly detailed and cunningly compelling—tales of the Witcher and his aides and enemies, written by Andrzej Sapkowski in 1993. These books, of which there are several, represent the source material for CD Projekt's three Witcher role-playing games and the early 2000s Polish TV series (and movie), The Hexer.
The Last Wish is the second of two such short-story collections, albeit chronologically placed ahead of 1992's Sword of Destiny, and to date the only of Sapkowski's books that I've read. It was recommended after I'd wrapped up Blood and Wine, The Witcher 3's final expansion DLC, as a means to continue my adventures with Geralt and company. It does a fine job of elevating Dandelion to more than just an annoyance to be rescued, the pair's unbreakable friendship laid bare on the page multiple times; and the story that introduces Yennefer of "Vergerberg" (as it's written in the 2012 Gollancz edition), the last of its short stories, is a riot of violence, destruction and bedazzlement.
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It begins innocuously—and, much like the game quest that shares its name, by the water. Geralt and Dandelion are fishing for their breakfast. A gigantic catfish escapes them; instead, they pull up a vase-like container, an amphora, bearing unusual markings on its seal. It's home to a gigantic red djinn which, once released, rather than grant Dandelion even a single wish, proceeds to near strangle the life out of the poet.
Seal held tight in hand, Geralt manages to recite what he thinks is an exorcism, and the genie flees from their sight. The witcher picks up his gravely injured friend and takes him to the closest settlement, Rinde, a location not notably featured in any of the video games. There, in a town that heavily penalizes magic users, he is told that just one person, a sorceress with little respect for local laws, might be able to help him.
In The Witcher 3, once the djinn has been defeated and released, Geralt sits beside Yennefer and remarks: "That was a hard fight. Maybe not as hard as the last time we tamed a djinn…"
"No comparison…" Yennefer snaps back. "Half of Rinde suffered then."
In the book, hearing of Dandelion's situation, Yennefer provides her assistance seemingly without much in the way of personal gain—an unlikely turn of events in the eyes of those who know her reputation. An elf, Chireadan, tells the witcher: "Don't trust her, Geralt. She's dangerous."
Not as dangerous as the djinn. When it returns, summoned and only barely restrained by Yennefer using "twisted threads of blindingly bright light", constantly trying to break free like "a bumble-bee tied to a jug", proceeds to wreck any parts of the town within its reach. It threatens, too, to flatten the sorceress.
Geralt intervenes, quite against Yennefer's wishes, and the two fight and bicker as they tumble through escape portals. "You moron, you bloody idiot, I almost had him," she screams, only for him to respond: "You had shit-all. I saved your life, you stupid witch."
I'm leaving plenty out, for anyone who wants to read the tale, but it transpires that it was the seal-holding Geralt, not Dandelion, who earned the three wishes upon the djinn's release. His first "wish" was the exorcism, but it was far from what Geralt thought it was. In Rinde, he meets a priest, Krepp, who translates on his behalf: "get out of here and go fuck yourself." His second wish is for a jailer to physically burst (which he does).
His third saves both himself and Yennefer from the Rinde djinn, and sets up "The Last Wish" of the video game.
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It's mentioned more explicitly in The Witcher 3 than it is The Last Wish, but to prevent the rampaging spirit from killing Yennefer, Geralt wishes his fate to be tied with the sorceress' own—and a djinn cannot harm its master. Sapkoswki's words heavily imply that Geralt, typically an unemotional soul, is attracted to Yennefer even before magic comes into the equation, but when he makes his wish "about us being together always", she doesn't initially seem receptive to the idea.
"You've condemned yourself," she tells her savior, the monster-slayer who will now, forevermore, be by her side—or, at least, tied in some abstract way to it, across time and distance.
"How long has this been going on, Geralt?" Yennefer sighs in the video game. "This thing between us? Fifteen? Twenty years? We repeatedly split up, then return to one another. Something draws us to each other. But I can never be certain if it's a true feeling, or merely a bit of mischief by a djinn. I want to know, if when the djinn's magic is gone, we've any magic left of our own."
Trapped, the game's djinn is quick to undo the bond set between the pair by the book's magical menace, in exchange for its freedom. And then they sit there, on this ship atop a mountain, waiting for what comes next. There's been love in the past, sure, and passion and fire—but whether or not that continues is now up to the player.
The game's Geralt can either declare his feelings for Yennefer unchanged, crystalizing their relationship like never before, or claim that now he feels nothing. Yen, for her part, heartily agrees with the romance. If you do decide to rebuff your feelings for her, she'll be shocked. Either way, she insists on reporting the whole event to the emperor, a detail the player has no say about.
No matter what, the search for Ciri continues, but I think to dismiss Yennefer is to veer away from the intentions of these characters' creator.
If you played the game after reading the book, I think the way that the pair "gets together" unsubtly hints at a genuine connection: he cannot take his eyes off her, even though he knows she's not all that she appears to be. And reading it afterwards, I'm glad that I stuck with Yen atop that mountain, on both playthroughs—to not have done so would be to throw away something so very pure in a fantasy world steeped in blood and poison.
The seeds sown in 1993's "The Last Wish" took a long time to bud, but how they blossom in 2015's game. If you, too, were smitten by this quest, I recommend seeking out the story: it adds context, no little additional narrative weight, and stirs within me, at least, the desire to read more of Sapkoswki's fiction, to hopefully discover further meaningful connections to my favorite role-player of all time.