It had been months since the mountain, and the dragon hunt. Since Geralt told Jaskier to leave and, for once, the bard did.
Geralt was not going to admit he was lonely, because he wasn’t.
How could he be lonely? He had blessed silence all the time. Peace, at last. No bard chattering incessantly in his ear, or complaining about his feet aching and asking to slow down. No bard to drag him off course for some festival, or a competition, and certainly no getting invited to any courts, where Geralt’s life would get flipped on its end for the hundredth time since he’d met Jaskier in Posada.
Geralt didn’t even know if Jaskier was still performing anymore. He figured the bard must be, as Jaskier had to earn his own coin, always had, but usually Geralt would hear whispers of him in the towns he’d pass through. Phantoms of Jaskier’s presence. Some sign the bard had been there, his own path just a step or two away from the witcher’s.
That’s Geralt of Rivia, isn’t it? the people would wonder, voices hushed, thinking Geralt couldn’t hear them. The one Jaskier the bard sang of, from the ballads.
Perhaps Jaskier had stopped singing of his White Wolf, having been cast away by his muse. Geralt felt a deep pit in his stomach, not for the first time. It felt distressingly like guilt.
Roach snorted as she walked, head shaking.
“We’re all better off,” Geralt told her, encouraging Roach into more of a trot now that they had no one to walk for. “C’mon. Giddy up.”
Roach huffed, but complied, speeding their progress toward a small, worn-down hut in the woods.
Geralt eyed the structure warily as they approached, listening intently for anything out of the ordinary. The villagers of the nearby town were convinced the woman who lived here was a witch. Girls from the village went missing. Strange sounds were heard at night; ones that sounded like monster growls, not wolves. Travelers entered her hut and never exited.
Odd, to say the least.
Geralt dismounted Roach several yards off. His horse knew when to run if something went awry. For now, Roach seemed at ease, contenting herself with munching the clover by the little pond out front. Geralt left her to her snack, walking toward the hut.
His medallion began to hum against his chest, the presence and scent of magic heavy in the air.
He took a breath, hoping he could get the matter investigated without much grief. The woman was likely a mage or something. Maybe a healer with a few sparks of magic, acting the part of a haggard old witch to keep local idiots from bothering her.
At any rate, it would be nice to wrap the contract up with nothing more than a conversation about moving somewhere less prejudiced.
Geralt knocked on the door with his fist. Then, he waited.
The smell of ozone grew stronger, and then nearly flooded his senses as the door opened.
An old crone stood before him, back bent with age and leaning on a wooden staff. She peered up at him through a curtain of messy gray hair. An approving smile was on her lips as she caught sight of the wolf medallion on Geralt’s chest. “A witcher,” she observed. “School of the Wolf, is it? You look like you must be Geralt of Rivia.”
Geralt had long since stopped being surprised when people recognized him. Toss a Coin was played in damn near every pub these days, whether Jaskier was the one singing it or not. “Alderman sent me,” Geralt said by way of explanation.
“Did he now?” the old woman laughed, revealing several missing teeth. “Gotten scared of the old witch by the water again, has he?”
“This has happened before,” Geralt concluded, brows furrowing.
“Oh, many times,” she huffed, turning away from the door and walking inside, seemingly unconcerned if Geralt followed or not as she kept speaking. “Any time a girl goes missing before she’s meant to marry some abusive fuckwit or other. The groom’s families always like to blame me rather than take any responsibility for the girls running off.”
“There were other things the villagers mentioned,” Geralt elaborated, stepping inside. The hut was homely, with a pot of stew bubbling in the fireplace, and dried herbs of all kinds hanging along the walls. The air almost shimmered with a thick blanket of magic. He grimaced. “Some heard noises they believe to be from monsters.”
“There’s a fiend nearby,” the old woman acknowledged. “Old bugger. Keeps getting into my garden and making a nuisance of itself. Sometimes it gets past my wards and eats the village’s livestock.”
Geralt didn’t like the sound of that. “A fiend’s not some garden pest. Never thought to hire a witcher yourself?” he questioned.
The old woman laughed again, gesturing to her meager possessions. “I’ve no money for a witcher. I only trade in favors.”
Geralt was liking this conversation less and less as the woman went on. Favors, from a supposed witch, with an obvious glamor on her hut. “These favors ever lead to travellers going missing?” he asked.
“Not sure I like what you’re implying,” she smiled, a flash of knowing in her eyes as they locked with Geralt’s. “There are those who seek my talents. I give them what they want, and send them on their way.”
“And they’re never seen again,” Geralt added. “Townsfolk don’t like it, and there’s a fiend besides.”
“You could take care of the fiend, I’m sure. That’ll shut up some of their griping,” the old woman said cheerily. “My leaving is quite another story, but perhaps we could bargain; I have always wondered what sort of things a witcher could want, if you’re capable of wanting.”
Geralt scowled in answer.
The old woman studied his face for a time as her pale eyes gazed intently into Geralt’s. “Ah, although, you’re not the type to voice your true desires, are you?”
“I don’t want anything from you apart from answers,” Geralt said firmly, “and your word that you’ll leave the area—give the people peace of mind, so I can collect my payment and be on my way.”
“Kill the fiend in the forest first,” she told him, settling herself into a rocking chair and draping her threadbare shawl over her arms. “I’ll not make deals until you can prove you’re capable of that much.”
Geralt huffed a breath of air through his nose, frustrated at the woman’s total lack of concern. The townsfolk had clearly wanted a witcher to intimidate her, and he was getting absolutely nowhere. The whole contract was probably a waste of time.
“Go on,” she urged, waving him away as if he were an unruly child, rather than a witcher come to confront her. “Go slay the monster, White Wolf. You’ll get your pay from the alderman, if you do.”
Seeing that this was as good an answer as he was going to get, Geralt grit his teeth. She had a point. Killing the fiend would at least solve a problem, if not the problem the townsfolk had with the witch. “Where is the fiend?”
“The woods, out back,” she told him. “Came on the property yesterday and made a big ruckus. You’ll likely find the tracks ‘round my moleyarrow—blasted creature stomped all over them.”
Geralt exited the hut, stalking his way out to the garden in the back. Sure enough, the area was devastated, with ripped earth and claw marks strewn about the yard. If anything, he supposed he should be grateful this hunt would be quick. Then he could make sure the woman kept to her word, collect his pay, and maybe snag a room at the inn. Get some sleep in a real bed, tonight.
Squatting for a closer look at the prints leading to and from the garden, Geralt searched for the indications of a fiend. The woman might know her monsters, or she could be using the term as a catch-all. He’d have to verify, first. Make damn sure he knew what he would be fighting.
“Clawed toes,” he noted, spying the deeper grooves in the earth, ignoring the smaller, human footprints that must belong to the witch. “Beast’s a quadruped. At least four meters high.” When the marks made it too close to the house, they stopped abruptly, as though hitting a wall. Geralt grimaced, medallion still humming gently around his neck. There was a barrier here, probably to ward off the beast, but it seemed the witch had deigned to allow Geralt through.
With a grunt, Geralt followed the large tracks from the garden, bypassing a broken fence. A tuft of dark brown fur had been caught on a splintered post. He took the fur in hand, sniffing it. Then he grimaced, the earthy musk positively pungent to his enhanced senses. “Definitely a fiend,” he confirmed.
The fiend’s tracks continued, the beast having lumbered back toward the woods. Something had to have provoked the creature—fiends weren’t known to seek out humans. Though, if the woman was truly a witch, or a mage of some sort like Geralt figured, chances were high she’d pissed it off somehow.
And now, it was his turn to piss it off. Wonderful.
Geralt made his way back to Roach, tying her reins to a sturdy branch before rummaging through his packs for potions and sword oil. At least he knew well in advance what he was hunting, for once. Infinitely easier to make preparations, though it was usually all the more reason for Jaskier to insist he should come along on the hunt.
Geralt let out a short, irritated huff as he braced himself for the longtime argument, parting his lips to tell Jaskier to stay put.
Only to remember Jaskier wasn’t here.
Geralt’s jaw clenched shut again. Months apart, and he was still acting like the bard was with him. As if Geralt hadn’t sent Jaskier away himself.
As if there was no gnawing worry that Jaskier really did leave for good, this time.
Geralt shook his head, stashing two potions in a pouch at his waist, and then moving onto dousing a small cloth with relict oil. It should be plenty for a standard fiend. Overkill, even.
Jaskier would’ve argued with him for hours to come along.
“We’re all better off,” he muttered again. “Right, Roach?”
Roach huffed, turning her head to stare at Geralt.
“Don’t give me that look,” Geralt chided, doing a quick, but thorough job coating his silver sword. When he’d finished, he tossed the cloth back into his pack, then moved to pat the side of Roach’s head. “Be back soon.”
Roach shook her head, turning away from him. Actively ignoring him, now.
Geralt sighed quietly before heading back to the garden. Even his horse was mad at him. Best not to think about it. Best plan would be to focus and find the fiend. He could focus better, now, with Jaskier gone.
Or at least, it was what he reassured himself as he headed into the woods.
It didn’t take long to locate the fiend’s lair—a grassy clearing, sheltered by an overhang from the cliff up above. The beast itself wasn’t there, probably patrolling the rest of its territory, or hunting its next meal. Geralt could see remnants of the fiend’s previous victims, though all the skeletons appeared to be animals, not human. The remains of several wolves lay strewn about, bones picked clean.
Geralt walked beneath the overhang, out of the heat of the day. Autumn seemed to have not quite figured out that Winter was fast approaching. Soon enough he’d have to make his way back north, to Kaer Morhen. To his brothers, waiting to share stories of their own adventures on the Path.
Maybe he could skip mentioning the dragon hunt.
Geralt huffed another sharp sigh, impatient with how his mind still seemed to latch onto the events. Yennefer was gone, no thanks to Borch. He’d likely never see her again. And Jaskier…
...Fuck’s sake, he couldn’t stop his thoughts from circling right back to the bard again.
He was on a hunt. He needed to focus. Prepare his potions for easy access, keep his sword at the ready, listen for the fiend’s footsteps through the forest—
A deep, rumbling growl interrupted his thoughts.
Geralt turned toward the noise, silver sword at the ready. Through the gaps in the trees he spotted the fiend, a full grown, lumbering thing, with a pale skinned face and massive, branching antlers. Where it wasn’t covered by thick patches of brown fur, Geralt could see its body was covered in claw marks. Scars, from disputes over territory or desperate prey. The witch was right—the creature looked old. Old and battle-hardened.
Geralt quickly downed a dose of Thunderbolt, the potion instantly sending pulses of energy along his nerves. Quicker reaction time and heavier blows were going to be key if he wanted to end this battle swiftly. “C’mon, bastard,” he growled under his breath. “Let’s see what you’ve got.” As Geralt stepped into a ready stance, the fiend took notice of the witcher in its space, fixing him with all three of its eyes.
Immediately, it let out a roar.
The fiend charged into the clearing, swiping down at Geralt with an arm as thick as a tree trunk. Geralt’s sword clashed with its claws, but only briefly, the witcher’s enhanced strength hardly helping as the fiend bashed Geralt to the side.
He flew across the clearing, landing heavily. Geralt grunted, scrambling to sit up, finding his sword was thankfully still in hand. As he looked up, he spotted the fiend staring back at him, eye in the center of its forehead glowing a bright, eerie red.
“Shit,” Geralt muttered, recognizing in an instant that if he didn’t move fast, the thing was going to stun him with magic. He formed the sign for Igni, and flames erupted from his fingertips.
The fiend roared, though it quickly became clear it was more out of fury than pain from the flames. Even as fire licked across its fur, the fiend charged again, great horns lowered to impale the witcher.
Geralt leapt out of the way, rolling and reorienting himself to slash at the fiend’s hind leg. Silver met skin, the fiend howling as Geralt continued his assault with sharp, heavy strikes. The fiend was big, and bulky—too slow to dodge. But then it tensed, and Geralt’s gaze snapped up to meet the fiend’s.
Its third eye glowed brighter, encompassing Geralt’s vision until everything around him went dark.
“Shit,” he hissed again. The world narrowed to a pinprick—the only visible light Geralt could see was that same, discomfiting red of the fiend’s eye. It wavered in his vision, moving back and forth, entrancing. Geralt steeled himself, lowering his stance, relying on instinct to keep his sword up and on the defensive.
The eye marked where the fiend’s head was. He might not be completely fucked, if he could just figure out where its limbs were. He took a chance as something large moved in front of him, striking out with his sword, only to hit empty air.
Claws slashed across Geralt’s torso, tearing gashes in his armor.
Geralt fell backward, the back of his head slamming painfully against the ground as the fiend pinned him by his chest. He blinked against the darkness, unable to clear the illusion. Only able to see that damned red eye, watching him. It grew bigger, closer, as the fiend leaned down. He could feel and smell its hot, pungent breath on his face. Geralt’s slowed heart was pounding, adrenaline surging as the beast growled.
His sword arm still blessedly free, Geralt jabbed his blade upward, stabbing it into the meat of the fiend’s forearm.
The fiend howled in pain, arm flinching back but taking the embedded sword and Geralt with it.
Dangling in the air, still tightly gripping the hilt of his weapon, Geralt sought out the small blur of red. He lifted his arm, aiming a stronger blast of Igni at the fiend’s eye.
In an instant, both the glow and the darkness vanished from Geralt’s vision. The fiend swung its arm roughly, throwing the witcher off.
Geralt scrambled to get on his feet again as his eyes readjusted, his head throbbing. His chest burned from where the fiend had slashed him, but the wound didn’t feel too deep. Swallow would carry him for now. He nearly inhaled the healing potion, wondering if maybe he’d been too cocky, since his foe was hardly phased.
The fiend looked mildly singed, but otherwise no worse for wear as it pawed at the ground, Geralt’s sword still stuck in its arm. Flames danced about its feet, catching on the dry, dead grass.
“Fuck’s sake,” Geralt breathed, searching for some sort of weakspot. Fiends were strong, sure, but not like this. He hadn’t expected the blasted thing to be able to take multiple shots of Igni to its face and keep charging. The beast didn’t even seem to register that it had silver embedded in its arm.
The fiend charged again with a bellow, flinching only slightly as it barreled forward.
Geralt dove to the side, hearing a thunderous crack as the fiend snapped the trunk of a tree. Inwardly, Geralt found himself grateful he’d driven Jaskier away. Idiot always stood at the treeline for fights like this, and said treeline was getting quickly smashed or set ablaze. Geralt could hardly look out for himself at the moment, let alone the bard.
The briefest flicker of movement at the opposing treeline caught the edges of Geralt’s vision. A shadowed figure.
Someone at the edge of the burning trees.
Someone watching the fight.
A heavy feeling of dread washed over Geralt.
No. No, Jaskier wouldn’t have followed him. Not after that. It had been months, he couldn’t be here, not now, not when Geralt couldn’t protect—
Before he could think to call out, the fiend took another swipe at the witcher, this time grabbing hold of his leg. It yanked him forward, off his feet. From there it proceeded to heft Geralt into the air, slamming him back into the ground.
Geralt cried out in pain, his arm taking the brunt of the damage, bent at a bad angle and burning with agony. Then he was in the air again, crashing down a second later. This time he heard the snap. Knew his arm was broken. The grip on his leg loosened, and Geralt grit his teeth as he tried to push through the ache. Tried to focus. He needed to retrieve his sword. Distract the monster, somehow, keep it away from the trees. Yell at Jaskier to get the hell away from here.
The fiend lowered its head, almost curiously sniffing him, as if wondering whether the witcher were still alive.
Geralt lifted his good arm, aiming Aard right at its gaping maw.
The blast of magic rammed the fiend’s head backward, strong enough to break off several branches of the tree above. The fiend reoriented itself and then shook its head violently. It bellowed at the witcher in a fury.
Geralt rolled, narrowly avoiding getting grabbed again, and then scampered further away. He got his feet under him, broken arm hanging awkwardly at his side.
The fiend bellowed again, enraged he had the audacity to keep moving. Then, one of the blasted branches fell, directly on the beast’s head. The fiend staggered, head hung low, taken off guard.
Seizing his chance, Geralt darted forward, drawing his sword from the monster’s arm. He ignored the fiend’s shriek of pain, focused wholly on reorienting his blade. He thrust the silver forward, directly into one of the fiend’s eyes, and buried the blade to its hilt.
The fiend’s cry cut short. It spasmed, third eye in the middle of its head rolling. Then the beast was falling, collapsing heavily onto the ground.
Geralt panted, bracing himself in case the fiend was only subdued. He listened for its heartbeat and, on hearing none, allowed himself to step closer. As he did, he looked to the edge of the clearing, where a few trees were still crackling. Not enough for the flames to truly catch, but enough to have been pretty well singed.
There was no figure beyond the trees, waiting.
“Jaskier,” Geralt growled out, eyes narrowing, the back of his head aching. “I know you’re there. Come out.” The fiend was finally dead. If anything, Geralt expected Jaskier to come bounding out of the shelter of the unburnt trees, throwing out some awkward excuses as to why he’d followed Geralt all the way out here. After all, no one else was crazy enough to come after him.
The woods around him were quiet.
Geralt grimaced, hoping it meant Jaskier had the sense to run back to Roach. Maybe retrieve Geralt’s pack. Much as he hated the thought that Jaskier would insist on traveling together again, Geralt had to admit, inwardly, that it would be much simpler to set his broken arm with Jaskier’s help.
For now, Geralt retrieved and sheathed his sword. Beheading the fiend with one usable arm was difficult, but not impossible, especially not with Thunderbolt still pulsing through his body. His knife cut through easily enough, and soon Geralt was dragging the beast’s head by its antlers, making his way back to the witch’s hut.
“Jaskier,” he called out, in case the bard was still near enough to hear.
There was the snap of a branch underfoot, ahead of him. Then more silence.
Geralt grumbled to himself as he walked. Surely Jaskier knew he was injured, having watched the fight. It was a fight Jaskier would have loved, too—A dead fiend in a fiery forest, the flames blending into the streaks of dying sun in the sky. Poetic. Or, something. Good fodder for songs, even as Geralt dragged his injured body back to relative safety.
The bard would know Geralt was in no mood to play games. Definitely not in the mood to chase Jaskier all the way back to Roach, when the bard could be making himself useful, for once. Helping with the trophy from the fiend, for instance, or at least telling Geralt he was fetching another potion that wouldn’t tip Geralt into dangerous levels of toxicity.
Hell, he would take Jaskier’s chatter as a distraction, even, just to distance himself from the burning in his arm and the throbbing headache.
A bush rustled somewhere to his left.
“Jaskier,” Geralt called again, ignoring that the irritation in his voice was slipping closer to petulance.
Again, his call was met with silence.
The bard was planning something, Geralt figured. Some stupid, big, dramatic entrance. Or he was sulking, still mad at Geralt for the words the witcher had flung at Jaskier back on the mountain.
But, he couldn’t still be mad about that, could he? It had been months. He was here. Bastard had followed Geralt, yet again, just as he always did.
He must have been fine then. Dramatics. That’s all it was.
The next branch snapping underfoot was further away, veering off-course if the bard were trying to make it back to the hut. “You’re going the wrong way,” Geralt chastised loudly. When he still received no answer, Geralt rolled his eyes, readjusting his hold on the fiend’s antlers. “Don’t blame me if you get fucking lost, bard.”
Getting lost wasn’t much of a threat, Geralt knew, considering how close they were to the hut. Still, he kept an ear out for the sound of walking, the bard’s steps oddly too quiet to hear properly. Not quite as heavy or rambunctious as his usual tromping through the woods, no matter how many times Geralt tried to teach him how to navigate the wild without drawing attention to himself.
When Geralt made it out of the woods and caught sight of the witch’s back garden, he expected to see Jaskeir there, pouting and impatient.
Instead, he found himself staring down a doe.
The doe had come from exactly where Geralt had been listening to Jaskier—or, what he’d assumed must have been Jaskier. She was a graceful-looking creature, though wary of him, big eyes fixed on Geralt’s form as he stilled.
Geralt thought back to the figure in the trees. It had been a shadow. Moved too quick to tell exactly who, or what, it was.
Jaskier didn’t cry out when Geralt was slammed into the ground.
Jaskier didn’t come to his aid when the fiend was dead, to flit about and fuss over Geralt’s wounds.
Jaskier, who could never shut up, even if his life depended on it, didn’t respond to a single one of Geralt’s calls.
The witcher stared at the deer, lips parting in confusion, head muddled by pain.
Jaskier wasn’t here.
It was a doe he’d been yelling at. A doe he’d confused for a bard. A doe he’d listened for, thinking it was his—hoping—
Jaskier was probably nowhere near this hut. These woods. That fight.
Geralt heard a sharp crack, and the doe bolted, running away and out of sight. Confused and alarmed, Geralt looked around for the source of the noise, only for the fiend’s head to drop from his hold. The remains of where Geralt had been gripping its antlers were still in his palm, snapped to pieces under the force of his fingers.
The dead fiend’s intact eye was locked with Geralt’s, vacant.
Geralt wondered, for a brief moment, what the fuck he was doing.
Of course Jaskier wasn’t here. It was better he wasn’t here. Jaskier would be safer, not being on the Path. He wouldn’t be in the way. He wouldn’t need looking after. He wouldn’t look after Geralt—
Distract. He wouldn’t distract Geralt.
Yet, distracted was all Geralt felt, as he grabbed the fiend’s head again by its fur, actively ignoring the bitterness seeping into his bones at seeing the doe, and not Jaskier. He walked to the witch’s hut, firmly not thinking about how Jaskier could have been waiting here, to chastise and comfort in equal measure. He kicked the door with his foot in lieu of knocking, not thinking about how Jaskier would have insisted they bandage his arm by now, how Jaskier would have knocked for him, how Jaskier would—
The door opened on its own, and Geralt walked inside, still distracted even as he unceremoniously dropped the fiend’s bloody head on the witch’s floor.
“It’s about time. Don’t you look awful,” the witch smiled, fixing him with a look that reminded him too much of Yennefer—Too piercing, too knowing, like she was looking into his very core of his being. “I’ve thought things over while you were away—Quite kind of you to only insist I leave, instead of immediately lopping my head off like the alderman surely told you to. Such kindness should be rewarded.”
“Just leave,” Geralt growled. “Leave, and don’t come back here.”
“Yes, yes, I suppose I must,” the witch sighed, put-upon, but then she smiled at him again, expression bright and curious. “You’re quite the strange one, White Wolf. There’s a sense of heroics around you—”
Heroics, and heartbreak!
“—just like in the songs.”
Geralt grit his teeth at her smug expression, the same way Jaskier would look at him when the bard knew he was about to get Geralt to do exactly as he wished.
“I’m inclined to give you a freebie,” the witch noted pleasantly. “Is there something you want, witcher?”
Geralt wanted all these distractions to stop.
He wanted to have never fucking met Jaskier, or Yennefer. No dragon hunt, no djinn, no child surprise—None of it. He wanted to never have had them influence his life, and vice versa. At least then, he could stick to the Path, stick to his duty, as he was meant to do, instead of shouting at random deer in the woods, thinking they were obnoxious, distracting, bastard bards.
Geralt opened his mouth to deny her favor, when the witch cut him off with a wave of her hand.
Beneath his feet, a circle of blue light ignited on the floor. Geralt jerked, attempting to step back only to find himself bound to the floorboards.
“So, witchers do have wants, after all,” she noted, amused, the sharp and knowing look back in clever eyes. “A great many, in fact.”
Geralt’s stomach dropped as the magic whirred around him, as the realization hit him heavier than the fiend’s blows.
She hadn’t waited for his answer, merely plucked it straight from his mind.
“I think I know of a satisfactory solution to all your wants,” the witch smiled serenely, quite satisfied with herself. She raised her arms, magic swirling in arcs across her fingertips. “Enjoy your favor, Geralt of Rivia.”
“Wait—!” Geralt shouted, but the noise was drowned out by the portal ripping open beneath his feet.
Then, he fell.
Instead of the typical harrowing experience of moving through space, Geralt felt thrown. There was no mildly rough landing to be had this time.
No, instead, Geralt hit the other side like a battering ram.
There was a brief moment of clarity, where Geralt saw a slew of trees ahead of him, and had enough presence of mind to note that he didn’t feel his usual portal-induced nausea. He was standing, somehow, but he felt hollow. Weak. Even more disoriented than usual.
The moment he realized the ache of his body, he fell to his knees, throwing his arm out to catch himself.
His arm burned with the strain, collapsing instantly, and Geralt found he didn’t have the strength to cry out.
Geralt lay there, unable to move, unsure of where he was, the arm pinned beneath him in so much pain it was blinding.
Vision blurring at the edges, he wondered wildly what might have happened if Jaskier had been with him, at the witch’s hut.
Then, everything went dark.