This is the first hunt Geralt allows Jaskier to witness.
The sylvan of their first meeting does not count. At that time, he had written off the bouncy bard as a one-chance encounter. A young man looking for thrills and adventure where he shouldn’t. Once he's had his fill, they'll part ways in opposite directions. In a month’s time, Geralt would have forgotten the chatty bard from Posada.
But that was not what happened.
The elves at the edge of the world changed everything. It wasn’t a hunt anymore, but a bargain and an escape. Geralt gave up all his coin to the elven refugees and Jaskier, his instrument—though in much dire, unfriendly circumstance. Filavandrel, leader of the elves, compensated him with his own elven lute.
(Makes for an awkward story at parties, especially since Jaskier so very damningly wrote a whole song about how the elves were all slain by the witcher's hand. He has to lie about the lute’s origins so often, there’s about twelve different versions preserved in local folktale. Be that as it may—)
Since Posada, Jaskier has followed him to three separate monster contracts. For all of them, Geralt bid him to remain at the nearest town inn, for his own safety. At the fourth contract, Jaskier puts his foot down before Geralt even steps down from his mare.
“Surely I cannot be expected to write ballads about something I haven’t even seen. It is disingenuous to the public!”
“You wrote about me slaying a ‘devil’ and that didn’t happen either.”
“That was different, I took creative license for your sake. And I was there!”
Geralt did not cave in to his pleas for coming along—truly, actually along, right into the deep woods—to slay ghouls. He did not. He simply agreed that it was an easier kind of beast to kill compared to the last few on the road, so he might as well let the bard watch once.
The story behind the contract is certainly tragic enough for Jaskier to have hastily scribbled down, with broken quill and low-running ink, as Geralt stood in audience. A graveyard full of loved ones, turned to sorrow and despair by ghouls, the risen dead, obliged to feed on more dead flesh. The townspeople are tired of stray monsters wearing the rotting faces of dead family members. They sometimes wander near the borders of their village, uttering miserable whines.
It was a supplication to end their suffering, and it would allow the bard to paint such a merciful picture of the witcher in his next song. They didn’t even have that much coin to offer and Geralt took the payment anyway, splitting it in two halves between himself and his travelling companion.
It is just that Jaskier would also like to properly convey how gruesome ghouls could be, and to match it with the pity every human should feel for them instead of fear and cold apathy. Allegory comes to him in the heat of the moment. He explains as much to Geralt, to his visible confusion.
They go at night, which seems to make Jaskier vibrate with excitement. Excitement and not a healthy dose of terror.
“Oh, there’s a sharp crescent moon tonight, what a sight! Now how will that fit along the lines of the third verse I’ve last started? ‘What light shone down our trail, a crescent-shaped moon...nail? Not my best I admit—”
Jaskier does not do quiet, though he lowers his voice to a murmur so low only Geralt can pick it up among the forest sounds. It was more of that lyrical dispute, nothing of consequence. Geralt pays it no mind and trudges on.
Once they are close to the graveyard, Geralt stops to oil his silver sword and down two potions, a Swallow for healing and a Cat for even clearer sight. All things to keep him from a surprise assault. Ghouls are rarely predictable.
Already he feels the effect of them, his body adjusting to the familiar craft. Though witchers can resist their side effects, they still prove to be toxic to an extent. That is why they must be careful, even with their own potions. He will not down another one on this night and risk poisoning himself.
Jaskier gives him a wide berth as he unsheathes his sword, though not from newfound trepidation. He bears a strange expression, eyes focused on Geralt’s own. Geralt knows why—black veins would begin to rise to the surface of his skin, and his sclera will soon be blackened whole. It is not a comforting sight. He does not blame the bard for whatever he might make of him here.
Part of him wanted to keep Jaskier from the hunts to protect him from the monsters. But a quieter part beats inside his ribs, at being seen this way. Jaskier had never stepped back from him on the grounds that he has nothing to fear from the witcher, foolish an attitude as that may be. Perhaps tonight that would change. Jaskier will see him for what he truly is—an amalgamation of scarred tissue and mutations, a put-together doll made of steely flesh.
His senses sharpen at once and the smell of old blood catches his attention. A deep breath reveals its source over the underbrush.
“Stay back,” is all he offers Jaskier before he turns to prowl the forest floor. The ghouls are wandering again, woken by an unquenchable desire for rotting meat. Some of them will be satisfied digging up fresh graves. Some will turn on each other in desperation. A select few curate a taste for living blood.
Those will strike first.
Geralt moves slowly, silently across the clearing that leads to the graveyard grounds. Jaskier follows behind at a distance. The only sound that betrays him is the soft rustling of leaves being crushed. If Geralt concentrates, he can pick up the rabbit-fast beating of his heart, but that takes focus away from the hunt. What matters is finding his prey.
The scent of death grows strong the further he walks and he trails it like a bloodhound. Old claw marks disturb the dirt path. At the gate, two ghouls stand, faces to the mud. They’re snuffling like pigs. It is difficult to conceive them as human husks, twisted as they are into clumsy, deformed beasts.
Geralt wastes no time approaching them at breakneck speed faster than they could scream. His sword swings true. Twin heads fly over the stone fence.
One of the ghouls inside hears the thud of flesh and howls for the others. From there, the night turns into a frenzy.
There are more than a dozen crawling in the misty night. Geralt is not given a second of reprieve. One false move and he’ll lose a hand to their snarling maws. It’s difficult to dodge them all so he blasts the few rabid wild ones back with a quick sign when he can.
He takes the beasts by twos, circling the fastest fighters with a snarl of his own when they snap at his heels. A few cower when he stomps his foot down. Most take it for a challenge, and Geralt gladly cleaves those in half.
In a hunt there are times when his memory falters, one second caught in a whirlwind of movement, the next, his sword deep in the belly of a squealing beast. It comes later in bits and pieces. Viscera spilled on the ground. A lifesaving cast of magic. Pain and injuries. Witchers learn to fall into instinct after a certain threshold. It’s easier on the body, to move thoughtlessly into place and cut down his monsters. His sword becomes an extension of himself, catching teeth and claws before they can land on him to tear open fresh wounds. In that same stroke, silver slices through sinew and bone.
Blood pounds in his ears at the last ghoul left, a furious sentinel of its slain brethren. It does not dare give the witcher the satisfaction of one last attack so he closes the distance himself with long strides and a stab through its heart.
With the last one killed, Geralt finally stops and heaves air back into his lungs. He stands stiff, legs still spread apart in a guarded stance, ready for one more lunging beast to come out of the shadows. The thick mix of potions in his blood thrums hot and uncomfortable. A fine tremor of withheld power starts in his arms. The ghouls are all dead, he thinks loudly, forcefully. They are dead and he can relax his tensed muscles, slow his beating heart. It will take him some time to settle down with so much alchemy coursing through his systems.
But then Jaskier comes out into the clearing and something in Geralt, still battle-ready, growls at the disturbance. Jaskier stops mid-step. Hesitant, maybe, to meet the witcher after that show. Geralt understands. He does. The sudden tightness growing in his chest is not alleviated by the truth that he put that wary expression in the bard's face.
Slowly, bafflingly, Jaskier takes another step. Then another, carefully over gore and upturned earth. He trains his eyes right on Geralt’s face and Geralt stares back. Everything else is filtered into the background, easily ignored by the night fog and the dark, starry night with its huge, menacing moon.
Geralt thinks this all ought to be a terrifying sight for any ordinary human, or at least a sane human. A witcher beast surrounded by his dead prey, sword greased with equal magic and blood. If it is in any way unsettling to Jaskier, he doesn’t let it show.
That bloodied sword lowers to scrape the ground with its tip. Yet unsheathed to meet danger, he keeps it in a cinched grip so tight his fingers ache from the pressure. The ghouls had been unpredictable, but they telegraph their intentions so loudly any witcher could weave around them with practice. Jaskier he cannot read at all beside the quick thumping hammering away inside his ribs and it is an alarming thought, that he does not know what Jaskier is thinking. If he regrets following the witcher to hunt. If he’s realizing just how fucked Geralt is, a half-man, half-beast, shaking with the urge to keep hacking.
But of all things, the last thing he expected was for Jaskier to cradle his face in a delicate grasp.
“Are you hurt?”
His mind fizzles to a stop, quiet save for the deafening sound of his pulse rushing through his veins. Geralt drones in the negative. There is barely a scratch on him, which isn’t something he can often say after a successful hunt.
“Good,” Jaskier smiles and pats one knuckle against his cheek. Just a soft tap on purple-veined skin. “Forgive my worrying then, it’s just that you look a little—sick, I suppose.”
Forgive my worrying. Geralt’s stiffened features soften, difficult as it is when he is this high-strung. He can’t help how it looks, bottomless-eyed, pointed teeth clamped together as if caught in pain. But instead of being scared of him, Jaskier is scared for him, and Geralt doesn’t know what to do with that other than it loosens the knob lobbed inside his throat and makes coming down easier.
He feels it necessary to explain, “It’s the witcher potions,” voice low like gravel down a mountain. Jaskier nods, his thumbs rubbing feather-light under his chin.
“How unpleasant. You musn't stress yourself.” Despite the gore doubtlessly ruining his shiny shoes and the cuffs of his sleeves, Jaskier’s voice lilts jovial. Like there’s still a song breaking out his lungs. It sounds so much like he usually does, at any other moment of the day. It tugs at the edges of Geralt’s lips.
They don’t linger in the graveyard for more than necessary, Jaskier standing by for Geralt to pick up what intact heads remain to show to the townspeople waiting on his word. His paper-white skin returns to a livelier pinkish shade which, for some reason, makes Jaskier very excited. He starts tittering on the way back, hands waving like he’s imagining a few strings of written text before him. Geralt doesn’t say a thing as his bard, stricken with inspiration, works on breathing new life into his unfinished stanzas. They certainly sound better than the previous ones. More...real.
For a second, Jaskier halts as if caught in a self-conscious daze. Whatever look Geralt wears must be reassuring in some way, because a second later Jaskier rewards him with a bright smile.
It is the first hunt Geralt allows Jaskier to witness. Likewise, it is the first time Jaskier surprises Geralt with a gentleness he has never known.