The cockatrice rears up, flapping its enormous wings and lunging straight for him, talons poised for attack. At full height, it’s almost three times his size—an intimidating sight, but not an unfamiliar one. Killian dodges at the last second, rolling beneath the dirt-encrusted claws and narrowly avoiding the beak that follows to impale him. If he hadn’t thrown out his palm to cast Quen in time, he’d have been thrown across the sewer, probably landing in one of the many questionable pools littering the place. The beast rights itself, elongating its sinuous throat to prepare for its next attack but Killian is faster, springing to action in its short reprieve. His blade strikes true, the sharpened silver slicing from neck to navel through leathery flesh. A choked shriek pierces the cavernous echo around them but it does nothing to hinder his attack. Killian twists his weapon deeper, severing the thick sinew in its throat with a precision only gained from decades of practice.
The draconid oil he’d prepared had done well to weaken the monster, each touch of his sword against tough hide was met with a harrowing screech, each one emanating from its maw with a sickening gurgle as Killian’s coated sword seared its innards. Good. At least the ergot seeds used in its creation hadn’t gone to waste. The common weeds don’t grow this far east of Misthaven.
One final twist is all it takes, tearing out the creature’s windpipe in all its bloody glory, falling to the filth below, darkening the murk beneath its claws. It shudders, struggling for breath, but continues to advance. The guttural gurgle of its demise falling hollow in the dank expanse. Power simmers in Killian’s fingertips as he throws out his palm to cast Aard, shunting the beast backwards and knocking it off balance.
With a heavy thud, the cockatrice falls—
Right into a puddle of shit.
“Oh, that’s bloody lovely.” He grits out, wiping the sludge from where it splattered on his trousers. He’d been planning to start the ride back west, to the familiar place he was reluctant to call anything but that. He’d been planning to take rest between contracts, among the hamlets of Velen, stopping only to deliver the head of the beast and collect his bounty before taking to the path at full speed.
Now he’d have to fork out for an inn.
And a stable.
And a drink.
Bloody lovely, indeed.
Slipping the dagger from his boot to take his trophy—evidence of a job well done—Killian kneels next to the beast’s shredded neck and begins to cut. It takes a couple of minutes, the toughened hide of the beast proving more difficult than expected, but Killian manages to decapitate the thing without too much protest. Despite being smothered in excrement, both human and ornithosaur in origin, Killian wraps up the head in a linen sheet he’d acquired from the last inn he’d visited, slinging the thing over his shoulder to attach to Smee’s saddlebag for the ride into town. It’s hefty, already seeping dark ichor through the fabric, but it’s nothing he can’t handle. Nothing he hasn’t handled a thousand times before.
Shit-stained or not, there’s little people love more than dead monsters.
In his periphery, there’s a shimmer of something long and thin and sharp beneath the ooze of the dead heap.
Feathers. Golden Feathers.
They’d sell for a fair price at any market but, with a wry smile, someone else comes to Killian’s mind. He plucks the protruding tail feathers with a delicate hand and slides them in his scabbard for later. Robin will be pleased.
Smee lingers by the sewer’s decaying entrance, chomping on the greenery of a shallow blackberry thicket without care. Seeing him brings ease to Killian’s bones. The walk to Camelot would be a lot more arduous without him. The dimming sunlight brings out the russet in his hide and he snorts as if to acknowledge the presence of his master. Smee has seen him through so much, his steed for over a decade now, and even as a colt he had stayed true to his commands. He rears his head, giving a soft huff in greeting as Killian reaches out to rub his muscular neck.
“Hello to you too, lad.” He soothes, securing the trophy with thick leather straps to Smee’s saddlebags. It thuds against his hind leg as he shifts to accommodate for the extra weight but Killian talks him through it. “You can rest tonight. We deserve it.”
Smee, ever the conversationalist, responds with a snort. Something Killian would translate as about damn time.
The hunt for the cockatrice had taken longer than he'd anticipated, the cursed beast leading them astray for days before finally returning to roost in the sewers of all places. The sorcerer in these parts—Merlin, he’d said his name was—had informed him it would. They’d sent hunters, knights, even mages to deal with their pest, but none had returned; either fleeing from the beast or succumbing to it.
With the head of the monster firmly attached, Killian steps up into the stirrup and mounts his steed, heels tapping against his belly to spur him forward, back towards the city. With a reluctant snort and a slow start, Smee carries both the Witcher and his cargo to their destination.
It’s long past nightfall by the time they reach the oaken gates and marble paved roads leading to Camelot. It’s a damn sight better than the gravel paths back in Misthaven. The approach to the city is announced with sconces attached to grand flags bearing the sigil of the king, inlaid with gold detailing. A gaudy display of wealth if ever there was one.
Up ahead, before the city entrance, Killian can just about make out the silhouette of a man in robes of purple and gold. Power radiates off him and it trembles in the wolf head pendant resting atop Killian’s chest, even from over 100 yards away. Smee trots closer, almost lazy in his approach. He doesn’t halt until they’re stood before the man who greets them warmly, with a kind face and a gentle smile. Merlin, the sorcerer.
Killian doesn’t trust it.
“I see you’ve dealt with the beast, my friend.” Merlin starts.
“I see you don’t intend to let me in.”
The sorcerer nods at the assumption, as if reluctant to do so and holds out the pouch of coin. Killian lets it thud into his palm. It weighs about right so he doesn’t bother to question it before tucking the payment into Smee’s saddlebag. It’s more than any common contract would afford him.
“The King has requested—”
“The King can go fuck himself.” With a flick of his knife, Killian cuts free his cargo, letting the head of the beast slip to the floor. It cracks on impact, spilling the crimson gore inside, smelling only of death and decay. Iron and rot. Merlin doesn’t recoil, instead choosing to step around and inspect the shattered mass. Mages like him, in positions of power beside volatile Kings, tend to be more accustomed to such displays.
If the stories of King Arthur’s conquests are true, it’s no surprise.
“With your reputation, Witcher,” He starts, prodding the bloodied heap with his foot. It lols to the side, mottled beak clacking against the path. “Do you really think Arthur would take such a risk?”
Killian could not give less of a shit about the opinion of Kings. Especially not ones of lands that dictated their monarchy based on whoever could yank a sword from the sodden shit coated earth. If that were the universal basis for royalty, he’d be King three times over. Merlin waves his hand over the mess of brains and bone, vanishing the mound into nothing and leaving only pristine stone behind. Smee stiffens, sensing the otherness of the man so close to his rear.
With unnatural grace, Merlin steps back to his place between them and the gate, unwavering in his resolution.
“Rumours of the Golden Bride have spread further than you think.”
Of course. Ravens travel faster than horses these days. What happened back in Kovir—
People tend to trust Kings over Mutants, no matter the truth. Killian grunts, the only sign of the tension in his bones in the way he grips the worn leather reins, knuckles taught and surely white beneath his gloves.
“Next time,” He grunts, not flinching at the mention of his past. “Pay upfront. Spare me the journey back.”
Merlin opens his mouth to respond but it’s too late. With probably more force than necessary, Killian kicks Smee into action, turning him to ride away from the white brick barrier that separates him from a good night's sleep before the sorcerer can protest. His work here is done. His contract ended. If they won’t let him into the city, he has no reason to stay. Bath and a bed be damned.
There’s nothing for him here.
They ride onwards.
Killian slows his steed to a gentle trot as soon as they cross the border into Temeria, a silent apology in the calm stroke of his palm behind Smee’s ears.
Moonlight bathes the vast fields of wheat in an ethereal glow. Nekkers peer through the tall sheaves to watch him pass, following him as far as they dare. His medallion thrums with their proximity, the pendant rattling against his mail. If it were any other day, he’d have torn through the harvest, taking down the bastards with broad swoops of his blade. Not today, though. The cockatrice had drained more from him than he initially thought. There’d been no time to brew potions to remedy his weariness, and his supply of dwarven spirit was alarmingly low. The next apothecary along the path would take a beating from his coin purse, that much is certain.
Midnight comes and goes before the path widens into the well trodden roads of more populated areas and more hours pass before they even stumble across an inn shrouded in forest. It’s decrepit and musky, but an inn all the same. It’ll have to do. Killian can tell by the bray of his travelling companion that he won’t last until the next one. There’s water and hay in the mossy overhang out front, its ancient wood almost rotted through but still secure enough to attach Smee’s reins to the post. An old silver mare secured closest to the inn takes one sniff at Killian and sneezes.
Smee nudges him in response. That bad.
The inside of the inn is as ancient and forgotten as the exterior; thick stone walls, cobwebbed beams, a bar made of mottled oak with ring stains of old ale covering its surface. Upon Killian’s entry, the landlord nods, his pallid skin as thin as paper. The sickness he holds will kill him, it lingers in the shadows beneath his eyes and the pale flesh of his gums as he smiles, with too much joviality.
“Room for the night, is it?”
He will not see the summer.
Killian drops fifteen crowns on the bar, watching the old man’s eyes widen at their shine. “Along with a bath and a bottle of your strongest.”
“Right away, my friend!” He shuffles along, reaching for a slender greying glass bottle that he places on the bar top, before disappearing altogether. The other bar patrons stay quiet, lulled to the edge of listless sleep by the fire crackling in the hearth and the ale in their bellies—gwent games unfinished, tankards half full. Not wanting to follow their lead in sleeping on the hard benches, Killian waits at the bar. He takes a swig, letting the liquid coat his throat in its familiar fire. There are better ways to cope. There are better ways to fend off the dark that threatens to swallow him whole but nothing works quite as well as the burn alcohol leaves behind. Well, usually that’s the case.
Minutes pass and his thoughts, however reluctantly, stray back to Merlin’s earlier words.
The Golden Bride.
Killian had killed her. Killed her, raped her, tortured her, ate her liver, stole the unborn child from her stomach as a payment to the eternally damned gods of old, used her blood for his mutations—the stories change depending on where you are. Nilfgaardians prefer the gory stuff whereas, up in Kovir, they favour the lighter tales. She was their Queen, after all.
The one he couldn’t save.
Each burning gulp helps less and less.
When the dying barkeep waves him over, brandishing a rusted key and an armful of tattered blankets, the burn has gone and only Killian’s thoughts remain.
No matter the truth, he carries the weight of her corpse like a shadow.
The room is barely bigger than a broom closet and the old man has the courtesy to look ashamed of his meagre offerings. It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, a bed is a bed. Along the way, Killian has learnt not to make attachments to the materialistic.
In the centre of the narrow room, manoeuvred between the end of the dusty four-poster bed and the fireplace, stands a solid wooden bath. The water, lukewarm to the touch and stagnant, comes to life with a flick of his palm and a whisper of “Igni”. Killian doesn’t even bother to be neat, letting his weapons, armour, potions, and coin fall to what little floor space there is available before letting himself sink naked into the warmth. The agitated boil helps to shift the stubborn muck customary of weeks on the path.
How long had it been since his last? A few days, maybe? A week? He’d taken a brief dip in the river just outside Camelot before embarking on his quest— had it really been that long? No wonder the mare had turned her nose up. No wonder Merlin had regarded him with such polite distance.
He’d been wandering around smelling like a Necrophage’s anal gland and no one had bothered to tell him. Not that anyone could tell him. That’s the thing with always being on the path—the only things to talk to are your horse or your hunt.
Monsters aren’t always the best conversationalists.
The waters lap away the aches set deep in his bones, settling each worn muscle with its tender embrace. It’s a luxury he can nary afford, but it’s worth it when he can. When he exits, smelling of old soap and lavender, there is only black silt left behind. A dark mirror on the liquid’s surface. He won’t be able to use it again. He takes his underclothes to the small basin by the bedside to soak instead, too tired to even consider spending any more time away from the clutches of sleep.
For the first time in a long time, he’s asleep before his head hits the pillow. The exhaustion of the weeks passed weighing his bones like lead, as if they’d sink straight through the mattress and into the nether below. He wishes they would.
He jerks awake—no, not awake. Further into the embrace of a dream. Oppressive darkness and silence surround him, his keenest senses rendered useless in their wake. Beneath him, a plush leather armchair. It’s painfully familiar. Precious, somewhat. Worn and comfortable and moulded to him as if he’d spent a century sat only here. This dreamscape. This void.
A woman’s voice— her voice.
“And I thought you’d forgotten about me.” She smiles, suddenly appearing in his lap, hips straddling his thighs as if it hadn’t been almost five years since they’d last parted. Five long, arduous years.
“Impossible, love. You’re not so easy to forget.” Killian can feel the steady beat of her heart as his hands take her waist. Soft, so soft.
And centuries old.
“You never thought to stop by on your travels then?”
“The path is—”
“Don’t lecture me. I know,” Pouting, she brings her arms around Killian’s neck. The thin swath of lace she’s wearing does nothing to hide her figure but its intricacies marr the details he wants very much to focus on; the blush of her breasts, the swell of her arse, what lies between those slender legs. Each time he tries to take her in, see past the veil of fabric, it shifts, obscuring his gaze once more. Fucking magic. “But I have missed you terribly.”
“Emma Swan, legendary sorceress and advisor to the throne of Misthaven, missing but a lowly Witcher?” The pale expanse of her neck calls for his kiss, so close and yet so far. “People will talk.”
With a violet flash, Emma winks. “Noise complaints, hopefully.”
His eyes slip shut, trying to maintain what little composure he has left. As disconcerting as dream magic is, he doesn’t want the spell to end. The feel of her so close is maddening. Waking to an empty bed will be torture.
Words he can’t possibly say nor mean jump to his throat, aching to be whispered against her mouth, passed to her tongue by his own as they had longed to so many times in the past. They burn.
“Come see me.”
“I need you. I can’t tell you why—not here—but I need you.” There’s a silent plea hidden in her words, behind the typical bravado she always favours. He almost doesn’t catch it. She adjusts herself slightly, sitting back on his knees and letting her hands reverently trace the scars across his shoulders and chest. Ones she’s seen before and ones she hasn’t, long healed but still raw to her touch. It’s been too long. Her tongue darts out to wet her lips and it takes every modicum of restraint he has not to kiss her there and then. “Come to King David’s court in Misthaven. There’s a tourney one week from now.”
“I’m sensing I don’t have a choice.”
“Of course you have a choice. It’s in your best interests to make the right one.”
Killian sighs, letting his palms slide from her middle to her thighs, taking in the phantom warmth he’s missed so greatly. Emma Swan is an enigma. She’s centuries of power wrapped in mystery and untold sorrows and it lingers beneath her skin. She’s the first kiss of morning sun, the dark chill of winter, the wild lilacs that grow along the dirt roads of Misthaven. She’s true love’s first kiss and the denial of destiny. She’s nothing and everything, the beginning and the end.
And, occasionally, his.
“One week?” He muses, hyper focused on the way her nails feel against his skin, as if she were there, as if it were real. Her eyes, green as woodland moss, captivate him in the way they always used to, but they’re not the same. A mere mimicry. Beneath his fingers, the dream begins to fall away.
There’s no depth, just a glimmer of magic below the surface.
Everything’s hollow and when he finally presses his lips to her fading visage, all he tastes is ash, dirt and the absence of all things.
It echoes around the cramped room, a whisper in the darkness not yet reached by morning’s soft first touches. A reminder.
Killian almost missed it. Misthaven. It’s rolling hills and wildflower meadows, deep green forests free of ill fated fiends. Well, mostly free—wraiths and rotfiends are everywhere these days, especially after the war. If they weren’t, he’d be out of a job.
In the five days on the path, across the forgotten poppy-filled battlefields and open plains of Temeria, Killian didn’t encounter much trouble. The first two days were monotonous, non-stop riding through the day and night, brief pauses for food, water and rest.
The day after that saw a kikimora rear its ugly maw as Smee cantered past its roadside hovel, swiping out with its blade-like limbs in an attempt to take out the horse’s legs — it took three swipes of his blade to take it down, the starving queen letting out a defeated whine as glinting silver pierced through her armour and into her brain. Killian left a bomb in his wake, making sure none of her spawn would see the light of day.
Day four drove him closer to the ruins of Vizima, it’s grand stone walls now bleak and crumbled. Killian had been around when it fell, only a few years beneath his belt on the path as the Nilfgaardians withdrew their tyranny. They razed the city, with fire and blood, so that the North would remember what the clutches of Emperor Emhyr var Emreis. The self-proclaimed white flame dancing on the graves of his enemies sputtered and faded just like everyone else on this mortal coil. The flames had kept him warm one night, decades ago, as the fallen city smouldered.
Misthaven greets the horizon on day five. It’s unperturbed woodland gracing his path with an archway formed of two entwined enchanted oaks, their magic forms the base of the wards that surround the city and the sheer power of it is a familiar thrum of energy that has his medallion singing as Smee trots over the border. In the thick bramble bushes beside the sheltered road, fairies shield themselves from view, their sugar plum scent hangs on the air as heavy as horse shit. There’s something he hasn’t missed. After half a mile or so, the rattle of his medallion becomes barely noticeable, a gentle simmer rather than a raucous boil.
Instead of taking the northern road at Lake Nostos towards the bustling city and the castle of King David, they turn to the east, along a too familiar, although far less trodden, path.
Smee huffs at his choices, resisting the tug of his reins.
Killian rolls his eyes. “Don’t you start.”
The Rabbit Hole is, in Killian’s eyes, better than most. Being just outside the city, tucked up against the eastern entrance’s vine smothered portcullis, not many people stumble through its doors by accident. However, with its vast stone hearth, sturdy oak beams and a half decent cellar, the place could weather the harshest Skellige storm with nary but a draught. Ale, food, music and good company. It’s… nice, for lack of a better word.
And, despite the nature of his work, it’s somewhere Killian keeps coming back to. Regardless of the years between his visits.
Smee, ever the dramatic, saunters over to the water-filled trough cemented to the tavern's stable, eagerly eyeing up the hay-filled feedbag beside it. At least, he’ll get a chance to rest as Killian gets his own fill. Haphazardly, he knots Smee’s reins to the hitching post, leaving just enough slack for him to be able to reach his amenities and socialise with the unsaddled gelding tied up on the other side of the post.
Killian pulls his coin purse from his steed’s saddlebags, knowing full well he’ll spend it one way or another. The door swings open before he can even tap the shit off his boots.
“You took your time, Captain.” Will Scarlet, with his signature troublesome smirk, is upon him in an instant, arms thrown around Killian’s shoulders, squeezing tightly as his skinny arms allow. He’d never been one for heavy lifting, more interested in wielding a lyre than a sword, and it shows in the way he greets his old friend as if it hasn’t been almost five years since Killian left him in Toussaint in the bed of a baroness whose husband had not been best pleased to find him there. The stench of Mahakaman mead on the bard’s breath permeates the air. The half-decade has barely touched him.
It hasn’t touched Killian either but, then again, mutations will do that to a man.
“Is that what they’re calling me now?”
Will peels himself away, stumbling back into the oak door frame that knocks the air right out of him with an oof. His brow furrows ever so slightly and someone from the other side of the dimly lit pub chortles at his discomfort. Will throws an obscene gesture his way before coming to Killian’s side instead.
“Just roll with it mate, you wouldn’t like the alternative.”
Killian shrugs. Murderer, Mutant, Devil— “I have been called worse.”
The bard nods in agreement, letting Killian step over the threshold and into the dark innards of the inn. They both have. Back when they travelled together, there was nary a day that insults weren’t hurled their way. Killian never had the chance to apologise back then, and it doesn’t seem right to bring it up now.
Will looks… happy.
“Anyway,” He starts, falling back on his chipper tone and catching Killian off guard as he hops over the bar top with ease, grabbing a tankard on his way. “To what do I owe the pleasure?
“I’m not too sure of that myself.”
Will places the tankard before him, full of a sweet smelling dark ale. “No contract?”
Killian knocks back the mug in one, letting the slightly soured brew flavour his tongue. It’s better than the pig swill he’s settled for along the Path. Then again, Will always was one with good taste; always the finest inns, the grandest company, lining his pockets with the gold of diplomats and dukes alike. Despite all that, The Rabbit Hole suits him, dust and dirt be damned. He hum’s, considering how to answer, before settling for the simplest one. “No.”
“No valiant quest?”
“Ah,” Eyeing him knowingly while taking a sip from his own cup with a smug smile, Will hums. They’ve known each other long enough now for him to be able to read between the lines. “A summons then.”
“Can’t I just stop by and visit an old friend?”
“Theoretically, yes. But that’s not in your nature is it, mate.” There’s a pause. Someone laughs from the other side of the room, lit only by a handful of candles to fend off the dark even in the daylight. Will doesn’t even blink, drumming out a rhythm on the countertop, wearing an ever present smile. “Especially knowing that there’s a certain sorceress within the city walls.”
Killian had no idea what he was here for, not really. One dream and he’d come running like a well trained dog, a pet. He can’t even feel shame about it. Emma could’ve asked him to pick daisies in the grand gardens of King David and he’d have come running, a prisoner to his emotions. His mutations should have rid him of them decades ago and yet—
He lets himself be seen, letting his posture slip to a slouch. The ride was harder on him than he’d anticipated and his limbs call for sleep, the ache of it weighing him down. Will is, above all else, his oldest friend. If he can trust anyone, it's him.
“What’s going on, Killian?”
Lilac and gooseberries, touched with cinnamon and the undeniable scar of power. It singes the air with its grace and sets Killian’s medallion ablaze with activity before he can even register the draught behind him hadn’t come from the door. Will looks up, eyes rapidly widening in a mix of familiarity and surprise, but Killian doesn’t have to. He knows. She must have sensed him when he passed the kingdom's wards, followed the sing of his own power to find him, greet him.
Killian turns and lets a smirk tug at his lips as silence hangs like a criminal, the whole inn rendered mute by her entrance. In awe. In fear.
Time hasn’t dared touch her. It hasn’t in aeons. In the years Killian has known her, she has always looked this radiant. Hair curled loosely over her shoulders and a dress of lace laid over silk, bright and beautiful and absolutely incredible. An aura of light surrounds her, bringing illumination to the dim room. From her very core, she is beautiful.
Killian has missed her.
She smiles, knowingly.
"I haven't told him yet."