Hadn't meant to take so long with this, but we've had some family issues at home and my muse doesn't function with distractions. We'll see if I can finish before Halloween, but I promise nothing. Oh yeah, feel free to CC if you want - it don't bother me any! Quick warning for anyone who is easily disturbed (which I hope means no one, cuz the witcher ain't full of cuddly bunnies): You will see dead people, in detail. Enjoy!
“Can we please stop? My arse is killing me.” Dandelion grimaced as the witcher glanced at him. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant look, but he had yet to get accustomed to the other’s eyes – golden-yellow with vertical slits: cat’s eyes. “We’re nearly there.”“You said that an hour ago, Geralt. I’m going to die; I can’t feel my toes.”“It’s just over the bridge,” the witcher replied, unfazed by his companion’s discomfort. Dandelion grit his teeth, trying not to whine. He was certain the sky could collapse all around them and Geralt wouldn’t so much as blink. He didn’t know if he admired or despised the trait. They crossed the tiny bridge, one after the other. Their horses’ hooves clattered noisily across the rickety timber, drowning out the trickling of the river below. A few moments later, the forest trees thinned considerably and – true to Geralt’s word – a small hamlet came into view. It was a typical village – comprised of perhaps two dozen buildings, made of rough wood and stone. They were scattered haphazardly along a single dusty road, which wound upon itself at one end, creating a cul-de-sac. Carts, plows, and lumber lay along walls; sacks, crates and barrels were stacked in piles in the middle of the neighborhood. It looked a pretty picture; charming cottages set amidst rolling fields of golden wheat, and the many reds, yellows, and browns of the forest in the background. “Quaint,” Dandelion muttered, shifting in his saddle. He wanted to spur his mount on to a gallop – the sooner they arrived, the better – but he immediately rejected the idea. He was in pain enough. As they drew closer, Dandelion noticed something peculiar about the town: it was deathly quiet. Not the picturesque sleepiness one might find along the outskirts, this was a different sort of quiet. The kind that permeates, hanging heavily in the air; makes the flesh crawl and the hair on the back of neck stand upright. There were no livestock in sight, nor any people for that matter. It was nearly harvest; the men should have been busy in the fields, and the women overseeing house-keeping. There should be chickens, pigs and goats wandering the area, cows and bison grazing, hawks and rabbits and squirrels caught up in the continuous cycle of life and death. There was nothing, only quiet. “I don’t like this,” the poet muttered, forcing his gelding on to a trot in order to ride even with the white haired man. “Something’s not right.” “What’s not to like? There could be work here.” Geralt smiled grimly at the prospect. They rode on in silence; Geralt fixed on the road ahead, while Dandelion occasionally scanned the surrounding woods. He could feel eyes watching them. “What if it’s just bandits? It would be a prime target, out in the middle of nowhere. And who’s to stop them? Knights, local militia? You know as well as I that the vassals won’t give a damn until they’re all dead, because then there will be no one left to cultivate and bring value to their precious land. It’s all—”“Dandelion, I don’t give a damn about politics,” Geralt interrupted, this time his expression was decidedly unpleasant. “If there’s a monster here, I’ll kill it. If not, we’ll have to keep going.” The statement felt more like a threat, considering that they’d been traveling non-stop for nearly two weeks. They finally arrived in the hamlet, although the bard was less pleased than he imagined he might be. All of the houses seemed to be barred and locked, several had been boarded up; windows, too, had been sealed closed, their shutters nailed together. Dandelion couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched; several times he looked to Geralt to see if he had noticed, but the other man remained stoic. Geralt dismounted at the end of the lane, casually tossing his mare’s reins over an old fence. Dandelion followed suit, rubbing his tender backside as he saw to Pegasus. A loud bang resounded along the circle, causing the troubadour to jump several feet, swearing colorfully when he realized the witcher had only knocked on a door. Much as the sudden disturbance had surprised him, Dandelion was even more surprised when the door creaked open. It was wide enough for someone to peer out, and Geralt was quick to press his witcher’s medallion to the opening. There was a hushed conversation, too brief for him to make out, and then the door opened fully, revealing only the darkness from within. Geralt motioned for him to follow, disappearing as he entered the cottage. Dandelion cast one last wary glance down the road, then sprinted to the door, shivering lightly as the shadows swallowed him. “You’re witchers?” a hoarse voice croaked near his ear. Dandelion found himself sidling closer to Geralt. It was almost pitch-black, and though the witcher could see without trouble, Dandelion couldn’t make out anything more than vague shapes. “I am. He’s traveling with me.” Geralt nodded in Dandelion’s direction. As his vision adjusted, Dandelion was able to make out more details. A group of three sat around the table, all women, though he couldn’t see clearly enough to tell if they were attractive or not. Two children sat on the floor, clutching at the women’s skirts – a good indication that at least one of the ladies was worth bedding. The hoarse man stood before them; it seemed to Dandelion that he was trying to shield the rest of his family from Geralt’s view. The witcher either didn’t notice or didn’t care, for he remained still, silently watching their host. It was far too quiet. Dandelion jovially strode forward, hand outstretched. “I’m Dandelion, famous poet, minstrel, and –”“All around scoundrel,” Geralt muttered behind him. Dandelion ignored the remark, shaking the man’s hand vigorously. “No doubt you’ve heard of me.” He removed his hat, sweeping into a gracious bow for the women. He pretended not to notice when Geralt kicked him in the calf. “But to business, good people,” the witcher said calmly, clasping a hand on Dandelion’s shoulder – a warning not to interfere. “Something troubles you.”“Yes sirs, a most terrible thing,” the man said, glancing anxiously between them. “Taxes?”The man’s brow furrowed as he looked to Geralt for insight. Geralt glared the bard – a particularly piercing look, considering the faint orange glow of his eyes. Dandelion only shrugged. He couldn’t help if the man had no sense of humor. “Forgive him, he doesn’t always think before he speaks,” Geralt replied, still scowling slightly. “A monster bothers you, am I right…?”“Yes, mister—”“Geralt.” The man gave a nervous sort of laugh at the witcher’s brusqueness. “It is a terror. We dare not leave home anymore, not even during the day.” The women all nodded solemnly. “What is this beast, exactly?”“I—I don’t know that there is a word for it.” “What does it look like?”Dandelion bit back a grin. Although he had only recently met the witcher, it was easy to tell that he was irritated by the man’s lack of information. Geralt wasn’t exactly sociable, but if he knew one thing, it was how to ask questions, and if all else failed, exact answers. “Why it’s…” “The devil’s spawn,” a woman spat. “It’s said to be a man astride a great steed – both are dead. The man is headless. The b*stard haunts our town and murders any who stray. The son of a—” She fell silent, aghast at her outburst, for she clasped a hand to her mouth, looking to her feet as she shook her head. Dandelion worried that she might burst into tears; if there was anything he hated, it was to see a lady in distress. “A headless horseman?” Geralt asked. He sounded genuinely interested, although the glint in his eyes spoke more than his words. “Yes.”“What nonsense!” Dandelion exclaimed. “You’re all mad! Why, it’s simply a bandit playing a clever joke, and it’s working! They’ve got you all holed up, scared for your lives. Someone with a bow and a good shot would suffice; you don’t need a witcher for that!”“Dandelion,” Geralt warned. “Good… ah…”“Banach. Of the Credio’s.” The man was making a good effort to glare at Dandelion, but it lost effect in comparison to the witcher’s. “Good Banach, please, again forgive him. I’m sure this is a truly disturbing problem, and no doubt a real terror to everyone here, but—”“You don’t believe us.” It wasn’t a question. Geralt shrugged. “I’ve been hunting monsters for many years now, but I’ve never heard of anything like that. There are ghosts, true, but they’re incapable of causing such grievous harm. I don’t think they would look like that either. I don’t know what haunts you, but it doesn’t sound like a monster. Dandelion might be right, no matter how bluntly put.”“No, we’ve all heard the stories. Spirits can kill! What about the people who wake up covered in scratches, or who get slapped when there’s no one around? Are they mad?”“To put it bluntly,” Dandelion snickered. “Look, Banach, I’ll have a look around and see what I can find.” Geralt took a half step to the side, standing between the peasant and the troubadour. “There could be something after all. I haven’t seen every monster in existence, and they’re constantly adapting and evolving. There really could be something.” Dandelion groaned, already dreading the journey. They would waste hours looking for something that didn’t exist. “If I find anything, I’ll let you know, and then we can discuss prices.” Banach scoffed at that and was about to argue, but the witcher spoke before he had a chance. “I can’t work for free,” Geralt stated. “I’m no knight, I don’t get backed by sponsors; there’s only me. I need to eat, I need oats for Roach, clothing, weapons, and lodging. None of that comes for free and neither does my service. If you can’t pay, I can’t work.” The man sighed, but agreed. “Fine, our lives are more important than any amount of ducats.”“Banach,” one of the women whispered. “Show them.” Dandelion looked at her questioningly, and then to Banach, who was fidgeting with his shirt sleeve. “There are bodies. Maybe they’ll help you understand what’s after us.” He locked eyes with the older man for a moment, imploring. Geralt nodded calmly. “Lead the way.”“Geralt,” Dandelion whispered frantically as they stepped back out into the sunlight. “I’ve never seen a corpse before.”“You don’t have to come,” Geralt replied, shielding his eyes with his hand. The bard looked around nervously: first to Banach, then the cottage behind them, and finally at the witcher’s silvery head. He gnawed at his lip, debating on returning to accompany the women. They were surely frightened and lonely without a man’s protection. A sick part of him actually wanted to see what a dead man looked like. The knowledge frightened him – it couldn’t be healthy. But then, Geralt made a living killing things and had surely seen his fair share of death, both man and monster, and Dandelion thought he was relatively sane. He reasoned that he might not have the unique opportunity again; at least, he didn’t plan on it. In the end, his curiosity won out and so he trekked on, dutifully following the two men. They were led to a shabby looking shed at the far reaches of the town. It didn’t feel as eerie here as it did along the main road, although the sight of coffins lined along the side wall did cause the poet to shift anxiously. Banach knocked at the door in a sequence of raps and taps – a secret code. The door squeaked loudly as it opened, and a man with a beak of a nose and a rather bushy beard ushered them in. Dandelion took one last gulp of air, puffed out his chest, and entered. The stench almost overpowered him. It was unlike anything he’d ever smelt before, but he likened it to a mixture of raw sewage, rotten eggs, moldy dwarf boots, and the indescribable smell of death. His eyes watered, and even with his nose pinched shut, Dandelion was unable to block out the stink. For a moment he couldn’t see anything beyond Geralt’s coat, but then the witcher shifted and Dandelion was able to see everything. Bile rose to his throat and he had to fight to keep it down. A long carpenter’s table was situated along the back wall, with many pieces of extra lumber resting on crates in order to give more length to the set-up. Bodies lay crammed on the table, their feet resting precariously on the planks. They were deathly pale – gray, with shades of yellow-blue bruises in various places. Some were bloated, as if they’d been left in the water for too long. Straw had been tossed along the earthen floor, but it wasn’t enough to collect all of the blood, which leaked from the corpses’ orifices. A few bodies were still clothed, the linen stained dark red, nearly black in some places. All were covered in cuts, deep and wide. All were beheaded. Dandelion leaned heavily against the wall, trying to keep his legs from shaking. He wanted to leave, but was afraid to move. Geralt turned to look at him, brow furrowed. He reached forward and grabbed the poet’s hat, using it to fan him. “Don’t faint. I should have told you to stay outside,” he murmured, grimacing. Dandelion remained silent, staring numbly at the wolf’s head medallion resting against Geralt’s breast. Ruby red eyes looked at him fiercely, shining with their own light. At first Dandelion thought it was his imagination – born of shock – but after a moment’s rest, he realized the witcher’s medallion was, in fact, vibrating of its own accord. ~*~*~*~
“Do they come back to life?!” Blondie asked, eyes bugging out of his head in excitement. “I bet the witcher will kill ‘em all!” “Nu-uh, he couldn’t. My da could!”“Does he use magic? Can he make them on fire?” Snotty said, voice thick from his excess mucus.Dandelion took the opportunity to wet his throat. The beer wasn’t the best he’d ever had, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. “Calm down and let the man finish,” the innkeeper growled. He had been going about his duties, seemingly indifferent to the poet’s epic, although he’d been leaning against a table, washrag forgotten as Dandelion described the macabre scene in the shed. “Do you boys not know a raconteur when you see one?” Dandelion sighed. “Of course they don’t come back to life; that would trite.” The maiden smiled at that, eyelashes fluttering prettily. Dandelion flashed her his most charming grin in return. “Poet, if they’re not undead, then why did the witcher’s medallion respond?” Dandelion craned his neck, trying to spy the inquisitive man. The table full of sailors were only half listening, more interested in their dice game than him, and the old man had fallen across a bench, snoring lightly. The stranger still lurked in the shadows. The troubadour remained quiet for a brief moment, mind whirling in an attempt to think of a plausible explanation. True, his knowledge of witchers was limited to the rumors he’d heard, what he’d gleamed from his short journey with Geralt, and the painfully sparse information the man had parted with, but he did know how to weave a tale. None of his story bore much resemblance to the truth, but there was little room for art in rigid facts – the poetry was in the exaggeration, after all. Besides, what entertainment was there in telling that he’d fainted, only to wake hours later in the arms of someone’s grandmother, the witcher smirking arrogantly, having already collected his reward for a simple vypper? No, there was no poetry in that at all. “It’s simple really,” he began, picking up his tune once more. “Witcher’s medallions react to two primary threats: monsters and magic.” ~*~*~*~
Most fun I've had writing. Ever. And we're not even done yet!
“Why is it twitching?” Geralt glanced down, a puzzled expression on his face. “I don’t know.”Dandelion stood up a little straighter, taking his hat back. He tried to ignore the way his hand shook when he reached out. “Some help you are,” the bard scoffed, forcing a teasing smile. He didn’t want to think, or see, or smell anything – making light of things always took his mind off of troubles. Geralt turned away, shaking his head. He stood next to the table, almost brushing against one man’s feet. Dandelion cast his eyes to the ceiling, swallowing down the lump in his throat. “What does it mean?” the gravedigger asked. “It’s a way of warning me if there’s anything dangerous in the area. It picks up on magical auras; any sort of spell, curse, hex. It also detects monsters born of magic.”“It’s coming,” Banach whispered. Dandelion glanced at him, irritated. “You don’t know that,” he retorted. “Maybe it’s – them.” He waved towards the bodies, turning his head away as he did. “And if it’s not? We have to hide! If he finds us—” “Stop! Stop… fear-mongering!” Dandelion shouted, standing upright. His heart was pounding loudly in his ears. “Both of you shut up.” The witcher was still eyeing the deceased curiously, hunched over as he probed at a laceration along a woman’s torso.“Nothing is coming,” he said. “Dandelion is right. They have traces of magic on them – every last one.” Geralt looked at the surrounding men meaningfully.“So magic did that to them?” The gravedigger asked, tugging at his beard nervously. “No. They were cut with something. Not a sword – not unless it was someone unskilled, and I doubt that. Someone would be alive to talk if that were the case. The cuts are all rough, the flesh has been torn. A sword would leave a clean cut.”“An axe?”“No. I don’t know what was used. The wounds are unusual; I’ve never seen anything like them before.”“Did,” Dandelion said. “Did a monster do that?” Whatever had done that, it was the last thing the poet wanted to meet up with. Geralt looked at him seriously. “No.”“Then what did, dammit?” Banach hissed. His face had blanched considerably; he was almost the same sickly color as Geralt.“A man,” the witcher replied evenly. “I would guess they used some sort of whip. See how the depth varies in intervals, but never fades?” Geralt was pointing towards a particularly nasty gash across a man’s thigh. The gravedigger nodded sagely. “Yes, perhaps they’ve knotted rods in the rope?”“And how do you explain what we’ve seen?”“An illusion,” Dandelion supplied, wiping at a bit of moisture that had collected at his brow. “Some renegade mage has teamed up with a group of bandits. It wouldn’t be the first time.”“How do we stop them?”Geralt shrugged. “That doesn’t concern me. All I know is it wasn’t a monster. Thank you for showing me this,” he said, turning to face Banach. “It saved us a great deal of time searching the forest. Come on, Dandelion.” Geralt pushed the door open, allowing sunlight to stream in. The sight helped ease Dandelion’s nerves. If Geralt was sure there was no real danger, then he would trust in that. “So that’s it?” Banach yelled. “You won’t help us?” “I don’t kill humans.” Geralt’s eyes shone fiercely. “Wait around for a knight. This isn’t a job for a witcher.”Dandelion followed Geralt, legs still wobbling slightly. The troubadour held his tongue until they were out of earshot, riding along the same dusty road they had traveled earlier. “Geralt, explain something to me.”“Certainly.”“Why not help them?”Geralt turned in his saddle, wearing a most peculiar expression. It only lasted a minute before he resumed his naturally indifferent air. “Well?” The bard insisted, rubbing his sweaty palms against his trousers. “Well what? I already said why.”“No,” Dandelion said, taking the lead, stopping Roach in her tracks. “You told them what your code tells you. But you never told me why you won’t do it.”Geralt sighed deeply, fidgeting with his reins. For a moment, Dandelion thought he might not answer. “I helped you in Gulet,” the witcher said, “but I shouldn’t have.” He didn’t lower his eyes. The poet couldn’t help but feel a pang of resentment. “That was a mistake then?” “I’m not a very good witcher,” the silver-haired man admitted. “I’m not supposed to interfere in people’s affairs. If I recall, there was a great deal of beer served at the festival.” “It was the right thing to do.”“You’re a little biased, don’t you think?” Geralt pointed out, steering his horse off the road, around Dandelion’s blockade.It was the poet’s turn to sigh. “Nothing I say will change your mind.”“No.”“What if they’re all killed? The women? The children? You could stop that.”“I could,” Geralt agreed, nodding mildly. “Why only protect people from certain things? You were trained to help people.” Dandelion found himself chewing in his lower lip in annoyance. Geralt’s confession hurt more than he cared to admit. They were only acquaintances, what was his loyalty worth, really? “It’s not that simple. I—witchers were created to destroy monsters that ordinary men can’t. I do what other people can’t,” he said, staring hard at the path. “If I kill one man – even a murderer – then where do I draw the line? Why not kill all murderers, thieves, charlatans? Why stop there? I could kill the next man to call me a freak, the next brat to throw a stone. No, it’s too easy to lose yourself that way.”“You’ve never killed anyone before?” Dandelion hoped the witcher didn’t take offense to the incredulous tone. He would rather part on tolerable terms, if at all possible. “I have. That’s why I understand where it could lead to,” Geralt said quietly. “People already fear us, why give them a valid reason?”The poet fell silent at that. The dull trod of hooves against the dirt was all that was heard. Dandelion wished a dog might bark, or something in the brush might take flight; the silence was the most uncomfortable one he could remember experiencing. “You really think it’s a mage?” He could only go so long without some sort of distraction. Geralt hadn’t been bothered by his chattering before, so why would it now? Again, the white haired man’s reply took a little longer than was necessary. “It’s not a monster; I don’t need to know anymore than that.” “If they rob us—”“Dandelion, they won’t.” Geralt's tone signaled the end of the conversation. The poet scowled, spurring Pegasus on. A headache was forming just behind his eyes, and the horse’s heavy trot wasn’t helping any. Dandelion knew he was a great many things: vain, a womanizer, loudmouth, and troublemaker – but if there was one thing he could never be accused of, it was dishonesty. Maybe he liked to exaggerate, but when it came down to it, he was as honest as they came. Was it too much to expect a bit of honesty in return? He slowed once he had put himself at a reasonable distance away from his ‘companion’. With no one to talk to, the bard took more interest in his surroundings. It was a beautiful day, all things considered: it was warm, with enough chill in the air to bite at the nose, but not unbearable. Dusk was settling over the land, casting golden rays of light through the canopy, illuminating the russet colors of the forest floor. Here and there, a leaf would fall, spiraling lazily down to earth. It was pleasant, all things considered. Dandelion’s thoughts still drifted to whatever lingered. He knew he shouldn’t worry, the witcher could handle bandits, and likely as not a mage; it was only a question of whether Geralt would be accosted, or if he would care that Dandelion was. The troubadour shook his head, trying not to worry over hypothetical nonsense. He rode deeper into the woods, over the dilapidated bridge, eyes open for a good place to camp down for the night. He didn’t want to be too far from the road, and he’d prefer to keep close to the river, simply as a precaution. Someplace with a bit of coverage would be best, knowing that he might not be alone. As he surveyed the land, a flash of color leapt out at him, navy blue amidst the sea of fire. Dandelion dismounted and approached warily, a small voice in the back of his mind scolding him for being so foolish. At first glance, the bard thought he had stumbled upon someone napping in the ditch – they were stretched out, arm overthrown across their face. Something wasn’t right. A sickening feeling took hold of him when he realized the man was very clearly dead. His arm couldn’t be over his face; he didn’t have one.He was headless. Dandelion spun around, holding a hand to his mouth. He thought his heart might burst from his chest; right behind him, not even an arm’s length away, stood another man. Dandelion let out a scream of terror, threw his hands up defensively, and sprang backwards. He’d forgotten about the ditch, and rolled back, colliding with the corpse. Tears welled to his eyes as he scrambled away, desperately trying to regain his bearings. Behind him, the leaves rustled as someone slid into the trench after him. “Calm down,” a voice commanded, one used to giving orders. Dandelion swore furiously, choking back a sob. “You son of a ******!” he roared, struggling to his feet. Geralt grabbed onto his shoulder, helping him stand, but Dandelion shrugged him off. The poet adjusted his clothing, straightening his doublet, cloak, and hat, swearing once more at the dark stain on his sleeve. Blood, but he didn’t want to think of it. “If you laugh, I’ll kill you,” he threatened, wiping at his eyes. His heart beat a furious tattoo against his chest, adrenaline still coursing through his system. “No one’s laughing,” Geralt said evenly. “I thought you heard me calling you.”“Bullshit you called.” The witcher shrugged, kneeling down to examine their find. Dandelion spit a bit of dirt from his mouth, shifting his weight as he cursed. Geralt stood, brushing his hands on his coat. His head was cast down, making his features unreadable. “Yeah, you should feel guilty,” the bard growled, legs still shaking as he paced. “You scared the hell out of me.”“Shut up.” Geralt was clutching his medallion, looking at him fiercely. Heat rose to his cheeks. “You shut up, I’m sick of you!” he spat. He wanted to throw something. “Shut. Up.” The witcher took a step toward him, though he wasn’t looking at him, instead focused on something to his right. “Get on your horse and get back to town. As fast as you can. Stop for nothing, don’t slow down, don’t look back. When you get there, find a place to hide. Warn the others. Go!” Dandelion arched away, unable to look away from the other’s eyes – they were glowing unnaturally bright, almost red. It scared him more than the man’s words. Geralt once again grabbed his arm, throwing him forward. The poet shot off, legs carrying him of their own accord. He was good at running, always had been – in came in use. He sprang forward, feet hardly touching the stirrups as he mounted his horse. Dandelion took a shuddering breath, pausing for a moment to search for the witcher. Geralt was at Roach’s side, unfurling a bundle of cloth. From its depths he unsheathed a large, ornate sword, its handle decorated with the carving of a sleek wolf’s head. The infamous silver sword. The poet didn’t need to see more than that. He urged Pegasus on to a full gallop, concentrating on the ride. The thought of falling from the saddle plagued him, each step another jostle closer to the ground. He didn’t want to see what Geralt was preparing for. A covered structure loomed into view, bursting from the trees. Dandelion was too frightened to feel any relief at the sight. The sleepy little village was all he could think of. He had to flee. Had to flee to safety. Safety. To hide. To wait. Wait and pray that the witcher would return. Run! Only a few more feet and he would be past the bridge. Just a few more seconds! Blackness. Something large and black. It flew out of the forest. Out of nowhere. Dandelion didn’t have time enough to scream as his horse reared on its hind-legs, kicking, tossing his head, neighing. Dandelion fell to the ground. Hard. It knocked the wind out of him: He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t run. Couldn’t scream. ~*~*~*~
Dandelion smacked his lips, setting his mug down loudly on the table. He couldn’t help but grin smugly – he had the audience right where he wanted them: Eating out of the palm of his hand. The maiden had her mouth covered; her striking emerald eyes open wide in horror. The innkeeper was sitting attentively with the group of sailors; their dice game long since forgotten. The old codger had stopped snoring (thanks in no small part to one man’s true aim and said forgotten die), though he tossed fretfully in his sleep. Most impressive of all, the boys sat motionless, listening with baited breath. Had he not seen it with his own eyes, the poet wouldn’t have thought it possible. Dandelion reclined, strumming an idle note, still grinning. His pause was enough to break the runts from their trance-like state. “Don’t stop!” one whined. They all broke out into cries and shouts, blithering at once. “What happens?”“Does someone die?”“What is it?”“Does the witcher kill it?” “Tell us more!”“Ah,” the bard sighed woefully. A hush fell over the crowd immediately. “If I weren’t so parched…” He looked down to his drink, frowning. No one moved. He frowned even deeper at that. “It seems my cup has run dry.”The inn-keep shook his head and stood stiffly. Dandelion nodded his thanks as the man disappeared into a back room. “Nothing bad happens, I hope?” the maiden murmured; she looked genuinely concerned. Dandelion smiled knowingly. “In time, fair lady. It would spoil everything to tell so soon.”“Is it a terror?” Blondie asked, swinging his feet wildly over the tabletop. “The most terrifying of terrors,” the poet assured, gratefully receiving his refilled mug. He drank deeply. “What does it look like?” “Stupid,” Freckles said, elbowing his friend. “Why, it’s a headless horseman!” Dandelion grinned, showing off his eye-teeth. The child knew very little about the art of story-telling. ~*~*~*~
The earth shook as hooves crashed down near his head. Dandelion recoiled, turning away just in time to avoid the second trampling. Fear gripped at him, overwhelming his thoughts. Live, don’t die! He rolled onto his knees and shot up, still breathless. Trees rushed past him in a haze. Pain. His body cried out for air – his sides, stomach, chest ached. His head throbbed. Each breath came in a short gasp. Run! He didn’t know if the voice was real or if it had come from his mind. He could hear the leaves crunching, rustling. A horse neighed wildly. Don’t die! He couldn’t tell where he was going – was the village behind him? Was the road? Dandelion choked on a cry, zigzagging though the yews, doubling back. Don’t look! Don’t look! Behind him, the beast skidded into a tree in its haste. Dandelion sucked in another breath, increasing his speed. He knew the diversion only gave him another minute – another step. He didn’t feel anything anymore; the blood pounding in his skull was all he knew. That and the thought that he had to find help; to find the witcher. Surely he hadn’t left? Don’t think, run! There was the highway – safety. From the road he could navigate back to shelter. Safety. Hooves clattered, thunderous. He couldn’t breathe. Air. Oxygen. Pain. The ground rose up to meet him. Pain. Rest. No. Another cry rang out loudly, furious: primal. He rose. A flash of white. Silver sang through the air, the blow landing soundly. Dust flew from the impact. Not dust, bone. His vision swam. A great horse galloped down the path, larger than any he had ever seen. At least, it had once been a horse; it was miserably thin, black fur clung to ivory, hanging like dried leather. The beast turned, charging at them. A hand pulled him back by the collar roughly. Geralt stood in the middle of the road, leaning heavily on his right leg, sword partially obscuring his face, ready to strike. “Run.” Dandelion groaned, paralyzed. He wanted to run, he truly did. He couldn’t look away. The steed’s mount was cloaked in black; there was no color to him at all. The rider was a giant – even seated, that much was clear. He held a white cord in one hand, the other resting at his hip. Broad shoulders met at a stump where his head had once been. The horseman rushed at them, sitting forward in the saddle. Dandelion let out a strangled yell, diving behind a bush. Before the attacker had the chance to raise his flail, the witcher spun away, sword trailing elegantly after him. The horse whinnied in distress; more dust exploded from its flank. Bits of bone rained down, peppering the leaves. Dandelion didn’t even see the hit. “Dandelion!” Geralt shouted, looking over his shoulder at the troubadour. The monster was barreling down the highway, away from the bridge. The poet didn’t falter – he moved as fast as his legs could carry him. Something whizzed over him, landing with a thunk at his feet. He jumped, swearing at the realization that a woman’s head had just been lobbed at him as though it were no more than a rotting fruit. Dandelion looked back against his better judgment. The steed was taking another pass. The witcher waited patiently. Dandelion saw him glance down at his breast, deftly removing a small vial from its holster on the scabbard across his chest. He had discarded his coat already. Dandelion’s heart stopped. The witcher didn’t have time for that! Too late, he’d already downed the elixir in one swift motion. Geralt’s face went taut with pain, blue-black veins clearly mapped across his cheeks. They spread like spider webs, disappearing under his collar and hairline. In a flash, they vanished completely, leaving the witcher scowling in disgust. The horseman bore down on the white haired man, arm raised to strike. Geralt maneuvered out of the whip’s path, ducking as he weaved himself through the horse’s legs, as if it were standing still. Dandelion shouted, taking a half step forward. Geralt yelled something back at him, but he didn’t understand the words. Everything sounded muffled and faint under the hammering of his heart. The horseman swung his mount around, targeting the witcher. The whip – no, it wasn’t a whip; it was thick, stiff and awkwardly curved: A spine – came crashing down. Geralt deflected the blow with his sword, feet dug in the ground to avoid being overpowered by sheer force. He reached up, and, very calmly, wretched the weapon from the ghoul’s grasp. The poet clutched his heart, looking to the heavens. It wasn’t possible, dammit! He looked back to Geralt, grimacing at the bright red stain blossoming across the other’s brow. The witcher didn’t seem to notice the wound. The horseman lashed out violently with his boot, knocking Geralt to his arse. Dandelion’s breath caught again, if only for a second. “Hey!” he screamed, jumping, waving his arms above his head. He was surprised to find his voice. “Look here! Oh, you can’t! You bloody, stupid b*stard!” Geralt was already on his feet, but not fast enough. The steed took off, heading directly for the poet. Dandelion spun on his heel, running; this time his scream was born of sheer terror. The monster was bearing down remarkably fast. Dandelion, still slightly stunned by the situation, sprinted away, clutching his side in agony. He needed to breathe. The whip – spine – remained on the road where Geralt had tossed it. One less thing to worry about, but it was little consolation in light of the very real possibility of being run down and trampled to death. Footsteps pounded along after him but he didn’t panic.“What do we do?” he gasped, making to pull his hat down lower, only to find it was missing. “Run!” the witcher repeated. “Get to the bridge. He won’t cross.” Dandelion trusted in that. The witcher wouldn’t let the beast through, even if it cost him his life. “And you?” The witcher’s smile was exceptionally ugly. Blood stained his teeth, smeared across his face, tinted his hair. Dandelion wanted to say something more; what, he didn’t know. He didn’t want to part like this, but there was no time for anything else. The bridge felt an eternity away. He couldn’t see it. The forest was too thick. How had he run so far before? The horseman’s steed neighed once more, earsplitting. It was close. Geralt could have gone ahead if he chose to, but he paced himself with the troubadour. Dandelion didn’t know why the gesture meant as much as it did. Again, the world shifted. Dandelion landed on his back this time, rolling several times before he knew what had happened. The witcher had pushed him into the ditch, using the impetus to launch himself at the ghoul. It startled the horse, for it lost its footing, stumbling like a newborn foul. This time, the silver sword hit its target. The horseman arched back, clutching its chest. The sword came away clean – the monster didn’t bleed. Of course he wouldn’t; he was dead, wasn’t he? Only now did Dandelion notice that the man wasn’t entirely devoid of a head. Sitting snugly between his thighs, wrapped loosely in a filthy cloth, rested a tangled mess of hair. Milky white skin, the color of death, peaked out from under the dark mass. The horseman’s left hand firmly held the head in place, ensuring that even his steed’s wild movements didn’t jostle it from its place. The horse traveled down the road, from where they had come. The witcher had startled it. They would be back, Dandelion didn’t doubt that. “Geralt!” the bard yelled, but it sounded more like “Grrrwwt!” from the mouthful of leaves he’d managed to pick up during his topple. The witcher didn’t pay any heed to him. He was standing on the opposite side of the road, digging his heels into the ground. His arms were raised in front of his face, one hand barely gripping the sword as it scraped along the dirt. It was an odd pose. A bright ball of light appeared between his palms, sparkling, reminding Dandelion of dancing fireflies. The witcher simply stood there, a look of extreme concentration on his face. The light cast sharp relief across his features, making his cheekbones stand out, his eyes seemed darker, his scars and the faint wrinkles along his forehead, eyes, and mouth looked deeper. The dried blood only made him appear even more sinister. “Duck!” The horseman was riding at Geralt; it would wipe him out with ease. The witcher didn’t move. Dandelion sat on his elbows, prepared to leap. A blast erupted from the witcher’s hands. Sparks shot out into the night, illuminating the surrounding woods. Dandelion was nearly blinded by its intensity – he buried his face into the crook of his arm. A hurricane like gale was blowing all around him. Leaves, pebbles, rocks both large and small flew past him. He felt himself slide back several inches. There was a heavy crash from the road which made the ground shake. The horse neighed again, the sound dying as the wind picked up. Dandelion’s cloak flapped around his head. The air smelt burnt. He sunk his fingers into the earth. Something hit him in the head. The gale was so powerful it choked the air from him. He tried to call out, to beg the witcher to stop, but his voice was gone. He turned his head, pressing his face to the ground. He could see ivory shards whipping through the air. The sparks stung wherever his skin was exposed. The light dimmed a bit. Geralt was growing tired. More bones whistled by, larger now. Here, a femur, there a clavicle. Dandelion wondered where the horseman was, but with a sinking feeling in his stomach, he knew he could only be a few feet away. He considered letting go, allowing the blast to take him where it may. The light flickered and then darkness fell completely. The poet sighed, collapsing. “Dandelion!” Geralt was shouting, worried. The troubadour’s ears rang, drowning out the words. He picked his head up, though it was much heavier now. Before him, the ground had been cleared of foliage, revealing the damp earth below, slightly moldy from an earlier shower. A tower of black shifted. Dandelion’s brows furrowed in confusion. “Geralt?” No, he would see the witcher’s hair or eerie eyes. “Dandelion!” The bard’s heart lodged itself in his throat. He scrambled up, but a boot caught him in the middle. A white light flashed before his eyes, not made by magic. He clutched his torso, groaning. The corpse grabbed his hair, jerking him up viciously. Dandelion cried out in pain. He tried to pull himself free, but the monster was too strong. It kicked out again, throwing him down. The witcher was silent. Everything was quite. He gazed up at the canopy, watching the leaves sway gently in the breeze. It was cold. He hurt. Everything hurt. Another kick landed just behind his ear. His neck twisted violently and he rolled, flopping lamely onto his side. He was sobbing now, curled up in a ball. He couldn’t help it. He tried to be brave, but he just wasn’t. He didn’t want to die. Why didn’t the witcher do something? It had seemed so easy before. “Use a sign,” he begged. “It didn’t work… Igni… I’ll burn you,” Geralt muttered. He was close – somewhere on the road still. The monster was in the ditch with him. Dandelion couldn’t see it, but he felt its presence. The ghoul was running his hands along the ground, searching for something. Several times, it brushed over him, taking extra care to feel the poet’s face. It always stopped at his neck. Dandelion whimpered. “It’s head. Geralt—““I know. Don’t panic. I’m coming.”“Come faster!”The headless horseman sat stiffly, clutching something in its hands. Geralt hadn’t moved. Dandelion couldn’t see him, but he didn’t hear him either. “Witcher?”The ghoul loomed over him, holding his gruesome find. The head had ear-length shaggy hair, covered in small twigs and dirt. Its eyes were grey, not a natural grey, but clouded over in death. One was punctured slightly, sagging. It shouldn't have been able to see, but it did. The monster’s face twitched, contorted. It was smiling at him. Dandelion sank down as far as he could. Tears blurred his vision. He didn’t scream anymore. He was too scared. The horseman nudged his face with the toe of his boot. Dandelion shivered, pressing his face to the earth. He was going to die. The wooden heel dug painfully into his cheek. Blood, warm and slick, dripped into his eye. Dandelion blinked it away, bracing himself for the finishing blow. He hoped it would be quick. He didn’t want to feel anything, didn’t want to know he was dying. A sickening noise resounded all around him. It tore at his gut, ripping his insides. It wasn’t anything he had heard before, but he knew. He knew. It was the sound of steel piercing flesh. ~*~*~*~Oooo... :evil: