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Of Fools and Monsters

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The cold had made a home in Jaskier’s bones a long time ago, but the chill he felt as he walked down the mountainside that evening sent shivers down his spine all the same. He was alone, utterly and totally alone. The walk was quiet, with only the chirp of the occasional bird and gust of wind that rushed past his ears. He had tried to strum his lute, to give himself some comfort and get his mind off of what had just happened—

“Why is it that whenever I find myself in a pile of shit these days, it’s you shoveling it?”

No matter how hard he tried, the melody was always wrong. He struck the wrong chord, or he said the wrong word, or he couldn’t find a rhythm, or he… well, he just managed to fuck it up somehow. He could almost laugh to himself as he crossed the treeline, heading back into the forest that consumed the mountains. Geralt might have had a point. He did tend to cause problems, and now he couldn’t even strum a simple tune.

No, Geralt wasn’t right. He refused to believe that the witcher meant what he had said. He was angry, tired, on edge. Anyone in that condition would say things they regret. Besides, it’s not like Geralt had ever been an expert with emotions. Jaskier knew that Geralt would be sorry. He didn’t hate him, there was just no way. They were friends after all… weren’t they?

Geralt had never said they were friends, but he had stopped denying it at some point. Jaskier thought that was progress. “Thought” being the imperative word. It seemed that they had taken a big step backward. No, he thought that they had gone further than that. If their relationship was a rope bridge Geralt had just cut the tethering that bound it to the canyon edge. He simply just didn’t understand how he hadn’t realized the witcher’s true disdain earlier. Somehow he had managed to convince himself that Geralt liked him, that he enjoyed his company. Jaskier felt so foolish.

He was still plodding along, his fingers barely brushing his lute’s chords as he did, when the change pulled him from his thoughts. He had been too busy obsessing over his last exchange with Geralt that he hadn’t noticed when the path forked off in two directions. He hadn’t noticed himself choosing a path at random, or that the path he chose was not the one they had taken on their way up the mountain. He hadn’t even noticed as the sun disappeared behind the large treetops. It was only when the songbirds went quiet that he knew something had gone wrong.

Slinging his lute over his shoulder, Jaskier turned in a circle to scan the environment around himself. Only the barest of light made its way down to the forest floor, just enough for the bard to see. He swallowed hard, a feeling of dread sneaking up, like a fox into a chicken coop. The lack of sound only made the whole scene eerier, and it set his hair on edge.

As he turned around again Jaskier realized he had no idea how long he had been walking this road, or how long it would take back to get to the right one. As this thought occurred, so did another. What if he had taken more than one wrong turn? He didn’t know where he was and he had never been the navigational type. Sticking his tongue into his cheek he knew had made this bed, he would have to lie in it. He took a deep breath in, puffing out his chest in a cheap show of confidence, and continued into the dark forest. He would eventually get to a town. He was sure of it. Well, he was sure the path had to lead somewhere and he could figure his next step then. Right now, he just didn’t want to think about the silence engulfing him.

Jaskier had blisters on his feet. At least it was able to get his mind off of the things he didn’t want to think about, but gods be damned, his feet really did hurt. He was not designed for this sort of travel. Not that his traveling was much better with Geralt, considering the man refused to let him ride on Roach. How hard could it really be to just share the saddle? Or maybe even help him find his own horse! But no, he got blisters on his feet and an ache in his lower back. Well, at least his calves looked great.

He had been walking for what felt like hours. He could only see about as far ahead as his arm stretched out in front of himself, but he trudged on. It was better than trying to sleep in the world’s creepiest woods. Shadows danced in the edges of his vision as he walked, begging him to let his anxiety take over. He knew there was nothing really walking beside him, but his mind wanted to convince him that there was. He tried to think of what Geralt would do in his situation. Geralt wouldn’t end up in this situation he thought bitterly.

It seemed not even his own thoughts were on his side. Jaskier drummed his fingers against the wood of his lute. The hollow tapping accompanied the crunch of dirt and twigs under his feet, making for a quiet symphony. Despite what he knew logically, his eyes dashed from side to side, examining the inky blackness.

A mounting feeling of anxiety was growing deep within Jaskier. It brought back memories from a long time ago; a time he had tried very hard to leave behind.

He had been sleeping soundly in his bed when the pain woke him. It was worse than any pain he had ever felt. It was worse than the time he had fallen ill, drenched in his own sweat and delirious. A scream tore itself free of his throat and he curled into a ball on his bed. The thin cot creaked under his shifting weight.

His hands were clenched tightly against his breast, nails digging into the tender skin despite the thin fabric that separated them. Jaskier could hear people rushing into his room. His mom, he thought dully. He was too preoccupied with the burning that pricked every nerve in his body. There was a hand on his shoulder, one combing through his hair. Soft words were being whispered to him, but he had no idea what they were.

The soft moment didn’t last. Neither did his brief escape from the pain. For a fleeting moment, he was fine. He looked up into the eyes of his mother, breathing raggedly. Her face was wrinkled with worry, but she did her best to give him a reassuring smile. There was silence in between his gasps, and the night air nipped at his clammy skin. Then, the serenity was ripped away. He convulsed and screamed again. Tears were streaming down his face, but that was the last thing he was worried about.

The hands that held him grounded to the Earth were suddenly gone. Another scream harmonized with his own. He was floating off into unconsciousness, his thoughts so disjointed he could barely consider it thinking.

Where had his mother gone? She was no longer by his side. Oh. The scream was her’s. Why was she screaming? Oh gods, was he somehow contagious? Or maybe he had hurt her somehow? He blinked through bleary eyes at the figure flushed against his far wall. His mother was still screaming, staring at Jaskier with wide eyes. She wasn’t injured. What was going on?

Black edged on his vision, the peace of sleep beckoning him. He fought against it, pushing back the raging tide. In the end, it was futile. The last thing he heard was the piercing shriek of his terrified mother.

The same scream seemed to bounce off the trees around him, but he knew it was only in his head. He was shaking. Jaskier bit at his lower lip, an unconscious habit he had picked up long ago. The tendrils of anxiety burrowed into his bones and presented as tremors, slowing down his walk. He wanted the comfort of music, so he tried desperately to play. It didn’t work. It hadn’t worked since he had parted ways with Geralt, he didn’t know why he thought something would have changed. If anything, it was worse now. He could barely strum the strings of his lute with how badly his hands were shaking.

Without his music, without the sun, without the sound of Roach’s hooves, without Geralt he felt so utterly and totally alone. He was more alone than he had been in decades. His shoulders shook as a sob escaped him. He didn’t want to cry, he was doing his best not to. He hated crying. Geralt wouldn’t cry his mind supplied helpfully. Yennefer wouldn’t cry either. That’s why he likes her. She’s everything you’re not.

His feet stopped in their tracks and he had to wrap his arms around himself to keep from collapsing. Nothing about this trip had gone in his favor. The anxiety in Jaskier began to swarm, doing flips inside of him. He felt as though it were wrapping him up and pulling him close, almost like a comforting hug or a warm blanket. Except, it wasn’t hugging him. It was strangling him, suffocating him, and smiling while he choked on his own breath. The darkness was his only constant as the entire world shifted around him. The rug had been pulled out from underneath his bleeding feet.

Geralt was gone, he had no idea where he was, and the monster he had successfully evaded for decades had finally caught his scent. He could feel it even then. He could feel the claws ripping at his skin, the blood springing free and drenching the dirt below him. He could hear its rasped breathing. The way its eyes betrayed no emotion. It was a harsh creature, and it killed without care. Jaskier really thought he had escaped it once and for all, but as Geralt said, he always did seem to find trouble.

His knees buckled and the fabric of his pants dug into the soft, cool earth. He gasped, but the only relief he felt was a cold pressure in the back of his throat. He didn’t know if the oxygen was reaching his lungs at all. It definitely did not feel like it. He wondered if he looked as ragged as he felt. He was sure his outfit was dirty at this point, and there was no way he had not worked up a smell. Not that it mattered, it was so dark that no one would ever see him. He briefly wondered if he were to die on that path whether anyone would ever find his body.

As his nails stabbed into his biceps he bit his lip in sorrow. He really liked that jacket. It would have been destroyed anyway, but he was still sad to see it go.

The monster was close now. He knew there was no escaping it. A much larger part of him than he cared to admit was still holding out hope that a certain white-haired witcher would appear and save the day. It was hopeless, truly, but he had never been described as a rational person. The pain reminded him of his impending doom; reminded him that no one was coming. The only person that ever would have was gone because he had driven him away. Another sob escaped his lips.

He fell onto his side, fully curled in on himself. He hadn’t felt this in so long that it felt surreal. These were two separate lives it seemed, but at this moment they were coming together and it terrified him. Rocks stabbed at his cheek as he pressed his head against the road for any sort of relief. None came until suddenly it did.

From one moment to the next, Jaskier went from screaming to silence. The pain was gone. His body ached only long enough for him to remember how cruel this transformation was. Worse than before the pain returned, searing every inch of him inside and out. The monster was back and it had found Jaskier. His vision went dark, darker than the woods around him. This time he heard no screaming at least. He could go in peaceful bliss.