Dusk approaches, and a cold wind is picking up above the forest just south of Fayrlund. In her final hours of sunlight, Jeya scans each line of her journal's entry on leshens - for the twenty-something-th time.
Hallucinations - be prepared for them. This creature will do everything in its power to ward off intruders, or otherwise kill them if it's got the appetite. Be prepared for this as well, obviously. Be careful that it doesn't like you too much, or it might bind itself to you. In which case, killing YOU will be the only way to kill it.
There's a reason humans don't hunt the creatures in this journal, though Jeya is unique in her experience doing exactly that. Her educated encounter with this particular beast will be a first, and she hopes that what she's learned up until now will be enough to match it.
Still, this is no work for a human. Most humans die trying to attempt what Jeya is about to, but with the rarity of Witchers for hire, those with a heightened instinct for survival and combat have taken responsibility in their place. The pay is extraordinarily high, because most do not live to collect it.
Jeya looks down at the etching at the bottom of the page, and memorizes the vague image. She will have to watch the woods very carefully, so as not to miss the creature hiding in plain sight among the trees. She closes the journal and realizes, suddenly, that the rustling leaves above her head are the only things making a sound. She lowers her hands down to her side, still holding the journal, and looks about her intently. Autumn has only just arrived, most leaves have not yellowed yet, and almost none have fallen to the ground. Most animals will not have gone into hibernation yet, and so there is no excuse not to hear the sound of tiny claws against tree bark.
She takes another deep breath and closes her eyes, attuning her senses to the environment. A breeze picks up the smell of pine from the trees, and the needles brush against each other in perfect harmony. The image of the forest remains in her mind as she listens carefully to these sounds, mapping the surface of her surroundings in her mind.
Jeya turns her head toward a gentle gust of wind to her left, but hears nothing else. She opens her eyes and tucks the book away into a satchel hanging off the side of her hip, which also bears a small bottle of relict oil, made of dog tallow and mistletoe. Preparing this concoction is not an ordinary ability for humans, but Jeya surmises that their 'inability' to do so must be a ruse to prevent humans from attempting this work to begin with.
She proceeds forward, maintaining her concentration on her surroundings. Within a mile, she shudders as a sudden gust of air scrapes against the side of her arm, and another against her leg. She turns briskly and looks about her, but there is nothing and no one around. Even the leaves and twigs have remained undisturbed against the ground. This may have been an attempted hallucination on the creature's part, but her mind is too focused to be affected by it.
Jeya continues onward, as the distance between the sun and horizon shrinks, and the sky grows dark. After another mile or so, she stops. The sun is now hidden away, and its rays of light have made way for an ambient evening. Gentle footsteps tread over tree roots and twigs not far from where she is. Jeya stands firmly, slowly turning her head toward the sound.
A tall being slowly comes into sight, and an austere sense of calmness steeps in Jeya body. The leshen's wooden claws are the size of Jeya's forearms, and its antlers are as long as her legs. It towers above her in height, and yet, she remains completely unfazed by its presence - this can only indicate one thing. The leshen stops a short distance away, and hardly a ripple of movement is detectable thereafter.
"You must be a hallucination," Jeya speaks at the apparition.
No movement or response from the creature.
"I will travel through these woods. Wherever you truly are, do not confront me," she says, though she is counting on being confronted.
Jeya begins to move toward it briskly. The leshen remains motionless, even as she approaches it from a few feet away. In a quick and sudden movement, it raises its arm and plunges it down toward her body, aiming at the base of her neck. Jeya continues without so much as a flinch, and just as the stroke is about to fall upon her, she passes through the body and it dissipates into thin air. She stops and looks over her shoulder, and a knowing grin tugs on the side of her mouth.
A sudden screech echoes loudly in her ears, and a heave of pressure on all sides of her body draws the air from her lungs with great force. The shock is abrupt, and her vision goes dark as she falls to the ground.
The forest has gone black by the time she comes to. A full moon has risen into the sky, and illuminates the clearing of trees around her. Jeya notices a faint, bluish light engulfing her hands as she lifts herself off the ground, and into a seated position. She looks down, and before her are two poorly etched words in the dirt:
"Oh, shit…" she whispers.
"You," a deep voice startles her from behind. Jeya, still sitting in the dirt, turns abruptly toward the voice, kicking up dust into the air. A tall Witcher, clad in black, steps out from the dark treeline.
She glances at the etching again.
Jeya would never agree to face a Witcher. It would mean certain death, even for her. The one before her must be fulfilling the same contract, and now has motive to kill her, in order to complete the mission.
"You should leave, this is no place for a human. Especially not at this time of the night."
Jeya narrows, "You…. aren't a hallucination."
The Witcher turns his head dubiously, "No, I'm not. Are you?"
"Can't you tell?" Jeya rises to her feet and steps back.
He scans the slender woman's body, halting at the only area of exposed skin - her hands.
"You've been marked by the leshen."
Jeya peers down at them.
"Yes, so it would seem," she mutters, "Any idea why it chose me?"
The Witcher raises a brow, "That is the least of your concerns."
"I'm aware," she responds solemnly.
He peers at her quietly, as Jeya fights to keep her panic at bay and think rationally about the situation. Moments pass with no reaction from either of them, and the Witcher watches the thoughts pass through the woman's eyes - to run, to fight, or simply to die? She cannot run, for the Witcher will outrun her. She cannot fight, for only a Witcher can kill another Witcher. And, most importantly, there is no known avenue away from death, once a person is marked by a leshen. Each thought cycles through her mind, and Jeya knows that time is running out to make a decision about how difficult the next few minutes will be. If she does not make a choice, surely the Witcher will.
"How many people have you saved?" she asks him, finally breaking the silence. The Witcher steps forward without responding. Jeya pulls a dagger sheathed in her boot, and points it at him, "I asked you a question."
"And how many will you go on to save?"
"Why do you need to know that?"
She stares at the Witcher for a moment.
"Because," Jeya sighs, "I... I know what has to happen here. So I just... I need to know that if I don't fight for my life, it's not for nothing."
"Who are you, exactly?" he asks.
Jeya stares at him for a moment, and finally lowers the dagger. She doesn't respond immediately, but instead looks around for the nearest tree. She glances back at him as she treads toward it, "My name is Jeya…"
"Jeya," the Witcher follows, "You seem like you know a thing or two about what I do."
She sits at the base of the tree and reaches for the journal in her satchel, just as the Witcher stops to observe the leshen's etching. She tosses the journal to him, and he watches it slide across the dirt. He kneels down to pick it up,
"Did you know a Witcher?" he asks, flipping through the pages and stepping closer to her, "Is that where you got this bestiary?"
"I've had that thing for as long as I can remember."
"And how many of these have you killed?"
"About a third."
The Witcher approaches her, "That's pretty impressive for a human. Where did you learn to fight well enough to survive in this line of work?"
"I learned from a sorceress, a long time ago when I lived in Novigrad. Her name was Triss, she taught me a lot about survival in general."
"Seems a bit careless to walk straight into a leshen's forest if you were taught by a sorceress. Seems like the kind of thing she would have covered with you."
"I didn't come here unprepared," Jeya pulls the oil from the satchel as well.
The Witcher kneels down before her and takes the bottle from her hand, "This is relict oil, where did you get it?"
"I made it."
His gaze hardens, "That's not possible."
Jeya shrugs, "Apparently it is."
"Humans can't make Witcher oils."
"Evidently, they can," Jeya lifts herself up, "Anyway… just do what you have to do," she holds out the dagger to him, "I can't think about this anymore, I don't want to die insane."
The Witcher looks down at the dagger, and back at her, "Maybe there's another way?"
"We both know there isn't, but thank you for that."
He meets her gaze, and after a moment, he takes the dagger from her hand.
"What's your name?" she asks.
"Ralen. I'm sorry we had to meet under these circumstances.".
"You should know, I don't want to do this," he says. She peers into the eyes of her killer, and sees two stern, but deep pools of compassion. Her eyes become wet with tears that are escaping her control.
"Thank you," she grins weakly and shrugs, "At least my final moments are kind. I'm just... afraid, you know? I didn't expect this to happen so soon."
"Don't be afraid," Ralen responds softly, "You'd have suffered a lot more in life than you will on the other side."
A tear trickles down her cheek and she wipes it with the back of her hand, "I know. I've spent years doing this, and I always figured that the job is how I'd end up dying, I just didn't think it would be so soon, and… abrupt."
"How did you think anyone dies in this work?"
"Either quickly… or not at all."
Ralen glances down at the dagger, "A Witcher never dies in his bed. I'll try to make it quick for you, and as painless as I can."
Jeya nods, "Do you think I'm… going somewhere?"
"I hope so," He shrugs, "Who knows, maybe I'll see you there soon."
Jeya nods and looks away from the Witcher, trying to keep her expression still and controlled. The movement knocks a few more tears from her eyes.
"It's probably going to be here soon," she says, looking back at him. "We should do this now, or you won't be able to kill it. Better one of us dies, than both. And this is… a comforting way to go, so it's alright..."
Ralen nods, "It'll be quick."
He holds out a hand to invite her closer. Jeya steps toward him, placing one hand into his, and raising her other arm slowly. She wraps it around the Witcher's neck in a tight embrace. Whether it is welcome or unwelcome makes no difference, she would rather die in comfort, and pretend that the Witcher is a friend.
Ralen realizes now that the woman is trembling, and a heavy grief sweeps over him. He releases her hand reluctantly, and wraps his arm around her waist. Jeya closes her eyes tightly and prepares for the pain.
"Go ahead," she whispers. Not a moment later, she feels the cold metal of the dagger plunge into her mid-back. She exhales sharply and her eyes shoot open from the sharp sting.
Behind the Witcher, across the opening, she sees the leshen standing among the trees. Her knees fall weak and her arms begin to loosen.
"Behind you…" she breathes out weakly, as Ralen lowers her to the ground.
As her vision darkens once more, the last thing she sees is the Witcher turn on the balls of his boots, swinging a large sword in his hand. [to be continued]