His child. The words were more shocking than the lightning that had just coursed through him as he thought of the wretched thing that had fallen from Casca's womb the morning after the Eclipse. The misshapen and misbegotten thing that had once been his child- the thing that could have been his child. Guts remembered the last night that he and Casca shared together well. It was one of the few good memories that he had. It was just before the rescue, all of them ignorant of what horrors would come next.
He hadn't realized he had gotten her pregnant at the time. The idea he could be a father never crossed his mind.
Guts only learned that he could have been after the Eclipse. When that twisted thing fell from the woman that he loved. Tainted, Skull Knight called it. Tainted by Casca's rape at Griffith's hands. It was something he kept far from his mind, snarling at it when it did dare to show its face to him. A taunting reminder of what could have been and what had happened before his eyes.
Now Guts was left reeling, his head a jumbled mess that struggled to form a single thought. "It… he… how did he make a deal with you? How could he? I… I thought… I thought he was…" Part of Guts felt sick. His memories went to Gambino, the man that raised him. How he tormented him. How he tried to kill him. How he sold him. And how Guts had loved him anyway, so desperate for his approval. Now he found himself in Gambino's shoes and more than anything else, that made him sick.
"Power resonates with power. The Godhand are not peerless, nor do they lack in enemies. A little piece of Femto stained itself upon his soul. With it, he cried out into the space between the Spheres, searching for someone to help him. I was the one that answered his call. We struck a bargain - his soul in exchange for transporting you to this Sphere, safe from the influence of the Godhand." Gaunter explained, a small smile tugging at his lips that didn't reach his eyes. "From there, I set you up on the proper path. To the child of the Elder Blood."
This creature had the child's soul. Guts grit his teeth until they threatened to shatter in his mouth, rage flowing through his veins as he glared at Gaunter. Casca seemed to understand the meaning behind the words even if she didn't understand them because her struggles renewed.
"She seems to be quite the handful. Please, allow me," Gaunter said, snapping his fingers and he suddenly heard movement behind him.
"What- Casca?!" Ciri yelped, realizing that Casca no longer stood with her.
"Don't try to fight him," Guts growled the warning to everyone, swallowing down his own instinct to take a swing. "He's too dangerous."
Gaunter stood idly by, his hands behind his back, watching the others be puzzled by what just happened. Gaunter had frozen time. That wasn't anything he had seen before, and it wasn't something he could counter. Guts could find himself dead with a snap of the fingers. No. This wasn't a problem he could swing at. This was something he needed to think through. "You aren't telling me any of this out of the kindness of your heart. So how about you tell me what you want," Guts growled, catching a glance from Geralt from the corner of his eye.
"Oh, but it isn't about what I want, Struggler. This is about what you want," Gaunter replied, his tone smooth as silk and it made every hair stand on end. "I am but a humble merchant selling hopes, dreams, and wishes."
Casca. "What's the price? My life?" Guts ventured, a frown tugging at his lips. He had witnessed this. He knew what awaited him at the end of this path.
"Your life? Why would I ever want such a wretched thing?" Gaunter laughed merrily with a shake of his head. "You are a rare creature, I will admit. Born underneath a hanged whore into the mud after her death. It was your destiny to die there - alone, in the mud, your very first breaths being your last. But, you cried out at the right time, to the right people, and your life was spared for a time. Gambino, your father… how many times did he try to kill you? Dozens? A hundred? A boy of five sent on suicide missions, yet you always returned." Guts didn't at all care for how much he knew. "The Eclipse. There, by all logic and reason, you lived. Where you received that brand that allowed you to slip destiny's noose."
"By that logic, it should be a valuable thing," Guts pointed out.
To that, Gaunter nodded, "It should. Destiny is not something easily shaken off. Lovely Casca is a perfect example of that - to be raped at the hands of the noble her family sold her to, to the many soldiers that nearly defeated her… until her destiny was realized at the hands of Griffith. You, Struggler, have fought against destiny since your very first breath. By all logic, your life should be valuable. Perhaps, to others, it might be, but you and I know the truth, don't we?" His smile seems to grow to impossible portions, "You don't care for your life. You never have. The only reason you struggled against destiny was simply because you refused to let anyone take the one thing that was yours."
There was a troubling echo of truth in to the words. More than Guts cared to admit. Before the Band of the Hawk, he lived for the sake of living. He fought because it was familiar to him. Gold and pleasures were meaningless to him. Even now…
He left the Band of the Hawk to find a dream.
He never did.
"Then what do you want from me?" Guts questioned, and Ciri stepped forward.
"Guts, stop. We can find another way. I don't know who this guy is, but you can't trust a thing he says," she warned him, and he knew that. He did. But… but… he was so close. Casca was so close. He didn't care if it cost him his life. Or his soul. He just wanted her back.
"I take offense to that. I am no mere Djinn, Child of the Elder Blood. I am not bound or captured, looking to cause the death of my captor by exploiting his wish. Have many regretted the deals they struck with me? I would say so," Gaunter admitted in all honesty, his eyes sharp as any knife. "However, rotten wishes lead to rotten outcomes. It is not I that make them so." Ciri stiffened at the mention of her blood, her grip tightening on her blade.
"Guts," Ciri stressed, grabbing into him, as if she couldn't believe he was even considering it. He shouldn't be. He knew how deals like this ended. Yet, all the same, he was considering it anyway. The very damn thing that he killed so many apostles for. For being too weak to say no or to let go.
"Can we?" Guts asked her, his tone flat and Ciri winced. She knew the truth. The Djinn was a last ditch effort as it was. So, he turned to Gaunter, "What's the offer?"
"Haha! Despite it all, Struggler, I do like you. Three wishes shall be yours. You can have anything that you so desire. The eternal devotion of your lady love? Perhaps the heads of the Godhand on silver platters? No, you are the sort to get things done yourself - how about Power? The kind of power that your dear friend branded you as a sacrifice for," Gaunter offered with a smile.
It would be a lie to say that it wasn't tempting. Three wishes to have whatever he wanted? To have his revenge? And what would it cost him? How many ways left could he be hurt?
Guts cast a look at Casca, who looked up at him with vacant eyes. However, perhaps it was just what he wanted to see, but they almost seemed pleading. Pleading for what, Guts didn't know.
He was a damn fool. And a damned one.
"Fine," Guts decided, looking back at the devil disguised as an angel. He would make the deal. He would take those wishes. And what should be take? What would make it worth all the hell that came next? Power? Revenge? Or… Casca reached out and touched his arm, the only person whose touch he had ever welcomed. The choice was both the hardest decision he had ever made while at the same time being the simplest.
"I wish that Casca's wish comes true. I wish that Casca's mind is restored. I wish that the consequences for my selfish wishes only fall upon my head, that no one else suffers for it."
Gaunter seemed to freeze for but a moment, the mask of his slipping. His cruel smile that seemed kind slowly fell away. He tilted his head, as if he was regarding Guts for the first time. The aggression in his body language and gaze fading away, replaced with… "Three fine wishes, Struggler. Three fine wishes indeed. I shall grant them, but not without a cost."
"Take what you want. I've made my choices and I'll die with them," Guts responded with a sense of finality. Casca would be safe. Ciri would look after her. Casca would take care of her… of their child. As he was, the brat would be better off. Better no father than to have him as one.
"What a pleasure. So very often I encounter those that try to cheat me of my payment. Always looking for clever wordplay or outlandish conditions," Gaunter remarked.
"It ever work?" Guts questioned flatly, wishing that he'd just get on with it. Claim his soul, claim his life - whatever.
"Not a once," Gaunter smiled. "Very well, Struggler. This is my price. I cannot take your soul, for it is already marked. I cannot take your life, for it is worthless to you. What I shall take from you is the one thing that propels you. The one reason that you keep going and why you're standing here today. What I shall take… is your vengeance." Gaunter intoned, his words brimming with an unspoken power. Guts could feel it in the air as if the wind itself was holding its breath. Guts felt something rising up from deep in his gut, and it wasn't just his horror.
He'd rather give up his life, but Guts supposed that was the point. To let their deaths go unanswered? To let Griffith get away with it?
His blood boiled at the mere thought of it. Everyone he had ever dared to call a friend was in the depths of hell, suffering endlessly, because of his betrayal. He raped Casca. There was no forgiveness for that. Vengeance was all that he had. It was all that he wanted. It… it was why he was able to keep limping forward, no matter how wounded. It was a far off damn near impossible goal, but it was the reason he was still sane. Without his vengeance, what could he do? What would he be?
"Shall you pay the cost?" Gaunter asked, approaching Guts slowly, seemingly gliding over the floor rather than stepping on it. He came to a stop directly in front of him, holding out a hand with an easy going smile. Guts looked down at the hand like it was a snake.
His gaze flickered to Casca one final time before he steeled his resolve.
"I'll make the deal if you uphold yours," Guts agreed, shaking hands with the devil.
"Oh, I shall, Struggler. Oh, I shall," He said before Guts realized that it wasn't just horror that had been rising up from his guts. Something climbed up his throat and Guts was driven to a knee before spitting up black tar that tasted of poison. "It's been a pleasure, Struggler. Truly, it has. A bit of advice before I go… you still have your life. Learn to treasure it. It's the only one you have."
Guts felt like whatever was coming out of him was dredging up his entire stomach with it. The black bile seeped outward, the sensation so intense he barely registered the parting words of Gaunter. Ciri was by his side, shouting his name but Guts could barely hear her over the sound of his retching. The black bile seemed to bubble when it finally left him, spreading out over the deck. His vision swam when the edges of the bile touched his prosthetic.
Before he could see what was done, everything went black.
Guts woke up feeling like someone had scooped out his intestines. He noticed that first, more than the rough straw bed that he laid up upon. It was probably the first bed he slept on since the Eclipse, Guts realized. Reaching up, he dragged a hand over his face, feeling everything but refreshed. He looked around, idly realizing that he was back in the tavern in Novigrad. The… thyme and something. Dandelion's tavern.
"He's up!" Guts heard one of the children scrambling from outside of the door that was cracked open to let a few of them perk in. He glanced that way, but it wasn't what his gaze landed on. It was his armor that sat on an armor rack. The black steel was changed, even if he still recognized it. Most unsettling of all was the dog shaped helm and the slash that marked where the eyes were. It felt like the armor was watching him, Guts decided, swinging his legs out of bed.
It was an unsettling feeling. Though, less so when his eyes landed on his prosthetic. It too had changed - it looked like the armor with fanged fingers colored of black steel. More alarming was the fact that the prosthetic was more than a prosthetic. The fingers twitched first, the first independent action he had made with that hand since he had cut it off years ago. Slowly, he curled the metal hand into a fist, finding that it responded to his will even if it didn't feel anymore than the iron had.
"What did that cost me?" Guts muttered quietly, taking measure of his injuries. He was covered in a fair number of bandages - from the lightning or where his skin fused with his armor. The pain was sharp, but nothing that he couldn't ignore. What was more troubling was how weak he felt when he stood, forced to prop himself up against the wall-
The armor on the rack moved of its own accord. It collapsed into that same black sludge that he vomited out, flowing over the armor rack, before it lifted up to slam into him. The strength didn't return to his body, but he felt like he could stand on his own two feet. Looking down at himself, he saw the armor was now on him, fitting like a glove. It felt no heavier than his prior armor, even if there was more of it. A hand went up to the teeth that were around his throat, as if the dog helm was going to swallow him whole.
It was a cold comfort, Guts decided, stepping to the door. This armor… he knew what it was. It was unnatural. The question was why did he have it? The deal was he gave up his vengeance. How did that translate to his hate and desire for revenge physically manifesting as a suit of armor? A test, perhaps? For the devil to renege on his end of the bargain?
Clearing the door, of all the faces he expected to see, it was Geralt to be the one approaching him. He seemed unsurprised to see Guts on his feet, even if his eyes did narrow at his armor. "Casca?" Guts questioned, making Geralt pause before he gestured him to follow. The very next door swung open, revealing Casca.
Casca was in a fitful sleep, Guts immediately noticed. Sweat dripped down her skin while her expression twisted. As Guts stumbled forward, Geralt spoke. "She's been unconscious for about a day. You too," he informed. "Yennefer confirmed that there's some potent magic going on with her, but nothing inherently dangerous." He reassured, and that was a relief. "As for the boy…"
Guts half collapsed in the chair by Casca's bedside, even the small walk had exhausted him. His stomach clenched, "The boy?" He asked, hesitant. An image of his twisted form appeared in his mind, making him clench his jaw. He looked to Geralt, fearing the worst, only to be answered with action. Behind Geralt, peaking out from behind him and the door was…
Was his son, Guts supposed. The child was young, around two or three years old. As old as he would have been. He looked more like Casca than he did him, which was probably a good thing - his skin was a lighter shade than Casca's, his hair long and dark, while his eyes… Guts saw that he had his eyes.
It was easier facing apostles, Guts decided. That involved swinging a sword. Killing something. The enemy could be defeated. That, he could handle. This… this he wasn't. The child peered at him, his gaze unblinking, saying nothing. Could he talk? When did babies start talking?
"He's powerful," Geralt informed, his tone neutral. "Extremely so. Yennefer and Triss both examined him and say that he's a Source." A holdover from his days as a spirit guarding his mother while his father scorned his existence? "It'll be difficult for him to learn magic, but he could."
There was a small pause that was only broken by Casca hissing in her sleep.
Surprisingly, Geralt broke it. "Ciri's furious with you. Yennefer thinks you're a fool," he informed, and that got a small scoff from Guts.
"She's not wrong," Guts admitted. He was a hypocrite of the highest order. And he found that he didn't care so long as Casca came back. Let Gaunter take what he wished from him. So long as it was taken from him.
"I understand why you did it," Geralt told him, making Guts glance at him to see that he was being honest. "I wouldn't have done anything different in your shoes."
It shouldn't, but that did make Guts feel better, "Thanks," he grunted. "Where is Ciri?" He asked after a moment, looking back to the child when he moved. He slowly revealed himself, wearing a large shirt that covered him from neck to foot. He moved cautiously, stepping around Geralt and approaching Guts like he was a wild animal.
"Gathering up the men to break the siege of Oxenfurt," Geralt replied. "She took your advice, even if she won't admit it. She's using Triss and Yennefer to cover for her powers. As far as everyone will know, Ciri used mages to teleport an army." That was a clever compromise, Guts had to admit.
"When?" Guts questioned, the two of them watching the child as he came to a stop in front of Guts. He looked up at him, his dark eyes searching his face. For what? The wrath that had been in his eyes every time he saw the creature lurking in the shadows? Shame ran through Guts like a river. One without end.
"Tomorrow. The plan did hinge on you killing an army," Geralt remarked, amusement coloring his tone. "He's waiting for you to say something."
What could he say? An apology? Like that could ever be enough. He… Guts clenched his jaw, something starting to well up inside of him, and the armor began to answer it. Anger, Guts realized. Anger at himself. "Thank you," Guts told the child, earning a blink in response. "Thank you for protecting her," Guts told him.. his son. His child.
His son offered a small smile before stepping forward, crawling into his lap. Guts was glad that he wasn't wearing his throwing knives because he seemed fascinated with the many sharp edges of his armor. His hands hovered until the child sat comfortably, leaning his head against his chest while he watched Casca sleep. It seemed to come easier to her now, the restlessness fading away into a more peaceful slumber.
"I can fight tomorrow," Guts agreed, feeling… lost.
"To pay a debt?" Geralt questioned, an unspoken one in the words. While he had been frozen in time, Guts suspected that Ciri told him what transpired. The wishes that were made and the deal that was struck. His vengeance. The one thing that kept him going. His driving force. He gave it up and now he has no idea what came next.
"I owe Triss that much," Guts muttered, gently resting a hand on the kids back. He got a reaction, just not the one he was expecting. The armor melted off of his hand, turning into wisps of black smoke that seemed to be absorbed by his shadow. He might have thought the kid did something if it wasn't for how put out he seemed when his chest piece vanished. The armor… that was a distant concern. A dangerous one, but far less pressing than a question Guts hadn't thought about in years.
What came next?
"Ciri trusts you," Geralt told him, catching his attention. It was a quiet admission. "That's not something easy to earn. About as easy as I suspect it is to earn your trust. She won't say it, but she wants you to stay here in this Sphere." He told him, and Guts suspected as much. Ciri was a friend. Something that Guts never thought that he'd have again. She followed through on the promise of helping restore Casca's mind, even if she did think it was a poor idea to make that deal.
That just meant her reasoning was sound.
"Fighting is all I've ever known. I picked up a sword at three and I haven't set it down since," Guts told him, answering that unspoken question. And, to that, Geralt let out a small chuckle.
"She also told me that you're younger than her," he remarked. "I can't claim to know what you've gone through. Won't bother with the sweet lies either. You're a mercenary, so I'll say this - you can build a life here, in this Sphere. Ciri, for better or worse, is dead set on unifying two empires. She'll need people that she can trust by her side and having the goodwill of the empress of most of the known world is a cushy position. Your son can learn magic. He'll probably end up one of the strongest in the world, second only to Ciri. Casca… you could have a castle. Or a farm in the middle of nowhere."
Geralt know how to talk to him, Guts realized with some amusement. No flowery speech. Just blunt words.
Guts looked down at the two and tried to picture it. He earnestly did. To own some fancy castle. Having servants. Being nobility. The idea almost made his skin crawl. Still, his own discomfort with the idea was a distant concern. Casca had always been a fighter, but that didn't need to be true any longer. Their kid could grow up to be a spoiled rotten brat that never knew the true horrors of the world.
They wouldn't need to want for anything. Never have to go hungry or worry about a knife between the ribs over a handful of coins. Casca and their kid could be the ones that paid sorry fucks like him to do the fighting for them. They'd never have to know another battlefield again.
That wouldn't be a bad life for them.
"I wouldn't know what to do with a farm," Guts admitted, his voice soft. Geralt chuckled, but their attention quickly shifted to Casca when a low groan escaped her. Guts felt his heart leaping up into his throat, pounding harder than it ever had before. Casca's eyes clenched, almost as if she were fighting to keep them closed.
His tongue felt clumsy in his mouth, "Casca?"
That drew her attention, and she willed her eyes to open, her gaze meeting his.