Drina's body was plunged into the water – hard. The trunks of the surrounding lotuses spread out around her, wiggling like snakes, as a hand enclosed around hers and pulled.
Drina didn’t know what was happening. There was a hand holding the back of her two-piece swimsuit, painfully tangled in her hair and pulling and Drina – without her permission, all this is happening without her permission – and was too shocked by the gesture to process what the hell was happening around her – because there’s a hand in her hair, on her back and a pair of legs hanging limb in the water somewhere to her right even though they were moving.
More like soaring.
Water didn’t splash, the vine-like trunks of the lotuses didn’t tangle with their limbs – who was with her? Vid, the idiot, please. She didn’t want to think about what would happen if it was somebody else.
It was the strangest thing, cutting through water at such height speeds it was blurred chocolate-green with snake-vines fanning out around them – parting for them like the red-sea. It was the only coherent thought that resonated through her mind, numb with panic as it was. She shouldn’t have been able to breathe, to move without actually moving, to run from the freaking police like a Witch from a pyre.
Bad expression. Really, really bad expression.
Drina was actually quite coherent, maybe because she was consciously trying to distract herself from the sheer helplessness she found herself drowning in.
They shot up suddenly, the lotuses snapping into place behind them like a curtain drawing to a close.
They never broke the surface.
Drina felt like she was going to throw up, but was too afraid to open her mouth. She feared she would suffocate any moment – any moment at all – now. She didn’t. She didn’t draw breath but for some reason she didn’t need to and somehow, that was what frightened her the most.
They were near the bank now and Vid – Vid, it was Vid – was a sickly green in the water, hair curling into a withering cloud of hair that revealed a soaked bandage ready to float off his face. Only the left side of his face was visible and she concentrated on it as though it might disappear.
He was the only familiar thing in this absurd situation – and she’d known him only for little over two hours. Her thoughts ran in jumbled circles as she noted, frazzled, the spindly cracks that sneaked under the bandage and spill over his young face like crow-claws. Drina told herself to get a grip.
That thing, that bandage, was going to give their position away if it surfaced above water, Drina feared, and reached for it almost unconsciously.
Vid snapped his gaze towards her – both eyes open wide – and Drina choked.
One eye was brown-green, painted dull by the murky water, but the other – the other – was a clear, luminous white. The eyeball seemed bloated in his socket, the veins – indigo-blue – were visible in the clear mass around the zenith and Drina registered pain and horror and blood before it snapped shut and Vid’s back arched in agony, mouth open in a silent shriek that was drowned out by the water around them.
Blood – blood in the water.
Shit. They’ll know.
You count to ten out of thirty and peer through your fingers. Brother races down a stone path in the forest, faster than you can follow – with a childish giggle, you follow. He’ll wait for you, just like he always does.
Maybe it would have been better if the police just picked them up, got them to a freaking paramedic and just ended this bizarre endeavour. But no, Vid had obviously used some kind of Magic to get them from the near-center of this fairly wide river to its bank and no one could hold their breath so long to both close the distance and navigate through a forest of lotus-vines.
Drina wanted to scream, but couldn’t.
The water shifted around them and Drina felt as it embraced her and pulled down. It wiggled its way, that unnatural current, around her companion as well and the eye that was about to fall out of his flesh and the blood that drifted, almost lazily, towards the sun-bathed surface.
There was a woman, then, in the water – of the water. Drina felt like her heart was about to shoot out of her chest, wanted to scream and scream and scream and not understand but the water-woman held up a finger – a tendril of water, more blurred, more concrete than anything else in this underwater nothingness – towards non-existent lips.
Drina obeyed the silent command, mostly because she could do nothing else. The woman-water, shifted – the water around her shifting with her – and gave her a signal to stay put while she drifted away from them and into the forest of lotuses.
They parted like the red sea.
Sound traveled eight times faster in water than it did in the air. Sound was permitted, accelerated and reduced to mindless blurts. Drina could hear unintelligible shouts, honks, thuds and other sounds but didn’t know where they were coming from. She realized, early on, that she could only judge their intensity.
She couldn’t decide what was worse – the deafening silence or the deafened noise – as she held her new acquaintance by the shoulder under the roots of a tree. Drina didn’t know what was up with him, but wished he’d quit being weird already and tell her what was going on.
Not that he could do that under water.
Time passed. Vid was still half-limp and half-squirming in her grasp, face altering between being twisted and contorted, as he tangled his fingers in her hair and the roots they stuck to as if for dear life. The water-woman didn’t come back and Drina wondered if she’d imagined her.
She shook her head and told herself she wasn’t crazy. She was not.
She was Drina Serdar, a twenty-first century Witch with a forgotten – not imagined – brother, hiding under a tree in a river in the mountains over a lake with a bleeding confirmed-Prophet waiting for either the police to go or for the water-woman to come back and–
She was going mad. She was definitely going mad, but the thought became less panic-induced hysteria and more exasperated bitterness. She didn’t know if she should scream or laugh. She didn’t know what to do.
She didn’t know anything, when it came down to it.
She hated herself a bit, for not knowing.
First grade is the absolute worst, you think, they never made us do this stuff in kindergarten. Still, it’s a good enough excuse to sit in your brother’s lap and bug him when his friends come over. He doesn’t seem to mind, just smiles and stops whatever he’s doing with a good-natured sigh.
“What are you reading?” you ask him.
“Mythology.” he answers.
There was the sound of a motor running an infinite time later, but the water didn’t shift even one bit in their sanctuary. Drina had long ago given up on the conundrum of how a Human could survive this long underwater without needing to breathe, because it was starting to give her a headache.
She didn’t wonder why Vid had more-or-less fallen into a coma – the bastard – or even why there was a woman made of water in a river – and where else would she be? – or why she was even bothering to ask either way.
The world would be a much, much simpler place if she turned her brain off. Permanently.
She didn’t though and choose to mull over thoughts of grass and oblivion.
Drina continued her wait.
A lullaby echoes across the uneven stone. A hand strokes tangles of hair. Sleep is near, as are many undefined being wandering in and out of your consciousness.
“Play with me!”
“Don’t you have friends to do that with? What do you need me for?”
“I want to play with big brother! Everyone else can just go away!”
“Oh, come on Drina, don’t be like that. I’ve met a few of your friends, they’re good kids.”
“But my brother is the best and I want him to play with me! I want to play hide-and-seek not some silly fantasy!”
“Fine, fine, but don’t go crying to me when you can’t find me!”
She counted to one thousand before letting go of the roots. The young Witch almost expected the water to shift and push her back down – there was a nasty stab of fear in her gut, but she ignored it. Drina surfaced without a hitch, pulling Vid up with her as if he were a rag-doll.
Might as well have been, the useless freaky-eyed bastard.
Seriously, what was up with that? He should have at least given her a heads up. (Never mind that they couldn’t speak underwater.)
Irritated, she lugged him onto her shoulders. He panted and spluttered when he accidentally sucked hair into his mouth and muttered something between b and w when he called for her. Gross.
The water seemed reluctant to let them out – and how the hell did she figure that one out? – but pushed them gently towards the nicest place to get out of its depths nonetheless. Vid was dead-weight, however, and it would surely prove to be a pain to drag him into the shrubbery and away from view.
The water helped there, too, and Drina held her breath as tendrils covered the two of them like jelly, slithered up across the wet dirt of the shore and up, up, up until there was grass under their feet and a tree to lean the bastard-Prophet on.
The water melted then, left them dry, and morphed into the water-woman. The woman was made of water. The river was made of water. Figures.
Drina tried to focus more on the woman’s Human-like features and not the blurred scenery she could see through the other. It was quite disconcerting, but Drina didn’t consider herself a racist and would never stoop to such levels – but she couldn’t say it wasn’t freaky, if only for the first time.
Her first Water Spirit. Her first encounter with another sentient – Magical – being. Uh... why hadn’t she brought a better swim-suit?
The woman wasn’t looking at her – or anything, really – zenith-shaped water turned in the direction of her companion. She opened her mouth, but the sound she let out was too quiet and distorted to decipher. There was something desperate about it, though – not in the expressionless face or the formless body or just the transcendence of said body that was not an actual body.
The body of water – no pun intended – quivered, like it was about burst into a flurry of rain – and somehow, Drina understood.
Drina was no lip-reader, but she was pretty sure she knew what the water-woman had wanted to say.
Take care of him, now that I cannot.
It’s late and it’s dark. Mother has already sung her lullabies and the light has gone out in the hall. You can’t see the boy that sits at the edge of your bed, like a shadow intruding upon a childish dream. “Brother,” you call, groggy “What is it?”
He’s silent for a while.
“What would you do without me, Drina?”
You don’t understand that question.
“I’d bug you until you take me with you.”
Brother doesn’t seem to understand the answer.
Drina dragged Vid further up the hill into the thin line of trees that spanned mere meters around the river-bed, and jabbed her finger to his temple to get him to focus.
It wasn’t like he didn’t deserve it after everything.
“What the hell were you thinking?” she hissed – finally in control of herself, finally able to take control of her surroundings.
Nothing made sense.
Then again, wasn’t that precisely why she’d sought Vid out in the first place? It felt like forever ago. For some reason, that thought made her want to slap him again.
Vid looked up at her through one, half-lidded eye from where he leaned on the bark. He’d regained enough energy to stand on his own two feet now, but refused to do so. He just looked at her, then turned a blind eye the other way even though it was already closed.
Drina bristled “Answer me, freak.”
This made him laugh, hysterically.
She slapped him, again. Asked “Who were those guys?”
He didn’t stop, just threw his head back and laughed and laughed and laughed. Drina thought he had a higher chance of choking on dry land than he did in the water.
“Nothing new,” he breathed – tired, slumped, and scarred. “Just some thugs who’d tried to kidnap me a couple of times before”–he hiccuped a laugh–“nothing not worth being slapped over by a bipolar rat-nest.”
Drina was quiet for a full ten seconds, digesting this, distancing her emotions from the situation. Humans were selfish creatures, Drina believed, and right now she was so close to finally finding something on her decade long search.
She was only nineteen, however, and knew she would never be able to tame her volatile heart. She could try to hide it, however – and hid it she did.
“What did they do?” she asked the Prophet, quietly.
Vid didn’t say anything for a while. Drina noticed he was staring in the direction of the waters, towards the patches of empty air the greenery around them did not mask.
“They threatened my mom.”
The sun’s reflection was almost white in the water.
Drina swallowed and tried to keep her voice steady “Where were you?”
“In the basement, under the carpet.” She didn’t know why she was asking. “She... she was all alone.”
It was personal – sacred, in a way – and entirely out of bounds for a random stranger like her. Then again, he knew of her brother... He knew...
He shouldn’t be telling her this.
“Where was your dad?”
It made things much messier than they needed to be. She shouldn’t have asked – he shouldn’t have answer. None of this was supposed to happen.
Vid snorted. Drina wondered if he could read minds and decided the thought was infinitely better than its alternative.
“Further underground than I was.” The air seemed chilly all of a sudden, the sun’s reflection too bright for her eyes and the mud beneath her feet pulling her down and–
She’d never thought of herself as delusional. Suspected? Yes. Feared? Hell, yeah. Denying that other world, however, meant denying her brother as well. In a way, it was denying herself if she denied her family – however imaginary it appeared.
She wondered why she hung onto him so tightly, to that half-forgotten phantom-dreamer. At first, because she’d been desperate to fill the void she hadn’t known was in her heart. Not until much later. After that, confirming her brother’s existence meant confirming the Magical world she’d become a part of – proving that it was real, that it wasn’t just some sick fantasy she’d cooked up to–
To prove she wasn’t crazy.
Simple as that.
In her mind though, Drina had always imagined that all of her problems would have been solved once she confirmed that her brother actually existed.
She never really thought about what she would do after that.
Maybe it was because she never truly believed in this conception, in having somebody out there waiting for her to find rather than it being an excuse for her excess loneliness or in just believing she’d have the perfect life if she’d just get back her dream-family and...
“Further underground than I was.” he’d said.
She was such a naive, baby girl.
Vid looked at her, away from the glowing water and the patches in the leaves, and he looked old. His face, tanned from hours upon hours navigating the boat, was cracked like dry earth. For the first time Drina took notice of the crow-feet around his good eye and the scars raising up around its counterpart, sneaking over skin and under messy bangs like spider-webs – white, elevated and eternal.
“Yeah.” he said, paused “I guess I should say it too, sorry for–“
“Don’t.” Drina breathed, before she even realized it. Suddenly there was no more air in her lungs and she was having trouble drawing her next breath. Ironic. So bloody ironic.
“You won’t see him again.” Vid told her and abruptly thinking became just as hard as breathing.
When she forced out one, single word. It had all the force of a desperate heart “Why?”
“Because I said so.”
Plain and simple and painful.
“What kind of a reason is that?” Drina all but screamed.
Vid shrugged. Drina , even in her fury, couldn’t help but notice how indifferent his expression was, how dead his gaze was when their eyes meet. “It’s a reason of the all-knowing.” he explained, slowly, as if it was too much effort to spend it on a simple-minded girl like her. He shook his head, but told her anyway: “I tell you, the plot thickens, tragedy throws a party. End. Of. Story.”
She looked at him, the wary old coward hiding in a man-child’s body, and snorted. “You’re not serious.”
She wouldn’t believe it. She wouldn’t.
“I’m dead serious.”
She’d never thought of herself as delusional either.
Thus, she asked, yet again–“Why?”–as if she actually expected an answer.
She got one – just not the one she’d been expecting.
“Because I can see. You hear me?” Vid screamed “I. Can. See. You know what that’s like – to not be able to close your eyes? To see the world as it truly is, was and will be? To not be able to turn a blind eye to all the injustice, all the hurt, all the unnecessary...”
His already mangled face had contorted even further, his long bangs had slid away as he trashed his head this way and that like a madman. However, Drina wasn’t scared. This was the first time, she realized, she’d actually seen the real Vid Balshic.
He was a sad sight, under all that over-bearing charm and forced indifference.
“You seem to have done a good job of it, so far...”
She wasn’t a saint, either. No, Drina was anger incarnate.
His head snapped up, his eyes were dazed. “What?” he spluttered, but the Witch knew he’d heard her just fine. It was a confusing affair, this conversation. Drina wanted it to end, but she also wanted the last word – above all else, she wanted to know. She told him as much “My informant tells me you’d put down the last twenty-six job offers in the last two months. I want to know why.”
“Doesn’t matter.” His eye – right, normal, right – had hardened. He stared at a place just over her shoulder, as if to set it aflame, single orb dead set on not giving anything way.
“Were you scared?” the girl pressed.
“What? No!” the boy bellowed.
“Were you indifferent?” the Witch jabbed, trying to get under his skin.
“I wish I was, girly, trust me.” the Prophet relented – sagely, tiredly.
“Were you in pain?” Drina dealt the fatal blow.
Vid broke – visibly.
There’s was silence. Drina’s victory rung hollow. However, there were still words to be said and information to be exchanged before silence could truly have a coup d’état.
“Your eye bled, just then, in the water... when you looked at me.” Drina broke the silence with broken sentences, because she couldn’t decide what was worse. She gritted her teeth and thought, why does it even matter anymore? “What did you see?”
Vid avoided her gaze, his remaining eye slipping closed. “A sister.” he answered, simply.
Drina swallowed past the lump in her throat “Does this sister still have a brother?”
“It’s better that you don’t know.” Vid sighed, raising his hand to ghost over the left portion of his face before he could even comprehend what he was doing.
Drina frowned at him.
“I have a right to know, however.” she announced suddenly, so even the River Spirit could hear – if she were listening. Drina wondered if she was, if she understood, if she took sides.
Drina gritted her teeth and beard with it.
“How and why did you become a Prophet?”
Not a simple game of question and answer – never that simple. She was stubborn enough to make it work, no matter what.
“That eye of yours... it’s not natural.” she pressed, less aggressively this time.
Vid snorted into his chin humorously “It’s not really mine, either.”
Drina froze, the sun was white gold in her eyes.
“What? How’s that possible? You would have died–“
“From shock? Blood loss? Yup, been there, done that.”
It was almost like their roles were reversed.
It was a simple question without a simple answer.
Drina didn’t know when Vid had started shaking, but was familiar enough with the feel of absolute helplessness to know not to poke a cornered animal when it clawed at the walls.
“My house...”–he began–“my old house is in ruins. The roof caved in when I was young...” – faltered – “dad was the only one in there...” – tried again – “Mom wanted a new house and we had a good portion of land...” – stopped – “that wasn’t really suitable to build a house on.” – continued on despite it all – “Sans this one, damned spot near an old well. It was closed up, years ago, God knows why.”
Vid laughed. Drina tried to focus more on the story than the story-teller, but could not – for they were intimately, infinitely tied.
Vid didn’t notice her unease, too caught up in his own world.
“My grandpa had the bright idea to make it our water source. No need to pay the water bill if you have your own supply, right? So we set out one morning and busted it open.”
Humans were greedy creatures.
“Damn. He hadn’t lived long after that...” Vid seemed to agree, however unwilling. “There was a reason that well had been sealed. See... this girl was in it.”
Vid gulped, though the motion couldn’t have been conscious. He was too lost to do anything but reminisce.
“Yeah. Small thing, deathly pale.” Drina blinked, doubt in her eyes, even though he wasn’t looking at her and she wasn’t asking any questions. “Clawed nails and freezing flesh.”
Vid burst into a grin “Grandpa fainted when he saw her, right on the spot.”
Then, he turned somber.
“She threw herself at me, wrapped her fingers around my throat... kept saying I won’t forgive you, I’ll never forgive you. We tumbled for a bit, I was stronger, despite her being a supernatural entity. Guess dry land didn’t really agree with her. At some point I realized she couldn’t see me. Probably had a hard time hearing me to, after all that time in complete isolation.”
Drina wondered if he’d forgotten she was even there.
“She used to live in the river, you know?” the would-be Prophet rambled “With the Water Spirit? There used to be a colony close to here, all Lamiae, Nymphs, Dryads and who knows what else. Most of them are gone now, in the Skadar or just gone.”
He stopped then, stared at nothing in particular.
“We came to an agreement, eventually. An eye for an eye, you could say.”
His hand came up, almost unconsciously, to caress his face.
“Why?”Drina asked, because it was the only thing she could do now.
Vid was so lost in his own world Drina had to wonder if he’d even heard her, but then he sighed and said “The man who sealed the well, a very long time ago, wanted to tame her. Train her, really. He had a bit of knowledge of the Magical Arts, so he bound her to it and buried her there.”
There was silence. Drina thought something along the lines of “Poor thing.” and it slipped into the emptiness that had settled around them.
“Demonic thing, if you ask me.” Vid’s face was arrogant again, scared underneath “But, anyway, I couldn’t leave grandpa behind and she wasn’t going to let us go, so... I did the best thing I could. I bargained.”
He was pretty strong, for a coward.
“For what?” Drina was cruel despite her best efforts.
“She was blind. I had two good eyes, a grandfather and a mother.” He took another deep breath and opened one eye – the Human one – to wink at the Human girl in front of him “What do you think I gave away?”
Drina felt sick, but told herself she was just as strong – stronger – than the boy leaning on the bark.
“How didn’t you die?” she was still curious to the point of being cruel.
“She fell in love with me, of course.” Vid had already given up on sanity anyway, even if for a brief time.
Drina’s jaw dropped to the mud.
“No, you idiot. Magic. Ma-gic. Aren’t you supposed to be the expert here?” Vid lectured, distracted, as he continued to jump from topic to topic. “Anyway, I traded my eye for hers. She could see again, more-or-less, which won me her favour. The promise to unbind her from the well and get her down to the river, to her little Water Goddess – that earned me her protection.”
There was silence. Drina wondered if she should call him an idiot gently or bluntly – but didn’t have the willpower to do either.
“She promised to protect my mom, if anything ever happened to me.” Vid concluded his somber tale, looking happy because of it. His smile was a crooked thing. “Now this happened to me.”
Drina spoke only to not hear the silence – the implications – of their current situation. “What do you intend to do?”
There had to be something they could do.
“Run.” the Prophet said “Run as fast and as far as I possibly can.”
Drina frowned. His answer didn’t make any sense to her. “What about your mother?” she inquired.
There was a moment of consideration and lip biting, before he uttered, simply “She has Vira.”
Drina’s mind went completely blank for a moment, two, six–
“What’s your problem?”
“My problem?” he echoed, mocking “My problem is that I have a bat-shit crazy Witch on my case, a crazy half-blind half-don’t-know-when-she-might-turn-on-me Lamia in my backyard, an abundance of dead relatives and a mother drowning in depth!”
“And you’re going to leave her?!”
“Is there anything worth staying for?”
Drina saw red. She felt noting as her hand connected with his cheek, so hard her nails actually tore the skin.
He slumped forward, letting his head rest on his knees and had the nerve to smile up at her helplessly “This is why I hate helping people.”
The Witch felt hatred curl in the pit of her stomach.
“Get up. Now.” she commanded.
He merely shrugged, like it didn’t matter – like nothing mattered. “Can’t.”
“Can’t or won’t?” Icy words, wrathful words that promised Armageddon in the sweetest voice possible.
Vid was shaking his head, shaking his whole body, as if there was something funny going on. “Won’t, then. If you prefer it that way.”
His face twisted into a smirk. She resisted the urge to slap him again and asked, for the third and final time:
Vid shrugged as if it didn’t matter and willingly signed his own death warrant.
“Because it’s not worth it.”
“Don’t you dare say that! Don’t you dare!” – slap – “Don’t you dare say my brother isn’t worth finding!” – snap! – “Don’t you dare imply your family wasn’t worth your love!” – slap! – “Don’t you dare even think your mother wasn’t worth the effort!” – slap! – “Don’t you dare say you regret any of this!”
Vid looked up at her from where he lied on the ground, mud sullying the left side of his face, and said “You are one crazy bitch.”
Drina, huffing from the previous beating, biting back thrice as hard “And you’re a selfish, egoistical wise-cracking know-it-all who doesn’t give a shit.”
He didn’t disagree. She was too far gone to notice.
“Let me tell you this, then.” he said to her instead “You go back now, to your family – and you will be united only when the whole world turns against you.”
“Already is, buddy.” Drina snorted, but recognized the end before it came.
“You think this is a joke.” Vid laughed as if it really were.
“You’re the joke, Drina.” He giggled at her – at them “We all are.”
Then he fell quiet and looked – just looked – as she picked herself up and prepared to leave.
“Nobody’s laughing.” she told him.
“No one but Fate.” He answered, readily, like every word was a stepping-stone he’d trampled over a million times before.
Drina scowled in disdain “You’re so full of crap.”
“You’re desperate enough to believe it.” No expression, no fight, nothing.
Drina decided never to think about the boy in front of her again and shifted her focus back to the people she was supposed to care about. “They took my parents, did they?” she questioned him.
“Nope.” he answers, as if she’d asked if the sky was blue. “Though they’re not really your parents, so I don’t see why you care so much... but, yeah, the River informed me that, by the time those bozos gave up on us and turned to pick that pair up, they were already gone. Doesn’t know where they went, however... well, good thing you thought of a rendezvous point beforehand, right?”
He wasn’t being helpful, not at all.
“Why didn’t the River Spirit help them?” Drina prodded anyway.
Vid raised an eyebrow, as if it were too obvious to name, but explained “Because she didn’t owe your little friends anything. I’m the only one willing to bring her last, long-lost sheep back to her. I’m the one who chose to save you.”
“Fat lot of good that did me.”Drina tried to ignore those words, but they slipped into her memories like sand through a filter.
“You owe me. Don’t forget.”
Trying to act nonchalant didn’t make anything better, but it made things easier – in some twisted, lonesome way.
“Yeah. I’ll repay you by not strangling you.” Drina barked, resisting the urge to pull the boy up onto his feet and shove him forward. She settled for an empty thread and eyes full of too many emotions to name. “Go. Now. Before I change my mind and bring you to those guys myself, nice and battered.”
He turned a blind eye to it all “I guess this is goodbye.”
She snorted, hate curling in her gut like a bear waiting for the end of winter.
“You better pray it is, coward.”