Leave. Before she comes back.
No. Wait for her.
You have no idea what she wants with you.
She means no harm—why would she help you heal?
Both streams of thought clutched the other's throat, squeezing, muscles and tendons swollen to the brink of bursting.
True, I didn't know the intentions of the woman, didn't know a thing about her. How could trust be given to a woman who introduces herself weapon-first? And then, her strange revelation that I must be ‘pure." Something about that didn't sit right with me.
I wasn't afraid of her. Not out of bravery, but simply because fear didn’t stir within me, if it was even there to stir at all. No, the instinct to flee came from a place of logic. Leaving would eliminate her as a threat. It was as simple as that.
Only, that would solve one problem to have another spring in its place; I had no idea where I was. I could follow the path and hope it led to the city, but what dangers might I face along the way? Again, this concern came not from a place of fear, but from a calm sense of self-preservation.
A pronounced grumble in my stomach brought me to my senses, and I remembered the woman’s promise to return with food. With that, my indecisiveness came to an abrupt end.
But be on your guard.
I sat up, yellow locks of hair falling in my face, and slid down the riverbank, halting at the waterline.
The thought crossed my mind that it might still be dangerous to interact with the river, but didn’t grow into a lasting concern. I no longer felt the compulsive urge to jump into the water—what I now understood to be the river calling for its power. My mind was clear and my body seemed, well, normal. Char gave me the energy I needed to survive and not an iota more. Is that what the woman meant when she said Char would protect me? It certainly seemed that way. The door to Char was closed, but I knew it could be opened again. How, I was unsure. Could, I was certain of.
My throat felt scratchy, dry. As I leaned over the water to scoop a drink into my hands, my reflection appeared on the river’s surface and I gasped.
Your eyes! I thought, only it was not my voice, but the woman’s. It was what she said to me when we met, and now I understood why. Each iris was an iridescent disc of light, much like the orbs of power that were purged from my vessel by the wind. Soft rays of pink, green and blue danced around the pupils, fading from one shade to the next.
Well, there goes your chances of being inconspicuous, ever.
I stood up, my vantage point shifting, revealing a pale shape in the water. It was submerged, overlaid with my own reflection, a white oval with dark curls billowing from the top. It looked like a face—a pair of eyes snapped open and stared back at mine. Eyes that were wide, panic-stricken, full of colour.
A hand reached up, clawing for the surface but falling short. Both the hand and face hung for a second, suspended in a fleeting moment of terror before plunging into the murky depths of the river.
My brain was a seamless overload of thoughts. How can there be someone in the water? You didn’t see or hear anyone. Should you jump in and save them?
Do you want to?
The last thought surprised me, not because I even had to ask myself that, but because I didn’t know the answer.
Can you let someone die?
A sinking pang in my stomach sent a one-word answer to my legs.
The water was colder than I expected. I had to suppress the immediate urge to inhale. The riverbed was shrouded in shadow, underneath striated layers of sunlight and powder blue. Jutting from the darkness were white, spiny fingertips. They seemed to point in my direction as they sunk lower, beckoning, pleading.
Instincts took over and I paddled down, kicking my feet, diving towards the riverbed. I had a brief, satisfying realisation that I knew how to swim, until it was quashed by the desperation of trying to reach the imperilled stranger.
When I drew level with where I thought the hand had been, something changed, something beyond the fabric of reality. The resistance of water against my arms and legs melted away, along with the cold stabbing at my skin and the soreness in my eyes.
This was a mistake, I thought, doubling back. But when I looked up, there was no light breaking through the surface of the water—there was no surface to break through. Just a black nothingness, devoid of gravity, texture, movement. Soon I couldn’t even feel my own body. My senses diminished until I was only consciousness, a stream of endless thought, suspended in shadow.
No. That was not all. I still sensed my connection. My link beyond the physical world. The door to Char was nearby, everywhere, not an object that was to be seen or felt, yet still real and tangible. But something was wrong. There was no longer an option to return to my vessel. I had moved somewhere else. Somewhere that wasn’t me.
What is this place?
An answer came back from the dark.
“That’s a good question,” the voice said, deep and taunting. A tall man stepped out of the shadows, only there wasn’t a ground to step on, nor did his feet make a sound as he approached. His ashen skin was aglow without a light source, short curly hair almost lost to the surrounding gloom. His eyes were like mine; a motley of vibrant colours perpetually switching from one to the next, hypnotic, haunting.
A half-smile flashed on his face as he came to a stop in front of me.
“My name is Adryan,” he said. “Welcome to my river.”