The forest dragon slithers between the trunks, a green blur in the gloom of the forest. The national park stretches out around them, barren threes weaving their branches into a roof high above. Ksenija grips the reins, feels the muscles buckle underneath her, digs her heels in. They fly over the bumpy terrain, weaving among trunks and ducking under lowhaning branches. The creature Rod captured for her training session waivers, but runs on sheer desperation.
Adrenaline slams through her veins and Ksenija leans forward. The world narrows into a single needle point. So close. She's gonna catch it, has to catch it. It thinks it can escape with its little legs and sleek body, but Ksenija is a magician and they always win. She'll win.
She stands in the stirrups and fires, pure power that sparks through the air and sings the ground. Again and again and again, the horse pulls and she grips the rein with the left hand, lifts the other and -
The horse stumbles and she falls, the ground slamming the breath out of her, but Ksenija crawls onto her feet and fires and fires while she runs.
The dragon collapses and Ksenija throws herself on her knees next to it. It's bigger up close, about the length of her legs. The scales gleam the same green as the bushes surrounding her. It looks like most overgrown lizardards. A black hole is singed right into its spiky skull.
"Good," comes Rod's voice from somewhere above her. "Now slice it up."
She digs for the knife in her pocket, cold against her palm. Her hands shake while Ksenija cuts into the body, but it's not as bad this time, the sense of victory filling her up. She did it. She won.
She killed something that was living and breathing just seconds ago, killed it because Rod caught it and turned the last minute of its life into a nightmare. The dragon has to die because Ksenija needs to learn how to kill.
Her hands still shake while the blood gushes and she carves out the heart. Bile burns in the back of the throat, but it doesn't change how she felt during the chase. Possesed. As if she turned into another creature, something that was completely her and yet not entirely.
For the first time she came alive and it was addicting, the adrenaline, the surge of power, the feeling of the horse underneath her and the power surging through her veins.
The dragon heart is covered in slime. It's small against her palm.
"The quality is shit," Rod says, frowning as he peeks at it. "That's what you get from old stock." He takes it from her, turns it over and chucks it into the woods. "It'll make a decent snack for someone out there. Come on, I'm starving."
Ksenija looks back at the dragon, at the open stomach, the organs strewn around it, the stench of death heavy in the air. She won't be eating for a long time.
"Where do you want to go, love?" Her mum pets her hair, while they survey the brochures over the kitchen table.
Her dad sits on the other side, while Rod stalks behind him, chewing tobacco. He's wearing the stupid uniform and it looks so out of place, where he stands in their yellow kitchen next to the cupboard filled with cookbooks and chipped china.
"Is this really necessary?" he says. "I never went to high school."
Her mum frowns. She's wearing her dad's old t-shirt and sweats, but when she glares at Rod there is no mistaking who's in charge around here, uniform or no uniform.
"Education is important. She has to graduate."
He rolls his eyes.
"Don't need a degree to hunt."
Her mum stands, hand on her hips.
"Ksenija will study, it's not up for discussion."
Her dad holds up a hand, placating.
"Let's all calm down. She will go to high school, that was the agreement."
"She can't do it when she's older, they won't let her. It's impossible to find work without a high school diploma."
"So she will get one. There's no need to argue."
"I still don't-"
"It's not your child!"
Silence falls over the kitchen like a thick blanket. Her uncle chews the tobacco, his features drawn into a scowl.
"I'm well aware."
"So darling," her mum says, placing a hand on her shoulder. "What do you think?"
Ksenija glances towards her dad. He sits on the other side of the table, eyeing the papers spilling over the surface.
"We talked about animal care," she says.
"Choose what you want, don't mind them."
There's a sea of information about different schools and their programs. So many options and yet -
And yet -
Ksenija can't say it. Can't tell them about the crushing apathy she feels every time she ponders any of them.
Ksenija can be normal. She just has to pick something. Everyone has to pick something.
"I haven't decided yet."
According to this test I should go for something creative, like designing or acting. Or get into politics.
"Maybe-," Ksenija says, hesitates. Is this what she wants? It's as good as anything, she supposes. She doesn't want anything, anyway. Anything except, for-
Three pairs of eyes snap towards her and Ksenija looks back at the table.
"You haven't drawn anything since you were a kid," Rod says.
This might not be what she wants to do, but does it really matter? She doesn't care and Ksenija just has to pick something, just has to-
"What do you know? You never see me outside of training."
Ksenija just has to pick something. So she will pick Feliciano.
Her mum squeezes her shoulder.
"Well, if that's what you're interested in. We can see what they offer in Helsingborg."
Ksenija avoids her dad's eyes, but his gaze weighs heavy on her.
You can't run from who you are.
She's Feliciano's best friend. That's the only thing she cares about being.
Feliciano lounges on his bed. It's one of those rare afternoons when his parents are at the pizzeria and his brothers are playing soccer and their house is blissfully empty. Weak light filters through sheer curtains, painting his room in a hazy purple. It falls over the sea of pillows on his bed, over the stacks of fashion magazines on the IKEA desk, shimmers on the strass shirt that hangs over a chair.
"I'm thinking of Procivitas," he says.
Ksenija stills, her marker poised over lavender colored biology notes.
"That's in Malmö."
It's not that far away, but it's not close either. She can't go there. He shrugs, a lazy movement against the sheets.
If they'd live in a bigger city, it wouldn't matter. An hour commute or so. Doable. But they're stuck in this shit hole and just getting to the train station is a feat. It's not like they have their own cars or even driving licences.
"I can't," she says. "I have to find something in Helsingborg."
He makes a noise.
"I'm thinking of staying there. We know someone."
"What, your shady uncle? The one that grows pot on his balcony?"
Feliciano quirks his mouth.
"Respect the hustle, Ksen."
Don't you see, Ksen? He's the one who keeps coming to me.
"Don't call me that."
Feliciano turns on his side, burrows into the pillow and squints one eye at her. The dark curls spill down over his face and he brushes them aside.
"He likes you, you know." His eye flicker, while he gauges her reaction. "Why are you on a crusade against him?"
Because he's taking you away. Because he doesn't even want you. Because he has everything - opportunities and brains and parents that support him. Because he has everything and still throws it away.
"He's an asshole."
Feliciano smiles into his pillow, gets more comfortable.
"And so are you, cara. But I still love you the same."
The anger raises like a cobra and she tampers it down. Feliciano has the right to feel the way he does. Has the right to feel abandoned. He's feelings are valid. He's feelings are valid. He's feelings are valid.
He's feelings are valid, but so are hers.
"I was thinking we could go to the same school or you know, whatever. Forget it."
He sits up, eyes intent on her. Searching for something.
"Oh yeah? What about animal care?"
He looks so comfy on the bed, swimming in Alejandro's oversized shirt which pools over his wrists, hair ruffled at the back. He's always on point whenever he leaves the house, but she likes this Feliciano the best.
"Fuck it," she says.
He smiles so big his eyes almost disappear.
This. This is the only thing that makes her happy these days. Who cares where she goes to high school?
"Can I stay over tonight?" he asks, hope blooming across his features like a lotus in water.
Ksenija has already flunked a session and Rod had been pissed, to put it mildly. She opens her mouth, but Feliciano reads the answer immediately.
He lays back down, pulls out his phone and starts texting. He got it last year and his only contact had been Ksenija.
The notes blur on the paper in front of her. It's always going to be like this, isn't it? Even if they attend the same school, the same class. He used to be over at her house all the fucking time.
Ksenija makes a decision.
The old lamp throws a golden glow over the cottage. Magicians don't need homes the way humans do, but their ancestors decided to set up camp deep into the woods, far off from the beaten paths. It's more for storage than anything else - bookcases brimming with thick volumes, pages yellowed over time. Shelves filled with gleaming gemstones, old skulls and broken bones. Cupboards that hold rows and rows of jars filled with teeth and claws and eyes. A dragon's head is placed over the fire hearth, a relic from her great great grandpa. It used to be a comforting place, but Ksenija looks at the treasures gathered by so many different generations and feels like a traitor.
Her dad sits on the worn couch, cleaning his knives. He could make them nice and shiny just by staring at them, but he prefers this. Something about getting to know his tools or whatever. Ksenija never got it.
She rests on the floor, watching his scarred hands move the cloth over the sharp edges. Back and forth. Back and forth. The fire sparks in the hearth at the side, the crackling loud in the silence.
Her grandpa is doing something in the kitchen and Rod is drinking himself stupid somewhere else. Her mum is probably making dinner back at home, in the village.
"Dad," she says, forcing her voice to sound steady.
He hums. His eyes are on the tools that he handles with such great care, as if it's made of glass instead of enchanted steel. He's so passionate about what he does. All he ever wanted was that his kid would want it to.
Ksenija can do this. She is the one choosing. And this isn't it. Not for her.
"Dad, I-" The words stack in her throat and she can't get the words out. It feels so final.
As if she can't ever get back on a horse and ride with them through the forest. Which is stupid. Of course she can. So what is she so afraid of?
Does she think he will be mad? No, her mum's the one with the temper. But he will be disappointed. And hurt, maybe? Or sad?
"I don't want to - to do this… anymore."
He doesn't even look up. Just keeps stroking the knife's edge.
"We'll finish soon, just give me a little more time."
Ksenija can do this. The trainings are what's fucking things up. It was fine before they hijacked her life. She can just… take it back.
"I didn't mean…" she stares at the surface of the table, at the way the grains intertwine. He'll be mad. She knows it. "I don't want to train anymore. At all."
She wasn't aware that the cleaning cloth made a sound, but when the motion stops, there's a heavy silence. All she hears is the crackling of the fire, her grandpa moving around the kitchen.
"Okay," he says.
Ksenija looks up. He is still, the way he always is during a mission. Only the eyes move, as they contemplate her. Feliciano has inquisitive eyes, that seem like they can read your thoughts in real time. Her dad is not Feliciano, but he has the laser focus of a hunter. She squirms.
"Alright," he says. "Clearly you need to sort your head out." He picks up the cloth. "You're not even sixteen yet. There's still time. We'll resume when your phase is over."
Ksenija stands, watches how he resumes to clean the fucking knives over and over and over, eyes trained on his movements.
A phase. A fucking phase.
"Mum's right," she says, voice shaking in anger. "I'm human. Stop treating me as if I am the same as you!"
Ksenija storms into the night and he lets her. He just fucking lets her. Mum will be pissed.
The cold has settled over the forest like an icy blanket. The trees rise like soldiers in the dark as she barges into the pitch black.
Ksenija is human. She can't spend the rest of her days riding around, taking lives, swimming in blood. What kind of life is that?
She stops, catches her breath, the icy chill burning down to her lungs.
But it's not the hunt that bothers her, is it? It feels like it should. How can she enjoy the thrill down her spine during training, where she chases the poor forest dragon Rod has captured. How can she feel satisfaction at pulling out the heart of something she slain on her own, shaking hands and all? What does that say about her?
It's not normal.
Just thinking of the blood and gore makes bile burn in her throat. But there's still something about the thrill of the chase. Of making her own choices. Of feeling like she has a purpose, like she's doing exactly what she's supposed to do. Of coming alive, as if another part of her has woken up.
The human world has Feliciano. And if she leaves all of this behind, maybe she can find other people as well. He's a social butterfly if there ever was one and there will always be other people to get to know.
Nearly sixteen years and she only likes him outside of her family. But the village is tiny. It doesn't mean she can't like people outside of it.
Blade has disappointed her again and again and again. But it doesn't mean anything. He's just a person. Just an asshole. It doesn't mean anything.
The freezing cold snakes underneath her clothes and Ksenija starts to warm herself up. A branch brakes and she startles. Ofcourse. He sent for him.
"Hey Rod," she says, still staring out in the dark.
He stops behind her.
"It's cold as balls. Let's get you back kid, before your mum straps my balls over your front door."
"I'm not gonna train anymore."
For a moment everything is quiet and all she hears are their shuddering breaths.
"The training is not… a magician is something you are. It's not something you learn to do. It's not a job. Our sessions are just for…" he pauses and she can almost hear him sort his thoughts out. Talking has never been his thing. "We are just trying to make sure you're any good at it, you know?"
She grits her teeth.
"I'm also human, why is that so hard for you people to understand?"
"So you tell me you're gonna be happy sitting trapped in a square box the rest of your life, shuffling papers and answering mails? When you can have adventure? Kid, you know what humans do for fun? They read books, watch movies and play games about the same things we experience every day. You think they want to live their boring lives? If you gave them the choice, would they still choose it, if they could have this?"
She thinks about Feliciano grinning on his bed, eyes crinkling in happiness at the prospect of getting their friendship back on track. The light snuffing out in his eyes, when she doesn't have the time. Again.
"There's some things this life doesn't offer." She turns around, peers at him through the dark. "But what would you know? You've never had a friend, did you?"
She passes him without waiting for an answer.