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Wanderlust (Olkhon Island | Baikal Lake, Siberia)
[[continued from A Solivagant Soul]]

Several days of impromptu travel later, and Thalia finally found herself on a ferry to the largest island on the lake, leaning on the railing as she absorbed it all with wide-eyed awe. Curls tickled about her face in the breeze, unnoticed except for when they looped over her vision. Her apartment in Moscow bordered Filevsky, a park filled to abundance with ancient trees and the rush of the Moskva River; chosen specifically for its remote seeming beauty in the middle of a city. Here water glittered almost as far as the eye could see, shrouded mountains looming distant against a pale sky. Her heart pounded in her chest as she beheld the clear depths below, as though she expected to see the twist of something deep beneath. There was nothing, of course, though it didn’t stop her looking, until another passenger pressed a tentative hand on her shoulder like they feared she might slip right over the edge.

When she departed she discovered Khuzhir to be a small, dusty settlement spilling from the port. Quaintly painted wooden houses lined wide dirt tracks, with no road or pavement in sight. Her eye caught on the intricate patterns framing the windows in bright colours as she passed, while beyond the world was composed of craggy mountain, boreal forest, and great swathes of steppe like nature herself swallowed the world of man. Thalia was a city-girl born, and navigated that chaos with ease, but something of the wild places had always tugged at her. She had ever been the muddy, knee-skinned child ill-content with relegating her fantasy worlds to life frozen on the page, at least until she grew older and the world squeezed her into presenting a neater package. Fairies were not real. Her imagination was too vast. Just be less odd, Thalia.

This was the most remote place she had ever been, though. And perhaps it was the cocoon of the vast waters, or the reading she had voraciously inhaled about the island's mythos during the long journey back east, but there was a touch of reverence to her wonderment.

She must have looked like the worst kind of tourist.

[Image: khuzhir-village-olkhon-island-baikal.jpg]

By some small coincidence, the homestay she had chosen turned out to be owned by a married pair of Moscovites escaped from the clutches of big city life, and who had converted the top floors of their own home to welcome guests. It was comfortingly rustic within. Gardens spilled below, and a pen containing goats which Thalia offered to tend as part of her lodging. They were spirited and amusing creatures, for the most part, though one in particular was a curmudgeonly soul who privately she called Philip. It may have been her favourite.

Though impatience itched her to explore, she spent the first evening acclimatising to her hosts, sharing food and stories that enraptured her long into the night. Anastasia spoke at length on the places to visit, including the Shaman Rock Thalia knew was in the drawing from her dream. The research lit her passion on the long journey over, and Aylin had been a less than enthused recipient of the esoteric facts she had collected, and more interested in the question of why her sister was not returning home. So it was nice not only to find a welcome for all that overspilled delight, but a mirror for it. It wasn't until the old german shepherd dog who had claimed her knee for a chinrest got up and shook his bones, seeking somewhere more comfortable to curl up, and Anastasia herself then stifled a yawn into the back of her hand, that Thalia finally realised the time and padded her way to bed.

She slept hard, utterly exhausted.

[Image: khuzhir-homestay-Edited.jpg]

The next afternoon, she pushed through dirt inclines and narrow passes framed by giant larch and pine trees. Thick forests gave way to empty steppes, the long grasses sometimes tall enough to tickle under her outstretched palms. The trail was easy enough to follow north and Thalia lingered over the journey, entranced by the sheer isolation. Anastasia said wild horses called the island home, though she did not see any. Plenty of dogs wandered though, intent on their own forages or trotting along behind her for some of the way. The first ribbon-tied totem shooting high and proud above her head stole her attention for long moments before she moved on, and she passed several such sentinels during the journey. It tied little ribbons in her own heart, some sense of something beyond herself.

Eventually a steep descent led to the basin of water below. Thalia recognised the rock jutting from the waves, and it quieted something in her to behold it in person. Emotions shifted through her chest, and she did not recoil from them, though neither could she say what they really meant. It was still a way down, so she pulled herself onto an outcropping and let her feet dangle for a moment of rest. A hand swiped the back of her sticky neck, her hair roped into an inelegant knot on the top of her head. It was only pleasantly warm, but she had been walking a long time, and she was glad of the brief respite.

Bright grey eyes took in the scenery below. The tranquil expanse of blue was beautiful, but it was not that which captivated her; or not only. She pressed her fingers to her chest, but did not try to unpick the knot of her thoughts any more than she tried to understand the churn of feeling inside, instead letting herself think of other things.

[Image: iStock471952853_Lake_Baikal_800c2400_new.jpg]

Anastasia had told her one of the local folk tales (and there were several about this place): of a girl whispered stories from circling gulls of a man she grew infatuated by and wished to marry, and of the father who denied her and locked her away, until she later escaped with the help of her brothers. Amidst her father’s violent anger, a storm shook sky and earth, and when a fork of lightning split the nearby mountain he picked it up and threw it at her to block her flight. But he was too late. The daughter was too close already to her lover, who swept her into his arms for them to remain inseparable since.

The rock marked the boundary between the lake and the river Angara, so named for the girl in the story. It was the only river to leave the lake, like the girl running to the arms of her beloved. The locals said her spirit still dwelt in the stone. Only a fraction thrust visible from the pale blue waters, and caves sunk below the surface. A spiritual place, so it was said.

Eventually Thalia eased herself down to follow the path to the shingled shore and the creeping rhythm of the tide. A few other people mingled about, though it was not busy either. Too many to push her into the lake's embrace with an abandon that might have overwhelmed had there been no eyes to observe the mischief. She didn't have anything to swim in; so drawn by the meandering of her own whim, it had not even occurred to her until now. She pulled the boots from her feet and left them on the stones alongside her bag, wading into the silky waters. Her skin prickled cool as she stared out across it, a swell of deep sadness catching her off guard and pulling her further than she intended until the cold crept up the hem of her shorts. This was not like the river at Viljandi, where she could dive to the bottom herself, trusting recklessly to instincts she did not understand. But it left her at a strange loss. She retreated a little, then sat, the waters lapping up cold and curious as kisses at her feet.
"A river is water in its loveliest form; rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart."
Roderick Haig-Brown
[Image: nimedathalialethebanner.jpg]
[[a diversion to the mainland, at Liars]]
"A river is water in its loveliest form; rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart."
Roderick Haig-Brown
[Image: nimedathalialethebanner.jpg]
[Image: aylin-and-thalia-av.png]
Aylin & Thalia

She made the last ferry by the skin of her teeth.

It was late afternoon by the time Thalia stepped foot back on the island. She paused to feed the goats milling plaintively about the yard before she headed up to her room, calling a breezy greeting through to Anastacia as she did so. A confluence of loose sketches were strewn like a small hurricane blew through in her absence, precisely as she had left it. She’d refrained from tacking them up on the walls, given it was not her house, but they drifted across practically every other surface. Tentacles and scales, mostly. The glitter of clear waters. Strange symbols.

She ought to shower and sort the knots bound to have snarled up in her damp hair, but she perched on the bed instead, wallet in hand, and began to sort travel arrangements for tomorrow. Whether or not Kemala chose to contact her, Thalia would still go. She didn’t know what else to do.

The phone began to ring while it was still in her hands. Her chest tightened with unusual reluctance; she never avoided her sister’s calls, not on purpose, but their last conversation had been unpleasant. I have a commission from the Church had soothed troubled waters for a while, bringing some promise of normalcy to her abrupt flight from Moscow. But Thalia couldn’t lie, and certainly not to Aylin. I met the Pope and he came all the way from Rome to save my soul had resulted in stony silence on the line, no matter how Thalia had tried to explain it in a way that made sense -- or at least to frame it in a way Aylin could accept. Inevitably she’d found herself drifting away from the parts that sounded craziest. It left a chasm between them; one there had never been before.

“Hey Aylin.”

They spoke pleasantries for a while. Thalia drew her legs up on the bed, watching the bright tops of roofs she could see from the window, and the smudge of blue beyond. Her sister had always been firm ground to Thalia’s flighty indulgences, and inevitably the net that caught her when she fell. For most of Thalia’s adult life it had just been the two of them. So the words, when they came, didn’t surprise:

“Please just come home.”

A sigh upended from her lungs. Thalia had no compelling reason to stay, beyond a bunch of drawings and a feeling. Nothing had happened when she went to the lakeside. Or nothing she could articulate, anyway. She pressed a hand over her head as Aylin continued into the silence, knowing there was nothing she could say to placate her sister’s worry. She wasn’t completely oblivious; she understood how strange it must seem -- to Aylin especially, given her work at the Guardian.

“Sometimes I don’t think you remember how worried mum and dad were about you when we were growing up. The things you’d come out with, Thally. The things you insisted you saw.” 

There was a soft plea in Aylin’s voice, but also that smooth kind of carefulness that sounded like her doctor’s voice, as if she soothed a wild animal. Thalia closed her eyes tight. Didn’t think about those hazy childhood memories, or how normality had been something learned; squeezing between the lines, choosing what to say and to whom upon discovery of how and why she was different. Those differences had never troubled her; they made her feel alive, just a strange lens through which she sometimes viewed the world. At least until she’d learned to fear it all.

The power had unravelled all that. And she wasn’t afraid anymore, just very alone.

“I’m not saying there isn’t something strange going on,” Aylin added quietly. “I know that sometimes your drawings are…” 

The words faded into discomfort. The resultant silence felt like a universe, with Thalia very small inside it. Aylin didn’t want to understand, or couldn’t -- and Thalia didn’t need her to. But right at that moment, she was desperate for her to simply accept.

"Like Yana,” she supplied, eventually. Her chin rested on her knees. She tried not to think about the tattoo inked on her back.

"Like Yana," Aylin agreed. “And you’re a channeler. That’s real enough. But think about your behaviour, Thalia. It isn’t normal to pack a bag in the middle of the afternoon and end up in Estonia. And now you’re in Siberia! Less than a month ago you had an utter break--”

“-- you think I need to go back on the meds.”

The static said all it needed to, and Thalia felt her heart sink.

“I’m just worried. Do you even remember what happened the day you first came to Moscow? You draw strange things, but that doesn’t mean you have to go off and chase them down. Let me make the arrangements. We can talk about this better in person...”

Even Nox had cautioned her decision to go alone -- out of care, she knew, not disbelief of her conviction. The Pope’s words stung a reminder too; that she was dabbling in things beyond her, and walking resolutely into danger. She’d told him she didn’t need saving, surprised more than anything. She was but a drop in the ocean, whatever her oddness. And she was tired of being told to be careful.

She could go home.

She should go home.

The thing was, Thalia needed to know if it was real.

When the call ended she stared a moment at the phone. Did not glance at the artwork all around. There was still plenty of light. She slung her bag on her back, and headed out the door for the trail.
"A river is water in its loveliest form; rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart."
Roderick Haig-Brown
[Image: nimedathalialethebanner.jpg]
The water was quiet by the time she reached it. Her bag was still heavy with the supplies she’d bought on the mainland, and she dumped it at her feet as she sat on the grassy slope facing the small bay. Curiosity parted for frustration as she picked through the sketches at the front of her book, like there might be answers she’d missed amongst the tentacles and scales. What if it really did mean nothing? She stared at the creature’s face a long time, doubt seeping around her edges and tugging her down with the burden of its weight. The coiling touch of despair was like dry kindling igniting against all the troubles she’d left behind in Moscow. How many times in the past had she teetered on the edge of that panic, unsure if she could trust her own thoughts and intuitions?

The only person she’d ever met who was like her was Patricus, and the chasm between the two of them was as large as the ocean -- larger, even, for the way he’d both carefully and formally set her aside. He remembered dreaming, though. Knew what he was. 

And he was gone.

Thalia stared out at the horizon, thoughts spilling in every direction and none. She didn’t pick through the emotions, but they were filling her to bursting. She ran her hands over her face (winced reflexively) and heaved a sigh that might have easily turned into a strangled sob. Movement caught her eye then, one of the island’s stray dogs some distance away, head low as it curiously sniffed in her direction.

“I don’t have anything to give you,” she said quietly. “Unless you want some company?”

It cautiously wagged its tail at the softness in her voice, floppy ears perked, but did not come closer. After a moment it loped back up into the forest.

Trying not to feel hurt, Thalia turned her gaze back out to the landscape from her drawing. Resolve tightened in her chest as she stuffed the sketchbook back into her bag. Inertia flooded her to despair, the uncertainty of whether she was waiting or simply wasting time. She frowned, chewed her lip, and then turned to tuck her belongings away from obvious view -- though there was no one around now. Traditionally women weren’t allowed near the rock looming from the clear water. Various archaic superstitions surrounded why, though she had no reason to think any of it was real.

The waters were cool when she waded in. The afternoon sun had begun to dip to evening shadows, streaking the sky pink, but Thalia wasn’t thinking about time. Aylin’s careful suggestion of mania hooked belligerence in her chest, and her heart was a rebel she had no intention of taming. She dove deep into freedom.
"A river is water in its loveliest form; rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart."
Roderick Haig-Brown
[Image: nimedathalialethebanner.jpg]
This morning, in summer’s sun, the water had been effortlessly clear. It rippled cool against her skin, washing clean the shore’s doubts and worries. For a time, at least. She had always loved to swim, though even in England they had never lived by the coast. Oxford did rise up from the meeting of two rivers, though. Growing up her father had taken her and Alyin punting in the Cherwell most summers. Skinned knees and knotted hair peppered reminisces of riverside adventures. She’d had a good childhood. The memories drifted, but she let them go without delving too deep.

It was cold in the lake now; colder than she’d expected, and she revelled in the not thinking. Water parted like silk. Sound muffled. Oblivion beckoned.

Eventually her face broke the surface with a grinning gasp. She twisted, hair spreading in loops and coils that tickled gently against the bare skin of her arms, and slowly she searched the horizon until she reoriented herself on the rock. Wide eyes stared up to find dying light caught on its edges. When had it gotten so dark? She realised the first stars had begun to peek shy above her head, or maybe winked disapprovingly down at her carelessness. Not a single soul in the world knew where she was right now. If there really was a creature in this lake, she was at its mercy. A shiver tingled her skin. Beneath her trailing fingers the water was inky dark, impenetrable.

Plenty of things scared Thalia, but not usually the ones that were supposed to. Flesh and blood and impossibly breathing drawings born to life had terrified her until Patricius’s no nonsense words made it seem a trifling concern. He’d blinked out of her life almost as soon as he’d entered it, gone before she’d acclimatised to the new way of thinking. Not that she suspected he would have ever easily weathered her gregarious manner. Thalia didn’t easily fit into the confines of a box. Even kissing the ring had been a difficult enough conformity, though for him she had done it.

The thought of the unknown beneath her feet, though? Miles and miles of unspeakable depths? That only filled her with a kind of wonder. Swimming at night, alone, in a strange country? Well, perhaps she hadn’t thought the safety of that one the whole way through, but right now she was only in awe of the immensity all around her, and the solitude, and the sound of the water and her own breathing. She swam close enough to press her hand against the stone like she expected a heartbeat. The river in Estonia and the secrets it divulged made her believe she wasn’t just crazy, but Baikal hoarded its answers in silence. If there even were any to be found here. Maybe it was like Patricius said, and it was only the question itself that was beautiful.

She breathed quiet, pressed her head against her hand where it rested against the rock. Aylin’s accusations bothered her more than she thought they would, even though they were expected. Even Patricius’s abandonment circled her thoughts with more tenacity than she really understood. She hadn’t told either of them she was looking for a creature that looked to be plucked from the pages of a story book. Not even Nox knew that. Truth was Thalia believed it was real even without having laid her own eyes upon it, like she suddenly realised she accepted everything in her sketchbooks must be. In the solitude of the vast waters she admitted that maybe it was less proof she sought and more connection; because despite the tentacles and scales, her features were so very human. The emotion of it tugged so strongly. And maybe it was better not to even ask why.

Guided by the rock, which plunged deep beneath the surface, Thalia slipped back underwater.

It was too dark to see now.

Which was about when things went wrong.
"A river is water in its loveliest form; rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart."
Roderick Haig-Brown
[Image: nimedathalialethebanner.jpg]
Guided by her hand against the rock, Thalia pushed herself down and down and down. Darkness swirled now, like it was oblivion itself into which she was welcomed, and she saw little of the wonders she knew hid beneath the waves now the sun had died. In Estonia’s river, confusion and the current had thwarted an attempt to light her way (and then, of course, the terrible burning), but she felt calmer here. Patricius had warned her against the power, and once she may have listened. But there was no one to see the transgression down here, and its sweet temptations felt more like home than it ever had before, when the idea struck. Even the burning breath held in her lungs did not provide distraction.

Lights drifted like falling stars after a little thought, flickering to tentative life far easier than the coloured bubbles for Rasmus at the church. Thalia beamed, captured by the wonder, and reached to splay her fingers through the tiny glowing spheres until they spread like a dandelion blown on the wind. Shadows rippled distant, and her skin prickled all over; the light had an eerie quality, but it felt like the most glorious secret.

Caught in that unthinking moment she was not sure what even happened next, but when stars burst her vision a second time it was because she hit her head. Hard. The shock wrenched the power from any vestiges of control, and darkness plunged cold and furious. This time it scared her. Panic burst with the pain. She swallowed down water without meaning to. Kicked, disorientated, until air knifed her lungs as she broke the surface.

By the time she swam and scrambled ashore, her heart was still beating madly. 

She heaved herself out, throat burning, half in and out of the water. Her head throbbed, and she pressed it down into the rough pebbles, eyes squeezed shut, berating the stupidity. Half a sob squeezed for release between the wild coughing. Though there was no one to run to, with either fears or wonder. She wasn’t even sure which one she felt more.

A long time passed before she wobbled up to her feet, more unsteady than she would like. It was by now too dark to see anything across the lake, just the glistening reflection of the moon, but she turned anyway and spent a long, dripping moment staring before she finally pulled herself away. Practicalities were never forefront in Thalia’s thoughts; at least not until ambushed by the necessity. She hadn’t thought about getting back to the village, but the inky darkness spreading up the hill into the tangle of the forest trail offered no welcome. How easy to become lost in that wildness, like a fairy tale. Bones gnawed by bears and wolves was not how she envisioned her own story ending, though.

Fortunately her bag was wedged where she had left it. She pulled on the giant t-shirt she had purchased from a tourist shop on the mainland that morning, then let her legs fold awkwardly underneath her as the shock caught up with the heavy weight of a shroud. It took effort to drag the blanket from her pack, and loose drawings spilled out and caught the breeze. The shadows claimed them quickly from view. It was too dark to chase them down. That, and everything was spinning just a little bit.

Cocooned in the thick wool, she rested her head against the stone instead, and resolved to wait for dawn’s light. A poor idea to fall asleep out here, not that she had any intention. Honestly, her pulse was bursting out painfully from her temples with too much force for that to be a danger anyway. Her eyes upturned to the sky glittering above. Stars like that never pierced the city lights of Moscow. She traced her attention along the constellations she recognised, seeking one in particular, and the story that went with it, until some time later everything gently blurred.

"A river is water in its loveliest form; rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart."
Roderick Haig-Brown
[Image: nimedathalialethebanner.jpg]
“I’m going to take Brenna outside,” he told Sierra as he gently brushed her hair from her forehead. He left her to rest if she desired. Their trip had been tiring.

Dawn stirred the sky with fresh color. The air cooled his lungs as he drank it in. Though it wasn’t cold by his standards, he wore flannel and boots. At his feet, Brenna sniffed around until circling into a place she found suitable for relieving herself. The ground was damp. A stillness settled over the island in a way that promised the future stirring of the townsfolk. Tristan knew he’d sleep no more this day, and in the distance, a woeful howl wafted to mind.

He sniffed the air, but there was only a mild sense of wrongness. The lake was near. The shore reminded him of the rocky paths of his homeland. After a short distance, he sent Sierra a message so she didn’t worry when he didn’t return. Checking something out at the lake. Be back soon.

He stopped at the water, studying the surface as if something may lunge from the depths at any moment. The wolves on the horizon were peaceful now, likely resting after a night of hunting. He was about to turn back when a metallic twinge swirled his nostrils. Blood, he realized.

He followed the scent, never noticing such a strong path before. It trailed to a pile of rocks, upon which was strewn a small shape. He stood over the girl, realizing the blood was dry and cold. He sent Sierra another message. Come quick, and included his location. The satellite was spotty out here. He hoped she’d find it. If not, the same smell that Tristan followed would likely lead her correction.

He knelt warily down, touching the girl on the shoulder. His eyes burned gold in the low light, wide with recognition.
"Don’t waste your time looking back, you’re not going that way."
Rognar Lothbrok
Her body stirred from the touch, but did not wake. Brief murmurings drifted from her lips -- maybe too mumbled to hear, maybe not -- and her sleeping expression flickered into a press of concern or pain before her body curled tighter into itself, like consciousness swelled to the surface only to sink like a belligerent stone.
"A river is water in its loveliest form; rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart."
Roderick Haig-Brown
[Image: nimedathalialethebanner.jpg]
Tristan left to walk the pup. Never watched the two of them depart with a desperate look. It was more like Tristan wanted to be alone so she let him go. Their trip had been long and she was tired. And laying down sounded like a good idea. And the wolves in the distance called to her. But she stayed and sent her introductions to them. They were at the far end of her range, but it was nice to know there was a pack nearby.

A message pinged on her wallet and she laughed softly to herself. Tristan would be back eventually. The lake sounded nice at night but she let Tristan be -- it was his mission, and the lake was why they were here. She didn't know much about anything, but it didn't matter Tristan was pack.

A second message crossed the screen and Sierra frowned. His location was sent with it. Something was wrong.

She sent Never an image to find Tristan. It was far more accurate than the spotty GPS. And she trusted Never's nose before technology anyway.

Tristan knelt beside a woman. "She's in a dream." Sierra said. "Is she hurt? Let's take her to our room where we can keep her warm."
“She’s injured. Look at the blood,” he brushed her hair aside. Her face was caked with a river of half-congealed red. Besides, the tang of it swirled his nostrils.

With Sierra’s help to gather the girl’s belongings, he carried her tiny body back to the village. It was Nimeda, he was sure it was her. Unfamiliar with the village resources, they had to inquire of a doctor from the landlords. Meanwhile, he laid Nimeda on a couch and waited for a doctor to call.
"Don’t waste your time looking back, you’re not going that way."
Rognar Lothbrok

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