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The Little Jewel
[Image: Nimedadreamriver-ava.jpg] [Image: auri.jpg]
[[dreaming in Wanderlust]]

Nimeda’s eyes wandered over the desolation of the shifting city. The air burned up in her lungs, hard to swallow down, and the bare skin of her arms prickled under the crawling sense of taint. Death hung a pall that drained the colour to an arid landscape, the light too bright and the dark too deep, and all in between the shadows purred content, though she ignored them as she searched for the source. 

The pad of her feet paused a moment when a body shimmered across the pavement, bloated and dead, hair like seaweed. A puddle spread beneath, darkening the asphalt. Then the drowned soul simply vanished, swept away on an invisible tide, and Nimeda moved on. Her toes scrunched though, chilled.

Her heart pounded loud behind her ribs. She did not like the City at the best of times, but cast in the net of a nightmare -- of the nightmare, she liked it a great deal less.

Another step brought her within distance of the giant arch. The next into a child’s room. Her gaze roamed the stars twinkling against the ceiling, but it was the music that caught her in its net. Half a wondrous smile flickered as she turned in place, enamoured of the melody. “How do you know this song?” She breathed the question in a whisper, for its notes were nothing of this Age, shivering her skin with pleasant memory. It was a moment more before she finally folded to her knees and leaned to peer beneath the bed. Long curls spiralled upon the floor as she spied into the shadows.

“There you are.” A smile warmed. She shifted to lay on her stomach, chin resting on her folded arms. The child’s bright amber eyes peered back, luminous as twin jewels. She was curled into herself, holding her knees tight, and surprise bloomed in her expression at realisation of discovery. Fear, too. She shifted her small body away, but Nimeda only watched. “I won’t hurt you,” she said eventually. “Neither will anything out here. I will not let it.”

“You can see it all too?”

“I see all the endings,” Nimeda agreed. “But this is just dreaming, small one. You are doing it very loudly. Will you come out?”

After a moment of silence, Nim slitted her eyes and offered an impish but tolerant smile, then shifted up to sit cross-legged. The soft music soothed, if she could not give the tune a name, and her chin tilted to watch the play of lights against the walls, like starshine. She would wait a while, until the child gathered her courage or faded back to the Other world. It was not how she might choose to spend her time here, but neither did she lament the cause.

Slowly, though, a dark-haired head peeped out. The girl shuffled slowly, wide-eyed.

“Do I know you?” Nimeda’s head canted, blinking, as the girl’s face came into proper view. Her clothes fluctuated like a bird’s ruffling feathers, from a nightdress to a pink fairy costume and back, and her black hair fluffed loose one moment and neatly braided the next. Children were not especially common dreamers, and she showed no sign of fading or flickering weakly back to her waking body, yet neither was there a resonance of something older. Nimeda did not even know why she had asked the question. Not from any sense of familiarity. More from recognition. But the child only shyly shook her head.

The music around them changed, and the lights diffused, washing colours against their skin like rippling constellations. 

“Can you make it stop?”

For a moment Nimeda thought the girl meant the music, or maybe the lights, though when her gaze lowered back to her expression she realised from the wobbling fear alone that it was not what she meant at all. “No,” she said simply. Then, after a moment’s thought, added earnestly, “The Wheel does not stop, but that is a good thing! From endings come beginnings. One cannot exist without the other.” She meant the words as a comfort, but they did not seem to help, or perhaps she was just too little to understand. Fear was fear, though, and Nimeda knew its sting well enough -- for sometimes answers were no treasure at all. She leaned and reached to tap a finger against the girl’s nose. "If you call and I am asleep to hear it, I will come. You do not have to be alone." She drew back, held her palm open in invitation. Her thief hand, with the grimnir’s warning splattered against the palm in a pale white scar. “Shall I steal you away? I know a place we can go.”

After a moment the girl said, wonderingly, “You have paint on your hands.”

“I know.” Nimeda laughed, waggling her fingers until the child tentatively reached out. But she did not take the hand. To Nim’s amusement, she crawled right into her lap, arms tight about her neck.

They shifted.
"Rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart."
[Image: thal-banner-scaled.jpg]
 | Sothis Lethe Alethea | Miraseia |
She made their passage a gentle thing, and deposited them on a grassy verge. Cheerful wooden steps rose behind, leading to a brightly coloured wagon. Vines twined up the wheels, and the paint curled and flaked into the smothering vegetation. Beyond that the land tilted strangely. Glassy waters spread, clearest warm blue in places, springing with flowering lotus in some, yet creeping with thick white ice in others. Mist shrouded shadows in the distance. A peek at curving subterranean walls pulled the eye in one direction, and yet others offered glimpses of cloud-streaked skies and tall mountains.

She did not spend much time in pockets, preferring the vastness of the dream for its prospect of company, but sometimes even she needed the refuge. Such a sanctuary had never quite formed to her whim like this, yet she did not question its kaleidoscope qualities. A pocket, no matter how oddly formed, would protect the child from the confusion of her own dreaming, for whilst they were here they were beholden to Nimeda alone, and she need not be vigilant of the child’s bubbling nightmares.

“Is this where you live?”

"Of course not." She laughed at the notion and pushed the girl gently from her lap. “You are safe. Mara’s pets cannot reach you here. Once you learn to ignore their growling hunger, they will not bother you at all.”

The girl blinked, confused, and took a few cautious steps out into the strange landscape. As her chin lifted to timidly take in her surroundings, Nimeda pressed her fingers to her temple, surprised to find a tender burst of pain beneath the prodding. The girl peeked over her shoulder, eyes big and worried. Behind her an easel wedged lopsided in the dirt. “Where are we then?”

“A place of memories, I think. Or imagination perhaps. I don’t suppose I really know. Who does, when dreaming?”

“Does that mean you made it?”

Their words drifted away like they were carried on a wind. Abruptly, and without warning, the world around them smeared like a hand wiped over wet paint. Queasiness gripped Nimeda’s stomach, the dizzying sensation of falling, and she grappled out for the girl’s wrist in alarm. Her fingers closed like an anchor. She yanked them inelegantly free from that whirling vortex, heart still fluttering even after everything stilled. A storm one moment, calm the next.

That had never happened before. Control rarely flushed free from its moorings. Usually the dream was like breathing.

Stones slipped under Nim’s legs as she shifted to observe their new surroundings. Her skin was shiny wet now, though the nearest water sat some distance down-slope, and a damp shirt clung to mid-thigh; a strange cage, for she never imagined such clothes. Amidst the cold trickles leaking from sodden hair was something that slithered warm and insistent as a heartbeat down her temple.

She knew where they were. But she didn’t know why she had chosen it.

She didn’t know why she’d needed to.

The girl squatted beside her, and Nimeda let go of her, afraid the grip had pinched. Her thoughts swirled like silt disturbed from the bottom of a riverbed, among the clamour of it Noctua’s last words echoing with a memory of shame for her failings. For a moment she was distant, poised for the girl to flicker away in fear. She ought to. That had been dangerous.

“Are you okay? You’re bleeding. All down the side of your face.”

“I am?” she murmured, distracted.

But bloody fingerprints indeed marred the child’s delicate wrist, and now she looked, her own hand too. Pain had flared when she lightly touched her own head before, right before the world unravelled. Nimeda did not make the same mistake twice, but Need pressed out from her in a moment of unusual panic; instinct more than intent. No one would come. So far as she knew, she was the only one who understood how to listen for such currents. Not that much could be done anyway, she realised finally, for the problem was her Other.

Fear coiled in cold waves to her core. Her palm pressed against her chest, seeking the heart of a binding buried beneath the flesh like it might offer comfort. It did not.

“It’s important to look after ourselves in this world,” she said eventually. She had expected the child to be afraid, but she only sat close now, eyes wide with thoughts she did not share. She seemed too young for that kind of silence, not that Nimeda did much more than accept the oddity. Such a solemn little thing. “And in the one where we live awake too. A good lesson, little jewel. Sadly I seldom take my own advice.”

“Paint and blood,” the girl said quietly, touching Nimeda’s hand. The warning apparently flowed like water from feathers, though Nimeda did not mind; she was hardly a teacher. There was something of wonder in the murmuring, like a secret shared with herself. “You are like a story my mama tells.”
"Rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart."
[Image: thal-banner-scaled.jpg]
 | Sothis Lethe Alethea | Miraseia |
Her lips tipped into a smile. The world was swimming a little strangely, but since there was very little she could do about it, Nimeda simply weathered the distraction. It pulled like deep drowning waters, beckoning just one fall deeper into its womb-like embrace. Maybe her body needed the true healing of rest with no dreaming at all. Or maybe it was the promise of worse, the swift fall of a more eternal anchor. Either way it pulled, and for a moment she wondered whether she ought to push the child gently from the dream, lest her own control prove dangerous in such unpredictable waters. Even now the pebbles beneath Nim’s legs were shifting, vibrating to the heartbeat strident at her temple -- like her very soul came loose and she could not tell where flesh ended and dream began. In such disarray Mara's pets might find the rarest of banquets, an unusual delight for them indeed. It might even have proved a novelty for Nimeda herself, except she would not countenance a child caught in the current.

Still, for now, all she said was, “I like stories.”

“Have you met the boy with the birds?” the girl asked eagerly. Her shy reticence all at once melted away, and her eyes were large and insistent, like she beheld a treasure in her small hands. Whoever she believed Nimeda to be, it warmed her like a flower that suddenly found the sun. “Or the Ash Prince?”

Nim drew her legs up, clasped them with her arms, and rested her chin upon the foundation of her knees like it might steady her. The loneliness stirred in her despite better judgement, and she stayed, her world narrowing to those spritely amber eyes and the wonder of a young expression. She pulled her senses in carefully tight, so that she might leave no inadvertent mark on the world around them. Did not even impose her will to smooth the blood from her brow, or realign the strange clothes to her usual proclivity. “I do not believe so. Will you tell me about them?”

But distraction already beckoned, and the girl’s attention shifted beyond the closed edges of Nimeda’s horizons. Her voice drew quiet again, an ardent whisper. “Who is that?” 

Nimeda blinked. Cool pricked her skin in a swift tide, and left the bones of old fear revealed when it passed. For a moment it was not a who, but a what: shadows and skulls and circling ravens that dwarfed the man-shape beneath. Perhaps that was just the warm rush of blood spilling her vision, summoning all the ancient ghosts that sometimes circled those who spread roots deep and old. Most likely it was the sharp intrusion of their last remembered meeting; the threats spilled, not against Nimeda, but the vulnerable flesh and bone harbour that carried her waking life. The fingers of her scarred hand reflexively tightened a little against her leg.

She knew who it was.

But for a moment the spill of her thoughts instead remembered how Noctua had so fiercely vowed his protections against this of-the-time enemy; had called himself a fiercer wolf in a way that amused her at the time, and simply hurt now. She shuddered; let that hollow tide recede. Did not contemplate how disappointing he had apparently discovered her waking self to be, for him to have so carefully demanded the comparison of her like the wound had been intentional. It wasn’t his protection she had ever really needed, and she did not blame him, but nor could she afford to dwell on the sting when her focus now was both so slippery and so very precious. 

She unfurled carefully, fighting the tide of her wavering vision. It was an unfamiliar need for stillness. Her hand reached for the girl’s and captured it softly.

The man the child had spotted -- and he was just a man now -- stood quietly by the shore, his back to them. Somewhere distant, Nimeda felt a summons against her shoulder. A wrench between worlds, like an arm thrust to the hilt into basalt stone. But she was stubborn. And she would not leave the child before she could be nudged gently to her sleeping body. Nor, glancing at the smooth glass of undisturbed water into which the tall man frowned, would she leave knowing how close he stood to the woman who made home beneath its waves.

How did he find this place? She had told him he never would.

“That,” she said quietly, and it chimed like a warning, “is the grimnir.”
"Rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart."
[Image: thal-banner-scaled.jpg]
 | Sothis Lethe Alethea | Miraseia |
The lake was vast, and its answers barred from him. He wandered its shore to no real purpose, much as he had once haunted the edges of Roopkund during the journey there with Declan. Sometimes dreams tumbled answers like bones fallen from a seer’s palm. Often they at least gave him the solitude to think. But fate did not smile kindly this night.

When he turned, two figures huddled upon the stones, framed by the scrubby grass of the hill beyond. 

The recognition did not please him, though the flat plane of his expression did not shift beyond the flex of his jaw. It was the child upon which his attention lingered, though only for a moment. Sören had not wanted to confront Nimeda in the dream; had not wanted to risk reminding the artist of his face, and so complicate his retrieval of the artefact in the waking world. His facade shimmered, on the verge of fading, before it instead flickered closer. He could not leave, though he cursed the tie.

Blood trickled down the side of Nimeda’s face, and no flowers adorned the tangle of her hair. Sören had never seen her in the sorts of clothes he supposed Thalia might wear, like for once she was speared to the flesh and blood body that housed her waking soul. Yet it was not concern that anchored him, but a flash of something that might have been anger, carefully smothered. “Will you seek out everything that is mine, woman?”

She blinked, vacant. The child burrowed closer as the woman she clutched swayed. Sören did not look down. Nimeda did not answer, until eventually her eyes rounded and a breathy oh,” fell from her lips. She often swept away on currents he had little interest in following, for all her uses. So often she offered everything of herself without considering the consequences. Her lips parted, as though to speak whatever epiphany furrowed her brow to wonder, but Sören had no intention of hearing what she might say.

“What have you done to yourself?” He reached out, knowing the touch would startle her. Indeed she flinched as his fingers wrapped her forearm. A twist revealed her palm, not the smooth scar he had seen before. The wound beneath was angry and red, like Thalia had not been taking particularly good care of it, despite the medicated bandage. Nimeda pulled her arm back stubbornly, and he let it slip away. “I do not wish her dead, Nimeda,” he snapped.
He saw them. The small jewel of a child shifted back into her quiet shell, pressing her body against Nimeda’s legs, her arms gripping a tight circle round the clammy skin of her thigh. Nimeda swayed beneath the weight of holding herself still, marvelling at how difficult it was not to overburst those banks and let every whim flush into reality. His words washed over her unheeded. Grim’s accusation made little sense to her at all in that moment, though she did not try very hard to understand the reason for his cold anger. She could simply push him back into his body. Head tilted with the consideration, the fingers of one hand flexing idly, she realised for the first time that she might even do so whilst robbing his memory of the encounter. In fact it might solve more than one problem.

Silence soared, like he expected more answer from her than her wide-eyed stare. Nim’s reticence had not much to do with tides of morality, and a whole lot more to do with the desperate need not to be forgotten -- even by him. The bore of his amber eyes had never been particularly pleasant, yet she had never shunned his presence either; had even helped him when she could, as she helped all those who sought her aid. She could not cut even the most fragile of cords. Such realisation did not leave her proud, knowing as she did what he sought from the lake. Her hand lowered, fingers now pressing light against the silky strands of the child’s head. Bright eyes peered up, afraid and trusting.

Oh,” she said instead. Amber eyes. Though the sudden understanding was not complete; curious questions perched on her lips, like why the little one did not even recognise him, before he reached for her and the thought was lost. She jerked away from Grim’s touch, remembering the bruising pinch of his grip before. He demanded more from her, but her focus slipped dangerously away along with her arm from his hold. 

Distraction claimed in its stead, and her gaze moved away to the horizon. By now her temple was throbbing an insistent warning; the need to retreat into darkness and silence and sleep. But she twisted like someone who’d heard the call of their name. No words travelled, yet familiarity beckoned like the curving walls of a cave, or the shelter of folded wings. It wasn’t the first time she had sensed the Watcher, she did not think, yet his resonance was so strong it might have been the memory of an echo, or something that stretched back further. Such shadows felt strangely like home. But not a welcome. They never revealed themselves. They never claimed.

“Why did you come to the island, Nimeda?”

Her gaze searched the skies. She could not even say why.

“Questioning you is pointless, and maddening,” the grimnir continued in frustration that she barely acknowledged. The child’s grip tightened. Her skin prickled cold, like the veil thinned between worlds. “You said I would not find where the creature had gone, but I am here. I will not harm it if you help.”
"Rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart."
[Image: thal-banner-scaled.jpg]
 | Sothis Lethe Alethea | Miraseia |
“Help you,” she repeated. It didn’t quite have the intonation of a question; the words beat in her more like a heartbeat. Nimeda rarely picked sides. Noctua called her good, but oh, she had once done very bad things; wrong things, though the reasons had always felt right, for love was worth that kind of price, even to the soul. Yet sometimes the help someone asked for was not the thing they truly needed. Grim kept her at a distance the same way Noctua did, though without the same kindness, and without the same regret.

Despite it she knew him better than he imagined; the raggedy bones of the man beneath his masks and conceit. Dreams touched the truest shades of a person’s soul, and such demons chased the grimnir’s nightmares as left a hollow in the place most men kept hearts. It did not mean he lacked one, whatever he chose to allow others to perceive -- or even believed himself. But he told himself he valued other things. Cold things. Material things. It made her sad.

A breath escaped her lungs, control fraying under tides of pain. Was this what it was to feel mortal? A mere blink and she might dissolve into the winds which now began to lick volatile at the shore. The stones were still humming beneath her toes, but she couldn’t keep herself contained any more than a thimble might contain the roar of a waterfall. Instead Nimeda watched the lake ruffle into froth, dizzy with the throb of her head. Aches pierced her body, her actual body, but the concern rattled like debris in a storm. It all felt so far away.

The landscape melted away into a smear, and she knew she was doing it this time, but no true awareness surfaced to temper the raging instinct of the river. Shadows streaked what was left of the sky high above, robbing even the dream’s perpetual twilight. Around them grey waters churned like they stood in the heart of a whirlpool. Damp curls slapped against her shoulders. Her shirt rippled against her skin.

The child at her side began to sob, but for a moment Nimeda only lifted her own hand to study how it flickered almost translucent, like she couldn’t even hold on to that much of herself. She ought to wake herself up. She ought to at least wake the child up, for such sounds of fear burrowed right to her heart, and yet she did not. After a moment she pressed her palm to the girl’s cheek, urging her to hide away.

Grim, his face carved from bloodless marble, twisted to watch the cage swirling around them, one hand balled into a tight fist. Images clouded the water, moving fast with the current. Everything blurred to Nimeda’s swimming eyes, but the grimnir stared at it in horror. A glow came from the water, catching the planes of his face, reflecting the images bright and sharp in his mismatched eyes.

“The creature has a child,” she said. “She protects her child.”

She was not sure he heard. She wasn’t even sure if she spoke it aloud.

“Stop it, Nimeda.” He said it quietly. His fist still clenched, the knuckles white, but she thought he sounded desperate more than angry. He was breathing hard, the rise and fall of his chest pronounced, but the severity of his expression was unchanged as he finally wrenched his attention away. Grim never looked down at the child. Never looked at her at all, after that first time.

It ended with the same sudden ferocity with which it began.

Nimeda’s legs buckled, and the ground rushed up a rude greeting. The grimnir had gone by the time she opened her eyes, which blinked wet with emotion she did not try to understand. Her hands were trembling, her body prickling like the blood inside ran with ice, but the girl’s sobbing drew her attention. She was balled up, face hidden. Nimeda traced the lines of her long dark hair.

“I don’t like it here.”

“Next time, I will show you all the best places of this world,” she promised, and bent her head to kiss those raven locks. A gentle nudge sent the child tumbling back into her body, and with any blessing, to kinder dreams.

Then the world was flat and quiet again. After a moment’s repose, Nimeda stumbled her way to the water. Darkness curled up the edges of her vision as she stared down. Not a beckon to wake, but one dragging her down into the arms of true sleep. She touched the bloody wound at her head, and watched her reflection do the same. The last thing she realised; the face was not quite her own.
"Rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart."
[Image: thal-banner-scaled.jpg]
 | Sothis Lethe Alethea | Miraseia |

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