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Dream, Memory, and Blood (Olkhon Island | Baikal Lake, Siberia)
[[Continued from Wanderlust]]

On the journey to the shoreline, Thalia asked Tristan about his life in Iceland. She had been to Reykjavik before, but only on a tourist excursion with her sister (a birthday present), and that many years ago now. She remembered the beauty, though. She spoke a little about her own home in Moscow, her work, and her sister. Asked Sierra where she was from, and inquired if the dog-not-dogs had names. She never pressed deeply for answers if they were reluctantly given, but was curious about both of their lives, and soaked in every detail they chose to give willingly. In the lulls she meandered tales of the island’s history and folklore (especially pertaining to the lake and rock), and spoke with the genuine awe and enthusiasm of someone charmed by life’s mysteries; who was naturally inquisitive about, well, everything. And sometimes she was quiet, too, distracted by the scenery and the beribboned totems that dotted the path. For all that she was happy to fill the silences, they didn’t seem to bother her either.

She paused briefly once the broad, bright surface of the lake first came into view beyond the trees, much as she had done her first day here. Then she followed the incline down to the shingled beach. A few tourists milled, but it was early and peaceful still. Thalia let the others choose a sheltered spot before she dropped her bag from her shoulder. Perhaps it was just that the sun was barely up, but it was not as warm as yesterday, the wind biting a little bitter as she wiggled out of her borrowed garments. She envied the dog-not-dogs their thick pelts of fur. Her swimming costume beneath was still a little damp, though she had rung it out in the cabin, and it felt not exactly pleasant now the cold took nibbles from exposed skin. She folded Sierra’s clothes more carefully than she would have her own, and placed them with her things. Though she had left most of her belongings at her homestay in the village, everything important was in that bag; her wallet and money, her pens and sketches, and the pinecone in its burn box.

“Will you wait here or return to the cabin?” she asked Sierra. She was not quite sure if the woman actually disliked her, and it made her deeply uncomfortable as a possibility; especially as, whatever the other woman’s true feelings might be, she still made the effort to be kind. Thalia was warm in return, and perhaps a little more obviously so in fear of that rejection. She sat with her for a moment longer, staring out at the water, her hand snaking up over her shoulder where the first poppies bloomed a large design down her back. The voluptuous figure inked amongst the flowers there was an exorcism at the time, but it had been a beginning not an end. Not for the first time she wondered where Yana was now, or if it was just the point at which she’d left reality and never returned.

“There are more drawings of the Tuuru creature in my sketchbook,” she said eventually. “You are welcome to look, if you wanted. Maybe you will understand more of it than I did.”

After that she stood, and waited for Tristan to lead them on.
"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]
Sierra really liked Thalia for the way she stood up for herself. She looked meek and small, but was not. Much like any other alpha mother in the packs. Never underestimate those who have had to survive on their own.

Their walk was nice. Thalia filled the awkward silences and once things became normal the silence didn't quite matter so much. Sierra answered all Thalia's questions and Never was particularly enthusiastic when she asked about him. Sierra informed her of Never's name how he was small but feisty and his name was pretty much an image of him pressing forward against a tree that was immovable but it didn't stop him from trying. It was meant as a joke amongst the other wolves but Sierra saw it as Never Give up against All Odds, so she called him Never. And of course there was Bre, who actually was a dog. Never was a wolf pup gifted to her by the pack because he wanted to see the world with two-leggers.

It didn't feel odd sharing with Thalia -- she had her own peculiarities. It wasn't likely to matter. She seemed to understand.

They found a place and the pups scampered around the tree picking up any scents they could find and Sierra too her things and sat down. "I will wait her with a fire and I have blankets that will help warm you when you return." Sierra glared at Tristan. "Don't do anything stupid and you better come back." She smiled to soften the look but he was doing dangerous things and there was nothing she could do. "Both of you need to come back. Don't do anything stupid either." She told Thalia too with a less stern look.
The water was cool to the touch, and although the air temperature tickled the skin, it wasn’t uncomfortable. Their dive wouldn’t be too difficult, but it was going to be painful for one unaccustomed to the act. As a boy, Tristan grew up surfing in waters flecked with chunks of ice. As a man, ice-diving was an act of rejuvenation as much as a stunt. He would be fine, even for a stretch of time, but Thalia was not so thickened as he. This was not going to go well, he thought with a frown, flicking the water from his fingertips and continuing to strip his shoes.

He grumbled as he waded from the bank. The edge of the lake’s depth was reached in a few mere steps, and he submerged to the chin, letting the water swallow up its man-sized sacrifice for the day. He took a few sinks beneath the surface just to check their bearings. The water was clear. Nothing in the way of small fish scattered. For all he knew, the entire lake could be completely abandoned.

After a few exploratory checks, he nodded for Sierra that he was ready, took a gulp of air that stretched his ribs wide, and kicked hard.

Not being able to see the bottom was unsettling. Even on the shores of the sea, there was a bottom. Surfers didn’t venture so far out beyond sight. The land edge made a wall downward, and except for the bubbles that flittered from his mouth, there was no movement. So far, there was nothing. Nothing except the dimming light and burning lungs. Finally, a crack in the wall splintered into a wide maw. It was nothing but dark within, but there was something different about the water. He had a few more moments of air and checked it cautiously.
"Don’t waste your time looking back, you’re not going that way."
Rognar Lothbrok
Something in Sierra’s inclusion made her beam, both surprised and delighted she was spoken to at all. It reminded her of how Nox had tugged her by the hand the night at the club, when she’d lost her shoes; that little zip of thrill, to be claimed by someone. Such an insignificant connection, but one that felt electric in her chest. Meanwhile Tristan began explorations on his own at the waterline. Thalia lingered by Sierra a little longer, her expression softened to one of mild amusement. “I’ll bring him back,” she said, with no ounce of uncertainty for what they might even find below. He acted like he was the only one who could do the protecting.

She didn’t begrudge his strategic approach, though it was a curious contrast to her own impulsiveness. Much as she’d known which part of the river to retrieve the burn box, with no clear idea beyond a hasty sketch as to why she possessed the knowledge, she had some vague notion of where they should be looking even though this time she had even less tangible evidence for it. Possibly he thought she was quite mad, but he did not argue either… though he was very quiet. Aside from the low grumbling sounds he made in his throat at least, just in case she could not read his displeasure. Thalia saw no reason to disturb his isolationist mood though. She would weather his disapproval just as he weathered her determination, and while she might have liked for lighter company, she supposed he was under no obligation to actually enjoy what they were doing.

The water chilled quickly to the bone, parting like the sharp kiss of a blade when she swam to join him. A freezing purity, enthralling even as it began quite quickly to vise a grip around her chest. She tread water while he explored below them, awash with eagerness tempered to patience since she’d pledged herself to the compromise of allowing him to go first. While she waited her gaze found the looming rock above, much as it had the previous night, and it pulled at her so strangely in the daylight. She remembered, then, pressing her hand against its surface like she’d expected some vibration of life. The memory snagged her swiftly now, on a too-fast speeding current. Her hair spread like ink as she bobbed up and down, frowning, trying to parse sense from why, but it was an epiphany she still hadn’t captured when Tristan returned.

She experienced a slightly disconcerting sense of deja vu watching the water roll down the planes of his face, but the expression he wore now was like night to day from what she had picked out on the page. That alone told her everything she needed to know. He must already realise she was going to insist on seeing for herself, though. Thalia watched him with wide eyes, but said nothing. She let herself sink a little, and there was the hint of an impish smile where her lips fell beneath the cold water. She was already feeling a little sluggishly numb, but she was agile enough to twist herself past him, a hint of playful (she had promised she could swim), and then dove herself down.

It was more strenuous than it had been last night, but adrenaline made up for some deficit. Inside the crevice Tristan had discovered in the rock was revealed access to a hollow space. On the other side her face broke the surface with a gasp, lungs burning hard, dizziness bruising the edges of her vision because, okay, perhaps this had not been wise to attempt with a head injury. It was suddenly colder too, if that were even possible, and the darkness had an oozing quality, like it was itself alive. Even so, there was nothing here. Hope sank like a stone, and certainty with it, as she twisted around in the water looking for something. Anything.

Burying her dismay, and not ready to give up, she reached for a lip of jutting rock to pull herself up, but fumbled numbly until Tristan helped her. If it had been difficult to breathe in the water, now her skin burned like hot knives sliced it from bone. She whimpered a moment, her limbs huddled where she sat. “If you say I told you so, I might combust,” she said, barely able to push the laugh from her chest without it being painful. A little suffering didn’t dampen her humour, though she was glad she could not see his expression now. They still had to swim back, and disappointment hollowed her out. She was not actually sure she had the strength so quickly to muster for the effort.

Plagued by the defeat, instead Thalia half closed her eyes, aware and uncaring that she shouldn’t. It wasn’t just the dejection of being wrong; it was the fear of what being wrong meant.

When she blinked again she could barely see anything beyond the reflective shine of Tristan’s eyes. It was so oppressively dark. Around them it was all vague rocky outlines and the inky shine of water below, and she wasn’t even sure where the light to see that much was coming from. But it wasn’t that which was rattling the heart in her chest and drawing her knees up to her chest. Nor was it how cramped the space was. She brushed her palms over her face, where the water stung her eyes. Her hands were beginning to shake.

Like everything she was was just slipping through numb fingers.

If he spoke to her at all by then, she wasn’t aware of it. “No… I don’t–” She wasn’t sure how she managed to pull herself up to stand, just that the panic pushed her to move. The rocks were slippery underfoot, and the last thing she wanted was to plunge back into the water. She was breathing hard. Put a hand out to steady herself against the rocky wall. And felt it, like a draw to the soul that only made her panic more. It siphoned the power inside her, or she summoned it. Tendrils of the gift wove on a reflex she didn’t know she possessed, and all she could see was the doctor’s face, the blood dripping from his nose, and how she’d promised Sierra she would keep Tristan safe.

You must not do that, Patricus’s warning echoed. But god she did not mean to.

She yelled in alarm, reached out like she was falling, and found hold of something before everything went black. Shadows fell velvety and thick, rippling her skin with sickening movement.

And then the quality of the air changed. Startled to feel ground steady beneath her feet once more, Thalia stepped back, and natural light bloomed with the motion. She barely caught her balance. There was blood on her hands. She saw that first, probably because they were still trembling violently, though now only because she was wet and frozen through. Well, mostly because of that. The smooth black walls of a hollowed out room barely registered, not yet at least, because it was Tristan she was looking for as her eyes acclimatised, guilt ridden and afraid.

“Are you okay? I didn’t do anything to hurt you?”
"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]
Sierra dreams while she waits.
When the lungs were empty, the surface was farther away than conceivably possible. It was a relief that the stretch of his fingers found a surface, though he pulled himself into darkness rather than the lakeside. The air plunged into his chest the moment his face broke, and a ledge of their cave became a slippery beach onto which he pulled himself. The gild of his eyes adjusted quickly, but searching for understanding amid this madness was abandoned in favor of helping Thalia to find seat. The smell of blood tanged his nostrils. The whiff was small enough to not warrant great concern but enough to wrench his face with a reflexive licking of the lips.

“There’s nothing here,” he told her with no response but sharp draws of air in return. He pawed at the rock as if hopeful something may give way. Tristan had seen first-hand the enchantment of tiny doors and the flickering of stones in and out of phase with the world, but he was convinced quickly that theirs a dead end.  

Thalia’s breathing changed then. Brisk and shallow. The beating of her heart quickened, drums beating inside the echo of the rocky bubble. Then, whatever changed, it made him gasp in the way of one leaping great distances in a single step within the wolf dream. When next he knew, light flooded his eyes, light that burned at first before his senses adjusted. A snarl of warning kept any new threat at bay, even as he barricaded himself between Thalia and the contents of this room.  

But her question broke the spell of tension. He realized they were alone. He turned, nodding that he was fine. It was her that was shaking out of her skin. His brow nuzzled low, and he wished that he covered in actual fur for warmth as he drew her close. What was there of his body heat would have to do until he found a way to get her dry. Most people thought that the cold was the greatest danger in Iceland. While not an unworthy opponent, it was the wind and rain that killed the foolhardy more than the frost. Gluggave∂er*he muttered, rubbing her shoulders briskly with the heat of his palms. His grumbles turned reassuring as he peered into her face, searching for glimpses of something out of place and time. More muttering followed before turning to explore their location, “Gakktu hægt um gleðinnar dyr.”**

The room was strikingly nothing like rock or cave at all. In fact, Tristan was suddenly quite aware of being out of place. No windows. No lamps. Yet lines within the walls glowed like LED strips. The scent was unremarkable but for Thalia’s bloody head. He should have insisted she wait for the wound on her scalp to set a scab. Instead, he beckoned her to follow as he cautiously explored ahead for something to sate her pulse.

The next room was arranged with worktables full of boxes, bottles, beakers and potions. The smell shifted upon entering the next. It smelled like a fish-tank without the stank. Finally, a lump was on a table over with was tossed a cloth, like it was protecting whatever wait beneath from the dust. But there was not a trace of must or dirt anywhere. He shook his head and brought the cloth back to Thalia to wipe her face and press to her head. “There’s a place to sit,” he guided her to a work stool that seemed to sense her diminutive height and accepted her weight to the perfect level as soon as she sat. The technology was advanced within the space. Like something out of a movie. But there was something ancient as well. The tools, he leaned to sniff one, were completely foreign to him. He dared not touch a thing.

But it was a quiet sound that pricked his ears toward an archway. Like water lapping on the edge of a spa. He sniffed the air, but it wasn’t wrong in the way of the trolls or beckoning in the way of the huldufólk. It was completely alien and completely known at the same time.

“What is this place, Thalia?” He asked, wary of exploring further.

*Window-weather. Means it’s the kind of temperature to enjoy from indoors.
**Walk slowly through the doors of joy. Means don’t get too excited and hurt yourself.
"Don’t waste your time looking back, you’re not going that way."
Rognar Lothbrok
Maybe it was the magic’s aftermath still muddying her senses but she felt like she might drift up into the ether and disperse like mist, were it not for the calloused palms brisking up and down her arms. A guttural melody entwined the frightened cadence of her own heartbeat, and it could have been from admonishment or comfort or irritation that he spoke, she had no idea. The words were nothing she understood, nor was she even sure he was actually talking to her at all, but it was an anchor all the same – one to a here-and-now that felt like it was slipping through her grasp right alongside the shivering.

Instinct drew her gaze up, not around them. Her eyes rounded wide, lips slackened in awe or fear. The darkness above was fathomless, too absolute to be a real sky, too depthless to seem something solid. A firmament of constellations oozed soft light like the veins threading the shadowy walls. An impossible hallucination. Her attention blinked away from a reality she was not yet ready to accept (don’t think, don’t remember). Instead where he led she followed, relieved to shed autonomy for something safe and trusting, to pour the sum total of her parts into another’s keeping.

She sat where he placed her, pressed the offered cloth to her temple with something between a sigh and whimper. Frustration kindled from that sharp reminder of pain, but the throbbing pulse at her temple at least began reeling her back into herself. “Sanctuary,” she answered without really considering the question; a murmur, a self-soothing reassurance, something slipped free of the cracks. For a bizarre moment her name had sounded spiky and foreign in her ears; she puzzled over it quietly, then set it aside as a rather unwelcome revelation.

The shock began to ease now. Her mind made no smooth transition from the glacial and barren underwater cave to wherever this was, but her memory dulled the crossing to something bearable, and she adapted the way she always did: by not fishing too deeply for answers, by living in the moment. “I don’t know,” she admitted, perhaps unaware she’d already offered an answer. “I’ve never seen this.” It lapped at her consciousness, though, and it disconcerted her at the same time it felt like a hand to hold in the dark, or a cool palm on a fevered brow. She wasn’t afraid (or at least, she wasn’t afraid of where they were). Yet nothing was familiar, not in the ways she had explored since leaving Moscow; secrets divined from drawings on a page, scenes plucked from another life, physical things she could recognise and piece together. Trying to explain any of that seemed fruitless though; she’d witnessed Aylin’s patient despair too many times to seek the right words. Not that she thought Tristan would react badly; on the contrary, given the strange way they’d ended up here in the first place. But his reluctance was fresh memory. He didn’t need to think her crazier than he already did. That and she was too distracted for articulate words.

She twisted in her seat to observe the room around them, the bloodied cloth now tangled between the hands in her lap. Tables and equipment she had no names for crammed the space, and Thalia’s first instinct was the insatiable desire to touch everything, the temptation written clear all over her expression. But her fingers were numb and clumsy, her body tired and frozen, and it was another sense entirely which sparked the core of her curiosity and kept her from more mundane exploration. Intricate braids of power hidden like jewels in the framework of the walls. She hadn’t known that was even possible.

Without thinking she pulled herself up onto the nearest table, squeezing amidst a pile of boxes and other things she barely glanced at. Between the patterns of eerie light, the wall’s ebony surface looked glassy as the lake had been at night, and she cupped her hands and pressed her face close, as though she expected tell of another world beyond the bubble of this one. But there was nothing to see. A trick of the light, perhaps, like the scattered starscape far above their heads, and she felt a little foolish for the whimsical nature of her exploration when they were surrounded by the strangest artefacts. A cornucopia of mystery.

She leaned back, ran her fingers over the strips of luminescence. She ought to be promising to find Tristan a way home. To the best of her ability at least. Or maybe to find the creature they had both come seeking; it was why he was here. But all she did was cave to the temptation of answering those curls of power with her own (knowing full well she shouldn’t). Forbidden was just that much more tantalising, wasn’t it? She apologised silently to Patricus. And to Tristan, for the risk he would have no idea she undertook. It was only a gentle exploration (harmless surely), but its effect on her was profound; like a bridge to something ancient and primordial. Who made these?

Oh.” The surprise was soft but unafraid. Because something did happen, much to her surprise.

The walls shifted like disturbed water, then blossomed with soft light from without. Thalia sat utterly mesmerised. A seascape unfurled, fading into hungry shadows at some distant horizon. She was not familiar with aquatic plants, but it did not look how she imagined the lake-bed of Baikal. Curious, she leaned closer and pressed her palm to where the wall had been, convinced she would slip right through to that other world, but though there was a soft, membranous give, she did not fall through. Fortunate, really, because it would have been a rather ill conceived notion to tumble right through. Her touch trailed away, captivated by the beauty of something so utterly alien. Her skin tingled with the wonder. Or maybe that was just the cold.

The window-view faded, smoothing back to those black walls like a slick of oil coated anew. She turned to find Tristan, half convinced he might have vanished. Not that she had any real idea of what they had just witnessed, but she was glad to share it. Her expression was alive with the gift of this strange experience.

“When we were children my nana told us our grandad had crossed a fairy mound and become trapped amongst the aos sí. I believed that for a long time. But if this was faerie I think there would be more enticing hospitality for water-logged travellers.” Hospitality it would have been unwise to accept, of course, but Thalia was not convinced she had so wise a head on her shoulders. Her hair plastered her back, still dripping. It felt like little rivers across her skin, tracking shivers the whole way down her body. A puddle had grown beneath her, cascading down the table’s edge in soft plunk-plunk-plunks. It smelled faintly marine down here though. She did not think the water would do any damage.

“So we’ll have to find our own,” she added as she slipped down and found her feet again. Alone, she would have probably already wandered into the thick maze of this place, and suffered for it when the cold finally closed its vise, and she recalled her body’s ills. She remembered being lost in the forest, phone dead. The still-healing burn on her hand tended by another’s care. But witnessing the half-drowned visage of another was like a mirror to the soul. She could ignore it in herself, but not so much in another. Not that Tristan looked particularly uncomfortable, just wary, like an animal exploring unfamiliar territory. But she thought he would approve of the sensible consideration of getting warm and dry.

Thalia pressed the cloth back to her head, though she thought the blood had staunched now. It was a strange material, soft, but it caught the glowy walls like fish scales, and it felt nice. There was probably a lifetime’s curiosity in this room alone, but it was him she considered then. The inquisitiveness was open; the treasure of a thousand questions visible in the depths, and she almost succumbed to the distraction. But when her lips parted to speak, what she actually said was: “Vanagandyr. You look the part right now.”  It was a word he had spoken back at the cabin, not one she had remembered; conjured now for the way the swim had flattened the hair to his head and beard down his neck. It suited him in the way Noctua suited Noctua, and she spoke it with the same kind of fondness. Amusement laced too, because the humour tickled her, and she presumed he knew what it meant.

“Come on, then.” She turned to one of the shadowed doorways with unerring confidence, intending to lead the way.
"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 wall changed before his eyes; eyes that saw more than most. What rippled new was unbelievable, but Tristan was standing in strange. His sense of believability was becoming quite broad of late. He wasn’t startled. Curious.

His gaze trailed Thalia as if her explorations were his own, but where she meant to disturb the secrets of this place, Tristan was watchful for dangers to be released. It smelled akin to the bottom of a fishing vessel, an unnatural mix of metal and sea, man and marine. There was nothing obviously dangerous. When it was revealed, he would be there to protect her.

“Aos sí? Is your amma of Írland?” He asked with a sense of awe that revealed his belief in the story. “Maybe we can find your appa after this is over? Although if he is trapped in a fairy mound, he is likely quite content to stay,” he added a reassuring smile. The lairs of the hidden folk were more comfortable than their current habitat. Appa was probably nestled on the bosom of a fae having the time of his everlasting life. That wasn’t so bad.

Another name drew his attention from imagining a lifetime ensnared in bosoms. Vanagandyr. Like that wall that faded before his eyes, another layer of reality seemed to fall around Thalia. Within that realm he found the eyes of the same girl that he made love to in the lake. He found his mouth parted, breath stolen on the lips in surprise. Nimeda? The phasing between what he saw and what he knew couldn’t be real. This place was messing with his mind. 

But where Thalia called, Tristan knew he would follow. He flicked the water from his beard and padded after.
"Don’t waste your time looking back, you’re not going that way."
Rognar Lothbrok
She nodded, a little distracted by the soft shadows that swallowed them into the archway; the way it rushed over her skin like a tiny puff of air. There was reverence in his tone she had not expected to find; most had an entirely different reaction to her eccentricities and the way she burbled about fantasies with conviction. Tolerance, sometimes; a confused side-eye often enough. She smiled a little. “Alas, we’d be looking in the wrong place. I know where he is – in a box on my nana’s mantlepiece. That’s a whole different kind of adventure. She says she’ll follow him one day, give him the kiss of his life first, and then a slap for leaving her alone for so long.”

Tristan was a strange one, definitely. She wondered what kind of upbringing moulded a man who believed in faeries, and how she might coax those stories out of him like buried treasure. He seemed the silent type. What surprised her most, though, was talk of an after. His gruff mannerisms had suggested she was an inconvenient accessory to unearthing the creature she had supposedly sent him to find. He hadn’t wanted her company; she had insisted on it, and so she’d already assumed that when he discovered what he came for, he and Sierra would move on, like everyone else who’d intersected the peculiar nature of her journey since Moscow. “We,” she murmured to herself, just to see what it sounded like.

Narrow corridors separated each adjoining room, domed like the tunnels in aquariums, though nothing but darkness drifted outside even when Thalia prodded every now and then with little flicks of power (and looked a little guilty every time she took the risk). The subsequent rooms presented a little differently, each its own little microcosm of study encased in the same vein-threaded walls, and she itched to explore with more than a marvelling glance. Tristan’s padding steps kept her at least somewhat on task, though. She tilted her face up to the starscape from time to time, but seemed quite confident in their direction, even as she paused frequently to draw all the surreality in. The light round them was soft, glowy enough to see by, but she began to wonder if this place was in a kind of hibernation. It certainly felt asleep, else traversing it was what she imagined dreaming to be like. Which was why she assumed her mind began wandering to such strange places.

It all felt so achingly familiar in here, and it was getting difficult to ignore. Fear intruded like a cold current; that maybe she was still strewn out on the rocks by the lake. That this was all just the twitchings of a dying mind.

Finally, they stepped into a sumptuously furnished study. The marine smell faded, although she was sure it still clung to her own clammy skin. An ornate desk dominated the oval space, too sleek and iridescently dark to be wood. An equally impressive chair faced it, made to the proportions of someone delicate and small. Cases of books and curiously old fashioned scrolls decorated the walls, which roiled behind like smoke and cloud, as if they had ascended into the heart of a storm. There were cabinets too, their secrets folded away behind doors carved into the bodies of beasts, and an empty hearth big enough for Thalia to step fully into (not that she did). It was all incredibly majestic, aside from the pile of blankets and cushions draped on a corner of the floor like a recalcitrant child had made a nest to cure boredom.

For the first time there were doors rather than open archways around the edges. A painted constellation decorated the one Thalia approached, a star she recognised as the last thing she’d seen before darkness had descended on the rocks by the lake. That realisation settled a little funny in her bones, cooling her blood, squeezing her skin like it didn’t fit her body. The brightest star, my love. For when you are lost. Her hand had already reached out, certain, and now suddenly drew back as though burned. She was not sure if she imagined the words or really heard them, but she stumbled backwards a little, whatever confidence that had led them to this point burned to ash in the pit of her stomach.

Her hand pressed against her chest, then balled against her racing heart.

“Blankets will do,” she said, mostly to herself.

A few books littered amongst the cushions on the floor, splayed as though abandoned. Thalia did not recognise the language, but she plucked curiously at a loose page as she bent down. Cramped in the margins was a crude figure made of one wiggling line, its body unravelling, its face scribbled out. She was still staring at it in horror when the fire bloomed suddenly in its hearth, flames black and smokeless. Of its own accord, apparently. It made her jump, but it also swept away the spell of inertia and fear with its oddity. “That wasn’t me,” she said as she gathered the blankets, offering one to Tristan if he wanted it, and unfurling the other about her own shoulders. The damp swimming costume was by now uncomfortable, and she doubted his own clothes were any better. She made a face for such meagre offerings of succour, but at least it was warm in here.

She finally glanced anew at the study surrounding them, like she could dredge answers from the deep. For a moment her gaze lingered on the blurred tattoo on Tristan's chest; it was almost exactly level with her line of sight when she was standing close. But the only thing she discovered in her contemplations was how exhaustion nudged a reminder into her aching body. Adrenaline carried her this far, but the rippling weight of fabric soft against her shoulders was like a promise of comfort and safety. She wasn’t sure being unconscious half the night counted as true rest, and by the frenzy of her scribblings all over the cabin’s bathroom, her dreaming had been tumultuous. Fingers barely healed from Eha’s cottage were raw and sore again, not to mention the still-healing burn on her palm. She felt fit to curl up right on the floor. Resting was a bad idea, though. Or at least waking was a bad idea without a sketchpad to hand. Plus Sierra was waiting; she was going to think they’d drowned.

Thalia didn’t care to dwell on the true fear; that she would wake and everything would be gone. That she would wake into someone else. That she would lose everything she fought to find.

“There must be something here, right?” she said. And there probably was, though she didn’t know where to start now the conviction had fled and the task felt like a mountain. She blinked a few times, slowly, like she could rouse herself to action. They just had to find the right room.

To a creature that looked like it was drawn straight from a fantasy book.

“I’m half afraid to ask if this is all really real. Sometimes I‘m not sure I know what is, and what...” She trailed off, not sure admitting it would relieve the burden. The confession ended in a soft shrug instead. What could he say to that? She shifted her weight, running her gaze over the objects and papers on the desk, though she didn't disturb anything there. “I kind've thought finding her would be like finding a lost piece of myself. A connection to those parts of myself I don’t understand, you know? She looked so angry and afraid in the sketches. I’ve felt like that before too.” A pattern had been carved into the top of the desk, and she followed it with her fingertips as she spoke, but she was thinking about a face all sharp fangs and sorrow, a heart in his hands. She wondered then if Tristan looked at the creature; at the beauty of her armoured scales, of the feral slit of her too-human eyes, and saw kin.

”Why did you call yourself a monster, before?”
"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
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Tristan was the wolf in the crystal shop and was just as uncomfortable. His following Thalia was casual, and he was frequently drawn aside by something that caught his eye (or his nose). The whole of the place smelled strange. The nautical aroma persisted, but it was mixed with something like warm plastic – manufactured. Or, as he peered into a jar of murky liquid obscuring whatever floated within, another word came to mind: preserved. 

It was age preserved. For a man accustomed to loping among the sinewy pillars of an ancient world, the idea of eternal preservation was a nightmare of entrapment. He shivered despite himself and kept a keen eye for any sight or a tuned nose to smell of life stirring. If anything lingered in this bubble, he would know it.

They entered a room that he likened to a sort of office. There was a desk and books and plenty of tools for serious study. He’d never been a serious student, not even when threatened with any manner of punishment, but while at school, there were plenty of similar rooms in Reykjavik. Though, he supposed, staring at the starry ceiling, there were none quite like this.

He smelled the musk of ash and flame only a moment before the fire burst to life. He jumped, startled as Thalia, golden eyes flared wide to seek an explanation. Every hair on his body was edged to blades, but there no threat revealed itself. He grumbled to himself, “I don’t like this place. I don’t belong here,” he added careful to not include Thalia in the statement. She certainly seemed at home, more so with a blanket settled around her shoulder.

Thalia’s musings was like a ruffling of his hair, shaking the unease enough for him to relax near the fire. Tristan squat near the hearth, soaking up the warmth. Its light danced in the gilded halos of his eyes.
“Don’t worry. We’re not dreaming. If we were…” he stopped himself, clearing his throat with a deep rumble. He wouldn’t turn her away if she offered, but neither was he a hound. He continued, “I would be dryer and my hair would be far cooler,” he grinned, recalling the bad ass furs and war paint and braids that decorated Sun Snatcher.

“You can search your whole life and never understand all the parts of yourself. Best not to waste the time and just accept it,” he shrugged, letting his gaze be pulled toward their strange surroundings. Just as Tristan said, he was accepting of what he saw, but kept the strange things at arms’ length.

“I am a monster as surely as she is,” he said without explaining the identity he spoke. “Troll is in my blood. And so is the wolf, as Sierra has taught me. They fight like mortal enemies, and somewhere amid that conflict is a man. When I dream I sense the trolls who have wakened from the world. They call out to me.” He spoke with all the sincerity of one who also believes in fairy mounds and destiny. “And there are no worse monsters in the world than the trolls,” he said.
"Don’t waste your time looking back, you’re not going that way."
Rognar Lothbrok

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