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Caerus (almost)
#1
Her feet trailed in the water, pooling ripples where she floated them through the surface. Decapitated flowers crowded her lap and the grass hollow of the tree she nestled against, deft fingers weaving them into a crown. The dress still hung damp against her skin, its discomfort unnoticed through will. Wild hair frizzed a halo, leaking droplets down her bare arms, while bright grey eyes fell to the work; idle work, its origin unknown, now that she thought about it. The unexpected crest of some ancient recollection perhaps. It happened from time to time, and Nimeda was content to let it.

Her eyes half lidded to the faint wave of a memory; of fingers ruffling through her hair, the peaceful sensation of someone tugging it into coiling braids. And a song. It faded quickly, leaving only the remnant of a tune; one she began to sing beneath her breath as she threaded the flowers. Her voice was not beautiful, but charming in its earnest simplicity, murmuring over the words forgotten like the river rushed over stones.

A presence sat at the opposite bank eventually captured her attention. Nimeda knew no fear in this world, at least not yet. The reach of her senses was blithely unwary, the shift of her focus slow, but once snared her curiosity burned bright, and contrary to the very old thing that she was, much tugged at her interest. This visitor was not new; he haunted her banks from time to time, gaze cast down to the waters like he might pierce their murk to the things she had hidden there for him. A gesture of friendship that never quite reflected back in his mirthless expression -- but therein lie the kernel of curiosity tugging at her time and again.

One day she would learn the secret to easing the line grooved between his eyes.

Most times Nimeda was content to leave him to his thoughts. Today she slipped beneath the surface, leaving only the bob of petals fallen from her lap, and reared out in front of him. Water slicked the planes of her face and the lines of her body, drowning the sleek fall of her hair darker. A smile lit her expression, unafraid and playful despite the notable pinch of his lips as she folded her arms against the bank by his folded knee.

“You cannot sing,” he said.

“The Grimnir does not like my singing. I am wounded.” She laughed. The insult slid like the water against her skin, pooling unnoticed on the grass beneath her arms. “So what would please you?”

He sighed, short and sharp, like the unwelcome question punctured the sanctity of his thoughts. But he knew well enough how to manipulate the dream; he chose to remain, despite bristles sharp as a pufferfish. Head canted, she perceived him like driftwood stuck in her currents; a problem to untangle and soothe, to nudge on its gentle way.

“Enough pieces of the puzzle to discern an answer,” he said eventually.

“Games should be pleasurable, Grim.” One hand lifted to cup her chin. Her brows rose in a tease. “I can think of a better one.”

The slate of his gaze finally arrowed down, eyes a colour that suggested warmth he did not emanate. His fists eased out, palms pooling over his knees. For a moment the resonance of him, of sky and earth and secrets, dislodged the weight of her thoughts. She floundered in the darkness of too many memories to count, speeding past like bubbles of air escaped a drowning breath. Until a voice pinned like a harpoon.

“What do you know of sea monsters?”

“A strange question.” She let go of the bank. Warm waters rushed against her shoulders, her hair fanned dark against its surface. The distance soothed. Little Bird Little Bird. Jon Little Bird. The calming mantra reeled her in.

My name is Nimeda.

“A strange question for a strange creature,” he agreed.

“I suppose I am.” She laughed again; let herself float further into the river’s embrace. “And today I know naught of sea monsters.” Her gaze bounced upwards, caught on the whim of one dark cloud, like an inky smudge against a cloth of blue. Or a stubborn stone against a rush of water. Her lip caught between her teeth, but the memory -- and the intent -- fountained up too slow. A favour! She had a favour to ask.

But when her gaze snapped down, lips parted to speak, the bank was empty; he had gone.

“Ask me tomorrow!” Her voice leapt high with the wind. She did not know if he heard.
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#2
What do you know of sea monsters? Pale legs dangled over the cliff edge, dark foamy waves crashing tumultuous far beneath. Stone crumbled where her fingers braced the edge, a curious gaze leaned a little too far over to observe the dance. Hair wreathed wild about her face, roused by iced winds. Not that she chose to feel the cold.

The Grimnir gave nothing for free. Like a root dug into the bank, some things never changed. But Nimeda had no favour to offer, and she knew he would ask as sure as a raven’s wings glossed dark. Even leverage would do (a riskier game) but she had nothing of that nature either.

“Tell me a secret?” The hopeful plea cast out like a net, sound lost to the wind and wave. Whim brought her to the coast, but whatever knowledge curled long forgotten behind the urge it perhaps turned to nothing in this age. There was no one here.

A sigh inflated, stolen from her lungs. Nim’s eyes half lidded, legs swinging. Her voice took on the singsong quality she used to hook a narrative into her soul; to remember what she needed from the Grimnir, and why. “Then let me tell you a story, of a girl and a tower with no key.”
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#3
A girl in a tower with no key; a circle of dark clouds crowning the turrets (or maybe they weren't clouds); a smudge of darkness in the corner of a window -- an inky fall of hair, perhaps, or the smokey body of an otherbeast.

It changed from time to time, that story; its inflections and cadence, but the core was always the same.

A wash of need flooded with the final words, spreading out like a beacon into the ether of this world. She could only imagine Jon Little Bird's horror should he witness such seeming recklessness, to fling her consciousness out directionless and trust that body and soul would reassemble whole. Her arms stretched wide against the winds until it almost felt like falling.

Then the world fuzzed like swirls of paint on canvas, realigning anew. The spray of the sea faded and she landed on her hands and knees, fingers curling in stubby grass until the crescent of her nails churned dirt. Salt-soaked petals drifted from her braided hair as her curious gaze peeked out. Ice curled frigid hooks beneath her skin and did not fade when she willed it to; instead a cloud sprang from chilled lips, prompting a smile as she lifted to sit back on her heels.

"A lovely story."

The woman perched on a rock, cowled in silvered grey. Unmoving, she might have been grown from the stone beneath her, garments and all.

Nimeda knew what the woman was in the same way she recognised the wolves' kin, an intrinsic understanding like the difference between earth and sky. Probably not something she could articulate, and a name slipped like water captured in her palm, but it didn't matter. Her lips twitched a greeting, genuine in mirth, a flash of curiosity in her wide grey eyes as the understanding sunk in.

Wolves roamed the dream more often than their human kin, and others flashed like flickering shades, unknowing of the trespass. Few entered knowingly, fewer still with the telling resonance that drew Nimeda's interest like a nose pressed against a sweet shop window. New things woke all the while as the world slowly stirred, yet it remained at times a lonely existence.

This one was rarer still than all those others; not even a visitor, but something stranger. And older.

"It helps," she said, sure her nature would be understood by a creature that made even her feel like a summertime youth. Her neck arced to absorb her surroundings; the sky lit red and amber, and streaked with dark cloud. Shadows clung to distant hills, and somewhere downslope a cheerful amount of water rushed against the shore. The crimson painted door to a dwelling lay behind, and a twisted pillar thrust from the earth, drawing her gaze up.

She couldn't think what had pulled her here, unless she had been somehow snared along the way. Nim pushed herself to her feet, the ground like slabs of ice beneath her soles. A shivering step brought her to the jut of rock, fingers tracing a path that did not quite touch its surface. Her hand paled almost to frozen blue against the black. "We are in a pocket," she observed. Chills chased her bare arms, creeping through the floating fabric of her dress and into her bones. The basalt twisted to the eye like something writhed inside. "And you are not a sea monster."
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#4
Nimeda turned to search out her companion, seeking answers, only to find nothing but the dull grass stretched endless beyond. A shiver burrowed deep, arms reaching to cradle what fading warmth remained in her body. She had no power within this place she had strayed. An unfamiliar stab of uncertainty beat in her chest to behold that lonely vista; an unpleasant final death to be lured by in search of the grimnir’s riddle.

But she had not been abandoned.

A blush of purple ghosted her peripheral as someone smoothed a curl from her face, twisting her obediently around. Beauty carved the face staring down, a tail of sleek black hair spilling from the shadow of her hood. The Hidden Folk slipped through all the inbetween places, curling as little more than myth in every evasive memory she could conjure. Wonder hushed Nimeda to stillness. She stared, silent.

The grey lady’s touch was cool, deft fingers weaving amongst the flowers and braids tumbling from Nimeda’s crown like a mother tending a wild daughter into some semblance of neatness. Faint memory stirred, like the peaceful bob of water-travel along a sunlit river, but might also have been the rolling wheels of wagons. Her eyes half lidded to capture that warm memory, until a gasp released the band of ice pinching her chest. Feeling returned like a sleeping sun summoned out from behind cloud.

Oh. Thank you.”

A sobre smile softened the woman’s lips. Her head inclined acknowledgement for the kindness, but the pale discs of her eyes never blinked. “By what name are you known in this time?”

“Nimeda,” she said, a little curious, but not enough to question the oddity of the question.

“Ah. For that I am glad.” The woman’s hands had returned to the folds of her cloak, though Nimeda had not seen them move. She did not probe for the meaning of that expressed relief. There were other names, some of them quite unkind, glinting half-buried like lost treasure in the basin of a waterbed. She ignored the way some of them made her feel, curling little hooks of guilt or the zip of bubbles from a drowning breath. Instead she studied her hands in a moment of self-reflection, smudged with rainbow flecks of paint as they often were in the dream. She wondered if old sins were like that; impossible to wash off.

Distantly, she was still aware of the dead thing looming behind her; a prickle between her shoulders, like a drip of icewater against her freshly warmed skin. It reeled in her drifting thoughts enough to force her to press her gaze up, seeking focus before the pocket slipped away. She might never find it again; at least not this version of it. “I asked for a secret,” she said, grasping the intent like driftwood. “This is it?”

The woman’s expression did not change, the hint of her sad smile speaking of eternal patience. It wasn’t an answer, but Nim shifted to behold the silent pillar -- the strangest thing in the landscape beyond the lady herself. Her brows lowered, weighted by frustration. Thoughts darted like sleek fish, too fast to capture even if she knew where to start. “I made a promise,” she insisted, like the reminder might float something useful to the surface. It didn’t, of course.

“This time you come not knowing what you seek. But rivers know no hurry; they reach their destination regardless.”

Nimeda turned, only to find herself alone. Truly so, this time. When the grey lady’s pocket released her, so too did sleep.
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#5
Nimeda returned the next time she woke, and several times after that.

She explored the dwelling behind the red-painted door, its innards in constant and meaningless flux. Sometimes she followed the slope down to the water’s edge and soaked her feet in its glacial depths, skirts trailing as she wandered and hummed tuneless songs with no name. Other times she raced the surf for the joy, pink-cheeked and laughing breathless, just to hear the gasp of her own voice. The landscape was quiet and beautiful and lonely. Its horizon promised forever, the curious blue of the sky peeping behind the cradle of snow-capped hills for the fleeting hours of daylight.

The grey lady did not return.

In her absence, Nim told the basalt stone the story of the girl in the tower most times she visited, sat cross-legged in the grass like some strange white flower sprouted at its feet. Sometimes she just stared into the swirling black, chin pressed into her hands, and wondered why the Need had led her to an abandoned grave.

“What could you possibly have that the grimnir would want?”

She flopped back in frustration, arms spread wide, and stared up at the stars. When night rushed in everything grew so utterly dark they gleamed like a scattering of diamonds strewn by the hand of some careless god. 

***

Time unravelled a little between her visits, and she did not follow its nature at the best of times. Nim could not remember when she first recalled an awareness of the wolf. The four-legged kin watched her from time to time, and mostly she paid it no mind. They had a right to watch. They had a right to be cautious. Or they had, once. 

He kept his distance, the giant black and white wolf; a looming shadow in her periphery, or the eerie glow of lambent eyes following while she amused herself in the cold clear waters or perched by the stone pillar. No companions swept the land behind him. No howls warned in the distance. It tickled a question against her mind, but if he was a warning she did not choose to heed it. Unease did not plague her, though she suspected it was an accusation of trespass. Instead she grew used to the company.

Focus never came to her easily, and she was beginning to wane even with the stitches of the story to pluck at her attention. Her gaze arched up to the now familiar heights of the black pillar, silent and immutable as ever. No epiphany ever soothed her vigil. Today her fingers wound in the grass as the frustration crashed a wave over her head, bowing her down. She deflated, forehead pressed to the ground, and spent a sharp sigh into the earth. “I’m sorry, Mara. I will find another way.”

She lifted her head to discover, with some curious surprise, that the wolf had drawn near, close enough for her to feel the heat of his fetid breath. Even sitting he towered above, the thick brush of his tail wrapped neatly about his paws. A low grumble sounded deep in his throat. Nim did not need the talents of the kin to know what it meant. “If I might give you an expression, it would be one of annoyance,” she told him solemnly. No fear touched the curiosity of her brow, though the curl of the wolf's lip suggested he might snap her in twain with a flex of his jaw. “Why are you here, old one? This cannot be home to a wolf. It’s too quiet. And--” A paint-smudged finger rose to indicate the pillar, brows raised, though of course he could not answer. Or, at least, she had no way of understanding it.
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#6
[Image: Maggie.jpg]

Thorn Paw had no love of this barren place. No brethren stirred, no pups yipped, no kin howled joy of the hunt, and yet Wyldrunner still returned like a cub seeking the comforting smells of a firstden. The old wolf grumbled when he found the pup here, and brought it upon himself to rouse his creaking bones and check from time to time that his brother did not mire himself too deeply in solitude. Sometimes Thorn Paw deigned to accept the idiosyncrasies of humans, and on those occasions he tolerated such quiet moods and sat alongside, muzzle between his paws. Other times he nipped and cajoled until the young one stirred to the lure of the wolf dream.

But it was not Wylderunner he discovered that day; instead a new scent flattened Thorn Paw’s ears to his skull, one of sweet summer waters and honeyed riverflower. Not even restless dreamers ever flickered in this desolate place, and she was no restless dreamer, this girl planted uninvited at the foot of the twisted one’s tomb. He knew that scent; cleaner than last he remembered it -- still smelling of sunlight, yet still the same.
  
The wolves shared memories of this one.

Wariness sprung Thorn Paw’s hackles, though whatever she had been once she was no longer. Her hands fluttered, her voice assuming a low and rhythmic cadence; a story of things that had no interest to wolves, though why she chose to tell it to the dead he did not know. He watched each visit, stalking on silent paws as she wandered and frolicked as far as the water. He could not fathom what she was doing here, nor what drew her to such seclusion, but he wished she would not stay.

Eventually he allowed his presence to become known. Curiosity wafted from her recognition, but no fear. For something so very ancient she seemed earnest as a pup in his first summer (and as oblivious). Eagerness met the rush of water against her toes; the wildness appeared to content her in a way that did not seem entirely what he expected of a human, though neither was she wolf. Had she been ensconced anywhere else in the dream, he might have observed such antics with vague amusement. As it was, she was simply unwelcome.

Thorn Paw shook the irritation from his coat. Wyldrunner might scent the evidence of a trespasser next he visited, but he did not need the distraction of discovering it living and breathing in the heart of his old home. The stubborn pup already debased to keeping a stinking dog as a companion, despite Thorn Paw’s abject horror. The search for a true pack continued meanwhile. It was the direction he should be looking.

But unfortunately it seemed the forgetful one would need further encouragement to find new territory.

Gold eyes glared down at the strange human, crumpled unaware by the twisted one’s stone. She smelled deeply of frustration in that moment, and this close he could detect the faint lingering of a hidden one’s touch, already fading. A grumble vibrated his throat. She did not flinch, which he found mildly insulting. An ear twitched annoyance. He scented no fear, but at least a steady respect -- which might have mollified him but for the fact she did not leave. Instead her legs drew up and she hugged them in her arms. Her bare toes scrunched in the grass. She spoke knowing she would not understand any answer he gave, should he even choose to give one. And she deigned to bring attention to the abhorrent twisted one looming above.

She was right. This was not a suitable den for any wolf. But he did not appreciate the question from a human.
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