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Interlude
#1
The curtain of air scalded like the hand of a desert wind, hard on the lungs, a scorch against frail skin. In its wake leaves crumpled and withered and became dust; trees eroded from magnificent branches to clinging roots, erased in a second, while all around lush greens burned to brown and grey and sepia, the sun hanging a strange and mournful vigil in a colourless sky. The ground stung Nimeda’s bare soles with every step. Tears clung to the curves of her cheek, each toxic breath heaved out in a sob. She bent to dig her fingers through the decay, searching, desperate.

“Nimeda?”

The vision cleared like a film swept away from her blistering eyes, though the tears did not. She squeezed the clumps of grass discovered in her hands, running her thumbs over the soft blades. Her forearm dragged across her eyes, but she could not so easily dig the emotions from her chest. An ending comes an ending comes an ending comes.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing,” she said, which was true enough. A terrible truth. Her eyes pressed closed, arms pulling her legs in tight. Mud smeared the pale folds of her dress like blood. Her forehead pressed against her knees, the dark crown of her hair spilling wild and tangled. “It will pass,” she murmured, unclear if she meant the memory or the future. “But I dread the passing.”

She felt him draw close, but knew he was unlikely to offer comfort. Or not the comfort she wanted. Nimeda would rather drift into the peace of oblivion than observe the arm’s length at which the grimnir kept her, and yet her chin lifted to rest on her arms nonetheless. Her grey gaze rose to find him watching, his eyes faintly narrowed in the manner of dissection.

Sometimes the haze of memory could be a comfort despite its intangibility. Fire and song enveloped; a drum beat like a heart, the pluck of strings. Happiness from some far other time. But like the detritus left over from a storm, her thoughts took her somewhere else.

“I know naught of sea monsters,” she told him suddenly. “But I know something of the monsters to be found in rivers.” The name Vánagandr beat like a thumbprint against her mind, though to what end she supposed she had never discovered. Mara’s presence spewed other memories to the surface, as if the Hidden One’s hook caught more than just the one answer. In that muddied murk she sometimes plucked free something shining. 

She unfolded like a flower discovering sun, expression clouded with the strange storm of thoughts to reach her shore. Grim kept a wary distance. A spear of the odd half-light in this world lit one eye to bright amber. Nim stared at the other as it flickered in its socket. “Sometimes you dream of a lake and a man you cannot save,” she said, crawling forward in the mud until she found her feet. Nothing cruel shadowed her expression as she laid bare these terrible facts, but Grim’s expression darkened. Despite the times he warned her away, she liked to watch his dreams, strange as the trinkets unearthed from the bottom of the sea. Pain drew her, but this time it was not his.

Her eyes flared wide. “All the old things sleep, and it’s where you ought to leave them, Grim. They don’t deserve to die!”

“The creature in the lake,” he said, surprised. “You know what it was.”

“You killed him, Grim! For a shiny bauble!”

“Then you know of the others.”

He bridged the distance until her neck craned, warmed by an intensity unchallenged by her horror, and then his will tugged upon her eagerly, the weight of his palm digging into her shoulder. The world unravelled. Memories stirred sharp as ice in that maelstrom, until she curled tight and let herself wash with the flood without leaking apart at the seams. When her toes returned they scrunched against a new bank. She twisted to the roaring waves, yanking back from Grim’s touch, fists curled. She knew these waters and the ancient being who called them home. Or had, once? Such odd memories rippled. For once she willed to forget as she felt Grim draw close behind her.

“Oh, you will never find her.” She turned, palm outstretched to ward him away. He knew as well as she that the trickle of a few moments were all she needed to welcome the arms of oblivion, but oddly his eyes narrowed. Without warning Grim’s hand snatched to grab her wrist, wrenching her freshly scarred palm to the scrutiny of his attention. Recognition flashed before his temper flared, curling his lips thin. Her understanding of him shuddered in that moment, the crush of a thousand lives weighted into a single moment. Fear licked her spine as she tried to prize herself free. The river was abruptly forgotten. His fingers squeezed like steel. What did you take?”
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#2
He did not release her. Nim’s eyes widened, the angle at which he pinched her wrist sparking tears. “I’ve taken nothing!” she pleaded, but her insistence met naught but deaf ears. His gaze pierced like he might dig through the fugue of her mind to find a more acceptable answer, though she had none to give. The scald of his mistrust burned despite the volatility of their relationship, until the heave of her sob was more disappointment of his harsh treatment than true fear. The grimnir could not hurt her here. Not unless she allowed it.

“You warded this yourself, Nimeda,” he said, shaking her wrist until she obliging peered at the pattern burned into her palm. It meant nothing to her, just as the track of her tears meant nothing to him. Frustration brimmed from his expression, lighting a mad gleam in his mismatched eyes. Her distress echoed out like leaping waves, shimmering the world around them wildly, calling upon aid unlikely to come unless Mara was listening. Even then she was not sure she wished her creatures to take a bite. She had seen this one’s darkest dreams, and she did not wish that prison upon him.

His jaw flexed as he loomed close. After the explosion of his temper, now he drew frigid as the waters she swam in Ice Land. It chilled her like the Grey Lady’s own dwelling, deep down into her bones as she searched the calculation in his eyes. “If you cannot answer, I will hunt you down, Nimeda. In the waking world.” The vise released, and she gasped as the blood flowed anew, clutching the hand to her chest. “Pray you have not stolen from me. For your own sake.”
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#3
In the dream she ran, bare feet stinging with each slap against the earth. Thorns tore fragile flesh, barbed in the snarls of her hair, clutching and ripping at the ragged remains of her skirts. It did not slow her. Arms pumping she ploughed onward, faster than the frantic hammer in her chest, the purest of wildthings bound to this insubstantial and inconstant world. The forest chased dizzy around her. Water slapped great puddles, tinged with her own blood. Leaves grew broader and branches reached higher as the trees soared, until she grew exhausted with the effort.

Mara could not help her with this. Jon was gone. Calvin and Tristan were wolfkin.

Thought chased.

Alone alone alone.

Why are you afraid?

What did I do?

You set the ward yourself, Nimeda.

When she tripped, the heels of her hands landed hard in compacted snow. A mournful wail escaped her throat at the icy scrape of cold bit the warmth away, and the breath stole quickly from her lungs. It hurt to breathe at all after that, enough that she could not immediately find her feet. Shivers burrowed as she lurched slowly upwards. Blood streaked her skin, stained on the ruffled white powder below. It was the only smear of colour in the frozen tundra whipping wildly in the razor wind around her, until the faint impression of a shadow broke through the storm.

The Lady reached for her marked hand, running her cool fingers across the symbol while Nim’s teeth chattered. Her strange eyes rose to study the bloody scrapes and bruises, superficial wounds all, but an unusual adornment for one well versed in this place. “It will tell her to run, when she wakes,” Nim cried over the wind. Or she hoped it would. It was the only message she could send; the only warning she could hope to give her waking self. She tried to close her fingers and remove the scrutiny, but the muscles did not respond. 

The storm thickened, but the Lady’s raven hair did not stir about her beautiful face, though neither was she untouched. Snowflakes glittered like diamonds in those inky tresses, where the silver cowl did not cover her head. She didn’t move, or release her grip. “It brands you as a thief,” she said. The wind should have sliced those soft words to pieces, but they rang as clear as a whisper into the shell of Nimeda’s ear. It did not sound like an accusation so much as a thoughtful murmuring, the meaning of either lost on Nim. The cold was sucking away her sense of urgency, and her distracted thoughts bounced back to the last time she had met this creature. A sudden hope sparked, like a warm pit in her stomach. Else perhaps the snow would kill her here, and had begun its numbing lull to the final sleep. It no longer seemed like such a poor fate.

“You watch over the wolf who believes himself a troll? He thought he might help, if he could, but he seemed doubtful. Wolves spare no love for me, their memories are too long.” Oh, it was hard to force the words out, like maybe her insides were freezing solid. It seemed to her own ears that the wind stole most of what she shouted, but the Old One did not end the storm, though it was within her power. “Vánagandr was not the river monster I meant to find, but I think it no longer matters. That chance may be gone now.”

Maybe there was a flash of amusement, maybe she imagined it squinting through the swirling snow. When the Grey Lady’s lips parted this time, Nim heard nothing of what she said, but found her gaze tugged down, beyond the hand still held by the other, uncertain for what she sought. The wind died suddenly. Snow drifted peaceful until everything rested still. Nim’s sense of cold retreated to a quickly forgotten memory. Control returned absently as she crouched, understanding somewhere in the back of her mind that it meant the Old One had left her. Snow reached an endless blanket. Mountains rose in the distance. 

She sank. Ice crusted her skin, crackling when she moved, yet she did nothing to change her appearance. Blue-tinged palms reached to where the Lady had indicated, eager, like maybe an answer finally waited, but when she brushed away the snow the only thing revealed was a stubby green shoot clawing defiantly from the dull earth.
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