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A Quiet Crossroads (Lake Baikal, Siberia)
Of course she argued.

Another rune assault unleashed, but he could only harry the creature’s advance for so long. “Jävla helvete, it’s not attacking me though is it!”

There was no fault in Kemala’s ignorance, but Sören snarled for how slowly she packaged away her pride in favour of action. It was not the time for enlightenment, and she could chew his ear off later if she wished; right now, it was a moment for survival. Fortunately he felt the instant she complied, though only because he was waiting for the tells. Expression fierce and expectant he guarded the moment with a focus on the creature, fist held tight, ready to act. He expected its attack to cease, as had the monster in Roopkund’s lake when the provocation was removed, but it wasn’t as though his assumption was without risk. Sören knew he wouldn’t die here, but he was reluctant to send Kemala to a watery grave just to test a hypothesis.

The creature dived almost immediately. As quickly as it had appeared, only the pink frothy remains of its blood and the tumultuous lake surface betrayed its surfacing before them.

Sören’s ragged breathing calmed. He waited a moment longer before he turned to Kemala. Clearly the shield of his body had been good for keeping her dry, he noted in irritation; Sören himself was soaked through, having taken the brunt. Fortunately he was also better dressed for the weather. “We have not sunk,” he observed. Clearly the lash of her tongue would follow; it felt prudent to point out before she had the chance.

“Are you hurt?” he demanded to know. He didn’t think so. Fear had frozen her solid before, yet for how quickly it thawed to the heat of her temper he suspected she was fine. But Declan’s fate made its haunt.

[[swedish is just a curse]]
If Kemala previously doubted the indulgence of Sören’s story at the hostel, her opinion was now completely flipped. The fantastical lake he described nestled in the heights of the Himalayas echoed with the ring of having been all too real. The most chilling part was the notion that the lakebed in his story was indeed layered with a carpet of human remains. She felt all too close to contributing her own bones to the design of Lake Baikal’s impossible depths.

But the more afraid she’d grown, the more angry she’d become. He really was hunting lake monsters, just like before. He’d plainly said as much, although he knew she didn’t really believe the fantastical tale, but played along for some foolish reason she wouldn’t admit to herself. That aside, it was what he did not say that pushed all the heat from her icy toes up to her eyes.

“I’m so glad you were better prepared this time and thought to bring bait!” The water stopped leaking into the boat, but her feet were already frozen through solid. She couldn’t tug her legs up upon the narrow bench and keep her balance especially with him standing like a great tree where it didn’t belong, so she hugged down all the tighter into the shawl. Sören was soaked clean through to the bone yet he didn’t so much as shiver. That really burned her the most while she was so cold she had to clench her jaw tight just to keep her teeth from chattering.

Was he really concerned about her welfare? If so, she wasn’t too keen on the flip-flopping of being bait one moment and a beloved deckhand the next. “Yes I’m fine. How fortunate for me you reeled me back in time,” she sniffed. Her dark gaze might as well been spears sticking him to the seabed.

“Now what?” she asked, sulking, feeling foolish and worse, trapped, but it wasn’t like she was going to risk using the Energies a second time.
∞ Kemala ∞ Oyá ∞ Dewi Ratih ∞ Kekura ∞

Sören paused to consider whether the heat in her accusation was justified. He had been using Kemala. Of course he had. But the word bait curled his lips downward and stiffened the muscles locking his jaw. It implied a carelessness he did not care for, and the insult dug under his skin colder than the water dripping down his face. “I told you what I was doing,” he said bluntly. If she had not believed him, the fault lay with her.

“You told me you stared down a tsunami. You asked to come. I would not have allowed it if I did not think you were capable.”

He could feel his temper begin to stir. Not at her, really, but at the way Declan’s face burned behind his eyes sometimes. He was not likely to risk the same mistake again.

In the end he grunted and released his fist. The runes fizzled out.

If need be, he could unearth Morven from wherever the Custody buried her, or press upon the Network to connect him with another woman who could use the runes. Either of those would take time, but first he needed to ascertain how to recover the shard without losing it to the bottom of the lake. Roopkund had drained itself upon its guardian’s demise, but clearly the same would not happen here. In the meantime Elias could search all he liked, but lacking the missing piece it would be fruitless. The girl trailing in his company had no power of her own. Sören had time.

What he did not have was the patience to soothe Kemala’s hurt feelings. No matter how pathetic she looked huddled under that shawl. He sat. They rocked, gentle and aimless without the boat’s motor.

“I’ll take you back, if that’s what you want. You’ve every right to be afraid.” His gaze returned to mildness, though it was not without challenge. He did not in fact think he was wrong about her capabilities, or her courage. He finally retrieved the warm thermos from his pack, and held it out. “Instruct me. How do I get the boat to move? We’ll need to work together.”
The subtext that she was afraid bothered her. She was afraid, and she would admit it, but she disliked the idea that she should be more calm simply because he’d half-told-her what to expect. In the most fantastical and twisted way, no less, knowing that she was only entertaining the idea because of the way he told the original tale. Kemala could hardly look him in the eye anymore. It was just too damn hard. Instead, she blinked and turned her attention to the surface of the water with a frown. It had settled back to glass by then, completely impervious to the disturbance. Nay that anything swam beneath them at all. Were there more down there? How many? The lake was flooded with rumors and tales. It was why she came to Baikal at all, chasing the legends of snakes and fantastical creatures and hoping to find another nest of the Naga that had saved her so that she could deliver them from hiding.

The boat rocked a little when he sat, but it was a soothing movement. She breathed a sigh of relief, but the lowered proximity all but forced her to meet his eye again. They were so light. Like he was some sort of albino fish tentatively testing shallower waters for the first time. But like the surface of Baikal, their lightness was hard and accusatory. Anger rimmed them, which inflamed hers in turn.

”I did stare down a tsunami. There were innocent people behind me, and I was protecting everything that I love. What is here for me to love?” The words spilled before she understood the meaning. She didn’t mean that there weren’t innocents or anyone else that captured her care, but the Energies came out of defiance and anger. She had been afraid, but most importantly, stubbornly refused to lose what she loved most that night.

A silence plugged her voice as she searched for the right saying.

”…This is just fishing,”, she muttered. He clearly didn’t love the creature that he sought. Nor show any attachment to the people, land, or anything else except being tall and wet. Bangsat

She tried to remember more of what they discussed at the hostel. He talked of a talisman that aided him in the previous encounter. Other than generic suggestion of helping him, she had suggested to accompany him for the spectacle first and foremost and for the company second. The journey from Bali was lonely, and Kemala enjoyed a storyteller. Oh how foolish she’d been.

His question went unanswered but for casting her dark eyes toward the distant shore, finally summoning the pride to meet his light ones again. She was tempted to explain nothing. That if he couldn’t figure it out, they would have to sit there until they drifted to shore.

Instead, she decided she didn’t want to sit in the boat all day simply to prove a point. She drew a cleansing breath and tried to put the emotions behind her. It worked a little. “I will explain, but you must tell me what we are doing here. Why do you want that thing? And why do you want me here?"  Her feelings bubbled up annoyingly that moment.

"Am I bait or am I something ... else?”

She went on to explain how she did what she did. “To harness the power of tenaga dalam, you must quiet the mind and focus the breath. Be satisfied with the moment, stop moving and remain still. Once you do, you can sense the five powers: Jasmani, Rohaniah, Batin, Dalam, and Gerak, and embracing these powers was how I faced the tsunami and moved the boat. Sweep the boat with the power of dalam, the power of breath,” she said while making a motion with her arm like it was obvious what to do.

Of course, it took her years of practice and meditation to master tenaga dalam. Sören, on the other hand, seemed the opposite of the type to meditate and turn inward. He was action incarnate.
∞ Kemala ∞ Oyá ∞ Dewi Ratih ∞ Kekura ∞

There was nothing he could say to remedy the insult she saw in him, which made him reluctant to say anything at all. Sören had the knowledge he wanted. Kemala’s offence at his method ought to be easily cast aside, and it annoyed him that it wasn’t. Those hooks of hers dug through his skin still, and he resented how the flash of her accusation made him want to defend himself. She hadn’t been hurt. He hadn’t intended to allow her to be hurt. And she certainly wouldn’t have come if he had explained bluntly his intentions. She acted like bait and something else were mutually exclusive rather than an efficiency he took advantage of for both reasons. His presumption of her capability was a compliment, and one so rarely bestowed he was stung that she did not accept it like the golden offering it was.

Sören watched her suddenly refuse to look at him in surprise. He suffered no such weak affliction in return, for Kemala held the entirety of his attention now. She did not reach for the flask, and so he placed it on the boards by his feet. Despite himself he was not unmoved. She infuriated and allured in such equal measure he was unsure of navigation.

“Providence spoke, I only listened; she does not always reveal to us the question when she provides the answer. We are rarely only one thing or the other, Kemala. Bait, or something else. King or servant. You tell me which you are.”

But he answered her other question without further coercion. His forearms settled onto his knees as he spoke, hands lightly laced, seeking the captivation of attention that tried to allude him. “I went to the lake at Roopkund because a friend asked for my help. The creature there had killed an entire expedition already, and he was convinced there was a secret to discover – that it guarded something,” he said. If Kemala was searching for nobility, she would find little to her liking. But passion in Sören was like deepest flames; nurtured deep, a furnace. It held the cadence of his voice now, measured and poured like nectar. He did not soothe her injured feelings, but did offer truth in its stead; to him, perhaps they amounted to the same value. “The creature attacked me specifically. I told you the truth at the hostel, that the scale you touched belonged to the creature that took my eye, and I thought my sight was the payment owed for the talisman procured. Together, we discovered a tomb beneath the blanket of bones afterwards. It did not belong to this world, Kemala. I have never seen anything like it. Runes whispered there; objects imbued with the gifts we wield. I would describe it for you if you asked me, but words make a poor man’s reflection. Easier to describe paradise.

“I thought my eye was the sacrifice demanded. I was wrong. My friend lingered when he should not have, and I let my attention lapse when I should not have. We were nearly at the surface again when the final price was paid.”
He did not take a blink from her attention, but neither relinquished the privacy of his own guilt and grief; those were not secrets of his soul he deigned to share with anyone, even Declan’s widow. Her judgements would not scathe his armour. Like as not she would be unable to keep them to herself, he thought sourly. But neither did he lack emotion. “When I was approached for the job of uncovering a second creature guarding a second treasure, I accepted. To ignore the mystery is to make a mockery of his death and my role in it. That is why I am here.”

He had expected her to impart some wisdom on the steering of the boat, not her understanding of the power itself. If it was just a case of nudging, it seemed an easy enough task. He offered no clarification though, accepting the knowledge in open interest. In reciprocity he reached for the back of his thick sweater and pulled it over his head. Cold bit his skin, a chill that made him grunt. The shirt beneath was similarly damp, but it was the ink on his forearm he shared with her. A depiction of runes. “I read it in patterns,” he told her. “If I remained as still as you say and allowed it to embrace me, the runes would consume me to cinders. To command it is a battle. It is life and struggle and ferocity. Such is the reason I believe the creature here was lured to attack you and not me. Such is why you cannot see the weaves as I make them, nor I yours.”

Fist softly closed, the runes threaded a gentle path as he spoke, but not yet to move the boat. Instead it warmed the air around them, burrowing faint heat into the shawl clasped about her shoulders. He would be gratified to witness a measure of surprise once she noticed, he realised. It was not a comfortable acknowledgement, yet he did not find himself able to look away from searching her face. “We bargained as equals, Kemala. You cautioned me to judge you a goddess. If you think I have used you unkindly, then you are owed in kind. What would you have of me?”
The pulse of anger thumping her heart slowed, although she was hesitant to release her anger. She was aware that the proportion of her reaction was unfairly volatile, but the tightness of her jaw and purse of her lips did not soon release. If only because she wanted him to suffer through her ire a little while longer. Even if the story that flowed forth swept aside some of the emotion that caused it in the first place. She wished Sören had but shared the fullness of the truth last night, but now she could sample the drips of such awareness amid the fantastical words pouring from his mouth. When he described the sacrifice of his friend, her face suddenly tilted up, settling on the paleness of his eyes. The colors were matched perfectly, she thought, and only upon deeply peering into their watery depths could she discern something different about the cloned organ compared to its mate. He was willing to subject himself for a cause, but the sharpness of his jaw and curl of his posture told her that he grieved what was taken instead. Had he put this friend in danger as he had her? No matter intentions, accidents happened. Did the friend walk willingly into the maw of death? Or did he only realize it once the trap was snared? It sounded like an agonizing death. She was near to reaching out to those tightly clasped fists when he moved instead.

The sudden tug of the sweater flared her eyes to moons. For all the fire within, it did little to keep her actually warm. To take off her clothes in that moment would freeze her to ice yet he did as much without hesitation. She could see the arcs and ridges of his body clung to his undershirt. It was almost obscenely damp. For a woman raised on the sea, where clothes were annoying tolerances when all they wanted to live in was swimwear and walk bare foot, she did not understand the flush of her reaction. Yet doggedly, she would not look aside. Her attention followed where he led like a fish on the line to the shapes and writing dotting his forearm.

She’d never heard anyone speak of such things out loud. Even the King Nāgarāja was silent on such matters but what Kemala needed for herself, specifically. She was fascinated by his tale as much as she was drawn in by his exotic voice the night before, but mostly she concerned that he would catch a cold. She was frowning at the soggy sweater after that, wondering if she could risk using the power of tenaga dalam to pull the water from the fibers, when the shawl began to slip from her shoulders. She hadn’t realized she wasn’t holding it so snug until that very moment. It was as if she was laying in the soft folds of sand warmed by the sun, warm water lapping her toes. The sensation lulled her eyes low to savor the strange transportation home. After a moment to gather her bearings, she looked around herself, and finally studied the shawl now fallen to the crook of her elbow as if it was one of those magical objects he found in the tomb.

When she found no logical explanation, her attention settled on his face. He was watching her so closely that it stole the breath from her lungs. Her lips parted as if to speak words of awe, but they wriggled free of his hook and she imparted her high judgement instead.

“You mean to tell me you could have warmed me up this entire time?” She tsk’d a sniff to hide the smile that threatened to break her smooth expression, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. She realized that there were perhaps better choice of words than ways to share warmth, so she shook it off and quickly followed with another. “I will think of how you may repay me ‘in kind’, Sören North Man.”

She sat straighter as she crossed her arms. She assumed he would steer the boat back to shore now, but she had a feeling this was not their final excursion on the water today. Sören still had not captured the trinket that lured him to Baikal.
∞ Kemala ∞ Oyá ∞ Dewi Ratih ∞ Kekura ∞


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