Chapter 1, part 1

In which a demon sends a message, a serpent makes his entrance, and pasts are not as buried as hoped.

Dev stepped down onto the first stair and leaned over the railing. Her gray eyes surveyed the crowded floor below her with vague annoyance. The annoyance was nothing new for her. In fact, she found it quite the comfortable emotion. She’d even grown used to the phone in her pocket being a constant source of it.

As the owner of more than a few clubs and bars, her phone buzzed at all hours. Primarily, it was one of her employees wanting her input on some banal decision or wanting her to solve a problem that an astute child could have fixed. Occasionally, it was to field the random bible-thumper who liked to inform her where they thought she’d spend her afterlife. If she thought they would take her seriously, she’d explain she’d already been there, done that.

The latter calls were the least annoying and most entertaining parts of her day.

Being stood up for a cryptic rendezvous at midnight was proving to be the exact opposite.

The music faded out and she knew the next act was gearing up to start. They’d just passed the halfway point for the last show of the night. She eyed the floor, actually taking in the view below her, rather than staring blankly in agitation.

The stage took up a third of the bottom floor of the old warehouse, with seating and tables filling the surrounding space. Two balcony floors held overflow seating, their centers open to the stage below. The topmost had been closed off for the night—it’s not like they needed much overflow these days. Dev currently stood on the stair to the mostly empty first balcony. Sometimes she wondered if The Asylum was ultimately worth the hassle of keeping this particular club running, but when she saw her dancers begin to sway across the stage, she smiled faintly despite herself. They had fun with the shows and their enthusiasm was contagious. Screams and happy catcalls rippled across the floor before silence took hold as the music began pumping through the speakers in earnest.

Her fingers tapped the rhythm out on the metal banister as she wondered how long would be appropriate to wait for her guest. The clock above the bar said it was five after midnight now. She smoothed her hands down the black leather of her pants and tank top. Cliché, but she found it easier to dress the part of club owner when leather was involved.

Besides, the dark leather looked good against her pale skin and she liked what the cut did for her lean figure.

Downstairs, a couple caught her eye and she sighed, flagging a passing dancer working the floor to stop the underage girl before someone else saw her. She would never understand why the kids would even bother – the counterspell to get past her age wards shined like a beacon in the low lighting.

Dev tucked a short strand of dark auburn hair behind her ear and continued down the stairs. She had a business to run and anyone looking for her would find her easily enough on the main floor.

Naj stretched lazily as he uncoiled his long, scaled body in the darkness of the rafters. He had felt the heat of the show long before he ever opened his eyes to watch it. The bright stage lights warmed the high reaches of the warehouse where Naj had taken to spending his sleepy days. At night, he would linger above the pulsing sound and flashing colors, basking in the riot of energy from his hidden perch. His serpentine form was accustomed to the night, and his human one preferred the solitude of it. Still, a thread in the back of his mind told him he should mingle, urged him to seek out the warm bodies that wove the tapestry below. There was life down there, movement, heat – living heat, not just the false glow of the lamp light. As he watched the dancers writhe and sway, he could almost see the trail of their bodies lingering in the air like spectral writing. A language he’d spoken long ago, half-forgotten under the press of centuries.

Naj jerked his attention back to the now, back to the people sitting around the stage, watching, hungry for its energy as surely as he was. He had to ground himself in the here and now, or he would drift, lost in the nothing inside his head for hours. Only the comings and goings of those around him would alert him to any sort of change, and often not even that. Focus! There was something he had meant to be doing, something he had to remember….

He slipped elegantly down from the rafters onto the catwalk, a long, sinewy line of cobra in red. He kept his scales until he’d descended to the club level, sliding into human form as he released the last rung of the ladder. It was easier to hold plans and intention in a human head, the serpent cared nothing for the future, nothing for the past. The serpent was cool, comfortable, empty.

Naj needed heat. Needed the press of bodies, of human flesh and human hopes and human dreams. He had slumbered as the serpent for too long. He needed ties to this world, needed purpose.

Or else the darkness would take him, and never let go.

And he would never care if it did.

He made his way down the empty upper levels, drawn to the pulsing heat of the crowd below. He moved with little purpose, simply seeking out the brightest aura in this place. As he drew closer, he remembered a telephone call, and an intent to meet. He could not remember if he had made the call, or had simply overheard it, but since hearing it, he’d repeated over and over to himself Midnight, first floor, don’t be late.

When Dev hit the main floor, her shoulders eased back and a smile slid into place. While the upper floors were empty tonight, the main floor was over half full and she was careful to keep her crowd persona on. She was a natural on the floor, hands trailing table to table as people saw and acknowledged her. Dev had been a near constant presence at Asylum the past two years and the crowd had come to expect seeing her on the floor at some point during the night.

She was careful to never let her touch linger on any one person or table too long, so that no one noticed the warmth pooling in her hands as she drew out the excess energy of the crowd. It was like sipping fine liquor, drawing just enough to give her a gentle buzz. Her muscles felt more languid and her smile grew more genuine. Even her annoyance was beginning to melt away. With how often her phone stole her attention, sometimes she forgot how pleasurable her job could be until she was actually working the floor.

A hand closed around her upper arm, swinging her body in an arc with the force. Her vision swam and the crowd around her vanished. Her sight narrowed to the person holding her.

And she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

The hand was encased in black leather, leading up to pale skin between the glove and the rolled up sleeve of his light grey button up. The top three buttons were undone, giving glimpses of his chest before meeting the darker grey of his waistcoat. She knew who she would find as her eyes slowly trailed upward. Azriel’s green eyes glittering down at her, filled equally with amusement and irritation. It was an expression she’d come to associate with great pain.

A sharp tug and she fell against his chest, bracing with her free hand. Her fingers brushed his chest, bare skin on bare skin, and fire arced between them, pulling embers down her arm. She gasped, unable to stop the back of her hand and lower arm from erupting into opalescent scales. One dark eyebrow lifted as his other leather clad hand removed hers and broke the connection.

She panted, trying to will her skin back to her human form, but he’d drained too much energy from her. It was all she could do to keep the rest of her looking completely human. He feigned a look of sympathy at her plight as he allowed his own demon form to further emerge, black horns curling over his ears and a thin dark tail whipping out behind him.

A tendril of shadowy ink crept over his neck, dipping down beneath his shirt. Az leaned close and took a deep breath when she shivered in revulsion.

“Someday you’ll have to come back, you know.”

“No.” She could hardly breathe around the panic fluttering in her chest. She knew her eyes were too wide. Giving him a reaction was simply begging for him to make it worse, but she’d become lazy in the many decades away from him and her features didn’t school as well as they once had.

“Oh, I do believe the lady doth protest too much. I know you miss it.” Images flashed through her mind at the thought. He was projecting and her only protection was to try not to focus on any one image more than the others. Let them become background noise and they wouldn’t stick.

“I know you miss me.” The voice whispered in her ear, curling in her stomach like ice. She flinched, eyes screwing shut in preparation for whatever gift he was about to bestow on her…

Nothing came.

When she opened her eyes again, the crowd around her was catcalling and cheering the end of the act. The creep who held her arm was barely old enough to be in her club, let alone powerful enough to inflict such a memory. His blonde hair was slicked back, his blue eyes twinkling in mirth. The vision of Azriel was gone. Her lips tightened as she jerked out of his grip.

High on the power loaned out by his boss, the kid smirked.

“Azriel said to tell you that was just a hello kiss.”

He was nothing. Just a scrawny, pathetic human who’d made the wrong deal at the wrong time. Some plain loser who thought running with the big dogs would make him special. He just couldn’t see he was the prey running before the pack, not with it.

She bit back her frustration and anger. She’d been Az’s messenger once, and she knew what it was to be punished for doing your job. But she was scared, and he boasted a confidence he didn’t deserve. The combination made her want to lash out.

“Remember it’s the messenger that always gets shot first.”

The kid recoiled from the venom in her tone, eyes flicking away and back, not as sure of himself once the dialogue changed. She watched him leave, one hand absently rubbing the other, pausing when she felt scales.

She’d actually slipped some of her skin in her panic. Fortunately, Az hadn’t actually taken her energy – that had been a memory more than truth. Another pass of the hand and she was as human as she ever was.

Something had changed if Az was sending her such a personal message. And that knowledge worried her. She shouldn’t have been hearing from him for another fifty years at the earliest. No, something had changed and she didn’t like it one bit.

She flicked and swayed like a candle flame, pulsing and flaring as she moved across the floor. Naj found himself falling into step with her, drawn in like a moth. She was brimming with life; he wanted to wrap it around himself and bask. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, as if he could draw that heat within himself—

He recoiled sharply as searing heat flashed over him—

And then was suddenly gone. The coolness that remained seemed inverted, like the absence of light rather than darkness proper. It was wrong, and Naj reached instinctively for his ties to Master to steady himself. He physically stumbled as if missing a handrail–there was nothing there to grasp. The ties were cut, and there hadn’t been for months. Years? Days? Time was not a thing his serpent cared for, and it always went blurry when he thought about his time with the Ahn’Ki Dai. Here, stay here you fool! There is nothing for you in the past.

His master was gone, but the cooler part of himself remained. Naj’s mind often whispered to itself like this, a steely voice, usually laced with annoyance, but always calling him back to task. It kept the serpent instincts at bay, kept him focused and moving forward. Naj drew another deep breath and smoothed his hands down his sides, partially to settle himself and partially to be sure he was still wearing hands. Everything seemed to still be in order, so moved outward to get his bearings. The dancers on stage had finished and the next ones were setting up. The audience was fidgeting happily, letting the excitement of the last show settle over them, while gearing up for more. The owner of the brilliant aura…

…was smoothing pearly white scales back into place beneath her skin. Could it be?

Naj made his way through the crowd towards her, excitement at the discovery of another serpent blinding him to any thought of what he might do when actually reached her.

Dev shook herself, settling her consciousness and her skin in the here and now. A quick scan told her that everyone was paying more attention to the stage now as the next act started, which meant her slip had gone unnoticed in the dim club.

She let loose a small sigh of relief. At least, until she spotted someone weaving determinedly through the crowd toward her. Normally, she would have ignored it, assuming they were heading towards the bar, but after that last encounter, she was a bit paranoid.

He moved through the crowd like a fish through water, easily dodging tables and people milling about by the bar. His eyes were steadfast on her, and she instinctively bristled before reminding herself that while Az may be a bully, he wasn’t the sort to send two messages so close together. He wouldn’t waste his energy on something with so little yield. Give his prey a little time to breathe, to relax, and then he would strike again. He’d had eons to practice extruding fear from his victims.

No, this fellow was something else. There was an odd air about him, his movements too graceful, too aware of those around him. It simply screamed shapeshifter.

She gave the surrounding area a quick glance, the better to gain a sense of what she had to work with should this meeting prove less than friendly. The glow of the clock above the bar read ten after midnight, reminding her that she’d had an appointment. That call may have been made by Az’s crony, but it may just as well have been from this stranger. She could be off kilter from suddenly hearing from Az again, but she couldn’t let her paranoia overwhelm her entire life. She couldn’t live that way again.

Dev took a breath and waited. It was the only way to know. He’d reach her any moment.

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