Chapter 5, part 3

In which: Surprises, surprises everywhere.

Nica turned her head to look at the serpent more directly. She couldn’t tell if his overdone stillness was a reaction to Marie’s dance or a way to hide from her personally. Some serpents still held their avian prejudices tight to their hearts, and she didn’t want this new dancer thinking of her as a threat. So she approached softly, knowing her steps would read more as the cobra’s she’d been raised by than the stoic hawk her feathers would call to mind. “Etren l’ramn.

Even if he didn’t know the old language of the dancers, the familiar lilt of the phrase should strike a chord with him.

ra’prine’ra, ce’ceres.”

Naj returned the dancers’ greeting without a thought. The words left his mouth by rote, a habit of centuries. Most of his attention was on his rapidly fading visions. Already, his mind was re-winding the visions—Memories?– tucking them back away into the recesses of his consciousness. They had been unimportant to him then and they wouldn’t be needed now– wait, that wasn’t right. How could something so horrible not matter to him? He shook himself like a dog shaking a coat heavy with water, to clear the weight from his mind. No wonder the serpent inside preferred not to concern itself with wasteful things like the past or future. If one could not focus on now, one would not survive. There were too many important thoughts for the present, like this new comer before him, who spoke the Old Words with practiced ease.

Keep it together, fool! Let your sERA’ramn spin what they will, let your serpent keep its own counsel. Speak to this hawk before you and see what she says – nothing new will come from in here.

Naj took a steadying breath and steeled his aura with what he could of an avian reserve. He wasn’t nearly as good at it as the hawk before him would be, but years of working with raptors taught him the careful practice of holding his energy close, tight and hard. It was unnatural, but hiding behind a false composure would do until it felt genuine. No need to concern others with what he himself did not understand. There would be stillness later in which to ponder his visions. The here and now held mystery enough of its own. He inclined his head somewhere between a nod and a bow, uncertain of how to greet this hawk that spoke and swayed like a serpent but tingled with traces of falcon magic.

Nica inclined her head in return, pleased that he’d responded without hesitation, though her eyes never strayed from the man before her. He was thin, painfully so, and while he moved slowly, his aura had become alarmingly still. When a serpent was so carefully poised, it usually didn’t bode well for whoever was on the other end of the strike. Her feathers rose again in response, though she tried to keep her smile and posture light. His aura was tight enough she could hardly read it and her lack of knowledge about this dancer put her on edge.

Dev had told her very little about him, but her description matched what Nica was seeing now. Nica just wasn’t sure that it could all be attributed to his spending too much time in his serpent’s form. It was a logical conclusion for Dev to draw, but there was something wrong here. She’d seen serpents recover from going feral too long, and this felt different somehow.

Still, judging him preemptively felt… Rude. Everyone’s experiences were unique to themselves and she could not say definitively that this wasn’t merely his way of recovering. Besides, if he’d come to the nest to rejoin life, then offering her support should be her first priority.

She offered a smile and her hand, allowing the red shoulder of her avian form to flow down her upper arm and fade. “Pleasure to meet you, I’m Nica.”

You’re Nica- this is a raptor’s nest?”

He simply couldn’t believe it. Naj didn’t have any inherent problems with raptors – any more than he did with any other shifter kinds, his time among the Ahn’Ki Dai saw to that—but… a raptor, running a nest like it were a serpent’s? The avians had their own styles and customs, surely she would prefer… From the way Marie had spoken of her earlier, and the fox’s enthusiastic greeting and quick compliance to do as she was asked… No, it was clear this hawk ran this nest, but to think of a raptor keeping serpent customs, after the two races had battled so long… He would simply have to keep calm and let her explain. There was no way he’d be able to make sense of it on his own.

She raised one eyebrow at his response, hand falling back to her side. She fought not to stiffen at his exclamation that this was a raptor nest. Such things existed, like Ariella’s, but their energy was vastly different. Nica had worked hard to keep this nest from falling into the same strict formality that falcon’s adhered to.

Still, she doubted he’d been intending to offend her, so she let the comment go, her focus settling on the fact that he’d recognized her name. Nica hadn’t expected anyone new to know her name, but dancers were best known for their gossiping. Perhaps she shouldn’t be surprised.

Though if that was the case, she should think they would have mentioned that she was hardly a raptor aside from her feathers…

Finally, she rewarmed her smile and shook her head, settling her hand on her hip. “Not precisely. I may wear feathers, but my heart bears the scales I was raised by.”


The whispered word was on his lips before Seth had properly finished the thought. Of course, not a true wyvern, she hadn’t flashed any scales to go with her feathers, but…. A hawk raised by cobras was just as much a creature of fantasy as any of the mythical chimera. Of course, rumors still existed of griffics in this or that mountain, and he knew from personal, intimate experience that dragons still ruled over the Eastern lands…

But now was not the time to linger on such impossibilities. Seth urged Naj to speak quickly, to cover up his own whispered slip. He raised his hand in salute, letting the crimson scales trickle slowly up his arm.

Cobra myself, eija’ramn, and your serpent roots are clear. Hence my shock.” He gestured around the triple-tiered stage, though he was certain she knew better than any exactly what in the room was built with serpent design in mind. Seth released Naj back into the comfort of this familiar space, hoping his brief interference wouldn’t be noticed. Naj quickly tucked his still scaled hands behind his back, bowing at the waist and dropping his eyes to the floor.

Please forgive my rude outburst, eija. Surprise or no, my manners are better than that.”

Red scales for a red cobra. Somehow she was surprised to have Dev’s claim confirmed. Perhaps it was the odd juxtaposition of his cool, still aura and the fiery flash of scales. Or perhaps she’d started to believe that they were little more than a myth. The tales of red cobras were always relayed as a grandmother’s grandmother having known one, but no one actually knowing such a serpent themselves. Many red vipers, but never cobra. The tale always said that the red cobra were an offshoot of the king cobra line – a ruling family who had been all but wiped out centuries ago when their kingdom was dissolved. Whoever had survived the dissolution had perished in the wars afterwards. Magic users were always targets in such times, but cobras – those whose blood naturally called them to lead– were always the first to fall.

Her heart grew tight as she thought of her own family. Black cobras – monocled, not king – had suffered the same fate as so many others. Pointless wars and hatred…

She found herself blinking hard, her smile having faded in the face of her own thoughts. Nica shook her head, forcing herself back into the conversation at hand. His surprise was expected, it certainly wasn’t the first time her upbringing had thrown another serpent. “Your manners are fine,” she reassured with a new smile, “this morning just seems full of surprises.”

She let her gaze slide over their surroundings, forcing her thoughts to a different direction. “I think you’re one of the few to comment on the borrowed aesthetics. I felt the nod to tradition was… Appropriate somehow, given what I wanted this space to represent.” She hummed slightly before adding, “And I think it was necessary given the bleak surroundings I was given to work with.”

Nica could still remember what the old warehouse had looked like when Dev had first brought her here. She had hardly believed the demon was actually suggesting such a cold and depressing place to host her nest. The small nods to tradition were a comfort to her, certainly, but they also added the needed warmth and welcome to the drab interior.

Naj raised his eyes tentatively at her casual tone, and straightened completely at her smile. His head swam, but he couldn’t tell if that was from the shock or his visions. It had been quite some time since he’d called magics this powerful. Perhaps, the raptor was testing him?

No, it wouldn’t do to let himself continue in such thoughts. This was a serpents’ nest, a place of warmth and belonging, not the cold, hard, disciplined place of the raptors he’d worked with before. He had been perfectly content with things a moment before, and he would not let ridiculous stereotypes break that now.

Especially given the reputation he himself was running from.

What was it going to take to get Naj’s mind in the here and now? Clearly, the magic was rocking them more than Seth was accounting for. Each thought of his own echoed through Naj’s, creating a jumble that was distracting to even him. He couldn’t imagine the confusion it was creating in Naj. He needed to find something to hold Naj’s attention, lest they become overwhelmed again…

A brief snatch of music jerked him from his thoughts. Humming? Such idle music would hardly catch his attention in a nest of serpents, but from a raptor… No, that was wrong. No feathers could disguise her serpent heart. Naj returned Nica’s smile, relaxing his careful hold on his emotions. Once he was no longer locked behind his tight shields, the overwhelming aura of home washed over him, nearly strong enough to stagger him on his feet. Her song had stirred the Three Pillars, the three-fold magic the serpents’ dais was built on. This nest was serpent, through and through.

You’ve done good work, eija. The Three Pillars are obvious, to those who know to look for them. All the elements of home.”

Home. The word warred within him, tugging at him with feelings of both safety and dread. He ignored the lingering whispers of home shrouded in smoke from moments before. Burning bread to burning flesh… No, it was good to put that aside for now. It had happened so long ago…

Naj suddenly stumbled, though he’d made no attempt to move. His feet were simply abandoning him. He lurched forward, hand reaching out to steady himself, and catching the thing nearest to him – Nica.

Flash– An infant, crying and cold. Hands, cool to the touch, but heart warm.

Flash– A young girl, crying and shamed. Hands, smoothing her hair, and a song from the heart.

Flash– A young woman, crying out and running. Hands reaching, and a heart growing still.

Flash– A hawk, crying before a dive. Hands forgotten, and a broken heart too fierce to stop beating.

Nica automatically reached for him as he fell forward, her arm catching him about the chest. His unnaturally still aura burst against hers and she could hardly place each emotion flashing against her skin before they were replaced by another. The jagged edges caught her own emotions, and she was momentarily blinded by grief and guilt. She had enough sense to guide them both to their knees, but almost as quickly as the bursts had come, they were gone again.

She was left blinking, arms protectively wrapped around the other dancer. Her own aura swirled with dizzying confusion as the pressing emotions she’d felt vanished just as quickly.

Slowly, her vision registered it was filled by a vibrant, shimmering green. She wasn’t staring blindly at the dark curtains of the stage, but at a pair of jade pants. As she followed them up, and upwards some more, she eventually found herself looking into the concerned face of Kain. Warm dark eyes were quickly brought nearer to hers as he knelt beside them. The familiar highlights reflecting off the strong angles of his high cheeks and square jaw reminded her of the hidden strength in his smile and hands. It was a relief to suddenly not be alone with the strange serpent.

Kain’s voice was a rich rumble as dark as his skin as he asked, “Are you both alright?”

The steadiness of the earth surrounded them. Naj leaned into it, welcoming the help carrying his magical burden. As the weight of it eased from off him, he drew a deep breath, then pulled back to lie against the floor. This much magic, this close together… What was wrong with him?

A rumble of concern passed through him, echoed by a voice asking if they were alright. They? Oh yes, the hawk had fallen as well, in trying to catch him. Or had his visions pulled her into her own memories with him?

This was all getting very, very complicated.

Previous: Chapter 5 part 2                                                                                                                  Next: Chapter 5 part 4


Index: The Three Pillars

Once upon a time, I made a doodle in MS Paint.a-serpents-dais

I’m gonna be honest, I only distantly remember making it, and it did not spark the thoughts I’d hoped it would. But I know a thing or two about serpent culture, and I’ve been wanting to commit this to paper anyways, so let’s muddle through together, shall we? (This is easily the most informal Index I’ve ever done. I’m debating making it a video, or at least making a companion video so you can hear all the subtle (read:nearly non-existent (Wow, this is a lot of parentheticals)) differences in pronunciation between soume, soum, and sume.)

Ok, so first, about this doodle.

A traditional serpent village is set up in sort of a horseshoe around the communal well. As far as I know, the placement of the three main buildings doesn’t actually matter, but somewhere in this horseshoe you’re going to have three, half-sphere buildings, kinda like clay igloos. Each is closed off by a large stone “door”. These circular slabs get stacked up on each other over the central well to make a raised stage for official performances. These are the Three Pillars.

The smallest is the ki’soume, a community oven (think brick ovens or ornos). The il’soum is mid-sized, like one of those stand alone sheds, is the dancers’ respite, just a small, dark space for resting and recovering. Finally, the rei’sume, fairly large, serving as the chief’s house and town hall (called “long house” in my doodle above, but not at all to be mistaken for Native American long houses, as I actually know next to nothing about them. It was a place-holder thought *end PC disclaimer*). Each of these buildings represents a cornerstone of serpent philosophy, the foundations of their way of life. Let’s tackle them one at a time.

  1. Ki’soume/Kilm Ki’soume means “fire source/center”. Its only functional difference from a kilm, a household oven, is that its significantly larger, and its fire is never allowed to extinguish.  All other fires are lit from the one that heats this oven, in fact, even exiles are sent out with a torch from the palace’s ki’soume. Anyone, even a stranger, may ask for bread from the ki’soume, and they will not be turned away.
  2. Il’soum As you may recognize from Asylum, the il’soum is the dancers’ resting place. Meaning “dark center”, in this instance, il serves more to mean “not Light” than “Dark” proper. It is the balancing point to the li’sume, the dais upon which dancers perform. The li’sume is not a permanent structure, to remind serpents that life, beauty, and joy are transient, and should be enjoyed in the moment. The il’soum, then, serves as monument to both itself and the li’sume, urging that we remember balance, and benefits of quiet, peaceful reflection.
  3. Rei’sume rei is a story, but it also means “rule” or “Order”. The rei’sume is the source of civilization in a serpents’ village, serving as record hall, school house, hospital, and courthouse. Like the ki’soume, any may ask for shelter there and will not turned away.

Together, these three places represent the Body, Heart, and Mind. Bread feeds the body, dance and rest feed the heart, and the Law and History of a people feed their minds. No one aspect is greater than the other, and all are needed for a society to thrive. Each time the li’sume dais is erected, it is a powerful symbolic act. Water is life. Stories are life. Dance is life. Bread is life. Each is needed to support our way of life. Each is treasured, and celebrated.

Serpents. So dramatic.

Chapter 5, part 2

In the hands of Fate.

Seth was kicking himself for leaving Naj alone. He hadn’t realized how impatient he’d allowed himself to become—regardless of the circumstance, there was no excuse. He was damned lucky the fool bird hadn’t attacked them, but they’d dodged the pan only to be tossed into the cook fire it seemed. First, a magical flare up bad enough to bring on a vision, and then a raptor? It couldn’t be a coincidence. Seth stood at high alert, but kept himself carefully concealed. After their last nest… No, no need to borrow trouble. But no need to be careless, either.

With a gentle nudge, Seth pushed Naj into a light sleep, taking over control of their shared form. Naj had been through enough for one morning, and Seth wouldn’t leave such a delicate moment in his already overtaxed hands. No, it was time for his own particular skill set. He knew raptors oh so well.

Seth held himself serpent still, willing the ghosts of the past to lie silent, his heartbeat to slow. Avians, too, knew the feel of emotions upon the skin, though they did their best to hide from one another, so the gift had become muted over the years. A fact that Seth was now very grateful for. He pulled his panic/terror close to his heart, trying to project a calm confidence he didn’t yet believe as he eyed the hawk approaching them.

Nica let a smile fully fill her face, and her feathers rose in her hair to become more obvious. She nearly always wore the rusty red feathers of her avian form, the similar length and color of her hair often made them unobtrusive. Anytime she greeted a new dancer though, she made a point to let her other form stand out. Introducing her other form was a sign of good faith, the remains of an older tradition ingrained in her from her cobra family. It was something her nest had picked up, though she doubted many of them knew its origins.

A hand smoothed the scarf at her hip as she walked, a nervous gesture quickly let go again. She wore her preferred garb, a simple black halter tied around the neck and back, with tight black pants that fell open at the knees to flare around the ankle. Around her waist she wore a single rich crimson scarf that Kisma had tied around her before she’d left. It bore an elaborately embroidered symbol of Fate, Ksm, in gold. As her fingers brushed the metallic threads, she certainly hoped Fate would guide her steps true in the coming moments.

Since the music had been stopped anyway, she didn’t halt at the stage edge, but walked up the three steps to greet both Marie and the new dancer.

Hello, Marie–”

Her words cut off in a startled laugh at the fox suddenly there, arms wrapped tight around her waist. Marie’s brush of a tail swayed with excitement behind her, pulling her entire body with it. Nica felt her smile bloom at the eager touch, even as her heart panged at the thought of how she’d missed it. Her fingers grazed the unruly red curls as she leaned down to press a kiss to the top of Marie’s head. The gesture was one she’d done a million times since the fox was just a kit and it soothed both of them. Nica felt a tightness begin to loosen between her shoulders that she’d been ignoring for two years.

She was home.

Nica chuckled softly when Marie squeezed harder, amber eyes shining as she gazed up at her. She chewed at her lip, a gesture Nica knew meant she was holding back a yip. Marie was like that sometimes, fox running so very close to the surface. Nica ruffled her fingers through those red curls again, buoyed up by the reminders of all the years they’d shared.

I’ve missed you too, kit.”

A little hiccuping yip did escape then, and Marie buried her face in Nica’s side, jaw nuzzling along her ribs. Another trick, to keep her face from going muzzle, but also just pure Marie affection. No one loved with the purity that she did.

As Nica held Marie, she allowed herself to steal a glance at the serpent. His aura was vibrating against hers, but not in a manner she was accustomed to. This wasn’t excitement or nerves, it was almost pain.

Up close, she could see the tightness around his dark eyes. Sweat beaded along his hairline and a faint trembling had taken his limbs. The ki’n had taken its toll on the red cobra and he still struggled with it, even after the dance had ended. Even as she watched, he seemed to search for something within, falling as still as a serpent could.

A faint snippet of an old conversation drifted through her mind and she took the moment to study his eyes as he focused inward. Kisma and she had spoken of serpents and magic at length when Nica had taken on Ariella’s tutelage to learn the serpent dances that relied heavily on weaving magic. Her viper friend had mentioned that magic always left its stain—on vipers, it was often their hair; with cobras, it was their eyes. A red cobra with fire magic should have irises of brilliant scarlet, but his were almost too dark to even decipher their color. Maybe he truly did lack magic.

Seth watched the hawk watching him, though she held to the pretense of greeting the little fox. She made no attempt to hide her emotions, letting the waves of joy and relief radiate from her freely. Seth wondered at that, not sure where the relief was coming from, but there was absolutely no subterfuge about her.

She was gentle, caring, genuine. Warm and open—more like a serpent mother than an avian dance master. Was it a trick of the Three Pillars, an echo of all the memories refusing to stay buried? Seth couldn’t say why, but something in him whispered that he should trust her, despite what his experience told him.

Naj seemed calmed by his brief respite, so Seth decided to go with his instinct. eÿa’Ksmeÿa ksmeÿ. Fate guide us.With that whispered prayer, Seth pushed Naj back to the forefront. He wouldn’t leave him alone again, of course, but they had to start somewhere.

As she processed what she’d seen and let him regroup, she felt his aura withdraw, becoming calmer, smoother. Clearly he was getting his bearings, which was something she had hoped for. Good to know he wasn’t so feral that he couldn’t settle himself back in his own skin. Though the degree to which he was withdrawing his aura was a touch strange for a serpent. Serpents auras naturally flowed freely around them, while it was typically avians that wore it so close to the skin. Odd.

When his aura grew still again, Nica spoke. “Marie?”

The fox turned her face up again, an expectant grin in place. Nica combed her hair back from her face. “Would you let Kain know I’m here?”

Nica hadn’t thought Marie’s grin could get any wider – she was wrong. Marie began to bounce on her feet, wrinkling her nose in glee. “Sure! I’ll let everyone know, right away!”

As she bounded backstage, Nica called after her, “Let people sleep, Marie! No need to wake everyone…”

She trailed off with a shake of her head. “As if she’d listen even if she heard me.”

Nica turned her head to look at the serpent more directly. She couldn’t tell if his overdone stillness was a reaction to Marie’s dance or a way to hide from her personally. Some serpents still held their avian prejudices tight to their hearts, and she didn’t want this new dancer thinking of her as a threat. So she approached softly, knowing her steps would read more as the cobra’s she’d been raised by than the stoic hawk her feathers would call to mind. “Etren l’ramn.

Even if he didn’t know the old language of the dancers, the familiar lilt of the phrase should strike a chord with him.

Previous: Chapter 5 part 1                                                                                                                      Next: Chapter 5 part 3

Language Play: Dancers’ call and response

Within serpent society, the dancers’ nest is almost an entire culture of its own. While every serpent can dance, not every one of them is a dancer. The years of study and dedication are well praised and rewarded, and in turn, the dancers bless the people with their learning and skill. At least, that’s how they see it.  So it’s not surprising that in such a symbolic language, ritualistic greetings arouse to encapsulate these feelings in a few simple words. One is the Goddess’s blessing, a dancer’s way of sharing his favorite status with a non-dancing group. Dancer to dancer, the call and response changes to this:

“ra’prine’ra, ce’ceres.”

Etren l’ramn.”

Let’s break it down. ra you might recognize from ramn, which is pri’mn’s basic, go-to, doing word. ra is to go, ra is action, ra is how you turn nouns into verbs. prine, related to the pri you see in pri’mn, is a compound word meaning “all the way” or “beginning to end”. So ra’prine’ra is literally “go’start to finish’go”. ce’ceres references cycles, simply reinforces the idea of starting over once you’ve reach the end. So the call becomes “Beginning to end, without end”.

The answering “Etren, l’ramn” is much simpler. Literally “Forever, we dance”. It does get a little more complicated, if you want to really tear it apart like a scholar, because “l’ramn” is just the plural of dance. It would have to be “le’ramn” to be “we dance”, but I’ve always suspected that’s sort of the point. Removing any self from the concept of eternal dances seems just like the sort of thing a serpent dance nest would teach. But you get the idea.

Nica’s family always held tight to old traditions, even in a world where such practices were becoming dangerous. Marking oneself as a keeper of the old ways painted a target on their backs, but they held fast to what they believed it meant to be serpent. Nica was raised with such tenacity, indeed, it can be said to be the foundation of her need to create Asylum. Naj, of course, grew up with such traditions are the norm, so her greeting isn’t strange to him in the least.

Index: Types of Dances

It’s no surprise that a culture that loves dance so much would find it a useful tool for channeling magic. So far, I’ve mentioned a few types of specific dances, and while it’s not really important to explain them, world building is my candy, and language play is my particular favorite bonbon.

pri’ramn- “first dance” Term used for the collective of beginner’s dancers and training exercises.

il’li’ramn – “balancing dance” Dances meant to center and ground performers, either opening them up to a group energy or closing them down once a dance is complete.

charin’ramn – “seed dance” Not the fertility dance you might think, charin also refers to a certain kind of bead, and charin’ramn use ropes and scarves strung with these beads to create dazzling light shows, as charin beads respond to magic and aura in many spectacular ways.

areta’ramn -“magic dance” General term for dances that are meant specifically for weaving magic. This does not include dances like the charin’ramn, that use magic incidentally, rather than building and directing it deliberately.

s’era’ramn- “dream dance” Dances used to create alternate states of perception, used for meditation, past life exploration, and divination.

kishkan’ramn – “fire through flesh dance” A group of dances specifically designed to arouse, used in courtship and springtime rites and festivals. kishkan’ramn is also sometimes used to reference sex euphemistically.

There are, of course, many, many more, but these are some of the ones mentioned thus far in the story. It is worth noting that these dances are NOT limited to serpent culture.


Chapter 5, part 1

In which talons and fires collide.

Mal clenched his hands so hard, he knew there’d be bloody crescents in his palms later. To watch Marie throw herself at that snake was almost too much to stand. The only thing that saved the thing’s life was that it kept backing away from her. Still, that was tempered by the fact that the movement was choreographed into the dance. For all he knew, that stupid reptile wanted to throw himself at her. In fact, it wasn’t moving nearly as quickly away as he should. Was it lingering? Mal studied his movements for intent.

A fine trembling radiated throughout his body, his eyes becoming molten gold. It was bad enough when the movements were hurried brushes, but now they were becoming firmer, longer grinds… It was just obscene.

He started forward, intent on stopping this abomination, but a motion off to his side made him freeze.

Then Mal began to curse silently.

That damn hawk was back.

Nica moved across the darkened balcony towards the stairs, a smile creasing her lips as she recognized the music playing. A popular piece, a favorite of a face she’d ached to see again. Her pace quickened, feet carrying her faster than doubts could fly.

Her motion halted when she realized she wasn’t alone up here.

She stared at the silhouette for several seconds before she was able to identify it. Maleo.

The grackle was too still, his normally harried and quick motions held in check. His hair was longer than she remembered, but the tight twist of his lips was the same. His aura was held so close to his body, it was a wonder she had noticed him at all.

She began to walk towards him, though her step held caution now. His posture was too stiff, his attention too intent on the stage. Even with his aura clamped down so tightly, his stillness wore the signs of a rage ready to explode.

That much anger… Only Marie invoked such strong emotion from the reserved avian. She could see the fury in his limbs now that she was looking for it. To be so upset over Marie… Well, that told her who she was performing the duet with then. Maleo’s bigotry had always been his biggest weakness.

The hawk caught his eye and narrowed her gaze, flashing heat and scarlet his way. Mal knew the warning for what it was. Nica had never liked him. From the start, she hadn’t liked that Dev had hired him without asking the hawk’s permission– even though it was Devin’s damned business in the first place. Mal had figured she didn’t like the reminder of who was really in charge here, Nica was always watching, always sticking her nose where it wasn’t wanted.

He didn’t care if she liked him, he didn’t like her either. He’d thought another avian would understand, but the damn woman was a snake lover. After she’d suckerpunched him for calling Jax out for what he was, Mal had made a point ever since to avoid her. As much as his job would allow.

He pushed away from the pillar, hurrying past her to get back to the roof. Nica wouldn’t let anything happen to Marie, she was good for that much. Besides, he could always catch up with the snake later, when that snake sympathizer was gone. Anything he did now would only get him kicked out of the nest and if that happened, who knew what would happen to Marie? No, better to retreat now and figure out another way to keep that cold blooded monster away from his Marie.

Once she was sure he was gone, Nica approached the balcony edge to see what had riled Maleo so.

She recognized from the music this was one of Marie’s favorites. The enthusiastic kit loved turning the tables on the usual male pursuer, the high energy of it. It was meant for the man to be unsure and intrigued despite himself, but the poor dancer with her now just looked utterly uncomfortable in his own skin. He didn’t seem to be following the script, but genuinely trying to get away.

Everything was so much worse now that he was actually in the chair. If Naj thought he’d been uncomfortable before, simply watching Marie dance… In everything she did, she seemed so playful and carefree, almost a child. And it was clear she was still playing now. Her body was obviously familiar with the steps of seduction, but her bubbling laughter was still easy and light. And yet…

He pressed his back into the chair, squirming to get away. It was a relief when the choreography brought them to the point that he was allowed to actually run. Not that Marie let him get very far. Her eyes sparkled with laughter, and it was clear she was having a marvelous time. Naj was beginning to feel ill.

The absurdity of what she was seeing almost made her wonder if Dev had been mistaken. Nica had never known a serpent to withdraw from the heat of a dance, let alone the heat of a willing partner – and especially not a bloodline known for its passion like a cobra.

But she doubted Dev would be wrong about something like a red cobra. No, that sort of detail she would make no errors over – red cobras were rare, practically unheard of except in far between anecdotes. She knew Dev would be chomping at the bit to take advantage of such a specimen, eager to claim his uniqueness for her own gain.

She’d described him as feral on the phone. Nica hadn’t given it much thought at the time, since going feral was a common stress reaction for shifters, but what she was seeing down there… He moved with a quick nervousness whenever Marie drew too close. But it wasn’t just the desperate need for escape she would expect from a cornered animal. A feral serpent’s first response was usually to shift, as a smaller form was easier to hide. Failing that, a cobra would posture against the pursuit and if the warning went unheeded… Strike.

And as if that weren’t enough, venomous bloodlines were also known for having magic as well. Those gifts mirroring the scales of their serpent, a red cobra would likely have fire magic. Just the thought sent a shiver down Nica’s spine. The stage was warded against Marie’s foxfire, but a serpent’s, a cobra’s? That was a different beast and made the scene below her all the more worrisome.

There was the slim possibility that his line was one of the few that didn’t carry any potential for magic, or had dwindled in power over the ages like most shifter magic, but she knew better than to hang the safety of her nest on such a chance. She needed to get down there, before the situation escalated.

The sparks of emotion he’d felt off Marie’s dream were nothing compared to this. She was fire, wild and unforgiving, burning out of control, and she kept touching him. Every time her skin pressed against his, he was force fed a little more heat, a little more passion, until he was consumed with it. This hurt, but in a way that he couldn’t make sense of. He was acclimated to pain, he’d been taught to endure so much, but this…

Nica kept her gaze locked on the pair as she hurried down the stairs, quickly but carefully, so as not to startle them. The serpent swayed out of Marie’s grasp again and again. She could practically feel his chill from here, even in the midst of a dance. That worried her. If anything, he should have been too warm, even without the fire magic. Serpents lived and breathed ki’n, the heat of passion. It was what drove their hearts and their drums. It was easy to let it go when they went feral, their animal kin’s cooler nature prevailing. For him to seem so cold from such a distance… Well, it certainly spoke of how long he’d been “away”.

It also meant this much heat and passion, so persistent and aggressive, would be painful. Like a man left in the ice for too long, warming him again needed to be a slow and careful process. Knowing this, Nica would have chosen a dance that was more sensual than sexual, designed to draw out rather than pursue. She couldn’t expect Marie to have known better though. The kit would have only thought about the playfulness of the dance, not the aggression behind it. She supposed in this instance they were both lucky that his fire wasn’t responding in the usual feral fashion to the aggressor pursuing him. Giving Mal a reason to intercede would have done no one any favors.

He couldn’t get away. Even when the fox danced away, Naj still burned. The fire was inside him. Heat tore through him, filling his vision and searing his muscles into place. His heart fluttered, helpless against the pounding of the music and fire that filled his veins. The ki’n was going to kill him.

The cobra fell deadly still, and Nica’s heart leapt, but it wasn’t the coil of a serpent about to strike. Had he felt her coming, or seen her as she’d started down the last staircase? As long as he wasn’t poised for a strike. Surely, no one would have left Marie alone with him if he were a danger.

At that, she wondered where Kain was. The big cat surely wouldn’t have left any nest mate’s safety to chance, and the smug cat couldn’t have known she would return in time to chase off Maleo. Kain, more than anyone, should have recognized the budding potential for disaster brewing here. So where was he now? And why had he left the new dancer alone with a spitfire like Marie in the first place? She would expect such an oversight from Dev, but Kain was much better at managing the dancers than this.

Nica sighed. With so much going on, she would need to talk to Kain sooner rather than later. Though it was inevitable, the thought made her tired already. She supposed she should be grateful for something else that hadn’t changed. But first—one problem at a time.

She slowed as she hit the last of the stairs, her steps purposeful, but lyrical. She wanted her approach to be both reassuring and reassured. Nica left her doubts and questions behind, focusing on the dancers ahead of her. It was soothing in its own way, familiar. Once she stepped onto the main floor, her presence alerted Marie, who halted midstep.


Marie was gone, but the fire still raged. The ki’n she’d raised hammered at him, filling his blood with a wild pulse he’d not felt since–

Flash– He was running through the fields beyond the village, playing hide and seek with an annoyed care taker. His feet pounded on the ground and his blood raced through his veins–

Flash– He was running through the forests beyond the village, chasing the prey that would be his contribution to tonight’s feast. The drums beat in his thoughts and his spear flew through the leaves–

Flash– He was running through the streets of the village, dodging an angry older brother. His heart thudded in his chest and her kiss thrilled through his mind–

Flash– He was running from the ruins of the village, fleeing the men of Fire. Fear pulsed in his blood and pain sped through his body—

Everything went cold, leaving Naj trembling and dazed. The scent of smoke and visions of fire blinded him, and all he could see were blacks, reds and golds. He blinked and shook himself, but still he saw blacks and reds and golds—hawk’s kin.

Previous: Interlude between 4 and 5                                                                                                      Next: Chapter 5 part 2

Interlude, chapters 4 to 5

Enter the hawk.

As she stepped through Dev’s portal, Nica closed her eyes against the sudden light. Compared to the dim corridors of Ariella’s nest, the roof of Asylum was disconcerting. Slowly she adjusted to the view, then indulged the urge to simply stare when the sun was no longer a shock to her vision.

It was much like she had left it. That shouldn’t have been a surprise, but somehow it was. She had always loved the rooftop gardens – the wards kept it pleasantly warm and the lush greenery always lent tranquility to her mind. Perhaps it was the reminder of the gardens she’d grown up with that made this such a special space to her. The reason hardly mattered in the end. It soothed the tumult in her heart, and she breathed deeply, enjoying the moment. Nica smiled when she saw that Kain had added a few more blackberry bushes to the berry garden and she thought she spied the elderberry bushes he’d been talking about adding before she’d left. Up here, two years only seemed to mean everything was a little fuller and lusher with the additional time to grow.

That smile faded slightly when the idyllic view was disrupted by a scowling demon. Nica forced the smile for another moment or two, then dropped it altogether. “Dev.”

The lanky demon stepped forward, arms folded across her chest. “Nica.”

When the demon offered no other comment, Nica sighed. “It’s a joy to see you too. I’ve really missed our heart to hearts.”

Dev snorted, shaking her head as she turned away, letting her gaze fall on a small patch of white flowers. At least Nica could be reassured that Dev was as uncomfortable with this reunion as she was. “Believe me, it wasn’t my first choice.”

“I know.” Just those two words held how tired she felt. So many emotions still ricocheted through her from Dev’s call. The relief of hearing everyone was fine and that they had a new serpent dancer had quickly given way to the excitement of returning home. And just as quickly, had turned to worry over the threat of Dev’s old master coming to call. They’d handled a demon together before, but… She’d pushed her doubts aside all that day, settling her affairs in Ariella’s nest. Now, stepping from sunset in one part of the world to sunrise in another, her doubts and excitement had mingled into a fine mire. She’d been gone for two years – what had changed? What hadn’t changed? Would the same dancers be there or would there be more than one new face? Would they welcome her back or resent her for leaving in the first place?

So many questions… And the answers waited downstairs. For the first time she could recall, she felt uncertainty at rejoining her nest. Was it even right to still think of it as hers?

Part of her wanted to leave now – to just have Dev reopen the portal and send her back. They could handle a new dancer, a new serpent without her… They’d handled the loss of one without her already.

Just the thought brought a sharp pang of guilt low in her chest.

It was mirrored by a twisting knot low in her stomach that reminded her of the real reason Dev had called her. Azriel.

She and Dev had handled one of his minions years ago when Asylum had still been just an idea developing. It had not been an easy fight, but they had managed it. The idea of Azriel himself showing up… It would take everything they had to protect the nest if even half of Dev’s stories were true.

Her shoulders straightened, her determination to keep the nest safe building on the rock in her stomach. She’d kept the Pack and the Den fights, the vampires and the human gangs away from her nest, she would do the same if Azriel came calling.

Nica turned when she realized she was staring at the garden, ignoring Dev for her own thoughts. “So you really think Azriel…”

She was alone on the rooftop. Apparently Dev had taken her silence for the end of their conversation. Something else that hadn’t changed. The familiar graze of annoyance was a comfort in itself.

Her gaze took in the gardens again, but her thoughts had ruined the tranquility. With a deep breath, she started downstairs.

Previous: Chapter 4 part 3                                                                                                                          Next: Chapter 5 part 1

Index: A bit about shapeshifters

A preface: All modern day shapeshifters share a common origin, long lost to ancient history. The magic that forged them drew inspiration from the naturalized world, from the fey creatures that arose from the Elements. While modern peoples neither know nor care about these origins, it is worth keeping in mind that not every shapeshifter is what it seems, or thinks itself to be. Those with fey origins, no matter how remote, are subject to different realities about magic. Those of the common shapeshifter ancestry have lost much of their magic over the generations, and now, most individuals are “normal”, outside of carrying a second animal soul.

Serpents: venomous (cobras, vipers) and non-venomous (pythons, and boas)

The venomous lines tend to have powerful magic, usually mirroring the color of their scales. Pythons and boas usually do not, though some interesting individuals have popped up here and there. In ancient times, cobra magic usually dominated anyone of split parentage, and venomous tended to rule out over non. It is possible to be born split formed or blended form, displaying the talents and scales of both parents. Usually, such people still only have a single serpent form, but there are rumored to be some who call two entirely separate sets of scales.

For various reasons, serpents are often hit hardest during times of fear and war. Many of the lines known in ancient times are long lost, and with them, the magic they carried. Stories remain, but to most, they are just that: stories.

Avians: raptors (owls, hawks, eagles, and falcons) and passerines (basically any bird that isn’t a predator) *and corvids

Divided into two classes, the raptors and the passerines, based loosely on the bird type they call. An ancient legend says that the first passerine was born when he lay down his magic willingly, to foster peace in a war-torn world. In our modern world, it is true that passerine types almost never have any magic, but even in the raptor types, magic is less and less common. Those raptors who do possess magic tend to be very old, and very secretive. This may be due to the still lingering distrust of the griffics, a legendary nation of chimera: gryphons, hippogriffs, and wyverns. Even though nothing but rumors remain of the nation today, their reign was so absolute, fear of winged magic is hard to forget.

*Crows, ravens, magpies, and jays make up an outlier group known as crovids. Magic can be found in their ranks, but not often. Some of these shifters are of a similar background to the first passerines, while others come from more fey-like origins. The legends and superstitions surrounding these groups are as varied as the cultures they find themselves struggling to be a part of. In Riverside, most of the corvids live uptown with the raptors, in a loose alliance with the witch community. But it is equally common for corvids to integrate with passerine groups, or, in large enough numbers, to form their own units.

Felines: nations (tigers and lions), families (leopards and panthers), and solitaries (any) *and foxes

Like most of the predator races, felines are better known for their martial prowess than magical. Aside from the lions and tigers, felines tend to be solitary creatures, forming small familial bands, if anything. Even the great tiger nations are made up of smaller tribes, operating as independent war-bands unless called together by their overlords. Some feline forms also crop up in mixed species family groups, especially in remote and wild places like the North and the West, where magic is more common, and unpredictable. Such peoples almost never venture into the more modernized lands, and so little is known about them. But, presumably, they feel the same nomadic urge common to other feline types. Like the cat types they call, feline magic tends to be fickle, and it is not uncommon for a first shift to occur as late as early adulthood, though it can occur much younger.

*While foxes are not classically feline, behaviorally, they fall into this category. Like the corvids, their ancestry may be common with other shifters types, while other lines descend from fey types. Fox magic, when it crops up, leans towards illusions and dreams, Fire, or Earth.

Canids The Pack (wolves) and the solitaries (jackals and coyotes) *and The Den (hyenas)

Straight up, traditional Werewolves, without all the moon-gaga, silver-fearing bullshit. Wolves form rigid pack structures, with clear lines of dominance leading to their absolute Alpha. Occasionally, Lone Wolves are tolerated within a Pack’s territory, either by being minor enough to ignore, or by paying appropriate tribute. Lesser canids like jackals and coyotes are either ignored, or bullied. Might makes Right in the canid world, and so the fierce dedication to structure is all that keeps them from tearing themselves apart like animals. Fiercely territorial, the health of the local wolf pack either means meticulously guarded Order in their area, or barely contained gang violence. Thankfully, canid races tend to be devoid of magic. It is also not uncommon for their shapeshifting magic to be controlled, monitored, or even suppressed by their group’s energy until puberty.

*Call a hyena a dog and they will bite you. Despite, or maybe because of, their similar dominance behaviors, hyenas and wolves war nearly every time they clash. As a general rule, hyenas fight less for dominance, usually forming a clear line of command based on experience and age, rather than brute strength. In Riverside, the local Den are somewhat militant, divided into small bands of four or five that look an older leader, with those units grouped together to make a squad, squads into sections, and so on. Currently, there are five “generals” who form a council under the highest leader, known simply as The Den.

Herd: Horses and Deer *and rabbits

Herd families are a dying breed. With the growing sprawl of urbanization encroaching on the wilderness, wide open spaces are harder and harder to come by. Intimately tied to the land’s own magic, fecundity is becoming increasingly reduced as space is becoming a premium. In today’s modern world, horse families are less and less nomadic, buying up any land they can and forming homesteads. They live in the most perfect disguises: as horse farmers and cattle ranchers. Few nomadic bands remain, serving as caravan guards and escorts in those remote places where civilization refuses to take. Deer families, if they still exist, are never seen outside of their native forests.

*While not properly herd, rabbits crop up in those same odd families in the North and West.


Shapeshifter magic reflects the land it comes from. While some elements of form are inheritable, local elements influence the form a child’s magic will take. Nica, for example, is hawk like her father, but being born on American soil, her soul took the form of a Red-Shouldered Hawk when it reached for a specific shape, while his was something reflecting his native European land. So, depending on a myriad of conditions, in theory, ANY naturalized animal could potentially show up in a shapeshifter’s soul, provided it resonated with the basic type (bird, serpent, feline, canid, herd). Add to it the mingling of fey-type lines into “pure” shifter lines, and the magic becomes even less predictable.