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.
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.