In which much mental dancing is done.
Nica wasn’t exactly sure what had just happened to the cobra in front of her, but it was clearly a magic of some form. If he were truly feral, then it could be a result of magic returning unchecked. If that were the case… Well, the wards currently in place were enhanced easily enough to guard against it. It disturbed her that a red serpent’s magic might pull from something other than flame, but she let the thought go for now.
“I think we’re fine.” Nica pulled back, letting the serpent in question draw away to rest against the cool floor. Perhaps he was still too warm? She leaned forward enough to touch the back of her fingers to his cheek. His skin was cool against hers.
“Are you alright? Do you need some water?” She drew away again, troubled. He wasn’t as warm as she was, but that was expected. He hadn’t felt chilled, which was the important thing. Still, his aura was unsettled and that troubled her. Would whatever happened, happen again?
She had no idea what had caused the ricochet of emotions, and their best hope to contain any wild magic was to isolate the cause. She doubted bombarding him with questions about it would help. Feeling trapped or pressure could trigger the magic again. But they needed answers. Damn.
The faint scent of blood and smoke accompanied her touch, but it was pale in comparison to the immersion of moments before. Just an aftershock, an echo of magic. Seth hoped this wasn’t going to become a problem. Best to cross that bridge when they came to it, however.
Naj wasn’t ready yet to open his eyes, or even move, really, but he didn’t want to concern his companions any more than they already were. He wished fervently he could simply shift and retreat to the rafters, but he knew he could only run and hide for so long. Discipline was what would get him through this. Discipline and determination.
Hazel eyes dark with concern met his own, and he had to smile at the genuine worry within them. It was novel to be worried about, especially by a raptor that outranked him.
“I’m alright,” he said softly, pushing himself up on his hands. Shaky, but he didn’t fall. Still, it would be a moment before he attempted to stand.
Nica nodded, her hand automatically moving to stroke his hair back. She couldn’t help the continued little touches, it was the best way she knew to offer comfort. It was hard enough to resist the urge to grow her wings and wrap them around him protectively like she would have for any of her other dancers. She didn’t know how he would take the gesture. Some serpents didn’t do well with such visible reminders of her avian form. It was harder than she remembered, juggling so many concerns.
“Do you know what happened?” It was unlikely the answers would be so easily gained, but she had to try. If they were lucky then it was a lapsed skill returning, and he would be able to fill them in on it. Otherwise the best they could hope for was that it was simply his mind coming to terms with leaving his feral nature behind and there wouldn’t be a recurrence.
Kain stayed silent beside her, but the line of his mouth was grim.
Her continued touch brought no more aftershocks, which Seth took as a good sign. Her inquiries however…
How much to reveal? Yes, he was hoping to make this nest Naj’s home, but he hadn’t counted on it being so… loaded. Over the generations, most shapeshifter lines had lost their ancestral magic, but this nest seemed to be filled with pockets of power with every turn. Was he simply so unpracticed that his own control was nigh useless? Or were his new nestmates more than they let on, like himself? There was no way of knowing, but it made Seth want to err on the side of caution, even more than usual.
“I became overwhelmed,” he said simply. “It has been quite some time since I’ve interacted with so many people directly. I am … a bit feral, as of late, I’m afraid.”
He hated to admit it, but it would offer him a buffer, a place to hide. Truly feral shapeshifters were little better than their animal counterparts, and recovering from that state would leave him delicate at best. He would like to believe he was more in command of himself than that, but he was growing less and less certain.
Naj wished he could simply share his visions with his new eija’ramn, but Seth couldn’t’ allow him to do that. There were simply too many uncertainties. The first “visions” were of no concern – Seth knew them to be simply memories, ones Naj didn’t need to remember. Already, the details were fading, as Seth tucked them carefully back behind his wards. And if the second visions had merely been memories as well… The secrecy of the griffic nation was renowned, and even if the group was all but dissolved today, Seth had no way of knowing if this hawk drenched in falcon magic was more than a simple avian dancer or not.
No, best to keep quiet for now, to lay low, gather what information he could, and try not to attract any more attention than he already had. Seth whispered at Naj’s growing unease, soothing it’s questioning reach with what he hoped were the right answers. Just a dancer, nothing more. Just a new dancer, who needed to lie down.
Kain’s expression was curiously shut down at the serpent’s words. It may have been years since she’d seen it, but Nica still recognized it for what it was. He knew something – or at least suspected something.
Against her better judgment and knowing the headache she was about to inflict upon herself, she sent a questing thought in Kain’s direction. Telepathy wasn’t a particular skill of hers, but she knew Kain would pick up on the thought if she broadcasted it to him. Of course, whether or not he chose to answer was another beast entirely.
What is it?
Aloud, she continued offering the serpent reassurance. “Would a quiet place to rest help?
Kain’s initial instinct was to ignore the little tendril of thought waving to him from Nica’s aura. Apparently he’d become lapse in schooling his emotions around the nest. Without Nica or a serpent around, there’d been no one skilled in reading auras. He knew from past experience that ignoring the hawk would only exacerbate the situation, goading her into digging in and insisting on knowing what he knew. Even though he wasn’t sure what had bothered him exactly about the serpent’s reaction, he knew his silence would only distract Nica further. Something they couldn’t afford right now.
There had been something about the cobra’s thoughts, something that had tucked itself away almost before Kain had had a chance to read into it…
He didn’t like the thought of a Dai operative hiding something in this nest, even if he was just a tool as Dev had insinuated.
Unfortunately, that was about the best he had to offer Nica without doing a little investigating of his own.
Rest. Yes. A chance to get away from all this and just think, slowly and methodically, like he was used to. A respite sounded perfect. He was in over his head, and he knew it.
Naj tucked his head low again, the habit of obeisance comforting and safe.
“Quiet would be most welcome. I will be fine, with a little rest.”
Probably nothing? What does that mean?
Nica let her annoyance at Kain’s vagueness flow just under her aura, out of easy reading range. She offered a hand to the serpent as she stood. It was disturbingly easy to fall into the old habit of juggling mental and verbal conversations. The necessity of such a thing was still as tiring as ever though.
“The il’soum is close, you can rest there.”
Seth smiled. “How appropriate.” Il’soum could poetically be translated to mean “heart of darkness”. He would love nothing more than to retreat to the darker corners of their own heart, but dancing with a raptor took finesse, and Naj was only so capable of holding his own at this point. Give and take, eternal dance, each leading in the steps that are given to him. So it was Seth that took her outstretched hand, relieved that he didn’t find himself bracing to stop another flow of visions.. Perhaps it had only been a coincidence…
Warm and gratitude radiated from him, despite his misgivings. Even if things did not work out for the best, in this moment, the welcome in her aura was clear, and Seth appreciated this moment to call this place home. He had been dancing these delicate steps for so long…
Kain resisted the urge to sigh. He remembered Nica as more easily distracted by a distressed nest mate. Apparently his memory was going. While he usually found their dance of words entertaining, right now they had more important matters to deal with.
Of course, that was exactly what she wanted to know about, but he wasn’t quite ready to tip his hand over his knowledge of the Dai. Best if she didn’t know about that right now, it would only cause more needless worry.
It means there was more to his answer than met the eye. I doubt it’s anything important, but I’ll watch him.
That had about as much chance of appeasing her as remaining silent. He’d forgotten how tiring dodging her could be. Perhaps he should have seen her absence as a vacation of his own in a way. The thought would have made him smile if his expression wasn’t such a careful mix of concern and support.
I’d almost forgotten how I didn’t miss your riddles and need to know answers.
“Of course.” Nica helped the serpent to his feet, placing a hand on his shoulder to help steady him. She wasn’t sure how quickly he was actually recovering and didn’t want to risk him collapsing again. At least now some emotion was radiating from him. Was he finally relaxing, or had the odd aura of earlier been a reflection of the magic riding him? Despite his reassurance that it was simply him being overwhelmed by too many people, she wasn’t inclined to believe it. It had only been the pair of them, there had been no warning before it, and Kain’s overall reaction… It was all too coincidental to simply be a serpent’s recovery from being feral.
“Come. The resting room is just on the other side of the stage.” She followed just a step behind, not quite hovering, but watching him carefully.
Seth nodded, urging Naj toward the door Dev had taken him through just the night before. While it was less obviously patterned after its traditional counterpart than the stage, the room had obviously been the il’soum to match the li’sumae dais. He’d been too preoccupied the night before to notice, but of course a prospective dancer would be taken through the nest’s grounding heart before being allowed into its inner depths. He hoped to make good use of its centering energies now. He clearly needed the help to find his balance, as ironic as that thought was. Shifting back and forth with Naj this rapidly was beginning to take its toll.
Kain followed the pair of them, dark eyes flicking from one slender form to the other. He should be focusing on what the serpent was burying within his aura, but he was wary of just how out of practice he was. If Nica was picking up his cues so easily, then what would a Dai be seeing?
He sighed inwardly, annoyed with himself for allowing Nica to distract him.
Then he pushed it away and stepped into the resting room with the others. He needed to speak with the serpent to get a better sense of what was happening in his mind. Kain didn’t make a habit of peeking into his fellow nestmates’ thoughts without being invited first. Mostly because the older shifters were fiercely protective of their privacy, not to mention more apt to notice an intrusion.
However, every rule had its exception.
It would require finesse to avoid detection though. Which wasn’t a problem in itself, but he didn’t know what skills a trained demon summoner would have. It would be foolish to start by assuming this one wouldn’t have strict mental training. Which made the prospect a more delicate operation than he would have liked.
First things first, he needed Nica to be elsewhere. He cast his mind outward, pleased when he realized several dancers were coming upstairs, undoubtedly drawn by Marie’s enthusiastic announcement of Nica’s return. The fox kit had done everything short of sound an actual alarm to wake her nestmates.
He turned back to the scene in front of him, where Nica was busy fussing over the new dancer and supplying him with a bottle of water.
“I think our nestmates might finally be awake.”
Nica gave Kain an odd look at his comment. It so thoroughly pulled her from her previous thoughts of the serpent before her that she straightened as she stared at the larger man. Of course they’d be awake, Marie would have made sure of that, warning or no. But Kain didn’t say anything without a reason and her eyes narrowed as she tried to guess his thoughts without his voicing them.
Kain responded with a raised eyebrow and a small smile. Then he added, “I don’t think our new nestmate is quite up to the raucous they’re likely to raise at your return.”
What he was saying was reasonable, especially given the new dancer’s explanation earlier. Still, she couldn’t help but feel that there was something else Kain wasn’t saying. She touched the back of her hand to the serpent’s cheek, smiling when he seemed warmer and more alert. He seemed better, but she was still leery of leaving him alone in case there was another occurrence of the previous incident.
Then you should make sure they don’t disturb him. She didn’t want to have the debate aloud in front of the new dancer, and the habit of arguing with Kain mentally was returning all too easily.
Even if I go out there, they’ll be restless until they see you for themselves. And some of the more determined ones may still get by me…
The threat implied in his last words did nothing to endear him to her. Her gaze was sharp when it came back to him. His posture was relaxed, but his eyes were too focused.
Liar – are you trying to get rid of me, is that what this is?
This is my attempt to keep you from overwhelming the poor serpent – remember you still have a hawk’s hot blood pumping through your veins.
Nica startled out of their argument, her attention flashing to the hand resting on the serpent’s shoulder. She’d thought his warmth was a sign of his health returning, but Kain was right – his aura was beginning to boil.
She pulled away with a small, regretful smile. In some ways, she would be as detrimental to his recovery as Marie if she couldn’t keep her own warmth in check. Sometimes her inheritance was a boon, but in so many ways it was just another reminder of how different she was from her serpent kin.
Her lowered eyes slipped from the new dancer back to Kain.
Fine, but someone needs to keep an eye on him in case there’s trouble.
I think I can manage.
“I’ll go intercept them then.” Catching the serpent’s eye again, she added, “Will you be alright here? Kain can get you anything you might need.”
Naj was grateful when she pulled away, drinking deeply of the cool water in his hand, but the settling peacefulness fled when Nica announced she would be leaving him with Kain.
The subtle anxieties of the morning in the kitchen came roaring back to life, and Naj shrunk back from the larger man. He’d done nothing of menace, aside from being a spectacular presence, but Naj simply couldn’t help himself. This mountain of a man on the tails of a wyvern nest leader after a morning of drowning in visions was just more than he could deal with. Armor-like scales erupted along his torso, his fangs lengthened and his eyes flashed to pupil-slits—
And before he could do something truly unfortunate, Seth hurled them into their true serpent form and allowed them the retreat they all so desperately wanted. This was not off to a good start, but perhaps he had tried to force Naj into too much, too soon. He’d done so well in the last nest, nasty ending notwithstanding, but this Asylum…
This nest held far too many surprises, and Seth was seriously beginning to doubt Aezir’s decision to place them here. He’d said he’d had his reasons, and Seth trusted him implicitly, but that didn’t relieve him of the doubts that kept piling up. He wished he could contact his Master, have a chance to regroup, but they’d both agreed that the fewer ties to the Dai Naj maintained, the better.
So they were on their own.
Nica’s eyes widened when writhing red coils suddenly appeared where the dancer had been. As quickly as they’d come, they burrowed under the couch cushions, vanishing from view into the rich jeweled tones.
“That went well.” Kain’s dry tone was less than appreciated and she let him know it with thinned lips and a hazel glare that flashed scarlet with her anger.
He shrugged, clearly letting her agitation wash over him untouched. “Oh, it could have been far worse. Take the mothering hen routine elsewhere. I’ll stay and let him come out on his own.”
Her jaw tightened, but before she could snap back at him, he added, “Honestly, it’s likely to be quite boring while he’s retreated like this. There’s little you could do for him right now anyway.”
She sighed, glancing back at the cushions. He was right and she knew it. Her flood of anger retreated faster than it had appeared. Her attention slid back to Kain as he settled on the other end of the couch, a worn paperback emerging from a hidden pocket of his pants.
Nica rolled her eyes, but she caught his grin as he opened it.
“Go on now, your adoring fans are waiting.” It was annoyance that crested this time and her mouth opened to give voice to it. It snapped shut in disbelief when he made a little shooing motion of his fingers. That arrogant…
Several snarky comebacks flitted through her mind, but she would be here for hours if she gave in to the urge now. And it would do as much good as throwing herself against a cliff face now that Kain had a book to preoccupy him.
Hand on the door, she paused, glancing back to the couch again. The serpent though… She didn’t like that his animal form had taken over so readily. Maybe all this truly was just a symptom of his feral recovery…
“He’s fine.” This time Kain didn’t even look up from his book.
She scowled and left before she could triple guess herself.