Chapter 9, part 3

In which Naj takes the lead

“Just follow my lead.” He held his hands up in front of him, palms forming cups, one open to the sky and one pouring down into the earth. “Do you know this shape?” It was ARE, an opening prayer, and the foundation of everything. If last night’s dancing was any indication, she would know it well, but as with Marie, he opted to over explain rather than leave anything out.

Her hands mimicked his, even as her posture straightened. It was habit by now, the two years spent in Ariella’s nest had been spent training with the falcon, and she was an effective teacher, if a bit severe.

Between learning at the falcon’s knee and her family being fond of rei’ramn, Nica knew a few hand shapes, and while she didn’t recognize all the ones he had used last night, this one she was familiar with.

The ARE. All that is, all that was, and all that would ever be.

ARE – the All.” Her eyes opened, flicking to his.

He nodded, thoroughly pleased. It was beyond wonderful to be with someone who knew the old ways. It was home.

Seth eyed the hawk before him, putting her aura under careful scrutiny. She appeared just as she claimed– strong in raw power, but only rudimentary trained. The energy of the room swirled around her, drawn to the center of the nest, but didn’t stick. She wasn’t channeling. Even an aura currently inactive would draw in the power if it was well accustomed to doing so. This raptor was an areta, there was magic in her dancing, but it was incidental. Still…

Naj seemed truly delighted to be teaching, lost in the simple pleasure of it, no unsavory memories surfacing… Oh, to hell with it. Seth saw no harm in it, and Naj had to be allowed to form bonds within the nest. So he relaxed his reluctance and allowed Naj to continue. How much trouble could they get into merely meditating?

Abruptly, Naj dove right into the lesson, rolling his left hand up to join the right so that both palms cupped upward. He linked them at the thumbs, making a small x where they lay on each other.

This is also ARE, though you must narrow your focus to see it. Forget the fingers, for now, and focus on the cups made by your thumbs. Still, this is All there is.”

Her brow furrowed slightly, following his motions. She could see it, but he was right, it wasn’t obvious at first.

Her breathing fell into the steady rhythm Ariella had drilled into her, her center becoming still as she focused in on the shape of her hands.

Nica didn’t make any comment one way or another, but Naj could feel her focus, could sense her aura shrinking down to the point of her crossed thumbs, and so he continued.

He wiggled his outstretched fingers, feeling the energy dance and sing along their slender lengths, waiting to be tapped.

“Each finger pair aligns with an il’li Daeos. Li’Il, being the first to be born, are the longest.”

He touched his index fingers together, leaving the rest spread wide. Those fingers really didn’t have anything to do with the shaping of Li’Ilnar, but if they touched each other accidentally, it could be distracting at best, or potentially create a new symbol. He glanced over at Nica’s hands, making sure her fingers were out of the way, but she’d mirrored his alignments perfectly. Naj assumed her silent concentration was a testament to her falcon training– he too knew how unwise it was to interrupt one when teaching. So he pressed on, but made a point of watching her more carefully out of the corner of her eye. He wasn’t sure if he could trust her to speak up if she had any issues.

“If you wanted Il to rule the sigil instead of Li, you’d simply drop your fingers so that they touched at the nail instead of the pads. See?”

The instant he curled his fingers, he felt the energy lock, held still by the small circles his fingers created. Nica’s aura clamped down around her as well, but the only indication she gave of noticing the change was a slight narrowing of her gaze. Could she see the magic they were shaping? He’d love to talk with her at length about it, at some point. But right now, they had work to do, lest the energy slip away.

“Some prefer to change the crossing of their thumbs, as well, putting dominant hand over the other, to balance the darker force of Il. But I’ve always found that weakens the power, and I’ve never had any trouble directing the energy where I want it.”

No, the only trouble he’d had with Il’Dao was returning from the il’m, that Whisphering Darkness. With that sobering thought, he spread his fingers wide again, letting the trapped energy out. His fingers tingled with the force of it, and again, he felt the tugging of the new day. He breathed deeply to settle himself, drawing the Now deep within him. Forward, ever forward. Etren e’ramn.

“The other il’li-Daeos follow as they should: Ki’Ik, Aehr’Rhea, Anhk’Khna.” His fingers flicked through the motions, fingertips touching as he ticked off each name. Nica, he noticed, did not do the same. He imagined she’d wait, until she knew exactly what her motions might invoke. She was an excellent student, but somewhat unsettling after the rapid-fire chatter of Marie. But if Nica would wait for full understanding before acting, then he’d simple work through the lesson and check for understanding when he’d finished.

“To access only one half of an il’li, close the fist you won’t be using down, making sure all your fingers are grounded, touching your palm. Then simply touch the finger you wish to access to the direction you want the energy to flow: Li or Il.”

He touched the pinkie of his right hand to the thumb of the right, opening it up. Again, the energy raced, flying out to all corners and filling up his core.

“With everything open like this, you can fill all of the other spaces, having energy to call on as you need it.”

He opened his left hand again, bringing both of his index fingers to touch his left thumb. Light and Dark swirled in his mind, filling his thoughts and coloring the music that beat in his chest. These would be his primary resources, the Daeos he knew best. Next strongest would be his ties to h’Ki’Ik, but anything stored in the name Il’Dao and Li’Daea could be molded into the shape of any of their children, so he would fill them fullest.

Il. Dark. Li. Light. She knew the names, the motions becoming more familiar. Her aura danced as she did so. And her breathing caught, then fell back into rhythm as she realized the energies were pulling one another in her hands, shaping in her aura as surely as her muscle and bone shaped them. It was a heady feeling, but she forced herself to focus on Naj’s words.

Later, she would consider how old he was, or what tradition he followed that practiced such energy manipulation. Perhaps she would talk it over with Kain. For now though, she was learning, both this new technique and about this new serpent, pushing the coursing thoughts under to focus.

“Be careful not to overfill any one il’li, you’re new at this yet. Move on to the next pair of digits.”

The energies flowed through her easily– too easy for Naj’s liking. Either she had skill with this and didn’t know to call it in this way, or she was dangerously ungrounded from recent deprivation or distress. Either way, this could swing her just as wildly out of balance, with how quickly everything was flowing. In such a new student, there should hardly be any change at all. He should have asked, but he didn’t know what to make of this dancer who wore feathers and sang in serpent tongue.

Nica followed his instruction, letting her fingers shift through the motions. She could almost feel when she should move, as if pouring water into a cloudy jug and judging fullness by sound alone. It was an apt comparison that mimicked his words and she wondered exactly what this meditation’s purpose was. She felt centered, yes, but she could also feel her aura swirling around her, the energy pooling on itself.

Her voice was soft as she formed the last of the shapes. Clearly speaking didn’t disrupt the energies, and Naj had stopped explaining each motion. She was too used to waiting until Ariella invited questions. “And afterwards?”

Naj blinked at the suddenness of her voice. It had a low, husky quality that didn’t quite fit with how her energy roared and sparkled. Deprivation, he decided, was what had her soaking up the energies they’d raised so quickly. He had yet to even move on to the second set of fingers. Then again, his Li’Il could hold a considerable amount.

No matter. She was ready to finish, and Naj didn’t foresee needing to fall back on his reserves any time soon. He could eat at will, sleep at will, and had nestmates to curl up with when he was cold. The only thing he would need stored energy for would be areta’ramn, and he really couldn’t imagine being called on to cast anything in this nest.

He spread his fingers wide again, releasing his grip and letting his aura flow wherever it wished.

“Return to our starting posture, so everything can settle. Like laying a blanket out flat before folding it, be sure everything is smooth before locking it down.”

At that, he interlaced all of his fingers save the index pair, which he set into a steeple, then dropped down again to touch at the knuckles. He uncrossed his thumbs, pressing them into the sides of his curled fingers, then brought the heels of his hands together.

“This is the closing, locking everything in place before opening your hands in release.”

He rolled his palms towards the ceiling, uncurling his fingers. He stretched his cupped hands away from him and up to the sky, much like the eipratei posture he’d taken up the night before.

“Anything we’ve raised but not captured is now released to the ARE, and it and we are free to go about our work.”

A deep feeling of peace hovered over him, urging him to relax and bask, but first he had to see to his student. He gave her questioning eyes, checking over her aura with a gentle brush of his own. It seemed in order, but closed down like this, there were things he might miss.

It was an odd sensation, feeling the energy swirl, then settle as if it hadn’t been moving at all. But she followed his motions and the dizzying sensations passed.

She raised her hands with his and could feel her aura stretch with it, the offering vanishing to leave her fingers tingling and self strangely lighter. It was the same weightless feeling of taking flight and she blinked a few times to remind herself of her human form – even if her feathers did raise and resettle among her hair.

Nica took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly. She found him studying her and a small smile answered him. “I understand it was a meditation on the elemental energies, but to what purpose? The dance grounded and centered me, so my balance is hardly different…”

She trailed off as she thought about it, letting her focus trail over her aura. It did feel… Fuller? Was that what he meant by ‘filling’ each position? She felt more awake, as if she had more energy, but that could also be from the morning dance, or simply having fully woken.

Well. He wasn’t going to be using the energy anyways.

On a dramatic whim, Naj pinched his left thumb and forefinger together and flicked his wrist. A wave of darkness boiled from his hand, spill down and curling around the floor like smoke, It rose to fill the room around them, plunging them into a sightless nothing in an instant. With an equal but unseen twist from his right hand, a pure, white light burst forth, chasing the darkness to the corners of the room. In an unnecessary but elegant flourish, Naj called the power back to him in a curl of his fingers. It was only slightly diminished, as illusion magic hardly needed any energy at all, but it had been worth the show.

He gave Nica a wicked grin, teeth and eyes flashing with mirth.

For the purpose of showing off, among other things.”

Her eyebrows rose as her eyes widened. She recognized illusion magic when she saw it – she’d spent the past few weeks barely sleeping to master the technique at Ariella’s hand. And that was after years of pestering the falcon to teach her the technique in the first place. Illusion dances were one of the rarer and more ambitious skills available to a dancer. Partially because you had to find a master of it that was willing to teach it in the first place. There were a few in Ariella’s nest that held the skill, but only the falcon herself could successfully teach the technique behind it.

Impressive.” She tilted her head slightly as she regarded him anew. That he held the skill to do so was both commendable… And concerning. After his display last night, she was unsure of his current level of control. While illusion magic was simply that, illusion, the amount of energy it cost the weaver could be damaging if one wasn’t careful.

Do you ramn tr’vr’era as well?”

Naj’s own eyes grew wide at her question. An aret’vir’ramn, an illusion dance, was a very different thing than a ramn’tr’vr’era. To dance a shadow into being, with so much of your own energy and self involved would be costly, and unspeakably dangerous. Yes, it was doable, by why take such a risky route, when you could simply coerce the energies around you into taking the right shape?

Unless…

Naj knew the Dai were innovators, if nothing else. Ruthless, amoral innovators, yes, but Naj knew many of his skills were due entirely to their experiments and trials. What he didn’t know is where those techniques came from, and what they looked like in their original forms. And why they differed from the Dai’s way of doing them. He suddenly wondered if he should have shown Nica this at all, or if he himself should even be practicing it. It was just a meditation, right?

But to what purpose?

Nica’s question rang out in his mind, and Naj didn’t have any answers. Not ones that didn’t belong to another life, another Naj, servant of a man who was servant to a power that had shaped the world for centuries– but to what purpose? He didn’t like that he couldn’t answer that, but he suspected he’d like the answer even less.

And just like that, Naj was lost again. This raptor was proving to be a problem. Yes, she drew out of a Naj a fire like no other, but she also drew darker memories that Seth couldn’t keep repressed. Not with Naj actively pushing for them. This wasn’t going to work if the man kept insisting on living in days gone by. Seth had to ground him in the now, and keep yesterday where it belonged.

It was a mistake to have let Naj teach her such things. But it had been so long since Naj had been motivated to do anything of his own will that Seth had let it go. It was just one mistake after another in this nest– surely, Aezir didn’t think Naj would actually do well here–

But he was, little mishaps aside. He was smiling. He was dancing. Yes, he was digging, but maybe… Maybe with enough warmth and light in the Now…

The Now was a curious raptor woman, waiting for an answer to what she thought was an innocent question. Damn it all, this was a mess.

Ah, no,” Seth said lightly, pushing a blanket of il’m further over Naj’s unhappy crisis.

That wasn’t a ramn, it lacks the force and structure a proper shaping dance would give it. This was simply me taking advantage of energies already raised, and minds already attuned. A parlor trick.” He shrugged, and pulled himself more upright, as he had at the beginning of their meditation.

We’ve done enough for now, but I have forces yet to balance, so if I might have a moment?”

What he needed was time to talk with Naj again in the White Desert, and reset things to the proper order. He knew it was rude to ask for Nica’s own space, but every second he wasted, he risked Naj slipping too far into the Whispering Dark. Slap-on bandages were never meant to be used long term.

Nica smiled, careful not to show her surprise when Naj’s answer took a little too long and didn’t quite match the question she’d asked. With an inclination of her head, she agreed to his request. It was odd, how the instruction had brought them together, but now she felt the forced distance between them. Between the dancing last night and their time together this morning, she had forgotten that he was a relative stranger to her. It was something that happened between serpents, a press of will and soul that almost instantly told two serpents if they resonated and would get along well, or if they would clash. It was speculated that it was what allowed serpents to dance seamlessly together and she and Kis had spent hours talking of its origin.

Now though, that instant camaraderie had dissolved, though perhaps only she felt it. It wasn’t often she doubted how her avian heritage influenced the culture she’d been raised by.

She smoothed her sarong before she stood. “Of course. I’ll be upstairs if you need me, I’d intended on practicing a few dances before anyone else wakes.”

He nodded brusquely, hating to chase away anyone Naj might call friend, but it would be a moot point if he lost the fool to the il’m now.

Thank you,” he said quickly, trying to salvage the growing connection to the hawk, even as he pushed to get her out of the way. “I won’t be long, I just-” He hissed in a sharp breath as a particularly nasty memory surfaced and his concentration slipped. He couldn’t keep this up much longer.

It’s painful, holding this much energy out of alignment. I’ll be fine, after a moment to sort it out. I’ll come find you, so you don’t worry needlessly.”

He hoped that was enough to appease her. He was out of time, and without another word, he threw up a mental shield around them and dove into the dark mindspace he’d errected around Naj.

Previous: Chapter Nine, part 2                                                 Next: Chapter 10, part 1

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