Chapter 10, part 1

In which the dam breaks, and the floods rise

She would be lying if she didn’t admit to herself that she was smarting from Naj’s dismissal. Nica had opted not to eat anything before dancing, sore that she’d been dismissed and sorer still that she had been so affected by it.

She stood on the stage, back to the rich curtain as she stared at the stacked chairs and wooden tables. The passage of time blurred in her memories when everything still seemed the same as she’d left it. Old pain distracted her from the newer sting of the slight and she was able to take a deep, grounding breath.

Striding across the stage, she flexed her shoulders, wings sprouting from her shoulder blades. She took a moment, orienting herself to the new balance and feeling how the muscles sat differently as she moved arms and wings alike.

Deliberately trying to let it all go, she flexed her wings forward, running her fingertips along the shafts of some primary feathers. The black and white barring faded into a brilliant rust at the joint. The red cascaded down the uppermost part of her wing until it hit her back. One beat, two and she nodded to herself. She could do this.

Nica felt full of energy, better for the night of rest and the easy waking of a gentle dance. She surely felt better than she had all the times Ariella had had her practice, drowsy and half asleep on her feet. Now her movements felt sharp, precise, and she was confident that she could do it alone.

It wasn’t that she’d needed the falcon’s guidance, only that Ariella was such a finicky teacher, convinced no one could do anything right if she wasn’t watching.

Shaking her head, she pushed thoughts of the falcon aside. Getting her blood to boil would hardly help her concentrate on her dance.

Finding the center of the stage, she raised her arms high, crossing them at the wrists and posing her hands to open her energies. Her thoughts briefly flicked to Naj, seeing the similarity in the hand shape, but remembering his dismissal from her own room shut that avenue down quickly. Once on the balls of her feet, she concentrated on drawing a straight line through her.

She swayed from foot to foot, finding the right rhythm for the dance. When she was sure of herself, she began to lay the footwork that would help her build the energy necessary for the illusion she was about to cast.

Of the dances she performed, it wasn’t uncommon for her to weave illusions or suggestions to fool the skin or the ears. It seemed the body craved deceit for those receptors or at least was more susceptible to it. But the dance she was about to perform created a visual illusion and that seemed harder to fool.

She summoned as much energy as she could muster and then began.

Naj pushed against hands in the darkness, shapeless forces willing him down, willing him to forget, to sleep. He couldn’t see, couldn’t think, but he knew he must keep pushing, upward, upward, ever upwards. He must get up.

Seth struggled against the currents, struggled against Naj’s flailing hands, struggled to keep his head above the icy waters. Between the emotional turmoil and the elemental energies they’d raised but not balanced, their mindscape was awash with darkness. Like the mythical river Il’Rhea, whose banks housed the resting dead, Naj’s magic and memories and feelings swirled in chilling blackness. Waves crashed in shouts, currents pulled like so many hands, each one eager to draw him into the dance, each one calling to him with the siren song of memory. In death, such waters would be peaceful, a sweet remembrance of lives well lived. With the press of so many years, Naj and Seth could drown before their time, lost to these memories in the Whispering Dark. Seth forced his way past them all, not letting any one face attach to any one name, lest he give a voice a stronger pull than the others.

But there was a voice, pulling strong and sweet, the shining memory not tarnished with the passage of time. Naj grasped at every echo they passed, desperate and overwhelmed by the weight of them, usually kept back by Seth’s skillful hand. While Seth was able to surge ahead past the long dead ghosts with practiced ease, the golden thread was too insistent, still singing strong and resilient in the Now.

Nica.

Such a recent memory might be enough to pull them from the Il’Rhea and out onto the banks, if Naj’s heart was not so full of doubt. Worry for Nica was what had started this downward slide in the first place. Had he hurt her? Directly with his twisted magic, or with the sharper knife of harsh words? He had felt her unhappiness when Seth sent her away, amplified by their connected auras and his own hurt and confusion. Anger colored his panic– anger at his helplessness, anger at the Dai, anger at Seth for sending Nica away. He wanted to stay with Nica, where was Nica? Naj jerked Seth’s mental grasp, and Seth could no longer fight the currents and Naj both at once. A wave of helplessness crested, and they both went under.

Nica threw herself into the movements, picking up speed and layering the energies on top of one another without pause. She knew from experience if she doubted even one of her motions, the entire structure would collapse like a house of cards.

Her wings swept forward and left red in their wake, her hand swept through and left behind drops of purple to mingle and bleed into the red. A twirl and one wing swept it aside to leave a swath of inky darkness that hid her behind it. Furious motions cut through it in places, letting color accent the darkness until she threw herself through it, her wings arcing back to carry the darkness high as if hoisting the night sky itself.

On impulse, her voice suddenly broke through the silence, echoing in the large room. Ariella had mentioned building the magic was about intent, and that voice held as much will as the physical body if done correctly. Nica had never tried it, but her confidence in the picture she was weaving and the swirl of energy around her made her sure of the wordless song. With her voice, she built further layers of energy, stoking them into a fine fury to paint the tapestry above her with the colors of sunset. Her voice was void of words, but not of meaning or intent and as she danced, she wove the notes and movements together as a single creature.

A low spin and one wing swept the ground with greenery that twined and flared behind her, another pass and bursts of color appeared on the edges of the twining vines that appeared to chase her legs, trying to capture her feet in their tendrils. Sharp notes brought burst of colors in midair that took flight on their own, bursting through the sky to abruptly vanish.

Another sweep of her wings as she leapt had the air above her darkening and churning on itself, weaving greys with blues and the hint of green. A tempest rained upon her and still she danced, pushing herself to build it further.

It was more than she’d managed before, the pressure of the energies laid heavy on her skin and in her body. She knew when she finished that she would be exhausted again, but for this one moment, it was worth it.

She sang to the skies to burst the clouds and bring the rain, adding vibrancy to the life beneath her feet. When she finally stilled her feet, the vines wrapped around her ankles and she hit her knees, letting the last of the notes fade into the air as the visual magic faded with it. The fall had been planned, but hasty, and she could feel a faint throb from the impact already.

Her heart was pounding and she couldn’t get air into her lungs fast enough. It was as if she were still dancing, still drawing the energy higher and higher, to altitudes she couldn’t sustain. Spots danced in her vision and she tried to steady herself with her hands. On either side, her wings trembled with the exertion.

There was only darkness, but it was neither peaceful, nor still. Echoes of color remained, but he could not remember what color was. Or what it meant to remember at all. Self was a fleeting dream, fading into the nothingness that was Something without form, Life before chaos became order from sleep, Life as it would return once order slept again.

Within the quivering darkness, a sound. A song began, wordless, but carrying with it all that “song” meant, and echoes of light, and fire. Heat and life and wild determination cut the darkness with its cry, and Naj clung to it, the last thought before the void.

And from the sound came color, and light, and living things, growing fast in the rich, potent darkness. Vines and hands surged upward, clinging to the song, clawing their way through the night to reach for the fire painted sky. Desperation pulled at the clouds, brought swirling into life by the need for something to hold on to. And once he had a hold of them, they burst in a shower of passions too over-ripe to contain.

The Need and the vines and the Self pulled the passion down to it, wrapping around the singer to hold her close, to remember her name, to remember life and light and dancing. Self willed the vines to seek upward, ever upward, until they burst through the clouds, and his ears were filled with the rushing of water.

Drowning. He had been drowning, and now he was dying. If he could not get his head above water, could not draw a breath, he would die. No magic here would sustain him, not with the Life he held so desperately around him. These were the Dark Waters, Il’Rhea, the passage to Death, and he would find no aide given to a heart that sought the Light. Naj gave a fierce kick, and another, and another, striving towards the light.

Nica thought her heart was slowing, but she couldn’t tell anymore. There was just a dull roar in her ears that she distantly knew to be the sound of her blood.

The spots of her vision had given way to a hazy ring of darker gray at the edges. She felt cold and every blink felt sluggish. On hands and knees, she knew she should move, that she should elevate her legs, but she couldn’t remember how. Or perhaps the trouble was simply in getting her body to do as she told it. She was sure she had tried to stand, but here she stayed.

Her entire body ached, but it felt distant, though not numb. Crimson spots hit the wooden stage in front of her eyes and she stared blindly. They should mean something to her, but she couldn’t make them tell her what that was. Then they were zooming out, going distant and clearly unimportant.

Her eyes blinked once more, then refused to open. She was so tired. Maybe she hadn’t slept as well as she’d thought. A sharp pain brought her eyes wide and she was staring at a stretch of empty stage and chairs.

With a raging surge, he remembered Body, not the form he used to traverse dreams such a this, but the real physical vessel that breathed and danced and hurt. Oh, it hurt. How long had he sat like this, arms and legs crossed, containing the maelstrom of power that raged within? He stretched, and once remembered, arms and legs coursed with the urgency of MOVE! He was on his feet and racing down the hall before he had untangled that bodies meant boundaries, and he could not simply will himself to where he needed to be.

But he desperately needed to be somewhere. And some wordless part of him knew where that was. So Naj let his frightened feet take him to where he needed to be, and he hoped that his mind would understand once he’d arrived.

Previous: Chapter 9, part 3

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