Chapter 12, part 1

In which the past is not so far away

When he woke, Naj lay there for several moments, unsure if he was truly awake. His head was full of fog and his body felt empty, like it had been hollowed out by some great beast. The beast grumbled at him, Naj’s stomach was as empty as the rest of him. Clarity came in bits and pieces- feathers on the head beside him meant Nica, stars on the ceiling meant her bed, heat pooling between them like something sticky meant they’d slept hard and the emptiness inside him added up to a complete memory of rescuing the hawk from herself, and the bath that had followed. He sat up and his head swam, as if the pressures inside his skull were not right. Nica was stirring beside him and knew she would be as hungry as he, if not more so. They both had much to restore.

Wakefulness tugged at Nica as the body next to her shifted. Her body protested when she moved to follow. That brought her closer to wakefulness. She felt as if Ariella had been drilling her for a week solid. Which left her wondering if that was what the falcon had done.

She forced her eyes open, unwilling to try sitting up while her head felt stuffed with down. If the falcon wasn’t such a skilled dancer, Nica wouldn’t put up with such abuse. Nica ignored the fact that that was likely what made her such a skilled dancer.

As her eyes finally came into focus, she found herself blinking at a ceiling covered with small stars. She was underground, she knew that… She was in her room at Asylum, staring at the little glowing stars that Marie had helped her put up. Right. The little fox had been so pleased with herself when she’d thought of it. Just an offhand comment that she liked to sleep beneath the stars and Marie had shown up with a handful the next day, eyes twinkling.

The memory gave way to others as her mind pushed forward in time. Meditating, the illusion dance… She stifled a small groan as she forced herself to sit up, seeking out Naj. She found him sitting at the edge of the nest of blankets and her hand ran across his back. Her muscles felt stiff and swollen, but she ignored it.

“How are you feeling?”

“Empty.”

The word was flat, but it perfectly captured how he felt. The sleep had done a little to restore his natural balance, but he’d grown used to carrying an unnatural amount of energy over the years, and he felt incomplete without it.

But what right did he really have to carry it? A part of him whispered that he should be prepared for anything, just in case. But mostly he was heartsick. Of what, he couldn’t say. Of everything, really. He wanted to reach out, to touch and be touched and rest in the warmth of companionship, but could he? Nica could have killed herself, and he felt responsible.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, without turning.

Naj.” Her voice was soft, feeling the pain radiate through his aura. She wrapped her arms around him, pressing herself to his back.

You have nothing to be sorry for.” Without thinking, her wings slid out and around, wrapping him in a second layer of warmth and support.

He blinked into the sudden world of blacks and whites and reds that had sprung up around him. Whatever words he’d been about to say had died, and he simply stared at her wings in wonder.

They’re… They’re not gold.”

She blinked into the swirl of confusion that masked the hurt underneath, one emotion coming to the front as the other faded in distraction.

Nica turned her head to rest her cheek on his shoulder, belatedly realizing that it was her feathers that he must be talking about. She pulled them away slightly, still enveloping the pair of them, but no longer pressing against them. “No, they’re not. My magic’s form is a red-shouldered hawk.”

He flushed, color mirroring her wings’ shoulder joints. “I- I knew that,” he stammered. “I just…” He ducked his head, pulling his knees up so he could rest his crossed arms on them. “The D’ahnkkhna priesthood was lead by a golden hawk, when we visited their lands in my youth. I don’t know why, but I somehow expected…” He shook his head with a small laugh. “Never mind. I was just being silly.”

Nica stilled, then rubbed her thumb against his skin as she thought. How old was he? He had said he didn’t know the story of The Love that Broke the War, but then he mentions the priesthood that Danica herself was part of. It was the original, untranslated term for it, true…

No, it seems fair enough, with my given name. And we are both still tired.” She kissed his shoulder, letting go of the train of thought. She was too tired to chase threads right now and guessing at bits and pieces wouldn’t change whatever Fate was weaving.

He finally gave up and dropped back against her gentle touches. She was tired, he was tired, and regardless of what happened going forward, they could both take comfort from one another now. He nuzzled into her cheek, but the move was somewhat distant. He couldn’t ignore his whirling thoughts and engage thoroughly in the Now. He just didn’t have the knack of it.

Ixl. The Now. Such a simple concept, but somehow, the drop of time between Then and Yet Still had always been the hardest to master. Easiest to move through, hardest to truly live in.

Ixl and ki’n. The heart and breath of a serpent’s nature, and he had lost both.

“How do you leave it all behind?” he whispered to no one. “How do you dive into a dance that never stops, when you can’t see what steps will come next?”

Nica was quiet, thumb running over his ribs as she thought. His words hit hard, echoes of her own , years ago. A reminder of the grief that had sent her deep within her hawk’s heart. If Sednar hadn’t deliberately drawn her out of hiding with months of offered food and an empty space at his fire… She would have died, never again regaining her human thoughts or form.

Eventually, everyone ran from something.  In the end, it didn’t matter the cause. Pain was part of life’s dance as much as laughter was. You never got to choose what threads fate picked to shape you.

“You can’t, not really. Trying to control and know the future won’t change the past. They won’t cancel each other out, never erase one another.” Her voice was quiet, distant as she remembered a rich voice, a hot fire, and a cool desert night. “The threads that weave the past are always there, tying you to it, but you learn that every one of them makes you who you are today. Sometimes… It isn’t easy to accept that, to acknowledge it if those threads are painful ones.”

Nica took a slow breath. “But you find the threads that form the here and now – the people around you, the day to day bustle of activity. And eventually the older threads will become more distant. Never gone, never erased, but they won’t tug quite so hard and readily on the memory.”

Her eyes flicked to her mirror just beyond her wing. She couldn’t see the pictures of all those who’d gone and those still here, but she saw them all the same.

“It isn’t easy, but it is easier when you’re not alone. Hiding in our feral natures only seems like the easy answer, I’ve found it’s harder in many ways. With a hand to hold you to the now, you move forward together.”

He reached down and clasped his hand over hers, squeezing. He had no words, but he didn’t think he needed them. He’d seen the hawk’s pain in his visions, and her words rang true to his bruised heart.

 

Silence stretched between them, long past the moment to answer her, but what could he say? He didn’t want to be what he was today, no one had asked him before binding him tight with threads too far gone to unravel. But that was exactly what he wanted to do. Unravel the past he could never quite remember, and move forward.

And why must they be unraveled? It is you that hold to them, not the other way around. Let them go, and dance.

Anger flared at the voice’s intrusion, burning it away. Naj blinked at the sudden heat, not sure why he would be so angry with himself. It was passion, however, so maybe it was a sign of him finally thawing out?

He didn’t have a chance to ponder any further, though, as a hand slipped around the tapestry that served as a door.

Advertisements

Always lock your doors

Posted this to Tumblr the other day, thought I’d share here for you guys. It’s short written by Asylum’s co-author, and (as with most of her shorts) it’s super creepy. Enjoy! (Spoiler-free, non-main cast)


Her mother always told her to lock her doors when she drove anywhere at night. Lisa supposed it made sense, at least when she was in the city, but she had to admit, she didn’t always follow the rule when she was out in the country. Who was going to jump in her car when she was at one of the far between stop signs?

Still, she usually locked her doors out of habit.

One night she was on her way back to her parents house, a decent drive through the countryside. She was on a good straight stretch, so she glanced down to make sure her boyfriend Jake hadn’t texted her yet.

Glancing back up, she barely had time to hit her brakes for the dark shadow in the road.

Another blink of an eye, and the shadow was gone.

Heart pounding, she slowly pressed the gas again. This time she kept her eyes glued to the road, trying to see where the shadow had gone.

What had it been? Too big for a raccoon or opossum, but too compact for a deer… Maybe a small deer, or a small bear… did they even have bear around here?

Movement to her right made her glance over, and she screamed, hands jerking the wheel.

The shadow chuckled, one hand grabbing the steering wheel to gently straighten out their path.

She couldn’t breathe. Her heart was in her throat as she tried to figure out what that thing was…

Lisa thought about pulling over, but she’d just be stuck on the side of the road with it –

“Just keep driving. You’re lucky, you know.” The thing said amiably, as if she wasn’t about to pass out, “Of all the things to hitch a ride, I’m a pretty good catch. I just like to hitchhike a bit, chat a little, then I’ll be on my merry little way and you can go on yours.”

Her breath was coming in gasps, the car starting to slow as she’d stopped pressing the gas pedal.

The creature sighed, still casually steering one handed. “Come on, it isn’t that bad. I haven’t done a thing at all to you.”

The gas pedal pressed beneath her foot without her applying any pressure. The car picked up speed, and the creature hummed happily.

The passenger side window rolled down and the creature’s other arm dangled out the window to enjoy the cool night air.

“It’s a beautiful night for a drive. You should enjoy it. After all. You’ll get home just fine. You should probably listen to your mother though – didn’t she tell you to keep your doors locked at night? No telling who you might pick up by accident with an open invitation like that.”

She swallowed hard. There was no way this was what her mother had meant when she’d told her to lock her doors at night. No way.

But her heart was slowly easing it’s way back into her chest. The longer they drove, the more silly it became that she was freaking out so badly when nothing was happening.

“Wh- what are you?” She finally asked.

The creature clucked it’s tongue – not that she knew if it even had one. “That’s a bit of a rude question you know.”

“Sorry.” The apology was out by habit before she realized what she was talking to. “You know, it’s rude to catch a ride without being invited along too.”

“Ah ah. I was invited. An unlocked door is an open invitation. If your mother didn’t tell you that, then consider this a free lesson. You’re welcome.” It sounded so pleased with itself.

“You do this a lot?”

It hummed as it thought. “Not really, no, I just happened to be in the mood tonight.”

She thought about asking what else might have ended up in her car, but decided against it, just in case.

They passed another ten minutes in the car like that – mostly silence, but the occasional question or comment. Until the creature finally sat up. “This is my stop, just tap the brakes if you please and I’ll be on my way. It’s been a lovely ride.”

It turned towards her as she tapped her brakes. “You have a wonderful rest of your night and get home safely – remember, lock your doors this time.”

That last had an undertone of menace and she swallowed hard. “Yes, I will. You have a nice night too.”

“Oh I will.” She could have sworn there was a flash of teeth, then there was nothing. Just her and an empty passenger seat.

Lisa hit the gas as she hit the automatic locks on her doors. She pressed the limits of the road, but didn’t press too hard in case she wrecked. She still got home in record time.

As she sat in her parents’ driveway, she took one deep breath, then two.

A buzz made her jump, but she smiled to see it was her boyfriend. He’d be calling soon as he got off work.

She leaned back in her seat, then unbuckled. She must have been pretty tired – of all the things to imagine, a shadowy hitchhiker was pretty far out there. Maybe she’d been watching too many horror movies lately.

Lisa rolled up her window, then realized the passenger window was still down. She frowned, the bottom of her stomach rolling.

She had imagined it – hadn’t she?

Interlude: Dreams in the Desert part 2

Why were the raptors always so agitated?

Or, more importantly, why were they the ones sent to tend the ill? He was certain he’d fare much better with quiet, a serpent nursemaid, and the chance to simply sleep.

But rough arms were around him, forcing him to sit up and drink. The herbs were suspended in what felt like raw power, and he sputtered and gagged on the strength of the spirit.

The falcon swore at him, called him an ignorant hatchling as she rushed to clean the mess from her skin. What could they possibly fear from touching something they expected him to drink? But it was true, under all the prickly agitation and the hot anger, there was a thread of fear.

He took what little energy he had and wrapped the remains of the potion in a venom crystal. He spat the little pearly lump out onto the bed and covered it with his hand.

He gritted his teeth in an attempt to stifle his growing agitation as Sybil calmly batted his spell away, again. They’d been at it for what felt like days, and the only thing he’d set on fire was the room around him. The smothering heat surely was not helping his mood.

But they could not leave until burned away the spelled rope that bound her, proving him an acceptable student and her a capable teacher.

“It’s still lacking substance, naja. Just get angry already and try to burn me, will you? I assure you, your little fireballs will have no effect on me.”

The golden hawk met his gaze with an almost bored nonchalance, but he could tell she was losing her patience. Had she never worked with serpent-kin before? If so, she was failing this test as surely as he. Her emotions were plastered across her aura, digging and niggling at him every time he tried to hold a thought. She angry, aggravated, impatient, haughty—everything he’d come to expect from raptor-kin. But laying over it all like a slick mildew was fear. He never seen that in a raptor’s aura. Never. It was the first thing they learned to hide as children, and the last thing they’d ever admit to feeling. How precarious was her position that the clearly high-born hawk hen was all but sweating her fear?

It wasn’t him—most of the raptors had hardly given him any notice when he’d traveled with his father to the h’somu of the D’ahnkkhna priesthood to establish peaceful intent. Only the serpent-kin of the mixed group would speak to them, after the initial presentation, and Seth was certain it was only their constant guard that had granted them entrance to towering mountain stronghold at all. No, none of the feathered folk he’d encountered then or now had paid him any mind—so what was Sioban afraid of?

He couldn’t attack her, not like this. He couldn’t strike at anyone resonating so strongly with fear. With a tired sigh, he pushed himself up from the cross-legged position he’d been instructed to sit in and climbed down from his raised dais. As he approached hers, the hawk froze, not even a hissed breath marring her perfect stillness.

“Wh-what are you doing?”

Seth stilled, not the motionless terror that she was caught in, but the quiet emptiness that all serpents could assume. He counted heartbeats, one, two, three, until taking another step forward. Her wrists surged against the bonds pinning her to the altar, eyes growing to show whites all the way around, but still she did not breathe. Was she drawing power?

Still, Seth could not raise a hand against her, even if she claimed it was the only route to free them both. He could not, and would not do it, so instead of sending another ungrounded surge of flame to lick uselessly at the walls, he’d resolved to try something different.

“Don’t touch me!”

The desperate shriek that pierced the silence send prickles racing along Seth’s skin to tighten in painful gooseflesh. She was terrified, and not even trying to hide it any longer as she writhed against the bonds she knew she could not break. Her breath returned to her in ragged, rapid gasps, and her wild eyes now squeezed tightly shut against the coming inevitability.

What inevitability? What does she know that I do not?

He drew a long breath, willing it to be steady and strong against the bitter tang of her panic. He took another,and another, trying to drain the room of her desperation, trying to impose his calm over it, trying to find balance in his soul against the terrified pounding of her heart.

“What are you so afraid of?”

It was a question never asked of any avian, and it was barely asked now. Seth could not bring his voice to anything louder than the brush of a whisper, but her eyes flew open and locked on him just the same. They stared at each other for a moment, his confusion and her fear both wore open and naked between them, then her words came in a babbling rush as the dam of her resolve broke.

“Don’t you know what they want to do with us? Don’t you know why we’re here? Monsters, they’re all monsters, and they want to make more of the same. What they want—it’s madness, nothing but madness! They’ll take us back to the burning times, to those savage wars—there won’t be a single feather or scale left unsigned—they can’t be allowed to do this!”

Her babbling broke off into a cascade of prayer, a rush of words in the old tongue that Seth could barely understand. They’d been forbidden to speak it outside of a set circle, didn’t she know that, for fear the power they could accidentally call. But the words of flight and grace and mercy she summoned never came, despite the desperation in her pleas. The only answer was a falling of darkness complete, the sound of steel on stone, and the wet gurgle as her prayer broke off and winged its way to the heavens.

Music drifted over the white sand, a tinkling of sound as faint and distant as the starlight. It came on a small wind, gentle and warm as a mother’s kiss. Seth’s hair ruffled in the breeze, air cooling the sweat on his brow. The tension in his face eased, and the campfire beside him quieted to a bed of banked coals.

Chapter 11, part 2

In which many battles are lost

Kain frowned at the pair of them, his dark eyes unreadable. Her gaze fell down his body as he approached, her posture stiffening when she fixated on his hands.

No.” Her voice was soft, but clear.

Kain raised an elegant eyebrow, never breaking his stride. “It isn’t a question, hawklet.”

I’d like to see you try and make me, old man.”

She would have liked to think that the threat in her voice was what stopped him, but likely he had just intended to stop by the tub where he was. Her feathers bristled and she scowled anew.

Really? Because it looks to me that you’re in no condition to back that up – considering your earlier suicide attempt.” His voice was mild, and her scowl deepened at the amusement in his smile.

His gaze flicked from her to Naj and he held out a small glass of amber liquid. He didn’t bother to hold the other out to Nica yet, probably because he knew she’d dump it on principle alone.

It’s just a tincture, but the herbs will help you regain your energy faster.”

If you can keep it down.” Nica muttered bitterly. “Nothing that tastes so badly could possibly be meant for consumption.”

Kain rolled his eyes, giving Naj a smile as he addressed the serpent. “Don’t mind her, she’s only sore that they work.” He continued past a snort from Nica. “She has a vendetta against anything good for her.”

Naj was certain nothing in that glass could taste as awful as Nica’s bristling agitation did. His aura was still taunt and raw from feeding the storm, and her aggression raced through it like wind whipping through a sharp grass. He recoiled, wincing against the sensation. Kain’s smile did little to help– he was already set in a firm position against Nica’s argument. Her aura crackled and hissed against Kain’s, and it stood solid and unmoving against the cutting wind. Naj downed his small glass without a word, hoping the restorative worked quickly, so he could get a buffer up.

Nica’s jaw clenched, which only made her head throb, which only made her angrier.

Kain frowned at her, taking the empty glass back from Naj. He held the other to her and she shook her head. It was a point of pride and she knew it was ridiculous, but she was angry with herself and Kain was an easy target.

With a controlled sigh, he extended the drink further. “It will make you feel better and the sooner you give in, the sooner you’re not bombarding the serpent with your agitation.”

Surprise took the edge from her anger and she glanced at Naj. Her eyes closed when she saw him wincing. She took a breath, then again, and when she thought she could look at Kain without wanting to hit him, she held out a hand for the damned drink.

It wasn’t the alcohol that tasted so awful, but some combination of herbs left a bitter, sour coat on her tongue. She gagged slightly, making a face when she gave the glass back.

Damn the cat all to hell, she didn’t know what he put in those damned things, but her headache was already lessening.

Better?” The rumble of his voice mingled with the sound of water as his fingers dipped to check the temperature.

She started to reply, but his dark eyes cut to Naj questioningly and she wrinkled her nose. She settled back against the tub, her tiredness returning now that her annoyance was fading.

Yes, thank you.” Naj said for them, when it became clear Nica wasn’t going to. His tone was sharper than he meant it to be, but in a petulant way, Naj thought she sort of deserved it for acting so childishly. Yes, the tincture burned, but even that helped chase away the chill. His aura was still paper-thin though. Naj wanted to climb inside the big man’s aura and hide, but somehow, he didn’t think they were quite to such familiar terms. Still, Naj felt soothed by Kain’s very presence, and he was glad when it seemed their eijye was going to stay a moment, even if it was just to fuss at them.

You’re welcome.” Kain’s voice was pleasantly warm again. Nica rolled her eyes at the large man, ignoring his growing smile.

Her gaze flicked to his hand in the water, then narrowed. She moved her foot experimentally, frowning when it swirled through a particularly warm spot.

Are you warming the water?” She hadn’t realized he could do that and his pleasantly blank expression told her that he somehow was.

Nica frowned. He must be worried if he wasn’t being as careful as usual to hide his skills. He was usually more subtle than this. Usually because if he wasn’t she started asking questions he didn’t want to answer.

Naj’s expression was somewhere between pained and eternally grateful. “I’m sorry I can’t manage it myself.” He tried to smile up at Kain, but it felt like more of a grimace. He was such a careless idiot.

Her gaze flicked to Naj, surprised. Was she the only one that couldn’t summon heat in the room? Clearly. She frowned, but Kain spoke before she could.

It’s fine. You’ve already done enough.” There were layers to that and Nica thought to poke at Kain’s mind to find out what he was thinking, but she doubted she had the energy or that he would share.

Dark eyes turned to hers expectantly. “Why were you dancing something like that in the first place? I didn’t realize that was something I should have to worry about.”

Nica shifted, uncomfortable with the sudden feeling that she’d done something wrong. Learning new skills was not the problem here. She wanted to cross her arms over her chest, but didn’t want to dislodge Naj.

Ariella’s been teaching me the new technique for a few weeks now.”

Disappointment in himself finally won out over the smile he’d been forcing.

I’m to blame,” he said, dropping his eyes to the rippling water. “I was showing off skill this morning I have no business tossing about with such carelessness. I should have been more careful to learn Nica’s background before demonstrating a potentially dangerous technique.”

Kain turned an eloquent eyebrow on the serpent. “Showing off? Fate forbid there be two of you.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. This was not what he had wanted. A serpent to distract Nica, yes. A serpent capable of calling great magics and encouraging the hawk to unleash her own potential was not.

It isn’t-”

A raised, dripping finger stymied Nica’s defense of the new dancer. “I know, I know. I can already see how this little fiasco played out. At least one of you is trained enough to have stoppered it before it got completely out of hand.”

He sighed, but there was a hint of a smile peeking out as he dipped his hand back into the water to raise the temperature a few more degrees. “I just ask that I’m given warning next time you two decide to show off.”

Naj’s voice was grave, and he couldn’t bring himself to raise his eyes. His reticent “Yes, eijye,” was cut short, and he stumbled to turn it into a soft, “It won’t happen again.”

It chafed at Nica that Kain was reprimanding the pair of them. He always shunned the second in command title until it was convenient to him. As if sensing her thoughts – or as if he were actively reading them, he turned to her.

I’m not going to bother asking you to behave yourself – you’ll get in trouble just to spite me.” His lips quirked and he glanced at Naj as if he’d just found an amusing joke. “But perhaps, at least with a serpent in the nest, I won’t be alone in keeping an eye on you before you get too far into trouble.”

Color rose in Nica’s cheeks at the implication she needed a babysitter. Much less that he was insinuating that their newest dancer take the job. She was supposed to be guiding him, not the other way around!

But he had saved her and that alone kept her from yelling back at Kain.

Kain was… joking with him?

The good natured banter they’d shared in the il’soum came back to him, but they had been relaxing then, getting to know one another. But now that Naj was abasing himself to show his contrite spirit-

Oh. Kain was teasing him, as he’d teased him then. Kain didn’t want Naj to bow and scrape and beg forgiveness. Kain wanted help. His help. In his informal capacity as second-in-command. The position existed just as much to give the nest leader some one to look to as it did to help the rest of the nest. What was going on between these two? He couldn’t seem to wrap his head around much of anything. He felt loose and disconnected from himself, and it was nearly impossible to think.

Naj looked to the grinning cat, to the silently sulking hawk, then back to the cat. Did he just wink at him? Naj’s head swam, and the room seemed to spin, now uncomfortably warm.

I… think I’ve had enough.”

He made a motion as if to stand, but he could feel his knees buckling already, even before he’d called on them to hold him up.

Both Nica and Kain shifted to offer support to Naj and after exchanging a look, Nica let go of Naj so Kain could take his arms and help him stand.

Nica made a motion to follow, but stopped when her head swam. The dull ache was fading, but the conversation had given her something to focus on other than her weariness.

I think, perhaps we should rest.” She said, her breath coming a little short as she rested against the side of the tub.

Kain nodded, “If you’ll rest, I’ll work on a stew for dinner. That way you can eat something with some substance when you wake. You’ll be ravenous.”

Naj just stood there, shivering as his damp clothes stuck to him, even as he felt the blood in his face glowing like a hot star. He needed to lie back down, but he needed not to be in cold, wet things, but his hands trembled when he lifted them, and everything clung to him like a second skin, and he nearly threw his head back and simply wailed, but settled for a hiccup of a whimper as he tore a button rather than undoing it.

Kain stared at the serpent in his arms for a moment, then stifled the urge to reach out and offer a mental calm like a blanket. It was simply exhaustion and once the fellow slept it would be better, but right now… Right now, Kain would do well to remember he had once been Dai. Kain wouldn’t risk exposing more of his hand than necessary.

From the tub, Nica manage to gain the edge of the tub, one hand reaching out to stroke Naj’s calf. “I agree, the wet clothes are unpleasant.”

Kain took the serpent’s hand, keeping him from working the next button. “Here. I can throw the clothes in the laundry while you two sleep.”

Hot tears traced his face as his eija held him and his eijye did for him what he could not. He was home. He was safe and cared for, and it only served to underscore his inabilities. He had never been able to take care of himself, relying on the Dai for everything, then falling into a useless sleep when they had been taken away. Who was he? What was he good for, but poisoning the world with his bastardized magics? Why were these strangers taking care of him, when the first things he’d done had been to raid their memories with an out of control s’Era’ramn, then show their leader how to half-kill herself? They should turn him out now, before he had the chance to do any more damage.

But… they weren’t. As Kain peeled away the ruined crimson silk, Nica had begun singing. Softly, yes, but the intent to calm and embrace was clear. He could barely hear the words around the raw emotion sounding in her gentle voice. Even as he cursed himself, he felt love and belonging wrap around him, through him, until he could not think of himself as anything but beloved part of the nest. He stared at her, eyes full of wonder, then promptly slid from the waking world.

Kain’s arms caught the falling serpent and Nica was grateful. Comforting him with touch and voice was about all she could muster. She sighed, patting Kain’s arm and using his stability to climb out of the tub herself.

One hand picked at her sodden sari and she looked up when Kain made a soft sound of amusement. She glanced up and he smiled, adjusting his hold on the serpent in his arms. “Think you can manage the knots on your own?”

She wrinkled her nose, but it was a valid question. It would be easier to walk without the wet fabric draped around her.

In the end, Kain had to help with those as well, though Nica drew the line at his offer to help dry her. At least he seemed to be in a better mood, a light amusement coloring his actions as he escorted her to her room while he carried Naj.

He laid the serpent down, but Nica lowered herself into the nest and curled around Naj before Kain could offer any further help. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate it, however grudgingly. She just preferred to do things for herself.

When he turned to go, though, she did swallow her pride long enough to manage a soft, “Thank you.”

The large man stopped at the tapestry, turning to give her a smile. “Of course.”

Then he was gone and she gave in to the call of sleep.

Party time!

It’s Asylum’s Birthday! Help us celebrate by checking out some of these awesome links. Spread the word to your friends. Follow the authors on Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter. And, of course, the best presents a reader can give an author are comments! Drop us a line, let us know what you think about the story, your favorite characters, a scene that made you laugh out loud. We’d love to hear it!

 

Jukepop

Read Asylum’s chapters in long form, leave reviews, vote for Asylum!

https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/10122

Web Fiction Guide

Write a review, add it to your shelves, find other cool web lit while you’re there. 🙂

http://webfictionguide.com/modern-supernatural/in-search-of-asylum/

Fiction Press

Read Asylum’s chapters in long form, leave reviews, start an Asylum Message Board! I would LOVE to interact with readers on a message board! 😀

 https://www.fictionpress.com/s/3301678/1/In-Search-of-Asylum

Wattpad

Read Asylum’s chapters in long form, leave reviews, find other awesome content.

https://www.wattpad.com/story/98949433-in-search-of-asylum

 

Happy 4th Birthday Asylum!

Oh my god you guys, Asylum is four years old. o.o

Granted, the website is only a little over 6 months old, but we first started drafting it four summers ago. It’s come a long way, and it still has quite a ways to go. But I’m so proud of my little baby! :3

Thanks for reading, guys. Here’s to another year!

Chapter 11, part 1

In which too many conversations are happening at once

Someone had lost something in her nest of blankets.

That was the best sense her brain could make of the sensation that was waking her. Rustling and rifling and searching – that was what it was, searching. Someone was searching – for what?

Her brain groped for the awareness to help, but it was being pushed aside.

That woke her faster than the searching had.

Her mind fell still, letting the images come to it, letting the sensation wash over it. Ignore the physical, ignore the sound… Flashes of memory came to her – dismissal, irritation, dancing, a building storm, an answering rumble of earth…

Her eyes flashed open, understanding sudden and bracing. She was awake and when she saw the large dark man next to her, one hand idly trailing in the running water, her fist collided with his bicep.

A smooth eyebrow raised and she snarled at him, trying to pull herself upright against the ledge of the tub. “You ass! Stay out!”

His dark eyes narrowed, then flicked away. Kain busied himself with a packet of herbs, closing the tie and sinking it deep into the swirling water. He adjusted the tap until steam rose.

“Kain,” Her voice was heavy with warning and her face flushed when he merely gave her an expectant look. “It’s one thing when –“

“When you nearly kill yourself? Yes, it is.” His smooth voice was matter of fact, brooking no argument. Not that that was going to stop her.

She pulled harder on the ledge of the tub, trying to gather enough strength to levy herself onto it. When that failed, she huffed in annoyance. Now that she was fully awake, she knew what had happened. Or at least, what had happened until she’d fallen. The magic had taken root of its own. It was something Ariella had warned her could happen, but Nica hadn’t thought –

“You never do.” Kain’s voice interrupted her thoughts and she scowled anew.

“Stay out.”

“Or you’ll what? Hit me with the strength of a hatchling again? Scowl at me and sulk that you aren’t dead? That you merely drained our new dancer rather than killed him with your recklessness?” His voice rose with each question, a fine fury building until he looked away abruptly.

Nica stared at the large man next to her, breathing heavily and trying to regain his calm. She rarely saw this side of him, where his emotion spoke before his mind could sensor it. The rarity of it brought home the severity of the situation and she quieted.

She hadn’t… No, that would be a lie. She’d known it had been that bad, but she would have buried it under anger and accusation. She would have hid from herself the way she always did.

Her hand rubbed at a tickle on her upper lip, and her frown deepened when her hand came away smeared with red. She wasn’t going to think about why her head hurt. Dancing an illusion dance without someone to keep watch had been stupid.

“Yes, it was.”

“Alright, Kain. I get it, I was stupid.”

“Do you? Do you really understand, Nica? Because from where I sit, it’s just another impulsive lack of foresight on your part. Whenever you feel something, you react – you don’t think about the emotion, you just run from it.” His voice was harsh, but not as sharp as his words and she jerked as if physically hit.

“I know.” Her voice was quiet and she saw him soften when he sighed.

“I can’t give you space to learn from your mistakes if you’re going to escalate them to fatal levels.” He shot her a wry look. “And I’ll be damned if you leave me to run this nest alone again.”

The attempt at humor was poor, but genuine and it was what it signified that meant more than the joke itself. She smiled, albeit half-heartedly. “Hey, you had Dev.”

He rolled his eyes, shifting his weight to turn off the faucet. “Fate preserve me from demons.”

Whatever she was going to say was cut off when he reached for Naj, shifting the sleeping man’s body as if he were going to dunk him fully clothed into the tub.

“Hey – what are you doing?” Her disbelief warred with surprise.

“You both need to be warmed up, this is energy efficient.”

“He’s unconscious!”

Kain stared at her, blinking long and slow the way only a cat could. “And?”

“And he’ll drown?” She stared back at him. “Were you really going to just dump us both in the tub?”

“You wouldn’t drown, I’m right here.” He sounded affronted.

“And what would you have done if we had started to go under?” And he thought she was reactive and short sighted.

He raised an elegant eyebrow. “A hand in the hair will keep your head above water rather easily.”

She sputtered at that and he sighed theatrically. “Fine, fine, what would you have me do? Bundle you in blankets and tote hot water bottles back and forth? Or better, waste my own energy to push heat into the pair of you? At least one of us needs to be alert and ready to deal with the nest today.”

She stared at him, frowning, but she couldn’t find the words to argue with him. “Fine.” She finally muttered.

Jostling in the dark.

Strong arms around him, carrying him with quick even strides down a torch-lined hall. None of them were lit anymore– he’d stopped wasting the energy after the first three or so.

“Master, are we–”

The voice cut off in wet bark of a cough, the painful sound making his gut clench. Soothing warmth spread out from where firm hands gripped him, and a murmured command not to waste energy speaking. Who were these men, moving so swiftly and urgently through the dark? One of them was Master? Was one of them me?

Stones rumbled beneath them, the very ground upset by this episode. Were they running? Who was arguing? The earth was angry, and the sun could not part the clouds.

But a voice whispered inside him that he was safe, that power held him and would keep him safe. He snuggled deeper into the solid warmth, turning his face into the rumbling. There wasn’t much strength to it, but a little tendril of thought reached out to coil itself around the energy that cradled him as surely as the big hands he rested in. A small sigh ghosted out of him, and he finally breathed easy.

Kain was distracted from his arguing with Nica to look down at the small man nestling against him. Naj was more asleep than awake, but he was reacting to Kain much as he had in the il’soum. His words were barely audible, but what little Kain caught troubled him. But he would think on the trickles he was skimming from the serpent’s thoughts later. Right now it served to remind him that the serpent was still too cool and Kain raised an eyebrow at Nica.

He needs to be warmed, but you’re hardly better yourself.” He cut off Nica’s protest with a frown. “If the pair of you both soak in the hot water, then you’ll warm faster. It will also relieve whatever muscles you abused on stage. And,” he added with a touch of annoyance, “with you awake, you can keep him from going under.”

Relief eased his shoulders when she simply nodded. Hopefully she wasn’t more hurt than he thought she was. It was hard to tell when she was being agreeable.

Nica could hardly argue with Kain about a hot bath when her bones ached. She felt as if she’d truly been caught out in a freezing rain, with a chill that cut to the core of her. It wasn’t often she felt such cold, but when her avian blood wasn’t hot enough to combat it, she knew to heed the warning.

She tried again to lever herself up to the ledge of the tub and this time, she managed it. Her muscles protested the movement with stinging sensations and tight tinges. She made a small sound, but swallowed it back down. The last thing she wanted was Kain hovering and fussing.

A hand fumbled with the knot of her halter top and when she found she couldn’t undo it, tried the one on her sarong. They were only simple square knots, but she couldn’t feel the tips of her fingers. Feeling hopelessly clumsy, she sighed in annoyance and simply slid into the tub still fully clothed.

She avoided Kain’s amused look, wincing as the heat of the water stung on her chilled flesh. With a soft sigh of acceptance, she held her arms out. “Well?” She prompted when he didn’t immediately lower the serpent.

Kain shook his head, a smile finally cracking his lips. Gently, he lowered his arms into the water, settling Naj against Nica in the heat. He drew back slowly, not wanting to jostle either of them too much.

Will you two be alright for a few moments? I want to check on the nest – you won’t fall back asleep in the heat?” He knew they were both too tired for further mischief, but he hardly liked leaving them alone after this morning’s events.

Nica nodded, eyes closing. “I’m sore more than I’m tired right now.” Which was technically true, but she knew she was also exhausted. She felt Kain’s frown and cracked an eye to frown right back. “We’ll be fine, old man.”

He huffed softly as if he doubted that, but he stood. “Alright, I’ll hold you both to that.”

With that, he was gone. Nica sighed, her eyes closing again. She felt the gentle tug of sleep pull at her, but resisted it, forcing her mind to focus on minor details, like the names of the hand postures Naj had been teaching her before all this began.

We’ll be fine, old man.

I’ll hold you both to that.

The voices were wrong. The idea was right, but the sound clashed with the memory. Yes, it was a memory. That’s explained the disconnect.

He should care more that things weren’t matching up, but arms still held him close, even if they were much smaller than the last pair, and he was warm. Beautifully,blissfully warm. Someone promised to keep him warm and safe, and held him like he was the only thing holding them to the waking world. He knew that feeling well, and the sense of camaraderie warmed him as much as the water.

Water? He was wet? Oh, yes, the rain. They’d been caught in a rainstorm, and now they needed to get warm. He snuggled closer to his companion, opening his aura to let whatever warmth he had be shared between them.

Nica was drawn from her straining thoughts when Naj made a small sound. He still seemed to be sleeping and she sighed.

She was so tired. She couldn’t sleep though, needing to keep an eye on Naj. Kain had said she’d nearly killed him, drained him and he certainly felt it, his aura lapping up the heat around them. It had been her mistake, no one else should have to suffer the consequences for it.

But everyone did. Kain was right, she never thought her actions through. After Jax… She’d left, abandoned her nest for two years – and for what? What right did she have to think her pain trumped theirs?

A trickle on her cheek brought her hand up, smearing wet with wet. She was distracted when her hand came away with flecks of red. Nica grimaced, dunking her hand in the water to clean it, then scrubbing her hand over her face again until it came away clean.

First jostling, now fidgeting. He’d been content to just drift until the world made sense again, but the world kept insisting on moving. He cracked open an eye to better assess the situation, then started at the fading trace of blood in the water. Naj’s eyes flew open in alarm, now fully alert as he searched Nica’s face to signs of hurt.

Are you-”

He stopped, realizing her face only held confusion and surprise. His mouth hung open, voice breaking with a small sound, but he was at a loss for words. What in the worlds had happened to them?

She wasn’t sure what the play of emotion in his aura meant. Alarm, confusion… Then again, he had woken up fully clothed in a tub.

Nica ran a hand over his arm, trying to be reassuring when he made a distressed sound. “It’s alright.”

You were bleeding.”

His voice was as soft as he reached for her face, stopping just shy of touching. Her fingers tickled along his arm, giving him the illusion of blood dripping down his own arm. He shuddered, eyes squeezing tight as he tried to focus on what was real.

Her fingers were hot and delicate, yes, but there was a comforting strength in them. His shirt stuck to him where her hands smoothed over his arm, but it was the thin damp of water, not the sticky cling of blood.

But… his shirt shouldn’t be on him at all, should it? They were in the bath…

He opened his eyes again, trying to make sense of everything. Bath, yes, clothes, yes. Blood, but not hurt. Cold, from the rain? But they had been underground, in the tunnels– No, that one was wrong. That had been a memory, with different people in a different place. But, bath? With clothes? He was missing something. He reached for that still place in his mind that let him retreat, let him rest, but… Nica was bleeding. He needed to know why. He couldn’t turn away.

What happened?”

Nica’s wince hid itself behind a small smile. He didn’t remember?

She sighed, settling lower in the water as she thought about where to start. It wasn’t going to look good to admit to a new dancer that his nest leader was an idiot.

Her gaze fell to her foot when it brushed the sachet of herbs Kain must have placed in the tub. Leave it to the old man to be playing witch doctor when she wasn’t looking.

I was practicing an illusion dance…” She started slowly, keenly aware as her thoughts tried to distance her from what she needed to say. “And the magic got away from me.” Nica frowned slightly, leaning her head back against the edge of the tub. “I don’t honestly remember all of it,” Not quite a lie. Some things she remembered only from Kain dredging them from her thoughts and his own ideas mingling with them. “But it drained you as well.”

Her voice was soft and her eyes closed against the fresh swell of guilt. “Kain brought us down here to warm up.”

Oh yes. Aret’vir’ramn.

No, not that wasn’t it. Nica had gone to practice, but she’d called her dances by a different name, one that had chilled him to the core.

Ramn tr’vr’era, To dance with visions of the void.

They were wet because Nica had spun up actual rain. They were exhausted because the energy to pull something from nothingness had to come from somewhere, and Nica had offered it her ki’n when she danced. Raptors were known to be skilled manipulators of dreams and the worlds that sprung up within them, but clearly, Nica didn’t have the proper theoretic foundation of what she had been doing. “Dancing with shadows” had once been a euphemism for those who had fallen to the whispering dark. There was great power in the visions shaped by this kind of magic, because great power was required to create them.

Its no surprise we don’t remember,” he said softly, eyes fixed on nothing. “The spell will have eaten up everything we didn’t protect.” Perhaps that was why Naj had woken with his mind fixed on the past. He had plenty of memories to feed the storm. He frowned, wondering what he had left to protect. Why not let the storm eat everything and just be done with it? No memories, no past, nothing left to protect, nothing left to fear…

A chill took him, even as his body soaked up the water’s warmth. “I think it would be best if you not perform that step again.” And here he’d been worried about the ethics of teaching her how to store up energy.

Nica frowned, eyes opening to stare blindly at the ceiling as she thought his worried words over. He sounded… Not upset, but haunted.

She glanced at him, but looked away again when her chest tightened. “It’s never been like that when I practiced with Ariella.”

Ariella is..a falcon?” Naj asked. The name sounded falcon, and the storm’s magic had seemed to pull at him like a falcon’s, but he knew there was much about the world he didn’t know. He had no idea if there was any significant difference between being a falcon and being a hawk. It might make all the difference between controlling a difficult weaving and being destroyed by it. He’d danced with falcons in the Dai, and he’d seen the same steps shape shadows to heal or shadows to enslave. He couldn’t guess at what reason Nica’s teacher might have for binding her dancers to her so tightly that they would die if they danced without her. Still, if it dove like a falcon and screamed like a falcon, it wasn’t likely a pigeon, and the difference between aret’vir’ramn and ramn tr’vr’era was just as vast, and just as deadly.

Yes.” Her response was a bit absent-minded, turning over the new conundrum. Dancing an illusion dance had never been like that. It had never taken a life of its own, spinning past her and pulling her with it. Had it been the singing? She’d used more color than usual, shaping a storm at dawn… But that shouldn’t have mattered, should it?

Maybe she’d been too tired at the start – but no, after meditating with Naj she’d felt revitalized. It had been part of what had spurred her to practice, hadn’t it?

I just don’t understand what went wrong.” She didn’t realize she’d said it aloud until her own voice met her ears.

Naj frowned, not having enough to go on. Master would know, but-

Master isn’t here.

This nest was not working. Every time he turned around, Naj was thinking about his past. How was he supposed to move past all that, when everything kept calling on his former skills?

Was that what Aezir wanted? Had he placed Naj here intending for him to keep operating as if he were still Dai? A little notice would have been nice.

He found himself reaching out, thoughts intent on the long line of connection between them. He shouldn’t, he knew he shouldn’t, but he just felt so lost…

Until he felt a veritable brick wall of intent, walking this way. Someone was steeling themselves up against a coming argument. He didn’t like the feel of it one bit. He jerked his questing tendril back in a panic, reeling with the urgency to hide. He must not be seen. He was far too weak like this.

Naj reeled, mind pinwheeling to keep up with itself. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision, murmuring, “Someone’s coming…”

Hm?” Nica’s head jerked up at Naj’s low voice. Something in his tone had pulled a bolt of adrenaline through her and she made a small sound as it ebbed again and her head throbbed.

Kain.” She said, moments before the mountain of a man appeared in the doorway.