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.

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