Chapter 14, part 1

In which a message is sent.

Kain’s eyes followed the serpent’s movements as he kept his low conversation going with Nica. It was nothing important, mostly her trying to fill the air between them with trivial things such as needing to call the tailor. He knew there was something she wanted to talk to him about, but didn’t want to speak of with an audience. Her slowing footsteps gave her away.

Kain, however, was more interested in the serpent in front of him. He wanted to do a little more poking around before his worry got the better of him. It wouldn’t be prudent to start a conversation and give away too much of his own hand.

A twinge against his aura made him frown slightly and he glanced back at the warded door to the upstairs. He turned his gaze back towards Naj, thoughts spinning on themselves.

Feeling Nica’s confusion begin at his side, he glanced at Nica’s bare arms, forcing a small frown. “Didn’t you have an over shirt on when you came upstairs?”

Nica paused, blinking a few times in rapid succession as her thoughts suddenly changed direction. “I did… Probably left it by the stage.”

“Ah, well, I can run back and get that for you if you like.” Kain kept his voice bland, but he watched her eyes narrow. She wasn’t buying it for a moment.

“No, it’s fine. I’ll grab it.” With a small, thoughtful frown, she turned and headed back up the stairs.

Naj stiffened at the snagging of the ward, hoping his overflowing aura wasn’t the cause. He’d honestly never thought anything wrong with the practice of carrying elemental power in his aura, but after today…

No, it wasn’t him. Something… bigger that he was was at work here. He glanced behind, eyes finding Kain’s in the dark. Only Kain’s. Nica was gone. Naj stretched out his awareness as much as he dared. Nica’s energy was muted again—or had it never actually recovered? He’d felt the ki’n of the nest swarm around her during the show, but had it been unable to stick to her for some reason?

Could that reason have anything to do with her eijye?

Her eijye, who was conveniently blocking the path back upstairs. Who was not so subtly herding them all downstairs. Who had given him and Nica who-knew-what concoctions not once but twice in the past few hours, and Naj was only now beginning to question that? Stupid stupid stupid.

Marie pulled at his arm, stopping when he had. Naj didn’t even spare her look, eye fixed on Kain.

Kain stopped in the middle of the stairwell, turning from Nica’s vanishing back to Marie and Naj. The pair were looking up at him with curiosity and he smiled warmly with a shrug. “She forgot her shirt, she’ll be down in just a moment.”

Nica was preoccupied with Kain’s abrupt dismissal. She couldn’t tell why he’d wanted to be rid of her, but on the heels of this morning… Her pride would hardly let her stay. He hadn’t been listening to her anyway. Which was probably just as well, it hadn’t been terribly important. She should have just mentally nudged him for a private conversation about Naj, she just hadn’t wanted to risk Naj overhearing her.

Her shirt lay on the far side of the stage where she’d tossed it and her stride carried her most of the way across it before she was suddenly aware she wasn’t alone.

For a split second, she thought that a customer had been lurking after close, or that perhaps the door hadn’t been locked and someone had mistaken the time. All of it impossible, but what she found waiting for her seemed so much more impossible.

Dev had never described Azriel. Not in looks anyway, but the fear that underscored her voice when she mentioned him… There was no one else this could be.

He was dressed in a well-tailored suit and tie, the cut of which framed his lean body perfectly. Darkness was the perfect description for him, from his hair to every aspect of his clothing, including the gloves he tugged on with a smile. Only his pale skin gave any relief to it, and his eyes glittered like ice beneath heavy lashes.

Her mouth ran dry as he took a step forward, smoothing one hand down the front of his jacket. His footsteps were silent as he approached the stage.

Even as Naj realized the danger, it was too late. Nica’s suddenly diminished aura just as suddenly vanished, and he reacted without a thought. With a blast of heavy darkness, Naj rushed the much larger man, shoving his way past to take the stairs back to the main floor.

Kain’s attention was on the ward behind him and he was unprepared for the wall of power that hit him. Stupid to be caught off guard, but for all the Dai were known for, obvious and blatant attacks weren’t among them. There was a gasp from Marie behind him and Kain took the stairs three at a time to catch up to the serpent.

Azriel glanced down at her shirt as he passed it, then carefully ascended each of the three steps. Her chin lifted as he made an obvious show of looking her up and down.

You must be… Nica.” His voice was soft and sultry, but there was something within it that made her heartbeat quicken. Nothing so obvious she could put her finger on, but she suddenly understood Dev’s fear. This was a man that logic and reasoning could not sway. Dev had once said he was insane and with just that innocent sentence, Nica believed her.

He continued as if she’d answered him, tilting his head slightly as his eyes drifted down again. “A hawk… With feathers like blood and a heart that falls as quickly as your animal form does.” His lips quirked. “Oh, perhaps that’s a falcon. Forgive me, feathers are all the same to me sometimes.”

Swallowing back the knot of fear, she ignored him. Ignored the twisting of her stomach and urge to run. There would be no outrunning him. And screaming would only bring the other dancers. There was nothing she could do but hope to distract him enough to spare them. Dev had described him as easily distracted, flighty even.

What do you want, Azriel?” Her voice was breathier than she liked, but her voice carried across the stage.

The demon’s eyes were suddenly on hers and Nica found herself wishing he’d go back to studying her body. His smile changed, the wicked edge to it turning her stomach.

I suppose it’s only fair that you know my name if I know yours.” Her eyes widened when he vanished. “I’ve always found names fascinating,” His voice purred into her ear and she fought not to move, “such intimate things when you think about it. A string of letters, syllables, to define and shape a person, so that I can hold all you are on just my tongue alone.”

The sound that followed forced her eyes closed. She would not run, she would not scream. It took all her willpower simply to stay still. She hoped she was strong enough to do the same if he actually touched her.

Empty.

The stage was empty.

It hadn’t been a moment ago. Naj knew he’d seen Nica standing and talking with… well, with something. His mind had slid around the shape, knowing something was there but unable to gather any details about it. It was almost as if the presence hadn’t made a decision one way or another about how present it actually wanted to be.

Then Nica had named it, and disappeared as well.

Azriel.

Naj knew the stage wasn’t empty. There was too much emptiness for it to be anything but an illusion. He’d felt the lingering ki’n that had seeped into the boards, smelled the combined perfume of so many different bodies, tasted the many hours of practice and performance that hung heavy in the space. All of that had vanished with Nica.

Which told Naj both she and the demon were still there.

What it didn’t tell him was if “Azriel” was a strong enough name to bind any spellwork to the creature. Naj had a lifetime of options at his fingertips, but nearly all of them were too strong to risk without knowing for a fact that they would effect his intended target and only his target. Likely as not, his familiarity with Nica would override the tenuous connection “Azriel” would make with the demon, and he’d blast his eija to oblivion—or worse. No, he couldn’t risk most of his options in this current situation.

But that didn’t mean he was helpless, either.

I came to deliver a message to Devin.” Nica’s eyes opened a touch too wide to find Az standing across the stage again, amusement clear in his eyes.

A message.” It wasn’t a question. She was going to be sick.

He twirled a gloved hand in the air, turning on a heel to gaze out at the rest of the club. Her heart was pounding hard enough that it skipped a beat and she watched his head twitch as if he’d heard it.

I prefer hawks to parrots.” His hands slowly crossed behind his back, clasping to show pale skin between cuff and glove. A strange shadow drew her attention there, but it flickered away before she could make sense of it.

He was teasing her and her pride couldn’t even find the strength to be angry. Her thoughts kept turning back to the nest below her, where her dancers would be laughing and jostling to find places in the Great Room for movie time. She prayed that Fate would be kind and spare them, let her be the only sacrifice needed tonight.

A hand wrapped around her throat, stealing all her air between one breath and the next. The leather pinched her skin and her eyes widened…

To find Azriel standing several feet away, watching her with a frown. One hand was fisted at his side, but relaxed the moment she glanced at it. Her own hand twitched with the urge to touch her neck, sore from a coming bruise. There was a faint scent of dust and a strange musk on the air. If it weren’t for that, she’d wonder if she’d imagined it.

I think you’ll be a suitable messenger, don’t you?” His tone was oddly somber, undertones she couldn’t begin to understand threading beneath it.

It took her two tries to say it, but she finally rasped, “Yes.”

His expression immediately brightened, then a nasty smile began to grow. “I was hoping you would say that.”

Her world went dark, his words fading into the background, but she thought she heard him add, “We’re going to have so much fun together.”

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