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!

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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.

Interlude: Dreams in the Desert, part 1

He scowled at the figured curled up on the sand before him. He couldn’t be mad at him, but he was still so full of anger and hurt, even after giving everything he had in the Whispering Dark. Why were the negative emotions always the first to return? Why couldn’t he recall his mother’s face, his cousin’s laughter, a kind word, a sunny day? It was always the things he tried to keep buried that rose to the surface first.

He sat down in the white sand, hurling a handful of sparks to call a fire into life before him. He watched the shadows play across his sleeping companion, wondering if he should wake him. He never rested, never slept, and something about watching the other man lay there made him want to shake him. He didn’t feel like himself at all. He was usually so much better at keeping his calm.

He turned his gaze to the waxing moon, days away from zenith. The desert always seemed so haunted beneath the silvery light, but it was preferable to the empty stretches of darkness left when il’li Dareiya turned her face away. Balance. Where was his balance? He searched the goddess’s face for answers, but she was as empty and silent as he.

He turned back to the crackling fire, willing the heat to seep into him, to chase away the chill from his bones. Funny, but he never seemed to feel the cold of the Whispering Dark before. Numb, yes, empty, yes, but never the cold. Could it be the hawk?

And what was he going to do with her? She was clearly not the devious raptor spell caster she might have seemed—no, it appeared she knew just enough to be a danger to herself and those around her. And he’d shown her how to add more fuel to the fire. What a mess.

With a sigh, Naj pushed himself to his feet, deliberately divorcing himself from the tangle of thoughts and memories he should be putting to order. Let Seth do it, when he finally woke. The man never slept, and Naj didn’t have it in his heart to wake him, no matter how angry with him he was. But he wasn’t of a mind to Seth’s work for him, either.

Naj turned away and walked out of the desert without a backward glance.

The earth pressed close and cold around them. The smell of an extinguished torch was an acrid tickle at the edge of the shadows. He longed for a fire, but he knew why Aezir held their magic closed tight against them. Just a little longer, a few more days in the darkness, and the danger would be past. He hoped. They’d already gone so deep into the tunnels, flushed out of every corner they’d found to hide in…

A stern cough brought Seth from his fear, and he wrapped himself tighter around Naj, even as Aezir shifted his foot to brush against Seth’s leg. The long hours without contact from his nest was taking its toll. Not to mention the eerily silent dark.

He knew they were dead. Anyone who had not fled like they had were certainly smoldering in the remains of the temple above. How ironic that the Ahn’Ki Dai had been burned out of their stronghold. Perhaps that biting smell was more than just the torch.

Seth tossed in his sleep as the fire popped on the sand beside him. One memory of flames gave way to another, a long line of unbroken pain smoldering in his mind.

They were coming, and Master isn’t here. Why had he left him behind?

The Dai was fallen, there was nothing left to protect, nothing left to fear. So why had he been left with the nest, when Master marched off to war? Because there was still a war to fight, even with the temple razed. Their enemies would not stop until everything was s’Era, lost to the shadows.

This nest was nothing but shadows. Children of the gods, left to scrabble and fend for themselves in the ruins of a broken world. There had been power here, once. It had never been paradise, but it had been ours, and we will have it again…

A mind brushed over his, and he shrunk away, pulling deeper into himself as he went serpent still, willing himself to be silent, unnoticed.

Shorts: Ruth has a thing or two to learn

You don’t know him yet, but Ruth is a young witch character from later books in Asylum. I follow a lot of prompt blogs on Tumblr, and I just sort of stumbled into this scene. So enjoy, but don’t hold your breath for sweetie Ruth. He won’t be around for quite a while. Sorry. :/ (Spoiler free, for Asylum at least)


Ruth tapped his pencil against the desk in a rapid staccato. It was stupid to let nerves get the better of him, but he couldn’t help but feel all the curious stares, the judgmental glances, the not-so-hushed whispers. Beast lover, Fur-fucker, freak. That kid from Asylum. The one with the crazy magic. Fey touched. Animal sympathizer.

His mind blurred through the entire lecture, a buzz of nothing sounds he’d come to recognize as aura. His former classmates weren’t as expressive as his current nestmates, but their feelings were so strong and so unanimous–besides, he’d have known what they were thinking even without his newfound ability to read aura. He was an outcast.

But the buzz grew to bland background as the days went on, and though it was still distracting, it wasn’t nearly as bad as his disquiet in grade school had been. Then he’d be fighting overactive magic without knowing it. Now, he was just trying to catch up on a year out of school.

His notes were a mess. Out of practice, unable to focus, chittering gossip scratching at his skull. Thank the gods for the testing center. It was blissfully empty at 7 in the morning.

In the still, in the quiet, his mind emptied. He waited for clarity, but nothing came. No memories of lecture, no professor’s voice, no examples from class. His eyes glazed as he stared at the first question, but he took a deep breath and tried again.

Name three characteristics of a monocot. Parallel leaf veins, scattered vascular bundles, single cotyledon–hence monocot. Easy. He didn’t need any recent memory for this. He’d been studying at this level in high school.

Was he under doing it? The questions were simple, elemental, was he missing something? Yes, it was an entry level class, but wasn’t college supposed to be hard? Kain had told him to go into this with an open mind, but his aura hadn’t quite matched his words. Now, Ruth was wondering if this was what he meant.

This was pointless. No, that was rude– but it was. 30 minutes and he was done, and honestly already wanted to take his final. He could test out of this class in no time, and maybe move on to something more relevant.

Did he really want his certification? Did he really care if was allowed to operate in witch society ever again? He stood to make a lot of money– but did he? Fur-fucker. Animal sympathizer. Why was it the latter bothered him more?

No one would vet him. He knew that, had known that last year when he moved into the nest with Kate. He could do this the hard way, taking years upon years of schooling to become an inspector himself– but did he really care?

He turned in his bubble sheet, utterly unsurprised at the full marks that came up on the screen. He walked out into the blossoming sunrise in a daze, wondering where to go next.