Chapter 12, part 2

In which Naj explains a thing or two

Nica pulled him closer, her lips pressing against his shoulder. Her eyes flicked up at the feel of someone on the other side of her door and she opened her wings enough to see a dark hand slipping around the tapestry.

It was Nat, the lanky woman balancing two bowls as she entered the room. “Hey.”

Her voice was soft, pleasant as she she glanced between the pair of them. Nica drew her wings further back, so she and Naj were framed rather than embraced by them.

“Hey, Nat.” Her gaze flicked to the bowls in her hand and Nat smiled. A twinge of something unpleasant came and went in her emotions, but Nica didn’t comment on it and Nat ignored it, as was polite.

“Kain said you guys were waking and asked me to bring you a couple bowls of stew. The show’s about to start though, so I need to get back upstairs. You need anything else?”

She handed off the bowls and tucked some bottles of water at their feet. When Nica shook her head, Nat smiled, a little more genuine this time and left.

How long have we slept?” Naj asked, puzzling at Nat’s word. The passage of time should mean something to him, but “show time” was too nebulous an idea for him to ground in. But surely Nica would know. He looked to her, trying to smooth out the worried pinch to his eyebrows.

Nica rubbed a hand along his arm at his concern, then untangled enough to reach for one of the bowls of stew. Her stomach growled, reminding her that she hadn’t each much yesterday either.

If the show’s about to start, it’s probably near five. So eight hours, little more.”

He made an mmm sound that didn’t say much, but his attention was now completely on the smell of food. The hollow feeling roared to life within him, demanding to be filled. It’s aroma was rich and layered, earthy and spicy and a little wild, and old. Modern food just didn’t smell the same anymore, not since they’d left Europe. It was as if something of the land it grew in was imparted to the finished dish, and this smelled like home.

Naj tucked in with a greedy pace, eating as if he hadn’t eaten in months. It’d been a while since he’d been this magic starved, body desperate to replace a spiritual lack by whatever physical means it could. It would help, much as the sleep and warm bath had, But he wouldn’t be set to rights until he went above and beyond that, and a sudden thought occurred to him.

How are you feeling?” he asked, once he’d choked down the overly large bite he’d just taken. It seemed a shame not to linger over such food, crafted with care and old skill, but there was still so much to be done before they were out of the woods.

On a deeper level, how are you feeling?”

Tired,” Nica answered without thought. Weary was probably more accurate, but there was a heaviness to her muscles that told her they had been pushed past their preferred limits. Her core self held the empty feeling that only happened when she’d tried to do too much with too little fuel.

 

“And a bit stiff,” she added as she took a bite of stew. For a moment, her eyes closed, savoring the flavor. Kain must have had it on the stove all day. If the food made it to tomorrow, the spices would marry even further.

 

“How are you?”

He stiffened, the precursor to a serpent stillness, but he willed it away. He would need to stay open to her aura shifts as he broached this subject.

 

I need to finish the meditation we started this morning, more now than ever. We are empty, but with a little direction we can fix that.” There was the slightest stress on the we as he changed his tactics mid-thought. “I’m beginning to question the wisdom in such exercises, but at the least, we should set to right what meddling I’ve already done.”

The question in his voice hung unspoken in the air, waiting for her response one way or the other. Nica was so damned good at sitting patiently and waiting for the entire story or lesson before absorbing it and thinking on it—an admirable trait in a student, but maddening when Naj hung on her every nuance for guidance as to how to proceed.

She raised an eyebrow, chewing slowly as she mulled that over. The meditation from this morning? He never had really answered her one its purpose… And now he blamed this morning on that meditation.


Nica nodded thoughtfully. “And how does the meditation help this?”

A slow breath to steady himself was all the hesitation he allowed. “The storm you danced was made real by the energy we fed it—you, unintentionally, mine deliberately—and it had left us lacking. I believe your ramn got the better of you because you are unaccustomed to carrying such extra power, and so didn’t know to hold it back from your weaving. We all instinctively clutch our lifeforce close, but once a vr’era has purchase in this world, it consumes what it can in its quest to become a part of reality-”

He stopped, wondering if he was losing her. He had lifetimes of study behind him, and she was just barely coming into her own, magically speaking. He had no idea how much training or years she had under her belt, but it wasn’t enough.

The important part is that such imbalances are dangerous, and I should not have been so careless. It has been many years since I’ve danced with anyone of skill, and I have forgotten how grave a responsibility it can be.”

His thoughts flicked along faces and people half-remembered–to the d’Ahnkkhna, to his mother, the nests in the Dai—all forces to shape the world, for good or for ill. But to what purpose?

Nica hummed idly as she thought that over and ate. Energy. It all came back to energy. Ariella had mentioned it in places, but she’d always dismissed how much energy Nica could bring to it… Perhaps those had been more than idle cut downs. Their meditation raised energy… It explained why she’d felt so energized going into the dance, though she had put it down to nerves and agitation at the time.

It was a mistake for both of us, I think,” she answered slowly, not liking how much responsibility he was taking for their combined actions. She was the leader and as such, she should have been more aware of what had been happening on his end. A good nest leader guides and directs rather than orders. Ariella ran her nest like it was something militarized most of the time. While it felt good to be out from under her thumb, Nica was still acting as if she were merely another member of the nest and not a leader of her own. Still, it would do neither of them any good to take all the blame herself. Everyone learned by mistakes and taking someone’s from them to spare their feelings only hurt them in the longer dance.

I should not have danced alone. I knew what I was calling, but it was foolish to do it alone for the first time before being sure of my control.” She gave him a small, wry smile. “And I should have asked for a better understanding of what we were doing this morning. It’s taking me more than the usual day or two to get back into the habits of my own nest it seems.”

She still didn’t understand.

Her words said she did, but the lack of fear told him he hadn’t expressed how deadly this could be. There was a reason the Dai worked in nests—it kept complex spells from falling when any one member was consumed by it. She was treating this like a dance—wait, what did she mean by back into her habits?

You’ve been gone?” he asked abruptly.

Nicas eyes tightened at the edges. Again, he somehow managed to remind her that he was a stranger to her nest, to her. It was odd, nothing she could put her finger on. The question was a fair one, she’d brought the subject up in a round about way. Perhaps it was his tone or something about his aura, but it was beginning to bother her. She needed to speak to Kain, sooner rather than later. The big cat always had a better sense of a situation than she did and she was beginning to suspect there was something more at play here.

“I’ve been at Ariella’s nest for the last two years.” Her instinct said to be vague, but how long and where she’d been weren’t secrets to her nest. Besides, she didn’t like feeling as if she needed to keep secrets from one of her dancers like this.

Ah. Away to gather new skills to bring back to her nest, no doubt. Perhaps this wasn’t as unsalvageable a mess as it seemed. If she’d been willing to endure the rigors of falcon training… Still, he wanted to make sure she understood exactly what they were dabbling in. He set his stew bowl to the side, giving her his full attention.

You do understand that vr’era are not simple illusions? Aret’vir’ramn and ramn’tr’vr’era are as alike a feathers and scales.”

Nica could feel her brow furrowing and she tried to smooth her expression as she reached for a bottle of water. Aret’vir’ramn? The words were unfamiliar to her and she wasn’t sure what Naj was referring to. He was clearly following a train of thought though.

Not simple illusions… She didn’t understand. It made her uneasy and a little annoyed, but she tried to let the emotions go rather than dwelling on them. They wouldn’t help her figure this out.

I’m not sure what aret’vir’ramn references, so I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean.”

Naj stared, confused at her confusion. He hadn’t realized she didn’t speak pri’mn as a native tongue– she certainly seemed fluent enough.

Forgive my mistake. I didn’t realize. The aret’ramn are magic dances? And virar, to see?”

She was agitated, and he most certainly didn’t want to patronize her, but if she didn’t understand…

She took a long breath and picked her stew back up. At least they were both confused now. “I understand what the pieces mean, simply not what the string is referring to… It isn’t a term I’ve heard used.”

Damn. He had tried so hard not to offend. “ei’meht’a, eija. Forgive me. I’m not sure how else to explain. I had assumed you were familiar with the branch of dances pertaining to spellwork and the calling of power– I was taught they are called the aret’ramn. Is that no longer so?”

Her eyebrows rose as she thought that over. “Yes… And no.”

She frowned, putting down the bite of stew she’d been about to eat. “Many of the dances that might have involved magic are simply referred to by their elemental name now. The word for magic itself is rarely if ever used, so as not to draw too much attention to it when speaking.”

Oh.”

It made a good deal of sense, and it simply underscored to him just how much time had passed. Possessing a magic was almost required to claim most birthrights, but then, most of those kingdoms were gone now anyways. Melancholy settled over him, bowing his shoulders. He was… homesick. He hadn’t been homesick in very, very long time.

Nica didn’t understand him at all. How had he missed the persecution of the magic users? If he remembered a time when magic was freely spoken of…

But she did understand being sad and she couldn’t help but reach out a hand to squeeze his shoulder.

He leaned into her touch, then straightened his shoulders when he realized what he’d done.

I am alright. My mind is still prone to wandering, it seems. Forgive me.”

She nodded, drawing back to her bowl. “It’s perfectly understandable, you don’t need to apologize.”

“It is not so bad, when I don’t feel so empty–” His words cut off in a fervently whispered swear. “I am a fool. A fool that cannot hold a thought for more than a moment. I was trying to assess what I can safely teach you.”

I think you were explaining what you were referencing with the two different terms. From what little I understood, an illusion dance is merely a type of magic dance.”

She’d admit, his inability to hold onto what he had been thinking did make her feel better. At least more equal in the conversation. Though Nica was curious what he meant by safely teach her. All he’d taught her so far was that meditation.

He nodded, settling into a cross-legged position. It helped him think. “That is correct. Areta can be translated to mean “calling forth” or “summon” as much as “magic”. It simply references organizing what is already there. In a way, our meditation this morning was an aret. We took the power raised by dancing and channeled it into specific forms.”

vr’era, shadows, belong to the realm outside of existence. Era is the il’li pair to Are. So to dance with your eye to the void, ramn’tr’vr’era, is to pull from the nothing.

Nica nodded, still not seeing where the misunderstanding was stemming from. “An illusion dance.”

zt– No, that is not it. Where did creation first come from? Are came from Era, and so do vr’era. And s’era, and chim’era, and so on. Everything that Is comes from Nothing, and with the extra power I helped you harness, you were able to cross the barrier from ideas into being.”

Eyebrows high, she finally set aside her bowl. Her fingers almost reached for her water, rising to rub her temple instead. “Are you trying to say that I literally danced the illusions into existing? That isn’t possible.”

“Yes! That is it exactly.”

A triumphant smile ghosted across his face, eaten almost immediately by a frown at her negation. “You stood with me beneath a rainstorm of your own making, and you tell me it did not happen?”

“I-” She frowned rubbing her head harder. It did nothing to help the headache forming. “I don’t remember a rainstorm. I remember it being my intent, but a real rainstorm would have soaked the stage…”

She closed her eyes, but the harder she reached for the distinction, the more vague the thought became and the more her head throbbed.

This was a mistake. They were fighting, both growing more unhappy by the moment, and getting no where.

“I have told you what happened. I cannot tell you otherwise. If you would find your eijye’s word more trustworthy than mine, by all means, let us go ask him.”

Without her eyes, his hurt was all the more obvious. She sighed, fingers running through her hair as she looked up.

“I don’t – I don’t know what happened.” Her voice softened. “But that sort of power – I’ve never heard of someone able to do that. It’s a legend and if anyone could do it, the ability was lost centuries ago. I just don’t believe I’m capable of it.”

She was quiet at the end, looking away. Her frustration had spoken more than she’d meant to and while she didn’t regret it exactly, she needed to stop speaking before more was said.

He let a ripple of red scales cover his torso, both as a visual aide and for the comfort, “I assure you, that power is very real, and I watched you call it, and kept you from falling to it.” he whispered.

Nica watched him with a sideways glance. Abruptly, her muscles let go of the tension they’d been accruing and she reached for the water. This was absurd.

She was sounding like Ariella, declaring absolutes. He was right, red cobras were also supposed to be little more than legend. And if he understood what had happened… Then he could help her be more careful.

“Thank you for that.” Nica offered him a small smile. “I owe you.”

He stiffened at that, pulling back with wide eyes. “You owe me nothing. You are my eija.”

“I’d also like to be your friend.” Her smile widened, amused slightly by his reaction. That was a term she’d scarce heard, so few used it anymore. “You can relax, Naj, at least a bit – no one’s keeping score.”

She stretched one wing, working a taunt muscle looser. “I just realized I hadn’t thanked you.”

“Oh.”

He was saying that so often lately. But this nest he found himself in, so familiar but so vastly different… He couldn’t keep up.

But he understood friendship, and he understood gratitude, so he’d start from there.

Are’era. All is as it should be.”

He gave her a warm smile and let his scales melt back into his skin.

“As your friend, then, may I teach you how to fill what has been taken?”

“That… Would be welcome.” Nica stretched her wings high, feeling the exhaustion creeping in at the edges. Despite the long sleep, she was still worn out. At least the headache was fading.

Interlude: Dreams in the Desert, part 3

There was always fire burning in the big pit in the middle of the rei’sumae, no matter how hot it was outside. Even if it was a simple bed of coals, buried under a fine layer of ash, the fire was never allowed to completely burn out.

He sat before the pit, little face screwed up in concentration. He could feel the fire beneath the ashes, but he had no idea how to call it. It was fire. It didn’t listen. It didn’t come bounding gleefully into the room when you whistled, didn’t alight on an arm held out to the sky, didn’t beg for fish scraps when it followed you to the river. It was fire.

And yet, his mother said this was his lesson for the day. Call the fire. She sat at the far end of the long room, calmly working at her loom, seeming to ignore him. He knew better—den’Shelena saw everything. Like the great eye of Dareiya herself, mother’s namesake, the moon saw day and night alike, in darkness and light. Nothing was hidden from her.

But the fire remained hidden from him. He wanted to cry. Wanted to yell at the fire, to kick and rage and command it to rise, as he’d learned to command his scales. Was that the trick to it? Did he need to touch his serpent self?

Tentatively, he let a ripple of pale scales slide over his hand. His mother coughed, and he jerked back, tucking his hand guiltily behind him. But she kept weaving, picking up a shuttle of crimson thread, and he turned back to the fire. His hand was sheathed in red scales now, and when his mother remained silent, he reached out and brushed the ashes from the coals.

Mother had taught him to be very, very careful of his manners.

All growing up, hours in the long house had been spent practicing greetings and gestures, the languages of their neighbors, along with the dances and magics and stories of their own people. He felt confident he could handle anything, even with his adult’s wrappings still unfinished on his mother’s loom. Surely it was long enough by now?

But even without the ceremonial garment, his parents had agreed that he should travel with his father’s group to the h’somu Danhkkhna. It was probably better this way, actually, because dressed in the wrappings of a child, his mistakes could be more easily forgiven—Oh yes, overhearing that little bit of conversation had done wonders for his meditation, practicing to clamp his aura down tight so as not to offend their avian neighbors with his emotions.

And what of their offense to him, hmm? Why should he have to pretend to be something he was not, cut away a part of him so precious, so as not to be seen as improper? What exactly was proper about pretending not to be moved by the world around him? Mother said it would be a different story if they were coming to the longhouse—but of course, that would never happen. If a leh’Danhkkhna’ra came here, it would be a serpent member of their ranks. And even that was unlikely—why visit a small village on the borders of leshkan and lefu holdings, instead of visiting their respective strongholds?

And yet lah’Seth was expected to make the journey to the h’somu. And his son was expected to come with him.

But we don’t even want to be a kingdom, he’d complained to this mother. Why do we have to act like one?

Because we want the right not to be a kingdom, she’d answered, and left the longhouse without another word.

She wouldn’t return for another three days. And by then, he was finally emptied of everything.

Hannah was a piece of the sunlight itself.

Her mother, h’eija of the priesthood was even more radiant, shining with a light that came from within, but Hannah was still young enough that she merely glowed with power, rather than blazed.

Her golden wings had been the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

Standing behind her mother’s seat, an intricately carved stool with no back that let her wings spread wide behind her, Hannah was almost lost in the golden haze. She held herself so perfectly straight and still, he had wondered if she were part of the carvings. Though, honestly, he’d wondered that about everyone in the room. They could be standing in audience before an assembly of statues, cold jewels and precious metals wrought into the image of living beings, but completely devoid of life.

Then Hannah had shifted, ever so slightly, to get a better look at their party.

He wouldn’t have noticed it, except for the small flash of light as her mother’s blaze reflected off a razor-edged feather in Hannah’s wing. He told her this as they lunched on the balcony, after the formal introductions were over. She’d been dying to know what had draw his attention to her, over all the glittering throng of the priesthood. She’d stood perfectly patient throughout the rest of the audience, and even kept up the image of polite but detached interest through most of lunch. But finally, her curiosity got the better of her, and it had colored her aura with the slightest of tint. In a serpent, it would have gone completely unnoticed. But it was the first inkling of emotion he’d gotten off of any of these cold, beautiful people, and he’d pounced on it without a thought.

He’d apologized profusely, but that slip had allowed Hannah to finally breathe, and for the rest of the afternoon, they’d talked quietly and still politely about each others peoples, but he had finally felt like he was talking to another living person, and it had done much to put him at ease.

He thought of the little golden girl for weeks afterwards, a million questions he’d wished he’d been brave enough ask niggling at him in the night. Don’t you get lonely, locked in your own skin like that? What’s it like, being groomed to rule but not knowing for a certainty that it will be your duty? How do you work so closely with serpents and not laugh or cry or yell like they do? Why had our parents talked of allegiances, and fealties, and duties?

Are we going to be enemies some day?

Bird passed him another stone, and he hurled it violently into the river. It didn’t skip lightly, as all of Bird’s had, and he didn’t care. He hadn’t wanted to play this stupid game in the first place. Bird sighed and heaved to his feet, popping his back with a stretch.

“Alright, rei’shkan, let’s have it. You’ve taken enough of your rage out on the river. Time to talk.”

He scowled and thought about throwing himself in the river, but he knew Bird would never let him hear the end of it if he had to half-drown himself saving his best friend.

“I don’t want any of it, Bird. You know that.”

“Aaand?”

That man had no sympathy. And he had to admit, Bird was fully a man now. Sometime over the summer, when he had been in the mountains, his friend had grown up without him. Why he had had to go and Bird had been allowed to stay, he didn’t understand. Bird’s second form actually bore the mark of the king cobra. Who cared that he himself was technically closer to the royal line? Who cared about royalty this far out into the woods anyways? The fact that Bird still called him simply rei’shkan, cobra, was probably the only reason he hadn’t slipped his guard and cousin and went off to brood on his own. reijye Xane Kismeron lah’Seth’ra felt less like an actual name than it ever had, and more and more like the ropes he knew it to be. Whether harness or noose, he hadn’t yet decided.

Bird poked him in the back with the butt of his spear, earning his lanky cousin a growl. Bird only met it with a snort.

“Brooding’s done now, unless you want to go to be the h’somu and join the priesthood. I’m sure they could use another savage to watch over their little hatchlings.”

With the fluid grace and alarming speed of his animal form, he sprang from the ground and punched Bird firmly in the face.

“Don’t talk about Hannah!”

Bird looked up the dirt, crooked grin on his face, blood trickling down his chin.

“Finally, he speaks.”

He didn’t answer, fine tremors running through his limbs. If he spoke now, he would burn his cousin alive. Or pound his head into the dirt until his brains spilled out. Or both. His cobra temper had finally had enough.

Bird pushed himself into a sitting position, but otherwise didn’t move. He wouldn’t be the one to start this fight. Any more than he’d already done with his words.

“If she’s that important to you, do something about it.”

Apparently, Bird didn’t feel he’d said his piece yet. It was all he could do to calm his own anger, so he remained silent. Bird took that for an invitation to continue.

“You’re of royal blood, lah’Seth’ra. It may not count for much among our fathers, but the h’somu thought enough of it to invite you over me. You’re eligible for the priesthood, the real priesthood, and not just some glorified baby sitting job.” After a slight pause to taste the air, he added, “You could work together, as equals. H’il’li.”

Finally, he was calmed enough to speak.

“You know I can’t, Bird. I don’t have a twin, like my father. The line is completely dependent on me. My threads haven’t been on Fate’s shuttle for a long time. I’m already locked by weave and weft. And what has been woven can’t be unthreaded without tearing apart all else, the good and the bad.”

And why must they be unraveled?” Bird said immediately, giving him no quarter. “It is you that hold to them, not the other way around. Let them go, and dance.”

It was so easy for his cousin. Bird would never be expected to lead, never be called on to sit on any serpent throne—the real one in Obsidian Castle or the just as heavy but never acknowledged one of his father’s people. Bird was the person who understood him the most, and even he couldn’t grasp the impossibility of his suggestion, his devil-may-care dare to dance freely. He couldn’t. He could not, so that his people could have the choice to. He gave the freedom they held so very dear, so that at least someone could dance. So that they could take that freedom for granted.

Suddenly, he was very, very angry. His rage flickered across his skin, lines of fire racing up and down his bare limbs and middle, his face. The fire burned all along his body, because it had no where else to go. He couldn’t direct it outward, at any effigy of his imprisonment. He couldn’t flame and rage at the cage that held him. So he burned, brighter and brighter like a falling star, spending its all in one last desperate dive to the earth.

When he’d burned himself out, Bird covered him with a blanket against the growing chill of the night, and climbed a tree to keep watch over their camp.

The fire raged across the white desert, re-charring trees that had already stood empty and black. Only the large dark rock by the lake, and the man sleeping in the hollow of it’s lee, remained untouched. The little campfire at Seth’s side went out, starved for oxygen as the larger inferno blazed on, razing the already desolate landscape.

Seth’s lips dried and cracked in the heat, and whatever other words he’d been about to say died. What tenuous grasp on wakefulness he’d had was stolen away, as the fire stole his breath, and he collapsed again into unconsciousness.

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.

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.

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.