Chapter 8, part 1

Dev glanced up as Nica approached, only giving her a brief smile before stating, “You look dead on your feet, hawk.”

“You look like you’re about to molt yourself.” It was perhaps a bit petty to point it out, but Dev had started it. Nica felt she looked fairly good considering that Ariella’s training had left her with a single night’s sleep over the course of the past week. She had an idea of what the demon’s excuse was – opening portals over large distances was hardly an easy feat. Let alone how the news of Az’s return was wearing on her.

Any sympathy Nica may have been feeling for the demon died with the sharp look Dev gave her. “It was a long night.”

Dev’s gaze slid past her to where Naj had disappeared behind the curtains. “How’s the new dancer?”

Nica responded with an elegant shrug as she leaned on the bar. “He’s adjusting, albeit slowly. His version of feral isn’t at all what I would have expected from a red cobra though.”

She gave Dev a sidelong glance that was more than a little disapproving. “I can’t believe you left him to Marie, by the way. The poor guy nearly passed out when she was using him as a pole for her rehearsal earlier.”

The demon looked amused as she wiped some imaginary dust from the counter, leaning in to Nica. Her lack of concern only served to annoy Nica. “Did he now… How interesting. Will he still be able to dance?”

“Of course.” Nica pressed her lips together to keep from making promises her pride may not be able to keep. “I suspect his style and mine will be quite suited to one another, but I’ve no inclination to push him. We’ll see if he’s up to dancing privately first, then whenever he may be ready, I’ll introduce him to the stage.”

Dev’s jaw tightened. Nica took a bit of pleasure in that, petty as she knew it was. It seemed the pair of them couldn’t help but needle the other sometimes. Kain had commented on it more than once and try as she might, she couldn’t quite bring herself to care. It was simply how their relationship worked. If Dev ever stopped taking digs at her, Nica would be left wondering if the demon was sick or up to something. That was bound to be more stressful than the working relationship they had going now.

Nica broke the building silence with the matter that had been niggling at her almost since the moment she’d gotten home. “I see Maleo still holds his old grudges.”

Dev gave her a look that wasn’t quite surprise, but close. “Mal? Now what’s the old bird done?”

“Nothing yet, but he was certainly working his way up to it. He was watching Marie and Naj dance when I got here.”


“The top balcony.” Nica turned to watch Dev take another swipe of the already clean counter.

The demon sighed. “Well, he wasn’t going to do much from all the way up there.”

“All the way up there is a mighty short flight, Dev.”

“We should be grateful he’s not a raptor then.”

Nica’s patience gave way first and her tone sharpened. “I won’t have him in this nest if he’s going to jeopardize Naj’s recovery.”

Finally, she had Dev’s full attention. “And what? You’re going to rescind the invitation of Asylum? Isn’t that a dangerous precedence to set? Ferdy is still sniffing around you know.”

Nica’s eyes narrowed at the implied threat. She didn’t care if it was coming directly from Dev or not. She was too tired to dance this dance today. “You brought him into this nest, Dev. Are you really going to justify it by claiming you were offering him asylum?”

The demon’s gaze fell as she returned to wiping the shiny surfaces around her. “My hire, my fire, is that what you’re saying?”

“I’m saying that you never gave me the real reason you accepted his application to this nest. He’s a zt-s’aehr-xaehr dancer, only passingly familiar with tech, and his personality has always clashed with those around him. So now I’m asking you, Dev – what does keeping him in this nest truly gain us?” Nica’s voice ended in a low hiss as she remembered that while their tones may keep their conversation private, their agitated auras would give away secrets of their own.

Well, her own agitated aura. Dev’s was pulled in strangely close, almost as if the demon were trying to hide it. She never bothered to pay enough attention to the subtle differences in the shapeshifter races, so was she just being overly cautious in trying to keep Nica from reading her aura, or was it something else?

“Let’s just say it’s bought us a manner of peace unto itself. Alright?”

Nica stared at the demon for several long moments. “From who?”

Dev raised an eyebrow, meeting one hard look with one of her own. “Don’t ask questions when you don’t want the answers, hawk. Just take this one for what it is.”

Nica forced herself to stand upright, trying to encourage her spine to loosen back up from its rigid posture. Her fingers tapped the counter, fingertips striking a dull beat as she choose her words carefully. “Fine, Devin. I won’t ask again, but if he jeopardizes anyone in this nest, I will not hesitate to protect them first and your machination second.”

Not trusting herself to speak further, Nica left the conversation to head downstairs.


Travis’s attention was entirely on the cord in his hand as he pushed through the curtain. It didn’t want to twist in order to loop back on itself and he couldn’t seem to get it –

And then he was falling over someone. The pair of them stumbled together down the three small stairs off the stage and Travis hit his knee to avoid falling completely.

He blinked at the guy next to him, then brightened. “Hey, new guy!”

Naj rolled and was back on his feet in an instant. His hiss and flash of fang turned into a sputtering cough as the wolf’s friendly aura washed over him. It was hard to stay on high alert in the face of such good will. Still, Naj would have to work on not startling so easily. Just the long day,. Such a long day.

“I’m sorry! You startled me- though I suppose I was the one in the way, wasn’t I?”

He realized he was babbling at the wolf’s wide-eyed look. Best to start over. “It’s Travis, right?”

Travis grinned, getting to his feet and scooping up the cord as he did so. “Yep! I’m Travis, general klutz and lighting guy.”

Naj gave his new compromise of a half-bow, knowing it was more or less only for his own benefit. “I am called Naj. Nica had mentioned you were the one to speak with if I wanted to learn more about the lighting work.”

“Did she?” He puffed up a bit, proud that Nica would recommend him for teaching someone else. He knew he was pretty handy with the stuff, but knowing she agreed always made it better.

He clapped Naj on the shoulder. “If you’re into it, I’d be down to show you whatever you like. Lighting really isn’t that hard.”

The last of his tension melted away under Travis’s hand. “I’d appreciate that. I feel vaguely in the way back here. I’d love a chance to help out without being too much a nuisance.”

“Oh yeah, getting out of the way is a specialty of mine.” He laughed as he finished winding the cord. “There’s always stuff to be done that involves corners or catwalks though.”

Travis moved further into the backstage area, looping the cord over a hook on one wall. “What sort of things are you into?”


Naj followed at a companionable distance, wanting to watch Travis work, but not wanting to crowd him. “I suppose it’s not much help to say ‘I have no idea’, but I really don’t. I have a good sense of balance, and excellent rhythm, but that’s not really what you’re asking, is it?”

Travis flashed him another grin. “Not really – though that kinda stuff will make you more useful on stage than me.”

“I meant if you had more interest in prop set up, lighting, working with sound… And if you’re still wanting something that makes you useful but keeps you off stage, the bar needs a hand on the weekends.” He shrugged. “At least, that’s what Dex says. I dunno, I stay clear of any area that involves that much glass.”

He nodded with every task Travis listed off, though he still wasn’t sure what would be the best use of his talents. Other than dancing, as Travis had said. All in good time. He still had much adjusting to do.

“I suppose the best place to start is with something where my inevitable mistakes will do the least harm.”

He realized that the wolf had finished his chore, and Naj suddenly felt bad for keeping him. “Don’t let me be a bother to you now. I’ll learn at your leisure, of course.”

“Sure, I figure if you’re into it, we could start with something tomorrow.” He hooked his thumb towards the downstairs door. “I was going to shower and grab food, you heading that way?”

a’par-” He shook his head, stopping himself with a small grin. “Thank you, I’d like that. On both counts, actually.”

“Cool!” Travis grinned back, waving to Naj as he headed downstairs. “My turn to hang with the new guy.”

As Travis headed downstairs, he called over his shoulder to Naj, “you want to get clean or fed first?”

Naj hurried after him, losing ground to the lanky wolf’s stride. “Whichever is the least trouble– and thank you again. I’m sure you weren’t looking for more work when you came back here to put everything away.”

“Psh. Friends aren’t work.” Travis glanced around the empty Great Room and kitchen, then glanced down at his hands. “Well, need to clean up anyway before eating, so shower it is!”

He grinned back at Naj as he headed towards the left hallway. “You already know where everything is? I figure someone’s given you a tour by now.”

He paused, not remembering much from the night before. Only that Marie and Nat’s room was in the other direction.

“Ah, not really, no. I’m sorry.”

His gaze lowered to the floor, but he quickly looked up again when Travis threw an arm around his shoulders. The wolf had come back for him. Naj didn’t know why, but that small gesture filled his chest with a bubble of joy.

Man, the new guy sure liked to apologize. He wondered if this was his version of pulling a Lena, hiding away behind super polite manners until he was ready to come out of his shell. He’d have to try to remember not to spook him, then.

Hey, no worries. This is only your first day after all. I’ll give you a tour of the fabulous left hallway—waaay more better than the right hallway. We have all the party animals. …though they do have the hot tub…”

As they turned down the left hall, Travis chattering about a million things Naj didn’t understand, he tried to remember what he did know about the layout. Someone had told him both hallways were more or less identical, right? But Travis clearly preferred the left one? Only one way to find out.

Previous: Chapter 7, part 3                                                       Next: Chapter 8, part 2


Character Bios: Dev

New Bio up, this time for everyone’s favorite demon, Dev! …If Az is your favorite demon, I’ve got nothing for ya (yet!). As always, you can find them under Miscellany, but I’ll also be sure to post them all as they go up.

Who should I do next? What sort of info would you like to see?

Interlude, chapters 4 to 5

Enter the hawk.

As she stepped through Dev’s portal, Nica closed her eyes against the sudden light. Compared to the dim corridors of Ariella’s nest, the roof of Asylum was disconcerting. Slowly she adjusted to the view, then indulged the urge to simply stare when the sun was no longer a shock to her vision.

It was much like she had left it. That shouldn’t have been a surprise, but somehow it was. She had always loved the rooftop gardens – the wards kept it pleasantly warm and the lush greenery always lent tranquility to her mind. Perhaps it was the reminder of the gardens she’d grown up with that made this such a special space to her. The reason hardly mattered in the end. It soothed the tumult in her heart, and she breathed deeply, enjoying the moment. Nica smiled when she saw that Kain had added a few more blackberry bushes to the berry garden and she thought she spied the elderberry bushes he’d been talking about adding before she’d left. Up here, two years only seemed to mean everything was a little fuller and lusher with the additional time to grow.

That smile faded slightly when the idyllic view was disrupted by a scowling demon. Nica forced the smile for another moment or two, then dropped it altogether. “Dev.”

The lanky demon stepped forward, arms folded across her chest. “Nica.”

When the demon offered no other comment, Nica sighed. “It’s a joy to see you too. I’ve really missed our heart to hearts.”

Dev snorted, shaking her head as she turned away, letting her gaze fall on a small patch of white flowers. At least Nica could be reassured that Dev was as uncomfortable with this reunion as she was. “Believe me, it wasn’t my first choice.”

“I know.” Just those two words held how tired she felt. So many emotions still ricocheted through her from Dev’s call. The relief of hearing everyone was fine and that they had a new serpent dancer had quickly given way to the excitement of returning home. And just as quickly, had turned to worry over the threat of Dev’s old master coming to call. They’d handled a demon together before, but… She’d pushed her doubts aside all that day, settling her affairs in Ariella’s nest. Now, stepping from sunset in one part of the world to sunrise in another, her doubts and excitement had mingled into a fine mire. She’d been gone for two years – what had changed? What hadn’t changed? Would the same dancers be there or would there be more than one new face? Would they welcome her back or resent her for leaving in the first place?

So many questions… And the answers waited downstairs. For the first time she could recall, she felt uncertainty at rejoining her nest. Was it even right to still think of it as hers?

Part of her wanted to leave now – to just have Dev reopen the portal and send her back. They could handle a new dancer, a new serpent without her… They’d handled the loss of one without her already.

Just the thought brought a sharp pang of guilt low in her chest.

It was mirrored by a twisting knot low in her stomach that reminded her of the real reason Dev had called her. Azriel.

She and Dev had handled one of his minions years ago when Asylum had still been just an idea developing. It had not been an easy fight, but they had managed it. The idea of Azriel himself showing up… It would take everything they had to protect the nest if even half of Dev’s stories were true.

Her shoulders straightened, her determination to keep the nest safe building on the rock in her stomach. She’d kept the Pack and the Den fights, the vampires and the human gangs away from her nest, she would do the same if Azriel came calling.

Nica turned when she realized she was staring at the garden, ignoring Dev for her own thoughts. “So you really think Azriel…”

She was alone on the rooftop. Apparently Dev had taken her silence for the end of their conversation. Something else that hadn’t changed. The familiar graze of annoyance was a comfort in itself.

Her gaze took in the gardens again, but her thoughts had ruined the tranquility. With a deep breath, she started downstairs.

Previous: Chapter 4 part 3                                                                                                                          Next: Chapter 5 part 1

Chapter 2, part 1

In which the cat eats the canary, and chokes on it.

Dev had only taken a few steps away from the door upstairs when Kain fell in beside her. She didn’t bother glancing at him, simply adjusted her pace to head for the resting room that she and Naj had occupied a little earlier.

As always, having him walk beside her sparked her annoyance. It was hard not to walk next to a man that stood over six and a half feet tall and not feel dwarfed, no matter that she was only a few inches shy of six-foot herself. Feeling small always made her feel childlike and vulnerable, something she abhorred.

It didn’t help that his smile always seemed so damned smug. It made it feel like how close he walked was deliberate, escalating how aggravated she felt with his presence. She felt like he was laughing at her most of the time.

It certainly didn’t help that he often chuckled for no discernible reason.

He followed her into the resting room, striding past her to flop dramatically onto the same couch she’d occupied earlier. One knee came up onto the cushion, an arm took one armrest and the other took most of the back. The sprawl did not help him look any smaller.

She scowled at him as she shut the door behind her. He didn’t bother with the lights, so neither would she. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t both see just fine in darkness thicker than this. Kain’s eyes caught the now dimmed backstage lighting, flashing with a predator’s reflective gleam. He blinked slowly, disappearing in the low light as he calmly waited for her to get on with it. Such a great, lazy cat. It was hard to believe that such indolence was actually left in charge of running the nest most of the time.

He was still dressed in the flowing purple pants that was part of one of his tribal costumes. The rich color popped against the near true black of his skin, the brightness of the fabric making his complexion seem darker by comparison. A grin split his lips, black eyes alight with amusement.

She was a little surprised that he hadn’t flashed spots at her over her thinking him a lazy cat. His grin widened. Dev folded her arms over her chest in defense. While she could shut him out of her thoughts completely, it was an effort of energy she didn’t like having to spend.

“We have a new dancer.”

The grin didn’t vanish, as much as she’d hoped she had caught him off guard. He eyed her from where he lay, waiting for the punchline. “So I heard.”

“I’m sure you did. He’s a serpent.”

“Mhmm…” He tone took on a bored note, his gaze scanning the floor as if it were interesting.

Dev scowled. “A red cobra even.”

That caught his attention. It was simply in the way his breath paused, his eyes staring at a fixed point. He sat up, attention finally coming back to her.

This time she felt the satisfaction that she’d been seeking as his grin began to fade. “Cobra? You’re certain he’s not just a viper?”

She made a face at him. “I’ll be sorely dismayed if the new dancer is a liar on top of being feral – he showed red scale and named himself cobra.”

“Which reminds me – does the name Naja Pallida ring a bell with you? Or the word Aezir?” Anyone else and she wouldn’t have bothered asking, but Kain was ancient and full of random tidbits that sometimes came in handy.

Now was clearly one of the times she could be glad she suffered the lazy cat. He swung his leg off the couch, fingers lacing as he leaned forward.

“Aezir? What about him?” His expression was as dark and serious as she ever saw it. Which was intriguing to say the least.

“He mentioned the name when he was introducing himself in the old tongue, but I barely kept up with it when it was still pertinent. All I caught was his name and this… Aezir. It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it at the time.”

Kain made a rude sound low in his throat. “I would expect a demon to recognize the name of one of the Ahn’Ki Dai’s more prominent summoners.”

Whatever joy she’d been taking from their conversation fled. She didn’t like it when Kain gained the upper hand in their discussions, but this blindside was a bit much, even for him. It was true though. Now that he’d named the organization, she could remember hearing other demons whisper the name of a summoner that always seemed to survive, century after century, in a profession where lifetimes were often measured in decades.

“Dai.” Her jaw worked as she suddenly thought harder about who – or what – she had just let into the nest. “That organization was destroyed centuries ago.”

“But Dai themselves are like cockroaches, someone always survives.” Kain’s tone held disgust and she briefly wondered what experience he’d had with the meddlers. The curiosity faded as quickly as it came.

“The serpents they tamed were little more than tools – you really think one survived its master?”

Kain hummed, but didn’t divulge whatever thought that sparked. She frowned at him. “Or do you think that means this Aezir is still alive and lurking nearby? How much of a threat is this Naj?”

The great cat’s eyes fell to the floor again. She waited.

Finally he sighed, the sound coming as if from the earth itself as his shoulders heaved. “I don’t think Aezir is a problem – nor do I think this serpent – Naj, you called him? – is a threat. He made an oath and it was not one a serpent would make lightly.”

Dev’s frown deepened. The oath that Naj had made earlier tonight? She couldn’t tell how much was eavesdropping from the cat and how much was just pulling it from her thoughts. Neither option sat well with her, but if he said the serpent wasn’t a threat… Well, he’d put more into this nest than she had.

“So you think it’s a coincidence that a summoner’s tool shows up to join the nest the same night that Az sends me the message that he’ll see me soon?”

The silence seemed to grow impossibly deep. If she hadn’t felt his presence across the darkened room, she might have wondered if she’d scared him off.

“He’s free?” Kain’s voice was soft and she could feel the tightness begin at the corner of her eyes.

“He shouldn’t be – his… punishment should have lasted another fifty years.” For some reason, she didn’t want to look at him as she admitted it. It wouldn’t make that fact more or less true. It didn’t make it any easier to say either. She felt the first wash of fear slip down her spine.

“But he is.” Kain sounded as unhappy about it as she was – something she knew wasn’t possible. He’d never been at Az’s tender mercies at all, let alone for centuries as she had… She shook her head abruptly and stood, turning on the spot to cross her arms over her chest defensively.

The action didn’t make her feel any better either. Nothing would touch that pit of ice Az had left in her stomach. Maybe when she saw him again he would make it a reality…

“Stop, Dev. There’s no point in torturing yourself before he makes his move – you’ve said it before, his attention span is worse than a child filled with sugar. It may be another century before he remembers you’re here again.”

She sighed, the force of his voice giving her something else to focus on. Her response was hushed. “I know.”

“Then focus on what we can do right now. There’s a new dancer.” He laughed, a harsh bark that drew her gaze up to see him shake his head. He spread his hands wide, but she didn’t see the point of the gesture. “Even if he was Dai, he’s a dancer now. The organization is dead and we all have skeletons in our closets, Dev.”

Dev made a face, but before she could counter him, he had stood. Kain stepped forward, a smile beginning to twitch at his lips. Nothing kept him somber for long. “Not to mention – You’re calling Nica home.”

“The thought had crossed my mind.” Despite it being her idea, she was less than thrilled with the actual prospect of it.

“More than crossed – you’ve already decided to tell her there’s a serpent in the nest again.” He laughed again, this time letting it rumble around in his wide chest. “You’ll have to do better than that. When my hawklet runs, she doesn’t do it by halves. A lost, cold serpent will do nicely though, especially if you pair it with a possible threat to the nest. Pull at enough of her responsible, protective strings and she’ll have no choice but to fly home.”

Dev gave him a dubious look. “You really think she hasn’t written us off completely? It’s been two years, Kain, and she hasn’t looked back once.”

That sobered his humor and he sighed, relaxing back against the wall. He shook his head, giving her a dubious look. “If you truly think she hasn’t looked back, then you haven’t learned a thing about her, Dev. She’ll have spent every waking moment rethinking herself and second guessing her decision and wondering how everyone is doing without her micromanaging. Give her a reason to come home and she’ll jump at the chance.”

“She’s been free to come home since she left, but I don’t see her.”

“True, she’s almost as prideful as you.” She glanced up in time to see a brief smile reappear on his lips. He curled a hand as he continued. “She’ll feel she’s made a mistake, and that will eat at her. This frees her of the awkward, absentee return and makes it into a responsibility that she cannot ignore.”

“You have a lot of faith in someone who abandoned her duties in your lap at our darkest point.” She didn’t hide the scorn she felt. She never did with Kain. There was really no point, when he would know exactly what she was thinking anyway.

“And you have too little.” He sighed, letting a bit of his disappointment show. “You still don’t understand her, even after all these years of running Asylum together. She feels directly responsible, Dev. For her, that is a burden too heavy to bear.”

She could practically hear him bite back whatever he’d been about to say. Dev debated asking, but it was of so little importance, she let it go instead. She hated it when the cat was cryptic, and indulging him only encouraged that behavior.

Instead, she sighed heavily. “Fine. She had her reasons, we’ll agree to disagree on whether they’re legitimate or not. What matters is that you think I should tell her about Az’s threat – you really think that will seal the deal on her return?”

Hell knew she would have run in the opposite direction if she thought there was a corner on Earth that could hide her from Azriel.

“I think if you pair it with the promise of rehabilitating a serpent, it’s foolproof. Threat and reward, Dev.” He smiled at her obvious disgust.

“I’ll never understand why everyone loves serpents – don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the creatures, but they’re not that fascinating.”

Kain chuckled. “But they are the most familiar to Nica. Raised by them, taught by them… That is where she feels most comfortable. Why do you think she ran to Ariella’s nest when she needed comfort?”

“And Marie?”

“Do you really care?” A grin spread across his face as he teased her.

A moment’s hesitation and she shrugged. “Not really.”

“That’s what I thought.”

Previous: Chapter 1 part 4                                                                                                                    Next: Chapter 2 part 2

Chapter 1, part 4

In which dancers show their colors, and Maleo shows his ass.

They stopped just beyond the hallway entrance and a few dancers looked up with interest, pausing in what they were doing to await introductions.

“This is Naj, a serpent who’ll be dancing with us for a while. Naj, I’d like to introduce a few of my dancers – Gwendolyn,” a tall, lithe blonde nodded in his direction as she moved towards the hallway opposite from them, her pale shoulder flashing tawny tiger stripes before she slinked from view.

“Travis,” a tanned youth at the counter grinned around the slice of pizza he was stuffing into his mouth. His broad shoulders shrugged sheepishly before dark grey fur rippled across his muscled arms. He grinned, but thankfully, didn’t try to speak.

“Maleo,” she gestured to a golden skinned man on the stairs who scowled at Naj as black feathers rose from his head in a warning, making his dark hair stand on end with their motion.

Naj didn’t know what to make of the dancers’ greetings. He was elated to see the old practice of declaring the colors of their second skins, but he still hadn’t quite recovered from the burn out of opening his aura earlier, and without that cue to guide him… The tigress’s quick retreat and the avian’s obvious annoyance gave him pause. The wolf seemed open enough, but it wasn’t wise to interrupt a wolf who was eating… Naj fell back, the first doubt creeping into his heart. But Dev drew his attention along to a pair of dancers curled up together on the couch, who smiled and were much warmer.

“Natalia,” a dark skinned brunette lounging on the farthest couch raised her head and her hand, which lightened in places revealing the odd splotchy coloration of an African wild dog, “and in her lap is Marie.” The redhead cuddling a fur to her chest rolled off Natalia’s lap to bound across the room to them. As she moved, the fur she’d been cradling swayed behind her, revealing the large fluffy tail of a red fox. She was petite, standing just over five foot, with a trim frame. Her unruly red hair fell past her shoulders and the amber eyes of her animal form gazed up at Naj with a friendly grin. She held out her hand to him, the other hand tucking behind her back in a show of restraint.

She hadn’t missed Dev’s warning look and had adjusted her greeting accordingly.

“I’m Marie, happy to meet you. If you ever need good warm cuddles, I’m your girl.” She shrugged a shoulder as her grin widened to wrinkle her nose. “My temp runs higher than most, so I’m kinda the unofficial group space heater.”

Naj took the tiny fox’s outstretched hand by the wrist, only pausing a moment to marvel at how hot her skin was. He touched her palm to his heart, an old gesture of harmlessness and yielding. Warmth spread across his chest, and he released her with a wistful sigh. Naj took a step back, to include the whole room. He pressed a red-scaled fist to his chest, then gave a small bow to the people who were opening their home to him.

“Li’Daea’mn yt ki’n, ÿ’arieÿ’ehna.”

May the Goddess’s blessings sing to your souls.

Mal gave him a disgusted look as Marie released a high pitched noise and launched herself at the serpent as he stood up out of the bow. Dev rolled her eyes and stepped back. She’d known the girl wouldn’t be able to contain herself for long. From the other side of the room, Natalia’s rich laugh grew closer as she stood to join them.

Marie wrapped her arms around Naj’s neck, cuddling into him even as her feet threatened to leave the ground with their height difference. Her voice continued, though dropping a bit in pitch as she murmured at him. The exact words were lost to her face buried in his neck, but the idea of being welcomed and being glad he was here was clear.

Naj froze, back almost straightened, but not quite. Once he felt the small woman’s feet leave the ground, he’d been unsure of what to do. But she seemed happy enough to be there, and her welcoming words reassured him as her heat washed over him. He let his knees soften and sunk gracefully into a kneeling position, so that they were closer to face to face. He could feel the line of her body, heat spilling around her to fill the space between them. Such a warm welcome. He chuckled softly at his own cleverness and said the words out loud to his diminutive welcome wagon.

A renewed, but quieter squeal of delight devolved into a giggle at his words. She let her feet take most of her body weight again and leaned back a bit when she felt Nat move closer.

Dev touched Naj’s shoulder briefly to get his attention. “There are a few things I still need to take care of, but if you need anything, feel free to ask.” After she glanced at Natalia, she added, “Nat and Marie can help you finish settling in.”

His eyes found her eyes slowly, mind already retreating from the press of so much goings on. The warmth of the little fox called to his serpent like a sunning rock, and the serpent mind had had quite enough, and was ready to sleep since they’d eaten. Lost in the fox’s embrace, it would be so very easy to sleep…

He shook his head, bringing himself back. Dev was speaking. She was leaving. Her eyes moved to the other woman and Naj followed. Natalia was a darker, taller copy of the fox that held him, dark hair loose in an equally glorious mane, blending into her rich skin, except for the golden highlights in the front that drew his gaze to her soft eyes. Naj nodded to her slowly, though he couldn’t remember why he had needed to nod in the first place…

Sure that Naj was being left in Natalia’s capable hands and knowing she would keep Marie from overwhelming him, Dev turned to head back upstairs. As she passed Maleo though, she paused. When he didn’t look away from the spectacle of the fox and the serpent, she touched his shoulder hard enough that he had to continue the turn and look at her. It was a grudging glance and she didn’t like that he didn’t bother hiding his distaste.

“Behave yourself. I won’t have any fighting down here, especially not with the new serpent.” Her voice was quiet, deliberately pitched to keep those further downstairs from hearing her warning.

Mal didn’t bother looking ashamed that she’d noticed. He took a breath and shuddered, letting his feathers settle back into place along his scalp and neck. His golden eyes flicked back to the scene below them.

“I mean it, Mal. If your jealousy is going to be an issue, find somewhere else to sleep tonight.”

He pressed his thin lips together, the lack of color making it seem as if they’d vanished. When he answered, his voice was tight and low with effort. “I know the rules.”

Dev leaned closer, nearly hissing in his ear. “I know you do, but that didn’t stop you from harassing Jax. This one has enough to deal with without adding your childishness to it.”

Warning issued, she continued upstairs, satisfied that he would listen. There was a brief moment of voices murmuring down from backstage, and then all was quiet again.

Previous: Chapter 1 part 3                                                                                                               Next: Chapter 2 part 1

Chapter 1, part 3

In which Naj is shown around, and daily life is explained.

Dev glanced at the door that would lead to the backstage area and the dancers therein. At the thought, she could almost feel the chaos of the space vibrating through the door. With the show ongoing, the likelihood of anyone taking the time to investigate the stranger with her was low. But the likelihood of them all being manic on performance energy was high. She pursed her lips, briefly wondering if she shouldn’t just leave the new serpent here until things had quieted downstairs. But she didn’t want to leave him alone yet either. If he was a recovering feral, and slipped into his magic, getting him to return could be problematic. Damned if you do, damned if you—She chuckled to herself at the inadvertent witticism, then she reached for the door. To waylay the questioning glance he gave her, she added, “Backstage will be chaotic right now and introducing a new arrival would only make it worse. We’ll keep the tour up here brief and focus on the downstairs living area until the performance is actually over.” She reached out and patted his arm, in what she hoped was a reassuring way. It was always so much harder to keep up a stage persona with serpents and other aura-sensitive races. Had to smile inside and out.

Heat flooded through him, radiating from her hand on his arm. He could hear the life pump through her, feel her vitality pulse off her body. After so many centuries in the cold company of the Dai, surrounded by ghosts with their every thought and emotions locked down… Even if her warmth was from annoyance, it was the sweetest thing, to be touched by someone alive, someone capable of showing signs of anger, passion, sorrow. He almost missed the fact that she was cautioning him, her words lost to the feeling of her emotions.

The vibrancy of this nest would take some adjusting to, certainly, but he was looking forward to the challenge of it. If drowning in her annoyance had thrilled him, well – he couldn’t imagine how much sweeter being caught up in a nestmate’s joy might be.

He grinned at her, excitement at the prospect getting the better of him.

“I think I should like to meet these enthusiastic dancers.”

“All in good time.”

Great. He was dreamy and doey eyed already. The sooner he was tucked safely downstairs behind the wards, the better. If he got overwhelmed and shifted, she’d rather he do it out of sight.

As they moved down the hallway, Dev paused by a door on the right. “This leads back out to the main floor. The door we came in to enter the resting room from the main floor is usually kept locked, this will be the door to use when you need access to the club proper or the bar.”

She kept walking, pausing again when she reached the end of the hallway. From here, they could see most of the backstage area, full of clothing racks, random stage props, and people milling about in colorful clothing. A few glanced their way, but Dev shook her head and they all returned to what they were originally doing.

“The curtains on the right are the entrances to the stage itself. To the left you’ll find various dressing rooms and bathrooms. If you need privacy for whatever reason, I suggest using the room we just left.”

Naj nodded, pleased to see the space so open and full of life. Privacy was almost a foreign concept to serpent-kin; there was little point to hiding what everyone could plainly taste in your emotions. The fact that these dancers seemed just as open, despite none of them being serpent, made Naj feel more at home already.

He sipped at the emotional auras that brushed him as they passed, feeling the expected blend of curiosity, excitement, and distraction humming against his skin. He relaxed his own aura, letting it billow around him in a more naturally serpent way. It left him feeling light-headed and disconnected from himself, but grounded more firmly in the nest as a whole. Every dancer shone like a brilliant beacon, burning with ki’n. Echoes of the past layered on themselves in a mad riot– performances, rehearsals, fights and trysts, nervousness, failures, triumphs and celebrations all shouting at him, and all of that was nothing compared to the dancers themselves. Taking in that much at once was enough to leave his senses dazed, like staring too long into the sun. Immediately, his aura clamped back down against his skin, clinging to him like a frightened child.

It had only been for a moment, but in that moment, he felt like himself again.

Dev was moving on, harder to pick out now that he couldn’t follow her aura among the rest. Relying on eyes alone, he would quickly lose her in this mad dervish of activity, so even though he was still reeling, he urged himself forward to keep on her heels.

During a lull in the backstage action, she moved them straight across the bustling room to another door on the far side. This door had a strange design engraved above the doorknob and as she touched the knob, the design warmed under her free hand.

“Security here is taken very seriously. This symbol is connected to a ward that only allows specified people downstairs.” She didn’t turn to look at him as she spoke, keeping her attention on the door. It took little effort for her to sweep through his aura, letting his energy mark the symbol. “Now it will recognize you as someone who belongs downstairs. It’s meant to keep outside influences out of the most private of spaces here.”

Seth jerked back from the feel of her magic brushing over their aura, but relaxed into it when it became clear the demon wasn’t reading what she was sampling. It was merely an identifying tag. Naj was still headblind from his little experiment backstage, so Seth felt confident he wouldn’t notice as Seth slipped a piece of his own aura along with Naj’s. Now there would be no trouble getting downstairs later. With any luck, it would be a moot point, but better safe than sorry.

The door opened to reveal a short flight of stairs, lit dimly by small wall lights. Dev descended the stairs first, trusting Naj would follow. At the bottom, the steps opened into a large room, split partway back by a counter and bar stools. The front two thirds of the room were defined by large overstuffed sofas and cushions strewn about the floor. Blankets were tossed haphazardly in a few places. There was a large TV and shelves filled with movies and books to either side. A few instruments revealed that someone had clearly been playing before the night’s performances.

“This is the Great Room, and the kitchen just beyond it. A lot of free time is spent in this space, during meals or simply lounging – they always seem to be watching something when I come down here.”

The back third of the room held an open kitchen, punctuated by a large kitchen table and seating for ten. Behind the table were a sizable refrigerator and separate freezer unit. Dev was exasperated to see the messy remnants of the pizza that they’d clearly ordered from Roman’s earlier. The evidence had been left splayed over half the kitchen bar. It wasn’t normally so unkempt when she came down here.

Naj peered about the space, hardly recognizing anything he saw there. His last clear memories were of a time when horse and buggy and gas light were the norm, but he had hints and pieces of the times changing around him. He remembered automobiles, distantly, and radio, but nothing in the Great Room was familiar to him, save the cushions on the floor and various musical instruments scattered about the room. Those were a comfort to him. The more things changed, the more some things stayed the same. Right down the chaotic state the dancers had left their home in, the implements of musical joy laying just where they had been left, in easy reach to be used as the mood struck.

Naj wrinkled his nose at the smell of food and sweat, stronger to him now that his sense of aura was still recovering from upstairs. The mess in the kitchen offended his sense of discipline, but often most dancers used their home spaces to escape the rigid control of their training. Naj knew he was the odd man out, and simply did his best to ignore the way untidiness made his skin itch.

Dev continued her running commentary as they moved further into the space, which was empty of anyone but the pair of them. Naj looked about for signs of anyone – the space clearly looked lived in, but it was just as clear that there was no one down here now. Most likely, they were all busy upstairs. There’d certainly been enough people when they’d made their way through the backstage, but it was unusual for a nest to be so small, wasn’t it? Just another sign the times had changed, he supposed.

As she moved into the room, she explained that for tonight’s show, everyone was upstairs working in some form or fashion. She expected her dancers to be able to help keep everything running – whether it was working the lights, the music, the bar, the floor, or just by dancing on stage. Everyone contributed in some way every night. As she eyed the messy bar counter, she shook her head. “Everyone is also expected to help with the cleaning – especially down here. Since the ward is keyed to aura signatures, only dancers are allowed down here in the first place, which means no maid service.”

The last was spoken in dry humor.

Naj listened as she detailed various chores that meant little to him. He assumed he would learn in time. He liked that he would be expected to help out–the more he was held accountable for, the better. It would help him stay on task, give him a meaningful way to measure out the days.

He moved further into the large room, approaching the kitchen bar that had drawn Dev’s ire. A large cardboard box with some kind of half-eaten circular bread sat on the counter. He tried to tidy it, both wanting to help and wanting to ease the itch, but the lid refused to close. The top was emblazoned with a large Roman coin, cut into eight pieces at the bread inside had been. It smelled of tomatoes and herbs and spices, and Naj’s belly rumbled softly.

At the gentle rumble, Dev turned back to find Naj fussing with the pizza box. It derailed whatever she’d been about to say and she moved towards him with a quizzical look. “However, don’t feel you have to clean up everyone else’s mess. If you’re hungry, feel free to grab a slice, but otherwise, there’s more to see down the hall.”

He jumped at her look, feeling guilty for some reason. But when she offered him food, he took it, not wanting to be rude. And he was hungry besides. He couldn’t remember when he’d last eaten, and if he wanted to wean himself off magic, he’d have to make sure to tend to his physical needs in the old fashioned ways, lest he fall back on old habits.

The bread was crispy but soft, and a red sauce leaked out from under the cheese melted on top. He licked his fingers, enjoying the tang of the tomato and the spice notes. It went well with the slight sweetness of the bread, and he finished it all quickly.

“Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“Help yourself.”

Dev smiled again when he took another slice, then fixed the box so it closed. “As far as the kitchen goes, anything stocked is fair game. You’re free to cook for yourself whenever, there’s no set meals. However, a few of the dancers like to cook, so it isn’t uncommon to find someone already making a large meal at any given time.”

To either side of the large room were open archways. Dev moved as she talked, leading him down the one on their left, closest to the stairwell. It opened into a very long hallway marked with doors at equal intervals on either side. Most of the doors were open and they could glimpse inside as they passed by. No two looked alike.

“These are all bedrooms. You’ll figure out quickly if a room is claimed, but there should be several open. There are a multitude of different bedding options available and if none of these catch your interest, we can always find something that will.”

They passed one room that held a hammock suspended in one corner and feathers were strung from the ceiling. Another was empty, save for a small daybed. Still another had a corner filled with blankets and pillows in a cozy mound, the walls full of colorful pieces of paper. A few doors were closed, one of which was nearly hidden behind a crimson tapestry. A few more rooms looked to be empty, with either different types of beds or clusters of cushions.

He was pleased to see so many different options filling the rooms. He made note of a room that was empty save for a pile of blankets. He would settle there, or somewhere else out of the way. He didn’t want to impose, and he’d honestly be comfortable anywhere. He’d spent most of his life sleeping on simple pallets, a soft blanket below and above was enough for him. Briefly, he flashed on the memory of tangled limbs, warm bodies and soft breathing surrounding him while he slept. A surge of longing, for something lost… No, not thoughts for now. Focus on Dev, don’t keep her waiting.

Seth scowled, but left Naj alone. If he needed space for the first night, he would grant it to him. But he would not allow the serpent to hide down here like he’d hidden upstairs. That wasn’t the point. But for now… well, at least he was downstairs and socializing with this demon hostess.

The irony of that was not lost on him, but he let that go too. Their demon summoning days were long, long gone. If she didn’t recognize, or care, that he was of the former Dai, he would leave it alone as well.

When they reached the far end of the hallway, Dev motioned to the doorway in front of them. “This is another communal space.” She ushered him into a small tiled ante room, with a bench and several cubby shelves mounted to the walls.

There was a door before them, and one set in either side wall. “To the left are the showers, the right holds the toilets, and in front of us, this door will lead to several bathtubs and our hot tub, should you want to relax your muscles after practice or work.”

Naj listened dutifully to everything she said, but his brain was beginning to get over full. There would be time a plenty to familiarize himself with the place, and if this was a communal space, he would not be intruding if he came back to look over it later. A myriad of scents were lingering in the air: herbs, spices, flowers, musk. He didn’t relish the idea of exploring these rooms with his senses so open and raw. He’d wait until his aura recovered fully and could offer him a buffer. So he simply nodded and did his best not to let the motion sway down his entire off-balanced frame.

She frowned slightly when he didn’t give any acknowledgment. It wasn’t a long or overly involved tour, but if he was feral, who knew what sort of tolerances he had? She moved them briskly back down the hallway towards the Great Room. “The other hallway will be the same, except that the door at the end leads to single-stall showers, and a laundry room. Dancers do their own laundry, save for specialty cases with some of the costuming. Those we send out for cleaning.”

Upon reaching the Great Room again, Dev was pleased to see that a few of the dancers were already settling into the space. It would be a relief to hand him off so she could get back to her own rooms and begin planning.

Previous: Chapter 1 part 2                                                                                                                       Next: Chapter 1 part 4

Character Art: Dev

Looky look! A picture! It’s Dev!


I’ve been doing #Inktober this year, paired with the #30DayMonsterGirlChallenge, pairing the official  2016 Inktober prompts with monster girls. When the entry “Broken Demon” came up, I knew I had to do Dev.

This is a little early, as far as continuity goes, but I wanted you guys to get a hint of what Dev looks like. For more character sketches, check out my past work on RaevenlyWrites.

Chapter 1, part 2

In which Naj and Dev show their scales, and vows are made. 

Greetings, eija.”

Though stiff from neglect, Naj’s muscles fell into the discreet form of the dancer’s bow. He’d never seen her perform, but she must be the eija, the dancer who lead this nest. This place was hers, and she shaped it as surely and deftly as a careful gardener. He’d seen as much in his time up in the rafters. The fact that he had lingered here for so long How long- do you even know? without a confrontation spoke more of his unobtrusiveness than any carelessness on her part. But upon seeing her scales, he knew he must declare himself to her immediately, if he dared to claim any lingering shreds of his serpent heritage. It had been so long since he’d danced among kin…

He’d been wary of approaching this mixed group before, never once seeing any sign of scaled forms, though nods to the traditional serpent style were apparent everywhere. Naj had been doubtful of his place among such an odd collection of dancers, but if they were led by a serpent…

A dancer needed a nest, and a serpent needed a home that was warm and inviting, and Naj needed kinship to tie him to this world, to bring him back from the darkness.

It is just a step, half-forgotten from neglect. The dark voice in his head was strangely kind, building him up with gentle encouragement, instead of its usual biting remarks. Once the beat begins, you will sway to it again as naturally as breathing. Never mind that when he slept in il’m, the peaceful realm of The Whispering Dark, he would forget to breathe, as it became unnecessary. He would dance with Li’Daea now, with the goddess of Light, as a serpent was meant to. He would feel the fire again.

Her gray eyes narrowed when he spoke, his greeting not foreign to her ears, but long unheard. Her nose twitched slightly. It was faint over the scent of the crowd, but the tell-tale musk was apparent. Serpent.

That alone piqued her interest.

Most serpents tended to stay with their own kind, preserving culture and traditions in doing so. They made for skilled dancers, their grace and passion on the stage being legendary. They’d housed serpents in Asylum before, but the occasions were few and far between.

She wondered what had drawn him here. His movements and choice of words revealed he’d had dancer training, but almost all serpents did. Whether they pursued that life was another matter entirely. Was he here to join Asylum’s nest?

The club could use the excitement. As could the nest of dancers. Marie, especially, would be pleased if he chose to stay. The fox had a thing for reptiles for some reason.

Dev relaxed further as she took him in. His skin was pale, but looked as if with a bit of sun he would darken beautifully. His dark hair was only slightly messy, mostly slicked back from his face. He was clearly naturally slim of build, but even so he was currently painfully thin. His clothes hung loose on his frame as he moved. The lines of his face were strong, if a little too angular. When he filled out, his jaw and nose would be handsomely defined, rather than overwhelming his face as they did now. With work, his full lips would steal all the attention. The right make-up would make them irresistible on stage.

The eyes were worrisome, though. They were overly dark, their true color hidden in the dim light. While being deep set might give him a mysterious aura on the stage, with his current weight, they were positively sunken. They looked dull, lacking the serpent spark that was so sought after. A little rest and proper feeding though… He had great potential.

Hell knew she’d certainly seen worse. Asylum seemed to collect cases like his.

He didn’t seem like he was here to cause trouble, so she was willing to let Az’s demonstration go for now. If he were a dancer here on business, she wouldn’t let her personal matters affect their meeting.

First impressions and all that.

Greetings to you as well. What brings you to my club?”

Li’Daea’s will, I hope. And the call of the ki’n.”

The beating of the ki’n, the Fire Drums, was the dancer’s heartbeat. Though the modern forms of dance in this nest were unfamiliar to him, the heartbeat was the same, and the undercurrent of scales sang to him while he’d hidden in the rafters. He’d thought he’d imagined it, that his longing for his own kind was playing tricks on his heart, but after seeing the club owner’s own scales moments ago— It was now or never. He’d watched and waited long enough.

Naj held up a hand between them, presenting the back of it to her. The skin rippled, rusty red scales seeming to rise up from his flesh. The scales flashed and vanished almost as soon as he called them, chasing themselves up his arm to disappear under the sleeves of his dress shirt. He let a coating of them settle over his torso, more comfortable in the natural armor. It was a compromise. He couldn’t let himself hide in serpent form any longer, but this human body no longer felt quite like his. He was extremely pleased to see he could still call scales with such dexterity though, and hoped that his dance forms would return to him just as quickly.

She pursed her lips, unhappy with his display, brief as it was. Another glance told her that no one had seen, but there was only so much luck she was willing to trust. She repressed a sigh. He may look withdrawn, but that smile told her that he was pleased with his little demonstration. Definitely a serpent.

She had to admit though, her curiosity had been awoken. Crimson scales… She knew some vipers could bear red scales, almost always stained with fire magic… Hm. It was a rare enough sight, and beautiful enough, to certainly be a draw if he chose to dance here. And by his cryptic words, she suspected that was what he was angling for.

Let’s move our conversation somewhere more private then.” She turned, giving him a glance to ensure that he was following. When he took a step after her, she continued, leading him towards the back, to the side of the stage past the bar. There was a small resting room for the dancers, a place with couches, cushions, snacks and refreshments. There was a good chance it would be empty right now, with everyone bustling backstage in dressing rooms and watching for cues. Dev didn’t have a personal office at the club, something that hadn’t been a pressing issue until Nica had abandoned her post. If Dev was going to be expected to interview more prospective dancers, perhaps she would finally renovate the space into something more appropriate for an office.

When they reached the room, she unlocked the door and gestured for him to make himself comfortable. She closed the door behind her, cutting them off abruptly from the club, sound, energy and all. Maybe she’d redo the ward while she was at it – the sound proofing was well and good, but the aura block? No need to waste the energy if the hawk wasn’t insisting on it.

The room was primarily filled with sofas and cushions, but there was a long desk with a vanity mirror along one wall, and a small refrigerator tucked near a corner. It was decorated in rich, restful colors, a motif that carried in a massive portrait that hung above a long couch. It was full of dancers of various races and in all stages of dress, lounging, stretching, with a few even practicing the beginning steps of their dances.

Dev settled on a love seat, sweeping an arm over the back as she reclined.

It’s been a while since we’ve been graced with a serpent in our presence.”

He followed her without a word, falling easily back into the habit of taking orders. He stood at a casual attention when she draped herself on the couch. And then at her words, confusion set in.

Are you not serpent-kin? Forgive me, I saw your scales and in a dancers’ nest, I just assumed…” His eyes dropped, and only his formal posture kept him from fidgeting uncomfortably. He wasn’t off to a good start.

Pardon my rudeness, please. Apparently, I am so eager to be among my own kind…” He trailed off, floundering. He shook his head and gave a small bow, then settled cross-legged onto a cushion on the floor opposite his hostess. If he had nothing constructive to say, he would simply listen.

Her eyebrows rose and she offered the confused serpent a smile. It certainly wasn’t the first time she’d been mistaken for his kind. She did hope that disappointment wouldn’t change his mind about joining the nest. Surely he didn’t think all her dancers were serpents… They were good, but they weren’t that good.

I’m sorry if my slip confused you, that was a mistake on my part.” It annoyed her that her gaffe had been noticed, but if there was anything a serpent would spot before anyone else, it would be scales. She gave him a careful look, trying to gauge his reaction to what she said next. On the floor he’d been downright reckless, but here he seemed more uncertain of himself. She didn’t want to be indelicate as a result of her annoyance. And what she was about to do could definitely tip the scales out of her favor.

The more she studied him, the more she saw the dull look in his eyes in a new light. He was flustered, yes, but there was an underlying calmness—almost listlessness–about him that made her bolder than she might have otherwise been. The lack of that typical serpent spark meant that he might think before he reacted. Besides, if he was there for a job… Well, this was something all her dancers had to become accustomed to eventually. And it wasn’t as if her nature was some sort of secret to the community.

A slight nod of warning and she let her true form slip to the surface. Her skin became almost translucent as the pearlescent scales slid out, showing blue and rose reflections of her blood pumping beneath. Her lips thinned slightly as two fangs dented them and she knew her eyes looked more like tempered steel around the snakelike slits of her pupils. Her ears pointed and two horns slid from her temples to curve back over the tips. She kept her tail tucked away for now, to save herself the annoyance of having to shift from her comfortable position to allow it room to grow.

Seth bristled as the demon revealed her true form. A demon’s nest, really? Of all the places for Aezir to have dropped Naj off – Never mind that. They were here now, and if Seth hadn’t felt any significant demonic activity before now, then she couldn’t be that much of a threat. Still, he’d tread carefully. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d misjudged things and had to relocate.

But maybe, just maybe, this time they’d be able to stay. A nest run by a demon… who were they to throw stones?

I’m demonkin.”

A blink and her form vanished beneath her human mask again. Dev didn’t usually indulge in such displays, but sometimes showing was the only way to be sure she got her point across. When he didn’t try to run screaming from the room, she continued.

But there’s no need to stand on ceremony with me. I try to keep things very informal here. Asylum is meant to give my dancers a safe place to live and perform.”

Naj’s eyes widened at her shift in appearance, but he willed himself to stay still. She was far from the first demon he’d ever seen. Or the worst. Yes, the viens were a little off-putting, but aside from that, and the horns, she looked serpent enough. Mostly.

As a serpent, however, what spoke to him more was her aura, the color of her emotions. She kept her aura clean and bright. Not leaning towards any feelings in particular, just a general, welcoming glow. As she spoke, he found himself smiling.

A safe place… Asylum, indeed.”

She tilted her head, eyeing the serpent before her. She’d been correct, aside from the slight widening of his eyes, he’d been unreactive. If a serpent had held a protest with what she was, the response would have been immediate and dramatic. A serpent never did anything quietly, if they did anything at all. She let the tension along her spine relax and sank further into the cushions. On to business then. He’d mentioned terms familiar to more traditional dancers, but had not made a formal declaration yet. “Speaking of which… Was it your intent to join our nest?”

Naj bowed his head in polite beseeching, not as formal as he could have been, but feeling soothed by falling back on familiar rote. “My lady demon, I am indeed in search of asylum, and I would very much like to make this place my home, if you’ll have someone like me.” He paused, wondering how much he should say. So much of his past was a mystery to him, but he did know for certain he was safe. Any survivors of the Ahn’Ki Dai would not come after a lowly serpent, any more than one would bother reclaiming the reeds of a basket that had come unwoven. He would bring no trouble down upon this house. That he could say with confidence.

Then say it, fool.

He leaned forward, so he could press one wrist to the ground in a solemn oath. Red scales coated his hand again, a little flare of magic passing between him and the earth. He didn’t know if it was a gesture still commonly recognized, but he treasured each tie that would bind him to the here and now, and a promise spoken to the earth he danced upon was very binding indeed.

I swear to you, you’ll have no trouble from me. I am not a danger to you and yours.”

He paused, and in a rare moment of humanity, laughed at himself.

The fact that I have to say that makes its validity seem all the more dubious, does it not?”

He smiled, and the light caught the mirthful glint in his dark eyes.

Her smile grew as she eyed him, watching his reactions carefully. He was entirely too formal, but some of the older generations tended to be that way. He seemed genuine in his relaxation, which surprised her, but pleased at the same time. He was older, no one under a century would give an oath like that, but he was grossly out of touch – either with himself or with the world around him, perhaps both.

It wasn’t unheard of for shifters to lose themselves during times of stress, whether in their animal form or in their innate magics. She took a mental note to let Kain know that he may need a period of acclimation before being introduced to some of the rowdier of the dancers. She didn’t want to delay his ascension to the stage longer than she had to, the club needed a boost of excitement if the size of tonight’s crowd was any indication.

I think we can handle any trouble you might or might not bring to the table…” It was true, no dancer thus far had brought more trouble than could be dealt with. It was her trouble that worried her. She wasn’t going to think about Az right now. If he threatened Asylum, she didn’t know what she would do. Or could do.

So she’d focus on what she could take care of now – introductions. Which reminded her…

I’m sorry, I seem to have skipped a step, while I introduced what I am, I neglected the who, didn’t I? I’m Devin. Though everyone here refers to me as Dev. You’re welcome to as well.” She paused, silently weighing her decision before adding, “And you’re welcome to dance here. A serpent will be quite the addition to the nest.”

I am ei’naja-s’Aezir –“ He cut off, realizing none of that was true anymore. “Just Naj now, I suppose. Naja Pallida. Red Cobra, as I’m sure you’d guessed.” He realized he’d left his scales out and let them slide back beneath his skin. He stared at his hand a moment, hardly recognizing the long, thin fingers as his own. How many hours had he spent staring at those hands, memorizing sigils and signs for this or that incantation? Knowing that the slightest mistake would allow the demons he summoned to wreak havoc upon the world. And now here he sat, asking sanctuary from one, pressing those same hands into the earth to swear he would not harm her. He fell silent, knowing he should speak, but what could he say? What words were there for the long centuries of dark deeds, of running and hiding, and the many missing years between then and now?

Cobra. A red cobra.

The surprise almost masked the familiarity of his introduction, something pinging her memory as important… The way he had phrased his name… And Aezir. Why did that sound familiar?

Dev pushed it aside to think on later. It was likely an old serpent custom that she was picking up on, but she knew it would bother her until she put her finger on it.

He’d gone quiet, clearly lost in thought. She’d have let him go on thinking as long as he cared to, except he hadn’t answered her invitation. Her mind was already flying down the paths of possibility, but it was all a moot point if he was here for some other reason.

Alright then. Naj. Would you like to dance here?”

When he finally spoke, his voice was distant, and his eyes unfocused as he gazed somewhere far away. “I’m not really sure why I came here, Dev. Or how I came to be here. I… I don’t want to be a burden, but I don’t really have anything in this world. I don’t really even have this world.”

He looked up at her, attention snapping back. His face became very solemn, the lost quality replaced by a hungry urgency.

If you’ve had serpents here, then you understand Li’Daea, and the ki’n and how important that heat is to their vitality, to their very selves.” His eyes began to shine, and the first hint of life starting to show through their dark red depths. “I feel that spark here, when your dancers take the stage. I feel that heat and it draws me out of the nothingness that has been my world for too many years…”

His gaze dropped, and his voice softened as he continued. “I’m a shadow of my former self, and I’m prone to drifting off from time to time, and much of my past is great swathes of nothingness. But I promise you,”

He unfolded himself and stood in one sinuous movement, pulling himself into the ready pose of cross wrists stretched high overhead and weight balanced lightly on the balls of the feet. He flashed her a dazzling grin, fire flashing in his eyes.

I am still a serpent, and a dancer.”

Well. Nothing boring about this one. Dev could do without the emotional rollercoaster bit, but standing there in full serpent flare… Yeah, he could be just this place needed. Her mind flew off down the avenues of possibilities again.

The fact that he’d been feral was hardly news, but the red cobra bit… That much, she definitely had use for. The cobra lines were nearly all extinct, killed off long ago in the various wars waged among the shapeshifters. So little was left of them, Dev hadn’t even realized there was a red line. Something so rare was sure to draw a crowd on Blue Moon night, when all the dancers were free to flaunt their fur and scales. Boosting their VIP crowd would help recoup some of their flagging profits.

Business had been falling off recently – nothing immediately threatening, but she didn’t like the trend. Her other businesses weren’t experiencing similar drops. No amount of trying to liven up the routines had seemed to help.

She suspected it had more to do with the recent gang rivalries edging closer to their district than anything. That was something she was loathe to deal with herself, as it was more a political affair. Perhaps if it were just the vampires, but the wolves were more animal than businessmen.

She certainly couldn’t deal with that and Az at the same time. Too many directions to split her attention. For the first time in many months, Dev allowed herself to admit that perhaps Kain was right.

It was time to call Nica home, reluctant or not. The hawk was tiresome, but she had kept the boundaries and local politics in line effectively. Let her deal with the encroaching hooligans and Dev could focus on her real concern.

Which brought the serpent posing in front of her into a whole new light. Nica wouldn’t be able to resist him, a poor, feral serpent. Not that Dev was prone to using her dancers as bait, but… Desperate times and all that.

A smile curled her lips as she stood to match him, trying to keep the tension of her thoughts out of her body. Even a feral serpent would be sensitive to that sort of thing.

Well, Naj… A dancer is all I’m looking for, so I don’t think that’ll be a problem. And you certainly aren’t he first one to come here to recover from being feral. That said, there are a few things I should share with you before you join the nest.”

The key rule is simple – don’t bring trouble to any of the other dancers. I don’t accept drama or violence in the nest… Not that I think that’ll be a problem on your end. If you have any problems with anyone else, bring them to me. I’d prefer to mediate any potential issues before they escalate.”

She glanced at his hand where his scales had been. “The second rule is that you have to control your shifts onstage or anywhere the public will see you. No upsetting the human population, which means that we do not allow shifting on stage or out in the club. The only exception to that rule will be Blue Moon Nights, when we close the club and allow only VIP members in – they’re supernaturals who pay extra to see dancers that aren’t human. That will be the only time we allow shifting on stage or in front of customers. Backstage, downstairs, or here are fine, these are dancer only areas.”

He dropped gracefully back into the relaxed ready stance, hands sliding behind his back with an elegant flourish as his left foot tucked behind the right. Accepting rules and conditions was nothing new to him, and old habit had him receiving them in the dancers’ attention. When the slightest toe out of line or sneeze could mean the summoner’s circle could come crashing down – well, one learned to pay careful attention. And to always be mindful of one’s posture.

Whispers of memories stirred at the thought, flashes of such instances when a Dai dancing circle could not contain what it had raised. Nothing concrete, just disconnected sounds and faces, waves emotion from nestmates long forgotten. Destroyed…

Why are you wallowing in the darkness of the past, fool boy? Can’t you see this could be your home now, if you’d let it? Naj tried to shake off the internal voice that had been his only companion for so long. It was useless. Still, when it spoke again, it was kinder, softer. The past is a shadow, broken and patchy on your clearest days. Let it go, and dance with Li’Daea.

He shook himself mentally again and replayed the demoness’ words in his mind. He’d have to be more mindful of his shifting, of course. He’d already planned to strictly limit the amount of time he allowed himself to retreat to the serpent, and this would only help that. He nodded in acceptance as she continued, pulling the scales still coating his upper body back beneath his skin.

Dev stepped closer to him and gave a more welcoming smile. It was rare she wasted her public persona on one person, let alone a dancer, but she would rather be sure of his decision. He was still holding himself too stiffly, too formal. She didn’t want to be the reason he changed his mind last minute. Once he was around the other dancers, they would make him feel welcome and wanted. She simply had to introduce him.

Third, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need – whether from me or another dancer. This is your home now, treat it as such.”

She studied him a moment, deciding that the details of his contract to work and live here would be best discussed later. She didn’t want to overwhelm him with such minutiae. Her eagerness to seal the deal would have to wait.

Dev gestured to the door. “Come, I’ll show you around backstage and the living quarters downstairs.”

Previous: Chapter 1 part 1                                                                                                                            Next Chapter 1 part 3

Chapter 1, part 1

In which a demon sends a message, a serpent makes his entrance, and pasts are not as buried as hoped.

Dev stepped down onto the first stair and leaned over the railing. Her gray eyes surveyed the crowded floor below her with vague annoyance. The annoyance was nothing new for her. In fact, she found it quite the comfortable emotion. She’d even grown used to the phone in her pocket being a constant source of it.

As the owner of more than a few clubs and bars, her phone buzzed at all hours. Primarily, it was one of her employees wanting her input on some banal decision or wanting her to solve a problem that an astute child could have fixed. Occasionally, it was to field the random bible-thumper who liked to inform her where they thought she’d spend her afterlife. If she thought they would take her seriously, she’d explain she’d already been there, done that.

The latter calls were the least annoying and most entertaining parts of her day.

Being stood up for a cryptic rendezvous at midnight was proving to be the exact opposite.

The music faded out and she knew the next act was gearing up to start. They’d just passed the halfway point for the last show of the night. She eyed the floor, actually taking in the view below her, rather than staring blankly in agitation.

The stage took up a third of the bottom floor of the old warehouse, with seating and tables filling the surrounding space. Two balcony floors held overflow seating, their centers open to the stage below. The topmost had been closed off for the night—it’s not like they needed much overflow these days. Dev currently stood on the stair to the mostly empty first balcony. Sometimes she wondered if The Asylum was ultimately worth the hassle of keeping this particular club running, but when she saw her dancers begin to sway across the stage, she smiled faintly despite herself. They had fun with the shows and their enthusiasm was contagious. Screams and happy catcalls rippled across the floor before silence took hold as the music began pumping through the speakers in earnest.

Her fingers tapped the rhythm out on the metal banister as she wondered how long would be appropriate to wait for her guest. The clock above the bar said it was five after midnight now. She smoothed her hands down the black leather of her pants and tank top. Cliché, but she found it easier to dress the part of club owner when leather was involved.

Besides, the dark leather looked good against her pale skin and she liked what the cut did for her lean figure.

Downstairs, a couple caught her eye and she sighed, flagging a passing dancer working the floor to stop the underage girl before someone else saw her. She would never understand why the kids would even bother – the counterspell to get past her age wards shined like a beacon in the low lighting.

Dev tucked a short strand of dark auburn hair behind her ear and continued down the stairs. She had a business to run and anyone looking for her would find her easily enough on the main floor.

Naj stretched lazily as he uncoiled his long, scaled body in the darkness of the rafters. He had felt the heat of the show long before he ever opened his eyes to watch it. The bright stage lights warmed the high reaches of the warehouse where Naj had taken to spending his sleepy days. At night, he would linger above the pulsing sound and flashing colors, basking in the riot of energy from his hidden perch. His serpentine form was accustomed to the night, and his human one preferred the solitude of it. Still, a thread in the back of his mind told him he should mingle, urged him to seek out the warm bodies that wove the tapestry below. There was life down there, movement, heat – living heat, not just the false glow of the lamp light. As he watched the dancers writhe and sway, he could almost see the trail of their bodies lingering in the air like spectral writing. A language he’d spoken long ago, half-forgotten under the press of centuries.

Naj jerked his attention back to the now, back to the people sitting around the stage, watching, hungry for its energy as surely as he was. He had to ground himself in the here and now, or he would drift, lost in the nothing inside his head for hours. Only the comings and goings of those around him would alert him to any sort of change, and often not even that. Focus! There was something he had meant to be doing, something he had to remember….

He slipped elegantly down from the rafters onto the catwalk, a long, sinewy line of cobra in red. He kept his scales until he’d descended to the club level, sliding into human form as he released the last rung of the ladder. It was easier to hold plans and intention in a human head, the serpent cared nothing for the future, nothing for the past. The serpent was cool, comfortable, empty.

Naj needed heat. Needed the press of bodies, of human flesh and human hopes and human dreams. He had slumbered as the serpent for too long. He needed ties to this world, needed purpose.

Or else the darkness would take him, and never let go.

And he would never care if it did.

He made his way down the empty upper levels, drawn to the pulsing heat of the crowd below. He moved with little purpose, simply seeking out the brightest aura in this place. As he drew closer, he remembered a telephone call, and an intent to meet. He could not remember if he had made the call, or had simply overheard it, but since hearing it, he’d repeated over and over to himself Midnight, first floor, don’t be late.

When Dev hit the main floor, her shoulders eased back and a smile slid into place. While the upper floors were empty tonight, the main floor was over half full and she was careful to keep her crowd persona on. She was a natural on the floor, hands trailing table to table as people saw and acknowledged her. Dev had been a near constant presence at Asylum the past two years and the crowd had come to expect seeing her on the floor at some point during the night.

She was careful to never let her touch linger on any one person or table too long, so that no one noticed the warmth pooling in her hands as she drew out the excess energy of the crowd. It was like sipping fine liquor, drawing just enough to give her a gentle buzz. Her muscles felt more languid and her smile grew more genuine. Even her annoyance was beginning to melt away. With how often her phone stole her attention, sometimes she forgot how pleasurable her job could be until she was actually working the floor.

A hand closed around her upper arm, swinging her body in an arc with the force. Her vision swam and the crowd around her vanished. Her sight narrowed to the person holding her.

And she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

The hand was encased in black leather, leading up to pale skin between the glove and the rolled up sleeve of his light grey button up. The top three buttons were undone, giving glimpses of his chest before meeting the darker grey of his waistcoat. She knew who she would find as her eyes slowly trailed upward. Azriel’s green eyes glittering down at her, filled equally with amusement and irritation. It was an expression she’d come to associate with great pain.

A sharp tug and she fell against his chest, bracing with her free hand. Her fingers brushed his chest, bare skin on bare skin, and fire arced between them, pulling embers down her arm. She gasped, unable to stop the back of her hand and lower arm from erupting into opalescent scales. One dark eyebrow lifted as his other leather clad hand removed hers and broke the connection.

She panted, trying to will her skin back to her human form, but he’d drained too much energy from her. It was all she could do to keep the rest of her looking completely human. He feigned a look of sympathy at her plight as he allowed his own demon form to further emerge, black horns curling over his ears and a thin dark tail whipping out behind him.

A tendril of shadowy ink crept over his neck, dipping down beneath his shirt. Az leaned close and took a deep breath when she shivered in revulsion.

“Someday you’ll have to come back, you know.”

“No.” She could hardly breathe around the panic fluttering in her chest. She knew her eyes were too wide. Giving him a reaction was simply begging for him to make it worse, but she’d become lazy in the many decades away from him and her features didn’t school as well as they once had.

“Oh, I do believe the lady doth protest too much. I know you miss it.” Images flashed through her mind at the thought. He was projecting and her only protection was to try not to focus on any one image more than the others. Let them become background noise and they wouldn’t stick.

“I know you miss me.” The voice whispered in her ear, curling in her stomach like ice. She flinched, eyes screwing shut in preparation for whatever gift he was about to bestow on her…

Nothing came.

When she opened her eyes again, the crowd around her was catcalling and cheering the end of the act. The creep who held her arm was barely old enough to be in her club, let alone powerful enough to inflict such a memory. His blonde hair was slicked back, his blue eyes twinkling in mirth. The vision of Azriel was gone. Her lips tightened as she jerked out of his grip.

High on the power loaned out by his boss, the kid smirked.

“Azriel said to tell you that was just a hello kiss.”

He was nothing. Just a scrawny, pathetic human who’d made the wrong deal at the wrong time. Some plain loser who thought running with the big dogs would make him special. He just couldn’t see he was the prey running before the pack, not with it.

She bit back her frustration and anger. She’d been Az’s messenger once, and she knew what it was to be punished for doing your job. But she was scared, and he boasted a confidence he didn’t deserve. The combination made her want to lash out.

“Remember it’s the messenger that always gets shot first.”

The kid recoiled from the venom in her tone, eyes flicking away and back, not as sure of himself once the dialogue changed. She watched him leave, one hand absently rubbing the other, pausing when she felt scales.

She’d actually slipped some of her skin in her panic. Fortunately, Az hadn’t actually taken her energy – that had been a memory more than truth. Another pass of the hand and she was as human as she ever was.

Something had changed if Az was sending her such a personal message. And that knowledge worried her. She shouldn’t have been hearing from him for another fifty years at the earliest. No, something had changed and she didn’t like it one bit.

She flicked and swayed like a candle flame, pulsing and flaring as she moved across the floor. Naj found himself falling into step with her, drawn in like a moth. She was brimming with life; he wanted to wrap it around himself and bask. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, as if he could draw that heat within himself—

He recoiled sharply as searing heat flashed over him—

And then was suddenly gone. The coolness that remained seemed inverted, like the absence of light rather than darkness proper. It was wrong, and Naj reached instinctively for his ties to Master to steady himself. He physically stumbled as if missing a handrail–there was nothing there to grasp. The ties were cut, and there hadn’t been for months. Years? Days? Time was not a thing his serpent cared for, and it always went blurry when he thought about his time with the Ahn’Ki Dai. Here, stay here you fool! There is nothing for you in the past.

His master was gone, but the cooler part of himself remained. Naj’s mind often whispered to itself like this, a steely voice, usually laced with annoyance, but always calling him back to task. It kept the serpent instincts at bay, kept him focused and moving forward. Naj drew another deep breath and smoothed his hands down his sides, partially to settle himself and partially to be sure he was still wearing hands. Everything seemed to still be in order, so moved outward to get his bearings. The dancers on stage had finished and the next ones were setting up. The audience was fidgeting happily, letting the excitement of the last show settle over them, while gearing up for more. The owner of the brilliant aura…

…was smoothing pearly white scales back into place beneath her skin. Could it be?

Naj made his way through the crowd towards her, excitement at the discovery of another serpent blinding him to any thought of what he might do when actually reached her.

Dev shook herself, settling her consciousness and her skin in the here and now. A quick scan told her that everyone was paying more attention to the stage now as the next act started, which meant her slip had gone unnoticed in the dim club.

She let loose a small sigh of relief. At least, until she spotted someone weaving determinedly through the crowd toward her. Normally, she would have ignored it, assuming they were heading towards the bar, but after that last encounter, she was a bit paranoid.

He moved through the crowd like a fish through water, easily dodging tables and people milling about by the bar. His eyes were steadfast on her, and she instinctively bristled before reminding herself that while Az may be a bully, he wasn’t the sort to send two messages so close together. He wouldn’t waste his energy on something with so little yield. Give his prey a little time to breathe, to relax, and then he would strike again. He’d had eons to practice extruding fear from his victims.

No, this fellow was something else. There was an odd air about him, his movements too graceful, too aware of those around him. It simply screamed shapeshifter.

She gave the surrounding area a quick glance, the better to gain a sense of what she had to work with should this meeting prove less than friendly. The glow of the clock above the bar read ten after midnight, reminding her that she’d had an appointment. That call may have been made by Az’s crony, but it may just as well have been from this stranger. She could be off kilter from suddenly hearing from Az again, but she couldn’t let her paranoia overwhelm her entire life. She couldn’t live that way again.

Dev took a breath and waited. It was the only way to know. He’d reach her any moment.

Previous: Prologue 5                                              Next: Chapter 1 part 2

Prologue: part 4

“No, no, it needs to be… Edgier. We’re trying to entice the audience, not put them to sleep. Less hypnotic, more sex.”

Dev’s voice cracked over the stage and Emily resisted the urge to sigh. Ever since Nica had left, Dev had spent more and more time here during the day, trying to fill in. Emily didn’t mind, at first. Dev cared about the nest, in her own strange way of showing it. She was trying.

And as the owner of Asylum, the club where the dancers’ nest lived and worked, it was Dev’s business as well as her family. Emily understood that Dev had to keep both sides in mind. Just because Em thought the place was pretty successful already didn’t mean she actually knew anything. She didn’t handle the money, just accepted the paycheck she got every other week for performing. Granted, it did seem smaller lately, but she’d been taking a lot of time off for school stuff, so who knew?

Emily shook her shoulders out, trying to bring her thoughts back to the dance. Dance now, school worries later. “Alright, edgier… Um…”

She looked to Lena on her other side, who looked just as lost as Em felt. They’d been working on this routine for months, but neither of them felt it was right, so it was still in practice limbo. They’d only performed it for Dev to see if the club manager had any advice. Unfortunately, she did, but nothing useful.

Lena shrugged, but heard Em’s silent plea for help. “Maybe we could add a shimmy?”

She repeated their last few steps, adding the move in question. Emily pursed her lips, but shrugged and followed suit. It worked, from a technical stand point, but the energy of the piece was all wrong. The more they tried to fix it, the worse it became some days. They just didn’t have the solid background in the serpent style of dance that Nica did. She’d been the one to teach them what they knew of it, and without her here to help them through the rough spots…

There was a reason they hadn’t performed the piece yet. It just didn’t work and soon Dev was calling out at them again.

“Edgier! How much skin will you be showing? That might help… Make the movements more sultry…Maybe it’s just this song – do we have something more sex than this overly romantic dribble? Surely…”

Emily and Lena shared a look while their backs were to Dev. It was times like this that they both missed Nica’s input the most. Not only would she have danced the routine with them, she would have interceded with the well-meaning club owner as well. But they were on their own, so they both took a breath and tried to figure out how to make their moves more sultry and enticing and “edgier”.

Previous: Prologue 3                                                                                                                                            Next: Prologue 5