Prologue: part 2

Kain waited outside the door until the muffled sobs faded entirely. When he felt Marie slip into sleep, it was simple to nudge her mind that much deeper, so she couldn’t dream this time. He disliked interfering like that, but she needed the rest. Both women did, but if Nat felt him tickle her own mind, she’d be far less forgiving. Stealth was so much easier in those more naive, and Nat was far too self-aware to be influenced so easily.

He released the breath he’d been holding in a long, quiet sigh. It’d been almost a year since Jax’s death. Every time he thought Marie might finally be free of the nightmare – weeks or months without an episode… One struck out of the blue.

He continued down the hallway, hands clasped behind his back, expression heavy. He paused by rote at every door he came to–every door that didn’t lead to one of the too many empty rooms–letting his energy wash over the sleepers beyond. It was the barest of touches, enough to keep an eye on the other members of the nest, but not enough to disturb anyone who might feel his touch. It didn’t seem that anyone else had heard Marie. They all slept soundly.

When he had finished his circuit and was standing once more in front of his own bedroom door, he scrubbed a hand over his face. This was not how he imagined spending his nights, pacing dim hallways. Worrying and wondering…

It was hard to believe it was how he’d spent nearly a year already. Time was such an odd beast. Flickering by in heartbeats too fast to count, yet still rolling on slow and heavy as a stone at the bottom of a stream. It wasn’t often that he felt the full weight of it, bearing down on his thoughts and shoulders.

Tonight, he felt every second of his many years.

He stared back down the other hallway. Even with his keen eyesight, he could hardly make out the long length of wall through the shadows. His gaze drifted from Marie and Nat’s room to the opposite side of the hallway. Even without seeing it, he knew the door to Nica’s room was closed.

He could picture perfectly the crimson of the curtain she left hanging in the always-open doorway, could still see her smile as the gold threads caught the candlelight from within. She had never wanted to close her door to their nestmates. She had wanted them to always come to her when there was trouble, to be there for them.

She’d told him stories of growing up in her family’s nest, a tight-knit community of serpent cousins, living and dancing together in a tradition long since fallen out of popularity. The pressure to modernize, to conform and hide the differences that had led to so many brutal shapeshifter wars…well, a nest like that was rare to say the least. In the years they’d known each other, Kain had watched Nica stand firm in her roots, sheltering and protecting anyone who came to her, regardless of race, creed, or second form. It had been all too easy to introduce her to the right people, nudge her into making her informal nest into the reality that would become Asylum.

When he’d brought Dev and Nica together, no one would have guessed a chimera nest would be so successful. Dev had only agreed because it offered her the chance at strong wards and a good cover. But Kain had the seen the vision of what it could be, what Nica could be, if given half the chance…

But he had not foreseen this. He had not anticipated having to take up the mantle that Nica had worn so easily. Or perhaps, not so easily as it had seemed.

Dev was just the money. She ran the club the nest was housed in, and her business sense kept the doors open, but without Nica… If Dev was the head, then Nica was the heart. Nica had been the one who would pace the hallways at night, singing softly to herself, listening for the telltale cries of nightmares, chasing away the darkness for those who could not manage it alone.

He sighed and turned away. He left his own door open behind him in case any of those shadows woke someone tonight.

Kain didn’t resent Nica leaving. Not really. He’d understood the look in her eye when she’d knelt at Jax’s pyre, whispering soft apologies after she’d thought everyone had gone. His death on her watch was a failure too large to endure in her eyes.

No, he understood why she’d needed to leave her ghosts behind in order to heal.

What he didn’t understand was why she was letting them keep her away for so long.

No matter what she may be thinking, they did need her. They still danced and laughed, but it was muted now. Dancers always came and went within the nest, but the finality of Jax’s loss had stolen much of their communal spirit. And Nica’s flight was eating away at what was left of it. There was only so much Kain could do to reassure them – he could stand in, take up Nica’s role in the nest, but he could not be her.

Nor did he want to. He had his own role in the nest to fill and performing both was exhausting. Especially when his efforts to soothe the nest simply underscored her absence, reminded them further of how wrong everything still was.

When he slipped into bed, his own dreams were harried, full of flames dancing on a scorched earth while a crying hawk flew overhead.

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Prologue: part 1

Her feet pounded the pavement. No matter how hard they hit, she hardly heard it. Voices buzzed around her skull—too many, too shrill—intertwining into a meaningless jumble with her own thoughts.

Can’t stop can’t stop. Can’t stop running, can’t breathe, can’t stop running, not gonna make it–

A shot rang out, silencing everything.

Pain exploded in her arm. Burning, black scales, white-hot fire storming through her veins like angry soldiers, intent on killing. No, didn’t mean to. He couldn’t have meant to.

She couldn’t breathe.

He’d bitten her.

Jax’s black mamba scales glittered in the light, washed in a crimson too red to be blood. It glowed like fire, fire and char mingling together, writhing in pain in a pool of too red light.

She was dying. Pain, fire, too intense, blood that glowed like fire, blood full of venom-soldiers racing through her veins, marching on her heart with every beat beat beat, intent to kill. If it made it to her heart…

There was too much pain in her heart already. Too much char in the red, red ruin. No longer writhing, ashes fallen still. Only the red still sickeningly alive, glowing in a mockery of life, red light glinting off too glassy eyes. Eyes that were no longer there.

Everything was wrong. Everything was so very, very wrong.

Flames ate the darkness. Burning in her veins turned to burning on the ground, fire-pain spilling out of her, falling to the ashes in hot, hot tears. Sparks blossomed where they fell, a fire to carry away the memory, a fire to transform her pain from killing blood-beats to steady drum beats, a dancer’s last goodbye.

He was dead, and she was alive.

She didn’t feel alive, watching the flame eat away at him. A fire too hot, and not hot enough. Never hot enough to make him warm again, no matter how brightly he burned. Never hot enough to burn away the tears that kept falling, kept falling in little molten drops to steam against the lifeless char of scales. Fire licked at her arm, but she didn’t care. It didn’t hurt anymore and she just couldn’t care. If the fire took him away, it could take everything away, arm and blood and scales and everything. Searing heat sucked away her breath, but she couldn’t care.

He would never breathe again.

Marie bolted upright, suffocating on renewed grief.

She struggled against the arms that held her, still trapped in the nightmarish memory. Arms holding her back from Jax, back from his body, back from his pyre.

The arms that held her were dark against her own paleness. They were cast in an eerie glow where small streaks of fire lit her bare skin. That same fire barely illuminated the room around her – not a run down alley, but a dresser, shelves, pillows – their bedroom.

Sound filtered into her awareness, pulling her further from the dream, calling her home to the here and now.

“Marie – Marie, love, it’s okay… You’re home and safe and it’s okay.”

Nat.

Marie flung herself back against Nat, burrowing down into the hold she’d been trying so hard to escape. Fresh sobs overtook her and Nat wrapped herself around her, one hand tangling in her hair. The other smoothed along Marie’s arm, snuffing out the trails of fire with the dark palm of her hand. She rocked her little love, singing nothing-words to the tune of a half-remembered song. Not too loud, mustn’t wake the others. If they heard singing in the night, they might remember…

Eventually, Marie caved under her exhaustion, collapsing into a dark, dreamless sleep.

Next: Prologue 2