Interlude: Dreams in the Desert part 2

Why were the raptors always so agitated?

Or, more importantly, why were they the ones sent to tend the ill? He was certain he’d fare much better with quiet, a serpent nursemaid, and the chance to simply sleep.

But rough arms were around him, forcing him to sit up and drink. The herbs were suspended in what felt like raw power, and he sputtered and gagged on the strength of the spirit.

The falcon swore at him, called him an ignorant hatchling as she rushed to clean the mess from her skin. What could they possibly fear from touching something they expected him to drink? But it was true, under all the prickly agitation and the hot anger, there was a thread of fear.

He took what little energy he had and wrapped the remains of the potion in a venom crystal. He spat the little pearly lump out onto the bed and covered it with his hand.

He gritted his teeth in an attempt to stifle his growing agitation as Sybil calmly batted his spell away, again. They’d been at it for what felt like days, and the only thing he’d set on fire was the room around him. The smothering heat surely was not helping his mood.

But they could not leave until burned away the spelled rope that bound her, proving him an acceptable student and her a capable teacher.

“It’s still lacking substance, naja. Just get angry already and try to burn me, will you? I assure you, your little fireballs will have no effect on me.”

The golden hawk met his gaze with an almost bored nonchalance, but he could tell she was losing her patience. Had she never worked with serpent-kin before? If so, she was failing this test as surely as he. Her emotions were plastered across her aura, digging and niggling at him every time he tried to hold a thought. She angry, aggravated, impatient, haughty—everything he’d come to expect from raptor-kin. But laying over it all like a slick mildew was fear. He never seen that in a raptor’s aura. Never. It was the first thing they learned to hide as children, and the last thing they’d ever admit to feeling. How precarious was her position that the clearly high-born hawk hen was all but sweating her fear?

It wasn’t him—most of the raptors had hardly given him any notice when he’d traveled with his father to the h’somu of the D’ahnkkhna priesthood to establish peaceful intent. Only the serpent-kin of the mixed group would speak to them, after the initial presentation, and Seth was certain it was only their constant guard that had granted them entrance to towering mountain stronghold at all. No, none of the feathered folk he’d encountered then or now had paid him any mind—so what was Sioban afraid of?

He couldn’t attack her, not like this. He couldn’t strike at anyone resonating so strongly with fear. With a tired sigh, he pushed himself up from the cross-legged position he’d been instructed to sit in and climbed down from his raised dais. As he approached hers, the hawk froze, not even a hissed breath marring her perfect stillness.

“Wh-what are you doing?”

Seth stilled, not the motionless terror that she was caught in, but the quiet emptiness that all serpents could assume. He counted heartbeats, one, two, three, until taking another step forward. Her wrists surged against the bonds pinning her to the altar, eyes growing to show whites all the way around, but still she did not breathe. Was she drawing power?

Still, Seth could not raise a hand against her, even if she claimed it was the only route to free them both. He could not, and would not do it, so instead of sending another ungrounded surge of flame to lick uselessly at the walls, he’d resolved to try something different.

“Don’t touch me!”

The desperate shriek that pierced the silence send prickles racing along Seth’s skin to tighten in painful gooseflesh. She was terrified, and not even trying to hide it any longer as she writhed against the bonds she knew she could not break. Her breath returned to her in ragged, rapid gasps, and her wild eyes now squeezed tightly shut against the coming inevitability.

What inevitability? What does she know that I do not?

He drew a long breath, willing it to be steady and strong against the bitter tang of her panic. He took another,and another, trying to drain the room of her desperation, trying to impose his calm over it, trying to find balance in his soul against the terrified pounding of her heart.

“What are you so afraid of?”

It was a question never asked of any avian, and it was barely asked now. Seth could not bring his voice to anything louder than the brush of a whisper, but her eyes flew open and locked on him just the same. They stared at each other for a moment, his confusion and her fear both wore open and naked between them, then her words came in a babbling rush as the dam of her resolve broke.

“Don’t you know what they want to do with us? Don’t you know why we’re here? Monsters, they’re all monsters, and they want to make more of the same. What they want—it’s madness, nothing but madness! They’ll take us back to the burning times, to those savage wars—there won’t be a single feather or scale left unsigned—they can’t be allowed to do this!”

Her babbling broke off into a cascade of prayer, a rush of words in the old tongue that Seth could barely understand. They’d been forbidden to speak it outside of a set circle, didn’t she know that, for fear the power they could accidentally call. But the words of flight and grace and mercy she summoned never came, despite the desperation in her pleas. The only answer was a falling of darkness complete, the sound of steel on stone, and the wet gurgle as her prayer broke off and winged its way to the heavens.

Music drifted over the white sand, a tinkling of sound as faint and distant as the starlight. It came on a small wind, gentle and warm as a mother’s kiss. Seth’s hair ruffled in the breeze, air cooling the sweat on his brow. The tension in his face eased, and the campfire beside him quieted to a bed of banked coals.

Chapter 11, part 2

In which many battles are lost

Kain frowned at the pair of them, his dark eyes unreadable. Her gaze fell down his body as he approached, her posture stiffening when she fixated on his hands.

No.” Her voice was soft, but clear.

Kain raised an elegant eyebrow, never breaking his stride. “It isn’t a question, hawklet.”

I’d like to see you try and make me, old man.”

She would have liked to think that the threat in her voice was what stopped him, but likely he had just intended to stop by the tub where he was. Her feathers bristled and she scowled anew.

Really? Because it looks to me that you’re in no condition to back that up – considering your earlier suicide attempt.” His voice was mild, and her scowl deepened at the amusement in his smile.

His gaze flicked from her to Naj and he held out a small glass of amber liquid. He didn’t bother to hold the other out to Nica yet, probably because he knew she’d dump it on principle alone.

It’s just a tincture, but the herbs will help you regain your energy faster.”

If you can keep it down.” Nica muttered bitterly. “Nothing that tastes so badly could possibly be meant for consumption.”

Kain rolled his eyes, giving Naj a smile as he addressed the serpent. “Don’t mind her, she’s only sore that they work.” He continued past a snort from Nica. “She has a vendetta against anything good for her.”

Naj was certain nothing in that glass could taste as awful as Nica’s bristling agitation did. His aura was still taunt and raw from feeding the storm, and her aggression raced through it like wind whipping through a sharp grass. He recoiled, wincing against the sensation. Kain’s smile did little to help– he was already set in a firm position against Nica’s argument. Her aura crackled and hissed against Kain’s, and it stood solid and unmoving against the cutting wind. Naj downed his small glass without a word, hoping the restorative worked quickly, so he could get a buffer up.

Nica’s jaw clenched, which only made her head throb, which only made her angrier.

Kain frowned at her, taking the empty glass back from Naj. He held the other to her and she shook her head. It was a point of pride and she knew it was ridiculous, but she was angry with herself and Kain was an easy target.

With a controlled sigh, he extended the drink further. “It will make you feel better and the sooner you give in, the sooner you’re not bombarding the serpent with your agitation.”

Surprise took the edge from her anger and she glanced at Naj. Her eyes closed when she saw him wincing. She took a breath, then again, and when she thought she could look at Kain without wanting to hit him, she held out a hand for the damned drink.

It wasn’t the alcohol that tasted so awful, but some combination of herbs left a bitter, sour coat on her tongue. She gagged slightly, making a face when she gave the glass back.

Damn the cat all to hell, she didn’t know what he put in those damned things, but her headache was already lessening.

Better?” The rumble of his voice mingled with the sound of water as his fingers dipped to check the temperature.

She started to reply, but his dark eyes cut to Naj questioningly and she wrinkled her nose. She settled back against the tub, her tiredness returning now that her annoyance was fading.

Yes, thank you.” Naj said for them, when it became clear Nica wasn’t going to. His tone was sharper than he meant it to be, but in a petulant way, Naj thought she sort of deserved it for acting so childishly. Yes, the tincture burned, but even that helped chase away the chill. His aura was still paper-thin though. Naj wanted to climb inside the big man’s aura and hide, but somehow, he didn’t think they were quite to such familiar terms. Still, Naj felt soothed by Kain’s very presence, and he was glad when it seemed their eijye was going to stay a moment, even if it was just to fuss at them.

You’re welcome.” Kain’s voice was pleasantly warm again. Nica rolled her eyes at the large man, ignoring his growing smile.

Her gaze flicked to his hand in the water, then narrowed. She moved her foot experimentally, frowning when it swirled through a particularly warm spot.

Are you warming the water?” She hadn’t realized he could do that and his pleasantly blank expression told her that he somehow was.

Nica frowned. He must be worried if he wasn’t being as careful as usual to hide his skills. He was usually more subtle than this. Usually because if he wasn’t she started asking questions he didn’t want to answer.

Naj’s expression was somewhere between pained and eternally grateful. “I’m sorry I can’t manage it myself.” He tried to smile up at Kain, but it felt like more of a grimace. He was such a careless idiot.

Her gaze flicked to Naj, surprised. Was she the only one that couldn’t summon heat in the room? Clearly. She frowned, but Kain spoke before she could.

It’s fine. You’ve already done enough.” There were layers to that and Nica thought to poke at Kain’s mind to find out what he was thinking, but she doubted she had the energy or that he would share.

Dark eyes turned to hers expectantly. “Why were you dancing something like that in the first place? I didn’t realize that was something I should have to worry about.”

Nica shifted, uncomfortable with the sudden feeling that she’d done something wrong. Learning new skills was not the problem here. She wanted to cross her arms over her chest, but didn’t want to dislodge Naj.

Ariella’s been teaching me the new technique for a few weeks now.”

Disappointment in himself finally won out over the smile he’d been forcing.

I’m to blame,” he said, dropping his eyes to the rippling water. “I was showing off skill this morning I have no business tossing about with such carelessness. I should have been more careful to learn Nica’s background before demonstrating a potentially dangerous technique.”

Kain turned an eloquent eyebrow on the serpent. “Showing off? Fate forbid there be two of you.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. This was not what he had wanted. A serpent to distract Nica, yes. A serpent capable of calling great magics and encouraging the hawk to unleash her own potential was not.

It isn’t-”

A raised, dripping finger stymied Nica’s defense of the new dancer. “I know, I know. I can already see how this little fiasco played out. At least one of you is trained enough to have stoppered it before it got completely out of hand.”

He sighed, but there was a hint of a smile peeking out as he dipped his hand back into the water to raise the temperature a few more degrees. “I just ask that I’m given warning next time you two decide to show off.”

Naj’s voice was grave, and he couldn’t bring himself to raise his eyes. His reticent “Yes, eijye,” was cut short, and he stumbled to turn it into a soft, “It won’t happen again.”

It chafed at Nica that Kain was reprimanding the pair of them. He always shunned the second in command title until it was convenient to him. As if sensing her thoughts – or as if he were actively reading them, he turned to her.

I’m not going to bother asking you to behave yourself – you’ll get in trouble just to spite me.” His lips quirked and he glanced at Naj as if he’d just found an amusing joke. “But perhaps, at least with a serpent in the nest, I won’t be alone in keeping an eye on you before you get too far into trouble.”

Color rose in Nica’s cheeks at the implication she needed a babysitter. Much less that he was insinuating that their newest dancer take the job. She was supposed to be guiding him, not the other way around!

But he had saved her and that alone kept her from yelling back at Kain.

Kain was… joking with him?

The good natured banter they’d shared in the il’soum came back to him, but they had been relaxing then, getting to know one another. But now that Naj was abasing himself to show his contrite spirit-

Oh. Kain was teasing him, as he’d teased him then. Kain didn’t want Naj to bow and scrape and beg forgiveness. Kain wanted help. His help. In his informal capacity as second-in-command. The position existed just as much to give the nest leader some one to look to as it did to help the rest of the nest. What was going on between these two? He couldn’t seem to wrap his head around much of anything. He felt loose and disconnected from himself, and it was nearly impossible to think.

Naj looked to the grinning cat, to the silently sulking hawk, then back to the cat. Did he just wink at him? Naj’s head swam, and the room seemed to spin, now uncomfortably warm.

I… think I’ve had enough.”

He made a motion as if to stand, but he could feel his knees buckling already, even before he’d called on them to hold him up.

Both Nica and Kain shifted to offer support to Naj and after exchanging a look, Nica let go of Naj so Kain could take his arms and help him stand.

Nica made a motion to follow, but stopped when her head swam. The dull ache was fading, but the conversation had given her something to focus on other than her weariness.

I think, perhaps we should rest.” She said, her breath coming a little short as she rested against the side of the tub.

Kain nodded, “If you’ll rest, I’ll work on a stew for dinner. That way you can eat something with some substance when you wake. You’ll be ravenous.”

Naj just stood there, shivering as his damp clothes stuck to him, even as he felt the blood in his face glowing like a hot star. He needed to lie back down, but he needed not to be in cold, wet things, but his hands trembled when he lifted them, and everything clung to him like a second skin, and he nearly threw his head back and simply wailed, but settled for a hiccup of a whimper as he tore a button rather than undoing it.

Kain stared at the serpent in his arms for a moment, then stifled the urge to reach out and offer a mental calm like a blanket. It was simply exhaustion and once the fellow slept it would be better, but right now… Right now, Kain would do well to remember he had once been Dai. Kain wouldn’t risk exposing more of his hand than necessary.

From the tub, Nica manage to gain the edge of the tub, one hand reaching out to stroke Naj’s calf. “I agree, the wet clothes are unpleasant.”

Kain took the serpent’s hand, keeping him from working the next button. “Here. I can throw the clothes in the laundry while you two sleep.”

Hot tears traced his face as his eija held him and his eijye did for him what he could not. He was home. He was safe and cared for, and it only served to underscore his inabilities. He had never been able to take care of himself, relying on the Dai for everything, then falling into a useless sleep when they had been taken away. Who was he? What was he good for, but poisoning the world with his bastardized magics? Why were these strangers taking care of him, when the first things he’d done had been to raid their memories with an out of control s’Era’ramn, then show their leader how to half-kill herself? They should turn him out now, before he had the chance to do any more damage.

But… they weren’t. As Kain peeled away the ruined crimson silk, Nica had begun singing. Softly, yes, but the intent to calm and embrace was clear. He could barely hear the words around the raw emotion sounding in her gentle voice. Even as he cursed himself, he felt love and belonging wrap around him, through him, until he could not think of himself as anything but beloved part of the nest. He stared at her, eyes full of wonder, then promptly slid from the waking world.

Kain’s arms caught the falling serpent and Nica was grateful. Comforting him with touch and voice was about all she could muster. She sighed, patting Kain’s arm and using his stability to climb out of the tub herself.

One hand picked at her sodden sari and she looked up when Kain made a soft sound of amusement. She glanced up and he smiled, adjusting his hold on the serpent in his arms. “Think you can manage the knots on your own?”

She wrinkled her nose, but it was a valid question. It would be easier to walk without the wet fabric draped around her.

In the end, Kain had to help with those as well, though Nica drew the line at his offer to help dry her. At least he seemed to be in a better mood, a light amusement coloring his actions as he escorted her to her room while he carried Naj.

He laid the serpent down, but Nica lowered herself into the nest and curled around Naj before Kain could offer any further help. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate it, however grudgingly. She just preferred to do things for herself.

When he turned to go, though, she did swallow her pride long enough to manage a soft, “Thank you.”

The large man stopped at the tapestry, turning to give her a smile. “Of course.”

Then he was gone and she gave in to the call of sleep.

Chapter 11, part 1

In which too many conversations are happening at once

Someone had lost something in her nest of blankets.

That was the best sense her brain could make of the sensation that was waking her. Rustling and rifling and searching – that was what it was, searching. Someone was searching – for what?

Her brain groped for the awareness to help, but it was being pushed aside.

That woke her faster than the searching had.

Her mind fell still, letting the images come to it, letting the sensation wash over it. Ignore the physical, ignore the sound… Flashes of memory came to her – dismissal, irritation, dancing, a building storm, an answering rumble of earth…

Her eyes flashed open, understanding sudden and bracing. She was awake and when she saw the large dark man next to her, one hand idly trailing in the running water, her fist collided with his bicep.

A smooth eyebrow raised and she snarled at him, trying to pull herself upright against the ledge of the tub. “You ass! Stay out!”

His dark eyes narrowed, then flicked away. Kain busied himself with a packet of herbs, closing the tie and sinking it deep into the swirling water. He adjusted the tap until steam rose.

“Kain,” Her voice was heavy with warning and her face flushed when he merely gave her an expectant look. “It’s one thing when –“

“When you nearly kill yourself? Yes, it is.” His smooth voice was matter of fact, brooking no argument. Not that that was going to stop her.

She pulled harder on the ledge of the tub, trying to gather enough strength to levy herself onto it. When that failed, she huffed in annoyance. Now that she was fully awake, she knew what had happened. Or at least, what had happened until she’d fallen. The magic had taken root of its own. It was something Ariella had warned her could happen, but Nica hadn’t thought –

“You never do.” Kain’s voice interrupted her thoughts and she scowled anew.

“Stay out.”

“Or you’ll what? Hit me with the strength of a hatchling again? Scowl at me and sulk that you aren’t dead? That you merely drained our new dancer rather than killed him with your recklessness?” His voice rose with each question, a fine fury building until he looked away abruptly.

Nica stared at the large man next to her, breathing heavily and trying to regain his calm. She rarely saw this side of him, where his emotion spoke before his mind could sensor it. The rarity of it brought home the severity of the situation and she quieted.

She hadn’t… No, that would be a lie. She’d known it had been that bad, but she would have buried it under anger and accusation. She would have hid from herself the way she always did.

Her hand rubbed at a tickle on her upper lip, and her frown deepened when her hand came away smeared with red. She wasn’t going to think about why her head hurt. Dancing an illusion dance without someone to keep watch had been stupid.

“Yes, it was.”

“Alright, Kain. I get it, I was stupid.”

“Do you? Do you really understand, Nica? Because from where I sit, it’s just another impulsive lack of foresight on your part. Whenever you feel something, you react – you don’t think about the emotion, you just run from it.” His voice was harsh, but not as sharp as his words and she jerked as if physically hit.

“I know.” Her voice was quiet and she saw him soften when he sighed.

“I can’t give you space to learn from your mistakes if you’re going to escalate them to fatal levels.” He shot her a wry look. “And I’ll be damned if you leave me to run this nest alone again.”

The attempt at humor was poor, but genuine and it was what it signified that meant more than the joke itself. She smiled, albeit half-heartedly. “Hey, you had Dev.”

He rolled his eyes, shifting his weight to turn off the faucet. “Fate preserve me from demons.”

Whatever she was going to say was cut off when he reached for Naj, shifting the sleeping man’s body as if he were going to dunk him fully clothed into the tub.

“Hey – what are you doing?” Her disbelief warred with surprise.

“You both need to be warmed up, this is energy efficient.”

“He’s unconscious!”

Kain stared at her, blinking long and slow the way only a cat could. “And?”

“And he’ll drown?” She stared back at him. “Were you really going to just dump us both in the tub?”

“You wouldn’t drown, I’m right here.” He sounded affronted.

“And what would you have done if we had started to go under?” And he thought she was reactive and short sighted.

He raised an elegant eyebrow. “A hand in the hair will keep your head above water rather easily.”

She sputtered at that and he sighed theatrically. “Fine, fine, what would you have me do? Bundle you in blankets and tote hot water bottles back and forth? Or better, waste my own energy to push heat into the pair of you? At least one of us needs to be alert and ready to deal with the nest today.”

She stared at him, frowning, but she couldn’t find the words to argue with him. “Fine.” She finally muttered.

Jostling in the dark.

Strong arms around him, carrying him with quick even strides down a torch-lined hall. None of them were lit anymore– he’d stopped wasting the energy after the first three or so.

“Master, are we–”

The voice cut off in wet bark of a cough, the painful sound making his gut clench. Soothing warmth spread out from where firm hands gripped him, and a murmured command not to waste energy speaking. Who were these men, moving so swiftly and urgently through the dark? One of them was Master? Was one of them me?

Stones rumbled beneath them, the very ground upset by this episode. Were they running? Who was arguing? The earth was angry, and the sun could not part the clouds.

But a voice whispered inside him that he was safe, that power held him and would keep him safe. He snuggled deeper into the solid warmth, turning his face into the rumbling. There wasn’t much strength to it, but a little tendril of thought reached out to coil itself around the energy that cradled him as surely as the big hands he rested in. A small sigh ghosted out of him, and he finally breathed easy.

Kain was distracted from his arguing with Nica to look down at the small man nestling against him. Naj was more asleep than awake, but he was reacting to Kain much as he had in the il’soum. His words were barely audible, but what little Kain caught troubled him. But he would think on the trickles he was skimming from the serpent’s thoughts later. Right now it served to remind him that the serpent was still too cool and Kain raised an eyebrow at Nica.

He needs to be warmed, but you’re hardly better yourself.” He cut off Nica’s protest with a frown. “If the pair of you both soak in the hot water, then you’ll warm faster. It will also relieve whatever muscles you abused on stage. And,” he added with a touch of annoyance, “with you awake, you can keep him from going under.”

Relief eased his shoulders when she simply nodded. Hopefully she wasn’t more hurt than he thought she was. It was hard to tell when she was being agreeable.

Nica could hardly argue with Kain about a hot bath when her bones ached. She felt as if she’d truly been caught out in a freezing rain, with a chill that cut to the core of her. It wasn’t often she felt such cold, but when her avian blood wasn’t hot enough to combat it, she knew to heed the warning.

She tried again to lever herself up to the ledge of the tub and this time, she managed it. Her muscles protested the movement with stinging sensations and tight tinges. She made a small sound, but swallowed it back down. The last thing she wanted was Kain hovering and fussing.

A hand fumbled with the knot of her halter top and when she found she couldn’t undo it, tried the one on her sarong. They were only simple square knots, but she couldn’t feel the tips of her fingers. Feeling hopelessly clumsy, she sighed in annoyance and simply slid into the tub still fully clothed.

She avoided Kain’s amused look, wincing as the heat of the water stung on her chilled flesh. With a soft sigh of acceptance, she held her arms out. “Well?” She prompted when he didn’t immediately lower the serpent.

Kain shook his head, a smile finally cracking his lips. Gently, he lowered his arms into the water, settling Naj against Nica in the heat. He drew back slowly, not wanting to jostle either of them too much.

Will you two be alright for a few moments? I want to check on the nest – you won’t fall back asleep in the heat?” He knew they were both too tired for further mischief, but he hardly liked leaving them alone after this morning’s events.

Nica nodded, eyes closing. “I’m sore more than I’m tired right now.” Which was technically true, but she knew she was also exhausted. She felt Kain’s frown and cracked an eye to frown right back. “We’ll be fine, old man.”

He huffed softly as if he doubted that, but he stood. “Alright, I’ll hold you both to that.”

With that, he was gone. Nica sighed, her eyes closing again. She felt the gentle tug of sleep pull at her, but resisted it, forcing her mind to focus on minor details, like the names of the hand postures Naj had been teaching her before all this began.

We’ll be fine, old man.

I’ll hold you both to that.

The voices were wrong. The idea was right, but the sound clashed with the memory. Yes, it was a memory. That’s explained the disconnect.

He should care more that things weren’t matching up, but arms still held him close, even if they were much smaller than the last pair, and he was warm. Beautifully,blissfully warm. Someone promised to keep him warm and safe, and held him like he was the only thing holding them to the waking world. He knew that feeling well, and the sense of camaraderie warmed him as much as the water.

Water? He was wet? Oh, yes, the rain. They’d been caught in a rainstorm, and now they needed to get warm. He snuggled closer to his companion, opening his aura to let whatever warmth he had be shared between them.

Nica was drawn from her straining thoughts when Naj made a small sound. He still seemed to be sleeping and she sighed.

She was so tired. She couldn’t sleep though, needing to keep an eye on Naj. Kain had said she’d nearly killed him, drained him and he certainly felt it, his aura lapping up the heat around them. It had been her mistake, no one else should have to suffer the consequences for it.

But everyone did. Kain was right, she never thought her actions through. After Jax… She’d left, abandoned her nest for two years – and for what? What right did she have to think her pain trumped theirs?

A trickle on her cheek brought her hand up, smearing wet with wet. She was distracted when her hand came away with flecks of red. Nica grimaced, dunking her hand in the water to clean it, then scrubbing her hand over her face again until it came away clean.

First jostling, now fidgeting. He’d been content to just drift until the world made sense again, but the world kept insisting on moving. He cracked open an eye to better assess the situation, then started at the fading trace of blood in the water. Naj’s eyes flew open in alarm, now fully alert as he searched Nica’s face to signs of hurt.

Are you-”

He stopped, realizing her face only held confusion and surprise. His mouth hung open, voice breaking with a small sound, but he was at a loss for words. What in the worlds had happened to them?

She wasn’t sure what the play of emotion in his aura meant. Alarm, confusion… Then again, he had woken up fully clothed in a tub.

Nica ran a hand over his arm, trying to be reassuring when he made a distressed sound. “It’s alright.”

You were bleeding.”

His voice was as soft as he reached for her face, stopping just shy of touching. Her fingers tickled along his arm, giving him the illusion of blood dripping down his own arm. He shuddered, eyes squeezing tight as he tried to focus on what was real.

Her fingers were hot and delicate, yes, but there was a comforting strength in them. His shirt stuck to him where her hands smoothed over his arm, but it was the thin damp of water, not the sticky cling of blood.

But… his shirt shouldn’t be on him at all, should it? They were in the bath…

He opened his eyes again, trying to make sense of everything. Bath, yes, clothes, yes. Blood, but not hurt. Cold, from the rain? But they had been underground, in the tunnels– No, that one was wrong. That had been a memory, with different people in a different place. But, bath? With clothes? He was missing something. He reached for that still place in his mind that let him retreat, let him rest, but… Nica was bleeding. He needed to know why. He couldn’t turn away.

What happened?”

Nica’s wince hid itself behind a small smile. He didn’t remember?

She sighed, settling lower in the water as she thought about where to start. It wasn’t going to look good to admit to a new dancer that his nest leader was an idiot.

Her gaze fell to her foot when it brushed the sachet of herbs Kain must have placed in the tub. Leave it to the old man to be playing witch doctor when she wasn’t looking.

I was practicing an illusion dance…” She started slowly, keenly aware as her thoughts tried to distance her from what she needed to say. “And the magic got away from me.” Nica frowned slightly, leaning her head back against the edge of the tub. “I don’t honestly remember all of it,” Not quite a lie. Some things she remembered only from Kain dredging them from her thoughts and his own ideas mingling with them. “But it drained you as well.”

Her voice was soft and her eyes closed against the fresh swell of guilt. “Kain brought us down here to warm up.”

Oh yes. Aret’vir’ramn.

No, not that wasn’t it. Nica had gone to practice, but she’d called her dances by a different name, one that had chilled him to the core.

Ramn tr’vr’era, To dance with visions of the void.

They were wet because Nica had spun up actual rain. They were exhausted because the energy to pull something from nothingness had to come from somewhere, and Nica had offered it her ki’n when she danced. Raptors were known to be skilled manipulators of dreams and the worlds that sprung up within them, but clearly, Nica didn’t have the proper theoretic foundation of what she had been doing. “Dancing with shadows” had once been a euphemism for those who had fallen to the whispering dark. There was great power in the visions shaped by this kind of magic, because great power was required to create them.

Its no surprise we don’t remember,” he said softly, eyes fixed on nothing. “The spell will have eaten up everything we didn’t protect.” Perhaps that was why Naj had woken with his mind fixed on the past. He had plenty of memories to feed the storm. He frowned, wondering what he had left to protect. Why not let the storm eat everything and just be done with it? No memories, no past, nothing left to protect, nothing left to fear…

A chill took him, even as his body soaked up the water’s warmth. “I think it would be best if you not perform that step again.” And here he’d been worried about the ethics of teaching her how to store up energy.

Nica frowned, eyes opening to stare blindly at the ceiling as she thought his worried words over. He sounded… Not upset, but haunted.

She glanced at him, but looked away again when her chest tightened. “It’s never been like that when I practiced with Ariella.”

Ariella is..a falcon?” Naj asked. The name sounded falcon, and the storm’s magic had seemed to pull at him like a falcon’s, but he knew there was much about the world he didn’t know. He had no idea if there was any significant difference between being a falcon and being a hawk. It might make all the difference between controlling a difficult weaving and being destroyed by it. He’d danced with falcons in the Dai, and he’d seen the same steps shape shadows to heal or shadows to enslave. He couldn’t guess at what reason Nica’s teacher might have for binding her dancers to her so tightly that they would die if they danced without her. Still, if it dove like a falcon and screamed like a falcon, it wasn’t likely a pigeon, and the difference between aret’vir’ramn and ramn tr’vr’era was just as vast, and just as deadly.

Yes.” Her response was a bit absent-minded, turning over the new conundrum. Dancing an illusion dance had never been like that. It had never taken a life of its own, spinning past her and pulling her with it. Had it been the singing? She’d used more color than usual, shaping a storm at dawn… But that shouldn’t have mattered, should it?

Maybe she’d been too tired at the start – but no, after meditating with Naj she’d felt revitalized. It had been part of what had spurred her to practice, hadn’t it?

I just don’t understand what went wrong.” She didn’t realize she’d said it aloud until her own voice met her ears.

Naj frowned, not having enough to go on. Master would know, but-

Master isn’t here.

This nest was not working. Every time he turned around, Naj was thinking about his past. How was he supposed to move past all that, when everything kept calling on his former skills?

Was that what Aezir wanted? Had he placed Naj here intending for him to keep operating as if he were still Dai? A little notice would have been nice.

He found himself reaching out, thoughts intent on the long line of connection between them. He shouldn’t, he knew he shouldn’t, but he just felt so lost…

Until he felt a veritable brick wall of intent, walking this way. Someone was steeling themselves up against a coming argument. He didn’t like the feel of it one bit. He jerked his questing tendril back in a panic, reeling with the urgency to hide. He must not be seen. He was far too weak like this.

Naj reeled, mind pinwheeling to keep up with itself. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision, murmuring, “Someone’s coming…”

Hm?” Nica’s head jerked up at Naj’s low voice. Something in his tone had pulled a bolt of adrenaline through her and she made a small sound as it ebbed again and her head throbbed.

Kain.” She said, moments before the mountain of a man appeared in the doorway.

Interlude: Dreams in the Desert, part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 10, part 2

In which mind over matter proves to be very, very true, and very dangerous

Kain expression clouded in his sleep, head turning as if he could escape whatever was trying to bring him to wakefulness.

Everything was dark, waves upon waves keeping the sky at bay. There was a pressure within the weight, smothering and demanding everything sleep.

But it wasn’t the warm, dark cradle of earth that he knew and he turned from it, troubled. Starbursts broke his thoughts, erupting like bubbles to give him pops of sound. He followed the bubbles upwards, swimming with strong, sure strokes. He was a prince of earth and while this was not his domain, he would not be governed by another’s folly.

His eyes opened, unseeing in the dark room. Two forms lay beside him, their breathing deep and easy. With a touch, he nudged them deeper, ensuring they would not wake too soon. Something was amiss and he wanted no interruptions.

As he slipped from the bed, his awareness spread through the dark, touching other minds that slept in untroubled stillness. They, too, would not wake too early. He strode into the hallway, barely pausing for his eyes to adjust to the light that was already on in the common rooms.

His feet took him to the stairs, following the energy that crashed against his aura like waves beating upon a rocky shore. He was stone and this sea did not have time enough to carve him down to its will. He could not bury it, he could not dam it, but he could stand in its midst and not fall.

Distantly, muffled voices filtered into Nica’s ears. She was on the stage – her wing. She’d landed on her wing and the angle hurt. She should shift it away, but she needed to get up. She couldn’t rest here, what had she been thinking?

Even as the thoughts swirled about her head, they seemed to collide with one another. Nothing but noise. They were nothing but noise to her. Still, she pushed up on one arm, freeing the sharp pain. She tried to focus enough to tuck the wings away again, and she thought she succeeded, but in doing so, she lost the ability to keep herself raised off the floor. The noise was back and she couldn’t think. Her cheek was wet, had she fallen asleep in the tub again?

Naj reacted without thought. As soon as Nica was within his sight, his brain had a target, an answer to the urgency. Nica had danced with the shadows, and the illusions were using her physicality to manifest their own forms. The spell was eating her alive, and her soul was calling out for help. She needed power and she needed it fast, before the exhaustion took her. If Naj could feed the spell fast enough, it would release her, and eat its way through the limited energy available. But if Nica lost consciousness before he could end the connection, the phantom storm would rage on, without anything to direct it, or anything to keep it from consuming its caster completely.

Naj threw himself to the floor beside her, calling out to her with mind and words alike. Power raced down his arm as he touched her, booming in a thunderous strike that shook the stage. The spell-summoned clouds above them opened up, pouring a fierce, icy rain down upon them, and Naj shouted to be heard over the roaring wind. His hand was on fire where it touched Nica’s skin, and he poured out his energy without a thought. He screamed his defiance into the storm, pounding a fist shaped in the sigil of stillness onto the stage, demanding the spell acknowledge its limits. He dropped himself over Nica’s chest, shielding her with body and aura alike as the clouds unleashed their fury, and then died just as abruptly as any summer storm.

The spell was contained, and Nica’s chest rose and fell beneath his cheek, but Naj continued to call to her, murmuring over and over for her to come back to him, to come back to her nest, to come back to the home and heart she’d worked so long to build. He filled the plea with his desperation to have a home, to feel the warmth and safety she had built, to belong, to call it his own. He poured his need into her, praying it would be enough to keep her head above the icy waters of the Whispering Dark. Both their heads. Nica had crossed over into the s’era, the Void, to weave her shadows. And Naj had poured into Nica without restraint, racing to fill every empty thought and heartbeat, desperate to keep her with him. And to keep him with her. She made his blood sing, and he could not lose her, not so soon after just barely finding her.

Kain pushed through the curtain, uncertain of what he’d find on the other side. The arm he led with held his cheetah’s spots, though they were pale and stiff like granite.

The power on the other side pelted him, a storm uncontrolled. Lightning burned along his skin and he was glad when it found the earthen parts of his skin like a conduit, rolling the strike away harmlessly.

Hard eyes narrowed when they fell on the two forms at the center of the stage, the heart of the spell-storm. The serpent was bowed over a prone body, one hand outstretched to call order to the chaos that beat around them. Kain did nothing as the storm came to a rolling stop, thunder faint as if moving on as the magic spent itself, now cut off from its source.

The pair of them did not move, even after the spell had passed, and Kain took a cautious step forward. Now the roiling sea of Void beneath the storm was apparent – its call was what had woken him, not the errant spell.

He frowned, trying to untangle the moments that had brought them all here. Dancing, falling, dark waters… Memories? The air was too heavy, damp with tears and rain alike. He couldn’t follow all the threads that knotted around them, leaving them in a stranglehold of energy that would snarl and bury any who touched them. The spell was satiated and gone, but the hunger of the Whispering Dark still remained.

Kain paced to the pair of them, lips tightening at the sight of blood trickling from Nica’s nose. The magic had wrecked havoc on her physical form as well as mental. The serpent was fighting the mental fight commendably, he might even pull them both free of the Il’Rhea’s current. But on his own, it may not be soon enough.

He reached down to them, touching their skins simultaneously to push the strength and surety of the earth beneath them. Every grain of sand, every pebble, every stone built of memory, cemented together by every touch, every smile, every laugh shared. He pulled the memories from Nica, following the thread that the serpent was trying so desperately to tug. The serpent did not have the shared experience, the knowledge of Nica’s self to guide her with, but Kain did.

Together, they pulled her out of the magical rip tide and onto the metaphysical shore.

He’d stopped breathing.

Naj only knew this because the ragged breath he drew now burned through him like ice and fire combined. His fingers tingled with the force of it, blood racing to deliver suddenly needed air. He’d slipped into the il’m again, but this time, he’d gone willingly, and darkness hadn’t challenged his right to be there. But as he’d clung to Nica’s sinking song, the Whispering Dark had exerted her claim on him, and he’d stopped breathing, filling his mortal needs with raw power. He could drift forever like this, but the hawk had no such training. Her heart needed to beat, her breath needed to sing out, and Naj had no fire strong enough to tempt her with. He had emptied everything he’d had into the hungry storm she’d summoned up, and now he had nothing left to save them with.

A distant pulse echoed through his brain, calling, crying, cajoling– anything that might stir him to action. But Naj was empty, and the darkness was home.

Seth would not lay down to sleep beneath the ice.

He beat at it with swollen fists, the rhythmic thump keeping a time for his slowing heart. He would not sleep here, he would not. The il’m pulled at him, murmuring the sweet promises of peace that lured so many servants of Il’Dao into the dark. She wanted him, after so many years of drawing on magics that shouldn’t be his. But Seth hadn’t fought the il’m for so many centuries just to give up now.

When Naj had breathed his last, Seth threw more fury into his fists, spurred on by the feelings of the first cracks. He kicked when the ice gave way to water, slowly releasing its hold. Seth kicked, deliberate, rhythmic beats like the pounding of his fists. He would find the surface again, he would not sleep here, and he would drag them all with him. He could not stop.

And then the shore was reaching out to meet him, sand and stone realigning to cut the distance. Seth reached with a grasping hand, kicking, kicking, gasping when his head finally broke the surface. He crawled panting on the shore, using the last of his will to pull Nica and Naj to lay on the familiar white sand beside him. Only then did he allow himself to collapse, all his thoughts on his breath, in and out, in and out, until it would become natural again.

Nica was warm where she had been cold, but she couldn’t open her eyes. She was tired, so tired, why wouldn’t Ariella let her rest?

Arms were around her, strong and steady and she was safe. She was away from the driving force, away from the pounding insistence. A voice murmured in her ear, but she was too tired to understand the words. It meant sleep and so she slept.

Naj curled into the feeling warm stone against his skin, his mind still drifting safe between the sun and the sand. It wasn’t the weightless drifting of the dark waters, but he felt he was drifting nonetheless, with nothing to tie his awareness to his body. He was warm, he was safe, and that was good enough.

Miles and miles away, he knew he was opening his eyes. Across the great distance, he saw a shadow looming over him, felt the brush of hair and feathers along his cheek. But the effort to cross the space was too great, so he simply watched as the shadow fell over him, and he was carried away in a swirl of sunshine and stone.

Kain sighed as both of them gave into a harmless, less permanent sleep. Their minds were still on the metaphysical shores of the Il’Rhea, bodies and less material parts still not quite in harmony with one another. But on shore they could rest, though both were cool to his touch.

His lips twisted into a frown as he looked down at the pair before him, the last remnants of the spell fading on their skin. It was almost pretty, if it wasn’t colored by the irritation he was left with. What the hell had they been thinking?

The answer, clearly, was they weren’t. He didn’t know which one of them had started it, but he was plenty agitated to have to clean up after two of them. The serpent had done well enough to keep them both awake and treading water long enough for Kain to reach them, but he didn’t like that this was his wake up.

He stared at the curtains beyond them, lips pursing as he checked that everyone was still asleep. He was going to catch hell from Nat and Gwen for spelling them like that. Double damn.

Kain closed his eyes, letting his growing ire bleed into the rock so far below his feet. Later. It would wait until later. Right now the crisis had passed, but he still had cleaning up to do. With a shake of his arm, the stone vanished beneath his usual dark muscle.

He repositioned the serpent so he could scoop him and Nica up into his arms together. Carrying them as one, he headed downstairs, where they would at least be protected under the wards.

As he maneuvered the stairs, his destination narrowed. A hot bath would do both of them more good than a pile of blankets. Not to mention it would take less energy on his part. He had hardly drained his own resources, but it had been decades since he’d had to pull power like that. It bothered him that not only had he done it, but he had not hesitated to do so.

Decades of habit could not undo centuries of practice so it seemed. If the past was what the serpent was going to bring to the nest, perhaps this wasn’t the place for an ex Dai operative.

Chapter 10, part 1

In which the dam breaks, and the floods rise

She would be lying if she didn’t admit to herself that she was smarting from Naj’s dismissal. Nica had opted not to eat anything before dancing, sore that she’d been dismissed and sorer still that she had been so affected by it.

She stood on the stage, back to the rich curtain as she stared at the stacked chairs and wooden tables. The passage of time blurred in her memories when everything still seemed the same as she’d left it. Old pain distracted her from the newer sting of the slight and she was able to take a deep, grounding breath.

Striding across the stage, she flexed her shoulders, wings sprouting from her shoulder blades. She took a moment, orienting herself to the new balance and feeling how the muscles sat differently as she moved arms and wings alike.

Deliberately trying to let it all go, she flexed her wings forward, running her fingertips along the shafts of some primary feathers. The black and white barring faded into a brilliant rust at the joint. The red cascaded down the uppermost part of her wing until it hit her back. One beat, two and she nodded to herself. She could do this.

Nica felt full of energy, better for the night of rest and the easy waking of a gentle dance. She surely felt better than she had all the times Ariella had had her practice, drowsy and half asleep on her feet. Now her movements felt sharp, precise, and she was confident that she could do it alone.

It wasn’t that she’d needed the falcon’s guidance, only that Ariella was such a finicky teacher, convinced no one could do anything right if she wasn’t watching.

Shaking her head, she pushed thoughts of the falcon aside. Getting her blood to boil would hardly help her concentrate on her dance.

Finding the center of the stage, she raised her arms high, crossing them at the wrists and posing her hands to open her energies. Her thoughts briefly flicked to Naj, seeing the similarity in the hand shape, but remembering his dismissal from her own room shut that avenue down quickly. Once on the balls of her feet, she concentrated on drawing a straight line through her.

She swayed from foot to foot, finding the right rhythm for the dance. When she was sure of herself, she began to lay the footwork that would help her build the energy necessary for the illusion she was about to cast.

Of the dances she performed, it wasn’t uncommon for her to weave illusions or suggestions to fool the skin or the ears. It seemed the body craved deceit for those receptors or at least was more susceptible to it. But the dance she was about to perform created a visual illusion and that seemed harder to fool.

She summoned as much energy as she could muster and then began.

Naj pushed against hands in the darkness, shapeless forces willing him down, willing him to forget, to sleep. He couldn’t see, couldn’t think, but he knew he must keep pushing, upward, upward, ever upwards. He must get up.

Seth struggled against the currents, struggled against Naj’s flailing hands, struggled to keep his head above the icy waters. Between the emotional turmoil and the elemental energies they’d raised but not balanced, their mindscape was awash with darkness. Like the mythical river Il’Rhea, whose banks housed the resting dead, Naj’s magic and memories and feelings swirled in chilling blackness. Waves crashed in shouts, currents pulled like so many hands, each one eager to draw him into the dance, each one calling to him with the siren song of memory. In death, such waters would be peaceful, a sweet remembrance of lives well lived. With the press of so many years, Naj and Seth could drown before their time, lost to these memories in the Whispering Dark. Seth forced his way past them all, not letting any one face attach to any one name, lest he give a voice a stronger pull than the others.

But there was a voice, pulling strong and sweet, the shining memory not tarnished with the passage of time. Naj grasped at every echo they passed, desperate and overwhelmed by the weight of them, usually kept back by Seth’s skillful hand. While Seth was able to surge ahead past the long dead ghosts with practiced ease, the golden thread was too insistent, still singing strong and resilient in the Now.

Nica.

Such a recent memory might be enough to pull them from the Il’Rhea and out onto the banks, if Naj’s heart was not so full of doubt. Worry for Nica was what had started this downward slide in the first place. Had he hurt her? Directly with his twisted magic, or with the sharper knife of harsh words? He had felt her unhappiness when Seth sent her away, amplified by their connected auras and his own hurt and confusion. Anger colored his panic– anger at his helplessness, anger at the Dai, anger at Seth for sending Nica away. He wanted to stay with Nica, where was Nica? Naj jerked Seth’s mental grasp, and Seth could no longer fight the currents and Naj both at once. A wave of helplessness crested, and they both went under.

Nica threw herself into the movements, picking up speed and layering the energies on top of one another without pause. She knew from experience if she doubted even one of her motions, the entire structure would collapse like a house of cards.

Her wings swept forward and left red in their wake, her hand swept through and left behind drops of purple to mingle and bleed into the red. A twirl and one wing swept it aside to leave a swath of inky darkness that hid her behind it. Furious motions cut through it in places, letting color accent the darkness until she threw herself through it, her wings arcing back to carry the darkness high as if hoisting the night sky itself.

On impulse, her voice suddenly broke through the silence, echoing in the large room. Ariella had mentioned building the magic was about intent, and that voice held as much will as the physical body if done correctly. Nica had never tried it, but her confidence in the picture she was weaving and the swirl of energy around her made her sure of the wordless song. With her voice, she built further layers of energy, stoking them into a fine fury to paint the tapestry above her with the colors of sunset. Her voice was void of words, but not of meaning or intent and as she danced, she wove the notes and movements together as a single creature.

A low spin and one wing swept the ground with greenery that twined and flared behind her, another pass and bursts of color appeared on the edges of the twining vines that appeared to chase her legs, trying to capture her feet in their tendrils. Sharp notes brought burst of colors in midair that took flight on their own, bursting through the sky to abruptly vanish.

Another sweep of her wings as she leapt had the air above her darkening and churning on itself, weaving greys with blues and the hint of green. A tempest rained upon her and still she danced, pushing herself to build it further.

It was more than she’d managed before, the pressure of the energies laid heavy on her skin and in her body. She knew when she finished that she would be exhausted again, but for this one moment, it was worth it.

She sang to the skies to burst the clouds and bring the rain, adding vibrancy to the life beneath her feet. When she finally stilled her feet, the vines wrapped around her ankles and she hit her knees, letting the last of the notes fade into the air as the visual magic faded with it. The fall had been planned, but hasty, and she could feel a faint throb from the impact already.

Her heart was pounding and she couldn’t get air into her lungs fast enough. It was as if she were still dancing, still drawing the energy higher and higher, to altitudes she couldn’t sustain. Spots danced in her vision and she tried to steady herself with her hands. On either side, her wings trembled with the exertion.

There was only darkness, but it was neither peaceful, nor still. Echoes of color remained, but he could not remember what color was. Or what it meant to remember at all. Self was a fleeting dream, fading into the nothingness that was Something without form, Life before chaos became order from sleep, Life as it would return once order slept again.

Within the quivering darkness, a sound. A song began, wordless, but carrying with it all that “song” meant, and echoes of light, and fire. Heat and life and wild determination cut the darkness with its cry, and Naj clung to it, the last thought before the void.

And from the sound came color, and light, and living things, growing fast in the rich, potent darkness. Vines and hands surged upward, clinging to the song, clawing their way through the night to reach for the fire painted sky. Desperation pulled at the clouds, brought swirling into life by the need for something to hold on to. And once he had a hold of them, they burst in a shower of passions too over-ripe to contain.

The Need and the vines and the Self pulled the passion down to it, wrapping around the singer to hold her close, to remember her name, to remember life and light and dancing. Self willed the vines to seek upward, ever upward, until they burst through the clouds, and his ears were filled with the rushing of water.

Drowning. He had been drowning, and now he was dying. If he could not get his head above water, could not draw a breath, he would die. No magic here would sustain him, not with the Life he held so desperately around him. These were the Dark Waters, Il’Rhea, the passage to Death, and he would find no aide given to a heart that sought the Light. Naj gave a fierce kick, and another, and another, striving towards the light.

Nica thought her heart was slowing, but she couldn’t tell anymore. There was just a dull roar in her ears that she distantly knew to be the sound of her blood.

The spots of her vision had given way to a hazy ring of darker gray at the edges. She felt cold and every blink felt sluggish. On hands and knees, she knew she should move, that she should elevate her legs, but she couldn’t remember how. Or perhaps the trouble was simply in getting her body to do as she told it. She was sure she had tried to stand, but here she stayed.

Her entire body ached, but it felt distant, though not numb. Crimson spots hit the wooden stage in front of her eyes and she stared blindly. They should mean something to her, but she couldn’t make them tell her what that was. Then they were zooming out, going distant and clearly unimportant.

Her eyes blinked once more, then refused to open. She was so tired. Maybe she hadn’t slept as well as she’d thought. A sharp pain brought her eyes wide and she was staring at a stretch of empty stage and chairs.

With a raging surge, he remembered Body, not the form he used to traverse dreams such a this, but the real physical vessel that breathed and danced and hurt. Oh, it hurt. How long had he sat like this, arms and legs crossed, containing the maelstrom of power that raged within? He stretched, and once remembered, arms and legs coursed with the urgency of MOVE! He was on his feet and racing down the hall before he had untangled that bodies meant boundaries, and he could not simply will himself to where he needed to be.

But he desperately needed to be somewhere. And some wordless part of him knew where that was. So Naj let his frightened feet take him to where he needed to be, and he hoped that his mind would understand once he’d arrived.

Previous: Chapter 9, part 3

Chapter 9, part 3

In which Naj takes the lead

“Just follow my lead.” He held his hands up in front of him, palms forming cups, one open to the sky and one pouring down into the earth. “Do you know this shape?” It was ARE, an opening prayer, and the foundation of everything. If last night’s dancing was any indication, she would know it well, but as with Marie, he opted to over explain rather than leave anything out.

Her hands mimicked his, even as her posture straightened. It was habit by now, the two years spent in Ariella’s nest had been spent training with the falcon, and she was an effective teacher, if a bit severe.

Between learning at the falcon’s knee and her family being fond of rei’ramn, Nica knew a few hand shapes, and while she didn’t recognize all the ones he had used last night, this one she was familiar with.

The ARE. All that is, all that was, and all that would ever be.

ARE – the All.” Her eyes opened, flicking to his.

He nodded, thoroughly pleased. It was beyond wonderful to be with someone who knew the old ways. It was home.

Seth eyed the hawk before him, putting her aura under careful scrutiny. She appeared just as she claimed– strong in raw power, but only rudimentary trained. The energy of the room swirled around her, drawn to the center of the nest, but didn’t stick. She wasn’t channeling. Even an aura currently inactive would draw in the power if it was well accustomed to doing so. This raptor was an areta, there was magic in her dancing, but it was incidental. Still…

Naj seemed truly delighted to be teaching, lost in the simple pleasure of it, no unsavory memories surfacing… Oh, to hell with it. Seth saw no harm in it, and Naj had to be allowed to form bonds within the nest. So he relaxed his reluctance and allowed Naj to continue. How much trouble could they get into merely meditating?

Abruptly, Naj dove right into the lesson, rolling his left hand up to join the right so that both palms cupped upward. He linked them at the thumbs, making a small x where they lay on each other.

This is also ARE, though you must narrow your focus to see it. Forget the fingers, for now, and focus on the cups made by your thumbs. Still, this is All there is.”

Her brow furrowed slightly, following his motions. She could see it, but he was right, it wasn’t obvious at first.

Her breathing fell into the steady rhythm Ariella had drilled into her, her center becoming still as she focused in on the shape of her hands.

Nica didn’t make any comment one way or another, but Naj could feel her focus, could sense her aura shrinking down to the point of her crossed thumbs, and so he continued.

He wiggled his outstretched fingers, feeling the energy dance and sing along their slender lengths, waiting to be tapped.

“Each finger pair aligns with an il’li Daeos. Li’Il, being the first to be born, are the longest.”

He touched his index fingers together, leaving the rest spread wide. Those fingers really didn’t have anything to do with the shaping of Li’Ilnar, but if they touched each other accidentally, it could be distracting at best, or potentially create a new symbol. He glanced over at Nica’s hands, making sure her fingers were out of the way, but she’d mirrored his alignments perfectly. Naj assumed her silent concentration was a testament to her falcon training– he too knew how unwise it was to interrupt one when teaching. So he pressed on, but made a point of watching her more carefully out of the corner of her eye. He wasn’t sure if he could trust her to speak up if she had any issues.

“If you wanted Il to rule the sigil instead of Li, you’d simply drop your fingers so that they touched at the nail instead of the pads. See?”

The instant he curled his fingers, he felt the energy lock, held still by the small circles his fingers created. Nica’s aura clamped down around her as well, but the only indication she gave of noticing the change was a slight narrowing of her gaze. Could she see the magic they were shaping? He’d love to talk with her at length about it, at some point. But right now, they had work to do, lest the energy slip away.

“Some prefer to change the crossing of their thumbs, as well, putting dominant hand over the other, to balance the darker force of Il. But I’ve always found that weakens the power, and I’ve never had any trouble directing the energy where I want it.”

No, the only trouble he’d had with Il’Dao was returning from the il’m, that Whisphering Darkness. With that sobering thought, he spread his fingers wide again, letting the trapped energy out. His fingers tingled with the force of it, and again, he felt the tugging of the new day. He breathed deeply to settle himself, drawing the Now deep within him. Forward, ever forward. Etren e’ramn.

“The other il’li-Daeos follow as they should: Ki’Ik, Aehr’Rhea, Anhk’Khna.” His fingers flicked through the motions, fingertips touching as he ticked off each name. Nica, he noticed, did not do the same. He imagined she’d wait, until she knew exactly what her motions might invoke. She was an excellent student, but somewhat unsettling after the rapid-fire chatter of Marie. But if Nica would wait for full understanding before acting, then he’d simple work through the lesson and check for understanding when he’d finished.

“To access only one half of an il’li, close the fist you won’t be using down, making sure all your fingers are grounded, touching your palm. Then simply touch the finger you wish to access to the direction you want the energy to flow: Li or Il.”

He touched the pinkie of his right hand to the thumb of the right, opening it up. Again, the energy raced, flying out to all corners and filling up his core.

“With everything open like this, you can fill all of the other spaces, having energy to call on as you need it.”

He opened his left hand again, bringing both of his index fingers to touch his left thumb. Light and Dark swirled in his mind, filling his thoughts and coloring the music that beat in his chest. These would be his primary resources, the Daeos he knew best. Next strongest would be his ties to h’Ki’Ik, but anything stored in the name Il’Dao and Li’Daea could be molded into the shape of any of their children, so he would fill them fullest.

Il. Dark. Li. Light. She knew the names, the motions becoming more familiar. Her aura danced as she did so. And her breathing caught, then fell back into rhythm as she realized the energies were pulling one another in her hands, shaping in her aura as surely as her muscle and bone shaped them. It was a heady feeling, but she forced herself to focus on Naj’s words.

Later, she would consider how old he was, or what tradition he followed that practiced such energy manipulation. Perhaps she would talk it over with Kain. For now though, she was learning, both this new technique and about this new serpent, pushing the coursing thoughts under to focus.

“Be careful not to overfill any one il’li, you’re new at this yet. Move on to the next pair of digits.”

The energies flowed through her easily– too easy for Naj’s liking. Either she had skill with this and didn’t know to call it in this way, or she was dangerously ungrounded from recent deprivation or distress. Either way, this could swing her just as wildly out of balance, with how quickly everything was flowing. In such a new student, there should hardly be any change at all. He should have asked, but he didn’t know what to make of this dancer who wore feathers and sang in serpent tongue.

Nica followed his instruction, letting her fingers shift through the motions. She could almost feel when she should move, as if pouring water into a cloudy jug and judging fullness by sound alone. It was an apt comparison that mimicked his words and she wondered exactly what this meditation’s purpose was. She felt centered, yes, but she could also feel her aura swirling around her, the energy pooling on itself.

Her voice was soft as she formed the last of the shapes. Clearly speaking didn’t disrupt the energies, and Naj had stopped explaining each motion. She was too used to waiting until Ariella invited questions. “And afterwards?”

Naj blinked at the suddenness of her voice. It had a low, husky quality that didn’t quite fit with how her energy roared and sparkled. Deprivation, he decided, was what had her soaking up the energies they’d raised so quickly. He had yet to even move on to the second set of fingers. Then again, his Li’Il could hold a considerable amount.

No matter. She was ready to finish, and Naj didn’t foresee needing to fall back on his reserves any time soon. He could eat at will, sleep at will, and had nestmates to curl up with when he was cold. The only thing he would need stored energy for would be areta’ramn, and he really couldn’t imagine being called on to cast anything in this nest.

He spread his fingers wide again, releasing his grip and letting his aura flow wherever it wished.

“Return to our starting posture, so everything can settle. Like laying a blanket out flat before folding it, be sure everything is smooth before locking it down.”

At that, he interlaced all of his fingers save the index pair, which he set into a steeple, then dropped down again to touch at the knuckles. He uncrossed his thumbs, pressing them into the sides of his curled fingers, then brought the heels of his hands together.

“This is the closing, locking everything in place before opening your hands in release.”

He rolled his palms towards the ceiling, uncurling his fingers. He stretched his cupped hands away from him and up to the sky, much like the eipratei posture he’d taken up the night before.

“Anything we’ve raised but not captured is now released to the ARE, and it and we are free to go about our work.”

A deep feeling of peace hovered over him, urging him to relax and bask, but first he had to see to his student. He gave her questioning eyes, checking over her aura with a gentle brush of his own. It seemed in order, but closed down like this, there were things he might miss.

It was an odd sensation, feeling the energy swirl, then settle as if it hadn’t been moving at all. But she followed his motions and the dizzying sensations passed.

She raised her hands with his and could feel her aura stretch with it, the offering vanishing to leave her fingers tingling and self strangely lighter. It was the same weightless feeling of taking flight and she blinked a few times to remind herself of her human form – even if her feathers did raise and resettle among her hair.

Nica took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly. She found him studying her and a small smile answered him. “I understand it was a meditation on the elemental energies, but to what purpose? The dance grounded and centered me, so my balance is hardly different…”

She trailed off as she thought about it, letting her focus trail over her aura. It did feel… Fuller? Was that what he meant by ‘filling’ each position? She felt more awake, as if she had more energy, but that could also be from the morning dance, or simply having fully woken.

Well. He wasn’t going to be using the energy anyways.

On a dramatic whim, Naj pinched his left thumb and forefinger together and flicked his wrist. A wave of darkness boiled from his hand, spill down and curling around the floor like smoke, It rose to fill the room around them, plunging them into a sightless nothing in an instant. With an equal but unseen twist from his right hand, a pure, white light burst forth, chasing the darkness to the corners of the room. In an unnecessary but elegant flourish, Naj called the power back to him in a curl of his fingers. It was only slightly diminished, as illusion magic hardly needed any energy at all, but it had been worth the show.

He gave Nica a wicked grin, teeth and eyes flashing with mirth.

For the purpose of showing off, among other things.”

Her eyebrows rose as her eyes widened. She recognized illusion magic when she saw it – she’d spent the past few weeks barely sleeping to master the technique at Ariella’s hand. And that was after years of pestering the falcon to teach her the technique in the first place. Illusion dances were one of the rarer and more ambitious skills available to a dancer. Partially because you had to find a master of it that was willing to teach it in the first place. There were a few in Ariella’s nest that held the skill, but only the falcon herself could successfully teach the technique behind it.

Impressive.” She tilted her head slightly as she regarded him anew. That he held the skill to do so was both commendable… And concerning. After his display last night, she was unsure of his current level of control. While illusion magic was simply that, illusion, the amount of energy it cost the weaver could be damaging if one wasn’t careful.

Do you ramn tr’vr’era as well?”

Naj’s own eyes grew wide at her question. An aret’vir’ramn, an illusion dance, was a very different thing than a ramn’tr’vr’era. To dance a shadow into being, with so much of your own energy and self involved would be costly, and unspeakably dangerous. Yes, it was doable, by why take such a risky route, when you could simply coerce the energies around you into taking the right shape?

Unless…

Naj knew the Dai were innovators, if nothing else. Ruthless, amoral innovators, yes, but Naj knew many of his skills were due entirely to their experiments and trials. What he didn’t know is where those techniques came from, and what they looked like in their original forms. And why they differed from the Dai’s way of doing them. He suddenly wondered if he should have shown Nica this at all, or if he himself should even be practicing it. It was just a meditation, right?

But to what purpose?

Nica’s question rang out in his mind, and Naj didn’t have any answers. Not ones that didn’t belong to another life, another Naj, servant of a man who was servant to a power that had shaped the world for centuries– but to what purpose? He didn’t like that he couldn’t answer that, but he suspected he’d like the answer even less.

And just like that, Naj was lost again. This raptor was proving to be a problem. Yes, she drew out of a Naj a fire like no other, but she also drew darker memories that Seth couldn’t keep repressed. Not with Naj actively pushing for them. This wasn’t going to work if the man kept insisting on living in days gone by. Seth had to ground him in the now, and keep yesterday where it belonged.

It was a mistake to have let Naj teach her such things. But it had been so long since Naj had been motivated to do anything of his own will that Seth had let it go. It was just one mistake after another in this nest– surely, Aezir didn’t think Naj would actually do well here–

But he was, little mishaps aside. He was smiling. He was dancing. Yes, he was digging, but maybe… Maybe with enough warmth and light in the Now…

The Now was a curious raptor woman, waiting for an answer to what she thought was an innocent question. Damn it all, this was a mess.

Ah, no,” Seth said lightly, pushing a blanket of il’m further over Naj’s unhappy crisis.

That wasn’t a ramn, it lacks the force and structure a proper shaping dance would give it. This was simply me taking advantage of energies already raised, and minds already attuned. A parlor trick.” He shrugged, and pulled himself more upright, as he had at the beginning of their meditation.

We’ve done enough for now, but I have forces yet to balance, so if I might have a moment?”

What he needed was time to talk with Naj again in the White Desert, and reset things to the proper order. He knew it was rude to ask for Nica’s own space, but every second he wasted, he risked Naj slipping too far into the Whispering Dark. Slap-on bandages were never meant to be used long term.

Nica smiled, careful not to show her surprise when Naj’s answer took a little too long and didn’t quite match the question she’d asked. With an inclination of her head, she agreed to his request. It was odd, how the instruction had brought them together, but now she felt the forced distance between them. Between the dancing last night and their time together this morning, she had forgotten that he was a relative stranger to her. It was something that happened between serpents, a press of will and soul that almost instantly told two serpents if they resonated and would get along well, or if they would clash. It was speculated that it was what allowed serpents to dance seamlessly together and she and Kis had spent hours talking of its origin.

Now though, that instant camaraderie had dissolved, though perhaps only she felt it. It wasn’t often she doubted how her avian heritage influenced the culture she’d been raised by.

She smoothed her sarong before she stood. “Of course. I’ll be upstairs if you need me, I’d intended on practicing a few dances before anyone else wakes.”

He nodded brusquely, hating to chase away anyone Naj might call friend, but it would be a moot point if he lost the fool to the il’m now.

Thank you,” he said quickly, trying to salvage the growing connection to the hawk, even as he pushed to get her out of the way. “I won’t be long, I just-” He hissed in a sharp breath as a particularly nasty memory surfaced and his concentration slipped. He couldn’t keep this up much longer.

It’s painful, holding this much energy out of alignment. I’ll be fine, after a moment to sort it out. I’ll come find you, so you don’t worry needlessly.”

He hoped that was enough to appease her. He was out of time, and without another word, he threw up a mental shield around them and dove into the dark mindspace he’d errected around Naj.

Previous: Chapter Nine, part 2