Chapter 12, part 2

In which Naj explains a thing or two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a deeper level, how are you feeling?”

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

 

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

 

“How are you?”

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

 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She still didn’t understand.

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

You’ve been gone?” he asked abruptly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes! That is it exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

Are’era. All is as it should be.”

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

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

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

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Character Bio: Nat

Much like the artists for Moana (which is AMAZING, go watch it), I had to develope a new technique for Nat’s hair. I hit my stride about halfway through, but for the first little bit there  it was draw a line, erase it, draw a line, erase it, draw four lines, keep one. It was easily the most tedious thing I’ve ever done, especially knowing that if I just switched to real paper, it would be so much easier. So, with no further complaining, I give you, Natalia. 

As always, you can find this on the character bios page. If you have any more questions about Nat, or suggestions on who I should draw next, drop them in the comments.

Chapter 6, part 3

In which Naj discovers many wondrous things.

Naj stopped in his tracks, openly staring as Nat and Marie danced. The contrast of night and day between them was even stronger than it had been the evening before. Clearly, the pair had great chemistry and knew how to build and play off of one another. Marie’s style was just as aggressive as ever, but it was soothed by Nat’s more subtle, more sultry compliment. Each of them was powerfully seductive in their own way, and Naj couldn’t help but stare.

Nica was brought to a halt when Naj stopped abruptly. She followed his gaze to the stage and she took a moment to appreciate the beauty she found there. It was clearly a dance of Nat’s design, and Nica felt a small swell of wistfulness that she didn’t recognize it. The steady movement of the taller woman was punctuated by Marie’s bursts of motion and color. The pair of them were undeniably beautiful together.

It was nearly impossible to look away. Spectral trails followed every sweep and bend and curve, filling the stage with ghostly images. He was no longer able to pick out any singular move, let alone style. He’d nearly lost the dancers in the spell they were weaving.

Ah, lost again. Seth had to admit, they were quite lovely, but if Naj couldn’t separate his normal vision from his serpentine senses, they may as well give up now. Yes, the Three Pillars style stage did much to accentuate the natural energies of the nest, but Naj had to pull it together. Perhaps, after a breath of fresh air, they could try again, but for now, Naj still needed a buffer.

But after his experience with the nest eijye, he was wary of tipping his hand. He’d have to tread carefully, while getting Naj out of here quickly.

He relaxed his careful hold on their aura, sending the barest of questing thoughts in their eija’s direction. Hopefully, with something this minor, she wouldn’t notice. Provided he wasn’t as rusty as the growing pile of evidence would suggest.

Seth reached out for the fox kit’s energy, calling on the ties they’d formed dancing together this morning. Nothing overt, simply reminding her ki’n of the steps performed before. Just enough to distract…

When Marie broke the moment by laughing loudly at her own misstep, Nica laughed with her. Her gaze returned to Naj, who was still staring at the stage intently. Nica took the opportunity to gently pull on Naj’s arm. “We can watch the show tonight as well if you like – it would give you an idea of the variety of dances you can expect in Asylum.”If you’re more interested in watching performances, we could simply sit here through practice if you like.”

Naj blinked and stammered as he finally managed to look away. “I’m sorry, what were we saying?”

Nica was a little concerned when he couldn’t finish a sentence, the dance had been beautiful, but surely not that distracting?

“I was saying if you’d rather sit and watch the practice performances, we could?”

Damn. That wouldn’t do at all. So far, concern for her newest dancer was distracting their eija, but if they sat and made a study of the pair before them, surely the raptor would notice Seth’s hand in the convenient dance break. No, he needed them to get upstairs, and quickly.

It was cheap to use the same trick twice, but Seth was confident Nica wouldn’t connect the stumbling fox with the stumbling serpent. He let their knees go weak, just enough that Naj staggered for balance, catching Nica’s arm. A little heavy handed, but he pushed the sensation of light-headedness through the connection their auras made on contact.

Naj managed a smile, but it was weak and watery. Clearly, all the magic outbursts were taking their toll. As much as he’d love to sit and drink in the ki’n of his new nest, he needed a moment to regain himself. The stillness of a garden would do just the thing, he hoped.

“I think it might be wiser if we continued upstairs. The fresh air would do me some good.”

Nica nodded at Naj’s explanation. It was sensible, for a serpent to find himself ungrounded if he was recovering from being feral. The serpent would shy away from so much motion and sound, she could see how the nest in its daily action would be distracting and overwhelming.

She steadied him with an arm against his back, guiding them towards the stairs again. “Then the gardens it is.”

parn’ei. Again.” He offered a small laugh, hooking his arm over her shoulders. As they moved forward, a stiffness melted away from his posture, as he became more certain that he wasn’t crossing some unspoken line. This level of familiarity with his eija would take some getting used to, but that suited him just fine.

She led him up both flights of stairs, until they were on the third balcony. “The door to the rooftop isn’t quite hidden, but it is out of the way so that customers don’t try to use it.”

She opened the door adding, “There’s also a ward on this door in case the Employees only sign isn’t deterrent enough.”

With a hand on his back, she urged him up the stairs first. When they reached the second door, she reached past him to open it as well.

The ripple of magic was becoming familiar, though Seth was still careful to keep himself tucked away. Naj was handling himself fairly well, and Seth was confident that the rooftop would be relatively uneventful.

Naj was speechless.

A near forest stretched out before them, the midmorning sunlight dazzling off the water- water? Up here? But he could hear it. Distinct from the sound of the river behind them, the ripple of a fountain sounded from across the roof. A breeze ruffled the trees- full sized trees!-bringing with it the scent of fresh fruits and herbs. And it was warm! Frost still lingered in the shadows of the warehouses below them, but the air surrounding them was fragrant and light as a gentle summer day. It was as if the very stones around them radiated warmth, enfolding them in a welcoming embrace.

Naj took one step, then another, hardly believing this space was real. If he moved too quickly, he was certain the dream around them would shatter.

Nica took a deep breath, losing herself a bit in the greenery around them. She hadn’t been able to immerse herself in it when she’d first arrived, but the absence of the demon and having received a welcome from her nest allowed her to fully enjoy it now.

She moved towards the blackberries, able to smell the ripeness on the air. She picked a choice handful, slipping one onto her tongue and savoring the burst of tart sweetness.

As she moved back to Naj, she touched a few plants, automatically checking the vegetables for pieces that needed to be picked. She knew Kain wouldn’t let anything get overripe, but it was an old habit she was happy to pick back up.

She held a few blackberries out to Naj with a smile. “This is my favorite place to relax, Kain’s really outdone himself up here.”

As he moved from one oasis to another, he couldn’t believe the vast array of plant life around them. One island held sweet corn, stalks just taller than his head. Another full of lilies, heady fragrance almost overwhelming. Tomatoes and peppers, roses and rhododendron, and the tress! They were ancient and stately- decades old if they were a day- and Naj had the boyish urge to climb one, to shift and crawl out into the furthest branches, feeling as if the wind might carry him away. But he was reluctant to touch any of it, for fear of bringing the magic of the garden tumbling down.

He hadn’t realized he’d lost Nica until she came back into his vision, blackberries in hand. Suddenly, he recalled his morning’s berries, and knew they must have come from here. This wonderland was a functioning garden, not some gossamer dream, but even as Naj took the plump berry delicately from Nica’s hand, he could hardly believe such a place could exist- and on a rooftop no less!

Once she’d said it, Kain’s energy was clear. The stones radiated the same warmth that the large man did, the same comfort, the same strength. The berry burst on his tongue with the same vibrant life from this morning, and now Naj understood why Kain was encouraged to do most of the cooking.

If the stage was an extension of Nica’s passion and dreams, then the garden was Kain’s. Surrounded by such power and love, Naj felt his anxieties melt away. He reached for Nica’s hand, to share the moment with her, to bring her into his joy.

He didn’t have to say anything for his happiness to move through her. She squeezed his hand with a smile, glad she could share it with him.

“One of Kain’s goals when we took over this warehouse was to have a good gardening area, he’s always preferred to cook with fresh ingredients…” She gestured to the obvious islands of vegetables and the counterpart flower beds. “Not to mention he grows most of the herbs he uses in his soaps.”

Naj’s smile blossomed as Nica continued to tell him about Kain. He had found the man immediately easy to get along with, and the more he learned, the more he wanted to know.

“He seems to be a man of many talents.”

“That he is.” She almost added that he also had a talent for being obnoxious, but she figured Naj could learn that for himself. Unless Kain saved that specialty for just her and Dev.

“Actually, the entire nest seemed to be full of surprise talents. From what I’ve seen of Marie’s sketches, Emily’s pottery- least of all the hawk who danced like a serpent. Naj wondered if his own hidden talents would ever be needed, though he certainly hoped not. Still, the thought was enough to put a damper on the joy he had felt a moment before. He gave a heavy sigh, eyes falling to the middle distance.

Nica nodded, wondering at the dip in his mood, but letting him settle it on his own. “That’s true. Some of those are things that they came to the nest with, some are talents that they discovered while staying here. I try to encourage it if someone finds something that makes them happy… The local college has actually been great for that. Emily uses their clay studio quite often for her art.”

She gestured towards the area of the college. From the roof, the sprawling campus was easy to see if you knew what you were looking at. “When you’re settled, if there’s something you’re interested in learning about, you might look into what classes they offer.”

Naj followed her arm, and suddenly, he felt as if he were flying. He could see the people down below, moving busily from building to building, chatting or reading, lives full of promise. And all of their dreams and ambition held him aloft, and he felt as if he could soar forever. He longed for wings of his own, to carry him on the winds wherever Fate saw fit.

D’anhk-khna…” He breathed the name of heaven and earth, the whispered prayer better suited to expressing his awe than anything else could.

She raised an eyebrow when it seemed he didn’t hear her at all. To be fair, it was a lot to take in at once. She let it go, knowing that there would be time again later if he was actually interested in expanding his interests. Some did, others were content to simply dance.

However, his use of pri’mn… That made her chuckle. When he glanced at her, she smiled. “My mother named me for the priestess Danica – she felt it appropriate that I share a name with the hawk from the Love that Broke the War. I rarely hear the full deity’s name invoked though.”

His brows furrowed at her words, not making the immediate connection. He knew it was a serpent tradition to name children for important figures, but he wasn’t familiar with the tale she told.

“Nica… Danica- Oh! Dankkna, I see.. The name has evolved over time, hasn’t it? Shortened, from the original?”

She laughed, mentally tucking his odd question away for later contemplation, right now she was enjoying their easy conversation. “It is, though in my case, the full name is Danica. I’ve simply gone by Nica since I was very young.”

Her laughter inspired him to as well. “I would have never made the connection from Nica to the spirits of earth and sky.” He gave her a warm smile, letting his happiness fill his face and his skin.

“I think it suits you.”

“That was the idea, I believe.” She looked to the sky with a small smile. “My mother especially loved the story of The Love that Broke the War… I think adopting a hawk simply gave her the excuse to draw names from it.”

There it was again. He stepped further into the garden, drawing Nica to a large rock. “I’m not familiar with the story you keep referencing. Is it a take on a classic rhei, or something more modern?”

She gave him a surprised look. “You’re not familiar with The Love that Broke the War?”

Nica tucked herself onto the rock as she let that sink in. “It’s an older story, set at the end of The Thousand Year war between the serpents and the raptors….

Naj remained silent throughout her tale. Not only out of respect for her telling, but out of a growing sense of familiarity, one that chilled him.

When she had finished, and was clearly awaiting some response, Naj couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes. Finally, he spoke, voice barely above a whisper.

“I never would have imagined…”

Her hand sought his, the serpent need to give and receive comfort clear in her upbringing. He welcomed it, returning the gentle pressure and drawing strength to continue.

“The War…” No, that wasn’t the place to start. “No one can say how much truth is to be found in the old stories. Whether Li’Daea literally danced around the fire with our first kin, or ei’Ceres was more of a person or an idea- they all certainly came from somewhere.”

He drew a deep breath, trying to center himself before continuing. The memories that had surfaced at Nica’s arrival had been long, long buried, but now they seemed to be facing him at every turn.

“When I was a boy, relationships between the serpents and the avians were… tense. Honestly, the serpent kingdom had difficult relationships with most of their neighbors. But… to hear things progressed so poorly…”

His body shook, voice thick with emotions he couldn’t quite face. But with Nica’s arm around him, and the sun was rising higher in the sky, it was easier to turn his mind to brighter things. He patted her hand, giving her as bright a smile as he could.

“I’m glad to hear that peace was finally found.”

As he spoke of his childhood, she found it hard to focus on the pieces that were this new dancer. Instead she was only overwhelmed by the need to offer him comfort, to take away the trembling that passed from his hand to hers.

She kissed his cheek, leaning forward to give him a hug. “Indeed… It’s one of my favorite stories. I can’t count the number of times my family performed it growing up.”

Naj brightened. “It’s a rei’ramn? I’d love to learn it.”

“It is, I can teach it to you sometime if you like.” She would be pleased to share the songs and dances of her favorite story with him. It also reassured her that he didn’t think it would continue to bring such sad thoughts to his mind.

“Yes, please. I would like that very much.” He gave her hand a final squeeze before pushing off the rock, stretching high to the sky. “I’m quite looking forward to resuming a regular dancing routine. It’s been far too long.”

She joined him in the stretch, then extended a hand back towards the door. “Shall we go back downstairs? It should be about time to get the club ready for opening. I can walk you through what we usually do before the show.”

“By all means.”

He was proud of himself for not overblowing how much of her time he’d “wasted”. The moment they’d shared had been anything but a waste. He was learning how he fit in this nest, making connections that would tie him to this world.

But he wasn’t about to take her time for granted. He reached out and brushed her arm, giving her a warm smile.

“Thank you for sharing this time with me. I’m feeling much more grounded now.”

She returned his touch and smile, glad to see that his aura matched his words. “Good. I’ve enjoyed sharing the garden with you.”

Nica let her gaze slip past him to follow the height of an apple tree. “I’m glad it could bring you as much joy and peace as it gives me.”

Previous: Chapter 6 part 2                               Next: Chapter 7 part 1

Chapter 2, part 2

In which Naj makes friends, and Nat lets her hair down.

Marie had been excited at the prospect of a new nest member, ecstatic when Dev had mentioned he was a serpent. She hadn’t thought her greeting too enthusiastic, at least, not until she felt Nat’s hand on her shoulder.

It was a warning, but a friendly one. Her lover would never take away from greeting a new friend, but Marie sometimes got carried away. She knew that, and she loved that knowing Nat would step in if needed meant that Marie could give in to her overabundance of joy without worry.

She pulled back from Naj, eyes shining, letting her hands trail up to hold either side of his face. She studied his dark eyes, growing more somber as she recognized the stillness behind them. Jax used to get that look in his eyes too sometimes, when he couldn’t handle being human anymore and hid in his other form. He would be gone so long sometimes that when he finally came back, he didn’t remember how to be warm again.

She leaned forward and rested her cheek against his, letting her warmth absorb the coolness of his skin. “If you need help warming back up, let me know, alright? You can sleep in our room tonight if you want the company.”

He felt so good against her. Sometimes she forgot what it felt like to feel cool relief from another shifter. It had been what had drawn her to Jax in the first place, his ability to push back the pulse of high heat and energy within her.

She wondered if he would be more like Jax, or less. Jax had distanced himself from serpent traditions, preferring to be his own person in his own words. He avoided speaking of serpent culture or how he’d grown up. From what others had said, his withdrawn personality and quiet tones were unusual for serpent kin.

The fire of her face felt like sunshine against his, but he was growing weary. The serpent form that had been his haven for so long felt comfortable, uncomplicated, and this world he was throwing himself into was certainly not. The emotions of the others in the room swirled around him, beat at him like small, hot winds, even with his aura clamped down as tight as it could go. The serpent was able to ignore it, to make it just heat, but his human heart knew of things like excitement, and curiosity, and jealousy, and it was difficult to filter it all out and just focus on what was being said instead of what was being felt. He should be grateful that the feeling was returning after his burnout, but mostly, he was just tired.

Naj looked over the shoulder of the little fox girl for the other woman Dev had pointed out earlier. The cool night sky to the fox’s blazing sun. Of all the emotions in the space, hers felt the steadiest, the least ruffled by the excitement he’d stirred up. He looked to her and asked, “Please, if there is just somewhere quiet I might lie down?” He knew that soon the downstairs would be flooded with people the way the backstage had been, everyone high on the energy of the crowd and the show, and he knew it would be too much for him. He did not want to have to flee to the serpent, especially since Dev had warned him about casually shifting. He knew it was allowed in the back rooms, but better not to give in, better to practice staying human, if could manage.

Naj reluctantly pulled back from Marie so he could look her in the eyes. A small shiver filled the empty space her heat left behind. “Please, do not be offended, but I need a moment of stillness. Your fire burns so brightly, but I have not danced with Li’Daea in such a long time. I need stillness and sleep. If you hold those things within you,” and his tone made it clear that he did not think so, but held joy all the same, “I would welcome a warm body at my back. But I need stillness, while it is still my choice to go to there willingly.”

Nat watched the serpent as he carefully extracted himself from Marie, nodding when his plea turned in her direction. She wasn’t surprised at all. The last serpent in their nest, Jax, sometimes got a similar look on his face when Marie was overwhelming him.

The words were new though – Jax never acknowledged the Goddess, never mentioned such traditional roots at all, if he ever had them. She kissed Marie’s temple as she drew her back, wrapping her arms around her. As she held her against her, Nat murmured into her ear, “Now might be a good time to warn Mal to leave our new friend alone.”

Marie’s smile never faltered, though Nat could feel the tightness that crept into Marie’s muscles. “I understand. Sleep well and I’ll see you tomorrow.” She reached up to touch Naj’s cheek one more time in reassurance. “You’ll be happy here.”

Then she turned and stood on tiptoe to give Nat a kiss. Nat chuckled and ruffled her hair in return. “We’ll be in our room. I could use the sleep after getting up so early.”

Marie nodded and headed for the stairs, only glancing back when she passed Mal on the stairs. She looked past him though, her eyes finding Nat’s, then dropping to where Nat had offered Naj her hand.

Mal’s eyes were all for her though. At the look on Mal’s face, Marie faced forward again, teeth worrying at her lower lip. She wasn’t looking forward to this argument.

Nat touched Naj’s arm to turn him back towards the hallway, tucking herself close to him as they walked. Her hazel eyes glittered in the dim light and she tossed her long curly hair back from her face. “You can always ask me to intercept Marie if she gets to be too much. She knows she can be a handful, she just doesn’t always recognize when people hit their limits.”

As they moved, she let her demi form slide to the surface, her skin lightening in some places, darkening to true black in others, and taking a more golden hue in select spots. The hair around her temples also took on more golden notes. She wanted him to feel comfortable being himself however he preferred – she’d found that leading by example was often the best way to convey the sentiment.

“This is our room.” She gestured into the second room on the right so that he would enter first. The far corner held a large assortment of cushions and blankets, clearly arranged into a cozy nest for multiple people to cuddle together. There was a dresser and short shelves on one side of the room. The walls were covered in pages of sketches. They were full of dancers in various poses, some at rest, some mid motion. Some were colored, some were ink, some were hastily scribbled charcoal outlines. They were all vivid captures of emotion, showing the heart of the dance and the dancer. Several closer to the corner were obviously of Nat, most unclothed, a few including her demi form.

“You’re welcome to sleep here with us for as long as you might like. Marie stays up later than I do, burning off her excess energy. I always welcome someone to curl up with.”

As she tugged her shirt over her head and turned to nudge her baggy cloth pants to the floor, she let her tail slide out. It nearly swept the floor with its patchwork of colors. Enjoying the freedom of her demi form, she reached for the ceiling, arching her back in a long stretch. She grabbed a hair tie to loosely tie her hair back from her face.

She was only wearing a pair of dark, low slung boy shorts, which was all she or Marie slept in when they wore anything to bed at all. She took her time putting her hair up, allowing Naj some time to himself if he needed it.

Naj moved without conscious effort in the direction Nat guided him. While her skin was not as hot as Marie’s, the comfort of skin to skin touch was still a glorious thing. It wasn’t until they had stepped inside their bedroom that Naj actually took stock of his surroundings. His eyes were drawn to the walls, to the beautiful lines and captured heat of the many sketches. He recognized his rescuer’s form among them, not all of them fully human. Nor was she fully human now. Still, it was never good to assume.

“Before the time passes to ask this gracefully, would anyone here find it distressing to find a serpent where they had left a man?”

His voice was small and delicate, as if the very question itself might offend. And indeed, such a lack of control would have been disgusting in his former life. Many a Dai shifter had lost themselves to the magic they were claimed for, and had to be put down like the wild beasts they’d allowed themselves to become. Though Naj was not that far gone, he also knew he was not that far from it. This was undoubtedly his last chance to reclaim his humanity.

Naj kept his eyes fixed on the ground, slumping in on himself to be a small as possible.

“I am afraid I do not possess the control I once did, though I assure you, I am in no way feral.”

Nat laughed softly, moving past him to kick an errant pillow back into the pile and to nudge some blankets aside to make a place for herself in the nest.

“Not at all. People fall in and out of form here all the time, especially in the safe areas. It’s been a while since we’ve had a serpent wandering around, but you’re welcome to exist however is most comfortable to you.”

She yawned and stretched, curling a pillow into herself. Her foot nudged a few more pillows away and her tail looped over her waist, hiding her boy shorts. “The last serpent that lived here would sometimes hide under Marie’s hair when he’d had an especially bad day.”

“Hiding is exactly why I’d prefer not to allow myself to do it, just yet.”

While it was a relief to know he would not be ostracized for his short comings, Naj still preferred to practice the control that had once been his. He slipped off his shirt and stretched out next to Natalia on his back, hands tucked under his head. He would sleep after a while of staring like this, letting the stillness slowly sink into his thoughts.

“I need to remember reasons to stay here, need to make connections to pull me back into this skin when it slips, I hope –“

He stopped himself suddenly, remembering they were there to sleep. It was rude to prattle on like this when he wasn’t alone, just talking to himself for the company of the sound.

“I hope that you sleep well, Natalia. Thank you for sharing your stillness with me this night.”

She laughed softly and swept her tail back across him, intending the touch to be soft and reassuring. “I don’t mind listening if there’s something on your mind.”

Nat slipped her leg back so that she could touch the heel of her foot against his leg. It was nice to know someone was there while she slept, an old habit of hers. She let her eyes drift closed.

“And Naj? Please feel free to call me Nat, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course, Nat.”

A tension released within him, flowing out of him with those whispered words. He let the arm closest her slide down, laying it along the top of her head. He shifted his weight so that he was leaning toward her, but not actually on his side. The heat of her drew him towards her, and he let his thoughts wander along the space between them, enjoying the warmth radiating between them. He let out a comfortable sigh and settled in, content.

She smiled as she felt him shift behind her. Her breath eased out as she relaxed. She let herself drift towards sleep, though she was ready to perk back awake if he said something.

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

 

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

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.

Previous: Prologue 1                                                                                                                                                 Next: Prologue 3

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