In Search of Asylum

Prologue

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.

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.

Nica woke with a jolt. She was suddenly alert, intently listening for whatever had woken her. Years of habit sent her slipping off of her pallet, seeking the source of the hushed anger.

She found the dancers in the hallway. Ali and Suma were tucked against an alcove that held a statue of Cretia, deity of love. Ironic, given that the lovers seemed embroiled in a bitter argument. Even from her distant stance, she could see that neither one was listening to what the other said before spitting out their next dagger.

All it would take was a few soft words. A distraction would allow them to breathe… An outside force could even unify them…

She turned, heading down the opposite hallway. It wasn't her place. Either the pair would get past this hurdle in their relationship, or they wouldn't. It wouldn't be the first time that lovers in a nest had become distanced from one another.

Besides, she didn't want to have Ariella come down on her for interfering in her nest again. The first few clashes with the falcon over such instances had cured her of treating this nest as if it were her own.

Not that she'd done her own nest much good. She wondered if Marie and Lena were sleeping alright… They were both so prone to nightmares, and with Jax…

She knew Kain would take care of them, keeping an eye on them, on everyone. She also knew he would undoubtedly be furious with her for leaving him in charge for so long, but… She just couldn't.

She slipped through the ancient stone halls of the temple that housed Ariella's nest, body moving on its own as her thoughts chased themselves in useless circles. Only in movement could she breathe again, shaping her emotions into manageable leaps and twirls and arcs, bleeding her pain and passions away into the motions.

Nica slipped into an empty practice room, one hand running through her auburn hair, lingering on the little feathers growing throughout. The only feathers in a nest full of scales. Just like before…

Too many dead. Too many lost. How could she have possibly thought she could keep them safe? Hadn't she learned how powerless she was with Vincent? Her cousins? To start another nest, in their remembrance… She couldn't go back. How could she? She had let one of her own die… She had been so blinded by arrogance to think she could keep them safe. How could she pretend it was all okay?

She turned when she heard the scuff of someone's foot against stone.

Bastian stood in the doorway, undoubtedly roused from the lack of her warm body beside him. He didn't say a word, just held his arms out to her. She had never told him what had brought her back to Ariella's nest after so long, nor had he asked. Like he never asked what drove her to wake in the middle of the night, or lapse into long periods of silence. Just stood there, holding out empty arms, waiting for her to come to him.

She bit back a sigh as his hands slid underneath her halter, and his mouth found the hollow of her neck. It wasn't like he had any other form of comfort to offer. Any words he said would be hollow without context or forethought. Not that she thought he was doing this for her as much as for himself. Not for the first time, she wondered if this whole arrangement had been a mistake. Letting him woo her had been a matter of convenience and distraction. She'd known it then and his attentions hadn't changed her motives. He hadn't changed anything.

She pushed the thoughts away. More and more, the gestures of shallow physicality were bothering her, even as she went along with it for the diversion. He was a skilled enough lover, but there was a spark missing that was getting harder and harder to overlook. A lack of passion that pushed her heart deeper into her own chill.

Now was not the time to fight with him over it though. She would exhaust herself in his arms and pray for a sleep free from dreams.

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

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

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

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

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

Lena shrugged, but heard Em's silent plea for help. "Maybe we could add a shimmy?"

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

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

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

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

Nica had been searching for an empty practice room when she'd found Kis instead. She was deep in the heart of one of the kishkan'ramn, a seductive dance. Nica smiled and leaned against the doorway while she watched Kisma dance.

Her stomach rippled, the movement carrying up her spine and into her chest to flow out of her arms. Her hips circled, dipping slowly to the right, then the left. Her hands came back to her center, fingers trailing down her stomach. Everywhere her fingers touched left a shimmer of color, a trail of crimson scales in its wake, only to vanish back into her tanned skin again when her hands had passed.

Kis was nude, save for the scales and a belt of golden chains glittering low on her hips, hung here and there with onyx and garnets. As she continued moving, the dance built upon itself, the urgency of passion filling her. Her pace increased, and so did her flashes of red and black scales, highlighting the golden strands as they passed over her hips and trailed down her thighs.

Her black hair flowed along her tawny shoulders, strips of red flashing in the bottom layer. As she approached the end of the dance, her body slid to the floor. She ended in a kneeling position with her head tilted back, eyes closed, hips still rising and falling. Scales rippled to completely cover her thighs, stomach, up between her breasts to her throat.

Suddenly her body arched, trembling at the climax of the piece, then she fell back to the stage, completely still.

After a few respectful moments of silence, Nica stepped forward. "Yvena, beautiful."

Kis's head turned, eyes still closed as she smiled. "a'Parn'o."

As she drew closer, she could see dark scales of her serpent form still decorating the skin above Kis's eyes. They caught the light as she moved, twisting her body onto her side so she could stretch her legs back out.

"I don't think I've ever seen you perform a kishkan'ramn before."

Kis chuckled and scales ran down her upper arms. "True – No one to perform for."

Nica raised her eyebrows at the comment, but didn't ask. She didn't have to. Kis opened dark eyes and smiled up at her. "Sometimes I need to dance them to simply remind myself I still can."

She slipped over onto her belly, flexing her heels back up to her thighs. "I've never seen you perform one either."

Nica accepted her silent invitation and folded her legs to sit beside her. She admired the way her friend's scales appeared to dance on their own in the firelight. Not for the first time she wondered how it would feel to call scales of her own, for her skin to be stiff, but supple, to see that glimmer on her own skin when she danced in the firelight.

Nica smiled somewhat wistfully. "Yes, well, I haven't anyone to dance them for either."

Some of the ease went out of Kis' stretches and she turned her head to watch Nica. "Not even Bastian?"

Kis should have known better than to say it. Nica's relaxed posture stiffened and she gave her a warning look. "Don't."

At her feigned innocence, Nica frowned harder. "Just don't, Kis. We've been over this before."

"Yes, we have." Suddenly her friend was sitting, loose hands on her knees belying her intensity. "And he wouldn't know passion if it bit him in the face."

"Kis…"

"I know, I know. I won't argue with you again for it. We both know you deserve better." The other woman sighed and twisted her hair up on top of her head, slipping a pin off her belt to hold it in place. The movement was loose, lacking her previous intensity. "I look forward to the day that I can see you dance full of ki'n again. Your passion is the fire of a serpents heart. You may wear feathers, but this chill doesn't sit well on you."

She knelt, a finger crooking under Nica's chin to bring their gazes even. "Shall we dance, ahn'sha? See if we can't bring the smile back that I've so carelessly chased away?"

Nica sighed and pulled away, but she let herself smile at Kis's attempt at peace. She had enough demons to battle without creating confrontations with a well-meaning friend. She stood in a single movement, stretching out her back and extending a hand down to Kis.

"Yes, let us dance."