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After Darkness, Light

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Summary: Asher makes a wish. Hallie gets creative. Answer to amusewithaview's "Old soul for the Key..." challenge.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Anita Blake > Dawn-Centered > Pairing: AsherSkaldicFR18310,2722211712,1279 Sep 1028 Sep 10No

CHAPTER 3

Hyenas blocked the entrance to the Circus of the Damned. Narcissus stood among their milling furred and human forms, wrapped in a black, ankle-length mink coat. Against the coat's upturned collar, his pale face appeared spectral and, lacking makeup, naked. Unstyled, his dark hair bunched against his scalp in disheveled half-curls. He had the harried, unfinished look of one who had awoke to bad news and rushed out of bed to meet it.

Narcissus rarely left his club, and when he did, it was never without a certain amount of spectacle and pageantry. In his way, he was as fond of theatrics as Jean-Claude. That he had forgone them almost completely made Asher hang back, uneasy.

"So, it is true, then," Narcissus said, his heels clicking staccato as he approached. His large gray eyes swept over Asher, lingering on the girl in his arms.

Dawn had fallen asleep midway between Second Street and First Street. Asher had been worried at first, thinking she had succumbed to the cold, but her pulse was strong, her body warm. She wasn't ill, merely exhausted. Unsurprising, given the circumstances.

Narcissus hummed his approval. "You take your time deciding to act, but when you do, you don't do it by halves, do you?" He reached to touch Dawn's face and Asher cut outward with his power. A line of blood split the back of Narcissus's hand. He didn't hiss or flinch at the pain, but his eyes did widen ever so slightly. "My, you are just full of surprises tonight." He smiled and licked his hand clean. "I like it."

"She is my human servant," Asher said, the words thick with threat. "Harm her, or allow harm to befall her, and make no mistake, Narcissus, I will kill you."

Narcissus stared at him, pale eyes contemplative. "Yes," he said finally, softly. "Yes, I believe you would." He reached out again, slower this time. "Relax, sweet Asher. I only wish to know her scent. I offered to be your animal to call, if you remember. Consider my interest an act of goodwill." He rolled his eyes up to meet Asher's as he brought a lock of Dawn's hair to his nose. "After all, I cannot protect what I cannot recognize."

Asher stilled; he couldn't have heard him right. "You offer her your protection?"

"When I speak to her, I am speaking to you, isn't that how it goes?" Narcissus sent him a dark look, ripe with possibilities. "I rather enjoy speaking to you."

"Why are you here, Narcissus?" Asher asked, not unkindly, but he needed to get inside. "I didn't call you."

"You don't know?" he asked, releasing Dawn's hair. He seemed startled, but that could have been feigned. As Narcissus was fond of reminding others, he was an accomplished liar. In that, at least, he was honest. "You've caused quite the stir. Acquiring enough power to rival the Master of the City, breaking with the Executioner, putting the wolves' indomitable Geri in the hospital." Faint amusement quirked Narcissus's lips. He ran his hands down the front of his coat, petting it. "Many are under the impression that you're staging a palace coup."

"But not you," Asher said.

Narcissus peeked up through his lashes. "Not me," he agreed. "I like to think that I know you, at least a little, and you have never struck me as a particularly ambitious man, not politically." His gaze lowered to Dawn's slumbering profile. "No, I've always felt your ambitions lay... elsewhere."

Asher felt like sighing. "That does not explain--"

"Why I'm here without my face on?" Narcissus asked. The coy light in his eyes dimmed to something far more serious, far more dangerous; for when the hyena's Oba stopped playing, that was when one needed to tread most carefully. "The Master's whore is baying for your blood."

Asher didn't sigh, but he did shut his eyes for a brief, indulgent moment. "I knew she would be angry."

"Oh, no," Narcissus said. He shook his head. "No, no." He stepped closer, the chill fur of his coat brushing the fingers curled around Dawn's shoulder. "She thinks you have betrayed them, sweetling," he explained, "left them to join another master. She mentioned killing you." A high chuckling whine vibrated in Narcissus's throat. He grinned, teeth sharpening, eyes darkening with gleeful menace. "Jean-Claude struck her for that, if my source is to be believed."

"Why would I lie?" a woman asked. Her voice was soft, pitched for intimacy rather than quiet.

"For many reasons, I would imagine," Narcissus said, moving to stand at Asher's side. His hyenas followed suit, animals and men falling in behind them.

The figure swayed into the light and Asher realized his mistake. The woman wasn't a woman. Female, feminine, but not even passing human.

Melanie, the lamia, greeted them with a close, secret smile.

In the wake of the Earthmover's final death, Jean-Claude had taken up guardianship of her, offering her employment at the circus. As manager of the Circus of the Damned, dealing with her was one of Asher's many-faceted duties.

Her sleek black hair was pulled back into a high, girlish ponytail, and unlike Narcissus, she had found time to apply makeup. She was bundled in a scarlet princess cut coat that was longer than the dress it covered. Her open-toed pumps matched the coat, and all matched her lipstick. Wholly impractical for St Louis's harsh January nights, especially for someone cold-blooded, but stylish. Very stylish.

Behind her walked a man and woman that he also knew, though not as well. After the murder of their father by Chimera, Ethan and Olivia MacNair had accompanied the Kadra of their quiver, their mother, to parlay with Jean-Claude. Vampires brought in business, and with their lycanthropy revealed, anything, or anyone, that kept customers frequenting their restaurant was welcome. None of that explained why they were here now, however.

Asher understood Narcissus's interest, but what could the snakes possibly want with him?

The answer, as it turned out, was nothing. It was Dawn that held their attention, not him. He might as well not have been there.

Melanie's smile broadened with satisfaction. "You see?" she said.

Olivia hugged herself and the color drained from her brother's face, but they both nodded. It seemed that there had been an argument between them and his human servant's presence had settled it in Melanie's favor. Never a good sign.

"We will have to tell Mama," Olivia said.

Ethan sighed and ran a hand through his dark hair. "She won't like this."

Melanie whirled on him, retractable fangs flaring.

The boy flinched; his sister gave a tiny, muted shriek through her hand and closed her eyes. Narcissus and his men tensed, closing ranks. One of Narcissus's pale hands settled on Dawn's shin, and Asher allowed it. Where it mattered, he trusted the hyenas more than he did the lamia.

When he had first learned of Melanie's presence in the city, he had told Jean-Claude that he was insane to harbor such a creature. She was immortal, truly immortal. She literally could not be killed. The power she offered was impressive, but it was also fickle. Nothing stayed her hand save her own capricious whims. She behaved herself because it suited her to do so, no other reason. It could just as easily suit her to slaughter them all in their sleep.

"If she has any sense at all," Melanie hissed at the werecobras, "she'll do as she's told. Stress that when next you speak to her."

"Yes, ma'am," Ethan said, eyes too wide, head jerking up and down.

Olivia pulled him away from Melanie, curling her arm around his. "We will," she whispered. "We promise."

Melanie was silent, but it was a watchful, predatory silence, the silence of snakes. "Go," she said at last, flicking her crimson-tipped fingers at them. "Tell your mother and have word sent to Javad, but only them, do you understand? No one else."

"Yes," they answered, and slowly backed away, melting into the shadows. One should never run from anything immortal; it only attracts their attention.

Melanie turned back to Asher, fangs sliding away. Her expression was mild. "If you're planning on taking the city, I'll help you."

Narcissus hadn't been exaggerating, then. "And if I am not?" Asher asked.

"Then I'll help you in another way," she said. To prove her point, she unbelted her coat and slipped it off. "For the girl," she explained, holding it out to him.

Asher stared at it. "Why?"

Melanie's dark eyes flashed yellow. "You don't question Lamia's gifts. You accept them. Gratefully."

"I am grateful," Asher said, "but I would still like to know why."

"How human of you." Her arm moved, holding the coat out to Narcissus. When he didn't take it, she stepped closer, shoving it against his chest. "Take the coat, vermin, or I will eat you." She smiled wide, too wide. She had unhinged her jaw. "Whole."

Narcissus smiled back, leaning into her hand. "Do you promise?"

Readjusting Dawn slightly, Asher pushed past them, leaving Melanie and Narcissus to their posturing. Perhaps they would find a way to kill each other. Perhaps. That he would want to supplant Jean-Claude as Master of the City was ludicrous. That anyone would believe it, even more so. If the city ever fell into his hands, Asher's first act as her Master would be a quick and decisive culling. In particular, he foresaw the werewolf population taking a dramatic dip. Bad business and worse politics, but there would be fewer petty annoyances scrabbling for his attention.

Unlike Jean-Claude, his patience was not infinite.

"Where are you going?" Melanie called after him. She sounded upset.

"Inside," Asher said, bending so he could pull the main door open. They had waylaid him long enough.

"You would give the wolves her throat so easily?"

Asher stopped, straightened, but didn't turn. What game was she playing now? "Explain."

Melanie was suddenly at his side. She didn't try to touch him, but it wasn't about him, was it? She was gazing down at Dawn, an almost gentle look on her face. She settled her coat over her, tucking it in around the edges. Melanie raised her eyes to his; whatever softness had been there was gone.

"What do serpents and canids have in common?" she asked him. Her tone told him the question wasn't idle, or rhetorical.

Asher could only shake his head, impatient. Zoology wasn't one of his strengths.

"Dogs," Melanie simplified. "What are dogs known for?"

"I assume she doesn't mean piddling on their master's shoes and licking themselves," Narcissus said, joining them near the door.

"Protecting," Asher said, understanding what Melanie meant. "Serpents are protectors."

Melanie gave a tiny nodding tilt of her head. Not precisely what she meant, then, but close enough not to argue semantics. "We're often invoked as guardians," she said, "but unlike canids, serpents are only approached when one's need is great."

That interested Narcissus. "You were called?" he asked

"Entreated," Melanie corrected. "Unlike you, I'm no one's animal. Not anymore." She lifted her chin. "Never again."

Narcissus grinned, amused. "And yet here you are."

"I was asked," she said, "and I accepted."

"And the MacNairs?" Narcissus asked. "Were they asked, too? They didn't look very accepting."

"They know their place," Melanie said.

Asher's power rolled outward like a thunderhead. He narrowed his eyes. "The wolves," he reminded her.

"Wolves aren't dogs," Melanie said, as though it explained everything. When his eyes narrowed further, she exhaled an annoyed breath. "They protect, but only their own. Ask them to protect something else, something not pack, and they..." She searched for a suitable word. "Chafe."

Narcissus snorted. "What our sweet lamia means is, the wolves weren't asked, they were told, and you know how well their Ulfric heels."

Melanie nodded. "Order something wild around and it'll eat you out of spite."

"Unless it likes you," Narcissus interjected. He pressed his cheek against Asher's shoulder.

Melanie studied him, considering. "Unless it likes you," she agreed. She flicked her eyes back to Asher. "The wolves don't like you."

Asher stared at the door. If he walked in, would the wolves really attack?

Richard's moral quandaries aside, werewolves were notoriously contrary, often for the sake of contrariness. Many vampires called them, but only a few could force them to true obedience; personally, Asher only knew of three with the power to do so. The magic that had given him Julianna back was utterly beyond his ken. That it might draw on a compulsive safeguard didn't surprise him. What better way to protect something precious?

It wasn't lost on Asher that he had been given far more than who he had originally wished for.

"I've done nothing wrong," he said. "There is no coup, no attack. Whatever power rides the wolves is not of my making."

Dawn sighed, opening her eyes. "No, it's mine," she said. Her gaze was clear, completely free of sleep.

"You were awake." Asher didn't know why, but he felt like smiling.

"Not the whole time," she said, and she did smile. Hand on his shoulder, she tensed, sitting up slightly, and slipped her legs from his arm to stand. Asher steadied her and was pleasantly surprised when she handed him Melanie's coat and turned, wordlessly asking him to help her into it.

When had he last played the gallant? It seemed lifetimes ago.

Tying the belt, Dawn looked up. "Snakes and puppy dogs, huh? Any pesky hellgods I should know about?"

"Hellgods?" Narcissus echoed.

"Divine evil," Dawn said, lifting her hair so it fell outside the coat. "Usually with really nice shoes."

Melanie tipped her head. "Have you met many... hellgods?"

"Just the one," she said. Her mouth twisted into a frown. "Seriously, though, death by fire? Almost-death by snow? Not even a little like death by chocolate. So, I'd really like to know if sacrificial blood-letting is on the agenda for tonight." Plainly spoken and nonchalant, but the color she had gained from his marks had fled. Her eyes stood out in her face, very blue, very bright. She smelled of fear.

Asher could only despair at the truth he tasted in her words. "You remember," he whispered. Foolish to think she wouldn't, but he had hoped.

She gave him a tight, brittle smile. "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition."

"Well, their chief weapon is surprise, surprise and fear," Narcissus said, startling a laugh from Dawn. His voice was bland, bored almost, but his eyes when they met Asher's were thoughtful, solemn. It had been a calculated interruption, one meant to distract.

"Their two weapons," Dawn corrected, grinning. She held out her hand to him. "Hi, I'm Dawn."

"Dawn. What a pretty name." He shook her hand. "You may call me Narcissus. I'm the Oba of the werehyenas."

"Werehyenas?" she asked, eyes round. "You're Bouda?"

Narcissus's smile widened. "You know our words."

Dawn shrugged. "I read. It's a thing." She turned her attention to Melanie and offered her hand, no hesitation, no apprehension. Asher was certain she didn't know what Melanie was; no one greeted a lamia with such insouciance. Of course, her next words proved him wrong.

"Is it the Lamia, or a lamia?" Dawn asked. "'Cause if it's the, uh, wow." Infectious excitement flashed across her face. "I'll have to tell all my friends Lamia lent me her coat!" She paused, mood faltering. "E-except they'll have no idea what I'm talking about and think I'm totally crazy. Never mind."

Still holding out her hand, she sheepishly said, "It's a really great coat. Thanks for letting me borrow it."

On anyone else, Asher would have thought Melanie's expression was tender. She looked enchanted. "I'm glad it pleases you," she said. She took Dawn's hand, but didn't shake it, merely holding it a moment and letting go. "My name is Melanie."

"Modern," Dawn said.

Melanie smoothed the front of her dress. "I like modern things."

Dawn nodded. "Hence the Manolo Blahniks." She glanced up at Asher. "Okay, now that everybody knows everybody, what's the plan?"

He blinked at her. "Pardon?"

"You know, the plan? What we're gonna do?" Dawn pushed her hair back. "I want a bath, soup, and a bed. Obviously, this--" She jerked her chin toward the circus's door. "--is the place to do that. Only there are wolves that wanna eat me blocking the way. So, how are we gonna deal?"

The conviction shining in her eyes was humbling, and terrifying. Asher didn't know what to do with it. He had the distinct feeling of being drawn onto a battlefield, a battlefield where he was expected to lead, and lead well.

Julianna had been certain of him, but never like this. He had failed her too often for her to trust his judgment so completely. She would do as he asked, she was his servant, but she had more confidence in Jean-Claude's mad schemes than anything he devised.

"What would you have me do, ma moitiƩ?" Asher asked, soft.

"Uh uh." Dawn poked his chest. "You're scary vampire guy. I'm scream-until-I-find-something-throwable girl. Sometimes, I trade throwable for choppable if there's an axe on hand, but mostly? I scream." She crossed her arms, a stubborn tilt to her chin. "You're plan man."

"You presume to speak for all of us?" Narcissus asked. His men drifted in from the shadows. There were more of them than before.

Dawn rolled her eyes at the implied threat. "Oh, please, like you weren't totally scent-marking him ten minutes ago. You want Asher to boss you. And, anyway, Melanie said she'd help." She looked over at the lamia, suddenly unsure. "You still wanna help, right?"

Melanie nodded.

Dawn beamed, attention back on Asher. "Well, there you go. Avengers assembled." She raised her eyebrows expectantly. "What's the plan?"

- - -
In Scooby-speak, what's the plan? pretty much translated to how are we not gonna die? It must have meant something else to non-Scoobies, because it took them another twenty minutes to agree on anything, and that was only after Dawn slipped inside when they weren't looking.

Not the smartest thing ever, but it got them to shut up and do something.

Like saving her. Always a good time.

- - -
Note:
Dawn: This is set after Season 6's Older and Far Away, so Dawn is fifteen.
Narcissus: He is described as having large dark eyes that go pale when they've bled to his beast. Hyena eyes are dark brown/black. So, I switched the descriptions around. Normal eyes, pale. Beast eyes, dark. Chalk it up to Anita's unreliable narration.

The End?

You have reached the end of "After Darkness, Light" – so far. This story is incomplete and the last chapter was posted on 28 Sep 10.

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