Chapter 3, part 1

In which dreams are disturbing, and Naj dives in head first.

He dreamed of fire.

This was hardly surprising—more so than any other red-natured serpent, the red cobras ruled over flame with the same sovereignty that the king cobras held over all serpent-kin. Li’Daea had blessed all cobras with the right to rule when they’d been the first to answer her call to dance with her in the firelight. Who or what had blessed the first red cobra with flames, Naj could not say, but fire was his birthright.

But this flame… This was not the fire of utility he had served his master with all these years. Such searing passion had no place in the cold ranks of the Ahn’Ki Dai—a flame you could not control would only burn you down. This heat… This heat burned Naj in a way that no fire ever had. Not since…

Naj shrunk away from the memory of those first flames to ever burn him, the ones that had burned down everyone and everything he had ever known or loved. The fire in his dreams roared higher, burning hotter and hotter, until Naj had no choice but to flee into the Whispering Dark.

Il’m was stillness, il’m was peace. The Whispering Darkness, the realm of the Dark God, Il’Dao. Though no longer bound to it or his master, the years of service had left their stain on Naj’s magic, and soothing murmurs would always call to him from the sweet stillness of il’m. As counterpart to Li’Daea’s fiery abandon, Il’Dao offered respite from the frenzied dance. From the madness of love, and the pain that could only come from love lost. Of love taken. Naj cried out in his sleep, names his waking mind could not remember, but his heart would never forget.

The il’m promised to help him forget, promised to take away their names and their faces and the pain of their loss, the pain of all loss. The Whispering Dark was always just a breath away, welcome and waiting, just on the other side of the Il’Rhea, the dark waters of death. There was peace in the darkness, in burdens laid down, released to flow down the river to some other distant shore, let go and forgotten. The il’m promised rest, promised sleep free of dreams, far away from the searing flames.

Naj found himself far below the surface of the water, the flickering fire a distant wavering light. The inferno that had threatened to consume him could not reach him here, here beneath the dark waters that had welcomed him so gently, he had not even noticed his descent.

And that was how the mighty were fallen. As Li’Daea’s light came with fire that could comfort or consume, so Il’Dao’s darkness came with coolness that could soothe or smother. Power came with a price, strength that built until it overcame the soul, gifts that became a curse. Balance was needed to survive, and it was that balance that led the Dai to create the serpent lords in the first place. Power to move unchecked within the darkness, to cheat death, power to blaze forth with searing light, to ignite and inspire.

Naj drifted beneath the water, knowing he must surface, must breathe, or risk losing himself to the magic of il’m forever. But surely he could rest for just a moment longer… No. One moment became another, and another, until moments no longer existed, until time would no longer pass, because days were measured by the passing of the sun, and here there was only darkness.

Naj kicked his way back toward the surface, back toward that blinding light that blazed now more brightly than ever. The flames met the water with an angry hiss, steam billowing up in great clouds to mingle with the smoke of all that burned. The river flowed colder in icy defiance, freezing to Naj’s skin as he emerged from the depths. Crystals melted instantly into steam, fire engulfing his skin the instant it was dry enough to burn. Pain drove Naj into the simpler mind and form of his serpent, but even still the fire and ice ate at him, each burning in their own dreadful way.

The cobra thrashed on the growing ice, writhing in search of the peaceful waters he had fled. But there was only ice, and fire.

Naj could burn, or he could take command. Some serpents, like the white-natured vipers of his clan, could control both elements instinctively, but for Naj, it had taken centuries of practice to master the delicate balance of the il’li. The cobra’s fire raged within him, hot anger willing the ice to part, but Li’Daea’s magic had no call over the waters of Il’Rhea. That was Il’Dao’s domain. Naj reached for the stillness within him, the quiet center that allowed him to serve his master, allowed Il’Dao’s power to find purchase in his cobra’s heart. He willed that stillness to fill him, to cool the raging flames. But he held on to the pain and the fury of his memories, to keep him from sinking back beneath the melting ice. He would not yield, nor would he be consumed. He would burn, but he would not be burnt up. He blanketed the flames with his very will, bending them, taming them, chasing them back into the memories he could not allow himself to dream, and could not allow himself to forget. The flames subsided, dying down, heat sinking into the white sandy banks of the dark river, warmth to carry through the long, dark night.

As he slept, Naj turned to face Marie, a hand coming to rest on the small girl’s hip. From his touch spread coolness, and peace.

Marie could hear nothing but the rushing blood in her ears, every step jarring the internal screaming that kept repeating she was going to be too late.

She was always too late.

Her lungs burned as she ran down the sidewalk, trying to run faster as if this time would be different. Hope was a nasty liar that lived in her throat, choking her with what ifs and maybes.

What if she’d spoken to Nat sooner? What if she’d found the note on the floor a little earlier, then maybe, maybe…

Maybe she was wrong and this wasn’t… He wouldn’t…

When she turned the corner and saw the alley, the sound suddenly cut out. The rushing in her ears just stopped until everything was a strange, staticky silence without even her heartbeat.

The gray sky cast a blurred shadow over everything she saw. She pushed past the people blocking the entrance to the alley, her feet carrying her until she could see Jax.

He was the only clear detail in the scene. He was in his demi form, legs halfway lost to a tail, lashing and flailing against the brick wall and asphalt. His arms were seeking, mouth wide as he threatened to strike.

His eyes were gobs of crimson ruin on his cheeks. Blood was everywhere, more vivid than she remembered. In real life, the darkness of his scales, of the road, had hidden much of the evidence. Now, the bright splashes of red seemed to glow against the dim surroundings, crying out to be seen.

She stumbled forward. If she could reach him, could get him home to Kain, then maybe…

Maybe it would all be okay.

Her hand brushed his arm.

She never saw him move. Blinding pain shot up her arm. Everything was red and white with flickers of black. Her arm burned. Burned! She’d never felt pain like this before. She didn’t know that pain could burn hotter than fire, race faster than flames. No matter how she clutched it, how she screamed, nothing relieved the cramping pain in her arm.

Even the sharp cracks that filled the air couldn’t distract her from the hot, swollen limb at her side.

It crept up her arm and the throb entered her chest, cutting off her ability to scream.

And then suddenly, the fire began to ebb. Cool relief slipped along her hip, traveling swiftly to her arm and stealing away the worst of the pain. The respite brought her thoughts into sudden clarity and she realized the dream for what it was—

The dream shattered around her and she woke, eyes wide in the dark. Little flicks of twinkling light filled her vision, as if she could actually see traces of the dream fragments floating around her. Another blink and they were gone.

She was in her bed, one arm twisted in the blankets. Marie turned her head to the side, drawn by a cool touch on her hip. Naj had reached out for her.

Tears tickled at her lashes and she huddled against him, grateful for the reprieve from her nightmare. It wasn’t long until sleep called to her again and she slid into a more peaceful darkness.

Kain paused outside Marie and Nat’s room. The little fox’s mind was a whirlwind of fire and grief. It caught at the edges of his own mind, jagged and painful. His shoulders slumped slightly and he leaned against the wall just outside her room. He’d been so hopeful that she’d gotten past these nightmares.

No episode for nearly six months…

It must be due to the appearance of another serpent. Of course his presence would bring Jax’s memory to the forefront of her mind.

As Kain began to reach for her, to soothe her mind and ease her into a dreamless state, a cool touch preceded him.

He startled, eyes wide in the dim hallway. Who… Or what? Someone else was affecting her dream, dissipating the hot pain that was tormenting her.

The chill of ice and rasp of scales met his thoughts. He withdrew, his thoughts tumbling over this newest curiosity. The serpent. He hadn’t recognized the alien mental signature, but the stranger was indeed acting on Marie’s magic. Which was fortunate, since Marie was known to suddenly catch ablaze with the worst of her nightmares. It could make for a rather rude awakening.

Kain pushed off the wall, stepping forward to glance through the open doorway. He could barely discern the three forms tangled in the pillows and sheets. He’d dimmed the hall lights before making his nightly rounds and little light breached the bedroom.

He stepped past the doorway, leaving Marie to the serpent’s guidance.

A serpent with magic. A red cobra. Trained by the Ahn’Ki Dai… Connected to Aezir.

More than he’d bargained for, but sometimes Fate wove strange threads. It had been a long time since he’d felt the tapestry around him stir. For better or worse, it seemed the shuttle was in motion once more.

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


Chapter 2, part 3

In which Marie is tired, and Maleo is a jerk.

Marie headed towards the nearest dressing room, knowing that Mal was on her heels. It was time for them to have the talk she’d been dreading since she first saw Naj all of five minutes ago.

As soon as he passed the threshold, she spun back around and shut the dressing room door. No need for anyone else to overhear this. Everyone respected a closed door around here, as rarely used as they were.

“Mal –”

“Marie –”

She tilted her head slightly, signaling him to go first.

Mal took a step towards her, hands outstretched and golden eyes beseeching. “Marie, you know what happened the last time there was a snake in our nest. I’m only looking out for your best interests.”

She evaded his touch easily enough, her long tail lashing angrily behind her. She needed to watch herself or she’d start to spark. “What I remember is that you nearly got me killed, Maleo.”

He winced at her using his full name, obviously distancing herself from him further. She’d been doing it since Jax had left, it had just been more subtle and he hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it.

“Don’t be like that. You know I would never hurt you, Rie. You weren’t supposed to be there. If that stupid snake – “

“Don’t you even try to blame this on Jax. Don’t you dare!” She leveled a finger up at him, shaking with the force of her order. At the first spark along her nail, she clenched her hand into a fist. “He went with you because he thought you wanted peace, Maleo. That you were willing to try to make things better. All you wanted was to teach him some stupid lesson.”

His mouth opened and she rushed on before he could speak. “And look what your pettiness got you! Nothing, Maleo, nothing! All your stupid games and tricks – It was all for nothing.”

Her jaw trembled and she had to look away. “Nothing. And I lost someone I loved because of it.”

Pained, he reached for her and she stepped away again. She refused to look at him. Mal stooped and twisted, but finally gave up, throwing his hands in the air. “I told you it was an accident! You were never supposed to get hurt – when it comes down to it, those snakes -”

She bit her lip, tasting the faint tang of blood when a fang slipped. She shook her head. “You just don’t get it.”

“I don’t get it?” His voice was rising, the first warm traces of anger apparent. “I don’t get it? You’re the one that he nearly killed and here you are, ready to snuggle up to another killer!”

That made her look at him. She gaped, unable to grasp his anger or his bigotry. He took the advantage, stepping forward to hold her shoulders and gaze down at her, his expression turning tender.

“I only want to protect you. It was all I ever wanted. To keep you safe.” His voice hushed as he leaned down. “To love you.”

Marie pushed him suddenly. Her overly hot hands forced him back and he grabbed one shoulder in shock. They stared at each other, eyes wide. She’d never used her fire on him before.

“You’re so stupid, Mal.” She shook her head, tears already threatening to spill past her long lashes. “I did love you. Until you decided that your pride meant more to you than me. I loved you both, you selfish jerk.”

When she felt the first trickle of hot tears on her cheek, she shook her head harder and pushed past Mal to get to the door.

He called her name and she paused. It sounded hurt. It should. “Jax understood. He knew I loved you – why do you think he would have agreed to meet with you, Maleo? He knew I wanted you two to get along. He was willing to try – for me.”

She sniffed, trying to pull herself back together. Marie scrubbed her hands over her eyes.

“Marie – if you love me – “

“It’s because I loved you that I didn’t tell anyone you were there, Maleo. I was so scared of losing both of you…” She sniffed again, harder, getting angry with herself now. She shrugged his hand off her shoulder and reached for the door. “If you actually still care about me –“ She continued to speak over his protests that he did, “Then you’ll leave Naj alone. Drop whatever stupid hatred you have against serpents and let it go. Let us all move on.”

Before he said something that could change her mind, she left.

She managed a smile for the few dancers she passed in the hallway, but no one questioned the traces of tears. Marie knew they would know it had to do with Mal, the pair of them hadn’t been close since Jax died. Then again, he’d pressed his hand with her too soon after his death, everyone had heard that screaming argument.

When she reached the hallway leading to her room, she let her shoulders drop, finally let the weight she felt on them show. It made her sick to think that once upon a time a fight with Mal would have had her begging to make up with her best friend, but things had changed. He’d gone too far.

She didn’t understand how he couldn’t see it.

She stood in the doorway to her room, letting her eyes adjust to the dark before she stepped inside. Marie thought about closing it, she was too ill after that fight – the idea of someone coming in and curling up with her… That it might be Maleo…

But closing it would be odder than leaving it open. She always left her door open in case someone needed a cuddle. In the end, the thought of another closed door bothered her more. Maleo wouldn’t come in after their talk, not with Naj sleeping in her room.

It made her sad, but she couldn’t deny her relief either.

She took a few steps towards the bed, shedding her clothes. As she stepped out of her pants, she caught sight of Nat and Naj and froze.

How many times had she come in on Jax and Nat, fast asleep after a hard night’s dance? They’d go to bed long before she did and when she’d finally have tired herself out, she would come in and he would be curled around her, his long form matching hers. Her tail would be curled over his hip, his dark curls blending with hers.

She pressed a hand to her mouth, barely noticing that her palm glowed in faint pulsing lines. Before she could cry again, she turned her head away, only to stare at the dresser.

The dresser held all her drawings of Jax. Everything she couldn’t bear to leave on the walls afterwards. The reminder of his high cheekbones, his gentle smile, his strong jaw, his wry sapphire eyes.

She hadn’t been able to get rid of them either, they were all she had left.

The thought that it had almost been two years surfaced and she shoved it back down. She’d been avoiding thinking about it. Everyone had. No one wanted to remember that awful anniversary.

A sudden light caught her eye and she hurriedly swiped a hand over her tail, extinguishing the tip. Her hands worked over the fur and she fought not to cry. She’d been doing so well.

Marie focused on her breathing, trying to ignore the pang in her heart as she recited mantras Jax had taught her to relax and regain her calm.

When she could feel the cooler air around her, she opened her eyes again. It didn’t hurt so much when she looked back at Naj and Nat this time. He wasn’t Jax. His hair was straighter, shorter. His face was much more angular, almost gaunt. His eyes had been dark, far from Jax’s lighter blue. He was taller than Jax, leaner. His torso looked almost too thin, his ribs painfully apparent.

For the first time, she found herself wondering what had brought him to Asylum. He looked so… Overtaxed.

She wondered how long it had been since he’d laughed.

Her concern for him distracted her from her own pain and she slipped into the nest beside him. She tucked as close as she could to him without touching, but letting her tail slip forward to cross with Nat’s. It felt strange, to not just wrap herself around him like she would have with any other dancer, but she didn’t know if he would mind. Sometimes newcomers wanted space at first, until they got to know their fellow dancers. And he had said that her heat was overwhelming.

She fell asleep still debating how close she should lay to him to keep him comfortable, but also still comfort herself.

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

Shorts: Maleo comes to Asylum

NaNo prompts inspired this little short about Maleo’s first introduction to Asylum. Hopefully, more scenes like it are coming. Stay tuned. 🙂

Maleo couldn’t say what it was exactly about her that drew his attention. The fiery red curls, flying in the stage light, the perfect, creamy skin peeking out here and there with every shimmy– No, it was the innocence, the pure joyous laughter in her eyes as she danced. This angel had no idea she was beautiful, didn’t know what each twist of her hip and shake of her shoulders did to him. Doubtless did to every other hot-blooded male in the place. And a few of the females, if the ebony princess dancing beside her was any indication.She was pretty enough in her own right, and if Mal was reading their signs right, he could well imagine himself in the middle of their fire and coals embrace. But even as the thought riled him, it sickened him. Such a gentle girl, touched by such deviance…

Mal’s feathers ruffled as a shudder passed through him, and he smoothed a hand over his hair quickly. Must keep it cool, this wasn’t the place for feathers. He’d gotten lazy in his habits, living at the compound. Mal had a sudden flash of hot red fur and amber eyes–his sweet tender angel was undoubtedly a fox. A sly and wild fox, just waiting for someone to show her the way into the woods–and who in this den of sin wouldn’t just love to be the one. Maybe it was even too late…
The curtain dropped, leaving Mal blinking into the darkness.Safely unseen, he raised and resettled his feathers, blowing out a tense breath to resettle his soul. He hadn’t understood before, when this “Asylum” was all just talk, just why Xavier wanted to protect them. But if this Nica was anything like her students…
He would stay. Mal got up between one act and the next, ignoring the two clowns distracting the audience before the still lowered curtain. He went straight to the bar, nodding to the behemoth of a man tending it. He was so dark, only the whites of his eyes and his teeth seemed to show in the dimness. Maleo didn’t flinch, just asked to speak to the owner of the club, on behalf of Master Xavier, head of the Riverside Nest.
Kain raised an eyebrow, but it too was lost in the darkness. He called for Dev, against his better judgement. This bird was trouble, but at least he would be a known trouble. Better that than wondering what “master” was up to.

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


Index: What is a nest?

This is one of those kinda genre specific things that I thought would just sort itself out, but is actually giving a lot of my readers trouble. So if you’re wondering what a nest is, never fear! You are not alone, and I’m about to explain it. 🙂
Serpent shapeshifters, as you’ve seen, can sense emotion. In general, they tend to have very “loose” auras, making them sensitive to the emotions of those around them. So way back when, when the races were sorting themselves out, serpents tended to cluster in tight little groups to sort of insulate themselves from emotional upheaval. Kinda like zebras’ stripes blending them into one visual unit, a nest of serpents tended to blend auras, creating a sort of “overmood” that was less susceptible to outside influence.
This pseudo hive mind led to really great improv dancing, singing, and general music making. Coupled with serpents’ fluid second nature, and a culture that praised beauty and expression, and you wound up with a race that is famous as performers.
So while a serpent nest is not actually synonymous with a group of dancers, over the years they’ve come to be used pretty interchangeably. Most nests are wholly serpent, varying from family units that dance together as a form of worship, to larger, more church-like organizations. The second most common type is an all avian dancer’s nest, though that’s rarer since on the whole, they tend to favor modesty and decorum over exuberant self-expression. You may run across nests of big cats as well, but it’s more likely they’ll be organized into something that more closely resembles a “werewolf pack”, coming back around to genre specific ideas. Wolves, hyenas, and big cats favor that model over the dancers’ nest model.
Weirdest of all is the “chimera nest” style, like Asylum. Supernatural creatures tend to stick to their own kinds, for various reasons. The fact that Asylum welcomes all comers, regardless of their second forms, is practically unheard of. The fact that it does so pretty smack in the middle of a wolf/hyena turf war is pretty ballsy, but we’ll get to that later. For now, the thing to understand is that Naj is seeking the emotional insulation and security that comes from belonging to a group. Those of you who’ve done group sports, band, theater, and the like, know what I’m talking about. The thing takes on a near entity like status, and that’s what Naj is seeking out.
P.s. I have another entry planned out on the Dai nests, and how they differ from normal, healthy nests. It’s a bit more involved, and will take some background in the world’s magic system, so I’m saving it for another day. But rest assured, it is coming.