Sunset, 26th May, Year 14 of the Sixth Era
Somewhere in the Kundalan Jungle, Principality of Qaumaat
Normally, the only sounds which would punctuate the jungle this late into the evening would be the piercing buzz of frogs, crickets and cicadas trying desperately to attract mates. Normally, the thick, ferny underbrush would be still, sheltered from any breeze by the dense nest of tree trunks and branches above. Normally, the fading sun filtering through the canopy would be the only source of light, casting the forest floor into shadows not yet quite dark enough to attract fireflies.
Today was not a normal sort of day.
The crepuscular critters which skittered across the forest floor were the first to pick up the thundering sounds of quick, heavy footsteps, sending them scurrying off to their dens and burrows. One particular spiny tree mouse, possessed for a moment by an unusual clarity of thought, paused in its fearful scampering, perturbed by the sound. It sounds as heavy as a leopard, thought the mouse, but I can hear exactly where it is. Even at full sprint, a leopard wouldn’t ignore its stealth. The curious rodent cocked its head to the side, shifting its small ears to make better sense of the odd noise. Slower and louder than a leopard; too quick and light on its feet to be an elephant. What in the world are you?
The footfalls turned, now heading directly towards the little brown mouse. Its instant of momentary lucidity passed, and it resumed its fearful dash back to its burrow in a natural alcove of a nearby tree. It could barely hold itself back from squeaking in terror as the strange creature slowed to a halt right outside its home, panting heavily. The mouse could barely believe its keen eyes when it saw the creature standing fully upright on two feet, far taller and straighter than any monkey. Its navy fur was very short, and its skin hung extremely loosely, barely following its bones and seeming to billow slightly as it moved. Although the mouse could not see the full figure, it seemed to be making no move towards it; it seemed to look around before collapsing down to lie against the base of the tree, causing it to shake violently and the mouse to retreat yet further back into its burrow.
Dartrich’s lungs worked overtime to suck lifegiving oxygen from the heavy, humid air. He wasn’t quite sure how long he had been running, or how much distance he had put between himself and the Qaumaati capital, but at least his steps were no longer shadowed by the thud of heavy boots or the whistle-thunk of arrows. This spot would do for the moment, at least. Moving gingerly to avoid aggravating the cramps in his side, he unclasped his cloak and pack, throwing them aside to reveal sweat-soaked fair skin under the high collar which had come loose at some point in the mad dash. Under his breath, he cursed the merchant who had sold him the long, navy cloak; although the light, dense weave worked wonders for protection from the persistent rains and attracted little attention, it was a greenhouse for the seemingly omnipresent heat and humidity. Although he was tempted to leave the damnable thing behind, he reluctantly stuffed it, none too gently, into his already bulging pack. Pulling out his waterskin, he paused his laboured breathing for a moment to suck several mouthfuls of slightly bitter water, before splashing his face and back with a little more. Dartrich sighed in the slight relief the tepid water offered, feeling his pounding heart begin to slow. Now that the adrenaline was beginning to drain from him, he felt exhaustion beginning to creep in. He forcefully attempted to banish it; he would just rest here for a few minutes before finding a safer place to spend the night.
After a few moments, Dartrich’s ears pricked up at a new sound, just barely audible over the hum of the insects. A shifting, rustling sound, like leaves in the breeze, yet the air is as oppressively still as ever. The creaking of branches, not all at once, but one after another. His well-attuned nose detected a hint of a musky, slightly sour scent which had not been there before. A wild animal, perhaps? Or an assassin, not quite as stealthy as they might have hoped? Dartrich kept utterly still, doing his best to quiet his breathing, although he could do little about his heart beginning to race again. If he kept quiet and still, whoever or whatever it was might lose interest.
Seconds felt like minutes as the creaking sounds got closer and closer. Some ancient prey instincts deep in the back of Dartrich’s mind told him to run, his thighs itching with the urge to bolt away into the underbrush. He mastered the impulse. He had a few moments to think – if it got too close, how to defend himself? His eyes flicked to the basketed hilt of the sword at his side – no, too slow, too loud, too bright. Now that the sound was closer, it was easier to tell where it was coming from. Behind him, on his right side. It’d have to turn around the edge of the tree before it saw him. Carefully, noiselessly, he shifted long, pale fingers onto the ground by his right thigh. The familiar tingle of power raced down his arm, seeping into the earth. Fairly loose soil on the surface, but there was a layer of tightly compacted clay beneath. Good. The sound was closer still, no more than a dozen paces away now. That musky scent was stronger than ever – not unpleasant, in fact it was a fairly comfortable smell. Dartrich banished the idle thought. Should he keep his position or stand and face his predator? More mobile on his feet, better peripheral vision without the ferns around him. He mentally plotted out each of the movements he would make. A small part of him hoped it was simply some wild animal to be frightened away with a show of force, but instinct and cruel experience advised him otherwise. Barely a few paces away now. His arm hairs stood on end, his senses so alert he could detect the slight movement of air revealing the presence of something – someone – behind him.
The heel of Dartrich’s hand slammed into the dirt, energy leaping into the clay, causing a hard grey stalagmite to spring upwards towards his predator with lightning speed. He spun on his knees, shifting in one fluid movement to his feet. His eyes caught a momentary blur of crimson, turquoise and yellow before he felt a vicelike pressure closing around his neck, yanking him backwards off his feet before he could find his balance. What little air he’d been inhaling to help hide his presence was reduced to nothing, the collar around his throat denying him any chance at oxygen. Power raced into his hands on instinct, allowing his fingers to latch onto the scaly coil beneath his chin with ease. Whoever or whatever the coil belonged to hissed in a mixture of pain and shock at the slender traveller’s unexpected strength as he ripped the sinewy length away from him. Using the momentum of his fall, Dartrich rolled backwards onto his feet, drawing three feet of steel from his hip as he rose. As his heels thudded into the ground, a circle of stalagmites much like the one he had conjured moments before burst out from the ground around his feet, fanning outwards to dissuade any assailant from getting too close. It was only now that Dartrich and his opponent could finally get a good look at each other. Though his broadsword remained high and ready, Dartrich couldn’t help but let his breath catch in his chest with surprise.
The flash of crimson he had seen earlier was a luscious curtain of vibrant red hair, spilling gracefully down around an undeniably handsome face, dark eyes wide in shock. The broad, incredibly muscular torso was bare, those powerful arms raised, their sinew rippling. But below his waist, instead of bulging thighs, a monstrously thick snake’s body can be seen. Dappled patterns of chestnut, ochre and bronze scales twisted under him, not trailing across the forest floor but instead extending upwards into the treetops and out of sight. Out of the corner of his eye, Dartrich can see the tip of that enormous tail hanging down from the canopy, poised and at the ready – presumably, that was what had gripped his throat a moment ago.
Dartrich’s curiosity burned, his pale blue-grey eyes widening for a moment before he mastered himself. His assailant certainly looked human from the waist up, but the snake lower half – although calling it “half” was somewhat comical – advised him otherwise. “Who…” he husked out, his throat slightly hoarse from both the pressure and his heavy breathing. “Who are you? What are you?”
A moment of stony silence – did the creature not understand his words? The creature pursed his lips, brows knitting together. He moved to the side slightly, partially to get a better look at Dartrich, partially to get away from the sharp stalagmite mere centimetres away from his face. “I could ask you the same question,” he replied. Though touched with apprehension, his voice was deep, smooth, with a lilting accent Dartrich couldn’t quite identify. “It’s been… a very long time since I’ve encountered a human capable of magic. I didn’t think that was possible anymore.”
…Anymore? Wondered Dartrich, confused. His brain whirred into overdrive over the one, simple word. That implies he remembers a time before the War… which would imply he’s at the very least seven hundred years old, but he looks no older than thirty. Is that even possible?
Well, he spoke the common tongue, at least, and he seemed to have at least some knowledge of thaumaturgy. Dartrich shifted to keep him in direct eye contact. Although the creature seemed intelligent, that was far from an assurance of safety. “D’you make a habit of sneaking up on travelers in the woods?” He asked bluntly, although not quite angrily. Even as he spoke, he scanned his peripheral vision carefully; if he needed to run, his best chance would be between the two trees to his left. He could grab his pack on the way, and the creature would have to go around. The loose earth could provide a potent smokescreen.
The corners of the creature’s mouth twitched upwards, but he held his focused expression. “On occasion, if there’s someone lurking in my forest who catches my interest… or if they’re a poacher who’s unwisely decided to try their luck.” He growled the last few words, a little resentment coming to his tone. A slight tremor travelled down his snake body – thinking quickly, Dartrich mentally timed how long it took to get to the tip of his tail. It takes several seconds of silence; it seems that tail is much, much longer than what is currently visible.
Pretending the silence was simply being used to mull over the creature’s words, Dartrich’s brows knitted together yet tighter, unable to hide his curious expression. “Well, I’m no poacher,” he pointed out, gesturing with the tip of his sword to his small pack and the lack of a bow or quiver, “so I must have caught your interest somehow. Am I trespassing or something?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” the creature chuckled gently. Despite the barrier of stalagmites and steel, he seemed to have relaxed from the initial shock, seeming rather unconcerned, although his eyes sparkled with interest. “It just would have been hard to miss the way you were barging through the undergrowth earlier. I think the entire jungle heard you.”
Suddenly, Dartrich’s face alit with understanding. “You’re a naga,” he breathed in a mixture of confusion and awe.
The creature’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Well, well… somebody knows his history,” he chortled, stroking his striking chin between two fingers. “No ordinary traveller these days would know of the naga. You just seem to get more interesting by the moment.”
Memories of ancient texts, almost faded from Dartrich’s recollection, burst to the forefront of his mind. Inwardly, he thanked himself for the many sleepless nights spent in the Edelharn library, poring over moth-eaten books, absorbing every scrap of knowledge he could. Naga… powerful snakelike beings with enormous lifespans and potent magical abilities, said to prefer dense, warm jungles as habitats. He knew of at least one extinct religion that had worshipped them three eras ago. But… “I thought…” He murmured, speaking half to himself, this thought process having slipped out of his mind and into his mouth. “I thought naga went extinct centuries ago?”
A slightly pained look came to the naga’s eyes, a shadow passing across his face. “No, but we… retreated from the human world, for the most part. Very few of us interact with humans anymore. Some of us still hold onto old grudges.” He shakes his head, banishing his sombre tone and replacing it with a warm smile. “Ancient history, as far as I’m concerned. Humans are far too interesting a species for me to forswear forever. Particularly,” he continued smoothly, tapping the tip of one of the stalagmites with his tail, “if you’re able to use your magic again. Now there’s a story I’d like to hear about.”
Dartrich had almost forgotten about the stalagmites separating him from the naga. The sudden bolt of understanding had occupied much of his attention, and there was something about the lyrical quality naga’s deep, silky voice which was ever so slightly… alluring.
“You answered my second question, but not my first,” pointed out Dartrich. Although he kept his sword at the ready for a moment’s notice, the hostility has vanished from his tone entirely, replaced by a softer note of cautious interest. “Who are you?”
The naga blinked, then laughed sheepishly, rubbing the back neck such that he stretched his enormous chest in a way Dartrich couldn’t help but notice. “Ah, I’ve quite forgotten my manners, I do apologise.” He laid his hand on his chest in what Dartrich recognised as a Qaumaati gesture of greeting. He spoke with such gentility that Dartrich couldn’t help but feel a note of warmth rising to his cheeks. “My name is Kenny. And I assure you, I have no ill intentions whatsoever, I was just concerned at how you seemed to be fleeing from something. And you are…?”
Dartrich paused – an old wives’ tale unhelpfully came to mind, about fairies in the forest stealing your name as soon as you mentioned it. He banished the childish thought. “Dartrich,” he replied. With a wave of his slender hand, he dispelled the enchantment keeping the stalagmites in place, causing them to crumble back into soft clay on the forest floor. Although he did lower his sword, he did not sheathe it. “And I don’t make a habit of hurting people who don’t intend to hurt me, but I don’t take too kindly to people sneaking up behind me. Er…” He blinked, trying to remember the acceptable thing to say in this sort of situation. “Sorry about the tail?” The apology, though somewhat stilted, was genuine.
Kenny shook his head, causing his hair to sway like a forest fire. The ache in his tail where Dartrich had roughly yanked it had almost completely faded. “I should be the one apologising,” he said, shifting his snake body so he could move in closer, causing a little of it to droop onto the forest floor for support. “You weren’t moving and barely breathing, I thought you might have been hurt. I was just caught off guard by your magic and reacted on instinct.” He took a troubled look at Dartrich’s throat. “I should have been more careful. I hope I didn’t hurt you?”
Dartrich waved away Kenny’s concerns, murmuring a few indistinct words of reassurance. Kenny was relieved to find no bruising on or around his neck, so he expanded his focus to get a closer look at the rest of the strange traveller. He seemed on the small side for a human, both in terms of height and a fairly slender physique. Though his angular, slightly hawklike face was tanned and weather-beaten, there was a clear line where a high collar usually hides paler and softer skin. Although it’s difficult to see in the half-light, Kenny could have sworn to see the glint of something silver on his shoulder, though an unconscious readjustment of his rumpled shirt masked it from view. Inwardly, he attempted to hazard a guess at his guest’s age; mid-thirties, perhaps? It was difficult to tell; although his skin was still smooth and supple, his cinnamon hair was threaded with silver, and the dark purple rings under his eyes made him look older than he likely was. Now that his battle stance was dropped, his shoulders were high and tight, and he seemed to be constantly squinting despite the low light. Each breath came with a slight ragged sigh. “Poor dear,” murmured Kenny sweetly, his troubled expression deepening. “You look exhausted, are you sure you’re alright?”
“It’s that obvious?” Dartrich sighed shakily. He dropped the pretense of looking alert, sagging slightly and rocking back and forth on his heels. He rubbed at his face with the heel of his free hand, attempting to combat the rubbery feeling in his cheeks. “It’s been… a tiring couple of weeks. I just hope it was all worth it. I’ll be okay after a good night’s rest.” There was a note of reluctant resignation in his grumble.
A crafty, mischievous grin began to creep across Kenny’s face. Given that Dartrich was unlikely to try to head back to the city he’d just sprinted pell-mell from… “Would you be interested in sleeping here in the jungle for the night? I happen to know a perfect place…” Kenny offered with a slightly flirty, sing-song tone. His smirk was clearly audible.
Dartrich had momentarily glanced away and was taken aback by the unannounced shift in Kenny’s voice. He wheeled back on the grinning naga with surprise and a little suspicion. “Well, I’ll probably need to sleep here anyway, the sun’s almost fully down already,” he reasoned, carefully keeping his voice level. “What kind of place did you have in mind? It’d have to be secluded, I, er… tend to attract unwelcome guests.”
Kenny gave a rich, deep chuckle at Dartrich’s euphemism. “No need to worry about that, my dear Dartrich,” he purred, readjusting himself to lay more of his snake body on the ground in a wide circle winding through the trees around them. “I can assure you, those in my company are quite sssssssafe from, as you put it, unwelcome guessssstssss.” He bit back another laugh – getting his tongue to follow the short sibilance of the common tongue was always a bit of a chore, so it always felt immensely satisfying when he got the chance to let loose with the natural-feeling hisses.
Dartrich blinked – as the naga’s muscular tail weaved through the trees, a slight change in air current allowed him a potent whiff of that distinctive scent he had noticed earlier. The rich musk was just strong enough to be most enjoyable without being overpowering, but now that it was stronger, Dartrich noticed that it was touched with sweet and vibrant notes of honeysuckle, vanilla and sage. The slightly sour scent of snake was present as well, of course, but it blended oddly well with the other scents rather than clashing as he might have expected it to. “I…” He blinked again, clearing his throat and attempting to refocus on Kenny’s words rather than the delightful ensemble of aromas. He frowned, suspicion whispering in his ear. “Your company? Mind telling me what exactly you mean by that?” He asked gruffly, desperately hoping Kenny would ignore the pink note rising to his cheeks and his momentary lapse in focus.
Kenny, of course, ignored no such thing, although he did a good job of feigning that he did. He resisted the chuckle rising in his chest; there would be plenty of time to tease the serious traveller later. “Why, exactly what it sounds like,” he said warmly. “I have a lovely spot among these branches I like to call home, and you’re more than welcome to spend the night. I can make sure that it’s a wonderfully restful night, as well, if you like,” he added playfully, allowing the tip of his tail to swing by and tap the tip of Dartrich’s nose cheekily before retreating out of reach.
Meanwhile, a war was being waged inside Dartrich’s mind, suspicion launching volley after volley at the stubbornly growing sense of comfort. The bizarrely cheerful and affectionate naga seemed harmless enough, yet Dartrich’s neck remembered the sheer speed and power of those coils all too well for comfort. That said, if he needed to defend himself against any pursuers, he would certainly feel much safer with the enormous, muscular figure on his side. But what kind of carefree fool would invite a total stranger into their home for the night mere minutes after meeting them for the first time? He checked himself for his brain’s uncharitable comment. Kenny had been nothing but kind and courteous to him. And besides, when would he ever get another opportunity to talk with a centuries-old being with first-hand recollections of life before the War? The scholarly part of his mind buzzed with excitement at the prospect. Nonetheless, suspicion put up a stern defence, refusing to allow him to trust blindly. “What do you mean, ‘make sure it’s a restful night’? Unless you’ve got a feather bed nestled in the treetops, I’m not sure how you plan to do that.”
Kenny hummed cheerfully, shifting himself a little closer so his large brown eyes could easily lock with Dartrich’s pale grey ones. “I can demonstrate quite easily,” he sang, feeling the tingles of his own brand of magic beginning to awaken in the back of his eyes. He always felt a heady rush at this moment, where a new friend was interested but not quite lulled into comfort and security yet. It always heralded the beginning of something wonderful. “If you wouldn’t mind taking a closer look at these eyessssss of mine…”
Dartrich frowned in confusion, cocking his head to the side slightly at Kenny coming dangerously close to invading his personal space, but obeying nonetheless and keeping close eye contact. “Er… rrrrrright… I don’t exactly see how… how…” Dartrich’s skeptical comment was cut off midsentence, as, to his shock, a ring of shining, shimmering turquoise began to expand outward from Kenny’s pupils, wiping away his brown irises and white sclera as it went. It was quickly followed by a thick ring of green, then of orange, then yellow, then back to turquoise again. The logical part of his brain knew that was impossible, it must be some trick, some deception, yet he could not deny how brightly the colours seemed to shine in the deepening shadows. Yet they were not glaring or painful to look at, quite the opposite; the smoothly moving, cycling colours were quite attention-grabbing and easy to watch. Ring after ring after ring moving from the pupil outwards in a mesmerising pattern. It was only after several seconds when Dartrich realised he’d been silently staring open-mouthed at the shimmering rings. Clearing his throat and blinking several times, he felt that irritating heat rising to his cheeks again. “What… what is that?” He was surprised to hear his own voice sounding so soft and tender; clearing his throat again, he endeavoured to continue in a more focused tone, although focusing on anything other than those brilliant colours was becoming increasingly difficult. “Some kind of… illusion magic? Naga bioluminescence? Did you give me some kind of drug?” Burning curiosity afforded him a little focus, mind racing, coming up with possible explanations one after another.
Dartrich heard Kenny laughing deeply, though he never saw his lips move – the pulsing light filling his vision was too alluring to devote any of his attention elsewhere. “Oh, this is certainly magic, my dear Dartrich, but there’s no illusions here,” Kenny crooned, inching closer bit by bit, allowing more and more of Dartrich’s vision to be enveloped by beautiful colour. “Perhaps you’ve heard of… hypnosssssisss? It’s a particular sssssspecialty of mine, I do sssssso love help my friendsssss to sssssink ever so deeply into these shifting eyesssss of mine.”
The word was meaningless to Dartrich, although the promise of a new kind of magic helped drag his attention to the naga ever more powerfully. “I… I see… And… erm… this hypnosis…” Dartrich was only dimly aware of his words beginning to come slower and slower, and he was even less aware of his tight-knit shoulders beginning to loosen, his laboured breathing beginning to soften, his heart beginning to calm. “How… erm… how does it… work, exactly?”
“Mmmm… excellent question, and one I would be happy to answer,” grinned Kenny. Although Dartrich was still far from under his spell, there’s a flutter of excitement deep in the pit of Kenny’s stomach as he spots a paper-thin turquoise corona beginning to form around the edge of Dartrich’s pupil. “You see – ”
A loud, resonating crack of a tree branch broke both the flow of Kenny’s explanation and Dartrich’s centred attention. As his brain lurched back into focus, Dartrich turned, craning his ear in the direction of the noise. His eyes, now fully returned to their original colour, narrowed as he could just barely detect the sounds of male voices, multiple of them, getting louder by the second. Muttering a curse under his breath, he gripped his sword tightly and leapt forward to seize his pack from where it had been left by the tree. “Sorry, Kenny,” he whispered, careful to be as quiet as possible to not attract further attention. “It’ll have to wait for another time. I didn’t think they’d chase me this far into the jungle, but I guess I was wrong. I need to go, now.”
“And get even more lost than you already are?” Kenny pointed out, following Dartrich’s lead and quieting his voice while bringing an urgent note to it. “Even if you can outrun them, I don’t like your chances of lasting long in the jungle alone. I can keep you safe, for one night at the very least. Just trust me.” A pleading note came into Kenny’s voice, as he fastened one large, warm hand on Dartrich’s shoulder.
Dartrich hesitated for a moment, instinct screaming at him to abandon Kenny and take off at a sprint into the forest, reason ordering to stay and allow himself to be protected. His heart thumped wildly, echoed by the footfalls approaching them quickly – too quickly. It was the ammunition reason needed to win out. “Alright,” he murmured, stowing his sword and hitching his pack fully onto his back. “Which way to – hey!”
The moment Dartrich agreed, Kenny moved with lightning speed. The length of his body lying in the clearing cinched inward, instantly coiling around the wiry traveller and earning a squawk of protest. “Sorry,” Kenny muttered grimly, “but this is the quickest way. Hold on!”
With a bulge of his enormous snake muscles, Kenny thrust both himself and Dartrich straight upwards, reaching the lowest level of the understory within seconds. It was a bizarre sensation; initially, Dartrich braced himself for that unfortunately familiar stomach-lurching feeling of being flung bodily into the air, yet it did not come. Despite the speed, the movement was smooth, even and consistent, with the thick band of snakeskin around him providing a surprisingly comfortable, plushy harness. Even through his clothing, the shimmering coils offered a pleasantly cool respite from the stiflingly warm and humid jungle, as though he were wrapped in a slightly chilled blanket. His saviour moved with incredible agility for his size, easily evading thick branches and dense clumps of leaves in a valiant effort to shield Dartrich from the tangled thicket of the rainforest canopy. Despite the initial shock of being so suddenly moved, Dartrich found it difficult to not enjoy the smooth, cushy pressure gently pressing around his torso and thighs.
Eventually, Kenny slowed to a halt in a sort of natural treetop bower, where several grand branches as thick as Kenny himself crisscrossed to form a kind of multilayered floor, enshrouded on all sides by dense foliage. By now, the sun had almost fully set, but here, so close to the emergent layer, the blue twilight was easily able to filter in, though the leafy “walls” otherwise protected the interior from the elements. Gingerly, Kenny unfurled his coils from around Dartrich, gently depositing him on the widest of the branches. Despite his efforts, he had not been perfectly successfully in shielding him from the web of leaves; Dartrich had to take a moment to detach a few loose twigs from now-thoroughly rumpled hair.
“For future reference,” grumbled Dartrich, doing his best to appear stern, “most people prefer a little warning before you wrap around them and yank them off to gods-know-where.” Though his brows were tightly furled, he could not completely hide the grin tugging insistently at the corner of his mouth.
Kenny put his large hands up in a gesture of guilt, bowing his head slightly. “I know, I’m sorry,” he rumbled, sounding genuinely mournful. “It was the quickest way, but I should have explained what I was doing.” With his large eyes downcast, he quite missed the understanding smile creeping its way across Dartrich’s thin face.
He perked up, however, when he felt the warm, gentle pressure of Dartrich’s slender hand tapping reassuringly against the section of coil where his thigh might be. “But,” said Dartrich, sounding softer and sweeter than Kenny had yet heard him, “I do appreciate you leaping to help me so quickly, and for taking good care of me even though you were moving so fast. Thank you.”
Kenny was momentarily taken aback by how the warm, gentle smile transformed his guest’s face; it was a remarkable change from the dour, focused stare he bore before. “I…” For a bizarre instant, Kenny found himself fumbling with his words, but he found them again quickly, returning the smile. “You’re very welcome, my dear Dartrich. I would never have abandoned you down there, even if you refused my offer.”
Dartrich inclined his head in appreciation. Inwardly, his pride rankled slightly, yearning to point out that he never needed Kenny’s help in the first place. He ignored the churlish impulse. Instead, he raised his index finger, feeling that familiar tingling as his fingertip alit with a candlelike glow. The reddish-orange light cast long shadows across the blue-hued gloom, glinting off the glossy leaves which surrounded them. “What… is this place, exactly?” He asked, glancing around the bower curiously.
Kenny chirred slightly. “It’s… a home, of sorts,” he explained, readjusting himself to nestle in a little more comfortably towards Dartrich, propping his chin on his fingers, elbows resting on his tail. “Mostly, I sleep where I like, the jungle has many lovely resting spots. But, when I’ve got company less able to navigate the canopy, or I feel like a little seclusion, I come here.”
“And we’re safe here?”
“Quite safe, I assure you,” replied Kenny warmly. “Not even the forest critters know about this spot, and it’s practically inaccessible to humans. You can relax here for the night, safe and sound.”
Dartrich hesitated for a moment before breathing a sigh of relief, shaking off the pack from his shoulders and the broadsword from his waist. Kenny courteously extended his hand to take them, hanging them from a nearby branch on the “wall” of the bower. “I should get in the habit of thanking you,” said Dartrich, allowing himself to relax a little, letting his feet dangle around the edge of the broad branch.
Kenny waved away Dartrich’s sweet comment. “You’re very kind,” he chuckled, “but I rarely get such interesting visitors. A night of your company is all the gratitude I need.”
At that comment, Dartrich demurred, looking away as if on the pretense of taking a closer look at his surroundings. However, Kenny’s keen eyesight could easily spot his shy, almost boyish smile and the pink tinge rising to his cheeks. He never thought that someone with such harshly angular features could look cute, and yet… “Something on your mind?” chirred Kenny, shifting himself more directly into Dartrich’s view.
Dartrich, to his credit, hid his feelings masterfully, looking back to Kenny with a resolutely neutral yet seemingly unconcerned expression. “Hm? Sorry, no, I was just taking a little look around,” he replied nonchalantly – perhaps a little too nonchalantly.
“No,” teased Kenny, bringing a note of sing-song playfulness into his tone. “I definitely saw you grinning about something. Don’t make me curious and leave me hanging, my dear Dartrich.”
“I don’t necessarily need a reason for smiling, you know,” countered Dartrich, his eye twitching with the enormity of this lie. “Maybe I just thought of something funny.”
“Ah, excellent!” Kenny said with gently mocking exuberance. “Funny thoughts are some of my favourite kinds of thoughts, do tell.”
The colour in Dartrich’s cheeks was getting pinker and pinker by the second. “It’s… it’s nothing, really,” he mumbled, valiantly attempting to retain some semblance of nonchalance. “It’s silly, don’t worry about it.”
“Funny and silly? Well, now, you’re just making me more and more curious.” Kenny was inching closer, his cheeky grin ever widening.
“I just - !” Dartrich squawked, before regaining control of himself and lowering his voice to a sheepish mumble. “I was just… thinking about… how nice your coils felt while you were carrying me.” The last words came out all at once in an awkward mess. His cheeks burned almost as red as Kenny’s hair. How had this damnable naga gotten under his skin so quickly and easily?
Kenny’s rich, deep chuckle resonated through his snake body and into the branches, rustling the leaves making it sound like the peal of laughter was coming from all directions. Dartrich’s stomach, rather unhelpfully, did a soaring flip at the sound, though a part of him was relieved that there was no mocking or malicious undertone to it; he seemed genuinely, unabashedly joyful. “I’m told I give excellent ssssnugglessss,” Kenny said with an ever-so-slightly bragging tone. His laughter caused him to momentarily forget not to hiss. “You’re very sweet to notice, I’m glad you enjoyed them.”
“Sh-shut up!” Dartrich squeaked, mentally kicking himself for how flustered he was getting. “They were nice, okay?! Look, just… just forget about that, alright?” He desperately attempted to salvage what little was left of his dignity, and failed miserably.
Kenny’s smile faded, replaced by a crestfallen expression, eyes widening, lips pursing slightly. “Oh…” he murmured, a sorrowful note in his voice. “I’m… I’m sorry, I thought you might be interested in… never mind, I suppose…” He retreated away from Dartrich a little, folding arms in a sad little pout.
Dartrich’s embarrassment was subsumed by a pang of conscience. He never thought the gigantic, enormously muscular snake creature could look so wounded, but he couldn’t help but feel sorry for Kenny. “Wait, I…” Instinctively, he reached out his arm in an effort to keep Kenny close, but stopped halfway, leaving his hand hanging awkwardly in midair. His tongue felt slow and leaden in his mouth as his brain desperately tried to come up with a way to salvage the sticky moment. “That… that came out wrong, I didn’t mean… I didn’t mean to upset you. I really did enjoy the coils, it was… very comforting. I-I was just feeling a little… er…”
Dartrich trailed off midsentence as he got a closer look at Kenny’s face. A wide grin which could charitably be described as shit-eating was creeping across it, and Dartrich instantly realised he’d been had. “Oh, you are evil,” he growled, to which Kenny gave an insufferably smug little bow as he wrapped the tip of his tail through his broad fingers. Dartrich tried his best to look annoyed, but eventually rolled his eyes and gave up. “Okay, okay, you win. Yes, a little bit of coiling might be nice.”
“It would be my pleasure, my dear Dartrich,” purred Kenny warmly. “If you like, it’s even more wonderful on bare skin; would you be alright with removing your shirt?”
Dartrich balked at the suggestion. “This is just coiling you were thinking of, right?” He asked, slightly suspiciously.
“Just coiling, if that’s what you’re comfortable with,” Kenny nodded. “But if you’d prefer to keep your shirt on, that’s quite all right.”
Dartrich hesitated a moment more, feeling his shoulders quiver, before he pulled his shirt up and over his head. He was about to lay it on the branch behind him, but Kenny courteously plucked it out of his hands, hanging it on the branch next to his pack. When he turned back to Dartrich, though, Kenny couldn’t help but breathe in sharply; several scars of clearly varying ages dotted his lithe chest and arms. Some were neat, as if made by a blade, but others looked more jagged. One of the oldest was a large, starburst-shaped wound on his abdomen, the skin puckered and wrinkled as though it had been burned. Yet more curious was the layer of small, gleaming silver scales which loosely coated his shoulders and fell out of Kenny’s view down his back.
“Problem?” asked Dartrich, noticing Kenny’s stare with a slight grimace. He braced himself for unwelcome curiosity or insensitive comments.
Yet none came. Kenny simply looked up at him with a faint expression of concern. “Do they hurt?” he asked softly.
Dartrich hesitated for a moment, before answering simply, with a cool, neutral expression. “Not anymore.”
There was a moment of pregnant silence before Kenny broke into his warm, endearing smile again. “I’m glad to hear it. Ready?”
Kenny began slowly, winding a generously thick length of his body around Dartrich’s hips and lower arms. He applied no pressure at first, simply allowing his scales to hang loosely against his skin, allowing Dartrich to get used to the pleasantly cool tingling sensation of the smooth snakeskin. As slowly and tenderly as if he was swaddling a babe, Kenny continued wrapping lengths of his snake body around Dartrich, still not pressing inwards, simply forming a loose cocoon of scale and sinew around him, letting the weight rest on the branch and on Dartrich’s lap. One around his waist and elbows, allowing him to readjust his arms for comfort as needed. When he added the third loop around his upper chest and shoulders, he felt more than heard Dartrich’s breath catching in his chest. Kenny paused. Dartrich’s expression was caught between apprehension and excitement. When he looked down at himself, although he could still see the shadow of his torso, most of his vision was taken up by the thick band of brown, beige and yellow. Looking back up, he gave an encouraging nod. Smiling silently, Kenny continued to shift, adding a fourth layer to drape over the tops of his shoulders almost like a loose scarf. Dartrich’s scales, while as smooth as Kenny’s, felt as hard and rigid like steel.
“How does that feel?” murmured Kenny, inching inwards so his gently smiling face filled Dartrich’s view.
“Mmm…” Dartrich pondered for a moment. “It’s nice, but it just feels like you’re encircling me rather than actually hugging me.”
Kenny nodded. “Of course, I haven’t started squeezing yet. I’m going to start slowly, let me know when it starts getting too tight for you, okay?”
Dartrich nodded eagerly, face brightening at the prospect. Little by little, Kenny began to cinch his coils inwards, feeling the resistance Dartrich’s wiry form offered against his binds. Within seconds, Dartrich closed his eyes, blotting out the fading blue light to better focus on the wonderful sensation beginning to envelop his entire upper body. The feeling of compression was soft at first, little more than the feeling of a blanket, but it began to get tighter, and tighter, and tighter. With every shift inward, the cool, tingly feeling of the scales against his bare chest got more intense, more delightful. He could feel his own body beginning to heat up the snakeskin around him, but it never became unbearable. He could feel his heart hammering with excitement against the coil on his chest, but he also quickly became aware of a much slower, deeper, more powerful pulse – Kenny’s pulse, he realised. The coils cinched in, tighter and tighter. He realised that he couldn’t move his arms at all, no matter how hard he tried. The cool, supple pressure was simply too much even to bend his abs. So he simply relaxed into it, allowing his muscles to slacken and be supported by that ever-tightening cocoon. Each breath felt more and more resistance, Kenny timing his inward presses with his exhales, drawing a gentle happy sigh from his chest with each one. A part of him wanted to simply let Kenny cinch in forever, completely preventing him from drawing breath, but eventually, reason took over. “That’s enough,” Dartrich murmured softly, his eyes still closed.
Kenny stopped immediately, half-impressed with Dartrich’s tolerance for being squeezed. By how fast his heart is beating, he must really be enjoying this, he thought to himself. “That feel good?” he purred, shifting in closer so he could whisper almost directly into his ear.
“Mmm,” Dartrich sighed contentedly. He couldn’t quite breathe deeply, but he was still able to breathe more than enough to sustain him. He opened his eyes for the first time in over a minute, glancing down at himself. He couldn’t see his upper body anymore, his legs seeming to emerge from a rippling mass of brown scale and muscle. The coil over his shoulders provided a wonderful neck rest, as it had not wrapped around his throat as the rest had around his torso. The sight was slightly dizzying, but simultaneously wonderfully gratifying. Although he felt himself kicking his feet, seeing them behind the coils felt almost as though the legs were not connected to his brain. Suddenly, a stroke of an idea came to him. “Do you think… you could lift me up like this?” Dartrich’s voice was quiet, sweet and demure. An enjoyably soft feeling was stealing over his consciousness, making every sensation feel somehow both gentler and more intense.
Kenny’s rumbling chuckle resonated through his snake half, setting Dartrich’s entire body all aquiver. “Sure, but I’d need to add an extra coil or two around your thighs to manage the weight. Is that okay?”
After waiting for the eager nod from Dartrich, Kenny tilted the traveller’s body back, his thighs raising and his feet planting themselves on the branch. It was only at this point where Dartrich realised how utterly and completely overwhelmed he was by the sheer bulk of Kenny’s muscle. He could move him easily with a simple movement of a fraction of his body, and no amount of resistance on Dartrich’s part could possibly hope to stop it. His stomach did a gleeful flip at that incredible realisation. His eyes closing again, he felt another coil winding around his thighs, encircling and tightening quicker this time, now that Kenny had gotten used to the kind of force he needed. The sensation was not quite as intense as Dartrich’s trousers prevented skin contact, but the pressure was as delicious as ever. As he heaved a gentle sigh, Dartrich felt himself being slowly lifted away from the branch, and a rush of excitement sent trembles through his entire body. Now divorced entirely from the solid, dependable branch, each and every movement was entirely at Kenny’s whim. With his eyes closed, his sense of position in space fell away quickly. Gravity vanished. Up, down, left right, all meaningless. He was floating, soaring, high, high above the ground, enveloped, encased in the tight, slowly thudding embrace. He couldn’t tell if he was still rising, rocking, swaying. He didn’t care. His head lolled senselessly, lost in the sensation of Kenny’s coils, only prevented from rolling on its axis by the cushion around his neck. He hadn’t even noticed when he had begun making soft little sighing, moaning noises of delight with every exhale. With his sight and sense of direction gone, it made it all the easier to focus on the touch, the sound, the wonderful musky scent enveloping his mind as fully as the coils enveloped his body.
“Hey,” chirped a familiar voice. The coils shook slightly, and Dartrich’s eyes cracked open to see Kenny’s smiling face in front of him – over him? Under him? He could no longer tell. “Enjoying yourself?”
The only response Dartrich could muster initially was an inarticulate mumble of pleasure, but after a few seconds, he began to string words together again. “Yeah… it’s… really nice… you weren’t lying when you said you gave good hugs.”
“Do you want me to set you down?”
“No!” Dartrich’s eyes snapped open fully, his expression pleading. For a moment, his sensibilities returned to him, blood rushing to his cheeks. “I mean… no, you can keep holding me, if that’s okay,” he clarified more quietly. “Never thought I’d find something better than a feather bed to rest on… or in, I guess.”
Kenny laughed softly, his large eyes clearly utterly enamoured with his guest. “Speaking of which…” he began, waiting for Dartrich’s brain to catch up. Kenny batted his eyelashes as a silent hint.
“Oh!” Dartrich’s memory finally kicked into gear. “You wanted to try that… what did you call it? Hypnosis? To help me sleep, right?”
“Mhm,” murmured Kenny, readjusting himself. He wound the tip of his tail around Dartrich’s forehead like a kind of circlet, to help keep his head in place, making sure that he could still look directly into his eyes. “But it’s quite fun along the way, too, so don’t be afraid to enjoy yourself. Comfy?”
“Of course,” grinned Dartrich, allowing his eyes to easily settle on Kenny’s. The little support the impromptu headbrace gave was much appreciated; if this was supposed to help him sleep, he had little doubt that his head would loll uncomfortably without it.
“Alright, so, remember to keep focus on my eyessssss…”
Those familiar rings of colour began to spread from Kenny’s pupils again. A shimmering band of turquoise shone even brighter against the navy backdrop, now that night had properly fallen. It moved slowly, the next green ring taking a few seconds to appear. Orange was next, then yellow, and the cycle began again with turquoise. The colours shone brilliantly, casting a soft glow across both Kenny’s cheeks and Dartrich’s. The scholar in Dartrich couldn’t help but begin to analyse the movement, searching through the thin borders and solid radiance for some hint of how the magic worked. All that did, of course, was draw him deeper into those beautiful eyes.
“Hypnosissss is quite ssssimple, really,” crooned Kenny. “It sssssimply allowsss you to access a wonderfully relaxing sssstate which you enter all the time without quite knowing it. I’m sssssure you know the feeling of drifting, losing focus, momentarily forgetting what you were thinking about, not really realising you weren’t thinking much of anything at all. The quietnessss of a long day on the road, moving on automatic, not really having to think, but sssssimply doing.”
“Mmhm,” murmured Dartrich. Somehow, his own voice sounded… disconnected, as though someone else was speaking, someone with a softer and breathier tone than his own. “Or… or like… being drowsy… but… but… um…”
“But not quite yet assssleep,” gently offered Kenny, his wide smile most audible. “Precisely. And it’ssss easier than you might think to enter this ssssstate, particularly if there’s something ssso… very… alluring… to watch, to stare at, to allow yourself to focussss your attention on. Your other thoughts, other ideas, other ssssenses beginning to fade as you lose yoursssself… in those coloursssssss.”
“Uh… uh huh…” Dartrich didn’t even realise he hadn’t been blinking, so complete was his focus on those colours. They looked… almost as though they were expanding, larger and larger, filling his vision, blotting out anything else, wiping away the darkness of the night with those shimmering bands.
“And it’ssss even more effective… if there’ssss a friendly voice in your ear, helping you to focus, guiding your mind onto one sssssingular track. The road beneath your thoughtsssss converging, narrowing, into a single, simple focusssss.”
Dartrich’s breath was coming slow and shallow, the excited pitter-patter of his heart beginning to fade into the repeated thrum, thrum, thrum of Kenny’s pulse resonating through his body. His mouth had been hanging open without him even realising it until he felt a cool drop of saliva beginning to creep outward from his lips. He slurped it back up clumsily, swallowing the liquid beginning to pool in his lower jaw. “Uh… s… sorry…”
“No need to apologise, my dear Dartrich. You can let your mouth hang open if you like. If you’re too focused to even stop yourself from drooling, that mussssst mean the magic is working, no?”
Dartrich nodded slowly. Dimly, some cognizant corner of his brain began to wonder if he had moved his head himself or if the coil around his forehead had instructed the motion. Strangely, he couldn’t quite bring himself to care which. All that mattered now was the colours filling his vision. The colours, and that wonderfully warm, smooth, slippery voice worming its way into his ears. Unbeknownst to him, Dartrich’s eyes had begun to shine as well; a tiny ring of turquoise had begun to expand, creeping outwards from his pupil millimetre by millimetre. If he could look anywhere other than Kenny’s pulsing eyes, he would have seen him grinning widely.
“Very good… you’re doing wonderfully, my dear. Allowing your mind to focus simply on one thing, to stay on that one singular winding, weaving track, allowing it to lead you further and deeper, round and round and round you go. Your mind slipping, falling, sinking deeper into my words, into my eyes. No need to think. No need to act. Simply relaxing. Warm. Comforted. Protected by my coils enveloping you.”
A sense of blank, mindless bliss was settling over Dartrich’s consciousness. Thinking took so much effort, his mind flowing as slowly as molasses. It would feel so good just to give up, to allow himself to wonderful unthinking, to allow himself to be led down the track which the colours had made for him. It was so much easier just to… to let himself drift. To sink into… into… into delicious nothingness. He could no longer hold his head up by himself. His eyelids were beginning to flicker, but even when they momentarily shifted and sagged and blinked shut, the colours remained, boring deeply into his mind. They were no longer only on Kenny’s eyes. The shimmering bands of colour were rippling across his own eyes now. Turquoise. Green. Orange. Yellow. Turquoise. Green. Orange. Yellow. He couldn’t escape them. He didn’t want to escape them. It felt… too good. Too nice to even want to resist. It was… warm. Comfy. Cozy. So hard to… to… what… was that word? Couldn’t remember… how… to… letting yourself… drift deeper… into these sssssensations. Sssssslipping down… relaxing… into my words… into my eyes… into my coils…
Sight… hearing… touch… scent… his senses filled, enveloped, enraptured. He could feel his lips moving. He wasn’t quite sure what he was saying.
Though his eyes continued their spiralling, hypnotic dance, Kenny raised an eyebrow in slight surprise. A brief sniff revealed nothing out of the ordinary as far as he could tell. Idly, he wondered how best to get Dartrich to reveal what had caught his attention, before he felt the slightest tugging feeling against the tip of his tail. Dartrich was nodding his head forward, straight towards Kenny, too weakly to budge Kenny’s powerful muscles, but enough to just barely feel. Curious, Kenny followed the motion, drawing him in closer… and closer… and closer… until Dartrich’s nose just brushed Kenny’s muscular chest.
Dartrich felt his eyes roll back in his skull. It was too much. Too much to even try to think. He sucked up that scent hungrily, breathing in deeply. Musk filling his lungs. The sweetness of honeysuckle. The sourness of snake. Pressure enveloping him. Colour overtaking him. Something warm against his face. Mindless. Blank. Empty. Turquoise. Green. Orange. Yellow.
A wide grin spread across Kenny’s face as he readjusted his coils, allowing Dartrich’s head to loll against his chest, sinking deeper and deeper into his own natural scent. Feeling the thrum of his heart, the deep rush of his breathing. Dartrich’s eyes had almost completely closed, but colour pulsed regularly from them long after he had lost eye contact. He no longer needed it. Kenny’s chest was his hypnotist now, drawn into the sensation, falling into delightful blankness. Kenny gently rubbed his hand over Dartrich’s soft cinnamon hair as his eyes finally closed with a soft mumble of gratitude. “Sleep well, my dear Dartrich,” he purred. “I’ll keep you in my coils for the night, so you can sleep soundly. No doubt this hypnosis will leave you with some wonderful dreams. But above all else, you can get that rest you so desperately need.”
“So sleep well.”
“And enjoy your dreams.”