The Dragon's Key: Chapter 14

No one even dared breath. She walked slowly forward, the hut bursting into flames behind her with an unnatural fury. Her movements were sluggish, but deliberate and with purpose. The borrowed clothes of the Lions hung loosely off her body.

"You," she croaked at Ari, her husky voice a thing of nightmare. "The Elder of House Lion, yet you break an ancient oath and rise against me?" Many fell back and cowered. Ari's knuckles were white, his eyes wide with small pupils, and lips pulled into a grimace.

Cassius's entire body hurt. He felt so cold and empty. He tried to move, but couldn't. He could only watch Kaida with utter awe. Each step she took, her strength returned to her.

"I..." Ari stammered. "I will kill you!" His voice was weak. Terror cracked his words.

"Long ago, your House rose in rebellion against mine," Kaida declared, her own voice growing more sure. "Had my father wished it, your entire line would have been destroyed. You would be less than nothing. But my father is not unkind. He allowed you to go free, on the condition you never raise a hand in anger against House Dragon or its servants." She looked down at Cassius, the fire dancing in her eyes. "But you betray your own people. You have injured the Keybearer and threatened to kill me as well." She turned her gaze slowly back to Ari. "Your folly will end here."

Like a cornered animal, Ari lunged at Kaida. With nothing more than a flick of her wrist, Kaida brought him to his knees. Blood welled from a gash on his chest and he choked in pain. "Close your eyes, Cass," she said softly. He was amazed he could hear her over the roar of the blaze.

He tried to obey her, but couldn't. He wished he had been able. He finally saw the truth of Kaida, the monster in the seams between her beauty. Her crooked talons struck again and again, ripping at Ari. He howled in fury at first, then cried in pain, then sobbed for mercy. By then, he was far too gone to save, even if Kaida had stopped. She continued.

By the time she was done, Ari was little more than a mound of shredded flesh. Kaida spun slowly, her gaze falling on each person in the crowd, daring another challenge. Each person turned and ran.

When she finally came to Cassius, his face was a parody of terror, white and stricken. Tears welled in her eyes. "Cass," she murmured as she fell.

Cassius followed her into unconsciousness. The last sight he saw was Leander carrying Kaida away and Lavi moving toward him.

"I just want to fly, brother," the dragon said. "Fly forever. Fly away from this world."

Cassius shook his head. "No, brother, you cannot." His voice was a storm. "We cannot abandon this world, no matter the danger. The world needs its dragons."

His brother stared longingly into the sky. "But why can't I go?" he asked. "You can stay. You will be enough, won't you?"

"I would," he answered. "But what if something terrible should befall me?"

"You mean like what happened to sister?" his brother asked.

The two of them fell silent at that. Pain ached at Cassius's heart, though he knew not who the sister had been, nor whom he now dreamed of. The memory of the sister was not there, but the memory of the pain was.

"If I stay, what if something terrible should befall me?" his brother countered. "In the sky, I will be safe. Forever."

"That is what sister thought in her sea. And I, deep in my earth. But a dragon can die, Zirnitra, no matter how we hide."

"Then our deaths are inevitable," Zirnitra said. "So what does it matter if I spend my days flying beyond the world? Today, tomorrow, or at the end of eternity. It doesn't matter, does it?"

Cassius shook his head. "It does matter."

"What if there were another way?" Zirnitra asked.

"What other way is that?"

"The nagual," he said. "They say they have found a child with the soul of a dragon."

"Nonsense," Cassius scoffed.

"But what if they have, Ryu? We should go to them, see the child they speak of. It may be our answer. A man with the soul of a dragon... That would be something, wouldn't it?"

Cold water stung Cassius's face, waking him sputtering. "What the hell?" he choked, sitting up and looking through blurry eyes.

"You fainted," Leander said, a chuckle hidden in his words. "Lavi had to carry you here when she could have fought the fires. Luckily, without a fight to watch, the others managed to take care of that."

The memories poured over Cassius like waves. He bolted up, finding himself back in Lavi and Leander's hut, lying on the fur mat. Leander leaned against the wall, holding the empty bucket. Lencho lay on the ground wrapped in bandages, while Lavi knelt over him, feeding him from a bowl. Light trickled in through the window, illuminating a single spot.

Kaida sat there, her arm draped over her bent leg, head down. A shadow obscured her expression. She looked up as he stared, eyes flashing at him. His heart skipped a beat and he started backwards. Sadness washed over her and her head drooped again.

It took him a moment to catch his breath. "Kaida," he said weakly. "I'm..." He struggled to find the words. She looked up again, but not at him. A person was peeking through the door and fled at her gaze.

"What do they want?" she asked.

Lavi glanced up as she fed Lencho. "They want answers."

"Tocho is dead," Lencho clarified after swallowing. His voice was still strong despite the beating he had taken. "Everyone assumed - for better or worse - that Ari would succeed him. Those few who opposed that died trying to stop Ari after he killed Tocho. We are a House of followers, with one alpha. We don't know what to do now."

"And now they want me to decide for them," Kaida said softly.

"Yes!" Lencho growled. "You're the one responsible for all this! If not for you, Tocho would never have been killed, Ari would not have been killed, and our homes wouldn't have burned."

"I never asked you to protect me," Kaida said grimly. Lencho ground his teeth. "Nothing to say, cat?" He growled, but said nothing. "Deal with your own problems."

"We weren't trying to protect you," Lavi said.


"She's right," Leander agreed. "You are a stranger to us. It wasn't you who we wanted to help."

Everyone looked at Cassius, who could not manage to meet Kaida's gaze. Every time he looked at her directly, he could only see the grotesque that had killed Ari. He shuddered. Kaida stared at him for a time, then stood. She effortlessly walked outside.

It seemed as if the entire village was standing there, from the youngest child to the oldest invalid. Each took a half-step back as she looked at them. Finally, a man of average stature took a step forward and fell to his knees in front of her.

"Great Princess of the Dragons," he said, his quaking voice echoing the insides of all those assembled. "We are at your mercy."

Kaida crossed her arms. "I am not here to lord over you."

Generations ago, House Lion served House Dragon faithfully. A man named Leopold even rose through the ranks of the House to become their mightiest champion. He served King Airyu for many years until the Dragon King decided that he had proved himself beyond all doubt. He made Leopold the Keybearer.

But House Lion was not a strong house. Leopold was alone in his courage, strength, and determination. Many of his fellow Lions tried to tempt Leopold. "Steal the Key!" they said. "Become the new King of the Nagual!" they told him. "It should be us who rules, not the Dragons," they whispered where they thought no one would hear them.

Leopold would not waver. He could never think to rebel and become king himself. Yet the weakness of his own house disgusted him. They connived and tricked. They had degenerated lowly under the rule of House Dragon. He knew that they would never be great where they stood. The best they could hope for was a man like him, every dozen generations, rising and doing them proud.

So Leopold walked into the chamber of the Dragon King and rejected the Key. He tossed it at the feet of Airyu and cursed it. He swore he would never follow House Dragon and neither would the rest of his house.

Airyu raged at Leopold's actions. He demanded to know why Leopold would turn on him and do such dishonor. But Leopold could not keep up the charade. He was a proud, honest, loyal man. He could not lie to his lord.

He told Airyu what House Lion had said and done. He told the Dragon King that his house was weak and frail and not fit to be among the nagual. He begged for permission to leave other nagual and rediscover their lost glory.

King Airyu refused his request. "All nagual must serve House Dragon," Airyu said. "If I let one leave me, then I must let them all."

"We cannot serve as we are," Leopold said. "And I will prove it, if you let me."

Airyu agreed to his request. Leopold gathered every Lion and brought them before the Dragon King. "We are to be banished!" Leopold told them. "The cowardly words of our house have reached the Dragon King's ears and he finds us unworthy. He says we must leave until we have found our strength again! Will anyone here refute his words?"

Not one Lion raised objection to their exile. They all sat silent and cowed. Leopold hung his head, as even though he had anticipated such a result, he still hoped someone would find the courage to speak out.

King Airyu bade the Lions leave immediately, or face his wrath. Leopold knelt before his liege for the final time. "I swear not to return until we are strong."

"When you do return, you will be as mighty as House Dragon. Alone among the Houses you shall be our equals. When you do return, I hope you remember the favor I have shown you and do not turn your strength against me."

"I will swear an oath as long as you swear to never bring us back before we are ready."

And so the two great leaders swore and House Lion departed the lands of the nagual to seek their own fate. One day they shall return as an equal to House Dragon.

The villagers looked at each other uncertainly and murmured their concern. Kaida did not notice their dissatisfaction. "As my father did generations ago, I stand before a weak and leaderless House. One that casts itself weakly at the feet of Dragons and hopes to use trickery and lies to gain strength. Who here is worthy to be made leader?"

None made a sound. Kaida turned, surprised to find Lencho standing in the doorway beside her. He leaned heavily on the arch for support, but as Kaida looked at him, he took a step forward under his own power. He shook from the effort, but betrayed no pain.

"Only one here has shown the strength and courage of Leopold!" Kaida declared. "Here is your leader! Here is Lencho, who protected me as Leopold protected his Princess!"

After a brief silence, the Lions erupted into cheers. They swept forward, taking Lencho in their arms and carrying him away. Lavi and Leander gaped, then chased after the mob. In a few moments, it had disappeared through the ashes and smoking ruins of the village. Cassius could hear the echos of their cries heading toward the sacred springs.

Kaida saw him standing there and offered him a hand. "Come on Cassius. We've lost enough time here. We must go."

He didn't budge. "Why did you tell them that story?" he asked. "That's not the story they know. In their version, they were slaves and Leopold led a rebellion. He fought Ryu, the Dragon King, and died from his injuries."

She smiled and shrugged. "So they got their stories mixed up. They couldn't even get my father's name right, after all." She ran her fingers through her hair, which had been evened out and now hung just below her ears.

"Or maybe there was a Ryu," he said quietly. "Before there was a Airyu. Another Dragon King, who..." he chose his words carefully, "died and was replaced by Airyu. Maybe Airyu changed the stories to make him seem to be the dragon who had always been. Maybe there were even more dragons once, dragons who had been killed. Maybe Airyu was the last dragon."

"No," Kaida said, her voice hard. "I am the last dragon. Airyu is dead. My house is me and will end when I die." She began walking away from the village. "We must go."

Cassius followed her at a small distance. "Shouldn't we say goodbye?"

"No, we've lost more than enough time here. We must go to the Oracles. We must find who killed my father and avenge him."

Cassius began to object to leaving more strongly, but the thought of her vile visage stayed his tongue. Instead, he silently followed.

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