The Dragon's Key: Chapter 2

That night Cassius's dreams were dominated by Kaida. It wasn't unheard of for his dreams to occasionally include her. In rare moments, his subconscious compensated for what he could never manage in the waking world.

But these dreams were different. She was everywhere, even in recurring dreams she had never been in before. He was flying and she was with him. He was running from something and she was by his side. Some of the dreams were so vivid they felt real, with the two sharing conversation, soft brushes of the skin, and secret glances that might have been in a slightly altered life. Even in the abstract dreams, she was there, in some way.

Through it all, there were her eyes. They were striking. He was beholden to them. He wasn't able to look away. It was only when she broke the gaze that he could turn.

The dreams culminated in the two of them running again. Suddenly, Kaida screamed and fell. He stopped. A snake had her by the legs, swallowing her whole. She looked up at him, her eyes locking with his. "Run," she said. When he didn't, her eyes flashed reptilian. "Run!" Then she looked away, down toward the snake that had swallowed her to her waist.

He turned and ran.

Then he woke in a cold sweat.

The morning sunlight lanced through the small crack in his curtains. It gave the room just enough light to dispel the remnants of the dream from his mind. He reached for his dream journal and flipped it open. He struggled to record memories of the dreams even as they faded. After a minute, he realized he could remember nothing. All he had written down was Kaida's name.

He closed the book and returned it to his nightstand. His alarm clock read seven thirty, only a half hour before he would normally wake up. Rather than attempt sleep for a fleeting time, he rose from his bed.

He showered, enjoying not rushing himself for once. The water streamed down his face and washed away the last vestiges of whatever still lingered from his dreams. Afterward, he dressed in a short sleeved button-down shirt and pair of black slacks for work.

The kitchen still had the remnants of his dinner with Kaida sitting there. As he looked at the plates, he couldn't manage to recall any concrete details about it. It was like it had been one of the dreams, fleeting and faded as soon as the light of day hit it. He was slightly bothered by this, but after a moment he let the feeling pass and stuck the plates in the sink.

He ate a breakfast of cornflakes and then brushed his teeth. By the time he was finished, it was time to leave. He grabbed his cell phone and wallet, locked up, and headed down to his car. As he started it, the music blasted into his ears much louder than he remembered leaving it at. He cringed and turned it down, then headed off for work.

He wasn't five minutes onto the road when flashing police lights appeared in his rear view. He pulled off to the side, hoping they would pass him by. Instead, the car pulled over behind him. He swallowed hard as he killed his ignition and fumbled for his license and registration.

Before he'd even gotten it, an officer was at the car, tapping on the window with a nightstick. Cassius felt the color drain from his face as he rolled down the window. "Yes, officer?" he asked in an unnerved tone.

The officer was a tall black man with a goatee and angry scowl. His uniform looked shabby and slightly out of date, almost like it came from an old television show. "Step out of the car," he hissed.
Cassius blinked in surprise. "Excuse me?" he said.

"Get out of the car. Now," he repeated, not attempting to hide the anger and contempt in his voice. Cassius slowly opened the door and stepped out, his hands held up at his sides.

"What's wrong?" Cassius asked. His hands were quivering. "I didn't do anything," he pleaded. "I wasn't even speeding. I swear."

The officer pointed with his nightstick at the roof of the car. "Put your hands on the car," he ordered. Cassius did as he was told, but that didn't stop the officer from clubbing him in the back of the head with his nightstick.

Cassius was running. He was moving as fast as he possibly could. He could hear the sounds of a fight behind him. Prehistoric roars were interspersed with the loud hissing of snakes. Something in his chest burned. He looked down and a light shined through his clothes. He paused and stared at it.

"Cassius," he heard, a barely spoken plea. He turned and saw Kaida lying on the ground, staring up at him with pleading eyes. He took a step toward her. "Run," she gasped.

Only too late did he see the snake lunge at him.

The slap of water brought him back to consciousness. He sputtered and tried to wipe himself off, but his hands were restrained at his back. As he realized this, he tried to stand or even move at all, but found himself tied down. He opened his mouth, but a harsh voice said, "Don't scream."

A harsh light was shining directly into his eyes, intensifying the throbbing pain he finally noticed at the back of his head. He squinted and tried to let his eyes slowly adjust, but he could only see a murky figure lurking just beyond the cone of light.

"Where am I?" he groaned, the vibrations of his voice sending a spike of pain through his head.
The same man who had knocked him out - now dressed in an old-fashioned duck-tailed suit and wearing teashade sunglasses with purple lenses - walked into the light. He glared down at Cassius from behind his glasses, looking like nothing more than a caricature of pop culture secret agents. A name tag was attached to his chest. It read "Agent Adder". If not for his dangerous expression, Cassius might have laughed.

"Who are you?" Cassius asked.

"Who we are isn't important," Agent Adder said. "We need your help, Mr. Hewitt."

"Ok, I'll help you," Cassius said, wondering why he was tied down if they just wanted his help.

The man looked back over his shoulder in surprise, at someone Cassius couldn't see, almost as if he hadn't expected Cassius to agree. "Last night you were accosted by a man named Reynard Baye. He left something with you. We want it."

Cassius shook his head. "I was at home last night," he said. "No one gave me anything."

Agent Adder punched Cassius in the stomach. He doubled over in the chair as far as he could, sucking in gusts of air. "I will tell you again, Mr. Hewitt," Agent Adder said, making no effort to hide the anger in his voice. "Give us what Reynard gave to you."

"I don't know anyone named Reynard!" Cassius said. This answer earned him a punch in the jaw. A large welt immediately began to form on the right side of his face. "I don't know what you mean!" he cried as soon as the shock wore off.

Another man walked into the circle and placed a hand on Agent Adder's shoulder. "I'll handle this," the new man said. Agent Adder grunted and left the light circle. The new man, dressed almost identically to Agent Adder and wearing a name tag reading "Agent Krait", approached. His face was deeply cratered, though he looked to be barely thirty.

"I don't know anyone named Reynard," Cassius told him. "I was at home last night. No one gave me anything!"

"Mr. Hewitt," Agent Krait said, his voice more annoyed than angry, "we don't want to hurt you. We only want your cooperation. Just tell us what we want to know and we'll let you go." Cassius recognized their tactic from television. It was the classic good cop/bad cop routine. He hadn't realized it was actually used. He figured it was all just bad cliches.

"I don't know!" he answered. "I was home all night! I was only - " Agent Krait grabbed him by the throat, cutting off his words in a squeak of breath. So much for the good cop/bad cop theory.

"Listen here, Mr. Hewitt," Agent Krait hissed. "Adder and I do not like to play games. Give us the Key or suffer the consequences."

"I want to see a lawyer," he choked out between Agent Krait's fingers. That brought a hard blow across his already bruised jaw. "I don't have any special key!" Cassius sobbed, tears beginning to stream down his face. "I swear, I don't know anything!"

Agent Adder nudged Agent Krait aside. He leaned in close. "If you want to leave here, tell us where the Key is." His breath was hot and rank.

"I don't know!" Another punch landed on Cassius's jaw. Through the daze of pain, he tried to think of something, of anything that could get them to stop.

"You want to leave, don't you?" Cassius looked up into the face of Agent Krait, who had taken Agent Adder's place only inches from his face. The deep pock marks on his face forced Cassius to look away.

"Yes," he whimpered.

"Then tell us - "

"Give me a minute to think!" Cassius yelled. "Maybe I can remember! I just need to think!"

Agent Krait's fist slammed into Cassius's lip, splitting it open. "Don't interrupt me again!"

"Please, stop," Cassius blubbered.

"Then give us the Key!"

"I don't... Maybe it's in my car," he sputtered, spitting out blood. "It might be there. Look in my car, please."

Agent Adder buried his fist into Cassius's stomach again. "It's not in your car!" he hissed. "Do you think we're idiots! Do you think we don't know what the Key is?" Cassius couldn't manage to speak through the pain, so Agent Adder kicked him in the chest, toppling the chair over. Cassius slammed into the ground, driving all remaining breath out of him. Agent Adder quickly yanked him back up, pulling Cassius so harshly that the ropes cut into his wrists and legs. Cassius tried to look away from him, but Agent Adder squeezed his jaw and wouldn't let him look away. "Stop playing games with us."

"I don't know what you mean," Cassius gasped out between sharp breaths. Agent Krait punched him in the stomach again, sending Cassius into coughing fits. He spit a bloody froth onto his shirt and pants.

"Please," he pleaded, barely able to get it out between the sobs. "I didn't meet anyone named Reynard last night. I didn't get any key. I was in my apartment, having dinner with a friend last night!"

Agent Krait, about to strike Cassius again, stopped. "A friend?" he hissed. "Who? What was his name?"

Cassius's breath caught in his throat. "N... Nothing. I was wrong," he stuttered. "That wasn't last night."

Agent Krait punched him in the face again and blood began to dribble out of his nose. "Don't lie to us. Tell me the name of your friend."

"I don't want you to hurt her," Cassius admitted. "Please, don't hurt her. I'll help you find the key, I'll do whatever. Just please."

Agent Adder growled. "Hrmp. Her. Reynard couldn't have given the Key to a woman," he said.

Agent Krait narrowed his eyes at Cassius. "No, wait," he said. "Reynard wouldn't have had enough time to give him the Key and wipe his memory. But another nagual could have wiped the memory. It would explain why Reynard went to this boy, after all. He was looking for another nagual."

Agent Adder shook his head. "She'd have to be damn strong to wipe away the memory of the Key," he said. "The only person who could do that would be..." Agent Adder's eyes suddenly went wide.

"Exactly," Agent Krait said, sharing the realization. He grabbed Cassius by the throat again, squeezing tightly enough that Cassius could feel the heartbeat in his arteries thundering to pump the blood to his head. "Your fiend. Is she named Kaida?"

The shocked fear that replaced the pain on Cassius's face gave the two agents all the answer they needed. "Shit," Agent Adder said. "The Princess. That complicates things."

"That's an understatement. We need to contact Master Naja. He will want to know."

"How do you know Kaida?" Cassius braved asking. As a response, Agent Adder kicked over the chair again. This time, he didn't bother to pick him up.

"Can't we just kill him and pull the Key from his guts?" Agent Adder asked.

"Master Naja told us not to kill him," Agent Krait said. "For all we know, killing him won't work. We weren't allowed to kill Reynard either."

Agent Adder hissed. "Well, let's call Master Naja then. We need to know what to do, before the Princess finds us."

A moment later, there was the sound of running water. That was followed by sound like duct tape being peeled off the roll. "That's disgusting, you know? Just wash your hands like a normal person," Agent Krait said.

There was no response from Agent Adder. A second later, something that looked like a bloody medical glove landed next to Cassius's face. A bright light then flooded the room, illuminating everything, though he could only see the harsh lamp hanging above him. As a door slammed, the room returned to mostly darkness.

Cassius was left in a daze of pain. He coughed weakly, expecting more blood to come up, but there was nothing there. His left eye was swollen shut and he could feel blood running from a gash above it. He lay there, unable to move and unwilling to ponder his fate.

He thought about Kaida and wondered what her part in all this was. It had to be a coincidence, he decided. She was no princess, in either name or temperament. There had to have been some mistake. Something he wasn't realizing that would get him out of this situation. But he realized these men were neither secret agents or police officers. Though they had said he wasn't to be killed, he wondered if he'd get out of this alive.

"Excuse my vulgarity, but you look like shit," a voice from above said. Cassius weakly squinted through the light and saw a shadowy blob tumble from an air vent. The person landed quietly and moved over him.

It was a strangely-familiar man with a coif of red hair and a long, orange fur-lined coat that reached his knees. His face was regal, with a lean, straight nose, fine cheekbones, and bright green eyes. "Who are you?" Cassius asked. The feeling of familiarity nagged at him, though something inside him said he had never met this man before.

"Ah, we were never properly introduced." He made a flourished bow. "Reynard Baye, at your service."
Cassius's eyes went as wide as they could and he opened his mouth to scream, but Reynard clamped a hand over his mouth and nose and gently shushed him.

"Now now," he whispered delicately as he cut off Cassius's air. "We cannot have any of that. It will not do for me to get caught. Now, I imagine you are unable to breathe with my hand like this, no?" Cassius nodded. "Good. Then listen well. I will let you breathe if you promise not to make any noise. Is that a deal?" Cassius nodded again and Reynard removed his hand. Cassius took a deep breath, but made no sound.

"Good," Reynard said. "Now, you have something important."

"The Key?" Cassius asked, keeping his voice low. His split lip sent needles of pain with every word. He licked them, but it just made him worse.

"Yes, the Key. I suppose those serpents told you. Or was it Princess Kaida?"

Cassius grimaced at the mention of Kaida. "How do you know Kaida? How is she involved with this?"

Reynard quirked one of his busy eyebrows. "Do you not remember last night?" He peered into Cassius's eyes. "Ah. O, Princess Kaida, you devious woman!" A straight smirk slashed Reynard's face. "Well, I suppose it is not that important. I truly am sorry you are mixed up in all this."

"What do you mean?" Cassius asked. "Get me out of here!" he pleaded while waiting for a reply.

Reynard shrugged his shoulders and let out a long sigh. "If only it was that simple! I cannot merely let you go. There is too much invested in you. Too many well laid plans that require you to be here. But do not worry, your death will be for a worthy cause." Reynard clamped his hand over Cassius's mouth again. "And do not bother screaming. Those two will not hesitate to end you as soon as they finish me off. And then they will go after Princess Kaida." Cassius's lip quivered. "Ah, I see we have an understanding."

Reynard suddenly went stiff and his ears twitched. "Well, it is time for me to be leaving!" he said. He looked Cassius right in the eyes, piercing him with green. "Do not say anything about seeing me to anyone, no matter what." With that, Reynard leapt into the air, wriggling himself into the vent. The door opened just as his coattails were disappearing.

"Oh, shit Cass!" Kaida gasped as she entered. He tried to say something, but only a gurgled rasp came out. She cringed at the sound and rushed over to him, kneeling beside him.

"What did they do to you?" She touched his face tenderly. She ran her fingers across his bruises and cuts and he surprisingly felt no pain.

"Kaida," he whispered, "you have to get out of here. Those two... Agents or whatever might find you."
She continued to run her fingers over his face. It felt good, almost sensual, though that clearly wasn't her intent. "Don't worry," she said soothingly. "They won't be doing anything."

"What do you mean?" he wondered. "What are you doing here? How did you find me?" She pulled her hands away and gave him a smile. The throbbing pain was gone and he could open his eye again. She untied the knots that bound his arms and legs. They were stiff and his wrists were bloody where the rope had dug into him, but he felt nothing from them.

He tried to stand. Kaida barely caught him as he toppled forward. "Whoa," she said. "Easy, easy." Her arms were wrapped around his chest and he leaned into her shoulder. He could smell the sweet odor of strawberry shampoo from her hair. His heart was racing.

"I feel like crap," he answered as he lowered himself to the ground. After sitting for a moment, he took a deep breath and steeled himself. This time, his knees wobbled like jelly, but he managed to stay upright. "I think I'll be alright."

"Good, let's go." Kaida took his hand and pulled him toward the door. "We have a lot to talk about."
The next room sent a wave of sickness through him. The two Agents were lying on the floor, covered in gore. They were shredded, like an incredible predator had mauled them. The two were barely recognizable. Only Kaida's steadying hand kept Cassius from toppling over.

"What happened to them?" he asked, his voice wavering.

Kaida tugged his arm. "Come on."

He turned a dull glare to her. "Did you do this to them?" he asked. She frowned and tried to pull him toward the door, but he pulled away. He tried to spot blood on her, but she was clean. Still, the expression on her face was not one of denial. "You killed them! You did this to them!"

Her slap didn't hurt, but it stunned him nonetheless. "Stop it!" she ordered, her voice forceful. "They were going to kill you, or did you forget that? Now we have to go to a friend of mine. He can help." She dragged him outside. He looked back at the building they had just exited. It was an abandoned supermarket that had yet to undergo renovation. It looked completely different than it had on the inside. His and the police car were the only things parked in the lot.

Kaida shoved Cassius into the passenger's seat, then took the driver's seat for herself. "What's going on?" he asked as they pulled off.

"Bad stuff, Cass," she muttered. "Complicated, bad stuff."

"I think I can handle it."

"I don't know if I can explain it," she said.

"But Kaida - " She cut him off with a harsh glare, but it softened at the sight of his battered face.

"I'm sorry," she sighed. "It's just that you've suddenly become a very important person. I don't even know what the consequences of that might be. And if possible, I'm going to get you out of this mess before you get hurt any more. And for that, the less you know, the better."

He leaned back and nodded, not saying anything else. Instead, he pulled down the sun visor and looked at himself in the mirror. Despite the lack of pain, swollen bruises still covered his face. Dried blood caked his cheeks and brow. He opened his glove box, pulled out a wet nap, and started to wipe himself off. As there was still no pain, he started to use more pressure.

"Don't do that," Kaida said. "The pain's still there, you just can't feel it."

"Huh? What's that mean?"

A shake of her head was her only answer. Cassius finished carefully cleaning his face off, then stuck his hands in his pockets.

A twitch. It was barely noticeable, even to the small mouse that nudged its way out to investigate the smell of blood. It froze for a second, its whiskers quivering, but then went back to nosing at the tattered sleeve. It nibbled on the cloth, planning to tear it off and add it to its nest.

A second twitch, much more noticeable, sent the mouse scurrying away, but it was not fast enough. Agent Adder's hand closed around it, crushing it like a vice. The mouse squirmed and squealed in pain and terror, but could not free itself. A moment later, sharp fangs sunk into its body. Agent Adder swallowed it in one gulp.

His body returned to motionlessness for several minutes. Then a large shudder coursed down it and his skin split down the back. A dry, crinkling sound accompanied the rising bulge that emerged from the corpse.

Agent Adder stood, letting the cool air dry his dark skin. "Ah, that feels good," he said as he looked down at the empty husk. He briefly checked himself; everything was still properly proportioned and in place. He looked at Agent Krait, who was still motionless.

He knelt beside his dead colleague. "You never could pull yourself together."

"Fuck you," Agent Krait mouthed. "I haven't had anything to eat yet. The damn prey doesn't walk up to me like it does you." Agent Adder laughed, but he did not smile. He paced to the crack in the wall the mouse had emerged from. He reached his forefinger and thumb in, probing until he found a soft fleshy body. He squeezed and there were alarmed chirps as he pulled a hairless baby mouse from its nest. He tossed it to Agent Krait, then fished for another.

In all, he found seven mice. He gave five to Agent Krait and kept two for himself. Agent Krait sucked them into his mouth like candies, swallowing them whole. After a few minutes, he burst from his body, unscathed.

He shuddered and wiped at his skin. "Disgusting," he muttered. He looked down at his remains. "We need new clothes."

"We still have the police uniforms," his partner replied. Agent Krait looked away, trying to avoid the sight of the naked man.

"Master Naja will not be pleased," Agent Krait hissed as he drummed his fingers on the wall. "We lost the Key and got the Princess involved."

"We'll have to deal with her."

"Deal with her?" Agent Krait laughed bitterly, pointing at the two husks on the floor. "How can we deal with her?"

Agent Adder ran his long tongue over his fangs. "It only takes one bite from a snake to kill its prey."

The drumming on the wall grew quicker as Agent Krait thought. "Kill the Princess?"

"We can ambush her. One good bite. That's all it will take. And what better way to secure Master Naja's power than to eliminate the Princess?"

The idea sounded good to Agent Krait. He needed something to wash the taste of mouse away. It may as well be royal blood.

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