The Dragon's Key: Chapter 6

It was dark, but Cassius could see perfectly. There was no light, yet he could see himself. He could see Kate sitting to his left, Kaida to his right, and a million others he didn't recognize. A loud drumming filled the air, but he saw no one with drums. Everyone was staring at a small dot of color on the horizon.

As Cassius focused on the dot, it grew larger and clearer, but not closer. Two huge reptiles - a winged lizard and a clawed snake with a mane - looked at each other. As he stared at them, the drumming quieted to a background drone.

"What do you think they are?" Kate asked, very loudly. The drumming flushed back into his ears.

"They look like dragons," he whispered. No one else spoke and he felt self-conscious about breaking the quiet. No one reprimanded them, though, not even Kaida.

"Dragons?" Kate wondered. "That's pretty silly. There's no such thing as dragons, so why are we looking at two of them?" She shifted uncomfortably, rearranging herself cross-legged. "We should go somewhere else."

"Where will we go?" he asked. One of the dragons, the lizard one, was speaking, but he couldn't make out its voice over the drumming and Kate.

"I don't know. Just somewhere else. I feel uncomfortable, sitting here naked with all these strangers." Cassius looked over; she was in fact naked. He wasn't sure why he hadn't noticed before. The drumming grew louder. He reached out and pinched one of her small, pink nipples, but she didn't react and he felt nothing.

"I'm dreaming," he said.

Kate rolled her eyes. "Of course you are. I'm not going to go all the way on the first date." She shook her head in exasperation.

"Cass, you should really pay attention to this," Kaida said. "It's important." She pointed toward the dot on the horizon. He tore his eyes away from Kate and stared at the dot, but he couldn't manage to focus on it again.

"I'm trying, but I can't watch them any more."

Kaida never broke her gaze on the horizon. "You need to stop being so distracted."

"Why is it so empty in here?" Kate asked, folding her arms under her breasts. The act pushed them together. "There's no scenery."

"I don't know," Cassius answered. He looked at Kaida, who was completely clothed. "Kaida, why is it so empty in here?"

"How should I know?" she responded. "It's you, after all."

He frowned and tried to add scenery. He concentrated on putting a sun in the sky, but nothing happened. "Damn," he said. "Usually when I realize I'm dreaming, I can control it and break all the rules. Like, if this was really a dream, I know I'd be having sex with - " Cassius looked down at Kate's head between his legs. Now he was naked. "Oh."

He looked over at Kaida, who was still staring at the dot. "What's going on?"
"If I tell you, I won't be able to see it myself. It's hard enough to do it now, so please shut up." He did as instructed and went back to staring at the dot. Every time he almost got it in focus, Kate did something nice that broke his concentration. He almost told her to stop, but he ejaculated and woke up before he could.

The night had not treated him particularly well. The motel had only two-bed rooms, so someone had to be the odd man out. Though Kate had volunteered to sleep on the floor, Cassius couldn't bring himself to let her. And while her offer to share her bed was tempting, he knew it would cause only more trouble if he did. So he slept on the floor.

Slept being a general term. He did little actual sleeping, spending most of the night tossing and turning on top of a makeshift bed of spare blankets and chair cushions. Though he eventually did fall asleep, it was cut short by his damnable internal clock, which was still used to waking up every morning at eight for work. It took him hours more to fall back asleep, especially since the thin curtains did very little to keep the sunlight out of the room.

At noon, the alarm went off and the three of them took turns using the shower, before heading back down to the front desk to check out. The man running the desk, who had also been running it the night before at four in the morning, gave Cassius a grin, tossed out a "Long night, huh?" and winked.

Cassius ignored him as Kaida paid for their room in cash, then the three returned to their walk. Despite the dreadful sleep, Cassius felt refreshed after the previous day of walking. His legs, though still mildly stiff, didn't ache in the least. His head was clear. And once he finished off a few of the cereal bars Kaida had bought, he felt as good as he ever had.

"I can't believe how good I feel," he said to Kaida. "I was sure sleeping on the floor would be hell on me, but it almost feels as good as if I'd slept in a bed."

"You could have had one to sleep in," Kate said, "if you hadn't been so stubborn." She walked a few feet behind him.

"I think I'm getting used to walking, too. My legs aren't even sore!" The stiffness was even melting away as they walked, giving way to invigoration. He hoped it would last.

"That's good," Kaida said.

"I'm gonna totally win our bet," he added.

Kaida looked away. "Well, we've got a lot of walking ahead of us still." She mumbled something after that, but sped up her walk to put distance between them. Cassius frowned at her, but let her have her space.

"What bet?" Kate asked.

He slowed down to fall in beside her. "Oh, nothing," he said. "Just about how much walking I'll be able to do."

"What will you win?" she asked, her voice growing suspicious. It almost sounded jealous, Cassius thought.

"Nothing much," he lied. "Anyway, enough about me. I think I've told you every embarrassing story about myself already."

"Tell me about the time you accidentally caught your pony tail on fire again!" she said. "That one was funny."

Cassius shook his head. "Kaida likes that one too. She was there when it happened and helped put me out. But no, tell me about yourself."

Kate shrugged. "I'm a nobody. I'm boring. I don't really have anything to tell. I just want to hear about you."

"I've never met anyone who was so interested in me," Cassius admitted.

"Maybe you just hadn't met the right person, then." She smiled at him, her blue eyes locked on his own. As he looked back at her, he realized she was utterly, completely devoted to him. It was all so unnatural.

"Maybe later," Cassius said, speeding up to put some distance between them.

As far as Reynard could tell, Princess Kaida was already heading west. She was walking into the very trap Reynard had been tasked to lead her to. "The audacity of that girl!" he clucked. "She is a fine woman, but will see me slain if I do not locate her soon!"

The venom in Reynard's veins was harmless, for now. But he was living on borrowed time. He needed the true cure before it was too late. And his only way out was leading the Princess into the trap.

"If only I could locate you first," he cursed. "Her father smelled of brimstone and sulfur! She has the scent of strawberries. It makes her so difficult to find!" He wouldn't have even gotten this far without a hunch. In the open, her smell dissipated quickly.

A woman in a pink business suit approached him. "Excuse me sir, can I help you?" she asked. She wielded an atomizer like a weapon.

Reynard gave her a one-eyed glance. "Hardly, madam," he said. "Especially if you assume I am searching for that odor you carry. Let me tell you, any man who would purchase that reek for his 'special someone' should have his nose ripped off in olfactory vengeance."

The woman's mouth was agape, though he doubted she understood half of what he said. He turned on heel and strode out of the store. He was glad to be gone from it. He ran his hand through his orange curls, ready to begin heading blindly toward Airyu's home, when a faint scent caught his nostrils. It was familiar, though he couldn't immediately place it.

Once he determined the source, he wheeled and ran. He followed his nose to a dumpster, flinging it open. Tossing aside garbage, he found the source of the smell. A blood-stained pair of khakis.

"The Keybearer wore these!" Reynard took a deep wiff, letting the aroma hang in his nostrils until he memorized every nuance. The scent was unique, evoking the image of bread baked from iron.

Almost immediately, Reynard picked up the boy's spore. In the wind, on the grass, lingering on anything he touched. Reynard smiled, tossing the pants back into the dumpster. He had them now.

The three of them had stopped at a restaurant later in the day. Cassius's stomach audibly growled every few minutes, drawing giggles from both women, though Kaida cut hers short once she noticed Kate doing it. He was simply glad to have a chance to sit down and rest. As the day had worn on, his fatigue rapidly caught back up with him and it was a chore to continue on. Kaida naturally seemed immune to the rigors of walking all day, though at least Kate seemed to share his pain.

The three of them sat in a booth near the rear. It was one of those places that was more a bar than an actual restaurant, but went through the motions to pretend it wasn't. Still, most of the patrons clustered on the stools around the bar. Aside from the three of them, there was only one other booth occupied, by a group of barely-legal girls whose loud chattering was only interrupted by their own loud cackling.

Shortly after the three of them ordered, Kate excused herself, leaving Cassius alone with Kaida for the first time all day. Kaida let out an audible sigh as soon as Kate was out of earshot. "I thought she'd never go away."

Cassius gave her a lopsided grin and added, "She'll be back, though."

"Like a bad rash," Kaida muttered, her face twisted in an uncharacteristic look of disgust and anger. "But I'm sorry I even brought her up, I'd rather pretend she didn't exist."

"I've never seen you like this," Cassius said. "You normally get along with people. And aside from continuing to follow us, Kate hasn't really done anything that would normally get you pissed. Is there something you're not telling me?"

Kaida scowled at him. "I said I didn't want to talk about her. So unless you really do want to, just give me a few minutes to forget about her."

"Sorry," Cassius answered with chagrin. He decided to quickly change the subject. "There is something I've been wanting to talk to you about, though. Do the nagual have any legends about two dragons? One European-style, one Asian-style?"

She scrunched her nose in thought. "Not that I can think. There aren't two dragons, even. Why?"

He shook his head. "Just a dream I had. A very vivid one, at that. You were in it, so was..." he was about to mention Kate, but caught himself, "a lot of other people, sitting around. And two big dragons off in the distance."

She smiled at him. "Dreaming about me, huh?" She lightly kicked him in the shin under the table. "Does that happen often?"

He could feel he was starting to turn red. "You just told me that the dragons were important somehow. So I was hoping you'd know what it was."

"So you're having visions now. Thinking of becoming a prophet, maybe? I should introduce you to the Oracles."

"The Oracles?"

"They are what they sound like," she offered as an explanation. "There's three of them and they can answer any question you ask them." She saw the skeptical look on his face. "It's true," she said, then looked a little sad. "Millions of people have seen them."

Cassius leaned forward with his elbows on the table and looked into her eyes. "Tell me about them," he said in a half whisper.

She was about to, when Kate appeared back at the side of the table. "Miss me?" she asked as she plopped down and squeezed against Cassius. He sighed and leaned back and Kaida's expression turned bitter.

"I think I need to freshen up a little," Kaida said as she quickly escaped the booth.

Kate grinned and leaned even more against Cassius. "Alone at last," she squealed before Kaida had even moved a foot away from them.

"Yippie," Cassius said flatly.

Reynard moved like the wind. He moved faster than any human had a right to. He still had the boy's scent, but it had grown muddled and weak. He found himself losing it several times, forcing him to backtrack and discover he had been going in a completely wrong direction. He'd already lost hours to his mistakes, meaning he had to push himself to move even faster, causing him even more errors.

"Damnation!" he cursed as he lost the scent once again. Even the previously strong traces were dissipating. "It is like he is purposefully hiding from me!" he cried. He was glad no one was around to hear such an undignified outburst. He breathed slowly through clenched teeth, trying to clear his head. "No. It is not possible. There are few nagual who could elude my tracking, much less a normal human."

"And who has said he's normal, hmm?" a regal voice asked. Reynard immediately fell to a knee.

"King Fox," he reverently said with a bow of his head.

Soft fur brushed against Reynard's arm. "Trying to track the Princess and Keybearer then?"

"Yes, King Fox, as commanded. The serpents envemomated me to acquire my cooperation."

King Fox bobbed his head in approval. "As expected."

"I am having difficulty, however. Though I had the spore of the boy, I have lost it. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find it again."

"Don't fret, Reynard. Even I lost it for a while." King Fox began to walk off, his feet letting off a soft patter. "But I can show you to him myself."

Reynard hopped to his feet, barely catching a glimpse of King Fox's tail as it vanished through the trees. Reynard ran after him, barely keeping pace. For as fast as Reynard could travel, none could match King Fox. Every few moments, Reynard feared he had lost him, only to spot a flash of orange a moment later. The dash took nearly ten minutes and covered almost twenty miles. Reynard's heart thudded as he gasped for breath.

"Here," King Fox said, though he could not be seen.

"King Fox?" Reynard called out. The sound of soft footfalls grew more distant. Reynard would not receive further help tonight.

After catching his breath, Reynard took scope of his surroundings and emerged from the small wooded area. Immediately, he saw the worn-down tavern and smelled the faint aromas of his quarry. Strawberries, iron-baked bread.

"Perfect," he said to himself with a grin. The dash to follow King Fox had tired him, but he felt invigorated now.

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