The Dragon's Key: Chapter 7

"Princess! I have finally found you!" The color drained from Kaida's lips and Cassius was too stunned to say anything. Reynard looked down at him as his heart thudded in fear. "And the Keybearer! I am pleased to see you are well!"

"Excuse me," Kate said, "but we're trying to - "

Reynard ignored her. "Why are you sitting here?" he asked, annoyance seeping into his voice. "You should be traveling toward the house of your father."

"Reynard!" Kaida finally gasped. "You're alive!"

"Of course!" he scoffed, looking insulted. "You expected less?"

"I thought you were dead!" She leapt to her feet and threw her arms around him. Now it was Reynard's turn to be shocked, his face turning ashen and arms rigid at his sides.

"Well, I am not," he replied, the flustered feeling alien to him. "Those serpents are nothing compared to someone such as I." As she pulled away, he smoothed the wrinkles on his coat.

"Who are you?" Kate asked, glaring at Reynard.

He spared her a fleeting glance, then turned to Cassius. "It is good to see you. You have recovered well!"

"You can't have it!" Cassius shrieked, shrinking toward the back of the booth.

Reynard burst into laughter. "Have what? The Key? No, I gave it away to you willingly, and now it is your burden to bear."

The quivering in Cassius's hands calmed. "You're not going to do anything to me?"

Reynard placed a hand on Cassius's shoulder, causing him to jerk away. "No, lad, I would never wish harm upon such a trusted companion of the Princess."

"Princess?" Kate asked with heavy annoyance. "What is going on here?" She glared at Kaida, who glowered right back. They stared down each other for a moment, before Kate turned away. Kaida leaned back, a coy smirk on her face.

"Who is this bawdy wench?" Reynard scoffed.

"I'm Kate. Who are you?"

Reynard mocked a bow. "I am Reynard Baye, servant to the House of the lady you find yourself lucky enough to dine with this evening. Now scamper off so the enlightened people can discuss matters of importance."

Kate gaped. "I... I can hear whatever I want!" She draped an arm over Cassius's shoulder.

Reynard quirked an eyebrow. "Then kindly shut up," he ordered. Kate stewed, clutching Cassius tighter. He made no move to extract himself from her grasp.

"How did you find us?" Kaida asked. "And what are you doing here?"

Reynard took a seat next to Kaida. "Princess, I dread to say we must reach your father with haste. I fear what may be occurring with the Key missing."

"That's what we're doing," she said. "We've been going as fast as we can."

"And picking up passengers along the way," he replied without even a glance at Kate.

"Yes, that is..." Kaida frowned as she struggled to come up with a way to put it. "It's an unusual situation."

"Regardless, there is little time to waste dallying," Reynard continued. "And while I am suitably sure of your skills as a traveler, they compare little to my own. I can speed our journey significantly, as you may well know. Allow me to serve as your guide and protector, so that we may reach our destination sooner."

Kaida smirked at him. "I hardly need your protection," she said. "But I suppose if you can speed us up, there's no reason to turn you down."

"Wait, you're not thinking of letting him come with us, are you?" Cassius gasped. "He..." Suddenly, he felt his brain lock up.

An exasperated look overtook Kaida's face. "What? Why not? He can speed us up and keep us focused! What's your problem?"

"It's just that..." Cassius wanted to blurt out that Reynard had threatened to kill him, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't get his mouth make the words. "He's..."

"You aren't exactly in the position to tell me I can't let him come along," she said pointedly. He could feel Kate press against him, seething.

Cassius looked away from her. "Nevermind," he muttered.

She turned back to Reynard. "We'd be thrilled to have you along."

With a clap of his hands, Reynard grabbed a menu. "Excellent! What are we having? I am famished!"

After dinner, the expanding group continued westward. Now, however, they zipped along, propelled in some way by Reynard. Cassius couldn't quite grasp what was happening. Though they walked at a normal pace, the world flew by. It was almost as if he were walking on a conveyor belt..

"What's going on?" Kate finally whimpered, looking mortified.

"I'm not sure," Cassius admitted. "But look on the bright side, we'll get there in no time."

"But this doesn't make any sense." Her voice trembled and she wrung her hands.

"It's ok," he said, patting her on the shoulder. Some of the color returned to her lips and she calmed slightly. Once he was sure she wouldn't break down, he moved beside Kaida.

"So, how is Reynard doing this?" he asked. "I mean, you couldn't."

"Of course not!" Kaida snapped. "I'm not the same as him."

"Sorry," he retreated a little. "But how is he... making us go fast?"

She sighed. "He just is. Tell me, how do you think? You just do."

"The synapses in my brain fire, producing electrical signals that react with other synapses to produce cognizant thought," he said. Kaida smirked a little. "But I understand what you mean. But isn't it dangerous? What if we run into something? Or someone sees us?"

"Do not worry!" Reynard called back over his shoulder. "They never do." Cassius frowned. He hadn't thought Reynard would be able to overhear him.

"Good to know!" Cassius called back.

"If you really wish to divine the secrets of my talents, let us just say that I am much more efficient at walking the hidden paths than most. And while I cannot make you as efficient as myself, by walking in my wake, you are able to become more efficient than before."

"Magic. Gotcha," Cassius answered.

Reynard snorted in derision and turned forward again. "You really should stand with that tart. She appears terrified."

Kate appeared on the verge of tears. Cassius sighed and wrapped an arm around her for comfort. She clung to him, like a drowning victim to a rescuer. Her fingernails dug painfully into his side, though he hadn't the heart to loosen her.

A half hour later, Reynard came to a stop. The world slammed back around them. "It is time to rest," he proclaimed. Everyone else was left temporarily disoriented.

Cassius was the first to recover. Looking around, he saw nothing but an empty stretch of road surrounded by fields. "We're in the middle of nowhere. We can't stop now!"

Reynard looked down his nose at Cassius. "I have been pursuing the Princess the entirety of this day and the last at speeds that would leave you breathless. If we are to travel further, I must recuperate my strength."

"But it's only nine thirty," Cassius noted. "Besides, where will we sleep? There aren't exactly any places we can stay out of sight."

"There's a barn over there," Kaida muttered. She had a hand to her forehead and was grimacing. Cassius took a concerned step toward her, but she waved her hand dismissively. She and Reynard started to walk off into the field. Cassius peered into the night toward the direction they were walking, but he could see almost nothing in the dark. He turned back to Kate, who was sitting on the ground.

"Come on, let's go," he said. She didn't stand, so he reached a hand out to her. She took it, but her grip was weak. There was no strength there.

"I can't stand up," she said weakly.

"What?" He could barely hear her.

"I can't stand up," she repeated louder, choking back a sob.

He sat next to her. "What's wrong?"

"I don't know." She wiped her eyes. "What are you doing with these people?"

Cassius started slightly. "What do you mean? Kaida's my friend."

"You're not like them. They're strange. You're... Ok, you're weird too, but weird in a normal way."

"Ok, they're a little different from us," he admitted. "But they're still normal people when you get down to it. I feel like I know Kaida better than I know anyone else in the world. Even myself. Even with... well, all the crazy shit that's come up recently. And I think she thinks the same about me."

Her expression remained frantic. "I don't know why I'm crying. I can't help it. I'm confused. This is so confusing. None of this makes sense. I don't make sense. And that scares me."

He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. She drew her knees up to her chest and shivered. "Everything is alright, Kate. We're going to be fine."

"Can you explain any of this?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I did."

"That doesn't matter."

"Alright." He took a deep breath. "Kaida and Reynard are called naguals. They're people like you and me, but they were born with the souls of animals. This makes them different in some ways, but really, they're still a lot like normal people. Something bad happened involving something called the Key and now Kaida and I have to go find her father and return it to him."

She didn't respond. She just sat there, staring out over her kneecaps. Several minutes passed in silence. "Kate, why are you following us? Is it because you like me or something?" he finally asked.

"I don't like you," she said. "I'm infatuated with you. I can't get you out of my mind. When I close my eyes, I see you looking at me. Staring at me. Piercing me with your eyes. I want you so bad, to fuck you and stare into your eyes while doing it, because everything is in those eyes."

Cassius started to laugh, but caught himself. She wasn't joking. "Wow."

"I know it sounds crazy. Normally I'm not like this. I don't know what happened to me."

"I understand what you mean," he said, glancing out toward where Kate and Reynard had left toward.

"No, you don't," Kate said. "I don't love you. It's just desire. It's consuming me. You want me too, right?"

Cassius sighed. "You're gorgeous. Anyone in their right mind would. But... No, I don't. At least not like this."

"Then what do you want me to do?" she asked.

He gently placed his hands on the sides of her face and lifted it from behind her knees. Uncertainty overwhelmed her. He looked deep into her eyes. "Go home," he told her. "Go back to your life and forget about me."

Her eyelids drooped slightly, as if she were about to fall asleep. "How can I do that?" she asked, dream-like.

"There was a town a few miles back on the road," Cassius said, pointing. "Look, you can still make out a few lights from here. If you go now, you can reach it before midnight. They probably have some place you can stay for the night."

She closed her eyes and held them shut for a long time, so that Cassius almost thought she'd fallen asleep. Then she opened them, smiled at him, and gave him a light kiss on the cheek. Then she stood and began walking down the road. She disappeared into the darkness, only to reappear briefly under a street light before disappearing again. He watched her go until he could no longer spot her in the distance and still watched her a while longer.

Finally, he stood and walked toward the hidden barn, his legs aching again. Once he was in the dark, out from under the street light, his vision adjusted and he could see the faint outline of the barn in the distance.

When he got there, Reynard was lying in a makeshift bed of old, gray hay. Kaida leaned against the wall, her arms behind her head. An oil lamp hung from a beam, casting flickering light. Both looked at him. "You guys comfortable?" he asked.

"Where is she?" Reynard asked gravely.

"Gone," Cassius answered. Kaida raised an eyebrow. "I sent her home."

"You told her to go and she left?" Reynard asked.

"Yes," Cassius said. "That's what I did."

"Very well," Reynard said, laying back.

Cassius sat beside Kaida. "Good riddance, I say," he told her. "It was so awkward, her fawning over me so much! But you know, I'm used to having to fend off the ladies, so it was no big deal." Kaida was looking at him out of the corner of her eyes, a smirk on her lips. Cassius started to massage his thighs.

"You know, I could do that for you," Kaida said. "As long as you control yourself."

"No thanks," Cassius said. "I'm going to win our bet. I didn't go this long just to stop now. Besides, I barely noticed all day."

Reynard stood and blew the lamp out. "Let us sleep now. We have a long day of travel before us." Rustling sounds filled the air as everyone settled into the hay. It was hard and stuck into Cassius's side.

"Goodnight Kaida," he said.

"Goodnight, Cass," she whispered from close by. It didn't take him long to fall asleep.

Cassius knelt with his head bowed before an empty throne. Beside the throne stood an elderly man, hobbled over on the edge of a cane. Beside him stood a young girl wearing a pink dress. She appeared completely uncomfortable and fidgeted constantly. He briefly glanced at her and realized she was someone very important. It took him a moment longer to realize she was Kaida.

"It is a great honor," Cassius said in a voice that wasn't his own. "I never once believed I would be given the Key."

"It is a great duty," a voice deep and terrible rumbled. It was regal, high-born in tone, but also tired and strained. The voice came from behind the throne, but Cassius couldn't see into the shadows behind the throne from his position.

"I understand, my Liege. To bear the Key is a most sacred task. I will guard it with my life," Cassius said. His voice remained strange to him. Was he even himself?

"Not only will you guard the Key, you will also be the guardian of my daughter. Do you accept that task?"

Cassius looked up at Kaida, who was staring at him with big, wet eyes. Once more, he was the terrified little boy who had given up everything to those eyes. He lowered his head further, to be free of her gaze, and nodded his head. "Nothing will stop me from protecting her, forever," he said, this time in his own voice.

"Then rise and accept the Key," the thunderous voice of Kaida's father proclaimed.

He did rise and the old man shuffled toward him. He opened his mouth and then the world faded into blackness.

Murmurs and groans woke Reynard from his sleep. He was alert in an instant, ready to pounce upon any intruder. Instead, he found it was only Cassius, talking to himself in his sleep, caught in the grips of some dream. He listened for a moment, but the words were nonsense. He was about to return to sleep when he noticed that the Princess was no longer inside.

He followed her scent outside, where she sat on the ground, chin on her knees, staring toward nothing. "Trouble sleeping, Princess?" he asked, weariness straining his voice.

She leapt to her feet at his voice, hands locked in claws. When she saw who it was, she relaxed. "Shouldn't you be resting?"

"The boy is talking in his sleep. He keeps me awake." He sat next to her. She stared at him for a moment, took a step away, and sat back down.

"He's not 'the boy'. He's Cassius and he's my friend, so give him a little respect, would you?"

"And he is apparently a nagual," Reynard said.

Kaida let out a worried laugh. "Is he? He doesn't seem like one. I can't sense any nagual in him, can you?"

"No," Reynard admitted. "And yet he has the eyes. You saw what he did with that girl." Kaida tensed at the mention of her. "She was beholden to him and you could not get her to leave, could you?"

"No, I couldn't. I even tried to force her, with my own eyes. But she wouldn't go," Kaida sighed. "Did Cassius do it? I can't see how he did. I was there the entire time they were together, he never did anything to make her... obsessed with him." She spit the words out like they were poison.

"We have never had a normal human carry the Key before," Reynard said. "Who knows what changes it may cause?"

"Even more reason to get the Key out of him," Kaida said. "I don't want him changed into one of us."

"Do you not?" Reynard wondered. "Why not? It would let you be together."

Kaida flinched at his words. "What do you mean? We already are together. We're best friends, aren't we?"

"Of course." Reynard wondered how far he could probe and push her before being rebuked. His curiosity got the better of him. "But I could see how you looked at the girl. Anger. Jealousy. Despite his reticence toward her affections, it bothered you that she showed them."

"I was just worried what she might try," Kaida said. "And Cass and I have been friends for a long, long time. Of course I'm jealous when there's someone else. He gets the same way with me."

"And yet you wish nothing more of your relationship?"

Kaida glared at him, meeting his eyes for the first time all night. "Why do you care?"

"If I am to truly protect you and the Keybearer to your destination, I should know how your relationship might affect your decisions. My duty is to the Key above all else."

"No," Kaida said as she turned away from him. She sounded ashamed, and perhaps sad, but there was no hint of mistruth in her voice. "I don't want anything more. What we have now is all I ever want from Cassius."

Reynard rose from the ground and headed back toward the barn. He stopped at the entrance and turned back to her. "Do not stay up late. Though I will be doing most of the work tomorrow, you will become fatigued by it as well."

Kaida remained outside, her chin resting on her knees. She pulled her knees closer, so she was curled into a ball, her face hidden behind them. She didn't want the world to see her squeezing back tears.

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