The Dragon's Key: Chapter 8

Krait dropped his cards onto the floor. "Full house, tens over queens." He smiled and pulled a pile of pebbles toward himself. Adder placed his cards on top of the deck and started shuffling. "You know, you've got a killer poker face. You always look like you're pissed at your hand."

"You were the one who wanted to play," Adder answered as he dealt the hand. "I could stand to do something else."

"What else is there to do?" Krait asked. His cards were all low, but three were hearts. He tossed two pebbles into the pot. "We're in a damn cave. There's nothing here. No people, no books, no nothing. Not even a damn television."

"We never watch television." Adder called Krait's bet and threw three cards in. Krait threw in his two and Adder dealt out replacements.

"Of course we don't. But it'd give us something to do. You never know, some of those celebrities might even be snakes." His cards weren't good. He'd gotten one heart, which left him one short of a flush. He tossed in two stones anyway.

"I don't want to," Adder answered. He called and raised a stone. Krait shuffled his cards in his hand a moment, then stared Adder in the face. Nothing. He picked up two stones, rolled them around in his hand, then tossed his cards in.

Adder pulled the stones into his growing pile and shuffled. They played a few hands in silence, continuing their trend. Krait won half the hands he dealt, while Adder won every hand he dealt. It maddened Krait, especially since he knew Adder didn't care enough to cheat.

After Krait tossed in another hand, Adder said, "You don't have any stones."

"Fuck you! I don't have to call every damn bluff."

"I mean, you're out of stones to play with." Sure enough, Krait had run out of pebbles. "I'll split mine and we can start over," Adder suggested.

"Ugh, fuck no," Krait said, running a hand through his hair. "I need some fresh air." Adder shrugged and stuffed the cards into his pocket. As Krait left, he leaned back and closed his eyes.

After crawling out of the cave, Krait instinctively reached for his pocket. Halfway there, he stopped ."Damn cigarettes. I should have checked before I left."

It was already late. The sun was touching the horizon. Krait scrabbled down the mountain toward the trees. He passed by the overturned soil of the mass grave. Already there was grass growing on it. In a few days, it would be as if it never were there. A fitting grave for Airyu's nameless servants.

Most of Krait's idle time had been spent exploring the forest. He told Adder he was hunting, though he never came back with anything. Despite his best efforts, he'd never been able to get a lay of the land. There were landmarks, but they were never in the same place twice.

After walking into the woods about fifty feet, he came across an old mound of stones. The first time he'd found them, he'd been walking for an hour. He considered digging through them, but the prospect of uncovering more dead bodies dissuaded him. He turned east and walked twenty feet, where he'd previously found an old well. This time, there was nothing for another ten feet past that, when he found a ring of stones.

"Damn confusing forest," he muttered. He wasn't sure if the trees rearranged themselves, or if they just made him remember wrong.

He changed directions, eventually coming across something new; an old wooden park table. The weather beaten boards were being eaten away by termites. Krait sat down on one of the benches, surprised to find it held his weight.

As Krait absently dug his fingers into the table top, he considered his situation. In a short while, the Princess would arrive with the Keybearer. He and Adder would ambush them, then turn the Key over to Master Naja. House Snake would rule all, from the fallen houses to the regal eagles to the newly deposed dragons, if any were even left. Master Naja would be King and he'd surely make Adder the Keybearer.

"That probably leaves me as Adder's bodyguard," Krait mused. "If not something even more degrading."

Originally, Master Naja hadn't been able to tell Krait and Adder apart. They were merely lesser servants, carrying out tasks too menial for the more skilled agents. But the two quickly became his most capable, trustworthy agents and rose in status. They finally sealed their position by eliminated a Chicago crime boss who had avoided assassination in the past.

"Most excellent work, gentlemen," Master Naja had said as he looked at the severed head of the crime boss. "With him out of the way, I can finally get the police commissioner in my pocket."

"I don't see why you need him in your pocket," Agent Krait spat, looking down at the head with disgust. "We're supposed to be away from them, aren't we?"

"Ah, Agent Krait," Master Naja sighed, remembering Krait's name properly for the first time. "You know so little. Even though we stand above them, we are still a part of them. How else would we find more of ourselves?"

Agent Krait harrumphed and crossed his arms. "How would we have been found?" Agent Adder asked.

"Exactly, Agent Adder," Master Naja cooed. He stroked a finger across Agent Adder's chin. Adder stood there motionless. Master Naja sashayed over to Krait. "It so pleases me to finally have agents I can count on." He touched his finger to Krait's chin, and Krait involuntarily flinched. Master Naja held his finger there a moment, his face sour, then pulled it away.

He'd since trained himself never to flinch around Master Naja. But the sourness remained.

A chirping sound broke his reverie. He snapped to; it was a raccoon, the same as he'd met before. Apparently, it had adopted him as its master. "Hello, Mr. Raccoon," he said apathetically. "Dig through any good trash today?"

The raccoon didn't respond, though Krait imagined it might. During his exploration, Krait had learned none of the animals feared him. They lacked the instinct. It was strange, not having something afraid of him. He'd always been intimidating; learning he was a nagual made it stronger.

"I should give you a name," Krait said. "How about... Slade? Do you like that name?" The raccoon rubbed itself against Krait's hand. "I used to be called that, a long time ago. I think it's a good name."

He scratched the back of the raccoon's neck. It cooed happily and craned it's head. As Krait ran his fingers through its fur, his hand started to wrap itself around the raccoon's neck. The noises it made changed from happy to confused to panicked. Krait barely noticed until the noises stopped completely. He looked down at it, no longer moving.

He panicked. He shook the raccoon, but it didn't move. He lifted it and looked into its eyes, but they were glassy and empty. He held it to his chest, rocking it back and forth. When it didn't wake up, he set it back on the table and stared at it.

"Oh shit," he finally said. "I fucking killed it. God dammit, I'm an asshole." He sighed and picked the carcass up. He carried it back through the forest, toward the cave. He had only walked thirty feet when he passed through the trees, past the mass grave.

As he entered the room Adder was in, he threw the carcass onto the ground. Adder looked at him and Krait nodded curtly. Adder grabbed the raccoon.

"Aren't you going to eat?" Adder asked after he tore a chunk of flesh off it. Krait's face contorted in disgust, though he was facing away from Adder.

"I'm not hungry." This was true, though his stomach was empty. He wished he had a cigarette more than anything. His head hung as he sat on the cold floor.

Adder said nothing. The only sound that came from him was the wet rip of flesh.

That night, Krait sat in the cavern with Airyu's body. It was bloated and festering. Krait didn't want to be there, but he didn't want to leave either. Adder was somewhere else; he didn't know or care where. He really wished he had a cigarette.

"Fuck you," Krait said to the body. "You could have given these animals a fear of people. Then that damn raccoon wouldn't have bothered me and gone and fucking died."

He kicked Airyu for the umpteenth time today. The blow hurt Krait's foot. He wanted the body to respond, but it didn't. That only made him angrier, so he kicked it again.

This time, it really hurt. He hopped back in pain, only to slip and fall, knocking the wind out of him. As he gasp for breath, he cursed at the body. "Asshole!" he said between breaths. "Fucker! Cocksucker!" It didn't help him catch his breath, but it was better than sitting in silence. When he finally stood, he would have sworn the eyes of Airyu were twinkling in mirth. He almost kicked it again, but stopped short and gave it the finger instead.

The eyes stared at him, definitely dead, yet somehow holding a lingering fragment of emotion in them. "Stop staring at me like that, you dead bastard," Krait said, waving a finger at it. "I didn't kill you. I'm just here for your daughter. Not like you care about her anyway." By now, he was gesticulating wildly. "Letting her run off and live with normal people! And for what? Love? Hah! What a joke! You should be ashamed, because..." Krait trailed off in thought. "Well, I don't know why that's so bad, exactly. But it is! And if Master Naja - "

"Krait!" Adder's voice rang through the dark cavern. Krait froze, wracked with embarrassment and annoyance.

"What?" he shot back.

"Are you alright?" That was the first time in years Adder had expressed concern for Krait. Even when they had first started working together, it had only been a nicety. It was more than a nicety now, though it wasn't out of concern for Krait.

"I am fine," he growled. His fingernails dug into his palms painfully. He waited for Adder to respond, but he only heard retreating footfalls. He stood there until he felt something wet on his palms. He opened his fists. His palms were covered in blood, dripping from the lacerations caused by his fingernails. He shook his hands in annoyance.

"Dammit." He wiped his palms on Airyu's mane. A shudder went through the body and the blood spots vanished. Krait yanked his hands away and stared at the body.

After an hour, it showed no further signs of life. He kicked it again and then left to wash his hands in the stream. Before the rips even scabbed over, Adder ran into the room. "They're here."

Krait jumped and ran. He could already taste blood in his mouth, the anticipation was so great.

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