The Dragon's Key: Chapter 9

The land has shifted so gradually that Cassius barely noticed it. He just suddenly realized that all traces of humanity had suddenly vanished. There was no sound of traffic in the distance, no worn trails on the ground, or the occasional scrap of debris that had marked a man's passing. They were in a primordial and unspoiled place. The trees were tall, the grass thick, the sky clear and blue.

When he pointed out how amazing it was, Reynard gave him an amused look, but Kaida put an arm around him. "It is amazing, isn't it?" she asked. "All of this empty space."

"Empty?" he asked. "It is full. Just not with us."

She smiled. "You're right, of course. But spend a few years here and you'll go running back to civilization." Reynard muttered under his breath, drawing a glare from Kaida, but nothing more was said.

"How far are we from your father's place?" Cassius asked.

"A day and a few hours," Reynard replied. "We cannot see it yet, but once we traverse this forest, we will reach a great mountain. That mountain is Lord Airyu's, where you will find your journey at an end."

"An entire day?" Cassius asked. "But this morning we were in Indiana, by lunch we were in Kansas, and now we're... Here, where ever this is. How can it be a day more?"

"We are beyond the place where I can speed our journey," Reynard said. "The pathways here are more treacherous than even I can walk. So we move the old fashioned way."

Cassius spent the rest of the day chasing after animals. Most refused to be spooked, so it soon became a challenge to get them to run off. Most just gave him what he imagined to be a bemused look as they sauntered off. Eventually, he discovered a combination of explosive arm flailing and loud hoots that sent them running. Kaida kept telling him to stop, but her laughing fits made the threat ineffective, while Reynard's glare only encouraged him further.

They slept in the grass. Cassius was shocked how comfortable it was and how easily he fell asleep. And he was grateful the next morning that he had no dreams that night. They rose early the next day and continued their march, exiting the forest somewhere around noon.

A mountain pierced the sky, its cap obstructed by a small ring of clouds. It was green all the way up, as were the flat plains leading toward it. The color was more vibrant than any he'd ever seen.

"Wow," was all he could say. Kaida grabbed his arm and pulled him in tight.

"Isn't it beautiful?" she breathed. She was so close to him, he could feel her heart, racing with excitement and joy. It was slightly out of rhythm with his own. He briefly wondered if that dissonance was permanent.

"Very," he said, tearing his eyes away from her.

"We must keep going," Reynard said. "We are not far and we must get there quickly." The color had left his face, leaving it ashen. He grimaced as he looked up toward the sun.

"What's the rush?" Kaida asked, her chin coming to a rest on Cassius's shoulder. "We should savor it. Even you don't get to come here often."

"That is true, Princess," he said with a grimace. "I do not get to visit as often as I would prefer." He seemed about to say more, but merely trailed off and glanced once again at the sun.

Kaida rolled her eyes. "Fine, we'll hurry. I think I'd like to get home soon anyway."

"It's been a while since you've seen your dad, huh?"

Kaida giggled. "Yes, but that's not what I meant. I meant my real home, back in Baltimore. I'm sure Andy's getting tired of feeding my cat."

Cassius extracted himself from her grasp. "Yeah, we should get moving," he said curtly. A chagrined grimace crossed her face, but she steeled herself and nodded.

"Yeah, let's get moving," she said. Reynard took a deep breath, enough color returning to his face to banish his sickly pallor. He nudged Cassius back, taking the lead again.

It took just under three hours for them to reach the base of the mountain. Cassius worried they would have to climb all the way to the top, but Reynard assured him the climb was minimal. "It will only take us an hour or so to reach the entrance."

Though the slope wasn't steep, it was enough to make Cassius slip back a step for every three he took. Much like with everything, Kaida seemed to have an effortless time of it. Even Reynard, despite the obvious pain he was in, had an easier go of it than Cassius. Eventually, Kaida had to slow down to make sure he didn't fall behind.

"I will scout ahead, since he is having so much trouble with this." Reynard disappeared between the trees, up the slope.

"He's sweating bullets. It's not like he's having an easy time either," Cassius grumbled.

Kaida patted him on the back as he leaned against a tree. "Don't worry about what Reynard can and can't do. This isn't a competition."

Cassius smiled. He'd been waiting for a good time to bring this up. "Speaking of competitions, I think I won ours."

"What competition?" Kaida asked with a frown.

"All the way to your father's," Cassius said. Kaida's face flashed recollection, though she quickly tried to hide it. "Oh no! Don't pretend you forgot! I won! Come on, pay up!"

"Dammit, I thought you'd forgotten," she said, a smirk on her face. "Well, we're not technically there yet. I mean, we're not even to the front door."

"Well, technically, Reynard said this entire mountain is his. So I win."

"Damn technicalities," she muttered, though not unhappily. "I really had hoped you forgot."

"Not a chance," Cassius said. "Although... If you really don't want to tell me, you can kiss me and call it even."

She raised an eyebrow at him. "Is that a serious offer?"

"Are you seriously considering it?"

"Yeah," she said. Finally, she shook her head. "Fine, you win." He puckered his lips. "Not that!" He gave an exaggerated pout. "I'll tell you what I made you forget. Remember Palmer, the guy I dated in high school?"

"Yeah," Cassius said. "I vaguely recall him."

"Remember how we broke up?" she asked. Her voice was distant, slightly sad.

"No," he said, with a shrug. "I mean, I was never really in the gossip loop. I just knew one day you guys were dating and the next you weren't."

A sigh escaped her lips. "But you did know, once," she said. "He broke up with me." That was news to Cassius. Kaida had always been the one to end relationships, not the other way around. "It was after school one day. He told me he never felt like my boyfriend, more like my pet or my slave. He was shaking the entire time, like he was afraid of me.

"I was crushed. I cried so much after he said that. I didn't want to believe it, but I knew he was telling the truth. I knew who I was. What I was. And I knew that, no matter what, it would always be like that. With anyone. It made me so angry. At myself, at the nagual, at normal people. But I didn't have anyone I could talk to about it. So I sat alone, in a stairwell, crying to myself. I don't know how long I was there." She looked up at him, her eyes glistening but smiling. "And then you came. I don't know why you were there. You must have stayed after for something. But you ran up and hugged me. I cried into your shoulder as you held me, without even knowing what was wrong. You promised me that everything would be alright and you started to cry too.

"And that made me stop, because I was worried about you. You said that if there was anything bad enough to make me cry, then you would cry too. And for the next few hours, I sat there crying.

"And then I kissed you."

Had he not been leaning against the tree, he might have tumbled down the mountain. "You kissed me?" he asked, his voice cracking mid-sentence.

She looked away, her cheeks turning bright red. "Yes. It just felt like the right thing to do. But, I knew that..." She took a deep, choked off breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she had a sorry smile. "I knew that we could never be anything more than friends. I knew the kiss would only confuse you and eventually hurt you. So I made you forget."

Cassius sank to the ground. "I don't know what to say."

"I'm sorry," she said. "I know it was a terrible thing for me to do. If I knew you then how I knew you now, I'd have realized that... Well, I think you could have handled it."

He sighed and pushed the jumble of emotions to the back of his mind. "It's alright," he said as he pulled himself back to his feet. "I wish I remembered it, though. That memory would have been very special to me." She put her hand on his shoulder and he flinched. He hoped she didn't notice, but was sure she did. He smiled heavily. "Let's go. We don't want to keep Reynard waiting."

The spread of dead leaves couldn't hide the smell of the mass grave from Reynard. He knelt beside it, running his hands through the thin grass. He had the sudden inclination to say something to the bodies within, but checked himself. Any words he would offer would be more likely to offend the dead than set them at ease.

He looked down the mountain. As expected, the Keybearer was slowing the Princess. If he hadn't, setting up the ambush would prove far more difficult. Even still, he juggled deadly knives.

As he neared the entrance, he caught the stench of snake. He stuck his hands into his pockets and walked forward. Adder, the perpetually scowling agent, emerged from the shadows with his arms crossed. Upon seeing Reynard, he adjusted his blue teashades so his eyes were unobstructed.

"You took your time getting here," Adder said. Reynard stepped forward, but Adder halted him with a gesture.

Reynard raised his hands in submission. "The Princess and Keybearer are down the mountain. Prepare yourselves."

Adder nodded. "We shall wait inside. We will grab whatever passes and kill it instantly. I suggest you hold back until the business is finished."

"Do you have the antivenin?"

Adder nodded. "Of course, but I won't be so stupid as to show you."

"As long as you are aware you are obligated to hand it over to me once the Princess is delivered. A favor for a favor. That is our most unbreakable law."

"I know what I am obligated to do," Adder spat. He turned and vanished back into the cave. Once he was out of sight, Reynard smiled.

It took another half-hour before Cassius and Kaida reached him. They found him crouching, a cold sweat covering him. "Just a bit under the weather," he assured them. "The pace of the journey has tired me." In truth, the venom was overwhelming him. He had little time to spare. He hoped things would be finished in time.

Knots twisted Krait's stomach. He was tensed to strike. He began to ache. They had been waiting nearly an hour, only glances exchanged between them. Krait's eyes were accusatory and Adder's cool stares only made him tenser.

When it seemed he could not hold back any longer, a voice split the silence. "Are you doing alright, Cassius?" Princess Kaida said. Krait involuntarily flinched from the sudden sound, though he was expecting it. He looked down, away from Adder, and refocused himself.

"Yeah, I'm fine," the boy said. His unsteady voice was filled with uncertainty and fear. Krait hissed at it, savoring the thought of pouncing on his blinded prey. Adder shot him a glare for making the noise, but Krait didn't care. He hadn't been loud enough to give them away.

"Just keep a hold of my hand and you'll be fine," the Princess reassured. Her voice was closer and Krait rubbed his hands in anticipation. They would need to kill her first, then the boy.

A figure stepped through the opening and Krait almost struck. At the last moment, he realized it was Reynard, not the Princess, and held back. Reynard's eyes flicked around, coming to rest on Krait.

As Princess Kaida stepped through the entrance, Reynard betrayed himself with a smirk, but it was too late. Adder was already descending from his perch. Before Krait could even call out a warning, the Princess had turned and caught him.

Krait leapt to join him, hissing angrily at the double cross. Before he could even get to her, a burning sting pierced his back. He cried out in pain, looked down at the rapier piercing his breast, and spun toward Reynard. He took a few feeble steps toward his killer, let out a final defiant hiss, and collapsed forward.

Moments later, Adder fell beside him, blood pouring from the triplet gashes down his face and throat. He struggled to stand, but the energy was draining from him. Reynard planted a boot on his back and, though he could no longer feel pain, he felt the sword sliding slowly from his back.

"It's finished," said Kaida as she kicked the bodies, checking for life.

Reynard stooped beside Krait and wiped the sword off on his jacket. "Nasty business," he growled. "Dirtying my blade with the ichor of these serpents. Tis barely fitting to slake the thirst of an apprentice's first work, much less this masterpiece." He glanced at Adder. "Your kills are far too sloppy, Princess."

She shrugged. "I don't exactly have practice." She returned to the entrance and stuck a hand in. "You there, Cass?" A trembling hand grasped hers tightly and pulled, causing her to lose her balance and nearly fall. "Whoa! Easy."

"Sorry," he whimpered before drawing in a large breath. He let her guide him forward into the large cavern. "Did everything work out?"

"Perfectly," Reynard said with a haughty air that was only mildly weakened by the raspiness of his venom-pained voice. "These two fools never suspected me of working against them." He had to grit his teeth to keep from letting out a groan of pain. He was glad the boy could not see him in the dark.

"I wonder why they thought you ever would," Kaida muttered to herself. "But that's not the point of worry right now. We have to go wake my father. He will want to deal with this immediately."

"We must burn these bodies first," Reynard insisted.

"No!" Kaida insisted. "We must wake my father. These snakes massacred the entire household. It is... horrific. We don't have time to waste gathering fuel and starting a fire to burn these two. Why are you so worried about them anyway? Did they have something on you? Is that why they thought you would help?"

Reynard bit his tongue. "No, my Princess. I suppose I am just being overly cautious. We can leave them, but as soon as we finish, we must return to burn them." He nudged Krait's body with his foot, but the expression of shocked pain didn't budge. He started to walk off.

"Uh, excuse me, but still blind here," Cassius said.

Reynard snorted, but Kaida grabbed his hand. "I'm sorry!" She looked around for some sort of light source, but found nothing. "I don't see anything. You'll just have to hold my hand until we find a lamp or torch."

"That's no problem," Cassius answered, grinning wide.

"You know, I can still see your face." He stuck out his tongue at her and she giggled.

"Will you two cease dawdling?" Reynard snapped. He was already across the chamber, standing at a tunnel that led deeper into the cave. Kaida gave Cassius a tug and he stumbled after her. She slowed so he could keep up.

Reynard kept having to stop and wait for them. After several annoyed glances back, Kaida snapped, "Sheesh, just go ahead! We'll catch up."

Reynard muttered under his breath and headed off. Kaida's grip tightened painfully. "What'd he say?" Cassius asked.

"I don't know," she grumbled. She yanked him forward, walking faster now. He nearly tripped and had some trouble keeping pace.

"So, what's this place like? I mean, if I could see it."

"Pretty dour," Kaida huffed. "Lots of old, wooden furniture and hand-woven rugs and tapestries. And lots of smoothed rock. Normally there'd be lots of servants doing their best to remain unseen and avoid looking at me."

"I guess that's not a problem any more," Cassius said, immediately regretting it. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I - "

"Don't worry," she sighed. "I didn't know any of them. And none were my brothers or sisters. My father and I are the only dragons. The servants here were usually the children of nagual. Many are put up for adoption and never learn the truth. Others are too stubborn and don't give them up, so they become servants."

"Why do they give them up?"

"Being a nagual doesn't mean your children will be. There's no greater chance than it just being random. And you've seen how different nagual are. Normal people can't do the things we do. They can't function in the world we live in. Letting them live in their own world is the kindest thing to do. And for those who stay, at least they are allowed to have a purpose."

"Oh. And everyone here was a normal person like me?"

"No," she sighed. "Some were not. A few were outcasts from their own houses. Or they were part of a broken house, like Reynard. In fact, many of Reynard's house worked here. He's the one who should really be upset. My father can replace his servants. Reynard can never replace his family."

"Fox, right?"


"Reynard's a fox. That's his house."

Kaida nodded, unseen to Cassius. "Those snakes did this. They attacked while my father slept. They were looking for the Keybearer and killed everything they found."

"Why didn't your father stop them?" Cassius asked. "Or why would they leave him alive and not anyone else?"

"Nothing can kill Airyu," Kaida answered gravely. "He's as far beyond a nagual as a nagual is beyond a normal person. But he sleeps a lot. Well, hibernates really. Waking him is not an easy task. Important nagual can do it. The Keybearer could have too, if he'd managed to get to him. But it seems like he didn't." Kaida's face contorted into a grimace and though Cassius couldn't see it, he could feel it in her voice.

"What's he like?"

"I only really met him a few times, all when I was young. He doted on me. He called me his little princess and smiled so wide that all of the servants cowered." She laughed. "He is so terrifying, they couldn't help themselves. He told me I was very important and that he'd always keep me in his thoughts. That was ten years ago. I haven't seen him since."

"Why not?" Cassius asked.

"Being the princess of all nagual is a complicated thing. I have duties. So does my father. But I was insistent on living a normal life. At least as normal as I could. Most nagual retreat from the normal world and only live among other nagual. But a few of us stay behind. I was one of those, when I could be. So it kept us apart."

"So, your biological father died and your spiritual one was never around for you." Kaida said nothing. "Still, being a princess is pretty cool."

A smile crept onto her face. "It's not like I got to live in a castle. And there were no knights in shining armor fighting for my affection. Though if I'd stayed with my people, I could have had anything I wanted. I'd have been waited on hand and foot until the day I died."

"So why did you leave?"

Kaida stopped and looked at Cassius's travel-tanned face squinting through darkness he couldn't penetrate. His blond hair had grown dirtier and his cheeks were covered in rough stubble. She smiled and gave his hand a gentle squeeze. "I just wanted to be normal."

Cassius laughed. "And I wanted to be different. Why do you think I dressed all goth in high school?"

"Because I dressed all goth in high school." She nudged him in the ribs as he blushed. "But isn't that always the way it is? Normal kids want to be different. Different kids want to be normal."

"But who knows what we really wanted?"

They walked without talking for a while. The only sound was that of water rushing deeper in the cave. Even their footfalls seemed to be silenced.

After what seemed like an eternity of walking in the dark, a dim light came into view. Gradually they approached it, until Cassius could make out the shape of slightly ajar double doors. The light was pouring out from inside. "My father's throne room," Kaida whispered.

The light cast deep, ugly shadows over Kaida's face. She seemed a primordial monster, creeping from the darkest recesses of nightmare. He wondered if that's how she really looked; how she appeared to the snakes as she attacked. But even with that thought, he was comforted by seeing her again.

Kaida pushed the door open effortlessly, despite its size. Light spilled into the corridor, brilliantly blinding Cassius. Kaida gasped and released his hand. A wave of apprehension flooded him, but his vision quickly cleared save for a few lingering spots.

A great chamber, rivaling all the pictures of the Sistine Chapel and Parthenon in size, was before him. He couldn't see the ceiling, if there even was one, though stone columns reached upward. Ancient tapestries covered the walls, some merely colorful, others depicting scenes of fancy that may have been real. On the ground knelt Kaida and Reynard.

Before them was the decaying corpse of Airyu, King of Dragons.

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