The Dragon's Key: Chapter 10

Silence oppressed. Not even breathing could be heard. No one was breathing. Cassius's heart thudded so strongly he felt it was going to burst from his chest, yet he could not hear it. His stomach ached, like a hot poker trying to escape his innards, but he could not move. All he could do was stare at the unmoving body.

Even dead, Airyu was majestic, regal, and terrifying. He was twice the size of an elephant, though sleek and elegant in form. Alabaster scales covered him from serpentine head to crocodilian tail. His front talons were larger than Cassius, while his rear legs were muscled like a thoroughbred.

"A real dragon," Cassius muttered finally, though he didn't even hear himself.

Kaida began to cry; Reynard shot him a glare. The catch of her breath as she wept pierced the miasma clouding Cassius's senses. He draped his arms around her shoulders.

"Kaida, I'm sorry," he began, but she violently shrugged him off.

"Don't touch me!" she cried. "Father! He's dead..."

Now that his awe had waned, Cassius could see the signs of death on Airyu. His topaz eyes were dull and empty. His red tongue hung swollen between razor teeth. His wings were tattered and maggots writhed beneath his scales.

"What happened?" he asked. "I thought he couldn't be killed." It was a stupid thing to say, with Kaida's pain clear on her face. He suddenly didn't regret being made to forget when he'd witnessed her tears before. It tore at his insides. He quietly took a step away from her.

Even Reynard stayed back, observing without emotion. "The last dragon," he said solemnly, almost to himself. He caught Cassius's glance, then looked away.

Kaida drew in a ragged breath. "I barely knew him," she rasped. "But now he's gone too." She turned to Cassius, twin streaks cutting through the dust and dirt on her face. There was still strength there. "The snakes couldn't have done this. They could wound or even kill someone like Reynard or me. But how could a single bite kill my father? It's impossible."

"Maybe it was more than one of them?" Cassius suggested.

Kaida took a deep breath and shook her head. "No. It would take dozens of them, at least. And even if they were all as strong as Master Naja, my father would have had time to do something. There'd be signs of a fight. Not... nothing."

"Master Naja?" He'd heard the name before.

"The leader of House Snake," she explained, wiping her eyes. Her tears had slowed.

"I remember the agents mentioning him. Is he behind this?"

Kaida nodded with a sniffle. "He's involved, yes. He's been power hungry for as long as I can remember. But he's never taken such extreme steps before. There's someone else working with him, at the very least. Probably whoever killed my father. Right Reynard?"

But Reynard was no longer there. Cassius's eyes went wide with shock, but Kaida waved in defeat. "No, he's gone. His loyalty was to my father. Now he owes loyalty to no one but himself." Her words were tinged with bile.

"What do you mean?"

"House Fox is fallen. Long ago they tried to steal the Key and they were stripped of all rights. Now they're servants and underlings, sniveling for a scrap of influence to be thrown their way. Reynard was loyal to my father because my father made him important. But he's not loyal to me."

Cassius sighed heavily. He could tell Kaida was on the verge of tears, but she held it back with a steely calm mask. "So, what now?"

"We figure out how my father was killed and by who." Her jaw set in anger. "And we will punish them."

"And how do we find that out?"

"We go to the Oracles.

"And who are the Oracles, exactly?"

"They know everything," Kaida said. "They know all that has, is, and will happen. They have guided the nagual for centuries. They are blessed."

"If they can see the future, why didn't they warn you?"

"They weren't asked."

Cassius almost wanted to laugh at that. "Why not? If I was a king, I'd want to find out if anyone was plotting on overthrowing me."

She sighed and placed her hands on her hips. "And suppose he had asked that? He eliminates one threat, but who knows the consequences of changing prophecy? Maybe someone is enraged by it and plots to overthrow him sooner? Or maybe it's the act of knowing that causes someone to be held at arm's length and thus become a traitor? It's better to not know specifics and just do what you can than assume you're safe because you know one person who might do you harm."

Cassius bit his bottom lip and mulled it over. "Yeah, that's pretty insightful. You sound like you've thought about it a lot."

She smiled a bitter smile. "Let me tell you about the Oracles."

After the nagual made their pact with God, He sent down three Oracles to guide the nagual into the future. One Oracle had hands, to touch the past. One Oracle had eyes, to see the present. One Oracle had ears, to hear the future. They were not all-knowing, for they only knew an answer after the question was asked.

At first, all was harmonious. But the Oracle of the Present saw that his brothers got more visitors. He grew jealous of his brothers. He decided that he wanted to see the Past as well, for that would make him the most popular Oracle. He devised a scheme to steal his brother's hands so that he could become the Oracle of Past and Present.

One day, he went to the Oracle of the Past. "Brother," he said, "you look unwell! You have great bags under your eyes and seem unhealthy! From what are you suffering?"

The Oracle of the Past was confused, for he felt fine. "Brother, I am well! Are you sure you seem me this way?"

The Oracle of the Present stroked his chin. "Perhaps I am mistaken. I shall leave you in good health then." And he left.

The next day, the Oracle of the Present returned. "Brother! You look worse than before! Please, I beg you, tell me what is wrong!"

"I assure you, brother," the Oracle of the Past said, "I am well. My heart beats strong in my chest, my lungs are clear."

The Oracle of the Present placed his hand over his heart. "I am glad you are well then. I worry for your health. I would not want you to grow sick." And he left again.

He returned the third day and said, "Brother! Please, stop hiding your illness from me! Remember, I am the Oracle of the Present! I know that you are suffering! Please, please tell me from what!"

Now, the Oracle of the Past was alarmed. "Brother, I feel no sickness within me. But as you are the Oracle of the Present, you know what I do not. Please, what is wrong with me?"

The Oracle of the Present smiled and lied. "Ah, I am relieved. You are merely exhausted from all your visitors. You need rest."

"Rest?" the Oracle of the Past wondered. "I cannot rest. I have a duty to attend to!"

"Then let me take your hands," the Oracle of the Present said. "With your hands, I can do your duties while you rest."

"But what of you? Will you not become exhausted?"

"Do not worry about me, brother. My love for you is great enough that I will make this sacrifice for you."

The Oracle of the Past smiled and gave his hands to the Oracle of the Present. "Thank you, brother. You are truly the best of us."

"No, thank you, brother." With that, the Oracle of the Present left and returned to his home. Many people came to see him now and ask him important questions. But he noticed his brother, the Oracle of the Future, still received more visitors. Once again, the Oracle of the Present grew jealous. He devised a plan to steal his brother's ears so that he could become the Oracle of All.

So he went to his brother's house, where he found the Oracle of the Future waiting outside for him. "Brother!" the Oracle of the Future said. "It is good to see you!"

The Oracle of the Present had a troubled face. "Brother, it is nearing the day of our birth. And each year, you use your powers to find the perfect gift for our mutual brother and me."

The Oracle of the Future smiled proudly. "Yes brother! It is only fitting that I give you something perfect."

"But we are never able to give a perfect gift in return! I wish I could hear the future like you so that I might give you the perfect gift."

The Oracle of the Future nodded in understanding. "Perhaps I should lend you my ears, then?"

The Oracle of the Present clapped his hands together. "Yes! That would be perfect!" He took his brother's ears and placed them upon his head. "But I must keep them until the day of our birth, else the surprise will be ruined!"

"Of course, brother!"

The Oracle of the Present returned home and answered many questions. All people came to him with all manner of question, large and small. They lined up in front of his home, abandoning the homes of his brothers. The number of people was so great that he was never given a moment's rest. He missed he and his brothers' day of birth, which would have pained him greatly if he noticed its passing. The Oracle of the Present grew tired, but he had no choice but to answer, for it was now his duty.

But fatigue was not the only thing that weighed on him. For now that he could touch the Past, see the Present, and hear the Future, he knew the results of all he was asked. A greedy son found his family's lost heirloom, only to sell it for opium. A harlot slept with her neighbor, while her brother plotted to kill her husband for the inheritance.

With every question he answered, he became more and more despaired. After a year of being the Oracle of All, the Oracle of the Present locked his door and snuck out the back. He went to the home of the Oracle of the Future, and found both his brothers there.

"Brother!" both shouted. "You have remembered the day of our birth! We worried that you had forgotten again."

The Oracle of the Present was shamed. "In truth, I had forgotten. My duties have been most taxing and I came only to clear my mind."

The brothers nodded. "Yes, being the Oracle of All must be difficult," the Oracle of the Past said. "I am glad you took my hands though, for without my hands, I have had time to learn how to sculpt. It is a joy!"

"And without my ears," the Oracle of the Future said, "no one bothers me either. I have learned the joys of music. There are a great many composers in this world and I feel like I must hear them all before I shuck this mortal coil."

The Oracle of the Present held his fists in the air. "And yet, I am cursed with my eyes, your hands, and your ears! I cannot rest! I cannot eat! I cannot drink! I cannot think! I would forsake them all at once, but for the need of our people. Brother Past, won't you take your hands back? And Brother Future, won't you take back your ears?"

The Oracles of Past and Future looked glumly at each other. "We are sorry," they both said. "But we are happy as we are."

The Oracle of the Present gnashed his teeth and pulled his hair, throwing himself at the feet of his brothers, begging them to take back what he stole. "I cannot go on like this!" he wailed. "It will destroy me!"

His brothers were at odds with themselves. For though they hated to see their brother suffer, he had brought this upon himself, and if they relieved him of his suffering, they would lose the pleasures they had gained. No solution could be found.

Finally, the three brothers went to the Fox King, the wisest of all animals. The Fox King looked at the brothers. "You were granted a great gift by God! You were tasked with guiding nagual through their lives and death. And yet here you are, squabbling like children."

The brothers were shamed, for the Fox King was right. "You are right," said the Oracle of the Present, "and it is all my fault. I was jealous when I should have been joyous. Now I come to repent."

"Then I declare that your penance is to perform the stolen duties on top of your own duties!" the Fox Kind angrily declared.

All three brothers cried out. "No! That is not fair!"

The Fox King glared at them in anger. "You come to me for my judgment, and then immediately reject it! Why waste my time?"

The brothers cowered. "We thought your verdict would make us all happy."

"The fairest judgment is not the one that will bring the most happiness. But if you insist on a happy judgment, I will render it. Just be warned that it may cause strife in the future."

The brothers looked at one another. "Brother, will the Fox King's judgment cause strife in the future?" they asked the Oracle of the Present.

The Oracle of Present considered the question and immediately knew the answer. "The judgment will make us happy," he said.

"Then here is my ruling! The ability to know the Past, Present, and Future shall still be held by one Oracle. Yet with each new day, the ability will pass to a new brother. The other two brothers may do whatever they wish, though they must always remain close, while the third answers all questions posed to him."

The brothers all smiled and clapped their hands at the judgment. In thanks, they bestowed a token of power on the Fox King. They then returned to their home, where they sit to this day, answering questions.

Cassius tapped his chin thoughtfully. "And you're sure they're right?"

"Always," Kaida said solemnly. "Well, as long as you ask the right Oracle."

Cassius quirked an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"Well, like I told you, there's one Oracle who knows everything. But before you can ask him, you have to figure out which one he is. You get to ask each one a question to determine if they're the real Oracle or not. And if you mess up and ask the wrong Oracle, you'll get the wrong answer."

"That part wasn't in the story," he pointed out. "And if you ask me, it sounds pretty shady."

Kaida's expression twisted to consternation. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, what if they don't have any powers at all? Any time they make a lucky guess, they pretend they can see the future. But any time they mess up, they just claim you asked the wrong one! It's like cold reading, where so-called psychics just make educated guesses and people who want to believe fill in the blanks for them."

Kaida looked away, her face turning upset. "Sometimes, I've wished that were true myself. But you're not the only person who's a skeptic Cass. Plenty of people have had very specific questions answered. And even if I have no proof to give you, sometimes you need to have faith. I mean, what proof do you have that I have the soul of a dragon?"

Cassius blushed. "Well, that's different. That's me trusting you. But believing some old men who I've never met just because they say so? I don't trust that."

Kaida smiled and she hugged him. "Then trust me when I say they do, Cass."

He was too surprised by her hug to hug her back. It was only once she pulled away that he recovered. "Ok, I trust you." Then a thought hit him. "Wait, did you say you've already asked your question?"

"Yeah," she responded sheepishly.

"You can ask them again, right? I mean, you're a Princess."

"No. I can't break the rules. You'll have to ask them. You're the only one I trust to do it."

He smiled, laughed, and nodded as his chest swelled with pride. "I'm glad you think so. So what did you ask?"

She blushed and turned away. "I can't tell you. It's private."

"I thought you trusted me," he said. Seeing her cringe, he immediately added, "I'm not serious. If you want to keep it to yourself, you have every right. But you'll know I'll find out sooner or later." He put his arm around her hip and pulled her close. "I'm getting all sorts of secrets out of you lately."

She smiled, her blush vanishing. She threw her arms around him and laughed, before burying herself against his shoulder. Her laughs quickly degenerated into sobs. She started to fall to her knees, but Cassius held her tight.

"It'll be ok," he murmured. "We'll figure all this out. I believe in you." Her tears lessened, though his words were as much to reassure himself as her. He looked around the great hall, until his eyes fell on the corpse of Airyu. He suppressed a shudder. Through everything, Kaida had been leading him. But now she seemed lost.

After a moment, she pulled herself to her feet and stiffly wiped her nose. "Cass, could you leave me alone for a minute? I have something to do." She was staring at the body of Airyu in anguish. He quietly left the great hall, sure it would be the last time he would ever see an actual dragon.

Outside, he was pitched into darkness again. Once his eyes adapted to the low light pouring from the chamber, he could see the faintest outlines of smoothed walls and hanging tapestries. He squinted at them, trying to make out details. Though they were all alien to him, he wished he could see more. He hoped that one day, when everything had been fixed, he and Kaida could come back here and he'd be allowed to look over them each in detail.

A sudden rumble split the air behind him. He leapt forward in surprise as chips of rock pelted his back. Kaida stumbled out of the chamber and fell forward. He grabbed her and eased her to the floor as the chamber collapsed, dust and rubble splashing through the doors. The light was snuffed out with a final rumble.

Kaida's fingers intertwined with his. "Are you ready to go?" she asked. It took him a moment to realize she was speaking, her voice was so weak.

"Are you alright?" he asked.

"Yeah," she answered, her voice already regaining some of its strength. "I collapsed the chamber. Sealed it off. Father never left that chamber, so it's fitting that he'll be buried there."

"You blew it up? I didn't know you could do that."

A weak laugh escaped her. "I can't. I knocked the pillars down. They kept it stable. And, as you can tell, it took a lot out of me." She tried to stand, but her knees wobbled and she collapsed back into him.

"Do you want me to carry you?" he asked.

She threw an arm around his shoulder. "No. But you can support me. That's more than enough."

He nodded as she leaned all her weight into him. Together, they stumbled through the darkness and exited the cramped cavern into the bright, untamed wilderness.

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