The Dragon's Key: Chapter 11

Kaida slept. Cassius stood watch over her, until his legs complained, then he sat next to her. He kept his eyes on the trees, occasionally glancing back at the cave entrance. He had searched for the bodies of the agents, but they were gone. Reynard had been so insistent upon disposing of them, so he told himself that Reynard had burned them. But doubt still lingered and even if he had seen them finished off, he would have kept watch. He didn't trust Reynard, especially now that he knew where his loyalties didn't lie.

Kaida's sleep was so deep that he could barely see her chest rising and falling with shallow breaths. He fought the urge to hold her hand. Instead, he watched her. Her face was peaceful and soft, unlike the worry-tinged facade of resolve she'd worn in the cavern. Every so often, a fleeting emotion would pass over her face or her lips would move slightly, as if she were in conversation with someone in her dreams.

Though he struggled to remain vigilant, his mind wandered. To the times he and Kaida had shared. They seemed so distant and intangible, as if they were something he had imagined. There was the time they'd promised not to buy Christmas gifts for each other, but did anyway. Or the time they'd gotten so drunk in DC, neither of them could drive. They'd rented a hotel room together and he slept on the floor until she convinced him it would be alright to sleep in the bed, as long as he behaved himself.

How real had they been? Kaida had been hiding a huge piece of herself from him. He mulled it over. He wasn't angry or hurt that she'd kept it from him. Instead, he was wistful, wondering how different things might have been if only he'd known. Would things have even been different? The memories seemed so incomplete now, knowing what he did.

His entire life up until he was given the Key seemed like a dream. As his eyelids drooped heavily, he wondered if he was dreaming now.

He opened his eyes. A woman smiled at him from across a table. "Lost in thought?" she asked. She seemed so familiar. He knew her, though he did not recognize her.

"Of course, Princess," he answered. His voice was not his own. Princess? But she was not Kaida. She was older, more mature. "The proposal is interesting."

"Do you think the Snakes will go for it?" she asked. "I mean, they so clearly want more power." Yet everything about her was Kaida. The way she held her hand against her chin as she looked at him. How she leaned back slightly in her seat and had a somewhat distant look in her eyes, like she was always thinking.

He sighed and shook his head. "Master Naja will never be happy with his place in this world," he answered. It was not his voice. He knew it was not. But it felt like his voice. It was not a stranger's voice. It had been his voice at one time. "The task is to give him enough small victories that he is satisfied without giving him real advancement. Eventually, he will be gone, and perhaps a more pliable leader will be in place."

"Hmm," she murmured. She plucked a meatball from her plate and absently popped it into her mouth. "Is this enough though? Or is it too much? Moving their chair up the table, nearer the head. It's just such a symbolic thing. It shows favor but grants no practical claim."

He laughed at her. At her, he realized, not at her words. This woman was definitely not Kaida and he was definitely not Cassius, even though he felt like both of them were almost the same. Them in a different lifetime, perhaps. "Princess, you have your head too firmly stuck in the human world. Oh, but your predecessor would understand. I sadly knew her only for a few years before she left us, but she was an amazing woman. She would understand."

The Princess looked away with chagrin. She reached for her glass, but found it empty. He smiled and shook his head. He waved to a small servant boy, a shock of red hair sticking wildly from his head. "You there, come here."

The boy hurried over. "At your service, sire," the boy said, his head low.

"Get the Princess another drink, will you. And be swift about it."

"Of course sire." The boy hurried off.

The Princess cleared her throat. "Well, regardless, I worry that the Snakes will not be satisfied with such a small boon. What if it only insults them?"

"Naja is a blunt creature. He will accept it. He has no other choice."

"I hope you are right," she muttered.

He started to say something when a wolf howled. He looked around, but aside from the servants, they were alone in the room. "Do you hear that?" he asked.

A wolf howled again, almost in front of him. He bolted upright from his seat.

Cassius awoke and found the wolves only a few feet away. Fangs bared and ears back, they slowly circled him. A cold sweat broke over his body. He looked down to Kaida, who still slept serenely. He shook her lightly, trying to wake her without startling the wolves. She remained unresponsive.

One of the wolves howled and more emerged from the woods. The moon hung high in the sky, casting a pale light. He swallowed hard. He had no weapon and nothing to frighten the wolves. "Easy," he said, but his voice broke. The wolves snarled at him and one snapped its teeth.

He inched back in fear. The wolves drew closer. There were a dozen of them now, slowly moving closer to him. Before he realized it, he had been pushed away from Kaida and the wolves were almost on top of her.

His eyes went wide as one lowered its head to her face and began to smell her. He leapt to his feet and the wolves froze.

A fire was burning in his stomach. The wolves all turned to face him and growled. He took a step forward. "Stop!" he shouted, surprising himself with the conviction in his voice. "You will leave, now!"

The wolves didn't move, their lips still drawn back in threat. The fire inside him was growing hotter, as if it would consume him from within. It was almost painful. "I am Cassius Clay Hewitt. I am the Keybearer!" he shouted, not knowing where the words came from. But it seemed as if the wolves understood him, as they all took a step back. "You will do us no harm. You will leave us now and you will not return."

The wolves did not react immediately, as if they were waiting for something else. He took a step forward. "Now!" he shouted. One of the wolves turned and broke for the woods. Seconds later, the others followed.

He remained standing for a few minutes, the burning sensation threatening to overwhelm him. Then he dropped to his knees, all energy fleeing him. He dry heaved, tasking acid in his mouth. His head swam. He tried to stand, but every muscle failed him.

He fought to remain conscious, but he had no strength left.

"You performed admirably, Rolf," Reynard said.

Rolf growled, rubbing his hairy arms even though it was not cold. "Who was that man?" he asked. "The one who said he was the Keybearer and scared off my wolves?"

"You answered your own question. He is the Keybearer."

"Him? I have never seen him before," Rolf said. "He does not have the scent of a nagual!"

Reynard smirked. "I know his scent well. But that is not pertinent. Now we are finished here. You may leave."

"Are you certain?" Rolf asked. "Those two are still alive. I failed my task."

Reynard laughed. "Better men than you have attempted to kill them and failed, Rolf. Your task was not truly to slay them, but merely to provide a test for the Keybearer."

"And did he pass his test?"

"He lives still. That is enough, for the time being."

"And my payment?"

"A favor for a favor. You may call it in now, but if you exercise scant patience, then you will find me with the power to offer much more to you."

Rolf frowned and snarled, but nodded. "Very well. I shall wait."

"Good. Now be off. I have other important matters to attend to and I do not wish you present for them."

Rolf gave Reynard a long look, then turned and vanished into the forest. When Reynard could smell his scent no longer, he sighed and slumped against a tree. "That was harrowing."

"I knew the boy would succeed," King Fox answer, emerging from the undergrowth.

Reynard fell to a knee, his head bowed. "I believe you put too much faith in him, my liege."

"I must place my faith in him if things are to fall into place," King Fox said. "How is the venom?"

Reynard sucked in a sharp breath. "It is bearable. Had I known the witch's antidote was so slow acting, I would have never allowed myself to be bitten."

"It was the only way to ensure we rid ourselves of them."

Reynard stiffly shook his head. "Yet I fear the snakes and what they will do. I was not given leave to deliver the coup de grace and when I returned, they had vanished. I fear they may prove to be the cast stone, the ripples affecting our entire plan."

"Our plan is an ocean compared to them. What can their ripples do?" King Fox bobbed his shoulders, his version of a shrug. "Still, even if they wish to act, Master Naja will not allow it. We have nothing to worry about from those two."

Reynard bowed his head, making a show of humility to hide the doubt in his eyes. "Yes, my liege."

"I have further preparing to do. Go and find succor with one of the Houses. You will not need to be told what to do next. It shall be obvious."

"Yes, my liege." Reynard looked up, but King Fox had already vanished. Reynard waited a few moments, cast a glance back at the clearing where the Keybearer and Princess lay, then departed.

"Wake up. Cassius, wake up."

The cool morning air flooded into Cassius's lungs as he bolted up. He looked around wildly, blearily searching. As his head cleared, his eyes came to rest on Kaida. She was kneeling in front of him, her hand on his shoulder, an easy smile on her face. He let out a deep breath and touched his forehead.

The sun was shining bright in the morning sky. "Good morning," she said. "I'm surprised you were asleep. I thought you'd be keeping watch over me."

"I did," he said, noting the subtle disappointment in her voice. "But there were wolves."

She quirked an eyebrow. "Wolves?" She did not sound convinced.

"Yes. They came out of the woods and circled around. I managed to get them to leave us alone. I think I passed out after they left."

"Wolves," she said again. "Are you sure you weren't dreaming?"

He considered it. "I don't think I was. I'm sure it was real." He looked into her eyes and repeated, "It was real. There were wolves here. I told them I was the Keybearer and they backed down."

She stared back into his eyes, then closed hers and nodded. "Yeah, you're not lying. Wolves. That's crazy."

"I tried to wake you up, but you wouldn't."

"I wasn't exactly sleeping," she said. "Well, maybe for the second half of it. But the first half was more like..."

"A coma?" he suggested.

"Hibernation," she corrected. She stood slowly and stretched, bathing her face in the morning sun. Though she had slept on the ground, she had not a hair out of place. There were no smudges of dirt or dust on her face.

"I think I had a little of that myself," he said, rubbing his eyes and clearing the last vestiges of sleep from them. He stood beside her and looked around. "So where now? Which way to the Oracles?"

She lifted a finger toward the south. "It's not as long as it took to get here. Two days at most. The road to Oracle City is easy, they say."

Cassius stared out over the never-ending, virgin forest. "At least my legs have gotten used to walking," he said. "They haven't been sore in days." She saw her trying to contain a smirk. "What's so funny?"

She gave up trying and beamed widely. "Oh, nothing. Let's get going." She walked off and Cassius fell into step beside her.

After only a few minutes, his stomach growled. "Hungry?" she asked.

"Obviously," he answered, scratching the gritty stubble on his chin. He suddenly realized it had been over a day since he'd eaten anything. As if on cue, they emerged into a clearing with an old picnic-table sitting in the middle. "Ominous," Cassius noted.

"Fortunate," Kaida responded. "I didn't realize we were near the table, but I knew it was out here somewhere. Come on, let's sit down and eat and talk."

"It looks kinda rickety." Kaida sat down and crossed her arms at him. "That doesn't mean a thing. You could walk through the monkey house during feces-throwing time and emerge spotless. I could walk into a sterilized operating room on the moon and a pigeon would come crap on me."

"You sure know how to charm a girl." Cassius slowly sat on the bench, which creaked under him as he settled down. Once he was sure it wouldn't shoot painful splinters into him, he relaxed and took one of the granola bars Kaida had pulled from her purse. As soon as he unwrapped it, he shoved the entire thing into his mouth, barely chewing before swallowing.

His stomach growled even louder as he grabbed another and repeated the process, his hunger ravenous. Two more and a bag full of trail mix followed, before he washed it all down by guzzling a bottle of water. Kaida was staring at him.

"I guess I was really hungry," he said sheepishly.

She slowly unwrapped a granola bar and took a bite of it. "What's happening to you, Cass?" she murmured.

"I don't know," he admitted. "Is it the Key? Does it do things to people? I've been having dreams. I think they're about other Keybearers. Is that normal?"

She closed her eyes and chewed, swallowing heavily before letting out a sigh. "I don't know," she admitted. "No one ever told me about it. The last Keybearer certainly didn't mention anything. But that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Just that he never felt the need to share."

"Tell me about him," Cassius said.

"I didn't know him well," Kaida admitted. "His name was Caleb of House Hound. He was a young man, but fiercely loyal to my father. He was not much of a thinker, kind of dull and very straightforward with no imagination. But he was ready to lay down his life for my father and my house. And a fighter... My God, what a fighter he was. I saw him practicing a few times. He fought three Tigers to a standstill. It was amazing."

"So, the Keybearer is someone who is supposed to be able to fight and protect you."

Kaida noted the threatened tone in his voice and she smiled at him. "Not always. Caleb's predecessor was an old man named Rasheed. He was more like you, I think. I only met him once, when I was a very little girl, and he passed the Key to Caleb."

"When I scared off those wolves, I felt like I was on fire," Cassius said. "Like my insides were about to burn away. It was terrifying, but amazing. What is the Key? Is it a thing? Something magical?"

She shook her head. "No one has seen it. Not physically, at least. It passes from Keybearer to Keybearer unseen. I can feel it in you, though. But just barely, and sometimes it seems like I am imagining it. Like in the dark, when sometimes you see brief flickers of color. Maybe they're not real, just your mind playing tricks on you."

"Can any nagual feel it?" Cassius asked.

"No," she said. "Not yet, at least. If you carried it for weeks, maybe. It takes time. I am the Princess of House Dragon. I can sense it more closely than most."

"But some others beside you could tell?" he pressed. "Like Reynard? Or those two snakes that have been stalking us?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. Reynard, perhaps. Someone like Reynard, maybe. The snakes? Doubtful. Master Naja probably, were he here. Others who are very old or very powerful."

"I see."

They sat there quietly for a long minute, Kaida nursing another bite of granola. "Are you afraid?" she finally asked.

"Yes," he admitted, "but not from what you think. I'm not afraid of being hurt or... or killed as long as it's to protect you. Maybe I'm fit to be the Keybearer after all, because of that. I'm afraid of failing."

Cassius couldn't read the emotion on Kaida's face, though he could tell she was fighting back tears. She walked around the table and hugged him from behind. "Thank you," she whispered in his ear. He could smell the strong strawberry scent of shampoo in her hair. His stomach felt warm again, but not the burning pain of the night before. It was pleasant, soothing, and he could feel his apprehension melting away.

"Kaida, I have to tell you something," he began as she pulled away. "I - "

She held up a finger and shushed him. "No," she said. "You don't need to tell me anything, Cass." She was smiling at him, but he could tell it was sad. "We need to get moving, unless you're still hungry."

He blinked and the warmth dissipated. Without it, he felt far colder than he had before. "Alright," he said and stood.

By the time night fell, Cassius's legs were once again sore. Not nearly as much as when they'd first started, but enough to concern him. He tried to ignore it at first, explaining it to himself as a result of the stress of the previous night's encounter with the wolves. However, Kaida was unusually introspective and quiet through the day, leaving him plenty of time to ponder it.

When they eventually stopped to rest, Cassius broached the subject to Kaida. "Hey Kaida," he whispered, even though there was no one around to hear him. The cacophony of cicadas nearly drowned him out.

"Yes?" she whispered back, her own whisper cutting through the chorus like a knife.

"My legs are sore," he said.

She was silent for a moment. There was a rustling of underbrush as she moved closer to him, so close he could feel her warm breath on his face. "I'm sorry Cass. I didn't mean to lie to you."

"So you were numbing them even when we had our bet," he said.

"Yes. I don't know why, if that's the next question." She paused again. "I didn't really want you to win. But I could tell you were going to push through it no matter how bad it got. So I figured it would be better if I just made it easier on you."

She laid a hand on his shoulder, causing him to flinch. It was still shocking how well she could see in the dark. "You should have just told me. I would have given up the bet if you'd just told me."

"I know." He fully expected her to move away, but she stayed, laying where she was. She even left her hand on his shoulder. Once he realized she was going to sleep right next to him all night, his heart started to race.

"I went to the Oracles when I was thirteen," she said. "I was just a silly little girl. Everyone tried to tell me I shouldn't go to them unless it was important, but I was sure it was. No one could dissuade me, and my father told them I could ask the Oracles whatever I wished."

"Why are you telling me this?" he asked.

"Just shut up and listen." She sighed, the warmth washing over his face in the cool night air. The hairs on his neck stood on end. "I asked each Oracle the same question. 'What happened to the teddy bear I got for Christmas when I was seven?' It was something only I would know, something they couldn't guess at. I thought it was terribly clever, but I suppose it's the kind of thing most people ask them."

"You accidentally ripped it, so you rolled it in the dirt, threw it in the dog house, and blamed it on your dog."

Kaida gasped. "I told you?"

"Yeah. We were talking about imaginary friends we had as kids."

"You remember the strangest things, Cass," she murmured. After a pause, she continued, "They each answered in a different way. One said it was in my toy chest, which was just completely wrong. Another said I had made mischief with it, which was technically true. The third said I regretted what had happened to it, which was also true. I wasn't so clever after all. I finally decided the third Oracle was the truer one and asked him my question.

"I asked, 'Will my true love and I live happily ever after?' Again, I thought it was so clever of a question. Tell me about who I would fall in love with and what would happen with us. I was so sure it would be a positive answer too." She stopped and took a deep breath, a shiver passing through her. He cupped her hand in his.

"I'll always remember exactly what he said. 'You will die young in your true love's arms and he will seek death because of it.' I ran out of the room crying. I locked myself in a room and cried for days and days. No one could coax me out, not even my father's commands."

"I don't blame you," Cassius said. "But how do you know you asked the right Oracle? Maybe it was the second one. Or even the first one, somehow."

"I like to imagine that," she answered, bittersweet dripping from her words. "But I know in my heart that it was right. That was what was so terrifying. And even if I was wrong, could I take that chance? Could I do that to someone, much less someone who was supposed to be my true love?

"No. I told myself I would rather die without knowing love than do that to someone I loved. I locked up my feelings inside me. I never got close to someone I thought I might fall in love with. And if I noticed them falling in love with me, I pushed them away, to spare their hurt. I..." She choked back her words and couldn't continue.

It seemed as if the entire world went silent with her, waiting for her to speak again. But she would not, even after several minutes passed. The silence was painful, but Cassius couldn't find the words to break it.

Instead, he reached out and pulled her close to him, wrapping her in his arms. The sounds of the world slowly faded back into existence as she lay against him, unmoving but unresisting. He could feel the heat in his belly again. It was the Key, he was sure of it. Unraveling inside him, unlocking his very being. He wondered if Kaida could feel it.

Eventually, she extracted herself from his arms. The two fell asleep, apart from each other.

Cassius was on his knees, looking down at a body in his hands. "We have to go, Lorne," some one urged. The body was covered in blood. She wore a white dress and her face was covered in a veil. He feared beneath was the face of Kaida, but he could not bring himself to lift the veil and look.

"No, King Basil, I cannot," he answered. "I have to stay with her. I have to keep her safe."

"She is already dead!" Basil replied. Cassius looked up into Basil's face. Basil was just a man, youthful and strong. He would have been carefree, with an ever-present smile, Cassius realized, were they not in such a situation.

"She's my wife," Cassius said. "I can't leave her."

"There's nothing you can do for her!" Basil urged. "Please, Lorne, you are my closest friend! If you stay, you'll die!"

"And follow my wife into the grave," he muttered. "Maybe it is a fitting place for me, who has failed so thoroughly to protect her."

"I will not leave you," Basil said. "I will face down the enemy by your side and die with you if you insist on staying. Will you abandon your duty to me as well? And when we both perish, will you allow the Key to fall into their hands?"
"My duty is already undone. I have no duty left. If you stay to die at my side, then you are more the fool than I."

Basil sighed. "Then I have no choice." He drew a sword and brought the pommel down heavily against Cassius's head, stunning him. His grip slipped on the body and she slipped away from him as he was dragged across the ground.

He reached back for her, but his fingers only briefly brushed hers before they were pulled away. "No!" he screamed, his head still swimming and vision darkening. "No!"

A loud wail cut through the night air. King Fox's ears twitched and he looked down, solemnly. The wail was one he remembered all too clearly. He wished for a moment he could forget it.

Yet at the same time, the sound brought him vindication. It meant things were proceeding as planned. It would not be long before the door would be unlocked. His gambit had lost him much material and had yet to improve his position.

"Soon," he said to himself. "Soon all my long work will come to fruition." His words were cold, but he could not even feel their chill any more.

A shudder passed through Krait. Something primal had stirred somewhere distant and he could feel it. It was fear, yet not the fear he felt of Master Naja. It was deeper; darker. But he could afford it no further thought.

Master Naja's antechamber mirrored the man himself. The entire thing was pure, white marble, so white it seemed to shine. Massive columns stretched from floor to ceiling, each engraved with intricate patterns and designs. Plush pillows cushioned couches of stone in vivid, dark reds and purples.

"What do you think Master Naja will do with us?" Adder asked. Hidden behind Adder's scowl was genuine worry. They had failed before, but never twice. No one had failed Master Naja twice, not those still able to speak of it.

Krait still couldn't fathom how Reynard had discovered the antivenin. It had been hidden so well. None could have stumbled upon it by accident, and he and Adder had made sure no one followed them to it. Something else was working on Reynard's behalf. That worried him far more than whatever punishment Master Naja would inflict upon him.

Luckily for him, something had been working on his side as well. After being slaughtered by the Princess a second time, he had been ready to accept death. His own actions had brought him down this road. His death would be his atonement.

As he had lay there on the cold cave floor, a brush of fur returned his senses. He strained his eyes open, seeing a raccoon staring at him. It was identical to the one he had killed only days earlier. The creature offered itself to him, a sacrifice for his resurrection.

It had been enough for the both of them, and he and Adder fled immediately. Right into the fangs of Master Naja, who could inflict worse punishments than death.

"Does it matter what I think?" Krait answered with a shrug. "We failed and Master Naja will punish us." He gave a sarcastic smirk. "And his punishment, it will be just, because we are his and is the only justice in our lives."

The unease in Adder's scowl lessened. "Thank you," he said sincerely for the first time Krait had known him. "You are right."

Krait rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses. He was only sure that he would not be put to death. Master Naja did not kill his servants. He sent them to find their own deaths instead, on missions that would ensure they did not return. But he and Adder had survived such missions before; it was how they stood here now. He cringed at the thought, but took solace in the chance of continued existence.

The door to Master Naja's chamber swung open. Both men stiffened, masking their feelings behind expressions of calm. Once Krait realized it was only Elaphe, the young creamy-skinned woman who was Master Naja's retainer, he relaxed and leaned against a column. Adder remained stiff, but allowed his scowl to deepen.

"Master Naja will not be seeing you," she said with a pleasant, bubbly tone. "Will there be anything else?"

"Not seeing us?" Adder blurted. "Why not? We must discuss the - "

"Master Naja understands you believe your presence is important," she said. Her cheery smile never left her face. Her teeth were straight and porcelain, matching her hair and body. There was a calm attractiveness to her, though no one - snake, nagual, or otherwise - would find her beautiful. There was no derision in her voice. Her joy was genuine. "However, Master Naja has no further need of you. You should have died in the hall of the Dragon King. Master Naja chooses to proceed as if you had." She walked purposefully back into Master Naja's chamber, before pausing at the door. She turned, her expression as if she had just remembered some nearly lost kernel of wisdom. "Oh, and you are both free to leave. Permanently. Have a nice day!" She flashed an even wider smile, bowed slightly, and retreated into Master Naja's sanctum.

It was the former-Agent Krait who finally broke the silence. "Well shit, that was unexpected."

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