The Dragon's Key: Chapter 12

Passing pedestrians tossed change at Krait's feet, but he didn't care. He was too disoriented to find it offensive or snatch it up. Master Naja no longer owned him. He was no longer a member of House Snake.

The two had been ejected from the House by several large, burly, angry men. If they'd been of a mind to, the men would have never managed to even touch them. Master Naja kept them for show, not for function. But the two had barely begun to digest what had happened. Neither had managed to do so yet, though Krait seemed further along than Adder.

Adder simply lay limp where he had been tossed, catatonic. Eventually Krait dragged him from the street onto the curb where they now sat. The inconspicuous door that led to the manor sat only a few feet away, nestled into a row of street-side shops. Krait briefly entertained the thought of storming back in with animated fury.

Adder whimpered lightly and an old lady pulled out a five dollar bill and shoved it in his face. "Here you go son, you need this more than I do."

A dangerous flash crossed Adder's eyes and Krait had to quickly snatch the bill away. "Thank you ma'am," he said. "You're really helping me and my brother out."

The woman did a double take between the Adder's scowl and Krait's pocked face, then smiled. "You use that to get something to eat, ok?" she said as she walked off.

Krait sat back on the curb. "Why did you take that?" Adder grumbled.

"Why not? We're nonentities in our own House now. We can try to beg our way into service with another House, but who will trust us? So our only other option is to start over out here, in the real world." He waved his arm at the city around them. He couldn't remember which it was.

The broken scowl on Adder's face remained. "I hate those choices equally," he huffed. "I do not like them one bit."

Krait shrugged and stretched his arms. "What choice do we have. Doesn't matter what you like. We gotta do something." He adjusted his teashades and looked into the sky. The sun felt good on his face. He closed his eyes and let the warmth bathe over him.

"Yes, we must do something," Adder answered. There was a deadly hiss in his voice. Krait ignored it; he felt too good to care. "We must keep hunting the Keybearer."

"Why should we do that? You want to get killed by the Princess again?"

"No." Now he, too, was standing. "But if we prove ourselves, Master Naja will be forced to take us back!"

Krait cracked his eyes open. The sun had passed behind a cloud. "That's possible. If we capture the Key, or kill that bastard Reynard, he could barely deny us. But how would we even do it? We don't even know where they are now."

"The Oracles!" Adder declared. "They can tell us where to find them and how to kill them."

Krait sighed. The idea had merit. It was better than begging. He clutched the crinkled bill in his fist. "Alright. We'll go to the Oracles. But first, I gotta go make a purchase." He walked toward the liquor store, eyeing the cigarettes prices.

The morning after his dream did not go well for Cassius. Fatigue clouded his mind, leaving him in a constant fog. Every time he blinked, he wanted to doze off. The only thing that kept him awake was the fear of further dreams. Even though the woman in the dream lacked Kaida's face, every time he thought about it, she was the one he clutched in his arms.

Apparently, he had been crying out in his sleep, because he finally woke to find Kaida crouched over him, glaring. "I was this close to cramming leaves and dirt into your mouth to shut you up," she said. Her hair was a mess and dark bags circled her eyes. She jabbed him roughly in the ribs. "Let's go."

The two gathered their things and ate a brief breakfast of granola bars and bottled water. By the time they began moving, her hair shimmered in the morning light and the bags were gone, but she was still clearly exhausted. He remained stiff and sore, no amount of stretching would get the tightness out. He sluggishly treaded behind her, struggling to keep up even though she was moving slowly as well.

They kept quiet for several hours. The struggle to stay awake kept him from forming a coherent sentence. Kaida yawned and rubbed her eyes in the bright sunlight. Eventually, they came across a well-worn path through the forest. When they met a fork in the road, Kaida took one look at the tree lying across the right path and headed down the left.

A few moments later, Cassius couldn't stand it any more. "Can we please stop?" he asked.

Kaida ground to a halt. She held a dreary expression and he worried she'd insist on continuing. "I thought you'd never ask," she sighed. She plopped onto the ground akimbo, stretching like a cat and letting out a low growl. "We'll stop for just a..." She trailed off into mumbling. Cassius strained to hear, but the mumbling had become snoring.

He smiled to himself. "You look so beautiful, lying in the middle of those flowers." He fell to the ground, asleep before he hit.

Two faces peeked through the underbrush at the bodies lying in the circle of flowers. The faces were dark, tanned, and savage. "It worked!" one whispered. He was a boy in face, but a man in body. He was tall and muscular, wearing a breachcloth and leggings with his chest bare. His tangled mane of blond hair hung to just below his shoulders.

"Of course it worked!" the other answered, not bothering to keep her voice low. She was older than her brother, but no less fierce. She had graceful muscles and long, curly blond hair that reached the middle of her back. She wore a simple buckskin leather halter top and skirt, leaving her tight stomach exposed. She flashed a smile of large, white teeth.

She knelt beside the two bodies and rolled them over. She frowned at what she saw. Both were scrawny things. No more than skin and bones to her. But they were hers and that was all that mattered. Her catch. The first she'd had in over a year.

"Lavi, they're so skinny," the boy said, towering over her. "Are they really good enough?"

Lavi gave him a sour pout. "Of course they are," though she doubted it. The real huntresses would never take a pair as sickly as these two. At least, not in plentiful times. As it was, these two had been the first anyone had caught in months. "Come on Leander, help me get them up."

She slung the girl over her shoulder, cringing as her hip poked into Lavi's shoulder. She crinkled her nose. "She reeks," she said. "Like rotten fruit or something."

Leander leaned over and sniffed the girl's hair. "Fresh strawberries," he said.

"Well, it still smells bad," Lavi said. She shifted the girl's weight. It was almost nothing to her. She'd carried bigger loads all the time.

Leander grabbed the boy and hefted him with a slight grunt. "He's heavier than he looks. And he smells like burning metal."

"Stupid, metal doesn't burn."

Leander shrugged and suddenly the boy let out a gasp and his eyes flew open. "I'm sorry, I - " he began, before it was cut off as he slammed into the ground. Leander leapt backwards from him, falling into a crouch.

Lavi was too stunned to react at all. She watched, mouth agape, as the boy rolled on the ground, clutching his back where he'd hit the ground, moaning in pain. "Dammit, Kaida, you didn't need to drop me like that!" he groaned as he sat up. When he saw Lavi, he froze, eyes wide. When he noticed she was carrying the girl, he scrambled to his feet, but Leander tackled him to the ground.

The boy was half Leander's size, but put up a fierce fight. He swung wildly, striking Leander in the face and chest. Leander tried to straddle his chest, but the ferocity of the boy's assault succeeded in knocking him off. Lavi dropped the girl and leapt at him, grabbing him by the shoulders and pinning him down.

She was shocked at how strong the boy was. Though he looked soft and fairly unfit, his struggles were frantic. "Help me out here!" she shouted to Leander as she struggled to keep him down. He kicked his legs and rolled, trying to get her off him.

"Let go of me!" the boy shouted. His eyes flashed dangerously and Lavi almost released him, but Leander grabbed the boy's head, lifted it off the ground, then slammed it down. There was a thud and the boy's eyes went glassy. He thrashed a few more times, weakly spasming, before finally blacking out.

After a few minutes, Lavi finally let go of him. "Is he dead?" Leander asked.

Lavi shook her head, breathing heavily. "No," she said. "You just knocked him out."

Leander pulled away from the boy and gave him a wary look. "What if he wakes up again?" he asked.

"I don't think he will," she said. "You hit him pretty hard. Look, he's already starting to get a big knot back there."

"But he shouldn't have woken up at all!" Leander objected. "The inaguma flowers should have knocked them both out and kept them knocked out!"

Lavi swallowed hard. Leander was right, of course. The ring of inconspicuous flowers let off pollen that was capable of knocking out anything and keeping it knocked out for days at a time. There should no way the boy could wake up, unless he'd taken the counteragent like Lavi and Leander had.

"We can tie him up," she said. "And stick some of the flowers in his face. He only woke up once you picked him up, away from the flowers. Maybe that'll do the trick."

Leander looked unconvinced, but did as his sister told him. Once he finished, they headed back toward the village. It was nearly supper time once they reached it. Lavi took the lead, proudly marching toward the center. One of the village boys, about Lavi's age, sneered when he saw her coming. "Have fun picking flowers?" he called. He was larger than Leander, heavily muscular and with a strong chin. His hair, similarly tangled blond, reached between his shoulder blades.

"I don't see you with any fresh meat, Lencho!" she yelled back mockingly. She turned and displayed the girl hanging over her shoulder.

Lencho perked up and bounded over, growing more excited when he saw Leander carrying another captive. "Fresh meat!" he exclaimed, prodding the girl. "A bit stringy," his cursory evaluation decided, though he seemed no less enthusiastic. "It'll be good to have fresh meat again." He turned Leander and started to poke the boy, but Leander backed up and bared his teeth. "Whoa, what's wrong?"

"Be careful with him," Leander said.

Lencho narrowed his eyes and looked closely at Leander's face. "Is he the one that gave you that black eye?" Lencho asked, grinning widely. "I didn't think a little thing like that could do so much! You must be softer than I thought."

Leander growled softly. "Don't make fun," he warned. "This boy woke up after the pollen had him. We had to knock him out a second time."

Lencho smirked and turned to Lavi, but her sullen face confirmed Leander's story. Lencho let out a soft whistle. "Well, that's something new." He crossed his thick arms over his bare chest. "But it must mean he's strong. That's good."

"Well now, what do we have here?" a voice boomed across the village center. Ari, one of the village men, made his way over to them. Lavi gave a stupid smile, eliciting frowns from both Leander and Lencho.

Ari stood in front of the three, his hands on his hips, subtly flexing his arms to make them larger. Even relaxed, Ari was a mountain of a man, muscles piled on top of muscles under bronzed skin. Small scars crisscrossed his chest, back, and shoulders, trophies of past fights. He was over six and a half feet tall, with his bristly brown mane adding several inches.

"We caught fresh meat!" Lavi cooed, taking a step forward to show off the girl. "Me and Leander!"

Ari unleashed a bellow of a laugh and slapped Leander roughly on the back, causing him to stagger forward, eliciting more laughs from Ari. Leander and Lencho exchanged derisive looks, but otherwise said nothing. "They look a little scrawny, but good work! You know where to take it."

"Tocho should see it first," Leander said.

Ari's rugged face darkened, his thick, busy brows furrowed. "Tocho will see them soon enough!" he roared. "Take them now! Or are you going to disrespect your betters!" Leander scowled, but turned to leave regardless. "Wait! Take your sister's catch too. I have some things to discuss with her first."

"Wait, I'll take her," Lencho stepped forward. Lavi shrugged the girl into Lencho's arms. The two of them exchanged sour looks and then walked off.
Ari chuckled at their expressions, but grabbed Lavi by her hair and pulled her toward him. She yelped, less in pain than surprise, though Ari couldn't have cared either way. "Your brother is a disrespectful little whelp." He sneered and leered. "You'll need to make up for his behavior."

She grinned impishly, though she looked away with a blush. Before Ari could go further, a creaking voice called over to them. "What did I hear about a catch?"

Ari growled and pulled his hand away from Lavi as old Tocho hobbled toward them. "The boys took them to storage," Lavi answered respectfully. The village elder leaned heavily on his staff. Despite still having a lean, muscular body and two brilliant blue eyes, old Tocho was worn by age. Liver spots marred the back of his bony hands. His deeply creased skin hung limply from his face and his once brilliant golden mane had faded to a dull, patchy gray. Most noticeable was his atrophied left leg, shrunken and weak from breaking and never properly healing years ago.

"Ah well," Tocho sighed. "I suppose I don't need to see them until the feast. I am old enough that a few hours doesn't mean much."

"A few hours might be all you have left," Ari muttered, just loud enough for Lavi to hear him. She giggled despite herself.

Old Tocho's face scrunched up at the laugh. "Lavi, you are the one who caught them?"

She nodded her head enthusiastically. "Yes, elder Tocho! Leander and I caught them at the inaguma ring. We blocked off the other trails so they had to stumble right through them!"

Tocho smiled and nodded his head. "When I was young, every huntress proved herself with the inaguma. It was a sign of cunning to catch prey that way." Tocho cast a baleful glare at Ari. "Not like now, when it seems like brute strength is all that matters to the pride. If the huntresses knew how to stalk and trick their prey, we wouldn't have gone five months between feasts, that's for sure!"

Ari snorted. "Enough pining for the past, old Tocho. Shouldn't you be setting the preparations for the feast?"

Tocho smiled wryly and nodded. "Why yes, I should. As should our young huntress in training. It is her duty to clean the catch, after all."

Lavi's smile collapsed. "What?" Ari snapped. "She has other things to attend to!"

Tocho's face set with distaste. "And what other things are those?" he growled. "This is the first feast we'll have had in months! You would toss away tradition so carelessly? We need her to clean the catch! She knows how to do it, after all! I know she's done it before."

Lavi's eyes darted back and forth between the faces of the two men. They stared at one another until finally Ari turned away, admitting defeat. "Fine!" he growled. "Let her take care of that silly task! I'll find someone else to attend to my needs."

Tocho turned to walk off, but Ari grabbed him by the shoulder. "You shouldn't test me, old man."

Tocho didn't bother to look at Ari, merely shrugging off his hand in disgust. "You forget yourself, Ari. You may be strong, but I am still this village's elder. You lack wisdom and the support of the rest of the House. As long as I am alive, you will never lead us."

Ari grabbed Tocho's shoulder again, but the elder smacked it away with his cane. "You underestimate me!" Ari growled as Tocho hobbled away. "You underestimate me!" The elder continued walking. Ari spit on the ground, before turning to Lavi. "What are you waiting for! You heard the elder! Get to work!"

Lavi bolted toward her work, leaving Ari to seethe by himself.

Leander and Lencho had just left the storage hut when Lavi came bounding up. "I'm to clean the captives," she told them. "Carry them down to the springs for me."

"Why can't Tiaret do it?" Leander complained. "She's always been the one to clean the captives before."

"I'm the one who caught them," Lavi said, "not Tiaret. She leads the hunts, so when she catches prey in the hunt, she cleans them. But this was my catch, so I'm supposed to clean it." She ran off to gather the other supplies she needed and Lencho stared at her as she went.

Leander kicked him in the shin. "Are you going to grab the girl or gawk at my sister?" he asked. He already had the boy over his shoulder.

Lencho sneered back. "Don't rush me," he grumbled. He lifted the girl as if she were nothing. Her body limply slapped against his back. "Damn, but she's skinny. Have you ever seen a girl so skinny? Do you think she's sick?"

"You think she's bad? Look at this boy." He shook his head sadly. "They'll be enough for the feast, but none of us will fill our bellies." Leander crinkled his nose. "Plus, he smells like burning metal."

The sun had begun to set, casting long shadows over the village. Lencho had to squint against the harsh light. He constantly had to rearrange the girl on his shoulder and, at one point, he realized his hand was over her breasts. Even though he barely noticed them, and she was just prey besides, he guiltily rearranged her again.

A noise from the boy startled both of them. Lencho growled and peered at Leander. "Was he doing that before? When he woke up?"

"No," Leander said. "He just woke up before. Suddenly." There was a hint of worry in his voice.

Lencho forced a laugh. "Don't be a such a baby. He's nothing to worry about. If you could knock him out, I'm sure I can." He sucked in a huge breath. "But I'm sure he won't. It had to just be a fluke." He let out his breath and it turned out to be a worried sigh. He tried to cover it up with a cough, but he was sure Leander had heard it.

Leander said nothing, however, and they continued toward the springs in silence.

Lavi was already in the bubbly waters, floating with her head and shoulders thrusting out. Her clothes lay in a pile a few feet from the springs. Steam rose, reddening Lavi's already dark face. "Took you long enough!" she called before diving below the water.

She emerged at the near shore with a splash. She remained mostly underwater, the tops of her breasts sticking above. "Well?" she snapped at them. "Put them down so I can get started!" She smirked at Lencho. "Or are you having too much fun rubbing her backside?"

Lencho suddenly noticed his hand was firmly on the girl's rear. He dropped her suddenly and she flopped to the stone with a wet slap. "Be careful!" Lavi snapped. "We don't want them hurt!" She pointed at Leander, who was gently placing the boy next to the spring. "See, he's doing it right."

With a shrug, Lencho began to strip the girl. As he pulled off her shirt, the strong stench of strawberries assaulted his nostrils. He crinkled them in disgust and turned away, finishing his task without watching. Once he was finished, he spared a glance at her naked body. It was not out of desire; she was exactly all the things he found disgusting in normal human women - soft and scrawny.

But he could not bring himself to look away. There was something entrancing about her. Something that demanded his attention. For a moment, he had the strong urge to pick her up and carry her away from here. He knelt down and put a hand on her arm.

"Lencho!" Lavi called out, breaking his fixation. He bolted to his feet and turned to face her. She gave him an accusatory look, tinged with jealousy. He smiled and puffed out his chest. "It's time you leave," she told him. "You and Leander don't need to be here. Go and see what they need doing to prepare for the feast." Lencho huffed and walked off. "And don't hide in the bushes to peep at me! I know you do that to Tiaret! She might not mind, but I do!"

He waved an arm back at her dismissively, discreetly scanning the edge of the woods for a hiding place as he left. Once he spotted one, he picked up his pace, planning on doubling back once he'd gone far enough away to make it not obvious.

As soon as he was out of sight, Lavi waded over to the girl and gently pulled her into the water. Her long black hair spilled over the water like a blot of ink. "What's a skinny thing like you doing out in the wild? And that skin... It's like you never left the hut. Or whatever you people live in."

Lavi had heard tales about human cities before, but had never seen one herself. She had been very young when House Lion found her and Lencho, barely old enough to remember her parents. They had lived in a small town somewhere she had forgotten except for brief impressions. Ever since they had taken her, she had lived in this village, never going more than a few hours walk outside it.

Maybe once she became one of the huntresses, she would range afar. Most of their catches came from desolate areas where people wouldn't be missed. But rarely they traveled further afield, skirting the edges of cities to take their prey. Though recently, even that had proven fruitless. Their hunting grounds had gone barren.

She looked at the girl with a moment of jealousy. Then a cold wind passed over her and she shuddered. "Well, time to get to work." She pulled out her razor and began to cut away at the black locks.

"This is folly, Lorne," Basil said. "The Princess is dead."

"I know," Cassius answered. No, he thought to himself. I am Lorne. One of the previous Keybearers. ""I know she is. I failed her. She died because of me. I promised to keep her safe and I failed."

Basil shook his head. He had sad, wise eyes that seemed to glimmer in the lamplight. "No, it was not your fault. It was betrayal."

Cassius clenched his fist and slammed it against the wall. "I know! And that's why I need to do this!"

"And what will you do, Lorne? Ryu is powerful. The other Houses will not turn against him, no matter the right of our cause! I can't keep you safe forever. Not as long as you hold the Key." Basil sighed heavily and put his hand on Cassius's shoulder, gripping him lightly. "Give it up. They will take it. They will demand your head, but I will deny them. They will still come for it, but I will protect you. Nothing will ever harm you."

"No, I can't simply give her up. I have to do this."

"It's madness."

"He is the dragon," he said. His voice grew distant, almost as if he were in a trance. "He is powerful beyond anything we can imagine. He can bring her back."

"She's been dead for two days," Basil told him, softly. "She can't be brought back. The new Princess has probably already been born now. The world cannot abide by three dragons." He lowered his head and laid his forehead against Cassius's. "Please, let her go."

Cassius was silent for a long, painful moment. Then he said, quivering, "I love her. I have to bring her back."

"And it's for love that I tell you not to go. It can only lead to more heartache."

"I won't give this up," Cassius said, his voice now stone.

Basil drew away from him and turned his back. "Well, I cannot support your course." He looked up at the flickering lamps, staring into their flames. "But if you insist on it, I cannot let you go alone. I will help you." Cassius stared at Basil. "I will lead you on the first leg of your journey."

Cassius sat up with a groan. The smoky air of the ancient chamber still clouded his mind. He wanted to lay back down and fall asleep again, but a dagger of pain lanced through his head. He reached a hand up and felt the throbbing knot there. He finally cracked his eyes open, starring at a blurry morass.

All he make out were blotches of color; a rocky brown, a cloudy white, and an expanse of green. He shook his head and blinked, trying to force his eyes into focus. Eventually, the colors began to coalesce into shapes, then the shapes into recognizable forms.

He was lying naked beside a bubbling pool of water. Standing inside the pool with her back turned was a girl. The curve of her hips barely peeked out of the water as she hummed a light tune to herself. He could barely hear it over the hissing of the water. It was low and off-key. He wondered if he was still dreaming; was this girl some past Princess a former Keybearer had known?

Then he spotted a pile of black hair lying on the far shore. The girl suddenly tossed another handful of it away. She was hacking off Kaida's hair with a blade. Somehow, Cassius kept himself from crying out. He slowly slid into the water, warmth spreading over him. It wasn't just the water, he noted, it was coming from inside him too.

He moved slowly, though when she suddenly tensed, he feared he had been noticed. But a moment later, she relaxed and began to swim slowly toward the shore, carrying Kaida in her arms. She gently placed Kaida on the rocky ground, then let out a deep breath.

Cassius sprang but the girl turned just as he did, holding the razor out in front of her. Cassius narrowly avoided being sliced open by it, ducking to the side as she lashed out. He managed to catch her wrist, but she violently twisted away, swinging a backhand at his head. He took that flush and staggered away from her.

She was on him in an instant, grabbing at him, though the water made him slippery. He tried to punch her, but she easily avoided him. She punched him again, this time in the jaw, and he stumbled backwards, almost slipping on the bottom of the pool. He could feel the heat in his stomach growing stronger.

He managed to block her next strike with his forearm and grabbed the wrist on the hand that held the razor. This time she was unable to twist away. She struck at his head again, but the blow barely phased him this time. Then he bit her hand, hard.

She yelped and dropped the razor, which he caught as it floated through the water. She wrenched away and retreated several steps, glaring at him warily. The two circled slowly, watching each other, waiting for an opportunity to attack. He flinched forward, she reacted immediately and backed up.

"Lavi!" a voice shouted. She turned despite herself and Cassius lunged, grabbing her and twisting the razor to her throat. She froze, as did the huge man at the edge of the springs. Neither dared to even breathe as Cassius pressed the razor into her flesh.

"Who are you?" Cassius asked, breathless. He could feel the heat in his stomach retreating and he felt suddenly weak. The blows she had landed on his head were throbbing in pain now.

"I am Lavi," she choked out. Her body remained tense.

"Who's that?" he asked, subtly gesturing toward the shore. The man on the shore stood frozen, just staring at Lavi and Cassius, his eyes focused on the razor at her throat.

"Lencho," she growled softly, glaring at him. The sound of his name seemed to rouse him slightly and he raised his eyes to Cassius's face. His mouth twisted in anger and fear.

"Where are we?" Cassius asked, tightening his grip on her as much as he dared.

"The ceremonial hot springs," she answered.

"Why are we here?" he pressed.

"I was preparing you and the girl for the feast."

"What feast?"

"Our house's feast." She paused, then continued wryly, "You two were to be our meal."

Cassius nearly dropped the razor from shock. He shook his head in confusion. He could feel Lavi tense to attack, but the razor bit deeper into her throat and she gave up the plan.

Instead, Lencho shouted, "Let her go!" He had Kaida, his hand around her throat. "If you don't, I'll snap her neck."

"I'll cut her throat if you snap her neck," Cassius replied, though his mouth had gone dry. He could see the man cringe when he threatened Lavi. Cassius licked his lips and took a deep breath. "Let's just all calm down here."

"If you let Lavi go," Lencho said hesitantly, "I'll let you and the girl go."

"You're a terrible liar," Cassius answered. Lencho frowned and worried his lip. "You're nagual?"

Both Lavi and Lencho seemed shocked that Cassius knew that word. After a moment, Lencho shook his head slowly and Lavi added, "Yes."

"What House?" Cassius asked, afraid he already knew the answer would be bad.

"House Lion," Lencho answered.

Cassius gritted his teeth. That was exactly what he'd guessed. "One of the broken houses," he muttered to himself.

Lavi let out a laugh. "Broken house? That's what they call us? We're a free house! We left the circle of houses and we're better for it!" She said the words as if by rote.

Cassius ground his teeth together, ignoring her. His mind raced, struggling to think of what to do. House Lion were traitors, Kaida had told him. They had tried to steal the Key once before. And now they had it and the Princess. Though as he thought, he wondered how neither noticed it. Maybe they wouldn't notice the Key, but all nagual should realize that Kaida was one, at least.

"We're nagual," Cassius told them. Once more the two exchanged uncertain looks. "You have to let us go."

"You're lying," Lencho said uneasily. "No nagual would come this close to Lion territory. Not on purpose."

Cassius nodded his head. "Exactly! We got lost. We were on our way to see the Oracles. We came here by accident."

"I don't believe you," Lavi said. "You don't smell like a nagual. You don't look like a nagual. You look like a normal. You smell like a normal. So does she. And a real nagual wouldn't get lost going to the Oracles."

"If I'm normal, why do I know about the nagual? And the Oracles?" Finally, he knew he had them. Lencho pursed his lips and nodded and Lavi relaxed in his grasp. He loosened some of the slack on the razor, though he still kept it at her throat. "So you don't eat nagual then?"

"Of course not!" Lencho objected.

"So," Cassius said. "Where do we go from here? Will you let us go?"

"Yes," Lavi grumbled. "But we'll have to take you to the village first."

"Why? We're kinda in a hurry here."

"First off, no one will believe us if we tell them you were nagual," Lencho offered. "And Lavi will get blamed for letting you escape. No one has ever escaped before, so I don't even know what they'd do to her, but it wouldn't be good."

"What, would they eat her?" Cassius growled.

Lencho sneered. "And second, the girl is unconscious. She won't wake up unless we wake her up. Not for a few weeks, at least. So you really have no choice, unless you're going to carry her."

With a sigh, Cassius let go of Lavi and glided toward the shore. He climbed up and out, the air against his wet skin suddenly reminding him of how naked he was. He looked over at Kaida, who he suddenly realized was naked as well, and quickly looked away. Their clothes were lying in tatters. He grabbed a scrap that used to be his pants and wrapped it around his waist, giving a makeshift loincloth.

Lavi had already dressed, but they had left Kaida naked. "Jeez, could you cover her up please?" he asked. He could feel heat rising to his face, though this time it was from embarrassment rather than the Key.

The two lions chuckled, but Lencho removed his vest and draped it over Kaida's body. Lavi took a moment to wrap it around her to cover her as much as possible, then Lencho effortlessly lifted her.

They led him through the woods in silence. He kept the razor clutched in his hand, still not fully trusting the two lions. He watched them closely, though neither seemed very concerned with him. He supposed as long as Lencho held Kaida, he was no threat to them. After about five minutes, he relaxed and began to wonder how he'd keep up the lie.

If they pressed him about being a nagual, how could he prove he was? His eyes had bewitched Kate, but he had no idea how he'd done that. Or if he could do it again. He definitely could not tell them he was the Keybearer or that Kaida was the Princess. Maybe he could tell them they were new nagual. That's how they got lost, why he can't use his eyes, why he didn't know very much.

As he realized that was his best option, they emerged into the village. It really was a village, like the kind he imagined existed a thousand years ago. The buildings were huts of straw and mud. The ground had been worn to dusty paths through decades of travel, with spare patches of grass clinging to the walls of the homes.

Tanned, muscular people emerged from the homes to watch them. Most were men, Cassius noted, though there were a few young girls and old women among them. They stared at Cassius with suspicion and whispered to each other in concern. Lencho and Lavi seemed to give them little regard, until one of them ran out to them.

"What's going on?" he asked. Cassius thought he recognized him, but couldn't quite tell where. He had a black eye and watched Cassius in concern.

"Leander, they're nagual," Lavi said sadly. She jerked her head to Cassius. "This one told us. We have to let them go."

Leander frowned. "They are?" He eyed Cassius. "Which House are you from?"

"House..." He nearly said Dragon, but caught himself, then blurted the second thing he thought. "Fox." He cringed as he said it, then realized that it might be a good choice after all. They were another broken house, after all. Maybe it would make the lions more likely to trust him.

"House Fox, huh?" Leander said. Cassius realized he was quite youthful in the face, despite his size. "What's your name?"

"I'm Cassius," he said. "That's Kaida."

Leander took a step back and narrowed his eyes. "Those aren't fox names," he snarled. "Who are you, really?"

Cassius swallowed nervously. "We are foxes! I swear!" He smiled his most convincing smile. "Why would I lie?"

"They have to be nagual," Lencho added. "How else would he know what nagual even are? At least we should take him to see Old Tocho?"

"Who's Old Tocho?" Cassius asked.

"Our elder," Lavi explained. "The leader of our House. He can figure this all out."

"Alright. Take me to him."

"No need!" called a creaking, yet powerful voice. An old man hobbled toward them, leaning heavily on a cane. "I am Elder Tocho," he explained as he gave Cassius a close look. "And you are..."

"Cassius," he offered.

Tocho grinned slyly. "That is your name, but not what you are. And I don't mean your house." He looked over at Kaida. "Especially her house."

"Wha... What do you mean?"

The old man laughed and shook his head. "No, we shouldn't talk about it here." He nodded at Lencho. "Take our lady to the medicine hut. Begin applying the poultice to waken her from her flower sleep. Treat her gently." He gestured at Cassius. "Come with me young man. We shall talk in private. Leander, fetch the boy some clothes. The rest of you, tell everyone the feast is canceled."

"But Elder Tocho," Lavi began to object, before being cut off by a sharp glare. She lowered her head. "Yes, Elder Tocho. I'll make sure the girl is seen to."

"Good," Tocho said before hobbling off. Cassius fell into step beside him as the rest of the lions went to carry out his orders. Cassius gave Kaida a final glance as Lavi took her from Lencho. As he watched, he realized that nearly all her hair had been chopped off, and what was left was uneven and ragged. He couldn't bear to look any further.

After only a few minutes, they reached Tocho's hut. It was larger than the others, with wooden floors and woven mats. Tocho led him to a back room, slowly sat down on a mat, and bade Cassius do the same.

Once he had settled, Tocho took a long pipe from a nearby box, filled it with what looked like tobacco, and lit it up. He took a few puffs of it, eyeing Cassius as he did, then smiled. "So, what brings the Keybearer and Princess to the home of House Lion?"

Cassius let out a deep breath. "How do you know?" he asked.

Tocho smirked. "How could I not? It is obvious. I can sense it in you, though I curiously do not find the soul of a nagual. And I can see that the girl has the soul of a dragon, so who else could she be? But that did not answer my question of you."

"We came here by accident. We were going to the Oracles and I guess we got lost. The last thing I remember is stopping down to rest and falling asleep."

"The inaguma flowers," Tocho said with a laugh. "They can knock anyone out, even the Princess it seems. Though I suppose it can't keep a Keybearer down for long."

"So what are you going to do with us?" Cassius asked warily. "Are we hostages now? Or are you just going to take the Key from me?"

Tocho laughed again, with more mirth this time. "No, no, of course not!" When he saw Cassius's unconvinced look, he continued. "No doubt you know that Lions and Dragons are not friends. House Lion escaped our servitude many generations ago. But I have no desire to reignite old conflicts. We have lived in peace for hundreds of years. Why risk our lives for a worthless bauble?"

Cassius inched away from Tocho. "Worthless bauble?" he asked incredulously. "It's the Key! You don't know what..." He hesitated. "But House Lion tried to steal the Key before. That's why you were banished."

Tocho's eyes twinkled, but he frowned. "That's what they're saying now?" He shook his head and let himself smile again. "Would you care to know what really happened between House Lion and House Dragon?"

Cassius shrugged. "Sure, I suppose so."

When God's Key passed to House Dragon, He set up another as lord over House Lion. Yet lions are the kings of animals. They are not used to subservience and obedience. And much like their soul givers, House Lion balked at the yolk of fealty they were burdened with.

Yet they followed House Dragon, for it was God's will. Many decades passed, and the young children of House Lion grew without knowing the pride their fathers knew. It still existed, but it was buried inside them, repressed by the overseers of House Dragon. The young cubs obeyed their masters and did not question their servitude, for they knew no better.

Many generations existed in such slavery, until a young cub named Leopold found his way to the House. Leopold was young and naive when he discovered the truth, but he was full of honor and courage. His hair was long and golden, a furious mane that knew no comb. And when he learned of his destiny and the pact between nagual and God, he left to live with House Lion.

Leopold came from Africa. It was there he saw the lions roam the plains, acting as noble regents of the land. He saw a pride take down a herd of antelope. He witnessed two alpha lions fight for leadership. He saw the people of his village treat the lions with honor and respect.

Leopold told the children of House Lion his tales. A great pride stirred within their bellies. They knew a great disservice was being done to them, and through them, the noble animals from whom they took their souls. Each moment they lived as servants, they shamed the gift they were given. Yet their years of freedom stole their resolve and they knew not how to gain their freedom.

Leopold declared he would free House Lion from their leash. Leopold walked before Ryu, king of House Dragon and all nagual, and demanded that House Lion be freed from their menial servitude. "Dragon king!" he declared. "Lions are not your slaves! We shall serve no longer!"

Ryu's evil glare swept over the gathered lions who followed Leopold. All shrank back in fear. Only Leopold stood unmoved. "You say you are worthy of breaking the contract all nagual agreed to, yet your House is meek and I deem you unworthy."

Leopold growled and bared his teeth at Ryu. "If you will not free us, then I will fight for our freedom!" Most miraculously, Leopold transformed into an actual lion, the strength of his soul so great that is changed his body as well.

Ryu was not unprepared for Leopold's attack, but he was unprepared for the ferocity and strength of it. Leopold's teeth did not break against Ryu's scales and Leopold's glorious mane, thick with tangles, turned away Ryu's claws.

The two fought each other for many days and nights, the exact time unknown, for none could bear to turn away and count the rising and falling of the sun. Like Heaven against Hell was the ferocity of the battle.

Yet, in the end, even Leopold could not stand against Ryu's might. Leopold fell limp before his House, on the brink of death. "Take me home," Leopold said and his people lifted him on their shoulders and carried him away. Ryu tried to follow, but despite being the victor, his wounds were too deep.

Back at the dwellings of House Lion, Leopold lay on death's door. He gathered the entire House around him and spoke. "I tried to battle Ryu, but I failed. Even my best was not enough." The Lions cried in anguish. "Soon, I will die. But in death, I shall give you one last gift. For I delivered Ryu a grievous wound he shall not forget. If you follow my instructions, then whenever Ryu looks upon a lion, he will remember me and refuse to act, for fear of another wound."

Thus Leopold had his House bathe him in the sacred springs to purify his body. His mane, of which he was so proud, was to be cut off and buried. And his body was to be devoured by his House, so that his strength and spirit may be passed onto others. The House did as ordered and ate his body. His mane was buried in a sacred plot, from which a might tree sprung.

When Ryu finally came, seeking vengeance, he was greeted by every Lion, standing tall and proud against him. Fear swept over Ryu and he could not advance. The spirit of Leopold was in them all.

"House Lion!" Ryu cried, knowing what they had done. "You have eaten the flesh of your own kind to guard against me! Your greatest was nothing but food to sustain you! By doing that, you have sealed your fate, and you must now consume human flesh to sustain yourselves!" he cursed. "Only the souls of men can fill your tables and keep Leopold's blood strong inside you!"

Ryu left and House Lion knew he spoke the truth. Thus is why House Lion owes no allegiance to House Dragon and why they eat the flesh of men.

During the middle of the story, Leander had arrived with clothes for Cassius, but Cassius simply ignored him, paying rapt attention to Tocho's words. Now, he pulled them on as he thought over what had been said. The pants were both too big and too small for him, seemingly designed for a child who was much more bulky than he. The vest too hung limply from his shoulders, far too large for his frame. Still he cinched everything together with a rawhide belt and deemed it good enough.

"So you never tried to steal the Key?" Cassius asked once he was dressed.

"No," Tocho said. "Assuming you believe the story. Who can really know what happened an age ago?" Tocho shrugged and took another puff from his pipe. "But it matters little. What does matter is the truth of today. I have told you a tale, perhaps you will grace me with one of your own?"

"What do you want to know?" Cassius asked warily.

"How a normal human came to carry the Key," Tocho said, his voice dropping and growing grave.

Cassius tried to hide his grimace, but failed. He sighed and leaned back, running his hands through his hair and wondering how much he could tell this old man. "So, you can tell I'm not a nagual?"

Tocho nodded brusquely. "I can." He did not seem happy and puckered his lips. "No doubt you're wondering how the others cannot. The truth is, being split from the rest of the nagual has led to some slippage in our skills. I am one of the few Lions who can sense the souls of other nagual. And none of us knows how to entrance people with our eyes." He looked away, his blue eyes suddenly growing watery. "It is a shame, but it is how it is."

How much of the old man's weakness was truth and how much of it was an act, Cassius could not tell. Still, he felt himself inclined to trust him. His emotions seemed to be plain on his face. "Well, the truth is, I never should have had the Key. It was given to me in an emergency. The last Keybearer was being hunted for it by Snakes and gave it to me before they could catch him. The Snakes actually are trying to steal the Key for themselves."

Tocho sat silently for a moment, reflecting on this information. He tapped his finger on the end of his pipe and took a long draw. "And there has been no proper replacement found?"

"Not yet," Cassius said with a shake of his head. "I assume we'll be taking care of that soon."

Tocho nodded his head. "Well, I promise you my protection as long as you are with us. No harm shall befall you or the Princess as long as you are here. Should any Snakes come to steal the Key from you, they will find an angry pride of Lions ready to rip them to shreds."

"How can I be sure I can trust you?" Cassius asked.

Tocho seemed surprised by the directness of the question. He cleared his throat and took another long puff from the pipe, letting the smoke pour out of the corners of his mouth when he talked. "You can't," he said, with slight but obvious anger. "I could have your Princess's head wrenched from her shoulders at a command and you..." He smiled, showing a line of sharp, white teeth. "You may have overpowered Lavi, but I don't think you would stand up to our best fighters. Or even me. So I have no reason to trick you. If I wanted the Key, I'd have it already. If I wanted your lives, I'd have them as well."

Cassius opened his mouth to answer, but nothing came out. He blinked several times rapidly, swallowed heavily, then nervously nodded. "Yes," he said. "Yes, that's a pretty good point. I'm sorry."

"For what?" Tocho asked with a wide grin. "You are the Keybearer. You do have a right to be suspicious of all, especially a... what do you call us? A broken house, I believe."

"I would never," Cassius stammered, feeling stupid for saying it immediately. "But yes, they do call you that."

Tocho waved his hand dismissively. "It is of no great importance. But I swear to you, on the mane of Leopold, that the Lions will not harm you or your Princess."

"Thank you," Cassius said. Then suddenly, a thought struck him. "Can I ask you something?" Tocho nodded. "In your story, you mentioned the Dragon King. You called him Ryu, not Airyu. Why?"

"It is the Dragon King's name," Tocho said simply. "Is Airyu what he is called now?"

"That's what I was told," Cassius said. He stroked his chin in thought, then shrugged lightly. "Well, I guess it's not important. Is there anything else we need to talk about?" Tocho shook his head. "Then can I go see Kaida? The Princess, that is."

"Of course." Tocho grabbed his cane and rose, wobbly. Cassius moved to help him, but the old lion brushed him off, struggling to his feet on his own. He dipped the pipe into a small bucket of water, then tossed it to the side. "Come, I will take you to the medicine hut."

They walked to the hut in silence, Tocho slowly hobbling along, placing the butt of his cane on the ground and slowly shuffling toward it. As they went, Cassius could not help but be unnerved by the stares the other Lions gave him. There were groups, still mostly men, with a few older and younger women among them. Some stopped their conversations to stare, a few continued to talk about him in whispers. A few looked hateful, a few more curious, but most seemed suspicious. He supposed he couldn't blame them. He was giving them similar looks.

Half way through the village (and it was a large village. Cassius guessed at least a thousand people lived here, if not more. He wondered, did every member of House Lion live in this one village? Were there other villages elsewhere? Did every nagual house gather like this one did? He'd have to ask Kaida) before they reached the medicine hut. It was similar to Tocho's, with wooden floors and several rooms. There were several wooden pallets covered with blankets. Only one was occupied.

Cassius ran over to Kaida and knelt beside her, nearly pushing Lavi out of the way. The girl started to object, but saw who it was and bit her tongue. Cassius took Kaida's hand. She had been covered with fur blankets, even though it was a warm summer day. Beads of sweat streamed down her forehead. Her eyes were glassy and distant. "Oh God, Kaida! Are you alright?"

She didn't look toward him, but her lips moved slightly. He leaned in close to hear what she was saying. "... should have told you before. I'm sorry, so sorry..." she muttered. "No, just a dream. Still more dreams... Damn dreams..." She licked her lips and moaned, then turned away.

Cassius whirled and stared at Tocho. "What's wrong with her? I thought you said the pollen would just make her sleep!"

"She is asleep," Lavi interjected. "I've been giving her medicine to wake her up, but she has to sweat the pollen out. It's surprising, she's already more awake than I would have thought!" She shook her head. "The last time we had to wake someone up from the pollen, it took them nearly a week! It was three days before they got this far and with her, it only took an hour!"

"How long before she wakes up fully?" Cassius asked with a sour frown. He reached down and brushed her chopped hair away from her face. She looked so frail and vulnerable on the litter that it made Cassius almost sick.

Lavi looked at Tocho, who shook his head. "It could be another few hours," he said, "it could be a few days. As Lavi said, it takes several days for the antidote to usually work. I am unsure how long it will take for your Princess to recover. I suspect no longer than a day, however."

Lavi's eyebrows had shot up at the word 'princess'. She looked wide-eyed between Cassius and Kaida. "Can I stay with her?" Cassius asked. "With Kaida, I mean."

Tocho nodded. "Of course. If you become tired or hungry, I suggest you ask Lavi for directions to her hut. You will be staying with her brother, Leander, while you are here. If you have need of anything else, simply come ask me and I shall see to your needs."

"Thanks," Cassius said. Tocho bowed slightly to him, then retreated from the hut. Lavi stared at Cassius. He stared back, then backed off and sat on the ground on the opposite side of Kaida. "Uh, sorry for imposing on you and your brother."

"Is she really a princess?" Lavi asked, with some awe.

"Uh, yeah," Cassius said. "She's the Princess of the nagual." He grinned at her. "Congratulations, you caught a dragon."

Lavi frowned and growled at him. "You should not be so free with that information," she warned. "Not everyone would be so welcome to hear that someone from House Dragon was in the village."

Cassius laughed. "And what if I told you I was the Keybearer?" he asked. "Besides, Elder Tocho swore we would not be harmed. On Leopold's mane, of all things."

Lavi's expression softened, as did her voice when she answered, "Not everyone sees the wisdom in Old Tocho being our elder." Her eyes flashed. "I won't hurt you or your princess, but Old Tocho's word is not the word of everyone in the village. So be careful."

"Alright, I will be," Cassius answered, though he guessed the girl was exaggerating.

The two fell silent and Cassius went back to watching Kaida. She mostly seemed peaceful, though her expression was one of discomfort and the sweat continued to pour from her head. Every so often, her lips would move to make words, but no sound came out.

Lavi continued to feed her medicine. It was a thin powder. Lavi coated her finger in it, then spread it over Kaida's gums and lips. Kaida always quickly licked it away. Lavi waited a moment, then repeated the process.

Without the mutual threat of death hanging over them, Cassius had to admit that Lavi was a rather attractive woman, in her wild way. Her hair was a tangled, knotted mess, but he could imagine it combed out and hanging low to her back. Her face was tanned and sharp, with a strong nose and plump lips and dark eyes. She was tall and gracefully built; muscular yet not overly so. With a bath, a brush, some fresh clothes, and make-up, she could be positively beautiful.

He wondered what he'd think if circumstances had been different. Then he wondered what she thought of him. It hadn't been long ago that they had both been threatening to kill each other.

"What are you smiling at?" she snapped, glaring at him from the corners of her eyes.

He hadn't realized he'd been smiling, but he didn't stop himself. "I'm just happy you're taking care of Kaida so well."

She snorted. "It's not like I wanted to. Old Tocho told me to. So I am."

"Still, thank you. And sorry about earlier too. Threatening you and everything."

"You shouldn't be," she answered, turning her nose up. "If you hadn't, we'd be eating you right now."

He had to grin at that. "Well, it's a good thing I did, because you're not supposed to eat nagual, are you?" She frowned sheepishly at that. "And I'm still sorry." She harrumphed and continued giving the powder to Kaida.

He leaned back against the mud-and-straw wall, closing his eyes. He was glad to be indoors for the first time in several days. He was not built for sleeping in the outdoors. Even though it wasn't a proper bed, he imagined the fur-covered pallets would be better than sleeping on dirt.

He suddenly felt very tired. He yawned and stretched, almost ready to fall asleep.

"What's your name?" Lavi asked suddenly, causing him to start.

"Cassius," he answered reflexively. "You're Lavi, right?"

She nodded. "Do you have a last name?"

"Hewitt. Why are you so interested?"

"I'm not!" she huffed. "But if you're sitting here, I might as well talk to you. You can't like just sitting there and doing nothing, can you?"

Cassius smirked. "It's the first time I've been allowed to sit and do nothing in a week. So yeah, it's a nice break."

She blushed and turned away. "Well, if I'm bothering you, I'll shut up and you can go back to your break."

"No no!" Cassius hurriedly said. "You're not bothering me at all. I'd much rather talk anyways."

"Is this really the Princess of all nagual?" Lavi asked, looking down at Kaida with mild disdain.

"Yes, she is."

"And you're the Keybearer?" She seemed to doubt that even more.

He patted his stomach. "Right in here."

"Then why pass through our lands?" she asked. "Why are you here?"

"We were going to the Oracles," Cassius told her. "I guess the path lead close enough by your lands for us to land in your trap. I'm guessing all the blocked paths were your doing."

Her chest swelled slightly. "Yes, it was. It was meant to catch normal people, not nagual. Usually, that path is used by some normals who are out hiking and when they see the trees, they don't try to go over them, so it leads them right into our trap." She shook her head, growing slightly sad. "But lately, it's been nearly deserted. You're the first to come through in forever."

"Well, I can't say I'm sorry," he told her. "Even though we're being cordial, catching and eating people is just..." He trailed off.

"Wrong?" she offered. "I suppose you're one of those people who only eats plants. What do they call it?"

"Vegetarians. And no, I'm not. I eat meat plenty."

She gave him a wry smirk. "And yet you'll gladly eat animals, even though you probably know plenty of nagual with their souls. Which is more wrong? Eating something that has the same flesh as you or eating something that has the same soul as you?"

He had to chuckle at her logic. "Well, they wouldn't have the same soul as me, so that's a moot point. Still, I suppose you make some sense. And you only do it because of the Dragon King's curse."

"That's right. What House are you, by the way?" she asked.

He hesitated, wondering if he should be forthcoming to her. "I am the Keybearer," he said finally. "I have no House. I simply serve House Dragon."

She rolled her eyes at him. "You know what I meant. What type of nagual are you?"

He bit his tongue then shook his head. Seeing that she would not take his silence for an answer, he finally sighed. "I am not one," he said. "I'm a regular human." Her eyes went wide. "I hope you're not going to eat me now."

She opened her mouth, but closed it without saying anything. She turned back to Kaida and seemed to focus completely on giving her the medicine. After a few minutes, she finally turned back to Cassius and opened and shut her mouth one more time. She took a deep breath, let it out, and then said, "If you didn't want to tell me, you just had to say so."

"I'm being serious," Cassius said. "I'm not a nagual. I'm a regular human. Ask Tocho, he'll tell you."

"How is that possible?" Her voice was full of suspicion and awe.

He shrugged. "It's a long story," he said. "But for the time being, I'm the Keybearer and I'm supposed to be Kaida's protector, though she's been the one doing the most protecting. Things have gotten very complicated with the rest of the nagual world." He paused and considered his words. "But I've said too much already."

She simply nodded her head. She seemed ready to say more, but bit the edge of her lip to keep herself quiet. She turned away from him eventually and focused on Kaida. Just as Cassius was about to probe for more, Lencho ducked into the hut.

He frowned at Cassius, then looked at Lavi. "I want to talk to you," he said. "Alone," he added, eyeing Cassius.

"I can't leave," Lavi said. "Old Tocho told me I had to stay here with the Princess."

Cassius stood and waved his hands at them. "Don't mind me. I don't think there's much point in me staying here any more. Plus, I'm getting tired and hungry." He took Kaida's hand and gave it a squeeze, pleased to find she squeezed back. "Thanks again for taking care of her," he said to Lavi. He gave Lencho a polite nod, then walked out of the hut.

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