The Dragon's Key: Chapter 13

The aroma of stew perfumed Leander and Lavi's hut. Theirs was one of the few that had a fire place. Leander had built it years ago, when he and Lavi were both too young to even think about hunting. It was small and unevenly constructed of mud bricks, but it had served him well enough over the years. He preferred it to eating with the rest of the village, since Ari always put himself in charge of distributing food and went out of his way to be stingy with Leander.

Leander stirred the stew with a long spoon, sending a puff of steam into the air. He sucked it in, savoring the smell. "Lavi will enjoy this," he muttered to himself.

"Lavi won't be having any," Tocho said.

Leander leapt up, nearly knocking the pot over. "Elder Tocho!" he gasped, surprised to find the old man at his doorway. "What do you mean?"

"Your sister will be tending to the Princess all night. I will have something taken to her," he assured. "But you will have a guest tonight, so your food will not go to waste."

He stepped aside and Cassius entered the hut. "Why is he here?" Leander asked with a frown.

"As I said, he will be your guest."

"But why?"

"Look," Cassius interjected, "I don't have to eat here. It's ok. I can go somewhere else."

Tocho's eyes locked with Leander's. "No. You will eat here. Leander and Lavi delayed your journey. The least they can do is feed you."

"But Elder Tocho - "

Tocho clucked his tongue. "To repay a debt is a great responsibility! You should be ashamed that you are trying to shirk your duty."

Leander bit his tongue and nodded. "Very well, Elder Tocho." He turned back to the stew and continued stirring it.

Tocho leaned in close to Cassius and whispered, just loud enough for Leander to hear, "Do not mind him. Enjoy your meal and rest."

As Tocho left, Cassius examined the hut. It was much plainer than either Tocho's or the medical hut, with a plain dirt floor covered with straw. The only furnishings were a few fur mats, the fireplace, and a wooden box in the corner. Cassius settled down on a mat next to the wall. He sighed and closed his eyes.

"That smells good," Cassius said, his stomach rumbling even as he said the words. He realized it had been nearly an entire day since he had eaten. Even longer since he'd had a hot meal. "How much longer before it's ready?"

Leander growled. "It'll be ready when it's ready," he said between clenched teeth.

Cassius puckered his lips and frowned. "Well, ok, I can wait." His stomach gurgled again, almost as if it were disagreeing with him. "I'm sorry," he added.

"For what?" Leander muttered.

"I don't know," he answered. "Whatever you're angry with me about. I just want to be friends. We can be cool, right?"

"Cool?" Leander asked. "What do you mean?"

Cassius frowned, realizing he didn't really know how to explain it. "I guess it means... uh... Good. We can be friendly. Right?"

"You're under Elder Tocho's protection," Leander said. "So I won't hurt you. I'll give you whatever I'm told to give you. But we won't be friends."

"Alright, fair enough," Cassius sighed. Despite Leander's words, he pushed on. "Your sister seemed nice enough. She and I talked in the medicine hut." Leander grunted. "Are you two really brother and sister?"

"Yes," Leander answered.

"I mean, most nagual don't have siblings who are also nagual. But you two are actually blood siblings? Your biological parents were the same people."

"I said yes," Leander grumbled.

"That's unusual," Cassius said, trying to keep his voice as cheerful as possible. "Were either of your parents nagual?"

"I never knew my parents," Leander said. "We were taken when I was only an infant. Lavi is two years older than me and her day care teacher was a nagual. When they came for her, they found me too."

"How long ago was that?"

"Thirteen years ago."

Cassius gasped. "Thir... thirteen?" he sputtered. "But... But you're huge! You're as big as a linebacker!"

Leander turned slightly and frowned at him. "All House Lion are natural hunters," he explained with some derision. "We are not scrawny and weak like... Well, whatever house you are from." He narrowed his eyes. "What's a linebacker?"

"They're football players." He noticed Leander's blank look. "Athletes." Still nothing. "Um... Very large, strong people."

Leander seemed to accept that and turned back to the stew. He pulled the ladle out and took a sip of the broth, smacking his lips after he finished. "It's ready," he said, pulling the pot from the fire and setting in the center of the hut. He passed the ladle to Cassius. "Eat," he said, almost an order.

"What... No bowls or anything?" Cassius asked.

"We don't have any," Leander said gruffly. "And that's the only spoon we have. So eat that way or don't eat at all."

Cassius's growling stomach made the choice an easy one and he immediately dug in, shoveling the stew into his mouth. Though it was searing hot, he barely took note of it, chewing and swallowing so fast he barely noticed the heat. But the taste was wonderful. There were carrots, and celery, and bits of onions, and corn, and some other vegetables he didn't know by taste or feel. And the meat was savory and delicious and in large chunks.

Leander watched him with a mixture of interest and disgust. Cassius felt slightly guilty from the stare, but resolved not to show it. He simply ate, finishing half the pot of stew before finally leaning back and letting out a content sigh.

"I'm finished," Cassius announced. "That was really good. Especially the meat."

"It is Lavi's favorite," Leander muttered, before diving in himself. He wolfed down the stew, barely appearing to even chew. Within a few minutes, the pot was drained.

"Wow, you eat fast," Cassius said.

"You eat slowly," Leander countered.

A sudden worrying thought struck Cassius. "Uh... That meat wasn't... You know... People, was it?"

Leander peered at him queerly, then let out a large laugh. "Are you serious?" he asked. "Of course you are! No," he said, rubbing his forehead. "It was boar. Human meat is sacred. It is not something to toss into a stew. There is much ceremony about it. And we certainly wouldn't feed it to some outsider."

Cassius let out a sigh of relief and leaned back against the wall. The stew was sitting heavy in his belly, contributing to his exhaustion. He yawned and closed his eyes, ready to doze off.

"What is the Princess like?" Leander asked suddenly.

The question startled Cassius back awake. "What?" he muttered as he collected his thoughts.

"What is the Princess like?" Leander repeated. "I always figured the Princess would look like a huntress. Strong, majestic, powerful. Not like a frail little girl."

"She may not be as big as Lavi," Cassius said, "but she is still a Dragon."

"I have never met a dragon. So I do not know what that means."

Cassius laughed. "Most people think dragons are just fairy tales. Something fantastic to imagine, but nothing that was ever real."

"She doesn't seem fantastic to me," Leander said softly. "But there is something... different about her."

"I know. She's special."

"Why do you follow her?"

"I have the Key."

"What will happen if you don't?"

"I..." Cassius trailed off, thinking. He shrugged. "Nothing, as far as I know. I don't have to follow her."

"Then why do you?" Leander pressed. "Why not stay where it is safe? Why follow the Princess into danger?"

"I don't have to," Cassius said. "I want to."

"But why? You have to deal with nagual much stronger than you. Aren't you scared?"

"Terrified," Cassius admitted. "People have tried to kill me, more than once." He laughed. "I suppose I trust Kaida to be strong enough for the both of us."

"But you are the one who is awake, and she is the one who still sleeps."

Cassius nodded. "Yeah. Well, now I have to be the strong one. If I'm not, well..." Cassius shrugged and suppressed a shudder. "I can't afford to think about that."

Leander looked Cassius in the eyes, the first time he had done so. "Perhaps you are stronger than you realize," he said.

Cassius laughed. "You don't sound much like a thirteen year old."

"You don't sound much like the Keybearer." Leander stood, unfurling his full frame. "I need to clean the pot."

As the huge boy carried the pot from the hut, Cassius laid on the mat and closed his eyes. A warm feeling spread over him as he drifted to sleep.

"What have you done?"

Cassius looked up. His hands were covered with a dark, sticky, foul-smelling blood. A strange calm had taken him. He felt serene. "I did what I must," he said, in Lorne's voice. Another dream about Lorne, Cassius thought to himself. Another memory about this Keybearer who watched a Princess die. Is it an omen? Is Kaida going to die and I will be helpless to stop it? Or is it a warning, telling me how to avoid it?

Basil was ashen faced. He took a step back from Cassius and was shaking his head slowly. "No," he whispered. "No!" he said louder. "You have..."

"Killed the Dragon King," Cassius answered. He looked over at the body, its eyes gone dim, its mouth hanging open with limp tongue. The body had once been majestic, Cassius thought. Even terrifying. It had sent terror through his entire body.

But now it was nothing. A corpse. It had been so easy to kill him, too. An old, lumbering beast in a room far too small for it. The Dragon King had died as any other caged animal might, run through a thousand times with a blade.

Cassius looked at the sword he carried. It was so familiar to him, but he could not place it. "The Dragon King is dead. I killed him," Cassius said. He looked back up at Basil, whose jaw had set in anger. "He refused to return the Princess to life, but he could have. He could have! He told me I was not worthy of asking him such a thing. Me! The Keybearer! The man who was to have married his own daughter! NOT WORTHY!" Cassius shouted. He threw the sword to the ground and feel to his knees.

Basil took a step forward and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Lorne... You have destroyed House Dragon. Your mad revenge brought this about. Do you know what you have done?"

"Yes," Cassius answered. "I have freed us all."

Basil shook his head. "You have freed nothing," he said softly. "You've doomed yourself and our house."

"No," Cassius answered. "You would not betray me too."

"I must tell the other Heads of House. You will be punished, Lorne. One day, we will find the new Princess, and she will be the last of her house. After that..." He shook his head. "Who knows?"

Cassius stood. His stomach burned. His chest was on fire. Every bit of him was aflame. "No. You are going to tell them nothing."

Basil took a step back. "Lorne, what..."

A pale light illuminated Basil's face. Cassius could feel his body breaking apart. "You will do nothing, my liege," he said. "It is time for a change. It is over. For good." He was growing. Basil was shrinking. Everything was swirling about him, smoke and fire.

"What have we wrought?" Basil asked as he fell to his knees. "This is surely the end times."

"No," Cassius answered, his voice booming. "It is not the end. It is a rebirth."

"I will tell them," Basil said, the defiance shattered as his voice cracked.

"You will tell them nothing." He was thunder and lightning.

"Will you kill me to stop me? Kill your best friend?"

"I don't need to kill you," Cassius answered. "Not any more."

Basil shrieked and curled into a ball. He was shrinking still and Cassius could hear his tendons and bones pop and snap.

The morning found Cassius troubled but refreshed. Despite the dream, he had slept well. The fur mat had proven a great comfort after days of sleeping on the bare ground. The swollen knot Lavi had left him the day before had all but vanished completely, leaving a spot that was only tender to the touch.

Leander had already left when he awoke. Without a guide, Cassius sought out Tocho. It didn't take him long, as the old man had been seeking him.

"You can find food in the large hut in the north of the village," the elder said, pointing with the butt of his cane. "We break our fast with simple bread and water. If you need to attend to your personal needs, find one of the girls." Noting Cassius's astonished look, he added, "They will see to getting you a bath."

It didn't take long for Cassius to find the hut with the food. It was by far larger than all the rest in the village and had a plume of white smoke emerging from a chimney in the center. Inside were a few lingering Lions eating meals. They tried not to stare at him as he entered, for which he was thankful, though many didn't succeed. Cassius ate a simple meal of flat bread and washed it down with the purest water he'd ever tasted, then left.

He rubbed his cheeks, which had accumulated a dirty, scruffy stubble over the past several days. Some of the Lions had beards, but others were clean shaven, so he imagined he might be able to find a razor if he asked. Though he doubted he'd get another chance to shave soon, so he decided it would be better if he just let it grow out. He'd never had a beard before; he wondered how he'd look with one.

Still, the prospect of a bath proved too tempting to him. He sought out one of the village girls, but none were to be found. He tried approaching some of the men, but they all gave him cold glares, so he backed off. The children were likewise unhelpful, giggling and running off whenever he approached.

After the fifth such group fled him, he simply stared after them and hung his head. "Hah!" a loud, harsh voice rang out. "Even little children don't respect you!"

Cassius turned to see a mountain of a man approaching him, his rippling biceps tense as he crossed them over his chest. The man was hairy, with a long tangled mess of hair that reached to the middle of his back. His bushy eyebrows were bunched down in a V as he sneered at Cassius.

"And you're the Keybearer, huh?" the man asked. He spit at Cassius's feet. "You're just some puny little whelp. I should rip the Key right out of you."

"Elder Tocho promised me that I wouldn't be harmed," Cassius responded, his voice uneasy despite himself.

The man laughed. "Oh, Old Tocho told you that, did he? Well, maybe I don't give hyena shit about what he promised!"

Another man walked up to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Ari, you should back off. You and I both know what Old Tocho said about - "

Ari swung a heavy fist at the man, knocking him to the ground. "You obviously didn't hear me! I don't care what Old Tocho said!" He turned back to Cassius. "You're not even a nagual!" He sneered at seeing Cassius's shock. "Oh, surprised the word's out? Never thought a Keybearer would be so stupid as to tell someone he just met his big secret, but I guess you are!" He laughed threateningly. "I should rip that Key right out of your guts, feast on your flesh, and go rip the Princess's head off. Seems like that would be the right thing to do!" He laughed again and looked around at some of the others who had gathered, who laughed along with him.

Before he knew what was happening, thick arms were wrapped around Cassius's waist and he was lifted in the air, being carried away from an astonished Ari. Cassius's head swam, as if he'd been holding his breath for minutes.

"What were you thinking?" Lencho rumbled to him. "Ari wouldn't think twice about ripping you apart!"

"What do you mean?" Cassius asked groggily. He stared at Ari, who was turning red and being restrained by several other men. Cassius gulped as he saw they were doing a relatively poor job of it. "You can put me down," he squeaked.

Lencho did as asked and the two of them made a hasty retreat. "All I know is I saw you spit in Ari's face, then pull your arm back to swing." He shook his head. "If I hadn't grabbed you and pulled you away..." He was speaking almost reverentially.

Cassius ran a hand through his hair. "I don't..." He suddenly realized that he was burning all over, like a fever. Sweat was pouring down his head.

"What were you thinking?"

"Nothing," Cassius muttered. He looked at Lencho's face and found an eager look. "I mean, he was just threatening me. I don't think he was serious, but they were all laughing. Next thing I remember, you're grabbing me."

Lencho's face seemed to fall. "So you weren't challenging him?"

"Are you crazy? I wouldn't challenge him to anything, except maybe a limbo."

"A limbo?"

"It's a game where you have to bend over backwards and walk under a stick." At Lencho's dubious look, he waved his hand. "It's a game someone big wouldn't be good at. Look, that's beside the point! I know he'd crush me. I'm not stupid!"

"Well, regardless, it'd be best if you tried to avoid Ari."

"I'd like to go see Kaida and Lavi," Cassius offered.

"No!" Lencho said a little too quickly. "I mean, Ari probably won't be there. But he might go to see Lavi. Maybe." He sighed. "I just don't think it's a good idea."

"Well, I do need a bath. Tocho told me to find one of the girls, but I can't find any. Lavi's the only one I know."

Lencho laughed at the thought. "I doubt you'd want her to bathe you anyway."

"Bathe me?" Cassius sputtered. "No, no, I mean, no! I don't want that."

"Why? Does the Princess normally bathe you?" He looked rather shocked by the idea.

So was Cassius. "No!" he declared. "No one bathes me! I bathe myself!"

"Really?" Lencho asked thoughtfully before shrugging. "We always have the women bathe us. They're the ones good at it, since they have to hunt and keep from being smelled. A man is good at fighting and protecting the village, but not cleaning himself."

"Well, I'm fine at cleaning myself," Cassius said. "I just need to know where to go."

"I can show you." Lencho led him to a bubbling hot spring several hundred yards outside the village. It wasn't nearly as far as the spring from the day before, nor nearly as large. After being assured several times that he did not need a woman to help, Lencho left Cassius to his own devices.

Without any proper cleaning implements, he simply stripped down and jumped into the water. He let himself soak and scrubbed off as well as he could, dunking his head a few times and letting the water run in rivulets down his face.

After a few minutes, he simply leaned against the edge of the spring and closed his eyes. The water was warm and relaxing. Before he knew it, he had dozed off.

"Evers, it is nice to meet you," a woman said. She was old. Very old. But even with her wrinkles and gray hair and cataracts, she was still pretty. In her youth, she must have been beautiful.

"It is my honor to meet you, my Princess," Cassius said. Another dream. Not of Lorne or Basil or even his Princess. "You are as beautiful as they say."

She laughed lightly at his words. "Oh, a flatterer are you? I see why my father named you the Keybearer."

He bowed slightly. "If that was the case, I would be a poor Keybearer, would I not? No, my Princess, I am much more than a sycophant. I am a sure guardian. No man is better suited to protect you."

She smiled generously at him. "Of that, I have no doubt Evers." She slowly seated herself on a large, cushioned couch, a slightly pained look on her face. "Though there may not be much of me left to protect." She gave another smiled, this one slighter with a wisp of ennui. "Your predecessor was lucky. He protected me in my youth, when I was truly a beautiful woman, and he was a beautiful man. You will be tasked with guarding an old woman and then a child."

He went to one knee and lowered his head to her. "My Princess, you will be with us a long time still. I am sure I will be an old man myself before we have a new Princess."

She laid back on her couch and let out a soft breath. "That is a kindness of you. Though you may be more than a simple sycophant, being one is surely your strong suit."

He grinned. "You say that only because you have not seen me fight." His nose twitched. Something acrid was in the air. "Do you smell smoke?" he asked.

The smell woke him. It was not in his dreams, but in reality. The sky was dark, but not from night. Black, thick smoke rose from the village.

Cassius leapt from the water, scrambled to pull the borrowed clothing on, and took off running. Rocks and sticks cut into the soles of his feet, but he paid them no mind. His only concern was Kaida.

As he neared the village, the smoke thickened. The wind blew it toward him, clogging his lungs and stinging his eyes. He momentarily stumbled, choking for breath, but pushed himself on.

The entire village was on fire. Several huts had already burned to the ground, smoldering ashes all that remained of them. No one was to be found, the huts abandoned and the streets empty. He ran toward the medicine hut, cinders raining on him. The heat pressed around him, but it was not nearly so great as what swelled from within.

A hand grabbed him suddenly and he spun, swinging wildly. His hand connected with a solid surface. He gasped in pain, but whoever he had struck fell back as well.

"It's me! Leander!" The boy held his jaw, a red mark forming where he had been struck.

"What's going on?" Cassius asked, glancing around wildly.

Leander shook off the blow. "It's Ari! He wants to kill you! The Princess too!"

Cassius shot off toward Kaida's hut. He could only focus on getting to Kaida. Nothing else mattered at that moment. He ran through the still burning ashes of a hut, feeling nothing. He could hear people now over the roar of the flames. They were shouting orders.

He saw small groups trying to douse the flames, working chaotically and without direction. They focused on separate huts, tossing buckets of water onto them, only managing to temporarily arrest the spread of the fire. But the fire had not spread past where they worked; had not yet reached the medicine hut. It soon would.

Around it had gathered most of the village. They were shouting, their words an incoherent roar. Many seemed to merely be screaming in blood lust. Several had injuries, he noticed. One man had blood pouring down from a gash on his forehead, but still had his arms raised and was screaming toward the center of the circle.

Cassius fought threw them, kicking and pushing his way past men, women, and children, the young and old, the uninjured and wounded alike.

In the center, Ari and Lencho fought, blood caking the both of them.

Ari slammed his fist into the side of Lencho's head, buckling his knees and causing him to stagger back. He somehow managed to duck Ari's follow up and leveled a shoulder into the larger man's gut, driving him to the ground.

"Ari killed Tocho," a voice said weakly next to him, barely loud enough to hear over the roar of the crowd. Cassius looked down and saw Lavi, fallen to her knees, staring at the combatants. "He wanted to kill you both, but Tocho wouldn't let him." She choked and sobbed. Cassius roughly grabbed her shoulders.

"Kaida! Is she alright?" he asked, shaking her.

Leander grabbed him and pulled him off her. "She's fine!" he shouted. "Ari stormed into Tocho's hut earlier, demanding he be allowed to kill you and the Princess. When Tocho refused, Ari dragged him from the hut and killed him in front of everyone. He declared himself the new elder. A few tried to oppose him, but there was fighting and... The fires started, I don't know how!"

"I tried to stop him," Lavi sobbed. "I tried, Cassius, I swear! I did!"

Cassius ignored Lavi and focused on Leander. "Why isn't anyone trying to stop him?"

"Besides Lencho?" he growled. "No one else wants to. They're either too afraid of him or agree with him. Too many of us do. The feasts have been few and far in between lately. People had started to blame Elder Tocho, with Ari leading the charge. And now he says he's going to kill you, kill the Princess, take the Key, and become the new King of the Nagual."

In the middle of the circle, Ari flipped Lencho onto his back. The large man drove a knee down into the young man's stomach, causing Lencho to cough up blood. He struggled to stand, but Ari kicked him in the side of the head. Lencho's eyes rolled into his skull as he fell, unmoving. The people cheered Ari's victory.

A sobbing cry escaped Lavi's throat as she stumbled forward, taking Lencho's head and cradling it in her lap. "What's the matter?" Ari growled as he spat a glob of blood on the ground. "He's just a child and you weep over him?" He grabbed her arm and yanked her away from Lencho. "You're old enough to be taken as a mate, even though you're not at all a huntress yet! After I'm King, I'll need a queen after all." He roughly groped her and Lavi lashed out, clawing his face with her nails. Ari cried in pain and backhanded her, but didn't let go. "Stupid bitch!"

"Get off my sister!" Leander bellowed as he charged. Ari just laughed and threw Lavi at him. He caught her reflexively and Ari threw a haymaker, dropping him with a single punch.

Ari turned to the gathered people. "Who else wants to fight me?" he challenged, rasing his arms triumphantly. "I am Ari, Elder of House Lion and King of the Nagual! I am the rebirth of Leopold!" The crowd cheered and he turned to enter the hut.

"No," Cassius said, standing between Ari and the entrance. The heat inside him was growing hotter. It was burning hotter than any of the fires that consumed the huts. It threatened to burn him.

Ari laughed a loud, haughty laugh. "You?" he asked in disbelief. "You're going to stop me? A regular human without a nagual soul? What can you do to me?"

"I won't let you hurt her. I will stop you," Cassius declared calmly. The fires raged inside him. His body was shaking.

"You're quivering!" Ari snorted. "I'll kill you quick, so at least you won't have the embarrassment of soiling yourself." He lunged.

Cassius's fists were clenched so tightly, the fingernails cut into his palms. He could feel the barest trickle of blood. Time seemed to slow to a crawl. He wondered if this was the moment before death, the last breath slowed to an eternity.

His eyes darted to the crowd. Men, women, children; all eager for his death. Lavi held hate and shame in her teary eyes. Lencho unmoving. Leander, slowly rising, his eyes swelling shut from the punch but still capable of recording Cassius's last moments. The only question was how Ari would do it and how long before he ripped the Key from Cassius's viscera.

Finally, he returned his gaze to Ari and time came storming back. He swung, throwing everything behind his punch. All the fire of his rage was in his fist. If it had connected, it may have crumpled Ari's chest, but the Lion was fast and clever and had fought hundreds of times. He ducked, grabbed Cassius around the waist, and lifted him into the air.

Cassius struggled, but Ari's hands were around his throat. Cassius stared into Ari's eyes and struggled to get the words out, but all he managed was a gurgle. He didn't know if he could force Ari away from him even if he could have spoken. The only thing in Ari's eyes was Cassius's death.

A dark haze began to creep from the corners of Cassius's vision as it grew blurry. He flailed once or twice impotently, his strengthless fist slapping weakly against Ari's head.

Then the fire inside him returned. A bright light swelled in his vision and his eyes went wide. It burned its way through the darkness, searing it away. His entire body felt aflame, hotter than it had ever felt before. His ears pounded with the sound of his own heart, thundering like atomic blasts.

He could feel his body about to break apart, fire and smoke swirling inside him. Just as the fire was about to consume him, Ari dropped him. He coughed for breath, the heat retreated. The crowd gasped, Lavi's eyes dried, Leander's went wide, and even Lencho woke.

Kaida had emerged from the hut.

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