Stories

The Dragon's Key: Chapter 15


It took just over a day for them to reach Oracle City. Cassius was overjoyed when they finally reached it. The entire trip had been spent in near silence, with only brief words spoken between he and Kaida. She had tensely stopped them for the night and though it had been cold, he shivered by himself in his borrowed clothes. That night, if he dreamt of past Keybearers, it was brief and fleeting and the memories fled whenever the chill woke him.

"We're here," Kaida said, though the words were entirely unnecessary. This city could be nothing but Oracle City. He could feel it inside him; in his stomach and chest.

"Where are we exactly?" Cassius asked, marveling at what was around him. It was like some old European city. No, it was like every old European city mixed together, with close packed buildings adhering to no planning or coherent design. At the very edges, new buildings were going up. Half-finished, they looked downright modern in their design, like tenements he might find in an American city.

"Oracle City," Kaida answered serenely. She was holding her head high, basking. She strode confidently and gracefully through the throngs of people that choked the streets. They flowed like liquid, parting effortlessly before her, while Cassius had to jostle and shove his way through to keep up. So congested was the crowd that Cassius could barely take note of a single person. In his mind, they all formed ridiculous amalgams. There was a lady wearing a Chinese dress and clogs who sported a beehive hairdo and a sunburst tattoo around her right eye. Gut spilled out over the jogging shorts of a fat man with his kinky beard braided into his hair.

"I know that," Cassius replied, straining to be heard over the bustling crowd. She was drawing away from him. "But where on Earth? What place, exactly?"

"I don't know," Kaida answered. "We're nowhere else but Oracle City. We can reach anywhere from here in only a few short hours, but we can't reach here from anywhere. Do you understand?"

"I suppose," he said with a sigh. He watched Kaida move, doing nothing special to avoid others. It was almost as if they avoided her, a thought that made him shudder. "Are all nagual cities like this?"

"Of course not," she said, slowing so he could catch up. "But this is Oracle City. It is tradition."

"Where are the Oracles anyway?" he asked as someone barefooted stepped on his feet. "The sooner we get there, the better."

She closed her eyes and nodded slowly. "You're right. This city is so... Well, you can't feel it. But it makes me want to stay here forever. It's hard to resist." She turned and pointed toward a small spire rising just above the building tops, deep in the center of the city. "The temple. We need to head there."

She fell silent as they walked. Though the crowds grew even larger, the streets also widened as they headed toward the center, eventually allowing Cassius to walk in a straight line without having to constantly push people out of the way.

As they went, the buildings grew older and older. Though a modern outer crust had been forming around a Victorian second layer, they passed through Neo-Classical, Baroque, Renaissance, Gothic, and Medieval layers, each thicker than the last. They finally reached the center, seemingly ripped right from the middle of ancient Athens. The Temple of Oracles at the very middle seemed very much like the Parthenon, with lofty columns and a high roof, save for its single thin spire that stabbed into the sky.

Men in white fatigues patrolled the outer columns while a long line of people snaked down its steps and stretched through the streets. "Are we going to have to wait in line?" Cassius asked. He couldn't even see the end of it.

"I'm the Princess," she answered, grabbing his arm - he nearly jerked away - and pulling him up the stairs. They didn't bump into a single person.

As they reached the top of the stairs, the men in fatigues eyed them cautiously. Cassius saw no weapons at their sides, but remembering the Snakes, and the Lions, and - he remembered with a shudder - Kaida, he guessed they didn't need them. One nodded to Kaida, though she had already passed him by.

Huge doors of polished marble parted effortlessly at Kaida's touch. A few of the petitioners flinched, seemingly ready to make a break for the door, though none moved. One middle-aged man quivered with flagging strength. Dark bags weighed down his eyes and several days of stubble covered his chin.

Before he and Cassius could meet eyes, the doors swung closed between them. The interior seemed dark as pitch, though Cassius's eyes slowly adjusted to the meek light. Much of the blackness was merely a hazy smoke. Its smell was not acrid, but rather an aroma of flowers. Small candles lined distant walls, giving off just enough flickering light to see by.

People scurried from place to place in pairs and trios, their passing marked more by their hushed whispers and shuffling feet than any physical presence. The few he could make out were stooped, covered in robes. The architecture was Classical; the mood, Gregorian.

Certainly, nothing was as confident as Kaida, who strode powerfully forward. She seemed not to notice the gloomy surroundings and it ignored her in kind. Her feet drummed on the floor, clopping like shod hooves.

So it was surprising when a pair of guards stepped in front of her.

"I am Princess Kaida, daughter of King Airyu of House Dragon. I exercise sovereign right to speak with the Oracles."

The guards didn't even blink. "The Oracles are meeting with a petitioner," one said evenly. He was a man of average size, slightly larger than Cassius, with thin features and no chin. "They will see you when they finish," the other stated. He was similar in size to his partner, though with a thick muscular neck and a stony face. "Kaida Randall of House Dragon."

Kaida frowned, but nodded her head and stepped aside. It was the first time he'd heard any nagual use her last name. It wasn't insultingly said, but it certainly wasn't polite.

"Is there a problem?" Cassius whispered.

"No," she answered, her normal voice sounding like a loud boom in the chamber. "It would be unseemly of me to barge in and rob a petitioner of his long-awaited audience with the Oracles. We wait."

"Unseemly?" Kaida let slip a smirk. "Well, I suppose there's no harm in waiting."

He wondered what the temple would look like in full light. He couldn't even see the ceiling through the gloom. The walls were little more than the pinpricks of candle light. Had the interior columns not matched those of the exterior, he would have guessed they had entered another building entirely.

"This place sure is eerie," he said.

"I find it calming," Kaida answered, her voice level and easy. "Spiritual, even. It's like I'm in direct connection with some fundamental part of existence."

"Maybe I'm just not used to it."

She shook her head slightly. "I don't think anyone ever gets used to it. No matter what." She nodded at the guards, who were at rigid attention. Neither looked threatening, but neither seemed to be intimidated by Kaida either. When he looked at one for more than a few seconds, Cassius became uneasy, his stomach rising and falling as if he were on a roller coast. Yet both seemed to have an aire of uncertainty about them. Almost as if they wondered if they weren't really dreaming.

He focused on the door behind them. "Are the Oracles through there?" he asked. The door was a simple wooden thing with an arched top and a brass ring puller.

"Sort of. Do you remember what to do?"

"Sure. Ask questions. Figure out who has ESP. Ask who and how you father was killed."

"It's not ESP," she said, pursing her lips.

"I know. Still, I remember."

"What questions are you going to ask?"

"Now that would be telling," he said, flashing a wry smile. In reality, he had no idea. Every question he thought of had a flaw, especially if Kaida's story had been accurate. Any question could have many answers that could all be considered correct. He supposed that was the point.

Kaida frowned. "Seriously, Cassius, what - "

Before she could press, the door opened. A small man wearing a dirty shirt and baggy trousers stumbled out, accompanied by a pair of guards. The man was weeping, clutching his gray beard. As he walked past, the guards stopped.

"The Oracles are ready for you, Cassius Clay Hewitt," one said in a powerful monotone. "Come forward and seek your glimpse of truth."

"Uh," he stammered, mouth suddenly dry. "Can Kaida come with me?" The guards exchanged glances of muted amusement and nodded in unison.

As they walked, Kaida's fingers intertwined his. His arm tensed and his mouth went dry, the color draining from his face and heart beating a pitiful whimper in his chest. He tried to lick his lips, but his tongue felt that of a cat.

Through the door was another reality, an infinite blackness. The door stood alone in isolation behind them. The air was chilly and crisp. Three men sat cross-legged before them, seemingly floating, though Cassius felt something solid beneath his feet despite being unable to see it.

Each man was similar, bald with a bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows and beards that tapered gently down their chests. One was fair-skinned, one dark-skinned, and one tanned. Their features were pan-humanistic. They all sat calmly with their hands folded in their laps and eyes closed. The fair-skinned one held a half-woven basket sitting at his side, the dark-skinned one held an open book, and the tanned one had headphones dangling around his neck.

Cassius stood, frozen, trembling. He was frozen and felt as if he were clutching a hot brand, though it was only Kaida's hand. She just gave him a tiny squeeze he could barely feel. "Go on, Cass," she murmured into his ear.

The warmth returned to his body and he walked forward. "Nice basket," he said as he sat before the fair-skinned Oracle.

"Thank you," the Oracle said with a small, surprised smile. "I do not get much time to work on it."

"I suppose not. You must have been working a while."

"Longer than you would know. Tell me, do you like baskets?"

"They're ok. My mother used to knit, but she never finished anything. Her cat always pulled it apart during the day, but she would just start over every night."

The Oracle chuckled softly and shook his head. "It is good to talk, but I do believe we are mortifying the others." Cassius spared a glance back at Kaida and the guards. All three held expressions of shock, though only Kaida seemed to be amused. He turned back to the Oracle before breaking into a grin.

"Alright then," he muttered. The Oracle was smirking back at him. "Uh... Tell me something about myself."

There was a sharp intake of breath from Kaida and the Oracle's smirk vanished. "You think baskets are ok," the Oracle answered gravely. He immediately picked up his basket and began to weave again as the two guards chuckled to each other.

"Thanks," Cassius muttered as he sheepishly stood. He shrugged apologetically at the scowling Kaida and moved on to the dark-skinned Oracle.

"Hello," he said, looking down at the book. "That looks like an interesting - " One of the guards harshly cleared his throat. "Er, anyway... Uh... Tell me something about myself that only I would know."

There were more chuckles from the guards as the Oracle tilted his head sideways in thought. "Kaida, the one with a beauty who defies your concepts of humanity. You love her more than anything in the world. Beyond your own safety, beyond your own concern. Though you are intimidated by her at times, and even scared of her on occasion, you would do anything she asked if she really wanted it. You may question her, disbelieve her, and not understand her, but you will always trust her. And in ever fiber of your being, you know she is your perfect match." The Oracle raised his book and began reading it, eyes still closed.

Cassius's entire body burned, his face most strongly. He swallowed hard. "Th... thanks."

Trembling, he moved to the final Oracle without sparing a glance back. He took a deep breath and said, "Tell me something about myself that only I would know."

"Nothing," the Oracle answered immediately, then placed his headphones over his ears.

"Nothing?" Cassius repeated, though he caught himself and added, "Rhetorical question." The Oracle nodded and Cassius slowly stood and turned around.

"Uh, hey," he said softly as he returned to Kaida. She practically glowed.

"Don't be embarrassed," she said sweetly. "Go ask him the question." She pointed at the dark-skinned Oracle.

"But he's wrong," Cassius muttered. He had his eyes half-closed, looking distantly into the infinite.

Kaida's eyes went wide. "What?"

"He's wrong," Cassius repeated.

"Oh."

"The first one was right, but ask a stupid question... The last one..." He sat back before the tanned Oracle. He removed his headphones.

"Cassius," Kaida said, her voice rising in concern.

"I've got this," he answered without turning back to her. "Oracle of All, I humbly beseech your knowledge. Answer me, Cassius Clay Hewitt, so that I can proceed further in this world better equipped to face the trials ahead."

The Oracle opened his eyes, piercing with pupils darker than black. For this moment, only Cassius and the Oracle existed. "Ask and learn," the Oracle answered.

"Airyu, the King of Dragons, has been killed. What were the circumstances of his death?"

"Airyu, King of Dragons, was slain by the sole action of Reynard Baye, wielding an old sword."


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