Stories

The Dragon's Key: Chapter 16


Like a tsumani is beyond a wave, Kaida was beyond furious.

Cassius sulked, but did not shy away. "I can't believe you!" she growled, low and throaty. "You screwed up, for what? Because you were embarrassed! Because you were selfish and scared! You screwed up!"

"I didn't screw up," he answered yet again, his voice filled with resignation. Kaida's iciness was palpable to the petitioners, who gave them a wide berth as she stalked out of the temple. "I wasn't embarrassed and I didn't screw up."

"But you asked the wrong Oracle! There's no way that you d..." She trailed off and grimaced. "Reynard couldn't have killed my father! It's impossible! You should have asked the Oracle who said you loved me! We both know he was right!"

"I tried to tell you, he was wrong bec - "

"Shut up!" she shouted, turning and raising her hand as if she meant to slap him. "Why are you lying to me? What's wrong with you?"

"If you're so angry, just turn into that monster again, like you did with the Lions," Cassius answered defiantly. "Shred me up and be done with it."

She lowered her hand, but the anger in her face didn't dissipate. "Is that what this is about? You saw the part of me I try to hide, the part I tried to spare you from, the part I hate myself, and suddenly everything changes?"

"No, that's not it."

"Then what?" The anger melted away and she looked suddenly very tired. She closed her eyes and looked at her own feet. "Did that make you stop caring about me?"

"I... That's not it!" Kaida didn't respond. She simply turned and stared back at the temple doors. "Kaida," he said softly. She took a step away from him.

"Go away, Cassius," she said softly.

"What? Go where?"

"Wherever. Stay in the city, so I can find you when I need to. I'm going to get the answer I need, one way or the other." She walked off before he could retort, toward the line of petitioners. She began talking to one, then quickly moved on to the next, so on down the line.

Jaw clenched and teeth grinding, Cassius stormed off.




At the very outskirts of the city, Cassius found a tree planted atop a slightly raised mound. It was young and bent slightly when he sat against it, but didn't break.

After a half hour, Kaida found him. A young man was with her, slack eyed and empty grinned. His smile was all teeth, his face all smile. He was a plainly dressed Middle Eastern man, downright mundane. "Who's he?" Cassius asked.

"Jabir," Kaida answered. "He got my answer."

"Good for him," Cassius muttered. "And just what was it?"

"Master Naja killed my father."

"Funny, I remember you telling me that was impossible."

"He didn't do it alone," Kaida growled. "He had help. It was... quite complicated. It involved old powers and things that are spoken of in whispers among my people. But it explains how a dragon could die. But I don't have time to give you the whole story."

"You can tell me on the way to wherever we're going next. I'd like to hear it."

"We are not going anywhere," she said. "Jabir and I are going to the manor of Papa Gator, head of House Crocodile. I am going to call a meeting of the Heads of House to reveal the traitor and make him pay."

"So Reynard's going to be there?" Cassius spat.

"You are going to stay here in the city. It's safe here. No one ever comes to harm in Oracle City. Once the Heads of House decide what to do, I will return for you with a proper bearer for the Key."

Cassius turned to Jabir. "How did she get your help?"

Jabir's smile widened to show more teeth. "I came to get help finding a wife," he answered in a thick drawl, like a Westerner badly faking an Arabic accent. "She promised me herself."

Cassius drew his knees to his chest. "Good luck with that."

Kaida stared at him for a long moment, then turned and walked away, Jabir in tow. After a few dozen feet, she looked back over her shoulder at him and he hid his face behind his knees. When he looked back up, they were gone.

Beside him was a small fox. "Hello," it said.

"Great. She's driven me crazy."

"Why do you say that?"

"You should know. Since you are the physical manifestation of my insanity."

The fox stood and laid its forepaws on Cassius's knees, looking him right in the eyes. "I can assure you, I am an actual talking fox. Have you really seen nothing stranger in your life?"

"You sound like Johnny Cash," Cassius noted. "What are the chances? Besides, I've seen men with poisonous fangs who can come back from the dead, dragons, and floating bald men in infinite nothingness. Maybe I've just been crazy this entire time. Maybe I'm lying on the floor of my apartment with cold spaghetti and meatballs spilled on the floor, babbling to myself until someone realizes I'm missing and the men in white coats come to drag me off."

"And would admitting that I am real make you more insane?"

"Good point." Cassius squinted at the fox as it spoke. He reached out and it pressed against his hand like a cat craving attention. Its fur was soft and silky, as if it had been shampooed. "Well, you certainly feel real."

"That is reassuring," the fox deadpanned.

"What are you, my spirit guide or something?"

"Not really." The fox's tail swished back and forth sharply, like a whip. "You just looked like you needed someone to talk to."

"I don't think a fox can help me with my relationship issues."

"You'd be surprised. I'm King, by the way."

"King?" Cassius muttered. "King of what?"

"King to most of my friends. Which are, admittedly, few. King Fox to those who want to be formal. A few call me the Fox King, but that sounds rather stuffy unless you say it with a comma. Then it's 'the fox, King'. But I know I'm a fox and you know I'm a fox, so it is rather redundant."

"I'll stick with King. So King, how can you talk?"

King shuddered, his fur puffing out slightly. "Good question. How do you talk?"

"Millions of years of evolution gave me the vocal chords and brain power capable of forming language?"

"I just do," King answered. "But this isn't about me. I gave you my name."

"Cassius Hewitt," he said, sticking out his hand instinctively. He almost pulled it back in embarrassment when King placed his paw in Cassius's palm. "A few of my friends call me Cass. But just Cassius is fine."

"Alright Cassius. What's the trouble with relationships you're having? Is your mate angry because you failed to catch a snow rabbit for the pups?" Cassius gave him an incredulous look. "Just kidding. I may be a fox, but I can tell the difference between fox problems and human problems." King climbed into Cassius's lap and curled into a ball, resting his head on his paws and looking up into Cassius's face.

Cassius sighed and began stroking King's neck. "Well, there's this girl. She's my best friend and... other stuff too. I was supposed to ask the Oracles who killed her father. They told me it was Reynard Baye."

Fox's hair bristled momentarily. "And?" he prodded.

"And she didn't believe it. She said it was impossible that he did it." He sighed. "And maybe it was. I don't know, it doesn't make much sense to me if he did. I mean, he helped us out a bunch of times, so why would he have done it?" He shook his head. "Besides, I don't think that was why she was mad."

"And why was she?"

"Because one of the Oracles said that I loved her. But I didn't ask that Oracle the question about her father."

"So she's angry you don't love her?"

"I don't know!" he groaned. "I mean, maybe I do? I don't know, we've been friends for so long and I know I had a huge crush on her back in high school, but she never really returned the affection. Except once, when she kissed me, but I can't even remember that because she made me forget! I definitely love her as a friend. But it wasn't friendship-love the Oracle was talking about, that's for sure.

"And if she is pissed that I don't love her, what does that mean about her? Does she feel something for me? She's set me up on dates with other women before! It doesn't make any sense. It's all so confusing. And besides, that's not the reason I said the Oracle was wrong."

"And why did you?"

"Because it was a trick question. I asked them to tell me something about myself that only I would know."

"Which must be nothing, because if they know it, then it is not only you that knows it."

"Exactly!"

"Did you tell her this?"

"Well, I tried... But she was angry and I kind of got side tracked and made her even angrier by mentioning something she did that..." He trailed off.

"I see. And she has left you here."

"Yes," Cassius admitted. "And it makes me miserable. She promised to marry some... guy! Just so he would use his questions to get a different answer. And they got a different one! So I don't know if he asked the wrong Oracle or I did or both of them are right or it's all just a bunch of crap."

"Most smelly, at that."

"And to top it off, I'm supposed to be the Keybearer. I'm supposed to protect her, at least that's what the dreams have been telling me."

King's fur bristled again. "Dreams?"

Cassius shrugged. "I've been dreaming about past Keybearers. Like I'm reliving their memories through their eyes, but it feels like it's me the entire time. I don't know if they're anything or not."

"I see..."

"So, what's your advice for me?"

"Sorry," King Fox said with a shudder of his head. "I'm just a fox. I don't have much experience with women."

"Even fox women?

"When you're the only one who can talk in a relationship, it gets boring pretty fast. Maybe some day I will meet a nice talking fox lady, but until then I am of the lonely life."

"I never felt lonely with Kaida around. Even if we were destined to only ever be friends, she was always there for me."

"Then why don't you go after her?"

"It's not that easy. She was going to Papa Gator's manor. I don't even know where that is, much less how to get there."

"Ask directions?"

"I can't. I mean, I could, but they wouldn't help me. I can't walk the hidden paths like she can."

The corners of King's lips pulled back. "Yet you've come here."

"Well, I mostly just followed Kaida."

"And you never thought to learn? You never paid attention to how she was walking, where she was going, what she was doing? Do you always rely on others? No wonder she left."

The tips of Cassius's ears burned. "Well, she never taught me."

"So? No one taught me either. I learned. No one taught the first man to walk, he just put one foot in front of the other. It's all a matter of doing your own work." King leapt from Cassius's lap and paced around. "Well, I guess we can't wait for you to learn yourself if you wish to catch your friend. So I will teach you."

King began trotting away, toward the edge of the city. Cassius hopped up and followed, jogging to keep up with the fox. "Where are we going?"

"To a nice, straight pathway," King said with glee. "Really, the entire world is connected in all four dimensions, much like it is in three dimensions. But just like your normal three, sometimes there is something in the way."

"What is something?"

"Interesting question. It's... stuff. Dark matter, dark energy maybe, who knows? It's there and it stops us from passing through it. Could just be the four-dimensional analog of rocks. Luckily, none of us can actually see into four dimensions."

"Why luckily?" Cassius asked with a huff. He was having to run to keep up now, even though King seemed to be barely trotting ahead.

"Because it would drive us insane, probably. We're designed to perceive in three dimensions. Seeing the fourth would be too much for us to handle. Insanity is the best case." King abruptly stopped and Cassius doubled over, hands on knees, sucking wind. "Tired?"

"You didn't... have to... move so fast," he puffed. He looked back behind him, shocked to see Oracle City completely gone. "We moved - "

"Through the fourth dimension," King finished, his lips pulling back to show his tiny, sharp teeth. "Correct. There was your first lesson. You saw how easy it was for me? That is because I walked a smoother path. Yet even though you were following right behind me, you walked one much steeper."

"I didn't feel like... I was going uphill."

"Didn't you? You lagged behind. You're winded. Your face is flushed. You look like you ran uphill to me."

Cassius ran a hand through his hair, coming away damp with sweat. "I didn't feel it, though. No force of gravity. It just looked like you were moving faster."

"I didn't move faster, you moved slower. You didn't feel the downward pull for the same reason you can't see the path. You're not able to. Though, through training, you can eventually feel it. You might have felt it before in your life. If you've ever had a sudden moment of vertigo or lost your balance for no reason. You probably accidentally took a step through the fourth dimension. Not enough to really get you anywhere, but enough to make you feel it."

"Great," Cassius said. "If that's the best I can do now, I'll never learn in time."

"You need to take baby steps before you can run. You don't see the fourth dimension. You don't taste it or touch it or smell it or hear it. You must sense it through the periphery."

"And how do I do that? I never noticed myself moving slower before. Faster once. But every other time, I felt like I was walking normally. Things just... changed gradually, with me walking a mile and then suddenly being a hundred distant."

"That's the trick. How do you know you only walked a mile and not five feet? How do you know you walked forward and not to the left? You must learn that."

Cassius rolled his eyes. "And how do I learn that?"

King's tail slapped against Cassius's leg like a whip. "Always impatient, you humans. Like I said, baby steps. I want you to close your eyes." Cassius did so. "Now I want you to come to me." King was more distant from him now. Cassius stepped toward the voice, slowly feeling with his foot so he wouldn't trip. After about fifty paces, he opened his eyes and looked. King was not there.

"Over here!" King called. To his right, King sat upright, his tail flicking back and forth. He was a good twenty feet away.

"You veered off course," he explained as Cassius walked over. "You moved too quickly and didn't pay attention to where you were going."

"I felt with my foot."

"So you wouldn't trip, not to keep you on path. Now close your eyes again." Once he did, King called out. Cassius slowly turned toward King's voice. This time he walked slowly, one foot in front of the other. He made sure toe touched heel, keeping himself on a straight line, until he reached where he expected King to be.

Once again, he found he had missed the mark. "What did I do wrong?" he asked while looking around, finally finding King a dozen feet behind him.

"You just overshot your mark. Try again." This time, as Cassius got nearer where he thought King might be, he smelled the faint odor of fur. He opened his eyes and looked straight down to see King standing there.

"I did it! I could smell you."

King let out a relieved pant. "You almost stepped on me. Good, for only your third try. Still, you must do better."

"How? I came right to you!"

"And if your eyes had been open, it would have been no big deal."

"Alright, then what do I have to do?"

"Find me again. Without my help."

Cassius closed his eyes and waited. But King said nothing. "Aha. I have to find you without you calling to me. Ok, I can do this." He strained his senses, trying to pick out something. Then he took a step forward, tripped over something, and knocked the wind out of himself.

As he gasped and spit out dirt, King Fox planted himself on Cassius's chest. "Guessing is not really what I meant."

"That's not helping," Cassius groaned as he continued to suck in short gasps of air.

"You said before that you knew I was there by smell. But I didn't move and yet you still tried to move."

"I didn't think you wouldn't move!" Cassius let his head fall back to the ground. The sky was dark blue, the color of impending sunset.

"You shouldn't have to. Instinctive, not reactive. Don't think of walking blind, think of walking without your eyes."

"That's harder than it... No, it's just as hard as it sounds. Fucking hard." Cassius sighed and closed his eyes. King crawled off his chest and Cassius stood. He sniffed the air, still smelling fox fur.

Before he opened his eyes, he grabbed the front of his vest and sniffed it. It still smelled of fox, where King had sat a moment ago. "Dammit," he muttered. He strained his ears, listening. He heard the rustle of the wind, the chirping of birds, but no fox sounds.

Eventually, he opened his eyes and found King sitting a few dozen feet away. "How am I supposed to find you when I can't see, hear, or see you?"

"That does seem like a problem."

"Yes! It is a problem! A big problem! I can't go chase after Kaida when I'm busy playing pin the tail on the fox!"

"Oh, don't worry," King said with a bite of sarcasm, "I already have a tail. But this is hardly playing. Tell me, if you were teaching someone to fight, would you throw him into the ring with an opponent and tell him to swing? Or would you have him do some push ups to get strong enough first?"

"If he couldn't throw a punch, I'd tell him to stop wasting my time."

"Then stop wasting my time."

Cassius ran a hand through his hair, twisting it through his fingers until it hurt. "No, I'm sorry. Let's go back to the push ups."

"Glad you agree."

"Now what?"

"I believe you get the basic concepts. I want you to follow me this time." King stepped to the side and vanished.

"Ok, you took a fourth dimensional step. I can do that." He took a similar side-step, but did not find himself at King's side. He took a step forward, to the space King would have been occupying, but found nothing. Finally, he stepped into the space King had vacated and mimicked King's step. It was a small shuffle, barely a step, with feet brushing the ground.

Once more he tripped and hit the ground.

"All you did was copy my step! Anyone could do that!" King reprimanded.

"In fairness, you didn't tell me not to do that." Cassius slowly got to his feet, surprised to find himself in a barren field, nothing like the area he'd just been. He reversed his step and found himself back where he'd started, a small distance outside Oracle City.

The sudden change left him woozy with vertigo. "You shouldn't do that," King said, stepping back into view. "Even the most experienced don't jump without some preparation."

"Sorry," Cassius choked out before doubling over and dry heaving. The lack of anything coming up reminded him it had been quite a while since he had eaten.

"I want you to close your eyes until I call for you. That way, you can't just copy my steps." Cassius was in no position to argue, so he closed his eyes, using it as a small respite from his discombobulation. A moment later, the call came.

A glance around revealed nothing save that King had vanished again. Cassius wondered if the Agents or Kaida or even Reynard could have duplicated the feat of vanishing. None had done it before, even when there was fighting to be done. He wondered if King had some advantage, being smaller and more able to fit through smaller pathways. Then he realized he couldn't follow if that was the case.

"You don't seem to be looking very hard," King's voice came from nowhere all at once.

Considering something, Cassius took a step forward. "I'm just thinking," he announced, "trying to figure out where you might have gone."

Mocking chitters echoed out, from somewhere above and beside him. "If you're trying to triangulate from the sound, good idea, but still too three dimensional. Keep trying."

"Great," Cassius muttered. He took a deep breath, trying to come up with some other plan. He let his mind go blank and stared ahead, when suddenly King came into the very edges of his vision. He blinked and the image vanished. "Did you do that?"

"Do what?" came the specterly reply. He let his mind go blank again, focusing on nothing, and once more he saw King at the periphery. It was a ghost of an image, not really there. But he could feel a tingling sensation inside his stomach. He slowly walked forward, swaying back and forth slightly, his feet making an irregular pace.

With his eyes unfocused, he could see the scenery flow around him with each step. Trees, rocks, night sky, busy streets all mixed together in a surrealist world. King's ghost became more solid with each step, finally coalescing into reality as he sat on the plush couch of an upscale apartment.

"Where are we?" Cassius asked.

"Where I led you," King answered. "Congratulations, you picked it up quickly. Though you could have simply gotten lucky."

"Lucky?" Cassius chuckled. "No, I'm just good!"

"Well, then you should have no problem following me again." King leapt and ran past Cassius.

"Not at all!" Cassius laughed, turning and running after King, letting his eyes lose focus and keeping the ghostly image within the barest glimpses of his vision. He chased King, through a scorching desert, into a dark factory, past a landing jet, and over a gilded forest. His steps were uneven and drunken, though each was with purpose.

People pointed at him as he passed through an anthill and in between the pages of a newspaper. He exploded from a geyser and rode a snowflake to the ground. Finally, he collapsed in front of a solid King, at the tree he had left what seemed hours ago.

"Feel free to vomit wherever you like," King said with mirth.

"I'm not going to throw up," Cassius answered, swallowing bile. "Did all of that really happen?"

"It depends on what you experienced. But likely not. We were traveling fast. So fast..." King grew silent and his hair stood on end before he shook himself like a dog emerging from water. "I've never had anyone follow me so quickly. Remember what I said about seeing the fourth dimension and it driving you insane?"

"Yes."

"Well, you just got a few glimpses of why. You didn't really see the fourth dimension. But it brushed against your mind when you moved. When you pass through it so rapidly, it has to have some effect. Mere impressions of the places you pass through get jumbled together, forming a confused and strange image that nonetheless tells you where you've gone."

"So I didn't really walk up Jessica Alba's navel?"

"No," King said, his lips pulled back. "You likely walked up a mountain and passed by a woman in rapid succession, so the images burned together in your mind."

"Damn," Cassius gasped. He wore a wide smile, his heart was pounding, and the warmth he felt all over was from his own flushing, not from the heat of the Key spreading through him. He wanted to hop back up and run through the pathways forever.

"Don't let yourself be swept away," King warned. "What you did was unprecedented. It took me a long time to move like that and you picked it up in almost no time. But most pathways are much less exciting. They are mere worn trails than loose hand holds on the side of a mountain."

Cassius forced himself to sit up and took a deep breath to clear his head. "Yeah, I know. Now, how do I get to Kaida?" He unfocused his eyes. "I can't see her."

"No, she is much too distant to see," King agreed. "But I can direct you to Papa Gator's manor." King recited a list of directions that Cassius memorized, though they only occasionally made sense. "You will understand them as you follow them," King assured him.

"Thank you King," Cassius said. "You're the best fox ever."

"I try. Good luck, Cassius Clay Hewitt. I have the feeling we will meet again."

"Maybe. Goodbye!" Cassius waved and then sprinted off before slowing to pace himself just before vanishing down a pathway.

King smiled. "Yes, we will meet again." He leapt to his right and seemed to vanish mid-air.




Standing in line had not been what Krait or Adder had in mind. Despite that, the best they could do was wrangle their way into the middle of the line to see the Oracles. To do that, they agreed to rid a man of his true love's pesky fiancee. "Once he's gone, she'll have to love me!" Neither planned to fulfill their promise.

At about midday, Adder swore he saw the Princess and Keybearer. "I'll be damned if I lose our place in line chasing two look-alikes!" Krait hissed. "That'll cost us even more time and put us even colder on their trail." Adder hadn't been happy with the decision, but the two had already vanished into the crowd.

It was approaching dusk when the two finally reached the front of the line. "My feet are killing me," Krait said. He hopped from one foot to the other. The two guards glared at the pair.

"Names?" one guard said.

"Krait and Adder," Adder said, "of House Snake."

"Formerly," amended Krait.

"Temporarily," added Adder.

The guard's expression never changed. "Go on in," he said flatly. The huge double doors parted and they walked into the dark, smoky antechamber. Krait had never been to the Oracles, though he'd heard stories. It was supposed to be a deeply spiritual experience. It just made Krait want to cough.

"What a place," Adder whispered.

"What do you mean?" Krait replied, his voice echoing through the chamber.

"Can't you feel it?" Adder rasped, his voice nearly inaudible. "The very lifeline of our people flows through here. A man could rule the world from here. It's a fitting place for the culmination of all fates."

Krait laughed until he realized Adder was serious. "Sorry," he said, his laugh turning to a cough. "I don't care much for that spiritual crap. Too much like church."

Adder sneered, flashing his sharp fangs. "As long as it doesn't keep you from asking the questions."

"What? Me? Why can't you ask them?"

"I already asked mine."

"What? When? We've spent every waking hour together since we got out of jail."

"I sleep less than you."

"So, what was it about? Was it about money?"

"No."

"Women then? Was it about Elaphe? Or maybe the daughter of that wolf we poisoned?"

"No. It's none of your concern."

"It wasn't about a man, was it?"

"No. Do not ask me again, Krait."

The door to the Oracles opened, sparing Krait a response. A young woman, happy tears streaming down her face, emerged from the room. A guard walked behind her, prodding her forward with his presence. She briefly stopped to look at Krait and Adder before being shooed forward by the guard.

As soon as she was out of sight, another guard stepped out to look over the two snakes. "Who is coming forward to present themselves before the Oracles?"

"Krait, formerly of House Snake," he said, taking a step forward. Adder stepped with him. "Where are you going?"

"With you, to the Oracles."

Krait shook his head and put his hand on Adder's chest to push him back. Adder didn't budge. "Oh no. I'm doing this alone. You don't need to come."

"I need to make sure you do things properly."

"What's the matter? Don't trust me after all these years? If our positions were reversed, I'd trust you."

"If our positions were reversed, you wouldn't care. Now let me come in."

Krait appealed to the guard, who made no motion to help him. "Can he even come in there?" Krait prompted.

"The Oracles do not care Krait, formerly of House Snake. Take whoever you want in." The guard's tone suddenly turned less apathetic. "Just hurry up, you do not have all day."

"Bah!" Krait yanked his hand away from Adder and smoothed his suit. "Let's go."

The guard led them into the chamber. The sudden lack of a floor nearly caused Krait to topple in vertigo. Seeing an uneasy expression on Adder's face raised his spirits, but did nothing to calm him.

"Ask your questions Krait, formerly of House Snake," the guard prodded.

Krait stepped forward and looked down at the three old men. He wondered why anyone would trust geriatrics in robes. With a shrug, he stepped toward the first. "What's my name?" he asked.

"You are Krait, of House Snake," the Oracle answer, voice bereft of both doubt and confidence. Krait licked his teeth as he stared down at the Oracle's bald head.

After a moment, he moved to the second one. "What's my name?"

"You have no name you care about. You are called many things, but none are you." The Oracle did not bother to look up and his voice was flat. Krait snorted and walked to the third.

"What is my name?" he asked for the final time.

"Slade Wilson," the Oracle whispered in monotone, though everyone in the room could hear. Krait licked his teeth again, his tongue lingering over the pointed fangs. He stayed where he stood, then cleared his throat.

"We are looking for Princess Kaida of House Dragon, the Keybearer that travels with her, and that traitor Reynard Baye. Where will we find them once we go looking?" he asked. He and Adder had rehearsed the question, making sure there could be no ambiguous answer.

"Go to the Old Library and seek out the Head Librarian Baruti. Then you will find those you seek."

Krait turned back to Adder, whose slightly queasy expression had mollified. Krait nodded to the guard and walked out of the void.

Once he was free of the room, he let out a breath, feeling something lifted from him. Adder hissed into his ear. "We go to Baruti. We will have our revenge and regain our places."

"Yeah, Baruti," Krait answered, his voice as empty as those of the Oracles. "Great."


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