The Dragon's Key: Chapter 17

Years had passed since the last time Kaida had walked through Papa Gator's manor. Despite the gap in time, she walked as though she were still a girl, though the ceiling wasn't quite as high and the stained glass windows not as large. Her best times among the nagual had come at Papa Gator's manor. There she'd been allowed to roam the ancient twists, passages, and nooks of the great Victorian house.

Though its stature had waned with age, none of its magic had vanished. She passed a gargoyle carved from black marble and remembered how she had shrieked the first time she saw it, seemingly moving in the flickering candle light. Papa Gator had been unable to contain his laughter as she cowered behind his leg.

But this was no time to reminisce. As was evident from the scurrying servants, she had to attend to important matters. They scrambled to ready things for her; prepare her room, ready her feast, and select an honor guard to accompany her around the manor.

She neither wanted nor needed a guard, but there was tradition to follow. She really wanted to be alone, but even that luxury couldn't be afforded. She spared a glance back at Jabir, who mutely followed her with his dumb smile. It was just the same as being alone, she supposed. He had been silent for hours, his ugly grin showing off his stained teeth and emphasing his fat head.

She would have to deal with him eventually, however. She could wriggle out of her promise somehow. Who could fault her for making and never intending to honor it? The king of Dragons had been killed. She had to do whatever she could to find the culprits. The fool didn't even care who she was; there would be someone more beautiful she could find to marry him, she had no doubt.

"Oh, my sweet chile!" a deep, craggy voice boomed. A jolt of joy went through Kaida's body as she whirled to face Papa Gator's outstretched arms. She squealed and ran into them. He cradled her in his massive arms and she hugged back, though her arms could not reach around his girth.

"What is you wearing, darlin'?" he asked, eyeing her loose fitting Lion clothes. "And your pretty hair, you cut it? Why you do that?"

She plucked at the rough furs self-consciously. "I had a little run in with some Lions," she said with a grimace. "My old clothes were pretty ruined. My hair too."

He shrugged. "We get you some fresh ones. I wonder where you been all these years," he said, his rich voice almost songlike. "I glad to see you come back to us. But I worry why you come now. I can tell is no good." She finally broke the embrace and Papa Gator smoothed the front of his rich white suit and doffed his fedora. "Is good to see you regardless, Princess."

"It's good to see you too, Papa Gator," she sighed. "But you're right. I'm not good at all." She looked around at the bustling servants, trying to remain inconspicuous yet staying nearby with curiosity. "It really needs to be discussed in private."

"Of course, chile." He led her a short way to his chambers. "No one bother me here," he explained as he sat behind his polished white oak desk. It was neat and clean, free of anything resembling work. "Is only place I get peace and quiet. Elsewise they always botherin' me, askin' me all manner of dumb question. I tell you, who has time to figure what drink I want with dinner? Surprise me, I tell them, but they always worry! What if I don't like? Maybe I get angry." His jowls shook with laughter. "You think they know better by now! Been sixty years, servants still think it matter to me!"

"You know servants," Kaida said with an unrestrained grin, "they always try to get things just right and only manage to get them just wrong."

"Hoho!" Papa Gator guffawed, slapping the desk. "That they do! Naw, much better when they take initiative! Course, then they ain't servant no more. They get fancy name, like 'retainer' or 'seneschal'. Then they get all uppity and don't listen no more." As he laughed at his own joke, he took out a white handkerchief and dabbed at his forehead. Papa Gator did not sweat, but he certainly perspired. "But I figure you ain't come all this way to talk servant with me. Tell me, darlin', why you come to fat ol' Papa Gator's house?"

Kaida took a deep breath. "My father is dead. Murdered."

Silence hung for a moment. Finally, Papa Gator stood ponderously. "Lord, chile, that ain't no good. Ain't no bit of good at all." He paced a few steps. "I suppose you know who did it?" He took a picture from a shelf and stared at it. It showed him in his younger days, standing beside King Airyu, on the day he took over House Crocodile.

"Yes," she said. "I went to the Oracles. Jabir asked them of the killer." She indicated the man, who stepped forward. Papa Gator peered at him as if Jabir had materialized out of thin air. "But that's not the only thing," she continued. "I know how loyal you are to House Dragon, so I trust enough to tell you."

"The Key missin'?" he surmised, slowly returning the picture to its place.

"How did you know?"

"Only thin' get you talkin' 'bout loyalty," he said. "Don't worry none, chile. Papa Gator don't want lead all nagual. Bad enough, leadin' one House, to worry about everyone else house too. Won't do me no good gossipin' neither. Best let these things get found out on their own."

"Hopefully it won't get found out," Kaida said. "I know who has the Key."

Papa Gator quirked an eyebrow. "You find it? Where you put it? This boy ain't got it, I tell you that much." He pointed a thick finger at Jabir. "Ain't got the gut to hold it. I don't see it in him noways."

"Of course not. My friend Cassius has it."

"Then where this friend at?" Papa Gator asked, looking around theatrically as if he had missed another occupant of the room. "Ain't behind you. Ain't hidin' under the chair, is he? Cause if he here, he should come on out! You hidin' from me, Mr. Cassius? I promise not to hurt you!"

Kaida swallowed hard, the tips of her ears turning a deep red. "He's not here," she admitted, squirming in her chair. It suddenly didn't feel very comfortable. "I left him in Oracle City."

"Left him behind?" Papa Gator boomed. When he saw the red flush creep down to Kaida's face and neck, he walked over and placed a gentle hand on her arm. "Don't be worryin', chile. We all make mistake. But darlin', he need to be here. Best place for him. Safest place for him. Won't be no good him sittin' there, Key inside him."

"I know," Kaida admitted. "I do know. I... We got into an argument. He's supposed to be smart, Papa Gator. But he asked the wrong Oracle. He asked the wrong Oracle." She sniffled and wiped at her eyes, mildly surprised to find they came away damp. "I..." She took a deep breath and pushed it all down. "I'm sorry, I just thought he'd get it right and when he didn't, I was so angry that I stormed off and left him there." She sighed and slumped down into the chair, Papa Gator's hand giving her a comforting pat. "Right now, we need to assemble the Heads of House. We need to punish my father's killers."

"You sure that wise?" Papa Gator asked. "Hold no hardship against me, my Princess, but I gotta say it like it is... You the last Dragon."

She swallowed hard. "I know," she said. "We have to discuss that too." She smiled meekly. "I guess that makes me Queen. And who knows, maybe we're wrong? Maybe there's another real dragon out there somewhere, hidden. Whatever it is, there's no way it can be kept secret. Not forever."

"Of course, darlin'. I suppose my manor good a place as any for a meetin'. Got a nice big table." He smiled wide and stroked her hair gently with his massive hand. "I have servants prepare a feast. Get the word out. Won't take long 'fore they all come a-runnin." His smile melted away as he noticed her closed eyes and soft breathing. She had fallen asleep there. "Poor chile," he muttered to himself. "Too much burden for one so little."

He lifted the sleeping Princess in his arms and carried her to a waiting servant. "Take her to her room. Let her sleep as long as she like, less I tell you to wake her. Don't be interruptin' her for nothin', got it?" The servant nodded and wordlessly took her. Papa Gator reached out and halted Jabir from following. "And where you think you goin'?"

"I'm her fiancee," Jabir answered with an empty smile.

Papa Gator shook his head. "Boy, I don't know you from nothin'. Maybe you is, maybe you ain't, but she ain't tell me nothin' 'bout no fiancee."

His smile wavered. "But she promised me her hand."

"Then I tell you what. You come help with the plannin'. Do like a good groom ought." Papa Gator dragged the hapless Jabir off with him.

The room was exactly as Kaida had left it, frozen in time for ten years. The partially made bed, too short for her even at twelve, still had sheets untucked. Small pictures of family - both biological and spiritual - and friends - both remembered and forgotten - checkered the walls. Light streamed through a partly drawn curtain and glinted off a silver locket, the lost memento of a forgotten admirer. Even the air was old, tinged with the aroma of stale strawberries.

As soon as she touched the bed, she woke. "Papa Gator never let anyone inside," the servant explained. "Under the harshest penalty."

"What was that?" Kaida asked with an exhausted smirk. "Death?"

"Oh no. Anyone who entered would need to clean Grigori's pen. Alone."

Kaida chuckled lightly. "Truly a fate worse than death." Grigori was the pet alligator of Papa Gator. Various legends said the creature inhabited the manor ground before Papa Gator arrived, that it could speak, and that it had once been a man. Papa Gator only laughed at the stories, but never went so far as to outright deny them.

"If there is anything you need, Princess, feel free to ask."

"No, I'm fine. Just make sure I'm woken before all the Heads of House arrive."

The servant bowed and softly closed the door behind himself. Kaida softly sighed. The day had left her exhausted, more than she'd been in years. She climbed slowly onto the bed, her feet dangling off the end. She was too worn to even pull them up.

She fell asleep wondering about Cassius.

Kaida's dreams were never pleasant and she'd learned to live with that. Dragons do not dream peacefully. Not nightmares, but always filled with a general sense of unease and danger, as if a nightmare would begin at any moment. It never did.

In her current dream, Cassius was locked into a guillotine. The blade was poised to drop any moment and she struggled to release him. She shouted, cried, pried at the device, threatened the executioner. But the blade remained hanging above him, never falling, always giving her just more time to free him.

The dream finally ended with a knocking on the chamber door. Kaida cracked her eyes with lids of sandpaper. "Who's there?"

"Lenore; a servant of Papa Gator. The Heads of House are assembling." Kaida bolted up and threw the curtains open. It was black out, the moon hidden behind clouds.

Kaida shook the cobwebs from her mind. She smoothed her hair into place and repaired her makeup with a touch. She threw the door open to find a small woman with raven hair. She held a thin, yellow dress. Kaida took it and tugged it over her head. "Take me."

"Yes my Princess."

The meeting hall was a grand room, fit for heads of state and lords of commerce. Chandeliers glittered against the towering ceiling, casting sparkling light over the entire room. The walls were painted in gold, the floor cast from fine white marble. But none matched the grand black ironwood table, stretching fifty feet long and twenty feet wide, carved from the trunk of an ancient tree.

Around the table sat the heads of each of the two hundred houses, save for those five Lost Houses who had no heads. Their seats remained empty gaps. The only other seat not taken was that of House Dragon, the mighty throne left for the Head of All Houses. To the right of the throne sat Papa Gator, occupying the chair of House Crocodile. To its left sat the chair of House Snake. Kaida's eyes went wide as she realized Master Naja had taken his place at the table.

But if she betrayed herself, none gave notice. Everyone's eyes were on her as she walked slowly toward the throne and stood before it. None made a sound. They simply watched. She slowly looked to each of them, their faces mostly strange to her. If they found this sudden meeting odd, none showed it. They all held neutral expressions.

She had never spoken to a full assembly of the Houses before. Nor had she ever sat in her father's throne. She was expected to remain standing.

Slowly, she lowered herself into the throne. There were gasps and mutters, though most retained their neutral expressions. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a slight smirk cross Master Naja's crimson lips. She fought down an urge to stand and clapped her hand against the table.

"Fellow Heads of House," she began, "there is much to discuss this night. I have called and everyone answered my summons! We have one of the greatest gatherings of Heads of House in recent memory! But the time for talking waits. For now, we feast!"

She clapped her hand again and servants poured from doorways hidden behind curtains. They carried platters of food, enough to sate any pallette. Drinks followed, fine wine and crystal water with smaller pitchers of juices and milks.

"You did well," Papa Gator murmured to her as he leaned in. She felt Master Naja snicker, but ignored it. He would not dare anything here. Why he had come, she could not fathom. Did he hope to gain mercy by showing his face?

A plate of food, carrying roast duck, wild rice, and mashed potatoes flowing with gravy, was placed before her. "Your meal, my Princess," a familiar voice said softly. She looked up into Reynard's face with surprise. His normal finery had been replaced by the simple uniform of a servant.

"Reynard?" she gasped.

"Yes, my Princess," he said with a stiff bow.

"What are you doing here?"

He kept his face low, eyes averted. "I am a servant, my Princess. After all the... trials of the past week, I thought it best I find a new line of service."

Before anything else could be said, Reynard scurried away. Kaida looked at her food. Her mouth watered at the smell of it. Though her stomach had been a knotted pit, she could feel a wave of hunger pass over her. She began to eat.

Cassius had been in a full sprint for several minutes. His chest burned and his heart pounded in his chest, but it was invigorating in a way no other exercise had ever been. Moving through the hidden pathways of the fourth dimension filled him with excited energy. He was exhausted and grimy from his trek, but he could see Kaida in the distance from the corners of his eyes. She was so near, only a few steps away.

He pushed through a door and felt the familiar ripple of sensation that came as he leapt from one point to another. He found himself in a hallway; Gothic, yet New World, like a New Orleans manor. Dim lamps lit the walls, casting soft shadows over everything.

"Papa Gator's Manor," he breathed. He looked around for a sign of anything, but the hall was empty. Wherever Kaida was, she wasn't here and she was too close by for him to see through the periphery.

He closed his eyes and opened his ears, listening. He could hear the distant murmur of many voices. Even if Kaida was not among them, one could lead him to her, he was sure.

He followed the voices until he came to a large door with gilded handles. He pushed it open.

"And now, our time to feast is at an end!" Kaida was saying. She sat in a throne at the head of a massive table. She held a chalice high, glimmering in the flashing light of the chandeliers. Hundreds others raised similar, smaller goblets.

A sound like thunder boomed as each person clapped their free hand against the table. Cassius looked around in awe. Servants hurried about the room, clearing the table and attending to other duties. Only one did not move. It was Reynard.

An expectant smirk had turned Reynard's face. He stared right at Kaida and the cup she was slowly bringing to her lips. "Kaida!" Cassius yelled, breaking into a run. She paused and turned to look for him, but he couldn't be seen amidst the crush of servants.

Reynard heard him too and managed to spot him. A moment of shock passed through him before he sprang forward, charging Cassius. "Don't drink!" Cassius screamed. "Don't drink!" He roughly shoved servants aside.

Kaida set the goblet down and stood. Cassius got to her a moment before Reynard and slapped the goblet to the floor. Reynard then tackled him, slamming him into the ground. He threw aside his servant's jacket and pulled a dagger, raising it to strike. Cassius kicked and struggled. He could feel the heat rising in his stomach, but knew that nothing would help him if that dagger found its mark.

"What is the meaning of this?" Kaida declared, wrenching Reynard's wrist and throwing him effortlessly aside. The dagger clattered to the ground and Reynard immediately scrambled after it.

"The drink!" Cassius said. "Reynard did something to it! Poison! He was staring at you, waiting for you to drink it!"

"That's ridiculous!" Kaida growled at him. "He's just a servant! I want you to knock off this stupid - "

A massive hand grabbed Kaida's shoulder. "Chile, I don't..." Papa Gator huffed uneasily. He lurched forward, sweat pouring from his face. He clutched his chest and fell to the ground with a loud thump. Gasps of horror filled the room.

A moment later a hairy man let out a loud howl and toppled forward as well. "Alpha Garou!" a servant cried. A woman fell from her seat. "Mistress Ursa!" Suddenly the people at the table were dropping in twos and threes. Servants screamed and rushed to their masters, then fled once they realized they were dead.

"He poisoned the drinks!" Cassius yelled.

Kaida stood from Papa Gator's body, her red eyes rimmed in tears. "Do not let Reynard escape!" she ordered, her voice tight.

Reynard rushed forward in a blur, his dagger back in his hand. "The deed is not yet complete!" he said, slashing at Kaida, who danced backward.

"You killed my father!" she said, swinging a clawed hand at him.

"Guilty!" he admitted, turning his duck into a mocking bow.

"How?" she asked, taking a step back and falling into a crouch, watching him for an opening. "You're not strong enough to kill him."

"Ah, you cut me deep." He spun the dagger in his hand. "I had help."

Master Naja's fangs sunk into her shoulder. "Kaida!" Cassius yelled as he grabbed the snake and ripped him away. Milky white venom sprayed as Naja fell.

"Cassius..." Kaida murmured as she struggled to stay standing. "I'm sorry." She fell forward into Cassius's arms. Her skin was clammy and going pale. Her breathing was shallow and her pulse beating weakly erratic.

Before he could recover from the shock, Reynard was slashing at him with the dagger. "Do not weep, Keybearer." Cassius held onto Kaida and stumbled backward, barely keeping out of Reynard's reach. "You will be joining her in death soon enough."

With Kaida in his arms, Cassius had even less chance against the assassin. He felt his back against a wall and ducked right as Reynard stabbed. Reynard grunted in annoyance as the blade stuck in the old wood. Cassius darted away.

"Stop him!" cried the terribly lush voice of Master Naja. A hand grabbed Cassius but he shook it off and kept running. Another grabbed the scruff of his shirt so he spun and kicked the servant in the stomach. The man let out a hiss of pain. At least twenty servants were advancing on him, led by Reynard, who had wrenched the dagger from the wall.

Cassius ran toward a rustling curtain and ducked through. He found himself in a kitchen, pots boiling on the stove. He shifted Kaida to over his shoulder, grabbed the largest pot, and threw it to the ground. Bubbling liquid splattered over the floor. Cassius's seared hand throbbed in pain.

Servants rushed into the room and immediately slipped and fell on the fluid. They cursed and shouted in pain as it burned them. Cassius fled through a door as Master Naja strode in on the backs of his own servants. "You will not escape," he said calmly after Cassius.

Cassius ran down a long hallway, stopping in front of an old, stained glass window. He took a deep breath, lowered his head, and kicked the glass as hard as he could. He only managed to break a small hole in it. "Shit," he muttered. He put his hand over Kaida's head, pushing it against his chest, and charged through glass.

He landed on soggy ground in a heap. He scrambled to pull Kaida out of the muck. Blood trickled from numerous small cuts on his face, arms, and neck, but Kaida seemed to have been spared the worst of it. He slogged forward, sinking in the swamp to his shins.

"Your flight is folly!" Reynard called. Cassius spared a glance back to see the fox knocking the last of the glass from the window.

"I sure could use your help about now King," Cassius muttered, pushing ahead as fast as possible.

"You called?" a familiar deep voice chirped. King sat at the end of a half-submerged log, his tail flicking back and forth.

"I need to get out of here now!" he said, jerking his head back toward the manor. "Somewhere he can't get to me."

"Follow me!" King instructed, leaping to another log. He leapt from log to lily pad to dirt mound. Cassius followed, crushing the log, sinking the pad, and demolishing the mound. He could feel Kaida barely breathing, her body hot like fire.

King turned sharply left and jumped out of view. Cassius followed him, feeling the brush of Reynard's fingertips against his shoulder. The entire world retched as he emerged into a lonely alley, the dying strains of Reynard's angry curse swirling in his ears.

King led them to an apartment building. So focused on Kaida, Cassius had barely noticed that they were in Baltimore. "We've got to get her to a hospital," Cassius said.

"No," King told him. "No hospital will have a cure for Master Naja's venom." King padded down the hallway while Cassius hoped no one saw them.

"Then how can we help her?"

"We can't." King stopped in front of a door. "But I might know someone who can. Knock on the door."


"Because I have no hands."

Cassius rapped on the door with his free hand. A moment later it opened and a slight, unassuming tanned man with black hair and glasses answered. He froze and words caught in his throat. Finally, he choked out, "Kaida?"

"Yeah," Cassius muttered, pushing past him. "You're Andy, right?" He'd seen pictures before, but had never met Kaida's current boyfriend in person before. He never met any of her boyfriends.

"You're Cassius," Andy said, awed. "I recognize you from all her pictures. She talks about you a lot." Cassius simply nodded and looked around. The apartment was simple, with plain furnishings. A single couch faced a flat-screen TV. A bookshelf filled mostly with DVDs hugged the wall. Her cat glared at him from beneath the coffee table. Finally, Cassius headed to the bedroom. He lay Kaida gently on the bed.

"What happened to her?" Andy asked.

Cassius put a hand to Kaida's forehead. She was cool once again, her skin clammy and white as snow. She was breathing still, but he could only just feel her breath on his hand. He felt for a heartbeat and let out a shudder when it came only after several seconds.

"She's alive, but barely," he muttered.

"What?" Andy gasped. "What happened? She doesn't even look hurt!"

Cassius pulled away the collar of Kaida's shirt, revealing a puffy purple bruise where she'd been bitten. "A snake bit her," Cassius said. "A very rare and deadly snake."

"I'll call the hospital."

Cassius grabbed Andy by the wrist. "No! Don't. They won't help."

"They would do more harm than good," King added. The unexpected third voice nearly caused Andy to leap from his skin.

"Wha... A fox?" he gaped. "Where did that come from?"

"Through the door," King said in annoyance. Andy turned somewhat pale and took a nervous step backward. "Is something wrong?"

Andy opened and closed his mouth as if to talk, but no words came out. Cassius grabbed him, spun him around, and looked right into his eyes. "Go to sleep," he commanded.

Almost immediately, Andy collapsed to the ground. Cassius caught him and sat him on the couch. When he returned, King was growling at the cat. Cassius quickly stooped down, scooped the hissing cat into his arms, and tossed it out the door. "Nasty thing," King huffed.

"Yeah," Cassius shrugged, focused on Kaida. "She's not going to last long."

"You're right," he said. "I know someone who might be able to help. Except..." King trailed off and hung his head. At Cassius's prompting, he continued. "She is a witch and has no love of nagual."

"A witch?" Cassius asked, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "I thought nagual were strange enough, now there's witches involved?"

King bobbed his head. "Yes, a witch. But do not despair yet. She might still help us if we have something to give her."

"Anything," Cassius said.

"Long ago this witch stole a book," King explained. "The great library has sought its return just as long. If the theft were to be forgiven, she would surely help us."

"Baruti. He's the librarian. I have to go to him?"

"Yes. You know him?"

"Kaida and I met with him before we started this whole crazy thing." A small smile cracked through Cassius's worry. "He'll help us! He loves Kaida like a daughter! There's no way he'd refuse."

"Good," King said. "You go to him. Get his help, then return to me."

Cassius looked down at Kaida one more time. Despite the slow death spreading through her, she seemed calm and unencumbered. He wiped a stray strand of hair from her face, whispered, "Hold on," then left.

"What can I do for you gentlemen?" Baruti asked, his hands folded calmly on his desk. The scowling snake sat across from him, while the pock-marked one paced angrily at the rear of the office.

"We want the Princess. And the Keybearer," Adder said in an angry hiss.

"I'm afraid I cannot help you," Baruti answered calm and slow.

"Impossible," Adder insisted, leaning forward to bare his fangs. "The Oracles told us you could tell us."

"Perhaps you asked the wrong Oracle," Baruti suggested.

"Impossible!" Krait shouted, pounding his fist against the wall. "I know I asked the right one! You're just lying to us!"

"I am in no position to lie," Baruti said evenly. His eyes jumped between the two snakes.

"And yet you do," Adder hissed. "I can smell it in your sweat. See it in your eyes. I know the manner of a liar."

"You have forced your way into my office and bit my aide. I am unnerved by your threatening ways, not because I lie. If I were interested in lying, I would simply tell you a falsehood about the Princess's location and be done with it. Fooling you two would not be so great a task."

"He's telling the truth," Krait growled.

"He is lying!" Adder insisted. "Either that or you failed to ask the true Oracle!"

"It was the right Oracle," Krait muttered. "But just because he sent us to Baruti doesn't mean Baruti will know."

"He is probably correct," Baruti interjected. "The Oracles work in indirect ways." He swallowed hard. "Perhaps they meant the Princess will return here to speak with me."

Adder's eyes narrowed. "If you weren't lying earlier, you certainly are now!"

"I must protest to this treatment! I am a respected nagual elder! I am a tutor to House Dragon! You have no right to - "

Adder lashed out, catching Baruti in the chin. The old man crumpled from his chair. "No, we don't have the right!" Adder hissed. "But we have the ability! We have the power! We have the strength! And that is all that matters! Not your stupid system of privilege and favor!"

Struggling to his feet, Baruti trembled slightly. "And yet here you are, trying to restore your privilege and favor."

Adder's face twisted, revealing his elongated fangs. "Adder," Krait warned, "what are you doing?" Adder ignored him and slithered toward Baruti. The old owl's trembling ceased as he stood to his full height.

"Some owls hunt snakes and rip them to shreds," Baruti bayed, eyes flashing and hands curled to talons.

"I'm not afraid of you," Adder sibilated, flecks of venomous spittle splashing from his lips.

"Nor I of you," Baruti answered, clawing at Adder's face. The snake ducked away, then struck, sinking his fangs into the owl's shoulder. Venom pumped into Baruti's body, but the old owl slashed with his free arm, gouging deep wounds in Adder's face. The injury was severe enough that Adder fell back. "I have survived worse bites than yours," Baruti coughed through the pain.

He clawed again at Adder's face, rending his eyes. Adder hissed in pain, crashing against a bookshelf. Baruti poised to strike again when Krait fell on him, biting deeply into his arm. It was little more than a distraction, however, and Baruti quickly battered him away.

It gave Adder a chance to recover and he tackled Baruti, pinning the old owl's arms beneath him. He bit again, holding on as the owl struggled to free himself. Slowly, the elder's thrashing grew less violent until it stopped all together. Still Adder held on, pumping his venom into the corpse.

"What did you do that for?" Krait snapped.

Adder stood and dug his fingers into the wounds Baruti had left. He tore the flesh away with a wet slosh, revealing moist, wrinkled, unmarred skin beneath. "He made me angry. He disrespected me and my goals."

"You mean our goals." Adder merely grunted as he shed another chunk of skin. "And you've damaged those goals. With him dead, we can't stay here! The entire library staff will be hunting for our heads!"

"Let them," Adder answered eagerly. "Let them all die. We are predators. Apex! What do we have to fear?"

"That doesn't matter!" Krait yelled, grabbing Adder and spinning him so they were face to face. "Killing them is pointless. It gets us nothing! Why do it? Because we can? That's a madman's way of thinking! We must act rationally, not lash out whenever we can!"

Adder's face curdled into a mask of rage. His new skin glistened as it crinkled. He seemed nearly ready to attack Krait, but it passed. His face returned to its normal scowl and Adder nodded. "You're right. We need to think."

"First we need to get out of here," Krait answered warily. Adder merely nodded and the two walked from the destroyed room.

The prior visit to the library felt a distant memory to Cassius. When he arrived, he immediately knew something was wrong. Noise buzzed in the air. He muttered to himself and was not shushed. He hurried toward the front desk, finding a gathered crowd murmuring to one another.

"What's going on here?" he asked, tapping a graying woman on the shoulder. She looked him up and down, snorted, and turned away. He tapped her again. "Excuse me," he said in forced politeness. "I don't mean to be a bother, but this is urgent. What's going on?"

"You're not a nagual," the woman cawed without looking at him.

"I know," Cassius growled.

"Go back to whoever brought you!" she screeched.

"I came alone," he answered with mounting annoyance.

The woman's head rotated without her body moving. "That's not pos..." Her eyes narrowed at him as she trailed off. After a moment of silence, she finished, "You should talk to Bjorn."

Cassius pushed his way through the crowd, though most barely noticed him. The secretary, white beard stained with blood, barred the entrance to the back.

"Bjorn?" he asked.

The old man's steely expression eased slightly when he saw Cassius. "Ah, Keybearer," he said, his nasal voice raw. "Come, we have much to speak about." A new wave of murmurs swept through the crowd. Cassius followed Bjorn up the stairs. He latched the door himself.

Bjorn led Cassius to Baruti's office. "Brace yourself," he warned. Cassius gasped slightly when he saw Baruti's body lying motionless amidst a wreck of shelves and books. The old man had been arranged peacefully, except for the pained expression on his face.

"Snakes got him," Bjorn explained. "Bit me too. I might be dying. I might live too, but I feel like hell. Poor Baruti, they murdered him."

"They were looking for me, weren't they?"

"Yes." Bjorn walked out of the room, his eyes shiny with tears. "Where's the Princess?"

"Dying," Cassius answered. "Master Naja bit her. I was coming to ask Baruti for help, but now..."

Bjorn shook his head. "I doubt he could have. A snake as old and powerful as Master Naja has strong venom."

"A witch," Cassius said. "I was told she could help and would only do it if Baruti pardoned her."

Bjorn's face set like stone. "The witch..." He muttered. "No, I would not forgive her. Baruti might have, for the Princess's sake. But I do not have the power to make that decision, and would not pardon her, no matter the stakes."

"Then I need to go. I need to find something to help her."

"I wish I could help you, Keybearer," Bjorn said, sighing heavily. "But I fear we may all be beyond hope."

"I'm not giving up." Cassius opened the stairway door, then paused briefly. "I hope you get better, Bjorn." Bjorn nodded and waved his hand. Cassius closed the door behind him, then rushed out of the library.

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