The Dragon's Key: Chapter 18

"He's dead," Cassius said. Kaida was worsening. Her skin was nearly translucent and her lips were so blue she seemed to be wearing lipstick.

"What do you mean he's dead?" King growled.

"The snakes got to him," Cassius explained. "Not Master Naja, but the other two who were chasing me. Krait and Adder. I bet they're trying to wipe out all the leadership of the nagual so that no one is strong enough to oppose them."

King hopped off the bed and paced angrily. "I suppose that's true," he muttered. "This is terrible."

"What do we do now?" Cassius asked, trying to force the defeat from his mouth. "I don't know how much longer she can hold out. She looks like a corpse already." He slumped down into a chair, wearily resting his hands in his head.

"You're exhausted," King noted.

"Damn right I am. I haven't slept in over a day, I think. I haven't eaten either. Not since before I talked to the Oracles."

"You need to sleep," King said, hopping into his lap. "Pushing yourself won't do you any good."

"But Kaida needs me," he said, stiffling a yawn.

"At your best, yes," King said. "Without Baruti's assurance..." He waggled his head. "Maybe the witch will still help. There may be some promise I can give her."

"I'll give her anything," Cassius murmured. He could barely keep his eyes open.

"I doubt anything you could give would help. Now sleep." Cassius's head fell immediately.

King hopped back onto the bed and leaned in close to Kaida. "Do not die yet, Princess," he whispered. "You are still needed."

He walked into the kitchen where Andy sat, half-catatonic. "You. Andy. Watch over the Keybearer and Princess. Do not let anyone in or out but me."

"Alright," Andy muttered, slowly standing and walking into the bedroom. King left the apartment, his mind racing.

"Baruti is dead," King Fox huffed.

"Who killed him, my liege?" Reynard asked, his breath fogging in the cold mountain air.

"The Keybearer says it was the agents of the snake," King Fox explained. "I believe him."

"So Master Naja has turned traitor?"

"Of course not," Master Naja hissed as he emerged over the ridge. "I know I cannot finish this alone. I cannot slay a dragon by myself."

Reynard leapt to his feet and whipped his rapier at Master Naja, keeping the point centimeters from his face. Master Naja didn't even flinch, merely smirking.

"Put that away," King Fox ordered. Reynard immediately sheathed his sword with a flourish. "You're here early, Master Naja."

"As are you," Master Naja replied. "I assure you, those two did not act under my orders. I dismissed them from my service."

"Dismissing them for a failure you engineered?" Reynard asked with a disgusted frown.

"I grew tired of them," Master Naja said in boredom. "Krait was a nuisance, never worth the trouble. Adder had potential, but was too violent to put it to good use. Pawns are made to be sacrificed."

"You could have done a more thorough job," King Fox said. "By killing Baruti, they have thrown a serious wrench into our plans."

"Is there no way you can coerce the witch into helping?" Master Naja asked. "Surely there is something..."

"No," King Fox answered with a waggle of his head. "She needed Baruti's pardon to open the book at all. Without that, the spells we need to open the Door are beyond us."

"So what now?" Reynard asked. "Surely, sealed behind the Door, we are not threatened by - "

"No!" King Fox barked. "We cannot abide by more dragons being born. We must open the Door. And without the witch's spells, we must use the Lock and Key the way they were intended."

"Which we cannot if the Princess dies," Master Naja sighed. "I have the antivenin. She might still be saved."

"The Keybearer and Princess will not come if she is under no threat," Reynard offered.

"I know," King Fox sighed. "There was no way to avoid it, I realize now. I must take the boy through death's door."

Cassius looked down at the small, pink creature. It was barely a speck, but it squealed and writhed in his talons. "This is the man with a dragon's soul?" he asked.

"Yes, great and terrible Ryu," the kneeling man answered. "She is the babe with the soul of your sister." There were hundreds of nagual gathered, all prostrating themselves before the dragon. Zirnitra circled high above, content to keep himself but a dot in the clouds.

"I can see it," Cassius said. And he could. The tiny human had a soul that glowed so bright it nearly blinded him. It was the soul of a dragon, for sure, though not his sister's. Not entirely, at least. "As long as one dragon lives, the nagual will have a dragon forever."

He looked up at his brother. Though the nagual could not see him, Cassius could. He banked and wheeled playfully in the heavens.

"We will make her our princess," the bowing nagual said. "I have spoken with all my brothers and sisters. We will protect her and seek her wisdom to lead us. And when she dies and another is born in her place, we shall find her, teach her, and protector her. You and your brother can flee and be safe from those men who would seek your deaths."

Cassius smiled. "That is a wonderful thought. Though who would teach her how to be a dragon? You have your lions and foxes and snakes to teach you of your souls, but she will have nothing." He looked at his brother once again. "No. That will not serve."

"She's dead!" Andy wailed, tears streaming down his face. He chocked and sobbed, repeating the words in mumbles. "I'm sorry."

Cassius leapt to his feet, still groggy from sleep. He stumbled over to the bed, where King sat stiffly beside Kaida. "She's dead," he said much softer. "I'm sorry."

"What happened?" Cassius asked. He felt oddly empty. As Andy continued to sob, Cassius found his eyes dry of tears.

"From what I understand, she was poisoned," King answered.

"That's not what I meant."

"You wanted to know what happened when she died?" King asked, growling sarcastic. "You wanted to hear she wailed your name? That she wished she could have loved you? Is that right?" Cassius said nothing. "She let out a final breath. Her pulse stopped." King nodded toward Andy, who had collapsed in a chair with his face in his hands. "He started bawling. He's getting annoying."

"Agreed." Cassius grabbed Andy and wrenched him to his feet. "Stop crying," he ordered.

"Why?" Andy sobbed. "She's dead." But his tears seemed to ease and he slowly walked from the room, in a trance.

Cassius slumped next to Kaida's bed and took her hand. It was cold. "I'm sorry I couldn't save you," he rasped.

"There's still a way," King said.

"What do you mean?" Cassius muttered, laying his forehead against the back of her hand.

"Death, as you've seen with those snakes, is unreliable at best," King said. He paused and seemed to take a deep breath before continuing. "I know how to reach the afterlife. You can enter, retrieve her soul, and bring her back. There is still time."

Cassius's eyes went wide. His mind raced. "The afterlife..." He let Kaida's hand fall. "Really? That sounds impossible."

"I know," King said. "I thought it impossible once myself. But I've seen it done. It will not be easy. You may very well fail and be lost forever. But it is a way."

"I'll do it," Cassius said. "I have to get Kaida back. No matter the cost."

"Good. Good, you should rest. You will need energy for the journey. Go back to sleep. We will leave in the morning."

Cassius felt unusually tired, even though he had just woke. He fell forward onto the bed, next to Kaida. He instinctively place a hand on her shoulder. King waggled his head. "Move her," he ordered Andy, who tearfully obeyed. "And don't worry. You won't remember any of this tomorrow."

"Yes sir," Andy whimpered.

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