Stories

The Dragon's Key: Chapter 19


The next morning, King and Cassius departed. The pathway was disorienting and difficult. They passed through areas so bright, Cassius was sure he'd go blind and areas so dark, he was convinced he had. Once, they passed from the bitterest cold to sweltering heat. At some points, he openly wept, either from intense beauty or horrific terror.

King was a stabilizing presence, unaffected by even the wildest swings in sensation. His voice was constant, reassuring, singing in barks and chirps. It kept Cassius moving, following King step by step. It drowned out the violent assault of shifting experiences, leveling out the highs and lows. King's song cleared the details from Cassius's mind, driving away the insanity they tried to induce. The only thing left was a vague recollection, like looking at shapes through fog.

"We're here, Cassius," King finally said. Cassius collapsed to the ground and somewhere, he registered that King had told him that several times already.

"Now I know why more people don't come back from the dead," Cassius said between sobs. He wasn't sure why he was crying.

"It's alright, my boy," King whispered. "By making it here, you've done more than thousands before you."

"Thank you," Cassius sniffled, pulling himself back to his feet. They were in a barren, blasted land. Rocky crags scarred the ground. Only stray scrub brush and lichens clung to life. The sky was hazy, the Sun sickly. Before them was a gaping maw, a steep slope leading deep into the ground.

"Cheery place."

"We are at the doorway to the afterlife."

"I always thought they were supposed to be pearly gates."

"Maybe when you are dead," King said, "but we are alive. The doorway is supposed to be inviting to those who are dead, so that they will enter it. To those who are living, however, it is supposed to turn them away. Entering into the afterlife alive is an unnatural thing. Make no mistake of it." He shuddered.

"You sound like you have, before," Cassius noted.

"Why find the entrance to the afterlife unless you mean to enter?" King asked. "But know this: I cannot enter with you."

"Why not?" Cassius wondered. He peered down into the Abyss.

"I am still inside," King said. "The afterlife is what it has always been and always will be. It cannot change. It cannot be altered. All who are dead will be there as are all those who will one day die. Even if they have not yet been born."

"But that..." Cassius tried to wrap his head around it. "How does that work, then? I mean, if you're still in there, then I am there too. Me dead, at least."

King bobbed his head. "Yes. But the living you and the dead you are two separate things. The living me already entered and left, but I the living me is still in there."

"Ok," Cassius muttered, rubbing the bridge of his nose in thought. "But if everyone who will ever live and die is in there, then why do the nagual exist? I mean, Kaida told me that the nagual were made because they didn't have enough human souls to keep up. But if they're all already dead in the afterlife..."

King bared his teeth. "And why would the souls be taken from the afterlife? Souls would be made in beforelife, if such a thing exists."

"Yeah, and it might not even be true at all," Cassius muttered. "Ok, one more question. If Kaida's soul is in there and always was, how can I get it out?"

"You will be bringing her soul back into the world of life. It will not actually be leaving the afterlife. It will merely exist in the world of life until a time when it is ready to leave again."

"I see," Cassius said, though he really didn't. The truth of it did not really concern him. He had to go in. "I'm ready."

King bobbed his head. "You will emerge exactly as you entered. Any wound or suffering you may suffer will be wiped away, as will any experience of joy or happiness. You will come out at the same time as well. You will not age and time will have no meaning. I hope the journey will not be difficult."

"Thank you, King," Cassius said. "You've been a true friend. I'll be back before you even know I've left!"

He leapt into the mouth without looking back and was immediately consumed by darkness. He felt the sensation of falling, though the air did not rush past him and he could feel no pull of gravity. He could still see himself, though there was no light from any direction. He was the lone splotch of color in a vast, empty expanse of blackness. It reminded him of the room of the Oracles, though even bleaker.

Finally, the sensation of falling left. He did not feel as if he were floating, yet his feet touched no solid surface. He tried to swim forward and only managed to fall, tumbling over himself. When he finally came to a halt, he put one foot forward then another then another. He was walking forward, he could feel, though he felt nothing beneath his feet. He could have been walking on a treadmill of air.

Though he thought there to be no sound, eventually he heard what sounded like the trickling of water at a great distance. He walked toward it and gradually the sound grew greater and greater until eventually it was a torrent of water.

Though it was as black as oil, it stuck out of the featureless world like a shining beacon. Thrashing waters roared past him in a deep river. He started to walk toward it when a voice called out. "Ho! Stop!"

Cassius turned to seek the source of the voice, finally spotting two small dots of color some distance away. One seemed to be waving at him and coming nearer, while the second lagged behind. Cassius waved back and walked to them.

When the waving one grew nearer, Cassius felt a shock go through his entire body. It was a youthful man with shaggy, russet color hair. He had a regal, yet care-free look about him and he smiled though there were lines of grimness about the corners of his mouth and eyes. He had shocking hazel eyes. "Well met," he said as he neared Cassius.

"You're..." Cassius gulped down the words.

"Alive?" the man offered, though it's not what Cassius had nearly said. "Yes, as are you! Odd how this works, isn't it?" The man turned and waved to his companion who, despite Cassius not recognizing, he intimately knew. "Lorne, come nearer! I told you, this is a friend!"

The second man, with orange-red hair and a morose look, came nearer. Both were shorter than Cassius and wore similar clothes, brown frocks over with pale ruffled shirts with dark waist coats and rough leather breeches. They looked fashionable Enlightenment men ready to go on an adventure. Both wore swords on their belts, though only Lorne's was unsheathed.

"I'm Cassius," he said, grasping Basil's hand as strongly as he could muster. "Cassius Clay Hewitt."

"King Basil of House Fox," Basil answered, squeezing tightly and shaking vigorously. "This is my good friend, Keybearer Lorne of House Fox."

Lorne nodded his head simply. "Good day," he said roughly.

"I apologize for him," Basil said. His voice was deep with a bass-baritone timbre and known to Cassius. "He is the reason we are in this bleak place."

"Looking for the Princess," Cassius said softly.

Lorne's eyebrows raised and Basil's mouth twitched into a frown. "And how did you know that?" he asked with caution.

"What?" Cassius gaped, not realizing he had spoken aloud. "Oh, no. I mean, that's what I am here for. I'm sorry. I am here looking for a woman named Kaida. She is a Princess of the nagual, though not yours."

Basil took a step back and placed his hand upon the hilt of his sword. "Sir, you are no nagual. How do you know that word?"

"I am from a time after you," Cassius explained. "In my time, there has been a... problem where I was forced to become the Keybearer against my will. In the process, the Princess. Kaida. My best friend. She was killed. I'm here to bring her back."

"And how do you know us?" Lorne asked. He passingly resembled Reynard, Cassius thought, though one who had not suffered such difficulties. Despite Lorne's grim expression, he had not the stone-faced countenance that Reynard had perfected.

"Stories," Cassius said, hoping his lie was not obvious. "Kaida told me about past Keybearers. About the great Lorne and his quest into the afterlife to bring back his Princess. And the Fox King who helped him."

Basil grinned and slapped Lorne on the shoulder with the hand that had been sitting on his sword. "Good news! Our quest will be a success, my friend!"

"Yes, it is wonderful," Lorne said with a sigh. Relief clearly washed over him as he allowed his shoulders to slump forward and his posture to slacken. He slowly slid his weapon back into its sheath.

"How strange we should meet," Basil said. "A man from our future who bears a similar quest! And who brings us word of our own success! It is a joy."

Cassius nodded slowly. "Yeah, it's almost like it was fate," he answered. "Sadly, I don't know more of your future. Though I'm not sure it would matter if I did tell you, once you left this place."

"Yes," Basil said with a wide smile. Even Lorne was smiling slightly now. "We would not impose upon you with questions either."

"So, what now?" Cassius asked. "We're in the afterlife, but..."

Basil nodded, his face suddenly going grim. "Yes, we are. We have been wandering the banks of this dark river for hours, seeking a way across. There are no bridges and the other side is so distant it cannot be seen."

"The river Acheron," Lorne muttered. "The river all dead must cross before they reach Hades."

"If that's the case, where's Charon at?" Cassius wondered. "Of course, if all the dead are already here, I guess there's not much need for him to ferry any souls across."

"Then it seems we are stuck," Basil said. "Though there must be a way across! You yourself said we succeeded!"

"Perhaps we must swim? Lorne asked. "It would mean leaving behind our things."

Cassius shrugged, cupped his hands over his mouth, and yelled, "Hey Charon! Get your bony ass over here and pick us up!"

Lorne cringed and Basil broke into laughter that only grew harder once he spotted a small pinpoint of light floating above the river. As it grew nearer, it was plainly a lamp, hanging from the bow of a small boat. Standing at the front of the boat was a man draped in black cloth, slowly rowing the boat toward them.

As the boat came onto the shore, the man reached out a skeletal hand and beckoned for the three men to come aboard. Basil leapt aboard without a second thought, then helped pull Lorne up. Cassius followed the two and the pilot pushed off without a word and began to slowly row away.

"I do hope we chose the right boat," Basil joked. "We wish to go to the other side, my good man. We've no time for a proper tour this moment!"

"You have all the time in the world," the man answered. His voice was hollow and soft, but also pleasant and warm.

"So are you really Charon?" Cassius asked.

"That is one of my many names," the man answered. "You may call me such if you wish."

"I suppose you must not be very busy," Basil said, "what with all the souls of the dead already present."

"On the contrary, I just moments ago ferried the last of the dead to the afterlife," Charon proclaimed. "Once I finish ferrying you three across, I shall ferry the last of the dead to the afterlife once more."

"Seems a waste," Basil scoffed. "Ferrying them twice and all."

"I shall only ferry them across once," Charon answered. "Only ever once."

Basil fell silent at that and leaned against the edge of the boat. He looked down at the black water and held his hand out, just above it, not daring to touch the water. Lorne, meanwhile, sat at the stern, his arms crossed and eyes closed.

"Did you ferry across Kaida?" Cassius asked. "Kaida Randall? Princess Kaida of House Dragon."

"Yes," Charon answered.

"Can you tell me where she is?"

"No," Charon replied.

"A shame," Basil murmured. "I'd have hoped to be led to Princess Mariana as well. To search the entirety of the afterlife... It is a daunting task."

"At least we have all of time to find our Princesses," Cassius said.

"That we do," Basil said with a smile.

They lapsed back into silence as Charon continued to row them across the river, its waters rushing noisily beneath them. Cassius tried to count the minutes by, but found he could not keep an accurate count in his head. Every few seconds, he found himself starting over and so eventually gave it up.

At long last (or perhaps after only a moment. Cassius could not be sure) they came to the other shore. Basil and Lorne disembarked, but when Cassius tried, Charon stopped him with a hand. It was hard as rock and its warmth was not that of life. "Wait," he said.

"Yes?" Cassius asked.

The psychopomp held on for a moment longer without saying anything, then released him. "You may go."

Cassius gave Charon a curious look but disembarked anyway. When he did, he found both Basil and Lorne vanished. He spun around looking for them, but did not see them. "Lorne? Basil?" he called out. He turned back to Charon, who was already disappearing across the river. "You did that on purpose!" Charon nodded his head slightly in acknowledgment. "Was it because I said you had a bony ass?" But the ferryman was gone.

He frowned and turned his back to the river. He marched forward, wondering what he would find. Despite himself, he had taken a liking to Basil. He wondered if the feelings that caused would persist once he had left the afterlife or if he would lose them, as King had claimed.

He pushed the thoughts away and realized that endless walking would get him nowhere. He had an eternity to search for Kaida but did not wish to spend one. He took a deep breath and let his mind unfocus.

He looked at the periphery and dropped to the ground in vertigo. He dry heaved and clutched his head. Everything had been in the periphery. Everything that ever was and ever would be had flooded him in that instant.

It had been like a punch directly to his mind. His head still rang as he felt a hand on his shoulder, helping him to his feet. When it finally passed, he focused on the man who had helped him up.

"Do I know you?" Cassius asked.

The man's face seemed so familiar, but he could not place it. The name was just on the tip of his tongue, but he did not know who it could have been. "No, Cassius Clay Hewitt," the man said.

"Oh," Cassius said. He shook his head and when he looked away, he had forgotten what the man looked like entirely.

"You should not try that again," the man said. "You cannot find anyone here by looking through the periphery when everything is to the periphery."

"Thanks for telling me that now," Cassius said. He looked at the man again and the odd sensation of familiarity returned. "Who are you?"

The man smiled faintly. "That is not important. The important thing is I can help you, Cassius Clay Hewitt."

"You can?" Cassius asked dubiously.

"Yes, I can," the man answered. "But you must help me first."

"How?" Cassius asked, narrowing his eyes at the man and looking directly at his face. The familiar feeling did not vanish, but Cassius still could not place him. And no matter how much he focused, he could not seem to commit the man's features to memory. Even the sound of his voice seemed to slide from his mind.

"There is a certain person who is in torment," the man said. "I wish you to ease it for me."

"How?"

The man smiled slightly again. "That is for you to figure out. I could tell you, but that would be most of the work done, and that would hardly be a favor would it?"

"Are you God?" Cassius asked.

The man laughed lightly. "No, Cassius Clay Hewitt, I am not God. You are not the first to mistake me for Him, of course. But most who have do not suffer pleasant fates."

"Oh," Cassius said, swallowing a lump in his throat. The man smiled at that and took Cassius by the hand. A small wave of vertigo passed through him, not nearly as bad as what he had felt before.

In the blackness a small shack stood alone. Cassius turned to the man to ask him what to do, but he was gone. With a deep breath he opened the door to the shack.


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