Stories

The Dragon's Key: Chapter 20


A man sat alone, cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed and head bowed. He did not seem to be tormented as he wore a rather peaceful expression. His hair was long and peppered and he wore a matching neatly-trimmed beard. He sat rigid and proud.

"Hello?" Cassius called to the man. His eyes didn't open and he did not react one bit. "If we weren't in the afterlife, I'd think you were dead. Er, a dead body. Since you are dead, being in the afterlife and all."

Cassius tapped him on the shoulder but still received no response. "Hello?" he yelled into the man's ear. "Excuse me!" Still nothing, though that was not going to deter Cassius. He considered kicking the man, but restrained himself.

Instead he sat next to him, mimicking his pose. As he sat he felt peaceful, almost sleepy. His mind began to clear and the warmth spread from his stomach, into his chest, through his heart, mind, and soul. It was comforting, not the blazing heat of danger, but rather like a familiar memory.

Suddenly, he realized he could remember. Everything. The warmth was not just like a memory, it was one. It was the memory of the Key, flooding him all at once. He was surprised to find he was not overwhelmed, but it instead felt natural. Like it was supposed to have been there all along.

He suddenly had no greater desire than to sit there and remember all that the past Keybearers had experience. But he felt movement beside him and forced his eyes to open. The urge to remember faded, but he knew the memories remained.

The man had stood. He walked around the shack, stretching his arms and legs. "Hello?" Cassius asked. "Don't you see me?"

The man ignored him and went about his stretching. Once he finished, he opened a cabinet and removed a sword. It was shorter and thicker than a rapier. He buckled it to his belt and walked to the rear of the shack.

"Can't you hear me?" Cassius asked in annoyance. "Are you deaf? I'm standing right here! Are you just stupid or something?"

Still the man ignored him. The man opened another cabinet and swung out what looked to be a human-shaped dummy. It had numerous small stitches all over it. The man took an open-legged stance and face the dummy. With a flash, he had unsheathed his sword and plunged it through the dummy's chest. He slowly resheathed, then repeated the action, this time slashing the dummy's stomach. He was about to strike again when Cassius grabbed his wrist.

"Hey!" Cassius said. The man grunted, finally giving some acknowledgment, and yanked his arm away. He sheathed his sword, then struck again. "I'm here to help you. To end your torment. I'm not leaving until you talk to me."

When the man ignored him, he stepped in front of the dummy. The man whipped his sword out and thrusted, stabbing right through Cassius's chest. Though he flinched, it did not hurt. The sword merely stuck in his chest, without even blood appearing. The man pulled the sword out and there was neither blood nor wound. Even his shirt was not ripped.

"Demoni si stanno migliorando," the man said. Cassius stared at him blankly. "Leave me, I've no wish to play your games," he followed in perfect, though thickly accented English.

"Did you call me a demon?" Cassius asked. "I'm not a demon. Honest. I'm here to help you, like I said." He held out his hand. "I'm Cassius Clay Hewitt."

The man looked at Cassius's hand suspiciously, then took it. His grip was strong and rough. "I am Ruggiero Luigi da Correggio. And yes, I did call you a demon. So often they have been sent to torment me in my Hell. Long have I merely ignored them. Why are you here?"

"I'm on a quest to save a woman who died before her time," Cassius said, extracting his hand from Ruggiero's. Despite being unable to feel any pain, his hand was still numb from the man's grip. "Someone else promised to help me, as long as I came here first."

Ruggiero snorted. "The Devil, no doubt, sending you where his demons could not succeed."

"I don't think so," Cassius said dubiously. "He told me I had to help end your torment. He said he wouldn't help me until I did." Cassius looked around. "Why do you think you're in Hell anyway? I don't see any fire and brimstone."

"My torment is not of the body," Ruggiero answered. He turned back to the practice dummy and began to repeat his earlier motions. He slowly sheathed his sword, then struck like death.

"So what is it?" Cassius asked. "I want to help."

Ruggiero laughed roughly. "You cannot help. Do you not know that no one can change here? All the dead are as they are, forever. I have tried before to teach them and it has always failed."

"I'm not dead though," Cassius explained. "I came here to get a soul back, remember? I'm technically still alive, so you might be able to teach me."

Ruggiero stopped his practice once more and faced Cassius. He slowly stroked his beard as he sized him up. "Yes, perhaps..." Ruggiero muttered.

"You're a swordsman?" Cassius asked.

"The greatest," Ruggiero answered, hints of pride and shame in his voice. "Tell me, does the world not remember Ruggiero Luigi da Correggio?"

"I've never heard about you. But then again, I don't know much about swords."

Ruggiero laughed sharply. "If you do not know me then no one could know me. There are but two ways to it. Everyone or none. My techniques were unbeatable. A hundred swordsmen. A hundred bowmen. A hundred musketeers. All impotent before me."

"You could beat guys with guns?"

"Yes!" Ruggiero shouted. "I was the greatest swordsman to ever live! Tell me, young man, are there any like me in your time?"

"I don't think so," Cassius said. "No one uses a sword anymore, except for sport or play. Certainly no one could fight a hundred guys with guns."

Ruggiero shook his head and laughed softly. "Of course there are not. The Correggio school was birthed from me and so it was slain by me. Then I too was slain. My crime was great, yes! But my penance has been greater! Yet I am cursed to live in this wasteland forever and be completely forgotten!" Ruggiero's face twisted in torment. "I do not deserve such!"

"I'm sorry," Cassius said.

"No!" Ruggiero shouted. "You are right! I see it now. You are my salvation! You are the one to bring me from this torment. I have tried to teach others here, you know. First it was those shades that wander bleakly in the nothingness. Even when I forced them, they gave me nothing! Then the demons were sent and they pretended to learn! But I knew they did not and when I revealed them as demons they fled! Eventually, I began to ignore them. Then they ceased coming!" Ruggiero grabbed the front of Cassius's shirt. "But you... You with, vital life in you! A man living can learn where a man dead can only forget!"

He released Cassius, then pulled his sword from his hilt and tossed it. Cassius caught it by the blade, slicing his palm and fingers. As soon as he grasped the hilt, the wounds vanished.

"How long will it take you to teach me?" Cassius wondered. Even if he did have forever to learn, he didn't want to spend forever here.

"Then you will stay?"

"I have no choice."




"Again!" Ruggiero barked. Cassius grasped the hilt of the sword and pulled forward. The tip of the blade caught in the end of the sheath, so when he tried to swing at the dummy, he only managed to wrench his own shoulder. He readjusted, pulled the sword fully from the sheath, and swung clumsily. He hit the dummy across the arm instead of the chest and only managed a shallow, uneven cut.

"Again!" Ruggiero repeated. Cassius shook his head and sheathed the sword. This time he managed to pull it in one motion, but it threw him off balance and he stumbled forward, crashing into the dummy instead of stabbing it.

"Stop," Ruggiero commanded. "Restore the dummy to its position and we shall begin again." They had been at this for what seemed hours, with Cassius trying to mimic Ruggiero's smooth draw and strike. Each attempt had been another spectacular failure. Once he had dropped the sword on his foot. Another he had stabbed his own hip trying to sheath the sword. Most often he had simply been unable to get the sword from the sheath.

"We've been at this forever," Cassius said as he knotted the dummy back into place.

"I know! And you've yet to learn a thing!"

"Maybe you should start with something easier," Cassius said as he stepped back to make sure the dummy wouldn't come toppling down.

"There is nothing easier!" Ruggiero shouted, slamming his fist against the cabinet. "You are merely drawing and swinging in one motion! Children learn it after only a few attempts!"

"Look," Cassius grunted as the knot slipped and the dummy fell. "I'm doing my best. I'm not that coordinated. I'm a lover, not a fighter."

Ruggiero laughed cruelly. "You are neither! You are a woman!"

"Hey, I know a woman who could kick your ass without blinking." Cassius hung the dummy again and began retying the knot. "We're not in the Dark Ages any more."

"I am from the Renaissance! Florence! I know five languages: Italian, French, English, Greek, Latin! I have read the classics of Plato and Sophocles, Socrates and Aristotle, Homer and many more! And I was the greatest swordsman to ever live! No woman could match me in anything."

"Oh yeah? Well I know what a TV is. Beat that!"

Ruggiero grunted. "Again!" Cassius drew the sword and swung, cleanly slicing through the dummy. With such a clean hit, the dummy didn't even move. "You did it!" Ruggiero cried in triumph.

"Finally," Cassius muttered.

"Now we can move on to the next step. Take the sword and - "

"What?" Cassius interrupted. "I only did it once! How can you be sure it wasn't just a fluke?"

"Fluke?" Ruggiero spit. "There are no flukes! That was a perfect strike!"

"Yeah. And when I was a kid, I used to play baseball. I was terrible. I struck out every time. But one time, I swung and crushed the ball. Hit a home run. Off the best pitcher in the district. I never got another hit. You can't go ahead because I got lucky once!"

"Very well," Ruggiero ground his teeth. "Again!" Cassius tried to repeat his movements. The sword came out cleanly, but his hand slipped and the sword went clattering to the floor.

"See?"

Ruggiero ran a hand over his face and through his hair. "Again!" he snapped.




Hours, maybe days, later, Cassius's brain felt like mush. He repeated the move over and over, never succeeding more than once in between a string of failures. And he continually failed in new ways. Muscle memory should have compensated for poor dexterity, but each swing was as if it were his first. His body never tired, but his mind did. It was a strain to continue and he felt he may snap at any moment.

Ruggiero kept pushing him however, screaming "Again!" and "Again" with each failure.

"I have to rest," Cassius muttered. "I can't think. I can't concentrate."

"Again!"

"No!" Cassius threw the sword at Ruggiero's feet. "This has gone on for... Who knows how long! I can't keep it up!"

"Then you will never find your woman!" Ruggiero swept his foot under the blade and kicked it into his own hand. "I will stop you. You must learn! You must carry a memory of me back to the world of life!"

"Don't bother," Cassius muttered, sitting down. "I'm not going to leave. I just need to rest. Maybe some sleep."

"You cannot sleep. I have tried. I have been awake every moment I have existed here."

"Then what do you do for fun?" Cassius asked. "You can't just practice and meditate constantly."

"What else is there to do?"

"I dunno. Long walks on the beach and staring at the stars?"

"There are no beaches or stars here."

"A joke, Rugs. Can I call you Rugs?"

"No."

"Ok Rugs. Look, you say you were a Renaissance man. So you know all about anatomy and philosophy and astronomy and all that?"

"Yes," Ruggiero said tentatively. "As I said, I have read all the classics."

"Good, good. Let's talk about philosophy. I don't know much about it. Though I guess you could say I'm an expert in the esoteric field of animal souls and the structure of space-time. Socrates. What was he all about?"

"There is no time for this!" Ruggiero snapped, somewhat nervously. "We must train!"

"Come on Rugs! We can't train until I get my thoughts cleared. And since you're not gonna let me leave, you're stuck with me!" He laid on back. "If not, I'll have to entertain myself. And that can get really weird, really quick."

"Fine," he muttered. "Socrates taught that... all men are... created equal. Yes. It was a revolutionary idea."

Cassius rolled onto his stomach. "Really? Socrates said that?"

"Of course!" Ruggiero declared with forced incredulity. "He also taught the Earth revolved around the Sun!"

"Copernicus taught that!" Cassius sat up and crossed his arms. "Come on, what about the Socratic method?"

"He taught that as well. I believe Copernicus and Socrates collaborated on the structure of the heavens."

"Copernicus and Socrates lived a thousand years apart," Cassius said with a wry smile. "You don't know anything about Socrates, do you?"

"Of course I do! I have read - "

"All the classics. Yes, so you've said. You speak five languages. But you don't know a thing about the classics. I haven't even read them and I know more than you."

"I do not remember!" Ruggiero snapped. "I read them when I was a small boy!"

"So you're not really a Renaissance man after all? You're just a regular blowhard."

"I am the greatest swordsman of all time!" Ruggiero growled, throwing his sword at Cassius's feet. "Now stand and strike!"

Cassius took the sword and stood. "Great, I was getting bored anyhow," he sighed. He stood before the dummy. He drew the sword, but only got it half way out before his hand slipped.




It took a few hours, but Cassius finally managed to strike the dummy in one fluid motion. Against his protests, Ruggiero declared him ready. "Maybe with success fresh in your mind, you shall be able to move on," Ruggiero suggested.

Cassius doubted it, as a fresh success had not helped him yet. "Let's do this," Cassius said, taking a defensive stance at one end of the shack.

"What are you doing?" Ruggiero started laughing at him.

"Taking a defensive stance, like you told me to."

"That is one of the least defensive stances I have seen." Ruggiero pushed Cassius's arm down. "Your sword was at eye-level. Most of it was over your head, where you have nothing to guard. An opponent could easily thrust at your legs or stomach and get through." He then straightened Cassius's arm so it was not across your body. "You can turn your sword inward but not outward. Keeping the sword here allows you to defend your back side." He bent Cassius's arm at the elbow. "A straight, tense arm easily tires. Additionally, it moves less freely. With your elbow bent, you are able to counter attack." Finally, Ruggiero turned his wrist so the point of the sword was pointing down. "Though this gives you little ability to launch an attack, it allows you to more easily protect your legs, which are lower than you can drop it when the sword is pointing up. This way you can cover your entire body in three motions."

Ruggiero backed up and held his own sword at waist level, sword pointing slightly up, with his off-arm tucked behind his back. "I will come at you with a thrust. I wish you to parry. You do know what that entails?"

"Yeah. I put my sword in the way of yours."

"Put it in the way?" Ruggiero asked incredulously. "No! I am thrusting. To parry it, you must turn your sword with your wrist to deflect my strike. If you do it correctly, you shall deflect my strike and leave yourself in a perfect position to counter."

"And if I do it wrong?"

"It depends. If you are too soon, I shall strike unimpeded. If you are too late, you shall not be able to redirect the entirety of my thrust and still be wounded. Now, prepare yourself."

Cassius closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them, Ruggiero's blade was already plunging into his face. A wave of darkness overtook him. When he came to, he was lying on the ground. He groaned and probed his face, but felt no wound.

"When I struck, you blacked out," Ruggiero explained. "When I removed the blade, you came to."

"No fair. I wasn't ready."

"In real combat, you would not be asked if you are ready. You must be prepared for that."

"No wonder you had no students," Cassius muttered as he took his defensive stance. "You stabbed them all."

There was slight rage on Ruggiero's face. He gracefully thrust, almost faster than Cassius could see. He swung his sword up, redirecting the strike from one eye to the other. When he regained consciousness, Ruggiero's anger had mollified somewhat.

"That was fast."

"A large part of my technique is speed," Ruggiero answered. "I will not hold myself back because your reflexes are slow. Prepare."

Cassius stood on the defensive. Ruggiero stood impassive for several minutes. Cassius's arm began to twitch involuntarily from holding the position. Right as he was about to say something, Ruggiero attacked. Once again, the parry was late and the blade slipped into Cassius's skull.

"I'll get you this time!" Cassius angrily vowed as he stood. He was determined to parry. And if Ruggiero had been truthful about the opportunity for a counter strike, he would have a small surprise coming.

Cassius guessed at Ruggiero's attack and guessed right. His sword caught Ruggiero's at the tip, knocking it away. Cassius then stepped forward, thrusting at Ruggiero's head. A flash of silver knocked Cassius's sword away, then jammed into his temple.

"I thought you said I could counter-attack," Cassius said from the floor.

"I said there would be the opportunity," Ruggiero answered, whipping his sword through the air in a mock battle. "That does not mean you shall always be able to seize it. Especially against the greatest swordsman to ever live." Ruggiero sheathed his weapon and pulled Cassius up. "Still, it is good you managed it. That is the most basic parry against thrusts. Blocking a thrust is much simpler, as my blade must travel a longer distance. However, there is less opportunity to riposte."

Cassius assumed his defensive stance. "I know what to do." Ruggiero immediately slashed at his throat. Cassius was late in blocking, but still managed to keep it from landing.

"Good!" Ruggiero shouted. He immediately slashed again, which Cassius managed to time perfectly. "Keep it up!" Each slash, each from Cassius's right, was blocked. Cassius started to smile. As soon as he did, Ruggiero slashed from Cassius's left, taking him full in the face.

"What went wrong?" Ruggiero asked.

"I didn't realize you were going to attack from the other direction," Cassius said, rubbing his throat.

"Do you think an opponent will only attack from your right? Are you that foolish?" Ruggiero yelled, banging his fist against the wall. "You must learn to anticipate and react!"

"And how am I supposed to do that?"

"How?" Ruggiero gaped. "Are you that ignorant? You watch me! Watch my hands, watch my muscles, watch my face! All will give clues to where I shall attack! It should be obvious!"

"Well, it's not..." Cassius answered weakly.

"I am going to attack as if I am trying to kill you," Ruggiero said. "You will not know how or where I will strike. You will parry. Do you understand?"

"I gue - " Ruggiero stabbed him in the chest.




He could have been watching Ruggiero for months, days, or minutes. It didn't matter. He could discern no hint as to where Ruggiero might strike next.

He saw his arms tense. A thrust to the throat, he thought. He flicked the sword at the anticipated attack. Instead, it slashed at his hamstring, dropping him to a knee before the wound vanished. It had been like that for hours.

"There is no hint!" Cassius sighed as he misjudged another attack, this one a thrust to the groin. He had managed a few parries through dumb luck. "Every attack looks the same. This is impossible."

"Impossible?" Ruggiero snorted. "If so, you attack me. See if you score even a touch!"

"Fine!" Cassius growled, launching himself at Ruggiero with full fury. He half expected to feel the burn in his stomach creep through him, but it didn't come. This was no fight to the death, not in truth.

A wild swing at Ruggiero's throat nearly got through. A thrust at his breast was turned away at the last moment. His follow up swing nearly caught Ruggiero's knee. He swung and stabbed chaotically, the antithesis of the fluid grace of Olympic fencers, yet Ruggiero barely managed to parry each attack.

After a minute of such play, Ruggiero began to knock Cassius's strikes away almost as soon as they were launched. He took a slash at Ruggiero's jugular, yet Ruggiero caught it with the bare tip of his sword before Cassius had even gotten through half the swing. The bored expression on Ruggiero's face only incited him more. He turned a slash into a thrust, sliding his blade along Ruggiero's nearly catching his ear.

The near success emboldened him. He whipped his sword through the air, innovating as much as possible. He turned slashes into thrusts, stabs into cuts, and though he came close on a few occasions, none landed. The frustration only made him swing harder, trying to beat his way through Ruggiero's guard.

It was for naught, as Ruggiero elegantly parried each attack. The simple, fluid moves made his sword a mercurial dance. It was like art and Cassius could truly believe Ruggiero had been the best swordsman to ever live. Cassius grasped his sword with both hands and began to swing with all his might.

"If we were in the world of life," Ruggiero yawned as he turned away a thrust, "you would be exhausted."

"We aren't in the world of life!" Cassius growled, throwing his weight behind one lunge. With a flick of his wrist, Ruggiero casually knocked Cassius aside, sending him tumbling forward.

Were it not for the afterlife, the wind would have been knocked from Cassius's lungs. Since they were, he barely felt it. As he pushed himself to his knees, Ruggiero walked behind him. In desperation, Cassius stabbed beneath his own armpit. Ruggiero calmly batted it aside and plunged his sword through Cassius's spine, pinning him to the ground.

Unlike before, Cassius did not black out. Instead, he found himself unable to move. Ruggiero knelt and looked him in the eyes. "I will leave you here. Reflect on this lesson." Without a second glance he spun and walked from the shack.




The only lesson Cassius could figure was that he was a terrible swordsman. A clumsy, uncoordinated wimp who could barely hold a sword without cutting himself. Everything that had happened since he found Ruggiero Luigi da Correggio merely confirmed that.

Eventually, Ruggiero returned. He sat on the floor and closed his eyes, meditating. Cassius wondered if the swordsman had forgotten him, leaving him pinned unceremoniously to the floor for all eternity.

Several hours later, Ruggiero finally opened his eyes. He stared at Cassius for a long time before speaking.

"My last student died like that. Rene du Lac. The sword was a bit lower and he was in a different position, but that was how he died. My sword in his back." Ruggiero's voice was flat and cold, like reading a list of unfamiliar names. "I killed them all. My students. Well, not all of them. Many killed themselves in duels, not realizing they were merely novices and could barely outfight a man wielding a knife in a bar fight.

"It was 1526 when I opened my school. In ten years I turned away thousands, scared off hundreds, and was left with twenty-three students. The youngest was a twelve year old English boy named Richard Montant. The oldest a German, Gustav Haberman. I never learned his age, but he was older than I. I trained them well. A few even neared my own skill; Henri Piccard and Leonard Fulton and Angelino Mangini."

Ruggiero stood and paced. "I thought I would be proud when a student reached me," he said, a hint of emotion creeping into his voice. "I was not. I became jealous. Angry. How dare they! I was to be the greatest swordsman to ever live! I was not to be overtaken! I became insulted. Disgusted with my own students!"

Pain, sorrow, anger, remorse. All mixed with a hint of insanity. "It was a warm, bright day in April. Have you ever experienced a springtime in Italy? It is glorious! I called them to the school, one by one, and slew them. A few fought, but they were still no match. In the end only I remained. There was not a man alive who knew my technique but me.

"Then I ran. I ran and ran. I thought I would escape forever! Live forever! As long as I had my sword, I could kill whoever came for me! If Death should come calling, I would plunge my sword into its depths and defeat even it!" Ruggiero laughed slightly and rubbed his forehead. "But eventually they came across me as I slept.

"They bound my hands and feet. They took my sword. They brought me to trial for murdering my students. My prowess were the work of the Devil, they said, and his price had been my students' lives. They piled my manuals high and set them alight. Then they threw my body onto the pyre and tossed my sword with me.

"As the fire burned through my bonds, I took up the sword." The swordsman shook his head. "I thrust my sword into Death's heart, but it simply stared at me. It never said a word, but I sheathed my blade and followed it into Hell."

Ruggiero sighed deep and long. "You showed me a chance for redemption. If I could teach you, I could be saved." He spoke softly, sadly. "You would learn my techniques and become my legacy. My salvation! Every man wishes to be saved. My hopes were so high." He laughed harshly. "But you were pathetic. It was like watching a child swing a stick. Each move you made was as clumsy as your first step.

"At first, I thought it merely a flaw of yours I could overcome." The laughs were coming more rapidly. "But when I saw you try that unorthodox, ridiculous move, I knew! It was not you. It was this place. Hell! No one can change here. Not the dead, not the living. Not even the damned Devil can change. I thought you were my salvation. You were not."

Ruggiero pulled the sword from Cassius's back. He immediately rolled to his feet. "Ruggiero, I'm sorry. I - " The swordsman opened the cabinet and retrieved an old, beautifully crafted sword.

"Go!" Ruggiero commanded, pressing the sword into Cassius's hands. "Go and never return here! Find your woman and leave this place!"

"But Ruggiero - "

"Go!" he ordered, more forcefully. The sword was hot to the touch, even through the black wood scabbard. His hands burned like touching a hot stove.

"What is this?" he asked, his hand trembling from the heat. It was creeping into his shoulder.

"It is the sword I stabbed into Death. Should you ever meet Death, the Devil, or God Himself, I want you to stab that sword into their hearts and tell them it was from Ruggiero Luigi da Corregio!"

Cassius nodded and left. The sword's burning heat pushed away, replaced by the warmth from his stomach. He looked back at Ruggiero, but the swordsman paid him no attention. Instead, he had his face in his hands and let out sobbing laughs. Cassius closed the door and looked back no longer.


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