The Dragon's Key: Chapter 21

It took only a few steps before Ruggiero's shack vanished into the bleakness of the afterlife. In its place the man who had first set Cassius in the task appeared, walking from nowhere. "Nice work," the man said.

"This is from Ruggiero Luigi da Corregio," Cassius said half-heartedly, thrusting the sword right into the man's chest.

The man looked down at the blade sticking from his chest. He had a mild expression of discomfort, but didn't remove the blade. "Was that really necessary?" the man asked.

"I promised," Cassius said with a shrug, pulling the sword out.

"I see," the man answered neutrally. "Well, be that as it may, you did as requested."

"Did I?" Cassius asked. "He didn't seem any less tormented than before I got there. If anything else, he seemed worse off."

"Did he?" the man wondered. "When you arrived, was he not ignorant of anything but his own existence and that of his swords? You may not have given him the salvation he sought, but he did relinquish his favored blade to you."

"Yeah, so I could stab you. Or God. Or Death."

"Even so," the man answered with a slight smirk. "It is a step. Salvation is not something that is quickly accomplished. Even here, where time is meaningless, but experience is not."

"So, what now?" Cassius asked.

The man smiled and for the first time, Cassius seemed to see his face. With a shudder, Cassius realized it was his own. The man reached out and touched him and there was a brief wave of vertigo.

When it passed, the man had vanished and Kaida was before him.

Cassius fell to his knees at the sight of her. She was not the Kaida he knew, but rather the magnificent dragon of her soul. It was wiry and elegant, a graceful azure coil with delicate wings. It moved like a cat given a reptile's form. It opened one lazy, emerald eye.

And suddenly it was Kaida as she had always been. She reached out a hand to him and he took it. "I knew I'd find you eventually," she said. Her voice ached.

"No, I found you," he said.

"I've looked so long," she told him, "that I'd almost given up hope. For so long I've been here, searching, but death is vast. I knew I'd have until the end of eternity. So I looked for you. Only you."

"Well, you found me. Now it's time to go."

"Go?" she asked. Though she had a hint of confusion to her voice, her face remained serene. Peaceful. "Go where?"

"To life," Cassius said. "I came here to bring you back."

"Life?" Kaida asked. "No," she said. "Now that we're together, everything is as it should be. Why go back to life where things will only break again?"

"I came here for you," Cassius pressed. "I came into the afterlife itself to find you and bring you back!" He took her hand in both his and squeezed it to his chest. "Don't you want to avenge your father? Don't you want to right all the wrongs that were done to the nagual?"

"None of that matters," she said wispily. "Not here. Not now."

"Nothing changes here," Cassius said. "To spend eternity here with you... It's tempting. But together, in life, we can create something together. Here, we can't. Please Kaida."

"I..." she murmured, starting to draw away from him.

"I love you."

She wrapped her arms around him. "Let's go," she whispered in his ear.

They walked a short distance and found the river that separated the shores of life from the shores of death. The ferryman was already waiting for them.

"If you try to stab me, I will hit you with my oar," the ferryman warned.

Cassius just laughed and Kaida laughed with him. He pushed off from the shore and slowly they drifted toward life.

When they emerged, King was nowhere to be found and Kaida was still a spirit without a body. Under the light of living, her soul had lost coherence. It now was little more than a floating shade, an ill-formed whisper of her true self. Vague details were still there; her eyes, her hair, the shape of her body, and even her strawberry scent. But the rest was ephemeral, only solidifying for a moment before fading away.

She had been disoriented upon exiting, unsure of where she was or what had happened. He had to explain to her that she had died. She refused to believe him, having forgotten everything of her time in the afterlife. Even he had forgotten most of what had occurred after he crossed the river.

He looked down at the sword he wore on his hip. He had the vague notion that someone in the afterlife had given it to him. But he could not remember who or why. He began to weep at that, but Kaida reached up her ghostly hand and whispered to him that it would be alright.

Finally, he managed to explain to her what had happened.

"What do we do now?" she asked once she had fully digested the news. Her voice came on a distant wind. He strained to hear her.

"We get you back to your body," he said.

"Where is it?" she asked in a sigh.

"On the Mountain," he said. He tried to take her hand, but it passed through without even so much as a ripple. "Stay close to me. Only look ahead, focusing on me. Focus everything you have on me. Sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. All of it."

She followed without complaint, through the pathways. He had to grit his teeth against what he saw in the periphery. They were things not of this world that reached out to his mind to rip it to shreds. Their claws frayed away memories and feelings, pulling at his very consciousness.

At some point, he began to sing as King had sung, using the melody to keep his sanity. The figures continued to rip at his existence, the song only driving them on further. But at its apex, he felt the warmth of the Key spreading through him. The creatures did not shy away from it, but their attacks did next to nothing to his psyche.

When he finally stumbled to a stop, far from the mouth of the afterlife, he felt as if years had been shaved from his life. "Rest," he muttered before nearly collapsing to the ground. He sat and collected himself as Kaida's shade hovered around him.

"That was harrowing," she rustled. "It made me almost wish I hadn't come back."

He chuckled despite his exhaustion. "Same here," he huffed. "But it's too late to go back now."

"Why are we here?" she wondered with a whistle.

"It's the Mountain," Cassius explained. He could remember things. Everything about the Key. All of its memories, all the way back to the earliest ones.

"It's empty." The mountain was not large or wide. It was much more of a craggy hill, uncovered by trees and ignored by animals. Only a few stubborn lichens clung to the broken rocks, refusing to give up their hold. Or, perhaps, they were the only thing that had enough courage to try returning.

"It's the Door," Cassius said, "to which I hold the Key. The name was chosen for a reason. They need me to open it, but they knew I would never come without you needing to be here. So they killed you."

"Master Naja and Reynard," she whispered.

"Yes. And King. What they all hope to gain... I don't know."

"What's behind the Door?" she asked.

"I don't know," he lied. He pushed himself to his feet and turned his back to her. "We should get moving."

The stench of blood clung to Krait. It was in his nose and throat, beneath his fingernails and soaking into his skin. He had torn himself to shreds trying to escape it, but it persisted. Nothing could absolve him of the Oracles' deaths.

Apparently, ceremonial guards were not prepared for a real threat. Adder had barged into the temple, effortlessly shoving aside any of the men who tried to stop him. Krait had begged him to restrain himself, but his partner wouldn't listen. A few guards had tried to physically bar his way, but Adder merely bit them and moved on as they writhed in pain, dying as he stepped over them.

He barged into the Oracles' room, threw out the petitioner, and killed the guards. Krait had watched helplessly as Adder stormed. "The Princess and Keybearer," he asked simply, "where are they?"

None of the Oracles spoke. They sat impassively, unmoved by the deaths of their guards. Adder repeated the question and still none spoke.

"Hold the door," Adder ordered.

"There are too many!" Krait shouted as the first of the temple guards began to pour through the doorway. He fought them as best he could, striking and poisoning those who got too close. But he did not have Adder's venom.

After a few minutes, Adder grabbed him and threw him toward the Oracles. "Deal with them!" he hissed as he set upon the guards.

Krait turned away from the slaughter to the Oracles. One already lay limply on the ground, puffy purple flesh swelling at his throat. His eyes were glassy and dead. Krait turned to the remaining two Oracles. "I don't want to do this," he said sincerely. "Tell me where to find the Keybearer and Princess."

Neither man answered. Krait looked back at Adder, who was in a frenzy. "He'll kill me," Krait said. "He'll kill you." Still they remained silent. "Answer damn you!"

Reluctantly, he bit one of the Oracles. The man barely seemed to notice it, until he began to foam from the mouth. He fell to the side and began to convulse. Krait turned away and began to heave, only to be shoved to the side by Adder. His partner was covered in blood and splattered venom.

"Where are the Keybearer and Princess?" he hissed at the final Oracle, waiting only a second before biting the man.

Almost immediately, the final Oracle's wound swelled. Still, the man sat impassive. The venom spread through him, destroying his body. In only minutes his entire body had swollen and bruised. Finally, his lips cracked into what looked to be a smile. "Go to the Mountain," he said before collapsing.

"I bet they didn't see that coming," Adder cracked, an especially cruel sneer plastered across his face. Krait didn't answer, though he wasn't so sure they hadn't.

Now they were scaling the Mountain. It had no significance to anyone. It was merely an odd little thing that all nagual knew about; a small patch of barren land in the middle of nowhere. The only way to get there was to walk the hidden paths, but it was so far removed from everything else in the world that no one got there by accident. At one point, someone had purposefully traveled there.

There were whispers about it, of course. That it was special, that it hid some secret. No one had ever proven anything. People had scoured its length and breadth a hundred times searching for some lost treasure, only to always come up empty.

Whatever the reason for the Princess and Keybearer to come here, it was up to Krait and Adder to retrieve them for Master Naja.

"Stop fidgeting," Adder hissed as he scrambled up an incline. "You're making me nervous."

"Nervous?" Krait huffed. "I doubt it." Still, he stuck his hands in his pockets. Once Adder reached the top of the incline, Krait followed him up.

"I don't want you giving away our position. We want the element of surprise. Or do you want to be shredded again?"

Krait shuddered at the thought. Even if the Princess once again failed to decapitate him and complete the job, this place was lifeless. He could spend an eternity unmoving but aware, slowly decaying and feeling every second of it, until finally the rot entered his brain and put him out of his suffering.

Even so, he feared the alternative even more. Death - true death - terrified him. He was not ready to face it. He doubted he ever would be. But now was not the time to think of such things.

They needed to find their targets and capture them and return them to Master Naja. Master Naja would welcome them back into his fold and... he wasn't quite sure what would happen next. Surely, Master Naja would become King of the Nagual. But where that left Krait was uncertain. Would he be made into a favored right-hand? Would he be put in the front lines to deal with any dissenters to the new rule? Or would he merely be tossed aside?

When they were so close, such doubts seemed silly. Cold feet, Krait told himself. He glanced at Adder, who ascended a poorly-worn path up the mountain. Adder made a poor best man, but he was the only one Krait had. "Adder," Krait asked quietly so not to provoke his partner's wrath, "after we deliver the Princess and Keybearer to Master Naja, what next?"

"He makes us his agents again," Adder answered matter-of-factly.

"Yeah, but to what end? Master Naja will be King. No more of this back alley skulking for us. So what next?"

"I have not thought of that," Adder said unwaveringly. "And I do not care. My life is Master Naja's. Whatever we decides is my honor to receive."

Like you honorably took your dismissal, Krait thought. "I guess you're right. Thanks for reassuring me, buddy."

They continued until Adder came to a sudden halt. Krait nearly ran into him. "What?" he whispered as softly as he could.

Adder pointed down the slope of the mountain. Two figures were slowly ascending. Krait couldn't make them out, but chances were they were the Princess and Keybearer.

"What happened to you, Cass?" Kaida sighed. She had spent the majority of their climb asking him questions. They were good questions and they deserved answers, but he couldn't bring himself to give them. Not yet, at least. He didn't understand all the answers himself.

"I'm the same as I always was," he said. The climb had been long and daunting, but he still felt spry half-way up. He was impressed with himself. "But when you die young in my arms and I seek death because of it... Well, a man gets to show his stony side when that happens."

She giggle, a strange tinkling sound like ethereal chimes. It even made her start. "I can't wait to get my body back," she whispered, staring at her translucent hand.

"Can't wait to shower me with kisses, can you?"

She laughed again, though there was some bit of nervousness in this one. "You're awful forward, Mr. Hewitt," she said softly, surprised but not unwilling.

"Once you're whole again, I plan to be much more than that," he said, grinning as he pulled himself up a ledge. She floated up beside him. "Being noncorporeal has its advantages," he muttered to her. She seemed to smile, but he couldn't tell from her lack of features. "You'll get your body back. I promise."

"I believe you."

"If you'd only done that from the start, we'd never be in this mess," he said jokingly.

She raised a hand to where her mouth would be and her soul seemed to blush red. "I'm sorry. It's just that..." She trailed off in thought. "How did you know to ask the second Oracle when the third was telling the truth?"

"Was it really a secret?" he wondered. "I think we were blind to it because we'd known each other for so long. But to everyone else it was plain as day, even if you fought against it." He shrugged his shoulders. "Besides, it was a trick question anyway. If he knew something about me, then by definition it - "

Cassius was knocked from his feet by a fierce blow. His head struck the ground hard and lights exploded in his vision. Kaida screamed in surprise as Cassius grappled with an assailant. He tried to reach for his sword, but the attacker had him pinned to the ground.

"Fight and you die," the attacker hissed. Even as the fire began to rage through him, the voice chilled him. He stared up into the ugly, scowling face of Agent Adder.

"Adder!" Krait gasped. "She's... not here!"

Adder looked away briefly and gave Cassius a small opening. He smashed his forehead into Adder's jaw, rocking the snake and causing him to release his grip. Though the blow should have stunned Cassius as well, the fires of the Key were burning inside him. He tossed the snake off him and rolled to his feet.

Cassius drew his sword and faced the snake, who was struggling to his feet. The fires in his chest seemed to flow up into the sword and Cassius was sure he was burning. The snake glared at him with only malice, however, no surprise.

"Watch out!" Kaida shouted and Cassius turned just in time to see the other snake crashing in to him. Cassius kicked the man in the stomach and threw him to the side, but the assault had given Adder his window.

The sword went clattering from Cassius's hand as Adder put him in a full nelson and held his teeth inches from Cassius's neck. "The slightest move and I bite," he hissed. He looked over at Kaida and narrowed his eyes.

"She's a ghost," Krait gasped.

"That's impossible!" Adder answered. Krait put his arm right through Kaida's body as she tried to float away from him. "What is this?"

"He's right," Cassius answered with no desire to lie. "She's dead. Your master killed her, but I went into the afterlife and brought her back. Now I'm going to the top of the Mountain to get her body back."

"I don't believe you," Adder said.

"He's not lying about her being a ghost," Krait said. He had turned several shades paler. "I can't touch her."

"Don't hurt him!" Kaida pleaded, her voice a hurricane's howl. It gave both snakes pause.

"Fine, I won't hurt him," Adder promised. "But you must go to Master Naja with us. And if either of you try anything, I won't hesitate to bite. Then you'll wish you stayed dead."

"I'll go with you," Kaida whispered. "But if you do anything to him. Anything at all... I'll..." She trailed off and Cassius swallowed heavily. What could she possibly do?

"I wouldn't dare, Princess," Adder rasped, dark and threatening. "Krait, find something to bind his arms. I'm not going to - " A fist crashed into Adder's face, sending him stumbling off Cassius.

Adder stumbled and felt his nose, which was dribbling blood. "What are you doing?" he cried.

Krait answered by tackling Adder. The two rolled on the ground, hissing and striving to bite the other. Krait has his palm smashed against Adder's chin while Adder was trying to gouge Krait's eyes. The two jockeyed for position, thrashing and snapping their mouths.

It quickly became apparent that Krait was outmatched. Adder didn't manage to score a solid bite, but did manage to nick Krait several times. Even traces of his venom managed to slow Krait and caused obvious pain. After not too long, he had Krait pinned beneath him.

"You always were a coward, Krait!" Adder gurgled through his bloody nose. "This will please me to no end!" He bared his fangs and Cassius's sword sliced through his neck.

His body remained rigid as the head fell to the ground and rolled down the incline of the Mountain, before finally coming to a rest against a rock. Krait stared up in shock for a long moment then kicked the body off him in terror. His face and chest were covered with blood which he did his best to wipe off with his tattered sleeve.

Cassius trembled mildly, his face pale. He heaved in breaths. "Why did you do that?" he asked Krait. He held the sword out, pointing it at Krait's face.

Krait gingerly took the sword tip between his fingers and pushed it away. He reached into his pocket, retrieved a crushed box, and tapped out one cigarette. After he lit it, he held out the box to Cassius. "Want one?"

"I don't smoke," Cassius answered, still holding the sword at the ready.

"And I guess the Princess really can't," Krait noted dryly. He took a long drag, leaned his head back, and let the smoke seep from his mouth. "Why did I do that?" he asked himself. "That's an interesting question. Is what you said true? Did you really go to heaven to get the Princess back?"


"You care about her that much?"


"I've never cared about anything that much," Krait said. "Not even myself. I used my friends to get things from them. I used partners to help me commit crimes. I used Master Naja to get me out of jail." He looked Cassius up and down with a wry expression. "And don't think I've had a change of heart. I'm using you too."

"Using us?" Cassius asked. "For what? You can't take us back to your master alone."

"I wouldn't think of it," Krait said. "I fucking hate being a nagual. I don't belong here. I never did." He sucked the cigarette down to the butt, tossed it onto the ground, and stomped it out. "Adder had me convinced going back to Master Naja would make everything better. But it would have just made me even more miserable and damned if I wasn't about to charge right into it. I just needed the balls to say no."

"Then help us," Cassius said. "Help us fight Master Naja and Reynard and King. I'm alone here. I can't fight. I don't know what I'm going to do when I get to the top of the Mountain and they're waiting for me for... whatever plan they have."

"I already helped you," Krait said. "I say you owe me, even."

"You kept Adder from killing me, I kept Adder from killing you. But you also tried to kill Kaida before that. And you tortured me."

"Sorry about that," Krait said with a shrug. "Just following orders. Besides, she shredded me both times. I'd say that more than makes up for it."

"Then do it for revenge," Kaida whispered. "Do it to get back at Master Naja."

Krait chuckled. "I've got nothing to get back at him for. He got me out of jail and I paid him back for that. Then he did me even better and kicked me out of his House. I was just too stupid to realize it was a favor until now."

"Then security," Kaida offered in a gust. "If we fail, Master Naja will surely hunt you down."

"And if I fail with you, he'll already have me," Krait said with a frown.

"Then do it to atone," she sighed. "Make up for all the bad things you've done in your life. Help us and get a clean slate."

Krait sighed and lit another cigarette. "I have a feeling I'm going to regret this." He took a long drag. "But I suppose every man should do one good deed in his life. Fine, I'll go."

The three of them resumed climbing. Not long after, they crested a final ridge.

Master Naja, Reynard, and King were waiting.

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