The Dragon's Key: Chapter 22

The top of the mountain was a relatively flat plateau, sheered away over a thousand years ago by the dragons. The years of wind and rain had worn away most of the scars that had once been evidence to the massive power that had once been unleashed. The massive ravine on the far side of the peak was the sole reminder.

A dias had been raised in the center, holding the body of Kaida. Master Naja stood before it with King and Reynard flanking him. Reynard wore a solemn expression, his hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword. Master Naja's lips had curled into an expectant smirk. King merely sat, waiting.

"Krait," Master Naja finally broke the silence sarcastically, "I must admit I'm rather surprised to see you. I see you've captured the Princess and Keybearer for me."

Krait took a step forward and smiled, opening his arms wide. "Well, you know me. I never fail a mission, even when you believe I have. Sadly, Adder had to die to give us this victory." He glanced over his shoulder at Cassius. "I let him keep his sword because, well, what would he do with it anyway! And the Princess... Well, a ghost is hardly a threat, right?"

"You never were a good groveler," Master Naja hissed.

"Am I groveling?" Krait asked with mock surprised. "And here I thought I was going to kill you."

Master Naja laughed, a shrill, menacing sound. "Kill me? And why would you want to do that?"

"I've been thinking about it," Krait answered, "and the more I do, the less I like the idea of you becoming King of the nagual. Not that you'd even last long. The other Heads of House would rise up and throw you down, probably throwing House Snake down along with you. I figure I might as well beat them to it and save the rest of the House from your folly."

"King?" Master Naja laughed. "Is that what you think this is really about? Your ambition always was too limited, Krait. You were lucky to have Adder, he dragged you screaming to prominence. No, I do not want merely to become a King. I want to change the nagual forever!"

"Change us?" Kaida asked. She had begun to drift toward her body, but Reynard continued to bar her way. "What do you mean?"

Master Naja turned slowly to the specter. "Why, Princess, to make us more like you. Not as you are now, of course." He laughed his hideous laugh again. "But the free, independent woman who held great power in her hands yet walked day to day through the world of people. I had to maneuver in the shadows, working through proxies and corruption where I could. My acts were... tolerated because I held great influence. But why were we held apart from our fellows?

"Because we have the souls of beasts? I have seen men and know them to be just as great beasts as us! We should be permitted to walk among them, to live our lives as we see fit. Children should not be snatched from families. Brothers and sisters should not be separated merely because of the chance of their souls. Humans should not be segregated from humans simply because a few are named nagual! You may never understand Princess, because you were given the opportunity to do what none of us were!"

"So this is what this is all about?" Kaida asked. "You want to live in the rest of the world? You of all people should realize the danger in that Naja! Look at what you can do. Look at what we all can do!"

Master Naja shook his head with a fang-exposing smile. "Yes, look at us. And look at him." He pointed to Cassius. "What nagual can say they braved death to bring a soul back from the afterlife? We have power, yes, but are humans really so weak that we must be caged away from them?

"Maybe centuries ago. Maybe there was a time when we would be called witches or demons and burned at the stake or hunted down and murdered. Or when our powers would allow us to commit heinous crimes. But now? The gap has been closed, Princess. Humans can abide us and we can abide them!

"But never would your father even think of change. Not when brought from my mouth or the mouths of dozens of others. And yes, I appealed to diplomacy first. I begged your father to change his laws. I brought the voices of a dozen other houses behind me! But he was ever obstinate.

"And in time, my support fled me. They turned their backs on what was right and I alone stood to free the nagual of our cage. Am I so wrong? Was the life of one dragon not worth an avenue to our freedom?"

Krait laughed. "Freedom?" he asked. "You'd be the one holding the keys to the jail cell, Naja. Every nagual would be forced to kneel to you to see any of your precious freedom?"

"Oh, do you think so poorly of me, my agent?" Master Naja cooed. "No, I well know that no one would kneel to me. At best, I would incite a civil war. At worst, I would simply be torn to pieces. No, if I merely ascended to the Dragon's throne, I would be no better than an usurper, my ideals a mere excuse to grab power.

"I would not take the throne. I would abolish the throne entirely. Allow each house to do as it wishes. Let us be free of these feudal pretensions. Each nagual is a man and each man has the right to chose his own path through life."

"But you killed all the Heads of House!" Kaida objected. "You had them all murdered."

"The old world must be swept away before the new can flourish," Master Naja said with a shrug. "They had to be eliminated before any true change could occur. No revolution was won without the blood of the previous regime being spilled. So it was here. So it had to be."

"No," Krait said. "You're a monster, Naja. You're a blood-thirsty schemer. You bite because that is the nature of a snake." He shrugged. "Maybe you do believe in everything you've just said. But even if you do, it would never come to pass. If you were unleashed on the world, you'd only bring ruin to everything you touched. I've seen you ruin lives. I know the wrong you did. Hell, I did wrong in your name more times than I can count. If you are the one to bring about a revolution, it's better if it never happened."

He rushed Naja. Master Naja laughed and spread his arms as if to embrace Krait. Krait lowered his shoulder into Naja's stomach, lifting him from the ground. A primal scream escaped Krait's lungs as he drove Master Naja into the ground.

The sensual, elegant snake looked as if he might break in two from the impact, but anger flashed in his eyes as he struck at Krait. Krait's fist immediately smashed into the side of Naja's head, breaking the bite and sending the elder snake reeling. Krait pulled on Naja's hair with one hand while slamming his other fist repeatedly into Naja's face.

Naja squirmed in Krait's grasp, struggling to free himself, but Krait's fingers were wrapped in Naja's hair and he was not letting go. A cut formed over Naja's eye and grew wider with each blow. Blood trickled down Naja's face and oozed into his mouth.

The taste of his own blood seemed to remind Master Naja he had fists of his own. He swung wildly at Krait, catching his chin just enough to stun him. Another blow caused Krait's grip to loosen and immediately Naja struck. Krait quickly wrenched him away, but the damage had been done. A spasm of pain passed through him as he trembled to keep Naja from striking again.

Cassius saw an opening and rushed in, his sword ringing as he drew it. Reynard flashed in front of him, swinging his sword in a large, lazy arc. Cassius leapt back in surprise, easily evading the attack. Reynard was blankly disinterested in his actions; his swings and thrusts slow and easy to block.

The warmth immediately began to spread through Cassius until it reached the sword. The weapon felt like an extension of him, flaring into life with a bitter, black fire. "I know more than you realize," Cassius growled, catching Reynard's thrust against the side of his blade and lunging forward.

Reynard spun, the sword slicing through his coat. He danced backward, holding his sword before him with more seriousness. "It seems I have underestimated you," Reynard acknowledged as he threw the torn coat to the ground. "Or how much you have learned from the Key."

Cassius grinned. "The Key was inside you too, for a time," he said. "I know all you do. And more."

"And yet you shall be defeated," Reynard said with cool confidence. "It is not a boast. You have knowledge but no skill." In demonstration he flicked his sword forward, cutting open the front of Cassius'ss shirt. "The Key can give you information but it cannot give you a lifetime of training. You cannot move fast enough." He effortlessly avoided another lunge from Cassius and whacked the flat of his blade against the back of Cassius's knees. "You cannot swing precisely enough. You cannot hold your guard strong enough." He sliced with quickness, Cassius barely bringing his weapon up in time to catch it. Reynard pushed down and Cassius stumbled backward.

As Cassius retreated under Reynard's assault, Krait's struggles grew more desperate. The venom made his every movement a torture. He struggled just to keep Master Naja's fangs from inching closer to him. Even Naja's punches were proving devastating. "Fight like a snake," Master Naja taunted.

Krait kneed him in the groin, then tossed him to the side. Naja sucked in wind in pain, clutching himself. Krait caught him with an uppercut. A second punch sent Naja reeling backward. Yet the venom made each attack costly. Krait's face was beginning to swell and he could barely feel his extremities.

He threw wild haymakers at Naja, who held his arms up in an effort to shield himself. Suddenly, Krait kicked him in the stomach and he doubled over. Desperate, Naja lunged, taking Krait's next punch flush but knocking his assailant to the ground.

Naja didn't bother to bite Krait. Instead he wrapped his hands around Krait's neck and squeezed. "I could have given you a good death," Naja hissed. "I prefer it much better this way."

Cassius saw the turn of Krait's fortune. He loathed the thought of saving the man who had tried killing him. But he clearly needed Krait. Reynard was more than enough to handle. Master Naja, even weakened, would be Cassius's death.

With a burst of inspiration, he failed to block Reynard's next slash, taking it on the arm. He thrust at Reynard's legs and the fox leapt back in surprise. Cassius ducked past him, swinging his sword at Naja as he went. A clang of metal rang as Reynard flicked his sword barely in time, intercepting the blow.

"Nice try," Reynard said, only half-mocking. Blood flowed down Cassius's right arm. It burned even hotter than the fires of the Key.

"Poison?" Cassius gasped as he blocked another attack.

"Hardly," Reynard answered with offense. "This blade has tasted the blood of dragons! To imagine it would leave an ordinary wound is sacrilege."

Cassius growled and kicked at Reynard, not an unexpected move, but one that forced him a step back regardless. Cassius swung his sword, taking the initiative, and forcing Reynard onto the defensive. The fires of the Key burned through his entire body. He could feel his heart thundering in his chest, and yet he did not manage to lay even a touch on Reynard.

Cassius continued pressing, steering Reynard backward. With a smile and slash, he sent Reynard stumbling over Master Naja and Krait. The fox quickly rolled to his feet, but the two snakes had been knocked apart.

"Gotcha," Cassius huffed. Reynard wore a frown, but touched his sword to his forehead in deference nonetheless. He then launched into a furious assault, so strong that all Cassius could do was block and fall back. It was all he could do to avoid being sliced to pieces.

Krait pushed himself to his knees, gasping for air. He looked around wildly for Master Naja, only spotting him at the last moment. He caught Master Naja as he pounced. The two spared no words and wrestled on the ground, jockeying for position.

Cassius kept backing up with long steps, unsure of where he was going. Reynard battered his sword aside, barely missing thrusts and slashes.

"Reynard!" King Fox barked. Reynard's hand darted forward and caught the front of Cassius's shirt. Cassius nearly sliced the hand off before he realized his back foot touched nothing. Reynard yanked, throwing him away from the ravine, before continuing his assault.

"You don't want to kill me!" Cassius realized. "You need me!"

"Correct," Reynard admitted, flicking his leg out and sweeping Cassius's from under him. "Now cease fighting!" He planted his boot on Cassius's spine.

"Reynard! Help me!" cried Master Naja, an unfamiliar terror in his voice. Cassius craned his neck, but couldn't see the snake anywhere. Reynard kicked the sword from Cassius's hand, then walked to the edge of the ravine.

There Cassius saw it. A pair of hands grasped the edge, barely holding on. Krait valiantly held on to the edge while Master Naja clutched his waist. "You seem to be in trouble," Reynard noted dryly.

"Get me up!" Naja ordered.

"I do not see how I could," Reynard said with a sigh. "For you see, this serpent shall surely bite me if I reach out to you. And though he and his compatriot seemed to enjoy hunting me down, I do not enjoy being bitten."

"Reynard!" Naja cried, desperately.

"My apologies," Reynard answered as he slashed one of Krait's hands. "But rest secure in the knowledge that your dream was a folly. You would have been killed regardless."

"See you in Hell, Reynard," Krait spat, letting go. Naja's screams of terror echoed the entire way down, though the fall was too far to hear them hit the bottom.

Reynard turned just in time to block a slash from Cassius. "Not more of this," he sighed.

"You're a monster!"

"Please, Keybearer, do not patronize me," Reynard answered, parrying Cassius's blows with only mediocre effort. "The other snake was right. Naja's deluded plans were nothing more than the ravings of a madman. His utopian nagual society was doomed from the beginning."

"You were working with them the entire time!"

"Yes, though the Agents did not know it," Reynard yawned. "It is time to end this." With lightning speed he lashed out, cutting Cassius across the back of the wrist. Cassius dropped his sword and Reynard sent Cassius to the ground with a swing of his pommel.

"It is over, Keybearer. If you cooperate, you shall be allowed to leave with your life."

"Reynard!" King called in warning. The assassin turned too late. Kaida, her shade transformed into the shimmering azure dragon, had her claws sunk into his chest. Blood poured from his as surely as if they had been solid. With a roar, she pulled and left huge gashes in Reynard's chest.

Silently, he collapsed to the ground, his last glances falling on King, who bowed his head at his now dead servant.

"Kaida," Cassius murmured as the dragon wavered, returning to the human-shaped shade.

"Cassius, I..." she muttered, her voice drifting away on a slight breeze. Her soul grew even more indistinct, becoming barely more than an after-image, only an outline of a person left. A sudden breeze kicked up and she vanished.

"You can still save her," King said. "Her soul is not gone yet. Not completely."

Cassius looked up at the tiny creature standing before him. "You're responsible for all this. You knew this would all happen, didn't you?"

"I saw you in the afterlife centuries ago," King admitted. "I never knew how things would play out or what would come of it. Even after I first discovered you. If it makes you feel any better, I tried to avoid most of this mess."

"Why?" Cassius asked. "Revenge? Kaida had done nothing to you."

"Ah, but Lorne had!" King growled. "Lorne... trapped me in this body! He allowed revenge to taint him! He transformed into that... monster and usurped the Dragon throne! And when I tried to tell the world, he turned me into... this!" King raised his paw in disgust. "To thank me for following him into the afterlife, he broke House Fox. My house! His house! Destroyed because he allowed the thirst for revenge cloud his mind!"

"It wasn't revenge," Cassius said softly. "It was love. He loved his Princess. When you led him into the afterlife to get her back... Well, I can't remember what happened in there any more than you can. But I remember that he came back with her!"

"Yes," King sneered. "He did. I risked myself for him and we succeeded. And for what? So that Ryu could reject him, as I insisted he would."

"Ryu didn't care for the Princess," Cassius admitted. "Only what she represented. I know that too." He touched his chest and could feel the heat of the Key flowing through him. "So Lorne used the power of the Key to kill him."

"And became the dragon," King spat. "He turned himself into the thing he killed! Why? Do you know that, Cassius? Why he did it?" King's lips trembled, though it seemed so unnatural on a fox. "The world could have forgiven his transgression. We could have made due without a dragon. Why did he become one?"

"For love," Cassius answered as if it were obvious. "Ryu didn't care about the Princess, but Airyu did. And even though each new Princess was not his Princess, he loved them still. As equals and wives and friends and daughters."

"And he turned me into a fox to keep me from spreading the truth," King answered softly.

"I never said he made the right choice," Cassius admitted. "He wanted the nagual way to continue as it always had. He was made the Keybearer after all. The traditions of the nagual were important to him."

King bared his teeth, wider than Cassius thought possible. "And now it all comes to an end. Kiss Kaida, Keybearer," King ordered. "Use the Key to open the Door and bring Zirnitra back to our world."

"You're not going to let me bring her back," Cassius said. "You're going to kill Zirnitra."

"Unless you stop me," King said. "If you do, you'll have a chance."

Cassius wobbled to Kaida's unmoving, unblemished body. Droplets of blood from his wounded arm and wrist trickled onto the ground as he leaned over her. Even without life, she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. She had no scent. He closed his eyes and pressed his lips against hers; cold and dead. They opened, not out of life, but of duty.

His heart pounded, thundering deafeningly in his ears. The fire of the Key consumed him and flowed from his chest through his mouth and into Kaida's. His heart reverberated in Kaida. She took in a breath. Her heart fluttered to life, slow arrhythmic. It grew stronger and faster with each passing second until it too beat as loud as Cassius's.

Their hearts beat in concert.

He fell backward, his will sapped. The warmth had fled him completely, leaving him shivering. He felt nothing, staring up at the window being cut into the sky. Through it came crashing a massive creature.

At first, Cassius thought he was seeing his brother. Then he realized that had been just a dream-like memory, never his to begin with.

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