The Dragon's Key: Chapter 23

"Make me human again," King demanded. The dragon had grown massive, far larger than had ever been possible on Earth. It dwarfed the mountain. Its head rested weakly on the peak, leaving only a few feet for Cassius and King to stand. It struggled to spread its wings or raise its claws, but it had become too large to stand it in a world of earth.

Its massive eye, as bright as the sun in the sky, rolled forward and focused on King. It blinked once and King fell limp. A spasm wracked him and the tiny animal howled in pain. Bones cracked and skin split. Fur fell away as snaps echoed through the air.

Basil stood and flexed his restored hands and stretched his returned muscles and rolled his renewed neck. "How I missed this," he whispered. Tears streamed down his face as a joyous smile crossed his face.

He walked slowly to the corpse of Reynard and picked up his sword. "My servant," he said quietly to the body, "my dear friend. You served me so loyally for so long. You were the true friend that I had imagined in Lorne. It pains me that you cannot see me now."

"You're going to kill Zirnitra," Cassius said, "but you need the Key to do that. Lorne needed its strength to kill Ryu and Reynard needed it to kill Airyu. That sword alone is not enough."

Basil turned to Cassius and smiled at him in pity. "Look at him, Cassius," he said, pointing the tip of the sword at the bloated dragon. "Do you really think I need another dragon's soul to kill him? Besides, I mean to destroy it as well. Let me free the world of dragons."

"Don't do this," Cassius pleaded. "You have been restored. Airyu is dead. Don't let revenge consume you as it did Lorne."

Basil twitched at the words. "Moving words, those. Show me how I am exactly like the man I feel wronged me. Maybe you are right. Maybe I should drop this dream of revenge!" He laughed haughtily. "I had those thoughts myself, long ago. Do you think cheap words will dissuade me from the dreams of centuries? I will kill the dragon."

Cassius pushed himself to his feet. "I won't let you," he said. He found his sword and lifted it.

"Do you really mean to fight me?" Basil asked. "Tell me, can you still feel the fires of the Key inside you?" Seeing Cassius's expression, he continued, "No, you do not. You are weak. Impotent. But that does not mean you have not been changed by the Key. You have!" Basil smiled, wide and friendly. "Oh, my friend, you have been altered in ways you can only just begin to imagine!"

"I don't want to imagine it," Cassius said. "I want Kaida back. If I let you kill Zirnitra, will you revive her?"

"I can't do that," Basil said sadly. "I don't have the power. And if I let Zirnitra bring her back now, well, she might be able to stop me." He shook his head. "But she is just one woman! Think of what you can have now? With your eyes! You're not even a nagual, so none will come after you if you put them to use. Have any woman you want. Have every woman you want! Have everything you want."

"I want Kaida," Cassius said. "That's it."

"You can't have her," Basil said with annoyed pity. "But you cannot stop me." He moved so quickly he seemed to be a flash of light. Zirnitra roared in pain as Reynard's sword plunged into his back. Even though it was little more than an insect bite, it burned.

Basil struck again and again. Zirnitra tried to rise, but even fueled by pain and fear, it could not manage more than a ripple of muscles. Basil struck again and again and again until finally the dragon's tremors had ceased.

Then he came to a rest in front of the dragon's face. He reached out a hand and touched it tenderly. "Know that I do not hate your kind," Basil whispered softly. "I hate what you have done to the nagual." He stroked his hand down its face and wiped away a milky discharge from the dragon's eyes. "In my centuries trapped as an animal, I learned. I read the history of the nagual. How they had been before you dragons arrived and forced them into servitude. How your brother twisted them into being your guardians, simply because you believed dragons were too important to all die." He smiled an almost sad smile. "Well, I have to tell you, it is not true."

He raised Reynard's sword to strike the dragon in the eye, but before he could, another blade pierced his heart. The sword dropped from his hands and he turned to face Cassius, who had fallen backwards. Basil tried to say something, but only grimaced and fell forward. His mouth moved softly as he clawed at the dirt for purchase.

Cassius leaned in close to hear him. "Your own revenge... Too late for Kaida. Too late for Zirnitra. You killed for revenge, just as I did." He smiled one last time and went still.

Cassius turned to Zirnitra, whose massive eye followed him. Cassius reached out and touched the dragon. What little warmth remained in him flowed into the dragon, until Cassius's breath froze the air. Utterly empty, he fell to the ground.

The rumble of thunder finally woke him. His eyes opened to see the sky blue and the sun high. Its warmth bathed him. Despite every muscle crying fatigue, he smiled and sat up.

Zirnitra remained, smaller, sleeker. It circled in the air above the mountain, crying loudly to the world, mourning the long-ago death of its brother. After what seemed an eternity, it came to light on the side of the mountain, still impossibly large. It turned his golden orbs to Cassius.

"What is your name?" it asked. Its voice was an explosion.

"Cassius Clay Hewitt," he answered. "Named after the boxer."

"What happened?" it asked.

He started at the beginning. Not at the start of his own memories, but at the very beginning of the memories kept by the Key. The dragon knew many of the memories, for they involved his brother and him, but it listened intently. Cassius told of everyone who had held the Key, ever since Ryu had cut out his own soul and passed it on to another for protection. He told how Lorne had lost a love and fought to regain her, only to be denied by Ryu. He told how Lorne had killed Ryu and assumed his position. He told how Basil had been transformed in Lorne's rage and sought for centuries to undo him. Finally, he spoke about Kaida.

"I have hidden long enough," Zirnitra said at last. "I lived forever amidst endless skies, but it could not last. I knew that deep inside. This world needs a dragon." There was a profound sadness in its voice.

"Can you bring Kaida back?" Cassius asked.

"Yes," Zirnitra said. He turned an eye to Kaida's body. She began to breathe again, on her own. Color slowly returned to her pale flesh.

"Thank you," Cassius whispered. He placed a hand on the dragon's snout. "This world was never meant for you. You are a dragon of the sky. So you should be there forever. Leave the Earth to a dragon of the earth."

The window opened in the sky as tears wet Cassius's eyes. Zirnitra let out a roar, leapt through it, and it vanished in a second. Cassius returned to Kaida and waited until her eyes finally opened.

He may have slept for a week. He would have slept longer had Kaida not finally come for him. His own bed had been something he missed dearly, even though it had been barely over a week that he'd been gone. It seemed like it had been an epoch.

They sat in his kitchen, facing each other across a table. Their meals sat untouched before them. Neither could find the words to speak.

"How have you been?" Cassius finally asked.

"I've missed you," she sighed. "Things are a mess. As you can probably imagine. No one is sure what to do. Houses are fighting Houses. Houses are fighting themselves. It seems like the only time they aren't fighting is when I'm in the room with them."

"What have you told them?" he asked.

"The truth. What else can I say? My father was an usurper. The nagual used to be free, until the dragons conquered them."

"That's not it, exactly," Cassius said.

"I know," she said with a meek smile. "But that's what everyone hears."

"But they still respect you," Cassius stated.

"Yes," she admitted. "Mistress Elaphe - she's the new Head of House Snake - is my strongest supporter. She's trying to rally the other Houses behind me. Of course, most Houses don't have new Heads yet. And House Dragon doesn't even have a dragon any more."

"You're a dragon," Cassius said.

She smiled at him. "A real dragon, Cass."

"What now?" he asked.

"I need to go and straighten things out. I won't be back for a long, long time."

"You might need a body guard," he suggested, taking her hands in his. "Even if the Key is gone..."

She smiled, but it was a sad one. She didn't need to say anything and Cassius didn't press the matter. They sat there for a while, just looking at each other. Finally, Cassius stood, took her hand, and pulled her down the hall into the bedroom.

She pulled him into a kiss and they fell onto the bed together. They explored every inch of each other as if it were the only chance they'd get. And it was, though Kaida couldn't have guessed why.

They spent hours together until both were exhausted and fell asleep. When they woke, they spent hours more. Their scents mingled, strawberries and iron-baked bread. They fell asleep again in each other's arms.

When they woke, they dressed. Kaida''s clothes fell perfectly into place, unwrinkled and pristine. Her hair was straight and brushed, her make-up perfectly applied. It was as if she were never touched.

Cassius remained disheveled and with a content glow about him. He strapped the swords - both his own and Reynard's - around his waist. Tears formed in his eyes as he led Kaida from his apartment.

"I love you Cass," she murmured, gently hugging him and laying her head on his chest.

"I love you too Kaida." He wrapped his arms around her and held her close.

"I have to go," she said, her voice quivering. "I'm going to miss you so much it'll hurt, but I have to go."

"I know." He extracted himself from her arms. He smiled and bowed his head. Warmth spread through his body. It wasn't fire that burned his insides. It was creation.

Golden light began to seep through his skin. His flesh cracked like an egg shell and fell away.

A majestic dragon emerged from the man. He looked at Kaida with familiar, loving eyes and lowered his head. Kaida knelt and picked up the swords. Wordlessly she climbed onto his back and wrapped her arms around his neck and rested her head in his golden mane.

Cassius spread his golden wings and leapt into the air. Together, they soared away.

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