The Dragon's Key: Chapter 3

Walking back and forth across Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore was not something Cassius would have wanted to do in normal circumstances. It also answered none of his questions. But Kaida insisted he track beside her as they crossed the road over and over. They didn't even wait for the walk sign to light up; if no car was coming, they scampered to one side, waited, then returned to the other.

"It's a quicker way to get where we're going," was all the explanation she offered. They walked, almost shoulder to shoulder, across the street. People brushed past in both directions, too caught up in their own worries to pay much attention. A few glanced at his bruises, but looked away before he could catch their eyes.

Sweat started to bead on Cassius's head after ten minutes. The summer heat and press of people more than canceled out the breeze from the passing traffic. "We're not getting anywhere!" Cassius huffed as they waited for another break in traffic. Kaida just rolled her eyes and stepped back into the crosswalk.

Cassius didn't move. Once she noticed, she returned and glared at him. "What are you doing?"

"Waiting for an explanation."

"Cass, just trust me, ok?"

He sighed, then dabbed the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve. "I do trust you," he said. "But I got the shit kicked out of me by two strange men who you," he quietly hissed the next word, "killed. Now we're walking back and forth across the street for no reason."

When they came to a stop on the opposite sidewalk, Kaida tossed her hair and put her hands on her hips. "Fine," she reluctantly said. "I'll tell you why, but you have to promise not to argue with me."

"Deal," he said, expecting her to say something that made sense.

"We're taking a short cut to somewhere far away," she said.

The little white man on the walk sign lit up and she hopped into the crosswalk. It took him a moment, but he chased after her. "Like, with magic or something?" He pushed between a couple to catch up to her.

"Not magic," she said with a laugh. "It's natural, pure and simple." She got to the curb, stepped on it, spun, and stepped back into the street with fifteen seconds left on the timer.

Cassius tried to do the same, but only managed to run into a man. He offered a hasty apology, pushed the man out of the way, and tried to catch up with her. "But we're not going anywhere," he protested. "We're just going back and forth." A car honked angrily at him, as he was still in the middle of the street despite a green light. He hurried to the curb.

"We are going somewhere, just not in a direction you can see." A mass of people was gathering behind them, waiting for the walk sign to light up again. Someone bumped into Cassius, almost sending him stumbling into the street were it not for Kaida's hand.

"And you can see it?" he asked.

"Of course not." She pulled him into the crosswalk right as the cars stopped. "But that doesn't mean I can't walk it. You can get somewhere even if you can't see where you're going. The dark hides nothing when you already know the way."

"But we're not going anywhere!" he insisted. They got to the sidewalk then turned around again. Cassius knocked a child over, but he was already pushing back through the crowd after Kaida as the mother began to chide him.

Kaida rolled her eyes at him from the other side. "I thought you said you wouldn't argue."

"I thought you were going to make sense," he said with a laugh. She shook her head and smiled slightly.

"Ok, let me try something," she said. "What's the shortest distance between two points?" she asked.

"A straight line," he answered. "So? We're not going in a straight line, we're going in a circle."

"I'm getting to that." She stepped back into the street and he followed behind her. "Now, on a globe, say you're here and you're trying to get to China. What's the shortest way?"

"A straight line," he said again.

"Ah! But it's not. Because a straight line takes you through the center of the Earth. So the quickest way is a curve."


"But, what if there was another direction besides up/down, forward/back, and left/right? One where China is, say, just a short distance away from you. You'd take that way, right?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"Ok. Well, that's what we're doing." She pulled him back into the intersection, even though a car was whizzing by. "We just can't see the other direction. We're either too small or too big. Or maybe both. I'm not to sure on that one. It's like how even though the Earth is a sphere, the ground still looks flat. It's not, it's curved, but it's curved too slightly for us to notice unless we get really far away. Or maybe it's like how a piece of paper looks like it's only in two dimensions unless we get really close to notice that the edge actually has thickness to it. People still argue over that."

Cassius thought about that, and was so deep in thought that he had stopped in the middle of the street. An annoyed jogger bumped into him before he started moving again. "Ok, so there's four dimensions in space. And by walking back and forth across this street, we're moving in the fourth dimension. But because we can't see it, we can't tell?"

Kaida turned to him with a wide smile on her face. "Exactly! Well, I mean, I can tell but you can't. So yes, that's exactly it."

"Ok, I understand now," he said. "But I don't believe it."

"You don't have to believe it," she said. "But this should make you." She finally started walking away from the street, toward a restaurant. Cassius just watched for a moment before deciding he'd better follow her.

The restaurant was a bustle of people. Kaida ignored the people waiting in line and walked right toward the back. Cassius tried to follow, but people kept getting in his way. "Excuse me," he said as he ineptly tried to slip between and around them. With much bumping and shoving, he managed to keep up with her as she made her way toward the bathrooms.

She put her hand on the men's room door and turned to him. "Watch this," she said with a smile before walking in. He crinkled his nose, but followed her in.

However, none of the normal sounds or smells of a public restroom assaulted him. Instead, he found himself standing in between huge bookshelves made of varnished oak. They stretched wall to wall and stood floor to ceiling. Brilliantly colored books lined the shelves.

Mostly, he was awed by the mass of people. They wandered through the stacks, looking at the books and occasionally plucking one from the shelf. He could see hundreds of people, just from the entrance, and he could tell the library was much larger than any he'd ever seen. A soft drone filled the air, a combination of turning pages, shuffling feet, and soft breathing.

"Where are we?" Cassius asked, only to be greeted with a barrage of shushes from every direction. Kaida put her finger to her lips, then took him by the hand and led him through the rows of shelves.

He glanced at the book titles as he passed them. He recognized neither the titles nor the authors. It was almost as if they were written in a foreign language, though he recognized the words. One such book caught his eye, Fabulous Larceny of Androgynous Resources: The Effect and Affect on Continued Spiritual Development authored by Zorion Abrienda and Tristam Thanh, with green lettering on a tiger-stripped book spine. He reached out for it without thinking, but Kaida slapped his hand away. She waggled a finger at him and frowned.

"Sorry," he mouthed, without speaking. A thousand shushes echoed at him anyway. He frowned, thinking the shushes had to be louder than the sound of his mouth moving, but Kaida just shook her head at him.

As they walked, he continued to see books that drew him. Some compelled him with bright, oddly colored covers; others had deliciously bizarre titles he had an urge to decipher. Each time he was about to reach for one, the memory of Kaida's disapproving slap dissuaded him. When he found he was about to grab a book despite it, he forced himself to look away.

He began to gawk at the people instead. The majority of them looked quite average, despite being in such a fantastic place. A middle-aged Chinese man in a business suit squinted at a row of books. A few rows away, an over-tanned blond man in a tank top flipped through a massive tome. A young woman gazed around the library with awe-filled amber eyes. She spotted a similar look in Cassius and gave him a meek smile. He waved back to her, more to reassure himself than her.

But amid all these normal people were those who looked decidedly fantastical. A woman with feathers woven into her hair perched on the edge of a chair, flipping through an old magazine. Her hair was so light blonde it was almost white and she had sharp features that came to a point at her nose and chin. An Indian man had his finger nails filed down to points, while the end of his long, nappy beard had been curled and braided into the wild hair on his head. He glared at Cassius when his stare lingered, but Cassius continued to stare until he ran into the back of Kaida. He barely kept himself from going "oof."

She had stopped in front of a counter so tall that Cassius could not see over it. She took a clipboard hanging from a peg and wrote Request a meeting with the head librarian on it, then passed it over the top of the counter. A minute later a white-haired man with thick glasses and a craggy face leaned over and stared down at the two.

"Request denied!" he cackled. Cassius cringed, expecting a flurry of shushes, but none came. The man placed the clipboard, cleared of Kaida's writing, back on the peg.

Kaida wrote again, Request the librarian on duty reconsider previous requests on account of extreme importance. She passed it back over and waited.

This time the response was quicker, as the old man's face shot over the edge with a livid glare. "Didn't you hear me the first time?" he squealed. "I know you could, because this place is so damned quiet! Request denied!" He slapped the clipboard back onto the peg, let out an obvious huff, and disappeared back behind the counter.

Kaida rolled her eyes to Cassius and shook her head. He shrugged impotently, but she waved him off and drew a long, tangling squiggle on the clipboard. She passed it back onto the counter and waited. A moment later a door, which Cassius had not noticed, swung open at the base of the counter, revealing a small set of stairs. Cassius followed Kaida up.

Behind the counter was an expansive space. The old man glared at them and gave a derisive bow before returning the clipboard to its peg. He then gestured absently toward an open door at the rear of the room.

Kaida closed the door behind them as they entered. She sat on a plain, wooden chair behind a plain, wooden desk. Cassius sat beside her without saying anything. The room was empty save for the desk and four chairs. After a few minutes of silent waiting, the door opened. A copper-skinned man in a tan robe walked in. Kaida sprang up and threw her arms around him. "Baruti!" she squealed. The man was easily three times her age, though he still looked hale and healthy. He hugged her back with a wide smile.

He finally broke it and gave a bow. "Prince Kaida," he said in a deep voice, "it is quite a joy to see you. And who is your guest?"

Cassius stood to introduce himself, but Kaida beat him to the punch. "This is Cassius," she said as she sat back into her chair.

Cassius sat as well while Baruti slowly walked to his chair behind the desk. "He is an outsider," he said in a grave tone. Kaida nodded and looked down at her lap. Cassius started to say something, but Baruti cut him off. "Tell me, Cassius, what is your full name?"

The question caught him off guard, so it took him a moment to respond. "Cassius Clay Hewitt," he finally answered. "My dad was a big Muhammad Ali fan, but you can't name a little white boy Muhammad. So I'm Cassius Clay instead."

Baruti smiled a wide smile that revealed his true age in the wrinkles it produced. "Do you like that name?"

Cassius gave a short shrug and nodded. "Yeah, I guess. I mean, I've never really thought about it too much before."

Baruti clucked his tongue. "You should not take a name so lightly. Names are important. Names have meaning. Cassius can mean empty or vain. Clay can mean mortal. Even your family name, Hewitt, can mean thought of the soul. How does that fit you?"

Cassius looked at Kaida for guidance, but she was still staring nervously down. "Well, it's kinda vague. I mean, I don't think I'm very vain. So, I am empty of thought for my mortal soul? I don't think that sounds right."

Baruti puckered his lips, obviously not pleased with the answer. "Perhaps it means you do not place the value of your own soul above that of others," he suggested. "But we should move on. What brings you here, Princess?"

Cassius was about to ask about the constant usage of "Princess" but she spoke before he could. "Something terrible has happened, Baruti. I have made a terrible mistake."

Baruti reached across the desk and lifted Kaida's face by her chin, so she was looking him in the eye. Cassius gave her shoulder a squeeze, but she seemed to not notice. "Do not be afraid," Baruti said. "I remember a young, confused girl who came here unsure of who or what she was. You learned and grew when many others would have collapsed. You should never be afraid of facing difficulty."

Her small smiled helped ease Cassius's tension as well. "Thank you," she said. "But I'm afraid this is a crisis. Cassius has the Key."

"Oh my," Baruti said, leaning back and folding his hands in front of his face. "The Key?" Kaida nodded. "How?"

"Reynard Baye gave it to him," Kaida said. "I don't know where Reynard is. Or even if he's still alive." Cassius knew he was, but he suddenly found himself unable to tell her.

"Tell me everything," Baruti said.

"Last night, Reynard burst into Cassius's apartment while I was there. He was apparently looking for me. He was being chased and before he left, he gave the Key to Cassius by kissing him. I didn't notice it at the time. The next day, Reynard came to me, bloody and near death, and told me what happened. The Snakes had attacked. They nearly captured the Key, but Reynard managed to retrieve it and ran. He had hoped I'd be a with a nagual, but I wasn't, so he did what he could by giving it to Cassius.

"I was furious and left him to find Cassius. The Snakes got to him before I did, but I managed to kill them and rescue him. Then I brought him here, because I don't know what else to do."

Baruti stood and slowly paced around his desk. Every few seconds, he cast a look down at Cassius and let out a quiet "hmm" before pacing again. Cassius tried to keep from squirming and was thankful when Baruti sat back down after only a few minutes.

"This is not good," he said.

"I know," Kaida replied. "I don't know what to do. I don't want him to get hurt."

"Too late," Cassius said quietly, drawing a cross look from Kaida.


He sighed, "I mean, those two Agents... The Snakes? They already got to me."

"Young man," Baruti said in a solemn tone, "if you believe they did the worst they could and would do to you, you are sorely mistaken." He turned back to Kaida. "Well, Princess, what do you think should be done?"

"Well..." she said sheepishly, "I was hoping you could take the Key?"

Horror flashed across Baruti's face, though it was quickly covered with a wry smile. "No, Princess Kaida, it would not be my place to take the Key. Not even from an outsider."

She shook her head strongly. "No! If Reynard had the Key, you are a thousand, a million times more suitable!"

"Please, Princess Kaida," Baruti said with a quivering voice, "do not ask me again. I could not resist a third temptation."

Disbelief, turning to ugly anger, twisted Kaida's face. "What? You wouldn't!"

Baruti walked to the back of the room and looked out a small window. "I might. I am old and you know what the Key represents. Even with the best intentions at heart, I might succumb."

"But Baruti," Kaida sighed, walking over to him.

"Excuse me," Cassius interrupted. Kaida turned in surprise while Baruti merely quirked his eyebrow, nodding for him to continue. "Well, I don't know what's going on here. I mean, the last thing I know, I'm being pulled over by a cop. Now I've got some... Some Key I don't know a damn thing about, I'm walking into a men's room and coming out in a library, I don't even know where this Key is! I don't even have my car keys! Kaida has those. But I'm not supposed to have this Key because I'm an 'outsider.' And you're right, I'm feeling pretty much outside of all this right now." He realized he was rambling, but he couldn't stop. "Who were those two men? Why are you calling them snakes? How the hell did you get into a library through a men's room - and yes I know we walked the fourth dimension - but that doesn't tell me where we are, what this place is, and why I'm here!"

Kaida laid a hand on his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. He hadn't realized he was shaking, but her touch calmed him. He sniffled and wiped the corner of his eyes before taking a deep breath.

Baruti sat back across from him. "I realize this is confusing for you," he said. "And I am sorry. But this is uncharted territory for us as well. It is... unprecedented for the Key to leave it's protector."

"What Key?" Cassius insisted.

"Of course," Baruti said with a smirk. "I will - "

"No," Kaida interrupted. "Let me tell him." She knelt in front of him, took his hands in hers, and looked him in the eyes. She smiled sweetly. "Cassius, get ready to hear our history."

God made the Heaves and the Earth and He populated them with all manner of life. Animals were granted dominion over the wild. Men were granted dominion over the animals. He gave men and animals souls, so that they could think of Him. He looked down and thought, "It is good."

But things did not go according to plan. For man exploited his dominion over the animals, becoming mightier than was proper. And God culled man, leaving only the most moral behind. "Go forth and multiply," God told them.

And they did. But as they were the strongest and most moral, they grew even greater than their ancestors. They grew even more dominant over the animals, then outgrew their reliance on animals altogether. Man made machines to do their bidding for them. They usurped the wild from the animals. Disease was no longer a daily threat. Famine was no longer a daily threat. Natural disaster was no longer a daily threat.

Suddenly, Heaven found itself faced with a problem. For there were too many men. Heaven was running out of souls to give to men. Those without souls still looked like men and acted like men. But they did not give their thoughts to God.

"This is not good," God said. So, He plucked the soul from a fox and placed it into a soulless man. The man suddenly viewed the world through new eyes. The man's thoughts turned to God and He was pleased. "This is good," He declared, plucking more souls from animals and placing them into the empty shells of man.

But these men, with souls of animals, fell into animalism. They consorted with beasts and acted as beasts themselves. God was displeased. "This is not good," He said.

God gathered all those with the souls of animals together. "I am the Alpha and the Omega. And I am displeased with you. I have gifted you with souls so that you may give thoughts to Me, but instead, you have sunk below your station!"

The eldest of them fell to their knees. "We are sorry, but we cannot help ourselves!" they pleaded. "We have the souls of animals; so too do we have their nature. We try to fight the urges, but it is impossible!"

"It is true!" God said. "You must keep your souls, but you must also forever separate yourself from the world of regular men."

They bowed their heads and agreed to His rules. Thus He blessed the wisest and most pious of them with the Key. "Guard this Key, for to lose it is to lose your souls."

Thus began the world of men apart from men, and they called themselves nagual. Those with the souls of animals, living behind the curtain, apart from the world of men with souls of men.

"Alright," Cassius said. "So say I believe this. Which I don't know if I do, because it's pretty out there. But let's say I do."

"It doesn't matter if you believe," Kaida said gently. "We're here, aren't we?"

"Well, why does it matter then? I have the Key and you aren't all mindless, soulless zombies or anything. So why is there a problem?"

"The Key is not a only physical thing," Kaida said. "It is a symbol. My House has held it for generations, since it was first given to us by God. Without it, our world would fall into chaos. Factions would wage war over it. Whoever gained it would have massive support from the other Houses, no matter how terrible their intentions. And trust me, not everyone is as willing to remain passive toward the rest of the world. They would come after you, Cassius. You would be killed."

Cassius shrugged. "Well, then why don't you take it. I mean, if your House is supposed to have it, then why can't you take it from me?"

"I can't," she said, her face turning slightly red.

Baruti smiled sadly. "I'm afraid only men can carry the Key," he said. "Any woman who takes the Key dies. It is simply not possible."

Cassius sighed. "So what now?" he asked. "She can't take it and you won't."

Baruti draped an arm around Kaida's shoulders. She slumped into him, the tension leaving her body like a physical entity. "You must go see your father. Only he can help now."

"Father?" Cassius asked. "I thought he was..." He cut himself off.

"Not my biological father," she said without looking at him. "Airyu, the father of my House. The father of my soul."

"Great," he said. "Where is he?"

"Far away," she said without feeling. "It's a long walk."

"Did you say walk?"

She gave a thin smile, regaining some of her confidence. "Yes, Cass, walk. Just like we walked here. We can't reach him without walking along the hidden pathways. It's just a bit... longer than normal ones."

"How much longer?" he asked.

"About five hundred miles," she said.

The bottom dropped out of his stomach. "Five hundred miles? How long will that take to walk?"

"About a month," she said, "depending on how long we walk every day." She gave a helpless shrug. "Sorry."

He ran his hands through his fingers. "A month. A month of walking." He looked at Kaida. "You'd be coming with me, right?"

She crossed her arms and cocked her head to the side. "Of course I am! You would be lost without me."

He grinned wide. "Truer words were never spoken. And I can think of worse things to do than spending a month with you."

She grabbed him by the arm. "And you don't have a choice."

"Then hurry," Baruti said. "The more time you waste here, the more time your House remains without the Key. Who knows what your enemies might try?"

Kaida gave Baruti a firm hug and he ruffled her hair like she was a small child. With the fatherly gesture, the last of her worry melted away. She pulled back and bowed her head to him. "Thank you, Baruti. You've been a great help." She took Cassius's hand. "Let's go. And don't say anything on the way out."

The old man manning the desk gave them a dirty look as they left, but waved his hand anyway. "Have a nice day!" he said with a cackle that made Cassius think the day most definitely would not be nice.

Reynard was in a mad dash for his life. He sped down empty streets and back alleys, desperately trying to escape. His breathing was ragged. Scrapes and bruises accumulated during his flight covered him. Sparing a glance back he saw Krait and Adder - dressed in mismatched police outfits - briskly jogging after him. Neither seemed fatigued while Reynard was covered in sweat. Despite this, a razor smile gashed Reynard's face.

He pushed himself harder, using the last ounces of strength to vault a chain-length fence. He landed in a heap but sprung to his feet and continued running. He rounded a corner and then another and another, only sparing a glance back after several more. He came to an immediate halt as neither of his pursuers was there.

The only sound he heard was his own breathing. He forced it slower and strained to hear. A soft patter of footsteps caught his attention, but it was only a small stray cat that had emerged from garbage and began to meow at him for food. "Where are you?" Reynard shouted, startling the cat. "Why are you not pursuing, damn you!"

A hand grabbed him and he was thrown against a wall. He crumpled to the ground in a heap. The cat bolted, right into the arms of Adder. The snake lifted it by the scruff of its neck, examining it as Krait crouched in front of Reynard. "Why are you running?" Krait asked. "Escaping? Or buying the Princess some time?"

Krait was looking right into Reynard's eyes. Reynard clamped them shut and looked away. "You cannot bewitch me! Such parlor tricks will not work!"

The wind was driven out of him by Krait's fist. "I wasn't." He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and slipped one into his mouth. "I'm no fool. Now answer my question. Were you trying to escape or were you just buying time for the Princess and the boy?"

"You promised you would let me go."

Krait smiled wildly and let loose a laugh to match. "We did! But we never said anything about not catching you again!" he said, flicking a lighter to light the cigarette. "For someone with your reputation, you sure are stupid."

With nothing to lose, Reynard kicked, sweeping Krait's legs out from under him. The fall knocked the breath out of Krait, giving Reynard a split second to leap up and run. Unfortunately, Adder reacted quicker, leaping forward and pinning him to the ground. The cat - freed from Adder's grasp - hissed angrily as it fled the alley.

"You made me lose dinner," Adder hissed. Reynard's nose involuntarily crinkled at the hot, rotten breath, drawing a harsh punch to the side of his head. Adder yanked Reynard up by the collar and threw him against the wall in one fluid motion. Krait placed his foot against Reynard's face while Adder scavenged for more strays.

Krait pushed just hard enough to cause pain. "Do that again and I'll crush your skull. Got it?" Reynard tried to nod, but the sole scraping his head against the wall kept him from it. Krait continued talking, regardless of the confirmation. "Now, you probably wonder why we're chasing you, even though we know the Princess and boy have the Key."

"My curiosity had been piqued," Reynard admitted.

The smile that broke across Krait's face was darker than Adder's perpetual scowl. "It's simple, really. The Princess trusts you, much as her father did. You will guide her into our trap." Krait ground his heel into Reynard's face to emphasize the point.

The discomfort worked to Reynard's advantage, as it kept his ears from quivering in excitement. "Why not ambush her yourself? Then you would not need to rely on me, someone with no intension of aiding you."

Krait pushed harder. Reynard squirmed, but kept his urge to strike in check. "Even a well planned ambush carries risks," Krait hissed. "You will eliminate those risks for us."

"That still does not answer why I would ever assist you." Krait smirked and looked over at Adder, who had cornered a black cat. Krait angrily yelled, distracting Adder long enough for the cat to dart away. Adder, with his constant glare deepened, walked over and knelt beside Reynard.

In a flash, he sank his teeth into Reynard's shoulder. Reynard unleashed a yelp that quickly faded into a whimper as a burning sensation coursed through him. Adder pulled back, blood dripping from his fangs, and Krait removed his boot from Reynard's face.

Reynard tried to stand, but his muscles tensed involuntarily. A cold sweat poured from his body. His vision began to fill with white spots and his eyes rolled back. Krait popped open a vial and poured it down Reynard's throat. A moment later, Reynard rolled onto his side and vomited. The Agents watched, expressions unchanging, as Reynard was wracked with convulsions and dry heaves.

"The paralysis was Adder's venom. The rest was the first stage of the antidote." Reynard weakly pulled himself to his feet, glaring at his assailants. "Notice I said first there. All that does is turn near-instant death into a long, drawn out destruction. You'll have a week, give or take a day, before it becomes too much for you to bear. After that, you'll be in so much agony you won't be able to move. The next day will feel like eternity, until you're finally begging for death, which will mercifully be granted to you as your organs are liquidated.

"Luckily for you, we have the second stage of the cure. You might be able to make some yourself, if you milked Adder's venom. But I doubt he'd let you do that."

"So," Reynard rasped. His voice was raw and strained. He struggled to swallow, but his mouth was totally dry. "Unless I help you, I die."

"Very perceptive," Adder muttered.

Krait nodded and expounded further, fully explaining the details of the ambush. Reynard had to admit, it was a well crafted plot. "With my life on the line, what recourse have I but to accept? I agree to your terms."

"Good!" Krait said simply. With that, he and Adder walked around a corner and vanished. Reynard peeked, but saw no trace of them. He wasn't sure if they were really gone, but it mattered little. So he laughed and laughed until it made him sick.

A tense line was Baruti's mouth as he watched Cassius and Kaida leave the library. Both were young, naive in their own ways, and walking into something much bigger than either realized. He wished he could have warned the two, especially Kaida, whom he had taught since the day she had been told the truth. He remembered the first time they met and he looked into her big, wet eyes. Even as a child, they held power that betrayed her true nature.

He wondered if that power would see her through to the end. The path he had been forced to set them upon was not a safe one, but the boy offered hope. "Cassius Clay Hewitt," he mused. "A good name." A chorus of shushes assailed him, which he acknowledged with a bemused smile. Even the head librarian was not exempt from the rules.

After a moment of reflection, he returned to his office. He gave a polite nod to Bjorn, the old man at the front desk, and closed the door behind him. As it clicked shut, a lithe figure in a dress-like robe sashayed away from his personal bookcase.

"You sent them on their way?" Master Naja asked in a lush, terrible voice. The tinny hiss embedded into it sent a shiver down Baruti's spine.

He opened his mouth to speak, but found it dry. He nodded and swallowed hard before speaking. "Yes, Master Naja. I sent her to see her father, as ordered."

Master Naja's thin, painted-red lips parted in a hint of amusement as his tongue flicked out. "Why does your voice quiver, Elder Baruti. Are you afraid of me?" Naja slowly swayed next to Baruti and traced his long, thin fingernail across the cut of Baruti's chin.

Baruti had to swallow again. "Nervous, maybe. But not afraid. I could never fear one such as you."

The thin smile grew coy as Master Naja dragged his finger across Baruti's face. "Too bad," he hissed as he pulled his finger away. "I much prefer it when people are afraid of me. Oh well." Master Naja turned away and drifted toward the door. Before he left, he cast a glance over his shoulder. "When we are all free, you will owe a great debt to me again. And then you will be afraid."

Baruti sat behind his desk. "My debt to you is paid, Master Naja. Begone and do not bother me again, unless you are prepared to be in my debt." Master Naja's smirk twisted into a grimace as he flung the door open and strode out. The door bounced back and clicked quietly shut.

"Odd fellow," a deep, level voice said from the corner of Baruti's office.

Baruti turned toward it. "I didn't realize my office was so easily entered. I'll have to block off the pathways."

There was a muted patter of feet as a small, red fox emerged from behind a curtain. It sprung onto Baruti's desk and curled into a ball. It rested its head on its paws and looked up at Baruti. "It might keep that disconcerting Naja out, but I doubt it would cause me much difficulty."

"Yes," Baruti sighed. "Master Naja is quite eccentric. Though I suppose I would rather deal with the obvious evil than one that comes in an unassuming guise."

The fox bobbed its head in a gesture Baruti could not decipher. "I'm a talking fox, Baruti. I don't think that's unassuming." Baruti smiled, unable to argue with that. "The Lock and the Key are on their way, then?"

"Yes," Baruti said. "I consider my hands washed of the matter. Our debt is settled."

"How do you figure?" the fox asked. "You performed a favor to me. I owe you."

"No," Baruti answered with a shudder. "You allowed me to clear my debt to Master Naja. For that, we are even."

The fox bobbed its head again and Baruti wondered what it meant. "Baruti," it said, standing and leaping off the desk. "You can't imagine how truly indebted to you I am. I'm afraid, should everything go according to plan, I'll be repaying you until the end of days."

Baruti smiled at the fox. "I doubt that." But it had already left. Baruti leaned back, nothing left to do but ponder.

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