The Dragon's Key: Chapter 4

Despite knowing it would happen, Cassius was still shocked to exit the library into a restaurant. He glanced around in a daze; it felt as if he had woken from a long sleep. The sun was setting outside and the cold yellow street lights streamed inside. He hadn't realized they'd been in the library so long, but looking back on it, they could have been walking amid the shelves for hours.

Outside, Kaida spread her arms and took a deep breath. "Ah, it feels so much better out here," she said. The light chill nipped Cassius back to reality.

"Are we really walking five hundred miles?"

Kaida gave an indignant glance and started walking down the street, toward the setting sun. He hurried up next to her and fell into step, at which point she answered. "Of course we are. We have to see my father."

Cassius had almost forgotten the earlier conversation, his mind still cloudy. "Shouldn't we go home first? Get a good night's rest and pack up and everything."

"Nope," was the only answer she gave.

"Well, I should call my parents and let them know. They'll get worried if they don't hear from me for a month. Oh, and my work too. Though I don't know how I can explain that one... I guess I'll just be fired." He was already dialing on his cell phone when Kaida snatched it away. "Hey!"

"No," she repeated.

"Why not?" He stopped walking, so she did as well. She looked at him pleadingly, but he stood his ground.

She sighed and lightly placed a hand on shoulder, leading him forward. "It's simple," she said. "Master Naja is ruthless. If he sent his men after you, there's no telling what he'd do to your family. Keeping them in the dark is the best way to protect them."

He hadn't considered that. "If my family is in trouble... Or my co-workers or my friends...They could all be killed! I have to - "

Kaida clenched his shoulder to steady him. "Cassius, don't worry. I know this is confusing and a little terrifying. I had to deal with it all once, too. I wasn't always... like this. If you just trust me, we can get through this, together."

Cassius took a deep breath and held it a moment before exhaling. He looked Kaida right in the eyes and saw just as much apprehension as he felt. Oddly, that made him feel better. "Alright, I trust you. But my family..."

"Will be fine," she assured. "As long as they don't know anything, Master Naja won't bother them. It's only if they tell him something that they'll no longer be useful to him."

"That makes sense." He looked down at himself. "Can we at least go to a store or something? My clothes are covered in blood. I think it'd be best if I changed."

Kaida looked into the sky, where the moon would be if not for the city haze. "It's late, Cass. I don't think any stores will be open. Can't it wait?"

He frowned. "I guess. Are we going to walk all night? I'm - " He was going to say tired, but he realized he wasn't. Maybe the library really had been a dream or maybe adrenaline was pushing him on. He felt like he could go on all night.

Kaida grinned at him and handed back the cell phone. "Come on, let's go. No time to waste."

The two started up again. The streets weren't totally empty, but few people wandered around. Most were either still drinking at bars or staying in for the night. The cool night air was quite refreshing as he took a deep breath.

They walked in silence for around twenty minutes, always heading toward the last glimmers of purple on the horizon. "I hope you know where you're going," he said to break the silence.

"Of course I do," she said. "I've done this before. And even if I hadn't, I'd know the way by heart. I could close my eyes and be drawn in the right direction." As if to prove her point, she closed her eyes and walked briskly forward, never once missing a step. Cassius watched her a moment, then jogged to catch up, nearly bashing his knee on a fire hydrant.

When he caught up, she opened her eyes and looked at him. "Your eyes are very pretty," he said suddenly.

Her eyebrows raised slightly. "Thanks," she said after a moment, before quickly turning away.

He cringed and shook his head. "I mean, something's been bothering me," he said, trying to cover himself. "The agents mentioned something about you making me forget. I tried asking with that Beirut guy, but neither of you answered me."

"Baruti," she corrected.

"No dodging the question," he chided, taking a step in front of her. She gave a bemused smirk and took a step forward, but he didn't budge. "I'm not afraid of you touching me."

She chuckled, but there was a hint of unease. "Fine, I'll explain, but promise not to be mad."

"Promise." He tapped his heart. "Cross my heart."

"And hope to die?" He grinned and she shook her head, smiling for real now. "Well, you know how in things like vampire stories, how they can bewitch people with a look. Nagual can do the same thing, sorta. Our eyes have power."

"So you did make me forget everything? Why?"

"Well, I didn't want you to know about all this," she said. "For one, regular people aren't supposed to know. Secondly, I don't want you to think I was special or anything."

"I already think you're special."

She cleared her throat. "Well, I meant, like... Too special. I didn't want you to think being a Princess meant we couldn't be friends or something."

"Oh. Yeah, I guess that's true," he said with a shrug. "But really, I think this is all pretty cool. So anyone with the soul of an animal could just make me forget?"

"Not exactly. It varies from person to person," she explained. "Some nagual don't have very powerful eyes and can only use them on people who have weak wills or are naturally receptive for some reason. Or on animals."

"What about you?"

She grinned. "What do you think? Yes, I've got strong eyes. Some of the strongest, actually. The only people who are stronger than me are really old, powerful nagual."

"What about Reynard?"

She shrugged. "I'm not sure about him. He's always been a bit of a mystery. Why?"

He started to say something about Reynard meeting him with the snakes, but his tongue suddenly felt stiff and he couldn't bring himself to even make a noise. "No reason," he finally said. Something suddenly occurred to him. "So you could make me forget anything? Even you?"

She thought about it for a moment, then shook her head. "No, probably not. It's more like a suggestion than anything else. If it's something you'd never do, you wouldn't. I couldn't make you kill yourself. I can push you, but I can't force you. Not unless you were in an extremely vulnerable state, like you were last night."

"Have you ever made me forget about anything else?"

She froze for a moment, then mumbled something. "I did once." There was a long pause. "Back in high school." There was an odd tone in her voice.

"What was it?" Cassius asked.

"Nothing," she said, quickly walking forward. It was fear, Cassius realized.

"Why won't you tell me?" he pressed. "Did something bad happen?"

She shook her head. "No, it's not that."

"Something good then?" he asked. He smiled and leaned in close so she could see it. "Did you actually agree to go out with me?"

She hesitated a moment. "No," she said through her teeth. "It wasn't. Now just drop it, ok?"

"Sorry. I was just joking. I won't ask again if you don't want me to."

"I don't," she said softly. She let out a deep breath. "But I understand. Don't worry about it."

"I won't," he said, not entirely truthfully. Part of him wanted to press her for more, but he bit his tongue. After a moment, he decided to change the subject. "What about other powers? Like what you did to those two snake guys?"

She smirked. "Oh, yeah. Well, not everyone can do that."

"Like with the eyes, how some people are stronger than others?"

She shook her head. "Not exactly. It depends on your soul. Every animal gives something different."

"So, that makes you what?" he asked.

"You've got three guesses."

"What do I get if I win?"

"I'll be very impressed."

"Good enough." He stroked his chin. "Let me just throw something out there... A dog."

She slugged him in the arm. "You jerk. I am not a dog!"

Though she'd hit him harder than normal, he just laughed. "Fine, fine! Not a dog. Let's see... Well, you're clearly some sort of predator. Something big and powerful and deadly." He paused and thought for a moment. "But you're not a bear or an alligator. You're graceful and elegant. Whatever soul you have is something majestic. Something regal."

She watched him intently, her eyes slightly wide. "And what would that make me?" she asked.

"A tiger," Cassius answered.

She sighed and shook her head. "No, I'm not a tiger." There was a hint of disappointment in her voice.

"Dammit. Well, a lion then?" he posed.

"Hardly," she said with a snorted laugh. "Those were your three guesses. You fail, Cass."

"Oh," he muttered. "Well, what are you then?"

The edges of her lips curled up in a slight smile. "I never said I'd tell you if you couldn't get it."

"No fair!" he objected. "You've gotta tell me! Come on!"

"Maybe later," she said. "Besides, I think we need to stop and stock up on some stuff." She pointed to a gas station convenience store about a block away. "We can buy some food, drinks, and other necessities."

The two hurried to the store. Inside, a bored attendant paid them no mind. Kaida grabbed a small hand basket and started tossing bottles of water, bags of trail mix, and boxes of bandages into it. Cassius grabbed a six pack of soda and put it into his own basket.

"What are you doing?" Kaida asked.

"Getting drinks!" Cassius answered.

She rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Come on, we're gonna be walking for miles! Soda and chips and candy won't do you any good."

"Well, I've never done this before!" he huffed.

"I know. So let me take care of everything." She took the soda from his basket and placed it back on the shelf. She replaced it with some ointments, a roll of elastic bandages, a box of road flares, bottles of aspirin, and other utility goods. By the time she was finished, Cassius felt like he was carrying enough to be going on a camping trip.

"Do we really need all this stuff?" he asked as they brought it to the counter. The clerk looked at them with mild curiosity for the first time, but simply began ringing up the items without comment.

"Maybe," she said. "Maybe not. Who knows what we might need to do?"

"But," he said, eyeing a box of hand soap, "soap? Will we really need that? I mean, why not just stop at a hotel or something?"

"That won't always be possible," she answered. "Especially near the end of the trip. Better to be prepared than not." She looked at the clerk. "Can you double bag all of this? Thanks." He gave her a blank stare before finally doing what she asked.

"Fifty-eight twenty-two," he said in a flat voice that begged to not be told anything about what they were doing. Kaida pulled out a credit card and handed it to him. "Have a nice day," he droned despite it being past dark.

Kaida grabbed most of the bags and hefted them outside, leaving Cassius to carry the remaining three. "Are you going to carry all of those the entire way?" he asked, already shifting the bags he was carrying to make them more comfortable.

"Not like this I'm not," she answered. "Follow me." She headed to the rear of the store, where a large dumpster was overflowing with junk. She set the bags down and looked at it for a minute. After a brief search, she grabbed an old, slightly cracked PVC pipe and handed it to Cassius. She eventually fished out a long board for herself and slid the handles of the bags over it.

"We look like hobos," Cassius said, draping his own bindle over his shoulder. "Turn of the century, tramp hobos."

Kaida smiled. "Hey, this brings back memories!" she proudly declared. "I've done this more than once, you know?" She headed back for the road and began walking westward again.

"Really?" Cassius asked, falling into step beside her. "When was that?"

"Oh, a couple of times. Mainly the first time I ever visited my father, back when I first learned the truth about myself."

"What was that like?"

She stuck one hand in her pocket and turned slightly away. "Different," she said. "How do you react when someone tells you that your soul is from an animal? Especially when you're only nine."

"You were nine? That was right after you moved away the first time."

She nodded. "I moved all the time when I was a little kid. My dad was in the military, after all. But it was really tough that time."

"Why was that?"

A faint smile crossed her face, though it wasn't a happy one. "Well, I'd been there for four years, which had been the longest I'd ever been in one place before. So I ended up leaving behind all my close friends. Including someone who was very special to me." She looked at him and smiled a bit more. "But that was nothing compared to what happened after."

"Yeah, I imagine," he said quietly. "Hey, remember when we first met?"

She perked up a bit, but shook her head. "Of course not. We were five."

Cassius smiled back at her. "I do. I was sitting on the mat in kindergarten. Remember?"

She nodded a little. "Yeah. We had three books for story time: Horton Hears a Who, The Cat in the Hat, and The Children's Encyclopedia Britannica: Energy through Fables."

"Right. Anyway, I was sitting on the mat playing with those letter blocks, the ones that had every letter but Q and K. Then, I heard this soft voice ask 'Can I play with those?' And I said no, I had them first. Then the voice said 'Please?' and I was just about to get mean about it when I looked up." He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "I can still see them. Your eyes, so big and shiny. You were wearing one of those pink, stiff dresses that little girls wear with frilly ruffles and high white socks. I couldn't say no. I gave you the blocks and you walked away to play with them. It took me a week before I could get myself to talk to you."

A laugh forced its way out of Kaida. "I can't believe you remember that, of all things."

He shrugged. "Well, I always wondered why I did. I mean, I can't remember anything else about that place. Not what it looked like, not what the teacher looked like, not what the other kids looked like. But I remember you. The memory always starts with your eyes and builds its way from there. You said you have powerful eyes. I guess you always did."

Kaida was looking away from him. When she finally looked back, her expression was ambiguous, like a frown fighting with a smile. She never said anything, so Cassius remained silent as well.

They walked without speaking for nearly another two hours. Everything was oddly quiet, like even the world was avoiding them. The sun had long since passed beneath the horizon and they had left the outskirts of the city. Every so often, a car passed them, briefly bathing them in light, before passing down the road to disappear around a turn.

Cassius's legs ached from the walking. He wanted to stop, but Kaida seemed unphased by all the exercise and seemed capable of going on all night. When they eventually came to a busy intersection, Cassius leaned against a lamp post and groaned in relief.

"Are you alright?" Kaida asked. He quickly stood and nodded.

"Just resting," he said.

"Jesus Cass, we've only been going for a few hours!" she said with a smirk. "Don't tell me you're worn out already!"

"I said I'm fine!" He took a step forward and spun around theatrically. "See?"

She playfully jabbed him in the ribs. "If you're sure. We can take a rest."

"No," he said after a moment's contemplation. "We've gotta move. Keep anyone from finding us and get this Key out of me."

"Let's go then," Kaida said as she bounded through the intersection. Cassius started to follow, but a car buzzed by, blaring its horn at him in annoyance. After pausing to make sure nothing was coming, he raced over to her.

Kaida leaned against the lamp post, a wide grin on her face. "Be careful."

"Oh yeah, laugh it up. I almost got run over there! Then what would have happened to the Key, huh?"

She giggled. "Don't worry, I won't let anything happen to you." He fell into step behind her, gently rubbing his aching thighs with each step. After a few yards, Kaida stopped and turned around.

"Alright, sit down!" she said, grabbing him by the shoulders.

"What? No! I'm fine," he insisted, ineffectually trying to escape her grasp. He tried to push himself away, but her grip was tight. As the two struggled, he suddenly started laughing.

"What's so funny?" she asked.

With her guard down, he suddenly stepped forward and put his arms around her waist. He pulled her close. Her eyes wide in surprise, he ran a hand to the small of her back and then dipped her back, like they were ballroom dancing.

She smirked and locked her fingers behind his neck. "I should have figured you were just trying to trick me," she said.

"The laughing wasn't a trick," he told her. "I was just thinking how ridiculous it was, me trying to keep you from touching me. Like I was some little kid who was afraid of cooties."

"I guess I'm lucky I missed most of that stage from you," she said with a laugh. "Now, are you going to let me go?"

He held her for a few seconds, staring down at her face. She had a slight smile and was flush. He could feel her heartbeat, pulsing faster. With a sigh, he pulled her back up and let her go, then sat down calmly on the ground.

She let out a deep breath of her own then knelt down beside him. "Now, where do your legs hurt?" she asked.

"My feet, my calves, my thighs," he said. The ache had even begun to creep into his groin. "Pretty much everywhere below my waist."

Kaida rolled her eyes. "It's like you've never walked anywhere before."

"I haven't," he admitted. "Not for three hours straight at least."

"Ok." She rubbed her hands together. "I hope you get used to it quick, 'cause it'll be a bitch to do this every day. Now, take your shoes and pants off." Before he could say anything, she continued. "I need to touch your skin for this to work. And if you say anything perverse, I'll slap you."

"Be gentle, this is my first time." She laughed and lightly tapped him on the cheek. "Ow," he said with a grin. He kicked off his shoes, peeled off his socks, pulled off his pants, and adjusted his boxers so nothing fell out.

"Now relax," Kaida said. She gently traced her fingertips across the tops of Cassius's feet. The light brush left a tingling tickle behind as the fatigue faded away. She slowly moved up his legs, sapping away the soreness with the lightest touch. He closed his eyes, the sensation mesmerizing him.

The sidewalk was cold. He was cold and not tired, but drowsy nonetheless. He could feel himself dozing off and would have if not for Kaida's slight cough.

He opened his eyes and saw her looking away from him uncomfortably. Her hands were still tracing lines on the inside of his thighs. There was a bludge in the front of his shorts. "Oh God," he sputtered, the color draining from his face as he bolted upright. Seeing Kaida's face, etched with slight mortification, caused color to explode back into his cheeks. "I'm sorry! I just... I almost fell asleep and I - "

She cleared her throat. "No, it's ok," she said. "I mean, I understand." She looked down at her hands, which had started to move up toward his waist, and quickly pulled them away. "I'm finished." She stood and turned her back as Cassius pulled his clothes back on.

Their mutual embarrassment kept them in silence as the began walking again. After a few moments, Cassius finally spoke. "Well, at least it works." She turned and stared. "I mean that thing you did! Not my penis. I mean, that worked too, but I knew it would. Though I didn't expect it to, because it was you. I mean, not because I have anything against you, but just because I respect you so much. And I shouldn't have said any of that." He was beat red from blushing, though in the moonlight, it couldn't be seen.

She laughed and ruffled his hair. "You're such a dork."

Krait and Adder sat in a bar. It was a dingy, run-down hole on the edges of Baltimore. People who passed it might imagine it was a den of thieves and criminals; a place where low-lives went to hatch schemes and find flunkies secure in the knowledge that no one present would care enough to rat them out. In reality, even the criminals were too good for this place.

It was a place of junkies and whores. "I can't believe you're drinking that," Krait said as the bartender placed a shot of vodka in front of Adder. "That's what drunks order." Adder downed the shot in a single gulp. He didn't even flinch, though Krait fought down revulsion just seeing it.

"My father used to drink vodka," Adder said. "Without him, I wouldn't be here today." He motioned for another shot.

"You killed your dad because he beat your mom," Krait responded, lighting a cigarette.

The bartender, a balding man in his fifties, glanced at Adder but said nothing as he set the shot down. Adder immediately snapped up the glass and drank it. "Exactly. If I hadn't been in jail, I'd have never been found by Master Naja."

Krait shrugged. Both he and Adder had been troubled young men, serving long sentences in the Georgia State Penitentiary in the early 90s. Adder for the murder; Krait for a string of robberies. They didn't know each other on the inside, but one day they were called into the warden's office and were introduced to Master Naja. At the time, even though he thought the nagual thing was crazy, freedom was enough incentive for Krait to go along with Naja.

"Do you think we can trust the fox?" Adder asked, breaking Krait's reverie.

"Reynard? Of course not. But he doesn't really have a choice, does he?"

"But he might sell us out to the Princess," Adder said.

Krait scoffed. "Some people might sacrifice their lives for someone else. Not Reynard."

"We're not going to let him live anyway, are we?" Adder sucked down another shot of vodka. Krait looked at his own drink, which remained untouched. He took a sip, puckering his lips at the alcoholic bite.

"We honor our promises," Krait said without enthusiasm. "We made a deal, Reynard helps us and we let him go. Master Naja was clear about that."

"Master Naja would know better than us," Adder stated flatly.

"Yeah, of course," Krait muttered. He turned and looked around the bar, his eyes coming to rest on a bleached-blonde wearing too much makeup that inexpertly covered the dark circles under her eyes. He grinned and started to walk over.

"What are you doing?" Adder asked without looking at him.

"Just gonna have some fun," Krait answered.

"We can't have fun. We're on a job. No distractions." Adder motioned for another shot, which the bartender poured immediately.

"I'm just talking about fucking her. Like before all this soul crap mattered. It won't hurt to do it once."

Adder shrugged. "If you want to lower yourself, go ahead. Just leave me out of it." He swallowed the shot in front of him.

Krait nodded and ordered a second rum and coke from the bartender, then walked it over to the woman. Adder motioned for another shot.

"I'm surprised you can even feel 'em any more," the bartender said as he poured it.

"I can't feel much of anything," Adder answered before tossing it back.

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