Stories

The Dragon's Key: Chapter 5


Fire and smoke swirled around him. He stumbled forward, coughing and trying to get his bearings. He could hear the screams of others behind him. He knew it was too late for them, nothing he could do would save them. He could only barely hope to save himself.

Blood ran down a gash in his side. Sharp pain stabbed through his body, making the limbs on his right side spasm uncontrollably. Before long, it would spread to his other side and he'd be reduced to a quivering mass voiding himself in the few brief painful moments before he died.

He had to escape before then. Suddenly, there was a breath of fresh air. It invigorated him and he pushed forward. After a few difficult feet, he emerged from the front of the cave. Smoke bellowed forth from it into the night air, blotting out the moon and stars. He had almost made it. He needed only get to the edge of the forest a few feet away and he'd be able to escape.

But then he toppled forward, both his legs twitching violently. He tried to rise, but couldn't. He tried to scream out in defiance, but no sound escaped.

Then someone knelt beside him and turned him onto his back. He looked up and saw Reynard Baye, covered in blood and clutching a sword. Despite his gruesome appearance, he breathed a ragged sigh of relief. "Reynard," he managed to croak. "The snakes... You must take the Key... You must..."

Reynard simply nodded and leaned in closer. He opened his mouth as his vision quickly faded into blackness.




Cassius woke up with a gasp, cold sweat covering him. He rolled over to find his dream journal, but got only a handful of sticks and leaves. He looked around at the trees and the horrors of the dream briefly flared back up, only to quickly fade once he remembered the night before.

The two had walked until the night had nearly returned to day. Cassius had been exhausted and could barely keep moving. Even Kaida had seemed fatigued. The two were nowhere near a hotel. Eventually, Kaida pointed to a small thicket of trees - planted alongside the highway to protect the neighboring housing developments from the daily grind of traffic. It was just enough to keep anyone who wasn't looking from spotting them.

Bright light pierced the thin canopy and flooded Cassius's eyes. He noted Kaida was still asleep, so he laid back and tried to rest, but the bright light, midday heat, and noises of loud passing cars kept him from it. After ten minutes of ineffectually tossing and turning, he heard Kaida yawn.

He sat up and saw her run a hand through her hair. When she finished, she stretched and stood, then turned to him. She looked as if she had never even slept; her hair was brushed, her makeup applied to precision, and her clothes free of any clinging leaves or sticks.

"Morning," she said as Cassius stood and brushed off debris.

"What time is it?" he asked.

"Almost four," she said, briefly glancing at her watch. "We can get moving soon. I'm sure we can find somewhere to clean up nearby."

"Great," Cassius said, barely suppressing a strong yawn. His stomach growled. "I'm starving too."

She opened her bindle and tossed him a package of trail mix and a bottle of water. He tore the bag open and ate a handful, then washed it down with the warm water. He grimaced slightly at the taste of it all. "Blech. My mouth has that horrible morning breath taste," he said. "I wish we had some toothpaste and a toothbrush."

Kaida smiled and opened up a side flap of her purse, removed a small toothbrush and tube of toothpaste, and handed it to him. "You didn't buy this last night," he noted. "Do you always carry this around?"

"You never know when you might need it," she answered. He shrugged, quickly brushed his teeth, then rinsed his mouth with some of the water. Immediately after, he ate another handful of trail mix. "Doesn't that kinda defeat the point of brushing your teeth?" she asked.

"The brushing was to get rid of the morning taste," he said.

"And toothpaste mixed with nuts and raisins tastes better?"

"Not really," he admitted before eating another handful. "Let's get going."

The two started walking again. "On the bright side," Kaida said, "at least we're not being followed. Or if we are, they're staying well hidden." She glanced around.

"That's not really comforting." He heard a train sound its horn in the distance. "We can't take a train, can we?"

"No. If we're being followed and they're hiding, that means they don't want to mess with us. Which is good, I don't want you getting hurt in a fight."

"I can handle myself in a fight!" he said indignantly. "I could kick him in the balls."

"And if it's a woman?"

"Uh... I could kick her in the ovaries?"

"You're stupid," Kaida said with a laugh. The two emerged from the trees to find themselves near an offramp. From the ramp, they could see a shopping center in the distance.

"Look, there's a WalMart!" Cassius said. "I can go get some new clothes. And I bet they have a McDonalds inside, so I can get some real food." Before Kaida could say anything, he added, "Ok, at least some food besides trail mix and energy bars."

She shook her head and followed him as he ran toward it.




Arriving late to meet with Master Naja did not sit well with Krait. He continually smoothed out wrinkles in the front of his suit and tugged at the cuffs.

"Stop fidgeting so much," Adder hissed. His hands were folded behind his back, his perpetual scowl masking any worry.

Krait stuffed his hands under his armpits. "How can you be so calm?"

"I'm not the one who slept with an outsider and caused us to be late."

Krait paced over to the window and pushed aside the blinds. The bustling police station on the other side remained undisturbed by the two and the imminent arrival of their master. "Master Naja doesn't need to know."

"I wouldn't think of keeping anything from Master Naja," Adder replied, his scowl deepening. "Besides, we both know he already knows."

Krait grunted and let the blind fall back in place. Adder was right - nothing was a secret from Master Naja. Not for long, at least. But the woman had been the first normal person he had been with in years, since before he'd learned he was a nagual. The women of his House were far too aggressive and energetic in bed for his taste. He had stopped bothering with them years ago.

Standing inside the interrogation room reminded Krait of his first meeting with Master Naja, nearly fifteen years prior. Krait had been twenty-four, already serving his third sentence, and didn't expect to ever get out. Master Naja offered him escape, with one simple stipulation.

"Give up your family, your friends, and you life. Serve me, forever." Krait had little to give up. His mother had died when he was ten, his father died when he was sixteen, his step-mother hated him, and his half-brother never spoke to him. He had a girl on the outside, but she didn't mean anything to him. He took Master Naja's offer without second thoughts.

Adder had been more reluctant. He was staunchly insistent he had been right to kill his father. Krait never argued with him, though he thought Adder was full of more bullshit than Master Naja. Even after being told the truth, it had taken Krait several years before he fully accepted that he had the soul of a snake. He wasn't sure quite when it happened, only that one day he walked into a room full of his brethren and gave none a second look.

A tap on his shoulder broke his reverie. "What?" he snapped, glaring at Adder. Adder jerked his thumb to the side.

"The problem, Agent Krait," Master Naja said in a sultry tone, "is that you have decided staring at nothing is more important than acknowledging your master."

Krait spun like a top, stiffening in deference. "I am sorry, Master Naja," he said with a stiff bow. "I was contemplating our mission."

Master Naja slid up to Krait and slid a fingernail across his jaw. "Of course you were. Just like your contemplation last night kept you from arriving on time?"

Krait's skin was crawling, but he made no outward sign of it. He'd never gotten used to Master Naja, but he'd learn to control his reaction. "I had a lapse in judgment," he said.

"Do not do it again," Master Naja cooed, running his smooth palm across the rough pits of Krait's face. "We must get to business." He glided to the single chair in the room and sat, resting his elbows on the table.

"We caught the fox and persuaded him to help us," Adder began. "All went according to plan, though he is no doubt scheming to escape his predicament."

"Of course he is," Master Naja said. "But until he does, he is beholden to us. Even if he does turn on us, it will be too late for the Princess."

"And if he doesn't betray us?" Adder asked. "Why should we leave him alive?"

A titter burst from Master Naja's painted lips. "Assuming he actually does help us, we will be in his debt. Debts must be respected."

"Much as we are forever indebted to you, Master Naja," Krait said without conviction. An ugly frown crossed Master Naja's face.

"Yes, indebted and in my service forever," Master Naja said sourly. "Now, we must get you to the King's fortress before the Princess gets there." Master Naja walked to the rear of the room, then stood there. After a moment, he glared at the two agents. "Follow me," he hissed. Adder briskly walked over, while Krait shambled behind. Naja began to walk counterclockwise around the room, with the two agents following every footstep. In total, they circled the room four times before Naja stopped at the door and flicked it open.

Instead of a police station, a cold, dark cavern was behind the door. The sharp stench of smoke and burned flesh wafted into the room, bringing a grimace to Master Naja. Adder walked purposefully into the cavern, followed by Krait. He looked back at the door, which seemed out of place set into the rock wall.

"Clean up your mess," Master Naja said, his nose crinkled in disgust. "Then prepare for the ambush. You'll have a few days before they arrive, so do not grow complacent. And do not leave. It would be difficult for you to get back."

The door closed on Master Naja, throwing the cavern into darkness. Krait pulled out a cigarette. The flame of the lighter, then the burning cherry, cast a pale, flickering light over Krait's face. "Well, time to start cleaning," he said. Adder grunted as they walked deeper into the cave.




"These look cute," Kaida said, holding up a pair of jeans.

"They look a little tight," Cassius said.

"So? I wouldn't mind," she said with a small smile.

"They're not for you, they're for me. I don't want to spend the next month with no circulation in my legs."

Kaida huffed and put her hands on her hips. "Come on, Cass! They won't be that tight! This is the tenth pair you haven't liked! Baggy pants will just make walking wear you out even more."

He grumbled and took them into the changing room. When he walked out, he was squirming. "They look good," Kaida said. "You should think about getting a bunch of pants like those. Just try to stop walking like you have a stick up your butt."

"I can't help it. They're uncomfortable." He headed back into the changing room.

"My pants are tighter than that and I don't have a problem."

"You're a chick, there's a difference," he said as he emerged back in his old pants.

She threw her hands into the air. "Fine! Find a pair yourself. Just don't complain to me when you want to cut your own legs off."

With a heavy sigh, he went back to checking through the racks. "Maybe I should just get a pair of shorts."

"No, those will be terrible," Kaida said. "Trust me, you don't want shorts."

"Why not? It's the summer. It's hot."

"That's why we're moving in the afternoon and at night, not the day. To avoid the worst of the heat. But shorts won't be good where we're going, which will eventually be through woods and other rough terrain. Unless you like walking through knee-high brambles with nothing between your skin and thorns."

Finally, he pulled out a pair of jeans and held them up for Kaida. She eyed them and slowly shook her head. "Try them on." He changed and came back out, then did a turn for her. "They look good. Not as good as the other ones, but good anyway."

"They're comfortable enough," Cassius said, though they still pinched a little. "I'm sure they'll loosen up as we go, anyway."

He wore the jeans through checkout and the two headed back out. "What do I do with these?" Cassius asked, holding up his old, blood-stained pants.

Kaida shrugged. "Throw them out."

"What if someone finds them. They'll know we were here."

She sighed. "What are the chances of that?"

"Well, you were the one who told me not to call my family, just in case. I just want to be careful."

She waggled her finger at him. "They know you have a family. They don't know you got rid of your old pants. Besides, even if they found it, how would it help them?"

"I dunno. Maybe they have some dog people with them. To sniff out the scent."

Kaida laughed. "No, hounds do not get along well with snakes. So I doubt it."

With a shrug, he tossed the pants into a dumpster. "Oh well. Goodbye pants! It has been a journey. Many were the days that you covered my body from the waist down. You were good pants, comfortable pants, pants appropriate in both the workplace and in casual situations. May some discriminating hobo overlook the blood stains and give you a good home." He lowered his head solemnly.

Kaida had a hand over her mouth, shaking with quiet laughter at his theatrics. When she noticed he was finished, she grabbed his arm. "If you're finished with your eulogy, let's get going. We've got a long day ahead of us."

"Great, a long day of walking," Cassius grumbled.

Kaida chuckled. "Hey, remember last night?"

"No."

She rolled her eyes. "I mean, remember when I told you I made you forget something once."

"Yeah."

"Well, let's make a deal. If you can make it all the way to my father's without needing me to numb your legs, then I'll tell you what it was."

Cassius stopped walking and leaned against a tree. "Hmm," he pretended to consider the offer. "And if I don't make it?"

"How about you never bring it up again?"

"So I either go a week or so without you feeling me up or I never learn the terrible secret which I must not know."

She punched him in the shoulder, almost making him slip off the tree. "It was nothing bad. So do we have a deal?"

"Can I still complain about how my legs hurt?" She shook her head. He shrugged and said, "Deal," quicker than he intended.

A small smirk crossed Kaida's face. "Good, now let's go." She started walking down the road again. Cassius patted his legs and followed her.




The remains took some time to clear away. It had been a little over a week since the attack on Airyu's keep. It wasn't supposed to have turned into a massacre. Stealth had been the objective. But the Keybearer had managed to put up enough of a struggle to draw attention and a fight had started. The only way for the two to maintain secrecy was to slaughter everyone and count on Airyu's reclusion to keep the information a secret for long enough.

"I can't believe we're stuck in this hole for a week," Krait muttered as he carried a body out of the cave. "Nothing to do."

"I won't mind," Adder said as he tossed a severed arm into the newly-dug mass grave. "Is that all of them?" He nodded toward the body Krait was carrying.

"I think so," Krait nodded. "I didn't see anything else." Adder nodded, grabbed the lone shovel, and began refilling the hole. There was only one, so Krait walked back up the slope to the cave entrance. Rocks shifted and clattered beneath his feet, but he'd gotten used to climbing it. In all, they had moved nearly two dozen corpses into the mass grave. The only one they didn't move was Airyu's, which they couldn't have even if they wanted to.

The entrance was small, barely wider and taller than he was. It stayed narrow about ten feet in, when it suddenly expanded into an immense cavern. Once he was inside, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his pack of cigarettes. He frowned upon finding only three left, but lit one anyway. The miniscule light it provided, though not necessary for him to see in the dark, gave him a small amount of comfort.

The once natural caverns had been transformed by human hands. The floors were flat, the walls smooth. Tapestries and rugs covered much of the cold stone, while intricately carved murals adorned the ceiling. Much of it was blood soaked. They would need to clean that as well. Adder wanted to take care of it immediately - he claimed the smell was overwhelming - but Krait was stiff and sore and the reek of rotting flesh hung on him.

Through several tunnels was an underground river, serving as the cave system's rudimentary plumbing. Krait flicked his cigarette butt in, then stripped down and climbed into the cold water. He splashed it over himself, trying to wash away the stench. He wished he had soap.

Even in prison, he'd gotten soap. But the world he walked into when he entered Master Naja's employ was devoid of many things he was used to. He never quite understood how the nagual culture had evolved - or failed to evolve - how it did. It was a hodgepodge of the very old and the newly old, seemingly joined together as awkwardly as possible.

Krait dunked his head, scrubbing his scalp with his fingers until he finally had to surface for air. His gasp for air turned to one of surprise as he saw Adder standing there, staring at him.

"Why did you bother?" Adder asked, picking at his skin with dirt-encrusted nails. He peeled away a large patch and tossed it into the water, the currents quickly sucking it away. The skin beneath was pale and shiny.

"I like my current skin fine," Krait answered, sloshing out of the way as Adder threw another piece in. "Do you mind letting me finish before you do that?"

Adder shrugged and walked out of the room, tearing off more skin as he went. Krait shuddered and pulled himself from the water. He toweled off with one of the rough tapestries, slipped on his undershirt and boxers, then rinsed his suit in the water. He left it on the cave floor to dry, then walked out to find Adder.




Cassius's legs were numb. He'd lost feeling in them around dusk, after nearly four straight hours of walking. The numbness was different than the soothing Kaida had done. He kept stumbling over his feet, his knees wouldn't bend properly, and he wanted nothing more than to chop his legs off. But he kept quiet.

"Are you alright?" Kaida asked with a glint in her eye. "I can fix that, you know."

"I'm fine," he responded. "In fact, I haven't even thought about asking you." In reality, he'd been on the verge of asking her several times. Each time, before he finally gave in, Kaida called a short break, giving him just enough time to keep going on.

He needed something to keep his mind off the ache. "Tell me more about the nagual," he said.

"What do you want to know?" she asked.

"Everything," he said. "Let's start with the basics. How many types of nagual are there?"

"That's not exactly easy to say," she said. "There are two hundred great Houses."

"What types? I know Snakes, they were the ones who tried to kill me," he said. "And why just Snake and not, like Pit Viper and Boa Constrictor and King Cobra?"

She shrugged her shoulders lightly. "That's a bit difficult to explain. There isn't just a House Bird, for instance, but there's House Owl - Baruti is one of those - and House Raven and House Penguin and House Ostrich and over forty avian houses. I guess it's easiest to just say that if a group of nagual is enough alike in personality, they form a House together.

"Like I said, there are two hundred great Houses. There are eight reptile Houses - Snake, Crocodile, Tortoise, Snapping Turtle, Monitor, Iguana, Chameleon, and Lizard."

"No Tuatara?" he asked.

"No whats?"

"Tuatara. They're a small, lizard-like reptile that lives only on New Zealand."

She shrugged again. "Well, they might get grouped with House Lizard. It's not that specific. Anyway, there are five amphibian houses - Frog, Toad, Poison Dart, Salamander, and Caecillian. There are ten arthropod houses - Ant, Wasp, Bee, Spider, Lobster, Crab, Scorpion, Mantis, Dragonfly, and Millipede.

"Then there's the avian houses, like I mentioned. There's forty-six of them in total. I'm not going to bother naming them all. Five mollusc houses - Octopus, Squid, Clam, Snail, and Slug. Fifty-eight mammal houses - Hound, Cat, Tiger, Raccoon, Bear, Whale, Dolphin, Horse, and Elephant are some examples. Thirty-three fish houses - Great White, Hammerhead, Swordfish, Marlin, Carp, and Tuna are the big ones. Then there are twenty-nine other houses, Starfish, Earthworm, Jellyfish, and the like."

Cassius paused a moment, taking it all in. He nodded to himself along with her. "That's six short of two hundred," he said after a moment.

She smiled at him. "You don't miss a thing," she said with a light chuckle. "You're right. There's my house. I guess technically, we're one of the unclassified houses, or maybe a reptile house if you really want to stretch things. But honestly, we're another thing entirely. Then there's the Lost Houses. Three are broken houses, two are banished."

"Broken and banished?" Cassius said with a blanch. "That doesn't sound too nice."

She lowered her eyes and shook her head. "No, it's not. The banished are House Fox and House Lion. They still exist, but are not allowed to sit on the council of the nagual for trying to steal the Key." She sighed loudly. "I'm guessing House Snake will join them soon. The other three are broken. House Dodo, House Moa, and House Thylacine."

"All extinct," Cassius muttered. "So that means..."

Kaida nodded slowly. "Right. When an animal goes extinct, no more nagual are born with their souls." She chuckled softly. "You'd think with no animals to put them into, there'd be more souls to go into people. But those houses are gone, their seats sit empty. Maybe one day new houses will form to take their place." She trailed off quietly after that and looked distantly toward the sky.

Just then, Cassius's stomach growled. It was well past nightfall and the two hadn't eaten since shortly after they'd woken up. His tired legs were being compounded by the hunger, though Kaida didn't seem to mind. "Kaida?" he groaned.

"Ready to give in?" she asked, eagerly changing the subject.

"No. But I am hungry. Can we stop and eat." He pointed at a glowing sign that read "Mountain View Diner."

A strange look passed over Kaida's face, as if she just remembered something that had been nagging her for a long while. "Are you alright?" he asked.

She grinned. "Oh, don't worry. I've just been pushing myself so hard I forgot all about eating. Let's go." She headed toward the diner.

The diner was a classic, Art Deco style with a long row of stools against a counter and a few small booths. Despite it being late, all of the booths were full and several people sat at the counter. "Wow, this place is crowded," Kaida muttered.

"Yeah, but this is the first place I've seen for miles," Cassius told her. "And I've been looking, trust me. I have no idea what else might be around here."

"I guess we can wait for a booth to open up," Kaida said.

"Nonsense!" someone called out. Cassius turned and saw a young woman waiving at him from the booth behind him. "If you don't mind sharing, sit on down."

Cassius grabbed Kaida by the wrist and pulled her forward. "We don't mind!" He flopped into the booth and Kaida slid in next to him.

"Hi," the woman said. "My name's Katherine. Call me Kate."

"I'm Chance," the man with her said, holding out a hand. His handshake was light.

"I'm Cassius. This is Kaida. Thanks for sharing."

"Oh, don't worry," Kate said. "No reason to make you sit at the counter on those uncomfortable stools. Besides, we could use a little company."

"I hope we're not interrupting a date," Kaida said.

"Oh no," Kate answered. "We're just friends."

"What about you?" Chance asked.

"The same," Cassius offered.

The two of them were around the same age as Kaida and Cassius, maybe a little younger. Chance was thin with shoulder-length unkempt brown hair and wore trendy, box-frame glasses perched at the end of his hawkish nose. He wore a black shirt that was several sizes too large. He slumped forward, his elbows resting on the edge of the table.

Kate was a vision. Her delicate nose was centered between big, blue eyes topped by thin, perfectly arched eyebrows. Her skin was pale and unblemished, while her long red hair and tight-cut bangs framed her gracefully round face. Even her tight tank-top, which bared long inches of skin, added to the picture.

The waitress suddenly walked over. "I'm Stacey, I'll be your waitress. What can I get you two to drink?"

"Water," Kaida said.

"Same here," Cassius added.

"I'll be right back," the waitress said.

As she walked off, Kate turned to Cassius. "What brings you two out tonight?" she asked.

"Oh, nothing," he answered. "Just a journey to save the world. You?" Their eyes locked for a moment. He realized that she was phenomenally beautiful.

She stared at him for a moment, then shook her head as if to clear it. She giggled at him. "Oh, just hanging out." Her eyes found him again and she stared, a slight smile on her face. The look she gave him was strangely expectant, as if she were waiting for him to do something.

"Actually, I was serious. You see, there's a bunch of - "

Kaida jabbed an elbow into his ribs. "Ignore him," she said, forcing a smile. "He's being an idiot." At that moment, the waitress returned with their drinks and took their orders. Without having a chance to look at the menu, Cassius ordered a cheeseburger.

As the waitress walked off, Kate once more looked at Cassius. "So, what were we talking about?" she asked, leaning forward with her chin resting on folded hands.

"Nothing," Kaida interjected before Cassius could say anything. "So, how do you two know each other?"

"In high school, I was friends with her boyfriend," Chance said. "But I figured out I liked her better than I liked him. I've spent the last seven years stalking her."

Kate rolled her eyes at Chance. "What about you two?" she asked.

"Childhood friends," Kaida answered simply.

"That's adorable," Kate said, back to looking into Cassius's eyes. He couldn't help but look back. "So, do you have a girlfriend?"

Cassius nearly gagged on his water. "Excuse me?" Kaida asked.

"Oh, not you," Kate said absently. "I meant Cassius. I mean, you two said you weren't on a date."

Cassius wiped his mouth with a napkin and shook his head. "No, I'm single," he answered sheepishly. He glanced at Chance, who was impassively staring at nothing.

"Single, just like me," she said, a devilish smile curling her lips. "I'm surprised a cute guy like you doesn't have a girlfriend."

He laughed nervously before taking a sip of his water. "Yeah, right." He glanced at Kaida, who was wide-eyed.

"Excuse me," Chance said suddenly. "I'll be right back." He stiffly walked toward the restrooms.

Kate paid him no attention, turning to Kaida for the first time. "What about you? You've got to have a boyfriend to let a catch like this get away."

The blush that had been creeping into Cassius's cheeks vanished. "Yeah," Kaida answered. "His name is Andy. He's a great guy. I'm surprised a girl who looks like you is single." She leaned forward with a wide, mirthless smile. "What's the matter?"

Kate returned her smile, but broke eye contact. "Who knows? I need to use the bathroom, excuse me." She hurried off.

As she walked away, Cassius turned to Kaida. "Gorilla?"

She shot him a bemused look. "What?"

"I heard that a smile is a sign of aggression to gorillas. So is that what you are? A gorilla girl?"

That brought a true smile back to her face. "No. It's just that... I mean, wow, she was being aggressive with you, wasn't she?"

Cassius shrugged. "And?" he asked. "I think it's kinda nice. Maybe I'll give her my number..."

"Cass..."

He laughed. "Oh, what? She won't know where I'm going. I can tell her..." He struggled for a moment. "Ok, I guess getting a girl's phone number then not calling her for a month because you're on a fantastic journey probably won't work. Dammit."

Kaida sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "I'm just..." she trailed off for a moment. "I'm just being overprotective of you. Maybe this whole thing has me paranoid. You get the Key and then suddenly a beautiful woman starts hitting on you like that? It just puts me on edge."

He frowned. "You don't think they're connected, do you?"

She shook her head. "Nah. She's not a nagual, so she wouldn't recognize you have the Key. Though her friend might be..."

"You can tell?" he asked.

"There are little hints," she said. "That's how we find each other, after all. Physical features, mannerisms, things like that. Of course, once you get found and taught about your heritage and start doing things with it - "

"Like the eyes thing," Cassius said.

"Yeah, like that. Well, then it's like turning on a flashlight in a dark room to other nagual. We can just plain see it. So if he is one, he doesn't know it."

"Huh..." Cassius muttered. "Hey, I just thought of something. You mentioned Andy. Does he know about... well, our trip?"

She shook her head. "Nope. He'll probably think I'm out on a business trip or something. Which is the normal excuse I give whenever I need to deal with the nagual world. And if he did wonder, well, I can always fix it."

"Wait, normal excuse? Does that mean you didn't really go to Belgium on business?"

Kaida opened her mouth, then closed it as Chance reappeared and sat down in the booth. "We'll talk about it later," Kaida answered.

"Where did Kate go?" Chance asked.

"Bathroom," Cassius answered. On cue, she walked out of the restrooms and headed back for the booth.

"Don't worry, Cass, no more smiling from me," Kaida promised. She formed an exaggerated 'o' with her mouth and mimicked a gorilla

"I missed something," Kate said as she sat back down.

Cassius chuckled. "It's nothing."

"Welcome back," Kaida said. Just then, the waitress arrived with their food.




"Why shouldn't we clean everything else?" Adder's voice floated through the darkness. Krait glanced at the direction of his voice.

"I just took a bath," Krait answered. "I'm not getting dirty again." He stretched and leaned against the cavern wall. The chill seeped into his body, making him lethargic. He rubbed his fists over his eyes.

"If you fall asleep on the floor, you'll get dirty anyway." Adder's voice was laced with annoyance.

"If you've got enough energy to clean, why not get us some dinner?" Krait asked. "And nothing disgusting."

The click of Adder's shoes on the cave floor grew distant. "Nothing I eat is disgusting. It's natural." His voice echoed from shallower in the cave.

Krait snorted and laughed. He knew better than to hope, but he wished that Adder would bring back something delicious. He could find mutton or venison if he decided to bring down something large. If not, maybe a rabbit or something else a normal person would eat. Krait could start a fire, cook it, and have a decent meal.

Adder only ate fresh meat. In cases like this, it meant Krait ate whatever Adder caught. Usually, that meant alley cat or raccoon. Despite the jokes about being from Georgia, Krait had never eaten raccoon before he entered Master Naja's employ, and he never developed a taste for it.

"What the hell is that?" he'd asked the first time Adder brought back a raccoon.

"Raccoon," Adder answered. They had been young. It was only their third or fourth mission together, before Master Naja had realized they were his best men but just as Krait and Adder figured it out. Despite that, they'd been all business and barely knew anything about each other.

"What the fuck, a coon? I'm not eating that!" Krait objected.

"I caught it and killed it myself, like Master Naja said we should." Even then Adder didn't smile. "And don't call it a coon."

Krait hadn't given up on making Adder smile then, either. "Aw, what's the matter? I bein' disrespectful to your kin-folk. Maybe Master Naja was wrong, you ain't a snake." He smiled jovially at his comrade.

Adder had flashed his teeth at Krait, but it wasn't a smile. "I am a snake," he said with a growl. "Nothing else. And Master Naja told us to get in tune with our souls. So eat." Adder ripped a chunk out of the raccoon, swallowing it without chewing.

Thinking back about it, Krait smiled to himself and lit up his next-to-last cigarette. He took a long drag, then tried to blow smoke rings. All that came out was formless blobs. He used to blow them out perfectly, before he'd grown his fangs. Now, they came out in puffs.

He smoked the cigarette slowly, savoring it. He held the smoke in until it burned, then blew it out and sucked it back through his nose. He hadn't loved smoking until he got out of jail. None of the other snakes smoked, which made getting cigarettes difficult, but he managed.

As it burned down to the filter, Adder returned. There was a wet thud and Krait could smell blood over the reek of the burning filter. He ground it into the floor and sat up. "What did you bring us?"

"Raccoon," Adder answered. "There was a nest of them right outside." Krait sighed and started looking for a fire place.




Kaida insisted on paying for dinner, only drawing brief protests from Chance and Kate. "So, what are you guys doing now?" Kate asked.

"We're just heading off," Cassius answered.

"We're actually walking," Kaida allowed.

"Really?" Chance asked. "Where too? Maybe we can give you a ride."

Kaida shook her head. "No, no. Please, we couldn't."

Seeing the odd glance the two exchanged, Cassius interrupted. "We're actually doing this whole cross-country back packing thing. You know, like people do in Europe. Only with... uh, America instead. So we're just headed to the bus station."

"You aren't carrying backpacks," Chance noted.

"We're traveling light," Kaida said flatly.

"Right," Cassius agreed.

Kate frowned, her face crinkling in an odd mixture of confusion and concern. After a moment, she said, "Well, maybe I should come with you." Her eyes focused on Cassius. "I mean, just to get you to the bus station. If you're not from around here, you might get lost, especially since it's late."

Kaida shot a look at Cassius and started to say something, but he blurted out, "Sure." Kate grinned and reached out to take his arm when Kaida pulled him away.

"We need a minute to talk," she said, dragging him out of earshot. "What are you doing?" she asked in a harsh whisper.

Cassius looked over and noticed Chance was animatedly arguing with Kate. "I don't know," Cassius admitted. "I got caught up in the lie. I'm not good at that kind of thing!"

Her glare cut. "Some strange girl starts flirting with you and suddenly she can tag along? This isn't a vacation, Cass! What will she say when we really start moving along the trail. I mean, do you even know where we are now?"

"Not really," he said.

"We've walked maybe thirty miles and we're already in Pennsylvania," she said. "Think about what will happen when we walk another thirty and we're in Ohio. Or another hundred and we're in California! Or another hundred after that and we're not even anywhere you can find on a map!"

He resisted the temptation to wither. "There's no way she'd walk with us all that way!" he said. "What could I say, anyway? Look, maybe we just let her take us to the bus station, say goodbye to her, and we're on our way."

Kaida rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Alright, it's fine. We can just backtrack if we have to and get back on track. I'm sorry for freaking out about it."

"You weren't freaking out," Cassius said with a smile. The two of them returned to Kate and Chance. "So, why not lead us to this bus station?"

Kate smiled wide and took Cassius by the arm. "Keep your phone on," Chance said to Kate. "Let me know once you've gotten to the bus station."

"Oh, don't worry," Kate said, barely paying him any attention. "Let's go!"

"We'll take care of her," Kaida said to Chance. She briefly glanced at Kate, who was snuggling close to Cassius. "We don't really want her with us anyway," she mumbled almost inaudibly.

Chance simply nodded and retreated to his car. As he was pulling away, Kate sighed. "He can be so annoying sometimes."

"We should get going," Kaida said.

"Alright. Come on." Kate pulled Cassius along down the road. Once he fell into step with her, she leaned against him. He glanced back at Kaida, who was simply staring in shock. Cassius simply shrugged and turned back forward.

"So, Cassius, tell me all about yourself," Kate said. Cassius swallowed hard, looked down at the gorgeous woman hanging off his arm, and began blathering.




Adder slinked off to digest his meal, leaving Krait sulking in the dark. Even cooked, raccoon tasted terrible. On top of being thick and stringy, it tasted of raw sewage, as if it had been dead before Adder found it.

It had been a battle to even get a fire built. Adder insisted against it, but Krait ignored him, pulling down old tapestries from the walls and topping them off with broken furniture. In a few minutes, they were up in flames, obliterating whatever history they contained. The cavern ceiling was high, but had no opening. The smoke clung there like an ominous black cloud.

Now, only the dying embers of the fire were left. As Krait stared into them, he thought of Master Naja's eyes. Of the few things he feared, Master Naja's eyes topped the list. He was certain Master Naja could look into him, order his heart to stop beating, and it would. He vowed never to push Master Naja that far.

Krait's gaze held little power. Only the weak-willed or favorably inclined could be entranced. Adder had greater command of his powers, though Master Naja discouraged him from using them except in emergencies. Adder obeyed perfectly, though Krait had tested his own plenty of times. Krait wondered if Adder's eyes might be even stronger than Master Naja's, if only he had been given the freedom to develop them. He supposed it mattered little, as long as Adder was loyal.

With nothing else to do, Krait pulled out a cigarette. Before he lit up, he stopped himself. "Last one," he grumbled. "Gotta save it." He returned it to his pocket. A few minutes later, he was pacing and wringing his hands.

"I need to take a walk," he said suddenly. The overpowering smell of smoke was getting to him, he told himself. He scrapped through the entranceway, banging his hands more than once against the rough stone, cracking and fraying the skin. He stuck his fingers into his mouth and nibbled off the loose bits. It made him slightly queasy, but kept his mind off cigarettes.

Once his hands were clean, he took a deep breath of the mountain air. It was cool and fresh. Airyu's home was far from the taint of normal human life. Krait wasn't even sure where it was, except on Earth. Really, he wasn't sure about that either, since the stars were all different. They were clearer here than anywhere else. There'd been light pollution even in rural Georgia when he was growing up. Here, the stars barely twinkled, looking more like pinpricks of light in a dark blanket.

"This is true freedom," he murmured to himself, spreading his arms and looking up. He took another deep breath, then turned to head back inside. When he looked down, a small raccoon was staring up at him. He was startled at first, because the animal was staring straight at him.

Krait knelt down, but the animal didn't move. "I ate your father," he said to it. It cocked its head to the side. "Do you understand me?" He reached out slowly and picked it up by the scruff of the neck. "You must be pretty stupid, walking right up to a snake like that."

It didn't put up any struggle, just dangling from his hand, looking at him quizzically. After staring at each other for a minute, Krait tossed it to the side. The animal landed in a heap, but rolled to its feet and scurried off. "Stupid animal," Krait muttered. He was about to reenter the cave when a deer walked out of the woods. It briefly glanced at Krait, flicked its ears, then calmly kept walking.

"No wonder Adder caught that raccoon so easily," Krait muttered. "These stupid animals don't run from you." He shook his head in disbelief, making a plan to come out and explore whenever he got a chance. For now, he realized it was late and he had a long day of cleaning ahead of him. With a grunt, he re-entered the cave.




Now that Cassius was reduced to traveling normally again, he realized how different walking the hidden pathways really was. Though he had never been cognizant of the changes occurring, now it felt like he was moving through molasses. Not physically, though their surroundings seemed to be crawling by.

After a half hour of walking, they reached the bus station. "Well, we're here!" Kaida said too eagerly. "Now, we'd better go catch our bus! Thank you so much, Kate!" She put too much emphasis on the "so." Knowing Kaida, Cassius through, it was probably intentionally.

"Oh, yeah," Kate answered, barely sparing her a glance. "It was my pleasure." She grinned at Cassius, who couldn't help but blush lightly once again at her. Over the walk, he'd done that a lot. "So, tell me more about the library!"

"Uh, well, Kaida is right. We... um... need to go get our bus!" He gestured toward the terminal and tried to pull away, but she remained clinging to him.

"I'll come with you," she said. "Just to see you off."

Cassius looked at Kaida helplessly. She sighed, shook her head, grabbed Kate by the arm, and wrenched her off Cassius. "Look," Kaida said, "you need to go now."

Kate leveled a gaze that would have withered a lesser woman, but didn't phase Kaida. "I don't want to go," Kate said. "And I want to know what you two are really up to. You're not here to catch a bus or you'd let me stay with you until you left. So what is it?"

Kaida let out a groan of consternation. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Kaida said, "not that it's a damn bit of your business anyway! Go. Now."

Kate pulled her arm away from Kaida and retreated back to Cassius. "I don't want to go. I want to stay with you." She looked up at Cassius. "Tell her I can come with you!"

Cassius laughed at the thought of him ordering Kaida around. "She's right, though. You don't want to come with us anyway. Trust me, we're going to be walking for days."

"But I do!" Kate said emphatically. "I know it sounds crazy! But I want to come with you! Please, let me come with you! I'll do whatever you tell me to!"

Exasperated, Kaida grabbed Kate's head and held it still as she gazed into her eyes. "No. You do not want to come with us. In fact, you're going to forget you ever met us. Understand?" Kaida let go of Kate's face and she continued to stare into Kaida's eyes as if she were hypnotized.

She blinked several times rapidly, then slowly shook her head without breaking contact with Kaida's eyes. "But I do want to come with you," she said slowly. Kaida's jaw dropped.

"Stay here," Cassius said to Kate and quickly stepped away, pulling Kaida out of earshot. "Ok, this is really strange."

"No shit, Sherlock!" Kaida said through clenched teeth, her voice an octave higher than normal. "She ignored my orders. That shouldn't happen!"

"Shouldn't happen?" Cassius asked. "Or couldn't happen? Because there is an important difference."

"Shouldn't," Kaida affirmed, running her hand through her hair. "Like I told you, I can't force anyone to do anything they would never do. But if there's even a small crack in there, a small bit, then I can usually make them do whatever I need. Hell, I once made an entire security staff let me backstage at a concert when I was only fourteen! I should be able to make this dumb girl go away, even if she really really likes you."

"So, why won't she?" Cassius asked. "What are the reasons she would be able to ignore you."

Kaida took a deep breath and pondered it for a moment. "Well, she could have an incredibly strong willpower. But if she really was that strong willed, she'd be freaking Green Lantern."

"God that's a nerdy reference. You are the best."

Kaida smirked. "I know. But assuming she's not a superhero, the only other explanation is someone with stronger eyes made her want to follow us."

"But why would they do that? To spy on us? To make us easier to find? If they knew enough to get Kate to follow us, they already could find us. And probably spy on us a lot better than she could."

"I know. That's why it doesn't make any sense," Kaida answered. "It has to be about the Key, but if it was, it'd be about stealing the Key. Which would not be helped by sending her to watch us."

"So what do we do? It doesn't look like we can get rid of her."

Kaida sighed and looked over at Kate. She was watching the two intently, nervously biting her bottom lip. "It's a mystery," Kaida said. "I want to get to the bottom of it. So... I guess she can come with us, for now. Keep an eye on her. The way she's hanging off you, it shouldn't be hard."

"Yeah, too bad it's just because some animal-person made her do it," Cassius sighed. Kaida gave him a brief sad frown, then pulled him back over to Kate.

"Alright," she said to her. "We're not getting on the bus. We're walking somewhere. A long way away. You can come with us, for now."

Kate happily clapped her hands. "That's great! I promise I won't get in the way or anything."

"Oh, I'm sure," Kaida said. "Come on, we still have a few hours of walking ahead of us before it's time to move again."

Kate fell into step beside Cassius, but refrained from grasping him as she had before. "Now, I think you were about to tell me about the library you work at?" she said to him.


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