Kim froze with fear and gripped Dragon's arm tightly. Dragon patted her hand with his and looked up at the old man. "What exactly do you mean? Is he in some kind of danger?"
"No, Golden Dragon. He is your legacy. He retains some of the power of the gem in his mortal frame. With the proper training, he could become a great ally to the Dragon Cult."
The old man didn't move, even as Dragon advanced on the podium. Dragon growled out, "I ask again, what do you mean? And I had better like the answer."
"You are as headstrong as the Lionheart," the old man said, exasperated. "Gilgamesh wasn't that intelligent, but at least he followed our orders."
Alex tugged on his father's arm. "Dad, who are Gilgamesh and the Lionheart?"
"Legends, kiddo. Stories based in fact, like the stories about King Arthur and all the mythology I used to read to you."
"No!" the old man cried out, his voice echoing through the vast chamber. "They are not simply legends! They were Golden Dragons, as you are now! You do not even begin to understand the burden you carry!"
The old man's shoulders sagged slightly. "Please," he said, "let me give you a room in the temple, and then you may hear more."
Dragon looked at Kim, who appeared worried but not frightened. Then he looked at Alex. His son didn't return his gaze, he was too busy looking around the temple. It looked like something out of a well-budgeted martial arts movie, with golden-edged pillars and hanging tapestries. The walls were decorated with murals depicting heroic events. Dragon realized he was as curious about this place as Alex and he nodded to the old man.
Two men dressed in white garments approached the family from the doorways on the side of the podium. They bowed and then walked back through another doorway. Dragon led his family in following them. They walked through hallways filled with sculptures and hanging art until they reached a golden door. Kim gasped as the two men put their shoulders into opening the door.
Inside the room, which seemed about the size of a football field, there were two large canopy beds surrounded by colorful pillows. Glass chandeliers in the shapes of dragons, centaurs, and other mythical beasts adorned the ceiling, illuminating the room with candles. The walls were covered with art of varying origins. In the center of the room was a wooden stand with a large black book on it.
"This is better than our hotel," Kim said to Dragon. "I'm going to lie down." She flopped onto one of the beds and exhaled, "Heaven!"
Dragon immediately felt bad. Kim wasn't showing her pregnancy at all, but it hadn't been until that moment that he had remembered why he took this vacation in the first place. Kim would be the first to deny it, but Dragon knew that she needed extra attention.
"Honey, are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she answered, sitting up on her elbows. "Why shouldn't I be?"
"Well, I just thought that with the baby..."
Kim sat all the way up, looking annoyed. "We've been over this. If you can fight VIPER and Mechanon without me saying a word, I can endure this pregnancy without over-attention from you."
Dragon walked over and kissed her forehead. "I worry, that's all."
Alex was standing in the center of the room, opening the black book. He called out, "Dad, this is some funny writing!"
Dragon walked over and was greeted by two pages of old English script. The top page read, "From the journals of Friar Tuck."
"I fear that Robin and Lionheart have been captured," the pages read. "Robin is an excellent archer, and Richard is stronger than any man I've known. Still, the two have a tendency to overconfidence."
The journal went on for about thirty pages, dropping off at certain points and picking up at others. Everything about the Lionheart seemed to be there, but other passages were missing from the book. Dragon was amazed to find that it was a record of the trials and tribulations of Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart, a Golden Dragon.
"I see you have found the book." Sagan walked into the room and closed the heavy door behind himself.
"This is amazing, Sagan. According to this book, Richard the Lionheart was a Golden Dragon who fought alongside Robin Hood to stave off the tyranny of the Sheriff of Nottingham, who was actually an agent of the Wyrm. And he wasn't ever the king!"
"Yes," Sagan said. "The historians got a few details wrong. They assumed that because Richard was great and powerful, that he must have been king. The Dragon Cult sees no need to correct their history. After all, it helps to maintain our secrecy. The book on that table is all that has ever been written about every Golden Dragon since the gem fell into the hands of the cult. Some day, I imagine your news clippings will wind up in there."
Dragon lifted the book and smirked. "A little light for the recorded history of all the Golden Dragons, isn't it?"
"Not at all," Sagan replied. "Throughout history, there have been no more than twenty-five. It is a great honor."
Dragon looked over and saw that Kim had fallen asleep on the bed. Alex was lying beside her, his head on her shoulder. "Tell me about the Dragon Cult, Sagan. I know precious little."
As Sagan began recounting the origins of the cult, Dragon became more and more enlightened, and eventually he felt that he had known the story all along.
"In its earliest form, the Dragon Cult was meant for the study of philosophy and the martial arts. We were instrumental in the development of several martial arts, including Jujitsu, Karate, and Kobujutsu. The actual date that the Dragon Cult was founded is lost to us, but it was thousands of years ago and the time is not as important as the reason."
"You see, a following had developed in Japan that worshipped the ways of a dark force known as the Wyrm. The Wyrm was thought to be responsible for many of mankind's problems, including Oni and bad weather. Some believed that the Wyrm was a dark god, capable of granting powers to those who would serve it. These "Servants of the Wyrm" began using martial arts and supernatural powers to terrorize Japan and cause widespread chaos. It soon became clear that they were in league with Oni."
"The Sons of the Dragon, as the group fighting the Wyrm had begun calling itself, dedicated itself to fighting the spread of the Wyrm. Eventually, both groups grew and spread beyond Japan. We have been fighting this shadow war ever since, and it continues to this day. As you discovered when you encountered the creature known as Ketsueki."
"Ketsueki," Dragon said. "Was he one of the beasts I fought in the junk yard?"
"Indeed. He is a servant of the Wyrm. But listen. The story is not done yet. As the war grew more broad and each cult gathered more members, the Dragon Cult began to suffer. After all, its members were mere flesh and blood, while for every human follower the Wyrm gathered, an Oni would also appear. The war would have ended badly long before today if not for the Golden Dragons."
"The war was going badly for the cult. There was a sect, and the location of it is unclear, but it was about to be overrun. Then, an old man wandered in from the desert and gave a large red gem to the leader of the cult. The leader was transformed into an enormous Golden Dragon, and he slew the Wyrm's minions with ease. He went on to fight until he passed from this life, at which point the gem was returned to another sect of the cult."
"Whenever the gem was at full power, it would guide the cult to the next Golden Dragon. This tradition continued until the gem fell into your hands, making you the next Golden Dragon. It will continue beyond you."
"Maybe Alex will be the next Golden Dragon," Dragon said.
"No," Sagan said. "Your children will be gifted with some of the power inherent in the gem. That is unavoidable. The gem will not welcome them as a Golden Dragon, although they may become champions of the cult. Their grandchildren will be free of such residual power."
"If my son isn't going to become the next Golden Dragon, what was the old man talking about when he mentioned Alex's destiny?"
"That 'old man' is one of the Great Snakes, the leaders of the Dragon Cult. I am not privy to his thoughts. We must wait until tomorrow. In the meantime, if you need anything, you have but to think it and a cultist will hear you. The Golden Dragon may always summon us." Sagan gestured to a red pendant on his neck. It was a smaller version of the Dragon Gem.
"Thanks, Sagan." Sagan bowed and quietly left the room.
Dragon flopped down onto the bed next to Kim, and it sank in but didn't collapse. "This must be the Golden Dragon's room," he remarked, letting his full weight sink in.
"Wonder how Wildside is doing," he mumbled.
"They're fine, dear," Kim responded. "Get some sleep."
She'd always had good ears. Dragon laid back and closed his eyes.
* * * * *
Ketsueki was furious. He had been stalking the area around the hotel for hours, but Golden Dragon was entirely gone. Not even the mystical senses of the Wyrm's minions could track him. The bastard had to be in the hands of the Dragon Cult now! With a growl of frustration, Ketsueki bent to finish his gory meal in the alley. The young couple had been foolish to answer the squealing dog's cry for help. Still, it provided him with quite a large feast.
"Butcher." The voice came softly from the end of the alley, but it carried a great deal of force behind it. Ketsueki looked up and saw a man blocking the end of the alley, the street lights casting him in silhouette. He was dressed in a black ninja outfit with a black dragon symbol on it. The man's fighting stance was familiar. Ketsueki recognized it as Ryu-Jutsu, the art of the dragon.
"You are of the Dragon Cult. It will be my pleasure to kill you."
"I am no longer of the Dragon Cult," Black Dragon responded. "And it will be my pleasure to watch you try." Black Dragon placed the palms of his hands together, bringing them up to his chest and concentrating.
Ketsueki licked the last of the young couple's blood off his claws and grinned at his adversary. His grin disappeared as Black Dragon issued a loud "kiai!" and the sheer power of his voice slammed into Ketsueki like a rifle shot. The beast was flung against the brick wall of the alley so hard that mortar shook loose.
Ketsueki's counter move was a leap for Black Dragon with his claws, but Motaki nimbly sidestepped and yanked the beast's outstretched arms, throwing him past. He whirled as he threw, watching his opponent fly into the crowded city streets. With a fierce gleam in his eyes, Black Dragon advanced on the creature.
Ketsueki screeched, scattering the people around him. He growled at Black Dragon. "You are my better, ninja. But I choose not to face you."
With that, Ketsueki leaped at a nearby man and clawed his throat out. Then he leapt to the top of a nearby building. Black Dragon was climbing the side immediately, but Ketsueki was long gone by the time he got there.
The creature could avoid him, Motaki knew that. He had chanced upon this encounter only after hearing the screams of the young couple. Actually searching and finding the beast was not something he could do. He was a fair detective when it came to proving the guilt of his victims, but tracking someone was not one of his skills. No, he would need help.
"Golden Dragon," he said. "It seems we will be meeting again sooner than I thought, little brother."
* * * * *
Dragon awoke to the sound of beautiful music. It sounded like a mix of two men and women, singing a song in Japanese. He could hear the backbeat, which sounded like tiny slaps. That's an odd drum, he thought.
His curiosity piqued, Dragon moved to the door of his room and looked out. On a higher level of the sprawling temple, he saw two men and two women fighting each other in what looked like real combat. As he squinted to get a better look, he saw that they were singing as well. The sounds of the drum were actually well-choreographed slaps to various parts of the partner's body. The force being used was real, up until the moment before the blow was struck. Then the blow turned into a light tap.
"It is good to teach the recruits self-control with their abilities."
Dragon jumped as Sagan's voice startled him. "Jesus, don't do that! Damn ninjas." He stumbled back into the room chuckling at his little joke.
Sagan poked his head into the room, a sincerely worried expression on his face. "I did not mean to offend, Golden Dragon. Please give me an opportunity to right this wrong."
Dragon turned around and said, "It was a joke, Sagan. Don't you...oh, right, social mores and customs. Just...don't worry about it."
Sagan gave a half-smile and a shrug and walked into the room. "It is nearly time for your son to speak with the others. They will determine his true path. If he does not agree, nothing will be forced on him."
Alex piped up from his father's side, startling Dragon for the second time in the past twenty seconds. "I want to go see the others, dad."
"Maybe they're right," Dragon muttered, "you do have the making of a ninja."
After taking a luxurious bath in the first and only bathtub ever to fit him, Dragon slipped back into his plain clothes, a trenchcoat and fedora. Sagan looked at him uneasily.
"What's wrong? Food on my tie?"
"The ceremonial robe must be worn for the ceremony, Golden Dragon. I have prepared them." Sagan handed Dragon a bolt of white cloth and a golden cord.
"You've got to be kidding me." Still, Dragon tried the outfit on. It turned out to be a very short white robe, exposing most of his chest and reaching just above his knees. It had a golden dragon design on the back, and the golden cord tied it together like a belt would. To Dragon, it looked like a skirt and vest combo. He felt more naked than he did when he wore his spandex, and that showed off everything he had.
"I like it," Kim said from behind him.
Dragon turned around as he said, "You would. Wow."
His wife was dressed in a midnight blue silk kimono with the symbol of the golden dragon embroidered on the back. She had her brown hair tied up in a bun on the back and was wearing more make-up than she had at Halloween. She looked very different, but still gorgeous.
Alex emerged from another part of the chamber dressed in red robes very similar to Dragon's, except that his were a pants and vest combo, tied with a silver cord. He looked very dignified, and somewhat older, in the outfit.
Sagan clapped furiously. "Now you look the part of the Dragon Cult's champion! Come, let us meet the others."
All told, there were about one hundred cultists, about half male and half female. Most of them were Japanese, although the number of other races surprised Dragon. He was introduced to Sagan's wife, a lovely black woman in her early forties named Lady Kane.
"Where do you recruit from?" Dragon asked.
"Skilled martial artists who wish for more training in control often come to us," Sagan answered. "Those with a pure heart often choose to stay."
After wandering among the group in the common area for about ten minutes, Dragon was called to the front of the area by Sagan and Lady Kane. Alex and Kim accompanied him. The Great Snake was sitting atop his podium, along with four other men who looked very much like him. He started to speak.
"Our champion has returned. He has found his way back onto the path of light, after his brief dalliance with the darkness, and his power and wisdom have grown."
"He has brought with him an heir. Or perhaps two. In time, perhaps all of his children will join the Dragon Cult. But for today, his son, Alexander Stephen Ochiro, has reached the age where training may begin. When the gem returned to our country, we all felt its presence. Perhaps it is fortunate, because the boy is clearly ready to become a man, perhaps a warrior on the level of a Sleeping Dragon."
Four men who had been standing alone looked surprised at this. Each of them had a green dragon tattooed on his face. They began to look at Alex with distaste, as if checking him for defects.
"He has not yet made his decision," the Great Snake continued, "but I ask of all of you, are you ready to accept the boy into the cult? If any of you say no, you must say it now."
The room was silent. The four sleeping dragons shifted a little but made no move to object.
The old man smiled and gazed at the young man. "Alexander, you have a choice to make. You are ready to begin training as a warrior. If you choose to accept this, you must tell me by tomorrow. Go now and discuss this with your parents."
Alex was clearly overwhelmed, but Dragon was surprised to see a look in the boy's eyes. It wasn't fear, or even excitement, but it was mature understanding. He had seen glimpses of that when Alex had used his natural gift for deductive reasoning, but now he saw what Alex might look like as an adult. He knew his responsibility and more than just accepting it, he welcomed it.
Kim, on the other hand, was nearly in tears. Alex reached for her hand and said, "Mom, I want to stay."
The horror on Kim's face told Dragon exactly what she thought of that idea, but her face softened when she looked at her son.
"Dan, we can't let him stay."
Dragon looked in his son's eyes and then at his wife. If he told Kim she was right, it would crush Alex's first mature decision. If he agreed with Alex, it would hurt Kim. But he had to do what was best for Alex.
"Kim, I think Alex knows exactly what he's getting into. He's made a mature decision."
Clearly, Kim did not like this response. She pulled Dragon aside. "He's ten years old!"
"Look at him," Dragon replied softly. She turned and saw her son standing there, gazing at his parents, not pleading, but waiting for their decision. He didn't look like an impulsive child.
"If you're absolutely sure, Alex," she said.
Alex nodded and walked back to the common area. A minute later, there was a loud cheer from the crowd. Kim started crying and buried her head in Dragon's chest.
"I'm going to miss him."
"Me, too," Dragon said, blinking back his own tears, "but I've never been more proud of him."
Sounds of fighting erupted from the common room. Dragon leaped for the area, and his robe flew open. He reddened and changed into costume, flying over the crowd.
"Hold!" The Great Snake's voice rang out with such authority that everyone froze. Dragon saw that Alex was at the Great Snake's side and breathed a sigh of relief. Then he saw that the crowd was in a tight circle around the four unconscious Sleeping Dragons. Standing over them was a solitary figure. He bowed deeply to Dragon.
"Brother. It is no secret to those here that I don't agree with the philosophy of the Dragon Cult. Nevertheless, in this case they will see reason. I need your help to find a killer. A killer from the Cult of the Wyrm."
Dragon floated down to Black Dragon and stared into his eyes. "If I help you find him, we take him in my way. No killing."
Black Dragon sighed and shook his brother's hand. "Agreed."