There were two soft pings as the bullets left the silenced pistol. Dave and Sari watched as two bullets struck the ambassador's forehead. The ambassador fell back behind his desk.
Durant turned his pistol on Dave. "Au Revoir, witness."
"Hold it," came a voice from behind the desk. Durant turned and saw the ambassador standing up and brushing himself off. In his forehead there were two metal spots. He closed his hand into a fist and his forehead popped the two flattened bullets out onto the desk. Durant and Sari watched in amazement. Dave grinned.
The ambassador shifted form as they watched. His clothes melted and his features drained away, leaving a seven-foot metallic form clad in red. He had two small dents in his forehead which quickly reformed into its natural shape.
"Nice going, Colonial, Dave said. "Care to surrender now, dirtbag?" He directed this comment at Durant.
"No," Durant said. "You've ruined everything!" His form began to shift as well. His uniform faded, to be replaced by a furred humanoid with claws and teeth. He snarled and lunged across the room.
Sari tried to bring her pistol up, but she wasn't even close to being fast enough. Before anyone else could react, the creature swung its claws through her throat. Sari's scream died as her air supply was cut off, and she dropped, lifeless, to the carpet. The beast howled savagely and turned his eyes towards Dave.
Dave fired, but the bullet struck the creature in the chest with no effect. The creature simply shrugged it off and leaped for Dave. He was intercepted by Colonial's metallic arm, stretching out to catch him by the neck. Colonial redirected the beast towards the opposite wall.
The beast recovered, swinging his feet under him and kicking off the wall to return towards Colonial. He stared at the robot and snapped his clawed front leg out, hitting Colonial in the head.
Colonial went down, his artificial brain shaken by the blow to the head. The assassin was surprised to bounce off and land clumsily on his back. For all the apparent damage his kick had done, the robot hadn't moved an inch except to fall in the exact same spot.
Dave took advantage of the beast's momentary distraction to open the door and look outside. There were two UNTIL agents outside the door, and when Dave poked his head out, they said, "What the hell? Durant, what's going on in there?"
The agents pulled their blasters about the time Dave was realizing that they were in on it. He grabbed one of the guards' weapon arms and used his judo training to throw him into the room, hitting the creature.
The creature, who seemed to be in a blood rage of some sort, reacted to what he thought was an attack by clawing the helpless guard. Fortunately, the body armor the guard was wearing prevented a fatal wound. There was a blaster shot in the hallway and a cry of pain as the creature raised his arm for another strike.
He was blown back into the wall as a blaster shot hit him. He looked up to see Dave holding a smoking blaster on him. In the hallway, the other UNTIL agent was holding onto his wounded foot and whimpering. There was a smoking hole in the bottom of his holster.
"Not everybody can fast-draw without blowing their own foot off," Dave quipped, firing again. The creature was pushed against the wall again, but this time it pushed forward, ignoring the blast. It leaped for Dave and took another swing. Dave dove into and under the claws, rolling across the floor and coming up with the blaster.
Dave looked to his left and saw Colonial lying behind the desk. He motioned for Dave to come behind the desk. Dave crawled behind it.
"Dave," Colonial whispered, his voice breaking up with occasional static, "Fire again and bring him over here. I'll take him."
As Dave watched, Colonial's size increased, his metallic arms and legs increasing in musculature.
The creature slowly stalked back into the room, sniffing at the air. It strode purposefully towards the desk and leaned over the edge, raising its clawed hand high over its head.
"Surprise," Dave said, firing the blaster point blank. The creature was ready and dodged, leaping over the desk and on top of Colonial. Distracted by his fury at Dave, he didn't notice that his perch was moving.
Colonial swung with all his might, connecting to the creature's midsection. There was the sound of cracking bone as the creature went flying upwards and out through the ceiling. He arced out past the hole and into the city streets.
Colonial leaped up through the hole after him. "I hope I haven't killed him!" he yelled.
Dave had just finished tying up the two UNTIL conspirators when Colonial returned. "He was gone," Colonial said.
"If he calmed down, he could have become anyone he wanted to and wandered away with the crowd," Dave said.
Dave looked over at Sari, lying lifeless on the floor. Her eyes still held her final expression of terror. Dave walked over and closed her eyes.
"I did not act fast enough," Colonial said.
"Hey," Dave responded, "neither of us did."
"You are only human," Colonial responded. "I am a very powerful robot, with a directive to protect all human life."
"You protected the ambassador," Dave said. "The assassin got away, but his conspirators are in custody. He can't pull this again for a long time, and whoever hired him won't be too happy. Dragon would thank you, if he were here."
Colonial thought for a second. "Tell him I am glad his plan worked, although I am sorry that we could not protect Sari. I must go, Captain Hunter. I have a great deal to think about."
"Well, let me give you a lift," Dave responded. "It's the least I can do."
* * * * *
In the hour that Dragon had before DEMON warriors returned for him, he was unable to enter any kind of productive conversation with the Great Snake. Apparently, the Great Snake had convinced himself that Golden Dragon was a trick by DEMON cooked up to get him to reveal the location of the Dragon Gem. The only thing he had learned was that his name was Akado Nakatishi.
DEMON returned for him, but Kentaro was not with them. In his place was a dark woman, flanked by six well-muscled tribal warriors.
When the woman came in, it was obvious to Dragon that she was the leader. She had dark black skin and an evil glint in her emerald eyes. Her long black hair hung in knots to her waist. Bones and sticks were tied into the knots. She had an almost supernatural beauty to her, and an equally commanding presence. The other warriors didn't meet her gaze.
She looked at Golden Dragon briefly. "Bring them both. I want the other to witness his champion's end before he dies as well."
There was a flash of momentary indecision in Akado's eyes, but they quickly returned to the dull glaze that Dragon had seen when he first met the man. The warriors dragged him to his feet. Even with four of them, however, they could not budge Dragon against his wishes. Dragon didn't physically resist, he just made no effort to lighten himself or get up.
The woman solved her problem by walking over to Akado and holding up his arm. She put her knife to his wrist and held the hand tightly. "Get up or I will cut his hand off."
Dragon stood up, trying his best to focus his considerable presence into looking intimidating. In one measure, he succeeded, because Akado's eyes lost their glazed look and took on one of awe and then determination.
"You are the Golden Dragon," he said.
Now he decides this, Dragon thought as they were led down the mountain to the camp below.
The camp was set up differently. Tents were dismantled, and the only unnatural thing there was a huge ten foot stone slab set up vertically. It had leather straps, four in all, two on the top, two on the bottom. Lying in the ground in front of it was the de-powered Dragon Gem.
Dragon was led to the slab and strapped in. The bindings he had been wearing were taken off, but the leather or stone was apparently enchanted the same way, because when they bound his arms and legs up he couldn't move.
Dragon stared at the gem, now just another dull rock. Ten forms emerged from the woods, all dressed in ceremonial black DEMON robes. Thirty tribal warriors also stepped out of the woods, each carrying a long wooden stick. One of them, decorated with a headdress and chestpiece, was carrying a stone basin. He set the basin down next to the gem and bowed over it, placing his head above the gem.
The woman came up behind him and produced her dagger. Dragon yelled and looked at Akado, but saw that he was now being held by two tribal warriors who held spears to his side.
It was over in a second. The woman grabbed the tribal warrior's head, jerked back, and cut his throat, letting the blood flow into the basin. When the flow slowed and then stopped, she let the body drop to the side and picked up the basin. She tilted it to her lips and drank until it was empty. When she spoke, her voice had a horrible bass echo to it. She was speaking some ancient tongue, probably long dead. As she did so, the gem flickered briefly.
Four of the men in ceremonial robes came forward, each carrying a foot-long metal pin. They stepped over to Dragon. The first put the pin into his left wrist, pushing it through his skin and out the other side. Dragon screamed in agony as the pin went through his skin and into the rock. Somehow it penetrated, going through until the entire foot length of the pin had gone through his arm. The ritual was repeated until both ankles and wrists were pinned to the slab.
The woman stepped forward, still speaking in tongues, and unwrapped the leather straps, letting Dragon hang only by the pins in his body. She leaned forward and kissed him. He found himself unable to resist, and tasted the coppery blood in his mouth. To his horror, he realized that she was transferring some of the blood to him. To emphasize the point, she licked both sides of his face, painting stripes of blood on his cheeks.
She turned and walked over to the gem, then made a variety of gestures over it. It began to glow and Dragon felt as though he had been turned inside out. The pain of the four pins disappeared as true agony ran through him in waves. He lost track of what had been happening and when he regained awareness ten seconds later, he was still screaming.
He was also shrinking. He was down to seven feet, and he saw that the pins were not moving. They had torn their way up into his hands and he now had gashes running from his wrist to the center of his hands. The gem was glowing, but it was glowing black instead of red. It gave off an unholy light, a light that should not exist in nature.
Dragon desperately looked at Akado. Akado moved. He dropped to the ground and the DEMON warrior's instinctive spear thrusts missed, striking empty air. Akado was not extremely quick, but he moved with a grace that made it look like the fight was perfectly choreographed, and he knew the next moves before the warriors made them.
Fortunately, the others were too caught up in the ceremony to react. Dragon tried to pull his hand down through the pin, but the pain was too great, and he couldn't make himself do it. When he tried to pull it off through the hole that was already there, some unseen force held it there.
"Pour your power willingly into the gem," Akado yelled, swinging a kick into one of the warrior's ribs, "It is the only way to prevent its total corruption!"
The warrior went down under the force of the blow. Dragon focused his will on shooting the energy out of him, instead of holding it in. At first, nothing changed, but slowly a feeling of warmth enveloped him, soothing the pain. Then a visible red bolt shot from his body into the gem, battling with the blackness inside it.
Now the others began to take notice. The woman screamed something, and her warriors moved in on Akado. Her concentration diverted from the spell, however, and Dragon was able to pour all of his energy into the gem. He fell flat onto the ground as the pins mysteriously released. His hands and wrists were healed, and there weren't even any holes on his arms or legs. He was, however, the normal man that he had been when Black Dragon had cost him the power earlier in the year.
Akado didn't try to fight his way through the warriors, he just went with the flow, ducking blows and blocking until he was in reach of the gem. He touched the gem, now glowing bright red, and a golden circle appeared next to Dragon.
"Golden Dragon," he said, "that will take you to the Temple. Go."
"Not without you," Dragon said. He dove into the crowd, grabbing Akado by the scruff of his neck. Several blows fell upon him from the wooden sticks that each warrior carried, but Dragon shook them off and dragged Akado back with him. He would never know where he found the strength, but somehow he managed to grab the gem as well and get them all into the circle of light. There was a bright flash and he fell unconscious.