When Dragon woke up, he heard a strange music all around him. It sounded like singing in Japanese, with odd percussion. The music was not unfamiliar. He had heard it once before.
He opened his eyes, and sure enough, he was in the temple of the Dragon Cult. But things had changed since his last visit. His quarters had been very palatial and lush when last he was here. Now, the furniture was broken, the art on the walls was defaced, and an entire section of the room was covered in debris.
Shifting himself out of bed (an act which took extreme willpower and concentration), he walked to where a heavy door had once hung. It was now covered with a cloth to provide privacy, but the door lay to one side, ripped off its hinges during the attack. Next to the cloth there hung a broken mirror. Dragon looked into it and his reflection startled him.
He was normal. Thankfully, his body was still in peak physical shape due to the training that Black Dragon from Back World had put it through when he possessed the body, but he could feel that all the gem's power was gone from him. He was dressed in the same clothes as everyone else in the cult, a white tunic and white pants with a golden dragon embroidered on the back. He did a quick check on his hands and saw that there was no physical damage. Apparently, that had been some kind of magical illusion.
Dragon pulled the cloth aside and looked out into the temple. It was a huge building, with ledges up above and below the main level, seemingly endlessly expanding. Now, several of the ledges were gone, only shattered rock showing that they had ever been there at all. The steps that he had climbed when Alex had been accepted into the Dragon Cult were defaced with bloodstains and claw marks. And at the top of the steps, the throne of the Great Snake had been replaced by a simple stone chair. The only people Dragon could immediately see were the warriors practicing on the main level. There were about twenty of them. When one of them saw Dragon, he pointed and yelled out in Japanese, "Great Snake! The champion is awake!"
Some champion I am, Dragon thought. I let this happen to the cult. He shook away such self-defeating thoughts and started to climb down towards the main level, picking his way among the rubble. He was met halfway there by Akado Nakatishi.
"It was worse than I feared," he said. "The Wyrm's attack destroyed over half our forces, and the Black Dragon swooped in and recruited almost fifty of those who remained."
"Oh my God," Dragon said. "Where's Sagan?"
Akado cocked his head. "I know of him, but I haven't seen him in the temple. Perhaps someone else would know better. I have very little information."
As they walked down to the group, Dragon said, "So tell me what you do know. I found out about the attack after it had happened."
"The Great Snakes, as you may or may not know, depended a great deal on Okage's residual power to retard our aging. We, more than anyone else, felt his power leave the dimension. Only later did I learn why. But six of the eight Great Snakes died instantly, of extreme old age."
"Immediately after the deaths of the Great Snakes, the Wyrm struck. Its changelings had infiltrated the cult some time ago, and I can only imagine that its mystical senses knew something like this would happen, because it was ready for us. They opened wide dimensional gates and flooded the temple with minions of the Wyrm. A great battle began."
"Fortunately for me, I have lived a great deal of my life outside the temple walls. I enjoy traveling the Earth, and have much knowledge of the geography of the planet. I took the Dragon Gem from its resting place and fled using a dimensional gateway. Since then, I have been on the run."
They reached the group of warriors, who fell into lines and bowed to the Great Snake and to Dragon. Dragon stepped forward.
"What has happened to Sagan? And Lady Kane, his wife?"
One of the women, a young blonde, stepped forward. "Sagan and Lady Kane perished defending the temple, champion. Sagan left a message for you, if you ever returned."
The woman handed Dragon a scroll, rolled with red ribbon and sealed with a wax imprinted with a dragon's head. He accepted it, unable to believe what he had heard. Sagan dead? He had only met him once, but Sagan had struck him as an honorable man. The two had formed a bond that could well have grown into a true friendship.
Dragon opened the scroll. He read the Japanese characters quietly as the fighting resumed around him.
"Golden Dragon, It is my fervent belief that this battle shall be my last. And although I have asked my wife to flee, I know that she will not. My concern is not for us, nor for the Dragon Cult. We will sacrifice ourselves, and I know that the cult shall survive, as it always has. My concern is for my daughter, Cheyenne. She is newborn, only a month old. Although we have met but once, I feel that I can trust you to take care of her. I have trained a great deal with your son, Alex, and he regards you as a very good parent. I ask that you raise Cheyenne as you did Alex, but within the Dragon Cult. I wish I could ask you in person. Farewell, and perhaps we will meet in another life. Sagan."
Dragon called out to the young woman. "Where is Cheyenne?"
He was guided into a room that had been the nursery. There were about ten babies here, being cared for by one older woman. It was apparent that the Wyrm's attack had taken not only some of the babies, but their protectors as well.
"Cheyenne," Dragon said, looking down at the baby girl. "I guess you're my responsibility now."
"Akado," Dragon said, knowing that the Great Snake was still with him, "where do we go from here? We need to rebuild, and I need to find the Sleeping Dragons and my wife and children. How do we start?"
"We begin by bringing home the Teacher. Where is he?"
Dragon looked a little ashamed. "Oh, I forgot. He's probably still in Chicago. Can you open another gateway?"
Akado nodded. "There is very little power left in the gem. I can open one, perhaps two more portals to Earth before it is gone."
"Then I'll have to go to Chicago personally and pick the Teacher up. I need to make radio contact with Dave and make sure my Earthly obligations are met before I go about locking myself here for a while. We are, I assume, in another dimension?"
"Yes. The Dragon Lands. Somewhere, beyond these walls, Okage is watching us."
"Hold it," Dragon said. "If Okage is just outside the temple walls, why can't he reenter and energize the gem?"
"Okage cannot exist in his physical form in any dimension but the Dragon Lands. When he does, it causes a great magical imbalance. You saw a bit of that in Back World when he manifested there to empower you. Did you not notice the display in the sky?"
"I thought it was the Black Dragon fighting him."
"No. The very dimension was fighting him. To exist in this temple, which is a go-between for our world and the Dragon Lands, he must exist only as raw power, contained within the gem."
"I need to think about this. Use the gem's power to open a gateway to the Teacher."
Akado produced the Dragon Gem from within the folds of his robe. It now glowed a dim red, and as he concentrated, its glow flickered, like a candle flame in a strong wind.
Slowly, a golden circle began to form. It opened into an alleyway. Dragon stepped through it and called back, "How long can you keep this open?"
"No longer than a minute. Is the Teacher nearby?"
Dragon looked up and around the alley. He saw the Teacher standing near a dumpster, looking at it with amusement.
"Dumpster telling jokes?" he asked.
The Teacher looked up and bowed. "No, Golden Dragon. It is something else which makes me happy."
Dragon walked over to the Teacher and looked down. There was an alley cat rolling and purring, playing with a lizard-like baby.
"Mary!" Dragon picked her up and held her close. As he picked her up, he felt a warmth spread through him. A second later, a thought, in an unfamiliar voice, echoed in his mind. "Dada?"
Dragon was so surprised he nearly dropped her. He looked at the Teacher. "Did you hear that?"
"I heard nothing, Golden Dragon."
"Dada." Mary looked into Dragon's eyes, and there was no doubt that she was sending him the thought. He talked back to her.
"That's right, baby, daddy's here. Teacher, how did you find her?"
"Ketsueki lied to you, Golden Dragon. He never had Mary. Perhaps he does not have Kim, although who can be sure?"
"Teacher, you and Mary have to go through the portal to the cult. I have some business to take care of. Give me two hours and then open another portal to Homestead. I'll be ready to leave then."
The Teacher nodded, picked up Mary, and walked through the gateway. It closed, and Dragon stood alone in the alley. He tapped his communicator. "Dave, this is Dragon. What's the progress?"
"Dragon? Where are you? I just dropped Colonial off in Philadelphia, and I was going to go back to Egypt and wait for you."
"Don't. I'm in Chicago. Home in and come get me. I assume we caught our assassin?"
"Sort of. It's a long story. I'll pick you up."
The Vagabond arrived minutes later and Dragon was beamed on board. He gave directions to go to Homestead, and on the way, Dave and Dragon exchanged stories. When they got to Homestead, Dave offered to beam Dragon down.
"Aren't you coming?" Dragon asked.
"I've got some things left to sort out in Egypt, like Sari's funeral. I liked her, Dragon. She deserved better. Then I'll come back and get you."
"Actually, Dave, don't come back for me. I'm going back to the Dragon Cult. And it's going to be for a while. So, if you want my advice, come back for Wildside. They'll need you. And thanks for everything."
Dave beamed Dragon down. Dragon stood on the front lawn of Homestead and watched the Vagabond disappear in the distance. After a few minutes of staring off after it, he walked up to the front gate and rang the bell.
James answered the door. He looked extremely surprised to see Dragon. He looked even more surprised at Dragon's new appearance.
"Hi, James. Is Eddie here? I have some bad news for him."
James invited Dragon in. "Actually, Dragon, he's not real talkative right now. They've got him at the Center for Disease Control."
"Why, what's going on?"
James explained all about the case that Wildside had taken on. All about the King of Clubs, and a genetic virus, and how Wildside was investigating. He told him that right now, Rose and the two new members, Raven and Nocturne, were out investigating.
"I just wanted to tell him that I'm not going to be able to make the wedding. I'm going to be out of dimension for a while, trying to find a way to get my powers back. And I had a favor to ask, too, but I don't really know if anyone on this new team is going to want to help me."
"What about Rose?" James asked.
"I'm not real sure where I stand with Rose right now. I delivered her into the hands of Black Dragon, and from what I've heard from you and Solitaire in your letters, she didn't do real well with him. No, this is something I should handle on my own, I guess."
James seemed unconvinced, but he let it go. "So when should we expect you back? And how can we contact you?"
"You can't. And I don't know when to expect me back. All I know is, this little trip is my only hope of getting my powers, my family, and the Dragon Cult back."
"Let's go talk to Elaine. Maybe she can figure something else out."
Dragon and James were still trying to figure something out when the dimensional gateway opened in Elaine's room. "Sorry, Dragon," Elaine said. "Your power was stolen by a powerful ritual. You were right. You'll have to go to the source to get it back."
"Take this," Defender said, handing Dragon a large metal box. "It has some various gadgets that might help you on your trip."
"Thanks, both of you," Dragon said. "I'll see you when I get back."
With that, he stepped into the gateway and back into the temple. He looked at Akado, who was holding the gem, and watched as the gem's glow flickered and died once again.
"That is all," Akado said. "Every last vestige of Okage's power now rests with him in the Dragon Lands."
"Then that's where I'm going," Dragon said. He took the Dragon Gem from Akado and tucked it into the place in his belt where it had once belonged. Then he walked to his room and began to prepare for the journey.
Defender knew how to travel. He had provided Dragon with a concealable suit of armor, much like the one he had made for Kim, that could be worn under normal clothes. There was a jet belt that, according to the handwritten note attached to it, would provide "limited flight capabilities with an unlimited fuel source." There was a helmet, shaped like that worn on the Defender armor but spray-painted gold and black to match Dragon's usual colors. When he put it on, he could see various sensory capabilities as well as limited life support. Finally, there was a small blaster pistol which fit into a holster attached to the jet belt. In addition, various other belts designed to fit over Dragon's costume had hooks and pouches to accommodate whatever other equipment he was going to carry.
Dragon got dressed in all the equipment and picked up his sword. It was extremely heavy, but he still had the strength to wield it. He slipped it into a sheath on his back. When he walked out into the temple, a cheer went up. Akado and the Teacher had assembled the remaining members of the cult to see him off.
Dragon walked through their ranks, seeing the hope in their eyes. He was doing this not just for himself or for his family, but for the very survival of this cult, which had already lasted for centuries. He walked until he reached a large gold door with steel handles. He gripped the handles and pulled the door open, stepping out into the Dragon Lands.