Dragon had walked for four hours on the ice bridge before he started to really notice the chill, the first time he'd felt a natural temperature since he was a teenager. He pulled his overcoat up around him, but it didn't help much against the biting wind that blew in off the water and carried the cold from the ice he was standing on.
Bad as it was, he couldn't help but admire the view. Now that he was out on the bridge, it looked for all the world as if there were no other land masses. Just an icy span, surrounded by clear blue water. White clouds floated just above the surface, as if they had emerged from beneath the ocean to get a breath of the crisp air.
Dragon thought of using his flight jets, but was afraid of what the exhaust might do to the bridge beneath him. If he landed on a melting spot and somehow dropped or slipped into the water, he would freeze to death before he could climb out. So he stayed, walking in the middle of the huge expanse of ice, enjoying the scenery.
Ten hours later, Dragon's legs were cramped, his lungs were burning from sucking in cold air, and his extremities had lost all feeling. He wanted to lie down and rest, but wasn't sure that he would ever get back up again. He realized with a mixture of anger and regret that he had forgotten all about his human status. He had swaggered onto an expanse of ice, with no idea how long it would take to reach the other side and no preparations for the journey. He hadn't thought about the cold, because he forgot he could get cold. He hadn't thought about how long it might take, because he was used to flying under his own power or in the Vagabond. Most of all, he hadn't thought that something as mundane as nature, even the nature of an alien dimension, could kill the great and powerful Golden Dragon.
"Stupid," he muttered in a hoarse voice. "If anything happens to Kim and Alex, it's all your fault."
The thought of his family kept him moving for another hour, but he finally couldn't go any more. His mind was pushing forward, but his body collapsed onto the ice. His eyes glazed over, watching the stars in the early night sky reflect off the bridge's surface.
Then, in the distance, off on the water, he saw another surface reflecting the light. From here, he couldn't see what it was. He could almost believe it was a ship, and the light was reflecting off a metallic sail.
Dragon pulled himself to his feet and looked out. He activated his flight belt, thinking, "If I'm going to die out here, I might as well die trying to get out of the situation, not slumped over on some bridge."
Minutes later, as the power indicator on his helmet began flashing, in big red letters, that he only had 20% power left, Dragon was reconsidering that decision. But he could see now that he was approaching an unusual water ship. It had two large sails, made of a flexible silver metallic material. There was no one on the steel deck, but green glass windows on the hull of the ship had silhouettes behind them, indicating that it was a passenger ship.
The display in Dragon's helmet shifted, dipping to 18% as he closed in on the ship. By the time the display had reached 12%, he could see the entry hatch on the top deck. But there were no guardrails on the top deck, which was slick and flat. It was clear that people weren't meant to land while it was moving, and it was moving fairly fast.
Dragon matched speed and got right alongside the ship. He was relieved to find a pull handle for the entry hatch. He flew in and grabbed the handle just as the helmet display flashed, "Power at 5%. Shutting down HUD to conserve. Estimate thirty seconds before total power loss."
Dragon's IR Vision went with the heads-up-display. Suddenly he couldn't see, as his eyes weren't adjusted to the darkness. But he felt his right hand gripping the handle and he pulled with all his might. The handle didn't budge. He braced his feet on the deck while pushing off with his last remaining jet power and pulled again.
The hatch came flying open just as the jet power sputtered and died. Dragon was left hanging onto the open hatch, his body leaning on the slick upper deck of the ship. He could feel the tilt of the ship trying to dunk him into the water.
Dragon couldn't find the strength to pull himself up to the opening, now so close it was frustrating. His frostbitten fingers were loosening of their own accord. He brought his left hand up as his right hand slid off, unable to clench together anymore. His left hand began to slip as well.
With one final effort, he pulled himself forward, trying desperately to get inside. He moved about half an inch and then dropped back, panting.
A strong, white furred arm reached from inside the hatch and grabbed his.
"Are ye daft, man?" came a voice, thick with a Scottish brogue. "How badly did ye want aboard this ship?"
Dragon coughed weakly in response as the arm pulled his entire body inside. He heard the hatch slam shut and tried to get his eyes to adjust to the suddenly bright light of the interior. Remembering the dragons' views of humans, he pulled his overcoat up around his face, trying to hide the human shape his helmet had.
He felt himself lifted up, and an arm affixed itself around his shoulders and pretty much dragged him into another room, much warmer than the entry room. He could hear the low buzz of people (no, he thought, not people; dragons) talking. Looking up, he could make out through the haze of pain that he was in the center of a community room. There were about thirty beings here, although none of them looked like dragons.
They were humanoid, but they lacked wings or tails. Instead of scales, they had thick fur covering their entire bodies. They were all very tall, at least ten feet. Dragon looked over at the arm around his shoulders and slurred out, "Oh...they've got big claws too."
He fought the urge to pass out. His companion felt the effort and dragged him back upward as he started to slump.
"Did ye lose your wings?"
Dragon looked around for a minute, searching for the source of the voice. He finally realized it belonged to the giant of a furred dragon that was holding on to him. Dragon stared into the creature's red glowing eyes and managed to say, "What?"
"You're far too small to be one of us, lad. And all the rest of this world has wings, 'cepting of course the Oni. And ye're not one of them."
"I'm a human," Dragon blurted out. He looked around, expecting shock and fear, but was instead greeted with laughter.
"Fine, then, lad, keep your secrets," said his companion. "I'm Alfrenz Gortex. Why don't we get ye to a room?"
Dragon was pretty sure he nodded before passing out.
* * * * *
When he woke up, Dragon was considerably warmer. He was wrapped in a fur blanket, and a blue fire was burning in the center of the room, which had wooden floors. He realized that it must be a magical effect. The rest of the small room was bare, except for the cot he was sitting on. A wooden door was the only entrance.
The door creaked open and in walked the dragon that Dan now recognized as Alfrenz. He was about twelve feet tall, covered with brown and white mottled fur. His pupilless eyes glowed red and they were set just above a black nose and white furred snout very much like a bear's. Although he was fearsome in appearance, there was a certain kindness in his face.
With a start, Dragon reached to his own face and felt that it was uncovered. His helmet, he now realized, was sitting across the room, piled on top of the rest of his gear. The panic must have shown in his eyes, because Alfrenz put both his hands up in a calming gesture.
"It's all right, lad," he said. "No one else but I knows what ye are, and I'm not sure I believe it."
Dragon tried to sit up but was greeted by a burning pain throughout his body. He panted from the effort.
"Easy now, lad," Alfrenz said. "It's a bit of nasty wounds ye got there."
"Just frostbite," Dragon said.
"No," Alfrenz corrected him. "You've got Oni venom in ye. Miracle you survived those wounds. Would've killed most dragons. Not a human, though, I guess."
Dragon let the pain work its way through his system while Alfrenz set down some wooden bowls of broth he had brought in with him. He began spoon-feeding it to Dragon.
"You're not afraid of humans?"
Alfrenz laughed. "Och, lad, I'm afraid ye might faint on me again! That's all I have to fear from ye for at least a few days."
Dragon chuckled in response. "Dan, not lad."
Alfrenz nodded and brought another spoonful of soup to Dragon's mouth. He paused when he went back for another spoonful.
"I am curious, though, as to how and why ye came here."
"Have you ever heard of Okage?"
Those red eyes opened wider, seeming to glow more intently. Dragon read it as a gesture of awe combined with surprise.
"And who hasn't heard of Okage? He's the Dragon Lord who helped drive the Wyrm off the first time. If we still had him, we might not have to deal with so many blasted Oni!"
"You do have him," Dragon said. "I'm here to find him."
Alfrenz brought more soup up to Dragon's mouth. "Were it anyone else, la...Dan, I would think he were mad. From you, it doesn't sound quite as crazy."
Alfrenz stopped for a second and then grabbed another spoonful of soup. "But it's still an odd notion," he finished.
Dragon forced himself into a sitting position. After letting the pain work its way down to a dull throb, he said, "What is it with Okage? What do you know of him?"
"Long ago, before we had names for the years, Okage was the General who held the armies of Dragon against the forces of the Wyrm," Alfrenz said. "He defended the Celestial Chamber in the North from the final onslaught, and he gave his life and soul to prevent the Oni from capturing it. He fought alongside a powerful mage and weakened the Wyrm to such an extent that the foul beast has had to become a politician instead of a conquering warlord."
"Where is this Celestial Chamber?" Dragon asked anxiously.
"It's in the North. People say it's one of the few remaining gateways to the dimensions beyond."
"Describe it," Dragon said. Alfrenz did so, and Dragon quickly realized he was describing the Dragon Temple.
"That's where I came from," Dragon said, finishing his soup. He proceeded to tell Alfrenz the story of the Golden Dragon, based on what he remembered.
When he was done, Alfrenz sat back and muttered, "Now that's a fair tale, Dan."
"I need to regain the power of the Dragon Gem," Dragon said. He pulled the gem from beneath his overcoat and said, "I need to find Okage."
Alfrenz stared at the gem and then at Dragon. "Well, I'm betting that isn't to steal a dragon's soul away, although it looks just like the legends."
"What legends?" Dragon asked.
"Since the gateway was barred by our Archmage a long time ago, humans have come to be no more than a legend. Based on archaeological evidence and mystical theory, many fringe researchers think that men cross the dimensional barrier with ease and use gems like the one you have to steal a dragon's soul, for purposes unknown."
"That's ridiculous," Dragon said. He paused, then added, "Wait. Have you seen other gems like this?"
"Aye. On occasion, when we raid an Oni stronghold, we find no Oni, but instead find blackened gems much like the one you carry. Most hunters believe the Oni use those gems as the gateway to their own, a bridge across the dimensional barrier."
"Alfrenz, I need to speak with the Chancellor of the South. Can you help me?"
"I don't know the man, Dan!" Alfrenz protested.
Dragon's heart sank. That was his best lead on finding Okage thus far. And if he couldn't find Okage, he wouldn't have the power to rescue Kim and Alex. He looked up to see Alfrenz studying him.
"It's your wife and child you're missing, isn't it?"
"You're a good man, Dan. That I can see. And I know how I'd feel if I lost my wife and wee ones. Very well. I'll do my level best to get you to the Chancellor."
"Thank you," Dragon said.
"Enough of that," Alfrenz blustered. He grabbed the empty soup bowl and left the room. "Now get some rest. We'll be landing soon, and you'll need to walk. Gather your strength for that, and I'll try to find ye some warmer gear, since you clearly don't have the proper body for this area."
Dragon chuckled and leaned back, falling into sleep again.
* * * * *
Dragon was awakened by a pile of warm fur being dropped on his chest. He looked up and saw a parka and leather boots sitting on top of him. Alfrenz was standing at the half-opened door.
"Get dressed, lad. Pull the hood up, and I'll get us past the customs inspectors."
Dan did as he was told, finding the parka a suitable fit and the boots warm and dry, if a bit big. He pulled the hood up over his face and yanked the woolen mask it contained down over his features. He was surprised to find it easy to breathe through and even more surprised when the boots seemed to shrink to his feet.
He was still staring at them when Alfrenz walked back in. "Something wrong with the boots, Dan?"
Dragon looked up and was glad Alfrenz couldn't see him blushing. "No, it's just...they're magic, aren't they."
Alfrenz nodded. "It's a minor spell, though. All of your gear, it has the same kind of spells, doesn't it? You can see different things through that helmet, that's got to be magic!"
Dragon started to correct him, remembered the reaction that technology had gotten in the far future, and decided not to chance it. "It's a kind of magic," he admitted. That's true, he thought to himself. "It's just different than the kind you have here."
Satisfied with the explanation, Alfrenz opened the door and motioned Dragon into the hallway. They walked up and out onto the open deck. Most of the other passengers had left by this time, and there was only one other polar dragon waiting for them, dressed in a blue, official looking uniform and tapping his clawed foot impatiently against the deck.
"Let me handle him," Alfrenz whispered. Dragon nodded, shivering slightly. Even if the coat was magic, it still felt like the air was frigid. He wondered how he'd survived the cold as long as he had, unprotected as he had been.
There was a brief exchange, which Dragon couldn't really monitor. But after a few exchanged words and gestures, Alfrenz motioned Dragon to him.
"This is my partner," Alfrenz said, beaming. "Tried out a set of artificial magic wings, that's how he got aboard. Anyway, his name is Dan, he's from the Northern Province. We're Free Traders, going for a load of new skins. Looks like you could use one yourself, Inspector. Don't you think so, Dan?"
"Yes," Dragon said, trying his best to play along. "Maybe we could bring one back this way."
The inspector harrumphed and motioned them down the catwalk. Dragon hurried along, and Alfrenz was right behind him.
"He was a tough one," Alfrenz said. "For a few moments, I thought he wasn't going to let us through."
Dragon looked out at the icy expanse in front of them, seeing nothing but flat ice for miles, and then, in the distance, what looked like frost-covered trees.
"How do those trees retain their leaves in this cold?"
"Their leaves are the cold," Alfrenz answered. "Those are the crystal trees, all made of ice. During the warming periods, their leaves melt off. Some of them just evaporate, some melt into the ground at just the right time to form another tree. Don't worry, we'll get a chance to see them."
Alfrenz climbed aboard a metal sled which looked wide enough for four people, but had two seats filled with furs, camping gear and other accessories. As he climbed in, Dragon asked, "So what are these skins anyway?"
"Oni skins. That's what I trade in, Dan. In fact, that's what's keeping your hide warm right about now."
"Great," Dragon muttered. His voice was lost as a green glow surrounded the sled and they took off across the ice, towards the crystal trees. They rode for a few hours in silence, with Alfrenz allowing Dragon to take in all the scenery they passed. Everything was very similar to a forest environment, except that it was all made of ice. Thankfully, the cold that permeated the atmosphere was warded off by the Oni skins they both wore.
Finally, they reached a small cottage, made of wood and stone. It had two-levels and was shaped like a dome, with ladders reaching up to doors on the second level and no door on the bottom.
"Terya! Children! I'm home!" Alfrenz boomed out. In response, the wooden door at the top swung open and two smaller, moderately furred faces poked out. It looked to Dragon like they were about half the size of their father. Their toothy mouths opened into grins when they saw Alfrenz and they raced down the ladder like monkeys. They launched themselves into their father's arms with an amount of force that would've knocked most people down. Alfrenz just caught them and laughed, planting a kiss on each of their cheeks.
"And I'm glad to see ye as well," he said, chuckling. "Danae, Meran, this is Dan."
One of the children, the girl, tried to peek inside Dan's hood, but he turned his head to prevent it.
"Danae! Respect the man's privacy!" This voice came from the door and belonged to a female dragon, with reddish fur. She climbed the ladder slowly and walked out to greet her husband with a firm hug.
"I'm Terya," she said as she broke the embrace. "I'll be expecting an explanation as to who you are, of course."
Thankfully, Alfrenz interrupted. "There'll be plenty of time for that later. We're hungry now!"
Terya laughed and motioned them both inside. "Well then hurry up and eat before the food gets cold! You're later than you were supposed to be."
Dragon followed Alfrenz up the ladder, and behind him were the two children. He heard the boy mutter to his sister, "Och, Danae, he's shorter than you are!"
The next sound he heard was a slap as the boy's mother swatted his behind. Dragon just climbed up the ladder into the house and ignored it. He'd let Alfrenz tell his wife just exactly what he'd brought into their home.
As it turned out, it wasn't long before Alfrenz revealed his secret. He went into the kitchen with his wife "to help her with the food" and the next sound Dragon heard was a plate crashing to the floor and a gasp. Then Terya's head poked out of the kitchen and looked, with equal measures curiosity and terror, at Dragon. He turned to her with the mask pulled up and flipped the hood back just enough so she could see what he was. He kept his true face concealed from the children.
Terya shuddered and walked back into the kitchen. She emerged a few minutes later with some steaming plates of food. The whole time she was serving, she kept her eyes glued on Dragon. Dan didn't blame her. If he had brought Alfrenz home, Kim wouldn't have been as cordial.
The thought of Kim sparked a painful memory that she was in the hands of the Wyrm. He prayed that she was still alive, and that she was all right. She had to be.
"So, Dan," Terya began, taking a seat. "Alfrenz tells me you'll be heading to see the Chancellor?"
"Yes, as soon as possible," Dragon answered. Better to let her think he was leaving soon. In truth, it was up to Alfrenz when they went.
"We'll leave tomorrow morning," Alfrenz declared. "It's two days travel by sled."
"You could loan him the sled," Terya offered nonchalantly. Dragon knew that tone. That was the "no way in hell are you going anywhere with this strange person" tone. Kim used it a lot.
"Children, go below and practice your magery," Alfrenz said. The children protested but relented and left after their mother admonished them as well.
"No offense to you, Dan," Terya started. "But I don't want my husband traipsing about the Southern Lands with a human!"
"Listen, I'll be fine by myself, Alfrenz..." Dragon began.
"Oh, so that's how it is, eh? I pull ye out of danger, nurse ye back to health, and you bail out on me? Are all humans so fickle?" Alfrenz said. He winked at Dragon.
"No," Dragon stuttered out. "No, I just...I'd love the company. In fact, I have to insist."
Terya stood up and threw her napkin on the table. "Do what you want, Alfrenz. I no longer care." She stomped out of the room and down the stairs in the center of the room into the lower level.
"If that means the same thing as it does in my dimension, you just bought yourself a lot of trouble," Dan said.
"She's just upset now. She'll get over it," Alfrenz answered. "There's no way you'd make it into the Chancellor's home or chamber without a dragon to accompany you. They'd fear you an Oni, or worse, a soul-stealing human! No, I'll go with ye. Besides, I'm not quite ready to settle into the house just yet."
"So when do we leave?" Dragon asked.
"Tomorrow morning. You can sleep in here." Alfrenz pointed to a six foot square of spongy material in one corner of the center room. "I'll wake ye when it's time to go."
As it happened, it was time to go a few hours before Dragon was truly ready. He hadn't realized how tired he still was, even after the forced rest that unconsciousness had brought. Maybe it's side effects of the Oni venom, he thought.
Alfrenz was dressed and ready, waiting for Dragon at the breakfast table. Terya seemed to have forgiven him, as she was serving them both food and she gave Alfrenz a peck on the cheek before returning to bed.
"Are ye alright?" Alfrenz asked Dragon.
Dan realized he had been staring at the two of them. He shook his head and answered, "Yes...yes, I'm fine. It's just..."
"I know," Alfrenz said. "I know."
Nothing more was said as the two of them walked back down to the sled. Dragon had changed his facemask for his helmet and packed his blaster again, now that the power was completely recharged.
They spent the trip on the sled in silence. Dan was lost in his thoughts about Kim, and Alfrenz respected that. They reached a stopping point in a small town and slept there for the night, then continued on the next morning to the Chancellor's home.
His home was set some distance away from the nearest city, just a crystalline structure in the middle of frozen wastes. When they got there, the sun had just dropped from the sky and a single light was burning in the top, casting strange reflected light throughout the structure.
"Ho, there, Chancellor!" Alfrenz called. "I would have words with ye this evening!"
There was no answer for a long time, and then a face appeared behind the ice on the top level. The face was losing it's hair, looking more like a hairy human than a polar dragon. His eyes burned a soft blue.
"I'll see no one this late at night," he croaked. "Go stay in town and I'll see you tomorrow."
"I have a human with me," Alfrenz responded.
The eyes widened in surprise as the Chancellor slumped slightly against the crystal wall. Dragon threw back his hood and took off his helmet.
The light went out abruptly. Dragon looked over at Alfrenz.
"I guess that didn't go so well."
The door to the structure swung open and the old dragon stumbled out, walking quickly with his cane. He found his way through the snow to Dragon and put his hand on Dan's face.
"It's not possible," he said. "A human? Here?"
"He comes from Okage's Temple," Alfrenz said.
"Come in, come in!" the Chancellor cried. "I'm Chancellor Heffinger! Now what can I do for you?"
As they walked inside the house, which was surprisingly warm for an ice structure, Dan answered, "I need to see the Celestial Council."
Heffinger choked a little and said, "I can try my best, but I don't know..."
"And I need to find Okage," Dragon finished.
At that, Heffinger broke out into mocking laughter until it ended in a coughing fit.
"Human, Okage is a myth! Even if he wasn't, he wouldn't be alive today!"
Dragon sat down on a foamy couch and said, "He's alive all right. And he's here. I know that much. You see, I have some of his power."
The Chancellor stopped laughing and looked at Alfrenz. "Is this true? Or is he a madman, and you as well? Illusionists, perhaps, not a human at all?"
"What illusion could stand in your home?" Alfrenz replied. "And how can we judge a human's sanity by our standards? No, he's speaking the truth. Okage is alive and well, in the Dragon Lands."
Heffinger collapsed into a chair which glowed softly and molded to fit his body. Heffinger made a purring sound as the chair's magic comforted his old and worn out body.
"Even if this is true, what have I to gain by sending a human to the Council? He's extradimensional! By all rights, I should call out the hunters right now!"
"He entered through the Temple," Alfrenz protested. "That makes him, as far as the law is concerned, one of us. He's no Oni, be sure of that."
"Am I correct in assuming that humans are feared here?" Dragon asked. Both polar dragons nodded.
"Then what better political gambit than the implied support of the human race? Send me to the Council and I'll tell them that the Southern Lands have my protection and my sworn allegiance. By extension, they'll take that to mean humanity extends that honor."
Heffinger got an evil gleam in his eye. "That might work," he agreed. "But what if it doesn't? What if they declare war on us?"
"I don't believe this!" Alfrenz blustered. "Ye know damn well that there will be no war! No one cares! Either Dan will help your petty little maneuverings or he won't, but it certainly can't hurt you, can it?"
Heffinger looked over at Dragon, who responded with a firm glare. He hoped it still looked at least somewhat intimidating since he didn't have the muscle to back it up anymore.
"Very well," said Heffinger. "I'll send a message to the Council to expect an emissary of the Dragon Okage."