Heffinger's transport was not a sled, but instead a massive ship which cut through the air. Although shaped roughly like the water ship on which Dragon had arrived in the Southern Lands, this ship floated through the air using magical spells to resist gravity. Dan stared up at it in awe. He supposed that to these people (dragons, he thought to himself, not people) this was an established form of travel, no more amazing to them than an airplane would be to him. But airplanes weren't so graceful in appearance or simple in their mechanics.
"She's a fine ship," Heffinger coughed out, coming out of his home. He wrapped a woolen shawl around his stooped shoulders to ward off the chilly morning air. Alfrenz was right behind him, although he had his chest bared to the cold and seemed invigorated by it.
"Aye, Chancellor, she is," Alfrenz agreed, walking close enough to run his hand over the hull. He pulled his hand back abruptly and looked at it as if he had just been stung.
"A splinter?" he exclaimed. "Surely this isn't..."
"Wood," Heffinger cackled gleefully. "It's much lighter and easier to enchant. A tad more expensive, but well worth it."
"You're going to let me fly in this thing?" Dan asked incredulously. "This obviously rare and expensive flying boat?"
"Wind Sail, Dan," Heffinger corrected him. "It's called a Wind Sail, specifically the Nokarii."
At that, Alfrenz laughed out loud. Heffinger cackled along with him. Dragon waited until they were done and looked at them curiously.
"Nokarii is another legend, Dan," Alfrenz explained. "They seem to follow you around. Supposedly he was the last polar dragon to have wings, and there's a myth wherein he competed against the other dragons and proved himself the swiftest."
Heffinger puffed his chest out proudly. "This ship is as fast as its namesake," he boasted.
Alfrenz continued, "But the legend doesn't end there, Chancellor, does it?"
"It does for me, Alfrenz," Heffinger said. "It does for me," he repeated quietly. With that, he walked back into the house.
"What was that all about?" Dragon asked.
"Nokarii proved himself the swiftest and won the honor of fighting the Wyrm," Alfrenz said. He didn't seem willing to continue, but realized that Dragon wasn't going to let him off the hook.
"He won," Alfrenz said. "But the price was the loss of the polar dragon's wings, a loss of part of himself and his people forever more."
Dragon looked over at the house and let out a deep sigh. "Heffinger's a political weasel," he said. "But it does seem he has the heart of a poet."
"Aye," Alfrenz said, grinning. "He keeps it in a jar next to the hands of a musician and the balls of the last dragon that crossed him."
The two of them laughed as they walked back inside to have breakfast.
Heffinger was already finishing his, but he gestured for them to sit down at the wooden table.
"Now, I've sent a homunculous ahead to the Celestial Council to let them know we're coming. They'll gather the rest of the Spiritual Consulate and by the time we get there, you'll have to be ready to give your address," Heffinger said.
"Fine," Dragon said. He'd been rehearsing what he was going to say for a long time, ever since he found out where he was going. "When do we leave?"
"Tonight," Heffinger answered. "Just past the time of the Oni."
Dragon choked on his breakfast meat and said, "Excuse me?"
"The time of the Oni," Alfrenz explained. "Oni are out in force for a short time each night, and after that they retreat to their caves and their lairs for feeding. It's the best time to start a journey."
"Oh," Dragon said. "It's not as bad as it sounds."
"It is if you leave too early," Heffinger muttered.
Alfrenz shifted and said, "I guess we'll be parting ways, Dan. I can't go with ye to the Consulate, much as I would like to. The wife would have my skin hanging next to those I've caught!"
Dragon reached over and shook Alfrenz's hand. "Thanks. For everything, for saving my life, for keeping my secret, for helping a stranger take another step towards finding his family."
"It's the least I could do," Alfrenz answered. "You're a good human, and I'm the better dragon for having known ye."
Alfrenz got up and walked out the door. He stood on his sled, gave one last wave, and disappeared into the icy plains.
Dragon watched from the window for a while, then sat down and finished his meal. He'd need his strength when he got to the Consulate.
True to his word, Heffinger was packed and ready to go that night. He and Dragon didn't speak, they just climbed aboard the Nokarii and flew. Dragon spent his part of the journey staring out the window, marveling at the alien geography. Even during his meals, he would watch for new and interesting things.
When they crossed over onto the water, the scenery pretty much disappeared, but they would occasionally encounter another vessel skimming the waves. All of them were intricately designed and beautiful, some to the point of looking non-functional.
Although he enjoyed seeing all the new wonders around him, Dragon was anxious to reach the Consulate and present his case. With luck, they would help him find Okage and somehow get out of the Dragon Lands, and then he could find Kim and Alex.
When they finally landed in the Eastern Lands, four days later, Dragon nearly ran off the Nokarii. It was much warmer in these lands, although still more like autumn than spring weather. They had stopped at the Southern Consulate, a crystalline building very similar to Heffinger's home. From there, they went in. They were greeted by two polar dragons with most of their hair shaved off (for purposes of remaining cool, Dragon assumed). Dragon was assigned to a guest room and Heffinger went to his own quarters. Minutes later, Dragon was on his way to Heffinger's room.
"When do we see the Spiritual Consulate?" Dragon asked as he reached the door.
Heffinger looked up from his unpacking and muttered, "In due time. Just relax, have a hot meal in the kitchen."
"This isn't a pleasure trip for me, Heffinger. I want to get in as soon as possible."
Heffinger snorted. "It can't even wait until I've unpacked and had a proper meal?"
The look on Dragon's face was his answer. Heffinger flung his clothes down on the floor and said, "Fine. Let's go."
The two of them walked out, past the Nokarii and onto a curved cobblestone street. All around them were blooming trees of red, yellow, white. They reminded Dragon of Japan.
They climbed a hill, unable to see anything but the road ahead and the trees around them. When they reached the top, that all changed.
The hill was actually the outer ridge of a massive crater. Inside the crater was an ampitheatre, built of gray stone. Carvings on the outside with hand-painted detail were obviously flags or symbols of nations. As they walked down towards it, Dragon noted that the walls were painted a slightly different color in five different sections.
"What do the five sections represent?" he asked.
"North, South, East, West...and the Dark Lands."
They entered through an open gate in the Southern section. After climbing a very tall set of stairs, they emerged onto a balcony that overlooked the entire chamber.
Dragons swarmed over the floor, yelping and bellowing and carrying on. It reminded Dan of a nightmarish version of Wall Street. In balconies set at varying heights were two to three dragons, looking down at the proceedings with emotions ranging from amused indifference to fiery rage.
From one of the balconies on the Eastern Lands a voice rang out, so loud that it had to be magically enhanced.
"Halt! A human has come to speak with us!"
The crowd suddenly fell deathly silent, looking all around until all eyes were focused on Dan. And not even half of them were friendly.
He swallowed hard and started to give his speech, but he was interrupted by a gurgling voice from the Dark Lands.
"Objection...Emperor." The words almost visibly dripped poison as the shadowy form that spoke them stepped out onto his balcony. Dragon saw to his horror that it was a completely black version of himself, with red glowing eyes. It smiled a smile that was meant for him and him alone. There was no doubt that this was the Wyrm.
"The Wyrm has an objection?" the Emperor called out. He was doing an excellent job of seeming unfazed. Perhaps he actually was. All that Dragon could think was that this creature was phenomenally powerful and very close to him. Even all the way across the ampitheatre, he could feel its evil.
"We do," the creature answered, moving to the edge of the balcony. It swept its gaze over the gathered dragons. "Humans are extradimensional. Thus, they are banned from the Dragon Lands. Should this human not be murdered just as the Oni are?"
"Your objection is pointless, Wyrm," the Emperor replied. "This human entered through the Celestial Chamber. He is a creature of two worlds."
The Wyrm looked as if he was considering this and then grinned, revealing sharp fangs. Dragon had to stop himself from checking his own teeth to make sure he hadn't grown them. "Well, then, by all means, Golden Dragon, tell us why you entered our lands."
"I'm here to find Okage!" Dragon announced, his voice carrying through the ampitheatre by way of magic. "I need his help to recover my wife and son, stolen by the Wyrm!"
"Prove it," the Wyrm replied. "But there is a larger issue in that statement. Okage has returned to the Dragon Lands, has he, Golden Dragon?"
"He is here," Dan said confidently.
"Did he come with you through the Celestial Chamber?"
"Would I be looking for him if he did?" Dragon asked sarcastically. There were a few nervous laughs from the floor. The Wyrm's smile quieted them.
"Very amusing, Golden Dragon. How does a human know Okage?"
Dragon began to get nervous. The Wyrm was working towards something. Dan hesitated before answering. "I...I met him about a year ago, when one of your Oni tried to kill me."
"I have no Oni, Golden Dragon. In the Dragon Lands, you must prove your accusations. I await your apology."
Dragon spat back, "You're going to be waiting a long time, you son of a..."
He was interrupted by a hand on his shoulder. It was Heffinger. "He's right, human. You owe him an apology."
"Like hell!" Dragon responded.
"Think, human! Do you want to apologize and get what you want, or do you want to keep your pride and lose your goal?"
Dan let his anger subside. He felt a little ashamed for letting it surface again in the first place.
"I apologize," he said quietly.
"That's better," the Wyrm replied. Dragon took this moment to notice that no one else, not even the Emperor, was speaking anymore. They were watching this exchange. "Now, I believe you said you met Okage? Where?"
"On Earth. Oh, shit." The last escaped him before he could stop it, as he realized where the Wyrm was going with this.
"Indeed," the Wyrm said. "Okage has been on Earth. He returned through the barrier. According to your own laws, he must be hunted down..." The creature paused and stared straight at Dan. "...and destroyed."
The silence in the ampitheatre ended. Clearly, Okage still had a good reputation in the Dragon Lands. The voices were outraged, calling the Wyrm insane, vengeful, and spiteful. All of which was true.
"These are not my laws!" The Wyrm cried out. "If you refuse to obey your own laws, I don't see why I should. Unless Okage is subject to the same laws as Oni, I can't in good conscience continue to support you in your extermination of them. I'd have to change my approach to the Oni. And that would result in a flooding of this dimension. Now none of us wants that, do we?"
The voices rose again, intimidated and angry at the Wyrm's threat. Finally, the Emperor's voice rose above the others.
"The Wyrm is right. I have no choice but to place the sentence of destruction on Okage. We will put it to a vote by the Council. I trust we all know the penalties for failing to ratify this?"
Around the ampitheatre, the dragons in the highest balconies nodded or answered affirmatively. Not a shadow war, but an open war with the Oni. A war they would win, but at a terrible cost.
"Then we vote," he continued. "Those who wish to ratify will raise their arms now."
Dragon was crushed, but not surprised, to note that the vote was unanimous. All of the Chancellors, even Heffinger, standing right next to him, had their arms in the air.
"How could you?" he hissed.
"The vote was decided when the Wyrm made his threat. I merely keep my political future alive."
"Excellent!" the Wyrm cried. "I'll begin forming hunting parties."
"The hunting parties will be made up of dragons from the Eastern Lands," the Emperor said. "You shall not participate."
"As you wish," the Wyrm said. "I will of course want proof of his destruction."
The Emperor nodded. "Now, if we may move on to the next order of business..."
"Wait a minute!" Dragon yelled. "I want in on this!"
"What are you doing?" Heffinger asked. "You'll embarrass both of us!"
"I'm doing what's right, you political weasel. Now shut up or I'll twist your furry little head right off your neck."
Dragon realized as he uttered the threat that he had no way to follow up on it. Luckily, Heffinger backed down.
"Curious," the Emperor said. "What do you mean, human?"
"I mean that if Okage will be destroyed, I want to be in one of the hunting parties. At least let me see him before he dies."
The Emperor gave it consideration. Dragon expected the Wyrm to say something, but he didn't. He just smiled.
"Very well," the Emperor said a few minutes later. "You shall be included."
Dragon gave a bow, hoping that it was a token of respect. A purplish energy glowed behind him and solidified into a piece of parchment which dropped into his hands. It read, "Report to my chambers after the session is concluded. Heffinger will direct you. -The Emperor Hosagi."
"Where are the Emperor's chambers?" Dragon asked Heffinger. "It seems I've got an appointment."
"I'll go with you," Heffinger said. "I can help."
"You've done plenty," Dragon retorted. Heffinger shrugged and pointed down the corridor.
Dragon walked down the corridor. He knew that the session wouldn't end for a little while, but he could use the time alone to think about what he was going to do. He hadn't seen this coming.
He walked down the corridor and followed it all the way around the building until he came to a double doorway with two sword-wielding armored dragons. These were obviously Eastern dragons, each about twelve feet tall with glistening green scales. They looked like giant cobras, with their hoods spread out around their unarmored heads. Their short arms were also not armored, but held oddly weighted swords designed for their body types.
"Are these the Emperor's chambers?" Dragon asked.
They stared at him. One of them nodded.
"I'm, uh, here to see him."
"He is in session," one of them rumbled. "You'll wait here."
Dragon saw no point to arguing. He just took a seat on the floor and tried to slip into meditation. Ever since the Teacher had taught him that, he'd found it ideal for focusing on the problem at hand.
He was so focused that he didn't realize immediately when the Emperor arrived. The Emperor was about nine feet tall, stooped over so that he looked like a bent pipe cleaner. His golden scales were tarnished with age and his leathery wings looked very frail, not like the strong and muscular wings of his bodyguards. Still, he managed to look dignified, if physically weak.
"Come in, human," he said, gesturing from inside the now-open doors. "We must discuss what you have caused."
"I'm sorry," Dragon began as the doors closed behind him. "I didn't know what to expect, I just..."
The Emperor cut him off with a wave of his arm. "It doesn't matter what you expected. What do you want?"
"I want Okage, alive and well. I need his power and I need to make sure that he is all right."
"Yet you have agreed to join one of the hunting parties. You have no intention of letting us destroy him, do you?"
"No," Dragon admitted. "I don't think you do, either. That's why you asked me here, didn't you?"
The Emperor nodded while pouring himself a glass of yellow liquid. He offered one to Dan, who declined, and then said, "Yes. Okage is a legend and inspiration for our people. I'll not have him killed. However, the Wyrm's threat is real. He would indeed release enough Oni into the Dragon Lands to cause a war. And in the end, we would win. The Wyrm would in all likelihood be destroyed as a result. But the cost is far too high. If Okage is to survive, it must not be here. Do you understand?"
"No," Dragon said. "I'm afraid I don't. Is there a way out of the dimension that you know of?"
"You carry it with you," the Emperor said. "The thing you call the Dragon Gem is your travel device."
"I have no idea what that means," Dragon said. "And how did you know I had it?"
"We have magical detection in this room. Even though it has no power, it is still magical. As is your sword. But not the other weapons you carry with you. Most curious to me."
"It's not something I care to go into right now," Dragon said. "How do I use the gem to get us out? I don't know how."
"Okage will know," the Emperor said. "Once you find him, he will be able to get you both out. But you will then be declared a fugitive, and neither of you will be allowed in the Dragon Lands again."
"That's fine with me, but I'll have to find Okage first. What guarantee do I have that a hunting party won't find him first?"
The Emperor dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand. "Already taken care of. You will have a hunting party of four dragons, one of whom is our best tracker. It will look as though you have agreed to hunt Okage. When you find him, you will run."
After a pause, the Emperor said, "Do not harm any dragons in your attempt to escape. That would put me in a very bad position."
"Agreed," Dragon said. "Where's my hunting party?"
"They are waiting outside for you. You leave whenever you are ready."
Dragon bowed and walked out. "Then I'll say good bye and thank you. I'm ready to leave right now."