Dragon was at the center of his four-dragon hunting party. In the lead was Rhiann, an eastern dragon with white scales and a nose for tracking. She had lead them across the lower parts of the Kirange mountains, and if the rest of the party was to be believed, it had taken them half the time it normally took.
Dragon was trailing about thirty feet behind her. Following up the rear were Shikan, another Eastern dragon whose special talent was devastating accuracy with a magical bow that he carried. Behind them were a Northern dragon, Guere, who carried a poleaxe and wore heavy plated armor and a polar dragon, Yeraz, who carried no weapons or armor, but wore only his brown shaggy fur.
Rhiann had reached a lookout point from which they could see a bit more of the mountains. She held up her hand to indicate that the rest of the party should stay still. Her eyes narrowed as she looked out over the valley, looking for any possible trouble.
Finally, she waved her hands and the rest of the party caught up with her.
"Okage's been here," she said. "I still have a bit of his scent, although it must have been a while ago. Unless I'm wrong, this is pretty close to his arrival point. But I haven't seen any indications of dimensional entry yet."
Dragon doubled over suddenly, seized with incredible pain. He closed his eyes and when he opened them, the others were gone and the sky was lit with a multicolored display. Then the sky split open, and it looked like it was raining pure white light. When it ended, Okage was lying in the snow, unconscious.
Dan shook his head and saw that the rest of the party was staring at him.
"What in Tyrannon's Bowels was that?" Guere asked.
"I'm not sure," Dragon answered. "I think I just saw a flashback of Okage's entry. I have no idea how or why, though."
After a moment, Shikan offered, "He has a connection with Okage. I say we take it on faith that this was where the prey landed."
They all grunted in agreement. Rhiann moved on, getting ahead of the party again. She descended into the snow-covered valley, disappearing into the cover of trees. Dragon looked around them. There were roughly ten different peaks, with caves in each one. Okage could be in any one of them. Or he could be somewhere else entirely. Somewhere closer to another party.
Shikan unslung his bow and started charging down the hill, towards the trees. Dragon ran after him, yelling, "What's going on?"
"Something's wrong!" he yelled back. "I can feel it!"
Dragon shrugged and followed, backed up by Guere and Yeraz. When they reached the forest, they heard sounds of fighting. Rhiann was yelling battle cries and they could hear her double-bladed axe hitting something solid in the distance. As they got closer, Dragon heard hissing.
When they reached a clearing, they saw Rhiann, surrounded by six Oni. The Oni were pig-faced, with oversized humanoid bodies. Each of their four arms was tipped not with a hand, but with a single spike. Some of them were bleeding black ooze where Rhiann had cut them.
Arrows streaked into one of the creatures as Shikan opened fire. Dragon pulled out his sword and charged at the Oni which were hit.
"Go for the wounded ones and finish them off! Then take out the fresh ones!" Dragon yelled.
He slashed his sword at the nearest Oni, but it dodged at the last second, hissing and spitting at him. Guere moved in close enough to split one of the wounded Oni in two with his pole-axe. His reward was a close shave with one of the unwounded one's spikes. Yeraz grabbed the attacking creatures arms and pushed them away before they could hit Guere.
Rhiann swung wildly at the Oni encircling her. Dragon activated his flight jets and picked her up, flying her out of the center of the ring. When he landed on the other side, he motioned for her to go right as he went left. He yelled to Guere and Yeraz, "Surround them and finish them off!"
The Oni began to charge, but two were cut down by Shikan's arrows. One of those remaining fell to Dragon's sword and Rhiann's axe. The other two closed with Guere and Yeraz, impaling themselves on the outstretched weapons of their opponents but successfully striking Yeraz with four spikes. Yeraz dropped to the ground with the bleeding holes in his chest hissing and smoking from the Oni venom. Dragon ran over to him and was soon joined by the rest of the party.
"Forget him, Dan," Rhiann said. "He was dead when those spikes hit him."
Shikan reached down and closed Yeraz's eyes. He said a short prayer to the god of the underworld and cut a small chunk of fur out with his knife.
"Hey!" Dragon protested.
"I honor my companion by taking part of him with me. This way, he will recognize me when I too enter the spirit realm."
Guere nudged Dragon. "Let him be. It can't hurt Yeraz now, right?"
Dragon nodded. It made him uneasy, but he understood that their were differences in this world that he didn't understand.
They took the time to dig a grave for Yeraz and bury him, then moved on through the forest, staying closer to Rhiann now.
After about four more hours, Rhiann sat down next to a large tree. "We'll camp here for the night," she said.
Dragon sat against one of the gigantic trees and tried to get comfortable. After about an hour of shifting his weight, he gave up and decided to sleep on the ground. When he looked up, Rhiann was standing over him.
"Can't sleep?" she asked.
"No," he said. He looked around to see Guere and Shikan dozing comfortably in the trunks of the trees. "Why are you still awake?"
"I'm leading this hunting party, and I lost someone today. I wouldn't expect you to understand."
"Why not?" Dragon asked.
"You're a human. I'm sure you don't think like us."
"More than you would think, Rhiann. I know exactly what you're going through, believe it or not."
"Tell me about it," she said. "It's never happened to me before. I don't know what to do."
"My experience is a little different," Dragon admitted. "The man I thought I'd lost came back from the dead. But I thought I'd lost him. And it came at the tail end of a lot of other problems. Finally it took a vacation from everything, including leadership, to get my head back on straight. And even then, it changed me. I had a lot more anger in me after that."
"But you're okay now?" she asked.
"I won't lie to you. It still haunts me, that I came so close to losing someone I'd taken responsibility for. I've lost friends, too, and my wife and child are missing now, probably in the hands of the Wyrm. You never get used to it, or if you do, it's worse than any pain you could feel. So just accept it. Get me to Okage, I know you can do that, right?"
"I don't know," Rhiann said, collapsing to the ground. "I've never been short of confidence in my abilities. Right now, my faith in everything is a little shaky. What if we lose someone else?"
"Listen, this probably isn't my place, but if you want, I'll take over as leader of this party. You just track Okage, I'll do the rest. The responsibility is mine."
She thought about it and then put a scaled hand on his arm. "Yes. Thank you. But can I trust you to do what's necessary when we reach Okage?"
"I'll do what I have to," Dragon said. "Trust in that."
She nodded and dozed off on Dragon's shoulder, sleeping fitfully. He couldn't even sleep at all. He did know how she felt, and he knew how to take advantage of those feelings. He wondered know if Vincent had done the same thing to him, but pushed it out of his mind. No, Vincent had been doing what was best for the team. Dragon was just doing what was best for him.
And for Kim and Alex, he thought. They're worth every sacrifice. Honor doesn't compare, nothing else matters if I can get them back. He truly did know what Rhiann was going through, too. Those last days before he took a leave of absence still echoed in his mind. He could see the Vagabond being shot down because, in his arrogance, he had ignored Vincent's warnings. Even though Vincent was not one of his favorite people, he still felt almost physical pain when he relived the sight of a creature from the ocean putting it's claw through Vincent's chest.
He looked over at Rhiann. "Sleep well," he said. "The pain dulls with time."
In the morning, Rhiann was the last to awaken. She stirred when she smelled the roasted meat cooking over the fire that Guere had started. Dragon looked over and smiled.
"Feeling any better?"
She tried and failed to return the smile. "I could have done without the dreams," she said.
Dragon's face went dead serious and he said, "Learn to live with them."
The rest of the morning was spent in silence. Guere and Shikan seemed less affected by the death of their comrade, and even eager to get moving again. They all set off half an hour later, staying grouped together to avoid a repeat of yesterday's tragic fight.
It took them eight hours to ascend the rest of the mountain they were on, but Rhiann was convinced they were on the trail. As they got closer, Dragon felt his stomach tightening. If he did this wrong, he could be sentencing himself and Okage to death. Worse yet, he might kill some of these dragons, who were just trying to do what they were told.
Kim and Alex, he kept repeating in his mind. Kim and Alex.
They reached a cave opening and Rhiann practically jumped with excitement. "He's in here!" she cried. "It can't be anything else! Somehow, he has the scent of a legend."
"I'll go in first," Dragon said. "He won't be prepared, won't know how to react."
The others nodded. Dragon surreptitiously adjusted the knob on his blaster to a wide cone effect. He was thankful that the cave was dark, since that meant he would be shooting only at heat outlines, not the faces and images of these dragons who trusted him.
Something was wrong. There were no sounds from the cave, not even routine stirring or the restful sounds of a sleeping dragon. Then he saw the blood, mixed with a strange black liquid, pooled on the floor. He ran inside and found Okage, in his true form, lying against the stone. Okage was golden, an Eastern dragon almost sixteen feet in length. His eyes were closed and he wasn't moving.
Dragon ran over to Okage and saw that there were four claw marks in the majestic dragon's chest. He immediately prepared to perform paramedic procedures, then realized that what he knew about dragon anatomy made him worse than useless.
Okage's eyes fluttered open and he muttered, "It can't be."
"It is," Dragon said. "I've come here to find you. But I don't know what to do."
"The gem," Okage said. "Do you have the gem?"
Dragon produced it from beneath his jacket and saw that it was glowing, faintly. As Okage weakly reached an arm towards it, it flashed for a second. Dan placed the gem in the elder dragon's hand and closed Okage's fist around it.
The red light flooded the entire chamber, penetrating even the flash shields in Dragon's helmet. When it cleared, nearly a minute later, Okage was gone. But the gem remained, glowing as brightly as the day Dragon had first seen it.
"I have returned," Okage said in Dragon's mind. "And so has my champion."
Dan was bathed in red light as the gem's power flowed into him once again. He felt his body shifting, growing back to the size it was supposed to be, the size he had been since he was in his teens. He removed his helmet before his head could burst it, and felt his clothes ripping apart at the seams. He was left standing, his tattooed back covered only by tatters of the protective armor Defender had designed for him. The rest of his costume was in similar shape, leaving him feeling suddenly very naked. But not at all vulnerable. He felt the power of the gem flowing through him, purer than it had in a long time.
Some instinct lead him to pull out his katana and swing it in an arc over his head, bringing it down in front of him. It felt right again, not unbalanced and heavy. The power was back. Golden Dragon had returned.
"Well, Golden Dragon," came an oily voice from the cave mouth. "Aren't you going to kill him?"
Four eastern dragons, their eyes glowing with unholy black light, stepped into the cave. Behind them, in a mockery of Dragon's form, was a manifestation of the Wyrm.
"I knew you wouldn't do it," he said. "So did these dragons. Humans are infinitely more corruptible than dragons, but if you get dragons in the right emotional state, they make good servants."
The Wyrm raised its dark hand and pointed at Dragon. His eyes flashed red and he grinned, showing sharp, white teeth. "Kill him."
The first dragon dove at Dan, its yellow teeth bared. Dragon immediately brought his arm up and blocked the dragon to the side. The other three fell upon him as he twisted out of the way.
Dan was at the bottom of a pile, claws and teeth scratching at him. The dragons were strong and in a berserk state. He reached for the nearest arm and pulled until he heard a snap and one of the dragons howled in pain. Trying to ignore the feel of the crunching bones in the arm, he pulled the dragon's body out from the rest and flung it at the cave wall, wincing as it hit solidly. The dragon slid to the floor.
Dan felt a set of fangs bury themselves deep in his leg, even through his toughened skin. He cried out in pain as he felt the venom from the ensorcelled dragon coursing through that leg. The other two took this as a sign of weakness and clawed at his face, but Dan was quick enough to duck out of the way.
Fearing that holding back would lead to his own death, Dan grabbed the head of the dragon whose fangs were embedded in his leg. He squeezed until the pressure eased off from the creature's fangs. Then he yanked the head away and punched it squarely in the face with as much force as he thought it could withstand. That dragon also went flying, hitting a different cave wall.
Those two dragons being loosed gave Dan enough leverage to wriggle out from underneath the pile. He backed up against a wall, letting the other two dragons come slowly towards him.
One of them leaped and Dan caught it, holding it by the throat as it thrashed wildly in his grip. The other leaped as well and Dan swung the dragon he was holding to intercept. It yelped as the other's claws tore into it. Dan knocked its head lightly against the cave wall to knock it out and squared off with the last opponent.
Risking a glance over, Dragon saw that the Wyrm was smiling. It looked almost ready to burst with laughter. Frustrated, Dan charged the manifestation, but passed right through it. His anger earned him a quick and painful slash in the back from his last opponent.
"Temper, temper, Golden Dragon," the Wyrm taunted him. "What would Kim do if she saw you now?"
"Wrong move," Dragon said. His anger drained from him as he remembered exactly why he was here and what he was doing. Calmly, he waited for the other dragon to close in and attack. When it did, he took the claw swipe across his chest but returned a powerful strike to its chest which knocked it away from him and into unconsciousness.
Mocking laughter filled the cave. "Bravo, Golden Dragon. You've won your first battle. Next time I shall bring more dragons. Perhaps next time they won't be corrupt? Will you find it so easy to fight then?"
The Wyrm disappeared in a puff of black smoke, leaving Dragon choking in the cave.
"He's right," came Okage's voice. "We must leave, never to return to these lands."
"I want to leave," Dragon answered, out loud. "But I don't know a way out. Do you?"
There was silence until an unfamiliar, elderly voice answered from the mouth of the cave. "I do. After all, I created it."
Dragon knew who the voice belonged to when he saw the figure, dressed in orange and black hooded robes, glide softly inside the cave. Before Okage could even whisper it reverently in his mind. This was the Archmage.
The Archmage flipped back his head and Dragon was stunned, unable to speak, until finally, he managed to force out, "You're human?"
"If it serves you to think so, you may," the Archmage answered. "I am far too old to be human or dragon. I simply am the Archmage."
Dragon recovered from his shock enough to ask, "You created it? What did that mean?"
"It means that you hold the way out in your hand. The magical gem you call the Dragon Gem is a prison, an object of power, a fortress and a vehicle. It has held Okage for many years, but protected him from the depravity of the Wyrm. It has created Golden Dragons over the years, and it has even escorted a few to other planes of existence. Now, it shall help you leave the Dragon Lands."
Dragon sat down on the floor. "How can it help me leave? I thought leaving was next to impossible."
"When Okage fell in the original battle with Daraku Suru, his time had ended in this dimension. My magics told me that he would be needed in another time. So I infused one of my most powerful magic spells, the ability to leave the Dragon Cult through the barrier I helped to erect, into the gem. Then I entrapped Okage's essence. From there, it was a simple matter of pushing."
"I held the gem and pushed it through the barrier. Where it ended up from there, I do not know. I only know of it when it reaches this dimension again. That was how I found you."
Dragon paced the floor, thinking about all of this. The Archmage watched him patiently. Finally, he said, "So Okage can get out. He's in the gem. What about me?"
"I can cast a spell to put you into the gem, temporarily. But you will not be able to release yourself. Someone in your own dimension must do this."
"Do they have to be a mage?" Dragon asked, thinking immediately of Solitaire. He realized that he had no idea where she was, or even if she was still alive.
"No. What matters is that the person has a strong, spiritual connection to you."
Dragon had an idea. "When that person touches the gem, I'll be freed? So if I asked to be sent to Kim, she could free me and I could free her?"
The Archmage asked, "Do you know where she is?" Dragon shook his head.
"Then I cannot," the Archmage answered. "I cannot see into the dimension. You must know, at least somewhat, where this person is."
"I've been gone a long time," Dragon said. "For all I know, everyone I'm thinking of is dead, or in another dimension, or any number of things. This is impossible!"
"Your friends have impressive abilities," the Archmage said. "Get yourself near them and they will find you. While you are inside, the gem will resonate strongly with your psychic presence. It will be felt by anyone who has known you, even from a great distance. And at worst, you'll be inside the gem, with Okage. It is not such a horrible thing."
"I have things to do," Dragon answered. "Is there any other way out?"
"I can propel myself from the dimension," the Archmage answered. "The power to move others I gave to the gem, long ago. Aside from using a gem from the Wyrm, there is no other way."
"I don't have a choice. A little chance is better than none," Dragon concluded. "And you're right, I do have impressive friends."
"Where do you wish to go? And who shall free you?"
Dragon considered and said, "Homestead. That's where they must be. And the best person I can think of is Dark Rose."