Story (c) 2000 by Hikaru Katayamma/Keith Dickinson. All rights reserved. The character Sheila Vixen (c) Eric W Schwartz. All other characters are (c) Hikaru Katayamma.  This story contains adult situations and language. By reading it the viewer agrees not to hold this or any other person responsible for any content they may find objectionable. If you don't like it, don't read it. Special thanks go out to Jim Lane and Coyotyee for their help in editing this project!

Identity Crisis
Act II
Chapter 28

Judgment Day

  "Lakesh! No!" I cried out as he lifted me from the ground. What the hell was the dragon doing here?

  The dragon smiled, showing all of the teeth in his pointed snout as he said, "You have distracted him long enough. Now you will die."

  I tried to speak, to say anything so that he would understand, but I was unable to take a breath as he slowly crushed me in his claw. My frantic struggles to free myself only made him laugh.

  I tried to release my spirit in the hopes that I could free my corporeal form from his clutches but was only partially successful. As I felt my body fade from my perception I found myself still within his grasp. Worse yet, my spirit had manifest on top of my real body. The pain of conflicting dualities of existing in the same spot with what were essentially two real forms in this place was overwhelming. I cried out in a silent scream that set the world to shaking around us.

  "No!" the dragon cried out as he dropped me. Lakesh backed away from the writhing forms that were my bodies as I fought for control. "No! This can't be!" I could hear the panicked denial in his voice.

  It took all my control to relax and allow my spirit to fade back into my body. The agony faded to simply that of the crushed ribs and bruised body that were the result of Lakesh's assault.

  The dragon pinned me with his claw, trapping me against the snow-covered ground. "Who are you?" he demanded. "What the hell is going on here?"

  I started to laugh, but the sharp stabbing pain from my ribs stopped me. "What's the matter, Lakesh? Can't you tell your mortals apart any more?" I asked sarcastically.

  Lakesh pushed down, squeezing me again. "It's Lakash, damn it! Get it right!" he complained. "Now answer my question before I tire of this and destroy you."

  Ooooh. The big, bad dragon was threatening me. "Go ahead and kill me," I said with a snarl. "And when you do, the quest will end, the pact will be broken and you will lose all you have worked for."

  The dragon shook his head in denial. "No. Arden will continue the quest without you. He'll never know what happened to you."

  "Are you stupid?" I asked. "First off, what makes you think Nanuk wouldn't tell him?" That got him. He had forgotten just whose realm he had invaded. "Beside, I am Arden, you dipshit!"

  It was interesting to see a dragon looking confused. "That's impossible," he said with a shake of his head. "Arden's still back in the mortal world. I can feel him." He leaned down and bared his fangs at me. "You'll have to do better than that, bitch."

  "You are a fool, Lakesh," I said, intentionally mispronouncing his name. "You were so busy dicking around with our bodies when we came to this world, you didn't pay attention to our souls. Sheila inhabits my body. You've been trying to kill the wrong person, you idiot!"

  One of the things I will always cherish is the vision of a slack jawed dragon. Lakash again backed away as he stared at my prone form. "This is impossible," he stated in denial. "The magic doesn't work like that. It couldn't have swapped you."

  I painfully rolled over and climbed to my knees. "And yet, here I am," I stated flatly.

  I tried to stand, but the agony in my ribs drove me back down to the ground. "Look at me, you son of a bitch," I said trying to break his train of though. "I would kick your ass if I could stand right now. Just who do you think you are, trying to kill Sheila?"

  Lakash spoke in a low rumbling voice as he answered, "She's been a hindrance to your quest since the day you met her. What I've done is for the good of the quest."

  Finally, I managed to force my self to stand in spite of the pain in my ribs. "Well I've got news for you, you better hope that nothing happens to Sheila before I end the quest or your ass is going to be dragon-chow."

  "You dare to threaten me?" he asked incredulously.

  "Absolutely," I responded. "If anything happens to him, I'll do everything I possibly can to screw you over." I glared at Lakash as he tried to digest what I had said. On one hand, he needed me; on the other, he seriously wanted to squash me.

  "And what about your quest?" he retorted. "Nanuk made a bargain. If you do anything against me, it will break the bargain."

  I let out a weak laugh. "Bargain? You want to talk about bargains?" I asked. "Right now you're in breach-of-contract on a bargain, so I wouldn't go getting all uppity about my reneging on an agreement."

  "What bargain?" Lakash asked, confused by my statement.

  "I swore to complete the quest in return for you granting me the powers of the dragon," I replied. "I seem to be lacking such powers of late."

  Lakash shook his head. "Those powers are bound to your old body."

  "Not good enough," I said with a sneer. "You screwed up. You slacked off the first time around, and bound the powers to my body. That's unacceptable. I want them tied to my spirit so this can't happen again."

  Lakash laughed. "You've got to be kidding! Do you have any idea what that would entail?"

  I shook my head. "No, and I don't care," I replied. "You're in breach of our bargain. If you don't rectify it, then the entire deal's off and you won't gain anything when I renew Nanuk."

  "You don't have that authority," the dragon said quietly.

  "No? How about we go ask Nanuk?" I offered as I started towards her hut.

  "You should be careful what you ask for, mortal," he warned in a low voice, not moving from where he sat. "You have no idea what kind of Pandora's box you're trying to open."

  That stopped me. I had a taste of the dragons power, but it was only a taste. If he truly allowed me to tap the raw reserves of the dragon, how would it affect me? I had once almost killed Sheila because of those powers. Is it possible I could become more of a menace with them than without?

  Then again, could I afford not to have them? I still had to face the Magus Arcanum and demand the Chro'nisphorum. Could I do that as just a vixen, or would I need the backing of the dragon?

  The deciding factor was Lakash himself. He didn't want me to have it, and that was enough for me. "Do it," I directed. "I'll live with the consequences."

  Lakash stared at me with narrowed eyes and let out a low rumbling growl. "So be it," he finally said. "Prepare yourself, bitch."

  Bitch? I was about to comment when he struck. He moved like lightening as he charged forward and dove towards me. I let out a small shriek as I tried to dodge only to find his shrinking form funneling into my chest as my perception of the world around exploded.

  For a second or an eternity, I'm not sure which, I was the dragon. My minds eye expanded showing me reality after reality. I was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I had glimpses of Zig Zag, Sabrina, Sheila and everyone else I knew. Alternate versions of themselves spread out across realities, some doing the same things as their counterparts while others had taken different paths. Worlds where my father and brothers were still alive and others where all I knew were gone. The most startling thing of all to realize in the end, as reality after reality flashed through my perception, was the fact that I had seen no duplicates of myself. I was the last of my personas in existence. It was a chilling revelation.  If I screwed up, there were no more chances.

  The panoramas of realities was dizzying as my perception flittered from place to place without rhyme or reason. I tried to find my way back to Nanuk's realm and succeeded for a moment before I was distracted by something in another plane or world. Each time I would find my way back something new would drag my attention away. It was maddening.

  Rather than concentrate on a realm, I tried to locate Sheila. Again I was frustrated by the myriad of echoes of her soul as I saw her repeatedly, sometimes at Zig Zag's, others her life on the street or out in the wilds.

  For a moment, I was able to lock onto Sheila in the Countesses' court. He was fighting with the guards for some reason and it wasn't just a friendly brawl, the guards had weapons out and were doing their best to kill him. Despite the gifts of the dragon, they were taking their toll on him. He had a myriad of small cuts on his body to match the array of bodies scattered on the floor around him. They were mosquitoes, but even mosquitoes could bleed a man dry.

  Again my mind was drawn away as another of Sheila's twins drew my attention away. I had to find something to anchor myself. I couldn't use Nanuk as she touched so many different people in so many different worlds.

  I was almost to the point of panic when I thought of my child. How many children could I have had with Sheila if I were the last of my selves in existence? I concentrated on our unborn child and found myself back in Nanuk's realm. The child that grew within me had been unharmed by the dragon's attack. It would anchor me until I learned to control this power.

  As I calmed down, I became aware of Lakash as he looked down on my prostrate body. The bastard was laughing at me. I stood and faced him, preparing to berate him for what had happened, when I realized how my perception had changed. I saw Lakash for what he truly was. Millions of tiny dragons linked together creating the greater illusion of his form while the divine creature that was Lakash lay curled within, directing the dragons in all their power and glory with leashes of magic. I, too, was now bound to Lakash by such a leash.

  "Now you see your mistake," he gloated. "Now, you are finally mine. Kneel before me as your kind should."

  I felt the conflict within myself as he tried to force me to my knees, but I was able to fight it. Lakash's look of victory slowly changed as he concentrated on the leash, trying to force me down. Although it took all my self-control and willpower, I managed to stay standing.

  "This is impossible," he stated in disbelief.

  I smiled and let out a small laugh. "You miscalculated, Lakash. I'm not one of your creatures," I explained. "I'm a mortal, born of free will. Your hold on me isn't as absolute as you'd like to think."

  "I will control you," he stated. "Maybe not today, but you will be mine in the end. You will complete the quest. You will make the wish. Nanuk will be renewed and I will be more powerful than ever."

  "No," I stated flatly. "You will not control me." I slowly walked towards him, my rage at his arrogance growing. "I will complete the quest and Nanuk will be renewed. But you will never control me."

  I was surprised to find Lakash backing away as I approached him. "In fact," I continued, remembering what Lucifer had said, "if you want to toy with mortals, do it in your own realm. Now get the hell out of mine!" I released my anger in an immaterial burst of emotions and directed them at the dragon. To my surprise, he simply vanished from the realm.

  I took a moment and, searching with my minds eye for Lakash. I found him in his own realm, rampaging and destroying everything in sight. He spotted me and did something that snapped me back into Nanuk's realm.

  What had just happened here? Had I just thrown Lakash out of Nanuk's realm? Had he overplayed his hand by actually binding his powers to me?

  I looked around at Nanuk's realm with new eyes. Where before all I saw were hints of the magic of this place, I now saw the individual threads that bound this realm together.

  The Elite that I had been fighting was kneeling near the waters edge, shivering from the freezing liquid that covered him. I saw the magic that had been woven into the armor he wore as well as the sword he wielded. His very body pulsed with a lesser magic that had allowed him to cast the spells within his own realm. Here in Nanuk's realm, it would be useless.

  I walked over to him, determined to end this. His expression was the same one I had worn when he was about to kill me. He knew he had lost. All I knew was that he had killed Thomas and that he needed to pay.

  I summoned forth the power of the dragon and shaped it into the form of a Katana. "Do you have any last words, murderer?" I could feel the power of the dragon flowing through me as stood over him. No trick he had would stop me from carrying out my justice.

  He held his sword out, cradled in his hands as a form of surrender. "I didn't know," he said by way of explanation. "The Arcanum had confirmed an invitation, but they never said you weren't human. The Countess conveniently forgot to mention your name when she accused you of being an imposter."

  I gave a small snort of derision. "And that's supposed to get you off?" I asked.

  He shook his head. "No. Nothing can excuse what I have done," he replied. "I just ask that before you strike, please promise to insure that the Countess pays for her crime."

  "Oh yah. You can count on the fact that she's going to pay for what she did," I said as I raised the sword. He lowered his sword, sat up straight, and lifted his chin to give me an easy stroke.

  The image of Thomas' body as it lay on the ground haunted my mind. I let out an angry growl and began to swing.

  "No, Arden! Don't."

  Nanuk's voice stopped me.  It was so weak I could hardly hear her.

  "You must not kill. Not here. Never here."

  "Mother?" I asked to the air, ignoring the Elite. I turned, ran to the hut, and entered to find Nanuk as she lay on her cot. She was nothing but fur and bones. "Nanuk! What's happened to you?" I asked. Looking at her was horrifying.

  "It is Lakash, child. He gives only the most minimal of power to support me that our bargain calls for," she explained, pausing for a breath. "He insures I have no power to interfere."

  That son of a bitch! How could he do something like this to an ally? I now had yet another reason to take his ass out. When all of this was over, he was going to become my personal project.

  I looked around and examined the magic of the room. Once before I had channeled my own personal power here to help Nanuk. Now I had a direct pipeline to the Dragon. It was time that bastard helped a little. I concentrated on the power of the dragon and channeled it into the room, using my memory of how things had been to reform it. Lakash was fighting me, trying to staunch the flow of power but he couldn't. The leash worked both ways. I had his power and by god I was going to use it.

  "Arden. Please, don't," Nanuk said quietly. She placed her paw on my shoulder. "You must be careful when you use such power."

  I was confused. All I wanted to do was to help by taking some of the load from her. "I don't understand, Nanuk. What am I doing wrong?" I asked.

  "It's not what you're doing, but why," she explained. "Search your feeling. You're heart is full of anger and hatred. That contaminates the magic that you use here." She waved her hand around the room, pointing to changes I had made. Each one was fully restored but was tinged with an odd color to the magic. "Your anger and hatred are contaminating our domain."

  This couldn't be. All I had wanted to do was help. Why was it that every time I tried to do something, it would go wrong? Why couldn't I do anything right?

  Nanuk knew what I was thinking. "You have done many things right, my child," she said giving my paw a pat of reassurance. "Today, you made us most proud when you banished Lakash from our realm. You are finally ready to complete the quest."

  So I did banish him. "Yah, but I had to use his power to do it," I said trying to dismiss the accomplishment.

  "No," she said emphatically. "You banished him because you are our champion. None can deny us in our realm. You have fulfilled my hopes and dreams by accomplishing this. You are truly capable of renewing me, my child."

  Nanuk laid her head back and closed her eyes as she relaxed. "Now it is time for you to go," she said in a whisper. "Take your new ally and return to your world. Sheila fights a losing battle and will be lost if you don't hurry."

  Sheila! I had forgotten the image of him fighting. And what did she mean about my new ally? I stood and turned to leave only to spot the Elite standing in the doorway. His sword was again sheathed at his side.

  I strode purposefully towards the Elite as he backed out of the door. Once outside I closed it behind me. "You and I need to talk," I said as I closed on him. "Unfortunately, my lord is in trouble back in the real world." I grabbed his armor and willed the amulet to take us back to the material plane.

  The sound of fighting was the first thing to greet us as we reappeared within the audience chamber. Sheila was surrounded by guards who were looking for any opening to attack. He had somehow gotten his hands onto one of the ceremonial pole-arms that had been mounted around the room, using it like an oversized staff. As I watched he swung the tip at two guards that were getting a little too close then snapped the rear of the poll backwards into the chest of a guard that had tried to charge him.

  "Get away from him!" I yelled as I moved to pick the Katana I had dropped on the ground before we left. A couple of the guards spotted me and moved to intercept. They were too slow though as I got to my sword first. I dove, rolled, and picked up the sword. The guards skidded to a halt as I came up with the sword at the ready.

  I growled as I prepared to charge them but was distracted as I sensed something powerful off to the side. I glanced over to see the Elite gesturing as he drew glyphs in the air to gather power. The distraction almost cost me an ear as one of the guards attacked from my blind side. I barely parried the sword before I followed through with a palm strike to the face that smashed his nose and knocked him to the ground.

  The other guard backpedaled away as I turned my attention to him. He had a look of absolute terror on his face. I was trying to decide if I should either run him down or move to help Sheila when I felt the Elite's spell fire off. A blue shockwave of energy rolled across the room from where the Elite stood. As it rolled over the guards, most of them staggered and drop to the floor, unconscious. The few that it didn't knock out were stunned and could barely remain standing.

  I looked at the Elite, amazed at the power of his spell. He had just gained a new level of respect from me. Some how I think he had just been toying with me before.

  The Elite looked over to me. "Stop him or I will," he said and nodded to Sheila.

  I hadn't noticed, but Sheila was in the process of mopping up the remaining guards and he wasn't being gentle. "Sheila!" I yelled as I charged towards him. My yell fell on deaf ears.

  He was in the process of pummeling one of the guards when I reached him. I body checked him with the intent of just getting his attention, but wound up sending him into the wall. Either the dragon had withdrawn his power from Sheila, or I was now a lot stronger than I had realized.

  Sheila turned on me snarled. He was lost to the Dragon's rage. The last time it had almost cost me my life to break it. I did not intend to let that happen to either of us this time.

  "Sheila, hun," I said as I slowly backed away with my hands out. "Try to calm down. There's no nee..." I never got a chance to finish my sentence as he charged me. He still had that quickness I had seen before, but somehow it was different now.

  Everything around us slowed down as my combat training kicked in. I parried his attack as I sidestepped and then reposted with a hard strike to the kidneys. It should have dropped him, but he just grunted. Again, he attacked. Again, I parried and followed with what should have been a disabling blow. Each time he just shrugged off the damage. I had the strength now that I could probably pound him into submission, but that wasn't my intent. To make things more interesting, the guards were beginning to come around and I don't think they were going to let me handle things on my own.

  A quick glance over at the Elite showed that he was engaged in an animated discussion with the Countess. I could only hope that he was reading her the riot act. Of course this meant that I couldn't count on him for support with the guards or Sheila right at the moment.

  I thought desperately for an option and decided that since this was Lakash's work, I would deal with him in Lakash's realm. It took a couple of more quick exchanges before I was able to safely grapple Sheila long enough to take us to the Dragon's realm.

  The last time I had looked in on Lakash, he had been rampaging in his realm, destroying everything in sight. Now I found myself standing with Sheila inside of a large, Roman style coliseum. The seats were filled with monitors, each showing the face of a dragon in a different realm. They all were watching us to see what would happen.

  My distraction at our surroundings cost me as Sheila nailed me solidly in the back with a kick and sending me flying. Though the strike hurt, it wasn't hard enough to cause serious damage to me. In this place, I was at the peak of my powers. I turned my flight into a semi-controlled fall and rolled to a standing stop at its end.

  I had to find a way to disable Sheila without causing any permanent or even long-term damage. I circled and studied Sheila's movements as I tried to formulate a plan. With each attack, I learned more and more about his technique and its weaknesses. I was about to unleash a flurry of blows that I hoped would lay him out flat when it occurred to me that I was going about this the wrong way. We were in the spirit realm. I had a direct line to the dragon. I could create, change, or destroy anything I wanted to here.

  I parried Sheila and used a throw to knock him off his feet and onto the ground. With a gesture of my hand, I concentrated on the imagery needed to create the chains that suddenly appeared around Sheila, cocooning him so that he was unable to move.

  "Boo! Hiss!" I heard from behind me. It was Lakash in human form. "Here I was ready to watch you beat the hell out of him and you had to go and use your brains," he complained. "What's the fun in that?"

  "Fun?" I asked back angrily. "You want fun, laughing boy. I'll show you some fun." I stepped forward and hit him as hard as I could with a sucker punch. To my utter amazement, he went down. Unlike the times I'd smacked Lucifer, he didn't just pop back up.

  Lakash sat on the ground for a second massaging his jaw as he glared at me. "That was uncalled for," he said before standing.

  "You want uncalled for?" I growled and pointed back to where Sheila lay, bound in the dirt. "That's uncalled for. Release him."

  Lakash casually shook his head. "Those are your chains, you untie him," he said flatly.

  I growled at him again. "That's not what I meant and you know it," I replied in a low voice. "I'm talking about the rage."

  Lakash gave me a surprised look. "Oh, that," he said with a shrug. "Don't look at me. I had nothing to do with it."

  I scowled at him, tempted to take another swipe at the jerk. "Don't give me that crap. You've been looking for a way to get Sheila from the beginning. Don't try to feign innocence now."

  Again, Lakash shook his head and shrugged. "Believe what you will, but I had nothing to do with it," he replied calmly. "Sheila lost it when he saw your boy Thomas and heard the Countess gloating about how she had convinced a Spirit Warrior to kill you. He gave himself freely to the rage. I had nothing to do with it."

  I winced and gave an inward moan. I could just see it. If Sheila believed that I was dead, then I could easily see him loosing control. "Fine, you had nothing to do with it," I admitted. "But you can, and will break it."

  Lakash cocked an eyebrow at me and gave a little chuckle. "I will, will I?" he replied. "And just why would I want to do that? It's not my problem."

  Damn him. I couldn't force him. I had nothing to hold over him since Sheila had done it to himself. I knew that if I wanted the rage broken, I'd have to make some sort of Faustian bargain. "All right, what do you want?" I asked resignedly. "And don't expect to get my undying loyalty or willing servitude as that just isn't going to happen."

  Lakash gave a small smile of victory. "I don't want either. I want the same thing I've always wanted," he explained. "I want you to complete your quest and assurances that you will speak the proper wish when you do so."

  "You're talking about the geas," I said somewhat confused. "I already agreed to the geas."

  Lakash nodded in agreement and explained, "As you pointed out to me earlier, the geas was cast on your body. I can't risk you moving into yet another body and not being covered by it. This time I'm going to bind it directly to your soul."

  He was going to bind it directly to my soul? I didn't like the sound of that. "Name the parameters of the geas," I directed warily.

  "Simple," he replied. "First you will do all in your power to gain possession of my lamp. Second, you will make the wish to renew Nanuk."

  "And third?" I asked.

  He shook his head. "There is no third. It's the same conditions I've always demanded."

  I looked down at Sheila. He was currently trying to brain himself by pounding his head against the ground in an effort to break the chains. I looked back at Lakash and nodded, "Agreed."

  Lakash nodded and reached to touch me. I could feel the magic being manipulated but it was far too complex to follow. After a second, he stepped back and nodded. "All done," he said before turning to Sheila. "Now for your mate." Lakash gestured causing the strands of power that bound my old body to the dragon to wither but not quite fall away.

  As the power faded, so did the rage in Sheila's eyes. Sheila blinked a couple of times then looked around. "What... what's going on here?" he asked as he examined his bonds.

  "That's all?" I asked, looking to Lakash. "Just restrict the flow of power and that will break the rage?"

  Lakash looked startled. "You could see that?" he asked incredulously.

  Rather than answer, I concentrated and released the bonds that held Sheila. "How do you feel?" I asked as I gave him a hand up.

  Sheila stretched experimentally and winced as his numerous injuries became apparent. "I feel like a soccer ball after a long rugby season," he commented with a low moan. "What happened? And who's this guy?" Sheila was beginning to take inventory of his surroundings.

  "This is Lakesh," I said as I nodded to the man.

  "That's Lakash, damn it!" he barked back at me.

  "Whatever," I said as I turned back to Sheila. "We're in his realm right now. I needed his help to break you out of the rage."

  "Rage?" Sheila asked in confusion as he tried to remember what had happened. He shook his head and winced at the new pain that brought. "I remember getting word that you had been summoned by the Countess and that she had something nasty in store for you." Sheila looked over at me with a pained expression. "When I saw Thomas' body..." He let his statement trail off.

  I had almost forgotten about Thomas. Things were happening too fast around here. I stepped over to Sheila and without another word transported us back over into the real world. It was a relief now that I had the dragon's power, and using the amulet was no longer a drain on me.

  I turned to where Thomas still lay. The guards were milling around where we had disappeared and had not yet noticed our reappearance. I walked over to where Thomas lay and knelt beside him. I could tell at a glance to his chest that he had died before his body had struck the floor. I reached out gently and closed his sightless eyes while trying to blink the tears from mine. He had been such a good kid. Why did he have to go and get himself killed like that?

  "Guards!" I heard the elite say in a booming voice. "All of you. Move back against the wall and stand down."

  I looked up towards the remaining guards that the Elite had spoken too. They had spotted us and had been moving to renew the battle. As I watched, the guards looked around amongst themselves for a minute. Apparently they were figuring out who was in command as one of the more ragged individuals addressed the Elite, "I'm sorry, Drijen, but we have our orders. We must destroy these creatures."

  The Elite walked over towards us as he addressed the guards. "I'm countermanding those orders. You are to stand down," he commanded before waiving to the carnage. "Take your wounded and get the healers to attend to them."

  The guard looked like he wanted to argue, but the no-nonsense attitude of the Elite quickly snuffed out that idea. "As you command, Drijen," the guard replied. In a low voice, he directed his men as they began to tend to their wounded. A quick count of the bodies scattered around the room showed that the original thirty must have been supplemented as there were easily thirty injured guards on the ground with another thirty or so still milling around.

  The Elite came over to where I knelt by Thomas' body and looked at the boy. "I'm sorry for your loss, Drijen," he said softly as he removed his cloak. With great care, he covered the boy's body, blocking the ghastly wound from my sight. "I didn't realize he was but a boy when he attacked me. I'm sorry."

  Sheila let out a low growl. "You're the bastard that killed him?" he asked in with a dangerous voice.

  "Sheila," I said sharply, getting his attention. "Let it be. It wasn't his fault."

  Sheila looked back at the Elite and glared at him. From the way he was starting to tense up, I don't think my words had sunk in.

  I stood and placed a hand on Sheila's chest as I moved between them. "Please, Sheila, let it be," I implored quietly. "He was just defending himself. It wasn't his fault."

  Sheila looked down at the shrouded corpse that had been my squire then back at me and nodded. "If you say so, Arden," he replied quietly. Sheila looked around for a second and then back down at me. "You look like you have things under control here," he said in a tight voice. "If you don't mind, I'm going to get some air."

  I nodded gravely, wishing I too could leave this carnage behind. "Go ahead, love. I'll come find you when I've dealt with all of this," I said. As Sheila walked quickly out of the room, I wondered for a second which of us was taking Thomas' death harder, him or me?

  "Drijen," the Elite said, getting my attention. "We must deal with the Countess."

  Yes. The Countess had much to answer for. "Do me a favor," I said as I followed him towards the dais. "Just call me Arden, OK? All this 'Drijen' stuff gets kind of old, don't you think?"

  The Elite laughed. "Indeed, Arden," He said in agreement. "My name is Yoseph. It is common for the Elite to use proper names when conversing, otherwise a room full of Drijen would become a most confusing place."

  That got a smile. Sounded like a convention of doctors. "So what now? How do we handle the countess?" I asked taking note of the terrified expression on her face as we approached.

  "We must determine her crimes, judge her, and declare the punishment," he replied in a serious voice.

  "And if the punishment is death?" I asked.

  Yoseph gave me a startled look. "Death? Are you serious?" he asked incredulously.

  I nodded. "Think about it," I said as I started ticking items off on my fingers. "She gave false testimony to you: IE, I wasn't an Elite. She withheld information from you, specifically my name. She conspired to cause the death of a Spirit Warrior Elite by using you to kill me. She is also indirectly responsible for the death of my squire." I paused for a second then decided to go whole hog. "And if that's not enough, she's addicted to Ka'spakh extract."

  Again, Yoseph looked startled. "How do you know she's addicted to the extract?" he asked, stunned at the revelation.

  "I can smell it on her," I snarled in a low voice. It was true too. Now that I had the dragon's power again, I could smell the sickly sweet crap on her breath even at this distance. I doubt a normal human would be able to detect it. Hell, I hadn't noticed it as a vixen and I had a sensitive snout, too. It smelled just like Gwen remembered it the first time she caught her sister using the junk.

  Yoseph had a bit of a wide-eyed look as he considered my statement. "I agree that she must be punished for these crimes, Arden, but do you really think the penalty should be death?" he asked.

  I grabbed him by the arm, sinking my claws in between the links of the chain to get his undivided attention. "Let's get something straight, Drijen," I said with a snarl. "I don't care if it were the Emperor's favorite concubine. The penalty is death and that is the judgment that will be made. Rank makes no difference where I come from as far as the law is concerned, and I won't let it change me here."

  Yoseph winced at the pain I was causing to his arm. "But, Arden," he said with a slight whine, "you don't understand the political ramifications. Something like this could cause an incredible amount of trouble for the Arcanum. If the royalty were to believe that they were subject to the full wrath of our law, they would withdraw support for us."

  I let out a sigh of exasperation as I released him. "Fine, then I'll do it and the Arcanum can cast me out as a radical that overstepped her bounds," I replied, giving him an excuse.

  "Actually," he said looking a little nervous, "you are an Elite in name only. Until you swear the oath to the Emperor at the Arcanum, you wear the badge and title as a courtesy. You actually don't have the power to judge her."

  I let out a low growl, turned, and stalked angrily towards the dais, ignoring Yoseph's attempts to stop me. The Countess stood and tried to get away but she was no match for my speed. I grabbed her, lifted her with one hand by the front of her truss, and pinned her against the wall. "You were warned not to screw with me," I snarled. "When I get through with you, you'll wish I had killed you outright."

  I discarded her casually to the side, the same way I would any other piece of trash, and walked purposefully towards the door. I hoped that my attitude would keep people away from me, but it wasn't to be.

  "Drijen," I heard a guard call out as he ran towards me.

  I turned, ready to bite his head off, but saw that he was carrying my swords.

  "I believe these belong to you, Drijen," he said as he held the swords out to me.

  I nodded as I accepted and sheathed them. "Thank you," I said graciously. I would have gone nuts looking for those swords later if he hadn't brought them to me.

  I glanced over at Thomas' body again and sighed. "What will you do with my squire's body?" I asked.

  The guard glanced over, surprised at the question. "Um, we'll prepare it and then give it a warriors burial," he replied.

  I thought for a second and shook my head. "No," I said flatly and was rewarded was a startled look from the guard. "Have his body prepared, and then take it to the observation room over the heatstone. An honor guard is to remain with him until I can attend to his disposition."

  The guard didn't know what to make of my orders. He looked like he wanted to argue, but his conditioning gave in. "As you command, Drijen," he said with a bow.

  I took one last, long look at Thomas' body before I turned to leave. Once again, someone else had died in my place.

Chapter 29