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 31

The dragon gets his due.

  Once again I was standing in the heatstone room, only this time I was watching Yoseph as he walked around without protection. He was fairly sure that he could keep up his protection spell, but he wasn't sure he could do it while keeping a second spell up.

  Right now he was practicing levitating a large stone chair while maintaining his protection spell. I didn't just want to shove Thomas' body down a ramp and onto the stone. If possible, I wanted there to be some dignity. That's why we were making sure Yoseph would be able to handle levitating him down while maintaining his own protection spell.

  Once we had completed the test, we returned to the main observation room. The room itself wasn't huge, but it was still roomy enough to handle the twenty or so people who had shown up. Unfortunately, Sheila wasn't amongst the crowd. I was pleased to see Gwen there and equally horrified to see her sister. From the look on Gwen's face, she wasn't too pleased with her being there either.

  I took a deep breath to help center myself and headed over to the main observation window to get the ball rolling.

  As I was about to start, the sorcerer who maintained the stone interrupted me. "I'm sorry, Drijen, but I must inform you that we will be unable to perform the ritual you have requested."

  I blinked at him in surprised. What the hell? We had gone over this earlier today. He had his reservations, but was willing to do it. Why the sudden change? I glanced over at the Countess and the insufferable smile she wore and knew with all certainty what had happened. I looked back down at the sorcerer who was now sweating slightly and pursed my lips for a second before I asked, "And just why can't you do this?"

  The little man glanced over at the countess before returning his attention to me. "I'm sorry, Drijen, but it has been pointed out to me that doing such is dangerous and stresses the magic of the crystal. Imperial Edict forbids us to perform such acts unless under siege and have no other recourse." He gave a sheepish smile along with the explanation. It made sense, although I knew of no such edict. But then again, Gwen didn't control a keep and wouldn't be expected to know such things.

  I sighed and nodded. "Thank you. I'll see if I can find another way to handle this."

  The small man smiled as he returned his attention to the day-to-day operation of the stone.

  I let out another sigh of exasperation and headed over to talk to Yoseph. "Yoseph, we have a problem," I said in a low voice.

  Yoseph saw the look on my face and winced. "What's the problem, Arden?"

  I nodded toward the sorcerer. "The little guy says they can't ramp up the temperature to the flash point unless the keep's under siege and its an emergency. Does this sound familiar to you?"

  Yoseph massaged his chin for a moment as he thought about my question. "You know, I think that may be right. It was done to protect the stones. If they ever get destroyed, we have no way of replacing them."

  Great. That's just what I didn't need. "Any chance you can do it?" I gave him my best puppy-dog look.

  This time it was Yoseph's turn to give me a sheepish smile. "I'm sorry, Arden. I was having enough trouble just trying to maintain two spells. I don't think I'd be able to do three. And you know I can't cast magic while in one of those cold suits."

  Damn. That's what I was afraid of. I tried to think of another way, but the only one I could think of made my blood run cold. I had a choice of either swallowing my pride, or giving up and letting them bury Thomas. The gloating look on the Countess' face made the decision for me. I turned back to Yoseph and nodded. "Keep everyone here. I'll be back shortly, ok?"

  I took a second to steel myself then used the amulet to cross over into Lakash's realm. As expected, the bastard was waiting for me. What surprised me was the way he appeared. Once again he was in human form, only now he was wearing some sort of regal outfit that you would expect to see on a monarch or very important religious figure like the Pope.

  He smiled at me. It was a smile that bore an uncanny resemblance to the one the Countess had been wearing. "So. What brings the prodigal child back today?" he asked in a smug voice.

  Right then I wanted to be anywhere but in his presence. Hell, for that matter I'd prefer to be playing footsies with Lucifer, but somehow I don't think he'd help with this. I took a deep breath, swallowed my pride and stated, "I need a favor, Lakash."

  He let out a low, rumbling laugh. "And what can we do for you today?" Damn him, but he was enjoying this.

  "I need a way to cremate a human body," I explained, my voice humble. "I know the magic you've given me should enable me to do this, but I don't know how to use it in the real world. Would you please instruct me?"

  He sat on his throne and thought for a second before he answered. "Yes, I could teach you to channel the magic into the breath of a dragon, but it would take too much time for what you need." He had a slight smile on his face as he waited for my next move.

  "All right, then," I said calmly. "If I can't learn to channel the power in time, is there another way?"

  "Yes," he said and left it at that.

  I took a few deep breaths to keep calm. "OK, Lakash. Just how do you suggest that I do this then?"

  He steepled his fingers together under his chin and smiled. "You must summon forth the spirit of the dragon," he said with a broad smile.

  I blinked in surprise. "Summon forth the spirit of the dragon? What are you talking about?"

  Lakash stood and walked towards me as he explained, "You are now tied to the dragon. You are the gateway for it to enter into the real world. By summoning the spirit of the dragon, you will be able to direct it to do your will." There was a look of glee in his eye as he stopped in front of me. Something still wasn't right.

  "All right, what's the catch?" I asked flatly.

  He laughed again and smiled down at me. "Why, you must kneel before me and acknowledge me as your lord before I will permit that to happen."

  So. We were back to that again. "You understand that even if I do this, it doesn't mean I'm going to be your lackey."

  He smiled again and held out his right hand. Prominently displayed on it was a large ring with a fire opal set in a gold base with the figure of a silver Chinese dragon curled around it. I bit my lip and kneeled as I took his hand. "My lord," I said calmly and kissed the ring. He had won this round. His pride was satisfied.

  They say that if you're going to sell out, make it for something worthwhile.  I could only hope that salvaging my pride in the real world would balance out for what I had done in the long run.

  I stood and looked him in the eye. "Now, just how do I summon the spirit of the dragon

  He chuckled and smiled at my question. "The same way you call on any of my powers. It's up to you if you want to make a show of it or not."

  That's all I needed to know. Without so much as a "By your leave" to my new, so-called master, I used the amulet to step back into the real world. My reappearance caused a small stir in the room, as this was the first time most folks in the room had witnessed that ability.

  Yoseph gave me a look that asked if I found what I needed. I smiled and nodded before I returned to stand in front of the window. The people in the room slowly settled down as they realized I was waiting for them. Hushed whispers flittered around the room as people shushed each other.

  When all was quiet I walked out into the middle of the room, drew my Katana still sheathed in its scabbard and held it high above me. People hastily backed away, unsure of my intent. I brought the covered blade down and slowly turned in a circle so as to force the group in the room to line up. I then held the blade in front of me and studied it for a second. "We are warriors," I intoned, my voice firm. "We live by the blade and we die by the blade. We do not seek conflict, but we are drawn to it like moths to a flame. Our lives are brief, bloody and violent. Few of us ever survive to die of old age."

  I paused for a second and looked up at the Countess. "We are here to honor one of our own who has fallen in battle. We are here to honor Thomas Livingston Brant." She squirmed a little under my gaze, but didn't look away. "The traditions of my people are far different from those of yours," I continued as I passed my gaze over the crowd. "As Thomas had no true living family other than myself, I have chosen to handle his death as my people traditionally would."

  Seeing that nobody was about to object to what I was going to do, I walked back over by the window. The line split enough to let me join the circle. "It is traditional that we do not mourn for the passing of a warrior since his spirit will live on. Instead, we try to remember something good about that person; maybe some trait that they had, some habit, or perhaps a humorous anecdote about them. The point is to keep their memory alive and share it with each other."

  I turned to the young man to my right. He was one of the squires Thomas had been bunking with. I put my hand on his shoulder and gave a little squeeze as I nodded for him to proceed. He looked a little nervous as he stepped forward. "I..umm... Well, I didn't really know Tom that well," he said nervously. "He always kept to himself and was real quiet-like. He never bragged. Not even when Miss Arden here became a Drijen. I guess that's what I'll remember about him. He was just...quiet."

  I gave his shoulder another squeeze and looked to the next person. As the stories progressed around the circle, I discovered many things about Thomas I didn't know. I was aware that he had been fighting, but he never explained why. I discovered that the squires had been teasing another new boy who was also squired to a woman. Thomas had taken it as his job to defend the kid and break a few noses in the process. He stayed to himself for the most part, until someone teased him or the other kid about being squired to a girl. That's not to say he didn't get into a few fights just to maintain his status in the pecking order. He just didn't open a full can of whup-ass on someone unless provoked.

  Everything was going fine until it came around to the Countess. I gave her a harsh look, hoping it would silence her, but to no avail. "We didn't know the boy, Thomas," she said elegantly. "We had only seen him on rare occasions when he was doing errands for his animal." I had no doubt that last bit was meant for me as she looked at me when she said it. "It is most unfortunate that he was forced to throw his life away defending a creature that cared no more for him than it would for any other pawn." Muffled gasps echoed around the circle as her words struck home.

  She was taunting me, trying to make me angry, and she was succeeding. It took all my reserves not to draw the Katana and charge her. I think Yoseph knew this since I could sense him moving around the outside of the group to where the Countess was standing. I hope he wouldn't try to defend her if I truly lost it. I hate to think about what I might do to him.

  "It brought him to the audience chamber, knowing full well it was there to answer for crimes it had committed." Her face had a serious expression, but her eyes were laughing. "We saw how it pretended to allow the real Drijen to defeat it. We also saw how it threw away its squire's life as a distraction to give it an opening for its final attack. The Drijen Yoseph has even admitted that he never stood a chance against the true power that it controls." More than one person in the circle was taking her at face value. Could these people really believe that I would be so callous?

  I could feel the Dragon's power wrapping itself around me as I became enraged. My vision shifted slightly as my eyes changed. I could tell the Countess had spotted the change, her eyes got a little wider as she paused in her harangue. I could see the horrified look on Gwen's face. Whether it was at her sister or in reaction to my rage, I couldn't tell.

  The Countess swallowed and then cleared her throat before continuing. "Yes... umm... We tell all of you now, this creature has no regard for human life. If you place your trust in it, you may very well pay with your lives as its squire did."

  "Do you seek death so eagerly?" I asked in a low, rumbling voice that echoed off of the walls. "You stand here amongst his friends, claiming to do him a service while you instead do him a great dishonor by using this as a forum to attack me."

  "Miss Arden, please don't."

  The voice stopped me, as I started walking towards the Countess. It was Thomas' voice. Nanuk must have been teaching him tricks I had been too busy to learn.

  "She's not worth it, Miss Arden. Really. I know you didn't mean for it to happen, and that's all that's really important."

  He was right, of course. I nodded and let the rage recede. "Fine," I said to the Countess. "You've had your say. Now it's someone else's turn to honor the memory of Thomas."

  I think the Countess would have said something if Gwen hadn't spoken first. "Our first impression of the boy was on the day that Lady Arden killed herself." She said it in such an offhanded manner, I'm not sure everyone realized quite what she had said. "He had come to us with this incredible story about a creature that resembled a fox, but walked and talked like the rest of us. We must admit that his testimony to the fact was so convincing we hardly needed to hear from Lady Arden's lord as to the veracity of his claims."

  Gwen paused in her speaking as she walked out into the circle and towards me. "After we had discovered that she was being held in the mews, we ordered her brought before us. Unfortunately, she had been harmed terribly by her experiences there..." I could see in her eyes the fact that she was remembering my side of it, just as I was now remembering her side.

  "This extraordinary creature had been broken, both in body and spirit. Rather than live with the shame, she picked up the knife her lord had dropped, and tried to take her life." Gwen reached out and traced the line that I had drawn with my Tanto that day. "The only person other than ourselves to see this was the boy. He fought with her to try and save her life, pleading with her."

  The two of us just stood there for a moment, lost in the memory before Gwen pulled her hand back and turned toward the main group again. "Afterwards, once she had been healed, there was a question of her survival. Nobody knew if her spirit would find its way back," she explained as she walked slowly around the circle. "At this time, we asked the boy what reward he wished for trying to save her life."

  She paused for a second and looked up at her sister. "He told us that he desired no reward. He had done it because she was his friend." I couldn't see the look she gave her sister, but I could tell it struck a nerve. "We explained that we valued such actions of heroism from one so young, and that he should name his reward. Again he refused, saying that all he wanted was to be with Miss Arden. If that couldn't be, then maybe we could find him a job at the castle, as he had no family to return to."

  Gwen paused in front of me again. "This is what we remember most about your squire," she said with a smile. "That is how we will always remember Thomas." She turned and walked back over beside her sister, not bothering to excuse herself when she shoved the woman aside to resume her position in line.

  I smiled and nodded for the next person to continue. With the exception of the Countess, the gathering was going along well. Unlike the others in the room, the sharp pain of his loss didn't strike me as deeply. For me, he wasn't quite dead, though I figure that would change once I saw his body destroyed. It would give me closure and finality to the act...

  As the circle of tales and remarks came to a close, I was saddened. Not by any story or remark, but by the fact that Sheila hadn't come. It hurt me terribly that he couldn't bring himself to attend the memorial.

  With the last of the testimonies, it was my turn. It was then that I realized that I hadn't really planned what to say, so I decided to start at the beginning. "I remember when I first met Thomas," I said with a smile as I thought about that night in the inn. "The first thing he asked was if I could really talk. His very next question was to ask if he could pet my tail." That got a laugh out of most of the people in the room. "Now I don't let just anyone pet my tail, but in this case I made an exception. He was such a nice kid. He had that wide eyed wonder that was always looking for something new and exciting no matter where he would find it. I think that's the moment when I fell in love with the boy." I paused for a second then realized just what I had said. "Mind you, I'm talking strictly in a platonic sense," I said quickly to cover my tracks. 

  The smile faded from my face as I realized that Sheila was right to have been jealous of Thomas. The kid had struck a chord in me, and I hadn't realized just how strong its call was. "Thomas was more than just my squire. He was my best friend in this world, and the closest thing to a son I've ever had. I'll miss him."

  I looked back up at the group and watched as Yoseph made his way over to Thomas' body. It was show time. I opened the first door of the airlock as he levitated the body and directed it into the chamber. The people in the room slowly migrated over to the window as we cycled through the airlock.

  Once on the other side, Yoseph directed the body out so that it hovered over the central core of the heatstone chamber. "How are you going to pull this off, Arden? You pick up some new trick?" he asked curiously.

  I chuckled as I moved over to the opposite side of the room from the window. I winked and gave him a big smile as I closed my eyes and concentrated on summoning forth the dragon.

  Summoning the dragon is like getting hit with a flamethrower from the inside out. I let out a screech that echoed off of the walls and drove Yoseph to his knees. To this day I don't know how he managed to keep up both spells while under the assault of my voice. The muscles in my body convulsed, causing me to arch my back and throw my arms open wide. The agony reached its peak as the flaming visage of a dragon shot forth from my chest and out into the chamber.

  Released from the agony of the summoning, I dropped to my paws, panting as the creature I had summoned flew around inside the chamber. With each circumference its size grew, finally reaching a point where its wings stretched from side to side. Then it paused, hovering in the middle of the chamber.

  I forced myself to stand and gaze at the back of the creature. It was an awesome sight to behold. The creature only had a wingspan of about sixty feet, but when you looked at it, you had the impression of a creature easily ten or twenty times that size. It was as if space had been warped so that it could fit within the chamber. For the first time in a thousand years, a greater dragon once again flew in this world.

  The creature slowly rotated to face me. I was awestruck by the majesty of the creature. Unlike the dragon that Lakash had perverted, this was a pure essence of the dragon spirit. The question now was, how am I supposed to control it? He said it would do my will, but just how did I direct it? I shifted my perspective so that I would be able to see the magic of the room. The chamber came alive with colors that showed the ebb and flow of energy. It also showed a conduit that connected the dragon to me that wasn't dissimilar to the one that connected me to Lakash. I grasp the conduit and used it to direct my desires to the dragon. It nodded and looked up at the body that floated overhead as it slowly allowed itself to sink down into the pit where the heatstone resided.

  As the dragon settled on the stone I saw it react to his presence. He was a creature of arcane magic, and the stone was designed to turn arcane magic into heat. As the stone drew power from him it grew hotter. To my surprise the dragon crouched down and spread its wings over the stone, gathering the heat that was radiating from it. After a minute or so its color started to change from a ruby red to a lighter pink and then almost a glowing white. With a sudden spasmodic jerk the dragon leapt up from the stone and exhaled the heat it had absorbed upwards in a blast furnace of heat that knocked me on my ass and vaporized everything in its path.

  And I do mean everything.

  The metallic grating in the roof that was designed to prevent objects from falling on the stone had been vaporized. The lining to the chimney was also vaporized, as well as the grating that was on top. To make matters worse, the stone inside the chimney was now rippled and had literally run in places.

  I climbed slowly to my feet, awestruck by what had just happened. As the dragon hovered before me I looked at it with a new level of respect. The power of its attack terrified me. Now I understood why the humans had hunted down and killed the greater dragons. I bowed to it, thanked it and ordered it to return to wherever it came from. The dragon let out a small screech, folded its wings and dove into me.

  I had been prepared to endure the pain of it returning, but there was none, just the slight ruffle of my fur by the wind it displaced. I glanced at the roof again for a second before I headed around to the door that lead back into the observation room.

  To my shame, I have to admit that I had totally forgotten about Yoseph. As I came around the balcony I saw his unconscious form crumpled against the wall. I could smell the burned and burning flesh as I ran over to him. The blast had been too much for his defenses, and now that he was unconscious nothing was protecting him from the heat within the stones. He was literally cooking.

  I snatched up his limp form and rushed over to the airlock. For once I was truly glad to have the strength of the dragon. Without it, I'm not sure I could have carried him.

  Once we cycled through the airlock, I pushed my way through the throng of people who had been standing by, waiting for us to reenter.

  "You see!" I heard the Countess shout. "Every human that has put their trust in it has been betrayed. It will kill all of you!"

  I wanted to kill that woman, but I was more worried about Yoseph. His armor had stopped much of the blast, but not all of it. He easily had over fifty percent of his body covered in third degree burns.

  Once again I had tried to use my power for something good, and once again I had caused only pain. I cursed myself inwardly even as I worked on centering myself and concentrating on channeling my own personal power into the healing spell that Nanuk had taught me.

  Slowly, as more and more of my life essence poured into Yoseph, his wounds began to heal. Even as this occurred, I realized something. I had not bothered to return my sight to normal and I saw energy seeping away from his burned body. It was the energy created by change. It was the power source for the dragon. I smiled and changed my tactics slightly. I used Nanuk's teachings on how to gather power, and concentrated on the energy that was seeping out of Yoseph. This close to the source, very little was lost. I found that I was getting close to half the power I was putting into the spell back by absorbing the energy from the change.

  That scared the hell out of me.

  I remember reading about a programmer who worked for a big bank in New York. He had worked on the accounting system, but had been passed over repeatedly for a promotion by a petty boss. So to get his revenge he took the fraction of a penny left over from calculating interest and put it in a special account. At the end of the day, that account would have its funds transferred to a Swiss bank. The amounts weren't huge compared to how much money the bank dealt with on a daily basis, but over time it added up. After two years, he had several million dollars. He quit the company, flew to Switzerland and mailed a letter back to the bank telling them about the bug and how to fix it.

  That's what this reminded me of. If Lakash absorbed just one percent of the energy that I was harvesting, it would add up to a tremendous amount of power when multiplied billions of times across a near infinite amount of universes. No wonder both Heaven and Hell wanted his ass taken down!

  After about three or four minutes of shuffling power I realized that my spell was no longer affecting Yoseph. He was fully healed. Exhausted, I leaned backwards and sat down on the floor. It had taken a lot out of me, but not a critical amount. I would have to spend time re-gathering the energy I had expended over the next few days.

  The crowd milled around us. Nobody was willing to touch either of us directly. I think I had heard someone sending for a healer, but I had been too busy to worry about it. I looked up to see the Countess hovering over Yoseph. "Just for your information, Twiggy," I said in a derisive tone, "In order for me to heal someone, I have to sacrifice my own life force." I could tell that she and others around her understood exactly what I was saying. "I have to wonder if you would be willing to do the same if you were in my position."

  I crossed my legs and tried to relax as Yoseph started to come around. It had already been a long day, and it wasn't over yet.

Chapter 32