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 32

The School Daze or Life Without Principal.

  "You want me to do what?" Lakash said with a bit of a surprised look on his face.

  I sighed, and in a resigned voice answered, "I want you to teach me as much as you can about how to use these powers." This was the last thing in the world I wanted to be doing right about now, but I really felt I had no choice.

  Lakash stood and walked over to me. "So let me get this straight," he said as he slowly circled me, pacing. "You beg a favor from me, then pop out without so much as a thank you or a by-your-leave. Then you come back and have the gall to stand there and ask me to teach you?" Lakesh stopped in front of me then bent over so his nose was about an inch from mine. "Give me one good reason why."

  Aw, Christ. Not this again. "Because you need me to complete the quest," I stated.

  He straightened up and considered my answer as he rubbed the side of his nose. "Not good enough," he announced before whirling around and marching back to his throne.

  "Not good enough?" I asked incredulously as I followed him. "Just what the hell do you want from me?"

  Lakash plopped down in his chair and propped his feet up on a stool that appeared underneath them. "Something that's going to make up not only for the crap that you've been giving me, but for all the trouble that you undoubtedly will make for me." He waved casually to indicate that I should try again.

  Great. I now have to come up with some way to appease this asshole and get him to teach me how to control these damn powers. The worse part of it all was that I couldn't really think of anything. I glared at Lakash for a second and realized that despite his attempt to look all regal and serious, he was smirking slightly. "There isn't anything I can say that will convince you, is there," I said more as a statement of fact than a question.

  He chuckled and spread his hands. "There's no excuse I can think of," he replied offhandedly.

  I took a deep breath and counted to ten. "Fine," I said flatly. "What do you want from me?"

  He smiled and licked his lips. "Oh, there's a lot I want from you," he said with a small leer. "However, I'll settle for you doing some tasks for me in the mundane world." The footstool vanished and he leaned forward. "There is a key person in your realm whose actions and those of his forefathers is of great offense to me personally. I want you kill him."

  I took an angry step towards him. "What do I look like, your personal assassin?"

  He just shrugged and smiled. "Isn't that what you are? An assassin?" he asked, stating the obvious. "Unless I'm mistaken, you were a professional hit man for the Japanese for quite some time. You racked up a rather impressive kill count without ever getting caught."

  "I'm not like that any more," I denied quietly. He was right, though. Despite all my protests to the contrary I was good at one thing: killing.

  "Of course you're not," he said condescendingly. "You're the caring healer who has done nothing but good for everyone you've ever touched." He got up from his throne and lifted my muzzle in his hand so I couldn't avoid looking at him. "Admit it, Arden. You're a natural-born killer. I invested a lot of time and effort directing your life so that you would become the consummate killing machine. Lethal, without making a mess of it---that's what I need now. There is one person, one entity whose family is responsible for the destruction of the greater dragons, and continued persecution of the lesser dragons in that world. I want his head and you're going to give it to me." He let go of my muzzle and stared at me for a second. "Or is that too much to ask in return for control over powers beyond your imagination?"

  He sounded so damn reasonable. I knew that man had hunted down and destroyed all the greater dragons in this world. I knew that the regular dragons were unknown in Imperial territory as they were hunted mercilessly if any tried to get a foothold. Is it possible that one family, one person could be responsible for this hatred? Was I willing to sacrifice his life so that I could learn to harness and control these powers that I had so arrogantly demanded?

  To my shame, I decided that the death of one more person was a small price to pay. "All right, Lakash. I'll do your bidding," I replied. "Show me how to control these powers, and I'll kill whomever you want."

  To tell the truth, the worst part of all of this was the fact that his smile no longer bothered me.

  "That will be enough for today," Lakash said sternly. "You're getting tired. I don't want to have to repeat these lessons tomorrow."

  I nodded. I was getting burned out. Up until now I had been relying on the raw power behind the dragon, but now I was learning true magic. I always did have an aptitude for math in school. Who knew that magic and math were heavily related? "OK, Boss. I guess I'll catch you tomorrow," I said wearily. Lakash nodded and waived me off.

  I thought for a second about where to go and then remembered Sheila. I let my mind roam and found him standing on the balcony of our room, looking down into the courtyard. I concentrated on a spell Lakash had taught me and opened a portal between realms. It was a draining spell since it was crossing so many barriers, but I could power it directly from my connection to the dragon. I stepped through to find Sheila standing there with one of the ornamental maces from the wall in hand, ready to bash me.

  "Good lord, Arden!" Sheila exclaimed as he tossed the mace onto the bed and swept me into his arms. "Do you have any idea how close you came to getting brained?"

  I would have replied, but I was too busy hugging him to worry about it. It had been a long, hard day and there was no other place I wanted to be other than in his arms right now. I managed to unbury my muzzle from the folds of his cloths and turn it up for a kiss. God, it was good to be back.

  After a couple of minutes, we slowly untangled from our embrace. "Where have you been?" he asked, his concern etched on his face. "Last thing I heard, you had almost killed Yoseph and promptly vanished into thin air after helping cut him out of his armor. That was two nights ago. I've been going nuts worrying about you!"

  I sighed and flopped down on the bed, stretching my arms out over my head to relax. "I'm sorry, love," I said by way of an apology, "but with everything that happened the other day, I decided that it was time to swallow my pride and learn how to control these powers I have." I rolled over and caressed his face with my paw. "I know I should have told someone what I was going to do, but I hadn't planned on being gone for so long. Time doesn't work the same way there as it does here."

  Sheila smiled and kissed my paw. "Don't worry about it. I'm just glad you're all right. I was so worried that something had happened to you." His expression changed a little as he continued, becoming more solemn. "I didn't know what had happened. I thought maybe you were pissed that I wasn't there for you. I was afraid you were mad at me for not going."

  I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I was disappointed with you," I said, choosing my words carefully, "but I wasn't angry. It was your decision to come or not to come. I really could have used your support, even if you didn't say anything."

  Sheila rolled over onto his back and looked up at the canopy. "I know, Arden, and I'm sorry. I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I've been kicking myself in the ass over the whole thing with Thomas. I don't know..."

  I smiled and climbed up on top of his chest, the same as he used to do back when our rolls were reversed. "Hey, it's in the past, lover. Right now the most important thing I'm concerned about is getting the Chro'nisphorum from the Arcanum and transporting us to Husaquahr so we can end this thing. I'm tired of having friends hurt or dying around me. I just want to take what time I have left and spend it with you. I still want to go back to Zig Zag's, raise our kids and watch them grow up to give us grand kids. I want to have a normal life again."

  He sat up and wrapped his arms around me. Sitting on his lap, I sat almost as tall as he was. He pulled me close, squeezing me against his chest and whispered in my ear, "If we make it out of this mess alive, I swear that I'll never leave you."

  I could only hope that things would work out in the end.

  In the morning I helped Sheila to pack up his equipment. The Duke's party was leaving the keep that day to continue their journey to the capitol. The only change in plans was the addition of the Countess and her retinue. The Count had decided not to go. I didn't blame the guy. She had dug a hole and he didn't want to be anywhere near her when someone filled it in.

  I couldn't help but notice the way people were now staring at me as I helped to pack Sheila's horse. Some were looking at me with a worried expression, like I'd bite their heads off. Others showed open disgust or hatred, while the remainder were either politely neutral or occasionally friendly. Lord only knew what kind of rumors the Countess had started passing around after my vanishing act.

  "Lady Arden?" came a voice from behind me. It was one of the stable boys with my horse in tow. "Aren't you going to outfit your horse?" he asked, noting that I hadn't broken out an extra saddle.

  "No, thank you," I said with a smile. "I'm afraid I'll have to rely on other methods of transportation to catch up with the caravan."

  The young man nodded and led the horse back over to the stables. I made a mental note to see that it was given to him. I'd rather see the kid get his own horse than the Count or Countess repossessing the animal as being abandoned.

  "Arden? You're not coming?" Sheila asked as he came around behind the horse.

  I smiled as I cinched up the straps on the saddlebags. "No. I have to return to Lakash and continue my training," I replied. Satisfied that Sheila's horse was set to go, I turned and leaned against it. "I can use the portal you saw last night to catch up to you from his realm."

  Sheila laughed and crossed his arms. "If that's true, then why not just use it to go to the Arcanum directly and skip all this road trip crap?"

  "Good question," I admitted with a nod. "For one, I don't know if I could transport you that far, and I don't want to risk getting the Chro'nisphorum and then being forced to move on without you. Besides, I'll need to master these powers before I can enter the Arcanum."

  Sheila got a concerned look on is face at that last comment. "Why's that? I thought you just needed to go, sign in or whatever and get that thing."

  I sighed. I really didn't want to tell him about my bargain with Lakash. "There will be a challenge that I must overcome," I explained, skirting the truth. "I'm going to have to go head to head with a very powerful sorcerer in the Arcanum. In order to win, I'll need to master the powers that I've gotten from the dragon."

  Sheila took me in his arms and gave me a light hug. "When will I be seeing you again, lover?" he asked quietly. I noticed several people were openly staring, but I didn't care.

  I smiled and rested my muzzle on his chest as I looked up at him. "I'm not sure. Like I told you before, time doesn't work the same there." I laid my head on his chest sideways and listened to him breath for a few minutes. "I'll try to come back every couple of days, ok? That way we can try to get in a little quality time."

  "OK, lover. You be careful with that bastard," he warned gently. "I don't want you making any promises you'll regret."

  I inwardly winced, but kept it from my expression as I gave him a parting kiss. I was really beginning to feel like a heel, but unfortunately it was something that I had to do. Besides, it's not like I haven't killed in payment for training before. The only difference this time was the fact that I knew it was nothing more than a professional hit for revenge and not for an honorable reason.

  I backed away from Sheila, bowed, turned and used the amulet to step into Lakash's realm only to be promptly knocked on my ass by a magical attack.

  "What did I tell you about keeping your defenses up?" Lakash growled.

  Rolled over and looked at him. He was in dragon form again as he spit another ball of energy at me. I tried to generate a shield of energy, but it shattered under the impact having not fully formed. Again I was knocked across the floor.

  "Not good enough! You've got to be quicker than that. The next person you fight won't be tossing spit-wads at you!" Again Lakash spit a ball of energy, this time it was a lot brighter, indicating it was much more powerful.

  I rolled to my feet and threw my barrier up, angling it to deflect the attack rather than countering it directly. The impact of the ball shoved me back a foot or so as the attack bounced harmlessly off my barrier. My arms ached with the feedback from the attack against my shield.

  "Better! Let's see how you handle this," he said, this time rearing up and casting a spell with his talons. A huge sphere shot forward and exploded half-way between us, sending hundreds of smaller balls out in every direction. The little bastards were arcing around to attack from all directions.

  I squatted down and expanded my shield into a sphere, concentrating all my power on reinforcing it so as to survive the barrage. The barrier held, thought the feedback was painful. I did, however, take the opportunity to begin absorbing residual energy from his attacks. Lakash didn't let me borrow power during one of his drills. I had to fend for myself. With each new attack, I countered with a different type of barrier, each time absorbing a portion of his attack and building one of my own.

  The final straw came when he fired off five high-powered balls at me in rapid succession. There was no way I could deflect them, so I did the next best thing and channeled them around me. By modifying my barrier into a scoop, I caught the balls and sent them into a kind of small orbit around me. I then dumped my energy into the attack, forcing them to merge into one large, cylindrical bolt that I then released at the dragon.

  Lakash had been readying a new attack when he saw mine coming back at him. He dropped the ball and raised his shields, but they weren't powerful enough to block the combined powers of his attack and what I had absorbed. The barrier imploded as the bolt drove squarely into the dragon's midsection and sending the enormous beast flying. He landed with a loud thump as I dropped exhausted to my knees.

  For a moment he didn't move. Not even breathe. Then his body shook with a cough followed by laughter as he rolled over onto his stomach and looked at me. "Very good attack. And here I thought you were going to try to use those spheres as interceptors."

  I smiled as I climbed wearily to my feet. "The best defense is a good offense. To defeat an attacker more powerful than yourself, you must take their power and turn it against them." I smiled as he nodded at the old aphorisms. "I may not have been using magic long, but I do know how to fight."

  Lakash changed forms into a human again and walked over to meet me. Between us he generated a table with food and refreshments. "You did well recovering from my initial attacks, but you shouldn't have fallen for the first one," he lectured. "You knew you were entering a dangerous zone by coming here. You should have anticipated my attack and been prepared to counter it immediately."

  I nodded in agreement. He was right. I still had Sheila on my brain. The memory of our time last night had definitely put me into a good mood. I had made the mistake of letting it influence my actions outside the bedroom. "I'll keep that in mind. I can't afford to make that mistake in the real world."

  Lakash poured each of us a drink and reclined back in his chair. "You better not screw up in the real world. You get yourself killed, and you better hope that Lucifer gets his grubby mitts on you before I do."

  Ouch! It had never occurred to me that Lakash could lay claim to my soul in the afterlife. "So what's the plan? More combat exercises?" I asked as I took a sip of the drink. It really was quite refreshing.

  He shook his head as he set the empty cup down on the table. "No, you've mastered the basics of combat with the seven magics. Now its time for you to learn how to handle enchanted items." He stood and moved around to a neutral side of the table where he then placed several objects that he had been carrying in his pockets on the surface. "Each of these has a permanent enchantment of some sort on them. I'm going to teach you how to read that enchantment as well as to remove it safely without setting off any safeguards."

  I drained my drink and moved to stand beside him. "Useful for removing magic traps and curses, I take it?" I asked, shifting my sight so I could see the magic that each item was imbued with.

  Lakesh nodded. "Correct. It will also show you how to access the magic in an object. Always use someone else's power if possible rather than your own." He turned and smiled at me. "Waste not, want not." We both chuckled at his obsession for being miserly with power. He picked up the first amulet and held it out to me. "This is your basic thief trap item....."

  I was exhausted again. We had spent close to seven days in the realm, dividing my time between reading and disarming magic traps, enchanting non-magic items and the occasional surprise ambush assault. It had been two days since his last sneak attack. I think my response last time had convinced him that I was getting tired of playing that game. I had discovered a way to store a huge chunk of power within myself without effort. When he tried to nail me with a surprise attack, I was able to draw on more than just my base reserves. I easily deflected the shot then nailed his scaly hide to the wall, literally, with a multi-pronged attack. His surprise at my counterattack was total. I think that may have been my graduation exercise, at least for combat.

  With the only breaks from study being to stop and eat or occasionally let me sleep (he kept forgetting I needed that little thing), it was a routine that had worn me down to a nub.

  "Enough," Lakash said with a disgusted voice at my attempt to alter a complex enchantment. "You're doing worse than you did before you got some sleep. What's your problem?"

  I looked at him with narrowed eyes. "I need to take a break from this, Master," I said wearily. "My mind is getting numb with trying to go over this crap without anything else to distract it. I am only mortal, you know!"

  Lakash gave me a look like I had taken a dump on his good china. "Bah!" he said and cleared the room with a wave of his hand. "Get out of here. Go play with your mate for a couple of days. Come back when you feel you're ready to study for real again."

  I nodded and bowed. "Thank you, Master. I shall return once I am rested." With that I let my mind wander to locate Sheila. They had progressed a fair pace in the real world and had crossed the southern plains and were nearing the southern edge of the Imperial Forestry Reserves. From the looks of the camp, they had been set up for some time. It was well after dark and people were still pretty active. I located Sheila eating dinner at a portable table under the stars with the Duke, Duchess, some other minor nobles, Yoseph and Dane. It pleased me to no end not to see the Countess there.

  I had summoned a gate and was about to step through when Lakash's voice stopped me. "Ahem." I glanced over to see a transparent sphere floating over his hands. "What did I tell you about transporting into an area without protection?"

  I shook my head. "Do you really expect them to attack me?" I asked incredulously.

  "Never underestimate the capacity for random human violence," he replied.

  I nodded and generated a shield around myself. Not satisfied with it being visible, I fine tuned the spell and forced it to fade away. A glace over at Lakash let me receive a nod of approval. I chuckled to myself about his paranoia and stepped through the portal.

  After passing through the portal I released the power maintaining it and was promptly hit by a serious bolt of mana that almost overwhelmed my defenses. Despite the fact that it didn't actually penetrate, the flare effect from it did manage to blind me. My reflexes from Lakash's training kicked in and I channeled a lightning bolt back down the trail my attackers' spell used to hit me. I was rewarded when I sensed his power fade.. Whoever had hit me was down and out.

  I took a second to pump up the sphere that enveloped me and solidify it fully before I concentrated on trying to clear my sight. I felt someone banging on the shield, but it was a mundane attack and was no threat. Once my eyes had cleared enough to let me see I turned to look at some big, ugly guy wearing fancy armor who was staring stupidly at a battle-axe he was holding. I was about to nail him with a stun ball when I saw Sheila and Yoseph come tearing around the corner of a tent.

  "What the hell do you people think you're doing?" I heard him demand. The big, ugly guy turned just in time to catch a body check from Sheila and go flying. His armor made a most satisfying crunch as he landed on the ground.

  "Thanks, love," I said casually as I surveyed the people around us. Most were wearing the same style of fancy armor and had their weapons drawn, though they didn't look inclined to screw with me. I saw Yoseph standing over the guy I had nailed with the lightning bolt. I notice a couple of people on the ground writhing in pain who had apparently caught the edge of the spell.

  I relaxed my defensive shields back down to a point where I could move freely and walked over to Yoseph. It occurred to me as I was walking that I had never bothered to draw my swords. I had relied entirely on magic.

  Yoseph looked up from the smoldering body of the old geezer that had blasted me and frowned. "You killed him, Arden," he said quietly as he stood.

  "He should have been more selective about who he tried to ambush," I replied off handedly.

  "Arden!" Sheila exclaimed as he smacked my arm.

  I gave him an annoyed look. "Hey! The son of a bitch attacked me with out warning or provocation. What was I supposed to do, shake his hand and thank him?" Sheila didn't answer my challenge. He just got a sad look in his eye, turned and walked away. I turned back to Yoseph. "You have any complaints?" I demanded shortly.

  He shook his head also. "No, Arden, I don't," he said quietly as he put a hand on my shoulder. "You were just defending yourself. Just like I did with your squire. I'm the last person in the world to judge you for that." He gave my shoulder a squeeze before he walked over to the big guy who was still laid out on the ground.

  I glanced at the other bodies scattered around the mage. They had caught the edge of the electrical strike and were stunned but not really harmed. I looked at the carnage for a second before I realized what was gnawing at me in the back of my mind. I didn't give a damn about the sorcerer I had just killed. I wasn't happy, sad, guilty or anything. It wasn't quite like wearing the mask. It was almost like he was just an obstacle that had gotten in my way.

  I turned and followed Sheila. I knew I had upset him and wanted to make things right. This was going to take some serious work.

Chapter 33