Story (c) 2001 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 36

Building a better mousetrap.

  "Are you on drugs or what?" Sheila demanded once we got back to the tent.

  I laughed at the question and replied, "No. Should I be?" Boy, Sheila sure could be a grouch in the morning. I knew he had been annoyed when I showed up for breakfast wearing my new outfit, but I thought he would have calmed down by now.

  Sheila stepped in, towering over me and scowled. "What the hell has gotten into you, Arden?" he demanded in a loud voice. "Don't you have any decency?"

  I blinked at that. "Decency? What the hell are you talking about?" I asked back. He wasn't making any sense.

  "This!" he said, angrily as he waved towards my new outfit. "What were you thinking, showing up at breakfast in that outfit?"

  I put my hands on my hips and stood my ground. "I was bored with that damn peasant dress. I just wanted something a little more comfortable to wear."

  "Comfortable, yes. But not dressed like a tramp!" he challenged back. "You embarrassed me this morning!"

  My jaw dropped in surprise. "Tramp?" I asked in shock. "This coming from the person who used to run around in public wearing tight T-shirts and cutoff's that left nothing to the imagination."

  "Hey!" he spat out with a wounded look. "I may have teased the public occasionally, but I'd never show up to dine with royalty dressed like a two dollar whore."

  A whore? I was stunned by what he had said. Had he really just call me a whore? I turned and walked slowly to the tent flap.

  "Where are you going?" he said in a demanding tone of voice.

  I paused to look back at him. My first instinct was to make some sarcastic remark about turning tricks, but I squashed that idea. As an afterthought, I removed the amulet and chucked it in his direction. Sheila caught it and looked up with a surprised expression. "I'm returning to my training. If you need me, call to Lakash and he'll send me back," I explained.

  Without further comment I left the tent and made my way out of the camp. As I walked away, I heard Sheila call out to me a couple of times, but I ignored him. Where did he get off calling me a whore?

  I wasn't quite ready to return to Lakash, nor did I feel like hanging around in the camp so I proceeded to walk out into the bush. The procession was almost half way across the wastes. With a few more days travel, this bush would turn into open range grasslands and then eventually into forest. For the moment, though, I almost felt like I was back home in the Arizona desert.

  As I walked through the brush, the same thought kept running through my head: Where the hell did he get off calling me a whore?

  Was it so wrong for me to shake things up a little? I mean really. The outfit wasn't that bad. In fact, I have no doubt that given the opportunity Sheila would have worn it had we been back in her home world. I don't know. Some times I just can't figure him out.

  I came to a stop in a large clearing and realized that I had been walking for some time. A glance at the sun showed that it was almost noon. What caught my attention about the camp sight was the fact that the fire pit was dug deep into the earth with a high berm around it to hide the light from casual observers. It was also fresh.

  From the size of the fire pit and the tracks in the vicinity around it, I got the idea that there were maybe half a dozen people at most who had been camped here. The curious thing was that the pit wasn't central to the clearing like you'd expect. It was set well off to one end. A quick investigation of the other end showed the reason why. They had some rather large beasts that must have been used like horses. From the marks in the dirt and sand, I would have to say they were some kind of over grown lizard. That thought reminded me of the Dewbacks from Star Wars that the Storm Troopers rode. Oddly enough, their spoor seemed familiar to me somehow.

  I was about to set out and follow the track when I felt more than heard Lakash summon me. I filed the information about the lizards away to ask Maus about later and cast a gate to Lakash's realm.

  "Have we been having fun?" he asked sarcastically. "I don't mind you taking time off, but wandering around aimlessly in the desert is a bit too much of a break from the routine for me."

  I winced. Of course he had been watching. I was now his pet project. I bowed my head and replied contritely, "I'm sorry, Master. I needed a little time to myself."

  Lakash grunted and shook his head. Obviously my personal time wasn't of much concern to him. With a snap of his finger we were in what appeared to be some sort of medieval looking lab. "All right. Back to work," he commented as he led me over to a table. "We've gone over how to read and modify an existing enchantment as well as how to cast an enchantment on an object. You've got the basics down for that so it's time to move on to the next step."

  He reached out and removed the Katana my belt and placed it on the table. Holding his hand over the sword, I saw its shape blur, melt and shrink into a cube of ore.

  "NO!" I cried out. "My sword!"

  Lakash gave me another derisive snort and tossed the ingot to me. "Ok, smart ass. What will happen to that ingot if you take it back into the real world without stabilizing it?" he asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

  I looked at the ingot that had been my sword. "It will revert to its original state," I replied dejectedly. "That's not my problem. That sword is over two hundred years old. I'd appreciate you not screwing around with it."

  Lakash snatched back the ingot and tossed it on the table. "Give it a rest," he snarled. "I've got socks older than that." He reached out and dragged me over so I stood in front of the ingot. "Today you're going to learn how to enchant an item during its creation phase...."

  I was exhausted, physically, mentally and emotionally from Lakash's training. The only thing that had made it all worth the effort was that I now held my sword again, renewed to its pristine state, as if it had just been forged. The big difference now were the spells that had been woven into the sword.

  Lakash had explained during the enchanting of the blade that at some point I was bound to get into a fight with a magical creature and I would need more than just my spell casting ability to kick some ass. The sword now had a couple of nice defensive features built into it to help me deflect magical attacks. It also had a very nasty offensive surprise for the person I used it on. The only drawback was that it was a one shot spell. I'd have to spend time back in the spirit realm to rearm it.

  I sheathed the Katana and drew my Wakazashi. I winced internally as I manipulated the energy to regress it back to its original form as an ingot. On a conscious level I knew that the sward wasn't really being changed, but my subconscious was screaming bloody murder because I was destroying a two hundred year old sword.

  I glanced over at Lakash before starting on the first spell. I was going to have to do this one all on my own and he would be watching. If I screwed this up....

  Toast didn't even begin to describe my current state of being. After completely rebuilding and enchanting two swords from scratch without rest, I was totally wiped out. Fortunately for me, I could relax in style, floating in the air as if gravity didn't exist. Those NASA astronauts definitely were living the good life when they were in orbit.

  I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up to see Illiam. "Hey," I said not entirely awake. "What are you doing here?"

  "I'm concerned, Arden," he said as he sat down next to where I was floating. "I think something's happening over on the other side, but I can't nail it down."

  I sat up and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. "What are you talking about, Illiam?"

  "I've been keeping an eye on that parade that your mate's part of," he explained. "As you know, I'm fairly limited on how I can interact with the real world."

  He was preaching to the choir. I had spent time trying to scry around by using him as a focal point, but he just wasn't designed to interface with the mundane world. "Yah, Illiam. I get the idea. What's the problem?"

  Illiam looked about nervously, as if he'd get in trouble for talking to me before he leaned closer. "I think there are dragons about, Arden."

  Dragons? I knew there weren't supposed to be any dragons in the empire. Lakash had told me how the empire hunted them down without mercy. That would, however, explain the tracks I saw in the desert. But where the hell had they come from? "Any idea what they're doing inside the empire?" I asked distractedly.

  Illiam just shook his head. "I don't know, Arden," he replied. "I do know that the Iced Landers have dragons that they raise from hatchlings as ally mounts. Then there are the black legions of Ceilon."

  "Huh?" I said and started paying attention. "Celion?"

  Illiam nodded. "Celion is a high ranking demigod who is essentially just another name for Lucifer," he explained. "They are a cult who are dedicated to overthrowing the rule of man to place the world back under the rule of dragons." He paused again as if he was worried about Lakash before continuing. "The problem is that the remaining dragons aren't very bright. At best a few of them have intelligence superior to a human. Most of them are pretty stupid though."

  Sounded like something Lucifer would do. It would piss Lakash off to have Lucifer using dragons to take over a realm. I winced and laid back. "OK. Keep an eye on the situation. If you think anything immediate is brewing, come and get me, ok?"

  Illiam stood and nodded. "As you command, Arden," he replied with a bow and vanished.

  That's all I needed. Lucifer was up to something and he obviously didn't want to let me in on it. Once I was rested, I'd have to pay that son of a bitch a visit and find out what he was up to.

  I let out a small string of curses as I tried to relax. How the hell was someone supposed to get any rest after news like that?

  It was done. The Tanto floated in front of me, finally complete. It was the only weapon that Sheila felt comfortable with. Since Illiam had told me that there might be dragons about, I decided to give him something to defend himself with.

  Occasionally, while I was enchanting the blade, Lakash would walk by and scowl down on me while making some odd sound of disapproval. I guess he didn't like the idea of a dragon being on the short end of the stick.

  None of that mattered now. The Tanto was complete. I had woven layer after layer of defensive spells into it. Whoever held the weapon would be virtually immune to dragon's breath. It would also help protect against mundane magical attacks of a similar nature, though not to the same extent. With all the defensive stuff I had crammed onto the blade, I hadn't been able to do much in the way of any offensive spells. The only thing I could embed was a spell to ensure that the blade would always remain free of any damage as well as razor sharp. Beyond that, Sheila would have to rely on his personal prowess and strength to do damage.

  I stood and plucked the Tanto from the air and sheathed it. I was about to portal out when Illiam showed up again. "What's up?" I asked worried at his expression.

  Illiam walked over and spoke in a conspiratorial voice. "I've located some dragons, Arden," he explained. "They're about half a days ride ahead of your mate's group."

  I thought about it for a minute. "Half a day, eh?" I said in my musings. "Do you think they're going to try an ambush tomorrow?"

  Illiam shook his head. "You don't understand. It's half a day by horse, but only an hour or so by air," he explained, enlightening me. "I don't like it Arden. They may be planning an ambush tonight."

  I groaned. The camp would be virtually undefended without a good combat mage. "What kind of intelligence can you give me about them?"

  Illiam shrugged and shook his head. "Not much, really," he admitted reluctantly. "Without someone to focus on, I can't see very well into the real world. The fact that they have a mage casting a masking spell didn't help either. If I hadn't gotten lucky and caught a glimpse of a dragon flying towards their camp, I never would have found it."

  I let out a low growl. We needed hard and solid evidence. "Can you gate me to a secluded location near the camp?"

  Illiam thought about it for a second and nodded. "There's a dry ravine not too far from their camp. I could put you down inside of it. That should hide the spell effects."

  I nodded. "All right," I said as I gathered power to bring my defenses up. "Let's do it."

  "What about him?" Illiam asked nervously.

  "What about him?" I challenged back. "It's none of his business."

  "That's easy for you to say. He won't blast you out of existence," Illiam muttered as he opened the gate.

  I chose to ignore the remark and brought my protection spells as I stepped through. True to Illiam's word, I was standing down in a ravine and slightly under an overhang created by some tree roots.

  I looked around and saw that it was just now getting to be dusk. That made me wonder just how long I had been gone. I hadn't bothered to ask. I tended to loose track of time in the real world while I'm under Lakash's tutorage.

  I sat down and waited for the last of the sun's rays to vanish, leaving a bright panorama of stars. The rabbit moon was making its way quickly across the sky and was almost at its apex. Give it another two hours and it would be on the horizon. That would leave nothing but starlight for the defending humans to try and spot the enemy by.

  I gathered the shadows around me and made my way out of the ravine. Once clear of the riverbed I paused long enough to rearrange my swords and ensure that they wouldn't rattle against each other. If I had taken the time and preplanned, I would have mounted the Katana and Wakazashi across my back to make creeping easier. I had gotten sloppy again, but it shouldn't matter, this time anyway. I'd have to take care not to let it happen again.

  Again I paused to survey the surroundings. There was still a lot of desert style brush around, but there were also sporadic spots of grass growing between the cacti. We must be getting close to the plains. I had been gone for several days.

  A sound caught my attention and caused my hackles to stand on end. It was a sound like satin on satin that had been carried on the breeze. I took a deep breath to try and identify any scents. I could barely make out the deep musk of dragons. I was on the right track.

  I proceeded at a quick trot through the brush, taking great care not to make any noise. Part of my concealment spell was designed to suppress the sound of my footfalls, but wouldn't do much if I caught the edge of a branch.

  After about ten minutes I slowed and dropped into a low crouch. I could see the heads of guards patrolling a clearing a couple of hundred yards away. I approached the encampment with all my senses alerted. I counted six guards on duty as I circled the camp. I also got my first good look at one of the dragons. They were classic western style dragons. Their charcoal gray coloration almost made them look like ghosts as they slept.

  There were four dragons and about a dozen men in the camp. The big question for me at the moment was the wizard. There had to be a high level mage in the camp to keep it safe from prying eyes. The thing was, I didn't see any tents. There wasn't any place for a mage to be hiding.

  I noted that the guards patrolling the perimeter didn't go too close to the dragons. I presume they didn't want to risk waking them up. Besides, who would be dumb enough to try and sneak up on a dragon?

  I took great care in sneaking up on the smallest of the dragons. His tail extended straight out into the shrubs as opposed to being wrapped around his feet like the others. I stopped behind a large bush right next to the tip of the tail. A few seconds modifying my camouflage spell and I now resembled an extension of the bush.

  Now to find out what these guys were up too. I reached out and touched the tip of his tail and projected myself into his dream.

  We were flying over a small human town. The rider on our back gave the order for us to stoop and attack. We dove towards an undamaged portion of the city and breathed fire on it as we skimmed over the roofs, pulling up into a climb at the end of our run. I could feel his anticipation at making more strafing runs against the people. It was time to change the tempo of his dream.

  I separated myself from him and summoned forth the body of a greater dragon to represent myself. I watched as he turned to make another run on the city and roared my anger at his impudence. His head snapped around in my direction at the sound of my voice. I could see the terror in his eyes as he watched me leisurely turn in his direction. Another challenging roar sent him into a complete panic.

  I beat my wings in long, powerful strokes and closed the gap as he frantically tried to escape. His rider was beating on him ineffectually with a baton, trying to regain control, but it wasn't going to happen. The last thing I saw on his riders face was a look of utter horror as my breath enveloped the two of them.

  The young dragon screamed in agony and rolled away in order to escape my attack. I let him go and again casually turned to reengage. His back and wings had been severely burned by my breath. Obviously his natural resistance to dragons breath wasn't working quite as well as he had hoped.

  Again I cried out my challenge as I stooped on him. He tried to twist and turn, to evade my attack, but it didn't help. As I shot past him, I flicked out with my tail and snapped it across his right wing. The thunderclap of bones shattering was echoed in his scream as he spun out of control into the ground far below.

  I landed next to his beaten and battered body and smiled as I listen to him whimper, "It's only a dream. This is only a dream."

  "You wish it were only a dream," I said with a deep, rumbling laugh.

  He lifted his head and looked up at me in terror. "This can't be real. Your kind was destroyed by the humans. There are no more of your kind."

  I reached out with a foot-hand and stepped on the shattered bones of his wing. His scream echoed off of the surrounding terrain. "Does this feel like a dream?" I asked as I continued to grind the bones together.

  "Enough!" he cried out. "I beg you! Please! No more!" He clinched his eyes shut as if to deny the pain that wracked his body.

  I backed off a few steps and settled down in such a way as to recline against a hill. With a wave of my hand, I changed the dreamscape to mimic that of the desert where I found him. All round us were the dead bodies of the humans and the other dragons. "Well now, what's a shrimp like you doing out in the desert like this, and why are you running around in such bad company?"

  He opened his eyes and looked around. "No! This is impossible!" he again denied.

  I casually ripped a leg off of the corpse of the largest dragon and began to chew on it. "If you insist. Shall I give your wing another workout?" I almost laughed at the look on his face.

  "No," he replied completely defeated. "Ask what you will, ancient one."

  I smiled. "That's more like it. Now, what were you and these other truants doing here?" I demanded in a cold tone of voice.

  "We were sent to capture a stranger."

  "What stranger," I demanded quietly.

  "I don't know. I was only brought as an extra show of force to inflate our patron's ego." He winced as I took another bite from the phantom leg.

  "And who was your patron?" I asked casually, confident that I had him completely cowed.

  Before he could answer, the dream shattered and I found myself back in my body. I looked over at the small dragon and found its head crushed under the foot of the largest dragon. The tail quivered under my hand with the echoes of his death throws.

  "Show yourself, human," the large dragon rumbled as he scanned the surrounding terrain.

  I strengthened the power of my illusion as I slowly withdrew the Tanto. I didn't want to use too much power by trying to both camouflage myself and bringing my protective spells up to maximum. I would have to rely on the spells in the Tanto to help defend myself should he penetrate my spells.

  "Come now, human," the dragon said. "I can hear you breathing and I smell your scent. It is a most intriguing one too. I've not smelled the likes of your subspecies before."

  Damn. I didn't think to mask my scent. That wasn't something I had thought about. Damn it all to hell.

  The dragon continued to scan the area. I could feel the power of his sight as he augmented it with a scrying spell. Each time his vision passed over me, I felt the illusion weaken. Rather than wait for it to fail, I decided to bite the bullet.

  I released the illusion and brought up my defensive spells to full power. "All right, dragon. Here I am," I said as I stepped away from the corpse.

  I saw his head recoil in surprise as he spotted me. "What is this?" he asked as he spotted my Tanto.

  "I am Arden, daughter of the greater dragon, Illialakeska," I stated proudly.

  "That's impossible," the dragon replied. "I watched the demon Lakash die under the heel of her human destroyers."

  He knew that Lakash and Illialakeska were the same. I hadn't known that any creature in this world other than Sheila and myself were aware of that fact. I boldly approached the dragon. "Look into my eyes and tell me it can't be," I challenged. "Look deep and hard at them and tell me you don't see an echo of Lakash."

  The dragon backed away from me. "NO!" he shouted in defiance. "I watched him be destroyed! I lead the humans to him and watched as he was banished!"

  I lost control of my body at that point. Lakash moved in and took over. "So it was you, Ras'palendak," I heard him say in a low gravely voice. "You should never have opened your big mouth. Now your ass is mine."

  At this point the dragon turned and fled. Lakash laughed as he watched the large, lumbering form take flight. Next thing I knew, I once again had control of my body as Lakash shot from my chest as the summoned spirit of the dragon.

  Bereft of Lakash's power, I dropped to my paws and knees. That son of a bitch left me hanging.

  "Excellent," I heard a voice from my left say.

  I turned to see a small, thin human form emerge from the shadows, cloaked in a black robe. On the front was an emblem of a stiletto pointing downwards as it pierced five silver rings.

  "Who the hell are you?" I asked weakly.

  "That is none of your concern at the moment," he replied.

  He waved to someone behind me and I felt myself lifted into the air as several sets of hands began to bind me. I tried to summon power, but found that Lakash had left me in a bind, literally.

  "Damn you, Lakash," I shouted. "It's a trap, you idiot!"

  The guy in the robe cursed and gestured in my direction. My skull exploded with light, which was quickly swallowed by darkness as everything faded to black.

Chapter 37