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.

Identity Crisis
Act II
Chapter 17

And the truth shall set you free.

  Suspended in the air at the end of Sheila's arm, I prepared myself for oblivion, fully expecting to be pummeled senseless or worse.

  "Arden?" I heard Sheila ask quietly in an unsure voice.

  Opening my eyes, I saw a confused look on Sheila's face as he set me down gently.

  "What just happened?" he asked, looking back at what he had done to the captain.

  "The dragon's rage. Remember what I said about it? Remember how I told you I had to fight it all the time?" I asked, jogging his memory. For a moment all Sheila could do was nod in awe at what had happened.

  "I never understood how powerful it was," he said quietly. "You always made it look so easy. Like it was just a minor annoyance." Sheila turned to me, horrified at the power that had controlled him. "I was ready to kill him. I would have beaten him to death. I would have killed you, too," he said still in denial over what had just happened.

  "I understand," I said, placing my paw on his chest. "But right now I need you to be strong for me, love. I need you to use your healing powers and cure Gwen."

  Sheila shook his head for a second as if to clear it, and then nodded gravely.

  I considered checking on the captain but I was concerned about the delay. Wheather he lived or died would be up to the guards cowering at the other end of the hall, trying to figure out what to do about us.

  After we reached the door leading to the Duke and Duchess' chambers I paused to make sure Sheila was still with me. Using the side of my fist I pounded on the door.

  "Who goes there!" came the challenge from the other side.

  "Lady Arden and Lord Sheen," I answered, speaking loudly. "Please, my lord. We must be allowed to enter."

  I could hear the exited voice of the prince as he argued for us not to be let in. The voice that challenged also agreed with him. We were obviously dangerous from the sounds of the battle that had just occurred.

  "My lord!" I shouted, trying to get their attention. "We have the ability to cure the Duchess of her poison!" I could only hope they would believe me.

  The prince declared that we must be lying. No cure existed. It was just a ruse to gain entrance and kill them all. I had tried to kill him last night, after all.

  I turned to Sheila with a grim look on my face. "They're not going to let us in," I decided.

  Sheila got a sly grin on his face. "You know," he said, eyeing the door, "part of the martial arts training they gave at the Y involved breaking boards and stuff. I wonder how I'd do with this door?" He looked too damn happy for my taste, but I wasn't going to complain.

  With a bow I moved out of his way and watched. Sheila backed away from the door and took up a kicking stance as he concentrated on the door. For the longest time he stared at it, not moving, barely even breathing, and then he suddenly attacked. With a loud yell he stepped forward, snapping a kick at the spot above the lock where a door would be barred. The impact of his foot was echoed with the cannon-like sound of wood and stone as they gave way to the brutal force of his attack, causing the door to crash open.

  Sheila hopped back and forth on the balls of his feet for a second before the look on his face changed from one of joy to pain. "Son of a bitch!" he exclaimed, standing on his left foot while holding the right one up.

  Trying not to laugh at the sight I stepped inside the door, only to see the prince's protector standing in the middle of the room, his weapon drawn.

  "Please, my lady. Come no further," he implored of me. We understood each other.

  "We're here to heal Gwen. I don't care about Little Lord Rapes-A-Lot over there," I said, nodding to the prince.

  "It lies, uncle! There is no cure!" the prince declared, still trying to save his hide.

  I turned to the Duke and approached, ignoring the prince's guardian. "Strange how I can be standing here when there is no cure for the poison, wouldn't you say, my lord?" I asked of the Duke. I could see that I had just struck some major points with my argument. "Even more curious is how a lowly stable hand obtained a poison that could only be cured by arcane magic, wouldn't you agree?"

  "What are you implying?" the Duke demanded, not liking my accusation.

  "Simple, my lord. The assassin who tried to kill me stated that, and I quote, 'His highness would make him a rich man for killing me'," I testified, glancing to the prince. "The man was nothing more than a low-life paid assassin. Paid by pretty boy over there to murder me. Only he screwed up, my lord. His bolt hit the Duchess."

  The Duke glared at the prince, now convinced that he was somehow involved. "How can you heal Gwendolyn?" he asked. "The last of the arcane practitioners died a thousand years ago with the last greater dragon."

  "Have you forgotten so quickly, my lord, that Lord Vic is the child of a greater dragon?" I asked, still chuckling.

  I heard Sheila limp up next to me. "I am?" he asked for a second, realizing what I was implying. "Yes I am. That's right, my lord. I'm a child of the greater dragon. I should be able to heal your lady." Nice recovery.

  I saw a glimmer of hope in the Dukes eye. He hadn't believed Sheila's claim, but now his only hope lay in his healing abilities.

  "It is to late," the healer said. Shock and dismay was clear on all our faces. "She still breaths, my lord, but the magic of the poison has cut the cord. Her spirit is lost to us now."

  No! Not Gwen! "I refuse to accept that!" I declared. Sheila put his hand on my shoulder and gave a squeeze. I pulled away from his grasp. "Heal her," I commanded. "I will recover her spirit."

  "What are you talking about, Arden?" Sheila asked, confused at my statement.

  I walked over by the wall and sat down in a lotus position. "I will find her spirit and return it," I restated. "You must heal her body."

  "No!" Sheila cried. "You can't! What if you become lost? I couldn't stand to loose you, not now---not after what we've just learned!" Kneeling in front of me, he pleaded with his eyes.

  "Hear me and know what I say is the truth," I pleaded. "As a guest here I had a duty to protect Gwen. When I dodged the bolt and allowed it to strike her, I failed in that duty. Now to restore my honor I must do this. I have to do this." I looked deep into Sheila's eyes, hoping to make him understand.

  "Screw honor!" he said venomously. "I'm sick of you risking your life for honor. What about love?"

  "Love? What about life?" I asked in return. I reached up and stroked his cheek. "I walk the path of the bear. As bear I have a duty to heal body and soul. Just because I am cut off from my totem doesn't make my responsibility to Nanuk any less." I tried to make him understand why I needed to do this. "Above all else, unto thine own self be true. If I don't do this I betray all that I have worked to become."

  "I don't accept that! I won't do it! I won't risk you!" he declared defiantly.

  I sighed and shook my head. "One way or another, I'm coming back with Gwen's spirit. If her body no longer lives, then I'm sure I can find a suitable receptacle," I said, refusing to expand on my statement.

  Horrified at the implications of what I was threatening Sheila nodded reluctantly, accepting my decision and moved to sit on the bed to at Gwen's side. "For honor and duty," I heard him say quietly, starting my liturgy with his head hung and eyes closed. "I call upon the powers of the dragon. By the pact I summon the healing powers of bear to aid me in my time of need. For life and love I call upon Nanuk to guide me."

  For a second I saw Sheila wince in pain, a pain that I remembered all too well. His body tight as he fought the powers that now flowed within him, he was frozen in a moment of agony. Slowly Sheila relaxed and opened his eyes. Where once the yellow-on-red color of his eyes had been, now there was a white glow that reminded me of glare off snow on a bright day. I smiled as I watched him begin the healing process, knowing that Gwen would have a vessel waiting for her if I brought her back.

  Anxious to begin my search, I turned inward and towards the place I normally found the barriers to the spirit realm. Once there, I searched around with my mind and located the amulet. Reaching out to it, I commanded it to release me from the prison of my body. The next thing I knew I was once again standing in the Duchess' room, my body sitting against the wall with Illiam squatting next to it.

  "Well, that was easy enough," I commented, startling Illium.

  "But..." he said, looking between my body and my spirit, "how? I didn't see your spirit leave."

  "I used the amulet just like you said," I replied with a shrug. "So tell me, Illiam, how can I locate Gwen's spirit?"

  He just shook his head. "If you had something important to her, something from the material plane, you could use that to locate her," he explained. "But there's no way for you to bring something like that into the astral."

  Damn. I wasn't going to be stumped that easily. "Is she still here in the astral, or has she crossed over?" I asked.

  Illiam closed his eyes for a second, concentrating on something. "Yes," he said finally, opening his eyes again.

  I stood there for a moment, waiting on him to elaborate. When he didn't I prompted him. "Well?"

  He gave a small shrug and a sheepish grin. "I can't tell you," he said meekly, shaking his head.

  "All right then, can you keep her from crossing over?" I asked, hoping he'd make my life easier. Again he shook his head.

  This was NOT going the way I had wanted. Illiam had said that I needed something very personal from Gwen. It would have to come from the material plane, but there wasn't a way to get there.

  Or was there?

  Kneeling down by my body I reached out to the amulet. I could feel its presence, since it existed in the astral as well as the material, thought it wasn't solid to me. Focusing my mind I concentrated on the amulet and ordered it across the barrier. To my surprise it slipped free of my body's neck and settled into my palm. Amazed at what I had done, I stood and held the amulet, showing it to Illiam.

  I had never seen a slack jawed dragon before. "How did you do that?" he asked again. This was getting to be his mantra.

  "I simply willed it across the barrier," I stated. "I figured that a key to a door should be able to pass through the door, right? So I should be able to use the medallion to cross the barriers."

  He tried to speak several times, his mouth opening and closing though no sound came out. With a shake of my head I slipped the chain over my neck and looked over to the bed. Sheila was finished curing the Duchess and had slumped against the bedpost in exhaustion. Nanuk had been undoubtedly been forced to use Sheila's life essence in order to cure Gwen.

  It was sink or swim time. Holding the amulet in my hand I willed it to allow us to pass into the material world. A gasp from the healer caused all heads to look at him. Eyes wide with fear, he pointed to where my spectral form stood.

  By the gods!" I heard the Duke say, his voice oddly muffled as it echoed around me.

  I walked over to the bed and sat down next to Gwen. She wore a small locket around her neck. In all the times I had seen her she had never taken it off, not even to bathe. This would be my compass. Reaching out with a paw I lifted the locket and willed myself back into the astral, bringing it with me.

  It worked! I now held the locket. I now understood the amulet. You could use a wish to control it, but if one knew how one could command it directly. Lakesh's ass was mine!

  "OK, Illiam," I said, holding the locket up to him. "Now what?"

  Illiam blinked again and shook his head. "Inconceivable," he muttered.

  "Yo! Snap out of it!" I commanded, snapping my fingers in front of him.

  "Yes," he said, rubbing his eyes. "I'm sorry. This is just"

  "Ya, inconceivable. You said that already," I said impatiently. "How do I find Gwen?"

  He nodded, understanding my urgency. "Hold the locket by the chain and allow it to swing free," he explained. "Now, by concentrating on the one you seek it should draw you to their spirit."

  I held the locket before me and watched it swing. In my mind I imagined Gwen's face as she laughed, happy, alive. I felt the locket begin to pull me, dragging me from the room. Releasing my desire to remain there, I allowed it to draw me through the walls of the castle and down into the garden.

  There, I saw two glowing, standing forms; one was a young woman and the other was Gwen. Behind them, I saw a blindingly bright portal similar to the one Bjorn had taken me into back at the studio. With all the urgency I could muster, I sprinted towards the pair.

  "Gwen! Stop!" I cried out, and was grateful to see both women turn.

  "Arden! Not you, too." Gwen said, a sad look on her face. As I reached her I wrapped my arms about her in an embrace. "I'm so sorry, child. You and Sheila had such a future," she said, believing I was dead.

  I stepped back to speak, but was interrupted by Gwen again. "Sheila, this is my daughter, Elaine," she said, introducing me to the other spirit. "Elaine, this is Arden. She is the most wonderful person. You'll enjoy getting to know her."

  I looked at Elaine and saw the resemblance that everyone had spoken about. We could have been twins separated at birth if it weren't for my being a vixen. We both wore our hair in the same fashion, allowing it to cascade over our shoulders, the color almost identical. I saw my image reflected in the same piercing green eyes that I had looked into so often as a man. This truly could have been my sister.

  As she smiled, Elaine face lit up. "I'm so happy to meet you, though I'm sorry for your passing," she said as she gave me a hug.

  Gwen giggled. "You know, Elaine," she said conspiratorially. "Arden used to be a man, but was transformed into a woman by a magic curse."

  I saw surprise register on Elaine's face as what Gwen said sank in. Gwen was obviously enjoying the moment.

  "Gwen, please. This isn't easy for me," I said, holding up a paw as she started to talk. "I'm not dead, and neither are you."

  Gwen looked at me like I was daft. "Of course we are, child. How else would my beautiful Elaine be here?" she said, gazing longingly at her daughter.

  I took Gwen's face in my paws and forced her to look at me again. "Gwen, listen closely. I'm not dead! Remember how I died and then found my way back?" I asked. She nodded slightly, her head still trapped between my paws. "This is the same thing. Your body is still alive, but your spirit has become lost. I'm here to show you the way back."

  She pulled my paws from her face, and turned away. "And if I have no desire to return to that life?" she asked.

  Christ! I thought I was the one with the 'why not die?' angst problem. I placed my arms around her shoulders, hugging her tight. "You have people who still love you, Gwen. Your time isn't finished in this world yet."

  "But I don't want to go back, Arden. I'm finally free of that burden," she explained, turning to me, longing in her eyes. "I can finally rest. Please let me go."

  I knew the longing she had. Once I felt the same way, but I learned that life was worth living despite the burdens that it brought.

  "What about those you leave behind? Your husband?" I asked.

  Gwen shook her head. "Though I still love him, that's not enough to keep me here," she said flatly. His indiscretions had hurt her far more than I had ever imagined.

  "Ya, I suppose not," I said. "That's all right. He'll replace you soon enough. I'm sure that blond bimbo would be more than happy to take over your bed permanently." I could tell I was getting to her. "In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't wait a proper year or so before putting her on the throne next to him. They would make a splendid couple."

  Gwen turned on me, angry. "I know what you're trying to do, and it won't work. You may make me angry or even jealous, but it won't bring me back."

  "Of course, once she's the Duchess," I continued, ignoring her outburst, "I have no doubt that she will remodel your personal chambers." I let that sink in for a second. "Undoubtedly she would throw away all those silly little porcelain figurines that you keep on the mantel. To her they would be just a collection of junk, gathering dust and taking up valuable space."

  "You bitch!" she spit at me. "Why is it so damn important to you that I go back that you feel you must torment me like this?"

  I placed my paws on her shoulders and hung my head. "I want you to know something about me. This is who I am, and what I am," I said quietly, spinning my history. "As a young man I was convinced to kill for my kingdom. Not as a warrior, but as an assassin. I killed hundreds of people who had never done a thing to me. This is the black stain on my soul that I must carry with me forever."

  I looked back up into her eyes. "But know this also. When I was transported across the vale by my wish to see Sheila, I met my totem. You see, I walk the path of the bear spirit. I am no longer an assassin, slaughtering innocents for some esoteric sense of patriotism. Now I am a healer."

  Again I closed my eyes, trying to think how to explain this. "My totem, my guardian spirit, a force of nature dedicated to healing, and from whom I draw my power, is now dying. Her name is Nanuk. I am on a quest to renew her so that the healing power of the bear will not be lost. In this quest I have become not just a healer, but also truly one with Nanuk."

  Now the words flowed from me. "My honor and duty now serve life, love and the light. My spirit is dedicated to the healing of body and soul. I am bear, and as such, your life is precious to me." I opened my eyes and looked down into her wide eyes. "For this reason I can not allow you to pass through the vale and leave this life. To do so is to deny that which is me, and destroy all I have worked to become."

  Leaning down, I kissed her, wrapping her in the loving embrace of the bear and trying to fill the empty place in her soul that longed for her lost daughter. As our lips separated I gazed into her tear-filled eyes, wondering if I had reached her.

  "What are you?" she asked, staring upwards at me in awe. It was then that I realized that I was now taller than she was. Glancing down at myself I saw that I was once again a bear. I had broken free of the shell that had bound me within Sheila's form. I was again one with Nanuk.

  "This is my true form. I told you I once looked like this," I said, gesturing to my shape. "Now you know how I looked when I first met Sheila."

  "You're so beautiful," she said quietly. I was just thankful that a spirit couldn't blush.

  "Will you return with me, Gwen?" I asked again. She thought for a moment, looking over to her daughter who stood patiently by. "She'll wait for you, Gwen. There's no rushing these things. She has all eternity."

  Gwen broke from me and walked to Elaine, embracing her. "I'm sorry. I can't go with you now," she said to her daughter.

  "That's all right, Mama. It's better this way," Elaine responded, hugging her mother again.

  As they separated I took Gwen's arm to lead her back into the castle. "Tell Daddy I forgive him, ok?" Elaine said before stepping into the light and vanishing.

  "You have a beautiful daughter," I said, hugging Gwen tightly to my side.

  She returned my hug and looked up. "And you would have made a wonderful sister...or brother to her," she replied, smiling at me.

  Returning to the room, I saw Illiam pacing in the center. "If you keep that up, you're going to wear a rut in the stone," I joked with a broad smile.

  "Arden?" he asked, not recognizing me.

  "I got her. It took a little work, but I got her back," I said, leading Gwen over to the dragon. "Gwen, this is Illiam, the dragon who guards the vale of this world."

  Gwen gave him a gracious smile. "We are most honored by your presence, kind dragon. We are not worthy of your attentions."

  Illiam chuckled. "I'm not here because of you. I'm supposed to keep him.... whatever the heck Arden is, out of trouble," he stated with a smile. "No offense, of course."

  Gwen just laughed. "None taken, good dragon," she said looking up at me. "We are most pleased to find that Arden has someone looking out for her."

  The dragon crossed his arms as he looked at me. "So how are you going to bind her with her body?" he asked, looking to stump me.

  I released Gwen and passed her to the care of the dragon. "I don't know yet. But if you'll kindly make sure she doesn't wonder off, I'll go find out," I replied. Before Illiam could object, I stepped forwards and into Nanuk's realm. I was home again.

  The terrain was desolate, trees barren and collapsed. Nothing grew here. Even the pond was dry. Nanuk was dying. I hurried into the hut only to find Nanuk lying on the cot by the fire, the embers cold.

  Quietly I made my way over by her and knelt by the cold fire pit. I knew that this place was a reflection of Nanuk's power, and as such I could make a difference here if I desired. I was after all, her child.

  I closed my eyes and concentrated on my surroundings. The warm fire, the soft bed, a memory of the sent of flowers that lingered; all these things I focused on, trying to make them real. After a few moments I was rewarded with the feeling of warmth coming from the fire. As I looked down, I saw that it was burning bright as the day I first saw Nanuk.

  "You shouldn't have done that," Nanuk said, stirring.

  I knelt next to the bed, rubbing my paw lightly across her muzzle. "It was such a small thing, Mother. Accept our gift, please," I said quietly looking in to that ancient face.

  "You have made us proud, my son," she said quietly. "We were worried that, when we trapped you in the female's shell, you might not be able to break out. But you proved worthy and you have learned our lessons well." A weak smile lightened her face.

  It took a few seconds for what she had said to sink in. "You trapped me in Sheila's body?" I asked.

  "Yes, we did," she acknowledged. "For you to truly become one with Nanuk, you had to learn what it is to be female. To live as one, love as one, and to bear a child. For this reason we interfered with the change, giving you this test." Her eyes closed for a second as she rested. "By appearing here in your true form you have proven to me that you are truly my child."

  I understood. I had to literally get in touch with my feminine side. Since Sheila made the wish bringing both of us here, Nanuk had the perfect opportunity to give me my lesson in being a woman. "Thank you, Mother. I won't disappoint you," I said, rubbing my muzzle against hers. "I must ask something of you now, mother. Something important."

  She smiled again. "You want to know how to bind your lover to her body," she said with a small chuff of laughter. "Listen closely, my child, and we shall tell you how..."

  Once again we stood in the bedchamber, looking down at the still form of Gwen, transformed once again. In order to return her soul I had to first take it within myself. We were no longer just Arden; we were also Gwendolyn, with all her memories, feelings and experiences. Together we stepped across the threshold of the astral and into the material plane.

  "Arden?" To the side we saw Sheila looking at me, confused at what he saw. He wasn't expecting the bear to return. We smiled at him then turned to the Duke. We felt our love renewed for our husband despite his flaws.

  It was now time to return Gwen to her shell. The longer we delayed the harder it would be for us to separate.

  We sat on the bed next to her sleeping form and brushed an errant hair from her face. With a deep intake of breath, we bent over her sleeping form and exhaled all that was Gwen back into her body. Our world exploded in a panorama of memories, emotions, sensations, and most dominant of all, pain. Her soul was being ripped from my being, twinning us, lessening us.

  We shuddered as the last fragment of the Duchess left us, and we fought to straighten up. We felt weak, almost immaterial from the strain of returning her. It was all we could do to maintain ourself.

  We were confused. Though we knew that Gwen was no longer part of us, we still felt the echoes of her within us. We then remembered what Nanuk had said and knew that this would fade with time.

  As we watched we saw Gwen slowly open her eyes, proving that we had succeeded in our task. Our mission was through, though there was one minor thing left to do. In our left paw we still held her locket. Placing our paw briefly on her chest, we left the locket behind as we stood.

  Fighting our exhaustion, we stumbled towards our corporeal body, falling to our knees before it. Wearily we took off the medallion and hung it around our body's neck. With the last bit of strength we had, we willed ourselves back into our body and welcomed unconsciousness as we let exhaustion claim us.

Chapter 18