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 21


  My swords. Sheila had simply dropped them on the floor. He knew what they represented to me and was giving me a message. I no longer had a place by his side.

  Unable to face what had happened, I turned and walked away, in the opposite direction that Sheila had taken. I had no clue where I was or would wind up. I just needed to get away from those swords.

  I pushed my way through a set of double doors and into a cavernous room. Intricate pillars supported the ceiling; their strong, marble grace merged seamlessly into the mosaic pattern above.

  I recognized this place. I had died here. Staring at the ceiling, I made my way to the spot where I remembered first seeing the pattern, and there I oriented myself, verifying that the image was identical. Reluctantly I looked down at the floor for some trace that would have shown what happened, but all evidence had been scrubbed away.

  I turned to face the dais with it two ornate chairs from which the Duke and Duchess ruled. Oddly drawn towards them, I soon found myself standing next to Gwen's, looking back out over the room.

  Courtiers line the room, awaiting the spectacle of the animal that this odd stranger has claimed can speak and reason. It had been captured out by the edge of town and taken to the mews. This comes as a surprise to us as the stable master hasn't bothered to inform us of that fact.

  As we watch, we see the guards bring the animal in, suspended within a net hung below a pole. A trail of blood follows its path into the room, terminating in a pool where it has been dumped, beaten and broken. (The "trail of blood" is not "beaten and broken"; "it" is "beaten and broken". Your modifiers must be "attached" to what they modify.) We feel outrage at its appearance. It has obviously been abused.

  We are about to order the healer to examine it when we are startled as the large man, rushing to the injured creature, quickly disables two of our guards and then stares down four more. A wave of irrational fear sweeps over us as his gaze passes briefly over us, before he kneels by the creature's side.

  Indecision prevents us from taking action as we watch him cut the ropes that bind the creature, rolling it over onto its back. As we watch, words are spoken that we cannot hear, words that enrage the man and send him into a furious assault on the stable master, whom he attempts to strangle.

  Our attention returns to the creature as guards again move in to stop the assault on the stable master. It has picked up the dagger that its master has discarded. Alarmed, we cry out, pointing to the weapon and trying to alert the guards to the danger, only to watch in horror as it puts the knife to its throat, trying to kill itself.

  A small child, companion to its master, is by the creature's side, fighting for the knife, pleading for the creature's life. We know that the child is too late as we watch the creature's life blood flow freely onto the floor.

  I cried out as I broke the spell of Gwen's memory. Reeling backwards from the dais, I stumbled and fell. Dazed, I scrambled to my feet, desperate to flee this place and its memories.

  As I burst through the doors which led me into the room to begin with, I collided with a figure on the other side, sending it sprawling. The figure turned out to be Gwen, and she had been carrying my swords.

  Still traumatized by the memories, I turned and fled, running down corridors that were both familiar and yet strange to me. In my mind I knew where every room was, though I'd never seen most of them. The sensation of being trapped drove me to the rear of the exit and towards the gardens.

  My claustrophobia vanished as I burst forth into the cold, crisp autumn air. I stumbled slightly as I left the stone path, heading for a large pond that held decorative fish.

  The mirror flat-surface of the water cast my reflection back at me while I knelt, looking down at it. As I stared at the transparent visage before me I realized that no matter how much I tried to deny it, no matter what form I took, I was a menace to myself and those around me.

  Sobbing with anger and frustration I smashed my clenched paw into the image, shattering it into a thousand tiny rippling duplicates, each one reflecting my shame. Hugging myself tightly, I closed my eyes and cried, seeking an outlet for the pain.

  "Arden?" Gwen's voice startled me.

  "Go away," I sobbed, still angry with her for taking part in my destruction.

  I felt the feather light touch of her hand on the armor covering my shoulder. "Are you all right, my child?" she asked.

  I growled, twisting away from her hand. "I'm not your child, damn it!" I declared, glaring at her. "She's dead, Gwen! For God's sake let it go, and quit trying to turn me into something I can never be."

  She shrank back from my verbal assault, her face drained of its color as my words impacted her. Loosing her balance, she collapsed the few remaining inches to the ground, sitting down in a most undignified manner as she stared at me. "Have I hurt you so much?" she asked quietly, tears forming in her eyes.

  I suddenly realized what I had said and winced. Once again I had lashed out and hurt someone who had only wanted to help me. "I'm sorry, Gwen," I said, turning away. "I didn't mean that. It was uncalled for."

  "You're right, you know," she replied quietly. "I was trying to use you as a pawn against my husband." This wasn't news. I had figured it out a long time ago. "I never expected you to turn out to be such a good and kind friend."

  I turned towards her and sat back in the grass. "Good and kind?" I asked in disbelief. "After what I've done, how can you say such a thing?"

  She shook her head and smiled. "Dear child, don't you understand?" she asked, knowing there could be no answer. "Everything that I have seen you do since you got here was out of love. Or have you forgotten that you risked your very soul to bring me back?"

  "I haven't forgotten," I said reluctantly. "But you know me better than any other living being. We share each other's memories. I am not a good person."

  Gwen nodded soberly. "Yes, I know you better than I know my own husband," she agreed. "I know that you have lived a very dark and desolate life. I also know that since you started your new life all you have done has been out of love for Sheila."

  I shook my head in disagreement. "No," I stated flatly. "What happened in the Duke's study wasn't done out of love."

  "My husband spoke to me at great length about what happened," she said, looking down into her lap. "He told me about what you did, sharing my memories with him. How you showed him what he had done to Elaine and me." She looked up at me with a great sadness in her eyes. "I also know how his arrogance forced you to show him what we share."

  Oh no! She had those memories, too. It hadn't truly sunk in until this moment, but I suddenly realized that Gwen had been forced to endure them also. I leaned forward, burying my face in my paws, horrified at the revelation. "I'm so sorry, Gwen. Oh God, I'm so sorry," I mumbled between sobs.

  I felt her hand on my knee as she spoke. "No, Arden. Please do not cry for me," she said gently. "You have done me a great service."

  "Yah, right. I gave you forty eight hours of living hell," I said contemptuously.

  "Yes. That and much, much more," she said sincerely. "You gave me a reason to live again." I looked up, uncertain if I should believe her. "I didn't want to come back. I returned because of you and your need to bring me back. But when you gave me your memories you showed me worlds that I never knew existed."

  Gwen scooted herself closer to me and took my paws in her hands, gently squeezing them. "I have always lived as royalty. I never had a chance to experience any other station in life," she said as if it were a bad thing. "Through your lives I've learned much about other worlds, other people, and how they act and are treated. I've seen the horrible things that you did for love of a country that wasn't even your birthright, as well as the horrors you've endured for the ones you love."

  Gwen's expression changes as her eyes focused on something beyond me, looking to a vision that only she could see. "I never really understood how lucky I've been. I mourned for a child but forgot to celebrate the fact that she lived. You and Sheila never even had that. Both of you lost your mates before you could know that singular joy."

  Her eyes snapped back into focus as they locked onto mine. "So please, I beg of you, don't mourn for the memories that you have given me." Her voice was gentle yet commanding, not begging. "You have set my spirit free, and I will always be in your debt for it."

  It sounded so good. Put that way it sounded like I had done her a favor, but deep down inside I knew that I had, on some base level, caused more harm than good to both her and Leo. Not wishing to argue I simply nodded, giving all appearance of accepting what she had said as being true.

  After helping Gwen to stand, I excused myself. I needed to think about what had happened. Before she parted, Gwen handed me my swords. I almost refused them, but relented and accepted them without comment. Had I not taken them I don't think she would have understood why.

  I still had to face Sheila, and I didn't know what would happen when I did.

  I paused outside the doorway to our bedroom. Sheila could be heard rummaging through the dresser he kept his clothing in, packing. Steeling myself, I stepped into the room and closed the door behind me, making sure it latched. Sheila gave me a hard look before he returned to his packing.

  "Sheila," I quietly said. "Honey, please. We need to talk."

  "We have nothing to talk about," he replied harshly.

  "Please," I begged. "You have no idea what happened, or even why."

  He stopped packing and glowered at me. "I don't?" he asked. "Let me guess. You got pissed off and used your 'bear powers' or whatever to go into Duke Leopold's mind, and once there you raped him. Does that about cover it?"

  I nodded. He had me dead to rights. "That about covers the how, but it doesn't cover the why," I replied quietly.

  Sheila shook his head sharply. "I don't care about why. I've had it up to here with you and your crap," he said, raising his hand up under his chin. I don't give a damn about your excuses, your quest or anything else to do with you!" ".

  I couldn't believe he would say something like that. Had I screwed things up so badly? I walked over to the dresser and, under Shelia's harsh gaze, pushed the drawer shut. "Did you ever?" I asked, not believing his attitude. "Did you ever really care about me?"

  Sheila got an offended look. "What the hell do you mean by that?" he demanded.

  I stared at the stranger across from me. "It's simple. I've done everything humanly and in-humanly possible to please you, to show how much I love you," I explained, realizing for the first time what had been happening all along. "But you've taken every opportunity to jump on me for any offense, imagined or otherwise."

  Sheila walked over in front of me, his face twisted in anger. "That's bullshit! You're just trying to change the subject!" he angrily accused me.

  "All right," I said, afraid to push him too far. "Pick one other thing I've done wrong that was truly my fault alone."

  Sheila started to reply and stopped, thinking. Several times he started to answer, but realized that his answer would be wrong.

  "And yet how many times have I forgiven you, even when you out-and-out betrayed me?" I asked, interrupting his search.

  "I've never betrayed you!" he countered defensively.

  "What about Bjorn?" I asked, and was rewarded by a shocked and indignant look on his face. It was a low blow, but at this point I didn't care. "Or have you forgotten the day you picked him up at the airport. The day that, despite your promise to me, you slept with him." I could see that had struck a chord with Sheila. It had hurt me terribly when she had done that.

  Sheila shook his head irritably. "That's not the same thing, damn it! That's not raping someone!"

  I hung my head, unable to look at him. "No, it's not," I agreed, looking back up into the dragon's eyes. "But you weren't there. You don't know what happened. You have no right to judge me for what happened without knowing the facts."

  "No!" he shouted, poking me in the chest with his finger. "I won't allow that. I won't agree to any 'he was asking for it' defense. That's totally unacceptable!" he declared.

  "You're right," I agreed, trying to look calmly into his eyes, fighting back the emotional turmoil, trying not to flee his presence. "He didn't ask for it. Nor did I intend to do it."

  I saw Sheila about to say something but interrupted him. "I never intended to give those memories to him," I explained. "All I wanted to do was show him what it felt like to be treated like an animal. I never intended that to happen. I just...couldn't stop them once they started to flow."

  Unable to face Sheila, I turned and walked a few paces away. "For God's sake Sheila, do you really think I wanted to do that? Do you really believe that I'm such a horrible person that I would want to force something like that on someone?" I felt the warm dampness of my tears as they soaked into the fur of my muzzle.

  "I don't know," I heard him answer. "I just don't know about you, Arden. I still remember you standing over Bjorn's dead body, looking at it without any emotions. Like he was just a... statistic to you."

  Oh no. He still held that against me. How could I possibly defend myself from that? I turned back towards him and shook my head. "No, that wasn't me. You know that."

  His face was unreadable. "Yes, it was. You may not want to admit it, but that was still a part of you," he observed. "Deny it all you want, but its still in there. You may not let it show, but you can't deny the fact that when you need it, you can put that damned mask on and do unimaginable things, things the rest of us would shy away from."

  I cringed at his statement because he was right. When I wore the mask of the machine I could do any atrocity, and it wouldn't affect me until afterwards. It was like a Teflon coat whereby the most disgusting of filth could splatter me and it wouldn't stick. Too bad it couldn't have helped me in this situation. But then again, would I have truly wanted it to?

  I felt Sheila's hand on my shoulder and looked up. "Listen," he said gently. "I realize that you may not have intended to do what you did, but that doesn't change the fact. Right now I just can't handle that. I need to get some space, find out how I feel about this mess. Once I have my head on straight I'll come back and we'll see what happens."

  His words drove a dagger of ice through my heart. "You can't be thinking about leaving. Not now, not when we're getting ready to head to the capital," I challenged.

  Sheila nodded before replying. "I need to get out and explore. I've been cooped up around here, tagging along with you," he said, taking both my shoulders in his hands. "This is a whole new life for me, Arden. I don't want to spend all my time hanging out with royalty."

  I nodded. I understood his feelings. But he was missing a very important part of the picture. "And what about the dragon? What about the quest?" I asked.

  He looked confused by my questions. "What are you talking about? That's your quest. There's nothing stopping you from completing it," he answered.

  I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Didn't he understand the danger? I took his left hand from my shoulder and turned the palm up, revealing the brand from the amulet. "Have you forgotten the mark? You don't seriously expect the dragon to forget about you?" I challenged, trying to make him realize the truth.

  Sheila smiled and gave a little laugh. "Don't worry about it. I'm sure that once you make the jump the dragon won't bother with me. I won't be able to interfere any more," he answered lightly.

  I had to think of something that would convince him. "What about getting your body back?" I asked, looking for anything to hold onto him. "Don't you want to return to being your true self?"

  He smiled again and shook his head. "Not really. I kind of like being a guy," he replied with a shrug. "It was a little weird at first, but now I think I'm getting used to it."

  I turned and leaned my forehead heavily against the bedpost, as I though franticly for a way out of this predicament.

  "Don't worry about me," he said, patting my back, trying to console me. "I'll be all right, really."

  "What about Zig Zag?" I quietly asked.

  "Huh?" I could hear the confusion in his voice. "What about Zig Zag?" he challenged.

  I turned and looked at him. "Zig Zag, James, Sabrina," I said listing off all her old friends. "What about your sister Tammy. Are you ready to forget about all of them?"

  Sheila shook his head, still confused. "I don't get what your saying. You told me that the amulet could never take us back," he replied, unsure what I was suggesting.

  I put my paw on his chest and looked up into his eyes earnestly. "The amulet can't, but the lamp can," I explained. "When I recover the lamp for my quest you'll be able to make a wish of your own, and return home."

  I could tell by the look in Sheila's eyes that I had just turned his world on its ear. He had truly believed that we would never be able to go back. Now, thinking of friends he had believed lost, Sheila realized that there was a glimmer of hope.

  Sheila turned from me and walked over to the glass doors, opened them and stepped out onto the terrace. I followed close behind, worried about his reaction. As I watched, he leaned heavily against the stone railing, dizzy with the emotional trauma of what I had said.

  "For God's sake, Arden. Why didn't you tell me this before?" he demanded, still not looking at me.

  I put my paw on his shoulder. "I thought I had," I replied. "I'm sorry. So much has happened to me in such a short time that I just lost track." I moved around to sit on the railing, lowering my head to that of Sheila's. "I swear by all things sacred to me, I thought I told you. I'd never hold something like that back from you."

  Sheila looked up at me. For a moment I though I saw an accusing look in his eye, but it flickered and was gone as he nodded to me, straightening up. "Yah," he admitted gravely, "things have been going by pretty fast for both of us."

  "Can you forgive me?" I asked earnestly?

  He glanced at me before turning partly away, hugging himself. "After what you did to the Duke---I don't know, Arden," he replied sadly. "I'd like to think so, but I just don't know right now."

  Although he couldn't see me I nodded anyway. "All right. I can accept that," I replied, trying to keep my voice calm. "I'll have Thomas come and pack up my stuff. There's no need for you to move out of this room," I stated, finally accepting the consequences of my actions.

  "No," Sheila replied, shaking his head. "The Chamberlain set me up with a new room. One more fitting of a lord than a lady."

  "Sheila," I said, stopping him as he turned to leave. "No matter what, I'll never abandon you," I said with all honesty. "I swore my life to protecting you and ensuring nothing ever happens to you. Nothing short of death will prevent me from doing that."

  Sheila paused as he listened to what I said. With a small nod, he turned and walked back into the room to complete his packing.

  I watched him for a few minutes before I turned and looked out over the city. A cold wind blew by, echoing the feeling in my soul. First I had screwed up with the Duke, then Lucifer saved my soul (like I needed to be indebted to him), and now I had lost Sheila.

  Could it get any worse?

Chapter 22