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 34

Sword of Omens, give me sight beyond sight.

  I wandered about the camp after my encounter with Dane. I was still shaken by what had happened. There was no reasonable explanation for the way I had reacted by being near him. Even just remembering the encounter was enough to arouse me. Lakash had better not be behind this.

  As I watched a cloud drift over the moon, I felt my hackles rise. There was a sound carried on the wind that I couldn't quite make out. The effect was as if someone had drawn fingernails across a blackboard. I looked around, searching with my senses for anything that was out of place or wrong, but found nothing.

  I summoned power and brought up my defenses as I slowly patrolled the perimeter. Guards who were casually keeping watch at their station hastily backed away as I passed. Undoubtedly they could sense that I was on the hunt.

  After completing a circuit of the camp twice without finding anything wrong I began to relax. Maybe it was just my imagination or an aftereffect of my encounter with Dane. Whatever it was, it wasn't anything I could sense as a threat. I was also burning myself out maintaining a combat mode so I allowed the power to slowly drain back to the dragon. It would be there again when I needed to call on it.

  Again I stopped off at the cook's tent and saw his apprentice, Dickens. He had made up a batch of hot apple cider. I grabbed a mug of it as a nightcap and headed back to our tent. Once inside I sat down at the desk and leaned back in the chair to relax. The sharp bite of the cider coated my tongue. I guess it's true what they say: There's nothing quite like a hot Dickens' cider.

  I took another drink and set the mug down on the table next to Sheila's journal. For a second I stared at the journal before glancing over to Sheila and verifying he was still asleep. The temptation to stick my snout into that book was a strong one, but I was stopped by my sense of honor. What right did I have to pry into his journal? He had told me he didn't want me reading the book. With all my demands about being able to trust each other, where did I get off sticking my snout where it didn't belong?

  My curiosity got the better of me and I picked up the journal. Just a hair of power was enough to create a floating witch light that hovered in front of the book. I tried to open the book and got a small shock. It was protected with magic! Where the hell had he gotten a magic book to write in?

  I shifted my sight and examined the spell. It was keyed to Sheila's aura and designed to only allow him to open it. Anyone else trying to open it would get a rude shock such as I had. The spell wasn't designed to keep anyone who was serious out, just snoops. I bent the function of the spell slightly, opened the book to the first page and began to read.

I now know what Arden sees in Gwen. That woman has remarkable insight into people's lives. She heard about Arden disappearing before we left the keep and had a talk with me. She told me that Arden had explained what had happened to us and she understood some of my problem. As a fix, she gave me this book to use as a journal. Since I've never had a journal, I think I'll do like Arden was doing and just use it as kind of a sounding board to myself.

  Now the trick is, where do I start? I suppose I could cover the accident, but that was so long ago, almost a lifetime. Gwen suggested that I just write about how I feel, so maybe I'll start with that.

  Arden. How do I feel about him? Sure, I know he's in my body now, but I still think of him as being a guy. That big, overgrown, fluffy white bear that I fell in love with. He may have been fluffy and white, but he wasn't pure by any means. Every time I turned around I found out some other nasty surprise about him. He has a penchant for getting people killed while dodging the bullet. If that wasn't bad enough he's an egotistical, holier-than-thou, know-it-all who likes to lecture people. It wouldn't be so bad if he didn't have a talent for knowing what was wrong.

  Ooof! Was I really that bad?

  What I don't get is how the hell can someone be so driven as he is yet so laid back at the same time? He tries not to let anything bother him, but at the same time has this force of personality that drives him to a goal despite any obstacles. I remember when I told him what had happened between Bjorn and me. He was so pissed I was afraid he'd hit me again. But instead he took me in his arms, told me how disappointed he was and that he loved me. That made me feel worse than ever. I almost would have preferred him to have just smacked me but I'm glad he didn't; I don't think I could have stayed with him if he had hit me again. Then to find out that he had talked Bjorn in to proposing because he knew he had to leave, that was almost too much.

  On the other hand, it made me wonder about him. He was ready to pass me off to someone else. What the hell kind of guy is willing to casually let go of the girl he loved? How could he just give me away like that? He never even discussed what I might want.

  Just what was I supposed to say? "Hey hon, you want to join me as I risk my life to restore my totem's power?" What the hell did he expect from me?

  Bjorn. My beautiful Bjorn. I'll never feel his caress on my fur, smell his scent, or hear the laughter of his voice. We'll never take off for destinations unknown again. I never knew how precious he was to me until I finally lost him. Now I can never let him know how much he truly meant to me.

  And then there's the mess we're in now... I know it's my fault for making the wish, but he could have told me about the amulet. If he had just told me the whole truth, we wouldn't be in the situation we are now. Arden would never have been raped, nor would he have killed himself. I wouldn't have been put in the situation of having to lie to him about what was happening.

  Oh no you don't! Don't blame that shit on me! You were there when I talked to the doctor. I know you snuck off with his book a couple of times because you didn't put it back right. And don't EVEN blame me for getting raped. You're the one who didn't warn me about being in heat and the effect it was having on people! How DARE you!

  I definitely wouldn't have fought with that brat of his. Christ, how was I supposed to react? Arden almost turned his back on me ever since he took that damned kid in. It's like I was delegated to bed duty. Not that I didn't enjoy what time we had, but I don't want to share him with anyone, damn it! And then to have him sit there and try to goad me into talking nice about the brat? I don't think so.

  Goad you? Good lord, man, all I wanted you to do is pay him a little respect. Even if you couldn't do that, you could have at least shown some support for me, but nooOOOoo. You had to go off and sulk in a corner.

  I just don't know what to do. I see him sucking up to that bastard musician, Dane, who everyone tells me is some kind of Romeo looking for conquests. I've even heard rumors that he uses herbs and elixirs to seduce his women sometimes. If that's true, then I should probably warn Arden, but I'm afraid that he'll just see me as being jealous of the bastard.

  What? Herbs? The smell... That rat bastard! I'll have to figure out what that smell was that I didn't recognize.

  Of course there's that hunk he was wandering around with this evening. I think his name was Maus, or something like that. God, what a hunk! Now there's a man whose bones I would love to jump. You don't find bodies like that running around often with or without fur! Lord only knows what Arden has planned. That little bitch was walking around, arm in arm with the guy. There ain't no way in hell that was just some kind of casual warrior bonding crap, either!

  Gee, I'm sorry I was acting like a civilized female. Cut me some damn slack already will you?

  But then there's our child. I can understand Arden getting upset for not telling him. I look back on what I did, and I know why I did it, but now I'm not so sure if it was the smart thing. I'm scared. What if Arden abandons me in the next world with our child? How will I live? What kind of skills do I have as a single woman raising a child in a fantasyland? The only job I can think of is as a prostitute, and that's no way to live, much less raise a kid. And even if we do get back to the real world, what guarantee is there that Arden will normal out and become a good father? I always thought that he was the strong, gentle, caring type, but now all I see around him is death and destruction.

  That stopped me. Could I go back to being the old Arden she knew? Once all this is said and done, would I find a way of integrating myself back into society? It had taken me almost a decade after I left the SDF before I felt fully comfortable around civilians again. God only knows how this will affect me.

I don't know... I know it's not his fault that this stuff keeps happening. Its almost like there's a conspiracy to keep us from reaching our goal or something. I sometimes watch him as he looks out at the world, not really paying attention, and in those times I can see in his expression all the pain that he's had to endure. When he lets his guard down you can see that this damn quest is destroying his spirit. I'm afraid that when it's all over, there won't be anything left for me to take back to the real world.

  I'm so tired and confused. I'm sick and tired of having to play the macho male role. Having to strut my stuff with the other swinging dicks around here. I want to cuddle up with the girls around fireplace over at Mimi's, sip on wine coolers and gossip. I miss going to Philippe and getting a full body grooming and manicure. Most of all I miss my dull, comfortable life at the studio. I want to go shopping, damn it! I want to hit the mall and spend until my credit card melts! I want to hit the nightclubs and dance until I drop, and then dance some more. I want to climb on the back of Leon's motorcycle and let Bjorn set out for destination unknown! I want my life back!

  I'm so sorry, love. I want you to have your life back. I'm doing all I can to make it happen.

  Most importantly I want Arden back. Not the cold-blooded killer that he's become, but the man I fell in love with. The gentle soul that looked up at me in the hospital and told me that I was the reason he was here. The man that declared his undying love for me, and that he'd never let anything bad happen to me. I want to curl into a ball and feel him wrap himself around me like a big cocoon. I want to look up into those big blue eyes again and know that my life was finally going in the right direction.

  Right now, I don't care if I'm ever human again. If I have any choice in the matter, when this is all over, we'll go back to your world and I'll stay there as your bear, if you'll have me.

  But that can't happen. All th...

  That was the end of the text. That must have been when I walked in earlier in the evening. I closed the book and restored the protection spell before I replaced it on the desk, then picked up my mug and took a drink of the lukewarm cider while I thought about what I had read.

  I woke up to find my feet on the writing table and an empty mug in my lap. I guess I had fallen asleep in the chair. Sheila was nowhere to be seen, nor was his journal on the table. I had replaced it exactly where I'd found it, so it would be pure speculation on his part if I read it or not. It should be interesting to see if he has the balls to confront me on the subject.

  I got up and stretched. I used to sleep in the chair when I was at home and would fall asleep in front of the computer, but this body wasn't used to it. Nor was this a good, ergonomic office chair, either. I pulled back the flap to the tent and found that it was just a little bit past dawn. People were starting to stir around the compound as the camp came alive.

  I headed for the privy to take care of things, and then over to the mess tent for breakfast. They were having the usual variety of cold meats, pastries and other easily prepared foodstuffs. Nothing was hot except for their version of coffee, which tasted like road tar, but did have a good, strong kick to it. I dipped in for some lukewarm cider after gathering a plate of food. The cooks gave me an odd look until they saw me blow on the drink as I cast a spell, causing it to chill and frost. The head cook, simply known as Sarge, immediately asked if I'd do him the favor of chilling down the pot. I guess they don't get many mages willing to do stuff like that. Since I was in a relatively good mood I gave him a big smile and hit the kettle with the same spell, chilling it almost to the freezing point. I figure that should keep it nice and nippy for anyone wanting some for breakfast.

  Outside, I again sat down on the log next to the fire. I saw Dane across the opening sitting next to one of the women in Gwen's retinue. As I watched, I saw her making eyes at him as he flirted with her. Sheila was right; he was a Romeo. Nobody plays me for a sucker. He was safe for now, but some day soon I would get my revenge.

  I finished my breakfast and dumped the dirty dish and mug in the large tub by the cook's tent. I was about to go looking around for Sheila when I saw Maus walking purposefully towards me. He was dressed in the same immaculate armor as yesterday. I guess that was his usual modus operandi.

  "Good morning, Maus," I said by way of a greeting.

  Maus smiled back at me. "Good morning, Arden. Did you sleep well?"

  I gave a bit of a noncommittal shrug. "I slept well enough but not as well as I would have liked."

  Maus gave me a serious look as he nodded. Using his left hand he guided me away from the cook's tent and towards the perimeter. "Yes, I know. The watch last night reported you out looking for something to kill, but apparently you didn't find anything."

  I nodded. It made sense that they would report something like that to the boss. "I thought I heard something, but it turned out to be a false alarm," I explained. "I don't quite know what it was. It was so faint, I could barely hear it."

  Maus pursed his lips as he considered what I had told him. "Did you do any magical scrying to see what may have made the sound?"

  Scrying? Uh-oh. I hadn't even thought of that. Not that the dragon had taught me how to do that yet. I gave Maus an embarrassed grin as I replied, "Um, I'm afraid I don't know how to scry, Maus."

  That got his attention. He stopped and stared at me with one eyebrow cocked. "You don't know how to scry? That's one of the first things they teach mages at the academy."

  I smiled and shrugged. "Sorry, but I didn't go to one of your academies. I've been learning this from a rather unique source."

  Maus scowled at me for a second. "Ah yes, this mysterious master of yours," he said in a flat tone. "It's curious as to how you could find someone to teach you arcane magic when there haven't been any practitioners here for over a thousand years."

  The smile faded from my face as I laid my ears back, stepped forward and invaded his personal space. "You have a problem with that?" I challenged in a harsh voice.

  Maus took a hasty step back, more because of his surprise at my reaction than fear. He blinked a couple of times before responding, "No... I guess not. I'm sorry if you took that wrong."

  I forced myself to relax. The guy was right to be cautious about me. I was an unknown to him. All he knew about me was that I had blown his mage away and I was a close friend of the Duke and Duchess. I nodded at him. "That's all right," I replied. "I guess I'm just a little sensitive about that. It seems like all I ever do is fight to be accepted as a sentient creature and not just another animal."

  He nodded. "I can understand your feelings," he said with a slight frown. "I, too, know what it's like to overcome prejudice in order to gain respect and be accepted. I apologize if you took it as an accusation. I am simply curious about how you found someone to teach you these arcane skills."

  I nodded and considered the situation. I suppose I could tell him about the dragon, but I don't know if that would be a good idea. I'm already enough of a freak here now. If he found out that their equivalent of a god or demi-god was training me, who knows how he might react. But then again, it just might save me some time in the long run if they understood that I had some serious backing.

  I heard the echo of Lakash's laugh in the back of my mind as I decided to take Maus for a ride. I gave him a pleasant smile as I stepped forward again and place my hand on his chest. With a simple twist of the amulets power, we were both standing in Lakash's realm. Maus' face dropped at the shock of the sudden change of venue. I could clearly see the enormous form of the dragon as it was reflected in his eyes.

  Maus staggered back from me while drawing his sword. "By the gods! What is that thing?" he demanded as he looked around for a way out. The arena we were in held no exits, as none were needed for our kind.

  I walked back to where Lakash's muzzle lay in the dirt and leaned against it. I felt the air whistling by as he inhaled. "Maus," I said casually," this is my master, Lakash."

  He blinked as if to clear his vision as his head rotated up to follow the outline of the dragon. "But, that's impossible," he stuttered out. "The last greater dragon was destroyed over a thousand years ago! Illialakeska was the last of the line!"

  "FOOL!" the dragon's voice rang out in our heads. I stumbled as Lakash lifted his head high above us and looked back down. "I am Illialakeska! All your people managed to do was to banish me from your realm."

  "What?" I said in harmony with Maus as we both asked the same question.

  The dragon stepped forward and glared down at Maus. The dragon fear was overpowering to him, forcing Maus to his knees. "The greater dragons of your realm were my children," Lakash explained. "For hundreds of thousands of your years they had nurtured your kind and kept them safe, asking little in return. Then, when you were ready, they took you in and taught you the secrets of magic, allowing you to rule the lands. And how did your people repay us for our kindness?" His voice rose in pitch as well as volume. "They hunted down my children and slaughtered them with the very magic we had taught you!"

  I moved quickly over to where Maus cringed in the sand. I was more afraid that Lakash might do something to him than anything else. "Back off, Lakash!" I ordered, bringing my defenses up around us. As the magic solidified, Maus regained some control as the fear faded.

  Lakash roared and closed the space between us. "Don't get too confident, bitch," he said, as he looked down on us. "I may have been teaching you how to use my powers, but you are still no match for me in any way, shape or form."

  He was right. He could close off the pipe at any time. There was no way I could compete with him in a true contest of power so I took the only other way out I had. I grabbed Maus' shoulder and willed us back into the real world.

  "Vengeance will be mine!" Lakash roared in the back of my head as I helped a shaken Maus to stand.

  "I'm sorry, Maus," I said apologetically. "I had no idea he was going to pull something like that."

  Maus pulled away from my arm and took a step back. "You serve that monster?" he demanded. "How could you?"

  I felt my temper rising, but I forced the feeling back down. "There are things about this that you have no clue," I said both as a warning and an explanation. "My service to him is temporary while I pursue my quest."

  The look on his face got hard as he shook his head. "If that creature truly is Illialakeska, then you are a fool to trust it."

  I laughed. "You think I trust him?" I challenged back. "Trust me when I say that I have no love for Lakash. Nor do I trust him as far as I could throw Bastion Keep."

  Maus stared at me for a moment before he shook his head and walked off. I watched him as he threaded his way through the tents until he was out of sight. I had the feeling that I was going to regret introducing him to Lakash. That was another black mark against that bastard that I'd have to try and collect some day.

  I found Sheila sitting by the fire, poking it idly with a stick. I sat down next to him and leaned on his arm. "Morning, love, how's it going?" I asked as I snuggled up to his arm.

  "You read my diary didn't you," he said flatly. It wasn't a question, just a statement.

  I let out a sigh. "Yes, I did."

  He looked down at me with a neutral expression and asked, "Why?"

  I hugged his arm a little tighter and leaned my head on his shoulder. "Because I was worried about you," I said in a low voice. "I was worried that you were having problems and weren't willing to let me help. That maybe I was doing something wrong that you didn't want to talk about. Or, worst case, Lakash was toying with your head again, making you see things in the wrong light."

  He didn't answer that, so I turned and looked up at him with a sad expression. "I'm sorry for all the pain I've caused." He didn't react to my statement. "You have no idea how much I want to get this quest over with so we can just go back to being ourselves again. I want to be normal so bad I can almost taste it."

  Sheila looked down at me and frowned. "Did you really like being a human so much?" he asked.

  I blinked. "Human?" I asked and then let out a small bark of laughter. "Who said anything about being human?" I let a big smile cover my face as Sheila's expression softened. "I just want to go back to being your big, cuddly bear that would hold you at night and keep you safe."

  Sheila looked back at the fire, his expression one of contemplation. "But you told me you would have a chance to go home again. To go back and see all your friends and relatives."

  I leaned back against his shoulder and relaxed. "I don't care about that any more, love. All I want to do is settle down with you in suburbia and raise a litter of kids."

  Sheila looked back down at me and frowned. "You're not just saying that because of what I wrote in my journal, are you?"

  I shook my head and sighed. "No, I'm not," I replied wearily. "Sheila, I got tired of killing a long time ago. All I've wanted since then was to be left alone." I sat back up and looked him in the eye. "That was until I saw you. You're the reason I'm here. You're the reason I wanted to go on living." I leaned forward so my arms rested on my knees. "I don't want to lose you now, Sheila. Not after all we've been through."

  Sheila reached out, put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. We sat like that, watching the fire for a while before I finally broke the silence. "What are you thinking about, love?" I asked quietly.

  Sheila had a far away look to his eyes as he stared into the fire. "I was just thinking about the studio," he said finally. "I wonder what Zig and the others are doing right now."

  I closed my eyes and let loose of my hold on this world, concentrating instead on Sheila's world. The studio was open for business as expected, but I didn't see Zig Zag there. She was probably out with James. I noticed that Sabrina wasn't in either. I guess she and Chris were off doing something. Or had she moved to Philly by now? I saw Leon and Melissa doing some filming, but it didn't look like things were going smoothly. I concentrated on Zig Zag to locate her and almost fell off the log when I did.

  "What's wrong, Arden?" Sheila asked.

  I blinked as I returned my sight to where we were. "Zig Zag's in jail," I said quietly.

  "WHAT?" Sheila demanded.

  I nodded remembering the vision. "Yah. I saw her sitting in a cell wearing a standard prison outfit, number and all."

  "How the hell could you know that," he demanded angrily.

  I shrugged and looked down. "Lakash is tied to every dragon in every realm, just like I'm tied to him. When I want to, I can use those strands to see things in other worlds." This was one talent I hadn't told Sheila about.

  "Good lord, Arden," he said shocked. "Do you have any idea as to why she's there?"

  I shook my head. "I don't know. Let me spend some time looking around and I'll see if I can find out."

  This was bad news. And worse of all, I knew that somehow I was responsible.

Chapter 35