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 5

You ain't just whistling Dixie.

  Enjoying the walk, Sheila and I strolled along the road in the second township leading towards the restaurant. Coming to the second intersection, we made a turn towards the river, entering an area of with much higher quality buildings than we had been used to seeing. Now quite hungry, we picked up our pace looking for the restaurant. Spotting it on the other side of the street, we started to cross. About half way over, I saw something that made me freeze.

  A line of five large feline-looking creatures, all carrying large loads of supplies on their backs, was marching in from the river area. Their long, sinuous form was highlighted by lesser-developed paws, which, though they had rudimentary fingers, they obviously didn't have dexterity someone like I would have. They had long gold colored fur with various odd striping and spot combinations. The ears were large and tufted at the end like a lynx would be. They all were also wearing large, black metal collars. Behind them was a human male dressed casually, carrying a clipboard and a whip.

  Realizing I had stopped, Sheila turned and came back to me. Seeing the expression on my face, he turned and saw the same thing I did. "My god, Arden. Is that what I think it is?" he asked, incredulously. All I could do was nod as we watched them march by us.

  As the man with the whip glanced over at me, he got a surprised look on his face. Seeing my expression and my death grip on the hilt of my Katana, he quickly passed us by, urging his charges on.

  Now I understood some of why people were staring at me too hard. There were anthropomorphic animals in this reality, and they were slaves. It explained the flagrant abuse and outright snobbery that I had been face with. It chilled me to the bone.

  Taking my arm, Sheila said, "Come on. Let's go eat." Still in a daze, I followed him, wondering just what kind of world he had wished us into. Reaching the door to the restaurant I regained some of my wits. Stepping away from Sheila, I opened the door before he could and held it, bowing as he went through. I was going to be a good little doggy. Following Sheila in, I almost forgot to pull my tail up close before the door closed.

  Inside we saw a very plush foyer. It had a couple of comfortable looking couches and chairs. Beyond them, was a small podium for the maitre d' to greet guests. The man standing at the podium, for the life of me, had the word 'snob' written all over him. As Sheila approached, I took a place behind him and to the right.

  Putting on a false smile, he greeted Sheila. "Welcome to Jeklom's. How may I help you this evening?" he asked. He didn't ask how many, just how he could help us. "I'd like a table for two if you please," Sheila informed him. Giving a weak smile, the waiter looked to see if there was anyone else. "You are expecting someone else?" he asked. Annoyed, Sheila frowned, "No. It's just the two of us."

  Stepping forward, he spoke in a low voice. "I'm sorry, my lord, but we do not have the facilities to handle animals," he informed Sheila. Crossing his arms, Sheila gave the maitre d' a hard look. "And just what animal would you be referring to?" he asked. Looking distinctly uncomfortable, the maitre d' nodded to me. "You're... umm...what ever it is. We do not have facilities for it," he stated.

  Uncrossing his arms, Sheila put his left arm around the maitre d' and herded him towards me. "Let me enlighten you, my good sir. This is Arden. She is not an animal, nor is she an 'it.' Do we understand each other?" he asked. Swallowing, the maitre d' now saw the swords that were previously eclipsed by Sheila's body. Steeling himself, the maitre d' stuck to his guns. "I'm sorry, my lord, but you don't seriously expect us to put a bowl of kibble in front of it while others are trying to eat, do you?" he asked incredulously.

  Unable to take it any more, I stepped forward so I was within his discomfort zone. "Let's get something straight. I'm no dog and I don't eat kibble. I would also appreciate it if you would quit talking like I'm some kind of dumb animal," I stated frankly. A look of amazement crossed his face. Before he could say anything, we were interrupted as the door opened.

  Turning, we saw a foppish young male, about seventeen or so in age, come in flanked by a couple of professional looking gents wearing some sort of uniform. He had curly blond hair that flowed down to below his shoulders, bright green eyes and a small, cleft chin. He was dressed in very fancy clothing, which looked painfully expensive. "What's going on here?" he demanded, spotting us.

  Slipping from Sheila's grasp, the maitre d' scooted over to the young man. Bowing deep, he practically groveled. "My lord. This man wishes to take this...thing, in with him. I however, have explained such is not allowed," he complained to the young man. Stepping forward, the young man faced Sheila. "Are you daft man? This is a reputable establishment. They don't allow animals in here," he said. Looking at me, he gave me the once over. "And what's it doing with those weapons? Why doesn't it have a collar?" he asked backing up.

  Seeing his reaction, the two guards moved around him, imposing themselves between the young man and me. "He is my lord and liege. I have sworn my life to his service. I am armed because I am his guard," I stated flatly, explaining away his questions. Surprise showed on the young mans face as I spoke. It confirmed what I had suspected. None of the other creatures were capable of speech, or if so it must be rudimentary.

  Getting over the shock, the young man resumed his tirade. "I don't care. Get it out of here. You too. Their kind isn't allowed in here, even if it is some kind of freak," he stated. Both of the bodyguards got a hard look on their faces, hands on the hilt of their sword. I felt Sheila put a hand on my shoulder. "Relax," he said. "We were just leaving anyway."

  Keeping my distance from the to guards, I kept my hand at the ready on the Katana should they try anything. Reaching the door, I opened it with my backside, holding it for Sheila, never removing my gaze from either of the armed men. Once Sheila was through the door I closed it hard.

  Turning, I stormed away from the restaurant. "Animal! Put me in a collar! I should have gutted the little twit!" I complained to Sheila. Paying attention to our surroundings, I now saw more of the large cats working in the backs of the buildings and in the alleyways between them. They were doing the menial work that people would normally do. All wore a large, black metal collar.

  Reaching the edge of the high rent district, I slowed to a stop. Sheila, right behind me, placing his hand on my shoulder as I fought down the anger. "What have we gotten ourselves into Sheila?" I asked. "I don't know, love," I heard him respond.

  Sighing, I forced my self to relax and adopt a neutral air about myself. Turning to Sheila, I gave a small bow. "After you, my lord," I said, waving back towards the hotel. I saw Sheila about to object, but he saw the hard, emotionless look in my eyes and changed his mind. Nodding without speaking, Sheila walked past me and didn't look back, maintaining the fašade that we had been forced to adopt.

  Passing through the intermediate zone of buildings that would lead us to the intersection our hotel was near, Sheila spotted a restaurant. Against my objections, he insisted on trying. Entering through the front door, we saw an open commons area not unlike the hotel. Seeing nobody in a rush to seat us, Sheila walked over to a table and sat down, gesturing for me to take a chair besides him, back to the wall.

  After sitting down, a young woman spotted us and walked over. Giving me a worried look she approached Sheila. "Beg your pardon, sir, but is broken?" the girl asked. Sheila glanced at me, and then looked back at the waitress. "You'll have no problem with her. Just please bring us two mugs of ale and two of whatever you served for lunch, please," Sheila responded. The waitress gave a sheepish smile and ran off.

  "Why didn't you just wait till we got back to the hotel?" I asked. Sheila looked down and shrugged. "I don't know," he admitted, "Maybe I was just trying to see if there was anyone in this town with a sense of decency." Shaking my head, I knew it was futile. "I'm just an animal to them. If Junip hadn't warned the innkeeper about me then he would have done the same thing. I suppose I'll just have to stay in the room until we figure out what we're here for," I said, dejected. "No," Sheila said forcefully. "I don't accept that. You're not some animal and I'm not going to have you treated like one."

  We paused our conversation as the waitress appeared. Placing down the two platters of food, I looked at the crap she had put on my platter, a bowl of ale besides it. "Hey!" I barked at the woman. "What's this crap?" I asked, pushing the food away. "He asked for two lunches and two ales. He said nothing about floor sweepings." Surprised the waitress shakily picked up the plate and bow, rushing off to the kitchen. Pissed at what had happened, I sat, fuming.

  Watching as the young woman returned with a platter and a proper mug, I never moved as she placed them in front of me. Glancing down, I saw that she had taken the precaution of putting flatware with the food. "Thank you." I stated with false pleasantry. With that, the woman retreated from the table to the safety of the kitchen.

  Now, no longer really hungry, I ate the food only because I needed it. It was pathetic, bland tasteless and chewy. Its only redeeming feature was that it didn't make me want to puke. Finishing the meal relatively quick, I tossed off the last of the ale. Pushing the empty platter away, I waited for Sheila to finish his meal.

  Finished, Sheila looked around for the waitress who was nowhere to be seen. Shoving his seat back nosily, he took a couple of odd coins from his pocket and tossed them on the table, then lead the way out of the restaurant.

  Reaching the front of the hotel, I steeled myself for the spectacle inside. As we entered, I saw there were a fair number of folk in the commons, but not nearly as many as there were for lunch. Ignoring them, we headed upstairs to the room, locking ourselves safely inside.

  Walking over to the bed, I flopped face down on it, burying my head under a pillow in a vain attempt to retreat from reality.

  I was kneeling in the middle of the road, my muscles racked with pain. Rain poured down around me, soaking me to the bone. The sound of tires sliding on pavement caught my attention. Turning my head, I saw the lights of the car as it spun out of control. Frozen in place I watched as the passenger door swung towards me, sending me flying through the air. Landing hard on the slick pavement, I bounced and rolled coming to rest at the bottom of the ditch.

  Laying there I saw pnatches of clouds as lightening flashed, illuminating the night in a flickering dance of electricity. I saw Sheila standing over me, those beautiful eyes staring at me with fear and concern.

  There were the paramedics, checking my vital signs, asking me questions. It was all a fog, my mind neither acknowledging nor responding to my surroundings. I was a blank slate, sights and sounds etched and buried in my memory, conscious though absent.

  The ride in the ambulance a new lesson in pain as the jolting of the vehicle caused the broken bone in my leg to rub sending fire through my body.

  The emergency room, with the doctors and nurses scurrying around, poking, probing and injecting me. Machines measuring the beat of my life. Bags of fluids dripping their sustaining liquids into my body. The buzz of an X-Ray as they checked to see what bones were broken.

  The sterile lights of the operating room, its medicinal smell rasping across my senses as masked specters danced around me. The sight of a cup with hoses being lowered over my muzzle bringing darkness and oblivion.

  Breath pressed into my body, I am again awake, suspended between life and death. Trapped within a body I do not control, existing without being. The recovery room frames my existence, ventilator breathing for me. The gagging sensation of the tube as it is drawn from my throat by a doctor. Questions asked go unanswered as I float within my body, unable to drift free.

  The vision of a panther, dark and sinister talking to those around me. He lifts my hand, examining the mark. I feel a jolt as a spark leaps from the wound into his hand. Staggering, he regains his balance, shaking his head at the effect. Paw held to head, he stumbles away into the hands of a doctor, confusion and pain etched on his face. Regaining his composure, he looks back at me, his eyes carved by hatred into a threatening glare. Turning, he flees the room, the breath of the dragon trailing behind him in his wake.

  The sound of a knock at the door startled me, waking me. Panting, I sat up. The memory of the accident and what followed were new to me. I hadn't remembered much of anything afterwards. I most certainly didn't remember Khansman visiting me in the hospital. The feel and smell of the dragon's breath about him after touching the mark disturbed me. The way he looked at me with total hatred. I now had an idea why he had tried to kill me. I now understood what had happened.

  A knock at the door got my attention. Sheila was nowhere to be found. Standing, I walked over to the door. Opening it I saw Junip. She looked repulsively happy. I was tempted to close the door on her, but I was still too much of a gentleman...or maybe a lady to do that. Giving a false smile, I invited her in.

  "I have the most wonderful news," she said, bubbling with enthusiasm. "I talked to the Duchess this afternoon and showed her the belt from your dress." "Kimono," I corrected her. Seeing her confusion, I smiled, "It's called a kimono where I come from." Nodding she repeated the odd name several times.

  "Anyway," she continued, "The Duchess wishes for you and your lord to come the day after tomorrow for an audience. She was most intrigued when I told her of you and wishes to meet you and your lord. We are scheduled for late afternoon so I will meet you and your lord here tomorrow after the noon meal if that is acceptable." Thinking about it, it made sense. It would take an hour or so to walk there, though I wondered why we weren't taking a wagon or something. Somehow I didn't think they had yellow cabs here.

  "That sounds fine. I will let my lord know when he returns. It should be a most memorable experience for both of us." I said, realizing that she truly was acting in my best interests. Sheila was right, there were a few decent people here.

  Leaning forward, she spoke in a conspiratorial tone. "That's not the best part. The Duke and Duchess are scheduled to leave for the Imperial Capital City in four days. If they are impressed with you and your lord, there is a good chance they will invite you along," she said, cheering with her hands. "Since none of your people has ever been seen around here before, this will make you the first of your people to greet the Emperor. It will be a great honor for you and your lord. It will also bring great favor on the Duke and Duchess."

  So I was a trophy after all. The Duke and Duchess would use me as a new carnival exhibit for the Emperor. I could tell that Junip honestly thought that she was doing the best thing she could for us. I only hopped that it was.

  Sitting by the window, I watched the traffic as it went about its business, the milling of people as they passed by, going on with their life. At least they had lives. Two lovers meeting on a corner, exchange an embrace and a kiss, walking away hand in hand. A young woman, two small children in tow, holding their hands, going about their daily business.

  I sat there, my arms crossed on the windowsill, muzzle resting on them. I thought about the past with all the things I had done. The time with my family, now forever lost to me. I wondered how my mother took my disappearance so soon after the loss of my father. My brothers, my cousins and my nieces, they were all lost to me now.

  I thought about my time with Sheila. It was some of the best times of my life and the worst. Even in the arms of my love my life was a disaster. The worst part was that it had destroyed those around me. Sheila's fiancÚ had paid the ultimate price for my love of Sheila. Though I may have avenged him by killing those who had murdered him, it made no difference in the scheme of things.

  That brought me to killing and death. It followed me everywhere. My love of the martial arts when I was in a kid, visions of Bruce Lee kicking bad guys' asses on the screen fueled the fire. The SDF when they recruited me because of my talents. All those years on my grandfather's farm out in the middle of nowhere. Nothing to do but target practice with his rifles, always pushing for a more difficult shot to break the boredom. All the people I had killed without a regret for some stupid ideal of national security. It wasn't even my native country. It was a foreign land full of people, none of whom truly accepted me because I was gaijin. Even coming back to the states hadn't helped. Time and again people had forced me to kill, sometimes in defense, others in executions to rid society of another rabid animal. How could I walk the path of the healer with so much blood on my hands?

  Now, sitting here, watching life as it strolled by, I became aware of the fact that death and killing would be inevitable for me again. Some time soon, someone would decide that I was just another animal, wild and dangerous. They would try to kill me and I would be forced to take a life again.

  To make it all the worse, I was isolated from the spirit realm. No matter how hard I tried to breach the barrier between worlds, it was closed to me. They had abandoned me when I needed guidance the most. The really depressing part was that I had come to depend on them. It was a crutch that I never thought I would have adopted.

  Sitting in my self-imposed prison, I watched life as it passed me by.

Chapter 6