Story (c) 2000-2004 by Hikaru Katayamma/Keith Dickinson. All rights reserved. The character Sheila Vixen (c) Eric W Schwartz. Throckmorton P Ruddygore, Poqua, Lakash (c) Jack L Chalker. Jack (c) David Hopkins.Mary the Mouse © Mary Minch. 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
Chapter 43

A clean start.

Poquah marched officiously down the steps of the main living quarters, arriving at the bottom just as a large carriage pulled to a halt. Opening the door, he reached in and pulled out the folding steps before standing aside for the passenger to debark. Despite the carriage's extra heavy-duty springs, it rocked sharply to one side as its sole occupant stepped out of the door and down to the ground. To describe the man as large would be like referring to a professional body builder as simply healthy. Standing well over six feet tall, his height was only matched by his enormous girth. Wearing an eighteenth century black suit with a red, silk-lined opera coat and top hat on his head, his red-cheeked face was framed with a broad beard and mustache, both of which were silver-white. At first glance and at a great distance, one might think of him as the picture-perfect Santa Clause; however, upon closer inspection one would get a sense of greatness, a power that was held carefully in check, a power which had nothing to do with toys or holidays. Ruddygore stretched and smiled as he looked around, apparently happy to be home.

"Was your trip a success?" the Imir inquired, closing the carriage door.

"Bah," the fat man grumbled in disgust. "If anything to do with the new council could be called a success." The dark cloud that had briefly covered his face broke and vanished, revealing a jovial smile. "I did manage to fit in a quick trip across to Earth. There was a Gilbert and Sullivan festival in Manitoba that I just couldn't miss."

'Indeed," Poquah acknowledged, knowing that something like that had been inevitable. "You'll be happy to know that our visitors finally arrived this morning."

The big man nodded as they made their way up the stairs. "Excellent! It's about time they got here. I was beginning to wonder if they'd ever make it." He paused just inside the entryway to let his eyes adjust. "I have some things to take care of before I meet them. Have them join me for dinner, make it casual, and then afterwards we'll discuss what the next step is."

Glancing briefly towards the students' dorm, Poquah looked a bit uncomfortable. "I'm afraid that could be problematical. Arden requested some place where he could resume his natural form, so I placed him in the students' practice arena."

"No problem, then. It's been ages since we dined outdoors. We'll simply have a table setup on the balcony outside of the dining hall." His eyes now adjusted to the shadowy interior, Ruddygore started purposefully inwards. "He can relax on the grass. You should see about buying some cattle for him to eat, too. Maybe toss in an ox or some such as long as you're at it."

"An excellent suggestion. However…" the Imir let the statement trail off as the sorcerer stopped and turned to face him. "He requested that he not be disturbed by anyone except yourself for the next five to eight days."

The storm clouds once again returned briefly to Ruddygore's face. "Doesn't want to be disturbed, does he?" Letting out a derisive snort, he resumed walking at a much faster pace. "Fine. We might as well meet this female that he's been dragging all over creation then. I understand that he's got that necromancer from down south with him, too?" Without a pause, he pushed his way through large double doors and turned left down a corridor. "Might as well invite him while you're at it. And make sure Hecate's there, too. No doubt they'll be able to shed some light on what is going on."

"Indeed," the elf replied flatly, having already anticipated the order.

Sheila stared up at the canopy of the bed as it rippled in time with the breeze. Lying on her back with her knees up, she was just starting to drift off when there came a knock at the door. "What?" she barked, annoyed at the interruption.

The door opened and the same girl who'd helped with the wheelchair came in. "Poquah suggested that you might wish to get cleaned up prior to dinner, and has instructed me to help you."

"He did, did he?" he vixen growled as she glared at the girl through slit eyes. "Why don't you go tell Poquah what he can do with his bath." Closing her eyes, she squirmed her head into the pillows for a bit, trying to get comfortable again.

"Please, M'am. He will be most upset at me if I don't have you ready to dine with the Master tonight." She paused, looking quite nervous as the vixen ignored her. "Besides, I would think that you would want a bath by now."

"The vixen's eyes flew open. "WHAT?" she demanded as she rolled over and sat up. "What the hell are you trying to insinuate?"

"Please, M'am, I wasn't trying to insinuate anything," the girl hastily replied, trying to calm the angry female. "I mean, just look at yourself. You're hair's all matted, your fur's caked with dirt and….and…"

"And what," Sheila growled dangerously.

Leaning on the doorway, Hecate spoke up, rescuing the girl. "And you smell like a dog," the ebony female stated. "Or have you forgotten that without the armor, you no longer have any of the fancy spells that kept you relatively clean." She shook her head as the vixen continued to growl to herself, causing the girl to retreat behind Hecate. "Hey, if you don't believe me, go take a look in the mirror. Go ahead, look!"

Using the nightstand as a crutch, Sheila stood up and hobbled over to the full-length mirror on the wall and stopped, stunned at what she saw. Her hair was frizzed and wild-looking, the fur on her hands, legs and tail was matted and layered with dirt and grime. The simple pullover cloak wasn't in much better condition. Raising one arm, she took a sniff of her palm and recoiled. Staggering backwards, she dropped heavily onto the bed as her knees hit the edge and just sat, staring at the image in the mirror before her.

Hecate sighed as she walked over to the vixen and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Come on. Let's get you cleaned up."

"I---I don't understand," Sheila mumbled in shock. "I've ridden a horse across the desert, been through rain storms, hacked my way through the woods and even been through a monsoon, and I've never looked anywhere near this bad!"

"It was the armor." Helping the vixen up, Hecate guided her over to the wheelchair and steadied her as she sat down. "The magic in the armor protected you on many levels, including the elements, dirt and such. Without it," the Imir shrugged, "you were just a dirt magnet waiting to happen. Nature abhors a vacuum, especially one caused by magic. It's in the rules." She followed the young human as the teen pushed the wheelchair, pausing at the doorway to lean on the frame. "Hey. You'll feel ten thousand percent better once you've had that bath. Trust me."

Her face softened visibly as she watched the vixen being wheeled away, then her expression twisted to one of severe annoyance. "What are you looking at?" she demanded, turning to look at Poquah who stood silently a short distance behind her.

"I am again surprised by you," he stated, closing the distance, his hands clasped behind his back. "I never took you for the nurturing type."

"Oh, fuck you," Hecate spat as she crossed the hall to her own room, slamming the door shut behind her.

"Here we are," the girl stated, stopping outside of a pair of large, ornate double doors. Removing a key from around her neck, she unlocked the doors and opened them, locking them again after they were inside. "This is Master Ruddygore's private bath."

Sheila looked around the room. A series of oil lamps around the room bounced their light indirectly off the white walls and tiled ceiling, giving the area a warm feeling. The chamber was sparsely decorated with only a couple of tapestries on the wall. In the center of the floor was a large circular opening that resemble a Jacuzzi more than it did a tub. One end had a sliding grate that could be levered up, similar to a floodgate on a damn, which would allow one to lower the water or empty the tub quickly. Hanging overhead from the ceiling, almost directly over the tub, dangled two pipes that joined into a single nozzle just above the water's surface. Each pipe had a chain dangling down that controlled a flow valve, a basic but effective method to regulate water temperature. Nearby was a fully stocked bar on wheels that had a number of pastries and other confections piled up on a platter. A large bench with a series of pegs above it had a pile of plush towels stacked on top. Next to the bench sat a small, doorless cabinet that was filled with vials of oils and bath salts, soaps and other bath supplies.

Wheeling the chair a little closer to the tub, Sheila saw that it was, indeed, very much like a large Jacuzzi with tile running around the upper edge and a single, continuous bench-type seat that ran around the outside of the bath. All that was missing were the jets and water intake. As she watch, the young woman cranked open the valves to fill the tub. "You've got to be kidding," the vixen laughed, watching the hot, steaming water flood into the bath. "This is one guy's personal bath? I've seen orgies take place in smaller tubs than that!"

The teen blushed and turned away. "Master Ruddygore doesn't indulge himself in such things. However, he does occasionally have guests who bring companions. If they are important enough to warrant such a courtesy, they will be allowed to use this room."

"Wait," Sheila said, holding her hand up. "You're telling me that I'm getting some kind of VIP treatment?"

Shaking the water off of her hand, the girl turned and nodded towards the vixen. "Oh, yes, M'am! You and Master Arden are both considered very important guests indeed. The Master has been waiting for your arrival most impatiently for the last several weeks."

"Well, I hate to break it to you, but I think you're a little off base," the vixen stated, standing and removing her robe. "Your boss isn't interested in me. He probably wouldn't give a rat's ass about me if it weren't for Arden. I'm just along for the ride."

The girl held the robe out at arms length with two fingers. "You don't have any particular affinity for this thing, do you?"

"Huh?" Sheila grunted, thrown off by the question for a second. "Oh. Um, no, I don't."

"Good." Tossing the robe into a corner, the girl wiped her hands on her clothes. "Then you won't mind if I have it burned." Taking the vixen's hand, she helped her over to the pool. "Let me know if the water's too hot for you," she directed as Sheila stuck her toe in.

"It's just fine." Carefully making her way down the rough-hewn steps, Sheila waded out into the middle of the pool before submerging herself the rest of the way for a moment and then popping her head back up to the surface so she could breathe. Shaking her head to get the water out of her eyes, she rubbed her hands through her hair and grimaced as her fingers snared in the tangles.

Having also disrobed, the teen gathered together a small tray of items from the bathing supplies and returned to the bath with them, setting them down by the side after climbing in. She picked up a small, plastic bottle of pinkish fluid. "This is a combination shampoo and body wash," the girl stated, squirting a large glob into one hand before handing it to the vixen. Maneuvering around to stand in back, she proceeded to start working on Sheila's back. "Let's get your body cleaned up first, then we can worry about your hair."

"Christ," the pregnant vixen muttered to herself as she tried to scrub the fur on her arms. "How the hell did I get this grungy in just three days?"

"As I understand it, you're not from this world. I can tell just by looking by you that you're not acclimated to the rules." Reaching for the bottle, the girl squirted out more soap and continued to work it into the fur. "Right now there are at least two dozen different rules concerning fur that are trying to attach themselves to you. That's what happens to you if you're not acclimated."

"Not acclimated?" Sheila spat, trying to turn to face the girl. "I've been running around in this third world…world for the last six months! How long do I have to be here before I'm acclimated?"

The young teen chuckled politely. "It's not how long, but just how. From what Hecate said, I take it you were wearing something to ward off most native magic. That probably protected you from the basic categorization rules. The longer you deny the rules, the harder they can hit you when they finally get the chance." She paused both talking and shampooing as she thought about it. "I guess you could say it's like a drug. You take it for a long time and never notice, but if you suddenly stop, all your symptoms will come back to hit you with a vengeance, as well as a bunch of new ones as you go through withdrawal."

"I wouldn't know about that," the vixen replied, dumping more shampoo onto her arm as she continued to scrub it. "I was never one to do drugs. I prefer life au natural." Having lathered the arm thoroughly, she dunked it under the water then lifted it and looked at the result. "Damn it! What does it take to get this shit out of my fur?" She picked up the bottle of shampoo and again squirted the contents onto her arm. She stopped scrubbing at her arm and hung her head, her ears wilted to the side. "God, it's no wonder…" she sighed before half-heartedly began to scrub the fur again.

"No wonder what?" the girl asked while continuing to absentmindedly lather the vixen's back.

Sheila whimpered as she tried to run her claws through the matted fur. "It's no wonder he doesn't want to be around me. God knows I wouldn't want to be around me right now either. Not after all I've done."

The girl shushed the vixen as she dug her nails into the fur, working the soap all the way down to the skin. "Now-now. I don't think it's that bad. He's a sorcerer, right? Then he should know the rules. He was probably worried someone might attack him while you were near. He was just worried for you. It's not like you wanted this to happen, right?"

"You don't understand," Sheila replied, dropping suddenly in the water until it was up to her shoulders before wading over to the edge of the pool where she sat down. "After everything that I've done to him, he has every right to hate me."

The teen gave Sheila a dubious look as she studied the pregnant vixen. "I don't know. From what Poquah said about him, he seems very devoted to your safety."

"Oh, you do not have a clue." Using both hands, Sheila pulled her long hair back, clearing it from her eyes as she spoke. "When Arden showed up in my world, he had this amulet with him. He handed it to me before he passed out. I didn't understand what it was, and he didn't remember giving it to me. He thought he'd lost it." Reclining against the side of the pool, she looked up at the ornately tiled roof and lost herself in the mosaic for a moment before continuing. "He told me about this quest of his and how he needed the amulet to finish it. Even knowing he needed it, I didn't give it back. At the time, I thought I loved him. Then everything started going wrong. People kept trying to kill him. Then they kidnapped me and Bjorn. Oh, god, Bjorn…" She closed her eyes and began to sob quietly. "Bjorn would be alive if I had just given Arden that stupid amulet."

Moving to the side of the pool, the girl took one of the tall, slender glasses and filled it with ice-cold water before offering it to the vixen. "Who was Bjorn?"

"Who was he?" the vixen replied, looking back at the girl. Seeing the offered glass, she accepted it and took a sip. She held the glass in both hands and stared at it as she sniffed. "He was my fiancé."

Now enthralled with the vixen's story, the girl took a seat next to her. "Your fiancé? I thought you loved Arden."

"Yah, well… That's what I thought too." Pausing to take another drink, took a deep breath to try and maintain control. "I found out later that my attraction was just some stupid spell."

The girl nodded, knowing full well what such magic was capable of. "What happened next?"

"I…" Sheila paused for a long time, trying to both organize her thoughts and keep from breaking down. "I finally realized that I couldn't keep him. Bad things would keep happening and more people would die if I did, so I decided to give the amulet back, but not before…" With a sudden snarl that surprised the girl, she threw the glass across the room where it shattered against a wall before again running her fingers through her long, wet hair. "Not before I…not before I got pregnant with his kid."

"Ah," was all the girl replied.

"Yah. 'Ah,'" the vixen parroted. "So the next night I decide to give him back the amulet, only I don't understand how it works or what it does. In the process I made a wish that, well, it transported us to another world."

"It brought you here?" the girl prompted.

"No. Some place completely different. A world where there were only humans and some cat-like people that they used for slaves." She paused to rub the end of her snout as she sniffed again. "That's when things really started to go wrong."

Leaning forward with interest, the girl handed her a small washcloth. "Wrong how?"

Sheila blew her nose on the cloth before folding it up and setting it by the side of the pool. "First of all, we switched bodies."

"Really?" the girl said with a smile. "So he was a vixen and you were a dragon?"

"Dragon?" Sheila laughed. "No. I was human. He was a human before he came to my world where he showed up as a polar bear," she paused as her eyes got a far away look. "I remember the look in his eyes when he first went out in public. It was like watching a small child seeing a Christmas tree for the first time. He was so---innocent, so---vulnerable, you know?" She shook her head to break away from the memory. "No, I was in his old human body, and he was in mine. I thought it was kind of fun being a guy, but he didn't handle it very well. Then he got…"

The girl waited a minute for Sheila to continue before prompting her, "Then he got what?"

"Then he got raped," she stated flatly as the girl gasped. "The poor, stupid bastard didn't know that I was in heat. He didn't know that my pheromones would affect humans, either. Not that I could have been bothered to tell him even though I knew damn good and well they did. Some pencil dick local royalty decided he wanted an exotic fuck and had her captured and chained up. Afterwards he had her beaten and given to the slaver's staff. When they were done with her, she was given to a pen full of those cats."

"Oh my god!" the girl gasped, one hand over her mouth.

"Don't you see," Sheila demanded, almost pleaded of the girl, "It was all my fault! If I'd just given him the amulet, nobody would have had to die. He never would have been raped. He never would have died, twice! He wouldn't be trapped in that stupid dragon's body. He wouldn't have to worry about me. He'd just be able to do his quest and get on with his life. The sooner he can get rid of me, the better it will be for all of us."

"You really believe that?" the girl asked, her brow furrowed as she reached out to put a hand on the vixen's arm. "Come on. He's got to still feel something for you. I mean, if he didn't, wouldn't he have left you behind by now?"

"Oh, no. You don't understand." Shaking her head, she used the claw of her index finger to scratch behind her ear. "He's got this over-inflated sense of honor and duty. The only reason he bothers to drag me along is that he feels responsible for me."

They sat together in the pool of slowly cooling water for several minutes before the girl once again spoke. "So do you still feel anything for him? I mean, now that the spells and everything are gone and all." She looked expectantly at the vixen for some time before speaking again. "Well? Do you?"

"I… I don't know," the vixen replied, covering her eyes with her hands as she spoke with a muffled voice. "He's the only connection I have with my home," she sobbed quietly into her hands. "I don't want to loose that, or him." She looked back at the girl with a grief stricken expression. "I don't want to loose him again, but I don't see how he'd ever want me around after all that I've done to him."

"If you want him, you're going to have to make him want to have you around. The best way I can think of to do that is to get you cleaned up." Going back over to the chains, she opened the hot water, allowing it to over-fill the bath, allowing the excess water to drain out the sluice at the far end, taking some of the soap and foam with it as it went. Once we have you all prettied up, then we can work on getting your man back."

"Pretty me up?" the vixen barked sarcastically as she laughed. "You've got to be kidding! I'm a disaster" Raising her hands, she stood so that she was half way out of the water. "Look at me! I'm a bloated, shaggy mess. My fur needs to be trimmed, my nails need to be clipped, my belly's the size of freakin' Ohio and God help me if Philippe could see my hair now. It would take nothing short of a miracle for me to look decent, much less pretty."

The girl laughed and held up her fingers, which had small sparks dancing around their tips. "You forget, you're in a castle owned by a sorcerer and staffed with apprentices. There's not much we can't accomplish when we put our minds to it." She leaned forward and gave the Sheila an impish smile. "So, are you ready for a makeover now, or do you want to give up and we'll just leave you looking like a wet, shaggy dog that's been sleeping in a ditch for the last six months?"

"When you put it like that," Sheila replied, smiling for the first time in a long time, "how could I possibly say no?"