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 44

Exit: Stage Left

"What in the name of the Seven Lords!" Throckmorton P. Ruddygore bellowed at the sight of his bath. With both doors held wide open, the massive magician stared agape at the mess that was his private bath. There were rust-colored tufts of hair in a circular pile near one of the chairs, longer such hairs of red and brown stuck to the side of the tub itself and almost a dozen empty plastic bottles were strewn on the floor near the tub. His eyes were drawn to the young girl who held a large pile of dirty towels in her hand. "Melody!" he barked angrily, causing the girl to visibly jump. "What the hell happened in here?"

The girl gave him a nervous smile that was almost a grimace. "Master Ruddygore! You're back!" Tossing the dirty towels into the hamper behind her, she turned back to face the large man while hastily kicking a towel which had fallen to the floor out of site behind her. "You're early! I mean…um… how was your trip?"

"The trip?" he echoed with mock joviality. "The trip was wonderful. I even got to spend some time on earth." With a grace one wouldn't attribute to someone of his size, he lightly skipped from foot to foot as he approached her. "The thirteen hour ride in the carriage was splendid. Nothing more than spending a day traveling behind a half a dozen horses, down a dusty road to make someone feel like a BATH!" Towering over the girl, he virtually snarled with anger. "Now what exactly have you been doing in here? It looks like an entire barnyard has been in here!"

"It wasn't an entire…It was just one dog. I mean fox…errr," she blurted out, cowering in front of the big man, "rather that female that was traveling with the dragon. You know, Sheila. Her. It was her!"

Ruddygore turned and waved a hand around the room. "She did all this, all by her little lonesome? And just where were you during all this?"

Literally backed into a corner, she tried to press herself into the wall to get away from the enraged sorcerer. "No! It wasn't like that! I mean, it's my fault. I brought her here. Poquah ordered me to have her cleaned up before dinner tonight."

"Did he tell you to bring it here?" the fat man snapped.

"Don't call her it!" the girl furiously shouted as she straightened up to face the sorcerer with clenched fists. "She's got a name, you know! She's a person just like the rest of us!"

"Fine," he replied flatly, crossing his arms. "That still doesn't explain why you brought her here and not to the regular house baths." He paused to glance at the empty bottles by the tub. "Or why you've used almost an entire case of my shampoo in the process."

"I'm sorry, Master, but I saw no other choice." Scrambling over to the bottles, the girl started to gather them up. "You should have seen her. Her spirit was almost completely broken. She needed to feel important. Pampered, you know? I couldn't do that by taking her to the house baths. Besides, all we have down there is regular soaps and the most basic shampoos. Not anything like the good stuff you have."

Ribbing his temples, Ruddygore let out a long, slow breath as he attempted to get rid of the tension headache that was rapidly marshalling its forces. "That's not good enough. You know that you're not allowed in here without specific permission."

"Please, Master, you've got to try and understand!" Pleading with him, she quickly disposed of the bottles as she rushed to get a broom. "She's important to that Arden guy. She was despondent about her appearance and the fact that he didn't want to be around her. She's suffering from rule shock. I had to take drastic action. Really!"

The mage stopped rubbing his temples and looked up at the girl. "Rule shock? She's been running around for at least six months. How is it she's just now getting hit with rule shock?"

Using short quick strokes of the broom, she started sweeping up the loose hair on the floor. "Magic armor. Apparently it was fashioned by…who was it… Lakash, I think? Anyway, it was made by one of the celestials and one of its designs was to protect the wearer from all external magical influences. Since the rules are essentially just a very broad magical effect, it was able to block them, too." Sweeping the pile onto a dustpan, she took it over to the trash receptacle where she'd dumped the plastic bottles and added it to the pile. "I know how much time and effort you've invested in tracking her down and getting them here. I also knew that you'd paid Hecate to track her down and bring her back. Hecate isn't cheap. All I had to do was add it up to know that she and her boyfriend are VIPs. As such, I thought that it would be best if I addressed her self-worth issue as soon as possible. The best way to do that was to clean her up and look pretty."

Ruddygore simply stared at the girl for a few minutes before he prompted her, "And?"

The girl gave him a confused look. "And what, Master?"

"And did it work?"

Her eyes lit up with understanding. "Oh, yes. Quite well. Karina's currently working to get her dressed in something suitable for dinner with someone of your stature."

The mage frowned. "Tonight was supposed to be informal."

"Informal it may be, Master, but a girl still likes to look pretty."

Again, he paused to rub his temples as he let out a long, slow breath. "All right. I guess I can't argue with your logic, though you should have cleared it with Poquah first."

"I'm sorry, Master, but I didn't think there was time," she explained meekly as she nervously clenched her hands in front of her. "It wasn't until after I'd picked her up in her room that I realized there was a problem. If I'd asked for permission from Poquah first, she'd have known that it wasn't by your order and that you weren't treating her like a VIP."

"Fine. Just finish cleaning up this place then come and get me. I'll be in my study." Shaking his head, he walked out the door and turned, disappearing around the corner.

"Well," Melody said to herself. "That went well. I'm still human and alive. That's better than I expected." Picking up a bucket and a brush, she turned to the tub and winced at the job before her.

"Meep-meep!" Sheila shouted as she wheeled herself down the hallway, dodging the wheelchair around one of the servants. Using her left hand as a sliding brake, she raced around the turn in the hallway before again using both arms to accelerate down the hall. She braked hard as she came to the point in the hall where she though Hecate's room should be and laughed. "Yo! Hecate!" the vixen yelled, pounding on the door. "Up and at'em, girlfriend!"

A long stream of curses came from the other side of the door. "By the gods I'm going to kill whoever…Oh!" The tirade stopped in midstream as Hecate opened the door to see Sheila. Her brow furrowed ad the smiling, vixen. "Sheila?"

"The one and only," Sheila replied, wheeling herself into the room as Hecate narrowly dodged out of the way. "Cleaned, preened, dipped and clipped, and BOY do I feel ten thousand percent better!"

Startled at the transformation, Hecate leaned out the door and checked in both directions before closing the door, unsure if this was some kind of trick or not. "You are Sheila Vixen, right?"

"Did you hit your head or something? It's not like there are a lot of my kind running around in a wheelchair while they've got a basketball stuffed in their gut!" She spun the wheelchair around in a circle twice before stopping to face the ebony woman. "What's the matter? Is there some stupid rule that says I can't be in a good mood after a bath?"

"No," the Imir admitted reluctantly as she shook her head in disbelief. "It's just that after having traveled with you for so long, I'm surprised you're so…so…"

"So not a bitch?"

"Well, yah. I wouldn't have put it quite that way, but yah, not quite such a bitch." Pulling up a chair, Hecate sat down to face her. "I'm so used to you being a complete pain in the ass I'm afraid this is going to take a little bit of getting used to."

Sheila nodded solemnly, her mood subdued for the moment. "Yah, I know. I've been a real asshole and I'm sorry. You did so much for me and I just gave you a bunch of grief for it." Her ears perked up as a large, toothy smile spread across her muzzle. "But, hey! That's all behind us now, right?" Clapping her hands, she did a little dance in the chair. "I'm through with all that. From here on out, I'm going to try and be my old, happy-go-lucky self!"

Hecate put a hand on the vixen's knee and gave it a squeeze. "That's great. I'm so glad to hear you've finally pulled out of your funk."

The vixen nodded her agreement. "Yep. Wasn't doing any good. So! When's dinner? I'm starved!"

The Imir couldn't help but laugh. "I'm not surprised. You've not had anything decent to eat for a couple of days." Standing, she put her chair back over against the wall before going to the door. "Dinner's not for several more hours, but I think we should be able to rustle you up a snack if you want."

"I want!" she declared, wheeling her self out the door. Turing, she raced off down the hallway without waiting for her companion.

Laughing at her enthusiasm, Hecate took off in hot pursuit, determined not to let the vixen out of her sight. Turning a corner, she almost bowled over Pouqah who'd stopped in the middle of the hall to stare at the wheelchair-bound vixen who'd just raced by. "Coming through!" she declared as she whipped by him, spinning him around and causing him to drop the books he was carrying. "Sorry!" she shouted with a laugh as she put on another burst of speed, leaving the scene of the accident behind her.

Melody stopped at Poquah's door and braced herself before knocking on it. "Enter!" came the muffled voice from inside. Turning the handle, the girl stepped inside to find the Imir sitting at his desk with pen in hand. "Master Poquah?"

"Well, well, well," the elf said as he looked up from his work at the young girl, "If it isn't Melody." He almost spat the name as if it were a curse. "You're to help the kitchen staff out for the next month, muck the stables this weekend and scrub the Master's summoning chamber until every surface shines. Dismissed," he commanded without giving the girl a second thought and looked back down at the paper.

"Is that it? You don't even know why I'm here!" she declared indignantly.

The elf's head shot up at her statement. Putting the pen down he studied her. "So you're saying that you're not here to be assigned a punishment detail?"

'Well….no," she replied meekly, glancing away. "But you can't just assume that."

"I can't?" the elf replied. Standing, he walked around the desk to stand in front of her. "You, my dear, are a screw-up. You are incapable of going through a day without doing something wrong." He frowned at the dejected expression on the girls face. "You have the potential to be one of the most powerful sorcerers in the land, but you have no self control. You do the first thing that comes into your mind without any forethought to what the consequences might be." He leaned forwards until his face was but inches from hers. "That's why I can assume that you're here for punishment detail."

Turning, he returned to his desk where he sat down and picked up his pen. "I suggest that you think about what I've just said while you're scrubbing pots. Your lack of control will someday get you killed and when that happens I will be most displeased. There is nothing I loathe more than waste, and that's exactly what the master will have done with all the time he's spent trying to teach you. Now, unless there is anything further, you are dismissed."

Her head hung low, the girl turned, opened the door and left, closing it quietly behind her. At the desk, the elf shook his head before returning to the papers on his desk.

Ruddygore strolled onto the wide veranda that looked out over the gardens and paused to take a sip of brandy from the tumbler in his hand. Looking up at the clear night sky, he saw the waxing moon as it hovered over the horizon. Staring at the ruddy orb, he thought about the conversation that they'd had at dinner.

"So, my dear," he said to the vixen, "I hope that you're settling in without any problems?"

"Oh yes," Sheila replied, beaming a smile at him. "This place is wonderful. Not like the other castles that I've been to. The people are so nice. It's almost like being at a resort."

"Well, I'm certain the staff will be glad to hear that," the magician replied, reaching for a pastry from the pile of deserts which had been placed in front of him. "I hope that Arden is finding his accommodations suitable as well." He paused to take a bite and chew on it before proceeding. "So, tell me. Do you have any idea why he'd want to ask to be alone for such a long time? I must say, I was rather surprised at the news."

The vixen's ears wilted as she looked down at her plate before answering. "I'm afraid that I'm probably the reason. I'm sure he couldn't wait to get away from me."

"I disagree," Hecate said, interrupting the conversation. She hastily dabbed at her mouth before looking to the sorcerer. "He's been acting pretty odd lately. For one thing, he's been having these odd attacks."

"Attacks?" the sorcerer set his unfinished desert on his plate and leaned forwards. "What kind of attacks?"

The ebony female shook her head as she took a sip of wine. "I'm not sure how to describe them. His aura shifted. It's like something I've never seen before. Also, his shape seemed to want to shift, as if the spell he was using to create the avatar was breaking down. Really weird stuff."

Ruddygore nodded as he digested the information. "Most curious. What else strange has occurred?"

"Well," the Imir replied, looking off in the distance as she recalled events, "We ran into someone claming to be an old friend of yours. Some succubus by the name of Marge who tried her feminine wiles on our boy, but they wouldn't work. Not that he countered her magic at all. It's just that her abilities didn't affect him. It's like he was naturally immune somehow. Of course, he's been really moody since…" she paused to glance at the vixen, "well, since he saw the Time's Eye."

"He's seen the Time's Eye?" the large man demanded, his brow furrowed even deeper at the news. "Did he actually look inside of it?"

Hecate nodded. "Yah. Or so he claims. Personally, Rathsmon and I both are inclined to believe him for reasons I don't think either of us want to go into."

"Indeed," the sorcerer commented. "That is most unexpected news. Most unexpected…"

With a shake of his head, his thoughts returned to the present. He decided that he'd go pay this Arden a visit in the morning when he was refreshed. Turning to return inside, he spotted a shadowy figure, perched on the corner of the railing. As he shifted his sight into the magic bands, he saw that it was Hecate who was staring up at the stars, oblivious to the fact that he was there. Squatting on the railing, she resembled a gargoyle more than the huntress that he'd grown used to. Add some horns, fangs and bony plates, and she'd make a fitting creature.

Again, he started to turn to go inside, but stopped and continued to study the female. There was something about the expression on her face that disturbed him. It was one he'd never seen on her before. It was a mixture of longing and loneliness that almost made his heart ache. Quietly, he walked over to where she was and sat his glass down on the railing near her. "Good evening, Hecate," he said, startling the ebony female, who's head snapped around to look at him. "I don't recall ever having seen you stare at the stars like that before."

"Hello, Ruddy," she replied, turning to look back up at the stars. "Yah, well, I guess there's a lot you don't know about me."

"Yes, I guess there is," he acknowledged, his curiosity now piqued. Gesturing to a nearby chair, he caused it to slide over, allowing him to sit and relax. "So, do you feel like talking about it?"

"Talk about what?"

"About whatever." Taking the tumbler from the railing, he took a sip before placing it on the chair of the arm. "Obviously something's bothering you; that's pretty clear. So, how about it? Feel like talking."

For a long time, Hecate just stared up at the stars, but eventually she closed her eyes and dropped her head to her chest in a gesture of resignation. "I want out, TR," she announced, pivoting to face him. "I want out."

"You want to cash out?" the sorcerer asked, confused by her statement. "That's no problem. Just tell Poquah and he'll give you your gold."

She shook her head slowly. "This isn't about gold, TR. This is about the rules and freedom. This is about me having an opportunity to become more than what these stupid rules will allow."

"I see. We all have the desire to become more than we are and you are more than most could ever hope for." He paused to take a cigar from his jacket and with a practiced motion, light it with a spell from his finger. Puffing on the stogy a couple of times, he blew out a large puff of smoke and studied the glowing ember. "Of all the creatures on this world, you are unique. Only you can pass between earth prime and these lands without crossing the Sea of Dreams. Not only that, but I think you're probably the most powerful non-human spell caster I've ever met. To be honest, if it ever came down to it, I think you could even beat Poquah."

"You do, eh?" she said with a sly smile. "You sure know how to compliment a lady."

"You? A lady? Hah" He let out a jovial chuckle as he smiled at her. "You are many things Hecate, but we both know that the one thing you pride yourself on is not being a 'lady'."

Hecate smiled and glanced away before looking back at the sorcerer. "Yah, well, I guess you got me there, though we both know that it's not by choice. The rules demand that I not act as a lady of refinement or culture. No matter how hard I try, I'll do something to screw it up." Bracing her hands against the railing, she lifted her feet up and allowed them to straddle the beam until she was sitting. "And that's why I want out. Ever since I ran into the World Mage, I've known for certain that there are other realities. I just had to find a way to get to them. Up until now, even you didn't have any solid proof of their existence. Now we've got two aliens from a different reality staying in your castle, and nothing will ever be the same."

"I think I see where this is going," he stated, taking another draw off of the cigar. "You're going to try and hitch a ride with them when they go back, right?"

Hecate's eyes avoided the sorcerer. "Not exactly. I know that the only reason he's been able to move from universe to universe is because of Lakash. I'm going to cut a deal with him for the ability to break out of this box."

His cigar forgotten, Ruddygore studied the ebony form. "What makes you think he'll give you that kind of power?"

She looked back at the fat man and their eyes locked. "Believe it or not, he wants Arden dead,"

"And you'd be willing to kill him?"

The Imir nodded. "If that's what it took, though I don't know if it's possible. Rathsmon was going to kill him on the boat trip down here, but Arden had foreseen it in the Time's Eye. He claims to have seen all possible futures that lead up to his making the wish. If that's true, then there's no way I can kill him." She stopped and shook her head. "I'm not so sure I believe him, though. I don't think it's possible for him to have seen everything. He's only human. "

"I see." He studied the reflection of the moon in his brandy as he slowly swirled it about. "You've taken a great risk telling me this. What makes you think I won't stop you?"

"I don't," she stated, not averting her gaze. "But you and I both know that the only reason you're doing this is because Lakash has promised to show you how to cross the Sea of Dreams to reach other realities, other dimensions. If he takes my offer, I'll make it contingent on you getting your payoff as well."

"And what of the vixen?"

"What about her?" She flinched at the look he gave her. "Look, if it bothers you, then you can take her home. You'll have the ability once you get the secret from Lakash. Hell, I don't care, I'll take her home if need be. At least it'll get me out of here."

"I'll be honest, Hecate, I don't like the idea." He drained the last of the drink and set the glass down on the arm before standing. "He's a guest under my care and I don't approve of such things. However, if you really want out that bad, I promise that I personally will take you with me once I learn the secret to crossing the sea safely."

"I understand," she replied, nodding gravely. "I'll defer to your decision. As long as he's under your protection, I promise not to do anything."