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.
"Anyone in here?" Sheila asked as she opened the door to Arden's cabin. Peeking in, She saw him sitting on the floor in the corner, his legs crossed, reading a book he was holding in his hands. "There you are!" the vixen declared as she entered the room carrying two large plates heaped with food. "I've been looking all over for you."
"And see what it got you?" Arden asked with a smile as he closed the book. "All that searching when you could have just come here in the first place."
"It's not like I knew this is where you were," she argued as she closed the door with her foot. "I was waiting in the dining area for you to come by, but you never did so I decided to bring you something to eat." She sat the two plates down on the bed within easy reaching distance and sat down. Using the claws of one hand, she picked up a long strip of meat and popped it into her mouth. "You should try the roast beef kind of stuff. It's pretty good."
Arden just smiled and turned his attention back to the book. "Thanks, but I'll pass."
"Geez," Sheila mumbled before hastily swallowing the meat, "Aren't you hungry? You've not eaten anything in days!"
"Actually, I'm starving," he admitted giving the plate a wistful glance, "but that wouldn't do much more than whet my appetite. I don't smell any cattle onboard, so I doubt there's enough to really satisfy me. Besides, I'm trying to watch my weight."
Sheila let out a loud bark of laughter. "You? Watching your weight? You're the size of a fricken football field! How can you even suggest you're watching your weight?"
Arden cocked an eyebrow in her direction. "Have you ever seen an overweight dragon?"
"No," the vixen replied, rolling her eyes.
"Exactly." Arden closed the book and set it aside. "All joking aside, Sheila, if I were to gorge myself now it would take a week at least to digest it, and I don't have the time to spend doing that. Not that Ruddygore has the facilities to deal with what logically follows, either."
The vixen scrunched her snout up in disgust at the thought. "Oh god! Don't remind me. I can still see those poor people you bombed outside of the cave." She pushed the plate away, no longer hungry.
"Actually, considering what I could have done, I was pretty easy on them," he replied with a chuckle. Arden opened his mouth to speak, but paused instead, cocking his head to one side as if listening.
"What's up?" Sheila asked, also listening for some unusual sound.
"No oars," the big man replied as he rose to his feet. "We've stopped."
The pregnant female heaved herself to her feet and followed him to the door. "You mean we're there already?"
"No," he replied, opening the door and stepping through. "It's way too early." He paused to look both ways down the length of the ship and spotted movement towards the bow. Turning, he made his way forwards where he saw Lucifer and the angel standing near the ramp on the front of the ship, which had been lowered until it was horizontal with the water. "What's going on here?"
"Ah! There he his," Lucifer announced with a wave of his hand in Arden's direction. "The boy wonder himself."
"Hello, Arden," the angel said with a small nod. "We need to talk."
Arden squinted at the two. "About what?"
Lucifer let out a derisive snort. "About your body. Or more precisely, about how you need a new one."
"A new body?" Arden echoed, shaking his head as he approached the duo. "No. I don't need a new body. This one is more than sufficient.
"You know that's not true," the angel stated, his expression sad. "It's dying, Arden. The wounds you have, combined with the ordeal you've been through, have weakened you greatly. Aged as that body is, it cannot recover."
Arden shrugged his shoulders. "If we were talking about the long term, here, maybe, but we're not. It only has to last long enough to get to Eden, at which time Lakash has to give me full access to the power or he forfeits the bargain. Once I've got access to his power, my true strengths and weaknesses won't apply."
"That's what I said," Lucifer complained as he moved to stand next to Arden. "But no! Choir boy here doesn't think that you're good enough to take out the guardian."
"You're not," he angel declared. "You can't even step foot on the island in your current form. Dragons are an unnatural creature and as such are forbidden from entering Eden."
"I may not be able to set foot in Eden, but that doesn't mean that I can't fly over it," Arden said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Once I have my powers back, I'll be able to perfect my form again. I'm quite good in the air, you know."
"Don't you think I know that!" the angel shouted angrily. "Don't you think the creator took that into account when he made the guardian? It's even more lethal in the air than on the ground. You don't stand a chance even with the full assets of Lakash behind you!"
"So what are you suggesting?" Arden demanded angrily as his hands dropped to his sides, balled into fists. "Are you going to make me a new body? One that's acceptable?"
"Yah, right!" the devil grumbled, rolling his eyes. "His ass-holiness here can't use his powers, and there's no way I'm going to do it. Even if I did, you'd be tainted merchandise and still unable to step foot on dry land."
"Right," Arden said, nodding to Lucifer. "So what's the alternative? Have Ruddygore do it? He's not capable of that level of magic. So what other options are there?" He stared at the angel for a minute, his eyes boring into the divine creature relentlessly. After a minute, Arden's expression changed from anger to surprise and then back to anger. "No! Oh no! There's no way in hell you're going to get me to do that!"
"Do what?" Sheila asked as she stepped around the corner.
"Karmic rebirth," the angel stated with a nod. "It's your only hope, Arden. You have no choice but to go through with this. We will not proceed beyond this point until you've done it."
Arden balled his fists and snarled, "No! I won't do this and you can't make me!"
"See? I told you," Lucifer said as he shook his head. "I told you he wouldn't do it willingly."
The angle frowned and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Arden. But you have no choice."
"So what? Are you going to force me to do it? Is that it?" he demanded, taking a defensive stance against the angel. "Are you finally going to show your true colors?"
"No," the angel said with a heavy sigh and a heavy heart. "I could never raise a hand against you."
It took just a second for Arden to realize the significance of the words before he was lifted into the air as his swords clattered to the deck, the belt they'd been tucked into expertly severed. Moments later he found himself flying through the air out over the railings and towards the sea of dreams.
"Arden!" Sheila screamed as she ran towards the railing.
A crimson glow flickered around Arden as he stopped inches above the water. Lucifer cursed and punched downwards with is hand, sending an enormous fist of magic that dropped from the heavens into Arden's back and driving him into the water with a splash. The devil screamed in pain as the magic fist vanished in the water well as the portion of his real arm that matched it. There was an eruption of light and water as the enormous frame of the dragon burst momentarily from the inky liquid, its horrendous scream of pain shattering several of the windows on the ferry and sending Sheila to her knees.
At first, Sheila didn't understand what was happening, but then she realized that the water was eating away at the dragon, as if it had been dropped into a vat of sulfuric acid. As she watched, the scales and flesh melted away, showing bone and internal organs, which were also being slowly consumed. Her heart skipped a beat as the dragon ceased its writing, looked towards her and reached out with a skeletal arm that crumbled into nothingness. A second later, the head vanished into the murky waters with nary a ripple.
"No!" the vixen shouted before turning to the two celestial entities. "You assholes! You killed him!"
Lucifer smiled. "Hell, yah! I've been wanting to kill that son of a bitch ever since he started calling me Lucy!"
"It's not what you think, Sheila," the angel hurriedly intervened, moving to physically block her sight of the devil. "This will give Arden the best possible chance of success."
"If he makes the cut," Lucifer commented, stepping around his counterpart.
The angel growled. "You're not helping."
Lucifer held up the stump where his hand had been. "I'd give you the finger, but I'm a little short at the moment," he commented then turned towards Sheila. "Listen up, bitch. I'm sick of prancing around and playing Mr. Nice Guy. That's for twinkle toes here to do. Our best chance at ensuring that Lakash gets his ass reamed is for your boy to go through Karmic Rebirth. Yes, he might not come back. Yes he might come back but have his mind trashed by the experience. However, if he does make it back and with his brain intact, his chances of succeeding will have improved by at least a factor of twenty times what it was, so you'll excuse me if I don't give a fuck right now about your pathetic little feelings on the subject. Now if you'll excuse me," he growled, glancing at the angel and back to Sheila, " I'm going to go regenerate this hand before I decide to kill something else that I find incessantly annoying!"
Sheila watched the devil walk away for a second before turning back to the angel. "You bastard!" she growled. "You knew he didn't want to do this, yet you still did it to him!"
"I did nothing," the celestial being replied. "I'm not allowed to interfere. I can only stand by and observe. I could never force Arden to do anything he didn't want to."
"No. You just played good angel, bad angel with super prick there to distract him so that he could toss Arden's ass into the drink!" Using the railing, she pulled herself back up to her feet. "If you're an example of what it is to be an angle, then I don't want any part of what you're selling!" Angrily she turned and stomped away without pause and disappearing around the corner.'
The angel sighed before picking up the swords that had lain forgotten on the deck. He walked over to the railing and leaned on the railing as he studied his reflection in the water and wondered if he'd made a mistake.
"Aren't you going to follow him?" Ruddygore asked as he stepped out of the shadows on the far side of the ferry.
The angel shook his head. "I can't."
"What do you mean, you can't?" the large sorcerer demanded as he stormed over to the angel. Grabbing the creature by the arm, the sorcerer spun him around. "I was told that you'd go with Arden to ensure he came back! So why are you still standing here?"
The angle yanked his arm free and stepped away. "It's not that I don't want to. I can't! I wasn't supposed to heal Sheila. If I follow Arden, they won't let me return."
"What?" the large man spat in surprise. "That's crazy. You acted within the rules."
The angel sighed and leaned back against the railing. "I may have acted within the rules, but I overstepped the bounds of my authority." He turned his head and looked down the corridor where Sheila had vanished. "In case you hadn't noticed, Heaven's been a little tight about allowing miracles. I shouldn't have acted without getting permission from above, first."
Ruddygore pressed the palms of his hands against the sides of his head and grimaced. "This is insane. I knew your kind were on a short leash, but that's ridiculous! Who's bright idea was that?"
"The voice," replied the celestial creature with noticeable disdain.
"The voice?" Ruddygore squinted at the angelic figure. "You mean the Metatron? That moron, Enoch, is behind this micromanagement crap?"
"Unfortunately yes," the celestial replied with a nod. "I don't understand what he's doing. He's tying our hands in such a way that it's almost impossible to battle hell."
"Ruddygore gave a derisive snort. "It just goes to show what happens when you elevate a mortal to that kind of power."
The angel smiled and chuckled. "And yet here we are, in the process of trying to elevate another mortal to such a position in the hopes that he'll pick up the slack."
"Still," the big man said with a sigh as he pulled out a stogie and lit it. "Knowing the repercussions of your actions, I'm surprised you didn't wait until after the rebirth to heal the vixen."
"I couldn't run the risk," he replied solemnly. "Do you remember what Arden said when Lakash told him to use the lamp to heal her?"
Ruddygore nodded. "Yes. He said something about destroying Lakash, and to hell with everyone else."
The angel glanced nervously about before continuing in a conspiratorial hushed whisper. "It goes well beyond just destroying Lakash. Arden has stolen knowledge from him that, if used while he's in Eden, would be capable of undoing creation." For a moment he shivered as if from a cold breeze, though the air hadn't stirred. "I saw one of the possible futures for him where he spoke the original words of creation in reverse, destroying everything and everyone. I couldn't risk allowing that future to come to pass."
The sorcerer Ruddygore, a creature who was once human but having transcended that state thousands of years ago, stood staring at the angel, slack jawed in horror at something he'd never imagined could happen. "You're telling me that he knows the divine language of creation?"
The angel nodded. "He's had an open pipe to the hive mind that is the dragon for some time. That mind is directly slaved to Lakash's will. Arden has been picking through his memories of the earliest days of creation almost at will without Lakash realizing it. As Lakash was one of the Seraphin and guardian of the vale, he witnessed all subsequent acts of creation after the first Eden. Although we celestials are forbidden from ever speaking the words, Lakash knows the tongue well and through him, Arden now knows it. Of course, if he uses it, he'll be consumed by the power he'll have to channel, but I don't think he would have cared at that point."
"This is insane," the big man muttered as he grasped for the railing, suddenly feeling lightheaded. "What's to keep him from using that to make himself a god? With that knowledge, he could even replace the Metatron and command the very armies of Heaven. No! Forget that! He could force an end to the war completely and control both Heaven and Hell! What am I saying? There's nothing he couldn't do."
"In theory, I suppose your right," the celestial agreed. "However, in practice, I don't think so. Right now, he's being judged by the maker and I don't think that the maker will be sending him back if he's going to cause more damage than good." He pursed his lips and thought for a second before giving his head a shake again. "No. Arden is too honor bound to do something like that. Oh, don't get me wrong. He's going to shaft Lakash good when he gets the chance, but I don't believe that he'll do something that extreme."
"No!" Ruddygore shouted, slamming his fist down on the railing. "Ever since I got roped into this thing by Lakash, I've had the bad feeling that it's been spinning out of control. First he shows up as a dragon, then this crap with the vixen getting hurt and him facing Lakash down. Now you're telling me that he's a loose cannon that could destroy all of creation, and you expect me to just sit back and watch?"
"You have no choice," the angel stated in a hard, cold voice. "Your part in this show is to observe. Should you try to interfere in any way with Arden or Sheila, I swear by all that's holy that I will destroy you, rules or no rules." He paused and gave a somewhat sinister smile. "That's assuming that Lucifer doesn't beat me to it." The smile vanished as he turned somber. "Look, it's out of our hands now. Once the maker has judg---" The words faded, unspoken as he slowly turned to look out over the water. "He's coming," the angel whispered.
Without warning, the ferry shifted in the water, as if suddenly drawn sideways by an unseen current. A soft glow filled the water around the ferry as it slowly began to rotate as if caught in the middle of a vortex. The stronger the current became, the brighter the water became until the illumination spilling forth was as bright if not brighter than daylight. A wave of water cascaded over the bow of the ferry near where Ruddygore clung to the railing for support, his celestial companion stood calmly beside him, unaffected by the movements of the ship. The wave, which had completely submerged the ramp of the ferry, retreated leaving a large oval shaped ball of water on the deck in its wake. A second later, the light faded along with the current, leaving the ferry once again sitting calmly on the dark, placid water.
"What the hell is going on?" Sheila demanded as she made her way around the corner only to come to a screeching halt as she spied the blob on the deck. "And what the hell is that?"
"That, my dear," said the angel as he walked over to the blob, "is Arden." Reaching out with one finger, he pricked the surface of the sphere causing it to vanish, releasing the water in a wave that went everywhere. A pale white form with long white hair dropped to the deck of the ferry with an audible thump. "Arden!" the celestial shouted as he smacked the man across the face.
Arden's eyes flew open as he gagged and then coughed up water for several seconds. Gasping for breath, he looked up at the angel with pale pink eyes for a moment before letting out a long, keening howl as he curled up into a ball, hugging himself. His body shook as the long, sorrowful wailing slowly changed to wracked sobs of grief.
The angel reached down and scooped the albino into his arms and walked back towards where the staterooms where, passing by Sheila without a word or a second glance.
"What's wrong with him?" she demanded as she hurried to follow. "Why's he crying like that?" The vixen was shocked and surprised when a hand grabbed her arm and prevented her from following the angel into the room. She turned to see Lucifer holding her arm. "Let go of me!"
"Leave him be," the devil commanded, releasing her arm. "He must come to grips with his grief on his own. You can't help him now. Not yet."
"Grief?" the vixen echoed. "What grief?"
"The grief of being alive again," Lucifer replied, uncharacteristically compassionate after his earlier outburst.
Sheila shook her head. "I don't understand. Why would he grieve at being alive?"
"Think about it," he replied in a low voice. "Arden has been in the presence of God. He may even have touched the face of God. And now he's back here," he paused to wave a hand to encompass the ferry, "back in the body of a mere mortal."
"Look. I understand that there's some significance to having met 'God', but I don't understand why that would make him grieve at coming back here." She ran her right hand through her hair and shook her head. "I just don't get it."
For a moment, there was a look in Lucifer's eye that gave Sheila a sudden sensation of incredible sadness. "Being with the Maker is like being inside of joy itself. There's no drug that can give you the same high, no sex as wonderful, no experience that can encompass your entire being with such perfection of existence as when you're in the presence of God. To touch him, to actually become a part of him, even for just an instant, is something that there simply are no words for." A lone tear formed at the corner of one eye as he stared at something unseen in the darkness. "He's been there. He's felt the ultimate sensation of joy that any being can know, and now he's back here, trapped inside the mere body of a human being, with all the flaws and imperfections that implies." Lucifer turned to look Sheila directly in the eyes. "If Arden succeeds in his quest, he will never again feel that joy. It will transform him in such a way that, unlike you or any other mortal who may make it to Heaven, he will never again know God's presence until after Armageddon, when we all will stand before Him and be judged."
Sheila was struck speechless as she stared at the devil incarnate who, rather than being the powerful and intimidating creature she'd feared, but instead looked like nothing more than a sad old man. In that instant, she realized that he wasn't speaking so much about Arden as he was about himself, and in doing so she had an epiphany into the nature of the game, and into the players. "I think I understand," she said in a hoarse whisper.
Lucifer's expression hardened as he glared at the vixen. "Don't you dare pity me, bitch! I don't need your pity, nor do I want it. If anyone needs it, it's that worthless excuse for a boyfriend of yours. Anyone who would throw away their chance at being with the Creator is a fool, and I have nothing but contempt for fools."
"I don't have pity for you," she softly replied, allowing his anger to wash over her without touching her. "But I do have sympathy for your loss."
"Loss" he demanded, his anger unabated. "You want loss? I'll give you loss. Some day in the future, I'm going to destroy all that you cherish and make your life a living hell, and when that day comes you'll actually be stupid enough to thank me. One year to the day, you'll realize what happened and what you lost. Then and only then will you know something of my loss!" With that he turned and stormed away.
Sheila nervously swallowed as she shook her head and then turned to the doorway that Arden and the angel had passed through. She knocked lightly on the door before opening it. "Is it safe to come in?" she asked, sticking her head through the door.
"Sure," the angel replied as he covered Arden with a sheet. He walked over to the table in the corner, picked up the two chairs and carried them over near the bed. He held one for Sheila as she sat down before he also sat. "He's asleep right now."
Sheila studied the face somewhat confused. She recognized it as Arden, but there was something different about it that she couldn't identify. She reached out to brush a strand of hair from his face and gasped. "He's burning up!"
"He's adapting to his new body," the angel explained. "It was created by nothing more than the divine will of God, who breathed life into it. He is as Adam was in the first Eden. Pure in body and spirit."
Sheila cocked an ear in the angel's direction. "Adam was an albino?"
"The first one was," he replied with a smirk. "It was a prototype. The Maker hadn't gotten around to tossing skin and hair pigmentation into the mix. Subsequent versions did have that. It cut the sunburn factor down immensely."
"Tell me, is what Lucifer told me true?" the vixen asked without looking. "Did Arden actually touch---God?"
The celestial shook his head. "I don't know. He was certainly in the Creator's presence. Beyond that, I don't know."
For several long minutes, the two sat together without speaking. Finally, Sheila broke the silence. "How about afterwards. Is it true that Arden will come back to me when all this is over?" She turned and studied the angel.
"If you ask him to," he replied with a nod, "then he will return to you. It will be your choice. However," he paused for a moment before continuing, "I must warn you that it won't be like before. Arden the polar bear cannot return. There are too many loose ends that remain, lose ends that will complicate his life and yours. It's even possible that it would put you and your children's lives at risk."
Sheila blinked at that unexpected news. "If he won't come back as a polar bear, what will he come back as?"
"I can't say," the angel replied with a sheepish grin. "It will be a form you are familiar with, so Arden will not be a complete stranger to you. But you will have to come to terms with accepting Arden for being Arden, and ignore the shell he must wear."
"Jesus! Think you can get any more cryptic?" the vixen grumbled. "How the hell am I supposed to make a decision with all that double talk?"
"You must follow your heart," he replied. "You are a good person, Sheila Vixen, with a good heart. You should let it lead your way."
She shook her head. "I probably shouldn't as him to come back," she decided. "It wouldn't be fair."
The angel cocked his head and shot her a quizzical look. "Fair?"
"Yah, fair," she repeated. "It would be kind of rude for him to come back and find me in a convent."
"A convent?" he spat, stunned at the very thought. "Why on earth would you join a convent?"
"I don't know," she replied with a shrug. "To undo the damage. You know, to have a chance at getting into heaven."
He turned to face her directly. "What makes you think you're going to hell?"
Sheila just shrugged. "That's what all those bible thumping evangelists keep saying. I'm just another dirty harlot who's living a life of sin and going to hell. It's not like there's any question about the existence of God any more. I may not have met him, but after meeting you and Satan, I'd have to be pretty dense not to pick up on that little fact!"
The angel let out a belly laugh that startled Sheila. "Oh, that's good! Oh, that's just precious."
More annoyed than anything, Sheila frowned at the angel. "What the hell's so funny about that?"
"Those bible thumpers you talk about are far more likely to go to hell than you are," he said, wiping a tear from his eyes. "Look, it's simple: No religion in existence has it right. Even those who claim to follow God's word, don't. Christians are constantly ignoring Christ's teachings and referring to the Old Testament. Junior said, 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone', yet these same people are constantly casting verbal stones and judging everyone else when they're no better. They've even invented the concept of original sin, sins that they decided were good enough to ad to the list, even though the Maker never mentioned them. Even the Muslims tend to pick and choose the teachings of Mohammad, deciding which rules they like and which ones they don't. How else can you get suicide bombers? Do you really think that Allah wants them to kill innocent men, women and children, all in His name? Every religion has people who would twist the word of God to their own meaning. Not one single religion in existence has not been perverted in one way or another over the centuries."
He leaned forwards and took Sheila's paws in his hands. "Answer me this question: In doing what you do for a living, are you harming anybody?"
"No," she replied. "But if you listen to "
"Stop!" he interrupted. "I'm not talking about them; I'm talking about you. Do you believe you're harming anyone? By doing what you do for a living, are you having a negative effect on your friends, your co-workers or the people who buy your videos?"
Sheila shook her head. "No. But what about all that 'Don't covet thy neighbors wife' stuff?"
Again the angel chuckled. "Have you ever dated a married man?"
The vixen blinked at the question. "Not intentionally."
He nodded. "And have you ever set your eyes on a man who was in a relationship, knowing that he was in a relationship, with the express intent of having sex with him despite his being in a relationship?"
"Hell, no!" Sheila spat. "I'm not some slut that goes around wrecking marriages! Besides, there are plenty of single guys out there."
"Exactly," he said, giving her hands a squeeze. "Covet thy neighbors wife is all about wanting someone who's already in a relationship. Breaking those bonds which are sacred to that relationship."
"You mean like I did with Bjorn when I cheated on Arden?" she asked, looking down at her hands rather than meeting his eyes.
"No," he replied, startling her with that unexpected answer. "If anything, it was Arden who came between you and Bjorn. Not intentionally, mind you, but the fact remains that you had a relationship with Bjorn before Arden ever came along. He recognized that fact and accepted it. Otherwise, why would he have encouraged Bjorn to take a look at your relationship and decide if he was serious or not?" He paused as he watched that sink in. For a moment, he chewed on his lower lip before making a decision. "I'm going to tell you a secret, one that even Arden doesn't know."
"What kind of secret?" Sheila warily asked.
"About the love spell between you and Arden." He gave her a mischievous smile that was echoed by a twinkle in his eye as he leaned forward and whispered, "There never was a love spell."
Sheila yanked her hands away from him and shook her head. "Bullshit! Arden knew about it. Lucifer screwed it up. Hell, even Nanuk admitted to having a hand in it."
"Sheila, I can not lie. There was no love spell," he said as he folded his hands in his lap. "There was a spell, but its effects were to create a sense of curiosity between the two of you. That curiosity served to draw you together, but that was it. Any feelings other than that were your own."
The vixen shook her head. "No. That doesn't make any sense. If that's true, then why did Lucifer's breaking the spell make me hate Arden?"
"What's the opposite of curiosity in a relationship?" the angel asked, pausing for a moment before answering. "Familiarity. Familiarity breeds contempt. You suddenly went from being intrigued by Arden, to Arden being a boyfriend, or in that case, a girlfriend who'd overstayed her welcome. There was no longer a sense of discovery, a sense of newness to the relationship. The biggest problem was that instead of taking a break and getting away from each other, you were forced to stay together. Sure, there was still an attraction, even a love between the two of you, but it was tainted, jaded."
Sheila looked at Arden with new eyes. "So you're telling me that when I fell in love with him, it was really me and not some stupid spell?"
He nodded. "Yes. You did what you did because you loved him, just like you loved Bjorn. You were caught between two men that you loved, and you reacted the only way you knew how. You loved them both." He reached out and put his hand on her knee and gave hit a gentle squeeze. "Don't you see, Sheila? You're a good person. You live life on your terms, harming nobody and doing your best to not only be happy, but also to make those around you happy. No loving god would condemn someone like you."
Sheila laughed. "So all those religion freaks who are dedicating their life to some religion are really the screw-ups?"
"Oh, no," he replied becoming quite serious. "For some people, it is a true and honest calling. There are those who follow their faith because they believe that it's the true path to enlightenment. Those will most likely go to heaven. Then there are those who entered religion with the intention of using it for personal gain, or once they had begun to rise in the structure of the church, turned away from the light and towards personal power and personal agendas. Priests who molest children and tell them they'll go to hell if they reveal their secret. Clerics who tell men they'll go to paradise if they blow themselves and a dozen innocent people to smithereens. The evangelist who claims that God speaks through him, and that God wants you to send him your money, and then spends the money on mansions, cars and other decadent pleasures. Those are the ones who will fall. They have betrayed their calling and will suffer the punishment." He stopped and shook his head as he tried to think of a way to explain it. "The simple fact is that each person is different. There is no one correct way of living for everyone. The religious texts and teachings are a guideline for living life, not an absolute law. For some, they give a stability and structure to their spiritual being and for others they're an antiquated set of rules that don't apply to today. Which will go to Heaven and which will burn will ultimately be up to the Creator on Judgment Day. Until then, each person must find their way through life as best they can."
"Judgment Day," Sheila echoed quietly. "Tell me," she whispered, "is what Lucifer said true abut that?"
The celestial's brow furrowed. "I don't know. What did he say?"
"That if Arden succeeded, he'd never again be in the presence of God again until Judgment Day."
"Yes," he replied, nodding gravely. "That's true."
She looked up at him, her eyes shimmering with wetness. "But how can that be? If he comes back to me, won't he be mortal again?"
He sighed and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Sheila, but that's not quite how it'll work. Yes, he'll be mortal, but he won't have a soul. He'll have a spirit. Once that mortal body dies, the spirit will return to the realm from whence it came. It won't pass on to Heaven or Hell like a normal soul will."
"Wow," Sheila sighed. "Guess it really will mean till death do us part. I've always heard people talking about being with their loved ones in the afterlife, but I guess that won't happen with us."
Again the angel smiled. "It could, if you really want it to."
Sheila cocked an ear in his direction. "Huh?"
"Heaven and Hell aren't the only destination for souls," he cheerfully explained. "It's quite possible for you to go to the same place that Arden does, if you desire it. We don't hold the monopoly on the afterlife."
Sheila smiled back at him. "Great. I get to choose to be with him for eternity, or hanging with my friends."
He reached out and felt Arden's forehead. "His fever had broken. He will be fine." The angel stood and reached out to caress Sheila's cheek. "I leave him in your caring hands."
"Thank you," she said, taking his hand for a moment before releasing it.
"You're a good person, Sheila Vixen," he said as he walked to the door. "Let no one tell you differently." He stepped through the doorway, closing the hatch quietly behind himself.
Sheila scooted her chair closer to the bed as she took Arden's hand in hers. She sandwiched his hand in hers as she watched him sleep. "So tell me, who's more foolish? The fool, or the fool who marries him?"
Arden awoke with a start. The darkened room was disorienting, as was the feeling of the fur-covered arm across his chest. He glanced to the side and saw Sheila had crawled under the sheets with him and had draped her arm across his chest. It was then that he realized that he was, in fact, in a bed, which only added to his disorientation. He removed Sheila's arm from his chest, climbed out of bed and started to stand up, but quickly sat back down. It took a few moments for the room to stop spinning enough for him to try and stand again. He leaned heavily against the wall as he made his way to the small water closet that was attached to the stateroom and opened the door. The soft glow of a magical sphere suspended from the ceiling gave him enough light to see by, though not very clearly. He reached up and brushed his fingers across the globe, causing the light to flare to its full brightness. His eyes were squinted against the light as he turned the knob on the faucet and quickly splashed his face in the water. A quick twist of the squeaky valve stopped the flow of water.
His eyes clear of sleep, he studied his features in the mirror. Pinkish white albino eyes surrounding steel gray irises stared back at him from a familiar, yet unfamiliar, face. That face was framed by a shock of white hair that reminded him somewhat of a picture of Einstein he'd seen. He frowned as he studied the smooth, lineless skin that covered his face. It was a face that had never smiled or frowned. It was a face that had never experienced life or death. It was an ageless face, without expression or character. It was a travesty, a cosmic joke played at his expense. Angrily he lashed out at the mockery that stared back at him, shattering the mirror with his fist and sending shards flying.
Sheila woke up to the sound of shattering glass. It took her a moment to realize that Arden was no longer in bed, and another moment to realize that the bathroom door was open and the light on. She climbed out of bed and waddled over to the bathroom, worried about the sound that had awakened her. When she got to the door, she was shocked to see Arden leaning on the sink with both hands, crying. She could see the shattered mirror as well as the shards of it scattered about the cramped room. Last thing she noticed was that Arden's right hand was bleeding. "Arden! What happened?"
"If thine eyes offend thee," he said, reaching for a shard of mirror in the sink, "then pluck it out."
"NO!" Sheila screeched as she grabbed his arm, pulling it away from his face. "What do you think you're doing?" Sheila shuddered at the expression on Arden. He appeared to be looking right through her, as if she didn't exist. She felt an odd wetness on her hand and looked down to see more blood, this time coming from where he grasped the shard. Using both her hands for leverage, she forced his fist inwards so that his fingers would open. "God damn it! Drop it!"
Arden glanced down at the shard as it dropped to the floor then back up at Sheila. "It doesn't make any difference you know. It's all for nothing. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Ass up or tits up, either way it's a bust." He turned and pushed past her to get out of the cramped room.
Sheila let out a yelp of pain as she involuntarily took a step backwards onto some glass. Limping from the pain, she hobbled her way over to the bed while muttering a long string of curses.
"You know, you really shouldn't take the lords name in vane like that," Arden muttered as he began to paint his face with his bloody hand. "Toot and tell or go to hell! Can't get in if you've still got that sin!"
"God damn it, Arden!" Sheila shouted as she yanked the glass from her foot and tossed it towards the bathroom. "What the hell has gotten in to you?"
"Into me?" he asked, looking at her as if seeing her for the first time. "I'm inside of me," he said, tapping his head. "It's just me, now. All alone." His voice faded as he turned away. "All alone. Nobody else but me." He giggled to himself and began to sing, "Well, I believe what you say when you say you don't miss nobody else but me. I believe what you say when you say you don't kiss nobody else but me."
After briefly running her hand over her foot to make sure there was no other glass imbedded in the injured appendage, Sheila climbed off the bed and limped over to Arden. She grabbed him by the shoulders, spun him around and slammed him against the wall. "Arden! Look at me!" she shouted, grabbing his chin with her free hand. "Look at me!" When she saw his eyes focus on her, she asked, "What the hell did they do to you?"
"They destroyed me," he mumbled, his eyes loosing their focus again. "They lied to me. It's all a lie, you know. Same old talk is going round and round. All the smiles are turning into frowns. When they say low and I say high. When they tell me that I better, I know it's all a lie." He focused on Sheila again and reached out with his good hand and caressed her face. "Everything they told us is a lie. Everything you know is false. None of this is real. A simulation, ones and zeros on a cosmic scale. There's no here and no now. Just you and me on this endless sea, trapped for ever and a day."
"Why? What do you mean, it's not real? What do you mean we're trapped?" the vixen demanded, taking his hand into hers. "You're not making any sense, Arden!"
"How can you make sense when the universe is chaos? Black is white and white is black. Makes it kind of hard to find the crosswalks, don't you think? " He giggled as he shoved her away. "You should have seen it! It was horrible!" he said as his face twisted in torment. "No! It was beautiful!" He shook his head and looked around with wild eyes. "Mother mooch is calling me back to her silver womb. Father of creation takes me from my stolen tomb. Seventh night the unicorn is waiting in the skies. A symptom of the universe, a love that never dies." He reached out towards something unseen. "I saw him. The Creator. I saw the rapture. I felt the glory. It was perfect." He shook his head again. "NO! It was a lie!" he snarled before grabbing his head and crying out in pain.
Sheila lunged forwards barely in time to catch him as he fell forwards, dragging her to her knees. She wrapped her arms around him as he began to cry again. Without warning, she was knocked backwards as Arden thrashed clear of her and stood up. "Arden!"
"It's not fair!" he shouted towards the ceiling. "It's not fair! God damn it! Why me? Why do I have to be the one?" He snarled as he tried to pull the hair from his head and started singing again as he pounded against his forehead with his fists, "The lunatic is in my head! You raise the blade. You make the change. You re-arrange me 'til I'm sane. You lock the door and throw away the key. There's someone in my head, but it's not me!"
Sheila rolled over and with the help of a nearby chair, leveraged herself to her feet. "Arden! Please! Calm down!"
"Calm down?" Arden snarled as he spun to face Sheila. "Calm down? How can I calm down? Don't you understand? I was thrown out of Heaven! I was never given a choice! I've never had a choice! It was a lie! It was all a lie! There is no free will for you or I! Slaves to destiny are we. All choice is an illusion. It's all just one big lie!"
"I'm sorry to have to do this," Sheila mumbled as she reared back with a fist and nailed Arden in the jaw with a roundhouse punch. She let out a stream of curses as she clutched her hand to her body.
The force of the blow spun Arden around, slamming him into the wall where he slumped partway to the floor. It took a few moments for him to get his knees steady enough to stand up. He shook his head and rubbed his jaw with his hand. Slowly, his head turned towards the pregnant vixen who was cautiously examining her injured hand. "You," he muttered in a low, gravely voice causing Sheila to look up at him. His eyes, the eyes of a predator had locked on to hers. "It was you," he growled menacingly as he shook his head to clear the cobwebs.
Sheila limped backwards as a rush of panic went through her system. "Arden, please! You've got to calm down."
"YOU!" he shouted as he lunged forwards, grabbing her by the hair on the back of her head, causing her to yelp in pain. "It was you all along, wasn't it?" he demanded. "You were the one responsible for all of this! It was you!" He pulled her forwards so that her muzzle almost touched his face and drilled his eyes into hers, ignoring her frantic attempts to get away. His expression softened as he relaxed his grip. "It really was you, wasn't it?" he asked, his eyes searching for something. His face took on the expression of a confused, small child as he let go of her hair. "You brought me back," he whispered softly as he brushed his hand along her muzzle. "Your love brought me back." He pulled back, a horrified expression on his face. "No! You're going to leave me! You don't love me! You never loved me! You're a lying, conniving bitch! All you want to do is destroy me!" Again he shook his head as he fought to control the runaway train wreck that was his mind. He cried out in pain as he dropped to his knees, his head clutched in his hands.
Sheila dropped to her knees and gathered him into her arms, cradling him against her swollen belly. "It's all right," she whispered as she kissed the top of his head. "It's going to be all right. I'm with you now and I'm not going anywhere. I do love you and I'm not going to let you go."
Arden rocked back on his heels and looked up at her with uncertainty. "You do?"
The vixen reached out with both hands and took firm old of his head. "You listen to me, Arden Bearridge! I love you! Do you hear me? I love you!"
"Oh, god. Sheila?" He reached up and cupped her head in both hands as tears began to stream from his eyes, and he kissed her.
Outside the cabin door, Ruddygore, Lucifer and the angel stood, waiting. "It is done," the angel stated with relief.
"What's done?" the big man asked, confused about what just happened. "A minute ago it sounded like they were trying to kill each other, and now you say it's done?"
Lucifer, ignoring the question, simply turned and walked away.
"She has brought him back from the brink of madness," the celestial being explained. "She was the only one who had a chance of doing that."
"And what if she'd failed?" Ruddygore demanded.
The angel's eyes narrowed as he glared at the sorcerer. "Then we would have had to kill him. The quest would have failed and all of this would have been for naught." Without further comment, the angel also turned and walked away, leaving the sorcerer standing alone.
Ruddygore took a handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his brow. "I'm definitely getting too old for this."
"I'm back," Sheila announced as she closed the door behind her. Still limping slightly, she carried a tray over to the bed and set it down next to Arden, who sat with his knees pulled up to his chest, his head buried in his arms. Sheila grabbed the chair that still sat near the bed and dragged it over so she could sit in front of him. "OK. Let's take a look at that hand." She waited a few seconds before smacking his leg lightly with her hand. "Come on, Arden. Quit dicking around and give me your hand." Again there was no response other than his slight shift to show he was still breathing. Sheila glowered at the albino for a moment before getting an impish grin. Her hand snaked between his calves and gave him a shake. Arden's back stiffened as he suddenly sat up straight and looked down at the vixen's hand at his crotch and then back up at her face, which was grinning from ear to ear. Her expression drooped along with her ears as he simply shook his head and returned to his original position. "Damn it, Arden," Sheila grumbled in disgust as she let go, "when I do that to a guy I'm used to getting a more enthusiastic response."
"Sorry," came the muffled response. "I guess I'm just not in the mood."
"Yah," Sheila sighed, "I guess it's hard to get enthused when you're being manhandled by a blimp."
Arden raised his head again and cocked an eyebrow in her direction. "Fishing for compliments again?"
"Fishing," the vixen spat as she rolled her eyes. "Not even! With you it's more like strip mining! Now either compliment me or give me your hand!"
"You're the most beautiful woman in the world to me, pregnant or otherwise," Arden officiously stated. "And there's nothing wrong with my hand."
Sheila smacked his shin with the back of her hand again. "I'll be the judge of that. Now give."
With a sigh of exasperation, Arden unfolded his right arm and held his hand out to her. "If it'll make you happy, here."
"Ugh," the vixen grunted as she scrunched her nose at the sight of caked on, dried blood. "God you need a bath." She reached into the bowl on the platter and took out a cloth and wrung the water out of it before proceeding to clean blood from his hand. After a couple of minutes of scrubbing, she flipped his hand over, and began scrubbing the back side, confused at the lack of wounds. "Wait a minute! I remember you cutting this thing when you picked up that chunk of mirror!" Again she flipped his hand over and searched for any signs of the wounds that had been responsible for the all the blood.
"I told you," Arden commented as he pulled his hand free from hers, "my hand is fine."
Sheila blinked in confusion. "But how? Can you regenerate?"
"No," Arden said with a laugh. He waved his hands over his head in a large arch, leaving a rainbow of colored sparkles behind as he said in his best Doug Henning impersonation, "It's magic!"
"You got your magic back!" Sheila exclaimed with enthusiasm!
"My magic, yes," Arden replied, frowning slightly. "I still have no access to Lakash's power, though."
Sheila reached into her dress and pulled out the amulet. "What about the Amulet. Lakash said he'd be listening. All I have to do is make a wish and he'll come."
"No!" Arden shouted, reaching for the amulet, then snatching his hand away suddenly as a spark of electricity zapped him. "If you make a wish, that sadistic bastard might just grant it while sending you off to some alternate dimension. If that happens, I'd have no choice but to use the lamp to return you home and everything would be lost."
Sheila's ears wilted as she looked down at the amulet. "Oh. I hadn't thought of that."
Arden growled to himself and stood up. "Lakash is in the perfect position right now. As long as he doesn't show up before I have to confront the guardian, he can deny me the power without breaking the word of the agreement. I have to seek him out to get the power, and I can't do that from the Sea of Dreams."
"Can't you just project yourself, or whatever it is you used to do, and go track him down?"
"No," Arden replied, shaking his head. "Why else do you think Lucifer has stayed onboard for the entire trip, rather than just manifesting when he felt the need? We're cut off. Lakash could channel himself through the amulet, but why should he? The only way out is through the sea itself, and I've already taken that log ride once." He closed his eyes and leaned heavily against the wall. "As much as I want to go back there, I can't."
Sheila stood and put an empathetic hand on his shoulder. "They told me what happened. I'm sorry you had to go through that."
"No!" Arden said angrily as he shrugged her off and stepped away. "I don't want your pity! Don't feel sorry for me, ever!"
"You sound just like Lucifer," the vixen commented dryly, surprising him. "Here's the deal, Arden. If you want my love, then you've got to take the bad with the good, happy with the sad, joy and the sorrow, pride and the pity. It's a package deal. If you can't accept that, then tell me now and you'll save us both a world of heartbreak."
A smile slowly crept across Arden's face as he gazed into the vixen's eyes. He stepped forwards, took her into his arms and kissed her. As their lips separated he smiled again. "So tell me, when did you get so wise?"
"Oh, I don't know," she sighed as she stepped back and hobbled her way over to the bathroom. "Maybe it's the company I've been keeping. Geez. I better go find a broom and a dustpan and get this cleaned up."
"Don't worry about that," Arden said walking over to examine the damage himself. "I'll get one of Ruddygore's people to take care of it."
Sheila shrugged and made her way back over to the bed and sat down. "You better tell them to hurry, unless you want them to mop the place up as well."
"Oh," the albino grunted as he grimaced in understanding. "In that case, how about we take a short cut." He turned back to the mess and studied it. "Let's see if I can remember how to do this without resorting to arcane magic." He steepled his fingers as he concentrated on seeing the shards of the mirror and their inherent natural structure as defined by the laws of magic. After several minutes he began the spell, manipulating the shards so that each slid back into position in the mirror, exactly where it had been prior to being punched. It was almost like watching the mirror shatter in reverse only some of the shards were still covered in blood, creating a gruesome puzzle pattern on the surface of the mirror. As the final piece merged into the restored mirror, Arden relaxed his concentration. "There you go. Good as new, kind of." He nodded to Sheila. "At least you won't have to worry about stepping on any glass when you go to the bathroom."
"Better late than never," Sheila quipped as she scooted by him and closed the door.
Arden turned and started to take a step away from the door but lost his balance, as the room seemed to spin around him. Stumbling, he reached out and managed to catch himself on the frame of the bed, cushioning the fall. Dizzy and lightheaded, he rolled over and used the bed to help sit up.
"Everything OK out there?" came Sheila's muffled voice from behind the door.
"Yah! Everything's just ducky," he replied, lying through gritted teeth. For several seconds, he sat there, sucking wind as he tried to get the spinning of the room under control. He looked down at his trembling hand and cursed. "How the hell am I supposed to defeat a guardian angel if I can't even fix a broken mirror without collapsing?"