Broken Echo

Broken Echo

by Jenny North



Antanaclasis /ant-an-uh-KLAS-is/ n.
From the Greek, antanaklasis ("echo" or "reflection")
from anti- ("against") + ana- + klasis ("breaking or bending")

1. A play on words in which a key word or phrase is repeated in a different, often contrary, sense.


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STORY ONE: The Ballad of the Broken Blade (Act I)
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It was the Festival of Stars in the small town of Beaford, and The Rose and Thorn tavern was bustling with activity. There were a number of regulars there that evening, as well as many people who were visiting from neighboring towns for the celebration. Amid the commotion, three of the regulars were sitting off in a quiet corner at their usual table and watching the crowd with a practiced disinterest. They were well known to the locals as adventurers, but for the most part tended to keep to themselves and the locals knew better than to pry into their business.

Standing nearby, one of the visiting tradesmen noticed that the trio had two empty seats at their table, so he gamely came over to take one of the chairs for his larger group when a huge meaty hand stopped him.

"Those are for our friends," the barbarian grunted.

"My pardon, good sir," the other man said. "But they've been sitting empty all evening, and I just assumed..."

The barbarian made a low, guttural growl.

"'Twas my mistake," the man said nervously, returning in haste to the safety of his group.

The young bard smiled at her brawny companion as she strummed absently on her lute. "Your manners, as always, continue to impress, Throg."

He grunted again. "You just gonna pick at that all night?"

"Play something!" a woman's voice called from the bar. Others quickly chorused in agreement.

"All right, all right," the bard acquiesced. "What are you in the mood to hear?"

"Adventure and swordplay!" one man shouted.

"Romance! And comedy!" cried a woman.

"Something with scary monsters!" a young lad called, quickly chastised by his mother.

The third person at their table was a man with piercing eyes and long raven black hair that peeked out from his deep hooded cloak. He leaned forward slowly and placed a gold piece on the table in front of her. "You know what I want to hear," he said.

The bard rolled her eyes. "Riffin, you always want to hear that! Let someone else choose for once!"

"Sing it!" a chorus of shouts arose. "We want to hear!"

"Oh, very well," the bard sighed in resignation. She had a small smile on her face as she looked to her satisfied companions.

She strummed a chord and was about to begin when Throg interrupted her. "Just go to the good part," he grunted.

The young bard gave the barbarian an exasperated look. "That is not how you tell a story," she responded reproachfully. "Every piece is important, and all must fit together and build to a satisfying conclusion," she explained. "And besides, not everyone considers the bloodshed to be the 'good part,'" she teased. "Now, if I might be allowed to continue uninterrupted?"

"The bloodshed is the good part," Throg grumbled, downing his ale.

The tavern grew quiet as she started her tune, a melody that was both moving and hauntingly familiar at the same time, like the memory of a love long forgotten. She sang along to the melody, her clear dulcet voice low and full of longing.

"In King Ardric's reign of silver and gold
A shadow rose from prophecies told,
This ancient peril once forgot
Arose again 'gainst valor fought

The blood once spilled, lives unmade
Lost in time like a trumpet's fade
But heroes' deeds are known anon
Their stories told, songs echo on

And into this tale Fate's hand commends
A comp'ny of unlikely friends..."

* * * * *

Wynn gripped the reins of his horse as he guided it down the quiet mountain trail. He hated the quiet. Some days, on the rides like today, it was like he could practically hear his father's voice on the wind lecturing Wynn reprovingly and denouncing his son's chosen occupation. If indeed "occupation" was even the right word.

His mother was a Human sorceress and his father was a High Elven mage of some small renown, making Wynn a Half-Elf that was doomed to be forever trapped between two cultures. Growing up, everything had been a battle, whether it was his choice of friends or his choices at the dinner table.

Making matters worse was that as a lad, he'd grown up on his mother's stories of high adventure from her reckless youth, listening breathlessly every time she'd tell him her stories of heroic deeds and daring escapes. So when he announced to his parents that his chosen career was to follow in her footsteps as an adventurer, his normally reserved father nearly disowned him.

"You are a dabbler," his father had told him in that officious way he had. "You never finish anything. These are nothing more than childish fantasies, soon to be forgotten as you move to your next failed venture."

The worst part was that Wynn knew there was truth in his father's words. Despite his efforts, he found that he lacked his parents' gift for wizardry, and his skill as a swordsman left much to be desired. However, when his mother noticed his musical ability, she quietly encouraged his schooling as a bard. There he was able to learn a smattering of druidic magic as he applied some of his latent magical aptitudes towards his connection to nature.

His father had been unimpressed. "Ah, a thief with a lute," he observed dispassionately. "Begging for coins as you play bawdy songs in taverns for drunkards and whores, even as you pick their pockets. You will do your ancestors proud."

Wynn stormed off in a huff, joining up with the first group of adventurers that would have him. That was three years ago.

Today, jolting himself from his reverie, he gazed ahead on the trail and saw his four adventuring companions riding in front of him.

At the head of the group was Riffin, a sharp-witted Elf with jet black hair and a fondness for putting on airs of mystery. Wynn had once commented that "Riffin" wasn't a particularly elvish name, to which the elder man merely smiled enigmatically and replied, "I suppose not." Wynn suspected that it was a nom de guerre of some type, but who or whatever Riffin might have been hiding from, he never saw fit to divulge. He liked to introduce himself as a wizard—and he had some skill with magic—but Wynn suspected the man's only interest in the craft was to enhance his more larcenous talents.

Next in line was Throg, a barbarian from the north. That was, in fact, the totality of his personal history that the taciturn man had seen fit to share with Wynn. After Wynn had introduced himself, the warrior had grunted, "Throg." For a moment Wynn thought the man had simply cleared his throat before he realized the barbarian was offering his name. Throg was a man of few words.

The woman in the group was Jakarra, who was by far the most passionate individual that Wynn had ever encountered. Driven and deadly, the warrior woman had accumulated a good number of magical artifacts to enhance her fighting abilities, and guarded them jealously. Her love of power and gold was matched only by her lusty nature, and she had a way with the men—and even some women, Wynn noted—making her beauty as deadly as her blade. And wielded equally as brazenly, especially in her skimpy battle armor, he noted.

The final member of their party was a Gnomish cleric named Gidral. Wynn did not usually care for the company of Gnomes, but Gidral had a quick wit and made for a fine traveling companion. "Short of stature, long on faith," he joked about himself. He also shared Wynn's love of storytelling, although most of his stories tended to be about his own exploits.

"What sort of welcome might we expect?" Riffin called back.

"These priestesses of Lythia are reclusive members of my sect," Gidral responded. "They are warrior maidens of the first order, choosing to secret themselves among these mountains. And they will be distrustful, especially of men. But the message I carry from the head of our order should establish our intentions."

"That isn't very reassuring," Riffin replied.

"What of the artifact? Will they give it to us willingly?" Jakarra challenged.

Wynn bristled at her directness. Jakarra's interest in the quest had been minimal until she'd heard that the priestesses were charged with guarding the Maidensword, said to be an artifact of the goddess Lythia herself. Along with the Maidenshield, the two artifacts were said to be the key to untold magical power. It bothered Wynn that she didn't seem to care about the lives that were at stake, and he suspected that her only interest in the artifact was for her own gain.

Gidral hesitated. "They have been charged by Lythia herself to protect it with their lives," he said. "And they will not be easy to convince. But Queen Sybeth's treachery runs deep. They should recognize that we share a common foe." Gidral's voice caught at Queen Sybeth's name. Once, Wynn had gently probed into the history there, but the normally gregarious cleric suddenly became stone-faced, promising only that she would meet a swift end at his hand, Lythia willing. Wynn didn't know what Sybeth could have done to earn the Gnome's enmity, but her atrocities in her blind pursuit of power were known across the land.

"Though curiously, of the two artifacts, the shield is considered to be the more powerful—"

"Quiet!" It was Throg that spoke. He had an edge to his voice that signaled trouble was about. He slipped warily from his horse and the rest of the company followed suit, gathering close.

"What is it?" Riffin whispered, quietly unsheathing his sword.

"Magic," the barbarian responded.

Gidral looked skeptical. "You're probably just sensing the temple's magical wards—"

"Demon magic," Throg declared.

The party stiffened up, having learned over the years to trust his senses about such things. Moving quickly and quietly, they soon arrived at the temple of Lythia, a towering structure that was seemingly carved out of the solid stone in the side of the mountain. It was an impressive bit of architecture with towering columns and large courtyard that led up to a massive and imposing door. A door that looked like it had been nearly torn from its hinges.

"Only one way inside," Riffin noted. "Stay on your guard."

The party moved into the grand entrance hall, which clearly had been the site of a pitched battle. There were several priestesses on the floor, all dead. Gidral made a quiet oath and led the group deeper into the structure.

The torches on the walls had been extinguished so the the halls were poorly lit and the group strained to see down the dim corridors as they explored deeper into the temple. It was deathly quiet...the only sound was their footsteps on the hard stone floor, and the air still had the lingering scent of demonic brimstone. Along the way, they came across the bodies of several more of the priestesses who had been killed, and as Wynn paused to examine one, he noticed a huge set of claw marks gouged into the granite wall.

He made eye contact with Riffin, who just whispered, "Let's keep moving."

Gidral paused at an intersection. "It's been years since I've been here, I was only an acolyte," he explained, peering down the darkened hallways. He then guided them down a towering hallway with huge arches that led into a large, open domed room. Gidral took a tentative step inside and the sound of his footstep reverberated and echoed loudly throughout the chamber. The party froze, waiting to see if they'd been detected, but after a few moments they relaxed.

Riffin, the stealthiest of the group, whispered, "Wait here, I'll scout ahead," startled at how loud it sounded in this space. Soundlessly he headed off into the darkness of the room. After a few moments he returned, shaking his head. "Dead end," he reported. "We should—"

Suddenly, the piercing sound of metal against stone reverberated throughout the room. The group readied their weapons and tensed up until they heard the sound of a woman's groan come from the inside.

Wynn took off towards the sound of the woman's voice before Riffin could stop him. Reluctantly, the rest of the group gave chase.

"She's injured," Wynn said, kneeling over the priestess. She was lying on the ground and her armor had been rent apart and was covered in blood.

"That was foolish, child," Jakarra warned. "That could easily have been a trap."

"It still could," Riffin said, glancing around nervously.

Gidral stepped forward. "Lie still, I can ease your pain," he said, readying a healing spell. The others looked at each other nervously. Gidral's healing magic, while potent, required a verbal chant. In this space, it would certainly announce their presence to anyone still nearby.

The priestess shook her head. "No... it's too late for me," she said. "Save your magic... for those it can help."

"The artifact," Jakarra said. "Where is it?"

Gidral shot her a reproachful glance and turned to the priestess, speaking gently. "We've been sent by the Archprelate to secure it," he told her. "Do you know where it is?"

The priestess tried to sit up, groaned loudly, and collapsed into Wynn's arms and passed out.

Riffin looked to Gidral. "You know this place. Where should we look?"

Gidral thought a moment. "This is the Hall of Echoes. The reliquary is on the second floor. But the armory isn't far from here, either. They may have some blessed weapons that might give us an advantage over demons."

Jakarra's eyes lit up at the mention of magical weapons, and even Throg gave a small smile when the armory was mentioned. "Right," Riffin said, "we'll make our way back towards—"

"I'm staying here," Wynn announced, reaching into his pack. "I have some herbs, I might be able to stop her bleeding."

Riffin was clearly opposed to the idea, but the other three members of the group were looking at him impatiently. "Fine," he decided. "Just try not to get eaten by a demon, young one."

As the four hurried off into the darkness, Wynn cast a small spell to bring a dancing orb of light overhead and began treating the woman's injuries. He soon realized that her wounds were mortal, but stayed with her as she regained consciousness.

"You have a good heart," she told him.

"I wish I could do more. I'm sorry."

"Do not be too hard on yourself," she said, wincing in pain. "You are only a man."

"I do what I can with the gifts I've been given," he replied with a supportive little smile.

"You have wisdom for one so young," the priestess whispered with a small smile. "Compassion and selflessness, as well." Her brow furrowed as something seemed to occur to her and she studied his face carefully. For a moment, Wynn felt like she was peering into his soul. "And courage, perhaps?" She coughed and looked at the floating orb of light. "And magic," she said to herself. She started to sit up.

"You should lie still—"

The woman looked at him intently. "You said you wished you could do more. Did you mean it?"

"Y-yes, of course..."

"The altar, there," she said, coughing. "Take this," she said, handing him a small silver medallion.

Wynn moved over to the nearby altar. It was beautiful and ornate, and inlaid in the stone was a mural depicting a woman in armor blazing with power and wielding a magical sword and shield. "Is this the goddess Lythia?" Wynn asked. "The Maidensword and Maidenshield...are they here, somewhere?"

The priestess shook her head. "The sword and shield," she gasped, "...they aren't what they seem," she said, coughing. "They are symbols of our faith."

Wynn nodded, not understanding, but not wanting her to strain herself further. "What should I do?"

"Throw it into the air."

Hesitantly, Wynn threw the silver medallion up into the air, watching it as it disappeared into the darkness above and then tracing its graceful arc back down. That's when he realized his mistake.

"No—!" he gasped.

It was too late. The medallion hit the floor hard, its heavy metallic impact on the stone floor making a loud pinging sound, amplified all the louder by the echo chamber of the room. The shrill sound resonated for several seconds that felt like an eternity. Wynn was berating himself for doing something so foolish when he heard another sound...the sound of monstrous breathing. A fiery glow was rapidly approaching from down the hall where they'd entered...the only exit from the room.

"Gods above," he whispered.

Wynn dove for cover as fiery arrows sailed inches over his head. The noise he'd made had attracted the attention of a succubus and two hulking solider demons who were even now loosing hellfire arrows at him. He unsheathed his sword and canceled the spell of light, so the only illumination in the room was coming from the fire licking off of the bodies of the two solider demons.

"A male. Interesting," the succubus purred, flapping her batlike wings. "And here I thought it was all going to be womenfolk." Her eyes traced Wynn's movements perfectly even as he dodged through the darkness.

One of the solder demons nocked another hellfire arrow and started to aim it towards Wynn. If the young bard had any lingering hope that darkness would shroud his movements, this disabused him of that notion. Though as he looked closely at the demon, it looked like while their hellfire arrows were magical, they still seemed to be made of some form of wood. That could work to his advantage.

Ducking for cover behind a granite pillar, Wynn mumbled a short spell and cast it as he stepped back out into view, even as the demon loosed his arrow, not realizing that Wynn's magic had warped its wooden shaft. Luck was with the young bard, since not only did the arrow miss its mark, but instead it buried itself in the thigh of the other soldier demon that was moving to flank him. The wounded demon roared and pounced on the other demon angrily, attacking its compatriot for the perceived affront.

The sly succubus moved away from the tussling demons, but the distraction was just long enough for Wynn to race up to her and close the gap. Before she could react, Wynn buried his sword in her chest, the hilt of the blade poking out between her ample breasts.

She looked down at the blade and then back up at Wynn. "Very brave," she said, eyeing the sword. "And had this been enchanted steel, I might be more impressed. But seeing as it isn't..."

The succubus backhanded Wynn roughly, her demonic strength sending him flying across the room. She casually pulled his sword from her chest—leaving nary a mark—and dropped it to the floor. She then paused to remove the whip from her belt and cracked it twice on the backs of the demon soldiers to get their full attention. "You!" she said, pointing at the nearest one, commanding it with a nod over towards Wynn. The other she sent over to deal with the fallen priestess.

Wynn's head was spinning and he tried to get his bearings. His body felt like it was on fire from the pain, but with bleary eyes he made out the form of the fiery soldier demon charging towards him, even as in the corner, he heard the anguished screams of the priestess, suddenly cut short. Wynn forced himself to his feet and reached for his sword, in his dazed state having forgotten that he'd lost it. As the demon got close, the beast lunged for him and Wynn clumsily ducked out of its grasp and stumbled backwards. But as he pulled himself up on the nearby altar, his hand chanced to grasp the hilt of a sword he felt there.

Wynn didn't even pause to question his good fortune. As the fiend again charged for him, Wynn swung the sword with all his might and raked it across the demon's chest, spilling the monster's ocher blood. Marshalling his strength, he then plunged the blade deep into the demon's flesh and as the hellspawn keeled over, he noted with satisfaction that the vile filth could be killed, after all.

From across the room there was a mighty war whoop as Throg entered the fray, and both he and Jakarra burst into the room and started attacking the other soldier demon. Not far behind, Wynn saw that Riffin and Gidral were casting attack spells at the succubus, who was defending with her own magic.

He paused for a moment to glance over to the priestess only to find that she, like her sisters, had been savagely killed by the monstrous demon. Through tears of rage and pain, Wynn felt a change come over him, a clarity of purpose, followed by a lance of searing pain throughout his body. When it passed, he was barely aware of his surroundings, noting only that he felt lighter and faster, more driven than before. Bounding over to the other soldier demon, he took advantage of the creature's split attention as it fought Jakarra and he buried his sword in the demon's back.

As their attacker fell, the warrior woman did a double-take when looking at Wynn, but she had barely time to react before Throg came in to attack her with a mighty blow. Reacting with lightning-quick reflexes, Jakarra managed to parry the attack, shouting, "Dolt! Do I look like a demon to you?"

The barbarian didn't respond, and in a flash, Wynn saw that the three men had been bewitched by the succubus's magic charms. As Jakarra tried to fend off the incoming attacks without injuring their allies, Wynn raced at the succubus, his sword flashing in the dim light.

The demoness smiled calmly at Wynn as her eyes flashed with a magical fire. "Fool," she said confidently, "no man can resist my charm—AAGGHH!" She reeled as Wynn's slashing blade sliced her exposed midriff, and she gaped at him in shock and confusion. "What is this trickery?" she demanded.

"Justice," Wynn said, his voice sounding strange to his ears. He swung the blade and the demoness's head was separated from her body, the look of stunned disbelief still on her face.

Wynn dropped to the floor exhausted as he started to regain his senses, like a fog lifting. He didn't even notice as the others approached him, looking concerned.

"Wynn?" Riffin asked. "Is that you?"

Wynn flashed him a tired grin. "Who else would it...be..." Again, his voice sounded strange to him. He cleared his throat and brought a hand to his chest, startled when he encountered a woman's soft yielding bosom there. He shook his head to clear it, and it felt like awaking from a dream. Except this dream was all too real.

As he grasped at his female body in shocked disbelief, he dropped the sword that he'd hardly been aware that he'd been carrying. The sound of the weapon hitting the floor echoed resoundingly in the space and they all looked down to behold it...an elegant sword with a long slender blade that had delicate runes running down its length.

"The Maidensword," Gidral gasped.

* * *

After a heated debate, the group agreed that it would be better to remain at the temple for the night. Riffin wanted to get back on the road as soon as possible to deliver the Maidensword to its proper guardians, but Gidral was adamant that they stay at least long enough for him to administer funeral rites for the fallen warrior maidens who had died defending it.

Wynn had prevailed on the both of them to at least try and lift the "curse" that the blade had placed upon him—or rather her—but after exhausting their repertoire of magical cures and counter-spells, they conceded defeat.

"I'm sorry, Wynn," Riffin said. "Maybe when we get back to the city we can get someone to lift the curse...if that's what it is."

Wynn crossed her arms defiantly, trying to ignore the feeling of her breasts pressed against them. "Well, what else would it be?" she snapped, hating how petulant she sounded.

Riffin shrugged slightly. "It's just...I'm not even detecting magic on you. Or the sword, for that matter. If I didn't know better, I'd say they were..."

"Divine," Gidral interrupted.

"What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean," the cleric replied. "This is one of the artifacts of the goddess Lythia herself. To wield it...you have been given a great honor."

"Yes, well, I've had enough honor for one day," Wynn retorted. "Perhaps someone else would care for the opportunity?"

Throg shuddered at the thought. "I've no wish to be a woman," he said.

Jakarra tried to pick up the blade but the moment she touched it, her hand jerked open, causing her to drop it on the ground. She made a small grumble of displeasure.

"'Twould seem the blade has already found its mistress," Gidral observed, glancing at Wynn. Wynn made a face at the feminine title and was about to take issue with it, but she saw no malice in Gidral's demeanor and let it pass.

* * *

The next morning before daybreak, Wynn sneaked quietly away from the others to see to her morning toilette. She knew it was unwise going off on her own, but couldn't bear the teasing smirks of the others as she explored this unwelcome aspect of her new maidenhood.

After seeing to her needs in the temple's lavatory, she chanced to hear running water and soon came upon a large open room with a small sheltered pool that had been seemingly carved into the mountain and was fed by a small waterfall above. She quickly removed her boots and breeches and fumbled with her top, which was loose and ungainly on her slender female frame.

"You would do well not to wander, milady," Jakarra's voice came, startling Wynn. "Especially now that you make such a tempting morsel for...predators," she added, eyeing Wynn's bare legs.

Wynn tugged girlishly down on her tunic. "Jakarra! What are you doing here?"

"Bathing," the other woman said matter-of-factly, doffing her clothes. In a trice, she was naked and entering the shallow water that did nothing to hide her stunningly voluptuous form.

Wynn blushed and averted her eyes, still tugging down on her shirt.

Jakarra cast an eye on Wynn's self-conscious demeanor. "You need new clothes," she observed. "Those fit you ill. Gidral has some skill with a needle and thread, he should be able to fit some of the priestess' clothes to you."

"I will wear my own clothes, thank you," Wynn sniffed, tugging vainly at one of the clasps on her belt, which was practically falling off her hips.

"Those clothes will get you killed," Jakarra replied as she emerged naked from the water and approached the flustered young Half-Elf. Faced with the amazon's brazen display, Wynn looked at the ground as Jakarra's strong hands nimbly unfastened the clasps. "They are too bulky for you, now, your armor too heavy for your girlish physique."

"I can manage just fine," Wynn said.

"An enemy's blade will not care what sex you were born as," Jakarra said. "And your pouting denials will offer no protection when their arrows pierce your tender flesh."

Wynn watched the taller woman as she turned and strode back into the glistening pool. "I wasn't pouting," she protested, stripping down to her baggy tunic. She nervously fingered the fabric, but upon seeing Jakarra's smirk she pulled the garment quickly over her head and tossed in on the pile of clothes. Nude for the first time in her female body, Wynn blushed and joined Jakarra in the pool.

As she washed her new body self-consciously, Wynn suddenly paused and broke into a little smile.

"What amuses you?"

"I'm just remembering something my father told me the day I left," Wynn said. "He didn't approve of what I was doing and I was surprised when he came to bid me farewell. When I asked why, he said it was because he thought it would be the last time he saw his son alive."

The statement hung in the air for a long moment before Wynn broke out into a decidedly girlish giggle. As she broke out into laugher, Jakarra started to laugh, as well.

"Damn the man, he always has to be right about everything!" Wynn laughed, wiping a tear from her eye.

Taking a long breath, Wynn gazed at the sword lying on the ground and then looked at Jakarra. "Queen Sybeth. She's not going to rest until she has the Maidensword, is she?"

"If you believe in the prophecy, it is the only thing that can stand against the magical power of the Maidenshield," Jakarra said.

Wynn considered that. "Do you believe in the prophecy? In Lythia, the gods above, the notion that I might be chosen for this task?"

Jakarra was silent for a moment. "I believe that there are powers greater than us, yes. That they have voices, if only we care to listen."

"And the rest?"

"It does not matter what I believe, it matters only what Queen Sybeth believes," she responded. "And she does believe in the prophecy. She will stop at nothing to possess that which would give her more power."

Wynn looked down at her girl's body, with its slender arms and gentle curves. "I was never much of a fighter even before this happened," she admitted. "Now I'm even less than that. But Sybeth was trained as a warrior priestess of Lythia before she broke her vows. I don't stand a chance against her."

"I agree," Jakarra said bluntly. "Your female body lacks a man's strength and your male mind lacks a woman's wiles. You are less than either."

Wynn looked at her in shock.

"The Maidensword is a mighty artifact, meant to be wielded by a champion—a woman—of equal mettle," Jakarra asserted. "It may have chosen you as its champion, but you are no warrior. Nor are you a woman. I fear you may get us all killed."

* * *

Late that morning, Riffin was pacing anxiously as he waited by the horses. "We should have left this place hours ago," he said to Throg, who was silently watching the agitated Elf. "This is the first place Sybeth will be looking for us, and that succubus was almost certainly one of her trusted guard. When she fails to report to her mistress, where do you think Sybeth will come looking?"

Without a hint of sarcasm, the barbarian grunted, "Here."

"Well, at least we're all in agreement," Riffin muttered. As Jakarra emerged from the temple and walked towards them, he called to her. "Any chance we'll be leaving before midday?"

"They're nearly done. Gidral had one last sanctifying ritual to perform."

"Those priestesses are as dead as they're going to get. I'm more concerned with the living."

"Mmm," she murmured in agreement. "However, this final ritual wasn't for the dead. Gidral felt it important to bestow a blessing on Lythia's new champion."

"You cannot be serious. What... madness... is..."

The three of them turned to face Gidral and Wynn, who were both emerging from the temple. Wynn was garbed in the armor and raiment befitting of one of the warrior maidens of Lythia. Her armor was functional and form-fitting, putting the transformed bard's feminine charms on captivating display as they clung to her shapely new body. Her hair and face had been cleaned and made up fetchingly, and the Maidensword hung in a ceremonial scabbard that rested against her curvaceous hip.

"I braided her hair," Jakarra said, sidling up beside Riffin who was gawking at the comely young Half-Elf. "And I thought the kohl-rimmed eyes were a nice touch, don't you?" she added playfully.

Riffin was still staring at Wynn in disbelief. The dirty-faced girl in the ill-fitting armor and bulky clothes was gone, replaced by a stunning, flaxen-haired beauty.

As Wynn walked up to the horses, she was blushing and plucked at her new garments self-consciously. "Sorry we're late," she said.

Jakarra nudged Riffin. "Well? Have you nothing to say?"

"Lovely," Throg said approvingly.

Wynn blushed further and looked at the ground even as Jakarra smiled broadly at the young bard's discomfiture. Riffin, finding his voice, said to the others, "Mount up. We need to put some distance between us and this place before we're discovered by—"

"Queen Sybeth," Throg cut in.

Riffin shot him a look. "Indeed. Or her demons."

"No," Throg said, staring down the mountain pass. "Queen Sybeth and her demons."

They turned to follow the barbarian's line of vision to see a small army of demons charging down the mountain pass, blocking the party's only way out of the canyon. At the head of the pack were a pair of black bat-winged horses—nightmares—pulling a chariot with a single occupant. It was a woman in jet black armor with pale skin and long white-blonde hair that was blowing in the wind beneath a dark crown wreathed in pale blue fire.

Riffin swore under his breath and shot his companions an angry glance that said, "If by some miracle we manage to live through this, maybe next time you'll listen to me." Over the years adventuring with them, he'd had ample opportunities to perfect such a countenance. Aloud, he said, "Everyone, get back into the temple! We'll make a stand at the entrance and try and fight them at the doorway. That way, they can't outflank—"

Just then, two massive winged demons swooped in from above and flew behind them. The ground shook as they landed and stood shoulder-to-shoulder, blocking the way to the temple's entrance as they unsheathed their flaming weapons.

"...or we could just make peace with our gods and die right here," Riffin said, his eyes darting around for a place for them to seek cover.

"Saves time," Throg grunted, unshouldering his two-handed sword.

His mind racing, Riffin had a thought and moved close to Gidral to whisper something to the Gnome. The normally affable cleric glowered at him in stunned disbelief. "Sacrilege!" he cried.

"But can you do it?" Riffin pressured him.

Gidral was incensed. "You would have me desecrate my most holy—"

"I said, can you do it?" Riffin said forcefully.

The Gnome glared daggers at the man, but finally nodded once.

"Good. Be ready."

Wynn watched anxiously as the creatures charged closer. "What are we going to do?" she said.

When nobody answered, she looked over her shoulder at the group. They were all deadly serious and had their weapons at the ready. Jakarra had a wicked smile and even Throg's normally inscrutable mien showed the tiniest hint of anticipation.

Wynn unsheathed her sword. "Right."

The group formed a circle, back to back with weapons drawn as the demons surrounded them. They were vastly outnumbered but knew better than to break ranks and start the fight, instead waiting for the demons to make the first move. As the demons mustered, Riffin scrutinized the front of the temple, noticing a huge stone pillar that had been badly damaged, presumably from the demons' first assault on the sanctuary. It was broken almost in half at the base.

Discreetly, Riffin nudged Throg and gave a significant glance at the pillar before raising an eyebrow to the barbarian. Throg grunted and tilted his head slightly.

"Maybe we'll live through this, after all," Riffin muttered to himself.

Queen Sybeth rode up on her chariot and dismounted. Her fair hair and pale skin were a sharp contrast to the ebon-black armor she wore, and she carried a blade at her side seemingly made of the darkest obsidian. As she turned, Wynn caught sight of a silver shield she carried, which was small and round and beautifully inlaid with a number of delicate runes across the front. The same runes as on Wynn's sword.

"The Maidenshield," Gidral gasped. "She has it already! We can't let her get—"

"Quiet!" Riffin hissed.

Sybeth took a step forward from the circle of demons that were surrounding the company. "Oh, gentle friends!" she declared. "I do apologize for the manners of my servants. It was never my intent to cause you harm. I do hope they haven't caused you any trouble. I would not wish for there to be any ill will between us."

"Step closer and find out," Jakarra challenged.

Sybeth laughed. "Ah, Jakarra! A warrior of Vala, if I am not mistaken? You most of all should understand my cause. We women have been forever trapped beneath the heel of a patriarchy that values us only as chattel. I would seek to elevate the role of women! Why not join with me? We would be a force to be reckoned with!"

"Lying filth!" Gidral spat. "You, who chose to forsake the holiest of orders!"

"A cleric of Lythia yet lives in this place? How delightful. But I don't believe I've had the pleasure?"

"You murdered my family at the massacre of Valladrest!" Gidral shouted. He started to charge her, but Riffin and Throg held him back.

Riffin whispered in the enraged Gnome's ear, "Don't, my friend. She's trying to goad us."

Sybeth took a few steps to the side, circling the group slowly. "And a priestess of Lythia, as well!" she said, examining Wynn. "And so formidable," she teased, admiring the Maidensword. "And yet..."

The dark sorceress paused and closed her eyes, holding her hand out just slightly as if feeling the air for something. Her eyes snapped open as she beheld Wynn, and suddenly burst out into laughter.

"Ha ha ha ha ha!" she cried. "This? This is Lythia's champion? I have long known this faith was bereft of any strength, but I would have thought you could have found some woman born that was equal to the challenge." She looked to Wynn. "Tell me—girl—how long have you been thus? Have you even experienced your monthly flows yet?"

"If you wish to see me spill blood, you need only ask," Wynn shot back, brandishing the sword threateningly. She smiled as she heard Jakarra snicker behind her.

Sybeth regarded Wynn for a moment. "Very well," she decided. "I had planned to kill you all and take the sword, but the chance to do battle with the half-sexed freak that is the 'Champion of Lythia' is much too tempting," she said with a smirk.

Wynn eyed her warily. "And you'll let them live? I have your word?"

"Certainly."

Gidral jumped forward. "Don't listen to her, lass! She can't be trusted!"

Wynn turned to Queen Sybeth and stepped away from the protection of her friends. She raised the Maidensword even as the Queen unsheathed her ebony blade. "To the death, then?"

Sybeth made a little face. "I rather assumed that went without saying," she said playfully.

Wynn made the first move, a strong—almost wild—swing that fell short of its target. Jakarra and Throg glanced at each other with trepidation.

Wynn and Sybeth traded thrusts and parries, finding each other's range, but it was clear that Sybeth was the more skilled opponent. And she was toying with Wynn.

"AAAH!" Wynn cried as the Queen's sword sliced across the flesh of her thigh.

Sybeth took a half step back. "What's the matter, girl? Not used to—OH!" Wynn cut the sorceress off in mid-taunt as the young bard lashed out with a vicious swing, putting her entire weight behind it. Sybeth barely raised her shield in time to block the attack and there was a mighty clang as metal met metal. "ARRGH!" she cried in agony, stumbling back from the blow. Wynn followed with a wicked slice that met Sybeth in the midsection, but was rebuffed by her magical armor.

Sybeth made a swift feint, catching Wynn's arm on the backswing and raking the blade across her forearm. Wynn cried out in pain and in a rage swung down hard as Sybeth dodged gracefully out of the way. The dark queen then exploited the opening that Wynn had provided her, bringing her weapon down mightily on Wynn's overextended sword, and catching it on the flat of the blade.

All eyes were on the Maidensword as it broke in half.

Queen Sybeth went deathly white as she saw what she'd done. "You fool!" she screamed at Wynn, lashing out wildly with her sword, cutting into Wynn's midsection and sending her flying back. "Stupid cow, do you have any idea what you've done?" Sybeth said murderously. "I've changed my mind. I don't want to see you killed this day. No, little maiden, you will live. And the horrors that I will see beset upon your soft female flesh will chill the heart of any woman-born that—"

Sybeth stopped suddenly as she looked up at the other members of Wynn's company. All three of them.

"Where is the Elf?" she demanded.

"Beg pardon?" Gidral said.

Sybeth strode closer to them for a better look. "The Elf! Raven hair with the cloak! Where is he?" She flashed an accusing glare at her demons, but they said nothing, glancing uncertainly at each other. Evidently even the pit fiends had been distracted watching their mistress's fight.

"Sorry, doesn't ring a bell," Gidral told her.

She spun on him, furious. "He was—!" She paused as she looked at him, cocking her head slightly to the side. Sybeth waved her hand as she mumbled a magical incantation, and as she did so, Gidral's image faded away and Riffin was standing in his place.

"Oh, the Elf," Riffin told her with a smirk. "Sorry, thought you said 'Gnome.' No idea where he's scampered off to."

"Find him!" Sybeth roared, and a contingent of demons started to search around the area. But even with Riffin's illusions there was no place to hide for very long in the open courtyard. She scanned around the area and her eyes rested on the temple.

"What was your plan?" Sybeth said with a sneer. "Send him into his holy temple? To do...what? Perhaps find an artifact to use against me? Pray for his beloved 'goddess' to intervene?" She took a step closer to Riffin. "There is nothing in there. The artifacts are destroyed. The priestesses are as dead as their forgotten religion. There is nothing in there but death."

"Yes," Riffin admitted, meeting Sybeth with a level gaze. "I'm rather counting on that."

From inside the temple they heard the sound of footsteps approaching. Many footsteps.

Sybeth looked at Riffin uncertainly. "Kill the Gnome," she commanded the demons. "Kill them all. Except for th—"

That was as far as she got before dozens of warrior maidens burst into the courtyard from inside the temple. Weapons at the ready, they started tearing into the force of demons.

"How—?" The word was barely past Queen Sybeth's lips when she saw that the priestesses were undead. The reanimated corpses of the temple's defenders. "The cleric," she muttered. "I'll kill you f—"

Throg cold-cocked her.

"Thank you," Riffin said.

"My pleasure."

Dazed, Queen Sybeth was unable to cast any spells, but managed to get her blade up just in time to parry a blow from Throg's sword that would have taken her head off. She stumbled backwards as a wave of demons surged forward to protect her and attack the party.

"Go! Go!" Riffin yelled to Throg, who ran to the broken pillar outside the temple. He braced himself against the wall at the base of the pillar and started to push against it with all his might.

"We need to buy him some time," Riffin said to Jakarra as he began casting a spell.

Jakarra just grunted, busy fending off two soldier demons who in turn were distracted by the assault of a pair of undead priestesses. "I was not aware that Gidral was able to do this," she said as she dispatched one of the creatures.

"It won't last long," Gidral said, running up to them. He shot a look at Riffin, who was finishing his spell. "Though the stain on my soul may last an eternity, damn you."

"Wait your turn. The line of individuals calling for my damnation begins there," he retorted, pointing at the nearest demon. As his spell started to take effect, a thick fog started to blanket the area, enshrouding the entire courtyard.

There was a resounding crack that came from the pillar that Throg was pushing against mightily, and Riffin turned to Gidral. "Get Wynn. We need to get into the temple. Now."

By now the tide had turned against the reanimated defenders of the temple, and the demons were starting to search through the fog looking for the company. Wynn, leaning heavily on Gidral, stumbled towards the main entrance even as she heard Throg's barbarian howl as he made a final push against the pillar. As they lumbered forward, she saw a demoness archer that had them dead to rights.

Jakarra sprang in from out of nowhere and at first seemed to interpose herself as she closed the gap to the archer, but at the last minute spun out of the way as the demoness loosed her arrow, which buried itself deep in Gidral's thigh.

"AARRGH!" the Gnome cried, stumbling forward with Wynn even as Jakarra ran the demoness through with her sword.

"In! In! Everybody in!" Riffin called, standing in the doorway. The supporting pillar was on the brink of collapse and he knew it would come down any second. Throg, exhausted, stumbled inside following Wynn and Gidral.

"Jakarra!" Riffin yelled. A phalanx of demons was charging right at him and through the mystic fog that was starting to dissipate, he saw her far on the other side of the courtyard. For a long moment, the two of them made eye contact and in that moment, they both realized what needed to be done.

Riffin, seeing the demons almost on top of the entrance, launched a magic missile at the base of the broken pillar. The rock shattered into fragments and as he ducked inside he caught a glimpse of Jakarra as she turned and disappeared into the rapidly fading mist. He stepped back from the door as it slammed shut from the impact of the falling column, and he could hear and feel the deep reverberating booms of the collapsing pillars outside as tons of rock piled up against the entrance.

They were safe. And trapped.

****************************************************************
STORY TWO: Breaking Character (Act I)
****************************************************************

Jack rolled the 20-sided die. "Ha! 19!" he cried.

From behind the Dungeon Master's screen, Rob looked down at the sheet. "You stab the demoness through the heart. She dies, saying, 'This isn't over! Queen Sybeth will vanquish you all!'"

Aidan put down his character sheet and turned to look at Jack accusingly. "Ass. Hole."

"What?" Jack said defensively.

"You stepped out of the way and let me take that arrow!" he said, pointing at the lead miniature of his cleric on the map.

"I was repositioning to take out the demon," Jack said. "Which I did!"

Troy scoffed, picking up his barbarian figure and putting it away. "You mean, you saw that the cleric had more hit points than you and let him take the hit."

"Oh, come on," Jack said. "He did have plenty of HP. I'm not going to risk Jakarra dying in some stupid skirmish. He can heal himself, anyway. No harm done." He retrieved his figure of Jakarra from the map.

"Is that a new miniature?" Brandon asked him, looking to change the subject. "That round metal base is different."

"Yeah, I just got it," Jack bragged. "It looks just like Jakarra, don't you think? That's the same kind of armor and sword that she uses. And someone even painted it already, and they even gave her auburn hair just like she has. Usually they paint it bright red like Red Sonja." He held up the scantily-clad figure for inspection.

Lisa shook her head at the discussion and turned to Rob, who was gathering up his DM screen and books. "So we're going to finish the story with Queen Sybeth at the LARP thing?" she asked. The Live Action Role Playing event—Michigan LARP Faire '92—was something that the group had been planning with varying degrees of anticipation and dread. The group had agreed that the culmination of their storyline would take place at the LARP game, so everyone would come dressed as their character so they could play it out in real life. Not everyone was thrilled with the idea.

"Oh, yeah, and that was some serious B.S. right there," Jack said to Rob. "How does Lisa's character end up with the Maidensword? That totally should have gone to Jakarra! She's already a woman, and she's the best fighter!"

Troy scoffed again at Jack's assertion, doing a credible imitation of Throg.

"Hey, it could have gone to anybody!" Rob said, holding up his hands. "Whoever found the dying maiden would have gotten it. You're the one who wanted to loot the armory first."

"It's still baloney. And her character broke it!"

Aidan looked up from his character sheets that he was collecting together from the table. "It was a critical fumble. It could have happened to anybody."

Jack wasn't convinced. "And now Lisa's character is a girl, so now she doesn't even have to crossplay at the LARP game."

"Hey, I was all set to dress as Wynn!" Lisa objected. Then she turned to Brandon. "I can still borrow your lute, right?"

Brandon nodded to her and then smiled at Jack. "What's the big deal, anyway? I thought you said you weren't going to do the LARP thing?"

"That's just dumb kid stuff," Jack contended.

"Translation: you don't want to dress up in Jakarra's chainmail bikini."

"It's +5 scale mail," Jack corrected him.

"I still think 'bikini' is the more relevant word in that sentence."

"That's big talk from a guy who just has to toss on some pointy Spock ears and a cloak, 'Riffin.'"

"I don't know what the big deal is, anyway," Lisa said. "I was going to dress as a guy. And Rob's going as a female character, too."

Rob nodded. "Yep, I've got a great outfit all picked out for Queen Sybeth. I still need to find a better wig, though. Can you still help with my makeup?" he asked Lisa.

"Sure, even though you turned my character into a girl," she smirked.

"It could have been anyone!" he said with a smile. "Okay, so no regular group next week and I guess the next time we meet, we'll all be 'in character.'"

Jack snorted.

"Except for Jakarra, who'll be away on some other extremely important quest."

"Ah! One last important point of business," Aidan cut in. "We still going to see 'Batman Returns' on Friday?"

"With Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman? Heck yeah!" Jack said.

Rob nodded in agreement. "Not so sure about Danny DeVito as the Penguin, though...I guess we'll see."

"I gotta work," Troy said. "So no spoilers!"

As the group broke up for the evening, Jack caught up to Lisa as she headed to her car. "Hey, sorry about giving you grief about getting the sword and all," he said.

"Don't worry about it."

He nodded. "So...you didn't say if you were going to the movie on Friday. I was wondering—"

Lisa stopped and turned to look at him. "I'm not interested," she told him.

"In the movie?" he asked, hopeful that it wasn't—

"In you."

Her bluntness caught him off guard. "W-why?"

"You're not my type," she said.

"But...you hardly know me," he said, flustered. "I mean, we hardly talk outside the game. I might surprise you."

"Well, then, you hardly know me, either," she countered. "Do you?"

"I've seen you at the comic shop," he said. "I know you read Sandman. I think you might be a vegetarian? And you don't like to admit it, but you really liked that 'Beauty and the Beast' Disney cartoon that came out last year. Oh, and you like fantasy but you don't like sci-fi."

It was her turn to be rattled. "I like Dune," she contended.

He thought about it and shook his head. "No, you don't."

She furrowed her brow. "How do you know all this?"

"C'mon, just give me a chance," he said.

"It wouldn't work out."

"Why?"

She looked him right in the face. "Because I know what you think of women."

"What?"

"Take Jakarra," she told him. "She's runs around with a max Charisma score in a skimpy little titillating outfit and sluts herself around with any man—or woman!—she can find. She only thinks of herself, and boggarts up all of the loot rather than sharing it with everyone."

"But I'm just playing her as an—"

"I swear to God, if you use the word 'empowered' I will literally scream," Lisa warned him. "You don't share, or worry about the story. You just think about combat and fighting like every other guy, and then you hide behind this veil of 'roleplaying' that's about as skimpy as her battle bikini. So forgive me if I think I know a little bit about your opinions of women."

"C'mon, now you're just exaggerating."

Lisa nodded. "Fine. Okay, I'll give you a chance," she said. "If I were to walk up to Rob right now and ask him, would I be correct in guessing that Jakarra's bra cup size is written somewhere on her character sheet?"

Jack hesitated. "W-well, technically, that's important information to know if she can fit into her armor," he stammered.

"Goodbye, Jack," she said, spinning around and stalking off.

* * *

That evening in their shared apartment, Brandon was playing Sonic the Hedgehog on his Sega Genesis while Jack sat next to him on the couch.

"Am I a sexist jerk?" Jack asked.

"Uh huh," Brandon replied absently, his attention focused on the game.

Jack was taken aback by the quick response. "Are you sure? 'Cause I never really thought of myself as—"

"Yep. Definitely." Brandon tapped away at the controller furiously. "Aww, c'mon!" he proclaimed as Sonic was jabbed by a harpoon. "How is that fair? Can hedgehogs even swim?"

Jack sat there quietly for a minute. "I'm gonna go rethink my life," he announced, trudging back to his bedroom.

"'Kay."

Jack saw the lead figurine of Jakarra on his dresser and examined it...the big boobs, the long hair, the ridiculous "armor" that covered almost none of her body. He sighed heavily. "I'm not...like that," he told himself. "Am I?"

He ran his hand through his hair. "God, I don't understand women at all," he muttered.

"Do not judge yourself too harshly," a woman's voice came from behind him. "After all, you are only a man."

Jack spun around to face a drop dead gorgeous woman standing in his bedroom. She had long auburn hair and was wearing a scale mail bikini with thigh-high leather boots and gloves. And she was leaning casually on an impressive-looking sword.

Jack jumped back in alarm, running smack into the edge of his bed and feeling like a cornered animal in the confines of the small room. "Who the hell are you?" he asked.

"I am Jakarra, of course," she replied simply, sheathing her sword and leaning it against his dresser. She slowly started to remove one of her gloves, pulling at one finger after another. "And you would be Master Jack, yes?"

Jack stared in total shock at the scantily clad beauty before him. She was stunning, tall and slim with an eye-popping curvaceous figure that was completely on display in her miniscule outfit. She looked like she could have been a lingerie model, but there was a tautness to her muscles that suggested that she worked out. And her confidence and matter-of-fact demeanor only added to her formidable charms.

"Wha?" Jack squeaked.

"Your name," she emphasized, removing her glove. "It is Jack, is it not?"

When Jack nodded dumbly, she took two steps forward, causing him to retreat against the bed. "May I?" she asked, plucking the figurine out of his hand. She regarded the curvaceous figurine for a moment with a small smirk, and then detached the metal ring from the bottom of the figure and slipped it on her finger. As she did so, it glowed brightly before fading again. "Ahh, much better," she said, stretching her fingers.

Jack stared at her stupidly. "How...?"

"I have been summoned here to help you," she told him. "You require the expertise of a woman skilled in the arts of love and romance, do you not?"

He continued to gawk at her, his eyes tracing over her soft flesh and amazing curves. She had a young face—probably not much older than Jack himself—which was exquisitely made up and heightened her feminine features. Her soft, pouting lips, her penetrating come-hither eyes...even her thin arched eyebrows, now raised quizzically at him.

"Huh?" he blurted out.

She blinked her eyes slowly. "Very well," she decided. "Clearly I must find other ways of loosening your tongue." She started to unfasten her armored brassiere.

Jack backed up against the bed. "Wait, wait, whoa! What are you doing?"

"You obviously find my sexuality intimidating," she said, temporarily frustrated by the clasp and pausing to remove her other glove. "Once we have sexual relations, that will make it more familiar." She turned around and brushed her long hair out of the way, revealing the expanse of naked flesh across her rounded shoulders and down her back, tracing downward to her slender waist and a truly profound set of hips. "Would you mind?" she asked, nodding over her shoulder. "The clasp seems to be stuck."

Jack ran his hands down his face, floored by the sight in front of him. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment before grabbing a blanket off the bed and throwing it to her. "Wait," he said. "Just...wait."

She held it uncertainly and arched an eyebrow. "You don't wish to have relations?" she asked.

"That would be awesome," Jack admitted. He sat on a chair and motioned to the bed. "But just...sit?"

She tossed the blanket on the bed and sat, eyeing him skeptically. "I would have hoped my maker to be more somewhat more articulate."

Jack was thrown by that. "You mean...you know who I am? And what you are?"

She shrugged. "I know enough. We are after all the playthings of the gods, are we not?" She regarded the lead figurine of herself.

"I'm not a god," Jack said. "But...you're just a fictional character. You're not real."

She reached over and pinched his leg.

"Ow! What was that fo—oh, I get it, very funny. But how can you be okay with that? Doesn't that bother you? Free will, and all that?"

"How do you know you're not a character in someone else's tale, Master Jack?" Jakarra challenged him. "However, that my maker should have need of my services is rather flattering."

Jack held up his hands. "Look, just...nobody's servicing anybody, okay?"

"I was referring to your problems with your lady love."

"Lisa? What do you know about her?"

"I know she is another celestial being, such as yourself." She paused as a thought occurred to her. "Does she command one of my companions, as well?"

Jack nodded. "Wynn. The bard."

"Ahh," she whispered in understanding. "A woman! That explains much."

"Well, I appreciate the offer, but I've got things well in control with Lisa. So you can shuffle on back to Rathorp or the Plains of Agzarar or wherever and meet up with the rest of the party."

Jakarra considered that. "No," she decided.

"Well, I...I command you!"

The pronouncement hung in the air for a moment before Jakarra burst into laughter. "Oh, you do have a sense of humor! Perhaps I see some of myself in you, after all," she smiled. "Understand, 'Master Jack' is an honorific, not an oath. I will stay until my work here is done."

"Fantastic," Jack sighed.

* * * * *

The next morning, Brandon walked out into the living room while eating a bowl of cereal to find Jack sleeping on the couch.

"'Sup?" he asked, as Jack rubbed his eyes.

"My, um, cousin is visiting for a few days."

"What's his name?"

"Uh, Jackie."

Brandon laughed once. "Jack and Jackie? That's gonna be con... fu... sing..." his jaw dropped as he stared past Jack down the hallway.

Jack turned around to see Jakarra walking out of the bathroom with nothing but a towel. That she was using to dry her hair. "Truly, you live in an age of wonders!" she marveled as she walked naked back to Jack's room.

Brandon was still staring after her after she'd gone. "Never mind. I think I'll be able to keep it straight."

Jack cleared his throat. "She's...Swedish." He called down the hall after her. "I put some clothes out for you to wear!"

"My gratitude, Master Jack!"

"She lost her suitcase," he explained to Brandon. As he rolled off the couch and got up to get some coffee with a puzzled Brandon in tow, she soon emerged wearing some loose-fitting shorts with sandals and an Iron Maiden T-shirt that had seen better days.

"That T-shirt has never looked so good," Brandon said admiringly.

"Brandon, this is Jackie, my cousin," Jack said, emphasizing the last bit for Jakarra's benefit. "Jackie, this is—"

"Riffin?" she asked, eyeing him carefully.

"Dude, you told her about our game?" he said. "And it's Brandon, actually," he said, shaking her hand. "Wow, nice grip," he added.

"A pleasure, Master Brandon."

He gave her a funny smile. "Right. Well, I need to run to class. You two have fun today. Jackie, I hope I'll see more of you later."

"I am certain that can be arranged," Jakarra said with a smile.

"I have got to visit Sweden," Brandon said in wonder as he left.

Jack looked at her accusingly. "What the hell was that?"

Jakarra shrugged. "What? When I see something I'm interested in, I pursue it. I thought you of all people would understand that."

"You want Brandon?" Jack asked, incredulous. "He's a nice guy, but kind of a tool, if you ask me. You could definitely do better."

She pulled open the refrigerator door, making a surprised little "hmm" as she peeked inside. "You shouldn't be so quick to base attraction solely on physical appearance," she chided him. "In fact, he reminds me a little of Riffin."

"Riffin?" Jack echoed, even more incredulous.

"I always rather fancied him," Jakarra admitted.

"But...he's useless in a fight!"

"There is more to life than fighting, Master Jack," she admonished. "It's true he has a roguish mien, but there is a devilish charm there, as well."

He sighed. "Look, just drop the 'master' stuff, okay? Just stay here and help yourself to whatever's in the fridge...we'll sort this out tonight after I get back from class."

"No," she said firmly. "Your studies will wait, and I will not tarry in my quest. Today you will fight for the love of your damsel," she declared in a no-nonsense tone. "And you," she added, scrutinizing his rumpled jeans and T-shirt, "you must gird yourself for battle."

* * *

A couple hours later, the two of them were walking along the sidewalk in town, and at Jakarra's prompting, Jack had cleaned up and was wearing his least rumpled button-down shirt and khakis. However, Jakarra, despite being the scruffier of the two in her ill-fitting shorts and shirt was definitely drawing more attention. She smiled coyly as a cute guy walked past, much to the annoyance of the girl he was walking with.

"Will you knock that off?" Jack chided her. "You're going to get into trouble doing that."

"I can handle myself in a fight," she reminded him. "On the battlefield or...elsewhere," she said, giving another guy an appraising look.

"Jesus, I really did create a monster," Jack moaned.

She stopped and turned to face him. "Are you ashamed of me?" she asked.

"What? No!"

"Then if you are not embarrassed by me, then you must be embarrassed for me," she reasoned. "You believe I am behaving improperly."

Jack looked around at the other people passing by on the sidewalk. "I think it would be nice if you weren't quite so forward, yes."

She nodded understanding. "You feel I should be more reserved."

"Yes."

"More demure."

"Well..."

"Subservient."

"Okay, now, that's not fair," Jack objected.

"No. No, it most certainly is not," Jakarra agreed. "Master Jack—" She paused, seeing his reproachful look. "Jack," she amended, "why do you think I am here?"

He shrugged. "To help me with Lisa."

"Yes, but why am I here? Why me, do you think?"

He shook his head.

"Jack, I am you," she said, putting a hand on his chest. "Or perhaps a version of you. One that you created. If I behave in a certain way, it is only because there is a part of you that must want that, as well. Even if you cannot admit it to yourself. So who better than I to be your guide?" she asked.

He stared at her for a long moment.

"What?" she said finally.

Jack blinked. "It's just...I think my imaginary friend may actually be smarter than me."

She smiled and slipped her arm around his waist. "Come, then. And tell me all about this maiden of yours."

* * *

Soon they found themselves outside Looking Glass Books, the used book store where Lisa worked part-time. Jack had been in there several times before, although lately his visits had often coincided with her work schedule. However, given the chewing out she'd given him the night before, he wasn't eager for another confrontation.

"This is a huge mistake," Jack said.

"I must see her for myself," Jakarra replied. "And more importantly, I have to see how you handle yourself around her. Not every battle need be a victory in order to win the war."

"Swell."

"And above all, be honest with her."

"Wouldn't a lie be easier?"

Jakarra nodded. "Yes, immeasurably. And were you simply trying to bed her, that would be my counsel. Guile and honeyed words have wooed many a fair maiden."

"That sounds pretty good. Let's just do that."

"Except that she knows you...or believes that she does. She would see through such deception and it would only cement her poor opinion of you. And you," she hesitated, "lack guile."

"You mean you think I'm a shitty liar," he contended. "How can you possibly know that about me? You've known me for less than a day."

She eyed him critically. "After an entire evening to plan your deceit, you introduced me to Master Brandon as 'Jackie.' Your cousin."

"I was tired..."

"Would I be wrong in assuming that 'Sweden' is an unlikely place for me to be from?"

"Fine, you made your point," Jack grumbled. "Let's get this over with."

The bell over the door rang as they entered the small store. It was crowded with shelves that were overflowing with books, and it had the familiar scent of old paper. Lisa was sitting behind the counter and as she saw Jack, she looked visibly annoyed. "Jack, I told you—"

He raised his hands in surrender. "No! No, I get it! It's not that, I just...I was looking for an old edition of a Heinlein novel—"

Jakarra was standing next to him inspecting some of the books. She cleared her throat gently.

Jack corrected himself as he moved up to the counter. "Okay, I came to see you," he admitted. "But I just...I wanted to apologize."

Lisa crossed her arms as she eyed him suspiciously. "Oh? For what?"

Jack wasn't sure how to respond. He didn't feel like he'd done anything wrong. "I...I'm sorry if I did anything to make you feel uncomfortable," he said honestly.

Lisa seemed slightly surprised by that. "Well, you didn't," she told him. "Was that all?"

"I guess so," Jack said.

Jakarra cleared her throat again as she sidled up next to Jack.

Lisa was at first taken aback by the woman's stunning good looks, but her eyes narrowed to slits when she saw her next to Jack. "Well, you certainly moved on quickly," she sniped. "Come to introduce me to your new girlfriend?"

Jack took a half-step away from Jakarra. "What? No! No, this is Jackie, my cousin."

"Pardon the intrusion," Jakarra said smoothly. "But I so wanted to meet you. Jack speaks of you in such glowing terms."

"He does. Really."

"Indeed. And—forgive me if I seem forward—but I am new to your city and I don't know any other women here. I just wished to introduce myself in case our paths should cross again. Perhaps we could...talk?"

Lisa eyed the beautiful stranger. "I kinda doubt you and I travel in the same social circles."

"Well, it was worth the effort," Jakarra said with a friendly smile. "It was a pleasure meeting you." She started to leave and turned to Jack. "Jack, I believe you had a notion for victuals?"

Jack followed her outside. "What was all that about? I thought you said we shouldn't lie to her."

"No, I said that you should not lie to her," she corrected him. "Though technically nothing I said was untrue." She looked up and down the street for a secluded spot and led Jack into a nearby alley.

"Well, I hope you enjoyed it. I looked like a complete idiot."

"Your apology was genuine, and she saw that. But unfortunately you have a different problem." She looked him over. "Master Jack, would you hand me your valuables for a moment?"

Puzzled, he handed her his wallet and keys. "So, what's my problem?"

Jakarra put the items in her pockets and removed the metal ring from her finger, moving close to him and taking his hand in hers. Jack's heart skipped a beat as she touched him...she was a beautiful woman, and he felt his face flush from having her so near.

"When she looked at me, she did not see me as a rival," she said as she took her ring and slipped it on Jack's finger.

Jack held up his hand and smiled. "Does this mean we're engaged?" he joked.

Jakarra just looked at him expectantly.

"Okay, so if she didn't see you as competition, what did she see you as?" He became dizzy for a moment, barely registering that Jakarra was fading from view before his eyes. He stumbled back into the alleyway against the brick wall as he felt a strange and uncomfortable sensation as though hundreds of snakes were slithering across his skin. In a moment, he realized his clothes had changed. Given a few moments longer, he would have recognized them as the clothes that Jakarra had just been wearing. But before that, he felt the changes to his body...the slender arms, the shapely torso, the wide feminine hips. He looked down in shock at his prominent bosom tenting out the Iron Maiden T-shirt and Jakarra's long auburn hair that framed his vision.

**I believe she saw me as a potential romantic partner,** Jakarra's voice replied from inside Jack's head.



****************************************************************
STORY THREE: Breaking His Spirit (Act I)
****************************************************************

Antonia Armstrong, the head of A2 Music, was not a well-liked woman.

Antonia Armstrong did not, as a rule, give a flying fuck that she was not well liked, so long as she was wealthy. Which she was. Extremely so.

Unfortunately, that wealth was also shared by her patsy of a husband, Aidan. And between an ironclad prenuptial agreement and the company's Articles of Incorporation—so craftily written they might have been penned by Lucifer himself—that joint ownership was likely to continue indefinitely. Notwithstanding the fact that the couple hadn't shared a house in years, much less a marriage bed.

Sharing, not surprisingly, was not Antonia's best quality. Nor was suffering fools gladly.

This particular morning, Antonia was sitting in her office and brooding as she watched the news on the large television screen on the wall. The perky blonde reporter was interviewing Aidan at the site of his latest philanthropic venture, where he was donating money to save baby sea turtles because his astrologer had told him that "where the shells meet the swells will be where fortune dwells."

Antonia stared at the screen in wonder. "Magic mirror on the wall, how the fuck does that cretin own half of the company that I built?"

Her fastidious assistant Devin came breezing in carrying a cup of coffee. As he placed it in front of her, he said, "It's true, he's a halfwit. But his lawyers are as ruthless and cunning as ninja weasels."

She shot him a look. "I said 'magic mirror,' not 'tragic queer.'"

"Well, I see that someone is looking to earn her 'Does not work and/or play well with others' mark on her report card."

"Mmm," she grumbled, taking a sip of her coffee. "What's on the agenda today? I'm in the mood to kick a puppy."

Devin smiled knowingly as he glided over to the door. "I thought you might be! You're going to love what I've got lined up for you. First up on the Gong Show is Dr. Tobias Blevins with some exciting new audio technology." He opened the door and let the doctor and his two colleagues in. "Right this way, Doctor. I got her all warmed up for you."

Antonia sat at her desk, looking irritable as she rested her chin in her hand. She was totally motionless except for her eyes, which followed the doctor's entrance like a predator studying her prey. Behind him, the doctor's two assistants hastily set up the presentation on the display.

He stood nervously as they fussed with the equipment. "Well, first, Ms. Armstrong, let me say what a pleasure it is to have the oppor—"

"Amaze me," she interrupted.

"Ahem. Yes, well. Are we set up? Yes? Good." A slick computer simulation displayed on the big screen. "My colleagues and I represent a biomechanical engineering group that's seeking venture capital from investors such as yourself who are interested in bringing audio technology to a new level. We have developed highly miniaturized biotech audio receivers that can be inserted directly into the user's auditory canal."

He motioned to his colleagues and an animation played of small spheres that were guided into the ear by a complicated-looking mechanical probe which attached them to the walls of the ear canal. "As you can see here, we've also developed a device that is capable of inserting the receivers safely within the ear. The microreceivers are fully biodegradable and will last up to seven days before needing to be replaced."

"How's the sound quality?" Antonia asked.

Dr. Blevins glanced at his colleagues nervously. "It...needs some fine tuning. But we're confident with some additional venture capital we can resolve—"

"Show me."

Nervously, Blevins nodded to one of his people who tapped away on the laptop. "Now this is just a simulation of what it might sound like, mind you." He leaned over and spoke into a small microphone. "Testing, one, two, three."

A moment later, the sound was played back. There was a high-pitched warbling noise in the background and the voice had taken on an eerie, almost alien quality. "Teessssttiiiiing... ooonnne... twoooo... thrrreee...."

Antonia made eye contact with Devin.

"We believe this can be corrected," Dr. Blevins said hurriedly. "With enough—"

"Pardon me, I have a question," Antonia said.

"Yes, of course."

"Let me just make sure I have this right. So, rather than going to Radio Shack and spending fifty dollars on a decent set of headphones, you're suggesting we offer our customers the opportunity to spend fifty thousand dollars for the pleasure of having a mechanical spider crawl inside their ear canal and lay its eggs so that they can listen to music for a week on speakers that would make Katy Perry sound like a humpback whale. Did I get that about right?"

Off to the side, Devin cracked a smile. "Well, technically, she already sounds like—"

Antonia raised a finger, silencing him.

Dr. Blevins was visibly thrown. "W-we feel that this could be—"

"Door," Antonia said.

Devin swooped in like a hawk, ushering them out. "Thank you so much for coming, she was very impressed. We have your contact information, don't we? Don't worry, we'll be in touch. Take care, now. Drive safe." He closed the door after them and turned to look at her. "Still want me to fetch you a puppy?"

"Something fluffy. Maybe a...Pomeranian..." Her voice trailed off as her eyes fell on the replay of the newscast with her husband and she stared off into space for a moment.

Devin approached her warily. "I'm getting a shiver, here. What are you thinking?"

She pointed at him. "Get that nerd back in here," she said. "And I need a company that sells the smallest surveillance kits you can find. And find me an anesthesiologist, and the number for my husband's astrologer."

Devin whipped out a small notepad and started scribbling madly. "Anything else?"

"Yes. A hooker—no, make that two hookers—and a professional dominatrix. The skankier the better. Also the magician from that Vegas show, and the number for the best talent agency in the city." She thought for a moment and looked around her office at the various paraphernalia and photos from her various music artists. "Oh, and get that costume chick from that video shoot with the...thing," she said, gesturing vaguely.

Devin paused. "Wait, do you mean the video with the thing?" he asked, waving around his head, "or the chick with the thing?" He gestured to his face and made a pained expression.

"Just get her!"

"Right, got it," Devin acknowledged, turning to get Dr. Blevins back. As he did so, his sleeve slid up and displayed the ivy tattoo that ran around his wrist.

"Hey!" Antonia said, stopping him. She pointed at his tattoo. "Where'd you get that?"

* * * * *

Aidan Armstrong staggered into his house, laughing as he wrapped his arms around the waists of the two scantily clad girls he brought with him. "This is it, ladies," he announced. "You two want a drink?"

"Wow, you live here all by yourself?" one of the girls asked.

"Yep, it's all me," Aidan told her.

"Which way is the bedroom?" the other girl asked.

Aidan laughed loudly. "Damn, you're raring to go, aren't you?" he slurred. He led them down the hall where he leaned on them heavily and they half carried him to the bedroom. By the time he opened the door, he was dead weight and they dropped him to the floor unceremoniously.

"Eh, close enough," the blonde shrugged. "Call her."

A short while later, Aidan was unconscious on the bed and the room was abuzz with activity with several people bustling about. As Antonia entered she nodded to the two call girls as they left, and watched as Blevins' people were installing the microreceivers in Aidan's ears. In the background she watched as some other people installed hidden surveillance equipment and replaced Aidan's glasses.

She picked up the new set of glasses, which looked identical to his old ones. "This has a camera and a microphone?" she asked.

The guy nodded. "And a wireless receiver and transmitter to broadcast the audio you send to the microreceivers. State of the art, this stuff. The resolution isn't the greatest, but you'll see and hear what he does. We'll track him with the van, and we'll transmit back to your office so you can monitor things from there."

Devin entered the room leading two women. The first was a short dark-haired goth chick with a number of tattoos who was carrying a large case. Devin pointed her to the unconscious Aidan and she started to unpack her portable tattoo machine and ink. The other woman was a heavily made up busty blonde in a tight leather corset top and leather pants. He guided her over to Antonia.

"Antonia Armstrong, it is my pleasure to introduce to you Mistress Bella," he said formally.

"You understand what you're supposed to do?" Antonia asked.

"Sure."

"And you're all right with it? A sudden attack of conscience would be unfortunate."

She shrugged. "I don't mind kink. And for what you're paying, I'm prepared to overlook things like conscience."

"It's always a pleasure dealing with a professional."

"That the guy?" she said, looking at the unconscious Aidan.

"Yes, indeed."

She gave him an appraising glance. "He's kinda cute. He'll turn out just fine." She turned to watch as a tall and distinguished dark-haired man with graying temples entered the room. He was directing some assistants who were carrying projection equipment into the bathroom. "Oh, my God, is that Ambrose Faust, the famous magician?" she asked.

Devin jumped in. "Ah, no, that would be Ambrose Faust, the plumber you've never seen or heard of before." He retrieved a garment bag and handed it to her. "Here, put this on. They'll be wanting to take some video of you wearing this."

Bella unzipped the bag and looked inside and wrinkled her nose. "Not really my style," she said.

Antonia gave a small smile to the woman. "Don't worry, it'll get more interesting soon enough. But first I get to have my fun." She turned and looked at Devin, who had a big smile on his face as he watched them install and test the audio receivers in Aidan's ears. "And what are you giggling about, Dorothy?"

"This is just like that Val Kilmer movie," he grinned.

* * * * *

The next morning Aidan woke up with the mother of all hangovers. He had no recollection of the previous night after coming home with the girls, but he was in his bed and after checking his bed stand was pleasantly surprised to see that they hadn't stolen his wallet. Though judging from the amount of cash that was missing, it must have been a pretty wild night.

He sat up slowly and trudged to the bathroom to relieve himself. Afterward, as he turned on the sink to splash some water in his face, he noticed a strange mark on his wrist.

"What the...?" he muttered, rubbing at the mark. As he looked at it more closely, it seemed to be some kind of symbol on the inside of his wrist. It was a little more than an inch across and resembled two swirls in a stylized Yin/Yang symbol. And it wasn't coming off as he rubbed it.

"Son of a bitch!" he swore. He didn't remember going to a tattoo parlor the night before, but then he didn't remember a lot of things about last night. "How the hell—?" he started.

//Aidan,// a woman's voice came in his head. It had an alien, almost ethereal quality to it.

He spun around in shock, looking for the source of the voice. "Who said that?" he demanded.

//Aidan Armstrong,// the voice repeated. //You are being judged! For crimes against the flesh and the spirit, you have been marked and must atone for your crimes...or I will pass sentence on you!//

He spun around, looking for the source of the voice. At first he thought it was coming from speakers somewhere, but even with his hands over his ears the voice was as loud as ever. The voice was inside his head! "Who are you?" he cried.

//In life, my name was Ruby Duarte. I died before you were born, and I was a nobody. Just some random call girl, like the ones you like to use and toss away. But now, for your crimes against women, you'll be the one at a woman's mercy!//

Aidan looked around the bathroom, eyes wide. "This...this is some kind of trick," he said desperately. "You're not fooling—AAAAH!" As he spun around, he saw the spirit's reflection in the mirror, staring at him accusingly. The image was a little fuzzy and indistinct, but she was very real. She was wearing a 1930s showgirl costume and at first, she had short dark hair and penetrating green eyes, but as he watched, her appearance changed into that of a busty blonde, but with the same haunting green eyes. She pointed a finger at him.

He squeezed his eyes shut and covered his ears, but her soft eerie voice sounded in his head. //Prepare yourself for judgment!// she said.

"No!" he cried, running into his bedroom in terror. He threw open his closet to get some clothes and get out of there, but the only thing hanging there was an exact replica of the showgirl costume he'd seen her wearing.

//Let's start with this,// Ruby's voice sounded in his head. //Get dressed.//

* * *

Twenty minutes later, Aidan was driving like a madman downtown. Unwilling to debase himself by wearing the showgirl costume, he'd searched around his house and in the laundry room had come across a ladies' pink track suit that he guessed belonged to his housekeeper, and with some effort he was able to squeeze into the outfit. He felt ridiculous and at first the spirit warned him against the price of defiance, but apart from a small giggle at his wearing the track suit, "Ruby" had remained quiet.

Aidan came screeching up to an address on the edge of town. He knew the place well, and he knew that if he could find help anywhere, it would be here. He rushed inside, past the sign that said "Madame Natasha, Astrology and Psychic Readings."

"Madame Natasha!" he cried as he entered. "It's Aidan! I need your help!"

The enigmatic dark-haired woman entered from the back room. "Aidan?" she said, puzzled. "You're not scheduled for an appointment today." Then, seeing his frightened demeanor, she said, "What has you so troubled?"

"I've been...possessed! There's a spirit inside of me—a woman!—she says she means to judge me!"

"Aidan," she said comfortingly. "To touch the spirit realm like that takes years of training. There is no way that you could—" Suddenly, she gasped as she saw his wrist. "What is that?" she asked in alarm.

"It's a tattoo," he said, holding it out for inspection. "I must have gotten it last night when—"

"You have been marked!" she cried, her eyes wide as she backed away from him. "Stay back!"

He touched the symbol on his wrist uncertainly. "What does it mean?" he asked nervously.

"Get out!" she cried. "Out! And never return!"

"But—!"

"Now!" she shrieked.

Aidan backed away in fear, stumbling out onto the street. His heart was pounding like a drum as he gasped in short, shallow breaths. As he staggered backwards, he bumped roughly into another person, accidentally knocking them down.

"Watch where you're going, dumbass!" the woman snapped at him angrily. She was obviously a street whore...in fact, she was almost a caricature of a hooker. His eyes tracked up her legs from her platform shoes and fishnet stockings up to the ridiculously short skirt and totally inappropriate bustier. But as he looked further up, Aidan winced slightly. She was an older woman, rough and haggard-looking, and her big saggy boobs were on brazen display in her scant top. Her aging face was mannish and overly made-up, lined with wrinkles and framed by a short hairdo that was colored an unnatural color of red. She looked like a trashy middle-aged grandmother dressed for an evening of rough sex.

"Give me a hand!" she growled. She plucked her cigarette off the pavement and stuck it in her mouth as she held up her hand.

"I'm so sorry," Aidan said, reaching down to help her up. As he hoisted her clumsily to her feet, he looked down at her hand and noticed that she had the exact same stylized Yin/Yang tattoo on her wrist.

The hooker noticed it, too. "Holy shit," she said, looking at him.

Aidan looked at her in fear. "You know what this is, don't you? What does it mean? Tell me!" he implored her.

"How long have you had it?" she asked.

"Just this morning. I woke up with it, and—"

She cut him off. "Have you been...contacted?" she said significantly.

He nodded, eyes wide.

"Then you're fucked."

"Please, I don't unders—"

"Look, buddy, I don't know you from Adam and I don't know whatever you did to deserve that," she said, looking at the tattoo and taking a puff from her cigarette. "My advice? You do whatever the fuck you're told to do. I guarantee the alternative is worse."

Aidan looked at the woman, trying to imagine how she could possibly earn a living as a whore with that worn-down face and body. "Did something happen to you?" he asked her.

She laughed once. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. I used to be like you," she said. Her eyes traced over his face longingly, as though remembering something she'd once had, now lost. "A lot like you, actually." She stuck her cigarette in her mouth and started digging in her purse for something, eventually removing a business card from her wallet which she handed to Aidan. It was dog-eared and worn, and on one side it had the same stylized logo as the tattoo. On the other side was an address.

"I didn't believe it either when it happened to me," she told him. "Just go there at exactly sundown, and see for yourself."

Aidan shook her hand in gratitude. "Thank you. Thank you so much—"

"Jo. My name is Jo."

Aidan gave her a little smile. "Is that short for Josephine?"

She just laughed once ruefully, shook her head and walked away.

Aidan anxiously got in his car and drove off. After he was out of sight, "Jo" pulled out her cell phone and sent a text message: "Hook, line, and sinker." Then she went around the corner, got in her car, and went home to take off those ridiculous clothes.

* * * * *

Aidan gripped the steering wheel nervously as he drove to the address on the card. He almost didn't go, thinking himself foolish for getting carried away with all of this foolishness, but as he looked down at the symbol on his wrist, he got jumpy.

"This is all in my head," he told himself. Then, after a moment, he took a breath and said, "Ruby? Are you still there?"

There was no reply.

Aidan breathed a sigh of relief. He knew he was just being fooli—

//I'm here,// came the eerie voice. //But I'm not at your beck and call. I'm here to be your judge. And if I'm not convinced of your contrition by sunset on the seventh day, I will pass sentence on you.//

Aidan broke down almost in tears, apologizing and begging the ghost for forgiveness, but he was met only with reproachful silence.

By the time he arrived at the address, the sun had already set. The location was was outside town and to his surprise wasn't a residence or a business, but rather a small park in a wooded area. It was quiet, but as he parked the car he noticed that there were a handful of other cars in the parking lot. Aidan got out uncertainly, walking nervously down the dim wooded path he found, pausing as he heard voices coming from up ahead. As he rounded the corner, he saw a small group of people standing around a campfire, but as he edged closer, he could see that they weren't campers...they just looked like ordinary people, dressed in business suits or work clothes.

"You're late," a woman's voice came from next to him.

Startled, Aidan jumped as he turned to face the speaker. She was dressed all in black and looked to be in her early 30s with her dark hair cut in a no-nonsense style.

Aidan motioned to the group by the fire. "Are—are you also..."

She twisted her arm to display the symbol on her wrist. "Yeah. But I'm not like you. I'm not being judged. I'm more of what you'd call an 'attendant.' Name's Rea."

"I'm Aidan."

Rea faced him and bent down into a sweeping formal bow, saying, "Traveler from afar, I bid you welcome."

Aidan wasn't quite sure how to respond. "Thank you," he said uncertainly.

She looked him in the eye. "I wasn't talking to you."

//She was addressing me,// Ruby said.

"Oh," Aidan said anxiously. "Please, can you tell me what's going on? Should I go over there—?" he asked, pointing to the others.

"No," Rea said. "Don't interrupt them once they've started the rite."

Over by the fire, a woman cried, "No! No, please!" and broke down sobbing, though her cries soon turned into incoherent grunts and gibbering noises.

Aidan was getting more agitated. "What are they doing? What's going on with me?"

Rea looked at him. "Your spirit hasn't explained it to you?"

"She said she's judging me for some crimes against women, but I don't know what she's talking about. She said I have to demonstrate my contrition in a week or she'll punish me."

Rea nodded. "She'll test you and make sure you've reformed," she explained. "Think of it like this: you're in jail right now and in a week you've got your 'parole hearing.' If she's satisfied that you've changed, then she'll leave. Although she may 'drop in' from time to time like a parole officer to make sure you're still on the straight and narrow."

"And...if she's not satisfied?"

She gestured to the group around the campfire. "See for yourself."

Aidan edged closer to the fire to get a better look. There were six people. At first he thought there were two men and four women, but he realized that one of the "women" was actually a man dressed as a woman in a starched white nurse's uniform. Sitting on the ground was the woman he'd seen cry out. She was dressed in a professional suit and looked around anxiously as she gibbered indistinctly.

//She was judged and found wanting,// Ruby's voice came in his head.

Aidan's mouth was dry. "What did she do?" he whispered.

//She was a lawyer, greedy and dishonest. Her silver tongue won't help her anymore, though. Her spirit has decreed that she will live her days as an inarticulate beast with the language skills of a dog, never able to do more than grunt or jabber incoherently.//

The crossdressed man looked very relieved all of a sudden.

//Ah, that one has changed his ways,// Ruby said. //He was a surgeon and a—what's the phrase?—'deadbeat dad' that failed to take care of his wife and daughter, but now he will learn to be more nurturing.//

Aidan looked at the man in disbelief. He thought the guy looked ridiculous, like he was going to a Halloween party. "How long will he have to stay like that?"

//The rest of his life, of course. That's his penance.//

"What?" Aidan gasped.

Before she could answer, the next person stepped forward, a slovenly-dressed obese guy, unshaven and apparently drunk. He had a bottle in his hand and threw it down angrily, and a split-second later there was a flash and puff of smoke, almost like a Hollywood special effect or something you might see in a magic act. And where the guy had been standing, in his place was a fat round-bellied pig. It stood there for a moment and looked around in confusion before squealing loudly and running off into the woods.

"They turned him into a pig?"

//A sow, actually. Though he'll still be aware of what was done to him and what he used to be. There's a farmhouse off in that direction, so soon he'll either be nursing little piglets or he might end up on the dinner table, himself.//

Aidan was horrified but before he could say anything the next woman stepped up. She was dressed shabbily, like a derelict homeless person, but as Aidan looked closer he noticed that beneath her shabby clothes, she was fairly clean-cut. Her unkempt hair appeared to have been cut professionally not too long ago, and her face and skin were clean and flawless, despite her current lack of makeup. Even her hands and fingernails weren't very dirty. As Aidan watched, she fell to her knees, gasping in relief.

//She changed her ways, as well,// Ruby said. //Her greed threatened to consume her, but she gave away all her possessions. Now she'll have to make her way on the charity of others.// She paused as Aidan watched the next person to be judged. //Unfortunately, I don't think this woman will fare as well.//

The woman in question was dressed very stylishly, and was slim and very attractive...Aidan thought she could have been an actress. He couldn't make out what was being said, but her haughty demeanor didn't bode well. As he strained to hear, there was another flash and puff of smoke, and...she was still standing there. But as Aidan examined her more closely, he noticed that she was stiff and unmoving.

"She's...a mannequin?"

//The beauty that she was so proud off will be preserved forever for all the world to see as she's put on display.//

"They killed her just for being vain?"

//Oh, no,// Ruby said. //She's not dead, she's been magically transformed. She's can't move or speak, but she can still sense her surroundings, irregardless. She'll live out her days admired for her plastic beauty.//

Aidan furrowed his brow as something occurred to him. He was about to ask another question, but now the final man was being judged. He was a tough-looking customer, heavily muscled and threatening looking.

//I'm interested to see this judgment,// Ruby said. //This one beats his wife and children.//

They didn't have long to wait. As the guy gave an angry shout, there was another flash, and when Aidan's eyes cleared he could only see a bag lying on the ground where the man had been. "I don't understand?"

//Much like the woman turned into the mannequin, this abuser has been turned into a punching bag, though fully aware of his surroundings. He'll be able to feel the pain of his attackers' blows but helpless to defend himself. It is a good judgment,// she declared.

"Good judgment?!?" Aidan cried in disbelief. He backed away in terror, looking wide-eyed at the mark on his own wrist. "And I'm going to be 'judged' like this? But I didn't do anything! I didn't beat anyone or rape anyone!"

Ruby remained silent, but Rea stepped close to him, shaking her head. "You're not being compared to the crimes of other people, you're being judged by your own actions. Nobody knows why the spirits pick the people that they do, but your 'crimes against women,' whatever they are, rated judgment. And now you have to atone...or suffer the consequences."

Aidan trembled in fear. "Please," he begged, "I'll do anything! Anything!"

* * * * *

Rea watched intently as Aidan hurried off anxiously, jumped in his car, and drove off into the night. "Aaaand...we're clear!" she shouted. "That's a wrap, everybody! Great work!"

In a wink, the campsite came alive like a Hollywood set as people came out of the trees and hidden spaces. Three trapdoors opened up around the campfire as the "transformees" clambered out, and from out of the tree line, a guy in jeans came out with the pig on a leash, which was trotting by his side obediently.

"Oh, my God, did you see his face?" laughed the woman playing the lawyer who had supposedly been rendered inarticulate. "I can't believe this is all just to prank one guy. What must this cost?"

The guy in the nurse's costume replied, "Hey, what rich people do with their money is their business. I'm just happy for the gig."

"Amen to that." She held up her wrist, displaying the symbol. "Hey, this is gonna come off, right?"

Rea nodded. "Yes, that's henna. It'll wear off on its own in a couple weeks. But for now, remember, you all signed non-disclosure forms, so don't talk about this to anybody. After all, we wouldn't want to ruin his surprise, would we?"



****************************************************************
STORY FOUR: Breakout from the Island of Doctor Bimbeau! (Act I)
****************************************************************

"That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life," I said.

"It's not dumb," my teenage son responded. He had that earnest look about him that children often have when trying to convince their parents that some new fad was actually not ridiculous, and that—with all due respect—their folks were just being old fashioned, straight-laced, out-of-touch, boring sticks in the mud. I'd had a similar conversation with my own parents the day I announced I was getting a tattoo. To say nothing of the day I went off to enlist.

"It's not hurting anyone," he asserted. "They're just stories! And other guys' folks let them."

Kids, I thought. I wondered if cavemen used to get into this argument. ("It not fair! Thag's parents let him use fire.")

"Honey, what's the harm?" my wife said. "It could be...educational."

Ah, I was wondering what my role in this ancient morality play would be. I'm to be the heavy, then. So be it. "What's the matter?" I said, with all of the righteous indignation of the countless generations of aggrieved parents that came before me. I looked down at the covers, all of them with cheesy titles and covered with crudely drawn pictures of aliens, atomic supermen, and bug-eyed monsters as well as scantily clad women being menaced by all manner of slavering beasts. We used to read hogwash like this when I was deployed. One of the guys in my unit loved this malarkey and the rest of us were so desperate for entertainment we ended up borrowing it, too.

"This junk will rot his brain, all this 'science fiction' nonsense," I said to her. "And this one," I said, picking up one title, "it's even got men getting turned into women. You don't see a problem with our son being exposed to stories like that?"

"You see something wrong with being a woman?" my wife countered.

"That's not the point and you know it," I said, not wanting to be drawn into another debate on the role of American women in postwar society. "Sometimes these stories even have sex," I told her.

Her eyes grew wide. "Heavens!" she gasped theatrically. "So, what, you'd prefer he be having sex in real life?"

"I'd prefer not to be having this conversation at all."

"You don't get it," my son groused. "They're only stories. It's just for fun."

Then, he looked me straight in the eyes. "Besides," he told me, "you're already a woman."

Perplexed, I looked down to see two prominent breasts tenting out the front of the dress that I was wearing.

* * *

"AAH!" I cried out, suddenly starting awake. I was confused and disoriented as my hand flew to my flat male chest, confirming my proper gender. The bumpy motion of the small single-engine plane jostled me properly awake as we flew into a storm. It looked to be rough weather ahead. Up in the pilot's seat Jake had a serious look on his face, but in the seat next to mine, my co-worker Janet gave me a bemused look.

"Bad dreams, Alex?"

"Worse," I grumbled. "Teenagers. Even in my dreams they're managing to get the last word."

She smiled and was about to say something when the plane rocked forcefully to one side. The storm was worse than I'd realized, and visibility was near zero. Jake didn't even have to bother telling us to strap in...one glance from him and both Janet and I both knew it was serious. Jake and I had served together in WW II, doing our tour in the Pacific theater. Now, ten years later, he was still the best pilot I knew, and was happy to take us on what was supposed to be an island-hopping milk run to deliver us to a scientific conference. Some of the big brains had gotten excited about the promise of harnessing nuclear energy to create electrical power plants and were pulling in a bunch of eggheads like us from various fields to weigh the pros and cons. Frankly I didn't think either Janet and I had much to contribute to the debate, but it seemed like a great excuse to get out of town for a few days.

The plane lurched again, even more violently this time. As the turbulence increased, Jake yelled out, "Hang on! I'm going to try and get abov—"

There was a shower of sparks as the instrument panel erupted and showered us with glass. As the plane went into a dive, I hit my head and passed out.

* * *

My first thought on waking was to register surprise that I wasn't, in fact, dead. My second thought was the stunned disbelief that I appeared to be uninjured apart from a splitting headache. Miraculously, Jake had worked his magic again and managed to land the plane...I could tell that it was badly damaged, but at least we all appeared to be in one piece. Janet was still unconscious next to me, but otherwise appeared to be uninjured. Jake was coming around but had suffered a nasty-looking gash in his leg from where the front of the plane had collapsed in on him.

"FUBAR, just like old times," I told Jake. "I thought we'd bought the farm that time for sure."

"Any landing you can walk away from," he said with a grimace, trying to move his leg. "Although—AAH!—I think I may need some help with the 'walking' part."

I dug out the first aid kit and did my best to bandage his leg while Jake tried the radio, which was shot. I thought that fixing it was a lost cause, but Jake wasn't willing to give up so easily. So while he busied himself with the repairs, I looked out the window at the cleared strip of jungle that surrounded us. "Where are we?"

"No idea. Instruments were out. I saw an island and thought I could crash land when I spotted this old abandoned runway. It was dumb luck."

I gave him a significant look. Runways in the jungle like this were seldom abandoned. They were either overgrown or in use by someone. It's possible this was a leftover from during the war, but interested parties often used old landing strips like this for their own purposes.

"Smugglers?" he said, reading my face.

I tilted my head uncertainly as Janet stirred behind us. I turned to face her and as she realized where she was, her eyes grew wide in panic. Just like a dame to lose her cool after the danger had already past, I thought to myself. I was just about to tell her to calm down when I realized that she wasn't looking at us. She was looking out the windshield.

Janet's ear piercing scream coincided with a fierce shake of the plane, and for a dumb moment I thought we were back in the turbulence again before we saw the side door being torn violently off its hinges by an unknown assailant. A gorilla, maybe? I didn't know for sure, but I knew better than to wait to find out. My soldier's instincts took over and lacking a sidearm I instinctively looked for the first improvised weapon I could lay my hands on. By the time I was fumbling with a flare gun to fend off our attacker, the door had been completely torn away and I found myself staring at a huge pair of female breasts that filled the door frame.

At first I thought I'd hit my head in the crash harder than I thought, but a quick glance at Jake's equally perplexed face confirmed that I wasn't hallucinating. As the woman's chest moved from the doorway, we heard a man's voice call in from outside. "I say there! Are you unharmed?"

Our "rescuers" were among the most curious individuals I had ever seen. Once we established that they meant us no harm, we climbed out of the wreckage of the plane to face a number of buxom, scantily-clad women. They were all young, fit, and gorgeous, wearing quasi-military uniforms that fell somewhere between a uniform and a bikini. At first, Jake and I could hardly believe our luck until we noticed that all of the beauties were armed. But the oddest one of the lot was a monosyllabic giantess we learned was called "Gorga," who had singlehandedly dispatched the door of our plane. She was almost ten feet tall and muscled like a circus strongman. I suspected that she could have crushed my head in her hand, had she wanted to.

Their leader was an Englishman named Wallace—I wasn't certain if that was his first or last name—a thin and dapper fellow in a waistcoat. He brought a jeep around and Gorga helped us load Jake in.

"We don't get visitors here, so you'll have to forgive our manners," Wallace apologized as we drove. "The doctor prefers privacy for his work."

"What sort of 'work' does he do here?" Janet asked suspiciously, and all business. She'd been less than amused with the adolescent ogling that Jake and I had been giving Wallace's comely associates.

Wallace avoided the question, deferring until we met his master in person. I was about to press the point when we rounded the corner and beheld the estate, a sprawling mansion that rose up from middle of the jungle like a defiant fist raised against Mother Nature herself. We were soon informed that the doctor was indisposed at the moment but would join us for dinner that evening, and that in the meantime we should make ourselves comfortable. So as Janet and I were escorted upstairs, two chesty dames in tight-fitting nurse uniforms examined Jake's leg and carted him off to the infirmary. I didn't like splitting up like this, but as the two nurses helped him into a wheelchair, Jake waggled his eyebrows at me, saying, "I think I can handle this one, boss."

A couple hours later, I stood at the window in my elegantly appointed guest bedroom, having washed up and changed into some clean clothes that Wallace provided. I opened the balcony door and was studying the dense jungle outside, listening to the sounds of the local wildlife. I'd spent some time in jungles in this part of the world, but the animal noises here were different. Angrier, somehow. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it put me on edge.

There was a knock and Janet entered, wearing an elegant evening gown and looking like she just stepped off of the silver screen.

"You clean up pretty good," I said appreciatively, watching her leg flash through the side slit of the gown as she approached. She'd always had nice stems.

"Not bad yourself," she replied admiringly. "When they put out my clothes, I half expected to find one of those skimpy outfits those women were wearing."

"Might not be so bad," I joked, imagining her wearing one of those revealing little uniforms.

"Mmm," she purred, gliding up to me. "Though you wouldn't believe the unmentionables they put out for me," she said, slipping her arms around my waist. "We have a little time before dinner, want to see for yourself?"

I put my hands on her shoulders and pushed her away, gently but firmly. "Janet...I'm married."

She looked at me, puzzled at first, then with a coy little smile. "Oh, yeah? Where's your ring?" she asked, taking my hand in hers.

"It's..." I looked at my hand. It wasn't there.

Janet was undeterred. "Alex, c'mon, we're on an island in the middle of nowhere. Nobody's gonna know. Live a little."

"I'll know," I said firmly. "It doesn't matter if it ever gets back to... to... um, her."

"'Um, her?'" Janet mocked gently. "So, does 'um, her' have a name, or are you just making her up?" She cocked her head and gave me a once-over. "You're not a fruit, are you?"

"I like gals just fine," I assured her. "And I am married! Her name is... is..." I shook my head. Why couldn't I remember?

Just then, there was a knock at the door and another one of the female "helpers" arrived. She was a knockout like the others and dressed in a frilly maid's uniform, and she informed us that dinner would be served downstairs shortly. As we followed her, Janet threaded her arm around my bicep, snuggled close, and "permitted" me to escort her downstairs.

Like the rest of the mansion, the formal dining room was large and elegantly decorated. The table was huge, but I noticed that there were only plates set for four. Wallace was already there, smoking a cigarette as one of the maids served him a drink.

"Would you care for something?" he offered. "Wine, or perhaps something stronger?"

"Wine would be lovely," Janet responded, accepting a cigarette from Wallace's case.

He offered one to me and I shook my head. "I don't smoke," I told him.

Wallace regarded me for a moment. "A man with no vices at all? After my poor manners startling you on the runway earlier, surely I can tempt you with something?"

"How's about you tell me where Jake is, for starters."

"Your friend is resting comfortably," a man's gravelly voice came from the doorway. We turned and saw the speaker, a distinguished older man with salt-and-pepper hair in a dark suit with a walking stick. He had an obvious limp and from the way he carried himself, I guessed that he'd served in the military at some point. The fact that I couldn't place his accent made me wonder which side he'd served on.

"Unfortunately, he won't be joining us," our host continued. "Though it's lucky that you brought him when you did, and that I had the proper surgical tools available." He stood before me and extended his hand. "But where are my manners? I am Doctor Bimbeau."

I laughed out loud.

Both the doctor and Wallace seemed thrown by my reaction, and even Janet furrowed her brow at me. "What?" I told her. "C'mon, you don't think that's funny?"

Janet frowned and accepted the doctor's hand graciously. "Please excuse my colleague," she apologized.

I smiled and shook the doctor's hand. "Sorry, I guess I'm more of an acquired taste. But Jake's gonna be okay?"

The doctor nodded. "He's being well cared for by my assistants." I could only imagine. Jake had quite the reputation as a ladies' man.

As we sat down to dinner, we enjoyed a sumptuous feast. Despite my probing questions, the doctor deftly avoided talking about the nature of his work, and instead kept turning the conversation around to the local political climate and our own backgrounds in the sciences.

"I'm a botanist and Janet here is a biochemist," I told our host. "We're attending an international consortium of... scientists..." I yawned. "Sorry, I guess I'm even boring myself," I joked as one of the maids refilled my glass. Conversationally, I added, "So, Doctor, I must say your 'assistants' are all quite lovely."

The doctor smiled. "My own handiwork, actually. And I'm glad you approve. Soon I will be able to share my achievements with all of humanity, ushering in a new age of prosperity, unburdened by the slow and cumbersome process of evolution," he said proudly. "My experiments in metamorphic transgenesis have proven quite fruitful, to say nothing of the synthetic estrogen. Karl here turned out quite well," he said, gesturing to the striking young woman holding the wine decanter.

Suddenly feeling dizzy, I turned to look at the leggy beauty flashing her abundant cleavage in her maid's uniform. "Karl? That's... a funny name... for a girl..." I slurred. Then, in a panic, I swung my head around to face the smiling doctor. "What was...in that food?"

I turned to look at Janet, but she was passed out unconscious on the table. I forced myself to my feet, and stumbled and tripped backwards over the chair.

"I have use of a biochemist," Doctor Bimbeau said. As consciousness faded, I watched helplessly as the hulking Gorga advanced towards me. "But unfortunately not a botanist. Though I imagine we can find other ways to make you...useful."

* * * * *

"Alex! Alex!"

I awoke with a start, hearing a woman's voice yelling my name. "Janet!" I yelled back. But it hadn't sounded like Janet.

I was strapped down naked to an operating table. As I looked around the operating theater my pulse quickened as I realized the gravity of my situation. The metal tray next to me had an array of sharp surgical instruments that fueled my rising panic, and I struggled in vain against my bonds. But my hands and feet were held tight.

"Hello?" I called, looking for the woman who'd called my name.

The door opened and a nurse entered wearing a surgical mask. She had unnaturally bright red hair and was stacked like all of the other broads we'd seen. She busied herself with some wicked looking needles and syringes.

"Hey, doll, any chance you could loosen these for me?" I asked with more confidence than I felt.

She continued her work wordlessly, but as she placed the needles on the tray next to me, I looked above her surgical mask and as we made eye contact, got a shock. It was Janet! Her boobs were at least three cup sizes bigger and from the unnatural hair color I guessed they'd dyed her hair or something, but it was definitely her. "Janet! What the hell did they do to you?" I said. "Thank God you're here, get me loose and let's get out of here!"

She looked me in the eyes, blinked once dispassionately, and went back to arranging the surgical instruments. There was no sign of recognition on her face.

"Janet!" I yelled.

"You may as well relax," Doctor Bimbeau said as he entered the operating theater in a surgical gown and mask. "She only responds to me, now. The mental reconditioning is quite effective, as you'll soon learn yourself." Then, turning to Janet he said, "We'll begin with the first injections." She nodded in assent and handed the doctor a syringe filled with a strange greenish liquid.

"Janet," I said anxiously, "you have to fight it! Whatever he's done, you have to—AAH!" I felt a sharp prick as the doctor calmly injected the serum into one of my nipples, then the other. I caught my breath as she handed him another syringe which he started to inject into my hips. "Janet! please! You—AARGGHH!" I writhed in agony as a burning sensation built all over my body. It felt like I was on fire!

The doctor looked at me in a detached fashion as he lowered his surgical mask and took my pulse. Though the searing pain, I looked to Janet as she lowered her own mask. To my horror, I saw that her mouth was gone and had been replaced by what looked like a woman's vagina!

I looked away and grit my teeth as the burning sensation swept through me. The last thing I was aware of before losing consciousness were two fleshy breasts slowly expanding on my chest.

* * *

"Alex!" It was the woman's voice again. "Alex! Wake up!!"

I started awake, this time in a small white room that looked like a prison cell. The only things in the room were a sink with a mirror and the cot that I was on. I hadn't taken three breaths before I realized that I'd been turned into a woman.

I was slim and bosomy like the other broads we'd seen, and a quick check of my naked body confirmed that I was, in fact, all woman. Hesitantly for fear of what I would see, I stumbled to look at myself in the mirror and saw reflected a girl who looked like she'd be right at home working the docks. Sighing, I looked out the small window and saw jungle outside, confirming that I was still in Doctor Bimbeau's care. For a moment I thought I might have been tossed in the loony bin, but as I looked down at my woman's chest I realized that the only "booby hatch" I'd been tossed into was my own suddenly-curvy skin.

My shock and disbelief gave way to outrage at this violation of my body. And then I circled back to disbelief. "This isn't possible," I said aloud, touching my female body. Then I remembered in disgust what he'd done to Janet.

"It doesn't make sense," I repeated, holding my head in my hands. How could that madman have done this? It defied all reason.

"Alex, can you hear me?"

I spun around, not sure where the voice had come from. It was the same woman as before. "Janet?" I asked uncertainly. Though if what I'd seen was real, I doubted that Janet was even capable of speech anymore.

"Alex, you have to get out of there," the voice said.

"Oh, really," I said sarcastically. "Any suggestions how?" But when the voice went silent, I heard the sound of high heels clicking down the corridor outside.

Quick as a cat, I jumped back on the bed and played possum, trying to ignore the jiggling distractions of my new female body. I heard the door plate slide open as whoever it was peered inside, and then heard the unlocking of the door as they entered. I chanced to sneak a peek and saw a nurse—not Janet this time—approaching me with another syringe on a tray. I tensed up, but to my surprise she put the tray down and sat on the edge of the bed. There was a short pause before she tenderly brushed my hair from my face and I felt her caress my hip and waist. At first I thought she might just be looking for a place to stick the needle, but as her hand traced further up my body and cupped my full breast I realized her intentions were more amorous.

Unfortunately for her, I didn't share the feeling. Summoning all the strength I could muster in this body, I swung my fist around and socked her right in the face, startling her and knocking her back before slamming my foot into her gut. It knocked the wind out of her and before she could react I viciously smashed her head against the sink. She was still breathing, but she'd be out for a while.

In another time and another place stripping her clothes off might have been rather enjoyable, but dressing myself in that embarrassing outfit was anything but. However, I figured it might serve as camouflage, at least for a while. Once I was dressed, I locked the nurse in my cell and headed down the corridor dressed in her uniform.

The corridors in this wing of the mansion were like a maze, housing a number of laboratories and operating theaters. One door had a cacophony of animal noises coming from inside, some sounding almost human in their cries. I hurried past, the clicking of in my high heels echoing down the halls. Twice I encountered another of the doctor's female "assistants," but they paid me no mind as I passed by. I was glad that my disguise seemed to be working, but distressed that I was definitely now "one of the girls."

My only thought was escape. I would have preferred to find the doctor and somehow force him to turn me back into a man, but I knew that would have to wait. I had to get out of the mansion, maybe steal a jeep and find a boat or some way off the island, then come back with reinforcements. Assuming of course that I could get anyone to believe the deranged rantings of a busty broad who looked like a call-girl and claimed to have once been a man.

Down the hall, I heard a number of footsteps coming, more quickly this time. Had they discovered the nurse already? Unsure what to do, I ducked into a room marked "Stable 4" and listened at the door as the footsteps passed by. As they did, the smell of the room hit me.

The room was, in fact, a stable, and the smell of animals and manure was pungent. There was even hay strewn about on the floor. But of more immediate interest to me was the doorway on the opposite end that appeared to lead outside! I hurried towards the door and had made it halfway across when I was suddenly aware that I was being observed. Nervously, I turned to face the other person and saw that it was Jake! He was inside one of the stalls and looked at me with dismay.

"Jake!" I said, moving in his direction. "It's me...it's Alex."

"Alex?" he said, looking me over. "Oh, God, is it really you?"

"It is! They did something to...me..." My voice caught in my throat as I got to the edge of the stall and saw what had become of my friend.

His head had been removed from his body and transplanted onto one of the bodies of the overstacked women, and his big tits hung down huge and heavy. But as he turned I could see that his female torso didn't have arms, leaving him looking like a man's head that had been put on an overendowed version of the Venus de Milo. But the real shock came as I saw that from the waist down, his body was gone and had been replaced with the body of a spotted dairy cow. He looked like some kind of bizarre centauress as he stumbled towards me awkwardly on his hooves, his legs trembling uncertainly, like Bambi learning to walk. As I gaped at his bovine lower half, I saw that his cow udders were huge and distended.

I was frozen in shock, wanting to run from the bizarre creature lumbering towards me but transfixed by the sight of my transformed friend, my own female features mirroring the horror on Jake's face. As he stumbled closer to me I saw that his oversized breasts were secreting a white liquid that I hoped was milk. "Please," he begged, "Please...milk me!!"

"This isn't possible," I said, pulling away.

"He did this to me!" Jake cried. "Oh, God, I feel so full!" His tail twitched and he stamped a hoof even as he shook his torso in discomfort, causing his big swollen breasts to wobble around. He made a pained expression and arched his back, and to my shame I took another step back as I didn't want to get any of his fluids on me if they came geysering out.

"This...it just isn't possible," I repeated. How could anyone do this? Humans and animals? It couldn't be done! Suddenly, there was a noise from the corridor. "I'm sorry, I have to go," I told him. "I—I'll bring help," I said weakly, not having any idea what kind of assistance could possibly aid...that.

"Nooo!" he cried, slowly lumbering after me as I hurried towards the door at the end of the row. As I passed, I heard more creatures rustling around inside the other stalls, and forced myself not to look for fear of what I'd find. The last thing I heard before closing the heavy door behind me was the sound of my best friend's cries for help along with the soft clanking of a cowbell.

* * *

The door led outside to an outdoor stable area that was thankfully unguarded and from there to a horse trail that led into the jungle. I couldn't find any horses, and after seeing what had been done to Jake, I hesitated to think what might have made the hoof prints I was seeing in the dirt outside. Worse still, I hadn't found any jeeps or trucks I could steal.

The impossibility of my situation was starting to get to me. What the hell chance did I have? I was a lone girl trapped on an island of madmen and monsters. I started to break down and cry as I stumbled off the trail into the jungle to at least avoid being seen. By anything human, anyway.

"Alex, can you hear me?"

I sniffled and stood up. "Yes! Who are you?" I wiped away my tears, searching for the sound of the voice. I turned and saw a concerned-looking brunette in a simple flowing dress step out from behind a tree.

"Can you see me?" she asked.

"I know you," I said. It was the woman from my dream. The one I'd been arguing with. "Are you...my wife?"

She smiled in relief. "Yes, that's right. I'm Marie. And I need you to listen to me very carefully. You're in a lot of danger."

"Yeah, thanks, doll, I pretty much figured that out on my own."

"No, you don't understand," she said. "It's not what you think. You're trapped inside a story."



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STORY FIVE: Breaking the Fourth Wall
****************************************************************

((Hmm...where to start this?)) The Author wondered.

((First, I guess I need somebody to mess with. Maybe someone unlikeable? It's more fun when they have it coming.))

Barry Jeffries was a real jerk.

((Oh, that's brilliant, Shakespeare.)) The Author muttered. ((So we're just phoning this one in, are we? Try again.))

The grizzled detective sat back in his chair listening to the rain splash against the window outside, the gloom outside suiting his dark mood. Formerly a 20-year man on the force, Barry Jeffries had it all until his conniving bitch of an ex-wife—

((Grr.))

((Okay, don't overthink this. Maybe an office environment?))

Looking out from his office window, Barry Jeffries surveyed the vast expanse of the city, feeling like the king of all he surveyed. Barry was a self-made man, having risen up from lowly beginnings to owning his own Fortune 500 company while he was still in his mid-30s. The biotech research his company was doing was going to redefine the industry.

Barry looked around his office with a puzzled look on his face.

((Okay, not bad,)) The Author mused. ((A little vanilla, but it's a start.))

Barry's brow furrowed. "Who's there? Who said that?" he demanded. "What just happened?"

((Wait...you can hear me?))

"Are you talking to me?" Barry asked. "Who is this?"

((Ooh, how meta! A character who's aware of his author! This has possibilities.))

"Look, I don't know who the hell you are," Barry said challengingly to the empty room, "but when I find out, you're going to be sorry!"

((That's adorable. Look, just play along and everything will be fine.))

"I'm not playing along with anything!" Barry yelled. "I'm going to find you and..." His voice trailed off as he felt a sudden draft. He looked down to see that he was standing in his office totally naked.

"What the fuck?" He was bewildered but still indignant. "I don't know how the hell you did that, but I swear I'm gonna beat the living—!"

Barry was standing naked on the lip of an active volcano.

"AAAAHHHH!!!"

((I like you. You're feisty.))

"Send me back! Send me back!"

Barry found himself back in his office, fully clothed as before.

((Now, then. Willing to play along, now?))

He nodded, visibly shaken.

((Groovy. Just relax, this will be fun. So, anyway...))

There was a knock at his office door and Barry's secretary Sheila walked into the room, carrying a folder and her business organizer. She paused when she saw him standing in the middle of his office, looking around nervously. "Mr. Jeffries? Is everything all right?"

"I don't think so," he muttered absently. "Did...did you want something?"

Sheila made a little face but let it pass. "Your ten o'clock got canceled. You're free until lunch where you have reservations at Le Travesti with Helena."

Barry nodded slowly. Helena was his fiancee and he remembered that they were going to have lunch, but there was something strange about what she'd just said. "Wait, where did you say—"

Sheila strode back over to the door, locking it. "But first, you and I need to talk," she said rather ominously. "I know what you've been up to," she said, walking slowly back up to him, like a panther stalking its prey.

"You do."

"Mmm," she nodded. "You've been a very bad boy, Mr. Jeffries," she purred, running her fingers along his necktie. Suddenly she yanked on it like it was a leash. "And now you're going to pay!"

The total shift in her demeanor was sudden and jarring. "What are you talking about?"

"I know about the girls you've been seeing, Barry," she said with a taunt. "I don't imagine that sweet little Helena wants to find out about that. And more importantly, I know that you've been stealing money from the company."

Barry looked perplexed. "Wait, I own this company. How can I be stealing from it?"

((Shit, I forgot about that.))

He looked around for the source of the voice, but Sheila didn't react to it. He looked at her quizzically. "Did you just hear—?"

Sheila cut him off. "Um, right! But there are, uh, stockholders! And the rest of the—the—"

He shook his head. "The Board of Directors?" he offered.

"Right, them!"

Barry's eyes narrowed and he looked around the room. "Oh, my God, you're just making this up as you go, aren't you?"

His secretary looked at him uncertainly. "No, I've been planning this for weeks!" she told him. "Look here!" she said, pulling him over to the plush couch in the center of his office. "I got you a little present. Today is going to be your 'coming out' party, and I wanted to make sure you had something special to wear!" She grabbed a large garment bag off the couch and shoved it in his hands.

He did a little double-take. "Where did this come from?"

"Shut up!" she commanded. "Now...take off all your clothes!"

He looked at her uncertainly. "Yeah, I'm kind of thinking I'd rather just take my chances with Helena," he said. "Come clean, ask for her forgiveness. Maybe we can go to couples' counseling or something. I can just pay the money back to the company."

His secretary stood there dumbfounded, unsure what to say to that.

((Sounds like someone's looking to be sacrificed to the volcano god,)) The Author snapped testily.

"Ugh, fine," Barry groaned, taking off his jacket and unbuttoning his shirt.

Once he'd removed the last of his clothes he stepped out of his underwear on the floor and presented himself to his secretary. "Care to join me?" he offered.

She gave him a little smirk. "No, you look chilly," she said, casting her eyes down to his flaccid member. "You should get dressed," she commanded, handing him the garment bag again.

* * *

Some time later, Sheila was tapping her foot impatiently as Barry was finishing getting ready in the small washroom in his office. "How we doing in there, boss?" she said with a smile.

The door opened and Barry walked out to face her. He was wearing a tight, form-fitting black pleather minidress that wasn't doing much for him since he didn't have a woman's breasts or curves. At Sheila's direction, he'd shaved off his body hair from the neck down, so his trim legs looked pretty good in his fishnet stockings and five inch stiletto pumps, however. He was also wearing long glittering gold earrings, and had made his face up with the makeup she'd provided.

"I look ridiculous," he moaned. He turned to look at the ceiling, saying, "I thought you said this would be fun!"

Sheila shrugged. "I'M having a good time."

((Me, too,)) The Author agreed. ((But if you're having trouble getting into the spirit...))

Barry looked down at himself in disgust, humiliated at having to stand in front of his secretary dressed as a woman. But even as his face burned in shame, he found the feel of wearing the clothes to be very sensual and arousing.

((There you go. Live it up!))

"C'mon over here, I want to get a better look," Sheila said.

He stepped confidently forward, his stiletto heels clicking on the floor as he—

—stumbled, being unaccustomed to wearing shoes with so high a heel. His ankles wobbled unsteadily—

—before he finally righted himself, gliding into a sexy, hip-swiveling strut sure to catch the eye of every red-blooded man in the building.

"Pick a fucking lane, will you?" Barry growled.

((Quiet, you.))

"Who are you talking to?" his secretary asked.

"Just some idiot."

Barry's mind clouded as he felt his I.Q. drop 60 points. "Oh, no!" he gasped, his voice now turned into a silly high-pitched feminine squeak. His benumbed brain struggled to think of anything beyond being pretty and sucking cock.

"Oh, I'm an idiot, am I?" Sheila said threateningly. "Well, in that case, maybe I should make you—"

"Not you!" Barry yelped. "It...uh...me! I...bad girl! I be good! I ap— ap—" he struggled with the word.

"Apologize?" she said.

Barry nodded vigorously. He felt the cloud in his mind lift, although the compulsion to suck cock remained. He hated the idea that he could go down on another man's member, but as he thought about his mouth wrapped around a big thick dick, he licked his lips in anticipation.

"I mean, I was just...talking to myself," Barry squeaked, making a face as he heard his overly girly voice. He cast his eyes down at himself and then over at his secretary. "So, no wig, no falsies?"

"Be patient. I've got something so much better in mind," she teased, attaching a leash around his neck.

Barry followed her obediently as she tugged him along on the leash, but as she opened the door to go out into the office, he faltered and she gave him an evil grin. He started to object, but he stopped when he realized that some ridiculously contrived circumstance would no doubt come along to coerce him.

((Hey, I heard that!))

Sheila made a big show as she led her crossdressed boss through the office, stopping off a few times to chitchat with fellow employees who did little to hide their amusement at Barry's plight.

Herb Stokes, one of the managers, was standing outside his office and talking to his assistant at her desk when they saw Sheila and Barry walk by.

"Whoa!" Herb laughed. "You lose a bet there, boss? Or is this Secretaries' Day, or something?"

"Oh, no," Sheila said. "Mr. Jeffries is making some exciting new changes to his lifestyle and practically begged me to help him come out of the closet. Isn't that right, boss?" she said with a sly grin.

Barry shrugged. "Sure, it's great."

((Ahem.))

"I mean, yay!" he squeaked girlishly. "It's so super-fun! You should try it. Ooh! Maybe I should change the dress code for all the male executives!" he proclaimed.

((Much better.))

Sheila gave him a satisfied smirk as she gave his leash a little tug and led him on. Barry noted that Herb was looking a little uneasy at his pronouncement, especially when his own assistant started sizing him up with a mischievous leer.

Being paraded around the office like a show poodle was bad enough, but Barry's heart sank when they reached their destination...the large conference room where the Board of Directors was meeting. Conversation ground to a halt as Sheila led him into the room, the clicking of his high heels the only sound. As Barry's eyes scanned around the room he noticed that all of the board members were women, including his fiancee Helena, who was the Chairwoman.

"Wow, that was completely seamless," Barry deadpanned.

((I'm warning you...))

"What's the meaning of this?" Helena demanded. "Sheila, I—" Her eyes widened in recognition. "Barry?! What are you doing?"

Sheila spoke up. "I'm here to stop you from making a terrible mistake," she said to Helena. "This pretty little minx has been fooling around on you, did you know that?"

"I had a feeling he was up to something," Helena said. "Do you have proof?"

"Well, most recently there was the stripper he hired for his bachelor party," Sheila offered. "And I can prove it."

Helena looked at him accusingly. "I thought we agreed you weren't going to have a bachelor party?"

"I didn't!" Barry objected.

One of the women sitting at the conference table raised her hand. She had long curly hair and was wearing a bright pink business suit. "Excuse me, this may not be any of my business, but maybe you might want to have this conversation somewhere more private?" she suggested blithely.

Sheila was about to say something, but Barry cut her off. "Relax, I've got this." He turned to the woman who spoke. "No, it's totally cool. You're not actually real. You're just a character in a badly written story. It's easier if you just roll with it."

"Ooh," the woman said vacantly. "Okey dokey! Thanks!"

((Asshole.))

Barry turned to Sheila. "I'm sorry, you were saying something about me being a cheating louse?"

Sheila gave him a smug look and looked over her shoulder. "You can come in now!" she yelled.

The door opened and all eyes fell on the woman who walked in. She looked wildly out of place in the office environment, looking like she'd be much more at home pole dancing in a seedy strip joint. She wore a pink fishnet dress that was pushing the limits of the city's obscenity laws and did nothing to hide her impressively curvaceous figure. She was heavily made up and wore an abundance of tacky silver jewelry, and her blonde hair was teased to within an inch of its life. She also had a few tattoos, including one with an elaborate rose and thorns design across her shoulder.

Strangely for someone wearing such an outfit, she looked nervous and awkward and was blushing furiously as she seemed to be having trouble on her platform heels. As she approached, she made eye contact with Barry. With her oh-so-familiar, piercing green eyes.

"Uh oh," Barry whispered under his breath.

Sheila looked at Barry. "Aren't you going to introduce us to your friend?"

Barry just shrugged. "Sorry, don't know her," he lied.

"You probably didn't exchange names," Sheila said. "But this—woman—was the stripper at your bachelor party the other night. But you probably know her better by another name. Barry, permit me to introduce your best friend, Chet."

Everyone in the room focused on the scandalously dressed woman, who looked even more uncomfortable than before. On closer inspection, her facial features hidden under her heavy makeup were a little angular, but based on her ridiculously skimpy and revealing outfit there was little doubt that she was all woman.

"I'm sorry, I should explain," Sheila said. "When I found out that Chet was cheating on me I decided to visit our R&D lab and test our company's newest venture—GeneX, our programmable transforming retrovirus—and turned him into the voluptuous creature you see here before you."

Barry shook his head in disbelief and looked up. "Do they even teach science where you're from?"

((Quiet!))

Barry looked more closely at the hooker. Her face certainly had more than a passing resemblance to Chet, almost like a strong familial similarity. But as he looked at her in her platform heels he noticed something. "Wait a minute, she's got to be six inches shorter than Chet. How the hell would a biotech virus change your—" He stopped and threw up his hands. "You know what, never mind. I retract my comment. Please, continue."

"Chet was...reluctant...to shake his booty for you and your friends, so I told him if he ever wanted to see the antidote, he'd do what I told him and suck your dick, or else Chester will be chesty for the rest of his life!" Sheila said with a smirk.

"I see what you did there. Funny."

"So you deny that you and this woman were intimate?" Helena challenged.

"That is the least of the things I am in denial about right now," Barry sighed. "But, yes."

"Oh," Sheila said. "My mistake, then. If you weren't, then I guess Chet didn't hold up his end of the bargain like he said he did. No antidote for you, sugar tits."

'Chet' exploded at Barry. "You asshole! I gave you a lap dance! You played with my tits! I even sucked your tiny little excuse for a prick!"

Sheila stepped forward. "Hmm. A clear case of 'he said / he-she said,'" she joked. "Fortunately, I have a solution," she said, pulling out a vial of liquid. "GeneX is a two-part compound, and I laced Chet's lipstick with the other half of the compound."

Before he could react, Sheila uncorked the vial and threw the contents on Barry. It tingled as it made contact with his exposed skin.

He looked up nervously. "W-well, that doesn't prove anything! That could just mean that she kissed me! She could have kissed me on the cheek, or on the hand—"

"Did I mention that the first part of the compound is only activated by coming in contact with semen?"

Barry froze. "Ooh. Well played."

((Thank you.))

"Thank you."

Everyone watched as Barry started to shudder and double over as the change came over him. As he felt his flesh being reshaped, it struck him that being remade like this—if it was even possible—should probably take days or weeks and would likely be excruciatingly painful. But as his flesh was being transformed, it was a strange, almost sensual experience. It was like invisible hands were remolding him like clay, nipping in his waist and redistributing flesh to his jutting hips and his soft, heavy breasts that were forming. By the time his long dark feminine hair spilled down around his face to obscure his vision, he found he almost enjoyed the experience.

When he looked up, the assembled women in the room gasped. Barry looked down at himself and where before he looked ridiculous in his little pleather dress, his new pornographically-proportioned feminine body looked perfectly at home. The dress clung to his curves like it had been painted on, and with his new physique, he looked like a walking invitation to fuck.

Sheila had a very self-satisfied grin on her face, and even Chet was looking quite smug. "See? I told you I sucked his cock!" he declared proudly. Then, as he realized that he'd just admitted to being a cocksucking stripper, he shut up even as his cheeks burned red in embarrassment.

Helena stalked up to Barry, furious. "You sick, knobheaded, fucked up, bottom feeding, shit faced, ass clown, slimebag, cheating, uncle fucker!" she spat.

"Okay, that was kind of impressive," Barry admitted.

((Cheers.))

He looked at his incensed fiancee. "Baby, please, you know there's never been anybody but you," he said, laying to her face.

"Why are you on the floor?" she asked, looking down at him on the ground.

((I was wondering that, myself.))

"I was laying to her face," Barry said, picking himself up and brushing his long blonde hair from his eyes. "I just—wait a second, you meant to say 'lying,' didn't you?"

((I...don't see how that's relevant.))

"Oh, my God, are you kidding me? It's bad enough I'm subject to your every passing whim, but now I'm subjected to your grammatical errors? Don't you have an editor?"

((It's just a first draft! We'll clean it up later.))

"You mean I have to go through this again?!?"

Helena pulled the engagement ring off her finger and stuffed it into his prodigious cleavage. "Don't be too sad," she taunted, "with that bod, now you'll be able to go to all the bachelor parties you can whore yourself out to!" With that, she stormed out of the room.

Barry, not sure what to do next or how to respond just stood there awkwardly as everyone gawked at him in his buxom female body. In the quiet of the room and looking at the assembled board members, he suddenly became acutely aware of his desire to suck cock, and twirled a finger around a lock of his chestnut hair suggestively. From the look of the men in the room, it looked like they'd be willing to take him up on it, too.

As Barry licked his lips, he—stopped suddenly. "Wait, where did the men come from? I thought they were all women?" he wondered.

((Err...))

The male Board members started to get out of their seats, unzipping their pants as they approached the startled transsexual, who—

"Are you mad?" Barry ranted. "What, we're going to have a gang bang right here in the middle of the board room for no reason? And I suppose all the women are secretly she-males," he said. "God, you are the worst, you know that?"

((I'm warning you...))

"Hey, here's a fun game. Without looking back, what color is my hair supposed to be?"

((Uh...))

"Oh, take a guess! You'll probably get it right, it's changed like three times already!" he snapped. "You did remember my compulsion to suck cock clearly enough, though. Kudos on that."

((Look, you'd best get with the program, sugar britches. I'm not kidding.))

"Hey, I've got a better idea," Barry suggested. "Why don't you come down here and tell me that? You strike me as the kind of asshole who'd write yourself into one of your own stories."

((Okay, that's enough.))

"Whatcha gonna do? Throw me in the volcano? You know what, go for it. I'd prefer that to being stuck in—"

* * *

Suddenly, Barry found himself in different surroundings, unable to move or speak, but he could feel that his mouth was wide open. He felt very strange, like he'd been transformed again, but since he wasn't able to see himself or look down, he wasn't sure what had happened. He could tell that he wasn't in the boardroom at his office anymore, however...he appeared to be leaning against a wall in a dirty men's room. And from the sounds of the announcements outside, it sounded like he was in a bus station.

As he tried in vain to break the paralysis that held him, he saw a guy in jeans and a T-shirt walk in. He casually strode up towards the wall where Barry stood, but the guy didn't seem to give Barry a second glance. He unzipped his fly and walked right up alongside of Barry and started to take a piss.

That's when Barry realized that he'd been turned into one of the urinals. And why his "mouth" was wide open.

In a panic, Barry tried to move or do something, but he was frozen in place. He wasn't even sure how it was that he was able to see or hear when he was an inanimate object. It was insanity.

((Since you have such a big mouth, I thought this was appropriate,)) The Author said. ((I always wanted to try writing a horror story. How am I doing?))

Barry struggled to move, or curse, or do anything, but he was unable.

The man at the urinal next to Barry finished his business and then flushed and left without washing his hands.

((There's no reason for us to be adversarial, you know. I'll be nice if you will.))

Just then, a huge, burly trucker came lumbering into the room. He was filthy and unshaven and glanced towards Barry, but paused to finish the Big Gulp that he was drinking and throw it in the trash. He belched loudly and started moving towards Barry as he fumbled with his pants.

((Tell you what. Just flush once for yes, and twice for no.))

Barry watched in horror as the trucker moved closer. Even the smell of the man was repugnant. He tried to move to get himself to "flush" somehow, but wasn't even sure what muscles he was supposed to use, or even if he had muscles. As the trucker started to unzip his fly, Barry realized where his "mouth" was, and mentally tried to make himself salivate. He was rewarded with a flushing sound and the feeling of rushing water.

((Sorry, was that a 'yes' or just the first flush of a 'no'?))

As the trucker started to pull out his member, Barry tried to close his eyes, but he couldn't even do that. He braced himself for what was coming.

* * *

"Gaaaahhh!!!" he breathed suddenly, gasping for air and able to move again. As his hand flew to his chest he encountered his big soft breasts from before, and saw that he was back in the boardroom, although this time there was nobody else present. He wasn't wild about being a woman, but it felt good to be human again.

"What the fuck was that?" he cried.

((Just reminding you who's in charge here, buttercup.))

"You almost let—some guy—!" he sputtered, unable to say the words.

((Oh, relax. I wasn't really going to go through with it! Don't be such a drama queen.))

"You turned me into a urinal!"

((Hey, you want to try being turned into a cow? Big udders flopping around, maybe we can find you a nice bull...))

"Jesus, no!"

((Come on, give us a 'moo.'))

"No."

((Ugh, you are such a drip. Where's your spirit of adventure? I meant what I said before, there's no reason we can't work together.))

"Look, I am not your—doll, or whatever—that you can use to play out your stupid fantasies—"

((Ooh! Fantasy! Great idea!))

* * *

Barry blinked and found himself in what appeared to be a tall tower in a medieval castle. As he turned he realized he was a woman again, and as he looked down he saw an impressive decolletage on display in the overly-snug bodice of his white dress. It had heavy voluminous skirts and petticoats that made it difficult to move, but as he turned, he saw his reflection in a nearby full-length mirror.

He was wearing a wedding dress.

"Oh, come on," he sighed.

With some difficulty he hefted the skirts and moved closer for a better look. He made for a stunning bride, and was wearing a spectacular gown that would have been the envy of any Disney princess. He had a thin but beautifully made up face that was framed by long raven black hair that was pulled back to highlight his beautiful pointed ears.

"I'm an Elf?" he asked, touching his ears uncertainly.

((A brave but overconfident knight, felled by a witch's curse and transformed into a beautiful Elven maid! You're to be wed to the evil Count Horatio today!))

Barry put a hand on his hip. "Horatio? Really?"

((I'll think of a better name.))

He turned back to the mirror and gestured at his reflection. "And wouldn't this story make more sense if you actually started it at the beginning, when I was still a knight?"

((I...maybe I'll do that as a flashback.))

Just then, a heavyset bearded man burst into the room, dressed as a nobleman. "Ah, my dear, you are a vision of loveliness! Our wedding will be an affair to remember! And so will our wedding night," he added lasciviously.

Barry fixed the man with a deadpan look. "I'm guessing you would be Count Horatio?"

"My darling! Do you not recognize your husband-to-be, Count," he paused, "Ignatius?"

Barry rolled his eyes and looked at the ceiling. "You aren't exactly Oscar Wilde, are you?"

((Shut up.))

Ignatius took Barry by the hand. "Come, my love, our guests await your beauty."

Barry yanked his hand back. "Uh huh. I just need a minute here, chief." He looked at the ceiling. "Look, what the hell. You're all over the place, here. This is like playing make-believe with a sugar-addicted four-year-old with attention deficit disorder."

"Who are you speaking to, my sweet?" the Count asked uncertainly.

Barry held up a finger. "One minute, Captain. Okay?" He looked back up at the ceiling. "Seriously, I'm willing to play ball here, but c'mon! You can't keep jumping around like this if you want to make a good story. It doesn't matter if it's in an office building, a medieval castle, or an outer space adventure—"

((Ooh, an outer space adventure...))

"Focus, will you?"

Count Ignatius was staring at the ceiling were Barry had been looking. "Are you...beset by demons, my love?"

Barry spun on the man, which was not an easy task in his voluminous wedding gown. "Look! Count Chocula or whatever your name is now, I am fully prepared to march downstairs in this ridiculous dress to whatever hootenanny you've got planned where we'll get married, fuck like bunnies, and after which I'll spend the rest of my life popping out your babies like a broodmare. But until then, would it be too much trouble for me to have one fucking minute?"

The Count was flabbergasted. "Of course," he mumbled.

((Fine, I'll hear you out. So, where do you want to start?))

"Where all stories start. At the beginning."

Barry blinked and saw that he was standing back in his spacious office in his company's building. He smiled at the familiar surroundings. "Okay, see how much bet—" He paused, suddenly aware of his lilting female voice, and looked down to see that he was still the beautiful Elven maid in the white wedding gown. "Really?" he sighed.

((I wasn't entirely sure where you were going with this.))

With a grunt, Barry hoisted up an armload of the skirts and made his way over to the plush couch and threw himself into it, surrounded by a mass of petticoats and crinoline. He fussed at them as he tried to organize himself.

((Comfy?))

"You're hilarious," he shot back.

((I see what you're trying to do, you know. You're just trying to get out of this.))

"Get out of what?" he challenged. "If the last couple of hours have showed me anything, it's that there's nowhere to get out to. As hard as it is to accept, I'm a character in a story—your story—and nothing is going to change that. And what's my alternative? Going to writer's oblivion? Or becoming some half-remembered little notion for a character in a story you never write?"

((Hey, I just wanted to write a fun little story. I didn't mean to get into all this.))

"Ultimate power is suddenly kind of a bitch, huh?"

((Look...what do you want?))

He laughed ruefully. "I don't know, maybe if people read this stupid story then I get to live on. So if I'm going to be trapped in a story, I guess I'd at least like it to be a good story."

((Hm.))

"What?"

((It's just...I've heard people talk about characters developing their own voice or characters that hijack the story, but I've never actually seen it happen before. I always just assumed it was a metaphor.))

"Yeah, well, maybe some metaphors are meant to be taken literally."

((Ooh, that's good, I might use that.))

"Help yourself," he said with a wave. "So, in this literary epic you're writing, who am I supposed to be, then?"

((In this story, you're the main character.))

"I like the sound of that," Barry admitted. "Beats the alternative, I guess. So, how did you describe me?"

((I, uh, said you were a jerk.))

"Oh, that's nice."

((Well, you are, kinda.))

"Be that as it may, you can't just make that the totality of how you describe someone. Am I a total jerk to everybody? That's boring. People are more complicated than that."

((Hmm...maybe now I'm seeing you more as an opportunist.))

"I can live with that," Barry said. "But you still need some conflict to move the story."

((You get turned into a woman.))

"I got that part, thanks," he said, glancing down at his impressive cleavage on display in the wedding gown. "I'm not really loving that, but I guess it's something. But what happens to me? Why do I get changed into a woman? What happens after?" He thought for a moment. "Will there be sex?"

((Usually, sure. It kind of underscores the gender change...it shows you experiencing new things as you try out the new equipment.))

Barry looked back down at himself and gave his bosom a little poke. "Doesn't sound so bad when you put it like that. Could be fun."

((Yeah, I'm definitely seeing you as an opportunist.))

Barry gave a little smirk. "Well, as long as I'm relatable. People have to care about the character, after all."

((You know, I can't promise you're going to enjoy everything that happens to you along the way.))

"Look, it doesn't always have to be titties and beer—" He hesitated and looked down at his cleavage and made a little grumble. "Well, you know what I mean. But it'd be nice if had a bit of choice in the matter, y'know? Maybe a chance of affecting the outcome from time to time?"

((I suppose you'd prefer a story where you don't end up spending the rest of your life being humiliated?))

Barry broke into a coy smile, which was a surprisingly cute gesture on his elfin features. "It's not my favorite outcome," he admitted. "But even if I'm to be 'punished for my sins,' as it were, wouldn't it be more interesting if I had some other stake in what happens?"

((Such as?))

"I don't know, maybe it could be a redemption story? Or I learn an unexpected lesson along the way? Or I go looking for revenge?"

((Eh, the revenge thing is way overdone. I want to do something different.))

"So, do something different!" he exhorted.

((Well, I do have a few ideas I've been wanting to knit together. Different genres, different times. You might get to play different people.))

"Will I get to be the hero?"

((Not always! But maybe sometimes the bad guy, maybe just a supporting role. Like an actor.))

"Huh, role-playing," he mused. "That sounds interesting. Maybe I could have some romance in there, too? Tell me more."

((Nice try! I'm not going to tell you how it ends!))

Barry snapped his fingers. "Rats, it was worth a shot," he said. "Still, I guess it could be fun finding out what happens. So, where do we start?"

((Where all stories start, at the beginning,)) The Author said. ((Although not all stories end at the ending...))



****************************************************************
STORY FOUR: Breakout from the Island of Doctor Bimbeau! (Act II)
****************************************************************

I stared at Marie in disbelief. "What do you mean, I'm inside a story?" I challenged her.

"All of this," she said, waving her arm at the jungle surrounding us. "It isn't real. Your mind is inside a computer simulation. This is...fiction."

"Computers," I repeated. "The big things with the vacuum tubes? What the hell are you talking about?"

She sighed. "They said you might be confused. You're...inside a story. It's like you're living in a dream that someone made up."

"Someone made this up?" I gaped. "Who would want to dream something like this?"

"Our son, apparently," she said with a frown. "He's on some retro horror kick." Then, seeing my confusion, she added, "It's not supposed to be this graphic or intense. He downloaded the sim from a pirate site and whoever uploaded it must have removed the safeguards. He didn't know."

I nodded slowly. I followed about a third of what she was saying, but the part I did understand I didn't like. Her story still smelled like day-old fish, but it did explain some of the strangeness, at least. "So how come I'm in this...dream? And why can't I remember any of this?"

"This story is...broken. Maybe intentionally, we don't know. And because of that, many of your own memories have been—locked away, I guess you'd call it—while this story plays out. Right now you know things because your character—the person you're playing in the game—knows them. It's like you're a playing a character in a movie. And as to why you're in here, you didn't want Peter playing these sims until you'd checked them out for yourself."

I sniffed. That much made sense, at least. But that part about being a "character" made me edgy. "So, what? You're saying I'm not a real person?"

"No, you're very real," she assured me. "They sent me in to try and guide you through this. They thought a familiar face might help."

I crossed my arms and felt them brush up against my woman's chest. I wouldn't have gone so far as to call this doll "familiar"...she was just a person I'd argued with in a half-remembered dream. But I liked her a damn sight better than the locals. And if half of what she said was true, maybe there was a chance I might walk out of this as a man, after all. Then something occurred to me. "Jake! And Janet. The people that crashed here with me. They're friends of mine and they got...changed...by that mad doctor. Can you help them, too?"

Marie made a little frown. "Alex, they're not real."

"The hell they aren't!" I shot back. "Jake and I served in WW II together, for God's sake! And I've known Janet for years!"

"I know it seems that way, but you haven't," she told me. "They're fake...just made-up characters in this story." When she saw my skeptical look, she said, "This friend of yours. Where did you meet him?"

"I told you. In the war. We served together."

"Where, specifically?"

"We—" I hesitated, trying to recall the memory. "I was—with—"

I paused in shock. "Oh, my God, it's true," I whispered.

"I'm sorry, honey, I know this is hard."

I sighed deeply, feeling the snug fit of my brassiere. I was ready for this to be over with. "Okay, so...wake me up, then."

"We can't. The simulation has taken root in your mind. They're trying to shut it down, but it's out of our control."

I rubbed my eyes with my hand. "How did I know you were going to say that?" I muttered. "Wait. If this is like a dream, can't I wake myself up? You know, fling myself off a cliff and wake up before I hit?"

"No!" she cried in alarm. "No, whatever you do, don't do that. Right now it's like you've been stung by a stingray with a barbed tail...if you just yank it out, you could do even more damage. We need you to exit the simulation normally."

"How do I do that? And how does this story end, anyway? I'm guessing not well," I said, glancing down at my new body.

Marie furrowed her brow, trying to explain. "It's not a straight-through kind of story. It's designed to be interactive."

I nodded. "So I can change things around? Affect the outcome?" That made me feel a little better, thinking I could get some control over all this. Even if I was stuck as a character in this nightmare story, maybe I could still find ways to surprise the "author."

"That's right, but only within the parameters of the story," she replied. "And we haven't found any exit paths to get you out, yet...at least, not any good ones. We've got a programmer here trying to code up an exit scenario, but for right now, you need to stay put."

"Swell."

In a blink, night fell and the jungle was plunged into darkness, apart from the pale moonlight. Before I could even say something, there was a crash of thunder and a torrential deluge started to fall. The rain didn't seem to touch Marie since her image was like a ghost or something, but I was soaking wet.

She looked around in confusion. "Wait, what just hap—"

She was gone.

I stood there for a few minutes as the rain continued, but eventually it became obvious she wasn't coming back. I looked down at my bedraggled female body, feeling at least a sliver of hope that I might be able to get out of this. That's when I heard the sound of barking dogs coming closer.

"Yep, FUBAR," I muttered.

* * *

Until I heard back from Marie I knew I had to stay on the move, and now the doctor's minions were actively on the hunt for me. I figured the rain would keep them off my scent for a while, but I couldn't count on that to last for long. While I considered my options, I removed my high heels since they were all but useless in the mud. However, the thought of making a run for it barefoot through the jungle didn't fill me with joy either, especially in this body...and God only knew what lurked out there in the shadows on this island. But I knew that by now they'd almost certainly posted guards back at the mansion in case I doubled back.

Unsure what to do, I fell back on the old standard: when in doubt, do what the enemy least expects.

They were expecting me to try and get off the island, or at least to commandeer a vehicle. So...I wouldn't do that. If I was to be trapped in this horror story, I wasn't going to be a willing participant.

Under the cover of rain and darkness I headed back to the mansion, pausing at the outdoor stables just long enough to secure a length of rope and to confirm there was now a guard posted by the door I'd used to exit earlier. They weren't going to make it easy. As quickly as I dared, I slipped around the outside of the mansion and stayed out of sight, and soon came up on the motor pool, apparently unguarded.

Ha! Not likely, I thought. No way was I falling for that old ploy.

I sneaked quietly past and on the other side of the mansion I found my destination. Up on the second floor I saw the guest rooms where we'd been staying earlier and I could see that the balcony door I'd opened earlier was still ajar. With a great deal of effort, I managed to toss the rope around a piece of stonework and secure it well enough to pull myself up. The rain wasn't helping any, nor was my utter lack of upper body strength...my former male muscles were gone, replaced by these girlish pipe stems. But with much huffing and puffing I finally managed to get myself onto the balcony. Once there I paused to catch my breath for a moment and the rain turned off suddenly like someone had turned off a spigot. And as I looked up, the clouds were immediately replaced by a clear night sky. Obviously whoever Marie was working with was still mucking about with the so-called world around me.

As I pulled the rope up, I could hear voices shouting in the jungle, and the sound of something smashing through the underbrush, something big. "She's doubled back to the house!" I heard them shout. I ducked down, thinking I'd been spotted, but they were still out of sight. How the hell did they find me so fast? I'd been careful with my tracks and in that deluge it would have been impossible for them to...

"Impossible." That word again.

I entered my former room and I suddenly realized I'd been going about it all wrong. I was looking at this as a military operation, but that's not what this was. I was trapped inside a story. A horror story. And I was the star. Those troops and creatures outside weren't tracking a transformed escapee, they were supporting characters following the main character around, exerting pressure on "her" to move the narrative forward.

But I wasn't playing that game anymore. My goal here wasn't to escape, but to buy time until Marie came back with some way out. But right now, the doctor's goons were hell-bent on capturing me and I shuddered to think what he'd do to me when that happened. But what could I do to stop them, especially in this ridiculous body? They would—

Wait a minute, I thought.

I looked down at myself, wet and bedraggled in my skimpy little nurse's "uniform," my big bosom heaving in my tight top. This really was a ridiculous body. It made no logical sense for him to have done this to me.

Then I thought about all the gorgeous, scantily-clad women on "Doctor Bimbeau's" little island.

"Sex," I whispered.

Standing where I was, I realized I was on almost the exact spot where Janet tried to seduce me earlier. But when I rebuffed her, the "story" had immediately moved on. Then I thought about my "lucky escape" from the prison cell with the amorous nurse. Sending an unarmed nurse in there alone with an unrestrained prisoner wasn't just stupid, it was preposterously boneheaded. But, I now realized, I was supposed to escape. Not because the doctor or his people wanted me to, but because whoever wrote the story wanted me to.

But they didn't just send me the nurse to give me a way out; they were also offering me yet another chance at a romantic encounter, this time as a woman. This wasn't just a horror story, I realized, it was an erotic horror story. The author had been feeding me opportunities for sex along the way to bring more thrills.

Thinking now about the lack of guards at the motor pool, I wondered if it really was bait by the doctor and his cohorts to trap me, or by the story writer to "encourage" me in that direction. For the first time in this madhouse, things were starting to make sense.

Okay, I can play this game, I thought. But I'd need to clean up first.

Ten minutes later I found myself in the shower, enjoying the sensuous feel of soaping up my breasts while I hummed a little ditty. Right on cue, I heard the hesitant sound of a woman's shoes on the hard floor outside the steamy bathroom. I'd left the hallway door slightly ajar, and one of the doctor's "assistants" had come to investigate the sound.

The bathroom door opened and one of the maids entered—chesty, leggy, and gorgeous just like all the others. Her eyes went wide when she saw me.

"Hello," I said pleasantly.

"Y-you're the one they're looking for!" she gasped.

"Well, they're obviously not looking very hard," I said with a smile, leaning back to rinse off my hair. "Plenty of room for one more?" I said invitingly as she watched me.

This was the moment of truth. Any sane woman in her place would either scream, or run for help, or both. But now I knew she wasn't a real woman, she was just a titillating character in a sex-laden horror story. I held my breath. Either this was going to work, or else I was going to go down in history as the idiot who gave new meaning to "getting caught with your pants down."

After a moment, her look of surprise faded. She gave me a sly smile, loosed her hair, and started unbuttoning her blouse. I smiled back and hummed a few bars of "Getting to Know You."

* * * * *

"Well, that was a novel experience," I said with a smirk afterwards, the double meaning lost on my partner. She grinned at me coquettishly despite my having tied her to the bedposts. I gave her a wink and a kiss as I secured a gag in place.

By now the sun was rising outside and—insanely in any place other than this—my pursuers never bothered to come in to investigate the amorous sounds that my new playmate and I had been making. (At one point I was about to shush her when I realized that the girlish yelps of pleasure had been coming from me!) I'd heard the search parties outside in the corridor, but apparently the story writer must have felt that it would be poor form to interrupt our lovemaking. But at least I'd managed to stall for some time.

I hoped that Marie would be charitable in understanding my infidelity—if such a thing even had any meaning in this place—but I consoled myself that at least I could say that I'd also been a woman at the time. Though curiously, as I'd fooled around with the maid, I found myself thinking a lot about Marie, even though she was still practically a total stranger to me. I wondered what our first time together had been like.

My nurse's uniform was a soiled mess so I found myself putting on the maid's uniform when Marie's image reappeared. She looked me up and down in my flirty little dress and took a gander around the room disapprovingly.

"Well, I'm glad to see that you're having a good time with all of this," she said flatly. Then, eyeing the tied-up girl on the bed, she added, "And I am learning all sorts of new things about you."

"You're a riot, doll. Tell me you have some good news."

She nodded. "They've worked out an exit for you. You need to make it back to the plane you came here in."

"It was wrecked," I reminded her. "And even if it wasn't, I don't know how to fly a plane."

"It won't matter. They tell me that as soon as you get there, it'll end on a cutscene." Seeing the confusion on my face, she shook her head and said, "Just get there." Despite the craziness of the situation she gave me a little smile as she watched me fuss with my stockings. "That's a good look on you," she smirked.

"Thanks," I said, frowning at the five inch high heels lying on the floor. Not exactly ideal for my getaway. I padded barefoot over to the door and peeked out into the corridor.

"What's your plan?" Marie asked.

"I don't know, I'm making this up as I go," I replied. I glanced over at her and saw her smiling again. "What's funny?"

She gave a little shrug. "It's just...for a minute there, you sounded like you."

I looked into the corridor again and found what I'd been looking for. A lone guard. I quietly beckoned her over and invited her into the room. After she entered, she looked at me expectantly until her eyes cut over at the bed and she saw the other girl tied to the bedposts. As she turned back to me, her eyes went wide with recognition.

"Shh," I whispered seductively, placing a finger on her full, pouting lips. "I was just...hoping for a little three-way?"

The guard looked at me suspiciously for a moment before she gave me a little smile and stared at me with bedroom eyes.

I moved in close, reaching slowly around her. Then I clobbered her on the head with a heavy ceramic vase.

"Learning all kinds of new things about you," Marie observed.

As the guard slumped to the floor I retrieved her sidearm and took her boots. I wished I had time to take her uniform as well, but I was pushing my luck as it was. I chanced a look back into the room as I slipped away, just in time to see Marie's image fading away.

"Good luck, lover," she said as she disappeared.

* * *

Despite the patrols I managed to slip through the mansion unnoticed in my disguise, although I felt ridiculous mincing around in this body and outfit. But looking outside, it looked like the doctor was pulling out all the stops. In addition to the troops there were half-human creatures on the prowl, as well. Furry cat-women with tails, some kind of boar creature, and even something that looked like a cross between a woman and a komodo dragon walking around on hind legs.

I made my way to the motor pool and managed to knock out the only guard on duty without making too much noise. If this was what the author wanted me to be doing, at least they were making it easy. I retrieved the keys to a jeep and started moving towards the vehicle when Wallace stepped out in front of me.

"Going somewhere?" he asked.

"Yeah, you wouldn't believe me if I told you, chief."

He gave me a knowing smile. "Oh, I think you'll find I can be quite imaginative when the situation calls for it. And I see that you've decided to dress yourself in a manner more suited to your new station," he teased, leering at me in my skimpy maid's uniform. "I'm glad to see that you're getting with the program."

I pointed my gun at him. "I'm changing the scene."

He laughed once, a throaty guttural sound that turned into a low, rumbling growl. As I watched, his body started to shift before my eyes, his slender and unassuming form growing and becoming more muscled as he tore out of his tailored clothes. He was almost a foot and a half taller than before, and rippling with muscle. He laughed again, a deep booming sound like thunder. "I was one of the doctor's first experiments, did you know that? Before he focused his energies on perfecting the female form, he started with the male." He tore off the remains of his pants, exposing his massive naked male body...and also the two huge erect penises down below, one on top of the other. The one on top was enormous and the lower one was somewhat elongated, obviously positioned so that he'd be able to enter both of a woman's orifices at the same time. "Tell me," he said, "before I turn you over to the doctor, is there anything you'd care to experience?"

"Ooh, tempting," I said.

Then I shot him in the head. Twice.

I tore off into the jungle in the jeep, the creatures and other servants of the doctor bounding after me as I careened down the trail, their half-human screeches and roars a chilling reminder of the fate that awaited me if I failed. I gripped the wheel in determination and accelerated as branches smashed against the front and sides of the jeep. As the landing strip came into view, I just prayed that my pursuers hadn't had the presence of mind to radio ahead. Bouncing almost out of control, I breached out of the jungle trail and onto the runway.

Right into a waiting semicircle of trucks and jeeps.

I slammed on the brakes and went into a skid, hoping I could gun it and power my way through the edge of the enemy line to get to the airplane that was now visible at the other end of the strip, tantalizingly close. But before I could react, I caught a glimpse of something huge in my peripheral vision racing right up to me. It was Gorga. In one vicious move, the hulking woman grabbed the bottom of the jeep and up-ended it, sending me flying.

"AHH!" I cried as I hit the ground hard. Pain lanced through my side. It felt like I'd broken a couple ribs, and my left arm was visibly broken, with the bone poking through the flesh.

"It's finished," I heard Doctor Bimbeau say in his mellifluous basso. Blinking through the pain I saw him start to approach me from one of the trucks, with Gorga and two of his soldiers close behind. "The running, the fighting. It's over. Now, you'll come with us. But have no fear, I'll see to it that you have a special place," he told me. "Perhaps you can rejoin your friend Jake in the dairy. We always have need of more milk."

Trembling from shock, I fumbled with the gun and pointed it at him, but my hand was shaking so badly I knew I couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. I wanted to kill him, to avenge my friends and end his hellish plans, but as I saw this evil man and his monstrous creations, I knew this place wasn't real. This dream, this nightmare, this "simulation"...whatever you'd call it.

But I knew that pain was real enough in this place. So was horror. And then I thought about Jake. I wasn't going to end up like that.

"Fuck it," I decided. I turned the gun on myself and pulled the trigger.

The last thing I heard was the doctor shout, "NO!"

* * *

My eyes flashed open as I felt cool air across my body. I felt disoriented, but the pain was gone. Trying to raise my head proved to be too much of an effort, so I lay back and took it slow, surveying my surroundings. I appeared to be lying on a couch in a sunny room, sparsely decorated but warm and welcoming.

"I made it," I sighed with relief, glad to be free of that nightmare.

"What happened?!?" I heard a man say frantically. "What the hell was that?" He and another man were poring frantically over some equipment that was scattered around near the couch.

I blinked my bleary eyes and Marie came rushing up to me. "Alex!" she cried. "Oh, God, I thought I'd lost you!" She kissed me on the lips and hugged me close as I felt her soft bosom press against my chest.

Pressed against my own breasts.

I weakly shoved her back and looked down at myself in shock. I was still in a woman's body! "What the hell is going on?" I challenged her. "Why am I a woman? Who are these people? Where am I?" Off to the side I saw a nervous looking teenager staring at me in shock. He looked familiar...was he in my dream from before? "Who are you?" I demanded.

"Mom, I'm your son," he said. "I'm Peter."

I shook my head in confusion even as I heard the men talking anxiously to Marie about things I didn't understand, like "memory engram psychosis" and how a character's personality might overwrite the user's personality. Marie looked panicky, but I was just a simple guy from the 1950s, what was all this mumbo jumbo?

As I turned my head, I saw a photograph prominently placed on a shelf that showed two women in beautiful white wedding dresses smiling at the camera. The engraving underneath read, "Marie and Alexandra, 2050." There was another picture of the two women in a desert, both wearing full combat gear. I smiled in relief as I realized I had to be living in another dream or something. Two broads serving in combat together and then getting married? That was just ridiculous.



****************************************************************
STORY THREE: Breaking His Spirit (Act II)
****************************************************************

Aidan felt ridiculous as he walked down the street wearing the elaborate showgirl costume that Ruby had put in his wardrobe. But after seeing the gruesome fates that befell the others that were being "judged," he knew he didn't want to rouse her ire and thought it best to follow her instructions. As people laughed and smirked at him as he strutted by on his high heels, he thought of Jo, the aging whore that he'd met on the street just the day before, wondering if such a fate could befall him, as well.

Even more maddening than Ruby's pronouncements had been her silence. He thought that she would instruct him in whatever it was that he had to do to avoid "judgment," but she told him that it wasn't enough to just follow her orders. Rather, he had to demonstrate his contrition and his ongoing commitment to "make his penance and then live with it."

//You have demeaned and used women, treating them as playthings,// she told him. //Now it is your turn to know what that feels like.//

"How do I do that?" he asked.

//I'm your judge, not your mentor,// she said curtly. //Change has to come from within. You tell me, what are you prepared to do? What are you prepared to live with?//

He'd started with the showgirl costume, since she'd "recommended" that he wear it earlier. When he put it on he blushed as he examined his reflection in the tight sparkly outfit with the feathered headdress and the high heels, but even so, he knew it wouldn't be enough to satisfy her. With no makeup, short hair, and a hairy body, he looked like exactly what he was...a man in bad drag. He thought of her ghostly image that he'd seen in the mirror with her busty figure and made-up face and knew he'd have to do better to satisfy her. Reluctantly, he called a few salons and boutiques downtown and made some appointments for that afternoon. Sighing deeply at what was to come, he started to remove the headdress to change into different clothes.

//When I was a performer, hundreds of people saw me dressed like that every day,// Ruby remarked.

Taking the hint, Aidan refastened the headdress. He put the top down on his convertible and drove downtown in his flashy outfit, feathers blowing in the breeze.

His first stop was a wig shop, where he found a long golden blonde wig that reminded him of Ruby's ghostly image that he'd seen in the bathroom mirror. He then spent several hours at a salon downtown where the bemused stylists "treated" him to a full-body wax, manicure and pedicure, and a glamorous and overstated makeover. As the woman brushed out his wig, Aidan watched in the reflection as he touched his thin arched eyebrows with his long red fingernails and fluttered his long eyelashes. His face burned in shame as the smiling women in the salon enjoyed his transformation.

From there he headed off to a specialty store where he purchased some very expensive fake breasts. The best prosthetic they had was actually a full chest piece that glued onto his chest with adhesive and gave him a very curvy figure, guaranteed to catch the eye. As he pulled his showgirl costume back into place over the prosthetic, he cringed as his sparkly brassiere hugged his impressive new endowments and pressed them into an eye-catching cleavage.

Now, as he walked out onto the sidewalk towards his car, many people laughed and smiled as he strutted past, and a couple even stopped him to get a picture. As he turned, he caught a glimpse of himself in the elaborate drag costume in a shop window. "Satisfied?" he said quietly.

//Very pretty. I'm sure you'll make a fine burlesque dancer in no time.//

Aidan made an annoyed grunt as he turned to get into his car. With the top down, he was still getting a lot of people gawking and staring at him. "How long do I have to do this for?" he asked.

//The better question is, how long do you intend to do this for?//

He considered that. "Well, you said I'm being judged next week."

Ruby made a disappointed little noise. //This isn't a final exam that you cram for,// she admonished. //You were already found guilty of your sins against womankind. And now, you've been given the opportunity to define your own punishment—your own penance. It's not my role to tell you what's sufficient, but ask yourself this: when I judge you, do you really think that a few days of dressing as a woman balances out your mistreatment of women for your entire adult life?//

"You're saying I have to dress like this for the rest of my life?" he asked, incredulous.

//If—if!—I thought you were serious about such a commitment, it would favorably influence my decision,// she declared. //Although I believe you'd renege at the first opportunity. And even if you didn't, this only atones for your degradation of women, not how you dominated and mistreated them.//

Aidan was aghast. "So even if—somehow—if I could convince you that I'm going dress like this for the rest of my life, you're saying it still wouldn't be enough?!? That's bull!"

Ruby said nothing.

"Look, I want to change, I do! But how can I prove it when you won't even tell me what to do?"

//But I won't always be here to guide you, will I?//

"But if you won't do it, and you don't trust me to do it, then how am I supposed to..." His voice trailed off. "Someone else," he realized. "You want me to find someone else to...direct me. Order me around. A woman, right? Someone who'll treat me the way you think I've treated women. I'm right, aren't I?"

//If you pledged yourself to such a woman, I would look upon that favorably,// she agreed.

"Who, then?"

//I've already showed you.//

"But you haven't showed me anything!" Aidan objected. "You told me to dress up in this ridiculous outfit, but you never—" He caught a glimpse of the blonde wig framing his face. "Wait a minute. When I saw you in the mirror, you didn't start off as a blonde. You were a brunette with short hair and then you changed to look like this chick with the big—" He looked down at his prominent chest. "—attitude." He peered at himself in the rear view mirror. "Who is she?"

Ruby again remained silent.

"Great. So I'm looking for a blonde with a big rack. That really narrows it down," he muttered.

* * *

Aidan thought he might head home and do some Internet searches for dommes in the area, but he realized that he was actually very close to A2 Music, where he kept an office. He never used it except to occasionally use the big leather couch to "entertain" impressionable and tone deaf twentysomething club girls who fancied themselves as future pop stars. He wasn't particularly keen on sashaying in there dressed as he was, but he figured that Ruby might look more favorably on the public exposure than hiding out at home.

To their credit, the guards working the front desk didn't even crack a smile as Aidan traipsed inside and flashed his identification, feathers fluttering. It wasn't until he was in the elevator that he heard them burst out laughing. Upstairs, he got a number of bemused looks as he walked down the hall to his office, instantly regretting the "glass doors and walls" decor that graced that side of the building. Wiggling along and feeling his tail feathers swaying behind him, he saw several meetings stop to gawk as he strutted past.

By the time he got to his office, he was blushing all the way down to his faux breasts. He sat down at his desk and put his sparkly little sequined purse next to his computer as he logged in, hoping for a miracle.

A couple hours later, he was about ready to just start aimlessly wandering the streets looking for the girl. And he was also about ready to chew off his long elegant fingernails that made typing such an incredible chore. He'd performed numerous searches for local dominatrices and mistresses in the area, but several of the listings either didn't have photos or indicated that they "weren't seeking additional subs at this time." He was skimming through the listings for escorts in the area hoping for a match and ruefully thinking that paying for sex was likely going to be the only way he was going to be getting any action in the future if he had to dress up like a tranny showgirl.

Showgirl, he thought, adjusting his headdress.

Ruby had been stingy with her direction, but nothing she'd done so far had been without purpose. Aidan had assumed she'd just chosen this outfit to humiliate him in the same manner she'd had to dress as a performer, but now her taunt about becoming a burlesque dancer stuck in his head.

Running a search for burlesque shows in the area came back with only a few hits. While studying the site for the burlesque show at "Cabaret Exotica," he noticed some pictures from one of the shows and spotted the girl! She was blonde and buxom as he remembered, and had a raw sexuality that under different circumstances he might have found quite provocative. The caption identified her as "Mistress Bella," which he found in one of the local domme listings, but unfortunately her contact information listed there was out of order. However, it looked like she frequented the club, and they had a burlesque show that very night.

"At least I'm dressed for it," he sighed.

"I guess this was inevitable," a woman's voice came from the doorway. "You got tired of chasing little blonde bimbos around and decided to cut out the middle man?"

"Antonia!" Aidan gasped in surprise, looking up to see his estranged wife giving him an overbearing smirk. "I—I'm just—" He hesitated, not sure what to say, especially with Ruby listening. "I know it doesn't look it, but I'm trying to get my life together," he said, discreetly shutting down the computer as she moved closer to get a better look at him.

She laughed as she came up next to him and gave him a sly smile as she took in his outfit. Her eyes ran from his feathered headdress down to his makeup and earrings, finally peering down at his prosthetic breasts that were pressed into a broad cleavage. "Kinky," she remarked, blowing on his feathers. "I had no idea you were into this."

"There's a lot you don't know about me," Aidan admitted. "Maybe that was part of the problem between us." He felt ridiculous sitting there dressed like that in front of her, but it had been so long since they talked that he felt compelled to say something. "Toni, I really am sorry for how things turned out. Maybe if we'd worked a little harder—"

"I don't want 'sorry,'" she snapped. "And spare me the platitudes, especially about 'hard work.' You wouldn't recognize it if you bumped into it with your falsies. There's only one kind of company I want from you, and it sure as hell isn't the kind where you're in the same room as I am."

He stood up and collected his purse. "Yeah, I know," he said. "And who knows? Before this is done, maybe at least one of us will get what they want." He left the room, unconsciously putting a little extra wiggle in his step, causing his tail feathers to swish back and forth.

* * * * *

Cabaret Exotica had quite a crowd when Aidan entered that evening, still dressed in his showgirl costume. He's hoped that his outfit would be at least a little less conspicuous in that scene, but a six foot drag queen in towering heels, sparkles, and feathers was bound to make a splash even in a place like that. He was the belle of the ball with people stopping him for pictures, asking when he would be performing, or playfully groping his fake breasts. Blushing furiously, Aidan put up with the shenanigans as he scanned the crowd.

After a while he noticed a familiar flash of golden blonde hair from one of the tables near the stage. He hurried over to it and saw Bella sitting there with two other women. They were all dressed in black with stark makeup and showing a good deal of skin. Bella in particular was wearing a low-cut bodice that showed off her impressive decolletage as well as an elaborate rose and thorns tattoo across her shoulder. Dressed as she was she very looked different than the vision of her that Aidan had seen in the mirror, but those haunting green eyes were unmistakable.

"Excuse me," Aidan asked her. "Are you...Bella?"

"Mistress Bella," one of the women corrected him archly.

"Sorry, Mistress Bella," Aidan amended. "Could I speak to you in private?"

All three of the women laughed. "Sorry, precious," Bella said, "I don't think so."

"It's just," Aidan looked around nervously, "I need you to be my mistress."

Bella and her companions shared a disbelieving glance. "You have no fucking idea how this works, do you?" she challenged.

Aidan shrugged helplessly. "I guess not."

She looked him over clinically. All day, lots of people had gawked and stared at Aidan in his ridiculous outfit and some had even laughingly felt him up in an overly familiar way, but when Bella scrutinized him he felt even more self-conscious. He felt like he was a farm animal being sold at auction.

"Nah," she finally decided. "I'm not seeing it. Get lost, little chicky." With that, she returned to her conversation.

Aidan stood there in shock. He was about to object, but Bella shot him a withering gaze that told him he wasn't welcome there. He stumbled back to the bar and said, "I tried my best. You saw. I tried."

//If you say so,// Ruby said.

Aidan could have screamed in frustration. He was just about to say something when he noticed the short line of people signing up for the burlesque talent show that night. "All right, fine," he decided. "We'll do it your way."

As he waited in line he inspected the binder that listed their selection of music. He didn't recognize most of it but there were some obvious classics in there like "The Stripper" or music suitable for can-can dancing...but he had something else in mind. He pulled his phone out of his purse and downloaded a song.

As he got to the front of the line, the guy sitting there gave him a once-over. "Very sexy," he laughed. "Name?"

"Ruby," Aidan said.

//Flatterer,// Ruby purred.

"And what song did you want played?" the guy asked, nodding at the binder.

Aidan held out his phone. "Play this."

The guy looked at the screen and shook his head. "We don't play that crap here."

Aidan just nodded and reached into his purse and dumped a wad of bills on the desk. "You do tonight."

"Well," the guy said, picking up the cash, "we're always happy to take special requests."

Aidan leaned over and plucked the pen from the guy's other hand saying, "Mind if I borrow this?" Then he snapped up a napkin and quickly wrote something on it before tucking it into his brassiere.

* * *

Aidan was center stage and the stage lights were off when the emcee introduced "Ruby." Aidan blinked as the spotlight highlighted him and the crowd cheered as they laid eyes on him in his elaborate showgirl costume. A hush fell as the music started and in the first five seconds there was the twinkling sound of a piano, an unmistakable and familiar run up and down the musical scales that caused several people in the crowd to groan as they realized what was coming.

Aidan, standing stock still, lip-synced along to the music. "At first I was afraid... I was petrified! Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side..." Many in the crowd now recognized the song and groaned or booed, obviously not wanting to be subjected to this debacle.

Undeterred, Aidan continued with the music. "But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong. And I grew strong! And I learned how to get along!" As the music cut into a thumping disco beat, Aidan came prancing down the runway, far more adeptly than the crowd anticipated. As the song continued, he shimmied along and worked the crowd, so that very quickly they were clapping and cheering along to his energetic moves.

Confidently, Aidan slipped down from the stage, causing the crowd to hoot and holler as he drew them into the act. In tune to the music and continuing to lip-sync to the lyrics, he sashayed over to where Bella was sitting. Her two friends were sitting still, eyeing Aidan warily, but Bella had a little sparkle in her eye as he approached her.

"Weren't you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye?" Aidan sang to her. "Did you think I'd crumble? Did you think I'd lay down and die?" With that, he bent down close to her and surreptitiously slipped her the note that he'd written on the napkin. Then, seamlessly, he stepped back and continued, "Oh no, not I! I will survive!"

As he pranced away and kept the crowd going, Bella looked down discreetly at the note and for a moment their eyes met and he could see the look of surprise on her face. But she quickly recovered and tucked the napkin away.

After the song was done, Aidan took a bow before the cheering audience. As he went backstage, Bella was already there waiting for him.

"Obviously not your first time," she observed.

He shrugged a little as he caught his breath. "I performed in the follies in college. I'd never done drag before then, but I'd been inspired by an old friend who dressed up for this costume thing we did."

"What do you want?"

"I'm...undergoing a life change," Aidan told her. "I've been shitty to women, and I'm looking to make up for that. And I'm hoping you can help me."

"What do you want me to do?"

He smiled. "I think the better question is, what do you want me to do?" He held his arms out, presenting himself to her. "And my answer is, absolutely anything you want."

She nodded slowly. "And what else do you want?" she added cryptically, discreetly flashing the napkin he'd slipped her.

"Well," he said, moving closer to her. "I guess that's up to you."

She scrutinized him again. Unlike the first time she'd done so, she seemed to be sizing up something unexpected.

"So...when do we get started?" he asked.

She stepped right up to him, tantalizingly close. "No time like the present."

* * *

*SMACK!*

The riding crop struck Aidan's bottom as he scampered into Bella's "studio," which was outfitted with all manner of BDSM toys. She'd taken him there directly from the club and when Aidan suggested waiting to see how we'll he'd done in the talent show, he'd gotten another smack for his trouble.

"You are a fucking disgrace in those heels!" she snarled. "God, you're an embarrassment to both genders!"

She snatched away his purse and tossed it into the corner, followed closely by his headdress which she pulled off roughly. "Get over there!" she commanded, pointing in the corner where some serious-looking bondage items hung on the wall. She stalked over to the sound system and cranked up an almost deafening hard-thumping techno beat. Glowering at Aidan cowering in the corner, she strode up to him confidently.

However, as she got closer, her demeanor changed and became less threatening and more inquisitive. Finally she stood before him and raised her eyebrows expectantly.

Aidan looked around uncertainly. "Can she see us or hear us?" he asked quietly, under the sound of the music.

Bella shook her head. "I don't think so. I'm doing everything they told me I should never do. And I told them I didn't want them installing any surveillance equipment in here while I still have other clients." She held up the napkin with his note. "You mind telling me what the hell is going on?"

"I thought it was clear. I figured out that Antonia is scamming me and I know that you're in on it."

Bella sniffed. "When did you figure it out?"

"Almost right away. But I wasn't certain until that little scene in the woods with the people getting 'transformed.' They didn't come out and say it but they did a whole 'Seven Deadly Sins' shtick that was a little heavy-handed. And that 'living punching bag' transformation was just absurd. I mean really...being turned into a sentient inanimate object? Please," he scoffed. "It was a pretty cool effect, though."

Bella gave a little laugh. "They got Ambrose Faust to help out," she told him.

"The Vegas magician? No shit," Aidan said, impressed.

"But how'd you know it was Antonia?" she asked, pointing at her ear.

"Well, 'Ruby' didn't talk like someone from the 1930s, and then when she used the word 'irregardless' I knew immediately who it was." He winced. "It drives me up the wall when Antonia says that. Plus, 'Ruby' was unusually quiet when I saw Antonia face-to-face."

Bella shook her head. "So if you knew it was all a scam, why go along with it?"

"Are you kidding?" Aidan beamed. "This is awesome! I haven't had this much fun since my old role-playing game days back in college!"

She frowned slightly. "But the humiliation and the clothes..." She motioned at his outfit.

He smiled excitedly. "What a fucking turn-on!" he enthused. "Seriously, I tried for years to get Antonia into the whole femdom thing, but she never wanted to. Can you believe that? I mean, you've met her, right? I felt sure when I married her she'd be bossing me around left and right but she went and turned into this cold fish. I even took up all that astrology crap to try and get a rise out of her, but never in my wildest dreams did I think she'd come up with all this!"

Bella rubbed the bridge of her nose. "You rich people are something else, you know that?" she muttered. "So why are you telling me all this, then?"

"Well, you're the last link in the chain, right? I commit myself to you and put myself under your thumb, and then once she's convinced that you're convinced that I'm not going anywhere, she backs off, right?"

"After she makes you divorce her and give her all your money, sure."

He snorted dismissively. "Yeah, the money that she knows about. I've got plenty tucked away for a whole deluge of rainy days."

"And you're okay with me...you know." She glanced over at the bondage equipment.

"Are you serious? I finally get a full-time mistress ordering me around to do God knows what, bankrolled by a vindictive bitch of an ex-wife? Does the phrase 'dream come true' mean anything to you?"

"And you're sure this is what you want?" Bella asked skeptically. "You wouldn't believe some of the things she put on her list."

"She made a list?" Aidan exclaimed breathlessly.

Bella nodded. "Yeah, stuff she wants me to do to you. Like, she wants you to—"

"Jesus, don't tell me!" Aidan cried, his eyes wide with anticipation.

She shook her head. "I can't believe you're letting her get away with this."

"Well, there's no sense letting her spoil my fun," he said. "And sometimes I might find little ways of sticking it to her. Like 'I Will Survive.'"

"What, the song at the club? Yeah, I didn't get why you went off-script like that. We gave you way easier songs to choose from."

"Two reasons," Aidan said, holding up his fingers. "First, I actually did perform that song in the follies back in college. That part's true."

"And the second?"

Aidan smiled broadly. "Antonia fucking hates that song."

As Bella returned the grin, Aidan stepped close to her and put his arms around her waist. "Well, that's a little forward," she said coyly.

He leaned in and kissed her deeply. "How about that?" he asked.

She snuggled against him. "Oh, you're gonna pay for that later."

Aidan's eyes cut over at the instruments on the wall. "Not too much later, I hope," he said, giving her another kiss.

* * * * *

A few days later, Antonia was sitting behind her desk in her office rubbing her thighs together and about ready to come to orgasm from the sight in front of her.

Aidan had entered—with Mistress Bella not far behind—wearing an adorable little pink frock. With his blonde wig, big falsies, makeup and high heels he looked like a complete sissy as he came mincing forward and opened his little pink purse and presented her with the documents that would grant her a divorce, the company, everything she wanted.

"I signed 'em wiff my boy name," Aidan lisped. "They thaid that'th wegal untiw my name change goes threw," he told her. "My name'th gonna be Ruby Bottoms," he announced. He then leaned in closer to Antonia and whispered, "It's 'cauthe I'm a naughty girwl and I get thpanked a wot." He fidgeted under his skirts.

Antonia bit her lip. "That is perfect," she beamed.

"Ruby!" Bella called out. "It's time to go!"

Aidan, wide-eyed, quickly dropped into a well-practiced little curtsey and scurried over to Bella, who in turn gave Antonia a knowing little smirk as they made eye contact.

As they left the office, Devin gave Antonia a sidelong glance. "You need a minute?" he asked. "Or maybe some moist towelettes, or something?"

"I didn't know it was possible to feel this happy," she said dreamily.

"And the spirits did it all in one night!" Devin declared, heading to the door. "And we've got one more meeting before you can go home and celebrate, assuming you haven't spontaneously celebrated already. Back for a return engagement, I give you Dr. Tobias Blevins, super-genius." He opened the door and beckoned Dr. Blevins to come inside.

Blevins looked at Devin cagily, remembering his experience from the last time. He was also a bit thrown by the unusual couple who had just left the office, especially the person in the pink dress who had minced past looking almost deliriously happy. Fortunately, Antonia seemed to be in an equally good mood.

"Ah, Ms. Armstrong—" he began.

"You're fired," she sighed happily.

"I...what?"

"I'm canceling Project Earwig, or whatever we called it," she told him, casting an uncertain glance to Devin, who just shrugged. "It was fun while it lasted, though."

Dr. Blevins stepped back as he saw Devin start to come swooping in to usher him out. "B-but it has untapped potential!" he stammered.

"Onward and upward, Doctor," Antonia said. "I never look back."

"I have other projects!" Blevins said desperately.

Devin paused his approach to gauge Antonia's interest.

"Such as...?"

"W-well, we're looking into creating interactive synthetic memories!" he told her. "Just imagine being able to develop recordings or even full interactive stories that you could download into your brain! People wouldn't have to go to concerts anymore, they could just buy the memory from you! Or they could even pretend to be the person on stage!" He held his breath, worried that he'd oversold it. It was still in the prototype stages, but the initial tests looked promising.

Antonia tilted her head, intrigued. "I'm listening..."



****************************************************************
STORY TWO: Breaking Character (Act II)
****************************************************************

Jack fumbled with his svelte female body—Jakarra's body—in a panic. "Change me back!" he yelled.

**No,** Jakarra's voice replied calmly in his head.

"Jakarra, I am not fucking around!" he hissed, feeling a little stupid talking to thin air. His slender fingers grasped his soft breasts and he glanced around the alleyway anxiously to see if anyone had seen him yet. "Give me back my body right now!"

**Please relax, Jack. I need you to trust me, and to be open to where this leads. I'm doing this is for your own good,** she said calmly. **It will be...instructive.**

"Instructive?" he blurted out. "I don't need—or want!—instruction on how to be a woman!" he hissed. He frowned as he heard her soft husky voice coming out of his mouth as he spoke. It was bad enough to be a woman, but being trapped inside this walking wet dream was too much. "Screw this," he said, reaching to take the metal ring off his finger.

His hand never made it that far. It froze in place and he couldn't move it. Until it started to move on its own.

"You don't want to do that, Jack," Jakarra said aloud. He could only watch helplessly as she took control of the body and stood up straight. He felt as she ran her fingers gently across her supple curves, taking a slow inventory of her feminine attributes. "This is my body, after all. I am just allowing you to borrow it."

As if to emphasize her point she walked to the end of alley, next to the sidewalk where people were walking by. As she did so, he felt as her fingers nimbly tied the bottom of her T-shirt to bare her sexy midriff. Jakarra then swept her long hair fetchingly over one shoulder and leaned sexily against the wall, eyeing the men as they walked past. Jack watched in horror as the guys ogled her—ogled him!—lustily.

He felt as she relinquished control of the body back to him, and he started to edge back into the safety of the alley.

**No,** she warned him.

Jack stood there, far less confidently than she had. Some of the women looked at him disapprovingly or with envy. And the men! He hated the way they looked at him. Their eyes looked him up and down—face, breasts, waist, hips, ass, legs, then back to his breasts and face—and the worst part was that his female body felt aroused at the idea. If a cute guy came over and started to ravish him caveman-style, Jack wasn't sure that he wouldn't welcome it.

**What are you feeling?** Jakarra asked.

"You know what I'm feeling!" he snapped under his breath.

**That is not what I meant.**

Jack felt his face blush as everyone's eyes were on him. "I feel...stupid!" he said. "Embarrassed. Ashamed! Humiliated. I don't like the way they're looking at me."

**They looked at me the same way,** she said. **Did I strike you as being shamed by my appearance?**

"That's different. You're a woman."

**So are you, now.**

He shook his head. "No, I mean, you're...used to it."

There was a pause. **So, if I were to leave you like this long enough, you would eventually become accustomed to it, and it would cease to be humiliating, yes?**

"That's not the point! And what—oh." Jack paused as a guy walked up to him. He was about Jack's age and was wearing a T-shirt for the university and had a backpack slung over his shoulder. He had short sandy blond hair, confident eyes and a friendly smile, and his bare arms were toned and athletic.

**Ooh,** Jakarra purred. **You fetched a good one.**

"Hi," the guy said.

"H-hi," Jack squeaked out. Jakarra was tall for a woman, but this stranger was taller still and well-built. Jack felt his pulse quicken as he stood next to the bigger man. For a fleeting moment he felt an urge to throw his arms around the guy and kiss him.

"You look lost here all by yourself," the guy said. "What's your name?"

"I'm Jack—Jackie."

"Jackie," the guy repeated. "I'm Neil. You a student here, too?"

**Do not allow him to control the engagement,** Jakarra chided. **Unless you desire for him to ravish and deflower you like a timid maiden?**

"No!" Jack snapped sarcastically at her question. Then, looking at Neil, he added, "I'm...just visiting."

He nodded. "Hey, I was just going to grab some lunch. You want to join me?"

"I..." Jack hesitated.

**What are you afraid of?** Jakarra asked. **He is no threat to you! You must meet confidence with confidence. Or would you prefer to be a submissive supplicant?**

"No," he whispered.

**Then meet his gaze.**

Jack looked up at the man, straight in the eyes. He wanted more than anything to turn away in embarrassment, but he forced himself to hold his stare.

**A moment longer,** Jakarra said. Then, **Now, make your judgment.**

"No," Jack said, confidently. "Thanks. I'm meeting a friend."

The guy held eye contact for half a moment longer and then smiled. "Too bad. Well, maybe next time," he said, walking away.

Jack stumbled back into the safety of the alleyway. His hand came up to his chest and he felt his heart pounding. "What the hell was that all about?"

**You are embarrassed by being a woman because you think it something to be ashamed of,** she told him. **And you allow the opinions of others to reinforce that feeling. When those men and women looked at you and judged you, you felt demeaned.**

"Damn right, I did!"

**Why did that man approach you?**

"Because I was preening like a whore in heat!"

**And why did he leave?**

Jack stopped short. "Because I asked him to, I guess."

**So, who controlled that encounter? Who wielded the power?**

Jack paused. "I did."

**Confidence is an attractive quality, regardless of your gender,** Jakarra told him. **And it allows you to do the things you want—to live the life you choose—even when others would judge you for it and attempt to make you feel shame.**

Jack nodded. "I think I understand," he said, looking down at his female body. "Are we done with this?"

**Not nearly,** she responded. There was the hint of a smile in her voice.

"What, you're going to keep me like this forever?"

**That would not be my preference,** she admitted. **Though sometimes sacrifices must be made. But for now we must focus on the prize.**

* * *

Jakarra asked Jack to find another place to meet with Lisa, and while he had an idea it was still a little early and he decided to first stop for lunch. As he crossed the campus quad he blushed again as he felt people staring at his body, but at Jakarra's prodding he stood up straight and met their gaze confidently. After a while he started to find it a bit amusing seeing peoples' reactions, and surprised to find that it mattered to him less and less. He was, after all, just playing a role.

In the confines of the cafeteria his admirers seemed to get bolder, expressing interest in him as he was just trying to order food or find a place to sit. It was starting to get on his nerves when he spotted a younger nerdy-looking freshman sitting by himself.

"This should be hilarious," Jack said to himself as he walked up to the kid. "Excuse me," he said prettily, "Do you mind if I sit with you?"

The awestruck look on the kid's face was priceless. As Jack sat down his intent was just to dodge his suitors for a few minutes and tease the guy a little, but by the time he was done eating he found he'd had kind of an interesting conversation with his lunch companion. As he got up to leave he waved a friendly goodbye.

**Why did you do that?** Jakarra asked.

"At first I thought I'd just give him a little thrill and leave, but... then I thought of how it felt when cute girls shot me down and I didn't want to do that to him," Jack explained. "Then, after we got to talking none of that seemed to matter all that much... and it was just nice to have someone to talk to who wasn't trying to get in my pants."

**Hmm,** Jakarra said, the smile evident in her voice. **Unexpected kindness and empathy all in one afternoon? Perhaps there is hope for you yet.**

"Oh, shut up," Jack grinned, tossing his long hair over his shoulder. "It's probably just all these stupid girly hormones or something."

**Perhaps,** Jakarra said. **And now where are you going?**

Jack sighed heavily. "You wanted me to find a place to meet Lisa. Well, it's Wednesday afternoon, so there's only one place she'd be."

* * *

Jack nervously walked inside The Hero Complex, the local comic book store. Everyone was there to pick up the new books that just arrived and there were several people inside. But he didn't see Lisa so he eased his way towards the racks of new releases.

Conversations stopped as the guys got a load of him. Even on a college campus, girls were an unusual sight in the comic store. But to have a drop dead gorgeous woman like Jack come in and buy comics was about as probable as the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation drop by with the New Kids on the Block and start a breakdance competition.

Feeling self-conscious, Jack focused his attention on the books and tried to ignore the whispering.

One guy picked out a Sailor Moon comic and held it out for Jack. "You might like this one," he offered.

"Yeah, I'm not so much into that," Jack said, picking up copies of The Punisher and some of the new Image Comics books. He picked up a Conan trade paperback and Red Sonja was on the cover, striking a very sexy pose.

The guy looked at the cover and then stared at Jack. "You—"

"Yeah, I get that a lot," Jack said flatly.

One obnoxious guy that Jack had seen around before sidled up and looked at Jack's choices. "Ooh, tough stuff. You like it rough, huh?"

Jack turned to look at him in annoyance and noticed that he was wearing a "Right Said Fred" T-shirt. But before he could make a sarcastic comment the guy noticed Jack's gaze and joked, "Am I too sexy for your pussy...cat?"

Jack rolled his eyes. That dumb song was obnoxious enough when he was a guy, but having to be subjected to it as a pickup line as a woman was just insulting.

"Leave her alone, she's probably just buying books for her boyfriend." The voice came from Jack's gamer buddy, Troy, who worked at the store.

Jack felt his face flush in anger. Where did Troy get off saying what books he could read? "I don't have a boyfriend!" he snapped defensively, instantly regretting it. He could feel the testosterone level rise in the room. "I mean...why shouldn't I read these books?"

Troy raised his hands in surrender. "Hey, it's a free country. Read what you like."

"You didn't answer her question," a woman's voice came. It was Lisa. "What's so strange about her reading those books?"

Troy just made a contrite face and backed away, retrieving Lisa's comics and handing them to her. "Hey, it's all good with me. I'm just glad people are reading."

However, the jerk in the "Right Said Fred" T-shirt wouldn't let it go. "C'mon, you gotta admit it's a little weird, a girl like her reading those books," he said.

"No, what's weird is a grown man wearing that stupid fucking T-shirt," Lisa shot back. She turned to Troy and said, "Put her books on my tab. I'll settle up with you next time, okay?"

He nodded. "No worries, I'll see you this weekend at the game."

With that, Lisa turned and left. Jack was standing there stunned, not quite sure what just happened.

**Are you mad? Go after her!** Jakarra scolded him.

Rushing outside, Jack caught up with Lisa. "Um, thanks for that."

She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I know you can fight your own battles, but guys like that get under my skin. I just lost my cool."

"No, no," Jack told her. "It was kinda awesome, actually."

Lisa gave him a wry smile and then looked at the books in his hand. The one on top was one of the new Image comics and on the cover all of the heroines on the team were bent over provocatively to show off their preposterously curvy physiques.

She wrinkled her nose. "You actually like those?"

Jack flashed a wide smile. "Oh, so when guys hassle me about the books I like you flip out and go all Wonder Woman, but when you do it, it's suddenly okay?"

"I'm not judging! I'm just...commenting," she smiled back. "Hey, you want to go grab a bite to eat?" she asked.

"I could definitely eat," Jack replied, not feeling even remotely hungry.

* * *

That evening Jack threw himself into his bed gleefully, hugging a pillow to his chest and for once not even caring about his female body. "That was amazing!" he enthused. "She was amazing! Oh, God, that was so much better than I'd hoped. She was smart and funny and she even got all my jokes! And I..." he loosened his grip on the pillow and looked down at himself. "I look like I should be modeling nighties in a Frederick's of Hollywood catalog." He fell back on the bed and screamed into the pillow in frustration.

"I don't want to be a woman," he said finally. "I mean, no offense, Jakarra, you're a stone fox, but I don't want this."

**I know.**

"Then why are you tormenting me?" he whined.

**Is it so terrible, being a woman?**

"It's not that. Well, okay, it is that. But this isn't easy, y'know? And I pray to whatever gods you worship that you're nowhere close to having your period," he told her. "But I can't stand being around Lisa like this."

**I thought you enjoyed yourself?**

"I did! But I want to enjoy it as me, not you! Damn it, why did she have to be into girls?" he moaned. "I hate being this close to her and knowing that I can't be with her."

**Are you not going to see her tomorrow, as you told her you would?**

Jack hesitated. "Am I still going to be a woman tomorrow?"

**Yes.**

He sighed. "Then I'll see her. I don't want to let her down, and even if this is doomed to go off the rails I want to enjoy being with her while I can."

**As you wish.**

Jack laid back on the bed, staring at the ceiling. "Jakarra, is this what being in love feels like?"

She was silent for a moment. **I think it more likely that you are simply feeling infatuation, Master Jack.**

He considered that. "Because it really sucks."

**Oh,** she amended, **then perhaps you are in love, after all.**

Jack nodded and clutched the pillow against himself. "Jakarra?"

**Yes?**

"Just so you know, I am totally going to feel you up in the shower tomorrow morning. Seriously, we're gonna be in there for as long as the hot water lasts."

**As you wish,** she responded with a smile in her voice.

* * * * *

The next morning Brandon complained about the lack of hot water in the shower, which was probably just as well considering how intently he'd been ogling "Jackie's" curves...Jack figured that a cold shower might do him good. Jack then left to go meet up with Lisa, and when he arrived at the fountain square he saw that she was already there. He felt a little flutter when she looked up at him and gave him a smile and a friendly wave. But as he got closer, she made a little face.

"What?" Jack asked her.

"It's nothing, I'm not judging."

He looked at her expectantly.

"It's just...you're absolutely gorgeous," she started.

"I think you're pretty, too," Jack complimented her. He wanted more than anything to kiss her just then.

She seemed surprised by that. "Oh. Well, I mean, I get the whole 'grunge' thing, but if I looked like you do I wouldn't be dressing like a homeless person. No offense."

Jack looked down at his baggy T-shirt and shorts. "Oh. Um, I'm just borrowing Jack's clothes. The airline lost my bag."

"What?" Lisa exclaimed. "Why didn't you say something? You can't run around in those smelly things. Jackie, we are getting you properly attired, toot sweet!"

* * *

Jack hated clothes shopping and dressing up in women's clothes was every bit as embarrassing as he'd feared. However, being able to ogle Jakarra's supple curves certainly had its charms. Unfortunately they were also his supple curves. But Lisa threw herself into the task with abandon and her energy was contagious. She asked how long "Jackie" would be staying in town, and Jack paused uncertainly as Jakarra remained maddeningly silent. "Let's just get me through the weekend," he said with a sigh.

In one of the first stores she walked up with an armload of clothes to try on and Jack recoiled.

"We're just shopping!" Lisa said, handing over the clothes.

Jack pulled out one of the garments, a flirty little paisley blue sundress. "Really?" he asked her skeptically.

"It's cute! You might wear it during the day, and maybe we'll hit the bars this weekend."

Jack groaned, but Lisa was grinning ear to ear. "What now?" he asked.

She gave a playful shrug. "It's kinda fun having a real-life Barbie doll to dress up," she laughed.

Jack gamely went along and even started to have a little fun. And Lisa was charming company. However, dressing his female body remained an unnerving experience, one which hit its high mark as they went to buy underwear. "I don't want anything sexy," he told Lisa, looking nervously around the store.

Lisa just snorted as she fetched a salesgirl to take Jack's measurements.

Soon, Jack found himself in the changing room, twisting and grappling with the hook-and-eye closure on a brassiere that the tag promised was the absolute pinnacle of cleavage-enhancing technology. But stuffing and squeezing his fleshy breasts this way and that proved to be far less sexy than he imagined...it was mostly just getting annoying. Exasperated, he tossed his long hair out of the way and turned to face the mirror.

"Sweet mother of God," he gasped, looking at his figure. His already sizeable breasts were pumped up to outrageous proportions, and the scant bra and panties only served to highlight his curvaceous womanly figure. If someone had shown him a picture of the woman in front of him he'd have accused them of airbrushing it to within an inch of its life. Between his slim waist, wide curving hips, and long slender legs he looked like a walking invitation for sex. As he turned and looked at his big round ass, he whimpered.

**I don't like it,** Jakarra said.

Jack sighed in relief. "I couldn't agree m—"

**Go ask that shopkeeper if this is what it is supposed to look like.**

"I'm not going out there like this!" Jack objected.

**Why not?**

Jack was almost speechless. "Women don't go running around in just a bra and panties!" he sputtered.

**Such is not the custom in my realm, either...not that you ever saw fit to garb me in anything more significant.**

"Now, that—that's hardly the—"

**Are you going, or am I?**

Jack froze in place. "Oh, you wouldn't dare."

He got his answer when Jakarra took control of the body and strode out onto the shop floor. There were mostly women shopping there, but there were also a couple of bored-looking men sitting in some chairs obviously waiting on their wives when Jakarra emerged. Their jaws almost hit the floor as she calmly paused and looked around the store, crossing over to where Lisa was looking at some panties.

"Does this look correct to you?" Jakarra asked her.

Lisa turned around and did a hilarious double-take. "I—I think it's doing exactly what it's designed to be doing, yes," she stammered in amazement.

A few moments later, a wide-eyed salesgirl walked up to them.

"Is there a problem?" Jakarra asked her.

"No, no," the young woman said. "In fact, I've just had two other women ask me what you were wearing. Do you like it?"

"It's perfect," Jakarra said. "Does it also come in different colors?" With that, she released control of the body to Jack, who was left standing there practically naked while the salesgirl showed him the different styles available.

Soon, back in the changing room, Jack was pulling on some new form-fitting jeans and a snug cami top over his new underwear. As he ran his fingers through his hair, he fretted as he looked at the beauty in the mirror. "You suck," he whispered.

Jakarra laughed gaily. **That was delightful,** she told him.

"I suppose that was also some kind of lesson about being a woman?"

**Not in the slightest,** she laughed. **No, Master Jack, the next time you march me into a town, tavern, or dungeon clad in nothing but my meager 'armor,' I would wish for you to remember that moment.**

Jack's mouth dropped in disbelief. "Why you little..." He stared at his reflection, and broke into a surprisingly girlish giggle. "Okay, maybe I had that coming," he admitted.

* * *

Over the next couple of days Jack and Lisa spent more time together, became friends, and generally enjoyed each other's company. Jack desperately wanted to get closer to Lisa but was conflicted between his attraction for her and his frustration with his new female body. The maddening thing was that he knew he could be with Lisa—in fact the idea of a lesbian encounter sounded kind of hot—but he felt like doing so would slam the door on his fantasy of being with Lisa as a man. Meanwhile, Lisa hadn't initiated any romantic moves, so Jack satisfied himself with just being "girl friends." The only casualty of this arrangement had been Jack and Brandon's hot water bill from all the long showers. And during those showers, if Jack's familiarity with her body ever bothered Jakarra, she never gave any indication.

Friday came, and Jack suggested they go see the new "Batman Returns" film with her friends. "It's got Catwoman," he said.

Lisa just groaned. "Yeah, a strong, confident woman...dressed like a dominatrix in five inch heels and a pleather catsuit." She sighed. "Pass."

Jack looked down at himself. He was starting to understand where she was coming from.

"Let's get dressed up and go dancing!" Lisa suggested.

"What?"

"C'mon, it'll be fun. I've never really had a girl friend I could do things like that with and you can wear that cute little dress and heels you bought."

"I don't know," Jack demurred. Then, seeing her hopeful face, he melted. "Okay, but you have to get dolled up, too," he told her.

"Yay!" she said, giving him a big hug. "This is gonna be fun!"

They started off at one of the local bars and in his skimpy and flirty little dress, Jack felt like he could use a drink. It started off kind of slow and they sat around and talked for a while before moving on to a louder and more crowded place that had a DJ and dancing. Out on the dance floor, as Jack watched Lisa move to the thumping beat, he thought about what it would like to get close to her, to touch her, to—

He froze up as he felt someone brush against his ass. Again.

Jack grimaced in frustration. He'd gotten so many passes and "accidental" touches that night he was thinking about making a little sign that said, "Fuck off, I'm not interested."

"You're a really good dancer!" Lisa shouted over the music.

"Thanks! You, too!" he called back as someone's hand brushed up his skirt. He balled his fists in frustration and gestured to Lisa that he was going to sit down for a minute. He sidled up to the bar and a drunken guy in a baseball cap fondle his breast in a familiar way.

Jack turned and scowled at the guy, swatting his hand away. "Paws off the merchandise," he snapped.

The guy just grinned at him like an idiot. "Hey, don't be that way! You got all dressed up, don't tell me you don't want to play," he said, starting to lift the hem of Jack's skirt.

Jack flushed with anger. He grabbed a drink off the bar and threw it in the guy's face. "Game's been called on account of rain, dickhead."

Jack was practically trembling with fear and anger and went outside into the nighttime air to cool off. A few moments later, Lisa ran up beside him. "What is it? What happened?"

He shook his head and walked into the parking lot as she followed. "Guys are such assholes."

She put her hand on his arm supportively. "Don't let them get to you, they're just—"

"There's the little prick tease," a man's voice came from behind them. They turned to see the jerk in the baseball cap there with another drunk friend of his. They were big guys, Jack suddenly realized. And he didn't see anyone else nearby in the parking lot. He thought maybe he could scream for help, but it infuriated him to succumb to their intimidation tactics.

"Get lost, you losers!" he said confidently, facing them down.

The guys laughed at his pronouncement. "Uppity bitch," the other one sneered.

Jakarra made a small noise. **Your bravery is admirable, Master Jack, but unfortunately I believe this is a threat you have not faced before.**

"You think we should run?" he whispered in response. He didn't think he or Lisa would get very far on their high heels.

"Run where?" Lisa whispered back as the guys moved closer.

**Allow me.**

In a heartbeat, the guy in the cap lashed out at Jack with his fist and Jack felt himself reduced to a helpless observer as Jakarra seized control of the body. She spun out of the way of the unbalanced attack and used the guy's momentum to slam him headfirst into a parked car and then roughly down to the ground. The second guy grabbed her from behind, wrapping his arms around her waist and pinning her arms. Jack could smell the liquor on his breath even as he snuggled closer, giving Jakarra's hair a little sniff.

"Foolish," she muttered, jamming her stiletto heel fiercely into his foot, penetrating both the shoe and his flesh. His howl of pain was cut short as she slammed her head backwards against his face, causing him to reflexively release her. Jakarra quickly followed up with a vicious elbow strike to his nose, sending blood gushing down his face.

As the first guy staggered to his feet, Jakarra entered a fighting stance, positioning herself between Lisa and their attackers. Her hair was loose and leonine and her teeth were bared like a wildcat protecting her cubs. The two guys, quickly realizing they were in for more of a fight than they'd bargained for, took off through the parking lot.

Jack caught his breath as Jakarra returned control of the body to him. He turned to Lisa who was staring at him wide-eyed.

"Are you okay?" he asked her. She was visibly trembling and looked like she was still in shock. "It's okay, they're gone," he told her, touching her arm gently.

She looked at him in awe. "Now who's Wonder Woman?" she said in amazement.

* * *

The two of them, more than a little tipsy and still riding an adrenaline high from their encounter, stumbled into Lisa's small one-bedroom apartment.

"Thanks for letting me walk you home," Jack said.

"Yeah, well, if I'd known you were Bruce Lee in drag I'd have let you do it every night." She tossed her purse on the end table and started to turn back around to face Jack. "So, can I get you someth—oh." She turned around and Jack was very close to her, less than an arm's length away.

"I'm good, thanks," Jack said, looking her right in her eyes. Those unbelievable blue eyes that had been driving him crazy all week. He edged slightly closer.

**Jack...** Jakarra's voice came tentatively.

Lisa looked down nervously, then back up at him. "You sure I can't get you anyth—"

In one fluid move, Jack embraced her, pressing his lips against hers. He almost could have cried from the emotional release as he finally kissed her the way he'd been wanting to, for as long as he could remember. He felt her soft lips, the warmth of her body, the smell of her perfume, the taste her lipstick. For a fleeting moment he felt his bosom press up against her own and he wondered how much of those sensations were coming from his own feminine body, but he didn't care. Lisa was all he wanted.

After a long moment they broke off the kiss and made eye contact. Jack started to move in for another kiss, but she put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him gently away.

"I—I'm sorry," she said.

"For what?"

"I'm not...like that," she said. "I'm sorry, Jackie, I like you as a friend and all, but—"

Jack stared at her. "Are you kidding?"

She shook her head. "Um, no. Look, it's nothing personal, I promise. I'm sorry if I led you on or anything..."

Jack laughed out loud.

Lisa looked at him nervously. "Maybe...maybe you should leave..."

He looked at her. "No! No, this is perfect, don't you see?" Excited, he grabbed her hands and sat her down on the couch. "I've got something to tell you—it's going to seem impossible at first, but just hear me out, okay? You trust me, right?"

"I guess," Lisa responded nervously.

**Jack, don't do this.** Jakarra warned.

"Please...don't try to stop me," Jack said.

"Okay," Lisa said, even more nervous.

**Very well.**

Jack stood before Lisa and with a deep breath closed his eyes and pulled the metallic ring off his finger. As before, he could feel the writhing of something across his skin and when the feeling finally passed he could feel that he was a man again. Even as he felt the soft touch of something soft swish against his thighs. He looked down in puzzlement to see that he was still wearing the same blue sundress and heels, and he felt his earrings swinging from his ears even as he tasted his lipstick.

"Shit. Well, okay, that wasn't exactly how I'd imagined that in my head..."

Lisa jumped backwards on the couch, staring at him in shock. Her eyes narrowed in recognition. "Jack?!?" she gasped. "That was— how did— where's—" she sputtered. "You're Jackie? But...I saw you two together!"

From behind Jack, Jakarra stepped into view. She was dressed in her gleaming scale mail armored bikini and thigh-high boots.

"Jackie?" Lisa asked.

"I am Jakarra."

Lisa gripped her head, trying to process what was going on. "Jakarra—she's your character?" she asked Jack. "So who the hell is Jackie?"

Jack raised his hand. "That was me. Mostly. I was in her body," he said, motioning to Jakarra. "It's kind of like a time share dealie..."

"Get the fuck out."

"No, it's true! There's this magic—"

"No. I mean you. Get the fuck out of my apartment."

Jack was speechless for a moment. "Look, Lisa. I know it's a lot to take in—"

Lisa shook her head. "No, I think I've got it. You tricked me. You spent the week parading around in some bimbo's body—" She turned to Jakarra. "No offense."

"None taken. Please, continue."

"Thank you. You spent the week playing at being a hot chick and tricked me into making friends with you so you could get me back here and then try and have sex with me in some perverted male-fantasy lesbian role-play scene!"

Jack's eyes darted around nervously. "Okay, I admit you've got the gist of it, but some of the details are really—"

"GET! OUT!" she shrieked. "Both of you! Whatever the hell you are!"

Jakarra moved to the door and stepped outside, but Jack remained where he was. "I wasn't trying to seduce you, I swear! I just...I wanted to be with you! I liked being with you! Is that so wrong?"

Lisa stared at him, incredulous. "Yes!" she exclaimed. "Obviously! When you're...whatever the hell you're supposed to be!" she cried, gesturing at his short little dress and heels. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. "Just get out. Go."

Jack, wounded, stepped out onto the front porch with Jakarra as Lisa slammed the door shut. They stood there in silence.

"I am sorry, Jack," she said.

He just stood there for a moment before taking a step towards the street. As he did so, a few guys walking by laughed as they saw them. "Whoa! Someone having a costume party? Not sure which one of you has sexier legs!"

As they walked off laughing, Jakarra started to say something when Jack jammed the ring back on his finger. She disappeared as he felt the change come over him and he stalked off down the street in her body.

* * *

"Fucking chicks, man," Jack swore, sitting on the couch next to Brandon in their apartment. Brandon fished two more beers out of the cooler and handed one to his friend.

Of course, Brandon didn't actually know it was his friend. After leaving Lisa's place Jack had gone to a liquor store and by the time he got home he was feeling no pain...and in fact might not have made it home at all were it not for Jakarra's impressive constitution for alcohol. So, when a drunken "Jackie" came barging in and plopped herself on the couch next to Brandon and started complaining about women, Brandon didn't argue. He just grabbed some beers.

"Bitches, the lot of 'em," Jack declared, taking a drink.

"Cheers to that," Brandon said.

Jack looked at him in awe. "Yes. Yes. Cheers to that," he said, raising his beer in salute and taking another drink. "Fucking chicks," he repeated. "They get in your head, y'know? I mean literally! In your head!" he warned, tapping at his temple.

"I know exactly what you mean," Brandon said.

"And then just try to show them the smallest bit of kindness, and they're all like, 'Oh, you're all fake, you shapeshifting freak!'"

Brandon shook his head. "If I had a nickel for every time that happened."

"I know, right?" Jack looked at his roommate. "I am not a bad guy! There are lots of guys out there who would have taken advantage, but I didn't. Okay, sure, I felt myself up a couple times, but Jesus, who wouldn't? I mean, just look at these things!" He looked down at his breasts and gave them a grope.

Jack looked back up and noticed that Brandon was staring at him intently. For a long moment the two just wordlessly held eye contact before simultaneously pouncing into each other's arms, kissing feverishly.

* * *

The next morning, Jack awoke slowly, nursing an impressive hangover. By inches he realized that he was sleeping on the couch under a blanket, that he was still a woman, and that—he peered under the blanket—he was totally naked.

"Uh, oh," he whispered.

He sat up slowly, fighting his pounding headache. Last night was fuzzy, but he remembered the scene at Lisa's house, and then coming home, and then...

"Good morning, sunshine!" Brandon beamed, walking in with a coffee mug and wearing nothing but his boxer shorts. He handed the mug to Jack, who was staring back at his friend, numb with shock.

"Did...did we..."

"Did we ever!" Brandon bragged. "And I just gotta say, you were incredible. Seriously. And imaginative! Just...wow. Were you like a gymnast in high school or something?"

Jack closed his eyes as the events of the night before started to come back to him. "Oh, Gooodddd..."

"Yeah, you were screaming that a lot last night," Brandon said with a grin.

There was a knock at the front door and he went over to answer it.

Jack muttered under his breath, "Please, please, tell me that was you in control last night."

**Oh, no, Master Jack,** Jakarra said. **Your actions were your own, though I would hesitate to say that you were 'in control,'** she teased. **You were obviously working off a great deal of pent-up frustrations! I nearly feared for Master Brandon's safety.**

"Ohhh, man," Jack groaned.

Brandon opened the door. "Hi, is Jackie here? Or...Jack? I need to talk to them," Lisa said.

Jack looked up in surprise just as Brandon opened the door enough for Lisa to spot him sitting on the couch. At first Lisa looked puzzled, but on seeing Jack's bed head and guilty expression she turned back to Brandon in his boxer shorts and made the connection.

"Ooooh!" she shouted in disgust, spinning around and stalking away.

Jack was up off the couch like a shot, pausing for a moment when he realized he was completely naked. He grabbed the blanket off the couch and wrapped it around himself as he shoved past Brandon and ran to catch up with Lisa.

"Lisa! Please! Let me explain!"

She spun on him. "Oh, is this the part where you tell me that it isn't what it looks like?"

"Believe me, I wish to God that it wasn't," he told her. "I was just drunk, and angry, and stupid..."

"Gosh, those are such attractive qualities," she taunted. "So, in your grief and anger you turned yourself back into a lingerie model and jumped into bed with literally the first guy you found. Brandon! Your friend! Does he know who you really are?"

"No! God, please, don't tell him," Jack begged. "I don't think he could handle it if he knew it was me."

Lisa sniffed indignantly. "That's funny. For a second there, it almost sounded like you gave a damn about somebody other than yourself."

"Lisa. I know you're never going to speak to me again. I get that. So I'm not going to explain myself or excuse myself, there's no point. But...please, just know I never wanted to lie to you or hurt you. But I did. And I'm truly, truly sorry for that."

Lisa shook her head. "That's just it, Jack. You didn't hurt me. You just lived up to my expectations of you." With that, she turned and walked away, back to her car.

Jack slumped down on the front steps as he watched Lisa drive away and held his head in his hands. "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!" he said. "I am such an idiot."

**I will not contest that point,** Jakarra said.

Jack removed the ring from his finger and felt as he shifted back into a man, still naked under the blanket. After a moment, Jakarra appeared next to him wearing her fantasy armor. She took the ring from him and slipped it on her finger, giving him a supportive little smile as she sat on the steps next to him. "What will you do now?" she asked.

"Well, first I'm going to take the mother of all showers and try to scrub off the memory of what I did last night," he said. "Why didn't you at least try and stop me?"

She raised an eyebrow. "For the same reason you didn't stop, I expect. I rather enjoyed it." She looked over her shoulder at the house. "Master Brandon may be a 'tool' as you put it, but he does remind me a bit of Riffin."

Jack gaped at her in disbelief. "You let me screw my friend because he reminds you of a guy you like?"

She shrugged. "Under your direction, I have seduced less desirable men for far more meager reasons."

"Ouch," he winced. "Okay, I'll give you that one." He looked at her sheepishly. "So, we even?"

She eyed him haughtily. "Far less desirable men. For far more meager reasons," she told him. "On numerous occasions."

"Okay, okay, I'll make it up to you," he said.

"Was it truly such an ordeal?" she asked.

He regarded her carefully. "It had its moments," he admitted. Then he groaned. "Ugh, why did Lisa have to see me like that?"

"Tell me," Jakarra said. "The night we met. Why did you not make love to me? Did you find me unattractive?"

He turned to face her. Even in the morning light with no makeup and looking like the morning after, she was still the most beautiful woman he'd ever laid eyes on. "You know that's not it," he replied. "You're shit hot and you know it. And you also know how to fish for a compliment."

She smiled warmly. "I am what my maker made me," she replied. "Why, then?"

He sighed and looked down the street where Lisa had driven off. "I guess you weren't the woman I wanted to be with."

"Then you should tell her that."

"She doesn't want anything to do with me. Or you. She wouldn't let me within a hundred yards of her."

Jakarra stood up, placing her hand on his shoulder as she rose. "It's ironic," she said. "After all of my adventures, all of the endless battles, all of the fighting, I would not have expected my creator to give up on a fight so easily when so much is at stake." She turned to go inside.

Jack turned to look at her. "What? I'm supposed to tie her down and make her listen to me?"

She opened the door and paused at the threshold. "A true warrior knows the importance of choosing the proper battleground. If she will not listen to you, then you must find a place where she has no choice but to listen."

* * * * *

It was a beautiful sunny day at the park and there were a few dozen people there in costume for the LARP fest. Cardboard signs were attached to a nearby gazebo identifying the various locations from Frayfalls to the Plains of Agzarar and there were a number of tents set up nearby. Things were already in full swing by the time Jack drove up, and several passersby had stopped to gawk at the goings-on.

"This is the dumbest idea I've ever had," Jack said as he got out of the car. He turned to Jakarra, who was getting out on the passenger side. "Which, by definition, means it's also the dumbest idea you've ever had."

"Fortune favors the bold," she reminded him, fighting back a smile.

Jack tugged at his panties, feeling unbelievably self-conscious in the replica of Jakarra's skimpy little scale mail bikini. With her assistance and after raising the limit on his credit card, he'd put together a reasonable facsimile of her costume, down to the thigh-high boots and gloves, as well as the long auburn wig that blew into his eyes.

"How do you fight like this?" Jack wondered.

Jakarra brushed the hair out of his face, showing off the elaborate makeup job she'd helped him with. "My raiments are magical, although I admit it would be easier were I—properly—attired," she hinted.

"Duly noted," Jack conceded sheepishly. "How do I look?"

She laughed merrily. It had a musical ring to it. "It is like looking into a mirror," she smiled.

Jack looked over at his gaming group, who were running around in their costumes. Rob was dressed as Queen Sybeth in a flowing black gown and was casting a "magic spell" of some sort on the party. Jack could see Lisa on one side, carrying her prop "Maidensword."

"Do you think I have a shot?" he asked.

Jakarra was watching the goings-on with some interest, obviously recognizing some familiar players in the scene. "Nothing is certain in matters of love and war," she told him. "But your cause is just. You have a chance. I am certain you will acquit yourself in a manner becoming a warrior maiden of Vala."

Jack smiled. "I won't dishonor you," he said.

"See that you do not," she warned him, raising an eyebrow.

"Looks like I need to get in there," Jack said, watching the scene. "Sure you won't come along?"

Jakarra shook her head. "I am needed elsewhere," she said. "Fare thee well, Master Jack." She removed her ring and placed it on the bottom of the figurine, and placed it in a small pouch on his belt. She gave him a kiss on the cheek as she faded away.

"Thank you," he whispered.

He took a deep breath and jogged over to the group, feeling embarrassed as the cool afternoon breeze brushed his bare skin and blew his wig into his face. The action stopped as the others saw him, and a great cheer and laugh arose from his friends as they stopped the game to come over and greet him and get a better look at his costume.

As the others gathered around, Lisa held back slightly and Jack made eye contact with her. At first she looked at him reproachfully, but he gave her an awkward little smile and tossed his hair girlishly. Lisa rolled her eyes and came up to join the others.

"Sorry I'm late," Jack said to the others. "How can I help?"

Aidan was dressed as his character, Gidral. "You're here in the nick of time. Queen Sybeth is making her final play and it's not going so well. This would be a really great time for a last-minute save."

"Yeah, it would," Jack agreed, giving a sidelong glance to Lisa.

After getting Jack caught up, the players all took their places again. Jack jumped in front of Rob, dressed as the evil queen.

"Stand aside, daughter of Vala!" Rob said. "I fight for all women! And there are no true women who oppose me today," he said, sneering at Lisa. Rob lifted his arms as though to cast another spell.

Jack paused and edged out of the way. Aidan and the others scoffed, obviously used to the self-serving behavior.

"You will be rewarded, child," Rob said, casting his gaze on Lisa and taking out a small piece of weighted fabric to indicate the spell being cast. "And now let us end this charade...FIREB—"

Jack stepped between them. "I interpose myself!"

"The spell is cast! Fireball!" He threw the fabric, hitting Jack. Per the rules, Jakarra took the brunt of the damage, but "Queen Sybeth" was close enough to be injured as well, and fell back as even Jack fell to the ground at Lisa's feet.

"Jakarra," Lisa asked, staying in character, "why did you do that?" She'd never known Jack to put his favorite character in harm's way like that.

"Because...Queen Sybeth...she's right. There's so much more to being a woman than what's on the outside. There's confidence, independence, compassion, empathy, humor, even love. But you have those qualities, too, Wynn. I just didn't see it. I was so fixated on what was on the outside that I never appreciated those other qualities. But they are what define you, not how you look. Love will come from someone who can see those qualities in you, because then...they see you. And you are an extraordinary woman. You don't need to be a warrior, you just need to be true to yourself."

Lisa gulped hard. "I think maybe you've changed, too."

"Sometimes we need the outer change to help the inner transformation along. A friend helped teach me that," he said with a smile. And then he slumped over.

"Queen Sybeth, you will pay for the blood you have spilled this day!" Lisa cried.

* * * * *

After the game was over, Lisa walked alongside Jack back to the parking lot.

She gave him a sidelong glance. "I still think you're kind of a jerk," she said with a hint of a smile.

"That's not fair," he told her. "I'm pretty sure I'm a complete jerk. But I am working on it! Give a girl some points for effort, at least!" he said, tossing his hair.

"I have to admit, that's a good look on you," she teased.

"Well, I do still have the ring," he said. "We could still do a girls' night."

"Oh, can I borrow it?" Lisa asked.

Jack looked at her uncertainly. "What, let you play my character? I dunno, that's a pretty big step."

"Maybe I'll turn into my character," she countered.

"What, Wynn?" Jack made a face.

Lisa smiled. "I'm thinking of calling her Wynna. You know, cute little Half-Elven maiden..." She raised her eyebrows and gave him a provocative look.

"I am digging the pointy ears," Jack said, running his finger along her hair. As their eyes met, he tenderly said, "Thanks for giving me a second chance."

"You are on at least your third chance," she laughed. "But this girl I know vouched for you and I trust her, so..." She gave a playful little shrug.

"She sounds like a woman after my own heart," he said as they kissed and dreamed of adventures yet to come.



****************************************************************
STORY ONE: The Ballad of the Broken Blade (Act II)
****************************************************************

The four adventurers, battered and bloody, took refuge inside the temple. After some searching they found an apothecary that contained some spell components for healing spells which they used to treat the worst of their wounds. And with their immediate survival needs taken care of, they headed to the library and began to discuss their dire circumstances.

"We shouldn't have left her," Wynn said.

"We shouldn't have done a lot of things," Gidral added, staring accusingly at Riffin.

"But we did," Riffin shot back. "And we're alive for it. And Jakarra's alive. She'll survive, that's what she does."

"Better than us," Throg said. "Buried alive."

Riffin turned to the hulking man. "Oh, I wouldn't worry about that, my friend. I'm quite certain they'll dig us out."

Gidral was perplexed. "Why? It seems like a lot of trouble just to have the pleasure of killing us."

Riffin turned to Wynn, who looked slightly nervous. "Go on, show them."

Wynn unwrapped her cloak and the two broken pieces of the Maidensword went clattering to the floor. "I couldn't just leave it there," she said, picking them up.

Gidral sighed heavily. "But it's broken. Useless. Wynn couldn't beat Sybeth even when it was whole. Why would she bother coming after it? The shield already amplifies her magical powers to let her raise her demon army," he said. "What, is she worried we might use it as a dagger to cut the shield from her arm?" he said sarcastically.

"Do you really think there's any possibility that she would even take that risk?" Riffin asked. "No, my friends, she will be coming for us."

"Ah, that's much better," Throg decided. "Eaten by demons."

"How long do you think we have?" Wynn wondered.

Riffin shook his head. "Hours? I don't imagine demons need much rest."

She nodded. "So, what's the plan?"

Riffin laughed ruefully. "Being eaten by demons isn't a plan?"

Wynn slammed her hand down on the desk. "I am not giving up! We've come so far, we've done so much. Riffin! You are the shiftiest, craftiest person I know. You were the one who broke out of the prison of Edhellon using nothing but a deck of playing cards and a length of twine. And Gidral!" she said, moving up to the cleric, "Your faith has carried the day through more undead cemeteries and vampiric crypts than I can remember." She turned to the barbarian. "And Throg! You hit things! Very, very hard!"

"It's true," Throg admitted.

"So you're with me?" Wynn asked.

Riffin gave her a sly smile. "What sort of a scoundrel would I be to refuse the cry of a damsel in distress?" he teased.

Wynn blushed slightly. "Especially when you're in distress alongside the damsel?"

"It does help motivate one," Riffin admitted. "So, milady. What's the plan?"

Wynn was a little thrown at being called to task, as usually this was Riffin's responsibility. "I don't know. I don't know tactics, or fighting. I don't even know all that much magic," she said. "Jakarra was right. I'm not a warrior."

Throg sniffed in agreement.

"Well, then," Gidral said, "let us hope that perhaps a warrior is not what is needed."

Wynn gave him a little smile. "All right," she said. "Well, what about the runes on the sword, here?" she asked, putting the pieces of the blade on the table. "Can you read them?"

"Of course, but I don't have to," Gidral responded. "The prophecy of the two sisters is well known throughout my order. Here," he said, moving to one of the bookcases. He retrieved a tome and put it on the table next to the sword, opening it to the page about the prophecy. The runes were identical.

"What does the prophecy say, exactly?" Riffin asked.

Gidral ran his finger along the symbols. "It tells the tale of two sisters, both of whom were acolytes of the goddess Lythia. To celebrate the goddess, they created these two artifacts—the Maidensword and Maidenshield—and gifted them with magical powers."

"What kinds of powers?"

"It doesn't say, but legend tells that the shield is ironically the more powerful of the two items, being strong with magic. The sword was a counterbalance against the power of the shield. The prophecy tells of how the sister with the Maidenshield grew powerful and dared to challenge even the will of the goddess herself. But the sister wielding the Maidensword, in a—" He hesitated, his finger hovering above the rune.

"What is it?"

The Gnome shook his head. "This is an archaic rune, difficult to translate since it has several meanings. In this context, the nearest translation would be 'conflict.' During the conflict between the two sisters, the one wielding the Maidensword was victorious. The items were then separated until the day came when the two 'sisters' would be reunited."

"Today."

"Indeed."

"No offense to our young bard, but I don't believe the sword emerged victorious today," Riffin said.

Wynn sighed and examined the blade more closely. "There has to be something else here." She put the blade down. "Before she died, the priestess who gave me the sword said that the Maidensword and Maidenshield aren't what they seem. She said they were symbols of your faith."

"Yes, of course," Gidral said. "Their symbology runs throughout our faith. The symbols of the sword and shield are obvious, but it can also be used metaphorically. Courage and temperance, for example. Attack and defense. Even male and female."

"Riddles," Throg scoffed. "I hate riddles. That idiot priestess dies and the last words on her lips are a riddle. Just say what you mean."

"Opposites," Riffin said to himself.

"What was that?"

"Just thinking aloud," he said. "Those were opposites. Perhaps that has something to do with it?"

He and Wynn each picked up a piece of the blade to examine, flipping the pieces over as they compared one side and the other.

"Anything?" Riffin asked.

"No, I...wait. What are these raised markings? They're different on both sides." As she looked more closely, hidden inside the runes were little marks like dots that ran down the length of the blade.

Gidral looked at the marks. "I don't know. These runes are well known in my order, but I've never seen these marks before."

"I see them, too," Riffin said, looking at his piece. "It's curious. Look, they line up in rows along the blade. Could it be a cipher?"

"Gods above," Wynn whispered. She ran to retrieve parchment and ink from a nearby stand and began madly scribbling on the paper. As she looked more closely, she could see that the little raised markings came in slightly different shapes.

Riffin looked over Wynn's shoulder at her transcription of the marks and shook his head. "Is it meant to be a picture? I don't think I've seen anything quite like it."

Wynn looked up at them, excited. "I have. I see this all the time." She drew a series of parallel lines on the paper. Some of the dots were on the lines, between them, below them. She held up the parchment.

"Musical notes," Gidral whispered.

* * *

Some time later, Riffin and Throg returned to the library, looking grim. "We don't have much time," Riffin reported.

Gidral put down a tome that he'd been studying. "I've been reading about the history of the temple," he told them. "Many years ago, they successfully managed to fend off an attack of undead by use of a protective ward spell. It took all of the acolytes working together to do it, but I think I can raise it, as well. But with just me doing it," he hesitated, "I don't think it will last for very long."

Riffin nodded. "If we can set it up in the main entrance hall by the door, that might buy us time to do whatever it is that we're going to do. After that, the best we can do is lead them on a running fight through the temple and try to stay ahead of them." He turned to Wynn. "Please tell me you have good news."

"It took me longer than I thought to translate," she told him. "It was hard to figure out the key and the tempo—"

"But do you have it?" Riffin insisted.

Wynn looked at them nervously and took a deep breath. She sang the melody, her female voice sounding strange to her ears. The tune was beautiful and sad, filled with hope and longing. As she sang, she could feel the breath in her lungs, the beating of her heart beneath her breast. It was a song of life and love.

As the song ended, the three men stood there, transfixed. They were silent for a long moment afterward.

"Thank you for that," Throg whispered.

Gidral took a breath, not even aware he'd been holding it. "It's very likely we are the first men to hear that melody in over four hundred years," he said. "That was a privilege."

Riffin was silent for a moment. He was clearly moved by the music as well, but whatever personal connection it made he kept to himself. "Right, let's get downstairs. I hope to the gods above that those demons are fond of music."

* * *

By the time they got to the main entryway, they could see shafts of light streaming in from outside that were starting to penetrate the gloom, and they were getting brighter by the second as the pounding outside continued. Gidral laid out his spell components on the floor and began to chant, a low guttural drone that was nearly drowned out by the noises outside. But as the door burst open off its hinges, the protective barrier arose through the middle of the chamber.

Queen Sybeth stepped through the doorway, flanked by a dozen demon soldiers. She smiled as she saw the four of them across the room and paused at the edge of the barrier. She slowly raked her obsidian blade across the flickering wall of magical energy, watching as it threw a bright shower of sparks.

"Clever," she admitted. "Futile, of course, but clever."

She took several steps back and cast a spell, launching a fireball at the barrier, which flickered and wavered, but held. She then nodded to the soldier demons, who began attacking the obstruction in earnest.

Hesitantly, Wynn stepped forward, coming right up to the edge of the barrier. Sybeth strode up to meet her so that they were standing within an arm's reach of each other, with the flickering wall of energy the only thing separating them.

"Any last words?" Sybeth taunted.

"Yes, actually," Wynn responded.

Taking a trembling breath, she launched into the lost melody of the two sisters. At first she thought the sounds of the demons' assault might drown her out but her dulcet notes reverberated throughout the entry hall. As before, the song was beautiful and sad but became hopeful and full of love at the same time. Fearful of being distracted by Sybeth's presence, Wynn closed her eyes and sang the lost paean with all her heart, knowing that she was singing for the lives of all of her companions.

As the last note echoed throughout the chamber, Wynn opened her eyes.

As before, Queen Sybeth was still standing before her but the dark sorceress had a curious look on her face.

"That was lovely," the Queen said. "Rather an odd choice for a funeral dirge, though."

Wynn gaped at her wordlessly, perplexed by the lack of response. "But... but it..."

Riffin came up from behind Wynn and grabbed her by the arm, pulling her back to the others. "We have to leave."

"That should have worked," Wynn said weakly.

"Yes, it should have," Riffin agreed. "And now, we're leaving."

"Oh, please don't go now!" Sybeth called with a smile. "And here I even brought you something special!"

Wynn's eyes turned towards the entrance as another figure entered the temple from outside. The person was surrounded by a bright halo of light from the sun shining behind them but as Wynn's eyes adjusted she could make out who it was.

"Jakarra!" she cried desperately. "Don't worry, we'll rescue you," she said, even as Jakarra strode up to Queen Sybeth and stood beside her.

Riffin regarded the amazon warrior. "Wynn...she doesn't need rescuing."

Wynn looked between them, confused. "But..."

"What did she promise you, Jakarra?" Riffin asked. "A share of her kingdom? Wealth? Magical artifacts?"

"All of that, and more, actually," Sybeth purred. "Your only hope was the Maidensword, and it is lost. And there are no real women among you to wield it, anyway," she taunted, looking at Wynn.

"Nor are there any real warriors," Jakarra added, staring intently at the young bard.

Wynn gazed at Jakarra, trying to read her face. Sybeth hadn't picked up on the subtext but Wynn could tell that Jakarra hadn't said it as a taunt.

"Then let us hope a warrior isn't what's needed," she whispered to herself.

Queen Sybeth looked at the magical barrier which was starting to develop holes that opened and closed as it was on the verge of collapse. "I'm going to do what I should have done from the beginning," she said to Wynn. "I am going to kill you. I am going to kill your friends. And I am going to melt that accursed sword down into slag with hellfire."

Wynn stared at her, wide-eyed. "That's it," she whispered.

She rushed over to Throg, who was standing with his sword at the ready and studying the horde of demons that stood poised to attack them, picking out the ones he would kill first.

"Throg!" she said in a hushed whisper, trying to get his attention. "Why would a sword break?"

He looked at her, annoyed. "It was badly made."

Wynn nodded emphatically. "Yes, but what other reasons?"

He shook his head, wondering why they were having this conversation. "Overuse. Metal fatigue..."

Wynn leaned in close. "What if had been reforged?"

The barbarian turned to look at the young bard. "Yes. Perhaps." A sharp cracking sound caught his attention as a flight of hellfire arrows rebounded off of the barrier. The holes were shifting around, but they were getting bigger. The wall was on the verge of imminent collapse.

Wynn rushed over to Gidral, who was concentrating with all his might on maintaining the wall.

"I'm a little busy, now, lass!"

"Gidral," she said, ignoring him. "The rune you had trouble translating. You said it had many meanings. You said it meant 'conflict.' Could it also mean 'clash'?"

Gidral looked perplexed. "Yes...that's one interpretation. But how did you—"

Riffin grabbed Wynn's wrist. "We leave. Or we die."

Wynn looked at him in joy and relief. "Riffin! I know what it means! It's not a riddle at all! It's—!"

Just then, another flight of hellfire arrows came sailing through one of the now-gaping holes in the barrier. They came within a hair of hitting Wynn and she gave a nervous smile to Riffin at her good fortune when she saw the haunted expression on his face. She spun around and saw three of the arrows buried deep in Gidral's chest.

"No!" she cried, throwing herself on the ground next to her dying friend. "Just...just lie still," she told him desperately. "I know a little healing magic..."

Gidral smiled at that. "I'm well past that, lass," he coughed. He got a faraway look in his eyes. "It was a privilege...to fight alongside the Champion of Lady Lythia herself," he told her. "I... still have... faith..."

He slumped over in Wynn's arms and the magical barrier fell.

"Finally," Queen Sybeth snarled. Wynn expected her to order her forces to attack, but instead the Queen readied a magic spell, her face that of grim determination and hate. Eldritch fire licked up her arms to her hands and she loosed the deadly fireball on the helpless heroes.

Then, at the last moment, Jakarra threw herself in the way of the blast.

There was a tremendous explosion and as Wynn's vision cleared she was startled that she was still alive. Jakarra had borne the brunt of the attack, although when it went off Queen Sybeth had been blasted back, herself. An eerie silence fell over the smoke-filled room as the demons paused their attack to tend to their dazed and wounded mistress.

Wynn crawled over to Jakarra's body on the floor. The amazon had been badly injured and Wynn held her close. The two women whispered something inaudible to each other and as Jakarra slumped over, Wynn stood up and blinked back tears.

"Queen Sybeth, you will pay for the blood you have spilled this day!" she cried defiantly.

Suddenly, Riffin came up from behind her and grabbed her. "We're leaving. Now."

"Riffin, I know what it means!"

"Excellent," he said, nodding. "We're still leaving. Throg!"

As the trio raced down the corridor they could hear Queen Sybeth yell, "Kill them, you fools!" and a legion of demons started to give chase.

Soon they reached an intersection and Wynn paused and grabbed Riffin's arm. "Wait! This way!" she cried.

Riffin peered down the darkened corridor. "No! That's wrong. We need to go down towards the—"

"Please! You have to trust me!"

The dark-haired Elf paused to face the insistent-looking young bard. His every instinct told him they had to run and hide, but as he looked at Wynn's determined face he didn't see the countenance of a terrified and dewy-eyed young maiden, but rather the wide-eyed resolve of a warrior. One who was confident and sure of herself.

"There they are!" Sybeth's voice came from back down the corridor. She and her forces were dangerously close and the mass of demons filled the entire hallway.

Stepping forward, Riffin cast a mirroring spell and images of the three of them filled the intersection and they took off in all directions. Amid the confusion, the trio hurried down the corridor that Wynn had chosen.

"This is a dead end," he told her as they ran down the hallway. "We won't be able to get out of there."

"I don't care, it doesn't matter," she responded breathlessly.

"I care," Throg offered.

Wynn stopped in her tracks, glancing back to see if they were being followed. "Throg, you were right!" she told him. "The priestess didn't use her dying words to give me a riddle, she was speaking literally. I just misunderstood her."

"What are you talking about?" Riffin asked.

"The Maidensword and the Maidenshield...that's not what they really are. Or at least, it's not what they used to be. The metal was reforged to turn them into what they are now, but they used to be musical instruments! That was the clue of the musical notes."

Riffin shook his head. "Great. So we have to melt it down into a flute? There's no forge down that way, Wynn!"

"It's not a flute, Riffin," she said. "The sword and shield—the two 'sisters' that met in conflict—they're not metaphorical symbols of their faith. They're literally cymbals!" she explained, clapping her hands together. "That's what the dying priestess was trying to tell me. It's not about a battle of arms or a conflict of symbology, it's about a literal clash of cymbals!"

Riffin's eyes narrowed as he looked to Throg, but the barbarian just shrugged. Slowly, the wizard nodded. "When you fought Sybeth, the only time you managed to injure her was when your sword met with her shield," he recalled. "You believe it wasn't the blow that hurt her, but it was the sound they made."

"Exactly!"

"And now that the sword is broken, do you think it will still work?"

Wynn shook her head. "I don't know. It may not have the same resonance and it will be harder for me to get close," she admitted. "But I think that's why I have to fight her here."

They came to the end of the corridor and paused at the entrance to the large dome-shaped room. The Hall of Echoes.

Riffin looked over his shoulder. "How do you know that Sybeth will come down this way rather than just sending her demons?"

Wynn looked at the Maidensword in her hand, now little more than a dagger with half its length gone. "She'll come."

"All right," he sighed. "Throg and I will try and keep her demons at bay but Sybeth will be all yours. Are you prepared for that?"

Wynn nodded confidently.

"Good. Because once we get started in here, we're going to make quite a commotion. We might as well be ringing the dinner bell."

* * *

From deeper in the temple, Queen Sybeth led a contingent of her demons down the looming hallways. She winced as she nursed her wounds that she'd sustained from her own fireball and glowered as the demons ransacked the rooms, one at a time.

"Idiots!" she snapped. "Find them! They can't have gotten—"

She stopped and touched her brow in discomfort as she heard an annoying, high-pitched tone ringing in her ears. After a moment it stopped, and then sounded again, even louder than before. She grit her teeth and searched for the source of the noise, listening to it as it echoed down the halls of the temple.

"You!" she said, pointing to a small group of demons. "Come with me. The rest of you, keep searching in case this is another one of their tricks."

* * *

Standing in the middle of the Hall of Echoes, Wynn clanged the two pieces of the Maidensword together again. The pure metallic sound reverberated loudly through the room.

Riffin walked up to her side, having finished magically lighting the last of the torches in room. "Demons can see in darkness," he informed her. "And we'll be fighting at enough of a disadvantage."

Wynn struck the pieces of the sword together again and Riffin looked towards the entrance to the room skeptically. "You really think this will draw her out?" he asked.

"It's irritating me," Throg growled.

They hushed up as they heard footsteps approaching. Unlike the mad charge of the demon horde from before, this was a deliberate and measured approach. A few tense moments later, Queen Sybeth entered the room, flanked by a half dozen demon warriors.

Throg sized them up, brandishing his huge two-handed sword. He then paused to glance down at Riffin who was holding his much smaller sword. "The five on the left are mine," the barbarian grinned.

"Thank you for coming, your majesty," Wynn said.

"Think nothing of it, my dear. Where you choose to die is your own decision." She then turned to her demons. "Kill the men. The hermaphrodite is mine."

With a roar the demons broke ranks and charged. Riffin, with a final magical gesture, loosed the spell he'd been preparing and launched a volley of magic missiles into the chests of two of the attackers, who fell down and roared in pain.

"Showoff," Throg said, charging in to the fray and meeting the hellish creatures with a barbarian howl that resonated throughout the room.

"Good hunting," Riffin said to Wynn. As the demons charged up to him he was barely able to get off his mirroring spell, causing illusory duplicates of himself to confuse his attackers.

As the battle broke out around her, Queen Sybeth strode confidently towards Wynn, who was brandishing the broken Maidensword. The sorceress scoffed at the picture. "I admit to being unfamiliar with this brand of idiocy. Tell me, girl, what is your profession? I believe we've established that you are no warrior."

"I'm a bard."

"Ahh, that explains it," Sybeth said knowingly. "A storyteller. You believe you are living out one of your epic tales of heroism and sacrifice. That if you only fight hard enough, evil will be defeated, is that it?"

"No," Wynn replied. "Though I've heard enough stories of overconfident, power-hungry despots to know how your tale will end."

"Insolent, but courageous," Sybeth observed. "I wonder which of those qualities you had before fate saw fit to turn you into a woman," she taunted. "No matter. I'll finish you properly this time. You've earned a quick death."

Sybeth began to cast a spell and once again the cold fire began to form in her hands. Wynn, desperate, broke into a run and charged right at her, but knew that there was no way that she could close the distance in time.

"Riffin!" she shouted. "Help!"

From off to the side Riffin appeared literally out of nowhere as he dropped his spell of invisibility. His concentration shattered, his illusory decoys faded away as he needed his full attention for what he was about to do. The demons spotted him and raced towards him, but not before he threw the blade he was carrying through the air. It was the top half of the Maidensword.

The blade was clumsy and ill-suited for throwing but his attack wasn't meant to wound. It hit its mark square in the middle of the Maidenshield and the clarion noise it made echoed resoundingly throughout the chamber.

"AAAHHH!" Sybeth cried out in agony, her spell ruined. Wynn was on top of her in heartbeat, swinging her half of the sword and again making contact with the shield. The clear and shrill metallic noise was met with Sybeth's screams of pain.

"What witchcraft is this?" she cried, backhanding Wynn and causing the bard to stagger back just long enough for Sybeth to unsheathe her own sword.

Wynn moved around for another pass at the shield but Sybeth now realized the determined girl's plan and refused to give her the opportunity. She expertly parried Wynn's thrusts, but now it was the dark queen that was on the defensive. Still wounded from her earlier fireball and off-balance as she desperately tried to prevent Wynn from again striking the shield, Sybeth reeled from the incoming attacks.

"Enough!" she cried. Summoning her demonically-enhanced strength, she surprised Wynn by swinging her shield arm around and hitting the bard with the Maidenshield full force, knocking her back ten feet back and slamming into a stone column. Stunned and off-balance, Wynn wasn't able to respond in time as Sybeth charged up to her and used her obsidian blade to knock the Maidensword out of Wynn's grasp and send it flying.

Queen Sybeth, grimacing in pain and breathing heavily, held her blade to Wynn's throat. The young bard stared at her levelly even as she felt around on the ground for the thing she'd noticed lying there a moment ago.

"This ends now, girl," Sybeth declared.

Sybeth raised her blade for the killing stroke, but with a sudden thrust, Wynn lanced out with her right hand and plunged the top half of the Maidensword like a dagger deep into the Queen's side, sliding it between the plates of her armor. Critically wounded, Sybeth staggered back. She lunged at Wynn, but the attack was clumsy and uncoordinated, giving Wynn the chance to roll out of the way.

Blood ran down Wynn's hand from where she'd gripped the sharp end of the Maidensword and she clutched her side where she felt that Sybeth had broken one of her ribs. Battered and exhausted, she bent down to retrieve the bottom half of the sword off the ground and stalked towards the disoriented Queen with dire intent.

"I told you that you would pay for the blood you spilled this day," Wynn warned.

Sybeth raised her sword in an awkward parry but Wynn struck it viciously out of her hands and knocked the sorceress to the ground. She pounced and struck the Maidenshield again. And again. And again.

Tears streamed down her face as she saw the faces of her fallen comrades as she struck blow after blow against the shield. She was hardly aware of her surroundings anymore, being only vaguely aware of a sound like church bells ringing.

Without warning, a hand grabbed her firmly about the wrist. She turned in confusion to confront her attacker, but it was Riffin, who gazed at her gently. Slowly she became aware of her surroundings, seeing both Riffin and Throg, both bloody but still alive. And as the last echo faded from the clarion ringing, silence fell about the room and she realized that the demons were gone.

Then she looked down at Queen Sybeth, dead.

As Riffin helped her to her feet, Wynn wiped the tears from her face and looked around the room, the shadows dancing in the warm torchlight. The walls and floor were in shambles with signs of combat everywhere, but with all signs of the demons gone it almost seemed like something that might have happened long ago in one of her tales or stories.

For the first time in her life, the young bard had no words to express herself so she just smiled and nodded in silence to her two friends. And they made their way home.

* * * * *

Back in The Rose and Thorn tavern, all of the patrons were silent as Wynna finished her ballad, singing,

"The blood once spilled, lives remade
Lost in time like a trumpet's fade
But heroes' deeds are known anon
Their stories told, songs echo on

But in the end, the story goes
The greatest change is brought to those
Who'd listen well and look within
The lesson learned, now heard again."

As she finished strumming her lute, there was a long quiet pause as the melody lingered. Eventually, as if snapping out of a trance, one of the patrons began to applaud, soon followed by the rest of the crowd.

"Thank you," Wynna said. "You're too kind."

A few people came by their table to thank her again or offer another coin or token, which she politely accepted.

Riffin looked at the coins skeptically. "Don't tell me you've spent your share of the reward already."

Wynna smiled as she put the put the coins in her pouch. "It's a gesture of gratitude. It would be rude not to take them," she explained. "Usually I just give them away as alms."

Riffin looked at her aghast, as though she'd said something morally repugnant. "Out of respect, I'm going to forget you said that." He shook his head. "Ugh, women."

A serving girl brought them another round of drinks and as Riffin went to take a sip, Throg stopped him.

"We haven't made our toast," the warrior said, nodding to the two empty chairs.

As they raised their drinks, a woman carrying a sleeping infant glided up behind Riffin.

"What did I miss?" Jakarra said, sitting down in her seat and snuggling close to the Elf. She was holding their infant son, who had small pointed ears and raven black hair like his father.

Throg grunted. "You missed everything. As usual."

Riffin passed her a tankard. "Not everything. You managed to be here for the most important part." He shot her an impish grin. "As usual."

He held up his tankard. "To absent friends," he toasted.

"To absent friends," the group replied, looking at Gidral's empty chair.

As they lowered their drinks, Wynna turned to Jakarra. "Your husband was just mocking me for being a woman."

Riffin sat up and raised his finger defensively. "Untrue. I was mocking you for being a soft-hearted patsy."

"Woman," Throg sniggered, cut short when he saw the warning look from Jakarra.

"Besides," Riffin noted, "technically, I fought Queen Sybeth with a piece of the Maidensword, too. I might have been turned into a woman."

Jakarra made a pouty little face. "That would have been a shame," she teased. "Though you might have made a comely little raven-haired Elven maid." She playfully tugged back on the hood of his cloak. "You should show more of your pretty face," she smiled, giving him a kiss.

Riffin tugged his cloak back into place. "Please, I have an image to maintain."

As the companions bantered with each other, a Dwarvish cleric entered the tavern. With nary a moment's hesitation he strode back to their table and regarded them all carefully. None of the party had ever laid eyes on this fellow before but he had a strangely familiar bearing and despite his outwardly rough exterior, they recognized him instantly as a kindred spirit and fellow adventurer. The new cleric sat down familiarly in Gidral's vacant chair at the table.

"What say you, friend?" Riffin asked pleasantly.

"Name's Rindal," the Dwarf introduced himself. "And I understand you fine folks might be the types to be looking for an adventure..."

The End


AUTHOR'S NOTES:
If you made it this far, congratulations! I hope you enjoyed it! And for your efforts, I have one last present for you. If you liked the story—or maybe are just confused—here is the infographic that I created that visually shows how everything in the story fits together, so you can see the many relationships between all the stories and characters! (Click for a larger version)

BrokenEcho.jpg

I got the notion for this story from reading Cloud Atlas, with the idea of souls crossing multiple time periods, interconnected stories, and—most obviously—the "Russian nesting doll" story structure. I hadn't intended to be quite that explicit, but once I came up with the "broken echo" concept it made sense that the echoes would reflect back so that you ended at the beginning.

Essentially, the main concept is that the pivotal challenge being faced in one story becomes the premise of the next story. So when a story finishes, its "lesson to be learned" feeds back into the story that preceded it. In other words, a story will get "stuck" at a pivotal point; it "shouts out" to the next story to explore the concept more deeply; that new story resolves the problem and "echoes back" the solution; and so on back up the chain! That's also why the stories get progressively more meta and self-referential the deeper you go.

That the five stories were so different thematically was mostly just because it was more fun to write that way. I know it was kind of a jerk move to drop in a horror story in the number four slot (by which point you're kind of committed as a reader), but I really wanted to try writing a little horror, so...sorry! However, I tried to keep it campy and not to go too far overboard so as to not squick out causal readers, but the bizarre transformations were nice to set the stage for the "Duck Amuck" story that shatters the fourth wall, where quite literally anything goes. (Which was really, really fun to write.) :-)

Thanks for reading!



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