Story (c) 2000 by Hikaru Katayamma/Keith Dickinson. All rights reserved.
The character Sheila Vixen (c) Eric W Schwartz. Throckmorton P Ruddygore,
Poqua, Lakash (c) Jack L Chalker. All other characters are (c) Hikaru
Katayamma. This story contains adult situations and language. By
reading it the viewer agrees not to hold this or any other person responsible
for any content they may find objectionable. If you don't like it, don't
Imagine old St. Nick on steroids. That's what this guy looked like. Standing almost seven feet tall, his white hair, beard and rosy cheeks looked like something you would see on a Christmas card. His large girth was covered in a finely tailored suit consisting of pinstriped pants, formal shirt, vest, tie, coat and a top hat. The look was rounded out with a long, thin, ebony colored walking stick, which was topped off with a gold dragon's head.
The large sorcerer watched as the portcullis of the castle was raised, timing his approach to allow him to pass beneath with plenty of room to spare. The Sorcerer Throckmorton P. Ruddygore was home.
Beyond the threshold of the castle stood a tall Imir. The elf stood nearly six feet tall with long, sharply pointed ears that framed his face. The yellowish tint to his skin and talon-like claws at the end of each hand marked him the member of a warrior race. He bowed before the large man. "Welcome back, sir," he said in a flat, emotionless tone of voice. The statement was a formality for the Imir, whose job it was to act as assistant and major domo to the sorcerer.
"Thank you, Poquah," the rotund man said. "It's good to be home." Side by side they made their way across the courtyard towards the main building.
"And was your trip productive?" the Imir asked as he fell in behind Ruddygore.
The large man stopped and faced the tall elf. "Things are afoot, Poquah," he said with a concerned look as he rubbed his beard. "The forces of hell have been stirred up by something going on over here recently and I haven't been able to find out why."
Poquah nodded gravely. "I presume that a divination will be in order, then." He said it more as a statement than a question as he anticipated the needs of his master.
Ruddygore nodded and continued inside. "Indeed. I have no choice but to call in some favors and find out just what is going on."
"I shall ready the summoning chamber while you prepare," the tall elf stated. Without waiting for any acknowledgement, Poquah turned down a side corridor, then into a stairwell that led down into the bowels of the castle. After numerous turns, the elf eventually arrived at a pair of large, ornately engraved iron doors. Poquah frowned at the closed doors for a moment. There was the faintest smell of brimstone in the air. That was not an uncommon thing, considering what the room was used for. Instead, he was puzzled at the fact that the smell hadn't dissipated by now. The last adept should have completed his exercises days ago. If someone was in there doing a summoning, they were doing it without the master's permission.
Concerned at the possibility that a lesser daemon may have gotten free, Poquah readied his defenses and pushed open the door. Within lay a darkened room. The only illumination was from the odd candle that remained lit around the perimeter of the room.
Taking a few paces into the room, Poquah spoke an incantation that should have ignited a series of torches that had been place around the room. To his surprise, only the two torches at the far end of the room that were near a large, stone alter ignited, revealing the grizzly remains of a junior adept who was suspended above the alter by a series of chains and hooks.
Poquah hastily raised his defensive shields as he backed towards the door. The last thing the tall elf heard was the metallic clang of the two, huge steel doors slamming shut as the shadows engulfed him.
Three horses stood on the lip of a shallow valley with a small stream running through it. The depression was only about twenty meters in depth and about fifty meters wide, but it was more than enough to contain the caravan of wagons which had set up camp there for the evening. The brightly colored wagons circled around a large bonfire made for an interesting site. Any thought by the duo that the wagons may have been hiding was immediately squashed by the amount of noise that the troop was creating. Music could clearly be heard coming from the encampment giving it every appearance of being a party on wheels.
"Gypsies." The painted mage had spoken the word like it was some sort of curse.
Sheila turned to the painted mage. "You say that like it's a bad thing."
"They're common thieves and charlatans," he declared contemptuously.
Sheila smiled. "Sounds like my kind of people," she replied, spurring her horse forward. "Come on. It'll be fun!"
Ross raised his eyes and hands towards the sky in a silent prayer for deliverance before he, too, spurred his horse forward, following Sheila to the encampment.
As Sheila's horse neared the circle of wagons, a short, blond haired man stood and walked towards her. He was only about five feet tall and wore loose pants that resembled sweats and a vest. No shirt was apparent, though a number of tattoos on his chest and arms made it hard to tell that there was skin exposed from a distance. He could easily have been mistaken for a young man, but he carried himself with the self-assuredness of a man well traveled. As he approached, he shifted the lute he had been playing so that it hung from his back, giving him free access to the sword he wore.
"Hail and well met, fair traveler," he called out with a friendly smile on his face.
Sheila reined her horse to a stop a few feet in front of the man. "Hello," she replied. "I hope you don't mind, but I saw your fire and heard your song and thought I might join you."
Amazingly enough, his smile grew even broader as he spread his arms wide. "Welcome, friend. We would be happy to have you join us this fine evening."
Sheila smiled back and nodded. "Great. I hope you don't mind if my friend joins us too," she said as she glanced over her shoulder towards Ross.
The smile faded from the blond mans face as Ross rode into the light, becoming fully illuminated for the first time. For several seconds he glared at Ross until Sheila spoke again.
"You don't mind, do you?" she asked.
His attention pulled from Ross by Sheila's question, the small man smiled up at Sheila again. "Certainly not. You are quite welcome to join us," he replied, his smile dimmed as he spoke to Ross. "Your friend, too. I am Jasper, the leader of this humble group of entertainers. Please, tether your horses and join us by the fire." Bowing, he swept his arms towards a row of horses that had been tied off to a rope strung up between two wagons.
The pair directed their horses over to the line and dismounted, each tethering their animals to the rope. Sheila quickly began to remove her equipment from the horse, piling it on the ground by its front leg.
"Don't worry about that. I'll get it," Ross said as he began doing the same with his mount.
Sheila began undoing the saddlebags. "It's no problem. I'll do it."
Ross turned and put his hand on top of her paw, stopping her. "I said I'd do it." He paused and squeezed her hand. "You go and have a good time."
"No," Sheila replied with a smile, shrugging off his hand. "I'm not a cripple. I'm just pregnant. I'm not so far gone that I can't take care of my own horse."
"That's not the reason," he replied somewhat annoyed. "I'll take care of the saddles and bags. I want to ward them from prying fingers. Now take that pretty face of yours and go have some fun."
Sheila shot her companion a harsh look at his comment. "Ross! Be civil."
"I'm warning you, Sheila, these people are common thieves. If I were you, I'd be more worried about the gold you're carrying then anything else," he replied as he began removing items from Sheila's horse.
Sheila frowned and shook her head as she walked away. For some reason, Ross was getting grumpier and grumpier as they traveled. He was really beginning to become a total jerk. If he didn't lighten up pretty soon, she'd cut him loose at the next opportunity. The only reason she hadn't dumped him so far was because of magic. She didn't have any magical ability and in this world, that could get you killed, or worse.
Jasper rose from his seat around the fire as Sheila approached. "Ah, here she is. Everyone say hello to um " he paused to think for a second. "I beg your pardon, but your name sees to have slipped my mind."
Sheila flicked her ears in embarrassment. "I'm sorry," she replied. "That's because I didn't give it to you. My name is Sheila and my companion is Ross."
"Everyone, this is Sheila," Jasper said as he led her to a seat by the fire. "These people here are all members of the troop. Starting from your left we have Tika and Kamon," he gestured towards a female and male dwarf, "who do double duty as acrobats and any smithing work we need. Next in line are Taneal and Dawn, " this time he indicated twin human females, "who primarily serve to entertain with juggling and knife throwing, though they have other talents."
Hearing the last part, Taneal took the partially eaten roll from her plate and threw it at Jasper, who easily caught the missile while laughing. "Thanks," he replied, taking a bite of the morsel before continuing. "Next we have Ganadorn," he gestured to a huge, muscular human who waved back. "He does a strongman act as well as most of the really heavy lifting. He also doubles as a bouncer for Lady Cassandra," he waved to a small, shapely female who wore a very skimpy bikini style outfit made of fur, "who does a series of Akaman tribal dances, some of which can be quite erotic in nature. Next we have young Miss Alyas, who has joined our troop of recent. Her only talent so far is being a most excellent cook, but she is also well on her way to becoming quite accomplished at juggling. And to my immediate right is my wife, Pandora. That's not her real name, but it's the only one she answers to. She's a fortune teller and also our primary source of magic support. Lastly is Drix, who seems to be absent."
He leaned back and put two fingers in his mouth before letting out a shrill whistle that made Sheila's ears lay flat. Seconds later a small flying creature standing about five inches high flew up to Jasper and hovered. "Knock it off, asshole. I'm not some dog that you just whistle up when you want something." The tiny female sprite looked for all practical purposes like Tinkerbell right down to the tiny dagger in her belt.
"Peace, Drix," Jasper said quietly. "We have a guest." He gestured towards Sheila bringing her to the sprite's attention for the first time.
"Whoops," Drix said as she moved over to examine Sheila. "Wow. I ain't never seen your likes before. Where did you come from?"
Sheila, fascinated by the tiny creature laughed. "Well I've never seen the likes of you before, either."
"Huh?" the little sprite looked confused. "You've got to be kidding. You're telling me that you've never seen a pixy before?"
Sheila shook her head. "Nope. They don't have your kind where I'm from."
"WHAT?" Drix shook her head in confusion. "You almost sound like someone from Earth Prime, not knowing about us pixies."
"Well, I am from Earth, though I've never heard of this 'Earth Prime' that you're talking about," Sheila confessed.
"That's definitely bizarre," the sprite agreed. "So what are you doing way out here in the middle of nowhere?"
Sheila accepted a plate of food and a mug from Alyas. "Thank you," she said to Alyas before turning back to Drix. "My friend and I are on our way to the castle Terindell. I'm hoping to petition the Sorcerer Ruddygore for help."
"Friend?" Drix asked as she rose slightly and looked around.
"A painted mage," Jasper supplied. "He's taking care of their horses and protecting their supplies from prying fingers." A low murmur ran around the group at the news. Sheila winced at the fact that Ross had been overheard.
"You're traveling with a painted mage?" Drix asked incredulously. "Are you nuts?"
"Hey! He's my friend, OK?" Sheila replied defensively. "Besides, what do you have against painted mages?"
Drix darted closer to Sheila, causing her to flinch. "Honey, they don't have friends. They have expendable assets. Trust me. I've been traveling with bands like these for over a thousand years and I've never met a painted mage that didn't view everyone and everything as expendable in reaching their ultimate goal."
"And just what is their ultimate goal," Sheila asked in a quavering voice. Everyone kept warning her about him. Maybe it was time to ditch Ross at the next opportunity.
"Power. That's all they care about, power," Drix replied. "And from looking at you, you've got some pretty powerful friends."
"Huh?" Sheila grunted. "What are you talking about?"
"Are you kidding?" the sprite replied. "Look at all the magic you've got. You're carrying three magic swords that were forged of true steel, not to mention that wild outfit your wearing."
Sheila looked down at the cured silk armor. Arden has been wearing it when he had shown up at the Arcanum. Although a couple of sorcerers had examined the armor, none, including Ross, had been able to ascertain exactly what functions the spells within it were; only that its manufacture was unlike anything they had ever seen before. "All of these belong to my mate. I know nothing about their powers or abilities."
Jasper looked up from his examination of the silk armor. "Mate? You're not talking about that painted mage, are you?"
Sheila shook her head. "No. My mate's name is Arden. He's the reason I'm traveling to Terindell. I need Ruddygore's help to locate him."
"Yah, well I'd watch your back if I were you," Drix added. "And speaking of which, here he comes." Drix dropped low to the ground and made haste to clear the circle in the opposite direction from which Ross was coming.
Sheila glanced back over her shoulder and saw Ross approaching. She scooted aside to make room for him to sit. As he settled in, she took a bite of the stew that she had been handed. It tasted pleasant enough, but something was missing. After a couple of more bites she figured it out. There was no meat.
"Welcome to our gathering," Jasper said politely. "Would you like something to eat?"
"No, thank you," Ross replied. His tone was polite enough, but somehow carried a chill with it.
"Here." Sheila shoved her platter into Ross' hands. "Try it. It's not half bad."
"No, really, I'm not hungry," Ross replied, trying to hand it back.
Sheila put up a paw to block the platter. "You keep it. You'll like it. It's vegetarian."
"Oh," was all that Ross could reply as he sat the platter in his lap.
"Oh, no," Alyas cried out softly. "I didn't even think about that. I'm sorry."
"Don't worry about it," Sheila replied as she got up. "I've got plenty of dried meats in my pack. I'll just grab some."
Alyas grasped Sheila by the arm and began to drag her over towards the chuckwagon. "Not on your life. We have plenty of meats. I just didn't use any in the stew. You are our guest, after all."
Sheila relented and allowed the young girl to lead her over to their supplies cart. Inside, Alyas threw open a large wooden closet that held large pieces of meat on hangars. Pork, beef, lamb, and other stuff that Sheila couldn't readily identify were all hanging in what looked like a simple closet. "Um, is that fresh?" Sheila asked, sniffing the air.
"Well, we stocked up a couple of days ago, but the preservation spells should keep them fresh for another week or so without any problems," Alyas admitted. "You see anything you like?"
Sheila gave a small chuckle. It made sense that magic would be used for something like this. It's not like you could haul around enough ice to keep food from spoiling. "Sure. What have you got that would be easy to make?"
"I've got some steaks that I could grill up for you if you'd like," the girl responded lifting a large slab of meat from the locker.
Sheila's mouth began to water as she smiled. "That would be perfect."
"Great," Alyas replied as she led Sheila around the side of the wagon to where the smaller cooks fire was. "And while I'm cooking this up, you can tell me out you came to be out here in the middle of nowhere and why you've never seen a pixy before."
Sheila leaned back against the wagon and sighed. "It's a pretty long story. It all started back during a thunderstorm when I was coming back from a convention with my boss ."
The large sorcerer sat behind his desk and examined the pile of messages that had accumulated during his absence. He had already sorted through the inconsequential ones and was now looking at the remaining scrolls. One in particular had captured his attention when he had first seen it. It came from a country sorcerer down in Leander and had been sealed with a strong spell to prevent casual snooping by the carriers. With a practiced motion Ruddygore removed the protective spell, unrolled the scroll and began to read.
Ruddygore rapidly searched through the other dispatches that had awaited his attention, searching for one that had come from the same region or with the name Sheila Vixen. No such dispatch had arrived. There was the possibility that Poquah had read and discarded the communication; however, that was unlikely.
At the thought of Poquah, Ruddygore paused. It had been some time since the Imir had gone to prepare the summoning chamber. He should have been finished quite some time ago. Concerned, he stood and made his way towards the subbasement.
Something was amiss and his intuition was telling him that this Sheila Vixen and Arden were at the center of it.