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
Splotch. That's the sound the horse's hoof made each time the horse took a step in the rain soddened mud. Splurtch was the sound it made as it came back out. It had been raining since early morning and only let up, once, around noon for a brief period. Ross had explained that it was the start of the monsoon season, and these storms could last for days without end. Whatever the reason, Sheila was not a happy camper. Although she had remained fairly dry under her rain slicker, her paws were definitely cold and wet.
This was not what she had envisioned when she started out on the trip. This was supposed to be a straightforward trip across the open plains and deserts of Leander. Nobody had said squat about storms, much less thunder and lightning.
To make things even worse, Ross was sitting there under some kind of spell that kept the rain off of him, reading his damn book and totally ignoring the inclement weather. He hadn't even bothered to keep up the pretense of being a nice guy by offering to do the same thing for Sheila. Instead he had simply looked after himself without offering to lift a finger to help her.
Occasionally, during the ride, the hairs on the back of Sheila's neck would stand up, giving her the sense that something was wrong, but each time she looked back at the mage he had his nose stuck in the book. After hearing him talk to his boss the night before, Sheila wouldn't have been surprised if the feeling hadn't been some warning that he was trying something. She'd have to do something about losing him, and soon.
The rain broke as the pair crested a small ridge, revealing a small town nestled in the valley below. Wood houses spread out along both sides of the river, which was now swollen with water. Even with the large amount of rain that had fallen, the river was nowhere near flood level. From the looks of the banks, it would appear that the town had taken efforts to ensure that no ordinary storm would result in any flooding. Should such a thing occur, the citizens could easily escape up the gradual slopes on either side of the valley and into the safety of the foothills.
Sheila rode a short distance into town before spotting a stable that suited her. The large, barn-like structure had one of the tall doors open to the weather, allowing riders to enter without having to dismount. Once inside Sheila climbed down as a tall, muscular human approached.
"Good day, sirs," he said, wiping his hands on the leather apron he word. "And how may I assist you today?"
"It's Ma'am," Sheila said, pushing the hood back, "and I need my horse stabled."
The tall man took a step back. "By the gods," he muttered in shock before shaking it off. "Umm Stabling fees are eight silver per night, plus feed."
"Eight silver!" Sheila replied angrily, slinging the saddlebag over her shoulder as she tucked the bedroll under the same arm. "That's highway robbery." Her hand unconsciously rested on the hilt of the Tanto that she had tucked into the right hand side of her belt, contrary to the more-traditional system Arden had shown her.
"Well umm mind you that is for both horses," he said nervously at the thought of violence.
Sheila glanced back over her shoulder at Ross and his mount. "Screw that. Just my horse, fed and groomed."
The blacksmith wiped his hands nervously again on the apron. "All right, then. Five silver per night for stable, feed and grooming."
"Five silver?" Sheila spit, contemptuously. " Three silver and not a farthing more," she said angrily. "I'll be back in the morning, and if she's not been taken care of right, I'll be taking care of you personally!"
Sheila turned and stormed out of the stables, leaving a rather shaken blacksmith staring at the retreating form. He had almost forgotten about her companion when Ross stopped next to him.
"I wouldn't push my luck with her, buddy. Her bite is as bad as her bark," he sad in a conspiratorial tone as he followed her out. A smile graced his face. "That was entertaining," he thought to himself. "If the bad weather continued to hold, this trip might not be so boring."
Lightening framed Sheila as she stood in the doorway of the inn. A sudden downpour had caught her unawares as she had been crossing the street, drenching her in the process. Another flash followed by a clap of thunder outlined her body before she walked across the room to the innkeeper. Behind her, a trail of water and muddy footprints bore silent testimony to the raging storm outside.
"I want a room," she said in a low, flat tone of voice, "preferably on the second floor with a balcony."
The innkeeper was a bulky man standing maybe half a hand taller than Sheila. His face was scarred and pocked from years of combat. The once-proud Roman nose now sat crookedly on his face, declaring for all to see that at one time he had been a warrior who could take it as well as he could dish it out, and right now he didn't look at all pleased.
"We're not a kennel. No animals allowed," he replied, tossing the towel he held onto the bar. "I suggest you look elsewhere."
A low growl escaped Sheila's muzzle as she glared at the man. "What did you call me?" she asked in a quiet voice.
The bouncer had slowly moved around the end of the bar and was cautiously trying to flank the vixen. He held a club about the size and shape of a baseball bat behind him in an attempt to prevent her from seeing it.
Sheila caught the movement out of the corner of her eye, and dropped the saddlebags and bedroll as she spun to face him. The Katana slipped half an inch out of its sheath as she bared her fangs and snarled at him. "That's far enough, asshole!"
The bouncer started to bring the club around to defend himself, but froze for a moment before dropping the weapon and slowly backing away.
Sheila spun back towards the barkeep and glared at him. "How about it, asshole? You were saying something about animals?"
The war axe that the bartender had picked up clattered to the floor as he stared at the creature before him. The moment the Katana's blade had been exposed, a red glow had spread from her armor to completely cover the angry vixen. Neither the innkeeper nor his bouncer, nor anyone else in the room, knew that Sheila was totally unaware of the effect. All they knew was that this was magic, and nobody wanted to screw with a mage, especially not one wandering around with swords to backup the magic.
"Nu-Nu-Nothing, " the innkeeper stuttered, trying to get the words out. "It was just a misunderstanding, that's all." He swallowed as his eyes locked onto one of the dragons that were embroidered into the silk armor she wore. He could have sworn that it had turned its head to look at him. "You're welcome to take any of the rooms, any one at all."
Sheila snapped the sword back in its sheath and picked up her belongings. "Just give me the fucking key."
The innkeeper hastily grabbed a key from the block of pigeonholes behind him. "It's up the stairs, last door on the right," he said putting the key on the bar. "That's six silver per night." He visibly flinched after stating the price, obviously worried that she might take offense.
Sheila scowled at him again. "That better include meals," she said sharply.
"Sure!" he agreed, nodding vigorously. "Meals included. Not a problem."
With a quick swipe of the paw, Sheila snatched the key off of the bar and tromped noisily up the stairs to her room. All eyes followed her progress to the eventual slam of the door once she had reached her destination.
A low chuckle caught the innkeeper's attention, making him notice Ross for the first time. The mage had made his way silently from the door to the bar that doubled for the main desk while Sheila was making her noisy trip to her room.
"What do you want?" the surly innkeeper snapped.
"Just a room, if you don't mind. Next to hers, if possible," Ross replied with a smile.
"Yes," he thought to himself, "this is going to be very entertaining."
The desk wasn't too different from the one that Ruddygore had in his office. In fact, if one looked about the room, they would find that most of the books on the walls were of common interest to both owners. However the owner of this desk was quite the opposite of Ruddygore.
Standing barely five feet tall, the bald sorcerer sat behind his desk, pouring over some very ancient paperwork that had recently been brought up from the archives. When he had first learned from Ross of this creature, he had suspected that there was more than meets the eye. These documents proved him right. He was busy scribing notes when there came a knock at the door.
"Enter," he said absentmindedly.
A tall human woman entered, dressed in what appeared to be rabbit fur. Around her head she had a length of fairy-spun gold braid that held her long black hair in place, and prevented it from obscuring her vision. Her skin was paper white and decorated with an intricate series of tattoos that covered almost all of the exposed surface. A small feather dangled from one ear, the only form of decoration other than the headband.
"You sent for me, Master?" she said in a respectful voice.
"Yes, Kalla. Please sit down," he replied without looking up. For several minutes the sorcerer continued to write in his journal while the barbarian warrior sat patiently in the chair before him. Finally he put the pen down and looked up at the woman. "I have a job for you."
A brief smile visited her face. "And here I thought you had called me in to discuss tomorrow's lunch menu," she replied lightly.
"This is serious," the sorcerer growled. "We've got a problem, and I need you to ensure that things are handled properly."
"What is my mission?" she asked, all pretenses at humor or banter gone.
"Ross has discovered a creature, one not of Heaven or Hell, yet she is interdimensional in nature. She's also sporting enough magic on her to support a small army." He paused and scowled at a document before him. "I think Ross may be in over his head. You know him; he tends to be overconfident. I don't want to loose track of this creature."
Kalla gave a brief snort of derision. "Overconfident is an understatement. That idiot has trouble finding his dick when he needs to piss."
The man gave Kalla a sharp look. "Might I remind you that he is my son?" he said in a dangerous tone.
"It doesn't change the fact that he's an incompetent fool," she replied calmly. "How many times did he get lost just going between classes at the academy because he had his nose stuck in some book? He's useless and you know it. It's time you stopped covering for him."
"Perhaps you're right," he admitted grudgingly. "That's why you're here. I have no doubt that she's going to slip his reins and try to make a break for Ruddygore's." From behind the desk he took out a large map and unrolled it on top of all the papers. "They're here," he said pointing to a spot, "about five days south of High Pothique, just west of the Dabesar River. I've arranged for some inclement weather to delay them. Apparently she's afraid of lightening. It should delay her for a few days, at least until Thurgarden realizes that someone's been messing with the weather in his back yard and takes steps to correct it."
"Right. If I push it, I should be able to get there in two, maybe three days, tops," Kalla replied studying the map.
"I would think more like five," the sorcerer replied. "The storm is dumping a ton of water on the area. You won't find it an easy trip."
Kalla gave the man a dangerous smile. "Don't even think about telling me my business, old man. I've been tracking prey through a lot worse terrain since before that young whelp of yours was out of diapers."
"Whatever," he replied, rolling the map back up. "Just get over there and make sure that you don't loose track of her. This is important to us. She's the key to the Chaos Gate, I'm sure of it. If everything goes right, Ruddygore will no longer be the only sorcerer who can travel between worlds."
Hecate was fighting some rather strong headwinds as she pushed her way southwest from Stormhold, in High Pothique. Having flown through the night from Terindell, she would normally have found a cave in the mountains and slept there. Unfortunately, she had sensed something that shouldn't be out there. There was something not of Husquahr or Earth to the southwest, and she needed to find out what. If it was Ruddygore's stray dog, she could expect a serious bonus for such a quick turnaround. If not, then it was best she find out what it was for future reference.
The sensation of 'wrongness' was strong enough now that she had a fairly decent idea of its direction and distance. A quick dive took her below the cloud level and providing a clear view of the surrounding terrain. Her magic sight showed told her immediately that this wasn't the quarry she was hunting.
Below, spread out for a huge distance in all directions, was a dead forest. Dead, to all that lacked the sight, that is. A dark magic permeated the trees, giving a ghastly glow. There was no doubt that something powerful resided down there, and right now Hecate didn't have time to deal with it. A quick look showed the ruins of what had once been a small castle or keep.
From the center of the ruins strands of magic shot out, searching for her. With a curse, Hecate twisted and dodged the probing strands. All except one. It clipped her left wing as she twisted violently. All sensation left that appendage and she began to spiral down out of control. Even as she fought to level out, a swarm of creatures launched themselves from the keep, and headed in her direction.
"You won't get me that easy!" she shouted in defiance. Folding both wings back, she dived at the ground, reaching out with one hand. A subtle twist of her long fingers called forth a magic that only she could perform, and the fabric of reality tore itself apart before her. She dropped into the momentary rip, and with a blinding flash she was gone, leaving no trace of her passing.
From within the tower a tall, skeletal form wrapped in rotting cloths, stared for a long moment at the empty place where the intruder had escaped his grasp. He valued his privacy, and now someone had escaped to tell of his existence. He turned and strode purposefully from the room. Time to prepare for guests.
Sheila sat in her room and stared out at the lightening storm that raged beyond the walls. With each flash of lightning she flinched. A long time ago, she had told Zig Zag about her fear of lightning. Now she had to deal with it in a way she had never imagined.
The vixen straddled a chair, leaning on the back as she stared out at the dark clouds. Images half remembered showed themselves with each flash. Arden on the night he appeared in the middle of the road, shock and confusion on his face as the headlights hit him. His unconscious body as it lay in the ditch with the strobes from the EMT vehicles illuminating the scene with irregular pulses. Arden standing on top of the hill, firing at the helicopter that had been strafing them. Each image was a separate dream that haunted her as the thunder rumbled by.
"Why did you have to go and get yourself killed?" she said to nobody in particular.
"He had no choice," a voice said from behind.
Sheila turned and saw young Thomas sitting on the edge of the bed. "Thomas? Is that really you?"
"That depends on what you consider real," he replied with a smile. "You're sitting in a building on a world governed by magic, trying to bring Arden back from the dead."
"Yah, I guess you have a point," she replied with a small chuckle. The kid had a pretty good argument going for him. "What do you mean, he had no choice?"
Thomas stood and walked over to look out the window. "Arden is being pulled in a lot of different directions. There are so many conflicting forces trying to control him that he's almost out of control. In the end, though, he will make the final choice, alone. Nobody else will have a say."
"If none of this is his choice, then what about me?" she asked, staring down at her paws. "What about us?"
Thomas shrugged. "I don't know about that. I do know that Nanuk felt that you and he should be life mates, but I don't think she would have forced the issue. That's just not her style."
"What about you? What's your part in all of this?" she asked, looking up at the boy.
"My place?" he echoed contemplatively. "My place is to serve, Miss Sheila. Arden is my master, and I try to serve him as best I can."
"But you're dead!" she replied.
The young boy laughed. "So is Arden, but you don't see that stopping him!"
"Touché." Sheila sat for a second then looked back over at Thomas. "Will we be together after all this is over?"
Tomas shrugged. "I don't know, Miss Sheila. I'm not an oracle." He smiled at her as he sat on the windowsill, ignoring the pouring rain. "I will tell you this. What little I do know about the future, I'm pretty sure that you will get home."
A bright flash of lightening followed by an immediate clash of thunder caused Sheila to jerk upright in her chair. Now fully awake, she realized that the candle by the bed had burned out long ago. It had been a dream. But was it real? Would she really go home?
Only time would tell.