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. Jack (c) David Hopkins. All other characters
are (c) Hikaru Katayamma. This story contains adult situations and
language. By reading it the viewer agrees not to hold this or any other
person responsible for any content they may find objectionable. If you
don't like it, don't read it.
| It was a firestorm. The small grove of trees in the public
park, which the pixies had made their home for hundreds of years, was completely
engulfed in flames, both magical and non. Hecate stumbled from the fire,
singed and covered in soot. A small oriental gentleman darted out from the
shadows and helped her away from the maelstrom.
Once they were well clear of the fire and any remaining faerie in the area, they paused to rest. "Are you all right, Mistress?"
Hecate leaned sat heavily on the ground. "Yah, I'll be fine, Benny," she replied, taking a few deep breaths. "I just need to catch my breath."
"What happened in there, Mistress?" He glanced back at the roaring fire, looking for any pursuit. "Are we at war with the Fae Na'Djol?"
She shook her head and joined him in watching the fire. "No, not us. Not directly anyway," she commented, frowning. "They threatened to kill the kid. He overreacted."
"Overreacted?" he asked, arching a brow at her. "He did this? He's the one that started a firestorm in a magically protected grove?" There was disbelief mixed with some horror both on his face and in his voice.
Hecate smiled and a twinkle gleamed in her eye as she glanced over at her aide. " Yah, great isn't it?" she asked with a chuckle. "This kid's got to be the one. And to think he wasn't even a candidate."
"This isn't right, Mistress," Benny argued, "He's progressing too fast. He's becoming too dangerous. We should destroy him now, before he is a threat to all of us." He glanced around and lowered his voice. "We must stop him before he catches the attention of the celestials."
The demon's head snapped around to look at the man. "Never!" she growled angrily. "I'm not about to destroy someone who could be the key to my ascension, even if it does risk a run in with the celestial host."
Flinching at Hecate's tone, he took a step back and dropped to his knee. "Yes, Mistress," he replied, head bowed deeply.
Hecate turned back to the fire and sighed. "Right now he's out there somewhere, scared and hurt." She turned back to the man. "Your job is to find him. Become his friend. Get him out of the Fae's realm, back to the real world and off the street. Keep him hidden and start his training. I don't want him causing any more trouble. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, Mistress," the man once again replied. "I am to find him, return him to the real world and then train him while in hiding. I will do as you command, Mistress."
"Good, now go. I don't want to risk him running into any other Fae." Hecate watched her henchman disappear into the night. This kid was going to be the key to her ascension, and she wasn't going to let Heaven or Hell stand in the way of pulling it off.
A cool breeze wound its way through the town, brushing past Sheila's cloak as she made her way down the boardwalk that lined the main thoroughfare. The directions given to her by the waitress had been quite simple. As she came to the expected intersection, Sheila saw her destination off to the right, across the muddy. The building was well illuminated with frosted glass windows and a large chimney that billowed thick, black smoke into the evening air. Although she couldn't read the sign, the silhouette of a person bathing in a tub made the meaning of the sign clear enough.
Crossing the street, Sheila did her best to avoid the muddy ruts and stuck to the somewhat drier highpoints. Quickly stepping up onto the porch of the building, she glanced around at the few pedestrians out, not really sure what she was looking for. The loud crash of someone being thrown through swinging doors caught her attention. On the opposite corner there stood a large bar where a rather rowdy dispute between two men had been taken outside. She watched for a few seconds as the inebriated combatants proceeded to pound each other even more senseless than they were before the fight started. With a derisive snort, she turned and entered the bathhouse. The interior gave a homey and warm feeling to it. Polished wood furnishings glowed amidst the lamps that were strategically placed to give the room a pleasant glow without feeling harsh. Padded chairs and a sofa where placed in a comfortable pattern allowing those waiting to bathe to converse should they desire, without forcing unwanted intimacy on them.
A young girl with platinum blond hair came out from behind a curtain and gave Sheila a practiced smile. "Welcome to our bathhouse. My name is Jade. How may I help you this evening?" As she closed the gap, Sheila noticed that the tips of pointed ears peeked out from the hair that cascaded over the girl's shoulders.
"Do you have any private baths?" Sheila asked, keeping her voice low and husky.
The girl nodded. "Yes, we do. We have several different services. Would you be interested in hearing what we offer?"
The hooded vixen shook her head, "That won't be necessary. I simply need a large tub, plenty of hot water, shampoo and not to be bothered."
"As you wish," Jade replied with a curt nod. "All of our baths have a virtually unlimited supply of hot water, though it is metered. Soaps and towels are likewise provided in any quantity you wish, though you will be billed by how much you use. We require a three silver deposit before the bath, please."
Sheila frowned to herself and reached inside the cloak to the small bag that hung around her neck. Withdrawing a gold piece she flipped it to the girl. "You can give me my change when I'm done."
The girl deftly caught the coin and bowed. "If you will follow me, I'll take you to your bathing room." She turned and led Sheila through the curtains and down a long hallway to an intersection. Turning left, she led Sheila past several large doors to one near the rear of the building. With a practiced flourish she opened the door and ushered Sheila into a rather ornate-looking room. There was an old style tub like Sheila remembered seeing in European movies, with a small table sitting next to it. Over the tub were two chains with rings on them; one round and one triangular, along with a thin, silky looking rope that ended in a ball. The rings controlled valves, which led to a spigot at the end of the tub. The rough, tiled floor tilted slightly towards what appeared to be a drain in the center of the room, which conveniently sat under the drain hole for the tub. Along one side of the room were a number of jars, each filled to a marked line that had different colored liquids in them. There were also several large folded towels on a shelf over an ornately carved bench.
The girl waved to the colored bottles. "The bottles on the bottom are scented oils. The ones on the shelf above them are various types of soaps." She pressed on what Sheila had assumed was simple paneling, causing it to spring open. "Under here we have sponges, brushes and other grooming utensils. Over here," she said, moving over to the bench, "Are towels for when you are finished with your bath. The rings over the tub control the flow of hot and cold water. The round is for cold while the triangle is for hot water. Don't worry about overflowing the tub as the water will drain away quickly." She moved to a door in the back of the room and paused. "Please make yourself comfortable and I'll be right back with some wine. Should you require anything until then, please ring for me by pulling on the white cord."
Sheila examined the valves and noticed that the hot chain for the hot water opened both valves. A quick touch of the pipes told her that whoever had designed the setup knew what they were doing. Pulling on the triangle, she watched as water spurted out. The hot water pipe gurgled and puttered for a second before it began to belch steaming hot water. A quick dip of her fingers confirmed that even with an equal amount of cool water flowing in, it would be way too hot for her taste. She filled the tub about half way before using the cold water to lower the overall temperature. When the tub was approximately two thirds full, the vixen was satisfied with the temperature of the bath and turned the water off.
"Now for the moment of truth," she muttered to herself, undoing the silk sash around her robe and removing the swords, setting them on the table by the bath. Shedding the cloak and sash, she bundled them together and placed them on the bench. It had occurred to her at dinner that she'd been unable to undo the sash the other night in the forest. Somehow the armor had prevented it. When she got dressed this afternoon, it hadn't balked at her removing the sash at all. If her luck were to hold out, she'd be able to get out of the cured silks and into a decent bath, something she'd wanted to do desperately for over a week now. Holding her breath, she pealed open the top and slid it off her shoulders, letting out a long breath of relief as the material slid easily over her hands. She quickly rolled it up and placed it next to the robe, followed a few moments later by the pants.
Now wearing nothing but the fur she'd been born with, the amulet and a bag of coins, she walked back over to the tub. Removing the bag, she placed it on the table by the swords. For a moment she considered doing the same with the amulet, but something inside of her balked at the idea. She then went over to the oils and examined them, opening each and smelling it before moving on to the next. After selecting an oil that smelled strongly of lilacs, she examined the soaps. Some were oddly coarse while others had a greasy feel to them. She finally settled on one that had a neutral feel to it, though it did have an odd greenish tint. A quick test of it on her hand in water showed that it left the fur reasonably clean, and when dried, didn't strip away quite all the oil. She grimaced at the memory of her first bath in this world, and the soap that she'd been forced to use. It had left her skin dry and itchy. Worse yet, it made her fur stiff, coarse-feeling and brittle. She'd never felt so miserable after a bath in her life before that time, and she wasn't anxious to repeat the experience.
Pouring a couple of ounces of the lilac scented oil into the water, she stirred it with a hand before climbing awkwardly in. Her bulging stomach made it difficult to climb into the tub without feeling like she was doing some kind of acrobatic exercise. Letting herself sink all the way into the water, she found that she could almost submerge herself entirely if she tried. She let out a sigh of relief as the warm water worked its way past her fur and into her muscles. "Oh yah," she moaned with a lopsided grin, "This is just what the doctor ordered."
The dusky man was almost invisible as he stood in the shadows cast by the buildings that framed the alley. White teeth made a ghostly appearance on the man's face as he watched the vixen enter the bathhouse. Her cloak may have fooled some people, but she couldn't hide the fur on her hands. It hadn't taken him much time at all to find out where she was staying, and following her had been almost painfully easy. Though she had been careful to check her back fairly regularly, Shelia had walked almost a straight line to the bathhouse, giving even the most naive person an easy mark.
Glancing around to ensure he wasn't being watched, the man crossed the street and slipped into the alley beside the bathhouse. Taking great care to be stealthy, he made his way around to a door on the backside of the building. The limited light from the moon wasn't enough to illuminate the alley, but that didn't bother him in the least. He quickly checked the door to ensure that there were no magical traps or mechanical alarms before picking the simple lock. Within seconds he slipped inside the building, latching the door behind him.
The inside of the building where he entered was fairly well list, though not as well furnished as the public areas. The employees used these back corridors to move between rooms and tend to the patrons' needs without having to pass through the public areas. He knew that this was their off-season and the only person who was likely to be working would be the young elf, Jade, and possibly the owner, Madam Luskan. However, Madam Luskan was getting a bit old and the odds were that she'd be upstairs in her room, relaxing, while Jade dealt with the few visitors that the establishment might get this late in the evening.
Carefully he listened to the sounds in the building, and he heard a noise back in the kitchen area. Moving silently, he made his way to the kitchen area and peeked in to see who was there. Sure enough, Jade was preparing a tray with a bottle of wine, a glass and some cheeses. As she started to fold the cloth back around the cheese, he stepped into the doorway and cleared his throat, causing the startled girl to gasp and spin around in his direction.
"Damn it, Jarad, what the hell do you think you're doing scaring me like that?" she demanded, clenching both fists and scowling at the man. "And just what do you think you're doing in here. You know that the old lady would have a fit if she saw you back here!"
"Calm down, beautiful," he soothed with a disarming smile. "I've come to make you an offer you can't resist."
She frowned at the man, her expression clearly showing her doubt. "And just what do you think you have that I want enough to risk getting sold?"
Jarad took out a pouch the size of his fist and tossed it to her. "That good enough?"
Jade caught the heavy sack, surprised at its weight. When she opened the top and looked in, she was momentarily stunned at the amount of gold within. A few seconds later she yanked the string closed and threw it back at him. "That's too much. I don't know what you want, but I don't want any part of it. That much money can only mean a world of trouble for me, and I don't need any."
"Easy, beautiful," the man said, again soothing her with his voice. "It's not like I want you to kill someone. I just need you to slip your latest customer a potion, then look the other way while I carry her out of here. I followed her all the way here and nobody saw her come in. If anyone asks about her, you can deny ever seeing her." He took her hand and put the pouch of gold into it. "With this much money, you'll finally be able to buy your freedom. How long have you been saving for that day?"
The elf looked down at the bag, then back up at the man. "You're sure nobody saw her come in here? I don't need a soothsayer snooping around and asking questions. If she's worth this much, then someone's going to come looking for her."
He smiled again. "She's all alone. Nobody is with her or around to ask where she went. It's perfectly safe. Trust me."
"I'm going to regret this," she grumbled as she tucked the bag into her robe. "Where's the potion?"
"That's my girl," he cooed as he handed her a vial. "Just pour this into her wine and stir it before you give it to her. She has to drink it within fifteen minutes of the time you open the vial or it looses its effect."
Jade nodded and held the vial in both hands before carefully putting it down on the counter. "All right. Wait by the back door and I'll come get you after I've dropped off the platter."
"Perfect. And maybe when this is all over, you and I can go out to celebrate." He moved closer, wrapping his arms around her. "I'm sure we'll be able to find something fun to do to commemorate your newly-bought freedom."
"Yah, yah," she replied, pushing him away. "You may have bought my services for this little escapade, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to jump into the sack with you."
He gave her a light laugh as he held his arms out. "Can't blame a guy for trying." He turned and left the room.
"Sure I can," she grumbled as she returned her attention to the platter. Putting the cheese away, she dug out a container of hard bread wafers and put some on the platter. Even though they'd never be eaten, she still had to keep up appearances. With a practiced motion she used a corkscrew to open the bottle, smelling the cork to make sure the wine hadn't turned. She then examined the vial that lay next to the platter. It had a simple wax seal that broke away cleanly when she applied pressure to the sides. Being careful not to spill it, she poured it into the wine, making sure the entire contents were emptied into the bottle before dropping the empty vial and wax seal into her robe for disposal later. She then capped the wine and gently shook it to mix the potion into the drink. Satisfied, she put the bottle back down on the platter, which she then slid off onto one hand, balancing it as she moved.
It only took a few moments to reach the door where the customer was, but it felt like an eternity. She had to resist the urge to rush, knowing there was a time limit. It wouldn't do for her to drop the tray or have some other mishap that would render the potion useless. Pausing at the door, she knocked gently twice before entering. In the tub she saw a dog's face, framed by long red hair sticking out of the soapy water. She shook off the initial shock of seeing the customer then quickly put on her practiced smile, walked over to the table next to the tub and placed the wine bottle, glass and plate with the cheese and bread on the table. She then poured some wine from the bottle into the glass, filling it about two thirds of the way before replacing the bottle. "Is there anything else I can get for you?"
Sheila's eyes cracked open and peered at the girl for a moment before closing. "No, I'm fine for now. I'll ring if I need anything."
"Then please enjoy your bath and the wine with our compliments." Jade bowed and walked out the door, closing it quietly behind her.
Sheila wiggled her head around a bit to get a little more comfortable as she relaxed in the tepid water. A few minutes later, she reached up and pulled on the triangle chain, pouring more hot water in to the tub. Foam and soap slopped over the sides as the tub overflowed. Sheila fought the urge to stop the water from overflowing until the bath was once again hot almost to the point of steaming. She relaxed, panting somewhat to relieve the excess heat. After a moment of this, she sat up and reached over to pick up the glass.
"I wouldn't drink that if I were you."
The voice came from a man sitting on the bench in the room, startling Sheila so that she dropped the glass. She grabbed at the hilt of her katana for a second before recognizing the man as the one from the woods the day before. "What the fuck do you want?"
He leaned back and crossed his legs, relaxing. "I'm just here to make sure you don't do something stupid, like drinking the wine."
Sheila growled something incomprehensible as she put the sword back on the table. "I didn't ask for you to be my body guard, and I certainly didn't ask for you to scare the shit out of me while I'm trying to relax." She reached over and picked up the wine bottle, cautiously smelling it. "Why shouldn't I drink this?" she grumbled, scowling at the man. "I don't smell anything wrong with it."
"She slipped a Micky into the wine to knock you out." He stood and walked over to the bath, took the bottle from her and dumped it out onto the floor before tossing it into the far corner of the room where it shattered. He then leaned over, resting his hands on the edge of the tub and causing Sheila to sink down into the water out of reflex. "You know, I wasn't kidding when I said there was a contract out on your empty head. There are some very bad people chasing you, and the last thing you need to be doing is wandering around alone." He straightened up and looked around, frowning. "Speaking of which, where's that demon you've been hanging out with?"
Annoyed at the man's condescending attitude, Sheila put her arms on the sides of the tub and started to climb out. "How the hell should I know?" she barked in an angry voice, standing outside the tub and placing it between her and the stranger. "So what's your stake in all of this?" He turned and walked over to the towels, grabbing a stack of them before walking back over to Sheila. She snatched one from his hand when he offered it, but didn't bother thanking him. "Well? What's the story?"
He sighed and paused for a few seconds as she started drying off. "Not too long ago I made a mistake," he paused and looked down at the towels rather than her. "Actually, it was a series of mistakes, all of which were rather stupid." He looked back up at her and watched her for a moment. "This is part of the payback for those mistakes. My job is to get you to the Sorcerer Ruddygore, and I don't plan on letting anything interfere with that." He handed Sheila another towel as she discarded the now-wet one and continued drying. "Until you're safe in Castle Terindell, I'm going to keep a close eye on you."
"So you know Ruddygore?" she asked, not bothering to look up from her job of drying a leg.
"Only by reputation and through stories," he replied. "Here, let me help you with that." Tossing all but one of the remaining towels on the table, he walked around behind Sheila and began to vigorously rub her back, working the water out of her fur.
Sheila tossed the towel she was using aside and got another towel, turning her head to look at the man. "Don't get any funny ideas while you're back there," she warned before starting to dry her other leg. "Since you're going to be around for a while, how about telling me your name?"
"My name?" he echoed, pausing for a moment. "Call me Mori." Finished with her back, he got a fresh towel and proceeded to dry her tail.
Sheila also grabbed another towel and began working over her hair more thoroughly than before while glancing around to watch him dry her tail. "You're not bad at that. You deal with my kind of folk where you come from?"
His head shot up for a second before he resumed drying. "No, not where I come from, though I've run into a few like yourself in my travels."
Sheila's continued drying her hair as she studied his badly scared face. He looked familiar, but she couldn't place it. She had an eye for patterns, and for the life of her she couldn't remember where she'd seen those scars before. After a minute she turned around and continued to dry her hair.
Once she was relatively dry, Sheila walked over to the bench and got dressed. She would occasionally glance over at Mori to try and gage his expression. As she tied the silk sash around the cloak she decided that, although he was watching her, he wasn't studying her, nor did he appear to be all that curious about her, which in turn made her wonder just who the hell he was. She recovered her three blades and tucked them into the sash before turning for the door through which she entered.
Sheila nodded and headed for the service exit to the room. She turned right, following Mori's suggestion and headed for the back of the building. As she came around the final corner, she stumbled to a stop in shock at what she saw. A thin, dusky man about her height was pinned to a large timber that supported the walls by a long dagger through his throat. At his feet, the garments that she remembered Jade was wearing were lying on the floor, surrounded by a stain that resembled blood. "What the hell happened here?"
Mori pushed past her and unlocked the back door. "He was here to capture you for the bounty. She was the one who spiked your drink."
"So you just killed them?" Sheila demanded in a shrill voice.
"Would you rather I kissed them?" Mori challenged sarcastically in a loud, harsh whisper.
"You can't just go around killing people, damn it!" Sheila argued, stepping around the clothes on the floor as well as the stain. "You're going to get me into trouble."
Peeking his head out the door and surveying the alley, Mori then stepped out, holding the door until Sheila was through before closing and latching it. "Don't worry. Nobody's going to track this back to you. Even if someone does try to cause trouble, I'll handle it."
"By killing them?" She followed him to the end of the alley where he checked to see if anyone was watching. "Is that your only solution? To kill someone?"
He sighed and counted to ten before answering. "In this case, yes. I couldn't let him live to report, nor could I allow the elf to live, since she might have talked, too."
Sheila grabbed his sleeve as he started to turn and yanked him back around. "I don't care about him, but she was just a girl. How could you?"
"Girl?" he parroted incredulously. "She was an elf, probably thousands of years old. Now shut up and stop worrying about what happened back there. I have to get you back to the hotel without being spotted."
The vixen chewed on her lip for a second before nodding. "All right, what do you want me to do?"
Giving the street another quick check he nodded. "Just try to concentrate on not being noticed." He paused for a second as he though, then shook his head. "Try repeating to yourself that nobody can see you or something. Just make it your intent not to be notice."
"Huh?" Her brows furrowed as she tried to figure out what he wanted. "What's that going to do?"
Mori did a quick double take before shaking his head again. "Your armor senses your emotions, and on some level your desires. If you're afraid it tries to protect you. If you're angry with someone it reacts. In this case you need to want to be unnoticed. Hopefully, it will sense that and respond appropriately."
His words stunned her. No wonder it wouldn't let her disrobe in the forest. She had been terrified. If she'd taken off the armor, she'd have no protection. It also explained why she got such wild reactions from people when they pissed her off. As she thought about it, something popped into her head that demanded attention. "Hey, how do you know so much about this armor?"
He rolled his eyes toward the heavens and mouthed something before looking at her. "I've been watching you. It's easy for anyone who can see magic to watch the armor respond to your moods. Your weapons do that too, or hadn't you noticed?" He grabbed her arm and checked the street again. "Now, if you can just save the questions for later, I think it's best that we got away from this building.
Sheila allowed him to lead her from alley to alley, away from the building. Behind them, unseen, the darkness shifted as the shadowy form of Rathsmon the dwarf came into view. He smiled and checked his compass to verify it was still tracking the pair properly before tucking it back into his vest. Whistling a light ditty, he walked away from the bathhouse, taking his time as he strolled after the duo.