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.

Identity Crisis
Chapter 26

We had to destroy the village to save the village.
- Unknown Leutenant during the Vietnam War

"Stupid bimbos…" The disgruntled voice came from the back seat as their buggy pulled away from the docs. "I can't believe you paid them."

Mori turned to look back at her, resting one arm on the seatback. "You're kidding me, right? It's their ferry. They do all the work. It's only fair that they get paid to do it."

"That's not the point," the vixen said, crossing her arms over her swollen belly. "It's how much you paid. It's goddamn highway robbery! You paid them more than I've spent in the last month!"

"Actually it's more like fairy robbery," he quipped, turning back around to watch the road. "But you're crazy if you think I'm going to argue with them over it. She had a good point when she said we could go a week out of our way to cross up north, or pay to cross here."

"Yah, well… maybe," Sheila grumpily conceded, squirming a little to get comfortable again. "How much longer before we reach town?"

Mori closed his eyes for a second and appeared to be lost in thought. When he opened them again, he frowned. "Another couple of hours and we'll be to a place we can stop for the night."

"Oh man," she groaned, squirming some more. "You better stop again, then. I need to use a bush." Once the buggy was completely stopped, Sheila climbed down. "Damn fairy ferry took forever," she complained before rushing off into the think underbrush.

Mori climbed down from the buggy and went around to the back and opened up the trunk. "Get out," he ordered the dwarf.

"Are we there yet?" Rathsmon asked, climbing out of the buggy. "This doesn't look like civilization.

"I know. I'm going to put in at the Begly Enclave tonight," he explained, lashing down the lid again. "I'll be able to get Sheila in, but not you."

"Wait a second," the dwarf said, frowning at the tall man. "You've got to be nuts going in there. I've heard about those people from my contacts down below. They've made a pretty ugly pact with Hukkath."

Mori sighed and nodded. "I know. I know." Mori rubbed the bridge of his nose looking very tired. "That's why I'm going there." He glanced off towards Sheila to verify she was still occupied. "I'm going on his behalf to fulfill a bargain I made with someone by doing him a favor."

"I hope you know what you're doing," Rathsmon replied, visibly shuddering. "Especially since you're taking Sheila in there."

"Don't worry about it," the tall man reiterated. "I'm going as Hukkath's agent so they dare not do anything to me. Nor will either Sheila or I be affected by the curse. I've got Hukkath's word on that." Mori glanced towards Sheila. "Quick. Lose yourself in the bush. She's coming back. We'll meet up with you in the next town." He watched as the dower-looking dwarf practically dove into the bushes, then went back around to the side of the buggy and waited on Sheila. "Everything come out OK?" he asked with a smirk.

"Cute," came the terse reply as she hauled herself up into the buggy without any aid. Behind her, Mori chuckled then climbed up into the front seat, taking the reigns. The pair were moving again seconds later.

A couple of hours down the road, Sheila's attention snapped back to the present as the buggy bounced off the main road and off onto a side trail which wasn't as well traveled. Soon they came around a curve where she spotted signs of civilization that quickly turned into a small town. The forest thinned out and abruptly stopped about one hundred feet from the nearest building. On closer inspection, Sheila noticed that there was a stripe of dead grass and dirt, about three or four feet thick, that ran right at the edge of the clearing. Just outside of the clearing there was a large wooden sign with a huge skull and cross bones on it, and a hand pointing down towards a row of white stones that ran across the road. As they got closer, they could see some sort of wall that was nearly invisible. Only the slightest of shimmering gave away the fact that it was there. Mori stopped the buggy a few feet from the sign and climbed down.

"What's going on?" Sheila asked, climbing down after him. "And what's with the big sign?"

"It's a warning not to cross the line," he replied walking over to the sign. "I'd advise you not to try crossing the line, or the spell that protects this place will kill you." Upon reaching the sign he rang a small bell that hung underneath, and then returned to the horses and waited.

A few minutes later a large man wearing leather armor and a long sword by his side walked out to near where the two where waiting. "What do you want?"

"We need a room for the night," Mori tersely replied.

The man laughed. "You'll not find one here. I suggest you go back to the main road and continue on up to Yamesh."

Before the man could turn around, Mori stopped him. "I have business in this town. I suggest that you open the barrier."

"Business?" the man said, giving a derisive snort. "What sort of business?"

Mori frowned at the man and pursed his lips for a moment before replying. "I am Hukkath's agent."

"You?" The man scoffed, 'Hukkath's agent? Right. If you were Hukkath's agent, you wouldn't need me to open the barrier."

"All right then. If you insist." Mori reached over his shoulder and drew his two-handed blade. Almost casually he stabbed it across the line of rocks where it struck an invisible wall, leaving a trail of sparks along the length of the blade until it was half way through. He then turned the blade like a key in a lock, causing a visible ripple in the air as a large arch opened in the wall, a static discharge ran up and down the inside of the arch. "Now, do I have to open you up as well to gain admission, or do you want to go tell your boss that Hukkath's agent has arrived?"

The blood drained from the man's face as he watched the barrier open up for the stranger. "I..I'm sorry," he stuttered, taking a step back. "I didn't realize, my lord. We get so many people claiming… Please, come this way and I'll take you to the mayor."

'Who's this Hukkath character," Sheila asked as they followed the man into town.

"I'll explain later," Mori replied leading the horse through the barrier. Once they were all past, it snapped shut behind them, once again leaving only the slightest shimmering to show that anything was there. "Right now I think you'd much rather that I get you to a room with a comfortable bed and a bath."

The vixen frowned at Mori. "You're just trying to distract me."

"Is it working?" He asked with a smile, ignoring her scowl.

Sheila gave a derisive grunt. "Not really, but I won't complain about being comfortable for a night, assuming that you don't wind up killing anyone in the process."

Mori's expression changed for a moment as he looked like he was going to say something, but the emotion vanished as did any attempt on his part to speak. Instead, he simply followed the man into town and up to a large house near the center. As they approached he saw a rather tall, pale skinned man with short, curly, blond hair come out. His clothing was far better than that of the few other people they'd seen in town and his leather shoes and belt shone. He held out his hand as the trio stopped in front of him. "Greeting's. I'm Mayor Begly. I assume that you're the representative that our patron has sent?"

Taking the man's hand, Mori gave it a firm handshake. "Yes. I am Mori, Judge of the Contract." He turned and gestured to the vixen. "This is Sheila, my traveling companion. She is under my protection while we are here. I will require a comfortable bed and private room for her while we're here, as well as a bath."

"I see no problem with that," the mayor replied with a practiced smile. "We have a bedroom in my house that will work perfectly. I'm sure we can also arrange for a bath for the young lady." He turned the practice smile on Sheila's unhappy face, and then turned quickly back to Mori. "How long will you be gracing our humble town?"

"I have pressing business elsewhere," Mori replied tersely. "The sooner I get this over with the better."

"Fine," the mayor turned to the man in leathers. "Loren, take care of their buggy, then let everyone know that we will be having a town meeting after sundown. Everyone must attend, including the children."

"Yes, Lord Mayor," the man replied, bowing before quickly withdrawing and taking the horse and buggy with him.

"If you'll follow me inside," the mayor stated, opening the door for them, "I think we can see to getting you settled in." Once they trio had entered the house, Begly raised his voice, "Katrina, we have company."

A few moments later, a young woman came out from a rear portion of the house, wiping her hands on an apron. Her head was covered with a scarf, hiding all but a few wisps of brown hair. The only thing about her that appeared at all ornate was the small gold ring, which pierced the split of her nostrils. She gave the two strangers a quick glance, lingering on the vixen before bowing to the master of the house. "How may I be of service?"

"Show these people to the spare bedroom, then draw a bath for the young lady." He turned and smiled to the pair. "Please go with Katrina. She will see to your needs. I must prepare for the judging." A look of almost pure glee crossed his face. "This is a most exciting time. Most exciting." He shared another smile with everyone before marching out the front door.

"Please," Katrina said, getting their attention again. "If you will follow me, I'll show you to your room."

"Room or rooms?" Sheila asked behind the girl.

Katrina paused by a door and frowned. "We only have one spare room," the girl explained opening the door and leading them in. "I'm sorry for the inconvenience. I will find my master and see if he can make arrangements elsewhere."

"That won't be needed," Mori said, interrupting the conversation. "I will sleep in the chair in the corner." He gestured to an ornate if not over-padded chair that sat in the corner, an ottoman pushed up next to it.

For a moment the girl's glance wavered between the two, trying to figure out what to do, before finally bowing. "As you wish, my lord. I will prepare that bath for you now, miss. If you need anything," she reached out and gently moved a silk cord which dangled from the ceiling, "simply pull this cord." Again she bowed before stepping outside the room and closing the door.

"What do you think you're doing, telling her you'll sleep in here?" Sheila asked, her voice dripping with anger. "I don't want you or anyone else in my room when I sleep, do you understand me?"

"Clear as a bell," Mori replied, sitting down on the ottoman. "I don't plan on sleeping in here anyway."

Sheila's anger changed to curiosity. "Oh?"

"I don't need to sleep," he replied, laying backwards and stretching out. "However I wasn't about to tell her that. It's none of her business."

"Fine, you don't sleep in here," the vixen replied, kicking his feet. "That doesn't mean you can lounge around in here either. I want to try and take a nap before that bath's ready, so if you don't mind, how about making yourself scarce?"

"Fine by me," he said sitting up then standing. "I should probably supervise the preparations for tonight anyway."

"What preparations?" Sheila asked, sitting down on the bed. "I remember you saying something about being a judge. What was all that about?"

Mori shook his head. "It's nothing for you to worry about. A contract was made a decade ago. I'm here to judge if these people have kept their end of the bargain." He stepped out of the room, re-closing the door behind him and blocking any further questions Sheila might have had.

"What the hell could he be judging," Sheila asked herself as she lay down on the bed, trying to find a comfortable position. "Damn it, I hate it when people act all mysterious like that."

The vixen sat before the mirror as the last rays of the setting sun streamed into the window. She was using a silver brush on her long hair, working the few remaining tangles out of it as it dried. The bath had been luxurious and something she was beginning to get used to. A knock at the door broke her train of thought. "Yes?" she called out.

The door opened to reveal the young girl. "I must now go to the town meeting. If you need anything, please help yourself. The kitchen is in the rear-most part of the house. Please be careful of the stove as it is still quite hot."

"What's with this town meeting?" Sheila asked, putting down the brush and straightening her silks as she stood. "What's it about?"

"I do not know, miss," the girl replied with a shrug. "All I know is that my master has ordered everyone in town to attend the meeting, even the children. There are to be no exceptions."

Sheila chewed on her lower lip for a second. "In that case, maybe I should go too."

"I don't think so," the girl replied slowly, thinking about it. "If you were to come, I'm sure my master would have informed me. Since he said to make sure you were comfortable before I left, I would think that you were supposed to stay here."

"Harrump," the vixen grunted as she finished sticking the scabbards into her belt. "In that case, I think that I should go."

The girl looked like she wanted to argue, but then gave a small bow. "As you wish."

Together the two walked from the house a short distance to a large building that looked like it could have been a warehouse. As they arrived at the door, Sheila saw that there were about thirty or so adults seated in folding wooden chairs that faced a low stage. On the stage sat a long row of benches, on which sat all the children who fidgeted, chattered and occasionally poked each other as children were wont to do. Behind the rows of folded chairs, Sheila saw another thirty or so feet of open space and then what appeared to be sacks of grain and unmarked crates resting against the back wall. In the middle of that open space sat about a dozen or so chairs arranged in a small cluster. Sheila's guess was that the place did double duty as a town hall, recreation center and warehouse.

"What are you doing here?" Mori's angry voice caused her head to snap around. "You should be back in your room."

"I came to watch the town meeting," Sheila replied bracing herself for an argument.

"This is no place for you. You should go back to your room." He took her arm and tried to move her outside. "This doesn't concern you. You shouldn't be in here."

"No!" the vixen barked, planting her feet and holding her ground. "This does involve me. You dragged me away from Hecate and into this town. I'm not going to go hide in my room just because you said so."

"God damn it…." Mori paused, closing his eyes and counting to ten. "Sheila, I know that you're curious about what's happening here, but please understand when I say that it's not something you want to be a part of, I really do mean that you do not want to be here."

"I'll make my mind up about where I do and don't want to be," she replied, jerking her arm away from him. "Now if you don't mind, I'm going to go sit down."

"Sheila, please," Mori pleaded, stopping her. "I'm asking you---no, I'm begging you. Please don't stay here."

Sheila was surprised at the pleading look that was on his face. For a moment, she considered going back to the room, but squashed that idea. "No. You dragged me into this, now you're going to have to put up with me."

The expression on Mori's face changed from pleading to a harsh mask that was unreadable. "As you wish," he replied in a flat, monotone voice. "If you'll follow me, there is seating in the back where you and the others who are not directly involved in the proceedings will sit." He led her to the cluster of chairs in the back of the room. When they got closer, Sheila saw that a pentagram and circle had been drawn around the seats. "Do not step on the lines or any of the lettering." He said, directing her to a chair in the front. Sheila gave him a nervous glance then made her way carefully to the chair where she sat down.

Mori then went back to the entrance where the mayor was standing. "Is everyone here?"

"All here and accounted for," the mayor cheerfully replied, closing the door. He then walked up onto the platform with Mori following close behind. Standing in the middle of the stage, he glanced on an ornate symbol that hung on the wall before turning back to face the audience. "Friends, we are gathered here tonight for the judging of our contract with the Sorcerer Hukkath. This is Mori, the Judge of the Contract. Please give him a warm welcome." He gave a polite clap along with the rest of the townsfolk before sitting down on a chair at the end of the stage.

Mori nodded to the townsfolk, his face still a blank mask. "I am the eye, voice and arm of Hukkath. It has been ten years since the founding of your town, and I am here to make sure that you are following the bargain made at its founding to the letter. First though, I must ask some of you to go sit inside the circle I have drawn in the back of the room. Anyone here who is a slave, please go to the circle. Any child who is not first born, go to the back of the room." The last was directed to the children sitting on the bench. The announcement caused a bit of a stir in the room and amongst the children. Half a dozen got up and walked to the back of the room with a dejected look, feeling left out. Mori went to a crib on the end of the row, picked it up and took it to the eldest boy and handed it to him. "You are to sit in the back with this child."

"But I'm first born!" The boy looked from Mori to the mayor who sat in the first row. "I'm first born!"

"I know," Mori replied. "I must still ask you to go to the back. All will be explained."

The boy took the basket and made his way to the back, with Mori following closely. On the way, Mori pointed to one couple and asked them to join the circle also. The murmur of discussion in the room increased as he checked the circle. Once he returned to the front of the room, one of the people stood and spoke. "Why were they sent to the back? Why do you only choose from the first born?"

"Why only the first born?" Mori echoed incredulously. He glanced over at the mayor who only continued to smile at everyone. "You don't know?" His question took the townsman by surprise, and the man sat down when Mori waved to him. Mori walked around behind the bench, touching each child on the head as he passed them. With the touch, each child's eyes glazed over and they got a dreamy smile on their faces. "You weren't told about the bargain that was made with Hukkath?"

Someone from the front row spoke up. "We know that he agreed to protect this village and make it prosper. In return there would be a choosing for the most suitable candidates to enter into his service."

Mori paused before putting his hand on the head of the youngest boy who smiled up at him. With a touch, the boy joined his companions under Mori's spell. "Enter into his service," Mori said with a low voice to the mayor. "That was quite clever wording."

"Thank you," Mayor Begly replied, his grin growing slightly wider.

"Yes, I suppose you could say your children were to enter into his service," he stated walking around to where Hukkath's symbol hung on the wall. "You are all fools, though, for not questioning such a bargain."

The same man stood back up "What do you mean by that?" he demanded. "What does he mean?" he demanded of the mayor.

"You are all fools and idiots," Mori said in a low, angry voice. "Have you no idea what the true bargain was?" He paused to look at the group. His angry stare had a physical presence to it that forced the man back down. "Hukkath isn't a sorcerer; he's one of the demon princes of Hell, and your bargain was to sacrifice your children's souls to his service, and in return your town would prosper without risk of danger or harm from the outside!"

There was a stunned silence that was broken by an almost simultaneous scream of denial as all the adults tried to stand, but found they couldn't move. Mori looked down at the line of children under his spell who were blissfully unaware of what was going on or would soon happen. "Dear God, forgive me." He raised his hand and uttered a single word: "Shiboo!"

Sheila jumped out of her chair and tried to run towards the platform, but ran into an invisible barrier that had been created by the circle that Mori had drawn. She watched horrified as the entire row of children slumped and fell to the floor with the stroke of that spoken word. Her shouts mingled with the rest of the crowd's horror and outrage, echoing around in the wooden building and beating on the occupants with a surreal force. The only person who was neither surprised nor horrified by what had happened was the mayor whose smile had evolved into a smug, sadistic look.

Mori walked back out to stand under Hukkath's symbol that hung on the wall above head height. "Quiet!" His voice thundered in the room and had with it a spell that demanded compliance. "You people disgust me," he said in a low, angry voice. "Each and every one of you knows that nothing comes without a price." He looked down at the bodies strewn in front of the bench. "And something this powerful never comes without a price that should never be paid."

He glared at the crowd then turned to the mayor. "As mayor of this town it was your duty to see that the rules were followed. Only married couples, single people with their own children and slaves were to take residence here. You yourself broke that rule."

The mayor tried to stand, but found he too couldn't move. "What are you talking about? I followed the rule! Everyone here is a slave, single parent or married couple! Everyone!"

"All except you," Mori said quietly.

The mayor looked stunned, then angry. "No! That's my son in the back," he pointed to the tall boy who Mori had handed the basket to. "He is my son. He's my first born!"

Mori shook his head. "He's your wife's son, but not yours. Since your wife is dead and never came here, that means that he is here in breach of the contract." Mori gave the shocked man a sadistic smile. "You can thank Harriman the Smith for that."

His face once again hardened as he turned towards the crowd. "As judge of this contract, I declare you to be in breach of contract and the price owed to Hukkath is now due!" He drew his sword, turned and smashed it against the symbol on the wall. There was a bright flash of light as both the sword and the symbol were destroyed, sending glowing embers ricocheting around the room. People screamed in agony as the bolts of light passed through them, growing brighter as they ripped the person's soul from their body.

Everyone inside the circle cringed as shards of light bounced off the invisible barrier and continued on their way, searching for a live body. After a minute of this, Mori held the hilt of his sword out causing all of the shards to reform into the blade, a blade that glowed with a hellish light. He then casually slung it over his shoulder and clipped it into the holder.

Sheila and the others looked out in horror at the gruesome sight before there. Where there had once been more than thirty people, there was now a mangled pile of splintered wood and shredded bodies. Mori walked around the growing pool of blood, creating a clean path with a wave of his hand. He stopped just outside the ring and looked at Sheila. "Are you satisfied? I didn't want you to have to see this, but you wouldn't give me any choice."

"You monster!" She spat. "They were only children! How could you?"

Mori used the tip of his shoe to break the outer ring, destroying the spell that created the barrier. "I had no choice. You heard what I said. They made a deal with a demon and I was here to collect the price. I'm not the bad guy here."

"Not the bad guy?" It was the son of the mayor who spoke up. "You've killed all of my friends. You killed my father!"

Mori gave the boy such a scathing look that the child was forced to backup a step for fear of his life. "Your father was an evil man who tricked others into selling their children's souls for his benefit."

"You could have walked away," Sheila argued. "You didn't have to kill anyone. You didn't have to kill everyone."

"If I didn't, someone else would." Mori's face softened slightly as he let some of the anger fade. "The only person in here who had defaulted on their bargain was his father. Everyone else hadn't. If I hadn't done what I just did, someone else would have come along behind me and harvested those children's souls."

"So it's better that you harvested them instead?" the boy shouted, tears rolling down his eyes. The others in the group stayed motionless, not wishing to draw attention to themselves.

"I didn't harvest them," Mori said in a quite voice. "Or didn't you notice that they were already dead when I destroyed the emblem?"

"But… but… you killed them, we saw it." Katrina had found her voice and stepped forward. "You said something and they all just dropped to the floor."

Mori nodded gravely. "Yes, I killed them, but I didn't harvest them," he explained. "Their souls will most likely go to purgatory and then get recycled for another chance. Unlike Hell, Heaven doesn't keep innocent souls to use for its own purposes. They're given another chance at life." He took a step towards the stunned vixen. "Don't you understand, Sheila?" he asked in a pleading voice. "It was the only way I could save them."

"I…I don't know," Sheila slowly replied. "I just don't know about any of this. Maybe you did do the best thing, maybe not. All we have is your word for it." She looked around, trembling. "I…I just don't know." She glanced at the others before making her way towards the exit. Mori held his hand up, stopping the others from following her out.

"What do you want now?" the boy asked.

Mori gestured for Katrina to step forward. "Take the ring in her nose. She's your property now." The boy did so. Mori then turned to the couple. "You've had no children, so I have no claim on your souls. As long as you never produce children, you'll be safe from Hukkath." The two looked each other and nodded. "Since I'm sure you'd like to have children of your own, I'm trusting that you'll care for these." The half a dozen children looked nervously at the two adults.

"We'll do the best we can," the man replied nervously.

"This village is no longer under the protection of Hukkath. When I destroyed his emblem, I also destroyed the barrier. If I were you, I'd load up some wagons with anything you can carry and move along to the next village." With that, he turned from the group of survivors and walked out of the building. Outside, Mori looked up at the stars for a second, trying to put what had happened in the warehouse behind him. He was still staring at the stars when the couple and the kids left the building.

An hour later, he turned and began heading towards the mayor's house. He got about half way there when he suddenly grunted and doubled over in pain. "Not now!" he muttered over and over as he collapsed to his knees. "Not now, goddamn it!" A few seconds later, the pain subsided, leaving him panting and sweating. He unsteadily got to his feet and stumbled to a post on the porch of the mayor's house and leaned against it. "Just a little longer," he whispered with his eyes closed. "Get her to Ruddygore. Once she's safe with him, I can deal with this."

It took several minutes for him to recover his composure and enter the house. Sheila had closed and bolted her door, which was fine with him. He took a chair and pulled it up to the wall next to the door, sat down and leaned backwards. Hukkath was going to be pissed about not getting the kids' souls, but that was something that he'd deal with when the time came. Slowly he became aware of the quiet sound of Sheila crying in the other room. He leaned his head back against the wall and stared at the ceiling as the first tear began its trek down his face.