Story (c) 2000-2003 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 28

Team Spirit


Sheila was half way into the buggy when she suddenly backed up, fanning the air in front of her. "Good lord!" she exclaimed in a nasal voice as she clenched a paw over her snout. "Whad's dat a'ful smel?"

"Smell?" the man next to her echoed, pausing to take a sniff of air, "Oh, that. That's just the mess over in the warehouse."

The vixen's brows furrowed as she looked over to the large building. "Mess?" She looked back at Arden with a quizzical look. "Wha' mess?"

"The corpses, my dear," He replied, offering her a hand back up into the buggy. "They're starting to rot."

"Don't you think you should burry them or something?" she asked, unclamping her snout and trying to breathe only through her mouth, but grimacing at the smell that managed to sneak in each time she took a breath. "I mean, they don't really deserve to be left out for the scavengers. They may have been stupid, but come on!"

Arden got an annoyed look on his face as he studied the vixen. Sheila could almost see the cogs turning over in his head. A few breaths later, he nodded. "All right. I'll do it. Not because they deserve it, but because you asked me to."

"Do what?" Sheila asked, now desperately using a corner of her cloak to try and act as a filter. "And how come you aren't bothered by the smell?"

"I'm a dragon, remember?" As he talked, he helped her up into the buggy. "This kind of carnage actually smells rather appetizing to me." He laughed at the horrified look that the vixen gave him. "And no, I'm not going to go have lunch in there." Walking around to the back of the buggy, he put Sheila's gym bag into the trunk, then sealed it with a quick glyph. Arden took a moment to survey the town, ensuring that the others had left, before he walked over to the center of the village and stood by the well. For a moment he appeared to be simply standing there with his eyes closed, as if resting, but soon he opened them and began to gesture at the buildings, waving his arms and hands in an intricate motion that reminded Sheila of an odd dance. After completing a circle, he stopped and returned to the buggy and took the reins. He then walked the buggy past the stone circle that marked the border of the town.

"Stay here," he told Sheila as he walked back to the doorway of the warehouse. As she watched, he inhaled a tremendous breath of air, and then gave a terrible yell that shook the ground around him. A stream of flame billowed from his mouth, filling the inside of the wooden structure, causing it to burst into flames. Almost as quickly as the flames began to spread to the outside of the building, they began to leap from rooftop to rooftop until the entire village was engulfed in an inferno. Casually, ignoring the raging fire around him and the tremendous, unnatural heat generated by his spell, Arden walked back to the buggy and climbed in. Taking the reins in hand, he turned around to look at Sheila and asked, "Is that good enough?"

Tearing her eyes away from the holocaust, she looked at him and nodded. "Yah. That's good enough."

"I should certainly hope so," he replied with a crooked smile, turning around. With a snap of the reins the horse began to trot down the road, following the curves without any apparent input from the driver. Once they reached the main road he turned right to continue on towards the northwest, following the River of the Dancing Gods, though somewhat at a distance.

Bored of watching the scenery slowly scroll by, Sheila noticed Arden occasionally reaching into a bag, removing something, and then popping it into his mouth. "What are you eating?"

He glanced back with a smile and shook his head. "Nothing you'd want to eat."

"Oh?" she replied, her ire rising at his offhanded tone. "And just who are you to decide that?

Chuckling, he reached into the bag and tossed a gold coin back to the vixen. Her brow furrowed as she looked at the coin. "Are you kidding me?" she said, leaning forward to verify he was actually eating the coins. "You're eating gold?"

"Yep," he replied, tossing another one in. Sheila could hear a low sizzling sound as he chewed on the rare metal. "Why do you think dragons hoard gold? You don't think we do it out of greed, do you?"

"Well," she paused and thought about the question. "I guess I never really thought about it before. I don't suppose dragons spend their gold at Monkey Wards, do they?"

Popping another coin into his mouth, he smiled and shook his head. "Nope. Dragons need gold to survive. It's a very important mineral to us. Without a regular supply of the stuff, we'd suffer all kinds of nasty problems."

"Hmm. Guess you learn something new every day." The vixen flipped the gold coin over a couple of times, looking at the image before biting the soft metal. There was no way she would ever chew on one like he was doing, soft though the metal was. Her attention snapped back to Arden as he suddenly made a retching sound and spit out a chunk of metal. "What's wrong?"

"God damn it," He complained, continuing to spit for several seconds, trying to clear the taste from his mouth. "Someone put copper into the bag. God that stuff is revolting."

Sheila leaned back and chuckled at his discomfort.

"What the hell do you mean, you can't find him?" Hecate demanded.

Benny fought not to backup in the face of the demoness' rage. "We searched both the fae and the real world. There's no sign of him."

"That's un acceptable!" she shouted, glaring at the half dozen acolytes who knelt behind her aide. "I want that little shit found, and I want him found NOW! The last thing I need is to have one of the celestials getting hold of him."

"Mistress," came the voice of a very tall, gaunt, ebony-skinned man with a smoothly shaven head. "There is one other possibility."

Hecate's brows furrowed as she glared at the man. "What other possibility?"

"I believe the World Mage may have him," he replied, bracing himself for her response.

"No!" Benny shouted, glaring at the man. "We have no proof it was him!"

"QUIET!" Hecate shouted, cowering both men. "Why do you say it was the World Mage?" she demanded from the dark-skinned man.

"I can't be sure, Mistress," he replied, bowing again. "I was tracking his scent and it dead-ended in the side of a hill. I'm not positive but I think I saw the residue of a portal."

The demoness frowned at the man. "So? How do you know he didn't somehow open a portal to the planes?"

"The aura was green, Mistress," the man replied, wincing in anticipation of her reaction.

Hecate's eyes flared with power as a momentary wave of anger washed over her, but the rage faded quickly as she let out a long, slow breath that was almost a sigh. "All right. Maybe that bastard does have him." She rubbed her chin as she surveyed the men before her. "There's nothing we can do about it until we find out where he is. Besides, I have some urgent business back in Husquahar." She turned to her aide and began snapping orders. "Organize search teams. I want all of the fae on our side digging for info about him. Tell them to be discreet. Promise them whatever you need to in return for info on where he is." She frowned at the group and growled, "I want that brat found."

Arden leaned back against the buckboard seat and popped a few more coins into his mouth as he waited for Sheila to finish relieving herself behind the bushes. He glanced over and sat up as she waddled up to the buggy, and climbed aboard. Unlike every other time she'd gotten into the buggy, Sheila plopped herself down in the front seat, rather than the back. "What do you think you're doing?" he asked in a miffed tone of voice.

"I'm sitting up here so you can teach me how to drive this thing," she responded as if stating a fact of nature.

"And why should I teach you how to drive a horse and buggy when you're supposed to be hiding in the back?" He shook his head and sighed. "The idea is for you to keep out of sight, Sheila. You can't do that by sitting up front."

"Look," she snarled back, her anger unchecked, "I'm not going to get screwed next time you decide to pull a vanishing act. I want to know how to drive this stupid thing so I can take off if something happens."

The snide remark died before ever leaving his lips. Nodding, he handed the reins over to her. "You're right," he said by way of an apology. "I should be teaching you how to survive around here, even if it is only for a couple of days." Over the course of the next fifteen minutes he walked the vixen through the basics of controlling the horse and how not to ruin the horse by sending it conflicting signals. "All right," he grunted, leaning back to munch on some more coins, "now you know how to drive. Anything else?"

"As a matter of fact, yes," she replied, propping her feet up against the front rail. "You keep talking about all the fancy magic in these swords and the outfit. How about explaining some of it?"

He cocked an eyebrow at her. "Well, the suit you know. Simply concentrate on what you need from it. Concealment, strength, protection, whatever it is you need, it will try and sense what you want and respond accordingly."

Sheila gave him sideways look and cocked an ear in his direction, "So you mean that there's not a set number of things it can do?" She let out a low whistle and gave a small shake of the head. "That's gotta be one hell of a spell."

"Well, not exactly," he replied somewhat sheepishly. "Actually, Lakash made the armor for me, and it's not a spell that does all that."

"Not a spell?" Sheila responded, stopping the buggy. "If it's not a spell, then just what the hell is it?"

Arden cleared his throat and gave her a cockeyed smile. "It's sort of got a mind of it's own."

"WHAT?" the vixen demanded in a shrill voice.

"The armor has been imbued with the spirit of a guardian dragon," he replied quickly, trying to calm her down. "It's not exactly sentient, not really. It's about as smart as a well trained dog, maybe. It senses your mood and tries to accommodate whatever you need."

The vixen scowled at him and growled in a low voice. "So what' you're saying is that I'm wearing some kind of haunted armor?"

"Well, not haunted, exactly," he replied, wincing. "Haunting implies a soul is involved. The spirit is a construct. Really, you're overreacting about this. I mean, it's not like it ever tried to take control of you or anything, right?"

"What about the night it wouldn't let me take it off?" She crossed her arms and scowled at him. "The night that you splattered some poor bastard's blood all over me?"

"Well, it didn't possess you," he replied, inching back a little. "It just prevented you from taking it off while you were afraid. You were scared and it was doing the only thing it knew to do to keep you safe. Really. Think about it. It's saved your life a couple of times." He chewed on his lip for a second then smiled. "Remember when you were outside the cave and I roasted Rathsmon? You drew the tanto as the flames washed over you? The tanto protected you because you drew it and you drew it because the armor knew you needed it to protect you from the flames."

Sheila glanced away as she remembered the moment, then nodded, unfolding her arms. "Ok. I'll give you that one. All right, I'll put up with the haunted armor. Now what about the swords?"

"Ahh," he said with a smile, "The swords. The tanto is loaded to the hilt with protection spells. The wakazashi and katana are both loaded with different elemental attacks." He paused for a second, his smile fading to a forced grimace. "And, um, well, when I made them, I did the same thing as Lakash and imbued them with a spirit, though they're nowhere as powerful as the one Lakash created."

For several seconds she just stared at him, unmoving before closing her eyes and shaking her head. Turning back forward, she picked up the reins and gave them a flick to get the horse moving. It was several minutes before she spoke again. "You realize that I'm going to have nightmares about this crap now, right?"

He gave her a quirky smile and chuckled. "Think of them all as a team, kind of like a football team and you're the coach." His smile grew as she gave him a sideways look that betrayed her confusion. "Hey, at least you'll never have to worry about a lack of team spirit."

It would take several days for the bruise on his arm to fade.

"Where is she?" The man behind the counter in the lobby of the hotel flinched at the sound of Hecate's voice as she yelled. Moments later, Hecate, again in the guise of a elf came down the stairs, taking them three steps at a time. She stomped over to the desk, reached out and grabbed the man by his tabard and hauled him half way over the counter. "Where the hell is she?" she demanded again.

"Where is who?" the man shot back, trying to keep his composure.

"The woman at the top of the stairs, first door on the left," the elf replied, snarling at the man. "Where did she go?"

"She left yesterday morning." He replied hastily, swallowing his fear. "She snuck out without paying.

"What?" a stunned Hecate replied, letting go of the man. "Was anyone with her?"

The man straightened up his tunic before replying. "Yes. My daughter saw a rather evil looking faery with her at the time. She said that your friend looked almost eager to go with her."

"An evil faery?" Hecate parroted to herself. Looking back up at the man, she scowled. "What did this faery look like?"

"Well," he said, clearing his throat. "She had ebony skin. Black wings on her back, like a bat or a gargoyle, and a long, sinuous tale that ended in a barb. The face reminded her of an Imir."

Hecate allowed her image to shift back to her natural form. "You mean like this?"

The startled man took a step backwards. "By the gods," he muttered, making a sign to protect him from evil. "Yes."

"Son of a bitch," she replied, turning towards the door.

"Wait!" the man called out, stopping her before she had taken three steps. "What about the bill?"

Hecate started to cast a spell, but stopped herself short of the actual invocation. She reached into a pocket, took out a large coin and threw it at the man. "There. That'll cover your bill." She then turned and stomped out of the building before he could object. Out on the street, shocked passers bye steered clear of her as she made her way out to into the middle of the road. Spreading her wings wide, she leapt into the sky, gaining altitude as she slowly circled around the town. "All right, damn it. Where are you?" She muttered, reaching out with her senses. After making several circles, she let out a stream of curses as she headed in a generally northern direction, hoping the faint tingle she'd gotten wasn't a false trail.