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.Mary the Mouse © Mary Minch. 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 35

The Manchurian Candidate

Sheila sat on the bed, naked, glaring at Arden as he examined the silk armor closely. Beside her sat another Sheila, who also glared at him, though the look she gave may have been slightly more murderous. "What the hell are you doing?" the first vixen asked.

"I'm going to try and duplicate this armor, though it won't be easy," the scarred man replied, flipping the jacket over to examine it closely from the back.

"Yah, right," the second vixen muttered. "I think you've got delusions of grandeur. That thing was crafted by a celestial, right? What makes you think that you're going to duplicate it?"

"Oh, just something I learned while programming computers in the military." He flipped the jacket back over and studied the inside lining near the center of the back. "Computer software isn't unlike a spell. Given the proper utilities, there's no reason you can't copy the program no matter how well protected it may be."

The second vixen rolled her eyes and gave a derisive bark of laugher. "And you think you're going to come up with some kind of spell-program that's going to copy something so complex that I can't even see ten percent of it?" She shook her head and let out a long sigh. "Look, there've got to be thousands, if not millions, of branches to the threads that make up the weave of that armor, each one its own spell. I don't see how you're going to do it."

Arden stopped and leaned back for a second, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his hand before turning to face the two females. "The trick is recursion. In a computer, you can have a program spawn a copy of itself to continue processing a separate part of the job, then disappear or report back to the master version when it's done." He paused to smile at the identical looks of confusion on the faces of Sheila and Hecate, both with their ears cocked forwards and heads slightly tilted. "If I can get this spell to mimic that functionality, I can start it on the key thread and it will follow the entire tapestry of the armor, duplicating it exactly. Even if it does miss a few threads or copy them incorrectly, the difference should be so small as to be insignificant for what I need it for."

"Oh?" the first vixen piped up, crossing her arms. "And just what is that?"

"To block anyone from scrying or locating you with magic," he replied, gesturing to the true Sheila who'd just spoken. "Though I expect that the armor should function pretty much as the original will, it won't be an exact duplicate. However, much of the basic matrixes of the spells are designed to conceal the wearer from being magically observed or tracked."

"Uh huh," the suspicious vixen grunted, frowning at him. "And what about that spirit thing that you said was in the armor?"

Arden arched his eyebrows for a second as he rolled his head to one side, looking at the armor and bit his lip. "The spirit is an artificial construct, woven into the armor. In theory it should copy that at the same time it copies the armor."

"You can't just copy a spirit like it was some kind of computer program!" Sheila blurted out. "Can you?" she asked Hecate, less sure of herself. The other vixen just shrugged.

"I guess we'll find out," Arden replied, flattening out the armor on the table.

"I don't see why we have to cooperate with the other groups," Thell grumbled as she carefully packed up some of her potion making equipment. The female dwarf cursed as she noticed one of the flasks had a small chip on the edge of the lip that she'd have to pay attention to in the future when using it. "I just don't see the profit in doing that." She paused to look at the lead dwarf as he sat in the chair at the end of the table. "Come on, Kord. You know we don't need those losers to take them. Especially not considering the ace in the hole that I have."

"Maybe," he grudgingly admitted, "however they have Mandrel with them and he's second in line for Kathlan's seat on the council. Somehow I don't think that you could stand up to him, even with your secret weapon."

The witch was about to reply when a short, stout black candle which sat in the middle of a magical circle on the table ignited itself, the flame bent in one direction as if blown by an intangible wind. "Hold the boat," she stated, rooting around in her bag for a moment before pulling out a large, ornate crystal ball and setting it on the table. With a few gestures and mutterings of a spell she soon had an image of Sheila in the ball as Kord look on from over her shoulder. The scene in the sphere shifted as if it were a camera panning back to reveal the two Sheilas sitting side by side, both holding onto the hilt of a small sword while watching the man intently as he cast a spell. "What have we here?" she asked. Curious as to what the spell was, she zoomed the image in some, closing on the casting. As she watched the completed spell, it appeared as a small, white spec of light floated down onto the armor. A second later, there was a blinding flash of light followed by an explosion as the crystal ball detonated like a bomb.

Ears ringing from the blast, the witch shook her head to clear the mental cobwebs left behind by the shock before looking back over at the table. The exploding crystal ball had destroyed the table along with all the remaining alchemical equipment she'd not yet packed. From the looks of the box she'd been packing things into, she doubted there was much left that would be useable. She accepted Kord's hand as he helped her up from the floor.

"What the fuck just happened?" he demanded, squicking a finger in his ear to try and clear it of the ringing.

"Feedback from whatever spell he cast," she replied, wiping her brow then noticing that it was blood, not sweat, on her hand. Gently she dabbed at the gash on her forehead as she poked the remains of her equipment with her foot. "From what I saw, I think they're setting up some kind of bait-and-switch trap." She looked over at the leader of the group and frowned. "I strongly recommend that you don't group up with the others. Let them have first crack at the target. Whatever he's got planned won't be pleasant and I don't want to be a part of it."

"So that's the way it is?" Thumper asked, glass crunching under foot as he approached. "First sign of trouble and you want us to give up our advantage?" He turned to Kord, giving him a stern look. "We know that they're planning a switch. It won't be a surprise to us. I say let's go and use their trap against them."

"No," Kord replied, scowling at the wreckage around him. "I think the witch has it right this time. Let's watch, but take no action and see how he handles this. Once they think they've gotten rid of all the hunters, then we'll move in when they least suspect it. Should our target manage to capture them, then we can deal with that in our own good time."

"But, Kord," Thumper started, but was interrupted by the other dwarf's stern look.

"I said no," the leader reiterated. "For now, we wait and watch."

"Well, that certainly was interesting," Hecate muttered derisively as she let go of Sheila's tanto. Heaving herself up, she waddled over to the table. All around the room there were deep, black lines of charred wood that still glowed and smoldered in places from the release of energy they'd just witnessed. She gave a neutral grunt as she examined the two sets of nearly-identical armor that now sat side by side. "OK. I'll admit that I'm impressed, though I can clearly see flaws in the copy. Your spell worked, but I wouldn't say it was an amazing success."
Sheila tossed the tanto onto the bed and pulled herself up using the footboard as a crutch and made her way over to where Arden lay. The discharge had thrown him across the room and against the wall where he'd slid down into a sitting position. As she looked him over, she could see angry red marks where the tendrils of energy had coursed over his body, burning him. "Are you OK?" she asked, reaching tentatively out to help him up.

"Yah," he grunted, "I'll be all right." His answer didn't do much to reassure the vixen who watched him as he grimaced at the pain, his arms and legs pulled up into a ball. After a few seconds, he seemed to relax a bit though he continued to breathe heavily, his eyes clenched shut in pain.

Sheila turned to her mirror image. "Hey, Hecate? I think you should come check this out." Hecate waddled over to where the man lay and examined him for a second before laughing. "What the hell are you laughing at?" the vixen demanded. "This isn't funny!"

Hecate turned to Sheila and let out another bark of laughter. "Bullshit. It's hilarious," she replied to her scowling counterpart. "That asshole turned me into a clone of you, against my will, then had the balls to assume he could screw around with celestial armor as if it were a mortal artifact, and he got his ass burned for it." She turned with hands on hips and looked down at him again, laughing. "Frankly, the arrogant son of a bitch got off easy."

The demonic vixen's laughter stopped abruptly as Sheila slapped her. "You bitch! How dare you laugh at him like that!"

Before the daemoness had a chance to respond, Hecate found her self suddenly flat on the floor, her feet having been kicked out from under her by Arden who now knelt over her, one hand at her throat, the other drawn back to throw a punch. "You think it's fucking funny?" he raged. "I'll give you something to laugh about!"

"Stop it!" Sheila shouted, grabbing his arm and trying to pull him off the other vixen. "What the hell has gotten into you two?" she demanded, fighting to keep him from swinging. "I thought you two were supposed to be fighting the hunters, not each other!"

Arden paused, his head cocked to one side. After a moment, he released the vixen on the floor and stood up, a curious look to his face which vanished with a shake of his head. "She's right, you know," he commented, reaching a hand down to help Hecate up. "We should be cooperating, not fighting. After all, we are allies."

The daemon-vixen slapped his hand away with a growl. "Allies don't force each other to do things against their will. You're treating me more like a tool than an ally, and I don't like it."

"So be it," he replied coldly, walking over to the table to examine the replicated armor.

Hecate ignored Sheila's hand, choosing instead to use the bed frame to help hoist herself up from the floor. "All right, you've duplicated the armor. I assume you want us to get dressed again?"

Arden nodded, and picked up the original armor. "You wear the master set while Sheila wears the copy."

The daemon-vixen unfurled the pants and started to struggle her way into them. "Why do I have the feeling that this is going to turn into a cluster fuck?"

"Because you're not used to being around him," Sheila replied, struggling into her new clothes. "You'll get used to it."

As the two females donned their clothing, Arden picked up the weapons. Once they were dressed he tucked the katana into his belt, handed the wakazashi to Hecate and the tanto to Sheila. "You shouldn't need this," he said to Sheila wrapping his hand around hers as he handed her the blade, "but I think having something might help to keep you calm, and it's important that you stay calm."

"Why's that?" the vixen asked nervously, concern etched in her dark eyes.

"Remember what I said about the armor: It responds to emotion. Since it's not a perfect copy, I don't know what might happen if you get yourself all worked up. Your best bet is to just lie down, relax and try to take a nap." He let go and stepped back. "If you can't sleep, then try thinking about something from back home, something that will get your mind off of being here. Think you can do that?" He watched the vixen as she nodded. "Good." With a nod of his own, he collected Hecate and headed for the door as Sheila lay down on the bed. Once they'd left the room, he paused to cast a spell on the door.

"What are you doing?" Hecate demanded in a harsh whisper. "You're locking her in there!"

"I don't want her wandering around," he explained, concentrating on the door. "This will keep her in and anyone else out. Last thing I need is her mucking things up by wandering around at the wrong time."

Once the spell was finished, the two quietly made their way out the back, carefully checking to see if they were being watched. Half-way down the alley, Arden groaned and leaned heavily against the wall before sliding down to one knee. As she watched, Hecate saw his shape ripple as he fought to maintain the artificial form that he wore. The vixen suppressed a smile at his discomfort as she glanced around.

"How long are you going to keep that up?" she whispered in a low voice. "There are two of them watching now and I don't want them spoiling the plan."

"You worry about yourself," he grunted as the attack subsided. "I'll be fine." Putting a hand against the wall for leverage, he stood up and shook off the last of the effects.

"Speaking of attacks," Hecate whispered as they continued to walk again, "just what the hell is going on with you?"

Arden glanced around to ensure nobody was in earshot. He spotted the two men behind them, skulking in shadows, but he ignored them. "Don't worry about it. It's nothing to concern yourself with."

"Bullshit," the vixen muttered. "Last thing I need is you popping your cork and turning back into a dragon, especially if I'm near enough to get squashed in the process."

Taking her arm in his hand, he directed the vixen towards the stable where the horse and buggy were. "I said, don't worry about it. Just be ready to act surprised when they jump us."

As they turned a corner, Arden heard a rustle of movement. Deliberately turning slowly, he caught the blur of motion out of the corner of his eye as a sap came down on the back of his head, the impact throwing him forward and dropping him to the ground. Half a dozen men emerged from the shadows, several grabbing the vixen while four of them rapidly bound Arden, then disarmed them both. The leader directed the men with hand gestures, causing them to pick up their unconscious victim and dragging the now captive vixen with them to a warehouse not far away.

When the group was inside, Hecate saw that there were nearly two dozen people there of many different species. The apparent leader, a tall, thin, rather austere looking elf dressed in black and silver strode forward. "Ah, you must be the lovely Sheila," he observed, smiling at the terrified-looking vixen. Turning to the apparently-unconscious man, he nodded. "And this must be her guardian, though I'm surprised that he was captured so easily." Stepping back, he waved his hand in front of himself, casting a spell. "No, I don't think so. Not so easily. More like you let yourself be captured." When the man didn't reply the elf frowned. "I tire of this game, human. You twitched when I grabbed your hair, so I know you're not unconscious."

"Very observant," Arden said, opening his eyes. Pulling his feet under him, he stood without help, though he did notice that his guards never let go of him or relaxed their vigilance. "You've got some rather well trained lackeys."

"They're not lackeys," the elf replied, stepping back to sit down in a large chair and crossing his legs. "They're all independent businessmen who've seen the light and decided that cooperation is far superior to competing with each other." He reached out as a small upright lizard handed him a goblet from which he drank. "Especially considering that they've all got a curse on them that only I can remove."

"Quite clever," Arden replied, testing his bonds. "It's always nice to have leverage over underlings, especially the kind that backstab you, eh?"

"Indeed," the elf agreed with a nod, taking another sip. "I wouldn't try anything if I were you. I can see that you have the strength to break those bonds, but I think you'll find you'll still be at a disadvantage if you do." He smiled as he gloated in his cleverness. "You see, I took the liberty of blocking your magic while you were feigning unconsciousness. On, it's nothing that you can't break on your own, but that will take time. Time that we'll use to cut you down."

"So what do you want?" Arden growled.

"Simple. We want the vixen." He handed the goblet back to the lizard before steepling his fingers together. "Since we have the vixen, the question becomes, what do we do with you? Most of the men want to kill you. I, on the other hand, am intrigued by you. You've done quite a job keeping her safe. I could use someone with your talents. So tell me," he paused as a sly grin crossed his face, "just how much are you being paid to guard her?"

"Paid?" Arden echoed with a quirky smile of his own. "I'm not being paid anything."

"Oh, no," the elf replied, looking rather put out. "You're not one of those goody-goody types who feels obligated to help the poor and downtrodden, are you?"

Arden ignored Hecate's derisive snort. "Actually, no. To be honest, I've spent most of my life as a paid assassin. This particular job just happens to be something that I'm doing for personal reasons."

"Hmmm. That's too bad," the elf replied with a melancholy sigh. "You could have been of such use to me."

Arden let out a started cry as one of the guards behind him plunged a dagger in, and then pulled it out. A second later, he heard the sound of a scream as the dagger dropped to the floor, the blade slowly being eaten away by his acidic blood. Taking this as their clue, Hecate released the spell she had been holding, tossing her two guards like rag dolls through the air and into the walls where they crumpled silently to the floor. Nobody paid much attention to them, though, as Arden grunted loudly, followed by the sharp snap of rope breaking. Freed of his bonds, he grabbed one guard, swung him around and smashed him into the shocked guards who'd been behind him, one cradling his wounded hand where the acid-like blood had splashed it.

The rustle of steel echoed through the room as swords were drawn from their scabbards. Every man in the room except the elf in the chair moved for position around the two. "I don't care about him, but I want the bitch taken any way you can as long as she and the unborn are still alive."

Hecate and Arden stood back to back as they faced the ring of steel. "Now what?" the vixen asked, summoning manna to her for a spells.

Arden let out a low, rumbling laugh that no human throat would be capable of creating, causing their opponents to pause. "Now we get to have fun!"