Story (c) 2000-2004 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 42

Bubble, bubble, boil and trouble!

Two figures, unseen by those in the mortal realm, stood atop a low hill, observing the river as it flowed by. The shorter of the two men wore a black business suit with a narrow tie, and held an umbrella in one hand, using it as a cane. The other man, who stood a head taller, wore an elaborate outfit consisting of silver and gold chain mail draped over Roman style leather armor. They watched together as a riverboat floated silently passed on the current.

"I think Lakash is losing it," the shorter of the two men said.

The taller man nodded in agreement. "It seems that your man has seen what should not have been seen." He turned to look at the shorter man, his brow furrowed. "You were expecting this, weren't you?"

Lucifer gave a satisfied smile. "I never doubted the boy, though I am curious as to exactly how he got past the barriers."

Rathsmon casually reclined against a stack of seed. As he did so, he watched Hecate through slit eyes. After what seemed like immeasurably long period of time, he saw that she had begun to nod off. He waited until her breathing had become slow, deep and regular before quietly standing up. Quickly he glanced around to see if anyone was watching; however all of the crew were busy with their tasks running the boat. Taking great care to be quiet, he made his way to the front of the boat were Arden still stood at the railing. He could see that the big man was concentrating on the powerful spell. On the horizon, a long line of dark clouds stretched as far as the eye could see, drawing a wet line across the land as they proceeded towards the boat. Bright flashes of lightning occasionally illuminated the landscape hidden within showing the torrential downpour that the heavy, black clouds brought with them.

He made his way slowly up the stairs, being careful not to allow the steps to creak under his weight as he ascended. Pausing at the top of the stairs, he waited for some sign of Lakash's promised distraction. A moment later his patience was rewarded as Arden suddenly grabbed his head with both hands while he let out a startled cry of pain and dropped to his knees. Approaching the stricken man, Rathsmon opened his mouth wide to reveal four vampiric-looking teeth. He was about to sink them into Arden's throat when he was suddenly snatched from behind and thrown to the ground. He looked up, startled by this sudden turn of events to see Hecate hovering menacingly over him. "Hecate! What are---" he sputtered trying to think of something to say.

The ebony female reached down and grabbed him by the front of his shirt, hauling him up until he was at eye level with her and snarled. "What the hell were you thinking?" she demanded angrily.

"What I'm doing is none of your business! " he responded tersely. "As long as you get the bitch back to the castle, you'll get paid, so it's none of your business what I do with him."

Hecate turned and slammed the undead elf against a stack of crates. "I don't know what kind of bullshit Lakash promised you," she hissed, "but I'm not about to let you throw a monkey wrench into the works this close to the end."

"Damn it," Rathsmon growled, trying to break free of the iron grip that the demoness had on him. "Let me go! This is my one chance to get my body back, not only alive and healthy, but also young again!"

"Is that what he promised you?" With a casual flick of her arm, she tossed the necromancer to the deck. "You're an idiot, you know that? Arden already promised you he'd break the curse and give you your life back. Why turn on him now?"

"Because I was an old man," he declared, climbing to his feet. "If I'm restored to that old body I'll only have a few years at best before I die."

Hecate scowled at the elf. Her red eyes studied him like some distasteful filth under a magnifying glass. "Fine. If that's all it takes for you to turn on an ally, then so be it." She stepped aside and waved towards Arden. "Before you go sinking your teeth into him, I suggest you take a close look at his aura." Shifting her sight back to the magic bands, she looked at the scarred man and the red aura that pulsated around him. "He's fighting with Lakash for control of the connection. What do you think Lakash will do when you break his concentration?"

For several seconds Rathsmon didn't respond. He simply stared at the large man before looking down and away. "He'll use his link between them to channel enough power to destroy us both."

"Right." Taking a step forward, Hecate stood so that she was face to face with him, their noses almost touching. "He could claim that he did it to destroy you and unfortunately had to destroy Arden in the process, thus maintaining his bargain while getting rid of the both of you as a bonus."

Before Rathsmon could reply, the embattled image of Arden disintegrated and faded away. "What the hell?" Both he and the ebony female turned at the sound of creaking boards behind him.

"It seems that you went with the odds and not against them," Arden replied with a patronizing smile.

"What the---?" the necromancer stuttered, looking back to where the other Arden had just been. "How did you---?"

Crossing his arms, the scarred man nodded to himself. "Seventeen of the twenty four different causal event paths that I saw for this had you either deciding not to attack the construct on your own or being stopped by Hecate. It looks like you made the smart choice."

"Seventeen out of---" Hecate mumbled to herself. "The Eye! You saw this in the Eye, didn't you?"

Rathsmon's jaw dropped as Arden nodded. "But the attack. Lakash was supposed to distract you. How did you get around that?"

"The same way," the big man replied, walking over to a crate and sitting on it. "I knew how he intended to attack me, and I had a feedback trap setup. He barely got started before it triggered. After that, all I had to do was stay invisible and watch the show."

Shaking his head, the necromancer blinked several times as he digested what had just happened. "Wait a minute," he barked, looking back up at Arden. "The Eye? You mean the Time's Eye?" He watched as Arden again nodded. "But--- But only celestials can use the Eye reliably."

"The dragon protected me," Arden sheepishly admitted as he leaned back against the crates and relaxed for the first time since boarding the boat. "It's a construct created by Lakash and through its connection to him has celestial powers."

"Oh, man. Now I understand why he wants to get rid of you," the necromancer mumbled as he leaned heavily against the railing. "The ability to use the Eye would put you on the same footing as Lakash."

"Actually, it doesn't," the big man said in a conspiratorial voice, glancing around to ensure they weren't being watched. "It actually gives me an advantage." He gave his two companions a quirky smile. "The other players in the game have been blocking Lakash's access to the Eye. I've seen the barriers. His access is sporadic at best."

Hecate held up a hand and shook her head. "Wait. If Lakash's access is being blocked, how is it to you got to the Eye?"

Arden shrugged. "I don't know. I didn't even know the Eye existed. I'm not sure, but I think I was shown the Eye by some third party. Don't ask me how or why, I haven't a clue. All I know is that it showed me several key events, including the endgame. If everything happens as I foresaw, then this quest will succeed beyond Nanuk's wildest dreams---" He paused for a dramatic effect, the casual smile changing to one of a true predator, "---and Lakash's worst nightmare." With a short bark of laughter, he stood and walked over to where the magical construct had stood. "If you'll excuse me, I've got to get back to work. We'll be coming up on Laverak soon, and I'll need a good downpour to mask our passing from the authorities."

Hecate and Rathsmon glanced at each other before they turned and walked back down to the main deck. The necromancer paused to look back up at the big man. "Is it just me, or does he scare the shit out of you, too?"

"It's not just you," Hecate admitted with an involuntary shiver. "That sense of dread I've had since I met him just got ratcheted up a few notches."

"I don't like it. I don't like it at all. I'm thinking there's more to Lakash wanting him dead than just winning out on his bet." He gravely shook his head as he turned towards the ebony woman. "I'm almost beginning to think we should kill him."

"Me, too," she replied with a solemn nod. "But how? If he's got access to the Eye, then odds are he's seen anything we try. Without intervention by an opposing celestial, Lakash excluded, of course, there's no way we can be certain he won't know in advance what's going to happen."

Rathsmon's reply was interrupted as the captain of the boat stomped up to him. "What the hell's he doing up there? It looks like a damned monsoon is brewing and it's the wrong time of year for that!"

"That's exactly what's happening," the dead man replied, nodding towards the storm. "He's going to use the rain to help cover our passage past the next town."

The dapper cat let out a long string of curses, many of which the other two didn't recognize. "Doesn't that fool know that rain will destroy half our cargo? I'll be lucky to get the good stuff under cover!" Growling to himself in an unknown language, he turned and stomped his way back towards the rudder man while snapping orders to the rats that were strewn about on the decks.

"Speaking of getting things under cover," the Imir commented as she turned and walked towards Sheila. "Hey!" Reaching out, she tapped the vixen on the shoulder. "There's a storm coming. You need to get under cover."

"Leave me alone," came the expected reply.

Her patience exhausted, Hecate reached out and grabbed the vixen by the ear. She winced as Sheila grabbed her arm, digging her clawed hand into Hecate's flesh as she used the other to help leverage herself up. "I said, get inside!" the demoness ordered.

"Let go of me!" the angry vixen barked as she finally freed her tender ear from the merciless grasp. "Just leave me the hell alone, will you?"

Hecate's hand shot out and slapped the unprotected vixen across the face, rocking her to one side. "No! You listen to me. I'm sick and tired of your little drama queen, 'nobody loves me so I'm going to act all moody and self destructive' bullshit! Now you're going to haul your bloated carcass into that wheelhouse and climb onto a bunk or I swear to God I'm going to cast a spell on you that will let me cart you around like a puppet on a string. My job is to get you to the castle alive and healthy. I'm not going to let your little tantrum screw that up!"

Anger clouded the vixens face for a moment, but just a moment. Her entire body wilted from ears to tail as she admitted defeat. "You're right," she meekly admitted. "I'll go inside and lie down." Keeping her head down, she waddled from crate to crate, supporting herself as she made her way to the low doorway, ducking to clear the low roof.

The ebony demoness looked up to the heavens and spoke a quiet prayer. "God, if I ever decide to have kids, please send someone to beat some sense into me!" She turned and locked eyes with Arden, who simply stood at the railing, his arms crossed, staring at her. They stood like that, gazes locked together for several minutes before Hecate finally broke away, turned and went inside the wheelhouse to check on the vixen.

Captain Sturm strode purposefully towards the simple stone house that sat just inland of their patrol boat, adjusting his leather armor as he went. Reaching the house, he knocked once before entering to find a middle aged man in a militia uniform similar to his, sitting at a table and gazing into a crystal ball. "Get your armor on," the officer directed. "I just got a report that a boat load of river pirates will be here within the hour."

"I know," the mage replied, covering his crystal ball with a silk cloth. "I've been watching them."

"Then what are you waiting for, man?" the Captain demanded, slamming his hand on the table. "We need to get ready for them!"

"Uh uh," the mage replied, running his hands through his hair. "Have you seen the storm brewing from down south?"

"Huh?" the officer grunted, momentarily confused. "Of course I've seen it, but I'm not about to let a storm stop me from capturing those pirates!"

"Captain, Captain, Captain," the mage repeated in an exasperated voice as he shook his head. "It's the wrong time of year for such a storm." He held up his hand to stop any reply from the officer. "That storm's been summoned, and not by just any normal magic. That's primal magic, the kind a high level demon would use. There's a mage on board that boat who's got some serious firepower behind him, and I for one am not going to challenge him."

"You coward!" Captain Sturm shouted, again banging his fist on the table. "I'll have you court-martialed for this!"

"That's assuming you live," the mage calmly replied, enjoying the look of shock on his superiors face. "Whoever's on that ship could destroy me, you and everyone on your ship with the wave of a hand." He shook his head gravely. "No sir. I'm not going to face down someone like that. Besides, they'll have to get past Castle Terindell, which means that they'll have to get past Ruddygore. If I were you, I'd just batten down the hatches and let them pass."

"He's that powerful?" the armored man asked, his resolve cracking. His expression became even more serious as the magician nodded. "Then perhaps you're right. I'll have the men stand down. Meanwhile, I want you to get word to Terindell and make sure that they know that they're going to have company coming."

The magician uncovered his crystal ball. "Aye aye, Sir."

"Well, there it is," Maxx declared, pointing at the castle on top of the hill which was illuminated by the rusty-colored dawn's light, "Castle Terindell. So where do you want off? The sooner I'm rid of you the happier I'll be."

Arden pointed towards the far shore, a fair ways up stream from the castle. "There's a horse and carriage there. Drop us at the shore at that spot."

"A horse and carriage?" the cat echoed, straining to see. "I don't see one."

"It's another ten miles or so down stream in a break between the trees."

"Ten miles!" The cat looked up at the big man unsure if he were crazy or for real. A moment later he shook his head and turned to walk away. "Whatever. Just have your group together when we stop. I'm not going to tarry long, so make sure everyone's ready to go." He paused at the head of the stairs and turned back. "And about my payment…?"

"Oh, you'll get what's coming to you," Arden replied with a low, rumbling voice.

The better part of an hour later, everyone was on deck and waiting near where the gangplank would be dropped. The riverboat shuddered as its hull ground against the fine silt of the shore, dragging it to a stop. The captain gave orders to the crew who quickly ran the plank out to the shore and secured it against the deck.

"There you go," Maxx said with a practiced smile and a wave down the gangplank. "It's a pleasure doing business with you." As Sheila stepped forwards to start down the ramp, Maxx held up his hand. "Uh uh! First, you pay for the ride." The crew of the ship had gathered around the four passengers as they had prepared to leave. Now it was obvious they were there to insure payment was made.

"I said you'd get what you deserve and I always keep my word." Arden reached inside his shirt and pulled out a large sack that was mostly empty. It had been responsible for giving him a somewhat paunchy look. He shook the bag, which rattled with coin before tossing it to the cat who staggered at its weight. "There's more than enough gold there to cover the cost of the boat and everything on board."

"No doubt," the cat said, somewhat awe struck and surprised by the payment, having expected trouble from the big man. He cocked his head at the big man and studied him with a suspicious eye. "But why so much?"

"Simple," Arden replied with a sinister smile. "In another couple of miles, this river merges with the River of the Dancing Gods. There are patrol boats out looking for you, so your best bet is to abandon ship and head up to the north, away from Terindell and the patrols."

"What?" the cat demanded angrily. "You guaranteed me safe passage!"

"That's right. I guaranteed you safe passage to the castle. I said nothing about after you delivered us." He gently pushed the cat out of the way so the others could disembark. "From here on out, it's up to you what you do. You can be greedy and try to keep both the gold and the loot, or abandon ship and keep just the gold. Either way, our business is finished." Turning, Arden followed Hecate down the ramp as the captain gave hurried orders to shove off from the shoreline.

The group proceeded slowly up the grassy embankment towards the waiting carriage and the Imir who stood next to it. His sharp chiseled features were unmarred by any expression as he watched the group approach. When they were within easy conversation range he let out a sigh of disappointment. "River pirates? I don't know why, but I expected better of you, Hecate. I should have assumed otherwise."

"Hey! Don't blame me," the ebony female shot back. "It wasn't my idea to hook up with them, so don't go trying to pin this one on me!"

"Indeed," he commented, cocking an eyebrow at the group as he considered them. "I doubt the fox was responsible, therefore I must presume that it was either Rathsmon or Arden. If I had to guess I would say it was Arden."

"Wrong again," Hecate said as she virtually danced up to stand next to him, giving the elf a toothy smile. "It was the walking corpse."

"Indeed," he again stated with a look of disgust towards Hecate before he stepped back towards the carriage. "Be that as it may, it is irrelevant. I am Poquah, the Majordomo and aid to the Sorcerer Ruddygore. I will be responsible for taking care of your needs during your visit, so if you require anything, please let me know. Now, if you would all please get into the coach, we will proceed to the castle. Master Ruddygore is currently busy with other business, but will be back by this evening." He opened the door and held it for the others.

Sheila was first to climb in. Arden started to help her up, but she snatched her arm away and hauled herself up without any assistance. Unfazed by the display of hostility, Arden climbed into the carriage, causing it to lurch from side to side due to his weight. An argument could be heard going on as Rathsmon climbed inside.

"Trouble in paradise?" Poquah sarcastically asked, as Hecate was about to climb aboard.

"You have no idea," she muttered under her breath before climbing inside.

Closing the door behind them, the Imir climbed up to sit next to the driver who tisked a couple times to get the horses moving. A short time later, the carriage pulled onto a smooth dirt road that lead into the castle. The horse's hooves tromped loudly as they crossed the wooden drawbridge and then echoed off of the close stone walls of the tunnel leading through the wall to the inner courtyard. The driver pulled the team of horses around so that the carriage stopped near the main living quarters.

Poquah lightly jumped down from the upper bench and opened the door for the passengers, who disembarked in the same order they had climbed aboard with the exception of Arden and Sheila. Sheila climbed down first, insisting that she didn't feel like being bounced around like a pinball again.

Once out of the carriage, Sheila looked around at the courtyard, identifying what looked like a smithy, stables and two sets of living quarters, the larger of the two an enormous building that rose seven stories into the air and had towers complete with pennants flying on top at each corner. She was about to comment on the big building when the smell of the manure pile by the stables hit her. "Oh god! I'd forgotten how bad horse crap can sm---"

"DOGGY!" came a booming voice from near the other living quarters. All heads snapped around to see a huge, twelve foot tall iron monstrosity with glowing red eyes and smoke bellowing from its ears begin to run ponderously with both arms outstretched towards the vixen who in turn screamed. Arden and Hecate both reacted at the same time, sending bolts of magical force, which, though intended to simply knock the thing down, had combined to lift it from the ground and throw it back to smash against the stone wall with a loud clang. It then dropped to the ground and shattered into a myriad of pieces with cogs and gears rolling away from the ruined hulk.

"What the hell was that thing?" Sheila screeched, her voice having a squeaky, falsetto tint of panic to it.

"I must apologize," Poquah replied, shaking his head. "That's the project of one of Master Ruddygore's apprentices. The young man has found a way to enchant crystals so that the golem is capable of understanding fairly complex tasks and concepts. He intends it to be a labor-saving device to help stonemasons with large projects. I'm afraid that it still has some---design flaws."

Sheila let out a derisive bark of laughter. "Design flaws my ass. Whatever. Just keep it away from me."

"Considering how much damage it took, I don't believe you will have anything to worry about during your stay." He turned and gestured towards the main building. "If you all will follow me, I'll show you to your rooms where you can rest up from your travels and refresh yourselves." Turning on his heels with military precision, the elf led the procession up and into the main living quarters. At the top of the short stairs stood a young girl standing behind a wheelchair.

"Hey! That looks like something from back home!" Sheila declared.

"Indeed it is," Poquah commented. "This was manufactured over on earth. The Master anticipated that you might not be up to the long walks required to get around the living quarters."

Sheila slipped her fluffy tail through the large gap in the back of the chair as she lowered herself down to a sitting position. A sigh of relief matched the look of satisfaction on her muzzle as she propped her feet up on the rests. "Your boss sure got that right. I could get used to this."

Leading the group through the grand foyer, the elf gave a brief description of various rooms as they passed them. After several twists and turns, he came to a series of doors. "These are your quarters. Women on the left, men on the right."

Arden paused as the others went into their rooms to get settled. "Poquah. I don't mean to put down the hospitality, but I require something a bit more…roomier." He took the elf's cocked eyebrow as an indication to continue. "I need a large cavern, as big as you can come up with. I know there are several below the castle. Nothing fancy, just one with a single entrance where I can have some privacy."

The elf nodded in understanding. "You wish to resume your natural form?"

"Something like that," Arden replied evasively. "I'll need anywhere from five to eight days without interruptions. Do you think you can arrange that?"

Again the eyebrow arched as the elf's face betrayed his surprise. "I believe something like that can be arranged. If you'll follow me, I believe I have the perfect place."

Together the two men walked out of the main building and into the apprentice quarters, where they found a narrow passageway that angled down under the castle. The passage doubled back upon itself several times as they proceeded until it finally came to a large, wooden door, which the elf unlocked. The door squeaked loudly as it was pushed open. Poquah held the ball of light he summoned high into the air to illuminate the cavern. It was hard to measure distance with the meager lighting, but from what Arden could see, the cavern was about a hundred feet long ad two-thirds that wide. It might be a little cramped, but it would work.

"Yah, I think this'll do," he commented, nodding, as he looked around at the various dusty crates and refuse in the room. "Nothing valuable in here?"

Poquah shook his head. "There shouldn't be. The students come down here to do mock battles, that way there's no chance of them damaging the main building. The walls and roof are reinforced to prevent collapse."

"Great," the big man said with a smile. "Let your students know not to try the door. I'm going to have some pretty nasty wards on it, so unless they want to get reduced to a large blob of protoplasm it wouldn't be wise to touch it."

The elf nodded. "Understood. Is there anything else that you will require?"

Arden looked around and shook his head. "No. This should do perfectly. Thank you."

"You're most welcome," Poquah replied with a curt bow. I'll inform the Master when he returns. He may wish to speak to you before the time is up so you should be prepared for the possibility of a visit."

Arden's eyes narrowed as he studied the elf for a moment, then nodded. "I suppose so. This is his house and I am a guest. However, I will see him and him alone. Please make sure nobody else tries to disturb me."

"As you wish," the elf replied as he stepped out of the cavern, closing the door behind him.

It took a second for Arden's eyes to adjust to the total darkness; however his dragon's sight soon gave him a perfect view of the room, the objects in it and the spells which lingered. He took several minutes to study the spells reinforcing the walls and doorway before he began casting the ward on the door, anchoring it to the stone around the edges. Almost five minutes later, he stopped and studied the results, satisfied that nobody was going to get past without giving him ample time to prepare. He walked out into the middle of the room and took a deep breath before closing his eyes. "All right, Sha'kull. I keep my word. The body is yours again. Do what you must."