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 50

Beware Celestials Bearing Gifts.


The predawn glow on the horizon slowly bled across the night sky, bringing a new day to the Sea of Dreams. The ruddy glow illuminated a not too distant wall of fog that lay ahead of the ferry, giving it an eerie orange tint. The oars of the ferry continued to stroke the water with a constant rhythm as it slowly cruised along. As the dark shadows of the night retreated before the predawn light, the lone form of Arden could be seen kneeling in meditation on the ramp at the bow of the ship. A gentle see breeze tugged at his loose hair which, though it had been combed so that it hung down, it still had strands floating freely in the air, waving to and fro on the wind's whim. His eyes cracked open at the sound of footsteps from behind.

"Hello, Arden," the angelic figure said. "Isn't it a little early for you to be out meditating?"

"That depends on your definition of early," came the muttered response, sounding a bit annoyed at the interruption.

"I suppose so," the angel replied as he leaned against a nearby railing. "It wouldn't happen to have anything to do with Sheila sitting alone on a bench near the aft, would it?"

Arden shrugged. "I don't know. Why don't you go ask her?"

The angel ambled over to squat near Arden. "I did. She said something about you never bothering to come to bed last night. Want to talk about it?"

"Talk about what?" Arden challenged, annoyed at the angels meddling.

"About why you're here and she's there," the celestial being prompted.

"I'm here because this is where I wanted to meditate," he replied angrily. "As for why Sheila's in the back, ask her. Ow!" Arden rubbed the back of his head where the angel had smacked him. "What was that for?"

"Let's try this again," the celestial declared, his voice stern. "Why are you here, and Sheila is back there? Why aren't the two of you snuggled together in bed, enjoying what little time you have left together?"

"You know damn good and well why!" Arden shouted, rolling out of the way in anticipation of another blow from the angel. He got to his feet and took up a defensive stance.

The angel smiled. "Oh, are you going to fight me?" The creature's beautiful smile turned sinister as he snarled at the man. "All right, then. Bring it on!"

Arden backed away warily. "You know I can't fight you. There's no way I could defeat you right now."

"Then what makes you think you'll defeat the guardian?" the angelic figure replied, relaxing his stance and standing up.

'I can't, damn it!" Arden shouted in frustration. "You know that there's no way in hell I can defeat him right now. My only hope is in sneaking onto the island and getting off before he can figure out exactly what's going on. The only way I can do that is to remain pure in mind, body and spirit; otherwise I might as well have a marching band escorting me. Soon as I touch foot on that sand he'll know where I am, and it'll be all over."

"And you think skulking around on the island will actually let you succeed?" the angel asked, laughing.

"It'll give me a better chance than facing it head on!" Arden snarled.

The celestial shook his head. "Either way, Arden, you're going to die." He paused to let that sink in. "No matter what you do, win or loose, you're a dead man. You'll be dead, and Sheila will have to go home, bear your children and raise them alone until such time as you manage to make your way back to her, if you even make it back at all." He walked over and took Arden by the shoulders, forcing the man to face him. "Think about it, my friend. She's finally admitted to herself and to you that she loves you. You're finally in a form that's the right size, sex and species for her to be with, not that species was ever really a factor for her, but I digress. This is the last chance that you'll have to be together for a long time."

"So what?" Arden demanded as he pulled away, "I'm supposed to screw up my chances at completing the quest for her?"

"You tell me," the angel shrugged. "Which is more important to you, Sheila or the quest?"

Arden's anger slowly faded away as he thought about it. He glanced back towards the ferry for a few moments, then at his feet as he shook his head. "But what good is loving Sheila, if I have no chance to return to her?" he asked looking back up at the angel.

The silver-armored being leaned forwards and spoke in a conspiratorial voice, "You'll have a heck of a better chance than if you don't."

"Huh?" Arden grunted, confused by the statement. "What aren't you telling me?"

"Everything!" the angel replied with a mischievous smile. "Look. What's important now is that you take care of Sheila. It's not fair for her to finally admit she loves you, then have you turn your back on her for the quest. Now I want you to go apologize to her, sweet talk her into forgiving you, then I want you to take her back to your cabin and screw her brains out."

"Excuse me?" Arden said, shocked at the angel. "I beg your pardon, but I'm having a hard time believing I just heard you say that."

The angel sighed. "Think about it, Arden. You love her. She loves you. That's what's important here. You need to get things straight with her before you can move on and finish your quest. I'm just giving you a shove in the right direction." He paused, noting the dubious look in Arden's eyes. "Look, can I lie to you? Can I encourage you to do anything that's wrong? Could I even suggest you commit a sin? Think about it!"

"Well," Arden said as he chewed on his lip for a moment and shrugged. "I guess not."

"Good!" the angel replied, giving him a jovial slap on the back. "Now go poke her one for the Gipper!" He smiled and shooed Arden along as the man paused before passing out of site around the corner. "Man, I love this job!" he commented to himself.

"Don't you think that was a bit over the top?" an identical angel asked, stepping from the shadows from the other corner of the deck.

"Naw," the first replied as his form melted to become those of the devil.

"I don't know. I think he began to suspect something towards the end," the silver-armored celestial commented.

The devil gave a derisive snort. "So what! Like a good sheep, he's taking what he thinks is your advice. Who cares who it actually came from, as long as he does it?"

"That's not the point," the angel complained as he rubbed the brow of his nose. "I have a serious problem with you using my form to encourage him to sin."

Lucifer smiled. "So why didn't you stop me?"

"Because we can't interfere,' the angel declared, annoyed with the devil's attitude.

"Bullshit," Lucifer happily countered. "You've stuck your nose in where it shouldn't have been so many times that there's no way I'm going to let you off now." He leaned forwards and jabbed a finger at the other being. "Admit it. You need him to do this as much as I want him to, but your rules won't let you handle it yourself. That's why you people need us around; so we can do the dirty work." He clapped the angel on the back. "Come on. Let's go see if Ruddygore's up for some more poker. I think I'm in the mood to win some more."

"You only win because you cheat," the angel complained.

"I do not!" the devil said in denial, then chuckled. "Well, not every hand, any way."

Arden paused as he spotted the pregnant vixen leaning against the railing that looked out over the ocean. He walked up to her and hopped up to sit on the railing nearby. "Hey," he said as he found his balance. He frowned as he noticed she was holding an unlit cigarette. "You taking up smoking?" he asked with a frown.

"No," Sheila sighed and turned towards him to lean on the railing with one arm. "Not really. I used to smoke when I ran with the packs. Zig Zag convinced me to give it up once I started working for her, but every now and then I get a craving for one."

"Ah," Arden replied without implying comment. "I didn't think Ruddygore would stock those."

"He doesn't," she replied, turning to look back out over the water. "Lucifer wandered by here a little bit ago and gave it to me."

"I see," Arden again replied neutrally. "So you're saving it for just the right moment?"

Sheila chuckled and held out a classic-style Zippo, which she flicked several times without successfully lighting it. "The asshole gave me an empty lighter." She looked at the inert device, and then tossed it into the water below.

Arden chuckled. "Yah, I guess he can be a sadistic bastard at times." He held out his fist and flicked his thumb upwards, causing a small flame to jut out of it. "You know, that's a nasty habit, and it's not good for the babies."

Sheila looked at the blue flame dancing merrily on its tip, then up at Arden. "Oh? Then why are you encouraging me?"

"I'm not. It's your decision. If you wanted to, I'm sure you'd find a way to light it." He shrugged, causing the flame to flicker slightly. "Far be it from me to tell you how to live your life."

"Oh, right," Sheila growled. "Like I was trying to tell you how to live yours last night?" She frowned and looked down at the cigarette before flicking it away into the water. "You're right, though," she grudgingly admitted. "It wouldn't be good for the kids. Not that I've ever cared if anything I did was good for them or not." She turned to lean her backside against the railing and rubbed her swollen belly. "All they've ever been to me was an inconvenience. I never wanted kids, you know. I don't know what I was thinking back then."

"Oh, I don't know. I think you were scared, hurt, alone." He looked out down at her and smiled. "And in heat. Boy, were you in heat!"

"Hey!" the vixen shot back with a grin. "I didn't hear you complaining about it, at least not until I broke out the handcuffs. You've got some real issues with control, you know that?"

Arden chuckled. "Yah, I suppose I do." He hopped down off of the railing and nodded. "You know, we may not have any handcuffs, and you may not be in heat any more, but I'm sure we can find some way to pass the time until we reach the island."

Sheila cocked an ear at him. "Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?" She blinked in surprise as he nodded. "What about all that 'gotta stay pure' crap?"

"Yah, well," Arden hemmed and hawed embarrassedly as he scratched the back of his head. "I'm an idiot. I admit it." He sighed and shrugged. "I've been putting my quest ahead of everything without really worrying about how it's affecting you, and it's not fair."

"I see," she replied slowly. "So you're doing this out of guilt about how I feel?"

Arden shook his head. "In a way, yes, but its more than that. I love you, and I really have been bad about showing it. This is my last chance to make it up to you for a long while."

"Oh, that's so sweet," the vixen cooed as she reached out to stroke his face. She put her arms around him and gave him a quick hug. "That's the most romantic thing you've said to me in a long time."

"Anything for you, hon," Arden replied, kissing the top of her head. "Shall we go?"

Sheila released him and returned to leaning on the railing. "No."

"Huh?" he grunted in surprised. "Why not?"

"I'm not in the mood," Sheila replied with a grin.

Arden laughed. "You're not in the mood? Come on, Sheila, don't start playing games now!"

The vixen chuckled. "Seriously, Arden," she said, looking at him again and smiling. "That's the most wonderful thing you could offer to do for me, and it only goes to show how much you love me. There's no way I could ask you to do that, knowing that it would hurt your chances at completing your quest."

"You sure?" he asked, putting his arm around her shoulder. "I'm not worried about the quest. I just want to spend time with you."

"So? Spend time with me," the vixen replied as she snuggled up under his arm. "Standing here like this is nice."

"Yah, but…" he mumbled, "that's not exactly what I had in mind." He leaned over and whispered into the vixen's ears for a moment, something that made her ears stand straight up.

Sheila turned to give him a surprised look, and then shook her head. "Nope. You're not going to buy me off. You go complete your quest first."

"You sure?" He asked as he leaned over and whispered something else to her.

Sheila stood strait up, her eyes wide as she stared at him, and then nodded. "All right, you're on." She shook her head as he held out an arm for her. "No. Carry me. It's a long walk."

Arden let out a low whistle. "OK," he replied shaking his head. "Just remember, I'm not a dragon any more, so if I through my back out I'm going to be screwed, you won't get screwed, and the quest will be on indefinite hold."

The vixen gave him a sharp look for a moment as she decided whether to take his comment as an affront or not. "All right," she replied, not taking his arm as she began waddling to the stateroom, "but I get a foot massage before we begin."

"Done," Arden laughed.

The angel walked up to the desk where Lucifer sat and placed a pile in front of him. "There you go. The swords and the armor Lakash gave us."

Lucifer picked up the cured silk top and unfolded it. "You think he did anything sneaky when he repaired it?"

The angel dragged a chair over by the desk and sat down. "That's what we're here to find out. That, and I'd like you to repair the damage to his dagger."

"Hmm," the devil grunted as he tossed the jacket on the desk and picked up the tanto. Drawing the blade, he studied it closely. "Ah, I see what he did. Clever modification. He didn't add or remove, just shifted the existing formula around a bit."

"You'll fix it?" the silver-armored creature asked.

Lucifer sighed. "Do I have a choice?" Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out a small pair of reading glasses and put them on. "Doing someone a favor and not asking for anything in return. How the hell did I get roped into this crap?"

Sheila reached out and used the tip of a claw to lightly trace patterns on Arden's chest. "What'cha thinkin' about?"

"Hmmm?" Arden turned his head and glanced down at the vixen before looking back up at the ceiling. "Things."

"What kinds of things?"

"Well," he said hesitantly. "I've been thinking about the quest."

"Oh, great," the vixen grunted before rolling over onto her back. "That quest again. It's our last night together for a long time, maybe even forever, and you're worried about your quest.

"I'm thinking about giving it up," Arden stated.

"What?" Sheila asked as she rolled back over to face him. "What do you mean, you're going to give it up?"

He flopped back down on his back and sighed. "I've been thinking about us and I realized that I don't want to risk losing you. I don't want our children to grow up having never known their father. I don't want you to have to go on alone."

"Hey, hey! You said you'd come back, right?" She reached out and wrapped her arm over his chest and snuggled close. "Then what's the problem?"

"You don't get it, Sheila," he replied somberly. "I've seen the Time's Eye, and it's shown me all the possible outcomes of my trying to complete this quest. What I've not told you is that in most of those outcomes, I don't succeed." He sighed again and looked at her. "It's not fair to you. I've dragged you along this far, and for what? Only to have you lose me at the last minute? I don't know, maybe---YOUCH!" Arden sat up and probed his right nipple, looking for signs of blood from where Sheila had bit him. "What the hell did you do that for?"

The vixen propped herself up on one arm so she could look him in the eye. "Now you listen to me, Arden Bearridge," she ordered in a no nonsense tone of voice. "I'm not going to let you throw away this quest because you're feeling sorry for me."

"But…" he started to say but was interrupted.

"No! Listen to me," Sheila ordered. "If you quit now, you may come back with me, but you'll regret it for the rest of your life. I know you. You'll always be looking back at this and regretting it. It'll be like a rotten piece of fruit, stuck in your craw. It'll poison you and it'll poison our relationship." She passed and sighed. "Besides, this is your quest. You're the only person who can do this. You need to do this. You skip out now and I'll never have another thing to do with you for as long as I live."

Arden frowned as he studied the vixen's face. "You'd really do that? You'd really walk away?"

Sheila nodded. "Yes. I haven't come this far and put up with all this…this shit that I've had to go through just so you could pull out at the last second. If you don't go through with this, I'll never forgive you."

"Sheila," he whispered, surprised at her conviction. "I never knew you felt that way."

The vixen looked a bit embarrassed and lay back down. "Yah, well, I'm not good at subtle, though getting things across to you takes a clue by four more often than not."

"Yah," Arden muttered as he lay back down on his back. "I guess I don't have any choice, then."

"No, you don't," Sheila said with a smile as she lay back down, as she seductively smiled and stretched her arms over her shoulder. "Of course, you can't go and complete your quest until you're done here, and last time I checked, you haven't managed to make me pass out."

"She tasks me!" he replied with a smile. "She tasks me! And I shall have her. I'll chase her round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom and round perdition's flames before I give her up!"

"Oh no!" She said, hitting him with her fist. "You did not just quote Star Trek to me in bed! You did not do that!"

Arden chuckled and replied impishly, "At least it was Ricardo Mottledfawn I was quoting. Or would you prefer me to do Shatn----YOUCH!"

"Arden!" Sheila muttered sleepily as she shook the man next to her. "Wake up."

"What? Again?" Arden groaned.

"Someone's at the door," the vixen complained at the same time there was a loud knock. "Go kill them, will you?"

"Me?" he whined before yawning. "Why me? Isn't it your turn to kill whoeve-ow! Ok. OK! I'll go. Jesus." Swinging his legs off the bed, Arden sleepily stood up, dragging the top layer of sheets off the bed as he shuffled towards the door. He'd just finished wrapping the sheet around his waist as he opened the door. Blinking against the bright morning light, he saw it was Lucifer. "We're not buying any," he declared and started to close the door.

"You're buying what I'm selling," Lucifer replied, blocking the door with his feet. "Let us in, Arden."

"Us?" the shaggy-haired man replied, looking again, this time seeing the angel standing outside as well. "Oh. Yah, OK. Come on in." Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he let go of the door and moved to the desk nearby and activated the lamp.

"Beware celestials bearing gifts," the angel stated as he put Arden's swords on the desk.

"My swords!" Arden excitedly declared, quickly examining each one. "I thought I'd lost then when you tossed me in the drink."

"That would be counter productive," Lucifer stated, "even for me."

"This is for you, too, Arden," the angel stated, putting a cylindrical bundle wrapped in brown paper on the desk.

"Oh?" Arden grunted, looking up at the angel before proceeding to undo the bundle. He paused when he realized that it was his old silk armor. Cautiously, he lifted the jacket-like top and held it up, looking into the eyes of the dragons woven into the fabric. "I thought this had been destroyed."

"Lakash restored it," the angel stated, giving him a bit of a predatory smile, "after we convinced him it would be in his best interest, of course."

"Indeed," Lucifer agreed, taking the other char and leaving the angel standing. "We pointing out that not providing the armor would be considering acting against the letter of the agreement, Lakash was more than willing to restore the garment."

"Are you sure it's safe?" Arden asked, setting the top aside and examining the pants.

"Yes," the angel replied, nodding. "We both went over the garments with the proverbial fine tooth comb and could find nothing that could possibly cause you a problem. If he'd stuck something like that in, he'd forfeit automatically, and he doesn't want to risk that."

"You should put the armor on and start bonding with it," Lucifer suggested as he poured himself some wine from the bottle on the table.

"I will later," Arden replied, tossing the pants on top of the desk. "Meanwhile, how about y'all run along and leave us alone for a bit."

"All right," the devil agreed as he drained the glass. "We'll head out, but don't take too long. We'll be at the island in about four hours."

"Four hours?" Arden asked in shock. "That's all?"

The devil just laughed as he stood up. "What do you expect? You two have been locked in here a day and a night. Now's the time to stop dicking around with your girlfriend and prepare."

Arden looked over at the angel who nodded in agreement. "All right. I'll work on bonding with the armor," he grudgingly agreed.

"That's our boy," the devil said as he gathered up the angel and walked to the door. He paused and smiled back at Arden. "If you need anything, feel free to get it yourself!" Laughing at his own joke, Lucifer closed the door, leaving the two alone again.

Arden tossed the sheet aside and donned his armor. He then knelt in the floor and began to meditate.

Over on the bed, Sheila rolled over and buried her face in the pillows.

Another knock at the door brought Arden out of his meditation. He rose fluidly to his feet and opened the door. "Yes?"

Ruddygore nodded. "We're approaching the island. It's time."

"Thank you. I'll be right out," Arden replied before closing the door.

"So that's it?" Sheila asked from the bed. "Time to go already?"

"I'm afraid so," he admitted as he walked over to sit on the bed.

Sheila took his hand and sighed. "I knew this time would come, but just not this soon."

Arden leaned forwards and brushed his hand through her hair. "It was like a fairytale we'd live out, you and I. And yes, some dreams come true. And yes, some dreams fall through. And yes, the time has come for us to say goodbye."

Sheila grabbed his head and pulled him to her, kissing him. She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. "Promise me you'll come back! Promise me nothing will stop you!"

"I promise," Arden said, kissing her again. "I won't let anything get in my way of coming back to you."

The vixen nodded, tears now running down her face. "Then go. Go and finish your quest."

Arden stood, walked over to the desk and retrieved his swords, tucking them into the belt at his waist. He then opened the door and paused to look back at Sheila. "I love you," he said as he blew her a kiss, then closed the door.

Sheila sighed, swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up. After a few moments to make sure she wouldn't get dizzy, she waddled her way to the bathroom. Several minutes later, she stepped out and walked over to the foot of the bed where her clothes lay strewn about, casually discarded in her haste to get undressed. She slipped the simple dress over her head and tightened the laces along the side to cinch the fabric tight. She reached down to pick up her cloak, but instead stood suddenly, her hand on her stomach. "Ooh," she grunted as she turned and sat heavily on the bed. "Oh boy," she said as she started to pant slightly at the contraction. "Come on, you. Settle down in there," she said, speaking to her womb. After a minute or so the pain gradually faded, leaving her slightly out of breath, but that was all. Using one claw-tipped foot, she dragged the cloak over to where she could get to it by leaning sideways, picked it up and wrapped it around herself. Again she stood, walked to the door and left the room.

Standing in the hallway, she cocked her ears to either end of the ferry, listening to see where everyone was. Unable to hear anything over the low beat of the rowing drums, she turned and headed for the bow. Exiting onto the deck she saw that Ruddygore, Lucifer, Arden and the angel were all gathered by the ramp. Off in the near distance, the shoreline to an exotic-looking tropical island paradise could be clearly seen. It would only be a matter of minutes until the ship touched land. "Wow. Is that Eden?" she asked, stepping from the doorway to stand by the railing.

"Sheila!" Arden cried out, startled at her appearance. "I thought you were going to stay in the room."

"Yah, well," she muttered as she glanced towards him, "I decided I couldn't handle sitting in there and not knowing." She paused and looked at Arden with concern. "It's not going to cause any problems if I'm out here, will it?"

"Well," he started to say something and then stopped, noting her expression. He gave her a quirky smile as he walked over and hugged her. "No. It'll be fine. I just wasn't sure you'd want to watch this. It might get kind of gory."

"I don't care how bad you have to mess him up," she joked with a smile that hid the true nervousness she felt, "just as long as you come back to me, you here?"

"Hey, I gave my word," he replied, giving her a brief kiss.

"We're getting kind of close," Lucifer complained. "Don't you think you should get ready?"

"In a second," Arden said over his shoulder. "But first, I need Sheila to give me the amulet."

"You need the amulet?" Sheila asked as she removed the medallion, her brow furrowed with confusion. "What do you need it for?" She started it hand it to him, but pulled it back. "Won't it zap you?"

"Not if you give it to me willingly," he replied, taking the amulet from her hand. He hung it around his neck and examined it briefly before tucking it into the collar. "Think of it as an American Express card. You don't want to leave home without it."

"Ahem," came the impatient noise from Lucifer.

"All right already," Arden said before giving Sheila another quick kiss. He turned and walked middle of the ramp and kneeled, taking the three weapons from his belt. He drew the katana and ran the blade lightly across the back of his hand to draw blood. "Tora, shookan!" he commanded. The blade glowed with an orange fire for a moment before the energy leapt from the blade, landing on the ramp in front of him and coalescing into the form of a large Bengal tiger. "Tora, hairu!" The tiger turned and leapt, striking him in the chest and vanishing. Arden doubled over in pain as his body shifted shape slightly. Fur appeared on his skin with the black and orange striping that the tiger had. When the transformation was complete, he looked like an ordinary human with tiger-stripped fur.

Next, he took out the wakazashi, and as with the katana, he drew it across the back of his hand, drawing blood. "Kitsune, shookan!" A reddish aura flickered into appearance over the length of the blade for a moment, and then jumped from the blade to the deck where a three-tailed fox appeared. "Kitsune, hairu!" he commanded, causing the fox to turn and leap into his chest. Again Arden doubled over as a transformation took him. His face shifted as a vulpine muzzle formed. His ears shifted, rising until they sat on his head, looking like normal fox ears. The shock of white hair he had turned bright orange. The fur covering his hands and feet turned black as his finger and toenails turned into claws.

"Interesting," Ruddygore commented. "The tiger for strength and the fox for cunning, though I must admit I've never seen a three tailed fox before. I wonder what the dagger will have in it."

As if to answer the sorcerer's question, Arden drew the dagger and traced the blade across the back of his hand so it, too, drew blood. "Niko, shookan!" he commanded. A pale white aura flickered over the blade for a moment and leapt to the ground where it turned into a small, cuddly looking white kitten that looked up at him with big eyes and mewed.

"Oh great!" Lucifer grumbled. "Don't tell me. This one grants him unstoppable cuteness, right?"

Ignoring the comment, Arden leaned forwards and played with the kitten for a moment before picking it up by the scruff of the neck. "Niko, mamoru!" he commanded, holding his left arm in front of the cat. The cat snarled and sank its claws through the fabric of the armor and into his arm. The cat then shifted its form, becoming an almost transparent disk eighteen inches in diameter.

"Now that's what I call a pussy defense," the devil quipped.

Arden placed the blades back in their scabbards and tucked them once again in his belt before rising smoothly to his feet. "I'm ready," he announced the same time as the rowing cadence came to a halt followed by the bottom of the boat settling against the sand of the shore.

"Good," the angel said, patting him on the back. "The armor's all ready to go. It can still do all the old tricks you learned back when you first got it from Lakash."

Arden frowned. "That would be great if I had the power to drive it. As it is now, I can barely light a candle."

"You don't have to," Lucifer piped in. "One of the conditions we set upon delivering the armor to you was that Lakash power it. You may not have a link to the dragon, but the armor does. Command it, and it'll do what you need it to do."

"Is there anything else you're not telling me?" Arden asked.

"Everything," the devil replied with a smug grin.

Arden's eyes got wide for a moment before he shot an angry look at the angel who just shrugged in return. "Shit. With friends like you guys, who needs enemies?"

"Arden," The angel hastily said, "Remember. The guardian is a Seraphim. His job is to guard Eden from harm and ensure nobody trespasses."

"Yah, yah. I know." Stepping up to the very edge of the ramp that hovered a foot or so over the sand, Arden smiled and said, "Hoo-yah!" as he leapt from the ramp, using it like a springboard. Landing a good fifty feet from the end of the ramp he paused to listen for a response from the jungle.

Birds scattered as an angelic form launched itself high into the air from deep in the jungle. It spied the lone intruder and dove for him.

"Incoming!" Arden shouted to himself. Steepling his fingers, he concentrated, "Kage bushi no jutsu!" A huge cloud of smoke appeared, blanketing the beach in all directions, causing the guardian to pause.

As the smoke cleared, the guardian saw not one intruder, but hundreds, possibly thousands spread out across the beach in all directions. "Such tricks will do you no good, mortal," the creature shouted as it called down a rain of fire on the beach.

"Wohoo! We're going to have a hot time in the old town tonight," came the chant of a thousand voices as they scattered in all directions. Dodging and rolling as best they could, hundreds were struck by the flames only to vanish in a puff of smoke. A good portion of the army reached the tree line and quickly sought cover.

Overhead, the guardian roared. His body shined with a light that rivaled the sun for a moment, and then faded to reveal a hundred duplicates, most of whom dove for the tree line, while the rest spread out to chase the intruders on the beach.

Back on the ferry, Sheila banged her forehead against the support pillar she was leaning against. "I don't believe he just did that."

"Did what?" Ruddygore asked, walking over to stand next to the vixen. "It appears to have been a quite successful gambit."

"Oh yah, I agree with you there," the vixen said with a sigh, "I just can't believe he used a phrase he got from some stupid Japanese cartoon as the trigger."

"Oh," the big man grunted in understanding. "Well, if it makes you feel any better, my dear, such things are rather common. I'm not familiar with the language, but I'm sure that the words have a meaning that is relevant, even if he did steal the idea from a cartoon."

"Whoa! What was that?" Sheila asked, pointing at what appeared to be a burst of fireworks.

"I'd say that one of Arden's duplicates has found the lamp," the angel replied. "Now all they have to do is get it back to the boat."

Sheila cocked her head at the angel. "Why do they have to get back to the boat?"

"The wish Arden needs to make is long and complicated," the angel replied gravely, "and once Arden starts, the guardian will know which one is real and go after it. If he can make it to the ferry, the guardian won't be able to touch him since it can't leave Eden's domain."

"Oh," the vixen replied as her attention was drawn back towards the forest. Multiple Ardens appeared to be coming out of the woodwork, literally. There was a large number coming from either ends of the beach, though to her it looked like their ranks had been reduced significantly. As she watched, a group of Ardens managed to strike one of the guardians, dispelling it, but not before it had taken four of the duplicates out. "He's losing, isn't he?"

"If you're talking numerical superiority," Lucifer replied, "then yes, he is."

Arden, or rather an Arden broke from the tree line carrying an old, plain-looking, somewhat tarnished brass lamp. Three guardians followed him in close pursuit. Just as one of the angels was about to strike him, he tossed the lamp to another Arden who caught it and bolted for the ferry. Guardian angels stopped hunting individual clones and instead began pursuing the lamp. Time after time the guardians would kill one of the army only to have it throw away the lamp at the last minute. The battle wasn't all on sided, though. Now that the angels were concentrating on the lamp, the army of Ardens began to take their toll on the guardians. Arden's luck, however, was doomed to run out. One of the army had thrown the lamp only to have it snatched from the air by a guardian.

"Oh no! Interception on the ten yard line!" Lucifer announced.

Now it was the guardian's turn to play keep-away, only now they were moving the lamp towards the tree line. The battle continued for a few more minutes until a dozen guardians surrounded only four Ardens. They passed the lamp along their ranks until it came to one, which simply held it. "You should never have trespassed on Eden, mortal," it declared.

"Look," the Arden said while breathing hard, "all I want is the lamp, OK. Now we can do this the hard way, or we can do it the easy way. I'd much prefer it if we did it the easy way."

"Unfortunately for you, now matter how we do this, your only prize will be obliteration," the guardian replied.

The Arden looked around and laughed. "Three to one advantage, eh? I suppose you're probably right."

The guardian angel snapped his fingers, causing his duplicates to vanish. "They are irrelevant as are your shadow warriors. Our fight will be one on one." Taking the lamp, he hung it from a hook on his belt and drew a flaming sword from his scabbard.

"Oh, man," Arden drawled as his duplicates vanished. "That wouldn't happen to be one of those hellfire-and-damnation, burn-you-to-a-cinder-and-then-some swords, would it?" He let out a low whistle. "Damn it. Just my luck they were out of stock when I stopped by K-mart. Guess I'll have to settle for these." Arden drew the katana and wakazashi from their scabbards.

The guardian laughed. "Do you really think you stand a chance with those? Best to surrender and get it over with quickly. The fight hasn't even begun and you're already exhausted. Not much of a challenge if you ask me."

"Well now," Arden replied as he tucked his katana under his left arm. "That's yet to be seen, eh?" Reaching into the pocket on the front of his armor, he pulled out a small fruit and held it up for inspection.

"Blasphemer!" the guardian shouted.

"No!" the angel cried out from the ferry.

Arden smiled and sank his teeth into the fruit, taking a hefty bite. He let go of the fruit and danced lightly to the side as the guardian's sword whistled through the air where he'd been.

"What the hell was that he just ate?" Sheila asked.

Lucifer laughed. "That, my dear, is the fruit of life. Arden just evened up the odds some."

"Cool," the vixen replied with a smile.

"It is not cool," the angel shouted. "He has eaten forbidden fruit. By God's decree he'll never leave the island alive. Even if he defeats the guardian, the fruit will eventually destroy him from within."

"That may be true," Lucifer replied, crossing his arms, "however, if he can defeat the guardian, then he can take the lamp and make the wish before the fruit kills him. Meanwhile he'll have strength and speed unparalleled in a mortal."

"Holy shit!" the vixen exclaimed as she watched the battle begin. Both the guardian and Arden were moving almost too fast to see. All the vixen could make out were the blurred trails caused by the flaming sword and Arden's brightly colored armor. "How the hell can they move so fast?"

"Magic," the devil replied, nodding. "The guardian has pulled out all the stops now. At this point, I'd say that it's all Arden can do to not get turned into sushi."

Sheila gasped as she watched Arden's katana go flying. "He's been disarmed."

"Not quite," the angel said, nodding towards the wakazashi Arden now held in both hands.

The two charged each other, but just as the guardian's sword would have impaled him, Arden vanished, appearing in the same instant behind the guardian. The guardian, now off balance from the attack, stumbled giving Arden the chance to drive the wakazashi into its back. "Fractal korosu!" Arden commanded, followed immediately by a bright flash.

The guardian howled as the left side of his body was suddenly pierced by hundreds of tiny spikes that radiated in an odd, spine-like structure. It turned and swung at Arden, who'd already danced out of range, sprinting towards his lost katana.

"Fascinating, "Ruddygore commented as he squinted for a better look. "If I'm not mistaken, the sword has transformed itself into some sort of fractal geometric shape. Very impressive."

Lucifer whistled. "That looks painful. I think the odds of our boy winning just got a little better. Wouldn't you agree?" he asked, turning towards the angel.

"Yes," the angel said with a nod. "So far, he's sticking to events which should culminate with a winning strategy."

"A winning strategy?" Sheila echoed as she watched the two combatants start going at it again.

The angel nodded again. "Arden's seen within the Time's Eye possible outcomes to this event. He's following the paths he knows have the best odds of allowing him to win."

Arden stumbled as he backed away from the guardian, giving the creature an opening. The flaming sword struck the shield on Arden's arm and bounced off. The force of the blow pressed Arden backwards. Unable to completely get his balance, it was all he could do to block the incoming blows. Without warning. Arden stopped back peddling and lunged at the creature. As the sword came down, Arden twisted out of the way, while holding his arm out to block the blow. There was a bright flash as the shield disappeared, allowing the sword to pass through Arden's arm, though it missed his body. Arden kept spinning with the katana twisted so the tip pointed behind him, driving it into the guardian's back as it charged by. The guardian stumbled and fell, giving Arden a chance to grab the hilt again. His hand had just closed on the hilt when the guardian twisted and swung its arm backwards, catching Arden in the side with the hilt of the sword and sending him flying backwards.

The guardian wiped a trickle of blood from its mouth and laughed. "That was a good gambit," it said as it struggled to its feet. "It might have worked if it hadn't been for the first one. There's no way I was going to let you do that to me again."

Arden rolled over while clutching his side and coughed, sending a spray of blood onto the pristine sand. He knelt facing the guardian who was slowly walking towards him, the flaming sword being dragged in the sand behind it. "I'm not done yet," Arden replied, coughing again. He bowed his head as he held onto his chest. For a moment, it looked like he'd passed out, but he shook it off and straightened up again. Drawing the tanto from its scabbard, he scrambled to his feet and charged the guardian with an incoherent roar.

The guardian, not expecting the attack was momentarily taken aback. It stared in shock as the dagger pierced its chest where a mortal heart would be. Raising its fist, the creature brought the pommel of the sword down on Arden's head, knocking him to the ground. "Foolish mortal. I'd expected better of you." It raised the sword and paused for a second before driving the blade into Arden's chest. "For those who trespass on Eden's soil, the penalty is eternal death!" The flames on the sword exploded downwards into Arden's body, consuming it from the inside out. Flames shot from all the openings in the armor, for a second before dying down. The armor, without a body to support it, collapsed flat on the ground in a mockery of a chalk outline of his body.

"No!" Sheila cried out, as she watched Arden's body being cremated.

"Watch," Lucifer whispered. "It's not over yet!"

Out on the sand, a short distance behind the guardian, a circle of light appeared, from which two anthropomorphic polar bears exited, one female and one male.

The guardian pulled the sword from the round and sighed. "So it is---eh? What?" Turning, the creature was caught off guard as the female polar bear slammed into it, knocking it backwards. The sword flew from its grasp as her leg lashed out, striking his wrist. "Nanuk?" the guardian sputtered at the unexpected turn of events as he grappled with the supernatural creature.

"In the flesh!" Nanuk replied, locking her hands onto the guardian's wrists. "Get the lamp, boy!"

"Arden!" Sheila shouted, recognizing the male polar bear.

Arden lunged under the guardians arm and hurriedly removed the lamp from its belt. He had just turned to run when the creature broke free of Nanuk's grip and raked its claws down his back, sending him stumbling to the sand.

"You son of a bitch!" Nanuk shouted as she head-butted the guardian. "How dare you treat my son that way!"

Arden lay on the ground for a moment, unable to move. He turned his head and spied the ferry. Sheila stood at the railing, her hands over her mouth and her eyes wide in horror. A short distance away, he spotted the lamp where it had fallen. He crawled using his hands towards the lamp trying to reach it. He didn't understand why, but for some reason his legs didn't want to work. A soft, cotton candy fog wrapped itself around his brain, making thought hard. All he knew was that he needed to get the lamp.

The guardian head-butted Nanuk in return, sending her stumbling backwards. He turned to finish Arden off, but was stopped when she grabbed the wakazashi and yanked, sending him reeling in pain. He turned and snarled, the last vestiges of civility lost and attacked her with his fangs and claws.

Arden's fingers finally wrapped around the handle of the lamp, allowing him to gasp it firmly. He turned his head to look at Nanuk who was on the ground under the guardian and was slowly being torn to shreds. Arden rubbed the lamp, summoning the genie within.

"No!" the angel whispered. "He can't speak the wish there. He'll never make it in time."

The world felt like it was spinning around Sheila as she watched Arden, his back sliced open by the guardian's claws, dying for the second time on the beach. She saw the look of hopelessness in his eyes as he rubbed the lamp. Her heart skipped a beat as he began to speak. The world around them lit up as if the sun had come out from behind a cloud, though there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Although Arden was easily within Sheila's earshot, she couldn't hear a word he spoke. Instead, it seemed as if he spoke in something other than sounds. Colors, smells, the sense of touch caressed her mind as she watched him speak. He spoke in a language that was somehow beyond her ability to perceive.

Behind Arden, the guardian stopped mauling Nanuk and looked towards the crippled bear. As it started to release Nanuk, she reached around and grabbed the hilt of the katana. "Not so fast, asshole! Kami kaze no fukushuu!" A pillar of lightening poured down from the heavens, engulfing both the guardian and Nanuk in a blinding torrent of energy.

Arden, his eyes glued on Sheila, continued to speak the words of the wish, either oblivious to or intentionally ignoring the carnage occurring behind him.

Sheila watched as the lightning vanished as quickly as it had come. The guardian lay on the ground, smoldering slightly. Of Nanuk, there was no sign. Slowly the guardian started to rise, but then collapsed and stopped moving.

A moment later, there was a flash and Arden vanished from the sand. Sheila looked franticly around only to find him standing in his human form on the deck of the ferry. He wasn't alone either. Lakash, Lucifer and the angel all stood in front of a wooden judge's bench, behind which sat a bald angel with small, round spectacles, who began banging his gavel on the bench. "All right. Let's get this thing rolling. As I understand it, we have a request for a major modification to the game staffing pursuant to Article 8, Section 5, Subsection B, as pertaining to the replacement of any level A or B ranking individual."

"Actually, your honor," Lakash said, holding up a finger, "I believe that this properly belongs under Article 127, Section 3, Subsection D, as pertaining to wishes made on artifacts of celestial origin by a mortal, the specifics of which implicitly deny by default his wish as being beyond his realm of access."

"Actually, your honor," Lucifer piped up, "that's not true. Arden was dead at that time. Since he was dead, he was no longer mortal; therefore he's not covered by that rule."

"Hmmm," the judge grunted as he studied everyone. "It seems we have a dispute as to the rules covering this. Since you, Lakash, and you, Lucifer, have made your stands, we must go to arbitration." He turned to the angel and frowned. "How does Heaven vote on the subject?"

Looking rather nervous, the angel swallowed before answering. "In this matter, Heaven sides with Hell, your honor."

"WHAT?" both the judge and Lakash shouted.

The judge slammed his gavel onto the wood. "Order in the court." He turned back to the angel and motioned him forward. "What the dickens do you think you're doing? Your orders are to abstain from any and all votes."

"Ahem," Lucifer interrupted by clearing his throat. "Although your eminence may be his boss normally, you are currently acting in a judiciary capacity, and as such I must request that you cease giving my colleague directions as his superior, and limit yourself to strictly judicial direction." The devil smiled. "After all, the entire point of having someone other than yourself represent Heaven is to give you final say only in case of a tie vote."

"Indeed," the judge admitted, looking like he'd just swallowed a lemon. "All right then, its two votes to one on the subject of which rule covers this situation. At this point will the petitioner step forward? Arden Eastridge. Are you fully aware of the nature of the wish you have stated?"

Arden nodded, "I am, your honor."

The judge nodded. "And is this wish made by you of your own free will?"

Arden glanced back at Sheila for a second and then turned back to the judge. "No, your honor. It isn't."

"What?" Lakash, Lucifer, Ruddygore and Sheila all said at the same time.

Again the judge banged his gavel on the bench. "Order! There will be order in this court! Now, just what the heck do you mean, no?"

"Actually, your honor," Arden said, glancing again back at Sheila, "although I was under Nanuk's control when I spoke the words, I knew what they were and wanted to speak them. However, I was wondering if it would be possible to change the wording of the wish?"

"NO!" Lucifer declared

"It's fine by me," Lakash smugly said, smiling for the first time.

"Order," the judge declared, banging his gavel again. "Let me get this straight; you want to change your wish?" He paused as Arden nodded. "OK. Lucifer, I take it you oppose, and Lakash, you're all for it, right?" The judge sighed. "And you---how does Heaven stand on this subject?"

"Heaven abstains from a vote on this subject," the angel said.

"About time," the judge muttered. "In that case…"

"However," the angel interrupted, causing the judge to wince, "we three are not the only ones involved in the dispute. Nanuk is a class B ranking entity, and by the rules her vote should be taken into account."

"Nanuk's dead," Lakash quickly declared. "She's unable to register a vote."

"Indeed that is correct," the angel replied with a nod. "However, Arden was under her control, he was her chosen in this matter, and I believe that he should be given her vote."

The judge rubbed his eyes for a second, than looked at Lakash. "I assume you're going to agree to this? Yah, that's what I thought. All right, Arden, you can change your wish. How do you want to word it?"

"Just one moment, your honor," Arden said before turning and walking over to Sheila. "Well. Here we are. The choice is yours. If I go through with it, I'll do my best to come back, but I can't promise anything."

Sheila hung her head for a second then looked up at him with tears in her eyes. "I know. But you've got to do what you've got to do. Just make sure you come back, OK?"

"OK," Arden replied as he gave her one final, lingering kiss. He turned to walk away but was stopped as Sheila grabbed him by the shoulder. "Huh?"

"By the way, I do," the vixen said with a smile.

"You do what?" Arden asked, having apparently lost track of the conversation.

Sheila reached out and hit him in the arm. "I'll marry you, you dumb lunk!"

"Oh," Arden replied before the answer could fully register. "Oh!" He turned, grabbed her and gave her another long, sensuous kiss.

"Excuse me," the judge said, "But we're on a bit of a tight schedule here."

Both Arden and Sheila chuckled as they ended the kiss. Arden turned and walked back to his place facing the judge. "Sorry, your honor."

The judge nodded. "All right, what's your decision?"

"I'm going to stick with the original wish, your honor," Arden declared. "I make this decision of my own free will, and with full understandings of the consequences involved."

"No!" Lakash shouted as he turned to the judge.

"It's about time," the judge grumbled. "So let it be written, so let it be done!" The gavel banged down on the bench for the last time, causing Arden, Lakash and the judge to vanish. As they vanished so did the added light that seemed to permeate the area.

"So that's it? It's over?" Sheila asked, looking up at the angel.

The angel nodded. "Yes, it's really over."

"So what happens now?" Ruddygore asked. "Where'd Lakash go? He was supposed to provide me with the means to navigate the Sea of Dreams."

"You'll have to take that up with him," the angel said as he lightly hopped off the end of the ramp to stand on the beach.

"Hey, wait," Sheila said. "Ummm… by the way, what the heck is your name anyway?"

The angel laughed. "You know my name already, Sheila Vixen. You've spoken it a thousand times and you'll speak it a thousand more." With that he waves his hand, causing the ferry to gradually accelerate away from the island.

"Wait!" Sheila shouted. "How do I get home? How do I get a hold of Lakash?" She cupped her hands and yelled at the top of her voice, "Where's the amulet? I need that amulet!" She stared despondently as the island slowly faded into the fog. Within a few minutes it had passed beyond the misty barrier where it slowed to a halt.

Back on the beach, the angel walked over to the guardian. "You OK there, Eden?"

"Yah," the guardian angel replied as it slowly climbed to its feet. "I'd appreciate it if you'd get these damned swords out of me. That short sword hurts like a son of a gun."

The angel chuckled. Reaching for the wakazashi, he muttered "Kitsune, hanasu." There was a brief flash as the sword recomposed itself back to its basic form. The angel then withdrew the two swords and accepted the tanto from the guardian.

The guardian flexed his muscles, twisting his limbs and body to free up any remaining kinks. "So tell me, you think this was worth it? The voice looked pretty pissed when you sided with hell there."

"What choice did I have?" the angel replied as he began sheathing Arden's swords. "Lucifer is winning. If we don't do something soon, it's going to be game over." He took the silk armor that was lightly singed around the edges and rolled it around the bundle of swords. "How about you? The voice is going to know you gave him the wish."

The guardian laughed. "I'm not worried. It's not like he can banish me to a more remote location, right?"

"Maybe. You're the lucky one." The angel sighed and shook his friend's hand. "I appreciate the help. I'll be by when I can, but no promises. Right now, I have to drop off this stuff before the voice sends out the hunters to bring me back."

"Good luck," the guardian of Eden said as he watched his friend vanish. He looked around at the tranquil sand and gentle waves, taking in the ambiance before kneeling in the sand. His hands on his knees, he let himself slip in to a trance as he waited for the next mortal to find his way here.

"No!" Sheila screamed in rage as the ferry slowed to a stop. "God damn it! I'm supposed to go home!" She turned to Lucifer who stood off to the side, his arms crossed over his chest and a wide grin on his face. "Where the hell did Lakash go? Where's Arden? Where's my ride home, goddamn it?"

"Don't look at me," the devil jovially responded. "Arden was making a lot of deals. It's not my responsibility to see that they're fulfilled."

Sheila stormed over the devil and grabbed him by his lapels. "Listen you pimple dicked ass fucker! I want to know where Lakash is and I want to know now!" she snarled viciously.

"Easy on the threads," Lucifer responded as he gently disengaged himself from the vixen. "Lakash is no longer in any condition to help you. Arden's wish has divorced him from the dragon. He no longer controls the barriers and has no power to cross the planes himself, much less get you anywhere."

"Then what about Arden or Nanuk? What happened to them?" she demanded, searching for some glimmer of hope.

"I'm sorry---actually, no I'm not. You're boyfriend no longer exists. His soul was shredded into millions of tiny little pieces and has been spread across all of Creation." He chuckled. "I wouldn't look for him anytime soon. As for Nnauk, she's been restored; however, she has no powers that would be of any help to you."

"No!" Sheila sobbed as she dropped to her knees, hugging herself.

"I take it then that my bargain with Lakash is also off?" Ruddygore asked.

"That's between you and Lakash," Lucifer replied with a shrug. "You could try to summon him up, but be aware that he's been banished to a dimension without native magic, so the only way you're going to do it is with our help. Would you like to discuss terms? I'm sure we can come up with a quite affordable payment plan to accommodate your needs."

The large sorcerer scowled at the devil. "No. That's quite all right. You've done quite enough so far."

Lucifer shrugged. "As you wish. I'll be in my cabin. Let me know when we're home." Without further adieu, he turned and walked away. Pausing for a moment before stepping through the hatch, Lucifer turned back and chuckled. "Boy, did Arden ever play the both of you for suckers. He sold you both, hook line and sinker, and in the end he betrayed you both. I don't think I could have done better if I'd tried." The light laughter that spilled forth as he walked away was anything but humorous to either the sorcerer or the vixen.

Ruddygore sighed and looked down at the vixen who knelt on the deck, sobbing. He reached down and gathered her up in his arms, making sure not to step on her dress or tail, then turned and carried her back to her stateroom.

The carriage pulled to a stop at the base of the stairs leading into Ruddygore's castle. Poquah officiously opened the door and unfolded the steps before standing to the side. Ruddygore was the first to step down, followed eventually by Sheila and finally Lucifer. The imir raised an eyebrow at the Prince of Darkness' presence, but made no comment. "I see that we have some unexpected guests," Poquah observed in a neutral tone.

"Yes, we do," the sorcerer, said, glancing at Sheila. "It appears Sheila will be staying with us for a while. As for Lucifer, I'm sure he can take care of himself."

"Actually," the devil interrupted with a smirk. "You don't need to worry about putting Sheila up. I'll be taking her with me."

"The hell you will!" the vixen spat as she moved to stand behind Ruddygore.

"I'm afraid I can't allow that," Ruddygore declared, frowning at the dark prince.

"Oh, pish tosh," Lucifer said, waving a hand. He reached inside his jacket and withdrew three envelopes and handed one to Ruddygore and the other to Sheila. "I'm afraid that I lied back on the boat. Arden did charge me with taking care of the loose ends. However, since there was no way for me to deliver Miss Vixen until we'd returned, I didn't really see any need to rush into things."

Sheila hesitantly took the envelope and saw her name written in Arden's handwriting. "You sorry sack of shit," she growled as she glared at the dark prince. "How dare you!"

"I wish I could say I'm sorry, but I'm not," he replied with a shrug. "It's my job, you know. You two were ripe for the picking and I couldn't really resist."

Sheila opened the letter and read it.

Dear Sheila,
If you're reading this, then either I've screwed up completely and am hopelessly lost to you, or I've succeeded in my quest. Either way, you now have no way to get home other than with Lucifer's help. Do not make any deals with him. Your passage has been paid for. Go with him and do what he tells you. Our bargain is most specific and should cover all the points. He will return you home and give you an alibi that will explain where you've been for the last nine months.

I'm sorry for everything that's happened to you. Please believe me when I say I wish I could undo all of the pain and misery I've put you and your friends through. Unfortunately, that's impossible to do. I must settle now for getting you home and hopefully undoing as much damage as possible in the process.

Please remember that I will always love you.

Yours forever

Sheila sniffed and wiped a tear as she folded up the letter. She looked to Ruddygore and saw that he too was reading a letter, which had been wrapped around another envelope that had been inscribed with an intricate scrollwork of symbols and runes. The sorcerer folded the letter back around the envelope and tucked them both in his pocket.

"Well, now that we've got the basics down, I believe my business with you is complete," he said, giving the sorcerer a short bow. "If you ever need hell's service, please feel free to call." He turned to Poquah and nodded. "Would you do me the favor of tracking Hecate down? Tell her that Sheila, rather than myself, is looking for her."

"What do you need Hecate for?" Sheila warily asked.

"It's simple, my dear. Hecate has the ability to create portals across the dimensional bounds," he explained as he led her up the steps. "Normally, she's restricted to either this world, hell or earth prime. However, with some help from me, her powers can bridge the gap to other worlds, such as your own. I will need her assistance to get you back."

Sheila stopped at the doorway and shook her head. "So I'm really going to go home?"

Lucifer nodded. "Yes. I always keep my promises. Always."

"I see" the vixen replied with a nod as she stepped into the grand foyer. "When can we leave then?"

"That's up to Hecate," the dark price replied. "Without her help, you're stuck here."

"Sheila!" the feminine voice echoed off the marble tiled walls. "You!" Hecate spat as she spotted Lucifer standing next to the vixen. "Why's she still here, you son of a bitch? What kind of crap are you trying to pull now?"

"I am not pulling any kind of 'crap' as it were," Lucifer responded holding out a letter. "I believe this will explain everything.

I know we haven't gotten along very well, but I have a favor to ask of you, and in return, I'll do a favor for you. As you've probably figured out, I'm either dead and destroyed or I've completed my quest. Either way, it's going to make it hard for me to fulfill any favors; however, I ask that you hear me out.

Lakash is no longer in control of the dragon, and as such he is unable to transport Sheila home. I've made a deal with Lucifer to see that she gets home. He will need your help to accomplish this.

Here's where my favor comes in. Should you assist Lucifer in returning Sheila to her home, Lucifer will also assist you in leaving this realm. This is your out, Hecate. You wanted to get away from the rules that govern you; well, here's your chance. Get Sheila home, and you'll have your way out.

I'm sorry we didn't get along better. You are a most interesting person and I think we might have eventually become friends. Alas, that's something that will probably never happen now.

Good luck with your new life.

Hecate read the letter three times before looking up at Lucifer. "Is this for real? You're going to get me out of this hell hole?"

"That's right," the devil replied. "Arden has bought half your ticket. You have to buy the other half by helping me return her."

"I-I don't know what to say," the demoness stuttered. "When do we go?"

"As soon as you're ready," Lucifer responded.

"Great. Let me get a few things." She turned to Ruddygore and asked, "RT, I want to cash out. Remember? Like we talked about? Please?"

"Certainly," the big man replied, reaching for a package that Poquah had produced. "Arden had indicated that he might have a way to get you out when we left, so I had Poquah prepare your payment. It's all there."

Hecate took the small leather pouch and examined it. It contained five vials of softly glowing liquid as well as several small gold bars. She tied the lid closed and tucked it into a larger pouch on her belt. "Thank you," she said suddenly giving the big man an unexpected hug.

Ruddygore, although initially startled, recovered his dignity quickly enough to return the hug for a moment before disengaging himself. "That's quite all right. You've earned it."

"Well, Poquah. This is it, eh?" she said to the stalwart imir. "Guess you're pretty happy to be seeing the last of me, eh?"

"On the contrary," the emir replied shaking his head, "you have always brought a unique view of the world which I have found fascinating. Although you do tend to be annoying at best, your absence will leave a void. In short, you will be missed."

"Why Poquah," she said with a smile. "That's the nicest thing I think you've ever said to me."

"Indeed," the imir agreed. "Custom says that partings should be on a positive note. Far be it from me to disregard such things."

Hecate laughed. "Same old Poquah to the end.' She turned to the others and nodded. "Shall we go?"

"Lead on," directed Lucifer.

Hecate reached out and touched an invisible point in the air, causing a circular ring of fire to expand. Big enough to accept even Ruddygore, the ring would pose no problem to the pregnant vixen. "After you," she said, waiving towards the hole.

Lucifer shrugged and stepped through without hesitating.

Sheila paused and looked back at Ruddygore and smiled. "Thanks for everything."

"You're quite welcome, my dear," the large sorcerer replied.

The vixen stepped lightly through the ring, not trusting it to burn her. Behind her, Hecate strode through the portal, allowing it to collapse behind her.

"Well, shall we see what Arden's top secret document on how to navigate the Sea of Dreams has to say?" the large sorcerer asked as he strode towards his study. Once in the room, he took a seat at his desk as Poquah closed and locked the door. Taking the letter out of his jacket, he removed the second envelope from the letter and studied it for a second. Satisfied that it has no protections other than that in the letter, he took a knife and slit the top edge open. From within, he withdrew several sheets of paper that were covered with scrolling texts, mathematical formulas, diagrams as well as various obscure glyphs and wards.

Poquah waited patiently as his master read the document, noting that the big man's frown grew with each page. The imir watched as the large man flipped over the last page of the document and then folded it back up again. "Is there a problem with the document?" he asked.

"A problem? No, no problem. The document provides exactly what I was promised," grumbled the sorcerer as he stuffed the letter back in the envelope. He walked over to a lit brazier and tossed the document onto the coals. "Unfortunately, the cost is more than I'm willing to pay."

"That is most unfortunate," the imir observed.

"Yes it is," the sorcerer agreed solemnly. He turned and smiled at his companion. "It's not a complete loss. What we've witnessed here, Poquah, is history in the making. The entire nature of the war between Heaven and Hell has had a monkey wrench thrown into it. If we're lucky, that means that we might actually have a chance to help delay or even to prevent Armageddon."

"Indeed," Poquah said, is eyebrows raised in appreciation. "It seems that perhaps providence wasn't so unkind to you after all."

Sheila blinked as she looked around at the complete and utterly black darkness around her. The odd thing was that she could see Hecate and Lucifer just fine. "Where are we?"

"Why, we're in hell, of course," Lucifer replied as he started walking.

Sheila cautiously started to follow him, aware of the fact that they were walking across some sort of field, but she couldn't see any details. "What kind of hell is this?"

"Blindness," Hecate commented as she took a hold of the vixen's arm. "For some people, the loss of sight is the ultimate horror. Be careful. Although you can see us, you can't see any terrain. If you're not careful, you could trip and fall."

"How far do we have to go?" Sheila whined as she stumbled over something she couldn't see.

"Not far," Lucifer replied, pointing off in the distance at something she couldn't see. "We're almost there."

Hecate pulled Sheila to the side. "Watch out. There's a big hole there. You could easily break your leg in it."

Sheila blinked and looked around, panicked at the world she couldn't see. "Why can't I see anything? How is it you can see?"

"I'm not mortal," Hecate commented dryly. "I'm half demon, so I'm a native to this realm. As such, I can see through the horrors."

"Yah, well, right now being half demon doesn't sound so bad from my point of view," the vixen complained.

Hecate didn't bother to answer, but instead continued to guide the blind vixen through the maze of obstacles. A few minutes later, they came to a stop.

"All right. Here we are," Lucifer announced as he rubbed his hands together. "Ok, first things first. Sheila. In order to return you to your world in such a way as to explain your absence, I have to give you an alibi. In order to do that, I'm going to have to implant some false memories."

"False memories? What kind?" the vixen asked as she glance nervously at Hecate.

"Nothing major," the devil reassured her. "A complete history that covers the last nine months, It will include an explanation for Arden's death and information that will exonerate your friend Zig Zag who's currently on trial for the murder of you and Arden."

Sheila glanced at Hecate who simply shrugged. "What will happen to my real memories?"

"You'll still have your real memories. They will exist side by side with you able to access either equally as well whenever you desire." He shrugged at the vixen's hesitation. "I can send you back without the memories, but then there would be a lot of questions you couldn't answer, some of which are crucial to keeping Zig Zag out of prison."

Sheila thought back to the letter from Arden and nodded. "All right. Will it hurt?"

"Hurt?" the devil echoed with a laugh. "My dear, I pride my self on making such things as painless as possible."

The vixen nodded. "All right. I guess so." She glanced over at Hecate for a moment and nodded. "I guess this is goodbye. I appreciate your helping me get home. Thank you."

"All part of the deal," Lucifer replied as reached out and touched the vixen in the forehead, causing her eyes to glaze over as she entered a spell-controlled trance. Several minutes later he removed his hand and nodded. "Now for the rest of the package," he chuckled as he rubbed his hands together. Reaching out, he touched her dress, causing it to decay away to nothing, leaving the vixen naked. "Not bad," he said as he paced around her, examining her from all directions.

"What the hell are you doing?" Hecate demanded.

"I have to adjust her appearance to match the alibi," the devil commented as he reached out to stroke her arm. A wave seemed to flow over the vixen, leaving the fur filthy, matted and tangled. Her hair was chopped short, close to her head in a fashion that made it look like it had been hacked off with a knife. He brushed his finger under her right eye, causing the skin underneath to swell and bruise.

"Stop it!" Hecate demanded, grabbing his arm. "This goes way beyond just giving her an alibi!"

The dark prince snatched his arm away and snapped his fingers, caging Hecate so that she couldn't interfere again. "This is all part of the alibi. I'm doing nothing that won't be part of the story, the history that will explain why she vanished from the face of the earth for nine months. No permanent harm will come to her from this." He reached out and brushed the upper part of her right arm, then the right wrist. Walking around to the other side, he brushed his hand over her left forearm, then along her ribs. Time after time he stroked various parts of her body, sometimes creating a visible damage, other times the damage was unseen. Eventually he stepped back and nodded at his handiwork. Again he snapped his fingers, releasing Hecate.

"You son of a bitch!" Hecate shouted as she rushed to examine Sheila. "She looks like she's been beaten!"

Lucifer sighed. "That's the entire point! Do you think I'm doing this just to get my rocks off?" He winced at the look she gave him. "All right, let me rephrase that. I swear by all that is unholy that everything I've done to her is centered on her alibi and maximizing the believability factor associated with it. If she didn't appear abused, the alibi wouldn't fit."

"I guess I don't have much choice but to believe you," Hecate reluctantly agreed.

Lucifer let out a sigh of exasperation. "Good. Now do you think we can work on actually getting her home now?"

"Yah, yah," the demoness agreed. She turned and reached out to brush a filthy strand of hair out of Sheila's face and sighed. "Sorry, hon."

Lucifer reached out to touch the air and concentrated. "All right. I've laid down the probability matrix and initiated the quantum strata discontinuity. Now all you have to do is actually open the gate and it should take her home."

Hecate reached out and touched the same space where Lucifer's finger rested, causing a tiny circle of blue flame to appear. Struggling with all her might, Hecate slowly forced it to open big enough to allow Sheila through. "Quick! I can't hold it for much longer!"

Lucifer snapped his finger, causing Sheila to walk through the portal. He snapped his finger one last time releasing the spell on the vixen just as the portal collapsed.

"Whoa. That was fun," the demoness commented with a laugh as she tried to catch her breath. "Glad I won't be having to do that one again."

"Actually," Lucifer said, drawing out the word, "the bargain I had to make with Heaven for your escape from this realm was that you go to a reality that has no inherent magic. As such, no matter where I send you, opening the portal is going to be no less difficult than with Sheila."

"No mana?" Hecate cried. "That's bullshit! This is your decision! I know it! It's you punishing me because I won't help you!"

"No, it isn't, Hecate," the dark prince said sadly. "I swear to you, Hecate, that I did not place this restriction on your release."

"Great! Just great," the demoness complained as she threw her hands up in the air. "Just how am I supposed to survive in that kind of realm? No access to mana, and no way to generate it other than through natural replenishment! How am I supposed to adapt myself to fit in? Unless you're sending me to a realm filled with demons, there's not much chance of me being more than just a freak."

"That's not true. I know of a realm where you can fit in. People like you aren't common, but there is a species similar enough that with a few cosmetic changes, you would fit right in. As for your mana problems,' he reached under his jacked and pulled out a large gym bag and handed it to her. "This should help.

Hecate unzipped the bag and gaped at the contents. "My god, there must be at least a dozen liters of viscous mana in here!"

"Fifteen, actually," Lucifer replied, nodding. "There's some extra gold in there, too, so you won't have to worry about finding a job right away."

Hecate's brow furrowed as she looked up at Lucifer. "Why? What do I have to do to earn this?"

Lucifer sadly shook his head. "Nothing. You're my daughter, Hecate. Believe it or not, I do really care for you. I know you find that hard to swallow, but it's the truth." He reached out to put a hand on the stunned female's shoulder. "I'm sorry for trying to force you to be what you're not. This is my way of making up for it. Once you go through that portal, I'll never see you again. There's no way I could let you go without giving you enough to make sure you had a good start on the other side."

"I---I don't know what to say. I want to believe that this is you being generous, but---I just can't believe it." She zipped the bag closed and stood up. "There's no price at all? I can just take it and walk away?"

"I won't demand anything for it, no. However," Lucifer paused for a second and pursed his lips, "I wouldn't turn down a good-bye hug and a thank you for your father."

Hecate's eyes narrowed as she studied him. "I swore that I'd never acknowledge you as my father. I'd rather die first."

The devil shrugged. "It's your decision. You don't have to do anything. Just take the bag and leave."

The demoness rolled her eyes and chuckled. "You know, you're too good at this, right?" She sighed and walked over to Lucifer, wrapped her arms around him and gave him a hug. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," the dark prince whispered as he hugged her back. As the two separated, Lucifer regained his composure and reached out, touching the air again. "Whenever you're ready."

Hecate reached out and opened a portal, forcing it wide enough for her to slip through but. "Thanks for everything," she said as she flashed Lucifer a smile, "Daddy." Before he could react, she slipped through the gate and allowed it to collapse.

Lucifer stood for a moment before he nodded to himself and smiled viciously. "One year to the day, Sheila Vixen. One year to the day." He turned and walked away, whistling lightly as he went. "Damn but I am bad."


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