Story (c) 2000 by Hikaru Katayamma/Keith Dickinson. All rights reserved. The character Sheila Vixen (c) Eric W Schwartz. 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. Special thanks go out to Jim Lane and Coyotyee for their help in editing this project!

Identity Crisis
Act II
Chapter 23

The morning after.

  I just don't get it. I hadn't eaten anything after I had puked last night and yet I was sick again. To make matters worse we were supposed to be out of here in an hour. It was all I could do to just lay on my bed and hoped that my guts would mellow out before I was forced to rise.

  The sound of the door opening got my attention. It was Niko, my roommate, returning. She walked over by my bed and held out a vial to me. I took it and looked at the contents for a second before cocking an ear at her. She had yet to say a word to me. I simply called her Niko out of convenience. She had smiled at me when I told her what it stood for. I'd have to make a point of asking Gwen if she was simply shy, or a mute.

  Niko, seeing my questioning look, imitated my vomiting then pantomimed drinking the liquid followed by a big smile as she rubbed her stomach. So it was supposed to cure my nausea. I could live with that. I popped the top and tossed the contents down without trying to smell or taste the contents. Their version of a hangover remedy had cured me of that habit on the first try.

  I was surprised to find that the liquid was rather pleasant tasting and didn't cause me any discomfort. In fact, I found that my nausea had faded after a couple of minutes, allowing me to rise and get dressed for the day.

  Niko helped me with my outfit, lending a hand as I struggled to lace the leather up tightly. I had wanted Thomas to help but she had nixed that idea from the start. There was something about her that I couldn't put my finger on. It was more than just her not talking. She could be quite assertive when she wanted and yet so shy otherwise. It was quite confusing.

  Dressed in armor and swords, I headed out the door and was ready to go downstairs when Niko stopped me and pointed upstairs. Pushing me up a few steps, she made it clear I was supposed to go up and see Gwen. I smiled and patted her hand before tackling the stairs without her assistance.

  Once at the top I walked down the corridor nodding to the guards as I walked towards the main room. I knocked on the door and was rewarded by having another of the maids open it and ushered me in and sat me in one of the plush chairs.

  "The Duchess will be right in," she informed me before bowing out of the room.

  A few minutes later I heard a door open. I started to stand, but Gwen waved me back down. "It is good to see you this morning, Arden. I take it you are feeling better?" she asked as she sat down in the chair across from me.

  "Yes, I am, thank you." I replied.

  Gwen smiled at me, pleased with my answer. "You really should have come to us when you began feeling ill. We have elixirs that can relieve such symptoms," she said lightly scolding me.

  I shrugged, trying to think of an excuse. "I didn't think it was important," I said honestly. "That and the fact that I wanted to figure out what I've been eating that's been making me sick."

  Gwen got a confused look on her face. "Nothing in the food is making you sick," she said before a sudden look of realization hit her face. "You don't know." Gwen stared at me.

  "Don't know what?" I asked confused by what was happening.

  Gwen stood and turned, walking around the chair as she leaned on it with one hand, the other rubbing her chin in thought.

  "Please, Gwen. What is it I should know?" I pleaded.

  Gwen looked up at me and walked over to where I sat and knelt in front of me as she took my hands. "I'm sorry, Arden. I thought you had been told," she said, drawing out my agony. "You're with child."

  "I beg your pardon," I said, fragments of my world spinning around me. "Would you mind saying that again?"

  Gwen laughed lightly. "You're pregnant, child. You're going to have a baby," she explained.

  This wasn't happening. This is most definitely not happening. I've been here for less than two weeks. There's no way I could have gotten pregnant and started having morning sickness. Not unless...

  I stood, knocking the chair over as I stumbled backwards from Gwen. "Oh no... Dear God, no," I said as I staggered backwards towards the wall.

  Gwen's face showed the concern for me she felt as she spoke to me. "It will be all right, Arden. Trust me. This is a wonderful thing," she said, trying to calm me down.

  "Damn it, Gwen, don't you understand? There's no way I should be pregnant. I shouldn't be compatible with humans," I explained, huddling against the wall. "And even if I am, then it has to be from what happened in the mews! For God sake! Don't you see?"

  Gwen stood by my side and began to stroke my fur, trying to calm me down. "Hush now, child," she said quietly. "The child isn't from the mews. I know this for a fact."

  Her words penetrated the horror that I felt bringing a ray of hope. "How can you know this?" I asked, looking in to her eyes, hoping for the truth.

  "I instructed the healer to ensure that nothing could come of what happened in the mews," she explained. "He told me that you were already with child."

  How could that be true? Nothing had happened before the mews. There was no way that could be right unless... Not unless Sheila had gotten pregnant before we made the transition to this world.

  "You see, child. There's nothing to worry about," she said as she continued to soothe me.

  But Gwen didn't know the truth. She didn't know that Lucifer had broken the spell that bound Sheila to me. Sheila was his own person now. I might get him back for the sake of the child, but I didn't want him on those terms. I wanted Sheila because he loved me, not because I was pregnant or from any damned spell; I wanted him for true and honest love.

  I stepped away from Gwen and straightened my armor. "Thank you, my lady," I said formally, with a bow. "If you will excuse me. I must prepare for our departure."

  "Arden, please, don't go like this," Gwen said as she wrung her hands.  "Let me help you through this."

  I gave a terse shake of my head. "I...I can't, my lady.  I need to figure this out for myself," I replied, refusing to look at her.

  Gwen reached out to me, wanting to speak, but stopped as she saw the expression on my face. "We will delay you no longer, Lady Arden," she said. "Please feel free to call upon us after we reach tonight's destination."

  I gave Gwen a small bow before leaving the room. At the top of the stairs I leaned heavily against the railing and tried to calm myself.

  I was pregnant. I would be responsible for bringing a life into the world. But was I truly capable of doing such a thing. Could I be a proper mother to this child and still complete my quest?

  And what about Sheila? Did I have any right to make demands of him? He was partly responsible for the child; of that there was no doubt. If I confront him with this now, he could misconstrue it as a ploy to get him back. If I don't, I could loose him forever.

  Dear God, what should I do?

  Capitol Trip Log: Day 2

  I'm screwed. Sheila's running around sowing his oats, and I've just found out that I'm pregnant. This isn't anything I ever thought I'd have to contend with. It never even occurred to me. I mean, I'm a vixen in a human world. How the hell could I be pregnant? But that's not the truth is it. The truth is that Sheila got pregnant and now I have to deal with the consequences

  I'm pregnant.

  Every time that runs through my mind I shudder. My God, am I ready for this? Can I truly bring a child in to the world? I know that Nanuk said that I must truly learn what it is to be a woman, to bear a child and raise it. Could this be what she meant? If so, then just how am I supposed to accomplish this and accomplish my quest at the same time?

  Even if it isn't part of my quest, why must I bear this child? I don't even know if it's mine, for God's sake. For all I know it belongs to Bjorn or one of the actors at the Studio. Why should I even carry this child to term?

  My God, what am I saying? Even if I had nothing to do with this child, there's no way I could forsake it. It is part of me now, and like it or not I must see this thing through to the end.

  Now the question becomes Sheila. What do I do about him? Does he know about this child? If not, should I even tell him, or should I keep this to myself until it can no longer be hidden?

  I dread confronting him with this knowledge. If I do, he may take it as some sort of ploy to get him back, even though he was at least partially at fault that this happened. I remember him saying that he intentionally threw himself into heat before we jumped. That meant that he...she must have been using conventional contraceptives. Is it possible that she intentionally did this thing? She never planned on Bjorn being killed.

  My God, what if it's Bjorn's! She loved him so, enough to have accepted his proposal of matrimony. Is it possible that they consummated their engagement and this child is the result? If so, should it be my responsibility to raise this child? Even if that's true, am I capable of turning my back on it? As one who walks the path of the bear, I think not.

  For now I must do all in my power to ensure that this child thrives as it grows within me. To that end I have begun using the lessons that Nanuk taught me, the most important of which is gathering of power. She warned me about overuse of my abilities, and she showed me how to recover energy from the life that surrounds me. Now I must use this ability to ensure that I am never again faced with oblivion, not while I have this responsibility.

  Today, while riding, I spent time in meditation, gathering power from my surroundings. Although it was a difficult balance between concentrating on riding and summoning strength, I managed to find an equilibrium that allowed me to accomplish both tasks. At day's end not only was I refreshed, but I had none of the discomfort I had been forced to endure yesterday.

  At least there was one high point to my day.

  God help me. I'm going to have a child.

  Capitol Trip Log: Day 3

  Sheila continued his trend of picking up women at each inn. Each time our eyes meet I get the feeling he's looking for a reaction from me. I won't give him the satisfaction. I was taught long ago how to hide my feelings and emotions. The only thing he sees when he looks at me is a neutral expression.

  Though the euphoria of the spell is gone, I still feel the pain when he carouses with the women. There is still something deep inside of me that cries out with each betrayal. Maybe it's love and maybe it's just my sense of honor. Then again, it could just be old-fashioned jealousy.

  I don't know anymore. My life no longer makes any sense. All I have left is the child growing within me, and my quest. Without Sheila, I am incomplete. Without Sheila, I am lost.

  Capitol Trip Log: Day 4

  We are making good time. According to Gwen, we will reach Bastion Keep tomorrow afternoon. Beyond it we will find the Plains of Kaldaska. It will take us five days to cross the plains. The way Gwen has talked about the keep, it must be a marvel of engineering and magic. I can't wait to take a look at it. I doubt I'll be able to see all of it in just two days.

  Dane has offered to show me around the keep. He has been there many times, playing for the Count and Countess. As much as I enjoy Dane's company, I still feel that somehow I'm betraying Sheila by spending time with him. Although he's been the perfect gentleman, I feel myself falling for him. I see a warmth and companionship in this human that is missing from my life. I'm torn between desire and guilt.

  Last thing of note for the day is Thomas. He's been a keen student, learning the basics of Gung-Fu quickly though his impatience to learn more mars his technique. Unfortunately for the other squires here, this sort of hand-to-hand combat isn't known and has given Thomas the definite upper hand when it comes to settling disputes. I had to reprimand him today for breaking an older squires nose. I hope I'm not making a mistake in teaching him these skills.

  It was a cold and blustery day, one requiring a riding cloak even for me to keep warm. Perhaps I had over estimated my fur's ability to keep warm. Then again, I had no idea if this body naturally grew a winter coat or if that ability had been lost to evolution.

  Beneath the cloak I wore the usual armor, though today it was with a roman style skirt, the heavy metal pleats backed by a cloth liner that was designed to keep the wind out. Either way I found it a cumbersome affair when riding on a horse. No wonder the Romans always marched wherever they were going.

  Niko had been most insistent about me being properly gussied up for a visit to the keep and had insisted that I wear the badge of the Spirit Warrior Elite. Although I argued with her for almost half an hour I found her to be an immoveable object. It's bad enough having an unruly squire who's making up for lost time in causing trouble, but now I had a mute nursemaid who insisted on making sure I was dressed properly. I suppose I should feel grateful, but it rubbed my sense of independence the wrong way.

  Dane and I had ridden well ahead of the main group, out-ranging even the lead scouts. He was in a childishly eager mood and kept edging me on towards the top of the pass that would lead us to Bastion Keep. Far above us were the watchtowers that stood like huge obelisks on either side of the pass, giving an unrestricted view of the Duke's territory.

  As we approached the top of the rise Dane had insisted that I cover my eyes with a cloth so as not to be able to peek at the keep as we crested the ridge. Once at the top he removed the cloth with a flourish and revealed the keep to me.

  To say that it was an awesome spectacle was an understatement. The entire keep appeared to have been carved from the very side of the mountain. Its smooth walls spanned hundreds of yards between the valley of the pass, while arch-like supports merged seamlessly with the mountain, supporting it as it sat over the road. Suspended over the road like this, it gave absolute control to whoever occupied the keep, allowing them to rain all forms of death down upon their enemies.

  On either side of the keep were long, sloping ramps that led upwards into its lowest levels. They were narrow enough that you would have barely enough room for a wagon or carriage with a scant few feet to spare. It would not support any form of massed assault by an invading army.

  Hundreds of feet in the air the top of the keep was picketed with poles and their waving flags, all decked out for a visit by the Duke. On either side of the mountain, high above the keep, was another pair of lookout towers giving a commanding view of the other side of the mountain range. Nobody would be sneaking up on this place without being seen.

  "It's amazing, Dane!" I said in awe of the structure.

  Dane smiled as he basked in my amazement. "Yes, it is. The Dainalin, as a gift to the Emperor, constructed it over five hundred years ago. There are two others controlling the passes from the east and west. To the north is the Sea of Camantok. It separates the Imperial home territories from our northern holdings, and acts as a buffer should the Iced Landers ever defeat our northern defenses.

  These Dainalin sounded like Dwarves. "Just what is a Dainalin, Dane?"

  Dane gave a brief shrug and said, "They're people who have a special affinity for working with rock. They possess an innate magic that lets them shape rock in ways we can't begin to imagine. To them it's a living thing."

  "That sounds exactly like the Dwarves," I said with a nod. "Short folk, averaging maybe four feet of height average, quite stout with an affinity for working stone and metal. They prefer to live underground in tunnels and caves instead of up in the open as humans do."

  Dane flashed me a smile of acknowledgement. "That describes them perfectly. So, would you like to wait here for the rest of the caravan, or should we continue on down to the keep?" He asked.

  We were easily a couple of hours ahead of the Duke's retinue. There wasn't any way I was going to hang around out here when I could be getting a tour of the keep with Dane.

  "Let's go," I said as I prodded my horse

  Together we cantered down the road towards the marvel that was Bastion Keep.

  My first impression of the keep wasn't wrong. It had been carved from the very stone of the mountain. There wasn't a single brick or speck of mortar in the entire building except for things the humans had added afterward. You could walk down a wall, trailing your hand on the surface and find it smooth as glass. The halls and rooms were lit with an ingenious system that reflected light from mirrors high above on the mountains and down into the keep, each beam bouncing and splitting as needed, allowing for daylight to flood the interior with a soft, natural luminance.

  Entering the keep had been simple. We just rode our horses up the half-mile long ramp that climbed almost two hundred feet before rising into the bottom of the keep. Looking up I could see small arrow slits from which defenders could fire down on people approaching. There was also a huge stone that could be dropped into position, blocking and guarding the entrance from intruders.

  Once inside I discovered that the base of the building was mostly a stables area that was devoted to the care of animals and carts, though it also contained all the required hardware for defense.

  We quickly checked our horses in with a stable hand, took our saddlebags and proceeded up the stairs to the next floor of the building. The steps were broad with low risers, obviously having been designed for use of both armored men as well as for people having to carry heavy loads.

  At the top of the stairs I glanced around the room, looking for some form of elevator, and wasn't disappointed to findwhat appeared to be a large freight carrier in each corner. It would be interesting to see how they drove them.

  Once we passed through the large double doors at the top, I saw a table with an officious looking little guy backed by several bored looking guards, and he seemed to be checking traffic. Dane directed me towards the short line leading to the man, whom I assumed was the equivalent of a customs agent.

  Once we reached the front of the line, the small man looked up and smiled at Dane. "Ah, Danedajin, how good to see you again," he said pleasantly. "And what new wonder have you brought us today?" The last was said while looking at me.

  "This is the Lady Arden Vixen, Mirak. She is a visitor to our lands and is part of the Duke's party," Dane explained, introducing me.

  "And can it talk?" the little man asked.

  "Arf. Bow wow. Woof woof woof." What can I say? I'm a smart ass.

  Dane gave me a shot to the ribs with is elbow. "Arden!"

  I just shrugged. "It asked if I could talk," I said sullenly.

  "Ah, so it is capable of some speech," the small man commented as he made a note on some paper.

  I stepped forwards to stand next to the table. "Let's get something straight, little man. I'm not an 'it', I'm a 'she' or 'lady'. Take your pick, but stop calling me 'it'," I directed. I'd had enough of people treating me like I was some inanimate object or animal. My stern voice had awakened the guards who were lounging around behind the man, making them realize that I might pose a problem.

  I felt a hand on my shoulder. "Arden, please. Don't make things any worse," Dane said, trying to calm me down.

  "Danedajin, please restrain it until we are finished here," the small man said.

  I let out a growl as I windmilled my arms to throw my cloak back over my shoulders. The guards started to take a step forwards but froze as I grabbed the small man by his tunic and hauled him up so his face was equal to mine. "This is your last warning, little man. You talk to me directly or you'll never talk to anyone again."

  The official started at me, his eyes wide with the shock of what he saw. He wasn't looking at my face, but rather the emblem I wore on my left shoulder. "Drijen! I'm sorry, Drijen! I didn't know!" he sputtered out quickly, apologizing as he saw the symbol for the Spirit Warrior Elite. The guards behind him snapped to attention and saluted me.

  "Drijen?" Dane asked, as he maneuvered himself around in front of me. "Arden! Why didn't you ever tell me you were Drijen?" he asked.

  I let the runt go. It was satisfying to watch him scramble off the table, all hopes of dignity lost.

  "Why should I?" I asked. "What I did to earn it was no big deal. I don't see what all the excitement is."

  Dane's face showed a combination of shock, awe and incredulity at what I had said. "Please tell me you're joking, Drijen," he said in disbelief as I shook my head. "Don't you realize that there are less than a score of Elite? Last time I was at the capitol there were but eighteen. If they have added no others, then you will be the nineteenth."

  I turned to Dane and grasped the hand that rested on my shoulder, giving it a squeeze. "You don't understand, Dane," I explained. "I was given this the day before we left. I know very little about these 'Spirit Warrior Elite' of yours. To me, it is just a title and nothing more."

  My words clearly disturbed Dane greatly. His expression made it clear that he was not pleased with what he had heard. "We shall have to discuss this in private," he said, his tone most serious. "There is much that should have been explained to you before you accepted the emblem."

  Great. The Duke had slipped a fast one over on me by not explaining exactly what went with the emblem. Lord only knows what kind of trouble I was going to be in now. With my luck they probably have a "Shaved Head" rule or something.

  I turned back to the official and glowered. "Great. Sooner we get finished up with this twit, the sooner we can get out of here," I commented.

  "Please, Drijen. I had no idea. How was I to know when you had covered the emblem?" he asked in defense.

  I glowered at him angrily. "You just don't get it, do you?" I asked. "I'm not pissed that you weren't groveling before. I'm pissed because you insisted on treating me like some inanimate object that didn't have a thought in its head. People like you really twist my tail."

  "I'm most sorry, Drijen," he groveled. "I assure you, it will never happen again."

  I gave a snort of derision. "It damn well better not. Now what do we have to do in order to pass?" I asked.

  The shrimp bowed and waved us by. "Nothing, Drijen. You and your guest are welcome in this keep."

  I gave another snort before pushing by the guards. Why the hell couldn't life be simple for me? Why was crap like this always popping up to screw with my brain?

  As we walked down the hallway I watched the people as they bowed to me when I passed by. This was ridiculous. I reached back with my paws, grabbed the edged of the cloak and flipped them back over my shoulders, covering the emblem.

  "Drijen, please don't cover the emblem," Dane said, reaching for the edge of the cloak.

  I intercepted his hand and held it as I stopped to talk to him. "Dane, you've known me since before you found out I was one of the Elite. Please, just call me Arden, not Drijen," I asked, pleading with my eyes.

  "But, Drijen..."Dane began to object before I interrupted him.

  "But nothing, Dane," I sated flatly. "This title means nothing to me. You know my story, my history. This title doesn't matter to me since it isn't anything that my people have an equivalent of." I could see that my words were getting through to him. "I would be just as happy without the 'honor' of the title as with. OK?"

  Dane mulled that over for a few seconds before he nodded reluctantly. "All right, Arden," he conceded. "Until you know the full extent of what it is to be an Elite, then I won't push you to accept the responsibilities."

  That sounded like a reasonable compromise. I smiled as I released his hand, hooking my arm through his before we resumed our trek. "So, what's first? Do we find our rooms, or find food?" I asked lightly looking to change the subject.

  "Rooms?" Dane asked, emphasizing the plural. He gave a small, dejected sigh and continued, "In that case I'd say we need to find food, since that'll be the only immediate gratification I suppose I can count on for now."

  We both laughed at that as we followed our noses in search of a meal.

Chapter 24