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 24

It's not a retreat; we're advancing to the rear!

Capitol Trip Log: Day 5

  After a rather satisfying lunch, Dane and I stored our stuff in our rooms then went to one of the balconies that overviewed the open square in the center of the keep. It had been converted from an open-air commons area into a reception hall by the strategic use of trees, flowers and shrubbery. On the south side of the square stood the arch from which the Duke and Duchess should enter. On the opposite side stood a temporary dais upon which the Count and Countess sat with their daughter standing by their side.

  The Duke and Duchess made a grand entrance with all the fanfare of a small circus, though somehow it worked in a regal sort of way. During the proceedings I had noticed that Dane wasn't watching the procession, but rather his eyes had been locked on the Count's daughter. I could tell from his expression that he had fallen hard for this woman. Now I knew just whom he had referred to when he spoke of an unobtainable love.

  After the show was over Dane and I split up to take care of separate business. I needed to find Thomas and make sure he got all of my things to my room. Fortunately I wouldn't be bunking with Niko again, however it did turn out that they had assigned Thomas to the room with me. Not that it bothered me, but it almost sent the Chamberlain into a fit when he discovered that Sir Arden was actually Lady Arden, and an animal at that. I had almost bitten him.

  Afterwards, Dane dropped by to explain what it means for me to be an Elite. I really did owe the Duke a solid thrashing. The Spirit Warriors weren't just some high muckity-muck warrior group; they were the right hand of the Emperor. The Spirit Warriors traveled the land, enforcing the Emperors commands and his law. The Elite were not only the prime defenders against all forms of attack and subterfuge against the crown and its citizens, they were the law incarnate. An Elite was the sheriff, judge, jury and executioner all rolled up into one package. The only reason the Duke could hand me Marduke's life for judgment was because he convinced the Arcanum to name me as an Elite. He had manipulated me to see if I really would kill Marduke or not and I wouldn't soon forget that.

  Tonight, after the dinner and dance in the Grand Ballroom, Dane has hinted that he's going to take me someplace special. I'm both excited and somewhat afraid for what will happen. I still haven't quite come to grips with my feelings for him or Sheila. I can only hope that I come to some resolution soon, if not for my own sake, then for the sake of my child.

  I had been prepared to wear the gown that Gwen had given me to dinner, but Dane had informed me that it was traditional for Drijen to wear armor at all times, even to formal occasions. Although I didn't have any formal armor, my chain mail was sufficiently new to be acceptable with a little polishing work. Between Thomas, Dane and myself, we got every piece of equipment in my inventory buffed and polished to a shine with time to spare.

  Dressed once again as a warrior I examined my reflection in the mirror. This wasn't the woman I had fallen in love with, not by a long shot. For a moment I was tempted to simply consider this my new look, but decided that I didn't want an entirely new look. With Dane's help, I undid the braid that held my hair and brushed it out so that it once again cascaded over my shoulders. Although my hair still showed a slight kinking effect from the braid, letting my hair flow greatly diminished the image of my simply being an animal.

  With the addition of an iridescent green cape, compliments of Dane, I was ready to rumble. After I dismissed Thomas, allowing him to go seek food and companionship with the other squires, I then took Dane's arm as we proceeded to the dining room.

  The one thing I noticed as we waited to be seated was that there were other warriors like myself in armor and wearing capes, only they covered their left side with the cape. Dane explained that this was to conceal our weapons and thus not to insult the eyes of our hosts. Sounded like a goofy excuse to me, but who was I to argue. Besides, by draping the cape over my left shoulder I also covered up the emblem and thus avoided a lot of bowing and scraping that I had no stomach for.

  We mingled for about ten minutes as Dane took the opportunity to introduce me to several people that he knew. Being a well-traveled bard whose talents were in high demand, he was well acquainted with most of the people who had shown for tonight's festivities.

  "Danedajin," came a cultured voice from behind, causing us to turn. "What is this creature doing here?" We turned together to see a short, plump woman dressed in an extravagant gown and well decorated with quite expensive jewelry. She was also painted up like a two-dollar whore.

  I was about to make a snide comment about which one of us was the creature when Dane stepped in. "This is the Drijen, Arden, Countess," he explained with a curt bow. I just stared at her.

  The Countess looked me over with a confused eye. "I have heard nothing about any animal joining the ranks of the Elite," she said eyeing Dane sharply.

  "Animal?" I growled in a low voice. I started to take a step forward but Dane was holding me back.

  "Please, Countess," he said quickly and with a nervous smile. "Drijen Arden was just invited into the circle but a few days ago. There hasn't been time for the news to have spread yet." I could feel his fingers digging into the meat of my arm as a warning. He didn't want me to do anything stupid.

  She looked at me again, as if to make sure I was housebroken before returning her attention to Dane. "All right, Danedajin. But you are responsible for its behavior," she said before she turned and walked away.

  I just stared at her as she took great pains in ignoring me and my reaction. She had just made an enemy of me. I wonder if she has any idea how badly she had screwed up. Only time would tell.

  I glanced about the room, looking for Gwen and spotted her over with Leo, as she chatted with some nobility I hadn't yet been introduced to. I threw the cloak back over my left shoulder and marched over towards them. Noble sentiments be damned, I wasn't in a mood to be subtle and that Elite badge was going to shake things up.

  The reaction of the various people between Gwen and myself as they scrambled to get out of the way was most entertaining. There was a look of dread on Gwen's face once she spotted me coming towards her with my weapons showing.

  The woman who had been speaking with Gwen turned to see what she was looking at and cleared the way for me to speak with Gwen. "We have to talk," I said flatly as I gestured towards a door.

  Gwen glanced at the people watching us before looking back at me. We were the center of attention. "Certainly, Arden," she said, concerned more about my attitude than any problem I may have.

  I lead her through the double doors and a short distance down the hall. I glanced around to make sure we were alone and noticed that Dane had trailed along. I was tempted to run him off, but decided that it wouldn't make any difference at this point.

  "What's the problem, Arden?" Gwen asked, seeing the hard look in her eye.

  "I will not eat at the same table as that...that...female you call a sister," I said tartly.

  Gwen visibly winced and looked down at me with pained eyes. "What did she do now?" she asked though she didn't really want to know.

  "Twiggy," I said recalling her childhood nickname from Gwen's memories, "insists on treating me as an animal, despite the knowledge that I'm an Elite." I let out a small growl before continuing. "She even had the balls to make Dane promise to be responsible for it!"

  Gwen reached out and stroked my hair, trying to calm me down. "I'm so sorry, Arden. Sometimes I forget how narrow minded she can be," Gwen admitted. "I'll go and have a talk with her, straighten her out."

  "And will this time be any different? From the others, that is?" I asked, expecting her surprise. I remembered what a little bitch her sister was. She enjoyed screwing with people. The fact that their parents had spoiled her rotten hadn't helped any. Gwen had never been able to get her to change her mind once it was set on something.

  Gwen looked at me, pained now by my accusation. "This time it will be different, Arden. I'll find a way to make her understand," she declared, trying to believe it herself.

  I gave her a sly smile as an evil idea slipped its way into my brain. I had no clue if Lucifer were responsible or not, but it was welcome anyway. "Do you remember Ito?" I asked with the sly smile now an open grin.

  Gwen got a far away look as she tried to think of who I was talking about. "I'm not sure I remember an Ito," she said eventually.

  "Hikaru Ito. Remember? He was my controller. He taught me the art of psychological warfare," I prompted, trying to make her remember.

  Gwen's eyes lit up with recognition at the name as it finally came to her. "Yes. I remember him now. He was your best friend when you were in Japan," she replied with a smile.

  I nodded eagerly. "That's right. Think of all the ways he taught me to screw with people's heads. All the ways he had of making someone so totally paranoid that they were ready to jump out of their own skin," I instructed while trying to suppress a chuckle.

  Gwen had a small smile on her face as she thought about what I said, but still didn't have the full picture. "But what will I use for leverage?" she asked.

  What indeed! As I thought about her sister the first thing that popped out was her makeup. She wasn't just making a fashion statement; she was covering something up. She had an addiction to a narcotic that the Emperor had declared illegal. The telltale signs were an odd stain on the lips and cheeks. No wonder she wore a ton of makeup. If she was still using the stuff, then she had to mask its effects.

  I got a very serious look on my face. "I am Drijen, a member of the Spirit Warrior Elite. We are the hand of the Emperor, we are justice," I said with a hard tone. "Your sister is in violation of Imperial edict, the punishment for which is death." I cocked an ear towards her, waiting for her reaction.

  Gwen got a horrified look on her face. "Arden! You wouldn't dare!" she exclaimed, afraid that I might not be bluffing

  I held the glower for a second before I relaxed and looked away and nodded. "No," I acknowledged. "You're right. I don't think I could do something like that to you." I looked back up at Gwen my expression showing anger again. "But your sister doesn't know that. That's the leverage you should use on her. Tell her I could smell it on her, and I am only holding my judgment at your behest, or something similar."

  Gwen glanced over at Dane, who made a great show of not paying attention to us and then nodded to me. "All right, Arden," she said with a small smile. "I've wanted to nail her hide to a wall for so long. If this works, it will be a pleasure for both of us." Gwen gave me a small peck on my head. I guess with Dane here she didn't want to make a scene.

  "Gwen," I said, stopping her as she walked away. "I hope she doesn't try to call our bluff, for both our sakes." Gwen paused as what I said sank in. She knew that her sister would be in serious trouble should I blow the whistle on her addiction. If I took my revenge that way, I don't know if Gwen would ever be able to forgive me.

  "What was all that about?" Dane asked as Gwen reentered the dining area.

  "What was what about?" I asked, putting on an air of innocence.

  Dane glanced back towards the doors Gwen had just passed through, then turned back to me, glaring. "What just happened with the Duchess!" he declared in an angry whisper.

  I crossed my arms and looked at Dane with a neutral expression. "I believe I just had a conversation with her concerning her sister's actions," I said, skirting the issues.

  "That's not what I mean, Arden," he said with a sigh of exasperation. Dane looked away for a second while running his hand through his hair before turning back to me. "What was all this stuff about the Duchess remembering your trainer? Or you asking how this time would be different from the times before?" Dane pressed his hands to his temples and winced. "This makes absolutely no sense to me. How can this be happening?"

  I took a long, hard look at the man before me. He was a minstrel, a storyteller. Could I tell him something without him feeling the need to let it out somehow? Could I trust him?

  "All right, Dane. But understand this," I said as I got right up in his face, my snout only inches from his nose. "If you ever let any, and I do mean any of what you learned tonight out, I will hunt you down. Do you understand me?" I have him a look that I hoped would let him know that I was deadly serious.

  Dane took a step backwards, his face filled with fear. "I swear, Arden. I'd never let anything that was told to me in confidence out. Never!" I could smell the terror coming from him. He was so sold on how all powerful the Elite were that he had no doubt that I could do what I threatened.

  I looked away for a moment, afraid that I might have overdone it. I wanted to intimidate the guy, but not cower him. When would I ever learn some finesse? I may not be a bear in a china shop, but I still acted like one.

  "I'm sorry, Dane," I said in a low voice as I leaned heavily against the wall. "You must understand that what I tell you now could potentially damage or destroy Gwen's credibility in certain circles." I looked back up at Dane, hoping to see understanding.

  Dane nodded. "I don't get you, Arden," he said placing a hand on my shoulder. "One minute you're talking like all this is so new to you, then you turn around and are an entirely different person. How in the world did you even know about the Countess' addiction, or that there was an Imperial edict about it? There's no way you could have learned those things so fast."

  I nodded and patted his hand. "Your right. There's something you don't know. It's about the day I saved the Duchess' life. It's about how I became an Elite," I said solemnly. "The poison that was used to try to kill me was arcane in nature. Part of its effect is to weaken the cord that binds the soul to the body."

  I glanced both ways down the hall to make sure that we weren't going to be overheard. "You know the story of how I sought out and retrieved her soul. What you don't know is what I had to do in order to bind it back to her person," I stated, moving a little closer to make the conversation more intimate. "I literally had to merge Gwen's soul with mine. We had to become one entity in order for me to bring her back across the line and restore her to her body."

  I watched as Dane digested my story, his brow furrowed as he began to realize what I was saying. "That's right," I said. "Gwen and I are mirror images of one another. She has all of my memories just like I have all of hers."

  Dane turned and stepped away while rubbing his chin in contemplation. "I understand why you are loathe to tell anyone this. I also understand why you often refer to the Duchess by her given name when no other commoner would dare to do so," he said turning back to me. "No wonder you care for her so. She must be like a sister to you now."

  I nodded and crossed my arms. "More than a sister. We're like twins and yet we're still different." How could I explain it? "If I consciously think about it, I can remember almost every detail of her life, and yet so many things take me by surprise, things that I should know about." As I looked up at Dane I could see he understood. "Sometimes its almost maddening. Can you imagine seeing yourself as you lay dying on the floor, only knowing that it's not your memory while at the same time knowing that it is?"

  Dane stepped forwards and took me into his arms, holding my head against his shoulder as I wrapped my arms around him. "No. I don't quite think I can," he said quietly. "There's no way any of us could ever imagine going through what you two must be experiencing."

  The tinkling of the small bell that signaled dinner broke the moment. As I backed away from Dane I looked towards the dining area and shook my head. "I don't want to eat in there tonight," I said sourly.

  Dane gave a nervous laugh. "After all you just went thorough just so the Countess would treat you like a normal person?" he asked incredulously.

  I shrugged and turned away as I replied, "Yah, well, let her stew for a while. If Gwen read the riot act to her then she should be about ready to have a fit. We'll see what happens tomorrow. Right now I just want to go somewhere and get some air."

  Dane slipped his arm around mine and steered me down a side corridor. "Your wish is my command, Drijen. Just let me take care of the details," he said as he led the way towards the kitchen.

  Once at the kitchen Dane made me wait outside as he raided their pantry, returning after about five minutes with a large basket. If we weren't going to eat with the nobility then we might as well eat someplace else.

  Dane took me to the heart of the keep where two guards stood, blocking access to a door.

  The older of the two stopped us from entering. "I'm sorry, Danedajin, but you know the rules," he said apologetically. "You must be accompanied by an officer."

  Dane smiled and waved to me. "True, Scritch," Dane responded. "That's why I have this lovely Drijen to accompany me." He was wearing one big, toothy grin on his face. I had a feeling he was trying to get me into trouble.

  The guard looked at me, unable to see the emblem since I had covered it up. "Is this true, my lady?" he asked.

  I brushed the cloak aside to reveal the emblem. "I am an Elite, if that's what you're asking," I replied.

  Both guards snapped to attention. "I apologize, Drijen. You and your guest may pass," he said as he held the door for us.

  Once inside I grabbed Dane's ear between my claws and pulled it down near me, pleased at his yelp of surprise. "Just what kind of trouble are you trying to get me into?" I asked in a low whisper.

  "Trouble?" Dane said, an innocent look on his face. "Why, no trouble at all, Drijen. You have the lawful right to be here. Now let me show you my most favorite of all place to visit when I come to this keep."

  I gave a small snort, but decided to play along. Dane led me down a short hallway that opened up into a large round chamber. Within was a large metallic silver circle with a pedestal in the middle. Dane led me up onto the circle and next to the pedestal.

  The pedestal appeared to be made of a marble and had a several glowing stones set into the top. Dane placed his fingers on two of them and spoke an odd word, causing our surroundings to flicker and change.

  We no longer stood within the round room, but within a small, square room with open sides that looked out over the horizon. Two guards were standing by the openings, scanning the horizon with what appeared to be field glasses. One noted our arrival and turned to greet us.

  "Halt and identify..." he said, stopping as he caught a glimpse of my emblem. "My apologies, Drijen, how may we assist you?"

  Dane smiled as he led me off of the platform and towards the window. "We require nothing, my good man. We are simply here for the view," He explained.

  The guard, seeing that we would require nothing from him, saluted and returned to his post, scanning the horizon.

  I looked out the window that Dane had led me to, marveling at the view. You could see the ruddy glow of the horizon as the last light of the sun tried to burn off the clouds.

  "Hey, check that out," Dane said, pointing down.

  I looked down into the gray shadows of the evening, looking for whatever Dane had pointed to only to realize that it was a trick. I now knew where we were. We were in one of the watchtowers, thousands of feet above the valley floor. A fact that Dane had some how left out. If it hadn't been for my training, the vertigo would have definitely done a job on me. Even with it, I still felt a moment of terror before I got control.

  "What?" I asked innocently. "I don't see anything special." I looked up a Dane with an expression that feigned ignorance at his little joke.

  Dane gave me a tight-lipped smirk. "It figures that wouldn't bother you," he said before walking back over to the table in corner of the room and setting the bundle down on it.

  I, on the other hand, walked back over to the pedestal and took another look at it, searching Gwen's memory. There was something about it that I remembered from her early childhood and wanted to try.

  "Dane. Come here," I said, waving him over. "Bring the food," I directed as he started to leave it behind.

  Once Dane was up on the podium I placed my fingers on the two gems that should return us to the keep and spoke, "Kaldaine." I was rewarded by a flickering change in our surroundings as we were back in the keep. I gave Dane a sly grin and placed two fingers from each hand on four gems.

  "No! Don't!" Dane cried out as he saw what I was about to do.

  "Osak gen t'aldesh," I said, pronouncing the words carefully and was rewarded as the scene changed again. We were in a dark room, the only illumination coming from the gems in the podium.

  "Do you have any idea what you've done?" Dane asked. "Do you even know where we are?" I could hear the frightened tone in his voice.

  "I know exactly where we are," I said with a chuckle before raising my voice and shouting, "Shirak!" The word tripped off a long dormant spell and caused lights around the room to flare into life.

  We were standing in a large circular room with lights at the base of six arched pillars, with the lights illuminating the surroundings. Each pillar slowly arched up to meet in the center of the ceiling where a metallic hemisphere the size of a large beach ball was embedded in the material. The room was without any furniture, with the only unique thing about it being the floor. What covered it resembled a deep shag rug, though it was infinitely softer.

  I stepped off the circle and walked towards a pillar that had some metallic strips at about hand height on it. If I remembered right, each one controlled a different aspect of the room.

  "Arden! Get back here!" Dane said in a panic. "Do you have any idea where you've taken us?"

  I paused, to look at Dane and smiled. "Of course I do. I brought us here, didn't I?" I said with a wink.

  "You're going to get us executed!" Dane whimpered. It was his turn to panic. "This is the Emperor's retreat!"

  I reached out to the panel and stroked the first strip of metal downwards, lowering the lights so they barely illuminated the floor. I caressed the second strip, causing the walls between the pillars to vanish, giving us an unobstructed view of the horizon and the stars as they began to peek out of the darkness.

  I walked back over towards the center of the room and sat down on the floor; its mist-like substance buoyed me and supported me without ever quite giving the sensation of touching the floor.

  "And just who's going to find you?" I asked mischievously.

  Dane looked like a kid that needed to go to the bathroom, bad. "I don't know, but they will," he complained, looking around. "Arden, someone will find out!"

  I laughed and decided to let him off the hook. "Dane, nobody's going to find out because nobody other than Gwen knows the key to getting in here," I said as I lay back on the mist.

  "What are you talking about? This is the Emperors retreat! Someone's got to know about it!" he said, not believing me.

  I sighed. "This isn't the Emperor's retreat. This is the Empress' retreat. And to the best of my knowledge, only four people know it exists. Five if we count you," I replied.

  Dane looked around, then stepped off the platform, surprised at the feel of the floor as he made his way over to me. "Empress' retreat? I've never heard of it," he said as he sat down.

  I smiled as I looked up through the transparent roof at two of the three moons. "Not many people do. Emperor Kodan the Fifth created it for his first wife at her behest. If I remember right, she died shortly after its construction. The Emperor's new wife had no interest in it and it fell into disuse. Gwen found the key to getting here in an old tome when she was a little girl. Nobody else to the best of our knowledge even knows of its existence."

  Hearing the story calmed Dane down considerably. After a few minutes he started to unpack the contents of the basket, revealing a loaf of bread, cheese, some cold cuts, a bottle of wine and a couple of mugs. It would do for a simple meal, which was all I was interested in.

  "You know," Dane said as he began pouring the wine, "you never cease to amaze me." He handed me the mug while helping me to sit up. "You are the most enchanting person I've ever met."

  I laughed. "I bet you tell that to all the Drijen," I said jokingly.

  He finished pouring wine for himself and stoppered the bottle. "I'm serious. Think about all you've accomplished in your life," he said excitedly. "Even just the fact that you had the ability to track down the Duchess' soul and rebind it to her body." He shook his head in amazement. "I've never heard of anyone being able to work such magic in over a thousand years."

  I shrugged off the compliment. "Yah, well, you've never heard of my people, either. Don't be too impressed with me. People who get too close to me tend to get hurt," I said quietly. "Sometimes they even get killed."

  Dane reached out and put his hand on the paw that held the wine. "Hey, that's just all part of living," he said gently.

  I gently pulled my hand back. "Let's just stick to dinner, ok?" I asked, reminded that he saw me as more than just a friend.

  "As you wish, Arden," he said as he set down his mug and began working on our meal.

  I looked out beyond the low lights and watched as the last sliver of sunlight faded from the horizon, leaving nothing behind but a sea of stars around us, with the two moons floating overhead. I thought for a second about why I had brought Dane here. Gwen had brought Leo here when they were betrothed. I remembered the joy that she had felt in this place, and I wanted to try to relive that memory

  I looked over at Dane as he prepared the food. He was a wonderful person, someone I could see spending time with on an intimate level. But each time I thought about that, a pang of guilt would strike me. I wondered what Sheila would be doing tonight, who he would be sleeping with this time.

  The real question I should be asking myself of late is: Does he even care what I do?

Chapter 25