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Interim 3 12MAR2058-

17MAR2058 Piker Passes Her First Meditation Test

Ms. Kim walks into the room. In the past, Piker has found it hard to concentrate and still pay attention to such things. The stench of sweat is not present this time either. Piker has been in the room meditating for four days now. There was a good deal of sweat the first day, but it has long since evaporated and the air is cool and dry. Ms. Kim quietly moves into the room, the rustle of her pajama pants the only source of sound to match her motion.

Piker is sitting cross-legged, but suspended in the air. The only part of her making contact with the ground are thumbs, forefingers, and index finger, splayed from each hand in a tripod fashion. Her breathing is very deep and slow, her chest heaving and sinking at about half normal speed.

Ms. Kim relights the incense braziers in the room. The smoke spirals up around Piker's arm, then torso and finally enters her nose. Her breathing does not shift, her nostril does not twitch.

Ms. Kim smiles and then masks her smile behind her pedagogical facade. "Well done Piker, you have found the strength in your spirit to overcome your meat body. Follow me for the next test."

Piker slowly and gingerly uncrosses her legs and places one foot under her and another in front. She smoothly transitions to a standing position. Her demeanor is tranquil to the point that an outside observer might think she is drugged.

Ms. Kim says softly, "You do not seem as excited at your success this time, Piker. Seven is a lucky number."

Piker remains somber and sedate, "I will celebrate when I am truly done."

Ms. Kim nods and then gestures to short foyer ahead. "As the last time, when you can walk across this rice paper without leaving a trace, you will be ready for the final test. The last time you tried this, you were successful the first time, I wish you the same success."

The small Korean woman walks across the paper through the room casually, leaving no trace.

Piker settles down on the mat and begins meditating once again.

17MAR2058 Hound Passes His First Meditation Test

It had been a little over two months since Hound had begun working in the Shadows. Already he had encountered supernatural beings that were nigh invincible. He has been tested as a scholar, hunter, and marksman. He has been tested as a member of a team. A few magical groups contacted him, but their path seemed wrong for him. None of the groups pushed very hard. It was if they shared his respect for the path. The Awakened have their own path to follow and when they did stop to ask for directions, it should be with a group that felt right.

Hound had come home to visit his family and friends a few weeks ago and discuss these issues with his Grandfather. Whatever issues they may still have, Grandfather was a wise man and his counsel on the path of the Awakened was priceless. Besides, his people practiced some of the purest magic in the Sixth World. It seemed foolish to look for insight among the watered down philosophies of others. Maybe it was that Urban Brawl game that he attended. When he heard the athlete's nickname "Rabbit Boy" it struck a cord with him. It was taken from an old Sioux legend of a nigh indestructible boy. The story was a vague memory, but the name sparked a desire to be back among his people.

His return was not that big of a deal. There were pressing issues before grandfather's council and everyone else was all grown up and working full time. The nights were pleasant and Hound slowly rediscovered some of his favorite past times.

Yesterday, he was hunting in the woods and came across a young Elven Sioux. She introduced herself as Leaps Like Cougar, which she quickly shortened to Cougar. She spoke to him, "You have lost your way on the path. You followed it quickly and skillfully, finding and taking your skills and powers. You followed it into the city, but amidst the grime and despair, you lost it. It is not a fault. That path is ended and now you must find a new one. As with the first, your path starts here, in the land of your people. Meet me at the medicine lodge of your village tomorrow as the sun greets the sky once again."

She vanished into the brush before Hound's very eyes. Her words had struck such a deep chord, he was slow in responding and when he broke through the brush, she was nowhere to be found. Even her scent, a mixture of moist earth, sweat, and flowers, was gone.

Hound kept the encounter to himself and the night passed in a blur as he pondered his past, present, and future.

And here he was in the cold morning air, watching the dark gray sky lighten with false dawn, the medicine lodge cold and empty before him.

Hound spins at the sounds of footsteps behind him. Six people decked out in Tribal clothes approaches. The Elven woman he had met the day before, a human woman, three human males, and an Ork woman. Cougar speaks, "Welcome, let us enter."

The group enters and sits in a semicircle, facing Hound.

Cougar speaks, "We walk the path of the Hunter. The noblest and most essential of warriors, we do not use our skills solely for defense or attack. We serve our community by stalking and killing our prey. Whether it be food for the table, a rogue spirit, or a renegade criminal. We understand our environment, ourselves, and our weapons. In understanding them they become tools to use against our prey. Wolf has come to me and shown me that you also seek this path. You have not lost your ties to your people and the Hunter is strong in you. Your presence here tells me that you understand these words and they hold power for you. If you do not wish to walk the path with us, then leave now. Rejoin the prey."

Hound continues to stare coolly and calmly at Cougar. A tense moment passes and the other members assembled eye Hound closely.

Cougar begins again, "Excellent. Before you can join the Hunters, you must first hunt and slay yourself. You will have three tests in this lodge. When you pass all three, I will know and we will return. I wish you luck."

She stands and the others stand as well. She tosses down a small leather pouch of trail mix, a few waterskins, and some body paints. The entourage issues silently out of the lodge. Cougar stops to close the flap and says, "Good Hunting."

Hound sits and waits. Hours drag on and finally he starts to meditate. He kneels and rocks back and forth ever so slightly, humming an Amerindian mantra, his gun clasped in his right hand. His eyes closed, he begins to disassemble and reassemble the weapon. With each repetition, the disassembly is a little more complete. Time melts away and he is startled by the sound of an angry bear. He opens his eyes and sees a raging bear charging him. His concentration shatters, the pistol falls to the ground in pieces, and the bear disappears.

Hound nods and says quietly to himself, "Battle it is." He eats a mouthful of trail mix, drinks a little water and the opens the bag of body paints. His fingers trace out patterns that are distant memories for him now. He remembers feeling silly when he first did this. Now it has more meaning, as if it is some sort of spiritual armor with which to gird himself for combat.

Hound begins to meditate as before. Hours pass and the passage of time is lost. Again, he hears the sounds of a bear, but this time he is ready. He braces himself and points his gun at the bear. It swats it away, and embraces him, growling, "This weapon is not for me." Hound regains his wits and begins to fight back. He manages to squirm free occasionally, but soon ends up in the grip of the bear once again. He begins to panic and the bear seems to grow larger, seemingly indomitable. The grip tightens and breathing becomes a pleasant memory. Hound passes out.

Hound's mind wanders to a childhood memory of his grandfather teaching him to fight and tapping on his skull with his knuckles. "Remember son, the fight is won in here. You have to know you can win before you will."

Hound awakens in the tent again and assumes he has not failed yet since no one has come. He reenters the trance and girds himself mentally for the coming battle. The bear storms forth but this time it seems just a little smaller, it's growl a little less menacing. He lays the gun at his side and calmly stands his ground as the bear charges. It seems to shrink even as it runs at him.

By the time it grapples Hound it is no larger than a big dog. He wrestles with it, confident of victory. He is not brutal, using just enough force to ensure victory. As the two combatants roll around on the ground, the bear continues to shrink into a cub and the finally stops resisting. Hound sets it down and is moves away a short distance. It morphs into the form of Cougar. She speaks, "Well done. You have passed the first test."

She melts into the forest and Hound snaps back into consciousness. Hunger and thirst overwhelm him. He chokes down water and trail mix and then tries to calm himself once more for the next test.

19MAR2058 Piker Passes Her Second Meditation Test

She has been sitting and meditating for an indeterminate time. Is it the same day? The huge muscular frame of the scantily clad Troll heaves slowly with an unusually deep breath. She rises to her feet silently and with an unexpected grace. She moves to the edge of the thin, off white sheet of rice paper. Thoughts of success struggle for ascension, but her serenity will not be broken.

She steps out onto the paper, walking in a strange, alternating, sideways fashion. The paper seems impossibly thick and strong to her perception, no longer the gossamer weave that one normally envisions. The air itself seems to be thicker, supporting her weight like a duck on water. Her slow steady breaths seem to pull her along like the strokes of a swimmer. The quiet in her spirit is almost palpable.

She momentarily loses contact with the paper as her magic peaks, but her concentration is not lost and she settles back down calmly. She is awakened from her state by the feel of cold hard ground beneath her feet. Behind her, the paper is unsullied. Before her is Ms. Kim.

"Well done, Piker. If you focus yourself, you can develop the ability to walk without leaving a trace."

Piker simply nods.

Ms. Kim leads her down a corridor, "Once again, only one test stands between you and success."

19MAR2058 Hound Passes His Second Meditation Test

The grumbling in his stomach and the dryness tugging at his throat are distant memories. The peyote is working. His spirit is shaking free from the bonds of his body once more. His gun has made the transition with him. This is new to his trances, but it does not seem strange to him. He has striven to make his gun an extension of himself.

The gun shifts in his hand slightly. The smooth metal surface feels warmer and rougher. Hound brings the gun closer to look at it. He tilts his hand to look at the gun's profile and suddenly it moves on its own.

The metal gives way to muscular flesh and he is paralyzed with shock as it elongates in both directions, coiling around his arm in one direction and arcing out from his body in the other. The barrel arcs gracefully out and begins to turn back to face Hound. The beauty of the motion and form is distracting, but then instinct kicks in. Having a barrel of any kind pointed at you is bad.

The end of the barrel seem to have formed a circle of small teeth and two small eyes appear a few inches from the tip. The barrel's end pulls back like a serpent preparing to strike. Hound holds still and then dodges sideways at the last moment as the gun-serpent dashes forward and the loud report of a gunshot rings throughout this spirit realm. This sequence repeats itself over and over. Hound begins to tire just after the clicking sound of an empty gun heralds an end to the shots.

The snake writhes and tries to bite him, but it is weak and spent now. Hound wrestles with it and eventually finds it pliable, almost like clay. He beings to mash it into a progressively smaller shape until finally it snaps back into the form of a gun.

He falls to the ground, exhausted. When his eyes open, he is staring at the medicine lodge roof. Again, hunger and thirst ravage him. He attacks the trail mix and water with a vengeance. The third test will come soon, he must be ready.

23MAR2058 Piker Passes Her Third Meditation Test

Piker steps quietly into the final room. It is more of an antechamber than a full room. The space is austere. There are two platforms. On one, rests an empty cauldron on red hot embers. The last time she was here, she took this test for granted and failed it miserably.

The test is simple in concept but almost impossible for most in execution. She simply has to lift the pot from the coals and onto the other pedestal. She may only use her bare forearms. At the same time, bas relief dragons will burn their forms into her arms as she suspends the weight of the heavy iron vessel.

The last time she was here, she hoped to get it over with quickly. She did, but she did not pass. Instead, she ended up with a broken foot. She failed and a healer removed the scars on her arms, mumbling something about being worthy of the mark.

Piker stood between the pot and the platform and began to meditate once again. After a few hours, she began to quietly execute katas, fluidly executing strikes, blocks, and throws. This went on for a full day before she sat down and rested. Sleep finally claimed her and when she next awoke, she was sweating and trying to remember vague encounters with a tiger.

She repeated her meditative cycle once again. She ate and slept. This time she awoke in a calm state of mind with a vague memory of walking with a tiger.

The third day, as the wage slaves tooled off to work in their cookie cutter cars and seething leviathan of mass transit, she began anew. That night her dreams woke her early as she was torn apart by a dragon in her dream world

The fourth day, she began to meditate again, but the fitful sleep and deep fatigue from nine days of meditation and concentration finally claimed her and she passed out. This time she awoke and there was a scratching sensation on her arms. The pot had been moved. She bore the marks. She was victorious.

A dim memory rushed back to her. A scattered vision of a discussion with a dragon. A flash of an image in which it reaches out its claws and grabs her forearms. Then nothing.

Ms. Kim steps into the room, followed by six others, including her father Angus. He steps forward and takes her right hand and forearm in a warrior's grip. "You are one of us know Piker. The ordeal of this test has been your teacher and from what I saw, you should have learned your lessons very thoroughly." He smiles and only then does Piker realize in retrospect that he has almost no accent.

"During your last vision, you became one with our Astral essence. You may come and go from this house as you wish. You should soon turn your attentions to learning to master a weapon. We are all skilled in a variety of them. If you require our advice, then you have but to ask."

"The Clan is a secret society. You do not have deny membership in a group, but do not reveal our group's identity to other without asking us first."

"We share the bond of true warriors. We come to the aid of our comrades and they aid us in need. Our blood is shed so that we may have a tie to one another, Ms. Kim will obtain your contribution. [Material link that facilitates ritual sorcery]"

"Now, what motivates us? I started this group over a decade ago, along with some friends from governmental black ops. We had become scapegoats and led out to the slaughter. We did not yield so easily. Our betrayal was nothing new in the dark world we lived in. We saw that. If it wasn't the government, it would be a corporation, or a gang, or some crazed squatter."

"This group was formed with the intent of forging warriors that could stand together and yet be capable enough to stand alone. We pursue the path of the warrior and the martial arts. Most of our members are adepts, but not all. You will learn more about us as we come to you in turn and reveal ourselves. For now, it is enough to know that we stand united in a very cold dark world."

Angus smiles warmly, "But enough grim talk, lass. Let's go to the Roost and see what trouble we can find."

23MAR2058 Hound Passes His Third Meditation Test

Hound collapses with fatigue and awakens some time later. He is not sure what time has passed, but the sun has recently set. The desire to give in to sleep is great. The floor of the lodge is like a warm blanket of comfort to his fatigue wracked frame. He drags himself to a sitting position and bends his stiff legs back into a cross-legged position. The effort starts him sweating almost immediately and he fumbles to get his slick legs into the correct position and to remain there.

After a few minutes, the muscles limber up a little again and the soft warm rush of endorphins takes the edge off, but just barely. His tongue wrestles free from his parched mouth, breaking the bonds of thick dehydrated saliva with an audible clapping sound. He drinks down a few swallow of his almost empty bag of water.

Sleep solicits him like a succubus. His eyes close and his torso wavers side to side. With a grunt of defiance, he snatches up his pistol, cocks back the trigger, slips his thumb in front of the hammer and pulls the trigger. He growls in pain as the hammer slams down on his thumb, snapping him back to reality and alertness. He bites off another piece of peyote and begins to rock slowly. His thumb pounds with pain with every beat of his heart and his rocking begins to match that.

He finds a certain quietness of his soul and soon all he can hear is the pulse of blood flow through the vessels in his ear. The rhythmic thump beckons to him and he focuses on it. The thumping slowly becomes more drum like and he suddenly finds himself at the edge of a small village. The pounding is coming from drums they are striking as part of a ceremony. The entire village is assembled. The medicine lodge is at the opposite end of the village and Hound know he has to get back there or the test is lost.

He takes a deep breath and struggles to his feet. Fatigue pulls at him and he moves as if the air were like molasses, pulling on his body and impeding his motion. The villagers take this as some sort of cue and they line up in two rows, defining a path straight to the medicine lodge. Hound starts walking forward. As he nears them, he sees that many have clubs or rocks in hand. He knows that he must endure their attacks without response.

He steels himself and moves forward. The first blow causes a bright flash of pain. He stays standing and continues forward. Another series of blows and a rib cracks. Breathing becomes painful as it feels like a jagged stick being jammed in his chest on every breath. The next blow catches him square in the mouth and his lip and gum tear open, releasing a warm salty metallic flow of blood onto his tongue and chin. He reels backwards, but catches himself and moves forward.

A club catches him in the back of his head, catapulting him forward and starting his ears ringing. He tries to stay the path but stumbles into one of the rows of people. They catch him and begin kicking and punching him vigorously. He pushes away and tries to move forward again, but falls to his knees. Before he can get up the hard wood of a club smashes down on his right hand. He can feel the bones crack and the flesh split open.

His all fours stance crumbles and he falls in a heap. The villagers move in and he loses track of where he is hit and with what. It becomes a dizzying barrage of pain and motion.

The soft clear voice of a young boy pierces the cacophony of pain. "The pain is not the goal, resume your path." Hound opens his left eye, as the right has swollen shut, and he sees a young boy standing calmly amidst the crowd. He is clad in traditional tribal hunting clothes and he is quietly pointing to the medicine lodge. He slowly drops his arm and step back, disappearing from view.

Something shifts in Hound. The pain becomes more distant. He remembers the lodge and the test. He knows he has to get to the lodge. His bones are broken in various places, but he knows that they can still support him. The only barrier know is the pain and doubt. He has to be stronger than that.

The crowd backs away slightly as he stands up so that they can have room to swing their clubs once again. He hunches over, pulls his arms in, and just takes the blows. He makes no effort to avoid them. The pain subsides further as he staggers forward. The flurry of strikes quickens to a mind numbing crescendo and Hound is barely aware of which direction is the correct one.

Then suddenly it stops. It takes a moment to register with Hound's mind and body, then he looks around and stands up straight. Pain lances across his body as he does so. He looks back. The villagers are standing quietly, smiling warmly at him like family. It is done. He grits his teeth and strides forth, using all of his strength of will to walk normally and proudly in spite of the wounds. He makes it into the lodge and passes out from the pain.

He wakes up to the smell of meat roasting and it is intoxicating. He is stiff and tired, but there is no sign of the wounds he suffered. He sits up and the group is sitting around the central fire of the lodge, sharing venison. They are remarkably nonchalant. Hound takes a piece of meat and wolfs it down, ripping the warm moist meat off the bone and gulping it down in chunks. A wineskin is near him and he drinks deep. He takes a deep breath and relaxes slightly. Cougar speaks, "You are one of us now. You have passed into the common bond we share. We are also bound physically." She sets down a small capped gourd, uncaps it, sets down the cap, and draws a long sleek blade. She extends her hand waiting for Hound to extend his.

Hound understands what must happen. He extends his hand, she cuts deep into the palm and a gash opens up, leaking Hound's vital life fluid in a small but steady stream. She holds his hand so the blood drips into the gourd. An errant drop spills onto the wall of the gourd, but instead of dripping down and staining it, the drop vanishes as if the gourd were some sort of vampiric sponge.

She wipes the blade along the gourd and it pulls the blood away from the knife, an obviously supernatural effect. The blade slides silently back into its sheath and in the same smooth motion Cougar waves her hand over Hound's hand slowly. The wound closes and disappears in a few seconds.

"It is done. My Totem senses the yearning in your heart for what you claim as you hunting grounds, the grimy scar of Earth that is called Seattle. Be strong, be a hunter, make the spirit of Chief Seattle proud. As he said, 'Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea.' We are strong in our lands again and that makes many content. You take the hunt into the lands of the White Man as he did to us 200 years ago. We will keep your place among us warm for your return, but your path is not among the warm embrace of our native lands, it is among the grime and corruption of Seattle. You should now share the Hunter's gift to hide your Magic from your prey. Your other gifts will become apparent. When it is time for you to advance down the path, you will know it. At that time return to us. Now go."

Hound restrains the urge to explode with questions. Perhaps this is another hidden test of his willpower. He stands smoothly in spite of the discomfort and moves out of the lodge. The air is cool and clean. The cold does not bite quite so hard as it did.