Three By Shadow

Act III.X: Initiation - Scene 4

The Place of Destiny

Gamemaster:

Moonclaw stands in the middle of a small stone circle, 20 meters across and dotted with patches of grass and dirt. The sun is high and stolid trees rise behind her, rising up a steep hill slashed here and there with the decayed remains of old erosion blockers. The discarded skin of an ancient snake blows by her ankles. She watches as the hand at the edge of the bluff grips at a shot of grass and a naked form lifts itself from the drop. Tan muscles bunched at the shoulder lift the rest of the newcomer over and then she looks up, notices the Cat shaman’s presence, and freezes.

Both women stand stock-still, coolly regarding each other across the space between them. Moonclaw looks this one up and down, notices her nakedness, the high, browned cheekbones and tumbling, braided black hair. A triangular rock is gripped in one white-knuckled hand. Moonclaw herself stands similarly unclad, hair loose and free to tumble in the wind, legs apart and arms at her hips. She has been waiting, it seems. Waiting for the mirror image across from her to arrive. Waiting for them both to dance the black spiral dance which the wheel of fate has decreed is theirs alone.

In the air between them, an electricity builds, and Magic returns to this place, building slowly in otherworldly crescendo. They both feel it, and know that only one may grasp the true power which has brought them hence. Moonclaw waits patiently. Cat is on her side. She will not fail.

[ Moonclaw’s Magic rating increases to 1. ]

[ My Magic rating increases to 1. ]

Player:

I cannot help but stare at the naked woman standing before me. Surely this cannot be the final challenge, to defeat this false self in some sort of animalistic bloodbath. Doubt begins to creep into my mind. Perhaps she is thinking the same thing about me.

I push the errant thoughts from my mind, knowing already that war is struck with this second Moonclaw. I hear the voice of my totem and heed it willingly, eager to test myself and prove worthy of initiation. If escape is impossible, go for the throat.

My instinct is to shadow-walk, to hide myself in the folds of the nascent manafield building up all around us, but I quickly discard the idea, knowing this other is surely dual-natured as well. With Gaia’s presence so stymied here, a stunbolt would tap the caster and wound the victim in equal measure; likewise nothing more than a lowly Watcher or minor Fey would heed her call with the spirit planes so distant.

This is it then? A simple toss of the coin, a short, brutal test of the human form as an instrument of naked death? No, there must be an advantage to be had somewhere, some edge to be eked out against what may be my final foe.

I saw the weakness then. Not in her, not in Moonclaw—it was the woman behind her, hiding somewhere in the background of her mind and past. Awele the street rat. I toss the shard of rock aside, freeing my hands, then take two slow steps forward as I speak, mindful to place a full body-length between myself and the ledge. “You dare stand against me, girl? You who are nothing? Friendless, and entirely ignorant of the world? You who has never been in the Sioux Nation Special Forces; who is not even Lakota. You are an unwanted mongrel playing at soldier with some discarded relic. You make enemies wherever you step. No one has ever loved you, Awele the street rat, and no one ever will.”

I shift my weight to the balls of my feet, expecting the false Moonclaw to charge me.

Gamemaster:

Moonclaw stops to listen to the version of herself newly-risen from the pit, already attacking her mind. She pauses to remember her life: growing up in Chicago as an alley cat, training at the hands of the Sioux Nation drill sergeants and first runs in the shadows. She thinks back to the first Place, her meeting with the Lakota, and the spirit dance. Even the slate stone, now tossed aside, is familiar to her. She finds no gaps in her memory. ‘I am Moonclaw.’ she thinks to herself. ‘This impostor is my last obstacle to overcome.’

Mouth set in a line, she speaks back evenly and strongly, “Liar. I have done all these things and more, and it is you who are the untrue thing here. I have lived a full and memorable life, and you, sad one, have only been granted a glimpse of my existence. Be you spirit or illusion, I will banish you here and complete my quest!”

Moonclaw charges forward with lithe grace, and I brace myself for the impact. She fakes left and then step-punches with the right, colliding with my upheld guard; I grunt as my arms are driven against me and deflect her charge by twisting my body. Her momentum carries her past me and my sweeping right kick sails low across the ground, catching her trailing foot and setting her off balance. Seeing my moment, I step towards her and push with all my might toward the cliff’s edge.

She stumbles backwards, eyes wide and arms pinwheeling, but hops to a stop a mere foot from the lip. She spits on the ground and sets herself, but I am already in motion.

[ The magic in the area continues to build. Moonclaw’s Magic rating is 2. My Magic rating is 2. ]

Player:

I maintain my forward momentum, pivoting on my left heel to deliver a spinning kick to her gut with my right foot, eager to send this false witch over the ledge and finish our brawl.

Gamemaster:

I rush forward before she has a chance to set her feet, twisting my hips into a whipping right roundhouse. Moonclaw checks by raising the crook of her knee to catch the below, deflecting its energy.

I reset my stance and she tries to counter with a hooking left, but I duck my head at the last second and drive my right elbow up into her solar plexus.

Moonclaw gasps, and I hit her body with a left hook of my own as I dance back out of her reach.

Moonclaw knows she has lost the upper hand, perhaps fatally, and I see the wild look in her eyes as a hint of desperation. ‘No time!’ my inner voice shrieks. ‘No time! Finish her now!

[ The magic in the area continues to build. Moonclaw’s Magic rating is 3. My Magic rating is 3. ]

Player:

I press my advantage, any notion of strategy or finesse gone from my mind as I dedicate myself to the grim task of beating this other to death with my bare hands, swinging at her center mass with my aching fists again and again until I am the only one standing.

Gamemaster:

I hammer home blow after blow as Moonclaw is driven back against the cliff’s edge, now dangerously close. My obliques burn as I twist my body into each strike, but she keeps her chin down and elbows up, and eats every shot like a pro. Breathing heavily, she slips out from my barrage and dances away to the right, that look of desperation turning into one of sly cunning.

I feel the magic gathering around her before I have a chance to act against it, building to powerful levels, taxing her body to the limit. Moonclaw holds her breath for a second and then her hands flash up, palms out, and the stunbolt rockets across astral space toward me. I concentrate, quickly willing my aura into a hard shield around my body, and the missile crashes against it, shattering like glass on the astral plane.

While Moonclaw recovers, I shoulder roll back to where I had tossed the ‘Off’ rock, clutching the weapon in my hands greedily. The rock clearing stands once again between the two combatants, separating them by about 5 meters.

[ The magic in the area continues to build. Moonclaw’s Magic rating is 4. My Magic rating is 4. ]

Player:

I raise my free left hand up and clutch at a parcel of the raw mana building in the clearing, shaping it with my will before sending the energy forth in an angry stream of destructive energy.

Gamemaster:

The mana fills my heart and I direct it into my hands, weaving a destructive force, the most inelegant application of magic. My nails elongate ever so slightly into claws, and my vision bleeds the world of color; I center myself quickly before blasting the powerful stunbolt at Moonclaw, who grimaces and faces it head-on. Her aura hardens and she wrestles with the force of my blow; I concentrate harder and harder, and can see the strain on her face as well. In the end, I cannot penetrate her defenses and she shrugs my missile off as I did hers.

Caster’s drain fills my world and makes my vision swim crazily; blood runs from both nostrils as the taxing feedback from the mana burns my nerves. Moonclaw sees this split second of weakness and pounces forward—both fists rain down hammer blows at my head but I manage to raise my arms to block. A moment later my vision clears and I duck out of arm’s reach again.

[ The magic in the area continues to build. Moonclaw’s Magic rating is 5. My Magic rating is 5. ]

Moonclaw dances back as well, squatting down on her haunches, cat’s predatory eyes locked on me, tracking my movements. Her mouth works, whispering to herself, ‘Oh spirits of the wild wood—hear me in my time of need…’ She closes her eyes for a split second and I can see the concentration on her face, her cheeks sprout short whiskers and dark bruises form around her eyes; one nostril trickles blood. The magic she works is not shot across at me, but rises into the astral and calls down a great forest spirit. It emerges from the forest behind her, invisible to the eye but felt as a power resonating with us in the metaplanes, and I quickly reach out with my mind to steal her new ally for myself.

For a moment, the fighting stops, and there is apparent peace. Both shamans stare daggers at each other across the stone clearing: they are engaged in a mental war, vying for the spirit’s favor in a contest of charisma. Moonclaw presses her advantage as the original summoner, and edges me out; the spirit turns and pledges its three services to her favor. The strain of the contest snaps back in my face like a broken bungee cord, lashing my aura with the weight of the spirit’s force. Broken blood vessels stand out on my face and chest, and the blood from my nose flows more freely.

[ The magic in the area continues to build. Moonclaw’s Magic rating is 6. My Magic rating is 6. ]

I wipe my hand across my face, drawing a red streak of war paint across my cheek. Heedless of my body’s taxed state, I draw magic around me again—it is becoming easier to harness in this place, but the strain is beginning to slow me down. I push these thoughts out of my mind and focus the swirling mana into my palm to blast forth another invisible bolt. Moonclaw steels herself and swats the missile away once more; I was always more resistant to illusions and manipulations than my comrades in the SNSF, and now I can appreciate the power of a strong magical defense.

Moonclaw grins evilly, and speaks out loud, “Old-man-in-the-woods, materialize and attack the impostor!” Immediately, tree roots and branches begin to coalesce behind her, forming great feet with lichen-encrusted toes and creeper-vine tendons. The flora grows upward, stretching to obey the beckoning of the spirit, making ironroot calves, knobbed knees and strong oaken thighs. The humanoid form remains half-complete, but already its waist is level with my chest; the completed structure will tower over me.

I feel a strange twinge in the back of my mind. My hands tingle and my spine run a chill up and down my body. I pause in my battle-lust to examine the new feelings of power coursing through me. ‘Of course’, I think, ‘the power that I came here to find… it is in this place. It is this place. It is mine to take, and there is only one thing standing in my way.’ My eyes narrow and I turn my attention back to my foe.

[ The magic in the area reaches its height! Moonclaw’s Magic rating is 7. My Magic rating is 7. ]

Player:

I stagger slightly on my feet, head swimming with exhaustion from my all-out duel with this other. We are too evenly matched, my every thrust met with equal parry. And now, with the forest spirit firmly in her control, I am outnumbered and outclassed.

Only a fool fights a spirit in its own domain, I think to myself. I need to regroup, take control of the battle and put things on my terms. I slink back to the edge of the cliff and crouch low, baring my teeth. I snarl angrily at my enemy before kicking off the ledge, sending myself falling backwards into the void I had just spent untold hours scaling.

I block out the stomach-churning sensation of free fall, attuning my voice of the astral plane before making my desperate plea. “Wamniomni, get of Ite, save me in my hour of need. I would know your presence, both to smite my foes and to keep my flesh from the stones below.”

[ Summoning a force 4 storm spirit, all conjuring dice to the test. ]

Gamemaster:

I send my own call for help to the astral plane, up and up into the free air, which begins to darken, as if in response to my karma. Now it is my turn to receive help, and a prominent storm spirit answers my call, rising from the fog below, ready to blacken the skies and crash with booming thunder. It’s two services are pledged to my aura, and the nature spirit’s power glows inside me like an astral lamp. I continue my freefall and feel the wind begin to pick up beneath me; my animal mind is panicking, in full-throttle adrenaline mode, but I force it down with my will and trust in the spirit.

Moonclaw dashes forward at the same instant I leap, ready to counter a leaping jab. Her eyes widen as she sees herself leap over the edge of the cliff. ‘Suicide? A trick—no!’ She looks around, expecting to feel an invisible hand on her throat at any second. But it is not a ploy, and she does not have time to puzzle through why she would throw herself to certain, pitch-black doom in the space between worlds. She reaches out and banishes the spirit from the astral realm with all her might, sending it back to the no-where whence it came. The spirit resists her with all its might, like a wild animal scrabbling at the edge of a cliff face, and succeeds in staving off Moonclaw’s attempts. She curses inwardly and concentrates through her caster-weary battle haze. Her chest throbs from the solid hit she took earlier, and blood from her nose drips down onto her mouth, like lipstick. Mascara-bruises have started to pool behind her eyes, completing the illusion of beauty.

She glances back to check on the progress of her own spirit. The powerful body is grown from armored maple, and arms are made with woven weeping willows; together they bunch and flex like the muscles of a great beast. A tangled mat of brown and black leaves hangs from the face to form a wizened elder’s beard, and beady berry-eyes look down the bridge of an oaken nose reproachfully. The old-man-in-the-woods grips a stout staff of hard ash in one hand, gnarled at one end to form a club.

My weightless body drops toward the fog below like a stone. My mind reels from the drain of conjuration and my body aches from mana-burn, but there is no time for that now. I reach out to the astral plane for help—

Player:

I reach out to the presence of the spirit rushing up to meet me, struggling just to breath as the wind rushes past my face. “Give form to your being, storm-caller, and catch me before I fall to my death!”

Gamemaster:

Swirling air surrounds my body like a lover’s close breaths. It buffets me and pulls my long jet hair and then begins to lift me from my plummet. The mad panic of freefall fades away gradually, and my feet just kiss the swirling gray fog before I begin to rise. To fly.

The spirit underneath my feet takes the form of a thunderbird, ferocious wings crackling with electric energy. It coalesces beneath me slowly, first only the muscled back and fierce head. I straddle its neck and it begins to carry me up towards the ledge, and back to my opponent.

Moonclaw looks down the chasm with a mixture of awe, resent and disdain. ‘A fortunate gamble. She almost didn’t make it, and she knows it.’ She turns to her newly summoned forest spirit to appraise its final form. The old-man-in-the-forest stands a stooped seven feet tall, his elderly weight leaning on his hardwood walking staff. His leafy beard sheds a fall-toned leaf every now and then, and he looks out at his summoner with tired eyes. Nevertheless, a strong, sturdy oaken body pulses underneath his bark plates with unnatural life. He shambles to the edge of the cliff to peer down at me with her.

I am rising steadily, but my spirit has yet to materialize enough to engage in physical combat. In the next few seconds, I will rise the final ten meters and be drawn level with my doppelganger.

Player:

I bury my fingers into the feathers of the spirit’s neck, literally clinging to her for dear life. I narrow my eyes on my target, delivering my final command to the goddess of storm. “Take wing now, above the peak and clear of Old Man Forest’s reach, then strike down the human below with the purity of Gaia’s light!”

Gamemaster:

Crying with energy, my spirit assumes its full physical shape as a furious storm front, a hunting bird of bleak shadow pulling me upwards on its back. Soaring in the air above my enemy, I look down at her in the weird perpetual sunlight of the place. I see my own panting face, and see what she must see in me: an animal in panic, on each of our bodies the trails of blood and marks of strain.

Cracking purple lightning erupts from the body of the bird beneath me and streaks towards Moonclaw. It strikes her square in the chest and she cries out in pain, as her flesh scorches and crackles with electricity. In reply, her spirit draws back its arm and throws its hardwood staff at me with all its immense oaken strength.

It spins upwards and I dodge sideways on my thunderous mount; the staff flies wide. When I stumble, the storm spirit surges up to catch me, soaking my skin where the dark clouds touch it. A new weapon is already growing in the old man’s hand, sprouting from a sapling and aging rapidly into a hardwood stave.

Moonclaw tastes copper in her mouth from the lightning, and knows she can’t afford to be hit by any more bolts. Muttering to herself, she reaches out with an anti-conjuration hex and banishes the storm spirit from the physical plane. It shudders with the force of magical combat as Moonclaw’s magic tears at its aura. The bonds holding it to this world weaken some, but Moonclaw knows she is an open target in the open and breaks off the contest, preparing to flee into the woods.

Soaring above her, out of the reach of her spirit, the thunderbird and I rain down magic on Moonclaw like a storm. She runs for the cover of the forest behind her and I gasp in frustration as I lose concentration and a stunbolt fizzles in my hand.

The great storm beneath me flaps its wings and another purple arc screams from Heaven to Earth. It pins Moonclaw to the rock she is standing upon, piercing her through-and-through like an insect in a collector’s case. She gives a final moan and crumples mid-run, bouncing off the ground with a glowing red hole through her heart. She skids to a halt at the end of a crimson exclamation point, and her forest spirit dissolves into its constituent parts, raining branches, bark and leaves over the edge of the bluff.
I look down with battle-weary shock, not really registering my victory. My spirit gives a thunderous rumble; its services complete, it places me on the warm stone amidst the ruins of the old-man-in-the-woods, and then is gone with the wind, leaving only sunlight and clear skies in its place.

My own body lies broken and bleeding at my feet. I look down on my face and am disturbed to see the last painful moments are frozen there, in the stiffening scream and wide eyes. ‘This was me,’ I think to myself. ‘No matter the magic of this place, this… thing… believed it was me. Believed it was alive.’ I nudge her foot with my own, unsure if this phantasm was ever really there. The corpse’s foot certainly feels real enough. I shudder, and am grateful when the mists rise over the edge of the bluff and consume me for the last time.

~

Moonclaw wakes with a start, back in her own apartment. She tries to move herself from the meditative position and finds her limbs have all become painfully stiff and sore. She looks to her skylight; the sky is in mid-light, either just breaking dawn or just falling evening.

Cat is here with her, the totem’s presence back in her mind at last. She breathes a sigh of relief; being disconnected from Cat was an extremely disconcerting feeling. A new power is here with her as well: her own connection with the forces of mana around her are strong, stronger than they have ever been, and she feels also the beginnings of some new ability growing within. It is true, her astral quest has wrought a new understanding of magic for her, and she knows that many doors have now been opened for her which to this day had been hidden or remained shut.

Still, she feels a sense of disquiet. The look on her own face, lying on the stone, lingers in her mind. The look of death. Her death. She wonders how many humans can claim to have seen the same look on their face. And another, even more disturbing thought: what if she had failed? Would it be her sitting here, now, or would it be something… other? She does not think death is so simple a punishment in a warped place like the metaplane of destiny. Perhaps another Moonclaw would have taken her place. Perhaps she is that Moonclaw now, and the being she killed was the real Cat shaman, Awele Claws-the-Moon, of the SNSF, of the Sioux, of the streets of Chicago. She will never know for sure.

LEVEL UP!

Moonclaw: +9 (5/5), +1 Karma Pool
80 (28/52) Cumulative

+1 Sioux Language Skill

The astral quest is a success! Moonclaw is Initiated at a cost of 15 karma and gains the following:

  • +1 MAG
  • +1 Force to any known spell
  • +1 Astral Reaction
  • +1 Astral Dice Pool
  • +1 Free Metamagic technique
  • Access to metaplanes

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