Storm King: Opening Moves Episode Three

Copyright David Mullin 1998

Thursday, September 20, 1984

Greg was sitting at our table when I walked slowly into Shelly's at slightly past eight. He smiled and waved when he saw me.

I passed Carol on my way to the table and put a hand on her back. "Coffee please, hon. Black."

She looked up and smiled. "Sure, Jeff. Be right over." I winced at her voice.

Greg sat back and sipped his coffee as I sat down. "Good morning," he said.

"Morning." I gently rubbed my eyes.

He looked concerned. "What's wrong? I thought it was over."

I smiled. "It is. I had just a little too much to drink last night. My body's getting me back for it."

He laughed. "I see. The great Magus, felled by a hangover."

Carol filled my cup then hurried off to another table. I watched her walk away, her copper hair bouncing around her shoulders. "Yeah. Right." I sipped my coffee and felt the warmth and caffeine dull the throbbing in my temples. Greg waited patiently as I finished my first cup, ordered scrambled eggs and toast from Carol, and started on my second.

"Well, are you going to tell me what happened, or are we going to sit here all morning and stare at each other?"

I related the events of the preceding day, the dream, the meeting with Katar, the ritual, Mike, and the Magical Order. When I had finished, he took a drink of his coffee, surprise showing on his face.

"A Magical Order, huh? Is that like a Religious Order?"

"Yes. Actually, more like a Wizard's Guild in D&D."

He smiled distantly. "Sounds fascinating. You going to join?"

"The Order? No. There are oaths associated with membership that I don't want to take."

"What kind of oaths?"

"Well, oaths of secrecy. Most Orders, from what I read, require you swear to never pass on the mystical knowledge they teach you except to another member of appropriate rank, sometimes upon pain of death. Most also require an oath of service, like fealty to a medieval lord. Neither of these seem worth the gains to me." We paused when Carol brought me my breakfast and refilled our coffee cups. I took a bite of my eggs. Greg continued.

"Pain of death, huh? Sounds pretty intense. I can't say I blame you for turning them down. What about what theyíll teach you without joining? You going to go for that?"

I gazed out the window. "I don't know. I havenít quite decided."

He was startled by this. "Why not? Seems to me that you would jump at the chance. It sounds like a wonderful opportunity to learn from people who really know what they're talking about."

I stopped eating. "Yes, it probably is. But I've experienced whatís really out there, what can really happen. This isnít a game anymore, Greg. It is very dangerous and, from the sound of things, potentially life threatening. I donít know if itís truly worth it. It seems like itís an either-or choice. I donít dare just dabble like I have been because I only know enough to stumble into things and not enough to get out of them. The spirit that inhabited me didnít strike me as being very powerful, it only took a relatively simple ritual to drive it out. It served to show me just how little I know. Next time, it might be something really major, and then where will I be? Iíd say my choices are to either drop practicing entirely, or go all out with the training from the Clan."

He put down his cup and leaned forward. "I'd say going back was a bad idea. Always look to the future. Besides, I can tell that...magicÖis very attractive, and important, to you. Youíd never forgive yourself if you let it drop. If you didnít at least try, youíd spend the rest of your life wondering what could have been." He smiled and picked up his cup. "I sound like a cliche, donít I?"

I smiled back and scraped some eggs onto a slice of toast. "Yes, but that's okay, you look like a cliche. You may be right. I think I have to grab at this chance, no matter how dangerous it may be. If I donít, Iíll end up like all the rest of those sheep out there, running around thinking that magic was something that only existed in faery tales." I gestured out the window with my fork

"So you're going to go for it?" He almost sounded hopeful. I suddenly realized that he wanted me to continue. He wasnít entirely sure if he believed everything that I had told him, but he was willing to let me believe. He wanted me to learn magic so that I could prove that it existed to him. This realization pushed me across the line into certainty.

"Yeah, for now. I hope that if I change my mind later, I have the option to quit."

"I'm sure that itíll all work out." He let Carol refill his cup before taking another drink. We were silent for a while as I ate. Finally he said, "You going to be at the game tomorrow night? I managed to get the computer to accept my parameters after those modifications you made, and Iím going to be implementing the changed tomorrow."

The thought of an eight hour gaming session made me smile in anticipation. "I'll be there. What have you got planned for us this time?"

"Well, the party finished off Magic Isle last week, so I think I'll start you guys on The Ogrillion Horror."

I winced dramatically. "I've heard bad things about that adventure. And from the gleam in your eye, Iíd say that weíre in for a long haul."

He smiled devilishly. "We'll see."

I looked at my watch. 8:45. "We'd better be going." He glanced at his watch, drained his cup and reached for his wallet. "Iíve got it." He shrugged, stood up and waited as I dropped a ten on the table and rose to leave.

We ran into Tamarson as we crossed the parking lot.

"Good morning Jeff, Greg." He looked at me. "How're you feeling? Greg tells me youíve had the flu."

"I'm feeling much better," I said with my straightest face. "Still a little under the weather, but thatís it."

"Good. I gave you two an extension of your time estimates. You have until five tonight."

I looked at Greg, who nodded. "No problem, Tamarson."

When we reached our office, Greg filled me in on what he had been doing. "I got the code for the security systems from Beth and looked it over. The person who designed the old system was about on par with me as a programmer but he had no concept of password maintenance or binary encoding. It'd take me about five minutes to break into the computer on a PC. Itíd take you less."

I examined the printouts he gave me. He was right about the lack of sophistication of the code. I tossed the stack of paper on my desk. "This stuff is all but useless. We might be able to salvage some of it, but that will probably prove to be more work than it is worth. Let's scratch this and start over."

Greg nodded. "That's what I figured, too. I started on a flowchart for a tiered password setup." He handed me a large piece of graph paper. I set it on my desk and worked my way through the flowchart, making occasional notes and alterations.

"Looks good." I wheeled my chair over and set the chart down on his desk. "Let's try and finish this and have an estimate for Tamarson by two."

He smiled. "Two? You really think it will take us that long?"

"No, but we don't want to show off too much or Tamarson might stop underestimating us." We both laughed. "Okay, where do we want to go from here?" He leaned over the chart and we got to work

I parked in front of the address Mike had given me at 11:45 Saturday morning. It was an old warehouse painted a nondescript grey. All of the windows close to the ground were boarded over from the inside. There were several other cars parked near-by, only a few of them off-road vehicles. City folk. I left my truck and searched for a door. I spotted one just as a dark blue Firebird pulled. A pretty black-haired girl got out. She looked in her early twenties and was wearing a light green karate gi. She walked over to me. "Good mornin," she said with a strong Irish accent. "You a new Initiate? Of the Clan I mean." Very cute.

I smiled. "No, just a seeker of knowledge. My name's Jeff." I extended my hand.

She took my hand and smiled brightly, her sea-green eyes glittering. Her hand was smooth and strong. "I'm Debra. Well, come along, Jeff, and weíll get you to some of that knowledge youíre seekin."

She led me up the outdoor metal stairs to the second story door, then into the warehouse. Inside was a small office with a brown haired man sitting behind a desk. He looked up from what he was doing and smiled. "Hello, Deb."

"Good mornin, Rob. Stuck you with door duty again, did they?"

"Yeah. Well, it gives me time to catch up on my homework." She laughed, smiled good-by at me, and walked through a door. I heard many voices beyond. I am going to have to see her again. Rob smiled. "Newcomer, eh? May I have your name?" He began flipping though a clipboard he produced from behind his desk.

"Jeff. I was invited by Mike." I didn't know Mikeís last name. I hoped his first name was sufficient.

He ran his finger down a page, smiled again, then checked off a name. "Jeff. Gotcha. Can I have your last name?"

"Brown."

"Jeff Brown. Go through that door," he pointed to the door Debra had gone through, "and ask for Mike. He's expecting you."

The door led onto a catwalk that overlooked the interior of the warehouse. It was a huge open area, several hundred feet across, with pillars supporting the roof about fifty feet overhead. Light came in through the unboarded windows illuminating the place in a hatchwork pattern. The hum of air conditioners were drowned out by the numerous people clustered into groups of two to five. From my vantage point, I could see they were engaged in practicing Shinai, Martial Arts, and Magic. The latter interested me the most, although the energy patterns surrounding most of the ones using magic were too complex for me to make much out. As I watched, I became aware that although the type of dress varied between gis and sweats, the only colors being worn were blue, red, yellow, white, and green, with the latter two being most infrequent. The people in each group were, for the most part, all wearing the same color. As I puzzled over this, a man wearing a blue gi broke away from a group and headed towards me. It was Mike.

"Jeff! Glad you could make it. Come on down and we'll get started." He waved me towards a stair further down the catwalk. I met him at the bottom. We shook hands. "Have any problems finding the place?"

"No. Thomas' makes a good map." I looked around at all the people milling about and yawned."Tired? You just arrived."

"Yeah, well, I was up until early this morning gaming with some friends."

"Wargaming?"

"No. Roleplaying."

He nodded. "Good. The tactics inherent in that game may come in handy to you in this line of work."

I shrugged noncommittally. "Where do we begin?"

"For starters, let's answer all those questions Iím sure you have about us, magic, or whatever." He dropped gracefully onto a pile of mats and motioned me to sit. "Before I forget, next time you come, wear white."

I smiled. "Which brings me to my first question. I thought I noticed a color scheme of some sort, but couldn't figure out what it signified."

"Rank. The colors are so that you know the general capabilities of the person you're practicing with or against. White for students like yourself, yellow for Sensitives, red for Minors, blue for Majors, and green for Hazards."

"I gather that these titles are ranks within the Clan?" I gestured inquisitively.

He shook his head. "More than just that, they signify the power level of the individual. It's a generalization of the rating system I told you about."

"So you mean that what your energy potential is determines what your rank is.

"Right. 06 is the lower cut-off for Minors, 11 for Majors, and 16 for Hazards."

"What's above Hazard?"

"Adept and Magus, but those are practically unheard of. Katar is the only person I've met or heard of from a reliable source that is above Hazard. Heís a Magus."

I thought about this for a moment. "How do you determine what someone's level is?"

"A person's power output is like a bell curve." He sketched a curve in the air with his finger. "Although theoretically, anyone can put out energy in the Hazard range or beyond, given the proper circumstances and enough stress, the reality is that people will peak out a few standard deviations out. We find out where that is, and extrapolate the rest of the curve from there. Where the center of the curve is determines the power level."

"So when you tested me Wednesday, you pushed me until I peaked out and came up with an 06, right?"

He bobbed his head yesĖno. "Sort of. The test I gave you wasn't very thorough. 06 is a conservative estimate. To get a good measure, we would have to put you through the Test where we really push someone beyond their limits."

I brightened at this. "Sounds like a valuable. When can we do it?"

He looked slightly sheepish. "Well, we can't. The Test requires a substantial output of energy and time, and we only do it for Clan members." He looked me in the eye. "You understand."

I nodded, slightly disappointed. "Well, I haven't got anymore questions right now. If I come up with any, Iíll ask you. Where do we start with my training?"

"The first step is to get your body in shape. If it's out of shape, it hampers the flow of high level energies and creates imbalances within your energy system. Parallel to that, weíll start you on low level energy manipulation, banishing and evoking of spiritual and magical energy, and, of course, the L.B.R., which youíve already seen."

I furrowed my eyebrows. "What does L.B.R. stand for?"

"The Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. It's a rather unusual ritual that serves to banish unwanted energies from around you, undesired negativity from within you, and it slowly evolves your psyche so that you are better able to handle the energies you will soon learn to conjure."

I pondered that for a moment. "Okay. After I get all this down, where do we go from there?"

"After that come martial training and progressively higher levels of energy manipulation."

I shook my head slightly. "Why martial training?"

"Partly to maintain your physique, partly to give you a backup weapon should your powers ever fail you, and partly as a practical application of your energy manipulation. Most martial arts make use of the Chi, or spirit, to grant greater strength and balance. Chi-related training combined with magical training enhances either art."

Another reference to danger. "I'm really starting to wonder about emphasis you people put on danger. Both you and Katar made reference to how dangerous magic is and you want to teach me how to fight. Is there something youíre not telling me?" I knew there was, but I had to ask.

He smiled. "Actually, there is a great deal that I'm not telling you, most of which Iím not permitted to tell you because you are not a Clan member. As far as danger goes, there are people out there, practitioners of dark and baneful magic, who may try to turn you to their path, or cause you harm if you refuse them."

This stunned me. I was aware of the danger of evoking energy that I could not deal with and injuring or killing myself that way, but it had never occurred to me that there were individuals who would also be working against me. My certainty to practice magic was shaken, but I remembered what Greg had said and resolved myself to continue.

"Also," Mike continued, "once people start to really get into magic, their awareness of self and there personal morals tend to draw them into trouble. It's good to be able to get out of it if that happens."

"All right," I said slowly, "let's begin." He led me out into the mass of people.

I spent the next five hours working very hard. Various instructors had me practicing Karate exercises, Yoga, and rudimentary magic.

By the time I left, at around six, my body was sore, stiff, and tired. My mind was rapidly running over the events of the day, the information the various instructors and Mike had given me. Tristen, the Major-level Instructor who had taught me several basic rituals and magical exercises, had informed me that I should continue to practice during the week, and that he could only critique my progress and provide new information. "Magic is an experiential art. In order to learn, you must do," he had said. "Repeat it again and again. The L.B.R. is the most important ritual I have taught you, perhaps the single most important thing you will ever learn. Perform it at least twice a day; when you get up in the morning and before bed, along with the other rituals. You won't get very much out of the rest yet, but stick with it and your awareness and sensitivity will grow as the L.B.R. evolves you."

Wearily, I drove back to my apartment in Gardnerville, most of the way on autopilot. The hard work of the day, the lack of sleep from the night before, began to catch up with me. By the time I made it home, I was practically falling asleep at the wheel. Tristen's advise had been sound, but tonight I was too tired to practice. I dragged myself to my bed and fell into an exhausted sleep.

Saturday; December 22, 1984

"Okay," Mike said, "this is a free for all. The last one standing, wins." I stood ready in my white Gi, holding the bamboo sword in a relaxed but firm grip and looking about at the other eleven combatants standing around the fifty foot circle. There were members of every rank, but their fencing masks concealed their identities. They, too, were ready. "Ready...begin!"

I slowly advanced into the circle in a horse-stance, leading with my right leg, Shinai held parallel to the ground. My body was like a drawn bow-string, ready to fire, but I held myself in a defensive posture and waited. The person on my right leapt forward with a head shot. I parried and responded with a three shot combination to the head and body. He effortlessly deflected all my blows.

Sensing someone coming up from behind me, I half turned, dropping to my right knee and whipped my sword around left handed. I caught the second assailant in the stomach before hurling myself into the legs of the first, who was distracted by my sudden move. Both fell to the ground. I finished off the one I had tripped.

I dove sideways to avoid the swing from a red clad woman and found myself lying flat on my back, fending off the blows from a blue clad man. Red came at blue from the side and distracted him long enough for me to regain my feet and dive into the fray. A well placed kick knocked blue to the ground while I drew my sword rapidly back and forth across red's head. The impact snapped her head from side to side and she fell to the ground, stunned. Blue swung at my feet and I jumped, deflecting a blow from a green clad woman coming at me from my right. A left handed slice caught blue in the head and I follow it through to quickly parry two blows coming from green. Green and I rapidly exchanged blows and parries for a few seconds before I realized that she was Debra. She and I were the only ones left.

For several minutes we fought back and forth, neither of us gaining much of an advantage, our styles and abilities almost perfectly matched. The fight dragged on for another ten minutes before the rapidness of my breath and the ache in my arms informed me that I was beginning to tire, and by the steadiness of Debra's breathing, she wasnít.

We're evenly matched, but sheís got more endurance than I do. If I donít do something, itíll all be over. My mind raced for an alternative when she left me an opening. Ordinarily, it wouldnít have been an opening, she only extended her sword a little more than usual, not enough to prevent her from blocking any blow I send; then again, I wasnít going to aim for her body. Years of experience as a Gamer had taught me that sometimes, a very gutsy, very unpredictable, and relatively insane move was the only way out of a hopeless situation. I gathered my remaining strength and let fly. Parrying forced her to extend still further and my blow caught her sword just above the hilt, the force flipping the shinai out of her hands and across the circle.

I followed up with a shoulder-level blow that she dropped below, returning with a kick. The blow staggered me, giving her time to raise up, grab my shinai, and use it as a lever to flip me across the circle. I rolled with the throw, ending near her sword. Grabbing the weapon, I quickly brought it up to block the blow she was delivering with my sword. Still in a crouch, I lashed out with my left leg, sweeping her legs from under her. She toppled to the ground and I was able to tap her with the sword. The fight was over.

I stood up and pulled off my mask and leaned down, extending my hand. "Good fight," she said.

Drawing her to her feet, I smiled. "Thanks. What say the victor buys the loser dinner?"

She removed her mask and smiled, her eyes looking straight into mine. "Isn't that suppose to go the other way around?"

I shrugged. "Okay, you buy me dinner."

She wrinkled her brow contemplatively. "Somehow, I don't think that ended up the way I intended." We both laughed.

We returned our swords and masks to the weapon master and headed across the warehouse towards a pile of mats to rest. Midway across, we passed a ritual that caught my interest.

It was a single man in blue standing in the center of a taped off circle. Silver fire danced around him and flowed away from him like ripples in a pond. He raised his hands, energy surrounding him in a nimbus of silver light and flowing from his hands into a triangle drawn on the ground a few feet in front of him. The energy condensed within the triangle. A black dot appeared within the triangle and then expanded into a ghostly grey form. The man began to sing in a low voice, saying words that I could not make out, but that sounded very alien. The ghostly form solidified into a skeletal grey figure that spread black dragon wings, flung back its hairless head, and let out an inhuman howl. People all over the warehouse stopped what they were doing to watch.

I motioned to Debra. "Is that what I think it is? An Enochian Demon?"

She nodded. "Very perceptive. Yes it is."

"That's fascinating. How long until I can learn to do that?"

"You won't. Spells such as these are simply too dangerous to give out to non-Clan. If something like that demon were to get loose, thereíd be hell to pay. Pardon the pun."

"Again with this restricted information. Damn! Every time I come across an interesting tidbit of information, you tell me you can't tell me anything. Itís becoming very aggravating." It came out sounding more irritated than I had intended.

"There's always a way, Jeff. You couldó"

"I know, join the Clan." I shook my head. "I don't know. The cost seems so high. I donít know if itís worth it."

"I dinnae expect you to believe me, Jeff, but I think it is." She smiled again and walked over to the mats to rest. I continued to watch the man and the demon. They seemed to be carrying on a conversation, but I couldn't make it out. I didnít dare to move closer because to do so would require crossing the circle, which would disrupt the wardings cast about it and free the demon. Finally, the man dispelled the demon and I went over to join Debra.

Debra set the drinks on the table and sat down. She took a sip of her ale before saying, "The pizza will be ready in about fifteen minutes." I nodded, sipping my Coke.

"So," I asked, "how long have you been in the Clan?"

She shrugged. "About four years. I met Katar in Ireland about six years ago. I'd been dabbling in Celtic Magic since I was very young. He was impressed with me. Said that I could really benefit from a more formal education. I thought it over for a year or so before deciding to go for it. He supplied the transportation and supported me until I found a job and got settled."

I thought about that for a moment. "What, is Katar rich? I noticed that he seems to get around a bit, back and forth between here and Los Angeles, but never found out what he does."

She took a sip of her drink and smiled. "Master is an interesting person, isn't he. I dinnae know exactly what he does, but he is very wealthy. As a Hazard, I see a lot more of what goes on than most of the others, and it appears that Katar spends most of his time seeing to the affairs of the Clan, both here and in L.A."

"I thought the Clan was only in Carson City."

She shook her head. "No. There is another branch, about the same size, down south. East group is overseen by a Clan Leader, who answer only to Katar."

"So Mike's the local Leader, right?"

She again shook her head. "Oh, no. Mike is just in charge of local security and training. An administrative function subservient to the Leader."

"So, tell me about Katar. Who is he really? Mike told me once that Katar was a Magus, but I really get the idea that there is more to him than meets the eye. Aside from being a magician."

She smiled and nodded. "A lot more. I'm not sure, but I think heís one of the few remaining Old Ones. Iíve watched the energy patterns around him, not that he lets anyone see them very often, and some of them are older and more established than anything Iíve seen since the old Holy Places back in Ireland."

I furrowed my eyebrows. "Old Ones? What's that?"

"You've never heard...no, I donít suppose you have. There have been a few magicians over the centuries that have managed to extend their lifespans considerably through magic. I think Katar is one of them.

My eyes widened in surprise. "Do you mean to tell me that Katar isó"

"Quite probably several hundred years old," she cut me off. "Yes."

I sat back and pondered this in disbelief. Immortality through magic. Now that was a reason unto itself to practice, no matter what the danger. "Assuming you're right, do you know how he did it?"

She shrugged. "I have an idea, but nowhere near the power to do it. That's why there are so few of them; you need to be well into the Magus range."

I was silent for a while. "So Katar just spends all of his time running back and forth between her and L.A.? Why does he do it?"

"He formed the Clan a long time ago. I don't know exactly how long, several decades. Itís an order dedicated to the cause of good and the training of the new. He goes back and forth to make sure that everything is running smoothly and to check in on his special pupils. Like me and, like you."

This stunned me. "Me? What do you mean?"

She smiled. "Oh, come now, Jeff. Haven't you noticed how he is always interested in how your training is progressing? Do you think he has time to do that to every student in the Clan? You must have a truly impressive potential or some very rare gift. I donít know what."

I shrugged. "Neither do I. He said that he was impressed when I did the L.B.R. the first time, but I don't have any really special gifts. I can just do some things with weather."

Her eyes widened. "You're a weathermancer? That might be it, control over nature is a very powerful gift."

I shrugged again. "All right. It doesn't seem all that special to me." I began to feel uncomfortable at the apparent praise I was getting, so I changed the subject. "Enough shop talk. What do you do in the real world?"

"I'm an interior decorator. What about you?"

"A computer programer down in Minden."

We lapsed into small talk discussing our lives outside of the Clan. She told me that she spends most of her time working or studying. She studies most anything she can, but focuses on various types of magic and Pagan religions. Occasionally she would go out with friends, but she wasn't seeing anyone at the time; something I noted with interest.

The waiter brought our pizza and I insisted on buying the second round of drinks. I set them down and started in on the pizza. "You know, this season reminds me of the last turkey dinner my mother made for me, about five years ago. I didn't eat very much during the meal, and then about three hours latter, I was hungry so I ordered a pizza."

"Your last turkey dinner? What happened after that? Did you leave home after that?"

"No. She was so angry with me for ordering the pizza that she never made another for me. By the time she forgave me and invited me to another, I had moved up here and couldn't afford to go back home." I shrugged. "I suppose that Iíll have another sometime in my life."

She slapped her hand on the table. "You surely will. You're going to come over to my house for Christmas Dinner. You bring the wine.""I donít know," I said apprehensively.

She made a dramatic pout. "Please." Then more seriously, "I'd really like to see you again."

I smiled. "Well, if you put it that way, I accept."

Her face brightened and her eyes glittered. "Good."

An hour later, I pulled into Computec's parking lot. I liked Debra and felt strangely drawn to her in a way I couldnít explain. It had been a long time since I had felt this way towards someone...not since Kathy. The old pain started to rise up again at the thought of Kathy, a dull ache in the pit of my stomach. I pushed the thought away. Even after all these years, that knife hadnít dulled a bit.

As I neared the building, I could hear music and voices from inside. I looked at my watch. 7:30, a half hour late. The Christmas party was already in full swing. People were standing around talking and drinking egg-nog. Someone had set up a bar in the front lobby. Music was coming from upstairs.

I picked up a cup of egg-nog at the bar and wandered through the party, saying hello to people I knew and making small talk with people who stopped me. Finally I spotted Greg and pushed my way over to him.

His face brightened when he saw me. "Jeff! You're late. What gives?"

I shrugged. "I lost track of the time."

He smiled mischievously. "Was she pretty?"

"Ha, ha, very funny," I said sarcastically.

He smiled again. "Live it up. Christmas only comes once a year. Come on, there's someone I want you to meet." I rolled my eyes skyward and followed. God I hate parties.

It was well past midnight when the party finally dissipated. Greg and I were the last to leave as we walked out to the parking lot. Although I was feeling pleasantly fuzzy, from the way he was weaving, I could tell that Greg was totally wasted. I took his arm and steered him towards my truck. "You're in no condition to drive, my friend. Iíll give you a ride home."

He patted my shoulder. "You're a pal, Jeff." He seemed to consider something for a moment. "Ya know, you ought to go after the pretty you were with tonight. Itíd do you good."

I smiled. "Maybe."

He made a little laugh and bumped into the side of my truck as I reached to open the passenger door.

"Come on Jeff. It's been over seven years since Kathy. Why donít you let it rest?"

"I don't want to talk about it, Greg."

"It's time to talk. Living the life of a monk ainít going to bring her back."

My voice took on a razor sharpness. "Let it drop."

My tone was not lost on him. He raised his hands defensively. "Okay, okay. I'm just voiciní my opinion."

He was climbing into the truck when I felt a tingling on the back of my neck. Before I could spin around, a blast of psychic energy slammed into my mind, almost shattering my mental defenses and knocking me backwards into the side of my truck. Ocher fire surrounded me and tried to push its way past my psychic shields. Golden light flared from within me and pushed away the attacking force. Slowly I fed energy back through the link caused by the assault, engaging in a combat of wills with my unseen assailant. Finally, the pressure dwindled and then vanished.

I shook my head clear. A moan came from inside. It was Greg. He was holding his head and blood was trickling out of his nose. Anxiously, I went to him and laid a hand on his head. His mind was full of turmoil, overwhelmed by the run off from the psychic duel I had been in. I had been so busy returning the attack that I hadn't even thought about defending him. I had always known he had some latent psychic powers, but I hadnít realized they were developed enough for him to be susceptible.

Slowly, I entered his mind and gently washed away the damage with white light. His mind cleared. He lapsed into unconsciousness. Laying him in the seat, I climbed into the driver's seat and drove to my apartment. He shouldnít be left alone until he recovers. I carried him inside and put him on my couch before dropping into a chair. I fell asleep watching him.

At ten o'clock the next morning, I pulled up to Mikeís house. He answered his door on the second knock. "Jeff, what are you doing here?"

"I need to talk to you. It's important." I must have looked horrible after only four hours of sleep. Greg had awoken at five in a great deal of pain. I had had to pull him out of it.

"Certainly, come in." He stepped aside, allowing me pass. When we were seated in his living room, he asked, "What is it?"

"Someone attacked me last night. Outside of my work. That doesn't concern me too much, I understand there are people who wish me harm because of what I am. What does concern me is my best friend was injured in the attack. He got hit pretty hard by the psychic run off because I didnít know how to defend him, something you could have taught me but wouldnít."

"Couldn't," he corrected. "You know the rules. I didnít make them, I just follow them. Iím sorry about your friend. But Iím sure heíll be all right; you have some healing talent, I know."

"I'm sorry. I didnít mean to sound spiteful. I didnít come here to accuse you."

"What did you come here for?"

I paused a long time. "I've decided to join the Clan. I no longer have any choice. As long as my training is limited, I am a danger not only to myself, but to my friends. I will not be the cause of their injury."

He nodded. "I understand. When would you like the initiation?"

"As soon as possible."

He thought for a moment. "It can be arranged. Would you like to be alone to prepare while I gather two other Initiates?"

"Yeah," I said softly.

He led me down the hall and into a room. It was dark and windowless, the walls pained black. Against each wall was a small table with a single candle on it. Mike gestured and the candles flared to life. "Rest here. Let the sanctity of this place comfort you and shed light upon your inner-most self." He closed the door behind himself.

I sat cross-legged in the center of the room and meditated. I know I am doing the right thing. Greg could have been killed last night. I have to learn to protect him, to protect any who are around me. But I'm still reluctant to proceed. Once I make the Oaths, there is no turning back. Ever.

I was deeply relaxed when Mike returned. Two men whom I had seen at the warehouse were with him. Mike introduced them as Doug and Eric. I remained where I was as they spread themselves evenly around me before raising their hands. Multicolored fire leapt between them and then spread out into the walls. It solidified there creating a warding that was tight and strong. A feeling of oppressive closeness began to permeate the room.

Mike said, "Arise petitioner and face me." I did so. Without preamble, he said, "Do you, Jeffrey Brown, swear to never reveal what you learn beneath the seal, except to another whom you know to be a brother that with certainty you know his identity, the secret methods and practices and any other of our mysteries?"

"Thus do I swear." Energy began to rise within the room, surrounding me and sending tendrils into my mind.

They all said, "So mote it be."

Doug spoke next. "Face me petitioner. Do you, Jeffrey Brown, swear to serve the cause of the Clan, to serve its Grandmaster known as Katar, and to obey any command from a superior within the Clan."

I swallowed hard. "Thus do I swear." Another layer of energy was added to the first."

So mote it be."

Eric spoke last. "Petitioner, face me. Do you, Jeffrey Brown, swear that should you violate any of these oaths, or any future oaths extracted from you by a superior in the Clan, you will freely and willingly submit to the Masters of this Magical Order for the punishment due you for such a transgression."

I closed my eyes. "Thus do I swear." Yet a third layer of energy formed.

In unison, they said, "Let it be known to the Powers that we serve, to the gods that rule the universe and to the Shadowed Lady that is the Mistress of us all, that Jeffrey Brown has made these Oaths willingly in this sanctified place. Let him henceforth be an Initiate of this Order of High Magic. So mote it be. Amen."

As they said this, the three layers of energy combined and constricted upon me, integrating itself with my own energy system. Somehow, I knew the Oaths I had taken were binding by more than just my honor, they had been offered and taken as a magical action, setting up a circuit that would force me to obey the Oaths.

The three of them dispelled the wardings. Doug and Eric left. Mike remained behind. "Is that it? Am I in?"

"Basically. Those were the Oaths. Next comes the Test."

The Test! "When?"

"Tomorrow at sunrise."

"The Test is going to push you to your limits, both physically and mystically," Mike said. "It is as much a test of character as well as it is personal capabilities. You've already walked over the path so you know where to go. All you have to do is make it to the finish line, a mile away."

I was slowly raising myself on the balls of my feet and back down again, eager for it to begin. A cold winter wind was blowing through the valley, but my gi kept it away from me. I looked around at the walls of the valley we were in. A light snow had fallen the night before, cloaking most of the vegetation in a mantle of white. A path led down the valley, disappearing around a bend. "You sure I have nothing to worry about? I'm not going to get hurt?"

"As I've said, unless you make a colossal error, the worst that can happen to you is some bruises. There is nothing out there that you canít beat with skill, perseverance and just a little luck. Are you ready?"

I took a deep breath, tried to relax. "Yes."

He took a step to one side, allowing me to pass. "Begin."

I took off at a light jog down the path, my psychic sense strained to its utmost. Anxiety and fear honed my already keen senses as my legs carried me across the ground. Where are they going to strike? How? When? I tried not to dwell on the possibilities and concentrated on staying alert.

About a third of a mile later, my internal alarms went off. I leapt to the right as a fist sized rock flew through the space I had vacated at about chest level. Spinning around, I had to duck a shinai blow to the head. The sword made a swishing sound as it passed. Two other masked and armed men were following the first. Shit! These guys aren't pulling their punches. The first assailant brought his swing around in a downward stroke, causing me to leap to the left and then dive backwards to avoid the swing of another. The third circled around to come at me from the back.

Their momentary pause to allow the third to get into position gave me enough time to regain my balance. They advanced on me at once. I kicked the first in the gut, causing him to grunt in pain and hesitate. I caught the blow from the second in a cross-arm block. The third hit me in the small of my back. It hurt a lot, but not enough to make me go down. Bringing my hands together, I grabbed hold of the sword I had blocked, jerking out of its wielder's hands. Continuing my jerk backwards, I thrust the tip of the shinai into the third manís stomach. He doubled over in pain and dropped to the ground. The first attacker launched a blow at my head, which I parried and followed through with another kick to the gut and a full force swing to his head, which snapped to one side, the momentum of the blow knocking him to the ground. He didnít try to get up. The last remaining man backed away defensively, holding up his hands in an "I give up" motion. Not dropping the sword, I continued down the path at a dead run.

I sprinted for about a hundred yards before slowing to a more steady jog. The brief fight and the sprint had left me slightly winded. I slowed to catch my breath. That wasn't too difficult. If the rest isnít any worse, I should make it through with no problem.

About two hundred yards from the finish line, a man wearing Levis and a blue sweater stepped out onto the path. I stopped about twenty feet from him and readied myself. He was unarmed, indicating a magical duel. I had seen him at practices before, but had never tested myself against him. I knew from watching him work that he was at least as good as I was.

Without a word, he raised his hands. Steel-grey light surrounded him and intensified until he was surrounded with a dome of light about ten feet in radius. Dropping the sword. I crossed my hands before my chest and caused a similar field of golden energy to spring up about me. Both fields cleared somewhat and I could see that he was holding a defensive stance, waiting for me to make the first move. I cupped my hands and blew into them, gathering the energy from my breath into a small ball of silver-flecked golden light and tossed it towards him. The ball landed between us and grew into a lion, which slowly advanced upon him, tail flicking from side to side. He smiled and brought his hands together, concentrated on them for a moment and then drew them apart. Energy flew from his spreading hands and solidified into a twelve foot tall bull elephant which stomped towards my lion. The lion danced to one side and stared up the hill next to the path, the elephant following ponderously.

I gathered another ball of light out of the energy surrounding me and hurled it at my opponent. It glanced off his energy dome and landed behind him. He folded his arms and looked at me scornfully. Cocky son-of-a-bitch. Smiling, I raised my right hand and snapped my fingers. The ball of energy behind him quickly grew into a massive gold dragon which spread its leather wings and hissed, the pale sunlight glinting silver off its scales. The man's eyes widened and he spun around, raising his hands in a defensive gesture. The dragon hoped forward on its hind legs, forelegs reaching to grab the man. I brought my hands together in a clap and sent a bolt of golden light at him. It pierced his energy veil and caught him in the center of his back. The bolt grew tendrils which encircled him and pinned his arms to his side. The dragon and the manís energy dome both faded. He dropped to his knees as I recovered my shinai and walked up to him.

"Good fight," I said. He smiled.

I started to continue down the path. He said, "Good luck." I nodded without looking back.

A few minutes later, I came in sight of the finish. A black haired figure in a green gi was standing there. As I drew closer, I saw it was Debra. I stopped twenty feet from her. "What's the deal?" I asked.

"I'm the last test."

I made a little sarcastic laugh. "Yeah, right. I'm supposed to beat you? A Hazard? I havenít a snowballs chance in hell.

"She shook her head. "You don't have to beat me, Jeff," she raised her hand and a web of red-pink energy sprang up between us, "you just have to get to me."

Tossing the sword aside, I moved to the edge of the web, about fifteen feet from Debra and examined it. It was tight and strong, and extended all the way to where she was standing. I couldn't tell what it did, but I knew how to find out. I took a deep breath, gathered my strength, and stepped into the web.

Pain washed through my body, a dull ache deep in my muscles. Another step sent pins of agony into my nerves and my limbs grew heavy with the pain. Two more steps and the pain was so severe that I could barely put one foot in front of the other. The next step dragged me to my knees, doubling over in pain. Sheer determination dragged me another few feet before the agony drained my strength and I dropped to the ground, totally exhausted. I was beaten and ready to give up when the words "...test of characterÖ" passed through my mind.

No! I will not give up! I will not be beaten!

I groped forward with my right hand and struggled to pull myself towards Debra. The agony increased, molten lead shot into my body, but my strength started to rise, urged on by my anger. Every foot further that I moved, the pain grew worse, but then it suddenly seemed to grow less. Golden light began to shine from me. I continued to drag myself towards Debra, growling animalistically. Everything faded except my drive to move forward. Finally I touched her foot. The pain suddenly vanished and the world went black.

Consciousness returned to me slowly, along with a dull throbbing in my head. I opened my eyes. Debra was sitting next to me.

She smiled. "How are you feelin'?"

I sat up slowly and rubbed my eyes. "Ragged. Starved."

She put a slice of wheat bread with orange preserves on it in my hand. "Eat this, it will help restore you energy reserves." I took a bite and looked around. I was in Mike's living room, lying on the couch. Katar was sitting in the armchair. Mike was straddling a chair next to him. Katarís presence reminded me of my discussion with Debra two nights before. Debra handed me a glass of juice to help wash down the food.

"How'd I do?"

Katar smiled. "Astoundingly well. In fact we cannot give you an accurate ranking. Near the end, your energy peaked so high that you began to rend Debra's energy web; you began to put out more than her level of 16. However, having nothing better to go on, we will have to assume you peaked at 16 and rank you as a 10óMinor. Rather impressive for only three months of actual training."

I nodded, digesting all of this. "What happens from here?"

Mike spoke. "You are now an active member of the Clan. You can begin to learn the restricted spells and incantations. From time to time, we'll call upon you to take part in a mission. Aside from that, life continues normally."

I did a double take. "A mission? What kind of mission?"

"The Clan is a Magical Order, a White Order," Katar said. "As such, we are in constant conflict with the darker forces of the world and, ever so often, are forced to act against the darkness. We will usually give you reasonable notice before a mission, and if you have pressing business in the mundane world, a release can be obtained."

"Are these missions dangerous?" I was suddenly having serious second thoughts about joining. Not that there was anything I could do about it.

"Occasionally. They are rarely life-threatening. Most of the time they are merely acting covertly against the subtle and covert actions of a Black faction. Neither side wants to leave bodies lying around, it would draw too much attention and risk public knowledge."

"When are you going to call upon me?"

"We have compiled an extensive bio on you. When a problem requiring your specific talents comes up, we will let you know. Until then, do not worry. Relax and enjoy your new learning." Katar rose. "I must be returning to Los Angeles. I have pressing business that requires my attention. Congratulations, Jeff, you did well."

Debra leaned forward and hugged me. "Welcome to the family."