A/N - I'm not sure which amazes me more, how a story develops, or how a HDD going wonky can ruin not only your day, it can suck that inspiration right out of you. All I can say is: thank heaves for backups on backups on backups.

Standard disclaimer is still in play.


Cougar was trapped, his own mind holding his body hostage- binding him to memories that weren't his... only now... they were his. He had experienced every sensation, every scent, and every taste and although his body did not hold the memory his mind did.

He tried to fight it, but it came, wave after wave it came and he couldn't fight it.

He heard Jensen call to him once, and that too had been part of his memories: Jensen finding him, trying to keep him from falling completely under the spell woven by technology and people with a twisted idea of entertainment.

As he tried to take control, to reassert what he knew to be true he realized that the pain killers he'd been given were specifically designed for a physical adept... designed to numb the mind and body in unison to keep them in synch.

Under normal circumstances it would have been fine- but this was not normal.

He shivered as memories that weren't his tried to overwhelm him.

'It is a lie,' a voice told him. The voice was calm, perhaps sad, but somehow also accepting.

He tried to make a fist, to connect with his body but the medicines continued to keep him detached.

'I know that,' he answered, or at least he thought he had.

'You know it, and yet you do not know it,' the voice answered. 'It is the way of such things, levels within levels... and the truth must be known on all levels.'

'Who are you?'

'I am teacher to my friends, healer to my kin, and protector of the way. I am son and grandson of the great healers of our peoples. Outside I am Daniel TwoBears, here I am a link to the Spirit of Bear, healer and guardian of our people.'

'Why are you here?'

'In your pain you have searched for healing- a call no healer can disregard, a call Bear will not let me ignore.'

Cougar thought a long time on what had been said. It was the poetic dance between the healer's formal request and his own need.

'How do we begin?'

'Open your eyes...'

TLTLTLTLTLTLTLTLTLT

Cougar opened his eyes and found himself in a wooden lodge. Symbols of the first people spanned the walls which seemed to extend through time.

Looking up he saw through the roof to the stars: the plains on a warm night.

'Find the place where you are most... yourself,' a voice told him and when he turned he saw not a man but a bear, a bear with very human eyes.

He took a deep breath and moved about the lodge, trying different places. After several minutes he closed his eyes and opened his senses to his surroundings. It took him several attempts until he found himself sitting cross-legged in the center of the lodge.

'Now we can begin.'

TLTLTLTLTLTLTLTLTLT

Jensen watched warily as Bear settled down with Cougar, and more importantly Cougar settled down, leaving the nightmare behind him. He wasn't sure how much a wheelchair bound shaman could do, but Duck seemed to think he could help.

He finally accepted that maybe, just maybe he could help and when he did the mage, Whisper, as Duck had called him, sat down next to him.

"Your turn," he said.

"Okay... what kind of altered state are you taking me into here? "

"No altered state for you..." Whisper answered.

"But... isn't that how you work?"

"It's how I work... but really... for you... it's like sitting there."

"No visions?"

"I'm a hermetic combat mage... sorry, no."

"No quests?"

Whisper shook his head.

"Chants, songs, poetry?"

"I could recite some poetry but.. uhm.. no."

"What do I do?"

"Sit back, shut up and ignore the Duck behind the curtain."

"This is so unfair. Cougar gets visions..."

"Cougar needs to be a part of his healing..."

"And I don't?"

"Your body is injured. That I can heal. Your friend's spirit is injured, that's more Bear's domain. If you want you can wait for Bear, but his dance card is full right now."

"Not even a moment of enlightenment?"

"I could hit you on the head?"

"Fine," Jensen said glumly. "Do I at least get a lollipop afterwards?"

"If you behave..." Whisper shook his head and Jensen had to laugh when he heard the mage activate his comm to Duck. 'I swear he's worse than you are.'

TLTLTLTLTLTLTLTLTLT

Roque studied the ley lines and the lay of the land. He tilted his head watching as the Ghost Coatl surged from side to side as if trying to work itself free.

'You died here.'

'Yes.'

'You are bound here?'

'Yes.'

He closed his eyes as a wave of power tainted with fear washed over him. Even as he spoke the words he could feel the truth behind them.

'You are not alone.'

'Not alone... '

'How many?'

'The cardinal points, above, below, within... Seven to bind, seven bound... seven to set it free...'

'It?'

'That is the chant they make. That is the power they call... that is the world they claim.'

Roque let his breath out slowly. This little rescue mission was turning into something much bigger.

'You are... '

'One that was bound.'

'And my friend... the honor debt... she is part of this?'

'One that will set it free.'

'One of what?'

'A sacrifice... one of the types of your kind.'

'Type?'

'I do not know your words... One who touches knowledge with their mind... the learned one; one who builds machines with their mind... the architect; one like you who walks in our world at will; one like you who dances in his own skin; one like you who touches the Spirit with his own; one who lives indistinguishable from the machine within them; and one who is pure, of the old world...'

As the creature spoke Roque translated. The learned one was obviously a decker. Building machines with his mind... that sounded like a rigger. One like me: a mage. One who dances in his own skin: a physical adept. Touching the spirit world would be shaman, man indistinguishable from machine... a cyber samurai and a mundane human being. They weren't asking for much.

Roque shook his head in disgust. 'How soon?'

'When the borders between worlds is thin... when the moon is dark...'

'And if we can prevent the sacrifice?'

'I will be free.'

'And if we fail?'

'It will come and we will all be bound.'

Roque swore. Suddenly finding the Master Sergeant became a lot more important. As he thought about it, he thought about the quartet on the Serenity. Mage, Shaman, Jackers... deckers who doubled as riggers.

When you considered the fact that Cougar was a Physical Adept, it all became the antithesis of good.

TLTLTLTLTLTLTLTLTLT

Pooch checked the sensor web and readouts on Roque: his pulse rate, which had slowed as he entered the astral world, was now it was speeding up. He hadn't hit the danger zone yet, but it was alarming in that it was not normal.

Increases like this usually meant combat, but he showed none of the other signs of magical combat. He logged the stats and then checked with his drones. The check was mostly a formality since the systems were on auto-detect/auto-report and he had heard no discharge from the weapons system, no ping from the control rig to indicate movement.

All that changed in an instant as he doubled over in pain as something broadcast through his brain at full gain, full volume.

As he fought to keep from throwing up, he heard Clay outside doing the same.

He quickly forced himself into one of his drones, seeing what it saw, only feeling what it felt: cold metal in the night air. It was like a breath of fresh air.

In the system, he realized that it too had 'heard' the transmission: heard and recorded.

TLTLTLTLTLTLTLTLTLT

Sitting in the lodge, Cougar felt oddly comfortable- at home. He looked at the bear that served as his guide and he discovered he could only see his eyes.

'This is your spirit house,' the bear told him. 'This is where you live as one... body, mind and spirit. This is where you are truly at home, where you are at your strongest.'

Cougar nodded somehow both realizing how impotrant it was and understanding it as a simple truth.

'It is where you are most comfortable. I will act as your guide, but where you go is up to you... '

'What do I do?'

'It is a dance... step outside your center- find that which lies unbalanced. Bring it with you back to the center... find the balance and bring it home... find your center once again.'

'But there is much that is out of balance.'

'Yes cub, there is- it is not something that can be done at once- it was not created at once. The time it has taken to become unbalanced is the time it will take to become balanced.'

'But the others...'

'You cannot help them until you help yourself...'

Cougar could hear the sadness in the voice, and a hint of knowledge of the nightmare he faced. 'You have been here before."

'And I will be here again. Our world is out of balance, and men with crooked spirits seek to make it theirs.'

Cougar nodded and allowed himself to truly be in his spirit house, to gather himself together and feel the center of his being- to feel the balance he was missing. As he did the lodge shifted images faded and he was alone in the night sky- surrounded by nothing but stars.

He was home, but he knew he could not stay.

TLTLTLTLTLTLTLTLTLT

Jensen watched as Whisper seemed to fall asleep in the chair next to him. He looked around feeling more than a little bewildered and turned to Duck.

'Is this really what it's like?' he asked over the comm line.

Duck laughed at the dejected tone in his voice then shrugged.

"I don't know," she answered softly. "I'm usually unconscious when he gets to me."

"And you fight me every step of the way," Whisper commented. "Now... shut up... both of you."