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The Initiate: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Wednesday, December 11, 2019 19:20 EST



    Four hours after meeting Sylvia, Sam arrived on foot at the corner of Post Avenue and Academy Street, at the far north end of Manhattan. Five- and six-story apartment buildings stretched away in every direction. He wandered around the intersection for a few minutes, then finally noticed a small sign on a steel gate at the top of some steps leading down to a basement door: “Tutoring,” it said, in faded purple Comic Sans lettering. He pressed the doorbell button under the sign, and after a brief wait the gate unlocked.

    Sam went down the first couple of steps, pulled the gate shut behind him and made sure it locked, then went the rest of the way down to a steel door with no external knob at all. It buzzed and popped open as he reached it, and he went inside.

    Past the metal door was a short corridor lit by buzzing fluorescent tubes, with worn linoleum on the floor and peeling images of clowns and balloons on the walls. Was this the right place? Probably not. Definitely not. Coming here had been a huge mistake. He felt like a fool. And what if someone found him here, unable to explain himself? He might get arrested, or worse.

    He was just about to turn around when he stopped and closed his eyes. Though he could see nothing he could feel that he was not alone in the corridor. Something was in front of him, and the powerful feeling of anxiety was radiating from it like warmth from a bonfire.

    “Let me pass,” he said in a voice as steady and commanding as he could manage. “I was invited here. You have no power over me.”

    As soon as he spoke, the fear and doubt vanished, along with the sense of another presence. Sam was alone in an unattractive little corridor. He walked without hesitation to the green door at the end and opened it.

    “Not bad,” said Sylvia, sitting at a desk reading the Daily News. The room reeked of cigarettes and perfume. “But don’t start thinking you’re Mandrake the Magician yet. I’ve had six-year-olds here who could boss around the guardian in the hallway better than you.”

    “I’m ready to learn,” said Sam. “I don’t know what you charge, but –”

    “No charge,” she said. “I got demons on speed dial, what do I want money for? No, all I want is a promise: that you’ll do one thing I ask.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “You owe me a favor, get it? All my students owe me one — or their parents do, which is better, really. Are you in?”

    “Yes. I’ll do one thing for you, whenever you ask.”

    She smiled. “Good. That’s one thing you’re gonna learn: It’s all about making deals. And you need to get a lot better at it, dummy! You just gave me a blank check. Not so smart.”

    Sylvia’s class for beginners had three other students: a pigtailed girl called Isabella who looked about ten, an intense boy in his early teens named Shimon, and a sullen girl of sixteen who said her name was MoonCat. Sam realized with some amusement that he was older than all his fellow students combined.

    Their studies typically began around ten in the morning. Sylvia didn’t insist on punctuality, but she didn’t wait for laggards, either. The four students sat in a dingy windowless classroom while Sylvia lectured without notes for two or three hours. She kept a cigarette in the corner of her mouth the whole time, so that by the time the morning session was finished everyone reeked of smoke. It reminded Sam of his Anchorage bar-going days as an Air Force E-4 at Elmendorf.

    In the afternoons they studied separately. Shimon went off back to Great Neck to be homeschooled in normal academic subjects, and MoonCat was picked up promptly at two by a silent man in sunglasses and a dark suit, who drove an armored Mercedes SUV. Sam alternated staying with Sylvia for extra instruction, or afternoons of study at the Columbia library. Isabella came and went as she pleased.

    Sylvia had to help Sam catch up with what the kids already knew. Mr. Lucas had already taught him some of it, but Sam didn’t want to let Sylvia know he had another source. Besides, the review was useful, and it was interesting to get a different perspective on the material.

    “It’s all about spirits,” she told him one afternoon as he sat by himself in the haze-filled classroom. “You’ll never shoot lightning from your hands, or any of that movie crapola. But you can command a spirit to call down lightning on someone, or make the wind elementals carry you through the air. They’ll even show you the way to hidden realms.”

    “How do you know which spirits do what?”

    “You just gotta know. Everybody collects names and formulas, and you can trade ’em around. I’ll give you a couple in a month or two. When you finally get good enough to call up one of the big-league demons, you can ask it for the names of lesser spirits.”

    “But there’s a price.”

    She grinned at that. “Yep. There’s always a price. The simple ones — like your invisible bodyguard — aren’t really smart enough to make bargains. They just do what you tell ’em. But the more powerful ones want something in return. You’ve gotta be real careful about what you offer, and what you agree to. And half the time you’re gonna be doing all this in Sumerian or Egyptian or some ancient language nobody speaks anymore.”

    “Why can’t we just use English?”

    Sylvia shrugged. “Some of them, you can. Some only speak French, or Tibetan, or whatever. It’s the same with the signs and materials — for some spirits you need a bronze dagger with Norse runes on it, for others you need a gold ankh and the blood of a white dove.” She looked at Samuel with her unsettlingly wise eyes, and pointed one coral-pink fingernail. “I know what you’re thinking.”

    He kept his face still and fought the sense of panic. “What am I thinking?” he asked her, croaking a bit because his throat was suddenly dry.

    “You’re thinking that you’re gonna use your modern, scientific mind to figure out the logical rules behind all this ancient crapola.

    I got news for you: Everybody tries that, and it never works. Isaac Newton couldn’t figure it out, and neither could Eliphas Levi. The spirits aren’t machines; they’re alive and they’ve got their own ways of doing things. Learn their ways and you can make ’em obey you. Try to get cute and they’ll mess you up good.”

    She lit a fresh cigarette and pointed at the astrological symbols on the whiteboard behind her. “Look at this stuff. You and I know that Mars is a big ball of gas and iron in space, right? There’s some kind of robot there right now, I think, driving around and picking up rocks. But for the spirits Mars is the source of masculine power, conflict, and courage. I could get all hippy-dippy and say their reality is just as true as ours, but that’s a lot of BS. Mars may not be the sign of blood and fire, but the spirits think it is, so you have to act like it’s the real deal if you want to make them do what you want.”



    About a month after he began his studies with Sylvia, Sam arrived at the basement classroom to find a pair of visitors sitting at the back of the room. Both were grown men — one about Sam’s own age, slender and dark haired, the other a little older, shorter and thickset with a neatly trimmed gray beard. The bearded man wore a very expensive suit. Sam could sense spirits hovering about both men.

    Sylvia was lecturing about auspicious and inauspicious days for various operations, based on the combination of lunar phase, astrological sign, and day of the week. She merely nodded to Sam when he came in and took his seat, but the two men at the back of the room were suddenly more alert.



    After a few minutes the gray-bearded man spoke up. “Sylvia, I’d like to talk to your new student.”

    “Save it for after class,” she said, and continued with her lecture.

    “I didn’t come here just to –” began the older man, but his companion bent close and murmured something. The bearded man glared at his companion, but fell silent. For the rest of the class he alternated glaring at Sylvia and glaring at Sam. By a curious coincidence, Sylvia went on much longer than usual that day, so that it was well past two when she finally put down her dry-erase markers and drained the bottle of Fanta she’d been sipping from.

    Shimon hurried out with a nervous backward glance. MoonCat stayed in her seat and began checking her phone. Isabella also stayed in her seat, watching everyone like a spectator at a play.

    “All right, who are you?” asked the bearded man, looming over Sam, who was still sitting at his desk.

    “My friends call me Ace,” Sam answered. That brought a wry chuckle from Sylvia. “Who are you?”

    “I am Hei Feng,” he answered. “And I want someone to explain to me what this outsider is doing here, learning our secrets.” He turned to face Sylvia. “Why wasn’t I informed?”

    She shrugged and gestured at the slim dark-haired man with her cigarette. “I cleared it with Moreno.”

    “You should have consulted me first. Now I have to decide what to do with him.”

    “He’s got the gift,” said Sylvia. “He’s one of us.”

    “Being someone’s bastard grandson doesn’t make him anything except a curiosity. Teaching him how to use the talent makes him a problem.” Hei Feng turned to Moreno. “Why did you permit this?”

    “When Sylvia spotted him he’d already called up and bound one of the lesser hafaza spirits for protection. I thought it would be dangerous to have a practitioner outside our control.”

    “You could have solved the problem permanently by dropping him into the Hudson.”

    “Uh, excuse me,” said Sam. “Would one of you explain why this guy wants to kill me?”

    The man named Moreno turned to Sam. “You can do magic. That makes you dangerous. Sylvia and I think the wisest course is to bring you into the society of people who know about magic. Mr. Feng thinks it would be simpler to get rid of you.”

    “Don’t I get a vote?”

    Moreno shook his head, then turned back to Hei Feng. “We can’t afford to waste him. He’s healthy, sane — just expanding the gene pool is a good reason to keep him around. Do you have any children?” he asked Sam.

    His nervousness vanished, completely annihilated by the stab of cold fury Sam felt at Moreno’s question. “Not that I’m aware of,” he said, keeping it light. “I’m waiting for Sylvia to teach me how to make love potions.”

    “I think he’s nice,” said Isabella, the little girl in pigtails who had been watching the whole conversation. “I think you should let him join.”

    Hei Feng ignored her, but Moreno looked over at Isabella and for a moment his eyes widened. He put a hand on Hei Feng’s shoulder. “He isn’t an initiate yet, so I can’t do anything to stop you, but if you want him dead you’ll have to do it yourself.”

    There was a long silence. Sylvia stood watching them, Moreno took a couple of steps back from Hei Feng’s side, and MoonCat even looked up from her phone to see what was going on. Sam tensed — if Hei Feng tried to do anything he could at least go down fighting.

    Finally Feng gave an irritated little sigh. “Well, I suppose it’s too late now.” He jabbed a finger into Sam’s face. “If you reveal anything you have learned here to anyone you will die.


    Sam nodded, trying to look more frightened than he felt. “I won’t say anything.”

    “Good.” Hei Feng turned to Moreno again. “If he breaks his pledge I’ll send a rabisu to tear him apart at noon in Times Square and you’ll have to do the cleanup.”

    He strode out, followed by MoonCat. From the way she ignored Feng, Sam figured she must be his daughter. When they were gone Sam looked from Sylvia to Moreno, and his expression of bewilderment was perfectly genuine. “What just happened?”

    “You’re not dead,” said Sylvia. “Now go learn some Egyptian or something. I need a drink.”

    Sam gathered up his notebooks and headed for the exit. Isabella and Moreno followed him out. On the sidewalk Isabella waved a cheery goodbye to him and skipped away toward Fort Tryon Park.

    “I’d watch out for her if I were you,” said Moreno, startling Sam, who had forgotten he was there.

    “Isabella? She’s just a kid.”

    “She isn’t ‘just’ anything. Where are you headed? I’ll give you a ride.”

    “Butler Library, the big one at Columbia.”

    “Come on, I’m parked around the corner.” Moreno led him to where a lovely old Citroen DS, painted deep maroon, sat proudly in a no-parking zone. Sam slid into the passenger seat, which smelled of leather and pipe tobacco, like an exclusive club.

    As they cruised south on Broadway Moreno asked casually, “So: What’s your story?”

    Sam shrugged. “I saw something weird, I started researching on my own, I tried a couple of workings, and then Sylvia found me.”

    “Something weird?”

    “A little man,” said Sam. He’d prepared this story with the help of Mr. Lucas; close enough to the truth that he wouldn’t have trouble remembering, but not enough to betray him. “Just three inches high. I wasn’t sure if I imagined it, but somehow I couldn’t put it out of my mind. So I quit my job and moved here to see what I could learn.”

    “Could have been a jogah,” said Moreno. “Mostly harmless. How’d you go from that to doing real magic?”

    “It was an experiment. I’m an engineer: You have to test everything. I wanted to see if the stuff I’d been reading was bullshit or not.”

    “You were lucky. Most of what you read about magic is bullshit, and there’s people who work hard to keep it that way.”

    “Are you one of them?” asked Sam, with a sidelong look at Moreno.

    “Oh, sometimes, when I don’t have something more important to do. My real job is keeping the peace. You have family?”

    “I used to be married,” said Sam. Even after a year the place where his wedding ring had been was clearly visible. “We broke up.”


    “No. Is that important? You asked before.”

    “It’s important because the gift is inherited. Genetic, I guess you’d say. If you have any kids they could carry it. We like to keep track of potential mages.”

    “I guess I must have slipped through the cracks.”

    “It happens,” said Moreno. “Any brothers or sisters?”

    “Not that I know of.”

    “That simplifies things.”

    It occurred to Sam that he really didn’t know. Did he have any long-lost siblings in Colombia? Was there any way to find out?

    “You keep saying ‘we,'” said Sam. “So does Sylvia. And back there you said something about being initiated. Into what?”

    “I can’t tell you,” said Moreno, but then he glanced at Sam and sighed. “Look, when you have people who can do real magic, you need some way to control them. To prevent chaos. So there’s an organization. I can’t tell you the name, and it wouldn’t mean anything to you anyway. It’s been around a very long time, and it exists to keep the secret and maintain order. You’ll find out more when Sylvia decides you’re ready.”

    “What if I don’t want to join?” asked Sam. They were only a block north of campus.

    “Oh, everyone joins, unless they’re hopelessly inept. Plenty of them, too.”

    “But suppose I didn’t. Or suppose I joined and then decided to quit. What would happen?”

    They were at 115th Street, and Moreno pulled over to the curb illegally at the crosswalk before answering. “If that happened I would have to kill you,” he said, very seriously. “See you around — Mr. Hunter.”

    Smart guy, Sam thought as he crossed Broadway in a crowd of students. He knew Sam’s fake name, but how much more did he know?

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