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The Initiate: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Friday, December 27, 2019 06:55 EST



    The spring equinox got closer but nobody said anything to Sam about his initiation into the Apkallu organization. He began to worry that maybe Sylvia had decided he wasn’t ready yet. Or maybe Hei Feng was blackballing him somehow. But of course he couldn’t ask, because he wasn’t supposed to know it was coming up.

    On the fifteenth — the Ides of March — he went down the familiar stairs to Sylvia’s basement school, but found Moreno waiting at the entrance. “This is for you,” he said, handing Sam an envelope. “You absolutely have to show up.”

    The envelope was the thickest, poshest paper Sam had ever seen, and the card inside was handwritten in beautiful calligraphy.

    At nine o’clock p.m.,

    The Twenty-First of March, Two Thousand Fifteen,

    Twenty-Three Doyers Street.

    That was all. Moreno was gone by the time Sam finished reading it, so he put it carefully into his shirt pocket and went on in to class.

    Sylvia’s topic that day was how to prepare for magical workings. “You’ve probably seen a lot of bullshit about how you’ve got to starve yourself and get dehydrated in a sweat lodge, and go without sleep and get high to do magic. That’s not just wrong, it’s absolutely the opposite of the truth. I think the old Apkallu spread that idea around to make the posers easy to control. The whole point of magic is to impose your will on something else, whether it’s a spirit or another person. You’ve gotta be strong for that. That means you stay healthy. Get plenty of rest, eat a good diet — including iron and protein — and don’t get drunk or high. Save that for when the working’s done.”

    Shimon raised his hand. “What about smoking? You smoke all the time.”

    “Tobacco’s tied to Ogun, and he maps to Mars. A lot of useful spirits are under Mars’s influence, so they like the smell of tobacco. Nobody really notices if you carry a pack of cigarettes around, which makes it a hell of a lot more convenient than waving a sword or lighting off firecrackers.” She took a puff from her own unfiltered Camel and then added, “It’s a good idea to put a healing spirit to work full-time inside your lungs, though. These things can kill you.”

    When she wrapped up her lecture, Sylvia took a swig of Fanta and then announced, “All four of you have been called to appear on the equinox. Anybody got any questions?”

    Shimon and MoonCat both shook their heads and began gathering up their things. Sam guessed that their parents had been coaching both kids for months, and they were probably getting sick of the whole thing.

    He didn’t have that advantage, and he certainly didn’t want Sylvia to figure out that someone was helping him behind the scenes. So he raised his hand. “What exactly is going to happen?”

    Sylvia lit a fresh Camel. “I can’t tell you everything. Basically, you show up, you wait around in the bar for a while, then you get called one at a time for testing. There’s seven tests, and when you get to the end we have a feast and you meet some of the big shots in the society.”

    “What happens if we fail one of the tests?”

    “Then you fail. The members decide what to do with you. If you’re really hopeless — can’t even get through the first gateway — then they might just wipe all your memories and turn you loose. Some of the other tests, you fail them, you’re gonna be dead or brain-damaged anyway.”

    “Can we bring our friends?” asked Isabella.

    Sylvia considered a moment before she said, “No rule against it.” That was an interesting answer, Sam thought. He wondered if Isabella had picked up on it.

    “What about equipment?” he asked. “Binding objects or symbolic materials?”

    “You can bring stuff,” said Sylvia, “but don’t count on keeping anything.”

    “Do we have to fast or get purified beforehand?”

    Sylvia gave a gravelly laugh. “That’s for you to figure out. Anything else?”

    “Is there cake?” asked Isabella.

    “When you join the secret conspiracy that rules the world, you get cake and ice cream,” said Sylvia.



    Sam devoted the next few days to making preparations. He decided that Lucas would have warned him if Sylvia wasn’t giving him adequate preparation, so he concentrated on memorizing all the rituals she had taught in class. He did add a couple that Lucas had shown him, just in case.

    As per Sylvia’s lecture, he did not try to starve himself, or go without sleep. Neither did he add any new spirit protectors; he suspected they would be useless at best.

    He did exercise, and performed the Opening of the Inner Eye at dawn each day. And he used some of Lucas’s techniques for shaking a supernatural tail to make a trip down to Midtown to pick up something he had ordered.

    March twenty-first was a Saturday. He slept late, ate a hearty diner breakfast, and spent the afternoon having a hot bath and listening to some relaxing jazz. He took a nap and had an early supper. At sunset he began getting ready. He showered, then gave himself a final rinse with rainwater he’d been storing. As it had fallen from the skies over the Bronx, the rainwater was probably dirtier than what came out of the tap, but symbolically it was more pure, and that was all that mattered.

    He dressed in “casual Friday” clothes — slacks, a nice shirt, his only sport coat — picking things for comfort and convenience because he suspected he would have to change into something special at the initiation. At seven o’clock he did a final banishing ritual to get rid of any unwelcome spirits, then called a cab and rode down to Chinatown.

    The cab dropped him off at twenty minutes before nine, so Sam strolled around the neighborhood a little, acting like a tourist and keeping an eye out for other potential Apkallu. He noticed that Doyers Street was blocked off for the night with official-looking Department of Streets sawhorses and orange cones. They might even be genuine — surely an ancient conspiracy of wizards had some pull at City Hall.

    At one minute before nine he presented himself at the gray-painted steel door which had “23” in stick-on hardware-store numbers on it. He knocked.

    The door swung open to reveal a strikingly handsome young man, who looked barely old enough for college. But Sam’s Inner Eye sense was overwhelmed, as if he was staring into a search-light. The sheer magical power radiating off this beautiful boy was more than anything Sam had experienced.

    “Come in, stranger,” said the young man, and gestured at the flight of steps leading down to a set of burgundy velvet curtains. “If you enter you will be tested, and if you fail you will not leave.”

    “I understand,” said Sam, but he was surprised at how dry and hoarse his throat was. He went down the stairs, fighting the urge to glance back to see if the young man was watching him.

    Beyond the curtains was a fairly normal-looking bar, with lots of dark wood and polished brass. Two of the tables were occupied by people Sam didn’t know. They were silent, watching him. There was no sign of Sylvia, or Moreno, or even Lucas. Had he somehow come to the wrong place? But no, the lovely young man at the door was obviously a wizard.

    Finally he walked up to the closest table, where a very fat old man in a magnificent midnight-blue dinner jacket sat with a pair of young women who looked like college students. “Hi,” said Sam. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Ace.” He held out his hand to the closest woman, who gave him an appraising look and then shook it, but didn’t say anything.

    The old man leaned across the table with effort and extended his own hand. “I’m Stone. Good to meet you. You’re older than the usual crop of students.”

    “I only started learning about — supernatural things a few months ago.”

    “An orphan returned to the family,” said Stone. Sam felt a jolt of pure terror that somehow this wizard knew who he really was, but Stone gave a great hearty fat-man laugh worthy of Santa Claus. “Don’t worry, my boy, you’re still welcome. Ah, here are the others.”

    Sam looked behind him to see MoonCat arrive accompanied by Hei Feng and a tall blonde woman who was presumably her mother. Shimon and his parents were right behind them, and then Isabella came through the curtains alone, looking as self-possessed and confident as a queen entering her throne room. She had dressed up even more than usual, in a cloth-of-gold ball gown which Samuel recognized from Beauty and the Beast.

    Feng patted his daughter on the arm, then went to the back of the room where a small stage stood next to another curtained doorway.

    “Good evening,” he said. “Tonight four strangers come to be tested. They must pass through seven doors to enter the Circle of the Gate. Once one begins there is no turning back.”

    Feng’s wife held out a leather bag and each of the candidates drew a numbered ivory disk. Sam’s was number 1. He took a deep breath and walked to the curtained doorway. It opened at his touch, and he saw a flight of steps leading down.

    At the bottom of the stairs was a plain brick-walled room. At the far end was another doorway, and Sam could see Sylvia perched on a stool next to the door. In the middle of the room stood a table covered with a black-velvet tablecloth. Four baskets were placed neatly on the table. He went to the table and opened one of the baskets. Inside he found a set of clothes: a black wool cloak, a white linen gown, a belt of braided silk, a rod of polished ash wood, a necklace of blue lapis lazuli beads, a copper knife, and an actual golden crown which made Sam gasp at its beautiful simplicity.



    He got undressed, hesitating only a second before removing his boxers along with everything else. Sylvia made no comment. He put his own things into the basket and put on the garments provided. Then he took another deep breath, turned and walked up to the doorway, where Sylvia had slid off the stool to stand in front of the doors. They were wood, carved with serpents and painted black.

    “Welcome, stranger,” said Sylvia.

    “I want to pass the gate,” said Sam.

    “Cast off your raven cloak,” she said.

    Sam felt a jolt of recognition. He had read this before, in the account of Inanna entering the Underworld. “Why should I cast off my cloak?” he asked.

    “It is our way, and our ways are perfect,” she answered.

    He took off the black wool cloak and handed it to her. She pushed the dark wood doors open and stepped aside. Sam walked through and descended another flight of stairs.

    There was no light at all, and when Sylvia shut the doors behind him Sam could see nothing. He felt his way down the stairs, keeping his right hand touching the wall and his left hand feeling in front of him with the ash-wood rod. He went down one step at a time, and after he had counted fifty steps he began to wonder just how far beneath Manhattan this basement extended.

    At the seventieth step he paused again. He was missing something. Here in the darkness his eyes were no help. So he concentrated, opening the Inner Eye and letting himself see beyond his senses.

    With his eyes closed, standing still in the darkness, Sam could feel that he was standing on a level floor in a small room with a vaulted ceiling. He sensed a door just a few yards ahead of him. Sam ignored what his feet were telling him and walked briskly forward to stand before the next doorway. He knew the doors were bronze, painted blue, and he could tell that a woman stood before them. He could feel the warmth coming off her skin and smell her hair.

    “Welcome, stranger,” she said, and her voice was like honey.

    “I want to pass the gate.”

    “Cast off your lapis beads.”

    “Why should I cast off my beads?”

    “It is our way, and our ways are perfect,” she answered.

    Sam unfastened the string of beads and held it out. The woman took them. He still couldn’t see anything but he knew she was smiling. She pushed the blue metal doors open and stepped away.

    The light from beyond the doors dazzled him for a second before his eyes adjusted. Sam descended a dozen steps and then halted as he reached the next chamber. It was perfectly circular, about forty yards across, with a domed ceiling, and it was full of water. He had no idea how deep the water was, nor could he see anything down there. Across from where Sam stood he could make out a short vestibule and another pair of doors. Sam considered, then probed with his foot to see if the steps continued down into the water. They didn’t. Was he supposed to swim? That . . . didn’t seem right. He looked down into the water again, and thought he saw something moving. Something big.

    He definitely didn’t want to swim.

    For a moment he tried to figure out some way to swing across, or cling to the smooth-fitted stones, but then he realized he was thinking like an engineer, not a magician. How would a wizard cross a pond?

    “You who dwell in the waters, come up!” he said in Sumerian. “Rise up and bear me across. By Tiamat and by Muumiah I command you. Rise up!”

    He could feel something there, something resisting him. He focused his attention on it and repeated his evocation more firmly, brandishing the ash-wood rod as he spoke.

    The thing in the water began to rise, and a domed, plated back broke the surface. A moment later Sam found himself looking into the eyes of a snapping turtle the size of a car. Its beak-like maw was big enough to shear off a man’s leg with one bite, and its armored eyes were mad and hateful.

    “Bear me across the water,” he said, trying to sound as confident as if he were telling a cabbie where to go. The giant turtle made no answer, so Sam decided to brazen it out. If this was the wrong choice he would probably bleed to death before he drowned. He hopped over the monster’s head to its great slimy shell, and struggled up to the top. The turtle began to swim as soon as he was aboard, rotating in place and then scooting toward the opposite doorway. As they arrived, but before Sam could disembark, a man stepped in front of the doors from an opening in the side of the little vestibule. He was dressed in an Army combat uniform with a standard Gentex helmet, but carried a sword instead of a rifle.

    “Welcome, stranger,” he said, with a pure Texas accent.

    “I want to pass the gate.”

    “Cast away your ash-wood rod.”

    “Why should I cast away my rod?”

    “It is our way, and our ways are perfect,” the soldier answered.

    Sam stepped off the turtle and handed over the rod to the soldier, who sheathed his sword and pushed open the green-painted iron doors behind him. Sam walked through and down another flight of stairs.

    The floor of the octagonal room at the bottom of the stairs was not stone but packed bare dirt. In the center, impossibly, stood an ancient-looking apple tree. Its trunk was thick and gnarled, and its branches reached up only about fifteen feet to the stone ceiling. Half a dozen golden-yellow apples hung from its boughs — and a snake with scales like polished coal was coiled around the trunk, watching him with golden eyes.

    On the far side of the room the jolly old fat man called Mr. Stone stood holding a golden sickle. Behind him a pair of bronze doors were decorated with astrological symbols. He said nothing.

    What to do? Was he supposed to pick the apple? Or . . . was he supposed to not pick the apple? If this was a religious initiation, knowing how to avoid temptation would be important. Sam fell back on the useful question: What would a wizard do?

    A wizard would pick the apple. No question.

    Of course, the snake in the Bible had encouraged Eve to eat the fruit of the tree. Maybe this snake wasn’t a guardian, just window dressing.

    Not much of a test, though. Unless the apple was actually poisoned . . . No, he had already decided to bite it. No second-guessing himself.

    Which meant he was back to thinking like an engineer. How to get one of the apples without being bitten by the snake? He thought about trying to stab the snake with the copper knife, but he wasn’t at all sure he could kill it, and he suspected the outfit he had put on was entirely symbolic, not to be used. This wasn’t an old Infocom computer game where having the right item was the way to solve every problem.

    How did people in myths defeat serpents? If he was a hero like Heracles or Gilgamesh he could just kill it. But the Apkallu weren’t a secret conspiracy of heroes, they were wizards. How did wizards defeat serpents? Well, they got heroes to kill them, mostly. Or . . . they knew a trick. Medea had helped Jason defeat the snake guarding the Golden Fleece by putting it to sleep.

    Sam tried to command the snake as he had called up the giant turtle, but it gave no sign of obeying him. He closed his eyes and tried to sense what manner of spirit it was, but he couldn’t feel it at all. No, wait, he did feel something — a very faint presence, a feeling of hunger and wariness and not much else.

    The snake was just a snake.

    He moved slowly, circling the tree to where an apple dangled as far from the trunk as possible. He counted to sixty twice, giving the snake time to forget he was there. Then he leaped up, snatched the apple, and ran toward Stone. The snake made a dart at where he had been, but that was all.

    A test of daring, not power. Sam looked down at the apple in his hand, then at Stone, who was absolutely poker-faced. That told Sam all he needed to know. He took a big bite of the apple. It tasted like apple. He didn’t feel any different when he finished eating it, except for a stickiness about the mouth.

    He walked up to Stone and held up the core of the apple.

    This time the old man chuckled and took it from him. “Welcome, stranger,” said Stone.

    “I want to pass the gate.”

    “Cast away your silken girdle.”

    “Why should I cast away my girdle?”

    “It is our way, and our ways are perfect,” Stone answered.

    Sam handed him the silk belt, and Stone opened the bronze doors. Another flight of stairs led down. How deep was he by now? Sam tried to remember if Chinatown was one of the parts of Manhattan with solid bedrock underneath it.



    The stairs ended in another very dark room. The only light came from four open jars standing in the center of the room. As his eyes adjusted, Sam could see that the room was a perfect sphere about sixty yards across, with a walkway to a circular platform in the center where the shining jars stood.

    Sam walked out to the platform and examined the jars. One held a shining gold disk, the second a shining silver one, the third had five brilliant little spheres, and the fourth a swarm of white dots. He looked up at the dark sphere, then back at the jars. As he looked into the jars he could feel faint presences, barely more complex than the snake in the other room. There was a sensation of willingness to these beings. They wanted to serve; he just had to figure out what to do with them.

    Definitely engineer-thinking time. Should he try to command them into an accurate picture of the sky? Or choose a particular date?

    He needed to cross the room. What powers would he invoke for that? Nithaya, the Lady of Swiftness, was the tutelary spirit of motion and transportation. She ruled the ten degrees of the Zodiac just east of Antares.

    Sam put his hands into the jar of swarming white flecks, and commanded them to become the stars of the sky. With an almost joyous feeling the little flecks surged out of the jar and scattered across the dark spherical room. He found Polaris about halfway up the dome of the ceiling, and the Big Dipper almost directly overhead. The sphere of stars matched the sky he had seen a couple of nights earlier.

    But he didn’t want tonight’s sky. He wanted the sky five months earlier, when the Sun had entered Sagittarius. Sam concentrated, willing the little shining flecks to rotate, shifting the room to December.

    Next the planets. Since he began his magical studies Sam had paid a lot more attention to where the planets were in the sky. He put Mars into Capricorn, clustered Venus, Mercury — excellent! — and Saturn in Sagittarius, and set Jupiter in Virgo. The shining gold Sun disk he put just past the red speck of Antares, and the new Moon slightly to the left of the Sun. The silver disk dimmed to a charcoal gray as he placed it.

    With no fanfare, the missing section of walkway now stretched from where Sam stood to the doors on the far side of the room. He wondered idly if the walkway had really appeared out of nowhere or if it had simply been hidden from his senses.

    At the doors, which were silver and decorated with dragons and griffins, a tall bearded man in blue said, “Welcome, stranger.”

    “I want to pass the gate.”

    “Cast away your linen gown.”

    “Why should I cast away my gown?”

    “It is our way, and our ways are perfect,” the tall man answered.

    By this point Sam didn’t even hesitate. He slipped off his robe, handed it to the man, and passed down the stairs wearing only a golden crown and carrying a copper knife.

    By his count he had gone down at least six flights of stairs from the basement saloon. How deep could one go in Manhattan?

    At the foot of the stairs was a small, dingy-looking stone room with a vaulted ceiling. The few remaining bits of plaster clinging to the damp stones were decorated with paintings of animals. A waist-high stone block stood in the center of the room and beyond it was a silver door decorated with images of men and women. Moreno stood in front of the door, and gestured silently at the table, which held a small glass bottle and a lit candle.

    This was the moment Lucas had warned him about. The blood sample. His secret preparations had held up so far, but Sam didn’t like the way Moreno kept watch on him. He stepped up to the stone, held his left thumb over the mouth of the bottle and remembered to wince as he stabbed the ball of his thumb with the copper knife.

    The latex fake thumb covering his real thumb was only slightly bigger than the flesh inside it, and the material was pretty thick, so there wasn’t space for a large amount of blood between his skin and the inside of the fake. Sam squeezed the false thumb repeatedly, milking every drop. Fortunately it was a small bottle, no more than a couple of milliliters. Sam capped it, set down the knife, and stood back.

    Moreno sealed the bottle with wax from the candle, then carefully stuck an adhesive label onto it and put the bottle in his pocket.

    “Welcome, stranger,” said Moreno.

    “I want to pass the gate.”

    “Cast away your copper knife.”

    “Why should I cast away my knife?”

    “It is our way, and our ways are perfect,” Moreno answered, and he sounded more sincere than anyone else Sam had spoken to since descending the stairs. Since the knife was already lying on the table, Sam just waited for the doors to open, then went down what he hoped was the final flight of stairs.

    He allowed himself one shaky sigh of relief. The worst was done. Moreno hadn’t spotted the fake. But someone else might!

    Sam paused on the stairs, wondering if anyone was watching. The gash he had cut in his fake thumb made it easy to tear the whole thing off. He couldn’t just drop it, though — someone might find it and realize what he had done. No place to hide it. Finally Sam put the rubber thumb which tasted of animal blood into his mouth and forced himself to swallow it.

    At the bottom of the stairs Sam found a large five-sided room, lit by fancy stained-glass lamps on the walls.

    A dog was chained to a ring in the floor. It looked like a husky mix, and wagged its tail when he came in. Hei Feng entered through the golden doors on the other side, carrying some kind of wooden mace. His free hand held a lit cigarette. He walked up to Sam.

    “What is your true name?” Hei Feng asked him.

    “William Phillips Hunter,” said Sam.

    “Now we find out how true that is. Eresikin William Phillips Hunter iginudug Ruax. I command you to take this and beat the dog to death,” said Hei Feng. He extended the wooden club, which Sam could now see was a regulation Louisville Slugger baseball bat.

    He had to obey unquestioningly, just as the old woman on the street had obeyed him. If he didn’t, Feng would know his name was false, and Sam would die. Sam accepted the bat and turned to the dog. It looked up at him, still wagging its tail. Its eyes were green.

    “Sorry,” Sam whispered before he swung the bat.

    Killing the dog took nearly fifteen minutes. By the end Sam was taking out his own anger at Hei Feng and disgust with himself on the bloody, screaming animal. His ears were ringing, his eyes stung with salt tears, and when he finished he dropped to his knees and threw up.

    Feng knelt next to the lumpy, motionless mass of matted fur, carefully picking a patch of floor which wasn’t spattered with blood. He unfastened the tag shaped like a stylized bone from the dog’s collar, and murmured invocations to Mercury and Marduk. Sam recognized it as a binding spell, and could sense something filled with rage and pain attached to the tag.

    “Here.” Feng handed Sam a warm damp towel. “Get yourself cleaned up. You passed. It’s time for your secret oath, and then we have to get the room ready for Shimon.”

    Sam wiped himself down, and did not look at the dog he had killed.

    “Now you will bind yourself to the Apkallu by your own blood and name. Repeat after me.” Feng led Sam through a long recitation in Sumerian. He had no idea what he was swearing to, but he knew that when he was done William Phillips Hunter was bound by magical oaths that did not apply to Samuel Simon Arquero.

    As soon as he was finished, Feng pointed to a basket by the door, then turned wordlessly and left. Sam put his clothes back on, and took off the golden crown. Feng hadn’t bothered to ask him for it, but he knew the old myth. He left it in the basket and walked through the golden doors.

    Beyond them was . . . the basement bar room where he had started. Somehow instead of going a hundred feet down he had come full circle. It was more crowded now, but the whole group turned and clapped as Sam entered.

    “Welcome, brother,” said Hei Feng, and clasped Sam’s right wrist in a forearm-to-forearm shake. “You may now learn the secrets known to initiates. From this hour, no man or god rules you. Fear only the brotherhood which has accepted you: the Apkallu, those who are wise.”

    Sam didn’t know of any appropriate response, so he just mumbled his thanks. Feng clapped him on the back and leaned close. “You’re part of my Circle now. I know your name and I’ve got your blood. It’s me you need to fear. Nobody else. Remember that.”

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