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The Initiate: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, February 5, 2020 07:31 EST



As the city sweltered through August Sam found himself busier than he had ever been in his life. He was getting instruction from Sylvia, Moreno, and Lucas — and, of course, he had to keep his contact with Lucas secret from the others.

During those weeks he recruited more spirits to his service. On Lammas Eve he climbed to the roof of Columbia’s Butler Library where he bound a sylph into a tin pinky ring and then secured a year’s service from a song-spirit, making his words more persuasive.

As the equinox ticked closer Sam made preparations. At the beginning of September he took the late-morning train to Bridgeport and picked up a rental car, then drove ten miles north along the Housatonic River to White Hills, where he had once lived. He took his time and stuck to back roads, and stopped for lunch at a fast-food place where nobody would recognize him.

No point in stopping by the house, he thought. Any traces of the attack would be long gone. No point to it at all, he thought — but he allowed sheer muscle memory to direct the car and wound up at the foot of the long driveway up the wooded hillside. The new owners had put in a new mailbox; not the kind he would have chosen. The little patch of flowers around the base was nice, though.

Did they have kids, these new people? Was some new child marking up the walls as Tommy had done? Had they painted over the growth marks on the kitchen door frame?

No, he decided. No point in trying to find out. It wasn’t his house anymore. He gunned the car motor unnecessarily and drove off.

The storage unit was a few miles away, and he could get through the gate with a number code. No need to see anyone at all, which was good. In his current mood he didn’t want to talk to anyone.

All the things it had smashed were long gone . . . but he had kept the hall rug his mother had bought in Bogota. It had walked on that rug; there might be traces. Sam had watched Moreno call up the div which had slain Feng, by using a chunk of wood it had marked. A rug the anzu had marked with its claws would be almost as good.

He found the hall rug — and then looked at the boxes labeled A for Alice and T for Tommy.

Sam knew their full names. He had things which were theirs. Probably even traces of them — hair, blood, whatever. They were linked to him, closer than anyone else.

He could summon their spirits. Her family’s burial plot near New London wasn’t far. He could do it tonight.

The moment it occurred to him he felt two overwhelming emotions. He wanted more than anything to do it, to speak to them both again. And yet the very idea horrified him — for a moment he struggled to keep from throwing up. It felt like a desecration. They would despise him for it.

No. Let them rest. Focus on punishing the guilty.

He unrolled the rug and examined it. Should’ve gotten it cleaned, he thought, looking at the mud and sawdust ground into the pattern. Lucky he hadn’t, though: that meant a better chance of finding some trace of the anzu.  Had it made those little tears? Possibly. Yes, there were places where the fabric was torn, in parallel groups of three. Unless the cops and paramedics had been wearing golf shoes, that wasn’t the work of human feet. He had a connection to the killer. Sam rolled the rug up again and tossed it into the back seat of his rental car.

On the way back to Bridgeport he passed the house again, and couldn’t avoid slowing down once more. Not for the first time he thought about just chucking it all. Burn the William Hunter documents and credit cards, smash the phones, delete the email accounts, and stay plain old Samuel Arquero for the rest of his life. No more lying.

Except . . . he wouldn’t be plain old Samuel Arquero. He’d still be a wizard — and a murderer. There was no path back to his old life. Time to admit that. He was William Hunter now, and he had a job to do.



The night before the autumn equinox Sam and Lucas met at Trinity Church, sitting through the end of a “folk-music coffee-house” which proved to be more of a political rally with guitar interruptions. Sam fidgeted while Lucas nodded patiently along with the music and chuckled softly at the slogans. When the event finally ended the two of them went back out to the street and walked up Broadway.

“Why do we always meet in churches?” Sam asked.

“It’s a good place to shake spiritual surveillance,” said Lucas.

“Would a synagogue or a mosque do just as well?”

“There are theological subtleties at work. It must be hallowed ground. This church is Episcopalian, which means it was consecrated by a priest in the line of apostolic succession. Catholic and Orthodox churches qualify as well. Quaker meetinghouses and Christian Science reading rooms don’t. A synagogue is more complicated: It’s not the building per se but the Ark holding the Torah that is sacred, so for our purposes they’re only useful when services are going on and the Ark is open. Mosques are usually safe, although there are a great many ways they can be profaned.”

“But how can all that be true? Those religions all say the others are false. Who’s right?”

Lucas chuckled. “All of them, and none. But to us, they only matter as tools to manipulate the world, both magically and politically. We Apkallu are free. But enough of all that. Here we are.”

Sam looked up. They were standing on the corner of Warren Street and Broadway, across the street from City Hall. Lucas led the way into the building on the corner. A security guard was on duty inside, and looked up alertly.

“I’m here to see Mr. Beach,” said Lucas. The guard’s eyes unfocused for a moment, and he nodded at them and looked away, as if losing interest completely.

“The password is just a convenience. I use this place fairly often and have all the security people conditioned.”

The two of them went downstairs into the basement, passed the pipes and valves of the water system, and eventually reached the eastern wall. Lucas worked his way along the old brickwork of the foundation until he found an ancient-looking cast-iron door, just four feet high. The old iron latch was locked with a shiny new combination lock. Lucas unlocked it and gestured to Sam. “If you would do the honors? It’s often a bit stiff.”

Sam had to hit the latch lever with the heel of his hand to move it, and then swung the door open. The hinges squealed loudly, but Lucas didn’t seem to worry about the noise. Beyond was blackness.

Lucas clicked on a pocket flashlight and went through the little door, stepping cautiously. “Mind the step,” he said.

Sam followed him down a set of three wobbly wooden steps onto a floor of . . . mosaics? Yes, marble mosaics. He looked up as Lucas played the flashlight over the arched ceiling. Gilt patterns twinkled back at him.

“What is this?”

“This is the first and only station on the Beach Pneumatic Subway line. Constructed 1869, but the inventor didn’t bribe the right people and so never got to complete the project.” He pointed off to the east, where a concrete wall cut off the end of the room. “The BMT is on the other side of that retaining wall. Now, tell me why I brought you here.”

Sam looked around and then laughed. “We’re going on a journey.”

“Precisely. Doing this in an active subway station would be awkward, but this one is perfect. We can send our perceptions into the Otherworld without having to worry about the bodies we leave behind. It’s especially useful for us today, given that the Sun is in the wrong decan and the Moon is in an awkward phase. The fact that tomorrow is Wednesday is auspicious, though.”

Lucas spread out a picnic blanket and sat cross-legged. Sam poured out cornmeal to make a pentangle around the blanket, then stepped carefully over the lines and took his own place facing Lucas. The two of them chanted an invocation to Nabu and thrice-great Hermes . . .

. . . And then Sam was startled by a wind and the noise of squealing brakes as a cylindrical subway car pulled into the station. He and Lucas stood, picked their way over the cornmeal, and got into the car. It was very luxurious inside, with leather seats and polished brass fittings. Sam risked a glance out the window as the car pulled away, and saw himself and Lucas still sitting on the picnic blanket.

It was one thing to know, intellectually, that this was a “spiritual journey.” It was quite another to actually see that he was no longer inhabiting his body.

“Have you got something that it touched?” Lucas asked him.

Sam fished out the four-inch square of carpet bearing slashes from the monster’s claws. Lucas had him hold it in a certain way, then invoked Umibael, Larunda, and Ariadne. Sam felt the carpet swatch tugging gently in his grip, as if drawn by a magnet.



They rode for a time Sam found hard to measure; it passed quickly enough but somehow he knew (as one knows things in dreams) that it was a long journey. Outside the windows the subway car passed through darkness, but occasionally he got glimpses of vast caverns and distant flows of glowing magma.

Suddenly the tugging sensation grew much stronger, and pulled off to the right rather than straight ahead. “It’s here!” Sam called out, and felt the subway begin to slow. When the car squealed to a stop and the doors opened, the carpet swatch in Sam’s hands almost pulled him out onto the platform beyond. Lucas hurried to keep up with him.

The sky overhead was charcoal gray, and a few distant red lights glowed feebly, so that Sam could barely make out his surroundings. The ground underfoot was soggy, with lank weeds growing knee-high. The air reeked of sulfur and decay. Here and there he could make out vast ugly structures rising from the swamp, along with skeletal towers of rusty metal and piles of slag and garbage. It looked . . . familiar.

“We’re in New Jersey?” he asked Lucas.

“The Otherworld is highly subjective. Your mind needed a template for the dreary land of the dead, and this is what popped out. When I come to the Otherworld by myself it tends to look more like Annwn.”

The two of them splashed across the swamp, and once again Sam couldn’t tell if it was a long journey or a short one. They climbed up embankments and pushed through torn chain-link fences, and eventually walked along cracked and potholed streets lined with decaying buildings. They began encountering people — the passersby were thin, pale, almost translucent looking. Most of them were preoccupied with what looked to be overwhelming private grief, ignoring Sam and Lucas completely.

It was a good thing Sam had to hang on to the tugging carpet square, because it prevented him from utterly freaking out as he realized that these unhappy, wispy “people” were spirits of the dead. When he looked at them they seemed unreal, like badly done animations. Some had more detail and individuality than others — some of the most distinctive-looking ones even met his own glance briefly. The rest ignored their surroundings entirely.

As they penetrated deeper into the nightmare version of Secaucus, New Jersey, Sam saw a different sort of figure on the sidewalk ahead. It was big and solid looking, nearly as tall as Sam even though it was sitting on the curb facing the street. When it saw the two of them it stood: a ten-foot-tall man, broad and strong, with a frowning bull’s head and gleaming black horns.

“Let me handle this,” said Lucas, hurrying to get in front of Sam. He bowed low to the bull-man and spread his arms wide. Sam did likewise.

“Go back,” the bull-man said.

“We must go ahead,” said Lucas. “Our errand here is brief and then we will leave.”

“You are not dead, nor are you guardians of the dead. Go back.”

“We are initiates. We have passed seven gates and returned. Let us pass.”

“Go back,” the bull-man said.

Third time, Sam thought. Now it’s going to happen.

It did. The bull-man lowered its head and charged at Lucas, but as it did a tall four-winged figure appeared in the way, dazzlingly bright and armed with a mace wreathed in fire. The bull-man gave an angry bellow and crashed into the shedu, trying to knock it aside. The shedu ignored the impact, and swung its fiery mace almost as an afterthought. The blow knocked the bull-man across the street.

“Come on!” said Lucas. Sam hurried after him.

As the shedu swatted the bull-man again it called to Lucas.

“My service to you is done for all time, mortal man.”

“You owe me a replacement,” said Lucas to Sam. “Binding that shedu took me weeks of work.”

Another indeterminate walk down the sidewalk brought them to a large open square, where more than a dozen bird-headed anzu lounged in ones and twos scattered around the edges. Some of them looked up when the two human wizards entered.

The carpet swatch tugged Sam to the right, and he and Lucas walked toward a pair of anzu sitting together as they passed a copper bowl of beer back and forth. The two creatures looked up as the men approached, but did not stand. All the other anzu around the square were starting to drift toward the humans.

Sam’s mind was a mix of rage and terror. He knew exactly which of the two anzu before him had been the one that came to his house, and he hated it — but the memory of how it had thrown him aside was strong, and the idea of being surrounded by a dozen of the creatures was like discovering a whole school of sharks circling him in the ocean.

Lucas showed no sign of anxiety. He raised his voice and spoke a few words, and the approaching anzu stopped. Then he addressed himself to the one which was still drawing the carpet swatch in Sam’s outstretched hand like a magnet. “You. Woman-slayer. We seek the answer to a question.”

The seated anzu poured the last of the beer from the bowl into its upturned beak before replying. “I have no answers for you, mortal man.” Its voice was harsh and high pitched, almost like a baby’s cry.

Lucas took the carpet sample from Sam and said something in Sumerian which made the anzu flinch in pain. “Speak the words I require!”

The creature lunged and snapped at Lucas like a tethered dog, unable to get within a yard of him.

“Do as I ask and you shall have this token,” said Lucas, brandishing the carpet. “Resist and I shall cast it into everlasting fire.”

“Ask and I will answer as you command,” it said.

“Who sent you?” Sam asked, but Lucas put a hand on his chest to restrain him.

“Leave this to me; I know the proper forms,” he said. “You, woman-slayer — you went to the house of this man and shed the blood of his kin. We wish to know the reason. Speak as I have commanded!”

“A man bid me do it. One of the Wise. He gave me a flake of paint and told me to seek the house it came from. Slay all within but spare the oldest in years was my charge.”

“My companion wishes to know who gave the command.”

“I am bound not to tell. I cannot!”

Lucas turned to Sam. “This is an unexpected complication. I don’t think I can undo someone else’s binding, not without more time and preparation.” He turned back to the anzu. “Describe the one who bound you.”

“He used no name and wore a mask of feathers,” the anzu croaked. “He carried the blood of the bargain, as you do, but that is all I can say.

“Why? Did he tell you why?” Sam asked.

“He did not say why. Only bid me obey and then begone.”

“Where was it done? Where did he stand when he commanded you?”

“A place of dead men, near the house.”

Sam thought he knew which cemetery it meant. It didn’t matter; the mystery magician had done a good job of covering his tracks.

“I charge you to guard us from all harm until we have passed out of this place,” said Lucas. “When we pass the final gate you shall have this token. Not before.”

“Can’t you get its name?” asked Sam.

“Not a fair trade,” said Lucas. “That would give us even more power over it than the carpet. Be satisfied with safe passage.”

“But we haven’t learned anything!”

“Now is not the time.  This wild-goose chase has already cost me the service of a particularly difficult shedu.  I have no desire to have to fight our way out.”

Sam began to protest, but stopped. He had picked out only the most distinct claw marks in the rug. There were others. He could try this again, better prepared now that he knew what to expect.

The other anzu in the plaza parted to let them by, but they didn’t leave much room for the humans to pass and leaned in menacingly. Their guide led Sam and Lucas down a different street from the one by which they had entered, which made Sam suspicious.

“What if it’s leading us into a trap?” he murmured to Lucas.

“Then I shall have to use another bound servant, and you will owe me even more.”

As they made their way through the dim streets the anzu spoke up in its unhappy-baby voice. “That was a good night,” it said. “I got to leave this place and taste fresh blood. Send me forth again and I will slay all you wish.”

“Silence!” said Lucas, who actually sounded worried for the first time since they had boarded the subway car.

Privately Sam resolved to find out how to destroy a being like the anzu.  Whoever had sent it against his family would pay, oh yes. But he would not let the demon itself escape punishment, either. Lucas had spoken of casting the carpet piece into everlasting fire. Maybe he could learn to do that. Let this monster burn in agony forever. It would be a start, anyway.

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