This book should be available now, so this is the last snippet.

The Initiate – Snippet 32

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.