The Initiate – Snippet 02
Sam leaned forward and bent over the rings. They were plain gold bands, not shiny enough to be new. Two had initials engraved inside, but the letters meant nothing to him. After a moment he picked up the third one, which had no markings at all, and held it out to Lucas. “This one.”
“It feels creepy.”
“You said be subjective. It’s creepy.” Touching it made Sam’s flesh crawl a little, as if he was holding a big cockroach or a slug.
“Good.” Lucas gathered up the three rings left on the table. “Keep it, if you wish.”
Sam put it down on the table in front of him. “No, thanks.”
Lucas pocketed that one, too. “All right. Now I will tell you what I know. What attacked you and your family was not a bear. It was a being called an anzu, which appears as a raven-headed demon.”
“That wasn’t a costume,” Sam said. “I could see the feathers growing in the skin. I could smell its breath.” Just thinking of it brought the scent of carrion and blood into his nostrils.
“I never said it was a mask. That is just how they manifest in the world. The anzu are magical beings, demons of sickness and death. Your injuries were rather badly infected, weren’t they?” Mr. Lucas watched Sam closely as he said that.
“Demons.” Sam didn’t even try to keep the skeptical tone out of his voice.
But Lucas didn’t seem to notice. “You said yourself it was no costume. What evolution could breed such a chimera? Where in the world could creatures like that survive without being photo-graphed, studied, or exterminated?”
“Okay, demons. Why did it come here and — kill my family?” Sam’s eyes unexpectedly prickled with tears when he said that.
“It was no accident. Someone sent it. The anzu cannot enter our world without being summoned, but there are men and women who can command demons and call spirits out of the vasty deep. One of them called it forth and told it to come here.”
“But why? Why us?”
Lucas shrugged. “I don’t know, but I can help you find out who sent the anzu. Maybe he can explain his motives. I suspect this was not the only incident. But uncovering the culprit will require a commitment from you.”
Sam leaned forward, putting his hand on the sofa cushion just inches from the hatchet. “Okay, what’s the catch?”
“Catch?” He looked genuinely puzzled.
“How much money do you want? Or will it be my social security number? What’s your scam?”
Lucas laughed out loud at that. “Oh, it’s not your money I want, Mr. Arquero. I just want you to devote your entire life and fortune to a quest which will probably get you killed. Other than that, there’s no catch at all.”
“Will you cut the crap and get to the point? You sound like Yoda or something.”
“I’m sorry. In my social circle people expect me to be cryptic and mysterious. It’s a hard habit to break. Very well, I’ll explain. Will you accept, arguendo, that commanding demons and summoning spirits is possible, and we can call that art magic?”
“Good. It follows logically that if there is real magic then there must be real magicians, yes?” Lucas waited until Sam nodded before going on. “Then where are they? Why don’t we see people working wonders every day? Why don’t they rule the world?”
“All right, why don’t they?”
Lucas spread his hands, as if delivering a punch line. “It’s simple: They do rule the world. And the simplest way to preserve their power is to keep all knowledge of magic — real magic — out of anyone’s hands but their own. They have been around for millennia, gradually co-opting or eliminating anyone else with magical ability or knowledge. This task is made simpler by the fact that the talent is hereditary.”
“So who are they? The Masons? The Rosicrucians? The Da Vinci Code guys?”
“No. Any occult group you have ever heard of is either a collection of crackpots or a deliberate fraud. The true mystic masters don’t advertise on the radio, or waste their time hiding riddles in paintings. They have many names, but I believe the real one is the Apkallu.”
“Is that Arabic?” Sam had sweated through a three-month total-immersion course in Modern Standard Arabic courtesy of the United States Air Force back in the 1990s, but he didn’t recognize the word.
“Akkadian, actually. From northern Mesopotamia. Five thousand years old, at least. The name means something like ‘the wise ones.’ Which is to say, wizards. ”
“I need a drink. You want a Bloody Mary?” Sam got to his feet and headed for the kitchen.
“Please. With a celery stalk if you have one.”
“Sorry, I’m all out.” Sam opened the refrigerator. Nothing inside but V-8 juice, lemons, and a jar of mustard. He’d been eating diner food and takeout since the day he got home from the hospital. He took out the juice and set it on the counter, then found a clean glass for Lucas.
Before making the drinks Sam stopped, staring into the darkness outside the kitchen window. Talking about that summer night, and reliving it, had torn away the thick scab of guilt and self-loathing. Once again he could feel the raw wound of grief for Alice and Tommy. He closed his eyes and wiped away tears, then took a couple of deep breaths, pushing the feeling down again, mastering it. Not now. This man Lucas was probably crazy, but Sam wasn’t quite ready to throw him out. Not yet.
He got the vodka bottle out of the freezer and made two drinks. Only one of them had vodka in it.
Mr. Lucas looked Sam straight in the eye as he took a long swallow of his Bloody Mary. Sam sipped his V-8 with Worcestershire and waited until Lucas put down the glass. “Okay, these Apkallu are magicians. They can command bird-head demons. Why did one of them kill my family?”
“I don’t know. I can think of a dozen reasons. Perhaps the killer needed some fresh human blood, or wished to examine their livers to see the future. Or no reason at all. Why does a boy with an air rifle shoot cans off a fence? Because he can. The Apkallu can do whatever they want to. Sometimes one of them wants to kill people. As I said, it has happened before.”
“That’s impossible! People would notice!”
“Notice what? A rabid bear attack? A robbery gone wrong? A domestic dispute? A botched drug deal? A serial killer? There are so many ways to explain away things like this. If the attacker wanted to, he might have made it look as though you had done it — maybe even made you believe it yourself. Going along with the bear story was wiser than you knew. It saved someone the bother of killing you.”
“A minute ago I was afraid you were some kind of con man. Now you’re sounding like a conspiracy nut.”
“And yet it wasn’t a bear. Facts are stubborn things.”