The Initiate – Snippet 13
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.