Merry Christmas!

The Initiate – Snippet 14

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.