The Initiate – Snippet 15

The stairs ended in another very dark room. The only light came from four open jars standing in the center of the room. As his eyes adjusted, Sam could see that the room was a perfect sphere about sixty yards across, with a walkway to a circular platform in the center where the shining jars stood.

Sam walked out to the platform and examined the jars. One held a shining gold disk, the second a shining silver one, the third had five brilliant little spheres, and the fourth a swarm of white dots. He looked up at the dark sphere, then back at the jars. As he looked into the jars he could feel faint presences, barely more complex than the snake in the other room. There was a sensation of willingness to these beings. They wanted to serve; he just had to figure out what to do with them.

Definitely engineer-thinking time. Should he try to command them into an accurate picture of the sky? Or choose a particular date?

He needed to cross the room. What powers would he invoke for that? Nithaya, the Lady of Swiftness, was the tutelary spirit of motion and transportation. She ruled the ten degrees of the Zodiac just east of Antares.

Sam put his hands into the jar of swarming white flecks, and commanded them to become the stars of the sky. With an almost joyous feeling the little flecks surged out of the jar and scattered across the dark spherical room. He found Polaris about halfway up the dome of the ceiling, and the Big Dipper almost directly overhead. The sphere of stars matched the sky he had seen a couple of nights earlier.

But he didn’t want tonight’s sky. He wanted the sky five months earlier, when the Sun had entered Sagittarius. Sam concentrated, willing the little shining flecks to rotate, shifting the room to December.

Next the planets. Since he began his magical studies Sam had paid a lot more attention to where the planets were in the sky. He put Mars into Capricorn, clustered Venus, Mercury — excellent! — and Saturn in Sagittarius, and set Jupiter in Virgo. The shining gold Sun disk he put just past the red speck of Antares, and the new Moon slightly to the left of the Sun. The silver disk dimmed to a charcoal gray as he placed it.

With no fanfare, the missing section of walkway now stretched from where Sam stood to the doors on the far side of the room. He wondered idly if the walkway had really appeared out of nowhere or if it had simply been hidden from his senses.

At the doors, which were silver and decorated with dragons and griffins, a tall bearded man in blue said, “Welcome, stranger.”

“I want to pass the gate.”

“Cast away your linen gown.”

“Why should I cast away my gown?”

“It is our way, and our ways are perfect,” the tall man answered.

By this point Sam didn’t even hesitate. He slipped off his robe, handed it to the man, and passed down the stairs wearing only a golden crown and carrying a copper knife.

By his count he had gone down at least six flights of stairs from the basement saloon. How deep could one go in Manhattan?

At the foot of the stairs was a small, dingy-looking stone room with a vaulted ceiling. The few remaining bits of plaster clinging to the damp stones were decorated with paintings of animals. A waist-high stone block stood in the center of the room and beyond it was a silver door decorated with images of men and women. Moreno stood in front of the door, and gestured silently at the table, which held a small glass bottle and a lit candle.

This was the moment Lucas had warned him about. The blood sample. His secret preparations had held up so far, but Sam didn’t like the way Moreno kept watch on him. He stepped up to the stone, held his left thumb over the mouth of the bottle and remembered to wince as he stabbed the ball of his thumb with the copper knife.

The latex fake thumb covering his real thumb was only slightly bigger than the flesh inside it, and the material was pretty thick, so there wasn’t space for a large amount of blood between his skin and the inside of the fake. Sam squeezed the false thumb repeatedly, milking every drop. Fortunately it was a small bottle, no more than a couple of milliliters. Sam capped it, set down the knife, and stood back.

Moreno sealed the bottle with wax from the candle, then carefully stuck an adhesive label onto it and put the bottle in his pocket.

“Welcome, stranger,” said Moreno.

“I want to pass the gate.”

“Cast away your copper knife.”

“Why should I cast away my knife?”

“It is our way, and our ways are perfect,” Moreno answered, and he sounded more sincere than anyone else Sam had spoken to since descending the stairs. Since the knife was already lying on the table, Sam just waited for the doors to open, then went down what he hoped was the final flight of stairs.

He allowed himself one shaky sigh of relief. The worst was done. Moreno hadn’t spotted the fake. But someone else might!

Sam paused on the stairs, wondering if anyone was watching. The gash he had cut in his fake thumb made it easy to tear the whole thing off. He couldn’t just drop it, though — someone might find it and realize what he had done. No place to hide it. Finally Sam put the rubber thumb which tasted of animal blood into his mouth and forced himself to swallow it.

At the bottom of the stairs Sam found a large five-sided room, lit by fancy stained-glass lamps on the walls.

A dog was chained to a ring in the floor. It looked like a husky mix, and wagged its tail when he came in. Hei Feng entered through the golden doors on the other side, carrying some kind of wooden mace. His free hand held a lit cigarette. He walked up to Sam.

“What is your true name?” Hei Feng asked him.

“William Phillips Hunter,” said Sam.

“Now we find out how true that is. Eresikin William Phillips Hunter iginudug Ruax. I command you to take this and beat the dog to death,” said Hei Feng. He extended the wooden club, which Sam could now see was a regulation Louisville Slugger baseball bat.

He had to obey unquestioningly, just as the old woman on the street had obeyed him. If he didn’t, Feng would know his name was false, and Sam would die. Sam accepted the bat and turned to the dog. It looked up at him, still wagging its tail. Its eyes were green.

“Sorry,” Sam whispered before he swung the bat.

Killing the dog took nearly fifteen minutes. By the end Sam was taking out his own anger at Hei Feng and disgust with himself on the bloody, screaming animal. His ears were ringing, his eyes stung with salt tears, and when he finished he dropped to his knees and threw up.

Feng knelt next to the lumpy, motionless mass of matted fur, carefully picking a patch of floor which wasn’t spattered with blood. He unfastened the tag shaped like a stylized bone from the dog’s collar, and murmured invocations to Mercury and Marduk. Sam recognized it as a binding spell, and could sense something filled with rage and pain attached to the tag.

“Here.” Feng handed Sam a warm damp towel. “Get yourself cleaned up. You passed. It’s time for your secret oath, and then we have to get the room ready for Shimon.”

Sam wiped himself down, and did not look at the dog he had killed.

“Now you will bind yourself to the Apkallu by your own blood and name. Repeat after me.” Feng led Sam through a long recitation in Sumerian. He had no idea what he was swearing to, but he knew that when he was done William Phillips Hunter was bound by magical oaths that did not apply to Samuel Simon Arquero.

As soon as he was finished, Feng pointed to a basket by the door, then turned wordlessly and left. Sam put his clothes back on, and took off the golden crown. Feng hadn’t bothered to ask him for it, but he knew the old myth. He left it in the basket and walked through the golden doors.

Beyond them was . . . the basement bar room where he had started. Somehow instead of going a hundred feet down he had come full circle. It was more crowded now, but the whole group turned and clapped as Sam entered.

“Welcome, brother,” said Hei Feng, and clasped Sam’s right wrist in a forearm-to-forearm shake. “You may now learn the secrets known to initiates. From this hour, no man or god rules you. Fear only the brotherhood which has accepted you: the Apkallu, those who are wise.”

Sam didn’t know of any appropriate response, so he just mumbled his thanks. Feng clapped him on the back and leaned close. “You’re part of my Circle now. I know your name and I’ve got your blood. It’s me you need to fear. Nobody else. Remember that.”