The Initiate – Snippet 16
A few people in the crowd introduced themselves, but Sam was still so horror-struck by what he had done that the names and faces passed right out of his memory. He did wind up at the bar, and was handed a weird kind of eggnog concoction, like runny Cream of Wheat mixed with yogurt, strong wine, and honey. What he wanted was a shot of vodka, but he took a sip just to be polite.
“Drink up,” said a familiar voice behind Sam. “I don’t know what name test Feng devised for you, but you look as if you could use something sustaining.” It was Lucas, looking amused. For the first time since he had turned up on Sam’s doorstep, he wasn’t wearing dark glasses, sporting instead a pair of black Buddy Holly horn-rims.
“Is this — is this kykeon?” Sam asked, remembering something he’d read about in an account of the Eleusinian mysteries.
“The original recipe, handed down for two hundred generations. I expect the wine is fruitier and the cheese less rank than when it was first mixed in bowls on the slopes above Shanidar. I’m called Lucas, by the way. Congratulations.” He extended a hand for Sam to shake.
To his left Sam noticed Isabella perched on a bar stool, two empty cups of kykeon in front of her, chatting energetically with an elegant-looking older woman.
Isabella saw Sam and waved. “You did it! I wasn’t a bit scared. Mr. Feng is really mean. Nobody’s ever going to boss me around with magic again.” She sounded cheerful, but Sam’s parental ear could detect the note in her voice of a child very near tears. He wondered what Feng might have ordered her to do, and then forced himself to stop thinking about it.
He finished his kykeon and switched to Bloody Marys. Thankfully this wasn’t the kind of bar that tried to stuff a whole salad into the glass, though the bartender did put a slice of pickled lotus root into the drink instead of celery, as a nod to the neighborhood.
MoonCat was with her mother — Feng had gone back to complete Shimon’s initiation. He noticed she was wearing a new bracelet, a sturdy bronze chain, and dangling from it was a dog tag shaped like a stylized bone. She sensed him looking and shot him a glare of pure hatred.
Shimon finished about fifteen minutes after Sam did, stumbling through the same pair of doors looking pale and disoriented. His parents took charge of him and made sure he drank his kykeon. He was still finishing when Feng called for everyone’s attention from the little stage at the end of the room.
“Now that we are all one blood, sworn and acknowledged, it is time for the secrets to be told. Tonight we are honored to have our grand Master Roger, the Sage of the West, to reveal that which is allowed.”
The extremely handsome young man who had opened the door for Sam stepped up to the stage and thanked Hei Feng, then began to speak. His voice was clear, but his accent was odd, neither quite English nor familiar American. He almost sounded like a West Virginia mountaineer Sam had known in the Air Force, and Sam remembered the man bragging that the Appalachian accent was the way the earliest English settlers of America had sounded.
The young-looking man with the old-fashioned voice told of Pramathas, the thief of fire and knowledge. Then he spoke of the son of Pramathas, Atra-Hasis, he who was wise, who survived a great flood and became immortal. On the slopes of Mount Qardu, as the waters receded, Atra-Hasis struck a bargain — Roger didn’t say who he made the bargain with, which made the hair on Sam’s neck prickle. Atra-Hasis could not pass along the gift of immortality to his sons, but he was allowed to choose a boon for each of them.
Atra-Hasis gave his eldest son the gift of kingship, and sent him forth to people the land and rule it. His second son received the gift of priesthood, and went forth to build temples and honor the gods. But to his youngest son Atra-Hasis transmitted a secret legacy: instead of eternal life he could guarantee eternal death.
His youngest son, and all who came after him who were wise in the secret knowledge, could ensure that his soul would truly die and vanish.
“That is the inward sense of the oaths ye have sworn and the blood ye have given,” said Roger, who sounded more and more archaic as he went on. “As the flesh of the body dies, so shall the ghost within. None shall raise ye up, and none shall pass judgement upon ye. That is the bargain of the Apkallu.”
Sam wasn’t sure how literally to take any of this. His father had been a Catholic who never went to Mass, his mother had bounced around among various Protestant churches with occasional forays into New Age “spirituality.” Was there such a thing as a soul? Did he have one? Did it survive after death? He didn’t know and he wasn’t sure who he would trust enough to ask.
When Roger finished, the party resumed, although Moreno did make a point of stopping to see each of the newly minted Apkal to explain the bylaws in plain language.
“It boils down to two main rules. First, keep the secret. That means not doing showy stuff in public, and it also means helping to cover up when the subs see something they shouldn’t.”
“Subur. Men of clay. Ordinary people. The second rule is that any harm to an Apkal must be avenged — I only get involved when someone can’t do it himself. Themself. Whatever. If you have a dispute with another member, it gets resolved by the Master of your Circle. In your case that would be Mr. Feng.”
“Do you work for him?”
“No. I’m kind of a special case. I answer to the Seven Sages directly. They’re the top level. Very old, very wise, very powerful. You saw one of them tonight — Roger. He’s the Sage of the West, which means America.”
“What are the others?”
“There’s the Sage of the Mountain, who controls the Apkallu in the Middle East and is kind of the senior position; the Sage of the Nile, who has Africa; the Sage of Thessaly, who runs the Circles in Europe; the Sage of the Ganges, who runs the Circles in India and South Asia; the Sage of the Kingdom, who has East Asia; and the Sage of the South, who has South America. They’ve moved around over the years — the North America one used to be in France, and there was one in Rome who got moved to Brazil.”
“No wizards in Antarctica?”
Moreno grimaced. “I wish there weren’t. That place is nothing but a headache for guys like me. Never mind.” He moved off to brief Shimon, leaving Sam to put away a couple more Bloody Marys before Feng invited them all to join the feast.
The meal was served at a great ring-shaped table with a big bronze oil lamp burning in the center. A gap in the table allowed waiters to serve the guests from the inside of the ring.
Hei Feng was the ostensible host, and placed Roger on his right hand and MoonCat on his left. Shimon and Isabella sat between Sam and the Sage. By some legerdemain with the place cards, Lucas wound up next to Sam, and helpfully provided the new member with information about who the others around the table were.
“The lovely lady with the pale hair next to Miss MoonCat is her mother, Taika Feng. A user of magic at least the equal of her husband and possibly greater. The very well-preserved woman next to her is called Miss Elizabeth; very influential in the Circle of the West.”
Sam sipped his Bloody Mary, trying to pay attention to Lucas’s lecture while seeming not to. Lucas himself did a great impression of a bore enchanted by the sound of his own voice. Method acting, Sam decided.
“Three seats to my right you may notice a gentleman wearing a great many gold chains around his neck. He is known as the Count, or Il Conte by those who are either pedantic or pretentious. Very influential. Beyond him is Mr. Stone, who I believe you have already met. Directly across from you there is a woman with glasses and unruly hair. That is Dr. Greene, down from Boston. Aside from Roger she is the most powerful magician on this continent. The dreadlocked man sitting two places to the right of her is known as Shetani. He is a close associate of Charles White, a very powerful member who doesn’t socialize.”