The Initiate – Snippet 20

Feng began by ditching his jacket, tie, and shoes, and then spent a good twenty minutes doing tai chi exercises. He followed that by brewing a cup of some kind of herbal tea which smelled of hazelnut and jasmine. Feng sipped the tea as he leafed through a bound notebook, then seriously got to work on a magical ritual.

He began in the usual way, by banishing hostile presences from the room with scented smoke and sprinkled water. The ordinary ritual wasn’t enough to chase away the bound div, but Sam held his breath for a moment, wondering if Feng would somehow sense the monster hidden in the clay figure atop the wardrobe.

With that done, Feng began chalking a large summoning circle in the center of the floor, surrounded by seven supporting sigils. Sam couldn’t see what the signs were. What was Feng planning to call up? Whatever it was, Sam guessed that he had done it before. Feng was marking the signs from memory, with only occasional glances at the notebook.

Sam risked a look at his phone. Ten minutes until sunset, according to the Naval Observatory web site. Feng showed no sign of quitting.

In desperation, Sam sent Lucas a text message. “Call Feng now urgent.”

Another couple of minutes dragged by. Feng went to the herb cabinet and began filling a small brazier with crushed poppies and dried mushrooms.

Sam almost jumped when the phone in Feng’s jacket pocket buzzed. Feng sighed, set down his brazier, and answered it.

“Yes?” Pause. “This is a surprise. What do you want to talk about?” Pause. “Naturally.” Pause. “I’m busy right now, with something that will probably take all night. What about lunch tomorrow?” Pause. “Why can’t it wait?” Pause. “No, I have to finish this tonight, and I’m not going to postpone this working just because you want to refight old battles. Lunch tomorrow is the best I can do.” Pause — during which Feng grimaced in exasperation and raised a clenched fist. “I will not see you tonight. If you turn up at the front door Taika will turn you away. If it’s a serious problem call Moreno. Now good night.” Feng turned his phone off and tucked it back into his jacket.

He passed out of Sam’s view for a moment, edging around the sigils he had drawn on the floor, and then suddenly he was right in front of the wardrobe, his body blocking the light coming in through the crack. The doors swung open.

Feng looked at Sam. Sam looked at Feng, then launched himself out of the wardrobe, trying to brush the other man aside and get to the stairs. But Feng had excellent reflexes, so dodged out of Sam’s way and spun to land a fist on the back of his neck, sending him sprawling on the floor.

Before he could scramble to his feet Feng was on top of him, a knee planted firmly between Sam’s shoulders and both hands under his chin, pulling his head back until Sam’s vision began to contract.

“What are you doing here?” Feng asked.

Before Sam could answer a sharp crack echoed through the room, accompanied by the smell of clay dust. Feng was up in a second, as both he and Sam turned around to see what had made the noise.

From his reading, Sam had expected the div to be a solid, real-looking thing like the bird monster. It wasn’t. The space in front of the wardrobe was occupied by a churning, incomprehensible something which Sam’s eyes couldn’t make sense of. There were eyes, or at least black pits radiating fury. There were jagged curving shapes which might have been claws. And in the center was an emptiness demanding to be filled. But nothing seemed attached to anything else, and pieces appeared and disappeared constantly.

Feng shouted a single word before the div reached him. He tried to shield himself with one arm, but the curved claw-shapes lashed out, shredding the flesh and Feng’s shirtsleeve, exposing the bones. Blood spattered in Sam’s eyes.

Then Sam felt the same impression of watchful anger he recognized from when he had stepped out of the elevator. A snaky, coiling shape of blinding blue glare shot into the room. It was like watching lightning in slow motion — only this lightning had a single shining eye like a pearl.

The snaky lightning-dragon wrapped itself around the churning black div, and Feng staggered back with scarlet arterial blood spurting from his ravaged arm. He fumbled one-handed with his belt, trying to wrap it around his arm just above the elbow.

Sam tackled him.

“Ugamah,” Feng managed to gasp, and suddenly Sam couldn’t breathe. Something was blocking his throat.

The battling monsters looked bigger now. The div splintered the wardrobe with a stray swing of its claws, and wherever the lightning-dragon brushed the walls the paint began to burn.

Sam scrambled over to the worktable and splashed himself in the face with the water Feng had used for the banishing ritual. The blockage in his throat eased for a second, long enough for him to suck in a lungful and speak the words to dispel the spirit choking him. He turned, just in time to duck aside as the herb cabinet smashed into the worktable.

The ceiling was coming down in chunks as the div’s claws sliced great furrows and the dragon’s tail left a burning trail across them. Feng pulled his belt-tourniquet tight and began crawling to the stairs. Sam hurled the wreckage of the worktable at him, but Feng’s protective spirits knocked it aside.

A sudden flash lit the room, blinding even though Sam wasn’t looking at the source. The div made a sound of pain and fury, almost lost in the instant boom of thunder and the sound of groaning metal. Wind blasted away the smoke and dust of the room, and Sam could see that part of the roof was gone.

The lightning-dragon soared out through the hole it had made, leaving the room in darkness, lit only by the red evening sky. The div knocked Sam aside, and he felt a rib crack when he landed.

Then it was atop Feng, the claw shapes slashing and slashing at his ribs and scalp as he curled into a ball for protection.

And then Sam saw dragon-lightning strike the div, in a massive purple-white discharge. The flash blinded him and the concussion knocked him back, but the thunder was drowned out by the div’s scream as it exploded in a foul-smelling cloud of burning fragments.

The div was gone, and so was the dragon — or maybe it was dead, or recharging, Sam had no idea. All the wreckage was burning now, and the wind was only fanning the flames. Sam limped over to Feng’s body. He could see the bare bone of his skull where the scalp was torn away, and a great hole through the ribs in his back, but incredibly Feng was still moving. He turned and looked at Sam, and tried to speak. His eyes were wide with fear and desperation.

Sam’s first impulse was to see if he could drag Feng downstairs, get help for him. Then he stopped himself. He remembered a crayon drawing, and the green eyes of a helpless dog. Sam knelt and put his hands around Feng’s throat and squeezed. He was looking into his eyes as Feng died.

After that he managed to get down the iron stairs, and found the emergency staircase, and joined all the other people from the building as they flowed down to the street. On the ground he took off his plumber’s work shirt and used it to wipe the blood off, then walked to the subway in his undershirt.


“Well done,” said Lucas’s voice on Sam’s phone, four hours later. “The news blamed all the damage on lightning. Moreno didn’t have to do anything.”

“I killed him,” said Sam. “I did it myself, not the thing in the doll.” He was still shaking.

“Yes, you did. And a good job, too. This was our first step toward destroying the Apkallu forever. With Feng out of the way, leadership in New York will probably pass to Stone — I believe you met him at your initiation? A charming fellow, very fat. He and I have been allies, off and on, and his chief desire is to avoid any situations requiring effort. As Master of your Circle he will be King Log, doing nothing. The perfect man for our purposes.”

“What happened to his family?”

“Stone’s? I don’t think he ever –”

“Feng’s. What happened to MoonCat and her mother? Are they all right?”

“They very prudently got out as soon as the trouble started. At present they are staying in another property owned by the family, in Greenwich Village. Very comfortable quarters. Don’t concern yourself about them.”

It was a long time before Sam got to sleep that night, even with the help of four shots of vodka. And when he did sleep, he dreamed of killing a man.