The Initiate – Snippet 26

Sam never got the chance to answer, because a crowd of men emerged from the tall weeds around the concrete pad. They all wore faded Vietnam-era combat gear and carried old M1 rifles with bayonets fixed.

“You bastard!” the Count shouted, then pointed at Moreno and said something in a language Sam didn’t recognize. A hideously ugly winged man appeared between the two of them, and swung an enormous iron mallet at Moreno. The blow glanced off Moreno’s shoulder, and he winced at the impact.

The soldiers had formed a ring around them now, and blazed away with their rifles as they advanced. The phrase “circular firing squad” came to Sam, and then a realization. Ghost soldiers would know better than that.

“They’re not real!” he shouted. “It’s an illusion!”

If anyone could hear him over the sound of the gunfire they gave no sign. Moreno was evading the hammer blows of the grimacing winged man, while the Count had ducked behind his two guards. One of the guards was firing back at the soldiers with a big shiny automatic pistol, and the other was pointing his big gun directly at Sam.

Sam dove for the winged man’s legs, hoping his own protective spirit could turn aside a bullet. He tackled the creature — it stank of sulfur and carrion — and that gave Moreno enough time to draw the turquoise stickpin from his tie and throw it to the ground.

Where it struck the concrete cracked and split open as a big turquoise hand pushed up from below, followed by a massive head and shoulders at least six feet wide. Both Sam and the winged man were tossed aside as a turquoise giant reared up from the ground and reached for the Count’s bodyguards.

At a command from the Count the winged man began to batter the giant with his hammer, but the blows only knocked away little blue-green chips and the giant ignored them. It swatted one of the guards aside, and the man flew thirty or forty feet to land in the weeds beyond the circle of soldiers. The other one turned and ran.

The winged man took to the air and rained blows on the giant’s head. The Count took advantage of the momentary distraction to chant in Egyptian. Sam sent the blinding-spirit from his iron ring at the Count, but it simply dissipated when it got within three yards of him.

A pair of enormous mandibles erupted from the ground and seized the turquoise giant’s left ankle. It tugged loose, but lost its balance and sat down with a thump that nearly knocked Sam off his feet. The mandibles belonged to a golden scarab beetle the size of a Greyhound bus, which shook off concrete fragments and snapped at the giant again. The giant scrambled to its feet and grappled with the beetle, gripping the golden mandibles with its massive turquoise arms, trying to force them apart. Beyond the two monsters Sam could see the Count setting fire to a slip of paper.

Sam reached Moreno. “Are you okay?”

“I’m gonna have a hell of a bruise tonight. Run for it; I’ll handle the Count.” He switched to what sounded like Mayan and the Count was suddenly surrounded by a cloud of rainbow-feathered hummingbirds, darting at him with beaks like needles, and completely blocking his vision. But the burning paper dropped to the ground, and as it was consumed the smoke moved in a narrow, purposeful stream toward Moreno, slipping nimbly between the feet of the wrestling giants like a snake.

The great golden scarab knocked down the turquoise giant again, and this time crawled on top of its opponent, snapping at the eyeless blue face with its golden mouthparts. Beyond them Sam could see the Count, struggling desperately against the ever-increasing swarm of hummingbirds. His face and arms were dripping blood.

As the smoke-serpent approached, Sam recited the spell Lucas had taught him, offering all the breath in his body to it. The sudden pressure change made his rib feel like a knife in his side, but the smoke paused. Sam didn’t think he could bind it, so he chanted a banishment in the name of the first decan of Cancer. It resisted, then gave way.

Just then Sam heard a thunderous crack as the golden scarab severed the turquoise giant’s head from its body. It turned toward Moreno and clacked its mandibles menacingly.

“I got this,” said Moreno. He pulled a bone-handled knife from inside his coat and slashed his left arm while chanting at the beetle in Sumerian. The thing hesitated, and past its golden flank Sam saw the Count on all fours, covered by hummingbirds. A wind came up, a real gale from all directions, swirling around the Count and dispersing the hummingbirds.

The beetle lurched toward Moreno, halted, took another step, then turned and practically dove into the hole in the concrete from which it had emerged. Moreno dropped to his knees, the sleeve of his elegant suit darkening with blood.

The Count got to his feet, covered in blood from hundreds of tiny cuts, and extended his arms. The whirlwind wrapped around him and he rose into the air and soared off to the south.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” said Sam, helping Moreno to his feet and supporting him as they staggered through the circle of phantom soldiers. He looked back — where the turquoise giant had fallen was only a mound of dirt and concrete.

As they passed from the weed-choked expanse of the old missile base to the school bus parking lot, Sam could hear sirens approaching. Had someone caught a glimpse of the battle? Staggering around a restricted area with an injured man was not a good way to meet the police. Sam helped Moreno into the office trailer at the school bus lot and commanded the man there — whose name was clearly spelled out on the ID clipped to his necktie — to drive the two of them over to the Sands parking lot in his own car, then ordered him to forget he had ever seen either of them.

Sam got the keys from Moreno and drove the Citroen toward Brooklyn, staying rigidly within the speed limit despite any number of honks and dirty looks from other drivers. Over in the passenger seat Moreno tugged off his bloodstained jacket and called up a spirit to heal his slashed arm. Sam took the Uniondale exit and stopped at a Walmart to buy his passenger something to wear that wasn’t soaked in blood. He picked out a dark gray sweatshirt with the Batman logo on it. Moreno glared at him before pulling it on.

“Well, I guess we know who did it,” said Sam.