<--Younger | The First New York Magician | Older-->

There followed another week or so where I spent a lot of time at home resting while my body healed itself. I put in a couple of appearances at work, and had to go in one day to negotiate a large fund placing a largish chunk of money with us, but skipped out again.

Nothing interesting happened, which was in itself interesting. It's unusual for me to go a week without running into some of my higher colleagues. I wondered briefly if they were all being considerate of my injuries (nah.) or if there really wasn't much going on. Or if they were waiting to see how I reacted to being in pain and banged up. That one stroked my ego the most, but reluctantly I conceded that it, too, was unlikely. While Shu might have walked lightly around me, having seen me truly pissed off recently, even that seemed out of character.

Finally, the following Tuesday, my cell phone rang with a blocked number. I slid it out of my sweater pocket, sitting at my kitchen table. "Hello, this is Michel."

"Hey, uh, hi. It's DiCanzo. Firefighter, we met-"

"Yeah, I remember. What's going on?" I was already rising and pulling on the Burberry. The bandolier was riding atop the zip-front sweater (does that make it a cardigan? I could never remember).

"Uh, it's Melooch. He's...I think he's in trouble."

"Where are you guys?"

"We're at the house. There was a call. The crew went out, and he tried to go with 'em, but he's not on tonight, and then...man, you better just get over here."

"I'm on my way. Don't let him leave. Don't talk to him. Just keep him in a room."

"Yeah." The phone zeeped its disconnect tone, and I hustled faster, deciding against the ancient elevator and heading for the stairs. Once outside, I managed to find a taxi on Greenwich against all odds (probably just dropped someone off at the Meat Packing Monstrosity of trendy clubs that had trickled in over the past five years or so) and took off for Engine Company 24.

DiCanzo met me at the door. He looked worried, and worse. He was sweating and shaky. "Hey, uh, Michael."

"DiCanzo. Where is he?"

He practically pulled me inside and bundled me up the stairs. "Barracks. Where you and he talked." I burst into the rec area to find ten or so nervous-looking smoke eaters staring at me. I nodded to 'em and stopped in the middle of the room.

"Bring him out here."

"Why?" One of the other guys burst out. "Fuck that, how?"

I frowned, then moved to the door and tried the handle. It opened. I poked my head in.

Melucci was sitting on the third bed from the door with his head in his hands. But around his head was another one, crystalline, clear, and patchy. There were what looked like chunks of it missing, filled in with cloudy areas, and I realized that it had looked like that the previous times I'd seen it too - I just hadn't understood that the foggy parts lacked definition. Melucci turned as I entered, and stared at me, his eyes empty. "There are."

I entered the room and offered a hand. "I'm Michel. I live here, in New York."

Melucci's body stood up uncertainly, the Rider having trouble with it, and reached clumsily for me. I caught his hand and clasped it. "Here. New York. America?"

"Yes. Can you come outside where this man's friends will see and hear us?"

"Friends. I help friends."

"I know you do. They should hear this."

The body nodded, and lurched towards the door. I held its elbow and walked it out into the rec area, to a cacophony of gasping and whimpering noises as the various firefighters dealt with the sight. Seating Melucci and his rider in an armchair, I looked around at everyone. They were all looking at me or Melucci's Rider, eyes wide. DiCanzo was the calmest, until you noticed that his enormous paws were clenching in a steady rhythm. "Guys, give us some quiet, okay? We need to talk."

Nobody said anything. I took a seat across from Melucci. His Rider cocked its transparent head and looked at me calmly. It was difficult to ignore Melucci's blank stare but I did my best, trying to look at the eyes just above his forehead. "Who are you?"

The figure tilted its head the other way. Melucci's moved, too, but not completely in sync. The effect was disturbing, serving to emphasize the absence of the human's mind and will. "I am...incomplete."

"Incomplete?"

"I search. All. For parts."

"Parts of you?"

It nodded once. "Parts. Gone. Scattered in mountains."

I was furiously riffling through my mental files on mythology. "Parts of you were scattered to the mountains. You're drawn to fire. How many parts?"

"Eight...eight parts. Six have. Two not."

"Okay. Let me ask you this. What are you doing to Melucci?"

Both head looked down. "This one. He ask. Protect. I protect; I use to search."

There was a rustling around me as a couple of the firefighters changed positions, but nobody spoke. I ignored them. "Are you harming that human?"

"Harm. No. He sleeps."

"Okay then. Are you making these fires?" There was a stillness as the men surrounding fell further silent, waiting.

"Make? No. No make. Need find parts. Parts in fire. Parts not come if I make fire."

I let out a breath. "So you're at the fires searching, and you're not starting them. I know who you are, now. May I say the name?"

"Say."

"Tsuchi. Kagu Tsuchi. That is you, isn't it."

There was a roar, and the clear head filled suddenly with bright flame. With yells of alarm, men tumbled away from Melucci's form as it stood and lifted both faces to the ceiling, flames roaring within the confines of the enormous head. I shot to my feet, the Desert Eagle out and aimed upwards in my left hand; without thinking, I triggered two rounds into the ceiling and pulled them into a Water cast. Silver light flooded from my outstretched right hand and staggered the standing figure. It played over the fiery outer shape just as a firehose would, and slowly the flames died. Melucci's form sat abruptly, a broken movement. His clothing was seared but, I was relieved to note, his skin and hair looked untouched. His eyes were closed.

"What the living fuck!" DiCanzo and two others were still on their feet, looking at me. The others had dived behind tables or ducked out of the room, and were slowly emerging. "What the hell are you doing? What the fuck was that?"

"DiCanzo, not now." I kept the Desert Eagle in my left hand, casting position, aimed at the ceiling. A slight dusting of plaster was still falling from the two holes in the surface above me; I hoped that there wasn't anybody above us. "There anybody upstairs from us?"

"No, it's storage."

"Good." I let out a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding, and stared at Kagu Tsuchi. He opened his invisible eyes to look back, and I shuddered at the thrum of power that traversed the room. I addressed him. "The only reason you're still present is that you didn't harm that man. Don't do that again."

The face darkened, if that was possible for something transparent. "You. Threaten?"

I spread the fingers on my right hand slightly and tightened my grip on the pistol. "I promise. I don't care about you. I care about that mortal you're Riding."

We looked at each other for a few moments before the other faces lowered and Melucci's form relaxed. "Understand. Would not hurt."

I waited a few seconds, then nodded and put the pistol away, sat again. "Why did you do that?"

"Surprise. Not know name until you speak."

I shook my head. "So I said your name, you remembered, and that was surprise."

"Yes."

"Okay." I stood again. "I need to speak to these men, and I need to speak to Melucci. Can you release him and return shortly?"

The face peered at me for a few moments, then said "Accept." There was a breeze and a slight thwock noise, and the clear shape vanished. The breeze was towards Melucci's form where it sat on the ragged armchair. I noted that the chair near his calves was actually smoldering; that fire had been real, but Melucci himself had been protected.

I crossed to him and shook his shoulder gently. "Melooch. You there?"

"Unnnh." He slowly shook his head, then looked up. "You? What-" he broke off, looked around us at his colleagues who were watching with expressions of fright, shock and confusion. "Oh, no. No, no."

"He came. DiCanzo called me, like you told him to."

Melucci put his head in his hands. "What happened?"

"Don't worry about it." I shook his shoulder until he looked up, and nodded at him. "It's okay. We have to talk."

When we'd gotten him a drink and managed to gather all the members of the crew back into the room, I laid it out. "That was a fire god. Japanese. He's not starting fires; I believe him. He's looking for parts of himself that were cast into the mountains by his father right after he was born, in Japanese mythology. I'm never sure what to believe or think about timelines with this stuff, but he's here, and he's looking - so I think I'm willing to accept what he's looking for, since it agrees with the stories."

"What does it want from us?" That was DiCanzo, quiet but still shaken.

"It wants to go to fires. Somewhere, it thinks, its other pieces are in fire, and if it visits fires it'll find them someday."

"Why would the pieces of this thing be in fires in New York that haven't even started yet?" one of the other firefighters asked.

I shrugged. "Good question. But it believes it. Who knows how long it's been searching? But anyway, it's proposing an arrangement based on what's happened so far."

"What's that?"

"If you let it ride along, either on Melucci or (I'd suggest) on designated members of each crew, it will do whatever it can to protect all your crewmembers during fires."

"Protect us?"

"You saw what it did when it was surprised. It controls fire. It probably won't help you put them out, because it's still looking for itself, but it can make sure the fire doesn't hurt you badly. It may be able to prevent harm coming to you all in other ways, too. If I had to go out on a limb, I'd say that's why you haven't had any serious injuries since Melucci made his deal after 9/11."

There was muttering. I stood up. "Look."

DiCanzo waved for quiet. "What?"

"This isn't my call. It's yours. It'll talk to you now it knows you can see it when it's Riding. I'm going to leave, because I'm the one who threatened it earlier. But it'll be back in a little while. If you want to keep the deal, talk to it and tell it so. It'll keep its word."

"How do you know?" DiCanzo looked less shaken, but still unsure.

I grinned at him. "Trust me."

"Why'd you shoot the ceiling? Why'd you bring the gun? To shoot Melooch if he was out of control?"

"No." I unshipped the gun again, slowly, and held it in my right hand. "If I'm going to shoot someone, I use my right hand. If I need energy to perform a cast-" I switched the gun to my left- "I use my left hand. I'm not very accurate that way; I'm a right-hander. But I need the energy from the bullets to cast anything."

"Cast? Like, magic?"

"Yeah. Good a word as any."

We looked at each other for a moment. I holstered the pistol. DiCanzo held out his hand, and I took it. "Thanks. We'll let you know how it goes. If we need help, can we...?"

I nodded. "You have my number. You see anything weird and think I can help, call me. Anytime."

I left the firehouse and walked home, working the shakes out of my legs. I hadn't said a word about it to the crew, but DiCanzo had picked up on the fact that I'd showed up loaded for bear, and he was right. If Kagu Tsuchi had turned out to be a more hostile entity, or had decided to try to ensure that there were no witnesses to its Riding, I would have been forced to try to take it - him - down. And if I'd had to do that, I had no idea if I would have been able to without killing Melucci, too.

Like I said, shakes.

* * *

I didn't hear back from the crew, which I took to be a good sign. I kept an eye on them for a couple of weeks, and they were still working normally. I took this to mean that they'd taken my advice.

Three weeks later, there was a knock on my door. When I opened it, there was a uniformed NYPD officer outside. I opened the door wider. "Yes?"

He looked at a card in his hand. "You Michel Wibert?"

"Yes. What's this about?"

He looked up at me, grinned. "I gotta cousin. He's a smoke eater. He said you needed this." He handed me the card, actually tipped a finger to his cap, and sauntered back down the hall to the stairs. I watched him slip through the fire door before looking down at the card in my hand.

It was laminated, and had my picture on it. Across the top, it said STATE OF NEW YORK, County of NEW YORK - LICENSE TO CARRY PISTOL IS HEREBY GRANTED.

My personal information was filled out neatly on the card with a battered typewriter. I bounced it in my hand twice, laughed, and went back inside to order a catered-in dinner for Engine Company 24.

<--Younger | The First New York Magician | Older-->

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