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Azif ignored the rest of the tunnel, walking us to the north end a couple of blocks onward. Before the end, the frontage vanished, and I realized that it was built around the concrete pillars that separated the uptown and downtown halves of the tunnel. I looked back as we passed the end of the divider, but there was a wall across the other side. At the end, we joined a small flow of pedestrians and went through another door, then up several varied flights of stairs through dingy service tunnels. There was another pair of sunglasses-wearing security, who were letting people continue up the last step in intermittent groups - two here, five there, three the next time. There was no apparent schedule to the groups, but our turn came. One of the security turned his head to look at me as I passed, then turned back. Azif and I were sent up the stairs alone. At the top was a landing with a metal door out with a crash bar lock. Azif went through without hesitating, and I followed him into the cooler air and ochre sodium light of New York City. The door shut behind us and Azif turned sharply left. I looked around and realized that we were on the access path to the Manhattan Bridge, walking back down towards Canal Street.
Figuring we were no longer in the Ondermarkt, I checked to make sure no one else was nearby on foot, then pulled the magazine out of my pocket and reloaded the Desert Eagle, reaching into my coat to reholster it. Azif walked briskly off the bridge, then led me back around the access plaza northward and back to Quyen's apartment. When we were back inside, I shut the door and looked at him. "Okay, Azif. Give."
He sat, wearily, and pulled something from his pocket. "What do you wish to know?"
I goggled at him for a moment. "Everything. What the hell was that place? Who were those people?"
He sighed and leaned back on the small sofa. "That was the Ondermarkt. It has been here for a long, long time."
I dragged a chair away from the small table to face him and sat. "Was it always in that tunnel?"
"No. It is an institution, not a location. It migrates as needed. Those who need to find it...will find it."
"Why haven't I ever heard about it?"
He cocked his head. "Michel, you really have very little knowledge of the various Arcana of New York, do you not?"
I bristled, but kept my temper in check. "Well, whose fault is that?"
"I was not trying to be insulting. You are an outsider, both to humans and to the Arcane."
"Let's start right there. What are the Arcane?"
"The people you just saw. Those with some small knowledge, or some small power. Those who know that the world is not just what you see on the streets, but without blood in the stars."
"Wait." I raised a hand, thinking hard. "What did you just say?"
"I said, those without much power, without blood in the stars."
"That." I lowered my hand. "What does that mean? I've heard that before."
"It means fully human, Michel. Your blood is in the earth. The Elders' blood is in the stars."
"That's all it means?"
"No. But that is what it means to the Arcane. And to you."
I gave him a hard look. "Okay, we'll table that for now. Keep talking."
"The Ondermarkt has always been the central point where the Arcane meet to trade information, services and goods. Your money is good to some there, as is barter."
"Azif..." I pinched the bridge of my nose, where frustration was starting a headache. "Never mind. Go on."
"Humans have dealt with the Arcane for centuries. There are secrets, and traditions, and agreements. There are relationships and debts and affection and hatred and contempt and ambition."
"Let's try something a bit more concrete, okay? Who were the security types?"
"They are not human. They are - perhaps the best word is representatives. They are here for others, to ensure that the Arcane remain hidden."
"How do they do that?"
"You saw them as you did due to your talent. To those with no talent, untouched, they would appear to be officials, police, criminals - whichever the viewer is most likely to obey. They would turn others from the Ondermarkt."
"Okay. What happened with the bright light, when they almost scragged you?"
"Scragged?" The Djinn frowned.
"Sorry." I sighed. "When they grabbed you."
"The Ondermarkt is protected against many things, not just the ignorant. When I touched the door, Richard Quyen's body registered as a corpse. The Ondermarkt does not permit the dead within."
"Do they usually come walking?"
He gave me a somewhat pitying look. "You yourself have seen them. I know this."
It was a fair point. I'd run into animated corpses in the subway before. They had been there under the control of an Elder claiming to be a very pissed off Tu Di Gong, irate at the despoiling of what he had termed 'the village.' I had been forced to remonstrate with them in the subway. It had taken me a week or so to recover; a couple of New Yorkers hadn't been that lucky. I hadn't been quick enough to save them, and it still awoke feelings of guilt and anger. "Let's move on. So they have some kind of dead detector."
"Yes. They were, however, able to verify that I was occupying this body - it was not, in fact, completely dead. And thus we were permitted entrance."
"The lady in the booth looked pretty surprised, and maybe some scared, to see you. And she looked like she was ready to spit when she saw me, but I've never seen her before." I snorted. "I'd remember."
"You are not unknown to the Arcane, Michel. Some of them recognize the tools you carry, even if they do not know your face."
I touched the bandolier reflexively. "Wait, she saw these?"
That was sobering. I'd always assumed I was able to blend in, that unless I was actively using my tools I was indistinguishable from other New Yorkers. Finding out that to some, at least, I was that visible was something I was going to have to put some thought into. "Okay. What did you and she talk about? And what did she give you?"
Azif held out his right hand, palm up. In it was the shriveled areca nut and plant sprig. "She recognized these." He held out his left hand, opened it. In the palm was another nut, this one round and smooth. To my eyes, it pulsed slightly with a green effulgence. "This is what she sold Richard Quyen."
"What is it?"
"It is another areca nut. But it has been invested, slightly." He put the shriveled sprig down on a side table, then turned back and held up the smooth nut between his thumb and forefinger. "I believe that Richard Quyen was Talented. He was carrying the original one -" here he held up the shriveled nut -"when his mishap occurred."
"What kind of Talent?"
"I believe the boy was a zoemancer."
Azif gave me a disappointed look. "A manipulator of life. Of life force."
I sat back, feeling my eyebrows go up of their own accord. "Huh. I've never run across one of those. I didn't know that was a talent."
"It is not common."
I thought for a moment. "Tell me more about the ghul. Why did Baba say that a walking corpse is the purpose of their existence?"
Azif shrugged. "The ghul serve a specific purpose. They...change, somehow, the nature of a corpse."
"Change it? In what way?"
"You yourself were attacked by Tu Di Gong's misused creatures."
"Yeah." I rubbed my right hand, absently, remembering the terrible roar of direct current.
"Do you know what those were?"
"They were bodies."
"Yes. What else?"
"Animated. They were animate. They were trying to feed on live people."
"It was not feeding. They were not alive, and they did not need sustenance. It was purely destruction."
"I'm not getting you."
"Michel - those bodies, they were not inhabited by creatures or by spirits. They were merely puppets. They were animated by energies controlled by the Elder Tu Di Gong, but had no volition or ties to the living, other than using flesh which had once been alive."
"Okay. I get that. I've never seen any evidence of souls, or afterlife, or whatever."
"Yes. While they may exist, I have not seen evidence of such either, and in your terms I am very, very old. Those corpses in the subway, however, did they look odd in any way?"
I thought about it. "They were pretty old. Almost fossilized, really. Mummified? I don't know the term. But they weren't recently dead."
"As I thought. The Elder Tu Di Gong had likely come across them, buried or forgotten somewhere ancient. Their deaths likely predated the appearance of ghul in this place."
"So get to it, what do the ghul have to do with dead bodies?"
"Once a corpse has been changed by a ghul, it can no longer be touched by an Elder's power. It can be manipulated as any other object can - thrown, burnt, suspended, destroyed - but it cannot be animated in semblance of life."
I stood and walked around the room, thinking. "So the ghul are called eaters of the dead because they're sometimes seen changing bodies?"
Azif nodded. "Yes. They do not need much time, but they will lower their heads to the corpse, and do whatever it is that they do. Once they are finished, the corpse is safe from interference. But once in a great while they are seen, especially by those with Talent. It is said that long ago, the ghul could assume the form of the body they had changed. It may be that this was their means of concealment, allowing them access to new corpses without needing to wait for darkness and isolation."
I could feel information starting to gel, somewhere in my head. "Okay. So. Richard Quyen is a...zoemancer? Right. He works with life energy. Now he's dead. And apparently, the ghul haven't yet managed to change his corpse. Whenever you begin to jump out, you get far enough out for him to show up to them as a dead body, not yet made safe."
"Yes. This sounds reasonable, given what Baba Yaga has told us."
"Yeah. So we really have two questions, and one of them is academic."
"What are they?"
"Well, first, how the hell did he get this way? And second, is there any way we can save this kid? He's not really entirely dead; if he was, you either would be able to jump, or possibly wouldn't even stay within his body."
The Djinn nodded. "That sounds correct."
"Have you ever tried to jump into a corpse?"
Azif looked nauseated. "Michel, that is a disgusting question."
"I'll take that as a no, then. But can you?"
Azif looked down. "I do not know."
"Huh. Okay." I thought about it. Then I realized I was having trouble thinking. "Azif, I'm tired. I need rest, and something to eat. Will you come home with me? That way I can keep an eye on you."
"Yes." The Djinn stood. I lifted myself to my feet, fighting gravity and inertia in my weariness, and we left the still apartment.
We didn't talk during the cab ride across town to my apartment. I raided the fridge for leftover Chinese food and then installed Azif in the guest room before retiring to my own bed. As was my habit of a solitary life, I hung the Desert Eagle's shoulder rig and my bandolier from my headboard, within easy reach, and settled down with the shades down and the lights off. I couldn't stop thinking, though, as I lay there looking at the barely-visible ceiling. Zoemancer. So the kid had Talent. But he ended up - well, not dead. What the hell had he been doing, with the ritual set up in the tub? What had happened?
It was tempting to just assume that he had somehow managed to disrupt his own life force, or whatever. That would neatly explain why he was (in the words of Miracle Max, from The Princess Bride) mostly dead. But it didn't explain at all how he'd been running around in Chinatown, where he could run into Azif. Or maybe it explained part of it, I didn't know.
I heard the toilet flush, and the door to Azif's room close. Richard Quyen wasn't dead. His body was guest in my house, but he wasn't using it - or if he was, it was only as a passenger. I wondered if he was aware of what was going on, and shuddered at the image. I didn't think so - Azif's hosts tended to have no memory of what had occurred while the Djinn was riding them, which was one reason I kept an eye on him as best I could. I didn't like the idea of people losing significant chunks of their lives. Although Azif was a creature of vast power, that power was mostly barred from him by his constant shifting between hosts - it took time for the power to return to him after he settled in a body, and he rarely stayed within one long enough for more than a few trickles of his power to manifest.
I didn't know why that was, but knowing how relatively insignificant I was in comparison to him, along with what I would have to do if he ever decided to overstay his welcome, I was mostly relieved it was so.
I thought about who I could ask about Quyen. I found myself at a bit of a loss. My usual contacts in the Elder world didn't have much to do with human Talents - it looked like I was going to have to spend some significant time figuring out who the Arcane were, and (if the last vendor had been any indication) why some of them seemed to not like me at all. That sounded like it was going to be less than safe, but it also meant digging up more of the secret ways and knowledge of my City.
Cheered by the prospect, I went to sleep.
* * *
Exertion and nerves had dragged me to sleep early, for me. Consequently, when seven o'clock rolled around the next morning, I was already up, sitting in my small tiled kitchen. I had made myself a cup of extremely strong coffee and was waiting for my bagel to finish browning in the toaster oven when Azif walked in. I nodded to him, and pointed to the coffee pot, before narrowing my eyes and looking at him again. Noticing my reaction, he stopped and looked back. "What?"
"Azif, you don't look well."
"That makes no sense," said the Djinn. Which was true; I'd never seen him look anything other than hale. As far as I could tell, having discussed it with a few others who had dealt with Djinn, their life-force essentially added itself to that of their hosts. In addition to being stronger, faster and generally healthier than their hosts were on their own, the excess energy escaped their hosts' bodies in the form of the tears of fire I (and others similarly Talented) could See coming from their eyes. Although there was a slight flicker from Richard Quyen's eyes, there was no visible trail of flame.
Azif looked at me for a few moments as I thought, then turned to get his coffee. Bringing it over to the small round table tucked in the corner of the kitchen, he sat across from me just as there was a DING announcing my bagel's completion I stood and went to get it, taking my time spreading scallion cream cheese on it before walking it back and sitting down.
"Michel, what do you mean?"
I took a bite of bagel and gazed at him for a few seconds, chewing, before answering. "You're not leaking fire anymore. And you look exhausted."
Azif raised a hand to his cheeks. I wasn't sure why; as far as I could tell, he couldn't feel the tears normally. But he frowned. "I feel somewhat odd."
"A bit weak. There is some intermittent pain."
"Let me ask you, Azif. How long has it been since you fully invested a host? I mean, full power, so forth?"
"Many years, Michel."
He drank some coffee. "If you must know, your grandmother."
I sat back, surprised. "Nana? What do you mean?"
Azif clasped his hands around the earthenware coffee mug. "A few years after she arrived in New York, she and I met. I had been here for nearly a century by then. I had had only five hosts in that time. When she came upon me in the subway, I was wearing my fifth. She saw me, on the train, and followed me up out of the system to the apartment I was living in in Hell's Kitchen." He took another sip of coffee. "When she knocked on the door, I had no idea she was following me. I assumed she was following my host. He was quite attractive. She gave no hint that anything else was afoot until I had, somewhat overconfidently, invited her in for tea." He smiled, and looked up. "I was a bit of a rake, Michel."
"If this is going to involve anything intimate with my grandmother, let me warn you-"
He raised a hand. "No, no. As soon as I went to put the kettle on, she locked us in. And I do mean locked - she cast a barrier around the apartment. The moment she did so, I turned to fight her, but she had immobilized me."
He drank more coffee. I was silent, thinking very hard. I knew, or thought I knew, roughly how powerful Azif was when he was completely invested in a host. I knew that I had no interest in ever finding myself opposing him in that state. Nana had never told me anything about Azif, only that he was lonely because he had been unable to avoid touching others in New York for very long, which caused him to jump bodies. "I thought," I said carefully, "that you couldn't touch other humans without jumping."
He smiled at me, but there was a bitter edge to it. "That is true, Michel. It is true now."
"It was not true when your grandmother locked us both in that apartment."
I put down my own coffee, shock causing me to let it slam to the table harder than I would have liked. "You mean she...you..."
Azif looked down into the oily depths of his own mug. "Yes."
I knew it was poor manners, and I knew it wasn't the right thing to say, but I couldn't stop myself. "How?"
The Djinn met my eyes. I recoiled from the instant of terrible, ancient rage that was visible in them, some primitive and completely involuntary part of my nervous system responding to the eyes of a predator. Before I was more than half risen to my feet, though, Azif had hunched back down around his coffee again and was staring at the tabletop. "That, I will not tell you."
I forced myself to sit. My heartbeat was significantly higher than it had been. I could feel a layer of sweat forcing itself through my skin. "Azif, I'm..."
He looked up.
"...I apologize. For my poor manners."
That won me a small, fast smile. "Your grandmother would have nodded."
"I hope so."
"Do not fear, Michel. I have come to realize that she was correct. There was nothing else she could have done, and remained herself. I was a predator, and a danger; I killed in fractions of lives, but they were not small fractions, what I stole. If my murders were done in units of less than one, they surely were just as terrible in sum."
We looked at each other for perhaps a minute, drinking coffee. Then I finished my cup and stood again. "We have to figure out what we're going to do."
Azif remained seated, looking up at me. "What do you propose?"
"We need more information. That's the only way I stay alive, these days."
"And where will we go, to get more information?"
"That's the question. I haven't seen Malsumis in a while, but that probably means I won't find him. I don't find him, he finds me, generally. I can ask around, talk to the usual suspects, but unfortunately you're usually the head of that list."
Azif nodded, finished his own coffee and stood. "Still, we can search."
I looked at his eyes as he stood. Still no flames. "Azif, do you think there's any point in asking, well, you know who?"
He considered. "We can always try."
"Okay." I went into my bedroom and picked up the shoulder rig and bandolier, feeling some of my nervousness vanish as I slipped them on. On the way back to the foyer, I picked up my coat. We met at the door, both pulling on our outerwear. "Azif, I have to say, you don't look well."
He shrugged. "I do not feel well, either."
We left the apartment and headed for the elevator.
When we got to the lobby, I tied my coat in front using the belt and held the door for Azif. He walked out into the daylight and I followed him, only to have to jump aside as I realized too late that he had stopped dead upon reaching the sidewalk. I looked at him to see him staring across the street, so I followed his gaze.
There was a ghul across the street.
It was standing behind the far line of parked cars, staring at us across their roofs. I looked left and right, and was unsettled to see four more of the creatures. They were standing in a rough circle around my front door, and as far as I could tell, they were all staring at us. Or at Azif. It was difficult to tell, with the glows in their eye sockets.
"Michel-" Azif started, then trailed off.
"Come on." I hurried up the block, towards Washington Street. There was a single ghul standing on the sidewalk, near the cars on our side, watching. I motioned Azif behind me and angled to pass the still creature, leaving as much space as possible as we hugged the building. Its head swiveled slowly to follow us as we walked, but other than that it was immobile. I reached into my coat to put my right hand on the Desert Eagle as we walked. As we passed it, it smoothly swiveled on the spot to continue facing us. I looked behind us as we walked up the block, gesturing Azif around in front of me to keep myself between him and the shapes. They stood there watching us silently, which was somehow more unnerving than if they had begun following us.
"Keep moving." I sped up slightly and we hurried around the corner, heading north. As soon as we were out of sight of the creatures, I pulled my hand out of my coat. We slowed to a steady fast walk. "Okay, let's head for Fourteenth street."
"Where are we going?"
"To talk to you know who, if he'll let us."
We caught the C train and took it as far as 86th Street before heading across Central Park. I kept my eyes peeled, but we didn't appear to have anyone or anything following us. Once we reached the eastern side of Central Park, we slipped into the maintenance entrance. I put a slip around us as we moved quietly across the pumping station to a familiar pipe.
"Do we need to do anything?" I asked quietly.
Azif shook his head. "Either he will be there, or he won't."
I sighed and climbed up atop the pipe. It remained, stubbornly, a pipe and nothing more. "Looks like he isn't."
Azif sagged slightly, hope denied, but stayed close to me as we moved back out into the open air. "Now what?"
"I'm not sure." I thought. "We need someone who knows about the ghul. Someone, in fact, who knows about..." my voice trailed off. Azif waited patiently for a few seconds, and I shook my head as the idea formed. "Someone who knows about the Elders in Manhattan. And I might know someone, or a pair of someones, who fit that description. The question will be if I can find them again."
"Then let us go," said Azif.
I nodded, and led him back across the park towards the slow back-and-forth of the Hudson waters.
* * *
We exited Central Park at Eighty-Sixth Street and walked directly west. It was late morning by this point, the streets populated by the never-ending flow of New York humanity. My phone sounded as we walked, and I answered it in order to tell my assistant that I wouldn't be in the office that day, and to reschedule all my appointments. He was used to that.
As we reached Riverside Drive, I looked left and right, getting my bearings, before striking out uptown. Azif followed. After a block and a half or so, I saw what I was looking for and crossed the Drive to a narrow strip of mezzanine pavement and greenery overlooking the lower level of Riverside Park itself. There was a terrace built out from the wall, with a couple of steps up to a set of stone benches atop a platform which expanded out over the overhang. But just to the side of it was a stairway down.
Reaching the lower level, I turned right again, moving north along the lower side of the wall. The wall curved out towards us, making room for a monument and flagpole up above at the street level, and I kept my eyes carefully on the stone blocks. Sure enough, behind a set of bushes, there was a steel door.
Stepping onto the grass, I moved over to the door. Azif joined me. Looking around, I decided that there wasn't anyone nearby - at least, not close enough to matter - and the traffic sounds from the Henry Hudson Parkway some dozens of yards towards the river were enough to confuse some sounds. I motioned Azif to stand between me and the open space leading out from behind the bush, then turned to face the door and unshipped the Desert Eagle. The door was definitely steel, battered and painted New York Parks Department green. A black metal plaque affixed to it read "RPL98" in white lettering. There was a door handle, but the door was (of course) locked. A metal bar was fixed across it, in two heavy brackets, with a thick padlock holding it into position. I aimed the gun off to my left slightly away from Azif, and considered the lock.
"Michel?" Azif's voice was quiet, from over my right shoulder.
"Yeah?" I was still looking at the lock, wondering if I could generate enough energy to actually break it.
"May I try?"
"Try what?" I asked absently, still examining the padlock. It was, truly, huge. I supposed that made sense - to survive in a New York City park, especially one with no buildings overlooking it - I wondered if it was made of some exotic metal; hardened in some esoteric way, before deciding that most likely it was just too big to bother. Certainly the curved bar of the lock was too large for most of the large lock cutters I'd ever run across to get a decent grip. The keyhole was covered with a rotating metal slide, to protect the lock's workings from the weather.
Azif reached past me. Surprised, I moved to the left a bit to get out of the way, and looked at him. His eyes were closed. Looking back down, I saw him flip the cover aside, and cover the keyhole with his palm. He stood there for several seconds, eyes closed. I holstered my pistol, watching as a slight sheen of sweat broke out on Richard Quyen's forehead. I noticed that he was trembling slightly, and at that moment, there was a slight flash of light from around the edges of his hand and a loud clonk which I realized was the lock mechanism moving. Azif let go and wiped his hands on his trousers, shaking slightly with what looked like fatigue, and looked up to meet my eyes. "It seems that with the boy nearly gone, my powers have begun to manifest more quickly than they usually do," he said. "But still - there is not much there, yet."
His sweating wasn't stopping. "Azif," I said quietly, "thanks, but don't do that again."
"Why not?" he asked, surprised.
"You're still sweating," I said. "I don't think you can afford it."
He raised a hand to his brow and pulled it away before staring at the sheen of moisture on it for a few seconds. "I'm...not sure what's happening," he admitted.
"We can talk about it later. Do you feel okay?"
"I think you're tired. Have you ever been tired before?"
"I..." he stopped. "My hosts, certainly; they sleep."
"I do not know." He looked at his hand again, then at me, troubled.
"It's okay. Let's go." I pulled the padlock off the bar, lifted the bar out of the brackets and laid it against the base of the wall. Then I pulled on the metal handle, and the door opened with a groaning of rusty hinges. Darkness lay within. I pulled my mini Mag-lite out of my pocket and led the way inside, closing the door behind Azif.
We were in a stone-walled tunnel, with a curved arching roof above our heads. The large stones of the wall ended some four feet in, and were replaced with concrete. I set off down the tunnel, hoping my fallible memory for urban geography was correct. Some twenty feet later, the tunnel ended in darkness. I stopped to make sure of my footing, then jumped down a short drop onto a surface of crushed limestone. Azif followed, more slowly. "Michel, what is this place?"
I directed my flashlight at the ground a few yards further East from us. Dull metal, mostly brown with rust but still retaining a slight shine on the top surface winked back. "We're in the West Side rail tunnels. Watch your feet." I moved off, following my flashlight beam. We stepped over two sets of rails in the echoing darkness. I looked left and then right, and turned right, downtown, walking along the tracks. I'd walked these before, but I couldn't see enough to recall where I was. Remembering, I moved Eastwards until we were walking along the other wall of the tunnels. A light was visible ahead of us, coming from the wall we'd come in, and perhaps a block later a large oblong grating became visible facing the river. It was nearly choked with leaves and trash, but some light came in, and more gratings were visible further downtown. Along the left wall, however, was what I had been looking for, some hundred yards further on - an abandoned squatter town of plywood and cardboard shacks. It was even more decayed than the last time I'd seen it, with walls and ceilings fallen in, but halfway along its expanse, I saw the tunnel entrance heading west into the wall. I checked to make sure Azif was right behind me (he was) and picked my way through the trash, moving ino the passage.
Succumbing to paranoia - for all that I chose to call it precaution - I pulled out the Desert Eagle again and let it lead. We moved into the storm drains, into the inner shantytown I'd passed through before. The area was just as deserted, and I led Azif through the maze, trying to let my memory guide me without thinking about it too much. After ten minutes or so, we came upon the one landmark I knew I'd recognize - a large pile of decaying typewriters. I stopped, trying to get my bearings.
"Michel, where are we going?" It was the first time Azif had asked on the long trek from the Central Park Reservoir.
I grinned to myself in the darkness. "Afraid of the dark?" He snorted. I laughed, softly. "We're going to ask questions, Azif."
"Ask them of whom?"
"Well," I said, realizing that I couldn't remember which way to go, and resignedly digging into my bandolier for a sterile lancet, "some gents I met down here, once. There aren't that many people - of whatever type - in this town that I know who would know about ghuls, especially since I hadn't heard of them up to now. I guess," I said thoughtfully, holstering the pistol so I could unwrap the lancet, "there's a lindwurm I know, but he's kind of my last resort. He charges a pretty steep fee, mostly in terms of inconvenience. More important, he won't answer the question until he's been paid - and it takes several days, at a minimum, to set up what he wants. I'll deal with him if we have to, but not until I've pretty much tapped out my other ideas." The lancet was free. I dropped the wrapping, and stuck the miniature flashlight between my teeth.
"What are you doing?"
"Paying the piper." I stabbed the steel needle into my left thumb and winced. Dropping the lancet, I squeezed my thumb with my right hand until a decently-sized bead of blood had welled up, then smeared it into my right palm. Reaching into my coat, I laid that palm against one of the bandolier pockets and felt the soft leather absorb the blood. There was a silent WHOOM in my head, as usual, and I felt myself pulled around as though a gentle phantom the size of Godzilla had reached down and moved me by my shoulders. When I steadied, I was looking at the opposite wall. "Ah." I moved my right hand off the pocket and pulled the pistol back out, and took the flashlight out of my mouth with my left. I set off towards the spot which was still locked firmly into my skull, calling to me through the bones of the city.
A few minutes later, after taking several alternating turns to keep my destination before me, I heard a faint hissing noise and the murmur of voices above it. Nodding to myself, I lowered the flashlight and clicked it off. Leading Azif, I moved around the last corner into a dim open space I'd been in before, with a pool of bright white light at the center. Under the light of a Coleman gas lantern which hung from the side of a rickety ladder, two men sat at a long wooden table. The table's surface was the worse for wear. They sat across from each other, each at one of the long sides, and - sometimes alternately, sometimes together - they reached out over the table and moved the mass of playing cards that was laid out there, inside a rough chalk outline of Manhattan island.
"The boy's back," said the one with his back to me in a gravelly voice. He hadn't looked back, or even up from the cards. His head was bare, showing wisps of white hair around the edges of his scalp.
"Brought a friend," returned the other, looking down with his eyes hidden behind the bill of a grimy New York Yankees baseball cap.
"I thought you were a Mets fan," I said, stepping closer and into the pool of light. Azif stayed behind me and a pace to my left.
"Observant," he cackled, reaching up to remove the Yankees hat. "Sure of yourself, aren't you?" With that, he spun the hat my way without looking at me before reaching back down to shift a worn Jack of Hearts somewhere near midtown. I caught the hat and flipped it in my hand to look at the logo. New York Mets, it said. I looked at Azif, who shrugged.
"I know what I remember, and what I saw," I said, placing the hat on the corner of the table and watching the two men slowly permutate the arrangement.
"Sit." That from the bare-headed man, whose name I hadn't caught the one time I'd been here before. Azif and I moved to the table, at which several empty mismatched chairs waited. We each took one and watched them for a bit. I had originally thought that they were moving the cards to reflect the current locations of various Elders in Manhattan, but as I watched, I saw each of them pick up a card and move it across the island before returning to the slow edging dance. "Why are you here?"
"I-" I paused. "We, fathers, have a question we cannot answer."
"The question being?" That came from both of them at once, stereophonic growls of whisky and age.
"My friend is being hunted. By ghul. We're trying to figure out how to help him."
Brian turned to look directly at me. His eyes searched mine for a moment. "Which is your friend? The body or the soul?"
"I don't know the young man whose body this is. The other, well, I've known him many years."
"And can he speak?" asked the blind wizard, still moving cards.
"I am Azif," said the Djinn. "I have been here-"
"Yes," interrupted the blind man. "A long time, Shining One. A long time." He hesitated, then reached out to the cards and plucked one from the table, so quickly I couldn't tell where he'd taken it from. He flipped it over and over in his hand, thinking. "I can see why he's asking," he said. "But you, boy. Why are you asking?"
I thought about it for a few seconds, unsure of my answer. "He's my friend."
"Is he, now." It didn't have the tonals of an actual question. "Is he that."
"He isn't my enemy. He has helped me, and I've helped him."
"But," said Brian, "have you ever seen him?"
"I see him now," I answered, confused again.
"No. You see the boy," they chorused.
Azif shifted in his seat. I shot him a warning glance, and he subsided. "I see the signs of him. I can see the fire and the light," I stated.
"What makes you think we have any answers for you?"
"Last time I was here, you said the power had come for you eighteen years before. You're tracking Elders, there. That many years watching that much of where they move, and what they do - I don't know, but I think you can help me. Help us. If you choose."
Both of them lifted their heads to stare at me, one piercing, one blind but just as sharp a gaze. "Ask," they said.
I took a deep breath. I'd thought about what I'd ask if I only got one question, all the way up here from the Reservoir. "Where did the ghul come from?"
The blind wizard's head tilted to one side, and before I could move, he thrust his hand at Azif, the palm out and upright. Azif said "What-" before there was a flash of darkness from the wizard's palm, and Azif was blasted out of the chair in which he sat to fly backwards into the gloom, away from the table. He hit a pile of something with a loud crash, and my chair joined the noise as I jumped up, reaching under my coat for the Desert Eagle. Before I could bring it out, though, Brian's voice rose in a harsh guttural syllable, and the background hiss rose to a roar as the light from the Coleman increased, forcing my eyes closed against the glare. I tried to turn my head away from it, but found that having reached my feet, I was unable to move.
We remained there, for a few moments, before Brian whispered something I couldn't make out and the light dimmed back down to normal gaslight. I sagged as whatever was holding me released me, and held myself as still as possible, blinking back the tears that had blurred my vision at the sudden brilliance. "Sit, boy," said Brian with a note of weariness in his voice.
I bent and felt behind me, lifting my chair back upright, and sat down again. Azif had gone down, and hadn't moved since doing so. I could see him across the table from me, several feet back, lying in a heap with what looked like several cardboard boxes which he'd hit piled around him. "What did you do to him?"
"He's fine, son. He's not human."
"The body he's wearing is. What did you do-"
"Quiet," The blind wizard snapped. He turned his palm up to his face, seeming to peer into it. I caught the flash of a card in his hand. Then he nodded and flipped the card onto the table. It looked casual, but the card spun and landed exactly aligned in a blank space in the pattern, roughly akin to where we were sitting in Manhattan. "All right. He's out."
Brian nodded. "Thanks, Alan." He looked over at me. "We don't mean you any harm, right now." I carefully noted the qualifier. "Nor him," he added, angling his head towards Azif's form.
"Strange way of showing it," I said, feeling my heartbeat slowing as the shock faded. Testing, I reached into my coat and pulled out the Desert Eagle, laying it deliberately on the table in front of myself.
"Can't answer your question in front of him," said Alan, moving a card.
"Why not?" I asked. I was aware that I had begun to sweat, likely in reaction to the surprise.
"It's not for him to know," said Brian. "You asked about the ghul. You've seen 'em?"
"Yeah." I rested my hands to either side of the gun, not touching it. "They came for him. They come for him when a human touches him."
"What do you know about them?" Brian asked, looking at me.
"Only what he told me," I said. "He said they come for the recently dead, and that somehow they change corpses so that the Elders can't manipulate them. Baba Yaga-" both men hissed, slightly, and Alan briefly laid his hand down over a card on the table- "-she told us that she couldn't see the boy around Azif, and we're pretty sure the boy is dead. Or, at least, nearly dead. Azif thinks he was a zoemancer. There was a ritual altar in his apartment, and we found some shriveled plants and a shriveled areca nut in his pocket. Azif took me to the Ondermarkt, and spoke with a woman there who was selling them; she gave him a fresh one."
"What does this tell you?" asked Alan.
"I don't know how any of this works," I said, "but if I had to guess - I'd say the boy was experimenting with something, his Talent or some ritual or both, intending to manipulate life force. I think he screwed up. But I can't figure out how he ended up out on the street, running, to bump into Azif if he was dead or nearly so. And I don't know how to help him, or how to stop the ghul coming after them both."
"Why would you?" That from both of them.
"Because-" I stopped. I wasn't sure why, not in any concrete way. I knew why I had gotten into it, though. "Because he needed my help, and because he asked. And because someone has to look out for the boy, here - Azif's interests aren't aligned, necessarily, and if not me, then who?"
They looked at each other. Alan nodded. Brian shrugged, and turned to me. "The ghul, boy. They're the key. They've been around for centuries, but they aren't Elders, and they weren't made by the Elders."
I waited, listening intently, unsure whether to believe him.
He sighed, and continued. "As you said, the ghul exist to prevent Elders mucking with corpses. They didn't just appear. A human created them, specifically to do that, in order to scotch the playtime and schemes of Elders. A wizard. Thousand-plus years ago, in the Rub' al Khali, in the desert. It can take years for people to rot properly, there - not enough water, too hot, too sterile. They just dry out, son, slowly. For years, if you leave people under rocks or soft sand, Elders can find 'em and put them to use - and not uses that humans come out on top of, if you get me."
"Who created them?"
"Nobody knows. Was a hell of a Talent, though. Didn't just create one, created all of them. Suddenly, there they were, and as near as can be told, not just in Araby, neither. Everywhere, they showed up, all at once. Took a century or more before those in the know finally figured out they weren't predators."
"Why can't Azif know this?" I asked. "Why did you have to knock him out?"
"He ain't entirely his own, boy. You know he's in the service of another."
I nodded. "But he- well, that one, wasn't manifesting. We looked."
"At some point, Azif will meet him again, and then he'll know everything the Djinn knows," chimed in Alan.
"Why is that bad?"
"You don't play," said Brian, elliptically.
"Play what?" I asked, confused.
"The Game of Stones," they chorused.
"I don't know what the damn thing is," I said. "I've heard it mentioned. But I've never seen it."
"You don't have to see it," Brian muttered. "You walk its board, every day."
I looked at the iconic Manhattan. "This? This is the Game of Stones?"
"Not the game. Just the score," Alan replied.
I picked up the gun, weighed it for a moment in my hand as Brian watched. Alan flicked a few cards around the table. Finally I slid it back under my coat. "Okay. You're dancing around telling me something. I can feel it. Can you tell me? Will you?"
They looked at each other. Then Alan turned his head back towards me. "There's one time, boy, that a ghul can kill. Only one case. That is, kill a live human. End his or her life. That's what you need to know. You need to know what those circumstances are."
Brian continued, "So you'd better get to work, if you want to save the boy." Then, suddenly, he leaned forward and quickly turned the gas off. The light died, and the room changed as the darkness fell. I couldn't tell you how I knew, I just did. I stood up and fumbled in my pocket for the flashlight I'd placed there, spun the bezel. White LED light flashed out. I aimed it at the spot where Azif had fallen, and saw the jumble of boxes piled there, one of his legs visible between them. Relieved, I flicked the light around the room. The table was empty, and cobwebs hung from its edges and the chairs around it. I reached out and placed my hand on the lantern.
It was cold.
Shaking my head, I moved around the table to help Azif. He was already sitting up when I reached him, the flickering fire dripping slowly from his eyes - but fainter than I'd ever seen it. He was sweating when I reached down to take his arm, careful not to touch his skin, and help him to his feet. When he was standing, he shook his head and looked around. "Where did they go?"
"I don't know," I said. "That's what happened to me the last time I was here. Card, boom, darkness."
"Only a couple of minutes."
Azif staggered towards the table and sat heavily in one of the chairs. "I don't know what's wrong with me."
"I think I do," I said. The Djinn turned to look, the question on his face. "You're basically life force, right? Aside from the host."
He grimaced. "In a manner of speaking, I suppose."
"Yeah, well, close enough. James is still alive, but just barely - and he's able to keep you from jumping hosts. Maybe that's due to his Talent - that would seem to imply some control over life force. Anyway, usually, you and your host are both occupying the same body. You've got all your life force, plus theirs."
"And you think that now James is near death..."
"Yeah. I think he's draining yours to keep his body alive. I think we have a deadline."
"What are we going to do next?"
"Well," I said, leading him out of the room and back towards the Hudson. "First we have to get out of here. Then I'm going to send you back to my place in a taxi. Lock the doors, and whatever you do, don't leave. The ghuls probably won't attack you - they waited outside for you last time, and they don't seem to start moving for you unless you touch someone. If you're alone in my place, you should be okay."
"And what are you going to do?"
"I'll be along. I think I need to have a talk with a ghul, somewhere you're not, so I'm not trying to keep them off you."