<--Younger | The First New York Magician | Older-->
My immediate urge was to go find out who was holding my bandolier and work hard to ruin their day, but I was critically short of information. Much as I didn't want to go there, there was really only one place I could go to get it. I wasn't sure going there angry was a good idea, but on sober reflection it beat going there frightened out of my wits, so I headed uptown.
The midday sun was bright over Manhattan. I took the C train uptown to the Museum of Natural History, then cut east across the Park until the Reservoir was in sight. The burning desire to find someone involved and beat the snot out of them was fading as the walk forced me to consider how much I'd been hurt, but it wasn't gone. Levering open the maintenance hatch, after ensuring that no-one was watching, was the work of a moment.
I didn't have the pocketwatch to hide me from prying eyes, but I was pretty sure that the Elder in the pipe had his own ways of ensuring private conversations. After a few minutes, I was straddling the pipe in its guise as a sarcophagus, shining my Mag-Lite down onto the gray-green face. Slowly, one yellow eye opened into a circle the size of a serving tray; the pupil of void black condensing under the glare of my light.
"Morning." I held the light on the inspection window.
There was no response. This wasn't in my script. I tried again. "How we doing in there?"
Still nothing. Usually, being this flippant to one of the Elders would guarantee a response of some kind, either amused or annoyed depending on their temperament and the situation. Nothing was disconcerting. I debated tapping on the glass and decided against it, on the notion that if fish didn't like it, this was probably a million times worse.
I sat, cross-legged, still shining the light onto that great orb. "Look, can you hear me at all?"
I HEAR YOU, MICHEL. The not-voice was a relief even as it fired my fight-or-flight reflexes, drizzling adrenaline through my system. I could feel my heart rate rising.
"Oh. Good. I need to talk to you."
"So tell me. If I'm under contract to you, now, what is it I'm meant to be doing?"
SPEAK TO AZIF, MICHEL. HE KNOWS. HE WILL TELL YOU.
"Why can't you?"
YOU KNOW WHY. The voice was as loud as I remembered, for all that it didn't exist. I brushed at my nose, and my hand came away wet with blood. I looked at it for a moment, then back at the window.
"Okay. Tell him to find me."
BY WHAT RIGHT DO YOU PRESUME TO INSTRUCT ME? The words were harsh, but the tone was (I thought) somewhat amused.
"You need me to do something. It's more efficient than me wandering Manhattan looking for the wayward bastard." My nose was dripping regularly. I vaguely wondered if it was the result of mere proximity, or the result of the voice, or something worse, but I wasn't paying too much attention.
HE IS WHERE YOU MET HIM THE LAST TIME. My vision blurred slightly as the voice rumbled, then focused on the silence at the end. When I looked down, the eye was closed; a moment later, the sarcophagus faded to industrial painted steel.
I staggered down to the floor and wearily made my way upstairs into the sunlight.
Walking back west to the wine bar I'd ended up in after my last visit to the Elder God of Sewers (part of me cringed at the sobriquet, waiting for some bolt of lightning to crisp me; some other part exulted in the belittling nickname) took around twenty minutes. They were open, in the early afternoon. I ordered a Pernod and sat looking at the bar mirror.
Five minutes later, one of the few patrons in the rear got up and moved towards me. Since I was looking carefully at everyone, I saw her begin to move; since I was male, I continued to watch as she walked across the floor to the bar and spoke briefly with the tender before moving along the bar towards me. I turned on my stool to watch her come, but before I could say anything, she stepped close and laid one manicured hand on my forehead.
Then, only then, when she was close enough, could I see the flames dripping from her eyes.
When she touched me, they vanished. I waited for her to pull her hand back, confused, then turned away from her whispered apologies and stared at the mirror again. The flames depended from my orbits onto the marble bar top, flickering from orange to pale blue as they ran across the surface before guttering away. "Azif?"
"Hello, Michel." My reflection spoke to me, but I didn't.
"He says you'll tell me what the hell is going on."
I sighed and waved for the tender, ordering a whisky when he arrived. "Get to it, then. I have the feeling I'm not going to like this."
"Your grandmother was the Balancer, Michel."
"Tell me what the hell the Balancer is. And then keep going. I'm in no mood to drag this out of you."
Azif frowned at me in the mirror. "You are in no very receptive mood. Are you sure you wish me to tell you this now?"
"Trust me, yes. Don't worry. I'm saving up my mad for a different group of Elders, Azif."
"Very well. The Balancer is the Elder Cthulhu's proxy in the Game of Stones."
"And the Game of Stones is..."
The other leaned towards me from behind the bar's reality. "You see its results every day, Michel. Those here on Earth play at dice and cards, and their stake is the state of the world. Not in crude terms of 'evil' and 'good' or for the nonsense of souls, but for influence. There are many times many Elders in the firmament; some duplicate others. There are Egyptian Gods, Celtic Gods, fictional Gods, all with the same element or role."
"Your boss is fictional, Azif."
"Can you say that with assurance, having met him? He exists in fiction. He exists in the Abyss. He exists under Central Park. This is not a hindrance."
"Okay. Get on with it," I sighed, raising my drink again.
"You know my lord's destiny."
"Yeah. He's supposed to wait for the Last Trump of some kind, bring about the destruction of the Earth and its inhabitants, call back the Elder Gods to resume their rightful place or some such?"
"He will bring about the destruction of the Earth and mankind on it, yes."
"Then why the hell should I help him, or you?" I swigged whisky.
Azif shrugged. "It does not say when this will happen, does it, Michel? It does not say when, or why. He waits for a time known only to Him; for conditions written only in His thoughts. All we know is that the time is not soon, for in the meantime, there is the Game of Stones, and He concerns himself with its play."
"Cthulhu plays jacks to pass the time?" I decided against another whisky. I was getting belligerently smartass.
"No, Michel. The others play the Game of Stones. But He watches. He will not tolerate a tipping of the balances past some particular point. When it appears that there has been such a leaning of influence, his proxy will act to restore the Balance."
"That, at present, is you," agreed the djinn from the mirror.
"How many of these Proxies have there been?"
"Hundreds. Thus our assurance that the Last Times are not likely nigh. We cannot be sure. But it appears that this game is a long one."
"How is Cthu-how is He set above the other Elders? The ones that play this Game?" I asked my reflection.
"He is not above, merely apart. His role, of spoiler, is one of choice rather than destiny. For reasons none of us know, the prophecies and ravings which Man have gifted us about Him tell us that yes, He will be instrumental in destruction, madness and death. However, for reasons which are His own, he chooses to maintain humanity minimally harmed and unaligned before that time comes."
I thought about that. "So the Balancer, and Yellow Eyes, act to keep the peace if this Game of Stones intrudes too far on humanity. What happens if this Balancer acts in a way that He doesn't approve of?"
"We don't know. Balancers have disappeared, but it's a dangerous job. He has said, on more that one occasion, that his Balancers are picked for their probable reaction rather than instructed on how to behave. Some have speculated that this means that the choice of Balancer itself is a single move in the Game, rather than an ongoing interference."
"What are the sides in this game?"
"That you will need to work out yourself, although the permutations are infinite. Typically, the Balancer only acts to preserve the status quo in betwixt the various factions' preferred positions."
"You're telling me I have to make this up as I go along. Or, rather, that that's been the tradition."
"Indeed," said Azif.
We sat there for a time. I had one hand under my coat and realized I was massaging the grip of the Desert Eagle, causing me to grimace and lay both hands on the bar again. A thought occurred to me, and I asked the mirror, "How did Nana keep this balance? What did she do?"
Azif smiled. "Your grandmother enforced rigid rules of behavior and manners," he laughed. "None of the Elders dared be branded as uncouth in her parlor, and her parlor was the City of New York by the time she passed."
I laughed back. "You mean she managed to define anything she didn't like as rude?"
"Yes. She was a formidable woman."
"Even at the beginning? How did she get the job? Was it always a game of manners and snubs?"
"No. In her youth, she took a much more...active role. It was memories of those times, in fact, that made her later system so effective; none of the players wished to return to what were collectively thought of as 'The Bad Old Days,' before Nan Wibert had settled down."
I grinned at myself in the bar mirror. I'm fairly sure it was an ugly grin. "The Bad Old Days, huh?"
My reflection didn't grin back. Azif looked somewhat alarmed. "What are you thinking of doing, Michel?"
"I don't know, yet." I finished the whisky. "But tell me one last thing. Shu took my bandolier and my trenchcoat from me. Is there anything in the rules that says he's allowed to do that?"
"The rules are whatever the players have set out for themselves," Azif replied, sliding my tumbler back and forth across the bar between his hands, in the mirror. "I can say, though, that your grandmother would have been most annoyed."
"Oh, I'm past annoyed, Azif. I'm far, far, far past annoyed. I'm back into some funny Zen state where 'annoyed' is a cloud in my rear view mirror."
He stopped playing with the glass and cocked my head at me. "I do not like what I hear in your voice, Michel."
I just grinned at him for a bit. He looked down at the bar, then back. "What do you wish else from me?"
"Where were they holding me? Don't tell me you don't know."
He shook his (my) head, then reached for a napkin and removed a pen from my inner pocket. I kept my eye on the mirror as my hands wrote an address. He capped the pen and replaced it in my pocket, looking at me. "The mantle of Balancer isn't a letter of marque and reprisal, Michel," he warned.
"You already said it's what I make of it."
"Yes." He shook my head again. "Whatever you are planning to do, please pass me on before you go."
"Don't worry, Azif. This isn't about you. Or even about your boss, really. I need to ask one favor, though."
I told him, and slid the three magazines surreptitiously onto the bar. He grimaced, but nodded and placed my hands over the three oblongs. No-one but me noticed the rippling in the air, as it didn't move out past my encircled arms. When he had finished, I turned in my seat and bumped a party of young stockbroker types leaving the bar, apologized, and felt Azif stream off into one of them.
Then I paid my bill, slipping the shapes back into my belt loops. Taking up the napkin, I peered at my handwriting. 233 Broadway.
Then I said something profane to myself and didn't bother to deny the savage undertones in my voice before sliding off the stool and out the door towards a downtown C train.
<--Younger | The First New York Magician | Older-->