<--Previous | The first New York Magician
When I got home, I found Azif sprawled on the sofa. He was asleep, a sheen of sweat on his (Quyen's) forehead and a distinct pallor in his skin tone. I debated waking him, then decided to let him rest for a bit. Moving to my small home office, I spread the notebook page onto my desktop scanner and pulled its contents into my Mac. Fiddling with contrast, I saved the resulting image and then set to work typing it into a more readable version. It wasn't very long, but it didn't have to be.
The instructions were clear enough. I just didn't know how they'd help. Most important, however, was the first line - "Full moon." Thank everything for the Internet, which I immediately asked for a lunar calendar. Even before hunting up the date, though, I just knew, and I was right - the full moon was due the next night. I had no idea why, but it didn't matter. The rest of the instructions were simple. I saved the typed version of the note into my phone, shut down the computer and went to order Chinese food.
Azif woke to share dinner. He looked a bit grim. "You okay?" I asked him.
"No." He ate another bite of plain rice. "I am not familiar with this feeling."
"Weakness. Slight shivers. Dizziness. A sense of things being very wrong, somewhere, within me."
"I hate to break this to you, Azif, but we call that 'the flu' and it's a seasonal experience for most of us."
"The very fact that I am unfamiliar with it-"
"I know, I know. You don't get sick. Until now." I chased another dumpling around the carton with my chopsticks before securing it and dunking it in soy and ginger.
"Did you find what you needed to know?"
"I think so. Kelly gave it up. I don't know how he got it, or who it got it from, so I have no idea whether it's really what we need or just a red herring. But as I see it, we don't have any choice; we have to give it a try, unless you have a better idea."
"I do not."
"What I figured. Anyway, we can't go until tomorrow night. We need a full moon. Do you have any idea why?"
"There are a myriad of answers to that. Power in the lunar reflection; the firmament weakening in the absence of true dark..."
I shot him a dirty look over my hot and sour soup.
"Yes, very well, I have no idea. It is possible it's simply a ritual check."
"Just what it sounds like." The Djinn helped himself to stir-fried vegetables.
I looked at them with some loathing and dumped the rest of the moo shu pork onto my own plate, since he hadn't touched it. I wondered if he kept halal. "And?" I said.
"In many rituals, there are simple conditions which are set not because they have any relevant power or perform any purpose to the act itself, but to ensure that the practitioner has in fact been given the complete and correct ritual. In this case, the fact that the ritual must be done only on the night of a full moon may be such a check. Attempting it on another night would not produce a lesser effect, but there may be a trap woven into the process such that doing so would result in..." he hesitated- "undesirable outcomes."
"Like what?" I asked, mouth full of shredded pork.
Azif shrugged. "It is up to the imagination of whoever crafted the ritual," he answered. "I feel safe in predicting that it would be unpleasant."
"Yeah, I imagine."
"Where do we need to go?" he asked.
"Not far," I said. "We start near Times Square."
* * *
I spent the early part of the next day going over my gear. I cleaned the Desert Eagle, loading three magazines with ridiculously expensive cartridges. Kelly was right, it was a big stupid gun. If I didn't need the maximum possible energy output from firing it, life would be much easier if I could carry something smaller, which held more rounds, and which didn't have the annoying tendency to occasionally launch hot smoking brass directly up and back towards my face. The particular design of the slide and ejector on the Desert Eagle meant that this was not nearly as infrequent an event as I would prefer.
In addition, I asked Azif to check over the pocketwatch, as the power it contained had been his gift originally. He took the Patek Philippe into the living room, placed it (open) on the coffee table, and sat on the floor next to it in what looked like an even more uncomfortable variant of the lotus position. When he showed no sign of moving after ten minutes, I gave up and went back to my office to continue. The spearhead and vial needed no maintenance. As I finished replacing the pistol in its holster, I wished - not for the first time - that there was a way to use my tools and talismans without having to pull out a handgun, especially as large as this one.
Problem was, I didn't know of any other easily portable, hand-sized means of carrying around kinetic energy in units large enough to be useful. Well, other than grenades, which certainly weren't an improvement. On the other hand...I thought back several months and remembered a tunnel underneath Chinatown, facing a group of desecrated corpses and their Elder puppeteer. Tu Di Gong and I had most emphatically not gotten along. The Desert Eagle hadn't been nearly enough of an energy source to even inconvenience him, and I had had to resort to what I was able to find at hand. In that case...
In that case, it had been the subway line's DC power system; the (blood? nerves? I couldn't decide what a good metaphor was) of New York. I'd used the gun to open a pathway to the nearest third rail, and I'd channeled the resulting power through the Djinn's Shadow and perforce my own body. I shivered slightly in remembered pain and shock.
Electricity. Batteries were no good - not enough power, too slow. But batteries weren't the only way to carry around electric potential. I filed the thought away for later, marking it "HEY STUPID" in my head.
Azif came in and handed the pocketwatch back to me carefully. I took it with equal care - not because I knew why we were handling it carefully, but just on the general principle that if the Djinn was being cautious, it behooved me to be as well - and placed it back in its bandolier pouch. The snap sealing it was a bit loose, so I took out a Swiss Army knife and used its pliers to bend the snap slightly so that it held more firmly.
Having finished with the watch, Azif declared that he was going to take a nap, and headed off. I didn't like how weak he looked, but there wasn't much I could do about it other than what we were preparing to do, so I decided that it wasn't a bad idea and went back for a quick kip of my own.
When we left the apartment around eleven P.M., I hailed a taxi. We took the cab uptown to Forty-Second street and Eighth Avenue. After paying, I led Azif to the southwest corner of the intersection. "Okay. We have to wait until midnight. Which, I presume, is another ritual check."
"Midnight, in fact, does carry a certain weight," the Djinn said. "Many things in the world are tied to clocks; biology not least among them. And midnight is when those clocks reset."
I gave him my best raised eyebrow. It didn't seem to faze him, so I sighed. "Noted, Old One. Noted."
We had a half hour to kill. I considered having a hot dog, before deciding that meeting with Kelly had probably done my chemical balance enough harm.
At ten minutes to midnight, something changed.
It took me a few moments to realize what it was, because it wasn't immediately obvious - unless you were a New Yorker. "Azif, there aren't enough people here."
He looked around. It was true; although there were dozens of people within sight, there were noticeably fewer than there had been a few minutes before. I followed a few of them with my gaze; they moved through the area normally, walking into the giant awful International Style shape of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, walking out of sight around the corner, etc.
After a few seconds I realized the problem. No other people were appearing to replace them.
In a few moments, made eerie by the contrasting normalcy of the passers-by and the jarring stillness as the approaches refused to produce others, the streets emptied in a trickle of pedestrians swirling into the pockets and gutters and folds of the city. Into doorways, a few into taxicabs or the bus just pulling away from the curbside stop, the denizens of New York went quietly away and into their futures.
Two minutes later, the streets were empty of people and vehicles.
I shuddered, looking around at the quiet intersection. The traffic lights were still changing, and the riot of LED and plasma signs across the avenue on Forty-Second were flickering through their cycles, but even the constant rumble of New York City that pervades the bones in long-wave reassurance was fading into a dusty, grimy stillness.
Azif looked around, then at me directly. "That was...unexpected."
"I expected something. Not that." I fought down a sudden uprush of fear, an atavistic panic at the lack of human presence in the concrete and steel maze we'd built to banish nature. My voice was hoarser than I'd have liked. "Let's go."
I led Azif into the Bus Terminal. Despite people having passed through the doors less than a minute or so before, the building inside was just as empty. We walked quickly through the outer lobby areas. I pulled out my phone and brought up the ritual, just to be sure. "Okay. Fourth open area."
We emerged into a gallery of fast food and news vendors. Meals sat untouched on the counters and tables. It looked like everyone had just (all at once) gotten up to go answer the telephone, or visit the bathroom. It scared the living daylights out of me. I looked around for a few moments before spotting my goal. "There." We moved to the side, over to a small water fountain projecting from the wall. I gestured to it.
"Are you...? No, that is stupid. Of course you're not sure." Azif grimaced, then bent down and drank from the fountain before straightening up and wiping his lips. "And now?"
"Back out." We walked back out the same door we had come in, back onto the empty streets. I led the Djinn onto Forty-Second street and moved to the edge of the sidewalk and waited. He looked at me, shrugged, and stood beside me.
A minute later, movement drew our eyes and a shockingly loud noise reminiscent of a dragon coughing happened. I stopped myself from reaching for the Desert Eagle with my hand halfway into my coat and looked more carefully. A city bus had turned the corner at the western end of the block and was moving towards us, alone on the pavement, its noise magnified in the silence. "I think this is us."
When it stopped, the door opened. I started to climb up the stairs, then looked at the driver and froze. The flickering light of a ghul's eyes shone back at me, the skull shape of its head turned to face me. It waited quietly, hands on the steering wheel, for me to lurch back into motion and climb the steps up into the vehicle. It waited while I rummaged through my wallet, extracted a card from its depths, and held it out. The head darted in to closely examine the card, moving birdlike to view it from several angles, before turning to face the windshield again, dismissing us. I looked back and nodded to Azif, then moved a few seats into the (empty) bus and sat. He sat next to me. As soon as we had done so, the doors closed with a hiss of pneumatics that seemed far too loud in the silence, and the Diesel grunted as we pulled away from the curb.
"How long?" Azif asked quietly.
I checked my phone, obscurely surprised that it was still working. "It just says one stop. Doesn't say how long."
"Are we really here?"
I blew out a breath. "I have no idea, Old One. I don't even know where 'here' is. You've seen more than I have, infinitely more. Can Elders or the Art make places that don't exist?"
"They can certainly take a person to such a place in their own experience, in their own eyes." He paused. "It would be more difficult to do this to two persons and have their experiences remain consistent, but not impossible. As for actual, physical transportation?" He shrugged. "Again, not impossible, but certainly not the simplest explanation, and certainly not likely. There are, however, stories of this-" he waved towards the window- "happening. A real place, but separate."
"Stories? From when, or from who?"
"They are whispered. Even among the Elders. Usually, when isolation is the goal, the simplest method is to cause all others in the region to leave it as if of their own accord."
"So you're saying that this in fact might be Manhattan. The real Manhattan."
"It may be. I have no way to tell." Azif looked around again. "I would agree that it would be easier to empty the real than to construct all of this, and move our perceptions - or us - into it seamlessly. But I have never given the problem thought."
I looked out the window. We were still travelling East on Forty-second street. The Ghul driver (the fact that it knew how to drive was causing me the most issues with suspension of disbelief) was stopping for traffic lights and generally obeying traffic laws. "I'd guess it would be really difficult to actually empty the city, at least without people noticing later. These days especially, there are too many non-human eyes. Cameras, webcams, data collection, vehicle transponders, traffic sensors. Even satellite and aircraft images. I can't tell if there are any aircraft up there, but I haven't heard any."
"What do you think, then?" asked the Djinn. When I looked at him, he lifted a hand, palm up. "You are accustomed to moving among the Elders and their machinations," he said. "You have survived many years, doing so. This would seem to indicate that your mind is able to accept ideas and situations that most could or would not, or you would not have made it this far."
I considered. "I still think the most likely explanation is that we're in the real New York, it's just not empty. That's not a ghul driving the bus, and we're not alone, we just think we are."
"Ah, you think it is an illusion, but that the illusion is just our solitude."
"Yeah. Logically, that's the easiest I can imagine accomplishing. But," I continued heavily, "my imagination is limited by my experience and my abilities."
Azif nodded, and turned to look out the window as well. We watched as the bus trundled across town through the silent and empty corridors of the City. He turned back to me with the air of someone who just remembered something. "What did you show the driver?"
I reached into my wallet and silently handed him the organ donor registration card. He looked at it, then at me, and handed it back.
After a few minutes, the bus slowed and turned right onto what I determined was Fifth Avenue. It immediately pulled over and stopped. The front door hissed open. I stood and moved to the front. The driver was staring at me as I stepped down from the bus and moved onto the sidewalk. Azif was right behind me. The bus hissed, groaned, and pulled away behind us.
We were standing right where we ought to be standing, given the bus's route - in front of the Tilden Library, known to most New Yorkers as the Main Branch of the New York Public Library.
I looked up, as had become my habit whenever passing by the enormous Beaux-Arts building, but there was no dragon on the roof.
"And now?" Azif asked. He was leaning slightly on a sign pole, and I looked at him in worry for a moment. "I will be fine," he said slightly testily. "But I would rather not delay."
I nodded. "Okay, the note says 'take the right entrance.'" I looked up at the facade of the library, lit in silent pools of sodium light and brighter floods. "I'm going to assume the rightmost main door, not some hidden one." We set off up the steps. The doors were all closed. The rightmost entry of the three looked forbidding with the hanging lights dark and no light coming through the windows above the entryway. I stepped up and hauled open the tall double doors. Through them was more darkness, unrelieved save for a small pool of light thrown in from the street onto stone flooring. I moved inside with Azif directly behind me.
"I cannot see anything," said the Djinn quietly.
"I can't either," I admitted. I was reluctant to move into the darkness. Although I knew very well what the Library's lobby looked like, an unknown but powerful certainty told me that wasn't where I was standing. "Hang on a moment." I stepped back and closed the door behind us, throwing us into complete blackness.
After a moment, a dim light became visible directly ahead. I moved towards it carefully; it was perhaps twenty paces away, and surrounded another double door. I couldn't see a source for the light, but given the number of odd things I'd been through so far this day, that didn't even rate a hesitation. The darkness was unrelieved to the sides, and something told me not to stray from the path.
Reaching the doors, I touched one lightly. It was wooden, massive, but it moved at my touch. Debating whether to draw the Desert Eagle, I decided that the risk was greater than the possible utility, and pushed the right-hand door open.
Inside was an octagonal room. That wasn't the problematic part. What was disconcerting was the windows in the right and left six walls, which had bright light streaming through them. I stepped inside and moved to the right to look through the first window I came to. Through it I could see an arid landscape of rock and sand under a brilliantly blue sky. Looking through the window at an angle back the way we'd come showed nothing but more wasteland. The room we were in appeared to be sited at the edge of a slight slope down to a salt-pan and sand desert, which stretched out as far as I could see into heat haze.
"What the fuck." I said it quietly to overcome the shivers of fear that were traversing my spine.
"That is the Rub' al Khali, Michel." Azif's voice was tight. "I know it. I know it well."
"I guess that's something to add to the 'are we here or not' argument," I said, my mouth automatically trying to deflect the emotional impact of the shock and fear.
Azif didn't answer verbally. He took my sleeve. I looked at him to find that he had turned to face the center of the room, and I pivoted to follow his gaze. A table occupied the middle of the stone floor - a simple wooden table, oblong, with four legs. The dark wood looked old, and bore the scars of years of use on its surface.
In the center of the table was a shape. It was moving. I looked closely at it, then deliberately pulled up my phone to check the note there. Seeing that I had remembered correctly, I reversed the phone and showed it to Azif. He read it quickly.
"You are serious."
"It's not me. And yeah, I am, if there's a chance this will work."
The note said to pick up the object on the table and take a bite out of it, then swallow. It hadn't mentioned what would be there, just that doing this would stop the ghuls from pursuing the person who did so.
The rhythmically shuddering object was clearly a heart. A living one. And, I guessed, human.
"But Michel," Azif said, moving to stand next to the table, "while I can do that, what will it mean? That they no longer pursue me? Or that they no longer pursue Quyen? And for that matter, how will it free me?"
I had been putting thought into that. Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out the areca nut Azif had gotten from the woman in the Ondermarkt, still glowing faintly green in my sight. "It won't. But this might."
"Ah. I think I see."
"Yeah. Is this one invested? With zoemancy? I can't tell."
The Djinn snorted. "It is a bit late, if it was not. But yes, it is. That is why you can See it."
"I thought so. Okay, so, I think what we do is this - You hold the nut, and the-" I hesitated, finding that I wasn't as hard as I sometimes hoped I was- "the heart. When I reach towards you, you crush the nut. Understand?"
"You believe that Quyen will do what is necessary?"
"If we can't make him, then all this is for nothing."
Azif stood for a moment, then shrugged. "I cannot think of another option." He visibly set himself, his left hovering over the heart, and held out his right palm. "The nut."
I passed him the areca.
He picked up the heart in his left hand. It continued to beat, silently, bloodlessly, flexing in his grip. Deciding that I didn't know what was going to happen, I drew the Desert Eagle and held it out to my right side, aiming down. "You ready?"
"I am. Michel..." he hesitated.
"If this does not work - if the ghul come for us and I cannot jump-"
I looked him in the eyes, levelly. "Say it."
"I trust you to free me. One way or the other."
There was a pause.
"I can't promise that, Azif," I said past the thightness in my throat and the ice in my belly.
"I will not beg, Michel. I will only say that it will likely not destroy me."
"No," I said, "but it will kill Quyen. And I don't think that I'm willing to do that. Even for you."
The Djinn looked back at me for a few moments, then nodded slowly. "That is...understandable. Very well, I will trust you to do what you think best."
"I will." I reached out towards his face (Richard Quyen's face) in the silence. Time stretched, very gently. His eyes jumped from my hand to my eyes as my hand approached his cheek, and just as I was about to touch him I saw a convulsive movement in the corner of my eye as he crushed the areca.
There was a soft flash of green in my vision just as I touched his face.
A flash of liquid fire filled my vision, familiar, and the man across from me staggered back suddenly. I grabbed at his arm reflexively, then moved my grip to cover his hand before he could drop the heart, and shouted "Richard!"
He started, his face jerking up to meet my gaze. His color was draining rapidly towards white. I shoved his hand towards his head. "Richard, bite this now or you're not going to last long," I said, my voice hard. "You're back but only until this repository drains, do you understand?"
He shuddered, but I saw his eyes focus and swing to his hand. The revulsion in them was palpable, but I tightened my grip. "Damn it, you don't have time! BITE IT!"
Although it sounded like he sobbed once, he shut his eyes and convulsively raised the heart towards his mouth as I saw movement erupt around the walls. The angular shapes of ghul slid through the surfaces between the windows and started to move towards us. "They're here, Richard, do it NOW!"
He bit the heart.
The ghuls paused, suddenly freezing. I didn't take my eyes off him. "Swallow it, damn it, do it now!"
The man across from me, no longer Azif, suddenly seemed to have a completely different face as the person behind it flowed to the surface - a person I didn't know. He choked, slightly, gagging, and then forced down the mouthful. I watched him swallow. As soon as I saw it, I released his hand and stepped back, turning to face the ghul with the Desert Eagle at full extension.
I am HERE! came Azif's voice, booming inside my head. Light flared in my vision, and I knew that my eyes were dripping liquid fire, visible to those with Sight, as the Djinn manifested fully.
"Well?" I asked, in a croak. I centered the Desert Eagle on the ghul closest to Quyen, who was standing still, shivering slightly. "Are we done?"
The ghul I was aiming at turned towards me, and stepped forward a half-pace. On instinct I stepped back once and prepared to fire, but Azif's voice stopped me. No, Michel. It would have had you by now, if that was its intent. You are too close.
"Yeah, well, let's just see what it says," I replied out loud, not taking my gaze off the skull-like head and its glowing gaze.
"Who..." the voice, familiar from Azif's use but no longer his, coughed. "Who are you?"
"Later," I said without looking towards him. "Don't move."
We waited for perhaps ten seconds. Then the ghuls all, togethers, suddenly relaxed. The one I was facing nodded once, clearly, and then carefully moved around Quyen towards the table. He reached down and lifted the heart. When I looked at the organ, now still, then back at the creature, it bowed its head once and closed its fist. When the fingers uncurled, the heart was gone.
"I damn well hope that means we're done," I said, feeling the exhaustion I'd been holding at bay - gift of adrenalin and fear - rising up. The ghul cocked its head, then reached a talon towards my pocket. I considered, then holstered the Desert Eagle and brought out my phone. "This?"
It nodded again, then gestured towards Quyen, and without a sound all the ghuls stepped backwards and vanished into the walls once more. I sagged slightly, blew out a breath and took Quyen's arm. "Come on, let's get the hell out of here."
He wasn't stupid. He came quietly, asking only "What happened?" in a subdued voice.
As we walked back through the main doors onto the quiet and empty streets, I released his arm. "You died," I said harshly. "Whatever you did in your bathroom, whatever ritual, you screwed up. You died, but you had a backup, right? The areca."
"I..." he hesitated, then continued. "I did. I'd invested the nut over the previous week, in case I made a mistake. Is...is that what happened?"
"I think it is," I said. "You made a mistake, and the ghuls came for you. You ran. Do you remember that?"
"I remember them." We reached the curb, and I wasn't surprised to see a bus - the same one? I had no idea - waiting there. I maneuvered him up the steps, then followed. The driver, which might or might not have been the same ghul refused to meet Quyen's eye, but turned to look at me. It didn't seem hostile. At least, that's what I told myself as I nodded to it and took a seat. We pulled away.
"You ran, and you encountered the Djinn. He was pulled into you, probably because your life force was so faint that he couldn't help it - and from that point on, whenever he tried to jump out to another host, you prevented him, and the ghuls came for you."
"I don't...I've never seen the Djinn," he said. He was shaking in reaction, but was still in control. I was impressed. "I have flashes of memory after that, but not many."
"Yeah. I'd guess when you were afraid, when he tried to jump away, you'd surface for a short time, but that's it."
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" He turned to look directly at me for the first time, and flinched. "What...what's that coming from your eyes?"
"That's not me. I'm human, just like you. That's the Djinn. I'm Hosting him, for a time, until we can get back."
"Back? Where are we?" Quyen looked through the windows. "Where is everyone?"
"That's a good question," I said, settling back into the seat and watching the flames run down the face of my reflection in the window. "Ask me again, sometime."
* * *
From the notebooks of Michel Wibert:
In the fourth open lobby area of the Port Authority Bus Terminal there is a small water fountain. On the first hour of the night of the full moon, drink from the fountain and then make your way quickly to the nearest MTA bus stop. The bus will arrive empty; board it, and instead of using a Metrocard, show the driver an organ donor card. Take your seat.
The bus will make one stop. At that stop, exit the rear door; when the bus drives off, you will find yourself at the New York Public Library, but no other people will be within sight. Do not explore. If you leave the block of Fifth Avenue on which you stand, you will never return to the New York of Men. Enter the library through the rightmost door. You will find yourself in a small room with rough open windows looking out onto the edge of a small wood, in the evening. There will be a beating heart on a table in the center of the room. Take the heart in your hand, and without pausing take one bite from it. Swallow immediately. Put the heart down and leave the room through the door you came. If you have followed the proper form, the bus will arrive at the bus stop and allow you to board. The ghoul driver will not look you in the eye, nor (from that day on) will you be bothered by the resident lurkers of New York City. However, if you ever enter an automobile within the confines of Manhattan, you will find that from that moment on those denizens will all begin to seek you out and attempt to replace the heart with one unbitten.