Linus walks South up Thompson Street, taking in the sights and sounds of the Village, enjoying his time away from the trials of his family and work. The summer Manhattan night is humid, bereft of the gusts which keep one cool on a night like this in North Carolina. A bead of sweat escapes his armpit, running down the inside of his armored lab coat.
As he reaches Bleeker Street, the scientist spots a pair of oriental kids squatting on the filthy sidewalk. One of them holds up a string of red firecrackers while the other cautiously lights the bundle from below. The first of the crackers starts, sending flashes and gunshot bangs into the night air. The children prance away, screaming and rejoicing in the chaos, but the series of blasts calls Linus in, mesmerizing him, enticing him to look deeply into the dazzling flames.
Linus gazes into the beautiful complexity of the flame, continuing to walk up the street towards the shops of Chinatown. He moves slowly, casually, thinking of his own children. He is headed for a little shop just off of canal, looking for a full spectrum adjustable wavelength LASER and a yeast artificial chromosome that he believes he has found a source for.
The firecracker’s bursting display begins to mesmerize the scientist. He stumbles to a stop as the dancing fire fills his vision, his errands all but forgotten, the cacophony seeming to surround and engulf him. Linus enters a trance he has experienced but rarely in his life before, and knows he is in communion with his almighty totem, the Fire Bringer himself.
The great mentor spirit appears to Linus in the dance of the flames, taking on the countenance of a mortal form chained to a rocky abutment. His hair hangs in long, dark ropes around his face, and carrion birds linger at his paunch, shaking his entrails forth with greedy beaks. He groans in agony, his head rolling up and sideways to meet Linus’ gaze, pupils all ablaze.
“Torchbearer. . . Auuuugh. . .” The vision moans as an eagle flies off, tearing away a rope of his gut. “My loyal subject. . . Your destiny lies open. The way goes in shadow, but you can. . . Eerrrrgh. . . You can bring the dawn. The Reader will have the answers, but the three must choose. Choose knowledge, torchbearer, choose to share God’s light.”
Linus stares into the flame… feeling the burn for knowledge within even as he sees its consuming wrath take form in the Fire Bringer. He knows that his curiosity will draw him ever onward, be it into the light of day or his own combustion.
“I will always follow the light,” He replies. “Though it may burn my flesh to the bone. My mind shall be a mirror to the clockwork ’verse.”
He bows his head in reverence, pondering the creation of his own substance, for a moment, in the fusion inferno of a distant sun.
He looks up and asks “But who are the three? And who is the reader?” Though he knows that the answers are unlikely to be forthcoming. This, as other instructions from his guiding spirit, is merely the trailhead of a long path of inquiry.
The vision of his totem begins to break up, the details of his mentor spirit melting back into the dance of flame. “Questions, torchbearer, yes. Never. . . Auuugh. . . Never cease to ask them. Who is the Reader? He is the only one who can open the book—he can teach you the words which bind. Who are the Three?” The Titan, now nothing more than a voice in the light, lets out a crackling laugh. “Who are the Three, you ask! As a proton asking after the atom. Ugggh. . The price we pay to share the light, torchbearer. It is worse than death. . .”
The last of the gunpowder tubes expends its short, exothermic life, leaving the scientist standing on the street corner in a daze, his eyes swimming with memories of the fire. He casts about, his revery turned to embarrassment by the realization that he must have been talking to himself in the middle of the busy sidewalk. He looks around in shame, but finds that only the two little Asian boys have taken any notice of him. It seems possible the people of this city have seen worse than a man talking to himself on the street. The boys burst into laughter and scamper North across Bleeker. Linus watches them go, worried for their safety, thinking of his own little children.
As the pair safely reaches the far side of Bleeker, they run past a woman who looks strikingly like his Catherine. Linus shakes his head, amused by the coincidence, but then takes a closer look, unwilling to believe his eyes. It was Catherine, by the flame, he could not mistake his wife, even from across a busy street. Why had she come to New York? Was she here to surprise him, or. . .? No, the look on her face said otherwise. Her expression was one of worry, deep trouble and urgent need. Catherine meets his gaze from across the way, her brow furrowed, eyes wide with fear, then turns and disappears behind a fresh wave of traffic and a sea of nightlife, her path taking her North up Thompson street.
Linus is taken off guard, surprised at the appearance of his wife especially so soon after his vision. He immediately finds himself assuming that which he always, latently, fears: that she is on to him and his experiments in his storage locker will be discovered. His next thought is that she is cheating on him, here in New York. His last thought is to wonder who is taking care of his little girls, if she is here in New York.
He takes off across the street after her, remembering only at the last minute to check for traffic and mind himself. He yells out:
“Catherine, it’s me! What are you doing here? Cat, wait!”
Linus gives chase, barely keeping up with the back of his wife’s head bobbing through the nightlife crowd. If she hears him, she isn’t responding. He sees her continue down Thompson, past the first handful of storefronts and bars, before turning suddenly to her left, ducking between two old brick buildings into what looks from his vantage point to be a darkened alleyway.
Linus continues forward, drawn by curiosity and worry. The vague tingling of inhibition tickles his frontal lobes as he recognizes some of the key features of a trap… and recalls the powers of illusion possible in the world. Nevertheless he ducks between the buildings after her. At the mouth of the alley, though, he pauses to see if anyone is around, and to see if Catherine is still in sight down in the alley. He quickly dials her on his com, continuing after her.
The summoner rounds the corner into the dark alley and stops short at the sight before him. The alley is nothing more than a narrow gap between two brick buildings, about fifty yards deep, cluttered with dumpsters and wooden pallets. Backdoors spill light and bustle from kitchens and storage rooms into the cramped space.
All traces of his wife have vanished, but a far more pressing sight confronts him. An elven man in a bartender’s apron floats inches above the pavement, his body convulsing with tortured movements. His long blonde hair flows about his head as if underwater, and crimson energies pour from his mouth and eyes.
At his feet, centered on the place where the man would be standing were he not being held aloft by some arcane force, lies a complex diagram etched in white chalk which Linus immediately recognizes as a hermetic summoning circle, although it is very sloppily drawn. Pressed against one wall is an elf girl in her early teenage years, her face a mask of pure terror. A very outdated copy of “Weckly’s Introduction to Street Conjuring” sits open in her lap.
She gasps in relief at the sight of the summoner, the unfocused cast of her pupils betraying that she is astrally perceiving. “Thank God, a mage! Please, you’ve got to help me! My dad was showing me how to bind on his break, but it overpowered me! Now it’s in him!” The girl begins to sob. “Please, do something. . . do anything—just don’t let it kill my pa!”
The possessed man turns it’s gaze on Linus and begins to float forward, its arms outstretched. The comm continues to ring in his hand.
Linus, distractedly shuts off the com, confused at the sight before him. Street conjuring is a dangerous game played by the uninitiated, made even worse by the undisciplined nature of youth. Linus immediately feels a surge of sympathy as he imagines his own children at home, who will one day, like this girl, likely fumble their way into the arcane world. They, of course, will have instruction and guidance, and not a dirty, thumbed through tomb full of half tested suggestions and incomplete rituals.
“Little girl, did you conjure the vision of my Wife, or did the spirit here do that? I must know this before I engage it, as it will give me knowledge of its power,”
Even as he asks, he begins the ritual for summoning a fire spirit into the astral plane around them [Force 5]. He thinks, as he does, of the battles of the past fought beside his powerful companions, and the toll it has exacted in flesh and blood. He will let blood again, if need be, for this innocent girl caught far out of her depths.
Linus begins to etch the summoning circle in his mind, inscribing the the space between the metaplanes and the tangible world with conduits of magic. The performance takes its toll, winding him like a long sprint on a hot day, but his well-trained mind is conditioned to the task, initiating the calling with an engineer’s precision.
The possessed man begins to float down the alley toward Linus, its arms still outstretched. Even though the rogue spirit is still a good ten meters away, Linus can feel the man’s fingers closing around his neck, tightening into a strangling grip, closing off his esophagus.
The scientist sinks to his knees, his head swimming from lack of oxygen, the phantom hands still closed around his neck. [You have taken 2 stun damage. You have 8 remaining before you lose consciousness.]
Linus pushes through the pain, completing the summoning. Although he cannot see it, Linus can feel the fire spirit’s presence, thriving and full of power in his periphery, burning to begin completion of its first task. [The fire spirit grants you 4 services.]
Linus could not help but muse to himself, even in the midst of being slowly choked to death by a free spirit in the middle of a dark alleyway, that the monstrosity’s implementation of basic spellcasting left something to be desired. Linus himself could cast a more powerful psychokinetic manifestation with his eyes closed.
The girl screams as Linus begins to struggle against the magical attack, shuffling backwards ineffectually against the brick wall. “AAAH! What? Your freaking Wife? I don’t even know what you’re talking about! Jesus! What do I do? What are you going to do? Oh my God, what is that?!” The elf jerks her head in the direction of Linus’ spirit. “Is this dog thing one of yours? Are you controlling it? Holy crap, is it going to burn us? Do something, guy, quickly!”
Linus’ conjures his spirit with the “search” ability, planning to make use of this service after battle is finished. He has realized, though, that its help will likely not be needed for this battle.
A tread of thought winds through his brain that his wife must have been an illusion, but also that there is no clear source of the illusion. Why it may have brought him here, to this ridiculous scene in a back alley, is a puzzle that will require his logical consideration.
Now, though, he must protect this girl and her father. Linus is unimpressed with this spirit but irritated by the attack, and now throws the balance of his efforts into banishing this rogue spirit. If possible, he will attempt to summon it to his own control, that he may interrogate it.
The summoner can see the inscriptions begin to etch themselves in the air, circles of control linked with lines of conduction to aid the circulation of mana throughout the system.
The outer drawing completes, then the inner tracks begin to form, snaking toward the spirit to complete the banishing. The city spirit feels the first tendril of the rune touch its body and lashes out in anger, unwilling to leave this world quietly. It thrashes about, sending cracks coursing through the inscription, for a moment threatening to break the spell.
Distracted now by its own banishment, the rogue spirit’s psychokinetic grip on Linus’ throat begins to weaken. The scientist gasps for air and takes the offensive, becoming impatient with the paltry spirit of man. He reaches out, repairing the ruptures in the rune before sealing the central glyph with a triumphant clenching of his fist.
The man’s body is pulled taught, suddenly crucified upon the rune of banishment. The glowing light streaming from his mouth and eyes begins to ebb, and his fine elven hair falls back to his shoulders.
[The spirit has been banished. You have one turn to successfully summon it into your service before it slips this plane forever.]
Linus immediately begins the re-summoning, grasping at the air and pulling the spirit back towards the physical world. He is weak with these spirits of man, but he knows that this one is weak, and should come to his call. He calls to the girl as he performs this summoning:
“Do not be alarmed, your father is safe and this spirit is vanquished. I am trying to call the spirit back under my power, that I may question it, but it will not harm you.”
The threat gone, Linus’ mind begins to gear up once again on the image of his wife, weaving through the crowd. It must have been an apparition… the coincidence is too.. unsettling. He hopes that this spirit has answers for him, though he has suspicions that the interrogation will be futile."
The summoner acts quickly, calling the errant city spirit into his service before it departs forever. He adds words of summoning to the peripheries of the binding glyph, forming magical shackles around the spirit’s neck and limbs which tether it to the earth with ethereal chains.
The summoning goes off without a hitch, and the spirit departs the girl’s father at last. The little girl runs to him, cradling his head in her arms and whispering noises of gratitude and relief.
Linus feels the link with his fire spirit fade, replaced by the darker presence of the city spirit. It gives an annoyed woof before departing the astral plane. [You may only have 1 unbound spirit active at a time.]The spirit of man shows its true form in a hazy manifestation upon the physical plane—It is a fearsome being, some strange corruption of the human form, its dark limbs twisted and jointed at alien angles. Upon a hunched back sits a sinister, angular head, its eyes narrow slits glowing crimson, its grinning maw filled with dagger-like teeth. It sizes Linus up haughtily, no longer bothering to resist its entrapment. The spirit’s voice fills his mind, like the sound of a thousand snakes speaking in unison. “My life is yours, earthwalker, for a time. My thanks for removing me from the man-flesh. To have a body is a disgusting thing, and for it I pity you. I ask only that you let me eat the girl—she should be punished for presuming to conjure one such as me.” [The spirit of man grants you 4 services. Its optional power is psychokinesis, as you may recall.]
Linus regrets the loss of the fire spirit’s warm aura, and is startled at this new spirit’s malevolent voice. He has become used to the powerful, if sometimes searing justice of the flame and the firebringer. Its spirits have been brave and forthright. Loyal to the last. This one is an ugly presence. He moves to question the spirit quickly and be gone with it.
“You shall exact no such revenge. But I must know, did you conjure any illusions to draw me here? Or did you see a woman come down this alley, just under my height, blonde with dark brown eyes and medium length brown hair? I was following her when I happened upon you.”
Linus looks at the father as he does this, trying to see if he has sustained any critical damage.
The elven man looks shaken, for certain—his skin is pale and sweaty, large dark circles line his eyes, and his hands quiver in his daughter’s grasp, but he does not seem to be in immediate danger of dying.
The city spirit somersaults lazily in the air, reveling in its freedom from gravity as it considers the summoner’s question. “I saw an illusion, yes, but it could not have been me who cast it; I do not know this spell. It did look as you describe, earthwalker.” The spirit regards Linus capriciously, mischief in its eyes.
Linus is almost relieved that this spirit was not he source of the illusion, since it would imply some powerful intrusion into his mind. Then he realizes that the illusions true source must be elsewhere.
“Then do you know who did cast this illusion, spirit? Do you serve any other master? Answer quickly because I wish strongly to release you back to the astral planes.”
The cold thin tendril of dread begins to wind its way around Linus’ heart as he realizes that something unknown in the city seems to be toying with him, something that would seek to bring him into a dark alley with a malevolent spirit. He hopes it is the fire bringer guiding him towards an act of kindness and justice, but he knows this is unlikely.
The spirit hisses quietly to himself. “I serve no other master save the wending of the city, a force beyond your ken, airbreather. I assensed the spell by way of curiosity—It belonged to man-flesh as yourself, but it shone of perfection, great power and consummate ease. Only a sparse few man-things on this island have the power to weave such as it.” The spirit smiles fiendishly. “Do not look so fearful, earthwalker. Its aura bespoke benevolence and purpose, absent ire for your flesh. The caster has plans for you, firecaller, and aims to draw you to them.”
Linus breathes in and out slowly. His questioning is complete, but his curiosity is not yet fully satisfied.
“Your information is very helpful, spirit. Begone, and thank you for your service.”
He waives his hand in dismissal, and releases the spirit. He goes to the girl, huddled over her father. He keeps some distance, crouches down to be at her level and attempts to comfort her, as he would his own little girls. Meanwhile he ponders whether he should get the man to a medcenter.
The spirit hisses once more and disappears, swirling into nothingness like black ink turning down a drain.
The elven girl is in tears, clutched now in her father’s arms. The man looks to Linus. “Thank you for saving my life, and moreover my daughter’s. I don’t even want to think of what would have happened if you hadn’t come when you did.” The man shudders to himself.
The little girl lifts a fine silver chain from her neck, upon which hangs a silver locket. She holds it out to the summoner. “I want you to take this, please. It was my mother’s before she passed. She was great with spirits, just like you. Maybe it will help you one day.”
Linus pauses for a moment. It’s unlike him to accept gifts of this sort for something so simple. The girl is so innocent, and so kind to offer it. He thinks for a moment.
“Little girl I don’t even know your name, but I will take this locket out of respect for your wishes. I must give one condition, though: You must seek magical training. That you could summon any spirit at all without teaching at your age is sign of power within you, it must be directed and channeled towards the light. These street magics are dangerous and corruptable, I would not have you play any part in them.”
Linus pauses for a moment. He thinks of the fire bringer. He thinks of the image his wife, who led him here. He thinks of his own girls, who though vaguely tingling with magical energy, do not show the potential of this eager Manhattan urchin. He hesitates for a moment. Then he fishes out his card. He hands it to her in a manner of exchange for the locket.
“If you can find no one else who will train you, contact me. My com is here.”
The elven girl takes his card eagerly, thanking him profusely. He pauses to examine her gift—it is a simple silver locket, engraved with a plain rope pattern. The front panel looks like it opens.
When Linus looks back up, he sees that a wooden door has begun to rise out of the pavement in front of him. It continues to rise level with the ground, then slides smoothly to a halt. Its face is pure shining steel, without a single crease in it, along with the handle and hinges. The doorframe is painted a bright orange, and across the headjam is tacked a steel nameplate which reads simply:“THE LIGHT”.
No sooner had Linus touched the knob than the door flies open, revealing a darkened park through the other side. The summoner feels an unknown force pulling him through, as if gravity had suddenly shifted on its axis. It is all he can do to hold on to his new locket before he is swept across the threshold.
Linus stumbles through the other side and looks about to get his bearings. He has been to this place earlier in the day while he was sightseeing, although in the dark of night it had a more sinister aspect. He appeared to be standing immediately inside the lip of a large circular fountain in the center of Washington Square Park. The rim of the fountain was dirty concrete, raised around the edge to provide a place to sit. A handful of steps led down to the center of the fountain, which was dry now, with a raised circle in the center where the water might have jetted out on a hot summer day. All around him were paved paths dotted with lamp-posts and trees engulfed in shadow. Directly in front of him stood a large arch, made of white stone and droplit with lights along its base. If he remembered correctly, this structure stood at the Northern end of the park, meaning he was on the Southern-most edge of the fountain’s circle, facing North.
And there were other men in the circle, other men with doors behind them. To his left he could make out a tall man standing in front of a faded white door with a blue frame. This door’s nameplate read only “DEATH”. The man was wearing old jeans tucked into pointed boots, a faded armored jacket and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat with mirrored aviator sunglasses beneath. His fingers, long and nimble, hovered cautiously above a pair of heavy-duty revolvers slung low at his waist on a pistolier’s double-holstered belt, which was lined with shells across the front. The man’s poised stance suggested he knew how to use them.
On the opposite side of the fountain stood another door with another man. This door was a made of a dark wood, bordered in green. Curiously, the nameplate read “THE SHADOW”. The man who had just come through the door was Indian, with long shaggy hair coming to his neck
and a thick beard. He wore a stained white T-shirt which bulged with signs of an armored vest beneath, and equally dingy khakis held up by a woven belt. He wore a broken-in backpack which bulged with unknown contents. He had an easy, self assured stance, and he held a racing motorcycle beside him, which had somehow made it through the door with him. On his belt hung a strange-looking device: a bronze rod, maybe a foot long, with four small claws on either end.
Just then Linus noticed that there was a third man standing at the exact center of the fountain, equidistant between them on the raised circle from which water might spray out. This man wears a tattered brown three-piece suit, and leans heavily on a cane. He gestures to each of them in turn and calls out, “Ah, finally, you have all arrived. Come closer, so we may talk.”