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

When I came to some of my senses, I was in an amazingly uncomfortable position. I opened my eyes to discover that that really didn't make much of difference. There was a stickiness over my eyelids which I had enough presence of mind to fervantly wish wasn't blood, but I wasn't holding out much hope. The reason for my discomfort was that my wrists were tied behind my back and my ankles were bound together and tied to my upper thighs. The result of this knotwork was that I was in a sort of fetal position, lying on my right side. Fortunately or unfortunately, most of the really tormented muscles seemed to have gone numb before I woke up, although that was a bad sign in the long run.

I coughed experimentally. That disturbed a cloud of dust from the floor around my face, so I resolved not to do it again but promptly failed, wracking my chest and straining my shoulders as my diaphragm convulsed.

Moaning seemed to be in order. I gave that a try. It didn't improve my situation, but it made me feel better about the amazing discomfort and pain I was in.

After a couple of minutes arguing with myself to the effect that I wasn't really in bed, and I really should try to figure out what the hell was going on, I acknowledged the point with surly bad grace and tried to at least roll up to a kneeling position. This was painful and pointless until, in my thrashing, I came up against a wall; using that as a fulcrum for my shoulder, I finally managed to get my weight on my knees. I blinked several times, trying to see if I could clear my vision, but I couldn't tell if I was succeeding - the problem was in fact that it was pitch-black around me.

I noticed first of all that my bandolier was gone. So was my coat, and the various hardware that it had contained. My ankle was numb, but I presumed that if whoever had tied me had taken the time to tie my ankles, they'd found and removed my holdout gun from there as well. I couldn't tell if I had shoes on until I rocked enough to smack my feet against the hard floor. The soft thump told me that nope, I probably didn't. I caught myself thinking of the forthcoming pins and needles, assuming I managed to avoid gangrene, and almost sobbed in anticipatory agony.

Just around about then, an intensely searing light drove its way back into my skull and I tried to scream and close my eyes. I did close my eyes. I may have croaked. The light turned out to be a door opening; the dimness of a hallway, painful to my light-starved eyes, showed me two figures entering the room I was in. They grabbed me under the shoulders, cut my ankles free from my thighs, and hoisted me up between them before carrying me out of the room. I tried to keep my feet off the floor to avoid my toes being smashed into anything during the half-lift half-drag; I wasn't sure I'd succeeded. The lack of feedback I was getting from my body was really getting worrying.

We went right, then up a flight of steps that looked like 'basement back stairs' before exiting through a crash-barred door. Wending through a few darkened rooms, we finally came to what looked like workshop, with silent power tools and shelving surrounding a battered workbench in the center. The workbench was lit from above by a pair of portable worklights, making it a pool of brilliance. The figures on either side of me hoisted me without much apparent effort - I felt strangely light, as if they weren't lifting my whole weight - and dropped me onto the workbench. The pain of impact was bad, but not nearly as excruciating as I'd predicted. I rolled over back onto my right side.

"Free him."

That was new. The voice came from the shadows in the back of the room. A moment later, something cut the remaining thongs binding my ankles and wrists. I didn't so much stretch as ooze back into normal shape and extension, still lying in a curl on the bench. I know I cried at the pain that the movement of my joints engendered, but no tears came. I thought about the headache and my throat and guessed I was dehydrated. If I wasn't able to get lachrymose, it had to be fairly severe.

"Leave him there. Go away."

Voice was someone of few words, but effective ones. The shapes to either side withdrew into the darkness. After a few seconds, I heard a door open and close.

"Mister Wibert. You'll have to excuse the help." There was a rustling noise as the voice moved towards me. I blinked blearily towards it. A dark man was weaving smoothly between the toolbenches. He reached the workbench and surveyed me, hands flat on the bench to either side of his shoulders, before shaking his head.

I wasn't bound. But there was no way I was moving. He was just as safe, which pissed me off.

"...'ter?" I managed to croak.

The observer nodded and reached under the bench. He came up with a squeeze bottle, which he spritzed once into my open mouth. I swished the liquid around as best I could and felt the sandpaper start to break free and dissolve. It was water, room temp but apparently unaltered. I spat the mouthful out and opened again, hopefully. He obliged me, and I drank gratefully, ignoring the foul taste which was almost certainly my mouth and not the water.

After a few repetitions, he put the bottle down again and moved around the table so that his face was in easy view. I looked at him. He was middle height and looked awfully familiar, despite that I was sure I'd never met him. It wasn't until he spoke again that the shoe dropped.

"Mister Wibert. I understand I have you to thank for my brother Hapy's arrival."

I shook my head in confusion. "Shu?"

"Indeed. Very nice to make your acquaintance."


"Mister Wibert, you fancy yourself a professional interlocutor, I understand. You speak with my kind at whim or at others' behest, aided by your ability to discern us no matter the precautions we might take to remain unnoticed and unseen. You pull us from our preferred anonymity."

"No...only if...you want to talk." My voice was still shot with nails but recovering. My shoulders were beginning to sink into molten lava. My ankles were still numb, which boded ill for any escape attempts.

"If we want to talk?" There was a slight anger in Shu's face. He frowned down at me. "It is not the talking. It is your perception of us, subject to none of our will, that concerns me. For that reason, I determined that when I wished to discuss the present situation with you, I would do my small part to make you understand the degree of presumption you take up when you address one of us despite our wards.

I was starting to get annoyed. That was good; if I had room past the pain for anger, I was still functioning at a relatively high level. "Wait, you're saying you had me kidnapped, knocked out, tied up in a basement and dropped here on this bench because you wanted me to know how it feels when I turn to you on the fucking subway and say 'hi?' That's a little out of proportion, don't you think?"

"Obviously not, or I would not have done so." Shu sighed and hitched one buttock up onto the workbench. "I do not expect you to agree. Just take it from me that the degree of offense is roughly comparable."

"F...fuck you."

Shu nodded. "Yes, whatever. Now. Are you alert enough to discuss our difficulty?"

I tried experimentally to move my right hand to my left wrist. It worked, despite igniting pyrotechnic joint pain in both arms and shoulders. I rubbed at my left wrist, jerkily, feeling the groove the thongs had cut into them. "What difficulty? We've never even met."

"No, that is true. But as I said, you brought my brother here."

"Hapy? Why the hell does everyone keep believing that? I didn't bring him here. I want to find out what the hell he's doing here myself."

Shu shook his head. His short black hair shifted. "You may deny it all you wish. However, I know the truth. You brought Hapy here, and disrupted the balance significantly. Not in my favor. Were you another Elder, I would simply accept this as a move of the game, but you-" he poked my right shoulder, hard, eliciting a whining hiss from my throat, "-you are a human. You have no blood in the stars; you have no power. You dare to make a move in the game and to sit there and tell me you had nothing to do with it?" His anger was back, and rising. I was still trying to figure out what the hell I'd done to piss him off.

"I..." I subsided into coughs; not difficult. Apparently he actually wanted an answer. He pulled out the water bottle again and fed me sips of it for a minute or so while I thought as hard as I could under the circumstances. Shu. Know his name. Brother of Hapy. God of ancient Egypt, then, but which? Name is familiar. Had me snatched. Wait, that was a wraith and what looked like a sylph under it. That means God of Air, most likely. God of Air. What the hell does that mean? I sipped again, nodded.

"Look, can I assume that since you've gone to all this trouble that we can actually talk now?"

"We are talking. For how long is the question."

I didn't like the sound of that. "Okay. You're upset that Hapy showed up in Manhattan. I'm confused and concerned at Hapy's showing up in Manhattan. Various individuals seem convinced that it was my doing, but I swear to you on the icons you took from me that I didn't do it. At least, if I did, I have no memory of doing so and had no intent."

"That is irrelevant."

"Fine. What balance did I disturb? Can I at least know what I'm going to die for, then?"

"You will most likely not die. You will not be in any condition to interfere again in my affairs for some years, however."

Yikes. That sounded not so pleasant. "Well, before that."

Shu shook his head. "No. It is enough that you interfered. You have no need to know how. It will make it less likely you are tempted to repeat any form of action that might irritate me in future."

I tried to stretch my legs out flat. They almost made it. The pain was indescribable. I writhed for a moment while Shu watched me impassively. When I could place my wrists at my sides I did so and turned my neck to look at him. My neck hurt from sympathetic strain, but it hadn't undergone any direct trauma.

"Did you send that slyph and wraith after me?"

"Of course. You interfered again. Ariel is useless to me for some turns, due to your actions with your stupid handgun."

"Just say I shot him. It's less confusing."

"You shot an ancient spirit, one of my most trusted assistants, and dispersed his coherence. I presume you used one of your filthy tools to do so; he would not have noticed a mere bullet."

I grinned weakly. Score one for the stupid team. "Wouldn't you like to know."

"Mister Wibert, you cannot goad me into releasing you. I have released you, and it has done you no good. I have no interest in this conversation as a contest of any sort."

"Oh, but I do." I was still grinning. It took two coughs to get that out.

"That may be. In any case, I tell you this simply so that you understand that even if you survive my displeasure, Ariel will eventually be in a position to make his own unhappiness known."

"Tell him I'll shoot him again."

Shu actually looked up at the darkness above the table in exasperation. "There is no point in continuing this." He stepped back and waved. The door opened and closed again; I could see two somewhat fuzzy shapes approached the table. Since I could now move my head, I could see that they looked an awful lot like the shape I'd seen lying on the floor of the alleyway. I squinted, but couldn't make out any facial features. Sylphs, then. They lifted me to the floor and held me in a standing position. I was aware of a crackling, as that of static electricity during a storm; there were popping sensations in their grips.

"As you can tell, they are not terribly happy with you. You have deprived them of their Lord's guidance. I've told them they are free to express their displeasure, so long as you can be said to survive at the end of the process."

"Gee, thanks so much." I cast about me with my will, searching for any familiar feeling of energy which would betray the presence of my icons, but there was nothing. Shu didn't strike me as the type to bring his captive's weapons into the cell.

Shu turned away. I raised my voice; he stopped at my words, facing away. "Shu. One last thing."

"Yes?" He did not turn to face me.

"We're going to have this discussion again. And I'm going to get answers."

"Are you attempting to threaten me, human?"

"Take it however you want."

He just shook his head and moved off into the darkness. There was a slight howling noise, wind in the far-off distance, and then he was gone from the room. I turned to the sylph on my right. "Okay, Tinkerbell, let's get it over with."

Despite not having a face, its head wrinkled in what I could tell was anger. I was thrown down onto my knees, and closed my eyes in expectation. I didn't have any tricks left; I just knew I wasn't going to let any of them get the last word. I'm the damn talker around here.

The first blow was painful.

The second was incandescent.

After that, I think they began changing the ambient pressure inside and around my joints, and I passed out in the agony of my skeleton locking into a frozen shape of hurt.

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

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