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- the New York Magician -

People say that the poor and ambitious in the U.S. get off buses at stations in either Los Angeles or New York City. What happens to them after that is a matter of natural progression - Los Angeles is warm year round, so most of their crop end up living on the streets of Santa Monica, Venice and Manhattan Beach. New York gets bloody cold, so most of the Eastern migrants end up in the subway.

The New York Subway is a place I've become all too familiar with. First as a child, learning to get around. Then as an adult, realizing it's the fastest way. Now, in my third existence, I find myself down here all too often. I'm on a first-name basis with most of the migratory population near Grand Central, and those who don't want to know me know to avoid me.

I'm known by face by some of the other things as well. Whether they'll avoid me depends on the day, their mood, and their nature.

March the fourth. It was cold outside. Very, very cold. The kind of day when the earthen funk of the New York underground is comforting even to those of delicate nose for the warmth it brings. It was a dry, bitter cold, with no snow or ice on the streets, just cutting wind. New Yorkers don't run from things, precisely, but they're great at avoiding them - and the streets showed it, empty of all save a few stragglers.

I stepped out of Morton's onto Forty-fifth and paused long enough to extract a cigar from my new trenchcoat, clip it and stoke it alight. I missed my Burberry; in addition to being well broken in, it had had the fruit of several weeks of work embedded in it. The changes I had wrought in its thick folds had saved my life several times. Weeks before, however, I had been having a discussion with an Elder in a drugstore which had turned hostile. While I'd been quick enough on the dodge to save my skin, I hadn't been quick enough to save the Burberry, which I hadn't thought to armor up against eldritch claws with osmium serrations.

So, new coat. This one was dark, dark grey as its name suggested, and I had to admit that that was more useful for my somewhat unpredictable life. I had been working on it in the evenings, and it was much more useful than an off-the-rack coat would be, but it still hadn't achieved the level of armoring the Burberry had. I was beginning to suspect the higher level of synthetics in its construction were part of the problem, but hadn't yet chatted with my sometime tutors about the problem.

However, it was still good at the mundane task of keeping me warm and my cigars dry. I strolled eastwards on Forty-Fifth towards the invisible bulk of Grand Central, a fine steak in my belly and a fine cigar clamped in my teeth.

Park Avenue and Forty-Fifth is the north side of the Pan Am Building, known to younger people as the damn Met Life building. I'm against the new capitalist tradition of renaming landmarks when money changes hands. I think when a building is built and named, it should keep its Name. Names are important. I still call it the Pan Am building, and once in a while when I walk up or down Park Avenue and look up at its top, I can see a wavering as the logo changes just for a moment to the familiar dull white serif capitals, just for me.

I thought about how to get downtown towards home. I could always walk a few yards to the East side IRT in Grand Central, or I could accept the several drinks and the cigar and hail a cab. I thought about it in a leisurely manner while continuing to puff on the cigar, since the wisdom of the mob dictated I had to freeze my tuchus off on the corner while enjoying the thing.

There was a sudden tremor in New York.

I froze and looked around, unsure even of what had happened. Something had changed, for just a moment, but the few pedestrians hurrying past looked unperturbed. I stuck the cigar back into my mouth and slowly reached into my coat to lay my right hand against my pocketwatch in its pouch. Placing my back to a streetlight pole and closing my eyes, I reached out into the City around me. Bright wavering lines of life, pedestrians and passengers in cars moving past me leaving neon fading trails. The hard sputtering flicker of electrical activity in cars, streetlights, buildings. Somewhere deep below I could feel water flowing. There was life on the platforms of Grand Central below me, a few passengers waiting for their trains.

The tremor happened again, and I narrowed my senses on it. It was in the tunnels, just to the north. The bright solid bar of the live rail for Metro North had shimmered, just for a second.

Something was shorting the train power, intermittently. I thought I could see a brighter miasma uptown where the short might be, but it was impossible to be sure through the glare of various electrical fields.

I pulled my hand out of my coat and blinked, steadying myself in the dim tones of the city at night. I had no reason to care about the flicker; Metro North's maintenance was questionable at the best of times.

But something pulled me off the lightpost anyway, causing my to search around the intersection with my eyes. Something I could smell vaguely, but not identify. Something I remembered.

I strode across the entrance to one of the traffic tunnels through the Pan Am building so that I stood on a short stretch of curb between the two tunnels, and looked down at my goal.

The manhole cover was rusted and looked like it hadn't been moved in years.

I grimaced, pulled a short metal tool out from under my coat (it had been a present from Kevin a few months before) and slid the wedge prybar end into the manhole's seam. The handle flipped out, and I wiggled the tool back and forth before pushing down and sharply levering.

The cover lifted on one side and slid aside a few inches with a hollow gonging sound. I slid it further to one side and dropped through it to the surface I could see beneath in my second sight. Reaching up, I hooked the cover's corrugations with the tool and dragged it back over my head, where it seated with another clang.

Then I put my tool away, pulled out my Desert Eagle, and flicked on the tactical light I'd attached under the barrel before moving east off down the rusted, filthy tunnel.

After perhaps fifty feet, I came to a ladder down and shone my light quickly down the hole. Nothing moved, so I flicked off the light, holstered the gun and started down the ladder. I could feel something else through the waters of life and death, now. The pocketwatch was thrumming slightly, the frequencies of the buzzing short ringing through it as they had when I was holding it. The vial of waters, though, was chilling me through the leather and cloth separating it from my chest, with the liquid cold of fear. Fear that it was amplifying, its waters in tune with the life energy of humans as the watch was in tune with the energies of things.

About twenty feet down, the ladder terminated at the bottom of a circular shaft. I stepped away from it, looked around, then found the outline of a door to the west. I drew the gun again, then pulled at the rusted latch and kicked the door hard. It swung open. I breathed in the sudden rush of warm, earthen rot-smelling air and stepped through it into the commuter rail tunnels.

It felt like coming home.

The fear was moving. I set off away from the lights some few yards to the south, where the platforms ended, and moved north. The shining ribbons of the rails merged, merged again, the dozens of tracks condensing into the main tunnels north. After a few minutes, the first strong flicker of fear lapped at me strongly enough to locate, and I angled slightly west, coming up on a shuffling shape moving down the tunnel. As it went past, I reached out a hand and grabbed at it.

"Putain de merde!" The form jumped, scrabbling away from me, and fell over. I shoved it hard so that it missed the live rail, and it rolled over on the trackbed before shoving a greasy hood down and staring up at me through matted hair. "Fucking hell, man!"

I looked north into the darkness, then down at the face. "Hi Santos."

"Wibert." The shape sighed and rubbed its face. "Should have known."

I knelt down and lowered the gun to my knee. "What's going on?"

Ziol Santos, a homeless Haitian man somewhere between twenty and fifty years old, peered at my face. "Why you want to know?"

"Something scared you before I got here, Santos. What's going on?"

"I don' know, Wibert." He shook his head. "Somethin' not right down here tonight."

"You see something?"

"Nah." He shook his head. "Somethin' movin' round, though, uptown. Ever'body headin' for light tonight."

"Just one thing? Lots of things?" I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out a bribe for Santos. He misses them. Don't ask me why a Haitian man would be named Santos; I just go by what I'm told.

"You don' have to pay me, Wibert. I be tellin' you anyway." His eyes were fixed on the cigar, though.

I handed it to him. "Don't burn yourself down, man. What's moving around?" Santos had clued me in to two or three Elders or their servants trying to move in underneath New York before it had gotten ugly. I'd seen him terrified, for good reason, but I'd never seen him spooked. It wasn't pretty.

He took the cigar, sniffed it appreciatively, and held out a hand. I pulled him to his feet. He cast around his ankles for a moment and came up with a beat-up shoulderbag which he'd dropped. Sticking the cigar behind an ear, he slung the bag over his shoulder. "Nothin' good, man. I see Albert go uptown a few hours ago. He don' come back. I seen five, six folk come past me, all lookin' nervous. I smell somethin,' and it don' smell right."

"Okay, Santos. Thanks." I looked uptown and lifted the gun up to shoulder level, aimed up. "Gonna take a look."

"That's not good for you, Wibert. Good for us. If you don' come downtown in two hour, I maybe come looking."

I nodded and headed back north along the tracks. Ziol stood there for a few moments, then I heard him shuffling south.

The smell hit me first, somewhere around what must have been around Fiftieth street. Dank, musty, rotten - and remember, this was under New York in the train tunnels. For those smells to suddenly stand out, something big had to be wrong. I let the big pistol slip down back in front of me and moved east so I was walking along the tunnel wall. Just in case, I stopped under one of the few working incandescent lights set on the wall and pulled up a slip, the electricity of the light dribbling out into the watch as I worked. The bulb flickered before steadying.

Hm. Flickering.

Moving uptown, it took another hundred feet before I saw it. I don't know what had happened - probably a water main or sewer break some weeks before - but there was still an enormous pool of scummy water across the tunnel floor. The source of the heavy flickering was obvious - as the pool rippled in times with the flexing of the city's bones, a shower of sparks at the far side showed where the rising water was contacting the live rail. I lowered the gun and stared at the pool in the flickering arc light.

There wasn't any sign of bodies. No electrocuted denizens of the underdark. Nothing, in fact, that was tripping the senses of my bandolier, which was still screaming WRONG WRONG at me. I holstered the gun and looked around for a way across the puddle, which I couldn't trust not to be electrified from moment to moment. I was mildly surprised that Metro North's breakers hadn't kicked over, but the slight rustle of running water from my right indicated that the pool must have just risen to within reach of the rail.

There wasn't any good way across. Except-

It was stupid, but I honestly couldn't think of an option other than trying to beat down the electrical system myself, and although I'd come near to doing that in the past it hadn't been fun or health-inducing, and I wasn't in any mood to try again. I sighed, extended my arms for balance, and stepped up onto the wooden cover rail atop the live rail, then started slowly to balance my way across the puddle.

It took a few minutes, including a minute spent getting my heart to settle down after an arc flare beneath my feet, but eventually I hopped off on the uptown side of the pool and looked about.

There was a wide, wet track of something that looked like...well, not to put a fine point on it, it looked like the slime that extranormal things were so fond of exuding. It was perhaps three meters wide and extended north, uptown. The sense of wrongness came from there, as well. I unshipped the gun and started after it.

It took around ten minutes of walking before I realized what was wrong. No trains. I hadn't heard a single train go by, and even this late in the evening, a couple should have been past by now. Nothing. I hoped that meant the electrical fault had prompted a shutdown, and not something more ominous.

A sign painted on the wall read "63", which I took to mean 'Sixty-third street', when I saw a gleaming ahead. Something shiny was moving slowly through the tunnel, and I hurried slightly. It was moving directly up one of the center tracks, and was perhaps four or five feet high. I cut to the right, and ran up the dry track on that side until I was abreast of it and turned my tactical light onto it.

It froze. A huge humped shape, of browns and greens, it was indeed around four feet high at the center and slumped towards the edges. It looked like nothing so much as a pile of wet gleaming trash and gelatinous folds, but as I stood there and looked at it open-mouthed, it rotated clockwise.

A human face stared out of the pile, blank-faced but the eyes fixated on me. I twitched and almost put a bullet through it in surprise before looking closely. The face was familiar. It was Albert, late of the high forties of this very tunnel. I could see his face, but no other part of his body; the face was extruded slightly from the slick wetness around him. I stepped carefully through the support columns that divided the tracks so that I was uptown of the thing and faced it. It shuffled again and rotated Albert's face to me. I couldn't tell if the eyes were focusing.

"Can you hear me?" I felt stupid talking to a trashpile, but had no idea what else to try. If it could see using Albert's face, maybe...

It shuffled back and forth through ten degrees of rotation, then settled.

"Does that mean yes?"

It did it again.

I sat there, feeling somewhat stupid and unsure of what to do. Bending over, I reached for Albert's face tentatively, and the thing jerked backwards. The face blinked once, slowly. I stood again and leveled the gun. "Is Albert still alive?"

The thing didn't move. That wasn't good. Either it didn't understand, or the answer was one I didn't like at all.

No help for it, then. I was going to have to call in help. I stepped back from it a few feet and then reached into my bandolier. I pulled out the Vial of the Waters, held it up in front of me, and then shone my light through it, my other hand pressed against the pocketwatch, and sent a pulse of energy through the vial. Reality wavered in a spherical ripple, rushing out from my hand at increasing speed as a visible distortion and a sound too low to make out but large enough to shake the bones. The shape in front of me thrashed back and forth for a few moments, apparently unsure of itself. I was reminded strongly, of a sudden, of the cheesily fake Horta from Star Trek, but didn't grin. Albert's eyes were fixed unseeingly on me. I couldn't even tell if the rest of his body was in there as well.

"Well, well, child." The voice came from behind my right shoulder, and I jumped. High. I didn't scream like a little girl, but it was a near thing. Spinning to face the crone who stood there, hunched over a cane, I put away the Desert Eagle. It wouldn't help, and would probably offend her.

"Grandmother." I tried to school my voice down into respectful levels rather than a squeak. She peered up at me, blinked a couple of times, and smiled slowly.

"Not watching behind him, eh. Grand knight of the city. Lets a Baba sneak up on him."

I bowed, without saying anything.

"Well, Michel. Your manners are still good." There was a rumbling as the shape shuffled back and forth again. "What have we here?"

"I don't know, Grandmother. It is alive. I would guess it became so due to an electrical fault and the passage of beings through the tunnel."

"Yes." She walked closer, poked at the thing with her stick. It flinched away but didn't flee. "It knows its grandmother, I see."

That meant it was alive. Properly alive, I mean, not animated by some arcane magick. For Baba Yaga to affect it, for it even to see her, it needed to be in some part one of the mortals whose lives and death she oversaw. "What is it, Grandmother?"

Her voice was slightly muffled, as she leant over it. "It is a Stygeaen. It has grown from the small life and detritus collected in the tunnels. It will seek to grow, to learn, by consuming living things it can learn from or use."

"What should we do, grandmother?"

She turned to me, her face set in what I was sure was false surprise. "You ask me? Balancer? Is this not your task to shoulder?"

I looked at her levelly. "I would hold up my burden, Grandmother. But I don't know if it is a threat to the people of this city, or to the Balance in the Game of Stones. If it is here, if it is, because of a simple accident, I can't in good conscience kill it for trying to survive."

She looked at me for a disconcerting time, then nodded. "You are slowly gaining wisdom, boy." She sighed. "Your grand-mere would be happy." Turning back to the shape, she reached out a hand. It wavered, obviously unsure, but she clucked to it softly and it suffered to let her lay her palm against its surface. She closed her eyes and jerked her shoulders once, hissing.

A minute passed. Then the shape slowly moved backwards, and as it did so the body of Albert slowly slipped from its grip and ended up lying alone on the tunnel floor, covered with what looked like mud. I knelt besides him and touched his face. He blinked, once, then his eyes focused on mine - at least, as much as they ever did. Albert had been a Sterno drinker, once. "Mi-Michel?"

"Hi, Albert." I levered him up to a sitting position, relieved. "You okay?"

He shook his head, and looked around. I saw his gaze fall on the shape, and he began to dig away from it, screaming a high thin scream. It shivered and shrank down in on itself again, and I grabbed him around the shoulders. "It's okay, Albert! It's okay!"

It took a few minutes to get him calmed down. When he could look at me, rather than it, I took his hand. "Listen, man. It's sorry. At least, I think it is. It let you go because Grandmother asked it. Are you hurt?"

He patted himself, wiggled, then shook his head. "No. No...but...I was...I was..." he leant over and vomited. I managed to move in time to save my shoes. Baba Yaga, once more hunched over her staff, gave me a look.

"What now, Baba?"

"I will take it away, Michel. Somewhere it can live, and grow."

"Somewhere it can hunt more people?"

"Only those foolish enough to wander quite close. It is not, after all, very quick."

I thought about that, then realized that was as much assistance as I was likely to get from an Elder, and that wherever it was, it would be better than if it was lost in the middle of Manhattan. "Thank you, Baba."

She reached over and pinched my cheek. "Such a good boy. Come see me." Then she snapped her fingers; there was a silver flash, and she was gone. So was the shape.

Albert pulled himself up a column, stood shaking. "What...what..."

"Don't worry about it, Albert. Come on, let's get you cleaned up. I'll buy you dinner." We set off slowly downtown.

Four minutes later, a commuter rail train went by. When we reached the area where the puddle had been, it was gone - in a flash of silver, I presumed. The creature gone as well, and all was as it should be in the bowels of Manhattan.

I looked at the slime on my coat, sighed, and guided Albert south towards the station.

- The New York Magician - for - MARCH OF THE MONSTERS! -