Fifteen minutes later, the sudden shower of rain finally wears itself out. It is now little more than a light drizzle, and pedestrians and commuters begin to populate the sidewalks again.
A medium-sized man trudges through the growing crowds on the street. He wears a heavy coat, complemented by a battered old hat and small, circular spectacles. The overcast sky obscures most of his face, bathing it in the shadows of the clouds.
The man’s destination — a nearby alleyway — looms ahead. He enters it carefully, looking around to see if anyone notices his entrance. No one does.
He walks further into the alleyway, stopping only to make sure that the narrow path between buildings is completely deserted. He squints up into the overcast sky.
He's always hated doing this.
He looks around one more time, then walks towards the middle of the alley. A large puddle of water waits there for him; the naked soil around it has congealed into its muddy consistency.
He smiles, showing a perfect set of gleaming white teeth. In a word, this is perfect.
The man leans over into a crouching position. He maneuvers himself to a large patch of mud just beside the puddle of water and sticks a finger into the dirty mess. There is an expression of determination on his shadowed face.
Slowly, he traces a four-pointed star-like figure in the mud. After a while, the words form, unbidden, in his mind.
"Izshek Ramah Tenaam," he says. He finishes drawing the sigil and leans back slightly to a more comfortable position. "Sar’e Saakam Narit’ak," he whispers, completing the chant.
Then he waits, but only for a few seconds.
There is a sudden deep-throated rumbling sound, and for a moment the ground trembles. Then a three-dimensional face slowly rises out of the mud and the four-pointed star. It groans and quivers as the mud molds itself to its form. Then its eyes shoot open, reflecting tears of dry water and caked filth... and it speaks.
"Who summons me?"
The man removes his hat. "My old friend Earth," he says. "How are you?"
"Get to the point," Earth says, in characteristic bluntness.
"I come to bring you tidings from my small circle," the man says, "and I wish to ask for news of the elements."
"I have little time for your tidings," Earth says impatiently, its face-form threatening to move back into the sparse soil. "What is it that you want?"
The man takes a deep breath. The question was formed in the deepest recesses of the morning, and it has remained in his mind ever since.
"I ask about our most recent clime," he says, "and why the elements have so twisted their acts against their own word."
"The elements do what they want to do," Earth rumbles. "It is not for you to command us, old man."
The man sighs. Earth is the easiest among the elements to contact, but it is stern and unbending. Now it refuses to be of any help at all. But perhaps...
"I ask, then," the man says, "if your brethren are open to discussion."
There is a short pause before Earth speaks. "You know the rules, human," Earth says. "Send them your tidings, and your damned wishes."
"I shall, then."
The man watches as the face-form sinks back into the mud, leaving only a reasonably flat surface with the four-pointed star etched in grooves. He wipes it away.
The man shifts position, turning towards the puddle of water itself. He stares at at his reflection for a moment, watching the mirror image gaze back at him with a patience borne of convex glass. Then he dips both hands in the dirty rainwater and begins drawing a four-pointed star at the bottom of the puddle.
"Let Water rise," he says, "and heed my words. Izshek Rabahm Ut’a. Eramai Ashatem Rionyi."
The surface of the water begins to ripple. The man pulls his dirty hands out, tucks one into his right coat pocket, pulls out a white handkerchief, and wipes.
In seconds, the ripple has stopped. The man's reflection in the water is gone. He smiles.
"I bid you greeting," he says, "and I offer admiration for your recent work."
Water ripples slightly. The man knows that it does not speak, but that it listens well instead.
"I purchased a request seven turnings ago," he says. "I asked that Fire and Earth be given free sway over this area for a few days."
Water ceases its rippling and becomes perfectly still. There is a pause, and then an image appears in the puddle. The image shows the man, in the same coat and hat, bending over a bucket of water on top of a building. He inspects it critically, as though making certain that not one detail is out of place.
"You remember, then," he says, "but not my request. I gave by Cae-Won’s law, and by law you must return my favor."
Water ripples once again. The rippling is more pronounced this time, perhaps even violent.
"You know the rules," the man says.
Water froths and churns for a while. Eventually, however, it finds itself unable to meet the man’s fixed gaze. It pauses, and then holds still.
The reflection in the surface of the puddle shifts. Now an image of the city cloaked in warm sunlight appears. The man smiles.
"So we do understand each other," he says.
Water ripples again. Then the ripples begin to slowly even out, drawing themselves one after the other, until the man can see his own reflection in the water once again.
He stands up and stretches, working out the atrophy in his legs. The rituals are complete, and the elements satisfied. The man straightens his hat and coat, perhaps takes a few steps with the intention of walking away.
And then he stops, suspicion plainly written on his face. This was certainly too easy.
He considers this for a moment, weighing equal measures of time and influence against each other. Then he comes to a decision, and brushes the lost minutes aside.
There is a collection of empty wooden crates leaning against a forgotten dumpster a few meters away from the puddle. Their presence is quite convenient, and he reaches their repository with a small number of steps.
With effort, he tears one of the crates apart into small, narrow pieces of wood. Sweat tumbles down his brow. His hat falls off, and we can see that he is almost bald, with only a few gray hairs remaining upon a face that is creased with wrinkles.
He deliberately scatters the pieces of wood along the alley floor. The shape of the four-pointed star is a familiar sight.
For the first time, he hesitates. Then he shakes his head, reaches into his coat, and pulls out a small silver flask — a gift from some old friends who have long since departed. With an expression of distaste, he begins pouring the contents of the bottle over the sigil marked in wooden scraps.
Finally, the man tucks the bottle away, and pulls out a cigarette lighter. The flame catches easily, and he jumps back a moment before the flames can sear his hand.
The sigil now burns warm and white, and he waits. And as he waits, he picks up his hat from where it has fallen, and clamps it back onto his bald head.
"Arak’or Ghakkar Kerob’bas," he says, almost as an afterthought. "Kharesh Shirak Nor."
The flames rise for a moment, turning various shades of red and yellow-green. Then the entire patch of earth — sigil and all — bursts into flame. The man is unfazed.
"What the hell do you want?" a harsh voice suddenly asks, echoing through the man's mind.
"I need to speak with you," the man says.
"Don’t waste your spit," Fire says. "You already are."
The man straightens himself again, staring deep into the heart of the flame. "I have a request," he says.
"Don’t come begging to me for help," Fire says. "I’m not your slave."
There is a pause as the man considers his situation. A single thought comes to his mind.
"A sacrifice," he says.
For a moment, he can feel the flames smile.
"You catch on quickly," Fire says.
"Not much," the man says. This was... unexpected.
There is a short pause as he feels something in his right coat pocket, and then he smiles. His hand emerges, pulling out the sodden handkerchief; on it, bits of mud and dirt still hang askew.
"I have cloth," the man says.
"Cloth is good."
"It’s still a little wet."
A sound comes out of the flames, as though it licks its lips in anticipation.
"Give it here," Fire says.
In one smooth motion, the man throws the handkerchief into the flames. There is a sizzling sound as the cloth dries quickly. Then there is a slow and subtle crackling sound, as it is slowly consumed.
There is a short pause.
"So what do you want, old man?"
The man hesitates only for a moment before answering. "I come only to tell you that you must take the place that Water has vacated."
Fire lowers its flames, as if considering his words.
"That I gain dominance for the next turnings?" Fire asks.
The flames rise up in a gesture of contemplation.
"If you had told me that earlier," Fire finally says, "I wouldn’t have asked for the sacrifice."
There is another short pause.
"Yes?" the man asks.
Fire waits expectantly.
After a long silence, the man relents. "All right," he says, "It’s on the house."
"You’re one of the good ones, old man."
Slowly, the flames die down. Soon there is nothing left but the man and a number of chunks of blackened and smoldering wood.
He bends over and picks one up. It crumbles slightly, leaving a sooty residue on his hands. He wipes this on a fold of his trousers, remembering to buy another handkerchief on his way back.
Now he reaches into his other pocket. There is something else there, a scrap of paper from the local laundry, folded and forgotten since the last time the coat was cleaned.
With a small scrap of blackened wood, he begins writing on the torn piece of paper. The four-pointed star is a familiar sight, as he raises the tiny drawing into the air.
"Saimet Tei’sho Olyah," he says. "Geshinon Sanam’et To’ri."
For a moment, nothing happens.
"I know you're there," the man whispers.
He waits another minute. There is no response.
"All right," the man says, lowering his hand slightly, "the game is over. I guess I’ll keep this after all."
A sudden gust of wind obscures the smile blossoming on his face. The wind begins to gather around him, pulling his long gray coat every which way. He clamps his other hand tightly on top of his hat, determined not to lose it like so many others long ago.
"You didn't have to do that," Wind says. "Really now we haven’t seen you in ages not for a long time we always liked your gifts when did you get so old why haven't you called us lately why doesn't anybody else talk to us why?"
The man lets go of the slip of paper. It tumbles through the air and disappears into the distance.
"A toy!" Wind shrills. "We like toys it's mine I saw it first go get your own toy we like paper so much paper paper so much watch me do this—"
The man clears his throat. There is a pause as Wind gathers around him once again.
"What?" Wind asks. "Did we do something wrong did we do something right do you need help we like playing we can call up a nice gale or maybe a hurricane did you like the rain we like the rain fun fun fun rain wish it could rain every day so we have lots of toys and play and dance and smile and secrets and laugh have you watc—"
"Quiet!" the man says, firmly.
There is a short pause.
"We don't like you," Wind says. "You have a temper today people always have tempers they never wait till we finish what we have to say but we never finish what we have to say but you just need to wait for us you never know when we say something important but everything we say is important sometimes you don't listen why do you want to speak with us anyway never trust a human why did—"
Amid the constant chatter of Wind, the man finally speaks.
"I only come to ask a favor," he says.
"Name it," Wind says, a gaggle of voices at once.
"I ask that you concede to Fire and Earth for the next turnings," the man says, and waits for the reaction.
Wind suddenly grows silent.
"What?" Wind eventually asks. "Why how could you ask such a thing we were having so much fun you know we and Water have such good times together except he doesn’t talk much or she because we don't know whichever the case may be but maybe—"
"You can always go somewhere else," the man points out.
"Away? Are you serious it would mean starting over or a new beginning or a change of pace—"
"That’s it," the man interrupts. "A change of pace. You need a change of pace. I mean... you've been here for a few days already. I'm sure that you're bored now. If you stay here, you’ll just get even more get bored."
"Ooooh," Wind says. "You're right of course you're right you're the most sensible human we've ever met we only say that because you bribed us with a toy it was a nice toy some paper nice paper more paper do you have any more paper please please?"
"No," the man says.
"But I bet you could find some wherever you go."
Wind considers this for a while. "That is a good point. a very good point an indubitable point we can move now we should move now change of pace and place you were very convincing we like you more you should give us more paper we must be going we can find paper somewhere like you said so ciao sayonara bye bye bye bye bye..."
The voices of Wind begin to fade, and the strong breezes surrounding the alley slowly return to calm. The man sighs.
He pauses for a moment, looking at everything. Nothing has seen him. No one has seen him. Now he turns, and walks back to the mouth of the alley.
He joins the crowds there as dusk begins to fall. No one notices as he walks faceless among them.
The man walks through a door marked “Stage” on the sixteenth floor of a downtown building. The room within is filled with a flurry of human activity.
"Step up the lights," a voice says. "We go to segment four in five."
"Cut in t-minus five, then. Where’s Waller? Waller?"
"Loose switch on Camera three… watch your step. Camera two in position."
"Green screen A-OK. Camera one ready."
The man walks over to a nearby coat rack and removes his hat and coat. There is a formal gray suit underneath, and a black tie that belies his distinguished appearance. He adjusts the tiny glasses on the bridge of his nose.
"Four minutes," a voice says. "Four minutes."
"Where’s make-up? Well, get them over here now!"
"Ben Waller? Ben Waller?"
"Here," the man calls, in response to his own name. Almost immediately, he is surrounded by a flurry of voices.
"Thank God! Where the hell were you? You go…"
"Three minutes, people! Three minutes!"
"Make-up! Where in God’s sake is make-up?"
He feels someone straighten his suit. Another pair of hands pushes him into a seat, starts combs his hair. Another someone begins to apply make-up with a soft brush.
"Where have you been? Did you get the report?"
"Yes," the man says.
"From the bureau?"
"You could say that," the man says, deliberately elusive.
"Two minutes!" a voice calls.
"Look, Ben, we don’t have much time. Where is it?"
"In my head," the man says.
"You memorized it?"
"You could say that," the man says, smiling.
A convenient pair of hands helps him stand up. The man adjusts his spectacles again, watches as another helper dusts his suit free of lint. He begins walking towards a small stage with a green background.
"It had better be more accurate than the report we got last week," a voice complains.
"I know," the man says, completely and implacably serious.
The man stands in front of the green screen, making final adjustments to his suit and glasses. He glances at a bank of TV screens to the right of the stage, and a similar bank of screens to the left of the stage, both hovering just outside the camera’s view.
"Quiet on the set!" a voice calls, and silence blankets the studio.
"Counting… six… five… four… three…"
The last few seconds emerge against the same backdrop of silence. A light on one of the cameras comes on.
The man smiles his friendliest expression, staring into the lens before him. Glancing left and glancing right, with the voices of the supernatural in his mind, he speaks.
"Thank you, Bob. Now, despite a battery of rain from the elements this week, tomorrow’s forecast is bright and sunny…"