“Can you narrow it down a little bit?”
I sighed. “Hooded black robe, carrying a Book of Forbidden Magic, scurried into this pub. Looked like a cultist.”
“This is Transylvania Prime. Do you have any idea how many hooded, robed cultists carrying Books of Forbidden Magic there are scurrying around here?”
I glared at the bartender. He sighed and turned to his bar back.
“Francis, who’s using the basement tonight?”
The younger ghoul put down his Styrofoam takeout box. I resisted the urge to look inside. “The Solemn Order of Gerekk Gel-teth. Do you want me to grab their guy?”
“The Teeth of the Witch? You rent out your basement to Ecthros worshippers?”
“I rent out my basement to anyone with fifty-five bucks a day. What of it?”
“What of it is that I’m getting tired of chasing down ignorant, suicidal fools who think magically rearranging ley lines so as to drag a living nightmare onto this plane is a productive way to spend Saturday night. Last week it was the bloodsuckers, this week it’s you. Christ, at least the werewolves have enough brains to leave Ecthroi alone.”
The bar back laughed. “Not for long, not if they come into this neighborhood.”
The bartender smacked him upside the head. The takeout box fell out of his hands and upended its contents onto the floor. Fairfax trotted over and sniffed at it. Instinctively, I grabbed her by the scruff of the neck. She turned to me with an expression of wounded dignity. I let go and she wandered over to the jukebox.
The bartender leaned over the bar, an appraising look on his long grayish face. It said, there’s a meat hook, a marinade and a basting brush in your future. “You a cop?”
“Consulting Magician. Troubleshooter.”
“Huh. That some kind of bounty hunter?”
“Little bit more official.”
The bar back raised his hand. His insolent smile seemed somehow out of place. “Do you have a badge you can show us?”
I cracked my knuckles. I can get along with just about anyone, but I make an exception for people who think I’m going to be a mid-morning snack. “You got a basement you can show me?”
The bartender undid his apron and began to pull off his shirt. Even for a corpse-eater, he was big, with gray skin, ragged fingernails and yellow teeth filed to points. “Troubleshooter was what they said. Lock the door, Francis,” he said. The bar back grinned and licked his chops.
I shook my head. “You don’t want to do that,” I said.
He smiled. “Why? If you aren’t back by a certain time, somebody’s going to come looking, something like that?”
“No. Because I’m giving you a chance.”
“To do what?”
“To point me toward the basement and stay out of my hair.”
He looked as if he’d seen a porterhouse jump off the grill and menace him with a switchblade. “Why would I do that?”
I stepped back to give Fairfax some room. She jumped onto the counter and stared at the bartender. He stepped back reflexively.
“Because if you don’t, I’m going to let her do the asking.” I tried not to look at the take-out container on the floor. “Stay back there. I’m going to go deal with the jokers in your basement. If you leave her alone, she’ll probably leave you alone.”
The bartender jerked his head toward the door. Francis took a complicated key ring from next to the cash register and leered at me.
I looked at the take-out container on the floor. A couple of fingers had rolled out of it and come to rest under the sink. They were covered with soft gray hair, the kind that turns coarse when werewolf cubs get old enough to run with the pack.
I squeezed the bridge of my nose to stave off what promised to be a very bad headache and turned back to the bartender. “If you come out from behind that bar, I’m going to kill you and burn down the building with everyone in it.”
He came over the counter. I subvocalized the words that activate the dragon tattooed on my neck, took a deep breath in and exhaled nuclear plasma. It vaporized the bartender and cut a neat hole through the bar and the retaining wall opposite. Somewhere along the way it hit a barrel of the embalming fluid that ghouls drink neat. In a moment the building was on fire.
The bar back tried frantically to get the front door open, but he’d dropped his keys, and ghoul bars are built for the express purpose of keeping people from leaving. I glanced over at Fairfax, but she was already a blur. I heard a glass break behind me and turned around. Corpse-eaters are loathsome, but they aren’t cowards, and there were three of them moving toward me. Over my shoulder I heard the crisp, resonant sound of a skull smacking concrete. Francis would probably live if he didn’t antagonize Fairfax further; ghouls are incredibly tough.
The biggest ghoul swung his long leather coat aside and came up with a blunderbuss. The other two made practiced, repetitive motions with their hands. I smelled brimstone. I leaned back on the remains of the bar to watch the show.
Fairfax and I make a good team because we complement one another’s strengths. If you take away the magic tattoos, I’m just a well-trained Ph.D. with good reflexes and a talent for lateral thinking. Fairfax, on the other hand is an entirely bulletproof, high-speed projectile with teeth like an angle grinder. I let her handle this sort of thing.
Which is why I got concerned when the little dog vanished in a puff of smoke.
One of the magicians stepped back and wiped sweat from his forehead. “The Witch says hello, Mr. Vitre.”
A dozen or so hooded figures filed out of the back room. Three of them had old-fashioned water-pump fire extinguishers, which they used to put out the flames.
I looked around. “It’s kind of you all to wait for me in one place rather than making me go kicking in doors looking for you. I’m touched.”
“You’re a human sacrifice is what you are, mate,” said the ghoul with the blunderbuss. “You’re my dinner. Come sniffing around after us. Setting a dog on us. After the last time with that fucking animal, we circulated your description. Knew you’d come in here sooner or later.”
They had “circulated my description.” That was a relief. Electricity doesn’t work properly on Transylvania Prime, except in the form of lightening bolts hitting laboratories, and humanoid creatures here and everywhere else stopped using mechanical cameras a hundred years ago. With no photos or any kind of cross-planar communication, they didn’t know who or what I was, only that I was nosy and that I had a dangerous dog. I relaxed. Fairfax was safe—the neutron star in her stomach wouldn’t let anything hurt her. Better still, they weren’t making inquiries about my tattoos. On the other hand, there was a gun in my face.
“Don’t worry. I won’t be staying long.” It takes between fifteen seconds and five minutes for my tattoos to recharge, depending on whether or not I’ve recently been punched in the face. I supposed that was probably going to happen sooner rather than later.
The ghoul brought the butt of his gun down hard on my shoulder, badly dislocating it and knocking me to my knees. I tried not to throw up. He kicked me in the chest, completing my journey to the floor.
He took a knee next to me. “You got that right, chum.” He smiled grimly. “I’m going to start with your feet and eat my way upward. I can kill you first or leave you alive to enjoy the experience. Up to you. Who are you and what do you want with the Witch?”
“I told your friend,” I gasped. I’m a troubleshooter.”
Ghouls are the intellectuals of the undead. This one didn’t look the slightest bit stupid. He nodded slowly, put down his gun and sat down cross-legged in front of me. “What’s a troubleshooter?”
I could feel my tattoos pulling gently at my karmic field. Even with the popping noises my shoulder was making, I figured I’d only need about two minutes until I could make the corpse-eater with the scattergun and every one of his friends regret the day they had been born.
The big ghoul looked at me for a long minute, then nodded at one of the magicians. “Where’d you send the dog?”
“Sixty feet straight down, Mister Fredrick.”
“We couldn’t get any more range on the teleport spell. That damn dog’s unusual.” Fredrick glared at the magician, who waved his hands anxiously. “Cecil knows some salamanders, sir,” he said. “He got them to tunnel into the bedrock under the bar last night and fill the cavity with molten lava.”
Fredrick sighed. “Probably dead, then. Doesn’t matter. This one’s going on the altar as soon as we’re finished chatting, and then we’re going to have a monster of our own to play with.”
I couldn’t help laughing. The big ghoul kicked me in the ribs. I forced laughter through the pain. “You think you’re going to boss an Ecthros around? You think the Witch takes orders?”
The big ghoul grabbed me by the shirtfront and got nose-to-nose with me “What the fuck are you?” he shouted. “What do you know about the Witch?”
What I knew was that the corpse-eaters were in the process of biting off more they could chew. Some Tomes of Summoning claim that an Ecthros will grant a wish to anyone fool enough to bring them into the Daylight World from their home on the Eleventh Plane, or steal some of their essence from Miskatonic University’s Museum of Strange and Terrible Manifestations. Unfortunately for the kind of spiteful malcontents that go in for this kind of thing, Tomes of Summoning have almost always been written by the monster that wants to be summoned and left where someone only slightly less mean-spirited will find them. Without exception, ritually inviting an Ecthros into a world that any baseline humanoid can survive in drives the celebrants irreversibly insane, strips them of free will and leaves them the Ecthros’ helpless puppets, aware of everything their bodies are doing but powerless to do anything about it.
I sat up, wincing at the pain in my shoulder. If Fairfax didn’t show up soon, I was going to have to kill them all myself. That presented a challenge. Most of my tattoos are only incidentally lethal, like the wave elemental on my left thigh (which could certainly drown everyone in the room, including me), or the gears on the back of my neck, which would summon an eighty-foot mechanical monstrosity called a titan (which is great for demolishing buildings, but isn’t what you’d call “surgically precise”). I could use the dragon again, but it probably wouldn’t get all of them, and I didn’t think much for my chances with the survivors.
Frederick growled. “I’ll ask you one last time. Who are you?!”
I looked around at his soldiers, who were getting restless. “Are you not allowed to play with sharp objects? Is that blunderbuss the only reason you listen to this guy?”
Two ghouls produced pistols. I smiled. That would save me some time. The big ghoul picked up his weapon and stood up. He jabbed the barrel into my dislocated shoulder. “I’m going to eat your arm. You’re going to watch,” he said, and pulled the trigger. I felt my tattoos recharge. Time stood still.
I got to my feet. It was a good thing the ghouls with the pistols had called my bluff—chronomancy requires an enormous amount of power to maintain, and the alarm clock on my wrist only stops subjective time for seven seconds. If they hadn’t drawn down on me, I would have had to waste time hunting for a gun. Luckily, neither was much more than man-sized, and both automatics were small enough for me to operate one-handed. I capped off all the ghouls and tossed the pistols to the floor.
I kneeled down and went through Frederick’s pockets for the key to the basement door. Suddenly, someone grabbed me and spun me around. I’d missed Francis the bar back. His jaw was badly broken and one of his eyes was missing, but he was still alive and kicking. He squeezed my bad shoulder, hard, and kicked me in the chest. I bounced off the wall opposite. Francis snapped his jaw back into place with both hands and drew a big bowie knife. He came over and squatted down next to me, a grim smile on his face. He took my hand, held it to the floor and raised the knife.
Just then the ground shifted beneath his feet. He looked down, confused, and his good eye widened. The floorboards exploded, knocking him over, and as I blacked out I heard the enraged snarling of a small, protective dog.
In the end I had to go to Nippon Prime and get my arm replaced and my tattoos transferred—Fredrick had done too much damage with the butt of his blunderbuss for the surgical androids to fix. When I went back to the ghoul bar a month later to look for the Tome of Summoning the ghouls had planned to use to summon the Ecthros, I found a kosher butcher shop run by a family of Hassidic vampires in its place. Apparently, the lava Frederick’s magicians had filled the building’s foundations with had followed Fairfax up the tunnel she had dug to save me and the place had burned to the ground.
Steven Smiley is the author of Milo & Fairfax.