I stepped out of nowhere and onto the Alaskan tundra. Nails Cullen stubbed out her joint.
“Hey, Milo,” she said without looking up. “We killing monsters today?”
Nails was a compact, muscular young cambion with pale blue flames where her eyes should have been. Her tusks impaired her speech just enough to be noticeable and her long, razor-tipped prehensile tail twitched when she was excited, which was most of the time. She came from a basalt-mining colony on Terra Omicron, an alternate Earth several planes down from Terra Prime on which magic had mostly replaced technology, hellgates to and from the Inferno were commonplace and the dominant species—cambia—had come about after millennia of succubae and incubi routinely interbreeding with humans. I’d been looking after her informally in my capacity as an instructor at Miskatonic University’s School of Dark Arts off and on for six months. This was the first time our relationship would be an official teacher-student thing, and it worried me a little. Dealing with trainees isn’t not something I do often—I don’t like being responsible for other people’s welfare—but I liked Nails. She had guts.
I shut the dimensional door down. “Senior Trainer will do, I think.” I looked her over. She looked under the weather. “Rough night?”
She sighed theatrically and wiped away an imaginary tear. “My heart, she is broken.”
“I don’t know when your heart has time to find traction with the sheer number of girls you sleep with. Where’d you find this one?”
“Amtrak dining car out of Mars Prime. I told her I was a troubleshooter and she was ready to go.”
“You aren’t a troubleshooter.”
“Gonna be after this.“
“If you’re lucky.
A small motion of her head suggested that if she had eyes, she would be rolling them. “Anyway. It’s not like I’m going to see her again. She was fun, but I’m not that into wood nymphs. What are we doing?”
I put down my backpack and sat down on a big rock. “Killing an Ecthros. Elek-za-Martub. What’s its name in English?”
She pulled back her dreadlocks and balanced a piece of steel smartwire on top of them. It lengthened, and then suddenly whipped around and around her hair, pulling it into one solid braid.
“The Lost Child.”
“What’s its m.o.?”
She thought about it for a minute. “Looks like a missing kid of any humanoid species. Lures its victims into the wilderness and then shifts into its true form—which is really fucking ugly—and eats them. How’m I doing?”
“Not bad. Try not to curse at me.”
“How do we find out about these things? Do I get some kind of device to tell me where to go?”
“Oh,” I said, and sat back. “It’s not complicated. You get active neural imaging when you get licensed. They can triangulate that with your karmic signature and find you anywhere. They send you a contract by courier if they need you. If you accept it, they drop all the information you need directly into your brain. They call whoever’s closest to the infestation.” I pointed toward the mountains. “In this case, there’s a logging camp at the foot of Dinglisha Hill, fifty miles out. Kids went missing, then parents. They’ve got a witch there. She didn’t like the way things smelled, so she called the Feds. They called Miskatonic, Miskatonic called me, you’re in line for your final exam, and here we are.”
She nodded. “Okay. How we getting there?”
“You tell me.”
She pulled off her thermal shirt and stood in her fatigue pants and iron microthread vest, flexing her huge membranous wings. “Fly?”
“No. This one was brought here by worship. If it hasn’t eaten all of the cultists that survived the summoning, they’ll protect it. We don’t know if they have artillery that can penetrate your skin.”
“Can I use my tattoos?”
“Sure. You have a cherub. Ecthroi have a hard time detecting a dimensional gate more than two kilometers away.”
“Can I use my tattoos, please?”
“I’m still classified as a student! I can’t use them until you say the words!”
“All right, all right. Quit bouncing from foot to foot, you’re making me antsy. You ready?”
She nodded several times and took a deep breath. I stepped back and cleared my throat. “As a senior instructor empowered by the Dean of Dark Arts of Miskatonic University, I hereby grant you provisional license as a Consulting Magician, also called a Troubleshooter, and full access to regulated ink. “
The air rippled like a heat haze and Nails’ ink went live. Her eyes glowed like arc welders and her tattoos lit up like stained glass windows on a cathedral at Christmas. Her muscles twitched and her wings fluttered at the unfamiliar sensation of a dozen tiny symbiotic creatures all pulling at her karmic field at once. I walked away and took care of some personal business behind a tree. When I got back she was sitting on a rock, looking in astonishment at the little flatlanders just under her skin, all of whom had begun to swirl restlessly back and forth in response to what I recognized as a bad case of butterflies.
She looked up at me anxiously. “Am I really going to do this?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Get some wood and start a fire. I’ll make dinner.”
She winched in her wings and put her shirt back on, examined her arms for a moment, then walked into the forest. I heard a terrific cracking noise and a stand of pine fell flat. Cambia make good troubleshooters. They’re titanically strong, mostly bulletproof, and they can both fly and breathe fire. Their one significant failing—both the men and the women—is an inborn tendency toward recklessness and showing off.
She returned fifteen minutes later with the bare trunk of a pine tree. She broke it into pieces, arranged it into a rough circle and gently exhaled a thin stream of flame. After a moment the wood caught. I got my skillet and a couple of steaks out of my pack.
When we were done eating I brewed some tea for myself. Nails sat cross-legged in the snow and lit up a fat silvery roll-up of the mineral oil-infused brimstone that cambia smoke instead of marijuana or mandrake root. It smelled like burning tires. I glared at her.
“Are you seriously getting high right now?”
“I function better when I’m high.”
“Put it out, Nails.”
She took a long pull on it, exhaled, and pinched it off. “Where’s Fairfax?” she said. “I wanted to meet her.”
“Asleep at home.”
“I’m disappointed. From what I hear, she could run rings around the Child.”
“Fairfax changes direction by banking off solid objects. It’s nothing but open space above the treeline. If she missed her first pass, she’d be miles away before she lost enough speed to turn around and take another shot.”
“There aren’t many people here. Why not have her eat the entire mountain the Ecthros is hiding in? Easy kill.”
“What, you want to let my dog have all the fun?”
She laughed. “Nope. I want to have all the fun. How are we gonna do this?”
“The logging camp is on lockdown—no one’s allowed outdoors until we’re done here.” I got out a carbon-detecting monocular and aimed it up the mountain. After a minute I handed it to her and pointed at a spot midway up Dinglishna Hill. “That’s a holy site. No one’s supposed to be there.”
She looked through the eyepiece. “I see eight karmic signatures and a mess.”
“One karmic signature, several different colors. Should be one color.” Her tail twitched. “Oh, shit! That’s it, isn’t it? That’s an Ecthros!” She turned to me, excited. “What do we do?”
Nails’ dimensional door dropped us on the outskirts of the village.
Transport by someone else’s cherub gives me the spins. I sat down heavily on a stump. Nails looked anxiously in my direction. When I waved her off, she took what looked like a very small leather change purse from a hook on her belt and took a very large rusty iron gauntlet out of it. I raised an eyebrow.
“Devil’s Claw in a dimensional pocket? How much did that set you back?”
“I can barely afford to pay my student loans, dumbass. I nagged my big brother all last year and he gave it to me for my birthday.” She pulled the gauntlet on and flexed her fingers. There was a humming noise and bits of it glowed cherry-red.
Devil’s Claws are uncommon, even among troubleshooters, but only because they weigh about five hundred pounds. They’re phenomenal weapons—I’d carry one if I could lift it. They’re magnets for magic: spin up the cold-iron coils and the hand momentarily draws all the karma—the magic that keeps an Ecthros anchored to our reality, or that fuels a troubleshooter’s tattoos—within twenty-one feet into itself and holds it there. Ecthroi are meat powered by magic; yank that magic out of them and disperse their physical body and they die.
I shook my head. “You better make sure I’m out of range before you spin that sucker up. I can’t be your fire support if that thing’s drinking all my karma.”
She nodded. “I’ll be careful.”
“Better be.” I walked up the hill a few meters, scanning for tripwires and explosive runes until I found what I was looking for. “Feel how the wind shifts? There’s a cave somewhere close.” I looked around. “We can do this quickly if we can get up there without making too much noise. They don’t sleep, but it’ll be sluggish after it feeds, and the cultists it’s puppeting still need to rest.”
She cracked her knuckles. “I’m following you.”
I peered past her. A mystic sigil had been daubed in what looked like blood onto a boulder a few feet away. Nails followed my gaze and nodded.
“Explosive rune. On it.”
“Wait!” I hissed.
She waved me off and jogged over to the rock, drawing a short pearwood baton from her belt as she did. She stood to one side so as to stay out of the blast zone and hit the edge of the rock hard with the baton, just like I’d taught her. The rock’s face cracked and flaked off, obscuring the magical script. She stepped back, grinning. There was a click and the claymore mine she’d missed went off.
The cemetery angel tattooed on my back spread its wings around me in a microsecond, shielding me from the flurry of shrapnel. When it faded away I saw Nails, none the worse for wear, shake herself, crack her knuckles and step through her dimensional gate. A moment later I heard a series of explosions a hundred yards up the hill.
I cursed. So much for subtlety. I rummaged through my pack until I found the Thompson submachine gun I’d brought as insurance and a couple of concussion grenades. I slung a magnetic harness for the gun over my shoulder, slotted a drum magazine into the gun’s receiver, stuffed a grenade into each of my jacket pockets and jogged toward the party.
Nails looked to have aced her hand-to-hand combat classes. The Echthros’ worshippers were wearing military-grade power armor, but she was holding her own. She’d caved in helmets and breastplates with the Devil’s Claw and was boxing with a big ghoul who was doing his damnedest to cut her to pieces with a monomolecular whip. I ran up behind her, rested the gun on her shoulder, and hosed the ghoul down with a spray of explosive flechettes. I smacked her upside the head as he fell.
“Come on, you idiot,” I snarled. “Give me six meters of breathing room and spin up that fucking gauntlet!”
A boy of about five barreled wailing out of the cave, tears pouring down his face. His pajamas were torn and bloodied, his face lacerated, and his hair was torn out in clumps. Nails instinctively half-stepped and crouched down, arms outstretched. She smiled encouragingly.
“We got a survivor, Milo!” she yelled to me. To the boy she exclaimed “It’s okay, kiddo! Come here! We got you!”
I drew a bead on the “boy” with the tommy gun and emptied the magazine. I snapped the gun onto the harness on my back and followed up with a grenade. It landed two feet from the crumpled little form. The explosion bounced what was left off of the ceiling. I unslung the Thompson and turned to Nails.
“Have you listened to a fucking thing I’ve been telling you? It hasn’t been on this plane for long! There aren’t going to be any survivors—they don’t play with their food when they’re hungry! Spin up that fucking gauntlet!”
The little figure got to its feet and smiled horribly. It grew fifteen feet in height, slowly, like a pea plant in a time-lapse film. Its eyes bulged and suppurating plague sores spread across its exposed flesh like drops of ink in a bowl of water. Its jaw went slack and its ribs broke through its skin.
“Little magicians,” it gurgled. It sounded like it was drowning in blood. “Little magicians. I was old when this was new.” A tongue like a flayed cobra shot out and snatched Nails’ Devil’s Claw before either of us could react. It wrapped around and around the gauntlet, snapped back, and swallowed. There was a crunching sound, followed by a streamer of boiling brown drool that hissed as it hit the ground.
I dropped back, reloaded and gunned down two cultists that had struggled out of their ruined armor. I was tempted to activate my cherub and call for Fairfax. I wouldn’t let Nails get killed if I could help it, but it was her mess to clean up.
The cambion didn’t panic. She took a deep breath and gave the monster a facefull of hellfire. As it brought up an arm to shield itself, Nails snatched the dimensional pocket she’d carried her Devil’s Claw in off her belt and pulled it wide open. Her wings burst through her shirt. She crouched, leapt, swooped, and pulled the pocket over the Ecthros’ head. A moment later, she had a very large monster imprisoned in a very small bag. There was a rush of air as she activated her cherub, and then a blast of heat, and it was over.
I walked around the cave with the tommy gun and took care of a pair of cultists who were playing dead. I sat down on a rock and tossed the gun to one side. There was another rush of air. I didn’t look up.
“What did you do with the bag?” I asked.
Nails closed down her door. “Dropped it on an unmanned trash barge that was about to crash into Proxima Centauri. Don’t worry,” she said, seeing my expression. “I made sure it hit the corona.” She grinned. “Did I pass?”
“Yes. You pass.”
“Am I awesome?”
I shook my head. “No. You aren’t,” I said. “Get out of here. I don’t want to deal with you anymore.”
Her jaw dropped. “Huh?”
“You could have gotten us both killed because you don’t pay attention or follow directions.” I got to my feet. “This was a bad idea.”
She looked crushed. “But…I thought we were friends.”
I sighed. “Yeah. That’s the problem. And it’s my fault. But I don’t want to work with you again. Send me your paperwork.”
I took the slow train out of Anchorage to the Da Vinci Terminal on Mars Prime. Fairfax was waiting for me at the door. I packed some clothes and my shaving kit into a duffel bag and threw it into the back seat of my Bronco. Fairfax hopped into the shotgun seat. We drove through the desert for a while. It was dark and cool and still. We stopped at a diner around midnight for eggs-over-medium and corned beef hash. I got some smart paper at the drugstore next door and sent a letter to Miskatonic to the effect that I wasn’t doing any more training, formal or informal, for the foreseeable future. I checked us into a motel at dawn. We slept until the sun went down again and drove home.
Steven Smiley is the author of Milo & Fairfax.