“There’s a couch floating past us.”
I nodded. “That there is.”
Epiphany followed what looked like a Barcalounger as it drifted after the couch. “I only point this out because we’re in a cornfield, and the ground’s bone dry.”
“It’s traditional. If you grow dreams for personal or commercial use, you do it in a cornfield or wheat field. Sometimes a picturesque grove in the middle of an old-growth forest, but those are harder to find on short notice. Never in pine or any kind of evergreen though. If you do that, you get giants with malevolently glowing eyes, don’t ask me why.”
“Who dreams about living room furniture?”
“Probably that guy.” I pointed to a small man with an enormous walrus mustache and a big sack slung over his back. He was chopping industriously away at the couch with some kind of hand tool. I waved. He raised his top hat, which had “Acme Extratemporal Home Furnishings” printed on it in big block capitals, and went back to what he was doing.
Epiphany picked an apple off of a tree that sprouted suddenly from the ground a few feet away from us, fully fruited, and took a bite. “Not bad. Want some?”
“Fairfax?” I said without looking around, “There’s going to be a snake around here someplace in a minute. Find it and kill it.”
“Wuff.” The little dog disappeared. Thrashing disturbed the cornstalks for a moment, then Fairfax returned, licking her chops.
Epiphany looked askance at the apple. “Is this going to give me some kind of secret knowledge? ‘Cause that would cross my weirdness threshold. I’ll spectate, but I don’t want to be an oracle.”
“No, you don’t. But don’t worry. It’s just someone’s metaphor for something. The snake was most likely going to turn out to be poisonous, is all, and I didn’t know whether you keep antivenin in that glyph.”
“Nope. It can be surgical or diagnostic tools, but I’m a doctor, not a hospital. So good call. Whose metaphor?”
“I don’t know. Whoever’s doing the dreaming.”
“What are we doing here, exactly?”
“We’re looking for a creature that feeds on dreams. As far as I know, it’s unique among Ecthroi.”
“Ecthroi feed on people, I thought.”
“Like I said, it’s unique. It’s why I didn’t kill it when I had the chance. Now I’m glad I didn’t. If it’s here, and it can help us, I’d be willing to offer it asylum at Miskatonic.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’d get it transferred to The Farm and make sure it was well-fed. In exchange, it might be amenable to helping us study The Worlds That Lie Sleeping.”
“What are you talking about, and how did I hear the capital letters in what you just said?”
The little man from the furniture store sighed and put down his sack. “You don’t have to shout,” he said quietly, in his ghostly voice. “Hello, Tracer. It’s been some time.”
I walked over to the Pearl’s new host. “What happened to the gremlin?”
“It died. It was dying when it picked me up; some kind of cancer. I kept it alive as long as I could. This one is mad, terrifyingly so. It believes there is only one planet, an Earth of one hundred fifty years past, where there is no magic, and that the world that really exists is a dream. I sooth it with my voice sometimes, and keep it safe.”
“It was a magician like you once. Imagine a magician gone mad.”
“He.” I said. “Not ‘it.’”
“He was a man once. I knew him a little; his name was Chauncy Jackwire. Show some respect.”
The Pearl’s host winced. “I’m sorry. The niceties of being human aren’t natural to me.”
I sighed. “I have some questions.”
“I will try to answer them. But not here. This place isn’t safe for you or your companions.”
Fairfax trotted over, followed by Epiphany. The little dog sniffed at the Pearl’s host. She looked up at me, confused. I smiled grimly. “The last trained hunter who can find something like you doesn’t know whether she smells Ecthros or troubleshooter. If I hadn’t slipped a tracking inscription on your previous host on the train two years ago, I wouldn’t have known where to look. If I begin to believe that you drove your host mad yourself in order to provide camouflage, and I’m not saying I don’t already, I will revoke my offer of asylum and feed you to my dog.”
The Pearl’s host shrugged. “We should discuss this elsewhere. This place is a gate to The Worlds That Lie Sleeping. You should not have come here. If you fall asleep here, you will never wake up. And this place wants you to fall asleep. Look at her.”
I turned. Epiphany was yawning. “The mustache may have something, Milo. I want to sit down and take a nap pretty bad,” she said warily.
“You must all come with me,” said the Pearl’s host.
“If we’re going anywhere, it’s under our own steam,” I said shortly.
“I can provide transportation—”
I glared at the Pearl. “The last time you and I had dealings with one another, you knocked Fairfax unconscious and snacked on my karma. Forgive me if I don’t trust you any further than I can throw that couch.”
The Pearl shrugged as if it was of no consequence. “We’ll travel through the Worlds That Lie Sleeping either way.”
“I don’t know that I want to go dreaming,” I said. “I have some questions for you, and you can answer them or not. If you do, you go to Miskatonic in safety. If you don’t, Fairfax eats you.”
It laughed, an unpleasant barking sound that contrasted strangely with its soft voice. “We will go dreaming either way,” it said again. It gestured to Epiphany. “I can feel the shadow of the Sunless Lands emanating from the source of her karma. It calls to me. I know what you want me to tell you, and you’ll only understand it in the context of a dream.”
“Where are we going, Tracer?” said Epiphany. “I’m starting to feel unpleasantly strange.”
“You tell me,” I said.
“Let’s go to Central Terminal.”
“I’ve never seen it empty.”
I nodded. “Kind of fitting. Angelus lux.” The cherub sprang forth from my shoulder, all eyes and wings and puffs of flame. “Come on through. You last, Ecthros. I want real-life ground under my feet before I have to deal with you.”
Da Vinci Central Terminal was a mess. The stained-glass windows were mostly shattered, and the sunlight through the dust made columns of light that were beautiful but distracting. The huge sandstone columns that lined the place were dirty and broken. The marble floor was cracked in some places, stained crimson in others, and the carved wood ticket booths were splintered. The tunnels were visible, the floor having fractured and collapsed on top of them when great golden serpents the size of the trains themselves erupted from the floor and went through and through the building like surface-to-air missiles, killing everyone inside. The bodies had been collected, but psychic echoes of the carnage remained. I stood under the dome, feeling lost and reflecting on the fact that I’d never noticed how the place resembled a cathedral. Epiphany came up behind me and put her hand on my shoulder.
“It’s fixable, Milo. Just about everything is.”
“Gonna take some work,” was all I could manage. Central Terminal had been my second home, and I loved it. Two years away had made me realize how much I missed it. I turned to see Fairfax hit the floor. “You and your companion are going dreamwalking, Tracer. This is necessary,” came the Pearl’s voice from all around us.
“I’m gonna kill you,” I said. “Bank on that.”
“When I saw you and your dog, I knew I’d never see the sunset. The Queen of the Dragons—my mother—knows I’m here. You won’t be the instrument of my death.”
“I would have protected you,” I said.
“I wouldn’t do well in captivity,” it said quietly. “I’ve lived for a long time, Milo Vitre. Before I die, I want a troubleshooter to know that with all the karma I’ve drunk, I’ve never killed. And I never will. Now hush.”
Kudzu sprouted from the ground. It climbed up what was left of the ticket booths, collecting the delicate sculpted molding and fixing it in place. Massive liana twined around chunks of masonry and bore them up, joining them with divots in walls and structural supports. Tendrils of ivy collected fragments of glass, scaling walls and covering the ceiling, making the Angel gilding of the Da Vinci Skylight and the beautiful windows depicting the construction of a planar gate whole again.
“Holy shit,” breathed Epiphany. “Is this real?”
“No,” I said. “Let’s get this over with, Ecthros.”
“It could be,” came the soft voice.
“But it isn’t,” I said. “Show us what we came to see.”
Epiphany touched her face. “What have you done to my glyph?”
I glanced at her. The magical inscription over her left eye had turned a soft matte black. “Don’t bother trying to use it,” I said. “My tattoos don’t work in dreams.”
“It seems to be working just fine,” she said. “There’s something through here. Something alive.”
We picked our way through the jungle that had sprouted around us, heading toward something that smelled of the sea. We turned the corner to the heart of the terminal, the Grand Hall. The ceiling was covered with an intricate fresco of the first interplanar meeting, between the peoples of Earth Prime and an Earth that never left the Renaissance, painted by the Leonardo of that Earth himself. A great, many-colored marble compass rose lined with precious metals made up the floor. North pointed toward the immense solid gold departures and arrivals signboard, still studded with the living jewels that marked the time and location of various trains.
Tia was sitting on the ticket-taker’s box. “End of the line, Milo,” she said pleasantly.
“Heard that before,” Epiphany said. Her glyph glowed with anti-light.
The sun went out. Tia screamed.
I turned my head and covered my eyes, cursing. Without Fairfax’s distortion field, I’d be blind for hours. Or should have been. I peeked out from between my fingers and found myself able to see a kind of radiant darkness that outlined the terminal, the gold of the signboard a kind of watery silver, and the stained glass glittering black. Slowly, my vision returned to normal. The climbing vines were gone, as was Tiamat.
We found Fairfax by our entry point. She sat up and blinked owlishly when I called her name. “She was like this last time,” I said.
“The pearl knocked her out and showed me people I loved who aren’t around anymore,” I said.
“Not surprised you want to kill it, then.” Epiphany said. She examined the little dog. “She seems fine.”
“No. I was glad. I didn’t get to say goodbye to any of them in real life.”
“They were other troubleshooters?”
“Yeah. Old friends. I’m not sure how real they were. Maybe not entirely dreams.”
“Still gonna kill the Pearl?”
“Said I would.”
“Kind of rigid.”
“I don’t know about that. Killing Ecthroi is my job. I let this one go last time because I felt like I owed it a little.”
“For letting you say goodbye to your friends.”
“Right. But there are rules. You don’t let people mess with your head in my line of work. It isn’t safe. We work alone, with no backup close at hand. People can’t get the idea that they can take a poke at a troubleshooter and walk away or the next one of us to come along might meet resistance from someone, or, more likely, several someones who want to do them harm.”
“I get it. Hang on. There’s something here.”
I smelled brine. “Fairfax,” I said, “Bring it all down.”
I grabbed Epiphany. “Hold onto me and don’t let go. Make yourself as small as you can. Camelot.”
The castle tattooed over my ribs assembled itself around us as Fairfax began to dismantle the building. She caromed off of pillars and ledges like a pinball, moving faster and faster until she was functionally invisible. Every now and then I heard a grunt as she slammed into something heavy.
The walls began to collapse. A girder landed with a bang and bent around the magical projection sheltering us. Glass showered down as the little dog ran straight up the wall, ricocheted back and forth between two close-set flying buttresses, and shook the windows out of their frames.
Tia stepped into the room. I heard Fairfax growl. Two hundred pounds of compact, ultra-dense dog moving at three thousand feet per second hit the construct like a meteorite, knocking her through three sandstone pillars and crushing her against a structural support. I heard snarling.
The building came down. Rock, glass, marble, metal, and all the associated tech required to keep an Amtrak terminal functioning made a sound like a city falling off a cliff.
“Don’t let go of me,” I said to Epiphany, who had her eyes closed. “You’re safe while we’re touching. Fairfax will dig out the castle in a minute and then you can let go. Okay?”
“Yep. Let me know when it’s cool to throw up.”
“Found your limit, have we?”
“Nope. Loud noises do that to me. I’m holding it because I’m starting to like you and those look like nice boots.”
“I’m touched. Fairfax! We’re over here!” I heard scrabbling and the sound of rock shifting.
Fairfax had us dug out in under a minute. I looked around. There was nothing left of Central Terminal but rubble and horizon. Epiphany made noises behind me. I handed her my handkerchief without looking. “You okay back there?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Just dry heaves. This place looks like a war zone.”
“Might as well be. Where were you when the terminal went down?”
I closed my mouth with a click. Epiphany wiped her mouth and pocketed the handkerchief. “Is that something people say now? Like, where were you when the world fell apart?”
I sat down on a big chunk of sandstone. “Sometimes.”
“Where were you?”
“Here. Not a hundred yards away. I was coming back from a job, looking forward to a night’s sleep. My apartment was a half mile that way.” I pointed into the distance.
“What did you do?”
“There were hundreds of serpents. I fired up my cherub and headed out to look for backup. I know when I’m outgunned.” I stood up. “I think I know what I need to know now.”
“Goody gumdrops. Hey, shiny.” She pointed at an opalescent sphere the size of a marble. “is that the pearl?” She made to get up.
“Don’t touch it. That’s how it happens. Fucking thing burrows under your skin until it gets to the source of your karma and bonds with it.”
“It looks cracked.”
“Good. Fairfax?” There was a flash of multicolored light and a crunching sound. I smiled. “That’s the end of that.”
“We need to get over to whatever’s left of Little Transylvania. I’m going to throw a monkey wrench into Murdock’s machine.”
“Dramatic. How are we getting there from here? It’s a twenty-mile hike.”
“Angelus lux.” The dimensional gate sputtered to life.
“Come on,” I said. “I think that’s our last trip with this cherub.”
“They run out? How the fuck are we getting off-world?”
“If we can find the guy I’m looking for, that won’t be a problem.”
Steven Smiley is co-founder of Writers Room DC, a boutique co-working space for professional writers of fiction and creative non-fiction and the unofficial literary nexus of Washington D.C.