“This is not what I expected the museum to look like,” said Epiphany.
“You were expecting marble columns and urns?” Milo said sardonically.
“I was expecting a lab with magic circles and electrified unobtainium cages. This is a…farm?”
“Sort of. Most of Miskatonic is bigger on the inside than on the outside, and it’s all weird.”
“One of the few upsides of hanging out with you, Tracer, is that everything I come into contact with is weird. Where are the monsters?”
“There’s an answer.”
Milo took a key from his pocket and unlocked the front door of a big clapboard farmhouse.
“Come on in. There’s milk in the fridge. Cookies, too.”
Epiphany followed him inside. The farmhouse had a high ceiling; the flagstone floor was warm from the sunlight streaming through the big windows. There was an enormous dog bed in one corner with a sad-eyed, jowly dog the size of a Clydesdale lying on it. It wagged its tail at them.
“Widdershins Mastiff,” said Epiphany with a grin. “We had one of these guarding the front door of the building I lived in in med school. Hey buddy! You want to play?”
“I wouldn’t,” said Milo. “He sheds.” Fairfax went up and sniffed the monstrous animal. It licked her nose. She butted her head against it fondly and curled up between its paws.
Milo went into the refrigerator and poured a glass of milk for Epiphany and one for himself. He got a tin box of homemade cookies out of a cupboard and put half a dozen on a plate, which he positioned between them. “Jimmy,” he said loudly, “Are you a good boy?”
“Guuud booy, boss,” the dog said with effort.
“You taught it to fucking talk?” said Epiphany weakly. “Why?”
“Jimmy’s in charge here. He needs to be able to communicate with the university and, god forbid, the Feds, in case he runs into the kind of problem I think we’re about to have.”
“A translator’s amulet would be significantly less creepy. They’re like thirty bucks at Best Buy.”
“Magic doesn’t work on Widdershins Mastiffs. Too dense—they’re practically monomolecular. It’s why we employ them here. Hard for Ecthroi to hurt.” To the mastiff, he said: “Murdock?”
Jimmy growled. It sounded like an idling Harley. “Chaaased him ooout, boss.”
“Thank you, Jimmy. Rest your voice now.”
Milo took a cookie from the plate, dunked it his glass of milk, and ate it. “Have one. They’re good.”
“Thanks. Any particular reason the museum provides tasty snacks on the way in?”
“They mask your karmic field from the monsters. Jimmy and his crew know you’re here—they rely on their noses—but we don’t want to risk any of the Ecthroi waking up because they smell food.”
Epiphany took a bite of her cookie. “Not bad. I like the walnuts.”
“Murdock’s allergic. Otherwise they’d be straight chocolate chip.”
“Clever. What are we doing here?”
“I’m not sure. There was a commotion, but Jimmy would have notified Frank if any of the Ecthroi we have him watching had awoken.”
Epiphany helped herself to another cookie. “Tracer, don’t take this the wrong way, but doesn’t it feel like you’re being led around by the nose?”
Milo sighed. “I wouldn’t put it that way. We—troubleshooters—tend to develop our own style. Fairfax and I are, as far as I know, unique, in that we work as a team. I had a good friend who had wings—she’d camp out two miles up and take out Ecthroi with a sniper rifle loaded with nuclear bullets. Lucien was famous for the way he could manipulate monsters—and really anyone else—into going where he needed them to go. He’d set time bombs, techno-magical illusions, use his environment in all kinds of creative ways, until he could get the Ecthros stymied, then draw it into his greatcoat.”
“I thought he had that gun.”
“The entropy gun is new. I don’t know what kind of effect, if any, it would have on an Ecthros, although I doubt it would do much—he told me he made it specifically to kill Fairfax. He’s creative and technically inclined. Anyway, Lucien’s very, very good at manipulation, and he loves games. I haven’t figured out what move he doesn’t want me to make yet.”
Epiphany nodded slowly. “Jimmy?” she said loudly. “Talk to me?”
The mastiff looked to Milo. “Is okaaay?”
Milo looked surprised. “Yeah, sure. Go ahead, Jimmy.”
Epiphany walked over to the enormous dog. “Has Murdock ever been here?”
Milo shrugged. “He was a troubleshooter. We’ve all spent time here.”
Epiphany ignored him. “When, Jimmy? When was he here?”
“Haaalf hooour. Chaaased him ooout.”
“Sounds about right,” said Milo. “Jimmy and his pack are as dense as anything alive. I don’t think he’d chance using the gun.”
Epiphany shook her head. “We know that, Jimmy. When was he in here last?”
“Threeee yeaaar. Se-ven time.”
Milo looked up in surprise. “He was supposed to be out on his ass five years before that! Jimmy, how’d he get in?”
Jimmy looked ashamed. “Haad cleer-ance docs, boss. Baaad dog?”
“No, Jimmy. Good dog,” said Milo halfheartedly. “Goddamn it. He found a tattoo knife somewhere, why wouldn’t he be able to find that kind of documentation?” He turned to the dog. “Jimmy, what was he doing here?”
“Sa—id he haad to leeeave su—ppliies for a huuunt, boss.”
Milo and Epiphany followed Jimmy out of the farmhouse to something like a tractor with a harness protruding from the front instead of an engine. The enormous dog situated the yoke over his massive shoulders and stood up. He looked back expectantly.
“Get on,” Milo said. “The outbuildings are separated by a couple of miles apiece. Gives Jimmy’s crew space to work if there’s an escape. The tractor’s quicker than walking.”
It took them ten minutes to reach the utility shed, Fairfax trotting along beside them. Jimmy pressed his nose against what looked like a fingerprint scanner, and the door to the shed unlocked itself with a hiss.
“Well look at that,” said Epiphany. Something translucent red and plastic caught the light, just past a bag of kibble the size of a Volkswagen. She clambered over assorted maintenance detritus until she reached a small pile of empty rubber vacutainers. “If those are all used, there were six, seven liters of blood in here.” She looked around, her glyph glittering. “At least enough for a complete blood change.”
“Oh, no.” Milo ran his hands through his hair. “No, no, no. He was on the team that constructed Tia’s apartment—his blood is part of the seal that keeps her in! He’s had years…oh, that lunatic. He’s banked enough of his own blood to give her access to magic!”
“But why leave it here?”
“Isaac is the only being we have on tap over which we have any real control that could go toe-to-toe with Tia and win. Murdock needed him out of the way, and there was no way that construct could have gotten into the University looking like the Queen of the Dragons with a skin disease. She must have given him a little of herself—a strand of her hair or a vial of her spittle—and he put it in it with a little of the blood. It was an imperfect duplicate, given that it was mostly made of Murdock, but it did the job.”
“Could you explain something?”
“What do I have to do with any of this? You couldn’t even find the place without me—your boss said himself that he didn’t let us in. Your psycho playmate and his fake dragon both tried to off me. Why am I in any way important to them?”
“Miss?” said Jimmy. “Sme-ell liiike sun-less laaand. Youuu de-ad?”
“I was,” Epiphany said shortly. “I’m not now.”
“How is that glyph attached to you?” Milo said suddenly.
“Bonded to the source of my karma, like your tattoos. Why?”
“How is it fueled?”
“Starlight, basically. It stores stellar energy.”
“A lot. I have to reset people like your dog a couple of times a shift. Where are you going with this?”
“I wonder if it kept collecting it after you died,” Milo said thoughtfully. “I need to find the Pearl of Dreams. I hope to Christ no one’s managed to kill it. And then I need to talk to somebody else, because I can’t seem to kill Murdock myself. And you’re coming with me.”
“I’m gonna choose to take that as a request, because I’m enjoying myself. Don’t order me around.”
Milo closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose. “Sorry. It’s just what comes out when I talk.”
“Yeah, you need to watch it. You’re cool and all, but I get the feeling that you don’t take enough time off of work.”
“We’re goody gumdrops. Is it safe for us to leave?”
Milo turned to Fairfax. “Do a quick sweep for Murdock. I don’t think he’s here, but would you make sure, please?” The little dog stretched her legs and disappeared in a blur of motion. Thirty seconds later, she reappeared, screeching to a halt next to Jimmy.
“We can go,” he said. “Jimmy will let Frank know what’s going on. If Lucien’s got a weakness, it’s that everything’s a game to him—he can’t function without them. I propose that we ignore him and do what we’re doing rather than figure out what he doesn’t want us to do.”
“What are we doing, then?”
“Calling in a favor from something I was supposed to kill and didn’t.”
Epiphany looked horrified. “Like an Ecthros? Like the thing that actually did kill me?”
“Not exactly. This one doesn’t eat people.”
“I thought that was, you know, what monsters do.”
“I don’t think this one is a monster, exactly. We can’t help how we’re made, just what we do with what we’ve got.”
“Profound. If I think it’s going to try to do what the last one did, I’m going to dump enough laser into it to crack your dog in half. Which I can most certainly do, by the way.”
Milo sighed. “Please don’t. Fairfax will take care of it if it needs to be taken care of, I give you my word.”
“Fuck. Fine. Where are we going?”
“To see the single most obnoxious person I know.”
Alexander Karelis 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.