“Took you long enough to get here, Milo,” said the voice in the center of the flame sourly.
Milo and Epiphany were standing in a well-appointed study. A heavy, richly inlaid mahogany desk littered with paperwork sat in the middle of the room. A red-and-gold Aubusson carpet covered the flagstone floor. The only other occupant of the room was a small, neat man with short white hair and a precisely-trimmed beard dressed in razor-creased gray flannel trousers, a blue blazer, a crisp white shirt, and a rep tie. He was wreathed in roaring flames, like an oxyacetylene torch turned all the way up.
“Listen to me and don’t interrupt,” said the Dean of Dark Arts. “I knew you’d show up eventually. Murdock’s going to try to crack the locks on the museum. As you can see, I have troubles of my own, or I’d take care of it myself.”
“Why are you on fire?” asked Epiphany.
Dr. Torosian turned to Milo. “Who’s she?”
“The Spider told me she was important.”
“I suppose he knew what he was doing.
“He usually does. What’s keeping you from dealing with Murdock?”
Frank sighed. “Isaac. He’s trying to get out and ‘render assistance.’”
“We could use the help,” said Milo. “Isaac could help us do something about the Ecthroi Murdock’s trying to free. Cut him loose on the museum and I’ll take care of Lucien.”
“Oh, he’d help,” said Dr. Torosian. “That isn’t the problem. Getting him to stop helping is the problem. He might take it upon himself to restore Miskatonic to the Material Planes and help us out there. At which point we might as well drop a highly ferrous meteorite on whichever planet he’s ‘helping’ and hope for the best. Isaac has no sense of restraint and a demon’s sense of humor. It’s taking everything I’ve got to keep him contained.” He went to the desk. It charred at his touch. He shook his head and got a cigar out of the humidor. Against all expectation, it merely lit itself. “You have to kill Murdock now,” he said. “I can’t bring Central Terminal back online with him skulking around.”
“Why did you knock it offline in the first place?” said Milo, suddenly angry. “We’ve all been twisting in the wind for two years, Frank! We’ve been out there doing the job with no backup, our tattoos slowly running out of juice, and there’s something killing us! Where were you?”
Dr. Torosian sighed. “Keeping the museum locked down, Milo. When the serpents hit Mars Prime, I knew who it had to be.”
“Of course. The First Dragon. The Great Water Dragon. She created the Ecthroi. They’re creatures of magic, and enough raw magic could break down the barriers we erected around her apartment. If they break her out, she’d unleash hell on earth.”
“She did that already, remember?” Milo said flatly. “Why now?”
“I believe Murdock made a deal with her. My profilers say he’s on a suicide trip. But he doesn’t just want to die himself, he wants to kill everyone in creation. Tiamat could well do that for him.”
“I don’t know that Tia’s apartment is especially vulnerable to Ecthroi,” said Milo. “She tried that when we first locked her up, remember? Pacer Looney had to drop a micro-nuke on The Mermaid of the Deep to keep it from getting away once it realized that it couldn’t break the blood walls her prison is made of.”
“Why am I here, please?” said Epiphany. “What does any of this have to do with me?”
“I don’t know,” said Frank. “I didn’t let you in.”
“This is a trap,” said Milo. He turned to Epiphany. “We have to get you out of here.”
“Not yet,” said a voice from the corner. Lucien Murdock faded into the room, his techno-magical greatcoat crackling. He pointed his entropy gun at Fairfax.
“Frank, summon Isaac,” said Milo.
“Not going to happen, Milo. Be a good boy and kill him, would you? Delegate or do it yourself, I don’t care, but this needs to come to an end.”
Milo looked hard at Lucien. “Tempus,” he said. The pocket watch tattooed on his wrist glowed. Time slowed down, then stopped. Epiphany and Dr. Torosian stood frozen by the desk. Fairfax moved, but very, very slowly. Milo knew that she was, in reality, preparing to accelerate, and that meant the pocket watch was enabling him to move very fast indeed. He had seven seconds to kill the unmoving Murdock before the clock ran out of energy. He picked a heavy crystal decanter up off of the bar and hefted it. He took a deep breath, raised the decanter over his head with both hands and walked over to the tall, thin man in the long red coat, who promptly fired the pistol. Fairfax fell to the floor with a yelp.
“One down,” he said conversationally. “I’ve modified my coat to piggyback on your karmic signature, Milo. Your tattoos can’t hurt you, so they can’t hurt me.”
Time restarted itself. Milo dived for the little dog. Fairfax twitched and whimpered in his arms.
“Call for Isaac, Frank!” he shouted. “I can’t do shit about this character without tools, and he’s just shot my fucking dog!”
Dr. Torosian looked Epiphany up and down, taking in her glyph. “Trauma surgeon?”
“Fix the dog. I’m going to handle this.” He raised his hands as if conducting an invisible orchestra. Murdock wheeled around quickly, drawing down on the older man.
Frank chuckled. “Not on your best day, son.” He swung his hands to one side, then to the other, back and forth, then in complicated patterns. Murdock was lifted off of his feet and bounced off of every hard surface in the office, over and over again, his greatcoat sparkling and snapping as it tried to compensate for the telekinetic wash. He fell to the floor in a heap.
“There,” said Dr. Torosian. He produced a switchblade inlaid with crimson-stained bone and etched with runes. He snapped it open offhandedly and strode unhurriedly toward the troubleshooter apostate, his shiny shoes making no sound on the carpet.
Lucien gave him a bloody smile. “May I introduce my partner?” he said.
Frank ducked Tia’s first punch, but the second one knocked him across the room and through the wall. She was wearing the same blue jeans and sweater set Milo had last seen her in, but her bronze skin looked rough and flaky, as if she had a skin disease. She strode over to Epiphany and picked her up by the throat.
“Sweetie, I’m going to need some help from you,” she said.
“Frank, if you’re conscious, it’s gotta be Isaac!” shouted Milo. “Tia’s loose somehow! We got no other shot!”
Frank stalked back into the room, incandescent with rage. His nose was bloody, and the fire that surrounded him was so hot as to be invisible. He shot his cuffs and straightened his tie.
“Ur Hekau Setcheh,” he said. “Come forth, you evil bastard.”
I am here.
Everyone but Frank and Tia cried out at the deafening voice that circumvented the ears and burst like a bomb directly in his or her brain. It was like sizzling maggots between one’s ears, a voice of infinite malice and corruption.
As Milo watched, Frank’s shadow detached itself, becoming more solid as it did. The shadow it cast itself looked like a translucent version of the Dean. It took a step forward and bowed.
What would you have me do, my host?
Tia dropped Epiphany, who, to her credit, scooted over to Fairfax, her glyph flowing off of her face and becoming a set of surgical tools. The bronze-skinned creature ran at Frank, her face expressionless. The counterfeit Dr. Torosian blocked her path, slapping her across the face and knocking her up against the wall.
“Kill her,” said Frank, pointing to Tia. “Die trying if necessary.”
Yes. Come here, little dragon. Let us dance as we did in Babylon.
“I don’t think I remember the end of that dance the same way you do, Isaac,” Tia said calmly. She took a short length of what looked like rebar from the back pocket of her jeans. It telescoped outward, one point becoming sharper and sharper until Tia was holding a cold iron lance. “But we can dance again if you like.”
The shadow smiled. Its teeth were white and pointed, like a big cat’s.
Cold iron, little dragon? Cold iron is the bane of your children, not of my kind.
“It’s not for you,” she snarled, and hurled her lance at Dr. Torosian. Isaac reached out and caught it. He examined it for a moment, then broke it over his knee.
No. You will not hurt my master.
“Careful, Frank!” shouted Milo. “Pretty sure she’s what’s been killing us!”
“Easy, Milo,” said Dr. Torosian calmly. “She’s dead already, she just doesn’t know it yet.”
Your lance is gone. How will you fare against a storm of hammers?
If the humans watching the demon saw it move, it was only because it wanted them to. Isaac strode forward, its fists raised, and hit Tia a hundred times in ten seconds. Tia’s jaw broke, her teeth shattered, and her ribs snapped like toothpicks. She fell to her knees. Isaac stepped back, still smiling.
“End it, Isaac,” said Frank.
Isaac opened its mouth impossibly wide and cut loose with a blast of hellfire. Exponentially hotter than the hottest flame that the watered-down blood of a cambion could produce, the solar furnace inside the demon evaporated the lithe bronze body in an instant.
Little dragon? Is that all there was to you?
Dr. Torosian shook his head. “That wasn’t her.”
No. An echo of her. She still lives; I can hear her soul-song from across the spheres.
“Find her and kill her right now.”
No. You have summoned me and I have fulfilled my function, O man. For one year I return to the world of smoldering night, as per our compact.
With that, the demon disappeared back into Dr. Torosian’s shadow.
The Dean sighed. “Fuck,” he said to no one in particular.
Murdock smiled. “That went well. Hey Milo, watch this.” He stretched out his arm for his gun, which had fallen out of his hand and landed on the carpet a few feet away. To both his and Milo’s surprise, Epiphany vaulted up onto her hands from where she had been kneeling, slid across the carpet, and landed next to the gun. She kicked it to the other side of the room, then slid back across the carpet, now stained with the little dog’s blood, coming to a halt next to her patient.
“Don’t let him kill me, please,” she said, and returned to her work.
“Kill you? Oh, kid.”
Milo dived on the gun. Murdock shook his head. “No, no. I’ll take that.” He pressed an activator sewn into his sleeve. The gun disappeared from Milo’s hand and reappeared in Lucien’s. He pointed it at Fairfax. “Now. Let’s make absolutely sure about that fucking dog.”
“Angelus,” came Frank’s voice from behind Milo. His strong hands gripped the troubleshooter’s arm and anchored him in place as Lucien’s cherub activated, opening a dimensional portal into hard vacuum. Small objects flew across the room and through the cherub’s unblinking eye, disappearing into space. Epiphany locked her legs around the leg of Frank’s desk and held onto her patient. Murdock, who had been lying by the fireplace, had nothing to stop his horizontal fall. He barely had time to take a breath before he was drawn in. The cherub slammed closed behind him.
“How did you do that?” asked Milo, shaken.
“I’m the boss, is how.” said Dr. Torosian. He turned to Epiphany. “How’s the dog?”
“Gimme a minute,” she said. Her glyph was now a set of surgical retractors and a pair of forceps. Its absence had left a livid scar across the left side of her face. “I got the bullet, but I’m gonna have to restart the star’s fusion reaction or she’ll die. This is going to be bright.”
The surgical tools went liquid again and cascaded up her body and flowed back into the scar. A thin, bright line of light poured from the glyph and into Fairfax, growing exponentially more brilliant until Milo and Frank had to look away. Then it was gone, and the little dog sat up and scratched herself. She trotted over to Milo, who crouched down and hugged her.
Milo stroked the little dog’s fur and kissed her nose. Tears filled his eyes. “Next time you see him, you run,” he said sternly. Fairfax licked his face enthusiastically. Milo got up and hugged Epiphany. “Thank you,” he said.
“It’s what I do,” she said, patting him on the back. “As much fun as this has been, how close are we to getting Amtrak back so that I can go back to living my life?”
“Not close,” said Dr. Torosian. “We’ve got more problems that I thought we did.”
“You just smoked the construct that’s been killing troubleshooters,” Milo said. “Tia’s still where she’s supposed to be, and Lucien’s orbiting what looked like Jupiter Prime. Why not bring Central Terminal back online and give the all-clear?”
“We didn’t win, Milo. We lost.”
“That construct did just what it was supposed to do. It drew out Isaac. Now he’s unavailable to us. Killing my students, your friends? Icing on the cake, that’s all. And Murdock’s not dead until I see him on a slab with my own eyes. This is worse than I thought.”
“Excuse me?” said Epiphany. “What’s all the commotion over there?”
Milo’s head snapped around. “Where?”
There was a sharp cracking sound, then shouting.
“The museum,” said Frank. “Get moving, Milo.”
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.