“The Barcadian Wild” by Tim Akers
Our taxi rattled to a halt in front of a bar on the outskirts of civilization. Cornfields stretched in every direction, giving the place the look of an island in a sea of golden grain. The building was an old barn, repurposed and expanded for maximum debauchery, with terraced porches leading from the loft, and a wrap around porch that was already filled with merrymakers, huddling under the warmth of propane heat lamps, their rosy fingers wrapped around flagons of beer. Lights and laughter rolled out of the tall windows, the interior obscured by flickering neon signs advertising various beers. A single banner ran across the front of the building. It read, in four-foot-tall letters, The Barcadian Wild. The BAR was written in bright red, in case the casual reader failed to understand how clever the proprietor was being.
“This doesn’t look very anomalous,” Chesa said from the front seat. “Seems like a pretty normal party to me.”
“Wait till you get inside,” Matthew said. He was the only one of us to have pulled this duty before. Chesa and I were still raw recruits in the world of Knight Watch. “It gets pretty weird pretty fast. But it’s a good party!”
The Wild was more than a good party. It was a disaster waiting to happen, a roving debauchery populated entirely by creatures of legend and myth, held once a year in compliance with the Accords that regulated all mythic/mundane interactions. Inside we would find fauns, nymphs, jotun, fair folk, and druids. But from the outside, it was just a dive bar. It was our job to keep it that way.
“We are not here for the party. We are here to make sure the party doesn’t destroy the fabric of reality,” I answered. My face was pressed against the back window, not because I was trying to see, but because that was the only way to wedge a man in plate armor into the back of a Toyota Prius. “Hey, can someone maybe let me out?”
“You’re on your own, man. I’m a healer, not a contortionist.” Saint Matthew patted me on the head, then opened the other door and stepped out. Chesa joined him, wedging her ash wood long bow out past my head, decorative leaves scraping against my armor. The driver just stared at me.
“Right, yes, of course! Sorry to be such an inconvenience!” Reaching around blindly, I eventually found the door handle and fumbled at it clumsily. It eventually came loose in my hand and fell off the door with a thunk. I stared at it in resignation. Things always break around me, especially since I joined Knight Watch. The cab, which had somehow managed to carry us all the way here, was literally coming apart in my hands. “Uh . . . little help?”
Chesa rolled her eyes, then yanked the door open from the outside. I tumbled out, trying to keep the rattle of my armor to an absolute minimum, even as I went to one knee in the gravel driveway of the bar. I reached out for Chesa’s hand, but she just sniffed and turned her attention back to the neon lights. She was leaning against her bow, legs crossed and pretty eyes sparkling. She was in full battle elf princess mode, from scale mail battle skirt to glittering tiara-helm. Between her pointy ears, my plate mail, and Matthew’s glowing eyes, the three of us made quite a scene. Full credit to the taxi driver, he hadn’t said anything about it. Maybe reality was doing its illusion trick and making us look normal. Or maybe this guy had just seen some shit.
“Thanks, guys,” I muttered as I slowly clambered to my feet. I walked around to the hatchback and retrieved my sword and shield. The sword was nothing special, just three feet of razor-sharp steel, and a pommel heavy enough to crush skulls, all contained in an embossed leather sheath worked with dragon heads and Celtic knotting. Pretty normal hero kit. But the shield? The shield was pure magic. With it, I could stand against any foe and come out the other side in one piece. I slung them both over one shoulder, then slammed the trunk shut.
“I think I must have fallen asleep,” Matthew said, stretching. His back cracked like a string of firecrackers. Matthew wore the traditional white vestments of his class, but also faded jeans and a pair of Ray-Bans that barely contained the diamond bright glow of his eyes.
He had a silver goblet in one hand, which made me nervous. We were under strict orders from our boss, Esther MacRae, not to drink anything at the Wild. I cleared my throat and asked about the cup.
“I know the rules,” Matthew said. He clapped me on the shoulder as he walked past, strolling toward the bar. “What Esther means is ‘Don’t drink anything the fair folk offer you.’ But there are monks in there. I didn’t come all this way to watch someone else drink the dark stout of God.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. And tequila, I hope. God makes tequila, right?” Chesa asked. She and the saint headed into the bar. I was about to follow when the cab driver called out.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Someone gonna pay me?”
“Right,” I said, turning around. “Currency. Something I . . . totally have. Around here. Somewhere.” I patted my belt and the folds of my chainmail, finally producing a small leather bag. That was a bad sign. Before we left headquarters, Esther had given me a mundane wallet filled with crisp twenty-dollar bills. But my particular magic had transformed it into this, a leather bag that clinked when I shook it. I opened the drawstrings and peered down at the glittering contents.
“Do you accept gold coins?”
The cabbie left with a glamorous amount of gold. Trouble was, I wasn’t sure what the exchange rate was between magically transmuted dollar bills and fake gold coins. When he got far enough away from us for the coin to revert to its mundane form it would hopefully be enough to cover the trip. And the repair of the handle. And a tip. Hopefully.
Walking up the steps to the front porch, I couldn’t help but notice that in our high quality Ren Faire garb, we stuck out like sore thumbs. Small groups clustered around each of the standing tables on the wraparound porch, and loitered on the terrace that overlooked the cornfields. It was a mixed crowd. Leather-clad bikers, tie-dyed hippies, microbrew bros, and what looked like a clade of feral suburban dads all watched us with growing amusement.
“Are we sure this is the right place?” I asked.
“This is it. You can’t feel the weird in the air?” Matthew asked. I shrugged.
“Maybe we’re the weird in the air? This just looks like a bar in a cornfield.”
“And that doesn’t strike you as weird?” Matthew asked. He ambled toward the front door. A hulking bouncer glared at us.
“Dude, have you even been to the Midwest?” I asked.
“Sorry, folks,” the bouncer said, holding out one beefy hand. He was wearing a tight black shirt and oil-stained jeans that barely contained his muscular thighs. “Private event.”
“I think you’ll find we’re on the guest list,” I said, praying that there really was a guest list, and that we really were on it. “Under Knight Watch.”
He looked me up and down, then snorted. “Doesn’t sound familiar.”
My heart dropped. Chesa nudged me forward, which really took a lot of force, considering my mail. I cleared my throat. “Knight? With a K?”
The bouncer just stared at me. Chesa sighed dramatically. There’s something about your ex-girlfriend sighing dramatically that puts the steel in your blood. I crossed my arms and tilted my chin back.
“It doesn’t feel like you checked your list,” I said. “In fact, I’m not sure you even have a list.”
“Oh, there’s a list. It reads No Nerds in Funny Costumes.” He thumped a finger against my chest, rocking me back. “Ex marks the spot.”
“Funny costumes? Is this funny?” I drew my sword in one smooth motion, driving the bouncer backward with the pommel before bringing the pointy end around to menace his rippling pecs. “Do you want to check your list again?”
The bouncer’s nostrils flared, and he changed. Unfortunately, he got bigger, and meaner, and more likely to try to kick my ass instead of letting me inside. Horns sprouted from his forehead, running in ridges down the middle of his bald head, and his eyes turned the red of freshly spilled blood. His fingers sprouted well manicured black claws, and a leathery tail flapped out from under his jeans, swaying menacingly across the porch.
“I will tear your candy ass limb from limb,” he snarled, his voice a low, sulphurous rumble. “And then I will feed the parts to the hounds of hell!”
“So, yeah,” Matthew said quietly. “We’re in the right place.”
“Ashok’Belah!” The call came from the terrace overhead. “Behave, you foul-blooded imp! Those are Esther’s people!”
“They smell like fear,” Ashok’Belah growled. I hazarded a glance overhead, but only caught a glimpse of a green vest and curly beard before the guardian demon flinched toward me, drawing my attention back to the sword pointed firmly at his chest. The bouncer turned inhuman monster snarled. His mouth was a thorny tangle of mismatched fangs. “This one especially.”
“You want to try me, hellboy?” I tapped the sword against his chest. The sharp point parted his shirt and drew blood from the gnarled skin underneath. “We’ll see who’s scared when you’re bleeding out on the floor.”
“Enough! Both of you!” A hairy man with a luxurious beard and wearing a green felt vest barreled out of the front door. He was short and slightly crooked, but his arms bulged with muscle, and his skin had the weathered look of a farmer. He wore a white dress shirt, stained at the hem, the open collar barely containing the rusty curls of his chest hair. A pair of golden wire rim glasses perched over his forehead, nearly lost in the mad tangle of his locks. The vest looked cheap, like it had been pieced together from a dozen threadbare hand-me-downs. He planted himself between us and shoved the demon bouncer back. Then he turned to me, looking me up and down before continuing. “Now, who are you exactly? I was expecting Esther, or at least Clarence.”
“Clarence retired,” I said. “Esther’s out looking for his replacement, along with the rest of the team. Don’t worry, you’re in good hands.”
“Extremely young hands,” the man said. “It’s just the two of you?”
“Three,” Chesa said. “I’m Chesa. Elven warrior princess, archer, and general bad ass. You’ve already met John. He’ll need to know where your bathrooms are. And this . . .” She looked around, but there was no sign of the saint. “Um. Matthew?”
“Oh, you brought the priest. Great.” The man’s reaction didn’t inspire confidence, but he sniffed and extended a hand. “I’m Cornelius Cornellus Cornmanson, the host of the Wild. Let’s get you the dollar tour.”
I shook his hand, one solid pump that nearly broke my hand, then he turned and dove back into the bar. When we hesitated, Cornelius returned with a furious look on his face.
“Well come on! I have debauchery to manage! Drunken revelry doesn’t just happen, you know!”
Chesa and I shared a worried look, then plunged into the bar.
The Barcadian Wild was madness. Pretty on-brand, considering the name and the reason we were here. Cornelius dragged us through crowds of drunken revelers dressed in a mix of modern clothes and fantasy accoutrements. A group of girls dancing in the corner sported velvety deer horns, peeking out of their brightly dyed hair, and high heels that looked suspiciously like hooves. At the bar, which stretched right down the middle of the room, an enormous man in a Viking helmet talked with a skinny woman wearing nothing but tightly bound cloth strips and a lot of gold jewelry. The twang of country music from the jukebox mingled with pan flutes and Gregorian chants. It was pandemonium, in the truest sense of that word.
The Wild wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding its true nature. Hence the bouncer, I suppose.
“So what exactly did Esther tell you about this gig?” Cornelius shouted over his shoulder as he plowed through the crowds. A very tiny old man with a carrot for a nose glared at us as we muscled past. I struggled to keep up with our hairy host.
“We’re here to make sure you don’t break anything. Reality, for example,” I said.
“Yes, yes, your precious reality. So boring. We’ve been doing this for centuries without a real problem before you lot came along, and we’ll be doing it centuries after you’re all dead. Nothing personal.”
“You’re preaching to the choir,” I said. “Whole reason I took this job was to escape reality.”
“And yet you still dress like that,” Cornelius said with a sniff. “At least your friend has some style.”
“Aw, thanks,” Chesa said with a curtsy.
Cornelius pulled up short, right in the middle of the room. His path took us through the middle of a circle of wafer-thin women in draping, black attire who were playing some kind of game with tarot cards and small chips of dark iron, inscribed with runes. They gave us the very definition of the evil eye, then edged toward the back of the room, muttering to themselves.
“So this is the main level. Bar, couches, foosball tables,” Cornelius said. “Sidhe love their foosball. Back there’s the kitchen, which you should avoid at all costs, and those are the bathrooms,” he continued, pointing. “Over there’s the balcony, and then the stairs to the second floor. Any questions?”
That’s when I noticed two things. First, the deeper we got into the bar, the more our tour guide was changing from a hairy host to something mythic. And second, he wasn’t wearing any pants. I had mistakenly assumed the glossy material covering his legs was leather, or perhaps distressed suede, but now I saw that it was just hair. A lot of hair. And while his shirt tails provided some coverage, they didn’t provide enough.
“Oh God!” I shouted.
“I’ll take that as a no. Well, feel free to mingle. I’m sure Esther gave you some instructions about what to drink. You have my complete assurance that nothing in this bar . . .” His eyes drifted to the mummy and her companion, then to the dryads in the corner. He cleared his throat. “You know, just stick to water. And American beer, if the water’s too strong. And stay away from the buffet. Esther didn’t pay for the buffet.”
“I thought you were paying us to provide security?” I asked.
“Pay you? Hades, no! Your presence at my hootenanny is entirely against my will,” Cornelius said. “Esther made some very specific threats about shutting us down and giving us cubicle jobs in Ohio if we didn’t comply. Try to not ruin the fun, will ya?”
With that, our hirsute and pantless host disappeared into the crowd. I turned to Chesa.
“So, I guess we should set up a patrol schedule? Maybe try to find our healer?”
“I like the idea of splitting up,” she said.
“Great. I’ll take the main level and—”
But Chesa was already gone. She pushed through the crowd to the main bar, ordered something from a talking bear, then danced away, swinging a shot glass over her head. I sighed.
“Valkyrie has left the party,” I muttered to myself. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll just do this myself. Tank with no healer and no DPS. What could go wrong?”
I wandered the main level, staying away from the coven of card-flipping witches we had displaced earlier, before taking a turn on the second floor. The only light on this level came from an array of what I would call Christmas trees, though these had a distinctly pagan air about them. The balconies were crowded with inebriated fair folk, most of whom were disturbingly tall, even by elven standards. My sword clunked against the railing and thumped into more than one shapely thigh as I made my way around the second level. The elves watched me with open disdain. They sipped a sparkling, golden ambrosia out of leaf-shaped glasses, dispensed from a crystalline fountain growing in the corner.
“Any of you see a priest wander through? Blue jeans? Glowing eyes?” I asked. Exquisite backs were turned toward me, demure conversation continuing as if I hadn’t deigned to speak to them. “Of course. Sorry to disturb the elysian ideal.”
I nudged my way past, scraping my plate mail against the railing, since they couldn’t be bothered to move. I was nearly past when a familiar voice reached me from beyond the clutch of elves.
Saint Matthew sat in the middle of a crowd of brown-robed monks, their tonsures shiny in the Christmas lights, gathered around an improbably large barrel and nursing ornate ceramic steins. Matthew had his silver goblet pressed against the tap and was pouring something dark and foamy, talking the whole time.
“He was moving like a greased jackrabbit in heat! You’ve never seen anyone move that fast! Zoom! Zip!” Matthew said. He emphasized this by jerking his goblet around, spilling his beer and drawing frowns from some members of his audience. The rest seemed willing to laugh at anything. “And then the blessing wore out. Boom! Dead stop! His face was the color of stewed beets, and he was quivering, and he let out this shriek. Brothers, you’ve never heard . . .” Matthew took a drink, and our eyes met over the rim of his goblet. The Saint choked a little, then resumed his story a little louder, as though he hoped to blot out what had come before. “You’ve never heard such a heroic war cry! So masculine!”
But I already knew this story, because it was about me, on one of my first missions. Matthew had cast a speed spell on me, without telling me that the air wouldn’t get out of my way as I raced around the battlefield. It wasn’t until the blessing ended that the pain reached my brain. I was left with the kind of sunburn usually reserved for Irish nudists. And the cry I let out was far from heroic.
“Well, that’s not a very good story,” one of the monks grumbled. “I was expecting something a little more . . . humiliating.”
“Sorry to disappoint, Brother Bernard. But I have the privilege of working with nothing but heroes, who do heroic things. Speaking of which,” Matthew gestured broadly in my direction. “Here is my faithful companion, Sir John of Rast. Sir John, please meet the Brothers of the Stout.”
The monks turned bulbous, red-nosed faces in my direction, lifting steins and muttering blessings in my direction.
“Brothers. Never thought I’d meet a bunch of monks in a place like this.”
“Presbyterians,” one of them muttered, then the whole group turned their attention back to the barrel. I motioned for Matthew to join me, which he did only reluctantly.
“This isn’t the job,” I whispered. “We’re supposed to be keeping this place from dipping into the Unreal.”
“I’m doing my part. Draining the monks of their vital resources, without which they can’t . . .” he gestured helplessly. “You know. Screw things up.”
“You’re getting drunk on thick beer and telling embarrassing stories about your team,” I said.
“Honestly, just about you. You make great story material.”
“Gods, can you be serious for a minute? Esther gave us this job because she trusted us. It’s my first lead, and I’ll be damned if I screw it up.”
“She gave us this job because it’s almost impossible to screw up, and she had more important things to do,” Matthew said, clapping me on the shoulder. “Try to relax, Rast. It’s a party. Have a beer.”
He returned to his circle of monks. Blushing, I turned around and shoved my way through the whispering elves, upsetting their fountain of ambrosia on my way past and drawing some very precisely enunciated curses in my wake. I nearly made it to the bannister when Chesa’s laugh rang through my nerves. I turned around.
My ex-girlfriend was draped over an elven prince in the corner of the balcony. He leaned down (a long way) and whispered into her ear, prompting another peal of laughter. She accepted a refill of glittering wine from the jug he was carrying, then drank deeply.
“That’s it! I’m supposed to be the careless one around here,” I said, shoving my way through the High Council of Perfect Cheekbones. Chesa saw me coming and rolled her eyes. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Mingling with my people,” she said. The elf on her arm bowed slightly.
“The Lady Chesa informed us of her mythic identity. You can imagine our joy at meeting the true queen of all elfdom,” he said. “It is only proper that we fete her as she so rightly deserves.”
“Uh huh,” I said. “Chesa, we’re supposed to be doing a job here.”
“This is why no one invited you to the keggers, John.” Staring me down, she accepted another pour from the prince’s delicate jug. “Wherever there is joy, you find a way of killing it.”
“Spoken like royalty,” the elf prince said.
Rather than punch him in the face, which probably would have violated the terms of my employment, I stomped down the stairs and got as far from Chesa’s pretty eyes as I could manage. That turned out to be the other side of the bar. The beartender loomed over me, nimbly drying a glass in his massive paws.
“Get you something to drink?” he asked.
“No, thanks,” I said. “Someone has to be responsible.”
“That never really works,” he said, setting the glass on the bar. He reached behind him and produced a bottle, then poured two fingers of something warm and brown.
“I’m not supposed to drink anything the fair folk offer,” I said.
“I’m a bear. And this is whiskey,” he said, pushing it forward. “You look like you could use a drink.”
He was right on all three counts. I threw the shot down the back of my throat, grimacing as it burned its way down my throat.
“Oh, gods, that’s awful,” I said.
“That’s how you know it’s whiskey. Fae drinks all taste like honeyed moonlight, or silver breezes, or some such bullshit.” He poured another shot, then got a glass for himself. “If this doesn’t fix whatever’s wrong with you, we’ll give vodka a try.”
I woke up to the smell of burning wood and my own piss. My mouth tasted like dirt, and every inch of my body felt like it had been drained of blood and replaced with lighter fluid. There was a low groan that sounded like the unwillingly risen dead. No, wait, that was me. I tried to swallow, but my mouth was as dry as sandpaper. The room spun around me, but I slowly got to one knee, then the other, then tottered to a standing position. Leaning against the tile wall, I took stock of my surroundings.
The room was dark. The smell of smoke was getting more urgent, and now that I’d stopped moaning I could hear the sounds of breaking glass and driving pipes and the steady, urgent bassline of a thousand drums. All I could remember was that the bear had, eventually, switched us to vodka. I also remembered stumbling in the direction of the bathroom at some point. Explained the smell of piss.
I felt along the cool tile wall until I found a door. It was locked. A thin line of flickering light shone under the sill. I got down on my hands and knees and peered through.
The hallway was a riot of wildlife. Vines crawled between the cracked floorboards and dripped down the walls. A rabbit with a jaunty beret hopped into view, twitched its nose at me, then bounced away. Faun hooves scampered past. Laughter, high pitched and mad, echoed in the distance.
“This feels like the sort of thing we were meant to prevent,” I said. “Chesa! Matthew!” No answer. I got to my feet. “Well, I can’t exactly accuse them of lying down on the job, can I?”
I felt around in the dark until I found my sword and shield. Thankfully I hadn’t left them at the bar. A couple whacks with my armored shoulder splintered the door and sent me stumbling into the hallway.
The lights were blindingly bright, and the effort of breaking open the door sent my blood throbbing through my head. I squinted into the main bar. Things had changed. The tables had been rearranged at a fundamental level, and lay in wreckage across the dance floor. The Christmas lights from upstairs now hung from the rafters, tangled with discarded clothing, broken chairs, and a collection of wicker crosses bound with hair. The bar itself looked like it had been hit by a tornado, leaving nothing but empty bottles and lipstick-stained glasses in its wake. Grass and vines poked through the floorboards and from the windowsills, as though they had grown there naturally. But nothing about this was natural, or mundane.
A familiar groan rose from the bulwark of ruined tables. I kicked a few aside until I uncovered the beartender’s huddled form. Some of his fur had been tied into ponytails, each one held in place by a little pink bow, while the rest stood up in sticky spikes. Honey, I hoped. I nudged him with my toe. He sat up with a start, then grabbed his head and slowly lay back down and resumed moaning.
“Too much whiskey?” I asked.
“I wish. Gods, Cornie knows how to throw a party. Everything was fine until the pipes started. Oh, gods, the pipes . . .”
“Yeah, I think they’re still calling.” The back hallway was heavy with foliage. It looked like a garden path, lined with bowers and buzzing with insects. I could barely make out the door that led to the back patio. Hefting my sword and slinging my shield over my shoulder, I headed in that direction. “You sleep it off, bear friend. I’ll take care of this.”
The air was heavy with pollen and the sweet smell of honeysuckle. Blotchy lichen covered the back door, and the handle was pitted with rust. The whole mechanism came apart in my hand. The hinges gave way, and the door settled to the ground, then fell outward, landing with a thump. I stood there, still holding the handle.
The back patio was a liminal space. Long narrow trellises wrapped with fairy lights hung high over comfortable couches, each one warmed by crackling fire pits. Here the feral suburban dads roamed, mingling easily with bikers (in leather) and bikers (in spandex) and sports fans in a motley of jerseys. Now, though, I caught glimpses of their true natures. A horn beneath an undercut, or leaves growing from eyebrows, or pointed teeth flashing before they dipped into an IPA the color of pine tar. The crowds stared at me in silent stupor Or maybe they were just really, really drunk. As one, they turned back to their murmured conversations and dark beers.
“Where’s Cornelius?” I demanded. No response, not even the twitch of an eyebrow or blink of an eye. “Where are my friends!”
Still not getting an answer, I ran up to the nearest table and forcefully inserted myself into the conversation. A pair of fox-faced ladies and a man who looked every inch the accountant except for the goat ears sprouting from his head went out of their way to ignore me. I grabbed the accountant’s beer hand and pushed it onto the table.
“Where are my friends?” I asked again. Without looking at me, he picked up his beer with his other hand and continued drinking. A wisp of the conversation occurring between the fox women reached my ears. It didn’t make any sense. “What did you say?”
“Dragon bone and ivory throne,” she said. “Two stones for an altar. Sky is my witness, and the blood of an elven queen.”
“Three blades for sunset dancing,” the other fox lady said. “Dwarven made beneath the rock. Ocean is my refuge, and the blood of a frightened teen.”
“This is a lot of blood talk,” I said. “Do you think we could get back to—”
The accountant’s hand wrapped through the hair on the back of my head. He pulled me close. His breath smelled like cheap beer and damp moss.
“Wicker man for a god,” he whispered. “Oaken rod for a scepter. The forest is my kingdom, and the blood of a holy monk.”
I tore away from his grip, leaving a few strands of my hair twisted in his clawed fingers. The trio turned back to their drinks and their chanted conversation. Other voices joined them from the crowd, quiet at first but increasingly loud.
“A Queen, a Priest, a Knight,” the crowd intoned. “Dark beer for my sins. The flame is my sword, thirsty for the blood of the watch.”
“Okay, that sounds really . . . specific,” I said. I drew my sword and slipped my shield onto my arm. “Chesa! Matthew! Where are you guys?”
Then my eyes fell on my quarry, and my friends, all at once.
The backyard was dominated by a thirty-foot-tall wicker man, woven through with floral garlands and freshly cut vines. Firewood lay at the feet of the effigy, and a circle of kerosene torches surrounded the structure. A group of cloaked figures waited by the torches, swaying slowly to the sound of their own chanting. The air felt heavy with ritual and malice. The trilling of pipes floated from the surrounding cornfields, though I could see no musicians.
Chesa was bound in the heart of the wicker man, tied and gagged. She glared at me. I was familiar with this glare. It meant something along the lines of “Where have you been, you lazy bastard, I’m about to die here.” I saw it a lot. More, since we joined Knight Watch.
I shoved my way through the last remnants of the crowd and leapt off the porch. My feet came down in a puddle. The whole back yard was churned mud. It looked like three consecutive music festivals had gone off without a bathroom break.
“Okay, party’s over!” I shouted. The circle of robed figures continued their ritual. I marched up to the closest one and ripped back his hood. Golden hair and chiseled cheekbones glared down at me. Chesa’s beau. Of course.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, fancy boy?” I asked. He jerked his robes back into place and turned to face me. The rest of his cohort swept their hoods back dramatically. I counted eight. Long odds, but that’s why I was here.
“This pretender to our crown must be put in her place,” he said, gesturing back at Chesa. “We will not be ruled by a child. And you are too late to save her.”
“It’s never too late to ruin a party,” I said, moving into a defensive stance.
“Gellglorigrandellion, be done with this mortal, that we may return to the ritual,” the elf woman at his side said.
“Gladly,” Jelly said. He swept his robe open and drew the longest, thinnest, fanciest sword I had ever seen. The other elves rolled their eyes and moved out of the way.
“I’m not getting killed by a guy named Jelly Dandelion. Bring it!” I shouted.
I brought my shield up to meet Jelly’s strike, a lightning-fast flurry of jabs that sang a staccato song on the face of my shield. His form was frustrating; there was no strength in his attacks, but the wicked point of his sword promised blood if he could get past my defenses. When I lunged forward, Jelly simply danced back and laughed.
“You fight like a butcher. There is no elegance to your bladework. Come back in a thousand years, when you have had a chance to practice.”
“Sounds great. Just let Chesa go and we’ll try this again in a thousand years.”
“Afraid not.” Jelly presented his sword. “Typical mortal. Has to be taught a lesson.”
He came at me again, sword high, feet shuffling through the mud. I set my stance and caught the blade, but he reversed his thrust and swung down instead. The tip of the blade caught my shin, digging through the steel of my greave. I cut down at his exposed arm, but he fell back too quickly. My sword buried itself in the mud. Dirt spattered Jelly Dandelion’s silk pants. He glared down at the mess with disdain.
“Clearly I should have worn my brawling with peasants pants,” he said, flicking at the speckled mud with his finely manicured hand. “Gods, you’re hardly worth the trouble.”
“Really? I think that looks good on you,” I said. “Have some more.”
I dug my boot in the mud and kicked it at the elf. It landed squarely in his face, drawing a gasp from the surrounding elves. Jelly Dandelion quivered with rage. I charged in before he could recover from this affront to his fanciness.
Jelly Dandelion slid to the side, but I triggered my shield’s magical transformation, turning the kite into a Grecian figure of eight, whipping it out to clip his knee. He stumbled back, silk slipper sliding ingloriously in the muck, before I hammered his sword aside and kicked him squarely in the belly. The gangly elf folded like an origami crane, landing hard in the mud. That fancy sword slipped out of his delicate hands. I gave the hilt a kick, then stepped on his knuckles and buried them in the grime. He screamed in frustration.
“Thorn-Rose Menagerie!” he shouted. “Dispose of this mortal!”
The other eight elves sniffed, then threw their cloaks onto the wicker man and drew a variety of very beautiful, very deadly swords.
“Oh, hey, one second. I thought I just had to beat this guy, and then we could just . . . call it even? Maybe?”
“I’m delighted to say that that is not how this works,” Jelly Dandelion said smugly.
“And I’m delighted to say you’re about to get your pretty face beaten to a pulp.” Brother Brendan and his band of rosy cheeked monks pushed out of the crowd to flank me. They were armed only with half-full steins and their meaty knuckles. “You’ve been disgracing this festival for too long, with your fancy wines and your spit buckets and your . . . your . . . cheekbones!”
The rest of the monks yelled their support. The line of elves looked wary, but then Jelly Dandelion spat mud and ordered them forward. Brendan shook his stein over his head and yelled “Get ‘em, lads!” and the two sides surged together in a crash of ceramic mugs and thorn-etched blades. Elven grace and monkish joviality quickly disappeared into a squirming mass of mud-streaked limbs, bloody lips, and spilled beer. I hovered at the edge of the melee, unsure if I should join the fight or simply stay out of the way.
“Hey, man,” Matthew said, strolling out of the crowd. “Monk fight, huh?”
“Monk fight,” I said. “Does this always happen?”
“When the beer runs out. Hey, what’s Chesa doing in that burning statue?”
The roar of flame and wave of heat hit me at the same time. Chesa let out a little shriek and squirmed against her bonds.
“Ches!” I plowed through the muddy melee and reached the base of the burning wicker man just as the flames reached Chesa’s feet. She curled into a ball, holding herself out of the fire with ab-strength and the ropes that held her arms. She was too high up for me to reach, and the flames were too hot for me to climb through. I had to think of something else. Something clever.
“Matthew! Remember the first time we met, and you filled that glass of water over and over again?”
“That’s what you remember about the first time we met? I thought it’d be the dragon. Or the janitors. Or—”
“Focus! Can you do that with anything?” I asked.
“Oh, no man. Just water. We leave wine to the big guy.”
“I mean . . .” I rubbed my face in frustration. “Can you fill anything with water?”
“Oh. Oh! Sure, yeah, I can do that.”
“Awesome.” I held my arms out. “Fill my armor.”
Matthew looked confused for a second, then his face lit up. Literally. His magic manifested with glowing skin and an uncanny brightness in his eyes. A second later, water poured down my back, over my chest, and into my pants. It streamed between the joints of my armor and bubbled out around my gorget.
“Oh my GOD that is so cold.” My head swam in shock for a second, but then Chesa’s screams reached me again. Sword and shield went into the mud as I stumbled to the wicker man. Plate armor is heavy. Plate armor filled with ice cold water is heavier. Still, I heaved my way up the wicker man, water turning to steam as it splashed against the burning effigy, immediately replaced with a new torrent of freezing water from Matthew’s magic. Steam and smoke surrounded me. Heat from the flame baked my face and singed my fingers, even as water poured out of every inch of my body.
“Running low on juice!” Matthew yelled.
“I’m going as fast as I can!”
My hand came down on steel, and I looked up to see Chesa staring at me. I wrapped my arms around her waist, wrenching her free of her wicker cage
“John, no, I’m—”
“You’re getting saved!” I shouted, then pitched backward.
We tumbled backward down the statue, my hands and legs too numb to hold me up, and slammed into the widening pool of muddy water at the wicker man’s base. I lay there for a long second, until water came up around my face and covered my mouth. Sputtering, I sat up.
“You can stop now.”
“Cool,” he said, and went dark. Chesa spit out a mouthful of mud, then dragged me to the edge of the pool.
“Next time?” she said. “We don’t drink anything. Okay?”
“Sounds good.” I got to my feet and looked around.
Whatever spell had ensnared the crowd seemed to have passed. The fight in the mud was petering out, with elves helping monks to their feet, and monks sitting happily in the filth, draining the last dregs from their steins. The beartender appeared from inside and started collecting glasses. The bikers (spandex) tucked their rabbit ears into their helmets and filed into the parking lot. The feral dads grumbled about football and ordered another round.
“That was last call,” the bear said.
“What happened to Cornelius?” I asked. “Isn’t he supposed to be in charge of this place?”
“I think elf dude turned him into a toad or something,” Chesa said.
“It was a tadpole. Last year it was a newt,” Matthew said. “He needs to learn some new tricks.”
“Last year? This has happened before?”
“This is pretty much how it goes every year. Minus the burning effigy. We’ll have to lodge a complaint about that one,” he said. “You okay, Chesa?”
“I had just gotten out of my bonds when this idiot grabbed me and did a header, so yeah, other than ruining a perfectly good cuirass and getting mud in my follicles, I’m great!” She rolled her eyes at me, then stormed toward the bar.
“Wait, how is this my fault? I climbed a burning pile of wood to rescue—”
“Whatever!” she shouted over her shoulder before disappearing inside.
Something green and tadpole-ish squirmed against my foot. I bent down and scooped it up in both hands. The tadpole had a shock of red hair on top of its head. Its slimy body shivered and grew heavier. I tossed him in the air, and our host materialized midair, to come down with a splash in the mud.
“Well, that was nearly a complete disaster. Next year we should do this in the desert. What do you think? Djinn-themed, with tents, a bunch of pillows.” Cornelius stood up carefully, brushing mud from his patchwork vest. “Anywhere there isn’t mud.”
“Aren’t you going to do something about those elves?” I asked.
“Well, they’re certainly going to have to pay for all this damage,” he said. Then he clapped his hands together and turned to face the crowd still milling about on the patio.
“Okay folks!” Cornelius yelled. “Party’s over. You don’t have to go to hell, but you can’t stay here.”
Copyright © 2022 by Tim Akers
Tim Akers grew up in rural North Carolina, the last in a long line of Scottish bankers, newspaper editors, and tourist trap barons. He moved to Chicago to pursue his passion for apocalyptic winters, tornadic summers, and traffic. He stayed for the hot dogs. “The Barcadian Wild” is set in his Knight Watch series, which includes the novels Knight Watch and the forthcoming Valhellions.