“The Hero Business” by Tim Akers

The Ren Faire was a maelstrom of mud and ale and slightly burned turkey legs, populated by an odd mix of mundanes and temporally displaced dreamers. Suburban dads in pleated khaki shorts rubbed elbows with knights-errant in full plate, and damsels in a distressed state of corsets and leather pants wove their way through packs of soccer moms. Bands of drunken bards wandered the crowds, singing a slightly bawdier version of Tub Thumper, while a constant parade of elven rangers, half-dressed barbarians, and the occasional Klingon strained all manner of credulity. The air was filled with boisterous laughter, even more boisterous song, and the smell of cooked meat, spilled beer, and period-authentic body odor.

Bethany stood at the entrance to the park, hands on hips, frown firmly plastered across her face. She was dressed for the event. Loose fitting pants were bolstered by leather armor at thigh and calf, and boots were subtly spiked along the soles, to aid in climbing and other tomfoolery. Her vest was snug but modest, and the bracers on her arms concealed a wide variety of sharp and mischievous tools, at least two of which were illegal in this state, and one that harkened from a mythical realm on the border of reality. Two black braids ran down her back, and a pair of shovel-tip daggers lay cross-holstered on her belt. She was short but deceptively strong; strong enough that most folks never made a second joke about her height.

A man in jeans and a faux-brass muscle cuirass with a PBR in one hand and a katana in the other shouldered past her. It was all Bethany could do to not leg sweep him into the mud. Instead, she took a long, impatient breath, then let it out in a longer and even less patient sigh.

“I hate this place,” she muttered.

“Come now,” Clarence said, nudging her shoulder. The big knight smelled like burnished leather and fine tobacco, and his armor was so period-accurate that most historians would assume it was a museum quality restoration, rather than the giant-forged working original that it was. “Wasn’t that long ago that we fished you out of a place just like this. Sneaking around, playing at the rogue, palming cheap trinkets and climbing trees like some kind of feral child.”

“That was different,” Bethany answered. “That was before.”

“Yes, well. Everything was different before,” Clarence said. He clapped her on the head, then strolled toward the archway that marked the border between suburban carpark and medieval fantasy land. “Come on. Esther says this is the place. There’s something squirming under the skin of the world. Keep your eyes sharp!”

Bethany sighed again, to clarify how she felt about being dispatched to a Ren Faire in the middle of summer, in the middle of America, in the middle of a soccer field. This wasn’t the job she signed up for, when Esther and the others approached her three years ago. Hero Business, they had promised. This didn’t feel like Hero Business. It felt like watching a bunch of posers strutting around a muddy field.

The guy at the entrance to the park was fussing over Clarence’s sword and misericorde dagger, applying the traditional peace-knot with special care. Clarence watched with detached amusement.

“You know, you really shouldn’t be bringing a sharp into the faire at all,” the man was saying. “No one’s going to see anything more than the hilt, anyway. The blade could be wood, or bar stock, or foam rubber, for all it matters. And there are thieves . . . ” His eyes briefly flicked over Bethany and her bracers of many tools. “This has to be a thousand dollar sword, right? If you were to lose it—”

Clarence whipped his sword out of the sheath before the man could secure the knot, holding it up to the sun’s golden light. The blade shone like crystal, and the sound of its drawing was a song of steel and leather. Clarence gazed up at it lovingly.

“Wanderlust was forged by Glostnir, blacksmith of Halpsburg, in the fires of Hel and with steel borne from the stars by a flight of Valkyries, in accordance with the ancient pacts. I bear it as a sign of my sworn oath, to protect the innocent, to defeat the wicked, and to expose the corrupt to the sweet light of justice,” Clarence pronounced. “It is my solemn duty, nay, my privilege, to carry Wanderlust into battle, until such time as I die, or it chooses another champion to bare its steel and quench its blade in the blood of the unrighteous.”

“That sounds . . .  special . . . ” The park attendant backed slowly away, watching Clarence’s beatific face with growing concern. Bethany cleared her throat and stepped forward.

“He was getting into character on the way over,” she said apologetically. “You know . . . ” She grimaced, then mouthed the word “GAMER” to the attendant. “He’ll be good. I promise.”

Clarence glanced down at her, then the attendant, and realized his mistake. He blushed profusely, then sheathed the blade and submitted to the peace-knot. With that taken care of, Clarence paid for his admission ticket with a roll of quarters (the old knight couldn’t get his head around the idea of “paper money”) and went inside. The attendant turned to Bethany.

“All right, young lady. Looks like we’ll have to knot those two daggers. Got any other blades on you?”

“I hope you have a lot of rope,” she answered.

## ##

Bethany was more knot than leather by the time the nervous attendant released her into the park. Clarence eyed her with wry amusement as she approached.

“You could have lied, you know. That seems very much in line with your roguish persona.”

“Oh, I did lie. These are just the ones he found,” she answered. Brushing past Clarence, Bethany stepped behind an ale vendor’s tent and shook her entire body. The knots fell to the ground like leaves from a tree. “Such a waste of time. We’re here to protect them, and they treat us like criminals!”

“In their defense, my dear, you are a criminal. It’s what makes you such a valuable member of the team. Now . . .  where’s Tembo?”

“He and Saint Matthew are already supposed to be here,” she said. Bethany fought an urge to check her phone. It had been three years since she carried a phone, or drove a car, or used a microwave . . .  all of the various technological restrictions associated with membership in Knight Watch. Out of all of it, the dietary restrictions were the worst. She just wanted something fried, or stuffed with sugar, or gloriously processed into neon paste. Maybe she could swing by Ye Olde Twinkie Hutte before they met up with the others. . . .

The crowd grew thicker and thicker, and eventually she and Clarence had to stop, pulling Bethany out of her daydreams of fried monoglycerides and fructose. A familiar head, bald and black and oblivious to the scene he was causing, waited at the center of the crowd. Clarence gave her a nervous look.

“Get in there and figure out what the old boy has done, will you? We’re here to stabilize this place, not send it tumbling back into the 1400s,” he said.

“Yes, yes, contain the mage. Got it.”

Bethany wove her way through the crowd, slipping like a pick through a well-oiled lock. At the center of the crowd, with several feet clearance between himself and the onlookers, stood Furaha na Nguvu ya Tembo. Or just Tembo, if you don’t have half an hour to say someone’s name. Tembo waited serenely with his hands folded at his waist, a smooth staff of cocobolo wood leaning against his chest. That wasn’t unusual. The lanky mage rarely seemed perturbed, no matter what sort of madness they faced. What was unusual, at least to the eyes of the mundane faire-goers, was his robe. The voluminous purple robe, trimmed in silver finery and hung with fetishes, billowed around his body as though it had a life of its own. The surface of the robe shimmered with inner light, and the hem fluttered and snapped, though there was no wind. Bethany stood in front of Tembo, clearing her throat several times before eventually waving her hand to catch his attention. His face lit up when he saw her.

“Bethany! I was wondering if you and Sir Clarence were ever going to arrive. Esther was right, there is something very odd about this place. I saw a man eating mud, and another dressed entirely in feathers. Though to be fair—”

“Tem? Buddy?” Bethany interrupted. She pointed down at his robes. “I think your clothes are alive.”

Tembo looked down, realization dawning on his face. With a gesture from his broad hand he dismissed the spirit animating his clothes. The robes fell still, settling gently over his body. Bethany spun on her heel to face the crowd.

“Show’s over, folks! Just a little trick with . . .  balloons? Air currents? Anyway, it wouldn’t be a trick if we told you how it worked.” She made broad sweeping motions with her hands. “Come on, get moving!”

“I am sorry, Bethany. I was too warm, and did not think anyone would notice,” Tembo said, embarrassed. “It is hard to remember what is strange to these people, and what is perfectly normal.”

“Just keep a lid on it,” she answered as the crowd dispersed. Clarence strode up, his eyes still twinkling with amusement. “This place is already halfway into the Unreal. We don’t want to be the ones to tip it over the edge.”

“Yes, you are correct. I can sense an anomaly in the air, just waiting to breach the mundane.” Tembo scowled at the offending air. Light began to swirl around his right eye. “I think I can almost pin it down.”

“Tem, enough with the magic tricks. If something breaks through, it will be obvious enough. All we have to do is keep a low profile until it shows itself, then do the Hero thing.” She looked past the mage at the rapidly dispersing crowd, trying to spot their other friend. “Speaking of heroes, where’s the saint?”

“Back at Mundane Actual,” Tembo said. “He forgot his censer and I only had enough juice for a single portal. I thought he was going to catch a ride with you?”

“We didn’t see him,” Clarence answered. He and Bethany had ridden to the faire aboard a flying Viking longship made entirely of toenails . . .  a gift from Valhalla, for keeping the rebel Freya in her place during the Second World War. It was so utterly strange that hardly anyone noticed it flying overhead. It was currently parked between a tan SUV and the dented remains of a Volvo station wagon that appeared to have been abandoned sometime in the mid-‘70s. “That’s disappointing. I don’t like going into battle without the proper blessings.”

“And I don’t like going into battle without my healer,” Bethany said. “Should we go back for him?”

“No time, I suspect. Our anomaly could rear its head while we were gone, and then the whole operation would be a waste,” Tembo said. “I would not worry about it. We can manage without a healer just fine.”

“Easy for you to say,” Bethany grumbled. “You stand in the back throwing lightning like it was popcorn. Nearly took my head off during that outbreak of talking mushrooms last month.”

“Maybe stop jumping in front of my targets,” Tembo said. He folded his arms and looked away, as close to an angry tone as he ever took. “You do not have to hop around like oil on a griddle all the time.”

“And sometimes there’s a solution to a problem other than LIGHTNING BOLT!”

“If you say so.” He sniffed. “But I have yet to meet a problem that a lightning bolt does not solve.”

“Enough bickering,” Clarence broke in. The older man often had to step in between the members of Knight Watch, if only to settle nerves. Well. He often had to step in between Bethany and the other members of Knight Watch. “Look, we don’t have a healer. Nothing to be done about it. It just means we’ll have to be extra careful. All of us. For now, we need to figure out why the Actuator sent us here. Until our little problem shows up, try to blend in. Shouldn’t be too hard in this lot.”

They broke up. Tembo headed to the muddy stretch of tents that served ale and other spirits, while Clarence made his way to the entertainments. Bethany took the tournament fields. Honestly, she was glad to be on her own. Clarence was too polite, and Tembo seemed to go out of his way to embarrass her.

The tournament grounds were off to one side of the rest of the faire, with its own entrance directly to the parking lots. A line of archery targets lined the edge of the grounds, while picket fences divided the rest of the area into various competitions. Crowds milled about between the arenas, while weekend warriors fought in the rounds, whacking at each other with rattan swords and belting out great yelps whenever they scored a touch. It was a chaotic scene. For once, Bethany felt right at home. She circled through the crowds, mostly resisting the temptation to pick pockets and cut purses, if only because she had little use for the credit cards and cell phones that would inevitably spill out. After doing a round in the acrobatic dagger competition, and mistakenly winning that branch of the tournament, she settled into the audience and watched the sword fighting.

The knights of the soccer field were a varied bunch. Most were past their athletic prime, or perhaps had never ascended the heights of physical prowess that had once been the norm for fighting men and women of the past. Their armor was a hodgepodge of forged metal, repurposed foam rubber, and a lot of duct tape. Some of the combatants forwent armor entirely, choosing instead to gird themselves in alcohol and bravado, hurling insults like darts, and flexing carefully cultivated abs as though they would turn aside steel.

“There’s certainly nothing magical about male pattern baldness and crossfit,” Bethany mused as she watched the competition progress. She was about to turn away when a particularly loud voice drew her attention.

“I am KRACEK! Destroyer of Worlds! Champion of the Chaotic Wastes! Scourge of a thousand souls and—” 

“Yes, yes, Kracek, I have already announced your titles,” the marshall said, intervening. The man proclaiming himself Kracek sucked air, staring at the much smaller officiant, his eyes straining to burst from his head. Kracek was dressed for battle, if battle were done in a bathtub of lard. He wore only shorts and a pair of high sandals, with a pair of bandoliers that crossed a chest of unbelievably chiseled muscle. He carried a small buckler and an enormous sword, and prowled his side of the arena with all the menace of a caged tiger, or a suburban soccer dad on his third beer yelling at the officials at his son’s match. The marshall cleared his throat and addressed Kracek’s doomed opponent.

“Sir John? Are you ready?”

Sir John did not look ready. Sir John looked scared shitless. He was tall and thin, scrawny even in the padded armor. There was a white banner tied to the pommel of his sword, probably the favor of his unfortunate lady, but given the fight he was about to face, it looked more like a flag of surrender. John swallowed noisily and addressed the marshall.

“Could we . . .  I mean . . .  has he been checked for drugs? Or at least a criminal record? I feel like pecs like that are outlawed by the Geneva Convention.”

“Now this should be interesting at least,” Bethany said, settling against a nearby tree. Sir John looked around helplessly, as though he was looking for someone to step in and save him from this monstrous lawyer turned barbarian. His eyes settled on her. In fact, he kept staring at her for much longer than Bethany was comfortable with. She raised her brows, and John turned three shades of pink and ducked his head.

Kracek let out a mighty roar and charged across the field, even before the marshall had given the order to commence. To his credit, Sir John dropped into an easy defense, deflecting the brunt of Kracek’s well-oiled assault and falling back to the edge of the fighting circle. Kracek blundered forward, trying to hammer his opponent out of the field of play, but John slipped to the side. A section of the picket fence came down as Kracek barreled into it. The marshall sounded his horn.

“Demerit! Voluntarily leaving the field of battle. Point to Sir John Rast. Reset!”

“BATTLE IS NOT A GAME OF POINTS! BATTLE IS BLOOD AND GLORY!” Kracek howled. Sir John and the marshall exchanged a tired glance, then moved back into position. Kracek shouldered John aside as he returned to his side of the field. They exchanged words. Whatever Kracek said drew a laugh from his opponent.

“Have you met my mother? No, I don’t think that’s how it’s going to go, big guy,” John said. “Especially not when you’re waving around a compensation unit the size of that sword. Sheesh!”

Kracek rounded on the much smaller man. His eyes flashed fire, and his lips pulled back in a sinister grin. His teeth were small and sharp, and the distinct flicker of flames curled around his tongue. Bethany stood bolt upright.

“Oh, hell and a handbasket,” she whispered. Then, louder. “Guys! I think I found our anomaly! Guys!”

But of course Clarence was somewhere among the ale tents, and Tembo was browsing the other entertainments. Neither of them would hear her until it was much too late. It was up to her. She took a step forward as the marshall reset the combatants and signaled the start. Bethany pushed her way through the crowd just as Kracek bellowed his fury at Sir John Rast.

A column of flame erupted from Kracek’s mouth. It roared past the marshall, burning his voluminous beard into a crisp before striking Sir John full on. Some primeval instinct brought John’s shield up, but the thin metal and wood of the heater wasn’t made to turn aside a dragon’s breath. Streamers of burning pitch curled off the face of the shield, sizzling as they hit the grass. The flames cut off as quickly as they started, leaving a cloud of drifting embers in the air. Someone screamed. It was Sir John.

“What the hell was that!” he shouted. “You can’t tell me that was legal! What kind of circus freak are you?” John turned to the marshall and continued his tirade. “Demerit, right? Demerit for . . .  whatever the hell that was!”

The marshall, now devoid of beard, eyebrows, and dignity, stared at John for two long heartbeats. Then he dropped his officiant’s baton and fled the scene. He wasn’t alone. A lot of the crowd was on the run, carrying Bethany with them. John threw his arms up in disgust.

“Just going to run away, then? Just going to let him get away with it? Fine, fine, whatever. But I’ll be lodging a complaint with the HOLY SHIT!”

This last part was because Sir John had finally looked over at his opponent. Kracek was no longer Kracek. Or, more accurately, Kracek was no longer wearing the guise of a suburban lawyer with an unhealthy crossfit fetish and an anger management problem. No, because Kracek had cast off his mundane form and assumed his true mythic self.

Because, you see, Kracek was a dragon. Still an asshole, mind you, but also a dragon.

His form was still changing. Kracek’s boots burst open as scaly talons grew from his feet, and his leg grew and twisted and bent backward. His abs swelled and became armor plates, while a pair of wings erupted from his muscular shoulders. Even his receding hairline, combed and greased into a thin shield of masculine power, soared into a crest of horns. He grew and grew, until his serpentine neck towered over the surrounding trees. Kracek lifted his jaws to the sky and bellowed out a scream that echoed across the faire grounds. He turned his fury on the faire, spraying flames across the crowd, the vendor stalls, and Sir John Rast.

The blast threw the aspiring knight off the field of battle and sent him tumbling into Ye Olde Alee Stande.

“Enough screwing around,” Bethany spat. The crowd around her lay flat on the ground. Some of them were never getting up again. Flames flickered among the grasses and on some of their clothes. Bethany vaulted over the bodies, blurring as she slipped her physical form into the shadows, taking great leaping steps. She charged into the charred circle that surrounded the dragon and drew her blades.

“Someone call for a hero?” she shouted. The dragon craned its neck at her and smiled wickedly.

“I have no quarrel with you, munchkin. Go back to your bunker and dream of better days,” he growled. “The mortals pushed me too far. They have forgotten their fear. It is time someone reminded them.”

“You’re the one who’s forgotten his fear,” Bethany answered. She whirled her daggers, and sparks of light traveled the lengths of the blades, to trail in glowing circles through the air. “The fear of the Knight Watch!”

Kracek erupted in laughter, coughing gouts of flame across the field and catching a stand of trees alight. A band of bards, who had apparently been hiding in the trees, fell to the ground like drunken, leather-clad apples.

“Knight Watch! Oh, that is the worst name. I can’t believe you guys still call yourself that,” Kracek said. “Do you have to explain to everyone how there’s a K on knight? I mean, every time I hear that name, I just—”

“It’s not my name, okay? I didn’t come up with it. It’s just . . . ” Bethany cut herself off, muttering to control her rage. “Look, you know the rules. No manifesting around the mundanes. No using your powers to affect the real world. And certainly no burning a renaissance faire to the ground!”

“Yeah, well.” Kracek wiped a sizzling tear from his eye, then shrugged shoulders the size of a Buick, and an old Buick at that, none of these new, flimsy Buicks. “What are you going to do about it.”

Bethany scowled, then summoned her mythic self. The light from her daggers flashed like lightning, and wind howled around her shoulders, snapping her cloak. She curled tight against the ground, then prepared to leap, already drawing a line in her mind's eye that cut straight through the dragon’s heart. Kracek reared back on his hind legs, let out a furious roar, and raised a wickedly taloned claw to strike her down.

“Elderwood!” Sir John yelled, his voice cracking. He shouldered Bethany aside and charged at the dragon. His clothes were tattered and burned, his left arm singed from the heat of his melted shield, and he was waving a bar of metal over his head that might have been a sword in some former life. Kracek watched as the man stumbled drunkenly toward him. John reached Kracek’s upturned claw, braced himself, then swung with the blunt sword. The dull metal struck one of the black talons with a resounding gong. The vibration shook the sword from John’s hands. Kracek stared at him.

“You first, I guess,” Kracek said, then swiped at the knight.

Clarence appeared out of nowhere. His shining sword met the attack, slicing through the talon as though it were butter.  Kracek howled and drew back. Sir John blinked up at Clarence like he was staring into the sun.

“Who the hell is this guy?” Clarence asked. “Is he trying to get himself killed?”

“Just some idiot,” Bethany said as she rolled out of the mud, spitting grass and vitriol. She trotted past John. “Get out of here, mundane. Leave it to the heroes.”

“The young lady is correct, I’m afraid,” Clarence said. John was still staring at him, dumbfounded. “There is little that you can do here. Best you hide, sir.”

“You’re a . . .  um . . .  a knight?” John sputtered.

“Yes, very good,” Clarence said patiently. “And you’re in a great deal of danger. So . . . ” He nodded to the car park. “Best you make your way to someplace a little less infested by flame-breathing lizard things, yes?”

“A . . .  a dragon,” John said.

“Yes, a dragon. Which doesn’t really exist, does it. Now why don’t you—”

“Gods, Clarence, kick him aside and focus!” Bethany yelled. She vaulted off the ground, cartwheeling in mid-air as she approached the dragon. She landed on Kracek’s back and started stabbing, her daggers making a whirring sound as they cut into the beast’s scaly flesh. Kracek howled and flailed his head in the air, flames billowing from his slavering jaws.

Bethany buried her daggers into Kracek’s spine and hung on for dear life. The dragon bucked and fought, trying to throw her off. Finally she saw an opportunity and jumped clear, tumbling as she hit the ground. Kracek’s black claw cratered the ground behind her as she sprinted into the trees. Trunks cracked and tore from the ground as Kracek chased after her. A wall of flame rolled across the field, engulfing Clarence and the still cowering John. Out of the corner of her eye, Bethany saw a bubble of purple light surround them just as the flames closed in. At least Tembo was finally on the scene. 

Hiding behind a line of porta-potties, Bethany collected herself. Her cloak smouldered, and her knives sang with latent energy. There was a long gash down her leg, a blow that Kracek must have struck while she was still in mid-air. It stung, but wasn’t enough to slow her down. She listened to the battle raging on the other side of the treeline. The staccato crackle of thunder echoed off the trees, and Clarence’s sterling voice cut through the sounds of streaking flame and Kracek’s frustrated bellowing. Satisfied that the attention was off her, Bethany started to creep through the ruined trees. It was always best when the enemy forgot about her. The small copse had been reduced to ashen stumps and a cloud of burning leaves, but at least the smoke was thick enough to cloak her approach. She waited at the edge of the obscuring cloud, tapping into her mythic self, fading into the shadows. There was a thunderous explosion of fire, and Clarence’s strangled scream.

“No more time to waste,” Bethany muttered to herself. She ghosted out of the shadows, her form little more than a ripple of darkness in the smoke.

Kracek stood over Clarence’s fallen form. The knight was in bad shape. Blood streaked his pale face, and his armor was charred and wrinkled in a way that metal was not supposed to bend. His sword lay on the ground nearby, the blade splintered, like a tree that had been struck by lightning. Tembo knelt beside him. Arcs of purple light flashed across the mage’s body.

“It seems the age of heroes is over,” Kracek growled. “You lot have always thought too much of yourselves. Perhaps you’ll learn to not meddle in the affairs of dragons!”

“Perhaps you’ll stop being such an asshole,” Bethany whispered as she struck.

A bolt of twisting shadow and rage, she flew across the field and crashed into the dragon. Her blades cut a tattoo across Kracek’s shoulder, slicing deeply into his scales and turning one wing into a tattered flag of bleeding flesh. Kracek howled and whirled on her, swinging one massive claw, but she was already gone. Riding the waves of shadow that echoed through the air, Bethany zipped to the other side of the dragon’s body. She caught a glimpse of Clarence’s broken form and the worry in Tembo’s eyes, but pushed the worry aside and focused on the dragon. Kracek was still thrashing at where she’d been, tearing deep ruts in the sod. She ran up his tail, each step taking her higher and higher into the air, until she came down on the bony ridge of his spine. Kracek felt her boots on his back and flailed around, trying to crush her under his swollen body. She leapt into the air, crossing her daggers overhead and drawing a thick strand of magical light into their steel. As he crashed to the ground, she fell on his exposed belly, glowing steel first, like a bolt out of heaven.

Kracek caught her in one blackened claw, batting her out of the air like a fly. She screamed as his talons pierced her armor and dug into her skin, scraping against bone. Her daggers flew from her hands, their light dissipating as they spun into the air. Kracek pinned her to the ground, sinuous tail lashing back and forth as he righted himself. She squirmed under his iron-hard talons, gasping for breath as he pressed her deeper and deeper into the torn sod of the soccer field. He lowered his enormous head, putting slavering jaws inches away from her face. His breath smelled like sulphur and boiling Monster Energy Drink.

“I have had enough of your meddling, thief,” he growled. “This is how you die. Not like a hero. No glory. Just a bug, squashed by her betters.”

A sound reached Bethany’s ears. It was a low rumble, accompanied by screeching metal and a wavering scream. Kracek paused, serpentine neck twisting to follow the commotion. 

From the direction of the carpark barreled a metal behemoth. It was the Volvo, the one Bethany thought was abandoned, slewing back and forth as it rocketed across the deeply rutted field. Sir John Rast was behind the wheel, screaming as he roared toward the dragon, his voice breaking and his eyes as wide as saucers. He nearly ran over Clarence—the old knight only saved by Tembo’s quick action and the erratic flight of the station wagon. There was a terrible moment when Bethany thought she would be plowed under by the charging car, but at the last moment, the Volvo struck a pile of torn dirt and launched into the air. She stared at the underside of the car as it flew overhead.

“What the hell—” Kracek said, just as the front of the car crashed into his jaw.

Car and dragon skull mingled in an explosion of blood and bone and screaming metal. The two impossible objects, living dragon head and flying station wagon, cartwheeled through the air, finally crashing into the ground. They dug a rut, leaving behind streaks of oil and smashed dragon brains, finally coming to a stop at the far end of Kracek’s neck. The dragon rolled slowly onto his side, freeing Bethany. Flames guttered from the ruined end of Kracek’s neck, licking around the crumpled wreckage of the Volvo. Bethany bounced to her feet.

The wrinkled door of the station wagon creaked open. John’s seat belt popped open, and the young man crawled out of the wreck. He took two steps, looking in stunned disbelief at the dead dragon, the remnants of his car, and the ruins of the faire ground. Finally his eyes locked on Bethany. He raised his arm to wave.

“Hello, my name is—” And then he tumbled face first into the mud with a mighty splat. Bethany ran to his side. He was still breathing, but he was covered in scratches and dragon blood, which was slowly eating through his clothes.

The clouds parted with the sound of dissonant chimes and high pitched singing. Two angels, dressed in hazmat suits and carrying a basket between them, swooped low over the ground. Saint Matthew dangled precariously from the basket, which was much too small for his body. He tried to direct his descent, waving panicked arms and pointing.

“No, no, not there! Over here! And slow down, will—” He hit the ground with a thump. The basket shattered around him, and one of the glowing ropes looped around Matthew’s foot as he flopped into the mud. The angels immediately rose into the air, heedless of their passenger. Matthew was dragged through the mud for several seconds, bumping along the grass and yelping as he struggled to free his foot. Finally he slipped free of the immortal bonds, splaying into the mud with a startled shout. The angels returned to the clouds, and their inhuman song stopped.

Matthew gathered himself, dusting off his clothes, while only succeeding in further spreading the mud across his vestments. He wasn’t really dressed for the occasion. A white blazer, now thoroughly besmirched, and period-inappropriate jeans, along with biker shades that hid the glowing light of his eyes. Once he was settled, Matthew looked over the dead dragon, the wrecked station wagon, Bethany’s pierced and bloody form, Tembo and Clarence and the ruin of the faire. He cleared his throat and addressed Bethany.

“So,” he said casually. “What’d I miss?”

“Nothing,” she answered. “The usual. Hero business.”

Then she collapsed to the ground. Everything would be fine. The healer had arrived.

Copyright © 2020 Tim Akers

“The Hero Business” is set in the world of Knight Watch by Tim Akers, out from Baen Books in September. Tim Akers was born in North Carolina. He moved to Chicago for college, and stayed to pursue his lifelong obsession with apocalyptic winters. His website can be found here.