“Why did you bring her?” Collin asked as they got out of their vehicles beside the barn, frowning at the six-year-old girl hiding behind Alicia’s purple-velvet cloak.
“Don’t be a dick,” Alicia said. “She’s my cousin and no one else could watch her.”
“So hire a babysitter.”
“Nobody hires a babysitter when they have a teenager right there already. Her name’s Clara, by the way. Clara, this meatwad is Collin, and that’s Joe.” Luke, being Alicia’s boyfriend and having driven them up to the farm, required no introduction.
Fortunately Clara was not entirely shy, and the extravagantly dressed group clearly aroused her curiosity. “What are you?” she asked Joe, encouraged by his cheerful smile. Beneath his hooded black cloak (made with Alicia’s help), he wore black pants, laced black boots, a black shirt and a vest embroidered in silver; on his waist hung a plastic-tipped épée and a sheathed dagger.
“What am I?” he answered in a bad almost-English accent. “Bit of a scoundrel, bit of a lockpick, bit of a useful fellow to have around. But if you want to know who am I, the name’s Timothy Vex, scourge of the highborn of Rania.” He placed one leg in front of the other and swept his arms dramatically in an exaggerated courtier’s bow. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“He’s a loudmouthed turd,” Collin grunted. “But we need a thief.”
“Pay no attention to Master Barnabas,” Joe said, winking. “Every adventuring party has a pile of bricks to put between themselves and their enemies. Barnabas is ours.” Inside or outside the game, Collin was imposing: six-two, thick in the middle, with a glowering gaze and patchy beard. The mail shirt, bent-tin pauldrons, wooden shield and longsword only added to his bulk.
“Why don’t I have a costume?” Clara asked her cousin.
“Because we picked you up straight from school. It’s okay. We can still pretend.”
“Actually,” Joe said, “I have just the thing.” They waited curiously as he opened the trunk of his Celica and returned to show them what he’d retrieved. It was a mask, bestial in aspect: ragged fur, curving yellow fangs, irregular black ears, and holes for the eyes. “Well, that’s terrifying,” Alicia said. “Is that real fur?”
“Real fur, real teeth, real everything. I think it was originally from some taxidermy animal, but someone cut it off and turned it into a mask.”
“If it’s taxidermy, what animal did it come from?” asked Joe, frowning.
“You tell me. Bear? Wolverine? I found it in my grandparents’ basement.” He nodded toward the country house further up the valley.
“It’s perfect,” Collin grinned. “Your cousin can be a kobold. She’s got the hairy arms for it.”
Alicia punched him, rattling his pauldrons.
“There actually is a kobold in the story though,” Luke said. “It could work.”
Alicia knelt and put an arm around her cousin. “You could run around and be all scary.” She made a monster face, hooking her fingers into claws. Reluctantly Clara took the mask.
“Okay, everyone except Alicia inside,” Luke said, flipping through a story manual. “We’re starting at an inn. Clara, you can be a serving wench. Like a waitress, but all you serve is ale, meat and bread.”
“Little young to be a wench,” Alicia said.
“Different kind of wench.”
Alicia took a few seconds to get into character, then stepped inside and made a show of looking around before settling on the group. The three boys were seated on benches around a picnic table in the hay- strewn barn (the busy inn), the afternoon sun streaming from the upper windows and falling dramatically upon the party. Gathering her cloak around her, she steered her way toward the adventurers. “Good evening, gentlemen. My name is Gemmes Sharn. I hoped I may have a word.”
“You can have more than words, if you like,” grinned Joe. “Join us, have some ale!”
At this a very young swerving wench swept up, holding a tray (a bit of plywood). “Would you like some ale?”
“Yes, please!” Alicia said as she sat down. “What a delightful young wench! I will have one mug of ale.” The girl smiled and skipped away, and Alicia turned to the travelers. “Our meeting is no accident. I was sent to find you by my fellow mage, Tryan of –”
“One mug of ale!” the wench said loudly, setting a water bottle on the table. “Would you like some meat or bread?”
“Come on, now,” growled Collin. “We’re trying to have a conversation.”
“I would like one very special meat stew from your famous kitchen. Everyone says it’s the best, but it takes a long time to prepare, and the servers will all have to help for at least five minutes in the kitchen. Understand?” She waved toward the kitchen (stable stalls).
“One very special meat stew, coming up!” grinned the girl, running off.
Alicia continued, “Tryan said you had found a strange scroll among the possessions of the Riktus King, whom you so valiantly vanquished some weeks ago. That scroll –”
“Miss, do you want your stew spicy or mild?” came a yell from the kitchen.
“Girl, if you don’t stop interrupting us, I’m going to throw you in the street!” shouted Collin.
“Gentle,” scowled Alicia.
“It’s in character,” shrugged Joe.
She returned to the conversation at hand. “That scroll tells of a peculiar creature haunting the outskirts …” She trailed off, turning, hearing a perturbing noise, a chuffing, barking voice coming from behind the plywood wall of the stables, speaking no recognizable words. Intellectually, Alicia knew it was Clara, acting the fool, but she could not connect it with the girl. The hair rose on her arms.
Suddenly a small figure shot out from the stable toward their table, running on all fours. Without thinking, clearly startled, Collin leapt up from his bench, knocking it backwards, and the others had nearly as violent a reaction. The creature paused before them. Though small, its visage was a nightmare of fur and teeth, and its eyes were wild. It made a rasping cry and darted outside through the open door.
“Clara!” Alicia said, shocked. “What the hell?”
“Stay in character,” murmured Luke. “We can use this.” He reached into his white cleric’s coat. “Your quest is timely, Gemmes. I have the scroll you speak of here. It is the account of a serpent monk of Sessu Goss, written in their hissing tongue, and it speaks of a creature he captured, a kobold. He sought to use the creature as a sacrifice to a dark god, but the sacrifice was rejected, and the subject escaped. Since then it has wandered the countryside, a creeping terror to the farmers and villagers. They say it cannot be killed.”
Alicia stood up. “We can look at the scroll later,” she said. “The answers I seek are with that kobold, and she is getting away.”
Luke frowned. “But the scroll contains much knowledge …” He started to unroll it, showing off the fancy (and entirely made-up) script he had concocted for it.
“I want to check on her,” Alicia hissed. “That didn’t seem pretty dramatic to you?”
Luke shrugged. “She’s your cousin. Is she not normally like that?”
“No! Come on.”
“This is why we don’t have actual children with us,” groused Collin.
“I don’t know, she’s a better actor than any of you,” rejoined Joe. “Freaked me out.”
They went outside with Alicia in the lead, and she saw a small figure dart around the corner of the barn. “She’s right there.” “Great,” said Luke. “She gets it.” He raised his voice. “Somewhere in this lonesome land lurks that dangerous creature. We must capture it and bring it to justice.”
“And help it and heal it if we can,” followed Alicia. “It may be of predatory nature, but it is the evil influence upon it that has driven its hunger.”
“Still, we must be careful. The scroll says that if killed, it will only return stronger and more dangerous than before.”
Thus began the inevitable side-quest, which involved obtaining a charm from a shaman (also played by Alicia, with a quick costume change and a witch voice), defeating several bandits who had stolen said charm (allowing them to swing their swords around and Collin to knock the others to the ground with his shield). In all this time, though Alicia assumed her cousin was still just playing around the barn, she didn’t actually see her, and finally, worried, she called a pause. “Let’s take a break, I’m going to check on Clara.”
In a few minutes she returned. “I can’t find her.”
Collin shrugged. “She’s probably playing hide-and-seek. That’s kind of the point, right?”
“She’s six years old. I should have been watching her.”
“Where’s she going to go?” Joe said lazily, waving a chocolate bar around the valley. “She didn’t pass us, so I don’t think she’s in the woods. She’s probably in the barn, hiding in the hay.”
“Get up, help me find her.”
“That’s fine, it’s where the story’s going anyway,” said Luke. “When we capture the kobold, we must place the amulet around her neck,” – he held up a bird’s skull on a cord – “then join hands and recite the sacred words: ‘Elaseer ser pirith.’ Then the possessing spirit will leave her.”
“Let’s find this bitch,” Collin growled. “Spread out.”
First they looked carefully around the barn, kicking gently through the hay, climbing into the loft. They widened their search in expanding circles, checking behind some rocky outcroppings and in an old shed nearby, but Clara was nowhere to be found. “I really thought she was just in the barn,” Alicia said, clearly worried.
“I mean, she’s got to be around here, right?” Joe said, perplexed. “There’s not, like, an old well or something she could have fallen into?”
“She probably ran into the woods when we went up to the barn,” said Collin.
“Clara!” she called out. “Clara, it’s time to come out now. We need to go home soon. You win, it’s time to come out!”
They circled the fields, looking behind every boulder and tree, but the grass in the meadow was low and offered no cover for someone hiding. Inevitably they ended up in the woods by the creek, but if Clara was down there, she didn’t answer their calls; and there were far too many hiding places to scour.
Alicia tried to hold back her tears, but when Joe suggested checking his grandparents’ house, with the sun nearing the mountains, she burst out sobbing. “What if she’s hurt? Where is she?”
“I’ll check the barn again,” Collin said. “You guys check the house.”
The barn had turned gloomy, its emptiness unnerving. He passed through it half-heartedly, kicking at the straw with his boots, thinking of how they might have to call a search party. Stupid kid. Alicia shouldn’t have –
Something dropped on him from above, knocking him to his knees. Then it was on him, clawing at his back, grasping his head. He swore, trying to toss the beast off, and it bit his ear with teeth that were sharp as knives, biting his ear off with a terrible pain of ripping flesh. He screamed, and with great force flung the creature off him and to the ground.
It somehow landed on all fours, eyes gleaming yellow in the gloom, fangs glittering as it hissed. It leapt.
Unthinking, he swung with his wooden shield with all his force. With a cracking sound his attacker was flung four feet and lay unmoving.
After a stunned moment standing over that small body, he fell to his ass in the straw, clutching his torn ear (most of which – but not all – still remained), swearing and crying. When he was able to focus at all, he looked with terror at the small body before him, seeing the blue jeans and sweater, the soles of her cheap sneakers.
Finally he got up and went out. He briefly considered getting in his truck and driving off, but he could not be blamed for what happened; his ear proved the matter. He met the others returning halfway between house and barn. “She attacked me,” he said, their eyes widening at the blood streaming between his fingers. “She was like an animal. She bit my ear.”
“What did you do?” Alicia asked, shaking. “Where is she?”
“In the barn. She attacked me.”
Alicia ran, and the others followed. Collin had not yet caught up with them when she burst out from the barn. “Where is she?” she yelled again. “What did you do to her?”
“She’s in the barn,” he repeated, helplessly. “She attacked me, I swear. It was crazy.”
“She’s not in the barn! What did you do to her?!”
“I didn’t move her. She’s there …” He stumbled inside.
Clara’s body was gone. He had been certain she was dead, morally certain. “She was here. She was …” He stopped short of saying it. “I’m telling you, she was like an animal, not – not human.”
“What did you do?”
He stumbled out of that suffocating space, seeing again the yellow eyes, the prominent fangs. The mask … the mask had changed her. And the mask wouldn’t let her die.
Without another word, he rushed toward his truck, thinking only of flight, the others trailing in his wake. Behind him, like a giant’s shadow, chased a fierce hunger.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer, artist and longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword. His debut novel, INFERENCE, was released July 2017.
Jonny DeStefano is the co-owner and co-founder of Birdy Magazine. He is also the founder of the comedy activist space Deer Pile. His favorite color is red, he loves shark attacks, hockey and upright bass.