I'm lucky to live in a place where new restaurants open frequently, and many of them last. Since you first met Thomas Forrest and Raven, Thomas has been emancipated (click here for that story), and they're about to open a pub at the edge of the River Styx. For more Friday Flash Fiction, search the #fridayflash hashtag on Twitter.
"All set for the soft opening!" Thomas Forrest gave the Russian Blue granite bar a final swipe with the damp but soft cloth. The bar rumbled under his hand – purring? He shook his head; he'd never get used to Magic Stone™. Although its slogan "Find out just how magical it is!" had intrigued him at first, it usually meant there was some sort of nasty surprise waiting. He only hoped it wouldn't hack up a stoneball on opening night.
"Good, good." Mr. Raven smiled and emerged from the office. He still wore his long, feathered cloak and black nail polish, but Thomas understood that his new boss' attire was more parody of supervillain than fashion sense. "A good night will ensure we have enough to cover the first mortgage payment on this place, although I still cannot believe we acquired it at such a reasonable price. Any responses to the bartender ad yet?"
"No, although I can't imagine why."
"Nor can I. You really outdid yourself with the decorating."
"Thank you, sir." Thomas looked around. The dark blue-gray granite bar top seemed to grow out of the hammered metal base. Purple- and red-cushioned booths lined the walls under diamond-paned windows open to the wooded parking lot and broom stand. At once modern and magical, it was the place he'd always dreamed of managing.
Something appeared at the end of the bar with a Pop! Thomas and Raven approached it carefully, a plastic bowl-shaped container filled with murky water. A dark gray face with whiskers peered over the edge.
"I got your bartender right here!"
"Bert!" Mr. Raven held out his hands like he was going to embrace the – catfish? "How was your assignment on the Other Side?"
"Eh, the usual. Saved the girl, got the demon, got fried in the end."
Raven winced. "Again? I hope the pay was at least decent."
"Lousy. Four chicken biscuits and a wish." The fish splashed some water from its container, and Thomas had to wipe the bar again. It hissed.
"There, there," Thomas wondered if it would eat fish.
Raven raised his eyebrows. "A wish? That's different."
"New HR policy. Budget's tight, so they've gotten cheap. You should see the fine print on it."
"A-hem!" Thomas cleared his throat. "I don't believe we've met." He held out his hand and remembered the fish probably couldn't shake it.
"Yeah, I'm Bert, sometimes minion to Archangel Raphael."
Thomas arched an eyebrow. "How were you a minion? You can't even give foot massages!"
Bert looked at Raven. "Who's this punk?"
"He is the manager of this public house, recently minion to the Witch Jeanette."
"Oh, you got a used minion, huh?"
"I prefer the term pre-owned, I mean, emancipated!" Thomas took a deep breath. "And how could you be a bartender? You can't even mix drinks!"
Raven arched an eyebrow. "As much as I admire your abilities, Bert, I don't know that this would work. You still need to be able to move around behind the bar to take orders."
Bert opened his mouth to respond, or maybe to take a breath, but a flash of lightning and sulfur smell made them all gag. A dark figure slithered through the door. The emergency candles flared to life, and all six eyes turned to the five-foot-tall lizard in the middle of the room.
"Evening, gents!" It said in a sibilant voice. "Nice place you have here." Nictitating membranes slid horizontally across its black eyes when it blinked. The hair at the back of Thomas' neck stood – this strange green creature had some strong magic behind it.
"We're not open yet," said Raven.
"I'm aware of that. Who's in charge here?"
Thomas pointed a finger and Bert a fin at Raven.
"This here public house is in the territory of the dragons. That means we need certain, shall we say, assurances to protect you from our hungry brethren and associates."
"You mean extortion fees." Raven's voice was flat.
"However you want to call it." The lizard handed Raven an envelope. The human opened it, and both his eyebrows lifted.
"This is impossible!"
"Ah, but that's the deal with the land, guv'nor. The spell says: 'When patrons are served by human hands, a dragon's fees protect the land.'"
"Wait a second…" Thomas stepped forward and steeled himself against the small dragon's gaze. "Your spell says human hands. What about a fish's?"
"Fish don't have hands."
"But Bert has a wish." Thomas looked at the catfish. "Would H.R. be amenable to it?"
"Helluva way to waste a wish," Bert grumbled, but he subsided when he saw the look of despair on Raven's face.
"Then do it."
Bert closed his eyes and whispered the spell: "Payment be due for helping the divine, magical forces grant this wish of mine."
Thomas felt the power gather in the room. The dragon watched without expression.
"I wish to be able to take the form of a human at will without losing my magical creature identity."
The fish seemed to inflate from the inside and burst his container. He grew and unfolded into a short, stocky man with thick beard that disappeared into his chest hair. His bulky forearms were also covered in thick, wiry black hair, but Thomas could see anchor tattoos on them. Bert the bartender wore black pants and a white shirt with sleeves rolled above the elbow.
"Your loophole is noted, but be sure that the Master Dragons will not be satisfied for long." The large lizard disappeared, and the lights flickered on.
"Great thinking, Thomas!" Raven clapped him on the shoulder. "And thank you, Bert! I cannot tell you how much it means to me that you used your wish to help me out."
"Is it too soon to ask for a raise?"
Thomas sighed and wiped the spilled water off the bar, which stayed strangely quiet.
"Hey, newbie!" The new bartender called to him. "Why don't you get in the kitchen and make us some chicken biscuits?"
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