01 Feb I run a bar that serves one of a kind drinks in exchange for stories (Part 3)
“I’ll see you soon.”
It’s been a few hours and that fucker’s voice is still ringing in my ears, the low dulcet tones bouncing around in my skull like a pinball, each synapse bringing with it a new electrical shock through my veins. I didn’t know what he was, but everything about him was wrong, and my own stubbornness was going to be the death of me…typical, Sully. Never could run away from a fight.
I was laying against the bar, the lights dimmed down and the regulars asleep in their seats in the VIP lounge, fortunate I didn’t kick them out. Cheddar was asleep by my side, curled up into a ball and, as always, chewing on his blanket, some of the drool soaking onto my apron, but I didn’t mind. Honestly, without him here I think I’d have just packed in the whole fucking career by now.
I pulled a bottle from underneath the bar, thankfully within my reach. It was old, in a wooden coffin with chains around it more ceremonial than intentional, a sigil scratched across the centre and the teal fluid running down the sides, creating a beautiful glow that gave off more than just a morose beverage. The note scratched on the back read: “Poe & Sons Offer to you their Sobering Condolences: For a time when your mind must be sharp but your body must rest.”
I opened the casket and grabbed the small locket inside, my eyes fell open the photo from years gone by. I was smiling and far less bearded, my arm wrapped around the shoulders of my mentor and a smiling woman in the centre. Even now, her smile filled me with such warmth. If only she were here…
I took a long sip of the drink and felt her voice fade away as silence rang through my ears like ambrosia. My muscles began to relax as rest greeted my soul.
“The fuck am I gonna do, eh?” I asked, my hand running over the fur on the top of his head as he breathed heavily.
“My guess is, you’re gonna stare it in the face, bear a smile and give them the service of a lifetime…”
I looked up to see an older woman standing in the arch of my doorway. She was tall, thin and her black & grey dreadlocks gracefully hung down and rested across her shoulders. Her outfit ever the same: a hunter’s cloak with one too many clasps, a triple bound book attached at the hip and several voodoo charms adorning the belt buckle. Maybe it was because I hadn’t seen her in so long or maybe it was the bleakness of the situation, but she looked almost radiant standing there.
“Madame Lockwood, it’s been far too long,” I said, getting to my feet and feeling the ache in my side as I reached out a hand. She pushed it away and smiled.
“Sullivan, how many times must I remind you? It’s Nelle, none of this formality nonsense! I taught you better than that.” She pulled me in for a hug, the audible wince in my voice easing her grip and bringing concern to her own.
“What have you gotten yourself into this time?” She asked, without letting me go from the hug.
“Baby eating madman—might be otherworldly, it’s a whole thing—and his followers want me for something, I thought it was death, but…” I look over at the empty bottle of Silver Tear Potion, still confused. “She saved me before warning me…makes no damn sense.”
Nelle let me go and the look on her face told me she knew something I didn’t, her hazel eyes shimmering in the dim neon light of the bar sign.
“Sullivan, you’ve made your choice and you will not make it out of this in tact, so it’s my job to best equip you for when that time comes.” She put a hand on my face, rubbing my cheek like an attendant mother, the warmness returning to her face the moment she touched me. “You’ve grown so much, I’d hate to lose my favourite student.”
I smiled, feeling a degree of safety I realised I’d not felt for some time. I told her about the past few days and the events leading up to that. Much like how I treat my regular patrons, she listened with next to no judgment and showed attentiveness throughout. She was and still is my hero. Some things never change, I guess.
Madame Nelle Lockwood was my mentor from an age long past, someone who offered me a hand when nobody else would and listened without judgment. I guess her policies rubbed off on me. She ran an establishment a lifetime away from here that catered more to finding, preserving and/or eliminating cryptids; she still enjoyed a drink though and that was how I came to be in this place, running this bar.
“CHEDDAR!” she squealed as she saw the groggy dog lifting his big head and barking (well, more boofing given his size) at the sight of her. She held her hands open as the big lug ran into her full pelt and profusely licked all over her face, her laughter infecting me as much as the bar. She made me feel safe in a way very few did, I missed that.
I turned the lights on and grabbed a change of clothes from the backroom, the purple waistcoat now torn to shreds and the tie looking more frayed than before. Spying an old favourite in the back, I quickly put it on, feeling the dull ache in my side as I wrapped the navy tweed waistcoat around a white satin shirt, putting my watch back in the waistcoat pocket and keeping the chain tight to the centre. I fastened the silver buttons as carefully as I’d done on my first day here so long ago. Had it been 10 years? 20? I couldn’t remember anymore, I just knew this was the place I had to be and that I had a duty here, that was all that mattered. I took my silver tie adorned with small bears patterned over it and straightened my dirty blonde hair, slicking it to the side as I measured whether my undercut needed shaving or not. Appearances are everything, after all.
Deciding it was fine, I slung my apron on and went back into the main bar where Nelle was sitting on the floor, trench-coat hung on the side as she cuddled a very content Cheddar, tail wagging and big droopy tongue slung out on the floor.
“You’re gonna spoil him, you know. He’ll start wanting constant attention,” I teased as I looked at him and his elated face beamed back at me. She giggled, her scarred hand running up and down his belly.
“Well, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, he’s only here for you and to him, you’re all he has. So attention is never unwanted or spurned,” she sighed, still smiling but the reservedness weighing down her words. “If only everyone was like that. But Cheddar has a purpose, as do you. He isn’t just in the bar, he’s a part of it.” She looked up at me, eyes full of tiredness and stress lines littering her face. “I just don’t want to live in a world where he’s left waiting for you at the door and you never come back, Sully.”
“Well, I don’t plan on giving in to whatever they are, but I gather you’re not just here for time with Cheddar, what do you have for me?”
She rubbed Cheddar’s face and kisses his head before getting to her feet, her arms and hands littered with battle scars from her years studying the various creatures that exist. How she was still alive now is beyond me. She’s like a mountain: never ceasing regardless of what the elements put in her way. Taking a seat at the bar, she pulls out her book The Creature Compendium and opens it up while staring at my back wall of drinks.
“I’ll take the evening star, if you don’t mind,” she declared as her face bent back down into the book, scanning over her notes and mumbling to herself occasionally as she flipped through the pages frantically. It was worn and damaged, but it held every entry she or her colleagues had ever made of the creatures that lurk in the places we never see. I reached for the bottle in the centre of the top shelf, the shape of an aztec temple with black foundations running up either side and connecting to an alter filled with red steps, the cork fastened firmly into the sacrificial table. Grabbing it and setting it down in front of her, the label read: “Emporium Brewery brings to you Xolotl (sholot) Whiskey; The beverage that gives as much as it takes.”
The red & black liquid shimmered in front of Nelle as she motioned me to sit down opposite her, leaning over to grab a pair of shot glasses I keep under the bar. She unscrewed the top of the drink and poured two shots. I grab a stool and stare at the drink in front of me.
“You know I don’t drink if I can help it, Nelle.”
Without meeting my gaze, Nelle downs both in succession and a shiver runs down her back before she flips the book round and begins talking, the burn of the drink riding high in her throat and giving her silky voice extra gravitas.
“This…’master’ you’ve heard about, the one you saw in the vision…I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to you, but he’s not from our reality. I can’t be certain where he hails from, but I would wager it’s a long way from here and it’s far less populated. Maybe through his own doing or someone like him…” She paused, coughing as the burn got the better of her. “But he’s old. Very, very old. Clearly, he’s got an influence on the people here and he’s got an ability to corrupt those who follow him, I’d say through something on his person like his blood or…”
“Or a concoction,” I said, a chill running down my spine, the realisation making me genuinely uncomfortable. It seemed Nelle shared the sentiment.
“Or a concoction, yes. Maybe that’s why this Halpin/Temperance person let you live and wasn’t concerned with his other followers. He must need you for something, my guess is conversion.” She walked back to her book and pulled it up, an image very similar to the creature I saw in the vision, but one without clothing and far less humanoid staring back at me.
“This, Sullivan, is what I call a dimensional devourer. He’s not the first, but he seems to be the most influential. I’ve come across one before and it was a lone wolf, but it talked about coming here and spreading its influence. It created other cryptids I have spent my life hunting, and it feasted on humans to the degree where they didn’t just die, they were all but erased from this dimension.”
“And we have one that seems to know its target audience, great…” I replied, the shot of Xolotl looking tempting all of a sudden.
“This one has some kind of group, you said you’d met two of them already?” she asked, pen at the ready to take notes.
“Yeah, Reverence was some kind of tentacle fanatic, dude had a fascination with growing closer to his god, and he stank to high heaven. A lingering garbage-y scent burning on a hot summer’s day.” I retched a little as I reminded myself, Nelle looking unimpressed. “The other was Detective Halpin, called herself Temperance. Said she was just here to deliver a message and after saving my life, did just that. Who ever heard of an honest bad guy…or girl?”
“These two others they mentioned, Disquiet and Reverence, they aren’t going to just sit on their asses and wait for you, Sullivan. They’re coming here. What are you going to do when that happens? Smile and offer them a drink, hoping they won’t just kidnap you or steal your stock?”
“Oh, that would be boring.”
Nelle swung round and without hesitation, threw her pen like a dagger in the direction of the voice, a small hooded figure near the back of the room manoeuvred out of the way and stood on its head by the windowsill, its neck cracking as it supported the entirety of its body weight.
“That simply will not do, not do at all.” The voice was high pitched, feminine and carried an air of something unnatural about it.
“Identify yourself, I’d enjoy making a new addition to my compendium,” Nelle said, a sly grin running across her face as she kept her eyes fixed on the small creature.
“You may call me Disquiet, a follower of The Light Inside. And that…” She raised her hand and a single digit cracked forwards, the joints straining as it continued to extend beyond its limitations to a spot behind the both of us. “…is my colleague, Reverence.”
Without my say so, Cheddar had instinctively gone onto his hind legs and was leaning towards a monolithic like structure, cloaked and against the wall in the corner. At first, I thought it was a machine, but red eyes and a hateful stare broke through the darkness as a pair of veiny, muscled arms reached out and pulled Cheddar into a bear hug, his yelps ripping at my ear drums.
“REVERE WHAT YOU FEAR. FLEE FROM WHAT YOU DON’T. I WILL ASCEND TO GREATNESS. YOU, ON THE OTHER HAND, WON’T.” The figure known as Reverence pulled on Cheddar tighter, his black drool burning Reverence’s skin but not ceasing the agony he was facing.
“Cheddar! No!” Nelle looked to me, nodding before switching her stance and rushing towards Reverence, pulling a serrated blade from her belt buckle and pulling it close to her face, breathing heavy.
“I can’t help you with both, but do you trust me, Sully?” she called back, not taking her eyes off the monstrosity in front of her.
“Does service come with a smile?” I replied, not taking mine off of the emaciated, broken form in front of me.
Her stomach began to glow as she leaned down to hold onto it, the red and black energy rushing through her veins and filling her entire being.
“I’ll give you credit, Sully. You offer one hell of a drink!” she cried, bellowing as a thick black & red smoke emitted from her eyes, nose and mouth, encompassing the area around Cheddar & Reverence, Nelle crying out “The hunt begins, motherfuckers!” and laughing heartily before leaping towards them a well of bright energy blasting through the bar and painting it in a red and blue hue for a moment before dissipating, a scarred floor all that remained of the three of them and a gaping hole in the wall where Reverence once stood. The sounds of crashing and banging filling the back-rooms as I hear them brawling in the distance.
I coughed and covered my mouth as I tried not to let my focus wane in front of what I instinctively knew was a dangerous being. Disquiet slumped forward, her back falling to the ground and contorting her frame as she reoriented her body to stand upright, the joints shaking and crunching as she twisted to assume the correct stance.
“Interesting, she was never mentioned to us before arriving here. We thought two would be appropriate, how very frustrating.” Her voice was monotone in its expression, a trait I was quickly growing tired of. I twirled my moustache and took a few deep breaths, trusting Nelle to do her part and focusing on my own.
“Welcome to The Spaces In Between, I’m sure you know who I am by now. What can I get for you?” I smiled, each word delivered with sincerity but with a dagger of malice lying in wait behind it. I wanted nothing more than to throw her on her ass and kick her out or worse, but approaching this cautiously was my best bet.
The figure took several steps forward, legs crossing over each other in awkward ways before disappearing from my vision entirely. A moment later, she was sitting on the bar and pointing towards something on the shelf.
“I would like to sample this, before we get started.”
“Then kindly move your ass off the bar, that’s not sanitary,” I replied coldly. This one was getting on my nerves. She cocked her head to the side as she observed me.
“You don’t wish to know how I got here so quickly?” she asked. If curiosity was in her voice, I couldn’t hear it over the monotone drone.
“No, I wish you’d fuck off from the bar, but that isn’t how things work around here. So take a seat, tell me your story and I’ll prepare your drink. If the story is good, you’ll get your drink.” I turned my back as I heard her shuffling to the seat, and I grabbed a pair of bottles from the top shelf. “And while I may not be strong, Cheddar and Nelle are. If they come back—when they come back—you’d better be finished your drink and be heading back to Captain Tarantula to tell him he needs to go back to his dimension. We’re full.”
The first bottle I slammed onto the table was in the shape of a human heart, black with ventricles and veins perfectly placed as it beat softly in place, letting the dark fluid rush around in its centre and creating a slight steam as it bubbled from the top ventricle. The note read: “The Society Of The Sunless Gives Unto You: The Kingmaker. With consumption, he ascended to his endless throne.”
The second was a fractured handheld mirror, fragmented in multiple places but still perfectly held together. A yellow liquid running through it and creating a beautiful pattern as it pooled at the centre. The label reading: “Cain Brewery Offers You: Divine Intervention. Just one taste and the moment will change.”
“These are old. Very, very old,” I began, pulling the stool from across the bar and sitting down on it, hands folded in front of me. “I don’t know how you identified one of them, I don’t know what you want, but your story starts now. One of these will be your drink, let’s find out which it is.”
“From the age of seven, my father instilled in me that I belonged to him. He would remind me of this every time I said hello to someone, every animal I wanted to pet or every successful hunt I brought to him. He would stand over me, eyes ablaze with rage and tell me that everything of my person was his.” Her monotone voice began to give way for a moment as her hands shook. “I hated him. More than anything else in my life, it is he who made me what I am now.”
She pulled her hood down and my eyes widened. Her face was a battleground of pain, the eyes burnt over and nothing but vacant sockets, the ears gone and the skin leathery where it’s had to accommodate. The mouth mostly intact save for a blackened, singed tongue.
“I started a fire on the morning of my 13th birthday when his concept of ownership transferred to but one part of me. I decided this was the right time to part ways. I watched as his corporeal form melted away, I did not flinch or falter in my resolve as I saw flesh stripped from bones and heard screams ring in my ears. I did not cry when my own did the same.”
She put her hood back up and looked up to the ceiling.
“It was then, by some miracle, that he came to me. I was propelled to a place of endless stars converging on one another and cannibalising themselves. It was an entropy of endless death and life, a most beautiful place. He spoke to me and offered me a choice, the same one I have been instructed to offer to you now.”
“And what may that be?” I asked, knowing I’d need to prepare myself for the backlash when I declined.
“Join me in the feast or become a part of it.” Her teeth flashed as the black serpent of a tongue she held in her mouth poked out for but a second before slinking back into her mouth. I saw a shimmer on the tip but I couldn’t place what it was.
I stood up, cracking my back as I stared at her, this poor, pitiful soul. I guess every patron has their poison…
“Time’s up, have you chosen your drink?” I asked, knowing full well what will happen the moment she puts her lips on either one, neither being an outcome she could possibly know about.
“Have you chosen yours, Sullivan?” she leered, a raspy breathing sound emanating from her hood before striking me in the neck with a sharpened tongue, the sting temporary but followed by a wave of searing heat.
“What is it with you people and poisons?!” I cried, holding at my neck and expecting to feel the pain ran through my body.
But it didn’t. Instead I felt an all too familiar sensation that I had no means to counteract save for getting to a seated position.
I was paralysed.
I cast my eyes to the shelf and saw a small hole in a particular bottle just beneath the two I had pulled from the top shelf, leaking its contents down to the floor. It was a golden heart with vines growing around it and a key emblazoned in the centre, the adjudicator concoction.
“How…how did you…” I gasped, feeling my legs stiffen and my breathing grew heavy as my chest compacted and refused to release.
“Gomez was more than an informant, Mr Sullivan. He was an informant with a lure. We learned so much through his eyes and our master was enamoured by what he saw, boundless opportunities to bring forth more of his flock, to help spread his glorious message.
So I come to you with a question:”
She leaned forward and I saw her smile as my body froze in place, the fear of what may come next rushing through me.
“How does my master get to this place?”