01 Feb I run a bar that serves one of a kind drinks to clients in exchange for their stories (Part 4)
“How does my master get to this place?”
I can already feel my eyes twisting in their sockets at the prospect of what the Adjudicator can and will do to me if I betray my thoughts; I can still hear furious fighting in the back and it’s dawning on me that I have no way out of this without being totally honest. I try to speak, but my throat is caking over with this familiar black foam.
“W…h….f…o….head,” I gurgle.
“Yes? Go on…I’m all ears,” Disquiet hisses, leaning in.
“I said…watch for her head.”
The sound of a bottle smashing against the table and then colliding with Disquiet’s skull punctuates the air as a thick green liquid pours down her robes. She shivers as it coats her and casts her eyes in the direction it was thrown. There she sees a small, stout man with neat brown hair and shimmering thick glasses, smiling at her and clutching a second broken bottle of McGill’s Black Sea Extract, the entirety of its contents now enveloping Disquiet as she begins to slip back and fall into the thickening sludge.
“Black Sea Extract, float or sink depending on your volition…huh…” Krauss grins at the bottle before looking over at me. “Why would you SELL THIS?!” he cries out incredulously. I would have shrugged, but I was still paralysed. Disquiet writhes on the floor and shrieks as her contorted joints cannot free her from the liquid as it rapidly turns to concrete, anchoring her in place. Krauss looks around and spies the pierced bottle of Adjudicator on the top shelf, the remaining contents now spilt onto the floor. He reads the label and begins to panic.
“Oh god, fuck…what do I do Sully? How do I stop this bitch from doing…whatever it is she’s started to do to you…?”
Again, I can do nothing but gurgle, my last bit of resistance used in the declaration to Krauss. He stumbles over to me and after stepping onto Disquiet’s chest, much to her chagrin, he begins looking me over for a solution.
“You won’t find much there, dear,” Nelle’s voice calls from the regulars lounge, Cheddar
slung over her shoulder and the inert body of Reverence being pulled by the collar around his next, seems Nelle attached Cheddars to him for hilarity, she’s weird like that. She’s covered in blood and her eyes are wild with passion, but her voice and demeanour are completely calm. She tosses Reverence’s body next to Disquiet’s and gently sets Cheddar down by me, placing his favourite blanket in his mouth and looking me over.
“Sullivan…I can fix this, but it’s going to hurt…” Her eyes meet mine and I see the reluctance in her face. “But you knew what you were signing up for when we first met, didn’t you?”
She pulls my head to her chest, kissing the top of it before whispering “Do it for her, Sullivan” and driving her palm square into my stomach. I felt the searing pain rush through me anew as her hand collected the bulk of The Adjudicator in a small pool, pulling a bottle from inside her coat pocket and sealing it away.
No sooner had The Adjudicator left my body, a bright white light began to engulf my vision, the sound of my heartbeat filled my ears and the last thing I heard before my consciousness faded was “Find your truth, Sullivan. That is the only way to finish the detoxification effects.” It was Nelle, she was pleading with me.
“Find it and come back to us.”
I couldn’t tell you the exact year it was, but I was younger, the bar wasn’t the same and I definitely did not have a moustache. I was tinkering with some drinks in the back of the bar when I heard a “ding” ring out as a hurried, much younger version of Krauss fell through the entranceway, the entertainment in the back stopping mid-song to see what the commotion was all about. He was beaten up, bruised and his glasses were cracked.
“Welcome to….what the hell happened to you? Are you okay?”! I rushed over to pick him up when a much bigger man entered behind him, the fury on his face apparent.
“You cheeky cunt…if you *ever* try to pull that shit again…I will make sure this feels like a massage in comparison…” His face was practically shaking in rage as he stormed off.
“Heh…never stopped me before, Dad…” Krauss choked between laughter, a tooth dislodged and rolled freely on the wooden floor. I sighed and helped him to his feet.
“I don’t even wanna know what you did this time…” I groaned, getting him to the barstool and offering him a rag and some ice to stop the swelling.
“No, no you do not,” he laughed, dabbing his right eye with the rag, and a bloodied grin stretched across his face. “What matters is yours is the first place I go to when things kick off, and we always have each other’s backs.”
“Since day 1 of opening, literally.” My shoulders fell as I tried to find him a good drink. “One of these days it’s going to be too much for you, you know that right?”
“Of course!” he laughed, “That’s the fun part, figuring out which day it’ll be! God I hope it’s on hump day…” He snickered to himself before shouting “OW, FUCK” when his jaw moved too much.
I looked to the top shelf and found a mixture I’d been sent earlier today, it was a locket shaped like a four leaf clover with a thick golden chain hanging from its tips. A beautiful gold hue emanated from the centre and a single clasp acted as the opener, the label attached to the chain reading: “Poselthwaite & Daughters Give To You: The Luck Serum, 1 part honey, 1 part scotch and 1 part distilled fortunes, you will see your luck turn around at but a moments notice! For better or for worse!”
“Maybe this will stop you getting the shit kicked out of you so much?” I teased as I unclasped the vial and poured its contents into a small silver glass, the gold hue transferring to it and displaying a beautiful shimmer.
“Maybe then you’ll look like the hot one out of the two of us?” he jeered back, sharing a chuckle as he downed half and passed it to me. I smirked and joined him. A far smaller, puppy-like Cheddar bounded from the other room and leapt up into Krauss’s lap, the once goofy boofing sounding now more like small borks, and the drool ever present as he licked the wounds covering Krauss and tried his best to comfort him, Krauss laughing the entire time.
“Man, if I had a dog like this, I’d take any fuckin’ job they had available!” he chuckled between slobbery kisses from Cheddar.
The door to the bar opened again and a young woman stepped in, early 20s and utterly spellbinding. Her slender figure cut through the noise and atmosphere of the bar, her red hair flowing down her shoulders and across her chest in an elegant curl, eyes alight with the spark of life. I could not take my eyes off of her and Krauss calling me repeatedly dissipated into the ether as she walked up to me, a mixture of confidence and mania written across her face.
“Welcome to The Spaces In Between, I’m Sully and that little furry fella is Cheddar. The slightly bigger and louder one is Krauss, what can I get for you?”
Her smile immediately faded as soon as I was done with my introduction and she looked me over, eyes scanning me up and down as she shook her head incessantly.
“You…you don’t…” she breathed, her soft voice a far-cry from the croaky gruffness that I’m accustomed to hearing, courtesy of Krauss.
“Is…is everything alright?” I asked, already trying to figure out what kind of drink she may need, not focusing on the fact her demeanour was rapidly changing.
“Sully…my Sully…you’ve forgotten me already?” Her eyes fell and the smile dropped into a deep, hateful scowl. Cheddar whimpered and leapt down from Krauss’ lap and ran behind my legs.
“Uh-oh…did you break a heart, Sully? That ain’t like you, chief!” Krauss chuckled and nursed his wounded, slobber covered face.
“If you don’t…if you don’t recall who I am right now, Sully…I’m going to get very upset…”
I stared. In all the years I’d ran that bar, I had never seen her before and I consider myself incredibly adept at remembering faces, especially someone as beautiful as her.
“I’m sorry, Ma’m, but I don’t…” I began, stopping as I watched with a slack jaw what came next: the sound of Cheddar piddling behind me in fear and Krauss diving under the table and screaming “WHAT THE FUCK DUDE, WHAT THE FUCK!?”
She screamed, her jaw unclenching and eventually dislocating, showing no signs of slowing down as her facial features began to coalesce and collapse under the pressure of the skin folding over, no tongue or teeth in sight anymore as the jaw stretched back and a smaller head began to peer out of the far reaches of the throat, gleaming eyes and a horrific voice pushing through the echo of the scream rang out:
“I am so deeply disappointed in you, Sullivan. You forgot the promise you made so long ago? You forgot the reasons you took this job? I thought love was the strongest binding force there is?” It shrugged its shoulders, the hair, skull and face sagged back and drooped over the spine. “But, I still believe the saying is true, the more things change…the more they stay the same…”
I couldn’t form sentences; I was gripped by a fear I had never known, the kind that slows down your movements as if wading through quicksand. The kind that seems to turn your cohesive thoughts into fractals and your once eloquent speech patterns into terrified stutters.
I had seen many strange things in this job, but this took the cake.
“Fret not, I am not here to hurt you. For this was a test and due to limitations, this wasteful corpse will be disposed of and you can go about your ignorant existence. But…” it leaned forward and I could see the faint glint of a smile in the far back of its throat, “I will have a drink, before I depart.”
I swallowed, my throat dry and my eyes stinging as I realised I hadn’t blinked. I shakily
turned on my heel and frantically scanned the top shelf of the bar, desperate to find something that would suit this monstrosity’s palate. The smallest object caught my eye and the shape sealed the deal. It was a brain, splintered into two segments, one bubbling with gold liquid and the other a greyish substance that fogged over that side of the glass. Taking it down, I looked carefully at the note: “The Pilgrim’s Choice: For when we need to find our way once again.”
I sat it down in front of the creature, shaky hands pouring out the champagne smelling liquid first, then the grey matter that fogged over the glass, both coming together to form a brilliant silver concoction that smelled of elderberries. The creature laughed at my nervousness.
“Perhaps…you should get yourself a drink too, Sullivan. I think you need it.”
Shit, maybe it was my nerves or the suggestive nature of their voice at the time, but I believed it. I grabbed a bottle from under the bar, it was a special blend I’d been working on myself and now seemed as good a time as any to try it out. The bottle in the form of a cracked heart, a blend of herbs and spices filled my nose as I uncorked it and poured it into a clean glass, the green and yellow liquid bubbling the second it left the bottle.
“This is…well it’s called Arrhythmia, it’s something I’ve been working on for quite a while and…well I don’t know what it’ll do just yet,” I said, confused at why I was even explaining to this thing, but I suppose professional courtesy wins out every time. I raised the glass and said apropos of nothing “Cheers”.
We both drank (I mean, I did, this weird fucker simply threw the liquid into its maw and that’s all I could tell you) and within a couple of minutes, the effects of each drink became apparent. I sat back and felt my body shiver as I pulled out my pocket-watch and stared at it wistfully, my eyes hazing over as I smiled from ear to ear. Meanwhile, the figure opposite me coughed and spluttered, anger again building in their frame as they tried to throw the drink back up.
The retching gave way to the sound of sliding wet meat as hands emerged from the mouth and began trying to claw their way out, screams erupting from the creature, while I did nothing to stop them or react to them, instead fixated on what was in my pocket watch.
“How…how dare you…I am the rightful god of this and ANY realm, you cannot take my claim to rights away like this…this is not how it’s supposed to be!” he screeched, an arm now nearly free of the mouth and pulling at the table in front blindly, attempting to grab something other than air in a vain attempt to stop whatever the drink had done.
Krauss, beneath his chair a few feet away from the beast hollered out “ARE YOU GONNA DEAL WITH THE JOHN CARPENTER REJECT OR WHAT?!” but all I could do was smile.
“Since you’re going to forget in a minute and I suppose I am too, I’ll let you in on what just happened,” I began, a sliver of tears running down my cheek as I felt the lump in my throat.
“What I just took was an experiment to see if I could recall why I fought so hard in this job. Why I took it in the first place…because all I had before was this feeling when I looked at my pocket watch, nothing else.” He stopped thrashing as hard and though still coughing, focused on my words. “I did it, I remembered why I am here and what I…we are doing. But like you, I’ll forget soon.”
I pointed to his drink and then to my head, pulling the trigger of a gun and imitating an explosion.
“The Pilgrim’s Choice is a reset button, of sorts. We have a few of those here but most are more subtle; some deal with key moments in life or choices we can try again. Yours? Yours is a total wipe. You will forget how you found this place, who I am and what all of this even is. The only one who’s going to remember everything is him.” I point towards a still mostly hidden Krauss, who looks at me and mouths the words “fuck off” at me silently, eyes awash with incredulity and anger.
“I suppose it’s a twist on that old legend of adversaries, isn’t it? Instead of one remembers and one forgets…we both forget, but someone always remembers.” I watched the creature fall to the floor and cough heavily, choking on the fluid and trying in vain to bring it up. I kneeled down low and showed him the contents of the pocket watch, still smiling, but with a fresh anger within.
“This is what I fight for, this is what I remember, even if you don’t. I know what you did and I will stay in this bar a thousand more years if it means my end of the deal is held up. I will be dust before I give in. Every time I feel like quitting, without realising it, this photo will push me on. You will never win, Amos.” I lean in closer and stare deep into that gaping maw, holding the photo of a younger me and my arms wrapped around a woman my age, the photo faded but the love and comfort it brought amplified by the drink, hands shaking as I let my smile slip for a moment. “Not in this, or any realm.”
Amos screamed and began to fade from the room, dissipating in a hiss of black smoke as his free arm reached one last time to grab for me, aiming for the pocket watch. As the smoke cleared, I stood silently and clutched it tightly to my chest, tears flowing down my face as I felt the memory already fading, the potency of the drink obviously not strong enough.
“Sully? Buddy? You okay?” Krauss scrambled from his spot and came over to me, waving his hand in front of me but to no avail.
“I’m sorry, but it’ll be a little while before I remember again…but I will keep my promise, always. I will remember to save.” I whispered, closing the pocket watch and wiping my eyes as I felt the last of that familiarity fade from me.
“What…what the hell was that, Sully? Old friend of yours? From before the bar?”
I looked at him, perplexed, Cheddar whining at my heels and trying to jump up for a hug.
“Do me a solid, clean up the pee would you? I need to take care of this little fella and fix him something to eat.”
Krauss looked confused, but shrugged and made a beeline for the bar, grabbing a rag and muttering “Least weird shit i’ve done today, so why not? Fuck my face hurts though…I want some Emporium Whiskey on the house for this!”
I laughed as I carried Cheddar to the fridge.
“Naya? Who’s that?”
I came to, Krauss standing over me and inspecting my face.
“Err…Krauss…I meant Krauss…I don’t know why I said Naya.” I rub my head, the feeling in my limbs returning and vigour quickly running through my body.
“Jesus….remind me to never drink around you and not pay my tab…” Krauss comments as he helps me to my feet, obviously unable to quantify how this was happening but unwilling to question it.
Nelle had been fixing up the two on the floor while I was out cold, the concrete-like substance gone from Disquiet and the hilariously adorned Cheddar collar back on its rightful owner as Reverence sat upright, his hulking frame shifting from side to side as he tried to get free of the razor thin wire bindings Nelle had wrapped him and his compatriot in. She looked over at me and smiled. Cheddar is still passed out in his bed at the end of the bar, stuffed animal in his mouth and blanket around his lower half, drool covering the floor.
“Your dog is a hell of a fighter when he wants to be, Sullivan…” she said softly, breathing heavily herself and putting the bottle away. “Reverence didn’t know what to make of his second form, but after all that he just sleeps like a normal dog…he’s such a good boy.” She rubbed the top of his head as he whimpered and chewed down on his toy.
“Now…we have a problem to deal with,” she said, dusting off her hands and walking over to the two hooded forms on the floor, her determination absolute as she pulled over a chair, yanked at Disquiet’s hand and placed it on the seat.
“This is futile, I will not falter in my faith even if my mission has failed and my Lord punishes me. You cannot do anything to me he has not already deemed appropriate!” she looked up, eyeless but defiant and smirked at Nelle, who did not reciprocate.
“Works for me, I have a different system to my protégé over there that you tried to torture, so why waste any time?” She pulled her serrated blade, dripping in a thick substance, from her belt buckle with one hand and opened The Creature Compendium to a bookmarked section, reading aloud: “To maximise the efficiency of pain, one must be swift and decisive in their cut, but precise enough to leave the nerve endings open to the cool air, so the bleeding combined with the nerve damage keeps your prey in a constant state of pain-riddled inertia.” Without hesitation, she brings the coated blade down and drives it into Disquiet’s hand, severing two fingers below the knuckle, the fluid bubbling the second it meets the exposed flesh and begins pulling at the bones, the sinew and the nerves, exposing them further out from the pulpy mass whence they came.
Disquiet’s ear splitting screams were beyond measure; she desperately tried to get her body away from Nelle, but the strategic wiring made it impossible. She instead shook in place, drool flowing from her mouth as her initial scream became a low moan, the pain putting her into a lulled state.
“I will ask you a similar question to what you asked my student: how did you come to this place?”
Reverence thrashed but said nothing to aid his fellow disciple, who continued to moan softly and whisper incoherently even as Nelle brought the knife up again.
“I am not fooling around here, girl. You want to break the laws this universe has in place?
That is absolutely fine, but I am here to remind you that for every action…” She drives the knife into her remaining 3 digits, severing them completely as the process begins anew. She sits up and walks to the bar, finding a Pulse Thumper and downing it as Disquiet screams.
“There is a consequence. Her name is Nelle fucking Lockwood.”
The screams once again gave way to moans, but this eventually turned into rapturous laughter first from Disquiet and then from Reverence. At first, I thought it to be mania brought on by the pain, but as the black smoke filled the room, I knew something was imminent.
“You…you are not the only one who has allies to save you…but I assure you…this is the last time….” Disquiet breathed, her agony taking a considerable toll on her as she faded into the smoke.
“REVERENCE MAY FADE. BUT YOUR GRIEF WILL NOT. FOR I WILL LIVE. YOUR FRIEND WILL ROT.” Reverence bellowed as he too began to fade, the black smoke far thicker than before and engulfing the entirety of the bar as I ducked for cover, pulling the blanket over Cheddar’s head.
The form of Temperance broke through the smoke and stood in a small parting she’d made, her own vestments now on but the hood down, a smile across her face.
“Sullivan, I come to you with a choice from Lord Amos; he wishes to give you two options before what he anticipates will be the final meeting you two share. The final meeting we all share, I imagine.” She gestures to the room, like a proud parent before letting her arms fall listlessly to her side, biting her lip. “You see in his omniscience, he figured out how to get here. It’s the binding forces of this place that allow us to step through those doors, in this case…it was the binding force of love.”
She pulls something from her pocket and throws it to the ground in front of me with a thud. It’s a black lockbox, the contents of which spill in front of me as my eyes widen. “Letty, to be exact. She’s with us now, the constant supply of energy we need to get here, but alas, it is not nearly enough for my lord to step into this space…so instead, in his infinite wisdom and gesture of goodwill, he offers you a most important choice.”
“Lemme guess, join him or spend a lifetime in suffering?” I call back, still under the desk and hoping I’m not stupid enough to get injured by every member of this fucking group, searching for a drink that can aid me and finding nothing in reach. She laughs, but there’s something off about it. It’s cruel, low and frantic, as if she knows something I don’t.
“No, Sullivan. You’re going to suffer either way, the choice is far more important than that! No drinks to save you, no weapons in sight and no way out. Lord Amos knows this is your next true test and how blessed am I that I get to administer it!” She laughs again, this time I hear a sizzling sound and a low hum growing in sound and density, enough so that I look up to see her wielding a black flame in her hand, almost like concentrated black smoke burning impossibly hot and shaking like lightning. Her eyes meet mine and I sense her bloodlust as her grin twists, the lightning twisting with her.
“There is a far stronger bonding agent sitting right here that we can utilise, something so strong that the next time we step foot into this place, our lord will be at our side and he will complete what he started so, so long ago. That bonding agent isn’t in just one vessel, however. It’s in three.”
I take one look around the bar, first to Krauss who is staring head on at Temperance, next to Nelle who nods solemnly to me before grabbing at her blade, then to Cheddar who hasn’t stirred from under his blanket, still asleep and unaware. Finally, to the photo on the floor, of a young man and a woman with their arms wrapped around each other, the photo faded but the love and warmth permeating from it even now.
“Who will it be, Sully? Krauss, Nelle or Cheddar?”