The Salty Wench was a tavern on the outskirts of town. The kind of place my parents would drive by and turn their noses up at. Even my Army father who’d been in dives down and dirty enough to make your hair curl would sniff disdainfully every time we passed. I couldn’t even pinpoint what it was that made my parents detest the place so much. There was an old-timey, wooden sign hanging from wrought-iron hooks off a weathered post. The sign itself read ‘The Salty Wench’ in curling, archaic letters, charred black against dark, aged and varnished wood.
Set back from the road was the tavern itself and the gravel parking lot, surrounded by towering evergreens. It looked as though it was plucked from every RPG starting location, as though if I walked inside someone would have a quest for me. Single-story, wooden, and with a rustic charm, the Yorkshire, lead-lined windows shone with a warm yellow light into the deep darkness. It was inviting, delightful, and beautiful.
Yet, disgust pervaded every iota of my being, and I wanted nothing more than to turn the car around and leave. Instead, I grit my teeth and parked in the lot next to Odella’s sleek, black sport’s car.
Run! Flee! Primal Brain howled.
Rational Brain raised an internal eyebrow. You’re making a scene, you know.
It’s gross! And dangerous! We must leave.
There won’t be any reasoning with her. Rational Brain sighed.
I wasn’t sure how long I sat there, eyes fixed on the dashboard display, while gripping the wheel as though I’d be swept out to a sea of panic if I let go.
“There’s a charm on the building,” Odella said.
I twitched, and tried to rip my fingernails off on the wheel in my haste to clench my hands into fists. I turned to face her, my eyes wide with shock and pain. She’d opened the door without me noticing, and bent over a little at the waist to meet my gaze.
Odella smiled a small, pleased smile, and her nostrils flared wide. Her ample chest expanded with a deep breath, and the material of the shirt strained to keep all of her contained. Her breasts were intimidating.
“Do you all have charms and spells to keep humans from noticing you guys?” I asked. I broke eye contact with The Intimidators, and gave the rest of her a once-over, but didn’t note any charms like Slies carried. Of course, she could have been keeping it concealed.
“Just those of us who can’t pass for human, or places where we’ll be gathering in large groups. The only reason you were able to drive onto the property was a combination of following me here, and the fact they can’t make the charm too strong, or people will drive off the road to avoid the lot.” She paused, and tilted her head, trying to catch my gaze.
I knew better now, and shifted my eyes to her chin. When her grin widened, it revealed her unnaturally sharp canines gleaming dully in the yellow-amber glow from the parking lot light. I swallowed against the hard lump lodged in my throat.
“Don’t worry, dear. You’re not on the menu tonight.”
Not precisely reassuring, Rational Brain mumbled, as she stepped back so I could get out of the car. I tried to move out of the car’s doorway to close it, but my feet remained firmly rooted in place.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” she said, mischief dancing through her eyes like the flame of a candle in a stormy breeze. Then she leaned in and kissed me, full on the mouth.
My eyes widened again and I froze, too afraid to react let alone move, like a rabbit caught in the jaws of a wolf. Her lips were soft, and the kiss was gentle as a spring rain, but the hunger she held in check ran through the center of her being like a piano wire on the verge of snapping. Then I realized her lips were cold—the same temperature as the chilly night air.
I shuddered, and broke away from the kiss, and went to wipe my mouth on the back of my jacket sleeve. She reached up, fast as a snake striking, and grabbed my wrist. Her grip was strong as steel bent around my arm, like a bracelet that could crush my bones with just the slightest tightening of her slender fingers. I whimpered.
She leaned back in, nuzzling along my cheek and jaw until her mouth was near my ear. Her breath tickled the fine hairs on my skin as she spoke. “Now, now. If you do that, I’ll have to kiss you again, and this time I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to hold back,” she said, her voice low. “Our DNA allows temporary access, sort of like a stamp to get into a club. It marks you as belonging to one of us.”
“Us?” I asked, the word spoken so soft I wasn’t even sure I’d said it out loud.
Then my brain slammed into gear. “Belonging to?” This time the words were louder, and an edge of hysteria crept in, but I remained still.
“Just temporarily. We’d have to do something more…invasive for it to be permanent,” she reassured me cheerfully. She let go of my wrist, leaned back, and patted my hand.
I shuddered, and didn’t care to think further on that particular statement.
“Is it okay that I’m here? They don’t seem to want humans around,” I hedged queasily. Rational Brain thumbed through all the scenes of every horror and fantasy movies we’d ever seen, as well as all the books we’d read, and what a supernatural being could do to a human…Well, things weren’t looking all that great for my chances of survival.
“It’ll be fine,” she said, and waved away my concern. Despite her words, her shoulders were tense.
My stomach clenched. “I guess.”
Or not, Primal Brain fumed.
So glad you could rejoin the conversation, Rational Brain teased.
Primal Brain sent a particularly scathing glance toward Rational Brain. We’re not going to talk about that.
Rational Brain harrumphed.
Everyone elses cars were parked, and they were probably already inside. I was delaying the inevitable. I was teetering on a mental cliff, ready to fall down into a dark chasm, not knowing if I’d die once I hit rock bottom. One thing was for sure, though: nothing would be the same.
You’re in the dark, in front of a bar full of supernatural beings, and you were just kissed by a vampire. This is it. Walk away now, before you get in so deep the alligators are eating your eyeballs, Rational Brain said.
Uh, gross. Primal Brain scoffed. Also, this is the coolest thing since, well, ever that’s happened to us.
And dangerous, Rational Brain reasoned. Plus, weren’t you just freaking out?
That was the spell. Primal Brain sniffed. We have an agreement, anyway. We can’t just back out now: think about your brother.
You don’t care as much about him as you’re letting on. You just want to go on some cockamamie adventure.
Enough! I cut in on the bickering.
“Let’s go,” I said, looking down into the proverbial chasm and giving it the finger before taking the plunge.
“Fantastic!” Odella gushed, and linked her arm in mine. She practically dragged me away, and I did my best to close the car door and set the alarm before I was out of range.
She pulled me along to the door and I tried not to stumble through the gravel. Though the archway before the front door was lit, the short hallway leading to it was not. It held deep shadows like a cup, and only the small window in the door cast a dim light no mere mortal could see by.
In those shadows, a small lump moved.
“Eh, Odella? Whatcha got?” Whatever-it-was snorted. “Somefink tasty?”
“Keep your grubby fingers to yourself, Krot,” she said amiably, “this one’s mine.”
“That so?” Krot queried, and a small, hairy face moved into the light, its up-turned, pig-like nose giving a snort of derision. The small, beady black eyes shone with mischief, and something that edged too close to darker things played in his feral smile, displaying blunt, yellowed teeth. He took a couple of cursory sniffs, leaning further into the light. I couldn’t tell if he wore animal skins, or if he was just that hairy.
“I smell ya, a-sure. Mayhaps she wants my grubby fingers, eh?” He brought the aforementioned blunt digits into the light and gave me a finger-wiggle wave. “Think she’s a squawker?” He cackled.
“Try and find out, and you’ll lose more than your fingers,” I hissed, my ire rising along with the scaredy-cat hairs on the back of my neck.
Everyone you meet is a potential enemy. Show them no fear. Even if you’re quaking and shaking from it, give them nothing to use against you. Fear is the small death, the falling of the little rocks that lead to an avalanche that will crush the life from you. Now go, and refuse to give in to your terror.
My father’s words echoed through my mind. It was a speech he’d given to me at my seventh birthday party, when we’d all been given foam dart guns and sent out into the woods to wage elementary-school war on each other. I’d always been afraid of the woods, and of being shot in the eye with a dart. Both stemmed from my brother; the former because he told me there was a man in the woods who’d eat my fingers and toes if I went in, and the latter because he’d once shot me in the eye with a dart.
In a fit of parental, ‘get the fuck over it’, my father had arranged this little ‘game’ to force me to confront my fears. It didn’t work. I still hated the woods and those damn toy guns, but his words were great for slapping some steel in my yellow spine, and at least faking it till I wasn’t at risk of being eaten.
Krot’s cackle grew to an all-out belly laugh that had him doubled-over.
Well, if you can’t make them fear you, making them laugh seems to be a legitimate alternative, Rational Brain observed.
I imagine it’s something like a kitten hissing at a dragon. So absurd it has to be funny, Primal Brain agreed.
“Go on, then,” Krot said, sinking back into the shadows as though the blackness was a pool, and had substance. “But I’d keep this’n close. Not everyone’s as nice as me.”
“Of course, Krot. You’re the soul of benevolence,” Odella said, and unhooked our arms. She took my hand in hers and tugged me along.
Krot laughed again, but said nothing in return.
Odella opened the door, and a blast of warmth, laughter, music, and the smell of alcohol and too many bodies shoved into a small space assaulted my senses. Before I could get my proverbial feet beneath me, Odella had pulled me in, and the door shut with the smallest of thuds behind us.
The issue, I found, was that my eyes didn’t know where to look first, my nose couldn’t decide what to smell, and my ears what to listen to. It was a typical bar and grill, but not. Like someone had taken a medieval tavern, a modern pub, and a mythological encyclopedia, and thrown them all into a blender.
The area was a large, nearly open-spaced rectangle, inter-spaced with large, load-bearing pillars of smooth, grey stone. The crossbeams were age-worn wood, and wrapped with decaying, frayed rope. The chandeliers hanging from the ceiling in no clear pattern were a clash of ye olde times and contemporary. They were wrought iron, with three bars connected together at the top with what looked like an upside-down call bell, hanging from a chain. The bars then went down and ended in hooks, which hooked through a metal circle, where five, electric pillar candles ‘burned’ atop flat wrought iron discs. They cast a typical, candle-like glow on the area, but cut down on the potential fire hazard.
Televisions were shoved into various spaces, displaying everything from crime-drama to sports. All along the wall were deep mahogany bar tables and stools, while everywhere else had matching regular tables with chairs or benches, depending on the size.
To the left was a gigantic stone fireplace, where some kind of two-foot, naked fire woman danced along the twenty or so logs. Her hair was long and thick, and swirling around her body as she spun, pirouetted, and swayed her curvy hips to some kind of music only she could hear. Her skin and hair were in varying shades of orange, yellow, red, and pink—one minute like a brilliant sunset, and the next like a blazing wildfire. She threw her hair back and lifted her ample chest up as she jumped, and then slid back down to the logs on a fiery stripper pole she conjured from nowhere. Then she used the fire like some kind of stage curtain to tease and titillate. When she saw me staring, she winked her solid red eyes at me, like someone had removed all the facets from a couple of rubies and polished them smooth. I blinked, long and slow.
She was cheered on by a couple of leering Satyrs, dressed to the nines in button-down dress shirts rolled up to their elbows, suit vests, and ties. One had varying shades of gray from dove to slate, and it went well with his raven fur and hooves, small, white, curling horns, and the rosy-pale skin of his face, fingers, and pointed ears peeking through his thick, slicked-back hair. The other had a white shirt, and a dark blue tie and vest. His fur and hair were cinnamon, and he’d left his hair to curl around his face. His skin pleasantly tanned, and his hooves and horns were more of a coffee with heavy cream color. Every few seconds they’d try to snatch the dancing fire girl, and she’d blip out, like when you blow on a candle and it seemingly sputters in and out of existence. Then she’d reappear in another spot, with her laughing silently, as though mute, and the Satyrs roaring with glee and clapping each other on the back. Their snazzy attire was at odds with the lower half of their bodies, where thick, curling hair did little to conceal just how happy they were to watch the fire-woman.
That sight was one of many vying for my attention, but Odella decided I’d had enough time to adjust to my surroundings, and pulled me along toward the bar that was taking up almost the entire back wall. There were a few double-takes as I went by, and silence followed behind us like the wake of a boat. I kept my eyes on the back of Odella’s head, not willing to chance a look around.
I wasn’t normally one to tiptoe around, afraid of offending someone. I’m not saying I go out of my way to be a bitch, but for the most part people could take their hurt feelings and go nurse them in a corner. Here, though, it was a different story. Maybe looking someone in the eye would mean a fight to the death, or a certain hand gesture might mean I’m down for an orgy later. I just didn’t know, so I erred on the side of caution.
Then we reached the bar, and my eyes widened when I caught sight of the bartender.
He was tall, easily six and a half feet, with warm eyes that were a caramel color. When he smiled, his fangs were a shocking white against his skin the color of a dark espresso without the crema. A dark, charcoal mane—literally, a mane—was brushed back from his face, which was unwrinkled, but spoke of an age that stretched into the thousands of years. The mane disappeared into his t-shirt, which was, to my surprise, the color of boysenberries. His nose was turned down, cat-like, with the darker, single line versus a human’s double philtral ridges leading down and splitting his upper lips. He didn’t have any whiskers, that I could see, but everything from the neck down was that of a well-muscled lion-man. Human hands, with slightly knobbier knuckles ended in sharpened, non-retractable, thick claws. The paler, tawny fur over his arms shone, glossy in the low light, and he had tufts of fur at his elbows. Amber eyes, with round, widened pupils gazed back at me through the dark, and rounded, furry ears twitched in my direction.
The silence in the bar was thunderous, and I dared not look away from his gaze, or even draw a breath.
Then he spoke; “A murderer is condemned to death. He has to choose between three rooms. The first is full of raging fires, the second is full of assassins with loaded guns, and the third is full of lions that haven’t eaten in three years. Which room is safest for him?” His voice was a low rumble, like thunder grumbling in the distance.
“Are we talking about regular lions, or supernatural ones?” I asked. I knew the answer, but my usual riddle rulebook was thrown out the window in the presence of beings that shouldn’t exist. I’d gotten a little too obsessed with a certain trilogy in middle school, and decided to memorize an obscene number of riddles in case I came across any evil creatures lurking in caves, carrying all-powerful rings. Also, I apparently hated the idea of being popular, and decided instead that annoying my classmates with riddles they couldn’t answer was the best way to get friends.
He smiled again, though this time it was less feral, fangs, and eat your heart, and more amusement. “Normal.”
“Then it’s the lions. Lions—normal lions—who haven’t eaten in three years are dead.”
“Excellent,” he said, and meant it. “So glad I don’t have to eat you. Welcome to The Salty Wench.”
“Th-thanks,” I stuttered, the breath knocked from me by his statement.
The activity in the bar resumed, as my place amongst them was validated. I’d been seconds away from being consumed, and didn’t know it. Sure, I’d reckoned it as a possibility, but to have it boldly stated as fact…Primal Brain wanted to shriek internally again, but Rational Brain had something else in mind.
I yanked my hand out of Odella’s grasp, and glared at her, accusing. “You knew I might be eaten if I answered incorrectly?”
“Well, yes, but I had the utmost confidence in you,” she said cheerfully, and beamed like a proud parent.
I could only splutter in indignation, and Lion-Man chuckled.
“Odella was only following the rules. No warnings to the Ords, and any cheating ends in automatic consumption. It keeps the level of unworthy Ords at a minimum, ensuring this remains a safe haven for Supernaturals,” he said, reaching under the bar for a wine glass.
I ground my teeth at his use of the slang term for humans, but kept my opinion to myself. He could still eat me at his discretion, I was sure.
With the glass in hand, he turned and drew something from a metal canister, with some kind of writing unknown to me scrawled across the side. When he faced us again, I swallowed hard against the knot in my throat.
“Fresh today, Odella, my sweet,” he said, and handed her the glass that was half-full of a thick, red liquid that looked suspiciously like blood.
She giggled, and took the glass from him. He looked over at me. “And for you?”
“Uh, just some cranberry juice. I have to drive later.” I paused as he poured the drink. “Didn’t the Sphinx in Oedipus Rex kill herself when Oedipus answered her riddle correctly?” I asked.
He handed the glass over to me, and nodded. “Yes, but that kind of ‘falling on your sword’ honor went out of style when humans started murdering us every chance they got. Enjoy your drink,” he said, not a little huffy, and moved on to an ugly, oversized humanoid creature with greyish-green skin, and small, black, unintelligent eyes, waving him down at the other end of the bar.
“You’re so fantastic at making new friends,” Odella quipped, as she started to move through the crowd toward the back-right corner, not far from a hallway with a sign stating it was where I could find the restrooms and a payphone, of all things. “Suggesting the man should have killed himself when you got the riddle correct, instead of introducing yourself and asking his name. It’s a wonder we don’t bring more humans around,” she finished bluntly.
My face flamed with embarrassment, and I stole a quick glance over to the Sphinx. He caught my eye, and I gave him my best apologetic grimace, and mouthed ‘Sorry’. He shrugged.
I turned back to follow Odella, and grumbled my irritation at myself, while getting fleeting glances of my co-workers as the crowd shifted away from us.
I love it when you give me an awkward, shameful moment as fodder to replay in your mind, over and over again. You’re too kind, Rational Brain said, and bowed.
Fuck you, I spat back, as the first of many replays of the moment ran through my mind like a movie projector I couldn’t turn off, and shame washed through me like someone flushing crap down a toilet.
Don’t forget, we still have a job to do, Rational Brain said, and played the moment again.
I sighed, and caught sight of a particularly pissed off Celinwel.
Maybe I should have just let the Sphinx eat me.