Salt Dune Blues
It was excruciatingly bright, and the chill morning air seared her lungs. To her surprise, she tasted the sea as she stood in the heart of a blasted desert landscape.
Shading her eyes with her hand, they were burned by the bright light of day. She breathed in deep, tasting the salty air, and looked around the desert landscape. She did not know where she was exactly, but was clearly near some sort of inland sea, a silver sliver against the otherwise tan and white horizon. Sandy clay and briny dirt clung to her. Behind her was a hole in the ground she had dug as her way out. She looked around, saw a strip of gray behind her, and walked towards it.
By the time she reached the road, a cracked and pockmarked ribbon of asphalt, the sun blazed overhead. Muddy and drenched, she walked north beside it to places unknown. Elianna was as lost as her memory. Without shelter, she could feel herself burn and crack. She walked on, hoping to find somewhere or something to direct her to civilization.
It took hours for anyone to come across her as she marched. A lone gray sedan pulled up next to her and the driver offered her a ride. Weary of this stranger but in need of shelter from the sun and sand, she accepted. She sat in the back behind the vacant passenger seat and carefully unlocked the door as soon as she heard it click and the car moved on. She was not sure why she did it. It felt like the right thing to do. The stranger introduced himself. Her mind was elsewhere, dwelling on the memories she could not grasp. He briefly bantered with her, hoping to elicit some conversation but eventually abandoned all hope. She did not seem interested in his small talk and so they drove north in silence.
The harsh light of day faded as they approached a small, dilapidated town on the edge of the inland sea. It once had a name, but most there just called it home. Elianna asked to pull over and she left the Stranger behind, thankful for his assistance. She stood in the dimming late afternoon and began walking the main street in the hopes of finding some shelter. Some stores and shops had been closed for a long time, others for the evening, but eventually she came across a solitary bar called The Oasis.
This sleepy, little bar at the end of civilization was a local watering hole for the town’s denizens. It had a charm about it. Old, slightly peeling wallpaper of Hawaiian beaches and swaying palms plastered the walls, polka-dotted by pictures of black and white pipelines ridden by athletes long gone. Adverts cracked and brown with age lay on tables showing drinks no longer made by the bartender. As Elianna walked in, she passed beneath two fake palm trees crossed like an archway. Island music gently lulled patrons into a drunken, blissful stupor. The bartender, a kindly orc, looked over at Elianna and smiled.
Hello, the bartender yelled out over the music, take a seat wherever you’d like I’m sure we can find some room for you.
Elianna approached the closest table and sat down. Exhaustion washed over her, cooled down by the cool breeze of the oscillating fan in the far corner. She heard footsteps approaching and she turned her head slightly to see who it was.
Can I get you anything?
Some water, she croaked. She just realized how thirsty she was.
Bartender left and returned a few moments later with a large glass of water for her. There was no ice and it was room temperature.
You’re better off drinking this. Heat stroke is not something to mess with.
Elianna grabbed the glass and began to chug the water. The bartender quickly reached over and separated her from the water, exclaiming, You don’t want to down that water, you might make yourself sick and dehydrate yourself even more.
Thanks. She began sipping intermittently. Where am I?
Where are you? You’re by the Salton Sea. How do you not know where you are?
I don’t know, I got lost in the deserts and just ended up here.
Okay, but how did you end up in the deserts?
Elianna remembered something: people in lab coats, bottles of anesthetics, and a surgery.
I… I’m not sure exactly. I can’t remember much.
By the Gods, I hope you’re okay. Look, if you need a place to stay, you’re more than welcome to use the cot in the back.
Thanks, but I can’t do that without paying you or something.
Help me around the bar tomorrow and I’ll pay you; you can then pay me back if that makes you feel better. Tonight will be on me. Go through the back and hang a right. There’s a shower in there as well. I’m Taryn by the way.
Oh, uh, I am Elianna.
Nice to meet you. Hey, Victor?
A lavender-skinned man with a set of curled, grooved horns jerked awake, clattering the right one against the wall next to him. He rubbed his hand over it and turned to the bartender.
Do you and Mercy have anything y’all wouldn’t mind parting with for our friend here.
He looked over at Elianna, picking between a regular tooth and a fang with a long, clawed fingernail. His eyes went slightly unfocused as he looked on. Hey, the bartender snapped his fingers in front of the horned man, Victor!
What? Victor flinched and shook his head. Right, Taryn, clothing. Yeah, I think we do.
Victor began to stand up but wobbled as he got off of the bar stool to walk to the front door. He stopped, swayed, and turned back around to sit at the bar again.
Can I get the phone?
Taryn chuckled and reached underneath the bar. He pulled up an old rotary phone to Elianna’s surprise. Victor shakily entered a telephone number, the unfamiliar grind and chunk of the dial resetting after each entry cutting through the soft music playing from the old worn out speakers.
Hi, love. Yeah, I’m over at Taryn’s, yeah again. Can you go and grab some clothes--no, I am not that drunk, no, I didn’t spit, NO, it is not for me. I was trying to, but you wouldn’t let me say who it is for, she wandered out of the desert covered in mud and dirt.
Elianna didn’t hear the end of the conversation as she walked through the back door of the bar. The storage area of the bar was stacked full of crates and cases of beer and the walk-in refrigerator had several kegs visible through the small window on the insulated door. She turned right and went into another side room.
The room she entered into was sparsely decorated with an old cot with a dust jacketed mattress being used as storage for different linens and blankets, a side table with a lamp, stacks of old chairs in various states of disrepair, a pile of old signs and picture frames haphazardly rested against the wall. She headed for the shower, turning it on and undressing.
Elianna threw her soiled clothing in a pile by the sink and hopped in the steaming hot water a few moments later. Surprisingly, the hot water did not burn and felt soothing over her skin. She grabbed a bar of soap and began to scrub. Rivulets of brown water splashed against the dingy white porcelain of the basin, streaking through the accumulating dust.
As she cleaned herself, her hands brushed up against her sternum. The memory of the surgery pulsed through her mind like phantom pain as she looked down to see purplish scales growing from the scar. Broad like a leaf and hard as iron, they had grown to cover the left side of her chest and began to spread to her right and down her body.
The bar of soap slipped from her hands as she suddenly felt the foreign growths on her chest, which expanded and contracted rapidly. The steam choked her as her mind went fuzzy. What had they done to her? She pulled against one to see if it would come off. Someone knocked at the door.
She flinched, nearly losing her balance on the sudsy basin floor.
Don’t come in!
Alright, dear, I won’t. Her voice was soft. Just wanted to let you know that there is some clean clothing out here.
Do you need your old clothes cleaned? Are they in there with you?
Umm, yeah, by the door.
She heard the door open, looking over to see a hand reach in to gather the pile of mud-soaked clothing. Her skin was the color of seawater during a storm.
The door closed gently, and Elianna went back to finishing her shower. Towel wrapped around her, she stepped back into an empty room. The cot had been made; the dust jacket slipped beneath it. On it were two white plastic garbage bags filled with clothing. In one bag were assorted underwear, bras, and sleepwear. The other contained a motley of clothing. She scavenged through them until she found enough that fit her. She changed into a pair of sweatpants and a loose-fitting shirt.
A knock came from the door.
Are you decent? It was the same voice from before.
Yes, you can come in.
The woman entered the room. She also had horns but unlike the earlier man, her horns curved like an ‘S’. Her eyes were kind and her smile bittersweet. She wore simple black clothing with a white collar not unlike a frock. She sat on the bed and began to rebag the clothing.
I hope you found something suitable there. The donations have been a bit sparse this last year.
Yes, I am pastor at the local church in town. Pastor Mercy. She extended her hand.
Elianna. Thank you for this.
We don’t have a lot, but we give it where we can. How did you end up in the desert?
I honestly don’t know. My mind is a bit fuzzy on the whole thing.
The sun can do that to you. You’ll be alright with time. Are you staying here for the night?
Yeah, Taryn offered me a chance to work here and pay for room and board.
Sounds like a nice deal. He’s a good person and he will treat you fair. While you are here, please do not hesitate to come to me or Victor. He may not be as devout as I am and drinks like a fish, but he has a generous soul.
Thank you, Mercy. I think I am going to get some rest.
Good night, Elianna, sleep well.
Elianna followed Mercy to the door, locking it behind her, and flipped off the lights. Exhaustion washed over her as she lay down on the cot. It was not the most comfortable bed she had ever slept in, but at least it was not where she was the night before. Sleep did not come to her easily as dreams tore themselves into nightmares. Flashes of white scrubs and bright sparks disoriented her rush down a hellishly lit tunnel. A deep growl echoed from purplish mists flooding behind her. Sharp jingling rattled her mind as the tunnel ended in a wall. The growl turned into a roar as purple mists slammed into her and sent her through the wall as if it were as thin as tissue paper. Spiraling, she fell down a swirling pit of dust, ash, and dirt. Choking and gasping, a reptilian hand, made of the purple mist, roughly caught her as a bright white light blinded her.
She felt trapped and tangled under rough material. Beneath her was a solid surface as she bashed her elbow into it. She opened her eyes and was blinded by the sun blasting through a high window. She flopped down, no longer struggling against the sheets she had dragged from her bed when she fell to the floor. It took her awhile to untangle herself. Exasperated, Elianna slipped on an off-white undershirt of which she was sure that it had not been bought that way, put on a green flannel shirt, and slipped on a pair of faded blue jeans and black ankle socks, and went to look for her shoes. She opened the door to the rest of the bar and saw a pair of brown work boots.
Someone walked through the backdoor as Elianna laced up her boots. Taryn the bartender stopped in the doorway and looked toward her.
Ready to work today?
Sure, what’s my pay?
Taryn thought to himself. Well, how about ten an hour for twelve hours of work?
Seems fair. What am I going to be doing around the bar?
Go ahead and sweep and mop the bar floors, then check the kegs and the cases in back to see how we are doing. After that, you’ll help tend the bar and clean glasses when we officially open. Oh, here’s today’s pay upfront minus tonight’s rent. Taryn handed her a white envelope.
Elianna thumbed through the contents and counted out ninety dollars. Thirty bucks a night?
Hopefully that is agreeable?
Of course. Thank you, Taryn.
Taryn fished an extra ten-dollar bill out of his wallet. Mind getting some donuts from Palmtree Donuts down the road into town? I’ve got some work to do out back before we get started for the day.
Sure, what do you want?
Two crullers? Glazed is just fine. Oh, and do you want any coffee?
Sure, that would be nice.
Okay, see you soon. Taryn turned around and went through the back door.
As it slammed shut behind her, she caused the glimpse of the frame of a house being built. The wood has a worn look to it as if the project had been going on for years. In front of it was a mobile home and a beat-up pickup truck.
Elianna went out the front door of the bar and headed into the town. Finding Palmtree Donuts was pretty easy, as it was one of the busiest places probably for miles around. Victor and Mercy waved hello as they carried out three big boxes of donuts and two coffee urns to their car. Elianna waved back as she got into the line. A few minutes later, she was walking back down the road towards the bar. The sun was warm on her skin as the morning strolled along towards afternoon. A gentle breeze floated past and over the abandoned jungle of dilapidated buildings and rusted out trailers. In the distance, a brass bell jingled, piercing the silence and freezing her heart.
A memory flooded back to her. The shepherd looming silently above her, immobilized in a white surgical room. Brass, in reclaimed scraps of plates, cups, and fixtures, armored and concealed its form. In its hand was a simple wooden crook with a brass bell chiming. It moved gracefully about the room and, despite the pounds and pounds of loose brass hanging off of it, noiselessly. It reached out a hand towards her and, like a cornered animal, purplish mist lashed out to escape.
Elianna’s lungs burned, her legs screaming in protest before she realized she had been sprinting down the side of the street and was now outside the bar. Filled with fear at the mere memory of whatever this brass creature was, she hurried inside. Elianna caught her breath and placed the bag of donuts on the top of the bar. From the back, Taryn pushed through, holding two steaming mugs of coffee. He stopped as he saw Elianna.
Elianna wheezed slightly.Yeah, I’m okay.
You sure don’t look like you are. He set the coffee down next to the donut bag. You’re sweating and out of breath.
Decided to do a bit of jogging on the way back, that’s all. She moved some strands of damn hair off of her face and tucked it behind her ear.
Taryn smirked with concern and turned his head pensively before deciding to stop the questions. Well, jogging is good for the heart, supposedly. What did you get us?
Taryn and Elianna enjoyed the donuts in a comfortable silence before they got to work on cleaning the bar. She spent her morning sweeping and mopping the beer-stained hardwood floors. It was not hard work, but it was strangely nice. For some reason, it reminded her of something, conjuring images of wooded mountains, warm summers, musty cabins, and campfires. The frost of fear that covered her heart earlier thawed from the emotional heat she felt. When lunchtime rolled around, Taryn went out and bought sandwiches from some national chain restaurant.
How much do you remember? Taryn asked between bites of his sandwich.
Honestly, not much. Elianna put down her sandwich. I remember some things but nothing long term.
Really, like amnesia?
I guess. I remember my name, crawling out of the desert and hitching a ride to town. I think I remember a surgery and a memory from my past. Everything else is just blank.
Sounds terrifying. I can’t imagine waking up and not remembering everything. Taryn paused for a moment as he finished chewing. Well, there are some things I wouldn’t mind forgetting.
Elianna looked over at Taryn. What did you do before owning this bar that you wouldn’t mind forgetting?
I was an adventurer. Me and a few friends traveled North America, working for those magical research institutes or some wealthy patron trying to expand their collections.
Oh wow, Taryn! Did you find anything cool?
A few things here and there. We found a legendary frontiersman’s shotgun that supposedly was blessed to smite otherworldly and undead creatures.
That’s cool! Did you ever get to use it?
Once or twice. Ammunition for the blasted thing is damn near impossible to find, since the original gunsmith used a special gauge for the barrel. I know of, like, two people who make it and it costs a damn fortune to do so.
What happened to it?
Taryn laughed. It’s behind the bar.
Taryn, this bar is like something out of a movie. Island-themed bar with a shotgun behind the bar residing in the middle of nowhere.
Sure seems like it. I did win this place in a bet too, if that helps.
No, Elianna laughed, No it doesn’t.
What’s so funny, Taryn? said another voice from behind them.
Standing in the doorway were three young men, the oldest appearing no older than twenty-five. Each of them wore a green hoodie and loose fitting pants. The oldest looking stepped forward.
We’re closed at the moment, do you mind leaving?
Actually, I’ve got an urgent business matter that I need to talk to you about.
Look, whatever business you have, I am not interested. Now get the hell out of my bar, scumbag.
Woah, woah, no need to get so aggressive. The two youngsters moved forward, flanking the oldest and shifting their hands beneath the hoodies. Just hear me out. Did you hear what happened to Grisom’s Hardware two days ago?
Taryn shifted uneasily in his stool.
Of course, we all do. Poor guy’s store nearly burnt to the ground. Lost most of his stock and won’t be able to financially recover. Now, being the good citizens and neighbors that we are, we are offering our special insurance to protect against freak accidents. Most places in town have agreed to our special insurance policy except Grisom, you, and a few others. What do you say, Taryn?
Hey, asshole. Elianna got up from her stool, Get the fuck out of here or we are going to call the cops on your little extortion racket. Where’d you get this dumb idea anyways, a shitty b-list gangster movie?
The man in the green hoodie looked over at Elianna, eyes filled with disdain. Hey, little girl, why don’t you let the men talk and you can go in the back and play with your dolls. The other two men chuckled.
Elianna’s vision went purple as she grabbed the man by the throat. She let out a roar, lifting him into the air by one hand. Behind her, Taryn hopped over the bar and ducked behind it. The man in the green hoodie gasped for air as he tore at Elianna’s hand. The dirty fingernails of the man left no marks against the purple scales that had grown there. Furious at the man, she slammed him through a table, which shattered under the force. The man in the green hoodie’s eyes rolled back into their sockets. The other two men scrambled to draw something from their waistbands.
I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Taryn popped up from behind the bar. Clutched in his hands was a lever action shotgun, it’s barrel and stock sawn off. Get your idiot leader out of here and don’t come back. We might not go so easily on you next time.
The other two men grabbed their unconscious friend and lifted him over their shoulders. You are going to regret this, Taryn. They rushed out of the bar and disappeared. The door of the bar slammed close.
Taryn, what the fuck was that?
A couple of ruffians who have been trying to set up some sort of gang in town. Taryn checked the chamber of the shotgun before sliding it back beneath the bar. Most people just blew them off, but I guess they were the ones behind the fire and that has spooked people into giving into their demands.
Do you think they’ll come back?
After an ass kicking like the one you gave them? Probably not. But…Gods, what happened to your face! Taryn sped around the bar. Elianna felt around her face blindly before coming across two patches of scaly skin like bags under her eyes. And the back of your hand! Are you okay!
Elianna quickly stuffed her hand in her pocket, looked down, and pushed past Taryn. She ran into the bathroom, slamming and locking the door behind her. She moved the hair out of her face to see. Purple oak leaf-shaped scales had grown from beneath the corners of her eyes and a patch had appeared on the back of her hand. She hadn’t felt them grow at all. Undoing her shirt and lifting up the undershirt, the scales had gained more definition and continued like wings across her chest from the scar on her sternum.
Taryn knocked on the door after a little while. Is everything okay in there?
Elianna quickly buttoned her shirt back on as she opened the door. No, but I will be fine.
Come on, Elianna, we both know that’s not true. You can talk to me, we are friends.
She sat on the cot while Taryn brought over a chair. I still can’t remember everything, but I do remember that someone did surgery on me. I don’t know if I wanted it or if it was forced upon me or what, but these scales have been growing on me.
Are you sure that they are because of the surgery? Maybe you had them before or something. Can you remember anything from before?
Not really, I had a memory of spending summers in the wooded mountain, but it was more like a feeling rather than a memory.
Doesn’t really help much since there are a lot of places like that.
I think I should leave.
What, no, why?
Because I don’t know what’s going on with me, I’m growing scales, and I sent somebody through a table.
Oh, well, we can clean that up in no time. It’s just a table, that’s no reason to leave.
Were you even listening? I’m growing fucking scales! Elianna began to pace around the room.
Of course, I am and I understand. You’re scared and that’s fine, but that’s no reason to run away. Stay for a few more days and get your bearings. Maybe you’ll get some memories back that’ll help you figure out what’s happening.
Elianna took a deep breath and sat down. Fine.
Good, now come on, we’ve got a table to clean up. I know a bit of magic that’ll help fix it.
The two managed to fix the table and finish taking stock before the Oasis opened for business. Denizens began to trickle in and out over the next few hours. Victor and Mercy dropped by and brought some dinner to Taryn and Elianna during a lull. Elianna felt truly safe surrounded by her new friends.
Across town, three men in green hoodies grumbled over their slight earlier in the day. They sat in a dingy sports bar. Somewhere, a TV showed a soccer game through blown out speakers.
That fucking bitch, she’s next on my list.
Yeah, I’d like to see you try. She fucking spiked you through the table like it was nothing.
Strength ain’t gonna save her from a fucking bullet.
I don’t know, man, did you see those fucking scales grown on her. Some scary shit.
Whatever, I’ll take those scales once I’m done with her and fucking mount them on my wall like some dragon slayer.
Excuse me, gentlemen. A figure covered head to toe in assorted brass items had snuck up behind the three men in green hoodies. They had a crook adorned with a bell in their hand. May I ask what color these supposed scales are?
The men in the green hoodies shuddered as the figure spoke. They wanted to flee from that awful whispering voice. The oldest spoke up, Umm, they tried to stop themselves but could not. Purple, I think.
Excellent, my good sirs, would you please indulge one more question? No objections, excellent. Where is this person at the moment?
The Oasis, the youngest blurted out. She’s at the Oasis.
Excellent, excellent. You have been so immensely helpful. Please, have drinks on me. Several gold coins clattered on the counter-top as the figure silently slinked out of the bar.
The three men in green hoodies slumped across the counter-top, unconscious. The barkeeper called emergency services when no one could wake them up.
At the Oasis, Elianna was finishing up her shift. It was somewhere close to ten at night. The clocks were not set correctly, and she did not have a watch of her own. Taryn was still at the bar for the next few hours in case one of his customers decided to stick around until close. Taking off her apron as she headed to the back, she could hear Mercy scolding her husband as they left together. Chuckling, she headed into the back room to clean up and go to bed when she heard a brass bell jingle. A purple rage inside of her recoiled. Elianna wanted to run as anxiety grasped her heart.
No armor in the bar, please, Taryn called out.
Elianna forcibly unrooted herself and looked back into the bar. A figure covered head to toe in brass items, holding a crook adorned with a bell, stood in the doorway. The brass bell jingled. She could not see the figure’s eyes, but she could feel them burrow malevolently into her.
Barkeep, I will not be long. I came here for her. Hello, Elianna.
The creature took one step forward noiselessly. Out of the corner of her eye, Elianna saw Taryn reach for the shotgun. The figure must have seen it too. In a flash of bright light, Taryn was thrown against the shelving behind the bar. Bottles shattered and liquid sprayed everywhere as Taryn slid down behind the bar. The figure had barely moved.
Elianna, we missed you so much. It took a step closer. It is time to come home. The figure’s voice reverberated, shadowed by a phantom symphony of discordant voices and instruments. The Daedalus Initiative is not done with you yet, dear child.
Enthralled by the figure’s voice, a memory came crashing through the mist. They had experimented on her, did the surgery on her, implanted her with something. She knew that she couldn’t let herself be captured but not why. The purple rage inside of her swelled up to roar.
No, I would not do that if I were you. From within the brass heap, the figure drew out a wicked curved blade of blackish red metal. Runes and sigils burned a brilliant crimson. I’d much rather take you in alive, Elianna, but the Director will take you dead, if need be.
The purple rage recoiled and retreated from the presence of the blade. It knew no fear except of that accursed sword.
The figure took a step forward. A shotgun blast rang out. The figure was picked up off of its feet and crashed through the front door, disappearing into the darkened streets beyond.
Elianna! Taryn chambered another shell. You have to go! Take these. He handed her the keys to his truck out back as well as the case of shotgun shells. Get the truck running and wait for me.
What, no! This is our chance to run!
This thing isn’t going to go down in one blast.
From outside, the horrific sounds of brass crunching and bending echoed in. Elianna ran out the back door, turning back briefly to see Taryn blocking the path from the figure to her. Leaping down the back steps, stumbling briefly as she landed, Elianna threw open the driver side door of the old pickup and keyed the ignition. It groaned to life. Over the noise engine, two rapid shotgun blasts cracked through the night.
The back of the Oasis blasted apart, sending gouts of flame and clouds of shrapnel across the night sky. Taryn rocketed out of the debris and crunched heavily into the side of the mobile home. The shotgun clattered across the ground. From the fiery inferno of the Oasis, a malformed figure emerged. Its horrible, twisted body was cast in deep shadows, but the brass melted into the flesh glittered. Two arm-like appendages stretched out like wings from its back with brass dangling from them. It had a face but no expression could be seen on it. In the shadow of its torso, something human squiggled and squirmed. It howled in a thousand hoarse voices and screeched in a thousand untuned instruments. Elianna threw open the truck’s door and grabbed the shotgun from the ground. She chambered another shell and pulled the trigger. The monster vanished into the flames as the shotgun rent the darkness in half.
Taryn, she rushed over to the impacted mobile home. Taryn, are you okay!
Taryn did not reply. He was splayed out on the chaotic heap; a visage of determination was forever frozen, cast in sharp relief by the fire, across his face.Elianna sobbed. Tears streamed down her face as she turned back to see the still burning rubble of the Oasis. The figure was nowhere to be seen. She rushed over to the still running pickup truck and drove away into the darkness. Somewhere in the distance, as Elianna drove past speeding fire engines and police cars, a brass bell rang.