Petka was awoken with a start as a loud, angry and prolonged “Squwaaaawk!” which echoed from a room somewhere behind the bar. It was both shriller and deeper than the cadence of a typical songbird (the image it inspired in Petka’s imagination was that of some hideous crow-gone-wrong), and it seemed to drip with a slightly malign and irritated echo.
“Pleasant dreams, Fawcett? Ah, just teasin’ ya. Who amongst us hasn’t passed out from exhaustion?”
The Irishman clapped Petka on the shoulder firmly.
“I haven’t,” said Chaim, then in low spirits added, “But gods, I wish I could…”
“Well, anyway that was just my bird Charon. Almost supper time! She loves guests, but I wouldn’t try to pet her- she’ll take away a thumb- always a thumb…”
Petka just stared cock-eyed at the bald man in front of him. Chaim, very likely and against all reason seemed either drunk or was very sick, as he had many empty pint glasses in front of him, and his eyes fluttered as he swayed on the bar. A paw was placed over his stomach- apparently, too much fermented “unicorn milk” (whatever that really was) had the uncanny ability to render nauseous even something ghostly and incorporeal.
The bar itself, under Petka’s closer inspection was actually a quaint and comfortable little place. A fireplace in the back room provided just the right amount of heat to fight back the chilly breeze from outside. Sizable, circular wooden tables (as devoid of place settings as it was of customers) dotted the blue carpeted floor here and there, and large picture windows in the dining area opened up to provide a magnificent view of the sunset, which had still failed to progress into nighttime. Further, a pot of thick stew, intoxicating in aroma, bubbled in the kitchen to Finnen’s left. The savory scent inspired in Petka a nearly ravenous hunger as he had not eaten much beyond cured, dried provisions obtained from a certain master smokes-man/unsuccessful rent-boy, and the idea of a hot meal that wasn’t charred over a campfire appealed to him in a way it had never before.
The bar, upon which Petka’s rough, long-fingered hands were resting showed it to be quite smooth and well worn, and as previously mentioned was dotted here and there with circular water marks, left over no doubt by some regulars back before they were little more than gnawed bones. In fact, there was one such mark in particular in the dead center that stood out more than any- it was Finnen’s- his own mug of frothy, intoxicating milk was always replaced on that exact spot and very likely had been for years, night after night– a regular institution of a bartender, listening to the clamorous chatter of pleasantly (or otherwise) drunks, while some horror-bird voiced its displeasure from a room somewhere in the back.
Truthfully, it wasn’t hard for Petka to close his eyes, and almost hear the place buzzing with activity- drunken antics of the stooge variety, serious conversations over pints of an unthinkable beverage (perhaps one, in the absence of spirits or beer could warm up to out of pure necessity)- loves kindled by the fireplace, then, upon sobering up, immediately broken in front of the same fireplace– it was almost the ghost of a home, and the three of them (well, four including Charon, the hitherto-unseen avian) were dwelling in the bones of a place once held dear to many, and now held dear especially and only to one.
The soft light of the fire, plus the open, welcoming windows negated the need for any additional light source- it was pleasantly dim, though hardly dark- just dim enough to feel wrapped in a dusky blanket of safety that guarded the rougher countenance of the patrons, and perhaps (though not effectively) the content of their conversations; in Petka’s day dream they drifted in the air, much like a radio signal, from parts unknown, becoming faceless mouths speaking infinitely entertaining gossip out of days long past.
But now the conversation was as dead as the town around him; as dead as Pickle-Finch, the lone, bony arm of the law, and it gave Petka a wistful, rather than depressed feeling– though he could hardly imagine, considering the utterly bizarre circumstances of his current adventure, that this nostalgia would last very long.
What did seem to linger, however, was a heavy scent of cinnamon.
“I know what your thinking -Urk!” said Chaim with much dismay, “It’s this gods-damned beverage Irish keeps feeding me. It smells heavily of cinnamon.”
“How does it taste?” asked Petka, curious.
“Not at all like cinnamon. A lot not like cinnamon -hick-” the ghost wolf made a motion to sweep the numerous mugs off the table, but his arm merely passed through them, eliciting a sigh of disappointment from the queasy belly of the tottering Spirit. “Gods damn it…I can’t even pitch a fit properly.”
“Ah, c’mon now Canid! Remember that good times!” said a jovial Finnen, “Like when ya struck me on the jaw before!”
“Well, that was pretty fun,” Chaim conceded, “May I strike you on the jaw again?”
Here Finnen shook his head in the negative.
“Everybody gets one and one is enough for anybody.”
“Okay, I’m awake, and I think we’re all…mostly intact,” said Fawcett, rubbing his eyes, “Finnen, could you tell me what happened here? I’m on some adventure to find a supposed ‘Crown of Fools’, I get past the ‘jesticle-crazed-stone-ephant’ to find myself wading through through a disturbing pile of bones, then attacked by little lamprey-mouthed gnomes. Perhaps you could enlighten me? Now you and Chaim here are bickering like a married couple, and I’m in a dead town, which seems to exist perpetually in dusk. Am I right so far?”
“I’d never marry McKinnon!” cried Chaim.
“Well I’d never marry you, Canid!”
“Boys, boys!” shouted Petka over the din, “This is not about trans-astral, trans-species, marriage! Just tell me what happened to this place!” Petka, in a rare moment of frustration huffed audibly and smoothed his long, thistle- entangled hair into a rough ponytail.
“Yer, right, yer right,” said Finnen. The Irishman left the bar, went into the kitchen, and brought three bowls of the simmering stew to the bar; Petka tucked into it greedily as if he hadn’t eaten in ages, going through a second, then a third bowl, and finishing off an entire somewhat stale baguette along with it. Chaim, being a spirit didn’t need to eat, but did so out of a rare show of politeness towards Finnen’s culinary efforts, and Finned sipped on his stew with some remarkably uncharacteristic etiquette buried deep within his scarred head. When Petka finally ate his fill (it seems that hunger had momentarily overcame his curiosity), Finnen set out a shot of what he swore was “Foine, foine whiskey”. The three clinked glasses and downed the shots ceremoniously; it was caustic and unrelenting, curling the tongue and bringing a tear to the eye. Chaim was the first one to panic.
“If that was whiskey, it should have gone right through me… it wasn’t… you didn’t!”
“Relax Canid,” said Finnen, executing a dismissive Frenchman’s wave, “You’re right, it is gnome grain alcohol.” Finnen held up the bottle, and sure enough, there was a little hat and pair of boots settled at the bottom of the thin, clear-emerald liquid, “An’ cut me some slack ya cur! I have to work with what I’ve got! I’ve got a cash crop of unicorns, gnomes, and some stored flour! I take you in, ghost-wolf or no, give you drinks on the house to boot-” Finnen spat on the floor, then arranged his thumbs and pointer fingers into a square boxing in Chaim’s haggard face, “Tell me, is this the new face of gratitude? For shame, sir!”
It seemed to Petka that the increasingly insane conversation could have continued on in absolute perpetuity, when Petka said quietly, but remarkably sternly for a man of his normally quiet disposition,“The rumpus is over. Answers, Finnen, would you kindly?”
“A-right, A-right,” muttered Finnen, draining a second glass of gnome-grain whiskey, “Let old Finnen McKinnon tell you a tale o’ love an’ woe; reality turned upside-down, time gettin’ lazy, and a brave soldier and a comely maiden. Anyway, Fawcett, what that elephant said wasn’t completely bunk- this place was intended as a rest- ‘Creighton’s Rest’ to be exact, named after her founder, and it was to be… well a refuge from the world, in a sense. Creighton got to be an expert at gettin’ through the trials that you had braved yerself- brought the elephant dirty magazines, which he apparently favored at least as much as a square shot to the grapes. Brave man was Creighton…Never saw someone quite like him- strange uniform, strange rifle. He an’ his special lady saw this little steppe and decide to settle down here- good choice too, for down the ladder into the canyon is full o’ the undead and it’s always dark.
“Oh, he was forever bringin’ people here- to leave he would sneak through the gnome cave, and kick the elephant in the rear-end, and a few days? (Finnen seemed as unsure of the time as Petka was)… well, some time later he’d have some people in his company- usually some kind of lost in the woods villager, or man on the run- Creighton, oh he could read a good heart- read mine I guess an’ didn’t find it too foul, and that’s how I ended up ‘ere too. Says he fell outter a great war after readin’ some book o’ Ivory an Leaves- like Chaim has.”
“How did you know I had one?” asked a bewildered Chaim.
“Oh, I went through yer stuff while you were unconscious. Relax now, I didn’t take anything.”
“Is nothing sacred anymore?” asked Chaim, massaging his temples.
“Oh, plenty is- but you were a stranger, an’ passed out in me bushes. I wanted to make sure you didn’t have ill intent, or anything cool. Anyway, back to the story. Creighton and his special lady, plus the influx of lost or runners from all over the world an time, it seemed, built up quite a little town ‘ere- pleasant place fer… well, it’s hard to tell time, but for quite a while. Didn’t really rely on the outside fer nothin’… just Creighton bravin’ the trials to see if anybody else needed help. An’ there always were. An’ he always helped, even when it eventually broke him. But… well, here’s how it all started. Creighton wasn’t a tall man, like you Fawcett- eh, he was only an inch or two taller than me, but damn if he didn’t command attention…”