In the lobby of a rundown apartment complex, a man hands you your room key. The key is crooked and rusty, and is attached to a battered tag reading number 714. As you take it, you catch a whiff of freshly turned earth, and notice that the landlord's hands are covered in dirt.
In the middle of a twisting street, a bespectacled woman stares proudly at a small brick building, paintbrush in her hand. A crude sign by the door drips with orange paint. The woman turns, and the moonlight sparkles in her blue eyes, neither of which have pupils.
In a refuse-filled alley, a hulking, bearded young man vaults over a trashcan as gunshots rip through the air behind him. He ducks behind a dumpster, and a moment later a large gray tomcat slinks away from the scene, blending in with the shadows on the wall.
In an empty parking lot, a sobbing young woman dials number after number on her phone, searching for someone who remembers who she is. Her blue dress is soaked with blood, but she does not seem to notice. Even though she is bathed in moonlight, she casts no shadow on the asphalt around her.
Above all of these moments echoes a forceful, hypnotic aria, drawing you deeper into the heart of the city.
This is Nimue's Bar.
There are many words that could be used to describe the outside of the bar located at the end of Eversion Row, but principal among them would be ugly. It is built out of chipped gray bricks, which are only barely visible beneath a several inch thick layer of graffiti. The graffiti itself has long since overtaken any sort of signage, leaving most patrons unsure as to what the name of the bar actually is. The roof looks as if it could fall in at any second, and noticeably sags in the center. Perhaps most striking is the door, which is made of beautiful polished wood and has an enormous knocker in the shape of a spider built into the front of it. Rather than improving the state of the building, the door looks out of place, as if it was stolen from somewhere much nicer and hastily screwed into the hinges of the bar's open frame. The broken screen door shoved in a nearby garbage bin does little to change this impression.
And yet, the windows of the bar are lit. People pass in and out of it near constantly, and raucous yelling can be heard from inside. Normally, it is difficult to pick out an individual conversation from the multitude. Tonight, however, one is clearly audible above the rest.
“All I'm saying is that the new laws are designed to harm those of us who go hybrid!”
“I know, but there's nothing we can do about it! The Circle isn't exactly known for being merciful.”
From her position behind the bar, Kaia begins cleaning the glass she's been polishing a little bit faster. She tries to block out the conversation of the two shifters, and focuses instead on the sharp antiseptic smell of the rag in her hand. Keeping the bar clean has become something of an obsession for her during these past few years. The lacquered wood surface of the bar is so smooth and dark that it seems to absorb the light that hits it. The bottles behind her are ordered from smallest to largest, and organized within sizes by color, within color by shape, and within shape by brand. At least, assuming Nimue had put things back in their correct places for once. At the moment, the only thing visibly out of order is the enormous gray tomcat curled up on the end of the bar, shedding steadily.
The scuffing of chairs and sound of yelling brings Kaia back to the moment. The two men arguing about shifter rights have gotten up from their table and are circling each other, fists raised. She glances at her watch and sighs. Just another ten minutes and Nimue would have had to deal with this, not her. With exaggerated slowness, she sets the glass she has been polishing down on the bar, loud enough that it makes an audible clink. Most of the patrons do not notice, but the regulars begin edging away from the fight and looking down, as if all of them have suddenly found very interesting things in their drinks. Kaia clears her throat as loudly as she can, but the two brawlers do not acknowledge her, instead continuing to shout threats at one another. Her throat tightens, and she takes a few quick breaths. She can do this.
“Gentlemen,” she says, as loudly as possible, doing her best to sound intimidating. Given the timbre of her voice, this is easier said than done. “There's no fighting in this establishment. Take it outside.” The entire bar looks up at her, save for the pair of angry men. They're barely three feet away, so she knows they can hear her. One of them slams his hand against a table, and Kaia notes that his fingernails have morphed into serrated yellow claws. Kaia looks imploringly at the gray tomcat, but naturally he is still fast sleep. This one is hers to handle. She makes a big show of rolling up her sleeves, and one the regulars actually dives for cover. She's not quite sure how to feel about that, but at least they're out of the way. “I warned you,” she says, raising an arm.
The first man isn't even looking at her when she grabs him by the hair and yanks him toward her. His head hits the bar with a sickening thud, leaving a sizable dent in the wood, and he crumples to the floor. The second manages to turn around, and Kaia hits him in the face as hard as she can. He goes down as well.
The bar is very quiet. All of the regulars go back to their business as if nothing has happened, but many of the other patrons stare openly at her, or begin eyeing the door. Kaia pretends not to notice, and goes back to polishing the glass she was working on. She knows that almost everything she just did was nothing more than theatrics; most shifters are strong enough to shrug off a shotgun blast, provided the shot isn't laced with silver, of course. The two here just happened to have had a lot to drink. She privately hopes her customers do not realize this; she has been trying hard lately to build up a reputation.
To her left, the tomcat's eyelids flick open and it jumps off the bar, transforming mid-leap into a hulking man. He is nearly seven feet tall and sports an enormous gray beard that obscures most of his face. He seems human enough, but his eyes are still the same bright yellow of the tomcat's. “Sorry, K,” he rumbles, scooping up the two brawlers in his massive arms. “Must have fallen asleep. Looks like you took care of things though.”
“Just throw them out, Dirk,” she mutters, flipping him off and examining the dent in the bar. That would be coming out of her paycheck. More important to Kaia is that it looks awful, and utterly ruins the symmetry of the surface. She flashes a glare at Dirk. “You're the bouncer here, why don't you actually do your job next time? You know how much I hate doing that.”
Dirk takes her previous request entirely literally, kicking open the door and bodily flinging both of the men out into the night. “Maybe I should be the bartender, and you should be the bouncer,” he rumbles. “We've been doing this for years; maybe it's time to switch off. Everyone's seen a shifter before, we're not that scary. You, on the other hand...”
Kaia can feel herself redden. “Shut up, Dirk.”
Before Dirk can retort, the door to the bar opens, and a young woman saunters inside. She has thick glasses, and her hair is done up in a tidy bun. Neither of her eyes have pupils, but instead hold deep blue irises, the same color as deep water. “Hello, everyone!” A clamor goes up from the crowd, and several of them wave to her. She greets them all individually, enquiring about their jobs, relationships and families, before approaching the counter. “Hello, K, how's my favorite bartender? Have a good night?”
“Yeah, Nimue, it was just peachy,” Kaia says, allowing Nimue to take her place. “I'm going to bed.”
Nimue puts on an affected pout. “Leaving so soon? Come on, stay and have a drink with me!”
Kaia listens to the room for a moment, taking in the voices around her.
“Who was she?”
“Never seen her before, maybe Nimue just hired her. Not much of a looker, is she?”
“I wouldn't want to cross her.”
“Wait, cross who?”
It's nothing that Kaia hasn't heard a hundred times before, but it gets to her tonight. She glances over at the portrait of employees of the month. Nimue insisted on taking a picture of her best workers and hanging it on the wall to “improve morale,” despite the fact that Kaia and Dirk are the only employees. Kaia remembers being excited when she saw the photograph for the first time; Dirk smiling sheepishly with his arm slung around her, and her glaring at the camera in irritation. She thought that it captured both of their personalities perfectly.
Now, several weeks after being taken, Dirk is unchanged in the picture, but Kaia's profile has devolved into an unrecognizable blur, as if water was dripped on a very specific portion of the photograph. It happens in every photo she appears in, and just like her lack of a shadow it serves as a grim reminder of what she is.
Kaia shoves open the door, and does her best to ignore the open stares of some of their customers. “Sorry. I've got better things to do.”