The Hills of Adelanto Are Covered In A Cinnabar Green
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The cold metal burns against Mirage's temple. Afraid to turn his head, he cannot determine the nature of his ambusher, as the edge of his hood blocks them from view. He flexes the hand grasping a crowbar.

"Don't even think about it," commands a gruff woman's voice. "I'll blow yer brains right out!"

"Look, just tell me what you want or shoot me. We ain't got time to stand here forever," he says, nervously glancing at the canopy above that shifts and rattles without wind.

"Tell me what you coming to Adelanto for? We ain't seen a stranger 'round here in… well, ever!"

"I'm just passing through. Not looking to cause any trouble."

"Hrm." A few seconds of silence pass in standstill. Only a low, distant humming echoes through the clearing. The woman pushes the barrel of her gun more strongly against his head. "Why am I even on the fence about this? I should kill ya just in case!"

A sharp click pierces Mirage's ear as the woman pulls the hammer of her gun back. The humming is now clearly audible.

"Wait, shit, wait! What is that sound?" he asks frantically, desperately trying to extend the prognosis of lethal lead poisoning.

"What sound?" A wave of shimmering air passes between a line of trees.

"That," Mirage says and points, as a flock of floating hot irons emerge from the treeline, their plugs whipping in the air and their metal sizzling aggressively.

"Fuck! It's the Wardens!" the woman shouts as she lowers her gun and takes off in a sprint in a direction opposite to the flying home appliances. Mirage swiftly follows.

Used to a steadier environment, Mirage finds navigating through the thick vegetation to be difficult. Constantly tripping on roots and barging into prickly bushes, he looks much like a seal out of water, stumbling through and swinging wildly with his crowbar. Meanwhile the woman has unsheathed a machete, cleaving her way into the forest as she jumps off rocks and strides through the wilderness.

"Hey, wait for me!" shouts a frantic Mirage doing his best to keep up, the heat of the irons nearly singing the pin feathers at the back of his neck.

One of the metal abominations circles around and emerges from behind a tree, causing Mirage to nearly ram his face into the steaming metal plate. He backs up, but has to take another step forward as he finds himself surrounded. The air shimmers, and Mirage starts to feel much like an egg yolk on a frying pan. A fry, apt with the previous analogy, escapes his cloak and skin as an iron presses into his arm. The sizzling is drowned out by a scream as Mirage's skin bubbles and blackens.

iron

Just as the machines are about to iron out the wrinkle in the world known as Mirage, the woman from before emerges from behind. She tic-tacs from the trunk of one tree to another, before sending herself flying forwards with a powerful kick, bringing her machete down on a hot iron as metal crumples and sparks fly. Another separates from the pack, set on avenging the expiration of its friend. The woman promptly thrusts the sword forwards and through the brave creature. Mirage flinches as the tip of a blade, dripping with oil, emerges from the other side, only inches from his face. The rest of the irons let out a high-pitched whir as they scatter, recognizing that they have been bested.

"You came… back?" Mirage says in a soft voice, eyes wide.

"Getting ironed out is an awful way to go. Couldn't let ya just be picked out like that. And maybe we survivors.. should be lookin' out for one 'nother. You better not make me regret this though, or you're next to get skewered." She points her blade at the metallic heap on the ground. Mirage gulps.

"C'mon now, we need to get going b'fore those things come back with their friends." The woman turns and dashes into the wilderness, intentionally slowing her pace to let Mirage follow her.

Traveling through the thicket is slow, progress hindered by tripping on roots, getting caught on branches and animated vines that attempt to sink their barbs into anything that passes by. Despite their pace, they make it through with relatively few problems. There is the occasional band of patrolling hot irons, a few walking trees, and a strange, glowing plant that uses it light to paralyze and devour still-living animals, but the pair manage to go unnoticed by hiding in the underbrush.

Eventually, a series of buildings, surrounded by a wooden makeshift fence, peak from behind trees. The pipe of a rifle sticks from between two logs.

"Who goes there?" shouts a muffled voice.

"It's me, Bertha. I found an outsider," the woman responds.

"Dangerous?"

"Highly unlikely." Bertha smiles, as Mirage narrows his eyes.

"Open the doors!" A crack appears in the wall, as the doors boom open, revealing a courtyard between buildings, on which people of all ages are walking about, going about their day as if the world had never ended.

"How many of you are there?" Mirage asks flabbergasted as he follows Bertha in.

"About 600. We're the biggest settlement in California. Or at least I think we are, I don't actually know." Bertha leads Mirage through the courtyard, past the various stalls and people, and into the heart of the city. "The place was founded long 'fore I arrived, so I can't tell ya too much 'bout it, but ask around and ya might find something."

"I see." Now that the adrenaline had worn off, Mirage took a look down at his singed arm. The burn had gone straight through his cloth wrappings and had taken a good chunk of his skin off. It was starting to sting, but didn't hurt as much as Mirage thought it should. Either he was still in shock, or the amount of times his body had been mutated by the anomalous meant that his pain receptors weren't quite what they once were. He did scream earlier, didn't he? Well, either way, he needed to get it treated.

"This way." Bertha's voiced pulled him out of his thoughts. He had kept going down the path they were following, completely missing that she had turned into an alleyway. He swung himself around and followed her, eventually ending up in one of the buildings.

It was cool and dark inside the warehouse, a welcome relief from the hot desert sun that had been searing down on them all afternoon. It smelled damp, and Mirage could see water dripping from the ceiling. Along the walls were makeshift beds, some occupied, some not, and in the various corners were piles of medical supplies. This must be their hospital. Bertha lead him to one of the unoccupied beds, sitting him down before beginning to address his injury.

"You're uh. One of the doctors here?" Mirage asked, trying his best to make small talk. He assumed that the nicer he was, the better treatment he would hopefully get, especially since he didn't know these folks too well.

"Sure am. Was a doctor 'fore all this happened too. Worked at one of the big hospitals over in NorCal." She pulled off Mirage's glove, then began unwrapping his arm. "Not that the knowledge means much anymore, y'know, anomalous injuries don't behave the same. Never were taught how to deal with those sorts of things."

arm

"Guess I'm lucky I got a normal ol' burn then." Mirage winced slightly as the last of the cloth wrappings were pulled off his arm. He felt Bertha pause, not saying or doing anything, so he looked over to see what the problem was. Ah. Right. Even he had forgot. The hair follicles on his arms had stopped producing hair, and now produced what could best be compared to as pin feathers. A few near his elbow were closer to becoming fully fledged feathers, but they were an ugly off-white color, so Mirage had opted to wrap them up and keep them hidden.

"Hrm. Yer uh, feathers here, probably aren't gonna grow back." There wasn't any judgement in Bertha's tone, but there was a slight hesitance. While it was true that regular old humans weren't the norm anymore, getting used to that fact was a different story altogether. Mirage pulled his hood tighter across his face.

"That's fine." His tone was curt. Bertha shifted awkwardly before going to grab some ointment.

"You said you were just passing through?" She asked as she came back, gingerly applying whatever the ointment was to Mirage's arm. Mirage nodded.

"I heard there was a Way here - a portal to the Wanderers' Library. I don't mean to stay any longer than I need to, I have business to attend to there. That's all." Mirage debated over whether or not he wanted to talk about his grand plan to paint the world's best painting, but ended up deciding not to. The world would know of his art once again, but not yet. Share his ideas too soon with his audience and someone may take said ideas from him.

"You're going to the Library?" Bertha opened her mouth to say more, but hesitated. "Could - could yah do me a favor? Look - I'm sorry about earlier, y'know, the whole gun thing is just a precaution. We don't get many visitors as I said - and look! I'm treating the wound yah got here. For free. No charge. I just-"

"What's the favor?" Mirage cut in, not wanting to owe Bertha anything. He knew how deals work. The sooner he could get this sorted out, the better.

"Could yah look for my son while you're there?"

"Your son? He's not with you here?"

"No. I - I came here to look for him." Bertha paused again, wrapping up Mirage's arm with a cool compress and pulling it tight. "He loved to travel, go on road-trips and hiking and just generally explore the unknown. Last I heard from him he was around here, looking for something strange that had been spotted out in the desert."

"What's he look like?" Mirage asked, a sinking feeling beginning to form within his chest.

"His name is Michael." Bertha continued speaking, but Mirage had tuned her out, thinking about the corpse he had found in the desert near his art piece. He had killed this woman's son. He had destroyed this person's family. She would never learn what happened to her child. Well, she could, Mirage could tell her right now, as she helped him. Helped the murderer of her son. No. No no no. He'd been over this. The son got himself killed, he was stupid enough to fall for Mirage's art piece. That's all this was.

It wasn't his fault.

"That should be everything." Bertha lightly patted Mirage's arm. It did feel better. Mirage couldn't meet her gaze.

"I'll uhm. Keep an eye out for him. Tell him you're here." Mirage stared at the floor, watching the drops of water fall from the ceiling and collect into a large puddle in the middle of the floor.

"Thank you so much. I was such a stupid mother - trusting him to be alone like that - but how was I supposed to know the world would go to shit? Funny how long it's been since then, y'know? But I guess that's what happens when all of the West Coast is put under a time anomaly."

"Right. Yeah. Haha." Mirage cleared his throat, ready to get out of here. "Where is uh, where is the Way?"

"The Way? Hrm. It's on the North side of town, at the end of the main road. Can't miss it, as it's in the oldest building in town. We don't know much about it, as folks stopped trying to use it awhile ago, but we're pretty sure it has somethin' to do with time." Bertha watched as Mirage stood, brushing off his cloak and covering the bandages with his old cloth wrappings.

"Thanks for uh, everything."

"No, thank you." Mirage caught Bertha's gaze as he walked out, and his heart broke as she smiled at him. He pulled his cloak closer and rushed out, ready to forget about this town and all its inhabitants.

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Despite the decrepit appearance of the building, it was still standing, sheltered between two large redwood trees on either side. Well, maybe standing wasn't quite the right term. The building had half sunk into the pink desert sands, making what was once a tall skyscraper nothing more than a short stub sticking out of the dirt. Mirage carefully stepped through the gaping hole that was once a window, watching to make sure his cloak didn't snag on any remaining shards of glass. He'd have to be wary in order to not disturb whatever was still living here, if anything, as the welcome he was given upon arriving to Adelanto was not the kindest.

Upon entering the building, Mirage was hit with the smell of dry-rot and animal feces. He pulled his hood tight around his face, stepping over the mysterious piles of goo that were scattered among the floor. The air felt heavy, and incredibly still, as Mirage's footsteps disturbing the piles of dust were probably the first action this building had scene in years. That was odd - a sheltered building like this, despite the mold and the mess, would be a perfect home for the Strange or a desperate survivor. What had stopped something from living here?

Mirage pushed his way past boxes with faded fragile and handle with care stickers. Whatever room he had stepped into appeared to be an apartment, or perhaps a dorm room of some kind. The moving boxes laid scattered about, as if someone had started to move in, but had never finished. Answers to where the Way was were not here, there was only a heavy sadness that came with abandonment. He made his way out of the room, and into the hall.

Mirage could feel himself being gently tugged at, as he saw a light flickering from down the hallway. It was calling him over, asking him to come examine it. He did so, but pulled out his crowbar to be ready for whatever may face him. The hallway opened up into a main lobby, and the shimmering light revealed itself to be the interior light of an elevator car. Mirage slowly lowered his crowbar as he examined the lift.

button

The elevator door was open, and on the floor of the lift were various piles of stuff. A set of candles, hourglasses, and pocket-watches, alongside things such as gold coins, a bucket of sand, and a dead mouse. The elevator itself only had one button on its panel, and neatly printed onto said button was an inscription of an hourglass shape, or perhaps a very stylized and pointy eight. Well, this must be the Way, as the locals did say it had to do something with time.

Upon looking closer at the piles of stuff, Mirage realized most were in sets of eight, or had something to do with the passage of time. Well, given the button, that would be the obvious answer. Mirage gingerly stepped into the elevator and pressed the button.

Nothing.

Okay, well, yeah, maybe that would be a bit too easy. Mirage let out a sigh of frustration. So what the hell could the Knock be then?

Mirage stepped out of the elevator and looked at the piles of stuff again, then at the button. An hourglass. Time. If not a literal representation of time, perhaps maybe the passage of time instead? Mirage knelt down and flipped all the hourglasses over, before taking out his lighter and lighting the candles. He picked up one of the watches and tried to wind it, only to find it's batteries were dead. Oh well, hopefully the other two would be enough. He stood up again, stepped in the elevator, and pressed the button.

Nothing.

Okay. What about the other odd items? Gold coins to what, bribe the elevator with? Sand to refill the hourglasses? And a dead mouse. The mouse might've just died in the elevator from other causes, so Mirage scratched that off his mental list. He instead knelt down and stuck his hand in the sand, digging around to see if it had anything in it. Nope. That just left the coins, which Mirage grabbed and flipped over in his hands. They appeared new compared to the other stuff in the elevator, and the year printed on them confirmed that -2100. Who was still making coins, Mirage had no idea, but here they were, younger than he was.

Hmm. Another thing about gold was that it didn't tarnish - Mirage could recall the lion god talking about that once, how his golden pelt would never rust. So maybe if the Knock wasn't about the literal passage of time, or the effects time had on an object, perhaps it was more metaphorical? Something that could withstand the sands of time? Wouldn't the coins have done that though - no, perhaps they weren't old enough. Hell, that meant Mirage wasn't old enough, either. What about-

The Nokia phone he took from that kid. That thing had to be ancient, pre 21st century. It was in his pocket, right? Mirage dug around and pulled it out, turning it on. Damn thing still worked. Wait, if it had been in his pocket all this time, why hadn't the Way worked? Did he have to offer it to the elevator? Mirage set the phone down in the center of the room.

"Hey. Elevator. Way. Knock Knock. Here's an old phone." Hell, he was going to look like such a fool if this didn't work. "Has withstood the passage of time for who knows how long, but a long time for sure, yeah?" He tapped the phone with his foot. "You can uh, have it."

Great, was that it? Mirage took a breath before pressing the the hourglass button. After a tense second, the button lit up, and the elevator chimed at him.

"Doors are now closing. Heading to: the Library floor." A mechanical voice chirped at him before the door began to slide shut. Mirage let out a sigh of relief.

"Time to go check out some books."

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