Sylus immediately turned to the forlorn Nine.
“Nine it is. Poor guy can’t seem to catch a break,” Henley laughed morosely as he patted the creature between its ears, “Release the other two, and lead Nine out.”
Sylus did as he was told. After three and seven were free, Henley injected them with something.
“Best to leave this room swiftly,” Henley noticed his lingering, “They’re not so docile when you clear their minds.”
A series of snarls and grunts came from the creatures. Out of fear for his own safety, Sylus lead Nine out of the room. Henley wasn’t far behind him. He lead them into the Observation room proper before opening the hatch to a small, capsule-like chamber.
“Here we are,” he grunted as he lifted Nine, sliding him back legs first into the chamber. He pulled the creature’s head to the front and held it steady as the clear, iris hatch slid closed around its neck.
Unearthly roars came from within the pit. Sylus turned to find the creatures had unfurled their mangled wings and were scratching at the ceiling.
Sylus swallowed hard.
“So here’s how it’s going to work. I’m going to use Nine to control three and seven. My theory suggests that there is a neural connection between these spawns. I believe that in transmitting a neural signal via physical contact, I can use this connection to control them. Watch,” he pointed out the forward window that looked out into the pit.
The agitated spawns darted around the pit trying to find a way out. They shrieked as they scratched at the walls. In an instant, they dropped to the floor on all fours and stared silently at each other.
“Watch,” Henley repeated as Sylus’ gaze remained transfixed.
Horrifyingly guttural snarls came from them. They raised their wings as an act of intimidation. They began circling each other.
“Watch,” Henley whispered as the strange calm turned to violence.
The creatures lunged for each other. Their heads flew open revealing gnashing teeth and flailing tendrils. They ripped and tore at each other’s flesh. Eventually, they came completely undone. An inseparable mass of writhing rage. They wove together and pulled violently apart. Violet blood splattered the walls. Severed tendrils slammed into the Observation window. Unearthly howls echoed in the chamber. In an instant, they collapsed to the floor as one heap of visceral decay. A creaking sigh of anguish echoed in the chamber as the pile became still.
“Stop.” Sylus whispered, his voice caught in his throat. “Stop.” he mustered a bit more strength this time. “Stop, Henley, STOP!” He spun around to find Henley lifting his hand from Nine’s head. Looking back out the window, he found a pile of unrecognizable flesh on the floor. “Oh god…” he gasped, “What the hell did you do?! WHY?!”
“They’re vicious creatures. Created to be apex hunters. Threats to all mortal life. And there are countless numbers of them. The loss of two means nothing to their legion,” Henley pushed Nine back into the chamber, sealing the opening as he withdrew his hand. “But you see, Sylus, they are connected. Which is why I was able to silence that voice inside of you.” Henley finally turned to face him. The remnants of a golden glow shimmering in the corners of his eyes. “I had a hunch it was of the Void and I was correct. That means that I can control it. Silence it. Maybe, in time, remove it. It was through a similar command that I gave to these creatures that I drove it back from your consciousness,” he tapped on the glass door of Nine’s chamber, “I believe I can take complete control of such creatures’ minds. Including the one that seems to be hiding within you.”
A paralyzing fear consumed every inch of Sylus. Every muscles was poised to flee. Every nerve stood on edge. Yet he could not move. He could only stand there. Staring wide-eyed at Henley.
“In time, Sylus,” he smiled as he placed a hand on his shoulder, “In time, I will be able to remove this infestation from your body. I will be able to cure you. And you will be free.”
Sylus gave a stiff, vacant nod as a familiar, wooden feeling filled his hand.
“Now clean this up, if you will,” he smiled as he placed a mop into Sylus’ hands, “Then you can go home and forget this ever happened,” Henley patted him again before making his way out of Observation, “Just remember, Sylus: For the protection and preservation of humanity!”
With the soul-shattering clunk of the door to Observation closing, Sylus was alone. He turned to Nine laying in its chamber, its head pressed flat against the bottom.
“I’m sorry…” he whispered. “I’m… I’m so sorry…”
It did its best to turn away from him in the confines of its cell.
“I’m so sorry…” he whispered to no one as he made his way down to the pit.
It was hard to play his mental game this time. He’d seen these creatures alive just minutes ago and now they were reduced to a pile of bloody tendrils. Still, he did his best to shut his mind off. He had to. He couldn’t let it get to him. As he removed the bulk of the tendrils he found something lying beneath them. Two dimly glowing spheres of what appeared to be swirling energy. He reached out to touch them, but before he could make contact, they dissipated. Shaking all sense of connection away, he finished what he had to do.
As he stepped out of the pit to put his cleaning tools away, he glanced back into the observation room. Nine sat with its head against the glass making a low moaning sound. A sad howl uttered in grievance for the loss of its kin. Sylus resisted the urge to try to comfort the creature. Instead, he turned out the lights and left the ‘Works entirely.
For the first time since this had all began, Sylus was uncertain if he was so truly afraid of the voice inside of him that he’d let Henley rob him of any self-control to remove it. He needed a second opinion, but who could he speak to… The answer became obvious.
Remembering he’d left Daniel with the Miles’ Sylus made his way to the Diner. Apprehension and anxiety welled within him. After this morning, he was afraid they’d never see him the same. What had he become… A heartless, selfish, monstrosity?
I wouldn’t go that far…
“Then how far would you go? Hm? How far? Because I think I’ve gone far enough,” Sylus couldn’t help but snap at himself.
You let them make you do things you don’t want to do. Why?
“Because the alternative is worse,” he spat.
And what is the alternative?
“I lose everything I’ve worked my entire life for.”
I see… The folly of impermanence…
Sylus paused in place. Looking back toward the ‘Works, he knew what he had to do, but he was afraid to do it. He had to see his family one last time, just in case everything went to hell.
Stepping into the Diner, he braced himself for overwhelming rejection.
The door to the kitchen opened slowly. Jeron stood in the doorway for a long moment as he studied the man standing in the entrance.
“Sy?” he took a few slow steps toward him, “Sylus?”
“H-hey, Jeron,” he nervously rubbed the back of his neck.
“SY!” Jeron threw himself over the counter, “Oh god, Sylus…” he wrapped his arms around him, “Oh thank god,” he squeezed him tightly, “You came home.”
“DAD!” Daniel burst through the doors, “DAD!” his voice shook as he wrapped his arms around his father the best he could without pushing Jeron away.
“Boy,” Jeron heard his father summon him from the kitchen door, but he chose to ignore him.
Instead, he pressed his face into Sylus’s neck, “I’m so glad you came back,” he breathed, “Don’t run off like that again. Please…”
“Jeron…” Sylus breathed as he hugged him back, “I’m so sorry…”
Jeron leaned away, kissing Sylus gently on the forehead, “You’re safe here, Sy. You never have to run away… Not for any reason,” he brushed the disheveled hair from Sylus’ eyes. “Please…”
The weight of the day he’d endured finally settled in. His legs gave way as he slid to the floor. Jeron steadied his collapse into a slow lowering.
“There,” he breathed with a smile, “You’re safe now. Let me go get you something to eat.”
Sylus sat staring out at nothing.
“Dad?” Daniel stood before him, “You’re still here, right?”
Sylus’ vision came into focus, “Y-yeah, Dan. I-I’m still here…” he forced a smile as Daniel wrapped his arms around his neck.
“Good,” he wept, “I’m glad.”
Dinner was served at one of the booths. Jeron and his father sat on one side while Sylus and Daniel sat on the other. Sylus remained largely in silence as Mr. Miles’ regaled them with tales of his sordid past. Jeron laughing awkwardly between glances in Sylus’ direction. He wasn’t eating, just pushing his food around on his plate.
Eat, the voice commanded, You must regain your strength.
Once more, for what felt like the millionth time today, Sylus began to weep. It was low and quiet, but he could mostly hide it between bites of food.
“Sy…” Jeron reached across the table, “Hey… It’s okay. You’re home now. It’s okay…”
The weeping became an outright sob as he covered his face with his hands.
“Sy…” Jeron pushed his father out of the booth, “Dan, why don’t you help Dad get some dessert?”
“Boy,” Jeron’s father began.
Jeron turned to him, “Go get desert. Please.”
“Mr. Miles?” Daniel looked up to him, “It’ll only take a minute. We’ll be right back, okay?”
Mr. Miles’ bit his lip as he followed the boy into the kitchen.
Jeron slid into the booth beside Sylus. Pulling his hands away from himself, he pressed his tear-stained face into his chest.
“Shh,” he cooed gently as he rocked them both in place, “Shh… It’s okay, Sy. You’re safe now.”
“I… Saw… I DID… Things…” he gasped, “I don’t want to go back… Please don’t make me…”
“Sylus… No one is forcing you to go back there. In fact, we’ll give you work here. I’ve told you that. You can even stay upstairs! There’s plenty of room. You and Daniel can share the spare bedroom for now. Dad and I’ll figure something out! I promise, Sy. Stay with us. We’ll take care of you. I promise… Sy…”
“But… I have to go back…” he sniffed as he pulled away, “I have to go back one more time…”
“Why?!” Jeron balked, “Why the hell do you have to go back to that hellish place?”
“I-I have…” Sylus deflated in Jeron’s arms, “I have to help someone…”
Jeron furrowed his brows as his hold on Sylus tightened.
“I have to, Jeron. I have to prove to myself that my humanity isn’t completely gone…”
“Oh god, Sy… Your humanity hasn’t gone anywhere. Please… Just forget about that place and whatever’s in there. Forget about it all. Stay here. With us.”
Sylus sobbed uncontrollably into Jeron’s chest. He knew what he wanted. He wanted to stay. But he also knew what he had to do. He had to go back there… He had to try to save Nine. He had to. He couldn’t turn his back on it anymore. The idea that the ‘Works was a place of torture far beyond his blind understanding had long been rattling in the back of his mind. He couldn’t ignore it anymore. He had to go back. He had to free Nine. He had to free all the others, too… Reaching into his pocket, he felt the key to the cages. A pang of hope filled him.
In and out, he thought to himself, nice and quick…
And if you are caught?
“Then at least I tried,” he answered aloud.
“Th-the voice again?” Jeron leaned away, a look of horror was creeping into his eyes.
Sylus shook his head, “Yes… No… Jeron… I don’t… I don’t really know… I mean I do, but… I think… I think it means well…”
“Excuse me?!” Jeron pulled himself away completely, “Means well? After what it did to you? Only just this morning?”
“After what I saw, Jeron… After all of that, yes. I think… I think we’re both in an unwanted situation…”
“Really?” Jeron sighed heavily, “You’re going to give it the benefit of the doubt after it tried to walk you off a cliff?”
Sylus shook his head, “I really don’t think it was the one doing it.”
Jeron scoffed in confusion, “Then who?”
“I-I have an idea…”
“Enlighten me, then!” Jeron bellowed.