Sure enough, as they pulled up to the Riftworks, the front hatch was already open. Inside, red emergency lights swung around in their mirrored chambers. Before they even set foot inside, they could hear the automated voice chattering through the distortion of system failure.
“Warning. Riftworks security compromised. All protocols have been disengaged. Specimens may be loose in the facility. Please evacuate through your nearest one-way emergency exit. Thank you, and have a nice day.”
“Listen,” Sylus turned to Jeron, “S-something might go very wrong in here…”
Jeron shook his head.
“I-if it does, I-I need you…” Sylus paused a moment to recollect his thoughts, “I need you to protect Daniel. That’s all. Just make sure my son survives all this.”
“Nonthing’s gonna happen, Sylus…”
“I can’t be so sure…”
They both looked into the chamber and its flurry of red lights.
“I might be going away for a while… m-maybe forever…”
“I mean…” he laughed nervously, “I might come back. But…” he sighed, “But… Look… If I come back, I might not be the me you know…”
Sylus rubbed the back of his neck. “If I go away, I’ll be going to Qaitax.”
“And if I get that far, I probably will come back, but…” his voice started wavering, “But you might not recognize me…”
“What do you mean?”
Sylus shook his head, “Qaitax… H-he promised me something. Something I want. Something I want more than anything else. A-and I already know what you’re thinking. What if Qaitax hijacks my body and comes back. So here, I’ll say this. Maybe he can mimic my memories and answers, but it’ll be the small things… The… small, barely noticeable things, that’ll let you know it’s really me.”
“Just know… That if I come back, looking different, I wanted it. I wanted it with all my heart. A-and I know… It won’t be easy to accept me, but… Please try?”
Jeron laughed, “How different could you be?!”
Sylus cocked his head to one side, “Polar opposite of what I am now.”
“Big fat guy?” Jeron chuckled.
The laughter stopped.
Sylus pursed his lips, “It’s on the table.”
Sylus laughed nervously.
“Sy, you be whatever you need to be. As long as it’s still you, the outside really shouldn’t matter. You have to be who you want to be. Daniel and I? We’ll just get used to it, okay?”
“I was hoping you’d say that…”
“But on that note,” Jeron pulled him close, “You’re not going anywhere today.”
“No promises,” Sylus forced a laugh.
Passing through the external opening, they found the interior hatch had been bashed open by something. It barely stood, dented and crumbled in the hall.
“What the hell could have done that…” Jeron breathed, “One of those monsters?”
Sylus shook his head, “It came from the outside. Nothing escapes the Riftworks, much less tries to get back in…”
“P-prepaaaaare to to to to to beeee sssssanitiiizzzedddd…”
“Oh shit…” Sylus shoved Jeron into the hall, but failed to escape himself before the fine mist burst from the ceiling and walls. Wailing in pain, Sylus crumpled to the floor.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Jeron reached in, yanking him out into the hall. “Sylus?” he fought to catch his breath.
“I-I don’t remember it hurting like that…”
Jeron peered over his shoulder. Light scorch marks dotted his tendril. “Could it be that?”
Sylus looked over his shoulder. “I suppose that’s the one thing that’s changed since I was here last…” he hissed as he tried to move it, “Goddamn it hurts…”
Jeron offered him his arm. Knowing he’d be a fool to try to stand up on his own, Sylus reached out and took hold of it for support. Once he was up, he struggled a moment to catch his balance.
“Sylus…” a remorseful groan came over the intercom, “Oh, dear, Sylus… What have you done…” it faded into a whisper.
Hobbling over to the nearest intercom, Sylus replied, “I-I’m here, Henley. Where do you need me?”
There was a long pause before Henley finally replied, “Observation, if you would be so kind.”
Sylus dialed in the communications directory for Observation before giving his own reply, “On our way.”
Sylus didn’t answer.
“Let’s go.” He took Jeron by the hand and pulled him down the winding halls toward Observation. No lights came from any of the studies or offices along the corridor. Everything was blacked out, save the red lights spinning in the main hall. Every so often, an open window shutter would allow the brilliant violet light of the Rift to shine into the hall. Jeron found himself more than once staring into its swirling abyss.
“Here we are,” Sylus breathed. They found the normally maximum security entrance to Observation completely gaping open. “That’s not normal…” Sylus murmured before turning to Jeron, “I’ll go in. You wait here.”
“No,” Jeron grabbed his wrist, “I’m going with you.”
“Jeron… There are a lot of terrible things that can be in this particular sector…”
Jeron shook his head furiously, “If my Pop’s in there… I-” he released Sylus from his grasp, “I…”
“It’s okay, Jer,” Sylus ran a hand down the side of his face, “Come if you want. I just wanted to see what Henley might have in waiting before he catches us both off guard.”
Jeron gave a slow nod, “I-I understand…” his gaze shifted to the floor, “S-still… M-my pops…”
Squeezing his shoulder, Sylus lead Jeron into the locker-lined hall. They didn’t have far to go before they saw what they’d feared most. In the revolving crimson light of the emergency system they caught glimpses of Henley standing over something in the Pit. His gaze completely locked on whatever it was that was lying at his feet.
“I see…” he muttered, looking up through the window. “How unfortunate…” He looked up to face them, stepping away from the form.
The lights revolved a few more times before what it was became clear to them.
“P-Pops…” Jeron slowly entered the Pit of Observation.
“This should never have happened…” Henley whispered as he slowly moved to Sylus’ side. He reached into his lab coat pocket before slipping something into Sylus’ hand. “He entered with this and somehow fooled biometrics.” Sylus glanced down at the piece of firm plastic that now rested in his hand. “I can assure you with one hundred percent certainty that he was not himself.”
“What do you mean?”
“Poooops…” Jeron dropped to his knees, “Poooooooops…” he sobbed, throwing himself over the body.
“In this moment you have a decision to make,” Henley had almost managed a growl in his usually light and airy tone, “Speak with me, or support your mortal companion in his time of distress. What you do now, will shape your fate.”
Glancing between Henley, with all the answers, and Jeron, his partner in distress, Sylus saw only one viable solution. He knelt down beside Jeron, pressing his hand on his back, making a slow, circular motion.
“I’m so sorry, Jeron…” He breathed into his lover’s ear.
“How…” Jeron wept, “How did he even get in here… Hooooowww….”
“If I may,” Henley took a step forward.
“You…” Jeron rolled his head on his father’s chest to look Henley in the eyes, “You killed him… Didn’t you….” A snarl etched in every inch of his features.
Henley sighed. “I know you mortals well and I know there is no qualifier or justification I may offer to lighten your judgment of me so I will be direct. Yes. I killed your father.”
In an instant, Jeron was on his feet, lunging for Henley’s wiry frame. Sylus stood to stop him, but it was too late. In that same instant, a yellow tendril shot out to intercept his raised fist.
“This is not the road you want to go down, Jeron.”
Jeron’s eyes widened, “H-how do you…”
Henley’s eyes lit with a brilliant golden glow, “I know everything about everyone who ever lived in this small town. I know how you survived my arrival. I know how you’ve lived your life. Trapped under the thumb of an elderly ignorant mortal.”
“SHUT YOUR FUCKING MOUTH!” Jeron bellowed, his fist still in Henley’s grasp.
“I know your childhood. I saw it in your dreams. I saw your mother…”
“YOU FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT!” He lifted his other hand, but it was quickly halted in the same fashion as the other.
“I mean you no harm, Jeron, truly I do not. My war is not against individual mortals, but mortality itself. I have no interest in harming you and I can assure you, I had no interest in harming your father.”
“Then why?!” Jeron sobbed, “Why… He was just an old man…”
“It was unintentional.”
“Like HELL it was!” Jeron shoved his entire body toward Henley.
“I know you have no reason to believe me, but it is the truth. Voidlords have little time for lies, though some of us make a living fabricating them. My lie is grander than you will ever know, but in this minute instance, I gain nothing from bending the truth.”
“V-voidl-lord?” Jeron took a step back as the tendrils released him.
“Hmm, yes… I am surprised you’ve not heard the term before,” Henley turned to Sylus, “That is what you have been cavorting with for so long, Sylus. A voidlord. A dying one. One that is best left in the dark…”
A flash of hesitation shot through Sylus’ gaze.
“I can still stop it,” Henley approached him, arms outstretched. “I can exorcise the demon Qaitax from you. You can be a free mortal once more. Unburdened by the musings and nightmares of a dead god.”
Sylus stepped away, “Not now, Henley. You gave me a choice and I made my decision.” With that, he took Jeron by the shoulders and lead him away from the confrontation.
Henley sighed, shaking his head, “Ever a mortal…”
A small yelping sound came from within the Observation chamber proper.
Once more Henley sighed. “Qessetex, come.”
The creature Sylus had known as Nine, slowly emerged from the chamber. Jeron immediately burst into a scream.
“GET AWAY!” He sobbed, “GET AWAY FROM MY FATHER!”
Nine retreated back into the chamber.
“What the FUCK was that?!” Jeron could barely breathe.
“Jer…” Sylus placed a hand on the taller man’s shoulder, “It’s okay… Nine is okay.”
“Nine?! It has a NAME?!”
“His name is Qessetex, if you must know.” Henley remained standing still behind him. “Funnily enough he once belonged to Lord Qaitax, but upon his betrayal, the spawn took to me for survival. A wise decision…” Henley’s normally rigid exterior gave way to a regretful sag, “He had never been caught, until we came here.” Henley motioned for the creature to approach. “He is a good and loyal beast.”
“Then why the hell do you keep him in a cage and use him to kill others like him?” Sylus snarled.
Henley continued his trend of sighing in response, “I had no choice. If I let the humans do what they wanted, he’d have been destroyed long ago. Your brand of mortal is particularly brutal and I’ve seen my fair share of mortal monstrosities.” Henley looked to the spawn with a grin on his thin lips, “Qessetex.” It raised it’s head, cocking it to one side, “I hereby release you of your thralldom to me.” It cowered into the wall beside Sylus. “Instead, I offer you to Lord Sylus. And ONLY Lord Sylus. Never again will Lord Qaitax lay claim to you.”
Nine looked up to Sylus. Both were in a state of confusion.
“Now, Qessetex, help them remove the body,” Henley motioned to Jeron’s father. “Bring it wherever Lord Sylus commands.”
Jeron screamed at the top of his lungs as Nine’s back unfolded releasing a flurry of tendrils above himself. Inside, where the tendrils had been woven, Sylus saw a brilliant light, much like the energy he’d seen left by the spawns that’d died before.
“Ah, yes,” Henley caught his gaze, “His core.” Sylus turned to him. “No time for lore and backstory, Sylus. You made your decision in this hour. Perhaps another time.” His tendrils faded from sight as he headed out of the chamber. “How about this,” he turned to face Sylus once more, “Should you return, you will have all the answers you could ever want. But in exchange, you will have to make a decision.”
“And what decision will that be?” Sylus replied with a sneer.
“I think you know.” With that, Henley disappeared into the shadows.
Jeron held a piece of shrapnel, pointing it at Nine, screaming at him to leave his father alone.
“Jeron…” Sylus approached him, placing a hand on his white-knuckled fists. “Nine is good. Let him help us. Please…”
“Y-You trust this thhhing? It belonged to Henley… The Henley who MURDERED my father?! Did we forget that already?!”
Nine cowered away from him with a whimper, lowering his tendrils. Jeron slowly lowered his own makeshift weapon.
“I-it’s scared… of me?” he dropped the shrapnel to the floor.
Nine retreated until its back was in a corner. It laid on the floor, covering its head with its mangled, tendril-woven paws.
Want to help…
Sylus could hear the creature crying.
Only want to help… Do as master says… Master says help… Want to help…
“He’s upset, Jeron…”
“And my FATHER is lying dead on the fucking FLOOR, Sylus!”
“Let Nine help us move him. Please. You know we can’t do it alone…”
“F-fine…” Jeron stepped away.
“Maybe? We’ll work that out…”
“Having a nice chat, are we?” Jeron grumbled, mocking Sylus’ accent, “Oh and how about a spot of tea to go along with such pleasant palaver.”
“Jeron…” Sylus motioned with a sideways nod for Nine to retrieve his father. Opening his back up once more, Nine’s tendrils wrapped themselves gently around the corpse.
“BE CAREFUL!” Jeron yelled, almost on the brink of tears.
Like a funeral procession flanking Nine, they made their way out of the Riftworks.
“Pops was right about that place…” Jeron’s voice was breaking, “No good will ever come of it…”