The next morning, he woke up in his bed to the same Mist-stained world he’d come to call his home. For a split second, he was caught off guard by the familiarity. Why? He didn’t know, but the concern was fleeting.
He sat on the edge of his bed, staring out the sliding door watching the tree swaying on the ocean breeze. It was all so calming. So… perfect. He smiled.
As terrible as this place was, it was home. Home was where the heart was and his heart was definitely in La Sombra. It was where his family was. Where his life had finally begun. Where he came to terms with himself as a person rather than a tool of some fickle dying god.
He turned to the tendril that rested on his shoulder. Why did he still have this thing… If he got rid of Qaitax, why would he ever keep such a mutation… Sure it was nice to have, but why would he take this small step and not go all the way? What really stopped him?
Was it truly family, like Jeron said? Or was it fear? A mix? Qaitax never minced words when it came to Sylus’ mortality. He had made it clear early on that at every step, Sylus always had a chance of dying. That was it, wasn’t it? The fear of death and losing everything he’d come to find comfort in. This was his life. He chose this over whatever it was Qaitax had offered him. For a moment, he felt remorseful for what could have been, but the resolve to press on as the meager mortal he was, overcame it.
In reality, things weren’t perfect. He was a mess. A dumpster fire of a human being. Mentally and physically. Yet he had his family. The people who mattered once. The one thing he spent his whole life looking for. He had love. And no amount of void spawns or Voidlords could take that away. The world wasn’t perfect. The situation wasn’t perfect. But life itself? It was. It was perfect.
Sylus sighed with content as he finally found the will to take his gaze off the swaying branches outside. How a tree managed to grow on such a rocky precipice, he didn’t know. But it did. The damn thing did something it shouldn’t have been able to do. It was both majestic and ever so slightly unnerving. Just like life.
“I identify with a cliff willow,” he laughed as he got dressed, “Go me.”
As he made his way down the hall, a strange sense of something missing hit him. He stood, frozen at the top of the short flight of stairs down to the living room. Daniel caught sight of him from the bar.
“How’re you feeling, Dad?”
“Hm?” Sylus turned to his son, the ache of something off still bouncing through his mind, “Oh, I was just…” he looked around until it hit him, “Where’s Nine?”
“Nine?” Daniel replied, obviously confused
“Y-yeah… Nine… The void spawn I stole from Henley? Or rather,” he laughed, “The spawn Henley gave to me.”
Daniel looked around, clearly searching for an answer to a question he had no answer to.
“Dad… We… We don’t have a pet void spawn or whatever… A-are you sure you’re okay?”
Sylus’ mind raced, “When we found Jeron’s dad in the ‘Works… Henley, Huarex… He…”
“That rabid monstrosity that tried to kill us?” Jeron walked into the house, “We killed that thing, Sy. First humans to kill a void spawn. Fuckers aren’t easy to down, but we managed it.”
“N-no… Nine… He… he was friendly…”
“A friendly Void spawn?” Jeron laughed as he put the bags in his arms down in the kitchen, “Boy that downtime really messed with ya, Sy.”
“S-so there’s… no such thing as Nine?”
Jeron and Daniel glanced between themselves before turning to Sylus.
“N-no, Sy. There’s no such thing as Nine. That’s a dumb name for a pet anyway,” Jeron snorted as he began unloading the groceries into the fridge.
“He could talk… That’s why we named him that…”
“Look,” Jeron stood up with a sigh, “I don’t know what was going on while you were out, but clearly you were living some kind of fake life or something. I need you to trust me that this is reality. You’re awake now. It might be weird and uncomfortable, but all of this is in the waking world. It’s all real.”
Sylus stood in place, his gaze shifting between the only two people he’d ever truly loved. Slowly, he came to terms with the state of his reality. Nine was a dream. Saari was a dream. Seeing Qaitax… Being there on Q’taxia… The specters… All a dream… This place, this moment, his family… This was real. Finally.
“No more mind games,” he sighed a breath of relief.
“No more mind games,” Jeron took him into a hug, “You’re free now, Sy.”
“P-perfect?” he stammered over the thought that wasn’t his own.
“Perfect. At least as perfect as things can be in a place plagued by alien monstrosities. But yeah, for what it’s all worth, things are pretty perfect right now,” Jeron smiled before returning to unload his groceries.
“Perfect…” Sylus whispered.
He remained standing in place watching his family perform the mundane task of putting the groceries away. No overly saccharine interactions. No weird sense of it all being wrong. Well, maybe a little, but he knew in time he’d figure out what was real and what wasn’t and all that would just go away.
“Perfect.” he grinned to no one but himself.
“If you’re feeling up to it, you should pop over to the ‘Works,” Jeron spoke with his head in the freezer, “I told them you’re awake and while they’re really, inappropriately excited to talk to you, they know you’re not 100%. So why not just go introduce yourself at least?”
The ‘Works. It felt like a lifetime ago that he was working there. That he stormed the place for Jeron’s father then once again to breach the Rift… But that last part… That never happened, did it? He sighed. The things that felt the most real were fake. What a mess his life had become.
“Not a bad idea,” he resolved, “Think I can just walk over there?”
“Sure!” Jeron leaned out of the fridge, “They know who you are. The place isn’t what it used to be. Security is pretty much just a one-man checkpoint on the way in. His name is Quinton. Nice enough guy.”
The pastor? The doctor? The guard?
“Y-yeah, Sy,” Jeron nodded with mild annoyance, “His name is Quinton. Don’t worry, he’s not my type. Go say hi. I’m sure he’ll be ridiculously excited to meet you.” Jeron laughed, “Poor guy might even piss himself… You’re this weird legendary creature over there. Somewhere between a unicorn and a kraken. Mystical and yet not entirely liked. Quinton seems to like the idea of you though. So at the very least, go meet him.”
“Quinton…” Sylus repeated the name. “Huh…” Something about it set off a flurry of alarms, yet he couldn’t be certain any of them were valid. With a shrug, he waved to his family before heading out the door.
The ‘Works wasn’t far from his house and at a glance, it was far from what he remembered. Still a ring around a violet light, but it seemed far more intact than he recalled it being. He could have sworn Henley had wrecked the place… How could they have fixed it that quickly? How long had he been out?
With every step he took, his fear and anxiety mounted. What if they arrested him? What if they killed him? What if, even worse, they… they… Observed him… That part had to be true… That Henley was blowing up void spawns “for science”. Right? Henley was evil. 100% pure evil… That… That was true… It had to be… Right?
A low brick wall had been built around the front of the ‘Works towards the street. There was an arch in the middle blocked by a barred gate. A small guardhouse sat to the left. A rather uninterested, nearly asleep young man sat behind the window
The young man sat up abruptly almost throwing himself off his chair.
“Sylus!” he shrieked, “Finally!”
Sylus looked around nervously.
“D-do I know you?”
“Hmm, yes, well in a way? I’ve been waiting for you!” the man stepped out.
“Come! Come with me!” he took Sylus by the wrist, “Let’s get this over with.”
“Woah woah woah!” Sylus pulled his hand away, “Get what over with?”
“Waking you up, Sylus. You’re not awake yet…“
The man’s eyes turned a brilliant shade of purple, but the real giveaway was the four-pointed stars he had of irises.
“Q-Qaitax?!” Sylus stepped back.
“I’ve been sitting here, waiting for you… Waiting for that one time you’d show up alone. Sylus, this isn’t real…”
His mind quickly returned to what Jeron had said. That he chose family over Qaitax. That was the truth. If this was truly Qaitax and not some breaking-point episode, then this was some pathetic attempt to win him over again.
“Go away, Qaitax. I know what I did. I chose life over risking everything for you.”
“N-no you didn’t,” the man wrang his hands together, “You’re dying. Very quickly. I don’t know how much longer I can forestall the inevitable. If you don’t wake up, it’s all over… For both of us.”
GO AWAY QAITAX!
“Sylus please… Please!” the guard took Sylus by the shoulders, “Your family! Your family is waiting for you! I know they are! Please Sylus!” Qaitax shook him furiously, “Take this! Please! Remember Sylus! Remember that time is running out! Time! Time is… Is… Oh… Oh no…”
The guard seemed to dissipate into a cloud of violet sparks before reforming in front of him.
“Well hello there, Mr. Synclaire! Welcome to the new and improved Riftworks! We’ve been waiting for ya!” He sounded completely different.
“Q-Qaitax?” his voice sounded pleasantly gruff, but he figured that was to be expected from all the stress he was under.
The guard thought a moment, “Oh right! The Voidlord! Jeron mentioned that name, but nah, that’s no me. Name’s Quinton. Private Quinton. Been here from the start yet all they do is keep me in my box… Speaking of… What am I doing outside it?” with a scoff he walked back into the guardhouse. “Here, lemme let you in. You’re technically allowed to go anywhere you want, but you should probably see Sergeant Steiner. He’s been, well, awfully eager to meet you.”
Steiner… Steiner… Steiner… Why does that sound… familiar… in… a bad way…
“Good eager or…”
Quinton chuckled, “If I was you, I’d keep a close eye on that Void growth of yours,” he pointed to Sylus’ tendril, “He’s not very fond of Void things, but hey! Could be different with you since you’re, you know, still human and all that.”
Sylus chuckled to himself.
“Y’are still human, ain’tcha?”
Sylus shrugged, “As far as I know. Just a bit of staining, but that should go away after a while, right?”
Quinton laughed, “I don’t know anything about all this so I’ll leave that diagnosis to the professionals.”
There was a short pause as Quinton did something on his computer. Once he was complete, he slid a card out from under the window.
“This’ll be your temporary access card.”
Sylus picked it up and stared at it.
“I-I think… There’s something wrong with this…”
“Hm?” Quinton motioned for him to hand it back, “What seems to be the problem?”
“The photo… That… That’s not me.”
Quinton looked between him and the card, “Well I see no difference and I just took the pic. Sorry for not warnin’ ya. People always get weird when I give ’em a headsup a photo’s commin. They never look good. I prefer the candid approach, but if you’d like to do it again and smile this time…”
“N-no I mean…” Sylus sighed heavily, “I physically don’t look like that,” he laughed, “I wish I did, but I don’t…”
Quinton’s light confusion turned to something a bit more concerning.
“Well, uh… if you’d like, you can come in and see what the camera’s seeing. Because I… I really don’t see a difference…”
Sylus thought a moment. Qaitax…
“Yeah, lemme take a look…”
Quinton swung the door open. Sylus… Couldn’t fit through the narrow doorway.
“Yeah, you’re a bit big to get in. They made the door really tiny. I mean Imma small guy, but it’s kinda ridiculous how small they made this dang hut…”
Quinton turned a monitor to him. “Downright ginormous if you were to ask me.”
Sylus stared at the monitor. It was him. Not… Not the him who woke up this morning, but the him he wanted to be… How… How could that have happened… Qaitax was never able to do anything remotely unless…
Quinton caught him zoning out, “Sorry if I said the wrong thing. I don’t mean to fat shame or anythin’. But yure too big to get in here. That’s okay though! You are what you are and as long as you’re happy and not hurtin’ anyone, who’s little ol’ me to say anything.”
Sylus’ gaze snapped to Quinton’s.
“Take me to the Rift.”
“Well, I-I would, but… I don’t have access to the center. You really would need to talk to Sergeant Steiner for that.”
“Alright then, let me speak to Qaitax.”
Quinton recoiled. “H-hey, man, I told ya. I’m not Qaitax…”
Sylus reached into the tiny guard room, taking Quinton by his collar. “You were a minute ago.” He snarled, “Bring him back.”
“Look, sir, I don’t know what’s going on… I have never met Qaitax… I only know about him from the stories Jeron told me and he didn’t seem to know him all that well either.”
Sylus shoved him into the far wall before stepping out into the street.
“QAITAX!” he bellowed to the sky, “IF I’M REALLY DYING AND YOU CAN SHOW YOUR FACE HERE, WAKE ME THE FUCK UP!”
There was a long, anxiety-laden silence. All the while, Quinton was slamming his finger into a button on his console.
“You know… You know what?” Sylus pressed himself against the guardhouse, “It’s funny. I know you, Quinton. You were a pastor. Then a doctor. Now you’re a guard?”
Quinton laughed nervously, still pressing his button.
“No… You’re not… You’re none of those things… You’re Qaitax, aren’t you?”
Quinton laughed again, this time tears were running down his cheek, “I’d really like to not die, sir.”
“You won’t die, just bring Qaitax back.”
“I don’t know what the hell you mean!” Quinton sobbed, “Leave me alone! Please!”
“Alright… Alright…” Sylus stepped back with his hands in the air. Clearing his throat he started yelling again, “SO WHO’S THE NEW VOICE IN MY HEAD?!”
“You! Yes, you! Don’t think I haven’t noticed!”
How are you conscious of me…
“Where’s Qaitax?” he snarled.
Still, agonizing silence.
“Allow me to repeat myself: WHERE THE FUCK IS QAITAX?!”
We… I… Time to start over…
“Fuck you! No more starting over!”
Painful darkness slowly crept over his vision. “God fucking DAMMIT!”
Sylus couldn’t fight it. As hard as he tried to remain in the moment, to stay present and aware, it didn’t help. He knew what was going to happen. All at once, he was fully aware of what had been happening. No. He couldn’t lose himself again… Not again…