“Alright,” Jeron dropped an armful of bandages on the floor, “Let’s take a look.” He pulled a stool around from the far side of the bedside table.
Sylus slowly pulled the blankets back.
“No blood. That’s better than the last time.”
“So we don’t have to change it right?”
“Nah,” Jeron reached for a pair of scissors, “Aria’s coming and I don’t want her to think we haven’t been taking care of you.”
As he moved to begin cutting the bandages away, Sylus grabbed his wrist.
“You’ve done enough, Jeron. Aria’ll know you’ve done everything she asked you to.”
Jeron stared into his eyes. They weren’t exactly human anymore, but they weren’t entirely upsetting. Sylus’ eyes were completely violet with a small bead of a paler shade that wandered across their surface. It’d taken him a while to realize the tiny dot was an indication of where he was actually looking since his eyes didn’t visibly move anymore. He was sure they moved, but since there was no obvious iris to sclera variation, they looked stagnant as if the blip was all that moved across a still surface. It was weird at first, but he’d gotten used to it.
“Jeron… Please. Stop. Just… Take a break, okay?”
Jeron sat back.
“Sy…” he rubbed the back of his neck.
“Stop doing that,” Sylus grabbed his other hand, “You’ll chafe your skin bare.”
They were staring at each other again. Something in Jeron wanted to close the gap to see if he still kissed the same, but… He sighed as Sylus released him. There was still too much that needed to be said.
“We can talk, if you want,” Sylus chuckled, “I know you’ve had a lot biting at the tip of your tongue. Some of which,” he sighed, “I’m sure is scathing.”
Jeron shook his head, “I got most of the scathing out already.”
“You sure about that? You look like there’s a mountain more of it rattling around inside you.”
Jeron stared at him.
“What do you see?” Sylus whispered.
“Answer honestly, Jeron.”
Jeron bowed his head, “I-I don’t know…”
“You do, Jeron. You do. You know your feelings. Tell me. When you look at me, what do you see?”
“Don’t put me on the spot like this, Sy,” he stood up.
“Please,” Sylus nearly lunged out of the bed as he took hold of Jeron’s arm, “Answer me.”
Jeron stared at him. What did he see? A dream is one thing, but reality? What was he looking at? Who was he looking at? A battered man with dark sunken alien eyes. Bruised fingers, black and blue lips, pale, death-like skin… Who was this person? He knew and yet… he didn’t…
“I don’t know, Sy…”
“Why are you calling me that?”
“Why are you calling me Sy if you don’t know who I am?”
An all too familiar choking sensation filled his chest.
“I… I don’t…”
“Please, Jeron… Just… Tell me the truth. What do you think when you see me?”
Jeron closed his eyes tightly, forcing back a wave of emotion.
“I… I don’t…”
Sylus released him.
“Maybe later,” he smiled before closing his eyes.
Jeron stood there staring at him. He really didn’t know what he was seeing or how he was feeling. He’d kept himself numb and refused to really think about the situation. He didn’t want to end up spiraling down into despair trying to come up with the answers he needed. He had his thoughts and questions, but he forced them back so far just to get through this week that he didn’t know if he had the strength to bring them back up.
He had no idea how long he had been standing there before his phone buzzed in his pocket. Shocked back into the present, he pulled the device from his pocket. It was Aria. She was ready to be picked up.
“I-I have to go get Aria…”
Sylus took a deep breath, “Drive safe.”
There was a word that almost followed, but Sylus managed to cut himself off. Jeron still heard it even though it had gone unsaid. It shot through his heart and lit his soul on fire. Feelings he didn’t know he still had begun to surface along with a strong sense of bewilderment. Where could he go from here? What could he say? He had an answer that he knew wasn’t good enough, but he had to say something. The truth. It was all he had to offer.
“I see you, Sy.”
A smile crossed his pale lips.
With a smile of his own, Jeron left the room.
“Dan, Saari,” he spoke as he made his way through the living room, “I’m going to pick Aria up.”
Saari and Daniel turned on their stools.
“Daniel is teaching me how to read,” Saari announced.
Jeron paused a moment.
Saari nodded. “We are learning what colors I can see and he is teaching me words. I have never read words before!”
“Huh…” Jeron took his keys before heading out the door.
“Do you think I upset him?”
“Jeron? Nah,” Daniel turned back around, “He can be a bit weird sometimes, but he’s not bothered by much.”
“I just thought he would like to know I am trying to learn his culture…”
“You really don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I know you just got here and feel like you have to justify yourself, but you don’t. We’re all lost and confused here. It’s okay.”
Saari slouched on her stool.
“I want to be of value… To be useful…”
“Saari, I’m not useful but I’m still here.”
“You most certainly are useful. You are teaching me how to read. That is a very difficult thing to do.”
“Yeah but what if I wasn’t? Would you think I shouldn’t be here just because I wasn’t doing something you thought was useful?”
Saari thought a moment. “You are Sylus’ son. You belong here. No matter what you do.”
Daniel nodded. “And you’re Qaitax’s daughter. You belong here too. So relax. You don’t have to be useful all the time. Just don’t turn on us and we’re cool.”
There was a moment of silence as Daniel sorted his colored pencil collection.
“I am simply used to always having something to do…”
“Well, what did you do on Q’taxia?”
“I cared for Lord Qaitax.”
“I carved crystals in my spare time, but that was not often.”
“Ooo what did you carve?”
“Whatever felt pleasant to the touch. Lord Qaitax he…” she took a deep breath, “He praised my skill but I am certain I did nothing more than give vague shape to rocks.”
“I think that’s just what dads do,” Daniel doodled a bit on a sheet of paper, “My dad’s always praised my drawings even when they weren’t very good.”
“Lord Qaitax he… is not my… dad. N-not like Sylus is to you. Lord Qaitax is my guardian, but…”
“Saari. If he praises your cruddy art, he’s your dad.” Daniel slid off his stool, “That’s what dads do.”
“Did you have a mom?”
“Yeah. A maternal parent?”
“Oh, well… Q’taxians do not have the same gender system as humans. So perhaps the question does not translate…”
“Oh? Okay. What’s it like there?”
“It is complicated and rooted in archaic traditions…”
“Well now I’m even more curious.”
“We had two… genders. We call them glass and ashen. When they bind themselves in the eyes of the Brotherhood they are granted permission to reproduce which basically means the ashen is given permission to trigger the gestation process in the glass. The glass must then consult the census to decide the orientation of the child. The more Q’taxians drifted from unified genetics, the more ambiguous our reproduction methods became. It only mattered that the offspring met the demand of the census. What made a glass a glass and an ashen an ashen wasn’t entirely anatomical so much as the role they played in the perpetuation of our species. One carried the child the other initiated the pregnancy and was meant to contribute to society while the other reproduced. Once a glass is triggered they could have a child as often as they desired without further ashen involvement. However, it was considered important for both to remain in the family to teach their respective offspring their roles in society.”
“So by initiate and trigger, you mean sex?”
Saari thought a moment. “Perhaps? A glass has a specific point of entry and no two are the same. An ashen must have a matching insert or one that is close enough that the glass is not injured during the process.”
“Like a lock and key?”
“I-is there any intimacy?”
“Y-yeah… Like… Do they get comfy and touch each other and stuff or is it all mechanical?”
“Well… It is encouraged for a glass and an ashen to at least like each other. As hard as perfect fits are to find, it is more important that they can form a cohesive bond capable of raising a child. I do not know much about the relationship aspect. Only the technicalities. I officiated several bondings in my time…”
“You did?! So you can marry people?”
“I-Yes… I am, or rather, I was the high priestess. I had full legal rights to perform any necessary duties.”
“So you were really important, huh?”
“I-I suppose…” Saari slouched on her chair, “One would not know that for how my people turned their backs on me…”
“A lot of people turned their backs on Dad when he was younger…”
“Lord Qaitax lead me to believe it was for similar reasons…”
Saari nodded, “I am ashen. I was supposed to be a glass. The census said I should be a glass, but my parents wanted an ashen. So I was born a glass in ashen flesh.”
“Wait, so they messed you up because they didn’t want to do what they were supposed to?”
Saari wrapped her long slender fingers around the back of her neck. “They created an abomination. I was a mistake. I paid for their crimes. But,” she took a deep breath, “Where my people saw an aberration, a key that would never have a lock to open, Lord Qaitax saw me as worthy of his protection.” A thin smile crossed her lips. “I suppose he understood what my loneliness was like… That was how I became his priestess. He forced them to accept me and at first, I did not like it. I did not want to be accepted because my Lord said I had to be, but… In the end, I earned the respect of most of my peers. Were it not for Qaitax, I would have never gotten the chance. Still…” she sighed, “They would never stand up for me publicly. In that respect, I was always alone.”
“Sounds like you and Dad do have a bit in common,” Daniel spoke as he doodled on a napkin.
“Lord Qaitax said as much.”
“Did you get to know Dad at all? How long was he there with you?”
“A few days and we spoke. If I was being honest, I did not approve of the situation until we arrived here on earth and I met you and your other guardian. I was certain I would find myself rejected once more only this time on a strange world I knew nothing about…”
“You didn’t want to be alone. I get that. When Dad left, I was really scared. I thought he was never gonna come back. I didn’t sleep much at first, hoping any second he’d come back. Sometimes I just accepted that he was gone forever. Even if he did come back, I had no idea how old I’d be or if I’d recognize him or whatever. To me, it was like he was gone forever whether he came back or not.”
Saari stared straight ahead.
“I thought I was losing Lord Qaitax. Without him, I am nothing.”
“That’s not true,” Daniel chuckled.
“Lord Qaitax gave me my powers. He protected me. He gave me opportunities I would have never had on my own. He made me who I am. Without him, I would be nobody. In fact, I would be a specter like all the others. Fading in and out of reality with no anchor to the present…”
“Is that what happened to your people?”
Saari nodded. “Over time our genetics fell apart. We became a series of uncontrollable mutations. Ashen and glass remained somewhat discernible, but that was it. Number of fingers, eyes, appendages… It was all random because of the effects of the Void. Eventually, after thousands of years, their bodies all came apart. Reduced to ash. All that remained was an echo of their former selves wandering the halls. It did not happen all at once… I remember watching the Brotherhood try to find a way to stop it. No matter what they tried, everyone eventually became specters.”
“You’re the only one still alive?”
She nodded again.
“That had to be tough…”
She shrugged. “It was utterly isolating at times, but they had already isolated me from their lives. The biggest difference was the halls were no longer filled with the bustle of life I had grown so used to. They were silent. I eventually filled them with the humming of my lamps, but it would never be the same.”
“So it was just you and Qaitax?”
“For a very long time?”
“Dad and I were alone for a long time. Not that alone, but we didn’t have anyone. Just each other. We thought that was all we needed, but since we’ve been friends with Jeron things got a bit better,” he turned to her, “And now we’re friends with you.”
Saari turned to him her lips gently parted as if there was something she wanted to say.
The sound of lots of little clinking sounds hitting the rough filled the room.
“It’s raining,” Daniel sighed as he made his way to the door. “Nine!” he called out over the shards of rain bouncing on the ground, “Time to come in boy!”
Sure enough, the spawn came bounding out of one of the abandoned houses. Once inside, it shook its tendrils causing tiny microcrystals to fall to the floor.
“Mist Crystals?” Saari stood up to examine the fragments.
“I guess? That’s what happens to rain when it comes through the Mist. It turns into crystals that can kill people. I don’t know how or why, but Henley made sure our house and the diner were immune to it. It would’ve been in pieces by now if it wasn’t.”
“I used to create these out of the Mist that filled the halls. I would force it to solidify then shape it…”
“Ooooh, that’s how you made your carvings?”
“I’d say you should go outside and get some, but you’d get hurt and they dissipate almost immediately after they land.”
“I see…” Saari seemed a bit dejected.
“Oh wait!” Daniel ran into the kitchen. He rummaged around the cabinets before retrieving a large pot. “If they don’t tear this apart, it should catch some. Can you turn fragments into something useful?”
“I would be able to combine them into a larger piece, yes.”
Daniel stepped out onto the porch. Taking aim, he tossed the pot out into the yard. He waited a moment to see if the shards would destroy it, but besides the loud sound of them banging around inside, it looked like the pot could stand up to their assault.
“Give it a bit and we’ll have tons of fragments,” he muttered as he stepped back inside. “I hope Jeron made it out. He really should have cleared the Mist by now. Wanna watch the rain? Sometimes the crystals shoot weird rainbows around. Not real rainbows since everything is all violet and stuff, but it’s still cool.”
“I have never seen rain of any kind…”
“Its usually just water,” Daniel sat himself down on the couch, “Wait, can you even see it?”
Saari nodded as she slowly sat down beside him, “They most likely do not look the same as you see them, but I can see them. In my own way.”
The hard tap of the crystals all around them slowly became soothingly mesmerizing. What would ordinarily be a thing of fear, had somehow become comforting. The fragments would fall to the ground, bounce a bit, refracting light in different directions before melting into the ground. Nothing about it was normal. Nothing about it was natural. But that was life now. Nothing normal or natural about any of it. And yet somehow, it was good. Life, in this moment and in spite of it all, was good.
“Do you ever worry about him?” Saari broke the ambient calm of the falling crystals.
Daniel turned to her.
“Your father? Do you ever worry that he might never be the same?”
Daniel sighed. “I didn’t think about that until now, but now I can’t stop thinking about it.” He looked back out the window, “I hope he’s the same… We haven’t spoken much, but he seems like he did when he left. I guess you haven’t spoken to Qaitax much since all of this change have you?”
Saari shook her head.
“Hey!” Daniel turned fully around on the couch, “I have an idea!” He glanced back out the window, “The pot looks pretty full… Nine?” The spawn came running out of his room. “Can you go grab the pot please?”
The creature looked at him as if he was crazy.
“I know you just shook all the shards off, but I’ll help you wipe them off again if you can grab the pot quick.”
It kept staring at him.
“Please Nine? The crystals don’t hurt you like they hurt me…”
With an audible sigh, Nine approached the door.
“Thanks, boy,” Daniel patted him between his stalks before opening the door.
Once he was on the porch, Nine reached out with his tendrils and gently brought the pot inside. He shook the crystals off again before retreating back into Daniel’s room.
“Gaunts are some of the most powerful lesser spawns in existence,” Saari remarked, “Very intelligent and deadly… How did you manage to domesticate one?”
“Nine domesticated himself,” Daniel grunted as he brought the pot further into the room. “Now about my idea…”
“You are not afraid that he may be manipulating you? That he may one day turn on you?”
“Who? Nine?!” Daniel craned his neck as if he could see into his room, “Nine’s just a derp. You’ve seen how tattered he is. Poor guy’s been through a lot. He’s harmless.”
“I see… I am sorry for interrupting.”
“You aren’t afraid of him, are you?”
Saari shook her head, “I have not seen a gaunt in ages, but the last I did see one it was a very violent experience.”
“I’m sorry… But you can trust Nine. Really. If you pet him, he’ll start talking to you. Won’t shut up either,” Daniel laughed, “I like him a lot.”
Saari smiled, “What was your idea, then?”
“Oh right! Here,” he pushed the pot of shards toward her, “Make something for Qaitax. I’ll draw Dad a picture. Dads like when you make them stuff no matter how terrible it is.”
“I would be afraid of embarrassing Lord Qaitax…”
“Nah,” Daniel waved his wrist at her, “He’ll love whatever you make. I promise.”
Saari stared at the pot for a moment. She hadn’t worked with such small fragments before. Ordinarily, she would have manifested whatever she needed in bulk. She was certain, however, that she could combine the bits into something larger. Taking a deep breath, she gently lowered her spindly fingers into the pot. The crystals began glowing softly.
“Wow!” Daniel breathed, “I’ve never seen them do that before! Does it hurt?”
She shook her head. “They feel warm.”
A few moments passed before she lifted an amalgamation of the pot’s contents. “This should be more than sufficient to make something for Lord Qaitax.”
“Cool,” Daniel breathed. “Oh! Lemme go get my drawing pad. Do you mind if I sit at the counter while I draw?”
Saari shook her head, “Would there be room for me to join you?”
“I don’t know how much room you need, but I don’t take up the whole island.”
With a nod, Saari made her way to where she’d been seated before. Daniel quickly returned to his spot beside her. Without another word, they began their respective projects while shards of crystal continued tapping on the rooftop.
Thank you so much to everyone who has supported the series via Patreon!
An LGBTQ+ & Ally support network built around forming lasting bonds of friendship through support and humor. All are welcome! If you’re interested in joining the community, check out these Facebook links! From there, you can get an invite to the awesome Discord server!
Social page for discussions: https://www.facebook.com/groups/secondmass/
Meme page for humor and entertainment: https://www.facebook.com/secondmemes/
If you would like to support the series and get a credit at the end of every chapter posted during your support period, check out The Q’taxian’s Patreon! https://www.patreon.com/theqtaxians