“I’m disappointed,” Aria grunted as she sat down in the passenger seat, “You didn’t text me.”
“Well, I guess nothing went catastrophically wrong,” Jeron snorted.
“I did too good of a job,” she sighed, “How unfortunate. I was really looking forward to cries for help at weird hours.”
Jeron stared at her.
“Life’s boring, Mr. Miles. A bit of excitement would’ve been nice.”
“Well excuse me for not entertaining you,” he started the truck.
Aria chuckled, “I’m kidding,” she gently shoved him in the arm, “I’m glad everything’s okay.” She paused a moment, “An excuse to come by again would have been nice, though.”
“Everything’s okay, right?”
“Medically? Yeah. I think so. Full disclosure, Sylus’ bandages are a few days old.”
“Are they bloody?”
He shook his head, “The bleeding stopped a day or two after you left. There was a lot of changing involved… We all got pretty good at it,” Jeron sighed again, “He was always so miserable about it.”
Aria looked out the window, “He doesn’t seem like the type to accept help easily.”
Jeron scoffed, “That’s an understatement. Bastard tried to tear the dressings from us multiple times. He couldn’t just let us help him. Had to fight. Had to protest that he could do it himself. He couldn’t, by the way.”
Aria shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” he sighed again, “You really don’t need to be listening to me bitch about my relationships.”
She turned to him, “You two kiss and make up?”
Jeron glanced to her repeatedly as he drove down the road, “What gave you that idea?”
“Oh you mean you’re not romantic? Sorry,” she laughed nervously, “I have trouble reading people and situations sometimes.”
“You seemed pretty good at it before…”
Aria laughed, “I didn’t say anything someone who was even remotely observant wouldn’t say.”
“Well… We were. Romantic, that is. Before he left,” Jeron’s grip on the steering wheel tightened, “I don’t know where we stand right now.”
“He’s still stubborn, but… I don’t know… I… I wish I did… I don’t even know how to approach it all…”
“Well,” Aria sat up in her chair, “Maybe now that he’s doing better you two should have a conversation.”
“Yeah, but… It was only a few days for him… It was years for me… How can we even begin to understand each other?”
“I’ve heard love finds a way and if it’s not there anymore, it won’t. You’ll have your answer either way.”
“What about you? How do you handle weird things in relationships?”
“I don’t do relationships,” she chuckled, “Never interested me. I had my husband but…” for the first time since they’d met, Aria seemed at a loss for words, “That… didn’t work out.” She cleared her throat. “So, yeah. I don’t do relationships.”
“Don’t be! It was a mess. Maybe we can commiserate about that kind of thing over coffee or something someday,” she laughed uncomfortably.
The rest of the ride was in silence. It wasn’t an awkward silence, but a calming one.
“Ah shit,” Jeron hissed as they approached the barrier. “It’s raining…” He stopped the car a few feet away from the Mist. “Guess we’re waiting here a while.”
“Well, when it rains in the Mist, it rains crystals. I’m surprised that’s not common knowledge.”
“You’d be surprised how much people don’t know that they should. It seems like no matter how obvious something is, someone’s working to make sure no one actually know about it…”
“I have a good idea who’d be doing that,” Jeron sighed.
“Henley? Dr. Hasturbaine? The guy who ran the Riftworks?”
Jeron placed a finger against his nose.
“How?” she laughed with incredulity, “How on earth could one man cover that much information up?” she scoffed, “Not even cover it, but make it completely disappear!”
“You said it yourself. He ran the Riftworks. The Riftworks, might I remind you, was where all the data on the Mist was gathered and researched.”
“Yeah but crystal rain? Someone out in the wild had to have experienced it. How could he stop that kind of information from spreading?”
Jeron sighed, “I-it’s complicated…”
Aria leaned forward to look up at the sky. “Looks like we have plenty of time.
Jeron sighed again, throwing his head back against his seat. “Henley’s not human.”
“I had my suspicions…”
“You did, did you?” Jeron turned to her with a laugh.
“Something always seemed off about him when they interviewed him on the news. He was always so uncanny… Like… A person but not…”
“Hm. Yeah. Well, he’s the same thing Sylus is: A Voidlord. But a more powerful one. I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty certain he’d have some kind of ability to warp or manipulate information.”
“So there’s two of them?”
“That we know about.”
“And Henley is bad but, uh… The other one in Sylus? He’s good?”
Jeron shrugged, “I don’t have a clue about Qaitax. I’d like to say he’s neutral for now. Sylus is on our side, though,” he laughed, “For whatever it’s worth.”
“There’s a lot of uncertainty in all of this, isn’t there?”
“I mean really,” Jeron turned to face her, “How would you handle this?”
“Like I said,” she shrugged, “I don’t do relationships. I wouldn’t know anything about being friends or in a relationship with some otherworldly demon.” She laughed, “Sounds like a prime time drama series.”
“My Boyfriend the Tentacle Monster,” Jeron waved his hand in front of them.
“So you do still foresee yourself in a relationship?”
Jeron sat back in his chair, “I-I don’t know…”
“Well, you’re an adult. You know what you have to do.”
“I’m not sure I even know how to talk to him.”
“Like you did before. That part should be easy.”
Jeron rubbed the back of his neck.
“What are you afraid of?” Aria sat up on her chair to face him.
“I-A… A lot…”
Jeron turned to her with a look of uncertainty.
“I may not do the relationship thing, but I’ve met a lot of people. I know things about them.”
Jeron rolled his eyes as he resumed staring out the windshield. “Didn’t you say you have trouble reading people?”
“Reading and guessing is one thing, but knowing is something entirely different. Like if I see it first hand, I might not judge the situation right. But when I hear things in hindsight, it teaches you a lot about people. Doesn’t make reading any easier, but it makes evaluating a situation a bit more, hm, rational?”
Jeron shook his head. “I just worry about a lot of things. Aria,” he turned to her, hands still on the wheel, “If I’m being honest, I gave up on him.”
“Ah,” she breathed, “I see.”
“I stayed for Daniel. He kept hoping,” he faced forward again, grip tightening on the steering wheel, “I gave up. And,” he took a deep breath, “It didn’t take me long to just accept he was gone.”
Aria nodded slowly.
“If the boy hadn’t been there, I would’ve left and Sylus would have come back to nothing. Probably died. I couldn’t even say I’d be guilty since I’d never know,” he sighed, “I gave up so quickly… I had to. I didn’t want to cling to an empty hope. There was no way of ever knowing and I didn’t want to guess. I hated saying ‘one more day’ over and over…” he slouched in his chair, “How could I have known? How soon was too soon? How long was too long?”
Aria sighed, “A lot of that is moot at this point. You’re not waiting anymore.”
“Yeah, but how do I tell him I gave up on him?”
“You don’t.” Aria looked him dead in the eyes, “You don’t tell him that because you know deep down you were still hoping.”
“Why else would you have stayed?”
Aria shook her head, “If you ask me, you let the boy carry your hope because you were too scared to carry it yourself. You know damn well that if the child gave up, you still would have said ‘one more day’.”
Silence filled the cab of the truck. Rain tapped gently on the roof. Streaks ran down the windows bending and weaving with every slight scratch or crack in the glass.
Soon enough, the showers tapered off.
“Guess we caught the tail end of it,” Jeron muttered as he turned the truck back on.
Walking into the house, they found Daniel and Saari working diligently at the bar. Daniel was quick to turn around and greet them.
“Hey guys!” he hopped off his stool to give Jeron a hug before turning to Aria. “Dad’s asleep, I think. Just wake him up slowly. He doesn’t take suddenness very well.”
“Understood,” Aria nodded with a smile before making her way to the back of the house.
“What’re you two up to?” Jeron took off his jacket.
“We’re making stuff for our dads!” Daniel ran up to the counter. “I’m drawing a family portrait. Saari is making a lamp I think?”
“Can I see?” Jeron pretended to peer around them.
“They’re surprises for everyone,” Daniel covered his work.
Jeron shook his head with a smile. “I’m gonna see if Aria needs any help. Just… Give a shout if you need anything.”
“I’m hungry,” Daniel groaned.
“What do you want?”
Jeron stopped mid-step.
“We haven’t had grilled cheese in a long time…”
“I was just in town, Dan…”
“I really don’t want spawn meat again…”
Jeron sighed deeply, “We have some canned stuff in the shelter still…”
“More beans?!” Daniel stuck his tongue out in disgust.
“We can go shopping when your dad’s feeling better. Right now, we need to stay close to home. You know that, Dan…”
Daniel sighed. “Do we have any more canned chicken noodle soup?”
“We might. I can go check if you want…”
“Maybe later. You just got home.” Daniel got back to work.
“What do you eat, Saari?” Jeron started making his way up the three steps up to the hallway.
Saari paused a moment. What did she eat? She couldn’t think of anything. How could she forget something so simple… “I grew up on vegetables from hydroponics, but that was ages ago… After my people died off, I never felt hungry. I think Lord Qaitax did that.”
“Feeling hungry now?”
She placed a hand over her stomach, “It hurts a little, but nothing serious.”
“You’re hungry. Once we’re done with Sylus we’ll figure something out, okay?”
Saari nodded slowly.
When Jeron stepped into the master bedroom, Aria was already helping Sylus sit up and, of course, he was protesting her support.
“I can do this, Aria. Really. I’m fine.”
“With the amount of struggling going on, it’s clear you’re not. Just take my damn arm and I’ll help you.”
“Sylus.” Jeron barked from the doorway, “What did we say about accepting help when we need it?”
“But… I don’t need it…”
“Yes, you do. Now shut up and accept it.”
A purple flush filled Sylus’ pale face. He fell silent as he let Aria help him sit up.
“Now,” Aria huffed, “Let’s take a look.”
She pulled back the covers. The bandage was clean and relatively fresh. The area around the wound looked clean. She was impressed with how flat the tape was. There were very few folds in it.
“You guys did an excellent job,” she reported, “At a glance, everything looks great. Now, let’s see what’s underneath.”
Aria retrieved a small pair of surgical scissors from her bag. She gently cut through the paper tape before peeling the gauze away.
“Huh…” the wound was reduced to nothing more than a small stripe of purple. It was slightly raised, but nothing serious. “May I touch it?”
Sylus nodded. “Y-yeah sure knock yourself out.”
Aria ran her fingers over what was left of the incision. It was soft like the rest of his skin. She pulled at it gently and it showed no sign of coming apart.
“Does this hurt?”
“It feels tender, but not painful.”
“Have you tried walking yet?”
Sylus took a deep breath.
“Yeah.” Jeron spoke from the doorway, “But I didn’t let him.”
“I’d like you to try to stand up,” she stepped back, “I’d like to see what will happen when it’s supporting your weight.”
Sylus bit his lip. “What if it opens back up again?”
“I don’t think it will, but I’d like to see what kind of exertion it will endure.”
Sylus looked across the room at Jeron who gave him a nod.
“Well,” he breathed, “Let’s give this a shot.”
Sylus slowly turned himself, using his hands as support, until his legs were over the side of the bed. His hands gripped the sheets tightly. He kept trying to push himself off but a combination of fear and uncertainty kept him from standing.
Aria nodded for Jeron to help. After a moment of confusion, she motioned again with more assertion. Jeron finally approached offering his arms as support. Sylus looked up to him. There was something in his gaze that caused Jeron’s breath to hitch in his chest. Why was this happening? He still didn’t recognize this person. What his eyes saw still didn’t line up with his heart was missing… Or… Or did it?
Sylus didn’t know what to do with the support being offered. Was this just a show of good faith? Was Jeron really implying he would help him stand? He had no reason to doubt the well-meaning nature of the gesture, but it felt like it was so sudden… Should he accept it? Remembering what was said about accepting help, he tried once more to stand up on his own. Much to his dismay and utter shame, the strength wasn’t there. He nearly wept at the idea of needing help to perform such a basic task.
“Sy,” Jeron’s voice was the softest it’d been since Sylus’ return, “Just take my arm.”
“I might hurt you… I don’t know my strength or now heavy I am…”
Aria looked him over, “Probably in the 300lb range…”
Sylus grinned weakly, “Looks can be deceiving.”
Aria nodded as her mind drifted off in thought.
“Sy,” Jeron sighed, “Just let me help. Please.”
“After all I put you through? You still want to help me?”
“W-why wouldn’t I?” Jeron stepped back, his arm still outstretched.
Sylus shrugged, “I messed everything up, Jer. I ruined everything.”
“Sy… Now’s not the time for this…”
“You shouldn’t be here… You shouldn’t have to be here taking care of me…”
“I fucked up. I went away. I left you alone. Then I came back and got beat to shit. How can you even look at me? I can’t even stand up on my own. What good am I…”
Jeron’s mind fought between two responses. Part of him was ready to yell at Sylus’ pathetic behavior. Enough was enough and this was getting old. But at the same time, part of him slowly began to understand where he was coming from. How utterly worthless he felt. It was the same feeling Jeron had the day he had to bury his father. He felt like a failure in a situation he had no control over. That was where Sylus was. Perhaps this wasn’t the time for tough love. Jeron knelt down in front of him.
“We all fall, Sylus,” he cleared his throat, “We all hit the ground in one way or another. Sometimes it happens because we didn’t know to ask for help sooner or don’t even think we can. Sometimes it happens because we feel guilt over something we had nothing to do with. We all hit rock bottom at some point.” Their eyes met. “And we all feel shame. Like we’re undeserving of basic things like help and support. We get angry. Lash out. Hurt the people we love.” Sylus’ lip began to quiver. “We do dumb things. We say dumb things. Then we wake up one day and realize how much those dumb things hurt the people we care about. And then we’d rather than laying on the cold hard ground, we want to sink into it and die than try to work out our transgressions. How can we look at the people who tried to help us after we turned them away like that?”
Sylus was nearly in tears. “I suck. I know…”
“No,” Jeron took his hands into his own, “We all suck, Sy. I treated you like shit when Pops died. I wanted to blame everyone. I couldn’t saddle the blame alone, but the thing is… There was nothing I could do. I was angry. At everyone including myself. I said some dumb shit…”
“Jeron… That was ages ago…” Sylus laughed through his tears.
“Yeah but I never forgot…”
“That’s ridiculous, Jeron. I understood. You were upset… There’s really no need for this explanation…”
“But you get what I’m saying?”
“You’re upset. You’re angry. You’re ashamed.”
Sylus felt his face heating up.
“And it’s all for no reason.”
“You were so angry, Jeron… and you were right to be. I fucked up…”
Jeron sighed, “Well… I think… I…” he rubbed the back of his neck, “There was more to it than you just running off to die… Sy… I…”
“It’s okay, Jer. We all do what we have to.”
“Sy, no, I…”
“You moved on.”
Jeron’s heart ached.
“You got over me,” he smiled weakly, “And that’s okay.”
Sylus shook his head, “It was inevitable. Our fling was short. Whatever we had it burned hot, but it didn’t burn for long enough to really matter.”
“I kinda…” he rubbed the back of his neck, “Knew that would happen. I hoped not, but… I don’t know… It’s really fine, Jeron. Don’t worry about it.”
Jeron sighed. This wasn’t how he wanted to discuss this. Especially not with Aria looming in the background. He turned around to find her missing. Sighing again, he turned back to Sylus.
“This wasn’t exactly how I wanted this conversation to go…”
“Me neither,” Sylus laughed nervously, “But it had to happen.”
Jeron shook his head.
“Is it Aria?”
Jeron’s heart skipped a beat.
“She’s smart. Like really smart. I barely know her and I know she’s really smart. I’m not exactly smart,” he forced a laugh, “She’s also gorgeous, too, so I certainly wouldn’t blame you.”
Jeron didn’t know how to respond.
“S-Sy… I met her the night you got back. And it was by accident. Yeah, she’s smart, she’s a doctor, but… No… Sy, there’s no one. There’s no other woman or whatever. I gave up on the idea when I accepted you weren’t coming back…”
“Do you have feelings for her?”
“Sy,” Jeron laughed miserably, “She’s a friend at best and she knows that.”
Sylus sighed, “I just… I figured…”
“I entertained that idea quite a few times. That I was attracted to your feminine parts.”
Sylus shrank away from him.
“But…” Jeron breathed as he stood up, “I’m not so sure that was the case,” he held out his arm again, “Something about that pitiful look in your eyes got to me.”
Sylus looked up at him, a weak smile on his face.
“Here’s the deal. If you take my arm and stand up, I’ll give you a chance.”
Sylus’ smile faded.
“I’ll give us a chance… I can’t say it’ll be like it was before, but… I’d be willing to try. But first, you have to accept my help. If you can’t do that, then, well, yeah…”
Suddenly, Sylus reached out and took Jeron’s arm. Groaning, he managed to prop himself up onto his feet.
“There ya go,” Jeron offered his other arm which Sylus quickly took.
His balance was terrible and his legs were wobbling. If he let go, he’d fall, but he was afraid of holding on for too long…
“Straighten up,” Jeron slowly lifted his arms, “There ya go.”
“I can’t let go…” he breathed, “I’m afraid…”
“You don’t have to. Aria?”
She appeared in the doorway. “Yes?”
“Do your exam.”
With a nod, she slipped into the room and carefully examined Sylus’ stomach.
“It seems to be holding up just fine,” she ran her fingers over the wound, “Feels solid.”
“Th-thanks, Dr. P-Patel…” Sylus’ voice shook as he struggled to keep himself upright.
“Psh. Call me Aria. Please. And that was a remarkable recovery.”
“Couldn’t have done it without ya, doc,” Jeron smiled.
“Damn right,” Aria stood up, “Alright, well, you look well enough to start ambulating. Start trying to take a few steps a day. I’m sure you’ll bounce back fast enough.”
“H-how can I repay you?” Sylus leaned forwards into Jeron’s chest. “S-sorry…”
“It’s okay,” Jeron whispered.
“I was going to say ‘don’t worry about it’, but instead, I do have a way you could repay me.”
“A-anything you want…”
“Very well then. I want exclusivity to studying your anatomy.”
“You are an alien life form. I want all the rights and access to study you.”
“I-I… That’s it?”
Aria nodded firmly, “I want to be the one to publish the study on whatever you are.”
“Voidlord,” Sylus laughed, “I think…”
“Fine. Voidlord. You’re not to let anyone else attempt to study you, understood?”
“Good. I’ll be back in another week to check your range of movement. I’d like to do a physical at that time.”
“Not like that. I really don’t care about your exterior. I want to know what’s inside and how it works.”
Sylus stared at her. “You already saw the gist of it…”
“I’ll come with questions. You give me answers. We’ll start there.”
“Good!” Aria perked up, “Now I just have to finish with Saari and I can be on my way.”
“Saari? I-is she okay?” Sylus tried to lean away from Jeron.
“Oh, yes. She seems healthy. I’d like to study her as well at some point. Her anatomy is very interesting.”
“She’s one of a kind,” Sylus laughed weakly, “Literally. No two Q’taxians are the same.”
“Still. I’d like to include her in my paper.”
“I’m sure she’d be fine with that, but you have to ask her yourself…”
“I plan on it.” Aria left the room.
“Alright,” she announced as she entered the living area, “Where were we?”
Daniel looked in with interest.
“You were examining my scaling…” Saari replied timidly.
“Right!” Aria retrieved a pair of gloves from her bag, “Let’s see… The redness around your sockets has definitely gone down. The scales feel a bit softer…” she rubbed the surface a bit more vigorously. “Hmm… They’re loosening up. May I try something?”
Saari nodded slowly.
Aria retrieved a rag from her bag. “Let me know if this hurts.” She began gently abraiding the scaling off Saari’s horns. Some came off relatively easily, but other bits clung on. She retrieved the bottle of eye drops from her bag, as promised, and wet the rag with them. A bit more rubbing and more of the scaling was willing to come off.
“How does this feel?”
“Okay, I’m going to be a bit more firm, now…” Aria rubbed a bit more aggressively. More and more of the scaling flaked off. The further it was from her head, the easier it peeled away. The bits closest to her head hung on tightly. “Hmm… Not bad. Here.” She handed Saari the eye drops. “Use this and the cream on alternating days. Rub them into the spots that still feel flakey. It should start sloughing off.”
“H-how do they look?”
“Pearly white, I’d say. How do they feel?”
Saari thought a moment. Everything felt different. Like she was feeling fresh air for the first time. Her horns felt lighter than they ever had before. It was almost as though they weren’t there… A burden she’d lived with her entire life was suddenly gone. She felt… Free.
“They feel wonderful,” she finally spoke up, “I never realized how much strain the scaling was causing…”
“I no longer feel their weight. Perhaps now my skin can heal…”
“Don’t be surprised if it calcifies around the base a bit,” Aria stepped back, “That’s fairly natural for horn/antler growth. If it firms up, that’s good. That means dirt and grime will be less likely to get under your skin.”
“Exactly. Don’t try to fight it if it happens. If it hurts, let me know. If it itches, that means its healing. At least, that’s how it works with humans…”
Saari nodded. “I will keep applying your salves.”
“Daniel! Saari!” Sylus appeared in the doorway, arm slung over Jeron’s shoulders. He was wearing a pair of sweatpants, a loose-fitting t-shirt and a tired, yet genuine, grin on his face.
“DAD!” Daniel flew off his stool and into his father.
Sylus grunted a bit on impact. He felt sore, but not enough to stop him from leaning over a bit to put his free arm around his son.
“You recognize me?” he laughed weakly.
“Of course I do!” the boy squeezed him harder, “I missed you so much… And then you scared me…”
“I’m so sorry, Dan…”
“I-it’s okay…” he pressed his face into Sylus’ stomach, “Just don’t do it again. Okay?” he looked up into his father’s eyes.
“Never again,” Sylus smiled.
“Kids are still doing that these days?” Sylus laughed.
“I don’t know about other kids, but I am,” Daniel held out his pinkie finger.
With a chuckle, Sylus wrapped his much larger finger around his son’s.
“Good. Now!” Daniel turned to Saari, “Let’s show them what we made!”
Saari shrank back a bit, “I-I do not think mine is very good.”
“It’s great, Saari! Qaitax will love whatever you made. I promise,” Daniel scrambled onto his stool to retrieve his sketchbook.
Saari bit her lip.
“Here, I’ll go first,” he turned to his father, “I drew you a picture, Dad!”
Daniel held the book open to his artwork. Sylus slowly reached out to take it from him. It was a pencil sketch of everyone. Daniel, Jeron, Saari, himself, and something that looked like a ball of tentacles in the background.
“Is that Qaitax?” Sylus pointed to the figure with a chuckle.
“Yeah… I don’t know what he looks like, but you said he’s some kind of tentacle monster so I tried…”
“Dan,” Sylus laughed, “This is incredible. You did an amazing job!” He slid his arm off Jeron’s shoulders and knelt down as best he could, “I’m so proud of you.” He opened his arms to his son who gladly returned the gesture. “After all you’ve been through and all I put you through… You never lost your creativity.” Sylus was beaming, “I’m so proud of you for still being yourself, Dan. You’ve been through so much…”
“It sucked, Dad,” he breathed into his father’s shoulder, “Jeron was awesome, Quip helped out a lot, but it really sucked…”
“I’m so sorry…” Sylus breathed.
“Don’t be,” Daniel sniffed as he pulled away, “You’re home now and you’re going to get better. Right?” he turned to Aria.
“I’m pretty sure he’s going to be right as rain pretty soon,” she smiled with a nod.
“Okay,” Daniel stepped back as he wiped the tears from his eyes, “Your turn, Saari.”
She shook her head. “No. I cannot. It is not ready. It is not good enough. Perhaps later…”
“Can Saari talk to Qaitax?”
“Uh, sure. Of course.”
Sylus stood up slowly with the help of Jeron’s arm.
“Please don’t hate me for this,” Sylus whispered to him.
Jeron chuckled, “Kinda late to be upset about that, but we are going to have to talk about it…”
“It’s okay, Sy. You’re not going far, right?”
Sylus shook his head as he closed his eyes. For a split second his body went limp, but it righted itself almost immediately. His eyes opened slowly to reveal star-shaped, violet pupils in a sea of black.
“M-my Lord?” she stepped forward, hands tightly clenched. She bowed before him.
“No no no no no… Don’t do that!”
“B-but M-my Lord…”
“I am not your lord anymore, Saari. I am just a being. Same as you.”
Saari shook her head, “You will always be my Lord.”
“I hope not. You’re a free woman, Saari. You belong to no one and no soul shall ever lord over you again.”
Saari took a few timid steps forward.
“C-can… I…” her rail-thin arms twitched as she nervously rung her delicate fingers together.
“Speak your mind, Saari.” Qaitax slowly removed his arm from Jeron’s shoulder.
“Don’t fall,” Jeron muttered.
Qaitax nodded to him before turning back to Saari. “Speak to me, Saari.”
“N-never mind… I-I am sorry…” she pushed past him into her bedroom and gently closed the door.
A still silence filled the room.
“Qaitax?” Daniel approached him, “Saari was afraid to give this to you, but I think you should have it even if she doesn’t think it’s good enough. She might get mad at me for giving it to you, but she made it for you so you should have it.” He held out a small crystalline sculpture of woven tentacles.
“S-Saari…? Sh-she made this for me?”
Daniel nodded, “We wanted to make stuff for our dads…”
“Yeah. You’re Saari’s dad, right?”
“I…” he turned to look down the hall, “Am I?”
“Well, you raised her and took care of her and protected her and praised her art when it wasn’t very good. So yeah, I think you’re her dad. Right?”
“Yeah. Dad. Like, uh, Sylus is my dad. You’re Saari’s dad. Makes sense?”
Qaitax stared at the sculpture in Daniel’s hands. “She made this for me?”
Daniel nodded. “Take it.”
Qaitax reached out slowly taking the delicate object into his hands. He held it gently, studying its every feature. It was so detailed and smooth.
“It is beautiful…”
“You should tell her that,” Daniel replied.
“She is upset… She would not appreciate it if I invaded her space…”
“There’s different kinds of upset. This is the kind of upset where you should talk to her,” Daniel insisted firmly.
“How do you know so much, little one?”
Daniel shrugged, “She might be like a billion years old and immortal and stuff, but she’s still a kid. I get kids.”
It had never occurred to Qaitax that Saari was still a child. He had converted her at a young age and she’d worn the body of a young woman for most of her life. He’d always assumed she’d matured regardless of her exterior. And mature she did, but at what cost and under what circumstances? She grew because she had to, not because she was ready to. In all the millennia they’d been together, the thought had never once crossed his mind. Qaitax was at a loss.
“That’s a dad thing, too.”
“Not being sure what to do. Dad never knows what to do, but he always manages to do the right thing. That’s just how it is with dads,” Daniel explained with a smile.
“You truly believe that I am Saari’s… Father?”
“I did not birth her…”
“But you did everything else!” Daniel threw his hands in the air. “That’s what really matters! Not who made her, but who cared about her!”
For the first time in his ancient life, Qaitax was moved to tears. It was a sensation he’d never experienced before. His heart ached and his mind swirled with confusion.
“Just go talk to her,” Daniel nudged him gently. “It’ll be good for both of you.”
“What of you and your father?”
Daniel waved him off, “We’ll have lots of time.”
“If you are certain…” he turned to Jeron who gave him a curt nod.
With a nod of his own, Qaitax slowly turned and shuffled down the hall.
“Saari?” he knocked softly on her door, “May I come in?”
“I am not well, my Lord. Perhaps some other time. I am so very sorry…” her voice was shaking.
Qaitax looked back down the hall for guidance. Daniel motioned for him to keep trying.
“This piece you made,” he ran his fingers over its smooth surface once more, “It’s beautiful.”
Saari threw open her door. “It is not good enough!” She tried to take it from him, but he managed to find the strength to pull it away.
“How is it not good enough? It’s perfect, Saari…”
“I did not prepare it correctly. The materials were sub-par. My vision is poor in this environment. I was not well enough to make something worthy of your praise…” she bowed to him once more.
“Stop that.” Qaitax commended, “Stop it now.”
“M-my Lord?” She stepped back.
“Stop groveling to me. Stop holding me to higher standards and stop putting yourself down. No one and nothing is perfect. Not me, not you, not anyone. We are all what we are and all we can do is do the best we can.”
Saari stared at him.
“Here,” Qaitax held out the sculpture. A dim light filled its center. “Just like before. Hang it somewhere nice.”
“B-but my Lord…”
“Sylus says it’s okay.”
Saari looked around. She truly couldn’t see much more than vague edges of walls and entryways. She had no concept of detail like she did on Q’taxia.
“Wh-where would you like it?” she was hesitant to ask.
Saari bit her lips. She truly wasn’t ready to break away from what she was used to, but if it was what her lord wanted…
“Q-Qaitax… I… I really cannot see well… I would not know where best to put it,” she offered it back to him.
“Hmm…” he took it from her.
“I-I am so sorry to disappoint you…”
“Stop it, Saari. You haven’t disappointed me.”
Qaitax thought a moment before Sylus offered him an idea.
“I think I know where it will go best,” he made his way down the hall into the master bedroom.
The wall to the right was mostly made up of the sliding doors that lead out onto the precipice upon which half the house was resting. The corner where that wall met the back wall of the room was rather dark so it was there, beside the tall, glass doors, that Qaitax hung Saari’s crystalline lantern.
Stepping back, he turned to her standing in the doorway. He motioned for her to enter. She did as she was told.
“How does that look?”
Light pulsed through the serpentine shape. Waves of dim energy coursed around every bend and twist.
“D-do you like it, m-m… Q-Qaitax?”
He turned to her. “I love it, Saari. Thank you.”
She was once more wringing her hands together.
“Speak your mind, my dear Saari.”
She bit her lip and shook her head. “I-I am sorry… I cannot. I am glad I could bring you some joy. I hope you and Sylus recover soon.” Bowing once more, she turned to leave the room.
Qaitax placed a hand on her shoulder, “Speak to me.”
There was so much she wanted to say. She was afraid, alone, powerless… But how could she tell him all that? How could she burden him with her fears when he was only just walking again? Now wasn’t the time. She could keep it inside a while longer. Perhaps she’d be better composed when the proper time came.
“I care about you, Saari. Speak to me. Please.”
She slowly turned to face him.
“You are more than worthy of anything you need of me. You… You are… M-my…”
Just say it…
“My… My child. My… Daughter…”
Her horns locked on his wavering gaze.
“I-if that… I…”
The shaking began in her lips before it ran down her arms and into her already weak legs.
“Anything, Saari. You needn’t ask.”
She was tired. Lost. Confused. She knew what she was about to do was wrong in every respect, but she couldn’t hold back anymore. She’d been so alone all her life. Just this once… She wanted to feel just a little less lonely.
Saari opened her arms and wrapped them around Qaitax. With a deep and relieved sigh, he returned the gesture. The witch so many had feared and reviled for all her life was shaking in his arms.
“I am so sorry,” she sobbed, “Please, I need you…”
“Oh Saari…” he held her tightly.
“Please do not leave me… Please… I beg of you… I beg Sylus… Please… Please do not leave me… I-I…” she choked on her haggard breath, “I love you…”
“Oh Saari…” Qaitax breathed, “I will never be far. You will never be alone. There are good and kind people here.”
“I need you, my Lord…”
“Saari… You are so very strong…”
“I need you,” she sobbed, “Please…”
Qaitax was at a loss for what to say. He’d never seen Saari like this before, but that made it all the less unexpected. She’d been trapped in a cave alone her entire life.
“I love you, too, Saari. That will never change. I will always be here for you. I promise.”
She slowly leaned away, “Daniel… h-he keeps saying… y-you’re my father… like… Sylus is his father…”
“Do you want me to be your father?”
“You called me… y-your daughter…”
“Th-that is just… How… I…” he stammered through his scrambled thoughts.
“I-I never… Thought… I could…” Saari took a deep breath, “Think of you like that… You… You are my warden. M-my care-taker… M-my Lord…”
“But… Perhaps Daniel is right… You… You celebrate my terrible artwork…”
“That’s… what fathers do… yes?”
Qaitax was taken aback.
“I-I do not know if I will ever feel comfortable calling you something as casual as ‘dad’, but… I… M-may I… Call you my father?”
“Oh Saari,” Qaitax’s heart swelled, “I’d be so very honored.”
“A-and,” she sniffed, “y-you can keep calling me y-your d-daughter… i-if that’s…”
Qaitax pulled her close again. “Of course, Saari. Nothing would make me happier.” He could feel her relaxing in his arms.
So many worries and fears were melting away. She never once in her life thought this was even a possibility much less something that could be addressed so simply through dialog. She’d always felt so far beneath him. He, a god, she, his servant. What right did she have to ask him to be her family? Perhaps that was what even he wanted all along…
“I-if I had asked before now, would it have been different?” she pulled away once more.
“We would not have been able to embrace like this. I have always wanted to call you far more than my servant or priestess, but I didn’t want you thinking I was commanding you to be my child. If it was to ever happen, you would have had to be the one to ask. I was never going to demand such a thing of you.”
“W-was my art really bad?” she sniffed.
Qaitax laughed softly, “Honest answers?”
“You have grown as an artist, that is for certain. I am proud of you for that. You used to bring these mangled balls of chunky crystals to me and… it wasn’t about what you were showing me, it was about you bringing me something at all. You brought me gifts, Saari. It didn’t matter how good or bad they were, that was never truly a thought. What mattered was that you cared enough to give me gifts. Real gifts. Not sacrifices or prayer, but things you created with me in mind. That, and only that, was all that mattered.”
“Even when they weren’t very good?”
“Even when they weren’t very good,” he kissed her on the forehead between her horns. “There is… Something you should know, Saari…”
She looked up to him.
“I’m sorry you had to grow up so fast. You had to be an adult before you should have been. You had to be responsible for so much when you were barely able to care for yourself…”
“Never think that I will think any less of you if you decide you would like to step back and live the childhood you never had.”
“I… I do not…”
“What I mean is,” Qaitax sighed, “If you want to play around and do silly or immature things, don’t for a second think I’d be ashamed.”
She found herself staring at him again.
“I want you to be happy. Now is your chance to define yourself as more than my servant. You were always more than that, but the world you lived in never allowed for anything more. You are free now on a new world with new people and a new chance to be whoever you want to be. To grow and learn who you really are…”
She stepped back, losing herself in thought.
“I will always be here, Saari. You will never be alone. Never again.”
“Th-thank you, m-Qaitax. Th-that means… a lot to hear.” She instinctively began to bow, but he stopped herself, “I-it will take time, though. I cannot simply cease to be who I’ve become even though… I… I would like to… I do not know how to say it… See who I could be without all the pressure and hatred…”
Qaitax nodded with a smile. “You have that chance now. It will take time. It will take time for both of us to adjust to these new lives. We cannot simply change on a whim. Just know that you are free to do as you will and there is nothing you can do that will ever disappoint me.”
“Thank you,” she choked, “B-but… Y-you should rest now…”
“I am fine, Saari,” he ran his fingers through her long, white hair, “Please take care of yourself and put your needs first for once.”
Saari stood before him, her legs weak and ready to collapse. She still wasn’t certain she understood all of what was going on. It was so much to take in at once, but they were all things that needed to be said. Perhaps once she’d had time to think about it all, she’d be able to begin working on bettering herself. For now, however, she didn’t have the strength. As much as she wanted to jump at the chance to live up to Qaitax’s expectations of her freedom, she couldn’t. Not now. She still didn’t even know what her freedom truly meant. It would take time, but she knew one day she’d begin to understand what it was she truly wanted for herself.
A strong wave of exhaustion washed over Qaitax. Closing his eyes tightly, he struggled to keep his balance. “I must sit down,” he smiled.
Saari took him by the arm and lead him to the bed.
“Thank you, Saari,” he breathed as he sat down.
“You must get well soon,” she ran her fingers through his hair, “We have much to figure out and there is much I would like to do with you.”
“Like what?” Qaitax laughed.
“Daniel taught me some games. I would like to share them with you someday.”
“That sounds wonderful, Saari,” his exhaustion was evident in his voice.
“I will leave you to your rest,” she bowed her head.
Qaitax smiled as she left the room.
“I am sorry that took so long…”
I don’t understand this role I’ve accepted, Qaitax had returned to the back of Sylus’ mind.
“There’s nothing to understand,” he sighed, “You just try your best. It’s all you can do.”
You seem to have done very well. Your child is very empathetic.
Sylus grinned weakly, “He grew up too fast. Just like Saari. They have a lot in common, if you could believe that.”
Then she is in good hands.
“Maybe not the best hands,” he laughed, “we’re all a bit messed up, but… she’s safe and people care about her. Don’t worry about that.”
Thank you, Sylus. I could never even begin to hope for such a fortunate outcome. I care far more for her than myself and to hear that she actually feels accepted brings a level of peace to me that I thought was impossible.
“Don’t mention it,” Sylus yawned, “Can’t believe we need more sleep… Haven’t we slept enough?”
The two things mortals and voidlords share are sleeping and eating. And voidlords do a lot of both. At least I do…
“Well, we’re gonna need to find a way around all this sleeping. I’d like to get active eventually.”
Soon. I’m almost done putting our innards back together. I can only do so much at a time, but once I’m finished, you should have a free range of movement back.
But, for now, I must insist that you rest a bit longer.
“I can do that,” he yawned again as he brought he legs onto the bed. “Aria!” he called down the hall.
“Something the matter?” she appeared in the doorway.
He shook his head, “Not at all. I just wanted to thank you again before you headed out. I’ve been winded by all this activity.”
She chuckled to herself.
“Also, you’ve got a deal. I’ll beat back the hordes of scientists and intellectuals trying to gain access to my voluptuous curves.”
Aria snorted into a boisterous guffaw. “They may not be clamoring yet, but they will be! Leeches! The lot of them!”
“You know,” he sighed, “You should come by sometime just to hang out. Dinner or something.”
She smiled, “I’d like that, but I’m quite busy.”
Sylus sighed as he closed his eyes, “Door’s open if ever you need it.”
Aria smiled and shook her head before returning to the living room.
“You know,” she laughed, “You’re all weird as hell, but I like you.” She turned to Saari, “All of you.”
“Thanks again for everything, Aria,” Jeron stood up and held his hand out to her.
She hesitated a moment before taking it firmly and shaking as hard as she could. “The pleasure is all mine. I’ll be back in a week unless something goes catastrophically wrong.”
“You sure you’re okay with once a week?” Jeron chuckled.
“I wish it could be more often as I’d like to study as much as I can as fast as I can, but work will only allow once a week and that could still change with all the constant shift adjustments,” she sighed, “But you lot, you’re mine. I expect you to chase off anyone else who tries to talk to you about studies or research. Understood?”
Everyone nodded in reply.
“Good. Alright then. Take me home, chauffeur.”
Jeron snorted as he followed her out the door.