They walked hand in hand through the emptiness of La Sombra. The road Cassidy lived on lead into the U-bend that made up the main thoroughfare through the small town. Sylus’ house was a matter of mere blocks from her’s. He was near point where the road curved back around and passed by the diner and back out onto the main coastal highway. The bend was the only road. All of the houses and businesses lined it. Some sat over the edge of the cliff face. Others filled a small development on the inside of the bend. Unimaginatively enough it was call Devil’s Bend. The diner was one of those buildings that half hung over the side of the cliff. The shortest path from Cassidy’s was through the old development. As they reached the other side, they passed the ghost station. It was unconfirmed if there were really ghosts running it, but the lights were always on and the gas always pumped. No one ever seemed to be in the station though save the few travelers brave enough to through La Sombra and the tear itself. The ruins of the Works could easily be seen before crossing the street to the diner. It sat on the return curve of Devil’s Bend. It was once a bustling facility that was now a twisted ruin from exposure to both the Mist and the creatures that creeped through the tear. Gaunts and imps primarily. Besides that giant shadow from the beginning, nothing significant had passed through since.
La Sombra was an eerie place to the uninitiated. From the outside, it looked like a series of blackened buildings bathed entirely in the purple mist. The structures were merely silhouettes of themselves. If you braved passage through the barrier, it was a rather ordinary town save the empty homes and storefronts. It was dark and everything was tinted by the mist, but it wasn’t quite as foreboding as it appeared from the other side.
As they walked, Sylus remained acutely aware of the lack of Mist surrounding his form. It was so hot in this bubble of emptiness. The Mist had kept things a rather cool and steady temperature, without it, Sylus was almost breaking a sweat as he walked a path he’d often walked before. Sure he was overweight, but it was all for show as far as he was concerned. As a being born of the Void, well reborn, he had near infinite energy and strength. Apparently that wasn’t the case without the Mist…
Cassidy was the happiest she’d been in… Ever? She wasn’t sure when the last time she’d been this happy was. She was just happy to be with someone. Going somewhere. Doing something other than sitting alone in her house eating frozen food and watching reruns of serialized television. She was still wrestling with a rational side of her brain telling her it was too soon to be trusting Sylus, but he’d gone out of his way to save her from Alicia and her mother. He also sat with her at the grocery store and juggled cookie boxes with his invisible thingies. She forgot what he called them. It wasn’t much, but it was more than anyone else in her life had ever done. She looked back to find Quip following from a distance. The stub that was his tail was no longer tucked between his legs, but swaying freely as he walked. She smiled.
“Whelp,” Sylus groaned as they walked up the sloping lot to the diner entrance, “We’re here, love.”
Cassidy looked up the hill to find Saari leaning on her staff just outside the door. She swayed slightly as though she was trying to keep herself from falling asleep. Daniel was kicking rocks in the lot, his hands buried deep in his pockets. Cassidy’s smile grew.
Upon seeing the glowing form that was Cassidy enter her view, Saari stood upright with a start.
“My Lord!” she was quick to see the gaunt following them, “You have been followed…” her voice dropped lower than usual as she poised her staff for battle.
Sylus looked around in honest concern before remembering Quip.
“Ah, yes, it seems we have,” he turned back to Saari with a smile, “Stand down, love. He’s with us.”
“With you?” Saari wasn’t quick to stand down.
“Cassidy can explain,” he looked down at the girl. She looked up at him, her eyes wide with concern. “Contrary to any rumours you may have heard, Saari does not bite. Unsolicitedly.”
Cassidy nodded slowly before stepping forward, “His name is Quip and he is my friend.”
“Your friend?” Saari slowly lowered her staff.
“Yes,” Cassidy nodded firmly, “He’s my friend. Qaitax put a mark on him so he’s safe.”
Saari suddenly became aware of the dim purple marking on Quip’s head. It was, indeed, Qaitax’s mark. Yet there was something else about the beast. It exuded a kind of primal fear. It showed signs of being attacked and injured. By another gaunt? No… Something far worse… She turned to Sylus who was grinning from ear to ear.
“A gaunt, my lord?” her tone was incredulous at best, disappointed at worst. Her battle pose relaxed into a slight slouch.
“And why not?” he shrugged in her direction, “The more the merrier! Besides…” He approached Daniel who seemed to be off in his own world poking rocks with a stick, “Daniel’s been begging for a puppy!” he knelt down and suddenly wrapped his arms around his son, lifting him from the ground. Daniel shrieked with joy.
“WE’RE GETTING A PUPPY?!”
“Well… Sort of,” Sylus laughed as he held his son tightly.
Cassidy watched with a sad smile.
“Hi Cassidy!” Daniel called out to her.
“Hi Daniel!” she called in return with a short wave.
“How’s Argyle?” he asked as Sylus placed him back on the ground and he ran up to her.
Cassidy was smiling in earnest again, “He’s doing good! I left him watching TV. I think he’ll be okay until I get home.”
“Oh good! He likes TV! Are you having breakfast with us?”
Cassidy wasn’t sure how to answer. When she hesitated, Daniel turned to Sylus, “Is Cassidy having breakfast with us?”
Sylus smiled as he moved to stand beside Saari, “Of course she is!”
“Is that a gaunt!?” Daniel finally noticed Quip cowering behind Cassidy.
Cassidy nodded, “He’s my friend Quip!”
“You have a gaunt who’s a friend?!” Daniel was incredibly excited.
Cassidy nodded again, her smile growing, “He’s friendly. You can pet him if you want.”
“CAN I PET QUIP?”
Sylus laughed heartily, “Of course you can!”
“My lord,” Saari leaned toward him, speaking in a hushed tone, “There is something happening around her…”
“You see it then?” he replied as quietly as his husky voice would let him.
Saari nodded, “It is as though there is an emptiness about her… The Mist…”
“It parts for her,” Sylus answered.
“Could she be why the Mist’s spread has stopped so suddenly?” They both thought a moment, “It is not normal for it to just stop in such a straight and even line…”
Sylus scoffed a bit, “I find it hard to believe a single child has that kind of power…”
“With all due respect, my lord… I believe she is no mere child,” Saari leaned away as the children approached.
“Of course she isn’t,” Sylus sighed as he stood up straight and smiled, “You two ready for copious amounts of carbs?”
“YEAH! WAFFLES!” Daniel screamed as he ran up to the diner door, “COME ON CASSIDY!”
“COMING!” She shouted at him as she made her way to the door. She paused a moment to look up at Sylus. They exchanged nods before she joined Daniel inside the diner.
“She is so bright…” Saari muttered as they turned to the diner entrance, “I can barely look at her…”
“Does that mean anything to you?” Sylus replied, distracted by his own thoughts.
Saari shook her head, “I have never seen anything like it. She is a brilliant ball of fiery light. Nothing has ever appeared to me in that way before. Except…” She turned to Sylus, “She resembles you somewhat. You are easier to look at, though. Not as bright, but a similar shape.”
“Hmm…” Sylus thought about what the connection might be, “Is there any pattern to the shapes you see?”
“Vaguely. Sentient beings look different from common animals, but besides that, it is more how they feel than how they look… It is hard to explain…” She sighed a bit.
“I think I understand…”
Sylus felt something bump against the back of his leg. He turned to find Quip with his head bowed behind him.
“Oh! You have to stay out here, boy,” Sylus knelt down to face Quip directly, “If you behave, I’ll bring something out, okay?” Quips tail began to wag, “Good boy,” Sylus patted the top of his head. Quip wandered off into the grass next to the diner and layed down with his head resting across his forepaws.
“Is keeping that creature not akin to keeping a cow you intend to slaughter?” Saari wondered as Sylus stood up with a groan.
“Pets are different, Saari. People keep pigs as pets, but bacon is still delicious,” he patted his stomach.
“So there are chosen creatures among your people…”
Sylus laughed, “I suppose so. Sometimes we get attached to animals. Doesn’t really matter if they’re the eating kind or not.”
“I see… Then you will not be consuming the gaunt later?” she asked rather plainly.
Sylus balked, “He’s family Saari! Besides,” he put an arm around her waist, “There are plenty of other gaunts should the need arise,” he sneered.
Saari shook her head in mild dismay. There was no arguing with Sylus or Qaitax. That was one thing they seemed to have in common. They were stubborn. She leaned her head on her shoulder as they finally made their way into the diner.
“And for the demented couple, fried yolks of the unborn for the lady and… What… A pile of meat for the gentlemonster?”
“I might actually use that, Jer, thank you,” Sylus nodded with a smile as they made their way to their usual booth where Daniel and Cassidy were already seated.
With a salute, Jer made his way into the kitchen.
“Can I help make the waffles?!” Daniel called across the empty diner.
Jer popped out of the kitchen, “Up to your dad.”
“Can I help make the waffles?” Daniel turned to Sylus.
“If Jer doesn’t mind…”
“YEAH! Come on Cassidy! Let’s make waffles!” he took her hand and dragged her out of the booth.
Saari and Sylus slid into one side of the booth.
“Please tell me it’s hot in here…”
“It is a bit warmer than usual, yes,” she seemed to be distracted by something, “My lord…” she turned to him, “The Mist…”
Sylus looked around the diner. Unlike outside, where it parted like a bubble around her, the Mist seemed to have left the diner entirely.
“Ah shit…” he muttered.
“Will you be alright?” Saari was clearly concerned.
“Of course I’ll be alright!” he let out what was clearly a nervous laugh, “I’ve been without the Mist before! We leave town often enough! There’s nothing to worry about!”
That is an unsubstantiated claim, Qaitax chimed in thought his mind.
We’ll be fine. I promise, Sylus replied in thought.
I am unconvinced.
Fine. Be that way. But we’re going to have a nice breakfast and you are not going to do anything in front of Cassidy. Understand?
There was a pause in thought.
We must protect ourselves if necessary…
And we will. If it gets bad we can step outside. Simple. Just relax. Please.
I have naught to relax…
Then just don’t worry about it, okay?
He could feel reluctance in Qaitax’s thoughts.
Very well. Do not ignore signs of distress.
Sylus rolled his eyes, What do you know about distress?
Nothing. But I know you are one to ignore physical signs of discomfort so forgive me for doubting your ability to judge the severity of a situation or, how do you put it, ‘toughing it out’ when you really shouldn’t.
Wow that was direct… Thanks for the vote of confidence.
“Is everything alright, my lord?”
“Ah, yes. And stop calling me that. Save that for the asshole sharing my headspace,” Sylus was clearly irritated.
“Asshole? Has he done something wrong?”
“I’m just wondering when he’ll start trusting me to do the right thing…” Sylus gave a defeated sigh.
“Is it about the Mist?”
Sylus cringed at her slightly.
“Please do whatever you must. Do not worry about the child. I will keep her safe so long as that is your will,” Saari bowed her head slightly.
Sylus shook his head gently.
“I expect you to handle things however you see fit,” his voice had dropped into a low growl, “I just…” he looked across the diner. Daniel and Cassidy were inside the bar area taking turns flipping a waffle iron, “I just want to protect them…”
“Do you see yourself in her?” Saari asked abruptly.
Sylus was startled by the question, but he knew why she was asking.
“A bit, yes,” he smiled a bit sadly.
“But you only just met her… Are you not getting ahead of yourself?”
“Saari… She’s a child. She lives alone in a giant house and eats nothing but prepared garbage. She has adults ignoring and intimidating her at the same time. Come on. You think she deserves that?” Sylus’ irritation was evolving into anger.
“I am unsure whether deserving something has anything to do with her situation…” Saari replied in a calmly rational manner.
“She’s a child!” Sylus’ voice rose until the children heard him and paused a moment.
Saari saw their gazes, “Do not worry,” she smiled as she leaned over the back of the booth, “We are just having a passionate discussion.”
“A-are you… fighting?” Daniel’s voice was shaking.
“We are not, Daniel. Do not worry,” Saari nodded.
Daniel paused a moment before Cassidy pulled on his arm and they returned to working the waffle iron.
“She deserves to be loved and protected!” Sylus hissed in a hushed tone.
“And you are the one to do that?” Saari replied as she returned to his side.
“Why not? Why can’t I? Why can’t I help her?”
“Because!” she hissed, “You cannot save everyone!”
“Then what’s the point? Hm? What’s the point of all this power and strength if I can’t save anyone!”
“This is different!”
“You know how! Look at what is happening around her! Look at what she does! You cannot survive with her around. Perhaps you would struggle through it for a while, but eventually… I would fear the worst…”
“So you’re with Qaitax on this one… That I’m not smart enough to know how to handle myself in adverse situations? That I’m too dumb to go outside for some fresh air?” he scoffed, “Wow.”
“That is not what I meant and you know it!” Saari’s hissing became a low shriek, “Why are you being so irritable!?”
Sylus pouted a bit as he looked around the diner to avoid the question.
“You are not usually this confrontational, Sylus…” Saari said in a whisper as she turned to look out the window.
He turned to her for a moment before looking straight ahead at the wall behind the other side of the booth. His eyes were on fire as he fought back tears.
It is the lacking Mist…
“Bullshit!” Sylus yelled alloud as he slammed his fists onto the table. “It has nothing to… Ah…” He suddenly became lightheaded. It was dizzying at first but it quickly became sickening. “I… I’m… I’m fffffffff…”
Saari turned back from the window. Sylus’ head was bobbing on his shoulders.
“I just… I need to…” he folded his arms on the table and rested his head upon them, “I’m okay…”
Saari knew that was a lie, but she also knew Sylus would never answer her with the truth. She was reluctant to do so, but she used an incantation Qaitax had taught her when they first merged. It was meant to forcibly bring the Voidlord forward when Sylus was too stubborn to relinquish control.
Saari was the only person gifted with this knowledge. Not even Sylus was aware of it.
“It is nothing,” Qaitax’s voice came from Sylus’ form, “We are simply tired.”
“I do not believe that, my lord…” Saari was deeply concerned the Qaitax was maintaining with Sylus’ lie.
“It is… So hard…” he yawned, “To think…”
“My lord? Do you need to go outside? Perhaps the Mist will help?” her voice shook a bit.
Sylus’ breathing became slow and metered. He was asleep.
“MY LORD!” Saari shouted as she shook him awake.
Sylus had returned to control, “It’s early. I’m tired. I can take a nap if I want.”
“This isn’t like you!” she hissed quietly.
“I’m tired. That’s all,” he leaned back in the booth.
“Alright,” Jer called from the kitchen, “How are the waffles coming?”
“On the last one!” Cassidy replied excitedly.
Daniel seemed to be zoned out completely.
“Right Daniel?” she pushed him lightly.
“They’re fighting…” he mumbled monotonously.
Cassidy glanced back at the table. It was hard to decipher Saari’s expressions, but she did look a bit tense. Sylus seemed a distressed as well.
“No they aren’t. Saari said so,” she grabbed his arm and turned him toward her. His gaze remained fixed on the floor, “Sometimes adults have serious talks that sound like fighting, but that doesn’t mean they are.”
“Are you sure?” he finally looked at her.
Cassidy nodded confidently, “I’m sure.”
Daniel slowly looked away.
“I don’t want them to be angry…” he murmured.
“They aren’t, Dan! I promise! And even if they are, they can keep it to themselves. We have nothing to do with it…” Cassidy’s voice faded as she noticed Daniel rubbing his arms nervously. His eyes wandered aimlessly. Cassidy glanced up at Jer as he leaned out of the kitchen. A look of dismay on his face. “Dan?” She looked back at Daniel. Tears were welling up in his eyes, “Dan…” she wrapped her arms around him. He was completely rigid. “It’s okay. Nothing bad is going to happen…”
“When they get mad bad things always happen…” he mumbled flatly into her shoulder
“Sylus and Saari?!” Cassidy was completely caught off guard.
“No…” was all he could say before his body loosened up a bit and he pulled away.
“Are you scared of them?” Cassidy tried to see his eyes as his head rolled from side to side.
“Of Dad? No…”
“Are you sure? He is a bit scary,” she tried to laugh.
“Qaitax is scary. Dad isn’t,” he sniffed as he wiped his eyes.
“Has Qaitax… Ever hurt you?” she was afraid to ask.
Daniel shook his head vigorously, “No… He’s just… Scary sometimes…”
Cassidy smiled, “It’ll be okay, Daniel. Whatever happened before won’t happen again,” She had no idea what she was talking about or why Daniel was so upset, she just knew something must have happened once upon a time to have caused it.
“Dad said it wouldn’t… But… What if it does?” He started to cry.
“Daniel…” Jer knelt down beside him, “It won’t. Your dad is weird, but he’d never let anything bad happen to. No ever again.”
“See, Dan? Jer’s an adult and he knows you’re safe!”
“I know… But…” Daniel’s voice kept hitching, “But what if they come back… They’re fighting…”
“Who’s the-?” Cassidy began to ask before she caught sight of Jer shaking his head.
“Please don’t let them come back… Please…” Daniel’s voice was shaking terribly as he slowly collapsed to the floor.
“Daniel?” Sylus was leaning over the counter, “Daniel!” He yelled as he jumped over the barrier, “Daniel… Dan…” he dropped to his knees and took his son in his arms, “Daniel…”
“You’re fighting…” Daniel wept into his father’s shirt.
“No no no no no,” Sylus ran his fingers through Daniel’s hair, “We’re not fighting. Saari and I are just having a heated discussion. It’s something adults do. It’s not fighting. We’re not fighting There’s no fighting… No fighting Daniel… I promise…” he pressed his son’s head against his own.
Cassidy looked up to find Saari standing at the counter. She was leaning on her staff with her lips drawn thin. Cassidy stood up to face her.
“What happened?” She asked Saari in a hushed tone.
Saari shook her head, “Not now, Cassidy.”
Something suddenly filled Saari’s mind. It was a feeling that had become somewhat alien to her. A state of semi-unconsciousness and a sudden awareness of no longer being alone in her mind. It was Qaitax.
There is something very wrong with this place right now…
“I feel it, My Lord,” she replied quietly. Her voice distant and airy.
We must leave.
“Not yet. The children must have breakfast.”
Did you not just purchase food?
“It is different, so I am told…”
Please be careful, Voice. I do not believe my host is a danger, but there is something very wrong with him right now. Please, be wary.
“It is the Mist… Is it not?” Her tone became somber.
Without it… We are both… Unwell… Even I am struggling to think straight. I am not used to this level of discomfort. Or any discomfort at all for that matter… There was no shortage of the Mist in the Halls of Q’taxia…
“I will remove Sylus from this place by force if necessary,” she whispered sternly. “I will not let him fall prey to his misguided interpretations of strength.”
That is all I can ask of you, Voice. Thank you.
Saari nodded. As she did, she regained full consciousness to find Jer standing in front of her.
“There’s something wrong here, isn’t there?” he looked around the diner, “Everything looks strange… Or… Is it normal?”
“Both,” Saari replied, “Depending on your perspective.”
Jer scoffed somberly.
“Are they okay?” he motioned toward Sylus and Daniel on the floor.
Saari leaned over the counter. Sylus was rocking back and forth with Daniel in his arms.
“There is… A lot of unresolved anger…”
“Anger?” Jer scoffed again, “That’s an understatement.”
“It is a quiet rage he tries not to act upon,” she sighed.
“I’m not sure I’d have that kind of discipline,” Jer leaned on the counter.
“To be honest, as much as he fights it, I am not certain he does either…”
Daniel’s tears slowly tapered off.
“Are we okay now?” Sylus spoke gently into his hair.
Daniel nodded as he pulled away a bit to face his father.
“Daniel… None of that will ever happen again…”
“I know…” his voice was still shaking.
“I can’t change what happened… I can’t… And I’m so sorry I failed you… But that… That will NEVER happen again. Ever,” Sylus pulled him close for one last tight squeeze before releasing him completely.
“I know,” Daniel sniffed.
“So,” Sylus smiled as he stood up, “Still want those waffles?”
Daniel nodded as he wiped his eyes.
“Good! Because you and Cassidy worked hard making them!”
“Yeah we did!” Cassidy added with a cheer.
Daniel nodded again as he sniffed a few more times.
“We’re gonna be alright, kiddo,” Sylus smiled at his son.
Daniel, through his tears and sniffles, smiled back.